I thought about calling this entry “the 10 most overrated albums ever,” but that would be stupid, because, as Kip would say, “like anyone could even know that.” Understanding why someone else like something and liking it yourself are two totally different things, meaning that an album, book, movie, whatever could be “great” to critics (who are people, too, remember) while being dead to any given person. I first felt the disconnect with books, when I felt nothing but indifference to Infinite Jest (I liked some of Wallace’s other works), William T. Vollmann, or Amy Tan. With film, my feelings were less strong, so no lists of “most overrated/underrated/best ever” will be forthcoming.
Music has such a low bar to entry for criticism, though, that it’s as easy to slaughter sacred cows as it is erect them in the first place as monuments to one’s own demographic, historical and stylistic biases. Publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork have each single-handedly created pantheons around middling albums from Slanted & Enchanted to Neon Bible, without discussing much other than the cultural contexts in which these works were created. I came up with a list of the albums with critical reputations out of line with their music, at least to my ears. As always, a reminder that “overrated” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.”
Nirvana – Nevermind
Smoothing over 1980s punk and indie with 1970s production and commercialism was the most cliched move possible at Nirvana’s time, but they did it anyway, following the example of the Pixies, Soul Asylum, Goo Goo Dolls and many others. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is not only a copy of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” but also the basis for “Drain You” and “On a Plain,” making the latter two copies of a copy. The band is musically limited and its song structures conventional; hard to tell why they were picked out of the sea of bands that had all the same tricks.
Radiohead – Kid A
Reviews and retrospectives of this album are given to ridiculous hyperbole about its Importance as well as pearl-clutching about the decline of the album, 9/11…everything. The music itself? Sloppily produced folktronica, the obvious result of a rock band listening to the Warp catalog a few times and feeling like it had loops, textures, and sampling down pat. Much of it – the title track, “Treefingers,” “Morning Bell” – sound like 1970s acts such as Mike Oldfield or Klaus Schulze, except produced with a harsh commercial sheen 30 years after the fact – what’s so great about that? Every Radiohead album has been worse than its predecessor.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Whale sounds, gossamer, whatever – reading writing about this album is like reading a wine reviewer’s notes. MBV was heavily reliant on volume and production, which means that the group’s sporadic output and epic hiatus aren’t hard to understand – there’s not much in the songwriting well. This album sounds like a noisy take on the Cocteau Twins more than it does any of the outre sounds ascribed to it.
Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Does anyone listen to this anymore? It always felt like an obligatory influence or touch point to cite, but listening to it start to finish was an afterthought. It’s not even that edgey – The Clash were more political, American acts like Blondie and Television were more forward-looking and ultimately more influential, and even Stones records like Sticky Fingers and Let it Bleed were full of references to drugs and violence years before. Anyone going to argue that “God Save the Queen” has aged well, or “EMI” for that matter?
Sufjan Stevens – Illinoise
In 2005, I was baffled by the almost universal acclaim that this record received, figuring that they might just be admirations of its cute artwork and super-long song titles (which indicate quirkiness AND importance). It’s way too long and keeps an even tone almost the whole way, with busy but uninteresting arrangements, tiresome lyrics, and flat production that between them add up to something that can maybe listened to one or twice before moving on. As an Illinoisan, this hurts.
The Strokes – Is This It
Indeed, was that it? As a 15-year old, I remember disliking this album for its grating, filtered vocals. I gave it a second shot recently and was surprised that my reaction hadn’t really changed in a decade plus. They’re not cosmopolitan enough to sound quite like The Velvet Underground, and the results instead are repetitive guitar lines mastered and done much better years before by The Cars and Blondie. Like Nevermind, it is a record heavily dependent on its production. Not bad, really, but nowhere near the masterpiece it was hailed as.
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs
I first heard Tom Waits as an 18-year old, and I didn’t get him at the time. I later got into Mule Variations, which was full of varied yet coherent and tuneful songs given gorgeous production and lyrical wit, but I never warmed to this record. It repeated the innovations of Swordfishtrombones, albeit across an exhausting 19 songs of screaming, yelling, and other vocal interpretations that are just takes on the Howlin Wolf’ blues tradition filtered through Captain Beefheart – it’s only “weird” to sheltered boomers or lily-white indie critics. The one song I kept listening to again – “Hang Down Your Head” – is just the old standard “Tom Dooley” reconfigured.
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Arcade Fire do very little with a whole lot. They use tons of instruments to cover up for straightforward chord-progressions and plodding tempos. Win Butler’s voice is screechy and the lyrics strive hard for Seriousness but in the musical context end up wearing me out. I remember hearing “Keep the Car Running” while in a car in 2007 and thinking of how it seemed endless despite its 3:28 running time, probably because of the repetitive musicianship.
Led Zeppelin – IV
I never got into Led Zeppelin, so take that into account. They seemed too masculine, too self-regarding, too blues-masters-y to really connect with me. However, thank to my sister’s Zep phase, I listened to this album many times in car trips. It’s strong in the first half, with “Rock N Roll” and “Black Dog” and “Stairway to Heaven.” But Side 2 is like a joke – the pointless hippie paean “Going to California” and especially the turgid blues rip off “When the Levee Breaks.” Zep always seemed like a consolidation of the past (Cream, Hendrix, Robert Johnson) than something really new.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
This record’s backstory and accidental 9/11 relevance totally overshadowed its content. There are some nice, catchy songs here – “Kamera,” “Jesus Etc.,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” – but there are also heavy-handed touches like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places.” It’s a record that feels like it badly wants to be experimental, but can’t make the leap. Still, “I Am the Man Who Loves You” is better than anything Pavement ever did.