TODD RUNDGREN/UTOPIA/NAZZ

OVERVIEW:
Todd’s catalog is a big confusing mess, especially when you mix in the mostly terrible Utopia records (that’s the AOR band he formed in the mid-70s whose career ran concurrently with his solo one). When he’s on the top of his game, he’s one of the all time best – and he’s made some downright amazing recordings. “A Wizard A True Star” is a near masterpiece – and he’s got a lot of interesting and memorable early albums. Be wary of most his releases after 1975 (though there are still some gems)…and don’t waste your time with anything in the 90s or 2000s.

THE ALBUMS:

NAZZ:

Nazz *
Nazz Nazz
Nazz III

TODD AND UTOPIA:

Runt
Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren
Something/Anything? *
A Wizard, A True Star *
Todd
Utopia (Utopia)
Initiation
Another Live (Utopia)
Faithful
Disco Jets (Utopia)
Ra (Utopia) *
Oops Wrong Planet (Utopia)
Back To The Bars
Hermit Of Mink Hollow *
Adventures In Utopia  (Utopia)
Deface The Music  (Utopia)
Healing
Swing To The Right  (Utopia)
Utopia  (Utopia)
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect
Oblivion  (Utopia)
Trivia (Utopia)
A Capella *
Nearly Human
2nd Wind
No World Order
The Individualist
With A Twist
One Long Year
Liars
Arena

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NAZZ   (1968)

B+

A solid, very 60s sounding record with mostly consistent song-writing and playing. “Open Your Eyes” is a classic psyche-pop single, and there are a few other fantastic songs.  And a lot of youthful energy. And “When I Get My Plane,” one of my favorite early Rundgren tunes. Todd wasn’t singing at this point, and lead vocalist Robert “Stewkey” Antoni provides serviceable if undistinguished mod-like performances. He’s certainly got a more pleasant voice than Todd, though he lacks the eccentricity that would eventually lift some of the more boring Rundgren solo moments above the crap pile. The whole record is rather indistinct, and sometimes VERY derivative (The Who, Yardbirds, Cream, etc.). But Todd’s craftsmanship is already taking effect, and this is well worth hearing for 60s pop and Rundgren fans alike.
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NAZZ NAZZ    (1968)

C

Eh. There are one or two nice tunes on here (“Forget All About It” is the best one). The production is interesting at times, and there are sections where Rundgren pushes the FX and psych-poppery even further than before. It’s fun to hear a nascent pop “genius” finding his way around the studio, and that feature makes this an important curiosity for big fans. But the writing has suffered a major hit here, so very little of this sticks. This was supposed to be a big sprawling double album called “Fungo Bat,” but they went with a single record instead and released the leftovers later on the follow-up. Having heard both mediocre albums, I imagine the intended double would have been something of a disaster!

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NAZZ III   (1971)

D

These leftovers from the “Fungo Bat” recording sessions were released as a new Nazz album after Todd had already started his solo career. The tracks range mediocre to poor, and Stewkey overdubbed new vocals over a bunch of tracks that originally had Todd singing. Most of it with done behind Todd’s back, and needless to say Mr. Rundgren wasn’t very pleased. But the album is so weak it mattered not in the long run – there was simply no way this rag-taggy collection of out-takes was going to make a a big splash with anyone! Most of these tunes are dreadfully boring and sound like demos. The one song that does retain a Rundgren lead vocal ( “You Are My Window”) sounds impossibly corny to my ears. I wouldn’t recommend this record to anyone.

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RUNT   (1970)

B-

This was Todd’s debut as a solo artist, and his first one-man-band record (well, he didn’t play the rhythm parts on this one)! It’s all competent and nicely constructed, and also a little rougher around the edges than the next two records (which provides a nice counter to the eventual slickness that would become a staple of Todd’s career). Unfortunately, there’s nothing really tying the songs together – the genre hopping that would later define the man’s career just sounds messy and confusing here. The whole thing is way too unfocused to make much of an impression. And Carole King/Laura Nyro balladery is generally my least favorite Todd style, so the early Runt albums don’t quite float my boat (as they are full of that softy pap). I find the Nyro rip-off single “We Got To Get You A Woman” incredibly dumb and immature. We also get a generic Clapton esque blues rocker in opener “Broke Down and Busted,” the decent classic rockers “Who’s That Man” and “Devil’s Bite,” a little Zappa tomfoolery on “I’m In The Clique,” a soul medley, and a weird acapella experiment. So basically, this is a template for “Something/Anything,” but considerably worse and more amateurish. As such, listen at your own risk – but you may as well just get the classic, which improves upon every idea presented here and puts them into a much more enticing package.

