2016's been an odd year, to say the least. It has been tough to watch the news; a worldwide refugee crisis is in full swing, climate change may have passed a reversible threshold, and the corpse of a moldy jack o' lantern was elected US President. Enough beloved, respected actors, artists, and musicians have died this year that there's a 10% chance another passes away while you read this article. I miss Gene Wilder more than I ever thought it was possible to miss someone you've never met. But there have been good moments. The Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series (and somehow Chicago didn't burn to the ground). And the music... blessed Dio above, the music was great this year. Last year, I found six albums that I felt were worth writing about. This year, I filled a full fifteen, with honorable mentions and a separate list for EPs. How good was the music this year? Two of the biggest progressive metal legends ever put out the worst albums of their careers, and no one batted an eye, because there was so much other great stuff out that two cosmically huge misfires were no big deal. Seriously, 2016 is the new bar to clear in terms of great music (replacing 2013). Below are my Top Albums, EPs, Songs, and Concerts from the year that was; check 'em out, tell me what I missed, and pour one out for all those we lost this year. Also remember that "Top" is my own preference, because I am woefully unqualified to tell anyone what is good or bad when it comes to music.
I know that Honorable Mention seems stupid, like it's a way to squeeze five more albums into my list and make this a Top 20 instead of a Top 15, and there's probably some truth to that, but guys for real SO MUCH GOOD MUSIC THIS YEAR!!! Plus, as always, my list, my rules, so here are five albums that were really, really good and would have cracked the "main" list any other year probs:
Zhrine - Unortheta
Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis
Brain Tentacles - Brain Tentacles
Hemelbestormer - Aether
Inter Arma - Paradise Gallows
In my review of Paradise Gallows, I called it "an Album of the Year contender." And I stand by that statement, because Paradise Gallows a damn fine album, easily the band's magnum opus in what's been a pretty solid career thus far, and it's not Inter Arma's fault that it came out in the most stacked year of music I've ever seen. Zhrine managed to make atmospheric death metal, which I honestly didn't really know was a thing until Unortheta, and Ulcerate dropped what is probably my favorite album of theirs. Brain Tentacles is unlike ANYTHING I've ever heard, challenging and fun in a way more music should be, and Hemelbestormer's Aether is simultaneously beautiful, devastating, and magnificent in a way that doom metal so often isn't. Each of these five albums is well worth your time, and honestly, their lack of inclusion in the main event of this list boils down more to personal preference than a reflection on their merits (because remember, I'm a quack with a keyboard, nothing more).
I can't stand when my nieces and nephews get participation trophies, but when it comes to metal, I want ALL the great bands to get the love.
15. Cokegoat - Drugs and Animals
A joyous, sleazy bacchanal of righteous sludge, Drugs and Animals is absolutely the cure to 2016's efforts to ruin your day (or year, or life). Rollicking guitar licks and keyboards interplay with some of the best rhythm section work I've ever heard to create songs that caress your ears while knocking you on your ass. Cokegoat has created something special with Drugs and Animals, which comes as no surprise to any pothead with a pet. Much like Batman, Drugs and Animals is not the album 2016 deserves, but rather the album it needs.
Favorite Track: "The Ruiner"
14. Bossk - Audio Noir
Incredibly, Audio Noir is Bossk's first full-length album after a decade of splits and singles. But it just goes to show that good things come to those who wait; Audio Noir is a streamlined experience of the post-metal/sludge that put Bossk on the radar. Where .1 and .2 each contained two very, very long tracks, Audio Noir breaks the tracks into more manageable chunks, although they all flow together so well that you're going to listen to the whole album in one sitting anyway, so does it really matter? "Kobe" is the highlight here, with a twinkly, ethereal melody that will stick in your head for... *checks to see when Audio Noir came out* ... at least eight months. Good to have these guys back; hope to hear more in the near future.
