Josh Homme Albums From Worst To Best
This week, Queens Of The Stone Age scored their first-ever No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with …Like Clockwork, the first album Palm Desert native Josh Homme has released with QOTSA in six years. It’s a richly deserved honor, and one that had been long overdue. With a host of different bands — and different lineups within those bands — Homme has now presided over, and provided for us, a vast catalog of energetic rock music dealing almost exclusively in hooks and distortion.
And with …Like Clockwork, Homme has done it again — whatever it is, exactly, that Homme always does. …Like Clockwork stands out in the modern pantheon of rock music for its relative straightforwardness. Homme requires no gimmicks, theatrics, or even fretboard acrobatics; he simply sounds compelling enough to influence a host of other bands, yet original enough to have no competitive imitators. Josh Homme is one of the only guitar heroes remaining in commercial hard rock.
His work also stands apart in attitude. Homme’s lyrics fall somewhere between the stoned-immaculate nonsense of bands reliving the Summer Of Love, and the constant dick-waving of bands trying to revive the ’80s Sunset Strip sound. He’s too sleazy to be a flower child and too sophisticated to play a concert with Buckcherry. Homme’s onstage persona may be that of a womanizing drug vacuum, but a very casual, relaxed one. He would swat the flies if he had a tail, but he does not, so he’ll just recline and play guitar. In that respect, …Like Clockwork may — more than any other record — most ideally represent Homme’s … Homme-ness.
Josh Homme’s steadfast unwillingness to compromise has probably served him well in the long run; in a parallel universe he could have been part of the early-’90s grunge explosion and it might have killed him. Consider: He began his career as the axeman in Kyuss in 1987 — the same year as Nirvana and Alice in Chains were founded — making heavy, vital music on the razor’s edge between heavy metal and alternative rock. But while grunge largely rejected the machismo and swagger of its ’70s hard-rock influences, Homme embraced those elements. His more downcast contemporaries took pages out of Neil Young’s book, but Kyuss sounded more like Cactus, Vanilla Fudge, and a laundry list of less famous monster fuzz bands drizzled with a bit of melted ZZ Top.
And while Kurt Cobain and Jerry Cantrell’s albums dominated mainstream taste, Homme’s successes were more modest. Some Kyuss records performed admirably in sales, but nothing close to Nevermind or Dirt. Instead, during its brief existence, Kyuss more or less created the entire American stoner metal sub-genre. Stereogum recently named Kylesa’s Ultraviolet the 25th best album of 2013 so far, and it’s hard to imagine that band existing without Kyuss having paved the way.
Tragedy hobbled Nirvana and Alice In Chains, but when Kyuss died, Homme soldiered on with Queens Of The Stone Age, and here I sit, listening to Homme’s 11th album between three bands — not including a wiki’s worthof guest performances, EPs, his bizarre stint as drummer in the Eagles Of Death Metal, and the long-running Desert Sessions experiments.
Meanwhile, Homme’s former bandmates in Kyuss have re-united to play his music without him. The Kyuss Lives! experience has been making the rounds since November 2010, with Bruno Fevery of Arsenal attempting to fill Homme’s shoes. A subsequent lawsuit from Homme forced his former bandmates to persevere under the much-less-interesting moniker Vista Chino — the band performed for the first time under that name at the Orion Festival. The message from Homme is clear: He was Kyuss as much as he is Queens Of The Stone Age.
Walking back through Homme’s career is a daunting task — even this abridged discography is a monster — and chronologically is no way to approach it. Homme’s had his creative peaks and valleys, as well as long periods of relative silence. In the interest of celebrating his successes, finding the gems in his failures, and cleaning his demons, these are Josh Homme’s albums, from worst to best.
11. Kyuss – Wretch (1991)
Homme and company were barely out of high school when their debut longplayer, Wretch, was released. Some bands turn youthful energy into genius and produce classic albums straight out the gate, but not Kyuss. Wretch is a mixed bag, composed of a few new songs and a few re-worked tracks from their Sons Of Kyuss EP from the previous year, and the seemingly random track listing makes for a jagged listening experience. To further complicate things, Kyuss self-produced Wretch, and the album sounds every bit like the novice effort it is. Still, Wretch has its moments, like the Brant Bjork-penned "Big Bikes," an ode to women on motorcycles, which liberally quotes Black Sabbath.
