Browsing Tag

concept albums

Career Killers: “Adore” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Mike Love may be a good rock ‘n roll heel, but Billy Corgan is an actual heel. The longtime wrestling fan and eventual promoter and on-air authority figure made a conscious decision, from the beginning, to be the bad guy. “In the early years of the Smashing Pumpkins, I saw that I was going to be treated as an outsider,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “So rather than play along, which is what you’re supposed to do, I decided to play heel, in wrestling parlance, and have fun with it… I’d rather be that heel than the babyface who goes along to get along.”

He did a great job. Despite his obvious talent (the Pumpkins singer and lead guitarist wrote almost all of the songs and played, pretty much, everything except for drums on the band’s first two albums), Corgan became one of the least likable people in music. He tossed off arrogant quotes to the music press more easily than Ted DiBiase threw his money around to move to the front of the line at an emergency room, close down a public pool or buy himself a championship belt because he was upset he couldn’t win the actual one. He treated his bandmates like employees, hiring and firing them at will or blaming them for breaking up the band when he was always on the one in charge. And he certainly wasn’t humble. “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2010.

So like watching the hated heel get his comeuppance, there was quite a bit of schadenfreude in seeing Corgan fail. And with 1998’s Adore, Corgan did so in spectacular fashion, bringing his band’s momentum to a screeching halt and ending its run as one of the biggest and most popular alternative rock bands in the world.

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Career Killers: “Cyberpunk” by Billy Idol

As we’ve seen, bad concept albums can kill careers and destroy their creators in the time it takes to throw a CD into the garbage, send it to China to be used for road paving or sell it to a used record store for half-pennies on the dollar.

In Billy Idol’s case, it did that and then some. But it also set the stage for an interesting critical re-evaluation. Was 1993’s Cyberpunk, a bloated concept album about machines, technology and consumerism that also happened to be one of the first major studio releases recorded mostly on the computer, packaged with a floppy disk containing bonus content and marketed via the internet actually ahead of its time?

Yes, it was. Without question.

Content wise, Idol’s musings about technology proved to be prescient, while his recording and marketing methods established a blueprint that almost every artist of the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s would copy and emulate, right down to the bonus floppy (although CD and DVD-ROMs predictably replaced the floppy as the technology became more ubiquitous and affordable).

But that doesn’t mean the album is good or deserved to be successful. And it’s certainly no surprise that it ruined Billy Idol’s career.

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Career Killers: “Kilroy Was Here” by Styx

There have always been extremely successful artists that were so unlikeable, unappealing or unoriginal that it became fashionable to hate them. Nickelback, Creed, Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, Michael Bolton, Phil Collins, Limp Bizkit, Train, and more recently, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and the Chainsmokers have generated significant amounts of vitriol from critics and the general public — all while stockpiling hits and performing sell-out shows before thousands of adoring fans. If anything, the widespread hatedom only makes their fans love them even more.

Before them, Styx was the one that it was cool to hate.

Critics, in particular, despised them and commonly referred to the band as “Stynx” (one memorable review compared their music to a parking lot full of whale vomit – something that may very have inspired the famous “Shit Sandwich” scene in This is Spinal Tap).

Despite that, Styx sold tons of records and performed countless sold out shows. From 1972 to 1982, the band amassed 11 Top 40 hits, including their sole #1 hit, the polarizing “Babe,” as well as four RIAA-certified gold and five platinum albums. Starting off as a progressive rock group, the band found success when it moved to a more arena-friendly (some would argue, “corporate”) sound, merging hard rock with synth pop while displaying a flair for the dramatic (or melodramatic, as their detractors might argue). Even as it found mainstream success, Styx retained some of its prog leanings, writing thematic, narrative style songs, while releasing a series of concept albums throughout the late 70s and early 80s.

With 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, Styx took on its most ambitious and risky project yet. A concept album about a dystopian future where religious and political fascists have outlawed rock music and use technology to enslave mankind, Styx planned an elaborate live show that would be part rock-opera, part concert, part multimedia spectacle. If the boys from Chicago could pull it off, they would set themselves up to be the spiritual successors to Pink Floyd or The Who.

They did not pull it off.

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Career Killers: “Summer in Paradise” by the Beach Boys

To borrow a pro wrestling term, Mike Love has long been one of the best heels in rock ‘n roll.

Widely hated by critics, fans, media, liberals and even fellow Beach Boys (actual headline from Vice.com: “Mike Love is Kind of an Asshole”), Love is so despised that it’s arguably more rock ‘n roll to defend him rather than pile on with his many detractors. Indeed, if anyone could have an entire arena full of people chant “asshole” at him a la Vince McMahon or Roman Reigns, it’s Mike Love. A relentless self-aggrandizing self-promoter, the only thing you can say about him is that he’s not dripping with phoniness or fake sincerity like Brother Love.

