Since we publish our individual Top 10 lists right after our main one, you can clearly tell that there are always albums missing for each writer from the general list. We embrace that fault as one of the inevitable limitations of general lists for the collective power such aggregations hold; we wouldn’t give up doing a main list, ever. However, it’s always been a habit of ours to allow each writer to highlight one album from their Top 10 selections that didn’t make the final cut. This allows us more flexibility and the chance to, one last time, shun a light on some of our favorite music from the year. In a fantastic year such as 2016, it’s almost a necessity, as our list, more than ever, misses out on so much of the greatness contained therein.
You can find these “Outliers” below, together with some text by the writer who selected them. This list once again speaks to the incredible diversity of good music in 2016 and our efforts to range far and wide for quality. We hope this gives you a perhaps more approachable path into what we felt were the best releases of the year, before you go back to our main list and dive in. Thank you once again for making this platform possible and giving us a place to sound our opinions. We can’t wait for 2017.
Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
Is there anything more deadly to reinvention than fanfare? The very idea of changing who you are already inspires many legitimate questions about authenticity, intent and art. When you add fanfare to the mix, repeated inane cries for attention towards the reinvention, it turns into something suspiciously planned, a convoluted mask that often draws away from how paper thin and artificial this supposed reinvention. Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts is a perfect example of how to shy away from all that, simply releasing an album that’s so earnest in its dedication to music and a new path for the band that it speaks for itself.
The reinvention on The Fall of Hearts is all about going back to the roots of what made Katatonia the great band they are today and reconfiguring some very basic premises while maintaining a tie to the past. On one hand, many of the basic sounds (including the heavy reliance on Jonas Renkse’s vocals) are maintained, creating the same ethereal ambiance that Katatonia have been exploring in recent years. On the other, however, it infuses many progressive elements into this familiar atmosphere, breaking up some of the monotony that might have crept into Katatonia’s style of late.
Thus, The Fall of Hearts ushers its listeners into the band’s reinvention, utilizing fresh, convincing musical ideas instead of press releases and imagery contests. It doubles down on the compositional phase of recording, leaving much of the recording mechanisms and approaches the same as previous releases. It innovates where it should, by changing up rhythm structures and chord progressions within the traditional, immersive vibe that Katatonia have carefully created over the years. Therefore, it’s one of the best albums of the year, fusing old and new together in one of the most celebrated and accomplished discographies in metal.
How To Dress Well – Care
How To Dress Well (aka Tom Krell)’s previous release was 2014’s What Is This Heart?: an album that took alternative R&B to new heights of experimentation, what with Krell’s unique style of production, singular vocal phrasing, and his interesting, philosophical lyrics all wrapped into a about an hour of music. It was an album that helped me developed my own love of R&B because it took what made the genre so fantastic for me in the first place—passionate, articulate vocals sung over interesting beats and production—and put a personal, sui generis twist on it. It just didn’t sound like anything else I’d ever heard before, and it absolutely blew my mind.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with HTDW’s followup to What Is This Heart—would Krell go deeper down the rabbit hole he’d previously made, or make a hard reverse and attempt to embrace more pop sensibilities? Strangely, though, Care seems like it’s attacked both of these possibilities, as if Krell went in opposite directions at the same time. Each track of Care feels a little poppier—seriously, the choruses are catchier than pinkeye—yet at the same time the production retains that classic HTDW formula (albeit a hint more subdued than before), with its melange of acoustic and electric guitars, synths, drum machines, and samples. And above all of that is Tom Krell with his delicate-as-fine-crystal falsetto, wearing his heart openly on his sleeve. It might not be the aural revolution that some fans wanted, but it’s nonetheless a beautiful and interesting album that manages to simultaneously buck and embrace the elements that define contemporary R&B music.
Fountainhead – Reverse Engineering
Guitar maestro Tom “Fountainhead” Geldschläger already made two appearances in our Top 50 Albums of 2016, yet it could so easily have been three. His songwriting, leadwork and fretless guitar playing elevated Obscura’s Akroasis to serious Album of the Year contender status, whilst his work in the instrumental jazz fusion trio The Pitts Minnemann Project’s The Psychic Planetarium was also exceptional. Today we’re paying homage to his solo project, the progressive metal beast that is Fountainhead, with the amazing Reverse Engineering.
