Every year produces great music and a nearly equal amount of terrible music. Then there's the not-so-creamy middle, the albums that have no real reason to exist, but nonetheless find their way to music-store shelves. Why? The A.V. Club has no answer. We're just here to document them in all their inglorious splendor. So, behold, the utterly puzzling, almost-already-forgotten Least Essential Albums Of 2005.
Scott Stapp, The Great Divide
Not since he showed stunning ignorance of the concept of common cards on Celebrity Poker Showdown has Scott Stapp embarrassed himself to the extent he does on this overbearing debut solo album. Beginning with the "You guys still like me, right?" plea "Reach Out"—which reassures us that we may have "heard the rumors, jealousies, and all the lies" but that Stapp has "nothing to hide"—The Great Divide proceeds through a set of rock anthems as self-absorbed as any teen pop idol's post-scandal album. In the end, all Stapp wants to do is make us feel as good about ourselves as he feels about himself. Shortly after he blows our minds with the line "Why are we overcome with fear? / What if I told you that fear isn't real?", Stapp follows with the downright Seussian, "What if I told you, my friends, your doubt / you could live without!" Oh, Stapp!
Peter Gallagher, 7 Days In Memphis
This was a hotly contested category, but in the end, Peter Gallagher edged out White Knuckles, the latest from Least Essential perennials The Bacon Brothers (a.k.a. Kevin Bacon and his sibling Michael). In a year without a Jim Belushi, they might have had it locked down. But then along came 7 Days In Memphis. Remember that episode of The OC where Gallagher ticked off his wife and made it up by singing to her? That was fun. A full album of Gallagher karaoke, on the other hand, is hard to take. Gallagher has a decent, thoroughly undistinguished voice that's two notches above Bruce Willis and about 18 notches below the famous soul stars he covers here. Any album with legendary Stax musician Steve Cropper on guitar can't be all bad, though, and 7 Days isn't terrible, just blazingly inessential.
These days, it'd be tough to find a mainstream hard-rock band that isn't Christian, which makes Stryper's renewed mission to make metal for the messiah much less urgent. Reborn's 11 tracks of processed post-Styx quasi-prog won't win many converts, but it does have some of the best "thank you" liner notes ever written, from the fairly simple nods lead singer Michael Sweet gives to "Boston Red Sox, Starbucks and Peanut M&Ms" to Tracy Ferrie's more oblique "Highest regards to the One who has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords." Um… are we still talking about Jesus?
Various Artists, Killer Queen: A Tribute To Queen
Queen + Paul Rodgers, Return Of The Champions
Who better to replace eternal pomp-rock queen Freddie Mercury than… former Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers? Listen up, Not-Dead Members Of Queen (and tip an ear, former Doors): You have enough money, and Mercury was an essential part of your sound. Yes, it sounds like the people at this live concert are having fun, but do you think a single audience member would rather have Rodgers there than Mercury? Then there's Killer Queen, yet another tribute album filled with phoned-in performances (from American Idol's Constantine, forgettable alt-rock bands Shinedown and Breaking Benjamin, and more). Hey, respectable participants The Flaming Lips, Los Lobos, and Jon Brion: Hopefully ya'll didn't get paid with a case of CDs.
Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic
Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill Acoustic was made for a special demographic: People for whom regular electric Alanis Morissette rocks way too hard. So, like a shitty Bob Dylan in reverse, she's gone acoustic for a Starbucks-approved take on 12 songs destined to inspire fevered flashbacks of lazy hacky-sack afternoons and patchouli-scented hallways in anyone who went to college in the mid-'90s. Still unclear on what is like ray-ay-ayn on your wedding day or a black fly in your Chardonnay? Let Morissette hip you to the ins and outs of irony, gratitude, and going down on (allegedly) that dude from Full House on a mellower version of an album critics were once naïve enough to consider angry, rebellious, and important. God, were we ever so young?
