“Rainbow” by Kesha

After several years out of the spotlight due to a tragic legal and personal entanglement that brought on an outpouring of public sympathy even from those who had hated her previous work, expectations were high for Kesha’s fourth album (or third, I suppose, depending on if you count the Cannibal EP as a full album in itself). After all, her 2012 effort Warrior had already been a massive leap ahead of her often disastrous first two releases, and after such a deep and tragic personal struggle, everyone was on the edge of their seats wondering what she was going to release.

And yet, in spite of all this hype, the resulting album still managed to exceed everyone’s expectations. This is, in all seriousness, one of the greatest albums of the entire 2010s…and I’m not talking Top 100; I’m talking Top Ten. This is 2017’s equivalent of Adele’s 21 in 2011, Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, and Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016.

As others have pointed out before me, it might well come across as insensitive to say anything negative about such an incredibly personal and vulnerable work…Kesha herself openly admitted that this album “saved her life”, after all. Fortunately, though, that’s not really a problem in this particular case, since this album is empirically perfect anyway.

The lead single, the monumentally moving Gospel power ballad “Praying”, with its intensely personal lyrics and anguished intensity, set the expectations for this album’s content, but while there is plenty of honest singer-songwriter introspection on display here, this album is far more varied than one might expect from the lead single alone. Even the heavier, more serious songs have an impressive variety of tone…for example, the first track, “Bastards”, marries a tranquil, almost gentle melody to an enraged, profane lyric, providing a perfect tone-setting opening. Meanwhile, the breathtakingly beautiful title-song expresses a message of hope in indescribably gentle and tender melody, and the forcibly carefree “Learn to Let Go” talks about letting go of pain of the past in music that sounds like it actually means it.

The second song to be released from the album, “Woman”, with its explicit, defiant lyrics and a distinctive sound courtesy of the Dap-King Horns on backup, is perhaps the most ferocious feminist anthem in all of Pop music. This song is presumably what Kesha was trying to achieve on most of her first two releases, but whether due to her personal and artistic growth or the absence of Dr. Luke’s influence, it manages to succeed where those songs failed.

Similarly, the outsiders’ anthem “Hymn” is essentially a much more effective take on the model used on her earlier single “We R Who We R”. While that song was one of the more listenable items on the Cannibal EP, it failed to convince as the inspirational anthem it was supposedly meant to be, coming off as little more than a standard-issue club song. “Hymn”, on the other hand, thanks to its beautifully honest and heartfelt lyrics, genuinely comes across as a message of hope and inclusion for the outcasts and rejects of society with whom Kesha identifies, and I could see it providing great comfort to a whole generation of adolescents who feel like they don’t belong.

Interestingly, this album focuses so much on relatively unconventional subject matter for Pop music that there are only two straightforward, conventional love songs on the entire record. That said, they’re damned good ones…the glowing “Finding You” and the smolderingly sexy “Boots”.

To counterbalance all this heavy seriousness, the album features a couple of splendid comic novelties. “Hunt You Down” is a warning to a newly committed lover, half love-song, half death threat (‘Baby, I love you so much…don’t make me kill you’). Even funnier is “Godzilla”…and yes, this song is literally about what it’s like to date Godzilla, as in the giant fire-breathing dinosaur from the movie franchise. Okay, it’s probably meant to be metaphorical on some level, but the humor comes from the sheer insanity of the chosen metaphor and the matter-of-fact manner in which it’s presented. The result is both hilarious and surprisingly adorable.

The album has as much variety in its musical influences as it does in tone. There are two outright Rock tracks, “Let ‘Em Talk” and “Boogie Feet” , both featuring the Eagles of Death Metal. (To clarify for those unfamiliar with that band, no, they are not a Death Metal act. Their name is a joke about their brand of moderately hard Boogie-Rock being about the midpoint between Seventies-era Soft Rock acts like the Eagles and a Death Metal band. It was at one of their concerts that the infamous Paris bombings of 2015 occurred, so they, too, are an act that also has some experience with tragedy, making them fitting partners for Kesha on this album).“Let ‘Em Talk”, which has a late-Nineties/early-2000s skater-punk vibe to it, is particularly irresistible in its high-flying, defiant cry of joy.

The album also draws quite a bit on Country influences…more authentic Country influences, in fact, than much of the actual Country genre has been known for in recent years. The aforementioned “Hunt You Down” sounds uncannily like a classic-era Johnny Cash song, while Kesha’s cover of Dolly Parton’s hit “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” (which, incidentally, Kesha’s own mother co-wrote) even features Parton herself as a guest vocalist…and frankly, for all her undeniable status as a music legend, this is probably the best album Parton has ever appeared on.

Really, the album’s true greatness rests not only on its sincerity, beauty and emotional power, but on its perfect sense of balance. In the space of just fourteen songs, the album manages to contain multitudes…a whole universe of sorrow, anger, joy, laughter, turmoil and inner peace, and all of these elements are served up in perfect proportion. Even the other albums I named at the top of this review simply can’t compete with this one in terms of its perfection of construction, which may well make it the best out of all of them.

The album closes with a deeply profound song about life, death and spirituality entitled “Spaceship”. Another song featuring a Country-influenced sound, it applies a science-fiction metaphor to the idea of an afterlife and transcending the human experience. Even the other masterpieces I mentioned at the top of this article didn’t close out on a note this truthful and moving, and as the song fades out with a beautifully written spoken monologue, you almost can’t believe how far Kesha has come from the girl who introduced herself to the world with the words “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy”.

As wonderful as the album’s songs are, I’m not really all that surprised that none of them except “Praying” had much luck on the radio, since Kesha curses a blue streak on almost all of them, sometimes to the point where it would be enormously difficult to censor. To her credit, the profanity never comes across as gratuitous…it just seems to arise naturally out of the album’s ultra-intense feelings…but it still limited the success of these songs as individual “hits”. Then again, I get the feeling that was almost deliberate…this is definitely an album meant to be consumed whole, rather than chopped up into individual “hits”.

