Diehard fans of an artist will often go through those five stages of grief with a bum album. In this article, I’m aiming to help those people through the first stage: denial, and usher them through the stage of anger to help them on their way to acceptance. This year had a few bum albums and I think it’s important to name and shame them, not to pretend that all music is getting better and better each year.
1. Ellie Goulding - Halcyon Days
Who remembers those first couple of releases from Lights? Ellie showed off an impressive skill for emotive and genuine songwriting as well as some really unique tones to her voice. A couple of years down the line and it looks like she’s been spending a little too much time around the Floorfiller FactoryTM sythesisers and four-to-the-floor kick drums. Perhaps it was the influence of her boyfriend Skrillex, but there’s an entirely unwelcome electronic edge to Ellie Goulding’s new material that was ushered in by the worryingly shimmery tracks on Bright Lights (produced by Frankmusik, yeah…).
Goulding’s stuck with the ‘adding words onto the end of the album and releasing it’ theme, more cynically interpreted as a too-transparent marketing ploy. The paint-by-numbers dubstep and jackin house remixes on the original Halycon should have been a warning for what was coming. Aside: Take a listen to the French Fries remix on Halycon Deluxe Edition and tell me how that’s a remix of anything on the album. The singles from that release range from a little bit annoying, to hear in the club for the millionth time (I Need Your Love), to downright grating (Anything Could Happen… OO OO OO OO EEOO).
Saying all of that, it’s Halcyon Days that we’re talking about, the money grubbing afterthought. I’m unsettled again by something I hoped I wouldn’t have to hear when I first discovered Ellie as an acoustic songstress: her voice with all of the personality sucked out, over the top of a completely generic club beat that could be easily switched for anything at the top of the Beatport 100 and sound basically the same. I’m talking about Burn. Ellie’s once great songwriting has been reduced to repeating the same passively evocative words every time the kick and chord hits: ‘Fire, fire, fire’, and then we’re gonna ‘Burn, burn, burn, burn, burn’.
2. Jay-Z - Magna Carta Holy Grail
It really is a dark time when an album like Yeezus comes out ahead as the clear victor of the East Coast’s 2013. Kanye’s mental breakdown, captured as a warped manifesto by Rick Rubin and Daft Punk of all people, outshines Jay Z’s contribution to the year by the virtue that at least it’s doing something. Jay Z managed to produce some of the limpest verses, production and collaborations ever to have rolled down from the throne.
Consider this; in one hand, hold Niggas in Paris, in the other hold Holy Grail. The poppy bombs dropped in Niggas in Paris reverberate through the everyday speech of anybody between the ages of ten and twenty-five; what she order? Fish fillet. On the other hand, I struggle to remember a line from Holy Grail that doesn’t explicitly refer to the title of the song. It seems like Jay Z needs to go and hang out with Kanye a little more and calm Yeezus down with some of that utterly bland Hov-brand lyricism.
3. Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines
Robin Thicke, a newcomer to the pop-funk scene has been showing great promise. Perhaps a genuine challenge to the king of the genre, Justin Timberlake, who himself has been going from strength to strength recently… OH WHO AM I KIDDING.
The state of pop music is at best a desolate no-mans-land, a wasted, barren landscape after months of awful ‘club bangers’ and ‘popular commentary on gender issues’. I’m not going to get my shoes dirty in the Thicke of it, but suffice it to say that this man is responsible for something that makes me disappointed, not in any well-loved artist, but simply in the state of the Top 40 itself. I don’t care how old it makes me sound - who the hell is buying these records and paying this idiot? Oh, and one more thing: he tainted Pharell, and I loved that guy.
4. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
After a characteristally engigmatic hiatus, the two robots in disguise returned to the foreground with a much-hyped advert at Coachella. A snippet of what came to be Get Lucky ft. Pharrell was looped and analysed in the weeks preceeding the release of Random Access Memories. When the single arrived, the song quickly became the most overplayed piece of music out there for about a month and a half, yet it was still deliciously catchy and danceable. It seemed that the Parisian cyborgs were moving toward a funky sound, and all that was left was for them to drop the album that would fill in the other half of Daft Punk’s winning combination of funk and electro.
What we got instead was a patchy collection of navel-gazing nostalgia pieces. Think Homework, but with all of the fun electronic elements taken out and replaced by ageing rock musicians. I don’t like to talk about it too much because it makes me upset, but the only truly listenable tracks are Get Lucky and Lose Yourself To Dance. Thank God for Pharrell (when he’s not ruining my life with Robin Thicke). Perhaps we should give all the credit to Nile Rodgers.
5. Daughter - If You Leave
After being introduced to Elena’s moody tones by a couple of friends, I quickly found myself smitten with the sensitive ballads that Daughter produced on their pre-debut EPs and singles. There’s something about the lyricism of this band that seem to turn down the thermostat, and make you half expect to see snowflakes falling outside your window. I was pretty swept up by the forest metaphors, the themes of childhood, familial bonds and loves lost.
