In Defense of Bad Albums
by Phil Maddox
As long as I can remember, I’ve never been satisfied with just getting a greatest hits album by a band, or even just getting a band’s most acclaimed work. Ever since I was a kid, if I got into a band, I wanted to hear absolutely everything the band ever recorded. The earliest band I can remember doing this with is the Moody Blues - I remember scouring every store that sold cassette tapes in the hopes of finding an album that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t have access to discography information at that time, so I didn’t even know what albums I didn’t have - I’d just keep checking in the hopes that I’d eventually encounter something new.
As I grew older, information became easier to access, so I would not only know what albums by a band existed - I would also know the general consensus on the quality of their albums. You would think that knowing certain albums are supposed to be terrible ahead of time would make me decide to skip those albums. Instead, it made me start tracking down and spending money on albums that I knew in advance would be bad. This sounds pointless - why would I spend time and money finding and listening to albums that everyone warns me are awful?
First of all - sometimes, a record with a terrible reputation will surprise you. It seems that everyone hates Genesis’s debut recording, From Genesis To Revelation - the band has even written it out of their official discography. When I picked it up, I was expecting the absolute worst. What I found was a collection of lovely, orchestrated '60s pop songs - nothing like Genesis’s later work, but certainly not bad. There’s a couple songs on that record that I wouldn’t hesitate to call great (I’m looking in your direction, “One Day”).
Sometimes albums get a terrible reputation just for being atypical of a group’s sound. Into The Unknown by Bad Religion is another great example - it’s long had a bad reputation due to being a young punk band's attempt to make an “art rock” album. Their audience wholeheartedly rejected it - nobody into early Bad Religion wanted to hear a keyboard-heavy art pop record. If you go into that record expecting the kind of punk rock Bad Religion are known for, there’s a very good chance you’ll hate it. But... if you go in with a open mind, you’ll find that a lot of the songs are actually quite good. I get songs from that record stuck in my head all the time. It has some of the band’s finest melodies buried in there. Bad Religion has a reputation for recording the same basic album over and over, so it’s nice to hear an album with their same basic melodic sense that manages to sound totally different.
Even when an album turns out to suck, it can still be interesting to listen to. Under Wraps by Jethro Tull is far from a good album, but it’s interesting to hear them filter their weird brand of herky-jerky progressive rock through an eighties synthesizer filter. It succeeds neither as a Jethro Tull album nor as an eighties pop album, but the intersection is so bizarre that I still pull it out and listen to it from time to time just because there’s nothing else quite like it. Summer in Paradise by the Beach Boys, featuring Mike Love, Al Jardine, a bunch of keyboards, and very little else, is so incredibly dreadful that it’s hilarious. I don’t regret tracking that CD down for a second - if I hadn’t, I’d have never heard a horned-up Mike Love rap that “Doing unto others is the golden rule/But doing it with you would be so very cool,” accompanied by record scratch sound effects.
I can’t exactly recommend spending as much time and money as I have tracking down albums with terrible reputations, but if there’s a band you like that has an album that’s notoriously bad - don’t be afraid to give it a try. Maybe it’ll surprise you and actually be good. Maybe it’ll suck in a hilariously entertaining way. Nowadays, with as much music available available for streaming as there is, it probably won’t even cost you any money, so you’ve really got nothing to lose.