And indeed, the album as a whole wound up getting enough recognition to make that aspect virtually irrelevant. Indeed, it wound up becoming the musical emblem of the budding #MeToo political movement…and regardless of whether you agree with everything that movement has done, an album that plays a major role in launching cultural movement that significant has achieved about the greatest measure of its importance that you could reasonably conceive.

Granted, the “hitless hit album” was something of a phenomenon of the times in the late 2000s (and indeed, still is to some extent)…after all, Lemonade only produced two real hits to speak of, and it was still widely hailed as the best album of 2016. And make no mistake…Rainbow is the best album of 2017, and given that that year also gave us Taylor Swift’s Reputation, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me, Ed Sheeran’s Divide, Lorde’s Melodrama, Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Jay-Z’s 4:44, SZA’s CTRL, Khalid’s American Teen, Logic’s Everybody, Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, Pink’s Beautiful Trauma, Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life, and Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life (and even that is only a partial list of the masterpieces released in that year), that is not a statement I make lightly.

“All the Right Reasons” by Nickelback

You know, I never really think I fully got the level of hatred this band received until I heard this album in full. Granted, I was already aware that between their sludgy, viscerally ugly musical sound, their songwriting that vacillates between insufferable whining angst and meatheaded party songs, their bizarre aptitude for writing some of the worst lyrics in all of popular music, and the fact that their lead singer sounds like he has a bad case of strep-throat, that they were musicians of an exceptionally poor quality. But I don’t think I ever understood why they were routinely touted as the Worst Band of All Time until I experienced the sheer concentrated horror that is this album. In reality, they are not the worst band of all time (that prize probably goes to Grindcore band Anal Cunt…at least Nickelback have never, to the best of my knowledge, written a song gloating about a child’s death), but the fact that they achieved the level of mainstream success that they did is still absolutely astounding in all the wrong ways.

You see, what is most fascinating (and horrifying) about this album is that it is in the surprisingly tiny category of albums that have sold over ten million copies (generally referred to as the Diamond certification, although due to the arbitrary regulations of the industry, only about two-thirds of those albums are officially certified as thus). There are other bad albums that have made the ‘Diamond’ category (Creed’s Human Clay and Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water come to mind, as does Eminem’s Encore), but nothing that even approaches this album in terms of sheer rock-bottom awfulness.

You see, this is not only Nickelback’s most successful album, but also their worst one. Even Nickelback’s other Diamond-selling album, their mainstream breakthrough Silver Side Up, might as well be a masterpiece compared to this atrocity. The same is true of their follow-up to that album, The Long Road…at that point they were in their larval stage of awfulness, not much more than just another whiny Post-Grunge sludge-rock band (believe me, there was no shortage of them at the time). Their follow-up to this album, Dark Horse, was arguably just as bad if not worse in terms of songwriting, but it also had legendary producer Mutt Lange doing his damnedest to make their music into something listenable. And their albums from the 2010s are frankly little more than Bro-Country without the twang, and they don’t even have the distinction of being the worst Bro-Country-esque albums released in that decade.

This album, on the other hand, almost defies description. For starters, it contains what are probably the two worst hit songs of the entire 2000s decade (a dubious prize that I probably don’t have to tell you posed some astronomical competition),”Photograph” and “If Everyone Cared”. The biggest problem with “Photograph” is its complete lack of a tune…Nickelback’s earlier songs may have been sludgy and unpleasant, but at least they had discernible melodies. Chad Kroeger’s voice also sounds about the worst it has ever sounded here, making the horrible music even more unlistenable. On top of that, the lyrics are, to be frank, incredibly stupid, a bunch of directionless minutiae that the singer apparently remembers fondly but never manages to make remotely interesting to the audience.

“If Everyone Cared” might be even worse. This song was the result of Nickelback’s attempt to write a revolutionary anthem of change without actually saying anything controversial, resulting in what may be the most nakedly insincere collection of empty platitudes in all of Rock. A four-minute song that says absolutely nothing is kind of a perverse achievement to begin with, but to try to pass off such a song as profound and inspirational is almost unthinkable. This is basically Nickelback’s version of “Imagine”, a comparison that says more about the band’s awfulness than even its most violent detractors could possibly come up with. “Photograph” is arguably more incompetent, but this song shows such an unutterable contempt for their own audience that it is actually offensive.

And the true horror of the situation is that neither of these are even close to being the worst songs on this album: the album’s first two tracks, the gratuitously unpleasant stalker song “Follow You Home” and the absolutely disgusting “Fight For All the Wrong Reasons” are far worse than any of the seven radio hits this album produced. (Yes, this album had seven singles, and all of them were apparently played heavily on Rock stations at the time. I just have to be thankful that I only listened to showtunes back when this band was at its peak).

Then, of course, there’s the soppy, overwrought ballad “Savin’ Me”. Now, Nickelback have an annoying habit of occasionally putting brief fragments of oddly arresting melody into songs that are, in every other respect, complete dumpster fires. On “Someday”, the single from their album prior to this one, it was in the pre-chorus (“Nothing’s wrong, just as long as you know that someday I will”). On “Savin’ Me”, it’s the second half of the chorus itself, about three seconds of striking melody which even Chad Kroeger’s singing can’t completely obscure. I suppose we should greet these occasional infinitesimal flashes of actual melody as a relief, but seeing them wasted on such terrible songs is so annoying that it’s almost worse than not having them there at all.

