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.
Well, it’s already May, and I haven’t updated the blog for a while.
What is new and exciting so far? There are a few new things to be sure, but not very many have caught my attention. I haven’t really had the time to dig in and listen to stuff, let alone search out new things.
That being said, some singles have hit in anticipation of new albums:
Porcupine Tree: “Of the New Day”
Steven Wilson and crew follow up the first single from 2021 with this one, much slower and more contemplative, but still managing to sound like a mash-up of earlier Wilson solo albums and Porcupine Tree — which is not to say that it is a bad or derivative song. It is not. Maybe not as instantly compelling as “Harridan”, and a bit more of a grower, but the two singles together suggest the upcoming album may be a pretty good one, whatever the reasons for its release.
Killing Joke: Lord of Chaos EP
There are two new tracks on this EP, and a couple of remixes of things from 2015’s Pylon. The new tracks are “Lord of Chaos” and “Total”, and these are worthy follow-ups to the angry melodic industrial post-punk of Pylon. It is, however, not clear whether a full-length album is to follow.
Decapitated: “Cancer Culture” and “Hello Death”
Technical death metal from Poland, beat-and-riff-heavy, relentlessly energetic, reminiscent of beloved early albums. “Hello Death” stands out because of guest vocalist Tatiana Shmayluk (Jinjer) who adds a whole level of richness with her soaring clean vocals, in opposition to Rafał Piotrowski’s angry growls.
The angst-ridden Danes are back after several years, with a new album in the works, due to be released on May 27th. The single is very much in the vein of songs from 2017’s Goliath: darkly melodic and orchestral, dealing with loneliness and broken relationships. Christian Sindermann’s plaintive voice may be an acquired taste, but it does fit the mood of the songs.
Shearwater: “Xenarthran” and “Aqaba”
Jonathan Meiburg has been busy: he released his first book last year (the very excellent A Most Remarkable Creature — a book that has nothing at all to do with music) and is still promoting it; and he also managed to finish the latest Shearwater album (The Great Awakening) which will be released in June. The album was released to crowdfunders early this year, so I have been listening to it for quite some time now.
The singles give a taste of what the album is like. Slow, contemplative, rather more acoustic than the previous album, and it can sound deceptively sparse, but it isn’t really. It hearkens back to earlier albums: in fact, “Aqaba” has very much the feel of “The Snow Leopard” from Rook, and if you know that song, you know that is not a bad thing at all.
Mariusz Duda: “News From the World”
This song does not presage a new album, but winds up the Lockdown trilogy of albums that Duda composed and released over the past two years. And it is an interesting song to end with; rather than being more of the sparse, jittery electronica of the Trilogy, it is dense and analog, with the three-part structure common to Duda’s best Riverside or Lunatic Soul tracks. It is certainly full of electronic washes and soundscapes, and it even begins in a deceptively Lockdown-ish way, but soon a slightly jazzy bass riff and actual drums take over. Piano dominates the middle third, before heavy rolling bass-and-drum riffs return. There are bits reminiscent of Lunatic Soul, and Eye of the Soundscape; it is by far the strongest track of the entire Trilogy, probably because this is where Duda’s strengths lie. I could stand a whole album like this.
At this point most of the albums I’m interested in are in the future. I’ve only picked up three new ones to date:
Author and Punisher: Krüller
Author and Punisher is the nom de plume of one Tristan Shone, industrial musician who takes the genre descriptor literally: he builds machines that make industrial music. No guitars or drums on his stage, just huge metal contraptions that he works with hands, feet, and voice, to produce enormous swathes of massive sound. He came to my attention a few years ago via the Spotify algorithm, back when it seemed to actually work — for some reason it suggested I might like this stuff.
It was not wrong. Author and Punisher makes brutal, dense, angry electronic noises, at least at his best. I’m not sure, alas, that Krüller is his best: this album sees his material somewhat more melodic, and less brutal, and somehow less effective. For me, only “Centurion” really stands out as indicative of what he can do, perhaps followed by the title track.
The Finnish folk metal masters have released an album that is very reminiscent of Under the Red Sky, and that is fine with me, because I liked that album very much. These guys present deeply melodic and heavy folk metal, full of catchy riffs, and really the best part of these songs is how well Tomi Joutsen switches between growl vocals and a rich clean tenor voice throughout the songs. He’s one of the best in the business at that. This is a nice and easy album to listen to, head-banging all the way.
Marillion: An Hour Before It’s Dark
Marillion, the long-standing neo-prog outfit, is a band that never did much for me. The level of adoration from many of my friends does lead me to occasionally try out yet another Marillion track, just to see if something has changed — and since I tend to find Fish and Hogarth both annoyingly mannered vocalists, it shouldn’t really matter what album I pick. Pretty much every attempt has resulted in a bemused “meh”.
