Every year is more difficult than the last. It doesn't matter how many you try to reduce the list to, figuring out which records make the cut is a near impossible task. But, year after year, we saddle ourselves with that responsibility, and we take it very seriously. All of that said, 2016's mid-year list has been a nightmare. We've been reduced to a huddled mess on the floor, trying to parse the details of what would make one album #5, instead of #4. And while you laugh, the obsessive compulsive mature with which we treat this list is to be pitied, not ridiculed.
This, by NO means, an indictment on the albums that didn't make the list. There were far too many that we would have loved to include, but there simply wasn't a way to do them all, without copping out and extending the list to 30 or more. Lacuna Coil, Midnight Eternal, Universal Mind Project, Persona, they were all within microns of unseating an album that did make it. This just reinforces how good a year it's been, and how monumental a task it is to narrow them down.
Without further ado, we present you with our 16 favorite albums of the year, so far... or at least as they stand at the moment of publication.
16. Myrath - Legacy (earMusic)
I'm not sure there is a more underappreciated band in the power prog scene today. Underscored by the fact that they hail from Tunisia, Myrath always feel as though they're on the verge of breaking through to the top tier, but no album cycle to date has led in that direction. Legacy is different. Forget the big budget music video for the lead single, Believer. This album, more than any other in their catalogue, finds a voice. Not a literal voice; Zaher Zorgati has that locked down. But the album speaks to each individual listener in ways that few albums, within the confines of the genre or otherwise, managed to do this year. It might very be the crown jewel of a band on the rise.
15. The Lion's Daughter - Existence Is Horror (Season Of Mist)
These mid year lists typically have a fatal flaw; albums from January and February often get buried beneath months of newer, more shiny releases. It speaks to our attention span, I guess. But The Lion's Daughter, new to the Season of Mist roster, delivered an album on the 8th of January that is as punishing and nuanced now as it was six months ago. It's an instant validation of their signing, and a bright beacon toward the future of the doomy, sludge ridden, grinding side of the most diverse genre in the world. Oh, and that Paolo Girardi artwork? Second to none.
14. Fleshgod Apocalypse - King (Nuclear Blast)
Like Baroness last year, Fleshgod Apocalypse embraced the thrill of the hunt. They teased King, they fed us tidbits, one gram at a time. Behind the scenes, in the studio, one by one. And in turn, built anticipated for an album we already knew we wanted. But they didn't fall into the hype train pitfall; over promising and under delivering. King was a masterpiece from the word go, a symphonic driven, abrasively heavy, death metal inspired piece of music that is equal parts composition and decimation. This all came, of course, to the shock of no one.
13. Moonsorrow - Jumalten Aika (Century Media)
It'll sound redundant; Moonsorrow are consistently consistent. Aside from being musically dynamic, they are continue to evoke the most primal responses through that music. Their brand of Pagan metal is unlike any other, spawning the forthcoming Home Of The Wind documentary. And Jumalten Aika is the next logical progression for a band who need no justification for anything they do. Dark and distinctly moody, it embodies everything you like about the Pagan subsect. Though, to be fair, if it was decided that their next record would be entirely adult contemporary rock, they would still find a way to make it entirely their own.
12. Oranssi Pazuzu - Värähtelijä (20 Buck Spin)
We're not immune to the trap of the catchy, accessible hook. There's a reason people gravitate to cookie cutter pop music, formulaic though it may be. It's easy; easy to listen to, easy to digest, and easier to tune out. Oranssi Pazuzu are not for the feint of heart. Värähtelijä is, for lack of a better word, a challenging record to get through. Part psychedelia, part blackened haze, it stands as one of the more unique releases we've heard in years. That doesn't automatically equate to being good, but it is. Once you let your guard down, the cosmic cloud will take you someplace you never thought you'd go.
11. Perihelion Ship - A Rare Thunderstorm In Spring (Independent)
The best albums are the ones you discover by pure chance. Perihelion Ship weren't on our radar until a chance sight of the album artwork. But beneath the cover was a band doing progressive things in a profound, if not familiar, way. There will be comparisons made to Opeth, and while they are valid on their face, this band, and this album, cannot be defined through the lens of any other. The use of mellotron and Hammond organ are the icing on this seven layer cake, and in a rare occurrence, artwork and music become one and the same. It's a beautiful harmony that is far too perfect to be an accident.
10. Astronoid -- Air (Blood Music)
If you've ever wanted to prove that metal isn't all guttural screams and suicidal, Satan worshiping screams, Astronoid embody everything you want. The instrumentals are thrash in nature, relying heavily on riffs for sound and structure. But with vocals that are more soothing and seething, more honey than vinegar, Air quickly embeds itself in your brain like the most friendly earworm you've ever encountered. It's the change of pace we all crave, but without sacrificing what elitists cling to. No, this isn't Babymetal. It's a thrash album wrapped in a silky smooth dream. And I haven't ever heard another like it.