The rest of the album is filled out by “Animals” (probably the worst song ever written about statutory rape, and that‘s a prize no-one should want to win), “Far Away” (a generic ballad that would merely be boring if not for Kroeger’s intolerable vocals), and the dull, half-written album-filler tracks “Next Contestant” and “Someone That You’re With”. The one song on this album that people are most inclined to defend is “Side of a Bullet”, which was written about the murder of Dimebag Darrell, a member of the legendary Metal band Pantera. I’m sure the band had worthy intentions for writing it, but just because the subject is deep doesn’t mean the song is. It’s a cartoonish, absurdly melodramatic near-parody highly reminiscent of their attempt to write about domestic abuse a few albums back with “Never Again”, and it looks particularly bad given that the band Machine Head would release an infinitely better song about the same subject with “Aesthetics of Hate”.

And now we come to the album’s closing track and probably its biggest hit, “Rockstar”. To be honest, I will admit to having a tiny bit of a soft spot for this particular song. Maybe it’s only in comparison to the band’s other work that it starts to look good,  but for what it’s worth, this is still about the best song Nickelback ever recorded: if you go to well enough times (and God help us, they did), you’re eventually going to come up with something at least vaguely redeemable if only by sheer luck. I’d even go so far as to say that the level of hatred this song receives (Wikipedia includes it prominently on its sourced list of “Songs or music considered the worst”) probably boils down to its being the most recognizable hit by a widely reviled band more than the quality of the song itself.  Granted, the self-consciously retro-rock tune is only marginally better than their usual stuff, and we still have to deal with Chad Kroeger’s unpleasant rasp of a voice, but  the lyrics are surprisingly sharp and have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and eye for detail that makes them much more interesting than your typical catalogue of luxury cliches. And while closing out ten tracks of self-flagellating angst with a party song does do a lot to neutralize any perceived sincerity those songs might have had, it stills works better here than the same strategy worked on their last album with “See You At the Show”.

Still, even with one almost-okay track at the very end of the album, this is without question the absolute worst album to ever “Go Diamond”. I can’t imagine why any sane person would buy this, but I guess it’s not a surprise in at least one sense: Nickelback are definitely an album band. Indeed, their singles are virtually indistinguishable from their album tracks. I would even go so far as  to say that they maintain a more consistent level of quality across the board than almost any other band I know, and even if that level happens to be “rock-bottom terrible”, I suppose I can see why anyone weird enough to like this garbage would invest in a full album of it. I just wish I could pretend there weren’t over ten million of those people in the world.

“A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra” by Frank Sinatra

Christmas albums, while by definition built around a theme, do not necessarily qualify as Concept Albums, at least by general consensus. Indeed, the vast majority of Christmas albums are far too unambitious to be in consideration for such a lofty title, being at best minor entries in their creators’ catalogues and at worst blatantly calculated cash grabs with little or no effort put into them.

That said, during his tenure at Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra basically invented the Concept Album. Beyond merely having a general theme, his albums from this period were extremely carefully structured and modulated to create a very specific effect, and he applied this approach even to his Christmas album for the label. This was actually his second Christmas album (his third if you count the Christmas-themed singles compilation Columbia put out after he left the label), and he would make at least two more in his lifetime, but there’s a reason this is the one everybody remembers.

The album’s sound is old-fashioned even by the standards of its late-Fifties release date: it seems like a throwback to Sinatra’s Columbia days, particularly in the heavy use of backing choirs. But a little nostalgia seems quite appropriate for the subject, and it fits the mood the album is trying to create, so the result turns out to be the first of many good decisions Frank made regarding this record.

The first half of the album (which would have been the first “side” of the original vinyl release) features contemporary Christmas songs, while the second “side” is devoted to semiclassical Christmas hymns. Fortunately, only one of the endless stable of reprehensible Holiday Novelty songs is represented here (“Jingle Bells”, which opens the album): the rest are fairly respectable Great American Songbook standards, one of which (“Mistletoe and Holly”) was written specifically for this album, and has gone on the become a minor standard in its own right.

Moreover, this might be the only rendition of “Jingle Bells” that I have ever enjoyed. The primary reason for this is that Frank plays around pretty freely with the melody, turning it into a loose, carefree Swing tune, and the result is, if nothing else, far less annoying than the tooth-grindingly simplistic original tune that we all know and hate.

The first side mostly basks in genial, somewhat generic good cheer, as a kind of gradual warmup for the overall experience of the album. Things take a more substantial turn with a glowing rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Sinatra famously commissioned a change in the lyrics that has hung on as a persistent alternate version, replacing the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. This change has drawn complaints from many people over the years, but Frank knew what he was doing, and, at least for the purposes of this album, the new lyrics fits much better with the overall tone he was going for. It really shouldn’t have propagated to other renditions of the song, but for the original purpose it was written for, it works perfectly.

This more serious choice of song serves as a transition to the solemn ecstasy of the hymns that make up the album’s second side. It starts with a stately, almost regal rendition of “The First Noel” and a clarion-voiced “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Things become even more intensely beautiful with a serenely triumphant “Adeste Fideles”, before concluding with the sacred hush of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Silent Night”, the latter of which features what may be the most beautiful vocal performance I’ve ever heard Frank give. At this point in his life, Sinatra was by all accounts not very religious, but hearing these performances, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t spiritually touched by what he was singing.

The second half of this album is so magnificent that it almost makes you wish Sinatra had just made an album of Christmas hymns (there were certainly many more possibilities for him to choose from). That said, this album holds together so perfectly as an overall experience that I personally wouldn’t have had it any other way. This is almost certainly the greatest Christmas album ever recorded (even Bing Crosby and Nat “King” Cole’s efforts in the field would have trouble competing with it), so I felt that reviewing it would be a good way to honor the holiday at hand and offer a bit of good cheer and inspirational subject matter to my own readers. Merry Christmas.

“My Christmas” by Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli has gotten some flack for his attempt to bring Classical music into the pop market, but I consider him a positive force in the business and in culture in general. Most of the people who go after him are really trying on some level to keep Classical music a niche market so they can use it as a status symbol, so their opinions are suspect at best.

