You don't always find a band through their classic album. Sometimes you discover them through their dud.
Even legendary bands have a few clunkers in their catalogs, and sometimes, unfortunately, these are the ones you discover first. This was especially common back in music’s pre-omnipresent streaming internet days where you had to—gasp—take an actual risk on buying an album. Usually this was based on its cover, positive things your young and impressionable ears had heard about the band, or the recommendation of the pimply faced Tower Records employee.
But it didn’t always work out. Maybe you’d bite into a Metallica sandwich for the first time and end up getting a mouthful of St. Anger and spend all night clutching the toilet. It’s not your fault, really. How were you to know that Sandinista! was The Clash’s shameless attempt at getting out of their record label contract and not a good entry point for the iconic punk band? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, though, because maybe that stinker led you to the band’s classic albums. Maybe it opened up a whole new world of music you didn’t know existed.
There’s a strange connection you can form with your entry album to a band, whether it’s their “right” album or not. There’s something about first love that stays with you, no matter how embarrassing it is in retrospect. That said, here are a few albums the Noisey staff came to first, for better or worse. What are yours? This is a judgment-free zone.
Weezer – The Green Album
I wish I could say the album that sparked my musical awakening was one of those canonical rite-of-passage records like, say, Green Day’s Dookie or The Clash’s London Calling. But the reality is that I was a shy, weird only child whose dad stopped listening to anything after 1974 that wasn’t Bruce Springsteen and whose tough Eastern European mother couldn’t be bothered with such frivolities. And so, this still being the salad days of Napster, my own musical education was a clumsy, self-guided process. At 13, my CD wallet already boasted classics like Third Eye Blind and No Strings Attached, and, with dog-walking money burning a hole in my pocket, I headed to a Wherehouse Music one afternoon to add Destiny’s Child’s Writing on the Wall to my collection. Instead, I found myself face to face with a neon-green poster. Weezer. I’d seen the video for "Hash Pipe" on MTV, but otherwise knew nothing about them. I threw it in with my purchase, and things were never the same. If Beyoncé and co. satisfied my desire for dance-y pop and bonding time at sleepovers, Weezer spoke to the emergent misfit in me who was getting increasingly fewer invites to said sleepovers. With no frame of reference for any music remotely left-of-the-dial, the Ric Ocasek-produced Green Album became my gateway drug into the world of rock ‘n' roll: crunchy, catchy, and driving, but decidedly uncomplicated. I was immediately and obsessively in love. Forget Rivers’ bland and sometimes nonsensical choruses; at that age I couldn't relate to lyrics with any real meaning anyway. It was the straightforward emotion of the album's melodies that moved me. I soon moved on to Weezer's earlier, more complex (and acceptable) albums, Blue and Pinkerton, which further blew my mind. Those in turn led to the Pixies, which led me to punk, which led me to the blues, and so on, and my record collection and I went on to live happily ever after.
The Misfits – American Psycho
Like most 13-year-olds unpopular enough to find punk rock in their adolescence, I went out and bought CDs by the bands I knew to be Official Punk Bands: Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, The Misfits. Minor Threat was easy, given that they only had the one album. I lucked out with DK, buying Fresh Fruit, but for The Misfits, I bought their most recent album at the time, American Psycho. I “got” it. Kinda. The insert booklet unfolded into a poster and I hung it on my wall. The album was, uh… like, it was pretty cool, I thought. I deeeeefinitely enjoyed this iconic band that all punks worth their weight in studded belts were required to like, totally. I was one of the cool punks. But a small part inside of me recognized that it was kinda lame—this whole harmonized Metallica sound—but hey, this was the Misfits! Surely the mohawk kids’ backpack patches couldn’t be wrong. But I was wrong, of course. American Psycho was YEARS past what any self-respecting Misfits fan considers to be their canon. I don’t remember where I got $50 at the time, but I then went out and bought the box set and everything immediately clicked. Earth A.D., Static Age, Evilive. Fuckin’ Danzig! These were the real Misfits. After that, I dug in pretty hard and never looked back. I will still scoff about American Psycho today, even though I shamefully know more lyrics from it than I care to admit.