The album is split into roughly two halves, with the first half instrumental in nature and the latter half including vocals. Instrumental, guitar-centric artists tend to fall into at least one of three categories: djent (Animals As Leaders), nu-prog (Plini), and ‘fuck songs, look how good I am at guitar’ (we won’t name names). Fountainhead escapes such categorisation, and Reverse Engineering is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly derivative scene. Each song contributes something fresh and new to the album, be it the warm and exotic indian tones of “999”, or the technical and jagged work on the jazzy “Ascension”. Yet, despite this, Reverse Engineering still manages to flow incredibly well as a whole. The fretless guitar is indubitably the star of the show, taking up the lead role in each instrumental track. Notably, the instrumental tracks each have extremely catchy and memorable melodic motifs which continues to reappear both within and between tracks, giving the listener something to latch onto.
The vocals used on the latter half of the album have been somewhat polarising, but the melodies are well written and they certainly add a new dimension to the record. Overall the sonic range of the album is truly incredible, with Geldschläger masterfully fusing genres as diverse as metal, classical music, drum & bass, traditional Indian music, jazz, and so much more. Technical, without being too flashy, Reverse Engineering is everything progressive metal should be, capitalising on all of the tropes that work, avoiding the obvious pitfalls, and adding new ideas to boot.
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The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
The 1975 are a band that probably would have been a guilty pleasure had they existed when I was in high school, much like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were once the earworming bane of my existence. Nowadays, putting the energy into not enjoying things seems like a complete waste of time, so more often than not, 2016’s listening habits caught me screaming along to the ridiculously over the top and flamboyantly angsty choruses and glam-by-way-of-dream-pop songcraft of The 1975’s I Like It When You Sleep. Painted in a pink neon aesthetic, a lowkey appreciation for shoegaze, and a penchant for hooks that get alarmingly close to boyband territory, this record had nostalgic 80’s pop hooks that just would not let go. It clawed its way into my personal top 5, somewhere between The Dillinger Escape Plan and Alcest in terms of airplay. Unfortunately, nobody else around here is talking about this record, and truth be told, I can’t say this band has any business being on a website called Heavy Blog. I guess that’s the entire point of this list, yeah?
Slice the Cake – Odyssey to the West
Though it would be this album that would also spell the untimely demise of the band, Slice the Cake’s swansong, 80-minute monstrosity Odyssey to the West is one of the most forward-thinking pieces of deathcore ever conceived. This is an album that will certainly test the patience of many listeners, but the excellent pacing of the entire piece flows almost seamlessly. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself lost in one of the band’s numerous massive grooves that are absolutely caked in thick reverb and assorted atmospherics. It’s also pretty common to find yourself lost in the album’s incredibly dense lyrical content (which we did an entire prognotes for!) and frequently-shifting vocal styles of Gareth Mason.
What Odyssey to the West does best, perhaps, is how the album freakishly manages to take so many disparate, dissonant, and disorienting ideas and meld everything together into something cohesive and incredibly entertaining. Find yourself getting tired of the dizzying tech death? Prepare to get bowled the fuck over by a massive breakdown. Feeling like the album’s lacking in a bit of variation for a track or two? There’s probably an incredible acoustic number right around the corner. Most bands attempting something this grand in scope would probably fall short of this record, and at least we are left with what is, without question, the band’s magnum opus and an undeniably fresh and progressive take on a style of metal that some may think has overstayed its welcome. Oh, and did we forget to mention that the album is also accompanied by a 28-minute ambient pieces that will positively terrify.
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Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
During each of the countless times I played Coloring Book with my girlfriend, she always mused aloud about the irony of her ex-Protestant boyfriend blasting unashamedly pious gospel rap. Even though Chance and I wouldn’t have much polite conversation at a Bible study, it takes little convincing to get behind his brand of Christianity – a message that exudes nothing but pure positivity, joy and exuberance for loving everything about life, even through our darkest moments. It’s a doctrine which caught my full, undivided attention on “Sunday Candy,” an unbelievably phenomenal track from his overall decent collaboration with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. And despite actively yearning for Chance to capitalize on the successes of this track, nothing could have prepared me for how effortlessly every single song on Coloring Book would provide all of my expectations with a golden throne at Christ’s table. In essence, the mixtape is Sunday Candy – The Album in the absolute best way possible.
