Classic Albums That Were Critically Reviled
By Sarah Norman | October 21, 2023
Abbey Road - The Beatles, 1969
From Pet Sounds and Abbey Road to Led Zeppelin and Jazz, the classic albums of 60s and 70s rock were not always appreciated the way they are today. Critics of the era were focused more on hard rock and blues, tending to dismiss genre-bending, musical fusion albums that didn't fall neatly into defined stylistic categories. Breaking onto the charts and winning overwhelming fan approval often wasn't enough to save an album from a devastating review. Entire bands were made or broken on the word of critics writing for industry heavyweights like Rolling Stone and Melody Maker.
Some of the most critically acclaimed albums in modern music history were eviscerated when they were first released. Even the most beloved acts of the day were subject to the hilariously blunt and brutally vicious reviews that marked the critical writing of the day. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, even Aretha Franklin, all came in for harsh reviews over their careers, often for albums that were reassessed as classics years later. Whether they were too far ahead of their time or simply too strange for the era, here are 30 indisputable rock classics that the critics once tore apart.
Universally hailed today as one of the greatest records of all time, Abbey Road was The Beatles' penultimate album, although it was recorded after Let It Be. By this time, the group was all but done, both personally and professionally, with creative differences between the members making Abbey Road as difficult to record as Let It Be was. Released in 1969, Abbey Road came out to tepid, unenthusiastic reviews. Music critic Albert Goldman summed up the general feeling, writing that Abbey Road "seems symbolic of the Beatles' latest phase, which might be described as the round-the-clock production of disposable music effects."
Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys, 1966
Elaborately produced and deeply innovative, Pet Sounds marked a key turning point in the art of music production, introducing the use of synthesizers and pioneering new methods of orchestration and harmonization. Globally acknowledged as one of the most influential records of the era, Pet Sounds is beloved today by fans and critics alike. But despite its current stature, the album was a critical and commercial disappointment when it was first released. Pete Townshend of The Who famously dismissed the album as being "too remote and way out", adding "It's written for a feminine audience."
Blondie - Blondie, 1976
Widely acknowledged today as one of the pioneers of new wave music, Blondie was not always popular with American critics or fans. When their debut album, Blondie, was released, the critics were quick to jump on the relatively unknown underground band. Giovanni Dadomo, writing for Sounds, had little time for them, calling them a "pretty dumb affair". However, critical reappraisals following the group's mainstream success with their hit 1978 album, Parallel Lines have seen Blondie receive favorable retrospective reviews. Critics today have high praise for the album, noting its quintessential role in the development of new wave music.
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off - Jefferson Airplane, 1966
Jefferson Airplane's debut album is now recognized as pioneering in the genre of psychedelic rock, but it was not a critical darling when it was released. The band was already pretty well known from their time on the Bay Area circuit where they were very popular. Critics who knew their music felt that Jefferson Airplane Takes Off just didn't live up to the band's usual level of innovation and performance. Today, the album's essential place in the history of psychedelic rock and the development of the San Francisco Sound is universally recognized, especially when taken alongside their hit second album, Surrealistic Pillow.
The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground, 1967
The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in 1967, was controversial in its lyrics and daring in its musical style. Sadly, it turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. The brainchild of Velvet underground's new manager, Andy Warhol, the debut album featured German songstress, Nico as vocalist. Panned as an incongruous mix of "several confusing sounds", it was further dismissed as being "as lifeless and inanimate as the discarded banana peel". A mere ten years later, however, the tide changed, and critics began to recognize the album for its startling creativity and its undeniable influence on several subgenres of rock.
Days of Future Passed - The Moody Blues, 1967
The Moody Blues have long been considered one of the key originators of psychedelic rock, but the critics of the time never took them seriously. Their second album, Days of Future Passed, received harsh reviews when it was released in 1967. One of the harshest came from Rolling Stone, whose critic wrote, "Their music is constantly marred by one of the most startingly saccharine conceptions of 'beauty' and 'mysticism' that any rock group has ever affected." Today, however, this powerful debut album is regarded as a landmark concept album that helped originate the subgenre of progressive rock.
