Worst to Best: Sparks Albums

For anyone who knows me, it’s no secret that I am a big Sparks fan. They’re one of my all-time favourite bands and when I tell people, conversations usually go like this:

“One of my favourite bands is Sparks”

“who?”

“Sparks”

“Sparks?”

“Yes”

“Never heard of them”

I’m not surprised, unless you’re one of the lucky few who are part of the cult following that is the Sparks fandom chances are you’ve never heard of them. Which is really a shame because their one of the most diverse and talented bands out there. To call them underrated is a bit of an understatement and it’s a real testament to their skills that they’ve been making albums since the late 60s and are still producing music up to today.

That’s actually why I decided to write this Worst to Best. With the release of their newest album “Hippopotamus” that came out in September, I wanted to take a look back at their discography and rank their albums.

It should be noted that this is not a definitive ranking and can change in the future. i mean, they do have 22 albums. Their sound musically has changed drastically throughout their career, touching on glam rock, synth wave, disco, orchestral, orchestral rock and new wave and have been hugely influential for many, many bands. That being said every album has that Sparks flavour and they manage to still be themselves despite the stylistic shifts. With Russel Mael’s unique falsetto singing style and Ron Mael’s satirical and humourous lyrics, the Mael brothers managed to create a catalogue of truly unique music.

They have a very long history and I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to rank some albums. Having listened to their entire discography on four separate occasions I feel I have the capability of doing just that.

*It should be noted I stuck to their musical discography and did not include their newest album “Hippopotamus”, live albums, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman or their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand called FFS (which always makes me laugh because all I can think is “For Fuck’s Sake” when I see that name).

So here it goes, Sparks Albums ranked from Worst to Best (In my humble opinion of course):

21. Interior Design

15 interior design

I felt like this one was a no brainer, but I might be heavily biased too because I just plain don’t like this album. It’s the only Sparks album I cannot sit through and avoid every time. The funny thing is, it’s technically not a bad album… just in terms of a Sparks album it really falls flat. It sounds like they were experimenting with something new that just didn’t deliver, which would explain why they never went back to this sound. It was so disappointing they wouldn’t even produce a new album for another 6 years. For the most part I find this album to just be boring. That’s honestly what it is. It feels tedious to get through and is just a big snore fest (with the exception of Madonna, which is the standout tune). If you enjoy it, that’s great, but as far as Sparks albums go it just doesn’t hit the mark at all.

20. Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat

13 pulling rabbits out of a hat

This is such a strange Sparks album in the sense that it’s not bad but it’s incredibly underwhelming in terms of what you’d expect from Sparks. Other than the title song, which is actually fantastic, the rest of the album just never seems to hit that high and just feels disappointing. It’s almost as if Ron Mael wrote all the music in his sleep, as if he was on auto-pilot while writing it all. This is Sparks putting in the least amount of effort (which if anything is a testament to how good they are because it’s still good work, just not good Sparks work).

19. Plagiarism

17 Plagiarism

Sparks did an interesting thing with this album. Rather than recording new material, they decided to rework some of their old songs. It’s basically a Sparks cover album done by Sparks themselves (with some guest appearances by Erasure and Faith No More). It’s actually pretty great to hear new renditions of their songs and reimaginings but at the end of the day it’s still a heard that already situation and it doesn’t help that they put some songs on there more than once. So unless you want to hear two different versions of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” (which to be fair one of them is an extended version which is pretty cool) and “Something for the Girl with Everything” than I guess this is one to check out. Almost feels like a greatest hits of sorts. Interesting experiment but nothing new in material which is what puts it so low on the list.

18. Music That You Can Dance To

14 music that you can dance to

I want to say that starting at this album, every Sparks album is pretty damn good. This might be a biased opinion on my part because I love the band so much, but they’re discography really is full of incredibly strong material. You might experience some Sparks albums that you’re not crazy about because they do touch on so many different styles and one of those style just might not be your thing and that’s ok, but there’s no denying they managed to creat some damn good music. So why is this one considered the worst of all the good? Mainly because it’s half great and half forgettable. In a lot of ways it sort of feels the same way as Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat but actual effort was put into this one. Other than the title track, Change and Let’s Get Funky, the rest do sort of feel like Sparks going through the motions but unlike Rabbits this one actually has personality. To add to their humour they would eventually re-release this album as “The Best of Sparks” confusing their fans who expected a best of compilation and were just met with this exact same album.

