My albums of 2016

Grid of 16 album covers
Album covers 2016

This year I managed to buy even fewer albums than last year. I appear to be on a downward trend, in part due to me finishing off my 195 metal CDs project, and in part due to my increased workload and a distinct lack of leisure time for music listening.

Going back to 1986, when I first started collecting music (albeit on cassette and 12″ vinyl then) here is a graph showing the music that I own on CD/mp3 by year of release:

Albums per year
Albums I own per year of release

Top 15 artists (Last.fm)

Before launching into my top 10 though, I’ve just taken a look at my Last.fm top 15 artists over the last 12 months. This reflects what I’ve actually been listening to over the last year: at home, at work, and on my Android phone.

Seemingly, I listened to…

  • 423 artists (more than 75% of Last.fm users)
  • 524 albums (more than 73% of Last.fm users)
  • 4,293 tracks (more than 95% of Last.fm users)
Top 15 artists over the last 12 months
Top 15 artists over the last 12 months

There are definitely fewer plays there, compared with last year but that could easily be explained by my drive to complete my 195 metal CDs project: I listened to a lot of new music this year. But it’s interesting to note that only one of those (Schizma) has made it into the top 15, which is otherwise littered with the bands that I would ordinarily say were my favourites and nine of whom have released new music this year.

Another change was that I installed an old-school, hardware CD player next to my bed and I’ve been listening to a lot of music there which doesn’t get recorded on Last.fm, so I’ve missed out a little.

When I lived in Anstruther I was able to stream music from my PC to my mobile phone across the home network. Living in a halls of residence I can’t do that now on Eduroam, the academic network.

My top albums of 2016, in terms of plays were:

  1. Schizma—Hardcore Enemies (130 tracks played)
  2. Soulfly—Archangel (124 plays)
  3. Metallica—Hardwired… to Self Destruct (124 plays)
  4. Megadeth—Dystopia (114 plays)
  5. Anthrax—For All Kings (114 plays)

It took me a few weeks to find the time to review the Schizma album, which is why I ended up playing it over and over again. If my CD player had been able to register its plays then I’m pretty sure Testament—Brotherhood of the Snake and Meshuggah—The Violent Sleep of Reason would have landed in the top five.

Onto the votes for this year…

10. Anthrax—For All Kings

Album cover showing zombies beneath an Anthrax logo pentagram window between stone statues of the band
Anthrax—For All Kings

It’s no secret that I much prefer John Bush’s voice fronting Anthrax compared with Joey Belladonna but you can’t have everything. That said, this is a solid Anthrax album with nods of the head to State of Euphoria (1988) as well as building on 2011’s Worship Music and the last Bush-era album We’ve Come For You All (2003).

The album has some great riffs, some terrific hooks, and I can imagine that they’ll get a lot of crowd singing at gigs with tracks like “For All Kings”, “Breathing Lightning”, and “Defend Avenge”.

9. Testament—Brotherhood of the Snake

Album cover shows a three-headed snake above blind men seated
Testament—Brotherhood of the Snake

It’s only due to the high quality of releases this year that I find Testament’s latest opus sitting in ninth place.

This is a great release with Testament hovering somewhere between the classic era sound and Low (1994), which was the first album to feature Chuck Billy’s growling vocals. The album kicks off at breakneck speed and doesn’t let up for ten tracks.

8. Machine Head — Is There Anybody Out There?

Album cover shows reflection of an American flag in a crying eye
Machine Head — Is There Anybody Out There?

Machine Head put out a non-album single this year, partly in response to Phil Anselmo’s seemingly racist, ‘white power’ incident at the Dimebash in January.

Now I stand as a father, to men with no honour
Ashamed of the racists I used to call brothers
‘Cause no flag can mean bravery when bloodied by slavery
The rebel, a devil, disguised as a savior
And the sickening feeling in the air
Is the fear to speak that no one dares

It was a bold move but a necessary one to address racism, something that the US and the UK have seen too much of in 2016.

