Today I'll be talking about a musical legend. And a comedy legend. And a certified genius (Seriously, he skipped second grade and was senior year valedictorian at sixteen).
Weird Al Yankovic burst into the American lexicon in 1984 with an off-beat parody of a Michael Jackson hit, and has somehow managed to build a hugely successful thirty-plus-year career lampooning our most cherished pop music stars. As an eight-year-old Michael Jackson fanatic I was initially offended that anyone would parody one of his songs, but Al won me over when I first saw the video for "Eat It." Here was a dorky, bespectacled nerd mimicking all of Jackson's dance moves (badly I might add) and conjuring comedy from already-tired rock video imagery. By age twelve I'd bought all of Al's records, and I've been a huge fan ever since. In 2000 I got to see Al from the front row, and he even yelled at me for not singing along to "Dare to Be Stupid." It was indeed a privilege. A new Weird Al CD is event listening in my house (for me anyway, my wife is non-committal). Despite originating as a novelty act, Weird Al has endured three decades and shows no signs of stopping. For many artists, being parodied by Al is a badge of honor, a sign that they've truly "made it." Al is like a pop culture mirror, making light of all the silly fads we as a society cling to. Here now are my ten favorite Weird Al Yankovic albums....
10. UHF - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff
The soundtrack to Al's 1989 summer flop sadly didn't fare much better than its film counterpart, but it did contain some fun parodies and solid originals, plus a few snippets of the film itself. Al's spoof of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," which is essentially the Beverly Hillbillies theme set to different music, was accompanied by an excellent sendup of the Straits video. Other highlights were "Spam," based on REM's "Stand," and two hilarious originals, "Generic Blues," which literally just recycles all the woe-is-me blues lyrical tropes, and folk-rock epic "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota," which recounts in great detail a trip to go see the World's Largest Twine Ball (Yes, such a thing actually exists). Released at a time when a) the summer movie season was quite cluttered (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Star Trek V, and Lethal Weapon 2), and b) Weird Al's record sales were somewhat contingent on including a Michael Jackson parody, this album and film kinda got lost in the shuffle. But it's not too shabby at all and shows evidence of Al's growth as a musician.
Key Tracks: Generic Blues, Spam, The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota
9. Dare to Be Stupid
Al's third album, and the first musical comedy album to see a CD release, showed that Al was growing beyond his reputation as "that funny guy who does the Michael Jackson parody." With songs like "Like a Surgeon," "I Want a New Duck," and the superb "Yoda" (based on The Kinks' "Lola"), Al was attempting to last beyond the fifteen-minute lifespan most gave him. But it's in the original songs where this album really achieves. Style parodies like the doo-wop ballad "One More Minute" and the Devo-inspired title track demonstrated Al's gift for recreating different genres (Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh once said that "Dare to Be Stupid" captured the exact sound he himself had been trying to create).
Key Tracks: Dare to Be Stupid, One More Minute, Yoda
8. Off the Deep End
Off the Deep End might be the most important album in Al's career, as far as ensuring his lasting success. Weird Al became famous for sending up Michael Jackson, and for years his prosperity hinged on Jackson releasing new material. After fading into obscurity in 1986 and surging again parodying Jackson's "Bad," Al desperately needed to prove he could make a hit record without Michael Jackson's music, and it turned out Nirvana's smash-hit single gave him the fuel he needed. "Smells Like Nirvana" was an enormous hit single and video, and made Al a household name once again while proving him much more than a one-trick pony. Off the Deep End also included the MC Hammer parody "I Can't Watch This," and two excellent originals in the hard rocker "When I Was Your Age" and the the somber-but-hilarious folk ballad "You Don't Love Me Anymore." Al's staying power was now assured and his 90s catalog would show off his diversity and adaptability.
Key Tracks: Smells Like Nirvana, When I Was Your Age, You Don't Love Me Anymore
7. Mandatory Fun
Al's latest album, and amazingly his first to hit #1 on the Billboard chart, featured a bevy of topical song parodies including the grammatical rebuke "Word Crimes" (based on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"), the ode to laziness "Inactive" (Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive"), and my personal favorite, the anthem for those with poor taste, "Tacky" (based on Pharell Williams' "Happy"). Additionally the record boasted strong and varied originals like "Sports Song," a parody of all football fight songs, "Lame Claim to Fame," a song about people who name-drop, and an ingenius sendup of the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic "Suite Judy Blue-Eyes," the corporate jargon-saturated "Mission Statement." Thirty-plus years into his career, Mandatory Fun proved Weird Al just as relevant as ever, and as a long-time fan it was tremendously rewarding to see him finally reach the top of the charts.
Key Tracks: Mission Statement, Inactive, Tacky
6. Weird Al Yankovic
The album that started it all, Al's self-titled debut was produced with a down n' dirty approach. The parodies all feature accordion-heavy accompaniment, in contrast to his later technique of recording the tracks to sound exactly like the originals. This album includes his first-ever parody, "My Bologna" (after The Knack's "My Sharona") which was recorded in the bathroom across from Al's college radio station, as well as the crudely-produced "Another One Rides the Bus" (consisting of Al, his accordion, and drummer Jon Schwarz keeping the beat on Al's accordion case), still one of my favorite Weird Al parodies. Al's debut gained much traction thanks to his friendship with radio host Dr. Demento, and only a year later he'd become a household name.
