15 Incredible Songs on Mediocre Albums

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Thanks to the overwhelming response, we’ve updated this list with a few more entries. Check out what we’ve chosen below, and thanks for reading. 

In the world of music, there’s always the age-old question surrounding bad albums: is it worse for an album to be awful… or just boring?

Look, writing a killer song is really hard. Doing that ten times (or more) in a row across a full album is even harder. So sometimes, a band or artist knocks it out of the park on a track, but can’t sustain that magic across a full offering.

With that said, here are 10 times an artist absolutely smashed it on a single song, but let you down on the album it lives on.

(By Tim Coffman and Michael Berdan)

Weeds (Soul Searching Sun) – Life of Agony

There are few more fatal cases of “peaking early” than the career of Life Of Agony. After a series of successful demos and a good deal of buzz generated from the New York hardcore underground, the band signed to Roadrunner and immediately issued their magnum opus, the genre-defining (and defying) River Runs Red. Two years later they followed it up with Ugly, a sonically tamer record that continued the band’s critical adoration at the expense of a portion of their fan base. 

Then came Soul Searching Sun. Nobody liked Soul Searching Sun.

Soul Searching Sun is a dung heap of lackluster psychedelic riffs and uninspired vocals. The band playing these songs sounds almost as bored as the listener inevitably becomes. It’s not that Soul Searching Sun is a bad record so much as a thoroughly disappointing one. Life Of Agony, a band who made their mark by clearly articulating what is written in the darkest recesses of the human soul, ceased to care. Soul Searching Sun packs all of the emotional punch of a damp paper towel… except for “Weeds.”

“Weeds” is nothing short of an anthem. Although musically a far cry from vintage Life Of Agony, the song calls to mind the greatest moments of ‘90s propulsive rock. It is a song whose hook-infested drive sits better next to an alternative band like Sponge than their brothers in crossover arms Biohazard, and that’s a good thing. Mina Caputo’s voice drips with pathos as she ruminates over wasted youth and the futility of tomorrow, all the while expressing a deep love and a longing to connect with those she holds dear. 

Mina quit Life Of Agony early in the touring cycle for Soul Searching Sun. She was temporarily replaced by Wetfield Crane from Ugly Kid Joe before the band went on hiatus for several years. Fortunately for us all, the band came back reinvigorated and renewed. They have been at the top of their game for a long time now, leaving Soul Searching Sun to stand as a curious misstep in a storied career… except for “Weeds.” 

Michael Berdan

Spit Out the Bone (Hardwired…to Self Destruct)Metallica

There aren’t that many Metallica albums that can really elicit a tepid response from their fans. These guys have tried to push themselves forward on every single album, and no matter what kind of experiment they might try, it always elicits a strong reaction, from gaining a whole new level of fame on The Black Album to everyone hating what they did on albums like St. Anger.

Hardwired…to Self Destruct is probably the closest thing to a generic Metallica project that we’re going to get, but they ended up saving the best for last. Even though most of the problems this album has could have been solved by just trimming it down, a lot of the more by-the-numbers Metallica tropes show up on here, sounding like they’re repeating themselves more often than not on tracks like “Halo on Fire” or “Now That We’re Dead.”

At the very end of the album though, “Spit Out the Bone” is exactly the kind of Metallica song that some of us have been clamoring for since the late ‘80s, though, having that balls-to-the-wall mentality and sprawling over 8 minutes and never letting its foot off the gas. Compared to the massive compression that was on Death Magnetic, this song is actually a lot more aggressive than most of us probably expected at this point, bringing the Metallica of old into the 21st century properly as James Hetfield sings lyrics about technology eventually taking over the world.

Whereas The Black Album may have been too poppy for some people, this feels like the perfect fit between the classic Metallica that we got to know back in the day and the chart darlings that they became later on. This is the kind of badass that they’ve been keeping under wraps, and should Arnold grace us with another Terminator movie, this sure as hell better make the soundtrack.  

Tim Coffman

Zero The Hero (Born Again) – Black Sabbath

Even the most important band in the history of heavy metal is entitled to a bad day every now and again, right? I sure hope that is the case because Black Sabbath have suffered through their share of rough patches over the course of five decades. What constitutes “good” and “bad” Sabbath is entirely subjective, although the generally accepted parlance is that the Ozzy and Dio eras are unimpeachable and Forbidden is bad bad bad bad very bad terrible. Everything in between is a matter of opinion.

