The least essential albums of 2008
Sure, the music industry has been staggering around like a wounded animal for close to a decade now, but that hasn’t stopped the yearly tide of staggeringly inessential albums. The A.V. Club’s annual Least Essential roundup surveys the music that didn’t have to happen. What follows isn’t necessarily the year’s worst music—though some of it is undeniably bad—it’s but the year’s most unnecessary.
Least essential album by a band that’s still a band mainly because the lead singer owns the name
Whitesnake, Good To Be Bad
Whitesnake was never good about keeping a steady lineup even in its prime; the band went through three guitarists between 1987’s hit album Whitesnake and its 1989 follow-up Slip Of The Tongue. At this point, they’re pretty much the Pretenders of the glam-metal world: The name “Whitesnake” doubles for “David Coverdale And Whoever’s Playing With Him At The Moment.” And at this moment, the most loyal person playing with him has only been in the band since 2002. That didn’t stop Coverdale—or, as the press release would have it, “legendary front man David Coverdale”—from talking up Good To Be Bad as a 30th-anniversary outing. “I can hear moments that take me back to the bluesy, early years of the band,” he wrote, “all the way though the band’s musical history to fully embrace the more electric aspects of where we are now, as a band.” The journey from blues to electric blues: Should it really take one singer and dozens of sidemen to accomplish what Muddy Waters did with a plug and a socket?
Least essential album to help your kids sleep
Hushabye Baby: Lullaby Renditions Of George Strait
There’s a whole industry devoted to making “cool” kids’ music, but perhaps none is more bizarre than the Hushabye Baby series, which retools country favorites into light, instrumental lullabies. George Strait now joins the series that features Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, and even Johnny Cash. (The Cash album includes “Sunday Morning Coming Down”!) Although there’s something amusing about a lullaby version of Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning,” it’s all wholly unnecessary. Well, at least the packaging is made from 100 percent recycled material.
Least essential cash-in that almost cheapens the uncheapenable
Yes We Can: Voices Of A Grassroots Movement Limited Edition
When we think of progressive voices in the music world, who pops to mind? Who could possibly match the inspiration that Barack Obama brought to the country in 2008? If you answered “Lionel Richie and John Mayer!”, then you probably already bought this pancake-flat celebration of the historic presidential race. If not, and the thought of a Barack Obama speech grafted over the instrumental parts of “Waiting On The World To Change” or John Legend’s tinkly piano version of U2’s “Pride” sounds amazing to you… Then we have some commemorative coins to sell you. Also, only those who’ve paid for this disc should be inspired. A card inside specifically chastises those who might steal music (“one of our most valuable resources”).
Least essential album by the guy who played Chu Chu in Biker Boyz
Terrence Howard, Shine Through It
Scarlett Johansson and Zooey Deschanel laid the groundwork for 2008 as the year of the quirky movie-star pop album, so it wasn’t necessarily guaranteed that Terrence Howard’s Columbia Records debut would be inessential. But considering that Howard’s biggest role was as a rappin’ pimp for whom it is hard out here, he made the difference by deciding to not only put out an album of wimpy, cut-rate singer-songwriter soul crooning, but to make a point of distancing himself from hip-hop and black people in general. Shine Through It made it painfully clear that Howard wasn’t joking when he cited Don McLean and Barry Manilow as his musical influences; he even sniffed to The New York Times that he was “more sensitive” than his Rick James-loving buddies. “Black people, they’ve become accustomed to this hip-hop sound,” he said, perhaps while ordering his butler to release the hounds. “I think I have to go to a different crowd.” Alas, the NPR audience found better things to do, and Shine Through It failed to produce even one charting single.
Least essential act of professional karaoke
Maybe the members of Journey realized they had to do something different to get some attention concerning the recruitment of the band’s fifth (count ’em) lead singer. And they did, by recruiting Filipino singer Arnel Pineda after watching him cover Journey with his band Zoo. But they also did something not the least bit different: Pineda’s vocal similarity to Steve Perry, Journey’s most famous frontman, can only be described as fucking eerie. The CD portions of the two-CD, one-DVD set Revelation don’t play down the resemblance. Disc one features new songs that, predictably, sound like old Journey, only not as good. Disc two features note-for-note re-records of Journey hits like “Wheel In The Sky,” “Faithfully,” and the inevitable “Don’t Stop Believin’”—even Steve Perry might mistake them for Steve Perry. The album and tour both performed surprisingly well, but it seemed to take its toll on Pineda, who told Rolling Stone in April, “There are days I just break down and cry. This is a job I’m doing for my family. That's all the consolation I’m getting.” Hey, be good to yourself, buddy.
