A couple of years ago I began offering a brief roundup of the new releases of a given week on social media, framing the recommendations as albums I enjoyed. It's not a perfect system. "Enjoyed" is a phrase that's slightly fuzzy, one that doesn't convey the depth of passion for a given album. Weekly updates are also tied to the vagaries of the week, the length of the list fluctuating according to release schedules, assignments and life itself. A recap also is a snapshot of a moment; my opinions may change or fade over time. Invariably, my list will not include worthwhile or noteworthy albums from a given week but the absence of a mention doesn't necessarily mean I haven't heard a record: it's also possible that I heard it and didn't like it much, or maybe I heard it and, for a variety of reasons, didn't find it particularly enjoyable.
Enjoyment may not be the best metric for rating artwork. It's possible to enjoy bad albums and not enjoy good ones, for one, plus it could be reasonably argued that edification and enlightenment are loftier, richer emotions to seek from art. Transcendence is rare, so I settled for enjoyment—a term malleable enough to cover both deep and shallow pleasures.
Inevitably, this framing raises the question of "what albums do you not enjoy," a question I have a difficult time answering for the same reason that I can't always respond to "what's the best thing you heard lately": there are too many variables at play to provide an easy answer. Wretched albums by country rapper Upchurch tend to leave my consciousness quite quickly but I'll remember that I couldn't get through Maria McKee's La Vita Nuova, either because it unsettled me or I didn't care for it at all. Given time and inclination, I'd return to McKee to see if I missed something there, but I have no need to spend more time with any Upchurch album because what's there lies entirely on the surface. He makes bad albums but they don't bother me.
Good albums can bother me too. The one that leaps to mind is I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, last year's Morrissey record. He's become personally and politically odious, to the extent that the quality of I Am Not A Dog almost feels like a middle finger to longtime fans; now that they've parted ways, he's starting to make interesting music again. That's a dynamic I find interesting, particularly when compared to the psychodrama surrounding the return of Ryan Adams; the singer/songwriter doesn't deserve any oxygen for his attempted comeback, plus Wednesdays is a snooze.
Neither I Am Not A Dog or Wednesdays are on this list of 2020 albums that stuck in my craw, nor are any albums from Upchurch, for that matter, or Nathaniel Rateliff’s And It’s Still Alright, which I really disliked but said my piece in a Pitchfork review upon its February release. What follows are records that disappointed, baffled or irritated me, records that are connected by the fact that they're memorable in the ways they were weird or came up short. Odds are you'll disagree with one or more of the titles that follow but that's all a matter of taste.
Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex
Hal Willner started work on Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T. Rex years ago—it was mentioned in a 2017 New York Times profile of the record producer—and completed it in 2019 but agreed to postpone its release so its appearance could coincide with T. Rex's long overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Come the summer of 2020, Angelheaded Hipster finally hit the stores but Willner was no longer alive, one the nearly 400,000 Americans dead of the COVID-19 coronavirus (T. Rex's official RRHOF induction didn't happen until later in 2020). Willner's death naturally turns Angelheaded Hipster into something of an epitaph for the producer, a heavy task for any album but one this double-disc is ill-equipped to handle. Blame it partially on boppin' Bolan himself. A mercurial musician who traveled the slipstream separating heavens and earth, Bolan's pleasures are inherently tied to his performance. The way his voice quivers, it often seemed as if he was unsure whether he wanted to ascend to the stars or wallow in the gutter. That ambivalence is essential to his appeal, glossing over the gaps and repetition in his songwriting. Willner chose to focus on Bolan the composer, then assembled a cast of characters who interpreted the T. Rex song without much humor and certainly not a hint of sex. The pedigree of the musicians involved means Angelheaded Hipster is listenable and occasionally interesting—I am partial to the gonzo cabaret of Todd Rundgren's version of "Planet Queen," maybe because he's about the only person who seizes upon Bolan's ridiculousness—but as a collective work it's a slog, delivering no easy action or solid gold.
Emma Swift—Blonde On The Tracks
Emma Swift is blessed with the gift of good taste, a gift showcased on her Bob Dylan covers album Blonde On The Tracks. Look at the album title for proof. It's a gentle nod toward the names of two of Dylan's classic LPs, a knowing pun that lets listeners know what lies within the grooves: respectful, loving versions of songs she and the audience know by heart. Swift sings sweet and clean, supported by a sympathetic group that's essentially Robyn Hitchcock's modern-day backing band. Hitchcock's crew steers the arrangements toward unadorned folk-rock that's just this side of traditional, a combination that suits Swift's crisp singing, so Blonde On Tracks flows smooth and easy. So why does the album annoy me so much that I can't get past a single track at a time? Best that I can tell is that it's either because it's too close to some ill-defined fan service—a stylishly retro record designed to show how soulless the modern world is—or because Swift sings "I Contain Multitudes" as if it contains profundities not one-liners. There's no humor, no jagged edges here, there's nothing but straight lines and respect, a blend that will certainly hit somebody's sweet spot but, alas, not mine.
