Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking on 2011 - Top Albums (Q2 Quarterly Review)

My personal vendetta against 2011 continues along at a quick pace, following up the Top Tracks Q2 Review with a larger focus. We're going to be talking about albums, those complex monsters that haunt the innards of our iPods. Crackling on the speakers in the car during long rides, pulsating through ear buds while you're on the day's run, albums are meant to be digested. Even though the year is only half over, I am actually surprised at just how great a year it has been for music. Not to mention that my most anticipated albums are still to be released! Below we have the good, few marks of ugly from 2011. Before reading, check out how the list has changed as well, but catching up on the Q1 Quarterly Review of Top Albums. Here at Processed Grass I am all comprehensive, all the time!

40. The Beets - Stay Home (-25)

The Beets still hold the bottom slot on the year. I have tried listening to the album again, but the sounds are too muted to let the songwriting shine through. While the experience is not taxing, it certainly is not the enjoyable indie rock that I hoped to find.

39. Team Teamwork - Team Teamwork Presents Super Nintendo Sega Genesis (-25)

Not much has changed here either, it's just another mash up that is far too inconsistent for its own good. These songs live and die by their instrumentals, and the heavy emphasis on samples from fighting games and beat-em-ups only makes for forgettable tracks and an underwhelming album.

38. The Lonely Island - Turtleneck and Chain (NE)

Not only is this CD occasionally too long, it commits what is likely the greatest sin that a comedy hip-hop album can commit: it is not funny. The songs come across as needlessly in your face, and ultimately hollow and desperate.

37. Pusha-T - Fear of God (-28)

I had high hopes for Pusha-T's mixtape, but it really is a bit of a mess. However, he has said that his new album is going to sound incredibly different, and will likely be more unified in concept. Hopefully there is some kind of redemption, because I don't care for the taste this album has left.

36. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo (NE)

Some people have told me that Kurt Vile is bedroom pop. That genre's name is a good deal more entertaining than the entirety of this album. Too bloated, too forgettable, Vile's latest is not even a mixed bag, it's just kind of a bag.

35. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact (NE)

This is the album I think I personally struggled the most with on this list. I am a lyrical man. That's the reason I listen to music, I like to contemplate the lyrics and think about the ideas that they are presenting me with, and for the most part Gang Gang Dance are so concerned with sound that the sparse lyrics take a back seat. However, the instrumentals here are literally the best musical arrangements I have heard this year, and I imagine this album will rise at least a little bit as I give it a few more listens in the future.

34. The Antlers - Burst Apart (NE)

It is fitting that this album is directly above the Gang Gang Dance album, and that's because The Antlers tackle subjects that are so dark and depressing that I cannot help but get excited by the idea of the songs. Sadly, the instrumentals here are far too basic, and the lyrics a tad too muffled, to ascend to the plateau that The Antlers were capable of ascending.

33. Curren$y - Back In The Winner's Circle (-22)

This mixtape is fairly short, but Curren$y brings an energy to each track that is endearing. His subject matter is not always the most engaging, but the delivery is slick and confident, and sometimes that's all a rapper really needs to get by.

32. The Weeknd - House of Balloons (-22)

R&B is not a genre that I am overly fond of, but there is enjoyment to be had with the more anti-R&B that The Weeknd creates. There's a loneliness and desperation that carries throughout the short mixtape that seemingly came out of nowhere. The beats used are dizzying, the lyrics are saddening, and that always makes for a good album.

31. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Belong (-23)

This CD is charming, but not infectious. I think that's a problem, and that makes the album a bit too forgettable for its own good. The best indie rock has highs that you want to just put on and caress you, rocking you to sleep and them amping you up from that slumber. Those are the feelings that I search for, missing those are the only pains I have felt.

30. Atmosphere - The Family Sign (NE)

I count Atmopshere's latest true album When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold among one of modern hip-hop's greatest accomplishments. I had figured that this album would not capture the same greatness that the former did, mostly because that album caught me at exactly the right time, but despite Slug still laying down some great lines, this album does not only seem less personal, it simply seems sterile.

