In the comments to the post “Rock Heresy,” Andrew writes:
So, is there an album that is beyond reproach? It would have to be something that doesn’t aim too high, wouldn’t it?
I don’t know that I’ve got an answer to that one, but it did get me thinking about the category of the “overrated” album. Now, people almost always mean by this albums that they think are rated too highly by critics, rock snobs, and so on. (It’s trivial and not very interesting to rattle off a list of crap music that moves lots of units, after all.)
What occurs to me is that it’s always going to be relatively easy to make the case that a critically hailed “classic” album is overrated if you about it as the respondents in the Guardian piece I linked did. Albums that critics and rock snobs regard as great are usually going to fall into one of two categories. You’ve got the ones that fit to a a tee this definition from The Rock Snob’s Dictionary:
Seminal. Catchall adjective employed by rock writers to describe any group or artist in on a trend too early to sell any records. The Germs were a seminal L.A. punk band, but guitarist Pat Smear didn’t realize any riches until he joined Nirvana.
Because they’re significantly out in front of their audiences, they usually get truly universal acclaim and recognition years after the fact, when their innovations have been assimilated. But at that point, the very originality for which an album earned its renown won’t be nearly as striking when it’s considered ahistorically, as an isolated listening experience. It’s very rare cases where an artist manages to do something first and also do it better than most of those who followed after. Charlie Parker comes to mind, but he doesn’t have a lot of company.
The other sort of band that gets high critical laurels is less radically innovative, but (to borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology) “tweaks” recent innovations, polishing them and making them palatable to a broader audience. But these are typically susceptible to the converse criticism that they’re getting the credit due their more obscure progenitors.
Wayne Coyne manages to skewer Nirvana’s Nevermind from both directions at once:
For me, Bleach and In Utero are superior. [….] If you think you’re going to hear an utterly original, powerful and freaky record when you put on Nevermind, as a young kid might, Christ you’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to think, “Who is this band that sounds just like Nickelback? What are these drug addicts going on about?”
It’s not that Coyne is entirely wrong here, but that the use of these varying standards is unfair. In one sense or another, everything is overrated.
Update: Oh man, I had so wanted to link Chuck Klosterman’s “Ten Most Accurately Rated Bands” in this post, but didn’t think it was online. Thanks to joeo in the comments.