Jeremy Renner—Live for Now
If anything is low-hanging fruit in terms of pop music criticism, it's albums by celebrities. They're punchlines in waiting, but the thing about Live For Now—the second of two EPs Jeremy Renner released in 2020—is that it's not so much funny as it is weird, blending an earnest attempt to mine emotion from Imagine Dragons ballads with dance-rock bangers. It's the party tunes that distinguish Live For Now from its moody predecessor The Medicine but they're also the strangest numbers here: "Just My Type," an anthem for divorced dads ready to disco, and the reggae sunsplash "Sippy Cup," which strains at hedonism but is restrained by the fact that Renner is swilling booze through a cup made for babies.
Old Dominion—Old Dominion Meow Mix
Old Dominion decided to pass the time in 2020 by re-recording the vocal tracks for their (pretty good!) eponymous 2019 album, swapping out the original lyrics for a chorus of "meows" sung by the band, not felines. The idea is so perverse, I wish I actually enjoyed listening to the record. By the time the opening "Make It Sweet" arrives at its first chorus, the joke has lost its potency and there are another eleven cuts to go. I pride myself at being able to sit through nearly any album but I never managed to finish this one.
Jason Mraz—Look For The Good
Just when I thought I came to terms with Jason Mraz's cornball crooning, he goes and delivers this sugarbomb: a dose of candy-coated sunshine, a record where he's riffing on inspirational slogans as he grooves to a reggae beat. Good intentions count for something in dark times, I suppose, but Look For The Good's mellow bliss sounded exceptionally grating in the midst of 2020.
Johnny Cash & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Middle of the road audiences in the U.K. adore these Royal Philharmonic Orchestra albums where the estates of rock & roll legends consent to have original recordings sweetened with strings. Elvis Presley opened up the market by topping the charts with If I Can Dream in 2015, proving there were buyers for these garish, clueless records and a deluge followed: another Presley, Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and now Johnny Cash. This is one of the worst of the lot because Cash didn't really sing pop, he sang folk and country tunes, usually supported by a band with an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. This inherent quirky sense of time is flattened as part of a production that smooths over any sense of grain, winding up with a dumbed-down easy listening record—not an appealingly kitsch artifact from the 1960s, rather a relic from the 1970s that refused to acknowledge the onset of soft-rock. Cash's voice strains against the stifling, stuffy strings, the echoes of his humanity underscoring how boring and tasteless this Royal Philharmonic Orchestra formula is.
Seth MacFarlane—Great Songs From The Stage & Screen
I used to be disgusted by Seth MacFarlane's Sinatra cosplay but now I try to be amused. Six albums deep into his career and he's not bothering to change his formula, nor is he taking much effort to develop any idiosyncrasies in his delivery. To his credit, he knows this material so well, he can create an album that relies not on shopworn standards but a unifying concept worthy of the Chairman himself, so Great Songs From The Stage & Screen has a wit and purpose lacking in MacFarlane's earliest records. That's all well and good but a few tracks in, it's hard to resist the urge to swap this out for some Sinatra instead.
With a notable exception or two, such as the late MF DOOM, I have difficulty taking anybody who stylizes their name to all caps seriously. (I blame it on one too many press releases that stressed DAUGHTRY was a band, not a singer.) HARDY doubles down on this absurdity by not only titling his debut A ROCK, but having every one of its songs scream in all caps, all under the assumption that "UNAPOLOGETICALLY COUNTRY AS HELL" will seem tough, or something. Underneath all those loud—but clean—guitars and thumping rhythms, he seems like an insecure kid who's afraid that his cool friends in Florida Georgia Line will discover he's a ninny underneath his longhair and tattoos.
Granger Smith—Country Things
Most of Country Things—released initially as two EPs, then combined as a single full-length at the end of the year—is fairly pedestrian, fairly unobjectionable modern country, delivered with a smile that's ingratiating, not incandescent. The album only becomes memorable when Granger Smith duets with his cornpone alter ego Earl Dibbles Jr., a comic persona that frees him to indulge in his goofy side—an affectation that would be appealing it wasn't so damn stupid. Case in point, "Country & Ya Know It," whose chorus is a beery interpolation of the childhood classic "If You're Happy and You Know It," a send-up that plays like a prank, not a joke, and it seems that the target is any listener who takes Country Things for a spin.
Colter Wall—Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
Colter Wall mostly delivers upon his titular promise--he sure could've used a few more punchy songs—so give him some points for truth in advertising. Too bad Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs rolls forward with a momentum that mirrors its overly-literal title, a pace that suits Wall's stoic mid-century country & western but winds up accentuating his monochromatic sense of imagination. I'd be more forgiving of the muffled greyscale if his plaintive warble didn't hit my ear at precisely the wrong angle, causing a dissonance that makes me yearn for cowboys who sing without a trace of affect.
Bon Jovi—Bon Jovi 2020
Bon Jovi planned to call their 2020 album Bon Jovi 2020 long before 2020 became something of a curse. They had the good sense to postpone its release from the spring to the fall of 2020, a delay that gave Jon Bon Jovi time to rework the record so it could explicitly address such societal hardships as the pandemic and the rise of Black Lives Matter. As always, JBJ isn't exactly subtle: "American Reckoning" begins with "America's on fire/There's protests in the streets," then proceeds to hammer home its point. Sober subjects apparently require sober music, so Bon Jovi strips away anything resembling hooks, riffs and melody, which leaves Bon Jovi 2020 as a grey mass of fist pumps and laments, an album that says more about the band than it does the year.