29. Panda Bear - Tomboy (NE)

Animal Collective front man Panda Bear definitely pulls out all the stops in a slightly bloated album, but even with all the indulgence the high points are well worth getting through the fat. Much like Animal Collective, Panda Bear is at his finest when making use of a variety of sounds and repetition to evoke emotion, and when it hits, it hits like a fire truck.

28. Curren$y - Weekend At Burnies (NE)

And so here we are again, stoner rapper Curren$y finds himself on the wrong side of the list. I actually really admire him for taking a genre that is far too easy to dismiss and make it relevant. Sure, he doesn't have the most complex songs, nor is this album the greatest thing hip-hop has produced this year, but it's a lot of fun to simply sit back and listen to even if you're not smoking, and I have to imagine that is Curren$y's goal. Keep up the prolific pace, Curren$y, I'll keep listening.

27. Frank Ocean - nostalgia, ULTRA (NE)

Another in the line of anti-R&B, Frank Ocean's OFWGKTA affiliated album delivers a darker, biting sarcasm that the genre as a whole could use more of, and it also makes for an unexpectedly humorous album. It also, like most of the great OFWGKTA records do, experiments with maintaining some kind of thematic consistency and running motifs to enhance Ocean's already stellar vocals.

26. Big K.R.I.T - Return of 4Eva (NE)

Fitting that this one follows up Frank Ocean's album, because Big K.R.I.T's album is also all about appealing toward an era far in the past. Less than ten years ago the Southern hip-hop scene absolutely blew up, and then quickly dissipated in to near obscurity. K.R.I.T assembles these artists who rose to prominence and then went back to the underground. And they all collide in a wonderful fashion that absolutely hits all of my memory's sweet spots.

25. Fucked Up - David Comes To Life (NE)

Concept albums are a dying breed, so Fucked Up's latest was a pleasant surprise. It is sprawling, sometimes to its detriment, but it is hard not to admire an album that so completely commits to an idea and really fleshes it out. I'm not entirely sure if this album is punk at its purest, but the music is loud, the lyrics are intense, and the concept is seen through to the end.

24. Lil B - Im Gay (Im Happy) (NE)

Really all I need to say here are four simple words: Thank You Based God. Lil B breaks from his Youtube freestyles to produce a startlingly complete album. Lil B is not the best rapper, but each track conveys a love for the art, and his ability to tackle the absurd to the harrowing shows an impressive ambition.

23. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (NE)

There's a poetic beauty that comes through and delivers some phenomenal highs. What I find to be the greatest strength of this album is how, with such a quiet and soothing band, how charged some of the songs can feel. By blending the two Fleet Foxes achieve something special in what is a well rounded sophomore album.

22. Lemonade Mouth - Lemonade Mouth Soundtrack (NE)

I reviewed this Disney Channel Original Movie, and while I did not expect to enjoy it all that much, I was taken with the musical talents of the main band. As such, the soundtrack compacts all the best parts of the film in to a single area for all the jolts of manufactured pop rock enjoyment that I could ever hope to have. All the memories, they come flooding back!

21. Selena Gomez & The Scene - When The Sun Goes Down (NE)

Speaking of easily digestible teen pop, Gomez's latest album is, without a doubt, her best to date. I am a big fan of Gomez's work so far, but her music has never been her strongest area. What she does here is impressive, seemingly finding a voice and style that varies enough to carry at least half of an album. As a whole the affair is a bit uneven, if only because of how top heavy it is, but it's also an encouraging step forward for Gomez.

20. Weird Al Yankovic - Alpocalypse (NE)

Because of the nature of much of Weird Al's recent music - most of his recent albums have been a 50/50 split between actual songs and parodies - it usually comes with an expiration date. But the parodies here are, at least mostly, not simple throw away tracks. They take some easy shots, but they are mostly funny enough. The real strength of the album is the original tracks though, allowing Al to flesh out some darker ideas. We are all Skipper Dan at some point.

19. Cut Copy - Zonoscope (-7)

Australian band Cut Copy create an ambitious, infectious journey. Actually, that's a fine way to describe the feelings that are conveyed through the upbeat instruments. Likely more than any other album on this list, it's something that I just want to listen to with other people. I'll bet that Cut Copy would be great to see in concert.

18. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (NE)

Not too much to say about Bon Iver's second album. It is startlingly pretty, making use of layered vocals alongside some nice instrumental arrangements, and I know that there is an idea he is experimenting with by listening and looking at the song titles. However, I really am not sure to what end the themes are driving toward, and when you have that disconnect it holds an album back from the greatness it could achieve.

17. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up (NE)

Speaking of titles, there probably will not be another album this year with track names even half as awesome as the ones on this Shabazz Palaces record. This type of hip-hop actually reminds me a lot of Cannibal Ox, and in that sense I think I owe it a couple more listens to see exactly how it grows. Until then, there's no shame in being in the upper half of this list.

16. Cults - Cults

About half the time I absolutely am in love with this Cults album. The other half I am annoyed that the distortion is not properly used, drowning out the vocals and making for slightly confusing songs. But there's a nice unity that holds the whole album together at its core, and that strong core makes for a compelling experience, even if it's a bit uneven.

15. Ellie Goulding - Bright Lights

I missed out on Ellie Goulding's Lights last year, and with the US release of this album I figured it was as good a time as any to jump on the train. Or do they call it an express in the UK? Either way, I was glad to board, as Goulding's specific type of pop calls back, at least slightly, to some of my favorite tracks from similar female vocalists. The album is a bit too long for its own good, but as a collection of three to four minute pop songs with enough depth to nearly justify the run time.

14. Chamillionaire - Major Pain 1.5 (NE)

Chamillionaire is one of my favorite rappers. he's a technical genius who packs each line with so much word play, so much rhythm, that he makes the art seem both approachable and insanely complex. I was initially fooled by the 1.5 in the title, this mixtape is certainly not a stop gap between his major releases, because he is once again in top form. Such a dedication to the craft is rare in an industry that is constantly pushing forward and releasing as much as possible. Chamillionaire takes the time to polish his music, and it shows on each and every track.

13. Childish Gambino - EP (-8)

Donald Glover's Childish Gambino moniker has released a damn fine collection of five songs. His greatest strength as a rapper, it seems, is to take a line and slightly twist it so it is ever so askew. The music makes you stop and consider the lyrics, if not for any other reason than to simply see how he makes a line work. He appeals to the outsider in everyone, an alienation that we have all felt, and a desire to succeed. These ideas come through on each track and are padded with some fantastic word play, delivering an enjoyable cerebral experience that a majority of rappers have lost.

12. Lady GaGa - Born This Way (NE)

GaGa's new CD is incredibly excessive. Not in a bad way, just in a way that makes it seem a good deal longer than it actually is. What I am enamored by though is her audacity. GaGa is known for her stunts, but it's her voice that sells her thoughtful pop. I'm actually not sure that there's a bad track on this entire album. It's not nearly as catchy as her previous works, but as an artist it's another step forward in what is hopefully a long, fruitful career.

11. Miranda Cosgrove - High Maintenance (-4)

Little has changed from my initial review of Cosgrove's EP, so I do not know that i actually need to retread old territory. It shows that she has found a distinctive voice and style, the compact five song format lets her demonstrate a range without growing repetitive, and as a growing performer she has made a huge leap forward. All she wants is everything. Does that make sense?

10. Destroyer - Kaputt (-4)

When I think of song writing and musical composition, Destroyer kind of rises to the top of my thought, especially when I limit it to 2011 releases. There are seemingly orchestral arrangements that the band brings out, but that does not mean that the lyrics take a back seat. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite, they remain incredibly poetic, delivered just as wonderfully as they are written.

9. Tyler, the Creator - GOBLIN (NE)

Tyler's CD, like GaGa and Kanye West before him, is incredibly indulgent. However, despite the horrorcore label that he has been branded with, he brings such a thrilling level of humanity to this album that the indulgence is justified. This album is not a sprint, it's a marathon, and technically it is even better when listened to directly after Tyler's debut album, because the two have a narrative device that carries through each release, but even on its own, Tyler has made one of the year's definitive albums.

