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The Art of Stopping: 18 Albums that Should Have Been Goodbye

In the wake of my recent suggestion that Godspeed You! Black Emperor hang it up for good, I've had a number of conversations with Splendid readers regarding other bands who should've quit while they were ahead. For every band that burns out rather than fading away, there's another well-meaning but dim-witted bunch who keep making record after record until they have to be asked politely to go home.

We're not just talking about massive, bloated acts like the Rolling Stones, either. Thanks to the internet, it's now possible for bands to go on indefinitely, releasing an album every six months without ever putting them in shops -- pandering to the same 5000 fans, none of whom live less than 50 miles apart, every time. And if a lead singer wants to reform his long-dead band fifteen years down the road with none of the other original members on hand, there's nothing but his conscience to stop him. With the proliferation of indie labels, CD burners and inexpensive online stores, the music never needs to stop...but it should.

To illustrate our cautionary tale, we offer 20/20 hindsight -- a list of albums that would've been good stopping points in downward-sloping careers. Think how much more fondly you'd remember these bands if they'd only had the courage to pack it in.

And needless to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg...

Dinosaur Jr.'s Bug
One of the sadder things about the early nineties was the gradual commercialization of Dino Jr. It seems that once J. Mascis got a little money in his pocket, his fire went out. On Bug, he's still at full-burn; it's kind of comforting to think that stuff like this was once "unmarketable".

The Promise Ring's Very Emergency
The backlash began in earnest here, but for all its flaws, Very Emergency is a tolerable effort -- poppier than most fans wanted the Promise Ring to be, but rarely outright embarrassing to listen to. The same can't be said for the subsequent Electric Pink EP -- one giant leap into shite-dom.

Cocteau Twins' Heaven or Las Vegas
This is the album that proved that Robin, Simon and Liz still had "it" -- an apotheosis of the sound they'd been flogging for eight years. Sad, then, that whatever "it" was, they never found it again.

The Ramones' Too Tough to Die
That's right -- you don't know any of the songs on this one. This isn't one of those Ramones albums that everybody talks about -- but it's as good as their best work. Inspired, melodic and hard-hitting, Too Tough to Die is the last great Ramones album; their career nadir, the Pet Semetary soundtrack, was only four years away...

New Order's Brotherhood
This one is a tough choice. Many fans maintain that Technique is an outstanding album; it has definitely aged well. However, there's a vast, yawning gulf between the acid-house explorations of Technique and the 2001's surprising return to form, Get Ready. I've selected Brotherhood in this instance because it was the last time we heard the quintessential New Order sound that, for many people, absolutely defined mid-eighties dance music.

Suicidal Tendencies' self-titled debut
That's right -- one record. Between 1983 and, oh, 1986, Suicidal Tendencies was as essential to high-school quasi-punk-rock rebellion as hating jocks and telling your parents you were thinking about getting a mohawk. You hadn't lived 'til you'd heard "Institutionalized" and "I Saw Your Mommy". Shit, nineteen years later, bands are still ripping off "Institutionalized". Unfortunately, between 1983 and 1987, Mike Muir and his buddies decided they were skate punks. There's nothing wrong with being a skate punk -- but no matter how much you might have loved "I Saw Your Mommy", there was very little reason to love 1987's execrable Join the Army. Yes, How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today was vastly superior, but by then it was far too late.

Squirrel Nut Zippers' Perennial Favorites
"Hell", from the band's previous album, Hot, was one of those mysterious, unexpected novelty hits that make commercial radio so interesting and perplexing. A few naive folks -- the band perhaps among them -- expected Perennial Favorites to yield a similar chart-topper. Perhaps the mocking "Suits are Picking Up the Bill" would repeat the band's success? Erm, no. Consciously or not, the Squirrel Nut Zippers released an album seemingly designed to repel all of those swing-dancing Johnny-come-latelys -- which it did -- while dishing up more devilish hot jazz for their longtime fans. By 2000's Bedlam Ballroom, the band had splintered and their sound was moving in new directions. If it proves to be their final recording, it's a less than satisfying closure.

