This time of year is fun-slash-maddening for us goofy music critic types. It's a time for poring over notes, for obsessively analyzing what made the records we loved so great.
Of course, they can't all be winners, can they? As we dug into our Best of Lists, we turned up a few disappointments, too. What follows is our individual reflections on albums, trends, and -- in at least one case, the geo-political antics -- that musically bummed us out this year.
What records or songs let you down? Let us know in the comments.
Jack White, Blunderbuss
In my view, Jack White has always had a solo career.
Even with Meg White by his side, it was clear that Mr. White marched to the beat of his own drum. The White Stripes' breakup was therefore the least disappointing of 2011; I was much more saddened by the demise of Bright Eyes and LCD Soundsystem, knowing that ol' Jack would be up to something else in no time. Unfortunately, his first truly "all by himself" release, Blunderbuss, was about as well aimed as the inaccurate, old-fashioned firearm for which its named.
Like the Stripes' album White Blood Cells, Blunderbuss is scattered with cutesy songs that hardly form a whole. It's White's version of a mid-life crisis, filled with cheesy, half-assed ballads and sappy vows against love (his band wasn't the only thing broke up last year -- he also got divorced). "Sixteen Saltines" is the only track that maintains itself, but it probably won't be long before its remixed by Glitch Mob for the next G.I. Joe trailer. Yawn.
In the end, however, Blunderbuss probably wasn't as disappointing as when White abruptly stormed off stage at Radio City in September. In all reality, White will find something else exciting and fresh to do next. Maybe he'll produce another single with Insane Clown Posse. That'd be something. -- Troy Farah
Fear Factory, The Industrialist
Back in its early days -- circa Soul of a New Machine -- Fear Factory's sound was disturbingly fresh, a weighty but haunting noise. The band's blend of crushing metal and cyborg fascination always leaned toward industrial, so it made sense that the band's 2012 effort, The Industrialist, was highly anticipated.
Here's the thing -- it's not a horrible album, sound-wise, but it falls flat. The decision to anchor the album with a haute concept story is to blame. The Industrialist is supposed represent the mechanical, technological, and scientific advances through the industrial age. In the story, the automaton becomes sentient as it collects memories with each passing day, and through slow observation the automaton gains the will to exist.
Unfortunately, the concept as a whole just did not live up to the hype. The album may not stray far from Fear Factory's traditional sound, but for a group that has spent nearly a decade attempting to redefine itself, one would think there would be more of an impact from the music. -- Lauren Wise
Latino Singer José "El Pelón" Ávila Blames New Times for Canceled Show
My biggest letdown of the year took place when former Arizona resident and self-proclaimed "santocorrido" singer José "El Pelón" Ávila got dropped from a local show, then pointed the finger at the New Times for the cancelation.
It wasn't so much that the bald, big man got pissed about missing out on a payday that bummed me out, but that he felt truly slighted by me. (He claims because I mentioned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in an article penned a day before his planned album release party at Phoenix restaurant/music hall La Casa Del Mariachi, the show was canned.)
Before the colossal misunderstanding, I looked forward to getting the whole skinny on not only Ávila,but the strange world he comes from. His story was full of all sorts of interesting elements, ranging from his belief in Santeria to his flashy twist on the popular narcocorridos, or drug ballads, that have enamored so many people over the years. He even claimed to have been kidnapped at one point in time. The puzzling culture of narcocorridos has been a bizarre fascination of mine for some time now, and I had hoped Ávila would be the guy to shed his unique perspective on the subject. Alas, it wasn't meant to be: Ávila deleted me from his Facebook page and doesn't talk to me anymore. -- Anthony Sandoval
Band of Horses, Mirage Rock
Mirage Rock would have you believe that Band of Horses leader Ben Bridwell has successfully merged his dreamy indie folk project with the soft country rock sentiment of America, but don't be fooled -- the casino headliners haven't tacked on a member three decades their junior. Instead, the album is the uninspired, tactless creation of a once focused songwriter.
