Top Ten Crushing Disappointments
oving a band is a strangely dependent emotional experience. There’s no other place where we lay ourselves as bare as we do before our treasured pieces of music, which is why it smarts so much when an artist we’ve made space for in our lives sinks into mediocrity. It's an instructive reminder of the fleetingness of talent and chemistry, and it carries the bitter tinge of disappointment in a loved one. I’ve done it far more than these ten times; these were just the ten that floated to the top. This list is highly personal, oftentimes embarrassing, and says much more about me. So, then, a list about the inevitable fallout from foolishly indefatigable optimism:
Metallica - Load
As a teenager, my older brother spent a lot of time driving around in his wrecked Toyota blasting Metallica, playing and re-playing heat-warped tapes of Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets out of dying speakers. Riding alongside him as a kid was a visceral, thrilling experience; the right window missing and the air whipping in your face, his cigarette smoke curling around everything. The only possible soundtrack to this experience for me was sun-damaged Metallica, with the treble cruelly pushed up. My brother lost his Metallica faith with The Black Album, when they slowed their knife’s-edge thrash to a plod.
For me, trailing nine years behind, it was this one: where they cut their hair, made this embarrassing video, and started mewling about their feelings. Riding around in my brother’s car, Metallica’s music seemed dangerous, capable of physically harming you; now they were a mortifying spectacle of aging alpha-maledom, complete with James Hetfield bellowing about the “things inside that scream and shout.” It was here that they become a template for Nickelback.
Pearl Jam - No Code
To a lot of people, No Code is Pearl Jam’s only tolerable album, because Eddie Vedder displays something approaching restraint as a vocalist. The only problem is that Eddie is about as good at showing restraint as Bono or Celine Dion—his anguished baritone is a blunt instrument, incapable of the sort of subtlety that the half-baked genre experiments on No Code would require.
Hearing Eddie and co. attempt pretentious mini-songs like “Sometimes” or misbegotten “raga-rock” experiments like “Who We Are” was like hearing my dad warble along to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on FM radio—his sincerity can’t be doubted, but it’s just beyond the guy. For someone who grew up loving Vedder’s voice (even though it has spawned nearly as much intolerable singing as Mariah Carey’s), it was dismaying to hear him singing in either a distracted, noncommittal mumble (on "Hail, Hail") or a precious, twee quaver ("Sometimes"). Like watching Jim Carrey in a drama—man, just do you.
Weezer - The Green Album
Here’s a true story I probably shouldn’t tell should I wish to cling to any remaining shreds of rock-critic credibility. Before I had ever heard a note of Pavement, I loved Weezer, in particular Pinkerton. I’d read plenty about Slanted and Enchanted in Rolling Stone and SPIN, but I didn’t actually hear the album until my junior year of college.
Here comes the part I don’t need to admit: in the spring of 2000, some wiseass posted the entirety of S & E on Napster with bogus track names and the title BRAND NEW WEEZER. I was one of (probably the only) unfortunately duped; as a result, I had the singular frame of reference of hearing a seminal 90s indie-rock album for the first time while laboring under the delusion that it was NEW WEEZER. Imagine my private embarrassment when I finally realized the truth (the line “I was dressed for success/but success it never comes” tipped me off, having read it in a review of Pavement’s Terror Twilight); even more so, imagine my chagrin when I heard “Hash Pipe” and the rest of the excruciating, faceless toothpaste jingles that comprised the ACTUAL new Weezer. An educational experience in the relative merits of Pavement and Weezer, to say the least.
Cam’ron - Killa Season
On Purple Haze, Cam’ron perfected the astonishing brand of circular wordplay he’d spend his career refining. Each verse on the album is a mind-bending demonstration of the hypnotic power of assonance: Subtraction addition! Accurate vision! Gat's in the engine! Black I'm just livin'! Cats in maximum prison! Rattin and snitchin! Smacked up for livin! Clap a few women!—and on and on, until the words themselves transcend meaning and become their own nonsensical music. It was enough to induce Tourette’s, or at least start a rabid fanboy cult.
The album’s mysteriousness only deepened when the execrable Killa Season came out. Here, Cam fell back on his less-endearing quirks; namely, his fondness for unrepentantly garish lite-FM 80’s-rock samples, nose-wrinkling scatological lyrics, and questionable sartorial decisions. All this, plus an unforgivable amount of face-time from Dipset stringers Hell Rell and 40 Cal, makes for possibly the biggest missed opportunity on this list.
Interpol - Antics
The monochrome cool of Turn on the Bright Lights provided an elegant soundtrack to my first sustained period living in a major city (Madrid, spring of junior year). Songs like “Leif Erikson,” with its muttered chorus and cryptic, arch-sounding admissions ("She says that my sentimental side should be held with kid gloves/She doesn't know that I left my urge in the icebox") beckon like an intriguing conversation half-heard at the edge of wine-fogged oblivion.
It was an effective air of mystery, and it remained indistinguishable from the real thing up until it was effectively dispelled on the first notes of "Antics." Here, their monochrome cool dissipated in Big Country choruses (see: "Evil") and Paul Banks stepped out from behind his cavernous vocal reverb: unfortunately, it turned out he sounded less like Ian Curtis than the lead singer from Placebo.
