1. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
I first experienced these tunes in a live setting a couple of months before the album’s release. I’ve seen hundreds of gigs but watching the master on stage performing these compositions was the most impressive live-music delivery I’ve witnessed. A masterpiece of electronica.
Favourite track: Oxygène Part 17.
2. Rotting Christ – Rituals
I’ve liked Rotting Christ for decades but this album is a monumental leap forward for them. Every detail – album title, cover artwork, song composition, track flow, lyrics, sonics, production quality – has been meticulously crafted by a band in total control of its art. Rituals is the perfect title for this album. The leitmotifs in tracks like Devadevadem and The Four Horsemen have a hypnotic quality that makes listening to them feel like participating in a ritual. Perhaps that was the band’s intention all along: ritual through music, on a grand scale.
Favourite track: Devadevadem – a glorious blend of eastern melodies and dark chants.
3. Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Another immaculate album from one of Finland’s finest metal bands (and what fierce competition they have in the world’s most metallic country). Few bands deliver this level of heaviness. Even fewer do so with melodies that are breathtakingly beautiful. Not only can Omnium Gatherum achieve this, they make it sound easy. That takes a special type of talent.
Favourite track: Skyline – a contender for greatest riff of all time.
4. Saor – Guardians
At long last, Scottish metal inspired by Scotland. Not the Walter Scottised contrived twee Scotty-dogs-and-tartan-shortbread-tin touristy bollocks, but the real Scotland. Guardians transports the mind on a journey over sweeping glens, monolithic mountains, waterfalls, heather-clad valleys, golden beaches, clear blue seas, bloody battles and clan allegiances. This isn’t jaunty and twee like folk metal. It’s heavy, poignant and beautiful like Scandinavian melodeath. That’s probably Saor’s closest parallel: while Amorphis’s epics are inspired by their Finnish mythology, Saor’s masterpieces are inspired by real, bloody Scots history. Musically, too, Saor has much in common with its Scandinavian peers, but frequent Celtic flourishes leave the listener in no doubt where these melodies hail from. This is Scotland in musical form and it’s magnificent.
Favourite track: Hearth.
5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Art of Noise
JMJ was a busy man in 2015 and 2016. In addition to his first Electronica collaboration album (my top album of 2015) and Oxygène 3 (my top album of 2016), he found time to create a second Electronica. It follows the same blueprint as the first: Jarre at the helm as composer, creator and performer while selected guests perform alongside him. This time around the collaborators include Rone, Gary Numan, Pet Shop Boys, The Orb, and Hans Zimmer (among others). Solo Jarre performances are musical bookends at the start and finish of the album.
Favourite track: Here for You (with Gary Numan).
6. Ihsahn – Arktis.
The frontman of one of Norway’s most influential black-metal bands (Emperor) continues to forge ahead with his solo career. Arktis. has more in common with British traditional metal (especially Judas Priest and Holocaust) than with Scandinavia’s black-metal hordes. Ihsahn favours clean singing and guitar tones these days, with only occasional growls harking back to his vocals of old. I enjoy Emperor when the mood takes me but I can listen to Ihsahn’s solo material anytime. It follows no fashion and there’s no evidence of artifice. Arktis. is just over an hour of pure metal. You can’t go wrong with it.
Favourite track: Until I Too Dissolve.
7. Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik – Skuggsjà
It speaks volumes about a nation when its elected leaders commission two local metal musicians (who happen to be influential on a global scale) to compose music to commemorate the 200th anniversary of their country’s constitution. This happened in Norway, where Bjørnson (best known for fronting Enslaved) and Selvik (formerly known as Kvitrafn in black-metal titans Gorgoroth, then switching to his given name to front the genre-defying Wardruna project). Skuggsjà sounds almost identical to Wardruna (the absence of Lindy-Fay Hella’s vocals is the main difference). This is indigenous Scandinavian music rooted in lore and magic, incorporating ancient instruments alongside electrified modern ones. A classic album with exquisite layered depths.
Favourite track: Skuggeslåtten.
