Try as they might, it still happens to the best of 'em.
As much as we want every artist we love to be a constant source of the best music ever, sometimes there are experiments, overreaches and phoned-in efforts that leave listeners out in the cold. For every "Blonde," there's an "Endless." For every "Damn the Torpedoes," there's "The Last DJ." For every "American Idiot," there are three records called "Uno!," "Dos!" and "Tres!" Yet despite these pitfalls, we still forgive them — at least we usually do.
As much as we love the artists listed, no one is perfect, which is why it's time to go through some truly terrible albums from some truly great musicians.
When Kanye West dropped "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" near the end of 2010, it solidified his status as one of the greatest rapper/producers of all time. Declared a classic the second it dropped, this "Fantasy" was immediately dissected and critically fawned over while shoving nearly every act associated with it (Bon Iver, Nicki Minaj, etc.) into the mainstream. Since then West's bold vision let him experiment and push his sonic further, slowly spending his artistic capital on an ever-dwindling fan base. Yet even with his increasingly erratic political views and frighteningly uniformed public statements, people were still excited for his long-rumored gospel album — until they heard it. Despite some dynamic production choices, the poorly-thought-out metaphors about Chick-fil-A and lines about the IRS taxing him so much he has to raise the price of his merchandise sound utterly discordant with his new spiritual message. And while some were able to "put up" with West's antics 'cos the music was at least redeemable, the bottom dropped out on "Jesus is King," and his Sunday Service Choir's follow-up record tanked in the charts.
We love OutKast and always will, but following the Grammy-winning success of the duo's double-solo-album, "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," the great André 3000 seemed less interested with music, turning his focus instead toward Hollywood. For the OutKast film project "Idlewild," their go-to music video director, Bryan Barber, directed the group in a Depression-era gangster tale that incorporated several songs from the "Speakerboxxx" era. Unfortunately, the film and its soundtrack album were wildly disappointing, only highlighting the fracture in the boys' chemistry. While Big Boi absolutely shows up both on-screen and during his songs here ("The Train" is a low-key masterpiece he'd later revisit on his first true solo set), André is all over the place, doing acoustic blues-pop one moment and shoulda-been-brilliant Cab Calloway throwbacks the next. It's a disparate, unfocused effort that unfortunately served as the swan song to a career that is otherwise spats-to-hats brilliant.
Prior to her becoming an Oscar-winning songwriter, Lady Gaga took the success from her massive album, "Born This Way," and went even further down her navel to give us a bizarre mix of pop confetti and otherworldly influences, leading to an album that is championed by some but largely dismissed by music fans as a whole. From inappropriate R. Kelly duets (which have since been removed from all editions) to stilted ballads ("Dope") to arguably the worst song she's ever recorded (the regrettable rap collaboration "Jewels N Drugs"), the "Artpop" era of Gaga led to her shedding a lot of her fan base, even though the deliriously obtuse "Applause" nonetheless became a top five hit. It was an indulgent mess that soon led to her course-correcting with a 2014 Tony Bennett duets album and then the more country-fied effort, "Joanne," in 2016.
"Self Portrait" is arguably the single most misunderstood album of Dylan's career — but that doesn't make it good. Following yet another masterpiece in the form of 1969's "Nashville Skyline," the rush-released "Self Portrait" was, in effect, a way to beat the bootleggers and get a hodgepodge of songs in the record stores. Per numerous interviews around the time, Dylan himself acknowledges that this isn't a good release, as the grab-bag of straight-face numbers and winking in-jokes left the whole set sounding meandering and directionless. The album did get redeemed somewhat with a 2013 Bootleg Series official release which unearthed even more songs from the vault and provided a cohesion and clarity to the era that had even hardcore Dylanites reconsidering this bizarre dumping ground of odds and sods.
The problem with "Yellow Submarine" — as an album, as a movie and as a project in general — is just how little The Beatles themselves were involved in it. Contractually obligated to provide some new songs for it ("Hey Bulldog" being one of the best among them), the band members didn't even lend out their own voices for the film proper, which is why this soundtrack — half a Beatles EP, the other half George Martin's symphonic score — feels so beneath the quality that Beatles albums are usually held to. Disconnected from the film itself, Martin's score doesn't entirely work as a through-and-through music experience, and as much as we lionize and analyze every moment of The Beatles' recorded history, "Yellow Submarine" truly felt like the first album from the Fab Four that could be categorized as "inessential."