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BALLAD OF TODD RUNDGREN   (1971)

B+

Amazingly, at this early point in his career Rundgren decided to record a totally consistent and normal sounding album. There are no jokes, the tone is singer-songwritery and emotional, the production is precise, and the performances lovely. As a result, some people might even see this is as Todd’s best record. And there is definitely something to that argument – it’s almost CERTAINLY his most consistent. But this is a guy for whom inconsistency is a major virtue. So the album can be pretty boring at times, ESPECIALLY on side two where there are three same-y confessional songs in a row. Every tune on here feels strong and complete, but the gorgeous pop song “Long Flowing Robe” and the epic ‘Chain Letter” are in the top tier of his compositions. There are once again too many girl-piano ballads. Don’t get me wrong, I love Laura Nyro and even some Carole King (at her best), but Todd doesn’t convince me the way those ladies do. I KNOW the dude is a nerdy pop guy, with a bunch of prog and AOR in his future, and I just don’t find myself very emotional when I listen to him delivering torch songs all lonely-like at his piano. That being said, this is one of the strongest items in Todd’s catalog – it just takes a little patience to appreciate, unlike the next two show-stoppers.

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SOMETHING/ANYTHING?   (1972)

A

This behemoth is a very hard assess. It’s not a mind-blowing record by any means – most of its successes are simple and charming. A lot of it just sort of does nothing for me, though every track has at least SOMETHING to recommend it. There are still too many girly ballads, and it can become tedious as a whole. But there is also so much great material on here, and an exuberance and sense of playfulness that Rundgren never really quite achieved on other records. Cut away the fat, and you’d have a classic pop album. But the fat is usually part of the show with Rundgren, and the fat on this record is pretty enjoyable (even if slight). Side A is mostly solid – the first three songs are amazing. Side B is mostly weak. Side C’s first three songs are great, and the rest is boring. And then side D is really fun, but the “Hello It’s Me” remake isn’t nearly as good as the original (though it’s the famous one). The album careens wildly from genre to genre, with Todd showing off every studio trick he can muster up (and he even includes a track where he explains some of those tricks and invites the listener to hunt for some technical glitches on the remainder of the album). The first three sides are all Todd – he plays and sings everything – and the songs range from breezy pop classics (“I Saw The Light,” “It Would Have Made Any Difference”) to upbeat Motown (“Wolfman Jack”) to classic power pop (” Couldn’t I Just Tell You”) to hard rock (“Black Maria”) to oddball synth experiments (“Breathless). It’s a remarkably impressive display of talent, even if a lot of the actual compositions fall flat. For the 4th side Todd brought a pick-up band into the studio, and the songs are mostly silly and novelty-esque. But like I said – fun!  All in all, this is definitely an album everyone interested in pop music should hear at least once, and a giant leap forward for Rundgren.

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A WIZARD TRUE STAR  (1973)

A+

Though it’s my favorite Rundgren album, and one of my favorite records in general, “A Wizard” isn’t perfect. Well, Side A is pretty much perfect, and could stand alone as its own short record. But Side B has some big problems, and ultimately sounds like a more solidly constructed version of Something/Anything? Album closer “Just One Victory” is a classic, but the rest of Side B is merely enjoyable – certainly not life-altering. There’s a lengthy soul covers medley, and while it’s certainly a feat of engineering…it leaves me pretty cold. It seems randomly slotted into the album, and takes up a huge part of the record that could have gone to Todd originals.  But let’s not talk about Side B. Because Side A is so good, Side B could honestly be a bunch of wedding band covers of Styx songs and I’d still give this record a perfect rating. The “International Feel” Suite that makes up the first side DEFINES mind-blowing, and it’s one of the greatest pop creations I’ve ever heard. Its many minor song fragments are all integrated into an awesome large-scale sonic collage, but the fully fleshed out songs in between are easily my favorite Rundgren tunes: “International Feel,” “When The Shit Hits The Fan/Sunset Blvd,” and the all time greatest Todd production, “Zen Archer.” The suite showcases all of my favorite Rundgren qualities, and they’re in hyper-drive –  special FX-ery, quirkiness, variety, psychedelics, and showmanship, mixed with strong pop sense. This shit is so much FUN. It’s a shame he sort of left this trip behind him for more self-serious pastures. Clearly his peak, along with his production on “War Babies,” the Hall & Oates album from the following year.

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TODD  (1973)

C+

While the previous record represented something of a “head trip” in a figurative sense, the followup represents a LITERAL head trip: Todd’s head has taken a trip up his ass. This double album starts with a little synth introduction before falling into one of it’s only memorable tracks: the very mellow and spaced out bliss of “I Think You Know.” But THEN, before the record even has a chance to kick into gear, we’re treated to a 7 minute instrumental that layers lots of special synth and guitar FX over a drum machine pattern for way too long, and ultimately sounds like 80s porn music. Then there’s a cute novelty song. Then a generic Rundgren soul ballad (“A Dream Goes On Forever” – a huge fan favorite that does nothing for me). Then an atrocious cover of a Gilbert and Sullivan song. That’s Side A. In other words, this album is a giant mess. I like messy records, as long as the material is quality. This one is a huge disappointment. I’ve grown to really love what I now consider the album’s only true classic, “Don’t You Ever Learn,” and I can appreciate the simple beauty of “Useless Begging.”  There are many other interesting moments on here – actually, there’s a pronounced space-rock/soul vibe on a lot of tracks – like Axis: Bold as Love meets Tangerine Dream – and I wonder what might have happened had there been even the slightest sense of focus. A lot of this also reminds me of the last side on Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” – those dreamy wanky instrumentals. Anyway, most of it doesn’t even comes close to the previous record, and too many of the cuts – while often sonically adventurous and unique – just sit there, disparate, like bonus tracks on a remastered CD of the previous masterwork.

