Saturday, December 31, 2016

Albums of the Year: 2016

2016: Year of the Monkey

Another year's end is upon us, which means taking another look back on the music that shaped the previous 12 months for me. The year 2016 was unique in many ways, and offered so much good music from the beginning that I found myself creating an entry for my favorite albums before January was over! For a year that began on such a low note for the music world and just seemed to get worse from then on, with the loss of so many beloved icons—to the point where it seemed that the year itself had some kind of vendetta against rock legends—2016 also showed that good music is timeless not only in the literal sense, but in a way that transcends time and death itself; bestowing a sort of immortality upon its creators, because even when they are gone, their music remains with us, and goes on to be enjoyed for generations to come.

In the year 2016, music itself was also alive and well; a celebration of life and art amidst the grief and loss. The music of the departed still lived on, but there was a great deal of music to be had from those who were still here to give us new music, if only we would just listen.

Winter 2016 (January-March)

Dream Theater: The Astonishing

The year 2016 started with a bang from one of my all-time favorite bands. As I wrote in my Albums of 2013 review, I mentioned that DT had possibly fallen into a musical rut; musically, they still sounded great, but it was clear that they had found a comfortable niche and were staying in it. I hoped that the musical experimentation that was so prominent on albums like Octavarium and Systematic Chaos would return to the forefront, and it appears that DT has met that need and picked themselves back up in the sweeping, grandiose way that only Dream Theater can. If I had been looking for more musical experimentation from them this time around, I got it, and then some! Their most ambitious project to date, The Astonishing is a 2-disc rock opera concept album complete with a cast of characters, fictional settings based on real locales (including a world map!), and a story with as many twists and turns as a typical DT song has time-signature changes. Set in a dystopian future over 200 years from now, the plot of The Astonishing faintly echoes that of the Rush epic “2112”, in that both are about futuristic societies where music is forbidden, and a lone individualist discovers the power that music gives to start a revolution and change the course of history. Touching upon themes that are very real in today's society, The Astonishing addresses the debate of technology in music and how far one can take such advancements before it loses its humanity. The Astonishing asks the question, what would happen if our current world of auto-tuning and digitized sounds became so prevalent, that music was no longer made by humans at all, and only by machines? What would happen if we lived in a world where all art was processed, and not created? What becomes of those with a creative spirit, and how do they survive in a world where artistic expression is unacceptable? Although the album's basic plot often borders on the melodramatic, it does get the point across, and the overall concept is an interesting one, to say the least (and, whether one actually likes the musical direction DT has taken here, the experimentation is there). The brief instrumental interludes throughout the album that are supposed to represent those music-making machines emphasizes the album's theme subtly enough to be noticeable, but not so much as to beat the listener over the head with its message. DT has shown with The Astonishing that after 30 years together, their creative well hasn't run dry just yet!

Serenity: Codex Atlanticus

Austria's Serenity has been around for nearly a decade, but personally, I only discovered them over the last year. However, they have quickly become one of my favorite new bands, so when I heard a new album was on the way in early 2016, I was very excited. An album based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus showcases more of Serenity's symphonic side, with grand melodies and powerful vocal delivery from Georg Neuhauser. Although I am fairly new to the band's back catalog, I personally think that Serenity has improved with age, each album better than the next; continuing on the upward trajectory that really kickstarted with 2011's Death & Legacy. It could be that I am still in the “honeymoon phase” with this band as a listener, but Serenity can do no wrong musically for me at this point, and Codex Atlanticus continues to ride on that wave of artistic greatness, and only promises even greater things to come.

Beyond Forgiveness: The Ferryman's Shore

The American symphonic metal scene continues to grow and flourish, and Colorado's Beyond Forgiveness is staking their claim among the talent cropping up all across the States. Led by the rich, lustrous vocals of Talia Hoit and the melodic songwriting of Richard Marcus, The Ferryman's Shore shows huge promise packed in those 5 songs; especially on the closing track, the 8+-minute epic, “Your Haunting Eyes”. Whether it's because of the altitude in Colorado or because they're just that damn good, Beyond Forgiveness is riding high from the word go!

