Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Year in Review: 2011's Biggest Disappointments

2011 yielded a lot of records that will probably achieve borderline classic status for me within the next decade or so, but as always, there were a few records that just didn't do it for me. You know the type: the kind of records that you put on your "most anticipated" list at the start of a year, but ones that end up just missing the mark entirely. Whether it was because the artists in question had previously made records that hit me in such an emotional place that the follow-ups couldn't live up to them, or because I've moved passed the point where I found the artist's music relevant in my life, these five records will probably get very little attention from me after the sun sets on this year. Perhaps there's a classic here that will unveil itself once enough time has passed, but I personally think each of these records failed in such a way that I'm no longer sure what place these artists have in my soundtrack. Only time will tell.

1. City & Colour - Little Hell

It's a bit weird that this one sits at the top of this list, since I really don't think it's a bad record at all, and a bunch of people even called it his best. It's all personal here though, since Dallas Greene (the singer-songwriter behind his project) made one of the most emotional, heartbreaking records I've ever heard back in 2005 with Sometimes. That record was just Dallas with his acoustic guitar and his unbelievable voice, and when I finally discovered it 3 years after it's release, I formed such an emotional connection with it that I don't honestly know if I love the record because the music is great or because it seemed to describe perfectly how I was feeling. The follow-up, 2008's Bring Me Your Love, brought a more fleshed-out, full-band sound with it, but I still felt a connection to what Dallas was singing about. I feel nothing at all when I listen to this record though. Everything sounds as beautiful as ever, but that palpable emotion that made Sometimes something special for me is no longer present in Dallas' lyrics or vocals, and that's a bit heartbreaking for me. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I didn't find much to come back to on Little Hell, even though I tried time and time again.

2. Bright Eyes - The People's Key

The only reason this record isn't number one on this list is because the only album Conor Oberst has ever made that I loved completely was 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. That album's folky, Americana beauty had Oberst writing some of the best lyrics I've ever heard, and the last three tracks ("Land Locked Blues," "Poison Oak," "Road to Joy") are on my list for the best ways to ever end an album. The People's Key, to put it lightly, is a horrible record. It's a concept album about...aliens? Scientology? I'm not really sure, but the creepy spoken-word interludes mar songs that are already far less inspired than what Oberst is capable of. There's one moment of glory, near the end, with the piano based "Ladder Song," a gorgeous lament that finds a lot in common with Oberst's best work. It's a brilliant song, but it's four minutes of an album that seems to last far, far longer than it actually does, and the record's overall failure has kept me from coming back to the song as much as I should have. Considering that this is possibly the last record under the Bright Eyes moniker, it just seems even worse.

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You

I'm With You isn't a bad record, it's just a pretty damn boring one. It's hard to blame John Klinghoffer, who has to fill the immense shoes of former guitarist John Frusciante, and does it reasonably well when the band lets him. Unfortunately, they don't let him show off much, and instead opt to turn up the bass and let Flea take center stage, which also isn't a wholly bad thing, but which results in a record that is pretty redundant overall. Then again, maybe I've just outgrown the Peppers and Anthony Kiedis' nonsense lyrics. To put things in perspective, the last time these guys released a record, I was finishing up my freshman year of high school. I'm With You dropped on the day that I headed back to college for my junior year, over five years later. Five years is a long time in the music industry in general, but it's been a lifetime for my music tastes, which seem to have left this group behind a bit, not only judging by my lukewarm reaction to this record, but also to how little I've revisited any of their older records in the past four years. Still, I'm With You is almost unquestionably their weakest record since before Californication, even if there are a few songs I enjoy quite a bit ("Brendan's Death Song" being the highlight).

4. Lydia - Paint it Golden

This band came out of nowhere in 2008 with Illuminate, a record that I found haunting and enchanting, and one that I placed in my top five for that year, alongside the likes of Butch Walker, Jack's Mannequin, Safetysuit and Augustana. After the departure of co-lead vocalist Mindy White (she now leads the group States, who also released a record this year), Lydia supposedly ended, but that break-up was short lived, apparently. Here's another record that isn't really bad in any way, but which just feels a bit dull after the incredible record that Illuminate was. It's clear that White was the band's secret weapon, as without her, what could have been as haunting and emotionally resonant as the songs on Illuminate were, just fall flat. Leighton Antelman, the frontman behind this project, also made a record under the guise of The Cinema this year. It was a collection of catchy, electronic based pop songs that drew obvious influence from the likes of Ben Gibbard's Postal Service project, and ended up being a record I enjoyed a lot more than this one. It could just be that it's a better album (which I think it is), but it also has a lot to do with Antelman's use of the Lydia moniker, which just feels dishonest at this point.

5. I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business - Gold Rush

Ace Enders, the ultra-prolific mind behind the Early November and the Million Different People solo project a few years back, has recently settled into making music under this moniker. Last year, he released an album called The World We Know, and while it wasn't one of my favorites due to what I found to be a lack of consistency, there were undoubtedly a handful of unbelievably great songs on there, and they earned it a spot on my honorable mentions list. Gold Rush seeks to be a summer pop record, but weird production techniques (especially on Enders' vocal lines) and a handful of strangely uninspired songs left this record as one that I half liked and half hated. Even the best songs don't soar like they did on The World We Know, and although I ultimately ended up giving this an honorable mention as well, it still feels to me like a strangely incomplete effort.  

*Bonus points for Lydia, for one of the weirdest album covers of the year.

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