7. Lamb of God—The Duke EP

Lamb of God—The Duke
Lamb of God—The Duke

Lamb of God’s last album VII: Strum und Drang was my album of the year 2015. This year they released an EP of two new songs: “The Duke” and “Culling”, and three live tracks: “Still Echoes”, “512”, and “Engage the Fear Machine”.

Rather than being a cynical money-spinner a year on from VII, this release was in part to raise awareness of and money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The title track was dedicated to Lamb of God fan and friend of singer D. Randall Blythe, Wayne Ford who sadly died of leukaemia.

“The Duke” is only the second track from the band featuring clean vocals. “Culling” is a much more familiar, growling Lamb of God track which wouldn’t feel out of place on VII.

6. Steven Wilson — 4½

Album cover shows two girls sitting on a park bench overlaid with four and a half slashes in blue
Steven Wilson — 4½

This mini-album is suitably named following Wilson’s fourth album Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015) which came fifth in last year’s round-up. It largely gathers together songs that were written during Wilson’s last two album sessions for The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (2013) and Hand. Cannot. Erase, closing with “Don’t hate me” which was originally on Porcupine Tree—Stupid Dream (1999), sung as a duet with Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb.

It took me a while to get into, as it doesn’t feel quite as coherent a body of songs as either Raven or Hand, but any new Steven Wilson tracks are welcome in my collection.

5. Prong — X – No Absolutes

Album cover shows a montage of war images, with lots of skulls
Prong — X – No Absolutes

Prong were among the first group of heavy bands that I got into back in the early-90s. I rushed out to buy Beg To Differ (1990) on cassette after hearing them on Noisy Mothers (ITV) or the BBC Friday Night Rock Show. They have rarely let me down, and still remain a band that more people should discover

In X – No Absolutes Tommy Victor has managed to carve out an album that sits somewhere between the early hardcore-infused sound of Beg To Differ and Prove You Wrong (1991) with the more melodic groove-laden riffs of Cleansing (1994) and Rude Awakening (1996).

I have sadly neglected this album for much of this year. I expect it to be played a lot more in 2017.

4. Megadeth—Dystopia

Album cover shows an android Vic Rattlehead standing beneath a destroyed Sydney harbour bridge
Megadeth—Dystopia

Having been somewhat disappointed with Megadeth’s last release Super Collider (2013) my apprehension about their latest album was offset somewhat by the news that Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler would be stepping in to the space left by departing drummer Shawn Drover. Longtime guitarist (certainly in Megadeth terms) Chris Broadrick also departed, with Brazillian Kiko Loureiro taking over.

I wasn’t disappointed. Dystopia turned out to be a fresh and exciting album. Arguably their best since The System Has Failed (2004).

3. Meshuggah—The Violent Sleep of Reason

Album cover shows a man trapped in a strange mechanical creature
Meshuggah—The Violent Sleep of Reason

I first experienced Meshuggah when a friend of mine gave me their EP entitled simply I (2004) for my birthday one year. Their music is heavy and intricate, almost mathematical. They are the showcase band of the whole ‘djent’ sub-genre of metal.

As with most Meshuggah albums, I expect this one will take quite a while to really get into. But for now, I do think it’s is pretty darned special. It’s more of the same from the Swedish five-piece, but they manage somehow to never quite sound like they are repeating themselves.

2. Metallica—Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

Album cover shows four faces melded into one
Metallica—Hardwired… to Self Destruct

Metallica’s tenth studio album was one that I was anticipating all year. It finally landed on Reuben and Joshua’s birthday (18 November) and I wasn’t disappointed.

The band released three songs ahead of the album launch (the title track, “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct”, “Moth into Flame”, and “Altas, Rise!”) and they were good… really good.

Hardwired… seems to include something from about every Metallica album. It has a better production than either St Anger or Death Magnetic, and the songs are more accessible and coherent—a consequence perhaps of Hetfield and Ulrich taking back the songwriting reigns? They’re like a metal Lennon and McCartney.

They’ve released the entire album, video by video too. Check it out on the Metallica YouTube channel.

