Giant plastic nativity scenes in the neighbors' front yard. Airings of Jingle All The Way on bottom-feeding basic-cable stations. The return of Lexus commercials in which unspeakably rich families playfully surprise their loved ones with giant-bow-adorned luxury cars. All that merriment and holiday tradition can only mean one thing: the return of The Onion A.V. Club's Least Essential Albums list, highlighting a year's worth of music that no one could or should possibly want. As always, "Least Essential" refers not to the worst music (not that this is the cream of the crop), but to the recordings with the flimsiest reasons to exist. Every winner must have been released nationally, and each year's thousands of insignificant soundtracks and small-scale tribute albums are generally exempt, with one notable exception to follow. Readers' suggested additions or subtractions are always welcome, so send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
LEAST ESSENTIAL IMAGE MAKEOVER
0304 (Buy It!)
"We are getting tan in America / We love Spam in America / Polanski's banned from America." "U pierce me like an arrow / beneath the blanket of night." "U and M-E spells L-O-V-E 2 me." It's no surprise that those lyrics emanated from snaggle-toothed songstress Jewel in 2003. But what if she sang them to third-generation Britney beats? That's no crazy alternate-universe scenario: It really happened with Jewel's 0304. Remember? The single had that video where she was, like, dancing or something.
LEAST ESSENTIAL VANITY PROJECT
Russell Crowe & 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts
Other Ways Of Speaking (Buy It!)
Everyone knows 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts as the band Stewart Kirwan and Billy Dean Cochran are in. But the mediocre outfit with the terrible name also boasts a brawling, womanizing frontman named Russell Crowe, a gifted actor and incredibly irritating celebrity. On Other Ways Of Speaking, Crowe puts the "painful" in painfully earnest with a forgettable collection of barroom rock that would be widely and justly ignored if it were released by anybody other than an international movie star. For a guy who epitomizes machismo onscreen, Crowe proves to be a phenomenally wussy singer-songwriter.
LEAST ESSENTIAL ALBUM BY A PRO WRESTLER
Macho Man Randy Savage
Be A Man (Buy It!)
In 1995, when Hulk Hogan released the album Hulk Rules, those who noticed its existence wondered why the star of Mr. Nanny had waited so long to record a CD cashing in on his fame. Now, wrestling icon Macho Man Randy Savage–Macho Man Randy Savage!–has an album of his own, on which he raps, settles old scores, and spews hip-hop clichés that have been around even longer than he has. Oh, and on "Be A Man," he issues a vicious lyrical beatdown to none other than Hulk Hogan: "Used to be hard, Hulk / Now you done turned soft / Doin' telephone commercials, I seen ya / dancin' in tights as a ballerina / I knew all along you had those tendencies / 'Cause you been runnin' from Macho like I got a disease." Jay-Z vs. Nas, this ain't.
LEAST ESSENTIAL CONCEPT ALBUM
The Raven (Buy It!)
Back in January, Lou Reed released a two-disc Edgar Allan Poe tribute, featuring songs and sketches loosely reinterpreting Poe's stories and poems. Somehow, this also involved pairing new versions of Reed's old songs with Reed's own verses alongside Poe's. Deep within a Baltimore cemetery, tourists reported hearing a creaky voice saying, "No, thanks."
LEAST ESSENTIAL COTTAGE INDUSTRY
In The Chamber W-Mudvayne: The String Quartet Tribute (Buy It!)
There are music-industry bottom-feeders, and then there's the subsection of the industry devoted to shitting out "string tributes" to 311, Coldplay, Linkin Park, AC/DC, Alanis Morissette, The Smiths, Evanescence, Staind, and virtually every other recording artist who has ever been popular at any time. The secret to these albums' success seems to be the gullibility of completists, or maybe the desperation of fans who need to get their hands on something bearing Evanescence's name, even if Best Buy is all sold out of Fallen. It should be noted, for fairness' sake, that listening to In The Chamber W-Mudvayne is vastly preferable to listening to Mudvayne itself.
LEAST ESSENTIAL DELUXE REISSUE
Readymades And Then Some (Buy It!)
If string tributes represent the music industry's Least Essential Cottage Industry, its Least Essential Trend has to be labels' sudden insistence on reissuing year-old albums with bonus discs and DVDs. From The Thorns' appealing new acoustic bonus session to the sumptuous cavalcade of extras on The Flaming Lips' expanded edition of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, it's nice to get extra material when the album itself warrants it. But in an era when the music industry is looking to reward fans loyal enough to pay for music they might otherwise get for free, expecting them to buy the same records twice within a year or two isn't exactly providing an incentive. As for Chumbawamba's Readymades And Then Some, it's actually a pretty good album–the bonus DVD's Flaming Lips remix of "Tubthumping" is especially worthy–but did anyone ask for this? Imagine being one of the handful of people to buy an original pressing of Readymades, only to be punished with a preferable version months later.
