It’s that time again, when, along with many other people, I maunder on about some music I heard in the past year. I’m not sure how many albums I did hear altogether, definitely more than the dozen I talk about, but I don’t make notes unless for some reason the album gets my attention long enough to play it more than once. A lot of albums don’t get that far. A lot of albums I don’t manage to get all the way through even once. I’m sure there is a lot of music that I have missed — there always is, mostly due to time constraints, and mood constraints, and the inability to listen to everything that gets recommended by various friends, musicians, and algorithms, but I do try.
Anyway, what follows is the music that did catch my attention sufficiently for me to revisit it. I think there is less variety than usual: metal and post-metal dominate, but there is a surprising amount of prog considering my general disdain for the modern form of the genre, some ambient/electronica, and a bluegrass album. I’d heard of every band on the list except for one, and that one proved to be one of the best discoveries for a long time. I found a couple of albums simply because it struck me that the band had been awfully quiet lately and maybe I should check what they were up to.
In terms of ranking… I’m beginning to wonder whether I should bother: at least, for anything not in the Top 3. I did a little research, looking back on my previous lists to see what albums had actually stood the test of time. It wasn’t quite as bad as I feared: for most years, a lot of my top picks have turned out to be albums that I still play. Not all years to be sure, and not all albums, but enough for me to continue to trust my own judgment. So take the top 3 as the top 3, and the rest in more or less rough order, as in — the ones near the bottom are less interesting than the ones near the top.
This past year was an excellent year for music, much better than the travesty that was 2020. Right from the beginning with the early releases it promised to be a strong one, and quality-wise it never really let up. The music did come along in fits and starts: a bunch of late winter/spring releases, a bit of a lull through summer into the fall, and then a final surge very late in the year. It was this last bit that proved problematic, because the late releases were so strong they threw off all the calculations I had made up to that point. By mid December I had to completely rethink my top-tier albums.
In terms of genres, what attracted me is largely divided between various forms of instrumental ambient electronica or industrial, and good ol’ rock‘n’roll/metal. A bit of proggish and alternativey stuff is sprinkled throughout, but not too much. There were certainly surprises along the way. I ended up with an even dozen albums that stand out; I think this is the strongest year for music in a while.
Gary Numan released his crowd-funded album early in the year, and Shriekback did the same thing in December. Industrial legend Bill Leeb gave us two offerings: one from Front Line Assembly and another from the long-quiescent Noise Unit. Mariusz Duda, who has an inordinate fondness for trilogies, also released two albums to complete his latest, which was begun in 2020 with Lockdown Spaces. The Tea Party emerged almost out of nowhere to demonstrate that they are still very much alive and a force to be reckoned with. The long-awaited new album from post-metal masters Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster finally appeared.
I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.
Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.
Back in July, I observed that the music of 2019 consisted largely of music I missed from 2018; and that continued through the rest of the year. However, new music also continued to appear, and most (but not all) of the expected releases finally materialized (exceptions: the new Body Count, and the oft-delayed new Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster, theoretically due early in 2020).
Overall, I find the musical year has been a bit lacking — almost all of the albums range from definitely listenable to very good, but none of them strayed into Great territory. Even the best album of the year has a handful of songs that could have been left off. Out of the 10 in the final list (and a shorter list this year than has been the case lately), I can listen to only 4 others in their entirety without my attention drifting; the rest are either solidly competent without being outstanding in any way, or have some excellent tracks among general indifference. This may be the first year where this has happened.
At any rate, on to the list, from 10 to 1.
10. Queensrÿche: The Verdict
My first Queensrÿche album; I have avoided them largely for the same reason I do not listen to Iron Maiden: I cannot stand operatic metal vocals. However, the tracks are solid, listenable, professional hard rock, the sort of album you can play when something is needed that isn’t quite aural wallpaper but also doesn’t demand a lot of attention. Satisfyingly heavy and melodic.
9. Torche: Admission
If you like it short, no pretensions, sludgy and heavy, these guys deliver. They can certainly settle into a groove when needed, but most of the songs here are brief and to the point.