Sure, it's easy for Radiohead purists to dunk on the band's 2003 effort, "The King of Limbs," as being its most disappointing effort following a nearly untethered run of game-changing rock records, but if we're being honest here, "Pablo Honey" still sounds like the work of a completely different band. Yes, "Creep" is the song that launched Radiohead into the mainstream and remains a generational classic to this day, but the rest of the band's 1993 debut is, to put it lightly, rough. There are jokey songs about self-gratification ("Thinking About You"), entries in the Britpop sweepstakes ("Anyone Can Play Guitar") and the types of songs that sound like they were recorded by a new band making a debut album ("Stop Whispering"). Heck, a non-album single from this era was a bouncy little number called "Pop Is Dead," which tells you everything you need to know about the band's mindset. Who would've guessed that that same group that made this forgettable album would go on to become one of the most acclaimed rock acts of all time? (Also, for what it's worth, closer "Blow Out" kinda rips.)
On paper, this isn't the worst idea. After all, Lou Reed is one of the most influential songwriters in the history of rock music, and Metallica is freakin' Metallica. Yet as soon as fans tuned in to this imposing effort, they knew something was amiss. Reed's grating, spoken-word vocals over Metallica's astoundingly muted, ridiculously-basic riffing is nothing short of an audio train wreck the likes of which we've never heard. Even for Metallica — a band that went alternative in the '90s and alienated the hardcores and then went gritty with "St. Anger" and alienated the casual faithfuls — this marked the undisputed low point. If this was a one-and-done EP, that'd be one thing, but as a double-disc CD with some songs stretching over 11 minutes (and almost-orchestral closer "Junior Dad" coming just short of 20), it is a wild miss of a record that nonetheless remains an incredible pop curiosity. No, this isn't just a "bad album" from a great artist — it may very well go down as the worst album ever made.
This one stings. To their credit, following the massive success of their increasingly influential disco-dance masterpiece "Discovery" from 2001, the French duo that is Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo decided to keep things minimal, working with tight timeframes and only a pair of guitars, a pair of drum machines, and a single eight-track recorder. Limitations sometimes breed creativity — forcing an artist to make artistic decisions on a deadline — but with "Human After All," all it did was make Daft Punk boring. While their songs are unabashedly repetitious, prior records revealed just how good they were at adding slight sonic details and differences with each loop, creating songs that were propulsive but didn't overstay their welcome. With "Human After All," everything feels like it's repeating itself, with lead single "Robot Rock" being the worst offender. Boring and bland in a way its other albums are not, the duo has admitted that this wasn't its finest hour by any stretch of the digital imaginations. There's one genuine takeaway, however: "Technologic" is one of the duo's all-time best singles, the only diamond to be found in this pile of techno-coal.
Madonna's career operates in one of two modes: She's either trying to set a new trend or she's following them. When she went full-electronica for 1998's "Ray of Light" and Eurodisco for 2005's "Confessions on a Dance Floor," she sounded completely ahead of her time. For 1994's "Bedtime Stories" and 2008's "Hard Candy," she was very much angling for some easy radio hits. And with 2012's "MDNA," the Queen of Pop succumbed to the monster that is EDM, releasing an album full of bland Xerox'd copies of the David Guetta sound that led to career low-lights like "Gang Bang" and "Some Girls." Worse than chasing trends, the vapid, forgettable "MDNA" had Madonna sounding absolutely out of touch with the current pop moment. Her albums since have been of mixed quality but thankfully were nowhere near the artistic nadir that "MDNA" was.
For a group like The Flaming Lips, every new album is a sonic surprise, as the Oklahoma masters of psychedelic weirdness can veer from gooey oddball radio fluff to speaker-breaking in-the-red riffage depending on their mood. With "Oczy Mlody" (their 14th studio album), however, the bottom drops out. Tethered to no emotional center to speak of, singer Wayne Coyne's riffs on witches and wizards and unicorns feels aimless amid increasingly un-interesting music where synths and the rhythm section feel increasingly out of sync with each other. While we admire The Flaming Lips for sticking to their guns and continuing to do format- and genre-breaking experiments, it is of no surprise that their worst listening experience is on an album that doesn't even spell "melody" correctly.