8. Wardruna – Ragnarok
This Warduna recording lacks one vital element its predecessors contained, namely one Kristian Espedal, better known as Gaahl. It’s a phenomenal album on its own merits, with Selvik and Hella on fantastic form, but I miss Gaahl’s menacing growl. He was the darkness to Selvik’s light, with Lindy-Fay flitting between demonic and angelic depending on the music’s demands. Ragnarok – the third Warduna album – will apparently be their last. The project was envisioned as a trilogy of recordings dedicated to the runes and Norway’s musical roots. Job done. Wardruna is uniquely moving music that resonates in the soul.
Favourite track: Raido.
9. Alcest – Kodama
One of my favourite French bands goes all Japanese on this, their fifth release. Inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke, the album Kodama explores the confrontation between the natural world and the human realm. As with previous Alcest recordings, the music defies categorisation. There are depths, textures and moods galore in these swathes of sound. Dive in. You’ll be all the better for it.
Favourite track: Kodama – a captivating wave of sonic bliss. Utter perfection.
10. Dance with the Dead – The Shape
A high-energy fusion of electro synths and wailing guitars that manages to be both retro (à la 1980s) and futuristic, The Shape could be the soundtrack to an iconic sci-fi film that was never made.
Favourite track: That House – pure perfection.
11. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate
Three Insomnium albums (Above the Weeping World, One for Sorrow, and Shadows of the Dying Sun) have placed #1 in my album-of-the-year lists. Why is Winter’s Gate at #11? Several reasons. Firstly, it faced serious competition. Secondly, it consists of one track. It’s a long track, but not nearly long enough to qualify as an album proper (by Insomnium standards). Perhaps this would have been better marketed as a concept EP rather than an album. The lyrics tell a moving story and the musicianship is, as always, astonishing. Winter’s Gate has peaks and troughs and light and shade, but it is still – whichever way you look at it – just one big feck-off song.
Favourite track: oh, the suspense…Winter’s Gate.
12. Gojira – Magma
It’s vive la France for the fourth time in this list. Magma is Gojira’s sixth album and, I reckon, their best yet. Like fellow French peers Blut Aus Nord, The Young Gods, and Alcest, Gojira creates metal that is deeply personal and cerebral. It is often described as avant-garde. To my ears their biggest inspiration seems to be legendary Canadian outfit Voivod (also described as avant-garde), so perhaps that’s as good a way as any of summing up their music. It is fearlessly experimental, with influences from death metal, speed metal, prog, doom and more, all seamlessly flowing together to create a unique sound that pushes the Gojira envelope that little bit further. The bulk of this album features cleaner vocals than in the past, even going a bit shoegazy at times, which is a beautiful counterpoint to the transcendent riffage and rhythmic mountain of sound. It has much in common with space rock, too. They share a cosmic, psychedelic quality. If Hawkwind had formed 30 years later and been French with a penchant for really heavy metal, they’d sound a lot like this. That’s high praise indeed.
Favourite track: The Shooting Star.
13. Anti-Nowhere League – The Cage
I got into Anti-Nowhere League when I was ten. I loved that their music was bouncy and angry and catchy and singalong and also a vehicle for righteous rebellion. I didn’t have much to rebel against back then. Life as a ten-year-old was good. Perhaps if the dinner ladies at my primary school hadn’t been so generous with second helpings (and thirds, and fourths), I’d have railed against them with punk attitude. But they were lovely, so there was no need. Even my teachers were supportive of my Anti-Nowhere League leanings. My primary-six teacher Mr C (whom you may have read about in my blog post Life Imitating Art) used to suggest bands he thought I might like. Soon after I’d discovered ANL of my own accord, I decorated a portrait I’d drawn in art class (like many of my portraits at the time, it looked suspiciously like Lemmy) with a forehead tattoo that read ‘I Hate People…Let’s Break the Law’. Noticing this, Mr C took me aside to ask if everything was OK at home. I explained that the tattoo was simply two Anti-Nowhere League track titles. Deadpan, he replied, “Very good. Keep your lawbreaking activities outside my classroom, though, eh?” A great man. Anyway, I’ve veered off on a tangent. Back to 2016. ANL’s new album is the strongest they’ve ever recorded. It’s still instantly identifiable as them and has their boundless punk energy, but the riffage and production have a decidedly metal quality. The result is a bigger, bouncier sound that’s utterly addictive. As usual, the lyrics are socially aware and pissed off without being whiney. A jolt of sonic adrenaline.
