Music

Izzy Stars’ 2016 Countdown: The Best Albums of 2016

Technically, this is every musical album I listened through in full in 2016. It features everything from Twenty One Pilots to Grimes to Babymetal, but that’s quite narrow by my normal standards. And I know the year isn’t quite over yet. But it’s time to begin my end-of-year lists because that’s going to be a regular feature on this blog. You may have seen I’ve been doing this for five years already.

Now what these lists contain is going to be quite disparate, but it’s basically a collection of mini*-reviews of the entertainment I’ve been enjoying over the year.

*I use that term liberally, some of them will probably be quite long.

They will be, in order:
1) Albums, which is going to be rather short because I really haven’t listened to that many albums this year and I don’t even know that I have one that I’m absolutely raving over like the last few.
2) Films, which I’ve watched quite a few more of this year in the cinema, I may rank them this time.
3) (western/live-action) TV shows, which I have a few of certainly, I may not rank those, but I might.
4) Games, which I am definitely ranking as I basically discovered Paradox Interactive grand strategy games this year and kind of LOST myself in those
5) Anime, which I am very excited to do because I have a definitive ranking of everything in place, having watched about 5 times as many anime shows as western shows this year, it’s the EOY section I’ve been thinking the most about and most looking forward to doing because the competition is really really fierce. You can see why I’ve half set myself up as an anime blog.
6) Songs, probably still a top 200 despite me being less into music, which will contain few chart hits, several older Japanese pop songs, soundtracks I liked, and lots of BJSC (Buzzjack Song Contest) hits, which remains my principal source of new music because an average BJSC song (normally lots of varieties of underground pop or indie or dance) is about 50 times better than the average chart song. Expect zero Drake.

So let’s start with what’s actually in this post. The first of six:

ALBUMS

Normally this is about twice the size with much more care given to it, even though the ones below 17th place are normally just those I’ve listened to once and found ‘alright but probably wouldn’t bother to listen again until shuffle unlocks one specific track for me and subsequently that’s the only track I ever play from it’. But this year I’ve found it very hard to engage with albums over and over and indeed lots of the ones low on the list are just those that I have listened to once, this time through Spotify so there’s even less of an attachment made to them. I guess I liked these? Kinda. As the important part is my top 8, I’m just going to skim past these 9 incredibly quickly.

Probably also a time to make the point to make the note that year released doesn’t matter one bit to my EOY lists, except in the case of music that’s obviously really old, it’s just stuff that is new to me this year. And even, sometimes, if there’s something that I’m revisiting after a long break away and I want to talk about it, I include it. So some albums that were released in 2015 will be here. In fact it’s probably more likely that they’ll be that year and not this year seeing as I haven’t really listened to new albums for months – I only found out about five days ago that Amaranthe had stealth released a new album without me realising and they’re huge for me!

Also this might have been a weaker year as a lot of my solid favourites released albums in 2015 and so haven’t come back around for 2016 – there’s only Amaranthe and Lindsey Stirling that I’d say had been ultra reliable before that released new albums this year. But anyway, on to the albums 17-9.

17. Rihanna – Anti

16. Sia – This Is Acting

15. Mika – No Place In Heaven

14. Everything Everything – Get To Heaven

13. Tonight Alive – Limitless

12. Coldplay – A Head Full Of Dreams

11. Beautiful Bodies – Battles

10. Amaranthe – Maximalism

9. Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation

Well, I suppose actually a lot of those are also favourite acts of mine, or at least if you’d been paying close attention you’d realise that but I don’t think I’ve let slip my Mika love before. I really like him. Mika, Sia, Rihanna, Tonight Alive, Coldplay, yeah, maybe I was exaggerating a little although some of those certainly were released late last year. But the thing is with most of these is that I already have so many albums by most of them (except for Sia and TA), that it didn’t feel like I necessarily NEEDED new music from them. However, what we have is good.

Anti, that is last because I want to punish Rihanna for this year. But most of the tracks I didn’t like from her this year weren’t on Anti. Some of it is, there’s certainly a good number of tracks I never listen to, because it’s the sort of pop I find really boring and/or awful. This was a direction I knew she was heading but she kind of embraced it fully this year. And most of it wasn’t that good. Kiss It Better was as was Consideration and Love On The Brain, that’s good, and there was the Tame Impala cover of Same Ol’ Mistakes that gave me one of the most interesting Rihanna songs I’ve heard this decade (after FourFiveSeconds). But I know she can do much better than this.