Favorite Track: "Kobe"
13. Frigoris - Nur Ein Moment
I discovered Frigoris and their latest album Nur Ein Moment the same way I discover most new music: the wonderful folk over at NCS. I'm not sure what drew me to this album initially, but I know that I listened to a stream and then bought it on Bandcamp shortly thereafter, so kudos to whatever part of my brain noticed whatever it did. Chances are it was my ears, and they heard the concise, flowing amalgamation of death metal, blast beats, acoustic passages, and soaring melodies that fill Nur Ein Moment. Genre-bending is certainly nothing new, and I wouldn't say that Frigoris reinvents the wheel here, but Nur Ein Moment takes established conventions to breathtaking heights.
Favorite Track: "Station"
12. Yeti on Horseback - The Great Dying
Look at that album artwork. Look at it. Take it in. Got it? That is what Yeti on Horseback's The Great Dying sounds like. Like a mythical beast that defies convention and easy descriptors, The Great Dying smashes together venemous sludge that would make Primitive Man proud with winding, bongripped ambiant passages that would make Sleep nod their heads in appreciation. This dichotomy has no rhyme or reason, and you're never sure from which school the next bar of music is going to come, so that multi-faced beast continually leaves you on your toes. A stunning debut album by a band that needs to be watched.
Favorite Track: "Elephant Man"
11. Red Fang - Only Ghosts
When Only Ghosts was announced, I sort of had an epiphany that I liked the idea of Red Fang more than I liked the band. I mean, I've enjoyed all of their albums to date, but really only loved a song or two on each, and more just thought they were super cool dudes that make awesome music videos who I'd like to be friends with. Only Ghosts changed that (not the friends part; I still want to be friends with these guys), because it is front to back awesome. Hook-filled and poppy, while still standing atop the same stoner rock roots from which "Prehistoric Dog" sprung, Only Ghosts is an incredibly fun album that makes you mad you can't sing along while humming the riffs.
Favorite Track: "Cut it Short"
10. Gevurrah - Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! is not my typical cup of black (metal) coffee; usually I prefer my black metal a little more ambient, a little more shoegazy, a little more dangerously controversial (I'm talking Deafheaven and hipsters here, not Burzum and neo-nationalists). But sometimes the heart knows what the mind truly wants, or something like that I heard on Lifetime once, and here we are. Hallelujah! doesn't pull any punches, pummeling you right out of the gate and barely giving you time to catch your breath. There are some absolutely fantastic riffs and melodies in this one, and the vocals are superior to a lot of similarly styled bands. A very welcome surprise.
Favorite Track: "Dies Irae - Lacrimosa"
9. Lightsabres - Hibernation
Easily the most suprising album I ran into this year, Hibernation is a collection of mournful, pining, and vindictive stoner jams that's heavy on catharsis. Lightsabres' fuzzed out distortion covers legit singer-songwriter chops, and most of the tunes on Hibernation are catchy enough to stick in your head, and then you realize you're crooning "Cut my throat, bleed me out" to yourself with a smile on your face. The stark dichotomy between the beautiful melodies and pitch dark lyrics is the selling point here, and Lightsabres' executes with aplomb.
Favorite Track: "Whisper to Me Softly"
8. Russian Circles - Guidance
I'm pretty sure Russian Circles is the band I've most taken for granted as a metal fan. I looked, and Guidance is the first time they've ever made my year end list despite putting out six high quality albums in the last ten years. Guidance finds the band in somewhat familiar territory, by which I mean if you like what these guys do, you'll dig it, and if you don't, then what's wrong with you? Provocative, cathartic, and powerful, Guidance is a damn fine addition to an already stellar catalogue.
Favorite Track: "Afrika"
7. Sedna - Eterno
If there is anyone out there who misses Altar of Plagues as much as I do, Sedna is the band for you. Eterno is black metal in that AoP style, which is to say it's not afraid to take chances, to bring in melody, or to tear your fucking head off with intensity at any given time. Eterno is Sedna's second album, and after checking out their first retroactively, I'm beyond stoked to see where this band goes from here. I typically feel bad/lazy when the best way I can describe a band is by comparing it to another band, but in this case, I can think of no higher praise.
