There’s a fine line between awful and disappointing. It was disappointing when The Who kept on going despite Keith Moon’s death; it’s flat-out awful that the band continues to tour while John Entwistle’s body is still warm. In sports, they say a tie is like kissing your sister: no great loss, but nothing to tell the boys about in the locker room, either. This year saw great artists release albums to long-expectant fans. A few of these brought tremendous delight: Bob Dylan’s Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me , and Tom Waits’ double fantasy of Alice and Blood Money. None of this year’s releases were out-and-out losers, but at least 10 of these albums [how convenient] failed to live up to the high expectations their artists had set for them. And so the following list is by no means a collection of the year’s top offenders or worst albums; each of these records has its merits. Ultimately, however, these are the albums that left the rabid Tuesday-morning-record-buying fans less than elated, as if they were puckering up to their own gene pool.
1. Bruce Springsteen, The Rising (Columbia)
It might sound like sacrilege to show any disrespect to America’s greatest prophet (all right, second after Dylan), especially when he writes an album in tribute to and honor of the events of 9/11. But, let’s not forget, even the E-Street Band has enough self-respect not to have their name featured on this album’s sleeve. Sure, producer extraordinaire Brendan O’Brien’s name is easy to find on the back cover, and that’s the beginning of the problem called The Rising. Springsteen, with or without band, has never been about studio trickery, but instead has based his artistry on the straightforward integrity that turns “I would drive all night/Just to buy you some shoes” into one of the most romantic couplets of all time. Someone have mentioned this to the savvy O’Brien, who uses more than half of the album’s songs to showcase his studio wizardry instead of the songs themselves. But it is not production alone that makes The Rising such a disappointment. The E Street Band of old would have ripped the cover off of “Mary’s Place”; the album’s version fails to go anywhere, like a local train derailed. The lyrical Boss that we once knew engaged us all with his story-songs of striking detail, bringing to life the tales of Crazy Janey and John Wayne Gacy alike. Yet on The Rising, the lyrics are far more detached; instead of employing vague generality to describe our shared human condition, the songs come across as incomplete vignettes of characters Springsteen didn’t even have the inclination to name. In all fairness to Bruce—and he certainly deserves it—there are some great aspects to this record. First and foremost is Bruce’s turn as R&B singer, shedding an interesting new side of the Boss on “Waitin’ for a Sunny Day” and “Let’s Be Friends”. The Jersey Gospel of “My City of Ruins” is one of the most powerful songs Springsteen has either written or recorded. All this would normally be enough to atone for importing Asif Ali Khan and his group to add ill-fitting Islamic chanting to “Worlds Apart”. But set against the backdrop of too-vague songs which all ramble on for one chorus too many, Bruce doesn’t have a chance. He can be applauded for his message, he should be thanked for taking the band back on the road, but no one can look Bruce in the eyes and tell his that The Rising is anything but a disappointment.
2. David Bowie, Heathen (Columbia)
“Heathen” is how one might describe a Bowie fan who has spent the past two decades enduring punchless albums [the ironically-titledNever Let Me Down, the really thin plastic soul of Black Tie, White Noise] yet has the audacity to step forward and pan the self-described “return to form” of Bowie’s recent release, Heathen. After all, this alt-new album featured the musicianship and production of Tony Visconti (who produced Bowie’s early work) as well as long-time guitar cohort Carlos Alomar. Purported to be a return to form, Heathen captures not the excitement of The Man Who Sold the World, but the lack of direction and creativity that plagued 1984’s Tonight. These duds have two common traits: they are unfortunately produced for an anonymous “popular” audience, and their best tracks are cover songs [“Tonight” in the ‘80s, “Cactus” in this century]. The over-arching characteristic of Heathen is that it seems not to take the listener in any direction; “Slow Burn” and “Slip Away” are accurate descriptions of the album’s contents. The opening track “Sunday” builds a soundscape reminiscent of the 70s Berlin collaborations with Eno, yet ultimately fades off into nothingness. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” is a vapid piece of trash, while “I Would be Your Slave” and “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” make one wonder if the Thin White Duke hasn’t gotten lazy and hired a ghostwriter. Although sonically more interesting than the likes of Hours…, Heathen unfortunately returns Bowie to the form of artist past his prime, not genius in his.