I will not hold back, the next three albums on the list are mostly on the list because I know I listened to them in full, but it was only one listen on Spotify and I can’t remember anything about any of them. Like with This Is Acting, I certainly don’t think it’s bad and I know I really like some non-singles like Reaper and listening to some of the tracks now it sounds pretty good as I know Sia to be but I know that one listen didn’t stick with me at all during the year. The same with Mika, particularly Staring At The Sun, even though I imagine I’d like it more if I listened to it more because I normally work that way with him. These albums just being on Spotify for me doesn’t help. I even think I really liked Get To Heaven from Everything Everything a lot. Spring / Summer / Winter / Dread and No Reptiles were lovely tracks but it’s been ages since I thought about them as a band.

Limitless was a pretty solid album. Not as good as The Other Side, but solid. I loved Human Interaction but didn’t really get into much of the rest of the album majorly. Everywhere and I Defy were wonderful though, off the top of my head. Similar thematically, Beautiful Bodies really impressed me on the one listen through I managed to give it properly, putting it a bit higher than the other albums that I did manage to do that with. I also took away a few tracks that I’ve listened to a bit more regularly, Ravens, Good Luck And Good Night, and most of the others really, as a band, their sound is a very appealing one that will sound very good on nearly anything – a bit like Hey Monday or Paramore in that respect but a little bit more raw. Definitely something I’ll need to give a few more listens to as I listen to it now.

A Head Full Of Dreams is largely in here, as a 2015 album, because of seeing the accompanying tour in the middle of the year – the title track and Up & Up getting played during that night was incredible, I was more familiar with the older tracks at the time so those have stuck with me here but I’ve casually gone to listen to the rest of the album over the rest of the year since. My non-single highlight is still the Tove Lo duet of Fun, it has some pretty great lyrics with nostalgic feeling.

Up to 10th after only a few days of knowing it, and I haven’t even been that obsessed with them this time around, Amaranthe’s Maximalism really does show the ease a good album that grabs me has in getting into the higher part of my list. In fact, given the speed at which I’m adopting new albums, I’ll probably keep it around as an option for next year. It hasn’t really advanced on Amaranthe’s mission objectives (which can be summed up as ‘create the craziest meld of pop and metal you can think of so metalheads will be eternally confused about liking them’), but that’s a good enough MO that it all still sounds pretty great and I’m sure I just need a few more days get used to the new tracks, a couple of them are already settling in as future faves, Boomerang and Supersonic in particular.

Finally before the arbitrary cut off point, it’s KKB! I’d listened to Intro Bonito a little bit in the past and kind of liked what was there but this second album has hugely improved on that with a wall-to-wall sound of cute bubblegum computerised pop – and that is one of my advertised weaknesses, in fact I’m still not sure why it isn’t one of everyone’s advertised weaknesses. The interspersion of Japanese lyrics here and there does endear it to me I suppose. The album opener of Waking Up, combined with the laziness of Break, are both pleasingly upbeat anthems to the lazy, Graduation has some very…. relatable lyrics, Trampoline and Picture This are clearly superior pop songs to everything else on the market and the rest is lovely really the only reason this one isn’t in my top 8 is that I still haven’t dedicated as much time to it as I’d like to have and additionally this is where the competition starts to get tough and it turns out there actually are some albums I managed to get some proper listens in of this year. Hurray.

8-3

8. TheFatRat – Jackpot

7. Lindsey Stirling – Brave Enough

6. Grimes – Art Angels

5. Twenty One Pilots – Vessel

4. Twenty One Pilots – Blurryface

3. BABYMETAL – Metal Resistance

Jackpot is an EP, so a little short compared for an album but I normally have one or so EPs in here or thereabouts. It came out last month with four new tracks, Jackpot, Epic, Elegy and Prelude on it. The former two are very amazing and the latter two even have some chopped-up vocals for extra loving. There’s nothing bad TheFatRat has done, everything has been beautiful, so four extra songs of him is tight and very enjoyable.

