Last year I took it upon myself not only to organize and compile our own staff’s AOTY list, but to take things one insane step further and compile a bunch of lists from major metal or metal-covering publications and websites into one MEGA AOTY list to rule them all. Eden and I then analyzed the list and made some (mostly snarky) comments about the metal journalism industry and how they approach these sorts of things. Though I still 100% stand by what we wrote there and the conclusions we drew from it, I was really interested in seeing how well some of them would stand up to another year to use as a data point. Thankfully, this year I had a lot of help in all of our list-making efforts thanks to fellow editor Noyan, who put a ton of work into coming up with the method we ended up using to aggregate our lists (if you haven’t already, you should absolutely read his post delving into the nitty-gritty of that methodology) and then did the actual number-crunching.
So I set about compiling as many end-of-year lists from as many sites that hold a reasonable level of cachet as I could find. This proved to be a surprisingly arduous task for a few reasons. Once I got past issues of access like simply knowing where to look – I have No Clean Singing to thank in large part for re-posting many of the lists I ended up using in one place – and paywalls, there were three other major logistical hurdles for being able to do this sort of thing well. First is that there’s no standard number of albums to put out in a list. Sometimes it’s 10, sometimes 25, sometimes 50, and sometimes some other random number. Second is that several major sites forego aggregated lists completely in favor of individual writer lists solely (looking at you, Metalsucks and Metal Injection). And third is that no one, NO ONE, formats these things in the same way. Some decide to use all caps for their “band – album” headers, and no one can uniformly decide how and when to capitalize album names or use ampersands. Is it “Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas” or “Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas,” and is Nails‘ album You Will Never Be One Of Us or You Will Never Be One of Us? These otherwise completely trivial matters are magnified when you’re compiling and aggregating data, and one little mistake or inconsistency (as Noyan has alerted me to numerous times that I’ve made despite my best efforts) can ruin the whole thing.
In the end though, we have a list that seems to pretty well encapsulate the median of where the metal journalism industry was at this year. Similar to last year, I will list out the publications I included, the list of albums, and then some thoughts about the list itself and some more “meta” thoughts concerning the “industry.” The publications/websites included this year are as follows:
Consequence of Sound
As for the “list,” we decided to cap our aggregate selections to 30 rather than 50 as the smaller set of data we had to work with in comparison to our own list made the results a bit more dodgy and random the further down you went. I will also be posting two separate versions of the list, one aggregated using Noyan’s modified Pairwise Comparison model that we used for our official list, and one using the Static Assignment model that I used for our lists last year (once again, you can read all about the technicalities of these methods in Noyan’s methodology post). The reason I’m doing this is that the benefits of the Pairwise model begin to either break down or become more complicated with less data and a greater variance in individual list lengths. This resulted in a lot of ties or near ties, as well as the album that received the most top 5 votes not landing the #1 spot. So, once again, aggregation is complicated and almost always imperfect, so here are two versions that tell relatively similar stories.
1. Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason / The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation
3. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä
4. Gojira – Magma
5. Vektor – Terminal Redux
6. Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us
7. Blood Incantation – Starspawn
8. Cobalt – Slow Forever
9. Alcest – Kodama
10. Testament – Brotherhood of the Snake
11. Khemmis – Hunted
12. Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows
13. Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
14. Abbath – Abbath / Neurosis – Fires Within Fires
16. Oathbreaker – Rheia
17. Cult Of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
18. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
19. Sumac – What One Becomes
20. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
21. Opeth – Sorceress
22. Deftones – Gore
23. Kvelertak – Nattesferd
24. Astronoid – Air
25. Ihsahn – Arktis.
26. Trap Them – Crown Feral / Exmortus – Ride Forth
28. The Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence
29. Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts / Babymetal – Metal Resistance
1. Gojira – Magma
2. Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason
3. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation
4. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä
5. Khemmis – Hunted
6. Metallica – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
7. Nails – You Will Never Be One Of Us
8. Cobalt – Slow Forever
9. Vektor – Terminal Redux
10. Oathbreaker – Rheia
11. Blood Incantation – Starspawn
12. Deftones – Gore
13. Sumac – What One Becomes
14. Opeth – Sorceress
15. Abbath – Abbath
16. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires
17. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
18. Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows
19. Alcest – Kodama
20. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
21. Astronoid – Air
22. Trap Them – Crown Feral
23. SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
24. Megadeth – Dystopia
25. The Body – No One Deserves Happiness
26. Cult Of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
27. Avenged Sevenfold – The Stage
28. Ihsahn – Arktis.
29. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy Of Molten Bones
30. 40 Watt Sun – Wider Than The Sky
Once again, Eden’s and my thoughts on these results are as follows.
