Across the Margin presents its choices for The Top 50 Albums of 2016…
Let’s face it, 2016 was a son of a bitch. While the last thing we want to do is wish away the days in a life that is fleeting, we here at Across the Margin are very much looking forward to closing the books on this year. But while 2016 stole from us an abundance of legendary musicians and re-introduced us to a version of America we thought we had moved well beyond, the music released this year was absolutely astounding. Whittling down this year’s bounty to just a choice fifty was challenging to say the least, but we are proud to present to you the albums which got the most play over here at Across the Margin. So, let’s get into it and drop the needle…
50. Animal Collective – Painting With
As over forty-eight million travelers bounced around the States on Thanksgiving weekend of 2015, Animal Collective – in a unique but true to their outlandish ways style – debuted their latest album over the speakers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The album wasn’t released until months later but when it finally dropped, what had once drifted through the airspace in an airport terminal manifested itself as one of the most unique and pulsating albums to be released all year. It is triumphantly apropos that Animal Collective chose to record their latest album Painting With at the same studio (EastWest Studios) where the Beach Boys recorded their famed album Pet Sounds. Both albums masterfully and meticulously weave together a lush collage of vocal harmonies and innovative sounds. It is safe to say that there is no band out there that sounds quite like Animal Collective and the confounding soundscapes they craft are simultaneously buoyant and intoxicating. Their recent album finds Animal Collective immersed in deep sonic expeditions and the high point of the album, “Lying in the Grass,” behaves like an echo, provocatively potent at first and then dancing off into a blissful nothingness as the track comes to its throbbing conclusion.
49. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
Isaiah Rashad’s pain is palpable in the Chattanooga Tennessee rapper’s second studio release, The Sun’s Tirade. It is no secret to hip-hop heads that Isaiah has been grappling with an addiction to painkillers and alcohol while struggling with depression since the release of his debut, the brilliant Cilvia Demo, and this anguish is so readily apparent on The Sun’s Tirade, one of the most honest records to be released all year. The Sun’s Tirade is an album that is steeped in despair, but bounded by an underlying strength to carry on. It is clear that Isaiah is in the thick of it, fighting off the urge to “pop a Xanny, make your problems go away” as noted in the seven minute tour de force that is “Stuck in the Mud,” which features SZA. But The Sun’s Tirade serves as both a tangible and symbolic declaration of growth, and we believe the album serves as a jumping off point for Isaiah career because it proves emphatically that Isaiah’s will is unflappable and, as he puts it later in “Stuck in the Mud,” he “ain’t duckin’ no more.”
48. DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall
DJ Shadow returns after a five-year hiatus with his sixth studio album, thirteen tracks that have the blending of hip-hop, trip-hop, jazz, and electronica that longtime fans have grown accustomed to. And yet even as someone reads this, decrying the categorization of Shadow’s body of work while considering how the new album measures up to previous ones, he or she will have to acknowledge a certain paradox: The Mountain Will Fall has echoes of what’s come before just as it ventures off into uncharted territory. True to form, Shadow has integrated an eclectic mix of special guests throughout the course of the album, including hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, German composer and producer Nils Frahm, up-and-coming rapper and graffiti artist Ernie Fresh, UK-based DJ, composer, and jazz trumpeter Matthew Halsall, and Bay Area EDM artists G Jones and Bleep Bloop. Like in his previous albums, Shadow is constantly switching gears, speeding up tracks with bass-heavy break beats and then slowing them down with dreamlike soundscapes. There are the usual rainy-day songs, such as the title track “Ghost Town,” reminiscent of The Private Press and The Less You Know the Better. There are more upbeat songs, such as “Nobody Speak” and “The Sideshow,” that serve as reminders of Shadow’s hip-hop roots, redolent of The Outsider, perfect for listening to at night while traversing the urban sprawl. Then there are his more “out there” tracks, such as “California” and “Suicide Pact,” sample-heavy, trance-like experimentations that arguably pay homage to his early achievements, Endtroducing and Preemptive Strike. It seems that, since emerging on the scene twenty years ago, Shadow is showing no signs of slowing down, and is hungry for more.1
47. Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros
Divided meticulously into two halves, Part One and Part Two, two twenty minute tracks in essence, Ray LaMontagne’s latest album, Ouroboros, is an ambitious work of art and arguably his finest offering to date. Ouroboros was produced by LaMontagne’s friend, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, whose bandmates, bassist Tom Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster, backed Ray LaMontagne on his tour in support of the album this past Summer. Jim James’s influence is profound throughout Ouroboros, as hints of psychedelia and flashes of bawling guitar rifts have seeped into Ray’s sumptuous soundscapes. As Ray describes the album, “there’s a weight to it. It’s almost weightless and dense and really heavy at the same time. It’s really magical. Something really magical happened.” On Ouroboros, Ray’s patented whispered drawl has never cut so cleanly, and although it touts Ray’s heaviest song to date, the consummately arresting “Hey, No Pressure,” Ouroboros is as beautiful and soothing an album birthed this year.
46. Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A High Note
Mavis Staples is a Grammy Award-winning legendary American rhythm and blues singer and civil rights icon whose music, which flows across genres in ways Ray Charles made famous, couldn’t be more relevant today. With top artists like Beyonce and Kendrick putting out albums in 2016 that force race and class to the forefront and make the issue of black identity part of popular music, her latest album, Livin’ On A High Note, is a soulful and optimistic complement to these starker depictions. With the majority of the album’s songs penned by an eclectic and talented group of artists much younger than Staples’s stately seventy-seven years, including Nick Cave, Nico Case, Ben Harper, the Tune-Yards, and M. Ward (who also produced the album in full), this album exists as a musical testimonial to multiple generations on how one makes joyful and legitimately refreshing music in the face of turmoil. But just because Staples latest album bucks the trend of her younger contemporaries this doesn’t mean that she’s become complacent and given up the fight, in fact if anything, she a firm believer that love is the answer to all of the world’s ills.
45. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
The second half of Kanye West’s seventh solo release, from “Real Friends” on, acts as restitution for those who miss the old Kanye. The pre-jump on stage Kanye. Before Twitter rant Kanye. Before “I would have voted for Trump” Kanye. To the days there was no such thing as “BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” Kanye. Before he released “I Love You Kanye” where every line ends with “Kanye,” Kanye. It is in The Life of Pablo’s later tracks that we are reminded that Kanye can rhyme (particularly on the outstanding “No Parties in L.A.,” with Kendrick Lamar) and that he has the power within him to craft an absolute monster of a beat (look no farther than “30 Hours” which features a sample of Arthur Russell’s “Answer Me”). Yet, the new-wave gospel album that Kanye West intended falls a touch short to its aim, mostly due to the addition of the formidable tracks that conclude the album that, while fantastic, seem out of place. But the album surely has its moments, chief among them “Ultralight Beam” (featuring Chance the Rapper), “Famous” (featuring Rihanna), “Wolves” and “Fade” (featuring Post Malone). Kanye’s vetting of his guests (who also include Frank Ocean, Andre 3000, Young Thug, The Weeknd, amongst many others) is stunning, as he manages guest acts as a conductor does his symphony. While Kanye’s antics in and around the release of
Waves Swish The Life of Pablo was a whole lot to swallow, even for the most ardent of fans, there is still so much art, especially within the stunning production, to grasp onto, and to help you forget all the superfluous noise that is consistently paired with the release of a new Kanye album.
44. Autolux – Pussy’s Dead
Pussy’s Dead is the third album in the last twelve years from LA-based alt-rock trio Autolux. Having toured with Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey and Queens of the Stone Age, opened for Radiohead’s Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace project in Santa Barbara, California, and played Coachella, Autolux have certainly been keeping themselves busy. The drumming on Pussy’s Dead stands out as particularly stellar and that’s all owing to the fact that Autolux’s Carla Azar is one of the best drummers to come on the musical scene in the last fifteen years. Known for playing in Jack White’s all female backing band, The Peacocks, Azar has also contributed drums on White’s two latest albums, 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto. She’s a percussionary tour de force and Azar’s drumming and ethereal vocals on Pussy’s Dead not only elevates the album but pushes its songs into bold new territory. The album’s production, crafted expertly by Boots – who’s handled production for Beyonce, Run the Jewels and FKA Twigs – is second to none. With a deft hand Boots has cleverly melded Autolux’s dystopian, experimental pop and dark-sounding post-punk style in a way that’s created an album that’s as elegant as it is chaotic, rife with techo-manipulations where the more organic parts of Pussy’s Dead reach out hungrily to embrace its electronic future. As if that wasn’t enough, Autolux’s songwriting has grown exponentially since their first album, 2004’s Future Perfect. It feels as if they’ve learned a few things from Sonic Youth and The Breeders and channeled that into their music. The harmonizing on “Change My Head,” is powerful and inviting, the piano on “Anonymous” is airy and alienating – in a good way – and “Brainwasher” is a straight-up bad-ass song, the kind that makes you want to shake your head in unison to Azar’s driving drums and guitarist Greg Edward’s long, drawn out sliding riffs. All said and done, Pussy’s Dead is a solid offering in a trilogy of great albums from Autolux, a band that’s been putting in the work and cleverly evolving their eclectic sound throughout the years. And if this is the direction that they are heading in the future, then to quote Autolux’s first album’s title, things are certainly looking “perfect.”
43. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
When it was announced that Iggy Pop was in the studio with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age we were exhilarated and we knew the album that was birthed from this union would be good – but we didn’t think it would be this good. Iggy’s lust for life and music is palpable as ever on his seventeenth solo effort, with this zest for his craft found comfortably nestled in the psychedelic fervor of “Vulture,” burrowed within the chunky thumps of the seething “American Valhalla,” and tucked into the introspective and funky “Chocolate Drops.” All eight tracks on the album pack a punch, and Josh Homme and his rhythm section (Dean Fertita and Matt Helders) have fashioned a lush and inescapable backdrop on which Iggy crafts his thoughtful and witty lyrics upon. It is rumored that Post Pop Depression is Iggy’s final album, and in contemplation of this powerful work of art, rife with odes to his fallen friend David Bowie, that would be nothing short of a shame as his creative juices are still flowing with ferocity. But if so, Iggy sure as hell has left us with a gem.
42. Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits
Seemingly in opposition to their roots, garage-punk and 60’s era psychedelia masters Thee Oh Sees latest album, A Weird Exists, embraces a more cosmic plane of existence. Situated between Thee Oh Sees two drummers, who’s driving, dual percussion functions as a powerful engine, pushing A Weird Exits spaceship into uncharted realms, the listener is immediately and continuously treated to a myriad of musical accelerations. Who doesn’t love a band with two drummers, because once you’ve experienced it live, you’ll be the person asking why everyone doesn’t just make music that way. With John Dwyer’s always colossal guitars and Tim Helman’s grooves and bass that defies gravity, this collection of songs feels like the comforting embrace of an acceleration couch as we rocket at breakneck speeds around the stars. Thee Oh Sees latest album is that distant point of light we’ve all been journeying towards and if you’ve been a fan of Thee Oh Sees as long as we have, it’s instantly gratifying, as if the band, though their ups and downs, rotating members and relocations of their home base, has finally discovered that “surefire locked-in” sound. Thee Oh Sees, with seventeen albums to their name and counting, could be seen as an intimidating band to get into, but if you are looking for a jumping off point, A Weird Exits is an excellent place to start. And here’s to hoping this current lineup to the band sticks around, because they melt your face with the way they shred, and like we said before…TWO DRUMMERS!
41. Radio Dept. – Running Out of Love
Anyone familiar with The Radio Dept.’s thirteen year run might not realize that their latest release, Running Out of Love, is only the synth-pop band’s fourth full-length album. Fans in America who’ve had to deal with their country’s own turbulent political climate in 2016 might be unaware of just how shaky Sweden’s own fragmented bureaucracy has become, with nationalist sentiment on the rise. With Running Out of Love, The Radio Dept. has laid out nine tracks that serve as an open condemnation of Sweden’s new far right. Even the album cover itself seems to advocate for revolution.
Songs like “Sloboda Narodu” and “Swedish Guns,” although sounding sanguine on the surface, have socially conscientious messages delivered in reproachfully charged lyrics, the band taking the fight to the system with censure. Social commentary aside, Johan Duncanson’s vocals are as oceanic and tranquil as they’ve ever been here, with Martin Larsson’s surreal yet lucid compositions a fully engaging accompaniment. Though their unique sound coupled with the communal messages might, at times, seem like a bit of a mismatch, the band is certainly still in its musical prime.2
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.3
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.4
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 Clan5.
30. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP
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.
29. Massive Attack – Ritual Spirit
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.6
28. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+ Revolution
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.
27. Oddisee – The Odd Tape
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.7
26. M83 – Junk
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.
25. Young Magic – Still Life
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.
24. Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony
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.
23. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
When an album is instantaneously burdened with the comparison to Bruce Springsteen’s stripped-down masterpiece, Nebraska8, 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.”9
22. Kaytranada – 99.9%
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.
21. Black Mountain – IV
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 gear10, 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.
20. Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Parquet Courts, in our estimation, is one of the more exciting rock bands on the planet right now, and the reason for this is a consistency in output (the experimental Monastic Living a unique exception) and the way in which they seem to channel Dirty-era Sonic Youth, White Light / White Heat-era Velvet Underground and the Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads (with hints of Elvis Costello and Television abounding as well) simultaneously. The title track on their latest album, Human Performance, is as moving a song vocalist / guitarist Andrew Savage has ever penned, displaying a more thoughtful and assured version of the Brooklyn rockers, and hinting at what may be to come from the New York via Texas quartet. For Human Performance finds Parquet Courts displaying a more nuanced and introspective brand of songwriting, one where the guitars at times have been somewhat muted (“Steady on My Mind, Keep it Even”) and where even the most animated of tracks are honest and revelatory, depicting captivating stories of contemporary paranoia, love lost, and solicitude. To borrow a word from the album’s title, this latest gem from Parquet Courts is nothing if not, human.
19. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes’ third album under the Blood Orange Moniker is politically charged and important. A meticulously crafted work of art, Freetown Sound is a reference the city of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and the hometown to Hynes’ father. Hynes is a black Londoner, born to African and Caribbean parents, and in Freetown Sound he struggles with the idea of identity and of intolerance. Describing the album, Hynes said, “My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the under appreciated. It’s a clap back.” And a fierce, powerful, soulful pop clap back indeed. While political, Freetown Sound is a deeply personal album, where Hynes is introspective and questioning of his place in the world and open with his insecurities. But yet with all the depth and weight, Freetown Sound is also a party, a danceable jaunt that flexes a vigorous heartbeat, and serves as a glorious reminder that we “are are special in your own way.” Freetown Sound is a brilliant work of art that grows in appeal upon every spin, and admittedly, the inner-nerd in us over here at Across the Margin also have a special place in our heart for Hynes due to his affinity for dressing up as characters from Star Wars.
18. Wilco – Schmilco
With their tenth album, Schmilco, alt rockers Wilco have created a low-key, acoustic-laden affair, filled with melodic memories of youth, dreams of an idyllic Americana, and folksy, light-hearted twangy pop. Lacking most of the fuzz and reverb of 2015’s Star Wars, and instead feeling like an introspective, intimate encounter, Jeff Tweedy and company dutifully express their mid-Western mindset across twelve warm and inviting tracks. There’s an effortless to Wilco’s music on Schmilco, a casual unfolding to its melodies and rhythms that flow easily around the listener, enveloping one in pleasant nuggets of stripped-down musical nakedness and simplistic charm. Wilco’s latest album is the perfect distillation of their talents, and now that the band has made it out of their more raucous days, wethered the fame and success of Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, Summer Teeth and Being There, and settled into middle age, it’s clear that they haven’t lost any of their marvel or their willingness to step out of their groove and embrace change. Schmilco is an album best consumed in one listen, with each track seamlessly pulling you deeper into the fold, but there are gems here and there as well that have the capacity to exist equally on their own (“Locator,” for instance). But it’s the atmosphere of the album consumed in total that truly draws one in, like a moth to a flame, and once there there’s an organic, comfortable feel that surrounds all.
