Every music blogger worth their salt tries to boil down all the listening they have done over the past year and attempt to come up with a definite list of the best albums of that year. 2016 was another great year for new releases and, like previous years, I have found it hard to whittle everything down to a definitive Top 10 list for 2016's Albums of the Year. The top two picked themselves, and either could have justifiably been my Album of the Year, but the other eight places could have easily been filled by around 20 different albums that are all on about the same level of greatness. When I come to read this back I will probably end up disagreeing with it, but I think these 10 albums best describe the cream of 2016's new music in my current opinion. As always, only albums of new material count; therefore compilations, live albums, and EPs are not in consideration for this list. Clicking the album name for each of the albums listed here will take you to the original review I wrote for each which will give you more detail should you want it. Without any further ado, here is my Top 10 Albums of 2016 in reverse order:
10) Delain - Moonbathers
The Dutch symphonic metal act's fifth album is a slow-burner, but after spending more time with it since my original review, and seeing the band perform much of the song live, has made me realise how great it is. Moonbathers is the band's heaviest work yet as they make use of having two guitarists in the band's ranks for the first time in their recording history, and the amount of special guests has been dialled back to put the spotlight more on dynamic frontwoman Charlotte Wessels. After four albums of subtle experimentation, it feels as if Delain have found their true sound with Moonbathers, and I will be interested to see how they progress from here.
Listen to: The Glory and the Scum, Suckerpunch & Fire with Fire
9) Megadeth - Dystopia
American thrash metal titans Megadeth's recent albums have not exactly been popular with large portions with large portions of their fanbase, so I think many out there were pleasantly surprised when Dystopia hit and took the fans back to the band's early 1990s glory days with a heavy, angry, yet melodic album packed with great riffs, snarling vocals, and shredded guitar solos. New guitarist Kiko Loureiro made his mark felt instantly with a sterling performance, and this clearly gave bandleader Dave Mustaine the kick he needed to write this excellent new album. After spending nearly a year with this album, it only gets better with each listen and is easily the band's best since their 2004 reunion, and possibly even before that!
Listen to: The Threat is Real, Dystopia & Post American World
8) Mantra Vega - The Illusion's Reckoning
It took Heather Findlay six years to release a full-length album of new material after leaving Mostly Autumn in 2010, but this collaboration with American musician Dave Kerzner proved to be an instant hit that saw Findlay at her most confident and creative. While most of the album has a laid back organic rock vibe with a strong acoustic base, heavier and more epic moments permeate through and make for a diverse and warm album that brings out the best in Findlay's voice. While Mantra Vega will probably end up being a one-off collaboration between Findlay and Kerzner, it is clear their songwriting chemistry is strong. With The Illusion's Reckoning, Findlay has finally stepped out of the Mostly Autumn shadow and has done something that stands strongly on it's own.
Listen to: Island, Veil of Ghosts & Lake Sunday
7) The Quireboys - Twisted Love
The band's fourth album in as many years sees The Quireboys tackling the blues in their own inimitable gypsy rock 'n' roll style. This is best-sounding album of their recent run of releases, and sees the band rocking out far more too with far less ballads than normal. This is a raw-sounding rock album, but Keith Weir's keyboards help to add warmth and colour, and Spike's trademark whiskey-soaked vocals sound as good and ever. There are not many bands out there that would be able to release four albums in four years and maintain the high level of quality that The Quireboys have here, but then there are not many bands out there that are The Quireboys!
Listen to: Ghost Train, Twisted Love & Midnight Collective
6) Epica - The Holographic Principle
Epica have been sitting near the top of the symphonic metal for quite some time, and with The Holographic Principle they ensure their place there is more than secure. For a band that have included death metal elements in their sound since day one, this is the band's heaviest work yet with guitarist Isaac Delahaye going out of his way to create heavier, more technical guitar riffs to drive the band's bombastic and orchestral metal. There are a lot of memorable moments here, and frontwoman Simone Simons can be thanked for this with plenty of catchy vocal melodies and soaring melodies for fans to sink their teeth into. This is easily the band's best-sounding work to date, and confirms what we already know which is Epica are really on top of their game at the moment.