Jim Verraros, Rollercoaster
Sweet little nerd Jim Verraros, who got the pity vote on the first season of American Idol for his touching tale of singing to his deaf parents… What's he up to in 2005? Sex, baby. A complete image makeover has rendered him unrecognizable—think sexy boy-band wannabe rather than Midwestern drama-club geek—and the sweetness has been replaced by "What hides behind your zipper, babe? / I promise not to peek" and "Throw me on the bed and tie me up / Handcuffs 'til I can't get enough." Jesus, Jim, your parents can read! Why'd you print the lyrics?
FJ & Living Souls, Ambient Africa
In 2000, Eagle Records released 10 double CDs of music from the South African Broadcasting Company's archives, an invaluable source for apartheid-era recordings by South African musicians. Good for Eagle! The collection has yet to be released here, but in 2005, some of those same recordings got reworked and re-recorded as Ambient Africa, which adds vocals, electronic drumbeats, New Agey keyboards, storm sound effects, flute loops, and other modernizing touches intended to, as the cover blurb states, give "a modern twist to traditional themes" because "Western audiences have been looking for interpretations of world music that maybe speaks more to them of their own experiences." Their own flavorless, sleep-inducing experiences, apparently.
Simon Carpentier & Cirque Du Soleil, Zumanity: Another Side Of Cirque Du Soleil
(Cirque Du Soleil)
For those who leave Cirque Du Soleil performances thinking, "Where can I hear more of that faintly nightmarish worldbeat music?", here's the soundtrack to the troupe's adult-themed Vegas spectacular, Zumanity. As an added bonus, the soundtrack includes spoken-word introductions like "Meditation," in which the MC explains that love is like "a lion pacing on the red-hot embers of desire." Listen close and you can almost hear the stage manager frantically whispering, "Cue the lion!"
Ian Brown, The Greatest
Still coasting on goodwill earned in 1989 with The Stone Roses' self-titled debut, Ian Brown continues to sully his own name with snoozy solo albums that try to make up in arrogance what they lack in inspiration. If that sounds awesome, catching up on the fun got easier in 2005 with The Greatest, a collection of songs from Brown's four solo albums, plus a handful of new versions. Who knew the world needed another shot at "Dolphins Were Monkeys"? The world didn't? Oh, okay.
Various Artists, Back Against The Wall
The usual methodology for tribute albums is to gather a bunch of musicians who are sympathetic to another bunch of musicians, then urge the former group to submit a set of highly individualized takes on the songs of the latter group. Producer Billy Sherwood takes a different track for the Pink Floyd tribute Back Against The Wall, which brings together prog-rock all-stars like Adrian Belew, Ian Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Chris Squire, Dweezil Zappa, and Tommy Shaw, and has them reproduce The Wall almost note for note, right down to David Gilmour's dirty lead guitar and Roger Waters' sarcastic amplified whisper. We don't need no replication!
LEAST ESSENTIAL ALBUM BY A LIFE COACH, CERTIFIED MASTER OF NEURAL LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING, MASTER OF THERAPEUTIC IMAGERY, MASTER OF HYPNOTHERAPY, MASTER TIMELINE PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF THE MOTIVATIONAL CHANGE COMPANY MENTAL DESIGN CONCEPTS, INC.
Chase, Somethin' To Feel About
Now entering the less-rare-than-he-thinks self-help music arena, it's Chase Bays, an L.A.-based inspirationalist whose basic sound consists of a wash of synthesizers, a lightly funky beat, and his voice whispering yoga instructions and messages of hope. Choice cuts include the self-explanatory "Help Has Arrived" and "Insight Of Destiny," but in the liner notes, Bays writes, "It is suggested that this album be experienced at a time and place in which it can be absorbed entirely," which is pretty much the same advice you get on a bottle of stool softener.
Lil Romeo, Romeo! TV Show (The Season)
On the puzzlingly titled Romeo! TV Show (The Season) Master P progeny/Nickelodeon heartthrob Lil Romeo delivers bland, Casio-crafted, teenybopper-friendly pop-rap with a disturbingly robotic proficiency. It's as if a secret government lab set out to engineer an exact cross between C-Murder and Aaron Carter. The disc opens with prepubescent fans delivering gushy, semi-coherent testimonials to Romeo's greatness, and the fun doesn't stop after the songs end! Simply stick the Dualdisc in a DVD player to access Lil Romeo lyrics. These should then be studied and analyzed like the Talmud.