Case in point: Born Again. Revered and reviled in equal measure, Born Again is the only Sabbath album to feature Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian at the microphone. It was doomed from the start. Born Again was never intended to be a Black Sabbath album but the band’s management convinced them to use that moniker at the eleventh hour. Due to issues with studio monitors and the absence of test presses, the final product itself sounds nothing like the band intended. The cover features a profoundly weird orange devil baby thing on a sky-blue background. The touring cycle proved to be a literal comedy of errors when Black Sabbath’s set pieces of Stonehenge wound up being spoofed in the film This Is Spinal Tap. Practically everything that could go wrong did.

However, if we are talking brass tacks about songwriting, Born Again contains more than its share of rough gems that could be certified classics under the right microscope. Among these tracks, “Zero The Hero” stands at the apex. One of the most crushing moments in Sabbath’s career, the song is centered around the kind of slow, plodding hard rock riff that would later serve as inspiration for everything from Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” to ‘90s death metal. Just listen to the Godflesh and Cannibal Corpse covers of “Zero The Hero” and bask in just how heavy that riff really is. 

Michael Berdan

It’s a Raid (Ordinary Man)Ozzy Osbourne

At this point, Ozzy Osbourne doesn’t need to prove anything to us anymore. If anything, we should applaud the Prince of Darkness for even continuing to release music, still managing to sound pretty damn good after announcing his farewell tour more than a few times now. Ordinary Man is basically just your by-the-numbers Ozzy record, but it did have one real bright spot…and it also happens to be one of the songs that some of the old guard may have gotten pissed about.

Despite everyone losing their minds when they heard Post Malone was going to be a part of an Ozzy record, Austin here actually has some decent metal chops on ‘It’s A Raid,’ putting a lot more tempo into an Ozzy record that we haven’t seen since the Zakk Wylde days of the band. Acting as the more rock-centric version of what Ozzy did when he featured on Post’s album,  they basically turn this into a straight-up punk song, putting a bit more attitude into the delivery and Ozzy even breaking out a scream towards the end of the song that sounds a lot more gut-wrenching than before.

Since Post is still a young man though, this song actually holds a lot more water, going back to the old days of Ozzy’s career when there was nothing better to do than to just cause as much mayhem as humanly possible. The Prince of Darkness had started to become the crotchety grandpa of heavy metal, but this song actually does a good job at least putting him in the conversation of the younger kids these days. 

Tim Coffman

Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do (Balance)Van Halen

During the mid-’90s, it’s a miracle that Van Halen even bothered to stick around as long as they did. The guys certainly hadn’t lost their chops by any stretch, but the constantly shifting alternative music along with Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen struggling to get on the same page again made Balance one of their most…well, unstable records, not having the same punch as the last Van Hagar records.

Amid all of the dad rock territory though, Sammy did write one great song about something that most of the rock scene was going through: the death of Kurt Cobain. After hearing about Kurt’s death on the news, Sammy wrote this tune about helping people in those dark situations and helping them find some sort of way out. Just like most of this record though, this song wasn’t safe from a few petty nitpicks here and there, with Eddie saying that the lyrics to the song needed a little bit more attitude and the band shifting things around to accommodate for the different parts that Eddie wanted.

Granted, it’s not like Eddie wasn’t learning to compromise here as well, since he had to play ‘Amsterdam’ despite being from the Netherlands and Sammy’s lyrics about only wanting to smoke weed whenever he’s over there. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a song like this, and there’s a good chance this message can still help people get through some dark passages in their lives. 

Tim Coffman

Hail Hail (No Code)Pearl Jam

When fans talk about the golden age of Pearl Jam songs, the well normally starts to dry up around No Code. While nothing really changed sound-wise, you can tell that the guys were doing everything in their power to play off their celebrity, with Eddie Vedder either trying to mask his identity or trying to be as impersonal as possible in some of the lyrics on here.

