Five disappointing albums of 2009

We’ve managed to get through the first week of December with nary a leak of the new Namie Amuro album, so for the record, it still has the possibility to make a revised version of this list (though I do very much like WILD, I’m already iffy on the promo clips of “LOVE GAME” and “The Meaning Of Us” – plus I’m still pretty mad about BEST FICTION thwarting the 60s 70s 80s single a proper album release). But if the weakest musical months are that dreary space between Thanksgiving and New Year when readers and writers are left maneuvering the sinking ship that is year-end lists and retrospectives, then who am I to abandon it at such a critical junction? Here is the first of my own: the five albums that disappointed me the most this year.

05. MEG’S BEAUTIFUL

MEG hit a low point in February when she ditched producer Yasutaka Nakata for Hadouken! on FREAK, a single so atrociously bad everyone pretended it never happened when BEAUTIFUL was released in May. But finally reunited with Nakata, the follow-up to 2008’s STEP was her first album to crack the Oricon Top Ten, a feat that would have been rendered impossible without the man behind the curtain. Magician to every female vocalist in his canon, Nakata’s precision and knack for finding just the right vocalist to suit each of his projects was already being taken for granted in 2009, a year which on one day alone (July 22) saw the release of four copycat albums (Mitsuka Aira’s PLASTIC, Ayaka Ikio’s Gossip, SAWA’s I Can Fly, and immi’s WONDER), rendering the entire genre expendable while exposing its redundancy. In 2008, MEG’s STEP was an appears top ten album with a B-side claiming the number one East Asian Pop/Rock spot: in 2009, MEG barely registered on the shibuya-kei radar. With mini-album Journey in August, she fell off entirely.

04. alan’s my life

alan’s first major stroke of popularity as vocalist for Red Cliff‘s theme song finally offered gravitas to a classically trained Tibetan; 2009 was turning out to be a flagship year when she scored her first crossover Top Ten Oricon hit with “Kuon no Kawa.” Without compromising her vocal talent or that monstrous Tibetan wail, so shrill it has the power to incinerate, alan proved that popular singers could be all things to all people: talented, intelligent, beautiful. Determined to stay in the comfortable ballad niche that was her hallmark, alan reworked most of her Chinese hits for her first Japanese-language album Voice of Earth. But by November, the record company was looking to expand the market on such a profitable young woman and stretched her repertoire to lite-pop as lifeless as a hangman’s corpses. alan could have been China’s answer to KOKIA or RURUTIA, but instead she became forgettable.

03. Perfume’s TRIANGLE

I’ve already discussed that icky, no good, very bad turn that shibuya-kei took in 2009, prostrating itself to the commercial gods in hopes of bandwagon success that eventually prompted Ian Martin of the Japan Times Online to predict that “the failure of any of these new electropop acts to reach anywhere near the success of Perfume suggests that it remains a niche genre and that supply may already be outstripping demand. In fact, with the appearance of an all-girl idol trio called Cosmetics, […] it looks like the whole genre has already descended into self-parody. Stereotyped and faintly sexist group names based on “things girls like” to look out for in the future include Accessories, Cooking and Rich Husband.” So let’s not revel in nostalgia. And anyway, TRIANGLE fans seem to be split down the middle, one half consisting of longtime listeners disappointed not so much with the sound, but with the lack of innovation, the inability to capture the spirit and elan that made GAME such a thrill, and newer fans unfamiliar with the group’s indie days, content to enjoy a pop record better than its mimicking peers. But I’m not complaining. It was great while it lasted: Yasutaka Nakata produced enough records in the past few years to solidify his reputation as a master of sound, one of those post-millenium everymen who oversaw a handful of wonderful projects and can ride the wave of dozens of hits without having to repeat too many during a DJ set. Perfume themselves worked incredibly hard to maintain their fan base this year: photo books, increasingly bigger live shows with precise choreography; they may yet resurrect from these ashes. Perfume is dead, long live Perfume.

02. AFI’s Crash Love

Rock music is in a sad place these days; toeing the line between electro and indie isn’t just tough to sell in a decade of music that’s so beyond hip it passed lame and went back to hip, it’s nearly impossible. And like Kill Hannah’s Wake Up the Sleepers, AFI’s Crash Love has yet to evolve past its major label debut to relevancy six years later. The problem really lies in the restrictions of guy-liner rock, a style which had its heyday when Panic at the Disco still used exclamation points. After the Blaqk Audio solo project by band mates Davey Havok and Jade Puget failed to produce more than one successful single that tapped into the decade’s electronic zeitgeist (follow-up pending), AFI reconvened to record Crash Love, essentially a duplicate of formulas that ditched punk aesthetics for upscale studio wizardry. The album is the mark of an entire genre on unsteady ground, stuck in the drippy anachronism of its past and afraid to pioneer a new, radical sound.