Helion Prime: Helion Prime

Sacramento's Helion Prime is blending the worlds of sci-fi and power metal; a feat that has been tackled by some bands in their genre as of late, but Helion Prime takes it a step further by not only incorporating science fiction, but scientific theories in general. With song titles like “The Drake Equation”, “Into the Black Hole”, and “Moon-Watcher”, Helion Prime takes us into a futuristic world where space travel, scientific discovery, and technological progression are all set to the backdrop of the virtuostic guitar riffs of Jason Ashcraft, and the vocal clarion call of Heather Michele. Whether they're touching on subjects like extraterrestrial visitors, or recanting the landmark achievement of the 1969 moon landing, Helion Prime is a power metal-infused science lesson. If you are a fan of either (or both) of those two things, their self-titled debut is an exciting journey through time and space, and—to paraphrase a well-known sci-fi quote—bravely venture to places where few others have been!

Rhenium: Rise Above the Sea

A  “one-woman symphonic metal band”, Cristina Pucci's Rhenium is a project that has been years in the making. Born of frustration from not finding fellow musicians who shared her musical vision, Cristina took to heart the old saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself”, and did just that: taking on the task of learning and playing the instruments on Rise Above the Sea, this 6-song EP is not only sure to please any fan of symphonic metal, but stands alone (both literally and figuratively) in its genre by incorporating the full sound without the excess bandmembers!

Spring 2016 (April-June)

Aggronymph: Far Away as we Fade

As female-fronted metal continues to gain traction throughout the world, China is staking their claim with Aggronymph, whom I must say is one of the most interesting bands I have heard in a long time. Combining the sounds of metal, gothic rock, electronica, rap, and several other different musical styles, Aggronymph manages to fuse all these sounds together beautifully; unafraid to try new things, and putting it all together in a fresh and exciting way. Oftentimes, whenever bands try to blend different genres, it ends up sounding like a mish-mash of sounds trying too hard to top each other; but Aggronymph has a special knack for knowing how and when to incorporate these influences, in a way that makes sense. As the genre continues to grow and evolve, Aggronymph stands out as a band with the potential to take the scene to the next level.

Britta Phillips: Luck or Magic

As the singing voice of ’80s animated icon Jem, latter-day GenX kids and early-day millennial youngsters alike grew up with the sound of her harmonious vocals; now, her fans are all grown-up, and her music has evolved too. Over the years, Britta has kept herself busy with various musical projects, but Luck or Magic is her very first solo album, and it's a mix of cover songs from the ’70s and ’80s along with some original material of her own. Whether it's her haunting rendition of The Cars' classic “Drive”, or the nary-a-care vibe of the opening track “Daydream”, Luck or Magic is almost where you could imagine the fictional character of Jem to be musically at this phase in her life: it's mature and insightful; yet never taking itself too seriously. Britta's voice still has that recognizable quality that identifies her as the voice of Jem, but her style is so far removed from the over-the-top synth-pop she sang back then, that one could never accuse this of being an attempt to cash in on the loyal Jem audience who has followed her all these years. The music speaks for itself; it's complex, but with no frills. It's for the discerning listener whose musical palate has reached beyond the quick and easy fix of simple sing-along catchy choruses, and wish to seek musical fulfillment with richer soundscapes and lush vocal harmonies.

Sunstorm: Edge of Tomorrow

Fronted by legendary vocalist Joe Lynn Turner (of Rainbow and Deep Purple fame), Sunstorm returns after a 4-year hiatus with a heavier approach to their AOR-based sound, but it is no less lacking in hooky melodies and powerful rock anthems. Edge of Tomorrow packs a heavy punch within the velvety glove of Joe Lynn Turner's vocals, and is definitely a must for anyone who is a fan of melodic rock or ’80s AOR.

