Before I get to the albums that got me most excited this year, I figured I should take a quick look back at the albums that were so disappointing that it was hard for me to even muster up the courage to give them a second listen. Of course I did eventually go back to these records to see if a little time and more carefully managed expectations would change my perception of these them, but for the most part, they failed to deliver. Not everything about these records is bad, and the worst of the bunch merits a D minus rather than a hard F in my book, so I’ve certainly heard worse in previous years. I’ve also heard something genuinely enjoyable from everyone on this list in previous years (or in one case, this year). But I can safely say that all of these artists fell short of their potential this time around.
Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
As I type this, I’ve got the wonderful, winding melody of “Tompkins Square Park” stuck in my head. It’s a genuinely great opening track, one that unfortunately gives the band a long way to fall over the course of a record that seems at first to be a revitalizing genre shift for the band, but that gravitates toward the predictable and tedious as it wears on. The shift away from rootsy folk music isn’t the real problem here. It’s that Mumford & Sons don’t know how to make rock music – a genre which should be more immediate and energetic than the twangy acoustic stuff they left behind – as engaging as some of their more earnest and heartfelt songs of old. Of course I can see through the cracks in their old stuff, which at times got a bit tedious too, but those old songs even at their worst didn’t feel nearly as formulaic. I’d take the first five tracks from this album and maybe “Snake Eyes” as a strong start, if they had been combined with tracks that found a way to ease us into their new sound by merging it with the old in a manner that didn’t come off as cynical and calculated as this.
Live Video: “Tompkins Square Park”
Beach House – Depression Cherry
I feel kind of bad for bagging on this one when it’s been well established that Beach House’s M.O. of sticking to their basic keyboard, guitar, vocals, and drum machine arrangement without gussying things up for commercial purposes is what got them their fanbase in the first place, and I’m probably just an outsider looking in with the wrong expectations. Aside from thinking that the drum machines are a bit corny and give the songs a “rough draft” sort of quality at times, that isn’t really my issue. It’s just that a lot of their songs tend to drag on at roughly the same tempo without a whole lot of variation once their main verse/chorus/vamp structure has been established. There are certainly exceptions – the startling vocal samples and edgier guitars in “Sparks” have caused that song to just barely sneak into into my year-end Top 100 list, and there are a few stylistic deviations worth noting in songs like “PPP” and the closer “Days of Candy”. It just isn’t a good sign when I routinely get impatient for an album to be over already when it’s only got 9 tracks. The fact that they released a stronger 9-track album a mere two months later (Thank Your Lucky Stars, which also has its share of flaws, but is noticeably absent from this list) tells me that they’ve got enough solid material for a full album, but they have an unfortunate habit of diluting it with a lot of the same-old-same-old in between.
Kevin Max – Broken Temples
I suppose I should be thankful that this is the only “Christian rock” entry on my list, because I used to listen to so much of it that I could fill out a list of 10 or even 20 bad albums at the end of the year with the dregs of the CCM world alone. Kevin Max generally didn’t make those lists back in the day – his output could certainly be erratic, but I liked that he was content to be the most out-there of the three dc Talk alums, and even when the material was hard for me to get into, I could never accuse him of just going with the flow. This set of songs unfortunately launches him headlong back into the CCM mainstream – there’s a touch of intriguing dance/electronica production here, a seed of a good song idea there, and a pair of remixes that might actually beat the originals, but it’s disheartening how much time spends playing it safe overall. A lot of these songs appear to have been conceived for a follow-up to the awful album he made with Audio Adrenaline a few years back, presumably before it dawned on him that he just wasn’t the right fit for a band that should have never been resurrected in the first place. Song for song, it’s more tolerable than Kings and Queens, but that isn’t saying much. Desperation for relevance and a little extra cash flow so that he can keep music as his dayjob are really the only reasons I can imagine for this thing getting made.
Listen: “Going Clear (Derek Webb Remix)”
Barenaked Ladies – Silverball
I wanted to like this album more than the subpar Grinning Streak. I honestly did. The slightly increased participation of the other singer/songwriters in the band made it feel a bit less like a case of “The Ed Robertson show” and more like the collaborative work of a real band this time around, and the music’s a little more quirky, but in just about the worst way possible. It sounds like they’re making children’s music at times (and quite alarmingly, it’s not nearly as good as Snacktime!, which was actually made for their children several years ago), and that’s only when they aren’t still aiming for the lowest of the low-hanging fruit in terms of obvious hooks for songs that might have had a shot at being radio hits fifteen years ago. I’ll admit that I enjoy the opening track, “Get Back Up”. It’s nothing all that clever, but it’s an upbeat anthem that I can get behind. “Duct Tape Heart” is actually halfway clever, not holding a candle to most of Robertson’s better lyrics and certainly nowhere near the depth of the stuff he used to write with Steven Page, but at least it’s a comical twist on your typical “broken heart” lyric. “Tired of Fighting with You” is a surprisingly heartfelt closing track from keyboardist Kevin Hearn, who is unfortunately guilty of contributing some of the corniest instrumental parts elsewhere in the album. Beyond that, most of this record is downright embarrassing.
Listen: “Duct Tape Heart”
Nate Ruess – Grand Romantic
So I guess this is how fun.’s lead singer occupies his time when work on a new record with his band is stalled out – basically he takes the most incongruous and obnoxious elements of the sound he established with that band, turns them all up to eleven, and hopes that all of the disjointed genre-hopping and references to way better songs and songwriters in about twenty different genres will somehow beat the listener into submission. When it’s not going for the most obvious, middle-of-the-road pop hooks hopped up on acid, it’s just off-puttingly weird, and I think Ruess hopes we’ll consider his quirkiness to be charming, but he just comes across as the musical equivalent of ADD. I’ve heard a lot of artists mash up disparate genres in silly ways while applying outsized choruses that succeed in pulling in an otherwise hesitant audience. I feel like he’s just copying that sort of a template without understanding it, and the result is an awful lot like taking all of the required ingredients for a birthday cake, throwing them into a bowl, and then just sort of beating at it for a while without ever checking that the proportions are right or even really bothering to bake the damn thing.
(I couldn’t bring myself to embed anything here for you to suffer through.)