The turd in the caviar: 24 songs that almost derail great albums

The turd in the caviar: 24 songs that almost derail great albums

1. “Revolution 9,” The Beatles, The Beatles
Beatles fans have long debated whether The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) would have been better as a single album instead of a double, but just about everyone can agree that if the album had to lose one song, it’s “Revolution 9.” The archetypical turd in the caviar, it’s a collection of noises, musical clips, and sound effects—an abrasive, sometimes disturbing sonic experiment dropped into a pop record. Not only doesn’t it fit contextually (especially between the lullaby-esque “Cry Baby Cry” and “Good Night”), but it’s also the longest track the Beatles ever released—nearly eight and a half minutes—making it extra-punishing. The song’s defenders like to complain that naysayers simply don’t get its avant-garde content, but next-level shit or not, “Revolution 9” isn’t good.

2. “Less Than You Think,” Wilco, A Ghost Is Born
A harrowing concept record about substance abuse and anxiety disorder, Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born explores the darkest regions of Jeff Tweedy’s psyche sonically and lyrically, juxtaposing melody with dissonance to convey a feeling of slow, aestheticized emotional disintegration. Conceptually, the album’s penultimate track, “Less Than You Think,” communicates this smashingly well, starting off as a spare piano ballad before melting into a cacophony of electronic noises that goes on for a seemingly endless 12 minutes. As a musical expression of the panic attacks and crippling headaches Tweedy was experiencing at the time, “Less Than You Think” is a successful song. But as a piece of music anyone would want to listen to in its entirety more than once (if that), “Less Than You Think” is a willfully alienating slog. Even Tweedy admitted to skipping the track occasionally when he plays A Ghost Is Born.

3. “The Lady In My Life,” Michael Jackson, Thriller
Thriller is many things to many people, but its universal constant is that it’s a catchy, exciting, unforgettable album—with the exception of “The Lady In My Life.” The closing song of Michael Jackson’s 1982 tour de force, “Lady” is by far Rod Temperton’s (or anyone’s) worst contribution to Thriller. A phoned-in, sleepwalked, half-assed excuse of a song, it just hangs there like a mild fart—and it concludes Thriller on an utterly noncommittal, hookless note. Worse, it breaks the cardinal rule of great pop: It’s boring. Some may argue that Jackson’s duet with Paul McCartney, the schmaltzy “The Girl Is Mine,” is the album’s one bum track—but really, love it or hate it, who could imagine Thriller without it? On the other hand, if “Lady” were to be surreptitiously removed from all existing and future versions of Thriller, few would even notice.

4. “Free,” Prince, 1999
Prince made classic albums before 1999, but his 1982 double album let him show the full breadth of his genius, from the apocalyptic pop of the title track to the thrilling weirdness of songs like “Lady Cab Driver” and “All The Critics Love U In New York.” Then there’s “Free,” an unexpected bit of flag-waving of the red, white, and blue variety, instead of Prince’s usual purple freak flag. While it’s kind of strange and cool to hear some unabashed patriotism thrown in the middle of a bunch of songs about sex, obsession, and partying—since those are also things that make America great—it’s still a funkless drag of a track.

5. “Motorcycle Mama,” Neil Young, Comes A Time
For the most part, Neil Young makes two kinds of albums: good and bad. Which is why it’s a rarity for a single subpar tune to pop up on one of his otherwise excellent discs. Such is the case, though, with “Motorcycle Mama,” the penultimate track on 1978’s Comes A Time. Where the rest of the album is a lush yet skeletal work of folky introspection laced with the homespun harmonies of Nicolette Larson, “Motorcycle Mama” is a croaking frog of a song full of nauseating, seesawing fiddle and Larson’s forced growl. Not even she can make sense of the lopsided bar-blues jam as she unsuccessfully tries to wrap her typically angelic voice around it. Since Comes A Time is a hodgepodge of various lineups, studios, and recording sessions, it’s actually a miracle that the album sounds as sweetly cohesive as it does. Still, it would sound that much better without the bulldozing thunk of “Motorcycle Mama.”

6. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde
If you’ve never heard Blonde On Blonde, you’re missing out on one of the best rock albums ever made. The apotheosis of the “Dylan goes electric” period, the album throws in every sharp-edged, tenderhearted idea swimming around Dylan’s pill-addled head in the mid-’60s. It’s thrilling from beginning to end, so long as you start at the second track and skip “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” which sounds like an end-of-a-session goof, but somehow became an inescapable classic-rock-radio staple.

