Some years back, Q Magazine ran an hilarous feature entitled Can I Have My Money Back, Please?, celebrating some of the great lacklustre under-achieving listener-alienating flop albums of rock history. All of the usual suspects were covered – ABC’s Beauty Stab, Dexys Midnight Runners’ Don’t Stand Me Down, Terence Trout D’Arby’s Neither Tuneful Nor Commercial, and Terry Blair & Anouchka’s lone effort Ultra Modern Nursery Rhyme.
…but hang on, didn’t Terry Hall’s worst ever career decision still feature one sublime moment, in the form of magnificent Hit Single That Never Was title track? Indeed it did, and inspired by its misrepresentation, here are a handful of other notable albums that are almost entirely made up of unlistenable wishy-washy bilge, but are somehow redeemed by featuring one or two (at the very most) flashes of indespensible genius. They are the albums that you’ve regretted buying, and never listened to in full more than once, but still can’t bring yourself to get rid of because you just love that one individual track so much. And they are, in no particular order…
The Stone Roses – Second Coming
Well, we could be here all day talking about this. If it hadn’t been for all the injunctions and other associated legal hoo-hah (and, as Chris Morris noted, an apparent surfeit of “sitting around eating chips like this jerk Brown”), and The Stone Roses had been able to start recording their second album in 1990 after all, chances are it would have turned out a lot better than this. They’d doubtless have fearlessly dived further into the murky uncharted funk essayed on Fool’s Gold and One Love, and songs mooted for the abandoned second album included Where Angels Play, Ten Storey Love Song and Can’t See Me, which would have made for a spectacular set by anyone’s standards. Instead, four years behind schedule, we ended up with this Led Zeppelin-instigated mess that was in no way a worthy successor to their spectacular debut. Yet in amongst all the tedious soloing and lack of obvious tunes, there lurked Begging You, a rip-roaring blast into the world of electronica with explosive drums, thundering bass and more backward tape loops than the laws of science should allow into a single piece of music. Elsewhere Ten Storey Love Song and How Do You Sleep? are pretty good songs underneath all that horrid squealy rawk posturing, Breaking Into Heaven and Your Star Will Shine have their moments but are both far too long for the moments to make up for the rest, Daybreak has great lyrics but no discernible musical point, and Love Spreads is a decent enough effort. But Begging You aside, there’s nothing on here even an eighth as good as first album weak links (Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister or This Is The One, and it was left to Ian Brown to effectively return to the template of the second album that never was for his excellent King Monkey-era solo albums. Second Coming is still better than anything by The Seahorses, though.
Love – Four Sail
There’s been a silly drive to ‘reclaim’ this as some sort of Great Lost Album in recent times, so let’s put a stop to all that nonsense right now. Four Sail, which doesn’t even feature most of the original band, is such a dreary and uninspiring work – not to mention such a comedown after the magnificence of the first three albums – that the very first Love retrospective compilation from 197Something didn’t feature anything from it at all, with the compiler noting in their sleevenotes that they didn’t feel able to include any of it on a ‘Best Of’. In effect, this was Arthur Lee’s own personal Brass Eye Special. Come on, seriously, is there anything on it worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Softly To Me, Mushroom Clouds, Orange Skies, She Comes In Colours, Seven And Seven Is, The Castle, or Forever Changes in its entirety? Of course not, though the flawed but dramatic August could certainly hold its own in some sort of musical showdown, and may still not be worthy of a place on any self-respecting Best Of but is worth repeated listens all the same.
The Charlatans – Tellin’ Stories
This is a bit of a tricky one, as in fairness the band had just gone through the trauma of losing their co-songwriter, keyboard player and occasional vocalist Rob Collins in tragic circumstances, and most bands wouldn’t be able to pull through after that sort of a crisis at all. It’s not really the songwriting that’s the problem, though, and nor does their performance display anything other than a renewed verve and determination. Instead, the problem’s simply with the overall sound – there’s no sign of that usual Charlatans ‘edge’, a distinct lack of loose funkiness and the trademark hint of menace, and it sounds as though it had been made with the fact that Chris Evans had just discovered this fantastic new music called ‘indie’ in mind. With No Shoes, How Can You Leave Us Now?, One To Another, Area 51, How High and Tellin’ Stories itself are all great songs rendered dreary, and the only moment they soar is on the tellingly atypical North Country Boy, a song that was always going to be great on account of namechecking Itchy & Scratchy as part of a lyric bemoaning feeling lonely at a wedding reception. Bizarrely, it was this one that got the critical thumbs-up, whereas the superlative follow-up Us And Us Only went largely uncelebrated.
