Thursday, November 01, 2007

Megahits and Bands Past Their Prime

Okay, I have a theory, made up of equal parts music snobbery and jaded listening habits, that states that a band's biggest/most popular album (or their "breakthrough" album) is always always inferior to albums that have come before it. Some examples:

Bruce Springsteen -- Born in the U.S.A. (compare to Born to Run)
U2 -- The Joshua Tree (compare to War)
R.E.M. -- Out of Time, Automatic for the People (compare to Murmur)
Death Cab for Cutie -- Plans (compare to We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes)
Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (compare to Being There)

Now, before I am inundated with indignant replies, let me note that I think all of these albums fall under the "Okay" or "Pretty Good" categories. None of them are stinkers. But I also think that all of these musicians/bands did far better work on earlier albums (specfically, the ones mentioned above). And I'm sure there are exceptions, but honestly I can't think of them. Why is it that most albums that go Platinum strike me as toned down/dumbed down when compared to the artists' best work? And why is it that the exceptions, such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (which hardly strikes me as toned down or dumbed down) merely strike me as indulgent wankery? Anyone have any insight into my twisted musical mind?


Karen said...

i can only speak for the two i really know, which is R.E.M. and U2... and i totally and completely agree. i have ALWAYS wondered how those albums could be considered better than war and murmur!

so what i'm really trying to say here, is you are right. :D

mg said...


war has some great songs, but it has some flaws too (surrender, the refugee, 2 hearts).

i'm also a big fan of "yankee hotel"...i think it's better than 'being there', but that's just me.

i haven't heard 'murmur' before, but you definitely have a case with the Boss.

Andy Whitman said...

Michael, I honestly prefer "War" to "The Joshua Tree." Some of this is Daniel Lanois' and Brian Eno's production on JT. I'm not a fan of how Lanois wraps everything in his sonic gauze. Why would you take one the best, most raw rock 'n roll bands in the world and muffle their sound? But some of it has to do with the songs themselves. I don't like "With or Without You" or "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." I realize that these are huge hits, but I find them kind of boring. I do dearly love "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Bullet the Blue Sky," though, so my reaction to the album as a whole is far from negative. I just prefer U2 when they are at their most raw and rocking. "Like a Song" from "War" pretty much epitomizes everything I love about U2 -- the Edge's guitar (unmuffled, and well to the forefront), and Larry Mullen pounding the hell out of his drum kit. There are too few of those moments on JT.

Wilco? I like the band. I like YHF to an extent. I still think YHF is the most overhyped album of the new millenium. The album has a compelling backstory (innovative band gets the shaft from the big record label, refuses to buckle under pressure, insists on doing the music their way, etc.) that created a mythic aura about it, but I just don't think the songs (again, with a few exceptions) are particularly noteworthy.

mg said...

i know what you are saying about JT. there is a special 20th anniversary edition coming out later this month. i'm curious to hear how it sounds remastered.

still though, i think you could make a case for albums post-JT being stronger than JT as well...
i think 'achtung baby', 'all that you can't leave behind', and 'how to dismantle an atomic bomb' all had better flow than JT as entire bodies of work. "achtung" being my all time favorite u2 album...

Brian Estabrook said...

What about Bob Dylan?

It seems like 'Highway 61 Revisited' was his big hit album that really took the place by storm, but I think 'Bringing It All Back Home' was significantly better.

Also, I agree that 'Plans' was a big let down, but I would have to point to Transatlanticism as the great DCFC accomplishment over 'We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes'.. Just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

So do you feel The Bends was better/superior than OK Computer? Just wondering....

I think I agree with you on most of your choices. I didn't hear the Death Cab album but you have me intrigued to go and listen to it


Andy Whitman said...

Dylan's a special case, Brian. Which Dylan are we talking about? The protest singer/hero of the early '60s who betrayed the cause by going electric? The surrealistic poet of the middle sixties? The country squire of "Nashville Skyline"? The Born Again Bob?

Dylan changed gears so frequently that it's almost impossible to talk about any album or any phase of his career as his "breakthrough" moment. He broke through on Album 1, and he broke through, in different ways, throughout the first decade of his career.

just scott said...

andy, I agree with Bruce, REM and others. I think that Transatlanticism was more of the breakthrough per se for Death Cab, though Plans has greater sales. I do think that U2 rocked pretty decently on Achtung (still my fave of theirs) but went down the toilet with How to Build An Atomic Turd.
I am however, in complete agreement with Wilco. Though I would lean toward Summerteeth as my favorite (solidified by their show here in Nov. '99). It does indeed create a nice backstory, documentary to boot, but to me it is an indulgent wankfest with a few good numbers (don't even get me started on Ghost). I still remain steadfast in my belief that without Jay Bennett (as badly as he looked in the doc) they will never be the same.