Favourite track: Bad Storm.
14. Mortiis – The Great Deceiver
Ol’ goblin nose is back! Well, he was never really away. He’s back on form, though. I once argued with an idiot who made the ridiculous statement, “Mortiis was better when he was in Emperor.” I replied, “In Emperor he was just a hired-hand drummer. He had no say in what direction the band took. On Mortiis albums he’s expressing his own vision. Saying you liked Mortiis better when he was in Emperor is like saying you liked African-Americans better when they were enslaved. It’s just stupid.” My favourite Mortiis album by far is The Smell of Rain: a collection of captivating soundscapes with an escapist mood all their own. Since then, Goblin Features has veered into industrial metal, usually to the detriment of his tunes. The sonic territory on The Smell of Rain seemed so perfect and so uniquely his that I hoped he would stay there on successive musical outings. This was not to happen. Until The Great Deceiver, that is. It’s an industrial-based album, but one with hints of the atmosphere that made TSoR so special.
Favourite track: Doppelganger.
15. Metal Church – XI
Another scorching album from a band whose quality hasn’t faltered since they emerged at the dawn of the thrash movement. Metal Church may not have achieved the enormous sales of peers such as Metallica and Megadeth, but their influence is vast and can be heard in thousands of bands that followed. Also, while the aforementioned titans Metallica and Megadeth watered down their sound and skipped into musical fields of pansies, Metal Church stuck to their guns and remained true to their metal souls. More credit to them for that. XI sees them on top form yet again.
Favourite track: Signal Path.
16. Anthrax – For All Kings
Speaking of thrash pioneers, I bring you Anthrax – stronger now than they were back in the glory days of thrash. You can hear traces of their roots in some of the new tracks, but present-day Anthrax is a barnstorming balls-to-the-wall traditional metal band with bigger hooks, polished production, grown-up lyrics and gravitas in spades. They’ve evolved without losing their heaviness. That’s the key to Anthrax’s enduring popularity among longtime fans: they remain metal to the core. Riffmasters. Innovators. Legends.
Favourite track: Breathing Lightning.
17. Abbath – Abbath
Ol’ Doomface is back! He was never away either, of course. Always busy with Immortal or one of his side projects, he is one of metal’s hardest-working souls. I love the music Abbath created with Immortal. More than that, I love his one-off side project I’s concept album Between Two Worlds (the definitive Viking-metal recording). So I had high hopes for this, his first album under his own moniker. When I heard that Abbath’s solo band would be a trio, my first thought was, ‘I really hope his bandmates are called Assink and Attoilet.’ It saddens me to report that they are not. They missed a golden opportunity there. Musically, this is in the same vein as Immortal. Slower and more melodic (that’s a relative term!) for the most part, but with those same cataclysmic riffs.
Favourite track: Root of the Mountain – a rumble to crumble castle walls.
18. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
They’ve impressed me over the years and continue to do so. The genius of Katatonia lies in their ability to create music of deceptive heaviness. This is largely down to the sublime vocals of Jonas Renske, which bring light to even the darkest Katatonia dirge. The Fall of Hearts continues in the same vein as its post-2000 predecessors (pre-millennium the band was a death-metal outfit). Katatonia is a complex beast, with prog leanings, labyrinthine song structures and introspective lyrics delivered with passion and vulnerability. The music is intricate, delicate and, even though your ears are sometimes tricked into believing otherwise, gloriously heavy.
Favourite track: Old Heart Falls – a masterclass.
