No one takes pleasure in being stupid. With the exception of people who buy TruckNutz for their car, we all go through life shamelessly trying to punch above our intellectual weight. For example, have you ever read Noisey? So naturally, we all brag about our smart, well-cultured tastes in movies, TV, books, and music. But when you take a step back and look at these things we hold in such high regard, things we consider emblems of our savvy tastes, sometimes it becomes clear that movies like Garden State and books like Fight Club are not exactly the highest achievements in entertainment that we as a society have achieved. To that point, here are some albums we all love to point to as representations of our intellectual depth. They're not necessarily bad albums, but on closer inspection, they might be a lot more shallow than we realized.
Metallica - Master of Puppets
Master of Puppets is a near-perfect album, and anyone who'd argue otherwise is obviously wrong. It's up there with Reign in Blood or Number of the Beast, and I love it very much. That being said, half of the reviews that you see for the damn thing invariably fawn over it for its scathing "sociopolitical commentary" and brave tackling of "taboo" subjects like war and drug abuse, and, really, it needs to stop. While Metallica definitely had something to say on this album, and said it in the raddest way possible, all of that "commentary" boiled down to a pretty bog-standard interpretation of Reagan-era teenage angst.
Like, really, what have we got here? A song about being mad and hitting things. A song about doing too much blow. A song about how mental institutions were bad. A song about how war is bad. A song about how religion and televangelists are bad. A song with no words. Another song about being pissed off and violent. A Lovecraft-inspired song. That's it. That's all Master of Puppets is about—being mad, doing drugs, and thinking monsters are cool. The record itself rips, Cliff Burton's bass solo was a revelation, and James Hetfield never sounded that cool again... but as is the case with most "smart" metal bands, this shit just ain't that deep.
The Who – Tommy
Remember that scene in Almost Famous when Zooey Deschanel leaves Patrick Fugit a note that says “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your entire future?”
To be fair, it’s solid advice from a rebellious 18-year-old to her nerdy little bro in the early 70s. Especially if by “candle” she meant “drugs,” and by “see your entire future,” she meant, um… undergo horrible abuse at the hands of your family, become a pinball wizard, and start a cult?
Ok, Tommy—particularly as a film—is a blast, especially if you’ve been lighting a few “candles.” It's a fine collection of visceral classic rock. More importantly, it’s a snapshot of a thriving period for unapologetic creativity in rock and pop culture, when artists weren't afraid to get weird for the sake of getting weird, especially at a time when doing so was pretty revolutionary. Even today, it continues to offer new generations sequestered in dorm rooms their first tastes of the bizarre. But that doesn’t change the fact that’s it’s a complete mess of a concept album that makes no secret of the fact that it doesn’t actually have a real plot. Being intentionally vague and overwrought does not make something deep. So, shut the door, turn up the volume, and light whatever you’d like, but, like Cameron Crowe’s ode to rock and roll and everything else you loved at 16, please don’t read too much into it.
The Mars Volta – De-loused in the Comatorium
The Mars Volta was a decidedly hard turn from the band’s former At the Drive-In members and they pulled it off spectacularly. Their debut, De-loused in the Comatorium, was trippy and bolder and generally weirder than what ATDI had been doing. That said, the lyrics make no fucking sense whatsoever. Anything can be mistaken for being profound when you don’t understand it. “Transient jet lag ecto mimed bison / This is the haunt of roulette dares / Ruse of metacarpi,” for example. Utter jibberish. Like reaching into a bag of peyote edition refrigerator word magnets. Which is fine. It can be cool to treat lyrics as purely sonic elements, but let’s stop pretending these words are anything more than nonsense scrawled during opioid trips.
The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
There are two kinds of people who do drugs: Those who do drugs, and those who talk about how they do drugs. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is pretty much the latter in sonic form. Don’t get me wrong: These four mop-headed boys created one of the most gorgeous and progressive records of the modern music era and I’m pretty sure my father would disown me for talking shit about it, but the lyrical content on this album is on par intellectually with the conversations I had last Saturday at 3 AM after drinking about 37 beers. For starters, there’s a song on this record called “Fixing a Hole” in which Paul McCartney riffs for about two and a half minutes on the mental glory of home improvement. Then we have a song about a guy named Mr. Kite and trampolines. And then they get really deep by writing a song called “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which, get it, is about LSD. (Because Lucy/Sky/Diamonds, ha!) Anyway, this record is beautiful and “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a lovely song that my father played for my mother at their wedding, but holy shit everything on this record is about as deep as the empty coffee cup on my desk. Let’s stop pretending it’s anything more than 13 different tracks that basically say “drugs are cool” over and over again. (Although, for the record, drugs are cool.)
