10 Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Don’t)

Some of these are hopefully no-brainers, others may be head-scratchers. All of them are albums that deserve a fresh appraisal. Let me know what I missed (and got wrong) in the comments section.

 

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army — not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then — think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set — or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man”. First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

 

9. The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Stupid title. Silly cover. Blatant attempt to steal some thunder from The Beatles, who were possibly at the height of their critical and commercial influence following Sgt. Pepper. So what? The fact of the matter is that this is far from a failure, no matter how many people want to slag off this lesser Stones album. Perhaps time was on its side, or there has been some retribution, equal parts ironic and inevitable, which has seen Sgt. Pepper taken down a few pegs, while there isn’t quite as much venom spewed about Satanic. This was certainly not the Stones effort that spilled over with hits (again, so what?) but taken one by one, there is much to like — or at least defend — in lesser-known tunes like “Gomper”, “The Lantern” and “Citadel” (think Iggy Pop listened to that one a few thousand times?).

And then there are the winners: “She’s a Rainbow” (which gleefully rips off Arthur Lee and Love’s “She Comes in Colors” more than it does anything from Sgt. Pepper) and the band’s unique, convincing and corny stab at psychedelia, “2000 Light Years From Home”. And then the masterpiece that inexplicably brings together both Kiss and Wes Anderson: “2000 Man”. It may not be “A Day in the Life” but if you had to listen to one song once a day for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? I know which one I’d go with (and my kids, they just don’t understand me at all).

The historic import of this one is not inconsiderable, either: up until now The Stones were forever in the Fab Four’s shadow, enjoying (or being consigned to) being bad guys and competing as best they could. This was the last time they played the underdog role and beginning with Beggars Banquet their albums were never compared unfavorably with The Beatles’, or anyone else’s for that matter. On this album, even though it sounded very little like Sgt. Pepper, imitation was still the sincerest form of flattery. Its ostensible failure likely caused the band to realize that the rules they had been following were largely self-imposed, and once they got outside that box nobody could stand in their way. They took their lumps, upped the ante and then gleefully kicked every other act out of the way.

8 and 7

Some of these are hopefully no-brainers, others may be head-scratchers. All of them are albums that deserve a fresh appraisal. Let me know what I missed (and got wrong) in the comments section.

 

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about — but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It’s decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It’s also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton — who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

 

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and… that was that — at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat — literally. Wimbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number — not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa 1993. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now,Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

6 and 5

Some of these are hopefully no-brainers, others may be head-scratchers. All of them are albums that deserve a fresh appraisal. Let me know what I missed (and got wrong) in the comments section.

 

6. Cranes, Population 4 (1997)

Cranes should have been huge for the same reason they could never be huge: they were too original, eccentric and off-putting to reach a mass audience. They never fit in comfortably to an easily definable “style” back in a time (early-to-mid-‘90s) when it was crucial, if facile, to be easily defined. They were sort of shoegaze-y; they had elements of goth, dream pop, and straight-up rock. But the sounds were secondary; the thing that sealed– or broke — the deal was lead singer Alison Shaw’s voice. Angelic or irritatingly childlike, depending on one’s taste, this band is an acquired taste. But so are Neil Young and Black Sabbath.

On their early (and to most fans, best) works, like Wings of Joy and Forever, the emphasis is on languid, ethereal mood music, and Shaw’s inimitable (!) voice seems perfectly suited to the material — again, if you can get past the initial, unsettling delivery. On 1994’s Loved the music took on a harder edge (there were the tiniest traces of grunge here and there) and the juxtaposition of Shaw’s vocals and the rougher rhythms and edgy guitars provides an exhilarating contrast. Full of confidence and/or ambition, they pushed forward with 1997’s Population 4. I remember loving it, immediately, when it arrived and I still love it today. I may not be alone in my assessment, but I’ve read/heard/listened to entirely too many people ridicule and revile this effort to let it go undefended. Not only does it not suck, it’s very good bordering on excellent. Inexplicably dismissed as being a sell-out, as if anything on this album could qualify as “commercial”, it’s nevertheless accessible — relatively speaking.

