[23 December 2013]
When the grunge icons of the ‘90s began to “reinvent” their sound to keep up with the ages, there was a massive tide of disappointment. More than anything, they needed to understand that their time had come and gone, making way for a new sound and a new generation of musicians who packed all the punch of those ‘90s bands, but with a style all their own. Bands like Arcade Fire, Phoenix, and the National started to leave their mark in the post-alternative arena of rock. Almost ten years later, that tide is turning once again and it would seem that a new age is ushering in, doing away with the bands of the mid- to late ‘00s with some newly inspired sounds. This year’s list of the most disappointing albums of 2013 reads like the “best of” list from four or five years ago. It shouldn’t be surprising how these tides turn, but it always is.
Placebo was primed to make a gigantic comeback and prove to the naysayers that they can hold their own with the best of them. Releasing a surprisingly good EP last year and finally free of the (supposed) restrictions of a major label, Loud Like Love could have been a wonderful reinvention of the wheel. It wasn’t. Instead, it plays out like a tired attempt by a band trying to grasp on as tightly as possible to something that is clearly slipping. Singing about the wages of technology interrupting social interaction (like that’s anything new), there is nothing distinctive about Loud Like Love, other than it’s a new Placebo album.
No one expected Justin Timberlake to make such a profoundly romantic and wonderful record with his re-introduction into pop/R&B music. In fact, with Justin’s venture into cultivating a serious acting career, it had been so long since Justin made music that I’m sure there were people out there that had completely forgotten he was ever a musician. The 20/20 Experience (1 of 2) was so hugely respected that even listeners who had initially dismissed Timberlake due to his frilly pop boy-band beginnings, were placing the record on the top of their best of lists. Some were skeptical when it was announced that a second installment was announced for release later in the year—ultimately disappointed when 2 of 2 came out and played more like a tracklisting of b-sides and filler tracks. Moreover, having 20-plus tracks clocking in at approximately six-plus minutes each, listening to this second installment can become grating and entirely overwhelming.
When Washed Out‘s debut LP Within and Without was released two years ago, it surprised many with just how good chillwave could be. Atmospheric synths played over incoherent and beautiful melodic vocals, Washed Out cemented a style all its own, which is why it came as kind of a disappointment when Paracosm was surprisingly released—did you know this album was coming out, because I didn’t—with little fanfare and few musical surprises. Washed Out’s sophomore LP, intended to be more “acoustic sounding”, is less dynamic than its predecessor and less enticing. Not a bad record overall, but not as good as we were expecting, but then again, just how far can one go with a minimalistic musical genre?
The National can pretty much do no wrong. They’re slowly emerging as the next Radiohead, primed to get huge pre-release orders for albums, and a die-hard fanbase that will follow them across their “national” tours (see what I did?). However, as good as Trouble Will Find Me is, it didn’t quite live up to the spectacular brilliance of High Violet. Moreover, the album could stylistically play right alongside High Violet with little to distinguish one from the next. Not that sticking to a sound is particularly bad, but six albums in, there could be a little bit of listener fatigue setting in.
With the breakaway success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, this French band found themselves at the forefront of the alt-rock community. Unfortunately for them, Bankrupt! failed to feed off that momentum. And while “Entertainment” is quite a wonderfully catchy little tune, the rest of the record is a flat rendering of key shifts, augmented and flat vocals with very little to impress an eager number of fans wanting to hear what they know this band is capable of. The biggest saving grace to come from the disappointing Bankrupt! is that it’s varied enough to prove that Phoenix will most definitely not stay in one spot long enough for you to lose interest.
Janelle Monáe‘s The ArchAndroid could very well be THE best R&B/pop record in the last ten years. With her impressive vocal acrobatics, impeccable production, and all of it being tied together with a narrative that tightroped the line between silly and fascinating, Monáe’s debut record was off-the-charts amazing. There was just no way she could exceed expectations after it, so, The Electric Lady was doomed to be a disappointment. And it kind of is. It could either have been a retread of ArchAndroid, which would not have shown much breadth for an artist who just spent an entire album proving her breadth, or she could have gone for something completely different. The Electric Lady is a combination of both those things, extending the narrative she began way back with Metropolis, but with 25-plus tracks describing this narrative, there is surprisingly little development.
Charli XCX began her career as a singles artist. Although there was one full (and forgotten) LP swimming out there in the annals of music history, once signed to Atlantic, she began putting out snippets of long players and singles that could fill their own record. “Nuclear Seasons” is amazing, and “You (Ha Ha Ha)”, the album’s lead-in single, is addictive. However, with exceeding anticipation to hear a full-length release, True Romance didn’t make the splash that many of us were hoping it would. It doesn’t help matters that the album begins with Charli’s best track, ever, which sets the album to go downhill from there. While not completely a wash, it sure wasn’t the bang that had a three-year build up.
Let the fanatic Valentiners defense of m b v commence. While not my cup of tea, My Bloody Valentine‘s return to music after 22 years was destined to either floor everyone, or disappoint. It succeeded in doing both these things for various reasons. Let’s face it, My Bloody Valentine was canonized as being the forefathers of noise pop. You can’t really deliver to expectations once that happens and while for their fans, m b v was a formidable reuniting, it didn’t pack that same punch that people remember from the divine Loveless. See, that’s the thing with a 22-year gap between albums—it gives fans enough time to snowball your last release into something that transcends beyond its initial intentions, leaving you in a place where you can’t do anything else, but disappoint… until your next release 22 years from now.
The Weeknd did something pretty unprecedented: he released his tripartite debut completely free online with minimal promotion and managed to get himself noticed by some of the biggest players in R&B and hip-hop, played on the radio, and a major label record deal. Some feared that the snagging of a brilliant musical mind funneled through the creative suck of a major label would diminish the Weeknd’s je ne sais quoi—those people are what I like to call right. Kiss Land is a depressingly banal effort from a promising R&B artist that defied traditional success. What made him so great in Trilogy is almost nowhere to be found on his major label debut. Whether it was a case of artistic fatigue or having too many cooks in the kitchen, hopefully his team of execs will leave him be long enough for him to get those creative juices flowing again.
Arcade Fire‘s highly revered 2010 effort The Suburbs, while vacillating at times, ended up in a characteristically good spot upon completion. It drove you to places that were fairly unexpected, and leaving you unsure of where you were being led, it managed to be a pretty great record, one of the best of its kind. Unfortunately, though co-collaborators Win Butler and Régine Chassagne attempt to steer the listener in an entirely new direction with Reflektor, the end result lacks considerable control and effect—compacted with needless dramatics, the album attempts to emulate its stellar predecessor with disappointing effect. It boasts overbloated track lengths, a bizarre premise, and music that is more feels unfinished and kind of rushed, while that whole bobblehead thing they were doing to promote the record is very out of place. The promotional efforts may have been an attempt to position the album in a mysteriously “quirky” manner, but I suspect that it served more as a distraction from an album that is noticeably disappointing, considering their last solid effort.