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TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA  (UTOPIA)   (1974)

B

Did – not- see – this – coming. This is a PROG ROCK album, through and through, complete with every trick in the prog arsenal. Tons of synths? Check. Long songs? Check. Side-long suite? Check. Funk grooves? Check. It’s not a classic prog album by any means – it sounds way too American and pre-AOR – but it holds its own. The band is great, a lot of the riffs are cool, and the energy level is through the roof the whole time. There’s some Zappa-ness to the proceedings as well – always a good thing in my book. Todd clearly loves this kind of music, and lets his geek flag fly. It’s disappointing, though, that he indulges in a lot of 2nd-generation progginess, particularly as regards the occasional lyrics and some of the more overly goofy grooves and stop-start sections. But Rundgren is obviously too smart to let it degrade completely into Kansas territory. The guitar and synth tones are actually pretty tasteful most of the time, and sometimes even fresh. Super entertaining and totally slight, this album is like ordering “heavy prog” at a fast food restaurant. But this is definitely a more enjoyable listening experience than “Todd,” if not as valuable in the long-run. It DOES initiate a series of Utopia records that almost immediately go from bad to worse.

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INITIATION  (1975)

B

This the album where Todd supposedly FULLY initiated a head-up-ass maneuver, taking the indulgences of “Todd” and multiplying them. But I actually think this is a step up from that record. First of all, the track programming makes sense. Side A includes the weirdo synth-pop songs, all focused around similar lyrical themes. And Side B is the big synth instrumental. There are a couple great pop songs on the first side: “Real Man” is one of Todd’s most famous tunes – while it straddles the line between cheese and beauty, it grew on me and I can appreciate the craftsmanship. I also love “Eastern Intrigue” which reminds me of classic era 10CC. The title track and “Fair Warning” are the low points of the album, both far too long and overwrought. I really appreciate what happens lyrically on this side – it’s the only time on a Rundgren record thus far where the lyrics are actually useful. He’s singing specifically about people’s reactions to his turning prog-synth nutter after the Carole King years, and he sees the public and critics’ lack of imagination as heralding “The Death of Rock and Roll.” Side B is the infamous 36 minute synth instrumental. Parts of it are really exciting, parts a bit silly, but judged for what it is (an early synth experiment), it’s VERY impressive, and surprisingly entertaining considering its length and concept. So yes, an underrated album.

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ANOTHER LIVE (UTOPIA)  (1975)

D-

One decent track (“The Seven Rays”) aside, this is totally pointless and dull. Side A has three new songs: “Another Live,” which involves “2nd wave of prog” jams that are way less exciting than those on the self-titled mixed with vocal parts that sound like the cheesiest side of AOR. Then there’s “The Wheel,” which is EASILY the most awful track in the Rundgren catalog up to this point. A nearly 8 minute long acoustic mantra about “stopping the wheel of commerce, and turning back the hands of time,” it simply sucks in every possible way, especially when the mantra becomes a chant with the audience clapping at the end (while, ironically, Rundgren riffs on the line “stop the HANDS of time”). Here, Todd and probably Kasim start doing a bunch of improvised white-boy soul runs with their limited voices, and they sound like clowns. It’s the kind of song you’d expect the fat old 2002 reunion tour of, say, Foreigner to whip out as “from their new album” while everyone pisses. “The Seven Rays,” though, is a super well-crafted prog-pop song that should have been done in the studio. Side 2 is a boring instrumental synth jam, a West Side Story joke cover, and “going through the motions” versions of two Rungren solo songs (“Heavy Metal Kids” does work well in a live context). Sandwiched between those two solo tunes is a cover of The Move’s “Do Ya,” soon to be revisited by ELO, and it’s totally worse than the original and adds nothing to it.

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FAITHFUL    (1976)

B

Quite an odd little album, this. The first half are “faithful” studio recreations of 6 super classic 60s songs by some of the biggest name acts in history (The Beach Boys, Dylan, Beatles, Hendrix, and Yardbirds). Todd is very capable of pulling these imitations off (not so much vocally, though his vocals are solid on all of the tunes). But ultimately, these covers are novelty items. People do this all the time these days, so the concept is dated as all heck. Side B are originals and they’re all very nice and standard Rundgren-fare, though a bit bland and at times bordering on maudlin (which is starting to become a trend in his catalog). Every one of them is worthwhile in some way, but there’s nothing particularly DISTINCT about them. They totally unimpressed me at first, and I even thought a couple of them were downright lame and bad, but they all eventually snuck up on me. My opinion of the 7 minute Stevie Wonder-esque “The Verb To Love” went from “this is boring, ponderous, and cheesy” to, “whoa, this is one of the most gorgeous things Rundgren ever recorded.” “Hamburger Hell” is super fun and late 70s Zappa-esque. And “Cliche” and “Love Of The Common Man” are intelligently written soft-rock songs, bordering on schmaltz, that point the way to the “almost schmaltz but not quite and therefore almost awesome” Hermit of Mink Hollow album.

