To kick-off my series of year-end posts I decided to start with some albums that I would classify as let-downs. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a data analysis and deep dive into my listening patterns over the year and, of course, my albums of the year. All the albums on this list were albums that I was really hyped or excited for, but that didn’t quite manage to do what I hoped they would. This isn’t to say that they were bad albums, but that they didn’t fill the niche or void that I was hoping they would. To that end, I’ve also included a list of stand-ins, which are the albums that were released this year that stepped up to the plate and filled these gaps. As an added caveat, I’ve tried to avoid albums that will be showing up again on my Albums of the Year list (though expect a few of these to pop up again).
Let-Down: $uicideboy$ – I Want to Die in New Orleans
Stepped Up: City Morgue – CITY MORGUE VOL I: HELL OR HIGH WATER
I had been looking forward to the first official album from New Orleans rap duo $uicideboy$ since last year. Then, whether it was a planned PR move all along or not, the change of the album name from I Don’t Want to Die in New Orleans to I Want to Die in New Orleans piqued my interest even more. After finding some success and going on a world tour, the duo found that they didn’t find the peace or happiness from money or touring that they thought they would and instead decided to return to their roots. The resulting album successfully captures the feeling and vibe of their native New Orleans, but fails to live up to the intense heavy metal highs of earlier singles like “Paris,” “Magazine,” “Nightmare Choir (I’ve Been Asleep Too Long),” and “King Cobra (Drippin’).” On their own, each song on New Orleans is fine, but together they come off a bit one note.
In step City Morgue, with their first album CITY MORGUE VOL I: HELL OR HIGH WATER. While still not quite living up to the promise of the best singles of the $uicideboy$, the first album from City Morgue (the duo of ZillaKami and SosMula) hits all the notes of unfettered emotion, rage, and heavy metal riffs that were lacking on $uicideboy$’s album. Their popularity should also receive a boost from ZillaKami’s feature on Denzel Curry’s excellent album, TA13OO.
Let-Down: Amnesia Scanner – Another Life
Stepped Up: Puce Mary – The Drought
I’ve been waiting for the full-length debut from Amnesia Scanner since their truly startling and abrasive first EP, AS came out in 2016. While challenging in its constructions, what made AS truly remarkable was how listenable and enjoyable the result was.They followed it up with the more melodic (and less successful) AS Truth the same year. Then, nothing until this year’s Another Life. Their full-length album eschews a lot of the abrasiveness and brutality of the electronic experimentation that drew me to their first EP in favour of more traditional song structures and sounds. Unfortunately, this more even, refined approach has sapped the duo of a lot of what made them unique and intriguing to me. Another Life is a fine album, but it doesn’t challenge expectations or conventions in nearly as dynamic and thrilling ways as their first EP. Another victim of the Voxtrot curse.
Puce Mary has been the solo project of Frederikke Hoffmeier since 2014, and The Drought was an unexpected find for me this year. Less aggressive and in-your-face than Amnesia Scanner’s first EP, The Drought nonetheless channels the same modes of using electronic instrumentation to challenge and disrupt expected song structures. Hoffmeier’s chilling voice holds the album together as many of the tracks build to chaotic, atunal, electro chaos. But, like the best of Amnesia Scanner, The Drought remains imminently listenable.
Listen: Puce Mary – “Red Desert” ▶
Let-Down: RL Grime – Nova
Stepped Up: ZHU – RINGOS DESERT
RL Grime seems like a cool dude, occasionally dropping by Reddit and posting on /r/trap and even releasing a single for his album there to thank them for their support. That, coupled with his must listen annual Halloween mixes, had me pumped for Nova. I wasn’t expecting a world-breaking or genre shattering release from Grime, who is somewhat of a known commodity at this point, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how bland and tame the whole thing sounded.
RINGOS DESERT, likewise, is not a genre-shattering or paradigm shifting album, but it is a fun, listenable electro album, with enough quirks to keep it from getting stale. A lot of those quirks are driven by the use of guitar, a welcome wrinkle tossed in to a familiar formula.
Listen: ZHU – “Provocateur” ▶
Let-Down: A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant
Stepped Up: NIN – Bad Witch
There was supposed to be a Tool album released this year. Eat the Elephant was supposed to be a return to form for Maynard and crew. It was supposed to be a politically incendiary album. But most of all, it was supposed to be good. The result, unfortunately, was an incredibly bland album, both musically and lyrically. Songs simmer, and simmer, and simmer, but never go anywhere. The lyrics are faux-intellectual at best, and purely cringe-inducing at worst. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Eat the Elephant musically, it’s just boring. And with no new Tool music since 2006 and this being the first proper APC album since 2003’s brilliant Thirteenth Step, I couldn’t help but get my hopes up for this one. Even after seeing the band live and getting a preview of the underwhelming new songs (though “The Doomed” bangs live), I couldn’t help but want this album to be good so, so badly. And it’s not.
