The Best 100 Albums of 2016, Part 4: 40-21

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#40:  A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

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Comebacks are a sketchy sort of thing in popular music.  When an artist or group puts out a new work after years – decades – of being silent, it’s easy to get cynical.  Do they need money?  Is this just a nostalgia trip cash-in?  Is the new album basically a tour souvenir?  Have they phoned it in?  Are all of the old members even present, or is this just an excuse for a couple of old members to resurrect the name to get eyeballs and sales?  There are any number of great old acts that have fallen victim to this sort of crass capitalism:  Black Flag, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Zombies, The Who, The Pixies, etc. and so on into infinity.

Then there are the acts that come back and it’s like they never left.  They remain as vital and as timely as  they ever were.  Sleater-Kinney comes to mind here.  Now, so does A Tribe Called Quest.  We last heard from the legendary hip hop group in the 1990s, when they were the jazzy, fluid alternative to screwface gangsta rap.  They dealt with some hard subjects, to be sure, but they also knew to back off and celebrate the little things in life as well.  Thank You 4 Your Service is exactly in the same vein as those old Tribe records – it could be the vanishing point between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. The beats are as in-the-pocket as they were back in the day, and the flows are as consistently great as they ever were.  The record is shot through with the ghost of Phife Dawg (who died during the recording process from complications from diabetes) but it never falls into the trap of being a maudlin tombstone for him.  Instead, Tribe do what they always did – tackle sociopolitical issues, shoot the shit about life’s tribulations, and make fun of wack MCs.

#39:  Ian William Craig – Centres

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In the wrong hands, ambient music is scattered, banal, and boring.  Ian William Craig is not the wrong hands.  Centres is a haunting, emotional album crafted out of tape noise, synthesizers, and Craig’s own heavily processed voice.  He comes through in jagged moments, heralded by bursts of ghostly static, and it is as beautiful as it is blurred.  There’s a veritable shoegaze quality to much of the album, as though Tim Hecker and My Bloody Valentine merged into something gorgeous, fragile, and only partially visible.

#38:  Nice As Fuck – Nice As Fuck

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A purely articulated vision that is as minimalist and straightforward as its album cover.  Jenny Lewis and her indie friends from Au Revoir Simone and the Likes craft a kind of post-punk album that used to only dwell in the early 1980s.  It’s as though Young Marble Giants crossbred with ESG and got stoned to some early Spoon records.

#37:  Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

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You take some jazz, some funk, some soul, a little bit of noisy rock ‘n’ roll…you sing in a fashion that’s midway between Joni Mitchell and Janelle Monae…you get longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti on the bill…throw a potato in there, baby you got yourself a stew going.

#36:  LUH – Spiritual Songs For Lovers To Sing

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Indie rock that’s been blown out, left ragged, and smeared across some odd grade of canvas.  Ecstasy as seen from the perspective of a fever dream, left out to bake in a nuclear-blinded sunscape.

#35: Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

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Jenny Hval creates on Blood Bitch a cleared space for women in the tangled sacred space of phallocentric rock ‘n’ roll, a direct continuation of the milieu of “soft dick rock” she discussed in regards to her previous album, Apocalypse, Girl.  It’s an album of secrets spilled forth into the light and presented in a hard-edged light that takes some spiritual cues from the grind-and-destroy mayhem of black metal.  Nothing is left behind here: blood and vampirism, urine, pregnancy, menstruation, pap smears, and witchery colour the tracks and create a spattered, intimately fluid feeling in the transition of pieces.  Is selling art tatamount to selling the key pieces of oneself, and if so, how far can you bleed that self before it blanches out for good?

#34:  School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB

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A triumph born directly out of a tragedy, SVIIB is likely the last School Of Seven Bells album.  During the process of recording, band co-founder Benjamin Curtis died of sudden-onset lymphoma, leaving singer/synth-player/song-writer/lover Alejandra Deheza to finish the process of this final document on her own.  This album – which Deheza called in a P4K interview “the whole arc…[of] our relationship over 10 years” – is a soaring, anthemic tribute to him, one final blowout of synth-pop bliss that the duo had been making a claim on for quite some time.  Knowing the circumstances behind the songs, it’s hard to hear those swelling pads and those pounding synths without getting all teary-eyed.  Onions.  Why is the world so full of onions all the time?

#33:  Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits

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You know what I like about John Dwyer?  No matter what weird deviations he’ll take you on, no matter what sort of strange psychedelic noises he’ll use to keep you awake and paranoid, he always delivers on his main promise, which is to melt your face off in the course of an album.  A Weird Exits does this in a primal way that few bands, then or now, have been able to accomplish.

#32:  NAILS – You Will Never Be One Of Us

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Twenty-one minutes of pure destruction.

#31:  Jambinai – A Hermitage

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Post-math, to be sure, but post-math that takes it a step beyond by integrating a number of Korean instruments into the usual guitar-bass-drum Western rock lineup.  Ever wanted to hear a geomungo or a haegum alongside a guitar?  Look no further.

#30:  The Liminanas – Malamore

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A French garage band so true to form that you’ll swear you’re sitting on a ratty brown couch watching them play battered instruments through mismatched amplifiers.  Also, it’s filtered through a sunrise-coloured love of spaghetti western tones, so it doubles as a great soundtrack for the leadup to your next fight.