Andy Whitman said...

Gar, I think albums like "OK Computer" (and now that I think about it, probably Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller") are exceptions to the rule. In the case of those artists, their "breakthrough" albums probably really are their best albums. It happens. I just think that the big VH1 Behind the Music albums are, more likely than not, not the best representatives of a great band's work.

Someone Said said...

I think when you are on the cover of Time and Newsweek at the same time, as Springsteen was in '75, then you've broken through. Plus, Born in the U.S.A. was fueled by massive video exposure on MTV, which was at it's peak. I still think the material on Born to Run is superior too. So spot on there.

With R.E.M. I prefer Document or Life's Rich Paegant to Automatic for the People, which was a tamer version of Out of Time. Murmur was too unpolished for me back then.

Joshua Tree was an event when it as released. Not a weak cut on it in my opinion. War certainly had the anthems, but side two lags.

Summerteeth is my favorite Wilco record.

Brian Estabrook said...


I understand what you're saying about Dylan, but I think that the album that is most praised in retrospect is 'Highway 61 Revisited'.. And I think Bringing It All Back Home was better.

scott said...

I'll also take Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska over Born in the USA.

e said...

Andy, You're the expert, so I'll defer.

For consideration, however: U2 of TJT was not the same U2 as War. Likewise Wilco, Radiohead, Death Cab, REM, Bruce, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc. So, yeah, same people up there, and in some cases same producers.

But each band as a unit subject to history made something unique each time. I would argue that's what makes each of these bands stand up above the vast majority of their contemporaries: the ability to change their sound and the "ethos" of their music (let alone the out and out "reinventions" that some of these bands have been through).

Was "War" as good of an album as "TJT"? Yeah, probably. It's my fav anyway. But I'm not sure it was better. I'm not sure that people were wrong to give the Grammy to one and not the other.

(Was Reagan wrong to use the Boss to musically frame his election campaign? Yes. What does this have to do with this discussion? Nothing.)

Andy Whitman said...

Erik, I'm no expert. I'm just a guy with a lot of opinions.

As far as bands changing their sound/ethos, I'll all for it. I'll always champion musicians who take risks rather than relying on the same old, stale formula. And certainly Springsteen and U2 can't be accused of standing still and making the same album over and over again. That's one of the reasons why I love them, and why they're great.

But that doesn't mean that all changes are for the better. In Springsteen's case, he peaked with "Born to Run." It's a perfect album, in my opinion, and although other bands have made albums that are just as good, no one's ever done it better because it's impossible to do it better. So "Born in the U.S.A." represents a change, all right, but when I hear songs like "Darlington County" and "Billy Jean" and "Glory Days," I hear what are essentially throwaway good times tunes. They simply don't have the depth of any of the songs on "Born to Run." And sure, Broooooce had hit the big time long before that album, but he took it to another level of popularity/mass appeal with "Born in the U.S.A." It remains his best-selling album, and will probably always be so. I'll put it this way: if casual music fans own a Bruce Springsteen album, that's the one they're most likely to own.

And I think that's unfortunate, because it doesn't represent his best songs or his best songwriting. But that's the way it seems to work (and that's the thesis of this post). The best-known/best-selling albums are rarely the best albums. I have my own theories on why that might be so (and maybe I'll elaborate on that in another post), but for now I'll chalk it up to my own music snobbery, and my belief that to achieve that level of mass acceptance/popularity, musicians might have to sacrifice something. What that "something" is I'll save for later.

Anonymous said...

Checking in on this discussion. I just love music too much not to. It seems to me like the reason these albums were "breakthroughs" had more to do with marketing than with other things.

Part of that marketing extends to sonic preferences that come into vogue (aka "the flavor of the month"). The most important music is timeless, but all music is left to the subjectivity of the listener.

I was riding in the car and listening to chris hickey's amazing "release" album on Saturday. Many of the songs are minimalistic, but quite intimate and compelling. After the first 2 songs had played and the third song came on with the fine drumming of Andy Kamman, the passenger said, "drums add so much to folk music". I couldn't disagree more, but I didn't say anything for the sake of keeping the peace. Still it strikes me that one of the reasons people like these breakthrough albums is the "bombast" in the drums. Nothing attractive about that. Let the music be made, as the artists want it to be made--not as the marketplace decides.


p.s. For the record, I much prefer "Highway 61 Revisited" to "Bringing it all Back Home". The musicians on that album played country blues like no other studio band.