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Every band that has been in the game for a prolonged period is no stranger to the darker side of their career. For every classic that sweeps up all the accolades, there are others that don’t quite hit the mark and go down as the dark horses of their catalogue that nobody wants to talk about. None of these albums are trainwrecks all the way through, though, and the songs listed below from legends like John Lennon and Tom Petty could have killed it if they were on any other album.
Compared to the lacklustre sounds heard across most of these records, these are the brief moments in which fans begin to question the pathway their favourite artist embarked upon. Even if some of the trademark problems of the record still persist, snippets of greatness arrive as everything starts to make sense, at least for a brief moment.
Then again, having a classic track sat among a dud of an album might also make the rest of the project sound worse by comparison. You can’t help but wonder; if they had this kind of potential right out of the gate, why the hell did they have to settle for the boring stuff instead of hitting us over the head with the undeniable brilliance sat in their arsenal?
In an alternate timeline, the tracks listed below give us a look behind the curtain at what the listenable versions of memorable projects could have been. None of these albums were meant to be the golden child amid a band’s discography, but the classy moments among them are a stark reminder of what could have been.
10 great songs on bad albums:
‘It’ll All Work Out’ – Tom Petty
Throughout the 1980s, Tom Petty had been cruising off the goodwill of the Heartbreakers. Although certain albums like Southern Accents took a little while to get off the ground, he had taken his signature brand of heartland rock into arenas worldwide and made friends with legends like Bob Dylan and George Harrison along the way. Right before Petty learned about the wonders of going solo, even he couldn’t credit Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough).
While not every song on this album is terrible, Petty is playing it safe throughout, making songs that would have worked for decent radio fodder than anything substantial. In the middle of the record, though, ‘It’ll All Work Out’ comes on with a slightly more optimistic angle. Certain tracks like ‘Runaway Trains’ may have been padded out with synthesisers from the time, but Mike Campbell’s delicate bluegrass instrumentation is much more natural for what Petty is trying to get across on this tune.
Since he had been a victim of arson and was taking his family out on the road, this almost feels like a prayer that Petty is telling himself to assure himself that the sky isn’t falling down around him. In an album that feels defeated throughout its runtime, ‘It’ll All Work Out’ is the little sunshine poking through the cracks.
‘Never Say Die’ – Black Sabbath
The ending of the Ozzy Osbourne era of Black Sabbath wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Although the Prince of Darkness had been cruising above Tony Iommi’s riffs, the different musical directions they pulled each other in led to a lot of animosity going into Technical Ecstasy. By the time they got to Never Say Die, no one wanted to be in the same room with each other anymore.
Despite Osbourne putting down his final album with Sabbath, the title track kicked the door down correctly. Bringing back Geezer Butler’s existential lyrics, Iommi’s guitar riffs feel like a callback to what they were doing on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, placing doom and beauty in the same room and making something incredible.
While it started off strong, nothing could save the rest of the album. Being padded out with instrumentals with horns, repackaging their old hits, and stretching out decent five-minute songs into seven-minute exercises, the project slowly falls apart. The title track may have started the listener off on a high note, but it’s a sure sign that things are going wrong when drummer Bill Ward takes on vocal duties on the album’s final tracks.
‘New York City’ – John Lennon
John Lennon will forever be known as the ‘Intellectual Beatle’. While Paul McCartney was known for his charming melodies and George Harrison lured listeners in with his quiet demeanour, Lennon always found new ways to incorporate real problems into his music. Once he had free reign to do whatever he pleased in his solo career, Some Time In New York City was the first time he sacrificed good music for his messages.
Though the idea of an album about current events sounded great, splitting the disc between Lennon and Yoko Ono songs makes for a jarring listening experience. Amid songs about Angela Davis and the poor souls in Attica State prison, ‘New York City’ is one of Lennon’s fiercest rockers, being an ode to the Big Apple that he would call home until his death in 1980.
After singing nothing but news headlines for most of the project, Lennon channels his inner Chuck Berry on this song, telling a semi-autobiographical story of him and Ono moving to New York while tearing it up on lead guitar towards the end of the track. Considering how much fiction blends with reality on this track, this could practically be a sequel to ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ from Lennon’s Beatle days.
‘Beyond Beautiful’ – Aerosmith
Success can often be just as intimidating as failure. Even though you have a huge following in the mainstream, there will always be the mantle of pressure on your back to try and recreate it as best you can. Aerosmith might have spent decades trying to get a hit, but once ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ reached number one, their music began to turn dark.
While the album Just Push Play is far from the worst rock has to offer, it feels like Aerosmith are giving up, trying to play to the lowest common denominator for pop-rock fans. Although songs like ‘Fly Away From Here’ sound like they’re desperately trying to branch out into top 40 territory, ‘Beyond Beautiful’ is experimentation done correctly. Starting off with a beautiful sitar line, the scope of this song is far greater than what we had heard before as Tyler reaches into his upper register on the chorus.
Whereas the rest of the record feels like Aerosmith is hitting you with every trend from the 2000s at once, ‘Beyond Beautiful’ has a solid foundation executed perfectly to kick the record into high gear. Although the potential would be almost immediately snuffed with the lush guitars on ‘Jaded’, this tune still has a good idea buried deep within it.
‘Trainwrecks’ – Weezer
At the end of the 2000s, Weezer desperately needed some course correction. The nerd rockers had spent the last decade trying to make pop-friendly songs, and Raditude was the moment when even die-hard fans started to jump off the bandwagon. Something needed to change fast, and Hurley can’t help but feel like a back-to-basics record by comparison.
