Were they good? Were they... not good? My friends, it's sometimes hard to say
People’s opinions are like Paul Gambaccini when a celebrity dies – always available. Music fans are an outspoken bunch, and we often have certain expectations of our favourite artists. When they fail to deliver on them – oh boy! – can we become livid. For instance: your friends and mine, Arctic Monkeys, release their piano-based, croonerish sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino‘ tomorrow – bloody tomorrow! – and we’ve already predicted that it’s gonna be hella divisive. Where’s the guitar, Alex? Where’s on earth is the bruising ‘AM’-style riffage? NME recently posted a photo of the band and one of our cherished followers left the timeless, disparaging comment: “[the new album] is like weird haunted house music”.
Well, perhaps. Or maybe it’s a beautiful work of staggering genius from a man whose lyrical brilliance deepens like the stink of a heady Ultracheese? Hard to say, so hard to say. Anyway, it won’t be the first time an album has split fans down the middle. Beloved artists have put out baffling records for as long as we’ve been cramming them into our ears – and if you think we wouldn’t recount them in the form of a list-based article, you are about to be proved wrong – dead wrong! And it’s okay to be proved wrong sometimes, you know? So, suck it up and follow us on a journey through time and taste.
Radiohead, ‘Kid A’, 2000
The quintessential divisive album. After the stadium-sized rock brilliance of 1997’s ‘OK Computer’, no-one was expecting Thom Yorke and the gang to turn in an atmospheric, experimental collection of ephemeral soundscapes sparsely punctuated with darkly comic pastiches of dance (‘Idioteque’) and rock music (‘Optimistic’), but that’s exactly what they did. In time, the album has become shorthand for self-reinvention and defying expectations. That’s right: ‘Rudebox’ was Robbie Williams’ ‘Kid A’.
What NME said at the time: “For better or worse, Radiohead have always been about something, be it the loathing of self or the human condition in general, and the ramifications thereof. Yet it seems in a desire to quash the rampant air of significance suffusing their every movement and utterance, they’ve rather sold short the essence of their art.”
Lil Kim, ‘The Notorious K.I.M’, 2000
Four years after the brilliance of her debut ‘Hardcore’, and in the wake of the death of boyfriend and collaborator Notorious B.I.G., Kim returned to the game with an album that was less tightly focused than its predecessor, taking in funk, Latin-influence and even a duet with Grace Jones. Despite its scattershot nature, the record was arresting and emotionally affecting for the fact that it featured posthumous vocal samples from B.I.G.
What NME said at the time: “Easily the best record to come out of the Junior MAFIA gang since Biggie‘s posthumous ‘Life After Death’, this long-awaited comeback proves Kim‘s still the queen of rap.”
Kanye West, ‘808s & Heartbreak’, 2008
‘Ye’s auto-tune obssessed fourth album, released after his split from fiancé Alexis Phifer and the death of his mother, Donda West, was a much more contemplative affair than his previous output, which was, shall we say, roundly self-celebratory in tone. This wrong-footed many listeners, who rejected its austere beats and doom-laden lyrics, yet the album has since been critically assessed and widely cited as having had a massive impact on sadlad rappers such as Drake and The Weeknd (who, when grilled on their influences, may yet respond: “Yeezy taught me”).
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What NME said at the time: “It’s a surprising, but bold and brave progression from last year’s confused ‘Graduation’. As for the lack of raps, in truth, the less we have to put up with all that small-man prep-school-canteen bragging, the better.”
Oasis, ‘Be Here Now’, 1997
Divisive, or simply a coke-fuelled, bloated monster that killed Britpop with countless deafening blasts of reverb? Well, both, probably. There were reportedly 50 channels of guitar on some tracks, and indeed the album turned up Oasis’ tub-thumping triumphalism to the point that it verged – at least – on self-parody. ‘All Around the World’ is more than nine minutes long, pointing to the excess that defines ‘Be Here Now’; even Liam said the album is “a little bit long”.
What NME said at the time: “It is tacky. It is grotesquely over-the-top… ‘Be Here Now’ is our open invitation to the Oasis party.”