Lacuna Coil: Delirium

For most bands, three bandmember departures within a 2-year period might spell disaster; but for Lacuna Coil, it was merely another chapter in their 20+-year ongoing story. A concept album based on a haunted insane asylum, it was the perfect backdrop for the darker, heavier direction the band was taking; making Delirium their most solid work in over a decade. For longtime fans who had been clamoring for them to return to their dark gothic roots, they were richly rewarded with songs like the title track, “Downfall”, “You Love me ’Cause I Hate You” (which is vintage Lacuna Coil at its finest), and “Claustrophobia”. From the moment the album opens up with “House of Shame”—along with tunes such as “Broken Things”, “Take me Home”, and “Ghost in the Mist”—listeners are treated to the pleasant surprise of the Coil's new heaviness; while tracks like “My Demons”, and the album's closer “Ultima Ratio” are the perfect blending of old and new sounds. Andrea Ferro's vocal style has reached a level of aggression previously unheard, and Cristina continues to push the boundaries of her vocal talent as well. After over 2 decades together, Delirium is proof that Lacuna Coil ages like fine wine!

Moxy and the Influence: The Best Revenge

Consisting of young women ranging from age 13 to age 19, Orange County's Moxy and the Influence (MXI for short) is showing the metal world that young kids know a thing or two about good music. With their hard-rockin' sound, MXI brings back a more traditional metal sound, while also bringing in some damn catchy choruses and impressive musical showmanship. This band is an up-and-coming talent that is so good, their 4-song EP deserves a mention here. Whether they're getting in-your-face on tracks like “Watch Your Mouth”, or revealing a more vulnerable side with “Bella's Song”, MXI is a well-rounded band for ones so young; with the promise of more surprises to come!

Summer 2016 (July-September)

Thrillkiller: Showdown

After the sudden and unexpected demise of their band Aries in the summer 2015, bandmates Rob Bradley and Maxim Sobchenko wasted no time in maintaining their musical connection; within months, their new band, Thrillkiller, was born. By the end of that year, their first EP, Time, would be available to the public, showing right away that their musical evolution was leveling up in a big way. Since then, Thrillkiller has rounded out their band lineup, and their debut album Showdown not only paid off on the promise that Time had hinted at, but it already surpassed Time in musical quality and experimentation. Incorporating sounds of pop, soul, jazz, and funk all on a foundation of heavy metal, Thrillkiller writes tunes that are heavy, catchy, and so addictive that it is honestly a mystery to me why this band is not all over the radio and not already national (if not international) superstars. Already more put together than most established bands in the business, Thrillkiller shows an impressive level of professionalism so early on in the game, and with a work ethic that shows in their music and in their performances. There are no filler tracks for Thrillkiller: anything that is less-than-perfect or not up to their high standard won't be heard here. If the band goes back a decade from now and listens to their first album, I don't think they will say (as many bands do) that they wish they had better production or had more musical maturity to execute different sounds or styles. When a band's albums are their musical evolutionary footprint, so to speak, then Thrillkiller is already making good tracks.

