We all phone it in sometimes and churn out work that isn’t quite as good as it should be. Unfortunately for famous musicians, their laziest or most ill-advised works are committed to vinyl so the rest of us can listen and poke fun at for years to come. From comeback albums to genre experimentation, these horrible albums find some of music’s greatest pioneers at their worst, for whatever reason. We can’t quite figure out what went wrong, but we can listen and wonder again and again, “What were they thinking?”
1. Standing in the Spotlight by Dee Dee Ramone
Dee Dee Ramone was the man behind all the angst that gives The Ramones’ distorted brand of bubblegum pop whatever edge it has. The band’s chief songwriter released only one solo album of his own, a “rap” album under the name Dee Dee King. The painful record of old school hip-hop beats and doo-wop tunes makes it plainly apparent that Dee Dee just doesn’t understand rap, as his rhymes are clunky and basic and his vocals sound like those of a cartoon moose. Though his heart was in the right place, having learned about rap music during drug rehabilitation and seeking to take part in the then-new genre, Standing in the Spotlight makes it abundantly clear Dee Dee should stick to punk rock.
2. Working on a Dream by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s lengthy career has been mostly free of anything worse than inessential, but his 2009 release Working on a Dream is something far worse. Here, the Boss abandons any sort of bleakness or edge from previous albums in favor of songs like the title track that offer little more than a life-affirming chorus that feels emptier each time it’s repeated. Even Springsteen’s attempts at straight storytelling, such as the eight-minute “Outlaw Pete,” ultimately fail due to a lack of creativity in both melody and lyricism. Thankfully, Springsteen’s two studio albums since this 2009 LP show that he does still have it in him to produce solid material.
3. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic by Prince
The same man who fused rock and funk into an exciting and danceable new style throughout the ’80s spent most of the ’90s tarnishing the goodwill that his best releases, such as 1999 and Purple Rain, had earned him. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic might be the low point for Prince in a decade filled with other low points — and not just for the terrible album title, but for the pale imitations of his earlier triumphs dressed up with sanitized new production values and a self-seriousness that doesn’t suit this style of music at all.
4. Around the Sun by REM
REM built a career upon inoffensive, surprisingly listenable jangle pop, but somewhere along the lines, near the turn of a new millennium, the band members forgot how to craft a compelling melody. Though I could say plenty about the album’s formulaic songwriting and the bored detachment between every instrument, REM’s guitarist Peter Buck said it best when he remarked that the album “just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.”
5. Cut the Crap by The Clash
How did The Clash come to this? Singer Joe Strummer recruited a new band to replace his departed original band mates, but they can’t take all the blame for the monstrosity of overproduced, muddled garbage that is the ironically-titled Cut the Crap. Were all the crap cut from this, there would be nothing left but the passable but still soulless “This Is England.” This glorified Strummer solo record is so stiff and uninspired it almost detracts from the band’s other releases, the ones that are actually, you know, good.
6. Self Portrait by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan never wanted to be labelled the voice of a generation, and Self Portrait was his destructive attempt at ending the mythologizing surrounding him once and for all with a double album so surreal and ill-advised no one could construe it as the work of a genius. Dylan’s first album of the ’70s features the singer putting on an affected country crooner voice as he belts out indifferent ballads that don’t go anywhere and are complemented only by an indifferent production style that makes Self Portrait sound like unreleased material that should have stayed unreleased.
7. Universal James by James Brown
Universal James sounds like a hacky local hip-hop producer’s attempt to make a rap album entirely from misused samples from the Godfather of Soul. Unfortunately, there’s no one to blame but James Brown himself for this early ’90s attempt at hip-hop wherein Brown goes through the motions of his older material without any semblance of melody to guide him or even a dynamic backing band to make his signature wailing mean something. Instead, there’s only a black hole of a synthetic beat, making for a black hole of an album.
8. Lulu by Lou Reed and Metallica
One of the oddest musical collaborations in history ended up only amplifying the worst tendencies of both acts involved instead of boosting them to new levels of creativity. Lou Reed’s final full studio album before his death finds him reciting unintelligible poetry over acoustic guitar before Metallica explodes into a flurry of meaningless guitar noise and repetitive choruses that echo Reed’s lyrics without adding anything. There are so few interesting ideas here, stretched so thin across an overlong album whose every song sounds like two lousy, unfinished songs smashed awkwardly together.