Oh, I definitely know I’m late. Believe me when I say that I have no wish to belabor the foul memory of 2016 any further than is absolutely necessary. Truly, it was a vile year, brimming with breathtaking, heartbreaking upheaval on both a political and societal level, and a cavalcade, practically a mocking, extended holiday parade, of unfortunate mortal departures from the worlds of art and film and music, such that I’d never before quite experienced in my own four+ decades on this rock. Eventually, of course, you grow old enough that your heroes die. It’s as incontrovertible as the sunrise. 2016, then, was the year that stated that truism for the record unequivocally, then restated it, reinforced it, and underlined it like an unbalanced grade school teacher a thousand times in neon ink. For me, the year was possessed of an oppressive, funereal quality from practically the moment that gaudy ball first crashed into Times Square. At the time, I was still in fresh mourning over the passing of legendary Motorhead mainman Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister, never dreaming that within a couple week’s time I’d have added the incomparable David Bowie to that awful ledger. If, beforehand, you’d tasked me with making a list of my ten favorite people – not necessarily singers either, or musicians, or artists (and leaving aside friends and family), but people – both Bowie and Lemmy would’ve easily made the cut. Their loss, in a two-week period bridging one year to the next, cut me to the emotional quick to a degree from which I’ve still only partially recovered.
It was tough under such circumstances to realistically expect any measure of greatness from the music of 2016, and this was before we lost Maurice White, or George Michael, or Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Phife Dog, or the incomparable Prince. Still, music has demonstrated binding and healing qualities beyond practically anything you can name. By and by, inch by inch, 2016 evolved through the pain into something if not special then at least welcoming and the right kind of familiar. And if it wasn’t always a year of discovery, with a bevy of notable new artists poised to highlight similar lists for years to come, 2016 was in many ways a year of rediscovery. Ironically, it’s among the most balanced years in new music I can remember, and certainly tops the four I’ve been keeping official score. If only a modicum of its sense of even-keeled fun and adventure might’ve filtered out into the real world. For that, we continue to wait (ahem?) “patiently”.
Never merely identikit quadrants of a single whole, thrash metal’s fabled “Big Four” have pursued divergent but comparable paths since their subgenre’s 1980s heyday. All have endured wilderness years; all are unequivocally survivors. That the four are still not only operational but thriving over 25 years after Metallica’s “Black Album” commandeered and reconfigured the general public’s appetite for this type of music, seemingly for all time, is nothing short of remarkable. Metal as a whole remains the densest, most dynamic, and, in many ways, the most formidable realm in all of music, the place most serially prone to internecine one-upmanship, the place where young artists have simultaneously the most reverence and the least fear, so the idea that Megadeth, Anthrax, and Metallica, three of the 20th century’s most notable relics, should all occupy places of distinction for their hearty new music, had never honestly occurred to me. Slayer, of course, had the temerity to release its first album of the post-Jeff Hanneman/anti-Dave Lombardo era in 2015, quashing chances for a grand slam – though it wouldn’t have sniffed the top twenty, in that year or this one. The young bucks for the most part are concentrated at the top of the metal heap – a sure sign of health genre-wide – but so many bands put out strong material this year – Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse found the purest expression yet of its brand of symphonic overkill; Finland’s Insomnium produced a haunting and rousing hymn to winter; Poland’s Vader has to at least be on its sixth life by now, and making the most of it – that it legitimately gives me hope going forward for not just my music of choice but all music, to rise above the lowest common denominator and reach skyward with all its might, taking us along for the ride.
- Cobalt – Slow Forever
- Blood Red Throne – Union Of Flesh and Machine
- The Zenith Passage – Solipsist
- Allagaeon – Proponent for Sentience
- Megadeth – Dystopia
- Zeal and Ardor – Devil is Fine
- Dark Tranquillity – Atoma
- Gojira – Magma
- Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake
- Astronoid – Air
- Anthrax – For All Kings
- Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
- Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
- Vader – The Empire
- Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason
- Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
- Amon Amarth – Jomsviking
- Blood Incantation – Starspawn
- Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional
- Metallica – Hardwired..To Self-Destruct
Well, this bag seems to get more and more mixed by the year. As you read further, you’ll find the nine non-metal albums that made the cross-genre top twenty are plenty eccentric on their own, but they’re a veritable AOR playlist compared to the shaggy mutts that just missed the cut. Look one way and you’ll find the winning suburban disco of Holy Ghost, whose brevity was a virtue despite likely costing it a spot in the combined top twenty. Look another and you’ll come nose to nose with the mostly wholesome/just naughty enough street corner R&B of Lake Street Dive, the maturing punk grist of Beach Slang, Polly Jean Harvey penning a honest-to-goodness protest record, emo excavators Touche Amore regrouping, bowed but unbroken, in the aftermath of cancer, Purson working around a sophomore slump, and whatever the hell King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is (besides kinda frigging good). And then, just when you were at your dizziest, here would come the grinning Abercrombie funksters in White Denim to obliterate the last vestiges of your resistance and remind us all that butts were made to be shaken, not merely sat upon. Sage wisdom indeed, for increasingly serious times.
