Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Taking On 2011 - Top Albums (Quarterly Review)

The onslaught of 2011 talk continues as Processed Grass turns its attention to the year's best albums, but I think the best question to ask is 'what makes an album?' I use a very liberal definition of 'album' so on this list I am going to include mixtapes and EPs as albums. We don't exclude here at Processed Grass, we include, we hope to shine lights, we want the artists to thrive. We are in a digital age, or so the picture box tells me when the news is on, and with so many methods of distribution, occasionally with intent to sell, removing some of the shining examples of artistic expression does not allow us to process. Process away, the music is waiting.

14. The Beets - Stay Home

The name of this band threw me off considerably. I went in expecting remixes of "We Need More Allowance" and other classics from the famous band popularized on the cartoon Doug, but what I found was a heavily distorted, highly faded, portrait of loneliness and youth. The lyrics here are beautiful at times, capturing feelings of my forgotten youth, but that tends to only happen when you can actually hear what is being sung. The record feels distant, and perhaps the past is distant, but I want to hold the past, not be aware of its unavailability. Also, such dank album artwork, simply stunning.

13. Team Teamwork - Team Teamwork Presents Super Nintendo Sega Genesis

I do not get along with mash ups, but I do get along with video games. I have also had an ongoing affair with hip-hop. With this release my infidelity is revealed as Team Teamwork brings all three elements together in the same digital space. Albeit a bit uneven, nothing strokes my nostalgia quite like hearing the music of Sonic the Hedgehog 3's Casino Zone behind a Lupe Fiasco track. If this CD does one thing it proves that platformers tend to have some fantastic music. Conversely, fighting games and brawlers do not.

12. Cut Copy - Zonoscope

They say that in Australia when it is winter in America land, it is summer there. This has been proven with science. Also proven with science is the badassery of surf rock pop. When I listen to this in the summer of the real world would I not fit in on that mighty continent? Do I ever really live in summer, or do I just exist in Australia's winter? Does the lyrical complexity of many of the tracks on Cut Copy's opus undermine the breezy feel to many of the standout tracks? Should we try to solve life's mysteries? We are here to savor. To observe. The understand. :au:

11. Curren$y - Return to the Winner's Circle

Braggadocio hip-hop has always been a beast that I struggle with because it asks me to forget the world, to not think of politics, to live vicariously. To floss, the shine, to stunt, to project. And there are times on the CD where Curren$y does his best to live up to what should repulse me, but strangely attracts me, to this type of hip-hop, though he ascends these tropes to make for a higher level of showmanship. That is what it means, I suppose, to be back in the winner's circle, and Curren$y will likely stay there for some time if he keeps putting out solid mixtapes like this one.

10. The Weeknd - House of Balloons

Urban is making a comeback, or at least what MTV has told me urban should be classified as is making a comeback. The sounds of R&B smoothly litter this debut album/mixtape/EP from The Weeknd, a group/artist still shrouded in mystery, but what changes it a bit is the way the lyrics become distinctly anti-R&B. Tensions and binaries dictate our world, not a second goes by without these forces pulling us, gripping at our jeans and tugging, begging for attention. The Weeknd don't beg, they/he/she/it creates.

9. Pusha-T - Fear of God

Being Pusha-T is probably pretty difficult, well aside from being a super player baller money making extraordinaire. He has found an audience in the past, but has the name Pusha-T ever meant anything to the mainstream? At times, yes, but now he risks being lost in the lofty shadow of Kanye over at the G.O.O.D Music label. But as the label's name implies, Pusha-T makes damn good music, and the CD has a distinctive feel, sound, and energy. The mixtape, at times, feels like a prelude to something bigger, and with Pusha-T's album on the way later in the year that is understandable, but even as a stopgap this mixtape has some damn fine tracks.

8. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Belong

Since this CD just came out today I have not had close to the amount of time with it as I have had with the other albums that occupy this list. Still, the latest from The Pains of Being Pure At Heart offers a sustained mood that, at times, seems to betray the band's name. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the lyrics pound, they cut, and my eyes are fully opened. The whole album seems incredibly steady, but these impressions are rough, literally only in infancy, less than thirty minutes old, and the record is included for posterity. I look forward to reassessing it, to letting it wash over me in the car, in the sun, in settings damn it. That's the spirit of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, the essence, what we all search for each day, in the streets of Brooklyn, in used record stores, in buttons.

7. Miranda Cosgrove - High Maintenance

I have raved about the merits of this EP twice before, so I'll take this time to do a bit more pondering. Cosgrove matures, quietly and quickly, from her debut album to this one, seemingly without any of the growing pains that similar artists encounter. When is the point where we stop asking to grow up, when we start yearning for youth? Is there a time frame where we just live, before it comes slamming shut and we yearn, then we accept, then we go numb? Is Miranda Cosgrove in that time right now? The music speaks for itself, and I hope it keeps speaking.

6. Destroyer - Kaputt

Early on in the CD the words "I write poetry for myself" ring out. It's this magical moment that defines the mystique of Destroyer's latest CD, an announcement of artistic vision streaming from a passionately disconnected voice. Sometimes being punched is nice, we need the reminders of pain in order to appreciate the beauty. This CD drags us down and around, but then it puts us on the cliffside and asks us to survey the land, the ingest the beauty. All hail Destroyer.

5. Childish Gambino - EP

The latest release from Childish Gambino establishes a new force in hip-hop, capable of blending intricate wordplay with a variety of styles. The EP showcases Gambino's ability to work with minimal tracks that showcase lyrical prowess and delivery, evident on "Freaks and Geeks," while also slowing down and working with the singer/rapper combos that have lately been popularized on his tracks "Shine" and "Be Alone." Beyond the lyrical intricacies is a raw emotion, a core that anchors great music, great works of art.

4. James Blake - James Blake

I lamented in my Top Tracks Quarterly Review that I am unsure whether or not James Blake makes dubstep. I doubt I really need to know, or that being able to identify Blake with a singular label would do much justice to the finely crafted aural experience that he has, instrument by instrument, pieced together to make one of the year's most unique and fulfilling experiences. James Blake offers a series of thoughts, he sets moods that rise and fall, perfect fluctuations.

3. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

I find myself strangely attracted to much of the material in Lykke Li's sophomore release. Acting as a quasi love letter to heartache, Li captures the majesty of feeling. We, collectively, seem to scoff at the way angst is portrayed in many forms of popular media, but Li's mediation on sadness serves as an insightful portrayal of the emotions we wish away, but still possess. Nowhere is this more apparent than the stunning "Sadness is a Blessing" a showcase of Li's talents, an reexamination of the growing process, a denouncement and acceptance, a quiet beauty. I suppose that time on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack helped her grow. Long live Lykke Li.

2. the Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck/All Survivors Pack

Any regular reader will know that, as a writer, both journalist and creatively, there is no man I admire more than John Darnielle, whom I consider to be the greatest living poet. What he has crafted is, once again, a beautifully deep thematic concept album that, while existing as a unique experience also fits in perfectly with the Mountain Goats's discography up until this point. The star fo the show are, as usual, Darnielle's poignant lyrics, boiling down complex ideas into the most approachable, poetic verses. And with All Survivors Pack Darnielle offers even more insight in to the process of creating, allowing the listener to watch sounds develop, to refine, but by issuing it on cassette tape, a custom of the early Mountain Goats recordings, Darnielle cleverly plays on the idea of the relic that is strung throughout many of the songs. It's all brilliant, it's all so perfect, it's all so beautiful. the Mountain Goats are music, they are poetry, they are perfection.

1. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

What makes PJ Harvey's album my favorite of the year so far, and in all likelihood for quite a while in the future, is the way it uses a historical backdrop to confront the present, to explore a specific time, a specific event, so perfectly while also probing at our world. It's a perfectly formed micro and macro relationship, all tied together by a sweeping range of instruments and Harvey's piercing lyrics and singing voice. It's not only England that is meant to shake in Harvey's latest, it's a quake that disrupts the flow of time. But in this division a unity is found, and in this unity realizations of the interconnectedness of time are discovered. Let England Shake is not a record to that should be waded in, it's a vast ocean meant to be discovered, explored, opened up.

