The Top Ten Albums of 2016

Yes, yes, it's June. However, The Sunken Temple only came to be two weeks ago, so we're going to run this feature just the same. It should serve, if nothing else, as a barometer for the taste behind this site for those of you who haven't already figured it out. There was initially a list of fifty records that were up for consideration here. It felt fun and inclusive, but it wasn't honest. I love a lot of the records on that long list that didn't make this post, but it becomes a game of "here's everything passable I heard" instead of "here are ten albums that will follow me well into the future." Without further rambling, here are ten records that came out in 2016 that you need in your life, along with brief arguments in their favor.

 

10. Secret Boyfriend- Memory Care Unit (Blackest Ever Black)

The mind's a funny thing. I have no idea where or how I heard Secret Boyfriend first (perhaps just checking the label's bandcamp?) but I remember how quickly this record stuck with me, especially the suspended animation of "They're Playing Themselves." The whole thing feels like a good dream gone just slightly awry, but in a way you can't quite ascertain. On tracks like "Stripping the Nail," things are blissfully hazy, but it's not a one-note experience, as the clipping percussion at its end is quite alarming. It feels criminally wrong to call this ambient music, yet misleading to throw around terms like noise and experimental. It exists outside of such boundaries, yet the nostalgic warmth of it all makes it instantly familiar.

9. Ustalost- The Spoor of Vipers (Self-Released)

Will Skarstad seems to be made of riffs. Since his band Yellow Eyes first burst into the underground with their triumphant Silence Threads the Evening's Cloth demo some six years ago, he's consistently written some of the most tantalizing melodies in black metal. With Ustalost, a project consisting solely of himself without the aid of his brother or other bandmates, Skarstad has created something just as potent and possibly more personal in The Spoor of Vipers. The guitar work with Ustalost is a bit less tremolo-picked and more focused, leaving enough space for some seriously captivating keyboard lines. I never thought I'd need the ambiance pushed to the front so much in work like this but it's a winning formula that makes this one of the most compelling releases of the year. If you missed the tape, don't worry. This gem is about to drop on vinyl thanks to Gilead Media.

8. Tollund Men- Autoerotik (Bleak Environment)

After years of releasing some of the coldest, most isolated sounding music in recent memory, Tollund Men finally released a full-length album. Following the release of Autoerotik, Tollund Men did what most introverted creators would do when faced with growing attention and the pressure that comes with it: the project dissolved. With this final monument of dark post-punk (if you can even assign a genre to the murk and the misery) Tollund Men used bass and keys to create a heavier atmosphere than some bands could do with a big budget and five musicians. If you haven't heard this, you're fucking up.

7. A Pregnant Light- Rocky (Colloquial Sound Recordings)

It feels wrong to give this a numbered assignment (especially since anything on this list could easily be at the top). The purest expression and outpouring of love, passion, and despair is given on this single track album from Damian Master's long-running A Pregnant Light project as he displays his ability to seamlessly fuse many of metal's subgenres into his own self-defined purple metal. While Rocky is powerful enough from the get-go, I get lost when things drop a bit and he delivers the line "Your lungs were weak from birth/The body didn't match your heart." Over the ensuing eighteen minutes or so that follow this moment, Master chronicles his father's last days and his own experiences and insight into this period. It's indescribable. It's powerful. It's easily the most personal thing Master has released with any of his countless projects and it may also be his best.

6. Hypnopazūzu- Create Christ, Sailor Boy (House of Mythology)

When legends announce collaborations, I tend to be wary. Not for fear of some drought of talent or inspiration leading to their creation, nor for the thought that one mind may dominate the other. In fact, I love a good flight of fancy and you probably do, too. It's just that there's rarely something that comes up that is even the sum of its parts. Many times, musicians toe the line without crossing it in their shared work, out of respect for each others' methods and legacies. On Create Christ, Sailor Boy Hypnopazūzu's David Tibet and Youth get carried away by the thrill of creation and touch upon pure cinematic bliss. The ecstatic sounds of Youth's compositions and the transcendent poetry and eternally evocative voice of Tibet are enhanced through their shared work. This is an actual experience more than it is a mere record. Not necessarily for everyday listening, but a brilliant release whenever the spirit should move you to listen.

5. Bootblacks- Veins (Manic Depression Records)

I've already said a lot about Bootblacks, both as a live act and about this record. I'll keep it short and sweet here. There are few bands playing post-punk these days that manage to straddle the present by keeping one foot in the future and one in the past. Bootblacks does so brilliantly, with every member's unique strengths shining brightly and songs that could go on forever, but never do. It's concise and professional without having a clinical detachment. While I didn't even hear this until September, I spun this as much as anything else that came out in 2016. They're working on a new record currently and I can't wait to hear it.

4. Horseback- Dead Ringers (Relapse Records)

While Mr. Tibet a couple entries up there accurately describes himself as having 93 faces that are all the same, I'd say Horseback's Jenks Miller is in the running for a similar reputation. The only constant in his career with this project has been a willingness (if not a need) to push his own boundaries. While many prefer his harsher songs or purer works of drone, Dead Ringers' crystalline psychedelia might be the finest thing he's done. Equal parts pastoral warmth and detached drifting, these songs convey all the humanity of albums like Piedmont Apocrypha with the experimentation and synthesized brilliance of smaller releases like Stolen Fire. While there's no wrong way to "get into" Horseback, this might be as accurate and enjoyable a point of entry as I could hope to conjure up. Put it on when you can really focus and get lost in it or you risk missing the thrill of its subtle immensity.

3. Naðra- Allir vegir til glötunar (Vánagandr)

While Iceland's hottest underground export of the last few years seems to be the unstoppable force of Misþyrming, it's the members' other project Naðra that holds the warmest spot in my heart. With Allir vegir til glötunar, their brand of desperate and melodic black metal is diluted to its most potent form. Five tracks ensures no filler, even when the band runs for fourteen minutes straight on the album's climactic centerpiece "Falið." This band is even more amazing in a live setting, where it's safe to say they're one of the most brilliant acts in the genre, but this album leaves little room to believe that they're anything less than groundbreaking as it is.

2. Oranssi Pazuzu- Värähtelijä (20 Buck Spin)

Metal in 2016 could not have possibly been any better than it was by any means other than transforming into something only loosely recognizable as metal. When Värähtelijä kicks, it's meaner than anything out there, but for much of the record it holds back just enough to hypnotize. Oranssi Pazuzu's career began somewhere out in left-field for black metal, but by 2016 they've become something outside of genre and beyond expectation. I'm still not sure that I entirely understand this album, but I know that it moves me in ways I can't quite name. I know that I still get shivers over a year later. Few bands can pull this off. Be glad to live in an age where this band is actively at work and catch them live if you have any ability to do so. It's well worth it.

1. David Bowie- ★ (RCA)

Released two days before the artist's death, ★ is Bowie's way of leaving us with something more than just a basic "goodbye." Some artists aware of their impending death create something that looks like an exclamation point. Bowie left us with something between an ellipses and a question mark, as he was doing from his earliest work onward. I don't have anything to add about the music that hasn't already been said a million times. You already know if you love or hate this or are sick of hearing about it. Earlier this week I was getting my coffee at my usual place and I walked in to the ambient segue in the album's massive title track. Shortly after I grabbed my drink, the line "something happened on the day he died" began and I got the chills all over again as if it were the first time I'd heard it. I can't think of that many songs that even get me once. This gets me every time.