#29:  Tim Hecker – Love Streams

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Veteran ambient composer Tim Hecker turns his attention to a somewhat calmer set of inspirations than his previous works on Virgins or Ravedeath 1972.  Love Streams was recorded in part with the Icelandic Choir Ensemble and sounds like the Northern Lights were captured and turned into music.  If Marcel Theroux’s Far North were ever turned into a movie, Love Streams would be it’s soundtrack.

#28:  Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion

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A lysergic mixture of Low-style slowcore songcraft and searing psychedelic guitar noise that sits as the vanishing point between J. Mascis and Neil Young.  Come for the gloomy atmosphere, stay because the guitar lines have sliced off your limbs and you can no longer even crawl away from the carnage.

#27:  Santigold – 99 Cents

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A cross-genre trip across the psyche of one of the most entertaining performers to survive the transition from the 2000s to the 2010s.  Pop, R&B, hip hop, dancehall, and alt-rock styles dance in clockwork with each other, creating an album that has a little tasty morsel for anyone who happens upon it.

#26:  Bat For Lashes – The Bride

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A lush concept album about the spiritual journey of a woman whose fiance dies in a car accident on their way to the wedding.  Natasha Khan brings all of the fire and pop sensibilities that informed her previous albums and ramps them up to another level here.  She treads a fine line between impassioned and histrionic and comes across the gorge free and full of new life.

#25:  Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

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The Detroit rapper has been tracing a path toward a Universal Theory of Pure Fire for a while now but Atrocity Exhibition accelerates that path like Zizek blowing up the dialectic on a Tuesday.  Borrowing a title and an aesthetic from Joy Division, VHS glitch, and the decay of his own home city, he and a scant lineup of guests (which still manages to include Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt on the same song) create something edgy, sharp, and stabby.  Did I mention he’s on Warp Records now?  Bizarre soundscapes, interesting samples, and his own hectoring B-Real-esque voice (another guest, by the way) are now the order of the day.

#24:  Angel Olsen – My Woman

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After 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness I would not have been shocked if Angel Olsen’s subsequent album(s) would have been total flops – how do you even follow up such a delightful mixture of rustic folk, Leonard Cohen, and amped-up rock ‘n’ roll?  As it turns out, the answer to that question is My Woman.  Her voice is on point as always, but the arrangements have been cleaned up in such a way that they manage to crossover several different genres while simultaneously displaying a seemingly newfound love of pop hooks.  “Shut Up Kiss Me” is one of the most impassioned songs you’re likely to hear this decade.

#23:  Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

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Sturgill Simpson has made a name for himself as the gigantic thorn in the side of the stuck-in-traffic-boring Nashville country music establishment.  Not content with merely reproducing pop tropes with a light twang for the profit of corporate stooges, Simpson wants to keep the spirit that informed the best of country music alive:  Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, a little bit of Waylon Jennings from time to time.  None of them would make it in modern Nashville; all of them are responsible for its powerhouse success.  A Sailor’s Guide To Earth shows that there’s a way forward from shlock bullshit like Keith Urban and Florida-Georgia Line:  tough, wiry arrangements that utilize as much blues as they do country ideas; a horn section that sounds like heaven taking off; a serious approach to theme and lyrics; and a willingness to mix it up with balladry that isn’t just whitewashed R&B – check out the soulfulness of “All Around You” to get a good feel for that.  He’s also been a vocal opponent of the Nashville establishment, which makes his success all the more satisfying.

#22:  Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

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The last two or three years have seen American black musicians go in one of two directions.  Artists like Young Thug and Future are pushing U.S hip hop further into the future, melding genres and pursuing ever-more-cutting production.  An equally as interesting group have chosen to go back to forms of black music from back in the 20th Century.  Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus have been going back to jazz for inspiration in their neo-freakouts; Childish Gambino abandoned his clownish rapping for a dead-on funk homage; Dre’s last album had Kendrick’s fingerprints of old-school funk and soul all over it; D’Angelo chose to stake his comeback (and win) on gritty old soul music in the vein of Sly Stone; Beyonce even managed to pull out big, brassy Texas country on her album, and her sister used those old soul vibes to nearly become the Top Knowles Sister of 2016.  Michael Kiwanuka goes more psychedelic, crafting a series of songs whose hearts rest in a certain type of music the Sixties turned out that can be best summer up by a compilation album called Forge Your Own Chains: Ballads and Dirges.  These are songs drawing inspiration directly from road-trip Americana, lysergic long-form psychedelic exercises, and a heavy sense of sorrow and uncertainty.  Where the bands on Forge Your Own Chains drew out their sorrow in organ drones, Kiwanuka uses piano, guitar, and horns to create a busy sense of the struggle to get on.  “The struggle” is right, too: Love & Hate also taps into that new (depressingly old) sense of political outrage, the one that knows that even fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, being black in white America is difficult at best.

#21:  Deerhoof – The Magic

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For a band that’s been going for something in the ballpark of a decade now, Deerhoof manage, on their latest album, to top their previous work and put together an even better collection of quirky, fractured, ultra-busy pop that doubles as a kick-ass guitar rock album.  I say this every time Deerhoof put out a new album, and every time I genuinely mean it.

100-81 | 80-61 | 60-4140-21 | 20-01

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