17. Phantogram – Three
We’ve been watching Phantogram grow and mature over the last seven years. Each album and EP they put out is better than the one before it. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a cliche, this duo just keeps getting better with age. Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel have created a beautiful shorthand together, and Three is a testament to how much these two musicians have honed their craft. The opening track, “Funeral Pyre,” is perhaps the most emphatic song Phantogram has ever come out the gate with, a slow build to some of the longest notes Barthel has ever held. This song sets the tone, and the first third of the album has the hard-toned electropop feel that has gained the band such a hardcore following, one that’s grown exponentially in the last few years. These are the tracks that have gotten the most radio play, “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” getting the most love. “Barking Dog,” downshifts gears just a bit, allowing Carter to step in and flex his vocals. This track is reminiscent of something M83 or Dead Can Dance might have put out, with Carter crooning with a wavelike echo effect in places. “You’re Mine”, with its marching beat, has us quickly revisit where we were at the beginning of the album, before “Answer,” the downtempo duet that follows, slows things down yet again. It’s said that Three was heavily inspired by the sense of loss Barthel felt when her sister passed away, and some of this pain is reflected in the lyrics and overall mood of the third act: “Follow me into a swarm of bees / Swallow everything you don’t believe / Drink away all of your memories / Say goodbye to your family.” The album remains fairly mellow until picking up the pace again at the end with “Calling All,” the band reminding us that their music is something we’re supposed to move to. Three is commendable accomplishment from Phantogram, tangible evidence of the pair’s steady and rapid rise, and – for the moment – the crowning achievement of their impressive body of work.11
16. Angel Olsen – My Woman
On the opening track (“Intern”) of Angel Olsen’s stunning album, My Woman, she gracefully moans that, “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done / Still got to wake up and be someone.” Later in the song she admits, “Everyone I know has got their own ideal / I just want to be alive, make something real.” With My Woman, the follow up to her breakout album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, this yearning to create something authentic and lasting is triumphantly achieved. My Woman is a uniquely bipolar album, where what commences with a series of tracks that are pulsating and resolute finishes with a bevy of songs that are soft, lush and exhibitive of Angel Olsen’s cracking whispery voice that has the power to break even the most resilient of hearts. On the terrific “Shut Up Kiss Me” Angel bracingly states to her lover to “Stop pretending I’m not there / When it’s clear I’m not going anywhere.” With heaps of praise appropriately lofted in Olsen’s direction for her captivating third album, suffice to say Angel Olsen has arrived, and her sultry, affecting and all-together refreshing brand of passionate bravado rock isn’t going anywhere.
15. Anohni – Hopelessness
On Anohni’s album, Hopelessness, the talented vocalist has turned protest music into art. Fans of Anohni’s music may know her by her former name, Antony Hegarty, and from her previous stellar work with Anthony and the Johnsons, work which earned her critical acclaim, especially for her efforts on I Am A Bird Now. An openly transgender performer, and only the second to ever be nominated for an Academy Award, Anohni’s Hopelessness is the first album produced under her new name (a name she has been using personally for years) and what she has done on this album is weave a monumental musical tapestry of society’s ill’s and humanities failures. She’s taken a healthy dose of current events, environmental protest, drone warfare, corporate greed and societal unrest and turned them into richly layered electronic dance songs. The album succeeds in holding the listener’s eyes and ears open to the atrocities and realities of humanities proclivities for destroying all that is beautiful and good in our world. Hopelessness holds your feet to the fire, demanding the listener acknowledge that we all have a role to play in our salvation, and that none of us are without sin. The world we perceive is not the world that actually exists in Anohni’s eyes, and through eleven of the most intriguing, awe-inspiring, and expertly-produced tracks to come out in a long time, she challenges us to raise our stakes. To find that flicker of a spark in all this darkness, that glowing ember that has the potential to set our world afire with change, and to not turn our backs from its light but to nurture it, and set the course of humanity onto a more positive, altruistic and at the end of the day, loving path. Hopelessness is one of those albums for our times. I’ve never heard someone sing so beautifully such a disquieting phrase as “Inject me with chemotherapy,” or “Suck the marrow out of a bone.” Anohni’s voice is arresting in its beauty and range on Hopelessness and the album itself feels weighty, expensive and all-encompassing with its message and its reach. But at the end of it all, it’s plain to see that Anohni’s understands the answer to our salvation lies with us, for we hold the power to change the world. She’s just here to help us understand the ways in which we can.