More than anything else, Bocelli reminds me of a singing Liberace…minus the flamboyant image, of course. But like Liberace, he repackages Classical music into a form that is easily digestible for the general public, and like Liberace he has received a great deal of undeserved scorn in spite of being, by all ordinary standards, an exceptionally gifted musician. And yes, Bocelli isn’t Pavarotti or Domingo, just as Liberace wasn’t Glenn Gould, but it hardly seems fair (or intellectually honest) to make that comparison when you remember that the vast majority of other legit opera singers aren’t remotely on the level of those giants either.

That said, there are times when Bocelli’s willingness to accommodate his mainstream audiences can get a bit excessive, and this album is arguably one of those times. Even many of his fans complained about his singing tired Christmas novelty standards in what seemed like an attempt to pander to the mainstream market, instead of seeking out more esoteric and interesting choices. Granted, this is generally the standard strategy followed by popular singers who record Christmas albums, but given the rich vein of Classical and Semiclassical Christmas music Bocelli had to draw on, the song selection should have been more interesting than it is here.

There are a fair number of legitimate classical hymns performed here, such as “Angels We Have Heard On High”, “Adestes Fideles”, and “Silent Night”, and they certainly show off Bocelli’s voice nicely, but even they seem a little too obvious…Bocelli should arguably have chosen more items like “Caru Geso Bambino”, a lovely Italian Christmas hymn not much known in the U.S., for this album, instead of going almost entirely with the overexposed Christmas chestnuts.

The lead single from this album, a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, isn’t the worst performance of this overexposed classic I’ve heard, but the switch from English to Italian mid-song seems gimmicky and distracting. And items like “Jingle Bells” (taken from the album’s accompanying TV special, where he performed it with the Muppets) or “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” are simply unworthy of Bocelli’s talent. To his credit, he tries to treat them with the respect he gives to the rest of his material, but this kind of material neither deserves nor rewards that kind of respect, so the results just sound like an oversung embarrassment.

On top of that, there are three duets here with singers from entirely different genres…a jazzy “The Christmas Song” with Natalie Cole, a heavily Pop-flavored “What Child Is This?” with Mary J. Blige, and a Country-style “Blue Christmas” with Reba McEntire…and none of them is entirely successful. Bocelli’s attempts to modulate his sound to fit these different genres just sound awkward and tentative, like even he knew this was a bad idea, and he pairs badly with Blige’s bluesy Soul contralto and McEntire’s Country twang.

But there are a few glorious moments that justify this album’s existence. “The Lord’s Prayer”, performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is magnificent, with Bocelli performing with incredible feeling and the legendary choir providing a suitably epic and weighty backdrop. This album also features the first studio recording of Bocelli singing “I Believe”, which he reportedly performed for the Pope at one point and which has become one of his signature items. And “God Bless Us Everyone”, the theme song from the 2009 film version of A Christmas Carol, is an absolutely amazing song that makes for a powerfully inspirational and gloriously satisfying album closer.

Overall, there are much better Bocelli recordings out there if you’re just starting to explore his work. This particular album tends to emphasize his worst habits, and he’s usually much more respectable than this. That said, this album does definitely have its moments, and while it doesn’t make for a very good first impression of Bocelli, it’s worth picking up somewhere along the way, if only just for “I Believe”, “God Bless Us Everyone”, and “The Lord’s Prayer”.

“Balance of Power” by The Electric Light Orchestra

This wound up being the last album by the original incarnation of one of the most popular bands of the Progressive Rock era, the Electric Light Orchestra, familiarly known as ‘ELO’. Now, ELO have their detractors in general, largely because they represented the same alternative to the more ‘legitimate’ Prog-Rock bands such as Pink Floyd and Yes that Duran Duran represented to New Order or Depeche Mode, or that Jewel represented to the likes of Tori Amos…the ‘safe’, accessible, commercialized version of what had originally been a fairly esoteric genre. That said, there is one important element to ELO’s relationship to its more ambitious counterparts that does not apply in the other cases I mentioned…Prog-Rock’s unfortunate tendency to, forgive my bluntless, disappear up its own ass in terms of over-elaborate concepts and excessive self-indulgence. ELO’S lack of pretention in many ways constituted an advantage over their peers, and their frontman and primary auteur, Jeff Lynne, not only had a real gift for writing catchy melodies but was perhaps the greatest music producer and arranger in the history of Rock.

However, as much as I am inclined to defend the band’s oeuvre as a whole, I did not really come to praise them with this particular review. Now, Balance of Power is not the band’s absolute worst effort…certainly not as bad as their appalling second album, which I’ve seen make appearances on “Worst Albums of All Time” lists. Indeed, all of their first three records, where they were trying to make Avant-Garde music and were mostly just making unpleasant noises, were quite a bit worse than this. But after a long string of successful albums that even at their weakest (e.g. the widely-mocked Discovery) were almost always significantly better than this, Balance of Power made for a distinctly sad and disappointing farewell to one of Prog-Rock’s most beloved bands.

The primary problem with this album is simple and pervasive—it is, quite simply, the most pathetic and trivial excuse for a ‘Breakdown Album’ ever put out by a well-known music act. Usually the great Breakdown Albums have real impetus behind them: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear were written in the wake of devastating romantic heartbreak, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band was written after the dissolution of an entire cultural movement, Michael Jackson’s HIStory came in the wake of Jackson’s first accusations of child abuse, etc.. This album, on the other hand, is basically song after song of Jeff Lynne whining that he doesn’t want to be saddled with the rest of the band anymore. I’m not saying this is an unreasonable grievances on a private level, but it doesn’t even come close to justifying the amount of melodrama slathered onto this album. Even The Who By Numbers wasn’t as solipsistic and self-pitying as this.

The album does at least boast a decent lead single, its only hit, “Calling America”. It isn’t really as compelling as many of the band’s earlier hits, even from their declining later period, but at least it has nothing to with the rest of the album’s dubious ‘Concept’. It tells a rather depressing story about a British man whose girlfriend moves to America and essentially dumps him by giving him a fake contact number, but it tells it in music catchy and forceful enough to make this the band’s last real hit single.

