It’s that time of year again, when music bloggers go through the year’s releases and highlight the best of the year. The usual caveats apply; these are the best records of 2016 I’ve actually had the chance to hear. I only have a finite CD budget, and even though I’m a part-time music writer, not every record company sends me free promos.
We’ll start with 25 to 11. Except that they’re not ranked in any order, because that would be next to impossible.
Update Because I missed out one record by mistake, this year’s list now goes up to 26. You will have to guess which one it was yourselves.
An Endless Sporadic – Magic Machine
Like the late, great Frank Zappa at his most inventive this instrumental album mixes disparate genres with gleeful abandon. You can sense the musicians enjoying themselves whilst making this record. The result resembles a soundtrack for an imaginary space opera adventure, and the ever-changing music certainly takes you on an exhilarating journey through many musical moods and styles.
David Bowie – Blackstar
There is pretty much nothing I can say about this enigmatic and sometimes bonkers record that hasn’t already been said by plenty of others. Let’s just say that David Bowie was part of something that held the fabric of the universe together, and his passing is the reason 2016 has gone increasingly pear-shaped.
Cairo – Say
The new project by former Touchstone mainman Rob Cottingham featuring the now-departed vocalist Rachel Hill combines melodic rock and metal with touches of electronica. While there are obvious parallels with Touchstone, the feel is closer to a heavier version of Rob Cottingham’s 2014 solo project “Captain Blue”.
Duski – s/t
Aiden Thorne’s Cardiff based quintet blend contemporary jazz with elements of progressive rock and ambient soundscapes, sometimes very mellow, sometimes times rocking out. Most of the music is still recognisably jazz, especially when the saxophone is dominant, but there’s also much in the melodies and textures for a more adventurous rock fan to appreciate.
Dave Foster – Dreamless
The second solo album by the guitarist of Mr So and So, Panic Room and The Steve Rothery band is a more song-focussed affair than his first, with Dinet Poorman on vocals for most of the album. With the same rhythm section it has a similar vibe to The Steve Rothery Band with Rothery’s guitar swapped for female vocals. A couple of songs also feature his Panic Room colleague Anne-Marie Helder.
Ghost Community – Cycle of Life
The début album by the supergroup made up from past and present members of The Reasoning, Also Eden and Crimson Sky is an ambitious blend of prog-metal and melodic rock. There are definite echoes of The Reasoning in the melodies and song construction, though it has an overall coherence the last couple of Reasoning albums lacked.
Haken – Affinity
A record that’s clearly identifiable as progressive rock, but reinvented for the twenty-first century rather than a reverential pastiche of the music from a generation ago. It’s the sort of thing that should appeal as much to those bought up on Muse or Elbow as to old-school fans of Pink Floyd or King Crimson. This is state of the art modern progressive rock at its best.
Josh and Co – Transylvania Part 1: The Count Commands It
Essentially a solo album by Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn with guest appearances from Olivia Sparnenn and Anna Phoebe amongst others,it’s a very different record from the earlier “Through These Eyes”. It’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek saga about vampires, complete with an end-of-level monster, set to music with more than a touch of Scandinavian folk-metal about it.
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Kavus Torabi’s completely bonkers eight-piece psychedelic rockers take things to the next level with their third full-length album. This time they bring the horn section centre-stage and make them the focus of the record, with nstrumental passages that recall Frank Zappa’s early 70s big band work. There is nobody else quite like Knifeworld.
Maschine – Naturalis
The second album from the project led by guitar virtuoso Luke Machin is a step up from their first. One part progressive rock, one part jazz and one part metal, there’s a far greater maturity of composition on display here; the undoubted technical skills of the musicians serve the songs rather than the other way, with great use of dynamics and atmospherics.
Metallica – Hardwired to Self-Destruct
The thrash-metal veterans bounce back with their strongest record for many years, long after many had written them off as has-beens living off past glories. It’s a return to the killer riffs approach of their early years, with a production than mercifully isn’t compressed into oblivion this time around. It could have done with a little editing, but they haven’t sounded this good since The Black Album.
New Model Army – Winter
The veteran folk-punks still have something to say, burning with the energy of punk and the musical substance of hard rock. “Winter” is a dark, angry record that sums up the state of the world in 2016. “Burn the castle down”, sings Justin Sullivan, railing at the elites who do not care about the ordinary people except as a resource to exploit.
Paradigm Shift – Becoming Aware
The british four-piece create a blend of progressive metal and jazz-fusion driven by propulsive but melodic basslines and enveloping piano textures that never descends into self-indulgent noodling. The result is a hugely melodic record that represents a modern and forward-looking approach to progressive rock rather than a homage to decades past.
Radiohead – A Moon-Shaped Pool
Despite swapping guitars for string arrangements much of the time, this is Radiohead’s most accessible album for a while, with a greater emphasis on songs and tunes than on avante-garde experimentalism, and some of the cinematic string arrangements are gorgeous. It almost makes you wonder if they’ve been listening to The Pineapple Thief or Halo Blind.
Suede – Night Thoughts
A dark concept album about death nnd water that bears more than a passing resemblance both in theme and in mood to Marillion’s “Brave” as well as their own career-defining “Dog Man Star”. Even though it’s not quite in the same league as either of those records it’s still the best things they’ve done for years.
Voodoo Vegas – Freak Show Candy Floss
An album of no-nonsense twin-guitar hard rock that does what it says on the tin. When working within a fairly traditional form, you have to be very good at what you do to avoid sounding like a derivative pastiche of other, better bands that came before. Voodoo Vegas pass that test with ease. To put it simply, they rock.