10. The Dear Hunter – Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional
What started as an ambitious project became a jaw-dropping odyssey that got bigger and better with each act. Undoubtedly, The Color Spectrum – and even Migrant to a certain extent – have helped expand mastermind Casey Crescenzo’s sonic horizons, so when the band returned to the Acts and released IV, the diversity level was considerably higher. The break felt necessary to keep their relevancy at an all-time high. Moreover, nobody expected to listen to the follow-up one year later, yet here it is in all its splendor. While it was written and recorded at the same time, this shares a different atmosphere.
Story-wise, Act V finds the protagonist (“The Boy”) during his last days, incapable to mend the wrongs he’d done during his ego-tripping. Plotting revenge on his nemesis (“The Pimp and the Priest”), the consequences lead to his imminent death. Such dramatic events call for a matching soundtrack, and The Dear Hunter deliver. From pop, rock, and Americana leanings to swing or folksy cuts, the tunes are constantly complemented by an entire orchestra, which sometimes takes the forefront, too. Building up to the grand finale, we arrive at it with “A Beginning”, an amazing and touching coda to this brilliant album. Acting both as an end and as a new start (as the title implies), the song carves the path for the purported final act, which for the time being remains veiled in mystery. That said, this might as well have been the final record in the series, as it offers a truly rewarding, encompassing journey. Even though each one shares its own musical path and debates on which is best will continue, Act V is undoubtedly the most consistent and ambitious so far. –Raul Stanciu
9. Cobalt – Slow Forever
Gaps of nine and seven years exist between Slow Forever and Gin and Eater of Birds, respectively. While the latter two records might not be mentioned in the same breath as Vampyr – Throne of the Beast, Instinct: Decay, or Judeobeast Assassination, they are nevertheless gems in the USBM genre. Slow Forever might not have seen the light of day, though, and it wasn’t until Erik Wunder decided to boot Phil McSorley from Cobalt where recording seemed like a distinct possibility. It must have been a difficult decision knowing their history together, but there’s a prerequisite level of trust inherent in working with a colleague to ensure that the shared vision for your creative outlet doesn’t become fragmented. Tapping Charlie Fell (most recently of Lord Mantis), whose malevolent presence is arguably more intense, Cobalt’s aural identity metamorphosed into a more progressive and expansive sound. Almost akin to a blackened Tool-meets-Neurosis hybrid, Slow Wonder is a monolithic convergence of black metal, sludge, and hardcore punk crossover.
What I’m surprised most about Slow Forever is that, since its March release date, there’s still so much to talk about. Cobalt have created a masterpiece; a profound metal statement that marks the genius of Wunder. His ability to make metal tropes from every conceivable subgenre sound fresh, vital, and invigorating is a feat unto itself. At a primal and basal level, Slow Forever feels so damn good to hear. The riffs, the throaty shrieks, unrivaled drumming, the expertly-conceived ebb and flow — it’s all unmatched. Side A and Side B have punishing openers in “Hunt the Buffalo” and “Elephant Graveyard”, capturing the animalistic mindset that permeates throughout the record, and songs like “Ruiner” and “Final Will” bring riff after riff after riff. Cobalt’s Ernest Hemingway worship continues, too, as his Nobel Prize-winning speech is sampled in “Iconoclast”, one of two interludes that provide temporary amnesty from Wunder’s formidable riffs and impassioned drumming.
Even though 2016 was merely a good year for metal, Slow Forever would stand as a masterclass at any time. –Eli K.
8. Fates Warning – Theories of Flight
In so many ways, lyrical and musical works of Fates Warning feel analogous to the legacy of French author Marcel Proust. According to the legions of literature theoreticians who studied his work, Proust’s central belief was that it is imperative for writers to infuse their writings with their past experiences as well as their inner/publicly undisclosed selves. Long before he saw other writers following Proust’s convictions, his were unanimously embodied in his magnum opus In Searching for the Lost Time, a personal log of memories, experiences and thoughts past, all soaked in drama and despair. By recalling past affairs of love, hate, the bereavement that comes with the passing of beloved relatives, and liberation through the infinite forms of art, Proust attempted at reclaiming the lost time.
