Monday, July 14, 2014

Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1980s

Weird Al's new album, Mandatory Fun, releases on Tuesday, July 15th, and from what I've heard already, it's a gooder. It has made me think about Al's 32-year career and how he has been a part of my life for over twenty years. I think there's something about his music that appeals to the ten-year-old in me and just makes me giggle, whether it's a clever wordplay, funny juxtaposition of pop cultural reference, or a scatological sound effect. I have been giggling as I have heard excerpts of the new album, and I think it has the potential to be one of his best.

But then I realized that I had to actually find a way to spend an unreasonable amount of time testing that theory, so here it is: a somewhat objective semi-scientific ranking of Weird Al's fourteen studio albums. Starting with this first album, I went through his discography and ranked each album on several criteria, trying to determine which albums actually do come out on top. I decided to break this discussion into several posts, and the easiest division was in the decades: the 1980s, the 1990s, and since 2000. But first, here's the criteria I used to evaluate each album.

The criteria

Parodies: The heart and soul of any Al album is the parodies. They should be snappy, witty, memorable, and ... To some extent, the success of the parody is dependent on how iconic the original song is, but you know it's a really good parody when you can't hear it without also hearing the Al version. /5

Originals: Al usually includes 5 or 6 originals on each album, but they're definitely not the main draw. His originals are often "style parodies" of different artists, so they're still parodic, but they also need to stand on their own. But really, the question is usually how long you wait before you skip to the next "real" parody. /3

Polka: For most of his career, Al has mashed a number of songs into a polka. How memorable are the songs, and how entertaining is the polka? /3

Visual: I doubt that we would still be listening to Al after 32 years if not for video, so the visual element is a big part of each album. That includes videos, album covers, and general iconography. /3

Standout Track(s): This is kind of an arbitrary category, but it's meant to accent the "parodies" category with the extra intangible marks that should go along with the best of the best. /3

Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Does Al capture the zeitgeist in the whole album, or is it a miss in terms of addressing the pop culture landscape? Are the references timeless, or have they faded over the years? /3

Add them all up to make for a total out of 20. Let's move on to the commentary on Al's 80s albums and see where we end up.

The first three albums (1982-1985)

"Weird Al" Yankovic (1982): Weird Al's debut album doesn't really stand out except as an indication of what would be to come. It has a couple of great songs, but it's mostly forgettable. Here's the breakdown.

Parodies: "Ricky", "I Love Rocky Road", "Stop Draggin' My Car Around", "My Bologna", "Another One Rides The Bus". Let's call it 3/5.
Originals: Nothing of note here. 0/3
Polka: Not present. N/A
Visual: Kind of pre-video, so not really present here. 0/3
Standout Track(s): "Another One Rides The Bus" is a classic. 1/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: "Ricky" is a reference to "I Love Lucy", but the rest seems pretty bland. 1/3
Total: 5/17 = 5.88/20

"Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D (1984): Al's first "good" album, and the one that proved he was more than a one-trick pony. Its great moments are great.

Parodies: "Eat It", "The Brady Bunch", "I Lost on Jeopardy", "King of Suede", "Theme from Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)". Three classics, one mediocre-to-good, and one forgettable. 3.5/5
Originals: Nothing of note here save for "That Boy Could Dance." 1/3
Polka: "Polkas on 45", a collection of classic rock tracks; decent, but not great. 2/3
Visual: "Eat It" is a shot-by-shot remake of "Beat It", and "I Lost on Jeopardy" is amusing. 1.5/3
Standout Track(s): "Eat It", "I Lost On Jeopardy". 2/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: "Eat It" parodies the biggest hit from the biggest album of all time, "I Lost on Jeopardy" is much more famous than the original, and "The Rye or the Kaiser" is great. 3/3
Total: 13/20

Dare to be Stupid (1985): Al's best album of the 80s and one of his best, period. I know "Yoda" was from earlier in his career, but it counts here for the album release.

