Saturday, 6 March 2010
News, Views and Music Issue 55 (Top Five): The Worst AAA Albums
♫ And now for our latest top five. Following on from last week’s glimpse of the world’s worst music, we’ve chosen to remind ourselves that even our beloved AAA groups are human (although the jury’s still out for the human league!) and study the five worst AAA-related albums to date. Now as ever opinions are always going to be divided over an artist’s best work, but as we’ve decided to give you our examples of the greatest music ever made we thought it only fair to tell you which music you should avoid – and remember, like everything to do with music, its only a personal opinion and not everyone’s going to agree (we bet somebody out there somewhere still likes the Spice Girls!) Now, it goes without saying that even the worst of these albums are miles better than the horrors we told you about last week but by AAA standards it’s fair to say each of these albums are a disappointment. There are lots of candidates for the worst AAA album of course – all together the AAA crowd must have released just under half a million albums, more if you include spin-off solo LPs – and there are lots more dodgy albums than we’ve included in our list. But perhaps the most startling thing about the list is that, actually, none of these albums are that bad on their own (its just that, compared to the heights we know these groups are capable of, these lows are very low indeed...)
5) The Monkees “JustUs” (1996). We’d waited 27 years for all four Monkees to get back together. And say what you like about the three-way ‘Pool It!’ in 1986, it might not have been the best Monkees album but it at least showed the seeds of how good the Monkees could have sounded when their ‘garage sound’ was updated (three good tracks out of 12 isn’t much but I’ve heard far worse odds than that, see below). And the band’s concert performances that year were pretty good, forget what the critics said (I still can’t believe the Daily Mail attended the same Birmingham show I did that year with their talk of ‘monkee business earning pensions’ – did they send their deaf music columnist to review it or something?!) And this Mike Nesmith-produced album, with the band playing their own instruments for the first time since the early sessions for ‘Pisces Aquarius’ in 1967, seemed to tie in nicely with the late grunge period feel. Best of all every single song was to be written by the band – something that had never happened before. Ever. But oh what a disappointment – Nesmith only gets one ‘new’ song (along with a terrible re-recording of ‘Circle Sky’) and it’s diabolical; Peter Tork only gets two and they’re also diabolical. Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, never the most prolific of writers, carve up the album between them and they’re...disinterested. What this album adds up to is 12 slices of noisy uninspired pop (even the ballads) from a band who – according to the stories that leaked out in the press later – hated each other by the end of the sessions every bit as much as they did in the late 60s. Such a shame, such a missed opportunity that doesn’t seem likely to come round again (not that this album ever seemed likely to happen either at the time...) Worst moment: That ‘Circle Sky’ re-recording; the original is a cleverly poised word association rocker about media lies and repeating yourself. This ‘new’ version is a leaden, lumpy nonsense song that sounds like its being sung by Brian Blessed on acid (although its nowhere near as exciting as that sounds). Redeeming feature: the fact that it happened at all, although Micky’s ‘Regional Girl’ is a passable pop song (albeit one that doesn’t sound like The Monkees one iota) and Peter’s ‘I Believe You’ might be a song built all on one note but at least it’s a nice note.
4)The Moody Blues “Keys Of The Kingdom” (1991). This album does have its saving graces, sort of: you get to hear Justin Hayward whistling his way through a chorus of ‘Is This Heaven?’ while drummer Graeme Edge tap dances chaotically behind him and the album’s single ‘Say It With Love’ is a fairly convincing attempt to sum up the group’s history and philosophy in three minutes. But play this album back to back with even the weakest of the band’s classic albums (and even their late 70s reunions) and you realise that listening to a drummer tap dance and a funky but largely one-note single highlights aren’t even in the same universe as past glories. And as for the rest of the album, all we seem to get are The Moodies reduced to their clichéd templates: Justin and John Lodge each get a syrupy ballad (‘Bless The Wings’ is a candidate for the Moodies’ worst single and ‘Lean On Me’ isn’t far behind), Justin attempts a rocker and then gives up partway through and worst of all Ray Thomas is almost absent from the whole record, with his much awaited collaboration with Justin on ‘Never Blame The Rainbows For The Rain’ a candidate for the worst individual Moodies track of all (and his solo ‘Celtic Sonant’ probably is the worst individual Moodies track of all). So far so uninspired, but add in an insipid production spread across several sessions and four different groups of producers (including the usually reliable Tony Visconti on a really off day) and you end up with the most impersonal, least Moodies-ish album of all. I’d got used to not hearing mellotrons by1991 but surely the band could have used something other than that darned synth noise on every track? Worst moment: The best Moodies moments are weird, off-the-wall and ambitious, the sort of things less confident bands would never dare to attempt. Sadly Celtic Sonant is why: weird, off-the-wall, ambitious and hopelessly unlistenable. Even ‘Bless The Wings’ sounds kind of OK next to this. Redeeming feature: ‘Say It With Love’, as mentioned, is a sweet little single and ‘Say What You Mean’ is quite a cute rocker (although the reprise with the Vincent Price-ish voice gets a bit weird and a bit too close to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ for my taste).