It’s almost as if Ray Alder had Proust’s teachings in mind when he confided in promotional interviews for Darkness in a Different Light that Fates Warning should make haste in reclaiming the lost time, as there’s nothing the latter can’t end (sic). Indeed, the band came up with their “sophomore” album in a timely fashion, if not to overly refine, then to cement the sense of familiar innovation that its predecessor brought about. On par with Proust – who sought inspiration in what had been – and the intricate devilry that lurks therein, Fates Warning echoed anew all the instances that mark them as individuals and musical compatriots, all while incorporating the anticipated amount of lyrical and musical ingenuity. –Voivod
7. Vektor – Terminal Redux
I grew up on many kinds of music, with thrash metal being one of the most essential. For almost a decade now, I’ve been jamming with the same friends on various instruments; first, on Rock Band and Guitar Hero, then on to real instruments. By high school, we were able to play classics by the likes of Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. We alternated between guitar, bass, and drums at our choosing, with our jamming sessions becoming more sporadic while attending our various colleges. The thrash metal genre we had bonded over had seemed to be largely stagnant during this time, lending to 1983-1990 being the primary years of music that we covered.
Enter Vektor, exploding onto the scene and blowing listeners like us away with Terminal Redux. Instrumentally, well, let’s just say our unnamed cover band would not be able to cover this music unless we diligently practiced for at least a few years, and maybe not even then. Vektor showcase dazzling technical skill at breakneck speeds, but have a purpose to the music that few bands like this have been able to convey in over two decades. With its heady sci-fi concept told through the relentlessness of album opener “Recharging the Void”, to the progressive rock elements in interlude “Mountains Above the Sun” and “Collapse”, Terminal Redux erupts forth in creative vitality. When I first pressed play, showing this to those same friends with whom I continue to jam, this album really brought back the power and fun of what this style of music can be. Terminal Redux is among the most important metal albums of the decade, not only for capturing the magic of the past, but for pushing the genre forward with new, innovative ideas with stunning musicianship and unabashed energy. –Ben K.
6. Ulcerate – Shrines of Paralysis
No doubt I’m just blinded by idolatry at this stage, because no matter how hard I attempt to rationalise or explain my deification of this Kiwi trio, I always feel as though I’ve come up short of the mark. That isn’t to mean what I see in them isn’t actually there, but more so that it’s beyond my ability as a writer to put into words just how brilliant they are. However, I’ll be withered and obsolete before I stop trying. To merely break Shrines of Paralysis down by way of technical analysis would be to sell it short by light-years. One could go for eons about Jamie Saint Merat’s unparalleled ability behind the kit or Michael Hoggard’s vivid, angular melodies and stupefying use of counterpoint without even beginning to describe Shrines of Paralysis as a whole body of work.
Seldom have I heard music so utterly destructive but simultaneously rife with nuance. “Abrogation” opens with a motif that seems to be overpowered by countless others in the composition’s first half, only to return in the midst of a fiery climax – ugly and disfigured, it shapeshifts until it becomes virtually unrecognisable. Ulcerate’s knack for building songs around variations on a theme is perhaps best exhibited on “Chasm of Fire” than anywhere else in their discography. A solitary guitar line paves the way for something that is cataclysmic but ebbs and flows at the same time; all the while, it remains anchored despite the song’s bedrock being shaken the core. As a metal band in 2016, Ulcerate occupy a plane belonging wholly and solely to themselves, with the only valid point of comparison for Shrines of Paralysis being its creators’ prior feats of genius. –Jacquibim
5. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange’s got soul; she’s that kind of special singer with the ability to make you truly feel her emotions as if they were your own. If Beyonce’s lesser-known sister had doubters before, they’re now being hushed with her most eloquent and engrossing work to date. As much a celebration of black culture as it is an album, A Seat At The Table is one of the most ambitious and revealing efforts of the year by a long shot. With several interludes scattered throughout a hefty twenty-one tracks, Solange’s latest is adorned with so many chill vibes and intoxicating beats that it feels much shorter than it really is. Due to an immaculate production job, the album’s always elegantly constructed, but never goes overboard with its slick arrangements. “Where Do We Go” displays this balance perfectly, with a breezy yet funky intro that leads into some of Solange’s most arresting vocal inflections to grace the album. Another highlight would be “Don’t Wish Me Well”, with its tender synths that sound like they crept out of the ’80s to mesh with the singer’s airy vocal harmonies. Even the interludes are worth listening to — subtle pianos and smooth rhythms mirror the album’s soulful nature, with spoken words enriching the album’s underlying themes.
