As history has shown, crossing over from acting to music is a tricky proposition. This month David Duchovny will release his debut album, and Ed Helms’ band The Lonesome Trio’s first album is due out in June. We’ve compiled a list of the best and worst musical albums made by actors, but we’ve set a few parameters.
1. We only consider actors and actresses who are known primarily for being in movies or TV.
2. We only consider actors or actresses who have released at least one full-length album.
3. Their musical endeavor had to come as a surprise move, meaning the actor or actress can’t have arrived on the scene as a thespian and a singer. (Sorry, J Lo and Glee kids.)
10 Best Albums
10. William Shatner, The Transformed Man
Shatner set the standard for an actor making an album. Although the result is not technically what anybody might consider “good,” it’s so crazy that it would be a disservice to put it in the worst category. Captain Kirk recites Shakespeare along with contemporary pop music of the late 1960s, which neither elevates the pop music poetry nor sullies the Bard. It just puts both on this weird plane of Shatner-ness.
9. Crispin Glover, The Big Problem ? The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be
Glover reads from his own book, and raps primitively about the virtues of masturbation. Though topically it bears no resemblance to Shatner’s album, it’s tempting to group the two together. Glover is hilarious here, and as with Shatner, it’s unclear whether or not that was the intention, which is what gives both of the releases in question their vitality. Both actors imbue their cover songs with emotional instability not apparent on the originals; Shatner with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Glover with “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” Glover had earlier used his boots to cement this unstable persona into the national consciousness on David Letterman’s guest couch. To be nearly kicked in the face by a man wearing a bad wig pretty much encapsulates what it’s like to listen to both of these albums.
8. Scarlett Johansson, Anywhere I Lay My Head
Scarlett Johansson’s first foray into music was this tribute to Tom Waits, and though it falters at times—”I Don’t Want to Grow Up” doesn’t really work when it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys—it’s a stellar effort. With Johansson’s longing voice against a background of dusty banjo, windy chimes, and haunting vocals courtesy of David Bowie, “Falling Down” really captures that “Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen” vibe, like the reflection of neon in a grimy street puddle.
7. Tony Perkins, Tony Perkins
By billing himself as Tony instead of Anthony, it seems Perkins was interested in drawing a line between his roles as actor and singer. If you’re able to separate Tony Perkins the singer from Norman Bates the psycho, this is a delightful album. Marty Paich let Perkins’ warm crooning take center stage, in front of a tasteful backdrop that’s ornate, but never distracting.
6. Clint Eastwood, Rawhide’s Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favorites
There’s not a trace of Dirty Harry or the man with no name on Cowboy Favorites. Instead you’ll find a collection of campfire lullabies, all blending into one another in a sleepy ease with prairie harmonicas and shooting star slide guitars. Clint’s croon is gentle and weary, almost as if he’s riding his horse from the saloon.
5. Paris Hilton, Paris
Almost a decade removed from the pinnacle of her debatably deserved fame, Paris holds up. When Paris Hilton spent nearly every night of her 20s clubbing, she might have actually been paying attention to the music, rather than just keeping tabs on who was paying attention to her. Paris delivers a line like, “Maybe ‘cause I’m hot today and I’m so, so, so sexy/ all the boys, all the silly boys, they wanna fight over me” with just the right amount of self-awareness.
4. Christopher Lee, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death
The next time you feel like you might be too old to rock ‘n’ roll, consider this: The actor who you probably know best for playing Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy was 90 years old when he released this metal concept album. Christopher Lee had previously contributed to the soundtracks of movies he was in, but in the 2000s he began to dabble in metal collaborations. In 2010 he released a symphonic metal album called Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which doesn’t quite capture the intrigue of its sequel. What makes The Omens of Death work is that the guitars are harder and the triumphant riffs more plentiful. Arranged by Richie Faulkner, who makes his living as a replacement guitarist in Judas Priest, the music sounds more like straight-up hard rock than metal. Much of the material is very History Channel, with its serious narration against sounds of steeds galloping and passages in Latin, but it’s the ideal compromise between books on tape and Headbanger’s Ball.
