Christmastime is supposed to be a season of joy, love, and happiness.
It's also a season to get ripped off.
Executives from music companies -- which derive a huge chunk of their annual profits from Yuletide purchases -- know that moms, dads, and other people who never buy albums for themselves visit record stores around this time to purchase gifts for friends and young 'uns. They also realize that these shoppers are more likely to choose discs by brand-name performers than by unknown artists. Hence music retailers are deluged during the weeks before December 25 with an avalanche of superstar releases designed to entice your average rock and roll know-nothing to part with a piece of his paycheck.
And it works, too. At this time of the year some of the most successful entertainers in show business put out some of the worst records imaginable. While a few big-name platters (such as Prince's Diamonds and Pearls, the box-set retrospective of Barbra Streisand's career, and Michael Jackson's spotty, disappointing, but hardly disastrous Dangerous) have legitimate reasons for being, far too many are merely product -- rehashes, repackagings, or tepid new material that gets over on the power of advertising, hype, and stupidity.
What follows is a look at the ten worst offenders, the heavily promoted discs that will provide a listener with the least enjoyment for the money. Virtually without exception, these items have been issued under the names of rich people who don't need any more money, and whose greed practically drips from the covers of their CDs. So do yourself and your loved ones a favor, and don't let any of these albums get anywhere near your Christmas tree...
10. Crosby, Stills and Nash
Box sets were once reserved for only the best and most important artists; now anyone can have one. In recent months talents as minuscule as the Carpenters and Chicago have received this deluxe treatment. But even these groups are deserving in comparison with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a trio of burned out has-beens who haven't been worth paying attention to in ages. Although Crosby's performances with the Byrds, Stills's contributions to Buffalo Springfield, and Nash's efforts with the Hollies are worthy of respect, their work as a trio (and without Neil Young, who should have cut them off ages ago) has always been wretched, and in recent years it's only gotten worse. Four CDs' worth of their pedantic caterwauling -- priced as high as the market will bear -- is enough to make you wish the three of them would move into the Betty Ford Clinic in perpetuity.
9. En Vogue
Remix to Sing
How can a new record by En Vogue, a completely fabricated quartet made up of models-turned-vocalists who sing (or perhaps lip-sync to) the dance-music equivalent of Velveeta, be an even greater scam than the group's earlier recordings? Remix to Sing finds a way, by following the recipe previously utilized by manufactured kewpie dolls such as Paula Abdul -- remixing the same old shit, then reselling it to the same collection of dullards who bought the stuff in the first place. Yep, the new album brings us "Hold On" and all the rest of En Vogue's best-known treacle, done up in new sonic clothes that have all the soul of "Ballad of the Green Berets." Other bands, including the execrable C+C Music Factory, recently have taken the same tack, but En Vogue is alone at the bottom of the barrel. Even Milli Vanilli would be preferable to this.
8. Richard Marx
The credibility of any rocker who admits to being a buddy of Lionel Richie's has got to be suspect; Marx, who has actually written songs for the Ward Cleaver of rhythm and blues, proves with Rush Street that he has nothing left. Throughout the album, he presents himself as the perfect crossover artist/marketing tool, spewing out completely stereotypical tunes in a variety of genres (hard rock, easy listening, pleasant pop) that he hopes will appeal to everyone -- or at least everyone white enough to view him as a dream boat. Underneath their radio-friendly surface, his songs are about nothing but selling -- appealing to the least common denominator in the most common way. The music he makes is a weak imitation of other styles passed off as the real thing, but Marx himself is about as real as an anatomically correct department store mannequin. Nice hair, though.
Swallow This Live
Live albums were among the most obnoxious staples of the Seventies -- blatant regurgitations that allowed artists without enough brains or ambition to actually write new songs to both fulfill their contractual obligations and make tons of dough by taping a concert they had to play anyhow. The trend waned after approximately the trillionth imitation of Frampton Comes Alive bit the dust, but if Swallow This Live is any indication, it's back with a vengeance. This amazingly moronic two-disc set contains so many live-album cliches that it should be put in a time capsule. There's a more-than-six-minute drum solo. There's a more-than-nine-minute guitar solo. There's Poison member Brett Michaels asking the fans how they're feeling, repeating the term "busting their asses" about seven times and dedicating a tune to the soldiers returning from the Persian Gulf. And there are completely disposable versions of hits (such as "Every Rose Has Its Thorn") that were completely disposable in the first place. Spread this on the ground and flowers will grow.