17. Balls

18 Balls

A great album with a title that always makes you double-take that unfortunately just did not have the impact it should have. Continuing the evolution of their sound from Gratuitous Sax they manage to create such a great atmosphere with this album with many highs and rarely any lows. However, that being said, this is one of those albums you need to listen to a bunch of times before realising it’s true worth. As great as it is it doesn’t leave a first impression and you might immediately forget about it after listening to it once (which is what happened to me), it was only after the songs came up on shuffle on my Ipod and I stopped to listen did I discover how great the tunes were. It’s definitely an experience as far as Sparks albums go and is one worth checking out.

16. In Outer Space

12 in outer space

Sparks step into the synth pop world is one that’s just a ton of fun. It’s hard not to have a blast listening to this one as you feel the dance beats carry you away and the poppy synth notes tickle your ears. As I go through this list part of me feels I should have placed this album a little higher. Looking back on the tunes this album contains some of my favourite Sparks songs, All You Ever Think About Is Sex and Rockin’ Girls. Ron’s humour is at a high on this album with endlessly hilarious lyrics and we even get a great guest appearance from Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s on Cool Places. Even Russel gives a great deadpan performance on the song Popularity giving the impression of a hollow shell of a human left over from their glowing days of being so popular. Ok so there isn’t much in terms of depth on the album, it’s a lot of what you hear is what you get, but what you get is a ton of fun.

15. Introducing

7 Introducing

Introducing is a bit of a mess of an album, it sounded like they were trying a lot of things which resulted in great tunes but a slightly uncohesive album. It doesn’t flow as well as it should but it still provides the listener with great tunes such as Occupation, Forever Young, Over the Summer and my personal favourite Goofing Off, which borrows it’s style from a russian waltz of sorts and has a kick-ass guitar solo that you don’t see (or hear…) coming at all. It’s a bit of a forgotten album that gets lost amongst the great ones that came out around it (70s was a good time for Sparks). It was easily overshadowed and although doesn’t compare to some of the others that came out around the same time, it still holds it’s own.

14. Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins

16 gratuitous sax and senseless violins

After the very disappointing Interior Design and a six-year break, Sparks came back with this one and boy did they make a comeback. New sound, new ideas and a brand new album that surprised everyone. With their singles, When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”, When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker) and Now That I Own The BBC managed to put them back on the Top 40 charts across Europe since their single Beat The Clock in 1979. Deservedly so, the songs on this album succeed in sticking with you and leaving an impression long after the album has finished. Only problem is that there are a few meh songs that just don’t seem to have the same effect and the album does sort of blend together, with some songs becoming difficult to differentiate from one another, but the high notes are really high and leave this album with a strong impression.

13. Exotic Creatures of the Deep

21 exotic creatures of the deep

What do you get when you mix Ron Mael’s writing abilities, Russel Mael’s Falsetto voice, violins and other orchestral type instruments and some pounding hard rock guitars? You get the sound of Exotic Creatures. Every-time you hear sweeping violins and organ you know the rockin’ sounds of that hard hitting guitar is right around the corner creating a truly unique album in the orchestral rock genre. It truly is it’s own album and doesn’t fail to leave you both entertained and amused especially with songs like Lighten Up, Morrissey, Good Morning and I Can’t Believe You Would Fall For the Crap in this Song. They even tackle modern day ideas such as Photoshop and poke fun at the modern day technology boom with This is the Renaissance. This album would also launch their most ambitious tour to date, where they performed every single one of their albums from front to back live. 21 nights, one entire album every night. Quite the feat which required relearning a ton of songs they probably had never even played live before. Kudos to them.

12. Hello Young Lovers

20 hello young lovers

Continuing with the sound they started to develop in Gratuitous Sax but also predicting the sound they would eventually create in Exotic Creatures, this album sort of acts as a transitional piece between the two and where most transitional albums of artists stuck between two sounds in development, this one hits the mark very well. Even though every song has that unique brand of Sparks quality to it, with humour and enough absurdity to leave you wondering what they were on when they wrote this, this album also has the distinction of having one of their greatest songs of all time: Dick Around. A masterpiece of Sparks that lasts for almost seven minutes but keeps you engaged the entire time as it sweeps and changes, adding layers upon layers of music throughout the running time and keeping to form with it’s theme of just dicking around. It had become a big fan favourite and remains a highlight of their entire career (and probably the biggest reason why this album is ranked this high). It does overshadow the rest of the album, especially since it is the opener, but it leaves you so pumped that you just need to stick the rest of the way through and it delivers, maybe with a few valleys here and there, but enough that when As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral (a personal favourite) comes on, you’re more than satisfied.