3. Blues Brothers, Briefcase Full of Blues
On paper, this album should be horrible: two white guys who at the time were superstars for making people laugh, performing as characters who know what it’s like to have the blues. At the very least, it should be a relic that provides curious insight into what people considered entertainment in the late 1970s. But overall, the music on this debut is solid. The band—led by Paul Shaffer and featuring Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn—is on fire. The only drawback of this album is that it led to a number of embarrassing attempts at keeping the characters alive after Belushi’s death and loads of white blues bands being hired to play in bars all over America.
2. Jeff Bridges, Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges took a long time setting the stage for his self-titled 2011 album. He quietly released a debut called Be Here Soon at the turn of the century. Bridges’ and Michael McDonald’s collaboration album fared modestly, but didn’t seem geared to capitalize on Bridges’ name as much as it seemed to let casting agents know that he could sing and play guitar. Enter 2009’s Crazy Heart, which earned Bridges an Oscar for Best Actor. So when Bridges released his second album, fans were eager to receive new music from the guy who played Bad Blake. The music of Jeff Bridges feels like a logical extension of that character.
1. Dead Man’s Bones, Dead Man’s Bones
When you’re a famous actor you get to do whatever the hell you want. You have legions of dedicated fans who will devour anything you put your name on, especially when you’re a bona fide heartthrob. Ryan Gosling put together a concept album that is, in essence, a grade school Halloween pageant. The most admirable part of this side project is that Gosling not only hid under the moniker of a band name, but even in the credits he was listed by the pseudonym of Baby Goose. With his friend Zach Shields, Baby Goose gathered a bunch of kids and sang a collection of campy, creepy songs with all the homemade charm of musicians who are trying out instruments they’d never played before, which is exactly what Gosling and Shields did, on piano and drums, respectively. The style ranges from the Arcade Fire oh-oh-ing that hadn’t reached full ubiquity by 2009 to ‘50s teen idol to B-movie zombie sounds. It’s simultaneously beautiful, fun, and chilling to hear children singing, “When I think about you, flowers grow out of my grave.”
Honorable Mention: Wicked Wisdom, Wicked Wisdom
Jada Pinkett Smith is shockingly convincing and puts a twist on nu metal to make it tolerable. To hear her railing against social injustices in a dynamic voice is so refreshing when the instrumentation makes you think you’ll be hearing a voice not unlike Cookie Monster. She makes this plea to her audience: “Women, what kind of soldiers are we if we can’t set ourselves free? Who will our daughters be?” We can only hope that the she inspired a legion of middle school girls who will start to emerge with their own defiant bands soon.
10. Don Johnson, Heartbeat
When Don Johnson released his debut in the ‘80s, the world had fallen so deeply in love with his Sonny Crockett persona on Miami Vice that a major label could just feel it coming in the air tonight that an album would be a smash, no matter how bad it was. And it is very bad. But it’s a product of its time. The cameo power alone is like the Hollywood Hills party in 1986: Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Ron Wood. There’s Sambora-like metallic guitar all over the place and over-the-top saxophone. The sound mix is extremely dated and there’s so much compression on all of the instruments that any chance of Johnson’s charisma shining through on these 10 tracks is totally shot.
9. Eddie Murphy, Love’s Alright
To make Love’s Alright, his third non-comedy album, Eddie Murphy tried a Don Johnson approach of having all his famous friends party all the time at the studio with him. The results are similarly unimpressive. Not even a Michael Jackson cameo can save it. During “Desdamona,” B.B. King pops in to announce, “Lucille wanna tell ya about it now” before playing a lick then leaving to never emerge in the mix again. The album ends with a 7-minute version of “Hey Joe,” that makes very little sense on what is mostly a collection of songs that seems like Murphy trying to get in late on the D.A.I.S.Y. Age. But Murphy’s worst offense comes when he covers “Good Day Sunshine” by The Beatles, and starting with the “I need to laugh” line, he sprinkles in that inimitable laugh that was once his trademark, but is now probably a copyright owned by his Donkey character in the Shrek movies.
8. Steve Martin, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo
Martin won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for this release, but there’s a certain amount of “aw shucks” folksy humor going on here that makes one suspect that he’s competing with Jeff Daniels (see No. 7) to replace Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion should NPR come calling. Martin opens up with “Daddy Played the Banjo,” and this sets the tone for the type of family-friendly fare that follows. Yes, there are some truly smoking banjo instrumentals here, but the comedian’s turn singing lead on “Late for School” is evidence that one of the “wild and crazy guys” is now a mild and hokey guy.
