I know this is a bit late, since most “best of” lists tend to come out well before the year is out, but it kind of fits. I’d meant to write more about music this year, since it was a pretty good year, aside from the seemingly endless kill off of big time musical names (to cite just a few). But I didn’t, so here’s a quick amends.
A note about what this isn’t – it’s not a list of the “best” albums of 2016. For one thing, music is all subjective so talking about “best” is kind of pointless. For another, I couldn’t hope to listen to even a fraction of all the music that came out in 2016, so my choices are drawn from a small sample.
No, these are just eight albums that I thought were really good, that connected with me in some way. They’re organized alphabetically, of course. No winners here.
Bent Knee – Say So
My breakout band for the year. A collection of young kids (I can say that now – I’m old) from Boston who meld the furiosity and energy of prog metal or punk with delicate, almost ambient passages, all tied together with great vocals. They played both ROSFest – generally regarded as a more “safe” prog festival – and ProgDay – where anything does – this year and blew the roofs off the joint both times (metaphorically at ProgDay, since it’s outside). Say So doesn’t quite capture the power of their live show, but it comes awfully close.
Eveline’s Ghost – The Painkeeper
Just prior to ROSFest, Greg Walker sent out one of his periodic Emails with new releases. Most of them have YouTube or Bandcamp links these days, so I spent some time clicking through. Once I heard the first few seconds of this Italian band, I knew I wanted to hear more. I didn’t realize (until I’d picked it up from Greg at ROSFest) just how good this album was. It takes the more complex/busy side of prog (think early echolyn), but never takes it too far. The songs are melodic and engaging, with some nice jazzy touches here and there.
Mike Keneally – Scambot 2
Mike Keneally really contains multitudes – crafter of catchy hooks, exquisite guitar player, conjurer of bafflingly complex arrangements – but he rarely lets them all fly together at once like he has on the Scambot albums. This, the second in a planned trilogy about the titular “composer with no finished compositions” and “grump”, cracks right out of the gate and never lets up. It’s less aggressively weird than the first volume, but just as knotty, clever, and intense. As usual, Keneally pulls it off with the assistance of talent collaborators like Bryan Beller, Marco Minnemann, and Kris Myers (of Umphrey’s McGee fame). My only complaint is that the last track, “Proceed”, sounds like it has a lengthy ride out guitar solo in it that he didn’t decide to let out!
Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden
Although they sound nothing alike, Knifeworld reminds me a bit of Keneally, because main man Kavus Torabi (also of Gong and Guapo) manages to build musical confections that are, at once, complex, deep, and layered but also hooky and compelling. This album has a lighter vibe than the last one, but the tunes are just as sharp and interesting.
Marillion – Fuck Everyone And Run
Marillion’s not exactly ever been an “up with people” kind of group (there’s a joke that they specialize in “songs about water and death”), but FEAR is more pessimistic than usual. Lyrically, it’s largely bound up in the mess in which the world currently finds itself. The epics “El Dorado” and “The New Kings” both alternate between anger and disillusionment, while the kind of title track, “Living in FEAR,” provides some naive hope that maybe we easily panicked humans might not have to live that way (as I said, it’s a naive hope). Stuck in the middle is another epic, “The Leavers,” which, amazingly, has nothing to do with Brexit and is actually about life on the road. The epics all hang together really well (better than “Gaza” and “Montreal” from the last album) and there are plenty of patented Marillion moments sprinkled throughout. Is it, as advertised, their best since Marbles? Absolutely, even if it doesn’t live up to that milestone.
No More Pain – The Spader EP
In the modern digital world the line between LPs and EPs is finer than ever (one of the AV Club’s best albums of the year was a “long player” that runs 21 minutes), but this 5-part epic is as long as many classic LPs of yore, so I think it stands on its own. No More Pain is another discovery of the year (thanks to ROSFest), a prog metal band from New Jersey that manages to be heavy and rocking without getting all “metally” in the way many bands do. Of course there are chops a plenty, but there’s also a sense of humor, which you’d have to have to produce an EP about and dedicated to an early supporter of the band (from the liner notes: “We are in independent group and stealing our music will make us very sad and we will cry little bitch tears as we text each other crying-face emojis”).
The Rube Goldberg Machine – Fragile Times
This is a quiet (the first track is called “Background Noise,” after all), small album (it’s not much longer than The Spader EP), but it’s full of nice moments. The band has a kind of post-rock sound, but shot through with more of a melodic sensibility. To borrow an observation from my brother (who said it about Marillion), there’s just enough proggy stuff going on to keep things interesting, but it doesn’t overwhelm the songs. Some really nice, melodic fretless bass work, too.
Thank You Scientist – Stranger Heads Prevail
Another entry from New Jersey (must be something proggy in the water), this band managed to avoid any drop off from their first album, Maps of Non-Existent Places. There’s a heaviness and lots of riffs that sound like they could come from a standard prog metal band, but the compositions are more interesting, not to mention the arrangements. Horns and violin are constants, with some tuned percussion popping up every now and then. Plus, they rock out at a solar powered milk farm. How can you not love that?
Like I said, not a bad year at all.