14. Ty Segall & The Muggers – Emotional Mugger
On Ty Segall’s latest record, Emotional Mugger, the listener is treated to a slew of hard-hitting, gut-punching rockers. Dropping more albums in the last eight years than any other artist out there, the restlessness of Segall’s talented musical mind is readily apparent on his latest offering, and any semblances to his last solo affair, 2014’s superb Manipulator, or a continuity with his previous endeavors seems to be gone. There’s a daringness to Emotional Mugger, and a sense of adventure as he takes his distinctive hard rock sound in one of the most abrasive, loud, jarring and relentlessly satisfying directions we’ve ever heard. The album’s dark and weird, incredibly melodic yet experimental as hip-hop beats exist side-by-side with funk and synths and explosions of loud, deeply satisfying experimental noise. There’s flavors of Segall’s other band Fuzz (where he’s the drummer) on Emotional Mugger, and their stoner-metal vibe seeps into the cracks across the album. But whatever (and wherever) the influences on Segall’s latest album come from, what’s certain is that Emotional Mugger showcases some of the best songs he’s ever written, and there’s favorites to be had for all across the board.
13. Solange – A Seat at the Table
For an idiosyncratic, intelligent, and daring artist like Solange to include philosophical interludes from, of all people, Master P, on her latest album, it might appear to be an anomaly or error, but it couldn’t be more perfect. Defying expectations is what this artist is all about. Solange, being the younger sister of the legendary Beyoncé, has never been a household name or revered to the same degree as her sibling. A Seat at the Table is Solange showing that she deserves the same praise, recognition, and admiration. Unlike Lemonade, this album delves into weighty subjects like social injustice, police violence, racism, loneliness, and longing with little bombast, or catchy hooks. The arrangements are sensual, jazzy, and classical, while the delivery is sumptuous and buoyant, and the anger and fire filling her songs acting as a backdrop, one that you cannot avoid.12
12. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Former Woods bassist and frontman of The Babies, singer songwriter Kevin Morby, wowed us this year with his third solo album, Singing Saw. What makes Morby’s sound on Singing Saw so desirable, and the quality of his music so exceptional, is the utter familiarity to it. It’s like an old, time-worn and forgotten favorite shirt, pulled from the little cavernous shadows of the closet and worn once again in the new light. Upon first listening to Singing Saw there were exclamations amongst those of us assembled of “Is this Dylan?” and “Sounds like a young Leonard Cohen,” as Morby’s interpretations of the magic and musical language of the 60s and 70s rippled through his songs. His singing excels when he’s channeling the sort of conversational, stylized monologues pioneered by Bob Dylan, where short, evocative proclamations on love or life or loss or nature or adventure are preferred over verbose and long-winded lyrics. This is Morby’s third solo album, but he’s no stranger to dropping records as his work with Woods has resulted in four albums and his time with The Babies has accounting for two more. But what’s exciting about his solo releases is that with each one Morby’s talents are getting stronger, his music becoming more refined and his imagery and lyrics becoming more rooted, and grounded, in the rhythms of our world. “Got a song book in my head,” Morby sings on the album’s title track, the lyric serving as a reminder of just how much Morby still has yet to say. And then later on with “Drunk and On a Star” he sings, “Have you heard my guitar singing, as it rises from the Earth?” There’s poetry and beauty in the simplicity of Morby’s lyrics, and that simplicity is extended to his music, as nothing feels forced and everything seems exactly as it should be, like that old shirt just waiting patiently in the closet for you to put it back on.
11. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
With all thanks due (apparently) to Lebron James for requesting of Kendrick to compile the lionshare of his unreleased material, mostly outtakes from the recording of last year’s masterful To Pimp a Butterfly, his latest album Untitled Unmastered came out of left field and hit hard. More loose and untethered than the conceptualized Kendrick albums that came before it, Untitled Unmastered is, simply put, just some dope, straight-forward hip-hop from one of the best in the game. The surprise release from the rapper features guest appearances from Bilal, Cee-Lo Green, Terrace Martin, Punch, Jay Rock, Thundercat and Anna Wise, and this collection of eight tracks makes it shimmeringly clear just the level of greatness we are dealing with in Kendrick Lamar. What are essentially throw away tracks, B-sides, from another album, are now thirty-four minutes of music that would be the high water mark for most rappers not named Kendrick. Conceivably, Untitled Unmastered could have had a difficult time protruding from the shadows of To Pimp a Butterfly, seeing as both albums are indubitably related and share similar themes and musical templates. But Untitled Unmastered remarkably stands on its own in its ability to remain cohesive while creatively unhinged and poignant in its political mindfulness. Throughout the album, Kendrick touches upon racial inequality and profiling, materialism, original sin and an impending Judgement Day (“Untitled 1”), the repercussions of greed (“Untitled 2”), the power of faith and the power of perspective (“Your projects ain’t shit, I live in a hut bitch,” he raps on “Untitled 08”) while featuring some of the most complex wordplay in hip-hop today (look no further than “Untitled 3” for proof positive of this). Months after its release, we here at Across the Margin are in awe of Kendrick’s complex and nuanced worldview that is exhibited on Untitled Unmastered, and the fact Kendrick had in the tuck eight absolute bangers leftover from To Pimp a Butterfly.
10. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
It’s been five years since Bon Iver has given us a new album, and in all that time our love affair with Justin Vernon’s extraordinarily touching For Emma, Forever Ago, hasn’t wavered. So when the indie-folk masters dropped 22, A Million on us back in September, we were expecting more of the same soaring falsetto and affecting, layered soundscapes that captivated us back in 2007. But 22, A Million is nothing like For Emma, Forever Ago. Bon Iver’s turned its back on all the beautiful alchemy, aching imagery, acoustic magic and alluring intimacy of their debut album and instead replaced it with a mysterious and experimental foray into the darkened depths of the heart. There’s auto-tuned voices, electronic wobbles, and lo-fi bass that threatens to implode from its own weight. There’s vocals forced through synths and samples so thoroughly that what comes out the other end is otherworldly, beautiful. There’s forced distortions and lurching bleed-throughs from parallel, invisible realms existing in each song that the combined effect is the uncanny feeling that each song is really two, if not three songs, stacked up upon each other. And what Bon Iver is doing is hopping between each one like moving through parallel universes, giving us glimpses of other possibilities, other realities, all while never truly diverging from the rigid confines of the song. 22, A Million is one of those special albums, one where you can see the divergent point clearly, the moment when an artist says “Fuck it, let’s go all out and make a mind-bender.” If it takes five years for Bon Iver to create music as epic as this, we’ll gladly wait another five more just to see what they have in mind next.
9. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
On “Dreamers,” the closing track to to Anderson .Paak’s brilliant album Malibu, the singer croons “I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / Living room watching old reruns.” In this highly inspirational song, a shout out to “all the little dreamers, and the ones who never gave a fuck,” .Paak paints himself as relatable, a man of the people, which he very much is. But also, he is a burgeoning star who dropped one of this year’s most impressive albums. In the wake of his remarkable appearance on Dr. Dre’s Compton album (“Animals”!), where he quite literally stole the show, we were licking our chops in anticipation of the release of Malibu, and safe to say we weren’t disappointed. Malibu is .Paak’s second full length release, succeeding 2014’s Venice. Prior to that he released a pair of noteworthy EPs in 2015, a self-titled venture produced by the Blended Babies and a project called Link Up & Suede with Knxledge as NxWorries. But honestly, all off .Paak’s releases prior to Malibu pale in comparison. It’s an album which highlights his firm grasp on a plethora of genres, ricocheting from soul to funk to R&B and hip-hop with ease, with many of the tracks being an exemplary blending of each. Whether he is spitting straight fire on “Come Down,” a James Brown-esque funk fest, cooling it down with some thick R&B on “Am I Wrong,” or waxing poetic upon some 60s era soul on “The Bird,” Malibu is a beautiful journey, as uplifting as it is funky.
Essential Tracks: “Come Down,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Am I Wrong (Feat. Schoolboy Q),” and “The Dreamer (Feat. Talib Kweli & Timan Family Choir.)”
8. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
“Stay in the shadows / Cheer the gallows / This is a roundup / This is a low-flying panic attack,” Thom Yorke sings on “Burn the Witch,” the opening track to Radiohead’s latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The song is heavy with droning, repetitive modernist strings, arranged expertly by Johnny Greenwood, creating a driving, unsettling vibe that does an excellent job of setting the tone for the remainder of the album’s tracks. There’s flashes of earlier Radiohead songs in those lyrics – OK Computer’s “Lucky” comes to mind, where Yorke wails “Pull me out of the aircrash” or Hail To The Thief’s terse rocker “A Wolf at the Door” where Yorke sings “Drag him out your window / Dragging out the dead / Singing I miss you” – and “Burn the Witch” is a bright dash of the bands vintage sound. But what follows can be hardly described as “classic Radiohead.” The remainder of the songs, except for the album’s closing track “True Love Waits,” which first appeared on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong, are beautiful, dark, traumatic, questioning, and introspective songs flush with signs and hidden symbolism. It feels like Radiohead have spent their lives searching for truth through their music, and along the way calling out the intertwined and complex realities that plague our existence (propaganda, consumerism, subservience, violence and war). But on A Moon Shaped Pool, that quest for truth has been replaced by a simpler search, one into the intricacies of the soul, where the real truths lie. Radiohead’s ninth studio album is a departure for the British foursome, an immaculate masterpiece, meditative in its message yet unsettling in the organic truths that it endeavors to dredge up from our collective depths.
7. The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum
The Besnard Lakes are a Canadian indie rock group from Montreal. We state this so plainly and matter of factly as we believe far too many people are not familiar with one of the greatest rock bands out there crushin’ it. Formed by the husband and wife team of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas in the early 00s, The Besnard Lakes brand of psych-rock is simultaneously mesmeric and biting. Their latest album, A Coliseum Complex Museum, may be their best work yet (although 2007’s The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse and 2010’s The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night are two unadulterated classics that age like a bordeaux from the Medoc Region of France). It’s an album that sounds as if it was produced by the wicked mind of Brian Wilson and it is an expansive journey, a bold foray into a sonic, theatrical soundscapes defined by ornate arrangements and dizzying crescendos. The crown jewel on the album, amongst crown jewels, is “Pressure of Our Plans,” a song that exhibits the band’s knack for remodeling an uplifting melodic groove into a vorticose whirlwind of frenzied psychedelia. “Pressures of Our Plans” is an essential Besnard Lakes’ track that is as mind-bending as it is soaring, and can aptly serve as an ideal starting point for newcomers to the band. We couldn’t recommend delving into this band more.
