Across the Margin begins its rollout of the Best Albums of 2016 with albums 50-41…
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