3) The Beach Boys “Still Crusin’” (1989). Most fans reckon that follow-up ‘Summer In Paradise’ is the Beach Boys’ absolute nadir, but bad as that album is this one is even worse. Let’s just take a look at the things working against this album: 1) Brian Wilson is at his poorliest, having been pulled back from the brink once and then left to slip under the prodding gaze of manager/psychologist Eugene Landy who takes a co-credit for every single one of Brian’s songs in this period. 2) Dennis Wilson has died, leaving the whole Wilson-Love/Jardine fight for control in disarray, with Carl hardly present in favour of Mike and Al at their most irritating. 3) This ridiculously short album concludes with two Beach Boys classics – no, not re-recorded versions of classics but the original 60s releases note-for-note. Established fans already had these songs millions of times over while the few new fans who came the Beach Boys’ way via film soundtracks simply laughed at how old and bored the band sounded on their newer material by comparison. And at least ‘Paradise’ had a stunning cover and a more active role by ‘sixth Beach Boy’ Bruce Johnstone – here its just Brian Wilson at his unhappiest and Mike Love at his strongest, which is not a pretty combination. Worst moment: It’s a toss up between hearing an out-of-control Brian reducing his creative genius to writing a clichéd song about driving in his car and that sinking feeling you get when you hear the first notes of million seller ‘Kokomo’ and think ‘did this song really click with American fans enough to make #1?!’ Redeeming feature: ‘Somewhere In Japan’, co-written by Love, Jardine and the Mamas and Papas’ John Phillips, isn’t exactly a hidden treasure but it is head and shoulders above everything else here.
2) Paul McCartney “Chaos and Creation In The BackYard” (2001). This album bizarrely restored faith in McCartney in the eyes of the press but I have not the foggiest idea why – its the laziest, most boring bunch of undescriptive nothingness that McCartney has yet put together. Now, we mentioned in our review for ‘Venus And Mars’ (see review no 64) that every McCartney has one cringe-inducing song that gets it so wrong you wonder how on earth the rest of the album manages to be so wonderful. Well, this is a whole album’s worth of mistakes that all sound the same on first hearing and then all sort terrible when you get to know them better. The song English Tea must also rank as a strong contender for the most awful song of Paul’s career – its chorus line ‘how twee, how me’ sum up the album perfectly. When we heard that follow-up ‘Memory Almost Full’ was made up of outtakes from this album (!) we ran for the hills – but as bad as that album is (especially the dire single ‘Dance Tonight’) at least that set is rescued by a couple of touched of McCartney magic. This is the one solo McCartney album that doesn’t have one good song. Worst moment: English Tea. My God how I hate that song! Redeeming feature: A lovely front cover featuring a young Paul in the back yard of the McCartney family home, shortly before Hamburg, Epstein and the fame that’s followed him ever since, as snapped by brother Mike. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover!
1) Hollies “Staying Power” (2005). From the opening ‘wo-o-o-o-ah’ you know something is up. The sort of banal cliché the Hollies did so well avoiding for over 40 years is suddenly all over this album, with new vocalist Peter Howarth over-egging everything and treating the album like a bad karoke night. My hopes were high for this album – sure only Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott were left from the original group but The Hollies had been through more changes than most during their 40 year odyssey and usually managed to come up trumps somehow. And this was the first Hollies album since way back in 1983 and the Graham Nash reunion album ‘What Comes Around’ – given all the pretty darn good single-only releases in the interim surely we could expect something amazing now that The Hollies had a full album to themselves? I was never that big a fan of Carl Wayne when he took over the vocal spot but even his tracks (heard on the Hollies box set ‘Long Road Home’) have a certain power and poise about them. Not to mention the fact that in 40 years of trying the Hollies had never actually put out a bad album before? (some are weaker than others, of course, but none of them are actually bad). Well, the trouble is this album just sounds nothing like The Hollies – there’s nothing to connect it to the mid-90s line-up (with Allan Clarke and the under-rated Alan Coates) never mind the mid-60s line-up. And its not just vocalist Peter Howarth’s fault either: Tony Hicks’ strong songwriting, which he continued right up until the late 90s, has been passed over for a series of anonymous songwriting teams; the human pathos and social understanding that has been a longstanding Hollies theme has been passed over for a series of tired analogies about love that have been hundreds of times before, Bobby Elliott’s groundbreaking drumming seems to have been uploaded from a computer and worst of all those glorious soaring Hollies harmonies are hardly present at all. I’m all for groups trying to update their sound (it’s what gave us Paul McCartney’s ‘Fireman’ albums and the best of Ray Davies and Brian Wilson’s solo work after all), but this is throwing out the baby, the bath water and everything in the bathroom including the sink out the door just to sound ‘modern’ (and anonymous). The word is The Hollies are busy at work on another, more traditional sounding album so let’s not write them off just yet and hope that they’ve learnt their lesson from this rather odd piece of work. Worst moment: the single, ‘So Damn Beautiful’ – everything goes double for ending the unsurpassable run of wonderful singles The Hollies have had in their career. Even the cringeworthy ‘Sorry Suzanne’, the band’s only weak original single, wasn’t this bad! Redeeming feature: Err, there really isn’t one. Even the cover manages to cover Tony Hicks’ profile – the only recognisable one among the band these days its been that long since the last album cover with their faces on it – with a blinding flash of sunlight.
So that’s it for another issue: from the sublime to the ridiculous, we cover everything here at the AAA! Till the next issue, keep rocking, keep reading and we’ll see you soon!