Various Artists, The Rose Vol. 2: Music Inspired By Tupac's Poetry
In a shocking lapse in his once-remarkable posthumous work ethic, Tupac Shakur somehow failed to put out a new album this year: It appears that dying in 1995 is finally starting to catch up with him. But the exploiting-Tupac's-memory industry chugged on, releasing The Rose Vol. 2, a sequel to 2000's The Rose That Grew From Concrete, which gave his work the tweedy poetry-recital treatment. Yes, loyal soldiers in 2Pac's thug army can all but smell the white wine and fancy cheese as Ludacris favors listeners with a recitation of 2Pac's middle-school-level verse, then offers his interpretation of the poem's meaning. What's next? Round The World/Same Song: Music Inspired By 2Pac's Cameo In Nothing But Trouble?
Misfits Meet The Nutley Brass, Fiend Club Lounge
It's one thing for string quartets or Kidz Bop to chew songs and bands into pasty cud and serve them up. But the remaining Misfits—not Danzig, who probably also released something inessential in 2005, but who's watching?—actually released Fiend Club Lounge, which features The Nutley Brass bustling through cheery instrumental versions of once-terrifying horror-punk songs like "Last Caress" and "Die, Die My Darling." Even the direst of Misfits diehards could only care to listen once.
John Cena & Tha Trademarc, You Can't See Me (Sony)
Ah, professional athletes with a song in their hearts and an unfortunate need to express the feeble thoughts coursing through their brains: Where would the annual Least Essential Albums roundup be without them? Without a category for rapping wrestlers, that's where. This year's grappler is WWE champion John Cena, a melanin-light mass of quivering muscles who combines the flow of a Randy Savage with the wordplay of a Roy Jones Jr. Producers like Jake One (Gift Of Gab, Boom Bap Project) and guests like Freddie Foxxx lend an air of professionalism to the project, but when it comes to hip-hop fundamentals, You Can't See Me is more Backyard Wrestling than Smackdown.
Ian Anderson, Ian Anderson Plays The Orchestral Jethro Tull
Rock bands teaming with orchestras: By now everyone from Metallica (on S&M) to The Moody Blues (all summer, every summer at mid-sized civic centers across the land) has given it a try, usually with less-than-inspiring results. So it would be easy enough to ignore Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson teaming up with the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt, if it weren't for one thing: There's absolutely nothing novel about a flautist playing with an orchestra. Anderson admits as much in the album's surprisingly cranky liner notes. He also admits that past pairings haven't gone so well: "Having had the odd show when the High School Band of Dumbsquat College, Upper Delaware-on-the-lake would have done better, I relax and rejoice when we get a good and dedicated orchestra who will work hard to find that special something which brings it all alive for musicians and audience alike." The relentlessly dull album, however, is likely to result in too much relaxing and not enough rejoicing.
Master P, Remix Classics
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Master P's Remix Classics is its creepy cover photo, which makes the No Limit general look only a few years older than his 13-year-old, similarly inessential son (see Least Essential Soundtrack To A Television Show Starring A Second-Generation Hack). So, is P's cherubic, suspiciously unlined baby-face the result of a few too many Botox treatments, or airbrushing gone awry? Or has the man who made a generation say "Uhhhhhhhhhhh!" discovered the fountain of youth and returned to early adolescence? Only Master P and God know for sure, but there's no denying that Remix Classics—on which a series of no-name producers re-work a series of non-classic Master P tracks—is the most screamingly inessential remix album since the 2003 posthumous 2Pac joint Nu-Mixx Klazzics.