7. “Old Shep,” Elvis Presley, Elvis
Backed by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Elvis Presley changed the face of music with his work at Memphis’ Sun Studio, lighting a fast-spreading fire by combining country and R&B. When Presley moved to RCA, he didn’t mess with the winning formula too much at first: He filled out the band and kept the same incendiary sound rolling through his eponymous RCA debut in 1956 and Elvis, its follow-up from the same year. The uptempo tracks burst with nervous energy, and the ballads have a sexy, haunted cool. Well, mostly. On Elvis, Presley pays fitting tribute to influences from Arthur Crudup to Webb Pierce, but somebody should have stopped him from taking on “Old Shep,” Red Foley’s maudlin remembrance of a dead dog. Not only does his interpretation sound unconvincing, it goes on for more four minutes, an eternity in the world of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. No dog deserves so turgid a tribute.

8. “The India Song,” Big Star, #1 Record
And speaking of India, that country inspires a dull spot on Big Star’s classic debut. Andy Hummel’s sole composing credit on the album—the Big Star bassist had some co-writing credits on its follow-up—“The India Song” just kind of scoots along as Hummel shares a Rudyard Kipling-fed fantasy of escaping to India, where he can “drink gin and tonics” and “read a few books.” And then the flutes come in. Skip.

9. “Meeting Across The River,” Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run
Fans were thrilled when Bruce Springsteen announced he’d play Born To Run in its entirety as part of his final four-night stand in 2009 at Philadelphia’s now-imploded Spectrum. But even the diehards took a pee break during “Meeting Across The River,” the story of two would-be hoods trying to hitch a ride across the Hudson. Randy Brecker’s echo-drenched trumpet sounds like a parody of film-noir clichés, and Springsteen’s vocals strain to turn a thumbnail sketch into a sprawling mural. True, the album needs the breathing room between “She’s The One” and “Jungleland,” but by the time of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Springsteen had learned how to dial down the epic overreach without slipping into soft-jazz slop.

10. “Meat Is Murder,” The Smiths, Meat Is Murder
From start to finish, The Smiths’ second album, 1985’s Meat Is Murder, is perfect—that is, assuming you strategically forget to download its final, eponymous track. Ditching the poignant, understated angst-and-jangle of classics like “The Headmaster Ritual” and “How Soon Is Now?” “Meat Is Murder” is about as subtle as being brained. Following a melodramatic intro that samples the oh-so-sinister hiss of buzzsaws and—Lord help us—actual panicking cows, Morrissey bleats hideously overwrought anti-carnivore lines like “Heifer whines could be human cries / closer comes the screaming knife / this beautiful creature must die.” Meanwhile, Johnny Marr’s guitar weeps—not gently, but histrionically. Regardless of how well-intentioned the sentiment is, “Meat Is Murder” is embarrassing enough to send the most ardent vegan straight to the nearest Burger King.

11. “Darling Nikki,” Prince, Purple Rain 
The cultural significance of “Darling Nikki,” the sole inessential track on Prince’s classic Purple Rain, lies not in its negligible creative worth, but rather in the outrage it inspired. Professional busybody Tipper Gore was so horrified by Prince’s dirty little ditty about a “sex fiend” he encountered “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine” that it helped inspire her to form the Parents Music Resource Center to fight profanity and sexuality in pop music. “Darling Nikki” is filthy all right, a nasty, paper-thin funk vamp that would sound perfectly at home on one of Prince’s sprawling, overloaded later albums. But on the otherwise tight, perfect Purple Rain, it feels like a throwaway B-side that somehow made it onto a masterpiece. There are plenty of reasons to object to “Darling Nikki”; the sexual content is just one of them.

12. “Drunk And Hot Girls,” Kanye West, Graduation
Even when Graduation isn’t triumphantly upbeat, it’s never indulgent: It’s arguably Kanye West’s tightest, poppiest album. The one exception is “Drunk And Hot Girls,” the album’s sole track co-produced by Jon Brion. He and West brought out the best of each other with Late Registration, matching West’s soul-sampling tics to Brion’s strings and distinctive keyboard collection; on “Drunk And Hot Girls,” they egg each other on in the worst way. The song itself isn’t consistently start-to-finish terrible, but the endless chorus (based on Can’s “Sing Swan Song”) intones the title over and over for an interminable five minutes. Brion’s touch is most apparent in the gypsy strings and record-nerd starting point; West deliberately shifts from mildly funny to drunken asshole, singing badly the entire time. As an overtly confrontational song on West’s most accessible album, it directly presages the oft-spiky, self-justifying experiments—for better and worse—of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, gypsy-violin outro and all. But it’s still an annoying song.