Liz Phair – Liz Phair
I distinctly remember staying in the theater all the way through the credits of Win A Date with Tad Hamilton to see who wrote that song, "Why Can't I?" It was from that awful self-titled pop record Liz Phair put out in 2003, which was produced by the same team that worked with Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. Longtime fans and critics hated it at the time. The New York Times said Phair had committed “an embarrassing form of career suicide.” Like I had a clue. I was coming off a major chick-rock bender circa Y2K, like Fe Fe Dobson, Avril, etc., but once I got over that, I dove deep into left-of-center grunge-pop like Juliana Hatfield, That Dog, and of course, Exile in Guyville-era Liz Phair, which is now one of my favorite albums of all time. I still listen to "Why Can't I" sometimes when boys I like ignore me.
The Stone Roses – The Second Coming
In 1994, it was all about Wu-Tang, Snapcase, Fugazi, and anything vaguely punk or grimy. I had gone through my "classic alternative" phase and still loved bands like The Cure, New Order, and others, but had yet to really dive into anything outside of whatever Dave Kendall on 120 Minutes or WHFS had told me was cool. Yet through all of the noise, I had heard a few things about this band the Stone Roses, how amazing they were and how I had to check them out.
When The Second Coming came around the bend five years after the self-titled, it was given a massive push that included a strong single in the badass slide-guitar burner "Love Spreads." Radio followed, so did video, and then I finally "got them" (or so I thought) and headed to Tower Records soon thereafter. I was wrong. Of course a few months later, a friend of mine saw my copy of The Second Coming and said to me, “You bought that? You should check out the first one, that's what's up!" And indeed, it definitely was, so much so that it was famously roasted in one of the best scenes of Shaun of the Dead.
Ryan Adams – Rock n Roll
My first couple months back home after college were a drag. The post-9/11 job market was a wreck in my city, and I was an overworked, underpaid retail drone who couldn't afford to have a social life outside of the comfort of intangible video game characters. I was sad and dramatic, and I liked my music sad and dramatic. Out of nostalgia I started cycling back to all the good sad bastard music my college friends had put me onto in the preceding four years that I, a staunch indie bro at the time, had refused to may much mind. This meant a lot of Wilco and Ryan Adams. In 2003, Adams is pandering the smirking, ironic glam rock of his smarmily titled Rock n Roll, and I, for whatever reason, am buying it. I dig the fake-happy-but-in-fact-very-sad "So Alive," which sounds in retrospect like Rufus Wainwright at U2 karaoke, just a bad idea all around. Dark days. Thankfully, in the years to follow, I'd get much sharper at picking out my depressing music (Pornography, baby!), and Ryan would cut the shit and dial back the mood experiments. Well, mostly.
Slipknot – Iowa
In 2001, I was 14 years old and very, very angry. Looking back, I can't really explain why I was angry enough to be punching walls, shoving people into lockers, and getting thrown into an anger management class, but it was probably just garden-variety teenage angst, filtered through inherited aggressive tendencies (thanks, Dad!). Whatever it was, it required a soundtrack, and thanks to some older, Hot Topic-obsessed friends, I discovered the perfect aural accompaniment to my shitty, entitled teenage attitude: Slipknot. I was specifically drawn to their second album, Iowa, with its shiny blue and silver cover and scintillating track titles like "People = Shit" and "The Heretic Anthem." It sounds stale and corny to me now that I've spent the ensuing 13 years listening to grotty war metal, but at the time, it was the most extreme thing I'd ever heard—a direct precursor to my blossoming interest in death metal, which led to grind, to black metal, to doom, and to crust punk. My nu-metal phase was blessedly short, but I can't deny that it helped light my way towards the left hand path.
Bob Dylan – Self Portrait
Released in 1970 between stone cold classics Nashville Skyline and New Morning, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was not received well by critics. Seriously, there’s no other way to put it: Everyone thought it sucked! The general consensus seemed to be that there was something behind it—the concept of looking at oneself (or whatever) and what that expression meant and how we deal with that as human beings—and that idea was worth examining and exploring (this was a new Bob Dylan record, after all). But at the same time, disdain for the record was universal. Some rock writers (probably white men) declared this album, on top of the break up of The Beatles, the true end of the 60s. In fact, Greil Marcus’s legendary Rolling Stone review opens with this simple phrase: “What is this shit?” It was not a very good time to be alive for Bob Dylan.