3. Sheryl Crow, C’mon, C’mon (A&M)
Although a long time in the making, despite failed recording sessions all across America, there was hope in the air when Sheryl Crow came around to following up the deserved success of The Globe Sessions and a live album featuring Clapton and other “friends”. Herself knowing how to write a dirty lick, eyebrows everywhere were raised to hear the album that offered “special thanks” to none other than Keith Richards. Fans of her songwriting acuity were ready to accept the beach-blanket-bingo sound of the single “Soak Up the Sun” as an understandable nod to pop radio. Expectations were high. Playing the record, fans were instantly rewarded with “Steve McQueen”, a classic theme song without a movie, one of the best tunes that Crow has yet to record. Surely, C’mon, C’mon seemed destined to be yet another incredible Crow album. But by the time fans listen all the way through to the needless and soulless closing track, “Weather Channel”, disappointment is in hand. The great guitar work of “You’re an Original” rolls downhill into an uninspired prom theme called “Safe and Sound”. [Turn on the disco globe]. Soon—and borrowing a page from friend Stevie Nicks’ playbook—there is a duet with Don Henley, which is not only no “Leather and Lace”, but actually sounds more like Tony Orlando and Dawn. The half-naked centerfold of Crow [who used to be about the music] thankfully distracts those who read liner notes from realizing how low Crow’s lyrical integrity has sunk; on “Diamond Road”, she actually seems to think “So don’t miss the diamonds along the way/Every road has led us here today/won’t you shine on” is a chorus worthy of surviving the editorial process. By the time the quality “Hole in My Pocket” arrives, it fails to rescue this aimless collection of songs, instead rubbing salt in the wounds of those who had previously championed Crow’s ability and taste.
4. Pretenders, Loose Screw (Artemis)
Kevin Bacon produced this album. The Pretenders’s website proclaims, “It’s a successful attempt at being modern while maintaining the essence of what has made them a great band.” Chrissie Hynde freely admits that “the songs were written very, very quickly”. The best track on Loose Screw is “Walk Like a Panther”, a 1998 UK #1 single by All Seeing Eye, a song written by Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp. The perennially pissed-off Hynde cuts short a potential classic, “Lie to Me”, before it gets going; she allows herself to wallow in the treacle of “Saving Grace” for too many minutes. Powerful and precise drummer Martin Chambers seems to have spent most of the recording sessions programming uninventive loops at his iMac. Yes, the reggae stylings of “Complex Person” are a stylistic improvement over Hynde’s duet with UB40 on “I Got You Babe”. Yes, there are probably five or six good songs buried in the mess of the aptly-titled Loose Screw. But after the vengeance of Last of the Independents and the genius and class of Viva El Amor!, it unfortunately seems as if Chrissie Hynde has discovered the eternal torment of one degree of separation from mediocrity.
5. Neil Young, Are You Passionate?, (Reprise)
Neil Young deserves credit for his ceaseless commitment to be himself. Never claiming title to “experimentation”, Young’s musical peregrinations have taken him from the forefront of electronica [Trans] to the backwoods of the country[Old Ways]. Despite the merits of his myriad efforts not be nailed into any genre other than “musician”, the products of his musical ramblings are usually less appreciated by his fans then when he straps on his Gibson and plays along with his buddies from Crazy Horse. Blurring the line between old ways and new directions, Young creates the atmosphere for Are You Passionate? by pairing long-time Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro with the classic rhythm section from Stax Records, Duck Dunn and Booker T. Jones. Thus does Neil attempt to reinvent ‘60s soul. The result is a meandering mess: Dunn and Jones should be ashamed of themselves for playing on no fewer than nine “Soul” songs that carry on for longer than five minutes. Did they forget the magic Sam and Dave and Otis could put into 3:33? Forgive that the 9/11 memento “Let’s Roll” steals from Bowie/Lennon/Alomar’s “Fame”; forget the morality play of “Two Old Friends” that takes an awful Gospel rip on Curtis Mayfield’s sanctified “People Get Ready”. Hold back even the irony that the second track is aptly titled “Mr. Disappointment”. Despite my admiration for all that Neil Young has done for music, it must be noted that not even Mr. Soul can improve soul.
6. Foo Fighters, One By One, (RCA)
The question was: are the Foo Fighters the last great hard rock band [powerfully driving through 1997’s The Colour and the Shape], or are they another collection of cutesy, mugging popsters [witness MTV and 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose]? The unexpected answer: they’re just lost. With One By One, it seems as if survivor Dave Grohl has lost more than his drummer to a heroin habit: missing is the sense of direction that characterized every other album he has played on, from Nirvana and Backbeat to Queens of the Stone Age. One By One starts off strong with the sheer power of “All My Life”, which features Grohl’s trademark howl that made “Monkeywrench” one of the great sides of the ‘90s. The album also features the brilliant—and drumless!—track “Tired” that tips its hat to the ethereal guitar work of Brian May. “Overdrive” even seems like the great crossover song that could be a hit on par with “Breakout” and “Learn to Fly”. Yet after repeated listening to these songs, there is an unavoidable sense that they’re incomplete; not uninspired, just lacking the magic and commitment that has made all of Grohl’s other work so deservedly successful. Worse than settling for pop mediocrity, it seems like Grohl has lost a bit of the desire for making a record that really matters. Fans can only hope that he hasn’t lost the magic.