So yeah, I was rather surprised (as were most of the people I know when I mentioned it) when I actually took to the new album. I can’t remember why I listened to it — I think I just liked the cover — and somehow, despite Hogarth’s nasal whine, the album itself works. Now it is not one that is ever going to make my all-time best list by any means — it doesn’t have that kind of depth or thoughtfulness or originality — but it is certainly accomplished, smooth, with some pretty lush moments. It is a good album to put on and just play.
And no, I won’t be attending any Marillion weekends.
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
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.
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.
2016 … When the (probably apocryphal) Chinese sage said “May you live in interesting times”, this must have been close to what he meant. We lost so many great musicians, especially in the early part of the year, it seemed as though the music gods were punishing us for unknown sins by taking beloved people, one by one by one. There were personal losses as well…and at least one of those crossed the boundary between fandom and friendship.
At the same time, the music that was released was of a quality that I haven’t experienced for a long time. This is not to say that everything reached the same stellar heights but almost everything I sampled had moments of interest. I ended up investing in more new music than I have for several years, just because so much of it seemed worthy of further attention. This made the task of sorting through the list of potential year-end albums excruciatingly difficult. Therefore this list is a Top 20 instead of last year’s Top 15, which itself was a statement about the quality of music out in 2015 since normally I think in terms of Top 10. You get the picture.
Things didn’t start off so well. I look back on my first statement, in early July I think, about how the year was going. I said this:
I can’t say I have made much of an effort to find new music this year. Just way too much stuff in the personal realm has gone wrong. In fact I have been so disinterested that I may not write up a full year-end report for 2016. But a few things have managed to sneak onto the list. And I know that some stuff is yet to come…so who knows. At least a couple of albums so far have been real surprises, so I’m not ready to write off the year just yet.
Oh how things changed after that….
Speaking of the music…if 2015 was my metal year, for 2016 it was industrial electronica. Some psychedelia (but just a little). And the 1980s are definitely still a thing, since the best of the electronica has looked back to classic days. Metal and post-metal, a bit of prog and some alternative are still present of course, but my horizons are expanding. At least, the best of the stuff coming down the pipeline has been from unexpected directions. But good music is good music, whatever the genre.
There were more things to consider than just new releases though. It was also quite a good year for specialty releases: compilations, re-releases, one-off projects, and such-like: albums that could not be included in the year-end album list but that deserve mention anyway because they are just very good. So for the first time I have a separate list for those.
And this is where I will begin.
The Reissues, Compilations, and Live Albums
These are the albums that cannot really be regarded as presenting “new” material, at least for the most part, but are definitely worth the money. It was a good year for this kind of thing as well, with bands finalizing anticipated projects, or stretching out into different territory, or small labels flexing their muscle with some outstanding examples of their artists. I have presented them in reverse order of interest (to me).
Pelican – Live at Dunk!Fest 2016
One of the iconic post-metal bands, and one I’ve never managed to see live, but one day I sure hope to. In the meantime they made available their utterly fierce performance at Dunk!Fest, available as a digital download or a beautiful coloured vinyl release. Well worth checking out.
Shearwater – Shearwater Plays Lodger (live)
One of the more curious projects to come along this year. I’m not quite sure what inspired the band to do this, apart from the fact that they love David Bowie’s Lodger album…but they really do manage to pull it off.
Nash the Slash – Dreams and Nightmares
Nash the Slash (Jeff Plewman), who died in 2014, was one of those musicians who, if you knew of him at all, you were captivated. With his bandaged-wrapped face, top hat, and electric violin, he was an iconoclastic purveyor of atmosphere and electronica, both solo and with the band FM. He was a legend in Toronto and across Canada and enormously respected in the electronica community. Dreams and Nightmares is a reissue of his 1978 album of the same name; this album features the spectacular soundtrack he created for the Bunuel/Dali 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou.
Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape
This was released as a companion album to the rest of the discography, bringing together their much-beloved but still oft-overlooked forays into ambient electronica. It gathers together bonus tracks from the last two band releases, two of the bonus songs from Rapid Eye Movement II, and four spectacular new songs. It also stands as a heart-breakingly poignant tribute, because it was the last album that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski ever worked on before he died suddenly in early 2016. My review of the album is here.
Artoffact Records – I am Awesome Because I Still Buy Music
Label compilations, especially around this time of year (getting towards Christmas) are a dime a dozen. One can understand the motivation, since they bring together sample tracks from a label’s roster of artists; the problem, sometimes, is that these can be massive collections – I’ve seen upwards of 50 tracks on some of these things. Who has that kind of time?
