Each year, The A.V. Club scours the depths of our music slush pile in the quest for the least essential albums of the year. Though we wouldn’t call any of this music “good,” our goal isn’t to find the worst the year had to offer, but rather the music that had the absolute least real justification for its existence, from celebrity vanity projects to shameless label cash-ins. This year, we found a crop so bountiful that we wound up rejecting albums that might have made it in another year. (You know what’s pretty unobjectionable? An album by Law & Order’s Jill Hennessey.) So enjoy, if you dare, the 2009 music that didn’t have to, and should not, come into being.
Least essential remix album: grave-desecration division
Johnny Cash Remixed
Dropping sampled Johnny Cash phrases into hip-hop tracks? Not such a bad idea. Smothering old Johnny Cash songs in electronic beats and freestyle raps? Now that’s a terrible, terrible idea. There isn’t much to like about the Snoop Dogg-produced Johnny Cash Remixed, except on the rare occasions when an artist finds a strong intersecting point between Cash’s music and modern club fare—as on Philip Steir’s beat-crazy version of “Get Rhythm.” Most often, the artists just take original Cash numbers and scribble all over them. The worst offender may be Snoop himself, whose take on “I Walk The Line” begins with him muttering, “Yeah… Johnny Cash… remix… walk the line’” over a beat before turning the song back over to Cash with a magnanimous, “Hey yo, Johnny, talk to ’em for a minute.” Because that’s what a legend is good for, right? To fill some time until Snoop Dogg has properly cleared his throat?
Long before you could be online friends with your favorite pop stars and have access to voice mailboxes only their publicists check, MTV Unplugged played a major role in the demystification of pop music. Nirvana’s legendary 1993 episode somehow revealed deeper emotional turmoil than In Utero; two years earlier, Mariah Carey’s episode proved that the previously stage-frightened performer was an actual human being capable of climbing the multi-octave heights of “Emotions.” So while it fits with our current era of all-access superstars, it was still an odd choice to peg the launch of the program’s third iteration on Katy Perry, a singer-songwriter who’s spent much of the last 18 months being as coy as a chainsaw. These acoustic takes on unsubtle jams like “I Kissed A Girl” and “Ur So Gay” don’t reveal as much about the ubiquitous pop tart as they do about the hook surgeons that helped her craft One Of The Boys. (Unlike Carey, she’s pretty much dependent on processed vocals. Who knew?) “I Kissed A Girl” is versatile enough to be bent into a cabaret number—but it’s no surprise when Perry leads the band back into the song’s sledgehammered 4/4 stomp-shuffle.
Least essential comeback by the most obnoxiously awful and sort of Christian-y hard-rock band of the last 20 years
For the past several years, writers have used Nickelback references as lazy shorthand to describe something so terrible that it makes clowns cry and Satan’s minions cackle with delight. (For example, “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons might be an overt threat to American national security, but it’s still no Silver Side Up.”) But whenever people talk about hating Nickelback, they’re really talking about hating Creed, the undisputed king of warmed-over histrionic grunge rock, whose seemingly endless dominance of modern-rock radio was relatively brief in retrospect, lasting only from 1997’s My Own Prison through 2001’s self-explanatory Weathered. When Creed announced its breakup in 2004, it looked like another shitty, wrongfully popular band would be swept into the dustbin of history. But as countless slasher films have taught us, evil doesn’t die easy, and after spending five years in the wilderness making Alter Bridge albums and depressing sex tapes, the members of Creed reconvened for the anachronistic Full Circle, an album based on the questionable premise that rock ’n’ roll peaked when Live and Seven Mary Three were dueling it out on the charts. Of course, Full Circle’s lack of musical relevancy didn’t prevent it from debuting near the top of the Billboard chart. Sucking has always been good for Creed’s business, so why change things up now?
Least essential celebrity vanity album (and that’s really saying something)
Calling Billy Bob Thornton’s band a vanity project doesn’t do justice to the incredible ego involved in this enterprise. Modbilly is The Boxmasters’ third release in two years, and the band’s second double CD. This means that Thornton, a great actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter, decided once again that he had so much great material, he had to release all of it. Like Michael Jordan, Thornton thought that his greatness at one thing meant he’d be great at whatever he tried, but his mediocre drumming and “I’m pushing out a turd” vocal style proved him similarly wrong. Modbilly settles into the opposite of a groove, with familiar countrified chord progressions, boring solos, twangy steel guitar, and basically no reason to exist at all.
