vulture lists

10 Terrible Musical Slumps

Photo: WireImage (Dylan), Kelly A. Swift/Retna (Nas), Getty Images

Today sees the release of Accelerate, the album a few charitable critics are hailing as R.E.M.’s return to form after a decade-long funk. We’re not convinced; yes, it’s better than their previous three, but give us some guitar lessons and a week in the studio and we’re pretty sure we could outdo Around the Sun too. Will Athens’ finest ever recover and make a record to stand alongside their early-career best? All of the artists on our list of Ten Terrible Musical Slumps did it, so sure, why not?

10. Red Hot Chili Peppers

Slump: Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) to Californication (1999)
Embarrassing midpoint: 1995’s One Hot Minute

One Hot Minute was proof that not all wiry drug-addict guitarists who hate shirts are created equal. Dave Navarro brought a darker sound that perhaps can be blamed for taking agreeable bimbo–front man Anthony Kiedis to lyrical places he shouldn’t have gone. Rolling Stone called it “grown-up,” while most others, who had actually listened to lines like “My friends are so distressed / And standing on / The brink of emptiness,” disagreed. On Californication, prodigal guitarist John Frusciante’s pretty, somber riffs uncovered a surprising Kiedis talent for wistful adolescent narratives, which alternated, as is only proper, with goofy funk jams featuring roadside-prophet-wearing-a-pasta-strainer-for-a-hat lyrics.

9. Sonic Youth

Slump: Washing Machine (1995) to Murray Street (2002)
Embarrassing midpoint: 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers

As a noisy group of free-form post-punk experimentalists, one thing Sonic Youth probably never expected to be was popular — but in the mid-nineties, that’s exactly what they were, kind of. As their once-cultish fan base grew into the one that saw them headline Lollapalooza in 1995, the band, consciously or not, fought back attention from the mainstream, first with the challenging (but still awesome) Washing Machine, and later with a series of mostly unlistenable, avant-garde records put out on their own label. In 2000, they released the tuneless, chordless NYC Ghosts & Flowers, which was too weird even for most Sonic Youth fans, and earned the band one of Pitchfork’s coveted 0.0 ratings. (In fairness, they did make Ghosts right after all their old gear was stolen, but surely their new guitars could play chords, right?) But then, in 2002, they returned with Murray Street, which once again tempered envelope-pushing with actual songwriting to brilliant effect. They had us worried for a minute, though.

8. Nas

Slump: Illmatic (1994) to Stillmatic (2001)
Embarrassing midpoint: 1999’s I Am…

I Am… was when Nas more or less lost his mind, mafioso bravado mutating into a uniquely twin-headed and uniquely annoying God/Godfather complex. “Hate Me Now” fully embraces obnoxious Puffy-era hedonism — “Gucci this, Fendi that, what you expect, hoe?” Irritating but not out of the ordinary; taking things to a new, bizarre level of badness was the fact that the video for this exercise in materialism featured a shot of Nas carrying the cross. Also, on the album cover, he is dressed as a pharaoh.

7. U2

Slump: Achtung Baby (1991) to All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2001)
Embarrassing midpoint: Probably that time they got stuck in the lemon

We realize that U2 are typically held up as the classic example of a band recovering from a debilitating rock slump, which is why they’re included on this list. Truthfully, though, we prefer Pop’s hyperbole to the life-is-beautiful/let’s-rock lyrics and schmaltzy arrangements U2 settles for now. Compare the basically disavowed “Discotheque” to new live staple “Elevation”: They’re both centered around catchy, fuzzy dance-rock riffs, but where “Discotheque” is tense, driving, and cut up by spacey breaks and switches between major and minor keys, “Elevation” is repetitive and lyrically irrelevant. Granted, “Discotheque” ends with minutes of egregious “Boom-Cha!” James Brown–isms, but the intersection of passionate and ridiculous — where cities crumble in dust, where every artist is a cannibal, where we’ll see you again when the staaaaars fall from the skyyyyyy — is where U2 should be living!

6. Neil Young

Slump: Rust Never Sleeps (1979) to Freedom (1989)
Embarrassing midpoint: Take your pick, really, but Everybody’s Rockin’ is probably the nadir.

The work Dr. Shakes produced in the eighties is remarkable for the breadth of its crappiness; he actually performed the impressive feat of failing in both of the major ways available to aging rockers within a two-year span. First was 1982’s Trans, which featured synth robot voices and titles like “Computer Age” and “We R in Control.” That kind-of-embarrassing “contemporary” update is an obvious target for criticism, but the philosophy behind 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’ was just as insidious. A tribute to/pointless rehash of the Jerry Lee Lewis era, it featured songs like “Kinda Fonda Wanda” and lyrics like “I’m kinda fonda Wanda.” What the hell is that?

