Very Late and Increasingly Redundant 2011 List, part 2: 33 Disappointments and Sleepers

January 19, 2012

While writing my 25 Best Albums of 2011 list, I came across a bunch of also-rans on my iPod and CD shelves worth mentioning, for better or worse. Some are forgotten gems I really wish I’d remembered in time to include on that list (perhaps taking Björk’s place) and some I just hadn’t gotten around to listening to in time (Veronica Falls, Still Corners, Weekend).

Well, I’m writing about them now. And just to be a jerk, or for my own amusement, I’m going to assign each album a disappointment rating ranked from zero to five.

0 = not disappointing at all (buy it now!)
5 = absolutely gutting to listen to (run away!)

Akron/Family: Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT

The title says it all really. Whenever a band subtitles an album with some random gibberish, you know what you’re in for—some seriously pretentious wanking. In actuality, this isn’t nearly as bad as all that. But the band has lost some of the homegrown, organic enthusiasm of their earlier recordings. It almost sounds like Pro Tools is to fault here; a little too much of the Miles Davis, On The Corner-style editing the best bits of separate jams to assemble various tracks. Whether or not this was the case, that’s how the album sounds. A little too dense and a little too hands-off. Compared to Love Is Simple, the hooks and the warmth just aren’t there. On the other hand, compared to whatever flavour of the month lo-fi indie-psych album is currently hot (Sun Araw?), this is brilliant prog-psych by the contemparary masters of the field. Too bad their earlier work is just so much better. Disappointment rating: 3/5

Amiina: Puzzle

It’s hard to say if Amiina make music that’s too cloyingly sweet or if it’s too stereotypically fey for an Icelandic band. Perhaps both, perhaps neither. They definitely straddle a line and may or may not be tilting towards the wrong side of it. Whatever the case, it’s a line made of harp strings with  chimes and elfin voices dangling off it. And it’s a line that is drawing an enchanting picture. Perhaps a little too perfect and a little too cleanly rendered, but beautiful and soothing all the same. Besides, when you’re trying to kick an addiction to chemical sleep aids, you’re going to want an album that’s doesn’t challenge your senses to lull you to a cozy slumber. Disappointment rating: 2.5/5

Army Navy: The Last Place

The Last Place is the kind of pretty good power pop record that sounds great the first time you hear it but doesn’t reward multiple listens. They’ve perfected a sort of mid-period Teenage Fanclub meets The Smiths formula, but the songs are hollow, especially when better songs by their influences are called to mind. It’s not a creeper that just takes a few spins to sink in, the hooks are there (sort of), it’s just a little bland. Perhaps the band themselves lack charisma or something. Still, it’s a the perfect record to put on as background music at a party where you don’t really want people to pay attention to the music. Disappointment rating: 4/5

Bardo Pond: s/t

I missed Bardo Pond the first time around. Probably because they were too sloppy and too damn hippie for my tastes in the ’90s. My previous loss is my current gain as one of my new favourite bands has a whole back-catalogue to explore. This release is the newest edition to their oeuvre and though it’s not their best, not too many bands in their 16th year of making records are still putting out legitimate, vital records. The fidelity is a bit suspect and the playing is a bit messy but this is Bardo Pond, not King Crimson. Frankly, King Crimson could have used a little more of this brand of tripped-out rawness in their recordings. Not the best place to start with these jam-rock veterans, but the album also doesn’t detract from their earlier work and how many other ’90s bands can say that about their current records? Disappointment rating: 2/5

Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place

Julianna Barwick‘s looped a capella is a deeply beautiful, spiritual experience. The sound of an old growth forest stepping in as a cathedral for the worship of nature. It reminds me of something like Arvo Pärt‘s more ambient choral works but less Christian and more Wiccan. What’s most magical about The Magic Place is that this sort of thing is always in danger of teetering into schmaltzy new age but it doesn’t. Perhaps with more studio experience and a bigger budget, Barwick’s future recordings will sound like Enya-esque tripe. But for now this is your wardrobe portal into a magical land. Disappointment rating 0/5.