Least essential album of music that parents think is cool, dumbed-down for their kids
Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions Of Guns N’ Roses
Amazingly, these are not just downloaded MIDI files fed into GarageBand. Someone actually sat down and recorded neutered versions of “Welcome To The Jungle” and 11 other GNR tunes with “soothing mellotrons, vibraphones and bells.” As bad as that sounds on paper, listening to Lullaby Renditions Of Guns N’ Roses is much, much worse. Stripped of bass, drums, lyrics, and balls, “Paradise City” is a repetitive mess. And if your children do manage to doze off while enduring these ill-conceived kiddie tunes, they’ll probably be awakened by the randomly inserted animal sounds, usually percussive frog noises. The big question raised by this album—“Why?”—is harder to answer than any insistent toddler query. (Though for what it’s worth, Lullaby has significantly more plays on LaLa.com than The Boxmasters’ Modbilly.)
Least essential album by a celebrity who doesn’t actually appear on it
Bill Cosby Presents The Cosnarati: State Of Emergency
Bill Cosby understands that the next generation of American kids is in trouble, and he has the solution: The only thing young criminal thugs need in order to turn their depressing lives around is a good rapping-to. So Cosby gathered up some unknown, not particularly talented rappers and set them forth on a mission—to bring some real truth to the kids via the hippin’ and the hoppin’ and the bippin’ and the boppin’. Bill Cosby Presents The Cosnarati: State Of Emergency is so hopelessly out of touch and silly that it’s sure to inspire more poor youth to lives of crime than actually help them. Because what kind of kid wants to be associated with a song as rank as “Daddy’s Behind The Glass”? It’s the kind of thing most kids will laugh at, like Reefer Madness or the TV movie The Drug Knot. Sadly, Cosby doesn’t actually appear on the disc. He just “presents” it, presumably injecting his solid family values into the big picture. It’s probably more fun to get high to “Hikky-Burr,” Cosby’s 1969 jam with Quincy Jones.
Least essential act of generational grave robbery
Nat “King” Cole
The first time Natalie Cole exhumed her father’s corpse to further her own career was in 1991, when she sang a “duet” with him on “Unforgettable,” in spite of his permanent residence at Forest Lawn. Back then, she spoke of her exploitative act as a loving tribute to her late, legendary dad; 18 years later, she explained her decision to allow a bunch of singers, DJs, and record producers to go to town on a chunk of his classics as a “fun, crazy idea.” No doubt in 2015, when she goes on tour with his reanimated body, she’ll just shrug and say that limo drivers don’t pay for themselves. Re:Generations allows a collection of highly respectful ghouls, ranging from Will.i.am to the Brazilian Girls (and in a nice extension of the whole nepotism-from-beyond-the-grave theme, two of Bob Marley’s sons) to screw with the unscrewable. What pushes this beyond good taste and into the heights of inessentialism is that several producers decided to use Auto-Tune on the senior Cole’s voice; apparently they’ve never had the phrase “gilding the lily” explained to them.
Least essential solo album by the least essential Red Hot Chili Pepper
Best known as the on-again, off-again guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante has also had a pretty solid solo career, with 10 albums to date, ranging from the excellent (1994’s Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt) to the extremely inessential (this one). For an album he basically left one of the biggest rock bands in the world to finish, The Empyrean sure doesn’t sound like it required a lot of attention: After a terrific instrumental opening, it degenerates into goofy power-balladry (“After The Ending”), minimalist tunes that sound like bad outtakes from 69 Love Songs (“One More Of Me”), and bizarre concoctions like “Dark/Light” that seem like the results of a strange Phil Collins obsession. Wrap it all in an impenetrable concept-album idea, and you’ve got something ambitious, eclectic, and completely forgettable.
Least essential cash-in on the overwhelming grief for a dead pop star (that wasn’t perpetrated by a member of that pop star’s family)
The Remix Suite
In a shameless grab for all that sweet, sweet dead-Michael Jackson money—which arguably kept the U.S. economy afloat from June through September—we saw everything from framed lithographs to de rigueur commemorative plates to hair diamonds, but everyone knows the real cash is in reissues. Unfortunately, Jackson’s slackened recording output in the years leading up to his death had already forced his management to put out “anniversary editions” and other random collections of flotsam and jetsam—and until Latoya releases those hard drives allegedly containing her brother’s final works, there isn’t much left that hasn’t been heard. So how’s a record company supposed to strike while the grief-iron is hot? Hey, why not hand Jackson’s most beloved songs over to a randomly selected group of producers, house DJs, and hip-hop artists so they can slather them in oonce-oonce beats and tacky synth breaks—enough to fill five separate CDs? Finally, people will be able to dance to Michael Jackson!