8. Front Line Assembly: Wake Up the Coma
The return of the Canadian industrial stalwarts, first new material for a few years, and a few guests included. I still don’t think FLA is as good as Noise Unit (another Bill Leeb project) at its best, but they are legends.
7. 3Teeth: Metawar
The third album from the guys on the front lines of industrial metal, presenting their dark vision of the state of the world today. It is a hard, polished album, perhaps less gritty and fierce than their last one (<shutdown.exe>) and honestly I think it suffers for that.
6. Pelican: Nighttime Stories
It’s hard to believe these guys have been around for almost 20 years, but they are indisputably one of the best known instrumental post-metal outfits in the world, and this new album just reaffirms why.
5. The Tea Party: Black River EP
This year marks 30 years of existence (more or less — there was a hiatus for a few years) for this Canadian trio, although they have not been very active lately. A new album in 2014, few shows here and there, a Canadian tour in 2016, but little else. Late in 2018 they played a few gigs (I caught them in Toronto) in support of a new EP called Black River, and this was released at the end of November.
Generally I like songs here and there across their discography but nothing like an entire album, but this EP — six tracks over about 20 minutes — is surprisingly good. Very strong bluesy rock, rather less pretentious than is often the case with Jeff Martin; there really are no weak songs at all. I’m almost tempted to move this EP up a slot in the ratings, but for sentimentality’s sake I will leave it here.
4. Pretty Maids: Undress Your Madness
The fourth album of all new material since 2010, the year of their resurrection; it is safe to say that this past decade has been one of the strongest in their career, which says something considering that career spans damn near 40 years. I discovered them in 2016 with their album Kingmaker, (review here) and it was a revelation.
The Pretty Maids formula remains untouched: intersperse killer hard-rock stompers with monster metal face-melters, toss in the occasional hard rock ballad (which these guys do so well), keep melody to the forefront, and feature the work of Ken Hammer, probably one of the best and most entirely-overlooked guitarists in all of hard rock/metal. Overall, however, I think this album lacks some fundamental grittiness and drive that is present in Pandemonium (2010) and Motherland (2013), and to some extent Kingmaker. It seems a bit smoother, maybe looking back to an earlier era. It starts out with a huge bang, but it is hard for the rest of the album to live up to those three opening tracks. It is a very good album, but not the best they’ve done these past 10 years (that title track, though…!!). One does hope for the best of course, given that Ronnie Atkins was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019.
3. Russian Circles: Blood Year
In the July post, I observed that I had only heard the new Russian Circles once, but it certainly held a lot of promise; I think it is safe to say (seeing where the album landed in the top 10) that it has lived up to that promise. Blood Year consolidates the band’s reputation as maybe the best out there at what they do, uncompromising instrumental post-metal, delivered with all the professionalism and passion the guys are capable of. I’m not about to argue whether it is their best album, but there is very little wrong with it. And the accompanying tour may well be one of the best I’ve seen from them.
2. Klone: Le Grand Voyage
The Frenchmen have surely delivered this year. Back in 2015 they released Here Comes the Sun, which marked a rather new prog-driven sound for them, and gained them a whole new following. Le Grand Voyage continues even farther down that road; they have left most traces of their metal past behind and have thoroughly embraced the lush, orchestral sound of the last album while completely avoiding the self-referential prog tropes that mar the presentations of so many current “prog” outfits. Le Grand Voyage is gloriously melodic, cinematic in scope, with some very immersive tracks (“Yonder”, and “Breach” particularly); alas it is not completely consistent in quality but definitely one of the best albums of the year in any genre.
1. New Model Army: From Here
NMA: another of those outfits that has existed for more than 3 decades, with a solid and dedicated following; this time however I wasn’t completely oblivious to their existence since a good friend happens to be a fan, and had recommended them before this, but somehow the appeal passed me by. But again, Spotify to the rescue: a song from their 2016 album appeared in my recommendations, and playing that led me to try the new album.
Which intrigued me enough to play it again, and then I noticed the lyrics.
At this point (due to space constraints) I’ll just observe that I tend to be fairly critical of lyrics and with few exceptions I don’t spend much time with them. But I am happy to be surprised by the exceptions.