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Let’s get one thing straight – this particular writer is no lover of the Brothers Gallagher, and this album was a misgiving-laden first and last purchase of their work. Alexei Sayle is wont to point out how the likes of himself and Rik Mayall had opened doors into the mainstream for other ‘alternative’ comedians, and Ben Elton walked through and promptly kicked them shut behind him, and a convincing case could be made that Oasis did much the same for ‘alternative’ music… and aside from that, they were just never very good anyway. Much of this album is irredeemably horrid, especially the risible Digsy’s Dinner and the bafflingly over-lauded (and indeed overlong) Slide Away, but at the same time who could deny the quasi-psychedelic high-speed thrill of Up In The Sky, the Happy Mondays-plagiarising swagger of Columbia, or the tuneful acoustic hilarity of Married With Children? In his excellent book The Last Party, John Harris noted that these tracks were “founded on a wit that their author seemed quickly to mislay”, and that’s pretty much Oasis’ entire career summed up in a single throwaway quote.
Denim – Back In Denim
Apparently Radio 1′s slightly-less-than-hip indie DJ Mark Goodier is considered a bit of a buffoon for not having liked this all-Britpop-predicting all-seventies-referencing album. Given that he actually stated he much preferred Screamadelica to it, and that only three tracks are any good, perhaps he’s not such of a buffoon after all. The thumping title track opener is a fun Glam Rock pastiche, Middle Of The Road is one of the funniest pop songs ever written, and the sublime The Osmonds – basically I Love The Seventies for people preparing to slash their wrists – is worth buying this album for alone. Unfortunately, the rest of it is largely tuneless and flat-sounding. Curiously, it’s a pattern that Denim would go on to repeat on their other two albums. Denim On Ice is only worth delving into for the amusingly Britpop-decrying The Great Pub Rock Revival, the witty We Are The Supermodels, and the synth-driven Darren-Grimley-Gets-His-Collar-Felt majesty of It Fell Of The Back Of A Lorry. Meanwhile Novelty Rock, the daftest idea for an album to release just after you’ve signed to a major label and been on a high-profile tour with a band who’ve recently had records in the top ten ever, can boast only Snake Bite, On A Chicory Tip and the celebrated cover of the theme from Robin’s Nest as highpoints in amongst all the silly chipmunk-voiced throwaway unlistenableness. With the excellent non-album Summer Smash never really properly made available in any form, there’s no act of the world in direr need of a proper Best Of Compilation than Denim.
[Since first writing the above, I've been persuaded to give the remastered and reissued Back In Denim another listen, and while the grumblings about the rest of the album not being anywhere near as strong as the three standout tracks still stand, it has to be admitted that they're actually pretty listenable and reasonably pleasant to sit through, so Partial Credit for Bawrence. However, attempts to repeat the experiment with Denim On Ice and Novelty Rock (currently being touted on Left And To The Back) produced the same depressing results.]
The Bluetones – Expecting To Fly
Back in the summer of 1995, when The Bluetones had thus far only released a handful of truly outstanding singles on a small label, yours truly could be heard (and indeed read) extolling their virtues very loudly indeed, predicting great things for their future and suggesting that, having also spotted the potential of The Stone Roses and Blur long before they broke big, these were to prove his third big ‘discovery’. Well, I don’t mind admitting that I was very, very wrong, and certain individuals take no end of delight in reminding me of just how monumentally wrong I was. What went wrong in between singles and album is anyone’s guess, but aside from the singles (and Are You Blue Or Are You Blind?, the best of the lot, isn’t even on here) and the equally splendid The Fountainhead, the rest of it sounds like it was written in an afternoon and then recorded at ridiculously opulent length. Worst offenders by far are Cut Some Rug, one of the flimsiest excuses for a song ever recorded, and that tedious ballad one that goes “when you’re near my heart beats quicker faster, it’s your skin as pale as alabaster”. Still, at least it didn’t have bloody Screwtop Thompson or whatever it was called on it.