It's tough for an admitted fan to say. Everything All the Time, the band's 2006 breakout hit featuring "The Funeral," was a heart wrenching, cathartic record. 2010's Cease to Begin followed in the same vein, bringing the world one of the greatest breakup anthems of all time, "No One's Gonna Love You." I even stuck around for Infinite Arms, which was less a blow to the gut than I had grown accustomed to, but still showed off the dreamy sadness Band of Horses was known for, and even threw in some thoroughly enjoyable upbeat ditties like "NW Apt" and "Compliments."
So what happened to Band of Horses over the last five years?
On Mirage Rock they've taken over the sound of Neil Young, America, and John Denver, holding it hostage with noxious lyrics that lack the sentimentality needed for such a simplistic genre. But that's not exactly it. Lyrics have never been the band's strong point, and Mirage Rock solidifies that. It's that the record has the old twang of a tired country star looking to make a buck, releasing a lazy album that banks on legendary status, and lacks the youthful vulnerability that once made Band of Horses one of the most exciting acts in indie music. The band has transitioned into something virtually unrecognizable from past work. Evolution in music is natural. Shape-shifting is not. -- Christina Caldwell
Cody ChesnuTT, Landing on a Hundred
Cody ChesnuTT's 2002 double album The Headphone Masterpiece set the bar terribly high for a follow-up. The sprawling 36 tracks of that collection weren't perfect -- in fact most were crudely rendered in GBV-style lo-fidelity -- but the compact disc's case could barely contain the energy found within. It was a sprawling, unfocused blend of garage rock, R&B, neo-soul, and funk, and I thought it ruled.
ChesnuTT's 2012 effort, Landing on a Hundred, shares with Masterpiece its distinct voice and solid songwriting. ChesnuTT has matured, and staggeringly funky tracks like "That's Still Mama" and slinky "What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next)" are pitch perfect, gloriously retro encapsulations of '70s groove. Every sound is polished, and ChesnuTT's voice sounds immaculate. It's full of excellent songs, the kind that sound like they took 10 years to finish. Maybe that's my problem with it.
I want to hear the weirdo who made Masterpiece. I want another all- encompassing song like "Boylife in America" or synth bass-rattling "Batman Vs. Blackman." Is it wrong to ask an artist to not mature? Maybe. But it feels like ChesnuTT is subduing his inner freak, aiming to keep his offbeat ambitions deep inside.
It could be that I'm just not looking far enough into the record. After all, "Under the Spell of the Handout" is indeed a weird, weird song. Is it satire? Is it sincere?
I know I enjoy the hell out of it. And I know I can't find a single fault with Landing on a Hundred, but considering how much beauty ChesnuTT dragged out of the imperfections of The Headphone Masterpiece, I wonder if that's sort of a shame. -- Jason P. Woodbury
Bands on the Internet
This was a tough assignment, as I was rarely disappointed by music in 2012, even by stuff with astronomical expectations. Animal Collective's Centipede Hz wasn't as earth-shattering as predicted, but it was still a great continuation of their catalog. Deerhoof, my absolute favorite contemporary band, released what I found to be their least interesting album, Breakup Song, yet seeing them live for the umpteenth time earlier this year was as magical as ever. For a second, I thought my biggest personal letdown was my own distracted musical navigation. (Example: I read five essays about Lana Del Rey and listened to zero of her songs.)
What really let me down the most was digital music dissemination.
Spotify and Pandora got skewered for their microscopic royalty payments while Amanda Palmer officially signaled the Kickstarter hangover. While free services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud expanded their offerings, I saw neither exciting new means of music promotion nor any exciting uses of existing tools. The latter was particularly aggravating on Facebook: Well-meaning bands sending out endless event invites with ugly flyer templates, posting numerous annoying status updates begging people to attend, and linking to unflattering YouTube footage of their live show.