8. the Mountain Goats - All Eternal's Deck (-6)

the Mountain Goats are awesome. This album sees John Darnielle in what is apparently another major sound for his musical project, and in many ways this is likely the high water mark of that sound up to this point in time. His songs all stand together as individual poems, but taken in context the album is even stronger, with each track purposefully placed, building on complex notions of lost desire.

7. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes (-4)

I'm a sucker for music like this. I mean, come on, it's called Wounded Rhymes! Though you may think that it makes direct appeals to my (your?) angst ridden heart, it's Li's songwriting that balances strength with melancholy that really pushes it over the top. It's simply a beautiful album. Not really heart breaking, just desolate and wonderful.

6. Various Artists - The Book of Mormon OST (NE)

Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It doesn't really matter which order you put the two in, as I'm sure both minds have their own specific type of genius that contributed to this incredible collection of songs. yes, the album tells a sustained narrative, because that's what the musical does. But even if that is discredited (I didn't, but hypothetically), the soundtrack is both funny and true enough to make for a fantastic listening experience.

5. James Blake - James Blake (-1)

James Blake does not make flashy music. What he does do is use traditional musical elements, such as repetition, to create aural experiences. I actually think this album is best compared with Bon Iver's album. Each use similar vocal strategies, layering their own voices over and over again, and where Bon Iver uses instruments, Blake uses technology. The difference, for me, is that Blake's lyrics are simply much more haunting. They hit me at a core level, seemingly stripping down the emotions and themes to their most bare. And yet it still works perfectly. It is always said that less is more, and I am very skeptical of that statement, but Blake proves it masterfully.

4. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l (NE)

This entire album is an exercise in sound. The lead singer's voice is used in so many different ways, and each track has its own unique identity. I don't know if I have had more fun listening to an album this year than I have with the tUnE-yArDs record, simply because it is so high powered. But it also does soft and creepy so well. I understand that the songwriting may rub some people the wrong way, but I think it's used with such a spoonful of irony that it almost becomes honest. And it always remains beautiful.

3. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints (NE)

We're a point in the list, and we actually have been for quite a while, where any of these albums could have occupied the top slot. EMA's album is special because of the darkness that it brings to the table. But it balances this with such a shattering sadness that it makes for one of the year's most delightfully depressing albums. The subject material she covers is expansive, as are the sounds she uses, and it almost seems like I am putting her record too low by having her at number three.

2. Cass McCombs - Wit's End (NE)

I have compared John Darnielle to Bob Dylan before, but from the hair on the album cover, to the long song with fairly standard instrumentals, to the distinctive voice, McCombs really demands the comparison as well. What I love about this album though is that it, at times, even reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite poets. It's truly a testament to his writing skills that these comparisons can hold water. It's even more telling of his talent that this album still remains distinctively McCombs.

1. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (0)

And here we are once again. PJ Harvey has some stiff competition, but she holds on to the top spot by releasing the most 'complete' album of the entire year. The song writing is what stands out, though oddly like McCombs there is no single track that actually rises distinctively above the rest (probably to the album's benefit), but literally ever other element of the album is fine tuned as well. The instruments, the concept, the execution, it is all handled masterfully. I'm sure other will challenge PJ Harvey, but for now she holds the top slot with a well deserved album.

And with that my music Quarterly Reviews are complete. If you read the whole post, or even just parts, and agree or disagree let me know in the comments section! I'd love to hear, and because this post took so long to construct I hope it doesn't just sink in to the abyss of my other posts. Look forward to hearing back!

Up Next: Top Films Q2 Review


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. Or if video games are more your thing, I have a blog dedicated to all gaming news, reviews, and opinions.

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© 2011 Richard James Thorne


  1. I agree with you on a lot of these, especially Destroyer's great album. One album that I liked a bit more was from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I really enjoyed their first record, and the smoother production of this one worked perfectly for me. I've listened to it repeatedly over the past few months. I will say that just looking at the emotions of the album, I can't really argue with your assessment. Great list. I've envious that you've heard that many already this year.

  2. Thanks for reading!

    The Destroyer album is pretty fantastic. I'm going to be seeing them in a couple of week, and I'm very interested to see exactly how they bring all of those sounds to the stage. Listening to it I sort of feel like they would need an entire orchestra with them to pull it off.