Expectation can be a crushing thing. Often, the reception of an album is met based upon not any fixed criteria, no set lines of demarcation, but upon the expectation. Did the album live up to those hopes? Did it disappoint? Did it deliver something unexpected in a good or bad way? Most of what gets judged is based upon this tiny little word. It’s weight has the force to demolish the hopes of a band.
Sometimes, the unexpected joys of life are when their are no expectations. Most of the albums we ended up selecting as our years best or honorable mention are from bands we expected nothing of. They were free to captivate us in ways and measures free from the constriction of successful first albums, an amazing back catalog of albums, blog buzz, leaked tracks or any of the numerable ways in which expectation is generated.
We listened to a lot and still we didn’t get around to listening to nearly enough. But the following albums are ones that failed to live up to our own expectations, essentially leaving us feeling a little meh?; and some that delivered in a way we weren’t expecting and offered us pleasures and joys we never could have hoped for.
We could go into a lot about why these albums didn’t deliver for us, but we won’t. A lot of people might feel the same way, but if you don’t then strike back in the comments and get the discussion going.
1. Bloc Party – “A Weekend in the City” Yes the guitar work on this one is stellar again and even rocks. It could be that nothing will ever live up to the majestic heights offered in Silent Alarm. But this album feels stunted, less adventurous sonically and lyrically more ponderous. This is a band with loads of talent and lots on their minds and it’s almost as if they tripped over their own feet here. The real reason this album didn’t strike a chord with me, however, is the neutering of drummer Matt Tong.
2. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Some Loud Thunder” Loads of folks couldn’t get past the first track, which is definitely a no no. The second album from the definitive internet buzz band felt like an odd rush to capitlize on their new found popularity. Choppy, thrown together, and not really a good tune here. Again, we think this is another band that just had a major misstep so hopefully they’ll take their time with their third album. Whereas the first album hummed and sung, this one seemed like it was screaming underwater.
3. Bright Eyes – “Cassadaga” Plenty of great tunes on this record from Omaha’s wunderkind Connor Oberst, but you get the sense this is going to be what he sounds like the rest of his career. Say hello to the Nebraska state fair and your brand of roots-rock. Again, this isn’t a bad album per say, but it’s just disappointing that it feels like a more polished version of all his past albums. Not a bad thing, but not a good thing either.
4. The Smashing Pumpkins – “Zeitgeist” This is what happens what misdirected egomaniacs try to recapture the spirit and wonderfulness of their past. After listening to this dreck you have to wonder if James Iha and D’Arcy really did have something to do with the genius of those early records. I can’t say for sure, but it certainly doesn’t have to do with Billy Corgan and and Jimmy Chamberlain. Honestly, I’m just bitter. Mostly since this record taints everything I ever loved about the Smashing Pumpkins early output.
5. Battles – “Mirrored” You’ve got to wonder how a mathmatically inclined, prog rock outfit ends up getting a wet one from all the music publications. This might be the most confounding album of the year. Yes, it’s like nothing we’ve ever heard before, but that doesn’t make it good. This is the type of record you tell your friends you love to earn street cred, but deep down inside you feel shameful for doing so. When the best thing you can say about the band is that they sound like a dying Smurf of acid, well, what’s to love.
6. The White Stripes – “Icky Thump” It pains me to put them on this list. I can think of no other band I’ve enjoyed over the past seven odd years more consistently than Jack and Meg. To be honest I’m even thinking about purchasing one of their snazzy cameras they’ve recently launched. However, as is the case with Bright Eyes, what you hear is what you get. They may tweak a few things here or there, or add some different touches, but I feel as though I’ve been listening to the same record on loop. Not bad, but again, just not that good, either.
7. Amy Winehouse – “Back to Black” No, no, no. The best tune on here is the duet and remake of “You Know I’m No Good” with Ghostface and that’s only because Ghostface is bomb. Two hit tracks does not make for a great record, but it’s hard to love this album once you’ve heard just a snippet of Sharon Jones and the Dapkings. Now that’s a soulful R&B album. This is a perfect example of the old school music model where a hit single propels the album to record sales and media hype. Lovely retro production and all, but the vocals leave a lot to be desired.
8. Sunset Rubdown – “Random Spirit Lover” Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade is immensely talented, but after listening to the two albums he put out with this side project (2006’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming being the other one) you begin to wonder if the genius label is a correlation to having Dan Boeckner reign in his worst tendencies. Because that’s what this album feels like. Listening to a overwrought, overlong album full of someone’s worst tendencies. Songs collide and seep into one another, reach dramatic climaxes and leave you feeling exhausted for listening to the whole affair.