The dreaded album landed and I ended up listening through ten tracks of the same damn thing. The shameless repitition and recycling of conceits like arms reaching, timid feet, and the snowy bloody forest, completely broke the spell for me. I could easily enjoy the tracks that had been pre-released after I’d heard them in context - grey on grey. Those tracks were the standouts though, a symptom of that depressing syndrome that has you skipping through the filler on the album to hear the tracks that you’ve been hearing for months but are still better.
6. Arctic Monkeys - AM
I think I just heard the sound of the ruffling of many leather jackets, but it doesn’t matter too much. Nobody can tell me that the best song from the new album: Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? (stupid long titles are always a bad sign) is any better than the worst of their work from the first album. Whatsmore, Alex Turner exhibits a confusing decision to adapt John Cooper Clark’s wonderful poem into an arrogant attempt at fucking the listener in the ear (see the appropriate section of this article).
Something that I’ve never been able to suppress in myself is the urge to flatten the opinions of people who vastly overrate musicians, especially musicians who have enough of an ego to begin with. When I hear people unsarcastically comparing the Artic Monkeys to Oasis, or god forbid, the Beatles, I see in my minds eye a vision of Alex Turner’s quiff, that somehow manages to ooze its own cockiness. This album is over-exposed, as increasingly over-exposed as the band who produced it. Sorry.
7. Skrillex - Leaving EP
I haven’t been following Skrillex as closely as I used to for a couple of years now. However I’ll still stand by the claim that Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites EP was a very influential release, and not in a necessarily bad way. However, like most people who make a big splash with their first efforts, Skrillex is losing his edge. I won’t claim that Skrillex was ever a major contributor to the betterment of music, but to begin with he was certainly bringing something new to the table.
The wub wave started to crest and Skrillex got left behind in a backwash of impressively vanilla-brand electropop. What we are now left with is what seems to be a thoroughly confused Sonny Moore. The Leaving EP is part Burial impression, part ‘DJ tool’ (his words, not mine) and it’s all utter rubbish.
8. MGMT - MGMT
MGMT’s trajectory can be basically characterised as a single concerted effort to be really weird. It seems that after striking enormous fame and success in 2008 with the singles from Oracular Spectacular, the boys got a little spooked that being famous isn’t cool.
Since then, they’ve been focusing on the out-there element of their style that they hinted at with tracks like 4th Dimensional Transition. After a few months of navel gazing and searching for spirit animals, Congratulations was released to no fanfare, and with no appeal to the mainstream. Unfortunately, it was also a bit rubbish.
The trend continues with the release of the self-titled album. The standout single is Your Life Is A Lie, which is weird enough to convey that they’re not making music for people to enjoy anymore. Instead, they’re challenging you to be cool enough to like it.
9. Justin Timberlake - The 20⁄20 Experience
My mum has a copy of Justified in her CD cupboard and I’m certain it beats George Michael’s Best Hits for overall playcount, which says a lot. FutureSex/LoveSounds manages to walk the line of sexual cockiness and come off as suave and sexy rather than… well, Robin Thicke. In fact, pre-2010 Justin Timberlake seemed to be the distillation of neo-soul brought to the pop world.
Fast forward to the present day and the white king of RnB has become a limp feature artist on similarly limp ‘chart-toppers’ such as the aforementioned Holy Grail. It’s a sad state of affairs when JT can’t simply flatten the likes of Robin Thicke with pure musicianship. On the positive side, Justin’s been doing some great things with his acting career.
10. James Blake - Retrograde
James Blake’s self-titled debut was an incredible release that shook the world of post-Dubstep into getting its act together. Wilhelm’s Scream is simply put, one of the greatest pieces of electronic music ever composed. Blake’s self-production was brutally minimalist and innovative to the core, and his live shows have gone to show how truly talented he is as a classical musician. That impressive musicianship was compounded with the release of Enough Thunder EP that contained an incredibly emotive cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You.
Overgrown landed amongst the fanfare of Retrograde, which was unfortunately the only track that matched the level of the first album. The rest of the release was only really landmarked by a lack-luster feature by RZA, and what came to be a pretty passable beat for a Chance The Rapper collaboration (but lacked Chance’s vocals on the album release). Overall, it’s just a huge shame to see somebody so promising taper their trajectory so quickly; here’s hoping he’s working on something incredible.
Honourable Mentions I want to also mention two albums that were actually really quite good, but were still sub-par for what many had been hoping from very promising acts. Holy Fire from Foals is an unfortunate lull in what had previously been a constant upward trajectory. There are a couple of good tracks on the album, Inhaler’s pretty good; My Number is lyrically moronic.
CHVRCHES have been exploding all over the UK this year, and now they’re taking their saccharine sweet brand of Scottish synth-pop to the US with a big tour. Their sound has been a well-needed breath of fresh air in a slowly stagnating pop landscape (because sexist manifestos aren’t musical innovation). However, when their highly anticipated album, The Bones Of What You Believe arrived, it didn’t blow my hair back. The album suffered from ‘singles being the best part’ syndrome, and lacked the ‘oh my God, there’s more’ feeling that comes with a truly great album landing. CHVRCHES are still incredible, it’s just that they’re only as awesome as I thought they were before the album arrived.