There is a pop sensibility that perhaps alienated fans of the more subtle, cerebral material and one can almost imagine some of these songs (like the push-pull “Fourteen” or the ecstatic “Breeze”) on the radio — as if that is a bad thing. Radio would — and could — have been better for it if several of these tunes received regular airplay. For those who like their Cranes dark and brooding there is the delectably glacial “Angel Bell” (the tension between the acoustic strumming and cello-like electric guitar riffs is glorious) and the slo-mo implosion of album-closer “To Be”. In between there is the almost ebullient “Can’t Get Free”, the piano-driven toe-tapper “Brazil” and the near-disorienting perfection of “On Top of the World”. If you can get past that voice (and if you try, you will—and you’ll be glad you did) Population 4 will remind you, once again, that amazing music is always being made, especially when too many people are busy not trying to discover it.

 

5. Belly, King (1995)

This one is personal. If the world had been hip enough to get this, it would have had the success it deserved and Belly could have continued to make interesting music. As it was, the commercial failure splintered the band and that was that. Yes, Tanya Donelly made some noise on her own, but it was never the same. Perhaps this band was tapping into a distinctive early-to-mid0‘90s vibe and they would not have comfortably evolved. But Beck and Portishead, just to name two acts that made era-defining albums at this time, certainly proved that the better artists adapt while not necessarily changing. All of which is to say it’s simply a shame that an album that is better than anyone realizes ended up being the beginning of the end.

Perhaps anything they did would have been somewhat disappointing after the out-of-nowhere success of their debut, Star. There was, undeniably, something so fresh and innocently edgy (edgily innocent?) that it may have been a bit like catching pop rocks in a bottle. To their credit, the band did not try to make a carbon copy of their breakthrough — and it’s unlikely they would have had success even if they had made that cynical choice. King is definitely harder and darker, and if it’s more ambitious it’s also more mature — in a good way. It would be impossible to recreate the quirky ebullience of tracks like “Feed The Tree” or “Untogether”, just as it’s difficult to imagine that band doing anything like “Silverfish” or “Untitled and Unsung”.

It’s because of the sheer lyrical quality of songs like “Seal My Fate”, “Puberty” and the near-epic album closer “Judas My Heart” that Belly’s premature retirement still stings. Donelly also had an astonishing vocal range that does not get nearly the attention it deserves. She could croon (“The Bees”), coo (“King”) and soar ( “Super-Connected”), sometimes all in the same song (“Red”). Taking just the material from their two albums, a case could be made that this band could/should have been one of the major acts of the decade. As it is, attention must be paid to King and it needs to be reclaimed from the trash heap. Belly didn’t fail their audience here; their audience failed them—and they still do if they can’t figure out how worthwhile this effort is.

4 and 3

Some of these are hopefully no-brainers, others may be head-scratchers. All of them are albums that deserve a fresh appraisal. Let me know what I missed (and got wrong) in the comments section.

 

4. Pink Floyd, More (1969)

Here’s another one that may not be accused of sucking so much as not being acknowledged at all which, we should agree, is even worse. This is the single entry in the Pink Floyd catalog that might have fared better if it was not associated with the band. If More, incidental music for a film no one seems to have seen, was created by an obscure, one-and-done band, it would have turned up, by now, in some list as the great, lost psychedelic soundtrack. In reality, it’s an egregiously overlooked gem somewhat understandably lost in the vault of treasures the group made before, and after it.

From a purely historical perspective, More is an important album as it illustrates an evolution of the “Floyd sound”. In particular, the interplay between guitarist David Gilmour and keyboardist Rick Wright, which had been perfected by the time Dark Side of the Moon, and the masterpieces that followed, were made. The elements of (take your pick) psychedelia/space-rock/trippiness, executed with mixed results on A Saucerful of Secrets and their live sets of the time, abound but are sharpened by a less guarded (less calculated?) Gilmour, who liberally sprinkles in his blues roots and a rawer, less refined sound.

The album can be broken somewhat cleanly into two parts: the slower, acoustic pieces — mostly written by Roger Waters and sung by Gilmour — and the lucid, icy grandeur of the instrumentals. The acoustic tracks are worthwhile (particularly the hallucinogenic “Cirrus Minor” and “Green is the Colour”) but ultimately don’t rank with the band’s better work. It’s the dream sequences, at once evocative and mesmerizing, that make More a crucial stepping stone in the Floyd aesthetic and an indelible album in its own right. If you take the laid back confidence of “More Blues” and combine it with the aggressive, almost abrasive energy of “Ibiza Bar” you can almost predict where Meddle came from. Likewise, Rick Wright’s uncanny ability to create mood is showcased on “Quicksilver”, which anticipates “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. On “Main Theme” and “Dramatic Theme”, Gilmour and Wright lock into a groove and Waters and Nick Mason flex some rhythmic muscle.