Justin Sullivan is a master lyricist. I am extremely impressed, enormously captivated by his narrative power, his irony, his acute ability to grasp and illustrate relationships with a few well-placed words. The full review of this album will follow, and I could probably just write the whole thing with quotes from the songs. But of course, they are songs, and one cannot neglect the music: the album is almost entirely bass-and-drum driven, with acoustic guitar laid over that foundation. On this spare core are layered plenty of orchestral effects, heavy guitar, lots of density where needed … and entwined throughout are those words, telling us things about ourselves that we often don’t want to think about.
It is not a perfect album; there are a few tracks that could easily have been left off to the overall benefit of the album — they just are not up to the quality of the rest and end up as distractions.
I’ll leave you with “The Weather”. I’ll let you cogitate on it yourself, but if there is any song out there that is a song for our current times, this is it.
When I wrote the March State of the Music, the first few months of 2019 seemed to consist mostly of albums from 2018 that I missed, with most of 2019’s offerings still to come.
At this point, many of those albums have been released, and the discovery of the older stuff continues apace. I’d like to pretty much erase last year’s Albums of 2018 posts and start again, but oh well. It’s what I had at the time, and there are a few keepers in there.
Back in March there were three albums that had early releases: While She Sleeps — SO WHAT?, Queensrÿche — The Verdict, and Front Line Assembly — Wake Up the Coma. You can read those reviews here. It will become clearer as the year moves on how they will stack up against the rest of the offerings, but so far they are managing to hang in.
So: on to what has appeared this year since March, a look forward to the few remaining releases (barring any surprises), and a summary of the old stuff that you should check out if you haven’t already (in a separate post since this one got long). The albums are in no particular order as yet, but it is fairly obvious which ones I like more than others.
The Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.
It has been an interesting year for music – lots of good releases, a few disappointing follow-ups from bands I had found earlier, strong entries in genres I did not expect. The best albums of the year examine the human condition and find it wanting, and this year the expression of it has crossed all genres: the thrash-metal anger of Heart Attack and While She Sleeps, the existential philosophy of Alex Reed (Seeming), the bleak vision of Gary Numan, the push-back rage of race and poverty from Ice-T and Ice Cube. A beloved musician – one who is no stranger to lyrics of pain as it is – placing his torn-up heart on view with an album whose intensity of self-examination is almost too personal. It has been a tough and exhilarating year for listening.
This year brings a new Lunatic Soul, always a cause for celebration even if the album itself doesn’t strike quite as hard as previous ones. Once again, a plethora of unknown names with some great releases, and well-established acts who finally caught my interest with worthy efforts. In terms of genres: still some metal, still industrial electronica, some albums on the edge of prog (but no actual prog to speak of), some albums on the edge of pop, and this year a bit of…gangsta rap. Well, as I often say, You Just Never Know.
2017 also heralded the discovery of a band whose (recent, anyway) music has hit me inexplicably hard. They have been around for thirty-five years and I suspect for most of that time I would not have paid them any attention (if I had heard of them) … but their last four albums (new producer, entirely new sound) have just blown my head off. Those albums (and the related side-project by the lead singer) have all been on pretty heavy rotation since early spring, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Every year brings its particular sorting challenge, but this year it is a bit different. The top two spots are not in dispute; the issue here is that these albums tower so far above the rest of the pack I have given them their own slots, and kept 15 albums for the rest. In other words, I have a list of 2 and a list of 15, or I have a list of 17…whatever.
After the first two…well, things get much harder to sort out. Most of the subsequent fifteen albums are almost equivalent in quality; the mix of genres and styles is so wide that blunt comparison may as well be decided by closing my eyes and pointing: how does one fairly compare an album of country-rock by Swedes to gangsta-metal by an experienced Los Angeles media stalwart? Each album brings its strengths, and its weaknesses, and it becomes a matter of deciding which strengths are stronger and which weaknesses are least intrusive to the listening experience. That said, the first six albums in the List of 15 are almost equal in quality. But we will start with Number 17 overall (15) and work our way up. Continue reading Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse Or: The Year of Introspection 2→
The Music of 2017, Part 2 — Honorable mention, and albums 17 to 8.
You can read the introduction to the Music of the Year posts here.
