Monday, December 14, 2009


You can't, I've been told, win them all. And that goes double for pop stars. They all flop from time to time. In the '00s, Madonna had her American Life. Whitney Houston had her Just Whitney. Mariah Carey, so unstoppable in the '90s, had her Charmbracelet. Britney Spears had her Blackout, which didn't do too badly but was her lowest seller despite being her best album. And Janet Jackson had... well, everything since Nipplegate.

But Blackout and Just Whitney aside (yes, it's better than you probably remember), those were, by no means, records worthy of the multiplatinum sales to which those artists had become accustomed. In the '00s, many mini-masterpieces went unsung by the general public, but for this post, the focus is on great albums that were critical and/or commercial disappointments, by acts who had previously gone platinum.

Pink Try This (2003)
Here's the thing about Pink. I love everything about her -- except her music. To me, she always seems like she's trying too hard to be rock & roll when she's really only slightly less pop than Britney. Interestingly, when she finally got the rock thing -- testy edge and all -- just right, mostly in collaboration with Rancid's Tim Armstrong on this 2003 opus, the result was the closest thing she's had to a commercial misfire. Too bad, because tracks like "Last To Know" and "Oh My God," a duet with electroclash diva Peaches, were better than anything she'd done before or has done since.

"Oh My God"

R.E.M. Around The Sun (2004)
In the '90s, every new R.E.M. album was hailed as a masterpiece. In the '00s, they've all been deemed a return to form. Except for this one. Even the band members might say it sucked. But hindsight, after sluggish sales, is 20/20 vision. They'll no doubt be saying the same thing about last year's Accelerate when the next album comes around. In truth, Around The Sun, is like an admittedly lesser companion piece to Automatic For The People, similar to Pet Shop Boy's 2002 Release vs. 1990's Behaviour. Mostly elegaic in tone, it's music for and from middle-aged men looking forward while looking back. Rocking out is not the point. It's what I imagine a Michael Stipe solo album might sound like, because songs like "The Worst Joke Ever" and "The Ascent Of Man" are more about lyrical and vocal mood than anything else. Just dim all the lights and let the music play.

"The Outsiders" (Ft. Q-Tip)

Sinead O'Connor Faith And Courage (2000)/Throw Down Your Arms (2005)
Okay, so Sinead hasn't been multiplatinum since a good 10 years before the turn of the century. But despite her kooky-controversial public image, she consistently makes great music. This decade, when she turned her focus to traditionally black music forms -- R&B on Faith And Courage, reggae on the Sly & Robbie-produced Throw Down Your Arms -- the results may not have been on par with The Lion And The Cobra or I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, but songs like Faith And Courage's torchy "Jealous" and sensuous "Til I Whisper U Something" and pretty much all 12 reggae covers on Throw Down Your Arms top most of what has passed for commercial pop, rock and soul this decade.

"Til I Whisper U Something"

Terence Trent D'Arby Wildcard (2001)
Terence Trent D'Arby can do anything. And to turn an old, overused cliche on its head, on Wildcard, he pretty much did everything -- every genre, every instrument, every emotion -- except sing the phone book. Sure he'd been doing that since he debuted with The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby in 1987, but on Wildcard, each style, each song fits perfectly, making it his most consistently excellent album. Maybe it was the inexplicable official name change to Sananda Francesco Maitreya that juiced him creatively. There are too many standouts to mention here, but one wonders, if he had released something like this -- artistic yet accessible -- as his second album instead of 1989's brilliant but difficult Neither Fish Nor Flesh: A Soundtrack Of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction, where would his career be today?

"Goodbye Diane"

Third Eye Blind Blue (1999)
Pop fans can be so fickle. Third Eye Blind's eponymous 1997 debut album launched hit after hit, and it seemed to set the stage for what would be at least a two-hit-album career. But despite having more interesting hooks and a more cohesive feel than TEB, Blue, which was released in the final weeks of the last century but impacted in the new millenium, detoured from the bouncy pop-rock of the Third Eye Blind singles. Its mood matched the hue of the title and cover, and perhaps as a result, it barely dented the Top 40, and produced only one hit single, "Never Let You Go," which managed to limp to No. 14.

"The Red Summer Sun"

Toni Braxton Libra (2005)
If the 2002 flop More Than A Woman badly damaged Braxton's multiplatinum career, this was the non-hit from which it might never recover. Although it went Top 10 and gold, it was a long way from the sales (8 million) of each of Toni's first two albums. That's a shame because Libra contains some of Toni's best work. Coming out in 2005 when the frenetic R&B of Beyonce, Destiny's Child, Christina Milian and Amerie (whose "1 Thing" is rewritten on Libra as "Take This Ring," the album's sole rump shaker) ruled the charts, it must have seemed too tame and perhaps a tad old-fashioned, but mark my words: Before slow-jam soul went out of style, a track like "What's Good" would have soared effortlessly into the Top 10.

"What's Good"

Other Undervalued Gems Of The Decade
The Cardigans Long Gone Before Daylight (2003), Super Extra Gravity (2005)
Nancy Sinatra Nancy Sinatra (2004)
Leona Naess I Tried To Rock You But You Only Roll (2001), Leona Naess (2003), Thirteens (2008)
Robyn Don't Stop The Music (2002)
Texas Red Book (2005)
Tracey Thorn Out Of The Woods (2007)

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