Least essential punk minstrel compilation
Various artists, Punk Goes Crunk
Indie-punk label Fearless Records is a repeat offender for screamingly inessential compilations that give hit songs a punk makeover: Punk Goes 90’s, Punk Goes Acoustic, Punk Goes Metal, Punk Goes Pop. The label reached its nadir this year with Punk Goes Crunk, which stretches the malleable definition of “crunk” far beyond its breaking point. Arrested Development? The Roots? “Hey Ya!”? “Umbrella”? Will fucking Smith on “Men In Black”? Of the 15 songs, only four were released in the past five years, when crunk ascended into the mainstream consciousness. Even had Fearless called it Punk Goes Hip-Hop, instead of attaching it to played-out slang, it wouldn’t have alleviated the terribleness.
Least essential Christmas album made by foul-mouthed rappers who love a Billy Bob Thornton movie
Jim Jones & Skull Gang, A Tribute To Bad Santa
Oh, Dipset capo, professional shit-talker, and all-around irritation Jim Jones, why do you feel such an insatiable need to make shitty Christmas albums? In 2006, Jones hit the Least Essential list with A Dipset Christmas. This year, he returns alongside musical elves Juelz Santana, Freekey Zeekey, and Skull Gang, plus special guest mirth-maker Mike Epps, for more Yuletide merriment and forgettable gangsta rap in the form of A Tribute To Bad Santa. On “Christmas,” the Dipset fellas offer to stuff their listeners’ stockings with something other than clean socks, and give groupies something other than candy canes to wrap their mouths around. All this plus Epps channeling Billy Bob Thornton’s grouchy Saint Nick from Bad Santa in audio sketches that prove “funny hip-hop skit” remains an oxymoron.
Least essential Christmas albums made by Christians (tie)
Sixpence None The Richer, The Dawn Of Grace
Jars Of Clay, Christmas Songs
While believers at least have more cred when it comes to making Christmas albums, those albums are still almost universally inessential. Two more were added to the pile this year: Jars Of Clay and Sixpence None The Richer, best known because its cover of The La’s “There She Goes” was used in a birth-control commercial. Both mix standards with originals—nothing says Yuletide spirit like “In The Bleak Midwinter”—and there’s even some crossover between the two: Dan Haseltine from Jars Of Clay joins Sixpence for “Silent Night.” And if that isn’t enough, check out Peace Is Here: Christmas Reflections By Jars Of Clay, now available in hardcover!
Least essential covers album, douche-rock division
Everclear, The Vegas Years
Give the members of Everclear credit for having the self-awareness to realize that recording a covers album is only one step removed from taking an extended booking at The Tropicana. But when bandleader Art Alexakis writes in The Vegas Years’ liner notes, “The only criteria I have for doing a cover is that they are great songs and they sound like Everclear,” he fails to grasp that the problem with Everclear has always been that its songs all sound the same. On The Vegas Years, Alexakis gifts classic-rock favorites like Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl” with his usual up-and-down-the-staircase vocal cadence, giving a set of eclectic material a bit of the ol’ Everclear rise-and-fall. Even the seediest casinos usually have higher standards for their headliners.
Least essential rap album by a man whose own sausage outshines him
A perfect example of hip-hop’s Peter Principle in action, Atlanta-based rapper Rocko did fairly well as a producer and lyricist before deciding to step into the spotlight himself. After releasing a decent, guest-star-filled mix-tape in 2007, he convinced Island to give him a record deal, and the result was Self-Made, the work of a man who had truly risen to the level of his incompetence. Featuring one catchy, albeit moronic, hit in “Umma Do Me,” the rest of the album was a flowless, weak-beat monstrosity that showcased Rocko’s amazing ability to feature one clever rhyme for every 11 or so wack ones. Self-Made sold well for about a week, and the whole rest of the year, the only attention Rocko received was for buying a failing Maryland meat-packing plant and coming out with his own brand of “Rockoges” sausage, a smoked chorizo concoction which, unlike his album, is widely available.
