Even the greatest records have that one annoying song. TBQ staff and board members call out the most criminal examples.
It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add,
but when there is nothing more to take away.
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry
It’s a problem every music fan faces: an amazing album or perfect playlist, and then that song comes on — the one that just doesn’t fit with the others. It could be an objectively terrible song, or simply not as good as the others on an otherwise brilliant collection. Or maybe it’s it’s simply out of place. Whatever the reason — and no matter how great the artist — it has you racing to find the skip button. This is a well-known phenomenon, and yet it’s never been properly identified and catalogued – until now.
Why “Crunge”? It works as both an eponym and a portmanteau:
Eponym: Led Zeppelin provided the archetypal example of the “must-skip track” with “The Crunge,” from their otherwise classic album Houses of the Holy. The song was clearly meant as a jokey interlude, a spoof on James Brown, which unfortunately failed (as flagged by singer Robert Plant when he asks: “Where’s the bridge? Have you seen the bridge? Where’s that confounded bridge?”)
Portmanteau: When a crunge comes on, first it makes you cringe, and then it makes you lunge – for the skip button.
A few other points to note:
First, just as crunges are not limited to jokes, not all jokes are crunges. If the song is musically solid, and the joke doesn’t wreck the flow of the album, then a humorous interlude can work nicely. Think about “Race Car Ya Yas” on Cake’s classic Fashion Nugget. A short jokey song that fits snugly within the rest of the album’s sound and sardonic tone. A tonal departure can work too, if a song is catchy and fun, like “Underneath the Bunker” on R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant.
Second, admittedly, crunge-worthiness is a matter of degree. The question is whether you would stop what you were doing and walk into the next room to avoid hearing the song. Do you always skip it? The more clockwork the cringing and lunging, the more of a crunge it is.
Third, what if there’s more than one crunge on an album? Two crunges can be tolerated if the rest of the album is insanely good. But, past a certain point, multiple crunges may indicate that the album itself is not truly “great”.
Now that we’ve identified the crunge, it’s time to list some examples and develop a taxonomy, in no particular order. And when you’re done reviewing ours, submit a few of your own. We’ll publish an updated list next week.
1. White Stripes – We’re Going To Be Friends
Let’s start off by throwing a grenade, shall we? Well-loved or not, this one is an obvious crunge. On a kids’ album or some other context, this song could stand a chance of being palatable. But it’s on a rock album, where it sticks out as twee and insipid, evidence of the unassailable fact that adults should not write children’s songs for other adults. It’s completely out of place in what’s otherwise a throbbing turn-it-up-to-11 set of hard rock tracks on White Blood Cells. Do you want your kindergartener hanging out in a rock concert? No? Because that’s what’s happening here.
2. MGMT – “4th Dimensional Transition”
It’s the one dud on what otherwise was one of the best albums of the aughts, Oracular Spectacular. The song’s name gives it a way; this was meant as an interlude to transition between the two halves of the album. But are such interludes ever really necessary? If the listener needs an “interlude” — if they get a phone call, or a call from nature — then that’s what the pause button is for. You don’t need to make the musical equivalent of a commercial break or a timeout.
3. Jay Z – “Ain’t No Nigga”
Again, crunges can come even from the all-time greats, and in fact, it’s on the greatest albums where we see the starkest contrasts between sublime and subpar. Take Hova’s most powerful album (Reasonable Doubt), with tight tracks, a minimum of splashy filigree, and some of his sharpest rhymes — and then add in a cheesy, mediocre R&B song with a spongy bass line and a hackneyed story about a sugar daddy. It’s the uber-crungy outlier on what is otherwise one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
4. The Black Keys – “The Lengths”
Rubber Factory is the Keys’ best album, the perfect blend of their early grittiness and the more polished production of their more recent albums. It’s a blues-rock gem, tailor made for cranking the volume up in the car and tearing up the highway. Except for “The Lengths.” It was one of the first down-tempo songs the Keys ever did, and it shows: it’s boring and repetitive and drones on for ever and ever and ever without really going anywhere, much like this sentence.
