What's the point of an album review in the streaming age? You could argue that no one needs the opinions of experts when it's so easy to listen to the record yourself and see what you make of it. Equally, perhaps we need critics to help us sort through the mass of music that gets released each week, guide us to the good stuff and offer professional insight into records we love.
Either way, it's unusual for an album review to go viral in 2018, but that happened recently when Pitchfork writer Jeremy D. Larson stuck the boot into the debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, by Michigan rock band Greta Van Fleet, awarding it 1.6/10. Larson wrote, "They make music that sounds exactly like Led Zeppelin and demand very little other than forgetting how good Led Zeppelin often were," which was somewhat ironic, seeing as Led Zeppelin were subjected to bad reviews of their debut album, including in Rolling Stone.
Led Zeppelin did fine. Will Greta Van Fleet? Anthem of the Peaceful Army went to No.3 in the US, suggesting that so far they've survived a critical slating (other reviews weren't great), as many other artists have in the past. But not always...
The Enemy - Streets in the Sky (2012)
The backstory: Coventry indie band The Enemy formed in 2006 and hit big with their debut album, We'll Live and Die in These Towns, which went to No.1 and became a platinum-seller. At the time, indie bands were no strangers at the top of the chart (Arctic Monkeys' debut Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not had broken all manner of sales records the year before) and The Enemy rode the wave of interest in guitar music for a fruitful five years. Then, in 2012, they released their third album Streets in the Sky, which became a No.1 of a different kind. According to Album of the Year, it was the worst reviewed record of 2012, with Drowned in Sound taking particular offence, awarding it 0/10 and saying: "So linear. So staggeringly unmusical. So preternaturally inexpressive in its rigidness."
What happened? Make no mistake, Streets in the Sky is not a good record, but did it deserve the near-universal kicking it received in the press? In retrospect, perhaps something else was afoot - exhaustion with what had become known as 'landfill indie'. You could argue that by releasing a stale record, they took the brunt for the wider problem of many other indie bands simultaneously running out of ideas. Whatever the case, The Enemy's fortunes were affected. When the group split in 2016, after releasing one more album, Music for the People, frontman Tom Clarke wrote that "radio and the media couldn't find a place for it [their final album] despite unwaveringly strong ticket sales from a passionately devoted audience. Sadly funding and releasing records just isn't possible without support and exposure from radio." And therein lies one of the knock-on effects of a critical mauling - the artists may become personae non gratae in the wider world of the music business, making it hard to sustain momentum.
Eoghan Quigg - Eoghan Quigg (2009)
The backstory: Coming third in X Factor needn't be a bad thing - just ask One Direction - and there was nothing to suggest that Northern Irish singer Eoghan Quigg couldn't forge a music career after he won bronze at the 2008 competition, losing out to JLS and winner Alexandra Burke. Until, that is, his self-titled debut album came out a year later, which was obliterated by critics. "An album so bad that it would count as a new low for popular culture were it possible to class as either culture... or popular," managed the Guardian; "bad karaoke," spat AllMusic; "amateurish as well as utterly redundant," coughed Digital Spy, adding that it was "a strong contender for the Most Pointless Album of 2009 title". Gigwise anointed it something similar, placing it at No.1 in their list of The 20 Worst Albums of 2009.
What happened? There was no chance of poor Eoghan surviving that enormous serving of shoe pie, although the album did reach No.1 in the Irish album chart in its first week of release. After that, it sank without a trace, much like Eoghan's music career. He turned to broadcasting and football, playing for clubs in the Northern Ireland Intermediate League, before attempting a return to music in 2014 when he competed to sing for Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest (he came second). Still only 26, he's also spent many hours getting tattooed, judging by his Instagram page.
Radiohead - Kid A
The backstory: Following the global successes of The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997), Radiohead seemed to be in a great place. And they were - commercially, if not personally. "When OK Computer finished, I was a complete f****** mess," Thom Yorke told the Guardian in 2000. "I mean, really, really ill... Basically becoming unhinged, in the best sense of the word. Completely unhinged." Kid A, the band's next album, was a consequence of this inner turmoil - an attempt, as Thom had it, "to get sounds that I wanted out of my head and onto tape as much as we could." The band were proud of the record, the critics were confused. "The album is morbid proof that this sort of self-indulgence results in a weird kind of anonymity rather than something distinctive and original," wrote novelist Nick Hornby in The New Yorker; Mojo said, "Upon first listen, Kid A is just awful,"; Melody Maker were aghast, giving it 1.5/5 and the Guardian didn't rate it either, offering 2/5. But it fared much better with American critics, particularly at Rolling Stone (4/5) and Pitchfork, who threw caution to the wind and awarded it a rare 10/10.
What happened? We've touched on this before in a different article, 7 times music critics got things completely wrong - some records need time to settle before they begin making sense, especially with a band like Radiohead, who, correctly or not, were associated with a bigger narrative - Britpop. Kid A was a curve ball indeed, but an impressive one and it soon became recognised as an ahead-of-its-time classic. Quite some rearguard action has taken place. As Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone said on its 15th anniversary in 2015: "Nobody admits now they hated Kid A at the time, the same way folkies never admit they booed Dylan for going electric. Nobody wants to be the clod who didn't get it."