The only other really worthy item is the intriguing oddity “Endless Lies”. Originally an outtake from the original double-album format planned for their previous release, Secret Messages, they apparently liked it enough to salvage it here. Its distinctive sound instantly marks it as part of that earlier record and makes it sound quite out of place here, but as it was intended for another album, it too has no involvement with the weak concept on display in the rest of the songs.

Apart from those two songs, though, there’s not really much of interest here. “Getting to the Point” is at least a fairly pretty ballad, and the album’s second single, “So Serious”, is catchy, but its cheerfully inane music doesn’t seem to match its self-consciously worried lyrics. Now, lyrical dissonance (upbeat music matched to downbeat lyrics, or vice versa) can certainly be harnessed as a deliberate dramatic device for ironic effect, but when not done correctly it can seem to represent more of a complete disconnect between music and lyrics. This was actually one of ELO’s perennial problems even in their heyday, and this is one of the most severe cases of it.

Even worse, and possibly due to his endlessly-stated disinterest in continuing the band, Jeff Lynne just seems to have stopped trying here. Lynne is, as I said, a genius-level arranger, the man George Harrison himself used as his go-to production guy, but these songs are far less distinctive than not only the Orchestral Classical-Rock Fusion of the band’s early years, but even the ambitious Synth-Prog of their last two releases, Time and Secret Messages. For the most part, this album sounds like it could have been made by any run-of-the-mill, anonymous Synth-Pop band.

And please remember…the above-mentioned tracks are the good ones on this album. By contrast, “Sorrow About to Fall” is one of the most unconvincing attempts to summon dramatic force I’ve ever heard in a Rock song. Even more pathetic is “Without Someone”, which initially sounds like a sad love song but ultimately proves to be just more of Lynne’s whining about the band. The extremely simplistic, almost dada-ist “Is It Alright?” just comes off as bizarre, and the strange, ugly, almost Country-esque album closer “Send It” not only sounds absolutely awful, but makes almost offensively reductive use of “the dream is gone” rhetoric to overdramatize Jeff Lynne’s paltry artistic crisis.

I don’t mean to insult Jeff Lynne…lyrics were never really his strong point to begin with, and maybe if he could have better articulated his issues in words, the result would have seemed more sympathetic and better justified this album’s dramatic content. But as it is, it seems like a lot of bluster and self-dramatization over ultimately very little substance, and when you combine that with the mediocre music, the result comes off as a gigantic disappointment, especially given the band’s legacy. Balance of Power isn’t unlistenable, for the most part, which does put it ahead of the band’s first three albums, as I said before. But as a final swan song for a once-great band, it’s a pretty dismal way to end things. Of course, Jeff Lynne “reunited” ELO a couple of decades later (actually, he recruited a new backup band and gave it the same name, but since Lynne was the band’s central auteur to begin with, the result was more authentic than it sounds), and recorded a much better ‘final’ album by the band called Zoom. So perhaps that album should be regarded as their real last hurrah. Certainly, as with the question of whether Let It Be or Abby Road was the Beatles’ ‘real’ last album, one of the two possible answers is much more satisfying and comforting than the other, so in this ambiguous situation, I suppose we can all make our own choice about what was ELO’s ‘real’ final album…the frankly excellent Zoom, or the lukewarm disappointment on review here.

“Songs of Innocence” by U2 VS. “Lost in the Dream” by The War on Drugs

Six years ago, at the end of 2014, Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed U2’s Songs of Innocence the best album of that year. This seemed patently absurd to many people, given that the album’s only other significant claim to fame at that time was being used as part of a particularly unfortunate promotional campaign for Itunes. Apparently, it happened entirely because the Editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone was friends with U2 frontman Bono and handed down the edict by fiat because he wanted to help promote his buddy.

While I grant you that this is definitely not the way music criticism should work, that blatantly undeserved accolade combined with its involvement in that  asinine Itunes stunt has put this album squarely on the enemies’ list of many people who have never really listened to it. The truth is that this is actually a very good album, and that Rolling Stone could have chosen far worse candidates for its top prize that year.

U2 may have drawn heavily on New-Wave and Post-Punk influences, but in practice they were essentially a slightly-modernized version of a Seventies Arena Rock band. Now, Arena Rock tends to get laughed at these days because many of the major acts in the genre have not aged gracefully, but at its best it could be thrilling in its blasting dramatic intensity, and other than Springsteen, Queen and occasionally Meat Loaf, no-one ever did it better than U2. One objection many brought against this album is that it sounds too much like the work of their heyday, but it’s not like U2 have ever been accused of being stagnant. They have famously varied their sound a great deal, and quite successfully too: this just happens to be one of their albums that periodically return to their roots.

If this album doesn’t match the power and grandiosity of their greatest albums like The Joshua Tree, it nonetheless continues their consistent record for making melodic, stirring and intensely dramatic arena anthems. Indeed, the opening “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, an ode to the revelatory power of Punk Rock’s first appearance, could compete any day with the band’s classics, as could the album’s closer, the Lykke Li collaboration “The Troubles”. And items like the deeply moving “A Song For Someone” and the cry of cosmic anguish “Raised by Wolves” also rate as unknown gems in U2’s catalogue.

Not everything is on this level, but even the less interesting tracks are solid and well-crafted throughout. The album is also quite well-constructed, with the first half being rhapsodic and hopeful and the second half, ushered in by the appropriately-named explosive Rocker “Volcano”, being much more dark and aggressive, full of those anguished political threnodies that have always been the band’s trademark.