Much of this can be attributed to Chance’s approach to lyricism, one which molds endearing but potent rhymes into earworm flows. Whether he’s riffing on Biblical themes (“Exalt, Exalt, glorify/Descend upon the earth with swords and fortify/the borders where your shorties lie.” – “How Great”) or playfully commenting on his humble rise to the top of the game (“The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be/I’m getting artsy-fartsy, house full of some Hebru Brantleys/You must’ve missed the come up, I must be all I can be/Call me Mister Mufasa, I had to master stampedes.” – “Blessings (Reprise)”), Chance has a knack for being both impressively lyrical and irresistibly likeable. It also helps that he enlists a stellar cast of features, ranging from underground spitters like Jay Electronica and Noname to surprisingly on-point contributions from mainstream emcees like 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne.
Yet, what really seals the deal on Coloring Book is the mixtape’s flawless marriage of gospel and hip-hop, a union which takes all of the strengths of Kanye’s early work and elevates them among some of the best rap compositions ever laid to tape. Thanks to an ensemble of big name vocal guests, including T-Pain and Anderson .Paak; the gorgeous singing of the Chicago Children’s Choir throughout; and stellar production from Kaytranada, The Social Experiment, Kanye and others, Coloring Book feels less like a mixtape and more like an album worthy of inclusion in the cannon of hip-hop classics. Chance may have just burst onto the scene with 2013’s Acid Rap, but with projects like this, he’s placed himself on the first round ballot for legend status in the genre.
O’Brother – Endless Light
Restraint, in a musical sense, is not the easiest thing for a songwriter to openly demonstrate. It necessitates a broader understanding of the different elements within a track; a finger on the pulse of each individual song segment, so to speak, and a strong sense of how best to make them flow in the final rendition. Of the many brilliant releases 2016 brought us, few can lay claim to demonstrating restraint nearly as masterfully as Endless Light, wherein O’Brother effectively perfect their craft.
Part of their success to this end owes itself to their three-guitarist approach, which – far from the heroics seen in other three-guitar bands like Iron Maiden and Periphery – lends itself beautifully to their gradual, subtle sense of progression within each given track. The instrumentation itself builds off flavours of post-metal and alternative rock alike, from full-on Russian Circles-style riffs at the end of “Complicated End Times” to Muse-like moments in “Time Is A Length of Rope”. Meanwhile, the vocal hooks and harmonies are as powerful as they are infectious (“Your Move”, “Black Hole”) giving each song a memorable personality of its own beyond what the already excellent instrumentation has to offer. But the real star of the show is, once again, the band’s overall sense of restraint – because when a given song’s climax hits, it makes sure to hit hard.
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Ion Dissonance – Cast The First Stone
This year hit me with so many game changers. Albums that reinvented genres for me personally or just blew me away with the power of the come back. Cast The First Stone exists in both of those spaces. Thank you Ion Dissonance. Because coming back with something good is welcome enough. Coming back with a bang and some of my favourite musical moments of recent times, well I’ve been spoiled.
Genuinely, it feels like every single screech, splash or shrill sci-fi squeal is delivered exactly where it needed to be. Without ever sounding chopped together or doctored, Ion Dissonance put their math money where their math mouth is because this album is chock full of the tightest syncopated grooves and grinds around. Savage stuff of the highest order. I still stand by my words earlier this year, this is destructive music for every one into extreme shit and many outside of that particular domain.
Only missing out on my personal top spot because of another game changing return to the show, Cast The First Stone is always going to be a favourite because it showed one of my favourite bands picking it up and killing it on the first try, second time around. Three cheers for Montreal.
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Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Since they first burst onto the national scene with Southern Rock Opera, the Drive-By Truckers have changed quite a bit; especially considering that they are firmly rooted in an established, classic sound. During much of their history, the band was defined by a heavy guitar attack (they had three guitarists!) and the musings of frontman Patterson Hood. A few years ago, sideman Mike Cooley became an equal contributor. And now, with American Band, DBT have abandoned riffs almost entirely in favor of a strumming sound that places more emphasis than ever on their strong lyrical content. The melodies are more immediate than in the past, and the lyrics share this trait, too. Rather than cloaking commentary in storytelling, the band states things directly, so that the meaning is clear beyond a doubt.
DBT have always been a Southern band through and through, and race has been one of the primary topics of their songs. This theme is the clear focus of American Band, most poignantly on the track “What It Means.” “And that guy who killed that kid/ Down in Florida standing ground/ Is free to beat up on his girlfriend/ And wave his brand new gun around/ While some kid is dead and buried/ And laying in the ground/ With a pocket full of skittles.” Listening to the song—this stanza a line short—it’s as if Hood is at the same loss for words as millions of Americans. American Band is a poignant and moving listen.
