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XLR8R's Best of 2012: Underwhelming Releases

Admittedly, we here at XLR8R spend a lot of time focusing on upcoming releases. While we're honestly just trying to spread the word about music we're excited about, we realize that things like news stories, music videos, and MP3 downloads all feed into the hype surrounding records that most people haven't heard yet. It's a tricky business, and one that's only made harder by the fact that many releases simply don't live up to the hype. Frequently, the level of excitement surrounding a forthcoming piece of music is a completely inaccurate indicator of its actual quality, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, a new artist simply fails to live up to their potential. Other times, an established act with a solid pedigree loses the plot and turns in a surprisingly subpar effort. That being said, regardless of the reasons why, when a record fails to live up to the music world's collective expectations, the disappointment is palpable. This list is our attempt to document that phenomenon, as we've put together a list of the 10 releases that left us feeling the most underwhelmed in 2012.

(The XLR8R audience has also been voting for its choices in this category as part of our Best of 2012 Readers Poll, which is still underway. The results will be unveiled next week.)


10. Gatekeeper
Exo
(Hippos in Tanks)

Gatekeeper's Exo was touted as some kind of immersive fantasy world, a 3-D, HD, A/V experience that had to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Granted, the album had some pretty cool bells and whistles tacked on to it, like a "first-person gaming environment" and a custom-made font (once downloaded, you could use it to decipher the codes on the album artwork), but those unusual accoutrements couldn't make up for the fact that the record itself hardly felt cinematic, let alone fantastic. When it finally beamed down from whatever multi-dimensional universe it was conjured in, Exo was undoubtedly heavy on concept, but conspicuously light on tunes. Gatekeeper's music nonetheless offered some interesting retro-futuristic sound effects and nostalgic genre explorations (we enjoyed being able to take a look inside their Brooklyn studio earlier this year, too), but trance synths and industrial drum machines does not a "cerebral spectacle" make. Patric Fallon


9. Lindstrom
Six Cups of Rebel
(Smalltown Supersound)

The only problem with taking chances is that there's risk involved. Obviousness of the statement aside, it's a truism that we were reminded of earlier this year when Lindstrøm branched out from his trance-inducing space-disco roots and released Six Cups of Rebel. A divergent work that had neither the pop-inflected dance of Real Life is No Cool nor the arpeggiated bombast of Where You Go I Go Too, the LP instead dove headfirst into a bloated world of neo-psychedelic folk and retro-prog revivalism. On paper, this might have seemed like a good idea, but in practice, the Norwegian producer fell into many of the same indulgent traps that have marred these kinds of sounds since they first appeared in the '70s. At the heart of the LP's shortcomings was a lack of subtlety and dynamics, an effect exaggerated by abusive multi-tracking. Burdened by their own weight, songs like "De Javu," "Quiet Place to Live," and "Hina" all struggled to find their way across extended durations that often clocked close to 10 minutes. There's definitely something to commend in Lindstrøm's willingness to branch out, but it seems that Lindstrøm's is much better suited for space opera than rock opera—a fact reaffirmed by the recent release of his second (and much stronger) 2012 album, Smallhans. Derek Opperman


8. Brenmar
"Children of the Night"
(Grizzly)

In truth, something like "Children of the Night" was bound to come from Brenmar eventually. The NY-via-Chicago producer has always walked a stylistic tightrope along some potentially treacherous territory, indulging in the more unsophisticated ends of space-age club music while still managing to find an enticing sweet spot on records like last year's excellent Let's Pretend EP. In 2012 though, Brenmar might have lost himself inside the world of cheesy party themes he'd toyed with for so long, and with "Children of the Night' serving as his only original effort for the year, it left a giant smudge on his otherwise impressive production career. Offering an updated take on Kevin Irving's Trax-issued tune from 1987, Brenmar's bouncy underlying production was mediocre at best—the ravey synth leads were particularly questionable—but the real head-scratcher was his decision to place guest vocalist Kaleena Zanders' diva-fied vocals front and center. Lacking the groove of the original, the song's over-the-top lyrics—meaningless phrases about "city lights," "the night calling," and the requisite "children of the night" tagline, all run through an unnecessary amount of quarter-note delay—fell terribly flat. Glenn Jackson


