So much good music comes out every year, and part of the joy of the turning of the year is getting to read other people’s best-of-year lists, so I can find out about all the music I missed. It’s rarer, though, that I latch onto enough music in a year to put together a list of my own. 2016 was one of those years, though, and here are some of my favorites, in no other order but their release dates:
Baroness, Purple (December 2015)
I’m grandfathering this one into my 2016 list since it came out so late last year. I’m a fan of the early Baroness material best of all — those first two EPs that felt so alive and a little unhinged. Purple returns to that early energy. It’s also an audio testament to recovery, triumphing over pain and tragedy, and finding strength and energy in adversity. Even though the music and lyrics contain so much raw pain, they’re also vibrant, propulsive and irresistible.
Mamiffer, The World Unseen (April)
There were a lot of times this year when what I needed to listen to most was something soft, gentle and just a little bit unnerving. The World Unseen, as its name suggests, is full of subtle vistas, outlined by Faith Coloccia’s calm vocals and piano. But in the background, bleak scrapes of sound keep the album from being too twee or safe. This is Mamiffer’s best work to date.
Woman is the Earth, Torch of Our Final Night (April)
I fell hard for this album when I first heard it featured on Invisible Oranges. I’m a sucker for that Cascadian Black Metal sound, and since Agalloch’s most recent album was less than exciting (plus, the band announced their breakup in June), I was definitely ready to hear something new in a similar vein. I love this album’s intensity, melodies, and the glimmers of scuzzy punk you can hear underneath their more refined and ethereal riffage. Don’t miss Torch of Our Final Night
Russian Circles, Guidance (August)
I didn’t understand people’s fascination with Russian Circles until I heard this album — and particularly when I saw them live in San Francisco in September. This album really showcases what excellent musicians these guys are, particularly their skill at balancing the pastoral with the crushing. Listen, in particular, to Dave Turncrantz’s drumming on “Guidance.” I haven’t heard such a compelling drum line since Allen Blickle left Baroness.
Subrosa, For This We Fought The Battle of the Ages (August)
It took me a few months to come around to this album. Subrosa’s last record, More Constant Than the Gods, was such an incredible piece of doom, I found it difficult to move on to something new. For This We Fought is perhaps a little less singular than its predecessor, but it takes more risks with melody and tone, and for that reason alone it deserves a place on Top 10 lists this year. Definitely don’t miss “Troubled Cells,” Mormon singer/songwriter Rebecca Vernon’s scathing and mournful takedown of her church’s stance on LGBTQ youth — and the staggering suicide rates among those youths.
New Model Army, Winter (August)
British folk-rock band New Model Army has been around for an astonishing 36 years, and their stock in trade has been cuttingly perceptive songs about politics and human nature. They’ve written about everything from the 1982 Falklands War to the destruction of the environment, the suffocating nature of life in small-town England and times in which Britain appeared to function as just another part of the United States. Like any band with such a long history, New Model Army has made good albums, bad albums and mixed albums. I’d put Winter in the good-but-mixed column, but it’s one of their best in years, and not to be missed, especially the title track. It reminds me both of the political situations we’ve found ourselves in between Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. — and of the core motto of George R.R. Martin’s massive political/climate change saga: Winter is coming.
Well I dreamed that I was running through a wilderness of plenty
And I could hear the hunt behind me, getting closer, getting closer,
And I knew that the end was coming and I wished that it was over.
Bring me the snowfall, bring me the cold wind, bring me the winter.
Emma Ruth Rundle, Marked for Death (September)
Emma Ruth Rundle is a key part of the wonderful, noisy, experimental rock bands Marriages and Red Sparowes, but her solo work is much more spare and stark. These songs are presented with little more than acoustic guitar and Rundle’s voice, which reminds me of a darker, more somber Harriet Wheeler (whose vocals made the Sundays who they were). These are sorrowful, difficult songs, but they are so lovely it’s impossible not to want to listen to them again and again.
Alcest, Kodama (September)
I’m almost always glad when there’s a new Alcest album — even when, as with 2014’s Shelter, it was 110% pure dreampop with no evidence of the band’s black metal roots. I’m no black metal purist, but what I find most compelling about Alcest (and, frankly, most metal) is the balance between gorgeous songcraft and unbearably hard edges. So I was especially relieved that Alcest’s rough side reappeared on Kodama. The album is perhaps the band’s most realized and seamless to date. My only complaint is that it isn’t long enough, but I suppose that’s better than wearing out its welcome.
Saor, Guardians (November)
Speaking of melody and hard edges, I’ve barely had the chance to digest Saor’s latest marriage of black metal and Scottish folk, but the new album is pretty breathtaking on just the first few spins. It’s really easy for folk-metal to quickly devolve into unintentional self-parody (e.g. Korpiklaani, later Eluveitie), but Saor consistently remains on the respectable side of the line, evoking both the beauty and harshness of nature itself.
I’m lucky to have several musician friends scattered around the world. Three of them released new music this year, all of which is worth checking out:
Gaba Kulka, Kruche
Gaba and I have been friends a long time, and it’s been a delight to watch her rise to fame in Poland. She’s developed a unique voice in music, based partly in jazz, cabaret, Kate Bush/Tori Amos-style piano songs and power metal. Listen to the new album, and don’t miss the series of videos she’s made for some of the songs, which are what you’d get if you fed old-style computer adventure games through someone’s subconscious.
I got to know Rafter in college, partly because he was in one of the only punk bands I’ve ever loved, Wack Ass Bitch, with other friends of mine. Rafter’s new album is the only one in this list that’s likely to make you feel pure, unadulterated joy. It’s wacky, daring, and fun — just like its maker.
Bluetech, The 4 Horsemen Of The Electrocalypse: The Red Horse
I knew Evan when he was a teenager, and he’s since gone on to become a star in the ambient electronica/downtempo/chillout scene. Rightly so; his compositions are complex, stirring and transportive. The Red Horse was actually his second release of 2016 — and his 16th (as Bluetech — he’s also made other music under his own name) since he released Prima Materia in 2003 — but it’s as good a point as any to jump into his beautifully constructed world of sound.