11. Lil’ Beethoven

19 lil beethoven

I’ll be honest, I am not a fan of this album at all. It’s one of the few I have a hard time sitting through and if it was up to me (which technically it is, I am writing this) it would be much lower on the list. However, it is widely considered by many fans and even some critics as being one of their best. So I compromised and put it about halfway up the list to make everyone happy. Despite not liking it, I do see why it’s hailed as the supposed masterpiece it is. Ron manages to write 9 “Classical pieces” in the only way Sparks can. Considered their career-defining Opus, they have moved to a purely orchestral sounding… sound and have decided to take on classic music influences to create this album. The end result is a wildly debated masterpiece of sorts that has people divided. It seems on both sides of the same coin, the exact same arguments can be used to why they like or dislike this album. My biggest issue is how repetitive it is. Every song, despite being their own unique song, feels long as hell because it’s so damn repetitive the whole way through, with most songs just have the title repeated over and over and over and over. And while most people would be turned off by this… others realise… well, that was the point. Sparks purposefully made every song incredibly repetitive and even threw in some humour (Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold comes to mind). This is one of those albums where you have to listen for yourself and make your own opinion, but there’s no doubt that they were definitely on top of their game when creating it.

10. Whomp That Sucker

10 Whomp That Sucker

I’m about to have a fanboy moment here because (bias alert) this is my favourite Sparks album. I’ve listened to this album more times than I can count and I believe it was the album that solidified my love for Sparks. Understanding my bias I put it lower than I normally would have to at least be fair, but goddamn is this album such a fun ride. It’s full-energy from start to finish, Ron’s sense of humour shines throughout and the whole band just sounds like they’re having a blast. There’s a reason it’s called Whomp That Sucker because I honestly feel like I’ve been whomped by the end of it. SIde A of this album whch includes the ever funny Tips For Teens (what teens are asking you for tips exactly Mael brothers?), Funny Face (about a good looking model who just wants to look ugly), the ever catchy and engaging Where’s My Girl (which has one of my favourite guitar solos, it’s truly mesmerizing), The high-energy Upstairs (which is my all-time favourite Sparks song) and I Married a Martian (which concludes Side A in such a pleasing way) is one of the best Side A’s I’ve heard and is one I constantly replay all the time. Taking advantage of the New Wave sound that was becoming quickly popular in the early 80’s. they jumped onto the high-pitched synths, obnoxious music (That’s Not Nastassia ends in the most deliciously annoying way that you’ll want to close the song) and danceable beats (David Kendrick just wails on his drum). *Side Note: I actually put this album on as I wrote this*

9. Terminal Jive

9 Terminal Jive.jpg

Continuing to work with Giorgio Moroder after No. 1 in Heaven, they decided to leave the pure synth disco sound and create a more disco-rock album. Smart choice as the disco sound probably would have overstayed it’s welcome and the infusion of rock guitars really makes the album sound fresh for a Sparks Album. As a whole the album has an endless supply of great tunes, with Stereo and The Greatest Show on Earth (which has some of the funniest deadpan lyrics) being standout songs. They even poke fun at their new sound with the song Rock n Roll People in a Disco World. The only fault this album has is a repeat of their opener When I’m With You at the end of Side A in instrumental format, which is honestly just useless filler for absolutely no reason. No idea what they were thinking when they added it. But if you’re able to look past that, the rest of the album is incredibly solid, leaving you with catchy tunes and fun riffs. Their song Stereo even experiments with the stereo format, having sounds jumping back and forth from left to right on your speakers, playing into the theme and subject of the song in a very clever way.

8. Big Beat

6 Big Beat

Sparks at their most Rock n Roll. Stripping away their synthesizer and piano (although it does make appearances throughout) guitars and bass take the stage and dominate this album unlike any other they’ve done. True to the name of their album, he drums bang away loudly and proudly and you’re left with no choice, you have to bang your head. With Big Beat they don’t leave any man behind, even giving the bassist some sick riffs to play with (Throw Her Away and Get a New One, ¬†hilarious song that at live shows Ron has to state to the audience that their songs should not be taken literally). Russel is in full form here, giving all his energy and sweating like a madman as he makes his way through every song. Fill-er-up, Confusion, Screwed Up, Everybody’s Stupid and the aforementioned song above are highlights of this album which never gives up and makes sure you the listener are having a blast of a time. This also remains one of Sparks most accessible albums (which is truly a feat for them to do) and can have anyone listen to it and enjoy it.