Younger Than Yesterday - The Byrds, 1967
In the annals of 60s era rock, The Byrds stand tall as some of the most creative musical innovators of the period, credited with being one of the pioneers of popular folk rock, and later psychedelic rock. So it was surprising when Younger Than Yesterday, the band's fourth studio album, received relatively negative reviews. Writing for The Village Voice, critic Richard Goldstein summed up the general industry feeling, noting that "There is nothing new or startling on Younger Than Yesterday". Today, however, the album is widely regarded as The Byrds' second-best album, after their hit debut record, Mr. Tambourine Man.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You - Aretha Franklin, 1967
When Aretha Franklin recorded I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You in 1967, she was coming off a nine-album run of commercial failures. Switching away from her usual jazz standards, Franklin's tenth studio album included the inimitable hit track, Respect. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, but critics weren't convinced that Franklin's work was original or versatile enough to deserve the popular acclaim it was getting. It would take several years for critics to give the album its due as a powerhouse of classic rock. Rolling Stone also named Respect the greatest song of all time.
Mr. Wonderful - Fleetwood Mac, 1968
After finding huge success with their first album, Fleetwood Mac could have well expected to receive the same acclaim for their second album, Mr. Wonderful, released in 1968. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. While it peaked at No. 10 on the U.K. charts, it wasn't even released in America, and the critical reviews were lukewarm at best. Dismissed as muddled, repetitive and lazy, Mr. Wonderful was widely considered "a disappointment", as a reviewer for AllMusic put it. Today, those tables have turned, and Mr. Wonderful is considered to be one of the seminal albums of Fleetwood Mac's career.
Om - John Coltrane, 1968
Coltrane recorded Om in a one-day session during the fall of 1965, jammed in as a rumored LSD-fueled afterthought between sessions for Live in Seattle and A Love Supreme. When Coltrane died less than two years later, his producer, ignoring his late client's explicit instructions, released Om, believing it would sell well. Things didn't go as planned. Om was mercilessly eviscerated by the critics who couldn't get past the background chanting and the album's frenzied, discordant pace. However, in recent years Om has found new favor among the critics, who consider it to be his rawest and most authentic work.
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin, 1969
When Led Zeppelin released their eponymous debut album in 1969, they were an instant commercial success. Led Zeppelin reached No. 10 on the U.S. Billboard and hit gold that year. But the critical reception was less than stellar. Page was dismissed as a subpar "writer of weak and unimaginative songs". Plant came in for more scathing commentary, with Rolling Stone's review branding him "as foppish as Rod Stewart, but nowhere near so exciting". Eventually, as Led Zeppelin's success grew, the critics came around, and their debut album is now considered one of the most influential records of the 60s.
Deep Purple - Deep Purple, 1969
With 100 million records sold worldwide and a career spanning four decades, British band Deep Purple are one of the acknowledged heavyweights of hard rock. But they didn't always meet with the critical acclaim they enjoy today. Their first two albums received negative reviews, but their third album, Deep Purple, was deemed so bad it didn't even get a review. However, the band's reputation and fan base grew over the next few years and critics took note. Deep Purple's robust sound and stylistic versatility are lauded by modern critics, and it's now considered a quintessential part of rock history.
OK Computer - Radiohead, 1997
In 1997, when Radiohead unleashed their game-changing album "OK Computer" onto the music scene, it was like a bolt from the blue—an otherworldly blend of avant-garde soundscapes and existential lyricism that left critics grasping for adjectives. Among those initially unimpressed was the esteemed Robert Christgau, who famously labeled Radiohead's masterpiece of millennial angst as his "Dud of the Month." Little did the world know that this seemingly harsh critique would only serve to fuel the album's mystique. Over time, "OK Computer" evolved into a cultural touchstone, a testament to the band's fearless exploration of technology, alienation, and the human condition. It's a reminder that sometimes, true innovation takes a little while to resonate, and the naysayers may find themselves eating their words as the years roll on
Santana - Santana, 1969
With an impressive fourteen top 10 albums and countless hit tracks, Santana is one of the most successful bands in rock history. Released in 1969, their debut album, Santana, was an instant classic, racing to the top five of the U.S. Billboards and staying on the charts for a mind-blowing two years. Shockingly though, in what many rock fans would consider an act of the highest sacrilege, critics of the time panned Santana's thrilling and innovative album, calling it "a masterpiece of hollow techniques, a speed freak's delight - fast, pounding, frantic music with no real content."
