Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: What’s the weirdest album released by a mainstream artist?

You can’t answer “Metal Machine Music”!!!!!

I took the week off last week, and I apologize. Sometimes real life gets in the way! But I’m back, and I’d like to know what you think the weirdest album released by a “mainstream” artist is. I think even people who haven’t heard it (like me, despite my bio on this page) would say Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed’s 1975 double album that is widely regarded as not only the weirdest, but possibly the worst, album ever. You just can’t answer that, so deal with it!

You might question what “mainstream” is. Like obnoxious politicians talking about pornography, I can’t define “mainstream,” but I know it when I see it. So no weird avant-garde throat singers doing twelve-tone compositions about the glory of chemistry. You know what I’m talking about!!!!!

Okay, phew, sorry about that. For me, the weirdest album released by a mainstream artist is The Rainbow Children. Basically, his “Jehovah’s Witness” album. It came out in November 2001, and it’s … well, it’s something. It’s not exactly bad, you understand, just odd. Prince is a musical genius, so the sounds he makes on the album are interesting, and he mixes in a lot of jazz, which he hadn’t done very much in the previous 20+ years of his recording career, but there’s a lot of New Age weirdness and Egyptian weirdness and spoken-word weirdness … it’s just weird, man. The title track is a nice ten minutes long, with a lot of modified vocals and meandering guitars and hot horns. “The Work Part 1” is a groovy tune in which Prince channels James Brown and adds some nice social commentary to the lyrics. “Deconstruction” is sci-fi jazz, which is just bizarre. Again, it’s not a bad album, and if you pick a random song (“The Work,” for instance), it might be less weird. But if you listen to it straight through, the weirdness really comes out. Prince was in the middle of a particularly weird phase from about 2000-2004, after Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) and before Musicology (2004), and The Rainbow Children is his weird masterpiece.

What is your weirdest album by a mainstream artist? I know I missed plenty, so I want to hear them! Is it Ummagumma? Tales from Topographic Oceans? Thick as a Brick? Lay it on me!


  1. I’m still answering Metal Machine Music, dammit! (And I’ve heard it, own it, and love it!)

    No, that’s cool. I think Neil Young’s Arc was similarly noisy weirdness, but I can’t find that anywhere.

    But your bit about considering what’s mainstream reminds me of the recent tweet I saw where someone (sorry I can’t cite it) said “remember that time when everyone was really into Gregorian chants for a few months?”, and the follow up where the person noted “young people don’t know if I’m kidding, I’m not”.

    Anyway, the actual question is one I’ll have to think about. It’s a cool question!

  2. humanbelly

    I went through a high-school Jethro Tull phase (all vinyl in those days), and I still have several albums. Including PASSION PLAY. Which I have listened to exactly two times over all the past 40+ years. And the second time (when I was in grad school?) was pretty much a force-through-’cause-it-SURELY-had-to-be-good-for-me. . . Ugh, can’t remember what any of it sounds like at all. . .

    And, although I’ve never listened to it, do we remember that Pat Boone released an album of Heavy Metal covers called IN A METAL MOOD in ’97–?


    1. Le Messor

      You can’t remember the story of the rabbit who lost his spectacles?

      I can’t get it out of my head.
      (And no, my answer doesn’t involve E.L.O.)

    1. Le Messor

      I wouldn’t think of Barcelona as all that weird, but I get you.
      I was gonna say Hot Space (with the full band). It’s just so out of character for them.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Tales from Topographic Oceans? Nothing weird about that album in the context of everything else Yes had been doing in that period. I suppose, though, one could question the notion that Yes, or prog rock in general, was considered mainstream at the time.

  4. David107

    Taking ‘mainstream’ to mean commercially successful and ‘weird’ to mean mind-bogglingly different from audience expectations, may I present Neil Young who, from 1982 to 1985, released Trans (lots of electronics and vocodered vocals), Everybody’s Rockin’ (essentially retro 50s rock ‘n’ roll) and Old ways (pure, unadulterated, and rather beautiful country music.)

    He was at odds with his then record label, Geffen, so when label owner David Geffen rejected the country LP Old Ways and demanded “a rock & roll album” Young went into the studio and took him at his word, producing an album with a sound reminiscent of the early period of rock & roll. The production included ’50s-style vocal reverb and backing choruses. Most songs were Young originals, such as “Kinda Fonda Wanda” that had originally been written to amuse his wife.

    Everybody’s Rockin’ is dumb fun, though a bit throwaway but Old Ways is gorgeous while Trans has some great songs on it, and becomes very touching when you know that it came from Young caring for his son, who suffered from cerebral palsy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_(album)

  5. Peter

    The Beach Boys Love You! is one that comes to mind – a very commercial band, making pretty commercial music… but it has a very uncanny valley feel. When Dennis and Brian Wilson are singing about patting someone on the butt… it’s very weird.

    Scattered thoughts about other albums/artists: most Scott Walker albums also fit the bill. Kid A is such a big left turn from previous Radiohead albums that it stands out, even if it’s not really avant-garde. Brian Eno started off pretty mainstream but got into esoteric territory on his own; the reverse happened with Pink Floyd.

    Billy Joel’s heavy metal organ duo, “Atilla,” and their self-titled album may be the weirdest of all. Joel’s later stuff is commercial and melodic often to a fault – but Atilla is the opposite of that (VERY much to a fault).

    1. Le Messor

      Suddenly remembering that Billy Joel has an actual classical album too. (And Tarja has about three… and speaking of Billy, Idol has his notorious Christmas album.)

    2. Greg Burgas

      A friend of mine in junior high/high school is a HUGE Joel fan, and I remember when she tracked down a copy – an LP! – of Attila’s album. Very weird stuff, I agree.

  6. John King

    One question about the topic is is it “the weirdest album released by a mainstream artist” WHILE they were a mainstream artist or are we including stuff before and/or after they were mainstream
    “The Cherry Thing” was especially weird from Neneh Cherry but 10 or more years after her last mainstream success.
    David Bowie did a lot of weird music but was at his weirdest before and after his time as mainstream.

    Maybe Godley and Creme’s the History Mix Volume 1 largely remixed or reinvented from previous songs – the one completely new song, Cry, was an international hit qualifying it as mainstream.

    or how about the Small Faces Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake – a concept album where the second side tells a fairy story with linking narration from Stanley Unwin in his own comic language.

  7. Eric van Schaik

    My pick is Kiss : Music From The Elder.
    After such great records like Destroyer and Love Gun they lost a lot of steam with Dynasty but the worst was yet to come. Why did they think an concept album would work? Maybe it has it’s lovers, but centainly not me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.