We should have seen this coming. After all, Lil' Wayne, one of the greatest rappers of his generation, clearly wanted to challenge himself after ascending to the top of the game, slowly sneaking in guitar solos to hits like "Lollipop" because — well, he can. Convinced he could do anything and everything, he decided to put out a rap-rock album that ended up being more rock than rap, ultimately spending virtually all of his artistic capital on a project that ended up marking the start of his commercial and critical downfall. Overly reliant on obvious AutoTune, bland bonehead numbers like the drab "Prom Queen," the horrid trap fusion number "On Fire" and the dreadful pop-punk Nicki Minaj feature "Knockout" (all released as singles, no less) showed that as excited as Wayne was about mixing amplifiers with his mixtape braggadocio, this match was as ill-fitting as everyone thought it was going to be, proving not only to be one of the worst albums of his career but also one of the worst "rap" albums ever made.
While Michael Jackson was a singular entity in the pop music canon, so much of his success can be contributed to his working relationship with producer Quincy Jones, who embellished all of Jackson's ideas with a level of studio polish that has endured decades down the line. For Jackson's oft-delayed and much-maligned 2001 comeback effort, "Invincible," he decided that he wanted to take his sound on a contemporary bend, now working with a variety of ultra-hip, top-of-the-line producers to create an album that ended up being stylistically incoherent. His first-ever posthumous record, however, proved to be his absolute artistic nadir. Working with everyone from Akon to C. "Tricky" Stewart, this garbage full-length feels less like an MJ album and more like a producer's showcase, as many of the tracks contain little of what a legendary Michael Jackson song consisted of. To top it off, prior to the allegations revealed in a devastating HBO documentary about his life, "Michael" came under fire for potentially not even having Jackson's own vocals on certain songs, instead using an imitator. In truth, Sony Music doesn't dispute certain parts of those accusations...
Chance the Rapper's 2013 debut mixtape, "Acid Rap," arrived with astounding power and force, as the jokey, smarmy and only occasionally problematic lines from this young Chicago kid were imbued with such undeniable personality that it was hard to deny his talent. 2016's "Coloring Book" only further pushed him into the mainstream and got him both on the radio and the Grammys' radar. Yet when it came time for 2019's "debut album" for a record label, Chance simply forgot what made him Chance. Boring collaborations with white boy indie rockers (Death Cab for Cutie, Francis and the Lights), bland appearances from some of rap's hottest names (DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion) and some cameos that could only be labeled as 'huh?' (Randy Newman), Chance's too-earnest tribute to his new wife and family ended up being the kind of album you'd expect from someone who has absolutely sold out. We just thought that Chance was above it is all.
While Van Halen has had its share of vocalists over the years, "Van Halen III" — the band's 11th studio album — was the first to feature Gary Cherone, formerly of Extreme. While Cherone's gritty wail may have been a respite for some following Sammy Hagar's reign, the real problem with "Van Halen III" was just how utterly unimaginative it was. With generic rock production at flat-sounding guitar tones, "Van Halen III" sounds less like the Van Halen the world has come to know and love and more the efforts of a Van Halen tribute band that just so happened to land some recording time at a local studio. The only takeaway here is a late-in-the-game instrumental called "Primary" — and even that's less than 90 seconds long. Unfortunate for all parties involved.
There truly was a time when former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek's side-project, Sun Kil Moon, felt like something special. Its first full-length, 2013's languid acoustic effort, "Ghosts of the Great Highway," was simultaneously conversational and supremely emotional, with elongated, lightly psychedelic song grooves informing his slice-of-life lyrical observations. Yet as time wears on, Kozelek has become nothing short of insufferable, using his platform less for great insight and more for just describing his day. 2018's "This Is My Dinner" is his absolute artistic low point, where he makes observations about how he's driving by a location that looks like where the movie "Trolls" was filmed and then describes an explicit sex act with a groupie because — well, that's what happened. Yes, he also describes his dinner, too, but Kozelek has made the unusual transition from acclaimed musician to a guy who blogs his life through singing, thereby making it incredibly difficult to stomach any of his output over the past several years. Disappointing doesn't even begin to describe it.