7. The Wallflowers, Red Letter Days (Interscope)
Jakob Dylan teaches that there are “Three Ways” out of every box: “Fall out the bottom/Or you crawl out the top” or, you burn it to the ground. So, how did he follow his own advice, climbing out of the corporate box of trying to top a solid-yet-unsuccessful effort [Bleach] following 1996’s juggernaut Bringing Down the Horse? On Red Letter Days, Dylan’s band takes the middle road, neither releasing an over-the-top success nor burning down their proverbial house. Writing twelve quality songs, Dylan plays it safe by reorganizing the band [new guitarist: check!] and bringing in a new production crew to give it all a spankin’ new sound guaranteed to get airplay and sell units. Falling out the bottom, The Wallflowers seem to have given their talents over to the industry’s avarice for sales, forsaking the subtlety and honesty of their previous works for a sound that seems just a little too radio friendly. This attempt at capturing the “pop sound” is so extrinsic to the music that it cannot help but seems imposed on songs that cry out to have the drum loop turned off, for God’s sake! “Sometimes a good idea/Just isn’t enough/You’ve got to do the work,” sings Dylan younger in “Too Late to Quit”; if only he’d seen the work all the way through on this otherwise well-conceived collection of good songs.
8. Beck, Sea Change, (Geffen)
Ah, the controversial choice. Many have claimed that avant-genius Beck’s latest release is further testimony to the capacities of a true artist. I assume those are the same people who loved his 1998 collection, Mutations. I’m not sure if it’s possible—and it certainly isn’t worth it—to debate if Sea Change is a good album. I’ll grant that, even with reservations. Nonetheless, borrowing a page [and a producer] from Radiohead’s playbook hasn’t helped Beck reinvent the pop-song format, it’s just given him license to make good songs sprawl. As good a piece (and as obvious a Dylan rip) as is “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” I get the sense that Johnny Cash would record the song more appropriately than did Beck. As vapid and hollow as it is, I’ll always choose to listen to the pseudo-funk of the down-and-dirty Midnite Vultures over the moody and demanding Sea Change. It’s just easier to groove on “Baby/Step inside my Hyundai” than it is mentally to unpack the meaning of “Like a stray dog gone defective/Like a paper tiger in the sun”.
9. Aimee Mann, Lost in Space (Superego)
Aimee was just beginning to hit stride; that’s what all the experts thought. It was easy to trace the growth from her cuts on the Magnolia Soundtrack through her self-released Bachelor No. 2 to the famed live performances given with hubbie Michael Penn (which led, in part, to the release of the one-off “Two of Us” featured on the otherwise unremarkable Beatles’ tribute, the I am Sam soundtrack.) Obviously, the release of Lost in Space would be a continuation of this artistic curve, bringing Mann and her audience to new heights. But if Bachelor No. 2 was a penthouse suite, Lost in Space is a lower-level sublet. Sure, it’s easy to sing along with the catchy “All the king’s horses/And all the kings men” of “Humpty Dumpty”, and “The Moth” is one of the best songs Mann has penned. Inexplicably forsaking producer Jon Brion is “Real Bad News” for this sometimes punchless collection, which too often lives up to Mann’s lyrical prophecy from “This is How it Goes”: “One more failure to connect.”
10. The Black Crowes,Live (V2)
As anyone who has seen them in concert can attest, The Black Crowes are probably the best live rock-and-roll band playing today. Chris Robinson’s charismatic presence is reminiscent of the Otis Redding he exhumes in “Hard to Handle”. He is that good. There was expectable excitement in the land of Crowes’ fans—especially amongst those die-hards who shelled out big money for the Sho’ Nuff box set just to get the bonus disc of five live tracks—upon hearing of the band’s attempt to capture their shows on an expansive two-disc set. Unfortunately, Live fails to meet those expectations. With a muddied sound undermined by Robinson’s production, the sprawling collection is a garbled mess, lacking the tightness and beauty of the hard-to-find EP. Effectively, Don Was did a better job of capturing the Crowes’ actual sound with his live-in-the-studio efforts on their previous release, Lions . Although it’s never too hard to handle listening to the band’s old gems and new tunes, Live is a disappointment for anyone who hoped to see the band’s magic captured on record.