What Makes an Album "the Worst"?
by Phil Maddox
The other day in the Discord and Rhyme Slack, John and I were having the kind of discussion that only two enormous music dorks would ever have - debating what the worst Yes album of all time was. John claims that it’s Union, the disastrous 1991 album that saw two warring factions of Yes coming together and producing an album that was immediately loathed by every single Yes fan that bothered listening to it. I, however, claimed it was Heaven and Earth, the 2014 album that has successfully bored every single person that’s listened to it into a coma. The crux of our debate came down to this: Union has a couple of great songs on it, but a good chunk of it is insanely terrible - some of the worst music ever released by a respectable band. Heaven and Earth, however, is just boring. There’s no good songs on it, but nothing quite as bad as the junk that piles up on Union. I thought the good songs on Union were enough to elevate it; John thought the bad songs were bad enough to sink it.
This has made me think - when trying to determine which of two bad albums is worse (an enterprise only ever undertaken by hardcore music geeks, but I figure anybody reading this probably qualifies), should you reward quality or should you punish badness? I understand the desire to punish badness over rewarding goodness - if I’m going to listen to an album straight through, I’d probably rather listen to the one that’s just boring as opposed to the one that’s frequently dreadful. As a straightforward front-to-back listening experience, Union is probably less pleasant. However, in the era of the playlist, I never really have to listen to those terrible songs if I don’t want to - I can play “Lift Me Up” (a legitimately great song) and safely ignore the rest of the album. Heaven and Earth has nothing on it that I would ever put on a playlist, so in terms of value, it’s an absolute zero. Union provides me with a great song, so it provides some actual value for the money I spent on it.
Another question is - should you reward or punish albums based on extra-musical circumstances? Much of Union was recorded by studio musicians and had a great deal of influence from its producer - for an album with eight different Yes members on it, it has fewer parts actually performed by Yes than any other of their albums. Heaven and Earth is legitimately the product of Yes - the band wrote and performed all of the songs on it with minimal outside interference. Should this factor in when determining which album is better or worse? Is Union worse because it’s not an authentic representation of who Yes were? Is Heaven and Earth better solely because it’s more of a “real” Yes album?
For me, it’s ultimately a matter of value. If an album has a single piece of worthwhile material on it, that makes the album inherently more worthwhile than an album that has no worthwhile material on it, even if the average quality on the latter album is higher. Even if the quality of material on an album is merely “consistently below average,” that gives me no reason to ever play the album, while a single great song elevates any album by dint of having something worth your time on it. “Authenticity” also doesn’t factor in that much for me - purely as a listener, it doesn’t matter if an album is authentic if it’s also terrible.
Of course, this is all a silly thought experiment that only the most hardcore of music nerds will even bother thinking about. But, for dweebs like us, debating stuff like this can be a ton of fun.