50. Alcest – Kodama
The atmosphere of Japanese folklore comes alive through Alcest’s vision in the euphoric odyssey of Kodama. While predecessor Shelter was an enjoyable diversion from what was expected, this sees Alcest once again emphasizing sweeping post-rock atmospheres colliding with intense metal soundscapes. “Je Suis D’ailleurs”, “Untouched”, and the heavenly title track traverse multicolored waterfalls of sound, with dizzying atmospheres to get lost in. Alcest are once again casting aside genre labels and harnessing a more sophisticated approach than the typical dynamic motifs one hears in their genre. They keep to the dreamy – yet abstract and complex – musical explorations in which they have always excelled. Kodama once again proves that Alcest are still making music at the peak of their potential. –Ben K.
49. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Danny Brown is the greatest rapper alive because he needs to be. Too many atrocities separate the formative years that have contributed to this madness and the inspiring run of albums that have detailed his descent, and despite the numbers on the board, it will always be a descent. So posits the opening track: “Everybody say, ‘You got a lot to be proud of’ / Been high this whole time, don’t realize what I done.” They say with fame comes haters, but here is a man who has been listening to his inner demons longer than most of his contemporaries have been successfully shitting in a toilet, and it’s those dark passengers that drive Brown’s need for a legacy, even if it means flying in the face of immediate relevancy. Atrocity Exhibition comes at the moment in an artist’s career when he is expected to exhibit artistic growth, but the privilege of such reassessment is a young man’s game. Instead, Brown doubles down on the grotesqueries that have made him so compelling and repulsive (the language, the content, beats no one else would touch, that voice), and the implication is disturbing: fame and security can do nothing to bring a man back from this (to wit, Kendrick: “Things a nigga do for thousands…”). Despite the spoils of riches, of well-earned fame, even his own sobering self-awareness (“So my task / is to inspire your future with my past”), here’s Brown’s takeaway: “Don’t nod off with ya motherfucking cigarette burning.” To be the greatest rapper alive might mean surviving long enough to succeed. –plane
48. Howls of Ebb – Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows
It seems like only yesterday that Howls of Ebb first crawled out of their blackened catacombs, hell-bent on waging war on our sanity. Their rate of work has been nothing short of superlative, especially so given the aesthetic and compositional density of their music. Cursus Impasse is Howls of Ebb at their most frenetic thus far, going straight for the jugular rather than sadistically tormenting you beforehand. Sure, you could argue that this approach comes at the expense of some prior works’ atmosphere and fun-factor, but Howls of Ebb have already signaled their intention not to repeat themselves; for that, they deserve some credit. –Jacquibim
47. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
Man, unwrapping Arctic Thunder for the first time was an anachronistic treat for this 20-something guy who missed the wondrous New World that was ’80s metal. In 2016, it’s easy to find any manner of heavy metal on Spotify and YouTube and fall down the rabbit hole, buffeted by just about anything you could ever ask for. But Darkthrone’s Arctic Thunder feels lush with discovery; a throwback to when finding that special gem must have felt invigorating and mind-altering. It feels like an early second wave black metal album by way of Candlemass with touches of NWOBHM — a throwback to the young days of “outsider” metal. Lovingly crafted by (mainly) Nocturno Culto, Arctic Thunder is yet again Darkthrone doing whatever the hell it is they want to do and doing it well. Few bands could be so forward thinking yet backwards facing and pull it off with such a fun package. –Eli K.
46. Gojira – Magma
While Gojira’s formula for groove-centric low-end metal started to show its age on the band’s previous outing, Magma shows the Duplantier brothers reinventing their own brand with eerie highs, tighter structures, and master-crafted rhythms. But when it comes down to it, it’s the raw emotion of the album that makes the band feel truly present for the first time since From Mars to Sirius, solidifying Magma as one of metal’s best in 2016. –Thompson D. Gerhart
45. Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman
This spring, my partner and I packed up our dog and headed to a beach house with Dangerous Woman as the soundtrack. If an mp3 could become worn out, then the impossibly catchy and seductive “Into You” would have been torn to ribbons. That’s because many parts of Dangerous Woman demand two ‘mos singing out loud. Meanwhile, tracks like “Moonlight” are much more light and subdued. It’s really a dynamic record, shifting between quality “ass-shakers” and lush ballads with aplomb — an album whose polish and maturity belies the youthful exuberance of its creator.
With Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande has penned an album that stands as a testament to where she’s come from and where she’s headed. Grande is here to stay, and thank God for that. –Eli K.
44. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry.
“Love is worry,” Jeff Rosenstock sings at some point on his remarkable latest album, and it’s true that we’re only worried about things or people we love and care about. Indifference, in fact, signifies a lack of love. It’s funny that such conclusions hit you especially hard when you’re over thirty and you watch your life passing through at speed. Rosenstock is certainly an important voice of his generation. His clever lyrics mirror our hopes and fears with an abundance of killer one-liners, deadpan observation and self-deprecating humor. They are not the sole draw of the record, though; Worry. is a tightly-sequenced rollercoaster of an album that swiftly goes through an impressive variety of punk rock inflections. The songs bleed into one another, with the second half of the record resembling an epic punk rock suite that’s weirdly funny and genius at the same time. In effect, Worry. feels like a thrilling conceptual album that’s both deeply personal and universal in its appeal. –Greg Fisher
43. Sumac – What One Becomes
Aaron Turner finally did it: What One Becomes is the full realization of nearly two decades of tireless dedication. Sure, he achieved a lot with ISIS, which sought to blend experimental beauty with by-the-numbers heaviness. Yet like a nice salad dressing, the product was palatable, but the oil and vinegar (so to speak) never mixed. With What One Becomes, and Sumac in general, Turner has been able to harness his “weirder” side and work it into his unmatched understanding of inherent “heaviness.” The result is something all its own. One couldn’t say this is “post-rock” with metal, or sludge with some death. It’s a compendium of different sights and tones, pulsed into a seamless sound. It’s oppression in audible form; a singularity of all sides of metal condensed into a perfect point. –Eli K.
42. Kaytranada – 99.9%
Few albums signified the melting pot that pop music has become better than 99.9%. The Haitian-born, Montreal-based producer Kaytranada has long culled his beats from a hodgepodge of sources, live jazz musicians sidling up next to Anderson .Paak’s frantic rhymes and Craig David’s sensual R&B (sounding downright resurrected on the smooth throwback “Got It Good”) grooving happily alongside Syd’s effervescent feature in the disco bounce track “You’re the One”. Kaytranada’s SoundCloud has been putting out rough gems for years, but his rapid growth from Internet cult hero to festival main stages has impressed for his talent as a producer, sanding off some of the more obvious influences to create a Frankenstein that is beautifully unique. From Little Dragon fronting the sexiest police protest song of the year (“Bullets”) to muscular jazz fusion to retro boom bap, Kaytranada proved a master juggler of styles and eras. What remains is truly a dance record for everyone, the rare standout that proves a stereotypically lazy press release true. –Rudy K.
41. Oathbreaker – Rheia
Rheia is an album built out of deep inner conflict and lingering existential pain, and it absolutely sounds the part. Much of its first half is composed of manic instrumentation, where furious guitar blasts and drum beats overwhelm you from all sides like a pack of malignant wild dogs. The second half slows down and gives larger leeway for reflective, dream-like sequences – which are pleasantly ethereal – whilst retaining the deep angst and discomfort the album introduces the listener to early on.
