Being a music critic is not always easy. Sometimes you have a matter of hours to listen to a new record, digest it and produce a review that will live forever. But some albums take many, many listens to truly reveal themselves. Imagine hearing a group like AC/DC or the Ramones for the first time without any context: The music might seem ridiculous and childish, and even if you grow to revere the group in question, your first impression is the only thing anyone will remember. We’ve been running reviews in Rolling Stone since the very first issue in 1967. That’s thousands and thousands of reviews, and more than a few times, we have panned an album that went on to become a beloved classic. Here are 10 of the most infamous instances – along with our revised takes, by different writers, that appeared later.
Jimi Hendrix, ‘Are You Experienced’ (1967)
In the very first issue of Rolling Stone, Jon Landau expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the new album by a young band called the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“Everything else is insane and simply a matter of either you dig it or you don’t. Basically I don’t for several reasons. Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the group’s total precision, the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of the lyrics too often get in the way. Jimi is very much into state-of-mind type lyrics, but even so, lines like ‘Manic depression is a frustrating mess,’ just don’t make it. It is one thing for Jimi to talk arrogantly and without any pretense at artistry; it’s another to write lyrics in that fashion. In this context ‘I Don’t Live Today’ can be seen as both the best and worst cut on the album. The best because it is performed with such exquisite precision and control, and the worst because what Jimi is trying to get across is such a drag: ‘There’s no life nowhere … Dig it if you can, but as for me, I’d rather hear Jimi play the blues.'”
– Jon Landau
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling StoneAlbum Guide)
“Are You Experienced? was the summer of love, debut, and it sounded like divine madness – ‘Purple Haze,’ I Don’t Live Today,’ ‘Manic Depression’ and ‘Fire’ we all feedback finesse and arrogant virtuosity wrapped around lyrics sprung from primal wondering, lust and fear.” – Paul Evans
Led Zeppelin were a brand new blues-rock band opening for the likes of Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly when Rolling Stone ran such a scathing review of their debut LP that the group held a grdge for decades.
“The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin’s debut album. Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument’s electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group).” – John Mendelsohn
Second take: Five Stars (2001 Rolling Stone)
“Talk about telegraphing your punch: The cover of Led Zeppelin, the British quartet’s seismic 1969 debut, shows the Hindenburg airship, in all its phallic glory, going down in flames. The image did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe and things blowing up. The swagger is there from the get-go, on “Good Times Bad Times”: Jimmy Page’s guitar pounces from the speakers, fat with menace; John Bonham’s kick drum swings with anvil force; Robert Plant rambles on about the perils of manhood. Hard rock would never be the same. There may be better, more refined Zep albums than Led Zeppelin – a.k.a. Led Zeppelin I – but none sounds quite as gratifyingly raw or is as comprehensive in defining the band’s intentions.”
– Greg Kot
Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970)
Lester Bangs is one of the most esteemed rock writers in history, but even he didn’t quite get Black Sabbath when he heard their first record back in 1970.
“Over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin’ ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap, something like England’s answer to Coven. Well, they’re not that bad, but that’s about all the credit you can give them. The whole album is a shuck – despite the murky song titles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence. Vocals are sparse, most of the album being filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master’s tiredest Cream days. They even have discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other’s musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch — just like Cream! But worse.”
– Lester Bangs
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide)
“They took the blues out of blues-rock and replaced it with Wagner, creating epic battle rhythms filled with a tension and release that any adolescent boy would know about firsthand. Thanks to Rodger Bain’s production, Black Sabbath sounds really big and really unhealthy. It’s an album that eats hippies for breakfast; also, it has even been statistically determined that if a brain cell were the size of a grain of sand, the amount lost while listening to this record upon its first year of release could easily fill the Grand Canyon. What people forget about Black Sabbath – and it’s understandable given their demonic imagery and All Hallow’s Eve vibe – was that it was one of the most God-driven, puritanical, wet-blanket rock bands in history. Its ‘mankind is evil and must repent for its wicked ways’ thesis would influence almost all the future bards of the metallic arts.”
– Scott Seward
Neil Young, ‘Harvest’ (1972)
Three years after ripping apart Led Zeppelin’s first two albums, John Mendelsohn unleashed his venom on Neil Young’s Harvest.
“Harvest, a painfully long year-plus in the making (or, seemingly more aptly, assembling), finds Neil Young invoking most of the L.A. variety of superstardom’s weariest cliches in an attempt to obscure his inability to do a good imitation of his earlier self. … Truth be told, I listened to the entirety of Harvest no less than a dozen times before touching typewriter to paper, ultimately managing to come with only one happy thing to say about it: Neil Young still sings awful pretty, and often even touchingly. For the most part, though, he’s seemingly lost sight of what once made his music uniquely compelling and evocative and become just another pretty, singing solo superstar. Which can’t help but bring me down.”
