I spent most of my teens in relative isolation in Australia, in a small town, pre-world-wide-web. Since there was no street press in my town and we weren't a major market, there were no ads, posters or billboards announcing new releases: you found out when your favorite band had a new album out by scanning the 'New Releases' section at the local CD store. American magazines weren't much help for keeping up on the latest info: by the time Guitar World got to my town it was about four months out of date. So there was no real way to gauge the general public opinion about albums, other than actually asking the general public. And since nobody else in town seemed to like the same stuff as me, that wasn't really going to happen. As a result I seem to have formed attachments with albums that other folks didn't quite connect with – not even fans of those bands.
Okay, so 'albums most people thought sucked' might be a kinda strong term - each of these albums has their supporters - but a lot of these records do still get a bit of a drubbing from fans on forums to this day. Maybe you like 'em, maybe you don't - but these are my five favorite albums that most people thought sucked.
David Bowie - 1.Outside
Most people start listening to Bowie via his Ziggy Stardust era, or maybe the ‘80s Let's Dance stuff featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Only later do they tend to stumble upon the brilliant 'Berlin' albums). But my first Bowie album was 1.Outside, which I won in a ’25 Words Or Less’ contest in the newspaper. It was supposed to be Bowie's big millennial statement: he was going to release a series of albums between 1995 and 1999 telling a story of murder as art, art as murder, detectives, gothic dominatrixes and other pretty dark stuff. The album finds Bowie working with ‘70s collaborator Brian Eno again on material littered with industrial ambience, avant garde experimentalism, Alladin Sane-style atonal piano courtesy of Mike Garson, and the brilliantly leftfield textures of guitarist Reeves Gabrels. It also features some of Bowie's best latter-period pop songwriting, in the form of "Strangers When We Meet." "Hallo Spaceboy" would go on to be a set list favorite but many fans - especially more casual ones - felt that 1.Outside was too ambitious, too grimy and too dark. For whatever reason, the project was dropped after 1.Outside, and although snippets of other tracks from the sessions have emerged over the years, it looks extremely unlikely that we’ll ever get to the bottom of this story.
Black Sabbath - Eternal Idol
The ‘80s were pretty hard on Black Sabbath. They'd released a few critically acclaimed albums with Ronnie James Dio and one well-charting but somewhat poorly reviewed one with Deep Purple's Ian Gillan (Born Again) before calling it quits. Tony Iommi had begun work on a solo album with Glenn Hughes on vocals, but Warner Bros. Records and manager Don Arden pressured Iommi to bill the album as Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi. By the time Eternal Idol was released Iommi was working with vocalist Tony Martin (who did some really great work with the band and on his own), once again simply under the name Black Sabbath. Eternal Idol took Sabbath towards radio-friendly hard rock territory - albeit still rather dark - alienating a lot of fans who were into the primal earthiness of the band's classic material or the dungeon metal of the Dio era. Still, Eternal Idol has plenty of great overlooked Iommi riffs (like those that kick off "Ancient Warrior" and "Lost Forever"), some stellar guitar tones, epic solos and some truly great vocal performances courtesy of Martin. In fact, all of the Martin material aside from the much-maligned Forbidden is worth a listen (and read about Martin's response to that album here).
Yngwie Malmsteen - Magnum Opus
If the ‘80s were hard on Black Sabbath, the ‘90s were equally tricky for Yngwie Malmsteen. Although he still did quite alright in Europe and Japan, grunge and the alternative nation had basically made Yngwie kinda uncool in the USA. This news hadn't reached me in smalltown Australia though, and for me this is one of my favorite Yngwie albums. The songwriting is aggressive and to-the-point, the production is full and imposing (and not plasticy like Eclipse), the running order flows exceptionally well, and Yngwie's playing is on fire. But some folks dissed the album and its predecessor Seventh Seal because they didn't like the harsher vocals of Michael Vescera (Loudness). I disagree: I think Vescera's edgier vocal style was just what Yngwie's music needed at that time in order to not repeat the sound of 1992's Fire & Ice, another sometimes-overlooked Yngwie album which I really liked (seriously dude, how could you not love a song called "How Many Miles To Babylon?"), but which sounded a little bit dated even upon its release. Magnum Opus may not pack quite the innovative punch of Rising Force but the sonics and songwriting hold up very well in 2012.
Extreme - Waiting For The Punchline
Extreme never really found their niche with the mainstream rock world. Extreme fans got it - the band kinda existed in their own little bubble - but they were unfairly lumped in with hair metal because they had a big hit with an acoustic ballad, and because they came to public prominence towards the end of that genre's commercial reign. Waiting For The Punchline was Extreme's attempt to shed the glitz of 1990's Pornograffiti and the ‘70s prog of 1993's III Sides To Every Story and instead unleash a powerful, stripped back rocker of a record. The drums sound like real drums in a real room, the guitar is coming at you straight out of a cranked vintage tube amp, and sometimes the vocals are on one side of the stereo mix while the guitar is on the other. It sounds and feels a lot more spontaneous than anything the band had done since, and you can hear guitarist Nuno Bettencourt take this gutsy rock vibe and run with it in his later work with Mourning Widows, Dramagods and ultimately Extreme's reunion album, Saudades De Rock. But when Waiting For The Punchline came out it alienated those who were holding on for Pornograffiti II, as well as those who liked the sheer conceptualism of III Sides. And early-‘90s rockers had yet to shake the stigma that grunge and alternative had placed on them.
Van Halen - Balance
Balance got a bit of a bad rap among Van Halen fans at the time because it was so frustratingly close to being a great Van Halen album, but just didn't quite get there, they said. There are dark, minor-key tracks like "The Seventh Seal," "Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)" and the epic, album-closing "Feelin'", which features a really fiery EVH solo that seems like it was beamed to the future by the Eddie of old. And there was "Baluchitherium," an almost Vai-like instrumental with a huge detuned stomper of a riff. And there were pretty, heart-rending tracks like "Can't Stop Loving You" and "Not Enough." Then there's the weird stuff: "Amsterdam," which is about enjoying the nightlife of said city; "Big Fan Money," which almost harkens back to 1984's "Top Jimmy," "Strung Out," a 'prepared piano' instrumental recorded in 1983 when Eddie pretty much destroyed the piano at Marvin Hamlisch's house - and "Doin' Time," a percussion instrumental. In one way, Balance links back to the loose structure of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen albums. But in another way maybe it would have worked better as a more cohesive work, with a few more cuts like "Aftershock" in place of the more oddball moments. Still, it went platinum three times over so it's not exactly a dark spot on the Van Halen discography.
Of course, when it comes down to it, music is entirely subjective. None of these albums sucks, and they all have their fans, even if they're maligned by certain slices of each act's respective fan bases. Ultimately I'm reminded of what Frank Zappa said in The Real Frank Zappa Book: “The Ultimate Rule ought to be: 'If it sounds GOOD to you, it's bitchin'; if it sounds BAD to YOU, it's [expletive]. The more your musical experience, the easier it is to define for yourself what you like and what you don't like."