music / Columns

The 411 Music Top Five 10.09.12: The Top 5 Surprisingly Good Albums

October 9, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas


Honorable Mentions:
Cryptopsy – Cryptopsy, this album came out last week, but it makes up quite a bit for the quite subpar album ‘The Unspoken King’.

Megadeth – The System Has Failed, Dave Mustaine injured nervess in his arm, the band had previously released a low point in ‘Risk’ and a good album in ‘The World Needs a Hero’, but no one thought that this album would be as good as it was

Angel Witch – As Above, So Below, this album also came out this year, and was he first from Angel Witch in 26 years, and while granted their last album in 1986 was great, this album also was, and considering how well Diamond Head’s rebirth is, this album is surprisingly good.

5. Metallica – Death Magnetic

I know that last week I spewed plenty of venom on ‘St.Anger’ and it was well deserved. But I think for all the wrong that they did with that album, I think that they did plenty of right with this album. I knew that they had this in them, it was never going to be as good as their 80’s material, because I don’t think many bands can do that anymore, but I new that this album had a chance to be good, but I think that once I heard it, I was still surprised at the fact that it was good, because with Metallica, they can surprise you with badness, like their collaboration on ‘Lulu’.

4. KISS – Revenge

While this album is not as good as their classics like ‘Destroyer’ or ‘Love Gun’, this album is better than most of their mid-80’s material, at least in my humble opinion. It showed that KISS definitely still have some bite to them after some of their glammier songs from the decade before, as well as the lack of facepaint(but we still wouldn’t get that back for awhile). This album should have been poo, but it managed to rise above those expectations and even got KISS back to the Top 10 of the Billboard charts.

3. Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell

I know that this will be two of the albums onthis list tht people woll be confused by, but I will explain. Back in the day, Black Sabbath had just released two of their worst, and possibly their all time worst, albums in the forms of ‘Technical Ecstacy’ and ‘Never Say Die!’. So they booted Ozzy from the band (more on him later), and brought in the late, great Ronnie James Dio. While he was still a name at the time, I don’t think many people expected Sabbath to release one of their all time classics with ‘Heaven and Hell’, I think that is the greatest rebound of all time, to go from bad Ozzy Sabbath to good Dio Sabbath.

2. Accept – Blood of the Nations

Their last album was 14 years before and their last with founding member Udo Dirkschneider,I don’t think anything expected this band to be back on the radar of anybody come 2010. They added Mark Tornillo, and somehow those 14 years and a new vocalist managed to bring a band that released a bit of a turd many years before and they released one of the most smoking of albums in 2010, this album is just killer and has resurrected the band totally.

1. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz

Most people are probably about to call me an idiot, but hear me out. This album is one of the greatest albums of all time, but to my knowledge, not a soul saw this coming. Ozzy was down in the dumps, after just being first from Sabbath, and his guitarist Randy Rhoads was pretty well known in the LA scene but his band Quiet Riot had not landed a US record gig yet, so no one knew who he was. This album came out like a fireball, this album is honestly hard to find a flaw in, and just like I’ve said on most of these entries, no one probably saw this coming, most people just looked and said, oh, it’s the washed up guy from Black Sabbath, until they popped this album in and heard the great opener ‘I Don’t Know’. I think that some people may have predicted through ‘Crazy Train’, as it was a big hit, but I don’t think people quite thought that this album would be as massive and as big as it was, that’s why I think that this is the most surprisingly good album of all time.

The ones we love … we just never see them coming, do we?

5. John Mayer, Continuum

Hold this against me if you must, but I’ve just never mustered the bile for John Mayer that many do.

Granted, it’s worth watching his every live performance just in case this one is the one in which, while making those goofy faces, he actually drops the deuce it always looks like he’s about to when he scrunches everything up. But even for as lazy as his lyricism can seem and for his frequent absence of boldness in his arrangements or writing, I just can’t hate listening to him.

That being said, Room For Squares was a decent poppy singer-songwriter album, with at least nothing as offensively unlistenable as that thing auto-tuned banshee wail Adam Levine does when Christina Aguilera stiletto-heels his testicles. It was a sound first effort for a guy looking to break through and have his name remembered.

Trouble is, Heavier Things was more of the same. It was like remembering first meeting someone for the hilarious off-the-cuff joke the person told, then that person being so enamored with the way your eyes lit up when you laughed at it the first time that they tried it again when they saw you the next day.

Even more bothersome to me was that Mayer had previously professed himself to be influenced early to write songs and play guitar by no less than seeing the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan play live. Given Mayer’s noticeable lack of his supposed hero’s passion in two albums’ playing and singing, it seemed like some convenient, strategically-advised namedrop.