My only criticism, I think, is that the album is probably about 30 minutes too long. It could have been shorter and punchier; as it is it begins to feel like it’s dragging during the last 20 minutes.

1. Opeth—Sorceress

Opeth - Sorceress cover shows a peacock
Opeth-Sorceress

And so to my number one album of 2016… Opeth—Sorceress. Another album that I was greatly anticipating, and wasn’t disappointed.

It was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales, where Queen’s A Night at the Opera was recorded back in 1975. And like its predecessor, it has a retro prog feel to it.

I know there has been a lot of controversy in some metal circles about the direction that Opeth has gone. Rewind 10 years and they were very much a progressive death metal band with blast beats and growling vocals. They have now dropped the cookie monster vocals, the songs are heavy in a more doom/prog style rather than relying on heavily overdriven amplifiers and pounding drums.

What I loved about Opeth from the first time that I listened to them was the breadth of musicianship. Their melodies were intricate and beautiful, their songs were a fusion of light and dark, and they very much did their own thing. None of that has changed.

This is a beautiful and rich album. Check it out.

My albums of 2014

Album covers 2014
Album covers 2014

Since having children my album buying has decreased quite considerably—who would have thought.

Another factor is my 195 metal CDs project which sees me reviewing a different album every week—CDs that I got for free a few years ago on Freecycle. I did wonder if I was going to need to dip into that opus to make up my top 10 for 2014 but it turns out that I bought—or made,or obtained—more than enough.

Top 15 artists (Last.fm)

Before launching into my top 10 though, I’ve just taken a look at my Last.fm top 15 artists over the last 12 months. This reflects what I’ve actually been listening to over the last year and now that my Android phone can ‘scrobble’ tracks to Last.fm it’s much more accurate than ever before. I just need to get my car hooked up and the circle will be complete.

Top 15 artists over the last 12 months
Top 15 artists over the last 12 months

The chart is quite predictable, although I’m surprised that Iron Maiden are at #2, and I would have expected both Porcupine Tree and Lamb of God to rank higher, but perhaps I’ve played them more in the car than anywhere else.

  1. Opeth (356 tracks played)
  2. Iron Maiden (285)
  3. Testament (269)
  4. Exodus (236)
  5. Apocalyptica (231)
  6. Metallica (212)
  7. Mastodon (205)
  8. Slayer (199)
  9. Machine Head (173)
  10. Kyrbgrinder (164)
  11. Porcupine Tree (161)
  12. Lamb of God (160)
  13. Celtic Frost (159)
  14. Faith No More (155)
  15. Slipknot (154)

The notable artist there is Kyrbgrinder who were from my 195 metal CDs project. I knew that I’d played them a lot, but I would never have thought that they’d rank as my 10th most played artist of 2014.

But then take a look at this chart of the top 15 most-played tracks during 2014:

Top 15 tracks played during 2014
Top 15 tracks played during 2014

Kyrbgrinder features in seven of those 15 slots, as does Russian Circles (another of my favourite 195 metal CDs this year).

10. NYCGB Alumni—Live at Spitalfields, London

NYCGB Alumni—Spitalfields, London

I’m going to start my countdown remarkably with an album that I’m singing on. In January I travelled down to London for the inaugural NYCGB Alumni singing day at Christ Church, Spitalfields.

This was the first time that I’d sung properly since the choir’s 25th anniversary concert in Birmingham in 2008 and it was blissful to be with such dear friends again and to sing such fantastic music, particularly “O Magnum Mysterium” by Lauridsen. I wept when I heard the recording for the first time. (During the performance I was so focussed on sight reading the score that I didn’t appreciate the overall piece.

You can download the concert for free on the NYCGB alumni website.

9. Pink Floyd—The Endless River

Pink Floyd—The Endless River

I’ve listened to this album quite a few times and while I do appreciate what David Gilmour and Nick Mason have done, and have done very cleverly, there is a part of me that is still a little disappointed.

