The hardest part of being an artist isn’t reaching the top; it’s staying there. For every groundbreaking, bar-setting album, there’s an equally bland or misguided follow-up that just couldn’t capture the glory of its predecessor. Blame it on label pressure, band strife or fans’ waning interest, but at the end of the day, there’s no hiding what these albums truly are—disappointing releases at a time when quality was most crucial.
Note: These aren’t necessarily the worst albums by each artist, just the biggest letdowns when viewed in the scope of their entire catalog. They could be average albums in their own right, but if they’re bookended by masterpieces, they’re ultimately considered disappointments.
Having perfected their brand of theatrical emo rock on 2006’s The Black Parade, My Chemical Romance were wise to try something new. Unwise, however, was the decision to pile on glittery synths and churn out dance numbers on Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. It’s a bummer, too, because tracks like “Na Na Na” and “Party Poison” rock with jittery punk abandon, only to be derailed by missteps like “Sing” and “Planetary (GO!).” Even the party punk anthems can’t help but seem a little inauthentic after years of bleeding heart melodrama. (If their “Ballroom Blitz” rip on “Vampire Money” doesn’t elicit a huge eye roll, more power to you.) Danger Days is the sound of a band grasping for—and sometimes reaching—something new. The problem is, they never really figure out what they’re holding.
Worst song: “Planetary (GO!)”
It seemed like a good idea at the time: Green Day would release three back-to-back albums of old-school, punky material to get back in touch with their roots after two epic concept albums. And it might have worked, had Billie Joe Armstrong not gone on a profanity-laden tirade after the band’s 2012 iHeartRadio set was allegedly cut short, checking into rehab the next day. The band postponed their tour and rush-released ¡Dos! and ¡Tre!, but that couldn’t save them from being their lowest charting albums in years. It’s a shame, because most of the songs are actually pretty good. They could’ve compressed them into one knockout album and sent it rocketing up the charts with proper promotion. But now, it’s hard to listen to the trilogy without the looming feeling of failure and lost opportunity.
Worst song: “Nightlife” (off ¡Dos!)
If Nevermind made one thing clear, it’s that Nirvana was never a grunge band. They were a rock band led by an endearingly miserable frontman with a deep knowledge and respect for conventional hit-writing practices. But, in order not to alienate their original fan base after their explosion in popularity, they followed up their landmark album with In Utero, an unpolished attempt to “return to their roots.” Half of it works: “Serve the Servants” is delightfully cynical, and “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” are among Kurt Cobain’s most poignant statements. But the album’s also ridden with un-melodic filler, such as the unbearable “Milk It” and the fifth-rate “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rip-off, “Rape Me.” Whereas Nevermind was confident and relentless in its pop-rock affectations, In Utero struggles to choose between heavy and commercial, ultimately floundering somewhere in the middle.
Worst song: “Milk It”
Blame this one on John Frusciante. After Blood Sugar Sex Magik turned these L.A. funk-punkers into genuine superstars, the guitarist decided fame wasn’t for him, leading to sky-high tensions between him and singer Anthony Kiedis. Frusciante eventually quit, and Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction filled the gap. The resulting album, One Hot Minute, couldn’t decide if it wanted to rock or groove, and consequently does neither. Navarro was just too riff-oriented, not open to jamming and lacking the subtlety that made past albums shine. Meanwhile, Kiedis sounds like he’s in another world every time he opens his mouth—which he probably was, considering he’d begun using heroin again. Thankfully, Frusciante rejoined the band in time for their next album, and the Peppers reclaimed the hard rock throne with Californication.
Worst song: “Pea”
The biggest problem with Van Halen’s fifth album is that it’s not an album. It’s a hasty mishmash of 12 songs that includes five covers and three instrumentals, leaving four actual original compositions, only one of which (“Little Guitars”) is even remotely worth getting excited about. The rest is just VH-by-numbers: David Lee Roth mumbles half-formed words as Eddie Van Halen fluctuates between metallic riffing and halfhearted attempts at blues, failing at every opportunity to find a decent hook. There’s just one upside to Diver Down. Sandwiched between the brooding, experimental Fair Warning and the pop-metal smash 1984, it’s easy to pretend this one never existed in the first place.
