It's no coincidence that two of 2012's most disappointing albums were, back when the year dawned, two of its most anticipated. Expectations are a bitch at the best of times, but when they're great —or when the hype is coming thick and fast— they can be a millstone dragging down perfectly-passable records to places where they're utter disappointments. This isn't a list for the awful, or even the mediocre: all of the below have made classic records before this year. Which is, of course, why they're here: not just for failing to measure up to expectations, but failing to live up to past accomplishments.
On their endearing debut disc, 2006's Everything All the Time, Band of Horses displayed modest, familiar charms; sounding like a collection of Shins and Flaming Lips fans sending sentimental rockshows through a sonic facsimile of My Morning Jacket's 'Grain Silo sound.' It was a pleasant enough substitute for when you didn't have the original at hand. Yet, over time, as Band of Horses have become their own indie-rock heavy-hitters, they've gotten a little more... if not ambitious, then certainly filled with their own importance. They're no longer the indie knock-offs rising up from the basement, but a Billboard-bothering festival behemoth. In response, they've played it far straighter with each successive album, to the point where Mirage Rock is simply a bland Southern Rock record polished to a radio-ready sheen.
"When I go out I don't feel anything/I just keep spending my money," Bethany Cosentino sings, in a first-world lament, mid the turgid "Last Year," "then I'll have to write another song." It's an illuminative moment on the very depressing second Best Coast record, which feels like a joyless chore for both artist and listener. Where her breezy, buzzy, bratty debut, 2010's Crazy for You, rollicked along with sing-song pop-punk, The Only Place only throws out a couple of token fast-and-fun numbers; instead settling into a series of mid-tempo ballads that show off Cosentino's voice, but show up her lyrics. Working at a more considered pace creates a sinking feeling of self-consciousness, in which every sentiment is about the things people say about the songwriter, and every song feels trapped under the weight of expectation.
Bill Fay's unexpected return after 40 years away almost felt like someone coming back from the dead; I mean, last time we heard from him, on 1971's dark the Time of the Last Persecution, it wasn't just his career that was coming to an end, but the entire world. Yet, after the initial rush of hearing Fay recording again fell away, what Life Is People turned out to be wasn't another wild missive from the fringes of sanity, but an MOR folk-rock record that wanted nothing more to hold your hand. Where Fay's Christianity once made for songs bordering on biblical —God and the devil feeling like they were in the studio— here the album's sentiments, from its title on down, came closer to anodyne. In short, Fay sounds like an Old Testament, fire-and-brimstone preacher turned New Testament, Jesus-loves-you Sunday School teacher.
Like Beck and Jack White, Wayne Coyne has become one of indie music's great eccentrics; chasing wacky, whimsical ideas on a weekly basis. But, beyond Gummy Fetuses and marijuana-flavored candy and Most Shows in 24 Hours stunts, the onus is still on the Flaming Lips to make music; and, occasionally, turn out albums. 2009's bloated, bothersome double album Embryonic was hardly a masterwork of coherence, yet The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends is even more messy, and even less essential. It's a guest-list in search of an album, sounding pretty much exactly like the Lips and famous Fwends —Bon Iver, Jim James, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, Lightning Bolt, Prefuse 73, Neon Indian, Tame Impala— dicking around in the studio. It's an utterly uninspired, uninspiring work; the place where kookiness becomes annoyance.
Grizzly Bear's breakout album, 2006's Yellow House, was warmly named for the coastal home in which the Brooklyn-based band recorded it; which tapped into its folkie sound, and made the quartet's campfire camaraderie and four-part choirboy harmonies seem rooted in something domestic, worn, and shaggy. If we're to extend its architectural metaphor, then Grizzly Bear's fourth LP, Shields, is like that old Ferris Bueller quote about a house that's like a museum: "it's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything." The album is meticulously produced by Christopher Taylor, but the glorious, joyous feeling of 2009's Veckatimest has been replaced by a knotty, nerdy, jazzy complexity and a sense of underlying, unresolved tension. Where its predecessor was a shrine to harmony, Shields is a work of disharmony.
When John Cale made Hobosapiens in 2003, it felt like a rebirth: the artful Velvet creating interesting juxtapositions between played and sampled sound, seeming truly alive to new-millennial recording. Yet, merely two albums later, the awful (and awfully-titled) Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood finds Cale drowning in the digital, mired in the endless possibilities of pro-tools. The 15th solo album of Cale's long, wandering career finds him adding layer after layer of baggage to a series of uninspired, mid-tempo rockers. They're all completely overproduced, but not to the point where it becomes interesting (save, maybe, for the autotune ripples drizzled over "November Rains"). Instead, with Cale's voice now reduced to a moaning baritone, the whole sounds rather like a B-grade Interpol. That's a strange historical proposition in theory, a chore to listen to in reality.
Taken unto itself, Believe You Me is a beautiful little record, big on atmosphere. Effectively, its a suite of sweet pieces exploring a relaxed, dreamy realm situated somewhere between the shared individual aesthetics of its two collaborateurs: Roberto Carlos Lange (of Helado Negro and Epstein Y El Conjunto) and Julianna Barwick. It's the presence of the latter, though, that turns Believe You Me's pleasing experiments into a profound disappointment. Expecting her every side project to be life-altering is a fool's dream; but after the genuine magic of The Magic Place —the very best album of 2011— whatever Barwick did next was going to be met with great expectations. And Believe You Me, as nice as it is, certainly doesn't measure up to those.
Interpol's discography has definitely been one of diminishing returns; with 2010's self-titled affair wasting the goodwill of a return to Matador, delivering something bordering on self-parody, and claiming the title of one of 2010's most disappointing albums. And, given Paul Banks' solo debut, as Julian Plenti, was hardly a tour-de-force, you could be forgiven for having any kind of expectations for Banks, his first LP under his own name. But after singles "Summertime Is Coming" and "The Base" showed promise, the whole album proved only disappointment; the dynamic range of its singles giving way to a collection of incidental instrumentals and synthy mood-pieces on which Banks' woe-betold baritone felt oppressive, or anthemic rockers that felt like minor Interpol numbers.
When the great, grey recluse of avant-gardism materializes from the shadows with one of his rare LPs, it's a momentous event. Only, this time, Scott Walker returns not with a terrifying survey of the darkness —as with 2006's The Drift— but bearing... fart jokes? "Ah, my old scabby satchem/a sphincter's tooting our tune," Walker warbles, voice quivering with ironic terror, as "Corps de Blah"'s brass blurts flatulenty. There's something wonderfully weird about hearing Walker's cracked lieder crackin' wise; at one point, mid-"SDSS 1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter)," he actually sings "you're so fat/when you wear a yellow raincoat/people scream 'taxi!'" But once you get over its absurd juxtaposition between silliness and tragedy, Bish Bosch is less rewarding —and more disappointing— than classic Walker LPs.
Without wishing to summon one of the worst movies of all-time, it seems very unlikely that Port of Morrow is about to change anyone's life. The first Shins album in five years had a chance to be a complete reinvention; or, at least, to come with a fresh charge of inspiration. Instead, after firing the rest of his band and dabbling in Broken Bells, James Mercer wasted the opportunity to rebuild The Shins from the ground up; instead constructing something rather like a replica of the old band. The shell was the same, but inside it felt hollow. It's hard to quantify why and how Port of Morrow played like a lesser version of past albums; it just was completely lacking in that je ne sais quoi that makes music magic.