Tarja: The Shadow Self

Whatever one can say about Tarja Turunen's solo career, no one can deny her musical proliferation; Tarja had so much material for this particular project that she divided it into two parts: a “prequel” EP of unreleased tracks and remixes called The Brightest Void, to ready fans for what to expect from The Shadow Self. Working with musicians such as legendary Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe and Red Hot Chili Peppers/Chickenfoot drummer Chad Smith, and working again with fellow symphonic metal pioneers Within Temptation, Tarja continues to collaborate with some of the biggest names on the music scene, and The Brightest Void was an exciting sneak preview of the full-length album to come. The Shadow Self is a continuation of Tarja's musical exploration into sounds that both incorporate her classically-trained sensibilities, while also pushing the envelope of what is expected from a singer of her type. Instead of covering Mozart, Tarja covers Muse on the track “Supremacy”; and contrasts her powerful operatic vocals with the equally forceful voice of Alissa White-Gluz for the song “Demons in You” (flipping the script on the “beauty and the beast” vocal styling that originated within the genre). Lyrically, she even has a sense of humor about herself by openly addressing her reputation as a primadonna on the song “Diva” (“we can laugh at it now”, a lyric that seems to refer to her dismissal from Nightwish over a decade ago). Tarja constantly defies categorization or stereotypes and does whatever she wants to do musically. Her rabid fanbase has awarded her this unique advantage, and she continues to take them along for the ride as she ventures into musical landscapes that many of her other contemporaries would find difficult to traverse. With each new album, Tarja continues to improve from her early solo days, as she keeps on honing her sound, defining her own personal style, and has finally embraced her well-earned status as the trailblazer of an entire genre that continues to grow and flourish to this day. While I do not think that Tarja's solo material will ever come close to replicating the magic of those first 5 Nightwish albums for me, I do think that she has come a long way from her first solo album, which to me always felt like a shaky, unsure attempt to figure out what she wanted to be musically. It's clear she doesn't have this trouble any longer, and instead has refined the art of blending all of these styles and influences together in a way that is undeniably Tarja. You still can't pinpoint exactly whether or not Tarja is a rock/metal goddess or an classical/operatic diva; not only because she is her own entity, but after so many years in the business, it doesn't matter anymore. Even back in her days with Nightwish, she always made it clear whenever asked which of the two she was most like when she said these words that seem almost prophetic now: “Tarja Turunen is just...Tarja Turunen.”

Geezër: Vol. II

Everyone's favorite octogenarian punk rock band is back! Even though it's only been a year since Geezër burst upon the scene, these guys don't have the luxury of time like their younger counterparts, and need to churn out music at a much faster rate! Not wasting any time, these guys spent all their day passes from the senior center to make this album, and put together another fine work filled with merry ditties and future rock anthems. Paying tribute to everyone from Katy Perry to Motörhead, Geezër doesn't give a damn what you think about their musical tastes, and gives the proverbial middle finger in only the way that the world's oldest rock band can.

Sabaton: The Last Stand

Like the History Channel for metalheads, Sabaton's anthemic songs pertaining to war, bloodshed, and historical events are just the perfect fodder for power metal's over-the-top style; the two complement each other perfectly, and Sabaton knows what their fans want and knows how to deliver it in the most grandiose way possible. Continuing to please their audience with blood-soaked rally cries and heroic bombast, The Last Stand is exactly what you come to expect from Sabaton.

Delain: Moonbathers

Celebrating 10 years of existence, Delain is as on-fire as ever with what may possibly be their darkest and heaviest album yet. As explained by Charlotte Wessels, Moonbathers is an ode to those who “find solace in the darkness”, and a celebration of all things gloomy and introspective. Ranging from full-out symphonic bombast to brutal metal aggression, Delain pulls no punches and continues to up their game. New addition Merel Bechtold only adds further “girl power” to the band dynamic, while Martijn Westerholt's creative vision only grows in grandeur and scope, and Charlotte Wessels continues to stun listeners into silence with her larger-than-life voice that can also move you to tears in a whisper. Delain is showing that the best bands only improve with age, and even though they have already clocked in 10 years, they're only just getting started.

Grim Reaper: Walking in the Shadows

I'm sure if you read my review of Grim Reaper's video for the title track of this song a couple months back, you will already know how big of a fan I am. One of the flag-waving bands of the NWOBHM movement in the ’80s, Grim Reaper could find more ways to incorporate the word “Hell” into their material than Slayer. Over 30 years after the band first rocked us all to hell, Steve Grimmett is still one of the best fucking vocalists on the metal scene, and Grim Reaper is among the many bands from back in the day who are still making great new music and showing the new up-and-comers that they aren't going anywhere yet!

