Sunday, January 8, 2012

Taking On 2011: Top Albums (Final List)

Continuing my year end music coverage I decided to not undergo the crazy undertaking of my second quarterly review when writing about the sixty six albums that I have listened to from the previous year. Last year was a fantastic year for music, with just about every genre delivering top notch releases. I read an article on the AV Club a while ago that brought up the idea that 2011 was a year of many very good albums without any definitive "Important Album," and that's a sentiment that I can partially agree with; however, when I started compiling my list I couldn't help but wonder if some of the higher ranked albums will have a lasting impact on the industry. Hard to know without the ability to see the future, and despite nothing hitting quite as hard as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I hope this list demonstrates that 2011 was a great year in music.

20. The Weeknd - Echoes of Silence

As I mentioned in my latest Top Tracks post, starting off with "D.D." is a shot of fire that has mostly been lacking from the two earlier mixtapes in The Weeknd's work. This tape synthesizes all of the aural strengths of this newfangled PBR&B movement with the confessional vulnerability and remorse of the early 2011 release House of Balloons. I can't wait to see how this movement and sound evolve in the coming years.

Standout Tracks: "D.D", "Montreal"

19. Childish Gambino - EP

Childish Gambino, actor/writer/rapper Donald Glover, is at his best in short doses where he can cover a range of sounds and pair them with focused lyrics. While his latest album Camp was littered with misfires, EP blends the flossing/flexing/balling/shot calling with the more emotional turmoil. Nothing stretches itself too thin across the length of five tracks, and comes together for a surprisingly effective EP.

Standout Tracks: "Freaks and Geeks", "Be Alone"

18. Lady GaGa - Born This Way

It would be easy, after two stunning initial records, to call this album a bit of a failure; however, GaGa's most indulgent and expansive release thus far in her short career has remained in my mind, and on this list, more for its successes than its failures. Musically she continues to demonstrate an ability to write and sing unlike anyone else with her level of acclaim, and as she continues to release lengthy music videos GaGa reaches beyond her medium of comfort to further solidify her position as artist. And that's never really a bad thing to celebrate.

Standout Tracks: "Judas", "Born This Way", "Marry The Night"

17. Cults - Cults

Cults released what I consider to be one of the year's best music videos for 2010's lead single "Go Outside," but even with that track's steam I was delight to find it wasn't even the best song on the album. For a sound so marked with cheer, a good deal of this album is marked by sadness and hesitance. This juxtaposition works to set Cults apart from many of the other top notch debuts of 2011.

Standout Tracks: "Go Outside", "Rave On", "Abducted", "Never Saw The Point"

16. Danny Brown - XXX

The hybrid, Danny Brown himself, should be abrasive. And damn if he's not at times, but in what is 2011's best hiphop mixtape the way he switches styles on the fly is both impressive and slightly jarring. When thinking about 2011 hiphop it's hard not to talk about the year's most overrated release, Kanye West and Jay-Z duo album Watch The Throne, in terms of energy and bravado. However, those qualities which are mostly absent, or simply offputting in that other album are apparent in full force on Brown's joyride of drugs, misogyny, and alcohol binges.

Standout Tracks: "Blunt After Blunt", "Outer Space", "Monopoly", "Bruiser Brigade"

15. Cut Copy - Zonoscope

I expressed reluctance that Cut Copy's joyride of Beach Boys~esque rock pop would hold the same appeal in the colder months that it did for me over this past summer, but thinking back it's a damn fine album of joy. Realistically this is the part where I should mention how Cut Copy, despite having more in common with The Beach Boys (but not being quite as good just yet) are also an easy comparison to The Beatles (and have already surpassed the overrated group's 'best' work), but I'll refrain from doing that (oh wait...) to herald the previous year's most blissful record.

Standout Tracks: "Take Me Over", "Pharaohs and Pyramids", "Sun God", "Need You Now"

14. Miranda Cosgrove - High Maintenance

When I made my first Top Albums back in April, I didn't exactly expect Miranda Cosgrove's follow up to debut album Sparks Fly to hang around the top of my list, but this five track offering had much more staying power than I anticipated. Unlike Selena Gomez, another excellent actress who is still looking for musical success, Cosgrove's attempts to work in many different musical styles actually works because she seemingly dives in head first to these different sounds. It's fun, and damn if that's not what this kind of pop is supposed to be.

Standout Tracks: "High Maintenance", "Dancing Crazy"

13. Destroyer - Kaputt

Another longstanding entry on this list, there's really not that much more that can be said. This album is poetic, expansive, and beautiful without ever becoming stagnant. For an album that has very few songs clocking in at less than five minutes it never feels long. In the past I have been critical of instruments without lyrics, but even those stretches here culminate in a wonderful soundscape that is quite truly musical.