- David Bowie – Blackstar
- A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
- Angel Olsen – My Woman
- The Joy Formidable – Hitch
- Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place – You’re Doomed. Be Nice
- Against Me! – Shape-Shift With Me
- Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack
- The Coathangers – Nosebleed Weekend
- Wye Oak – Tween
- Holy Ghost – Crime Cutz EP
- White Denim – Stiff
- Lake Street Dive – Side Pony
- Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
- Touche Amore – Stage Four
- The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect
- P.J. Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
- King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
- Purson – Desire’s Magic Theatre
- Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost
- The Shrine – Rare Breed
After years of being force-fed conventional wisdom about how the album would be music’s major notable casualty of the digital age, I am finally forced to make the following sad admission: the comedy album, it seems, is dying. 2016’s short-list is abbreviated for a reason, and almost more notable for what it doesn’t contain than for what it does. Patton Oswalt, Dave Attell, Pete Holmes, Paul F. Tompkins, John Mulaney – these are but five prominent standups who did hours on Netflix or Starz or HBO but didn’t release companion albums, and, frankly I’m kinda sick about it. The silver lining, if one exists, is that while they would’ve surely expanded the list from an anemic ten plus the disposable, distressingly mercenary George Carlin non-album I Kinda Like it When a Lot of People Die and injected it with much-needed star power, I’m not sure any of the hours – save Attell’s, because he’s a comedy unicorn – would’ve placed particularly high. 2016’s comedy top five would be strong in most years, anchored by two all-stars in Kyle Kinane and the literally peerless Maria Bamford. It was nice to see current and former Comedy Central all-stars Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnik take a momentary humanizing break from all the snarky third degree burns and rhetorical games of “would you rather?” to address respective controversies head on instead of deflecting them for the hundredth straight time. The year truly belonged to Australian social critic and erstwhile philosopher Jim Jeffries, whose 12-minute rant on the messy politics of American gun ownership became something of an internet sensation during the dog days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Potent as ever, it found additional life as the centerpiece of Jeffries’ uncomfortably funny fourth album, Bare, though far from the only reason to listen.
- Maria Bamford – 20%
- Jim Jeffries – Bare
- Kyle Kinane – Loose in Chicago
- Daniel Tosh – People Pleaser
- Anthony Jeselnik – Thoughts & Prayers
- Gary Gulman – It’s About Time
- Hari Kondabolu – Mainstream American Comedian
- Big Jay Oakerson – Live at Webster Hall
- Doug Stanhope – No Place Like Home
- Amy Schumer – Live at the Apollo
The Top 20 Albums of 2016
There’s an isolating quality to the process of writing these lists that really wears on me. It’s piecemeal writing, defiantly non-linear, full of stops, starts, full stops, headlong rushes, and a lot of self-recrimination. During the time I’m thinking about 2016, I by necessity shut 2017 music out entirely. Now, that’s proven a fairly cunning tactic to employ when dealing with a procrastination-prone, narcissistic music lover like me. Essentially, I can’t listen to new music until I’ve put the previous year to bed, and my need to see myself in print ensures I’ll always see the ordeal to its bitter end. It usually takes a month to sufficiently motivate me to start the list in earnest. From there, it becomes a tale of false starts that occasionally end up leading somewhere and incremental victories – 28 in total – that you just hope against hope will finally start accumulating into something real. This year, however, something stark happened that vaulted me toward the finish line: The Grammys.
It was dispiriting enough to think I’d somehow let this endeavor linger into mid-February after being so apoplectic over the just barely pre-Valentine’s publication of my 2015 list. But this time there was something more: David Bowie won his first ever Grammys this year – posthumously, five in total. How in the hell does a voting body charged with recognizing artistic excellence somehow drop the ball on David Bowie? No one thought he was going to die, I guess, though we’ve already established that 2016 robbed a great swath of the population of a good number of its illusions. Cast your mind back and remember that, after five nominations, Alfred Hitchcock still won his only directing Oscar as a lifetime achievement award. Was this what the music industry was doing for Bowie, a little frantic, last-second, scale-thumbing in an attempt to camouflage its ineptitude/hide its shame?
And, what about me, still in mourning? Was Bowie’s place at the top of my admittedly insignificant heap just my own version of a lifetime achievement award? Blackstar is not Bowie’s best album by a significant margin, not even top five, barely even top ten. Was this a concession? Do I have something to confess? Only that 2016 flummoxed me. Four of its top six albums spent at least a fortnight in my mind trying on the mantle of “year’s best”, but, good as they are, none of them fit. I listened to Blackstar again to attempt to take its measure, and, finally, miraculously, the damned thing just clicked. Immediately, there were only runners-up to be seen, and I had the impetus to begin. Blackstar was even the first review I wrote, a month and change before its fateful walk down the red carpet, and on a expedition as fragmented and frustrating as this list can be, that never happens. That’s Bowie for you – forever the exception, even in his absence.
- David Bowie – Blackstar (Rock) – After an extended period in self-imposed exile as an art patron and general bon vivant, David Bowie spent his final years in secret and near-constant toil, crafting a concluding act worthy of his legendary career. Bowie wrote, routinely rewrote, and, eventually, trashed the glam rock playbook back in his days as an alien shape-shifter, only to achieve his biggest commercial success as a purveyor of letter-perfect but still intoxicatingly idiosyncratic pop, then branched out into enthusiastic exploration of various forms (noise, dance, goth) before radio silence finally, cruelly kicked in. What 2013’s The Next Day and, especially, 2016’s Blackstar reflect most clearly as “comeback” albums is the headlong rush of the man’s creativity explored without shackles, boundaries, or even trace guidelines. Released two days before his death at 69, Blackstar is already an emotional hammer before the listener has pressed play, and took numerous spins until I could even begin the heady business of separating its content from its context. A difficult album to immediately embrace in anything but symbolic terms, its rewards for deeper listening are subtle, evolving, and myriad. Blackstar’s crooned, free-form art rock poetry contains spare but conspicuous musical signifiers from Bowie’s past work – the horn squalls of “‘Tis a Pity She was a Whore”, the arresting drum programming on “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)”, the lush synths of closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – but seems to see them as unnecessary tethers, orienting the listener just enough as the master floats away overhead. That voice, though, perceptively thinner but yearning and unyielding as ever, subordinates all other considerations. Leave it to Bowie to exit the stage in the most esoteric but affecting manner possible, armored yet vulnerable, and still shrouded in mystery, this time playing a role of which the specifics are evident only to him.