It’s possible that Floyd would never sound this human again, and if they had to move on to bigger and better things (they did), there is sufficient evidence here that Floyd could balance raw and fresh and achieve a coolness without being chilly. Of course, no one could do light and dark with the dexterity of Floyd in their prime, and they make it sound easy here, perhaps because, for them, it was.

 

3. R.E.M., Monster (1994)

Several theories could be advanced about why Monsterwas not so warmly embraced, and why it remains the least-loved of the original band’s works. One possibility is that the previous album, Automatic for the People was so critically praised and commercially successful it made the band even more ubiquitous than they’d already been: as such, some blowback was inevitable. Another possibility is that this album was as unrefined and ugly (as if the title didn’t warn us) as anything the band had done. After the almost ethereal elegance that Automatic’s best songs attained, the contrast was perhaps too jarring for old — and especially newer, more fickle — fans. Yet another issue was the undeniable impact grunge had on everything circa 1993/94; any band (like Living Colour) that ostensibly roughed up their edges could be — and were — accused of bandwagon jumping and/or opportunism. Perhaps the most prevalent explanation is that Monster simply was not much of an album.

Any of the previous possibilities are possible and debatable, except for the last one. Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did — and do — dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band, especially the singer, lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document.

The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, and Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish — and embellish — the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it’s often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It’s entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.

Aside from the impossible-to-ignore presence of Buck, Stipe does some of his finest, if most overlooked work here. In fact, he was possibly never in more control of his range, shifting comfortably from straightforward rock (“Star 69”) to abrasive (“King of Comedy”) to tender (“Strange Currencies”). It’s when he pushes the envelope that the results are most remarkable, and rewarding: he sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well in “Crush With Eyeliner”, and instead of hiding behind Buck’s out-of-focus adrenaline rush, he inserts himself into the mix with his finest space-age twang. He uncorks his best falsetto for the sickly sweet “Tongue”, a song so filled with tenderness, self-loathing and remorse it’s like an accidental ballad. Finally, on album closer “You”, he is an entirely different singer than the lithe crooner from the ‘80s and early ‘90s: he sounds all grown up and is most definitely not faking it, the confusion and desperation almost uncomfortably palpable in each line.

This is not party music. It’s not music you can put on while you study or read or fall asleep. It’s noisy, occasionally ugly, abrupt and most of all, unapologetic. It’s music that demands your attention, but it doesn’t ask for it: if you are not interested, it says, you can listen to something else. There is an audacity and casual indifference informing almost each song that clearly turned off the fickle fans. I’m not suggesting that to be a real R.E.M. fan you have to love Monster, but I am saying that if you casually dismissed it or never took the time to let it sink its claws in, you’re depriving yourself the pleasure of experiencing what may be the most unfairly-maligned rock album ever.

2

Some of these are hopefully no-brainers, others may be head-scratchers. All of them are albums that deserve a fresh appraisal. Let me know what I missed (and got wrong) in the comments section.

 

2. Black Sabbath, Never Say Die! (1978)

Maybe Ozzy really did sell his soul to the devil. How else to explain his solo albums getting more love — even amongst old school Black Sabbath fans — than the last album he made with his first band? It’s genuinely inexplicable, and more than a little exasperating. There’s no need to diminish the moments of excellence contained in those first two solo albums, which briefly brought Randy Rhoads the mass audience he deserved and should have had for many more years. However, it has to be said and without the slightest bit of hesitation: nothing Ozzy did after 1980 can hold a candle to anything he did with Sabbath, and none of those solo albums (even the first two) belong in the same conversation as Never Say Die! which is not only a near masterpiece, but boasts some of the band’s best playing and Ozzy’s all-time best singing.

Who cares that Ozzy was a miserable mess during the recording, or that he left (or was fired) after its release? Who cares that the album did not have any big hits (though it could — and should– have), and who cares whether or not any of the actual band members rate this as highly as the others? On any objective and rational level, the songwriting is for the most part heads and shoulders above the previous effort, Technical Ecstasy (which, while having some outstanding tracks, is the closest Sabbath every came to mediocrity in the ‘70s). It is, in many ways, easy to compare Never Say Die! with the soon-to-be-discussed In Through the Out Door: both albums represent the last recordings by the original band, and each one is largely dismissed not only by the majority of the critical establishment, but more importantly, the fans themselves. In the case of both records, some of the band’s best work appears and it’s because it’s a departure from the “classic sound” of earlier albums less adventurous, not to mention less astute, ears can’t hear the myriad glories contained in each.