Then came Continuum. Did Mayer shred a six-string with all the technical recklessness of the spiritual, possessed abandon of the Texas blues great himself? Pfft. Nobody has since Vaughan’s death in 1990. Mayer did display bolder licks and a sound in his arrangements that wasn’t so overtly radio-friendly. There was nothing quite so hooky as “No Such Thing” or “Bigger Than My Body,” and in fact it’s a lot more subdued, thoughtful and missing the first two albums’ lovey-dovey optimism. What’s more, “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” and his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” display some of his best licks and soloing. It just felt so much more like a grown-up’s meditations on love, that I wanted to shake the hell out of him and ask, “Where was this two albums ago, John?!”

4. Nelly Furtado, Whoa, Nelly!

I sometimes regret that Weezer ever ended their three-year, post-Pinkerton hiatus.

Thank the first single for establishing my prejudice against Furtado’s breakthrough set from the get-go.

“I’m Like A Bird” is a bright, shiny, hook-dependent single for twirling about atop a spring hilltop’s grass with arms outstretched until Julie Andrews clotheslines you for copping her schtick.

Curiously, it’s also somewhat of a weak-link anathema on a much stronger album swirling with light tastes of hip-hop turntables and house textures buoyed by Furtado’s rapid-fire, scat-tinged vocals. What settled out from the blending was pop that “I’m Like A Bird” never told me would be so distinctive and lovable. The lead single wasn’t a bad track at all – in fact, there’s not really a “skip it” moment on the whole album, and even this one stands out from what flooded radio in 2000 – but it is maybe the most unremarkable of what’s a uniquely flavorful mix.

3. Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Texas Flood

Oh, make no mistake. I knew SRV was a once-in-a-lifetime shaman of the six-string. I knew that after getting Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 for Christmas way back in 1998.

I just didn’t how great he could be until I heard his first album in its entirety.

Keep in mind, when Vaughan made this proper Epic Records debut way back in 1982 (released in 1983), Vaughan was still a “kid” in his twenties, without the maturity that would imbue In Step not long before his 1990 death.

He was still a wild horse at this point – and already, he showed there wasn’t a trick he couldn’t nail.

He could play a wicked shuffle on “Love-Struck Baby.” He could ape Buddy Guy’s rhythm & blues-laced strut of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” He could play rhythm and lead by his lonesome backed by Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass, without ever dropping out for a breath and leaving the sound in a hollow moment. He seemingly went to another tender trance of a place on the loving, delicate instrumental “Lenny.” And on songs like the slow-burn title track or “Pride and Joy,” he could make his “Number One” Strat crack quite literally like lightning, as the tuned ear catches.

Debuts just aren’t this sharp. They just don’t happen this way. Nobody already has it quite like this straight out of the gate.

Greatest Hits was my first impression, and what an impressions it gave me. But this? This showed me that even that set understated what a boon to the blues this skinny little Texas white boy was.

2. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells

Guitar. Drums. One Detroit white boy wrenching his vocals sometimes seemingly right from Howlin’ Wolf’s very gut. I’d never heard two people make a sound so big.

Years later, I’d discover The Dresden Dolls and The Black Keys, both reminding me that no band needed some Lynyrd Skynyrd or Slipknot-sized lineup to make something too massive, too heavy to ignore. There were times on this album – of course, “Fell In Love With A Girl,” before Joss Stone did what she did to it – that Jack and Meg White sounded steadier, tighter and more full than the whole of the first Kings of Leon album. It was dirty, unfiltered Iggy Pop-lovin’ rock and just hint of love for Delta blues with sandpaper grit.

I’ve loved few albums like it since.

1. Juliana Hatfield, Only Everything

I told you at the top: the ones you love, you never exactly “see coming.” I picked this up on a whim in 2000, at Columbia, Mo.’s original Slackers CDs & Games location. I picked it up on a mission to find an album by an artist I’d never experienced and actually give it a completely blind taste test.

I’d never heard anything like Hatfield up to this point. Of course I didn’t realize either that she’d made this album some ways into her music career, the full life of The Blake Babies and a few solo albums already behind her. Hatfield’s one of the few artists I’ve ever experienced with such a small, waifish voice that seemingly half the Marshall Stacks in the world strangely can’t overcome.

Hatfield’s vulnerability might come across as forced, contrived when displayed in any voice but her own. Up to that point, I’d never heard anything so apropos: Hatfield’s lyrics so overwhelmed with her ever-present sincere insecurity, but laid bare against guitars that crunched like gravel beneath her boots.

Every single time I hear it, I understand a little more what I didn’t then: how anybody could give a fifth of a fuck about a posing, cutesy-punk Avril Lavigne pretending at what Hatfield just had to let slip from her heart.

