My annual review of what I’ve most enjoyed listening to during the last 12 months, and my albums of the year.
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:
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)
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:
- Schizma—Hardcore Enemies (130 tracks played)
- Soulfly—Archangel (124 plays)
- Metallica—Hardwired… to Self Destruct (124 plays)
- Megadeth—Dystopia (114 plays)
- 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
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
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?
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’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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
One of my favourite bands, Opeth, has a new album coming out this year, entitled Sorceress. This is the title track. It’s very heavy, very doom-y, very old-school prog.
I know that Opeth’s move from outright death-metal-style progressive metal to more 70s-oriented prog on Heritage (2011) divided the band’s fan-base. It took a while for me to really get into but I like it. But then I’ve always felt that bands should be free to do what they want, move in whichever direction interests them. And if I, as a fan, don’t like it, then fine—don’t listen to it. Listen to the stuff that you do like.
I’m really looking forward to the album being released on Friday 30 September.
The album was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales, where Queen recorded Sheer Heart Attack (1974) and A Night At The Opera (1975), including “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt takes us on a tour of the studio.
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.
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.
- Opeth (356 tracks played)
- Iron Maiden (285)
- Testament (269)
- Exodus (236)
- Apocalyptica (231)
- Metallica (212)
- Mastodon (205)
- Slayer (199)
- Machine Head (173)
- Kyrbgrinder (164)
- Porcupine Tree (161)
- Lamb of God (160)
- Celtic Frost (159)
- Faith No More (155)
- 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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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.