Each year, The A.V. Club scours the depths of our music slush pile in the quest for the least essential albums of the year. Though we wouldn’t call any of this music “good,” our goal isn’t to find the worst the year had to offer, but rather the music that had the absolute least real justification for existing, from pointless reissues to lumbering supergroups to lazy covers albums. As usual, 2011 offered plenty of music no one really needed to hear. Let’s take a moment to remember it before it fades into the oblivion it so richly deserves.
Least essential nostalgia-driven reissue of a ’90s non-classic
Children of the ’90s alt-rock generation did a lot of reminiscing this year, but at least most of the albums that were memorialized with reissues—including classics from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins—were worth remembering. But when record companies start putting out deluxe two-disc versions of records like Spin Doctors’ 1991 breakthrough Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, it’s time to reassess whether our obsession with looking back has gone too far. Surely there are diehards for whom “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” don’t rank among the most annoyingly overplayed songs of their era. But does the world really need to hear demo versions of deep cuts like “What Time Is It?” or “Big Fat Funky Booty”? No, it doesn’t.
Least essential reunion done over a dead man’s body
Numerous bands have carried on after the death of their lead singers, and a few have even flourished. (AC/DC is the best example, though that Alice In Chains record with William DuVall isn’t bad, either.) But Sublime With Rome stands apart for a few reasons. First, the band reformed against the express wishes of deceased frontman Bradley Nowell, whose family sued to keep the other two guys in Sublime from touring under the original name. That means Sublime With Rome is technically a new band, though singer Rome Ramirez is an obvious Nowell clone who apes his predecessor without one iota of shame on Yours Truly. At least Nowell gets the last laugh: The thoroughly weak Truly confirms once and for all that all the talent in Sublime died tragically in the mid-’90s.
Least essential acronym-based musical team-up
The thinking behind NKOTBSB seemed to be that neither New Kids On The Block nor the one-member-short Backstreet Boys had the remaining star power—or material—necessary to sell yet another compilation album. (New Kids already have four, BSB two.) So why not combine the two once-mega-popular boy bands to wring a few more dollars out of their rapidly maturing and increasingly nostalgic fan bases? Plus, their respective acronyms combine so neatly! The joint album features five hits from each group—all penned by either Maurice Starr or Max Martin, the go-to hired guns for NKOTB and BSB, respectively—and two original songs that make up in quantity of singers (nine!) what they lack in anything approaching the pop craft of the groups’ past hits. The lack of effort put into providing new material betrays the album’s true objective: powering the groups’ co-headlining arena tour, which grossed enough money—roughly $10 million, divided nine ways—to keep the members of NKOTBSB flush until they can recruit Justin Bieber for NKOTBSBieber in 2021.
Least essential vanity project, TV-show-creator division
The problem with becoming rich and powerful in Hollywood is that you have the means to realize many of the ideas that pop into your head, no matter how uncalled for. Who out there was asking for the creator of Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show to deliver an album of big-band music from the ’40s and ’50s? No one. MacFarlane has good pipes and can pull off the crooner thing, but an album isn’t necessary—unless his “massively successful TV impresario” career was just a means to finally release a record. If that’s the case, congrats! You’ve made it! Now you can put The Cleveland Show out of its misery.
Least essential vanity project, pop-punk drummer division
Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker has a lot of friends in the hip-hop world, and he enlisted seemingly all of them for his first solo album. Rick Ross, Swizz Beatz, Lil Wayne, The Game… and that’s just in the first song. The cavalcade of stars continues: RZA, Raekwon, Bun B, Kid Cudi, Slash, Tom Morello, Snoop Dogg—though no Black Eyed Peas, even though Barker played drums on Elephunk. The album mixes rock and hip-hop, and many of the songs recall another regrettable album Barker played on: Lil Wayne’s Rebirth. The songs that avoid that hybrid, like the Lupe Fiasco/Pharrell track “If You Want To,” work, but the others sound like castaways of hip-hop’s forgettable moments: the Limp Bizkit rap-rock of “Carry It” and Santana-meets-Everlast sound of “Saturday Night.” Old joke: Hey, what was the last thing the drummer said before he was kicked out of the band? “You guys want to hear the song I wrote?”
Least essential comeback album
Perry Farrell clearly has some music-business savvy, but he made a huge rookie mistake this year by releasing new Jane’s Addiction material. The Great Escape Artist sounds superficially like Jane’s Addiction, sure, but the energy behind it is so far removed from the cross-dressing, dangerous sleazeballs of 1988 that it comes across as exactly what it is: a weak attempt at relevance from a band that should’ve just stuck to playing the hits. (They still sound pretty great live, Perry!) Farrell even recruited TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek to try and lend some modern relevance to the proceedings, but his lyrics are so insipid and the band sounds so uninspired that it made no difference. Original bassist Eric Avery supposedly left the band because he thought they shouldn’t mess with the legacy by making new music. The Great Escape Artist proved him to be wise man.
Least essential superstar collaboration that was essential to hear at least once
There was no reason for Lou Reed and Metallica to make an album together, especially after they tandem belched and farted over Velvet Underground classics at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame anniversary concerts in 2009. But while the tiresome double-album Lulu will, at best, live on as a best-forgotten footnote in the careers of its creators, the album’s undeniable train-wreck appeal made it hilariously fun water-cooler fodder for music fans. Lulu might not justify its existence as music but being a part of the conversation it inspired made it worth hearing at least once.