This negative response, I guess, is probably accurate if your primary concern about music is to have the Right Opinion™. And, look, I’m not going to argue the value of Self Portrait in comparison to the other fantastic music Bob Dylan produced throughout his career. I also was negative-17-years-old when this record released. But in my expert hindsight opinion, it feels, to me, like critics overreacted because Dylan didn’t deliver the record they wanted. Self Portrait is playful, messy, and incomplete. There’s nothing clean—his cringe-worthy vocals (and this was when he could still actually sing) are stretched and breathy, his guitar riffs sloppy, his songwriting unfocused. But this was what made the record pop so much when I first listened as a kid. I’d heard Bob Dylan before—it’s pretty much impossible to be born in the Midwest and not have the Ramblin’ Man shoved down your throat—but this was the first album that introduced me into the world of Dylan, one that’s focused more on self-exploration and understanding of how to fit into the world. It taught me that it's OK to not be perfect. Nobody is perfect. Music that’s perfect is boring. Self Portrait didn’t try to be perfect—it just tried to be human. It’s not very fun to look at our flaws, is it?
Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth
In 6th Grade, for whatever reason, I thought being a goth would be really cool. Marilyn Manson, Jeff Hardy, buying random books about how to summon spirits, it was all a blast. So it was only natural I find out about Nine Inch Nails through their just-released 2005 record, With Teeth. I didn’t really get them before, but I did understand that it was the first full-length Nine Inch Nails had released since 1999. Listening back now, and to make a really awful and obvious pun, that record truly didn’t have any teeth. Each previous record carried what makes Nine Inch Nails a great band and Trent Reznor a great musician. There was a fearlessness behind the sorts of electronics and hardware behind what was played. With Teeth just feels like it was written by an alt-rock band from a bad episode of Law and Order: SVU. Songs were boring as shit, not thought out, and so painfully basic. It all seemed like Trent wanted to figure out how well he can write pop, or if he could write another “Hurt.” At least that live DVD was cool, I guess.
Green Day – American Idiot
Before I get into this, I want to tell you that as a 13-year-old in a very rural town, sure, I had the internet, but I don't think I knew how to use it. I only ever heard about Green Day because of the Dookie shirt my cooler older cousin tricked his mom into buying him, and even then I wasn't smart enough to look them up. I don't even know how I got into them or what convinced me to pick the album but, like I said, I wasn't smart so the first album I ever got into was the fated American Idiot. The worst part is that I really liked this album; I must have listened to it 100 times. The chorus interrupted by sudden fast and heavy chords in the transition on “Are We the Waiting/St. Jimmy” just felt good to listen to and of course as a depressed #teen, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” just, like, totally got me. I will never ever forget the day the cool boy on the bus who I had a crush on turning to me as I put the CD in my Sony Walkman or whatever it was called (I was too poor to have an iPod for those of you asking) and asking what CD I was listening to. I proudly said "the new Green Day" which he promptly told me sucked and the band hadn't made a good album since Nimrod. I quickly lied, said it was my friend’s and also the first time I ever heard it. The second I got home I made my mom drive me to Wal-Mart and for god knows what reason, they had a copy of Nimrod.
Bruce Springsteen – The Rising
The Rising was Bruce Springsteen’s comeback album, his first in seven years since the relative flop that was The Ghost of Tom Joad and his first with the E Street Band in more than ten years. It was his September 11th album, the one that the whole nation, in dire need of an apolitical piece of patriotic expression to come together over, could share. It was a smash hit number one album, and it almost certainly introduced The Boss to a whole new generation of fans at a time when his classic albums of the 70s and 80s might have otherwise risked falling out of the public imagination. In the years that followed, Springsteen would become a touchstone for the indie rock boom of the mid 2000s, embark on a string of massive tours, and renew his status as a political icon in the music world.