Boris: Heavy Rocks / Attention Please / New Album

As with Bardo Pond, I only got into sludge metal droners Boris this year. It’s an odd band to suddenly get into and I did so pretty much only because this is the year I also got into JesuSkullflower and Sunn O))) late in the game (Boris are often referenced in articles about those bands). New Album was an odd place to start with their three 2011 albums since it’s partially made up of more pop-rock oriented reworkings of tracks from the first two.  And it has to be one of the most bizarre albums I’ve heard in the last five years. There are some great shoegazey moments but the conceptually intentional assembly-line pop-rockiness that colours the whole album, unfortunately, colours the whole album. In a really disconcerting way. Like audio vertigo. Not terrible, just a really strange listen and I haven’t decided if I enjoy it as a whole or not.

If I’d known Ian Astbury sings on the first track off Heavy Rocks, I’d have sure as fuck listened to that the day I bought it. The album though isn’t as heavy and rocking as the title would have you hope. It has more of a raw, garage band feel than the other two albums and almost sounds like demo sessions for Attention Please. But when Heavy Rocks rocks, it’s 30-ton boulders, not pebbles. Unlike New Album‘s post-MTV pop sheen, Attention Please balances the band’s punk, metal, shoegaze and pop sensibilities perfectly. Ironically accomplishing what they were trying to accomplish with New Album.

Disappointment ratings — New Album: 3/5; Heavy Rocks: 1/5; Attention Please: 0/5

Cults: s/t

Cults apparently are one of those internet buzz bands that garnered a lot of internet buzz for being signed to a major after being an internet buzz band. Kind of like Justin Beiber, but for hipsters. Their debut album found itself deleted of the iPod after a few months though it’s not exactly a disappointment. It’s far better Phil Spector fuzz-pop than Dum Dum Girls or Best Coast have yet to create. It helps the singer has a far less grating voice and they write better hooks than the aforementioned two buzz-bands (though without them Cults’ career probably wouldn’t exist or, perhaps, they would just sound like a different set of popular bands). Still, there’s some really catchy tunes here even if the whole package is ultimately a little shallow. Disappointment rating: 2/5

Dengue Fever: Cannibal Courtship

They really should have stuck to singing in Khmer and performing covers of Cambodian classics. In English the band’s lyrics are inexcusably cheesy. Not just cheesy, but corny. Which is great for Mexican food, but not Cambodian psych-funk. And the more originals they write, the harder it is for them to hide the cheese. The coup de grace though is that the production isn’t nearly as raw and punchy as the first three albums so Cannibal Courtship isn’t even redeemed on groove alone. Disappointment rating: 5/5

Earth: Angels Of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol. 1

Much the same as subtitled album names, alarm bells tend to go off when a band issues a “Vol. 1” of a proposed series of albums. It always feels like a pretentious move and one where the artist is predestined to fail (whatever happened to discs 2 and 3 of Bowie‘s Outside trilogy?). I suspect Earth won’t have a problem with ongoing installments of their Angels Of Darkness, Demons of Light series (Vol.2 is about to be released, actually) since Vol. 1 sounds exactly like their last few albums. Slow, minimal spaghetti western drones with a vaguely psychedelic edge. In fact, each track is a little hard to distinguish. That’s not a criticism since this is the kind of album you want to wash over you on an almost subconscious level—I would argue the only way to listen to it. Good stuff, but Earth either need a whole new schtick or they need to start stepping out of their comfort zone a little. Unless they want to start scoring films by people like the Coen Brothers . Which is what they really should be doing. Disappointment rating: 2.5/5