In full, Rheia is not an easy album to listen to. Some of its passages sound downright exorcism-esque, but therein also lies its value – it’s an hour long musical purge, an album that takes your breath, your mind, your sense of space and time away. Above all else, though, Rheia is a special piece of music that exhibits how “post-metal” can be so much more than a vague catch-all term for some metal bands with a similar sound. It can be an emotional experience all unto itself. –Magnus Altküla
40. Chevelle – The North Corridor
Out of all the big nu metal era bands, Chevelle have been the one to age the most gracefully. While it’s still debated if boxing the band together with the likes of Korn or P.O.D. or Linkin Park was ever fully justified, the fact of the matter is they were largely considered to be part of the same movement. Fast-forward 15 or so years, and most of the bands Chevelle were grouped together with are either long gone, trying to reclaim past glory, or experimenting in dubious ways. Chevelle though, for their part, have always stuck to their guns. No two of their albums sound exactly alike, but each of them is built on top of core strengths that include Pete Loeffler’s intense vocals, rhythmic mid-tempo riffing, and plain smart songwriting. Catering to their fans’ wishes, the band’s latest record, The North Corridor, ups the ante on heaviness and loudness alike, giving it a real edge compared to past offerings. The result is a rock album that is still very catchy, just as Chevelle have always been, but also too unruly to appeal to casual radio rock listeners en masse, placing it in that sweet spot where it’s cool enough to like for forum dwellers and catchy enough to reach far beyond the underground. –Magnus Altküla
39. The Jezabels – Synthia
Synthia is a work of pure ambition. The Jezabels have never been a band to shy away from testing new waters, as their synth-infused 1980s throwback The Brink proved in 2014. Their third LP treks even farther down that path, only with greater imagination and confidence. The hooks are every bit as strong as they were on the group’s preceding records, but there is an added flair for the dramatic. “Stand and Deliver” exists on an almost Queen-like platform of grandiosity, while nearly every track has at least a few over-the-top aspirations – be it the frantic chorus to “My Love Is My Disease” or the whirling, ominous atmosphere of “Come Alive”. The colossal posturing of this entire record suits The Jezabels quite well considering the abundance of talent at vocals and their knack for crafting incredibly strong hooks and melodies. Even the sullen, forlorn balladry of tracks such as “Flowers In The Attic” feel larger than life, a credit to Hayley Mary’s versatile range. While Synthia won’t be uttered in the same breath as some of 2016’s marquee releases, it is nevertheless an offering that you shouldn’t let fall through the cracks. –SowingSeason
38. Swans – The Glowing Man
Since reviving Swans, Michael Gira has been pushing the boundaries of experimentation with each album, leading to awe-inducing results. Whether he orchestrates blissful or harrowing sonic textures, the band members offer him an endless canvas on which to weave his ideas, live or in the studio. Now, as this stage draws to an end, they presented us with one more LP under the current formula. Perhaps the most airy of them, The Glowing Man fuses some ideas into fresh ones. It seems like here, Gira & Co. favor mostly the ethereal, droning sounds of Eastern-inspired vocal tracks. They obtain mantric results inserting them within 20+ minutes epics like “Cloud of Unknowing”, “Frankie M” or the title cut. The crazy genius kicks in when they burst into broken grooves that offer complete twists based on the same principle: repetition. Meanwhile, the shorter tunes offer a sense of relief and closure, as heard on “When Will I Return?” or “Finally, Peace”, leaving a big question mark regarding the next phase the frontman has since announced. Although The Glowing Man owes several portions to its predecessors, it also takes an important step forward for Swans, thus deserving its place as another significant achievement in their discography. –Raul Stanciu
37. Be’lakor – Vessels
There is an earnestness in the new Be’lakor that should immediately endear metal fans to it. A type of nostalgic ’90s vibe permeates the whole album from a compositional standpoint, instantly bringing to mind some classic metal records like Crimson by Edge of Sanity or Elegy by Amorphis. Besides the soundscapes themselves, it’s felt in the way Vessels moves forward through a plethora of different motions and forward-thinking playing, where ambition is never sacrificed in favor of instant gratification. While featured as a melodic death metal band by classification almost everywhere, Be’lakor really are more of a throwback progressive metal band, with only the often-used death growls providing a basis for the melodic death metal moniker. Vessels is a lot more benevolent than your regular death metal album, even a melodic one, placing its focus on structural depth rather than sonic aggression. It’s a watching-the-sun-set-behind-the-sea-in-July type of metal album, rather than a come-rage-with-us one. That said, it’s still an infectiously powerful record; its power is just mainly derived from intelligent, gratifying songwriting. There are thousands upon thousands of bands trying to make a mark in today’s metal landscape, but I really think Vessels will still be fondly remembered in 10 or 20 years from now, because it’s not often we get a metal album that’s as much of a complete package as this one is. –Magnus Altküla
36. Mitski – Puberty 2
In Mitski’s “Happy”, the narrator greets happiness with welcoming, albeit limp, arms and blank affect. Happiness comes and goes like a forgettable hook-up leaving the singer as pale as she was before. Wrapped in glamour and sweeping with evocative movement, the song is like an Instagram filter — making the mundane palatable and shimmering. The rest of Puberty 2 follows suit as an examination of the non-magical millennial existence, where even happiness is something to acknowledge, but never with anything more than a passing glance. –Eli K.
35. Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life
As Remember Us to Life‘s lead single and album opener, “Bleeding Heart” is deviously evasive; complemented by electronic flourishes and synths, Ms. Spektor’s potent vocals carry an air of poise and grace above robust cello and her perpetually-reliable piano. “Someday you’ll grow up / And then you’ll forget / All of the pain you endured” she remarks, before cautioning: “Until you walk by a sad pair of eyes / And up will come back all the hurt.” Her wisdom percolates throughout the record without sounding like hackneyed life lessons, expertly integrating melancholy with hope, humor with sorrow, optimism with pragmatism — all bolstered by gorgeous instrumentation and clever harmonies. As the record transitions to “Older and Taller” and the playful “Grand Hotel”, the Spektor with whom we are most familiar returns. “Enjoy your youth,” Spektor sagely – if not sarcastically – advises, before remarking, “Sounds like a threat, but I will anyway.”
Ever the master storyteller, her arrangements transport the listener to a world comprised of characters we encounter in our own lives, which we then project into these narratives. As we fondly remember fun times with friends or are tormented by former loves whose losses we thought we had long grieved away by now, the record’s exemplary orchestral arrangements aid in buoying our unbridled wistfulness or forlorn what-could-have-beens. While an urge may exist to accuse Remember Us to Life being front-loaded akin to her previous works, the vivid “Sellers of Flowers”, appropriately-swirling “Tornadoland”, and rollicking “The Trapper and the Furrier” are equally superb. Thoroughly imaginative throughout its runtime, Remember Us to Life serves as a reminder of the splendor and beauty of the human experience: that it’s healthy to ache, to dream, and – above all else – to go forth and live. –Jom
34. Blood Incantation – Starspawn
Denver’s Blood Incantation were destined for breakthrough success long before this year’s Starspawn. The psychedelic take on mid-era Death, combined with the cut-throat aggression of more modern death metal, was felt in their self-titled demo back in 2013 and nearly realized in 2015’s Interdimensional Extinction EP. These were simple murmurs compared to the majestic statement that is Starspawn. Internet death metal “academia” has already fastened the modern classic pin firmly upon Blood Incantation’s breast, and it’s hard to argue its deservedness. The band have made something truly special here: an album bursting with the genre’s boldest characteristics, while polishing them with cerebral poise. The themes of space and death have been done time and time again, but the choking atmosphere the band employ makes it feel palpable. Songs swirl with suffocating intensity, roiling with primordial and bestial rage.
It’s heavy stuff, unique but comfortably familiar. Yet this is more than “progressive” death metal; it’s metal with enough intelligence to do something different, but without the pretense of thinking it’s breaking new ground. –Eli K.