In fact, like the best heels, he believes he’s justified in behaving the way he does — especially in his eternal quest for the credit he feels he deserves for the band’s success. Brian Wilson may have been the creative genius behind the band, but Love will argue that he should get as much, if not more credit than the erratic Wilson for keeping the band going and co-writing some of their best known songs. Whether it’s suing Wilson for royalties in court many times; inflating his role in the band’s great moments and minimizing his role in the less successful ones (sometimes doing both on the same thing – like criticizing Pet Sounds or Smile when they seemed like they’d be failures and then taking credit for both when they became acclaimed); or going Vince McMahon and firing Wilson and Al Jardine from the band in 2012 after what was otherwise a successful reunion tour, Love gets very little of his namesake emotion from critics, commentators and even fans of the Beach Boys. Heck, he once used the staid and formal atmosphere of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony to deliver a WWE-style promo talking trash about a bunch of bands and musicians that, until then, probably had nothing but respect for his band and everything it has accomplished.

And much like how WWE treats certain non-PG segments from the past like they never happened, that’s how the band views the Love-led 1992 album Summer in Paradise. I guess that’s understandable, considering Summer in Paradise ended the band as a creative force and turned it into a full-time touring/oldies act.

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Career Killers: “Calling All Stations” by Genesis

In honor of Genesis’s recently announced reunion tour, let’s take a look at the band’s most recent (and in all likelihood, final) studio album, 1997’s Calling All Stations — an epic flop that broke up the band and is considered to be the red-headed stepchild of its discography. In other words, it’s no son, it’s no son of theirs. (Sorry. That’s the last pun, I promise. That’s all.)

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Career Killers: “Paula” by Robin Thicke.

I wrote a review for Robin Thicke’s Paula when it first came out in 2014. I decided to revisit it for several reasons. 1) I’m lazy, 2) It was obvious, at the time, that this record would tank his career and 3) I see him every week as a judge on The Masked Singer and I can’t decide whether being on a hit show means that his career has recovered from this debacle of an album or if it’s confirmation that his musical career is over and that he’ll just be a reality show judge from here on out. In other words, did his album about one Paula (Patton) have the effect of turning him into another Paula (Abdul)?

In retrospect, “Blurred Lines” wasn’t the start of something great for Robin Thicke. It was the beginning of the end. And Paula ended up being the nail in the coffin.

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Career Killers: “The Final Cut” by Pink Floyd

When we think of the most accomplished and popular rock bands, they tend to have one or two people in charge – usually the songwriters. Glenn Frey called it “song power” and used it to explain the power dynamics in The Eagles:

“A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.”

Glenn Frey, History of the Eagles.

History tells us that, at some point, the other guys in the band will often get fed up with being in the background and either leave the band or raise such a stink that they get some concessions. Stu Cook and Doug Clifford forced John Fogerty to let them write songs for a Creedence Clearwater Revival album with disastrous results. Jason Newsted quit Metallica. Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode while Dave Gahan threatened to unless he was allowed to write songs for the band’s albums. As for the Eagles, Frey and Don Henley may have been happy in their roles as was benevolent dictators, but others in the band, particularly Don Felder and Joe Walsh, resented being underlings and this underlying tension was one of the main reasons why the band broke up.

Pink Floyd was no different, and when things finally came to a head in the early 1980s, it touched off years of litigation, decades of inconsistent artistic output from all parties involved, and sustained personal enmity and hatred that not even the promise of a triumphant one-off reunion at the biggest charity concert of the 2000s could fully fix.

This is the album that started all of that.

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Album Review: “Songs of Innocence” by U2 (UPDATED)

UPDATE (10/15/2014): The review has been augmented to include bonus tracks from the deluxe edition released earlier this week. 

Perhaps the biggest irony surrounding U2’s latest album, “Songs of Innocence,” is that Bono and company adopted an innovative and cutting edge distribution system to promote a back-to-basics concept album about formative experiences from their childhood days.

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Album Review: “Paula” by Robin Thicke

Robin Thicke’s “Paula” is the most interesting album of the year. And it might be one of the most interesting albums of the last decade.

That doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, the album is extremely repetitive and difficult to listen to. With the subtlety of a jackhammer, Thicke bares his soul in 14 gut-wrenching songs, alternating between pitiful begging (to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Paula Patton) and “TMI”-level introspection. It’s refreshing to hear an artist drop all pretenses and sing what’s on his or her mind- after all, it’s difficult to accept this as Thicke’s mea culpa unless he’s being open and honest about everything.

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Blast from the Past: Return of the Concept Album

Originally posted at: Columbia News Service. (Archived here)

Once upon a time, concept albums were hip. It was a long time ago, back when the shower curtain wasn’t the only piece of vinyl in your house, and the only CDs were the ones issued by banks. If you were bored of singing the standard pop ditties about love, cars and having fun, then concept albums were the way to go. Artists like Pink Floyd, the Who and David Bowie wrote about serious issues like war, madness and consumerism and elevated themselves as artists.

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