The Horrors: Skying

Admittedly, their twinkie-goth garage-rock act was silly and needed to either get a lot dirtier or change into something else. For better or worse, they’ve ended up making Echo & the Bunnymen by way of late-period XTC records. Saying it’s better than current U2 seems like an awfully backhanded compliment so I’ll say this is kind of like jacked-up Peter Murphy solo albums. It sounds pretty good. Good enough that the band really needs a name change. That said, though I generally like this kind of thing, I kind of don’t like this album. Something’s off. As with their twinkie-goth phase, something about Skying feels contrived and manufactured. Disappointment rating: 4/5

Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean

It sounds like Sam Beam is a parrothead (that’s a Jimmy Buffet fan, if you’re lucky enough not to know). Much like this year’s bafflingly bad Bon Iver record, Kiss Each Other Clean is a bizarrely overwrought and self-indulgent work. It might not be so bad if it didn’t sound like ’70s MOR from somewhere in the dead centre of the AM radio dial. This is the kind of disaster GirlsFather, Son, Holy Ghost could have been but wasn’t. Terrible. Just shamefully bad. Disappointment rating: 5/5

Jesu: Ascension

A bit more ’90s alternative pop-rock than Jesu has ever been but without being something that might actually be a popular rock record. A bit like Sugar‘s Beaster EP but with the pitch control tuned down all the way. Still a nice bath of forlorn minor key fuzz, Ascension isn’t neccessarily Jesu’s worst outing but not anywhere near their best. Especially when played back to back with Conqueror. Without the extreme wall-of-sound, the understated melodies are just a tad boring. But if there were more hooks then things might be getting into Nickleback power-ballad territory. What’s a band to do? There really wasn’t anywhere left for Jesu to go but, well, here. Which is, unfortunately, a little down from their previous heights. At least I haven’t detected any over-dialed autotune this time around. Disappointment rating: 3/5

Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes

Another not terrible album though only about half the tracks really hit the mark. The Swedish art-pop singer makes a stylistic shift, for better or worse, incorporating a bit of the feel of the glut of popular ’60s girl-group influenced garage bands like Dum Dum Girls. It feels a little contrived, but then this is pop music. Using her fantastic debut album, Youth Novels, as a springboard, Lykke Li could have easily gone the Gaga/Perry route, so this direction was probably the best choice. Wounded Rhymes just needs more good songs like the fantastic “Jerome.” Disappointment rating: 3/5

Moon Duo: Mazes

There’s nothing really wrong with Mazes at all. But Wooden Shjips/Moon Duo are more consistent than they are innovative. They seem to be able to find ten new ways to show how Neu! or Can would have played Modern Lovers‘  “Roadrunner” each album.  That’s not a complaint, by the way. If you don’t own any Moon Duo then Mazes is a great place to start. It’s top shelf fuzzy, smokey kraut inspired psych rock. But if you own the previous few Moon Duo or Wooden Shjips releases, it might be a little redundant. Disappointment rating: 1/5

Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts

The first two of Thurston Moore‘s sporadic “proper” solo albums were both not bad at all but still caused you to think, at least once while listening: Well, it ain’t Sonic Youth now is it? In some ways Demolished Thoughts feels like his first true solo record, sounding like nothing you’d expect Sonic Youth to do (and therefore lament that they would have done it better). That isn’t to say you couldn’t imagine his old band tearing these songs up but the Demolished Thoughts‘ acid-folk production is a new twist on these classic Thurston chord progressions and melodies which you’ve heard on a dozen SY albums. It’s a much needed departure—and he sounds invigorated to a certain extent—yet you still can’t help but wishing this were a Sonic Youth album with a few of Lee’s or Kim’s songs to shake things up. Ultimately there’s just a magic to even SY’s worst recordings that’s missing here. Still, this is good enough to make the apparent demise of SY a little less disheartening. Disappointment rating: 2/5