19. Marillion – F.E.A.R.
This one took a while to have an impact on me. Sometimes that’s the way of it with Marillion albums. Clutching at Straws, my favourite Marillion release, was underwhelming on the first listen, but after 20 or 30 spins I got it – really got it. To this day, I enjoy CaS more with each listen. And so it is with F.E.A.R. (Fuck Everyone and Run), an album so rich in nuance that it took many plays for me to soak up all the melodic details, the lyrical cleverness, the seamless segues and the emotion. The key emotion here is anger. F.E.A.R. is an angry album. It’s angry at a broken financial system and the greedy bankers who bled it dry, angry at warmongers and the politicians who enable them, angry at the shallow direction in which western culture is headed, angry at the loss of community and the rise of every-man-for-himselfdom. Never before have you heard anger expressed like this, though. Anger usually sounds angry. When punk bands are angry at capitalist greed, you hear it in their music. When Scandinavian black-metal bands are angry at Christianity for displacing their old religion, that rage roars through their music (and in the fires they light to burn down churches). Marillion’s anger is channelled differently. If you paid no attention to Hogarth’s lyrics and instead concentrated on the music, anger would be the farthest emotion from your mind. When you listen to the words, though, when you really hear them and feel their intention, the effect is visceral. F.E.A.R. improves with every listen. Anger never sounded so beautiful before.
Favourite track: The Leavers: v. One Tonight.
20. Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia – Ghostlights
The Avantasia project has allowed Tobias Sammet to work with some of rock’s biggest names. The one constant by Sammet’s side is co-conspirator/guitar wizard/composer Sascha Paeth. Ghostlights, the seventh Avantasia album, is another ensemble performance including contributions from the likes of Bob Catley, Michael Kiske, Dee Snider, Geoff Tate, Marco Hietala, Sharon den Adel, and Jørn Lande. With that sort of pedigree it’d be difficult to go wrong. Sammet’s flair for the theatrical is present throughout, sometimes to an overblown extent (think Meat Loaf), but for the most part he stays out of wince-inducing territory. If you don’t like rock melodrama à la Magnum, give this album a wide berth. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a bit of cheese with your metal, this might be just your cup o’ tea.
Favourite track: Unchain the Light (featuring vocals from Tobias Sammet, Ronnie Atkins and, to my delight, Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween) on spectacular form).
21. In Extremo – Quid Pro Quo
No one else does medieval metal quite like this motley bunch of German rascals. Their combination of ancient instruments and modern metal is seamless. The older instruments don’t sound out of place, nor do they sound crowbarred in (metaphorically speaking) to add some sort of historical credibility. This is the real thing: a group of anachronisms who look and sound like they belong to some bygone time, eschewing all modernity except heavy metal, which, filtered through their medieval sensibilities, comes out sounding like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A unique band in an increasingly generic world.
Favourite track: Quid Pro Quo (Acoustic Version) – a bonus track on the deluxe version of the album, this version of the title song is stripped down to just vocal and piano. I prefer this variation. It’s loaded with poignance and the vocal delivery is immaculate.
22. Karg – Weltenasche
Another German band, this one a long way ideologically from In Extremo. Karg’s music has been described as dark, depressive, black metal, post-black metal (one of the most preposterous terms knocking around; there can be no post-black metal when black metal’s thriving more than ever – the idiots who come up with these ‘post’ terms should be rounded up and punished by having actual posts, big spiky fenceposts, shoved up their arses), sombre, gloomy, pessimistic, and even suicidal. I’m not a fan of labels. They seek to pigeonhole that which can’t be pigeonholed. They’re at best inaccurate and at worst limiting to artists who accept them. Karg’s music isn’t shiny and happy, that’s for sure. Dark, gloomy and sombre are adjectives that spring to mind when listening to Weltenasche. As with much dark art, however, it exerts a strange effect over the listener, bringing about a lightening of the spirit. To some this may seem like a paradox but it isn’t. The darkest, angriest storms are the ones that clear the air the most.
Favourite track: Le Couloir des Ombres. For those of you who don’t speak French and can’t be arsed using Google translate, that means ‘the colour of the shadows’.