Listen to: Universal Death Squad, Beyond the Matrix & Dancing in a Hurricane
5) Dream Theater - The Astonishing
When American progressive metal legends unleashed their double disc rock opera telling a science-fiction story set in a dystopian steampunk future, you had the feeling that this was an album they had wanted to make for sometime. Even by Dream Theater's high standards, this was an ambitious ask that could have come off sounding contrived, but they managed to make it work with a simple story that was helped to life by the band's melodic metal backing and frontman James LaBrie's stellar vocal performance. He is the star of the show here, singing a subtly different voice for each of the story's characters, and proves there are few singers in the metal world as versatile and thoughtful as him. While the album gets somewhat bogged down in the middle, the first and third thirds are classic Dream Theater, and they should receive huge praise for even attempting something like this.
Listen to: The Gift of Music, A Better Life & Our New World
4) COP UK - No Place for Heaven
After a slight visual re-brand and new line-up, Sheffield's Crime of Passion returned with their third album, and first for four years, No Place for Heaven. This is the band's most melodic and memorable album yet, and clearly takes a big influence from 1980s rock and metal. Nearly every song on the album has a soaring chorus that will not leave your head, and the smoother overall sound aided by new keyboardist Henning Wanner really suits the band's songwriting style. I feel that COP UK have finally found their true sound on this album, after flirting with heavier and more metal trappings previously, and No Place for Heaven is an album that feels fresh and exciting. I just hope there is not another four year wait before album number four!
Listen to: The Core, My Blood & Stranger Than Fiction
3) Sabaton - The Last Stand
Rather unsurprisingly, Sabaton's eighth studio album sees the band doing what they do best. Sabaton firmly found their sound a long time ago and are unlikely to change it any time soon, but The Last Stand sees some of the catchiest material from the band yet. The keyboards that took more of a backseat on 2014's Heroes are back in full force here, giving the album a gloriously over-the-top pomp rock sound that fits the band's military-themed power metal perfectly. Sabaton are probably the biggest power metal band in the world at the moment, and this is an album that will provide a lot more ammo for their excellent live shows and will no doubt enthral their legions of dedicated fans.
Listen to: Sparta, The Last Stand & Winged Hussars
2) Marillion - Fuck Everyone and Run
In some ways I cannot believe this is not my Album of the Year, and if I wrote this list on another day it might have well been, but second place is no bad thing. Veteran prog rockers Marillion's eighteenth studio album perfectly seems to sum up the political and cultural gloom of 2016 like no other album can, and shows that older bands can still be more than relevant when it comes to new music. The dense, atmospheric sound the band have become known for over the past decade or so has been honed to perfection here and this serves as the perfect backdrop for Steve Hogarth to lay out his caustic and melancholic lyrics that hit home like very little else released this year.
Listen to: El Dorado, White Paper & The New Kings
1) Avantasia - Ghostlights
It was inevitable that one of Tobias Sammet's albums would one day end up being my Album of the Year, and Ghostlights more than deserves that accolade. He is the master of over-the-top bombastic metal and he has assembled another strong cast of guest musicians for his epic, storytelling side project. Avantasia regulars and favourites like Jørn Lande and Michael Kiske return, and elsewhere Geoff Tate sounds better on record that he has for years. Sammet seems to have a knack for bringing the best out of people, and this is another album packed full of memorable melodic metal anthems that I have returned to again and again throughout the year. Let the Storm Descend Upon You might just be Sammet's best ever song too!