I loved The Division Bell (1994) and as many of these tracks came from the same sessions I was hoping for something… more. The lack of vocals though, except on the closing track “Louder than words” is probably what I’m missing.

It is lovely, lovely, lovely though to hear my friend Louise Marshall on backing vocals.

8. Triptykon—Melana Chasmata

Triptykon—Melana Chasmata

Celtic Frost were one of my favourite bands growing up in the 80s. Triptykon is latest project from Celtic Frost founder Tom G. Warrior. And it’s heavy; very heavy. And very dark.

I’ve probably not given this album enough time, it’s definitely one I need to listen to more in 2015.

7. Godflesh—Decline and Fall

Godflesh—Decline and Fall

This was the year that I was supposed to see Godflesh live. They are one of my all-time favourite bands and their album Streetcleaner (1989) is one of the best albums to code to.

Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Justin Broadrick disbanded Godflesh in 2002 to focus on his new shoegazing/ambient outfit Jesu. But he and G.C. Green (bass) are back together and as Godflesh is on my ‘bucket list’ this was the year to see them. They even played Glasgow twice! But marital difficulties and then viral meningitis got in the way… so it will need to be next year.

Decline and Fall (2014) is a return to form for Godflesh, and this EP was designed as taster for the full album A World Lit Only by Fire (2014) released in October. I have still to buy that one.

6. Machine Head—Bloodstones and Diamonds

Machine Head—Bloodstone and Diamonds

This is a late addition to my MP3 ranks given that I only bought it on Boxing Day. But at #9 in my top artists of 2014 I’ve been listening to a lot of Machine Head this year, and this is a rocking album.

I don’t think it’s as good as Unto the Locust (2011) or The Blackening (2007) but with tracks like “And now we die” and “Night of long knives” there are certainly some cracking tunes on that platter.

5. Exodus—Blood In, Blood Out

EXODUS—BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT

This year Exodus parted company with their vocalist of the last 11 years, which is a shame as I really liked Rob Dukes’ voice—to be honest I think Exodus recorded their best work with him.

This album, with the ‘classic line-up’ vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza back on the microphone isn’t their greatest, but it’s still pretty darned good.

With guitarist Gary Holt now splitting his time between Exodus and Slayer (following the sad death of founding Slayer member Jeff Hanneman in 2013) it will be interesting to see how that influences the output and activity of both bands.

4. Slipknot— .5: The Gray Chapter

Slipknot—.5: The Gray Chapter

Following the death of founding member, bassist, Paul Gray in 2010 there was some doubt whether Slipknot would ever record and release another album; a doubt that was reinforced again when drummer Joey Jordison was ejected from the band in 2013.

But here it is, dedicated to Paul Gray and it’s a crushing album of riffs and delicate melodies.

3. Opeth—Pale Communion

Opeth—Pale Communion

Following Heritage (2011) which saw Opeth move away from their death metal roots and embrace a more 1970s prog rock path, Pale Communion (2014) follows a similar mellow and retro route.

I know that Opeth have come under fire for their dramatic change of style, compared by some to Spinal Tap’s middle-life-crisis “Jazz Odyssey”, but I rather love it. It still contains the light-and-dark twists and turns of any other Opeth album.

This album is heavy in a different way to Blackwater Park (2001) or Ghost Reveries (2006) but if on their next one Mikael Åkerfeldt happened to stomp on his distortion pedal once or twice then I’m sure it would propel that album to the number one slot that year.

2. Mastodon—Once More ‘Round the Sun

Mastodon—Once More 'Round the Sun (2014)
Mastodon—Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014)

This has been in many ways my go-to album of 2014. It’s the album that I’ve gone to sleep listening to more than any other, and it features my most-listened to song of the year: the opening track ‘Tread lightly’.

This isn’t the Mastodon of Remission (2002) or Leviathan (2004). This is a more laid back and melodic Mastodon, more progressive rock than metal throughout but it is still great music. (Even if the album cover is freaky and gives my children nightmares!)

