What are the greatest albums of the rock era?
Rolling Stone attempted to answer that question recently, with the Rolling Stone 200 - “a definitive list of the essential CDs of the rock ‘n’ roll era,” as the magazine modestly put it.
Looking at the Rolling Stone list, however, raises another question: What are the most overrated albums of the rock era? So I polled some colleagues - David Browne of Entertainment Weekly, Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, Edna Gunderson of USA Today, Dave Marsh of Playboy and Ann Powers of Spin.
Each critic was asked to name five albums he or she thought were nowhere near as great as they’re made out to be.
These albums didn’t have to be on the Rolling Stone list, but most were. Interestingly, there was no overlap between the various lists.
Our criteria were simple. First, each album had to be considered a classic, either by critics or other musicians. We didn’t just want lousy, we wanted lousy-mistaken-for-great.
Moreover, these albums had to be influential. “I would love to say Black Sabbath is overrated, but I don’t think anybody takes them seriously,” says Christgau.
Finally, that influence has to have been for the worse.
Here are our top - or should it be bottom? - 30. Each album is listed chronologically, not in order of overratedness, with the name of the critic who voted for it.
John Mayall, “Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” (London, 1965). This wasn’t the first white blues album to make the mistake of thinking that slick guitar playing was more important than credible singing, but it was definitely the most egregious. - Christgau
Jefferson Airplane, “Surrealistic Pillow” (RCA, 1967). Take away “Somebody to Love” (which belonged to Grace Slick’s first band, anyway), and what you’re left with are the worst sins of bohemia: Directionless jamming and pretentious hippie twaddle. - Considine
Cream, “Wheels of Fire” (Polydor, 1968). Pare it down to the studio sessions, and this isn’t half bad. But live tracks - particularly “Toad” - are deadly. - Powers
The Who, “Tommy” (MCA, 1969). No, it’s not an opera; it’s barely even a Broadway show. And a handful of singles do not a cogent statement make. - Powers
The Beatles, “The Beatles” (The White Album) (Apple, 1968). The mother of all overindulgent double albums, its strengths are not enough to justify the amount of filler (“Martha My Dear,” “Long, Long, Long”) on hand. - Considine
Captain Beefheart, “Trout Mask Replica” (Reprise, 1969). Weirdness for its own sake may be worth recording, but this virtually makes a fetish of Beefheart’s quirks, in the process undermining the band’s musical strengths. - Considine
The Grateful Dead, “Workingman’s Dead” (Warner Bros., 1970). Though among the band’s best, it remains unremarkable countrified psychedelia larded with lumbering hippie jams. - Gunderson
Velvet Underground, “Loaded” (Rhino/Atlantic, 1970). Yes, it’s got “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” but, in general, too much wimpy light and not enough heat. - Browne
Sly and the Family Stone, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” (Epic, 1971). Except for the great “Family Affair,” this aural sludge will have you nodding off faster than whatever Sly was on at the time. - Browne
George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass” (Apple, 1971). The all-time most overrated record, it was praised to the skies at the time, and got five stars in the first Rolling Stone Record Guide. - Christgau
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (Tamla, 1971) Good as the singles are, the album as a whole is remarkably shallow, more a testament to the arranging skills of David Van dePitte than to Gaye’s singing or songwriting. - Christgau
Allman Brothers Band, “At Fillmore East” (Capricorn, 1971). Their jams may have seemed timeless if you were in the audience, but on album they’re simply interminable. - Browne
Pink Floyd, “Dark Side of the Moon” (Capitol, 1973). Dour, airless, emotionally shut down, “Dark Side of the Moon” made a fetish of a form of artistic solipsism that, in rock, came to be known by the same word that got Dr. Jocelyn Elders thrown out of the Clinton administration. - Powers
King Crimson, “Red” (EG, 1974) Pretentious lyrics and mock-portentous singing is bad enough, but it’s the needless complexity of the riffage that ultimately sinks this. Heavy metal with postgraduate pretensions. - Marsh
Eno Another, “Green World” (EG/Virgin, 1975). Making interesting sounds involves craft; turning them into great music demands artistry. Unfortunately, this album never gets better than crafty. - Marsh
The Eagles, “Hotel California” (Asylum, 1976). “Life in the Fast Lane” vividly depicts the excesses of SoCal yuppie culture. The rest is merely excessive. - Gunderson
Ramones, “Rocket to Russia” (Sire, 1977). Musically, the Ramones said all they had to say by the end of their first album. All this third LP adds to the equation is a patina of instrumental competence. - Marsh
Rolling Stones, “Some Girls” (Rolling Stones/ Virgin, 1978). Apart from Keith Richards’ “Before They Make Me Run,” what at first sounded fiery now seems sloppy, arrogant and affected. Nor has the casual racism of the title tune aged well. - Browne
Gang of Four, “Entertainment!” (Infinite Zero, 1979). Funk for people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a Rick James album in their library. - Marsh
Pink Floyd, “The Wall” (Columbia, 1979). “We don’t need no double album/We don’t need psychology/No dark glimpses at rock star’s childhoods/Hey! Pink Floyd! Leave that stuff alone.” - Gunderson
Frank Zappa, “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar” (Barking Pumpkin, 1981). On second thought, just shut up. - Powers
Minutemen, “Double Nickels on the Dime” (SST, 1984). Sloppy punk-jazz and even sloppier sub-beat poetry from the most overrated band of the ‘80s indie rock scene. - Browne
The Jesus & Mary Chain, “Psychocandy” (Reprise, 1985). Retro-rock melodies laced with earwrenching distortion may work for a single. It does not justify an entire album. - Considine
Prince, “Sign ‘o’ the Times” (Paisley Park, 1987). Though there are moments of brilliance (“U Got the Look,” for example) others, like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “The Cross,” are enough to make you doubt Prince’s sanity. - Considine
Guns N’ Roses, “Appetite for Destruction” (Geffen, 1987). It’s fine to endorse the cathartic and menacing qualities of the L.A. band’s savage rock, but too many fawning pundits ignored the obvious Spinal Tap parallels and, worse, turned a deaf ear to misogyny, bigotry and racism. - Gunderson
Don Henley, “The End of the Innocence” (Geffen, 1989). As instrumentally overblown as the worst art rock and as lyrically shallow as any psychobabble. Proof that if you say something stupid with a straight enough face, people will think you’re a genius. - Christgau
Liz Phair, “Exile in Guyville” (Matador, 1993). Cussing girl singer meets blushing boy critics and a rock queen is crowned. And did anybody ever explain how, exactly, this was supposed to equal “Exile on Mainstreet”? - Anderson
Dr. Dre, “The Chronic” (Death Row, 1993). Some albums seem better in retrospect; this one seems great only because we’ve heard the singles in remix. - Christgau
Guided By Voices, “Bee Thousand” (Scat/ Matador, 1994). Badly recorded, Beatlesque song fragments may make for an interesting aesthetic statement. But great rock? Get serious. - Powers
Smashing Pumpkins, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (Virgin, 1996). The only thing more pathetic than wallowing in teenaged angst is doing so when you’re in your 30s. Billy Corgan’s everynote-is-sacred approach to recording doesn’t help matters, either. - Marsh