Tune – III
I did not receive this album until the second week of December, which is too late for it to be considered for a spot in the Album of the Year list. But I do want to comment on it.
Tune are a rather odd bunch, a quirky art rock quartet out of Poland; I liked their second album (Identity) from three years back, showcasing clever and accessible pop songs but with a bit of an edge, but still there was something a bit too fey about them.
III is a step in the right direction. It is a very short album, pretty much EP-length, but I have never really been concerned with that sort of thing. It is better to have an album on the short side than one that outstays its welcome. At any rate: the songs here are darker, heavier, much edgier, demonstrating maturity and experience, and less quirk. The production is rich and up-close, showcasing the nice chunky bass sound and guitar – suddenly it is obvious that these guys are pretty damned good musicians. Hopefully this album will bring them a bit more attention – it is worth the listen.
Steven Wilson – To the Bone
Steven Wilson continues down the road well-traveled as he heads closer and closer to pure pop. The last album had its pop moments, but this one Is pretty unapologetic: breakthrough is what he wants, and To the Bone gets him a lot nearer. It is not a bad album but it is a rather boring one, really; Wilson is sticking to the safe route. There are those who excoriate him for his apparent abandonment of the prog that made him so beloved in the first place, but he has always been an International Pop Star at heart. Album review is here.
Necro Deathmort – Overland
Another new album from one of the more prolific of the ambient electronic acts out there. Necro Deathmort never seem to be overt: they don’t promote themselves much, they don’t have a major social media presence, but they never quit and somehow I have amassed quite a collection of their stuff. Overland is smooth and chill and unsettling, as befits the best of their music. The duo appeared on Steven Wilson’s latest album and they have slyly made use of the same colour scheme on Overland.
Eclipse – Monumentum
Eclipse is a hard rock quartet from Sweden, been around for a few years now, and they make pretty decent no-frills rock songs: melodic and heavy and not too long, definitely worth a listen or two. I like the album, and I really like two or three tracks from it. Eclipse joined with Pretty Maids singer Ronnie Atkins to make one of the better hard rock efforts from 2016, Nordic Union. Rumour has it they will do it again in 2018. Thumbs up for that one.
Glass Apple Bonzai – In the Dark
Upbeat synthpop from Toronto, cheerful retrowave about satanism and devil-worship. Well…why not? It is actually a pretty good album. And the guy does have a great voice.
Nathan Gray Collective – Until the Darkness Takes Us
In July, I said this: “At some point in his life, Nathan Gray lost his faith in God and it made him very very angry.” Well, he’s still pretty pissed off, but the album has grown on me a bit. Dark and dense and pretty heavy at times, and Gray certainly sounds like he means what he says.
These guys are a metalcore quartet from Sheffield, been around for a decade or so, and with You are We they have created a pleasingly melodic but face-meltingly heavy collection of tracks well worth checking out. Alternating between screams and clean singing, they have a bit of a Linkin Park vibe, but in a good way.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
An outfit that has been around for a while, but I can’t say I have paid them much notice. They do seem to shift styles and genres to a considerable degree, however, and this incarnation has managed to catch my attention. This version of Ulver seems very synth-driven, dense and musical, and they do some interesting things here. Definitely worth a listen.
The Quill – Born From Fire
Stoner blues rock from the southern US, an album about redemption, reclamation, conversion, finding God.
Oh wait – these guys are Swedes.
Well, they do this thing very well indeed. I’ve been putting a lot of mileage on this album, and if I’d started playing it a bit earlier, it might have risen higher than 10. It is certainly engaging, and I like it a lot better than I thought I would.
Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
Everyone needs a little pop in their lives, I think. But make it good pop. Real pop, heavy and fun – like Royal Blood, the British bass-and-drums power duo. These guys are pretentious, popular, and very good at what they do, and I have an unaccountable fondness for them. The album is short and to the point, and they put out so much wattage you would swear they have onstage help – but I have seen them. They don’t.
Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
I never really paid much mind to Mastodon, and at this point in the year I don’t even remember why I listened to the new album. But I did, and I liked it a whole lot, and went to see them live and everything. In the meantime Emperor of Sand continued to grow on me. I don’t know if I will dig into the back catalogue, but I’m happy with this one.
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.