10. Kyuss - ...And The Circus Leaves Town (1995)
...And The Circus Leaves Town was released in the summer of 1995, three months before Kyuss broke up, and it shows. Where its predecessor, Welcome To Sky Valley, sounds like a fully formed artistic statement, an album with a decided beginning, middle, and end, Circus feels as patchwork as Wretch did. It's so unfocused, in fact, that the penultimate track, "Catamaran," is a cover of a song written by replacement drummer Alfredo Hernandez's previous band, Yawning Man. Circus begins with a bang — the one-two punch of "Hurricane" and "One Inch Man" — but those two songs sound like conscious re-attempts at writing "Gardenia" and "Asteroid," which kicked off Sky Valley. At this point, Homme's heart was elsewhere.
9. Queens Of The Stone Age – Era Vulgaris (2007)
While Kyuss records more or less follow a single-minded trajectory, Homme's work with the Queens was always more eclectic, and Queens records, more often than not, take abrupt left turns away from their immediate predecessors — not always for the better. Era Vulgaris may be the most varied and energetic Queens record, its barely restrained and squawking guitars rebel hard against the subdued psychedelia of Lullabies To Paralyze. The album is an ugly chimera with no flow — its first side rockets out the gate with a set of sassy chargers, some quite strong, and then stumbles. Homme marries Motorhead and Grinderman on "Sick, Sick, Sick." Later, "I'm Designer," rails against the vapid consumer culture that other acts celebrate(d) — pre-financial crash. But when Era misfires — the unforgivably boring pairing of "Misfit Love" and "Battery Acid" — it does so with whimpers, not bangs. The best cuts are on the more mellow second half. Of particular importance, "Make It Wit 'Chu" is all soft keyboard hooks and lounge-lizard lust — it sounds nothing like the remainder of the album, and it's notably better than its neighbors, too. No wonder it's actually a re-recording of an earlier duet with PJ Harvey from one of the Desert Sessions tapes.
8. Queens Of The Stone Age – Queens Of The Stone Age (1998)
As different as the two bands would become, Homme transitioned from Kyuss to Queens smoothly — the Queens debut, when played directly after 1994's Welcome To Sky Valley, sounds like the logical follow-up that ...And The Circus Leaves Town was not. Without his bandmates in the studio, Homme improved on some of the weaknesses in his previous band's formula: Kyuss's machismo gave way to a cool but seductive androgyny. The biggest revelation on the album is Homme's voice — he croons his way through the album with a smoother, more nuanced delivery than that of Kyuss singer John Garcia. Queens Of The Stone Age birthed some of Homme's most beloved cuts (especially "You Can't Quit Me Baby"), and some of his bad habits, including overlong song lengths, and clustering his least-interesting riffs at the middle of the record.
7. Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures (2009)
Supergroups are always risky propositions. The results often underwhelm, because it doesn't matter how well a group of musicians work if they don't work well as a unit. Them Crooked Vultures, however, works — and it really comes as no surprise: Dave Grohl and Homme already had a functioning chemistry, and John Paul Jones tethered Led Zeppelin together during Page and Bonham's rough addiction days at the end of the '70s. In fact, out of every post-Zeppelin project I've heard, I like this one best. Musically, Homme hangs with Jones and Grohl on equal footing, and together they rumble through just over an hour of bar-chord-and-blues-scales hard rock. Jones adds a whimsical twist to the record, using horn sections and keyboard interludes to give things a big-top feel. Meanwhile, Homme's persona drips swagger all over the record. Them Crooked Vultures brought out his most sleazy and cocksure lyrics and vocal deliveries.
6. Queens Of The Stone Age – ...Like Clockwork (2013)
If the most productive Queens years were fueled by "nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol" then, ...Like Clockwork's engine runs on Ambien. As if the six-year gap between albums never existed, the record rejects Era Vulgaris's frenetic side A in favor of the mellow, romantic tracks on its flip. Homme's guitar takes a back seat to vocals and keyboards, but ...Like Clockwork is at its best when his riffs share prominence with the organ, such as on "The Vampyre Of Time And Memory." Nick Oliveri and Dave Grohl return to the mix, but never kick things into high gear — which is not a critique, merely an observation that people looking for Songs For The Deaf II will not find it here, as Michael has already described.