Worst song: “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)”
With Shout at the Devil, Mötley Crüe got a taste of mainstream success as they further defined their image and sound, a combination of decadent glam rock, streetwise punk and classic heavy metal. Then they threw it all away on Theatre of Pain. Instead of getting harder and faster, the band opted for toothless glam metal fluff—ironically, the same sound they had helped create four years earlier. Their demons had consumed them by this point, as evidenced by the abundance of filler tracks and the biggest artistic copout of all time: a cover of Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”(even if it did become their first Top 40 hit). The only essential tracks are the heartfelt ballad “Home Sweet Home” and the punchy “Use It or Lose It,” a spiritual sequel to Shout’s “Red Hot.” Mötley Crüe straddled the line between glam and metal more gracefully on future releases, but they never fully bounced back from the stylistic departure on Theatre of Pain.
Worst song: “Raise Your Hands to Rock”
Guitarist Joe Perry aptly summed up the state of Aerosmith in 1977: “We were drug addicts dabbling in music, rather than musicians dabbling in drugs.” After the one-two punch of Toys in the Attic and Rocks, Draw the Line is the sound of a band that’s lost all sense of direction, ambition and energy. Steven Tyler’s coke-ravaged vocals are nearly unlistenable on “The Hand that Feeds,” while the bar band boogies fall way short of the monster riffs on “Back in the Saddle” and “Nobody’s Fault.” There are some highlights: the title track is classic Aerosmith sleaze and Perry’s solo number “Bright Light Fright” sizzles with proto-punk fury. Everything else is Filler with a capital F.
Worst song: “The Hand that Feeds”
Hey, it’s hard to follow up the biggest album of all time. Michael Jackson’s approach when making Bad was simple: do everything the same as Thriller, and then do it a little more. The end result is an album that, despite its massive singles and a few stellar tracks, mostly just sounds like more of the same. From the laugh-out-loud album cover to the tough guy posturing on the title track and “Speed Demon,” everything on Bad screams “trying WAY too hard.” Whereas Thriller’s cutting-edge production deftly bridged the gap between rock and pop, the sonic bells and whistles on Bad just sound plastic and contrite, trapping the album in its own time rather than transcending it. Granted, “Smooth Criminal” and “Man in the Mirror” are still masterworks of pop craftsmanship, but for the most part, the album is just kind of, well, bad.
Worst song: “Speed Demon”
Brian Wilson struck gold on Pet Sounds, his progressive pop masterpiece that placed the Beach Boys in the lead of their neck-and-neck artistic race with the Beatles, if only for an instant. Wilson intended for its follow-up, Smile, to completely revolutionize the face of popular music. But pressure from Capitol Records and his band mates to churn out a commercial album, coupled with Wilson’s copious drug use and deteriorating mental health, led him to scrap the project. Instead, the band holed up in Wilson’s home studio and recorded Smiley Smile, a disjointed collection of minimalist recordings and a capella bits that are not so much songs as fragments of a shattered psyche. The album was a critical and commercial flop, failing to live up to its mythological expectations and marking the end of the Beach Boys’ popular reign. Despite valiant attempts to piece the original album back together, Smile remains the greatest “what-if” in musical history.
Worst song: “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony)”
They could’ve just called it a day after Abbey Road. They could’ve just ditched their plans to finish the Get Back movie and accompanying soundtrack. They could’ve just ended their illustrious seven-year recording career without a blemish. Instead, Phil Spector came in and gussied up botched the incomplete Get Back recordings with his “Wall of Sound” treatment, adding strings and choral arrangements and releasing the album after the band had already broken up. There’s just one problem: you can’t take a bunch of unfinished piss takes and turn them into something complete. It’s still the Beatles, so there are some true strokes of brilliance here (“Get Back,” the title track). But do yourself a favor and grab the remastered Let it Be … Naked to hear these songs in their stripped down glory. And remember: this wasn’t really the end. “The End” was the end.
Worst song: “Dig It”