Taking it on a song-by-song basis, it’s not even necessary to bring in the last couple of songs: the brass-heavy “Break Out” (which is nothing if not an interesting departure) and the album-closer “Swinging The Chain” (which features robust, if unfamiliar vocals from drummer Bill Ward — a curiosity that many folks can’t get behind). I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy, and possibly brilliant gambit to carry on as a trio and have Ward sing for Ozzy instead of recruiting outside services (no hatred here for Ronnie James Dio, but anyone who compares anything the band did with him with anything the band did with Ozzy is kidding themselves).

What I’ve never been able to reconcile is the general indifference and/or disdain with which this album is met. It can’t be the musicianship, which is not only up to par, but as good as anything the band did. In fact, the production is a marked improvement over most of their work, and the listener can fully (and finally!) appreciate the intricacies and delights of Geezer Butler’s bass playing. Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of that decade: on every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins.

But the real head-scratcher is why this album is not worshipped (by Sabbath fans, but also by everyone) as one of the all-time great guitar workouts. Tony Iommi is second only to Jimmy Page in terms of the sheer quantity — and quality — of riffs and melodies, and his playing, the fast, the furious, the subtle, the sweet, inspired a literal generation of imitators. On every single song here he unleashes solos that are blistering but logical; sizzling but soulful. Even Ozzy, as truculent or burnt crisp as he may have been, managed (or was prodded) to deliver some of his most affecting vocal work.

The title track should have been an anthem; of course it’s more than a little ironic that the resolve and exultation it depicts turned out to be the swan song of a band about to splinter. The keyboard flourishes on both the adrenalized “Johnny Blade” and the almost elegant “Air Dance” (this features Ozzy and Iommi as good as they ever were) may alienate fans (though those same stylings were evident on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath not to mention Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy. How could anyone argue with the scorched earth celebration that is “Shock Wave”? What could anyone possibly find underwhelming about “Junior’s Eyes”, from Geezer’s funky fingerwork on the extended intro to the multi-tracked layers of guitar sounds to the way the song builds to a shrieking climax (Iommi!) and then, instead of fading out, doubles down?

And finally, how can anyone be unmoved by the crowded pub singalong of “A Hard Road”? This last song, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice, is a tour de force of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code to Sabbath’s last great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past / And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast — you know.”

1

Some of these are hopefully no-brainers, others may be head-scratchers. All of them are albums that deserve a fresh appraisal. Let me know what I missed (and got wrong) in the comments section.

 

1. Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door (1979)

There are three distinctive types of Led Zeppelin fans. The first group knows Zep is great because of the classic songs (mostly from their second and fourth albums) that get consistent radio play. These people may also own the second and fourth album and possibly a greatest hits collection. The second group are the ones who own everything except Presence and In Through The Out Door but they don’t need to, because everyone knows those are lesser efforts and not in the same class as the early stuff, especially the second and fourth album. The third type is the fan who not only owns every Zeppelin album, but understands that Zeppelin didn’t make any bad albums. This type of fan also understands that the second and fourth albums, as great as they were, do not represent the best band besides The Beatles at their best. In fact, this small (tiny?) group of aficionados realizes that in many regards Zeppelin got better as they went along, and their final two albums are as good or better than almost anything else the band did.

Who’s with me? Very few people, I know. And I could care less. All I care about is setting the record straight: I’ve been listening to people (many of whom claim to love and really get Led Zeppelin) do everything from damn this album with faint praise to categorically write it off as an embarrassment. The only thing embarrassing about this album is how few people have heard it. And by ‘hear’ it I don’t mean ‘listened’ to it; I mean heard it. This might even include some members of the band who have never had many good things to say. I know Jimmy Page is not crazy about the album, which is understandable considering the shape he was in while it was made. I don’t understand why even he doesn’t realize how remarkable his playing is throughout the proceedings — as if he couldn’t help but be brilliant, not matter what his physical and emotional state of being.

