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The Most Disappointing Albums of 2012

2012 was a great year for music by almost any standard, but it wasn’t without a few upsets.  This list showcases some of the biggest disappointments of the year in music – now, keep in mind that these are not necessarily bad albums, just disappointing ones.  Likewise, you won’t see a bad Maroon 5’s Overexposed on this list, because how could it disappoint with expectations so low to begin with?  In fact, I just thought of something.  Two albums this year have the most appropriate title ever: Japandroids’ Celebration Rock and Maroon 5’s Overexposed.  I want to reiterate,  I like all of these albums and the bands/artists behind them, but these release let me down in some way or another.  Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

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Centipede Hz

Animal Collective – Centipede Hz

Sometimes, an album is only disappointing because of its predecessor – case in point: Centipede Hz.  Animal Collective released the phenomenal Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2008, and followed it up nicely with the atmospheric Fall Be Kind EP.  2012’s Centipede Hz isn’t a bad album (even though it seems to have already bagged the title of “Worst Album Art of the Millennium” already), but it is disappointing entry into the band’s discography.  The album is packed with jitter synthesizers, harmonies, percussion, samples, loops, and on.  The fact that it’s so packed with noise makes it an exhausting listen.  There are a few highs (“Today’s Supernatural” and “Moonjock”), but more often, the music bogs itself down.  Case in point: the slow and painful “New Town Burnout.”

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Mirage Rock

Band of Horses – Mirage Rock

With two albums, Band of Horses was a band poised to break into the mainstream consciousness.  I mean, have you heard “The Funeral?”  It probably ranks among my favorite tracks of all time, of any genre, by any band.  With Infinite Arms, the band polished their sound and gained the attention of a much, much larger audience.  Singer / chief songwriter Ben Bridwell capitalized on the band’s fame with Mirage Rock, an album that is nostalgic (like the band’s past work) but not forward-thinking.  After a few radio-ready tracks (“Knock Knock” or “How to Live”), the album limps by, and it proves fans’ worst fears that the band that recorded “The Funeral” is dead and gone.  Case in point: “Dumpster World” is a song that even Neil Young would scoff at for being too sentimental; Bridwell swings and misses so wide, it feels like a parody.

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This Machine

Dandy Warhols – This Machine

I’ve probably reached the point where I would consider myself a Dandy Warhols’ apologist.  After releasing three terrific albums (Come Down, 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia, and Welcome to the Monkey House), things got weird.  In what seemed like a ploy to be released from their contract, the band released Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, an album that has terrific high points and ghastly lows.  The followed this with Earth to the Dandy Warhols, a slicker, more polished approach.  While the Dandy Warhols might attempt to be psychedelic, they never let it interfere with a good melody.  Unfortunately, 2012’s This Machine doesn’t have enough psychedelia or melody to stand up to anything the band has done before.  The album sounds like a band defeated.  The songs on this record that are good seem to be good in spite of themselves: “SETI Vs the Wow! Signal” has some of the worst lyrics this side of, well, you be the judge: “It’s like a rocket to a caveman / talking on a cell phone, staring into space, man.”  Case in point: the self-indulgent and unsatisfying “Don’t Shoot She Cried.”

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Laborintus ii

Mike Patton – Laborintus II

I love Mike Patton and pretty much everything he’s ever recorded (except for the detestable Adult Themes for Voice, but seriously, who likes that?).  Luciano Berio’s “Laborintus II” is a poem originally commissioned by France. Its purpose was to celebrate the life of Dante Alighieri: 1965, after all, celebrated the 700 anniversary of his author’s birth. Berio’s poem was created for three female voices, eight actors, a variety of instruments, and one speaker. The role of speaker is filled by Mike Patton; there’s not much singing or crooning going on here.  While I’ve liked some of Patton’s most experimental recordings, this goes overboard, and what was intentioned as an audio/visual dramatic spectacle comes across as a muddy, cluttered recording.  There are a few moments of interesting electric jazz at play in “Part Two,” but these points come sparingly.  This might be the least essential Patton recording since Adult Themes for Voice.  Case in point: the “where am I, and how did I get here?” feeling you’ll get in “Part One.”