1. Johnny Flynn—Detectorists

Johnny Flynn-Detectorists

This folk-song theme-tune from the BBC Four mini drama Detectorists written by Mackenzie Crook rather took me by surprise. The writing and acting was exquisite, the theme song was short but sublime.

I wish there had been more—an album—rather than a single song but I’ve listened to this one track over and over again. Last.fm ranks it as joint #14 this year.

In what has been a generally very difficult year, it’s nice to have this gentle, romantic song as its counterpoint.

Bonus: Reuben Saunders—Oh I am a spaceman!

Reuben Saunders—Oh I am a spaceman!

A special word must be given to the song “Oh I am a spaceman!” that my eldest son Reuben and I wrote back in May.

My wife Jane was away and while his younger brothers played a LEGO game on my PC Reuben asked if we could write a song.

Unsure about what we’d produce I said yes: at least it could be great fun. I had no idea that we’d produce something so fun. Most of the ideas were Reuben’s, I just shaped them into a song format and gave it a simple tune.

I’m in the process of illustrating the song to turn it into a self-published book for Reuben. But don’t tell him: shhhh! That’ll be a nice surprise for him next year.

You can hear our demo of the song (featuring Reuben on vocals and percussion) on SoundCloud.

My albums of 2011

I didn’t think that I’d acquired many new albums in 2011, but I’ve just checked and my collection grew by 21 items (singles, EPs and albums), which was more than last year.

Here are my highlights, and unlike last year I’m starting with my favourite and working backwards.

1. Machine Head — Unto The Locust

01-mh-locust

There have been some great metal albums released in 2011, by some major bands. But for me this has been the best: solid, tight, melodic, dynamic, perfect.

I thought their last album, The Blackening, was great—it was awarded Roadrunner Records’ “Album of the Century” after all. They seem to have either equalled or even excelled with this one. It’s a cracker of an album.

During the intro and outro of “Who We Are” on the recently finished Eighth Plague tour, Machine Head displayed fan testimonials on their projection screens that had been captured at that nights’ show.

The shots featured die hard fans that had stood in line for up to 10 hours before the doors opened, who, for their their dedication and passion, had their faces and messages shown on the three on-stage screens.

They became known as The Faces of The Eighth Plague.

Stand-out track: Who We Are

2. Mastodon — The Hunter

02-mastodon

My cousin Alan claims that Mastodon albums never release all their secrets on the first couple of listens. I like that quotation. There is an implication that there is a depth to Mastodon’s songs.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about this album, so I won’t repeat myself, suffice to say that even if the song Blasteroid is in the wrong place on the album this is one very solid, beautiful album.

Stand-out track: Curl of the Burl

3. Anthrax — Worship Music

03-anthrax

I’m going to be honest: I was sceptical about former, ‘classic’ Anthrax-frontman Joey Belladonna returning to the fold; I always preferred John Bush’s voice. But WOW! they delivered one killer album, and Belladonna’s vocals are the best they have ever been on record.

Stand-out track: In The End

4. Metallica – Beyond Magnetic EP

04-metallica

The cynic might argue that Metallica only put out the Beyond Magnetic EP in light of the poor reviews and sales of their Lulu collaboration with former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. The official reason was that it was to coincide with Metallica’s 30 anniversary celebrations in San Francisco.

Whatever the reason: four great songs, and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next from Metallica HQ.

Stand-out song: Hell and Back

5. Voivod — To The Death 84

05-voivod

This is a demo tape that got lucky and it makes Voivod sound as new and exciting as when I first heard the opening chords of Killing Technology some time in 1987.

What makes it for me is vocalist Piggy’s spoken parts between songs: it’s up-close and personal, listening in to the Voivod rehearsal space. Great stuff!

Stand-out song: Hell Driver

6. Lou Reed & Metallica — Lulu

06-lulu

Let’s make no bones about it: this is not a comfortable album to listen to. But I can’t help liking it. In many ways it reminds me of some of the twentieth century composers whose works I used to sing in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Those were pieces that you hated on first sing-through but became a part of you the more you got inside them.

