Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)
Black Stone Cherry
The Human Condition
Call this the regular ‘you should know better’ slot, because that’s certainly the case with Black Stone Cherry and The Human Condition. They’re one of hard rock’s most consistently fun and lively bands, but for whatever reason, they decided dipping into a moody presentation and making themselves seem shorn of any fun was the way to go, and thus wound up with an album that came and went without a trace. More than anything though, it’s probably the first time that Black Stone Cherry have felt like they’re going through the motions; they’re aren’t prone to experimenting, but there’s an energy to them that prevents them from getting stale like so many others. As for The Human Condition, it doesn’t have any of that, and feels like a usually fun and entertaining band sounding like a shell of themselves.
By no means was Idles’ Ultra Mono a terrible album, but if you’re looking for an example of a band playing right into the negative stereotypes that have formed around them, look no further than this. At their best, Idles can be witty and sharp while still delivering a direct punk listen; on Ultra Mono, meanwhile, they’re stuck to catchphrases more than ever, inside what feels generally less engaging and as though they’ve done all of this before, and much better. 2020 has been a year where a lot of albums, even the absolute biggest ones, have just had zero lasting impact, and rather than furthering Idles’ powerful reign that they’ve been cultivating, this just feels like another piece of kindling for that particular bonfire, except in this instance, it’s a bit more justified. Idles already have a bit of a problem with being taken seriously by some; the last thing they need to do is actively turn into cartoon characters.
As much as Use Me was intended as a vehicle for Lynn Gunn to drive the PVRIS name in her own direction as the primary creative force, it’s hard to see how that’s been successful in any way. PVRIS have already been having a rough time with a fading impact – and the turbulence of this year hasn’t helped – but this was less of a method to solidify the project in the wake of adversity, and more a slow limp out the other side, still just about going but really feeling the beating they’ve been dealt. It’s not like their particular brand of electro-pop has much staying power inherently beyond their debut, but Use Me really felt cold in that regard, with barely a hook or melody sticking after what felt like such a prolonged and pronounced run-up about how this would be the moment to shine and where Gunn fully takes control for the better. Suffice to say, that didn’t happen, and PVRIS had their first real dud on their hands because of it.
Remember this one? Considering the void that so much of 2020’s memorability has been sucked into, probably not, but I Disagree was arguably the first big album of the year, where Poppy would establish herself as a real metal artist after spending a good while skirting around the edges. And considering how much it felt was riding on it at the time, the fact that it’s done so little in the grand scheme of things speaks volumes, especially for an album whose vaunted and attributed wealth of creativity and genre-fusion never really panned out to that extent. The pop-metal fusion was ultimately clumsy and refined far more by other artists later in the year, leaving I Disagree as more openly flawed in comparison than it should’ve been; when such a big, important album is superseded in its lane within a matter of months, that’s not good for an artist like Poppy, and while she’s been dropping more music throughout the year to presumably salve the lack of impact this album had, it’s not going to mask how hollow that initial attempt actually fell.
Father Of All…
If there’s anything that can reasonably called an ‘objective’ pick for the most disappointing album of 2020, it would be this one, considering how disastrously literally everything around it has ended up. For one, it’s yet another album that’s been forgotten over the course of 2020, though the fact that Green Day are one of the biggest bands in the world makes that a particularly damning fact. There’s also the case of the promotion, which saw the band sink into boomer-rock targeting by hammering in how this was real rock ‘n’ roll, man – only for it to be a cluttered, barely comprehensible mess that owed more to fossilised garage-rock rejects from the 2000s than any suitable rock legends. That’s perhaps the most disappointing thing about Father Of All…, but also its most humbling. Sure, a band of Green Day’s stature should know far better than to do anything that they actually did with regards to this album, but the fact that it all flamed out so royally shows there might actually be some justice in the world when it comes to what music succeeds and what doesn’t. And at the end of the day, an album as negligible and creatively moribund as this, bigged up by an iconic modern rock band as a return to real, raw quality, is the punchline that just keeps giving.
Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)
It feels unfair to come down too hard on Positions, but for someone on as upward a slope as Ariana Grande was from an artistic point of view, it’s hard not to feel slightly let down by this year’s plateau. While still a solid album, Positions feels like a more calculated release than sweetener and thank u, next, openly trying to recreate the authentically self-contained vibe those records had, but never quite hitting the mark as well. Whimsical R&B instrumentals and walls of Grande’s vocals adding dimension appear to be the staples of this project, but there’s some diversion from these central ideas (motive featuring Doja Cat being the main culprit) and other areas (like west side and obvious) where they run out of steam. Positions has some really great tracks and more than does the job if you’re seeking an Ariana fix, but in terms of her wider career, she can definitely do better than Positions.
After stunning the whole world with 2018’s This Is America and its accompanying video, eyes were kept on Childish Gambino to see when he’d put out his next, sure-to-be-electrifying album. Instead, we got 3.15.20, a drawn-out splatter of ideas that often feel mismatched, all beaten like a dead horse to the point of tedium. The production on this record also leaves a lot to be desired, muddying almost any hint of groove on the tropical glow of Feels Like Summer (going by the name 42.26 here), or a whole Ariana Grande feature on Time landing as possibly the worst use of the singer ever. While of course artists who have statements like This Is America in their arsenal need to experiment, 3.15.20 definitely could have been kept on a hard drive somewhere.
Ambition has never been something Twin Atlantic have been short of, but they missed the mark on this year’s Power, a record that saw them storming off in a new direction with not much thought behind it. This record fares best when Twin Atlantic inject some fun into the mix, the soaring hook of Novocaine that harks back to their past or cavernous and danceworthy Volcano infinitely more memorable than brooding Messiah or cardboard ’80s homage Ultraviolet Truth. Something just feels temporary and unoriginal about this record, like Twin Atlantic have thrown down the guns they’re supposed to be sticking by and are already drafting how they’ll condemn this whole project while promoting their next one. Considering Twin Atlantic were always one of the best at marrying their heart with rock swagger, Power feels like an old friend leaving you out in the cold.
Bombay Bicycle Club
Everything Else Has Gone Wrong
They’ve always been the quiet, consistent reliables of indie, which is what makes Everything Else Has Gone Wrong even more of an anomaly in Bombay Bicycle Club’s discography. For a band who have always managed to come out of experimental periods with at least something decent, this record being so forgettable, particularly after a six-year hiatus which arguably should have reinvigorated the band, is perhaps the surprise of their career. Nothing on this record really sticks out – even supposed biggest hitters I Can Hardly Speak and Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You) feel like a considerable step down, even moreso following the flashier elements of last (and best) record So Long, See You Tomorrow. There are still hints of the chirpy, arms-around-your-friends melodies Bombay Bicycle Club are famous for, but this record feels like a devolution for them.
Going from a band with a tangible identity and belt-out-loud choruses to putting out a record that makes you feel precisely nothing at all is never a good thing, even less so when it’s a band as lauded by those in their corner as PVRIS. Use Me saw frontwoman Lynn Gunn fully take the band’s reins as creative driving force, plunging them into a lake of by-the-numbers, almost anonymous pop. This record doesn’t feel like the PVRIS that have a fire behind them, a fire that’s been present in previous songs of their about the same subject matter. Gunn’s almost dead-eyed singing on Dead Weight fits with the sentiment of the song enough for it to work, but elsewhere it’s hard to engage with, particularly on tracks with less interesting (or downright annoying, like Gimme A Minute) instrumentals. Use Me just feels flat, especially considering the emotion PVRIS write songs with, and it’s such a shame that the creativity they use to portray those emotions seems to be dialled down as well, like everything there is to like about them is being drained out slowly.