5 Intentionally Bad Albums By Geniuses That Really Aren't So Bad
If there's one thing artists hate, it's record labels. Like managers, they were a necessary evil for the music business throughout much of the previous century, at least until piracy and digital uploading became a thing.
The way it worked in the olden days, though, was that a record label would give an artist money to record, but then in most cases the label would want a great deal of input on the actual content of the album. If the music on the album didn't meet the standards of the label, they would often step in and complain until the artist got it right or shelve the album altogether and drop the artist (see Wilco's ordeal with Reprise Records over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Some artists, once they were established enough as geniuses, felt justified in thumbing their nose at their record labels when such creative interference was imposed on them. Some would completely break their contracts and jump ship to a more forgiving label.
Other times, they would record something even more offensive and unsatisfactory to the label just to troll them. These projects were often intentionally bad, but the strange thing is that some people are so good they can't help but make good albums even when they're not trying.
It's an urban legend that Marvin Gaye intended for Here, My Dear to be a shit album to screw his label and his ex-wife who had been awarded all the royalties from his new albums. But some artists actually did try to do things like that and made some quirky oddities that just might be good depending on who you ask.
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5. Prince, Chaos and Disorder: In 1996, Prince was still embroiled in a bitter battle over creative control with his record label, Warner Bros. The primary concern at that point was that WB refused to release multiple Prince albums a year, and Prince felt like they weren't promoting him enough. To fulfill his contract, Prince had been working at light-speed to produce albums for WB.
The last one he needed to deliver was this one: Chaos and Disorder. Just that one last album and he would be free. Why not take the opportunity to fuck with the label a bit? So Prince recorded what he considered a quick, shitty album. The irony is that Chaos and Disorder ended up being his most fun, least daunting, and most straight out rocking album in years, if not his entire career up to that point.
There were no genre indulgences, just rock and roll songs in the vein of "Play In the Sunshine" or "Let's Go Crazy." For the rock-guitar segment of Prince's fanbase, this one remains a favorite despite its tossed-off nature.
4. Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music: Stories vary around the origin of Metal Machine Music. Was Lou Reed just really high when he made it? Was it simply contract fulfillment? Was it a career sabotage? Was it genius? Was it shit?
We'll probably never know the true story, but there's enough rumors around the circumstances of it that involve Lou Reed saying fuck you to his label (and his fans) for it to make this list anyway.
Metal Machine Music is 64 minutes of pure noise produced from guitar feedback and effects. There are no traditional melodies to be found. Regardless of why Reed made it, it has been consistently viewed as one of the worst albums ever made (though not as bad as Lulu).
Yet others have seen it as a work of art and brilliance. Since its release, it has been highly influential on the avant-garde and noise rock genres. Artists like Sunn O))) and Merzbow owe their origins almost entirely to Reed's misunderstood epic.
3. Mike Oldfield, Amarok: In 1990, Virgin Records demanded that Mike Oldfield deliver them a sequel to Tubular Bells, by far his most popular work. Oldfield's response was to make an entirely different album, one that he considered unmarketable.
Amarok consisted entirely of an hour-long title track, encompassing many different styles and genres. It was patently inaccessible. It also contained a message in Morse code, specifically "fuck off RB," which is understood to have been referring to Virgin Records owner Richard Branson.
On top of all that, he was so angry about the label wanting Tubular Bells 2: Electric Boogaloo that he even included tubular bells on the album but preferred to refer to them as "long thin metallic hanging tubes" in the liner notes. Then, as soon as he escaped from the grasp of Virgin to greener pastures of Warner Bros., he made Tubular Bells 2 anyway.
As for Amarok, it's actually considered one of Oldfield's strongest albums amongst his fans these days. Just don't discuss it around Richard Branson.
2. Neil Young, Trans: The '80s were scarcely a very good time for aging rock stars of the '60s and '70s. I don't think anyone ever fondly looks back on Now and Zen.
For Neil Young, things would get especially bizarre. First came Re-Ac-Tor, a reunion with Crazy Horse in '81 that brought in New Wave influences. Then he really went off the deep end with Trans, composed almost entirely with synthesizers and featuring Young singing through a Vocoder on almost all the songs. Next was Everybody's Rockin', a 24-minute rockabilly album.
By this time, David Geffen, owner of Geffen Records, Young's record label at the time, had grown tired of Young delivering unmarketable and uncharacteristic albums to him, creative genius be damned. He sued Young for purposely trying to sabotage his own career and giving the label albums which were not really Neil Young albums.
As we know now, experimentation is par for the course when you're a Neil Young fan, but at the time this was a new phenomenon and Geffen was having none of it. They settled out of court, but those early-'80s albums still sound bizarre for Young even by today's standards. For his part, Young admits they admits they weren't his best work, but they were experiments in genres and Trans in particular was an attempt at communicating with his autistic son.
With that in mind and an open ear, one can find plenty to love about all these works, especially "Like an Inca" from Trans, which in this writer's estimation.is one of Young's greatest songs.
1. Bob Dylan, Self-Portrait: The perennial bad album by a genius, Dylan made this one not so much as a fuck-you to his label, but as a fuck-you to his entire fanbase. By the end of the '60s, Dylan had finally had enough of being referred to as the "spokesman for a generation," a label he had never agreed with or been comfortable with.
When forays into electric instruments, Nashville country, and the complete absence of political lyrics in his later works still hadn't shaken off that part of his fanbase, he produced Self-Portrait. Not only was it intentionally poorly produced and sloppily performed, but it was a double album which in the vinyl era meant paying twice the cost and having no way to preview it before you bought it.
Obviously, critics and fans felt ripped off and were justifiably pissed off. But when viewed outside of the context of the debacle surrounding its release, Self-Portrait is an interesting oddity in Dylan's eclectic discography that shows him at his least concerned. Its length gets tiresome, but taken in small doses there are many flashes of Dylan's brilliance, and it's nice to hear him playing with a knowing laugh behind every word rather than the self-seriousness of some of his other work.
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