Parodies: "Like a Surgeon", "I Want a New Duck", "Yoda", "Girls Just Want To Have Lunch". Even though there are only 4, they're so good that this deserves a perfect score. 5/5
Originals: The originals are almost as memorable as the parodies: "Dare to be Stupid", "One More Minute", "This Is The Life". 3/3
Polka: "Hooked on Polkas", a mix of mid-80s pop and rock. It ends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax", so it gets points for that. 2.5/3
Visual: "Like a Surgeon" is classic, but not much for the rest. 1/3
Standout Track(s): "Like a Surgeon", "Yoda", "Girls...", "Dare to be Stupid" 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: Star Wars, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and even a later inclusion in the 1986 Transformers movie. 3/3
Total: 17.5/20

The next three albums (1986-1989)

Polka Party! (1986): Al's worst critically and commercially received album kind of deserves its reputation. It's just not very good, aside from one song, and it's his worst of the 80s.

Parodies: "Living with a Hernia", "Addicted to Spuds", "Here's Johnny", "Toothless People". Only two of those have had any staying power. 2/5
Originals: Non-memorable save for "Christmas at Ground Zero". 0.5/3
Polka: "Polka Party!", with the most memorable moment from "Rock Me Amadeus". 1/3
Visual: "Hernia" is one of the all-time best Al videos, but this was a mostly non-visual album. 1/3
Standout Track(s): "Living with a Hernia" gets some more points here. 1/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: "Hernia" connects vaguely to Rocky IV (the source of "Living in America"), but it's not really connected otherwise. 0/3
Total: 5.5/20

Even Worse (1988): From one of the worst to one of the best, including the first example of Al going "meta" with "Six Words Long". Reports were that Prince and George Michael turned Al down, so who knows what else might have been with this album.

Parodies: "Fat", "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long", "I Think I'm A Clone Now", "Lasagna", "Alimony". Five Greatest Hits, and arguably the strongest collection of parodies on any Al album. 5/5.
Originals: "Good Old Days" is kind of fun, but that's about it. 1/3
Polka: None?! N/A
Visual: "Fat" is one of the best Al videos, and it won a Grammy. That's worth 2/3 at least.
Standout Track(s): All of the parodes qualify, but "Fat", "Six Words", and "Clone" are classics. 3/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: This album is more timeless than others, as its pop culture targets are less timely. It's memorable for the songs themselves, not for the content. 2/3
Total: 13/17 = 15.29/20

UHF - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff (1989): This is one of the forgotten albums of Al's career, but it shouldn't be. I'll admit it: UHF is one of my guilty pleasure movies. It's so stupid and ridiculous that it's hilarious, and the non-sequitur bits are amazing ("Gandhi II" and "Spatula City" in particular). Plus, pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards! Still, the album holds its own.

Parodies: "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies", "Isle Thing", "She Drives Like Crazy", "Spam". Two classics, one mediocre, and one "huh?" track. Let's go for 3.5/5 here.
Originals: There are only 4 here, but the theme song for "UHF" makes up for the others. 2/3
Polka: "The Hot Rocks Polka", featuring only songs by The Rolling Stones. One of his best. 3/3
Visual: Being associated with a movie helps, but the video for "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies" perfectly parodies the proto-CG featured in the original Dire Straits video. 2/3
Standout Track(s): "Spam", "Money.../Hillbillies". 2/3
Pop Cultural Savvy/Timelessness: It stands up, but it's not overly memorable beyond the movie. 1.5/3
Total: 14/20 (Which surprised me, too!)

Overall thoughts on Al in the 80s

We wouldn't have Al if not for his success in the 80s, and some of his best moments came in his first decade. There are at least a dozen very solid classic Al parodies and a few originals, along with some great polka mixes. But when you start to really comb through each album, it becomes a little more apparent that it's easy to just remember the best parts and not the less-than-exemplary ones.
Of the six albums, two were bad, three good, and one great - still a pretty solid record all things considered. Still, there's not much reason to own any of these albums, since most of the best songs were included on his first Greatest Hits album in 1988 (and the few that weren't - "Yoda", for example - were on Vol. II in 1994). But I will always have that special place in my heart and DVD player for UHF and the ad for "Gandhi II", as well as the video for "Living with a Hernia".

Overall total for the decade: 68/114 = 59.6%

Coming soon: The 1990s (Off the Deep End, Alapalooza, Bad Hair Day, and Running with Scissors)

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