Todd Rundgren has never bothered the mainstream much as a solo performer, but you get the feeling that’s just the way he likes it. He may have a knack for perfect pop, but he’d much rather take risks and run the line between genius and insanity than chase a hit. Those risks haven’t always paid dividends, but when they have, the results have been extraordinary. Here, we take a look back at the career of one of music’s most uncompromising mavericks as we rank all the Todd Rundgren albums from worst to best.
Rundgren was a busy boy in 2011, releasing two albums back to back. Given the quality of both, many fans were left wishing he’d taken the year off instead. The second, (re)Production, is particularly dire. An album that relies solely on electronic instruments and consists entirely of songs he’s produced for other artists, it’s odd to the extreme, even by Rundgren’s standards. It seems to have been designed purely for Rundgren’s own pleasure, rather than the listeners – which would be fair enough, had it not come with a price tag attached.
20. Todd Rundgren’s Johnson
Rundgren’s first album of 2011, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, may have a pithy title and good intentions, but considering that Rundgren has dabbled with pretty much everything but the blues over his career, a tribute to blues legend Robert Johnson seems an odd fit for him. Ad so it proves to be. The pumped-up riffs, self-indulgent solos, and layers of digital effects are a world away from the stripped-back, economical Delta Blues that Johnson pioneered, resulting in an album that both fails to honor his legacy, or build on Rundgren’s.
19. No World Order
No World Order, Rundregen’s fourteenth studio album, was released in July 1993. A fusion of rap and electronica, it has the distinction of being the first interactive album in history…. which is about the only distinguished thing about it. It bombed in the charts and bombed even harder with the critics, with All Music describing it as “music designed to fall through the cracks.” Hardline Rundgren fans may rave about its inventiveness, but everyone else would do well to avoid it.
18. The Individualist
Coming as it did after the divisive No World Order, hopes weren’t running particularly high for The Individualist. Which is fortunate, as it would have dashed them in an instant. Lyrically, Rundgren has rarely been quite so overtly political, using the bulk of the material to express his disdain for conservatism. And that, in a nutshell, is the album’s downfall. Instead of trying to engage the listener, it preaches to them instead. There’s also the slightly thorny issue of Rundgren’s rapping on several songs, the less said about which, the better.
17. With a Twist…
Rundgren released two albums in 2011, neither of which is particularly good. The second is With a Twist… . In theory, it should have been excellent. For a start, it does away with a lot of the digital explorations that had blighted Rundgren’s output since the 1990s, replacing it with low-key, skeletal arrangements. The decision to rework some of his best-remembered songs like Hello, It’s Me, I Saw the Light, and A Dream Goes on Forever as acoustic lounge songs also sounds intriguing… on paper. In reality, it’s boring, with too little imagination and too many bad puns to make it anything but painful.
Initiation, Rundgren’s sixth solo effort, is the first of his solo albums to fully embrace the synthesized prog sound he’d pioneered with Utopia. It gets off to an incredible start with the transcendent opener, Real Man, a truly astonishing song that showcases his exemplary knack for songcraft. But then it all gets a little muddy. You can’t blame Rundgren for experimenting, but you can when it comes at the cost of constructing an album that actually does what it says on the tin. There are flashes of brilliance, but there are too many stops and starts and meandering side journeys for it to hold together.
15. Up Against It!
Rundgren’s first album of 1997, Up Against It!, largely consists of song demos he recorded between 1986 and 1989 for the theater adaption of Joe Orton’s 1960’s screenplay, Up Against It. The screenplay was intended to be used as the basis for the Beatles’ third film, but it never got made. In a lot of people’s minds, it would have been better if Rundgren’s album hadn’t either. The cover seems to have been made with the specific intention of scaring buyers away, but those foolhardy enough to buy it anyway will find a distinctly underwhelming album that’s at best average and at worst pointless.
14. 2nd Wind
2nd Wind, Rundgren’s second album after Nearly Human to be made with a full band, was recorded under studio conditions in front of a live audience at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, California. Set wise, it’s consists of a selection of up-tempo R&B, pop-rock, and a few slightly operatic numbers. There’s nothing here to offend, but equally, there’s not a lot to rave about either, with enough fodder to keep the devoted happy, but not enough to entice more casual listeners.
13. One Long Year
Rundgren spent the last few years of the 1990s distributing his music to subscribers of his net service, Patronet. In 2000, he decided to give the recordings a wider release by packing them into an album. One Long Year isn’t in the same class as his pre-90s material, but there’s still plenty to sink your teeth into, including the goofy but hugely infectious I Hate My Frickin ISP and the gleefully sleazy Yer Fast (And I Like It).
12. A Cappella
Rundgren had to fight tooth and nail with Bearsville to get A Cappella released. In fairness, you can understand their trepidation – every sound on the album is created using Rundgren’s voice, with Rundgren utilizing overdubbing techniques and studio trickery to emulate the sound of conventional instruments. It was a weird thing to do, and clearly too weird for Bearsville to handle. But taking risks is something Rundgren has built his entire career on, and here, it pays off, resulting in something very unexpected, but very special.