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DISCO JETS (UTOPIA)   (1976)

C+

This is a never-released set of 10 disco-tinged instrumentals. There’s a running “sci fi” theme to the proceedings, and the whole thing is incredibly tied to the 70s. But as far as this kind of thing goes, I can’t say it’s unsuccessful. Actually, it’s sonically inspired, has a sense of humor (which was seemingly leaving Todd beyond at this point), and the grooves are often cool. Even so, this sounds like a little fun experiment, a side-project sort of thing, done to test out gear and drum sounds, rather than an actual album.

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RA (UTOPIA)  (1977)

A-

This is easily the best Utopia record. It’s also one of the most overblown and absurd albums ever made, taking all of excesses that were destroying prog’s once good name and both paying homage to and parodying them – at the same time! But everything on here is SO WELL EXECUTED. This is a great example of an album to REALLY test out the quality of a music critic. To liken this to other bad late-70s prog would be accurate, but this is so much more intelligent and alive than those records. But yes, this isn’t a life-changing album – it’s not innovative, spiritual, raw, etc. It’s a product, like a summer blockbuster, but a great blockbuster. There are serious lapses of taste throughout, but most of works incredibly well. The opener is a total Yes rip-off, albeit flawlessly executed. “Magic Dragon Theatre” is a great little pop-prog theater production a la 10CC and Queen and some of the Gabriel Genesis stuff. Then come two weaker tracks – “Jealousy” is a by-the-numbers AOR rocker, though classier than that sounds, and “Eternal Love” is a potentially vomit-inducing power ballad made almost amazing by an acapella section in the middle. The main hook, and the vocal delivery of it by I’m assuming Kasim Sulton, is hilariously overwrought. But the quirky and brilliant production tricks elevate the whole thing. “Sunburst Finish” is a KILLER proggy fusion jam tied to a generic but fun pop song. “Hiroshima” is the worst part of the album, and it’s pretty dreadful – though it’s absurd concept makes it, at least, unique. The final suite, “Singring,” is really just a lot of silly tongue-in-cheek fun with some cool moments and melodies. Over the course of 18 minutes, Todd narrates a fantasy tale in a pitch-shifted voice,and the band breaks into songs and fragments to compliment the tale. Silly as hell, but also melodic and entertaining and lush! If only the band were able to keep up these imaginative arrangements on their subsequent crap-fests…

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OOPS WRONG PLANET (UTOPIA)  (1977)

D

Whoops. What the fuck happened to this band? Total change of direction – AOR arena rock sorta stuff. Sounds sort of like all the falling prog bands’ bad pop albums of the late-70s and early 80s. Also, very influenced by BOSTON – particularly the super polished and overused harmonies. But BOSTON’s debut destroys this record in every way. Parts of this are absolutely, mind-numbingly TERRIBLE. I can’t believe Rundgren even PRODUCED them, let alone co-wrote or played on them. I’ve bought into him as an INTELLIGENT pop dude thus far, even if very inconsistent. But this album is giving me doubts. The 2nd track (!), “Windows,” is a complete piece of shit from every angle. Some of the ballads are totally worthless and insipid. I’m embarrassed to be listening to large chunks of this crap. “Gangrene?” What the fuck is THAT song? Now….I’m HOPING this is not all Todd’s fault. Because suddenly the other band members are getting a ton of time in the writing and performing spotlight. And it ain’t pretty. They all seem like faceless corporate late-70s session type guys, musical personalities more applicable for bands like Toto. I guess Styx makes more sense, since the art rock is still palpable on this record, but it’s the worst kind of art-rock – the really dumbed down and radio-friendly kind that gives the genre a terrible name. Anyway, were it not for a couple awesome numbers, this would have been an easy F. “Love in Action” is a classic Rundgren power pop tune. The opener “Trapped,” while not very good, is at least sort of interesting. And “Abandon City” is a hook-filled theatrical rocker in the “Magic Dragon Theater” vein, and almost as good! The rest of the material ranges from mediocre to miserably awful.

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BACK TO THE BARS (LIVE)   (1978)

C+

A double album live retrospective, made to serve as a “greatest hits” at the time. The song selection is actually awesome and not very obvious, with some weirder than usual choices for an album of this nature (“Zen Archer” “Eastern Intrigue”). But while it’s interesting to see how Todd dealt with playing some of the more production-heavy songs live (the title track from “Initiation” is arguably better here), the simpler songs are all redundant and better on the albums proper. Todd is all about the production, baby. There’s nothing useful in hearing a faithful live version of, say, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.” Of course I can’t fault the songs – these are some of his best. But the album isn’t remotely essential.

