Sunday, March 13, 2016

Critical Rewind: Recent Albums Of The Year

As a critic, I am always trapped in the moment. I am constantly thinking about what I'm listening to, what I still need to listen to, and what is soon to come. There isn't much time for reflection after the fact, which means it is often difficult to assess how my opinions have changed as time wears on. It's only natural that time and experiences are going to alter what records wind up as my favorites, and which ones fade away because they became progressively less interesting. Each year, as I look back at the previous year's list of favorite to remember exactly what I was lauding, I see what by then look like obvious mistakes in my taste. What interests me is that while the order of the albums is up for discussion, the ones that top my list, my absolute favorites, have not been among them. I've done, for myself, a remarkably good job of selecting my favorite record each year.

To illustrate this, let's look back at the last few years.

2010: Tonic - Tonic

At the time, I was concerned that my choice was a byproduct of Tonic being my favorite band. While I thought the record was great, it was not what I had been expecting, and there was a hint of disappointment. That doesn't sound like the recipe for an Album Of The Year, but I went with it anyway. I was right. In the years that have followed, as both the album and I have grown, I have uncovered much more to love in it that I had at the time. It has grown in stature, and has shaken off any hints of disappointment that I had. I was not old enough to see what the record is, and appreciate it thusly. It is clearly my favorite album from 2010, and is still one I listen to regularly.

2011: Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events

Dream Theater isn't a band that I had any history with at the time this record came out. I wasn't in the scene when their classics came out, nor had I gone back and listened to them. I listened to this record because of the drama that surrounded it, and when I did, I heard something that even Dream Theater themselves has never replicated. There is jaw-dropping playing and musicianship all over the record, as there always is, but what amazes me here is that in trying to prove that they were going to be ok moving forward, they wrote the more powerful and melodic songs of their career. I can still put this on and wonder why they are such mediocre songwriters at all other times. This is, to me, their defining album, and clearly my favorite of 2011.

2012: Graveyard - Lights Out/Halestorm - The Strange Case Of...

Here we reach the one mistake I made. I allowed these albums to share the title, because I couldn't separate the two sides of my personality. I can now, and I should have then. While Halestorm's record is still a sweet bite of pop/rock, Graveyard made an album that has come to define an entire genre of music. If rock has taken a page from yesteryear, it is being written by Graveyard, and "Lights Out" is their shining moment. It is an album that bobs and weaves, that ebbs and flows, that balances power and beauty in a way that no other rock record in recent years is able to. I listen to Graveyard regularly, as I feel they are the best band of the last decade, and more often than not I find myself reaching for "Lights Out". Time has shown me the light, and Graveyard should have unquestionably won the award in 2012.

2013: Dilana - Beautiful Monster

This was the easiest choice of all, and not because Dilana is my favorite singer of all time. That would have been enough to win the crown, but "Beautiful Monster" is so much more than an album made by someone I like. It is a raw, visceral experience, the kind of record that comes along so rarely. I don't consider myself an emotional person, but this record moves me. It makes me feel something that music almost never does. Even now, nearing three years since its release, I still find myself being hit the same way by the honesty and vulnerability of these songs. It is not just a great album, it's one that left a deep impact on me and in some ways changed how I view music. It has also ascended into my current Top Five Favorite Albums list, which means there is no doubt it was the best record of 2013.

2014: Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope

This year saw a competition between Neal Morse and himself, although time has changed my feelings. The actual battle should have been between Transatlantic and Edward O'Connell, who finished #3 that year. The latter is a record that I have spun nearly once a fortnight for two solid years now, and have yet to become slightly weary of. "Kaleidoscope", on the other hand, is not a record that allows for such replays. But while I would be tempted to change my vote on that basis, the listening experience "Kaleidoscope" gives is so massive, and so intense, that it is clearly the better album. It takes effort to find the time to play it in full, but the songs are able to sweep me away in a way that is not common. It's a transcendent album, and is still my favorite of 2014.

2015: Jorn Land & Trond Holter - Dracula: Swing Of Death

Just two months ago I named this the Album Of The Year. Although two months isn't much time to pass, little has happened to change my opinion. If anything, what has happened is that the other records from my list have faded somewhat, leaving this as an even more formidable front-runner. There was no record that was as enjoyable to listen to as this one, which I tested by playing this album mercilessly. As the plays piled on, the songs never got old, they never got dull. It is a brilliantly sharp album, one that embraces the camp and fun that make music easy to love. No, it makes no profound statement about life, and it doesn't attempt to plug into our emotional core, but it does something more; it entertains, and nothing did it better.

The question now is; what will join these as the best album of 2016? Have I already heard it? Or is the best yet to come?

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