Eight Brilliant and/or Unlistenable Albums

Originally published on MadeLoud, September 9, 2009

Serious music lovers know that listening to an album is no passive experience. Really connecting to an artist’s work requires focus, awareness and mental engagement, and some albums require more than others. There’s a lot of greatness to be found in the albums listed below, but there’s plenty of weirdness as well. Getting to the good stuff may require more effort than a lot of listeners are willing to put forth.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Nigga Please (Elektra, 1999)

In one of the great anomalies of ‘90s music, this incoherent album sold more than a million copies. Sure, “Got Your Money” was a catchy single, but it’s tough to imagine a whole generation chilling out to the less-than-smooth sounds of ODB’s hyperactive flows, scatological fantasies and straight-up nonsense lyrics. In hindsight, it’s tempting to read this album as a sad document of Russell Jones’ final descent into substance abuse and mental illness, but there’s also ample evidence of Dirty’s singular genius. For all of its grossness and depravity, Nigga Please’s near-total eschewing of traditional studio aesthetics has a lot in common with other “window to madness” masterworks like Skip Spence’s Oar and Brian Wilson’s Smile. There was certainly nothing like it on the shelves in 1999, nor has there been in the decade since.

Nico – The Marble Index (Elektra, 1969)

Usually when a vocalist’s performance is referred to as “effortless,” it means her singing sounds natural and easy. In Nico’s case, it means that she really doesn’t sound like she’s trying very hard. Her bored, Teutonic-accented delivery could be transcendent when matched with the right lyrics and music (Lou Reed’s grotesqueries and Jackson Browne’s somber reflections being the best examples). On The Marble Index, though, her bizarre cadence is frequently at direct odds with her cacophonous accompaniment, creating a droning, unmusical effect that’s equal parts intriguing and off-putting. Featuring input from sonic rebels John Cale and LaMonte Young, it’s the type of album you can appreciate academically, but it’s probably not the first thing you’d spin at a party.

The Flaming Lips – Zaireeka (Warner Brothers, 1997)

Perhaps the oddest of Wayne Coyne’s many flights of fancy, Zaireeka is an album that’s literally difficult to listen to. The album’s four discs are intended to be played all at the same time, on four separate stereo systems. Even for those who own that many stereos, the logistics of setting up speakers, synchronizing playback and adjusting volumes to get the full impact of the Flaming Lips’ vision are plenty daunting. Musically, it’s as inventive as anything the band has done, but Zaireeka’s intentional unwieldiness pretty much makes it a self-fulfilling obscurity.

Neil Young – Greendale (Warner Brothers, 2003)

Released well into Neil Young’s fourth decade as a rock icon, this sprawling collection of Springsteen-esque story-songs about the residents of the fictional town of “Greendale” may be his most ambitious work. Aside from the album, Greendale also encompassed a narrative film and an in-character live tour. Sheer scope of effort brings this endeavor close to greatness, but inconsistency makes it a maddening listen. Nearly every time the album threatens to live up to its full potential, Young undercuts himself with an overlong track, a too-on-the-nose political statement or just plain clunky lyrics. It’s an ongoing battle between the awe-inspiring and the cringe-inducing that sadly ends in a draw.

Björk – Medúlla (Atlantic, 2004)

Björk has always been an acquired taste. It’s rather remarkable that a singer whose sound and sensibilities are so far removed from the mainstream ever attained as much popularity as she has. Those who dislike her often class her music as shrill, showy and unapproachable. Medúlla comes off like the album she made to prove them right. This unapologetic experimental effort goes even farther off the beaten path than her previous work, relying mainly on peculiar acappella arrangements and featuring unexpected guest spots from the likes of Mike Patton and Rahzel. For the patient listener, Medúlla has plenty to say about the complex interplay of human voices. But with scarcely a hook, riff or chorus to be found, it’s unlikely that this disc won many new converts to Björkdom.

Bjork – Oceania

Wesley Willis – Collected Works

The late Wesley Willis was a genuinely sick man. A gigantic guy with a noticeable dent in the middle of his forehead, he channeled his paranoid schizophrenia into a collection of spoken, shouted and slurred songs that bore more than a passing resemblance to the ramblings of any number of street corner prophets. It’s often been suggested that Willis’ entire career was an unethical exploitation of his mental illness, but it’s hard to deny the exuberance and attitude of his pop culture-obsessed, cartoonishly violent, fecal-spattered songwriting. Listening to his albums sometimes feels like tapping into the very ethos of punk rock. Just as often, it feels like getting an uncomfortable, intrusive glimpse at something you never should have seen.

Tom Jones – The Lead and How to Swing It (Interscope, 1994)

From Pat Boone recording heavy metal tracks to Frank Sinatra singing The Beatles to Roy Orbison trying his hand at disco, there’s a long, distressing history of past-their-prime pop stars trying unsuccessfully to surf more current trends. So when the phrase “Tom Jones does hip-hop” was first bandied about in ’94, there was no reason to expect anything but a travesty. By all rights, The Lead and How to Swing It should be the nadir of Jones’ long career. Instead, it’s something like a highlight. How he pulls it off is anybody’s guess. Listening to the aging cheese merchant lay down raps and slow jams over Teddy Riley beats feel embarrassing on a certain level, but the man simply carries himself with so much confidence and charisma that you can’t help bobbing your head. Not long after he hits that opening yowl of “If I Only Knew,” ironic appreciation gives way to the genuine article.

Tom Jones – If I Only Knew

Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975)

You had to know this one would make the list. Lou Reed’s ultimate act of musical aggression essentially dares the listener to sit through the entire thing. There’s really nothing here that resembles music in any traditional sense, just an hour’s worth of screeching and distortion. To its detractors, Metal Machine Music is a bad prank at best, a double-album-length headache at worst. To supporters, it’s the auditory equivalent of an abstract painting, a complex pastiche of sound that reveals different meanings to different observers. To raise the confrontational bar even further, the record was released with a “locked groove” that caused it to skip incessantly at the end of the fourth side, forcing the listener to get up and take physical action if the sonic assault was ever to stop.

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