Next week, Treble begins the annual tradition of compiling the year’s best music in list form — songs, albums, best of genre, etc. We got through 11 months of avalanching pop music, and we’re ready to have some closure. But before that happens, the time seems ripe for an appraisal of the music from 2012 that wasn’t as successful. In “History’s Greatest Monsters,” the goal is to determine whether a critically panned album is as bad as the press makes it out to be, and so instead of choosing the 10 worst albums of the year, I’m starting with the negative critical consensus and determining whether or not the albums getting bad reviews in 2012 deserve the spite. Spoiler alert: Most of them do, and then some.
I’d like to stipulate that music’s value is subjective, and no doubt there are plenty of folks who find something redeeming in albums that I don’t. That’s all part of the fun of talking about and sharing our opinions on music. But there’s some music that only an artist’s mother could love, and in the case of Die Antwoord, even that’s not true.
Now then, on to the monsters!
The Darkness – Hot Cakes
It’s impossible to hate The Darkness. Bold statement? Not really. The band are the personification of rock `n’ roll at its most indulgent and ridiculous, which is fairly endearing off the bat. They’re engineered for arenas and stadiums — nothing punk rock about them. Spandex, big hair, big heels, big boobs, drugs, whatever floats your boat man, that’s what the Darkness are all about, and while we went a decade or so pretending we were done with cocky arena rock, the issue wasn’t so much that it needed to die, it was just in need of someone better to take its reins. More AC/DC, less Poison, in other words. The Darkness, then, are exactly what was necessary to make that happen in 2003 with their infectious heroics on debut album Permission to Land. One mediocre follow-up and a laundry list of hardships made a third album a long way in the offing, however. And now that it finally arrived, it’s nice, but certainly not everything it could have been. The sexy women on the cover, covered in maple syrup, on beds of pancakes, are an appropriately cheeky touch. And the AC/DC-style homage to living one’s dreams in a rock band in “Every Inch of You” is an easy sell, particularly with Justin Hawkins’ falsetto “Suck my coooock!” By and large, it’s everything you should expect from a Darkness album, though there are far fewer memorable moments than there should be. One exception, however, is the band’s cover of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)“, done with a shlocky disco-metal attack, complete with a brief guitar-riff reference to “Just.” It’s a bit of a novelty, certainly, but Radiohead are the sort of band that could do with a little more humor now and then, so I’m in favor of the idea of it, even if I don’t really see myself listening to it much. Basically, Hot Cakes comes down to this: The Darkness are back, and they’re definitely not better than ever, but at least they’re still having fun making flashy, cocksure rock music, which, in the end, isn’t so bad.
Die Antwoord – Ten$ion
A Youtube description of a stream of Die Antwoord’s “Never Le Nkemise 1” reads, “NEXT LEVEL RAP-RAVE DUBSTEP.” The obvious question is: Next level of what? Clearly the group has ramped up the bombast, the obnoxiousness, the volume and the ignorance since 2010’s $O$, itself a modern art marvel of bafflingly tacky and crass electro-rap. But clearly, nothing’s gotten any better. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to process Die Antwoord the same way you might any other musical group. In fact, I’m not even sure music is the point. That said, if there is a point, I’m at a loss to figure out what it is. There are beats, lyrics, lots of big and booming synthesizer, but none of it comes together in any sensical manner, and even less of it actually sounds good. Die Antwoord is clearly obsessed with sex, but there’s not a single moment of music here that could even partially pass for sexy, especially “Hey Sexy” and the borderline rape fantasy “U Make a Ninja Wanna Fuck.” Likewise, emcee Ninja talks a lot of trash, but his reference points are a few decades out of date, and for that matter, sort of gross and confusing: “What happened to all the coo’ rappers from back in the day / Now all ‘dese rappers sound exactly the same / It’s like one big inbred fuckfest/No, I do not want to ‘Stop, collaborate or listen.” Ouch? I can’t say with any certainty that Die Antwoord isn’t having the last laugh here, but at least the first time around it was novel. If two decades of Internet use have taught us anything, it’s that trolls get tiresome pretty quickly.
