The worst music of all time

The rock group Jefferson Airplane titled its first greatest-hits compilation “The Worst of Jefferson Airplane.”

Rolling Stone magazine was not being ironic when it polled its readers to decide the 10 worst songs of the 1990s.

I’m not sure I agree with all of Rolling Stone’s list, but that shouldn’t be surprising; such lists are meant for debate, after all. To determine the “worst,” songs appropriate for the “Vinyl from Hell” segment that used to be on a Madison FM rock station, requires some criteria, which does not include mere overexposure (for instance, “Macarena,” the video of which I find amusing since it looks like two bankers are singing it).

Before we go on: Blog posts like this one require multimedia, so if you find a song you hate on this blog, I apologize. These are also songs that I almost never listen to because my sound system has a zero-tolerance policy — if I’m listening to the radio or a CD and I hear a song I don’t like, it’s, to quote Bad Company, gone gone gone.

My blonde wife won’t be happy to read that one of her favorite ’90s songs, 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up,” starts the list. (However, the techno version clearly should be on the list.)

To demonstrate that rock musicians are not like you and me, here is the lead Non-Blonde, Linda Clifford:

“I wasn’t really a big fan of my band,” she said. “I didn’t like the record at all. ‘Drifting’ was the only song I loved. I did love ‘What’s Up?’ but I hated the production. When I heard our record for the first time I cried. It didn’t sound like me. It made me belligerent and a real asshole. I wanted to say, ‘We’re a fucking, bad-ass cool band. We’re not that fluffy polished bullshit that you’re listening to.’ It was really difficult.”

My definition of “worst” includes such criteria as poor performance (William Hung’s “She Bangs” occupies its own level of musical hell), poor-quality production (Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking,” which, apparently deliberately, sounds as if it was recorded on a pre-World War II wire recorder or was phoned in on land line from the middle of Africa), a substantial annoyance factor (for instance, the singer’s voice), general stupidity (two words: “Disco Duck“) and a concept that fits the category of “Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should” (for instance, most actors’ records, about which more momentarily).

Next on the Rolling Stone list is a song that MTV’s Kurt Loder described perfectly as “dopey but irresistible,” Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” which shouldn’t be on the list either because it’s actually cleverly written:

I agree completely, however, with Rolling Stone’s readers’ appraisals of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” Hanson’s “MMMBop,” Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”

Dion has made an entire career of sappy ballads. Rock groups that make the strategic decision of recording their own sappy ballads in the interest of increasing record sales deserve inclusion on any worst list, including the entire post-Chicago career of Peter Cetera.

Other examples from this hall of shame include Kiss …

… and Alice Cooper …

… and Styx …

… and Starship …

… and Aerosmith …

… and Bryan Adams (who recorded a contemporary song for a movie set in the 13th century):

Being from the ’80s, I’m more likely to include songs like this on my list, and if you disagree, well, shaddupa you face:

I’ve written before that I’m a fan more of songs than of groups, which probably shows itself in my daily “Presty the DJ” posts. (Here’s a hint: If you notice that a song of a performer on a particular day isn’t there, either that’s because (1) the post is already hellishly long or (2) the blogger doesn’t like the song.) I confess to judging songs on how they sound — music and lyrics — rather than just lyrics. (Which is fortunate for Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, because the words of “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” depict an unrecognizable war.) I hate Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” not merely because of its blatantly anti-American lyrics, but because Springsteen’s singing on this song sounds like someone running a cheese grater across his teeth, accompanied by bizarre Chinese-sounding keyboards. (“Born in the USA” is not evidence of one of Springsteen’s strange musical obsessions, bells, heard prominently on “Born to Run.”)

Since I’m a fan more of songs than of groups, in the same way I don’t like every song of every act (such as the dreck, starting with “If You Leave Me Now,” of Chicago, my favorite rock group), I don’t hate every song of every act, except for Air Supply, one of whose singers, to paraphrase Aerosmith, sounds like a lady. Guns N Roses comes close, however, because singer Axl Rose is the singing equivalent of the broadcasting term known as “puking.” And why the local radio station’s morning host chooses to play “Sweet Child O Mine” at 6:40 a.m. every Monday remains a mystery, other than its function of motivating me to get out of bed so I don’t have to hear it. (Their Friday counterpart is the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing,” which is merely an earworm co-written by Elton John, who plays the piano on the song.)

Michael Bolton deserves numerous inclusions on the hated-it list for not just the sappy nature of most of his work (with one exception), but also his voice, which sounds like he’s trying to tear his retinas. (Or yours.) Barry Manilow lacks Bolton’s hemorrhoid-shredding voice but (with three exceptions) has the same diabetes-inducing discography. Opposite Manilow is Frankie Valli, who has done some great music, but whose voice has occasionally been the musical equivalent of a godawful annoying TV commercial. (Some might say if it’s annoying  but you remember it, the commercial has done its job, but not if you refuse to buy the product being sold because of the commercial.)

You may have concluded by now that I am not a fan of, to use Paul McCartney’s phrase, silly love songs, whether upbeat or downbeat. (Replace “silly” with “stupid” in the lyrics, and that song makes perfect sense.) Dan Hill and I share the same birthday; that does not change my opinion of the vomit-inducing “Sometimes When We Touch,” which I will not dignify by linking to it.

Songs can be annoyances as well because they are non sequiturs. I don’t know about you, but when I think of hanging tough, I do not think of New Kids on the Block. Why the Beach Boys would sing of an Indiana town in a movie about a bartender on a tropical  island … well, a lot of the ’80s don’t make sense. (Another example is Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain,” a musical self-ripoff of their superior “D’Yer Maker,” on their final album, “In Through the Out Door,” which includes the suicide-inducing “All of My Love.”) And can anyone say what this song is about? (Not to mention: What music genre is this? Techno-country?)

