The Top Fifty Albums of 2016, Albums 30-21

Across the Margin further dives into the Best Albums of 2016 with albums 30-21…

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30. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP

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Schoolboy Q’s follow up to the tremendous Oxymoron (2014), Blank Face LP, is gangster, raucous and indulgent – and we most certainly mean that as a compliment. Proving on album after album that he is one of hip-hop’s most consistent of acts, on Blank Face LP Schoolboy Q makes a statement, dropping a nearly seventy-four minute album that embodies his fiery spirit on each and every track. Enlisting help from his West Coast brethren such as E-40, Tha Dogg Pound, Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and Anderson Paak, Blank Face LP is a celebration of a thriving West Coast rap scene. There are standout tracks along the way such as the gangster anthem “Ride Out” with Vince Staples, the Kanye collaboration “That Part,” “Dope Dealer” (that E-40 verse tho!) and the drug dealing opus “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane” with Jadakiss which acts as a warning of sorts to those who are contemplating breaking into the drug game. But truly, the album is best served in aggregate, where you can fully immerse yourself in the one of the most in your face and biting releases this year.

Essential Tracks: “Ride Out (feat Vince Staples)”, “That Part,” and “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane.”

29. Massive Attack – Ritual Spirit 

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The first of Massive Attack’s two 2016 EPs, Ritual Spirit, both harkens back to the glory days of Mezzanine and expands upon the dark pulse of Heligoland. Pushing their sound forward while staying true to their past, Massive Attack have joined forces for the first time since the wondrous days of “Protection” with early collaborator Tricky. And it feels like hindsight has given the trip-hop pioneers 20/20 musical vision, for they have taken the wizardry that fashioned not one but three of the most influential albums of the 90’s  and created an all new elixir dense with a searing array of guitars, bass, strings, and electronic sorcery. Add in a healthy dose of hip-hop from London-based rapper Roots Manuva and what Massive Attack have done is created a small masterpiece of heady atmosphere and bombastic lyrics. With track names like “Dead Editors,” “Ritual Spirit,” and “Voodoo in my Blood,” it’s hard not to imagine you’re back in the mindset of 2003’s 100th Window, swaying and thumping as such fabled tracks as “Antistar,” “Future Proof,” and “Butterfly Shot,” assault and captivate your senses. Ritual Spirit may be little more than an exercise in bravado and virtuosity, filled with catchy jungle-beats and wild, electronic oscillations, but it stays with you and refuses to fade into the night.1

Essential tracks: “Dead Editors,” “Ritual Spirit,” and “Voodoo in my Blood.

28. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+ Revolution

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Genre blending, while nothing new, is to us a sign of the times. In a world where access to art throughout the globe is literally a click of a button away, it is no wonder that we are seeing so many great musicians this year release albums that defy convention and are rooted in a bevy of sounds. Esperanza Spalding’s beautiful new album, Emily’s D+ Evolution, is a stunning melding of jazz, pop, soul, and rock that this jazz-trained, Grammy winning phenom (Esperanza was playing violin in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at just five years old!!) artfully fuses to stunning results. Amongst the many talents Esperanza assembled to work with her on this album is veteran producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie’s Blackstar!), who arranged an eclectic work of art that includes the funky In Living Colour-esque “Good Lava,” the triumphant, sultry “One,” and the ambitious “Ebony and Ivory,” a grandiose track bookended by spoken word segments which touches upon weighty issues such as racism, education, and the journey toward self-discovery. And these are a just a few examples of the places this broad work of art will take you, as Emily’s D+ Evolution is as provocative an album we have come upon all year.

Essential Tracks, “Ebony and Ivory,” “One,” and “Elevate and Operate.”

27. Oddisee – The Odd Tape

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Oddisee is slowly coming up from under the radar, and in his time as a musician, both as an emcee and a producer, he has put out a ridiculous amount of content. When he raps his rhymes flow freely and fluidly, but he doesn’t always feel the need to be holding the mic. With albums like Rock Creek Park, The Beauty in All, and New Money Instrumentals, Oddisee has shown us what a capable composer he is, and that his purely instrumental endeavors can stand on their own. This is the case once again with The Odd Tape, twelve instrumental tracks that come together seamlessly. The album transitions from beginning to end with a consistent energy, and there’s absolutely no point where the The Odd Tape stumbles. It switches the tempo and alters the overall mood throughout, but the momentum remains steadfast and constant. True to form, Oddisee fuses his songs with elements of jazz, soul, and hip-hop.

