22 Terrible Songs by Great Artists – Rolling Stone
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22 Terrible Songs by Great Artists

Great mistakes from Dylan, Elvis, Zep, the Who and more

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

Jay Z, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Presley are great — but not perfect.

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As much as we love our favorite artists, it's hard to say that any of them are perfect. Here are 22 iconic artists who have been briefly lured by drugs, laziness, novelty, over-production, poor judgement or, in the case of Brian Wilson, rap music.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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The Clash, “We Are the Clash” (1985)

The politics are confused ("Right wing, left wing/I want something"), the tinny guitars and doltish backing vocals echo distantly like they were recorded in a tube station, and the title – well, that's just an outright lie. Joe Strummer's stubborn, misguided determination to soldier on after booting Mick Jones did result in one genuine late-career classic, "This Is England," but this exercise in feigned solidarity doth protest two much – neither manager Bernard Rhodes (the track's co-writer) nor the hired guns punking stodgily behind Strummer were the Clash, and Joe sings like he knows it. No wonder he later disavowed the Jones-less Cut the Crap, admitting, "I just went, 'Well fuck this,' and fucked off to the mountains of Spain to sit sobbing under a palm tree, while Bernie had to deliver a record."

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan, “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” (1986)

Bob Dylan's career hit a lot of low points in the 1980s, but the lowest was probably the release of 1986's Knocked Out Loaded. The title basically says to the world, "Here's some shit I slapped together while drunk." It's packed with cover songs and tunes he co-wrote with the likes of Tom Petty, Sam Shepard and Carole Bayer Sager. But he wrote "Driftin' Too Far From Shore" all by himself, even though it shares a title with a 1920s folk song by Charles Moody that was covered by Hank Williams. "Dylan wrote [that] song from scratch right in front of me," says drummer Anton Fig. "Somehow my snare got erased and they replaced it with a heavy sample of an electric backbeat." That sample loops through the entire song. "I had no connection to any kind of inspiration," Dylan wrote about this time period in his 2004 memoir Chronicles. "My own songs had become strangers to me. It wasn't my moment of history anymore. Try as I might, the engines wouldn't start."

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Joni Mitchell, “Dancin’ Clown” (1988)

"I feel these times are just pathetic," Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone regarding her mood while recording 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. So give Mitchell the benefit of the doubt and pretend those wheezing synths and cheesy electronic drum sounds are only ironic commentary on everything Eighties. That might demystify the presence of Billy Idol, who yelps and howls on the track, part of an ill-conceived Joni-and-guests album. In addition to less-annoying guest Tom Petty, the song's cast also includes "last-word Suzie," a "high yellow" love interest who evokes "the swoosh of jungle blades/And the crackle of northern ice."

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Dee Dee King, “German Kid” (1989)

In 1989, Dee Dee Ramone was the strongest songwriter in the Ramones — that year's Brain Drain opened with his classic "I Believe in Miracles." But empowered by Schoolly D's "Gucci Time," he left the band to focus on his unlikely dream of becoming the nearly-40-year-old white rapper Dee Dee King. While his "Funky Man" video is somewhat of a viral curiosity, the worst song on his lone LP, Standing in the Spotlight, is a brokenly melodic tribute to his "half American, half German" heritage with Deborah Harry on the hook. In "German Kid," Dee Dee raps auf Deutsch — one of the least funky languages available — about being half German. This fact is nowhere near as interesting as he thinks, and certainly not something to boast about when your band had a weird Nazi fixation.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Guns N’ Roses, “My World” (1991)

The closer to Guns N' Roses 1991 Use Your Illusion diptych came from an innocent place: "I'd been listening to a lot of industrial music and all of a sudden I said, 'Hey man, let's do something. Let's see what happens. Let's just make it short and sweet and see what we come up with,'" Rose told Musician in 1992. But wait, there's more: "A friend of mine had stuck some mushrooms in my tea and I didn't know it." That "socio-psychotic state of bliss" heavily informed this paranoid, pulsing track. In hindsight, "My World" is useful in that it predicted the electronic-heavy direction Rose would take on the long-labored-over Chinese Democracy, but Rose's later experiments in that area of pop would be much more satisfying. 

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Brian Wilson, “Smart Girls” (1991)

Yes, "Smart Girls" features the rap stylings of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys songwriter and studio genius. In 1991, the man who put a theremin in a Number One song and inspired Sgt. Pepper's was now dropping Barney Rubble-style science: "My name is Brian and I'm the man/I write hit songs with the wave of my hand." He can actually be forgiven for this lapse of judgment however: "Smart Girls" is from from Sweet Insanity, an album that was never technically released; it was the final year of his fog under psychologist Eugene Landy; and Wilson later said he was "just kidding" with the tune. But bootlegs and the internet have still made it possible for us to look back at the time one of the world's greatest studio auteurs rhymed, "I'm no different from the rest/I love hips and legs and breasts."

