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There’s No Stopping The Cretins from Hopping: Rating the Ramones

For those of us who love rock ‘n’ roll music and are on the wrong side of fifty, the music of the Ramones has become so much a fundamental building block of punk rock and its various spin offs (pop punk, garage punk, horror punk, hardcore, riot grrrl, etc.) that it is difficult to imagine a world in which they didn’t exist. As rock critic Richard Riegel stated in Creem magazine in 1977, “The Ramones are the tradition-smashing, door-opening Beatles of New York Rock.”  The band never had a Top Forty single or a platinum album, yet it’s almost impossible to overstate their impact from the Sex Pistols to Green Day and beyond.  

In the interest of love and science, I decided to revisit the mere fourteen Ramones studio albums and rank them from worst to best. In the Gabba Gabba spirit, I’ll keep this intro short.

One, two, three, four!  

14. “Halfway to Sanity.” Producers: Daniel Rey/the Ramones; Sire Records; 1987. Over a decade into the touring life and with no signs of a commercial breakthrough, the Ramones sound emotionally spent on “Halfway to Sanity.” Many of the songs fall into a more traditional hard rock zone (“I Wanna Live,” “Garden of Serenity”) than punk, which is no crime if the material isn’t a plate of undercooked waffles. I would love to know what kind of blackmail Joey Ramone had on Debbie Harry (“Remember that night you took acid and bathed in peanut butter? I got pics!”) to get her vocals on the lifeless “Go Lil’ Camaro Go.” Favorite musical quote – the way “A Real Cool Time” nicks the chords from Cheap Trick’s “So Good to See You.” Essential Songs: None. Grade – C.  

13.  “Adios Amigos!” Producer: Daniel Rey; Radioactive Records; 1995. The band’s swan song album features bassist C.J. Ramone on vocals on four tracks, who “sings” with phrasing similar to “Metal Mike” Saunders of the Angry Samoans. Songwriter Dee Dee Ramone recycled the chorus of 1982’s “Psycho Therapy” for “Cretin Family” and Milwaukee based pro wrestler Reggie Lisowski got a salute with “The Crusher.” This album isn’t a dog’s breakfast, but the lack of hummable melodies is a significant problem. Essential Song: the cover of Tom Waits’ and Kathleen Brennan’s “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” Grade B-  

12.  “Mondo Bizarro .”  Producer: Ed Stasium; Radioactive Records; 1992. The highlights of this album are the anti-censorship opener “Censorshit” and the “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” rewrite closer “Touring,” a reminder of better days. “The Job That Ate My Brain” is a fun number and the Doors cover “Take It As It Comes” has one of the trashiest and fastest organ solos you’ll ever hear. The two vocals by C.J. Ramone are the album equivalent of new material by an oldies act at a live gig – an automatic bathroom break. I’m possibly underrating this effort (a Robert Christgau A-). Nothing sounds bad or embarrassing. There just aren’t any real peaks either. Essential Songs: None. Grade B-  

11. “Subterranean Jungle.” Producers: Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin; Sire Records; 1983. Producer Ritchie Cordell penned hits for Tommy James & the Shondells (“Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now”) in the 1960s and also had success with bubblegum records by The 1910 Fruitgum Company (“Indian Giver”) and Crazy Elephant (“Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’”). He brought a pop sensibility to the production, but the thinner than Twiggy drum sound takes a lot of wind out of the band. Also, the covers of “Little Bit O’ Soul” and “Time Has Come Today” sound perfectly ok, but would be eaten alive in side by side comparisons to the originals. Alternately, the misfit “Outsider,” the regular guy “Somebody Like Me” and the hangout “In the Park” are solid Ramones tunes that overcome the toilet tissue quality drum sound. Essential Song: the gimme gimme shock treatment of “Psycho Therapy.” Grade: B-  

