2016 was a pretty good year for metal. Say what you will about everything else, buttloads of talented acts released albums jam-packed with quality material. Distilling the year’s releases down to my ten favorites wasn’t easy, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it.
(I had plenty of other reasons to lose sleep this year.)
So here’s my list! Bask in its glory, or shake your head in shame. Several of my favorite bands earned a spot on there, but there’s plenty of new blood too. I always try to be conscious that these lists are as much an outlet for recommendations as they are end-of-year recaps, but I’ll never sacrifice personal preference just for awareness’s sake. That’s what other posts are for.
Ugh, I’ll shut up now.
#10. Fallujah – Dreamless
If going back to an album multiple times a year isn’t a mark of a top 10 album, I don’t know what is. Never in any of those multitude of listens did I ever stop and ask myself what it was about Dreamless that kept bringing me back. Was it the spacey soundscape texturing every track, or the creamy, prog-metal guitar leads? Or the hyper-ballistic drumming that I’d normally accuse of overplaying but under the circumstances seems to fit? Yeah, who am I kidding — I don’t think I need to convince myself that Dreamless is good because it honest-to-goodness is. It has its unmemorable parts, sure, but tapping into the things I like about the album is so easy I’m able to look past it and give it the credit it deserves.
#9. Babymetal – Metal Resistance
As a rule, I’ve always been into what Babymetal is selling. I’ve been jamming on J-pop and metal mashups since waaaay before their debut, and whether Babymetal met those high standards has always been a point of contention for me. But I feel like with this year’s Metal Resistance the metal idol group seems to finally be finding their footing. Babymetal has always been a grab bag of influences, and they’re on full display here. Your eagle-winged power metal numbers (co-written and performed by DragonForce guitarists, no less) shares audial attention with metalcore breakdowns and J-pop ballads. It’s an eclectic mix, the kind I’d argue the metal community has direly needed. This is shit we need in our genre, especially if we don’t want to. I’ll admit, this pick would speak to my contrarian tendencies if only Babymetal weren’t so goddamn popular. Not my fault “KARATE” is the catchiest damn thing I’ve heard in the last five years.
#8. Gojira – Magma
We all knew Magma was going to crush, right? It’s fucking Gojira; they can’t help it. So imagine my surprise when I find them so effortlessly meld bone-snapping heaviness with an acute sense of melody. Soaring power metal it ain’t — Magma’s occasional clean vocals and acoustic guitars evoke loss, desperation, and a sense of moving on. It’s a contrast I didn’t expect or ask for but am glad I got. Magma may not have scored as high as I originally thought it would, but I’m more than pleased to see it still make my list.
#7. Black Crown Initiate – Selves We Cannot Forgive
I rarely find progressive death metal super-engaging. When everything’s in the spotlight, nothing is, right? What I like most about Selves We Cannot Forgive, and the thing that drew me to these fine Pennsylvanian boys in the first place, is the lack of virtuosity. Oh, there are tasty solos and rippin’ drum fills aplenty, but each of this album’s eight tracks puts the song first and the (inarguably talented) musicianship second. And sometimes it even comes third or fourth! For Selves, I came back again and again for both the melody and the brutality. Progressive death metal? Don’t sell yourselves short, boys; there’s a lot more going on under the hood.
#6. Anaal Nathrakh – The Whole of the Law
I’ve never been so quickly sold on a band’s motif than I have with Anaal Nathrakh. Maybe I’m just weak to novelty, but upon hearing the absolutely punishing single, “Depravity Favours the Bold,” I knew this was a release to wait for. The Whole of the Law isn’t raw by any means; it has what might be the most Grade A Kobe beef guitar production I’ve heard in a long while. But it sounds like torture, and not in the ironic sense — there are literally parts where the vocalist is flipping out, nu-metal style, which I find in strange contrast with the laser-focused song structures. But on the whole, it’s all in good fun. This is a metal band for a metal fans; I can’t see a lot of crossover among the Kanye crowd. Structurally, the songs on Whole of the Law were hardly the biggest surprises of the year, but I’ll be good goddamned if I’m not going to be spinning this one for a while longer.
#5. Architects – All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us
It’s a tall order to find a metalcore band that defies genre conventions, and a taller order still to find one that doesn’t, yet grabs my interest anyway. That’s what I got with Architects’ All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us. You’ve got your breakdowns, your stuttering, djent-inspired riffage, even a few icky “whoa-ohhh” singalong parts, but you’ve also got an unnerving atmosphere built by synths and effects pedals. There are some seriously smart dynamics going on here on Gods that produced some of the most headbangin’ tunes of the year. I’ll be honest, I liked this album well enough at first, but subsequent listens and a dive into the band’s history helped elevate it to a top spot. The tragic loss of Architects’ guitarist and primary songwriter to cancer earlier this year lent itself into what I consider to be one of the year’s most important releases. Now, I’m not immune to sentimentality, but I’ve never known any creative work other than this one that so authentically captures the anger and frustration from someone who knows he’s going to die. Rest in peace, Tom Searle, and thank you for the music.
#4. Dark Tranquillity – Atoma
I was almost disappointed to learn Dark Tranquillity was putting out a new album this year. I say “almost” because I’d never refuse new tunes from Gothenburg’s finest; that just kind happens when you have a favorite band. Atoma isn’t a new direction by any means — they’ve really been emphasizing the “dark” in their name since 2010’s We Are The Void — but Atoma takes a more aggressive step forward from the slower, more methodical Construct. It’s a welcome change, especially since their more fierce releases were what attracted me to them on the first place. If anything, I’m hoping to someday look back on Atoma and see it as another solid stepping stone to an even more unexpected change in the career of these melodic death metal veterans.
#3. Blood Stain Child – Nexus and Skeletonwitch – The Apothic Gloom
I’mma cheat here a bit. Skeletonwitch and Blood Stain Child, two bands I unabashedly love more than I have any right to, put out EPs this year. Both featured significant line-up changes following what I’d consider to be their defining releases. But with the odds against them, both ‘Witch and Child put out what were hands-down the most pleasant surprises of the year (although “pleasant” is too timid a word to describe these ass-kickers). I recognize that recordings of just about any size are a hell of a lot of work, but I still feel kind of weird about putting EPs on a top 10 list with full albums — hence the combination entry. This is more of a personal issue than a fault of either band, but you could take that as a mark for how good they are, yeah?
#2. Revocation – Great Is Our Sin
If I had to rank my Top 10 based on how distinctly metal each album was, Great Is Our Sin would take spots 1 through 10. Unfair, I know, but this is an unfairly good metal album. It dropped in late July, a time in the year when I hadn’t really discovered many worthy candidates yet besides Magma and a few hipster choices — but after it did, I knew it would be getting a top spot. The fact that it didn’t get #1 may say more for how I feel about Transcendence, which has several flaws, but make no mistake — Great Is Our Sin is a modern metal must-have. It is both doing things so right for the genre and so outside the box that Revocation will demand — no, deserve — my attention from hereon out.
#1. Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence
There’s little I can say here about Transcendence that I haven’t already said. I knew right from the opening track this album would connect with me. No, not on some artificially spiritual level as the album’s name might imply, but from a songwriting standpoint. I’ve always been a fan of Devin Townsend’s work in its varied shapes and forms, but this is the first time I feel like I’ve understood his vision. “Ascension” would have been an equally appropriate album title, as Devy and Co. have taken their distinct brand of prog metal with its unmistakably huge sound and created something truly heavenly.