Neither of us knew much about Patti Smith when we started this podcast, we knew her name and thought of her as a mystical punk poet from the seventies, but didn’t know much more … then as we have explored other artists over the past few years, Patti Smith’s name kept popping up over and again as a one of the most influential people of her generation … and so we thought why not put her on the list for the Jeffrey Music treatment, and here we are!
Normally when we’re ranking albums, especially for artists we’re less familiar with, we individually score the songs and work out an average, and then see how we feel about the result, tweaking as necessary. For Patti Smith this didn’t quite work because the albums clustered so closely to each other, showing a remarkable consistency throughout her discography, meaning the gap between the albums is – in most cases – actually very small.
We saw her live in the middle of making this podcast and you can hear about those gigs in the Jeffrey Goes to Patti Smith episode.
In each podcast episode we talk through the artist’s history chronologically, picking our favourite tracks and ranking the albums as we go, so check that out if you want to know how we came to our decisions and why we picked the playlist tracks we did.
Our ranking and track picks are a compromise of our two different personal opinions, and of course we have to consider the Jeffrey Rulebook, it is also only a snapshot in time, so don’t take them too seriously! But do please comment below with your picks.
See below for the full list:
Dream of Life (1988)
After a 9-year hiatus during which Patti Smith and husband Fred “Sonic” Smith lived in Detroit raising their family, she returned with this rather bland and inconsistent effort. It has a more-polished eighties sound, meaning it sounds a bit dated now, but it also feels lost, as if she no longer quite knows how she wants to sound. The edgy punky stuff is gone, the poetry is muted, and it all sounds a bit more mainstream without being catchy enough to be pure pop. That said, the powerful opening track (People Have the Power) wouldn’t sound out of place as a Cher vehicle.
Our picks: People Have the Power and Up There Down There
Radio Ethiopia (1976)
The follow-up to the hugely successful Horses is half a good album, and half not a good album. In an attempt to sound more commercial, the production is sharpened and we get a more polished (less dated?) sound. The songs are punkier and more electric, but it’s also much more of a mixed bag than its predecessor, sounding less like an album and more a bunch of songs.
Side one (or the first four tracks if you are not old enough, or hip enough, to get vinyl) is as strong as anything she has done. Side two, by contrast, does not maintain this high standard and it’s hard to argue with one critic who described the lengthy improvised title track as being “everyone’s least favourite Patti Smith song”.
It is not deserving of the critical backlash it received, but it’s definitely one of her weaker efforts.
Our picks: Pissing in a River and Ain’t it Strange
Gone Again (1996)
A dark and moody beast following the death of her husband Fred, her brother Todd, her keyboard-player and songwriting partner RIchard Sohl, and her ex-partner/flatmate and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe … oh, and the suicide of Kurt Cobain which shook her, even though she wasn’t close to him … so it’s little wonder this album is on the melancholy side.
We were in two minds on this one, with Gordon liking it more than John did, but on balance it was a more difficult and less-engaging animal than most of her other work.
Out picks: About a Boy and Gone Again
Gung Ho (2000)
If you buy the argument that you can slice Patti Smith’s career into three crude blocks: the early years of the Patti Smith Group (up to 1979); the middle two albums where she is, perhaps, a little lost and not sure how to she wants to sound (Dream of Life and Gone Again); and then the later cluster where she appears to have righted herself and found a sound and formula that works well, then this album is – although it’s not clear cut – probably the weakest of that latter cluster.
It has a spiritual feel in some tracks, especially at the beginning and end, but the album is a bit too long, and there a few weaker tracks when compared to the other albums in this period.
Our picks: New Party and One Voice
The last album with the original Patti Smith Group before she headed off to suburban Detroit to raise her family with Fred. It was dubbed “lazy” by some critics, which has a ring of truth to it, but doesn’t feel like a fair description for what is actually a pretty decent effort.
It hasn’t quite got the sharp edges of her earlier work, being in similar style and consistency to its predecessor (Easter), and this not only points to the future direction she would adopt two decades later, but also reflects that she was in a very different place than when she recorded the first two albums: she was happy.
Our picks: Dancing Barefoot and Revenge
Very similar to Gung Ho, but a little more commercial and a little gentler. Trampin’ lacks a little bit of identity, feeling like it’s more of the same from a strong and consistent artist who confidently knows how she wants to sound. Although the first half (side one as we think of it) is stronger than the second half, there isn’t a weak track on it, but nor is there a top ear-catching banger, so it sits in the middle as a competent album containing some more enjoyable Patti Smith songs.
For the record, we object to album titles that use an apostrophe rather than just spelling the word properly, although this didn’t affect the ranking – this time.
Our picks: Jubilee and My Blakean Year
Her most recent album is a lovely thing. A more mature-sounding animal, it feels contented and clever, balancing the Patti Smith recipe of pop rock, punk and poetry beautifully. It lacks the obvious stand-out tracks and poppy hooks of some her other work, but for such a late stage album, it’s a cracker – although Gordon was less keen than John, so again, an album others might place higher (John) or lower (Gordon).
Our picks: Banga and Amerigo
After the relative flop of Radio Ethiopia, the Patti Smith Group tightened up their act and knocked out this weighty beast, complete with mainstream hit Because the Night, co-written with Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen.
It has a mixture of the styles already seen on the previous albums, but also has pointers to where she is heading in terms of sound and formula.
Our picks: 25th Floor and Babelogue / Rock’n’roll N*****
Her debut is a jerky angry punky in-your-face poetic masterpiece (mostly). It is under-produced, a bit ragtag, and sounds dated to today’s ears, but – Birdland aside – every track is a cracker and together they form a wonderful whole that must have shaken the gentle mid-Seventies musical world like a bull entering a china shop, looking for trouble … and if Patti Smith was looking for trouble, she surely found it: the opening line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” is a poetic attention-grabber that doesn’t back away from controversy. The rest of the album isn’t quite so confrontational, but it’s jammed with attitude.
Our picks: Free Money and Land
This is also pretty much our favourite of her album covers (with the photo by her pal Robert Mapplethorpe):
Peace and Noise (1997)
After the melancholy of Gone Again, Patti Smith returned with this gem, a wonderful balance of punk, poetry and melodic rock … it’s not a clear winner and it could really be joint top with Horses – but as Horses is the best of the early period, this is the best of her later period.
However, we can’t have a joint-top, we have to make a decision (we established this when we did dEUS yonks ago), and from the perspective of 2022, we think the beauty of Peace and Noise just edges out the spiky attitude of Horses.
Our picks: Don’t Say Nothing and Whirl Away