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The least essential albums of 2012

Every year, The A.V. Club mines its CD stacks, digital downloads, and inboxes looking for the least essential albums of the year. We’re not looking for bombs or duds, but rather for records whose very existence baffles us, from pointless remix projects to blatant cash-ins to celebrity vanity projects. Let us all pause now and gaze in puzzlement upon the musical wasteland populated by the least essential albums of 2012.

Least essential remix album
Duncan Sheik, Covers Eighties Remixed
Duncan Sheik’s 2011 collection Covers 80s offered little to complain about, especially for listeners with a fondness for ’80s music and/or Duncan Sheik, who enjoyed a big hit in the mid-’90s and has since alternated between respected lower-profile albums and theatrical work that’s included the Broadway hit Spring Awakening. Featuring spare takes on tracks by The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Love And Rockets, and others, it’s pleasant and at times revelatory, casting new light on some familiar songs by stripping them down to their base elements. Why flesh them out again? Covers Eighties Remixed doesn’t provide much of an answer, despite recruiting El-P, Samantha Ronson, and others to club them up. Sheik’s wispy, sensitive voice doesn’t mesh all that well with the beats and synths, which makes sense given that the original project was designed to peel all those elements away.

Least essential album by a douchey reality-TV star and the guy who wrote “I Must Increase My Bust”
Zak Bagans Vs. Praga Khan, NecroFusion
Zak Bagans has built a hair-gelled multimedia empire on saying “Did you hear that?” on grainy night-vision video: There’s his popular Travel Channel show, Ghost Adventures, and its many spinoffs (including something called Paranormal Paparazzi), his book Dark World, his Dungeon Wear clothing line, and now, a musical collaboration with Lords Of Acid’s Praga Khan. Touted by its press release as “one of the most intriguing music releases ever produced,” NecroFusion devotes each track to the story of a different spirit and includes “an actual audio message from the spirit” using not-at-all bullshit “electronic voice phenomena,” or EVP. “Spirits want to be heard,” Bagans says in the press release. “That’s why they’re not at rest.” He provides that opportunity through snippets of EVP and his own “earthbound spoken/word vocals,” which Khan chops up and repeats like samples. The result is hilariously over-serious and comically unaware of its incredible silliness, just like Bagans himself.

Least essential classical-music album designed for fucking
Fifty Shades Of Grey: The Classical Album

E.L. James’ mom-kink hit Fifty Shades Of Grey became an unexpected runaway hit in 2011, and it didn’t take long for the ancillary cash-ins to pop up in 2012. Fifty Shades Of Grey: The Classical Album takes advantage of the novel’s use of classical music by compiling 15 easily licensed recordings of pieces selected by James herself, who also provides the breathless liner notes. They begin by observing, “There has always been a dark side to Classical music” before referencing the “pulsing rhythms and dark-hued harmonies” of the Baroque era that “hinted there was more going on underneath…” (The suggestive trailing ellipsis and odd capitalization choice are James’.) Worse is the play-by-play offered for each track: Of Thomas Tallis’ “Spem In Alium,” James writes that it’s “constantly shifting, blossoming, and retracing, and reaching levels of force and complexity that are simply overwhelming in scope.” Anyone got a cigarette?

Least essential attempt to exploit the lucrative toddler market
Ozomatli, Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz

Ozomatli has always been an all-things-to-all-people proposition: The L.A. band jumps genres and influences like crazy, with the common element being a strong desire to please. And what better way to influence future generations of disposable income-havers than with an album of trying-too-hard, ridiculously cloying “educational” songs. Each track on Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz (what marketing exec screwed the pooch by not spelling it “Presentz”?) offers wedged-in lessons about everything from germs to exercise. But it’s all so happy and wacky that parents will surely go nuts after half a song. It’s much, much worse than The Wiggles, and that’s saying something.

