Here’s the stuff that just didn’t do it for me this year. With one or two exceptions, I don’t listen to these artists expecting their music to be bad… I’ve heard at least a little something I enjoyed from everyone on this list in the past. Some of them just got lazy this year, while others seem aggressively committed to being the most obnoxiously lowest-common-denominator version of themselves that they can be. Neither of those things will land you on the good side of my year-end list-making bonanza. Having said that, I’ve made a good faith effort to embed a song I kinda liked from each of these albums, just to show that these records aren’t all bad.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive
I really don’t want to characterize Thao Nguyen as a bad artist. She’s a very thoughtful songwriter and an admirably eclectic musician. She just seems to have an affection for jarring, unsettling melodies that get forced down the listener’s throat in the form of quirky, folksy indie rock songs. I keep listening to her stuff and thinking, “This should be super-catchy, but it’s getting on my last nerve.” Getting through an album of music this upbeat and infectious shouldn’t feel like such a chore, should it? Occasionally this recipe does pay off for Thao & company, as I did enjoy the opening track, “Astonished Man”, and especially the bizarro spoken word piece “Meticulous Bird”, which sounds like what you’d get if Björk tried to rap. But most of the rest of this record, I’ve already forgotten about for the sake of my sanity.
Listen: “Meticulous Bird”
Jim James – Eternally Even
I’m still digesting this one, so I guess my opinion could change. But you know how My Morning Jacket records will always have at least one incredibly slow, sparse ballad where the melody doesn’t really change much and it seems like all groove and no real payoff? Yeah, that’s most of how Jim James’ solo record plays out. Except his band’s not there to provide some of the gorgeous and funky soundscapes that I’ve enjoyed on MMJ records. I hear snippets of lovely melodies or fun grooves waiting to be set free on so many of these tracks, but under James’ direction, most of them feel enslaved. Listening to this thing feels like work. Music shouldn’t feel like that.
Music Video: “Same Old Lie”
Wilco – Schmilco
The last time Wilco came up with more of an easygoing, folksy record, the result was Sky Blue Sky, my favorite Wilco album thus far. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice on this maddeningly subdued little follow-up to Star Wars. Wry understatement can be a useful tool in Wilco’s arsenal, but nearly every sound on this record seems like the driest and dullest version of itself, as if they were afraid to let any of the melodies be truly captivating or even to let a lot of the notes being played sustain beyond a dull thud. Occasional hummable moments emerge, but for every modestly lovely track like “If I Ever Was a Child”, you’ve got a go-nowhere experiment like “Quarters” or the excessively irritating “Common Sense” to slog through. They’re bordering upon A Ghost Is Born levels of insufferable nonsense with a few of these.
Listen: “If I Ever Was a Child”
Skillet – Unleashed
I ignored this one for most of the year, until I realized that I had enjoyed a few of my favorite music critics on YouTube (theneedledrop and ARTV) giving it a well-deserved lashing, and I wanted to hear the atrocity for myself that they were making fun of. As I said in my December “What Am I Listening To?” roundup, it’s actually not as bad as I expected, but Skillet’s made such obnoxiously bad records over the last ten years or so that they still have a significant distance to go if they’re ever going to rise up to the level of acceptable mediocrity again. The bone-crushing riffs are fun, and I don’t even mind the clash of John Cooper’s scratchy vocals with Jen Ledger’s robotically clean ones, but some of the cheesy themes about feeling invincible (um, didn’t you guys already call an album Invincible?) wanting to make Jesus famous (um, pretty sure he already is) and Christians being the saviors of the world (um, wait a sec guys, remember that Jesus guy you were talking about?), and uh, God’s love being a comet that burns you up or something, walk an uncomfortable line between rehashing their older song ideas that weren’t that great in the first place, and edginess for its own sake as a desperation move to get a reaction to an otherwise paint-by-numbers lyric. I could superficially enjoy an instrumental version of this record, I guess.
Music Video: “Feel Invincible”
Eleanor Friedberger – New View
This dropped way back in January, and I listened to it a few times then and honestly haven’t come back to it since early in the year. It’s just so flat-out boring for most of its run. Down-tempo balladeering, bereft of the usual witty quips and oddball lyrical details that made Eleanor stand out before, just isn’t what I want from her. Not that I liked every bizarre experiment she’s done with The Fiery Furnaces or on her past two solo records, but at least that stuff had personality. Here she just sounds dejected and disinterested for most of it, and even when the music does pep up a bit, it’s still nothing I couldn’t get from a million other indie songstresses.
Listen: “Never Is a Long Time”
Sia – This Is Acting
I didn’t necessarily love every aspect of Sia’s musical persona on 1000 Forms of Fear, but that album felt very brave and confessional, more so than I’d expect for an aggressively mainstream-sounding pop record. Her approach to the followup was apparently to not do anything personal at all, and instead to fill it with the kinds of generic songs she’d pitch for other people to sing. This has “industry” written all over it. Its themes are formulaic, and unlike “Chandelier” or “Elastic Heart”, songs which I could see had intriguing premises to them once I finally gave in and admitted they were ridiculously catchy, the only songs here that I’ve found stuck in my head (the incessant fake-reggae hit “Cheap Thrills”, and the 90s throwback “Sweet Design”, which I kid you not, is an ode to her own ass) are ones that I desperately want to get out of my head due to how irritatingly stupid they are. There’s even a song based on “Footprints in the Sand” here. What, is she trying to court the CCM audience now, too?
Listen: “Sweet Design”
Dream Theater – The Astonishing
If you’re an aging prog-metal band looking for an inventive way to refresh your songwriting process, and your first thought is, “I know! Let’s make a double-album rock opera set in a dystopian land where music is a crime, and our lead singer can sing in a subtly different vocal style to represent all of the different characters, and we’ll divide it up into like a million transitional tracks like a musical instead of our usual ten-minute-plus opuses… and oh yeah, we should devote a few tracks to the non-music made by the machine drones patrolling the land to wipe out all music ’cause that would be cool! And meanwhile we can shame the listener about how no one has time for music any more!”, then you don’t deserve to have a second thought. This is laughably terrible, guys. Making music this bad should be a crime.
Music Video: “Our New World”