So: on to the actual list of actual albums of 2016. My introductory blurb is here. This year it is a Top 20, because the quality of music was just so high. In fact, unlike most years, this time I struggled with the bottom end of the list – there were a number of albums that were very close to making the cut, and it was difficult to not be able to include them (there were some no-hopers — there always are — but rather fewer this year than normal). My apologies to those who didn’t quite make it.
A real feature of the albums at the top is their staying power. Several of them were released early in the year (the Shearwater in fact was released digitally in December 2015 to those who pre-ordered), and despite the passage of time, and the tendency to focus on more recent albums, they hold up: They are as strong at the end of the year as they were when they were first released. For me, this is the true test of an album’s quality: if it gives as much pleasure or demands as much attention from me a year (or more) later as it did when it first appeared.
- Van der Graaf Generator – Do Not Disturb
Is this the last VdGG album? There are hints that it might be, but on the other hand there are few musicians out there as prolific as Peter Hammill has been over his career…so who knows? At any rate, this is the old VdGG but sans David Jackson, which does remove a crucial familiar element from the music, but otherwise there is no mistaking the haunted angst, the echoes of the great band of the past.
- Throes of Dawn — Our Voices Shall Remain
Throes of Dawn are a Finnish outfit that apparently at one time were black metal. They have softened and broadened their sound, but the metal hasn’t left. They are a bit derivative to my ears, but there are some beautiful instrumental moments in these songs — and whoever that guitarist is — well, it is gorgeous playing, soaring and evocative, and that is enough to slide this album onto the list.
The title track has a bass line stolen right from Editors “Sugar” — but nevertheless, I love the song.
- Necro Deathmort — The Capsule
I’ve said this before: it is hard to predict what you are going to get with these guys. Relentlessly prolific, they are continually tossing out EPs and tracks that explore the landscape of ambience, electronica, drone, in myriad directions. The Capsule revisits the disquieting dark moodiness of Music of Bleak Origins, instrumental drone metal underlain with a jittery anxiety.
17. Opeth — Sorceress
Opeth is one of those bands that I have struggled mightily with for a long time, trying to hear what everyone else seems to hear, who love them so much. In the end I guess I have to say that they remain completely hit-and-miss for me. That being said, I find that Sorceress is one of their more accessible albums. I don’t love it, but I can listen to it more than most of their others. So here it is, number 17.
- uKanDanz – Awo
And now for something completely different. It is hard to describe what we have here – based out of France, hard, energetic, proggy/jazzy rock, lots of guitar riffage and horns, and on top of it all the unique vocal stylings of their Ethiopian lead singer, Asnake Gebreyes. It is heavy and strangely compelling, but may well be an acquired taste.
- Dead When I Found Her – Eyes on Backwards
As I noted earlier, 2016 was the year I really discovered industrial electronica, a genre I had never really explored before, having come across them completely by accident a couple of years or so ago when I found VNV Nation. But this year there seems to have been a bumper crop of the stuff brought to my awareness. DWIFH is a duo from Portland, Oregon; this album is all smooth synths and dark trance, oddly compelling and disquieting, perhaps a bit too sample-heavy for my taste, but interesting enough to make the list.
- Meller Gołyźniak Duda – Breaking Habits
A new, independent project from three old pros of the Polish music scene. Initially I wasn’t too crazy about the album: a somewhat derivative mashup of dirty rock and blues, very loose, lots of jamming – there didn’t seem to be a lot to grab onto. However, it is also melodious, upbeat, enthusiastic and good-humoured, skillfully delivered: and of course Duda’s silky and distinctive voice…all that goes a long way towards mitigating its shortcomings. It is no classic but I have become rather fond of the album.
- Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze
This album surprised me. I knew CBP had a new one, but I was in no rush to check it out because I never could get very far with any of their previous albums. When I did, finally (rather late in the year as well) remember to play it…well, surprise. Something has changed, there is a different feel to the music here. Gone is the rather self-righteous smugness that so annoyed me in their previous efforts. Bronze is open, unpretentious, almost vulnerable. It is also by turns heavy, melodic, delicate, proggy and complex. The last half of the album sags a bit, but overall it is exceedingly listenable and some tracks (especially in the first half of the album) exceptional.
- Awooga – Alpha
An inaugural EP, actually, four tracks long, but what tracks they are: powerful proggy metalish heavy-ass rock, but still melodic – this trio is clearly proficient, well-practiced, and confident; and definitely an outfit to watch for in the future. The digital album is available for free, but of course you will toss them some coin.
- Deftones – Gore
One of those bands who seems to have been around forever, that have always hovered at the edge of my awareness but for some reason I never pursued. Even buying this album came down to chance: I was in a record store and the white vinyl was sitting in the rack in front of, me and I grabbed it on the urging of a friend on the other end of the phone. It took me a bit to get into it, and it is one of those albums that hasn’t delivered a lot in the way of earworms, but it is heavy and addictive enough when I do play it that I don’t mind putting it on. I’m not sure I will spend a lot of time exploring the rest of their considerable discography…but you never know. They may well remain a pleasing one-off in my collection.
So we reach the top 10. From here on in, the album quality is such that, with the exception of the top 2 or 3 discs, any of the rest of the list could easily have taken almost any order. In a way, the final positions are almost arbitrary: it is the order that existed on the day I decided I was done making the list.