Look what you made her do: You made her go electro-clash. Loved and reviled in equal measure, Taylor Swift's strength as a musician is only matched by her masterful knowledge of business and marketing, taking every tabloid fumble and turning it into something which further strengthens whatever new narrative she wishes to push. With "Reputation," however, Taylor got a bit lost in her self-imposed quest for redemption, evidenced by the fact that the album is called "Reputation." From the harsh beats of opener "...Ready for It?" to an aimless hip-hop collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Future to the cloying, obvious pop of "Gorgeous," Taylor Swift pushed her sound (and her fan base) to the absolute limit with scorched-earth, narrative-reclaiming songs that were snarky, angry and quite frankly unappealing. This isn't to say that there weren't takeaway moments ("Delicate" was a surprising hit, "New Year's Day" was a lovely ballad with surprising potency and "Getaway Car" is already a fan-favorite), but for many, "Reputation" turned a Taylor Swift album release from a pop music event into a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
Here's a thought: Maybe some bands weren't meant to reunite. While fans of The Dan were satiated since the group's post-"Gaucho" hiatus with classic Donald Fagen solo albums (especially 1982's "The Nightfly"), the mere prospect of having Fagen and Walter Becker back in the studio made a lot of fans giddy with anticipation. The resulting album, 2000's "Two Against Nature," proved to instead be an absolute train wreck. Over some of the driest and least imaginative songs the boys have ever penned, staid jazz chords give way to horny, sometimes uncomfortable lyrics that lack the weirdness and the majesty of their heyday. "Cousin Dupree" alone nearly tarnishes Dan's legacy, but don't to tell that to Grammy voters, who decided to course-correct after showering the band with nominations and no wins by handing them over the gong for Album of the Year. We're still scratching our heads over it.
Between Soundgarden and Audioslave, Greatest Modern Rock Vocalist Chris Cornell wasn't hurting for creative outlets. But he still managed to take time to forge his solo career, releasing interesting-if-inessential rock concoctions (and a not-that-bad Bond theme to boot). Yet in 2009 he took the bizarre step of doing an album-length collaboration with hip-hop/pop mega-producer Timbaland. On paper -— well even on paper, it's a weird mix — when you add in songs written by John Mayer, guest spots from Justin Timberlake, and an electro-pop radio sound where Cornell laments about women in derogatory terms, it ends up being a piece of pop ephemera so utterly inexplicable that we still, over a decade later, are trying to wrap our heads around it. (One small postnote: Check out the acoustic version of "Ground Zero" he did for his live acoustic "Songbook" album; removed from the blandly robotic electro-sheen, it actually stands up.)
At the turn of the century, R.E.M. was no longer a radio powerhouse, but 1998's "Up" and 2001's "Reveal" have their defenders (and rightfully so). With "Around the Sun," however, the bottom dropped out. We're unsure of what was going on behind the scenes, but somehow R.E.M. managed to make the dullest record of its career in one go. Electric guitars are replaced by pleasant synth lines, and any edge in Michael Stipe's lyrics are polished out underneath the shiny veneer of studio sheen. We're fine with Q-Tip showing up, but does he have to sleepwalk through his feature too? Dismissed by both critics and fans, the band would take four years before coming back with "Accelerate" — a record that completely reversed course and reminded the world that at the end of the day, yeah, this is a rock band. Shame it forgot about that concept when making "Around the Sun."
Initially met with excitement as being a record where the Pumpkins were finally reunited, the truth ended up being far more disappointing. Sure, Billy Corgan was the songwriting dictator-in-chief (as always) and the incredible Jimmy Chamberlin is still on drums, but...that's about it. Angry and aggressive in a new, hollow way, the "nu-Pumpkins" get rid of their arty (and often most interesting) impulses in favor of pure hard rock squalor. While there's a universe wherein this move could very well work, songs where Corgan bemoans being "lonely at the top" do not a relatable rock record make. Also, by shunning his quirky indulgences, Corgan ends up making a record that simply sounds the same straight through, with one song angrily blurring into the next. Sure, "Tarantula" still kicks, but it's telling that the best thing to come out of this era was a pummeling non-album single called "Superchrist." It's with that song that it felt like the band had truly recaptured...the zeitgeist.
