10 guilty pleasure albums
Image by Prawny from Pixabay

10 ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Albums to Hide from Your Friends

Some of these turkeys are egregious enough to end marriages. So lock the door, turn out the lights, and watch us set fire to whatever credibility we have left.

Music “street cred” is a precious commodity for critics. We inveterate snobs sit perched on high, passing objective judgment on an industry that is, by definition, entirely subjective. Our preferences nearly always align against the public and, therefore, the almighty dollar, setting us up for penury and much-deserved ridicule. Such fashionable disregard is the source of our priceless credibility, or so we tell ourselves. Put simply? While we may know a lot about music, we can also be a real pain in the ass.

But every rose has its thorn (sorry), and every pompous critic has a few rotting skeletons in their musical closet. Well-known hit albums that, by all rights, should never soil our privileged speakers, yet somehow claw their way onto the rotation and linger there like mold for years in some cases. Of course, this doesn’t mean we want anyone else to know about it.

Fortunately, representing the Old Guard means never having to say you’re sorry. So, after two decades in this racket, it’s time to bare my soul with self-immolating glee. “Overplayed but respected” doesn’t count, while “Greatest Hits” compilations are fair game. Some obvious choices are missing – Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and the Carpenters were Gen-X rites of childhood, not a source of embarrassment. And a guilty pleasure nobody ever heard of, ain’t guilty at all.

Seriously, some of these turkeys are egregious enough to end marriages. So, all you music zombies: Lock the door, turn out the lights, and watch us joyously set fire to whatever meager credibility we have left.

10. .38 Special – Flashback: The Best of .38 Special (1987)

A good friend with impeccable music taste once claimed that where song structure is concerned, every catchy corporate-rock hit since 1983 is nothing more than repackaged .38 Special. Wise words, yet hardly a criticism. These guys were the Dr. Frankenstein of 1980s album-oriented rock, penning hook-laden ear candy like “Hold on Loosely” and “So Caught Up in You” that a million other acts tried to replicate. All failed miserably. (Cue up Toad the Wet Sprocket and tell us we’re wrong.) .38 Special started as a Southern boogie band before achieving arena-rock stardom, so some of these tracks don’t mesh with the hits. But if we’re being brutally honest, Donnie Van Zandt and his crew still sound better than half the garbage on our snooty, enlightened playlist.

9. Wendy & Lisa – Wendy & Lisa (1987)

How did an unknown album by two women you never heard of make this list? Ah, but you have heard of them. Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman were members of the biggest band in the world, Prince and the Revolution, when Purple Rain conquered the universe in 1984. This Sapphic, erotically charged, surprisingly propulsive record has no place on any self-respecting rock lover’s shelf. Yet this critic freely admits to having a ‘thing’ for spandex-clad Wendy Melvoin back in the day, which might explain why we gave Wendy & Lisa a chance all those years ago. I hate to say as much, but this record’s jazzy tones and smoky, seductive vocals still invade my playlist at least twice per month. Just don’t tell anybody, okay?

8. Styx – The Serpent Is Rising (1973)

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, please permit us to extol the virtues of this sonic outcast one last time. Arena-rock heroes Styx sold upwards of 50 million records, leaving the bizarre Serpent Is Rising just dangling there, like a schlocky horror film on a Hollywood A-lister’s resume. Sure, it may be utterly forgotten by humanity, and die-hard Styx fans with “Renegade” on endless repeat wouldn’t be caught dead listening to this poor man’s Yes ripoff. And yet? Stuffed with nutty detours and head-scratcher “what were they thinking” moments, Serpent sounds far more inspired today than the band gave itself credit for. This ‘anything goes, no guardrails’ mentality is precisely what early 1970s rock and roll was supposed to be all about.

7. Seals & Crofts – One on One (Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1977)

Blame this one on dear old Dad. Seals & Crofts’ 1975 Greatest Hits compilation had already spent two years on heavy household rotation when the Rocky-esque basketball film “One on One” followed “Star Wars” into theaters that fateful summer of 1977. This wimpy yet oddly appealing soundtrack duly took over Dad’s turntable. Written by Charles Fox and the ubiquitous Paul Williams – he of countless “Love Boat” appearances – One on One’s score plays like a second-rate Graduate, but we adore it anyhow. Sprinkled among the film’s cues and instrumentals are some genuinely excellent soft-rock tracks like “John Wayne”, “Love Conquers All”, and #28 hit “My Fair Share”. Getting Fox and Williams to write your movie songs was smart business; hiring prime-era Seals and Crofts to sing them at the height of their fame was a stroke of genius.

6. Men at Work – Business as Usual (1981)

Fifteen weeks atop the US album chart. Two #1 smash-hit singles. Endless years of heavy MTV video rotation. Can you say yuck? Superman should bathe in Kryptonite before any self-respecting rock critic would cue up this nauseatingly popular fan favorite. And yet, here we are! Alongside massive hits like “Down Under”, “Who Can It Be Now?”, and “Be Good Johnny”, Men at Work’s Business as Usual sneaks in under the radar with some of the most sublime New Wave-inflected tracks of the early 1980s.

With its angular guitars and quirky underwater sound effects, the heartbreaking “I Can See It in Your Eyes” could teach Thomas Dolby a thing or two and probably did. Greg Ham’s trademark saxophone adds gravitas to “People Just Love to Play with Words” and “Underground”, while epic album closer “Down by the Sea” would feel (mostly) at home on an early Church record. Yours truly was a few years late to the party with Business as Usual. But we’ve made up for it since.