23. The Depressick – 1962
Rather than try to sum up Mexican outfit The Depressick’s music in blanket terms (as many have done using idiotic ‘post’ labels and a host of other silly categorisations), I’ll let the artists describe their musical vision in their own words. ‘The Depressick was founded in winter of 2012-2013 by Old Skull and Detestas with the aim to express inner struggles, deep self-hate and melancholic feelings powered by oppressive, hopeless and miserable landscapes from daily life in Mexico City, our bleak and dear home.’ When I stumbled upon Mexican record label Self-Mutilation Services a couple of years ago I was amazed by the size and strength of their roster. I knew that metal, particularly extreme metal, was popular in Central America, but it was still a surprise to come across such a wealth of excellent metal that was new to me. I should have shares in that label now, as I’ve bought pretty much its entire stock. Money well spent. 1962 is catharsis through music. This was the case for the creators, but it also works on the listener. The band favours a raw, lo-fi sound which suits their music perfectly. There’s the familiar discordant riffage of black metal, and the blast-beat drums to match, but the vocals and overall energy have their roots in punk as much as in metal.
Favourite track: Gray Ocean.
24. Dark Tranquillity Atoma
A few years ago I had a debate with a dude who’s as heavily into Scandinavian metal as I am. One thing we couldn’t agree on was whether ‘the Gothenburg sound’ – that distinctive sound pioneered by Swedish bands Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, At the Gates, and Soilwork in the early ’90s – was a good thing. He thought it sounded too clean, polished and produced, and therefore generic. I pointed out that Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Saxon had been cranking out clean riffage and ultra-clean vocals for decades, but their metal is generally considered ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’, not ‘generic’. After all, I continued, surely you can’t be called generic for inventing something new. (The aforementioned Swedes didn’t invent metal, but they did take the existing blueprint and hone it into something fresh with a sound all its own.) With hindsight I think what that dude meant was formulaic, rather than generic. If he’d used the word ‘formulaic’ I’d have agreed with him. It is formulaic, but it’s a formula those four bands from Sweden put blood, sweat and tears into honing, refining and perfecting. It’s a formula that works. Since that debate I’ve discovered that the Gothenburg sound divides metal fans like nothing else. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s on the fence with regards to the topic. Folk seem to either love the sound or hate it. I love it. I’ve loved it since I first heard At the Gates back in the ’90s. A couple of years after that, when I saw In Flames live for the first time, I found out that to hear the Gothenburg sound live is to really experience it. On record it’s impressive but a bit restrained, as if always holding back. Live, though, it’s like a wild beast let loose. Awe-inspiring. Atoma does an impressive job of capturing that live energy in the studio. The vocals alternate between clean singing and growls (a technique now used to great effect by many heavier bands, especially in Finnish melodic death metal). Song structures vary widely, giving the album diversity and keeping the listener coming back for more.
Favourite track: Our Proof of Life.
25. In Flames – Battles
More Swedes and there’s that Gothenburg sound again. In Flames has lightened its sound considerably over the years, yet the band’s new material is instantly recognisable thanks to their trademark hooks, dense riffs, anthemic choruses and soaring vocals, all built on a bombastic rhythm-section foundation. Battles is the band’s most commercial album to date. It doesn’t have the death-metal credibility of earlier material like, for example, Whoracle, but it isn’t trying to. The band has evolved and this is the sound of their evolution. The songwriting’s as skilful as ever, as is the delivery. I hope, though, that they heavy it up a bit for the next album.
Favourite track: Before I Fall.
That’s it. That’s my top 25 of the year. Many excellent albums didn’t quite make the list but brought me lots of listening pleasure nonetheless. Honourable mentions to Artillery, Whispered, Witherscape, Ulver, Glenn Hughes, Darkthrone, Neil Young & Promise of the Real, Suicidal Tendencies, UK Subs, Tygers of Pan Tang, Spiritual Beggars, Magnum, Tyketto, Sunstorm, Spell, Forndom, Blood Ceremony, Evergrey, Testament, The Cult, The Mission, Mourning Sun, Crimson Moon, Dare, and Killswitch Engage, all of whom released quality albums in 2016. Hail to you all.