— John Mendelsohn
Second take: In 2003, Rolling Stone named it the 82nd best album of all time.
“Harvest yielded Neil Young’s only Number One hit, ‘Heart of Gold,’ and helped set the stage for the Seventies soft-rock explosion – both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing on the album. Along with Young, they were in Nashville to appear on Johnny Cash’s ABC-TV variety show the first weekend that Harvest was being cut with an odd group of accomplished session musicians that included bassist Tim Drummond, who had played with James Brown (Young’s bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash also appeared on the album). The sound, on tracks like ‘Old Man’ and ‘The Needle and the Damage Done,’ was Americana (steel guitar, slide guitar, banjo) stripped down and rebuilt with every jagged edge exposed.”
— Rolling Stone
The Rolling Stones, ‘Exile on Main Street’ (1972)
Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye is a brilliant writer and the genius behind Nuggets, and he likely has come to gain more respect for Exile on Main Street than he did back in 1972 when he filed this review.
“Exile on Main Street appears to take up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones attempting to deal with their problems and once again slightly missing the mark. They’ve progressed to the other side of the extreme, wiping out one set of solutions only to be confronted with another. With few exceptions, this has meant that they’ve stuck close to home, doing the sort of things that come naturally, not stepping out of the realm in which they feel most comfortable. Undeniably it makes for some fine music, and it surely is a good sign to see them recording so prolifically again; but I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come. Hopefully, Exile on Main Street will give them the solid footing they need to open up, and with a little horizon-expanding (perhaps honed by two months on the road), they might even deliver it to us the next time around.”
— Lenny Kaye
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide)
“It’s their most physically jolting album and, ultimately, their most emotionally inspiring. Mick’s vocals are just another instrument in a glorious rush of high-velocity electric noise, his lyrics barely perceptible in all the guitar, sax, and harmonica; whatever he’s saying, he just wants to plug in and flush out and fight and fuck and feed. Keith channels all his nasty habits and internal chaos into the guitars, from the convulsive opener, ‘Rocks Off,’ to the weary acoustic stomp of ‘Sweet Virginia.’ Charlie Watts’ understated performance in ‘Shake Your Hips’ demands some sort of Nobel Prize.”
– Rob Sheffield
Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975)
Right around the same time he began working with Bruce Springsteen, labeled by many the “new Dylan,” Jon Landau took a listen to the newest album by the old Dylan and didn’t like what he heard. Sometimes the magazine took decades to revise a questionable review, but in this case they ran an opposing viewpoint on the very same page. Jonathan Cott’s take on the album was significantly more positive.
“If in Dylan’s world of extremes there’s room for a middle ground, that’s where I place Blood on the Tracks. It’s his best album since Blonde on Blonde, but not nearly as good. If it contains nothing so bad as the second version of ‘Forever Young,’ only ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ comes even close to ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)'” To compare the new album to Blonde on Blonde at all is to imply that people will treasure it as deeply and for as long. They won’t.”
– Jon Landau
Second take: (Again, this ran in the same issue as the last one.)
“Rarely has Dylan’s presence seemed so full and moving as on Blood on the Tracks. No matter what the mood, Dylan’s voice sounds as alternately rich, gentle, haunted or exacerbated as each song demands. …Their clean, gleaming, impersonal sound is perfectly suited as a functional support for Dylan’s candent and wonderfully phrased harmonica, mandolin and guitar work and for his beautifully articulated and glowing lyrics – whose strengths are much like those of the 13th century poem whose book of verse he reads in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ (‘And every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burnin’ coal/Pourin’ off of every page/Like it was written in my soul/From me to you/Tangled up in blue’).”
– Jonathan Cott
AC/DC, ‘High Voltage’ (1976)
Imagine it’s 1976 and you get a new album thrown on your desk featuring songs like “She’s Got Balls” by a bunch of brash Australians, one of whom dresses up like a demented schoolboy. You probably wouldn’t guess they’d become one of the biggest hard-rock acts of all time, still capable of packing stadiums even after losing two iconic lead singers. You might even write a review like this.
“Those concerned with the future of hard rock may take solace in knowing that with the release of the first U.S. album by these Australian gross-out champions, the genre has unquestionably hit its all-time low. Things can only get better (at least I hope so). A band whose live act features a lead guitarist (Angus Young) leering menacingly while dressed in schoolboy beanie and knickers, AC/DC has nothing to say musically (two guitars, bass and drums all goose-stepping together in mindless three-chord formations). Lyrically, their universe begins and ends with the words ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ Lead singer Bon Scott spits out his vocals with a truly annoying aggression which, I suppose, is the only way to do it when all you seem to care about is being a star so that you can get laid every night. And that, friends, comprises the sum total of themes discussed on this record. Stupidity bothers me. Calculated stupidity offends me.”