Brave Enough I don’t think can stand up to Lindsey Stirling’s other albums, I had my main love of her in 2014, and it took me forever to actually get around to listening to this. But it can only not stand up to them by the mildest of margins, and it’s largely because I haven’t yet had time to sink and play these tracks over and over. Some of them are coming in my songs chart and I’ll leave those unmentioned. It’s like she’s continued experimenting with collabs and sound effects to advance her sound very slightly, even though it’s still very quintessential violin dubstep that we all know her for. The vocal collabs are rather good, Christina Perri being high quality as normal in a track that’s clearly trying to be this album’s Shatter Me, the title track and some crashing vocals. It’s not my favourite on here, but it’s still very good. Something Wild, a track used for a film this year also uses the collab to high effect and I know there’s still a lot that I’m very interested in continuing to explore over multiple listens on this album. If I continue to do that it’ll reach the heights of the other two in time.

I know Art Angels is 2015, I however only fully cottoned on to the amazingness of Grimes and this era this year in January, so all of her songs from this era that I deem worthy of calling attention to will be right here. And Art Angels is one of the best pop albums I’ve noted down this year, I made a point of keeping it on rotation. Belly Of The Beat is absolutely stunning with its instrumental progression, shared in other tracks like California, Realiti, World Princess, also all very good tracks. Scream reminds me very well of Kitty Pryde – I think I’m going to keep this one around for a long time – especially because of its highlights that are coming later – this time what I’ve neglected to mention via omission should be obvious.

I think I’ll have to mention everything awesome about Twenty One Pilots – which includes Vessel because me getting hyped for them as a huge new act this year includes me properly and many times over listening to Vessel. I did a similar thing in 2014 with Lindsey Stirling. Fully appreciating the awesome eclectic manicness of tracks like Guns For Hands and Holding Onto To You is very worthy of putting it in my albums list this year, there’s something very complete and fulfilling over listening to them as a band – nothing feels unnecessary or hasty filler, each track is there for a reason.

Blurryface feels a bit more polished and I’m ranking it ahead of Vessel for one simply reason, this is its year, I don’t really want to choose between them because each is so amazing I feel that choosing between them truly would just be a bit anticlimatic. I think for a higher plateau level of quality on all the tracks Blurryface might be slightly ahead but it’s not really functionally any different, both albums are outstanding examples of… albums. Not genres, because who’s going to ascribe these two to a genre, attacking modern dance with electronic instrumental choruses, filling a much-needed gap as a rock duo, doing a bit of rap, creating pop with strong melodic hooks – all four of these are arguably present in Tear In My Heart alone. The first six tracks of this album are a perfect gold run of great, enjoyable tracks, and while the quality drops slightly afterwards it’s not by much as all the fun continues until it continues with a classically beautiful emo ballad in Goner. Twenty One Pilots have been a jewel in the music scene this year and long may they continue to reign.

Babymetal have nearly improved on their brilliant debut album with Metal Resistance, regardless, one album of J-pop metal was definitely not enough for me and so I’ve definitely welcomed this one showing up. Especially as it finally gives me a legitimately great mp3 for Road Of Resistance, my #2 song of last year. I’ve had to give quite a bit of time for songs to grow on me, Karate especially, but Meta Taro and Awadama Fever stood out as bright melodic anthems immediately. Yava is just now revealing to me some excellent metal progression and Tales Of The Destinies is really hard yet beautiful in the end just like Ijime Dame Zettai on the first album. There is so much to enjoy here, I continue to be under the impression that these girls can do no wrong and every time one of the tracks on this album comes up for me I codify that belief even stronger. If only I’d gone for more specific Babymetal listening sessions during this year – which I’m slightly surprised I haven’t done as much as I should have, I could have challenged this for #1, but I think the top 2 are so far ahead that even the power of Babymetal couldn’t quite do it for me this time – they’ve still yet to get to #1 on either my albums or songs despite always being in contention. Next time maybe. Metal Resistance shows no signs of slowing the quality down, and if anything, the melodies show that there’s an improvement from their debut – already evident on the beautiful Road Of Resistance, which I will keep mentioning until everyone considers it as an incredible 11/10 song as they should, this is like an entire album of that.

