What a year. It's that time again when we reflect on the magnificent and the rotten and as in previous years the challenge to pick a top ten from a field of fine music is a stiff one. In fact, this year began with an assault that has not really eased. High quality across the genres with The Temperance Movement and Megadeth setting the bar high, bookended by the first Metallica release since 2008. It's been another good year. Having reviewed countless releases for the blog as well as those I just listened to, the Ed has given me sanction for a top 20. Given that I had to also listen to some right rubbish at times I think that this is only fair!
It's also reasonable to give a shout to some of the shite that I've had the misfortune to review and head and shoulders above everything else this year, yes, even the turgid bloat of Dream Theater’s The Astonishing, was the utterly dreadful Dee Snider solo release We Are The Ones which contained the creepiest song of the year in Close To You. I'm still not convinced it was tongue in cheek and for that reason I give it top place in the golden turd pile.
What about songs of the year? For the death metal aficionados Abbath’s To War, Vader’s Send Me Back To Hell and Obituary’s Loathe were exceptional, whilst the Phoenix rising from the ashes of Bolt Thrower, the mighty Memoriam hit incredibly hard with War Rages On. For sheer heaviness Gojira’s The Cell and Lamb Of God’s The Duke pulverised and battered. Old school thrash was well represented with the immense Reset from Metal Church, Dystopia by Megadeth, Metallica’s triumphant Spit Out The Bone and Atlas, Rise! Along with Death Angel’s The Moth and legends Testament’s Brotherhood Of The Snake. In the progressive rock section Opeth’s haunting Will O The Wisp, Living In Fear by Marillion, the stunning My Book Of Regrets by Steven Wilson and In Exile from The Pineapple Thief were amongst a vast selection of quality. However, my favourite track of the year is from a band whose album didn't even make my top 20. That band is The Answer and the song is Solas, a quite stunning departure from their previous sound, full of atmosphere, smouldering and moody with a quite super hook. Brilliant stuff.
Before I get into my top 20, it's worth the honourable mentions to those who didn't make it. Obscura, Obzidian (who were so close with their storming fourth release Obliteration Process), Megadeth’s Dystopia (which was a front runner for the top 10 for much of the year), Darkthrone, Messenger, Magnum’s millionth release Sacred Heart Divine Lies and Rival Sons Hollow Bones, all brilliant releases.
So, in true award style, here’s my top 20 counting down from 20 to number 1.
20. Death Angel – The Evil Divide
When the Bay Area thrash machine that is Death Angel hit with The Dream Calls For Blood back in 2014 I thought it unlikely that they would ever top it. The Evil Divide proved that time only makes things better as it stomped all over the thrash world. There wasn’t a bad song on this album.
19. The Mission – Another Fall From Grace
It had been a long time since I’d listened to Wayne Hussey and The Mission but this album grabbed the attention from the opening bars of the title track through the single Met-Amor-Phosis to closer Phantom Pain. Haunting in a way only the gothic movement can be, this was a brilliant release. The band proved they could deliver in the live arena too at a splendid gig at Bristol’s O2 in October. Alive and kicking at 55.
18. The Temperance Movement – White Bear
The much anticipated follow up to the self-titled debut arrived so early in 2016 that it was almost forgotten. However, a couple of plays quickly refreshed the memory. White Bear’s swagger and confidence demonstrated how far the band had come in a short space of time. With the recent departure of drummer Damon Wilson, it can only be hoped that the band can maintain their zest and passion in 2017.
17. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
A band that define consistency, the 7th release from the Finns was a brave concept piece that totally delivered. Nothing about this was anything but astonishing, with the variation between light and dark working in all aspects. How about a decent slot at BOA in 2017?
16. The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness
Bruce Soord’s Somerset based outfit delivered one of the most delicate and beautiful releases of the year. The band’s tenth album showed a continuation of the growth of a truly underrated band. Kscope have several magical acts on their label but few come near the excellence of a ridiculously talented bunch of musicians.
15. Blackberry Smoke – Like An Arrow
The Smoke must be one of the hardest working bands in the business and are currently spearheading the burgeoning Southern Country rock sound. Their 6th album expanded on 2015’s Holding All The Roses with a wider variety of tracks, allowing the band to flex their musical muscles in a number of different directions whilst still retaining the good time feel we fell in love with. In Charlie Starr the band possess a true icon, and the best pair of chops in rock.
14. Cheap Trick – Bang Zoom Crazy, Hello
For a band that formed in 1973, Cheap Trick are just remarkable. Enormous in Japan, Bang Zoom Crazy, Hello was the band’s 17th album and the first not to feature drummer Bun. E. Carlos. It contained several infectious rock cum pop tunes, some right royal rockers and the beautiful Bowie like When I Wake Up Tomorrow. Robin Zander’s vocals remain quite magical whilst Rick Nielsen is a guitar god in the true sense of the word.
13. Grand Magus – Sword Songs
Who doesn’t love Grand Magus? Formulaic perhaps. Anthemic - completely. But bloody good time after time and superb in the live arena. The follow up to Triumph And Power contained enough battle rousing hymns to power a Viking invasion and with the mighty Forged In Iron sporting the year’s best chorus this was a shoe in for a top spot.