5. The Replacements – “Nightclub Jitters”
Another one that feels like it was meant as a joke, here a tossed-off ode to lounge lizards and 80s nightlife. You can almost see the polyester and taste the Seagrams 7, and yet the song doesn’t have the heart of the Mats’ other sad slow barfly songs, like “Here Comes a Regular” and “Swingin’ Party.” But on an album of hard-charging post-punk and bittersweet pop melodies, there’s no room for Nightclub Jitters.
6. The Replacements – “Within Your Reach”
There are some similar problems with this ‘Mats song off Hootenanny. At their best, the Replacements could blow the doors off a 2-minute punk track or could break your heart with a lush but painful melody that owed a debt to Big Star or the Beatles. And then . . . they tried synthesizers. Not a good idea.
7. Spoon – “10:20 AM”
Girls Can Tell is a nearly perfect album. Nearly. From top to bottom it’s filled with taut post-punk songcraft and enough aching ennui to (dis)satisfy an entire café of French existentialists. And then there’s this: “10:20 AM, 10:20 AM / When will I ever see you again?” Daniel is a terrific songwriter, but this is the exception that proves the rule.
8. Marianne Faithfull – “Why’d Ya Do It?”
Panelist Rich Bellis explains that the album that gave us “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” also gave us lyrics like these: “She had cobwebs up her fanny, and I believe in giving to the poor.” She’s trying to contrast the skank an errant boyfriend messed around with and the faithful, upstanding Faithfull, who doesn’t so much sing as spit out “Why’d Ya Do It?” But as Bellis concludes, “the brass-balled disdain she’s aiming for lands wide of the mark and leaves you with the slightly embarrassed feeling you get from watching bad drag.”
9. The Beatles – “Revolution No. 9”
Now it’s time to break out the big guns, because it turns out that the perennial consensus winner for Best Rock Band Ever was also a veritable Crunge Factory. As we see over and over, crunges are often the very worst by the very best. The Beatles were so willing to try on different styles that some songs were bound to stick out — and to fail. It’s also possible that their overwhelming fame had made them immune to the sort of editing by producers and labels to which more ordinary bands are subjected. Plus as panelist Simon Pratt points out, the Beatles had their notoriously fractious band politics, which meant that albums often had to accommodate (a) Ringo’s latest “composition,” (b) John’s latest crazy concept or bad trip, or (c) George’s spiritual wandering.
Let’s start with The White Album and the creepster collage that is “Revolution No. 9,” which received a broad chorus of nominations from our panelists. One declared that he’d “love to hear from anyone who can explain how to listen to all eight minutes without skipping” — and without doing hard drugs. Or as another put it: “I always think that song must be what you hear when you are dying on a subway platform.”
10. The Beatles – “I Will”
The first half of The White Album has its own crunge. “I Will” mostly manages to avoid all the uniquely Beatly traps above — with Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” serving as a mediocre but tolerable detour — and yet it still manages to fall apart under the sheer weight of Paul’s penchant for treacle. A sing-songy melody, lyrics about “love you forever / and forever,” and Ringo keeping time on a woodblock? It sounds like it was written to lull customers to sleep when they’re on hold for customer support.
11. The Beatles – “Within You Without You”
Slow, droning, and with enough watered-down pseudo-spirituality to power a whole chain of bad yoga schools. And yet the Beatles had already shown that they could infuse their music with Indian influence to fantastic effect, with the tanpura-driven “Tomorrow Never Knows” off of Revolver — a song that is still considered an early landmark in electronic music.
12. Lauryn Hill – “Forgive Them Father”
This one shows that relativity and context are key. For many mere mortals, “Forgive Them Father” would actually be a highlight. On The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — easily one of the greatest albums of the last 25 years — it’s the weakest link, with its rubbery bass line and weaker vocals. On an album of such power and range, mediocrity stands out.
13. Them Crooked Vultures – “Interlude with Ludes”
Again with the interludes! But this weird jokey crunge from the awesome supergroup’s self-titled debut leads us to the man who may in fact be the Godfather of Crungecraft: rock legend John Paul Jones, who played bass and keyboards for Zeppelin and is thus partly responsible for “The Crunge” itself. Perhaps the occasional crunge is inevitable even for legends. Become a big enough star, and you might think that even the inside jokes from your studio sessions constitute little gems that must be shared with the world. But you’d be wrong.