LEAST ESSENTIAL ALBUM WITH "ESSENTIAL" IN THE TITLE
The Essential Stabbing Westward (Buy It!)
Last year's Least Essential "Essential" Collection, The Essential Kenny Loggins, actually includes a few highlights–"I'm Alright," for example. But Stabbing Westward?! A hilariously overwrought, poisonously angst-ridden hybrid of Alice In Chains and Nine Inch Nails that's remembered about as fondly as, say, Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward might warrant a career-overview compilation for the sake of someone longing to relive a tragic and pimply mid-'90s adolescence. But a disc that assembles the best-known moments from the band's first three albums and calls them "essential"? Please.
LEAST ESSENTIAL ALBUM WITH "CLASSIC" IN THE TITLE
Classic Masters (Buy It!)
Oh, sure. Classic Masters has "The Streak." But does it have "Osama-Yo' Mama"? Didn't think so. Some classic.
LEAST ESSENTIAL SOLO ALBUM (BOY-BAND DIVISION)
Second Face (Buy It!)
Quick: Name all five New Kids On The Block. There was, uh, Donnie, Joey… Jordan… Um… Marky Mark doesn't count… Uh… Jim? Jon! Wonder what that guy's doing? Oh, there was one more, wasn't there? Let's see… Danny Wood! Wood actually put out a CD in 2003, and while it's a mostly serviceable assortment of pop-rock, it earns Least Essential status (beating out SoulO, the solo debut of 98 Degrees pinup and Jessica Simpson mate Nick Lachey) for "Suburbia." Sample line: "While all the mothers are feeding on Prozac / their men just can't wait to cheat / AOL is your only escape / Can you say, 'Dysfunctional family?'" Wait, does that mean that, beneath its whitebread exterior, suburban life hides a dark side? Who knew?
LEAST ESSENTIAL SOLO ALBUM (DEPECHE MODE DIVISION)
Paper Monsters (Buy It!)
In any other year, Martin L. Gore's Counterfeit2 would have this category sewn up. Answering the unasked question of what would happen if John Lennon, David Bowie, Kurt Weill, Nick Cave, and others had cut tracks with a sleepy, late-period Depeche Mode, Counterfeit2 is as pointless a covers album as has ever been assembled. But at least it has a heartbeat. Paper Monsters, the solo debut from Depeche Mode vocalist Dave Gahan, is essentially a CD-length challenge to stay awake as Gahan struggles through 10 original songs, apparently while under heavy sedation.
LEAST ESSENTIAL SOLO ALBUM (SMITHS DIVISION)
Johnny Marr + The Healers
Boomslang (Buy It!)
When The Smiths broke up in 1987, everyone knew that Morrissey would be exposed as a no-talent, and that the full genius of guitarist/songwriter Johnny Marr would be revealed at last. Impressive session work for The Pretenders, Talking Heads, The The, and others fanned the flames. Then the should-have-been-brilliant-but-wasn't Bernard Sumner collaboration happened. Then everyone forgot about Johnny Marr. Then, earlier this year, Marr and his band The Healers released an album that sounded like the lost work of some uninspired early-'90s Stone Roses wannabe. Then everyone forgot about Johnny Marr again.
LEAST ESSENTIAL SOLO ALBUM, PERIOD
Wizard Of The Hood (Buy It!)
What's Insane Clown Posse's Violent J without the antics of partner Shaggy 2 Dope? Sadly, that question has an answer, in the form of Wizard Of The Hood, a pot- and Wizard Of Oz-themed concept album. Amazingly, Violent J wins this category solely on a technicality, as Shaggy 2 Dope's own EP Fuck Off is merely a reissue of a 1994 title.
LEAST ESSENTIAL FEUD
Redemption (Buy It!)
Hip-hop's most transparent villain since Suge Knight, Benzino constantly uses his co-ownership of The Source to flog his moribund recording career. It hasn't worked, though it has succeeded in irrevocably damaging the substance-impaired magazine's credibility. With Redemption, Benzino resorts to a new, equally sleazy tactic to avoid the cut-out bin: picking a fight with Eminem. On "Pull Your Skirt Up," Benzino chastises Eminem for not being a gangsta, insists that the popular rapper and movie star owes his career to his appearance in The Source's "Unsigned Hype" column, and reaches out to 50 Cent, who shockingly chose to take Eminem's side in the squabble. Eminem has answered back with dis tracks, but by attacking the walking punchline, he's only feeding into the stubborn delusion that Benzino still has a career worth destroying.
LEAST ESSENTIAL TRIBUTE ALBUM
The Acoustic Coffee House Presents: A Female Tribute To Creed (Buy It!)
