If you’ve only touched on the surface of Todd Rundgren’s career, you’ll probably know him as the pop craftsman behind hits like “I Saw the Light” and “Bang on the Drum All Day.” But Todd Rundgren is a lot more than simply a good songwriter. He’s a maverick, a rock and roll pioneer whose experiments with pop, rock, soul, and studio gadgetry have been baffling, bemusing, and entertaining us for the best part of six decades. His music isn’t always approachable and it’s rarely commercial, but it’s always essential listening. Here, we pay tribute to one of rock’s biggest overachievers as we count down the top 10 Todd Rundgren albums of all time.
#10 – The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect was hammered out begrudgingly, in a rush, and purely as a means to satisfy the record label’s demands for a solo record. If the title wasn’t enough of a clue to Todd Rundgren’s feelings about the album, the fact he later disowned it spells things out. But while Todd Rundgren might not be a fan, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy what’s essentially a very fine collection of pop songs. There’s not a great deal of cohesion and some songs are at best throwaway (a nice but essentially uninteresting cover of the Small Faces’ “Tin Soldier”) and at worse completely bonkers (the goofy “Bang on the Drum All Day,” which, somewhat inexplicably, managed to become a major hit), but dig beneath the surface and there’s enough irresistible pop candy in the likes of “There Goes Your Baybay,” “Hideaway,” and “Chant” to keep us satisfied.
#9 – Faithful
Trying to make sense of Faithful is a fool’s errand. Even for Todd Rundgren, it’s a strange album. One side is entirely dedicated to covers… or, to be more accurate, re-creations. Todd Rundgren makes no attempt to add his own twist to the songs, preferring to faithfully replicate the dynamics of the originals to the letter. When it works – such as on the exceptionally lovely “Rain” by The Beatles – it’s a ton of fun. When it doesn’t – on the almost painful “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys – it feels like an uncomfortable exercise in self-indulgence. Ultimately, though, it’s the originals on the other side of the album that carries the whole thing. For the first time since Something/ Anything, Todd Rundgren gives himself permission to write some straightforward pop songs… and, even more surprisingly, deliver them as such. There might be a couple of moments where you wish he’d go easy on the embellishments, but the overall result is luscious.
#8 – Nearly Human
After a brief hiatus from recording, Todd Rundgren returned to the studio in 1989 to deliver his first album of new material in four years. The entire thing was recorded live in the studio – a decision that could have falling flat on its face, but which actually complements the slow-burning, soul-baring nature of the songs perfectly. A sumptuous blend of Philly blue-eyed soul and deliciously sweet pop, Nearly Human is a lovely, accessible album that finds Todd Rundgren in better form than he’d been in years.
#7 – Liars
By the time Liars came along in 2004, most people had given up hope of Todd Rundgren ever producing a listenable album again. But after 15 years of baffling albums like TR-i and With a Twist, Todd Rundgren was clearly in the mood for a change. And thank the Lord for that. Expertly conceived and flawlessly executed, Liars is a superbly catchy, gorgeously tuneful collection of tracks that showcases Todd Rundgren’s gift for songcraft. It might be far too long, but it never fails to be absorbing. A very fine album, and a very fine comeback.
#6 – Todd
A Wizard, A True Star was a stunning creation, but it was also hard work. Hard work to make, and at times, hard work to listen to. It was worth the effort, but it was the sonic equivalent of two hours at the gym. Understandably, a lot of fans were hoping for a slightly easier ride with its follow-up. Fat chance. Todd was where Todd Rundgren gave up any pretense of catering to the masses and went flat-out weird. Synth prog tunes collide with multi-layered guitar solos, instrumental tracks butt heads with novelty songs, and every now and then, a classic pop tune raises its head. It feels less like an album than a descent into madness. For some people, the descent wasn’t worth taking. For more adventurous souls, gems like the dreamy “A Dream Goes on Forever” made it a rough but rewarding ride.
