When going over my least favorite music of the year, I have to point out as always that there is far worse music out there than anything on this list – mostly by artists who turned me off so much with a single or two, or with obnoxious public personas, that I wouldn’t want to listen to an album of theirs to begin with. But these are all sub-par albums I managed to listen to all the way through at least twice, by artists that I’ve genuinely enjoyed in the past (with maybe one exception).
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito
After glamming it up quite a bit on 2009’s It’s Blitz!, which was already a bit of a scattered album but a mostly solid listen, this New York trio apparently forgot how to make an album flow at all, throwing wildly different song styles onto their new record seemingly willy-nilly, and burying a heck of a lot of the knife-edged, campy performances that they’re renowned for in muddled arrangements that try to show off an experimental side, but mostly succeed in turning their edge into ineffectual mush. And then at other times, Karen O‘s voice is almost ear-gratingly sharp, and after a while you just wish they’d pick a production style and go with it. Electronic influences take over songs rather than supporting them here, which does little to distract from the thinly veiled excuse for repeating a groove they don’t know how to do that much with that this group tends to call “lyrics”. I did love “Despair”, and “Sacrilege” grew on me despite its inherent goofiness, but most of the rest of this album is like an annoying insect that I want to swat to make it stop sucking.
Barenaked Ladies – Grinning Streak
All in Good Time, album #1 from the post-Steven Page incarnation of the BNL, was kind of all over the place and didn’t live up to the band’s glory days, but it was a charming enough album that demonstrated they still had four songwriters, three lead singers, and no intention of slowing down without their former leading man. Grinning Streak seems to forget that tactic and thrusts Ed Robertson unequivocally to the front on all but one track, and at times it seems to aim so squarely at the middle of the road that any wit and charm involved takes a back seat to paint-by-numbers pop/rock performances. This version of the BNL is pathetically desperate to get back the radio play they had in the late 90s. And aside from an experiment with a funky beat meeting up with honky-tonk piano (the opener “Limits”) or a bit of the acoustic pop charm that has been one of their quieter strengths since the early days (“Smile”), or a few other superficially catchy songs, this is a largely faceless and forgettable release.
Katy Perry – Prism
Katy’s the only artist on this list who I never had high expectations of in the first place. Her first two albums have been mega-million-selling disasters that prove people don’t really care what they’re singing along to as long as it’s got a catchy beat and makes repeated shout-outs to their particular state and/or gender. It’s a formula that works because it’s got just enough shock factor to amuse people who like to imagine the moral guardians cringing. I get that a lot of it’s just Katy acting out. I’ve come to expect that. But Prism is bad in different ways – Katy was supposedly aiming for “darker” with this one, especially in the wake of her divorce from comedian Russell Brand, but instead she comes across as indecisive, singing songs of empowerment one minute, bland and mostly forgettable love songs the next, and weak attempts to recapture the shock factor that got people talking about her first two albums in between. This is probably the most listenable of her three albums, and I’ll admit that “Roar” may well be the catchiest thing she’s ever recorded that doesn’t rely on getting a naughty rise out of the audience. So I guess she’s steadily improving, but my prediction is that her fanbase will start to wane now that she’s dialed it back a bad on the “naughty pastor’s kid” act.
Relient K – Collapsible Lung
It’s sort of funny to have a band fronted by one of Katy Perry’s exes on the same list as her. Matt Thiessen and co. had kept us waiting nearly four years for a proper follow-up to Forget and Not Slow Down, which was a more mature record for RK, albeit not a thoroughly amazing one. For reasons that completely escape me, they decided that the best way to stage a comeback would be to warm over rejected songs by hired-gun songwriters working for pop artists in the mainstream, which unsurprisingly gives us a throwaway pop album weighed down by immature musings on flirtation and heartbreak that wouldn’t have even been mature enough for this group’s first album. Throw in a lot of unwanted programming that doesn’t fit their sound in that wink-and-a-nudge way that they used to approach 80s and 90s one-hit-wonder covers with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, plus a few dull ballads, and you get a tedious record that feels a lot longer than the half hour and change it actually runs. The opener “Don’t Blink” is vintage RK, and the bouncy, scratchy “Boomerang” turned out to be one of my favorite songs of the year, but it goes rapidly downhill after that.
