Paul Simon

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Paul Simon has left and gone away.

Ten long years ago, You’re the One was supposed to signal the singer-songwriter’s artistic rebirth. Instead, the man Time magazine lauded as one of the “100 People Who Shaped the World” spent the past decade pulling a Garfunkel and becoming nearly culturally irrelevant. Sure, he snagged plenty of lifetime achievement honors in that time, received (another) induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and penned a passable single or two (“Father and Daughter,” most notably), but the only real notch on his discography was the midlife-crisis reeking Surprise in 2006. Such inactivity kind of gave the idea of “the sound of silence” a whole new meaning.

On the bright side, 2011 may reintroduce Simon to the masses. So Beautiful or So What, due for an April release, is, according to the artist, “the best work I’ve done in 20 years.” Hopefully he isn’t exaggerating. Simon shaped both the world and the world of music like few other artists. And the years haven’t been the same without him. – Marcus David


Up. Reveal. Around the Sun. Accelerate. Those are the last four spectacularly mediocre albums R.E.M. has released since their last truly great record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The band hasn’t exactly been directionless since Hi-Fi, but ever since Bill Berry’s departure, Buck-Mills-Stipe haven’t yet managed to craft a classic album. None of the trio’s post-Berry records have been particularly awful, and each album contains a few decent tunes, but none are consistently solid from start to finish, and all of them reveal an amount of self-indulgence and filler the band’s 1980s and early 1990s selves would never had stood for. They are, quite simply, average, middle of the road albums by a band we all know is capable of much better.

What’s perhaps worse is that plenty of us have consequently lowered our expectations of the band. Listeners and critics generally went ape shit for Accelerate – some even had the stones to compare it to Lifes Rich Pageant and Document – but that’s likely largely because its predecessors were so underwhelming. Upcoming album Collapse Into Now is planned for release this year, and maybe we all should prepare ourselves for a worst-case scenario. Today’s R.E.M. is like watching a once-mighty athlete gimp through the twilight of a legendary career: despite the whiffs and errors, there’s an occasional flash of brilliance, and we collectively still hold out hope for a glorious return to form. – Eric Dennis


For most of the ’80s and well into the ’90s, few artists could match Prince’s talent or output, as the artist commanded critical and popular attention while prolifically releasing some of the most innovative work popular music had ever seen. From 1980 to 1986 he averaged a new release every year, including Dirty Mind, the iconic Purple Rain, hit machine 1999 and wry social critique Sign ‘O’ the Times. Nevertheless, Prince is just as conceited as he is talented, releasing numerous duds in between all those instant classics, confusing self-centered idiocy for social rebellion by changing his name a few times (eventually abandoning it altogether) and simultaneously treating his fans with increasing animosity by bringing down the copyright hammer on just about everyone.

Now it’s easier to mock Prince than adore his music. But the saddest part of his decline is that besides failing to match his ’80’s success, Prince almost had a comeback with Musicology and 3121. Unfortunately, those are just glowing embers at the base of a fire that seems to be dying. Prince could still find his way back to the top of the charts, or at least back into his fans’ good graces, but he better do it soon. – Michael Merline

Neil Young

Even for his kookier than average standards, Neil Young has put out some pretty bizarre albums lately. There was 2003’s eco-concept album/documentary/stage show Greendale; the raunchy and trumpet-laden Living With War, released at the peak of anti-Bush fervor in 2006; Fork in the Road, a 2009 foray into electric cars and YouTube; and most recently, Le Noise, a noisy and band-less trip down memory lane with legendary producer Daniel Lanois in the passenger seat.

But this is nothing new; remember Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ in the ’80s? While he’s never been a straight arrow, Young has always tossed in a gem or two when things got especially strange, rounding out his strangest decade with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” one of the biggest hits of his career, and then Harvest Moon and its timeless title track. But since then, he’s dabbled in greatness (“Buffalo Springfield Again,” “It’s a Dream,” “Bandit” and “Hitchhiker) without putting together a singular collection of it.

After the release of Bob Dylan’s gloomy 1997 masterpiece Time Out of Mind, Young expressed interest in making a similarly late-in-life magnum opus. Unfortunately, he hasn’t reached that pinnacle yet, but as his recent marathon live shows suggest, he’s still got that spark. – Kyle Wall

Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl is someone who genuinely seems to enjoy the pop star niche he’s carved out for himself – and make no mistake – it’s pop. Possessing the credibility to record well-received music with the likes of muso-faves Queens of the Stone Age or Killing Joke, while simultaneously serving as a veritable mold for ’00s’ radio rock means an artist is loved throughout various listener strata; that is to say, Grohl is as pop as a Lichtenstein. Grohl’s as pop as getting to drum with a Zeppelin member. He’s as pop as getting to be a fill-in in Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Grohl’s also pop in that he pulled a Dave Matthews-sorta move, releasing a live acoustic record.