5. Elvis Costello

Slump: Blood and Chocolate (1986) to Brutal Youth (1994)
Embarrassing midpoint: 1993’s The Juliet Letters

Few fan bases in history have suffered such brutal indignities as Elvis Costello’s, waiting patiently, ever hopeful, for a pop album amid endless stretches of classical puttering, stabs at opera, and soggy piano balladry, all of which are really difficult to rock out to. In 1986, after recording a string of classics, many of them with the most vicious rhythm section ever to blow a speaker, Elvis dumped the Attractions and threw himself into three of the dullest albums in his discography, Spike, Mighty Like the Rose, and The Juliet Letters, his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. With Brutal Youth he proved he can turn it back on whenever he wants to; we just wish he’d do it more often.

4. Madonna

Slump: Like a Prayer (1989) to Music (2000)
Embarrassing midpoint: The “Justify My Love” video

The entire decade of the nineties was a pretty dark one for Madonna, who spent much of her time contributing music for misbegotten movie projects (Dick Tracy, Evita), creating misbegotten ancillary products (Sex the book, “Justify My Love” the crappy soft-core Skinemax movie video), and releasing misbegotten albums (Exotica, Bedtime Stories). It’s not that all the songs were bad — there’s never been a Madonna album without at least one really fantastic song, from “Vogue” on the otherwise awful novelty album I’m Breathless to “Ray of Light” on the otherwise almost-good Ray of Light. But 2000’s Music stands among Madonna’s best albums and contains her trickiest and best-written song, “Don’t Tell Me,” which recasts her brother-in-law Joe Henry’s music-hall number as a Mirwaisian stutter-step dance track. Too bad it’s all been downhill since then.

3. Aretha Franklin

Slump: Young, Gifted and Black (1972) to Who’s Zoomin’ Who (1985)
Embarrassing midpoint: 1981’s Love All the Hurt Away

After a seven-year stretch that included four transcendent albums that defined a sound as distinctive as any in pop history and another four that were merely excellent, pretty much anything counts as a slump. So it’s not that the music Aretha made in the seventies and early eighties was terrible — but more that, after such focus and intensity, merely treading water is almost more disappointing than eccentric embarrassments and failed experiments. After she ditched Jerry Wexler and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, she drifted from collaborator to collaborator in search of first direction and then hits, going through everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Clive Davis to Luther Vandross before finally arriving at the unlikely figure of now-forgotten eighties producer Narada Michael Walden. Who’s Zoomin’ Who follows the archetypal template for a comeback star, with a different style on each track and big-name guests (Carlos Santana! Annie Lennox! Peter, um, Wolf…), but the singles (“Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” “Freeway of Love”) still boom, there are smart nods to history (“Integrity” updates “Respect”; she had first recorded the gospel-ish “Sweet Bitter Love” twenty years ago), and the album is a blast from beginning to end.

2. Prince

Slump: Diamonds and Pearls (1991) to 3121 (2006)
Embarrassing midpoint: This 28 seconds of smooth jazz is about all of The Rainbow Children we could find on YouTube. As you can see, it is huge with 3-year-olds.

Oh, maybe you own some of the albums made during Prince’s long fallow period, in which he changed his name, ditched his band, released the greatest greatest-hits collection ever, broke up with his record company, wrote SLAVE on his cheek, and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Maybe you even like some of the songs on The Gold Experience or Musicology. Maybe, God save you, you even purchased a copy of The Rainbow Children, his concept album about faith. Plenty of fans make the argument that Prince’s worst albums are as good as some artists’ best, and undoubtedly that’s true. But for an artist who courts controversy, there’s no worse fate than irrelevance, and for an artist who regularly flirted with genius, there’s no more damning review than “Not bad.” For fifteen awful years that was as good as Prince got.

1. Bob Dylan

Slump: Desire (1976) to Time Out of Mind (1997)
Embarrassing midpoint: 1980’s Saved

Everyone talks about Dylan’s awful Christian/gospel tangents, but that wasn’t the only problem; at the risk of blaspheming the rock gods, it must be acknowledged that he wrote some stupid lyrics in his day. This period’s were the stupidest, and it wasn’t just limited to the religious stuff. For example: “Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best … Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed.” (The name of that tune? “Trust Yourself.”) When he came around, simple aging had a lot to do with it — his nasally whine had morphed into a ravaged growl, and his lyrics began to take on a wistful, elder-statesman quality. The decade-plus he spent sucking actually enhances his enigma.

10 Terrible Musical Slumps