The record I was most disappointed by in 2015 was Demi Lovato’s Confident. Lovato is extremely charming and also admirable, but her last few albums have been hit and miss. I first heard her music back in 2009, when she was part of Disney’s market segmentation strategy (Selena Gomez was going to be the baby Karen O for tween hipsters, while Lovato was aimed towards fledgeling emo demographic). She released two excellent albums in this vein (probably the best example of emo-Demi is “Remember December“) before addiction and mental health problems derailed her career. Since then, I think she’s struggled to find a musical identity. Her obvious vocal ability combined, I guess, with the emotional narrative that’s more-or-less unavoidable when celebrity journalism forces you to live a breakdown in public, has led her sing a lot of big ballads (of which the best is still “Skyscraper“), but she’s also made the decision to pursue a more pop direction, with mixed results. The two great lead singles from Confident suggested she’d finally nailed the pop side of her career; unfortunately, the rest of the album consists of some of the worst ballads she’s ever recorded, with slick songwriting and production that is desperately aiming for Sia and ends up overwhelming the emotion Lovato is capable of portraying.
I’d also got my hopes up for the Wonder Girls album on the strength of a great lead single. “I Feel You” captures perfectly the precise synthesis of disco that was behind the best Stock, Aitken and Waterman songs, the ones shot through with unexpected melancholy. As if to prove how ephemeral this style is, the rest of Wonder Girls’ most recent album is made up of attempts at repeating the same formula which fail to capture that very specific emotional texture (though “Candle” comes closer than the rest of the album). f(x) also had a great lead single followed up by a disappointing album, although f(x)’s album also doesn’t have the stylistic cohesion Wonder Girls were going for.
With Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself,” I had the weird experience of identifying elements of the song that I ought to love (the glockenspiely sounds, the bass/drum rumble in the chorus), in a song that I ended up merely liking. Maybe it’s the way Steinfeld emphasises how the words fit the beat in the verse? I always find that annoying. The EP that followed up “Love Myself,” though, was disappointing in a more straightforward way, i.e., quite boring. Another EP I thought was a bit disappointing was Welcome to Cam Country; nothing else their matches up to the haunting single, “Burning House.”
I was obviously very excited about the return of Daphne and Celeste, but after repeated listens when it came out, and more repeated listens just now to check, this isn’t very good. Daphne and Celeste themselves give a pretty decent performance, but there’s nothing really for them to work with in the tiresome lyrics and dull song structure. I was also very much looking forward to Little Boots’s new album, as her previous, Nocturnes was one of my favourite records of 2013. Compared to that record, Working Girl is a bit of a disappointment; many of the tracks take the understated dance of Nocturnes and state it even less, and the effect is a little underwhelming. “Real Girl” is very good though.
I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, because I haven’t liked his previous records, but I am kind of disappointed in my own failure to “get” it. But I don’t get it. Lamar doesn’t seem to have anything particularly distinctive to say, and he doesn’t say it with inventive metaphors or striking word arrangements; and his performance seems very uncharismatic, there’s no variation in pace or tone. To Pimp a Butterfly was the most boring record I heard all year. And yet, so many people who know what they’re talking about rate Lamar, there must be something there; whatever it is, I’m missing it.
To round up this review of disappointment, Justin Bieber. Believe was very good, Journals had few decent tracks on it, and the singles leading up to Purpose were also great; then the album itself was utterly dull. And I’ve gone off “Where are ü Now?” which was annoying anyway because of the false narrative that got a lot of music writers to take it seriously. (Who knew Bieber could make good dance records? Anyone who’d heard his last album. Who knew Skrillex could do subtle? Anyone who’d heard his first EP.) The Jack Ü album was also a disappointment (well, it was a disappointing compared to Skrillex’s previous work; I wasn’t expecting much from Diplo), with the only worthwhile track being “With Ü” (which is also AlunaGeorge’s best song since “White Noise”).
Next week: records I underrated this year.