14. Tori Amos – “Me and a Gun”
Critiquing Amos’s song about being raped is difficult, to say the least. But in every other respect this song fits the “crunge” description. One panelist explained: “One minute we’re fucking the patriarchy; the next minute we’re reliving Amos’ rape in detail. I know, I know: she’s resisting the commodification of women’s experiences. But isn’t pop music the commodification of experience?” Another chimed in: “I feel a twinge of guilt every time I skip it (a complicating crunge factor?), but skipped it must be.” And panelist and editor Jane Carr suggests a better and more listenable song with a strong anti-violence message: Traci Chapman’s “Behind the Wall.”
15. Pink Floyd – “Seamus”
On one of Floyd’s underappreciated classic albums (Meddle) comes another song that was clearly meant as a joke: a simple slow 12-bar blues song about a howling dog. Complete with — you guessed it — a recording of a howling dog. Named Seamus. Never doubt the British reputation for dry humor. Yes, the song itself is unobjectionable. And yet it sits smack in the middle of a typically adventurous Floyd album, seemingly depicting the landing of a fleet of spaceships captained by a cadre of rather stoned and occasionally depressed aliens, whereas “Seamus” sounds like Randy Newman covering Robert Johnson. “I usually fail to fast-forward through the dying-cat synthesizers in that one portion of ‘Echoes,’” one of our panelists noted, “but I always skip ‘Seamus.’”
16. R.E.M. – “Fuck Me Kitten”
It’s meant to be a languorous and sexy song. But instead it’s boring and slow with not a lot going on musically and a lot of mumbling from Michael Stipe, breaking up the flow on one of the best albums of the last 25 years.
17. Owl City – “Umbrella Beach”
Out of nowhere (well, rural Minnesota) this artist sculpted one of the top albums of 2009, Ocean Eyes, led by two “smasholas” of his unique psychedelectronica: “Hello Seattle” and “Fireflies.” Yet there was one not-so-good trip on the album,“Umbrella Beach.” Panelist Garrett Marengo says the song is “what it would it sound like if Super Mario Bros. had a sex scene.” With a style and tempo different from the rest of the album, this is one bad trip we won’t be making again.
18. Belle and Sebastian – “Beyond the Sunrise”
It starts off like a bad attempt at a Johnny Cash cover, and it doesn’t improve from there. It’s a cheesy, melodramatic, and painfully slow song without any of Belle & Sebastian’s typically tight songcraft or arch pop sensibilities. It nearly threatens to sink Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant before it can get started.
19. Madonna – “Till Death Do Us Part”
Was the intro to “Till Death” inspired by Super Mario? Suffice it to say that it’s not good when your music elicits comparisons to the soundtracks of Nintendo games. Then comes “Dear Jessie” with its saccharine tone and fake symphonic flourishes. Like a Prayer is often considered Madonna’s strongest album, but these two crunges were just filler.
20. Bob Dylan – “Joey”
Before anyone begins to howl, yes it’s beyond doubt that Dylan had way worse songs than “Joey. Indeed, if a career were a single album, one could say that Dylan had entire decade-long crunges. But as panelist Matt Frazier explained, on the otherwise sophisticated Desire, “Joey” is absurdly overwrought. (“Not to mention morally suspect,” Matt continues. “Praising a monster because he wasn’t as murderous as his compadres?!”) This is right up there — or rather, down there — with “Wiggle Wiggle” among Dylan’s very worst songs, on one of his best albums.
21. The White Stripes – “In the Cold Cold Night” and “It’s True That We Love One Another”The White Stripes more than any other contemporary rock artists, Jack and Meg seem especially susceptible to the siren song of crunge. Perhaps they’ve been a little too inspired by classic British rock, with its A slow soulless snorefest and an album-ending joke? Pass. Especially when the rest of Elephant crushes it so hard.
22. Aerosmith – “St. John”
Another fake bluesy track, this time in the form of an ill-advised track that Steven Tyler wrote on his own. And remember, there’s a really good reason Steven Tyler has never embarked on a full-blown solo career. “St. John” serves as a handy Exhibit A. Our panelist John remembers this one from way back in the day: “I always fast forwarded it, but I had it on tape, which made it all the more painful. The only positive thing was that I think it was the last song on the side, so it was easy to flip and rewind, or fast-forward to the end.” You know it’s a crunge when the best thing you can say about it is that it was relatively easy to skip.