Even though half of the tracklist here tends to get boring after a while, ‘Hail Hail’ arrives as a nice piece of chunky goodness. Being a sort of sister song to tracks like ‘Spin the Black Circle,’ this is the kind of rough and tumble rocker that Pearl Jam built their legacy on, taking the open chords of classic rock and giving them much more of a punk rock attitude, almost like the Replacements clashed with the Ramones and had Keith Richards playing guitar for them.

We hope you enjoyed this version of things because it’s not going to get much livelier than here, as the rest of the album sinks into some of the slower and more experimental sides of their career, like the tribal drumming on Who You Are or the acoustic ballad Off He Goes, which sounds fine out of context but could put you to sleep if you’re not ready for it. ‘Lukin’ is definitely a highlight here, but at just a minute long it just seems to wake you up from the coma that this album lulls you into.

Although this track could probably benefit from more guitar solos from Mike McCready, there’s nothing wrong with a track that knows exactly what it’s supposed to do. You play your hand, and get out with the listeners’ heads still spinning. 

Tim Coffman

City Boy Blues (Theatre of Pain)Motley Crue

Not every band is known to have a perfect track record, and Motley Crue is no exception. Motley will be the first ones to tell you which of their albums are the bad ones though, and pretty much everyone has taken a few jabs at Theatre of Pain, which saw them getting more messed up on drugs and turning in an album that (according to them) only had two good songs on it.

Although ‘Home Sweet Home’ has remained a concert staple of their setlist for a reason, you can at least say that the album opened up fairly strong. Compared to the more glossy sounds of the rest of the record, this track feels like it could have been a leftover from the Shout at the Devil sessions, almost sounding like a blend between the more sinister sounds of their last record and also trying to get in tune with the punk rock band that they were still trying to be on the way back on their debut record.

Even though the band was going for a much more glitzy look at the time more in line with what bands like Poison would end up doing a few years later, there’s a certain edge to Mick Mars’ guitar that’s a lot more recognizable as Motley. It’s just a shame that the record never really builds on this kind of momentum that much either, with songs like ‘Save Our Souls’ or ‘Fight For Your Rights’ being either too soft or too by the numbers to really take seriously as the bold new reinvention of what Motley Crue was supposed to be.

Dr. Feelgood may have been a few years away, but if this was the best they could do at the time, it should have been the first wake-up call that they should get sober. 

Tim Coffman

Bitter Peace (Diabolus In Musica) – Slayer

The 1990s were a weird time for Slayer. After hitting a commercial peak with Seasons In The Abyss, the band suffered their first real loss when drummer Dave Lombardo left in 1992. Seasons was followed up with Divine Intervention, a somewhat divisive outing among fans and critics that nonetheless warranted the noxious display of self-mutilation on the inside cover via a photo of an arm with the word SLAYER freshly carved into it. Next came the dubious, somewhat notorious Undisputed Attitude, a collection of hardcore punk cover songs featuring a profoundly questionable moment of artistic license when Tom Araya changed the lyrics at the end of the Minor Threat classic “Guilty Of Being White” to reflect a truly ugly sentiment, tongue-in-cheek or not. Then… Diabolis in Musica happened.

The shoe of an unsuspecting fanbase landed on the flaming bag of dog shit that is Diabolis in Musica in June of 1998. While many heavy metal bands of the 1980s wound up causing themselves irreparable harm by experimenting with grunge, Slayer’s undoing would undoubtedly be Frankenstein’s nu-metal monster right here. Diabolus in Musica is a disastrous hodgepodge of bouncy funk thrash. For the uninitiated: if you can imagine Slayer doing Fishbone covers then you might have an idea of what happened here. It is the 9/11 of Slayer records and I, for one, will never forget.

Possibly the most horrible thing about this record is the fact that there are undeniably great riffs scattered among the mess. These moments are just frequent enough to remind you that Diabolus in Musica is indeed a Slayer record and therefore demands a degree of… respect? Admiration? I don’t know but it breaks my heart to think about. Of these moments, album opener “Bitter Peace” is the most consistent. Although slow for a Slayer song, it treads the pleasantly familiar ground laid out by South Of Heaven and Seasons In The Abyss. It is a song that gets your hopes up, only to have them dashed by the time Tom Araya starts doing his best Anthony Kiedis impression on the third track.

