2016 was a year of monster releases from veterans and relative newcomers alike. Weirdly, three of the top five were neatly stacked side by side. N-bands Nails, Neurosis, and Nothing put out three of my most-listened-to and most revered records. My friends and heroes, emcess/producers Aesop Rock and dälek round out The Five Best. It’s not a huge drop off from there, but these were definitely my five favorites. Let’s run them down along with the other worthy candidates in five sets of five: The Five Best, Five More, The Five Less Likely, The Five Heaviest, and Five Leftover From Last Year. Disclaimer: hyperboles abound. It was a good year for music!
The Five Best:
Aesop Rock The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers): On easily his most personal record yet, Aesop Rock dug deep but didn’t forget to come up for air. I’ve listened to this record hundreds of times — more than any other this year. There’s not a skippable song in the bunch, and too many favorites to name. The Kid just keeps getting better.
Neurosis Fires Within Fires (Neurot Recordings): Thirty years strong and still pushing every boundary in every direction, Neurosis proved once again why they’re considered one of the best bands doing it. Fires Within Fires pulls from all of their flame-forged, hard-earned strengths. “Broken Ground,” for one, seethes with the slow burn of a raging star. Their output from this century alone puts them high above most other bands, and this is just one more untouchable document of their power.
Nothing Tired of Tomorrow (Relapse): Where they’ve previously flown their influences like a flag in the fog, Nothing really cleared a definitive path for themselves on Tired of Tomorrow. They’ll probably never shake the 90s-revivalist, shoegazer tag, but they’re bigger and broader than that. This—only their second full-length record—more than proves it.
dälek Asphalt for Eden (Profound Lore): Back at it with their OG DJ (rEK), longtime fellow traveler (Mike Manteca), and of course MC dälek (Will Brooks; Peace to Brother Oktopus), they’ve never sounded better. “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left),” with its mix of dreamy feedback drones and nightmare non-notes, is a perfect example of how unique and how powerful this music is. Shame on you for not playing this all year as loud as possible.
Nails You Will Never Be One of Us (Nuclear Blast): I watched with excruciating anticipation as Nails released in-studio video teasers in the months leading up to the release of You Will Never Be One of Us. One of the most used words in those videos was “Slayer,” which only made my pain more acute. The record owes as much to Nails’ past as it does Slayer though: all of their bluntness sharpened to a lethal point. At a breakneck 21 minutes and 43 seconds, it’s a beast of a release in every way.
Emma Ruth Rundle Marked for Death (Sargent House): Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death rolls in emotional waves, crests in catharsis, and is downright devastating all round. “Heaven” alone is enough to level the strongest of any of us. If you’re still standing after that, try “Real Big Sky.” If that doesn’t do it, you’re more of a “man” than I.
Daniel Lanois Goodbye to Language (ANTI-): In his 2010 book, Soul Mining (faber & faber), Daniel Lanois mentions an idea called “future hymns.” Goodbye to Language is somewhere between “future hymns” and an update to the Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record that Lanois did with Roger and Brian Eno in 1983. There’s an outer-space quality to these compositions but also a frontier feeling. According to Eno, the twang on Apollo was to “give the impression of weightless space.” According to Lanois, it was because the astronauts were from Texas. The steel guitar is the reason here, and it works here as it did there. Such a beautifully subtle record.
True Widow Avvolgere (Relapse): Great music is often completely confounding. True Widow has been slowly building a body of work that confuses me in the very best way. It’s doomy and heavy but also light and shoegazy. It’s hypnotic above all else. Given enough time, True Widow might be one of the only bands future-people still talk about from our era.
Explosions in the Sky The Wilderness (Temporary Residence): Call it a comeback, if you must. The Wilderness is everything you love about Explosions in the Sky refined and redefined all over again.
The Five Less Likely:
It Only Gets Worse Angels (self-released): Over the past few years, the words of Matt Finney and the music of Maurice de Jong have been melding into some of the most heartbreaking sounds around. Angels, their first proper full-length record, is no exception. If I had this on any analog format, it would be worn out.