Favorite Track: "Mountains of Creation"
6. Cough - Still They Pray
Sludge music typically finds itself dealing with the darker side of the human experience, and what elevates the very best albums in the genre is just how far into that darkness they're willing to go. Still They Pray finds Cough diving headlong into pain and despair, and the result is electrifying. Wailing, distorted guitars and dirge-like paces were to be expected, but it's when the band busts out the clean singing - raw, pleading, and unnerving - that the album hits some of its highest points.
Favorite Track: "Shadow of the Torturer"
5. If These Trees Could Talk - The Bones of a Dying World
I was vaguely familiar with If These Trees Could Talk when we got the promo for The Bones of a Dying World, to the point where I knew what style of music to expect. I did not to find such an immersive, thought-provoking post-rock record, which is precisely what The Bones... is. Every song feels vitally important on its own while simultaneously contributing to the overall message and feel of the album. There's a pretty solid chance that this is my favorite instrumental album since Pelican's The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, which should really tell you all you need to know about how good it is.
Favorite Track: "The Giving Tree"
4. Khemmis - Hunted
Khemmis' 2015 debut album Absolution was one of those records that never seemed to click for me, quite possibly because Tom and everyone else in the blogosphere kept telling me how good it was and how I needed to love it. Hunted, however, I've loved from first listen. The riffs are crisp, the songs lengthy yet conice, and the vocals are on point. This is one of those albums where it really pays to listen to the whole thing, as the finale of "Hunted" packs a huge wallop after listening to the hypnotic opening of "Above the Water" and the crushing, High on Fire-esque "Three Gates." If not for another album further down on this list, Hunted would be the Best Sophomore Album of the year; regardless, I'm still a lot more excited about Khemmis than I was twelve months ago.
Favorite Track: "Hunted"
3. Alcest - Kodama
2. Anciients - Voice of the Void
It's unfair to hate on Shelter, Alcest's 2014 album that was all shoegaze and dream pop; sometimes people just want to make different music. I did not like Shelter, but I do not begrudge Neige for making it, which is undoubtedly easier now that Kodama is here. A return to the lush ambiance meets black metal tendencies that Alcest does so well, Kodama is energetic, and feels vibrant, like coming home after a long journey. Ok, that might just be me projecting with an easy cliche, but honestly I'm just so over the moon having the Alcest I know and love back that I don't care.
Favorite Track: "Kodama"
2. Anciients - Voice of the Void
When Anciients' debut Heart of Oak came out three years ago, iit diidn't floor me; iit was a soliid album that Ii liistened to a few tiimes before losiing iin a shuffle of other records. So when Voice of the Void was announced, my response was tepiid at best. But then Ii liistened to it, and holy smokes, what an album. Blendiing the ferociity of early Mastodon with the heart on your sleeve emotiion of Baroness and a liittle biit of Blackwater Park-era Opeth progresiive tendenciies, along with a segment or two that are probably the best new Tool musiic we'll ever get, Voice of the Void is a revelation, and Anciients iis poiised for a massiive breakthrough.
Favorite Track: "Ibex Eye"
This album. My GOD, this album. This album came out in early April, and I have been obsessed with it ever since. It is the only non-mix CD I keep in my wife's car. It is (by far) my most-listened to album this year. Somehow, coming off of their absolute masterpiece Vertikal, Cult of Luna managed to avoid a letdown; the sublime, perfect addition of Julie Christmas' exceptional vocals makes Mariner a masterpiece in its own right (and honestly makes the prospect of a CoL album sans Christmas a less appealing proposition than it was last year). Cult of Luna doesn't change their formula for Mariner so much as just tweak and improve it much like they've always done. The songs feel a bit more natural and organic than Vertikal's (intended) stark, industrial tone, with lush ambiance often present among/behind/over the band's roars and riffs. Julie Christmas, for her part, drives her flag marking her staked claim as metal's preeminent vocalist even deeper into listeners' ears, roaring, crooning, belting, shrieking, or doing whatever else she damn well pleases. There are no missed opportunities, no places where you think "I wish they had done this instead." Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas have created not only the best album in the best year of music in recent memory, but also a classic that will be revered and hailed as such for years to come.