Least essential superstar collaboration that’s even less interesting than you imagined
Have you ever wondered what might happen if Mick Jagger, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, underachieving soul singer Joss Stone, Damian Marley, and the guy who did the music to Slumdog Millionaire all got together? If you’re not Jann Wenner, the answer is probably “no.” So what does it sound like? A lot of competing ideas and sounds that don’t really go together in hookless songs that seem to go on forever even when they don’t break the four-minute mark. It’s not clear what everyone involved hoped to accomplish, but it couldn’t have been this tedious nap of an album.
Least essential soundtrack
Why is Glee: The 3D Concert Movie Motion Picture Soundtrack so inessential? Not because it’s Glee—but because these live recordings sound like the producers dangled a cheap mic from the rafters and plugged it straight into GarageBand. On top of that, none of the disc’s 23 songs are exclusive to the soundtrack; all are available as far better sounding studio tracks on the various Glee albums. Making matters worse, most of these live versions are jarringly abridged renditions, just like on the show. But really, it boils down to the fact the Glee 3D Concert Movie was presumably all about the immersive experience and the eye-poking illusion of “being there.” Subtract that dubious element, and this recording is worthless. (Also: because it’s Glee.)
Least essential Christmas album
Scott Weiland has had a busy year being inessential. With two irredeemably pointless solo albums released in 2011—A Compilation Of Scott Weiland Cover Songs and this Christmas album, The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year—he nearly inspired a category of his own: Least essential Scott Weiland album. But The Most Wonderful Time deserves a bigger blue ribbon: Not only is it a wretchedly bizarre, joy-to-the-world-killing exercise in cheap opportunism, it’s the worst imaginable showcase for the lead Stone Temple Pilot’s tortured, glammed-up grunting. And as the video for his version of “Winter Wonderland” shows, the one-time junkie simply does not clean up well.
Least essential attempt at making punk look subversive again
Like a hangnail that just won’t heal, Fearless Records’ Punk Goes Pop series is a painful, perennial blemish on music that never fails to find fresh flesh in which to fester. The reason is simple: Every year produces equal quantities of shitty pop hits and shitty punk bands dying to cover them. In and of itself, that formula is more pointless than actively offensive—it’s the underlying conceit that the shallow, plastic punk acts involved are somehow subverting (or, God forbid, bettering) the music being covered. Case in point: Volume 4’s track listing, which includes Silverstein’s version of Kanye West’s “Runaway,” Chunk! No, Captain Chunk’s version of Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R,” and Sleeping With Sirens’ abysmally insipid take on Cee Lo Green’s excellent (though overplayed) earworm, “Fuck You.”
Least essential covers album with a confusing title
Only a band as generic as butt-rock also-rans Puddle Of Mudd would think that songs like Neil Young’s “Old Man” and Free’s “All Right Now”—both of which are probably playing somewhere on your local radio dial this very moment—would need to be rediscovered (or “re:(disc)overed”). The execution of Re:(disc)overed is as unimaginative as the playlist; the arrangements scarcely differ from the FM-rock warhorses Puddle Of Mudd is covering, save for the inevitable tortured vocal flourish. (From “Rocket Man”: “I miss the Earth so much, I miss my whyyyyyy-ife.”) The best that can be said about Re:(disc)overed is that it should usher in the county-fair portion of Puddle Of Mudd’s career nicely.
Least essential covers album
Former New Order bassist Peter Hook made his already shaky relationship with his ex-bandmates even shakier when he decided to form The Light—a tribute act to their other previous band, Joy Division. Granted, Joy Division fans can act a little too overprotective of the group’s tragic legacy. But when Hook and company released the download-only EP 1102/2011, it crystallized just how misguided and horrible the project was. Getting Rowetta, a backup singer for fellow Manchester band Happy Mondays, to deliver soulful takes on the cold, stark songs of the late Ian Curtis only made the whole mess that much more awkward and worthless.
The least essential album of 2011
Art Alexakis and whoever he surrounds himself with and calls Everclear at any given moment are no strangers to our annual Least Essential feature. In 2008, the covers album The Vegas Years, with its uninspired takes on a bunch of classic-rock chestnuts, earned our “Least essential covers album, douche-rock division” crown. One year later, Everclear earned top honors by putting out our least essential album of 2009, In A Different Light, another covers album, this time of Everclear’s own music. Who needs to hear the original versions of “Santa Monica” and “I Will Buy You A New Life” (available on albums that will cost you next to nothing at a used record store) when they could hear strange, unfamiliar, inferior versions of the same?
We jumped the gun on that one. After sitting out 2010, Everclear came back strong in 2011 with an even less-essential album, Return To Santa Monica, which features still more re-recordings of the group’s past hits—including songs featured on In A Different Light—and cover versions of hits by other bands, including a sneering, flaccid version of “Every Breath You Take” and a groan-worthy interpretation of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” with theoretically hilarious Alexakis ad libs. To wit: “They say I’m doing you, which is cool, but then they say I’m doing you wrong which is ain’t too cool.” Don’t quit your day job. (Well, okay, maybe you should quit that too.)
So congratulations, Everclear: You made an album that had no reason to exist. Then you made one that had even less reason to exist. Then you made another one that combined elements of those first two inessential albums, creating a black hole of inessentialness from which no music worth hearing can escape. You’re our first repeat champions. But, beyond that, you’re our inspiration. See you next year!