Saturday, February 18, 2017

Obligatory Albums List: 35 Favourite Albums of 2016

We've got a Top 10 albums list over at Progradar. The following 25 albums didn't quite make the cut, but we feel they deserve attention nonetheless. The list is not internally ranked, and album titles link to our full reviews where applicable.

Riverside- Eye of the Soundscape

This is one of those special albums where a band knows they are going to do something unique and transitional, then carry out that vision flawlessly. Riverside have taken an album's worth of previously released bonus tracks and B-sides, added an album's worth of new songs, and tied it all together into a cohesive double album of instrumental ambient-electronic contemplative moods. There's a lot of texture here, and a lot of space; try it on a cold dark night with a warm drink and a massive old book.

Epica- The Holographic Principle

Picking up where their last album left off, Epica return with another LP's worth of superb symphonic progressive metal. For the most part, this is the same Epica you know, but the songs are a little more band-focused, the orchestrations more nuanced, and Simone Simons' vocals explore some more 'pop' directions in addition to more operatic turns. Even the growled vocals are pretty clear. The result is that the lyrics come more to the forefront and the songs sound more distinct. Whether you're new to the world of Dutch symphonic rock or a dedicated fan, The Holographic Principle deserves a listen.

The Gift- Why The Sea Is Salt

Expansive. Melodic. Virtuoso. Nothing to prove because it's all right there. The Gift are playing full-on early 70's Prog with a capital 'Fox's Head,' and it's lovely. Why The Sea Is Salt finds the band inhabiting rather than imitating this classic period of progressive music. The arrangements are full but never dense, with each instrumentalist taking some room to stretch their musical legs. Especially arresting are the resounding piano and gorgeous folky vocals. Come for Mark Buckingham's stunning album art, stay for the stunning album.

The Anchoress- Confessions of a Romance Novelist

This is the Kate Bush album we've prayed for, the Regina Spektor album we deserve. Catherine Anne Davies is a helluva songwriter, turning in a collection of 'revenge pop' tracks that are pointed, lush, progressive, eclectic, and arresting. The songs are largely built around bouncy, bright piano, a tightly-produced rhythm section, and Davies' beautiful shape-shifting vocals. Like all great pop albums, the sequence always feels over too soon and quite nearly demands repeated listens.

David Bowie- Blackstar

In a closely accessible possible world, this masterpiece might have taken all ten spots on our Top 10 Albums list. Even before we knew it would be his last album, we knew it would be one of his best, the video for the title track having caught our collective attention with a stranglehold usually denied 'aging rockers.' But this was Bowie, and Bowie in top form--vocally, lyrically, and visually. Blackstar is jazzy, weird, impeccably performed and produced, and an engaging mystery throughout. What a special departing gift this is.

iamthemorning- Lighthouse

If the phrase "chamber-prog" doesn't perk your ears, how about the descriptions "haunted pop" or "won a Progressive Music Award for Album of the Year"? This Russian duo place equal weight on their classical, jazz, and pop influences while completely sidestepping the conventions the term "Prog" has come to represent. Grand piano and gorgeous female vocals take the spotlight and hold it.

Anneke Van Giersbergen & Árstíðir- Verloren Verleden

Annie is one of those "I'd buy the super deluxe vinyl box set version of her singing the phone book" kind of artists. Her voice is luxurious, and this collection of fairly mellow classical arrangements keeps the focus on on that luxury. The small string ensemble is pretty, the mix of languages soothing, the dynamics suitable for contemplating, reading, bird watching, and appreciating. When you're in the mood for something quiet and sophisticated, give this one several listens.

Marcela Bovio- Unprecedented

Speaking of gorgeous voices who can sing anything: you may have heard Bovio and not realized it, as she's been a frequent collaborator with Arjen Lucassen and Anneke Van Giersbergen. Her debut solo LP finds the metal goddess showing off her classical chops, live in the studio with Joost van den Broek producing. The natural reverb of the room complements the strings-and-vocals approach that dominates the arrangements while the occasional bit of percussion adds texture. This one is perfect for a candlelit dinner or a stroll through the art museum.