Lavigne is fine with the proto-punk dog-and-pony show. Hatfield never saw riches as being worth taking off all the grease paint at the end of the show

NOTE: Usually my lists encompass a wide timespan because of my eclectic tastes; this time you’ll not most of the music is pretty new. The reason for this is simple; stuff from before I was a music fan (or before I was around) I generally had recommended from others, so I had expectations of some kind and then I branched out further on my own in directions I liked. Newer music has a much greater chance of surprising me because–well, either because of general pessimism (myself included) about the state of popular music or just because I’ve heard the bad before I got a chance to hear the good, and because I am more likely to go in not knowing what I’m getting into.

Honorable Mention: Stone Sour – Come What(Ever) May, Anthony Stewart Head – Music For Elevators

5. Flo Rida – Wild Ones

Yeah, first on my top five is one from this year. I can’t help it, that’s how it all shook out. Flo Rida’s album was a HUGE surprise for me in how incredibly listenable and even good it was. I’m not trying to say its some kind of amazing piece of musical achievement, mind. There are a couple tracks that are perhaps a bit sketchy or irritating, but on the whole it’s a enjoyable hip-pop album. Considering how low my expectations were, that made this seem that much better in perspective. We’re not always looking for a deep, revolutionary album that changes our lives; sometimes we just want something fun that gets you moving. That’s Flo Rida, and Wild Ones is his best album to date, for better or worse.

4. Emmy Rossum – Inside Out

All right, so let me say quickly; I don’t expect everyone to like this. I don’t expect anyone to like anything necessarily, but I can see why this is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea; we don’t go for a lot of slow pop ballads sung by movie stars. But man if it isn’t really good. Emmy Rossum was known to me merely as the girl who I really liked as Christine in the uneven Phantom of the Opera in 2007 when she released her debut LP, and a friend of mine insisted I check it out. I scoffed at the idea of an actress putting out an album because…well, we’ve all seen how well that usually goes, right? Inside Out threw me for a loop because I fell in love with it. From the first single (and track) “Slow Me Down” all the way through to the last, it’s a really good dream-pop album. I’ve been hoping that she would release another one, but she’s been busy getting naked on Showtime in Shameless. Fair trade.

3. Justin Timberlake – FutureSex/Lovesounds

I know, I know, we’re supposed to hate Justin Timberlake because he was in a boy band and he ripped Janet Jackson’s dress open and his girlfriends are way too hot and whatever the other reason. The fact of the matter is that when JT set out on his own, he developed into quite the excellent R&B/pop artist. Justified was not as polished as it could have been but it showed promise, which FutureSex/Lovesounds delivered on. I really wanted to hate these album. I did. “SexyBack” dares you to hate it, but it is actually an incredibly well-written and tightly-produced track. “My Love” is perhaps the one song featuring T.I. that I don’t have some sort of issue with. And “What Goes Around” is my favorite on the album, an impressive little relationship-ender that hits just the right notes. You can’t help but find yourself grooving along with this album even if you are supposed to hate Timberlake because its the cool thing to do.

2. 30 Seconds to Mars – A Beautiful Lie

I actually don’t like Jared Leto, from what I’ve heard about him as a person. I appreciate his acting and his dedication to the craft; psycho inadvertantly gave himself gout gaining weight for a film that was not worth the effort in Chapter 27. But he has that hipster arrogant attitude that just drives me up the wall. I’m from Portland, and I promise you, we’re not all Portlandia cast members. Leto gives off that Portlandia sense, as if he’s a guy who would move here because he thinks thats what they city’s really like. That’s why it irritates me that I like 30 Seconds to Mars so much. Each of their albums have been really well-made alt-rock with an emo twist, a twist I don’t normally get into. But with them it works because of the well-done lyrics and a sound that straddles alternative and mainstream nicely.

1. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

Okay, imagine that you’re a record executive. Now stop fantasizing about cutting Ke$ha and Justin Bieber from their contracts and focus. Eddie Vedder comes to you and says “I want to do a solo album, all of ukulele music. Yes, I’m serious.” You’d think he’s out of his mind too. I certainly didn’t expect this to be remotely good when it was released last year. But in a huge surprise, it wasn’t just good; it was great. Obviously the album is a far cry from his Pearl Jam work, but at the same time there is an undercurrent of something Pearl Jam-esque amongst the acoustic string-plucking and covers of early twentieth-century standards. That something is musical integrity and the work of a musical artist who will do what he damn well wants and do it well to boot. He never tries to cash in on the morbid curiosity fact of “what would ‘Evenflow’ or ‘Better Man’ sound like to a ukulele?” He covers “Can’t Stop” and leaves it from there to go to traditional ukulele songs. And it all works when there is no reason whatsoever why it should. That’s a mark of brilliance.

The Final Word
As always, the last thoughts come from you, the reader. We’re merely unpaid monkeys with typewriters and Wikipedia. Here’s what you need to do: List your Top Five for this week’s topic on the comment section using the following format:

5. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
4. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
3. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
2. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
1. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it


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Jeremy Thomas
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