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13. “Chillout Tent,” The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
Hold Steady detractors typically blame Craig Finn’s caustic vocal style for turning them off, but the teeth-grindingly awful “Chillout Tent” from the otherwise excellent Boys And Girls In America suggests that Hold Steady songs suffer tremendously when Finn hands the mic off to other people. Finn handles the verses, which fall in line with America’s milieu of young scenesters fumbling through sex-and-drug-addled coming-of-age adventures. Then he hands the choruses over to mousy-voiced singer-songwriter Elizabeth Elmore and the more gravelly Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. Not only are their voices wrong for the track, but the multiple-singer approach inadvertently makes “Chillout Tent” sound like the faux-Broadway stylings of Meat Loaf.

14. “Electronic Renaissance,” Belle And SebastianTigermilk
There’s certainly something to be said of tracks inserted into albums that sound nothing like the rest of the album, so long as it isn’t a major distraction. “Electronic Renaissance,” the fifth of 10 songs on Belle And Sebastian’s 1996 debut, is certainly stylistically different from everything else. Tigermilk is mostly simple indie pop fueled by catchy acoustic hooks, the occasional burst of horns, and Stuart Murdoch’s crisp, understated sing-songiness. “Electronic Renaissance,” however, kicks off with atonal fuzz, and only improves in that it finds its beat after about a minute. Murdoch’s voice is muddled to “teacher from Charlie Brown, stuck underwater” levels. It’s certainly a foray into more aggressive territory, but too underwhelming to be a “Renaissance”; “Mary Jo” has more build and nuance, and it has a freakin’ pan flute.

15. “I [Heart] A Magician,” The Dismemberment Plan, Emergency & I
Make no mistake: 1999’s Emergency & I is a stone-cold classic of the indie underground, with songs like “The City,” “A Life Of Possibilities,” and “You Are Invited” going down as high-water marks for the D-Plan. “I [Heart] A Magician” isn’t one of them. While the band sometimes makes its spazziness work for it (see “It’s So You” from The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified), this scattershot song never coheres, and it isn’t helped by Travis Morrison’s irritating vocal performance. “I [Heart] A Magician” clocks in at just a little over two and a half minutes, so it’s thankfully a memory by the time the great “You Are Invited” hits its crescendo.

16. “Enjoy Your Day,” Alkaline Trio, Godamnit!
On its scrappy debut, Chicago-bred punk outfit Alkaline Trio bursts with charming, lovesick energy right up to track six, when Dan Andriano’s supremely mopey acoustic song slams on the brakes. Andriano developed his unmistakable croon on subsequent Trio albums, but here, it’s irritatingly whiny, worsened by the kind of self-pitying lyrics that give emo a bad rap: “My tears seep through the crack under my door,” “So happy Valentine’s Day / I hope the sun’s out in New York / I hope he bought you roses.” Matt Skiba’s acoustic “Sorry About That,” which closes Godamnit!, fares much better than the Dashboard Confessional-esque “Enjoy Your Day.” Thankfully, “Clavicle” slips right back into the Trio’s sweet spot after it.

17. “Luka,” Suzanne Vega, Solitude Standing
Suzanne Vega’s 1987 sophomore album is melancholy and winsome, with occasional perky percussion and pacing as the only real push in the direction of radio-ready pop. It mostly consists of lullaby-like confessionals that come across as intense without feeling forced; Vega breathes deep emotion into the hypnotic, hushed, referential songs “Calypso” and “Wooden Horse,” and much of the rest of the album sounds like a lover’s whisper in a vast, darkened room. The exceptions to the tone: the catchy opening a cappella version of “Tom’s Diner” (which spawned a Top 10 hit remix), the closing instrumental version, and the album’s breakout hit single, “Luka,” an irritatingly bouncy song about child abuse, from the point of view of the abused child. “Luka” completely lacks the raw intimacy and pain of the rest of the album—odd, considering its subject matter—and its rhythm and rhymes are clunky and amateurish (“They only hit until you cry / after that, you don’t ask why”). Of all Vega’s songs, this may be the most calculated, the least personal, and the most falsely overwrought. Adding to the irritation factor: It was a huge hit, pulling Solitude Standing to platinum status, launching Vega to a new level of fame, and launching a female-singer-songwriter revolution—quite an accomplishment for such a grating ditty.

18. “Lotus,” R.E.M., Up
R.E.M.’s underrated 1998 album Up—its first without drummer Bill Berry, who retired before its creation—is an austere, reaching, gorgeous set of songs that capture a striking mood and stick with it. Except for “Lotus,” which feels like a record-company-mandated compromise: It’s sort of a rocker, but it sounds tossed-off and generic. Thankfully, it comes near the top of Up, and it’s fairly easy to skip the track before it, the quiet, Eno-inspired “Airportman.” Oh, and if you want to really hate “Lotus,” check out the video, which includes Michael Stipe writhing around in, and eventually covered by, some sort of shiny paint. 

