The Faded Glory Invitational: 16 Icons Battle to Determine the Greatest ‘Down’ Period in Pop Music HistoryElias Stein
If you are a regular reader of this website, there’s a good chance you and many of the people you know have filled out an NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket. Talking about anything else right now is futile. Therefore, in order to broach a topic other than college basketball, it seems helpful to utilize the bracket format.
Let’s use bracketology to discuss a subject near and dear to my heart: good “bad” albums.
A good “bad” album is a record that falls short aesthetically (the songs are subpar, the production is ineffectual, and the overall product is uninspired) but is nonetheless entertaining and even enlightening as a portrait of an artist working through a crisis. Good “bad” albums are typically made by legacy artists who were great at one time but are experiencing either an off-peak period (meaning they might eventually be great again) or a post-peak period (meaning that greatness is solidly in the rearview). Every artist who has stuck around long enough to amass a sizable discography has at least a few records like this — the experiments, the stylistic curveballs, the commercial misfires, the all-out disasters. If you’re a fan, those are the albums you often end up cherishing the most, because obsessives like you are the only people cherishing them.
But who has the greatest “down” period of all? Which artist or band was the best at not being good? Who pulled off artistic stasis with the most panache? This is what the Faded Glory Invitational was invented to determine.
I’ve come up with 16 deserving artists and bands and seeded them based on the three U’s:
1. Unintentional comedy: Did the artist or band create songs, albums, and/or videos during the period in question that are accidentally hilarious?
2. Unmitigated outrage: Did the artist or band create songs, albums, and/or videos during the period in question that angered fans at the time and that continue to anger them to this day?
3. Underrated artistry: Is this funny and/or outrageous music actually much better than it gets credit for?
Initially, I devised the good “bad” albums theory in reference to the Rolling Stones. (1976’s Black and Blue is my favorite good “bad” album ever.) But the Stones just missed the field for the Faded Glory Invitational. So did Tony Martin–era Black Sabbath, post–Bill Berry R.E.M., late-’90s Public Enemy, American Life–era Madonna, Songs of Innocence–era U2, and the entirety of Lou Reed’s solo career (with the exceptions of Transformer, Berlin, and New York).
As you can tell, competition was fierce to enter the Faded Glory Invitational. Only the best of the best’s mediocre periods will do.
’80s Bob Dylan (1-seed) vs. Atoms for Peace (16-seed)
Atoms for Peace features two rock stars in off-peak mode: The focal point is “man bun”–era Thom Yorke, but the more crucial player is Flea, a Zelig figure for bands (including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and the Damon Albarn side project Rocket Juice & the Moon) experiencing prolonged post-glory years. If you’re in a rock group and you’re worried that your best days are behind you, there’s at least a 75 percent chance you’re in trouble if Flea is the one laying down the bass parts.
On paper, ’80s Dylan vs. Atoms for Peace is a two-on-one mismatch. But the Faded Glory Invitational isn’t won on paper. It’s won with music videos in which stuff like this happens:
I refer to “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love),” from 1985’s Empire Burlesque — the heart of ’80s Dylan darkness. Allow me to describe some of what happens before the climactic moment in which Bob Dylan engages in synchronized dancing with two Japanese girls: The video begins with Bob staring out of a window and arguing over his shoulder with a woman who is lip-syncing his lyrics back to him. Then Bob looks at a magazine and is subsequently arrested. Then he daydreams about touching a woman’s face. Then the part in the song about how Bob is “gonna get my coat” is juxtaposed with an image of Bob already holding his coat. Then Bob walks into a club and sees himself playing guitar while wearing a trucker hat and a black leather suit, like Elvis in 1968 or Bono in 1992. Then we see the cops back in Dylan’s hotel room, and it’s implied via a visual cue that Bob is involved in intrigue stemming from a USA-Japan trade war. Then Bob is interrogated. Then Bob looks wicked hungover while wearing an excellent white suit. Throughout the video, the milieu persists in being vaguely racist.
I could go on, but I think the mercy rule just kicked in. WINNER: DYLAN
’80s Neil Young (2-seed) vs. ’90s [Prince Symbol] (15-seed)
This is a battle of legendary malcontents who fought their record labels, the press, the expectations of fans, their own sanity, and common sense. Young was famously sued by David Geffen in 1983 for making two albums (1982’s strangely moving electronic experiment Trans and 1983’s plain strange rockabilly curio Everybody’s Rockin’) that were “unrepresentative” of his signature sound. Ten years later, Prince protested his contract with Warner Bros. by changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, writing “slave” on the side of his face, and releasing a new album nobody liked seemingly every other week. Young and Prince didn’t have mere off-peak periods — they nearly demolished their peaks through the sheer force of their irrepressible weirdness.