In any case, how much worse Rolling Stone could have chosen is illustrated by the album that, according to Metacritic, made the Number One slot on more publications’ year-end lists that year than any other…The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream. I normally have no significant quarrel with the music press’ proclivity for Indie Rock…I can think of many lauded Indie Rock albums of past years that fully deserve their acclaim. But with the recent trend of music critics becoming both more lenient with their criticisms and more effusive with their praise, some mediocre material, particularly in the Indie scene, has been rubber-stamped with acclaim out of all proportion to its quality.

I will admit that this band’s idea to combine Shoegazing with Heartland Rock is a novel one, but I’m not sure anyone actually needed or wanted it. More damningly, they fail to do anything remotely interesting with the concept. The album simply consists of placid, hazy buzzing with a vague hint of Roots Rock instrumentation that still fails to really distinguish it from any of the other 500 Dream-Pop bands making the rounds of the Indie scene.

The music isn’t lively enough to make you engage with its consciously, and it isn’t pretty enough to let you just drift away on the sound (which is the Dream Pop subgenre’s raison d’etre in the first place). This, combined with the sheer length of most of the tracks, makes for a tooth-grindingly boring album that is almost impossible to listen to all the way through in one sitting. There are plenty of better Dream Pop bands out there than this one (Beach House comes immediately to mind), and the success the album achieved with the critics is ultimately far more baffling than Rolling Stone’s choice that year.

So I think I’ve demonstrated that plenty of other publications chose much worse than Rolling Stone for their year-end best pick that year (I would have gone with the popular favorite, Taylor Swift’s 1989, but obviously the professional critics weren’t going to go for that, even if the public certainly seem to have picked it). I also think I have established that even U2’s most maligned album of their career is both valid and worth hearing. I won’t hold out hope that I’ve made any of the pro critics reconsider their practice of hyping up uninteresting Indie albums beyond any sane standards, but hey, I can’t work miracles.

Batman (the Prince Album) vs. Batman (the Jim Steinman Musical)

As far as I know (and when it comes to musicals and their ilk, I think my knowledge is reasonably extensive), there have been only two serious attempts made at a full-scale musicalization of the iconic comic book superhero Batman and his equally familiar cast of supporting characters. The first was a plotted Concept Album by Soul/Rock virtuoso Prince that was originally intended as a full-scale soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1989 film based on the franchise. Very little of the music heard on the album actually got used in the film, and the songs are rarely heard today because of licensing issues, but it did produce a Number One hit on the Billboard charts at the time (albeit with its weakest track, the nonsensical embarrassment “Batdance”). Still, like pretty much everything else Prince wrote in the Eighties, his Batman album is fantastic as music, and it follows the Burton film extremely closely, often to the point of its songs corresponding to specific scenes in the movie.

The second was a Broadway-bound Rock Musical that wound up as even less than a road-closer…an abortive composition that never even made it to an actual public stage. That said, it was announced for Broadway at one point, and it did get a recording, and an official one at that…like the rest of composer Jim Steinman’s demos, it was not a bootleg item, but an authorized release by the man himself on his own website. Based on these demos, we can infer that this musical was also heavily drawn from Burton’s film franchise, although it resembles more a combination of the first two Burton films, with the character of Catwoman brought in as a tragic love interest for the hero.

Of course, comic book fans saw the idea as absurd, with one of the animated Batman television series even mocking it openly in-show; but the writers of that parody seem to have an idea of what a musical is that stopped around 1955. The truth is, judging from the demos, Steinman’s show was not the utter catastrophe that legend has made it out to be. Many people have wondered how anyone could possibly sign off on such a project, but I honestly think the general consensus was, “If anyone can do a Batman musical, Jim Steinman can”. And indeed, Steinman’s score, or at least the portions he completed, has quite a bit to be said for it. Steinman’s dark, melodramatic, over-the-top composing style is about the most convincing match for the tone of the material they were likely to find. Moreover, he seemed to have a genuine feel for these archetypical characters, doing a surprisingly suitable job of establishing and capturing them in song.

Granted, there are times when Prince’s slicker, more stylized approach serves the material better. The first track on Prince’s album, “The Future”, actually establishes Batman’s motivations much more effectively than the more straightforward “Graveyard Shift” on Steinman’s demo. The latter, while correct in terms of dramatic content, comes across as rather earthbound, cribbing lines from other Steinman songs while struggling to express sentiments that don’t really lend themselves to being sung. Prince’s more abstract, laconic take on the character’s credo comes off as far less heavy-handed, as well as sounding significantly more like something a character as charismatic and formidable as Batman would actually say.

And while it isn’t as bad as “Batdance”, the Steinman version also has one outright embarrassing song, the sappy ballad “Not Allowed to Love”. This song would work much better when it was used in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical nearly a decade later, but its extremely sentimental lyrics just don’t sound right coming out of the mouths of Batman and Catwoman. Prince’s serenely gorgeous “The Arms of Orion”, on the other hand, makes for an infinitely better central love duet.

However, Steinman’s opening “Gotham City” sequence, including fragments of the songs “Angels Arise” (later incorporated into the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires) and “Cry to Heaven”, is a marvelously atmospheric opening. And “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” (later included on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell III album) is a suitably terrifying villain song, even if the version on the Batman demos does feel a little bit like a first draft. These songs draw the entire city into the story, which is fitting given that Gotham City is practically a character in itself in both the comics and especially the Burton films. Prince’s songs tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual leads, at the expense of the atmosphere and social background.

Also, on Prince’s album, Vicki Vale’s only musical expression beyond her duet with Batman in “The Arms of Orion” is “Lemon Crush”, which has a typically great Prince beat but sounds more like a generic sex jam of the kind Prince was infamous for than any kind of actual character song. Meanwhile, Steinman’s Catwoman is treated as the full equal to Batman and The Joker with an equally intense establishing number to set up her motivations. “I Need All the Love I Can Get”, a reworking of the Steinman-penned Sisters Of Mercy hit “More”, is a fine Rock ballad, with a particularly ravishing introductory section where the singer weighs the concepts of life and death against each other.