7. Jeff Daniels, Live and Unplugged to Benefit the Purple Rose Theater
You know what you’re in for just by looking at the first few song titles here. Daniels kicks off with “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too,” with several humble-ish nods to the fact that he probably won’t be winning a Grammy like Steve Martin. Like most songs on the album, his lyrics on this number are organized in such a way that you know there will be a softball punch line when the rhyme comes. Case in point: “Despite people ‘cross the country screaming ‘Please don’t do it!’ we’ve got another CD from Jennifer Love Hewitt.”
6. Bruce Willis, The Return of Bruno
Had the world lost Elwood Blues instead of Joliet Jake, the Blues Brothers might have looked to Bruce Willis as a replacement. He’s got skills on the harmonica, he knows his soul music history and at the time he made The Return of Bruno he was regularly wooing audiences by loosening his tie, putting shades on and lip-synching 1960s party classics on Moonlighting. His album at the time seemed to serve the same purpose as the Blues Brothers’ “mission from God” to bring forgotten favorites of a bygone era to a new audience, but the oldies he revived (“Respect Yourself,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Young Blood”) are not nearly as good as the original versions. In 2015, would anybody ever choose Bruce Willis over the Staples Singers, The Drifters or The Coasters?
6. Terrence Howard, Shine Through It
Terrence Howard’s delicate and wavering voice works when he’s Lucious Lyon on Empire, but it doesn’t sound nearly as cool floating on the smooth jazz that’s all over Shine Through It. Howard sounds a little bit like Tone Loc at one point, but Tone Loc would never use a light flute, piano, and conga arrangement to angrily whisper-rap a chorus of “Stay Off Mr. Johnson’s Lawn.”
5. Robert Downey Jr., The Futurist
This is a dude who had lived the high life and hit rock bottom and he’s singing vanilla adult contemporary that sounds like Sting’s worst solo material. As an album, it’s not embarrassing, just boring. The record wouldn’t make you cringe if you didn’t know who it was, but it simply doesn’t have much personality.
3. Lynda Carter, Portrait
Carter’s voice isn’t bad, blending well with the syrupy symphonics and soft rock rhythms, but these songs are the type of things an action show on TV would license if they didn’t want to pay the big bucks for a real hit. In fact, several of the songs did appear on an episode of Wonder Woman. Biggest lowlight: “Toto (Don’t It Feel Like Paradise),” a ballad to the dog from Wizard of Oz.
2. David Hasselhoff, Night Rocker
The scenario for how this atrocity got made is detailed on the website of the album’s producer, Joel Diamond. In his bio is the fact that he “not only produced David [Hasselhoff]’s first platinum recording, but was the first and only person to believe in David’s singing career after his being turned down at virtually every label.” Somehow, this is completely believable.
1. Corey Feldman, Former Child Actor
“I could’ve been great/ could’ve been a contender/ But now I can’t do shit/ ‘cause I’m a former child actor,” Corey Feldman sings on the title track. Former Child Actor is largely unlistenable. Feldman sounds like a muppet impersonating Anthony Kiedis against a rhythm track provided by 311. Dr. Noah Drake himself, Rick Springfield, co-wrote the title track! But co-writing with the guy who wrote “Jessie’s Girl” does not guarantee a good album, nor does a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” With Feldman’s touch it sounds like a duet between present day Bob Dylan and Kenny G. It’s tough to tell if Feldman is serious, but it’s hard to care whether or not he is. The feeling behind Former Child Actor is like a hangover that still hasn’t gone away as Sunday afternoon turns to evening. This sentiment is best embodied in his unnecessarily dirgey version of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Make it go away!
Dishonorable Mention: Stephen Collins, Stephen Collins
This collection of 13 oldies is so innocuous that it wouldn’t even make the list were it not for the fact that the actor who most people know as Rev. Eric Camden on 7th Heaven recently came clean about sexually abusing minors. Given that information, it’s even more uncomfortable listening to him ask, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” And because of Collins’ dirty deeds, you end up just getting more pissed off at the guy for rushing syllables and thinking it’s acceptable to deliver extremely dorky lines like, “We were singing oldies, but they were newies then.”