Now, it’s true that ’80s Neil Young and ’90s Prince put out legit good LPs, like Freedom for Young and The Gold Experience for Prince. Plus, I’m sure there are weirdo cultists who will argue that Graffiti Bridge holds up better than Purple Rain and that Old Ways has stronger deep cuts than Harvest. In fact, if ’90s Prince has a “weakness,” it’s that his overall catalogue from the decade is a little too popular — hits like “Cream” and “7” ultimately overshadow how Prince followed up a triple album (1996’s Emancipation) with another would-be triple album (1998’s Crystal Ball) reluctantly edited down to a relatively skimpy double. ’80s Neil Young, however, is largely undiluted, discomforting, robo-voiced strangeness. WINNER: YOUNG
Post-Pinkerton Weezer (3-seed) vs. Post–Black Album Jay Z (14-seed)
If Weezer had broken up after Pinkerton bombed in 1996, and if Jay Z had stayed retired after 2003’s The Black Album, neither would be here. Thank/curse god that Weezer and Jay Z endured to disappoint and occasionally confound fans for years afterward.
Weezer’s post-peak discography is in many ways more enjoyable than Jay Z’s when viewed through the prism of the three U’s — there are underrated albums (2002’s Maladroit), unintentionally hilarious albums (2009’s Raditude), and loads of uncomfortable albums (pretty much everything else). Jay Z’s output is never as flat-out annoying as Weezer at its worst (e.g., “I’m Your Daddy”), but it’s not as interesting or fun to think about, either. Post–Black Album Jay Z is just sort of boring. When Jay Z isn’t boring — like when he made Watch the Throne with Kanye West or when he goes to bed with Beyoncé every night — he’s not the right kind of not-boring for the Faded Glory Invitational. WINNER: WEEZER
“Accidental Racist”–Era LL Cool J (4-seed) vs. Audioslave (13-seed)
This was always going to end with LL winning in a rout. “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains” is itself tenacious enough to pulverize much of the competition. It doesn’t matter that “Accidental Racist” is technically a Brad Paisley track that LL only guests on. Jennifer Lopez was technically the second-billed star of Gigli, and you see how that turned out for her.
Before we send them packing, a few words about Audioslave: I sort of like Audioslave! Audioslave is what happened after Chris Cornell broke up Soundgarden in 1997 and started drinking too much. At this point he might not even remember forming a band with the non–Zack de la Rocha parts of Rage Against the Machine. Audioslave was a spring-break hookup that somehow lasted six years and three albums. But lest it be forgotten: Cornell, Tom Morello, and the other two guys from Rage formed a modern-rock himbo Frankenstein’s monster, taking the sluttiest aspects of their former incarnations (soaring rock-dude vocals and pummeling berserker rhythms, respectively) and discarding the brains. Audioslave sort of wrote its own origin story with “Show Me How to Live,” which is like Mary Shelley if Mary Shelley had also invented UFC in the early 1800s. WINNER: LL COOL J
Garth Brooks As Chris Gaines (5-seed) vs. Van Halen With Gary Cherone (12-seed)
What do Garth Brooks’s sole album as Chris Gaines (1999’s In the Life of Chris Gaines) and Van Halen’s sole album with Gary Cherone (1998’s Van Halen III) have in common? They are both persona non grata as far as the principals are concerned. Neither Brooks nor Van Halen has acknowledged the existence of Gaines or Cherone in years. This is clearly sadder for Cherone, a person who exists. Here at the Faded Glory Invitational, however, we welcome them both as the post-peak luminaries they are.
Unfortunately for Cherone, he stacks up against Gaines as poorly as he did against David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. Gaines is an Australian sex addict and former Olympic swimmer. According to his Behind the Music episode, Gaines lived for “fast cars and even faster women.” He embodied an extreme lifestyle whereas Cherone merely fronted a band called Extreme. WINNER: GAINES
Chinese Democracy–Era Guns N’ Roses (6-seed) vs. Rebirth-Era Lil Wayne (11-seed)
Here’s my hot take on Chinese Democracy (a mostly terrible rock album written and recorded over the course of 14 years) vs. Rebirth (an entirely terrible rock album that Lil Wayne thankfully didn’t waste 14 years on): They are the same record. This is what my deformed brain tells me after listening to Chinese Democracy and Rebirth back to back. Try it yourself: Play a track from the former immediately after a track from the latter. You can’t tell where one ends and the other begins: the overprocessed vocals, the “impressive” guitar playing, the way your heart hurts after more than two minutes of exposure. Rebirth smelt it, but Chinese Democracy dealt it. WINNER: GNR
St. Anger–Era Metallica (7-seed) vs. ’80s Beach Boys (10-seed)
Few bands have ever made it harder to be a fan than these two. Metallica became the first rock group to legally punish its fan base when it sued Napster in 2000. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys merely shamed longtime admirers of masterpieces like Pet Sounds by associating themselves with soulless pap like Full House and the Cocktail soundtrack.