In addition, the songs used by Prince to represent the Joker, while they may be better as pure music, do not approach the creativity of Steinman’s “Wonderful Toys”, a gloriously insane piece of violent randomness that is the perfect character number for an embodiment of destructive chaos like the Joker. While Prince’s “Partyman”, “Electric Chair” and “Trust” do strike a reasonably appropriate note of mingled cheerfulness and menace, all of them are far too conventional and “normal” for a character whose defining trait is his utter insanity.

Also, as an “Eleven-O’Clock” love ballad, Prince’s “Scandalous”, ravishing as it is, doesn’t approach the emotional impact or thematic appropriateness of the planned climactic number of Steinman’s show, “We’re Still the Children We Once Were”. While not exactly subtle in its emotionalism even by Jim Steinman standards, it nonetheless provokes a devastating emotional response, and its evocation of primal childhood fears seems appropriate for the story of Batman, a man who lost his parents when he was eight years old and never managed to move on from it.

It’s also worth remembering that Prince’s album was very specifically based on a film version, and throughout, it retains a distinctly cinematic ambiance. The songs on Steinman’s demos sound far more like they were actually based on a comic book…not only more so than Prince’s album, but also far more so than such other comic book musicals as It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

On the whole, Prince’s album is admittedly far more cohesive and effective as a composition than Steinman’s demo material…but then again, it is also an actual finished product, and the musical might have come much closer to that level of effectiveness had it actually been completed. Even so, the material in the demos, while still clearly flawed, demonstrates that there was more potential in the project than most people gave it credit for, and if Steinman and his collaborators hadn’t gotten discouraged by the negativity and given up the project, they might, just possibly, have found a way to make it work on stage.

“Cosmo’s Factory” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

This was the last of Rock giants Creedence Clearwater Revival’s four top-level masterpieces, and it certainly produced more hit songs than the other three combined. But somehow, the album is the first since their debut to seem like less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it was their more singles-oriented approach this time around…Creedence usually put some effort into creating coherent albums, but here they just took their last six singles and B-sides and crammed them onto a disc with four covers and only one additional original song.

Maybe it was the greater proportion of covers that kept the album from really establishing it own identity…after all, none of their mature albums had featured so many of them. While Creedence was certainly exceptionally good at putting their own stamp on other people’s songs, this album’s high proportion of other people’s material serves to dilute Creedence’s normally unmistakable trademark style. For example, while Creedence had released outright Blues songs before this (such as “Penthouse Pauper”), those usually had more creative and distinctive lyrics than Ellas McDaniel’s “Before You Accuse Me”, which, for all its musical merits, uses the same generic topics and vernacular as virtually every other Blues standard out there.

Or maybe it was the amount of time spent on the extended jam sessions of “Ramble Tamble” and the cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”…Creedence actually turned out to be a damned fine jam band, but these two songs (which add up to a full eighteen minutes, nearly half the album’s running time) took up time that could have been devoted to more substantial content.

Or maybe it was that their more generic songwriting approach…apart from the magically imaginative “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, the songs, fine as they are, rely more on familiar clichés than Creedence’s earlier stuff. Certainly, “Travelin’ Band”, as much fun as it undeniably is, isn’t going to win any awards for its creativity, and the inspirational “Up Around the Bend” doesn’t do anything particularly new with its time-honored ‘Excelsior’ metaphor.

But whatever the reason, all these factors seem to add up to an “album” that is exactly what Creedence had been unfairly accused of making on their last three records…a random collection of individual songs with little to no real cohesion. True, the sequencing is capable—“Ramble Tamble” makes for an exceptionally striking opener, and they were smart enough to put another original after the “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” jam session as a coda—but after the band’s last three albums, it came as something of a mild disappointment.

Despite all this, the album still qualifies as a Rock masterpiece because the songs themselves are nearly all wonderful. For all their lapses in creativity, this might just be the catchiest collection of songs Creedence ever released…it’s basically one big concentration of flat-out hit singles, a kind of Greatest Hits album made out of original material. There’s a reason the band’s Diamond-certified compilation album Chronicle drew more than twice as many songs from this record than from any of their other albums.

 Still, it shows the first hints of the problems that would wind up being the band’s downfall on their next two albums. Like Sinatra’s Nice ‘N’ Easy, this is a record that clearly points to the end of a classic run of great albums even as it largely continues their quality. Still, it has to be treasured as the last truly great album that Creedence would produce, either as a group or in their primary contributor John Fogarty’s solo career, and in spite of any minor lapses in cohesion, that certainly gives it a special place in the pantheon of great Classic Rock albums.

“Beautiful Trauma” by Pink

This album marked a major turning point in Pink’s output, because it was here that she officially transformed into an Adult Contemporary singer. By all ordinary standards, this is a very good album…it’s immensely touching, full of memorable melodies, and Pink’s voice is actually better suited to this kind of music than to the Pop-Rock material she previously sang. The only context in which this qualifies as a disappointment is in terms of Pink’s career.

For some reason I can’t fathom, certain online critics have taken heavy issue with the album she released before this, 2012’s The Truth About Love, but it pretty much sounded like her usual material up to that point. Even the much-maligned single that she wrote for the Alice Through the Looking Glass soundtrack between the two albums, “Just Like Fire”, still maintained the sound and tone that had made her famous. But with this album, she transformed from a ferocious Pop-Rock spitfire to a Punk-tinged Celine Dion with better lyrics.

For one thing, apart from the fairly lightweight novelty duet with Eminem, “Revenge”, the album is nearly all ballads, with nothing remotely approaching the heaviness of “So What” or “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”. But of course Pink has released any number of sad ballads before, from “Just Like a Pill” on her breakthrough release Missundaztood in 2002 to “Just Give Me a Reason” in 2013. What makes these ballads different is that before this, even on her saddest songs Pink never lost her air of defiance. The overall feel of this album is one of resignation, an emotion we all honestly never thought we’d see from Pink. It’s like after all these years, the fight just suddenly went out of her.