Wreck & Reference Indifferent Rivers Romance End (The Flenser): Indifferent Rivers Romance End is a hard star to place in a constellation, but there’s no denying its gravity. It’s so heavy it hurts. I don’t know what to call what Wreck & Reference does, but it doesn’t really matter. They do it because they have to, and that’s enough. Pain is intoxicating.
The Body No One Deserves Happiness (Thrill Jockey): Most of The Body’s output the last several years has been collaborations with everyone from Thou and Full of Hell to Japan’s Vampillia. On this, their first full-length by themselves in two years, they continue illustrating why they’re one of the most adventurous bands in the Metal underground. Brutally weird.
White Lung Paradise (Domino): I often wake up with Mish Barber-Way’s words—written and sung—in my head. She is the absolute embodiment of 21st Century Punk Rock, and White Lung is but one arm of her full-frontal haranguing of hegemony. Join the fight or else.
Father I’m a Piece of Shit (Awful Records): So laid-back as to be dreamlike, Father’s latest is a pill-fueled fantasy of excess. It’s like using the last of your three wishes to wish for more wishes, getting them, and then realizing how bad you fucked up. This is the slow-grinding sound of greed, indulgence, and ultimate nihilism. His new song is dope too. Father is the future.
The Five Heaviest:
Vukari Divination (Bindrune Recordings): Chicago’s own Black Metal powerhouse, Vukari came back even more polished on 2016’s Divination. This has been my go-to Black-Metal release of the year, and one that I’m guessing hasn’t revealed all of its delights.
Oathbreaker Rheia (Deathwish, Inc.): Burning down the barriers between all the subgenres of heavy music, Oathbreaker is one of the only bands worthy of the “post-” part of the post-metal mantle. That, and Rheia might be the best metal record of the decade. It’s huge.
Heiress Made Wrong (The Mylene Sheath): Seattle’s most underrated band did it again. Another great mix of pedigree (Undertow, Botch, et al.) and prophesy, Made Wrong is the product of pieces of the past and planning for the future. The metal is strong with this one.
Russian Circles Guidance (Sargent House): As an instrumental three-piece, Russian Circles have few peers. Their live shows are always stellar and their records always push limits. Guidance is no exception. Heavy music gets no better than this.
The Body & Full of Hell One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache (Neurot Recordings): As one of The Body’s aforementioned many recent collaborations, this is easily the heaviest. It’s difficult to imagine tempering the fiery fury of Full of Hell with anything, much less the mechanical, maniacal howling of The Body. This melding of metal is as much noise as it is music, and that is to its credit not its detriment.
Five Leftovers from Last Year:
Kamasi Washington The Epic (Brainfeeder): I totally missed this one last year. The Epic, Kamasi Washington’s immense, three-disc debut (after self-releasing a few gems and collaborating with everyone from Ryan Adams to Kendrick Lamar), is the future of Jazz. Don’t sleep like I did. Do yourself a flavor.
Panopticon Autumn Eternal (Bindrune Recordings): One of the most underrated one-person, American Black Metal bands (even I only gave it runner-up status on last year’s list), Panopticon’s latest, 2015’s Autumn Eternal is his—Austin Lunn’s—best yet. It’s the third of a trilogy including Kentucky (2012) and Roads to the North (2014). Dig in!
Tunde Olaniran Transgressor (Quite Scientific): If ever there were an album that deserved to linger at the top of a list such as this, Transgressor is that record. If this year’s “Namesake” video doesn’t do it for you, then just never mind me over here dancing. Guaranteed to keep you reaching up for them high notes.
Red Apollo Altruist (Moment of Collapse/Alerta Antifascista): One thing lots of bands and fans miss about the many strains of Black Metal is the subtleties. Another runner-up from last year, Altruist has so many, it took me an extra year to hear them all. And don’t miss their cover of Deftones’ “Knife Party” from White Pony.
Deafheaven New Burmuda (ANTI-): What else can I say? They’re my favorite, and this is their best record yet. Sunbather may have solidified their status, but New Bermuda shows shades of the many other things they can do. This lives in rotation.