Favorite track: Get a nice pair of headphones, turn off your phone, pour yourself a glass of your favorite libation, and listen to the whole damn thing. Alternately, "The Wreck of S.S. Needle" and "Approaching Transition."
5. Deathspell Omega - The Synarchy of Molten Bones
DSO continues to do the blackened death metal thing as well as anyone. Oh, EP write ups are going to be shorter than the LPs, because EPs are shorter than LPs. Also, time is a flat circle.
4. Agoraphobic Nosebleed - Arc
3. Wolvserpent - Aporia:Kāla:Ananta
A grindcore band made a sludge album, and it is awesome. I have not listened to other ANb albums, but people have told me if I love this one, I will probably not like them. But I like this one a lot.
3. Wolvserpent - Aporia:Kāla:Ananta
One forty minute song that goes from black metal to drone to ambient sound to some sort of stringed instrument playing. All of the genres sound like they could be the band's primary genre, and that technical prowess is what makes it so good.
2. Gorguts - Pleiades' Dust
I honestly thought Colored Sands was going to be it for Gorguts, but I'm so, so, SO glad I was wrong. This EP (a single song) is absolutely phenomenal, to the point where it's not a stretch to think it could go down as Gorguts' greatest achievement. Also: Luc Lemay is still the nicest person I've ever met.
Creepy songs that sound like a horror movie soundtrack? Check. The best Opeth song that came out this year? Also check. The Tracks of the Hunted isn't all metal (you could make the argument that only title track really qualifies), but it's all good, and you can't beat the musical journey it takes.
"Pleiades' Dust" and "Aporia:Kāla:Ananta" were ineligible for this, because that seemed fair to me when I wrote this down, and I have already paid them their due. Also, I decided not to do blurbs for the songs, because I used the time when I could have been doing that to embed them right here so you can listen now. You don't need to say thank you, just listen to these incredible songs.
10. Alcest - "Kodama"
9. Red Fang - "Cut It Short"
8. Clouds - "I Gave My Heart Away"
7. Bossk - "Kobe"
6. Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas - "The Wreck of SS Needle"
5. Anciients - "Ibex Eye"
4. Lightsabres - "Whisper to Me Softly"
3. Sedna - "Mountains of Creation"
2. Khemmis - "Hunted"
1. If These Trees Could Talk - "The Giving Tree"
Ok I sort of lied; the best song gets a write up. I've already made my feelings on If These Trees Could Talk's phenomenal The Bones of a Dying World known, and "The Giving Tree" is a big part of those feelings. From it's ethereal, austere intro to its rousing, take on all comers finale, "The Giving Tree" is a revelation that enraptures and demands your attention. It's my favorite instrumental track since Scale the Summit's "Atlas Novus," and that is no small praise. You should listen to all of these songs, because what else are you doing right now, but this one most of all.
I had recaps for all of these, but then realized it was just five different ways of saying "THIS SHOW WAS AWESOME AND EMOTIONAL AND CATHARTIC AND HOLY SHIT THIS/THESE BAND/S ARE AMAZING LIVE!!!" and you could probably just infer that from the fact that this is a list of the best concerts I've seen this year. So I got rid of them, and left the list underneath a picture of George Takei.
The only celebrity who did not die this year.
5. The Dillinger Escape Plan at Cobra Lounge
4. Russian Circles at The Metro
3. Gorguts, Intronaut, and Brain Tentacles at Subterranean
2. Wolves in the Throne Room at The Empty Bottle
1. Dragged Into Sunlight at MDF XIV
So that's it. Fifteen albums, five EPs, and ten songs I think you should check out, plus five concerts that were the bees' knees. I hope your 2016 at least beat the mean, and that the coming weeks find you happy, surrounded by family and friends. If your favorite album from this year didn't make the cut and you're angry, thanks for caring so much about our little blog. This is it for me this year, unless I imbibe too much on Christmas and publish a 15,000 word obituary for Agalloch before Mick can stop me.
Be good to each other.