Artoffact Records is the in-house label of the Toronto-based online shop Storming the Base, supplier of music leaning strongly towards electronica and synthpop. They have put together their own sampler, and folks, this is how it’s done. A lean and focused collection from six artists who are releasing new albums, with two tracks each, so it doesn’t overwhelm with quantity. But the quality…! The result is a monster sampler of dark wave, raucous and melodic industrial electronica/metal, compelling listening as an album on its own, and it’s free for god’s sake. And if the aim was to get you to investigate the musicians included here, it sure worked because I have bought albums from three of the six. Outstanding examples: the bleak and beautiful “Expiring Time” by Dead When I Found Her, both tracks by Toronto-based solo artist v01d, and “Shut Up” by Out Out, an incandescent statement of outrage against the faux news of Fox News.
My very favourite supplementary project for my very favourite Porcupine Tree album. It is no secret by this time that I am not much of a PT fan in general, I like a few albums and songs here and there. But Fear of a Blank Planet is one of my desert island albums, and IMO the four tracks that make up the Nil Recurring EP are just as brilliant. Of course the EP has been available for years, but it is great to have a silver vinyl copy of this as well, and in fact I play it pretty relentlessly.
It’s halfway through 2016, so it is time for the semi-annual roundup of where we are.
It started out slowly, a couple of releases right off the bat from Shearwater and David Bowie, and then it seemed that there was little of interest in the immediate future. However I can’t say that I was paying a whole lot of attention to the music scene anyway: it’s been a tough year personally on a number of levels. But when I started to think about music again, a few surprising things had snuck into my consciousness – albums in styles and genres that I would not necessarily have sought out on my own, but here they are.
Every year I can count on at least one act to show up that I’d never heard of and that blows me away, but this year there are several. There are surprises, and there are disappointments. Obviously the current rankings are tentative and entirely subject to change, but it is unlikely that an album currently sitting near the bottom will suddenly rocket to the top. It is still a crapshoot though: there are a couple of powerful contenders to come, and at least one anticipated release from a trio with no name, and whose sound is a complete mystery at the moment. Who knows what this list will look like at the end of the year?
Before we get into the list and mini-reviews, a quick glance at the albums I know are in the pipeline:
Russian Circles – Guidance (August)
Seven Impale second album — September
Riverside electronica – looks like October
The as-yet unnamed Maciej Meller/Maciej Golyzniak/Mariusz Duda trio album (November)
Here we go: The contenders so far, in reverse order:
Arcade Messiah – II
Complex and heavy instrumental progressive post-rock. There is no doubting the musical chops of these guys, and there are some fine moments, but the album is perhaps a bit too self-important for its own good.
Iamthemorning – Lighthouse
I’d like to like this better than I do, it is quite lovely and atmospheric, but to be perfectly honest the slow baroque-pop tends to get a little samey after a while, and the breathy vocal style wears. The title track works so well because the male guest vocals effectively play off the soprano and provide density and interest. And the last track is outstanding.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Another album I am supposed to like more than I do. It is not a bad album by any means, and the title track is a strange, compelling monster…but I feel that sentiment is not really a good reason to rank an album, and it is only sentiment that could boost this album higher than it is.
The Vliets – I – IX
These guys generally do alternative psychedelic pop, but this album, digital only, is pure ambient electronica, composed as a sonic backdrop for some art installation. It does work perfectly in that context too – excellent background music. It would rank higher if it was longer.
The first or second time I heard this I was kind of excited, because it sounded so much more interesting than the previous album. It is heavy prog metal but more metal than prog, and more than a few moments really caught me up…and then something happened. The third and subsequent times I played it…it just sat there. It lost its edge really quickly, and I find that except for a couple of tracks near the beginning, I so lose focus that I am surprised to discover that the album is over. I barely notice it.
Inspired – Music Inspired by Alchemy
There are some great, atmospheric instrumental pieces on this album, the third in an occasional series, but not enough of them. And most of them are just too damned short. See my review here.
Airbag – Disconnected
I was so hoping that this band would step outside its lush, sweeping Floyd-channelling boundaries this time around, and extend their efforts … but alas, apparently they decided to play it safe. So very very safe. Disconnected sounds so much like the previous two albums that in my mind I have trouble disentangling the songs one album from the other. It’s just more of the same. They can do better than this.
Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
Another album that is not hitting me where it counts. I was hoping for a return to heaviness, and there is some of that, but mostly they have turned to progressive metal with emphasis on the progressive. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for an album that goes for atmosphere over kick-ass, and an album in which I cannot sustain interest over its considerable length.
Except for “Serein”. Which is jaw-droppingly amazing.