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Little Broken Hearts

Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts

I’ve liked pretty much everything Norah Jones has done; from the jazzy feel-good Come Away With Me to the angsty Never Too Late, she’s done no wrong.  The idea of her collaborating with Dangermouse (Brian Burton, of Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley) seems on the face of it like a good idea.  Dangermouse has a way of making the production of an album sound clean, clear, and irrepressibly cool, but there are times when the producer/instrumentalist has been less than stellar.  Beck’s Modern Guilt felt ordinary (an absolute crime for Beck’s music) as did the Black Keys’ Attack & Release.  Norah Jones’ collaboration with Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project was an absolute winner, so I had high hopes.  The first two tracks on this album raise hopes for the best (“Good Morning” is such a beautiful song).  Unfortunately, her new Little Broken Hearts and its bass/rhythm heavy production never quite proves itself effective.  Aside from a few inspired songs (“Happy Pills” and “Say Goodbye”), the collaboration never quite meshes.  Case in point: the dragging, pseudo-jazzy “4 Broken Hearts” feels like a smoke-filled by-the-number songwriting routine.

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Days Go By

The Offspring – Days Go By

If you told me at the beginning of the year that the Offspring was releasing an album, I would have told you how low my expectations were.  It’s been years since the band has released a solid and consistently good album, so how does Days Go By end up in a list like this?  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album with such fantastic highs and such bizarre and awful lows.  The album begins with some of the most aggressive music the band has released since Americana – “The Future is Now” and “Secrets From the Underground” are terrific.  The closing track, “Slim Pickens…” is just as concise and engaging as anything that the band has ever recorded.  How is it then, that the band could both be at the top of their game and at their all-time low?  “Cruising California” and “OC Guns” are so stunningly awful that I can’t imagine who let the band record them.  There had to be people around in the studio, right?  How could these people not speak up?  The band even covers (or, um, “remasters”) their early fan-favorite “Dirty Magic,” but at this point, it feels like putting salt in the wound coming off the heels of “OC Guns.”  Case in point: the band seems to be in on the joke with “Cruising California,” but at what point does a band to profit off of “satire” like “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” and “Original Gangster” before simply selling out with a wink and smile?

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The Shins – Port of Morrow

Last year, if you asked any Shins fan which of their three albums was their favorite, it’s quite possible that you would get an equal distribution of answers.  Oh Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow, and Wincing the Night Away are terrific indie-pop records.  Singer/songwriter James Mercer released remarkably consistent melody-driven guitar-centric pop songs.  After Wincing the Night Away, Mercer started up Broken Bells with producer Dangermouse – their collaboration was darker and more electronic than anything Mercer had really done before.  When he decided to (essentially) reform the Shins in 2012, it came as a surprise.  Hopes were high that Mercer would deliver as he did on his past 3 records, but Port of Morrow strangely feels soulless.  Fans excited with the lead single “Simple Song” soon discovered that it was far-and-away the best track of the bunch.  Too often does Port of Morrow feel like a rote by-the-numbers album – where was the wit?  Where was the ear-hook melodies?  While the album certainly isn’t bad, it’s definitely a disappointment.  Case in point: “It’s Only Life,” for a writer known for his sharp pen, the lyrics to this song feel absolutely mailed in.

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Unfortunate Mentions:

Temper Trap – Temper Trap
Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
Lana Del Rey — Paradise
Walkmen — Heaven
Yeasayer — Fragrant World

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The Most Under-Appreciated Albums of 2012

2012 has been a pretty good year for music.  Every genre has received some kind of hit record: for folk-indie, there was Mumford and Sons’ Babel; for R&B, there was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; for hip-hop, there was Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, for pop, there was Taylor Swift’s RED.  Perhaps it’s because it was a good year in music, there’s been several albums that have kind of fallen by the wayside.  The collection of albums below have gone through 2012 without much appreciate.  Here, this means that the album didn’t receive much critical or commercial attention — Grizzly Bears’ Shields is excellent, and underappreciate by audiences at large, but it was championed by critics and it has found its way on many “Best Of…” lists already.  The following list of albums is by no means ordered.  Stay tuned for a list of the most disappointing albums of 2012 coming soon!

