As the staffers at Metalholic diligently toil away working on this year’s Top 50 Hard Rock and Metal albums list, the individual staffers are throwing together their own personal Top 10 lists. The best part of covering this genre is how vast it is. Every writer will come up with a list that includes albums the others may not have heard or did not value in the same manner. Each of these lists is as important as the other for it is the variation that makes metal so wondrous. The hope is that through these lists you may discover band’s you have not heard of before or find records you overlooked this year. Despite the tragic losses the music world endured this year, it is still one of the best years in recent memory for heavy music. From explosive and inspired debut albums to masterful comebacks, this year delivered so much cranium-cracking goodness it’s almost a shame the year is over.
Except for the top two picks on my list, the others could easily rank anywhere in my top 10, but I’ll attempt to quantify each. For my own personal tastes I tend to favor melodic metal which is where my heart lies. My Top 10 list below reflects that. That is not to say that I am not enthralled with many of the other excellent records released this year, but those listed below represent the records that I returned to the most throughout the year and the ones that spent the most time on repeat in the disc player. The burden of such lists is knowing that there are many albums I/we simply did not hear. As soon as the lists are printed, a new record will reveal itself that would have made the list.
Rather than toss out my honorable mentions, I will give you my two favorite debut and comeback albums since all four have spent time in my Top 10 albums list this year, and all make the Top 15 along with Death Angel‘s The Evil Divide.
Top Debut albums of 2016:
Helion Prime – Helion Prime (Independent)
Helion Prime remain true to the power metal ideal while simultaneously delving into new directions conceptually. While there is still some science fiction ground covered thematically, the crux of the lyrical content is focused on actual science. The album artwork is outstanding, and the music production is excellent overall. What truly sets Helion Prime apart on this debut is how strong the songs are as a cohesive whole. The flow is fantastic and there is no significant drop off in the quality from track to track. Helion Prime is an album packed with explosive riffs, hooky melodies, spirited individual performances, and bold ideas. Jason Ashcraft has penned some of his best work on this record, and Heather Michele’s lyrics are inspired and her vocals truly shine. None of the cameo performances seem distracting or out-of-place, which is always a challenge, and Helion Prime has pulled it off quite well.
Meshiaak – Alliance of Thieves (Mascot)
Meshiaak‘s Alliance of Thieves ascends beyond any particular sub-genre of metal and is a testament to metal mastery. While hailed as one of the best thrash albums of the year, I believe that title sells this release short. The album is one of the finest debuts of the year, and among the best metal releases of 2016. There is no clutter or filler here, just 48 minutes of riff-heavy, spine-grinding metal with strong hooks, percussive rhythms, and memorable melodies. Meshiaak has created a beast of a record that is certainly deserving of far more attention that it has been afforded so far.
Top Comeback albums of 2016:
Metallica – Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (Blackened)
Metallica sounds more relaxed and vital than it has in years, as if they are at the ripe old age of 35 years, now comfortable in their legendary skins. That loose feel resonates on Hardwired…To Self-Destruct. While fans and critics may feel the band has something to prove, this album sounds as if they know the best thing they can do is to set themselves free to be the collective sum of their career. If I have any gripe about this album, it is the production/mix on Ulrich’s kick drums. There’s way too much pop and click for my taste. There are certainly some moments were the album can get a bit tedious, but there is simply too much meat here to worry about some of the fat that could have been trimmed. In all, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct is the Metallica album most fans have been waiting decades to sink their ears into. The naysayers will trash the album of course, but often those are the ones that can’t let go of the past to enjoy the present.
Flotsam and Jetsam – Flotsam and Jetsam (AFM Records)
In 1986, Phoenix-based thrash horde, Flotsam and Jetsam dropped Doomsday for the Deceiver, which stands as one of the genres’ defining albums. Now 30 years later, the band returns with it twelfth studio effort, a new line-up, and a renewed sense of purpose. With its self-titled 35th anniversary album, Flotsam and Jetsam is a band rejuvenated and reborn. There is not a weak track on the record, and the vast majority of the songs beg for repeated listens. The guys sound as aggressive and imposing as they did on their first two records. This is one of 2016’s must own metal albums.
…and now the list…
10. High Spirits – Motivator (High Roller Records)
Motivator was my first foray into the world of Chris Black and High Spirits, and it made an instant impression. From my review: With Motivator, High Spirits has created its best work to date. The album is ripe with all the elements of the classic metal signature that changed the face of the genre 35/40 years ago. It is at once addictive and accessible. The band has even created a logo that recalls this gloried past. None of the instrumental performances on Motivator are virtuoso caliber, and Black will be the first to admit this, but they need not be to serve the song, and the songwriting is where Black truly excels: Motivator is an album of fantastic and memorable songs.
9. Megadeth – Dystopia (Universal/Tradecraft)
Fifteen studio albums into the band’s 33-year career, Megadeth has created an album that blends its vintage signature with contemporary touches. Dave Mustaine and company remain resilient and relevant on Dystopia, executing a record with more hits than misses, and some particularly memorable tracks that should become live mainstays. Chris Adler’s deft and weighty performance truly shines on Dystopia, and the addition of Kiko Loureiro is an inspired choice which seems to have re-energized Mustaine’s own playing. If you gave up on Megadeth in recent years, Dystopia should remind you of why they remain one of metal’s most influential bands. Bottom line: The thrash is back!
