Part 9 in a 10 part series showcasing the best releases in music during the year 2016.
One of the painful parts of creating lists such as this one, is deciding what artists not to include. I’m listing 150 favorites that range from very, very good to excellent. But what about the other releases? Were they bad? Were they absolutely terrible? Do they even deserve being mentioned? The short answer is that there are no bad releases, just misunderstood releases. The longer answer involves the fact that there were over 900 other albums that I listened to and I liked nearly 700 of them. I can’t overstate the fact that this was a really good year for music.
The hardest part for me this year was to destroy the boxes. Conversations with my peers always meandered to the need for genres, or the musical categories that artists fall in to. Basically: Boxes. In the past I have always compartmentalized my lists to showcase the best metal releases, best hard rock releases, best punk releases, best shoegaze releases, etc. It was actually not that hard because I scored my releases all year long and placed them in a category. At the end of the year, the lists created themselves. This year I said that in order for people to really discover music, they are going to have to look outside their comfort zone and understand that sometimes, genres are too restrictive to the discovery process. Hence, the reason why this list is created in such a way.
I’m considering doing an epilogue post some time next week that maybe lists some more specific genre related lists, since some people have actually approached me with the desire to see a more concise breakdown based on music of their liking. I should really forego that and just make them suffer through this list. I was also going to create an honorable mention list, one that lists about 100 other releases that I found noteworthy (read as: guilt for leaving them off). I’m also very interested in the large volume of phenomenal EP’s that were released this year, and since many artists are moving in that direction, I’m certainly going to have to address those releases. Maybe next year.
Here is 30-16.
ÅRABROT – THE GOSPEL
Årabrot are a fascinating band that delivers a strange but palatable brand of alt-metal. They have been billed as noise rock and even post-grunge in some conversations, but all I can say is that if you are in to bands like The Melvins, Swans, Killing Joke or Helmet, then perhaps you would be able to find something redeeming about this band. I think that they are utterly amazing and thoroughly mesmerizing. They are yet another band out of Norway (how many is that on this list now?) that really has a way of creating sonic landscapes filled with repetitive builds of groove-laden bass lines, hard hitting percussive beats (not of the dance variety) and crushing and wailing noisy guitars, in an almost minimalistic delivery. Its very different, in my opinion, and they really capture the imagination with their unique vocal delivery, classic literature themes and dark undercurrent. The Gospel is a brooding, cerebral release full of calculated builds and explosive-yet-sludgy releases. I still can’t decide if they are post-rock or some variant of metal, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. They are making it on to a good number of end of year lists, especially metal leaning ones. They are on this list because they made a serious impact in my listening adventures this year, and I think you would certainly find them interesting, if not good. Really good.
HONEYBLOOD – BABES NEVER DIE
I spent most of 2016 not knowing who Honeyblood was. Well, if I’m going to phrase it that way, I might as well just say that this Scottish band didn’t exist to me until this album was released in late October. That has given me less than 2 months to absorb it, dissect it, study it, overplay it, shelve it, overplay it again, and then finally add it to this list. This lo-fi garage rock outfit showcases female fronted pop punk done at its very best. There is a great balance of alternative rock heaviness aligned with the pop sensibilities of the music and ultimately the vocal delivery of Stina Marie Claire Tweeddale (that is one person, by the way) and Cat Myers. Their 2014 self-titled debut featured a slightly different duo, but this pairing for the group really makes some serious waves. Its a brisk paced record, barreling through 12 tracks that are relentless and breakneck paced, and the experience is a joyful ride down a 90’s inspired alt-rock road trip. Released on American label Fat Cat Records, these darlings seem to be poised to be the label’s premiere act, something that is interesting since they are also home to The Twilight Sad, another band that is making serious waves with that label. Nothing but great days ahead for Fat Cat Records, a label that needs to be looked at with serious consideration going forward. In the meantime, Honeyblood have crafted a very enjoyable release that is instantly memorable and has stuck with me ever since the day it came out.