Blazon Stone – War of the Roses
I nearly wrote about Thy Catafalque’s excellent avant-garde offering Meta in this slot – but this album is the very marrow of heavy metal contained in 45 compact minutes.
War of the Roses is fun. It’s nothing new or exciting or unique, but boy is it fun. The lyrics are horrible nonsense, everything sounds the same, they’re unrepentant Running Wild clones – and that’s all fine. Because the riffs are amazing, the vocals are soaring, and there’s more passion and energy in ten minutes of this album than in most. There’s something to be said for an album that doesn’t dedicate itself to any great genre-bending gymnastics or experimental wackery.
That isn’t to take away from the quality of the songs on the album. Make no mistake – these songs rip. When I first heard the album, I made my “damn, that’s a good riff” face for every song on the album. Most albums are lucky to be graced by that face even once. If that’s not enough to convince you, listen to the first fifteen seconds of the album. If that one-held-breath’s length appeals to you, then you’re in for a treat. Riffs of similar quality and intensity are strewn throughout War of the Roses like unmatched socks. And speaking of War of the Roses – the title track is a particular doozy. It’s the only song to modify the established power/speed metal script, even if it’s only to change the font. Although the song is ostensibly about some silly power struggle for the English throne, the music is really an irrepressibly giddy ode to speed metal shred and power metal excess. An epic chorus and a searing riff anchor the nearly ten minute track, finishing the album off with a BANG!
Cobalt – Slow Forever
Usually when a band loses its founding member and lead vocalist, they might decide to call it quits. So I feared was the fate of avant-garde black metal duo Cobalt when vocalist Phil McSorely announced his departure, then return, then was forcefully booted by his “better-half”, instrumentalist Erik Wunder, for essentially being Alex Jones. At this point I lost a lot of hope in Cobalt and thought for sure they were destined to be yet another band I loved who had met a rather tragic end.
However my fears were soon put to rest. Wunder, once again as a sole instrumentalist, posted pictures to the band’s facebook page showing him recording their next album, Slow Forever. Soon after it was revealed that vocal duties were to be handled by Charlie Fell, who had recently been booted from his act Lord Mantis. This decision alone had promise, but was met with some skepticism on my part following the album’s first single, then eventual release.
The album, upon first listen, came off as bland and slightly repetitive, lacking the oomph of either Eater of Birds or Gin. The experimentation seemed to be there, but in many ways it felt much more shallow. Disappointment set in, and Slow Forever took a backseat to the rest of my 2016 listening. That was, until recently, I decided to give the album another spin, and realized the true genius behind it. Slow Forever, while retaining all the classic Cobalt elements, was not supposed to be Gin pt.2. Instead, it is its entirely own beast, Cobalt finding their new direction as a new band, focusing much more on the drone and build of songs before they come crashing forward. It is an album built on contrast, as much as about what is played as what isn’t, and that is particularly makes it so interesting. I may have dismissed it first, but now I once again acknowledge the prowess of Cobalt. They are truly untouchable, and I am excited for what the new duo brings.
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The Dear Hunter – Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional
Look, did anyone really think there was any chance that I wouldn’t be writing about The Dear Hunter somewhere in our AOTY posts? Despite the fact that I would have absolutely loved to have written about all of the other albums in my top 10 that didn’t make our group list and aren’t being included here by others – Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s Real Enemies, Aenaon’s Hypnosophy, Three Trapped Tigers’ Silent Earthling, Latitudes’ Old Sunlight, and VIRTA’s Hurmos – there is simply no way that I could have neglected my personal AOTY and the band I have so closely attached myself to here over the past couple of years. Free will is an illusion, and I am here to carry out my duty.
Because I am an omniscient Heavy Blog being, I had access to the aggregate data that formed our collective list, and I can tell you that Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional didn’t miss the cut by much, but in spite of my evangelizing this year it just wasn’t enough. The consensus across many reviews and comments I’ve seen about this album is that while it’s certainly impressive, it doesn’t quite manage to live up to what came almost immediately before it in Act IV. Before I completely eviscerate that stance, I’ll offer up a legitimate justification/reason for why Act V may not have impressed many as much as IV, and that is in the expectations game. With IV being such a radical departure from what came before it in the series, that album (rightly!) was lauded as a huge step forward for Casey and the band. With V having been written largely in tandem with that album and released so shortly after, it honestly never stood a real chance to leave the same kind of immediate impression. Hell, even I was prepared to be roundly underwhelmed by the album, and upon my first listen wasn’t totally swept up in it.