Kreayshawn – Somethin `Bout Kreay
For some reason, the mediocre sales of Kreayshawn’s Somethin `Bout Kreay became an oddly viral slice of misinformation. Sure, 3,000 copies sold is fairly weak for a debut week from a hyped major label hitmaker (of sorts), though it’s not breaking any records. But there also shouldn’t be any mystery why its sales were so terrible. “Gucci Gucci,” Kreayshawn’s sole hit, if you want to call it that, is ultimately the best the White Girl Mob rapper had in her. Love it or hate it, the song is catchy beyond words, and you can’t really blame Columbia for thinking it was the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, it’s the whole of the ice cap. Somethin’ Bout Kreay doesn’t improve upon “Gucci Gucci,” and, maybe even more detrimentally, is incredibly short on ideas. Considering Kreayshawn is only 23 years old, that’s not very promising for the future. In just the first track, “Blasé Blasé,” Kreay already seems to be trying to replicate her smash single but without the fun or hooks. There’s a bigger issue at play here, however, and it’s that Kreayshawn isn’t really much of a rapper. She mostly spits an awkward monotone chant-speak, and it comes across as amateurish at best, and completely tone-deaf at its worst. But that doesn’t mean Kreay doesn’t try everything she possibly can to create some kind of image for herself, nonexistent skills be damned. She goes tough girl on “Left Ey3,” dropping numerous references to celebrity women misbehaving in the `90s, while on the far more sickeningly sweet “BFF,” she pleads to a third party to be her best friend with syrupy synths and Tiger Beat hooks. Beyond the fact that she’s way too old for this kind of tween Trapper Keeper heart-scribbling, it’s just a lazily written song, which is a recurring theme throughout. A quick review then: Kreayshawn still hasn’t topped “Gucci Gucci,” she can’t rap, she can’t write, and can’t seem to effectively convey to the listener just who she is, beyond empty paeans to money, being a bad girl, or occasionally, soft-pop sentimentality. She should be thankful those 3,000 units moved as fast as they did.
Madonna – MDNA
Madonna’s track record in the past ten years has been spotty, to say the least, but Madge also doesn’t really have to try that hard anymore. Her records still sell. She’s changed the face of mainstream pop music a half-dozen times or so, and she basically owned the ’80s. That being said, it’s a fairly cynical move on her part to put out something so generic and pointless as MDNA. For Madonna, essentially everything she’s ever done has been in a grand fashion, making widescreen statements through dance-pop hooks and elaborate videos. Her VMA appearances, not to mention her opulent stage shows, are the stuff of legend, so it didn’t bode well for her 12th studio album when her appearance at the Super Bowl this year, alongside M.I.A. and LMFAO, was a shambling mess. Madonna has taken risks at almost every stage in her career, and while some of them didn’t work out (Hard Candy, American Life), the ones that did more than make up for it. There’s nothing at all risky on MDNA. It’s as phoned-in as Madge has ever sounded. Now, it has a few decent tracks, namely “I’m Addicted” and “Gang Bang,” the latter produced by William Orbit in a cool, Giorgio Moroder-esque fashion. But once those dry up, there’s not much left to look forward to. M.I.A. appears here on “B-Day Song,” an incredible waste of both talents on a joylessly dumb track pairing birthday themes with tired double entendres. “I Don’t Give A” is yet another song about how Madonna does what she wants, and she’s a rebel, and all that jive, only this time it involves her divorce with Guy Ritchie. That bit of info would probably make the song seem more angry, but it’s just lazy. Whatever emotion she’s trying to sell just doesn’t take. She doesn’t sound angry so much as bored. And frankly, I am too. I got bored with “Superstar,” I got bored with “Turn Up the Radio,” and you better believe I got bored with “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” Whatever one’s opinion of Madonna, she’s been one of the biggest and most influential artists in pop music for around 30 years. With MDNA, she still may be one of the biggest, but for the life of me, I can’t find anything inspiring here.
