4 'Classic' Albums That Get More Praise Than They Deserve
No matter how expansive and varied a musician or band's catalog of albums may be, for those at the highest levels of popularity, there's always that one album that everyone talks about more than others. In some cases, it's very much warranted. Purple Rain, for example, is a flawless record that deserves to be talked about for as long as the Earth is still spinning, no matter how many other great Prince records exist.
The same can't be said for the stuff on this list, though. Here are four famous albums that get way more praise than they deserve.
Bruce Springsteen -- Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A. is considered Bruce Springsteen's finest album, mostly by people who think Bruce Springsteen is that one-hit wonder from the 1980s who released a flag-waving anthem about how great America is and then promptly disappeared. Meanwhile, people who've heard pretty much anything Springsteen did prior to that recognize Born in the U.S.A. for what it really is: a collection of otherwise decent songs that today sound corny and awful thanks to some of the cheesiest synthesizer work this side of the intro to "Jump" by Van Halen.
The 1980s were a strange time for established rock musicians. For a while there, it seemed like any band that didn't employ a keytar player was destined to fail. Like so many other rockers at the time, Bruce Springsteen recognized this and took steps to "update" his music to keep up with the times.
While songs like "Dancing in the Dark," "Glory Days," and the massively popular title track connected with people in a huge way back then, so did neon shoelaces and skinny ties and shit. It's not the 1980s anymore. When listened to in the unforgiving light of the rest of Springsteen's recorded output, Born in the U.S.A. borders on cringe-inducing. Nevertheless, Rolling Stone named it the 86th greatest album of all time.
Meanwhile, Nobody Talks About: Tunnel of Love
The strangest thing about Springsteen's mid-to-late-'80s work is that, while Born in the U.S.A. is still praised far and wide like those cheesy synthesizers aren't even plugged in, the album that followed it, Tunnel of Love, generally receives all of the criticism for being an embarrassing, synth-laden product of the '80s that Born in the U.S.A. more rightly deserves. Sure, the synthesizers are still there, but they're far less intrusive and corny on this album. Additionally, the "holy shit America is awful" sentiments are replaced with the more traditional "holy shit my heart is broken" kind of stuff. Translation: It's about 1,000 times easier to relate to for the average listener than Born in the U.S.A.
It's also, in my opinion, just a better collection of songs. I'll take "Tunnel of Love," "Brilliant Disguise," and even "One Step Up," the three huge singles from this album, against the three Born in the U.S.A. songs mentioned earlier any day.
As for album tracks, is, say, "Darlington County" or "Working on the Highway" (from Born in the U.S.A.) significantly better than "Valentine's Day" or "All That Heaven Will Allow"? Nope.
Born in the U.S.A. was as massive as it was because Bruce Springsteen was damn near the only rock musician who managed to enter the synthesizer arms race of the '80s with anything resembling effective weaponry. It's a testament to his prowess as a musician that he became a household name on the strength of one of his shittiest albums ever, but still, Born in the U.S.A. is the last album you should listen to when forming your opinion of Bruce Springsteen.
N.W.A. -- Niggaz4Life
The third and final N.W.A. album, provocatively titled Niggaz4Life, was a huge deal at the time of its release and is still occasionally mentioned today as one of the better rap albums of all time. It's not, though, for a lot of reasons.
One of my favorite gripes about Niggaz4Life, aside from the one about not being able to say the album title in public without fear of being rightfully beaten, is that it tries way too hard to be shocking. The first half of the album plays like one long murder fantasy, which is problematic because, by this time, Dr. Dre had already been outed as the man who once wore sequins and lipstick on an album cover. The days of pretending to be a roving pack of murder villains should have been long over by this point.
The notorious second half of the album is an endless parade of the kind of misogynistic nonsense that acts like 2 Live Crew and Too $hort were always forgiven for because, no matter how vehemently the latter swore he was once blown by Nancy Reagan, for example, we understood that what was being said was just a joke.