Standout Tracks: "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker", "Blue Eyes", "Bay Of Pigs"

12. Tyler, The Creator - Goblin

Much has been said about Odd Future frontman's huge ascent to stardom, and his sophomore album hit with much expectations. It's not a flawless record, but thinking back I can't really think of one 'bad' song. And the high points are damn high, allowing Tyler to showcase his talent as a complete package artist. Blog buzz, publicity nightmares, and personality aside, just looking at Goblin you have a damn fine album.

Standout Tracks: "Nightmare", "Tron Cat", "Golden", "Bitch Suck Dick", "Yonkers"

11. the Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck

In what seems like a yearly tradition, John Darnielle has put together an incredibly solid release that, even compared to other recent greats is a cut above the rest. A recurring theme that I notice on this list is the way artists embrace different sounds, and this album is no different. Though a good portion has the Mountain Goats working in similar constraints, the barber shop quartet feel of "High Hawk Season" is simply magical. Oh yeah, and Darnielle is one of the nation's greatest living poets, so you know, that's kind of important.

Standout Tracks: "Estate Sale Sign", "High Hawk Season", "Birth of Serpents", "Damn These Vampires"

10. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

Easy to overlook this album, as it's rather unassuming and doesn't have quite the same highs as the other other albums that made the cut, but the consistency of Lykke Li's second album is remarkable. Plus, despite not having the same tracks that hang with the heavy hitters, the reason it is so difficult to pick a single song that stands out is because all of them are incredible. This album creates a portrait, perhaps of a speaker or perhaps of Lykke Li herself, and that's a major accomplishment. She can do slow, she can do fast, Lykke Li can do it all.

Standout Tracks: "I Follow Rivers", "Unrequited Love", "Get Some", "Sadness Is A Blessing"

9. Various Artists - The Book Of Mormon Soundtrack

What needs to be said? Matt Stone and Trey Parker bring their talents to Broadway in what, judging by these songs, I can only assume is a hilarious musical. Just listen to it, obviously.

Standout Tracks: "Hasa Diga Eebowai", "Turn It Off", "All American Prophet", "Making Things Up Again"

8. Youth Lagoon - The Year Of Hibernation

We're at the point in the list where just about any of these albums make a strong case for a top five finish, and the debut from Youth Lagoon almost found its way above some other fantastic albums. The songwriting here, while simplistic, actually finds its depth in the simplicity. I struggle a bit with the vocal distortion at times, but when the lyrics and music are showcased the album becomes incredible.

Standout Tracks: "17", "Cannons", "July"

7. James Blake - James Blake

I still contest that James Blake does not only make dubstep, but that's largely irrelevant in relation to the greatness of his debut album. The man manipulates sound in ways that constantly build, at times even using his vocals as another instrument in the grander scheme. Much of this year's buzz was directed at the vastly overrated Bon Iver album, but Blake makes practically the same music in new and interesting ways while being much more approachable. And the lyrics become chilling, sparse but harrowing.

Standout Tracks: "Limit To Your Love", "I Never Learnt To Share", "Lindesfarne"

6. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L

Let's be real, everything about typing about tUnE-yArDs is fun. Even if this album wasn't one of the year's best, I would have needed to find a way to write about it because W H O K I L L is just enjoyable to type. Thankfully I didn't need to be conflicted, as the second album from tUnE-yArDs covers so many different sounds so perfectly, with nothing ever feeling out of place, and with the songwriting functioning to aid the sound it stands as a damn unique experience.

Standout Tracks: "Bizness", "Gangsta", "Wooly Wolly Gong"

5. Demi Lovato - Unbroken

Demi Lovato's third album is not flawless, in fact the first four songs are all varying degrees of terrible, but looking past those songs is simple (they are the opening four songs and the only ones on the album to feature other artists, which suggests they are simply there to make the album more pop accessible and to add silly bulletpoints) when the real album starts going. At that point it isn't just pop perfection, but thanks to Demi's highly personal song writing, incredible singing voice, and the instrumentals it nears musical bliss.

Standout Tracks: "Lightweight", "Skyscraper", "For The Love Of A Daughter", "Unbroken", "In Real Life"

4. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

We have now reached the point in this list where any of these four albums could potentially hold the number one slot. PJ Harvey's latest (concept?) album weaves a wonderful narrative that showcases beautiful songwriting from PJ Harvey touching on wars gone by, corrupt politics, and countless other intricacies.