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HERMIT OF MINK HOLLOW   (1978)

A-

This album snuck up on me the same way the second side of FAITHFUL did. It’s very low-key. But much like “The Ballad of Todd Rungren,” this has a huge boon on its side (especially at this absurd point in the catalog): brevity and consistency. That being said, many of the sounds on this album are super dated and border on the corny soft-rock that will probably never be “hip,” even ironically. But the SONGS are way better than that, though it took me a couple spins to get past the presentation. And then I even started to realize that this is far quirkier than a Dan Fogelberg record, with a lot of odd harmonies and production ideas. Much of this stuff sounds downright Broadway-ish – and not in the psychedelic joking manner of earlier records. The first two songs RULE – they’re like the best soft-rock one-two punch ever. A good example of my process while getting into this record: at first I thought “Hurting For You” sounded like a miserable soft-rock song, one of the forgotten ones you’d see on those “soft sounds of the 70s” compilation infommercials. Parts of it utilize those schmaltzy tricks, and I can imagine most people nowadays laughing at it. However, the SONG itself is actually quite lovely and soulful and eventually I grew to really appreciate the production as well. And EVENTUALLY I started thinking, “Stevie Wonder,” instead of “Bread.” And yes, classic Stevie ballads often straddle this cheese-beauty line too.  Everything on here is solid – besides the openers, I love “You Cried Wolf” and “Fade Away.” I agree with the consensus – this is one of his best. And it gives me hope that he was NOT wholly responsible for the terrible degrading nature of Utopia at this point…

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ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA  (UTOPIA) (1980)

D

Yes, the band still sounds like a faceless embarrassing AOR product. And there aren’t any real highlights to save the day on this record, such as “Love in Action” on the previous studio album. Instead, this is just a bit more consistent, and consistently dull,  though never pushes into “god-awful” territory the way “Oops” did. “Shot in the Dark” is the only song I can get behind. “Love Alone” sounds like Queen mixed with Stevie Wonder, without the sense of humor. “Caravan”is a big wannabe epic that totally falls flat. Boy does it not make me happy! “The Road To Utopia” is super Styx-ed out. “You Make Me Crazy” is a Cars rip-off with an unmemorable hook (which shouldn’t really be the case if you want to sound like the best of the Cars). The hit single “Set Me Free” is ridiculously lame and not catchy in the least, and the closer “Rock Love” sounds like a bad ABBA tribute. The only other song that sort of grew on me is “Last of the New Wave Riders,” clearly a tossed off piece of Rundgren whimsy, and it’s sort of fun. But overall, this is pathetic.

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DEFACE THE MUSIC  (UTOPIA)  (1980)

B

A totally confusing and bizarre anomaly in the Utopia catalog. It makes no sense. It’s sort of a Beatles tribute, and there are a lot of nods to specific moments in the Beatles catalog. But I disagree with the general consensus surrounding this album – I think it’s a cute and catchy little pop album, and the songs aren’t too derivative to take away its charm.  Concept aside, this BY FAR the classiest and best performed Utopia record post-RA. The vocals, the playing, and the production don’t sound anything like bad late-70s AOR. This is just classic sounding pop music combined with Rundgren’s professional craftsmanship. All the songs have fun hooks.  I’d way rather listen to derivative 60s pop than derivative 70s corporate post-art-rock. The only question is: why the fuck is this a Utopia album? Based on what comes afterwards, this is clearly just a side project. Oh well…it certainly wipes away some of the bad taste of the previous two records.

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HEALING  (1981)

B+

Rundgren’s solo work is SO much more exciting than Utopia at this point. This is a totally unique record in his catalog – it sounds more like a Peter Hammill album with 80s production. A very intense and emotional record. Rundgren’s voice sounds way fuller and more controlled and passionate than ever before. You can tell how much heart he put into this. The sounds are pretty dated, but this is never remotely boring and the dated drum machines and synths fit the atmosphere. “Shine” is genius. And “Golden Goose” is one of his best novelty-type songs. There are so many interesting ideas on here. The “bonus” single “Time Heals” is also memorable and well put together. Overall, one of his best. Why was he acting so progressive in his personal music, and so lame and trendy with Utopia? Who knows with this guy.

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SWING TO THE RIGHT  (UTOPIA) (1982)

D

Yikes. After the super fun pastiche of Deface the Music, the band returns to some sort of New Wave-y horribleness with no focus or sensitivity or anything resembling good taste. There’s definitely less overtly garish singing this time, as the band seems to be moving beyond the 70s. But this is still mostly terrible. The title track is the only really interesting composition on here, and it’s pretty cool. The ironic disco jam, “Farenheit 451” is also really catchy and well played. But other tracks – “Junk Rock,” “Shinola,” “Last Dollar On Earth,” “One World” – sound ugly and hookless. The Rundgren soul production number, “Only Human, ” is unbearably corny and overblown. This is a bizarre record – lyrically concerned with criticizing the Reagan era, musically unadventurous and derivative. And the idea that Rundgren was doing something totally unique and interesting like “Healing” around the same time – that makes even LESS sense. At this point, this band can suck my balls.