damon albarn Dr Dee

Damon Albarn — Dr. Dee
It would be hard to Damon Albarn to release anything that goes under the radar.  Sure, Dr. Dee was noticed, but it was largely dismissed upon its initial release.  The album is a folky British opera that chronicles the mysterious John Dee — a consort to the queen, scientist, magician, mathematician, and astronomer.  Who would have thought that audiences weren’t interested in traditional operas about obscure 16th century alchemists?  The album is littered with Blur-esque acoustics by Albarn, but the majority of the album is traditional opera.  Critics were hoping for a small scale, intimate set, but instead, they got a strange, esoteric passion project.  SAMPLE THIS:  “Apple Carts” and “Preparation.”

liars WIXIW

Liars —  WIXIW
Those fans that were hoping that Radiohead would return to their uncompromising, electronic tendencies (Kid A and all) got their wish with last year’s King of Limbs.  Anyone still feeling a bit unsatisfied should seek out Liars’ WIXIW (pronounced “Wish You”).  The band has been no stranger to changing their sound between albums or being inaccessible: WIXIW changes none of that.  On the face of it, it’s an electronic record set with many of dance-ready beats.  A deeper listen reveals the paranoia and menace of the album.  It’s an album that rewards repeated listens, and while it may take a few to get used to the dense electronic atmosphere the band creates, it’s well worth the time.  What initially feels like a claustrophobic and harsh set of songs gradually opens up to be a surprisingly open and rich record.  SAMPLE THIS: “No. 1 Against the Rush” and “His and Mine Sensations.”

Django Django

Django Django — Django Django
It’s the band so nice they named it twice — four times if you take into account this is a self-titled record.  When I first listened to Django Django’s debut record, I knew that this was the record that everyone would be talking about in 2012.  The album has everything a listener could want: it’s well produced, it’s catchy, it’s fun, and it spans an array of genres, constantly keeping you guessing what comes next.  The band effortless shifts between surf-rock, electronic music, traditional Egyptian, and world music, but they never forget to give the listener a melody to remember.Django Django opens with the sound of nature before giving into the sounds of an arcade-like PacMan synthesizers.  It’s the perfect metaphor for the album itself: it’s an album that marries very natural sounds and melodies with fun electronics.  The album came in went with some people noticing it (NPR), but for the most part, it was lost in the rush.  Check this album out!  SAMPLE THIS: “Hail Bop” and “Waveforms.”

Grass Giraffes transportation

Grass Giraffes — Transportation
The Athen, Georgia-based band carries on the musical traditional.  The band’s debut release, the Transportation EP is a stellar mix of pop-rock and psychedelia.  Grass Giraffes’ music is sure to please anyone looking for more music by the Elephant Six collective.  The EP is only 5 songs long, but the band leaves its mark on the listener by giving the audience melodies that are irresistible and spot-on musicianship.  The lyrics here are just as smart and sharp as the lyrics, and if Transportation offers anything, it’s the hope that this kind of music (whose epoch seemed to fade out after Neutral Milk Hotel’s excellent In The Aeroplane Over the Sea) isn’t quite on its way out just yet.  SAMPLE THIS: “Backstories” and “Better Alone.”

Dan Deacon america

Dan Deacon — America
Dan Deacon has been skirting around massive audience appeal for some time now.  He’s a hard guy to pigeonhole:  his background is in classical music, but he is constantly trying to push the boundaries of electronic music.  America offers one of the best examples of what Deacon is capable of: the first half of the record is a handful of short, melody-heavy pop songs, and the back half of the record is a sprawling instrumental.  It’s hard to understand why Deacon isn’t a bigger figure in the mainstream consciousness — his music is either too electric for classical listeners or too classic for electronica listeners.  America does a great job marrying the two approaches, and if any release this year makes electronica fun, smart, and beautiful, it’s this one.  SAMPLE THIS: “True Thrush” and “USA II: The Great American Desert.”

