Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Top Albums Of 2016... So Far

As we approach the midpoint of the year, it's time to organize our thoughts and get ready for what the second half of the year has to offer. So far in 2016, there have been albums that have amazed, albums that have confused, and albums that have bitterly disappointed. I don't want to be negative, so let's not dwell on the albums that have made reservations to be included on my worst albums of the year list com December. Let's instead focus on what has been good so far.

There have been a lot of good albums. Bands such as Sunstorm, Sunburst, Redemption, The New Roses, and Myrath have all released albums that deserve a mention. Some of them will sadly get passed by in the coming months, but that doesn't mean they aren't still well worth your time. They are not, however, my absolute favorites so far. That honor would go to the following albums, presented in alphabetical order, so as not to spoil the fun down the road:

Avantasia - Ghostlights
Coming off a disappointing record, Tobi bounced back with one of the best pieces of work in his career. "Ghostlights" is an adventurous record that expands the Avantasia world while retaining the heart of the band, and providing some truly remarkable songs. Tobi is one of the best writers of melody in metal, and he proves that time and time again here. Songs like "The Haunting" and "Master Of The Pendulum" are unforgettable, and the majority of the guest stars add to the album's success. After all these years, Avantasia may have made their masterpiece.

Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night
Elton John had a career renaissance that resulted in two albums that went criminally overlooked, "Peachtree Road" and "The Captain And The Kid". Those records are hallmarks of expert songwriting, and sadly relics of a bygone time. After a few years in the weeds, Elton returned to form, and put out a remarkably strong album. This might be a mature form of rocking, but Elton is so skilled at wringing a melody until it works that the album melds together into a beautiful whole. It takes courage for an artist of his vintage to keep making records, but when they turn out like this, we have to pay our thanks.

Forever Still - Tied Down
Modern rock is a tricky genre for me, given its penchant for dark sonics. Forever Still is the perfect antidote for the plagues of the genre, as they have made a record that I can say should be garnering massive radio airplay, without meaning it as an insult. Maja Shining is an exceptional vocalist, and she imbues these songs with power, grace, and an ear for a captivating melody. This isn't easy to pull off, as Halestorm proved with their failure last year, but Forever Still has it come naturally to them. "Tied Down" is a harbinger of an ocean of promise. In fact, the only problem with the album is that I don't have a copy of the CD sitting on my shelf yet.

Nordic Union - Nordic Union
It's no secret that I am still, at heart, a fan of pop music with a strong guitar presence. That is what Nordic Union delivers. The combination of Erik Martenssen of Eclipse and Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids, "Nordic Union" is an album of some of the slickest, catchiest rock/metal you will ever hear. Every song is an earworm in waiting, and there's enough metallic crunch to scratch the itch. This is not an album that reaches for artistic brilliance, nor is it one that will generate buzz, but it is an album that is an immense pleasure to listen to. It puts a smile on your face.

Volbeat - Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie
When Volbeat came on the scene, I loved their mix of metal and old-school rock and roll. It was unique, interesting, and addictive. But over the course of their career, they have gotten less so, to the point where I can't recall their last two albums. This is no longer the same Volbeat that made "Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood", but they have found their footing. Now a strictly radio rock band, Volbeat has honed their songwriting chops and hit upon a winning formula. These songs are not what you might expect to be hearing from Volbeat, but they deliver huge hooks song after song. If Volbeat has been looking to break through the glass ceiling rock bands face in the mainstream, this album could very well do it.

Zakk Wylde - Book Of Shadows II
I initially wrote a positive, but cautious, review of this album. As I listened to it more and more, it kept growing, to the point where I had to write an apology for being wrong in my initial judgment. I have never been a fan of anything Zakk has done before, but this album has struck a chord with me. It is mellow, but it still rocks. It is beautiful, but it has enough grit to still resonate with rock fans. It has ripping solos, but stirring melodies. For a moment in time, Zakk has found a well of inspiration, and written the best songs of his life. All the limitations he has as a singer work to his advantage here, and he delivers songs that find the perfect balance of cold autumn regret and sunny summer hope. It really is a stunning album.

And now that I've separated the wheat from the chaff, let's continue onward and see what else contends for year-end honors.

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