19. “The Baby Song,” Hüsker Dü, Flip Your Wig
In his biography of Hüsker Dü, Andrew Earles describes “The Baby Song” as “a heartfelt, albeit forty-six second, tribute to the recent birth” of Grant Hart’s “love child.” It’s hard to believe there’s anything heartfelt in such a silly larf, because it sounds like the kind of throwaway track bands record when studio cabin fever has reached its peak. The instrumental begins with a quick announcement of the title before moving into an irritating, improvised-sounding melody played by a flute and something like a xylophone. The elements of a lullaby are there, but “The Baby Song” could double as a score for a horror movie featuring a killer doll. Thankfully, a slew of amazing songs—“Flexible Flyer,” “Private Plane, “Keep Hanging On,” and “The Wit And The Wisdom”—follows to cleanse the palate.

20. “Megamanic,” Bob Mould, The Last Dog And Pony Show
In an interview for his ostensible final rock record, 1998’s The Last Dog And Pony Show, Bob Mould mentioned that he was able to break a stifling case of writer’s block—and finish the album—only after he wrote this song, thus making it the epitome of a mixed blessing. Dog And Pony is an underrated addition to Mould’s catalogue, but “Megamanic” is a painfully terrible song. Presaging Mould’s shift into electronic music on 2002’s maligned Modulate, “Megamanic” plops nearly four interminable minutes of Nine Inch Nails-lite beats and Mould’s goofy rapping (“I know this one is the shit ’cause someone told me so,” “Wake me up, roadrunner”) toward the end of the album, just before the excellent, Sugar-esque “Reflecting Pool.” It takes guts to take such a left turn on an album, but thankfully fans can easily delete it from their iTunes.

21. “Drugs Or Me,” Jimmy Eat World, Futures
It could be argued that Jimmy Eat World’s most celebrated album, 1999’s Clarity, belongs on this list due to “12/23/95,” a momentum-killing trifle dropped in the middle of the record. But that song is a wispy nuisance, unlike the six-and-a-half-minute after-school special that is “Drugs Or Me” from 2004’s Futures. At least the groan-inducing title offers listeners fair warning. The lyrics are equally obvious and ham-fisted: “Keep my heart somewhere drugs don’t go,” sings guitarist-vocalist Jim Adkins, later adding “You promise you promise that you’re done / but I can’t tell you from the drugs.” The song’s plodding tempo drags it down further, unnecessarily stretching out each line, which Adkins repeats over and over. And over.

22. “New Number Order,” Shellac, 1000 Hurts
Shellac has always been confrontational. Steve Albini, Bob Weston, and Todd Trainer don’t bother to hide the enjoyment they derive from screwing with people’s expectations, be it closing shows with the patience-testing “Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are” or opening 2009’s Excellent Italian Greyhound with the similarly patience-testing “The End Of Radio.” So it’s perhaps not surprising that the band dropped this 1:40 trifle near the end of 2000’s otherwise fantastic 1000 Hurts. Although the tempo varies, “New Number Order” can only be described as “plodding,” with nonsensical vocals proclaiming a new number order: 1,000,001 to six to 1 billion to 25 to 75,000. Etc. No, it doesn’t make sense, and no, you don’t need to hear it more than once.


23. “You’ll Miss Me,” They Might Be Giants, Lincoln
For those who believe They Might Be Giants died the moment the duo started working with a live band, 1988’s Lincoln will always stand as the group’s unassailable masterpiece—or almost unassailable. Its Achilles heel, sandwiched between the larkish “Santa’s Beard” and the classic “They’ll Need a Crane,” is the car-crash melange of “You’ll Miss Me.” Over faux-funky jazz bass and discordant horns, John Flansburgh gruffly mock-raps a tough-guy screed, the irritation of his affected vocals doubled by the distortion in which they’re slathered. For a band who’ve always lived by their wits, “You’ll Miss Me” is bafflingly witless; anyone waiting for a sign that it’s some obscure joke ends up waiting in vain.

24. “Test,” Ministry, The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste
The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, Ministry’s first album after the stylistic rebirth begun on The Land Of Rape And Honey, is filled with weird samples and strange noises. But nothing’s more jarring than rapper K. Lite saying “Yo, this is a test!” at the beginning of the album’s seventh song, the cringe-inducing rap/industrial hybrid “Test.” Aside from the so-so “Cannibal Song” in the fourth track, the first six songs of The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste range from strong (“Never Believe,” “Burning Inside”) to industrial classics (“Thieves,” “Breathe,” “So What”), but “Test” derails the album with six interminable minutes of basically one riff and drumbeat paired with herky-jerky vocals shouting dopey lyrics. (“Don’t be commercial or sell out!” “Be your own person!”) Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen was one of the innovators of experimental music in the ’80s, but “Test” is a novelty genre exercise from which Mind barely recovers.

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