Least essential set of patriotic treacle (with QVC-exclusive bonus tracks)
BeBe Winans, America, America

BeBe Winans first made his name alongside disgraced preacher Jim Bakker, and though he doesn’t deserve any guilt by association, Winans does deserve some kind of derision for America, America. (The comma is actually a star on the cover, because America.) The soul singer’s incredibly cheesy, pandering collection of pro-America songs is most notable for its ability to wedge the word “America” into pretty much every sentence. (An unscientific count puts the instances at more than 6 million.) If there were any truth in advertising, this would actually be called Slogan: The Album. Sample lines from one of Winans’ originals: “Arise from the ashes, America / America, land that I love / Pray that God bless America / And keep America safe from above”

Least essential (second!) soundtrack to a pretty essential TV show
Sons Of Anarchy: Songs Of Anarchy Vol. 2

Sons Of Anarchy had a pretty fantastic fifth season, with great additions like Jimmy Smits and, for one amazing episode, Walton Goggins. But who’s sitting around watching biker gangs fight and thinking, “Wow, what kickass song is that playing in the background?” Probably no one, especially when the highlight of this second (!) Sons soundtrack is a limp cover of “Sympathy For The Devil” by Jane’s Addiction (whose limp guitarist Dave Navarro made a limp cameo this year, too). And then there’s the cover of “To Sir With Love” by Katey Sagal—a.k.a. the star of Sons and wife of the show’s creator. It’s exactly as nepo-tastic as that sounds.

Least essential vanity project, sibling-of-a-TV-show-creator division
Rachael MacFarlane, Hayley Sings

Last year, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane baited Least Essential with his vanity project Music Is Better Than Words, on which he crooned out big-band covers of familiar ’40s and ’50s songs; this year, his sister Rachael seeks to continue the family tradition with Hayley Sings, a similarly jazzy take on familiar standards, this time from the ’50s and ’60s. However, given that she doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as her older brother, Rachael has to couch her singing debut within a conceit that will be more familiar to those who only know her as the voice of Hayley Smith from American Dad, also created by her brother. Luckily—and purely coincidentally—the release of Hayley Sings coincided with this year’s American Dad episode “Love, AD Style,” in which Hayley becomes a lounge singer, giving Rachael the opportunity to perform some of the songs included on this album, like “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Like her brother, Rachael possesses some decent pipes that are well-suited to the retro material, but the world really doesn’t need more lounge-y takes on songs like “One Fine Day” and “Feelin’ Groovy,” even (or especially) if they’re ostensibly sung by a cartoon character.

Least essential impossible decision to make
Smash Mouth, Magic and The Gift Of Rock

Death by lethal injection or hanging? Waterboarding or having your toenails torn out? Smash Mouth’s brand-new album, or the California band’s reissued 2005 collection of Christmas songs? These are the tough choices. In favor of Magic, Smash Mouth’s original songs—most here co-written by song doctor Shelly “What A Girl Wants” Peiken—are pretty easy to forget. (They can’t all be “All Star,” thank God.) On the downside, there’s a terrible, sad, pathetic original song here called “Justin Bieber” that’s hard to forget, mostly because it’s an exploration of fleeting fame. (Sample lyric: “Did we have enough of all the Facebook Tweeters?”) Acting in favor of The Gift Of Rock: Smash Mouth’s holiday versions are only slightly worse than the million covers you’ve already heard this year. Still—tough decision.

Least essential overkill repackaging of songs nobody really wanted in the first place
Ian Brown, Ian Brown Collected

Ian Brown sang on what’s rightly considered an absolute classic album, The Stone Roses’ self-titled 1989 debut. And then he sang on the follow-up, the rightly derided Second Coming. And then he released a series of solo albums that nobody really liked, and he caused many of those songs that nobody really liked to be remixed, and recorded copious B-sides for singles that nobody bought. And now he’d like you to pay about $300 for the privilege of owning Ian Brown Collected, a 10-CD, one-DVD, one-LP box set that includes precisely none of the songs that made the world fall in love with Ian Brown in the first place. It does, however, include Brown’s attempts at Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” and it’s all housed in a “hand-sewn hard-backed book.” And don’t forget that “hand-numbered certificate of authenticity signed by Ian Brown.” Whoever inherits your estate will thank you.

Least essential greatest-hits collection
3 Doors Down, The Greatest Hits

Modern-rock nightmare 3 Doors Down probably isn’t going to make the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, let alone any hall of fame. That doesn’t mean it’s not popular, though: The butt-rock band from Escatawpa, Mississippi has had two major radio hits: 2000’s “Kryptonite” and 2003’s “Here Without You,” both of which made Billboard’s 2012 list of most-played songs of the past 20 years. Just because those horrible, grunted songs are hits, though, doesn’t make them great, and lumping them together on a “greatest hits” record with 10 other farted-out modern-rock “hits” doesn’t make them stink any less. If anything, it just makes the whole project smell even worse. 

