"It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world," said that angst-ridden kid in American Beauty when he was watching that video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. It's a cheesy scene that offers a liberating way to look at music. Don't get mad at a shitty album from your favorite band. Find the beauty. Even in that one Dave Matthews Band album.
This was key in the pre-streaming era. If you spent $18 on a 3 Doors Down CD at Borders, you'd find the highlights, goddammit. But it also makes the emotional roller-coaster of today's music fandom more bearable. As this list will show, even commercial flops and creative catastrophes from artists with long careers have at least one jam. Or a track that's slightly less abysmal than all the other ones.
Keep in mind, I'm not here to take shots at one-hit wonders that clearly weren't made for the long haul or independent acts releasing music outside the mainstream. (There will be no references to Crazy Town or your dad's jazz-fusion project here.) All 10 of the album-and-song combinations below come from artists who made an impact... and there's at least one album you probably never want to hear again.
This 5-Pound Donut Tastes Like Apple Pie
"Under Pressure," Queen feat. David Bowie
Album: Hot Space
This is the perfect example of the "good song on trash album" phenomenon. "Under Pressure," the Queen and David Bowie collaboration that later "inspired" Vanilla Ice, is a masterpiece of rock theatricality. It grabs you the second that bassline starts.
"Under Pressure" showed up on Queen's 1982 disco experiment Hot Space, a hot mess of synth-pop tracks that never cohere into a compelling whole. Fans weren't crazy about it and band members, like drummer Roger Taylor, have called it the worst album they ever made. (The record did have one mega-fan: Michael Jackson, who cited it as an inspiration for Thriller.) It's a testament to Queen's brilliance that even one of their most shit-upon albums still contains a stone-cold classic.
"This Is England," The Clash
Album: Cut the Crap
Like many of the records on this list, Cut the Crap shares the dubious distinction of being a collection of songs from an iconic group that's past its prime. Lineup changes are often at the heart of weak projects -- once you tinker with the delicate chemistry of a band, there's no coming back -- and Cut the Crap is no exception.
With the departure of drummer Topper Headon and co-founding guitarist Mick Jones, Cut the Crap was unlikely to meet the revelatory heights of London Calling or inventiveness of Sandinista!, but even as a Clash 2.0 LP this is tedious. There's one exception: "This is England," which uses a synth and a sing-along chorus to conjure a bleak but moving portrait of UK life. As the final missive from one of punk's essential bands, it's a poignant end-note. Just skip the rest of the crap.
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)," Weezer
Album: Weezer (The Red Album)
It's easy to kick Weezer when they're down -- and they've been down a lot over the last decade. While many die-hards like to point to the goofy Raditude or the repetitive Make Believe as the lowest point in Rivers Cuomo & Co.'s 10-record catalog, the distinction actually belongs to The Red Album, a collection of tedious microwaved tracks that don't even have the decency to troll you.
Then again, maybe Cuomo was saving all his mental energy for "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived," an 11-part epic suite that pays tribute to Nirvana, Aerosmith, Bach, Beethoven, and Weezer's own past. It's the rare Weezer song where Cuomo's cleverness is an asset instead of a potential liability. Turns out you can find greatness anywhere -- even a turkey like The Red Album.
"Fire in the Hole," Van Halen
Album: Van Halen III
Van Halen fans like to argue the virtues and drawbacks of the band's two distinct eras -- the rise to arena-rock dominance with singer David Lee Roth and the reign of "VanHagar" vocalist Sammy Hagar -- but nobody reps for the brief Gary Cherone period. The lackluster Van Halen III isn't all Cherone's fault: The riffs just aren't there and the last track, "How Many Say I," a six-minute piano ballad where Eddie takes over on vocals, is a treacly slog. (Sample lyric: "Have you ever looked down when the homeless walked by?/Or changed the channel when you saw a hungry child?")
"Fire in the Hole," a chugging blues-rock barnburner, is one of the record's few bright spots. Honestly, if it was good enough for the Lethal Weapon 4 soundtrack, it's good enough for this list.
"Nobody Knows Me," Madonna
Album: American Life
As a Bush-era protest record, American Life is a conceptually sound hand-grenade lobbed at the malls of America: The OG Material Girl attacks materialism itself. Clever, right?