10.  “Brain Drain.” Producers: Bill Laswell, Jean Beauvoir, and Daniel Rey; Sire Records; 1989. Nothing on this album to throw tomatoes at although there is a copy/paste whiff of déjà vu to tunes like “Zero Zero UFO,” “Don’t Bust My Chops,” and “Listen to Learn.” “Pet Sematary” was penned at the behest of Stephen King, based on his same named 1983 horror novel. Lyrically, I have no idea what a dog graveyard has to do with fear of reincarnation, but at least the chorus has an actual melody. On the plus side, there’s a 120 mph cover of “Palisades Park,” clearly a seminal influence on the band. Essential Songs: the hopeful “I Believe in Miracles” and the Yuletide fave “Merry Christmas (I Don’t’ Want to Fight Tonight),” which doesn’t even seem to ponder the possibility of makeup sex.  Grade: B  

9.  “Acid Eaters.” Producer: Scott Hackwith; Radioactive Records; 1993. Albums comprised solely of cover songs always sound like a fun idea and then inevitably feel like thrift store underwear. I mean, didn’t we like the originals because they were already good?  Also, if you want to nosedive into this rabbit hole, go for something obscure that makes the listener chase down an artist or song that is new to them. In 1993, the world needed a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” like Brad Pitt needed a dating app. Still, “Surf City” is fun, “7 & & Is” projects nice chaos, and “My Back Pages” is funny conceptually and in practice.  Essential song: the propulsive bad moon rising of  “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” previously covered by the Minutemen way back in 1985. Grade: B  

8.  “Animal Boy.” Producer: Jean Beauvoir; Sire Records; 1986. The common observation/complaint that “all Ramones songs sound alike” is (a) not true (spin “Blitzkrieg Bop and “Questioningly” back to back) and (b) not the most untrue statement ever made. So, I can’t testify under oath that there’s a river deep/mountain high difference in quality between say this album and “Subterranean Jungle.” It comes down to a few peaks when we are working within these somewhat narrow parameters and, for me, the spitting moral outrage of “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” ranks as one of da brudders’ best songs. Also, dig the irony of junkie Dee Dee Ramone moralizing about smack on “Love Kills” and the snarling vocals by Joey on “Somebody Put Something in My Drink.” Essential Songs: the Johnny hated “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” and the perpetually wistful “Something to Believe In.” Grade: B+  

7.  “Pleasant Dreams.” Producer Graham Gouldman; Sire Records; 1981. 10cc songwriter/producer Graham Gouldman was brought in to give the Ramones more of a classic pop sound on the “Pleasant Dreams” album. However, since the album sounded nothing like the glossy pop Top 40 hits of its era (think “Bette Davis Eyes” or “Kiss on My List” or, god forbid “Keep on Lovin’ You”), it’s hard to comprehend the upside in the theoretical commercial concessions. Gouldman’s lighter touch perhaps worked best on the slurpee ballad “7-11” (rhymes with “seventh heaven”) and the opener “We Want the Airwaves” is a solid statement of misplaced desire. Essential Songs: the alternate lifestyle “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)” and the intra-band jealousy bopper “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” Grade: B+  

6.  “End of the Century.” Producer: Phil Spector; Sire Records; 1980. Lotta people HATED this album with a pea purple passion when it came out. The coupling of the Ramones bareboned minimalism and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound seemed like a shotgun marriage arranged in Pine Bluff, Arkansas (due to the output of a local paper mill, the entire city smells like a burning fart). While the Heartbreakers own “Chinese Rock” and the Ronettes own “Baby I Love You,” both are fine songs and the latter recording gave the boys a Top Ten U.K. single. Highlights include the puppy love as mental illness “I’m Affected” and the eternal “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” which was better before Spector got his mitts on it (that is, on the 1979 film soundtrack produced by Ed Stasium). Essential song: the heartfelt homesick blues of “Danny Says.” Grade B+  