The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
In 1995, The Smashing Pumpkins were riding high from the breakthrough success of Siamese Dream, and this double-album saw the quartet float straight to the top of Alt-Rock Mountain, as they married commercial clout and critical acclaim (a number one album, seven Grammy nods, millions and millions sold, “Zero” t-shirts flogged in malls throughout America). And of course there was balding Billy at the helm, exuding platinum-plated braggadocio while simultaneously donning the mantle of the disaffected outsider. “I fear that I am ordinary / Just like everyone,” he cries in those uniquely nasal tones. In many ways, this record—28 tunes vast—is an exercise in proving that he’s anything but. Even the song titles strain and buckle with the singer’s lofty ambitions: “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” “Where Boys Fear to Tread,” “Tales of the Scorched Earth.”
“I sensed my loss before I even learned to talk,” he mewls on “To Forgive,” while elsewhere he howls: “GOD IS EMPTY / JUST LIKE ME!” And you know you’ve hurt your throat wailing along with him—Billy is speaking to my soul. He’s a virtuoso! Hear him roar! But also, gimme a break, bud. This record is not nearly so sage as your teenage self thought or Billy's artistic ego intended. Mellon Collie… is however audacious and bold, frequently overblown and occasionally twee (“Only Come Out at Night”), and a really excellent soundtrack for smashing shit up (“X.Y.U.”). When he’s not trying so damn hard, Corgan communicates tenderness with a delicacy that lingers, songs destined to bring you far more comfort than that pillow you’re spooning. And of course their third album's crown jewel is one of the greatest indie rock singles ever penned: "1979." Few tunes so effortlessly capture the headiness and consequence-free feeling of youth. Nothing too profound about that, but that doesn't mean you don't feel it exactly where you should.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
Green Day – American Idiot
American Idiot is a punk rock opera concept record and that entire concept could be boiled down to two words: “government bad.” And that’s not necessarily a criticism. The government is, after all, bad, and every new generation should have that drilled into their budding minds at a young age. But as grown adults, we can look at American Idiot and agree that Green Day wasn’t exactly breaking any new ground in their broad, generalized political messages, and we most definitely did not need a Broadway musical about someone realizing the media has an agenda and that George Bush sucks.
Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
The story of how In the Aeroplane Over the Sea took on its thematic bent is, by now, well known: Jeff Mangum picked up a copy of the diary of Anne Frank, read it, and was devastated, telling Puncture magazine (in an interview later published in its entirety by Pitchfork), "I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I'd have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank." This narrative alone has bred its own share of overanalysis—a jokey 4chan thread put together a conspiracy theory in which Mangum actually succeeded—but it probably explains more of the literal element of the album than most fans would care to admit (it doesn't take a rocket scientist to piece together the meaning of lyrics like "then they buried her alive / One evening 1945" from "Holland, 1945"). Although many of the lyrics are winding and impenetrable and—due to being filled with sexual and religious imagery—seem to demand meticulous dissection, the explanation for them seems pretty simple: They are mostly just dream images that made compelling lyrical phrases. Sex and religion are like Surrealism 101. Take a look at a Salvador Dali painting and then at Jeff Mangum's lyrics sheet and see how uniquely inscrutable his words really are. As Mangum said in that same interview, his writing process was not particularly cerebral, and his own mind is pre-disposed to indulging his dreams, which naturally brings out religion and sex. To fixate on the thematic arc of the lyrical message of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, to ask Mangum to explain that message, is to miss that message entirely.
Which is to say: It's not that there's not depth to the album. To the contrary! It's that the explanation of the album is pretty simple and instead it's the implications of it that are profound. Aeroplane is a concept album, sure, but its biggest concept is radical empathy, the idea that history and humanity might be best understood by diving deep into someone else's psyche. It's not that deep to write lyrics that are not so secretly about World War II, nor is it that deep to suggest that reality is one big waking dream—there's a reason some philosophy professors make a rule that you're not allowed to discussThe Matrix—but there's plenty of emotional profundity to be found in wading through someone else's dream so vividly rendered. Just don't make the mistake of channeling your feeling of personal connection into a need to annotate the lyrics on RapGenius.