John Mayer – Paradise Valley
I don’t know why I keep getting my hopes up for John Mayer. He’s been a recurring dishonorable mention for three albums running now. Perhaps it was my surprise to see him following up the lackluster Born and Raised barely one year later – I was surprised that the dude’s voice had healed so fast. What we get here is another album in that same Midwest-soaked, country-inflected soft rock vein that should have done sublime things for Born and Raised but didn’t, only this time the stakes are raised by ill-conceived guest stars who make no sense given the genre choice and, one presumes, only showed as a favor to John. I liked the laid-back, sorta-blues and sorta-country groove of “Wildfire” well enough, so why do you need another track by the exact same title that turns out to be a meandering interlude sung by Frank Ocean? And we know Katy Perry only showed up on “Who You Love”, one of the most dull songs about matters of the heart ever written, because she and John were a thing once. While I already don’t like Perry, I tend to except her presence to make a song irritating, not boring. It takes a lot to make Katy Perry yawn-worthy, but congratulations John, you found a way, along with most of the rest of an album that once again takes the promise of “acoustic Mayer comeback” and dashes it to pieces.
Skillet – Rise
Skillet has always been an acquired taste. It took me a while to get into their earliest material back in the 90s, but when I did, I became a pretty big fan for a while there. Looking back, I can see that a lot of their output was pretty silly, but they were content to let their freak flag fly, and it was only when they made the conscious attempt to become more mainstream that I began to strongly dislike them. It just didn’t seem like it should work with John Cooper‘s abrasive vocals and the odd pastiche of synth, heavy guitar, and occasional chirpy female vocals that had become their calling card. To their credit, Rise fares a lot better than the absolutely horrid Awake from four years ago. I thoroughly hated that album, whereas I only mildly dislike this one. The guitar riffs are better, there doesn’t seem to be as much pandering to the need for faceless radio ballads, and at times it feels like they’re aiming for the heavy extremes of 2003’s Collide. But then I realize, Cooper’s voice is starting to show its age, even to the point where someone like me who used to like it has a hard time stomaching an entire album of it. Drummer Jen Ledger does her best to alleviate the problem by taking over on lead vocals here and there, but there’s something kinda “youth group valley girl”-ish about her voice that rubs me the wrong way, making me wonder why the heck Korey Cooper, who to my knowledge is still in the band, doesn’t fill that role any more. Rise is a mess, but at least in its own backward way, it’s an improvement.
Newsboys – Restart
As I’ve already pointed out when giving the last two Newsboys albums a thrashing on these year-end diss lists, just because Michael Tait is a great singer doesn’t mean he’s a good replacement for Peter Furler. Their third full length release since Furler’s departure is basically more of the same, perhaps a bit more amped up in the electronic dance/pop department (which is admittedly catchy enough to be distracting in a few places), but still having precious little in common with the Newsboys as headed up by either Furler or John James. Tait is an average songwriter at best, and his output with the band more closely resembles the synthesized missteps of the Tait band’s second album Lose This Life than anything the Newsboys ever did pre-2009 (other than a dull piano ballad about Tait’s deceased mother that resembles neither the Newsboys nor anything else on the album, instead coming off as a cheap attempt at an adult contemporary radio single). What’s most baffling is Tait’s habit of reuniting with fellow dc Talk member Kevin Max for a few songs per album, but leaving one or both of them as “bonus tracks”. In this case, one such track turns out to be the strongest thing the Newsboys have put out since “No Grave” on their last album with Furler, but only because it’s a cover of Mike & the Mechanics‘ “The Living Years”, so I’m not even sure if I can give Mike, Kevin, and the rest of the gang much credit for creativity there.