Seventh Wonder: Welcome to Atlanta

After two years of waiting, fans finally got a DVD of the band's performance of their iconic concept album, Mercy Falls, at the 2014 ProgPower festival in Atlanta, GA. It was well worth the wait! Going in the opposite direction of live DVDs based on concept albums such as Dream Theater's Live Scenes From New York, Seventh Wonder takes a minimalistic approach and sets the stage for the album's story with little more than the occasional onstage banter, and a moving performance by special guest Heather Musgrave, who conveys all of the emotion of the album's climactic end with nothing more than holding a rose in her hand, and by hitting home the story's shocking plot twist with just a few onstage gestures, to which vocalist Tommy Karevik responds in kind with his own dramatic onstage facial expressions. The fans fill in parts of the story as well by singing along to segments occupied by voice actors on the original album, a moving audience chant that conveys how loyal an audience the ProgPower attendees are, and how loyal Seventh Wonder fans are as well. The DVD not only contains the Mercy Falls concert, but also a bonus performance where the band does some fan favorites as well as some tunes they have not played in a long time. The CD also features two new studio tracks: “Inner Enemy”, which is not too new, as the band released a video of that song back in 2014; and the 10-minute opus “The Promise”, which sounds like a perfect blending of the band's 3 albums with Tommy Karevik. This is the perfect hold-over for fans until the band's long-awaited studio album finally sees the light of day sometime in 2017.

Suicidal Tendencies: World Gone Mad

Will this be their last album? Will it not be their last album? Who cares? It's ST and that's good enough for me! One of the bands from the KNAC era, Suicidal Tendencies is a Southern California treasure, and their twisted sense of humor is what makes their music awesome. When you start off your album with a track called “Clap Like Ozzy”, you know it's not for those who take themselves too seriously! While not necessarily a glorious return to their heyday, it's still undeniably ST: the hooky grooves that are perfect for having a good time, and frantic beats that whip you into a frenzy. Recruiting former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo to the fold isn't a bad move, either. If this is their last album, then they didn't go out on a low note. If it isn't their last album, then there's more to look forward to!

Autumn 2016 (October-December)

The Spider Accomplice: Los Angeles—The Abduction

Capturing the spirit of Los Angeles, VK Lynne and company are back with their second offering, a delectable melting pot of metal, alternative, and just a dash of pop to give it some extra snap. From the groovy vibe of the opening track “Bromelaid” to the gothic-inspired “Messy Vampire” all the way to the punk-flavored “Hollywood Hotel”, this three-piece outfit is serving up rock anthems as bright as a sunny California day and as gritty as a graffiti-covered downtown alley.

Mercy Isle: Undying Fire

The American/Dutch symphonic metal powerhouse has had quite the productive year since releasing their debut EP late last year. Making their first live appearance at Metal Female Voices Fest, Mercy Isle wowed the audience by holding their own against some of the most established names in the genre. Utilizing her talents all the way from high operatic soprano to low guttural growls, Kassy Novell is one of the most stunning new voices on the scene; and enlisting the help of symphonic metal royalty such as Amanda Somerville, Mercy Isle is firmly establishing a place of their own and quickly gaining the respect they so richly deserve.

Testament: Brotherhood of the Snake

If the Big 4 were ever a Big 5, I would make a strong case for putting Testament in that fifth slot. One of the premier thrash bands and godfathers of the scene, Testament has been going strong for years; yet, if you ask them, they are only getting started. Deeming this their fastest album, and calling it their own personal Reign in Blood, obviously Testament is not one of those bands who looks back and considers their best days to be behind them. Finding lyrical inspiration through topics such as aliens and current political events, Brotherhood of the Snake is a 35-minute thrash attack that is going to kick your ass and make you ask for seconds.

Sirenia: Dim Days of Dolor

After an abrupt and most unexpected split from vocalist Ailyn, Sirenia did not waste any time getting back on the horse. Bringing in French vocalist Emmanuelle Zoldan, who worked with the band on previous releases, Sirenia's return to their roots over the course of the last couple of albums came back full circle with the operatic voice in the spotlight again. The dark heaviness and soaring bombast that is quintessential Sirenia is all here, and is sure to please many older fans who have longed for the dark gothic influences that make Morten Veland such a respected songwriter in his genre.