1. As Far As These Things Go, These Are Both Respectable Lists
There is no “correct” list here, and the reality is that it’s probably somewhere in between these two. Due to a quirk in how the Pairwise model assigns points for lists of varying length, Gojira was knocked down to 4th in spite of definitely being the top-rated album by looking at the data. Taking stock of these two lists as a whole though, my first thought is that they’re actually pretty solid! We carped plenty about the list we came up with last year (which was produced using the Static model), that it was too predictable, too built up on either a small group of “trendy” albums the industry collectively overhyped or a group of A-list releases that were just okay at best.
And while there is certainly plenty of all of that present this year as well from our perspective (our editorial stance on Magma has been made abundantly clear throughout the year), there is also a lot of agreement and similarities with our own list and plenty of other albums that a bunch of us liked quite a bit. 6 of our top 10 albums (of which one wasn’t metal anyway) – Vektor, Oathbreaker, Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas, Alcest, Meshuggah, and The Dillinger Escape Plan – are all well-represented here. That’s a surprising amount of agreement considering that we are very out-front in saying that we generally have a different perspective from the rest of the industry. All of this does come with a couple of hefty caveats that I’ll expound upon a little further below though.
2. The Lists Still Point To Many Of The Same Issues We’ve Pointed Out Before Though
All of that being said, there are definitely trends within this list that need to be examined. Simply criticizing it for albums that appear which we didn’t like (like Magma) wouldn’t achieve too much. However, one has to wonder what exactly those albums did to merit inclusion in so many end of year lists. Putting Magma aside, which might have its supporters as a brave departure from Gojira’s usual style, Opeth‘s Sorceress stands out like a sore thumb on this list. Whether you liked the album or not, it’s without a doubt that it does almost nothing new, for Opeth specifically and for the sub-genre it occupies in general. The same can be said of Metallica, whose albums was certainly a good release but nothing meriting such a high position on an end of year chart for an incredible year like 2016.
This hints towards a common effect in metal journalism where an album is judged not only on its merits but on the position which it plays within the narrative of an established band’s career. One of the reasons that you don’t see many independent names on these lists is that they don’t tell stories. It’s hard to narrow them to down to a series of lines explaining what and why they are. Sorceress however, is “the best Opeth album since their departure from metal” and Metallica‘s release is “the best Metallica album since The Black Album“. This, by the way, also contributes to the success of band’s we like: Oathbreaker’s Rheia for example fits perfectly into “the album after the breakaway album” narrative, placing them in much the same place that Sunbather did for Deafheaven a few years ago.
Thus, inclusion in this list is often tinted by justifications which have nothing to do with the quality of the release. Take a look at Värähtelijä if you need a different example of this. Whether you enjoyed the album or not, it’s decidedly less of what made Oranssi Pazuzu who they are; it’s less avant-garde, less black metal and less “out there”. In fact, it seems to land in the exact safe zone for established metal journalists, experimental enough to buy them prestige for knowing the name and appreciating the music while not too experimental so that they don’t actually have to go digging through hours and hours of obscure labels and bands to find it.
This also hints at a different problem, one which landed Khemmis such a high spot on this list. A lot of metal journalists in “establishment” publications don’t really have their pulse on trends and sub-genres. Instead, they hear what gets filtered through the system and what “makes it big” for a slew of reasons. Khemmis is a great example of this since their brand of stoner metal was done several times during the year and to much, much superior results. However, it was done by smaller bands like Family, Warm, Hollow Earth (to an extent), Kvelertak and others. This was one of the most prolific years for stoner rock’s influence on metal but so many of the names which did it well are missing from this list in favor of the consensus choice which is Khemmis.
3. Car Bomb’s Absence Continues To Show The Limitations Of Independent Releases
If you read our site at all, you know that we loved Car Bomb‘s Meta, enough to award it our #1 album of the year. We’ve written extensively about it, specifically how it picks up the mantle of Meshuggah’s legacy of pushing the boundaries of the types of music and sounds that can be produced from guitars and takes it to the next level. And, at least based on comments from our readers and our own personal networks of friends in and outside of the industry, a very broad base of people agreed that they deserved accolades and broader attention. And yet, in all of the data we collected, Meta only appeared once, and it didn’t even break top 10 of that list. It’s clearly not an issue of the kind of music Car Bomb play, as both Meshuggah’s The Violent Sleep of Reason and Dillinger’s Dissociation, two albums exemplifying certain kinds of deliriously heavy, technical, and dissonant music clearly were well-celebrated by the “industry.” They even toured most recently with Dillinger on their much-lauded and covered farewell tour across North America.
