Gifts: You want to love them. Or at the very least, you simply want to be surprised by them. Like full-length albums.
In this stream-everything, download-now era, Pop & Hiss is appreciative of those artists who still believe in the long-play format. The album may not be as hot a gift as, say, a FurReal toy, but it's an old standby we'll forever love. That's why it pains us when an artist disappoints, especially an artist we already love or want to see take on new challenges.
Since no holiday season is complete without regrets, here are some of 2014's albums we'd like to see returned.
Jack White, "Lazaretto" (Third Man). When the musician's newest record came out, many were quite taken with it. In fact, The Times review described it as a "confident, brash, inventive collection featuring songs that lock into the psyche after only a few listens." The problem: Less than a year later, the door to our psyche has apparently been left ajar, because we haven't had much of a desire to hear Lazaretto since. What we're left with now is an album that over-thinks its every move and just leaves us cold. So much for our internal security system. Despite a deep admiration of White, there are surely people who need this way more than we do.
Chris Brown, "X" (RCA). Not many entertainers can match the fiercely talented but oft-embattled artist's polarity. Appreciating Brown's efforts without conjuring his many troubles is nearly impossible. Take "X," his latest No. 1 album, for example. The album arrived more than a year after originally intended because of a string of legal woes including a stint in rehab and jail. During the album's lead-up, it seemed like Brown wanted to press reset and divulge something about his recent turbulence. Instead of bringing listeners into that darkness, though, he opted for less challenging material: brazen sex jams, anthems and club bangers. Meaty self-referential substance? No, Brown wanted a sexy dance party. Tracks like "Fine China," "New Flame" and "Drunk Texting" are jams, sure, and the kid has a strong ear for hits, but you'd heard it all before — on his last album, and the one before that.
Future Islands, "Singles" (Thrill Jockey). The video is great, yes: Samuel T. Herring, frontman of the Baltimore indie-rock band Future Islands, getting down — way down — in a late-night television performance that went viral on the Internet. Solid song, too, in "Seasons (Waiting on You)," an effective retread of melodramatic 1980s synth-pop somehow made even more moving by Herring's tough-guy growl. As the opening cut on Future Islands' fourth album, though, "Seasons" leads quickly to disappointment: nine more tracks in the same claustrophobic neo-New Wave mode, only minus the soaring melody and the mock-heroic lyric that elevate the band's breakout hit. No wonder Herring and his mates called the record "Singles" — they know where they're strongest.
Damien Rice, "My Favourite Faded Fantasy" (Warner Bros.). The singer-songwriter has a killer press story. He's reclusive, occasionally difficult in interviews and often outspoken. Yet when it comes to his arranging skills, especially on this, his first album in eight years, Rice should be considered armed (often with an acoustic guitar) and extremely dangerous. He knows his way around the instrument, yes, but took the wrong lessons from the anything-goes alt-rock-era, jamming songs with unwarranted effects (Raindrops! RAINDROPS!) and using symphonic flourishes to signal false importance. Why false? As a lyricist, he never stops telling us how hurt he is, and it's often the result of his own bad self. Next time, lose the references to waterfalls.
Black Keys, "Turn Blue" (Nonesuch). After releasing one of the best rock albums in recent memory with 2011's "El Camino," the Black Keys returned with "Turn Blue" — a mid-tempo breakup album that made it clear the raucous joyride was over. The duo's ninth album is so smooth and polished one could skate across it in socks, but why bother rolling out of bed when the energy levels here barely register above interesting? Laden with predictable blues hooks, classic rock song structures and lines you already know, "Turn Blue" is heartbreaking for all the wrong reasons.
Flaming Lips, "With a Little Help from My Fwends" (Warner Bros.). Never mind, we weren't expecting anything worth hearing from a bunch of grown men who insist upon using the word "fwends."