5.  “Too Tough to Die.” Producers: Tom Erdelyi and Ed Stasium; Sire Records; 1984. Brothers and sisters, this album was a fresh breath of new leather in 1984. For the first time in years, the band seemed inspired, committed, at the top of their game. Songs run the gamut from Dee Dee’s demented punk rocker “Wart Hog” to the virtual power pop of “Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love).” Production values do shift from the gritty “Endless Vacation” to the modern pop sheen of “Howling at the Moon (Sha La La),” but pretty much everything works due to the quality of the material and the renewed sense of purpose. A solid, solid album. One that could cower a pack of rabid Dobermans. Essential Songs: the secret nerd/closet lame “Mama’s Boy” and the poor man’s struggle/killer’s knife of “I’m Not Afraid of Life.” Grade – A  

4.  “Road to Ruin.” Producers: Tom Erdelyi and Ed Stasium; Sire Records; 1978.  Has any band ever released four albums out of the gate as good as the quartet of releases from the Ramones between 1976 and 1978? This may be the weakest of the bunch, but that’s just a testament to how brilliant the first three albums are. The Ramones sounded decidedly less frantic on “Road to Ruin” (who would have expected a first-rate country weeper like “Questioningly”?), but still very much in their defined aesthetic with adrenaline surges like “She’s the One” and “I’m Against It.” Also, songs like “I Just Want to Have Something to Do,” “I Wanted Everything,” and “It’s a Long Way Back” confront the basic human emotions of loneliness, jealousy, and loss.  Essential Song: “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Grade – A  

3.  “Leave Home.” Producers: Tony Bongiovi and Tom Erdelyi; Sire Records; 1977. Some critics complained that the Ramones second album was too much of a “second verse, same as the first” in the content department. However, “Leave Home” includes several classic Ramones songs, and it has brighter production values than the debut release. “I Remember You” sounds like a lost Top 40 hit and displays what a fine vocalist Joey could be. “Pinhead” is pure Ramones stoopid brilliance, with the “Gabba Gabba Hey” chant inspired by a 1930’s horror film. “California Sun” shows off their delicious junk rock roots and “Commando” makes me want to salute my nearest Jewish deli. As sequels go, this isn’t “The Godfather: Part II,” but it’s miles away from “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” Essential Songs: At the least – “Glad to See You Go,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and “Commando.” Grade – A  

2.  “Rocket to Russia.” Tony Bongiovi and Tom Erdelyi; Sire Records; 1977. At this point, you are saying, “Steve, you ranked ‘End of the Century’ as the sixth best Ramones album? How can we trust you on ANYTHING?” Fine point, so let’s send this over to the free lunch crowd.  Dave Marsh, “The best American rock & roll of the year and possibly the funniest rock album ever made.” Billy Altman, “The production on this record is dynamite – more crunch to the guitars, more presence to the drums, more boom to the bass, great percussion (love those sleigh bells), and everything about it is just superb. This is the best album the Ramones have done and that’s sayin’ a lot.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “The abundance of hooks and slight variety in tempos makes ‘Rocket to Russia’ the Ramones’ most listenable and enjoyable album — it doesn’t have the revolutionary impact of ‘The Ramones,’ but it’s a better album and one of the finest records of the late ’70s.” Robert Christgau, “There’s something for everyone on this ready-made punk-rock classic.” Essential Songs: “Cretin Hop,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “We’re a Happy Family,” “Teenage Lobotomy.”  Grade – A+  

1.  “Ramones.” Producers: Craig Leon and Tom Erdelyi; Sire Records; 1976. This is the blueprint. The baseline. The twenty-nine minutes and four seconds that served as a revolution, sending shockwaves throughout the U.S. and beyond. Besides expanding the sound of rock ‘n’ roll by excluding any excess, the band served as a psychological safe haven for generations of misfit kids who weren’t interested in being the football quarterback or the prom queen. The sound and look of the Ramones were so foreign in 1976 as to be an actual threat to the establishment. People weren’t ready to understand that the chant from “Blitzkrieg Bop” was inspired by the Bay City Rollers or the inherent irony of a Jewish kid singing “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am.” Besides being chocked full of great songs, there’s a commitment in the playing that conveys a love for music, a love of performance, and the hope for a world where people dance in the streets out of pure joy and happiness. God Save the Ramones. Essential Songs: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy Is a Punk,” “Loudmouth,” “Havana Affair,” “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.” Grade A+  

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