Pulp, ‘This Is Hardcore’, 1998
Or, wait, is this the album that killed Britpop? Certainly Pulp’s regret-tinged follow-up to the blockbuster ‘Different Class’ saw Jarvis Cocker purr through the era’s death rattle, lamenting the indulgence that brought the good times to a halt. He put it himself on the lyrics to comedown anthem ‘The Fear’: “This is the sound of someone losing the plot / Making out they’re okay when they are not.” It’s all fun and games until someone loses the plot.
What NME said at the time: “‘This Is Hardcore’ is the sound of what happened to Jarvis Cocker when he woke up one day and found life inside The Dream was not as he’d imagined for the best part of a lifetime.”
Madonna, ‘American Life’, 2003
Here Madge rejected the materialism that she’d embraced in the ’80s and ’90s; not so much as ‘Material Girl’ as a freedom fighter, rallying for peace and even, on ‘I’m So Stupid’, rejecting the trappings of fame. It was a bold reinvention, and no mistake, but not everyone bought it: the combination of folk and electronica jarred for many fans and the lead single – the title track, which featured a bloody Madge rap – debuted at number 90 on the Billboard Hot 100.
What NME said at the time: ‘American Life’… feels like an unnecessary sequel, a ‘Men In Black II’, made because hell, if it ain’t broke…”
Father John Misty, ‘Pure Comedy’, 2017
The Father made love cool on second album ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, sort-of hipster Elton John paean to the redemptive qualities of romantic love. He’s now back with new break-up album ‘God’s Favourite Customer’, but sandwiched inbetween is perhaps his strangest release to date. Lyrically, he takes on every subject imaginable: politics, religion, history, love, loss – the meaning of life, basically. One first listen, the album seems almost tuneless, one long song, but over time the melodies emerge and, once they’re lodged in your brain, those babies aren’t going anywhere. Just like the Father himself, hopefully.
What NME said at the time: “:Looking at the ludicrous, often baffling thing that is humanity and our place in the universe, we open with the title track, with the LA-based Tillman laying his cards on the table and amusingly picking apart the “comedy of man” to a sweeping Broadway-worthy show tune.”
Rihanna, ‘Anti’, 2016
Ri-Ri went all arthouse on her eighth album, which seemed determined not to deliver another ‘Umbrella’ or ‘We Found Love’. Instead it’s a low-key collection of sparse, minimalist arrangements that offer greater introspection than her previous releases. There are shocking lyrics (“It beats me black and blue / But it fucks me so good / And I can’t get enough”), a defiantly phoned-in chorus (‘Work)’ and even a Tame Impala cover (‘Some Ol’ Mistakes’). It wasn’t just a remedy for characterless pop – it may be the actual cure.
What NME said at the time: “It’s not quite the revelatory departure we might have hoped for, and has the rich but unfocused feel of something worked on perhaps too long with obsessive fervour, but it’s also subtle and interesting; an intriguing soundtrack to an era of change.”
Wiley, ‘See Clear Now’, 2008
Wiley wasn’t the only grime artist to trade ice-cold beats for massive pop choruses in the late noughties, but he did so perhaps most notably, given that the flashy ‘Wearing My Rolex’ (featured on this record) was such a monster chart hit and he basically invented grime. He’s since dismissed this era in his career, telling The Guardian: “[‘See Clear Now is’] an album I didn’t want to make. I got forced– no, not forced – told to make it… Really, there was a lot I didn’t like about it. The tracks were all thrown together – I was just told to vocal this beat, vocal that beat. I never really had much musical input in it, which burnt me inside.”
The Beatles, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, 1967
Well, it’s aged quite well, hasn’t it? But the Fab Four’s classic, all-time-great eighth album upset some fans at the time, given that it deviated so radically from their good-time Mop Top sound. It’s been variously described as one of the first concept albums, one of the first art-rock albums, and a record that encapsulates the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. All we know is that is turned 50 last year and still sound fresher an anything else on this list.
What NME said at the time: “Trust the Beatles to come up with something different! Their latest LP, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is a sort of concert.”