Oh Land: s/t

Oh Land is one of those Scandinavian ladies whose voices have me at “hello.” Or in this case, “Perfection“, the lead-off track. It’s a slow-burner that sounds like a pretty decent Björk out-take from one of her mid-period albums. But it’s not quite up to Björk’s standards. The rest of the album though sounds a bit like “this isn’t Robyn” and, at times, “this isn’t Golfrapp” or “this isn’t Lykke Li“. It’s a series of copycat near-misses instead of perfect pop hits. Not terrible or vaccuous, but not original and all a bit lifeless. Disappointment rating: 4/5

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart: Belong

If their previous singles, EPs and debut album hadn’t existed—and been the hookiest shoegazey jangle-pop of 2009—this might have been one of the most exciting debuts of 2011. But it’s not a debut, it’s a bit of a sophomore slump. Is it the ’80s new-romantic synth flourishes or the slightly dancier beats that drag it down? They do sound good, so that’s probably not the problem. The album’s still enjoyable, merely a disappointment in light of their previous work. Is that unfair? Well, that’s life. Disappointment rating: 2.5/5

Pet Shop Boys: Most Incredible Thing

I find it hard to say anything bad thing about Pet Shop Boys so I won’t say anything at all. Well, I will say this. Without seeing the accompanying ballet to this mainly instrumental two-disc set, it’s hard to tell what it was they were trying to accomplish musically. Though it’s probably fine in the context of the performance, there’s not too many “oh wow” moments here. And there’s something “theatery” (as opposed to “theatrical”) about the production. That is, it’s a but cheesy in parts. A ballet set to hardcore techno or dubstep or even straight-up house would be an interesting idea, but this music has a slight whiff of Andrew Lloyd Webber broadway pop-rock to it. Disappointment rating: 3/5

Psychic Ills: Hazed Dream

I read a Pitchfork review that panned Mirror Eye for being too much of an abstract trippie-hippie jam. I thought the record was brilliant. Unfortunately the band seems to have taken such criticisms to heart and there’s more of a song focus this time out. Specifically songs following the two chord Spacemen 3 template. So it could have been a lot worse. But it also could have been more adventurous and creative. I suspect this one will have legs in 2012. Disappointment rating: 1/5

puro_instinctPuro Instinct: Headbangers In Ecstacy

You couldn’t recreate ’80s dream-pop much more authentically than this. That’s both kudos and critique. Puro Instict’s strength is also their weakness. While this hook-laden album might have made Cocteau Twins the top ten superstars they never were in 1985, today it’s a little too derivative to be the classic it might have been. There’s also an odd move on the band’s part to insert abrasive “KDOD” radio shout-outs in between the the album’s otherwise ten beautifully serene tracks. It almost utterly destroys the dreamy flow which is the album’s greatest strength. Disappointment rating: 2.5/5

Radiohead: King of Limbs

Easily their most impenetrable record if not one of the most obtuse records ever put out by arena rock superstars. All their albums since Kid A have had abstract elements, but it took several listens before anything on King of Limbs sunk in. I rather like it now. It’s a pleasant listen. Sort of the audio equivalent of valerian tea. But it’s not mind blowing from an avant garde standpoint and it’s not soothing, chill-out pop and it’s not deeply affecting art-rock. It’s just a really odd record. Disappointment rating: 2.5/5

Raveonettes: Raven In The Grave

I do appreciate how Raveonettes make subtle yet significant changes to their sound each album. And this shoegaze-goth (shoegoth?) hybrid sure looks good on paper. Actually, they do it quite well. Still, the sum of the parts aren’t quite adding up somehow. Some great songs. It definitely sounds great. Almost perfectly tailored made to my tastes… and yet… and yet… and yet… Disappointment rating: 2/5

Shimmering Stars: Violent Hearts

This fall I had a conversation with my friend Stephen about current indie-rock bands. He said he hated those bands that used too much reverb on everything. I took his comment from the standpoint of assuming he was referring to The Crystal Stilts and disagreed. I hadn’t heard Shimmering Stars yet and I now suspect Violent Hearts was the record upon which he was basing his argument.

