Thursday, December 12, 2013

Albums 2013 - Duds, Disappointments, & Overrated

Well, it's that time of year again - time for album lists!  I've compiled a few lists that I plan on posting in the next few weeks.  Today it's "Duds, Disappointments, & Overrated" albums of 2013.  Next will be "Honorable Mention," then my "Top Ten" favorite albums of 2013.

All the albums listed below are ones I actually anticipated, bought (or in some cases streamed on Spotify), and spent solid time with.  Some of them I initially enjoyed but grew out of.  Some of them just didn't click, but could suddenly break through at some point in the future.  Unlikely, but I have been known to change my mind about these things.  Note, for scale, the number "1" spot is the most disappointing .*

Enjoy. . . .            

1.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito (3.5/10)

The Yeah Yeah Yeah's are among the best bands to come out of the garage rock revival of the early 00's.  Karen O is a powerhouse, and the last decade saw the trio put out three impeccable LPs.  This year they dropped Mosquito - a scattershot collection of half-baked experiments vacillating between dub, hip-hop, gospel and wistful balladry.  Lead off "Sacrilege" hits the ball out of the park with a powerful gospel choir, but the upward momentum is immediately thwarted by mournful dirge "Subway," then the ridiculously wacky "Mosquito."  This sort of careless sequencing and lack of focus lends Mosquito the air of mixed bag b-sides compilation.  Unfortunately, in light of the band's previous creative ascent, this Mosquito truly does suck.     

2.  The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (2.5/10)

There was a short time in my latter years of college when I sincerely considered The Dismemberment Plan to be my favorite rock band.  They were hometown heroes, played locally often, and had a handful of unimpeachable albums under their belt.  1999's Emergency and I was an immediate classic that anticipated the "dance punk" revival four years later.  Their stellar legacy was sealed in 2003 when they "retired" the band.  This year, to the immediate ejaculation of a million Pitchfork nerds, The Plan came back with Uncanney Valley - and it's not pretty.  Lacking the cohesion, hooks, and lyrical prowess of the band's previous albums, Uncanney Valley is a colossal disappointment.  It's not the first on my "duds" list because, frankly, this thing was doomed to fail from the get go.

3.  Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest (5/10)

Influential Scottish electronica/IDM duo Boards of Canada made their eagerly anticipated return this year with Tomorrow's Harvest, eight years after putting out their last record The Campfire Headphase.  Prior to that they'd released the totally creepy Geogaddi in 2002, and their magnum opus Music Has the Right To Children in 1998.  The latter is one of my all-time favorite electronic music albums - mixing stuttering hip-hop rhythms with eerie samples and phantasmal analogue synth, distressed and warped as if resurrected from old tape (a style emulated by countless bedroom producers since).  Tomorrow's Harvest has been hailed as a return to form, but the album is overlong and bleak - evoking a windswept post-nuclear meltdown.  Bit of a downer.

4.  The Black Angels: Indigo Meadow (4.5/10)

I loved The Black Angels' first record Passover, released in 2006, which approximated the droning shell-shocked psych rock of the 13th Floor Elevators and Velvet Underground from forty years prior.  The band literally sang of the horrors of the Vietnam War as if they'd lived it themselves.  Dark stuff, but certainly apropos considering the US had been marauding in Iraq for several years already.  The band followed up with a snoozer, Directions to See a Ghost in 2008, then a much catchier Phosphene Dream in 2010.  Considering the corrected trajectory, I fully expect to be on board with this year's Indigo Meadow but the band just can't get out of their monotonous rut and anachronistic sloganeering.  There's retro, then there's shameless pastiche.

5.  How To Destroy Angels: Welcome Oblivion (5/10)

How To Destroy Angels is the side-project of NIN mastermind Trent Reznor with wife Mariqueen Maandig on vocals. After releasing two EPs in the years following NIN's '09 "retirement," the band put out their debut Welcome Oblivion earlier this year.  This was done months prior to Reznor announcing the return of NIN with a new tour and album.  As such, when I first heard Welcome Oblivion I fully assumed it might be Reznor's last proper album - a late career vanity project hatched by the happy couple while reclined in twin bathtubs.  It was a sad thought - considering Welcome Oblivion just isn't that good.  As expected, Reznor's production is nice - rich, booming, dark - but Maandig's vocals are shamefully forgettable and the overall tone here is too morose for repeat listens.