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Bruce Springsteen, “Real Man” (1992)

Bruce Springsteen released Human Touch in March of 1992, but judging by the production, he failed to get the memo that the 1980s were over. The drums and the synths scream 1984, and six months after Nirvana dropped Nevermind this wasn't going to fly. The worst song on the album is "Real Man," a trite song about taking your girl to see a Rambo movie in the theater and feeling strong in her loving presence. "In the early 1990s I wrote happy songs," Springsteen said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. "It didn't work. The public didn't like it." It seems like even Springsteen himself didn't like "Real Man." He regularly plays crazily obscure songs in his shows, but he hasn't touched "Real Man" since the summer of 1992 for anything but a sound check.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Pearl Jam, “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” (1994)

While notable for being the band's first on-record collaboration with former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, the claustrophobic closing track to Pearl Jam's Vitalogy also sticks out because of its harrowing weirdness. "I had taped something off the TV when I was maybe 17 or something and I think it was people who had mental problems who were being let out of the hospitals early because the states were taking away funding for mental hospitals," Vedder told visitors to a Lycos chat in 2000. "So they were setting these folks out without the necessary care but it was still very intriguing the way their mind worked and what they would say and we experimented and tried to incorporate it into what to date is our most emotional and moving song." Emoji had yet to be developed in 2000, so whether or not Vedder was saying that with a grin has been lost to the bygone portal's archives.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Run-D.M.C. feat. Sugar Ray, “Here We Go 2001” (2001)

Run-D.M.C.'s much-anticipated comeback record, 2001's Crown Royal, was a fiasco. The record clearly wanted to ride the Woodstock '99 wave of rap-rock (it features guest spots from Fred Durst, Kid Rock and Everlast) but D.M.C., deep into classic rock bands like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, publicly insisted, "I didn't even want to be a part of this album." In turn, he barely appears on it. One of the album's low-lights is "Here We Go 2001," a remake of their incredible 1985 single with special guest Sugar Ray. A song that originally showed their powerful teamwork was now mostly a Run venture ("now have a Limp Bizkit and a piece of Korn") and features a completely incongruous chorus where Mark McGrath croons like he stumbled into an Incubus song.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Metallica, “My World” (2003)

Born in part from Metallica's turn-of-the-millennium tumult, St. Anger was, according to super-producer Bob Rock, supposed to sound like "a band jamming together in a garage for the first time, and the band just happened to be Metallica." But "My World" is the rare Metallica track that's notable because it sounds utterly generic, especially when James Hetfield's genre-defining vocal contorts itself into an awkward rap-metal squat. "It's my world, you can't have it," Hetfield growls as his bandmates lurch through nü-metal-by-the-numbers sludge – and that's before the galloping breakdown, which only drives home just how much this joyless, petulant track sticks out from the rest of Metallica's catalog.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Nas, “Who Killed It” (2006)

Nas had an admirable idea on 2006's "Who Killed It": Examine hip-hop's descent from social justice soundtrack to champagne-and-jewels grandiosity from the point of view of a detective trying to solve a crime. But on the will.i.am-produced Hip Hop Is Dead track, Nas' bizarre attempt to mimic Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney for an entire song ends up sounding more like Chief Wiggum on his first case in the Sedgwick Avenue division. "[Cagney's] one of my favorite characters of all time, ever," Nas told Rolling Stone in 2014. "So I would play around and talk like him in the studio just for fun. We didn't plan on doing it as a song, but we just did." Look here, see. Gimmicks don't always hit their mark, see.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Jay Z, “Young Forever” (2009)

Jay Z enlisted Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music bench rider Mr Hudson to flip Alphaville's syrupy 1984 hit "Forever Young" for another one of his countless odes to immortality and legacy-cementing. Jay's never shied away from sentimentality – see the heartfelt Black Album closer "My 1st Song" –­­ but "Young Forever," the last song (sequentially and otherwise) on 2010's The Blueprint 3, highlights the rapper's occasional tendency to mistake the saccharine for the profound. Asked what he liked about Hudson and other new musicians brought into the S. Carter dynasty, Jay told the Associated Press in 2009, "That new energy and what they had right there is raw and untapped." And nothing says "raw and untapped" like sampling some treacly, 25-year-old synth-pop song.

22, Terrible, Songs, Great, Artists, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Jay Z, Bob Dylan

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Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Don’t Pull Me Over” (2010)

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 2010 LP Mojo is the group's deepest dive into the blues-rock they all grew up loving, but 11 songs in they take a very bizarre and unexpected detour into reggae. Sixty-year-old white millionaires don't have a great track record in this genre, especially when they're complaining about the potential of police mistreatment. "What I've got to do won't hurt anyone," Petty sings. "Where I've got to go won't hurt anyone/Don't pull me over, I've got mouths to feed. Don't pull me over, should be legalized." We get it. You like to smoke weed, even when you're driving. But if they pull you over, they're going to ask for an autograph and let you go. This song, however, deserves to be dragged into the station for questioning. "It doesn’t fit on the record," Petty's daughter Adria wrote on The Huffington Post while introducing her video for the track, "but in a way it is the standout moment on the record. It is the comic relief."

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