Eclectic! If I was to make an uninformed guess about the rest of the year I would venture to assume that there will be many more projects from solo artists that crack my next Quarterly Review in June. Times change, perceptions shift, list making is a process, and here at the Grass we will continue to process, to produce, to consume.

Next Up: Top Films Of 2011 So Far


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

Also I am on the old Twitter thing so I guess you can follow me at twitter.com/FLYmeatwad.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Have Two Big Hands And A Heart Pumping Blood

As I compile my Quarterly Review over at Processed Grass, I have come to the sad realization that in a world of digital downloads, bite-sized games, and tent pole January releases I have played one game released in 2011. Sure I have poked around at my backlog, finally getting a bit of time to dive in to Darksiders and Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time, but all I have ended up playing consistently has been Pokemon: Black Version, and before that a few Nintendo DS games that I had been meaning to spend a bit more time with before bigger releases overshadowed them. With the 3DS hitting the North American wilds just a day earlier I got to thinking about why it is, with so many options, I have spent so much time with my handheld lately.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Taking On 2011 - Top Tracks (Q1)

Here at Processed Grass we have a strong attraction to all of the finer arts, so despite keeping a focus on film we still like to take the time to cover the other art forms that make up the abhorrent zeitgeist. With March drawing to a close rapidly it's time to start assessing the cultural output of the first quarter of the year. I have been on a quest to listen to more music from 2011, and I think that I have been successful in that so far, actually I'm averaging about a CD a week which is astounding given how paltry my year end list was in 2010; however, the more things change the more they tend to stay the same. In an attempt to expand my horizons the old ports have beckoned me back, in the long nights as the lighthouse rotates its the familiar lands I find myself drawn to, thriving upon. Drop the anchor, moor the boat, we'll be staying for a while.

10. EMA - "California"

Distortion can work wonders on tracks, Japandroids and Sleigh Bells have made it a staple of some of last year's best tunes, and while it may border on blasphemy to call distortion the possible followup to autotune, it seems like a sound device that can easily be similarly abused. Thankfully EMA, along with the disconnection she delivers the puncturing lyrics, appears to fall in line with the former artists. The stark desperation, the worn down tone, the burnt out youth. After the four minutes have finished there is no longer a song, only a mirror, another lens, and we all hold the gun.

9. Kanye West and Jay-Z - "H.A.M"

Excessive was a word that described Kanye West's masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it also serves a descriptor of Jay-Z's Brett Favre~esque bouts with retirement. The first single from their upcoming duet album promises an album that is, as both artists do best, nothing short of brilliantly excessive. Kanye and Jay-Z build and build, keeping a flow but increasing in energy until the song reaches the only logical conclusion: a background opera encompassing the beat. No musical genre is safe. Kanye West is here.

8. Avril Lavigne - "What The Hell"

I like to imagine that in a mall, probably in the deep recesses of Canada, someone is still listening to "Sk8ter Boi" for the first time. Avril has always excelled as bringing the alternative voice to traditional pop, playing upon convention by layering on top a snarly challenge to the prescribed musical norms, existing as the bramble of music, technically capable of causing some harm, but ultimately housing some kind of sweetness amid the prickles. "What The Hell" carries on this tradition, seeing Avril capture the slightly off-kilter pop sound that made her debut tracks staples of my iTunes library.

7. Lykke Li - "Get Some"

During the last presidential election one of the key topics discussed was the way America outsourced its jobs and the fallout that has resulted because of the relocation of labor. Maybe it has to do with cheaper labor, perhaps companies are attempting to dodge taxes, or just maybe the product is better. If product of Europe Lykke Li is any indication it all begins to add up. Though "Get Some" is much louder than anything else from her stellar sophomore record, the song's charm is found in the seductive power play that Li makes, offsetting the phallocentric ideals and becoming the whore and the Madonna, the alpha and the omega, the power displaced.