But while The Rising was in many ways the right Springsteen album for the time, it’s not the right one for all time. It’s awfully boring. Many of the songs are overly drawn out sing-along choruses that lack the tension and complexity that makes Springsteen’s writing so great. I’ll just go ahead and say it: Everybody was too afraid of being anti-American to admit that they didn’t really want to listen to this album. At least not as much as they wanted to be reminded that we were the country of Bruce Springsteen. What critic was going to pan it? “Empty Sky” deftly captures the feeling of devastation post-9/11, but that whole “eye for an eye” thing hasn’t aged particularly well post-Iraq. “My City of Ruins” is one of the most powerful songs Springsteen’s ever written, but it’s the exception alongside aimless stuff like “Worlds Apart.” The Rising Tour was my first concert—with my dad—and to this day it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen. But The Rising is one of Springsteen’s least subtle albums and least fun ones as well, so focused on the idea of collectivity that it’s somehow less universal than his intricately wrought classics. It brought America back into the fold of Springsteen, and for that it will always deserve recognition, but it's a weird entry point for understanding one of our country's greatest artists.
Jay Z / Linkin Park – Collision Course
Nobody is very smart at 14. For example, I was a Linkin Park fan. Their blend of rapping with guitars and anime appealed to how unique I thought I was, and I devoured their albums during my nightly Neopets marathons. One day, after downloading a fresh new batch of songs from Bearshare, I stumbled upon a Linkin Park song where the rapping wasn't just passable, but excellent. I checked the information on the song and was surprised to find a name I didn't recognize: Jay-Z. I had downloaded Collision Course, and my introduction to the best rapper of all time had just accidentally started. I worked through the album quickly, eventually preferring Jay-Z's liquid delivery over Chester's rapid staccato and turning to The Black Album when I grew tired with Collision Course. Linkin Park allowed me to pretend that the people in my headphones were just like me, but Jay Z opened up a new world around his own mythos that made me gravitate towards knowing everything I could about the central character. Eventually I left my old love for Linkin Park behind and dug into the history of Jay Z, following the branches of his collaboration tree into every different direction until the stories I heard expanded beyond the Marcy projects and into every major corner of America. So thank you, Linkin Park, for being the gateway drug that allowed me to get hooked on Jay Z. You finally did something right.
Guns N' Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II
When Guns N' Roses released their ambitious double whammy back in September 1991, I was pressing repeat on Shanice's "I Love Your Smile" and "Around the Way Girl" by LL Cool J. I'd just left San Francisco and moved to Holland and I was craving my daily fix from the Bay Area's premier R&B/hip-hop radio station KMEL. Back then I honestly thought Bon Jovi was heavy metal.
A year later my mom, stepfather, and I moved to Southampton, England and I fell in with a group of kids at school that were derogatorily labeled "the hippies." We wore DMs and flannel. The girls were into tie-dye and the boys had an aversion to shampoo because it made their Cobain-alike hair too fluffy. I forgot about Boys II Men and listened to Nirvana, sure, but also Ugly Kid Joe, Metallica, and Blind Melon. Conversely, given that Guns N' Roses stood for everything Nirvana railed against and despised, we were always playing the Use Your Illusion records—two bloated albums released separately on the same day, which, by the time we got into them, were over a year old.
Looking back, it was the 151-minute death knell of Axl and his flammably-coiffured crew of pickled rock lizards. The past decade's excess informed their every artistic decision—the spiraling length of songs, the millions spunked on grandiose videos, the thirst for world domination which manifested itself in soft rock, radio friendly hooks. A ten-minute tune that lacked a single chorus! They were hardly a band of mavericks, but thanks to the blizzard of coke, jacuzzis of Jack Daniels, and yeah heroin too, every idea must've seemed genius. Discard nothing! And yet, at the time, I loved Slash's overwrought solos (and that pout protruding beneath the poodle pomp), I punched the air to Axl's shrill caterwauling. Now I sniff at the self-indulgence of releasing 30 tracks in one day, but back then it was a treasure trove to be pored over. "November Rain," "Civil War," the bombastic riffs of "You Could Be Mine," and a few others aside, these two albums were walled with meandering fillers that could have and should have been whittled to one lean collection. Nevertheless, because I was listening to Salt-N-Pepa and Madonna in 1987, my first taste of GN'R was via UYI, and from there I swan-dived into Appetite for Destruction, a debut that froths like a rabies-ridden dog in heat. One of the finest rock records of the 80s, and one Guns N' Roses never bettered.
—Kim Taylor Bennett