Michael Berdan

Pieces (Volume 8: The Threat Is Real) – Anthrax

For a moment there it looked like Anthrax might have survived the 1990s unscathed. When Joey Belladonna relinquished vocal duties, John Bush from Armored Saint stepped up and the band issued one of their most successful records up to that point, 1993s Sound of White Noise. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns kicked in and by the end of the decade Anthrax were in a state of creative freefall, culminating in the overproduced, overbearing Volume 8: The Threat is Real. 

It’s a shame, really. Buried as a bonus track at the end of the record is “Pieces,” a bonus track penned by bassist Frank Bello in response to his brother’s murder. This moment stands in stark contrast to every goofy antic in Anthrax history. Frank pulls no punches and doesn’t bother couching the lyrics in ambiguity as he speaks to his brother, Anthony, by name. The lyrics read more like a secular prayer than a song. Frank wishes for Anthony to be home with his Creator. Frank asks for Anthony’s guidance. Frank asks for courage in the face of doubt. It is a song of pure vulnerability that is decidedly un-Anthrax in all the best ways.

Michael Berdan

Democracy (Democracy) – Killing Joke

People HATE this record. A couple of years after Killing Joke managed to stage a successful comeback with the critically acclaimed industrial metal album Pandemonium, the band returned with a fairing that more closely resembled their post-punk roots. The stylistic change was met with universal critical derision that can best be summed up in this quote from Trouser Press: “the wrong kind of joke – either Midnight Oil with a raspy singer or James Hetfield attempting to hijack U2 – complete with inane lyrics about ‘Prozac People’, ‘Intellect’ and ‘Another Bloody Election’. Vote with your feet.”

Although mean-spirited, these comments are not entirely off base, and to the right kind of audience could even be interpreted as positive. “Democracy,” the album’s title track, does indeed stand shoulder to shoulder with not only Killing Joke’s early catalog but with post-punk greats like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Chameleons, and even early U2. If you don’t dig it, that’s fine. Take comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone in your total absence of taste.

Michael Berdan

Stone (The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here)Alice in Chains

Part of the appeal of a band like Alice in Chains is how dirty and grimy their riffs can be. These guys legitimately have a song called ‘Sludge Factory,’ so it’s no surprise that they favor some of the more dense riffage that you’d normally find in stoner rock.

They always managed to get the lead out as well though, but ‘Stone’ might be one of the only times that you’re going to get any kind of punch on The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. Then again, you can’t really blame them for being at half capacity this time around. Jerry Cantrell was already in the hospital to get over a shoulder surgery and even managed to hum this riff into existence when he was still bound up before he actually committed it to tape.

For a man still on anesthetics though, this is the same kind of grimy stuff that you would have expected out of the later half of the Layne Staley era, fairly reminiscent of songs like ‘Grind’ off of the self-titled record or even the more dense parts of Dirt.

Though the rest of the album definitely had a lot to say in regards to religion and Jerry’s personal faith, a lot of the other songs tend to stay in one sonic lane, either just cutting it down to acoustics or keeping the droning guitars going on for way longer than they really should. Whereas most of the songs on here are trying to sound menacing but just end up sounding slow, this is the one time where Alice really felt like they were setting up something epic. 

Tim Coffman

Pestilence and Plague (Nostradamus)Judas Priest

On paper, hearing that Judas Priest was making an album like Nostradamus should have been one of the easiest layups in metal history. Here was a band that’s known to be one of the frontrunners in all things epic and bombast, and hearing their first foray into power metal with a concept album about the controversial astronomer should absolutely slay the competition.

A lot can happen in a few years though, and ‘Pestilence and Plague’ may be the closest to a classic Priest track as we got on here. Although there are more than a handful of cuts on this album that stand out as primarily Judas Priest, there is also a good chunk of the record that tends to feel more bloated by comparison, with songs that seem like they’re designed to be safe by just adding in a horn or string section.

Though the plot tends to fluctuate depending on what part of the album you’re actually in, this is about as no BS as the album gets, bringing in the twin guitar attack one more time and Scott Travis putting a lot more punch into his performance behind the kit. And while Rob Halford may have still been holding back some of the usual shrieks that he did back on Screaming For Vengeance, he’s out in full force on this song, absolutely annihilating the competition and actually getting a surprising amount of power out of his lower register as well.