Standout Tracks: "The Last Living Rose", "The Words That Maketh Murder", "In The Dark Places"

3. Cass McCombs - WIT'S END

Expansive in song length, few if any clock in at under six minutes, yet focused in content, the sheer amount of lyrical content packed in to Cass McCombs's latest album invite comparisons to the quieter portions of Bob Dylan's career. Though easy to lump this album in as a meditative piece that is easier to appreciate than enjoy, McCombs uses instruments that make the listening process immensely enjoyable and rewarding, even with the occasional hint of humor finding its way to a few lines. Along with Darnielle, McCombs is one of the country's best writers.

Standout Tracks: "County Line", "The Lonely Doll", "A Knock Upon The Door"

2. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

I said it was a strong year for debut albums, and EMA's is easily the strongest. EMA brings a fresh voice and sound that, combined with her tragically beautiful lyrics create a sense of melancholy. The album itself is not one note though, and as the sounds change, occasionally becoming frantic while other times acting harmoniously. However, what makes Past Life Martyred Saints so exciting is what may still be to come from EMA.

Standout Tracks: "California", "Coda", "Marked", "Butterfly Knife"

1. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Since learning that St. Vincent was releasing a new album in 2011, I had a sneaking suspicion that it would top my list, and even though the end battle was a lot closer than I thought it would be the full experience that Annie Clark delivers, once again, is second to none. Though this is Clark's third album, her new recording method allows the instruments and sounds to come alive like never before, and as expected her songwriting is top notch. Add in her singing voice, and St. Vincent's sensibilities continue to grow as she evolves as an artist. Each work is leaps and bounds better than the last, and St. Vincent once again deliver's an incredible accomplishment.

Standout Tracks: "Strange Mercy", "Champagne Year", "Cheerleader", "Cruel", "Surgeon"

And for good measure, here is the complete list of all the albums I have listened to in a ranked order:

  1. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
  2. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
  3. Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
  4. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  5. Demi Lovato - Unbroken
  6. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
  7. James Blake – James Blake
  8. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
  9. Various Artists – The Book of Mormon OST
  10. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
  11. the Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck/All Survivors Pack
  12. Tyler, The Creator – Goblin
  13. Destroyer – Kaputt
  14. Miranda Cosgrove – High Maintenance
  15. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
  16. Danny Brown - XXX
  17. Cults – Cults
  18. Lady GaGa – Born This Way
  19. Childish Gambino – EP
  20. The Weeknd – Echoes of Silence
  21. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
  22. Ellie Goulding – Bright Lights
  23. M83 – Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
  24. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
  25. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
  26. Drake – Take Care
  27. Chamillionaire – Major Pain 1.5
  28. Das Racist - Relax
  29. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
  30. Lil B – I Forgive You
  31. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!
  32. Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire – Lost In Translation
  33. Marissa Nadler – Marissa Nadler
  34. Lenka - Two
  35. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
  36. Weird Al Yankovic – Alpocalypse
  37. Cities Aviv – Digital Lows
  38. Selena Gomez & The Scene – When The Sun Goes Down
  39. Various Artists – Lemonade Mouth OST
  40. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
  41. Lil B – Im Gay (Im Happy)
  42. Big K.R.I.T – Return of 4Eva
  43. Various Artists – Victorious: Music From The Hit TV Show
  44. Twin Sister – In Heaven
  45. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
  46. The Weeknd – Thursday
  47. Childish Gambino - Camp
  48. Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire – Merry eX-Mas & Suck My Dick!
  49. MellowHype – BlackenedWhite (re-release)
  50. Frank Ocean – nostalgia, ULTRA
  51. Curren$y – Weekend At Burnies
  52. Panda Bear - Tomboy
  53. The Throne – Watch the Throne
  54. Atmosphere – The Family Sign
  55. Iceage – New Brigade
  56. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Belong
  57. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
  58. Curren$y – Back in the Winner’s Circle
  59. The Antlers – Burst Apart
  60. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
  61. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
  62. Pusha-T – Fear of God
  63. The Lonely Island – Turtleneck and Chain
  64. Team Teamwork – Team Teamwork Presents Super Nintendo Sega Genesis
  65. The Beets – Stay Home

And that will just about wrap up 2011 music coverage here at Processed Grass. Did I get it 'right' or did I completely miss out on your favorite album? Did I maybe not even get time to listen to your favorite? I'm only a real human being, and a real hero, but still just a real human being. Let me know in comments either way! And here's hoping to an even more incredible 2012.


Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blogfilled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2011 Richard James Thorne

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