8. Tygers of Pan Tang – Tygers of Pan Tang (Mighty Music)
Tygers of Pan Tang, has done its legacy justice on this eponymous return. The album production is crisp and stellar. jacopo Meille’s vocals are locked in throughout the record. The guitar work by Robb Weir and Micky Crystal pays homage to the past while never feeling forced or stagnant. Gray and Ellis are rhythmically precise. The heartbreaking thing here is, as incredible as Tygers of Pan Tang is, sadly too few will hear it, and too many will steal it, thus keeping the big cats caged, when they should be roaming stages across the globe. It is hard to call this a comeback album, but regardless, Tygers of Pan Tang are back with a record that could easily fit in with their classics like Wild Cat, Spellbound, and Crazy Nights.
7. Anthrax – For All Kings (Nuclear Blast)
Anthrax made a bold statement in 2011 with the return of Joey Belladonna and the comeback album, Worship Music. This year the East Coast thrash legends return with a record that pays homage to its roots while also demonstrating its growth and sonic dexterity. Drummer Charlie Benante has written some of his best stuff on For All Kings, and the band sounds more cohesive than ever. For All Kings is a thoroughly enjoyable album and a song like “Breathing Lightning” showcases how far the guys have developed as songwriters, while “Monster at the End” is a reminder of their powerful past.
6. Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake (Nuclear Blast)
Brotherhood of the Snake is Testament’s best record in recent memory and among their best ever. The intensity and aggression are well-balanced by incredible individual performances and a surprising amount of melody. The production and mix by Juan Urteaga and the legendary Andy Sneap are dialed in nicely. There is no filler on Brotherhood of the Snake, and are no standout weaknesses on this record. As a collective, the songs are extremely cohesive and perfectly sequenced. This record proves that one need not reinvent the wheel to create a powerful and relevant album. While four years seemed like an eternity between records, Testament tempered the wait by delivering one of 2016’s best albums, and a highlight among their canon of thrash classics.
5. Evergrey – The Storm Within (AFM Records)
Evergrey is one of those bands that is often unheralded and overlooked, but with The Storm Within, they have created a record that is difficult to ignore. MindMaze mastermind Jeff Teets had this to say of the album: “Some music has an indescribable quality to it that makes it resonate with you on some deeper level. With some bands, it’s because of the lyrical content of their songs. With others, it’s the conviction of the delivery of their music. While a number of bands have these qualities, very few can manage to do it for you over and over again with each subsequent release. Evergrey has been that band for me for over a decade now. It seems to defy logic how every few years when a new Evergrey record drops, it somehow manages to connect with me and resonate on a very deep level regardless of where I am in my own life. The band’s newest offering The Storm Within is no different.”
4. Devilskin – Be Like the River (Devilskin Ltd.)
This is an album that I discovered right as the year was closing out and my list was written. Jennie Skulander‘s vocals reminded me of an edgier Marti Dodson (Saving Jane). On first listen, Be Like the River draws you in. With repeated listens, Devilskin sink the hook. Be Like the River is an addictive affair full of insidious melody and ear-candy addiction. The band is already a household name in New Zealand, and Devilskin’s sophomore album is a declaration to the world that soon their name will be on your lips and entrenched in your cranium as well. Devilskin‘s music is ballsy and melodic and manages to draw inspiration from a number of heavy rock eras from the 70s to present.
3. Sabaton – The Last Stand (Nuclear Blast)
I have always liked Sabaton from a far, but this record made me a fan. From my review earlier this year: With The Last Stand, Sabaton have made a concise statement that the new era of the band and the new line-up are every bit as powerful and imposing as the pre-2012 era. The record is packed with all of the elements that make Sabaton so addictive, from the huge vocals and emotive lyrical delivery to the soaring melody lines and memorable riffs. Sabaton are the masters of historical power metal, and The Last Stand is another accomplished effort in the battle for global dominance. The Last Stand is easily one of Sabaton’s best albums and certainly a Top 10 metal album for 2016.
2. Avantasia – Ghostlights (Nuclear Blast)
This could really be listed as a tie with #1 below, it was such a strong record. It was my early choice for album of the year. Tobias Sammet is a songwriting and structural genius. His ability to tailor songs to fit specific moods and vocalists is inspired, and the manner in which he pulls all the pieces together to create something so dynamic is mind-numbing. For me, Ghostlights is Avantasia‘s best record to date. “Let the Storm Descend Upon you” is certainly a musical piece of epic proportions; perhaps the best song of the year in that regard. As our own Mattie Jensen wrote; “Though the general atmosphere of the album is the darkest Tobias has attempted, Ghostlights shines so bright as it takes it’s rightful place in front of an already flawless discography.”
1. Avatar – Feathers & Flesh (eOne Music)
I knew this album would be special before I heard the first note: A concept record about an owl, produced by Sylvia Massy? Say no more. With Feathers & Flesh Avatar have crafted a creative and stunningly artistic album that defies expectations and transcends the genre. The album echoes with a bleak grace. It is not an album that everyone will get instantly, and it bears repeated listening to absorb the many textures and layers built by Massy and the band. However, it is worth every listen to internalize the full scope of the record. Avatar continue to be one of the most refreshing metal bands on the scene, and Feathers & Flesh elevate the band to a new level. The entire album is exhilarating with its many peaks and valleys, melody and brutality—a fascinating and monstrous affair. It is my record of the year.