While having been 33% of Nirvana doesn’t hurt, I speculate that it’s Grohl’s good-guy attitude that gets him a pass on just about every-fucking-thing he’s done with a guitar in his hands for the last 10 years. Look, take away that big, toothy grin, the boyish lust for life and the fact that he’s as good as Bonzo or Moon – if he’d only fucking sit on the drum stool and stay there – and you’ve got a louder, faster version of Chad Kroeger. – Chris Middleman



Metallica’s unofficially titled Black Album was the pivotal point in the thrashers’ careers. Hits like “Enter Sandman” and “Wherever I May Roam” simultaneously gleaned Metallica’s razor-sharp melodies to the mainstream, while bearing a slower, streamlined angle to its fans. At the risk of all credibility, the band remained critically hailed and (mostly) revered by its headbangers.

That was 20 years ago this summer. Braced with new, dapper haircuts, they tried to Load and Reload themselves into the mid-’90s limelight, but no matter how many songs they fired out at rock radio, they failed to hit even the edges of a target. The band that once pioneered a true speed metal movement in the midst of the ’80s hair metal nonsense was now slugging off half-baked southern-rock riffs under stagnant tempos and contrived anger. Subsequent releases in the past decade (St. Anger, Death Magnetic) offered nothing more than bland rehashes of this downgraded version of the band. As self-destructive as its involvement with the Napster lawsuits was, Metallica’s gradual devolution continues to lack the qualities – gusto, passion, speed – upon which their success was founded. – Jory Spadea


In a perfect world, Bono and company would be making albums like The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree well past the age their pensions kick in. Instead, since Achtung Baby (1991), we’ve seen Bono turn into more of a politician than a musician, while his band has fallen into a lazy sense of smug competence. The last 15 years or so of U2’s career have shown that they can write hook-laden pop tunes, but have trouble making bigger artistic statements (Zooropa sure ain’t an artistic statement); which is a surprise because, after all, this is the band that was all about politics, soul and humanity in the ’80s (remember that charged up set at Live Aid?). All That You Can’t Leave Behind is an airy, hollow record; No Line on the Horizon attempts to bend genres and fails miserably; How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is an absolute mess of self-righteous, holier-than-thou bullshit written under the guise of spirituality and political change. When it comes to U2, nothing feels real anymore. All we have are cold, calculated jabs at a fire that has long since fizzled out. – Kyle Fowle


Elvis Costello

It is difficult to pin down exactly when Elvis Costello last made a great album. Sure, his reputation as one of the greatest living songwriters is not in question, but what was the last great album, an entire work, that he’s written? There is Painted from Memory (1998), his fantastic collaboration with Burt Bacharach, but its critics found his weepy ballads too soft cock to handle. You may have to go back to 1986 when the one-two punch of King of America and Blood & Chocolate offered some of the best songs of Costello’s career.

One thing is for certain: Costello has not made a great album in the past 10 years. The closest candidate, When I Was Cruel (2002), is amazing but not universally adored, its detractors claiming the album is insular, its tightly coiled songs difficult to love. North (2003) is a love letter to wife Diana Krall, its songs too personal and somewhat boring. The Delivery Man (2004) had some great alt-country rockers but doesn’t hang together well as a record. The River in Reverse (2006), a collaboration with New Orleans great Allen Toussaint, seems less excellent as the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina ebbs into the memory, while Momofuku (2008) featured songs Costello could write in his sleep. His most recent works, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009) and National Ransom (2010), have found the musician settling into writing serviceable country tunes. Yet the fire and spit of great Costello seems to be a thing of the past. Elvis Costello has written some great songs in the last decade, but none of his records can stand with the classics of his past, unless you count the umpteenth reissue of My Aim is True as something new. – David Harris

Snoop Dogg

I’m sure there are plenty of people who would argue that Snoop Dogg has always been inconsequential, but when Doggystyle was released in 1992, Snoop got the wider world talking about rap music in a way few other artists had done before. Granted, pretty much everything they were saying was negative, but any publicity is good publicity, especially in the rap game.