Mumford and Sons – Babel
My first exposure to Mumford & Sons’ new album Babel came with an NPR interview segment interspersed with bits of 30-second samples from the album. Admittedly, this was only a small taste, but if you had told me that the half dozen or so songs played were actually all part of the same song, I would have believed you. Variety isn’t everything, though — the Ramones made a half-dozen classic albums without changing much of anything — and Mumford & Sons’ formula is at least a winning one commercially. Babel went gold the week of its release, selling 600,000 copies right out of the gates. That’s an impressive feat, particularly in a climate that supposedly isn’t all that friendly for guitar-based bands. And I have to imagine that banjo-heavy groups would have fared even worse, but apparently that’s not the case. It’s easy to see why Mumford would appeal to a large audience. Their songs are catchy, dramatic, big-hearted and earnest, all things that have proven successful in rock bands of years past. In fact, the template proves itself time and again, from Springsteen to U2, Dave Matthews Band to The Killers. Of those groups, however, Mumford & Sons sound most like the Dave Matthews Band (with a lot more banjo), which is something I’m having trouble getting past. It’s an aesthetic distaste, more than an outright gut churning disgust, though that still doesn’t save the album from essentially being 12 variations of one howled-to-the-heavens, dewy-eyed, sprinting-through-wheat-fields, high-school mixtape anthem. And however appealing it is the first time around, by track 12 the relentless soft bludgeon is akin to water torture. There’s room for the band to grow, even if there isn’t much incentive for them to do so, but at the very least, some stylistic variance would go a long way.
Muse – The 2nd Law
Full disclosure: I’ve been lukewarm at best on Muse for most of their career. I bought Showbiz shortly after it came out, and for that matter still enjoy it on some level, but the group’s ambitions weren’t so outsized back then. The more operatic and overblown they got, the more trouble I had digesting their music. To be fair, I’m not really their target audience. I’m not a prog guy. I’ve never thought Radiohead needed more guitar solos. And I’ve never thought that Billy Corgan was holding back too much. Most of their catalog leaves me cold, but I can at least attest to the fact that the band is certainly talented. That they can attempt and largely pull off something so grand, regardless of taste, is worthy of some level of acclaim. So I entered The 2nd Law with an open mind. Much ado has been made about the band’s embrace of synthesizers and dubstep techniques, though, for the most part, it still sounds a lot like a Muse album, at least more so than a Skrillex album, as some likely feared. It’s both a risky move and an extremely cunning one for the band to evolve into a more current and commercial direction. But when held up against a band to whom they’ve frequently been compared — Queen — it makes perfect sense: this is Muse’s The Game. Sure, it’s got fancier technology, but it’s still kind of a funky pop record from a bombastic art rock band. So the question remains of whether or not it works. The answer? Not exactly. It’s not as much of a departure as I might have been led to believe, which is probably reassuring for fans wary of a complete abandonment of a long-held aesthetic. But it also has a lot of kinks to be worked out. For a band that can probably afford some high-end gear, why does it sound like they’re relying on cheesy midi patches on “Save Me”? “Follow Me,” one of the few tracks in which the group goes full-on EBM bro-step, sounds exactly like what you’d imagine Muse playing dubstep would sound like, which is a bit like adding Rococo gilt trim to a race car — completely tasteless and unnecessary. And “Survival,” which you may recall as the official Olympic anthem of 2012, is just a complete failure on every level, juxtaposing stadium rock production with empty lyrical affirmations and opera singer backing, which probably doesn’t sound good on paper, but is an even bigger mess in practice. That said, the album does contain “Madness,” which I’ll go on record as saying is the best song the band has released in… I don’t even know how long. Matthew Bellamy reins in his histrionics for one, while the track actually features some legit grooves. So, props to Muse for that one. But the rest of the album falls somewhere between standard Muse and low-cal filler, which adds up to a blend of fair to middling material, forgettable fluff tracks, two or three complete fiascoes and one surprisingly good track. Not a success by any measure, but not a total failure either, I suppose.
Owl City – Midsummer Station
I’d like to start off by mentioning that I had no idea Owl City had so many albums. Adam Young, who had a huge hit with the corn syrup-coated “Fireflies” in 2009, has been cranking them out ever since becoming something of a MySpace success story (when was the last time that happened?), and Midsummer Station is the umpteenth in a long line of fairly similar synth and Auto Tune-heavy dance emo records that offers essentially what all the other ones did, with a little more Rihanna/Katy Perry-style dancefloor boom. So if Young’s past records were essentially a junior high version of the Postal Service, then Midsummer Station is Top 40 diva pop without the sexual education. Owl City is such an easy target at this point, and Young such an earnest and sentimental singer, that criticising his music almost feels like kicking a puppy. But music with production this big demands an equally big personality, not the dewy eyed robo-milquetoast at the helm. There’s nothing cathartic about this music, nor anything even enjoyably dorky. Midsummer Station, in spite of Young’s best efforts, would more likely empty a dancefloor than filll it, and until he drains some of the sap, I’m going to have a very hard time taking him seriously. If there’s any real human personality somewhere on Midsummer Station, I haven’t been able to find it.