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UTOPIA  (UTOPIA) (1982)

B

Let’s all stand on our chairs and give the boys a big round of applause! They finally made a decent pop record! In reality, however, I’m grading this one on a curve. It’s nothing more than a pretty nice and often corny 80s “power pop” record, and we’re talking about the other side of the line that separates  early “Cheap Trick” from mid-period “Billy Joel” or something. Because this is a very slick and professional sounding record, and the hooks are sometimes quite nice but never really that exciting. And it certainly doesn’t have much in the way of POWER. It has a KILLER opening, though – if LIBERTINE isn’t a Todd song, than it’s the best non-Todd song in the Utopia catalog without a doubt. The bonus side, 5 extra songs that seem to be considered part of the album proper by most everyone, is actually better than the B side, so maybe they should have just slotted that in. In any case, nothing on this screams bad taste, the singing is restrained and pleasant – I’m actually surprised this wasn’t a bigger hit for them. Of course, they did saddle it with their all-time worst album cover, not content to JUST put out an attractive product without letting us know they’re actually tasteless hacks. Anyway, good for them – there are even moments on this record when I thought to myself, “Wait a minute – they AREN’T tasteless hacks??”

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THE EVER POPULAR TORTURED ARTIST EFFECT  (1983)

C+

This one is OK, but not really much of an album. Rundgren had admitted to this being a contract filler, and it’s sort of obvious. But there are still a lot of nice things here. The opener “Hideaway” is very strong. “Bang The Drum All Day” is a fun, Kinksy song with tons of energy, even if it’s been overplayed. The “Tin Soldier” Small Faces cover is pretty pointless, but also extremely well done. The album actually seems to be going somewhere on the first 4 songs, which are all very 80s sounding versions of classic style Rundgren soul-pop songs. The R & B quotient is very pronounced on “There Goes Baybay” and that tune is quite catchy. But then the album just turns scrappy and random. The last two songs are sort of interesting while playing, but not very memorable. Rundgren’s singing style is still noticeably different and more professional – maybe he took voice lessons between Hermit and Healing! I’m torn about that shift, as he seems way more confident vocally, but also less idiosyncratic. And we’re firmly in 80s territory – if you want warm and organic sounding music (i.e. early to mid 70s music), stay away from this.

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OBLIVION  (UTOPIA)  (1984)

D-

OW! OW! Stop it! Stop make me listening to it! This is where, apparently, Utopia lost all the inspiration and went for the 80s pop sell-out record. That would make sense, IF the band ever sounded remotely inspired or interesting or uncommercial to being with (or at least since 1977). That being said, this is a bit worse than the terrible 70s records they put out, and certainly a huge drop from their “pop masterpiece” that is the mediocre self-titled record. There are a couple songs that could be deemed LISTENABLE – “Itch in My Brain” and “Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw.” The rest are just atrocious, tuneless, ugly, over-produced, faceless, and worthless. Rundgren? Really?

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POV (UTOPIA) (1985)

D-

I don’t know what to say. A continuation of sorts from OBLIVION, this is more shiny dated 80s pop music with corny hooks, bad dance grooves, and sonic garbage lathered all over the place. Not not one track worth discussing – nothing memorable at all. Things seem a LITTLE more tasteful than OBLIVION, so it gets the edge. Very professionally crafted too, so I can’t quite give it an F. But this album DOES give me some final insight into Rundgren’s decision to take Utopia in this direction. If a song like “MATED” became a huge hit under the name “Todd Rundgren,” ALL of Todd’s status as an innovator and “genius” would have been lost. It’s cheesier than any Phil Collins song, for crying out loud, and look what happened to HIS status as an art rocker! This is most probably a way for Todd to make trendy and soulless music, without sullying his good name. I guess it didn’t really work out, as none of the Utopia songs get much airplay today as far as I know. But Todd is still held in pretty high regard, and everyone can point to his early work without having to apologize for his subsequent hackery. Utopia – a front for a talented, smart individual to pander. Sucks for the rest of the dorks in the band.

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A CAPPELLA   (1985)

A-

Another giant case of “how could this awesome record have been produced at the same time as the 80s Utopia records??” Rundgren is clearly a crazily talented craftsman, but besides “A Wizard,” this is the only other record in his catalog that argues for some sort of “pop genius” status. Apparently, every sound on this album was created through the human voice or handclaps, and put into a device that allowed Rundgren to turn his voice into weird sounding percussion or synths. So on the innovative, technological side of things, this is a super interesting record. But thankfully, the material and flow of the album is also really exciting. Every track does something unique with the concept, and there are genuine hooks and ideas here. Additionally, the record sounds timeless – it’s so much more appealing sonically than, say, “Ever Tortured Artist Effect,” which sounded rooted in the 80s. Basically all of this rules – “Something To Fall Back On” is like the best Rundgren pop song since his early days. And “Lockjaw” is one of his funniest novelty songs. Rundgren also manages to incorporate all sorts of “a cappella” styles, like gospel, hymns, doo-wop – but he still retains his own personality and doesn’t make it seem like a “tribute to a cappella music” at all. This record blows Bjork’s similar a cappella attempt, “Medula” out of the water – that album falls into the trap I was expecting for this one (overly experimental and self-conscious artsy-fartsy wankery at the expense of solid melodies and pop songs). This is one of Todd’s absolute best.