Least essential covers album, music-theory-major division
East Village Opera Company, Olde School
According to its press release, East Village Opera Company spent a year making Olde School, employing “14 engineers to record and mix and 65 involved musicians in 10 different studios around the world.” As with the group’s previous two records, Olde School aims to transform classic opera by mixing it with classic rock, giving the likes of Wagner and Puccini the stomp of Led Zeppelin and the pop sparkle of Elton John. But the fussy Olde School—with its robo-beats, sassy English-language interludes, and echo-chamber guitars—sounds more like today’s power-country as played by Manheim Steamroller.
Least essential covers album, self-cannibalism division
Exodus, Let There Be Blood
The question arises every year around this time: Can an album from the Least Essential list actually be good? Finally, we have a definitive answer. Exodus’ latest release, Let There Be Blood, is not just a good album, it’s possibly even a great one. But it’s also the very definition of inessential. That’s because it’s a note-for-note re-recording of the Bay Area band’s debut record, Bonded By Blood. Not one single song is appreciably changed in any way. Bonded By Blood is a fantastic record, the great lost album of the thrash movement, but it isn’t hard to find; it’s available in any well-stocked record store, and any place that would have Let There Be Blood will have the original. So what’s the point? Sure, the band has changed personnel since 1985, but did they really have to redo the entire record just to prove the new guys have learned the songs?
Least essential sequel to last year’s least essential album
Alvin And The Chipmunks, Undeniable
In conclusive proof that God does not exist, and that if He did, He would hate you with the blazing intensity of a thousand suns, the recent Alvin And The Chipmunks movie grossed more than $360 million and prompted an upcoming sequel. Even more horrifyingly, its soundtrack went gold, prompting the sequel album no one asked for: Undeniable. Yes, the hideous squealing rodents are back with helium-fueled covers of “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Three Little Birds,” “All The Small Things,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and many, many more. The result is headache-inducing in the extreme. Come back, Crazy Frog. All is forgiven.
Least essential covers of essential songs by an already-famous person
Scarlett Johansson, Anywhere I Lay My Head
The very definition of a “least essential” album, Scarlett Johansson’s weird little vanity project isn’t bad at all. It’s fine. She’s got great material to work with—the Tom Waits catalog—and a solid producer in TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, who provides some clanging atmosphere. But Johansson just lies there like a beautiful little log, mistaking flat singing and affected disconnect with affecting art. If an average-looking Jane had recorded the exact same versions of these songs, they’d still be on a hard drive somewhere, dismissed as halfway decent, but solidly uninspired.
Least essential (and most potentially confusing) comeback
With typical literal-mindedness, ’80s prog-pop supergroup Asia named its first album in a decade Phoenix—as in “rising from the ashes.” And it’s with typical baby-boomer arrogance that the ex-Yes/ELP/King Crimson-ers failed to consider that some people might see this record on the virtual shelves and think that French alt-rock band Phoenix had released a new album called Asia. True, the telltale Asia pyramid logo should be a who’s-who clue, but you know these kids today, with their retro kitsch. The only way to know for sure which band is responsible for this collection of doggedly earnest songs about mortality and personal growth is to flip the CD case over and look at the photo on the back. Dead-eyed, faintly decaying old dudes? Oh, that’s Asia, all right.
Least essential comeback, least essential covers album, and least essential album of the year all rolled up into one
Vanilla Ice, Vanilla Ice Is Back!: Hip Hop Classics
As one of the first, and worst, white rappers, Vanilla Ice nearly smothered the art form in its crib, and since then, he’s spent much of his career attempting to finish the job. Ice Is Back: Hip-Hop Classics features the nth comeback attempt by the now 41-year-old Rob Van Winkle, and it’s far and away the most unforgivable thing he’s ever done, far surpassing other crimes against humanity like Cool As Ice, “Ninja Rap,” and Hard To Swallow. This time out, he does wretched covers of classic rap songs, including “You Gots To Chill,” “Insane In The Brain,” and in an extended middle finger to the entirety of black culture, “Fight The Power” and “Buffalo Soldier.” Although it claims to be produced by someone named Adam Hamilton, Vanilla Ice Is Back! features beats and sounds straight out of a karaoke machine, and as if to absolutely cement the dismal amateurishness of it all, the retro-ish cover looks like it was incompetently Photoshopped by a friend of Van Winkle’s who works at a copy shop. It’s irony from someone who doesn’t get irony.