Paul Simon- Stranger To Stranger

Paul Simon is a national treasure, he's still one of America's best songwriters, and he's got that Bing Crosby inspired 'off-the-cuff' vocal delivery down pat. If you've heard anything Simon's done since Graceland, this won't album won't be a surprise: the arrangements feature a number of interesting and uncommon percussive and rhythmic choices as well as a generally 'international' feel, but the return of Roy Halee as producer brings a bit more air and whimsy to the soundscapes.

Thank You Scientist- Stranger Heads Prevail

Oh man, we're gonna be hearing a lot more about this young band--they're too fun, musical, and just plain good to go unnoticed. It's jazz, R&B, prog, post-rock, and pop, but it doesn't sound like a mash-up of these styles. Rather, Stranger Heads Prevail forces the question "Why isn't this just the new musical normal? How do others confine themselves to styles and genres?" Prog hasn't felt this good since Genesis recruited the EWF horns.

Bob Dylan- Fallen Angels

Dylan can do what he wants, okay? And if he wants to be a crooner, y'know what? He's awfully good at it. There'll be no surprises here for those who heard the slightly better Shadows In The Night, but this second album in the Sinatra trilogy (quintilogy, given the Triplicate announcement?) continues to mine a magical vein. Even Tony Bennett is elbows-deep in duets albums at this point, but Dylan just hunkers down with a good song and a world-class band to great results. One day, Bob Dylan will be remembered as one of the great singers of all-time, and Fallen Angels will be appreciated as cementing that status.

Bill Mallonee- Slow Trauma

Since 2013's Dolorosa, Bill Mallonee has been perfecting his self-produced High Desert Album. While the themes and characters remain familiar, the arrangements, performances, and mixes on Slow Trauma take another mesa-sized leap forward. This is lush Americana that feels like you've hitch-hiked stretches of the Southwest that you've never even seen. There's a reason that No Depression magazine keeps hyping Mallonee's work, and this album wears that rationale on its sleeve.

Steve Taylor & The Danielson Foil- Wow To The Deadness

Okay, so this one is an EP, but what an EP! Steve Taylor & Co. take the best of their debut album, distill it to six compact tunes, and add a shot of Danielson. These musicians already knew how to let their freak flag fly, but the line-up on Wow To The Deadness unfurl a punk-art hybrid that sails three sheets to the wind. It's fun, it's energetic, and it rivals Chagall Guevara for the best thing Steve Taylor has ever done.

The Dear Hunter- Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional

We kept hearing the buzz around Casey Crescenzo's group, but this album got lost in the shuffle for us as we were bombarded with so much great music in 2016. Boy, we should have listened in sooner. The Dear Hunter's approach to progressive music is absolutely to mash up various genres, and they pull it off with grace, quirk, and aplomb. Post-rock and showtunes form a baseline but even Brian Wilson, Coldplay, and The Andrews Sisters get their hooks in here. You need this for your next road trip.

Kansas- The Prelude Implicit

Kansas' grand return is nothing short of a triumph. This is easily their best album in 20 years, and most importantly, it doesn't sound forced or contrived--this is just Kansas rediscovering themselves. There are lots of 1970's Kansas guitar riffs, organ swells, and fiery violin from David Ragsdale that rivals Robby Steinhardt's best work. The compositions largely inhabit AOR territory, with a large helping of Prog. While not a perfect album, this is perfectly Kansas, and that's a huge win for the band and their fans.

Starflyer 59- SLOW

Jason Martin & Co. return with another tightly produced meditation on getting old and giving up. Somewhere between lounge-gaze and upbeat New Romanticism, the album largely follows the musical cues of recent Starflyer 59 albums, though it is perhaps a bit more varied. Martin's smoker voice just gets better and deeper and sadder, as do the lyrics. Call it a near-fatal dose of realism, but hey, at least the good times are still there as old memories, right?