The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
The War On Drugs are so critically acclaimed that Adam Granduciel might as well get "Five stars. Magnificent.” tattooed on his taint. Critics said that this was a deep, layered break-up record—"wondrous and profound” as Pitchfork put it—because it was written in the wake of Granduciel’s break-up, with lots of neat references to a life of eternal emptiness hidden in the lyrics.
That of course, is a massive fucking cover story, when the truth is that rockist critics who grew up on a healthy diet of Bruce Springsteen, well-done steak, cheap scotch and Magnum P.I. marathons had to spend the last decade pretending to think Beyoncé is a genius and Lil Wayne wrote the song of year, all the while denying the true calling which is to just run through the streets of a blue-collar city in a denim vest singing Americana rock anthems.
That’s why they love this record, not because it makes them feel alone, it makes them feel safe. This is a record so pleased with the depth of its own introspection that often songs barely finish, just end in wibbling meaningless jams, like Anton Newcombe was sleepwalking through a Guitar Center. Even the more upbeat tracks sound like 80s phone hold music. Yet because there is this constant promise that there is something darker beneath, and you can’t actually hear anything he’s saying, critics can claim it’s some opus on the human condition, even though they really just love it because it sounds like the music their dads would play them back when they still loved them. Basically this whole record is just Dire Straits on Ambien. Stop pretending.
Muse – Black Holes and Revelations
Joey Bada$$ - B4da$$
Look, nobody is saying Joey Bada$$ isn't a good rapper. Clearly, he has a dexterity with words, and, especially on some of his recent guest verses, he's shown that he can stretch himself stylistically to embrace new kinds of deliveries. But the holier-than-thou idea that nobody is keeping it as real sticking it to the man as Joey Bada$$ is a little much when the biggest rappers in the country—Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, for example—are also delivering carefully thought out discussions of race, identity, and the politics of corporate America. Lots of Joey Bada$$'s lyrics that present themselves as clever are little more than straightforward word association: How did he think of using the word cattle when talking about beef?! Maybe because those two things are inextricably linked! Let's not act like Young Thug is ruining rap by rattling off metaphors about the different vegetables his pockets resemble and that Joey Bada$$ is saving it by rhyming "lyrical fajitas" with "Vegeta." It's unrealistic to read such a grand agenda into what he's doing. Joey's wordplay can be fun, but often the subject of his rap is just, well, rap itself. Don't make it less enjoyable by overthinking it.
Coheed and Cambria - Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness
If you’ve ever flipped through TV channels and landed on a sci-fi movie midway through and had no idea what was going on, that’s what listening to this album—and Coheed and Cambria’s subsequent concept albums that also followed the storyline of a comic book series—feels like. It’s perhaps unfair to say it’s not “deep,” since maybe the problem was that the band had drifted too far out into their own weirdo space nerd world for anyone in the real world to get what the hell they were talking about. The album title alone represents a clear disconnect with reality. And they just got more esoteric from there. Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow; In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3; In Blowing a Robot on Silent Age Prophecy XXVI: Thee Earthening 8 (Starship X)
Lupe Fiasco - The Cool
The best song on Lupe Fiasco's debut album is "The Cool," a song that tells the story of the rebirth of Michael Young History, a man who died pursuing his street dreams. The song was a standout track on Food & Liquor, which was stylistically all over the place. As a result of that song being good, Lupe decided to keep riding that pony by making an entire album around the concept while introducing two new concept characters: The Streets and The Game. The Cool (the album) was sonically better than Lupe's debut, and many were quick to call it smart because it circled around the three thematic characters, despite the fact that only a handful of songs on the 19-song album even mentioned those characters. In fact, the best songs on that album were the ones that didn't stick to the script, like "Hip-Hop Saved My Life" and "Dumb It Down." Although The Cool was praised for being "smart," it wasn't smarter than any other good rap album that dealt with the author's demons.
The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead
The Queen is Dead is one of the most gorgeous albums ever made. It’s miserable and hilarious and a defiant fist in the air on behalf of the British working classes whose livelihoods were marred by Thatcherism. It’s also totally ridiculous.
