How can get rock-solid acts be great again? -- EW's David Browne has advice for Radiohead, Lauryn Hill, and other critically lauded acts

By David Browne
Updated January 17, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

How can get rock-solid acts be great again?

Everybody’s entitled to make a bad album; it happens to the best musicians. But what to do when one wrong-turn disc becomes two or three — or when a favorite artist seems to have gone AWOL? In the spirit of the new year and all that turning-over-a-new-leaf stuff, let’s offer up a few suggestions for how some wayward talents can repair their sonic reputations.

Two words: more samples. On his earliest albums, Norman Cook was a musical Dr. Frankenstein, crafting new, often astonishing tracks out of bits and pieces of other tunes (many of them obscure soul or rock oldies). But last fall’s uninspired Palookaville relied too much on freshly cut human voices instead of recycled snippets, and one result of this miscue was a shockingly bland remake of Steve Miller’s ”The Joker” (in itself a too obvious remake for the Fatman). Cook needs to remember that he’s best as the Jon Stewart of pop: tweaking what already exists to create something even more clever and entertaining.

A new album will supposedly show its face this year, and let’s hope this one finally lives up to the promise of the now seven-year-old The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. (The underdeveloped ballads and interminable spoken-word bits of her MTV Unplugged set surely didn’t.) Hill needs to plug back into that swirl of R&B, hip-hop, and reggae that made her solo debut so sternly delectable. She should put herself in the studio with producers like Just Blaze or relative veterans like Dr. Dre, Timbaland, or Rodney Jerkins, who’ll give her the muscular backbeat that works so well for her; leave the acoustic-troubadour ramblings to India.Arie. As for those rumors of a new Fugees project: Don’t do it. Lauryn, repeat after me: I do not need Pras. (And Wyclef Jean, another errant talent, should stop trying to prove he can do it all. Instead, why not make that pure reggae album we know he has in him, especially after his sharp performance at the post-9/11 all-star tribute?)

They haven’t made a brilliant album since OK Computer or even a truly significant one since its follow-up, Kid A. Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and the gang need to either take the guitars back out of the closet or, conversely, make a straight-up electronic disc. What they’ve been doing lately — creating a mushy middle ground between those two styles — isn’t working. It’s also about time Yorke took a cue from late-’90s Michael Stipe and started penning more direct, less obtuse lyrics.

Simply put, she needs to release something. Anything. Her Extraordinary Machine is at least six months late, with no current unveiling date. But the two tracks that leaked out, the title song and ”Better Version of Me,” were tantalizing, brazenly eccentric art pop, and almost compensated for the fact that we haven’t heard from her in over five years — which is at least four too many. With Apple, the weirder, the better.

Years of half-baked, only intermittently rewarding side projects are making the glories of ”C.R.E.A.M.” and the best bits of Wu-Tang Forever and even 2001’s spotty Iron Flag fade into distant memory. What hip-hop’s preeminent musical posse needs to do is (a) cancel all the solo-album contracts and (b) reunite to make a true, glorious, window-rattling group attack, perhaps in tribute to ODB. Whether they want to include more of their mystifying kung-fu-flick philosophical mutterings is up to them.

Speaking of reunions, here’s what these rock & roll leather faces need to do if they insist on making albums of new material. Forget the trendy producers and any attempts at competing with the kids. Bring back Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor and record a loud, sloppy, white-blues grand farewell that recaptures so much of what we loved about some of their best work. And then retire.

Multitalented as he was, the man needs to stop releasing records, especially since he’s been dead for nearly a decade. Okay, it’s not his fault, but then again, he shouldn’t have left behind so many rhymes. It’s time for the 2Pac boxed set — and then nothing more.