- Cobalt – Slow Forever (Hybrid Extreme Metal) – 2016’s is the fourth of these countdowns I’ve written for DAE, and I’d like to think they’re getting better each year, though I invite you to skim the back pages and put my hopes to the torch. In all that time, to say nothing of the thirty+ years I’ve been a metalhead, I can’t remember having the difficulty categorizing an artist I’ve had with Coloradan duo Cobalt, whose Slow Forever, despite a riot of contenders, is without question the most singularly impressive metal statement of 2016. That it is also a Sphinxian riddle ramps up the intrigue to nigh unbearable levels and only adds to its appeal. I mean, what the hell is Slow Forever? It is oppressive and liberating simultaneously, buoyant and three feet thick. Is it death metal? Okay, what flavor? Neapolitan?! Is it sludge, or maybe doom? Hardcore, or (gulp) post-metal? And if the blanket answer to those questions is, as it almost must be, “kinda?”, what do we make of the prominent thrash elements, or proto-black metal vocal screeching, or amazing melodic underpinning that keeps the enterprise from collapsing under the weight of its ambitions? I’ve long lauded heavy metal in general by extolling the virtues of its fascinating, frankly out-of-control slew of subgenres, making the case that nowhere else in music is there so much capacity for invention and differentiation. Cobalt is metal’s snide joke on me in return, a band of almost limitless scope and perfectly proportioned and architected cross-purposes. Slow Forever works so well for so long – in a year brimming with overstuffed albums, it’s the original gift that keeps giving – and in so many ways that, after repeated frustrated attempts, it is almost easier to speak of in cinematic rather than musical terms. Think of this as The Titanic Chainsaw Massacre, epic yet intimate, bigger than life yet pulsing with it, an album that rivals any in recent memory in terms of sheer, visceral thrills.
- Blood Red Throne – Union Of Flesh and Machine (Death Metal) – Then again, there’s also much to be said for simple (some would call it brutish), righteous fury and purity of purpose. Norwegian death racketeers Blood Red Throne are prominent among the great, heaving mass of continental extremity I can identify by name but with whom I otherwise have little to no functional familiarity. This is a byproduct of my laziness, not theirs. The delightfully demented Union of Flesh and Machine, though my official introduction, is Blood Red Throne’s ninth studio album, and all I can say is that if any of the others sound like this, I am well ashamed for arriving to their spotlight so late. From a refreshingly pounding, uncomplicated, old school, Scandinavian DM beginning, Flesh branches out over the course of its taut nine songs to incorporate a blistering, and invigorating, array of tempos, targets, and attack modes, keeping listeners wide awake and breathlessly engaged with minimal compromise and zero degradation to overall album quality. You’ve heard this sound before, of course – the buzzsaw guitar tone, the garbage disposal vocals augmented with occasional tasty accent screams, the humid, throbbing production – but rarely in recent times has it sounded so fresh. For exhibit A, look no further than the driving, irrepressible neck-cracker “Homicidal Ecstasy”, which distills the greater album’s strengths into a single, giant, swaggering left hook, and represents the joys of 2016 metal in their purest form. In the dialed-up extremity of its art, content, and song titles, Union of Flesh and Machine looks like something dreamed up by a thirteen-year-old, and, indeed, belongs to a long, semi-distinguished tradition of albums whose comparative lyrical drivel is first redeemed, then overpowered, and, finally, obliterated by its applied musical mastery. All those years down in the lab – who knew Blood Red Throne was writing a spiritual successor to classics like Grave’s Into the Grave and Dismember’s Like An Everflowing Stream? Spectacular.
- A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (Rap & Hip-Hop) – With their famous loping, jazzy breaks and foundations, crisp but infectious beats, and loose, limber lyrical flow forever more amused than agitated, it was a fair question how A Tribe Called Quest – suddenly reunited after ten years of elliptical, bittersweet inactivity – would fit into the alien chaos that was late 2016. The supremely confident, wondrously engaging We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service provided an emphatic, affirmative answer even ardent supporters could barely have foreseen, upping Tribe’s overall focus to heretofore unapproached levels while trusting their ace musical instincts to do the heavy lifting. Stirred by social unrest at home and galvanized by the Trump presidential ascendancy before it was even official, Service has anger for days, however artfully manifested – as on the banging call to arms/for unity “We the People” – but also deftly deploys tongue-twisting social criticism in Q-Tip’s trademark easy cadence like a series of munitions tests or procession of Christmas presents, depending on the song. Musically, very little has changed since the heights of Midnight Marauders or Low End Theory (Busta Rhymes even drops a cameo), but time away has imparted upon the band a sense of discovery not heard since its formative days. Service dips a toe into a dozen different waters – “Dis Generation” splits a fine difference between spacious folk and executive dinner club jazz; a slinky bassline propels “Whatever Will Be”; a choice Willy Wonka sample blasts “The Space Program” into orbit – and does such a convincing job of melding styles and reconfiguring standards that the listener soon realizes he is immersed and floating in one giant, Olympic-sized pool. Tribe embodies the crucial distinction between lax and relaxed. The ideas climb into your head even as the rhythm inhabits your body, quickly assuming control. There’s no filler to speak of, and no truly skippable songs, which is notable enough for a regular long-player, let alone the year’s best (comeback) double album.