The video thing should be obvious, but I implore bands to either improve their Internet game or take things back to the 20th century. Design an interesting flyer (have a friend do it if you suck at visual art), print that shit out on the cheap at Copymax, and hand them out to real people they encounter at school or other shows. I promise the practice will not be hokey or embarrassingly self-promotional if you do it casually enough, plus it's a great excuse to approach a dreamy boy or babely girl, if you're into that whole analog love thing. -- Chase Kamp
Best Coast, The Only Place
I have a question for Bethany Cosentino, frontwoman for beach pop outfit Best Coast: If California is "The Only Place" for you, the only place that makes you happy, then why are you always so miserable?
All your songs contain this lethargic desperation, maybe some sort of desperate moping that you self-medicate with red wine and weed and your cat and calls to your mom. Back in 2010, it was really cool, mostly because your vocals were drenched in this sunny, retro fuzz. Maybe I'm just a moron that gets turned on by lo-fi, but something about The Only Place lost its magic and the bitching on songs like "Why I Cry" and "Dreaming My Life Away" got old quick.
Dealing with the pressures of your fame on tracks like "Better Girl" and "How They Want Me To Be" weren't surprising or charming. Your sophomore slump is actually forgivable just because you are Bethany Cosentino and you are beautiful and you are fun and your music is usually fascinating. That's why it sucks to hear you so unhappy.
Maybe you should move to a better place than SoCal. I can give you a few suggestions.-- Troy Farah
The Malian Army
It is 6,638.7 miles from Phoenix, Arizona to Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa -- but it may as well be on the far reaches of the Solar System, because, as Legolas says in The Lord of the Rings, "The way is shut."
The biggest musical letdown of 2012 does not come from a single artist or band, but instead is something larger, something global, and comes compliments of the Malian Army. In March, the army temporarily succeeded with a ridiculous coup attempt that quite literally opened the floodgates for al Qaeda of the Desert and other Islamist factions to lay siege, and ultimately take over Northern Mali, where Timbuktu is located.
Why is this significant? Timbuktu was a musical breeding ground and storehouse for some of the most important music in the world. We're not talking rock or blues or jazz directly, but the deeply spiritual sounds--whether created on guitar, kora, drums, or vocally -- have and continue to profoundly influence almost every form of Western music.
What is sadly ironic is that Touareg nomads -- many of whom are separatists seeking their own country -- initially joined forces with al Qaeda of the Desert to take over Northern Mali when the army revolted. Now that Sharia law has been put into effect, world-renowned Touareg musical artists Tinariwen -- a band which recorded with members of TV on the Radio, and has performed in Arizona in the past 18 months -- and Bombino, another "desert-blues" artist, were threatened with severe punishment for performing.
Other musicians fled. Singer Khaira Arby was told her tongue would be cut out if she didn't stop singing. She and her band lost most of their equipment in their haste to escape. Others sahred similar fates.
Though this musical culture hasn't been entirely destroyed -- mostly it's been uprooted and relocated (and Timbuktu is but one of Mali's many music centers) -- the present and historical loss (particularly recorded material) will prove significant to future generations.-- Glenn BurnSilver
Muse, The 2nd Law
It would be a stretch to say I'm a fanatic of Britpop prog rockers, Muse, but I have been a fan of a number of their tracks and their previous records, Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations. Even though they started going all rock opera in 2009's The Resistance, I was still interested in hearing what the October release of The 2nd Law was going to sound like.
After hearing the lead single and official theme song of the 2012 London Olympics, "Survival," it was pretty clear the band was going to continue their venture into bombastic arena anthems. Boy did they. Much to my disappointment, instead of getting something closer to Queen epicness, the record as a whole reminds me more like something we might hear from a Skrillex/Trans-Siberian Orchestra collab. While I always appreciate a band's need to evolve and explore different horizons, I can't help but feel like Muse took a step in the wrong direction. -- Anthony Sandoval
The Announcement of Rush's Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Rush has been eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1998, and since that time Rush fans have consistently had something to bitch about each year, and artists like Prince, Guns N' Roses, The Sex Pistols, John Mellencamp, ABBA, and Tom Waits have been ushered in, leaving the "Holy Triumvirate" out in the Canadian cold.