Jesca Hoop the house that jack built

Jesca Hoop — The House That Jack Built
Tom Waits once described Jesca Hoop’s music has refreshing as “going swimming in a lake at night.”  It’s a surprisingly apt description of her music, and on that front, The House That Jack Built succeeds.  Hoop, who recorded this album after touring as part of Peter Gabriel’s band, pushes herself in a ton of different directions.  This album is a bit more streamlined than her previous work, but it’s also more accessible — fans of Hunting My Dress may be a bit disappointed with the decidedly poppier approach Hoop takes here, but it pays of in dividends.  Although Hoop’s musicianship is pristine here, what really shines is her lyrics; the material spans a wide array of subject material, but nothing is as profound as her reflection of death on the haunting and minimalist “D.N.R.”  Hoop’s music feels too poppy for the indie-audience that she records for, but here’s hoping this fantastic album finds its audience.  SAMPLE THIS: “Ode to Banksy” and “D.N.R.”

Aimee Mann charmer

Aimee Mann — Charmer
Aimee Mann has been around for a while now, but 2012’s Charmer feels like she’s found new inspiration.  The 90’s alternative rocker’s latest album is a fun, slick record that never forget to put the melodies up front.  Complimenting Mann’s guitar this time around is a Cars-like synthesizer. The album is accessible, but it’s immensely listenable — this is a record that never fails to just be a fun record.  Even though some of the subject matter turns sour (“Disappeared” or “Living A Lie”), Mann couches it all in poppy songwriting.  Collaborations with James Mercer from the Shins and Tim Heidecker from Time & Eric give the songwriter enough room to maintain her own personality while offering new takes on her music. SAMPLE THIS: “Charmer” and “Soon Enough”

Exitmusic-Passage

Exitmusic — Passage
Celebrities playing in bands is not a new spectacle.  Everytime you here about a Keanu Reeves and Dog Star or Russell Crowe and 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, it’s hard not to imagine that these are ployed attempts at artistic credibility.  These celebrities play in their band, but they never want that to be the focus of the music; Billy Bob Thornton, for example, nearly cancelled a live interview because the radio DJ singled him out in a question.  Exitmusic, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all.  The group is a husband/wife duo featuring Boardwalk Empire’s Aleksa Palladino on vocals.  Their album, Passage, has all of the atmospheric bombast that a Sigur Ros record has, and it’s just as beautiful.  Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, this is a record that works both as background music and music to lose yourself in.  SAMPLE THIS: “Passage” and “Sparks of Light.”

Hot Chip in our heads

Hot Chip — In Our Heads
Here’s an album that initially received a bit of a buzz at first only to seemingly sizzle away.  Hot Chip has been around for a while now, and their records have been mixed at best.  Sure, some are better than others, but none of them have been as consistent as In Our Heads.  Part R&B, part electronica, part dance, this British group’s latest record features the band at its very best.  The band’s positive outlook makes In Our Heads not only a great album, but one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.  If the music isn’t trying to create a groove to dance to, it’s dropping melodic hooks that will keep listeners coming back for more.  SAMPLE THIS: “Motion Sickness” and “Let Me Be Him.”

Future of the Left plot against common sense

Future of the Left — The Plot Against Common Sense
I don’t know the last time I listened to an album so brutal.  Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense is noise-rock at its finest, made all the most harsh by the fact that they just don’t seem to make bands like this anymore.  Not only is the music aggressive, but the lyrics are just as sharp as the melodies here.  Moving from cynical to satirical, Future of the Left tackles subjects such as the music industry, Hollywood, the Occupy Movement, and um, bad restaurants.  It’s one of the year’s best, as long as you’re willing to endure the fast, noisy, and raw sound that’s thrown at you.  SAMPLE THIS: “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman” and “Beneath the Waves an Ocean.”

Honorable mentions:
La Sera — Sees the Light
Mynabirds — Generals
Hopsitality — Hospitality

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