Nostradamus is an album that’s more focused on serving its concept than anything else, but if Priest had put out an album that was nothing but songs like this, we would have been in for a much better experience. 

Tim Coffman

Run (Concrete and Gold)Foo Fighters

In the past few years, the Foo Fighters have had a bit of a rough transition into the world of stadium rock. While their comeback record Wasting Light may have given us some of the most straightforward songs that Dave Grohl has ever made, the sound of him trying to go larger than life has had more than a few diminishing returns, including a few songs with potential that never really go anywhere.

And while Concrete and Gold tended to just follow the same set formula, they at least kicked the door down right from the first handful of tracks. When you look back at every Foo Fighters record, the transition between ‘T-Shirt’ and ‘Run’ may be one of the more seamless hard cuts they’ve ever pulled off on a record, going from this slow ballad of Dave just playing a guitar to actually exploding into a wall of noise, like you’re about to enter one of the most brutal pits that you’ve ever been a part of.

Even as Dave starts to get older in the video (in more ways than one), that signature scream of his hasn’t dulled over the years either, shrieking his guts out just like he would if he were performing with the Bad Brains back in the day.

With pop producer Greg Kurstin working with him, this is one of the few songs on the record that actually seems to balance both sides of the Foos’ sound fairly well, knowing just when to bring in the crashing drums from Taylor Hawkins and then dropping everything into the dirtiest rock and roll song you’ve ever heard. The Foos might be looked at as the old dogs of rock and roll, but you’d be surprised that they still have some tricks up their sleeve. 

Tim Coffman

Since I Don’t Have You (The Spaghetti Incident?)Guns N’ Roses

Even though Guns N’ Roses just came off one of the biggest stadium tours of all time with Use Your Illusion, no one really seemed to care. These guys had become a shell of themselves on the road, and The Spaghetti Incident? Was practically the band trying to hold themselves together with string and duct tape and just hoping for the best.

These kinds of cover albums might feel like throwaways, but they at least got it right once on here. Although there isn’t anything all that interesting on most of this record, “Since I Don’t Have You” is a much more subdued ballad that you wouldn’t really expect the band to pull off as well as they do, with Slash’s slow guitar going down very smoothly next to Axl’s more tender vocal approach.

While this is nowhere near the same as what happened on songs like “Sweet Child O Mine” from back in the day, the real core behind this song almost serves as a great comedown from the last few years of Guns’ career, seeing them almost hung out to dry and just trying to do whatever they can to get something down on tape. It’s not shocking that this was one of the only songs off of this record to actually get a music video, using Gary Oldman’s clown to put a happy face on the sound of the band imploding.

Slash has called the band’s version of “Sympathy for the Devil” the sound of the band breaking up, but this is the one time where things were at least looking up for a little bit.   

Tim Coffman

Lies Greed Misery (Living Things)Linkin Park

As the 2010’s got started, the metal version of Linkin Park was in for a bit of a reboot. The band had already cut ties with their nu metal roots on Minutes to Midnight, and although A Thousand Suns may have been bold and daring at the time, it was also the beginning of the band leaving rock behind altogether, with the metalheads not taking too kindly to the record.

And while Living Things may have felt like the band treading water, ‘Lies Greed Misery’ is where you can see both styles coming back together again. Then again, some of the metalheads might be a little upset to find that most of this song is still driven by the electronics a lot of the time, with Joe Hahn working overtime to deliver this really trippy experience.

It’s all about how you use these things though, and this song is where things jump up a notch in terms of production, making the blasts of noise almost sound like the jagged edge of a guitar and creating stacks of volume on top of each other while Mike Shinoda raps circles around you. And once Chester Bennington comes in with his signature scream, you can hear him reaching much further back in his throat, trying to blend the sounds of what they were doing on songs like “Numb” from back in the day while not going too outside the box anymore.

There may have been songs like ‘Victimized’ off this record that tapped into some harder territory, but this is the kind of blend between electronic and rock that has probably aged the best from this era. 

Tim Coffman