Completing the triptych of Not the Actual Events and Add Violence, is NIN’s Bad Witch. As with Maynard, I’ve been a huge fan of Reznor and NIN for decades at this point, but my expectations for this album were low. While Not the Actual Events and Add Violence are fine EPs, the most interesting and vital work that Reznor has done in the last several years continues to be his soundtrack work with Atticus Ross. In the lead-up to the album, it became clear that the sound was heavily inspired by Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, which Reznor had worked on. I love Blackstar, but prepared myself for a re-tread of that album’s sounds and themes. When Bad Witch actually dropped, however, I was beyond pleasantly surprised. This is NIN’s best album since at least With Teeth. The integration of jazz elements (most notably sax) and the eschewing of traditional song structures just works and impressively doesn’t feel gimmicky in the slightest. I’ll continue to get hyped for everything Maynard releases (could this finally be the year for a new Tool album?), and I’ll probably continue to get let down. But it’s nice to know Reznor at least is looking out for me.
Let-Down: Parliament – Medicaid Fraud Dogg
Stepped Up: Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss & Autotune
Why is this album so long? Clocking in at nearly two hours Medicaid Fraud Dogg is beyond bloated. Fewer than half of the album’s twenty-three tracks say anything that really needed to be said. “I’m Gon Make U Sick O’me” and “Medicaid Fraud Dogg” are both legitimately great songs, but they’re more than a dozen tracks apart on the album. At this point in his career, George Clinton has earned the right to release whatever he pleases, but it’s hard to understand why Clinton would dust off the Parliament name for the first-time since 1980 for this album. His recent releases have been under the Funkadelic name and have been pretty mediocre, but my hopes were high that Clinton really felt that Medicaid Fraud Dogg was special, and so he busted out the Parliament name. Unfortunately, the album sounds like a legend just doing as he pleases, with no editing and no restraint. A bunch of these songs are definitely still worth a listen or two, but definitely not worth it’s 2-hour run-time.
Fellow funk weirdo Swamp Dogg stepped up to the plate and dropped the nine-track Love, Loss & Autotune. Like Clinton, Swamp Dogg stopped releasing music in the 80’s and 90’s, before resurfacing in the 00’s. Unlike Clinton, however, Swamp Dogg continues to have things to say. Barring a couple misses (“Sex With Your Ex”), this is a fun album that takes the best elements of funk and blends them with contemporary tools like auto-tune. It’s hard for me to nail down exactly why I enjoy this album so much, and the best conclusion that I can come to is that it’s just fun. I love this weirdo.
Listen: Swamp Dogg – “I Love Me More” ▶
Let-Down: A$AP Rocky – TESTING
Stepped Up: Travis Scott – ASTROWORLD
As far as I’m concerned, Long. Live. ASAP is a classic of modern rap. It predicted and set the stage for the turn to more electro-style beats and a true fusion of club music and rap music. Sonically, this album was years ahead of its time and its features reflected that: it features one of Drake’s best features, Skrillex, a pre-Oxymoron Schoolboy Q, a pre-To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick, Santigold, Danny Brown, and Big K.R.I.T.. Rocky’s follow-up, At. Long. Last. ASAP didn’t quite change the game in the same way, but was a solid album overall. A lot of the ASAP crew has fallen off a bit recently, but I was hoping that TESTING would be a return to form for Rocky. The resulting album is … fine. As with Long. Live. ASAP, the features help tell the story: Juicy J, French Montana, Moby, T.I., and Kid Cudi all appear on the album. As opposed to the forward looking, trend-setting features and style of his debut, this album is caught firmly looking back, attempting to reclaim glory by re-treading old steps, rather than pushing forward and blazing new trails.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not much of a Travis Scott fan. A lot of people were incredibly hyped for the seemingly perpetually delayed ASTROWORLD, and hoped it would take Scott back to the glory of his debut, Rodeo. Despite his lackluster sophomore album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, and the honestly pretty bad Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, ASTROWORLD delivers. Lyrically the album is nothing special, but it hits all the right beats of innovative production, innovative vocal techniques, and truly feels like it’s setting the stage for the future sound of mainstream rap.
Listen: Travis Scott – “Stargazing” ▶
There were 8 albums that were on my mid-year check-in that after repeated listens have fallen out of best of the year consideration. These are all still very good albums, but for whatever reason didn’t have the lasting impact that my top albums of the year did. Those albums are:
- Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
- Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile
- Various Artists (Gqom Oh) – The Originators
- Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
- Skee Mask – Compro
- Anenon – Tongue
- Jon Hopkins – Singularity
- Gang Gang Dance – Kazuashita