Across the Margin continues its countdown of the Best Albums of 2016 with albums 20-11…
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.1
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.2
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.