Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2016 with albums 40-31…
40. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s latest album, Skeleton Key, is a wondrous offering rife with themes and omens dealing with coming to terms with loss. Any discussion about this album must make mention of the fact that on July of 2015, Cave’s fifteen-year-old son tragically fell to his death from a cliff near the family’s Brighton, England home. Skeleton Key’s recording had already begun when Cave’s son died and its completion bridged the hurt and loss that surrounded such an unfortunate event. The album doesn’t explicitly present itself as being about Cave’s son, as if the singer-songwriter were reaching out to his lost child, but there are moments in the album where you get the sense that he is attempting to reference him.
In Cave’s characteristic storytelling-style, he often speaks through others in his songs, letting his characters tell his stories and express his emotions, keeping himself at arm’s length from reality. But in “Distant Sky,” a crushingly sentimental song that comes close to the album’s conclusion, Cave sings: “They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied,” breaking the spell and letting us all in a little closer to his suffering. It’s a song that if there had to be one on all of Skeleton Key that speaks for the album, this would be it, especially when the soaring beauty of Danish vocalist Else Torp’s voice arrives and the true picture of what Cave has endured emerges.
This isn’t to say the album is all sadness and hurt. In fact, the feeling of loss is more like a specter that hangs over the album, dipping down into each song and leaving its mark in various ways. In the riveting documentary One More Time With Feeling, which documents Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ making of Skeleton Key in the shadows of such loss, Cave says: “Time is elastic. We can go away from the event but at some point the elastic snaps and we always come back to it.” Skeleton Key feels like Cave’s attempt to deal with that event in the only way he knows how, through the therapeutic powers of making music. If you’ve ever timed your listening to a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album just right, then you know the experience can just be fucking glorious. There’s a realness and a closeness in Skeleton Key that sets it apart from his other offerings and offers up a new dimension to his music. And it’s this feeling that draws you deeper into the songs, causing you to search out for the breadcrumbs of truth and emotion that Cave has left there for you to find.
39. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Danny Brown is a hip-hop pioneer, straight up and down. His sound is as progressive in the scheme of the genre as Outkast’s was in the mid-90s. An enigma, Danny Brown found inspiration for his fourth release, Atrocity Extinction, from idiosyncratic acts such as Bjork and System of a Down, and now the Detroit born-rapper is free from Fool’s Gold Records after issues of “creative freedom” and is more unrestrained than ever. While the album has the smooth flow of an earthquake, there are bangers everywhere, like the riotous “Really Doe” with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, the wonderfully jarring yet smooth as fuck “Rolling Stone,” and plainly, we have been waiting for a track as hard-hitting and exhibiting of Brown’s fierce flow as “Ain’t it Funny” since the crown jewel of his breakout mixtape XXX, “Pac Blood.” Danny Brown, we contest, is a force to be reckoned with, one of the most innovative acts in music, and each and every release that comes out his camp must be taken dead serious.
38. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen’s fourteenth and, unfortunately, final studio album, You Want it Darker, is what every great artist strives for, that final answer to a life spent questioning one’s world. With his time-worn gravelly and deep-seated voice that seems risen from the shadowy depths of some torturous otherworldly realm, Cohen professes, “I’m ready my Lord,” in the album’s title track, “You Want It Darker.” As the song progresses, Cohen sings, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame,” seemingly professing to his devotees that he’s already gone, has made his peace and was ready to move on from this realm. Taking into account Cohen’s final profile in The New Yorker, where he was famously quoted as saying he was “ready to die,” it’s no wonder this final album feels like the octogenarian’s last will and testament. From’s Cohen’s past hits, the epically beautiful “Hallelujah” to his legendary “Suzanne,” his music has always been something to stir the soul and uplift the senses. Yet in You Want It Darker, the message seems more focused, more singularly themed and stripped away of such tortures of the flesh as lust, envy, and greed. And what’s left is the barenaked final confession of a man who, satisfied with the path he’s taken, is desirous to leave a final token to this world. You Want It Darker is an excellent album, sure to catch the ear of even the most casual Cohen fan. It’s joyous and solemn, introspective and repentant, and in consideration of the singer’s recent death, it dutifully operates as Cohen’s final grand denouement.
