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No Code (1996)
It’s tough to determine if No Code was Pearl Jam’s career suicide album or if that distinction should be awarded to their previous effort, Vitalogy (1994). True, Vitalogy was a commercial blockbuster, selling almost a million copies in its first week and even selling 35,000 copies a week earlier thanks to a vinyl-only release. But something had to alienate fans from snatching up No Code. And while “Better Man” and “Corduroy” remain classic rock staples today, those songs still came from an album whose songs included the accordion-fueled “Bugs” and seven-minute droner “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”.
Some fans angry with Vitalogy‘s artistic risks/failures grumbled, “I wish Eddie Vedder would just shut up and rock out.” That wish was granted on the more straightforward No Code. The album may suffer from a painful lack of variety, but it’s hard to not get caught up in the exuberance of “Hail Hail” or the quiet beauty of “Off He Goes”. Credit should also go to drummer Jack Irons for giving some much-needed air to the band’s sound, clearing out the stuffiness of some of Pearl Jam’s previous efforts. At the height of alternative mania, Eddie Vedder routinely wished people would leave him and his band alone so they could just play. With No Code Vedder got what he wanted, and he and his band have not looked back since.
In the mid-‘90s, “alternative radio” was saturated with so many bands, it was hard to track which ones were going to go on to future success, and which ones were destined for spots on “I Love the ‘90s” compilations. Better Than Ezra, Radiohead, Collective Soul, the Flaming Lips, Candlebox, Beck, Deadeye Dick, Bush, Oasis, and Weezer could be heard in the same rotation. So when it came to a follow-up, 1996 proved to be a far different year than 1994. Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews were selling, Collective Soul and Better Than Ezra were tanking.
With an improving economy and general angst fatigue settling in, it was easy to see how an album like Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View could sell 10 million copies. It was also easy to see that a follow-up to a well-received, but not “important” album would fail commercially if said album was filled with abrasive, pain-filled confessionals. Pinkerton barely debuted in the top 20 and quickly disappeared from the album charts. In 1996, the only notable appearance Pinkerton received was on several critics’ “Worst Of” list.
And well… you know the rest of the story. Raw, stripped-down music made a huge comeback in the first half of the last decade. Rivers Cuomo’s writing style in Pinkerton became the template for dozens of bands. And despite Cuomo’s public “love/hate” relationship with the album, it continues to reward the band in ways that “The Green Album” and Make Believe never could.
No rock list, good or bad, is complete without a Bob Dylan reference. After Nashville Skyline became another classic in Dylan’s collection, he released a half-baked album of covers and instrumentals. That’s hardly an offense as most longterm artists have done this, but Self-Portrait ran an exhausting 70-plus minutes.
Few albums have done as much damage to an artist as Self-Portrait. The album served as a brutal knockout punch for Dylan during the first part of the ‘70s. Subsequent LPs New Morning (1970) and Planet Waves (1974) sounded like efforts by an artist trying to regain his confidence. Dylan would later state that Self-Portrait was recorded primarily to repel listeners, proving Dylan’s well-known capability of being a dick whenever the need arises.
Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994)
Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait may have set his career back five years, but Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age all but destroyed Public Enemy’s presence in the music world. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Public Enemy was untouchable when it came to making vital, incendiary, and flat-out exciting music. Fear of a Black Planet (1990) managed to succeed despite the controversy surrounding Professor Griff’s dismissal from the band after his remarks about Jewish people. Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991) managed to be a smash despite outrage over the video “By the Time I Get to Arizona”. The main reason for this was because the material in those albums easily eclipsed the controversy that dogged the band.
The same can’t be said for Muse Sick n-Hour Mess Age. Toure’s famous two-star rating in Rolling Stone remains one of the most brutal pans in the magazine’s history. Even with the critical drubbing Muse Sick received, it still produced one incredible jam, the laid back, incredibly catchy “Give It Up”. Unfortunately, the rest of the album lacked that song’s hooks, confidence, and sense of purpose. The band would regain its footing slightly with the soundtrack to He Got Game, but since then, Public Enemy has largely stuck to the underground with albums like There’s a Poison Goin’ On and New Whirl Odor—albums that even some professed die-hard fans may not know exist for purchase.
Metal Machine Music (1975)
For an artist as fascinating as Lou Reed, it’s appropriate that he occupies not one, but two slots in this list. There’s no way that a list of career suicide albums could not be topped by Metal Machine Music. Nearly 40 years after its release, it still remains the go-to comparison to any artist’s career-ending album (e.g. With Trans Neil Young may have created his own Metal Machine Music).
The four “songs”, simply titled “Metal Machine Music Part 1-4”, were devoid of hooks and tunefulness, and were generally considered to be white noise. So derided was the album that its developed its own cult as people have defended Reed’s work as being a precursor to industrial music. One of the biggest legends attached to Metal Machine Music was that some fans returned it to record stores, worried that they received a defective vinyl copy. It’s likely that another reissue of Metal Machine Music will come in a few years, which is justifiable, given the album’s legendary status. But few records deserve the “easier to admire than love” label than Reed’s “was it or wasn’t it a joke?” exercise in audio sadomasochism.