But Snoop was a victim of his own success. Gangsta rap may have been scary to suburban Midwestern moms (and, to be sure, N.W.A. had some moments that really would give one reason to fear), but gangsta rap itself wasn’t what scared parents and community leaders: what scared them was the endless parade of copycat artists and the way the media made it seem like gangsta rap was a pandemic headed straight for your neighborhood. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Like flannel shirts and skinny ties in the rock world, baggy jeans and rhymes about extensive sexual conquest never really went out of style, but they became less popular, eventually largely displaced by aggro rap-rock, Eminem’s self-laceration, overdone bling, crunk and more.

But for Snoop Dogg it was already too late. You can’t bottle lightning, and you sure as hell can’t do it twice, and having peaked with his debut, it’s been a steady decline since then for the dee-oh-double-gee. There’s a reason he still does “What’s My Name?” and “Gin and Juice” at every show. – Aaron Passman


Spiritualized/Jason Pierce

It’s been almost 10 years since Jason Pierce as Spiritualized released the symphonic epic Let It Come Down, and nearly 14 since that masterpiece of swells, pedals and heroin drone, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. While the latter even being mentioned in passing still elicits chills, and the former came as the proper culmination of a decade’s worth of plain out-of-this-world work as Spiritualized for Pierce, his output since then has been rockier.

The jazzy and gospel-shocked Amazing Grace (2003) was decent – and certainly far better than most musicians could have come up with – and Songs in A&E (2008), named for the “Accident & Emergency Ward” where Pierce spent 2005 recovering from almost dying of pneumonia, was a return to form for him, but neither met the exceptional heights that made Spiritualized’s first decade so significant. Does he have it in him to make another Lazer Guided Melodies or Ladies and Gentlemen? I’d say so. With Pierce in the studio again, perhaps a comeback is in the making. – Joe Clinkenbeard


Bruce Springsteen

Look, I love The Boss as much as anyone. His records dominated the soundtrack of my high school years, and nothing can inspire me to turn my steering wheel into a makeshift drum kit like “Born to Run” blaring through the car’s speakers. But it requires looking all the way back to The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995 to find a Springsteen album of new material that’s actually worth listening to from start to finish.

It surely doesn’t help that Springsteen has forged a devoted partnership with producer Brendan O’Brien, whose discography apart from Jersey’s favorite son looks like the music library of the AOR radio station in Hell (“Drops of Jupiter,” anyone? Anyone?). Springsteen has always favored thick production, but O’Brien encases the songs in a layer of impenetrable shellac that winds up taking what used to be pure passion from Springsteen and calcifying it into an unbearable, detached earnestness. Hoping for another Nebraska might be too much, but there are tremendous possibilities if Springsteen stepped into the studio with Rick Rubin – currently co-president of his longtime label, after all – and asked for “the Johnny Cash treatment.” – Dan Seeger

Ben Folds

After 20 years of making music, Ben Folds has reached the top of his career: his 2008 album Way to Normal debuted at #11 on the Billboard 200, and he has appeared as a guest judge on NBC’s a cappella reality competition, “The Sing-Off.” But fans will tell you that his music has been on a steady decline since Ben Folds Five called it quits. The more he writes, the more mean-spirited and unsubtle his songs become. The man can write a melody like few others: he’s a veritable Pollock of the piano. And he once raised to catharsis lyrics that tended to be pretty on-the-nose. What his early verses lacked in poetry, they used to make up for with some degree of emotional truth. Now? Not so much.

In 1995: “Thank God it’s you/ You know your timing is impeccable/ I’m not fooling you/ I don’t know what to do/ Some dude just knocked me cold and left me on the sidewalk/ And took everything I had.”

In 2008: “The bitch went nuts.– Katie Bolton

Paul Weller

Paul Weller doesn’t have a lot to prove to the world anymore. As the main man of the Jam – one of the most literate, fiery bands to explode out of the Summer of ’77 – and later as an acclaimed solo artist, he’s amassed a critically beloved reputation as a British national treasure and patron saint of various Mod revivals. Also, he was in a band called the Style Council. But what have you done for us recently, Weller? Since the magnificent one-two punch of Wild Wood and Stanley Road in 1993 and 1995, it’s been nothing but cover albums like Studio 150 (no, we didn’t need another version of “All Along the Watchtower”), R&B genre exercises like Heavy Soul and even scattered concept albums like the overstuffed 22 Dreams. And while he’s never fully hit the skids, he’s never managed to hit those celestial peaks of “Hung Up” and “The Changingman.” We expect a little more from the Modfather, Mr. Weller. – Nathan Kamal

Beastie Boys

The 21st century has not been kind to the Beastie Boys. Since the start of the century they’ve released one full album, the decent but uninteresting To the 5 Boroughs, and one lackluster instrumental collection, The Mix-Up.