7. Angst in my Pants

11 Angst in my pants

I half-lied when I talked about Whomp That Sucker. It’s not my favourite album exactly. It’s in a tie with this one. But whereas Whomp That Sucker can be a little alienating at points for people who know nothing about Sparks, Angst in My Pants is usually a great place for newcomers to start. It has a perfect blend of accessibility and Sparks flavour, remaining both unique to the Sparks sound and sensibilities yet still managing to create something digestible for new listeners. I had shown this album to a friend who had never heard Sparks and he really enjoyed it, he even pointed out that this was definitely a concept album. I never thought of it that way and it’s something I’ll have to look into for sure, but it would definitely give this album a whole new perspective if that’s the case. What’s great about this album is that you can go into in-depth analysis of every song. Ron Mael really shows his skills with lyrical and thematic content here and plays up the satire and tongue-in-cheek sense of humour of the band, almost peaking with it. With Angst in my Pants describing the difficulty of dealing with ones sexual urges, I Predict giving off incredibly obvious predictions in a way that’s supposed to be considered incredible (with one of the funniest endings to a song, where the singer predicts the song will fade out and it never does), Nicotina describing love as an addiction to cigarettes, and The Decline and Fall of Me as a satirical look at the band itself, just to name a few. It’s quite an experience from start to end.

6. Halfnelson

1 Sparks Halfnelson.jpg

Well, here we are. Sparks debut album. Before becoming the duo of the Mael Brothers, Sparks was a full band that shared writing credits amongst it’s members. This debut album stands apart from the rest of the discography mostly in sound and lyrical content. The humour is sort of there, but not fully. The sound can be heard, but not quite. Here we have Sparks as a pretty straightforward Glam Rock band, but what sets them apart from most is that they actually experimented with their sound and tried to create unique sounding pieces for the time. Sure they weren’t noticed, except for their single Wonder Girl, which was a small hit, and they didn’t really make an impact, but Halfnelson is truly a hidden gem in their entire catalogue. For a debut album it’s incredibly strong and solid the whole way through and has it’s place as one of the best Sparks albums.

5. A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing

2 A woofer in tweeter's clothing.jpg

Continuing from their debut, Sparks had just gone up instead of down. The sound from their debut leaking onto this one, the band was tighter and better and managed to make even stronger material. It’s not much different from their debut and sounds like extra songs that didn’t make it onto the first album, but it feels like they saved the better music for the follow-up, which leaves Woofer on par with their debut with a slight edge to it putting it a little higher. There isn’t much else that can be said about this album that wasn’t said about their debut other than it’s the band getting together one last time before the Mael brothers would move to England and creating an incredibly strong album that proved their musicianship as a band. They may not have garnered any attention or major success but remains a treasure hidden deep in the music of the early 70s.

4. No. 1 in Heaven

8 No 1 in Heaven.jpg

Sparks and Girogio Moroder got together and made one of the greatest Disco albums of all time, that is disco from the warped perceptions and minds of the Mael brothers. Mixing Girogio’s production was a nice touch for Sparks and really creates a completely unique album that mixes Sparks sensibilities with an almost dying genre. They take a completely fresh take on the disco genre, turning what was once shallow into an art project. With the ever amazing Tryouts for the Human Race, Fast dancing Academy Award Performance, Mesmerizing La Dolce Vita, the dance club hit Beat the Clock, the artistic endeavours of My Other Voice which sued syntheziser and voice modulation beautifully as part of the song that actually makes sense and the eponymous Number 1 Song in Heaven that ends the whole thing beautifully, leaving the listener beyond satisfied with what they’ve just heard. It is as much music as it is an experience. Sparks and Moroder make the perfect combination on this album, constantly being on the same page of where to go and supporting each other musically so well. There’s nothing quite like this album and it definitely sets it’s mark in the Sparks discography.

