- The Chili Peppers: A decade of maximum sales on minimum talent.
With the millennium on everyone's mind, somehow the end-of-the-decade thing has been shoved aside. Critics have been quick to assemble lists of the century's greatest this or that, but the '90s (remember them?) are being treated like a kid whose birthday happens to fall on Christmas. Some music "best of" lists have appeared (and most of them rightfully include the decade's classics: Nevermind, OK Computer, Odelay, and, my personal pick, Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road). But some critics are handing out huzzahs for truly undeserving albums. And I'm not just referring to Rolling Stone's ass-kissing of Billy Joel and Mick Jagger (both pals of publisher Jann Wenner) or Spin's self-consciously hip choices (Slint? Please). Nope. The following overrated CDs have been praised as masterworks at the time of their release and continued to receive gold stars all the way through to the present. Below, a case for reconsidering their importance.
Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2
British electronica pioneer Richard D. James doesn't really create "songs." Rather, he builds ambient noise pieces, sans titles, that explore the nether regions of digital dance music. It's all supposed to seep into your head like a soothing sonic teabag. Fact is, this is boring, tuneless, and pretentious "music." Even worse, the second volume is a double-disc set, running nearly 150 minutes, making the journey an extremely long and tedious one, with little inner discovery or revelation available for patient listeners who actually make it through this dreck. James is some sort of after-hours messiah to rave culture kids, but anyone not tripping on his wavelength will find these collective works a giant snooze.
Mary J. Blige
Blige's debut, What's the 411?, is a virtual blueprint for every female R&B singer of the '90s -- it's unfathomable that the current crop of hip-hop queens and neo-girl groups would have the same style and effect if not for Blige's sizzling new-jill offering. The follow-up, however, is a dull and rote stroll through its predecessor's highlights, as well as a lazy homage to '70s soul divas like Chaka Khan. Blige can sing, and she does so here with much force and fanfare; unfortunately, little heart or soul manages to make its way into these customary slo-grooves. It's a sleepwalk job, with the singer herself, as well as her huge stable of producers, foolishly believing that their skills don't require any new motivation.
If sophomoric tales of modern culture wrapped in porn-movie chic and uninspired rapping seem like a good time, then the first album from the hip-hop team of Kool Keith, Dan the Automator, and DJ Q-bert just may tickle your fancy. But the overblown concept and trite rhymes of Dr.Octagonecologyst rarely merit the time or effort to sort through it all. Admittedly, the sonic landscapes that the production crew construct here are occasionally marvelous (and quite often on par with DJ Shadow's stunning collage-topia, Endtroducing . . .); yet, while mastermind Kool Keith -- who has recorded under several other aliases as well -- breaks from hip-hop's typical G thang with insight, he retains the genre's ugly misogyny. If it's meant as parody, the joke is a thin one.
Jackson's made good records before (Control, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814) and after (The Velvet Rope) this clunky mess, but for some reason this vain, derivative exercise in robotic R&B and played-out jack tunes is often singled out as her masterwork. Fact is, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis merely go through the motions on these songs, recycling the jams they had used years earlier. There are two good tracks to be found on this soulless product (both "That's the Way Love Goes" and "If" are fine singles), but the rest of Janet. consists of sappy ballads, out-of-time club kicks, and formula Top 40. Hardly the autobiographical, soul-searching musical diary it claims to be, Janet. is more like a shameless piece of self-promotion that relies too much on Jackson's past achievements.
This British studio collective's first album, Blue Lines, sketched and cultivated the roots of trip-hop. Mezzanine, from 1998, is an even more assured recording, an electronic gumbo of found sounds and knob-tweaking wizardry. This middle effort, a more soulful recording than either of their other discs, somehow fails to dazzle. Maybe it's the decaying formula or the lack of any new ideas, but whatever it is, Protection never ignites. Instead, the crew stretches its collective arm over the album with a resounding thud; it's neither a subtle nor a particularly creative record. A few individual moments do manage to peak through the murk, but within the context of things -- and the electronic age is all about being flawless in its environment -- it's a taxing search.
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
Think psychedelic drug music updated for the techno era, and you've got a pretty good idea where this portentous sonic sojourn is headed from track one. DJ Alex Paterson slips a bunch of pre-electronica influences into his opus -- some American house here, some homegrown British club music there -- and edits them all into a giant, jumbled playground of sounds and melody-free musical excursions. There's probably something to be said for the alternating soothing/jarring characteristics to be found buried beneath the grooves (this album pretty much launched the electronic revolution), but it ultimately comes off like a '90s version of those midnight laser light shows from the '70s that were supposed to free your mind . . . only without the laser and lights to make it interesting.
Rage Against the Machine
Rage Against the Machine
All of the criticism hurled at this band -- that they're screaming, whiny punks who use the word "fuck" to incite a jugheaded, frat-like mentality in their raging, hormonal (and mostly male) fans -- is true on this debut. The qualities that would eventually turn them into one of the decade's most potent groups -- singer Zack de la Rocha's thoughtful if humorless one-sided political agenda, Tom Morello's frenzied hip-hop-Zeppelin guitar -- are barely evident here. By the time of the follow-up, Evil Empire, four years later, those elements were in place, and they were set to launch their own revolution -- mainly one that involved a rock-rap summit that generated artists such as Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock, who would adapt Rage's early pointless crunch with little of their later force.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Blood Sugar Sex Magik
(Warner Bros., 1991)
These faux funky fratboys have coasted on a kegful of attitude and minimal talent for more than 15 years now. This creatively charged opus is certainly their best work, but there's still little redemption to be found in these cock-sock-wearing jokers. The jams funk and pop harder and more convincingly here than they did on the Peppers' sketchy early work and without the artsy pretension of subsequent albums, but it all still manages to sound a bit hollow and incomplete. Major exception: the breakthrough single "Under the Bridge," a glassy-eyed junkie's lament that's by far the greatest thing they've ever recorded and a soft, affectionate peck in the middle of a huge, impassionate sloppy kiss.
All Eyez on Me
(Death Row, 1996)
Not long after walking away from prison, 2Pac teamed with Dr. Dre and Death Row for this two-CD set of thug life. It was slapped together rather quickly, and it sure sounds like it. It's also one disc too long. (Since his death, various posthumous 2Pac albums have been released from semi-finished sessions he's done over the years; a few come from All Eyez on Me's productive dates and sound rushed, as they do here.) But the fallen gangsta's best song, "California Love," is here: It's playful, boasting, and confrontational -- everything that made 2Pac's life so invigorating and tragic. Too bad that the last album released while he was still alive is such a shoddy affair.
Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
The skeletal frame is here, the one that would dramatically take shape over the years into such hip-hop classics as Wu member Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . and the group's own two-CD epic, Wu-Tang Forever. But that's all that's here in this sketchy beginning. Producer RZA's trademark and influential minor-key tinkerings start their permeation into hip-hop culture on this album, but the verbal technique of the huge Wu gang itself bobs and weaves all over the thematic rap map. Only later did the emphasis turn to their own NYC playground, as RZA sharpened his skills to a finer point. And on Enter the Wu-Tang, the Clan's singular stylists -- Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard -- rarely bust out of the collective mesh.