The critics have slammed this album. The fans have decried it and despaired about what Metallica will come out with next. But they miss the point: this is not a Metallica album. It’s a collaboration. It’s a Lou Reed album with the four members of Metallica as backing band. If anything it is art.

It’s bold. It’s different. And I really like it.

Stand-out track: Dragon

7. Opeth — Heritage

07-opeth

This album took a good few listens to, and a good few weeks of not listening to it in between, before I finally ‘got’ it. It’s a good album, not a great album, but I will continue to listen to it… even if I do really miss that Opeth fusion of heavy and quietly melodic.

Stand-out track: Häxprocess

8. Megadeth — Th1rt3en

08-megadeth

If I’m honest, I was a little disappointed with Megadeth’s thirteen studio album. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great metal record. But for Megadeth it just feels… lazy. It doesn’t have the hunger of 2007’s United Abominations or the punch of 2009’s Endgame.

Guitarist Chris Broderick said that he could hear elements of the different eras of Megadeth in the various songs. I’m not surprised: some of these are ‘left-over’ songs from previous albums, and one (‘Millennium of the Blind’) is a re-recording.

Stand-out track: Never Dead

9. Radiohead — The King of Limbs

09-radiohead

This was an unexpected album for me this year but it’s a great album for listening to in a darkened room late at night. It’s like 2011’s answer to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Stand-out track: Lotus Flower

10. Cavalera Conspiracy — Blunt Force Trauma

10-cc

For their second album guitarist/vocalist/song-writer Max Cavalera promised a shorter, more intense, in-your-face album than their debut Inflikted, which was one of my favourite albums of 2008.

This is another album that disappointed me on first listen—perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I just wasn’t in the right head-space to listen to it. The album has certainly grown on me during the year.

Stand-out track: Warlord

Last fm charts

Of course, this year I’ve listened to more than just the music that has come out this year. Whenever I listen to music, and I’m connected to the internet, the tracks are recorded to my Last.fm account.

My top-ten most played:

Artists

  1. Opeth (579 tracks)
  2. Anthrax (518 tracks)
  3. Slayer (462 tracks)
  4. Mastodon (328 tracks)
  5. Queen (301 tracks)
  6. Lamb of God (301 tracks)
  7. Metallica (236 tracks)
  8. Machine Head (220 tracks)
  9. Testament (216 tracks)
  10. Big Country (201 tracks)

Albums

  1. Lamb of God — Sacrament
  2. Porcupine Tree — The Incident
  3. Opeth — Ghost Reveries
  4. Godflesh — Streetcleaner
  5. Slipknot — Slipknot
  6. A Perfect Circle — Mer De Noms
  7. Mastodon — The Hunter
  8. Anthrax — Worship Music
  9. Anthrax — We’ve Come For You All
  10. Opeth — Watershed

Tracks

  1. Pantera — Mouth For War (60 plays)
  2. Opeth — Ghost of Perdition (55 plays)
  3. Opeth — The Lotus Eater (47 plays)
  4. Opeth — The Drapery Falls (46 plays)
  5. Opeth — Blackwater Park (44 plays)
  6. A Perfect Circle — Magdalena (43 plays)
  7. Opeth — Bleak (43 plays)
  8. Metallica — Nothing Else Matters (42 plays)
  9. Opeth — Dirge For November (41 plays)
  10. Porcupine Tree — Lazarus (41 plays)

What about you?

Have you blogged about your favourite music of 2011, then add a link to the comments below. If not, what have you really enjoyed?

Machine Head: music as religion

Interesting new video from US thrash metal band Machine Head on the Official Roadrunner Records YouTube channel about the making of their new album, the follow-up to the highly acclaimed “The Blackening”.

The video opens with a clean-sounding arpeggiated-riff and lead singer/guitarist Rob Flynn summing up the album with the following monologue:

I wasn’t really raised with religion and in a lot of ways that’s what this records seems to be symbolising for me: music as religion; music as the thing that’s carried me through the darkest chapters of my life.

It’s carried me through the brightest… the highest highs of my life, and everything in between.

It’s always been there for me.