The only songs that even attempt a defiant tone are the album’s two political tracks, “What About Us?” and “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”. I have defended these songs from critics who have found them too abstract in comparison to the more bluntly topical, Ani DiFranco-esque political song Pink released during the Bush administration, “Dear Mr. President”. I actually think these songs’ more poetic, Dylan-esque approach serves them better, not least because they will remain relevant to future conflicts in years to come while “Dear Mr. President” is already an irrelevant cultural relic even today.

But as much as I admire both these songs, I have to admit that neither of them really succeeds in striking the defiant note they seem to be searching for. “What About Us?” sounds like a dirge, an expression of despairing mourning for an entire nation of innocents. “Wild Hearts”, on the other hand, is more quixotic than defiant, a song that clearly believes there is no hope but is determined to go down fighting anyway. To be honest, I think the political situation she writes about is in large part responsible for her drastic change in style: I have no idea if her marriage is actually turbulent enough to provide the inspiration the dysfunctional relationship ballads heard on this album (for her sake, I certainly hope it isn’t), but I think she took the outcome of the 2016 presidential election really hard.

Whatever the reason, this album still qualifies as another great Pop album released in 2017—certainly far more interesting than its lukewarm 2019 follow-up, Hurts 2 Be Human. Apart from the two political songs, everything on the album may sound pretty much the same, but the melodies, the vocals and above all the deep and resonant sense of sorrow that pervades this album make it an extremely effective listening experience nonetheless. Still, it started Pink down a road that few thought was really right for her, and her work in the aftermath of that change seems to be bearing that assessment out.

“Pendulum” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival made four of the greatest albums in Rock history (Bayou Country, Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys, and Cosmo’s Factory), but they also made three albums that were at least comparative failures. In the case of their self-titled debut, this can be chalked up to artistic immaturity (frankly, underwhelming as it is in retrospect, it is certainly far from the worst debut album ever released by a great band). In the case of their seventh and last album, Mardi Gras, it can be attributed primarily to the supporting members of the band, who were really little more than frontman John Fogarty’s backing combo, being allowed to write and sing their own songs, which they turned out to be spectacularly unqualified to do.

Fogarty always tries to shift the responsibility for the band’s downfall to that album, presumably because he can reasonably blame someone else for its problems. But their album immediately prior to that fiasco, Pendulum, which probably did a lot to prompt the internal rebellion that led to Mardi Gras, can only be blamed on Fogarty himself, who apparently got bored with the formula that had made him a Rock legend and started experimenting with other sounds in the most misguided way possible.

All right, that might be a little bit of an exaggeration. This isn’t a terrible album…certainly nowhere near as bad as Mardi Gras (although that said, even Mardi Gras produced two songs that qualify as Creedence classics, the scorching “Sweet Hitchhiker” and the heartbreaking “Someday Never Comes”, whereas this album only managed to produce one, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”).

But coming from a band this brilliant, it was a massive step downward in quality from their last four releases, and it served as a visible turning point for Fogarty, who would never again recapture the heights of the earlier Creedence albums, either with the band or in his solo career. Even Centerfield, by common consensus the best of his solo album releases, doesn’t approach the level of the “peak four” of his Creedence years (though it is significantly better than the album under survey here).

This album is often described as the most “sonically adventurous” Creedence album, but that’s really just a euphemism for “the one that sounds least like a Creedence album”. The opening track, “Pagan Baby”, is the only thing here that sounds like Creedence’s normal sound, and even it is significantly less memorable than any of their songs since their self-titled album. A few of the songs resemble a kind of Soft Rock variant on the traditional Creedence “Swamp-Rock”, particularly “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, “(Wish I Could) Hideaway”, and “It’s Just a Thought”. This style actually works on the album’s one enduring classic, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, just because the songwriting is so strong. But elsewhere, it just feels like a weak diet substitute for “real” Creedence.

On the rest of the album, Creedence seem to be randomly pinging between every other subgenre of Rock at the time but their own. This is particularly ironic given that this is the only Creedence album that contains no covers…all these songs are by John Fogarty, but most of them seem to be Fogarty trying to sound like other people. For example, he attempts a Funk groove on “Born to Move” and a psychedelic sound on the closing instrumental “Rude Awakening #2” (neither very well, I might add).

Elsewhere, “Sailor’s Lament” seems to be trying to imitate American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, “Chameleon” emulates the horn-driven Jazz-Rock sound of Chicago, “Hey Tonight” has the jangly chime of a Byrds song, and “Molina” sounds like something someone like Buddy Holly might have recorded in the 1950s. But none of these sounds are executed as well as the bands that pioneered them (particularly “Sailor’s Lament”, which is the most embarrassing item heard on a Creedence album prior to Mardi Gras).

On top of that, this array of incompatible styles sabotages the album’s ability to function as a cohesive whole. It’s worth noting that Creedence’s four masterpieces (except perhaps the more singles-oriented Cosmo’s Factory) all hold together beautifully as cohesive, unified albums, while their lesser records are merely random collections of songs that happen to be grouped on a single disc. That’s definitely the case here…virtually none of the songs sound like they belong to the same band, let alone on the same album.

As I said above, this isn’t a disaster by any means…just a sad signpost of John Fogarty’s gradual decline after an amazing peak. But it hasn’t aged well…indeed, of all Creedence’s albums, this may be the one that has suffered the most with the passage of time: Mardi Gras was just as bad when it was released as it is now, but compared with the oddly timeless, Folksong-like quality of earlier Creedence, this album has come to look worse and worse as many of the styles it “experimented” with have fallen painfully out of fashion.

But beyond all that, it’s ultimately just an incompatible hodge-podge of mostly not-very-interesting songs, and despite Fogarty’s own insistence on classifying both this album and the self-titled debut in the same category as the “peak four”, that assessment should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.