Candy Dulfer, Candy Dulfer: Live At Montreux 2002
Candy Dulfer titled her 1991 debut album Saxuality, which pretty much sums up everything anyone needs to know about her. A proficient Dutch saxophonist who rarely challenges herself, Dulfer specializes in lite-jazz with a dusting of R&B elements. She looks good playing it, and her career has always been as much about the look as the playing. A Prince endorsement gave her a career in the early '90s; a decade on, the novelty has worn off. Her sound doesn't need to be captured on a live album, but here's Live At Montreux 2002 anyway. (The title is somewhat deceptive, since five of its 12 tracks come from a '98 set.) Dulfer includes a song called "Longin' For The Funk" that's all-too-appropriately titled: Anyone longin' for the funk will be left longin'.
Institute, Distort Yourself
Hey, is that a turgid, grunge-inspired guitar riff paired with bleating vocals and nonsense lyrics? Wait, is it still 1996? No? Then why does this still exist? Some questions may never be answered, but that didn't stop Interscope from squeezing forth Distort Yourself by Institute, Gavin Rossdale's post-Bush band. It sounds a lot like, well, Bush. And that weren't an unfortunate-enough flashback to the mid-'90s, there's also a song called "When Animals Attack." And what do you need when animals attack, Gavin Rossdale? "When animals attack / you need fire." If you don't feel like buying the album, just smoke two packs of cigarettes and sing that couplet at the top of your lungs while listening to Superunknown.
Crazy Frog, Presents Crazy Hits
A massive hit in England—the country that brought the world Jive Bunny, remember—Crazy Frog's version of "Axel F" (better known as the Beverly Hills Cop theme, which every seventh-grader with a home synth was playing in 1984) stopped Coldplay's "Speed Of Sound" from hitting number one in the UK. The song was originally a cell-phone ringtone, but the annoying little amphibian took on a life of its own with Crazy Hits, managing to make the most easily digestible dance crap from years past even more radio-friendly. Original version of "Who Let The Dogs Out?" too street for you? Let Crazy Frog make everything all right.
Herbie Hancock, Possibilities
This is another hotly contested category. Hancock almost lost out to Chris Botti's To Love Again, in which Sting, Paula Cole, Jill Scott, and others join in on Botti's Chet Baker-without-balls routine. (Worst moment: Steven Tyler croaking his way through "Smile" in what sounds like Take 27 of an extremely long session.) But Hancock has the edge because a) He has more talent to squander, and b) The results are, if possible, blander than Botti. Neither Hancock nor Paul Simon sounds fully awake on "I Do It For Your Love." Annie Lennox stops by for the all-too-well-named Paula Cole song "Hush, Hush, Hush." (No, really: hush!) And could that really be Joss Stone and Jonny Lang covering "When Love Comes To Town"? Was somebody filming a Gap commercial nearby? And, hey, it's Sting again! Zzzzzz…
Hilary Duff, Most Wanted
The CD booklet to this greatest-hits-style collection features a page dedicated to the "Hilary Duff Catalog," which lines up five albums. That's enough for a hits collection, surely. But take a closer look: Those five include Duff's two proper albums (Metamorphosis and Hilary Duff) next to A Cinderella Story's soundtrack (represented on Most Wanted by two tracks), Santa Claus Lane (not represented) and something called Hilary Duff: Artist Karaoke Series (also not represented). (Insert your own joke about that last one being Duff's best effort.) Most Wanted does contain some new tracks, as well as a handful of 2005 remixes. Because those tracks from 2004 badly needed to be brought up to date.
And without further ado, it's the…
t.A.T.u., Dangerous And Moving
What's less essential than a pre-packaged Russian pop act with a lipstick-lesbian shtick? A pre-packaged Russian pop act that's dropped the lipstick-lesbian shtick. Look at you, t.A.T.u. You're all grown up now and not kissing each other on television every five minutes any more. So, um, you've got another album out, huh? And it's got songs about outer space? Uh huh. And there's a song in Russian? Cool. And there are a couple of sexually ambiguous lyrics on it? Oh. Well, would you look at the time. It's 2005, and we—the listening public—have somewhere else to be.