It’s also not an issue of the band being complete unknowns, as Meta is their third album, and their previous album, w^w^^w^w, was also pretty widely lauded. Doing a cursory search for Meta across the sites we included in the list though revealed virtually nothing. Next to no articles on singles or music videos released, no interviews, barely even any album reviews (our own review is, in fact, the first result that comes up on Google after the band’s Bandcamp and Wikipedia entry). Beyond that, there’s a small smattering of newsposts and reviews from mostly small to mid-sized blogs like ourselves.
In looking for an explanation of the utter lack of coverage, the most obvious explanation is in the fact that Meta, like w^w^^w^w, was an independent release. The metal/music journalism machine as a whole still relies so heavily on their established contacts representing certain labels and bands to push in front of them the albums that will catch their attention that the vast majority of independent releases, even when backed by a reputable PR firm, simply do not break through. The same can sadly be said for numerous other albums we adored this year that barely registered a blip in the greater metal journalism sphere. Metal continues to be a saturated market, and without strong journalistic voices actively seeking out the best and brightest bands and releases regardless of where they come from, most of these publications will continue to turn these kinds of lists into the same kind of echo chambers in which pretty much only bands who already have widespread industry support get noticed and elevated further.
4. Metal Journalism Outlets Did Not Coronate An Album In 2016
In the “intro” to their end-of-year metal list, Stereogum’s Michael Nelson wrote an essay-length piece about his views on the state of metal and metal journalism in 2016. His prognosis is pretty roundly dismal, stating that it was neither a particularly good year for metal and that it was a particularly bad year for metal journalism as a whole. I’ll touch upon both of those points in the next two sections, but I first want to talk briefly about one of the points he uses to back up those two conclusions, which is that the major metal journalism outlets couldn’t agree upon what music actually stuck out and defined itself this year to exemplify the genre and push the music forward. He pointed specifically to Decibel’s list as proof of metal’s disarray this year. Nelson commented that he and other colleagues from the industry expressed mostly confusion, as they either hadn’t heard of most of the albums listed or found them generally unimpressive.
To be sure, there is some credence to the idea that there wasn’t a broad base of consensus in the “industry” on what the best albums of the year were outside of the very top. Gojira, Meshuggah, Dillinger, and Oranssi Pazuzu were all represented quite well throughout the lists (between 10 and 12/14, most top 10), but beyond that it drops off precipitously. Vektor and Nails received the next number of votes overall (8), but only broke top 10 twice. Metallica, Khemmis, and Cobalt appeared in half of the lists, mostly in top 10s. Everything beyond that appears in less than half of the lists and mostly outside of top 5s. There wasn’t so much an album of the year this year as much as a small Group A, slightly larger Group B, and a much larger Group C of albums that were either, respectively, widely agreed to be among the best (10-12 votes), largely agreed to be either among the best or deserving some recognition (6-8 votes), or only recognized by a select few as being among the best or deserving recognition (3-5 votes).
To be clear, this isn’t highly unusual for an aggregated list such as this in itself, but if you want to make the argument that there just wasn’t much in metal that distinguished itself this year to the point that metal journalists and publications pretty uniformly recognized its greatness like in 2015 (coughDeafheavencough), then there is evidence to support that. It’s also why we say it’s important to view the aggregated lists here with certain caveats such as these.
5. That Doesn’t Mean That 2016 Wasn’t A Fucking Excellent Year For Metal Though
The place where we feel Michael Nelson really starts to go awry in his analysis is where he extends that lack of consensus as somehow meaning metal didn’t have an incredible year musically. We would argue (and have argued very recently) the exact opposite! Who the hell wants a solidified journalism apparatus which consistently crowns a single album? The way to cure the absence of independent voices and lack of diversity that often plagues these lists is by breaking consensus apart. Only through disagreement, dissent and radicalism can metal hope to stay relevant, to consistently push the boundaries of what it means to make, listen to and consume metal. The “establishment” not being able to agree on one album for true greatness only means that things are actually going well, that many styles, genres and niches within metal produced works that can be perceived as great by journalists.