Least essential Christmas album
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, This Christmas

It’s hard to pick just one least essential Christmas album, given that the vast majority of holiday albums are inessential by their very nature. But 2012’s obvious winner was delivered unto The A.V. Club wrapped up in a big, Botoxed bow and topped with an unnaturally opaque glue-on black wig. But the frighteningly cheery grins and “WE ARE HAVING A GOOD TIME” poses John Travola and Olivia Newton-John display on the cover of This Christmas is only a hint of the forced holiday awkwardness contained therein. (And no, we don’t just mean the equally hilarious photos in the liner notes.) The former co-stars both sound like they were hitting the eggnog pretty hard during recording, with Travolta alternating his vocals between sleepy and deranged, and Newton-John providing wispy accompaniment through an audibly forced smile on uninspired covers of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “Silent Night.” The thinking behind this album’s existence seems to begin and end at “Hey, remember Grease??,” but that’s still more effort than the two singers put into their performances.

Least essential album for cyborg headbangers
Morbid Angel, Illud Divinum Insanus: The Remixes

Morbid Angel’s place in the death-metal pantheon is untouchable. So why did various remixers feel the need to touch it anyway on the ill-conceived album Illud Divinum Insanus: The Remixes? There’s nothing about the group’s music that particularly lends itself to an electro or industrial overhaul, but nonetheless, its 2011 album Illud Divinum Insanus has been drum-machined and dubstepped to within an inch of its life. Granted, the source material had already been given such a mechanistic sheen; Illud Divinum Insanus was rightly slammed last year for being Morbid Angel’s turn toward electronics. So in essence, The Remixes is a double whammy: an inessential rehash of another inessential album.

Least essential album with Jimmy Buffett on it
Lionel Richie, Tuskegee

Soul music and country music have a long and distinguished tradition of crossing over with each other. You wouldn’t know it, though, from listening to Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee. The album revives 13 Richie hits from the past by rerecording them as duets with various country artists, including Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Willie Nelson, and, um, Jimmy Buffett. The results are predictably tepid, replacing the original songs’ pop-R&B charm with lifeless twang and the cha-ching of cynical self-exploitation. Naturally, Richie’s famed composition for Kenny Rogers, “Lady,” is trotted out with Rogers in tow—just to reinstate the noble idea that schmaltz truly knows no boundaries.

Least essential albums that need to trick you into buying them
Fear, The Fear Record & Electric Light Orchestra, Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra

Veteran punk band Fear and orchestral pop legends Electric Light Orchestra—as great as they both are—should by all rights have nothing in common. And yet, in 2012, they each issued the same type of inessential releases: gratuitous re-recordings of their own classics in released order to secure their publishing and licensing rights. Fear’s new The Fear Record is a tighter, cleaned-up version of the group’s 1982 calling card, The Record, with frontman Lee Ving being the only original member. Likewise, Mr. Blue Sky is Jeff Lynne’s note-for-note reproduction of many of his biggest hits with ELO. It’s hard to bemoan artists for trying to circumvent record labels and publishing companies by re-recording their own work, but do they have to hawk these redundancies to the general public with a straight face?

The least essential album of 2012
Farrah Abraham, My Teenage Dream Ended

MTV has made some strange people famous —The Miz, Pauly Shore, Puck from The Real World, and so on—but some of the network’s most awkwardly bestowed fame has been thrust upon the eight women collectively known as the Teen Moms. And while some of these reality-TV moms have had their struggles with the law, none is more clueless and obnoxious than Farrah Abraham, an aspiring model and chef from Council Bluffs, Iowa. This year, the deluded 21-year-old published her autobiography, the melodramatically titled My Teenage Dream Ended. With that came a companion pop album, featuring cringeworthy tracks like “The Phone Call That Changed My Life,” “Unplanned Parenthood,” and “Finally Getting Up From Rock Bottom.” While no one expected musical greatness from Abraham, her insanely Auto-Tuned vocals and bland production shocked even the teen mom’s actual fans and earned her a heaping helping of derision from the snarky denizens of the Internet, some of whom even went so far to suggest that it might be an example of outsider art, or as a writer from The Atlantic put it, “a dark and compelling experiment in abstracting and compressing the vicissitudes of ‘high school drama.’” As anyone who’s seen Teen Mom could tell you, though, that’s giving Abraham way too much credit. She just made a terrible record and, even more relevant for our purposes, a completely unnecessary record.