9. Katatonia - The Fall of Hearts (Peaceville Records)
Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading Sorrow Eternal over the last five years knows all about our love/love relationship with Katatonia. They are a band, among the few, that we believe can do no wrong. And yet, The Fall of Hearts finds itself in the bottom half of our list of favorite albums of 2016. How can this be? It's no fault of theirs. The album is everything we wanted, all we expected, and more. It's forward thinking without being pretentious, and Jonas Renkse may have delivered his best vocal performance yet. It's nearly flawless. And yet, in 2016, that's only good enough for 9th place. Amazing.
8. RLYR - Delayer (Magic Bullet Records)
There's a pedigree to be found in RLYR, culling together members of Pelican, Locrian, and Bloodiest. That alone would bode well. But this band is not those bands, nor is it trying to be. Delayer is an album of instrumental metal that is self driven and organic, often feeling like an extended jam session that just went too perfectly to go for a second take. It feels right, an existential and nonsensical quality that only the best and brightest artists can harness. And yet, somehow, it seems like this is only the beginning. As if at some indeterminate time down the line, we'll look back and look at this record as part of the climb, not the top of the peak. And that's exciting.
7. Sylvaine - Wistful (Season of Mist)
If nothing else, 2016 has been a revelation in heavy music. Now more than ever, bands are coloring outside the lines, brazenly and unapologetically. Sylvaine, yet another of the recent additions to the Season Of Mist camp, took shoegaze, black metal, and ambient music and balled them into one atmospheric wonder. It isn't the fabled trip to heaven. It's riding on a gray cloud, overlooking the forest and trees. It's about the complex emotions you can feel when listening to an album. It manipulates your base feelings in ways I found astounding. With the help of Alcest's Neige, Sylvaine has penned an album that is as important to the genre as any other album you've heard this year. Or last year.
6. If These Trees Could Talk - The Bones of A Dying World (Metal Blade Records)
Like Fleshgod Apocalypse, If These Trees Could Talk were a prime example of hype done right. That speaks to the machine that is Metal Blade, who went for quality over quantity, in the best possible way. You can do that when the band is at the forefront of their genre, as this band clearly is. The top tier of instrumental heavy rock/metal is an exclusive club, and The Bones Of A Dying World pushes the next wave forward, rather than riding one that's already begun to swell. It's alternating periods of weighty and angelic, and finds balance in the gray areas between. A masterpiece of vocal free heavy music.
5. Gojira - Magma (Roadrunner Records)
In preparing to finalize this list, I avoiding reading any others. I didn't want to cloud my judgment. But I assume, and will confirm, that Gojira will appear on most, if not all, Top-whatever lists. And rightfully so. Magma is musical evolution of the highest order, executed by another band that stands on an endless pit of ideas. Songs like Low Lands and The Shooting Star show the depth and breadth of Gojira's arsenal, but they haven't forsaken their fans who are rooted in the band's extremes. They mastered the long tease, the short tease, and every tease in between. And Magma an album worth teasing, hearing, listening, digesting, and dissecting.
4. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas - Mariner (Indie Recordings)
Collaborations are messy business. But one of the preeminent post metal bands in the world, butting heads with one of, if not the, most distinct voices in music today? Mariner may become the blueprint for cooperative albums going forward. It plays to the strengths of both without clouding the contributions of either. The Wreck of S.S. Needle induced chills upon the first listen. And again on the second. And again on the 50th. And everywhere in between. That's a theme that permeates the entire album, a welcomed physical response. Brilliant, bright, and visceral, Mariner has and will continue to expand the boundaries of metal.
3. Ihsahn - Arktis (Candelight Records)
What more can I say about Ihsahn that hasn't been said before? He carries the flag for progressive and experimental music in ways no one else could dream to. The former Emperor frontman has a sound that cannot be copied, a voice, that cannot be mistaken for any other. And his ability - nay, his desire - to slice and carve new territory on every song, every album is unrivaled. Arktis is a new chapter in a book that is constantly shifting and pivoting. How does an album with so many differing, distinct movements flow so flawlessly from one to the next? You'd have to ask Ihsahn. Celestial Violence, by the way, may be the best single of the year.
2. Spotlights - Tidals (Crowquill Records)
There has not been an album, this year or any year in recent memory, that was as emotional draining as that of Brooklyn husband and wife duo in Spotlights. Tidals isn't the heaviest album you'll hear this year, but it's as flawlessly written and executed as any other record you could find. First the first riff to the last, you're captive; you're so engrossed in the ebb and flow of the melodies, that you'll lose track of the passage of time. Once, twice, three times through, and it feels like you just began. And one pass through the closing track, Joseph, and even the coldest and blackest of hearts may start to beat again. It did for me. And I suspect it could for you.
1. Haken - Affinity (InsideOut Music)
I won't say that Affinity is the best album they've released. In fact, I can't unequivocally say that any of their albums trumps the one before or the one after. It's part of what I've grown so infatuated with; they seem to stay ahead of even their own fanbase, delivering what it is you wanted before you ever asked for it. Affinity isn't The Mountain, and that's a good thing. It's über melodic, and poetic in the most pleasing of ways. It nods to the past, while marching unabated into the future. This album is the next in a long list of reasons why it is Haken, not Dream Theater, are the leaders of the progressive metal movement. Affinity is a perfect album, front to back and side to side, and it might not even be their best.