Oddisee will probably be back as early as next year with an album that has over a dozen songs featuring him spitting his rhymes. He’s just that much of a workaholic. But in the meantime, The Odd Tape will tide us over for the remainder of 2016 while we attend parties, go on long drives, pursue our passions, or simply relax in a chair with a drink in our hands.2

Essential Tracks: “Right Side of the Bed,” “On the Table,” “Brea,” and “Long Way Home.”

26. M83 – Junk

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From the first haunting saxophone note in the opening moments of M83’s latest album, Junk, to the wave-like, synthed-out strings and piano on the closing tracks as the album flows back out to sea, it’s clear that you’ve just been taken on a nostalgic journey across the dream-pop landscape of an 80’s retro fantasy. Anthony Gonzales has been manning the helm of the M83 experience for fifteen years now, and having stuck massive success with 2011’s double-album Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, it’s only natural he’d want to further mine that success for Junk. But where Hurry Up We’re Dreaming rocketed us back to the lush, synth-filled dreamworld of the 70’s and 80’s, climaxing with the immersive, synth-metal ballad “Midnight City” (that saxophone!!), Junk takes M83 on a bit of a fascinating detour. It’s as if Gonzales and company have taken the successes of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming and tried to transform them into something else, like an alchemist laboring to turn lead into gold. There’s flashes of their previous triumphs on Junk, as if they were being reflected off the surface of an 80’s LaserDisc, but what’s immediately evident is that there is something different going on here. Gonzalez is quoted as saying, “I wanted to make what I call an ‘organized mess’ – a collection of songs that aren’t made to live with each other, yet somehow work together,” and somehow, with Junk, he’s managed to pull such a contradictory concept off. So if fantasy-filled, nostalgic space operas are your thing than M83’s latest creation is for you. But be warned, you’ll have to travel a bit beyond the orbit of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming in order to check this fascinating piece of artistry out.

Essential tracks: “Road Blaster,” “Do It, Try It,” “Go!” and “Sunday Night 1987.’

25. Young Magic – Still Life

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Continuing on the goodwill earned by laudable acts like Animal Collective and My Bloody Valentine, Young Magic’s latest album, Still Life, combines trip-hop, dream pop and electro in fascinating ways that deftly channel a global musical current. Indonesian-born Melati Malay traveled from the U.S. to her birthplace of Java following the death of her father in order to find understanding and a spiritual connection to the lands and traditions of her father’s past. Still Life feels like a mystical exploration of one person’s attempts to find out who they are and where they come from and the currents of Javan life flow through the album, especially when the Gamelan, a traditional Indonesian percussion instrument similar in sound to wind chimes, becomes a prominent instrument in the album’s sound. Malays’ vocals on Still Life are soaring, hollow, melodic in quality and at times like breathless whispers across time and it’s clear that she’s beginning to emerge as a talented force in the band. With moments of dual drumming providing powerful percussionary facets to Young Magic’s lush, richly layered soundscapes, cycling the songs throughs bouts of dreamy calm and richly-defined chaos, it’s abundantly clear the Young Magic have “cracked the code” when it comes to defining their sound.

Essential tracks: “Lucien,” “Valhalla,” and “Default Memory.”

24. Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony

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Upon initial listen, what’s immediately apparent from Sunflower Beam’s first full-length album, Human Ceremony, is the comfortable ease with which they glide through genres from one song to the other. There’s flavors (and ode’s) to the Smiths, the Velvet Underground, Lush, the Sundays, Sonic Youth, even the Smashing Pumpkins and Ty Segall, and the deepness of their influences and talents suggest great things are in store the Brooklyn-based trio. With singer and guitarist Nick Kiven, drummer Jacob Faber and bassist and singer Julia Cumming all being in their teens when they recorded Human Ceremony, this albums feels a lot like a musical rite of passage, as they try on different genre’s and gain a deeper understanding for how their musical influences guide their style. A lot of the songs on Human Ceremony’s eleven tracks pull from genres and movements that have been done well before, but keep in mind these kids are young, most likely playing within these musical eddies for the first time, and if there’s one good thing to say for that, it’s the potential energy that they possess to do something great with what they’ve learned. Having already been invited to go on tour with DIIV and the Vaccines after the release of their 2015 EP, Show Me Your Seven Secrets, Sunflower Beam have demonstrated that they possess the talent, and the wits, to pursue their dreams. With the release of Human Ceremony, they’ve added another layer to their complexity, and we feel strongly that it’s just a matter of when, not if, they ultimately succeed.