7. Roska
Rinse Presents: Roska 2
(Rinse)

Here at XLR8R, we still have a warm place in our hearts for UK funky. Admittedly, the sound's best days have long since passed, and the fact that we're literally thousands of miles away from the UK has undoubtedly buffered us from many of the genre's inanities, but there will always be something special about those clacking drums and tropical polyrhythms. Without exaggeration, it's safe to say that funky was instrumental in reinvigorating the UK club scene during the late '00s, and Roska was one of the genre's early heroes. Following a series of impressive early singles and EPs, the London producer's 2010 debut LP, Rinse Presents: Roska, was far from perfect, but it at least offered some interesting variations on the funky template, even as the genre was beginning to give way to what would come to be known as bass music. Two years later, Rinse Presents: Roska 2 included no such highlights. While remnants of his inventive drum patterns could still be detected, they were often buried under grating, mid-range synth bleeps, mediocre guest vocalists, and lazy dubstep-isms. Perhaps Roska was making a play for a more commercial audience, or maybe he simply ran out of ways to freshen up his once-distinctive sound. Either way, Rinse Presents: Roska 2 left us wanting, and did little to help alleviate the sneaking suspicion that maybe the time had come to reconsider our passion for UK funky as a wholly nostalgic pursuit. Shawn Reynaldo


6. Scuba
Personality
(Hotflush)

At this point in time, it's no longer news that Scuba has moved on from his dubstep roots. Even when he released the excellent Triangulation in 2010, he was simultaneously exploring alternative sounds and possible futures via his more dancefloor-oriented SCB alias. The years since have brought with them a period of consolidation, with Rose using his Scuba moniker for a new kind of music that with each subsequent release has felt more like the punchline to some elaborate, KLF-style prank. The first in this series was 2011's Adrenalin, an EP whose titular single showed off an unexpected progressive-house-indebted side to the Berlin-based producer. Though distinct from just about everything else in his catalogue, its strangeness was compelling. Personality, the LP that followed in its wake earlier this year, didn't offer the same appeal. Lacking a real sense of subtlety, it was a compilation of different testosterone-fueled riffs on '90s pop-house and big beat. Particularly maddening was the earnestness with which Scuba appeared to be approaching these sounds, as he's the kind of artist who sounds deadly serious doing anything—even seemingly ridiculous things. Given the man's obvious talents in the studio, we're hoping that Personality ultimately represents a tangential experiment rather than a larger trend. Derek Opperman


5. DVA
Pretty Ugly
(Hyperdub)

Although Scratcha DVA has long been regarded as something of an oddball, when it came to his production work, that oddity often translated into a compellingly weird take on UK club sounds. His early singles as DVA were frequently simple affairs, insofar that they were centered around only a handful of elements, but they were teeming with dancefloor potency; more importantly, his seasick melodies and off-kilter drum patterns didn't quite sound like anything—or anyone—else. As such, anticipation was high for Pretty Ugly; his first swipe at the full-length format, it presented an opportunity for DVA to stretch his lengths and further indulge his left-of-center creative impulses. Unfortunately though, the album only demonstrated that perhaps DVA isn't the sort of artist who's well suited to operate with that kind of freedom. Simply put, the LP was a bit of a mess. Sure, woozy club tracks like "Polyphonic Dreams" were ace, but much of the record offered half-baked experiments in avant-garde pop/funk/R&B. There were too many ideas, too many genres being mashed together, and too many different directions being explored (and subsequently abandoned). Pretty Ugly could have been a real statement, but ultimately only ended up saying that DVA's music is a lot better when he's operating within some semblance of a steady framework. (Case in point: November's streamlined Fly Juice EP was a much more coherent—and enjoyable—release.) Shawn Reynaldo