6. Frank Ocean – Blonde
“I’m not brave…” Frank Ocean belts on the epic “Siegfried,” but his smooth transitions from soulful wails to winding raps that act like a lyrical rollercoaster is anything but safe. Yet if his lyrical and vocal prowess was all he had to offer, Ocean would not stand tall above other alternative R&B artists. Instead, each track contains musical textures that build upon each other along with tempo shifts that turn soaring ballads into acoustic reveries into club ready beats. Over seventeen captivating tracks, which includes a bevy of all-star guests, including Andre 3000, Beyonce, Yung Lean, James Blake, Jamie XX, Yung Lean, Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamar, and Pharrell, Ocean provides soulful recollections on sex, fame, extroversion, adolescent and consumerism. Yet at no point does Ocean lose control over his powerful vision, creating an experience that is much like our modern world—almost too much to bear in its beauty and pain, made transcendent by the possibilities of the future.13
5. Jim James – Eternally Even
Jim James’ latest solo album arrived at an opportune time. Landing about a week before the world was forced to come to grips with the idea of a President Trump, Eternally Even provided a catharsis in time of much need. When we are yearning of a something bright, we have found that there is no more splendid of a light emitted from a human than what comes from James. Eternally Even is a throwback, one where you can literally hear the crackle of the needle across the record as the songs dance along (specifically on the hypnotic “The World’s Smiling Now”), but it’s also a look ahead, encapsulating throughout the album an echo emulating from the future. It’s a future where psychedelic rock reigns supreme, and the hope of a better tomorrow is realized, with Jim and his otherworldly voice providing both a grim wake up call and the reassuring confirmation that everything is going to be ok.
4. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
To commemorate Childish Gambino’s instant classic, we would like to allow The Roots’ Questlove, who was absolutely floored by the album (as were we!), initial reaction do the talking:
“Dude I’m so fucked up right now. I can’t even form the proper hyperbolic sentence to explain to D’angleo why I woke him up at 4am to listen to this. I’m like – when is the last time someone sucker punched me on this level…..I mean I knew #AroundTheWorldInADay was coming & it was a left turn – I’m about to blow the wigs off music historians…..but I thought I was getting some fresh millennial 2016 hip-hop shit and I got sucker punched. The last sucker punch in black music I remember in which NO ONE had a clue what was coming was Sly’s #TheresARiotGoinOn – read my IG about it (the flag) – I’m writing in real time ‘cause – Jesus Christ the co-author of #WearwolfBarmitzvah just SONNED the shit outta me. In the best way possible. I was NOT expecting a trip to Detroit circa 1972 at United Sound Studios. I haven’t written or been stunned by an album I wasn’t expecting since that time I got an advance of #BackToBlack. The music is so lush man, I can see the kaleidoscope color mesh of the #Westbound logo. Dude I can’t curb my enthusiasm. All I know is if #P4k try to play him again with these ratings there WILL be a riot goin on.”
3. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Chance the Rapper’s latest album, Colouring Book, is a soulful and thorough exhibition of one of the most talented young musicians in the world. Although this was – technically speaking – his first commercial release, Chance remains the greatest unsigned rapper in all of hip-hop. Coloring Book highlights what it is about Chance that brings us so much joy: his lyrical dexterity and rhythmic finesse, his utter exuberance towards life and for hip-hop, and the soulful soundscapes he crafts that act as the canvas he paints upon. It’s an album that celebrates triumphantly the Chicago culture that influences his art and his societal viewpoints. To us, the track “Mixtape,” brings home where Chance stands out from his peers. The track serves as a commemoration of his desire to forge his own path. Acting as an ode to the artform of mixtapes, “Mixtape” is Chance’s opportunity to shine his ethos and for his fans to celebrate his efforts to hook up the goods “straight out the faucet.” With dope verses by both Young Thug and Lil Yachty, “Mixtape” is just one of the many outstanding tracks on Coloring Book, but the one that makes clear why Chance is so special of an artist in the first place. And Coloring Book confirms, boldly and with zeal, that Chance is one of hip-hop’s most promising and inspiring young stars.
2. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Brace yourself for a bold and possibly controversial statement, but we believe that Car Seat Headrest’s album Teens of Denial will authentically be celebrated for generations to come as one of the greatest rock albums ever conceived. We say this without hyperbole and knowing that we are placing this album right there along with the untouchables, such as Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. To us, Teens of Denial is just that phenomenal. Frontman and songwriter Will Toledo is just twenty-three years old, but at such a young age he has found a way to channel his youthful unrest and anxieties into a rock opus that is gassed with flickers of his influences, bands like Nirvana, The Breeders, Pavement, and the Pixies. But while the album forces old heads like us to recall our most beloved indie rock bands of the 90s, Teens of Denial transcends the comparisons that have burdened its release, and exists as a novel and exciting piece of modern art. So many of the tracks on Teens of Denial commence as as a seed, that blossom into a fully formed and vibrant plant urgently. Exhibiting the crafty songwriting ability of a man twice or even three times, Will Toledo’s anthemic hooks make us want to holler at the top of our lungs with him in ways that make us feel fully alive. Teens of Denial is a sure bet that Car Seat Headrest has so much more to offer and a beautiful future ahead, but if for some reason Toledo’s creative output diminishes, he will always be able to hold his head high having crafted one of the best rock albums we’ve come across….period.
Essential Tracks: “Vincent,” “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem),” and “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales.”