Country music is stereotyped as a variation on the theme of my-dog-died my-wife-left-me my-truck-blew-up my-roof-caved-in let’s-go-get-drunk. So why singers and songwriters decided on their own to create the teen tragedy genre of pop songs (also known as “death rock” or a “splatter platter”) is beyond my comprehension.

The most famous of this genre is probably “Teen Angel,” in which boyfriend stalls car on railroad tracks and pulls girlfriend to safety, only to watch in horror as girlfriend goes back to car and gets smucked by a train. (She was going after his class ring.) Or perhaps it’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” in which a love-smitten young lad enters a car race intending to win enough money to buy a wedding ring for Laura. Laura’s boyfriend doesn’t get smucked by a train, he gets smucked by another (or perhaps his own) race car, and his racing career and wedding plans go up in flames.

Or perhaps it’s “Last Kiss,” another fatal car drive song first sung by J. Frank Wilson and banshee-sounding backup singers, and then covered by Pearl Jam (which makes one think Eddie Vedder lost a bet):

Many bad songs are covers, songs that were re-performed whether or not they should have been. If the song isn’t very good (for instance, Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way”), you are usually guaranteed the remake will be even worse, particularly if it mangles a rock classic along the way:

Even if the song is a classic, it can be ruined by a bad performance:

Curiously (or maybe not), the aforementioned songs-performed-by-actors category mostly seem to include covers. (For whatever reason(s), singers seem to be able to act better than actors can sing.) John Lennon and George Harrison surely are rolling in their graves every time someone plays this:

And if the world wasn’t interested in hearing Captain Kirk sing, then why did Mr. Spock (who sounds like a cross between B.J. Thomas and Bruce Springsteen) feel the need to sing too?

On the other hand, this was the best version of Morris Alpert’s intolerable “Feelings”:

Actor David Soul, the latter of “Starsky & Hutch,” lacked the paint-peeling voice of the captain and first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. His one chart-reaching recording was merely another drop in a sea of sap:

The ’80s have, unfortunately, several examples of the actor-as-singer oeuvre:

Europhiles and those who look down at the U.S. claim that the Old World has much more sophistication, class and taste than the New World. I reply to that assertion with the observation that David Hasselhoff has released 17 albums and 16 singles. None charted in the U.S.

Speaking of actors singing, I’m not sure where to put “MacArthur Park,” which was written by one of the great American pop song writers, Jimmy Webb. Actor Richard Harris’ version of “MacArthur Park” proves that, had Harris been required to sing for his supper, he would have starved to death:

What rescues this odd song (which was inspired by Webb’s relationship with a cousin of Linda Ronstadt) is its arrangement, particularly the orchestral break (from 4:52 to 6:20), for which the song won a Grammy in 1969. (The Grammy surely was not for Harris’ singing.) The orchestral break led to this SCTV sketch:

Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs gives Harris’ version the honor (if that’s what you want to call it) of being Barry’s worst song of all time. (I would have chosen, from Barry’s list, Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby” or Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” myself.) To prove that the bad reviews are the result of the performance, “MacArthur Park” has been covered more than 50 times, including Donna Summer’s number-one disco version …

… and Maynard Ferguson’s horn version …

… and Weird Al Yankovic’s own interpretation:


Obviously the definition of “worst song” is a matter of personal taste. Here’s a rule of thumb: A song should make your worst-music list if the song makes you want to (1) shoot any music device on which it’s playing, (2) shoot the performer(s), or (3) shoot yourself so you never have to hear it again.


15 thoughts on “The worst music of all time

  1. That 4-Non Blondes song “What’s Up” is something else. When I first heard it I assumed that it was from an adolescent TV show – you know like when they have like a teenage band and they write a really hip song for the high school dance and a sleazy record producer wants to sign them but the parents don’t want them to drop out of school or jeopardize college ? I thought “What’s up” came from that kind of thing. I was astonished to discover that it was a “real” song. Now – on to the analysis – See if it had been written in the 60s or early 70s it might have made sense given the widespread social unrest and intense intra and inter generational distrust of that era but in 1992 ? Really ? I mean what prompted the overwrought introspective lyrics and demanding interrogative of “What’s Going On” ? Was it a bad episode of Blossom or maybe Picket Fences ? I mean 1992 was a boring time and I think the singer was probably close to being 30 or something and was probably going through a “what am I gonna do with the rest of my life ” kinda thing and maybe trying on different identities like younger people do. But trying to come off as a 90s Joan Baez crossed with Boy George crossed with Milli-Vanilli ? The resulting visual pastiche wound up being really awkward looking. The song was also weakened by that simplistic pentatonic guitar line which made it seem like the guitar player had just figured out the box pattern and was determined to play it everywhere since he/she didn’t know what else to do. And the “heeeyyyyeeaaa, yea, yeas” were tough to endure and I can only imagine that when they did the song live they invited the crowd to sing a long (probably at great length). They would probably end the song, wait for a couple of bars and then kick back in with a “Thank you goodnight, we love you all so much, …… now help me sing it ONE MORE TIME….. Heyyyyyeeea, yea, yea”. In the end I understand that some people like this song – I just don’t understand why as it fails on multiple levels. It’s like a demo tape that got out and some how caught on with a focus group based on suburban kids and young moms – like it was one of those rare songs that they could enjoy together.

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