4. Teen Daze
All of Us, Together
(Lefse)

It's not entirely the artist's fault when expectations are heaped onto them, nor is it necessarily "wrong" when they let us down. Sometimes, though, a record falls so far below its potential that it's hard not to pick someone to blame, and in the case of Teen Daze's All of Us, Together, XLR8R looked no further than the producer himself. Something about his use of default sample banks, sterile production techniques, and uninspired song structures felt soulless, sometimes even lifeless, which was a huge disappointment after we'd gone so far as to highlight him as a promising artist in our Bubblin' Up series. Teen Daze's second album of 2012, The Inner Mansions, managed to right some of Together's wrongs with the addition of talented vocalists to his shoegazing synth-pop tunes (we're still entirely baffled that Together was basically an instrumental dance album made for tweens), but that doesn't change the fact that the Canadian producer's first effort of the year gave it some of its most bland music. Patric Fallon


3. Nina Kraviz
Nina Kraviz
(Rekids)

As the story goes, when Nina Kraviz heard Theo Parrish play a bad set in Toronto, she made it a point to tell him that she respected him but disliked his performance. In retrospect, that quote seems strangely haunting when one considers the reception of Kraviz's self-titled debut. She's an artist with a serious pedigree, with her handful of 12" releases on Underground Quality and Rekids backing up her often bold—but generally spot-on—observations about DJ culture. The album's lead single, "Ghetto Kraviz," with its odd rhythms and indecipherable sing-song vocals, hinted towards the better side of weird. Unfortunately, the LP as a whole didn't live up to this promise, with an overall aesthetic that felt rushed and insubstantial. Perhaps the most lacking aspect was Kraviz's own vocal delivery, which seemed uncommitted and underthought. The same kind of stream-of-consciousness observations that made "Pain in the Ass" such a club hit in 2009 just didn't stand up when stretched out across the length of an entire LP, especially when the subject matter seemed so much closer to Kraviz emotionally. It's a shame, because the record had the potential to be the clearest expression of an artist who clearly has a lot to offer. Derek Opperman


2. Soul Clap
E-Funk
(Wolf + Lamb)

E-Funk was the debut LP from Boston's Soul Clap, and its shortcomings ultimately stem from the fact that the pair simply reached too far. The initial fanfare surrounding the duo stemmed from its fun-loving and retro-flavored DJ stylings, but Soul Clap's first forays into production were solid; offering sleek slices of adventurous-yet-efficient house, the pair somehow threaded the line between abstract dance music and soulful party tunes with an effortless confidence. On E-Funk however, Soul Clap fully gave into its infatuation with nostalgic sounds (particularly those of the '90s) and delivered a record full of misshapen dance/pop hybrids that lacked the allure of the pair's prior efforts. Furthermore, the album focused around a revolving cast of vocal collaborators whose contributions were often ill fitted for the tracks they accompanied. Ultimately, E-Funk came off as one giant misfire, an effort bogged down by misguided concepts and overloaded with ideas. Glenn Jackson


1. Squarepusher
Ufabulum
(Warp)

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: It is not easy being a fan of Warp's veteran artists. But the reason why is something of a double-edged sword. Largely speaking, producers like Squarepusher are almost too talented, so much so that it seems they can do just about anything (and often they certainly try). From jungle to IDM to jazz to solo bass compositions, Squarepusher's output never settles in one place for too long, but it had been ages since he'd created the kind of wild and ruthless electronic sounds his name was built on. That was all said to change this year, however, when Warp announced that Squarepusher would be returning to "pure electronic music... something very melodic, very aggressive." Unfortunately, that record turned out to be Ufabulum, a 10-track onslaught of distorted drum kits and bit-crushed synths which had far more in common with contemporary EDM than old-school breaks. Songs like "4001" and "Drax 2" managed to point back to the Squarepusher of yore, but the rest of Ufabulum took us down a path of overwrought concertos, mind-numbing sound effects, and plenty of other studio wankery. At least he had one of the coolest-looking live shows of 2012. Patric Fallon

XLR8R's Best of 2012 coverage will continue all of next week, so check back each day for additional year-end round-ups. In the meantime, don't forget to vote in our Readers Poll, and take a look at the other Best of 2012 pieces we've posted already:

XLR8R's Best of 2012: Top Downloads
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Podcasts
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Features
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Videos
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Labels
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Hi, Doctor Nick!
XLR8R's Best of 2012: New Artists
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Overrated Releases

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