Friday, December 06, 2013

Disappointing albums of 2013

Mediocre albums are the worst, especially when it comes to writing about them.  A great album makes you want to tell other people how great it is, and a bad album leaves you reaching for a thesaurus to explain its awfulness.  Either way, these albums inspire you, and emotions run high when writing about them.  People remember those 9/10 and 10/10 reviews, and they remember the 2/10's, which usually makes people more curious to hear them because they have to check for themselves if it really is as bad as claimed.  It's that endless supply of 6/10's that are read and instantly forgotten.  If you really want to damn an album to the wastebin of history upon arrival, the 5/10 is probably the kiss of death.

For me, 2013 has been a year of disappointments.  There were a bunch of albums that I was looking forward to hearing, by artists that I really like, who have made some of my favourite albums of the past few years.  Their new records turned out to be OK, but disappointing.  I'm not talking about disappointing yet bad albums, like the Arcade Fire's head scratcher that I could forget about and move on from almost right away.  There's nothing actively bad about any of these albums, they're not experiments gone wrong or preposterously bad ideas poorly executed.  Fans of these acts would immediately recognize it as their work.  They're just OK, nothing more, and despite their pedigree, I rarely find myself wanting to listen to them.

Donato Dozzy, "Plays Bee Mask".

The Voices of the Lake album was beautifully stretched out, with each track getting seven or eight minutes to breath before merging seamlessly into the next one.  The pacing was closer to something from Wolfgang Voigt's Gas than any contemporary techno album I'd heard.  But "Plays Bee Mask" feels like a bunch of skits and elements from unfinished songs that never really kick in.

No Age, "An Object".

This album suffers from many of the same problems.  It relies less on conventional rock themes than their last two albums, which on paper would have been an understandable progression from their earlier releases, something I would have looked forward to hearing. But much like their first album "Weirdo Rippers", it's more like a collection of ideas than a cohesive album.  "Weirdo Rippers" was actually a collection of EP's rather than a proper album, so its "odds 'n' sods" style is understandable, but "An Object" is more like a compilation of cool guitar sounds that they wanted to finally release after a frustrating couple of years of writers block.

Yo La Tengo, "Fade".

If YLT wanted to tour and needed a record a new album to justify it, then "Fade" has served its purpose and then some.  It's just too bad that they seem to only take risks on the opening track on their albums now (i.e. "Here To Fall" from "Popular Songs" and "Ohm" from "Fade") but otherwise hardly stray outside of their familiar comfort zones.  Is this really the same band that released "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One", where every track played with a completely different style of music but still managed to sound like classic YLT throughout?

Tim Hecker, "Virgins".

Tim Hecker has made a career out of treading water, but when the formula is this successful, even treading water can lead to repeatedly great results.  It takes a lot of careful listening to peel back the layers of sound on a Tim Hecker album, so the relistening value has always been high as there are constantly new details to discover.  The recent profile in SPIN made me appreciate the level of care he puts into his records even more.  And so "Virgins" is his usual good effort.  The bells and chimes and other bits of live instrumentation don't add anything notable to the well established template he's used for the past decade.  In the past there'd be a fuzzy sampled guitar and now it's replaced by a chime, and that slight transformation is more than a bit gimmicky.  Maybe it's a rite of passage to help his growth as a composer, and if so, it could be a positive thing in the long term.  The quieter, ambient second half of the album is a confusing experiment in subtlety that doesn't suit Hecker's strengths.  "Virgins" quiets down and then just ... ends. "Ravedeath 1972" and "Haunt Me Do It Again" were outstanding because of their complete lack of subtlety and maximalist approach to nearly every track, and the quieter parts on his other albums were often about navigating between the peaks.

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