The music industry is littered with examples of albums that, whether justly or not, went over like a lead balloon – the dreaded ‘flop’. Here’s our list of the biggest album flops of all time.
They may have copped a critical pummelling, or sold so poorly that they could never hope to recoup the huge amounts of money they cost to record and promote.
The word ‘flop’ is all relative, of course, with some of these albums still managing to sell by the millions and even receive their fair share of praise, but still failing to meet lofty expectations or huge financial targets.
A few of them are even great albums that just didn’t quite manage to live up to the lofty standards set by earlier work, and were crushed under the weight of expectation. Some of them were just terrible ideas.
Whatever the case, these albums are some of the biggest flops in music history.
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
There’s absolute truth to the fact that Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was one of the best albums of the 1970’s. After selling 45 million copies, it became the 7th highest selling album of all time, and with songs like ‘Go Your Own Way’, ‘Don’t Stop’, and ‘Dreams’, it’s easy to see why. Soon after though, Tusk happened.
Plagued by problems from the beginning, including classic Fleetwood Mac bickering when Lindsay Buckingham demanded to produce the album, and the band building their own studio to record in, it became the most expensive album ever at the time, costing more than $1.4 million to make.
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The record was also a double album, meaning it would cost $16 to buy, twice the price of a regular album, and $2 more than a regular double album. The record sold 4 million copies, and despite critical reception down the line, it’s considered one of music’s biggest failures.
Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle
Remember The Beach Boys? Of course you do. Did you know that Van Dyke Parks worked with them? In fact, he not only worked with The Beach Boys, but also The Byrds, and Frank Zappa.
Parks was in huge demand in the 1960’s, and his work with Brian Wilson even got Warner Bros. to give him a record label. Like Warner Bros. expected, a solo album by an artist of his calibre would be a huge success. It was solid, yet flawed, logic.
The album not only cost $35,000 to make ($240,000 in today money), compared to the then-average cost of $10,000 ($70,000), but it was marred by poor sales. As John Safran once pointed out in his Music Jamboree series, Warner Bros. ran full page newspaper and magazine ads in which their publicist admitted they “lost $35,509 on ‘the album of the year’ (dammit).”
However, the label also made it clear that if you had actually purchased the album, you’d obviously worn it out by overplay by that point. So, in a move designed to clear unsold copies, if you sent Warner Bros. your old copy, they’d send you two new copies, including one “to educate a friend with”. Subtle.
Tears For Fears – The Seeds Of Love
Tears For Fears were huge in the 80’s, there’s no denying it. The majority of this hugeness came from their 1985 album Songs From The Big Chair. Their three biggest singles ‘Shout’, ‘Head Over Heels’, and ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ all came from the album. It sold millions of copies and hit number one in numerous countries.
Four years later, Tears For Fears’ The Seeds Of Love was released. Costing almost £1 million more to make than their previous album, it had a less than stellar reception.
The album’s recording and production sessions were so poor and tension-filled that it resulted in singer and bassist Curt Smith divorcing his wife and leaving the band soon after. While Smith did return 13 years later, it was clear that the group’s best days were behind them.
‘Chris Gaines’/Garth Brooks – The Life Of Chris Gaines
Quick question, who is the best-selling solo artist in America? If you guessed ‘Garth Brooks’, then you’re absolutely correct. Second only to The Beatles in overall album sales, Garth Brooks has sold over 137 million records in the US and 150 million in total worldwide. He’s a pretty big deal in country music, especially in America, where his fanbase is one of the most dedicated around.
In 1999, Brooks took on the fictitious alter-ego of Chris Gaines, an ‘Australian’ rock singer, and released an album under this persona. To complete this transformation, Brooks donned a fake wig, caked himself in makeup and refused to acknowledge that he and Gaines were the same person.
The album, The Life Of Chris Gaines (confusingly also given the alternate title of Greatest Hits), was a commercial failure, costing $5 million to make, with $15 million more spent in promotional costs, and selling only 2 million copies.
A planned movie about Chris Gaines entitled The Lamb never eventuated, and after completely alienating his fanbase, the disappointment caused Brooks to retire from music for 4 years before undertaking a well-received comeback.
Michael Jackson – Invincible
Despite Michael Jackson being considered one of the greatest artists of all time, there is no denying that his last couple of albums were of questionable quality, especially when compared to Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous.
In fact, Thriller, is the biggest selling album of all time, with 65 million copies sold, while Bad sold 45 million, and Dangerous sold 32 million. Let’s face it, Jackson was a critical and commercial success.
However, albums like HIStory tarnished this reputation a bit, and by the time 2001’s Invincible came around, it proved that Jackson’s critical success was anything but. Invincible is still the most expensive album ever made, costing $30 million to make.
Even a guest spot by the late Notorious B.I.G. wasn’t enough to save Invincible from the critical savagery that it received. While most artists would be happy with 6 million records sold, Jackson and his record label were rather disappointed, especially when compared to the massive success that was Thriller.
Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music
Lou Reed is one of music’s most famous and respected figures. From his start with The Velvet Underground, to his work with Andy Warhol, to his solo discography, Reed is often cited as an influential figure to many of today’s famous musicians. In fact, Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ list contained 2 of Reed’s solo albums.
In 1975, Lou Reed released his fifth solo album, Metal Machine Music, a record consisting largely of experimental music, tape loops, and guitar feedback.
The album was so poorly received by the public that the original edition of the album was withdrawn from sale after just three weeks, after selling 100,000 copies. Many fans of Reed’s early experimental music would’ve been prepared for such a bold move, fans of his more mainstream work were understandably put off.
The album was later explained away by various sources as a joke or a move to fulfil contractual obligations, but Reed stood by his work, stating in the album’s liner notes that he had basically created heavy metal music.
Wolfmother – Cosmic Egg
Wolfmother were the peak of Aussie-rock in the mid-2000s, with their debut album bringing out hits like ‘Mind’s Eye’, ‘White Unicorn’, ‘Woman’, and ‘Joker & The Thief’.
Numerous positive reviews, festival appearances, awards, and various other accolades were all bestowed upon the band thanks to their self-titled debut. The group seemed unstoppable, with their sophomore album highly anticipated before their first had left the minds of the public.
Four years later, Wolfmother released their second album Cosmic Egg, and unfortunately it didn’t have anywhere near the impact of the first. While we’ve noted that the album was unfairly-maligned, the perception was that the album was a retread of the first, and the singles were in less abundance with ‘New Moon Rising’ and ‘White Feather’ being the only real hits released.
Robin Thicke – Paula
Remember ‘Blurred Lines’? Try as you might to forget it, it has made its mark in your mind. The Marvin Gaye copyright breaching anthem to questionable consent took over the charts in 2013. It was everywhere for a few months, and even made people forget that Thicke’s debut single ‘When I Get You Alone‘ wasn’t exactly terrible.
In the start of 2014, Thicke’s relationship with his wife, Paula Patton, ended and in response, Thicke recorded his seventh album, Paula.
In what can only be described as a 50-minute whine set to music, Paula saw Thicke pay tribute to her with songs such as ‘Get Her Back’ which was all about how he felt about his relationship ending.
The album is best known however for it’s poor sales. While Michael Jackson’s Invincible might have seen ‘only’ 6 million copies sold, but Paula saw only 24,000 copies sold in its first week, with 53 of those copies being sold in Australia.
U2 – Songs Of Innocence
U2 are constantly, and righteously, referred to as one of music’s biggest bands. From their start in 1976 to their rise to fame in the 80’s, which has continues for decades afterwards, U2 are critical and commercial favourites. U2’s 360° tour is the highest grossing tour of all time, with over $750 million being made, proving that U2 are far from done with being the biggest band in the world.
September 9th, 2014, saw the band make a rather unconventional attempt to please their fans, though. U2 paired up with Apple CEO Tim Cook to orchestrate what has become ‘the largest album release of all time’, with Apple releasing the album for free to all users of iTunes.
This of course meant that everyone, whether they were a U2 fan or not, woke up on September 9th to find an unsolicited U2 album in their library. Critically, Songs Of Innocence was an average album, being somewhat of a continuation of the somewhat muted response that 2009’s No Line On The Horizon received. The majority of the criticism came from Apple having ‘forced’ the album onto it’s listeners.
The Stone Roses – Second Coming
The Stone Roses are one of the most popular and critically acclaimed bands to come out of Manchester, excluding bands like Joy Division and Oasis, of course. Their 1989 self-titled debut has been widely considered one of the greatest British albums of all time, with tracks like ‘She Bangs The Drums’, and ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ reinforcing this opinion.
In 1994, the group proved that the immense pressure of constant expectation can sometimes produce coal rather than a diamond and released Second Coming. The group re-emerged from their five year gap into a music scene full of the Britpop scene they were not yet accustomed to.
Second Coming did produce some singles, including the fabulous ‘Love Spreads’, but overall, it was a forgettable album that in no way deserved to be a successor to their first album.
Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu
Lou Reed should’ve learnt from Metal Machine Music that experimenting with anything starting with the word ‘metal’ should possibly be avoided. However, 2011 saw Metallica and Lou Reed release the widely-panned Lulu.
The album is hit and miss from the start, with it being composed of spoken word poems based upon the work of Frank Wedekind read by Lou Reed, with the music performed by Metallica and occasional backing vocals performed by Metallica singer James Hetfield.
Following the widespread negative response, Lou Reed responded by stating, “I don’t have any fans left. After Metal Machine Music, they all fled. Who cares? I’m essentially in this for the fun of it.”
James Hetfield, having learnt nothing of the bad response to Metallica’s 2003 effort St. Anger, responded by turning against fans and saying that the fans who don’t like it are “fearful people” whose negative reviews have come while “typing from their mom’s basement that they still live in.”
Fan response was relatively deserved though, especially when considering that James Hetfield’s deeply poetic lyric “I am the table” was so bad that it’s become a popular internet meme.