But finally -- alongside Donna Summer, Randy Newman, Heart, and more -- it was announced that the band would finally be inducted. And that sucks. Not because Rush doesn't deserve it -- in fact, the trio is ranked behind only The Beatles and Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock band -- but because I just sort of loved that it gave Rush fans something to rally against.
2012 will go down as the year I got Rushified, and I spent a good chunk of a few months diving into the band's catalog, reading old interviews, and staring at the super cool cover of Fly By Night. What strikes me most is that the band has never been about things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Hall's continued snubbing of the band just fits with the do-your-own-thing/Rush-fans-are-a-tribe narrative. It made Rush feel that much more underdoggy -- they play for the fans, not the stuffy critics sending down validation from on high.
It's cool that the Hall has finally come around, but when it comes down to it, Rush needs the Rock and Roll HOF honors about as much as Deep Purple and KISS (both snubbed again this year) do -- which is to say, not at all. -- Jason P. Woodbury
No Doubt, Settle Down
No Doubt's been rocking for around 25 years now, and they've definitely still got it.
Gwen Stefani is still an energetic, iconic front woman. The rest of the band hasn't lost its touch either. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect absolute perfection (they cant all be winners), but given the amount of time the band had to work on this album (11 years), I expected more of the album to consist of radio-friendly material. I was hoping for an album full of songs like Settle Down, which sounds like a classic No Doubt hit and is catchy as shit. Perhaps I set myself up for disappointment by doing so. But my biggest problem with Push and Shove is that it lacks the badassness and playful ska/punk attitude of previous No Doubt albums.
I'll give the group credit for making an album that has a good mix of different styles and tempos, but some parts of the album seem half-assed and/or untrue to their signature styles. I think Christopher R. Weingarten of Spin dissed the song "Push and Shove" the best: Extra points off for La la la living la vida loca / Speeding up like soca / Just when you think it's over / We be on another level like we're doing yoga."
The track "Looking Hot" sounds like a Lady Gaga song gone amiss; "One More Summer" sounds like it was rescued from the '90s, where it should have stayed; "Easy" could have easily soundtracked an '80s film.
Put simply, while it's not a record full of B-sides or filler, it certainly doesn't sound like their best work. While not every new album can be the next best thing ever, No Doubt just didn't bring their A game on this one. -- Lenni Rosenblum
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Here
The only constant is change for Alex Ebert, who continues to reinvent himself with each musical endeavor. While fronting the power pop group Ima Robot, he sported a very Myspace-friendly asymmetrical haircut and developed a drug habit from partying too hard. After a few stints in rehab, he "cleaned himself up" by growing his hair out and assuming the messianic Edward Sharpe moniker.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' debut album Up From Below was a refreshing change from Ima Robot's sound, even if it was a bit inconsistent. Ebert's charming duet with Jade Castrinos, "Home" is a stand out track that makes up for Ebert's weird mumbling on the Old West-inspired "Kisses Over Babylon."
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Strangeness is Edward Sharpe's leading appeal. Ebert's transition to a hippie singing about love may seem a bit disingenuous, but the majority of Up From Below commands your attention. The same can't be said for the band's sophomore record, Here. Ebert and Castrinos' playful new relationship dynamic is gone, replaced by an almost cult-like obsession with religion. The 11-piece overly happy long haired hippie band dynamic has gone from suspicious to borderline "don't drink the Kool-Aid and end up in Polyphonic Spree."
Here sounds absolutely nothing like its predecessor. Ebert has gone from joyously singing about love and the desert to preaching about God. Sure there's a song about dancing and Castrinos' diddy about fire water, but everything else sounds like the soundtrack to an old-timey revival. The closest thing to a love song is "That's What's Up," where the religious imagery continues as Castrinos sings variations of, "you'll be the church, I'll be the steeple." At best, Ebert channels classic folk and the album is consistent to a fault. It desperately needs a change in theme, even if it ends up being as weird as "Kisses Over Babylon." -- Melissa Fossum