5. Queens Of The Stone Age – Lullabies To Paralyze (2005)
Lullabies To Paralyze is one of those rare albums that follows a masterpiece (Songs For The Deaf) and nearly equals it in quality. Think Kid A, or ...And Justice For All, and like those albums, Lullabies largely succeeds by expanding on its predecessor’s sound rather than trying to repeat it. For Lullabies, Homme disbanded most of his backing band, including Nick Oliveri and Dave Grohl, by anyone's estimation one of the best rhythm sections in rock history. On the resulting blank slate, Homme explored in greater detail the late-'60s psychedelic influences that peeked through on Rated R. Lullabies comes wrapped in such soft detail that even the faster and heavier songs — "Little Sister," "In My Head," — feel more velvet glove than iron fist. Homme's songwriting took a step forward as well — album closer "Long Slow Goodbye," very well might be his his finest stand-alone song.
4. Kyuss – Blues For The Red Sun (1992)
With Blues For The Red Sun, Kyuss took what was an isolated regional scene — the Palm Desert rock sound — and made it a full-fledged sub-genre. The sun-baked Black Sabbath sound was pioneered almost a decade earlier by Masters Of Reality, whose singer Chris Goss produced Blues For The Red Sun, but that group peddled in distortion. Kyuss gave the genre its Ride The Lightning by whipping those walls of fuzz into fist-raising bangers like "Freedom Run" and especially the immortal "Green Machine." John Garcia's voice took on enough of a scratchy roar to give Kyuss's ridiculous and juvenile lyrics some weight. At the same time Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri became a multi-speed rhythm section, and their frequent re-invention of the rhythm underpinned Homme's riffs in an almost post-rock way. Suddenly Homme had the room to explore his riffs, push and pull his songs while playing the same few notes the way his obvious influences — Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page — did.
3. Queens Of The Stone Age – Rated R (2000)
Queens Of The Stone Age became less of a sequel to Kyuss and more its own franchise on Rated R. Somehow, the return of Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri (he didn’t play on Queens’ self-titled debut or the last two Kyuss records) resulted in an album with less of the fuzzy desert rock of the '90s. On Rated R, Homme's infatuations with guest musicians — especially now-common contributor Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees — and early psychedelic rock first appear on songs like "Auto Pilot" and "In The Fade." Such mellowness is balanced by rapid-fire punk tracks like "Quick And To The Pointless," and the Queens' now-iconic introductory track, "Feel Good Hit Of The Summer." The record's packaging and liner notes back up that song's infatuation with illicit substances. For the first time in Homme's career, he put out an album with a "classic" feel — united in look, sound, feel, and lyrical content.
2. Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley (1994)
At first blush, Welcome To Sky Valley seems like a simple retread of Blues For The Red Sun. Opening track "Gardenia," for example, mimics "Green Machine" almost too well with its masculine posturing. But a lot changed for Kyuss between the two records; most notably, Nick Oliveri was replaced by Scott Reeder, formerly of the Obsessed. Reeder's playing, at the time, was more prone to melody than Oliveri's. More importantly, Reeder didn't focus on playing the downbeats as much. For evidence, see his introduction to "Whitewater," an album closer so strong that Homme would not top it until 2002. Reeder and Homme run circles around one another all over Welcome To Sky Valley, and as a result the album feels more adventurous and brighter than its predecessor. A contemplative and tender song like "Demon Cleaner" — for my money the best song Kyuss ever produced — would have sounded out of place earlier in Homme's catalog.
1. Queens Of The Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf (2002)
Rarely, critical consensus requires no questioning. Songs For The Deaf was released in 2002 and hailed near-universally as an instant classic, and its esteem has not faded. Its Metacritic rating is 89. Decibel Magazine, a high-profile metal glossy, called it the 7th best metal album of the '00s — and it barely constitutes metal. Hell, praising Songs For The Deaf has become an acceptable substitute for saying anything negative about Homme's other work. So much digital ink has been spilled praising the record's merits that recounting them feels like a limp gesture, but for those truly out of the loop, a brief recap: Dave Grohl turns in maybe his best performance, slamming on his drums like a newly enlightened primate from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri both take vocal turns — Lanegan's performance on "A Song For The Death" channels John Garcia and then beats him at his own game. The interlude skits, which cast Homme's friends as radio DJs, actually add to the experience. Listening to Songs is like taking a long, restless drive, and the constantly changing stations match the kaleidoscopic moods of the album, shifting tempos and singers. As for Homme on Songs For The Deaf, he crafts songs that, in their best moments, live up to the legacies of Page and Iommi.