Niggaz4Life doesn't feel that way, possibly because it was released just months after Dr. Dre made headlines by beating up the paper-thin female host of a music video show because he didn't like something she said in an interview. It's really hard to get behind a song like "One Less Bitch" when you're concerned that it might be based on real events.
The biggest problem, though, is an astounding drop-off in song quality. There's an easy explanation for that. Ice Cube, arguably one of the three or four best rappers on the planet at the time, left the group prior to the recording of Niggaz4Life. His exit was a mortal wound to everything N.W.A. released in the following years, especially their final album.
Of course, the album can't be completely terrible. After all, it's an entire record of songs produced by Dr. Dre. Even at his worst, he's a better producer than almost anyone else in rap, so it's understandable that people still give the last gasp of N.W.A. a pass from a critical standpoint (although for once Rolling Stone got it right, giving the album 2 out of 5 stars in its review). If you're looking for a "Dr. Dre" album from that era that won't make the women in your life fear you if you listen to it without headphones, though, there's a way better option you should look into.
Meanwhile, Nobody Talks About: No One Can Do It Better
While it's not technically an N.W.A. record, the follow-up to Straight Outta Compton that fans of Dr. Dre's production work should seek out is No One Can Do It Better by the D.O.C.
Released in 1989 while Dr. Dre was still awash in the afterglow of having helped invent gangsta rap, it's a nearly flawless (aside from a "rock" song that is the definition of awful) album that stands out as a bit of an anomaly in the N.W.A. history books. Almost completely devoid of the guns, sluts, and drugs aesthetic of most N.W.A.-related projects, No One Can Do It Better sounds more like the result of an East Coast MC sleeping on a West Coast producer's couch for a month, a trick Ice Cube would employ in reverse order to great effect on his solo debut.
It's not all battle raps, though. The album ends with one of the best N.W.A. songs most people have never heard.
Interestingly, that lack of "street" talk on the album likely goes a long way toward explaining why Straight Outta Compton sounded like a terrifying news report and Niggaz4Life sounded like the absurd boasts of a pathological liar. See, when Ice Cube left the group, his lead songwriter role was taken over by the D.O.C. As his debut album clearly showed, writing about violence and misogyny was way out of his depth. Expecting him to convincingly write the next N.W.A. album was silly.
It might have been different if the D.O.C. had actually been made a full member of the group, but a tragic car accident shortly after the release of No One Can Do It Better left him with a crushed larynx and no voice. Sadly, his career never recovered, but at least the one album he managed to release during his prime was a masterpiece.
Neil Young -- Harvest
Easy, hippies, I'm not saying Harvest is a bad album. You can refrain from pointing your pitchforks at me and continue using them to plant hemp or whatever the hell. What I am saying, though, is that when it comes to Neil Young albums, Harvest is not even close to being the career high point that a lot of people make it out to be.
Yes, it features some of his most timeless songs ("Old Man," "Heart of Gold," "The Needle and the Damage Done") and even features two of my personal favorite Neil Young tunes ("Out on the Weekend" and the title track). When considering Harvest as a complete package, though, things get a lot less classic. Its main downfall is that practically every song that features anything more than Neil, drums, and a few guitars is an overwrought nightmare like this:
That song is called "There's a World," and if you aren't able to watch the video and have never heard it, just know that it sounds like the kind of orchestral bullshit you only hear if you watch movie credits in their entirety. And Harvest is full of that shit. Another great example is the absurdly sexist and just all-around corny "A Man Needs a Maid":
Even the racist-baiting classic "Alabama" plays like a needlessly dramatic version of the far superior "Southern Man," which he released a few years later.
In spite of all this, Harvest remains Neil Young's best-selling album and gets the most attention from casual fans and critics. Because it's always a good barometer of how wrong people are about things, I should mention that Rolling Stone lists Harvest at No. 82 on the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Meanwhile, Nobody Talks About: On the Beach
It's not just Harvest that gets more respect than it deserves, but Neil Young's entire early '70s output kind of pales in comparison to the insane hot streak he went on in the second half of the decade. It started with 1974's On the Beach, an album so obscure in the big scheme of Neil Young's back catalog that it remained unavailable on CD for decades.