In the Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson, 1969
King Crimson debuted during the late 60s when blues, punk and hard rock were the sounds of the day. Their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was a significant departure from those styles. Their new, innovative sound incorporated jazz, classical, and symphonic music. Critic Robert Christgau didn't hold back in his review, viciously dismissing it as "ersatz [nonsense]." Still, the fans took to it and in time, the critics came around too. Today, it is regarded as the album that gave rise to progressive rock and ranks as one of the most influential albums of all time.
Let It Be - The Beatles, 1970
A staple of Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Let It Be is an iconic album, but it didn't always rank highly with the critics. The recording sessions for Let It Be were famously tense and marked the end of the Beatles' long career, but the album sold phenomenally well and received rave reviews from fans. The critics, however, pilloried the Beatles, with Gabree calling them "rich, privileged prototeenagers." Alan Smith lamented the album as "a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop."
Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath, 1970
When Black Sabbath was first released in 1970, it was classified as a mixture of blues and hard rock. Although it sold over a million copies and did very well in the charts, the critical response was generally negative. Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs scathingly referred to Black Sabbath as a "doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley", having "nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés". Modern critics have an entirely different take on the album and Black Sabbath now holds the distinction of being the first true heavy metal album ever made.
The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie, 1970
An acknowledged classic that marks the start of Bowie's artistic maturation, The Man Who Sold the World was actually a commercial and critical failure when it was originally released in 1970. Part of the issue for fans was the shift from Bowie's easily accessible folksy sound to an edgier hard rock sound. The lyrics were darker as well, touching on profound themes like religion, insanity, and the pitiless nature of war. Things turned around when the album was re-issued two years later to great critical acclaim, following Bowie's breakthrough critical and commercial success with Ziggy Stardust.
L.A. Woman - The Doors, 1971
The Doors' final album, L.A. Woman, didn't receive the same level of critical acclaim on its release as it does today. Although the reviews were somewhat positive, many critics felt that the album just wasn't up to The Doors' usual standard. As the review in Melody Maker put it, the lack of creative innovation on L.A. Woman, barring the track Riders on the Storm, made it "all so obvious that originality has left them." Despite the mixed reception, the album sold well and made it to the charts, peaking at No. 9 on the U.S. Billboard.
Exile on Main St. - The Rolling Stones, 1972
By the time Exile on Main St. was released in 1972, The Rolling Stones were a well-established rock phenomenon, with almost a decade's worth of critical acclaim and commercial success to their name. But when Exile on Main St. came out in 1972, the critics' praise was tepid at best. Redolent with themes of sex and debauchery, the album was panned as being disorganized and inconsistent. However, on reappraisal in the late 70s, Exile on Main St. received much more favorable reviews and is now considered to be the best album of the decade by many modern critics.
Aerosmith - Aerosmith, 1973
Aerosmith's first album, simply titled Aerosmith, was released in January 1975 and included the raw power ballad Dream On, the first of several massive hits for the band. Unfortunately, due to poor promotional management, the album didn't get much pre-launch hype and didn't even receive a mention in Rolling Stone, a huge blow for the band. Largely ignored by the critics, Aerosmith nevertheless built a loyal following and a couple of years later, the album was re-released to newfound critical acclaim. Modern critics still consider it an essential album, crediting Dream On as "the blueprint for all power ballads."
Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan, 1975
Written during a difficult time while separated from his wife, Blood on the Tracks stands today as one of Dylan's most acclaimed albums. In Wyman's 2001 review, he writes that "Blood on the Tracks is his [Dylan's] only flawless album and the best produced." Indeed, every other Dylan album is invariably compared to Blood on the Tracks. However, at the time of its release in 1975, the negative reviews were exceptionally harsh and far outweighed the few positive ones. Two separate reviews in Rolling Stone shredded the album, with Jon Landau writing that "the record has been made with typical shoddiness."
Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd, 1975
Recorded over several months in 1975, Wish You Were Here is part tribute to Syd Barrett and part criticism of the music industry. Expressing their sense of disillusionment with the recording industry's cynical, merciless push for ever higher sales figures, Pink Floyd certainly ruffled the critics' feathers. The reviews ranged from dismissive to vitriolic, with one critic writing that the album "sounds unconvincing in its ponderous sincerity and displays a critical lack of imagination in all departments." Reappraised in recent years, Wish You Were Here stands today as one of the greatest progressive rock albums of all time.
Welcome to My Nightmare - Alice Cooper, 1975
Working with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper released his first solo project in 1975. Welcome to My Nightmare was written as a concept piece, an over-the-top theatrical exploration of a young boy's increasingly disturbing nightmares. The fans loved the album, which quickly soared to No. 5 on the U.S. Billboard. Although it's critically acknowledged today as a classic, pioneering record, the contemporary 70s reviews were nothing short of stinging. Rolling Stone's Dave Marsh lacerated the album, hilariously writing, "The horn parts are so corny you might imagine that you're listening to the heavy-metal Ann-Margret."
High Voltage - AC/DC, 1976
When AC/DC released their first international album in the U.S. in 1976, they had already cemented their reputation as one of the most popular hard rock groups in Australia. Fans at the time were receptive, but the critics were decidedly not. Rolling Stone's Billy Altman did not hold back, referring to the group as "these Australian gross-out champions," stating "the genre [hard rock] has hit its all-time low." Today, however, High Voltage is not just one of the highest selling albums of all time, but a critical favorite and an enduring gold standard of classic rock.
I Want You - Marvin Gaye, 1976
When Marvin Gaye released I Want You in 1976, contemporary critics jumped on the fact that it had a disco-oriented sound, a relatively maligned genre at the time. Perhaps predictably, the critics didn't take to it, comparing the album unfavorably to Gaye's earlier work. Aletti, writing for Rolling Stone, encapsulated this criticism, contending that "one expects something with a little more substance and spirit. But there's no fire here, only a well-concealed pilot light." Nevertheless, the chart-topping album sold well, and is now critically acclaimed for its foundational influence on modern R&B music.
A Day at the Races - Queen, 1976
Developed as a companion record to A Night at the Opera, Queen's fifth studio album, A Day at the Races, came out to huge fan approval, hitting the top ten in the global charts. The gospel-inspired track, Somebody to Love proved to be the album's biggest hit, but critics reacted with far less enthusiasm than the fans. Circus magazine's review was particularly blunt, stating "With A Day at the Races, they've deserted art-rock entirely. They're silly now. And wondrously shameless." Retrospective reviews have been kinder, with the album frequently ranking among the greatest rock albums of the era.
Berlin - Lou Reed, 1973
When Lou Reed unleashed his groundbreaking album "Berlin" upon the world, it was met with reviews so scathing, they could have melted a steel guitar pick! Rolling Stone's Stephen Davis, never one to mince words, famously declared it a "disaster" that could have been mistaken for a symphony of cats in heat. But you know what they say about misunderstood masterpieces—like a fine wine or a funky vintage record, "Berlin" had to age a bit before its true brilliance was recognized. Nowadays, it's hailed as one of Reed's most profound works, proof that sometimes, critics just need a little time to catch up with genius. So, crank up the volume on "Berlin" and let the naysayers eat their words, one glorious note at a time!
Jazz - Queen, 1978
No strangers to controversy, Queen released their seventh album, Jazz, to a slew of negative reviews. Regarded today as one of Queen's greatest albums, Jazz peaked in the top ten on both the U.S. and the U.K. charts in 1978, but came in for harsh critical reviews. Fat Bottomed Girls in particular raised the critics' collective ire, with Dave Marsh condemning the song for depicting women "not as sex objects but as objects, period." In one of the most damning critiques in music history, Marsh concluded by labeling Queen "the first truly fascist rock band."
Toto - Toto, 1978
Grammy-winning band, Toto, released their eponymous debut album in 1978 to great fan interest. It was an instant hit, but the critics hated it, their biggest issue being the versatility in styles and genres that actually made Toto so popular with the fans. Despite spawning three hit singles, including Hold the Line, Rolling Stone deemed the album a complete failure, with poorly written songs and unimpressive vocals. Modern reappraisals, however, rank Toto as one of the greatest albums of all time, speculating that Toto's negative reception was actually due to its unfamiliar genre-crossing style rather than any musical deficiency.