Andre 3000 - The Love Below
I don’t have the time or the space to go into a full-on dork analysis of Andre 3000’s rapping, so I’ll just offer this: Along with Nas, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, and a few others, he redefined what “rapping” could mean—the amount of information, both emotional and narrative, it could hold; what a line of meter could look like (he pushed at the constrictions of meter lines more than anyone else this side of Rakim). There, end of evangelism. Now, The Love Below: the Worst Album Ever Made, or just the worst album ever made by a rapper?
Let's see: Inept cocktail-jazz sullied by aimless guitar noodling? Check ("The Love Haters.") Perhaps the most laughable skits ever recorded on a hip-hop album? All I can say is "Where Are My Panties?" A complete abandoning of the vividly specific imagery that made his rapping so compelling in favor of goopy sentiments about how we all need love? "Love And War," "Happy Valentine's Day," "Pink And Blue"—hell, pretty much every song. Perhaps I’m overstating my case, but I’m still recovering from the rude shock of discovering that the greatest Southern rapper of all time had made the worst Frank Zappa/Prince fusion record ever. He’s gone back to rapping recently, and he sounds great—and I still haven’t totally forgiven him for this one.
The Strokes - Room On Fire
Is This It? sounded so endlessly good in 2001, for a host of inscrutable reasons, that critics momentarily saw no end to The Strokes’s promise; they were Television; they were the Velvet Underground. (This is, remember mostly a list about endless gullibility). Along with all the other fools, I was crushed when, with Room On Fire, they turned out to just be The Strokes. Is it enough that they remained a fairly competent modern-rock band, capable of catchy singles? Not for me: I felt betrayed, angry at having swallowed yet another expertly played pose as something more substantial.
Jay-Z - Kingdom Come
I once read something by Chuck Klosterman in which he said that Van Halen’s early records burned with their particular coiled energy because of the tension between Eddie Van Halen’s classical-virtuoso aspirations and David Lee Roth’s naked need for pop stardom. With Roth out front, riding a blowup phallus and wearing buttless chaps, Eddie couldn’t very well rework Bach’s “Art of the Fugue”—he had keep it relatively simple and stay in the groove. This quality of full power withheld reminds me of Jay-Z. He once bragged that he had “a mind like a flower in bloom,” and the metaphor was apt; no one wrote more multilayered, slowly unfurling metaphors and similes. However, his hunger for pop stardom kept his more cerebral meanderings in check; he was his own David Lee Roth.
As a result, his mid-90s and early 00s albums function both as pop music and delicious exercises in restraint. We as listeners never feel Jay is giving his all, which is why I had such high hopes for Kingdom Come. With nothing left to prove artistically or commercially, Jay was completely free to make whatever album he wanted, so it was doubly dismaying that he turned in such a lazy mess. Without the sharpening focus of commercial pressure, his convoluted wordplay sagged and turned pseudo-profound (“You wanna know why they call a project a project/Cuz it’s a project!” he declares triumphantly on “Do U Wanna Ride,” as if he’s just stumbled upon a mindblowing point). Worse, he punctured his precious aura of untouchability and began sounding like an old man.
Kanye West - Late Registration
I know, I know—this is supposed to be the album where Kanye justified every outrageous asshole pronouncement he ever made in the media (or at least that’s what I kept reading in the media). I don’t hear it. There is a problem with this record, a problem that no amount of sweeping strings, rippling harps, or extended instrumental breakdowns can cover up—it is BORING. Kanye has nothing left to say on this record that he didn’t say more memorably on the first, and his likeability shrivels as he grows twice as strident and half as funny. In the absence of any new lyrical themes, the only real reason for the record to exist is to feed Kanye's insatiable craving for attention and respect.
Burning with unashamed Grammy-lust, he hired Jon Brion to cram baroque instrumentation down our gullets, and Brion did his job; the music throbs with humid life like an overgrown patch of jungle. But all the swollen splendor only points up the black hole at the center of the record that is Kanye's inferiority complex, which takes all the harpsichords and church choirs and orchestral arrangements down with it and turns Registration into the world's most expensive snit fit.
Nas - Hip Hop Is Dead
Nas was made for this list, as he is perhaps the consummate Disappointment Artist. Every album since Illmatic has, for someone, been a crushing disappointment. I didn’t really think Nas could let me down ever again; I thought I had made peace with the man he had become after releasing one of hip-hop’s indestructible classics: sourly self-important and grandiose. But then he appeared onstage with Jay-Z, in an indelible twin-towers moment, and signed to Def Jam. He released tracks like “Where Y’All At,” unfolding his endlessly darting mind over shivery, haunted beats. Then there were rumors of a Jay-Z collaboration, production by Kanye West and Timbaland, guest spots from T.I. and Eminem. And, like an idiot, I got excited.
I should have known; no one can squander a golden opportunity like Nas. Given the best stable of producers in hip hop, Nas opted for solemnly faceless boom-bap, and given a newly prominent stage, he chose to deliver an album-long lecture on how we don’t respect our elders. Absolutely, positively, the last time I’ll care. I hope.