01. Koyote’s Jumpin’

Most of the albums on this list aren’t necessarily the worst albums of the year, just low points in particular artists’ careers, ones for which I either had a lot of hope for or which I expected better, but this one is an exception: the ridiculous and flashy cover should be enough to convince you. Koyote started out as a pop trio in 1999, going through several permutations where the only consistent member involved female vocalist Shin Ji. Despite Koyote’s strong beginning, the group quickly spiralled into a series of reprised sounds, sticking to their 90’s Eurodance schtick instead of embracing the rising dominance of hip hop and electro influences that would later provide an increasing level of interest of Korean pop groups hoping to break the Japanese music market. By their sixth album, Koyote was a joke but with their tenth, 2009’s Jumpin’, they’ve become the aural equivalent of pity, their work now a pointless, non-existent discussion on no one’s Korean pop forum.

AFI members’ side project Blaqk Audio

I’m not exactly the biggest AFI fan (though my review of Decemberunderground might have you think otherwise), and certainly not a long time follower of the band (usually the people who think they’ve sold out with their last two albums and exclusively enjoy pre-Sing the Sorrow work). Ironically, my two favorite AFI albums are their last two albums, maybe because I’m a sucker for anything with more melodic drive and sharp studio production.

Enter the group’s solo project Blaqk Audio, consisting of AFI vocalist Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget. For fans of AFI’s earlier work, the side-project is probably unwelcome, but for fans of the slick single “Miss Murder,” the completely synth driven project is a pleasant, more industrial version of the punk rock band, complete with Havok’s vocals offset by computer bleeps and blips – think a club version of the Cure’s “Want,” but with nicer hair. The new album, CexCells, will be released on August 14 and features help by producer Dave Bascombe, who has also worked with artists such as Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Erasure. Check out their MySpace page for some song samples, including the first single “Stiff Kittens,” an amazing electro-pop song with Havok’s trademark eerie lyrics (“How it breaks their hearts / that we’ve made an art / of desecrating our sanctuaries“). “Bitter For Sweet” is a less enjoyable track that brings to mind more stereotypical elements of Assemblage 23’s work, leaving me hoping more of the songs will sound like the former.

Aside from Cut Copy’s new album, this is probably the next release I’m genuinely looking forward to; not bad for two boys in love with synthesizers and software.

AFI’s “Decemberunderground”

AFI / Decemberunderground / June 06, 2006
03. Miss Murder / 06. Love Like Winter / 11. 37mm

AFI is one of those bands that once you’ve grown to love, you simply cannot imagine there was once a time you lived without them. And though MTV will have you think they scored big with their 2003 release Sing The Sorrow, the boys of AFI have been around a lot longer than that; 12 years in fact, making 2006 their 15th year in existence, and there’s no better way to celebrate that than with the release of their new album Decemberunderground, one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

Sing The Sorrow was so amazing, I had trouble not hyping up this record to extreme proportions. In the end, I was left worrying that much like Tom Delonge, I had hyped up the record to a level it could never hope to reach. As soon as the opening song began, my thoughts quickly evaporated; AFI has managed to put together another absolutely fabulous record. The opening song “Prelude 12/21” is an intro to end all intros; it begins softly with gentle bells and slowly builds on itself using a hip hop reminiscent beat, before crashing into a mix of synth and typical AFI group vocals. And just when you think this could very well be the best song on the CD, the second track begins. And then you worry. It’s not that “Kill Caustic” is a bad song, it just sounds very Sing The Sorrow-ish. But as the album finishes off, you are content; this CD has just enough of old AFI balanced with a new AFI; an AFI that has employed more synth and artificial beats you thought them possible of, but have managed to make it sound so deliciously right.

This is one of those albums that shows the gradual change of AFI. No more are they solely moody and melancholic, using big words in their songs, though plenty of that abounds as the disc spins. Decemberunderground is more stripped in its lyrical content yet remains thought provoking in its simplicity, while the music has been amped into a lush kaleidoscope of instrumentation. The experimentation present on the album is apparent in a background way that instead of being distracting as it could have, only adds to the AFI we know and love as it works with Havok’s vocals instead of against them. The only song that stands out as odd to me on the CD is “Miss Murder,” the single. The first time I heard the song, I thought, ‘Whoa, new Green Day single?’. That’s not to say it’s a bad song, it’s actually very catchy, just that compared to the rest of the CD it’s a little too upbeat, sounding like it may have been written around the same time “Rabbits Are Roadkill on Route 37” was; whether it was or not, I have no idea.

Favorites on the CD include “Love Like Winter,” “Summer Shudder,” “37mm,” and “The Killing Light,” where oddly enough Havok sounds suspiciously like a certain Mr. Darren Hayes in “Unlovable” as he bitterly asks the listener, ‘Am I usable?” The only tiny glitch I can find with this CD is “Prelude 12/27” not having been developed into a full length song (this song has such ass kicking potential it’s ridiculous, considering it already is at a disappointing 1:35). Oh how I wish that here it was December…everydayyyy.

Even though the atmosphere of the record is riddled in a cold December I doubt it will keep you cool this summer; this album is hot. Yeah. I went there.

Official Site
Buy Decemberunderground