Here’s the thing about “Kokomo”: You can’t defend it, but you can’t hate it, either. Hating “Kokomo” is like hating Hawaiian Shirt Day at the senior’s center. It’s good, clean fun designed to distract the populace from impending death. Also, while the Metallica therapy documentary Some Kind of Monster is unintentionally hilarious in places, the Beach Boys’ frequent guest spots on Full House achieve “intentional comedy so inept that it’s unintentionally hilarious” status — a rare feat. WINNER: THE BEACH BOYS
’90s Bruce Springsteen (8-seed) vs. ’80s Billy Joel (9-seed)
If not for a well-placed joke in Step Brothers, ’80s Billy Joel might not qualify as a post-glory years period. Joel had a ton of hits in the ’80s — way more than Springsteen did in the ’90s, when he left New Jersey for Los Angeles and yet somehow looked even more like a Jersey bar-band rocker. At the height of grunge, Springsteen’s sartorial choices appeared to be guided by Jon Bon Jovi’s “no shirt plus vest plus boots” look in the “Blaze of Glory” video. But ’80s Joel ultimately gets the edge because he invented ’90s Springsteen in the video for 1986’s “A Matter of Trust.”
The protruding jaw, the “1-2, 1-2-3-4!” count-off, that “great taste, less filling” sound of the guitars — Billy bested Bruce six years early and then moved on to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” That’s some serious post-peak excellence. WINNER: JOEL
’80s Bob Dylan (1-seed) vs. ’80s Billy Joel (8-seed)
Dylan won the first round on the strength of his dancing. Well, Joel can dance, too. That’s right, it’s a BILLY JOEL VS. BOB DYLAN DANCE-OFF.
Check it out, Billy can do this:
He can’t do this, but he can hire guys to do it for him:
What about Dylan? Let’s revisit his performance from Live Aid in 1985, the ultimate example of how non-synchronized Dylan can be. After Jack Nicholson’s rafters-shaking introduction — the “Chris Rock setting the stage for Eddie Murphy at SNL 40” of its day — Dylan comes out and electrifies the audience with rousing stage patter like “How much time we got?” and “I don’t know where they are!” in reference to his thoroughly knackered costars Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Dylan might be sweating profusely, but don’t mistake it for actual effort. This is Dylan on the world’s most important stage, and he does not care.
The execution is botched, but the spirit is amazing. It’s one thing to be out of your comfort zone, like Joel in the “Uptown Girl” video. It’s another to be in your comfort zone, like Dylan playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for thousands of adoring boomers, and to make it look like it’s not in your comfort zone, and also not give a single flaming turd about it. WINNER: DYLAN
“Accidental Racist”–Era LL Cool J (4-seed) vs. Chinese Democracy–Era Guns N’ Roses (6-seed)
This matchup comes down to outrage. Chinese Democracy is among the most disappointing albums ever, but only the most delusional Axl acolytes expected it to be any good by the time it was actually released in 2008. It’s not really an album that people got mad about — if you still love GNR, you’ve likely edited the existence of Chinese Democracy out of your mind by now. But “Accidental Racist” lingers. It might very well represent the end of LL’s career as a rapper, which started out like this:
Whether or not you like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” it’s hard to fully eradicate the stench of “RIP Robert E. Lee, but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean.” Thanks to its indelible awfulness, “Accidental Racist” has a permanent spot in LL Cool J history. WINNER: LL COOL J
Post-Pinkerton Weezer (3-seed) vs. Garth Brooks As Chris Gaines (5-seed)
If we take Rivers Cuomo and Garth Brooks at their word, neither man is remotely interested in irony. So, when Cuomo puts the “Leave Britney alone!” guy in a Weezer video, or when Brooks conceptualizes his “edgy” rock-star character as a cross between Trent Reznor and Zoolander, we are supposed to interpret these gestures as sincere and not at all stupid on purpose. This says a lot about how reluctant most musicians are about combining humor and music — they would rather be perceived as failures than as comedians.