As someone named Bill Lefler strums away on an acoustic guitar with the care and cautious tempo of a first-year student, a parade of emotion-drained, seemingly identical singers with names like "Marmalade" and "Susannah B" work their way through the Creed catalog. Believe it or not, "With Arms Wide Open" and "Higher" can sound worse than they already do.
LEAST ESSENTIAL PROLONGED ADOLESCENCE
David Lee Roth
Diamond Dave (Buy It!)
No one has ever accused David Lee Roth of aging gracefully: Now a mere two years shy of 50, he continues to behave like an ADD-addled teenager. Roth's first album in five years, Diamond Dave, finds the former Van Halen frontman offering hardcore fans bar mitzvah-level covers of songs by The Doors, Steve Miller, Jimi Hendrix, and others. Ever wonder what a Roth version of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" would sound like? No? That hasn't kept him from covering the song as "That Beatles Tune." Roth wrote or co-wrote only two songs here, apart from a strange interlude ("Act One") which consists mostly of Roth making goofy noises and cracking himself up.
LEAST ESSENTIAL 2PACSPLOITATION
Nu-Mixx Klazzics (Buy It!)
What could be less essential than yet another posthumous 2Pac release? How about a 10-track remix album containing forgettable "new" versions of songs every 2Pac fan already owns? But while a remix album by the most exploited dead man this side of Elvis is questionable enough, Nu-Mixx Klazzics adds an extra level of inessentiality by handing 2Pac tracks not to top producers, but to a team of anonymous hacks called "Tha Row Hitters," who apparently produced the album with Suge Knight. Yes, apparently Knight spent all those years in jail studying music composition so he wouldn't have to rely on big-name producers, with their "talent" and "credibility" and foolish insistence on "keeping some of the money they've earned" and "not being viciously beaten or killed." Fans of rapper Crooked I will be pleased to note, however, that the Nu-Mixx of "Amerikaz Most Wanted" now features the Row-friendly rapper instead of Snoop Dogg, the no-name scrub who graced the original.
LEAST ESSENTIAL BARRISPLOITATION
Chuck Barris & The Hollywood Cowboys
Confessions Of A Dangerous Singer (Buy It!)
Self-deprecating game-show legend Chuck Barris has characterized himself as a jack of all trades, master of none, and never has that description seemed more unflinchingly honest than on Confessions Of A Dangerous Singer, the gong-worthy debut album from the former CIA assassin. With a thin, weak voice best left in the shower, Barris ambles through American music history, contributing covers of "Mr. Sandman," "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," "Old Mother Trucker," and "On The Sunny Side Of The Street," as well an anticlimactic version of his sole hit as a songwriter, "Palisades Park." Confessions Of A Dangerous Singer never professes to be anything other than a self-indulgent vanity project from an amiable guy enjoying an unexpected return to the spotlight. But that doesn't make it any less staggeringly inessential.
LEAST ESSENTIAL ALBUM OF 2002
Phunk Shui (Buy It!)
During the mad rush to get Least Essential Albums to press last December, The Onion A.V. Club incorrectly listed A*Teens' Pop 'Til You Drop! as the year's Least Essential Album, largely due to the disc's inclusion of a sanitized, bubblegum rendition of Alice Cooper's "School's Out." ("School's been blown to pieces" became "I'm bored to pieces.") The award for Least Essential Album should have instead gone to the inexplicably omitted Phunk Shui, the solo debut by the once-mustachioed half of Hall & Oates. Fortunately, Oates' limp funk-pop exercise, which includes both a daring anti-racism anthem ("Color Of Love") and a jaw-droppingly insipid cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland," was reissued (!) in 2003, complete with bonus tracks. It's as if Oates himself had reached out to The Onion A.V. Club, patted each member gently on the shoulder, and said, "There, there. Here. I'll put it out again in 2003, and it'll be all better." And it was so. Thank you, John Oates. Thank you.
LEAST ESSENTIAL ALBUM OF 2003
N.E.W.S. (Buy It!)
There was a time when Prince's every eccentric move was extensively documented, from his name changes to label battles that culminated in him scrawling the word "SLAVE" on his face to document the harrowing plight of internationally beloved multimillionaire pop superstars. Now, he's been reduced to a puzzling obscurity, as he self-releases a string of increasingly indulgent vanity projects to a tiny circle of loyalists. (Today, it's easier to find any of The String Cheese Incident's dozens of live albums than it is to track down a new studio album by Prince.) Remember when The Artist's "emancipation" from his record label meant fans would finally have the chance to crack open his mythical vault–which many assumed would contain 15 or 20 long-suppressed equivalents of Sign O' The Times or The Black Album? Instead, in 2003, they have the chance to almost unanimously ignore N.E.W.S., which contains four dull, 14-minute jazz-funk instrumental odysseys: "North," "East," "West," and "South." N.E.W.S., get it? The result is uncompromising, to be sure, but rarely has a once-great musician sounded so uncompromising and so inessential at the same time.