9. Immaculate Machine – “Fables” This album only makes me hope that singer Kathryn Calder jumps ship permanently to The New Pornographers. She’s incredibly talented pianist and vocalist. Immaculate Machine comes close to proximating the power pop thrills of the much better New Pornographers, but their crucial mistake is not allow Calder more room to shine on the record. When she’s singing this is a gangbuster of a disc and when she’s not it’s like watching a cat take a poo into the litter box.
10. The Good, The Bad, and The Queen – “Self-Titled” Much of the disappointment for this record comes from it’s pedigree. Blur and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn put together a group which also consisted of Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Clash bassists Paul Simonon with production by Danger Mouse. That’s some incredible talent and you would think they would make an exciting record about London, but this one just comes off like a boring Blur album that got shelved in favor of something better. I’ll never quite understand or be able to put my finger on the misfire that was this album.
The pleasant surprises
The following five albums were one we expected nothing of and got a lot of return on our money. It’s not to say these albums aren’t without their problems and many of them are particularly divisive (hello Rilo Kiley!), but they all managed to cause us to give repeat listens throughout the year.
I think a lot of these albums got brushed aside and I wouldn’t argue you about that, but personally, these were albums that made me want to love them despite their flaws. Luckily we found room in our hearts and hopefully you might find some in yours upon second go round. Again, it’s all about perspective.
1. The Shins – “Wincing the Night Away” Do you ever wonder what would have happened to The Shins if Natalie Portman didn’t profess her love for them in that retarded Zack Braff movie? I think about this at least once a day or at least every few days. They released a great first album, Oh Inverted World, that no one listened to except music dorks and then released an even better second album, Chutes Too Narrow, which slightly more people listened to, then Garden State was released and The Shins were forced to tour (resulting in some bad shows) when they weren’t quite ready to play to big crowds and everyone hoped their third album would save their life. And you know what happened? They released the best record of their career, no one cared because it didn’t in fact save their life, and now the band should be able to fly under the radar crafting pop gems like they should have been able to do all along. I blame this on you Zack Braff.
2. Travis – “The Boy With No Name” A welcome return to the overly earnest Brit pop that they essentially helped make popular in the late nineties. Few bands can do this kind of music and not sound like wusses, but Travis constantly rises above. They aren’t adventurous or lyrically deep, but they do offer some of the finest pleasures around. They constantly deliver great tune after great tune without necessarily being pigeonholed into something they are not. The album is a bit long and could afford to cut a track or two, but man, do I love this album.
3. Fionn Regan – “The End of History” I don’t know where this guy came from but I’m glad he did. He plays mostly intricately strummed acoustic folk music. His voice sounds like a fragile wisp of parchment paper, so tender it could snap with but a single touch. Perfect rainy day reading music or something you’d expect in a slightly melancholy yet uplifting scene in a Hollywood production. Regan is a stunning lyricist and though this album is mostly a boy and a guitar it never gets dull. A promising statement that hopefully he’ll deliver on in years to come.
4. Joss Stone – “Introducing Joss Stone” Bad cover art aside, this album is sort of the antithesis of Amy Winehouse’s album. I loved it in all the ways that I didn’t love Back to Black. Joss Stone is a terribly talented vocalist, all husky sexiness. The album is way too long and would have been served better by keeping it to about 10 tracks, but she’s added some hip-hop beats underneath the soul-influenced rhthymes and that’s what elevates this to something worth giving another chance. She’ll never be a meaningful vocalist, never have anything remotely interesting to say, but we’re looking at the total package and on this record she truly steps out of her comfort zone and soars.
5. Rilo Kiley – “Under the Blacklight” Let the flogging begin. This was a difficult album to judge this year because I listened to it about as much as any album this year. I love Jenny, Blake and the boys, but it was almost difficult to get over the abrupt change in direction. They went from alt-country indie rock to, well, I don’t know. It’s like they gave into their worst influences like disco, Rick James and Abba and somehow came aways with an addictive sugary pop record. Handclaps, oohs and ahhs, juvenile lyrics and shiny production can’t keep this from getting flogged by me. It’s fun, not even remotely serious, and that’s something not a lot of bands attempt to do anymore. Imagine an album full of “The Frug” and that’s what your getting on their Warner Brothers debut. It’s not for everyone that’s for sure. And in many ways, they’ve managed to establish themselves for the long haul, alienating casual fans, earning new ones and secretly satisfying a lot of people. Who knew that they’d become the band everyone loves to hate on in 2007.