Career suicide albums fall into two camps: Those that were released ahead of their time, and those that set new standards in awful. The best thing that could be said about the later category is that these albums are oftentimes just as fascinating as an artist’s best work.
In most cases in this list, the artist not only endured the backlash received after the album’s release, but went on to release some of their best work. In other cases, the public finally came around to not only accepting these records but ranking them amongst the best LPs of the decade.
It’s tough putting this album above other career suicide albums that have more history on their side (see Hole’s Celebrity Skin and Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines vanity project), but the volume of toxic prerelease publicity surrounding Lulu automatically qualifies this as a Top Ten entry. From the beginning, music writers (and more than a few Metallica and Lou Reed fans) balked at how nothing positive could come out of such a pairing.
But just like excessively negative reviews can make movies like Batman and Robin and Catwoman essential viewing for movie buffs, Lulu became a “must listen” event in its own right. Indeed, Lulu represented one of those rare moments that brought in people from all different musical backgrounds. You may not have picked up the album, but chances are if you have a Velvet Underground or Metallica record in your collection, the element of curiosity made you at least give one of the songs a listen.
One of Lulu‘s most notable accomplishments was how it gave some rock critics notoriety just because he or she wrote positively about the album. And for all the talk about how Lulu was destined to be on every critic’s “worst of” list in 2011, the album actually placed higher than such well-received release like Cut Copy’s Zonoscope and Lucinda Williams’ Blessed in 2011’s Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll.
Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Yes, it’s regarded as the Beastie Boys’ best album. Yes, it’s one of the best rap records of all time. But in 1989, few bands achieved such a commercial drop-off as the Beasties. Coming off nearly two years of lewd behavior and MTV dominance, people seemed to have had enough of the trio’s antics. Their heavy metal fans had releases by Metallica, Slayer, and Iron Maiden to keep them company. Rap fans were discovering N.W.A. MTV fans of the band were being entertained by Bon Jovi, Poison, and Motley Crue.
What’s a band to do? If you’re the Beastie Boys, you go to Los Angeles, experiment with a lot of psychedelic drugs, hire an unknown producer team known as the Dust Brothers, and overdose on pop culture references. At a time where the ‘70s were despised, the Beastie Boys created a sample-heavy love letter to that decade. Their follow-up to the number-one selling Licensed To Ill only made it to Number 14 on the Billboard charts. It would take almost five years before fans discovered what they were missing.
Cut the Crap (1985)
Even people who refuse to sway from “the only band that matters” label bestowed upon the Clash have problems with the band’s exit. Combat Rock may have dominated MTV, but most fans put the album on the second-tier of Clash favorites. But had group chose to end its run with that LP, few would have said they overstayed their welcome. But like Brett Favre coming back for another season after making it to NFC Championship or Muhammad Ali’s final fights, the Clash thought it had more chances to achieve greatness.
The recordings for the album were legendary for all the wrong reasons. The much needed melody/abrasive tension of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer was decimated when Strummer fired Jones. Mere months after Cut the Crap was released, the Clash disbanded.
Angel Dust (1992)
One year before Nirvana’s Nevermind changed the landscape of music, the success of Faith No More’s The Real Thing showed a potential sea change coming. “Epic” and “Falling to Pieces” managed to be both commercially popular and critically acclaimed. One of the most obvious predictors of 1991’s landscape-changing year was how in 1990 FNM’s videos received almost as much airplay as Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Poison’s “Unskinny Bop”.
The Real Thing won Faith No More literally millions of fans. Armed with a bigger budget, the band chose to spend its artistic capital by upping the weirdness factor found in Introduce Yourself and in deeper cuts on The Real Thing. The famous inside cover of freshly-butchered beef was a perfect warning for those expecting The Real Thing II. It may have lost FNM the majority of its fanbase, but Angel Dust remains a fan favorite. One year later, Nirvana took the exact same artistic liberties with In Utero.
Liz Phair (2003)
Contrary to what critics say, Liz Phair was more than 1993’s Exile in Guyville. That record may have forever defined her career, but most artists would gladly assume the burden of having an album that’s on a shortlist for “Best Album of the Decade” in their catalog. Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998) had a slick sheen to it, but lyrics about maternal anxiety and getting a lecture from a bartender were unmistakably Phair.
In the early part of the last decade, Phair had a choice: continue on her current path in the shadow the diminishing sales returns of some of her peers (see Tori Amos), or make one last attempt at superstardom. Hiring Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera producers the Matrix resulted in alt-rock fans disowning Phair before her self-titled album was even released. But upon its unveiling, Liz Phair was a debacle. “Why Can’t I?” was supposed to be a smash single, but it served only to be background music in trailers for forgettable movies and TV episodes. Phair even tried to retain her shock value with “H.W.C.”, but the public reaction was more of a bored “eww” than a shocked gasp.