32 (tie). Bon Iver – 22, A Million
There was a time when I would have been profoundly disappointed with 22, A Million. The 2007 me couldn’t get enough of Justin Vernon’s stunning, harmonious falsetto and heartbroken lyrics. The 2011 me praised the self-titled follow-up for taking that same sound and magnifying it: lifting up the quaint, backwoods sound of For Emma and blasting it from the top of a snow-covered mountain. Back then, the idea of something as intentionally fragmented and auto-tuned as 22, A Million would have seemed blasphemous – a betrayal of the very premise upon which Bon Iver was founded. So where do I get off taking this piecemeal, incongruous little 35-minute runtime of “art” and proclaiming it as a worthy successor to those masterpieces?
Well for starters, it makes those albums seem comparatively basic. 22, A Million catapults Vernon into the twenty-first century, layering deceptively complex electronic elements with Vernon’s unique methods of production (he and his producer invented a processor called the Messina). The result is some of the most pulsing, lively-sounding vocal distortion that we’ve ever heard used in the folk genre. Vernon’s falsetto cuts are capable of diving to shadowy depths, wobbling with endearing insecurity, and soaring to rich, impassioned heights. His limitless range on this record helps to explain the jumbled, unpredictable nature of his musical surroundings. The lumberjack brand of folk that he used to be pigeonholed into has its borders shattered a thousand different ways here, be it from the thumping, tribal mysteriousness of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” or from the robotic yet desperately human “715 – CRΣΣKS”. It’s an extremely complex puzzle, layering diverging sound effects atop one another in a way that is often indecipherable yet never fails to represent itself with jaw-dropping beauty.
The experimental hodgepodge alone would have garnered Vernon strong praise, but he manages to top it all off with “8 (circle)” – a stunningly melodic, figurative clearing that reminds us that Justin, somewhere in the matrix of numbers of symbols swirling around here, is still harmonizing tortured little melodies to himself in that drafty old cabin. It’s the promise of Vernon’s ridiculously high ceiling that makes 22, A Million such an exciting prospect, while the periodic throwbacks to his humble, grounded past serve as a reminder of just how much ground Bon Iver has covered over merely three albums. 22, A Million may not sound much like the Justin Vernon/Bon Iver of yesteryear, but that’s progress well worth celebrating. –SowingSeason
32 (tie). Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake
Brotherhood of the Snake thrashes hard and is fucking sweet. Brotherhood, Testament’s eleventh LP and the band’s first since 2012’s surprisingly delightful Dark Roots of Earth, caught me right in the middle of a pretty disgusting 2016 (both musically and otherwise). In a lot of ways, the record saved me (with its riffs) and it also saved metal (not really, but imo yes it actually definitely did).
Pushing aside some of the melodrama (only some of it), Brotherhood of the Snake is not great because it innovates or offers anything profound or progressive. Instead, the band builds on the margins, polishing the consistently beloved ‘reunion’ sound that has been their hallmark since 2008. Alex Skolnick soars a little bit higher this time, Chuck Billy hits a little bit harder, and so on and so forth. Lyrically? The band stays the course (and I mean that in the best way possible). It is kinda mind-blowing that you have to talk yourself into liking the new Megadeth or Metallica albums — honestly, given what went down in 2016, who needs the politics of the former and the egotism of the latter? Testament, as an institution, have been thrashing for like 30 years now, and if Brotherhood of the Snake is any indication, the dudes will continue to build new and interesting things on top of their stellar sound till the end of time (as it was written). Also, fuck Bon Iver. –Academy
31. Sarah Neufeld – The Ridge
The Ridge isn’t a statement, nor some grand declaration. It’s consciously ambivalent to the thoughts and feelings of the listener, detached from any sort of emotional manipulation that has become so standard with contemporary “neo-classical.” Sarah Neufeld has power and control over the music she has written, yet shows restraint. Her true ability is felt not in the grand movements or bold eruptions, but rather, within the spaces between.
With The Ridge, Neufeld has allowed her listeners to become a phantom, silently observing without revealing their presence. It’s an album that, upon hearing, feels like it was playing long before you arrived and will continue to do so after you’re gone. –Eli K.