The fact that it is widely cited as one of the greatest albums of the last 30 years is testament to nothing but the global appeal of self-indulgence. The title may well be a simultaneous reference to Last Exit to Brooklyn, Macbeth, and Cymbeline, but—as is usually the case with Morrissey—these literary flourishes belie the true point of the album, which mostly about Steven having a bloody good whinge. Between “to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” and “sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled making Christmas cards with the mentally ill,” nobody in the history of pop culture has felt as sorry for themselves as Morrissey on The Queen is Dead. If you held a listening party and did a shot for every lyric about feeling lonely or misunderstood, your body would shut down faster than a kebab cart during one of his festival performances. Obviously, the wry and non-committal smirk that accompanies all of the above is exactly what makes The Smiths so brilliant, but let’s not confuse The Queen Is Dead for anything other than what it is: the gold standard of teenage diaries.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd is glorified stoner music and you know it. And like all glorified stoner music, time has ascribed great philosophical importance to the album Dark Side of the Moon. But when you can buy Dark Side of the Moon t-shirts and posters in bulk at Target and its main cultural draw is a bunch of lazers, it's time to ask the question: Is it really that deep? Or are you just on a bunch of drugs right now?
Remember when John Waters said, “If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them?” The same should be said for any person Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl. Please tell me what is so earth-shatteringly profound about playing the cha-ching sound on a tape loop? If you’re interested in subversive capitalism, you're better off watching Zoolander.
Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine
I grew up on Rage Against the Machine. They were my first live show, my first band tee. We really thought the music had the power to help us change the world. I've had 20 years to mull it over, though, to watch what happens to youthful rebellion, and it ain't pretty. Decades on from Rage's landmark self-titled album, the wingnuts are nuttier, wars still rage, and cops are still trigger-happy. Rights aren't all equal yet. Mumia is still locked up. Youthful rebellion without focus, without organization, disperses. Disintegrates. We had it, and they fucked us, and we lost.
Rage Against the Machine is a monument to the smarter-than-thou political insurgent who doesn't have a plan beyond tearing up the present one, full of punchy slogans but short on constructive action. “Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!” “Wake up! We gotta take the power back!” “We'll settle for nothing now, and we'll settle for nothing later!” It all feels good, but it doesn't do good. I still love it with all my heart, but it's futile to scream at everyone to wake up, if you have no clue what they're supposed to do when they're woke.
Kanye West – Yeezus
Critics loved Yeezus, and of course they did. It was, after all, an incredibly non-traditional hip-hop record (if throwing some recycled 90s industrial elements counts as non-traditional). With many musical elements never seen before on a hip-hop album, reviewers were free to dig into a whole other end of the thesaurus in their praise. But while many point to it as the dawn of a radical new era of hip-hop, really what we have here in this revolutionary genius Kanye West was actually a millionaire who was doing Pepsi commercials just a few years prior. And what we have in the “punk-rap manifesto” song “Black Skinhead” was a man with a misguided God complex who wrote a song inspired by having his feelings hurt by a fashion designer at Fashion Week. Kanye often points to the second verse on “New Slaves” as being one of the best he’s ever written, and it is definitely a strong verse about the prison-industrial complex, and Kanye is still ions ahead of the majority of his peers on it, but if we tear away the sonic elements of it and look specifically at the lyrics, really, it’s just the same thing Kanye had been saying on all of his albums except this time he listened to Nine Inch Nails before he said them. It’s tempting to look at Kanye and call Yeezus a case of the emperor having no clothes, but that would be misleading since the only thing Kanye has is clothes.
Radiohead - Kid A
This album is the sonic equivalent of waking up the morning a project is due and realizing you haven’t done it, so you spit out some philosophical bullshit onto a page and hope it works out, only to get it back and be asked to publish it in a journal because it’s so fucking “revolutionary.”
No one mentions the fact that this album isn’t about anything. It has no purpose at all, no meaning. It is the product of Thom Yorke having writer’s block and everyone else just saying “Sure, do what you want, we don’t care, you’re Radiohead!”
Kid A is one long panic attack, one long disjointed Myspace poem by that weird kid in high school who got his rocks off by scaring everyone “because he liked it” and now goes to a community college in a different state and posts racist memes on Facebook. It’s one long manic episode-induced love letter written to an ex by that guy in a Warped Tour-core band who just can’t get over her even though it happened five years ago when they were in 8th grade.
This album rules, but what the fuck is going on here guys.