- The Zenith Passage – Solipsist (Technical Death Metal) – Technical death metal is a descriptor that inspires giddiness in some listeners and revulsion in others. As a charter member of the former camp, I nevertheless understand the inherent difficulties that hold the sub-genre back from larger appeal. I just don’t accept them. Neither, thankfully, does California’s The Zenith Passage, whose oft-mind-boggling sophomore effort Solipsist is spastic, loose-limbed, crack-back tech death that sounds as if it sprung whole cloth from a supercomputer that had not only achieved sentience but madness in the bargain. Yes, that was meant as a compliment, even though the album, with its stunning, disorienting ability to transmute precise mathematical guitar equations into free-form flights of fantasy and back again within the space of a mere eight-bar snippet – let alone a minute, or two, or a song, or a song cycle – is practically engineered to rub the right audience the wrong way. There are times I greatly enjoy obnoxious, almost condescending, extended displays of superior technical proficiency, and this band, molded in the spirit of sub-genre overlords like Necrophagist and Spawn of Possession, delivers it in spades. Semi-sensical song titles like “Hypnagogia”, “Luminary Singularity”, and “The Tenebrous Veil” loudly hint at the reliably fascinating, sometimes impenetrable sounds within. If this style of music does happen to live in your wheelhouse, once properly acclimated you may never want to leave. Since maintaining the lunatic pace of Solopsist‘s opening salvos would seem a patent impossibility, the band sensibly downshifts into merely superb tech death from about halftime on, though by then its point has been made. By the time the paint-mixing “Dissension Consensus” has settled down into an almost conventional, lurching, mid-tempo headbanger, complete with keyboard flourishes and faux-Gregorian chants, you might well feel like trading in the figurative crash helmet and body armor you had been wearing for an embossed, collectible straitjacket, content to linger on in The Zenith Passage for some time to come.
- Allagaeon – Proponent for Sentience (Technical Death Metal) – Coloradan tech death powerhouse Allagaeon ruffled many a feather this past summer when, soon after releasing its magnificent third album Proponent for Sentience, it sought crowd-sourced funding to help finance a U.S tour. The moxy required to imply that fans already buying concert tickets and merch aren’t necessarily doing everything they might to support their favorite artists doesn’t excuse the fierce internet blowback, largely from folks I’m going to venture have never had to live hand to mouth for months at a time as band #3 on a six-headed discount underground metal tour. Every cause is worthy; it’s what I don’t tell phone solicitors but should before I shamefully hang up on them. Internet initiatives are trickier, requiring serious due diligence up front. If this proved a subjectively bad idea by Allagaeon, it’s still the first evidence I’ve seen of one, because Proponent for Sentience is an unholy terror of prog mayhem. Its intermittent arty flourishes are a transparent bluff, momentary slight of hand used to enable a higher climb before deployment. Once engaged, it whirs and whips, carves and concusses, then lands like a smart bomb barrage, sprouting additional warheads like buds in a spring meadow and spraying multi-directional shrapnel full of jagged edges that nevertheless cut with a scalpel’s precision. Listening to the pummeling, for-god’s-sake-flamenco-influenced “Gray Matter Mechanics” for the first time was among the most eye-opening experiences I had in 2016, and supporting statements like “Demons of an Intricate Design” and “All Hail Science” keep the pressure up and invention flowing. It’s tempting but limited to say a band like Allagaeon takes listeners on a roller coaster ride. Think of it instead as sucking up your favorite beverage through one of those wacky twisty straws we used as kids. You can reverse polarity, or stop on a dime, even unleash dread bubbles from beneath the surface, but all forward momentum is achieved in the most non-linear manner for the greatest return possible.
- Angel Olsen – My Woman (Alternative/Singer-Songwriter) – Angel Olsen has neither the voice of an angel, nor the disposition. Her concerns are generally earthly in nature, not ethereal, her voice, at once, an aural Rorschach test and a one-of-a-kind flint for tinder. The St. Louis singer/songwriter’s third album, the stark, haunted Burn Your Fire for No Witness, struck me like a bolt out of the blue in 2014. A mere two listens vaulted it from also-ran into my year-end, cross-genre top ten. Witness was not necessarily an album that invited repeat visits – for all the heat it generated, it offered minimal light, opting for late-stage reveal over head-to-toe transparency – though it did reward them. As its follow-up, the much-anticipated My Woman arrives with a laundry list of expectations and an aura that already feels present in the room before Olsen takes her first breath. My Woman upends the list immediately, substituting relative warmth for the initial claustrophobia of Witness, and finds Olsen working through, “the complicated mess of being a woman” by trying on different personas, seeing with empathy and piercing clarity through multiple sets of weary, weathered, borrowed eyes. In place of the aforementioned absent angel, Olsen offers a beguiling melange of voices, a smoky, husky cross between prime Tori Amos and the all-time country great of your choice (Loretta Lynn leapt to my mind), with some of the saccharine sweetness of The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs as inflection. Forget the unorthodox pop trappings of “Shut Up Kiss Me”; it’s the close to the bone moments that resonate, particularly the plaintive “Never Be Mine” and astonishing second-half cycle that includes eight-minute show-stopper “Sister” and heartbreaking closing piano ballad “Pops”, where she sings, “Baby, don’t forget that it’s our song / I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone”. At a time when singers seem to compete over who can make the loudest racket while saying the least, Olsen compulsively compresses and understates, producing a heartstopping sense of intimacy.