ASTRONOID – AIR
Have you ever heard the term ‘thrashgaze?’ So here is the premise: you take the heavy metal backbone and relentless speed of thrash metal, and smash it against a wall of atmospheric sound designs ripped right from your favorite shoegaze band, and create your own style of music. Shoegaze has been the focus of a number of evolutionary processes the past several years, with black metal bands adapting the style within their songwriting, alt-metal bands recreating it to suit their needs (Deftones, anyone?) and even a few other variant bands like what Deafheaven is doing with their blend of metal and shoegaze, or what Title Fight is attempting to pull off with hardcore and shoegaze. I think that you get the picture because I am clearly over explaining this whole thing. Astronoid is a band out of Massachusetts signed to Finland’s Blood Music label, and create a sound that is light and airy in vocals and atmospheres, but fast and thrashy in the guitar and drum delivery. The result is a unique sound experience that puts Astronoid in to a category all by themselves. To be honest, I can’t figure out why anyone hasn’t already been doing this, because this is nearly perfect in sound and delivery. I guess that it is entirely possible that many have tried to pull this off, but they must have failed miserably, because I promise that I would have heard about them by now. I have wanted this kind music to be made for over 30 years now. The only negative strike I have for them is that some of the songs sound a little too “samey-same,” and it really distracts from the overall high quality nature of the release. Is it perfect? No, but it is still great. I look forward to the next release by this band.
PARQUET COURTS – HUMAN PERFORMANCE
Please tell me that you got on the Parquet Courts bandwagon when I was singing their praises 4 years ago when I discovered their great blend of noise punk and indie rock! This band features a collection of artists that find Brooklyn, NY as their home base and produce a kitschy version of art rock that has enough jagged edges, wounded vocals and post-punk depression to satisfy even the most jaded of indie rock sociologists. I began to worry a little about this band because I had this impression that they were rising too fast a few years back, and were heading for an ego-trip that would tilt the band in to the wrong direction, or that their inner sensibilities would fracture the band in some idea that the parts thought that they were somehow greater than the whole. Thankfully neither of these things have happened, and the joyously great Human Performance has found its way safely to our ears, with the band still fully in tact. There are a number of great tracks on this album, but “Berlin Got Blurry” is the one that stands out the most and gets the most play in my iPod. Yes, I still use an iPod. How funny it is to be considered old school to have and use an iPod now. What the hell has happened to us? I digress. At any rate, Parquet Courts are a fascinating and wonderful band that have successfully created consecutive releases that are more than worth your while to obtain. And while you are out tracking down all that is Parquet Courts, make sure you also hunt down Parkay Quartz. Same guys, same great music.
SWANS – THE GLOWING MAN
You either love Swans or you hate them. I don’t know anyone who is in between. I love Swans. My wife hates them. I think my good friend Michael Price loves them. My good friend Steve Pompa hates them. It goes on and on. You would think that I would hate this band because of my musical ADD that I am afflicted with. Swans always get a pass, and I never skip through or skip ahead while listening to any of their 10, 20 or 30 minute long songs. Swans music is a journey, a plodding nightmarish soundscape based in metallic post-rock and gothic themes and industrial subtexts. The band has had many incarnations with a number of notable players (Jarboe one of the most notable, but also Ted Parsons of Prong or even Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), and this is supposedly the last album to be recorded with this current lineup. But Swans has always really been the swirling mass of sound and mayhem that surrounds main man Michael Gira. What I have always enjoyed about Swans is the massive storytelling in a slow-churning build that evolves slowly but precisely, creating a brooding, sweltering feast of noise that cascades in to broad expressions of whatever emotion that Gira is pointing the band towards. It takes a lot of patience and a focused mind to get a full sense of where the music is heading, but those that weather the storm and stick each song through to the very end will be rewarded with a robust performance that is usually quite exciting. Swans are a true art band that alienates as well as enraptures its audiences. I still to this day have not been able to get to a Swans show, but I can only imagine that they are quite a treat. My fear is that if I try to get to one of their shows, they will only play one or two songs over the course of 2 hours. Would I know? Would I care? I need to find out for myself before it is too late.
DEAD WHEN I FOUND HER – EYES ON BACKWARDS
I know that this is a shitty way to start my comments on this album, but I really think that Dead When I Found Her’s last release, All The Way Down, was phenomenal and in some ways better than their latest album. There, I got that off my chest. So am I saying that this album isn’t good? Come on, wise guy, this album is placed in my top 25 of all the albums I listened to in 2016. Do you think that I believe this album isn’t any good? You so funny. Dead When I Found Her continue their nightmarish sound explorations that are pitted in the deepest, darkest recesses of industrial music, an area that is fleshed out briskly like bands such as Skinny Puppy, Download and Velvet Acid Christ (to name a few). The term industrial gets floated around over the top of quite a few different genres that have nothing to do with industrial (how the fuck did VNV Nation ever get called industrial? Who started that ball rolling down that future pop/EBM hill? You’re a genius, moron), but if any band deserves a picture in a dictionary next to the term ‘industrial,’ then Dead When I Found Her are a valid candidate (although my vote will probably always go with Einsturzende Neubauten, if I was asked). This album is mesmerizing and simply brilliant. There is so much to hear with all of the stark layers, cascading mechanized landscapes and intricate webs of insanity brewing within it. This is a true headphone album, one that can only get its full appreciation of its composition, songwriting, themes and production through a private listening experience. In a dark room. Okay, with a candle lit. But just one candle, wimp.