The difference between Weezer and Brooks is that Weezer evolved (or devolved) from the sound of its most beloved albums, while Brooks made a conscious choice to make a complete break from who he was and what he was known for. Weezer got worse organically and Brooks got worse by design. WINNER: GAINES
’80s Neil Young (2-seed) vs. ’80s Beach Boys (10-seed)
Speaking of sucking organically, the Beach Boys were rock and roll Weekend at Bernie’s in the ’80s, flailing lifelessly in the aftermath of “Kokomo” with thin rewrites like “Still Cruisin’,” a musical boner pill in which Mike Love lecherously purrs, “We’ll find a place to park / That’s kinda cool after dark.” Here’s the video if you feel like watching your parents have sex.
The Beach Boys couldn’t help but look silly. Young, meanwhile, still had good songs that he deliberately presented as silly. Take “Wonderin’,” a pleasantly winsome love song he performed onstage with Crazy Horse in 1970 but didn’t actually record until Everybody’s Rockin’, on which he made it sound like a Sha Na Na tune. This is peak perversity reserved solely for songwriting geniuses who might secretly have terrible taste in everything. It’s a miracle that ’80s Neil Young didn’t turn “Rockin’ in the Free World” into a doo-wop song. WINNER: YOUNG
’80s Bob Dylan (1-seed) vs. “Accidental Racist”–Era LL Cool J (4-seed)
For six seasons, LL Cool J has starred in NCIS: Los Angeles as senior NCIS agent Sam Hanna. I have never watched NCIS: Los Angeles, nor do I know anybody who has ever watched NCIS: Los Angeles. Therefore, all of my information on the show derives from Wikipedia, which tells me that Hanna is a former Navy SEAL who is “tough,” fluent in Arabic, imbued with “a strong sense of honor,” and is “said to suffer from coulrophobia (fear of clowns).” I am now somewhat interested in watching NCIS: Los Angeles.
’80s Dylan starred in 1987’s Hearts of Fire, in which he played a reclusive musician who romances a younger woman while touring England. I haven’t seen Hearts of Fire, because nobody has seen Hearts of Fire — the theatrical release was limited and it’s available only via secondhand VHS tapes. Here’s what I know: It was directed by the man who made Return of the Jedi and written by the guy behind Basic Instinct. Also, this happens:
As a wise man once observed, don’t call it a comeback, ’80s Dylan has been here for years. WINNER: DYLAN
’80s Neil Young (2-seed) vs. Garth Brooks As Chris Gaines (5-seed)
Is it better to have one guise so miscalculated that it works as shorthand for bad career decisions, or is it more impressive to run through many miscalculated guises in quick succession? ’80s Neil Young did proto-Sprockets rock, zombified Gene Vincent hepcatting, pro-Reagan bro country, and satirical white-boy blues. That’s an unbeatable range of creative confusion. But Young’s slapdash conceptualizing can’t quite measure up to the misdirected thoughtfulness of Gaines — the amount of energy that went into bringing this dopey idea to life is sort of inspiring. Brooks gave this guy a fleshed-out backstory, with an ill-fated, pre-fame band (Crush, whose self-titled debut came out in 1986) and a motivating tragedy (the death of his friend and bandmate, Tommy Levitz) that propelled him to fame. We even know the name of the college (Long Beach State University) where Gaines’s dad coached swimming. It takes commitment to make the finals of the Faded Glory Invitational, and Brooks has more of it. WINNER: GAINES
’80s Bob Dylan (1-seed) vs. Garth Brooks As Chris Gaines (5-seed)
It’s the main event! Both men are enigmas who were struck down by vehicular accidents in the primes of their careers. Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966 led to the creation of The Basement Tapes with the Band at Big Pink in upstate New York. Gaines was involved in a single-car accident that required a six-week hospital stay and two years of plastic-surgery operations. This led to the recording of Apostle, which topped the fictional Billboard charts for eight weeks in 1994. (Chris Gaines mythology is bottomless!)
’80s Dylan and Chris Gaines are also known to dabble in eyeliner and obtrusive backing singers. It’s like looking in a mirror with these guys. But who is the ultimate signifier of good “badness”?
By virtue of not being an actual person, Gaines might appear to have the edge. But as we’ve seen, truth can be stranger than fiction. In terms of the first two U’s, ’80s Dylan matches Gaines for comedy and outrage. Where ’80s Dylan pulls ahead is the underrated category. For all of his inscrutable videos, train-wreck public appearances, and comedic sucker punches, ’80s Dylan also produced a lot of great songs. He just obscured them with tinny production, buried them on albums people hated, or didn’t put them out at all until years later. ’80s Dylan could be as good as he was “bad.”