10. Russian Circles – Guidance
The last album from these guys was good, but a bit disappointingly mellow. On Guidance they are back to their heavy, pounding post-metal selves, with an album that features some of their best tracks for years, interspersed with just enough slow stuff to allow one to take a breath.
- Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
The first couple of times I played this album, it did almost nothing for me (except for the track “Serein”); I found it uninteresting: disappointingly proggy and much less metal-ish than I was hoping for. I almost wrote it off. And then something happened. For some reason I didn’t stop playing it, and one day I realized that it had just taken root. Its understated sophistication, its melodious intelligence asserted itself, and here it is, up in the Top 10 when initially I thought it wouldn’t make the list at all. You just never can tell.
- v01d – Greeted as Liberators
One effect of the great Artoffact Records sampler mentioned earlier is that it introduced me to more industrial electronica, and this album is one of the standouts. Dark techno meets industrial metal, harsh and delicate, raucous and melodic: and as it turns out, v01d (a.k.a. Joe Byer) hails from right here in Toronto. This is a very overtly political with very sharp commentary – in fact the second album in my list that can be considered to be a political protest album. I find myself playing it a lot; it could have ended up higher had the competition not been so stiff this year.
- Cambrian Explosion – The Moon
Generally if someone asks me if I like psychedelia, the answer is … not really. So imagine my surprise at how much I love this album. It is one of two EPs on the list, but it has the meat and heft of a full album. Dense psychedelic stoner rock from the Pacific Northwest, smart and mesmerizing and pretty heavy at times. It almost makes me want to explore the genre a bit more. Almost…
- Gadi Caplan – Morning Sun
This is one of those albums whose appeal is hard to explain, it is quite different from pretty much everything else in this list. It is not metal, or electronica, or psych or even plain rock; alternative folk/prog might be the best description, if I have to describe it. Caplan is an Israeli guitarist working out of New York, and plays bass here, and the album also includes the work of lyricist/vocalist Danny Abowd. Together these guys have created one of the most interesting, literate, compelling, and beautifully-played efforts I have heard in a long time. An album that is short and to the point, a joy to listen to. I just wish I could convince more people to give it a shot.
- Korn – The Serenity of Suffering
This album didn’t even appear in the original short list, I bought it late in December on a whim and figured at best it might get an honorable mention. Korn is another of those bands who have hovered on the edge of consciousness probably for years, and that I just never paid any attention to. And wouldn’t you know it – this album is just spectacular, at least in the sense of it hitting all my hot spots for the kind of music it brings. Great short intense metal tracks in the style of Gojira and Deftones, and it has pretty much the same effect – the hair-whipping head-banging intensity that rewards attention on the one hand, and provides background danceability on the other. It is exactly one of those albums that I am likely to play for years to come, when I need a shot of energy and joy, and just want to play something fucking LOUD.
- Gojira – Magma
See: Korn. Almost the same situation here, another band whose name I knew and had a vague notion of the genre, but never followed up on. In this case the singles that were released on Youtube were astonishing to me: very hard and metal and musical at the same time, hooky and intense. And yeah, this album is very hooky. One thing I greatly appreciate about this album and several of the others on the list – they do not overstay their welcome. I do not understand this idea (I have heard many people express it) that an album should be long. An album should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer; and frankly there really aren’t that many artists who can sustain the consistency and interest required for an album that is more than an hour in length. Oh yeah — and Crank It UP!
- Bootblacks – Veins
Let’s go back to the music that was 30 years ago…. Finding this album was a complete accident. A breathless blurb from the distributor, Storming the Base, appeared on Facebook, and it was so enthusiastic I figured: well, it can’t hurt to try. And boy am I glad I did. Bands channeling the spirit and feel of the 80s has been a thing for the last couple of years, but I have encountered nobody yet who has done it as well as this Brooklyn-based outfit. This is absolutely authentic 80s-style darkwave but it still sounds completely modern. Veins is an addicting album, smart and danceable (if that is your thing), dark and bright at the same time. One of the major discoveries of the year.
- Jambinai – A Hermitage
There were moments when I seriously considered making this album No. 1 – but then that other album would assert itself. Nevertheless, this band is one of the most astonishing finds I’ve made in a long long time. A Hermitage just blows me away. It came out of left field, a chance listen on Youtube, and it just gets better and better. A syncretic fusion of post-metal and world music (I guess that is what you can call it) from South Korea, in which pure face-melting metal and drone sensibilities are welded to with traditional Korean instruments and song structures…the tracks are dense and modern, churn and pound, and in the next moment weave delicate strands of ambience; the geomungo and eerily voice-like haegum fuse east and west in a compelling concoction that sticks relentlessly in the brain – if given a chance. This is a fantastic album.
- Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow
I have to confess, I really did not expect this album to last the duration in the top spot. It has been over a year since I first heard it, having pre-ordered it in late 2015 and getting the album stream as a Christmas gift that year (official release date was January of 2016). The surprising thing is that Shearwater have always been hit-and-miss for me; up to this point I have loved individual tracks across different albums, but no single album has held my interest, and in fact some I find unlistenable. However, on Jet Plane and Oxbow Meiburg and Co. have seriously outdone themselves. They had much to say, and say it they have, and in a glorious fashion – in monster song after monster song. It does have a vague 80s feel, but not in any deliberate way. It is heavy, and rocking, and delicate like raw silk, with enormous melodic hooks and huge intelligence. It is also a crafty and subtle protest album, and its timing could not possibly be more apt. An album for the ages.