It's hard to recall, but try anyway and cast your memory back to last January, when Justin Timberlake's solo music career was but a fading cultural echo from the mid-aughts and David Bowie, once rumored dead, had not released an album since 2003. Yes, those innocent, erstwhile days, when Daft Punk was something your weird, house-obsessed cousin talked about and the phrase "Lily Allen think piece" did not exist in the English language. How innocent we all were, eh?
For every striking new musical talent that's blossomed in 2013, there's been an equally high-profile comeback, a surprise resurgence from an artist or group long presumed dead, critically irrelevant, or both. We offer a guide through the good, bad, and Justin Timberlake.
Oh, and there were plenty. Irish noiseniks My Bloody Valentine finally released the album Kevin Shields had been promising since like 1994, and it turned out to be a worthy, if characteristically meticulous, slice of shoegaze, with hardly a nostalgic note among its 47 minutes. (Alas, the band didn't handle the surprise release chaos quite so competently as
Beyoncé iTunes.) Trent Reznor seemed just about ready to settle into his role as frontman of How To Destroy Angels when he announced in February, suddenly and without warning, that Nine Inch Nails were back in effect; some lineup tweaks later, Hesitation Marks followed an explosive tour as a welcome, reenergized entry in the NIN canon. David Bowie revealed that he is very much alive, his first LP since 2003's Reality serving as ample proof for most critics.
Meanwhile, Daft Punk embraced its inner Steely Dan on the duo's first studio LP in nearly a decade and rather quickly seized control of every summer party playlist in existence. Which means, yes, Pharrell Williams has had a very good 2013 as well. File his vocal hooks — "Get Lucky," "Blurred Lines," and "Happy" — into the 'completely inescapable' folder, along with...
The Obnoxiously Relentless
Justin Timberlake, whose solo career had lain dormant since FutureSex/LoveSounds converted a generation of indie kids in 2006, formally revealed his gold-plated, corporate-sponsored comeback ten days into 2013, dropping "Suit & Tie" three days later. By March, we were sick of him already.
Okay, not entirely! The 20/20 Experience — the first volume — was really quite good, if a bit overlong and indulgently flowery. But the week-long Jimmy Fallon stint was a bit much. The SXSW appearance was misguided at best. The touring and TV appearances and endless sponsorships grew tiresome. (Speaking of sponsorship gimmicks masking subpar albums: here's where we mention Jay Z. Hi, Jay Z. We didn't forget you.) And by the time the artist dropped a tepid 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 in September, it was official: Timberlake had outstayed his welcome. (And he realized it, too, telling GQ in November that he felt "like a bunch of people just took a shit on my face.")
The best comebacks make it seem like the artist never went away in the first place. The worst ones make you wish they'd go away again.
It all seemed so exciting and hopeful when, in early July, Pearl Jam's website began displaying a cryptic countdown to a surprise of sorts. Of course, it was a new single and album announcement — not a save-the-date for Eddie Vedder's trip to the barbershop — and still, there was so much hope: could Pearl Jam, four years removed from the last LP That You Can't Remember the Name Of, finally settle into a post-grunge groove that retains even some trace of the passion and inventiveness of Vitalogy or No Code or ... honestly we'd even settle for Riot Act.
No dice. Landing with an entirely inoffensive thud, Lightning Bolt turned out to be even more nondescript and steadily unremarkable than Backspacer, marked by competent Pearl Jam rockers and competent Pearl Jam ballads and competent Eddie Vedderisms and little that registered outside of Pearl Jam's justifiably hungry fanbase.
It'd be easy to place Lightning Bolt in the "disappointing" pile if everything about it weren't so exasperatingly predictable. Genuinely disappointing, though, was another unexpected release from a once-treasured nineties act: the excellent Mazzy Star, purveyors of sparkling dream-pop to make Beach House fans blush. Though it contains snatches of otherworldly brilliance, Seasons of Your Day, the group's first LP in an inexplicable 17 years, struck this writer as a dishearteningly tired, listless response to the imitators that sprung up in Mazzy Star's absence. And speaking of disappointments: can anyone recall a single track from that Pixies EP by name?
The Unduly Ignored
Among the year's most genuinely unexpected comebacks came not from Beyoncé (come on — it's been just two-and-a-half years) nor Outkast (you can plan a pretty picnic but you can't — oh, forget it), but from a little remembered Australian post-punk band whose minor claim to fame, at least stateside, was a cameo in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Crime & the City Solution last released an album in 1990, meaning they edge both My Bloody Valentine and Mazzy Star out of the gap-between-albums sweepstakes. But they warrant more than a novelty nod. American Twilight, the 2013 LP that followed a relocation to Detroit, has turned out to be the group's most stately and prettily scathing piece of work yet.
If, however, we were ranking comebacks by the biggest gap between albums (and we're not — why would we?), we'd have a winner in folk singer Linda Perhacs, who has announced her first album since 1970. But that's not out until 2014.
The Comebacks That Weren't Really Comebacks At All When You Really Think About It Come On Let's Be Real
We've been over this. André 3000 and Big Boi have plenty of time in 2014 to convince us that the Outkast reunion is more than just a presumptuous celebrity news headline scrambled together from Instagram get-togethers and unnamed sources. Sleater-Kinney's "reunion" was nothing more than a fleeting appearance on a stage otherwise occupied by Pearl Jam. 'N Sync's VMA comeback lasted about the same amount of time it takes the average entertainment blogger to figure out how the group's name is correctly styled.
Which, when you think about it, may be preferable to crooner-in-chief Justin Timberlake's unending bid for world domination by dint of sheer ubiquity. So it goes.