2. Against The Current – In Our Bones

I was so very hyped for Against The Current’s album, as they’d really lightened up the pop-rock scene for me last year, with strong melodies and a frontwoman whose voice comes across as emotional and involved in all of her songs. They had yet to really make a bad song, and I can say with pleasure that In Our Bones has not broken that streak, and has enhanced it, as nearly every track is utterly incredible. This got solidified even more after I saw them live in September, an incredible night in a small venue where Chrissy kept an audience cheering for her and her bandmates, going through tons of great tracks from this album as well as the highlights that they had to leave off like Paralyzed and Gravity.
This album doesn’t contain those or Outsiders, in fact it was almost entirely new material. So should you take a listen to this? Absolutely, if you liked either of those BJSC entries, like female pop-rock like Paramore or Kelly Clarkson or anything of the sort, Against The Current is a perfect mid-10s answer to those who want that sort of sound. Running With The Wild Things and Forget Me Now open up the album with some incredible anthemic songs, Chasing Ghosts and One More Weekend, following it, would be, if I have to choose, the weaker ones on the album as their choruses don’t come together perfectly, although they’re still good. From then though it’s plain sailing, the sheer beauty of In Our Bones, the youthful energy inherent in Young & Relentless and Runaway, leading into Brighter, one of the few older tracks on here, so that’s a bit nostalgic. It reaches another peak with the breathtaking electrorock Wasteland that by all rights should be a breakthrough hit for them – I can’t think who it wouldn’t appeal to. Blood Like Gasoline, Roses and Demons finish off the album strongly, a modern-day masterpiece of pop-punk. Very amazing album.

1. Dream Theater – The Astonishing

There’s one advantage The Astonishing has on In Our Bones, but it’s a pretty important one – it’s the narrative contained within. I’d been sort of vaguely aware of Dream Theater before this year but hadn’t really listened to any albums, I’ve now had this and a listen of Octavarium to understand where they came from. But this one has really stuck with me. It started with me going with few friends to listen to the album as it came out, I knew I was curious about listening to them so I came along, and one of them, a big fan of Dream Theater and I ended up having some really cool discussions about this album as I had my first listen to it. The music alone, it’s strong voiced rock, vaguely power metal but light for that, no harsh vocals on Dream Theater, it’s all melodic, so beautifully melodic and the metal part is contained within in the instrumental backing. Nevertheless it continues the awesome dominance metal albums have over my album chart, only 2014 with Shatter Me was not a metal album and even that had symphonic influences on a few of its tracks. I am kind of predictable.
It’s definitely the lyrics that stand out for me on The Astonishing. I have, for some time, began to consider lyrics, in songs that contain them, of utmost importance, because I’m always interested in stories and if a song can tell an interesting story or just has some lyrical turns of phrase that I hadn’t thought of before then I will like it far more than a similar track with trite unoriginal lyrics. I consider this my principal reason for why I’m so picky with pop these days. Well, that and so much pop these days is dull and slow RnB-lite shit but that’s something for a different rant. Point is, I really consider lyrics an essential way to make me like a musical work more, it’s hard to give me chills without it unless the instrumental progression is top-notch. Again, this does only apply to tracks that are supposed to have lyrics, instrumentals can tell a different story with evocative lyrical replacements.
Dream Theater tell a story here. It’s not the most unique story, but it’s a story created purely to be told upon an album. It makes the whole work a concept album which ties the whole album together and gives you every reason to listen to this as an album from beginning to end rather than picking or choosing the tracks you like. That’s a trap I fall into far too much upon listening to albums.
Story is basically, young musician, Gabriel, in a dystopian world without music challenges the evil Nafaryus (who is incredible), falls in love with his daughter Faythe, there are other characters too, all amazingly ‘voiced’ by the same lead singer who changes his voice subtly to indicate who he’s singing for in the story. Eventually, after many trials, Gabriel has an ASTONISHING life. Listening through it in order is an experience I really recommend to anyone who thinks they could like this sort of operatic rock/light metal, there’s so many emotional tracks, so many upbeat tracks, choral backing, twists and turns in the story that affect the tone of the music, and we even some genre-bending like the swing segment at the end of Three Days. There’s a lot more individual tracks, I’ll just quickly mention some of the best, the emotion of Losing Faythe, the villain statement in Lord Nafaryus, the heroic homecoming feeling in Our New World, the energy in Moment Of Betrayal, Finally, there’s a most glorious finish in the track Astonishing, ending with the lyric ‘our lives will be astonishing’. The Astonishing provided me with basically the best full album experience I’ve had for a while and that easily makes it my #1.

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