- Megadeth – Dystopia (Thrash Metal) – There’s a reason the recent Rolling Stone remembrance, “Dave Mustaine’s Life in 15 songs”, seemed to summarily omit everything from 1999 to 2014. It’s not as if Megadeth had been inactive. Indeed, memory suggests, and wikipedia confirms, that the period saw the release/recycling of seven albums and five lineups. Many artists are saddled with an unpayable debt to their pasts, and, for a band of its longevity and largesse, Megadeth’s career is particularly frontloaded, specifically the unforgiving shadow cast by its established masterpiece, 1990’s Rust in Peace. Perfectly fine recent albums like Endgame and Thirteen simply got lost in the shuffle of outsized expectations. Many bands laugh off pressure, but I imagine it motivates the famous perfectionist Mustaine to no end. In the wake of 2013’s disastrous Super Collider, Megadeth, drummerless for the fourth time since its classic lineup imploded, enlisted all-world Lamb of God skinsman (and songwriter/admitted ‘Deth superfan) Chris Adler for sessions on a fifteenth album that would finally be worth talking about. The result, Dystopia, is a formidable, and comprehensive, return to form. From the blistering opening barrage of “The Threat is Real”, to the insistent title track with its giddy “Hangar 18”-style extended solo section, to the pointed but catchy “Bullet to the Brain”, Megadeth hasn’t felt this potent in years. Conventional wisdom marks Dystopia as the metal equivalent of what fanboys claimed Star Wars would be once George Lucas was relieved of creative control, but the truth is that Mustaine didn’t lose one iota of ownership in his shotgun collaboration with Adler, instead gaining a much-needed ace arranger. The paranoid political conspiracy ramblings that have dominated post-9/11 Megadeth lyrics are prevalent as ever, albeit slightly more palatable, though Dave could be reading the Satanic bible backwards in Arabic for all I care so long as the leads (split with ex-Angra gunslinger Kiko Loureiro) are this bloodthirsty, and the band is blazing like it’s 1991 behind him.
- The Joy Formidable – Hitch (Alternative) – Decades after Pixies introduced and Nirvana popularized “loud/soft” dynamics as a songwriting strategy within alternative music, Welsh power trio The Joy Formidable staked a similar claim without the requisite subtlety, bellowing forth distorted waves of guitar so purposely raw they seemed to bleed from the speakers. Paired with Paleolithic drumming more at home on a mid-period Motorhead album than college radio, this unwavering commitment to six-string extremity belied perhaps TJF’s most important attribute: in the feisty Rhiannon Bryan, there was a terrific singer buried beneath that rubble. Aptly titled, The Big Roar vaulted into my 2011 top ten on attitude alone, but, despite solid hooks, its successor, 2013’s Wolf’s Law, regressed instead of expanding the sound, and what had started exhilarating grew oppressive. No matter my affections, The Joy Formidable’s crucial third album, Hitch, proves the Big Roar model wasn’t sustainable, and so much has changed since Wolf’s Law, in terms of approach, attack, and maturity, that it’s scarcely the same band. What remains is Bryan’s powerful voice and facility with incendiary guitar, which, no longer slathered in fuzz, is actually punchier and more interesting. We’re talking near-exponential growth, immediately evident, and bracing. Barreling yet light-footed, “The Last Thing on My Mind” is TJF’s first ever legit party-starter, a (gulp) modern rock hit if ever I heard one, while, by contrast, the breathless acoustic/electric duel “The Brook” should be playing over the end credits of a sword and sorcery epic. Elsewhere, Bryan shades into rarified Debbie Harry territory on the lively chorus of “Radio of Lips”, while piano-driven “Liana” evolves into something unexpectedly combustible, putting the “power” in”power ballad”. However far they venture afield, Hitch invariably circles back to the guitar fireworks that are TJF’s bedrock, and overflows with nifty ideas that simply wouldn’t have occurred to them in olden times. Never before has TJF sounded this fearless or in command. Hitch is leaps and bounds beyond the band I initially loved.
- Zeal and Ardor – Devil is Fine (Metal) – Like the majority of enduring twentieth century thought, it was Madison Avenue that, while shilling for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups decades ago, first introduced to the American public the concept of “two great tastes that taste great together.” In 2016, we’ve finally reached that phrase’s nadir. I’ve always been fond of cross-pollinating two existing things as a method of describing an elusive third, though I have to say that neither I, nor you, nor any of Don Draper’s jumped-up carnival barker progeny, ever quite envisioned Zeal and Ardor, the conceptually fearless one-man-band whose astonishing debut album, Devil is Fine, mixes perfectly two incredibly specific tastes – the spirit (not letter) of 1990s Norwegian black metal and the spirit (not letter) of pre-Civil War Negro spirituals – into a pungent sonic stew the likes of which you’ve simply not heard before, and probably never will again. Black metal, of course, has found significant purchase in recent times as the experimental catalyst of choice for homegrown tinkerers such as Deafheaven, who sought to make the harsh sounds at its heart objectively beautiful, and Panopticon, who cannily infused it with Kentucky bluegrass to surprising effect. Zeal and Ardor’s marriage of these two outlying musical traditions that history and ideological concerns suggest should be polar opposites is not merely audacity itself, but a rousing, unqualified, occasionally unsettling success. The key to Manuel Gagneux’s approach, contrasting the artists mentioned above, is to make black metal the equation’s novel element, the garnish rather than the entree, sublimating it to his darker approximation of field work song until the spell is cast, so that when the screams and blasts arrive, they enhance the process instead of derailing it. If I’ve been insufficiently persuasive praising Devil is Fine, I understand. Zeal and Ardor represents the ragged edge, making music that feels disturbing but was unequivocally the most powerful I heard all year. Listen to “Blood in the River” once. You won’t shake it.
- Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place – You’re Doomed. Be Nice (Alternative) – Before reading a random article touting You’re Doomed. Be Nice as one of April’s must-listen releases, I had no idea who Rob Crow was, nor anything of his former band, alt-pop prospectors Pinback, nor the story of how he essentially retired out of despair at his inability to earn a decent living as a musician, then unretired to try again because he just so hated being away. Crow might make a swell prizefighter in that regard, and also because his debut as Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place bobs and weaves like vintage Ali, exhausting the listener as it leaves him with an athlete’s high. Jaunty and jittery, jaded and romantic, You’re Doomed. Be Nice is one of 2016’s true originals, an exceedingly strange brew of exquisite songcraft buttressed by peculiar instrumental flights of fancy, a potent cocktail of varied, seriously edged whimsy, and just the sort of album that once would’ve sent me off on a tear to buy up its maker’s entire back catalogue. Too bad it’s a debut. Crow is a disarmingly sharp songwriter and fingerstyle guitarist in the tradition of a Mark Knopfler or Lindsey Buckingham, and Doomed boasts tasty axework from all points on the indie spectrum. It leans particularly into Peter Buck worship, though even at its most ponderous, the album has an innate airiness it tooks R.E.M. years of dedicated toil to ever achieve. Consider the delightfully disorienting climax of “Oh, The Sadmakers”, which begins with the feel of a ring of sunflower-bedecked hippies, twirling through a meadow holding hands, then flips a switch to become a fierce circle pit, then back again, then again – sensible, nonsensical, and smooth as silk. I know all I need to know about Rob Crow to proclaim his project of misfit toys one of the best albums of the year. Hard to chart and harder to predict, this is music fit for travels through an authentic tunnel of love.
- Gojira – Magma (Metal) – The enigmatic Frenchmen of Gojira share some measure of common cause with the aforementioned Cobalt, actively testing and expanding the boundaries of metal, though they lack the latter’s extremity in either philosophy or execution. While that may be a contributing factor to their lower placement on my particular honor roll – Cobalt simply wasn’t going to be bested in any normal year – the surpassing elegance with which Gojira inhabits its neither fish nor fowl disposition has proven a serious boon toward ever-increasing general acclaim and popularity, turning the band over the course of its steady, surprisingly robust career into a small room graduate, big room headliner, and giant room special guest. Artistic types gravitate to Gojira because of its predilection toward avant garde thinking, and because its painterly, mid-tempo compositions represent a respite from the relentless battery of metal’s outer reaches, while theoretically less choosy, “meat and potatoes” fans nevertheless appreciate that Gojira can sound so distractingly different from the genre’s established heroes without any discernible downtick in ferocity or songwriting quality. Magma is the first Gojira release in some time in which I was just able to lose myself for extended periods, and, for my money, represents the band’s clearest statement since its breakthrough third release, From Mars to Sirius. Lead single “Silvera” injects odd angles into straight pit incitement, “The Cell” alternately pulses like a heartbeat and swirls like a blender, while the remaining bulk, “Stranded” and the title track chief among them, recast guitarists as renegade scientists, mad and otherwise. As ever, Gojira charts its own course its own way – one imagines the hoary old cliche, “We make music for ourselves first” ringing true in this case – but with such craftsmanship and aplomb that metal fans, not famous for their limitless indulgence and acceptance of change, have essentially been forced to get on board or be left behind. Magma rewards their decisiveness many times over.
- Dark Tranquillity – Atoma (Melodic Death Metal) – Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth in the guise of the melodic death that was extreme metal’s watchword at the turn of the millennium, Sweden’s Dark Tranquillity walked with them. One by one, these mythic beasts of yore succumbed to the elements, wandered, unbidden, into tar pits, or otherwise met their grim destinies. The few that survived ‘til today are, by and large, a bent and withered lot, capable of an asthmatic roar on command but notably lacking in teeth. Dark Tranquillity were alphas then. They’re damned near omegas now. The sub-genre godfathers (as opposed, say, to peers ike countrymen At the Gates and In Flames) weathered the boom times with nary a scratch, riding a fifteen-year plateau of sustained, near-unassailable quality to the point that, if they aren’t, in truth, last men standing, they’re nevertheless standing the tallest. Atoma is album eleven from the Gothenburg originals, and follows the blueprint established years earlier on mid-period monoliths like Fiction and Damage Done – the delicious, multi-faceted riffs, impeccable, pin-wheeling leads, the mournful, piercing guitar accents (in the title track and elsewhere), the sonic wash of rhythm section and keyboard stacked up to the sky, the devilish drum digressions (as on “Forward Momentum”), the perfectly proportioned alternating trade-offs between singer MIkael Stanne’s melodic croon and well-enunciated death growl – everything is present and accounted for, fussed over and polished to a blinding sheen. I don’t come to DarkTranquillity for surprises. I come to hear a kind of music I once loved like no other, played with such care and cunning, such dramatic derring-do, that it transports me emotionally. That crucial sense of drama is present from he first notes of “Encircled”, and only spreads outward with each meticulously crafted motion. Listening to the band change speeds on a dime with nary a dip in accumulated momentum or overall effect remains, for me, one of the most involving experiences in all of metal. Preferably on headphones.
- Against Me! – Shape-Shift With Me (Alternative/Punk) – Revisiting Against Me!’s exceptional older albums recently – I can wholeheartedly recommend at least two: 2011’s closeted but urgent White Crosses, and 2014’s’s cross-genre #2, the raw, towering Transgender Dysphoria Blues – has helped me gain my bearings concerning its latest offering, the off-kilter, ragingly imperfect, seriously affecting Shape-Shift with Me, not to mention more than a little unexpected perspective. Shift, by comparison, offers at best half the crushing gravitas (and attendant “wow” moments) of its forebears, compensating by also being proudly messier, and dallying in a newfound, and winning, sense of irreverence. Written on tour with somewhat more band input than normal, its twelve tracks are the definition of a mixed bag – scattered punk approximations fall a bit flat on the whole, while the more optimistic pop of “Crash” shines through; elsewhere, “Dead Rats” is just as brassy and uncomfortable as it seems it’d be, “Delicate, Petite, and Other Things I’ll Never Be” is the album’s sturdy centerpiece, and “Rebecca” is a frantic, fabulous first person tale of young lust. All great songs, nary a cookie cutter in sight. When singer/songwriter Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in 2012, her state of being and attendant emotions, challenges, and triumphs invariably became the only prism through which outsiders tended to view her band. That’s both instructive and unfortunate – instructive because context is, of course, important, and makes the journey Against Me! is currently undertaking richer and more panoramic; unfortunate because it belies the band’s considerable if still surprising musical gifts, which just as often take purely personal matters and transform them into something approaching IMAX DTS universality in terms of depth and impact. Transformation obviously remains a prevailing theme here, but, at the end of the day, Shape-Shift with Me is just as much about having the freedom and confidence, if not necessarily the security, to simply try to be normal.
- Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake (Thrash Metal) – Through a combination of fierce tenacity and consistently superior output over time, Bay Area war horse/war machine Testament has built a sterling reputation few metal artists can approach, let alone match. I saw the current incarnation – which complements peerless riff architect Eric Peterson and booming MC Chuck Billy with the return of legendary original shredder Alex Skolnick, as well as the terrifying rhythm section of Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus, Death) and “Atomic Clock” Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel, Death, SYL) – live in 2015, and, awestruck, remarked to my friend that it was like watching five superstar musician’s clinics simultaneously. It’s not often you’ll find five-tool players riding the pine, as the band’s heretical exclusion from the historical top tier of thrash’s hierarchy would seem to suggest, but the truth is that Testament’s salad days – Legacy, New Order, Practice What You Preach – and mid-career resurgence – Low, Gathering, the polarizing/pulverizing Demonic – were so impactful they partially obscured the comparative doldrums in which the band has since found itself. Its appropriately venomous eleventh alum, Brotherhood of the Snake is, in truth, only about three-fifths of a great album, which would court disaster for lesser artists but seems about right as a continuation/reflection of Testament’s previous post-millennium work. To call Brotherhood merely the band’s best since 1999’s game-changing The Gathering, however, would be to damn it with faint praise indeed. The early going, as on the title track and bludgeoning “Stronghold”, tells a dramatically different story, and feels shot out of a cannon, or perhaps a flamethrower. If the momentum dips toward the halfway mark, the flip side still offers a steady supply of genuine thrills, which is the inevitable byproduct of this much assembled talent in any given room, and certainly nothing that can be reproduced synthetically. Testament remains a formidable natural force. Even if a well-intentioned lyrical detour/misfire like “Canna-business” seems undeniably corny, it still rips musically like the band’s very lives are at stake.
- Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack (Alternative) – Frightened Rabbit was the (personal) musical discovery that, for me, singlehandedly made the rest of 2013 worthwhile. The Scottish quintet was only then in the act of opening up its jangly, melancholic, already elusive sound, allowing additional voices to be heard within a songwriting process that sounded a lot to me like single-source grand alchemy. Though you might not know it, that initiative continues apace on FR’s latest missive, the delicate, doom-tinged Painting of a Panic Attack, an album that, much like Against Me! earlier, constitutes a serious disappointment, but only in direct comparison to an historically untouchable predecessor. On that album, 2013’s cross-genre #1, the ironically superlative Pedestrian Verse, diminutive lead Rabbit Scott Hutchison – he of the kind, conflicted, splotchy soul and sub-lupine, all-too-human howl – announced himself as the preeminent singer/songwriter on my current radar, conflating and co-mingling sex and religion, life, death, and drinking, heartbreak, depression, and singular, simple pleasures into a stew of/for which I began wholly ignorant and ended up particularly ravenous. Following a degree of well-earned commercial success on the back of Verse, and, I doubt coincidentally, FR’s longest ever hiatus between releases, Painting wastes no time in establishing stakes and parameters, high and grim though they may be. The chilling opener “Death Dream” is a gentle meditation, insinuating and hypnotic despite its clear intent to repulse. The more upbeat “Get Out” takes stock of a lost love whose memory Hutchison wishes would desert him but won’t. “Woke up Hurting” lays bare Hutchison’s self-destructive impulses with remarkably clear but weary eyes, while “I Wish I Was Sober” bridges a precarious gap between lament and rallying cry. Painting is a massive, heaving exhalation of its de facto author’s precarious psyche and overtaxed heart, and at its heights is as absolutely riveting as anything Frightened Rabbit could offer, though it loses appreciable steam the farther it pushes. Results be damned, though, you need never worry Scott Hutchison held anything back.
- Astronoid – Air (Progressive Metal) – You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more fitting album-title-as-metaphor than Air, the skyscraping, oft-intoxicating debut offering from Boston space (and spatial) engineers Astronoid. Fifty minutes of kaleidoscopic caterwauling envisioned as “dream thrash” by its creators – and that’s about as apt a description as I could offer – the album, for me, made the most immediate and unequivocally positive first impression in all 2016. Thirty years of enthusiastic immersion in heavy metal has made me adept at extracting and/or deciphering melody from howls of dissonance and/or storms of chaos, as the situation dictates. I have a special admiration for artists who actively run up against the form’s limits only to press harder and farther, like Chuck Yeager testing the sound barrier in 1947. It helps when you don’t splinter apart from sheer effort, and Astronoid passes its exam with flying colors by doing everything it can short of taking literal flight. Blissed out and blistering, the band charts an exotic, invigorating course similar on its face to the difficult charms of latter-day Cynic, cut with a healthy dose of populist prog heroes Coheed & Cambria. Air blurs the confusing dotted line separating prog from tech death, though the sterling clean vocals and general musical elasticity on display nudge it firmly in the former direction. “Up and Atom” is a giddy fretboard freak out and explosive snare workout akin to Devin Townsend’s more unhinged solo moments, or Protest the Hero on amphetamines. Throughout the album, the layered guitars and angelic vocals work in seamless harmony, each elevating the other until Air is soaring effortlessly. Astronoid’s tendency, especially during Air’s latter stages, to bleed/lapse into highly ornate Coheed & Cambria worship was the element that finally broke the album’s spell on me, however briefly. At its dizziest heights, however, Air is unquestionably one of the year’s very best. I admire Astronoid’s dogged determination to push ever higher, even if it’s not maintainable. If flight was easy, of course, everybody would do it.