37. Lambchop – Flotus
Admittedly, our familiarity with Nashville’s Lambchop, even amongst an accomplished two decade career with twelve albums to their credit, was limited. But their latest release, Flotus, absolutely floored us. A departure, a foray into electronic soundscapes, Flotus is bookended by two monster tracks. The first, “In Care of 8675309,” an almost twelve minute excursion, is a warm, captivating welcoming where even autotune can’t mask the affectivity of lead singer Kurt Wagner’s whispery meandering. In a powerful display of musical storytelling “In Care of 8675309” plays more like a book on its own rather than simply a chapter within one, encompassing some of the most potent and elegant lyrics we have come upon in many moons (“On the scale of ten, he got the best of both of them / And you collect your shoes from the carpet of abuse / There’s a light inside that is bright but just as clean / Is there still something that you didn’t mention?”). The closing track, an eighteen minute song entitled “The Hustle,” patiently grows upon a synthetic ticking drum beat (think Postal Service), building purposefully as layers of sound are meticulously supplemented and by the time Wagner’s spine-chilling baritone blows in you are entirely hypnotized. And in between these two behemoths of tracks resides song after song of delicate artistry.
36. Brookzill! – Throwback to the Future
Brookzill!’s Throwback to the Future, the collaboration between Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets, Brazilian MC Gorila Urbano (aka Rodrigo Brandão), and Don Newkirk is a flat out head-nodder. The album features a sensuous mix of hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk and Brazilian pop, and to us the album’s title suggests a harkening back to the 90s when Prince Paul, 3 Feet High and Rising host Don Newkirk, and Ladybug Mecca forever changed hip-hop by infusing it with a heavy dose of bohemia, and a look forward to a time where all musical influences (in this case Brazilian) are harnessed to create novel, game-changing soundscapes. More than half of the lyrics on Throwback to the Future are in Portuguese, a fact that only heightens the appeal of the album, as this project is all about U-N-I-T-Y. It is also about the brilliance that can be crafted when people of different backgrounds come together. The President-elect should take note.
35. Mick Jenkins – The Healing Component
Mick Jenkins, the Chicago-based rapper, has been on our radar for a minute. We fell hard for his EP’s The Water[s] and Wave[s], precursors to his first debut studio album, The Healing Component, an album that features guest appearances from Michael Anthony, BADBADNOTGOOD, J-Stock, Ravyn Lenae, Noname, Xavier Omär, and theMIND. The Healing Component is a bold album, not afraid of exploration or meandering just for the sake of it. It feels often like a free-form jazz album, one that possesses space to breathe and to improvise. The Healing Component is also deep as fuck, a candid piece of art where Mick grapples with religion (“Niggas say I’m nuts cause I’m bruising up / I’m just like didn’t you see Jesus? / I mean I, never really seen him either / But I kinda try to follow in his footsteps / All this weight on my chest, get it off / with some good reps/ Some good prayer, good stress / Good kush, good sex”), life in the Windy City (“I’m from southside Chicago / I know the mental /The self hate is really just incidental / Exposure is instrumental / In shedding that skin”), and just how wack and complicated humanity can be (“We descendants of the illest souls / Children of the Indigo / I been all around the globe / different languages / they feel me they don’t hear me though/ Told us we was inferior / we imperial”). On first listen, The Healing Component felt almost too weighty to us, like we were drowning (the title of arguably the finest track on The Healing Component) but subsequent listens revealed the buoyancy underlying the album, and now when we revisit Mick’s luminous debut we feel much different, we experience a sensation comparable to floating.
34. Diiv – Is the Is Are
A touch more optimistic and upbeat than their 2012 debut album, Oshin, Diiv’s sophomore album, Is the Is Are, was under development long before its February 2016 release, with frontman Zachary Cole Smith writing dozens of songs between the two albums, and Is the Is Are’s singles “Dopamine,” “Bent (Roi’s Song),” “Mire (Grant’s Song),” and “Under the Sun” being released months in advance of the album’s release. The offering of seventeen tracks makes up for the Diiv’s extended absence since Oshin, an absence largely due to bandmates’ health concerns and substance abuse problems. Still relying on tight bass loops and heavy distortion, the band seems more cohesive this time around, with even more of an ambient sound and lyrics that relay personal growth and reflection (“Fought my mind to keep my life/But my body’s putting up a tougher fight”). Nods to some of the greats, such as Sonic Youth and New order, are subtle but apparent. In some songs it seems as if Diiv is trying to break free of their shoegaze roots, but then another song will come on and it will seem that they are comfortable right where they are within the confines of post-punk indie rock. The band still has some growing to do; it doesn’t seem as if a real catharsis has been achieved here. But for anyone who waited four years for Diiv’s follow-up to Oshin, Is the Is Are is more than enough.1
33. De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…