Sanctus Real – Run
Heh, I prefer Rise over Run. I didn’t realize that there was a nerdy math joke in my list until now! Sanctus Real is one of those CCM bands that I don’t expect much from other than to put out fun, punchy CCM songs. I try to be realistic. They know the crowd they’re playing to and they do it well enough, but somewhere along the way they lost their rock edge. 2008’s We Need Each Other had almost the perfect balance of the noisy rock stuff and the mushy adult contemporary stuff (most of which I still liked because it was solidly performed and still felt like the work of a band), but then on 2010’s Pieces of a Real Heart they lost almost all semblance of being a rock band, and this comeback after a hiatus doesn’t seem to show much more than a passing interest in balancing the lighter and heavier sides of their sound, so it’s mostly middle-of-the-road blandness squarely aimed at Christian AC radio playlists. I honestly can’t even remember much about this album despite several listens – the track that stood out to me the most was actually a bonus track only available on the digital version that featured a duet with Sarah Macintosh, but even her presence couldn’t maintain my interest in this band for long. Sanctus Real has sadly gone the same route that Audio Adrenaline and Third Day started to go about twelve years ago.
Audio Adrenaline – Kings & Queens
Oh hey, speaking of Audio Adrenaline! Like Skillet, I was a fan of Audio A back my youth group/college days, not minding the raspy vocals so much at first, but finding that they really started to grate on me as Mark Stuart‘s voice went downhill over the years. To Stuart’s credit, he realized the problem and began to shift lead vocal duties to guitarist Tyler Burkum more and more as time went by. Unfortunately, that was when they started to devolve into a generic worship band, so I lost track of them from about then until the band called it quits in 2006. they should have stayed that way, because this so-called revival of Audio A is even more of a cheap trick than adding Michael Tait to the Newsboys was. Actually, it’s pretty much the same trick, because they somehow persuaded Kevin Max to become their new lead singer. I had to check my calendar and make sure it wasn’t April 1 when that was announced, because Kevin’s gone so far afield with his creative musical experiments since dc Talk split up that he no longer even registered as part of the CCM universe. I kind of liked that, actually – his albums were increasingly doomed to obscurity because nobody really got what he was trying to do, but it was unpredictable and generally enjoyable. Having him at the center of a CCM band living their glory days, with only one of its original members (bassist Will McGinnis) in tow and a couple guys who used to be in bands like Bleach and SonicFlood rounding out the lineup, just seems like slumming it for KMax, and while I might have been affable to a creative collaboration between these four men under the guise of some new supergroup, it sounds nothing like Audio Adrenaline and there’s no need to call it Audio Adrenaline other than to bank on people who used to love the band being dumb enough to buy the new album. Much like the “Taitboys”, this sounds a whole lot more like studio-driven electronic pop music than anything a “band” would be needed to produce anyhow, and it genuinely saddens my soul to hear the weird and wonderful KMax spouting vaguely encouraging Christian-ese cliches and covering bland worship songs. I get that at some point you gotta pay the bills, but there had to be a way for Kevin to do something commercially viable that didn’t involve selling his own creativity up the river. This disc is flat out horrible, and ironically its only halfway interesting moment comes from a guest vocal by Stuart himself, on the somewhat cruelly titled “King of the Comebacks”. There oughta be a law that says you can’t replace the singer with a completely different type of vocalist (even if Max is a way better singer than Stuart ever was) and completely change the musical style and still call it the same band. Two of those at a time is pushing it. Three should earn you a mob with pitchforks and torches.
These albums weren’t bad, per se… just not what I was looking for from artists who had impressed me much more in the past.
Josh Ritter – The Beast in its Tracks
I really wanted to like this album, because Josh Ritter is bar-none one of the best songwriters alive today, as evidenced by the creative and colorful stories he’s told on past albums, most notably 2010’s So Runs the World Away. But sometimes a man who is skilled at inventing stories doesn’t fare so well when telling his own real-life stories, as evidenced in this collection of painfully intimate songs written in the wake of his divorce. I can’t even say that any of them are badly written – the turns of phrase are clever and I can’t help but want to root for the man as he dusts off the smoldering ashes and learns to love again while still being haunted by the specter of his ex. I think it was the choice to strip things down musically that made me lose interest – there are some pretty songs here and some bluesier songs there and some upbeat songs just around the corner, but due to the loss of the supplemental instrumentation that made past albums so striking, none of these songs really seem to have the impetus to make me care about them the way devastating ballads like “The Curse”, “Another New World”, or “The Temptation of Adam” did, or even get my toes tapping like a “Right Moves”, a “Change of Time”, or an “Empty Hearts”. There’s a lot for me to kinda sorta like here, but not much to love.