It has been amply documented that while Page quietly battled his heroin addiction and Bonham steadily lost control of the alcoholism that would claim his life in 1980, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones shared co-pilot duties. Certainly this can be — and has been — called Jonesy’s album, and in many regards it is. But “even” relegated to glorified session player (a ludicrous charge in any event), Page is as much a part of this album as he was any of them. His playing is arguably more refined, and he picks his spots, but he’s all over the place. Even on songs dominated by keyboards, such as “Carouselambra” and “South Bound Saurez”, Page’s guitar is crucial. It would seem that entirely too many listeners simply can’t fathom that unless Page is out front and center, he is not being adequately represented (perhaps Page himself felt this). Gone forever are the riff-laden air guitar anthems (again those second and fourth albums) and in their place are songs that employ subtlety, depth and…(gasp) humor.

But before we get to the humor and the subtlety, let’s not kid ourselves: Page is in full effect on album opener, “In The Evening”. This is, in fact, as god-like as Page ever got, and even though some may sniff at the sounds of synth in the background, they only embellish the monstrous assault from Page—and Plant. After the foreboding of the extended intro, it’s like the band is shot out of a cannon, with Page picking up where “Achilles Last Stand” left off, creating riffs that are at once sludgy and superhuman. Of course there is the solo: from 3.43 to 4.56 that is as golden as the gods ever got, and as soulful. On album-closer “I’m Gonna Crawl”, which is most definitely a Jones/Plant joint, Page nevertheless delivers one of his most coruscating solos: it’s languid and totally without frills, it’s simply emotion and feeling and serves as an unintentionally perfect grace note for Zeppelin to go out on.

Getting back to John Paul Jones. It’s unfortunate enough that the band would be unable to continue after Bonham’s death; it remains tantalizing to think about how much music Jonesy had left in him, and if the band could have evolved with him taking a larger role. One of the largest misconceptions about In Through the Out Door is that it’s the half-hearted result of a band on its last legs, limping to the finish line before fading away. In reality, the band had every intention of making more music, and while Page certainly would have asserted himself more on the next effort, Jones was responsible for pushing the sound into the future. “Carouselambra” suffers a bit in comparison to other Zep epics, like “Achilles Last Stand”, “In My Time of Dying”, “Kashmir” and “When The Levee Breaks”, but it’s an ambitious, totally original composition, anticipating what music would sound like in the early part of the next decade.

The one-two punch of “South Bound Saurez” and “Fool in the Rain” are also dominated by Jones and revealing a range of influences (Latin, boogie) that Zep had never embraced so openly and effectively. On both songs Page and Bonham demonstrate that even if their heads (and possibly hearts) weren’t entirely into it, they were capable of genius by default. And while we marvel at where Jones is taking things, the unyielding force from beginning to end is Robert Plant: he never disappoints and he seldom seems satisfied. Less a bare-chested lion swinging his microphone on stage and more an elder statesman, he observes the excess and indulgence around him and always puts the music first: this is his ultimate legacy as the best frontman of the ‘70s. Even as he reigned supreme as the ultimate rock vocalist, there is always a sense of play and passion in every song he sings. That focus and flamboyance remains in perfect balance, and on each song Plant is a man spilling over, as ever, with confidence and purpose.

And then there’s “Hot Dog”. More than a few people would likely agree that this is the single-worst song Zeppelin recorded. Those people need to be reminded that Zeppelin did not make any bad songs and that, in any event, “Hot Dog” is a better song on every level than well-loved tunes like “Ramble On” and “The Immigrant Song”. On their early work Zep did not exhibit much, if any, sense of humor; certainly nothing self-deprecating. “Hot Dog” reveals the band (or more specifically, Robert Plant) at its most unguarded, and it’s at once a hilarious and deeply respectful send up of older school rock. To understand — and appreciate — “Hot Dog” one needs to understand, and appreciate, Plant’s worship of Elvis. Importantly, Elvis had passed away only two years before, making this less a tongue-in-cheek tribute and than a genuine moment of worship. Also worth noting is that Page turns in one of his most truncated, but delectable solos: the mood is light, but the music is serious, and sensational.

In Through The Out Door is not Led Zeppelin’s most representative work and it’s not their best work, but taken as a whole, and even song-by-song, it stands up with anything they did. In some regards it represents the band at their most mature and adventurous. It hints at what might have been, and serves as a reminder of what most definitely was. These songs are not as immediately accessible as much of the band’s work, but like the songs on Presence, they cut deeper and stay longer. They are not the songs hardwired in your mind that you nod along to on the radio; they are songs that continue to astonish, delight and, after all these years, manage to surprise. That is as close to miraculous as any rock music ever gets.

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