Key Tracks: My Bologna, Another One Rides the Bus, I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead
5. Poodle Hat
Al's 2003 release was unusual in that for me at least, his originals far outshined the parodies. Supported primarily by the Eminem parody single "Couch Potato" (based on "Lose Yourself"), Poodle Hat nonetheless contained some of Al's best original material to date, including the Bo Diddley-esque "Party at the Leper Colony," the hilariously suggestive Beck tribute "I Wanna B Ur Lover," the Bob Dylan palindrome pastiche "Bob," the epic Frank Zappa takeoff "Genius in France," and one of his greatest works "Hardware Store," featuring impossibly intricate vocal harmonies that showed off Al's considerable songwriting ability. The obligatory polka on this album also grabbed my attention by including several contemporary metal hits, a first for a Weird Al polka. While I'd already been an Al fan for nearly two decades, I think Poodle Hat was the first time I fully appreciated what an accomplished all-around musician Al is and what an amazing ear he has for capturing different styles of music.
Key Tracks: Hardware Store, I Wanna B UR Lover, Ode to a Superhero
4. Even Worse
Al's big comeback took place in 1988 as he returned to what made him famous - making fun of Michael Jackson. For the first time Al not only parodied a hit song but also the album cover. The first single "Fat" (based on Jackson's "Bad") helped propel the album to #27 on the charts and made Even Worse his best-selling album to date. The parody work on this record was first-rate and included "This Song's Just Six Words Long" (after George Harrison's "Got My Mind Set on You") as well as a trio of parodies based on 80s covers of oldies tunes: "Alimony" (based on Billy Idol's cover of "Mony Mony"), "I Think I'm a Clone Now" (based on Tiffany's version of "I Think We're Alone Now"), and "Lasagna" (after the Los Lobos cover of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba"). But the album really shines in its last two full-length songs - a Police style parody called "Velvet Elvis" (which borrows from "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and "Synchronicity II"), and a James Taylor imitation called "Good Old Days" about a sociopath and his destructive childhood tendencies. Even Worse put Weird Al back on the map and brought his career to new heights, to the point that he was even able to make a feature film.
Key Tracks: Fat, Velvet Elvis, Good Old Days
3. Weird Al Yankovic In 3-D
In 3-D was Al's second album and the one that made him a star. On the back of the ingenius Michael Jackson parody "Eat It" (and its hilarious accompanying video), Al's goofy sense of humor and nerdy image were beamed to radios and TVs across the globe. Track-for-track this is a fantastic record, with five excellent parodies ("The Brady Bunch" and "Jeopardy" being arguably the two strongest after "Eat It") and the earliest appearances of Al's style parodies, specifically the B-52s sendup "Mr. Popeil" and the Bob Marley-esque "Buy Me a Condo." Probably the best track on the entire album though is the sinister-sounding closer, "Nature Trail to Hell," about a fictitious 3-D horror film. By any standard, In 3-D was a major accomplishment and helped usher the comedy song parody into the mainstream consciousness.
Key Tracks: Eat It, The Brady Bunch, Nature Trail to Hell
2. Running With Scissors
Al's 1999 release signaled a new look for the musical comic. Gone was his jheri curl hairstyle, thick glasses and 80s mustache. Now Al looked, well, slightly more fashionable. His album somehow seemed a bit edgier too, as though he understood that his fans from the 80s were now older and perhaps hungry for a bit more sophisticated humor. The opening track was a parody of Don McLean's classic "American Pie," with lyrics pertaining to the new smash-hit Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace. To this day "The Saga Begins" is one of my very favorite Weird Al songs and I can't hear the original without substituting Al's Star Wars lyrics in my head. Other highlights include "Jerry Springer" (parodying Barenaked Ladies' "One Week"), Al's Nine Inch Nails style parody "Germs," and his bizarrely wonderful 11-minute opus "Albuquerque." Running With Scissors ushered in a new era, whereby Weird Al was truly a brand unto himself, regardless of what was happening in music or pop culture at the time. Al was able to adapt and reinvent himself to reflect the times.
Key Tracks: The Saga Begins, Jerry Springer, Albuquerque
For me Weird Al's absolute masterpiece is 2011's Alpocalypse. Front-to-back this collection contains multiple parodies that in my opinion actually improve on the original, accentuating the hooky craftsmanship that went into their songwriting (Taylor Swift's "You Belong with Me" is now "TMZ," Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA" is now "Party in the CIA") and some of the strongest Weird Al originals and style parodies in his entire 30-year catalog. Songs like the Weezer-esque "Skipper Dan," the Doors takeoff "Craigslist," the Queen spoof "Ringtone," and the grand finale "Stop Forwarding that Crap to Me" demonstrate what a mammoth talent Mr. Yankovic is. Alpocalypse debuted at #9 on the charts, propelled by a last-minute Lady Gaga parody called "Perform This Way", which Gaga's manager originally rejected without realizing Gaga herself hadn't heard it. It was only after Al posted the song to YouTube that Gaga, a self-avowed Weird Al fan, immediately granted him permission to include the track on the album. Alpocalypse contains plenty of Al's usual hilarity but to me it's also a genuinely compelling work of music by one of the most versatile and gifted artists of the last thirty years. Thus it tops my list as Weird Al's greatest album.
Key Tracks: Skipper Dan, Craigslist, Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me
And there you have it. Here's hoping Al continues building his extraordinary discography for at least another ten years. Did I miss any of your faves? Comment below!
Also stay tuned for Al's Top Ten Songs (both parodies and originals) coming soon!