6. Childish Gambino - "Freaks And Geeks"

The opening bars of the song strongly proclaim: "Gambino is a mastermind." In hip-hop you are asked to put on a front, the exude a confidence and swagger to make known that you are the hottest artist to ever pick up a microphone, and Donald Glover does a damn fine job of backing up that opening line, backing up the swag. The delivery on the track is rapid fire, barely taking the time to breath between bars, giving a 'blink and you'll miss it' feeling of emergency to the track. And if you blink you will miss quite a bit, because the wordplay from line to line is astounding. He engages the consciousness, weds it even, and the brain is left fornicated. he is running this bitch, we are just dog walkers.

5. James Blake - "I Never Learnt To Share"

I don't think this song is dubstep, but if it is dubstep then I have been missing out on an entirely different type of music that I need to dive in to at the earliest chance. What stands out most to me about this track, and the James Blake record as a whole, is that it does something that few other records have been able to do: it relies on sound progression and heavy instrumentals to sustain an entire album and he allows me to understand the progression. I know why sounds shift, how songs build, where the fluctuations are, and why they are. Part of this is because Blake uses his voice almost as an instrument, but his lyrics are varied and sharp enough to make me want to explore the songs. And what is music if not an exploratory process?

4. PJ Harvey - "The Words That Maketh Murder"

History is a concept that is not incredibly tangible, sometimes it is even best conveyed by collecting experiences and relaying emotions, or at least appealing to emotions. In this we see the timelessness of history. Ken Levine talked about making Bioshock Infinite and said that they looked to the past to see the future, to realize that world. It seems that is what PJ Harvey has done here, and we learn that we are trapped, but at least this awareness is brought to us with beauty.

3. Miranda Cosgrove feat. Rivers Cuomo - "High Maintenance"

I could rave about the was Miranda has matured with this EP, how the song captures a playfulness and energy that surpasses anything she has ever done up until this point. How the inclusion of Rivers adds a nice compliment to Cosgrove's voice and results in a nice back and forth between the two artists. But I just wrote about all this, so go read my review of Cosgrove's EP for the complete thoughts of how great that EP is, and why the titular track is so incredible.

2. the Mountain Goats - "Estate Sale Sign"

As the Mountain Goats delve further in to their third major 'sound' they blend the sombre tone that was found in the previous record with the shrills that mark some of John Darnielle's most iconic tracks. Like the best songs he has written and performed, "Estate Sale Sign" captures an intensity in the vocal fluctuations that Darnielle brings to the track, and to the CD as a whole. The verses culminate in a desperation, a howl of defiance that make the chorus as iconic as anything Darnielle has ever written. All Eternals Deck is the last record I listened to before compiling my lists, and while there are plenty of worthy songs to occupy this spot, my gut tells me this is the song that deserves the mention. It punched the hardest, and I'm still doubled over.

1. Tyler, the Creator - "Yonkers"

I have written before that I have the softest of spots for hip-hop, and Tyler, the Creator's latest track off his upcoming album Goblin captures all the elements that first attracted me to the music. The beats is not overly complex, and the flow is not rushed. It lets the lyrics exist, and it uses those lyrics to blatantly draw attention to society's taboos. But controversy on its own cannot sustain a song, let alone make it the year's best track. No, what Tyler has is, as member of his crew OFWGKTA say, swag. He's a rapper, but the song is artistic license at its finest. When listening to the track it's clear that an artist is hard at work, perfecting a craft, a subgenre that has been lost in the corporate shuffle to make the music a commodity. "Yonkers" represents a movement, a future (I am using all my restraint to not call it an Odd Future), and hip-hop is ready to rise once more. Oh yeah, and there's almost no chance there will be a better music video this year.

If ten songs were not enough I have the next ten listed below, all with links to youtube videos of the songs, just like the ones above, all you need to do is click the song titles.