Next year will mark thirty years since the formation of the hip-hop trio De La Soul, and their ninth album, “and the Anonymous Nobody…,” sounds like a true culmination of three decades of music making. Appropriately, there are plenty of special guests along the way to help with the celebration. On “Genesis,” Jill Scott commences the album with her spoken word over a symphonic introduction, segueing cleanly into “Royalty Capes,” literal fanfare to welcome back Posdnous, Dave, and Maseo. “Pain” is the real party starter, poppy and upbeat, with Snoop Dogg stopping by to lay down a few throwback style lines. “Property of Spitkicker.com” is a smooth, mellow track with distorted vocals featuring Roc Marciano, which helps set up the soulful harmony that is “Memory of . . .(US),“ a collaboration between De La, Estelle, and Peter Rock. “CBGBS” serves as a quick interlude before the guitar heavy “Lord Intended,” during which Justin Hawkins bellows into the microphone forlornly, taking listeners through a charged crescendo. “Snoopies” has the three boys alternating rhymes with catchy extensive chorus lines from David Byrne, a back-and-forth that jars listeners at first, then meshes beautifully. “Greyhounds” features Usher, whose singing voice here is as strong as it’s ever been, the song harkening back to the R&B of the mid-‘90s in places. After another interlude, “Sexy Bitch,” which is reminiscent of the skit-heavy De La Soul is Dead, “Trainwreck” gets the positive momentum of the album going again with a cool bass line and what can only be described as heavy cowbell. De La takes a big step back in “Drawn” and lets Little Dragon take the reigns for this dreamscape of a song, a track sounding akin to something one might see on Broadway. “Whoodeeni” is a tightly rhythmic track with special guest 2Chainz, a fun song for a fly on the wall to see recorded in the studio. “Nosed Up” is a quick track that keeps the pacing of the album consistent before “You Go Dave,” unofficial interlude #3. It’s so great to have Damon Albarn coming together with De La Soul once again for “Here in After,” a multi-layered, nuanced number that makes us feel as if Gorillaz have just paid a surprise visit, and we couldn’t be happier. “Exodus” closes the album, with echoes of melodies from the opening track, “Genesis.” The song is perfect closure, Posdnous, Dave, and Maseo offering the kind of wisdom that only pioneers of their stature could hope to. It’s a song filled with hope, one that forces listeners to reflect on the journey of these three legends, moving us just as the string orchestra returns and melds with the beat and the inspirational outro lyrics, bringing “and the Anonymous Nobody…” to a fitting close.2
We are the present, the past and still the future. Bound by friendship, fueled and inspired by what’s at stake. Saviors, heroes? Nah. Just common contributors hopin’ that what we created inspires you to selflessly challenge and contribute.
32. Tortoise – The Catastrophist
Everytime we forget how obscenely talented Chicago post-rock legends Tortoise are, it’s almost as if they sense this misremembering of their unfathomable skillset and gift the world with another unmitigated reminder. This was the case with 2004’s It’s All Around You and 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship, and now once again with this year’s splendid The Catastrophist. Our favorite track from this gem of an album is a bit subdued for a Tortoise track, but what is lacking in their characteristic percussive madness is made up for with calculated beauty. “Yonder Blue” features Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley on vocals, and her heavenly whisper atop Tortoise’s sleek and restrained soundscape is surely the most euphoric track we have stumbled upon in 2016. Beyond that, The Catastrophists features tracks that unequivocally represent Tortoise of yore (“Gesceap,” “Ox Duke,” “Teseract), in all their complexity and foreboding nature, and others that show a band still challenging themselves (“Shake Hands with Danger,” “Hot Coffee”), working in classic rock riffs and tones to stunning results. The Catastrophists is surely Tortoise’s best album since 2001’s Standards, offering up a reminder of how Tortoise and electrifying post-rock can amaze and captify.
31. Czarface – A Fistful of Peril
Czarface, the bombastic trio of Inspectah Deck, 7L and Esoteric, has somehow slid, mainly, under the radar while crafting some of the most hard-hitting hip-hop that can be found anywhere. Their first self-titled album, released in 2013, is a tour de force. It features guest appearances by Ghostface Killah, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Oh No, Cappadonna, Vinnie Paz, and Mr. MFN Exquire. On Czarface’s second album, 2015’s Every Hero Needs a Villain, the guest stars were equally stout (Method Man, Large Professor, JuJu, GZA, MF Doom, Meyhem Lauren and R.A. the Rugged Man), but what was becoming clear in these subsequent releases is how well this trio works together, and that Czarface wasn’t some sort of novelty project, but a hip-hop colossus deserving of our full attention. Recently, Marvel Comics reached out to Czarface, requesting a song for their Black Panther web series, and it was in the studio brainstorming this track where the groundwork for A Fistful Of Peril was laid. Esoteric described the phenomenon, stating that “linking with Marvel definitely activated that super soldier serum. The creative fuel we got from collaborating with one of Czarface’s biggest inspirations had us blasting through tracks on a rampage, and it’s showcased on this record.” And the result, the bombastic A Fistful of Peril, an album chock full of comic book and pop culture references and bars upon bars of gut-wrenching rhymes is proof positive that Esoteric and 7L have always been underrated and that The Rebel INS is as good as any MC in the Wu Tang Clan3.