6.  Washed Out: Paracosm (4.5/10)

The whole "chillwave" trend of 2011 was sort of interesting.  Bedroom indie rockers traded in their guitars for vintage 80's synthesizers and started composing lukewarm trip-hop and house beats, with snoozy vocal melodies, swaddled in layers of hazy echo and reverb.  Washed Out led the pack with their much lauded debut Within and Without.  Like a sunshiny Depeche Mode in slow motion, this was the ideal Sunday morning soundtrack after a rough night clubbing.  Paracosm keeps things pleasantly drowsy, but flips the script somewhat by incorporating vaguely pastoral, tropical, and otherwise exotic flourishes - birds chirping, bongos, sitars.  The pretty album cover sort of drives that point home.  All nice enough, but sadly forgettable.

7.  Phoenix: Bankrupt! (5/10)

French garage rock'tronica band Phoenix hit it big with their fourth record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix back in 2009.  To be honest, I hadn't paid these guys much attention until that ubiquitous Cadillac TV commercial drilled their single "1901" firmly into my brain and persuaded me to pick up the album.  Wolfgang's lush production and catchy melodies had me hooked, so I eagerly awaited their followup Bankrupt! earlier this year.  Lead single "Entertainment," featuring bombastic "oriental" fanfare, choral singing, and cool bass synth was pretty good - but the whole album suffers from shrill production.  The throwback 80's pop songcraft is catchy enough, but that sizzling compressed sound is disappointing.  C'est la vie.         

8.  Daft Punk:  Random Access Memories (6.5/10)

There was a time over the summer when Random Access Memories was a shoo-in for my year end "top ten" list.  Then it dropped to my "honorable mentions" list, and now after some tough deliberation, it settled on my "duds" list.  I had high hopes for this album when it was hyped on TV ads, billboards, and promo webisodes earlier this year.   The list of collaborators was great and the promo clips sounded fantastic.  There was a luxurious sheen to the production and a seductive old school groove absent from contemporary EDM.  What happened?  The band already hit these high benchmarks on their 2001 masterpiece Discovery, so at 75 minutes RAM is a tedious overindulgent retread at worst, and an overcompensating apology for their last flop Human After All at best.      

9.  Atoms For Peace:  Amok (6/10)

Anybody else getting tired of Thom Yorke's shameless appropriation of the Warp catalogue?  When Radiohead's Kid A dropped in 2000 it was a revelation for most.  Having reached the critical and commercial pinnacle of guitar rock superstardom with The Bends and OK Computer, Yorke and the boys tacked hard left into the realm of icy glitch electronica - by then well worn territory for genre pioneers Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada.  For over a decade now, Yorke has milked this lethargic aesthetic of stuttering, shuffling beats as a framework for his glum nasal whine.  Amok might've been a total loss if not for Flea's nimble bass groove and the occasional Afropop embellishments.

10.  Deafheaven:  Sunbather (6/10)

Sunbather got super-hyped upon it's release last June, and inevitably made quite a few year end "best of" lists - primarily because this San Franciscan duo boldly fuse the blood curdling shriek of black metal with the soaring instrumental crescendos and atmospherics of post-rock and shoe gaze.  Quite avant-garde, except that other, less hip but arguably more talented, metal bands successfully incorporated shoe gaze into their brutal sound over a decade ago.  So what's left?  The J.Crew Gestapo chic?  How about the laughably woeful Hot Topic lyrics?  I do appreciate dramatic juxtaposition in my music, so that's why Sunbather is last on my "duds" list.  The instrumentals are quite good and the album artwork is cool too.  Let's see where these guys go from here.

Next up, the "Honorable Mention" list.  Stay tuned. . . .

*Edit - Album scores added on 5/20/14.

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