#5 – Runt
For fans of Rundgren’s later output with Utopia, his debut solo album, Runt, is easy to dismiss. There’s a lot of classic blues-rock, a lot of standard boy meets girl songs, and only a hint of the experimental, expressive sound that Todd Rundgren would later come to own. For fans who think that Todd Rundgren lost the plot when he started to rely more on production than on songcraft, it’s another matter entirely. The truth is, it’s neither a masterpiece nor a travesty. There are a few missteps (largely when he lets the gadgets take over), but there’s plenty to love too. His talent for blending different styles is frankly awe-inspiring, resulting in an album that meanders effortlessly from hard rocking numbers like “Who’s That Man?” to classic pop tunes like “Baby Let’s Swing.” And then, of course, there’s the deliciously mischievous “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” a song that gave Todd Rundgren his first Top 20 hit on the Billboard 100. His signature sound may not have been fully formed, but as debuts go, it’s hugely impressive.
#4 – Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren
Todd Rundgren’s sophomore album, Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, finds Rundgren in a soul-baring mood. Production-wise, it’s less diverse than its predecessor, but that’s no bad thing. Todd Rundgren’s newfound love of marijuana sees him take us on some strange adventures at times (the distinctly odd “Parole,” for example), but with the goofy lyrics of “Chain Letter” and the stop-start grooves of “Bleeding,” we get a real sense of where his future lies. “Don’t take yourself too seriously/There are precious few things worth hating nowadays/And none of them are me” he sings on “Chain Letter” – with tunes like these in his back catalog, we’ll take his word for it.
#3 – Hermit of Mink Hollow
After 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star, Todd Rundgren’s solo career took a turn. The albums weren’t bad (although the synth-laden, overblown Initiation probably wasn’t the best decision he ever made) but in comparison to some of his earlier efforts, they weren’t great either. And then along came Hermit of Mink Hollow, a straightforward, back-to-basics album that manages to jump from Motown to pop, bossa to rock without once losing its sense of cohesion. Lyrically,Todd Rundgren doesn’t sound in a particularly happy place, but there are enough little flashes of irony and humor on tracks like “Onomatopoeia” to stop it from descending into darkness. Of course the standout track is the most relatable “Can We Still Be Friends.”
#2 – A Wizard, A True Star
By 1973, Todd Rundgren was doing all kinds of things with recreational drugs that weren’t at all good for his health but that did wonders for his creative output. Whereas 1972’s Something/Anything was littered with enough straightforward pop hits to keep things accessible, its follow-up, A Wizard, A True Star, needed a certain kind of mind to appreciate. Unfortunately, those minds were few and far between in the early 1970s, and in just one album, Todd Rundgren managed to lose about half of his audience. His decision not to release any singles from the album (which he believed was better listened to in its entirety) didn’t exactly help its commercial appeal either. Neither did its almost 56-minute running time.
Basically, it was a record label’s worst nightmare. Had it been released today, he’d have been dropped like a hot potato. Obviously, none of this makes it a bad album. It’s not. If anything, it’s a psychedelic masterpiece. It’s complex, confounding, almost unnerving at times, but that’s the point. It’s a trip, literally, figuratively, and any other which way you choose to describe it. It’s also a showcase for his fine, fine songwriting, which, on tracks like “International Feel”, “Does Anybody Love You?”, and “Just One Victory,” shines through brighter than ever before.
#1 – Something/Anything
Three albums into his career, and Todd Rundgren had had a belly full of studio musicians. So he got rid of them. These days, it’s not unheard of for artists to play every instrument on their albums – overdubbing has got easier, editing has got slicker, and the overall process is a lot less complicated. But back in 1972, it was practically unheard of. In fairness, a few studio musicians do make an appearance on Something/Anything’s fourth side, but considering that follows in the wake of three sides of Rundgren, Rundgren, and yet more Rundgren, we’ll overlook it.
The musical virtuoso alone would be enough to get the album a free pass to the top spot, but the range of styles and mind-bending creativity take things next level. Rundgren has credited a combination of mushrooms, peyote, and Ritalin to the album’s complexity. Whatever it was, the result is epic. On tracks like “Breathless,” “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” Todd Rundgren does things no single person should be capable of. How he does it is a question between him and his maker. How anyone can get through life without listening to it is a question between them and theirs.
Top 10 Todd Rundgren Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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