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Album Triumphs and Disasters of the Past 40 Years

The Strokes’ new album, “First Impressions of Earth,” has generated quite a bit of attention as the band moves from decidedly lo-fi garage rock to a more standard hi-fi sound.

The conventional wisdom in modern music is that if you have a long enough career, you’re bound to change your sound at some point. The move tends to drag the cobwebs off a stagnant career. Some attempts have been worthy experiments that click. Others have been embarrassing misfires. The jury’s still out on the Strokes’ effort.

Here are some of the biggest style shifts of the past 40-plus years and their results:

HITS

- Bob Dylan, “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965): Dylan seems accustomed to reinventing himself at least a couple of times a decade. None was more dramatic or met with such hysteria than when he put down his acoustic guitar, got a backing band and played rock ‘n’ roll. “Bringing It All Back Home” is half acoustic, half electric, and has virtually none of the political songs that made him the saint of the burgeoning folk movement. He was embraced by a whole new audience while spitting in the face of another.

- Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska” (1982): Springsteen did the opposite of Dylan, shelving the band for just a guitar, harmonica and some home recording equipment set up in his bedroom. Gone were the anthems. In their place were 12 stark, acoustic tracks detailing the underbelly of America.

- U2, “Achtung Baby” (1991): U2 discovered that music is made in Europe. Incorporating German club beats with a heavy dose of Brit-pop and their own shimmering guitar play, U2 moved away from pure rock to make arguably their finest album.

- Pavement, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” (1994): When an underground band goes from a debut that was recorded in a garage to an album that sounds like stadium-size rock, one can hear the chants of “sellout” before the needle drops. But when it does, you’re treated to one of the best albums of the ’90s. An album so good they had to name it twice.

- Wilco, “Summerteeth” (1999): Wilco officially ditched their country leanings when they discovered that Brian Wilson, the Beatles and Wall of Sound bands weren’t all that bad. The twang is replaced by strings, harmonies and perfect song arrangements to make up one of the best modern pop albums.

- Radiohead, “Kid A” (2000): Some would argue that Radiohead’s 1997 album “OK Computer” began the band’s departure from standard song structures and instrumentation. If that’s so, then “Kid A” took the band to an entirely different level of experimentation. It went beyond simply incorporating electronica into rock. It created a dense sound structure offering a challenging but worthy listen.

MISSES

- John Lennon/Yoko Ono, “Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins” (1968): First is the cover of the naked couple. Next is its “historical value” in that the two consummated their relationship the morning after they finished the album. And finally it’s all about what was recorded: Yoko mindlessly screeching while John screws around with a guitar. The height of avant-garde arrogance in place of everything that made Lennon great.

- Lou Reed, “Metal Machine Music” (1975): After building the foundation of a successful solo career with dark ruminations on everything, Reed gives us more than an hour’s worth of guitars squalling over and over and over again. That’s it. Nothing more. If you make it to the end you get a gold star and a Rorschach test.

- Leonard Cohen, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (1977): Cohen is stripped of his soft folk by superproducer Phil Spector. The result is an overblown treatise on a midlife crisis. Spector used to make teenage love sound heroic. Cohen used to make love sound fragile. Here the two make getting older sound like a cliché.

- Bob Dylan, “Slow Train Coming” (1979): The Lord giveth and taketh. And taketh he did when Dylan began his succession of Christian albums with “Slow Train Coming.” His born-again reverence was as close to career suicide as a major star could have come. But in the end it wasn’t all about the subject matter. The words and music were dreck.

- Steve Miller Band, “Abracadabra” (1981): Not that “Space Cowboy” or “Fly Like an Eagle” ever represented anything other than insipid rock, but Miller sank to the bottom of the musical septic tank with the imbecilic pop of “Abracadabra.” The classic rock sound was gone, replaced by synthesizers and thought-provoking lyrics like “Abra-Abracadabra/I wanna reach out and grab ya.”

- MC Hammer, “The Funky Headhunter” (1994): By the mid-’90s, genie pants and Day-Glo shirts just weren’t cutting it anymore. But gangsta rap sure was, so MC decided to cash in on the Death Row Records phenomenon by going hard core. Thus one of the more ludicrous albums of the ’90s.

ANGERED OLD FANS BUT GAINED NEW ONES

- Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew” (1969): Considered one of the most revolutionary albums of the 20th century, Davis fused jazz and rock elements to create an entirely new genre. It turned off jazz purists who felt the chaos of this new sound bastardized the traditional arrangement and bee-bop ingenuity. But it inspired a whole new generation of jazz and rock artists who have continually tried to match Davis’ genius.

- Metallica, “Metallica” (1991): Exit long, intricate thrash metal. Enter radio-friendly hard rock. Metallica blew up with this album, garnering a new legion of fans thanks to three-minute songs and MTV. But it never quite matched the ambition of their prior albums, which laid the groundwork for heavy-metal bands everywhere.

- REM, “Out of Time” (1991): Not quite the end of the world as REM fans know it, but close. The band’s beloved stripped-down sound was replaced by lush arrangements. They went from what would later be called indie rock to pure pop, which had enough edge to not turn off everyone. Well, except for “Shiny, Happy People.”

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Scott Fallon: fallon@northjersey.com

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© 2006, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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