23. Joni Mitchell – “This Flight Tonight”
While Blue is a beloved classic, “This Flight Tonight” is the exception. Panelist Nick Salvato argues that “no one sought out Blue to hear about airplanes or Las Vegas, nor to suffer the irritating fiddling with the sing-song juvenility of ‘Starlight, Star Bright.’” Again we see a valuable lesson for artists cutting their albums: if it could be reworked as a children’s song, cut it.
24. Rolling Stones – “Sweet Black Angel”
Unlike their classic rock rivals, the Stones are blessedly crunge-free. Almost. Exile on Main Street is a nearly flawless album and arguably the Stones’ best, but “Sweet Black Angel” stands out for its skip-worthiness. Clunky, slower rhythm, a clumsy attempt to work in some woodblocks into the percussion, lyrics about …
25. David Bowie – “Kooks”
The tinny guitar, watered-down horn, and another nursery-rhyme melody make this sound like Bowie was paid to write the theme song to a 70s sitcom that never aired. That it appears on Hunky Dory right after four straight Bowie classics makes it all the more tragic in its crunginess.
26. Carole King – “You’ve Got a Friend”
To be fair, finding a “crunge” on Carole King’s bravura 1971 album Tapestry (which won a Grammy for Album of the Year and sold 25 million copies) is a little bit like spotting an Entenmann’s dessert on a platter of small-batch, artisanal confectionery. Just because it’s not as good as the rest of what’s around it, that doesn’t mean that under different circumstances (and depending on your cravings), you wouldn’t hit that crumb donut. But from the pen of the woman who gave us “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and on an album populated by the smooth-as-silk “It’s Too Late” and take-no-prisoners “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got a Friend” stands out as weak, muted, and treacly. No matter that its saccharine emotion (not to mention King’s stellar vocals) earned it a Song of the Year nod. Any song that elicits a both a twinge of summer-camp nostalgia AND a cringing eye-roll is a crunger for sure. We say skip onward to “Where You Lead” and “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.” And yes, one can hardly avoid noting the uptick in crunge factor for this song as interpreted by King’s ex, James Taylor, for the people of Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Much ink and hot air have been spent already on John Kerry’s use of this song as an apology/love letter to the French people, so we won’t belabor it, except to say: Politico posted the video if you want to watch and Quartz defended what it termed the song’s “revolutionary break with the rhetoric of the War on Terror that the US initiated in 2001.” We don’t agree or disagree, but will leave you with this thought: upon hearing the reports of Kerry’s ballad-diplomacy, one of our editors was convinced that The Onion had taken NPR in a bloodless coup.
None of which makes “You’ve Got a Friend” worth the 5-odd minutes you could be spending listening to “I Feel the Earth Move” and watching this clip of Carole King’s priceless cameo role on the series Gilmore Girls.
Tay hit a pop grand slam with 1989, but she swung and missed on her celebration of her new hometown. Panelist Victoria Kwan makes the case that the song is musically “one of her blandest efforts,” with her voice “pounded down to a dreary one-note monotone, barely expressing the hope or excitement that you’d expect in a song about an ingénue finally making it to the city of her dreams. It’s as if Swift was contractually obligated to write it once she agreed to be New York City’s newest Global Welcome Ambassador, and then phoned it in.” Rather than start off with the intro of “Welcome,” Taylor would’ve been better off cutting it and beginning with “Blank Space,” perhaps making 1989 more pointed and less saccharine. But it would’ve been addition by subtraction — what the crunge is all about.
28. Belle & Sebastian – “Song For Sunshine”
Maybe we just shouldn’t let them write any songs mentioning the sun. Not only does this song from the otherwise brilliant 2006 The Life Pursuit start with an annoyingly repetitive clavinet riff, but the songwriting is particularly tedious and lacks syncopation. Even worse, it appears in between the lovably hectic “We Are The Sleepyheads” and the hit song “Funny Little Frog,” the definition of a crunge – as if to remind us that even the best parts of life can be ruined by “honeyed sweet apples rotting away”.