6. George Winston
He's already got a record called Winter, so why shouldn't Winston, the pianist who put the "age" in new age (by making anyone who sits through one of his albums immediately feel older) issue a disc entitled Summer just in time for snowstorms and freezing temperatures? Well, I can think of plenty of reasons, but most of them pale in comparison with the weakness of his music. Winston's echo-laden piano noodlings are getting more boring with each passing year (which, considering how boring they were to begin with, is something of an accomplishment); anyone out there who can tell the difference between the various seasons based on this stuff should be given a Purple Heart. Windham Hill is a relatively small label, but given the crassness at the heart of Summer's release schedule, the company will be battling with the big boys any minute now.
5. Paul Simon
Concert in the Park
The live-album renaissance does not wholly explain this cash-in piece of crap from Simon, who had already gotten more than enough mileage out of his August concert in New York's Central Park through its live airing on pay-cable. Then again, we should expect no less from Paulie, who in 1982 reunited with Art Garfunkel just long enough for a lame, big-selling live set culled from a Central Park concert that also spawned a cable special. Heavy on material from an album (Rhythm of the Saints) that wasn't that great in the first place, this two-CD hustle adds nothing to our understanding of Simon's music and makes his latest excursions in cultural imperialism seem no less unnecessary. A souvenir to remind people of an event they didn't attend, Concert in the Park is only good for fattening Simon's wallet and thinning out yours.
4. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
The Sky is Crying
All right, all right, this collection of outtakes and unreleased studio tracks is not abysmal: Although even Vaughan fans would likely admit that it doesn't stack up to the discs he made when he was still above ground, it's thoroughly listenable. Nevertheless, buying a copy (as enough people already have to make The Sky is Crying Vaughan's second-highest charting LP yet -- behind Family Style, issued immediately after his death) sends the wrong message to his record label and to the music business as a whole. If The Sky is Crying brings in the bucks, Epic will keep finding more and more leftovers to fill up more and more albums that will deteriorate in quality as rapidly as those featuring Jimi Hendrix (subject of two four-CD box sets this year alone). Do you really want to be confronted by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Live at a 7-Eleven in Austin, Texas (Where He Was Recorded By a Security Camera in November 1988 When He Stopped to Buy a Six-Pack of Dr. Pepper and Some Ho-Hos)? Then stop now, before it's too late.
These humorless dolts tried to make a decent record, they really did, but at this point they're too mired in the muck of rock stardom and too fixated on becoming legends on par with Presley and Dylan to manage anything better than a wallow in pretension. Beneath the loads of electronic twaddle layered on Bono's voice, Edge's guitar, and anything else in sight, U2's music shows few indications of progress. Moreover, the album's lyrics -- like Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, they're mostly about love, sex, and relationships -- consist of mock beat poetry that makes Stevie Nicks seem like Allen Ginsburg. (Sample pearl of wisdom, from "Ultraviolet": "When I was all messed up/And I heard opera in my head/Your love was a light bulb/Hanging over my bed." Deep.) Throughout Achtung Baby, U2 does its best to seem avant-garde, but this disc is actually about as outre as a particularly ballsy episode of Family Ties.
We Can't Dance
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The time has come to speak the truth: Phil Collins is a balding little maggot whose music has all the toughness of a bowl of tapioca. We Can't Dance may feature cover artwork that recalls the group's Peter Gabriel era, but that's all a front -- the music is just more generic tripe that Collins and his fellow hitmakers (Tony Banks and Mike "and the Mechanics" Rutherford) hope to pawn off on saps who like to boogie down to Michelob commercials. What makes it all the more insufferable is Collins's continuing attempt to be taken seriously by tackling topics such as domestic violence ("No Son of Mine") and televangelists ("Jesus He Knows Me") in a manner that's not quite as intellectual as any random episode of Oprah. The disc will no doubt sell a gazillion copies (and probably collect a few Grammies as well), but it's so hopelessly middlebrow that it should be sold alongside Dockers pants and copies of the National Review. Woof.
Too Legit to Quit
Hammer is as big a fraud as the world of entertainment has to offer right now, and Too Legit to Quit earns the honor of being the season's worst major release -- without breaking a sweat. The disc's songs are uniformly limp, the music is danceable but dumb as a post, and the lyrics are about nothing, absolutely nothing, except Hammer's contention that he's God's gift to mankind. Like the massively idiotic video for the album's title track (which features James Brown as a strutting Obi Wan Kenobi, more empty visual flash-and-dazzle than the last several Star Trek movies and a faux Michael Jackson in fear of losing his glove), Too Legit to Quit is the epitome of waste, nonsense, and foolishness. Give it only to those you hate.
`Tis the season.