GOJIRA – MAGMA
I need to apologize to all of my friends who are Gojira fans that I shouted to the hills that this is not the best Gojira album by any stretch of the imagination. I’m sorry guys, its very very good. Still not my number one Gojira release, but its up there for sure. These French creators of intelligent heavy metal music, construct music that is mathematically challenged, intricate in design, woven tightly and precisely, but not so much so that the song gets lost in an act of boredom comparable to a calculus lesson. No, the band are masters of their craft on every instrument, and finds a way to make their music interesting, but extremely melodic as well. I think I have seen Gojira tossed in to the death metal bin here and there, and I’m not certain that I have ever been able to comfortably pin a death metal label on them. They are definitely heavy, but I think that they have been much heavier in the past. Magma is an album that presents to us a kinder, gentler version of Gojira, one that is certainly more accessible and really helps build some serious bridges to new audiences. I think that is a very smart move for them. Their move in to this more melodic territory may not actually have been a conscious decision on their part. Brothers Joe and Mario Duplantier were forced to deal with an illness and then subsequent death of their mother during the recording process for this album, and it might explain some of the hearfelt lyrics and overall sadness that is felt within some of the songs. That isn’t to say that the album doesn’t have its share of ragers on it, because big fat riffs are aplenty on this release. This is a superb release from a band that has always made great albums. I have been a big fan of theirs for over 12 years now, and I look forward to whatever it is that they decide to do next, no matter what the direction may be.
THE NAKED AND FAMOUS – SIMPLE FORMS
As The Naked and Famous’ latest CD opens with “Higher,” you can immediately hear that the band is making a mad dash back to its electropop roots that got them started on their debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You. I was extremely skeptical of this reverse in artistic direction because the more somber and mature In Rolling Waves showcased a band that was much more serious about its songwriting skills than to just be a pop band from New Zealand. In Rolling Waves got crushed by fans and critics alike, but I saw it as a brilliant body of work both in maturity and production values. Why on Earth would this band want to go back to its roots when all they needed to do was find a way to prove to the world that they were far beyond their commercial appeal in pop music? So I sat and listened to this album with sheer disappointment that they went backwards in growth, and embraced a lighter, more upbeat brand of who I wanted them to actually be. But then something happened. I listened closer to the songs, allowed the pop sensibilities crest and listened to the deeper, more hidden aspects of this release. The electronic elements were actually refreshing, and there were still hints of the concepts fleshed out on In Rolling Waves hidden deep within each and every track. The band found balance, but disguised it as a retro sounding release that captured the original magic of tracks like “Punching In A Dream,” “Young Blood,” and “Girls Like You.” There are times when I think that I am the only person in the world who loves this band, because whenever I mention them to my friends, I get blank stares and confused looks. Such a shame because I really believe that The Naked and Famous are a powerful electropop act that deserves far more attention than they are actually gettting.
REV REV REV – DES FLEURS MAGIQUES BOURDONNAIENT
So it just occurred to me, moments before beginning my thoughts on this release, that I really have tapped in to an appreciation of music coming out of Europe this year. France, Norway, Scotland, England and now Italy all have representation in my growing music library. Actually, my music library has always been full of music on a globally representative scale, but previous “best of” lists were decidedly more Americanized. This year sees the list truly expanding its boundaries all around the world. Rev Rev Rev are a shoegaze band that I have been hearing a buzz about for many months now, but I didn’t actually acquire their latest release until just two weeks ago. When I listened to it, I was bowled over by the waves of swirling reverb, glistening noise and atmospheric sound washes. It is a hypnotizing blend of blissful tremors of noise awash in themes of echoey and ecstatic euphony with dynamic aural compositions and a psychedelic ablution. Placing this album so high in the list almost immediately as this list was being created should be a testament to how impactful this release was to all of my listening experiences. Shoegaze music has been in a strong resurgence period, one that is lasting longer than its initial strong run back in the early 90’s, so I would have to believe that this music form is now here to stay for good. Many will contend that it never actually went away, and this is completely true. But to hear the incredible sounds and audio designs that artists are putting together over the last six years, especially with a band like Rev Rev Rev, one has to believe that there is a serious renaissance occurring in shoegaze, dreampop, psych-rock and noise-pop. I for one am quite excited about this and welcome anything that anyone is willing to throw at me. But they better stop and listen to this album first, because Rev Rev Rev have just raised the bar a little bit higher.
