Monday, April 7, 2008

No. 441: Tragic Kingdom

Band: No Doubt
Album: Tragic Kingdom
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Almost emblematic of the carefree mid-1990s, "Tragic Kingdom" is slightly ironic, slightly post-modern and incredibly catchy. It was the soundtrack for many a teenager's 1997, from the breakup anthem "Don't Speak" to the relationship-on-the-rocks hooks of "Spiderwebs." Video-centric and energetic, the album introduced the world to Ms. Gwen Stefani.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There's a certain resonance of bubblegum pop here. Like Eric Clapton's mainstream-ing of Delta blues, "Tragic Kingdom" is a sorta ska record, capitalizing on the trend while not staying true to its roots.
Best song: "Don't Speak" is really pretty.
Worst song: "World Go 'Round" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Diamond-certified albums on the top 500 list:

  • Nevermind (10)

  • Dookie (10)

  • Eliminator (10)

  • Faith (10)

  • Legend (10)

  • Led Zeppelin (10)

  • Tragic Kingdom (10)

  • The Immaculate Collection (10)

  • Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (11)

  • Houses of the Holy (11)

  • CrazySexyCool (11)

  • Abbey Road (12)

  • Led Zeppelin II (12)

  • Hysteria (12)

  • Whitney Houston (13)

  • Purple Rain (13)

  • Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (14)

  • Metallica (14)

  • Bat Out of Hell (14)

  • Appetite for Destruction (15)

  • Saturday Night Fever (15)

  • The Dark Side of the Moon (15)

  • Born in the U.S.A. (15)

  • Physical Graffiti (16)

  • Jagged Little Pill (16)

  • Hotel California (16)

  • Elton John's Greatest Hits (16)

  • The Beatles (19)

  • Rumours (19)

  • Back in Black (22)

  • (Untitled) (23)

  • The Wall (23)

  • Thriller (27)

Looking at the diamond-certified album list, it really brings into focus the issues of this list. When albums like "Tragic Kingdom" comes up, I can't help but think it's simply on the list for the fact that more than 10 million people bought it.

How much did populism factor into making up the list? I can't imagine it's the only factor, as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain aren't on the list. Hootie & the Blowfish is not on there, either. The Backstreet Boys. Creed. Mariah Carey. Boys II Men. Phil Collins. Jewel. Britney Spears. Celine Dion. Journey. Essentially, the records that the critics and list-makers consider mindless or not worthwhile don't make the list.

Certainly, the largest selling albums on the RS list are the intersection of popular and truly great. Few would argue, for example that "Thriller" is detritus.

Of course, influence is also important, though tricky. "Thriller" is partially a hugely influential album because everyone had a copy. A great deal of that was due to non-musical things (a classic video, strong label promotion, a person who had been famous all his life, etc.). What's to say that another album could've gained similar traction with the same support? The music industry -- even in today's age of viral Internet chatter, blogs and social networking -- is not a pure meritocracy.

And so goes "Tragic Kingdom." It was a right place/right time situation for the band. The third wave of feminism was making it into the mainstream commercial culture (The Spice Girls record would come out a year later) after finding traction in punk and folk rock. The music climate was such that the ska craze had taken hold in the underground and punk rock's place in the culture was important (this was, after all, a couple of years after Kurt Cobain's death).

"Just a Girl" came out and blew up. The band's lineup -- as of "Tragic Kingdom," at least -- was something out of a casting director's dream. Gwen Stefani was (is?) '50s pinup pretty and armed with a radio-friendly Pat Benatar-style voice. The bass player -- raised in England for half his life to Indian-born parents -- had formerly dated Stefani and helped write the album, despite much of it being based on their relationship. The guitar player was tall, lithe and handsome, with bleach-blond hair. The drummer, slightly dangerous with his parent-approved wackiness, was often shirtless.

The album's quasi-ska hooks ("Different People"), heartbreak ballads ("Don't Speak") and sorta-empowerment anthems ("Excuse Me Mr." and "Just a Girl") were a lethal combination for teenage girls looking for a mentor and teenage boys entering their masturbation wheelhouse. Sanitized (by way of Orange County, Ca.) and a harmless, the album was parent-approved across the land.


Is "Tragic Kingdom" a bad album? Of course not. The singles are tons of fun and when the band doesn't fancy itself a female-fronted Less than Jake (Please, guys, cool it with the horns), No Doubt can light up a stage. Stefani, certainly, has tons of star power.

But, is it a great album? Hardly.

1 comment:

padraig said...

What's most absurd about this album being included is the simultaneous exclusion of any real ska legends like Desmond Dekker or Prince Buster. I know that, like the glory years of soul, those dudes come from an era when the single was king, but it's not as if this list isn't already chock full of anthologies and best ofs. Hell, even the Specials first LP (a personal favorite) - at least those dudes had, you know, respect for the music that inspired them by covering Prince Buster tunes and asking Rico Rodriguez to play with them.

The same thing, of course, goes for reggae being represented entirely by Bob Marley & Funky Kingston. I know it's stupid to care about someone's dumb list, but I kind of wonder how Rolling Stone can take it seriously when they praise garbage like No Doubt or Def Leppard but leave out towering figures like Fela Kuti, Lee Perry or Juan Atkins.