Songs On The Bubble

11. Selena Gomez & the Scene - "Who Says"
12. Lady GaGa - "Born This Way"
13. Fleet Foxes - "Helplessness Blues"
14. Destroyer - "Savage Night At The Opera"
15. Frank Ocean - "Songs For Women"
16. Curren$y feat. Big K.R.I.T and Killa Kyleon - "Moon And The Stars"
17. Cut Copy - "Pharaohs and Pyramids"
18. Panda Bear - "Last Night At The Jetty"
19. Radiohead - "Lotus Flower"
20. Rebecca Black - "Friday"

Next Up: Best Albums Of The Year So Far


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

All I Want Is Everything, Does That Make Sense?

Miranda Cosgrove - High Maintenance (2011)

Last year Miranda Cosgrove, teenage starlet of Nickelodeon's wildly popular show iCarly, released her first full length album, Sparks Fly. The record was, essentially, a brief 8 track sample that blended an inconsistent mash-up of styles. Much like other teen actresses turned singer (Selena Gomez), Cosgrove's debut was more notable as an experiment that seemed to throw as many styles at the wall in hopes that something would stand out. To be completely honest the record reminded me of being at a hospital, watching over a loved one strapped to a life support machine; at times there are peaks, you might even convince yourself that there's some hope, but ultimately you know how things are going to end. Suddenly a flat line fills the air, all your fears have been realized. But sometimes miracles happen. In the distance you hear a faint beeping. High Maintenance is here.

I approach any record where the primary artist does not write the songs with a great hesitancy, and while Cosgrove is given a partial writing credit on one of the tracks the CD never feels as if it is some great passion project pulsating with creative intensity. On her debut album she worked with Ke$ha on a song, one of the more racy tracks of an otherwise tame record, but here she teams up with the likes of Avril Lavigne and Rivers Cuomo, the latter also happens to be featured on the titular track. Teaming with these titans, Cosgrove seems to be making a push for pop supremacy, and the energy she brings to the Lavigne penned "Dancing Crazy" is a Nevildine/Taylor jolt that sets the tone for the rest of the brief record. Cosgrove's sound has been, in one short year, so refined and defined. She may not completely exist as an artist on the CD, but as a conduit and interpreter she brings an up tempo charm and playfulness to each track that marks her territory as a legitimate name in pop music.

But Cosgrove exists as more than just a name, and this CD is more than a staked claim in an supersaturated genre. She has discovered more than just a sound, more than just a vocal presence and identity, what the CD ultimately yields is an aspect that so many of her contemporaries have actively sought: maturity. The record's standout track, "High Maintenance," has Cosgrove question: "So what if I break a few glasses/kick a few asses?" Ignoring the subpar rhyme, the line is simply glossed over. But for a girl who makes her fame selling product to the youth this moment of seeming insignificance is a leap. But by keeping this casual, along with the inclusion of tracks like the Shontelle covered "Kiss You Up," Cosgrove quietly matures, unlike the needlessly abrasive cries for maturity heard on the Miley Cyrus CD Can't Be Tamed. Cosgrove does not give off the sense that she is a dog chasing the tail of maturity, it feels natural, it feels refreshing. I have walked in the forests, bathed in the streams, my faith has been restored.

Faith, however, is easy to shake, ye heathens. While the five songs that make up the EP are tightly wound, wonderfully united, each one has an odd trend of simply ending. There's no major climax, they don't even fade away, the songs simply stop. For a record so refined and developed the quick conclusions are jarring. The first song is perhaps excusable, but I can only be shaken around so long before it becomes annoying. But I pick nits when my complaints starts to be about the last couple of seconds of what are otherwise well constructed tracks. The backing beats pulse, the tracks are slightly overproduced, Rivers Cuomo sings about a quasi-relationship with a girl who is nearly young enough to be his daughter: this is pop.

Miranda Cosgrove is not an elite artist like Demi Lovato. She is, in a few ways, closer to an experiment in the sames ways that Lady GaGa exists in an experimental space. But they all exist on my iPod. High Maintenance does not ask you to question your world, it will bring only about as much transcendence as an hour session speed reading William Wordsworth, but sometimes Wordsworth is all we need. The daffodils dance, they dance crazy, and they never stop.