Whether or not you’re interested in the message presented on A Seat At The Table, it’s an album that deserves your attention; at the very least, it’s an album that represents a musician who’s proud of who she is and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. You may not have much in common with her or understand her battles, but once you hear her sing, you’ll soon be infatuated with her story. She certainly has a lot to say, but most importantly, she has the powerful voice to back it all up. Even with its pristine production and over a dozen guest musicians contributing some added flavor to the experience, it’s always Solange’s striking performance that cuts you to the core. –Atari
4. Angel Olsen – My Woman
My Woman does a damn fine job of taking any stylistic box you may have painted Angel Olsen in over the past few (excellent) albums of lo-fi folk she’s put out and tossing that box right out the window. An intoxicating mixture of classic Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter, ’70s glam, ’60s girl group, and, most importantly, a bloody pop heart, Olsen’s fourth record is unflinching in its dissection of relationships both sexual and something else, like the epic and tragically distant admiration of “Sister”. This is a record obsessed with love and lust and volatility, a painfully detailed portrait of Olsen travelling from awkward and shy (“Never Be Mine”), to dangerously obsessed (“Shut Up Kiss Me”), to the wistful “Those Were The Days”, a narrative arc that follows a traditional Side A and Side B pattern. The spartan, smoky “Pops” lays the devastation bare at the record’s conclusion: “You can go on home, you got what you need / take my heart and put it up on your sleeve / live out your life, I’ll never tell you you’re wrong / baby, don’t forget, don’t forget it’s our song / I’ll be the thing that lives in the dream when it’s gone.”
In “Pops” and elsewhere, Olsen may seem crippled by these experiences — “All my life I thought I’d change,” she sings and sings again on “Sister”, as if the act of repetition will make it true — but the path of My Woman is of growth. The playfulness of “Shut Up Kiss Me” belies deep-seated insecurities, until “Heart Shaped Face” finds the strength to realize those insecurities are just excuses for another’s fuck-ups. “Woman”, meanwhile, inverts the ostensible torch song by making it a passionate middle finger: “I’d do anything to see it all, to see it all the way that you do / but I’d be lying baby, lying to you.” That “Woman” ends with a Stevie Nicks-ian vocal, powerful and soaring (“I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman”), and a guitar part that screams its defiance is the strongest evidence yet that this is not something ruinous but instead a triumphant severance, Olsen decisively reclaiming her agency. It’s a journey to assert control, both artistically and emotionally, and one that Olsen is happy to leave raw and open — after all, was there ever any doubt it was hers to own? Not Your Woman, or His Woman; always My Woman. –Rudy K.
3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
If any mainstream band could be labeled as musical chameleons throughout their existence, it would be the members of Radiohead. The band have handled their widespread popularity perfectly over the years by refusing to compromise their experimental nature while never veering too far into the abstract. A Moon Shaped Pool harnesses these qualities to rewarding effect, building on the boundary-pushing nature of its predecessors beautifully. Spacey atmospheres and engaging compositions are its heart, recalling the warm, melancholy qualities of In Rainbows wonderfully. It still retains the coldness of The King of Limbs and Kid A as well, but rest assured that this is very much its own incarnation. A Moon Shaped Pool relies upon fewer electronics than on The King of Limbs, with an increased emphasis on strings lending to the beauty of songs like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” and “Glassy Eyes”.
Despite largely being a downtempo, more enveloping affair, there are moments of driving guitars with tense builds, like in album highlight “Ful Stop”. This is among the best on A Moon Shaped Pool, along with the otherworldly “Decks Dark”, ambient “Daydreaming”, mournful album closer “True Love Waits”, and fusionist “Present Tense”. Every song here is worthwhile, though, with something to offer for fans of any side of the band. A Moon Shaped Pool takes many listens to fully sink in, especially given the diversity on display. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are masters of their craft, always seeking new ways to explore and reinvent their sound, and we will always be anticipating their next unpredictable move with an anticipation that only they could muster in people. A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s most quiet and subtle offering yet, being five years in the making and well worth the wait. When you give it a chance, it becomes clear that this is counted among the best music of the year. –Ben K.
2. Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere
2016 was a year of great change and turmoil, highlighting the gradual shift in the United States that has been in the making throughout history. This has resulted in much distress during the intense presidential election and increasing divide in the nation regarding social and cultural issues alike. Politics in music is generally hit-and-miss, with social or political messages running the risk of sounding shallow or clichéd by musical stars. Thrice flirted with these themes in the past, but have never focused on them in quite the way they do here. It has been five years since we heard any music from Thrice, and in a year full of big returns and tragic losses among musicians, one of the most successful and highly anticipated returns was their comeback. Profoundly capturing the tumultuous times we live in, To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere is written from a personal point of view while bringing to light the conflicted state of the modern world.