- The Coathangers – Nosebleed Weekend (Alternative/Indie Rock) – Ever gotten a song stuck in your head you couldn’t extract? Of course you have. How about for a whole year? I have. It was maddening. The more I retreat from modern radio, the more reliant I become on ungrounded alt/indie rock for melodic sustenance, despite the fact I’m wildly indifferent to the vast majority of it. There’s a reason these lists seem to suffer from dissociative personality disorder. I’m a man of varied needs. I enjoy metal’s skull-caving displays of (aural) power, guitar pyrotechnics, and arrangements so intricate and/or complex they threaten hemorrhage. I cling like driftwood in the ocean to bands like New Pornographers and Spoon – masters of the fading art of writing good, simple, catchy songs – because I am psychologically predisposed to despise pop music but still enjoy singing in the car. Somewhere, I overestimated the staying power I crave, and out, like a trap-door spider, sprang the ingenious, infectious, infuriating “Squeeki-Tiki” by pop-punk trio The Coathangers, to end me. “Squeeki-Tiki” is a boxcar racer sort of song that speeds downhill on imaginary brakes, substituting a shouted chorus in place of lyrics, and, where that chorus should be, the most brilliant use of a child’s bath toy in music history. Talk about simple; it’s insidious. It’s frankly a shame the degree to which “Tiki” overwhelms the rest of Nosebleed Weekend, because it has much to offer any lover of garage rock or double-X ‘90s artifacts like The Donnas or Veruca Salt. In fact, cross Sleater-Kinney with The Go-Gos, brighten the lights and lower the fidelity, and you might well arrive at such a concoction. The noisy, bratty “Watch Your Back” favors the former, while “Hiya” has an appealingly bouncy SoCal beach social vibe to it, and ace opener “Perfume” is a slick intersection of the two. Here’s hoping The Coathangers don’t let their pet earworm run riot and destroy Tokyo, though, if so, the carnage would boast a killer soundtrack.
- Wye Oak – Tween (Alternative) – If esoteric indie transcendentalists Wye Oak have learned one thing in their decade of existence – or I, by extension, in half that time attempting to follow them – it’s that writing a rulebook you’re only going to chuck out the nearest window is a terrible waste of effort. Daylight’s burning out there. The most surprising of many things about the lovely and inscrutable Tween, Wye Oak’s third consecutive top-twenty album in as many attempts, is not just that it is comprised of newly recorded refugees written during the sessions that yielded 2014’s terrific Shriek, but that it almost outdoes its predecessor straight up. While hardly without precedent – Keith Richards famously wrote “Start Me Up” as a reggae oddity and shelved it indefinitely before Mick Jagger decided that, rearranged and fuel-injected, it’d make a swell iconic kickoff to arena rock monster Tattoo You – repeat listens to Tween poke theoretical holes in Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack’s song selection process, and raise the entirely fair question of what, if anything, constitutes a B-side in their eyes. Classic underdog DIY overachievers and particularly adventurous spirits, perhaps the two are just so talented that nothing they develop can be comfortably put aside. The Maryland duo’s ever-evolving formula, which now favors the batsh*t beautiful electronic soundscapes of Shriek over the nocturnal folk of 2011’s Civilian, breaks down as one part heaven, one part alien. “If You Should See” sets the tone with its lush marriage of acoustics and synths, and benefits mightily from tumbling drum programming of the sort Stack employed on some of Shriek‘s most memorable tracks, while the expansive, hypnotizing “Better (For Esther)” puts the focus right where it should be, on Wasner’s magnificent Annie Lennox meets Kate Bush voice. Tween is short and sweet – it’s the year’s best EP despite stiff downstream competition – and wears the look of a standard collection of castoffs well, content that anyone who digs below the surface will discover it is anything but.
- Anthrax – For All Kings (Thrash Metal) – Anthrax has always been cursed with the need/impulse to serve multiple masters – one one hand, the arena-ready melodic hard rock on which the band grew up; on the other, the propulsive proto-thrash metal on which it made its name. Paying proper homage to both, the sturdy, confident For All Kings, the band’s second release since reuniting with golden age singer Joey Belladonna, will do little to contradict Anthrax’s reputation for being somewhat wishy-washy, but shines in its individual performances and overall sense of purpose. As the only member of thrash’s “Big Four” boasting not just a vocalist but an honest-to-dog singer, it behooves Anthrax’s crack writing battery to arrange moments for Belladonna to shine, which often requires slowing down or otherwise simplifying the music. On For All Kings, the architects engineer nifty workarounds that allow the songs to breathe and Belladonna to soar without sacrificing their essential snap or melodic endowments. The mournful cello strains that introduce “You Gotta Believe” call to mind the foundational strings that led off State of Euphoria’s “Be All, End All”, and the song itself proves a worthy successor. “Blood Eagle Wings”, inspired by a particularly, ahem, prayerful episode of departed cult favorite Hannibal, is the album’s stirring centerpiece. The remaining tracks bear one allegiance or other – to thrash, lead single “Evil Twin”, the spitting “Zero Tolerance”; to rock, the majestic “Breathing Lightning”, the rugged “All of Them Thieves”; splitting the difference, the driving “This Battle Chose Us”, and standout “Suzerain”, anchored by Charlie Benante’s muscular, seemingly effortless drumming – but unified by Scott Ian’s frantic signature riffing, stand tall as, I’d argue, the best collection of Anthrax songs top-to-bottom since 1995’s Stomp 442. A band with the pedigree and track record of Anthrax is always engaged in some sort of struggle with its past. The much-ballyhooed original Belladonna return, 2011’s Worship Music, struck me as seriously overthought and overwrought. For All Kings is its practical better in almost every respect.