As a lover of too much reverb, I have to say there’s too much frickin’ reverb on this disc. Stephen also said he hated how you could almost tell which preset the studio digital reverb unit was set to: Large Hall No. 5. I thought that was an absurd thing to say (how many records haven’t used digital reverb in the last 30 years?) but I can kind of see what he meant. What’s specifically wrong with the mix is the dry signal seems to be tuned way below the wet signal—that is, you hear more echo than actual song. Unlike a classic reverb-drenched shoegaze album where the textures and melodies break through the haze, this is a garage rock record mired in murk.

The songs—many of which I think are quite good—would have been better served with a little less reverb or a whole lot more fuzz and feedback. As it is, what might have been a very good indie-rock or noise-pop album is kind of handicapped by the production. Perhaps if you could hear them properly, the songs would stand out more instead of sounding a bit like the band is playing at a stage over on the other side of the festival grounds or in the basement next door. We all know how irritating that can sound. Disappointment rating: 4/5

asleep on the floodplainSix Organs of Admittance: Asleep On The Floodplain

I found Six Organ of Admittance‘s previous full length, Luminous Night, to be a bit of a disappointment, though perhaps the first in Ben Chazny‘s recording career. A few truly bum lyrics in a song or two ruined the whole album for me. I’m happy to say this isn’t the case with Asleep On The Floodplain, an album that ranks with the best of the Six Organs catalogue. Brilliantly lush soundscapes, beautiful virtuoso guitar picking, dreamy folk ballads and exotic, soulful textures—Chazny plays up to his strengths here as if consciously trying to make a freak-folk masterpiece. Which is what, it could be argued, he’s done. Disappointment rating: 0/5

fucked on a pile of corpsesSkullflower: Fucked on a Pile of Corpses

Like a few of the albums on this list, I didn’t listen to this one until 2012. Until right now, actually. Frankly, after reading an interview with Matthew Bower about the recording of the album, I’ve been scared to put it on. As advertised, this is one of the most challenging, unpleasant auditory experiences you could ever expect to inflict upon yourself. That is to say, it’s glorious. This isn’t Skullflower‘s first attempt to make Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music sound like Vangelis, but it might be the most successful. By that I don’t mean this is purely shrill static—though shrill and static are both present—but Fucked on a Pile of Corpses manages to retain a musicality throughout the full-on noise assault. Far too many bands have made albums that just end up sounding like tuneless dentist drills run through a Marshall stack. This album sounds like tuneful dentist drills run through a Marshall stack. Of course, it helps that the whole thing clocks in at 36 minutes instead of 70. Bonus points for, perhaps, the best album title ever. Disappointment rating: \m/5 

simon werner a disparuSonic Youth: Simon Werner a Disparu

This is an instrumental soundtrack album by the godparents of no-wave, post-punk and noise rock. It sounds exactly like what you’d expect a soundtrack album by the godparents of no-wave, post-punk and noise rock to sound like. This isn’t the first time Sonic Youth have scored a film, but it’s far more successful than their 1986 attempt for Made in USA. It’s also more successful than most of the other instrumental albums they’ve released under the Sonic Youth Records imprint. In fact, it might be one of the best things they’ve recorded in their entire career. It’s at turns melodic, discordant, gorgeous, noisey and all executed the superb sense of dynamics you’d expect from a group of veterans. What you might not expect is the sheer, pardon the pun, youthful dynamism of these tracks. The film is about the mysterious disappearance of teenagers in a Paris suburb which is poignantly fitting since this could be the band’s swan song. Disappointment rating: 0/5 