5. Christopher Cross – Christopher Cross (1979) and Best of Christopher Cross (1993)

Christopher Cross won five Grammy Awards for his eponymous debut, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year (#1 hit “Sailing”), and Best New Artist. This feat stood for 40 years until Billie Eilish replicated it in 2020. 1981’s “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” nabbed him another chart-topper, plus an Oscar for Best Original Song shared with the estimable Burt Bacharach. Then the rise of pretty-boy MTV rendered him a homely punchline. But Cross was an underrated shredding guitarist whose adult-lite pop confections have achieved surprising staying power, particularly “Ride Like the Wind”, which throws off more hard-fought sincerity than most of today’s pop dross. Not to mention Michael McDonald guesting on his debut album. It must be nice, right? For whatever messed-up reason, Cross’ Best Of compilation is a singalong favorite on car rides with my hip, image-conscious Gen-Z teens. Hey, what can we say? Daddy yacht-rock RULZ!

4. Genesis – Abacab (1981)

Progressive rock-era Genesis is justly revered, and this reviewer considers 1980’s Duke one of the great underappreciated albums of that decade. This leaves 1981’s disposable Abacab as the odd man out – Genesis’ first proper foray into unadulterated glossy pop, yet still lacking the smash singles Invisible Touch would deliver a few years later. Cue up Abacab in a room full of Genesis buffs, and most of them will probably melt away. But when analyzed song-by-song – leaving aside the dreadful “Crunge”-like “Who Dunnit” – where exactly is the problem? As a high-school buddy once pointed out, the title track’s hyper-sexualized beat is perfectly syncopated for seven minutes of heavy screwing.

“No Reply at All” features Earth, Wind and Fire’s inimitable horn section, presaging future solo hits like Collins’ “Sussudio”. “Me and Sarah Jane’s” gripping final two minutes (“Tears of joy and mocking laughter / Words lost in the wind”) rank among our top-five passages to ‘cry when nobody’s looking’. Don’t get me started on the yearning, black-as-night “Keep It Dark”, perhaps Collins’ most intense and gratifying vocal performance. Truth be told? Abacab barely made this list because I’m right, and all the stuck-up cognoscenti are wrong. So there.

3. Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies (1994)

Let’s stipulate up front: I hated grunge. Sure, everybody bought Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” indeed changed the world. But apres Kurt Cobain, le deluge! Did Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” really deserve 15 weeks atop the US Album Rock chart? Between that and Soundgarden’s inescapable “Black Hole Sun”, 1994 was a dark year indeed for genre haters. Yet one lone grunge CD did sneak its way into my haughty collection and remains in regular rotation three decades later.

Basically a 30-minute suicide note from lead singer Layne Staley, this searing, unplugged masterpiece carries more emotional punch than most max-volume metal you can name. “I Stay Away” and the singular addiction epic “No Excuses” are the centerpieces and speak for themselves. But “Nutshell” and “Don’t Follow” evoke scars and tearful sympathy as well. Alice in ChainsJar of Flies was well-received by just about everyone and might be the most respected album on this list. But 30 years later, it remains the sole grunge recording on this unabashed apostate’s shelf. There will be no others.

2. Cinderella – Long Cold Winter (1988)

Take every preceding epithet about grunge, multiply by 100, and you might come close to the unmitigated venom we harbor for late 1980s hair metal. Forget second-stringers like Skid Row or Winger. Even sentimental chart-toppers like Bon Jovi and Poison left me frigid and still do. But if one dirty, inconvenient, exasperating hair-metal skeleton still rattles around our oh-so-refined closet, it’s Cinderella’s Long Cold Winter. A la the Rolling Stones or classic Aerosmith, the band took an unexpected bluesy turn after 1986’s trashy Night Songs, mixing buoyant pop verve with remarkably strong material (for this accursed genre, anyway).

Our vaunted hair-metal antibodies sustained a mortal blow the first time we heard “Gypsy Road’s” woozy, mind-blowing central riff. Then “Last Mile’s” joyful AC/DC exuberance knocked us to the mat, and we succumbed forever to “Coming Home’s” Zeppelin-esque mix of hard rock and sensitive folk-balladry. If nothing else, Long Cold Winter is still fun as all hell – a cheesy 1980s netherworld where time stops, booze flows, and every long-haired girl (and guy!) says yes. Go ahead, make fun of a babbling old geezer. But three decades later, I regret nothing.

1. Hootie and the Blowfish – Cracked Rear View (1994)

Oh geez, where to begin? How about irredeemable? Reprehensible? Beyond the solace of god or man? Cracked Rear View is neither my favorite album on this list nor the best. But it represents the darkest depths to which my otherwise sainted playlist ever sinks – a stain upon my ancestors, my descendants, and nearly the entire critic population. Cracked Rear View was the bestselling US album of 1995. Even two years after its release, one couldn’t visit an upper-crust lounge or restaurant without “Hold My Hand” blaring from the speakers.

Aside from its disqualifying popularity, View’s musical flaws are painfully obvious: oversimplified pop hooks, ham-fisted Bob Dylan references, plus the grating doe-like innocence of a halfway-decent Carolina bar band that PRACTICED REAL HARD and somehow made the big time. Yet that was the secret to Cracked Rear View’s damnable charm and remains so. No amount of condescension could ever gainsay Darius Rucker’s splendid pipes, likened to honey molasses by better writers than me.

The songs, seemingly ingrained in the country’s DNA by relentless repetition, are a nostalgic head-trip back to a carefree pre-Internet era of first dates, broken hearts, and lost telephone numbers. For a certain cohort, Cracked Rear View is fondly remembered as the party soundtrack to the best years of our lives, even if we barely knew it then. Where art thou, Hot Tub Time Machine?