1b. Various Artists – Day of the Dead
For the majority of us, 2016 hit like a drive by and nobody caught the plates. But this year, The Grateful Dead had a hard-earned and undeniably warranted moment in the sun. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Grateful Dead, the four original members — Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir — reunited at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2015 for a series of concerts known as “Fare Thee Well” marking the original members’ last-ever performance together14). In the wake of this legendary and successful series of shows, the Dead seemed to be back in the consciousness of music lovers, and this year Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National brought together a sweeping collection of artists to reinterpret and breathe new life into the music of the Grateful Dead. In what amounted to five hours of music (59 songs in all), a plethora of exceptional talented musicians congregated to give a hat tip to a band that helped redefine the sounds of Americana music. From Courtney Barnett to Wilco to Jim james, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Mumford and Sons, the Flaming Lips to Kurt Vile and beyond, so many of the most notable names in music today crafted a tribute album the likes we had never seen. One that felt novel in light of the fact that each band or artist’s signature sound was entirely on display, but all the while listeners were able to understand what makes the songs, and thus the Grateful Dead, so amazing in the first place.
The release of Day of the Dead was truly an emotional experience for us. Throughout the last decade we have been privy to too much negative talk and connotations about one of America’s best and most important bands. And the Day of the Dead felt like sort of a validation for the Grateful Dead, a retelling of all the legendary rockers accomplished in their prolonged and beautifully strange career, and an ode to their impressive contributions to American music.
1a. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here…Thank You For Your Service
When the first album from A Tribe Called Quest in eighteen years, We Got it From Here…Thank You For Your Service, kicks off, it begins with a mission statement, “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever / Gotta get it together for brothers / Gotta get it together for sisters.” Immediately, it is clear that not only are Tribe back, and not fucking around, but that the album they had crafted was done so with purpose, and to provide a much needed perspective and positivity on current events. Although in many ways a new Tribe album was beyond overdue, We Got It From Here…Thank you for Your Service arrived right on time as there is no time in recent history where the healing power of poignant and positive hip-hop was needed so badly. For us here at Across the Margin, the most important song to be released all year is the first single off of We Got it From Here…Thank You For Your Service, “We The People,” a song that calls attention to the authentic dangers many Americans face on the daily and the importance of unity in the face of an oncoming storm. “We the People” is not the only socially conscious track on the album as “Whateva Will Be” and “Melatonin,” are rife with powerful messages. But don’t get it twisted, this isn’t simply about poignant lyrical content, but about the fact that Tribe came back sounding as smooth and funky as ever, with their patented sound wholly intact, that jazz-infused soulful hip-hop that only they are capable of.
We Got it From Here…Thank You For Your Service isn’t just abanger of a hip-hop album or an important album in the midst of a country disjoined, but it also serves as a coming out party of sorts for Jarobi (who knew he could spit like this!), a confirmation of the enormous talents of Q-Tip,(one of the best to ever do it), and a fitting tribute and farewell to the late, great Phife Dawg.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
It seems like 2016 has been flush with musical farewells. From Phife Dawg and Leonard Cohen, to Prince and David Bowie, the loss of such incredible artists has left the world just a little bit dimmer. And in our chaotic and modern times, where new paradigms are falling into place while older, more deeply rooted one’s become deeper set, it’s the power of music, and the uplifting presence of the artists who create it, that possesses a sincere power to bring us all together. Back in January of 2016, when the path this contentious year has taken had yet to be journeyed upon, David Bowie released his twenty-fifth studio album, an album entitled Blackstar. But what no one except for those in Bowie’s closely guarded intimate circle knew, was that Blackstar was more than just another album from the glam-rock superstar. What Blackstar was was a final farewell, a swansong of a release coinciding with Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday, and a parting gift to his adoring fans around the world. Sadly, the realization of the true depths to Blackstar, and the intended message behind its songs, would only become apparent when the cultural icon passed away after a secret battle with liver cancer two days later. The news of Bowie’s death hit us all hard here at Across the Margin, especially in the context of the fact that we were all so thoroughly enchanted by the album. The newness and wonder of the music mixed with the raw, unadulterated sadness of his death was a bittersweet pill to swallow. It was like trying to mix oil and water, and the two conflicting currents of emotions swirled around us for days as we tried to make sense of it all. But with time comes understanding, and as the weeks passed, and we began to appreciate Blackstar for what it really was, a touching goodbye, but also one of the most extreme, and staggeringly honest and touching albums Bowie has ever produced. We came to see that with Blackstar Bowie wasn’t just offering up a musical blueprint on how to move on from this realm, he was instead pulling a modern-day Lazarus, restoring a life taken away all too soon through the transformative power of his music, and in that way, we feel Blackstar deserves the distinction of Best Album of 2016. David Bowie may be gone, but his essence and his spirit live on dutifully in Blackstar, and in that way, the Thin White Duke has ensured that he will live forever.15
- Written by Douglas Grant. [↩]
- Written by Douglas Grant. [↩]
- Written by Douglas Grant. [↩]
- Written by Douglas Grant. [↩]
- Something made glaringly obvious when he led off on “Triumph.” [↩]
- Written by Jonathan Marcantoni. [↩]
- Written by Douglas Grant. [↩]
- The state in which Ruminations was recorded. [↩]
- Lyrics from “Barbary Coast (Later)” [↩]
- At about the 3:30 mark! [↩]
- Written by Douglas Grant. [↩]
- Written by Jonathan Marcantoni. [↩]
- Written by Jonathan Marcantoni. [↩]
- The band was joined by Trey Anastasio (guitar), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards), and Bruce Hornsby (piano [↩]
- Unless noted, The Top 50 Albums of 2016 was written by Michael Shields and Chris Thompson. [↩]