Following in the wake of the exceptional Hermit of Mink Hollow, Healing had a lot to live up to. It didn’t disappoint. Described by Rolling Stone as a “sublime, subliminally incandescent album,” it’s a far gentler and more hushed affair than the music Rundgren was making with Utopia at the time, but it has enough moments of genuine brilliance to be equally jaw-dropping.
10. The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect may have been made purely at the behest of Rundgren’s label, but while he made it begrudgingly and has expressed disdain for it since, it’s still an incredibly accomplished effort. It might not be a top-tier masterpiece like Something/Anything or A Wizard, A True Star, but it could easily pass for a second tier one, with a compelling mix of the bonkers (Bang on the Drum All Day) and the brilliant (Chant, Hideaway, There Goes Your Baybay)
If Initiation is an odd album, its follow-up, 1976’s Faithful, is flat out bizarre – or rather, the first side is. The second is a relatively straightforward, remarkably strong collection of pop tunes that hark back to the delights of Something/ Anything. If the entire album had consisted of the same kind of material, it would be an easier-to-understand record and, arguably, a higher ranking one. But it’s the first side that sets the tone, and the first side that leaves listeners baffled, bemused, and bewildered in equal measure. It consists of a selection of classic 60’s songs that, rather than simply cover, Rundgren has endeavored to recreate right down to the very last handclap. When the experiment bears fruit – as it does on the Beatles’ Rain – it’s very tasty indeed. When it doesn’t – as on the self-indulgent rendition of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – it’s painful.
8. Nearly Human
After a 4 year break from his solo career, Rundgren returned in 1989 with Nearly Human. An irresistible blend of sumptuous slow-burning Philly blue-eyed soul and infectiously sweet pop candy, it found Rundgren in better form than he’d been in years – and unfortunately, would be for a very long time again.
After Rundgren lost the plot circa 1993 and started doing strange things with interactive albums and computer technology, most people started to give up hope of there ever being another listenable Todd Rundgren album. But a few kept the candle burning, and in 2004, their faith was rewarded with the sublime Liar. It’s too long by half, but given the superbly catchy, impeccably crafted nature of the content, it’s still impossible to resist.
A Wizard, A True Star is, without question, a stunning accomplishment. But it’s also demanding, and by the time Rundgren came to release its follow-up, a lot of people were hoping for something a little less taxing. They didn’t get it. Todd was the point that Rundgren quit pretending to aim for the mainstream and spelled out his cult credentials loud and clear. By the end of it, you’ll wonder how he’s not tucked up in a padded cell wearing a straight jacket. But there can be genius in madness, and Todd is full of both.
Rundgren rarely troubles the charts, but in 1970, he scored a rare hit with the top 20 smash, We Gotta Get You a Woman. The rest of Runt is equally accessible, with an intriguing blend of styles that take us from the candyfloss pop of Baby Let’s Swing to the hard-rocking Who’s That Man. It doesn’t have very much in common with the experimentally radical nature of his subsequent albums, but as debuts go, it’s very hard to fault.
4. Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren
If you’re looking for the perfect pop album, look no further than Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. A focused, melodic collection of irresistible pop tunes and introspective ballads, it gives us Rundgren as a sensitive but bold performer with a musical virtuosity that’s almost without equal. Listen out for the sensational Bleeding and Long Flowing Robe in particular.
3. Hermit of Mink Hollow
After A Wizard, A True Star, Rundgren lost a little bit of his mojo, making increasingly inaccessible albums that tested the patience of both his record label and his fans. But he was still capable of delivering the goods, and in 1978, he proved it with the delightful Hermit of Mink Hollow. A back to basics, cohesive collection of songs that, by Rundgren’s standards, could easily pass for straightforward, it’s a very enjoyable, very approachable album that’s stood the test of time remarkably well.
2. A Wizard, A True Star
By 1973, a combination of heavy drug use and a restless spirit drove Rundgren to abandon the straightforward pop songs of his previous album, Something/Anything, and start pushing the boundaries of song making. The result, A Wizard, A True Star, managed to cut his audience in half in one fell swoop. It’s definitely not an album for everyone, but for those whose minds run a certain way, it’s a revelation. Described by The Guardian as a “final testament to the powerful musical and emotional emancipations of the 60s,” it’s since been credited as an influence on legions of bands, including Tame Impala, Simian Mobile Disco, Daft Punk, and Hot Chip.
With three albums under his belt, Rundgren decided that there was nothing that studio musicians could do that he couldn’t do better and promptly got rid of them. What followed is a masterpiece. Credited by Rundgren to be the result of a diet of mushrooms, peyote, and Ritalin, Something/Anything is a many splendid thing. Described by Rolling Stone as Rundgren’s “best-selling, most-enduring work born of desperation,” by All Music as a “mind-altering trip,” by Pitchfork as “the definitive showcase of his gifts,” and by anyone who’s ever heard it as the best thing Rundgren has ever committed to tape, it’s a singular, sparkling masterpiece.