• Michael Randall

Good Songs on Disappointing Albums

Over lockdown weeks, I have been trying to come up with themes for Spotify playlists to be sent to students. One which has come to mind, but which I can’t seem to make ‘stick’ (or don’t want to put the effort in to complete a full list) is ‘good songs from disappointing albums’.

There have been many, many occasions where I have parted company with my own money in search of further musical enlightenment, possibly at the behest of a promising single, or being a fan of the artist’s previous work, where I have been disappointed. This ranges from the “this album is absolutely terrible” to the “honestly, it’s a grower/gets better on repeat listening” (it very rarely does) and the “it’s fine. Let’s move on, I don’t want to talk about it.”

A few candidates for what might be on said list are below. Similar criteria as the other post going out today on best debut albums – it must be a song I actually like on an album I’m disappointed by. That doesn’t outright mean it’s a terrible album (well, one or two are). Let’s imagine Shaun of the Dead-style, I’m having to throw my record collection at a horde of zombies. These would be ones you’d probably be ok chucking. I gave six candidates for best

debut album. Let’s go with six examples here.

1. Foo Fighters – ‘The Pretender’ on Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace (2007)

Dave Grohl is a fantastic human being. The Foo Fighters are a great band, who I have seen live, with some fantastic anthemic songs. And The Pretender is right up there with the best of their output. Right from the Led Zeppelin ‘Stairway to Heaven’-esque intro, which you need to be careful not to turn up too loud if you’d like to look after your ears later in the song.

The album, though falls very squarely into the trying to listen to it enough times to say it’s a grower category. I really tried to like it. It says a lot that I probably remember it most for being the album I listened to when heading back to Bristol on the train for Christmas after a housemate night out which had not gone well (who would have known an event called "Drink the Bar Dry" would have led

I know the approach they were going for, juxtaposing loud power chords, with quiet melodic moments on the same album. I will give them that ‘Stranger Things Have Happened’ is good. But ‘Long Road to Ruin’ is one of the worst songs they’ve done, even if the music video is mildly funny, and the rest is kind of forgettable. To borrow a line from their earlier song, ‘All My Life’ – “done and on to the next one”.

2. Fleetwood Mac – ‘Tusk’ on Tusk (1979)

For me, Fleetwood Mac are the best band post-Beatles. You could make an argument for The Who/Rolling Stones/Led Zeppelin, but I’d disagree. Me being the heathen that I am, I’m a particular fan of the Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac, less the Peter Green blues band era.

During my PhD, when times were difficult/there was a lot of chaos going on behind the scenes, I used to joke that I hoped that my final PhD thesis turned out like Rumours, and not like Tusk. Rumours is tantamount to a greatest hits album. It is a stunning account of “you can go f### yourself”, “oh really, well you’re a ####”, “well I’m leaving you and going out with the one of the engineers”. Yet it sounds superb – it is tantamount to a Greatest Hits album in its own right. And I know the expectation was that the follow up album would be Rumours 2.0.

Instead, we got Tusk. I’ve never taken cocaine, or really been around anyone who has. But thanks to Tusk, I am pretty sure I know some of the consequences. There is, shall we say, ‘questionable’ decision making here. Why do we have a song with barking on it? Equally, though it did lead to “why don’t we hire a brass band and record them in a football stadium?” – that, is genius.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire that they did Tusk, in a way. But I’ve been to see them live twice. The first time, they didn’t have Christine McVie with them for the whole show (she was a ‘surprise’ in the encore). That meant they couldn’t really play her songs. Lindsey Buckingham did a big speech about defying expectations, and pushing the creative envelope, which culminated in “so we’re going to play some songs off Tusk for you guys”. Cue the exodus for the bar/toilet.

3. Wombats – ‘Tokyo (Vampires & Wolves)’ on This Modern Glitch (2011)

A unique situation here – I remember seeing them live in Cardiff Students Union in, what would have been, my final year of my LLB degree. This saw them playing songs from the new album before it was released. I remember, quite clearly, during a break that my friend Tom turned to me and said “this sounds quite promising”.

So I went into the album with high expectations, and they weren’t met, unfortunately. ‘Jump Into the Fog’ is ok. ‘Anti-D’ is well-meaning, but drags a bit. The rest of the album is kind of forgettable. But I do think Tokyo was a very good single. It lulled me in. I think I played it on loop for a bit. This is more of a “well, I know you can be great, but this is very ‘meh’”.

