It’s end-of-year list-making time, and right on cue, the first bunch of Best-of-2013 lists are starting to appear on various blogs and in magazines. And, as ever, there’s a certain orthodoxy about them, a pattern whereby you see the same record appear on list after list, and find yourself scratching your head and saying, “But, wait, that album sucked!” Well, if it’s any consolation, it’s not just you. Here are ten records to which your correspondent has had the same reaction — albums that seem to have gotten universal love despite being at best flawed and at worst awful.
Daft Punk — Random Access Memories
The critics said: “For RAM, Daft Punk recorded in the best studios, they used the best musicians, they added choirs and orchestras when they felt like it, and they almost completely avoided samples, which had been central to most of their biggest songs. Most of all, they wanted to create an album-album, a series of songs that could take the listener on a trip, the way LPs were supposedly experienced in another time.” (Pitchfork)
All this is true. It’s also exactly the problem: all the big-budget self-indulgence of Random Access Memories doesn’t change the fact that the songs are fundamentally dull. It’s also weirdly conservative, with its focus on “real” instrumentation and making a “real” album. The whole thing is a demonstration that sometimes less is more, and also serves as a fine example as to why navel-gazing electroprog went out of fashion in the first place: it has nothing to say. Nothing at all.
The critics said: “The album arrives just as Haim’s impeccably crafted mix of influences — soft rock’s incandescent glow, R&B’s sensuality, the spiky-yet-polished effervescence of pop-rock — are more fashionable than ever.” (Pitchfork)
Well, sure, but does the world really need three sisters who sound like Belinda Carlisle?
Disclosure — Settle
The critics said: “Settle could be the moment the UK underground gets primed for mass consumption in suburban clubs, the charts and branches of Footlocker [sic].” (NME)
Every year, there’s one electronic album over which the mainstream music press goes inexplicably batshit. This year, it was Disclosure’s nondescript synthesis of fairly generic house sounds and UK garage, a genre that really should have been left in the shitcan of history. The result is exactly the sort of album you might expect to hear played in Foot Locker. Quite why this is a good thing remains unclear.
Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City
The critics said: “Vampire Weekend have gotten better at just about everything they do. The grooves – always the thing that made the band’s twee side work – are more self-assured… Koenig has become a more mature lyricist, editing out some of the hyperliteracy without dumbing down.” (Rolling Stone)
As I wrote back in June, people tend to criticize Vampire Weekend for the wrong reasons. They also praise them for the wrong reasons — Ezra Koenig may have abandoned his insufferably collegiate approach to music, but his lyrics and delivery remain as tiresomely mannered and self-aware as ever. No one needs an Upper West Side Weezer.
Eminem — The Marshall Mathers LP 2
The critics said: “If rapping were a purely athletic competition, Eminem would be Michael Phelps and Mary Lou Retton combined: pure agility and flexibility, like an unstoppable bullet with only white-hot hate in his wake… This, the ‘sequel’ (or whatever) to his landmark 2000 LP, is little more than a rapsploitation vehicle where practically every line is gratuitous, beyond ridiculous, an effortless and almost empty display of showboating, a carnival trick.” (Spin)
Despite what his lovely army of fans would have you believe, Eminem’s halcyon days are long behind him. Chris Weingarten’s review for Spin, quoted above, was overwhelmingly positive, but it also rather gets to the point of why this album is so tiresome — because there used to be more to Eminem than showboating, than proving he was better than other rappers. He probably is more rhythmically dextrous than his younger contemporaries, but when all he has to say is the same tired old shit he trotted out a decade ago, who cares?
The critics said: “More ambitious and judicious than his first album, Justified, and more consistent than 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, the record mixes up not only genres and traditional song structures, but entire critical value systems.” (Pitchfork)
The fact that this has appeared on any end-of-year lists really only serves to demonstrate the amount of goodwill that remains for Futuresex/Lovesounds, because if you took this overlong, self-indulgent mess on its own merits, it’d be headed straight for the dumper. The album mixes up traditional song structures only in the respect that it decides that more choruses and extended outros are never, ever enough — but in doing so, it only demonstrates the merits of brevity. (And let’s not even mention the sequel.)
Arcade Fire — Reflektor
The critics said: “Do what you want with the Arcade Fire: Cherish or disdain them, define yourself by or against them, laugh with or at them. But they make you feel something; they make you do something.” (Spin)
And, while we’re at it, here’s indie rock’s answer to Timberlake’s monument to excess: an 85-minute double album about precisely fuck-all. Arcade Fire used to make you feel something, sure — Funeral was one of the most unashamedly emotive albums of the 2000s — but this album is empty inside. It can dress up its paucity of ideas in rhetoric about Orpheus and mirrors and Kierkegaard, but ultimately the emperor is as nekkid as the day he was born.
Chvrches — The Bones of What You Believe
The critics said: “Comparisons to the Knife are a given with the trio’s initial anonymity and love for the pitchy synths that drove the strongest first releases from both of these electronic-pop experimentalists.” (Spin)
I have nothing against this band per se, and Lauren Mayberry’s piece for the Guardian about misogyny in music was great, but honestly, you might as well just put on Silent Shout and be done with it.
The Knife — Shaking the Habitual
The critics said: “Shaking the Habitual isn’t so much “Shake Your Love” as it is Shakespeare…translated into alien biometric rhythms tapping out iambic pentameter.” (Slant)
And finally, a couple of albums that demonstrate that “overrated” is a relative term. I like Shaking the Habitual, but it couldn’t possibly live up to the crazy expectations that preceded it, nor to the ecstatic reviews that followed its release. The album is wildly ambitious and experimental, and like any sort of experiment, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. At its best, Shaking the Habitual is wonderful, but it’s not flawless, and I challenge anyone to deny they’ve skipped “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” more often than they’ve listened to it.
Jay Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail
The critics said: “This, then, is AOR: Adult Orientated Rap. Luckily, though, Jay-Z still turns out work of impressive authority.” (NME)
Conversely, while Magna Carta Holy Grail didn’t really get great reviews, critics seemed reluctant to just come out with the truth: this album stinks. Unless, of course, you like having a mega-rich dude shout at you about how many paintings he owns and rhyming “Rothko” with “brothel,” in which case, knock yourself out.