Metallica: Hardwired...To Self-Destruct

Well, it appears that hell has officially frozen over! I have been very vocal over the last couple of decades about my displeasure over the musical direction Metallica has taken, and had all but given up on them. As I also wrote in previous blog entries, to me, the Metallica I loved died the day KNAC went off the air, and at that point I saw them as two different bands: the pre-KNAC Metallica, the kick-ass metal band that defined a genre; and the post-KNAC Metallica, the household names that made albums with Lou Reed and filed lawsuits against their fans. I didn't think the two sides could ever be reconciled, and while many praised their last album, Death Magnetic, to be a return to form, I personally was not all that wowed by it (a step in the right direction, sure, but hardly the second coming of Master of Puppets that everyone claimed it to be). Their first album in 8 years, Hardwired is a masterful return to the metal roots that made Metallica every headbanger's favorite band back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Right from the gate, the first single and title track was some of the heaviest shit I had heard from Metallica in years. However, I was still very skeptical, as I had been down this road with Metallica before, where something sounded interesting, and then the rest of it turned out to be (to my ears) an absolute disappointment. But as the album's release date grew closer, and songs like “Moth Into Flame” and “Atlas, Rise!” hit the radio airwaves, I was beginning to come around. Then, the night before the album's official release, the entire album was released with individual music videos, and song after song was the hard-hitting metal brutality that old-school Metallica fans had longed for. With songs like “Now That We're Dead”, “Confusion”, and “Spit Out the Bone” (my personal favorite), it was like with one mighty stroke, Metallica completely erased the sins of the last 20 years and finally gave the fans a proper follow-up to the Black Album.

Clark's Secret Identity: The Promise of a Wonderful Future

A fitting album title, one of the most promising talents of 2015 returned as 2016 came to a close to shine their light on what had been a very dark year. This prog-metal power trio from Pennsylvania came back stronger than ever, with a venture into experimental art rock that continues to push their boundaries. Vocalist Shane Anthony shows off his proficiency not only as a singer, but as a multi-talented guitarist, keyboardist, and occasional xylophone player, while the rhythm section of Matt Bankes and Keith Horning provide some groove-laden foundations. With gems like the opening track “Dolce Vita”, “To Those Still Grieving”, “Into a Thousand Pieces”, and “Gas Station Heroes”, CSI is fast becoming one of the promising new talents to watch out for in prog rock.

A Sound of Thunder: Who do You Think we Are?

Back in 2014 when raising money via Kickstarter for their album The Lesser Key of Solomon, one of the perks that A Sound of Thunder offered backers was the chance to vote for the songs they would like to see covered for a future covers album. While the band works hard recording original material slated for release in 2017, they decided that this was an opportune time to finally make good on those votes and give the fans what they wanted to hear. Paying tribute to everyone from Alice Cooper to Tool, A Sound of Thunder shows off their artistic diversity and the wide range of their musical influences. Whether it's giving Manowar's “Pleasure Slave” a feminist makeover, or putting their spin on the various eras of Black Sabbath, ASOT respectfully honors their metal gods while having a lot of fun doing it.


So many albums to choose from in 2016; I'm only sorry I didn't have time to listen to them all. There were so many that came my way that I didn't have time to listen to or were released so late in the year that there wasn't time to put them on this list. But as always, I try my best to include as many as possible.

What about you? What were some of your favorites in 2016 that you don't see on this list? Or, which one of these on the list were among your personal favorites as well? Make your voices heard in the comment section.

See you in 2017!


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  2. Hey Christiana, this was an exceptional year for new music and I totally agree with everything you said about Testament's latest. A couple of other albums that were on my "best of 2016" list that you may want to check out (if you didn't get the chance) are Project NFidelikah's debut album, For All Kings by Anthrax, Theories of Flight by Fates Warning and Enemy of Reality's sophomore release, Arakhne.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Chad! There were so many albums this year that I wish could have made this list, but damn, I just didn't have time for them all!!!