Least essential greatest-hits collection that makes a mockery of the very notion of a greatest-hits collection
Playlist: The Very Best Of Clay Aiken
This comes up every year, so apparently it bears repeating: Greatest-hits compilations should be reserved for artists who a) have more than one hit and b) have a catalog so intimidatingly dense that it’s worth collecting said hits for casual fans who aren’t sure they want to make that sort of commitment. And while one might stretch the definition of “a Clay Aiken hit” to include those early, designed-by-committee, post-American Idol releases—and okay, his warmed-over renditions of Christmas carols that float through the mall for a couple weeks at a time—we simply cannot sit idly by and pretend there’s any such thing as a “casual Clay Aiken fan.” They call themselves “Claymates,” for crying out loud, and they are so fucking insanely devoted that many of them still harbor fantasies that he will one day fall in love with them, regardless of their icky girl-parts. It goes without saying that they already have every track on this thing, which takes four songs from each of his three studio albums and adds only one orphaned track, “On The Wings Of Love,” from the American Idol Season 2: All-Time Classic American Love Songs compilation—and not owning that is probably cause for Claymate expulsion, anyway. Perhaps it’s essential to them because many of the songs were “personally selected by Aiken”? Man, where did he find the time?
Least essential rap album by a stand-up comedian
Funny Bidness: Da Album
Funny Bidness opens with a sketch in which a DJ asks actor/comedian Mike Epps about his misbegotten foray into rap. “Do you think you’ll be any good?” she inquires brightly, to which Epps replies, “I don’t give a fuck.” You have to admire Epps’ candor, but the appropriate answer to that question is, “Oh God, no.” It’s never an encouraging sign when a comedy has to trumpet its hilarity in its title, or resorts to comical misspellings. Funny Bidness is appropriately dire, a 17-track, instantly obsolete collection of joyless, tuneless rap songs that will only tickle the funny bones of those who find sour misogyny inherently funny. (Song titles like “I Da Pimp,” “The Bitch Won’t Leave Me Alone,” “Domestic Dispute,” and “I Love The Hoes” give a good indication of Epps’ take on the fairer sex.) Though an animated presence in films and television, Epps proves a perversely uncharismatic rapper who delivers his witless one-liners, punchlines, and cornball song concepts in a sleepy monotone. Funny Bidness is the rare rap album that will have listeners fast-forwarding past the songs to get to the skits—and those are fucking terrible as well.
Least essential entry in a long-running series that doesn’t feature the word “NOW” in the title
Voices: WWE The Music Vol. 9
What could be less necessary than an album of wrestlers singing? How about a collection of wrestlers’ walk-on music? Yet Voices is the ninth collection of themes written by WWE house composer Jim Johnston. A league veteran since the 1980s, Johnston has a way with generating crowd-pumping bangers that sound great against the roar of an audience in the 30 seconds or so needed for the WWE’s slabs of beef to reach the ring. But as an album, Voices offers little but one clangy, repetitive ProTools anthem after another. Even Dice Raw and Punjabi MC do little to break up the grind. It’s the perfect soundtrack to accompany kids injuring themselves while bodyslamming off the couch, but little else.
Least essential album of 2009
In A Different Light
Say you’re Art Alexakis. You had a pretty good run of hit singles in the ’90s, catchy songs that actually stand the test of time in the way a lot of music by your contemporaries doesn’t. Sure, it all fell apart after a while: The hits stopped coming. Your bandmates left. Your run at a major label ended. It happens. So what do you do next? Here’s what you don’t do: Fade gracefully out of the limelight. Last year saw the release of The Vegas Years, a cheesy covers album that would be tough to top for mercenary laziness. (It landed the title of “Least essential covers album, douche-rock division” in last year’s roundup.) And yet Alexakis—now fronting the second version of Everclear since longtime bandmates Craig Montoya and Greg Eklund departed in 2003—has found a way. In A Different Light is another covers album, only this time, Alexakis is covering Everclear songs. Why? Did the originals get lost? Is the new lineup capable of creating versions that will make listeners forget they ever heard “Santa Monica” and “I Will Buy You A New Life” before, and never want to hear the original versions again? It isn’t that In A Different Light—which, to be fair, does feature two new songs—is actively terrible, assuming you don’t already hate Everclear. It just has no compelling reason to exist. 2009 saw the release of a lot of vital, compelling, essential recordings. Consider In A Different Light the soundtrack to the other side of the equation.