MARC HEAL – THE HUM
There are a good many of you that probably do not know who Marc heal is, but those of us that do consider ourselves lucky (and smart enough) to be able to count his music as some of our favorites. If you are an old school industrial fan and know of the band Cubanate, then you are halfway there. Sort of. I say sort of because the only thing that really ties Marc’s solo music to his band Cubanate is the fact that he was a member. Sonically speaking, the similarities end pretty much right there. The Hum comes out heavy enough on “Tienanman,” glinting at a hint of industrial rock that maybe has a little bit to do with the sounds that Cubanate created, but as the song evolves, the darker, more gothic toned atmosphere that is created by the Gary Numan-esque synthesizer bed alters the landscape quite a bit. This continues throughout the release as Marc’s vocals (that voice!) are front and center, with the music posing sexily in the background. This was a very surprising release to me because I was all revved up from the Compound Eye Sessions that Marc did as MC Lord of the Flies (along with Raymond Watts, a/k/a Pig) and the fact that Cubanate was very alive and well at this years Cold Waves festival in Chicago (that I missed yet again! I’ll always have Cold Waves 1 though…that was a treat) all had my mind stained in a completely different direction. The dark synthetic pop and rock that does actually emanate from this disc is actually a very wonderful surprise that I found to be extremely enjoyable. I really hate to do this (because I already did it earlier in this commentary), but if you are a fan of Gary Numan, you will definitely enjoy this release. I can’t think of a better way to bait and switch you.
ALCEST – KODAMA
Earlier in this post, I made a big deal about shoegaze and metal while sharing my thoughts on Astronoid, but I purposely left out any reference to Alcest. Thats because I think that Alcest really have captured my heart with their very unique blend of metal and shoegaze, a completely unique sound that ebbs and flows with heaviness and softness, and their epic sound designs that are cinematic visions in and amongst themselves. With their latest release, this French outfit have returned to a heavier sound palette, something that appeared to be abandoned (and slightly missed) on their previous release, 2014’s unrivaled release Shelter. That doesn’t mean that Alcest are back to being a full blown black metal band (but they do visit it), its just to say that the testosterone shot that the guitar work needed has been applied, conservatively, but at least it is still there. I’m quite satisfied with the quiet moments that this band accesses from time to time, because it really creates a perfect launching pad for the tracks as they climb to stratospheric levels with their soaring guitars and lush atmospheres. I’ve always found Alcest immensely soothing, even in their loudest moments, moments that shutter any sense of claustrophobia that may exist, breaking open the sounds while the band spreads its wings. They don’t dwell long in the heavy zone, and that is perfectly okay with me. I see Alcest as a shoegaze band first, and a metal band second, so this will always fit their strengths perfectly as long as they continue to follow this perfect formula.
MINOR VICTORIES – MINOR VICTORIES
How does one define a ‘supergroup?’ What does it mean to be a supergroup? Is it just a collection of musicians from other bands that get together and make music, or does it have to be upper echelon household names that collaborate for no other reason than to keep their names alive and to feed their egos. To me, a super group is a collection of great talents that make something really special tougher. Minor Victories aren’t a household name band with household name musicians. But in my little world, they are a supergroup through and through. And to achieve that status, the album has to be great. The self-titled debut released early in the summer is exactly that: great. The members that make up this band feature Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, Justin Brockey of Editors, his brother James Brockey, and the beautiful and absolutely fantastic vocal talents of Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. Goswell’s inclusion in this group got me the most excited, especially since I learned that we were going to have to wait until 2017 to hear any new music from Slowdive. I will take a release like this any day of the week, especially since it turned out to be a wonderful idea (not all collaborations can say this). The stark landscapes and moments of alt-rock and shoegaze glory shine through extra bright, exemplifying the rich talents that each member of this band bring to the table. The album is lush and gorgeous, from front to back, but the standout track “Cogs” really is Rachel Goswell at her absolute best, something that I could seriously listen to all day long. I know that each of these individuals has their own thing going on, but I really hope that this isn’t a one-off project, because I want to see what they can all do together on another release. Fingers will remain crossed until that is a reality.