Neal Morse Band- The Similitude Of A Dream

And here's another prog concept double album from Mr. Morse. No, it's not quite as good as the hype would suggest, but it is a continuation of the fresh inspiration of a band collaboration. Eric Gillette is the real star here, both vocally and shreddingly, while Neal's lyrics hit some real highs, relatively few lows, and quite a bit of the space between. Mostly, it's just an unabashed Neal Morse album that rocks from start to finish, and it does that very well.

Dw Dunphy- The First Thing That Came To Mind

Once again taking a 'release songs as they come' approach, Dw Dunphy's latest album features progressive pop, indie rock, and cinematic structures. It's lo-fi but well-produced; largely instrumental but hook-y throughout. There's lots of big drum kits and percussion, distorted guitars, and textured keys here, with intelligent and slightly cynical lyrics to anchor the vocal tracks. Try turning down the volume on TV political commentary and using this as a soundtrack. Oh, and the whole thing is being released as cassette with hand-sketched art this March, so Relic or Hipster, you've got a reason to buy it.

Tarja- The Shadow Self

Tarja released two LP's this year, but this 'proper' album is the better of the two, as well as the best and heaviest of her solo albums. All the dark themes and hard rock of her career thus far are distilled and clarified in this set of songs; this is the album she's been trying to make for years, and she's now perfected it. The compositions and production are stellar, and of course, Tarja's gorgeous voice is front and center throughout. Her cover of Muse's "Supremacy" features one of the best vocal performances of the year, by anybody. Nightwish who?

Blues Pills- Lady In Gold

This Swedish quarter sound heaven-bent on not only recalling but actually resurrecting the psychedelic blues-rock of Jefferson Airplane, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Their second LP is a compact set of scorchers that barely takes a breather, though the performances generally eschew guitar solos in favour of a tight rhythm section and serpentine organ. The Janis Joplin comparison is simply unavoidable: Elin Larsson's vocals take the brash energy of the songs and push the set even further into blues-rock overdrive.

Meat Loaf- Braver Than We Are

Reports of Meat Loaf's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, his voice is shot. It is, and there's no point in his denying the obvious. But Meat Loaf--especially with Jim Steinman writing all the songs, as he does here--has always been about over-the-top-rock-and-roll-musical-theatre-gone-off-the-rails. So, what do you do with an old, fragile voice like Meat Loaf's? You stick it front and center into a set of overblown Steinman compositions all about being old, fragile, but defiant. It mostly works, and Braver Than We Are is the best thing Meat Loaf or Steinman have done since Bat Out Of Hell II. The album is also buoyed by it's heavy reliance on some talented female vocalists, so it's kind of the best of both Steinman worlds.

Paul Gilbert- I Can Destroy

What a great warm-weather album! Sure to inspire aggressive driving, this album is front-to-back bluesy-ballsy melodic and hard rock. Tons of riffs, solos, and big choruses make this an absolute delight and a much-needed infusion of brash guitar-centered rock in a musical landscape largely bereft of such guileless enthusiasm. It's fun and it rocks and you're listening already, right?

Aisles- Hawaii

Moody, textured, varied, and truly progressive, the latest from Chile's Aisles combines elements of symphonic prog with welcome helpings of jazz fusion and world music. The concept is dense but reveals itself over time; it demands some commitment from the listener, but rewards the effort with a genuine musical and emotional payoff.

They Might Be Giants- Phone Power

TMBG wrapped up an amazing 2015 filled with Dial-A-Songs by releasing this compilation in 2016. It's the weakest of the three albums culled from the previous year's plenitude, but a weak TMBG album is still filled with great songs. This one is notable for its inclusion of the band's incredible cover of Destiny Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills."

Red Bazar- Tales From The Bookcase

Featuring heavy, melodic guitars, just the right amount of noodley keys, and some very Greg Lake-and-Peter Gabriel-esque vocals, this one seems to have flown rather under the radar until its sudden appearance on several end of year lists. In an expansive UK Progressive scene, this album holds its own with many of the 'big name' releases, and as more people hear songs like "Queen of the Night Part 1" and "Lights of Home," Red Bazar will surely graduate from 'best kept secret' to 'greatly heralded.'

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