Although there’s nothing on this record as offensively bad as a song like ‘Can’t Stop Partying’, Weezer doesn’t really break any new ground on any of these cuts either, except for ‘Trainwrecks’ tucked right in the middle of everything. Since their whole brand has been about the misfits, this track is about a couple with the odds stacked against them but is determined to try to make their dream come true anyway.
While there are obvious parallels between the couple and Rivers Cuomo’s career, it’s nice for fans to know that Cuomo hadn’t counted the band out yet. Much of Hurley contains songs that rehash Weezer classics all over again, but Cuomo almost accidentally wrote the nerd-rock equivalent of ‘Born to Run’.
‘Freedom’ – Paul McCartney
Very few Paul McCartney releases could be considered bad albums. Even though some miss the mark, McCartney has kept a fairly modest track record throughout his solo career, spanning five decades and following his muse wherever it goes. While some McCartney albums might be more offensive, his creative streak doesn’t get any more boring than on Driving Rain.
Although there are some decent tracks on this album, the entire project never pulls itself out of first gear, as McCartney starts to make songs that sound like dad rock. Despite being one of the most forgettable albums in his catalogue, McCartney did find a way to give the fans what they wanted… at the eleventh hour.
While ‘Rinse the Raindrops’ was meant as the album’s dramatic closer at ten minutes, ‘Freedom’ was tacked on as a bonus track as a tribute to those who lost their lives on 9/11. The core message behind the song may have lifted the spirits of Americans at the time – even this track has an asterisk next to it – given that McCartney started to pull back on it after it got co-opted by the pro-military stance of Americans going into war. The message might have been taken out of context, but no amount of ignorant flag-waving can hinder a great song.
‘Creep’ – Radiohead
Radiohead have made an entire career out of turning rock and roll inside out. The band have never looked back from Ok Computer, and every new album was considered a new creative endeavour, from leaning into electronics on Kid A to the chamber pop styles found on A Moon Shaped Pool. Before the band had even gotten off the ground, they had made a post-grunge album that almost every band member wants to forget.
While the band may have been avid fans of acts like Nirvana at the time, Pablo Honey feels like a demo these days rather than a proper album, as the band try their best to make MTV-approved alternative rock. The experiment did work on the song ‘Creep’, but even the band started to disavow their biggest hit when it became dangerously close to marking them as a one-hit-wonder.
Despite the band’s tense relationship with ‘Creep’, it’s still one of their stronger mainstream songs, with an iconic guitar performance from Jonny Greenwood and the world’s first exposure to Thom Yorke’s wounded choirboy vocals. Radiohead had many sonic avenues to try out after this, but most other alt-rock bands couldn’t kick down the door this well.
‘X-Kid’ – Green Day
Throughout Green Day’s discography, they have always been willing to experiment. Billie Joe Armstrong was never meant to play three-chord punk rock forever, and the next phase of their career saw them twisting their sound inside out until they had a second wind on American Idiot. After conquering the world twice, the trilogy of Uno, Dos, and Tre is when the pop punk legends started to take their foot off the gas.
While there are bright spots on every one of the records, they are few and far between, and stretching the experience out to over two hours doesn’t make it go down any easier. Tre might have a reputation as the most boring out of them all, but ‘X-Kid’ has a bit of fire. This doesn’t fit into punk rock at all, but Armstrong is giving a lot more passion this time around, singing about a friend that he knew growing up who passed away after never fully growing out of his adolescence.
There are seeds of a good album’s worth of material in a song like this, but the band was more interested in making grandiose songs, which turned into lifeless ballads that had no real substance behind them. When surrounded by mediocrity on all sides, the songs with the most potential go from decent to classic.
‘Under Pressure’ – Queen
Queen never claimed to be the most genuine of rock stars. Though they always liked to follow their muse, they still had their eye on what sells, and their launch into the 1980s brought them their biggest hit yet with ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Since the gamble paid off for that one song, then why not rehash it a few more times on the next album?
For the majority of Hot Space, Queen are flirting with disco territory, resulting in some of their most milquetoast singles like ‘Back Chat’ and ‘Body Language’. While the album progressively gets better further down the track listing, the fact that they put ‘Under Pressure’ as the final track feels like a mulligan.
The duet between Queen and David Bowie is immaculate from start to finish, being a pure collaboration with both legends trading bars back and forth while being carried by John Deacon’s bassline. Seeing how good this one track is against the rest of the album, having this as the bombastic closer just makes the rest of the album look that much worse. Queen probably knew that this would divide the fanbase, so this glorified bonus track would most likely cushion the blow for fans.
‘Frantic’ – Metallica
Metallica’s St. Anger has gone down in rock history as one of the most glorious trainwrecks. Since the band members weren’t getting along and desperately trying to make music together, the record reflects that turmoil, from the god-awful production to Lars Ulrich’s decision to unhook his snare and subject our ears to drums that sound like tin cans. While ‘Frantic’ has everything that makes the album sound terrible, fans could at least see what they were going for on this track.
After coasting off of hard rock tropes during the Load era, Metallica sounded like they were taking cues from nu-metal on this track, tuning down low and not featuring any guitar solo from Kirk Hammett. The riff is also menacing from the start, being a cross between a Bond theme and the more twisted side of what Black Sabbath would have done.
This song does have a few flaws showing from the beginning, too, like James Hetfield’s less-than-enthused vocal performance and banging away on the same riff for ages instead of just getting on with the rest of the song. While this is miles below Metallica’s standards, fans weren’t even slightly prepared for what the rest of the album had in store.