For her follow-up to 2000's genre-hopping Music, Madonna took a stripped-down, minimalist approach to match the defiant lyrics, writing tracks that feel like electro-folk howls into the abyss. Again, it's a compelling stylistic pivot in theory, but most of the songs, like the scornful title track or the sarcastic "Hollywood," are unmemorable. (Her James Bond song for Die Another Day, which is featured on the album, is only memorable for how bad it is.) What makes "Nobody Knows Me" work where the rest of the album falls flat? It ditches the acoustic guitars for a harsh yet danceable beat. An ideal soundtrack for a party on the eve of the apocalypse.
"Drop the World," Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne is one of the greatest rappers to ever hold a microphone, but he's got a dicier reputation as a guitarist, born from Rebirth, his pretty terrible "rock" album. The sight of Lil Wayne shredding at his shows will always bring me joy -- like skateboarding, he clearly loves it -- but actually listening to Rebirth is exhausting. Those sludgy nu-metal guitar tones, plodding drums, and hook-less punk provocations might work at a basement show. On a major-label release from a mega-star, it's a bewildering misstep.
The record's commercial success -- it sold almost a million copies -- speaks more to how untouchable Wayne was during this period after the release of the world-conquering Tha Carter III than the LP's actual content. The record's Eminem collaboration, "Drop the World," co-produced by Hit Boy, is the rare song that might've worked on a normal Lil Wayne project. It's not perfect, but at least it doesn't have a meandering butt-rock guitar solo.
"FuckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt," Jay Z Feat. Rick Ross
Album: Magna Carta Holy Grail
Most of Jay Z's post-retirement musical projects feel like extensions of his publicized life as a businessman: Kingdom Come launched with a beer commercial, American Gangster arrived with a Denzel Washington movie, and The Blueprint 3 was yet another sequel to improve the #brand.
But Magna Carta Holy Grail, which dropped as part of a convoluted promotion with Samsung, felt cynical even for Jay Z. Most of the music on the record sounds luxurious and hollow, like an empty Fabergé egg. It's unsurprising that the best song on the record, "FuckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt," was originally meant for Rick Ross, who lends the track its swagger-filled chorus. (Note: I'm including the Rozay-only version of the track from Mastermind above because Jay Z's original isn't available on YouTube at the moment.)
"Perfect Day," Duran Duran
Album: Thank You
In 1995, British New Wave hitmakers Duran Duran were no longer at their "Hungry Like the Wolf" peak and, apparently, wanted to spend a whole album paying tribute to their disparate influences. A nice gesture, sure, but the band could've sent fan-mail -- it's definitely cheaper.
Most of the covers range from bizarre (Public Enemy's "911 Is a Joke") to dire (Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives") but there's one shiny, bright spot here: the group's gauzy take on Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," a rendition that the Velvet Underground singer apparently loved. It's not the type of cover that completely reinvents the song or anything. It's just a solid cover, which on this album is a rarity.
"Sweet Amber," Metallica
Album: St. Anger
If you're the type of person who reads lists on the internet about "bad" albums, you probably thought Metallica and Lou Reed's collaborative project, Lulu, was going to have a place on here. I thought the same thing, but I went back and listened to the spoken word-filled record and it's actually fascinating. (Seriously, "Junior Dad" is great.)
You know what's not fascinating? St. Anger, the back-to-basics Metallica record with drums mixed to sound like shoes flipping around in a dryer. While the spectacular rock-doc Some Kind of Monster retroactively made this period of Metallica slightly more interesting, the solo-less songs on St. Anger are an exhausting churn of monochromatic guitar textures and tough-guy psychobabble. ("My lifestyle determines my deathstyle" remains a legendary bad metal lyric.) At only 5:27, "Sweet Amber" is one of the shorter songs and has the best riff on this endless slog of a record. (For real: Even the "best" song still kinda sucks.)
Album: Human Clay
As Scott Stapp might say, let's go there. It's easy to make fun of Creed. If you've never heard "Marlins Will Soar," the song Stapp wrote for his beloved Florida Marlins, then I recommend you check it out and enjoy a laugh. It's silly -- like many things associated with this Florida hard-rock group.
Much of Human Clay, the group's enormously successful second record, is as cheesy as the group's reputation as Bible-beating goofs would suggest. But "Higher," otherwise known as the song that played in all the commercials for that animated kids movie Titan A.E., is a killer single. More muscular and soaring than the record's other hit, the treacly "Arms Wide Open," "Higher" is a beautiful and dopey poem, a prayer fired from a T-shirt gun. Grab a friend, open your heart, and do as your Lord and Savior Scott Stapp commands of you: Go there. Make your escape.
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