Listen to: Let the Storm Descend Upon You, Seduction of Decay & Master of the Pendulum
Well there you have it, the cream of the crop when it comes to new albums in 2016! As I said before there were so many others that could have made this list on another day, so a few honourable mentions include Eden's Curse's best album yet Cardinal, the long-awaited return from American pomp-rock legends Kansas who's The Prelude Implicit exceeded all expectations, and Reckless Love's infectious, party-starting InVader. There are many, many more albums that I have enjoyed, but I feel these ten (well thirteen if you included the honourable mentions) are the albums I have returned to more than any others throughout 2016 and I think that has to be a sign. 2016 has also been a great year for live music, and I have been to so many great shows throughout the year. Usually I do a Top 3 Gigs of the Year, but this year I have decided to do things a little differently and do two Top 3s: one for 'big' gigs and one for 'small' gigs. This is fairly unscientific, and it is hard to draw the line between the two, but for this I have taken 'big' gigs to mean stadium, arena, and large theatre shows, and 'small' gigs to mean small theatre and club shows. I feel it is hard to compare shows that attract 60,000 fans and those that attract 200, which is why I have made the distinction this year. I usually impose a rule of no festival sets, but there is one of those that stands out so strongly here I cannot not include it!
Top 3 'Big' Gigs of 2016:
3) Twisted Sister, Bloodstock Open Air, 12/08/2016
While I have broken my own rules here of not included festival sets in these lists, I cannot not include this masterful performance from American glam metal legends Twisted Sister on their final UK appearance. The whole day had been building up to this, and their headlining performance was easily the best thing about Bloodstock in 2016. Dee Snider is probably the greatest rock frontman ever and led his band through nearly two hours of solid hits and anthems that saw the biggest ever crowd at Bloodstock in full-blown party mode.
2) Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Genting Arena, 25/06/2016
Rainbow is a band I never thought I would get the chance to see live, so when Ritchie Blackmore reformed, or recreated, the band for a few shows in 2016 I knew I had to go. The setlist featured both Deep Purple and Rainbow classics, performed by the man himself and a band that were well-assembled for the occasion. Frontman Ronnie Romero was a revelation and carried the evening perfectly while Blackmore soloed away and looked genuinely happy to be up there on stage playing rock music again. More shows are coming this summer so I urge everyone to go if they can!
1) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wembley Stadium, 05/06/2016
Not even being as far away from the stage as was possible in Wembley Stadium could damped the enjoyment of seeing one of the greatest rock stars of all time, along with one of the greatest backing bands of all time, rip through three and a half hours of timeless hits, fan favourites, and more obscure deep cuts with the relentless energy and enthusiasm that only Bruce Springsteen can muster up. This was something more than a simple concert, and this will go down in my memory as one of the best experiences of my life.
Top 3 'Small' Gigs of 2016:
3) Symphony X, Islington Assembly Hall, 19/02/2016
It had been a long time coming for me to see Symphony X live, and the American progressive metal legends did not disappoint the sold out Islingston Assembly Hall crowd with a forward-looking set that contained all of their latest album Underworld as well as a few choice cuts from their back catalogue. Symphony X have the ability to be technical and proggy, and then a minute or so later will be whipping up a storm with hard-hitting melodic metal sections that are as memorable as they are impressive. I have never seen a show so full of energy as this from a progressive metal band before, and shows that Symphony X really are a force of metal nature.
2) Marillion, O2 Kentish Town Forum, 04/12/2016
A great 'true' Marillion show has eluded me until 2016, but this show in Kentish Town was everything I wanted it to be and more. The band are riding high on the success of Fuck Everyone and Run at the moment, and featured a large portion of it during their two hour set. The set they chose fit together perfectly, with old and new songs sitting side by side with ease and the die-hard fans lapped it all up. Seeing The New Kings performed in full live might well be the best individual gig moment of 2016!
1) Mostly Autumn, Tavistock Wharf, 22/07/2016
The band's setlists have been largely dictated to them over the past couple of years with full performances of 2014's Album of the Year Dressed in Voices dominating the shows, but 2016 saw the band drop this and bring back a lot of old favourites to the set that had been absent for a while. With no new album to promote, 2017 will see the band promoting Sight of Day, this was the perfect opportunity for a set tinged with nostalgia and it worked a treat with Mother Nature finally regaining it's spot in the set and lesser-known songs like Silver Glass and Hollow also getting outings. I saw Mostly Autumn four times in 2016, and this was the best of the bunch.