The notion of trying to cull a ‘Top 10’ list from the sheer volume of music available in a given year is a sobering prospect mainly because I’m certain that for every album I managed to find time to listen to, another 3 or 4 slip through the cracks. I guess there are worse problems to have. If you ask me, 2016 has been a really good year for music. The value in looking back on the year’s offerings, for me at least, is to gain an appreciation for how exciting the world of rock & metal is right now and to take stock of how many different directions the music is moving. As in years past, I tried to broaden my horizons when it comes to the sorts of things I listen to, and I found myself going down a few roads I really didn’t expect.
I’ve poured over dozens of these lists on other websites in the past few days, and not only have I come across many albums from bands I’d never even heard of, I’m seeing very little consensus as to which album is the “year’s best”. To me, that is a testament to the both the diversity within the genre, and the number of high quality releases that have been delivered. My list is no more definitive than any other list you’ll read and I have a hard time with rankings so I’m just going to lay these out in no particular order and hope that this list opens someone up to an album they may have otherwise missed in what was another exceptional year in heavy music.
Ghost – Popestar (EP)
Look, I’ve got no time for the debate on whether or not Ghost is worthy of being considered a “metal” band, and I also realize that the inclusion of Popestar on a list such as this could be questionable considering that it’s only an EP…whatever—I don’t care. The bottom line is that Ghost has been churning out some really great music the past few years, and “Square Hammer” might just be the best thing they’ve ever written. The rest of the album’s tracks, all of which are covers, vary from good to great, but the greatness of “Square Hammer” (and the accompanying video) was enough to make this one of my favorite releases of 2016. Are you on the level?
Gojira – Magma
I found Magma to be a bit of a mixed bag in some ways (see my review) but there is no denying that the album features both excellent songwriting and precise execution. Powerful cuts like “Silvera” and “Stranded,” while more to-the-point than the band’s previous material, continues to demonstrate Gojira’s unmatched ability to infuse complex song structures with catchy riffs. Elsewhere on the album, songs like “The Shooting Star” and the title track indicate Gojira are flirting with a more esoteric sound, which is the reason I found this album as compelling as I did.
Opeth – Sorceress
Opeth has caught a lot of shit for the direction they’ve gone on their last three albums, culminating in this year’s release of Sorceress. Maybe it’s because I became a fan of Opeth right around the time they were starting to move in that direction, but I’m seemingly in the minority when it comes to appreciating their foray into classic and prog rock. Mikael Akerfeldt may come across as self-indulgent at times, but there is no denying that he and the other members of Opeth are musically capable of nearly anything they put their collective minds to. So what if the middle section of Sorceress drags a little, the rest of the album (and the bonus tracks included with most versions of the album) more than makes up for it. We should only be so lucky as to have Opeth turn their gaze towards other sonic pastures when this is the result. These guys could make a country western album and I’d buy it.
Comet Control – Center of the Maze & Mondo Drag – The Occultation of Light
I’m lumping these next two albums together since neither of them are really what I would consider metal, or even hard rock. As I mentioned in the lead-in to this list, I found myself in a few unexplored musical realms in 2016, and I never fancied myself a big fan of psychedelic music until I discovered these two albums. Comet Control hails from Canada and Center of the Maze is their sophomore release (their debut is well worth seeking out as well). It’s a lush, spaced out gem full of warm tones and thick, hazy instrumentation. Comet Control certainly has a retro vibe about them, but they feel distinctly modern. Mondo Drag, on the other hand, make no bones about their retro aspirations on the fantastic The Occultation of Light. Copious use of a Hammond organ and unrefined production give this album a very 70’s feel, but it deftly tows the line between homage and imitation. Both albums are perfect for chilling out after a long day with a drink and/or smoke in hand.
Latitudes – Old Sunlight
I don’t recall seeing Old Sunlight on any of the “Best of 2016” lists that I perused. I suspect this has less to do with the album’s quality and more with the fact that it was released on an obscure French music label but, whatever the case, this is an oversite I intend to correct right here and now. This is Latitudes’ 3rd full-length, and I will admit that a good bit of the appeal with this album for me is the growth it represents when compared to their previous work as these guys are a band I’ve followed from the beginning. Even without that frame of reference, Old Sunlight is a post-metal masterpiece. It’s relentless, melodic, atmospheric, and it is absolutely worth your time.
Anciients – Voice of the Void
Anciients kind of came out of nowhere with their 2013 debut Heart of Oak and established themselves as a band to watch. Their sophomore album, Voice of the Void, does not disappoint. Not to take anything away from the band’s phenomenal rhythm section, but Anciients’ signature sound is clearly the product of the chemistry between Kenny Cook and Chris Dyck—both of whom play guitar and sing. They’ve both raised their game here. The guitar work is exceptional, and I pay them the highest of compliments when I say that they are somewhat reminiscent of Mastodon’s Kelliher/Hinds combination in that each of the bandmate’s styles, while obviously different one from the other, are perfectly complimentary and critical to the band’s monstrous prog-tinged sound.
Greenleaf – Rise Above the Meadow
Everyone knows that Sweden is home to all sorts of crazy metal bands, but most people maybe aren’t aware that the country is also a hotbed for bands proudly carrying on the tradition of desert/stoner rock—a genre which was more-or-less created out of thin air by Kyuss in the mid 90’s. Greenleaf is one such band, although they are probably better described as a ‘collective’ given their ever-changing lineup, most of whom play in other Swedish stoner acts. For most bands, that perceived instability would be a hindrance to the creative process but it seems to have had the opposite effect on Greenleaf as each release seems to keep sounding fresh and full of energy. Originally started as a side project by three of the members of a band called Dozer, the band released their 7th album earlier this year. This is their second album with the excellent Arvid Jonsson on vocals, whose smooth delivery perfectly complements the catchy stoner goodness that the rest of the band creates.
Moon Coven – Moon Coven
This band hit my radar a few years ago when I came across a 3-song demo they put together and released under a different band name. That demo caught the attention of a proper label, which quickly signed them and released their debut, Amanita Kingdom, in early 2014. On their self-titled sophomore release, Moon Coven’s musical vision comes into focus as it becomes apparent early on that they are a band who—first and foremost—worship at the altar of the almighty riff. The vocals take a back seat to the fuzzed-out plod that the band conjures, and while the album is very unassuming in terms of production and song structure, there is a beauty in the simple yet lush soundscapes they create.
Year of the Cobra – …In the Shadows Below
In the context of a list that should theoretically feature ‘metal’ bands, this release from Year of the Cobra could be seen as a peculiar selection. For starters, the band consists solely of 2 members—a married couple—playing bass guitar and drums. That’s right, no guitar! Any doubts as to the ability of Year of the Cobra to deliver a memorable album with a limited toolset are immediately shattered by vocalist and bassist Amy Tung-Barrysmith. Her beautifully melodic vocal presentation provides the perfect juxtaposition to the thundering grooves she lays down on her bass with her husband’s backing on the drum kit. Dripping with attitude and atmosphere, this is an oddly compelling album and one of my favorites from 2016!
Kvelertak – Nattesferd
I know I said my list would be in no particular order, but I’ve saved this last slot for my favorite album of 2016. If someone had told me at the beginning of the year that this album would top my list, I wouldn’t have believed them. That’s not a knock on Kvelertak’s previous material, rather, it’s a testament to just how spectacular Nattesferd is in terms of executing what it set out to achieve. Channeling retro and classic rock is nothing new in the world of metal, but Kvelertak’s take on that familiar formula is wholly unique and results in an album that sounds like nothing else at the moment. And that album art…Nattesferd is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and, for my money, the best album of 2016.