Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rocking My World, Working My Nerves Part 2

The Most Disappointing records of 2007.

I was all set to write about the year’s worst music. And while that would have been a lot of fun (what’s a Daughtry anyway, some fetish club apparatus?), it would also have necessitated actually buying these records and I’d rather corrupt minors than spend money on anybody connected to American Idol. Then there are artists like Smashing Pumpkins who make writing a “worst of” list way too easy. We should have known when he titled his solo album TheFutureEmbrace, but how could we have anticipated such jaw dropping hubris as to name one’s album Zeitgeist? Why that’s like calling an album Number One Record (which went so swimmingly for Big Star), or giving your baby Cool Muthafucka as a middle name. Too, too easy. Instead here are 2007’s most disappointing albums. None of them are outright bad, a few even occasionally good, but all are from artists that we expect better.

Interpol: Our Love To Admire
With Our Love to Admire, Interpol joins a club diverse enough to include by Sting, Sizzla, Cypress Hill, Culture Club and nearly ever rapper since 1994 not named Outkast. People you only need one album from. Needless to say, that album was not Our Love to Admire. It’s near impossible to gauge the impact of Interpol’s first album, Turn Out The Bright Lights, one of few records of the period whose majesty, unlike the Strokes’ existed more than on paper. Sure there was the grand doom of Joy Division, but there was also a twitchy nervousness all their own, a bizarre lyrical grace and a sound that wasn’t post-punk so much as post-nu-metal/hip-hop. But they lost it by their second album, one of those records that nobody admits to disliking but nobody has played more than twice. Three albums in, Interpol had become as much a formula as a hit hatched from the Matrix (Avril Lavigne) and you’re not so much dismayed as tired, like a woman realizing that her lover is nothing but a missionary man after all.

Common: Finding Forever
Given that Common has flaked on us before, I thought Kanye West would have had better instincts than to leave him with too much to do. Give a “conscious” rapper a free hand and he’ll lay another Electric Circus on you, but Common, for all his hippie tendencies is no Ritchie Havens. And yet that he would flake out into a directionless freak surprises no one. The real disappointment here is West, who we had counted on to reign things in, not only by forcing lyrical discipline but with a sharper sense of beats and hits, unlike the tired Soulquarian excesses that stopped albums such as Like Water For Chocolate dead after four songs. Common once called himself Chi-town’s Nas as a boast, but the title is more apt that he could have hoped. Several albums in neither has delivered the mature masterpiece we’ve been waiting on. Or put another way, while both have given us a War, (Resurrection, Illmatic) neither is going to give us a Joshua Tree any time soon. Also, Common, buddy, you really need to get some white friends before you judge a whole social group again. You used to do that with gays and that wasn’t very intelligent either.

Zap Mama: Supermoon
With MIA running all over the world, crashing into beats and rhymes and gunshots while trying to catch back episodes of lost, and Tinariwen spinning stunningly electric webs of guitar riffs across the deserts to the streets of Manhattan and Paris, who needs Zap Mama? Marie Dauline had been at the forefront of a rather curious experiment for some time now (not alone, Angelique Kidjo and Baaba Maal have been making the same trip). A seemingly deliberate attempt to get more and more generic with each record, to dissolve into pop sounds so increasingly light and fluffy that one day she would simply vanish. Zap mama was never very deep, but with Supermoon, the tired mysticism and stale neosoul makes one reach nostalgic for the days of Seven, when Dauline seemed ready to drop the masterpiece that Neneh Cherry never got to make. If you want your mind blown get The Very Best of Ethiopiques. If you have carpet to clean, however and need some mood music, you could do worse.

RJD2: The Third Hand
Time now for a pact between us. The next time a DJ shadow shows up in our midst, let us all, for his sake ignore him. Stunned by the deification he got in the late 90’s for Endtroducing, Shadow imploded on himself, releasing records that polarized his audience as if he was trying anything to ditch them fast. Or maybe he simply got tired of being saddled with the job of reinventing hip-hop. Either way, missing Shadow got a lot easier when RJD2 dropped the immortal Deadringer on us in 2002, perhaps the definitive post 9/11 hip-hop record. Here was a mostly instrumental album that had all the power and soul of 88 hip-hop and yet was no nostalgia trip. And "The Horror" remains the most thrilling four minutes of the past seven years. But alas RJD2 crumbled under the weight of expectation too; making the Moby mistake of thinking he was as interesting as his music. Part of the problem may be that he thinks he’s too smart for this (he’ll never live down the “hip-hop is moron music” line even if he’s...er...right), but a bigger problem may be that now that he’s ditched sampled voices for his own, he has not yet realized (and neither has Moby) that he has nothing interesting to say.

Patti Smith: Twelve
When Patti Smith took on Van Morrison’s Gloria, one of the pinnacle moments of straight male lust, in 1975, she slashed and burned it with guitar and piano, changed none of the gender pronouns and bookended it with the devastating, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Smith didn’t just steal the song; she kidnapped and corrupted it, regressed it to a fetus then engineered it back into her own poetic proto-punk image. Given her awesome powers for reinterpretation one would have expected Twelve to be a slam-dunk, or merely a masterpiece. Instead Twelve is one of the most boring covers album in years, a record so leaden it makes one reconsider Bowie’s Pin-Ups as an underrated masterpiece. Why did it all go so wrong? For one Smith, who once had no problem violating a song to save it, is now too respectful of the material to add anything new. So Gimme Shelter, where she ditched the Merry Clayton back-up but put nothing in its place sounded an awful lot like karaoke. Also, for such a punk goddess, when did Smith get so frustratingly classic rock? Check out Siouzie’s Mantaray or Debbie Harry’s Necessary Evil instead.

Bjork: Volta
It’s too easy to bring MIA into a Bjork conversation these days so let me say it all by inference. But even without any queen is the dead, long live the queen rhetoric, Volta was a hugely problematic and frustrating record, stunning precisely because the failure seemed so inevitable. Bjork, for all her elfiness never lost touch with the club or the street before, but somewhere between going from Matthew Barney’s lover to his muse she became alternative’s Stevie Nicks, insulated by rock and roll celebrity and privilege and losing her pop-touch. Volta is a series of over-ambitious misfires—a mess that actually sounds messy—as if finally caught in her own sonic barrage, Bjork herself got shot down. This was the album where Bjork became a Bjork imitator and in that crowded field, way to many (Ellen Alien, The Knife, Roisin Murphy, Goldfrapp) do it better.

Prince: Planet Earth
I know some of you are still hoping that his royal midgetness would go back to the days when he listened to Joni Mitchell and Led Zeppelin, because like Bowie, Prince does his best when he listens to the best (or at least somebody other than himself or who he’s producing). Get over it, people. Prince is the now the kind of guy that listens to Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani and appears on American Idol. Planet Earth was hailed by some, dissed by others, and while the album is neither his worst nor best, it is a brand new thing for Prince: The best that he can do.