A few days ago, my colleague Matt Rice wrote an article on the 10 Times Bob Dylan Pissed Everyone Off. Dylan’s career is full of left turns that bewildered fans, but other artists have thrown similar curveballs in their career. Some released atypical albums, whiles others seemingly compromised their own morals. This article focuses on individual albums, as to keep it short. Rock & roll is full of oddities and artists pushing the envelope, and to cover all of them would be exhaustive and exhausting.
1. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins was recorded in a single night in mid-1968, as the couple were beginning their affair and Lennon’s wife Cynthia was away on holiday. Despite it being Lennon’s first album outside the Beatles, the avant garde nature of the record should have made it a commercial non-entity if not for its controversial cover featuring the couple in the nude. Record stores refused to carry the album, and some of those that did saw their stocks seized by the police. The record became a major press firestorm, and those that bought the record out of curiosity would have found two sides of soundscapes and tape loops not dissimilar to The White Album‘s “Revolution No. 9.” The album actually managed to squeak onto the American charts, almost entirely because of the controversy surrounding the cover and the building public fascination with Lennon and Ono’s relationship.
2. Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music (1975)
In 1975, Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music, four sides of droning guitar feedback that James Wolcott of Rolling Stone famously called “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator.” It’s completely unlistenable, and ended a stretch of commercial and critical success for the artist.
It’s widely believed that MMM was released to complete his contract with RCA Records, who were pressuring him to record a quick followup to Sally Can’t Dance. Although its now considered a landmark of noise and art music, it’s probably the least commercial recording ever released by a mainstream act. That it managed to sell 100,000 copies is nothing short of baffling.
3. Neil Young, Trans (1982)
In 1982, Neil Young signed to Geffen Records. He was promised total creative control over his music and used that promise to record a series of albums that were unlike anything else in his catalog. His debut for the label was Trans, a fascinatingly strange new wave album full of vocoder and synthesizer.
Although unusual for Young, the album’s use of electronics actually stem from his therapy sessions and attempts to communicate with his son Ben, who had cerebral palsy. Trans has become infamous as a complete 180 from Young’s earlier work and confused critics and fans at the time of its release. In the years since its release, it has gained a reputation in some circles as a underrated gem, particularly tracks like “Sample and Hold” and “Like an Inca.”
Time hasn’t been as kind to Young’s other two infamous Geffen releases, the rockabilly throwaway Everybody’s Rockin’ and the country release Old Ways. Infamously, Geffen sued Young for the trilogy, and claimed he was releasing intentionally uncommercial and unrepresentative music. By 1988, Young had returned to his old label Reprise, and began recording a string of well selling, and considerably more characteristic, rock albums.
4. Bad Religion, Into the Unknown (1983)
For their follow-up to their debut album How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, So-Cal punk group Bad Religion completely changed their sound, added synthesizers and briefly entered the world of Genesis and Emerson Lake & Palmer. Infamously, two members quit during recording as they were disatisified with the band’s sudden new direction.
News about the change in style spread around the punk scene before the album was even released. When word got out that the band would be bringing synths on stage, fans stayed away from their concerts. The resulting record, Into the Unknown, flopped upon its 1983 release. Although it initially did not sell, the 10,000 copies that Epitaph Records had pressed were quickly sold out of a warehouse without the band’s knowledge. The failure of the album and the alienation of their fanbase caused Bad Religion to split in late 1983. The band reunited in 1985, but would not put out a third album until 1988’s Suffer.
Despite the band’s subsequent mainstream success and critical interest in the album, it hasn’t been reissued on CD or digitally. It is currently only available in the 30 Years of Bad Religion vinyl box set.
5. Dexys Midnight Runners, Don’t Stand Me Down (1985)
Dexys Midnight Runners waited four years to follow up their international hit album Too Rye Ay, and did so with an expansive collection of blue-eyed soul. The band was cut down the trio of leader Kevin Rowland, guitarist Billy Adams and violinist Helen O’Hara, and were augmented by session musicians.
The record was full of long story songs and contained no clear single; Rowland refused to release one anyway. The album tanked and obliterated Dexys’ career. It’s unfortunate, because Don’t Stand Me Down is one of the finest records of 1985, and is easily Rowland’s artistic masterpiece. When a single was finally released, the label chopped the 12 minute “This is What She’s Like” down to three-and-change, cutting out much of the exposition that explains just exactly what the subject is like. The band disintegrated shortly after its release and did not put out another record until 2012’s superb One Day I’m Going to Soar.
