An incredible album transports you, song-by-song, through a journey that is musically and lyrically diverse enough to maintain your interest all the way through. A great album has two or three skippable songs. A good album has mostly great songs but several duds.
But the most confusing albums are the ones that are truly bad, but have one or maybe two incredible pieces of music on them. They're usually from bands you expect more from, all-time favorites who just didn't have the right stuff this time out. These aren't one-hit-wonders. These are songs that are magical little gems buried in the midst of the bland, the boring, or even the downright bad.
2014 had plenty of this sort of buried treasure. Here are 11 great songs that were hidden away on disappointing and/or horrible albums:
"FUNKNROLL" by Prince off ART OFFICIAL AGE
Pop god Prince released a new album in 2014 to little fanfare. That was deserved, because frankly, it just wasn't that good. ART OFFICIAL AGE is a scattered, haphazard production with few stand-out tracks. The exception is "FUNKNROLLl," a weird sci-fi-esque song, with robotic sound effects and some great mini-guitar riffs.
"Mr. Tembo" by Damon Albarn off Everyday Robots:
As one of the members of the British band Blur and the digital only band Gorrilaz, Damon Albarn has a central place in modern music. This year, he released his first solo album, Everyday Robots, a sleepy, sad album full of forgettable tunes. "Mr. Tembo," though, is the place where the album wakes up. It's a sweet song about change and the future and would fit well on any 2014-centric playlist, where it's not burdened by the other Everyday Robots tracks.
"The Miracle of Joey Ramone" by U2 off Songs of Innocence
U2's had a historic, important career, but there's no way around this: their latest, Songs of Innocence, is a truly boring album, with many bad songs. The songs here are so bland, so "universally appealing," that they lose the raw expressions of personal life that made U2 great in the first place. That said, "The Miracle of Joey Ramone," the lead single, will remind you why you loved the band once. Bono's voice rises and falls like it did in the band's finest moments, and the chorus is one of the only memorable things on this lazy album.
"Hard Out There" by Lily Allen off Sheezus
Lily Allen's work has gone through a seeming identity crisis since she got married, had a kid, and left behind the hard-edged persona of her first two albums. Sheezus pays homage to many of the biggest names in Top 40 music right now, yet loses sight of Allen in its midst. The exception here is "Hard Out There," which maintains the cutting lyricism and strategically placed f-bombs Allen was once known for.
"Go (Blank Sea)" by Zola Jesus off Taiga
Everything about Taiga is cleaner than Zola Jesus's earlier work. Her vocals are easier to understand. The production quality is much better. But the songs, unfortunately, are largely stripped of the emotion that once made her interesting. The only place where this cleaner sound thrives is on "Go (Blank Sea)" where Jesus harnesses her sweeping vocals to give the song more dimension and emotion than anything else on the album.
"Early Morning Rain" by Neil Young off A Letter Home
Neil Young's A Letter Home was produced by Jack White's record label. It's made to sound like it came out in the era when Young was producing classic after classic. Sadly, however, the sound quality here is worse than Young's 1960s and '70s work, burying some of the music's beautiful sonic tones and making A Letter Home sound more outdated than vintage. The only song with staying power here is "Early Morning Rain," which delivers a great love-lost tale amid lovely acoustic rambling.
"A Sky Full of Stars" by Coldplay off Ghost Stories
Ghost Stories doesn't even manage to be a solid break-up album. Like lead singer Chris Martin's marriage (to Gwyneth Paltrow), Ghost Stories consciously uncouples from what made Coldplay so good on past albums. Instead of giving into rage or sadness — or any emotion at all, really — Ghost Stories is full of lukewarm songs about vague relationship problems. "A Sky Full of Stars," though, calls back to some of Coldplay's greatest hits, like "Clocks" and "Speed of Sound." No wonder it was a hit.
"Pink Section" by Thom Yorke off Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
Radiohead is still one of the most beloved rock bands touring right now, and frontman Thom Yorke has his own massive following. Normally, I love Yorke's work — with and without Radiohead. Yet when he dropped Tomorrow's Modern Boxes without warning onto BitTorrent in October, everything about it felt like something from a much younger, much less talented band. It's a thin album: the total run time is a half-hour, Yorke's voice sounds watered down, and the music behind him fails to fill the gap. The only song with the musical quality of Yorke's earlier work is "Pink Section." Yorke's albums are not available on Spotify, but you can hear the song on BitTorrent.
"Gimme Something Good" by Ryan Adams off Ryan Adams
"Gimme Something Good" leads off singer-songwriter Adams's latest album. On my first listen, it gave me huge hopes for Adams' new album, but as a whole, Ryan Adams loses whatever passion it had after the opener. Still, this one is a stunner. "Gimme Something Good" is nominated for the Grammy for best rock song this year, and it completely deserves it. Too bad the rest of the album couldn't match it.
"Sum" by Pink Floyd off The Endless River
The Endless River is a long, mostly instrumental album, which is probably not what you're turning to Pink Floyd for. Worse, the sounds are muddy and indistinguishable from one another, making it all too easy to forget that this is a Pink Floyd album at all. That said, "Sum" is a deeply weird song that sounds nothing like a typical Pink Floyd track — which is what makes it so great. Unlike the rest of the songs, it feels like "Sum" has a point to it — the bass line drifts steadily downward, and when vocals enter more than a minute into the song, it gives the song a depth and variation that the rest of the album lacks.
"Ice Princess" by Azealia Banks off Broke with Expensive Taste
After years stuck with a label that wouldn't allow her to release music, Azaealia Banks finally released her long awaited LP Broke with Expensive Taste this year. And "Ice Princess" was totally worth the wait. The chorus is rhythmic and addictive, and it sounds like an evolved version of the Banks everyone came to love years ago. The album as a whole falls flat, however. It actually sounds like it sat in a vault for years. It sounds — frankly — like 2009, and that's just not going to cut it in 2014. The production is muddier, the songs have little flow between them, and Banks's raps sound like a sophomore album, which is a huge step backward from "212."
Listen to all of our picks here:
Correction: an earlier version of this post said "Lotus Flower" was the best song on Thom Yorke's album on second reference."Lotus Flower" appears on an earlier Radiohead album and is much better than "Pink Section," the best song on Tomorrow's Modern Boxes.