Urge Overkill's Saturation
Urge's major label debut put some serious corporate bankroll behind their tongue-in-cheek stadium-rock bombast, yielding an album that helped to define the "early nineties" sound. How can you not love that? Seriously, if you can't get behind "Sister Havana", you're one narrow-minded elitist motherfucker. Besides, we all know what happened to Exit the Dragon -- might as well cut the trio a little slack for their good material.

Somewhere between Blondie's Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican
Make no mistake -- Eat to the Beat would be the place to end your exploration of Debbie Harry's career...if not for Autoamerican's most infamous track. "Rapture", the song that introduced the world to White Girl Rapping some twenty years before anyone was ready for it, is absolutely essential -- a spectacular blind alley in music's evolutionary pattern. Fortunately, it's on every Best of Blondie album, so you don't actually need to buy Autoamerican. Consider yourself lucky.

The Clash's London Calling
Strummer, Jones et al's do-no-wrong streak ended after this album. On London Calling, the group dabbled in everything from reggae to roots rock 'n' roll, even sidelining in jazz, ska and rockabilly. It worked because, intentionally or not, the group struck a workable balance between punk-rock politics and good old fashioned entertainment. They never quite got it right again. On the bloated Sandinista! in particular, they mistook sheer volume of ideas for entertainment value, with mostly unsatisfying results.

Big Audio Dynamite's No. 10, Upping Street
As long as we're talking about members of the Clash, we might as well mention Mick Jones's little cottage industry. What I want to know is, didn't Jones realize that working with Joe Strummer on Upping Street would ultimately overshadow all of B.A.D.'s subsequent, Strummerless outings? That said, B.A.D.'s post-Upping material isn't shameful by any means -- it's just not as good. Even more notably, Jones bucked the "only one original member" curse when he returned, all-new band in tow, with B.A.D. II's The Globe, which was improbably decent and interesting. Too bad about the rest of their albums.

Modern English's After the Snow
Poor Modern English. Once they wrote "I Melt With You", it was all over for them; they were doomed to spend the rest of their careers writing "I Melt With You" again, or laboring defiantly on into obscurity deliberately not writing "I Melt With You" again. They were actually a good band with good songs, but NOBODY FUCKING CARED because of "I Melt With You". You know this is true. People pick up After the Snow once in a while to see what the "rest" of it sounds like...but if you can name any Modern English songs besides "I Melt With You", I'd lay thousand-to-one odds that you memorized them deliberately so as to one day stump a friend who figured you couldn't name any Modern English songs besides "I Melt With You". Those poor guys. They should've changed their names or something. Still, I bet the royalty checks are nice.

Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Most of you will probably suggest that McLachlan was crap from the word go -- but I think you're wrong. I have no particular affection for the estrogen-spewing quasi-hippie who released Surfacing, or for anything that followed it, but until McLachlan found a niche -- and an audience with deep wallets, dying for a summer festival to call its own -- she was capable of some pretty special stuff. The Sarah McLachlan who recorded Fumbling is still the same woman who, early in her career, contributed jaw-dropping guest vocals for bands like Manufacture and Moev. There was a time when she appealed to the same people who bought the rest of Nettwerk's then-predominantly-electronic output -- but Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was the end of that period.

The Orb's Orblivion
Between "Toxygene" and "Asylum", this disc was an impressive return to form -- almost as good as the Orb's debut. Why, why, why didn't they call it quits after this? Why did they have to release last year's tepid Cydonia, forever sullying their reputation? Was it the drugs, Alex?

The Wonder Stuff's Never Loved Elvis
Actually, I'd have been content if they stopped at Hup -- I got tired of them 'round-about then. Still, there's the whole "The Size of a Cow" thing...

Echo and the Bunnymen's self-titled LP
Hard to believe that they've squeezed out, what, seven albums since this one? Hey, I'm glad they're still able to make a living from the band, but Ian McCulloch's departure pretty much killed the magic as far as I'm concerned. You can't go home again, Ian.

The Sugarcubes' Life's Too Good
I know I'm alone in this, but I honestly believe that the world only ever needed one Sugarcubes record. If they'd split up in 1988 and gotten day jobs, early used-CD shops wouldn't have had to give over ten percent of their bin space to unwanted copies of Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! and none of us would ever have had to endure a Björk record.

My Bloody Valentine's Loveless
I know, I know -- but it would be nice to know for sure, wouldn't it?

-- George Zahora

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