Back in July, AV Club music editor Steven Hyden shared an interesting theory – in order to be classified as a great band, an artist must have released five “very good” to “excellent” records in a row. In the arbitrary world of ranking pop culture, Hyden’s formula is as good as any – it should be awfully hard to earn the distinction of “great” – but it did get me thinking about how spoiled we music fans can be. After having our minds blown by an exceptional work of art, part of us feels grateful to the artist, while the other part busily sets unrealistic goals for them. In this heightened context, if a band’s follow-up is merely “good,” then that qualifies as a letdown. I felt this way about several albums in 2011, and I’ve selected four to discuss. All were created by artists I love; all feature some quality material. But when placed in the context of their back catalogs – and my emotional attachment to them – all are disappointments.
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
In the pantheon of spoiled music fans, Radiohead fans are the worst. Hyden claims the Brit legends don’t pass his five-albums test because of 2001’s Amnesiac, which I disagree with (see #56 on my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s). I don’t think they pass the five-albums test because of 2004’s overlong Hail to the Thief. These are really good albums we’re talking about here, some seriously adventurous, emotionally riveting stuff that we would praise unconditionally from a band of any other name. But because Radiohead was kind enough to make OK Computer and Kid A, they must suffer our nit-pickery! And The King of Limbs has been no exception. It’s a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid. But it’s also immediately accessible in places, especially the last two cuts – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” Yet TKOL is bereft of the grand statements and avant garde left turns that defined the band at its earth-shattering best. The biggest complaint among fans has been the running time – under 40 minutes – but that doesn’t bug me. In all honesty, the only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written, adventurous songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.
Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV
This year, my spoiled ass was the most disappointed by the hotly anticipated return of Lil Wayne. After the across-the-board success of his 2008 masterstroke Tha Carter III, and the ending of his highly publicized prison sentence, Weezy sounded sharp on his pre-Carter IV mixtape, Sorry 4 Tha Wait, rapping over loops from “Gucci Gucci” and “Rolling in the Deep” with understated poise. But when the real album finally dropped in August, the rapper didn’t sound understated – he sounded underwater. He’s never been a speed rapper, but Wayne certainly takes his time delivering his couplets this time around, and his similes tend to not warrant the extra attention (e.g. “The weed’s loud like a lion’s roar”). Guests Rick Ross, Tech N9ne, Busta Rhymes and Andre 3000 deliver life support in the form of fantastic verses, and the beats successfully hearken back to the gangsta/Dirty South gumbo of Tha Carter II. But without Wayne at his scatological-pothead-Martian best, TC4 is merely a good hip-hop album with occasional flashes of the lyrical master of old. The intro, the interludes, “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “John” and “President Carter” are all worthy of Weezy’s legacy, but we’ve come to expect much more from a record with “Tha Carter” in its title.
Wilco – The Whole Love
Despite the sonic canyon that separates alt-country from post-punk, Wilco/Radiohead comparisons have been kicking around since Being There and OK Computer set their respective bars impossibly high. But now that both groups have aged, a legitimate parallel can actually be made – both Wilco and Radiohead possess a built-for-the-long-haul dynamic that generates fruitful output in the face of the loftiest expectations. These guys are gonna keep making music, no matter how many bloggers whine about how they’ve lost a step. And thank god for it – The Whole Love, like The King of Limbs, is a pristinely crafted work, with material that’s right in the band’s wheelhouse. The first two songs even get you hoping that this is indeed the “next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” you were dreaming for. “Art of Almost” is one of the band’s finest tunes, period, a seven-minute opus that pairs bittersweet, close-but-no-cigar sentiments with soaring distortion and menacing synths – a lusher, warmer “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” This is followed by “I Might,” a blast of riff-focused power pop that would’ve fit snugly on Summerteeth. But alas, TWL isn’t a full-blown Wilco masterpiece. While the balance of the record is far from one note – the haunting acoustics of “Black Moon” and sunny Sunday shuffle of “Capital City” providing the most welcome dynamic shifts – it’s still bereft of the wild spirit of “Art of Almost.” Like Wilco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky before it, TWL depicts a band that’s gotten very comfortable doing its thing – and in 2011, that thing is impeccably wrought country-rock, not the unpredictable Americana rollercoasters of yore. A good album? Yes. A disappointing tease? You betcha.
Bjork – Biophilia
As an artist who passes the five-albums test in my book – from Debut to Medulla, she was pretty much unstoppable – it’s impossible for me to look at any new Bjork album objectively. That being said, the flaws in this year’s Biophilia are plain to see – every track on this mega-concept album about the history of the universe comes with its very own iPad app, and what we gain in ambition we lose in listenability. Not to say that the album isn’t enjoyable; it’s frequently gorgeous. Bjork remains one of the most daring artists making music today, with a voice that continues to astound. Yet where her best work always had clear horizon lines, Biophilia is a thicket of notes and concepts, without much traditional songcraft to ground them. The exception is “Crystalline,” an etheral club banger with a whirlwind of a drum n’ bass outro. Here, Bjork shows us what can still happen when she gets out of the way of her own creativity. But like “Art of Almost,” it only serves to make us wonder just how great this album could’ve been.