Pop Etc. – Pop Etc.
When the Morning Benders arrived at the dawn of 2010 with a pleasantly lush debut in Big Echo, it was clear they were never going to change the world, but it didn’t really matter. The music was good. It was pretty and dreamy, and whatever it lacked in energy it made up for with memorable, gorgeous songs. Two years later, the band was faced with the probability of having to change their name for reasons of avoiding a homophobic slur in other parts of the world (unbeknownst to the band), and with it came an entire new identity makeover that saw the Bay Area group swapping indie chamber pop for synth-heavy dance pop. Too bad they aren’t very good at it. Part of the problem is frontman Christopher Chu. His voice isn’t particularly expressive, and when added to a dozen Black Eyed Peas-lite compositions, the end result is much closer to Owl City than Rihanna. A handful of redemptive tracks crop up here and there, the best of the bunch produced by Danger Mouse, but they can’t save this peculiar mix of misfired hooks and glossed-up dopeyness. Pop Etc. as an album is too saccharine, and the best of intentions can’t make these songs any better. It’s the rare case in which an artist can have a second chance at a first impression, and it’s a completely botched opportunity.
Ting Tings – Sounds from Nowheresville
The first thing one expects from British pop duo The Ting Tings is fun. There’s not really a lot of that on Sounds from Nowheresville. The next thing one would expect is melody. There isn’t really much of that either. So at the very least, there should be a little bit of energy left to redeem the album. Nope; 0 for three. What the band does have on Sounds from Nowheresville is a batch of ten songs, few of which with any cohesion to the whole, and all of which sound like a fairly lackluster hipster karaoke night. Singer Katie White leaps from embarrassingly shrill rapping on “Hit Me Down Sonny” to generic and cliché spoken word love-story narration on “Guggenheim.” In 33 minutes, very little of consequence happens, and what does is usually more annoying than anything. But I can’t shake the feeling, listening to Sounds of Nowheresville, that the Ting Tings, a band with a history of product pushing, has gone from writing songs to writing jingles. It’s probably not a bad career choice, what with the increasingly unprofitable music industry we have, but it amounts to a listening experience that isn’t the least bit rewarding and, ironically, pretty forgettable. If the intent was to make something a little more Madison Avenue friendly, they might have botched that one as well.
WZRD – WZRD
Early this year, one of my esteemed colleagues emailed me about a “Kid Cudi rock album,” which I initially misread as a “Kid Cudi/Kid Rock” album, which sounds like a disaster of epic proportions. Not that WZRD, the actual Kid Cudi “rock” album, is a roaring success by any measure. Let’s get something straight though — this isn’t as awful as the nadir Lil Wayne reached with his grotesque and painful attempt to belch out rock songs on 2010’s Rebirth. It’s just almost as awful. The primary difference is that instead of diving headfirst into macho rap-rock cliches and throwaway “fuck the world” attitude, Cudi spends most of his time moping and sounding like a generally unpleasant person to be around. He vocalizes sophomoric suicide daydreams in “Efflictum,” barfing out awkward and unconvincing weed-caked affirmations in the amateurish “High Off Life,” then lurching back into a slow-moving, excruciating diary reading in “The Upper Room,” which boasts lyrical zingers like “Most people are pussies.” The rare moment in which Cudi actually shows some level of taste, the Desire-sampling “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie,” comes all too infrequently. Still, in spite of Cudi’s half-assed, cobbled together lyrics and completely off-putting personality, what’s most baffling about WZRD is that, for a rock album, it hardly ever rocks. There’s no energy, no verve, and little inspiration beyond how much Cudi seems to want to feel sorry for himself (He had a missed opportunity in calling the album DBBY DWNR). Cudi was never an amazing rapper, but it’s pretty clear by this album that he’s even worse at being a rock musician.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.