You could look at the multiplication of sub-genres and sounds within metal as a bad thing, but why would you? The more the genre continues to create, evolve and redefine itself, the more publications will disagree on their end of year lists and the better the community will be as a whole. Consider this: do you think that Heavy Blog could exist in the 90’s, as a print outlet? Probably not; the niche genres we cover on our blog mostly didn’t even exist back then. That’s not to say that metal wasn’t innovative even back then but it sure was more consolidated. Before the advent of the Internet, the “establishment” relied even more on established connections, relationships and accepted genres.
Back when Rolling Stone, Metal Hammer and a few more veteran outlets were the only voices around, uniformity pretty much ruled the day. Hell, even in the middle 2000’s, metal had a very trend obsessed and singular face to display to the public. You had to be in the know to hear about radical bands and niche genres; nowadays bands like Oathbreaker, SubRosa and Astronoid (mostly the latter by the way) can find their place on end of year lists, spreading their names far and wide. More varied lists and unexpected inclusions of albums, less consensus on what was truly great during the year and decreasing emphasis on consensus can lead to more and more young, fresh and interesting bands making a splash, enabling them to keep making music which challenges metal and innovates on it.
6. It Also Doesn’t Mean That There Aren’t Things Happening In Metal Journalism That Should Concern Us All
The one place in Nelson’s essay where he does make the most salient point though is when he talks about developments concerning the actual metal journalism industry this year. On that front there are some legitimately concerning trends happening. He specifically cites the departure of Ben Ratliff from the New York Times and Brandon Stosuy from Pitchfork. While I cannot specifically cite the influence of Ratliff and his work for the Times, I immediately noticed Stosuy’s departure from Pitchfork. If you read our industry post from last year, we argued that Stosuy and Pitchfork had become the best representation of where mainstream metal journalism is currently. With Stosuy gone though, Pitchfork has appeared to drop their metal coverage and staff almost entirely. In their huge compendium of year-end lists, not only was metal not at all featured within their overall top 50 albums list, but they didn’t even bother to put together a separate best-of metal list, something they afforded rock, rap, r&b, pop, electronic, experimental, and yes, memes.
A similar thing can seem to be said about Noisey, where, once again, metal was almost completely absent save for the inclusion of Oathbreaker’s Rheia and Zeal & Ardor‘s Devil Is Fine (just gonna put that one aside), and the only thing of significance they seem to have to say about metal this year is that 80s thrash bands are still relevant! Kim Kelly is still fighting the good fight there and writing about great new stuff, but it’s clear that Noisey as a whole have little concern for the future of the genre as a whole.
Meanwhile, since Nelson published his piece, another hugely significant bit of industry news fell when TeamRock, the media company that owns a swath of rock and entertainment properties including the legendary Metal Hammer, announced that they would be folding and sold off to the highest bidder, effective immediately. Before getting overly dramatic and stating that this definitely means that metal journalism is in deep trouble, TeamRock’s failure as a business at the outset sounds more like a case of owning too many properties and mismanaging them as a collective rather than an indictment of any of the individual property’s viability. Nevertheless, the possibility of losing Metal Hammer either permanently or even temporarily until bought by (presumably) a new media management company is a humongous loss for both metal as a music and for metal journalism as an institution.
7. More Than Ever, We Need Strong Voices In Metal Journalism, And Those Voices Need Support
Like any kind of journalism, especially as the medium still struggles how to be sustainable in the digital age, great metal journalism isn’t a given. It’s not just something that happens and is guaranteed to happen into perpetuity. And we’re not even talking about ourselves here. There is a huge role and place of importance that venerable and seasoned metal journalistic outlets (you know, the ones who actually can pay their writers, offer them benefits, and make it possible for them to have a career) play in covering metal music and artists, discussing the artists and albums that are pushing the music forward, and, yes, having frank and open discussions about the issues that are most concerning to the health and well-being of the music and greater metal community. These are things that play a major role in keeping the music alive and healthy.
For all of the reasons we mentioned about where the industry still falls far short and succumbs to insularity, echo chambers, navel gazing, and more, we still without hesitation would argue that we’re better off for their existence. As much as ever, if not more, it’s important to support the outlets who put out good work. This can mean anything from helping to spread their work through social media, turning ad-blockers off for their site, or, if you’re feeling so generous, buying a subscription. Journalists and institutions are vital to the music, but the community is what keeps both the institutions of metal and the journalists and enthusiasts who cover it functioning. So make the environment for metal you want to see, even if that means telling them to do better with their lists.