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NEARLY HUMAN  (1989)

C+

OK, here is where things start to get really confusing. Maybe I’m just confused about how bad it all gets. Who knows. Basically, after “A Cappella,” Rundgren seems to lose a lot his edge and starts working with sounds and genres that have no real interest to me (adult contemporary, 90s club music). This one was a “live-in-studio” record – the material is mostly blue-eyed soul, and compared to what follows, it’s a fun and enjoyable record. Todd is very energized throughout. There are some terrible choices of keyboard sounds (those totally absurd soft-rock electric pianos show up in numerous places). The whole thing is way too slick and professional. But the band is enormous, the arrangements complex, and some of the songs work really well (the opener “The Want Of A Nail” in particular). “Hawking” sounds like Laura Nyro, but goes on way too long. This sort of sounds like a lamer version of a post-peak Elvis Costello record (and there’s even a Costello cover on it). Rundgren’s singing is impressive, but not all that appealing – he sounds like Michael McDonald on a lot of this, which should give you an idea of what to expect here. Most people would hear this and think, “cheesy” immediately. But the material is still very well put together.

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2ND WIND  (1991)

F

What the fuck is this? This was seriously the major label follow up to the “comeback” of the previous record? Am I supposed to take this seriously, or as just think of it as a side-project “live” record? Parts of this album represent the most appalling listening experiences of my life. Many of these recordings are worse than any of the worst Utopia crap. I can understand why this was his last record for Warner Brothers – they must have been embarrassed to put their logo on this crap. “Change Myself” takes all the worst ideas from “Nearly Human” and adds more cheese and tastelessness. Hideous keyboard tones abound. “Love Science” sounds like Oingo Boingo mixed with my shit. There are three songs from a musical Rundgren wrote (“Up Against It”) – they are ugly, cliched, and totally ridiculous. I read an interview where Rundgren rips on “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tommy,” and declares his love for Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan. OK fine, but these songs are nothing like ANY of the above mentioned, and sound more like the pop-schmatz-Broadway crap Sondheim has been suffocated by for so many years.  Is there anything good on this record? No, but the title track is listenable and “Who’s Sorry Now” uses some of the GOOD ideas from the previous record and has some cool changes. “Public Servant” at least showcases some old-fart-rocking-out energy. But they can’t salvage this stink-fest – it’s the worst item in the Rundgren/Utopia catalog.

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NO WORLD ORDER  (1993)

C-

Credited to TR-i (“Todd Rundgren interactive”), this was Todd’s crazy foray into hip hop, techno, electronica, and other 90s trends. Todd sullied his relationship with a LOT of his cult here, and these were weirdos who had worshiped with him through all of his previous tomfoolery! It’s easy to understand the confusion though – all of Todd’s previous genre shifts were rooted in classic pop song-writing. This time, the song-writing is dictated by Rundgren’s idea of what was going on in early 90s dance music and hip hop. It may sound horrible, but this really isn’t as bad as it reputation. You do have to get over the sonic presentation (which is dated and ugly). But the album is actually kinda fun and entertaining. It’s certainly ten times more interesting than “2nd Wind.” It really sounds like a DJ record, or a dance mix – lots of little snippets popping up, refrains repeated over and over, the beat never stops etc. Rundgren raps on a lot of songs, which is hilarious and stupid. That being said, I’m never going to listen to this record again. Compared to the earlier Rundgren sound, this is totally unappealing to me. But it’s worth hearing for a Rundgren fan – and certainly well made and dense with ideas. Innovative melodies and songwriting? Not so much. But lots of ideas – yes.

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THE INDIVIDUALIST  (1995)

D+

Sort of keeping the same sound as No World Order, and mixing in a BIT more classicist song-writing. Again, sometimes entertaining and maybe worth hearing once, but ultimately just slight and dated. Rundgren sounds old now – nothing seems effortless or “genius.” The songs go on way too long, though since most of these are dance-oriented, that DOES make sense. “Espresso (All Jacked Up)” is a really bad song. “Beloved Infidel” is a REALLY bad song. The title track is pretty good, and probably Rundgren’s best hip hop attempt. Some of these songs are interesting, and sometimes even impressive, but nothing really resonates in any serious way to me. That’s sort of where I’m at with Rundgren at this point.