Blur – Think Tank
OK, this one is a real mystery. With Graham Coxon virtually absent from the album sessions, Think Tank is to all intents and purposes a Damon Albarn solo project. But so were Gorillaz and The Good The Bad And The Queen, and how come both of those had truly spectacular results when apart from mental hidden track Me, White Noise, lone Coxon contribution Battery In Your Leg and the rather quite lovely Out Of Time (which also makes great musical sense as the missing link between Tender and Feel Good Inc., and also recently described by Ben Baker as “Blur’s great lost single, because it was cunningly hidden amongst a load of shit”), Think Tank is largely open-ended backgroundy nothingness where the not actually that impressive beats take precedence over any hint of musical excitingness or invention (and let’s not even get started on the artless shoutiness of We’ve Got A File On You)? The absence of Mr Coxon’s angular contributions surely played its part, but it’s more likely that blame should be laid at the door of producer Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook, for whom this is just one more entry in an ever-growing list of post-Housemartins musical crimes.
Ride – Tarantula
As suggested by the sleeve photo of Carnival Of Light, where they’re all looking in different directions and appear to be in four entirely different bands, Ride didn’t really want to be Ride any more by the time that they were called on to record one last album to fulfil their contractual obligations. Not surprisingly, nobody wanted to use up any new songs that they could stockpile for a future solo project, so all the fans got for their money on Tarantula was a single meandering funk workout from Mark Gardener, and the rest of the album taken up by Andy Bell – who, bless him, was never quite the singer or songwriter he believed himself to be – doing a series of increasingly poor impersonations of Oasis. Oh, and opening track (and indeed lead-off single) Black Nite Crash, a snarling, spitting roar of indie-metal that ranks not only as one of Ride’s finest recordings but as one of the best singles of the 1990s full stop. That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of brighter moments to be found elsewhere, though, and to their credit Ride have had the good grace to basically disown the album and say they wish it had never come out. Which is all very well and good, but as the fans had to buy it since it was originally only released for a single day, are they going to be giving anyone their fifteen quid back?
Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeest
Hands up – how many people out there were dazzled by the arresting Once Around The Block and rushed out to buy its parent album, only to find that the rest of it was filled up with some bloke mumbling half-written songs through a beard, accompanied by little more than a guitar that sounded like it wasn’t even plugged in properly? The same trick was pretty much repeated a couple of years later with the fab Something To Talk About from the About A Boy soundtrack, but it’s likely that by that time most potential purchasers were sufficiently wary to just get the single.
Suede – Head Music
Some parties would have you believe that Suede lost it majorly the second that Bernard Butler walked out, and that third album Coming Up is just as dodgy as what came later. That’s a load of nonsense, as Coming Up may lack some of the earlier depth but it’s full of sparkly adventurous pop music, which is more than can be said for Head Music. Aside from a brace of stupendous closing tracks (the excellent He’s Gone, already the cause of much lyrical debate on here, and the haunting and desolate Crack In The Union Jack), and the arguably quite pleasantly tuneful title track, it’s not clear what’s going on with this album other than that the lyrics are more like a parody of Suede, the tunes are more like no tunes, and the instrumentation seems determined to pay repeated homage to the old ‘Punjab Airways’ Phileas Fogg Tortilla Chips ad.
Belle & Sebastian – Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
Oh dear. The Wrong Girl is one of the finest moments in the Belle & Sebastian canon. Unfortunately it’s also a rarely heard one, due to the paucity of what surrounds it on this album that even most of the band were apparently unsure about even while making it. What’s worse is that it isn’t simply a case of rubbish songs that can be easily dismissed – virtually all of them have a spark of greatness about them but seem sorely underwritten, especially I Fought In A War, The Model, Women’s Realm and There’s Too Much Love, while Waiting For The Moon To Rise would have made a strong b-side but should never have been on an album, it’s impossible to tell whether Beyond The Sunrise is vaguely pleasant or hilariously ridiculous, and The Chalet Lines is practically unlistenable. Actually, Family Tree‘s pretty good, though Isobel should really have saved it for one of her solo albums. What’s worse is that Paperboat, Landslide, Wake Her Up and Lord Anthony were all slated for this album at various points.
Northside – Chicken Rhythms
This album contains two magnificent singles, the rightly famed censor-baiting Madchester anthem Shall We Take A Trip?, and surprise American hit Take 5. It also contains Weight Of Air, Funky Monkey and, erm, Yeah Man, and its deserved plunge towards the bargain bins was reportedly one of the major instigators of Factory’s financial collapse. ‘Indescribable’ is hardly the word.