Monday, December 19, 2016

The Top Ten Albums Of 2016

Every year brings with it the hope of amazing possibilities, although not all of them will live up to our expectations. This year struck me as being one of those, a year where there was still plenty of good music, but less amazing music that made me stand up and take note. That leaves plenty of fodder for the worst of the year list (coming very soon), but it makes it harder to assemble a lineup of the best music. I always hope that at this time, I'll be agonizing over which albums to leave off the list, and not scrambling to find more to tack on.

This might not have been the best year for music that I've tracked, but there were still enough records that deserve the accolades to fill out a list without hesitation. These are the albums that I listened to, loved, and revisited on a near daily basis for long stretches of time. That makes them the best albums of 2016.

Honorable Mention: Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night

 Elton John has made a lot of great music since his last time on the charts, including one of my favorite albums ever. While I hated his last record, I was excited by the prospect of him making a more upbeat, lively album again. This is exactly what I was hoping for, an album that celebrates the joy of making and playing music. It's definitely a mature record, but I can hear how much Elton still loves making music, and his songwriting is still as sharp as ever. This record fits in beautifully with “Peachtree Road” and “The Captain & The Kid”, making three albums that I feel are as good as anything from the classic era.

10. Forever Still - Tied Down

Forever Still's series of EP's were a nice surprise in 2015, and the full album that is built from them doesn't disappoint. Modern rock is often the blandest guitar music in the world, but Forever Still knows how to do it well. In this brief album, the band hits hard with ten tracks that are heavy, moody, and feature great hooks and choruses from singer Maja Shining, who is the star of the show. Track after track, you get great songs that are fun to sing along with, and will remain in your head. This is a heck of a debut record, and hopefully a sign of impending greatness.

9. Jimmy Eat World - Integrity Blues

Jimmy Eat World is a band that is confounding. “Futures” is one of my top twenty albums of all time, but nothing else they have ever done speaks to me at all. So it was with low expectations that I gave this new album a shot, after hearing the melodic similarity between one of the singles and that previous album. “Integrity Blues” is the darkest album the band has made since then, and it's that darkness that keeps the sugary sound from becoming cloying. There is a lengthy experiment that barely holds together as a song, and brings the momentum to a crashing halt, but the rest of the album is the best material Jimmy Eat World has made in a long time. The short and heavy rockers bound with energy and big hooks, while the more emotional material is uplifting. A mistake can be forgiven, and “Integrity Blues” does more than enough with the remaining songs to prove itself as a fantastic effort from a band regaining their footing.

8. Volbeat - Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie

Volbeat started out as one of the most unique bands I've ever heard, with their mix of 50s rock and roll along with groove and thrash metal. But after a phenomenal start, they fell into mediocrity, as their songs became more and more geared for the radio audience that was embracing them. This album does not reverse their trajectory towards the mainstream, but it finds them mastering that art. This album is a shameless play for radio attention, but they have never written more pop-friendly choruses than they have here. This album will infuriate the metal die-hards, but it's a joyous treat for those of us who want to hear some cranked guitars and big melodies. Welcome back, Volbeat.

7. Neal Morse Band - The Similitude Of A Dream

This double concept album based on a centuries old Christian allegory is one of the tougher albums to judge this year. On the one hand, there are scores of magical moments and melodies throughout the more than one hundred minutes of music offered up. Songs like "City Of Destruction" and "So Far Gone" rank with Neal's best efforts, but there is a problem. The album is too long to maintain focus through, and disc two has about fifteen minutes of songs that add very little of note. It can't rank higher because of the difficulty in listening to it, but there's seventy-five minutes of amazing music here, which does make it one of the best albums of the year. When edited to a more manageable length, it's phenomenal.

6. Serious Black - Mirrorworld (Deluxe Edition)

Serious Black's first album was completely underwhelming, considering the talent on hand. Urban Breed has been part of two of my absolute favorite metal albums of the last decade, and he nearly does it again here. This is an album that escapes the power metal cliches, and turns in a set of songs that has metallic bite, but also melodic beauty. Urban is restrained throughout the record, but the hook he and the band give us more than make up for that. This is the sound of veterans who know how to write songs doing what they do best. Just be sure to pick up the deluxe edition. The regular edition omits four of the six best tracks from the album. The regular edition would not make this list, but the deluxe edition is phenomenal.

5. The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles: The Abduction [EP]

Last year, I missed hearing The Spider Accomplice's first EP when it came out. Had I done so, I would have named it the EP of the year. I did not make that mistake again. Part II of their trilogy continues in line with the first EP, giving us six songs of utterly fantastic modern pop/rock. They traverse different sounds and feelings, and use them to weave the narrative. They master jangly guitar pop, and throw in some punk energy just to show off. The band makes wonderfully layered and intricate pop music, topped off with VK Lynne's fantastic vocals and melodies. She is charming throughout, and with this group around her, they've made the best EP of the year two years in a row.

4. Avantasia - Ghostlights

While I've never lost my faith in Tobi, I was rather disappointed in the previous Avantasia album. It missed the mark, for me, and did invite some questions about where the project's sound was headed. Those worries were unfounded, as “Ghostlights” sees Avantasia not just returning to form, but possibly making their best record ever. There are moments that highly recall past Avantasia classics, but they're wrapped up in a set of songs that is as accomplished as any Tobi has ever written. Songs like “The Haunting” and “Master Of The Pendulum” should become modern classics, they're that good. A remarkable achievement that I feel has raised the bar for what we should expect from a power metal album. This is a landmark release.

3. Nordic Union - Nordic Union

The songwriter from Eclipse joins forces with the singer from Pretty Maids, and the result is magical. I was not very familiar with the past work of either man, but the combination here is nothing short of amazing. With this album, they produce a nearly flawless example of how pop and metal can be combined to form an addicting blend. These eleven tracks are some of the stickiest, hookiest heavy songs I've heard in ages. This is earworm after earworm, and an album that needs to come with a warning label cautioning you that it will be impossible not to smile and sing like an idiot during these 42 minutes.

2. Shiverburn - Road To Somewhere

It's no secret that I still have a soft spot in my heart for pop music. Unfortunately, the pop world refuses to give me what I want, so I don't get to express that sentiment very often. Shiverburn is exactly what I've been waiting for. “Road To Somewhere” is a heavy pop album, with shimmering melodies and muscular guitars. It's the perfect balance of soft and hard, beauty and the beast. Aside from one throwaway at the start, this album is nearly flawless pop/rock of the kind I grew up on, and serves as a stark reminder of how bankrupt the pop industry is. This is the music that should be all over the radio, because it's polished, smart, and almost annoying in how easily it gets stuck in your head. Records like this are why I continue listening to so much new music. When you find something so good, it redeems your faith in music.

1. Zakk Wylde - Book Of Shadows II

I have never been a fan of Zakk Wylde, either in his gig as Ozzy Osbourne's right-hand, or with his own Black Label Society. Suffice it to say, my expectations were low when I put this album on. After a few times through, I could hardly believe the transformation. Every criticism I ever had was dealt with, and the record opened up into a startlingly beautiful set of songs that I could hardly believe. Mellow and laid-back, this is the kind of music that slowly sinks into the very fiber of your being. Zakk has done a masterful job of writing songs that fit his particular strengths as a singer, conjuring organic sounds and stirring melodies. From the hymnal “Lay Me Down”, to the Southern rock of “Lost Prayer”, this record came out of nowhere and absolutely floored me.

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