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
I was enchanted with Dream Theater for about three albums back in the mid-2000s, and then they fell out of favor with me in a huge way, and I couldn’t really put my finger on the differences because they’ve always been just about the most over-the-top, cornball metal band in the business, so why should I even complain? Something about their antics just plain got old, and then founding drummer Mike Portnoy left, and while fans complained about the loss of one of the most talented skin-pounders ever to walk the earth, replacement Mike Mangini proved to be no less of a badass, and hey, there was no more of Portnoy’s awkward growling, so that was a step up vocal-wise, right? So yeah, it’s well over two decades into their career and they’re just now releasing a self-titled album, and it’s the weirdest time ever to attempt a re-branding and to say “this is who we are as a band here and now in 2013”, because it’s really Dream Theater up to their same old tricks, just noticeably more tolerable and less embarrassing than before. I feel like the riffs and choruses and overall construction of the songs is a little less convoluted than on the past few albums, and while the lyrics are still facepalm-inducingly cliched, there’s nothing as terrifyingly bad as the worst moments of the past three albums, so I have to give them credit for finally getting themselves off of my “Dishonorable Mentions” list. Despite the insane amount of instrumental muscle that these guys flex on this and every album they put out, I just can’t shake that nagging “been there, done that” feeling, tempting me to yawn when I should be blown away, even on songs like the epic closing track with a length that almost rivals the title track from Octavarium. It just doesn’t hang together as well as those albums from the early 2000s that I still cherish… and I’m guessing this is how a lot of Dream Theater fans from back in the day felt then, when I was just getting into them.
KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon
The cover art, shot in Arizona where this album was made, and the promotional materials for this album, would have you believe that KT had “gone country”. It’s not a bad fit for the Scottish singer-songwriter with the sultry, sorta-rapsy voice – a little twang could be worked into her rhythmic, live-looped sound in potentially thrilling ways. And to be fair, I didn’t expect another beat-heavy, immensely layered pop album in the vein of Tiger Suit. I figured that album, solid as it was, was probably a one-off experiment. But this album just puts me to sleep. There isn’t even anything all that country about it… it’s just a bunch of extremely subdued folk songs and a few piano ballads, most with very basic construction and melodies. Like the Josh Ritter example above, the decision to strip things down came from a genuine place of loss and grief – both a divorce and the death of her father, the two events which inspired the distinct halves of this album. After several listens, nothing on the Invisible Empire half really stands out to me, but at least three of the six tunes on Crescent Moon have slowly wooed their way into my heart – the tranquil, textured title track, the sublime duet “Chimes” with Howe Gelb, and the closing mantra “No Better Shoulder”, which despite its dogged repetition of a few simple lines of lyrics, builds up to an exciting climax in a way that I could imagine making great use of her looping techniques when played live, in different ways than her past work. Those three songs would have been a beautiful comedown at the end of a more diverse and inspired album… unfortunately most of the rest of these songs have gone in one ear and out the other, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you much of anything distinctive about them.
Over the Rhine – Meet Me at the Edge of the World
It’s practically sacrilege to diss OtR within my circle of online friends – it seems that to some folks, this earthy duo from Cincinnati, with their intoxicating and stubbornly mellow blend of folk, jazz, and Americana can do no wrong. I’ve enjoyed all of their albums as far back as Good Dog Bad Dog, and even if I don’t listen to their double disc Ohio as often as the others due to its sheer length, I’ve grown to appreciate a great many of its highlights over the years, and overall I tend to think OtR’s stronger numbers vastly outweigh the few duds on their albums. With this one… I just don’t know. As a double album released quite close to the 10-year anniversary of Ohio, it seems clearly designed as a sequel, but I guess that doing such a thing completely independent and Kickstarter-funded produces quite different results than doing it with a minimal amount of label supervision. Lots of song ideas here don’t seem fully formed, like they came from impromptu songwriting sessions and were just sort of left as is without a lot of embellishment. That may just be producer Joe Henry‘s way, but unlike The Long Surrender, which the duo also recorded in Henry’s home studio, there are almost none of the sultry jazz touches here, and as much as I hate to say this about Karin Berquist, her half-quirky and half-smoky voice kind of seems too classy for the material she and her husband Linford Detwiler have written, leaving her to vamp awkwardly on songs that are too simplistic for that approach. There are a few bluesier numbers that don’t really work here (look guys, if I wanted to get the chord progression from Tracy Chapman‘s “Give Me One Reason” stuck in my head, I’d go back and listen to any pop radio station in the mid-90s), and some bare-bones ballads that drag on longer than they need to, plus a few instrumental tracks that aren’t really long or involved enough to go anywhere interesting. Out of 19 tracks, only a handful here really interest me – “Called Home”, “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down”, and “Blue Jean Sky” are my personal highlights, but it’s a long distance in between those. I get that this sort of music is intended for long, reflective afternoons spend sipping a tall glass of iced tea (whiskey optional) and pondering the beauty of the wide-open countryside from your porch swing, so it’s not necessarily designed to provide a thrill a minute, but since OtR has recorded sparser works before that were far more interesting (most notably Drunkard’s Prayer), I kind of felt like this was the first record where they didn’t really push themselves creatively.