THE PRETTY RECKLESS – WHO YOU SELLING FOR
Taylor Momsen, be still my heart! That voice of yours is absolutely divine! This may actually be the surprise release of the year for me because I wasn’t actually expecting it to be much of anything at all. To say that I set the bar low is an understatement. I don’t take Taylor Momsen seriously, well, at least I didn’t take her very seriously. Until now. This girl is as serious as a heart attack. The tracks that are included within this release are simply amazing. Blues influenced, soulful, extremely rich, and very good hard rock is on full display all across this release. While song structure, tough as nails rock and roll, extremely talented musicians and memorable choruses resound for miles and miles, it really is the sultry, gritty and razor sharp voice of Taylor Momsen that is the star of this show. Sure, The Pretty Reckless have been getting a lot of press, their album debuted well, and sales of this album are through the roof, but at the end of the day, does it stack up? I am here to tell you that yes, hell yes, this album completely stacks up. All of the songs on this album are big, bold and full of a furious and soulful blues rock drive. This is the kind of release that fans of metal, hard rock, blues and even the grungier side of alternative can seriously get behind. The production on this album is topnotch, almost too good and glossy, but it holds back just enough to let this album remain raw and grimy, like it was recorded in a broken down blues bar in the middle of Texas full of biker gangs and aging metalheads. A friend of mine told me that he loved this release because no one is making music like this anymore. I had to correct him because there are actually a lot of bands making music just like this. There just aren’t any making it this good. Do yourself a favor and start with the track “Take Me Down,” and if that doesn’t get you up and going, then I believe you may need to head down to the emergency room and get checked out quick. You might be dead. And my apologies to Taylor Momsen for the lack of respect. I have mad respect for you now, and please don’t ever stop what you are doing. Ever.
MITSKI – PUBERTY 2
Every year, I need a listening experience like this, and most often than not, it comes from a female artist. Last year I was mesmerized by Lana Del Rey. In 2014 I couldn’t get enough of St. Vincent. Before that it was Courtney Barnett. The list just goes on and on. This year belonged to Mitski, an alt-rock performer that released one of the most interesting releases earlier this year. Puberty 2 is a display of love’s evolutionary challenges, filtered through the compositional structures of alt-rock and alt-folk foundations. This might be a good time to pause and reveal that I am lyrically challenged, which basically means that at most times I am really disinterested in what an artist is actually saying or singing about. This is a direct result of some scarring things that happened to me as a child that I will retell someday, but not here. I also have been disappointed by what some artists have said, and interpretation of the words is really challenging to a person who just wants people to get to the point and say exactly what it is that they mean. I know that this puts a serious hit on my credibility as a critic of music, but I also have a talent for hearing the voice as a distinct instrument that belongs in music as much as any other instrument. As an instrument, Mitski is perfect, and I find her words to be secondary to the tones that she creates with her mouth. I find her enchanting and mesmerizing, so to say that I hang on her every word is both factually inaccurate and symbolically correct. While Puberty 2 is technically an alternative rock album, the contemporary sounds with their lush layers and orchestral developments catapults this album to another level. “Your Best American Girl” is a stunning example, with its rich composition and soaring and spatial orchestration. The basic architecure of each of these songs is simply a feast for the ears, with Mitski’s voice being the icing on the proverbial cake. Don’t just listen to this release, devour it. It is simply delicious from front to back.
DAUGHTER – NOT TO DISAPPEAR
I listen to a lot of heavy, aggressive, pulse quickening, head pounding music. I also have a desire to settle down and hear elegant stories and lush soundscapes to quell my inner demons and to lull me in to state of serenity and contemplation. Several years ago I discovered that the band Beach House tapped in to an inner ear that I never knew existed. Since that time, I have sought out and successfully found releases that are not only soothing and introspective, but angular and far reaching. Daughter released Not To Disappear earlier this year with very little fanfare, but a release like this could never be overlooked by my wandering ears. Daughter produce a dreamy, whispery blend of shoegaze and dream pop, highlighted by an expressive display of emotional serenity and passionate lullabies. This is a band that capitalizes on the softness of its touch and understands the power that it yields. The crafty capturing of the wandering spirit and daydreaming mind are harnessed in a wash of delicate guitars and leisurely pacing. This has been my ‘go to’ release all year long for a calming experience that enriches my mind and calms the aching muscles and delicate bones. Many years ago, I was an all out heavy metal guy, and it is perpetually amusing to me that I find a release such as this so fascinating and mind altering. There are no stabbing beats, razor edged guitars or acid throat vocals. No jarring synthetic noises, mechanical throbs or insane shock rock lyrics. Its just me, the reflective atmosphere, a glass of fine wine, dim lighting, and the band Daughter. Its an amazing and personal experience, but it is mine and I love it beyond compare. I want you to experience it too, in the same way that I do, so ge this release, settle back in your most comfortable environment, and let this album whisk you away to a better place.