6. Jawbreaker, Dear You (1995)
To say the underground was bewildered when the influential punk trio Jawbreaker signed a million dollar contract with Geffen Records in 1994 is an understatement. The band’s rabid fanbase believed such a move was against everything they stood for. In private though, the band was close to breaking up, and felt moving to a larger label and gaining more exposure would be the only way they could survive.
When their major label debut Dear You was released the next year, their outraged fans refused to touch it, and they felt especially betrayed by the record’s slick production and tighter songs. Left without their devoted following and facing middling sales, the band broke up less than a year later. Despite the controversy, Dear You is a solid mid-90s punk outing, and has seen a deserved critical re-appraisal after the backlash receded.
7. Pat Boone, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy (1997)
In 1997, pop singer Pat Boone recorded In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, an album of metal covers done in a big band style. It is a novelty at best and cheesy at worst. Despite featuring token guest appearances by Ronnie James Dio and Ritchie Blackmore, its nowhere close to being metal, let alone threatening.
It would have been summarily forgotten if Boone hadn’t appeared in a black leather get-up at that year’s American Music Awards. The irony of the outfit was lost on some of Boone’s Christian conservative fanbase, and the album’s content similarly proved controversial. Apparently, Boone nearly lost his job hosting a program on a Christian television network before appearing on a special broadcast to basically explain how parody works. All for an album with bland lounge covers of Deep Purple songs.
8. Garth Brooks, In the Life of Chris Gaines: Greatest Hits (1999)
The whole Chris Gaines thing is one of my favorite pop culture talking points, because it’s one of the most absurd events in rock history because and the general public has basically forgotten it ever happened. The gist is that Garth Brooks, one of the most successful artists of all time, decided that he wanted to be someone else: an imaginary soul-patched Australian rock star with a passing resemblance to Severus Snape.
The Chris Gaines character was created for The Lamb, a film which was never produced following the failure of the record. The back story for the character had been fleshed out through promotional material, liner notes and a ludicrous Behind the Music special that i’m overjoyed someone uploaded to YouTube (seriously, go watch all four parts of that as soon as you’re done reading this).
There was a lot of publicity for Garth Brooks in the Life of Chris Gaines: Greatest Hits in the build up to its September 1999 release, including an appearance on Saturday Night Live and an NBC primetime special. However, it only sold two million copies at a time when those numbers were considered to be a major disappointment for an artist of Brooks’ caliber (oh, 1999).
Perhaps due to morbid curiosity, the album’s lead single “Lost in You” became Brooks’ only(?!) top 40 appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 (it reached all the way to number five!). The song is a terminally boring piece of artificial soul, and it’s no wonder that it’s probably one of the least remembered singles to ever crack the Top 10.
After the Gaines debacle humbled him, Brooks only released one more album before disappearing for the better part of a decade.
9. Liz Phair, Liz Phair (2003)
Unlike the Jawbreaker example above, Liz Phair had already been signed to a major label when she put out her self-titled album in 2003. Capitol Records was underwhelmed by the performance of Phair’s 1998 release whitechocolatespaceegg and encouraged her to go in a more mainstream direction.
Co-produced by pop hitmakers The Matrix, known for their work with Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne, the album is sounds incredibly glossy and the songs atypical for the artist that recorded the polemic Exile in Guyville.
The album was a relative success, and its slick single “Why Can’t I?” made the Top 40, but it made Phair a pariah in indie rock circles and especially with critics. Infamously, Matt LeMay of Pitchfork gave Liz Phair a 0.0, a score that put it on par with things like Kiss’ Music from the Elder. Phair’s previously sterling critical reputation was tarnished and her next album, Somebody’s Miracle, barely registered a blip on the radar.
10. MGMT, Congratulations (2010)
MGMT’s debut album Oracular Spectacular was an across the board smash. However, if its bizarre followup Congratulations is any indicator, it seems that MGMT were not comfortable with their stardom and disliked the fanbase they had attracted.
After the success of their debut, MGMT would have been poised to make a major pop breakthrough with their second album, but instead retreated into psychedelic strangeness, often channeling late-period Flaming Lips. The first single “Flash Delirium” shared little in common with anything on Oracular, and was basically radio-proof with its constant style shifts and lack of chorus.
Congratulations was released to mixed-to-positive reviews, and despite peaking higher than Oracular on the Billboard 200, it fell out of the chart quickly. Likewise, none of its singles charted, even on the alternative charts. When the group returned with their third album in 2013, they had effectively turned into a niche psych-pop act as opposed to one of the most popular indie groups going, and they seem to be perfectly fine with that.