Falling Up – Midnight on Earthship
Soon I will publish my other article on the year’s best albums, and you’ll see an absolutely glowing recommendation of Hours, this album’s companion that comprises the other half of what the group calls “The Machine de Ella Project”. The two albums were recorded in the same sessions, with one or two tracks from each being released a few weeks at a time starting in late 2012, until both were completed in February of this year. But stylistically, they couldn’t be more different. I guess that’s what you get when a band intentionally splits apart the two sides of their personality to appeal to different fanbases – one dense with rhythmic and melodic ideas that purport to be the soundtrack for a bizarre sci-fi audiobook, and one specifically designed to appeal to the part of their audience leftover from their CCM days who wants more straightforward and inspirational songs of faith. Most of this record is Falling Up stripped down to one man, one instrument (either acoustic guitar or piano, usually), and minimal accompaniment, which gets it off to one heck of a slow start, only approaching up-tempo pop/rock on two tracks and more of a “power ballad” style on a few others – and even then, it doesn’t really work in the innovative, anthemic way that some of Falling Up’s more spacious songs from Captiva onward have managed to draw me in. What’s most interesting is that even when trying to be more direct about his Christian faith, Jessy Ribordy still can’t help but to phrase things in his own words and tell stories from the perspective of different characters, so I’m often curious about the story behind the song, even when the song itself is a bit dry. But to be fair to the music itself, the synth-drenched opening track “Sky Circles” is quite beautiful, the peaceful aura of piano ballad “Greying Morning” is memorable, and there are a few other moments where the softer side of Jessy’s voice really allows you to feel the emotion contained within his words. So I appreciate what the band was going for here… I just wonder at times if this would have been better off billed as another of Ribordy’s side projects a la The River Empires, instead of as a true Falling Up record.
Atoms for Peace – Amok
Thom Yorke will never not be a fascinating person. He just writes the sort of weirdly wonderful lyrics in his role as Radiohead‘s lead singer that you can’t help but wonder how it all connects in his brain. But his solo side project, originally billed under his own name and now expanded to include the members of his touring band (which features bassist Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame), has been long on go-nowhere grooves and short on climaxes or compelling melodies or really any of the things that evoke the strongest emotional responses (positive or negative) to Radiohead’s work. It’s safe, and as a fan of electronic music I can appreciate the “live band trying to mimic computerized sounds” aesthetic, but it feels like the entire soul of it is being intentionally subverted, as if Yorke wants us all to observe while remaining coolly detached. There are some solid beats, bass lines, and engaging oddball sounds here and there, but honestly, the only track that stands out to me as truly inspired is the off-kilter “Judge, Jury and Executioner”, which will have me trying and failing to keep up with its lopsided handclap beat for all of eternity. The rest is mostly just farting around with synths and drum pads and stuff in the studio, which is interesting in the same way that a not-quite-fan-favorite transitional track from Kid A or Hail to the Thief might be interesting, but which falls for short of thew potential given its personnel. Also, I’m starting to get really irritated with Yorke’s insistence on slapping 8 or 9 songs together, none of which are particularly long unless they just repeat an idea for a few extra minutes, and calling it an “album”.