Essential tracks: “2013,” “Easier Said,” and “Come On.”

23. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

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When an album is instantaneously burdened with the comparison to Bruce Springsteen’s stripped-down masterpiece, Nebraska3, it is a safe bet that that album will suffer in attempting to live up to this measuring, but Conor Oberst’s latest offering does just that. Going to work with simply his guitar, harmonica, piano, and his patented strained, quaking vocals, Ruminations was recorded live in its entirety, and what comes of these bare-boned stylings is an album that exhibits plainly not only how much Conor Oberst has grown as a person and a musician, but that he knows that his philosophical journey of understanding, like the rest of us, has a long way to go. Ruminations is a personal examination of the way in which Conor perceives the world, jaded yet hopeful, pensive but fascinated, but it also reveals a great deal about who the artist is. One thing we have found over the years that isn’t discussed much in terms of the former boy wonder, incessantly and appropriately compared to Bob Dylan since his teenage years, is his profound wit, exhibited with grace via “Gossamer Thin,” a song about a clan of “left of the dial bohemians.” And it is this wit, and his deep governance of imagery that propels Ruminations to one of the most affecting albums to be released this year, where a forthright Conor broke free from the shackles of an irritated youth into a modern world that is “a sight to see / It’s a stimulant, it’s pornography / It takes all my will not to turn it off.”4

Essential Tracks: “Tachycardia,” “Gossamer Thin,” and “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out.”

22. Kaytranada – 99.9%

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It isn’t often where we will compare a producer to the late, astonishingly great J Dilla, but there is something about the meticulous crafting of Kaytranada’s soundscapes, while carrying in genre, which compels us to invoke the Detroit legend. Kaytranada, the Haitian-Canadian producer hailing from Montreal (formerly known as Kaytradamus), has provided the backbone for notable works from famed artists such as Anderson Paak and Freddie Gibbs, but it wasn’t until his debut album 99.9% where the world really took notice. 99.9% features appearances from GoldLink, Craig David, AlunaGeorge, Syd tha Kyd, Anderson Paak, and Vic Mensa, to name a few. It is a fascinating album, and while we are basking in the complex, downtempo and straight up chill (mostly!) beats that make 99.9% so damn captivating (“Weight Off” is the most hypnotic song we have heard all year), in the wake of this brilliant debut we are left fired up about what is coming next from Kaytranada (rumor is he and Rick Rubin are working on something presently!!), and we have no doubts that artists are lining up en masse to work with one of the best producers out there doing it.

Essential Tracks: “Breakdance Lesson N1,” “Bullets (Feat. Little Dragon)”, and “Weight Off (Feat BADBADNOTGOOD).”

21. Black Mountain – IV

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Admittedly, there isn’t enough edge on our Top 50 list this year. We are not sure if this is because we just needed our music during this roller coaster of a dumpster fire that was this 2016 Election Cycle to be cathartic and subtle in nature. But do not get it twisted. We love edge. We love heavy guitar rifts and darkness. And while airy and accessible throughout, it is the thickness of Canadian psychedelic rock band’s fourth release, IV that has drove us mad with admiration. From the moment the opening track, “Mother of the Sun,” kicks into high gear5, IV has you in its grasp and it doesn’t let you go until Black Mountain has had their way with you. The songs throughout IV are triumphant, almost theatrical in nature, with three songs, “Mothers of the Sun,” “(Over and Over) The Chain,” and “Space to Bakersfield,” all over eight minutes that are broad and expansive with texture. We cannot help but thinking of Pink Floyd or Can or Led Zeppelin (who had an album with the same title that wasn’t too shabby at all!) when we listen to Black Mountain, and it is these influences of 60s and 70s rock, prog and psychedelia that finds themselves born again in the hands of such capable musicians. But while it is the thickness that consumes us like a fog and intoxicates us like a drug, it is the softer point on the album, like the folk-inspired beauty of “Line Them All Up” and the dreamlike pop of “Crucify Me” that round out this gem, and heighten the more hulking around pieces surrounding.

Essential Tracks: “Mothers of the Sun,” “Defector,” and “Space to Bakersfield.”

To Be Continued…

  1. Written by Jonathan Marcantoni. []
  2. Written by Douglas Grant. []
  3. The state in which Ruminations was recorded. []
  4. Lyrics from “Barbary Coast (Later)” []
  5. At about the 3:30 mark! []

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