I changed my tune quickly though as one listen turned into two, three…fifty. What Act V perhaps sacrifices in internal cohesion over IV – which was sequenced nearly seamlessly throughout – it absolutely gained in humongous songwriting and jaw-dropping moments. The dark pulsing rhythms that lead to the most epic of conclusions in “The Moon,” the absolutely soaring melodies of “Cascade,” the pitch-perfect theatrical tit-for-tat duet of “The Haves Have Naught,” the tear-inducing paternal love of “Light,” and literally everything that happens in the final third of the album – a far greater percentage of my favorite TDH songs now come from Act V than from IV, which, once again, is quite a feat given that IV also happened to be my AOTY last year. But in my mind it’s not even close. I cannot tell you how many times my heart has broken listening to this album, from the moment Ms. Leading’s death sentence is carved in stone all the way to the titular character standing on the precipice of his own death, staring into the deep expanses of the ocean that had been so perfectly teased so many times leading to that moment (SPOILERS FOR PROGNOTES, BY THE WAY, WHICH ARE STILL HAPPENING I SWEAR).
Act V is not a perfect album in a way that Act IV often flirted with. It’s a bit too sprawling and disjointed for its own good occasionally. But in the end I don’t need perfection. What I receive from listening to that album is a joy and bittersweet pain that far exceeds everything else. It’s an album full of danger, experimentation, and pushing right up against the limits of what a progressive rock band can achieve while still ultimately writing “pop” or at least somewhat conventionally-structured rock songs in the loosest sense. Act V is an amazing piece of work as a testament to how an artist can continue to evolve and push themselves creatively through just about anything. Casey has made it clear that whatever comes next, whether it’s the final Act VI or something completely new, will not sound at all like this album, and thank goodness for that. Because when the sky is the limit, why should anyone stop pressing upward on onward towards whatever lies beyond?
Babymetal – Metal Resistance
Is this controversial? It really shouldn’t be at this point. The Babymetal rage song and dance has been done to death at this point. They’ve been blessed by so many “legit” metal icons, and they’ve done multiple very successful world tours, and sold out stadiums. Both entry level and “kvlt” metal fans are into Babymetal. Sure, they’re in this weird intersection of idol culture and metal, but they’ve slowly marched further and further into being a serious metal band. I mean, they’re still irreverent, but you know what I mean. Metal Resistance is just great, it sees the band hitting their stride with a variety of great tracks after the admittedly random debut album. We have bangers, sing-alongers, a prog metal showcase rivaling Dream Theater, and more. Metal Resistance is a straight up good time, and there really isn’t a serious argument against it beyond “I’m not really into the vocals”. We have a song co-written by Dragonforce, which really is one of the best Dragonforce songs ever, and the band’s sound has elements from deathcore, melodic death metal and j-pop/rock. This blend is pretty absurd, and it is an acquired taste (which is funny because it’s basically a combination of the most easy-to-digest genres possible), but once one can get over the initial hurdle of “I am a serious metal man who listens to serious man music”, it’s just a great time. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying things!
Goes Cube – Shadows Swallowed the Flood
Goes Cube never got their due. Unfortunately for most, they fell through the cracks and never seemed to get the attention that I had thought they deserved. Their two prior full-length releases – 2009’s Another Day Has Passed and 2011’s In Tides and Drifts – showcased an interesting and eclectic display of blue flame punk rock intensity colliding with a surprising knack for melody. Galvanized by the sounds of Quicksand-esque post-hardcore, Torche-like uptempo power-fuzz stomps, and some savory sludgy riffing, Goes Cube have the gusto to simply power through an album, but instead filter through avenues of a multitude of 90s passageways and mini post-rock expeditions, creating a peculiar sound that’s yet to be exhausted – even as we see bands like Nothing careen down similar paths.
Shadows Swallowed the Flood sees Goes Cube steer into this aspect of their sound, dabbling in more frequent atmospheric and spacey textures and allowing everything a little more room to breathe. In turn, the heavier segments hit harder than they ever have, achieving a perfect balance of uncurbed fury to the apathy and indifference. Whereas previous efforts would get hung-up on a certain vibe for a bit too long, the songs here are more multifaceted and complex. Furthermore, Shadows is expertly paced and sequenced, making for a binge-able swan song of a record that shouldn’t be missed or forgotten.
– Jordan Jerabek