[T]here are albums that go completely unnoticed when released, yet are somehow destined to be classics. And then, of course, there are those albums that plummet immediately upon release and remain laughable to this day. These albums never sell much; they baffle the critics; they leave band members themselves scratching their heads and going, “What the %&*$ were we thinking!?”
But I just so happen to be a fan of musical anomalies. Yes, I’m a critic, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to these panned albums and find something catchy about them. With iTunes bringing out-of-print album losers back into focus for roughly $10 a pop, now’s a great time to at least sample the tracks on these five favorite American doozies of mine (in alphabetical order). Who knows, one of these crappy classics just may become one of your new favorites.
Chicago – Chicago XIV
The death of guitarist and co-founder Terry Kath left behind a tremendous void the members of Chicago spent years trying to fill. While they seemed to persevere on albums like 1978’s Hot Streets, by 1980 the band’s fortunes were stuck at a major crossroads. After the modest disco-fueled success of Chicago 13, the group put out their worst selling album right when new wave was in and horns were passé. In fact it bombed so badly that Columbia dropped the band from the label. But considering Chicago just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, give it a listen. “Manipulation” and “Birthday Boy” (Peter Cetera channeling Marilyn Monroe) are two standouts.
Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man
When it comes to his music, the legendary Leonard Cohen loves simplicity. Any instrument beyond voice and guitar detracted from the emotionality on his early albums. So one has to wonder why Cohen ever agreed to record an album backed by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. It’s bizarre and completely over the top, but, in a weird way, this also proves to be one of Cohen’s more accessible albums. While it sounds as if it was inspired by a sleepless, 72-hour coke-fueled binge, tracks like “True Love Leaves No Traces” and “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” waver wonderfully between sentiment and sass. Plus the album has one great standout – background vocals from Oscar-nominated singer/actress Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean in Robert Altman’s “Nashville”).
KISS – Music from “The Elder”
It’s really hard not to laugh when Paul Stanley, in full falsetto, sings, “For I am just a boy, too young to be sailing.” Largely because you can hear that he wants to be taken seriously. In fact, all four members of KISS are trying to be serious. With producer extraordinaire Bob Ezrin at the helm, the group – minus Peter Criss plus Eric Carr – set about making its “smart” album. Sadly, the odyssey-driven concept sounded more like a Rick Wakeman rip-off than the assembly line rock ‘n’ roll KISS successfully released time and time again. Yet the addition of strings, choir voices and woodwinds give KISS an unexpected element of surprise and show off the band’s softer side. Essential tracks here include “Under the Rose,” “The Oath” and “I.”
Robin Thicke – Paula
After the mammoth success of the campy yet infectious “Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke was simultaneously served with divorce papers and immediate inspiration for his next album. Making no attempt to hide his bitterness behind the microphone, Thicke took direct aim at soon-to-be-ex, actress Paula Patton. Ironically, while the album sold next to nothing both stateside and abroad, it may be the sweetest “F-you” collective released since Marvin Gaye’s post-divorce masterwork Here My Dear. Unfortunately, between this album’s lack of popularity and Thicke losing a major copyright lawsuit (to members of Marvin Gaye’s family – oh the irony!), he may be unable to shed his laughingstock status any time soon.
Neil Young – Trans
Neil Young has always been an iconoclast, but after signing with Geffen Records in the 1980s, he set about creating some of the most widely diverse – and weird – music of his career. The first to be released was the futuristic-sounding Trans. Largely built around synthesizers and vocoders, Young sings about everything from love to dystopia to Aztec civilizations on what can be considered the first true Auto-Tune album. While David Geffen would ultimately sue Young after three more albums of “non-commercial music,” this work does boast some pretty catchy tracks – namely “Computer Age,” “We R in Control” and “Transformer Man.”