3. Kimono My House

3 Kimono My House

The seminal Sparks album. The widely considered Sparks-defining album. The everyone must listen to this Sparks album Sparks album. The Sparks album that is part of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. The Sparks album that finally got the band noticed and garnering success. Their career launching album. It has a lot of distinctions and there’s no surprise why, it’s fucking great. This was the first Sparks album I ever heard and I remember sitting there and being completely blown away by it to the point I just had to get this album right away. I didn’t but I eventually did, brand-spanking-new… which sucked because the remaster is awful sounding, but that doesn’t take away from how great the album is. The album starts with the ever famous This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, a song so confusing lyrically that it just captures your attention so well and sticks with you forever and ever (and still remains one of my all-time favourites). You could go on and on about this album and how great it is with Amateur Hour, Talent is an Asset, Thank God It’s Not Christmas, Falling in Love with Myself Again, Here in Heaven, Equator, etc. SO many people have talked in depth about it so I won’t waste my time repeating what has already been said but this album flows amazingly from one song to another and has such a unifying sound throughout that you never have a moment that takes you out of it. There’s no way that anyone could listen to this album and not enjoy it, it just doesn’t seem possible (but as usual, I could just be biased). After leaving the rest of their band behind, moving to the UK and becoming a duo, this album truly showed the musicianship of the Mael brothers and is the defining Sparks album.

2. Propaganda

4 Propaganda

How do you top an album like Kimono My House? How about proving how good you are by releasing an album in the exact same year with all new material that still manages to be an incredibly strong album. The only reason this album tops Kimono is because of the work and effort that had to be put in the create this album to have it released the exact same year of their monster hit and to still manage to be a solid and strong album. That takes a lot and is one hell of a feat that they succeeded in doing and as a whole it still manages to be it’s own album with it’s own sound and it’s own flavour. When the acapella Propaganda opens the album, you already know what you’re in for and how it just blends and transitions so well into At Home, At Work, At Play, it’s guaranteed the album will be great and it delivers and doesn’t disappoint. It might be a little more alienating than Kimono but truly is for the hardcore fans and has it’s place at number 2.

That being said, if their two best albums are at the number 2 and 3 place, then what could possibly take number 1? (for those who know their discography you already know what it is and it might be a bit of a shock for most) but here it is… the best Sparks album…

 

1. Indiscreet

5 Indiscreet

Indiscreet? Really? I know a lot of you may not agree with this and it makes sense. It followed the behemoth shadow of Kimono and Propaganda and was doomed to be overshadowed by both and fall into relative obscurity. No matter how hard it tried it wouldn’t have been as well received because the two previous albums were just way to good that they had nowhere to go but down. When the bar is set so high, there’s no way to pass it. That’s what happened with Indiscreet. They continued to improve their sound and sense of humour and created something that was even more alienating than Propaganda, which obviously turned people off to it. In retrospect, it holds up and is truly a Sparks masterpiece. Here they try their hand at so many different styles and themes and ideas and manage to make it flow super well. It’s not super showy and over the top and Sparks takes a much more mellow mood compared to to their previous efforts which just creates such an atmosphere throughout the album that most f their other albums would not be able to recreate. The opener Hospitality on Parade sets the mood up perfectly of what’s to be expected and stands as one of their greatest songs, remaining simplistic but eerily layered. We bust into a classic Sparks sounding song with Happy Hunting Grounds, that takes from the page of Propaganda and then follow up with Without Using Hands, that is funnily enough more literal than expected. Three songs in, three different styles and it doesn’t stop there as we go through Get in the Swing, Under the Table with Her and How Are You Getting Home? All different and yet somehow it all works so perfectly together. (Let’s not forget the ever hilarious Tits and one of my personal favourites In The Future which is just a high energy song that predicts some of their future sounds they would work with). Sparks were trying a lot of new things with this album and they managed to put it altogether in a cohesive sounding album that in retrospect deserves way more credit and praise than it has. It might be a bit of an acquired taste, but so is good wine and like wine it has aged fantastically.

 

So there you have it, Sparks from Worst to Best. Do you agree with it? What are your opinions? How would you rank them? Do you even like Sparks? Let me know, I’d like to hear what you think.

Oh what’s that? What did I think of Hippopotamus? Where would I rank it?

Briefly, Hippopotamus feels like a Sparks album. If you know Sparks and their sound and brand of humour, this album is exactly what you’d expect. Nothing new, nothing crazy, but nothing disappointing either. It’s exactly what you’d expect and it pleases and amuses you enough to be satisfied with a new Sparks album (heck they have a song called So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play? which is hilarious and shows that the Mael brothers are still packing a punch with their sense of humour). If I’d rank it it would probably be around 10 – 12, in that area. Its a stripped down Sparks, simplified yet still doing what they do best.

That’s it. I’m done. Bye.

 

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