11. Lacuna Coil – Delirium
The Italian outfit has blown hot and cold in recent years but Delirium took the bull by the horns, ramped up the heaviness enormously and crashed in with a very impressive release. The contrast of Cristina Scabbia’s soaring vocals and the almost death growl of co-vocalist Andrea Ferro works magnificently. The album contained some real stomping tunes, including the title track and the vicious The House Of Shame which worked perfectly in the live arena.
10. Winterfylleth – The Dark Hereafter
One of the most underrated British bands, the fifth release from Black Metal legends Winterfylleth was one of the most anticipated of the year. It didn’t disappoint with a blistering delivery and a quite immense cover of Ulver’s 1995 track Led Astray In The Forest Dark a highlight on an album of nothing but highlights. .
9. Blues Pills – Lady In Gold
Psychedelic, stoner and steeped in the sounds of the 70s, Lady In Gold was another sophomore release which lived up to all the hype. Blues Pills debut was so good that you did wonder how they would match it but Lady In Gold topped it comfortably. The storming title track was one of many memorable songs on an album full of quality blues soaked rock. Check out Bad Talkers for one of the best songs of 2016.
8. Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
They have been dubbed as a bit boring in later releases but to the naysayers I say you are totally wrong. The Swedes rode the loss of drummer Daniel Liljekvist to produce an album which continued their melancholic bent but with superbly crafted songs. The Fall Of Hearts contains some of the most structured and haunting music Katatonia has released and the heaviness of their earlier work remains on tracks like Serein and Serac.
7. Metal Church – XI
The return of Mike Howe provided the mighty Church with all the impetus they needed to move one massive step forward. Under the ever-watchful eye of founder Kurdt Vanderhoof XI was not out of the CD player for months after its release. Full of razor sharp riffs and pounding rhythms, there wasn’t a dull track on the album. Check out the blistering opening song Reset for a statement of intent. Howe’s vocal performance is as good as the day he delivered Blessing In Disguise way back in 1989.
6. Hawkwind – The Machine Stops
With Dave Brock now in his early 70s, you could have forgiven him if he’d slowed down a bit. Not a chance. The band delivered one of their best ever albums with their concept release based on EM Forster’s dystopian novel. Full of the innovative space rock that Hawkwind have rightly established as their own, tracks such as The Machine, Lost In Science and Synchronised Blue demonstrated that the band could still rock out with the best of them. The usual craziness was there in spades; Yum Yum for example whilst the overall concept matched the novel to a tee. Their live set was magnificent too.
5. Raveneye – Nova
Hardly a new band although Nova was their first full release, Raveneye have been catching the eye and ear for a couple of years now. Their debut EP Breaking Out was a taster of their quality which we’d lapped up through their stunning live performances; however, I don’t think we were quite prepared for the sheer brilliance of Nova. Full of classic hard rock, songs like Come With Me and Hero are irresistibly toe tapping whilst the band showed they could craft the more complex sound with the epic Supernova. Astonishingly good live, Nova provided what we all wanted, the live experience captured on record.
4. Dark Funeral – Where Shadows Forever Reign
The first album for seven years from the Swedish Black Metal masters turned out to be an absolute belter. Full of the expected blast beats, razor sharp riffs and guttural vocals, Where Shadows Forever Reign was blistering from start to finish. With more melody and hooks than one might expect, the album opened with the hauntingly powerful Unchain My Soul and didn’t let up until the immense title track.
3. Opeth – Sorceress
The first play of Sorceress was a total let down. The songs felt disjointed and weak. Repeated plays totally changed my view and this has become one of my favourites in 2016. Full of variation and Mikael Akerfeldt’s love of 70s rock, Sorceress contains something few other releases did. Variety in buckets. From the pomp of the title track to the fuzzy Strange Brew and the delicacy of Will O The Wisp and Persephone. This was a statement from a band who are finally reaping the long overdue rewards. An album I grew to love. Beautiful.
2. Marillion – F.E.A.R.
There is little to be said about this release. It is just stunning. Spectacularly crafted from start to finish, prophetically accurate and scarily reflecting the current state of our country, F.E.A.R. is enormous. A band that has retained a massively loyal fan base over the years but always saddled with the Fish-era reputation, F.E.A.R. may finally be the release that shakes that off. To be honest, Steve Hogarth and co. won’t give a fig. They’ve just sold out the Royal Albert Hall in minutes.
1. Gojira – Magma
There was never going to be any dispute about the number one slot. As soon as Magma hit the CD player the intake of breath was immediate. From the opener, The Shooting Star to closer Liberation Magma just screamed class. Intense, powerful but with a delicacy maybe not always so obvious in other releases the French technical giants delivered an album that moves them into the premier league. By all accounts they blew Alter Bridge and Volbeat out of the water on their recent tour. For those of us who’ve followed the band for several years this was totally unsurprising. Any band that can create the brilliance witnessed in the likes of Silvera, Pray and the brutality of Only Pain wins 2016.
One final note: many will be surprised that Hard Wired …To Self Destruct doesn't feature at all. I love Metallica. I've played this album to death. It rocks hard. I think it is a worthy top five release. But so many others will vote for it I wanted to raise awareness for some of the other brilliant stuff out there. I don't think the family will mind.