Kevin Federline - Playing with Fire
The backstory: You remember Kevin Federline, right? He was married to Britney, and... fine, but he also released an album in 2006, Playing with Fire. Signs that it might be a bit of stinker came thick and fast before it was released, not least when the intended lead single PopoZão was panned and didn't even make it onto the album. Then, when the album came out, the press had a field day. In their 1/5 review Rolling Stone called it "reprehensible" and "poison"; AllMusic, in their 1/5 review, said, "It's a bore, because he's a bore"; Slant called it "aggressively s***ty" and also gave it 1/5. And all those scores added up to a distinguished accolade: Playing with Fire by Kevin Federline is officially the lowest-rated ever on Metacritic.
What happened next? A career, of sorts, in reality TV.
Rod Stewart - It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook (2002)
The backstory: What to do when you've got decades of success behind you, have no intention of quitting, but realise that trying to pretend you're still young risks making you look like a fool? At the turn of the century, Rod Stewart was contemplating such a conundrum. He first tried to stay relevant with a RnB-pop crossover album, 2001's Human, which was awful, bought time by releasing a greatest hits comp, then changed tack completely, embraced his age and in 2002 came out with an album of standards, It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook. The press, as they'd been prone to do with Rod's albums for a good 20 years previous, scoffed. The record got 1/5 in Q, and 2/10 in the Guardian, Rolling Stone and Uncut. It looked liked Rod couldn't win.
What happened? It Had to Be You... went two-times platinum in the UK, three-times platinum in the US, and set Rod off on an extraordinary run of late-career success as an old-fashioned crooner. Four more albums of standards have now come out - all massive sellers - and he made a pretty penny touring as a covers artist to boot. Were the critics wrong or was this a case of his long-standing fans not giving a damn what critics think? Probably the latter. When Rod did return to writing his own material, with 2013's Time, he said that he was coming out of "a dark period of twenty years" - suggesting that he knew he'd been milking it with the standards albums. He must have feared a flop, but Time went to No.1 in the UK, and at last won Rod some respectable reviews - around the 3/5 mark in most publications.
Jennifer Lopez - A.K.A.
The backstory: Jennifer Lopez approached her eighth album after a period of upheaval in her life - she'd given up judging on American Idol, split up with her husband Marc Anthony and just returned from her first-ever world tour. About the tour, she told Billboard: "It was an experience; a physical and emotional journey. When I got back I realised, 'Wow I survived all of that and I'm okay. I'm actually better and stronger than I thought I was. I need to get back in the studio.' Everything that I learned about myself and [about] love is what this album became." In essence, she threw the kitchen sink at it, which became its downfall. It was all over the place, or, as the Observer put it, "Forgettable EDM-by-numbers floor-fillers jostling with marginally more inspired ballads." Meanwhile, the Guardian reckoned, "There are so many production cooks (and the ubiquitous Pitbull) that the broth is a bit characterless," which was a polite way of saying, "She's never sounded so boring or flimsy," as Popmatters did. A.K.A. ended 2014 as Album of the Year's sixth worst-reviewed record.
What happened? It didn't sell well, and while it's not fair to say A.K.A. derailed J-Lo's music career - Ain't Your Mama from 2016 was a hit song - she hasn't released an album since. But Lopez was never just about music. She scored good reviews for playing the lead in the TV crime drama series Shades of Blue between 2016 and 2018, and she's got a new film coming out next month, a rom-com called Second Act, which she stars in and co-produced.
Lou Reed and Metallica - Lulu
The backstory: We think of Lou Reed, perfectly reasonably, as one of the greats of rock music, but look back over music history and you'll find that most of his post-Velvet Underground solo albums met a sharp response on release, even the classic Transformer, which Rolling Stone wrote off as being "artsyfartsy". It's long been rumoured that Lou's savage feelings towards journalists (he was well-known for being a tough interview) were borne after his 1973 album Berlin was unfairly slated (it's also now considered to be a classic) and then there's the head-scratching Metal Machine Music from 1975, which Rolling Stone called "the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator". Clearly, Lou did his own thing and that included, in 2011, collaborating with Metallica on Lulu, which also perplexed critics. "How bad is it? Well...," began Pitchfork's 1/10 review, while the Quietus said: "The effect is that of Lou Reed ranting over some Metallica demos that were never intended for human consumption."
What happened next? Lulu ended up occupying a weird space. Those with more avant-garde tastes, like The Wire magazine, included it in their Top 10 albums of 2011, writing: "Ultimately, the reaction to it is a testament to Lou Reed's ability to still get up the noses and under the skin of even the most open-minded listeners. He's probably laughing his head off at it all this very minute." Lou's view was stoic. "I don't have any fans left," he lied. "After Metal Machine Music, they all fled. Who cares? I'm essentially in this for the fun of it." And it's hardly like it bothered his reputation, or Metallica's. It's a cult concern for now, but it's due a reappraisal soon, probably.