To make matters worse, their back catalog has been given the deluxe reissue treatment, only making it clearer how much the Beasties of today lack the daring, boundary-pushing qualities they once had in spades. With Licensed to Ill, the Beasties helped bring hip-hop kicking and screaming into the mainstream; its follow-up, Paul’s Boutique, proved once and for all that hip-hop was an art form. But ever since Hello Nasty, the Beastie Boys’ ambition can’t seem to rise beyond merely reminding everyone every few years that they exist.

And how have they done that? By devoting themselves to a seemingly endless string of causes and crusades, appearing for and loaning music out to everyone from Moveon.org to the New York Women’s Foundation. The band has granted more passion to politics than they’ve given music in nearly two decades.

In short, they’ve turned into the U2 of hip-hop. Need I say more? – Nick Hanover

The B-52s

The B-52s is a band that says yes to you, and you say yes to them. The partiest of all party bands, these bee-hived, flamboyantly fun pop icons gifted us with classics like “Rock Lobster,” “Private Idaho,” “Love Shack” and “Legal Tender,” songs that, through the Technicolor lens of their oversized cats-eye sunglasses, re-imagined our lives as if we were all cartoons, or at least inhabitants of a happier, snappier planet. But all parties eventually dissipate, and after the release of Good Stuff (1992) (which was indeed “good” but not great), it seemed as though the B-52s had retired upstairs for a well-deserved snooze.

The B-52s (their name now changed from the grammatically incorrect B-52’s) stepped back out in 2008 with Funplex. So here was a marketable reason to be out in the public eye touring, making television appearances and whatnot. The album itself, however, is a moot point; among other difficulties, it’s a tough sell to re-package a retro band. If you’re buying a ticket to a B-52s show it’s not because of Funplex. That said, always, always buy that ticket. I know I’ll be shouting, “Tiiiiiiiiin ROOF! Rusted” until my tin roof is rusted and very likely well beyond. – Stacey Pavlick


Nine Inch Nails

The best Nine Inch Nails albums were always big, dumb and loud, as restlessly dismissive of tonal boundaries as they were of good taste and good sense. It’s for this reason a decade’s worth of small-scale projects has left Trent Reznor’s one-man band looking limp and defeated. Albums like With Teeth and Year Zero are still dumb and loud, mining crude post-apocalypse fantasies and flat, churlish rage, but they also stick to the clearly prescribed limits that they set for themselves, which makes them small, limited albums. There’s been nothing of the monumental scale to challenge something like The Fragile, which hedged its sloppy overabundance of ideas in torrents of flash, noise and Adrian Belew guitar solos, or the superior The Downward Spiral, with its pitch black nihilism and screeching love for transgression. Sliding past 40 years of age, Reznor and his formerly ripe anger have gone slack, replaced by a Henry Rollins haircut and muscles that have popped up onto his body like rogue zits. His late decade retreat onto the Internet, rather than striking out into the future of music, felt mostly like an admission of failure. – Jesse Cataldo


Dr. Dre

You’re reading this, thinking I said Dre fell off. “How, Kangas? His last albums were The Chronic and 2001?” Well, both of those are of obscene importance to the entire canon of rap music, so it’s still something of a shocker that he’s yet to release a proper follow-up in the past decade. Between those two you had the Dr. Dre Presents…The Aftermath (1997) compilation, which, in retrospect, could be a legit piece of evidence to prove he’s fallen off, and a few scattered tracks and a pair of headphones you get for free with any meeting at Interscope.

When Detox, now supposedly targeted for release this year, was first announced in the early 2000s, it was presumed to highlight Hittman, 6-Two and other incredibly talented rappers you’ve never heard of because of the label’s revolving door and disastrous A&R. Dre’s close circle of friends has gone through no less than three complete lineup changes, almost enough to warrant creating a “Fantasy Detox” game for his most devoted fans. While the few songs that have leaked over the years show an incredible stamp of when they’re dated, if Dre ever wants to let Detox surface and live up to the hype, he’ll have to stop following trends and get back to setting them. – Chaz Kangas

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