It’s been a quite turbulent year, as they say, and I rather doubt next year will be any calmer. That may be good for music as artists have a cause to create, but in fact 2016 was already a really good year for music. Here’s my list of my favourite 20 albums in descending order – preferences naturally change so I’ve tried to be honest about which records have really inspired my listening this year. I think it’s a cracking collection of geographically diverse albums – hope you enjoy it too!
20. Conjurer – 'I'
We start with a British band on the up and part of enterprising label Holy Roar’s impressive array of talent. Conjurer hail from Rugby and this debut EP is short and suitably brutish. Uncompromising hardcore metal delivered with great accuracy and a certain swing. Less reliant on simple riffs than their contemporaries, they weave sinuous melodies under growling vocal lines – all underpinned by a high precision rhythm section and great drumming in particular.
Must hear: 'Scorn', 'Frail'
19. Big Naturals & Anthroprophh – S/T
New School Psych Rock from these column favourites. Big Naturals are Bristol duo drummer Jesse Webb and bassist Gareth Turner and, on vinyl at least, side 1 features an extended and essential work out from the pair, 'God-Shaped Hole'. Paul Allen from The Heads is Anthroprophh and as such he is generally joined by Messrs Webb and Turner for some fairly abstracted freakout action. Both combos are on terrific form here.
Must hear: 'God-Shaped Hole', 'Chubbock’s Last Tape (Another Nail)'
18. Heron Oblivion – S/T
A New American Folk influence pervades this album, though not without some molten psych rock interludes, all of which is testimony to the history of the four band members. Ethan Miller and Noel Von Harmonson were both members of the amazing Comets On Fire – a truly original and mesmerising avant-rock band. Charlie Sauffley and Meg Baird joined them from the poppier fringes of psychedelia and the result is a beguiling melting pot of influences and talents fronted by Baird’s distinctive voice.
Must hear: 'Oriar', 'Rama'
17. Oathbreaker – 'Rheia'
Female vocalists are quite a dominant theme of this list and Caro Tanghe certainly takes this album, Oathbreaker’s third, by the scruff of the neck and thereby elevates the band’s output to something very special. It’s an alternative take on black metal with nearly narrative passages interspersed with almost total breakdown, and this Belgian collective link musically and spiritually to scene leaders, Amenra, most directly through guitarist Lennart Bossu who is in both bands. Powerful stuff.
Must hear: 'Needles In Your Skin', 'Being Able To Feel Nothing'
16. Moon Coven – S/T
Debut albums are also a theme in this list and Moon Coven from Sweden shine on this, their first LP. A stoner sensibility pervades their heavy rock essence – fuzzed out solos, slow steady beats and driving vocals create atmospheric songs that pack quite a punch. Influences from Black Sabbath to Kyuss combine in a way that is curiously uplifting and distinctive. Hopefully they can go on from here but this is most definitely an album that I’ll continue to listen to.
Must hear: 'Conspiracy', 'Haramukh High'
15. Mamiffer – 'The World Unseen'
Another sub-theme of this year’s list is guitarist Aaron Turner, but more of that later. That being said, Mamiffer is really the project of his wife Faith Coloccia in collaboration with her husband, and on this album Eyvind Kang on strings – who makes a typically distinctive contribution. A Mamiffer song is most often a simple, but beautiful piano line with Coloccia’s rather wonderful singing on top and Turner stirring up a gritty mass in the background. It sounds so simple but the result, as on this album, is often awesome. Ambient in a way that Eno would recognise, yet totally absorbing, Mamiffer draw you into their world of wide soundscapes and magnificent views.
Must hear: '13 Burning Stars', 'Mara'
14. Trap Them – 'Crown Feral'
By way of contrast, Trap Them specialise in ugly brutality and 2014’s 'Blissfucker' was an outstanding effort in sheer hostility. This album is denser but mellower – albeit this is a relative term. The sound is thicker and producer Kurt Ballou steers it into formal Heavy Metal territory quite expertly without losing the hardcore edge. It’s an unrelenting listen as is the band’s custom but with sufficient light and shade to make it an extremely engaging listen too. Grindcore for grown-ups.
Must hear: 'Speak Nigh', 'Revival Spines'
13. Neurosis – 'Fires Within Fires'
Neurosis recently celebrated 30 years of existence with two London shows that showcased their huge back catalogue most impressively. Unusually for a band with that much history they continue to make challenging and brave music that ranks amongst their very best. Following 2012’s excellent 'Honor Found In Decay', 'Fires Within Fires' clocks in at a relatively modest 41 minutes that still packs a considerable sonic punch. In the chaos, there’s a sense of celebration of a milestone achieved on a journey that is still far from completion. At its heart Neurosis is a project that explores in music what it means to face the futility of human existence with courage, dignity and, yes, optimism.
Must hear: 'Broken Ground', 'Fire Is The End Lesson'
12. Dillinger Escape Plan – 'Dissociation'
So farewell, Dillinger Escape Plan – but what a terrific parting gift you have given us. 'Dissociation' only serves to emphasise the madness that lies at the heart of DEP’s music. From the opening salvo that is 'Limerent Death', Greg Puciato sounds more than ever like an operatic Heath Ledger, back from the dead and reincarnated as the essence of The Joker in his famous portrayal. But Ben Weinman’s music is the backbone of DEP and next track 'Symptom Of Terminal Illness' establishes a very familiar connection to his previous work.
The strength of DEP is that they really don’t sound like anyone else, which leaves them totally free to do exactly as they like. In many ways 'Dissociation' is their most ambitious record, as well as their last, with the electro excursion of 'Fugue' and the Faith No More riffery that is 'Nothing To Forget' sitting comfortably alongside more customary DEP tunes. Closer 'Dissociation' brings out the string orchestrations and there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Must hear: 'Limerent Death', 'Symptom Of Terminal Illness'
11. Black Mountain – 'IV'
Black Mountain return at last with a follow up to their, I thought, sensationally good 'Wilderness Heart' from 2010. Happily they haven’t lost it in the meantime, and this collection, although not as accessible at first listen, is a real grower from powerful opener 'Mothers Of The Sun' to the elegiac closer 'Space To Bakersfield'. Stephen McBean is on great form when he cuts loose on guitar, Amber Webber is in terrific voice, Joshua Wells’ drumming is spot on as usual and the whole band sounds tight and athletic underpinned by Jeremy Schmidt’s swirling keys.
Where 'Wilderness Heart' explored rock influences this album has more of the psychedelic pop of Fleetwood Mac about it – as the song '(Over and Over) The Chain' strongly suggests. Either way, it’s really, really good to have them back rounding out the first half of the 2016 list.
Must hear: 'Mothers Of The Sun', 'You Can Dream'
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