For many fans, mid-'90s No Doubt served as the soundtrack to a specific time in its life, and even when it went dancehall with 2001's "Rock Steady," the good vibes kept on beaming. After that, however, Gwen Stefani pursued a successful pure-pop solo career, and some fans were left wanting. Thus, the prospect of what the 2012 No Doubt reunion record, "Push and Shove," could contain felt like a sonic oasis in a Top 40 desert. Instead of harken back to the band's classic sound, though, it was all a mirage, as the resulting album was a too-sleek pop record produced within an inch of its life. Maybe some of these songs would stand out if done acoustically or with horn sections, but as they were presented, it was just synths and beats and vocals adding up to a whole lot of nothing. There were a few takeaways, sure (lead single "Settle Down" had some things going for it, and the pure '80s synth workout "Heaven" is a highlight), but overall, "Push and Shove" is the kind of comeback that makes you wish the band didn't come back at all.
Eminem took a long break after 2004's tepidly received "Encore," indulging in hits packages and group projects but largely staying away from the spotlight. Shortly before reinventing his commercial fortunes with the bro-rap "Recovery" in 2010, Eminem dropped "Relapse" in 2009, which would go on to join "Encore" and 2017's "Revival" among Marshall Mathers' worst offerings. While "Encore" lacked spark and "Revival" lacked nerve, "Relapse" felt like a manic episode, with Em suddenly doing entire songs in strange new cartoony voices while also indulging in dated-even-for-him pop culture references, homophobic stances which were even more problematic now, and picking out beats that were borderline atonal. It truly sounds like he misplaced his lucky rabbit's foot.
Oh no: The shoe finally dropped. After years of multi-platinum solo success and a halfway decent acting and comedy career, Justin Timberlake's 2013 comeback in the form of both "The 20/20 Experience" albums was, to put it simply, a mixed bag. They were successful enough, but honestly, nothing could prepare us for the outright disaster that was "Man of the Woods," one of the worst mainstream pop albums released in a decade. A truly puzzling mix of folksy backwoods vibes, electro beats and the vaguest sense of political awareness, Timberlake feels like he's striving to do things in new genres but never commits to any of it fully. The lead single's line of "put your filthy hands all over me" doesn't sound nearly as scintillating as he thinks it does, while the gondola-trap experiment of "Supplies" mixes metaphors as poorly as any Nick Jonas solo number. From there on, we get the empty protest anthem "Say Something," the horrid title track, and the obligatory "I have a son now so here's a song about him" closing number. For an artist who made so much of his life about entertaining the masses, "Man of the Woods" offers barely any entertainment value at all. Need proof? Just look at his ill-fitting Super Bowl Halftime Show that transpired two days after his album release. There's a reason it's considered one of the most uninspired in history: 'cos Justin's heart just ain't in it.
The simple question that fans had when they heard "0304," Jewel's fourth full-length album was "... what?" Following massive success as part of the new wave of female folk/pop stars in the late '90s, Jewel decided to mix things up in 2003 and go full-on radio dance-pop with no warning. With track titles like "Run 2 U" and "2 Find U" (sense a pattern here?), Jewel shed a lot of goodwill with her fans by selling out in such an obvious and blatant fashion. While there are hints of her old acoustic sound on tracks like "Leave the Lights On," a lot of "0304" still feels like posturing. Critics were initially warm to the record when it first came out, but to modern ears it sounds dated and hackneyed, her voice lacking the passion and power that fans have come to know. Although she returned to her "classic" sound in her subsequent albums, the damage was done and she never recovered her audience. Guess she shouldn't have embarked on this foolish game...
What happened to Janet Jackson following her "wardrobe malfunction" Super Bowl performance bordered on cruel: blackballed in the industry while fellow nipple-pasty-revealing performer Justin Timberlake walked away with his career still intact. Janet continued to make music but couldn't get a hit on the radio to save her life. As disappointing as such actions were, the difficult part of the equation is that following 2001's mega-smash, "All for You", Janet started putting out records that just felt uninspired, chasing trends in a heartless, hollow way. While 2004's "Damita Jo" had some memorable moments, 2006's "20 Y.O." is downright forgettable, with one tired dance beat bleeding into the next as Janet does all she can to sound interesting over outdated DJ scratches. Whatever unique chemistry she shared with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had evaporated by this point, leading to a not-bad Jam & Lewis-free soft reboot with 2008's "Discipline" and a full-on, well-composed redemption with 2015's "Unbreakable." As it stands, however, "20 Y.O." is simply the most forgettable album in a discography that contains some of the best dance songs ever made.
Evan Sawdey is the Interviews Editor at PopMatters and is the host of The Chartographers, a music-ranking podcast for pop music nerds. He lives in Chicago with his wonderful husband and can be found on Twitter at @SawdEye.