– Billy Altman
Second take: Two Stars (1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide)
“Scathing, often libelous reviews have been a way of life for this Australian molten boogie band ever since they debuted in this country with High Voltage (a compilation of two earlier Aussie LP’s). But what the critics don’t know, the heavy-metal kids understand. Led by the tenacious axe-wielding Scots-born Young brothers Angus and Malcolm, AC/DC are nothing more or less than rock & roll party thunder, 110-decibel escapism fired up by panzer division riffs ‘n’ rhythms, Angus’ mad-dog stare romps in sweaty schoolboy uniform, and the lecherous growl of original singer Bon Scott.” – David Fricke
Queen, ‘Jazz’ (1979)
Sometimes a reviewer just seems to have a really, really low opinion of a band, which seems to be the case with Dave Marsh and Queen. Years later, their album Jazz only got a marginally better review in the Album Guide, though this time around they weren’t labeled “fascists.”
“There’s no Jazz on Queen’s new record, in case fans of either were worried about the defilement of an icon. Queen hasn’t the imagination to play jazz – Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock & roll. Jazz is just more of the same dull pastiche that’s dominated all of this British supergroup’s work: tight guitar/bass/drums heavy-metal clichés, light-classical pianistics, four-part harmonies that make the Four Freshmen sound funky and Freddie Mercury’s throat-scratching lead vocals. … Whatever its claims, Queen isn’t here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, ‘We Will Rock You'” is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas.”
– Dave Marsh
Second take: Two Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide)
“The decline starts with Jazz, which has the quickie operetta ‘Bicycle Race’ but it’s otherwise utter jive.”
– Mark Coleman
Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
Ira Robbins’ three-star review of Nevermind is perhaps the most notorious Rolling Stone review of the 1990s, but reading through it now it’s clear that Robbins really enjoyed the album. It almost reads like a four-star review. He truly understood their influences and placed it within the context of its time. How was he supposed to know this little album was going to change the world?
“A dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and sonic restraint, Nirvana erects sturdy melodic structures – sing-along hard rock as defined by groups like the Replacements, Pixies and Sonic Youth — but then attacks them with frenzied screaming and guitar havoc. … Too often, underground bands squander their spunk on records they’re not ready to make, then burn out their energy and inspiration with uphill touring. Nevermind finds Nirvana at the crossroads – scrappy garageland warriors setting their sights on a land of giants.”
– Ira Robbins
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide)
“The killer hook is a stuttering chord progression similar to the stuttering chord progression in Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” a hit 15 years earlier, utterly transformed through Nirvana’s trademark loud/soft dynamic and dark, surreal mood. Following Ezra Pound’s call to arms, Cobain made it new. Following the Talking Heads’ dictum, he stopped making sense. And he stopped making it in a way that made total sense to those who shared his alienation. It was like the James Dean of Rebel Without a Cause, the Bob Dylan of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ the Eddie Cochran of ‘Summertime Blues,’ and the Johnny Rotten of ‘Pretty Vacant” had been rolled into one shy kid with beautiful eyes and unwashed blond hair. And if there was any doubt about the meaning of the mulatto/albino/mosquito/libido nonsense, there was the video, the most riveting three minutes in the history of MTV. At last, high school portrayed as the pep rally in hell that it is. Millions of pos-deducation-stress-disorder survivors immediately identified. The rest of the album is a relentless run of monster riffs and monstrous imagery, all punched along by arguably the greatest rock rhythm section since Led Zeppelin.”
– Charles M. Young
Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’ (1996)
The 1996 Rolling Stone Critics Poll labelled Pinkerton one of the worst albums of the year, though the original review by Rob O’Connor was significantly less vitriolic.
“Weezer over-rely on catchy tunes to heal all of Cuomo’s wounds. In ‘El Scorcho,’ the song’s infectious chorus proves to be slim reward. ‘Tired of Sex,’ a look at a brooding stud’s empty sex life, is as aimless as the subject’s nightly routine. But ‘Butterfly’ is a real treat, a gentle acoustic number that recalls the vintage, heartbreaking beauty of Big Star. Cuomo’s voice cracks as he unintentionally bludgeons the fragile creature in the lyric, suggesting that underneath the geeky teenager pose is an artist well on his way to maturity.”
– Rob O’Connor
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Hall of Fame)
“The self-produced album sounds as raw as Cuomo’s lyrics, without any of the sheen that Ric Ocasek provided on the band’s debut. But what makes Pinkerton more than a blog entry is Cuomo’s unfailing gift for power pop. ‘Across the Sea’ – which quoted so much of that Japanese fan’s letter that Cuomo gave her a slice of the songwriting money – is the masterpiece, building to ever-greater intensity as Cuomo wails about the most distant of all his unattainable girls. At the end, the chorus swells: ‘I’ve got your letter/You’ve got my song.’ Unrealized fantasy is enough happiness for anyone, Cuomo is saying – and he sings it with enough passion to make you believe it too.”
– Gavin Edwards