For the past few months, people have struggled to capture the essence of the '00s. Social media, crowdsourcing, file-sharing, tweeting — all buzzwords, sure, but not quite what the Aughts were about. In reality, the decade's most salient contribution appears to be hype, that effusive cheerleading based not in reality, but on possibilities and inflated absolutes.
Music suffered the most from the hype bug. Every week, it felt like another new album was deemed the "best" or "greatest" effort in a particular genre. In some cases, these efforts lived up to their adjectives — but in others, the plaudits ended up empty and regrettable. The result? The remnants of the decade included stacks and stacks of pretty good albums prematurely pumped up to godlike status.
The following ten albums aren't (all) terrible or unlistenable. In fact, we actually like a few of them. For some, the first blush of listening exuberance has faded away; with others, the critical warmth wasn't even warranted in the first place. However, each has been described using breathless praise and shameless hyperbole, which makes it downright impossible to enjoy them on their own merits. In other words, they're each overrated in their own unique way. Read on.
— Annie Zaleski
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion: Let's make this clear: Merriweather Post Pavilion is a fine record, and certainly one of the more forward-thinking amalgamations of psych-pop, synth abstraction and indie rock released in 2009. But the advance slobbering over the album exemplified the Internet-driven, hype-buzz cycle that's rendered critical opinion almost meaningless these days. Short of triggering the Second Coming, there's no possible way that Pavilion's reality would have lived up to the mythical qualities bestowed upon it before its January release. Check back in five years to see if the album still resonates after the initial rush of enthusiasm wears off — after all, when's the last time you've listened to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's debut album? (AZ)
Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now: As with most over-celebrated works, the idea is the problem. We listen to music for many reasons, but mostly to get off — in mind, body, heart and soul. Pianist and singer Antony Hegarty understands all of this, but this 2005 album merely exploits sympathy. As a transgendered memento mori for the AIDS plague, the album is pure bathos, a piece of brooding, tormented performance art that borders on sentimental schlockfest. Not even Antony's piercing, often magnificent vibrato can cut through the heavily scripted costume changes — one musical hair shirt after another. (RK)
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible: Get past the colossal hype and there's much to like about Arcade Fire: the musicianship, the hooks, even the ambition. For its second album, the Montreal band turned its hurdy-gurdies toward '80s rock grandeur, leading some critics to invoke Bruce Springsteen, because Bruce also played arenas in the '80s. He did not, however, indulge in bombastic paranoia. Neon Bible is not without its pleasures, but it did not change the way we listen to music, unless you count sticking your fingers in your ears as a revolution in sound. (RK)
Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands:Given the parabolic evolution of musical fashion, folk music was bound to return with a vengeance, but did it have to choose such a hairy and self-consciously primitive form? Banhart is fully committed to his inscrutable visions and perpetual vibrato, but like Joanna Newsom, he's really an Anglophilic artiste who pretends he's making music for no one but the crows and the ghost of Syd Barrett. But every grunt, buzz, cricket chirp and random couplet sounds calculated for maximum weirdness. Rejoicing in the Hands has a sense of humor, but it's ultimately the exercise of a dude who takes the mystical forest sprites too seriously. (RK)
The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love: Prog-rock is all fun and games until someone embarks upon the grandeur of a seventeen-part, single-movement concept album about why Jethro Tull rules. Jethro Tull doesn't rule, and neither does Colin Meloy's attempt to spin some kind of vaguely Victorian epic of doom and love via heavy-metal, folk-rock musical theater. The album may or may not have a plot, but it certainly has spectacle: fire pots, lasers and studied British accents. In other words, it's Spinal Tap for the indie literati, who should read fewer books and listen to more Chuck Berry. (RK)
Joanna Newsom, Ys: The fair and tender maiden of the harp and the Oxford English Dictionary (the big one that comes with a magnifying glass) built a coterie of doe-eyed undergraduates (and rock critics who should know better) with these pastoral fables and the imprimatur of Van Dyke Parks' orchestral politesse. But let's ask a simple question: When was the last time anyone played this album? It's dated in a way that cult objects always are. Since then, the album has gathered more dust than the tombs of Westminster Cathedral, and you still can't Riverdance to it. Fare thee well, m'lady! (RK)
The Strokes, Is This It: When the Strokes took music by storm in 2001, the quintet's drunken bluster, hangover hair and Velvet Underground-meets-Television slurs made them critical darlings. And then later that fall, the NYC quintet released its debut, Is This It. Although perhaps meant as a sly nod to the hype, the title soon became a self-fulfilling prophesy. The shambling nonchalance of the Strokes' live show — not to mention the band's reckless garage-rock and gritty tales of debauchery, ennui and mischief — suffocated under claustrophobic production. If tame music wasn't disappointing enough, the original cover image — a black, gloved hand on a woman's naked ass and hip — was changed into a garish close-up of particles colliding (?) for the U.S. market. In the end, This felt as sanitized as the condo-filled, 2009 incarnation of the Lower East Side. (AZ)
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend: It's a mystery why people congratulate Vampire Weekend (and as a corollary, laud its breezy tunes) because it acknowledges, embraces and writes about its privileged background. Besides the fact that nothing is more boring than the concerns of the rich, this honesty doesn't change that Vampire Weekend is full of milquetoast arrangements, quaint indie-skiffling and white-bread lyrics. Even its most interesting characteristic — cheery, Hawaiian-shirt polyrhythms and jittery percussion — can't salvage the fluffy, high-tea affectations. In the end, the album remains nothing more than Paul Simon's Graceland filtered through a Gossip Girl lens. (AZ)
Kanye West, Late Registration: Perhaps the most controversial (if not challenging) artist of the decade, Kanye West came into his own on Late Registration. Too bad the album didn't boost anything but his ego — and his inflated sense of self. For every genuine tune (the touching "Hey Mama") or pleasing marriage of galloping beats and old-school samples, there's a lyric that immediately sounds dated ("From the Chi, like Tim, it's a Hardaway") or another self-inflicted pat on the back ("You girl don't like me/How long has she been gay?" or "Big K pick up where young Hov left off"). The lyrics of "Gold Digger" are no better than the misogynistic tripe spewed by artists West is supposedly better than — which makes sense, because Registration's tired boasts about his likeability or talent read like insecurity, not braggadocio. (AZ)
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black: The very-public, very-sad decline of Amy Winehouse has overshadowed her recording career. But even before the drugs, arrests and tabloid hounding, the resonance of her Grammy-winning soul throwback, Back to Black, was overstated. Sure, the Daptone horns and sparkling Mark Ronson production add impeccable class and flair to the project. But Black was swept up in the UK's nü-lady-soul zeitgeist (c.f. Adele, Duffy), which meant that things like, say, Winehouse's narrow, nasal range and Billie Holiday-sans-nuance emoting were overlooked. Above all, there's a curious lack of depth to the album — as if Winehouse's assertions against rehab or her love-gone-wrong moans were merely surface emotional filler. (AZ)