Emotional instrumentation supports the social and cultural themes well, making for highlights like “Death From Above”, “The Long Defeat / Seneca”, and “Hurricane”. Thrice are aiming for all facets of relevance here, delivering some surprisingly catchy songs while dealing with these themes. The U2-inspired “Stay With Me” and radio-friendly tracks like “Blood on the Sand” and “Wake Up” will surely go down in the Thrice canon as controversial among their longtime fans, especially for those who love their early work most. Much of To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere may sound like a move towards the mainstream, but this is hardly a negative, as post-hardcore influences of the past are still present and the songwriting engaging. The dynamic qualities of “The Window” and Alchemy Index II-reminiscent “Salt and Shadow” show Thrice being as diverse as ever.
All sides of the band are represented here and put through a sobering framework of rebellion against the controversial realities of war and international conflict. The most bellicose song, “Death From Above”, sees Dustin Kensrue challenging the morality of using drone strikes; he’s also confrontational about how fear is used to justify violence in the more straightforward “Blood on the Sand”. Thrice are pulling no punches and taking their own side, while being just as compositionally adventurous in their new incarnation as before. They aren’t answering to anyone, with To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere showing the triumphant return of a band still releasing high-quality music with topical lyrics, emotional resonance, and instrumental prowess. –Ben K.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
As consumers of music, we tend to throw the term artist around like it describes anyone who creates music. I suppose it can be accurate, as all music in its own right is a unique expression, but there are those throughout history who have truly given the term leverage. Since he first made his way onto people’s radars with 1969’s Space Oddity, David Bowie has been challenging the confines of rock and pop music. We’ve seen it not only within his musical craft, but also in fashion and even movies. Artistry isn’t something limited to one aspect of your life; it’s who you are. For Bowie, his life ended true-to-form, as Blackstar marks both a flourishing period of creativity in his storied career as well as a haunting curtain-call that will forever be tied to his legacy.
Even before we learned of Bowie’s affliction – the cancer that ended his life on January 10, 2016 – Blackstar was sure to find its way near the top of our 2016 list. It was a clever reinvention of his sound, taking spacey alt-pop atmospherics and marrying them to jazz textures that tip their hat to a more mature, refined Outside. While some of the allusions to death didn’t totally make sense at the time – from the title track’s killing of Major Tom to pretty much all of “Lazarus” – they still informed an intriguingly abstract, alternate reality. Once the subtle hints that were planted and strategically veiled became obvious with his passing, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place and everything clicked. Suddenly, things that seemed ambiguous before came into focus: “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / . . . Oh, I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me?” It’s almost unsettling the way that we were able to listen to Bowie’s farewell for days without realizing what it was. He was essentially writing his own eulogy; expressing to us through music a secret that he kept hidden for eighteen months. As a fan of Bowie the person, it’s jarring, eerie, and depressing. As a fan of Bowie the artist, it’s downright brilliant.
It’s nearly impossible to think of 2016 and not immediately look to this record. It has a little bit to do with when it was released – for many of us, it was the first album to capture our collective attention in 2016. Bowie’s tragic passing is another obvious contributor, although chalking up Blackstar‘s success to that alone would be simultaneously disingenuous as well as an insult to what the album actually brings to the table. There were few tracks this year as epic as “Blackstar”, as emotionally gut-wrenching as “Lazarus”, as catchy as “Girl Loves Me”, or as smooth and rewarding as the saxophone-infused “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. At just seven tracks in length with nary a down moment, there is nothing that would cause us to doubt Blackstar as a clear album of the year front-runner. That’s why it gives me great pleasure to honor one of the all-time greats with this year’s top spot. Bowie was a true artist in life, and he remains one in death. Rest in peace to an absolute legend. –SowingSeason
List of participating staffers who made this Top 50 possible (alphabetical order): 204409, Atari, Athom, AtomicWaste, Crysis, DaveyBoy, Greg., insomniac15, Irving, Jacquibim, JohnnyOnTheSpot, Jom, kingsoby1, klap, Metalstyles, mynameischan, plane, robertsona, SowingSeason, theacademy, TalonsOfFire, Voivod, Willie, Xenophanes