Still Corners: Creatures of an Hour

I didn’t actually get around to listening to a few of these albums in 2011. They spent a good part of the year sitting on my shelf still in the shrink-wrap. By the time I got around to listening to them, I couldn’t remember why I’d bought them. By far the most pleasant surprise of the lot was Creatures of an Hour. Whatever I was expecting it wasn’t exquisitely dreamy kraut-pop psychedelia with a post-punk edge. Though, in restrospect, that describes exactly the kind of record I’d buy. Fantabulous. Disappointment rating: 0/5

ancient romansSun Araw: Ancient Romans

Chances are if a band has “Sun” in their name they’re going to freaky good psychedelic times. Except space-jazz master Sun Ra who I’ve never felt was as nearly freaky as his reputation claims. New breed freakster Sun Araw’s music on the other hand is truly freaky, abstract, and bizarre. Where Sun Araw falters though is the polar opposite of where Sun Ra does. Araw could be a little too conscious of his adherence to being “freaky” with not enough attention paid to actually making music. Not an easy balance to strike in this genre to be sure and Sun Ra is a perfect example of over-intellectualism in music. There’s simply a lack of emotional expression on Ancient Romans which is unfortunate since free-form psych thrives on the connection made by the artist’s soul shining through their music. This record sounds cool, but overall feels a little dead. Disappointment rating: 3/5

Veronica Falls: s/t

There’s no way this album could live up to the hype and, as if knowing this, it didn’t. Still, you couldn’t find a more classically Slumberland Records band and I do like me some classic Slumberland sounds. Situated somewhere between Cub and The Breeders, it’s that slightly twee, slightly punky four-chord indie-rock that was hip twenty years ago. And judging by how many taste-makers rate this album in the years top ten, it’s clearly a sound that’s hip now. To be fair, it’s a very, very good record for this kind of thing and you couldn’t hope for much better. I just waited a little to0 long to listen to it and the hype has sunk it for me a little. I suspect its really going to grow on me though. Disappointment rating: 2.5/5

tom waits bad as meTom Waits: Bad As Me

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Or bash on it with a rusty monkey wrench until it is busted? Some things just sound better smashed to shit and Tom Waits is just that kind of mechanic. With Bad As Me Waits plows absolutely no new ground in that field from the cover of Mule Variations he’s been standing in since 1999. So is it better or worse than Real Gone or Alice or Blood Money or even Bone Machine? No, not really. His voice is a little more raggedy than it’s ever been but that’s neither here nor there. Really, the album plays like a greatest hits of the last decade of his career. “Last Leaf” is up there with his best forlorn ballads and it’s followed by “Hell Broke Luce” which might be one of his best chunk-n-grind stompers. If you like Waits, but probably only if you like Waits, this is another classic in his impressive body of work. Disappointment rating: 0/5

Wooden Shjips: West

Really the same criticism as Moon Duo‘s Mazes (see above). Out of the two albums, the Moon Duo platter is significantly better. But this is also some pretty great droney amerikraut garage rock. This really isn’t a bad offering by Wooden Shjips but their first two albums (plus the two singles comps) are quite a bit more engaging. Being someone who’s often lamented it when his favourite bands made the mistake of breaking from their unique formula, instead of playing to their strengths, I feel a little odd saying it’s maybe time for these guys to try something new. Disappointment rating: 2/5

Weekend-RedEPWeekend: Red

If, like me, you think post-punk (original issue and redux revivalists) is often not noisy nor poppy enough, Weekend have the disc for you. Not to be confused with actual post-punkers Weekend (or the more cleverly named Weakend or the unfortunately named The Weeknd) their Red EP is almost exactly what you’d get by combining Joy Division and Ride. If that appeals, it appeals. Like their previous album, Sports, there’s surprises here but sometimes that’s a good thing. Really, the only thing wrong with it, other than lacking a unique artistic voice, is it’s too short. Disappointment rating: 1/5

Yuck: s/t

I wasn’t really “let down” by this album since it’s a debut and I had no real expectations other than those set up by whatever track I must’ve heard that convinced me to buy it. It’s a pretty good melange of ’90s indie/alt-rock, grunge and shoegaze tropes. But if this were the ’90s, they’d be one of those second tier bands. You know, something like The Lilys instead of My Bloody Valentine or maybe Buffalo Tom instead of Dinosaur, Jr. Perfectly decent but not essential. Disappointment rating: 3/5


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