So here we are, a full week into 2012. This list is probably a little late, considering most of your “real” music critics make their best of lists in late fall, but in all fairness, I’ve only had this blog for a few days and I’m still catching up on music I didn’t give a fair listen to during the past year. But without further ado, I present to you the first installment of The Best Of 2011.

What better way to start a best of list than with a little bitching? Today’s list will consist of music that disappointed me horribly, along with a few honorable mentions that were good, but not quite as good as they should have been. Because when I’m wearing my patented Music Critic Hat, I know exactly how every sub par collection of songs could have been improved, and I obviously would have done it much better myself. So nyeh 😛

The Biggest Disappointments of 2011

Iceage – New Brigade – Hype kills. With critics drooling and a few going as far as calling Iceage the saviors of punk rock, it’s hard not to be at least a little let down with this extremely average rock record. If two-minute bursts of buzzsaw guitar that blend into each other and never form anything remotely hooky are your cup of tea, then perhaps you might disagree.

Battles – Glass Drop – I really loved Mirrored, one of the weirdest albums of 2007. But four years later and one stellar guitarist short, this new Battles album just doesn’t do anything for me at all. A few big name cameos keep the affair from being a total waste of time, but there’s nothing as original or fun here as on their debut.

Panic At The Disco – Vices and Virtues – Panic at the Disco’s debut album was an interesting mix of pop punk, electronics, orchestral elements, over the top showmanship, and weird-as-hell lyrics that didn’t always work, but showed a lot of potential. Then they took a bizarre stylistic turn, producing an album of psychedelic retro rock and power pop that was oddly right up my alley. When primary songwriter Ryan Ross left, everyone wondered what direction they would take next. I’m not sure anyone expected this faceless and underwhelming collection of new wave inspired alternapop. They had the chance to show the world that Ross wasn’t the only talented songwriter in the group, and by my estimation they missed the mark.

REM – As if releasing a generic, REM-by-numbers album in 2011 wasn’t bad enough already, the boys from Athens added insult to injury by calling it quits shortly thereafter. Always an inconsistent band, at least REM fans could always hope that after a disappointing album they might regroup and take a bold new turn on their next disc. But unfortunately this time there would be no next disc, which means that the best thing to do is probably to pop Automatic For The People in the tape deck of your 1994 Trans Am and pretend the last twenty years never happened.

No new U2 Album (again) – I was living in Fes, Morocco, in 2007 when U2 were recording the collection of songs that would ultimately become 2009’s No Line On The Horizon. Rumors spread that they were using local Moroccan musicians and breaking new stylistic ground by mixing their typical heart-on-sleeve arena rock with traditional North African folk music and trance and dub sounds. Then they delayed the release of the new album a few times, went back into the studio and changed a few things around, and came out with an album that pretty much sounded like everything else they did in the 2000’s. U2 reassured fans that the songs recorded in Fes were not completely scrapped, and that they would be on a companion album to No Line which was tentatively called Songs Of Ascent. It was supposed to be released by the end of 2009, but that didn’t happen. Then it was Christmas 2010, but once again SoA never saw the light of day. In early 2011 the media got word that they were recording not one, but three new albums – a rock album with Dangermouse, a club album, and the ever-delayed Songs Of Ascent. Instead they got entirely too involved with a silly Spiderman musical and Bono spent more time playing politician than actually working on music. The most recent gossip was that they were going to take a step back and decide what they were doing as a band and in what direction they might head. I don’t know why this surprised anyone, if the past decade has taught us U2 fans anything, it’s to expect nothing. Maybe next year.

The continued rise of dubstep – BRRRRRRM – PA – CHIKACHIK – PA – BRRRRRRM – PA – FWOOP FWOOP – PA.

Honorable Mentions

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Samdhi – The potential is there. All star performances, great improvisation, sonic adventurousness, and a flair for the unexpected. The problem is making all of this mesh together consistently through an entire set of songs. So yes, I get really excited when I hear electronically processed sax, fusion freakout guitar, and Indian grooves. But these delightful touches are treated like dessert, and before you can get to them you have to wade through a main course of several tracks of rather pedestrian fusion. Minus the electronic elements, it’s really nothing that Mahavishnu Orchestra hasn’t already done better, but it’s still head and shoulders above most new jazz, and therefore deserves at least an honorable mention.

Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean – For a while it looked like Sam Beam would just remake the same song his entire career. To be fair, it was a rather pretty song, but variety wasn’t one of Iron and Wine’s strong points. That all changed in 2007 with The Shepherd’s Dog. Beam hit upon a truly unique sound that mixed the pretty folk songs of earlier records with exotic instrumentation and elaborate arrangements. I had high hopes for Kiss Each Other Clean, and while the variety is still there, the songwriting just isn’t up to par. “Monkeys Uptown” and “Rabbit Will Run” keep the exotic sounds, a few other tracks add funky grooves and some saxophone, and there are even a few songs that, feedback and keyboard drones aside, could have easily appeared on any album he’s done. But the lyrics mostly fall flat this time out, with clichés rubbing up against awkward turns of phrase, and no real emotional depth or poetic substance. There’s enough good music on this disc to make it worth owning, but I just can’t shake the feeling that Beam can do so much more.

Tokyo Police Club – 10x10x10 – The concept is brilliant – over the course of 10 days, record 10 songs, one from each of the past 10 years. The song selection is pretty good, mixing obscure indie rock with chart topping hits, and the occasional nod to teen pop and girl power. A few notable guest musicians stop by to say hello. And of course Tokyo Police Club are more than capable musicians, having made my year-end best of list with each of their full length albums. But something just doesn’t work with most of these tracks. Their rendition of “Party In The USA” is an absolute classic, and given the time constraints of this project I can’t be too hard on them for not knocking off my socks, but I guess some bands should just stick to original songs.

Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do – Let it be said, I have a soft spot for mellow and soulful retro crooners. Fitting somewhere in between Gnarls Barkley and Bruno Mars, Mayer Hawthorne is definitely onto something here. But his songwriting is just too inconsistent to push him into the same territory as his influences. His voice is smooth and the production is perhaps a little too smooth, but the hooks just don’t grab you the way I feel they need to, and I have a hard time really feeling any of the emotions he is trying to portray. But if you just want some smooth tracks to float into the background, you really can’t go wrong with this album.

Kelly Clarkson – Stronger – Okay so here’s my other big confession of the day – I fucking love Kelly Clarkson. When she stepped away from the American Idol hit factory and lived out her Riot Grrrl fantasies on Breakaway I was right there cheering her on. When her record label gave her a little more control and she came out with the dark and tortured My December I couldn’t have been happier. But commercially it was a flop, and she’s been in retreat ever since. Stronger is just another collection of girl power anthems and soulful ballads designed to return her to the top of the charts, and for the most part it succeeds. But I’d really like to see her get all pissed off and depressed again and craft another pop masterpiece.

Shameless Horn Tooting

So while we’re on the subject of music, in case you weren’t aware, I released an album in 2011. It shares its title with this blog, and is available as a free download here.

 

 

So that about wraps up today’s installment of The Best Of 2011. Coming tomorrow – albums #20-11. Stay tuned.

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