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WITH A TWIST   (1997)

D+

Not really all THAT bad – but it’s Rundgren taking a bunch of his songs and presenting them in “tiki lounge” arrangements.  That’s just stupid. And this is a completely unnecessary novelty of a record. The song choices are too obvious (“I Saw The Light,” “Dream Goes On Forever” etc.). He puts a bunch of his sappy schlock on here, and with the laid back arrangements and vocal deliveries, those songs only sound more disgusting (“Mated,” “Love Is The Answer”). Rundgren’s taste and skills were so “blah” at this point, this dumb release actually comes as something of a relief – I’d rather listen to his classics in new clothing than have to sit through more 8 minute techno-farts.

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ONE LONG YEAR  (2000)

C

You could whittle this one down to an EP that would sound, SHOCKINGLY, respectable. This record consists of “internet only” singles Rundgren sent out to his fans over the course of a year. Therefore, it’s very scrappy and basically a compilation. But that actually lends it some entertainment value – parts of it even sound like an honest-to-god Todd Rundgren album! It’s also relatively short, as opposed to its’ garishly overlong neighbors in the catalog. Throwaways abound – a With A Twist version of “Love Of The Common Man,” a live joke version of “Bang On The Drum All Day,” a couple techno instrumentals – but there are some decent tracks for a guy who has clearly jumped the shark already. “Yer Fast (But I Like It)” is a fun almost punky song that rocks harder than anything on the upcoming “Arena.” “Hit Me Like A Train” is better corny R&B, and “The Surf Talks” better techno-pop, than anything on “The Individualist.” The very Hall & Oates-y “Where Does The Time Go” sounds like a really old outtake – as if it came from the “Ever Tortured Artist” sessions. For those who slogged through the surrounding records, that’s a pretty appealing prospect. So yes – the best of the horrifying post “Nearly Human” Rundgren albums. Which is saying NOTHING. This album is a big fish in a small pond that nobody really needs to swim in to begin with.

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LIARS  (2004)

C-

Right off the bat, this album hits us with a series of totally unacceptable elements: the worst album cover of Todd’s career, an instantly dated arrangement style, and a running time that goes on about 40 minutes too long. But there’s no doubt that LYRICALLY, this is the most focused and interesting Todd has been since the 80s. All the songs revolve around searching for the “truth” in a world of lies. Musically, however, this couldn’t be more boring to me. The melodies are generally lifeless, the electronic music underneath them lacking warmth and dynamics. Heavily R&B-based again, this really isn’t all that different from the 90s records. Sure, Todd doesn’t rap on this one, but he does ape a bunch of techno, R&B, and trance vocal stylings. “Stood Up” sounds unintentionally like a Weird Al Yankovic song, and ’tis pretty embarrassing. “Future” sounds like The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi” record made ten times less exciting. There are a couple neat tracks: “Flaw” is solid R&B, “Truth” is a cool opener, and “Soul Brother” is pretty funny, with a great delivery from Todd. But most of this just floats by, unmemorable and bloated. This was heralded by almost every critic as a huge return to form – that must have pissed of quite a lot of purchasers. This sounds not one iota like 70s Rundgren in either instrumentation, sound, singing, or lyrical content.

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ARENA  (2008)

D-

I’ll give him this: this album sounds like nothing else in the catalog, and that’s some sort of feat for a 60 year old guy with a billion records. So what DOES this sound like? Well, Rundgren advertised it as a return to “guitar rock, Utopia records, 70s rock.” What he should have said was: “Imagine a Bad Company reunion record in 2020.” Yes, this is one ugly, underwritten, old-fart of an album. The percussion is all programmed – no real drums – and that is a completely ABSURD thing to do on a self-proclaimed “arena rock” album. The whole thing sounds like utter crap. Rundgren’s voice is either affected in performance to sound tougher (obviously that’s the case when he’s imitating AC/DC a la “Strike”), or he’s totally lost his once fragile and endearing tone. And the songs are boring, derivative, and limp. The album cover is even WORSE than the one representing “Liars” – it’s an over-over-over-photoshopped image of a shirtless and sunglassed Rundgren jumping up into the sky with his guitar, and we see some fan hands below reaching for him. He admitted himself the cover is a reference to the movie “300!” Why is it that when old has-beens start to lose their taste, they lose their visual taste as well? Rundgren’s album covers never looked that great in the 70s, but this is just appalling. The only track on here that does anything more for me than, “Eh, that sort of sucked,” is “Gun” – a genuinely hilarious and fun satirical rocker. That one really does have a solid AC/DC riff, and Todd injected it with a bit of eccentricity. But overall, this is a really really bad record, close to his worst, but it has the edge over “2nd Wind” due to its weird concept and “Gun.”

  1. Hmmm, it ain’t Todd whose head is up his ass.

    • Tony Cecena
    • April 28th, 2015

    My only disappointments are No World Order, The Individualist, With a Twist. I am enthralled with everything else, minus the obvious fillers and other junk. Todd is my hero, but there are certainly some ideas he employed I would have advised him to drop. It’s one thing to be expressive but if you start to lose direction, I would never leave my Hawaiian home if I were he. Nevertheless, Todd rules!

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