4. Brandon Flowers – ‘Crossfire’ on Flamingo (2010)

I do like The Killers really, but I think they are more of a band with some good singles, and some album tracks they can get away with, because they are incredible live. Giving an example, ‘Run for Cover’ off of Wonderful, Wonderful has been a demo they’ve been sat on for years, which just had me questioning why it hadn’t been released a few albums earlier.

So my hopes get raised when I hear the first singles, I usually buy the album, and then find it doesn’t live up to my hopes. Whilst I could say this applies to ‘Night and Day’, it is actually more evident on Brandon Flowers’ first solo album for me. Crossfire is what I was looking for from the album…it isn’t that.

It’s difficult to compare a solo album to a band one, but from what I remember at the time in press interviews, it was very much being pitched as a “this would have been The Killers’ next album, but they’re all exhausted”. So we get a lot of piano-y quieter songs. ‘Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts’ is the closest the rest of the album comes to being a song I’d be humming along to after hearing it. It’s not a bad album. I’m not mad. I was just disappointed.

5. Stereophonics – ‘Dakota’ on Language.Sex.Violence.Other? (2005)

To be honest, this could have been a list comprised mostly of Stereophonics songs. I cannot think of another band which have (for want of a better way of saying this) hurt me so much, with just how much they tailed off. I could have gone with ‘It Means Nothing’ from Pull the Pin (another album I keep trying to convince myself is OK). I could have gone with ‘Madame Helga’ from You Gotta Go There to Come Back.

The nod, instead, goes to Dakota. We’d had the Jools Holland collaboration of ‘Handbags and Gladrags’. You Gotta Go There to Come Back was bad (yes, I did still go and see them live on that tour – the songs were still bad). I remember I 'borrowed' it, (I didn't exactly ask) from my sister when I went on a school trip to France, and thinking it was bad, and not worth the inevitable telling off I was going to be getting from my sister. But everyone is allowed one bad album – they tried something, it didn’t work. That’s ok.

Then we had a single which got to #1 in the UK charts. It had a radio version which was incredibly catchy and singalong, but the album version was decidedly better, and built to yell “take a look at me now” to. I thought they were back on form.

The album, though, is bad. Figurative alarm bells start ringing on the opening track, ‘Superman’. ‘Doorman’ sounds like crass filler. The only songs other songs which you would stretch to say were ok are ‘Rewind’ and ‘Deadhead’ – the latter of which was previously a B-side for ‘Madame Helga’.

The trouble is Dakota is such a good song, that it tricked me into thinking they might do more like it for another 2/3 albums. They didn’t. Listening to them now is a bit like visiting your school friend when you go home for the holidays. You’ve moved on, and it’s sad to see them, so you stop trying after a while. Unlike the last entry, I am mad. I am still also disappointed.

6. Metallica and Lou Reed – ‘Junior Dad’ on Lulu (2011)

There were two outstanding candidates for Metallica on this list (the other being ‘Some Kind of Monster’ on 2003’s St Anger). However, this is the one which I own vs being nabbed off my brother in law, and I still can’t actually quite believe that it is a thing.

Background – Metallica and Lou Reed met during a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. There was a “hey, we should work together, that would be great!”. It’s the kind of thing you might say to be polite, but they actually decided to do it. What baffles me still, to this day, is the number of people who would have had to approve each of these steps. Granted, I bought this out of morbid curiosity – a bit like when you watch ‘The Room’.

The end result is a concept double album, which is a combination, which is about as palatable as Rachel's Trifle/Shepherd's Pie in Friends. The first component is Lou Reed spoken album inspired by the two ‘Lulu’ plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, which tells the tale of a young woman rising in German society through her relationships with wealthy gentlemen, before falling into poverty and prostitution.

The second component is Metallica demo tracks. It sounds like having two different radio stations playing at the same time, and clashing. Some parts are unlistenable. Some parts are unintentionally hilarious (James Hetfield shouting “I am the table” on ‘The View’). Some parts are just bizarre (the lyrics to ‘Pumping Blood’ see Lou Reed saying “if I waggle my ass like a dog prostitute, would you think less of me?”. That’s not even the oddest lyric in that song).

However, the final track, ‘Junior Dad’ is the single shining beacon of hope. At 20 minutes long, it’s weirdly the one which is most restrained. It is a come down after all the insanity that has preceded it. It’s the mild hangover, without being stuck on the sofa being unable to move all day. And it helps that a good 10 minutes of it is instrumental.

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