That wrong was righted in 2003, and the world is a better place for it. What makes On the Beach such a great album is that it's a rare example of Neil Young's two vastly different sides working together almost perfectly. All of the flubbed notes and general sloppiness of unhinged albums like Tonight's the Night are on full display, but like the best moments on Harvest, the songs are some of the prettiest and most accessible of Neil Young's entire career. Case in point, have a listen to "See the Sky About to Rain":
That's a good song, people. Really good. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the most devoted Neil Young fans who would even think to mention it when discussing his "best" work. That's a shame, because from front to back, On the Beach is one of the most consistently great albums of Neil Young's entire career. Keep it on heavy rotation in your Volkswagen van and you'll close every patchouli-drenched prospect that comes your way.
John Lennon -- Double Fantasy
If John Lennon's final studio effort, Double Fantasy, taught us anything, it's that being shot and killed mere weeks after your album's release date is a great way to deflect criticism. I won't bother mincing words: Double Fantasy is a mediocre album at best, and that's if I'm being super-duper forgiving. If you think otherwise, you either regard the Beatles too highly to be honest with yourself or you're Marion Gladstone. In either case, shut up, you're wrong.
For one thing, can we discuss for a second that half the songs are performed by Yoko Ono? When has that ever been listed as a positive attribute of anything music related?
Heads up, that's far and away her best contribution to the album. When you strip all of her filler away, you're left with seven songs performed by John Lennon. Sure, most of them are good songs, but that's still not a classic album's worth of music, right?
On top of that, the songs are anomalies in the Lennon catalog that, as my friend Harry Knuckles pointed out in a recent column, are basically replicas of the "silly love song" formula that Paul McCartney rode to success while Lennon mocked him mercilessly for it.
Gladstone says that was a brave move on Lennon's part. I say it's a sure sign that his music would have fucking sucked in the '80s like everyone else's. It's a shame we'll never get to find out for sure who's right, but for the record, I am.
Meanwhile, Nobody Talks About: Ringo
It's widely known and accepted that the undisputed solo album champion of the Beatles' first few years living apart was George Harrison. If anyone ever tells you there is a better Beatles solo album than All Things Must Pass, congratulations, you've probably just met Paul McCartney. Everyone else knows better.
That said, if there was a silver medal for early '70s solo albums by the Beatles, it should go to Ringo Starr.
That's right, I said it: Ringo Motherfucking Starr. That's his legal name, and he earned it in my book by way of two goddamn incredible singles that led up to an equally impressive album that is almost never mentioned when discussing the best Beatles solo albums.
First, let's talk about those singles. As was the custom for the Beatles, two of the strongest songs of Ringo Starr's solo career do not appear on any of his studio albums. The first, released in 1971, is called "It Don't Come Easy," and if hearing it does not make you at least a little happier than you were before, consider Zoloft.
The second, released in 1972, is called "Back Off Boogaloo" and features a guitar riff that's suspiciously similar to the one that briefly made Franz Ferdinand undeserving stars a few years ago:
Finally, in 1973, after having previously recorded an album of standards (Sentimental Journey) and a weird country album (Beaucoups of Blues), Ringo Starr released what he considered his first solo album, simply titled Ringo. While it doesn't feature the two previously mentioned singles, it does contain two more of Ringo's best, even if they were written by John Lennon ("I'm the Greatest") and George Harrison ("Photograph"). In fact, it's one of the few Beatles solo albums that feature all four members (Paul McCartney wrote and played on "Six o'Clock"). The only reason it didn't reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. was that it coincided with the release of Elton John's epic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album.
Ringo isn't just better than Double Fantasy -- it's better than most Beatles solo albums in general. If you're a Beatles fan and you don't own it, you're not really a Beatles fan.