This has been a crazy year for a lot of reasons, but I also think it’s been a great year for music. These are all personal selections of course, but there are some honorable mentions at the end as well. Enjoy. 🙂
5. Tribute Album 64
This album is available for free and features a variety of different artists covering Nintendo 64 music. It’s a generous offering of 87 tracks spanning many different genres.
What I really love about Tribute Album 64 is it shows how indebted video game music is to progressive rock and jazz fusion. The soaring electric guitar covers seem to be the most common type, but there are also plenty of tracks driven by saxophone and other instruments.
A few tracks are driven by vocals – Sirenstar and AoS’s cover of “Orchid’s Theme” from Killer Instinct Gold is perhaps the best example. Daniel Romberger’s cover of “Koopa Cup” from Mario Golf is a complete acapella. For the most part though, this is a largely instrumental album.
The orchestral and piano driven songs at the beginning of the album are probably my favorite, and are undoubtedly the strongest songs on the album. The opening track, Joel Everett’s Ocarina of Time Medley, Folklore Guild’s choral version of “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64, IceRequiem’s Zelda Medley, are just a few of the biggest gems here.
The tracks begin incorporating more synthesizers and electronic dance beats beginning with track 22. The dance remix of Great Fairy’s Fountain from Ocarina of Time comes out of left field and is really nice. The aforementioned “Orchid’s Theme”, Masha Lepire’s “Pokemon Valley” cover from Pokemon Snap, Hat’s cover from Super Mario 64, and Felipe Salina’s “Hot Top Volcano” cover from Diddy Kong Racing are my favorite tracks from this section.
The horn driven songs begin appearing regularly around track 41, and end at track 55. The saxophone cover of “Bob-Omb Battlefield” by YamaYama is my favorite among these, as well as their rendition of “Chicago Stealth” from Perfect Dark. missingNo’s “Song of Healing” cover, and the 007 cover by Uncle & the Bacon are also noteworthy.
I do get exhausted with all the heavy metal covers toward the end of the album, which there are far too many of. This trend starts with track 56. There are still a couple of gems here, like the Wave Race 64 Medley. But the last 20 tracks in particular sound like they’re being covered by Iron Maiden. It’s a very disappointing end to an otherwise amazing album.
Also if you’re wondering what song Zero Nimbus references at the end of Crystal Pub Crawl, it’s “Grazing In the Grass” by Hugh Masekela. The fact that he references the song without naming it – the bandcamp page only mentions it as “a classic instrumental from the Golden Era” – annoyed me for about a week until I found the original song. So I hate that particular cover, but now at least you don’t have to suffer the same frustration I did. 🙂
Since there are 87 songs in all, here are some of my favorites:
IceRequiem’s Zelda Medley.
Kirby’s Dream Band’s Wave Race 64 Medley.
Joel Everett’s Ocarina of Time Medley.
Patty Rudisill’s cover of “Highland” from Quest 64.
Folklore Guild’s cover of “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64.
Josh Cortese’s “The Eye of the Void” cover from Kirby 64: the Crystal Shards.
Melancholy Robot’s cover of “Redial” from Bomberman Hero.
Gimmick’s cover of “Green Garden” from Bomberman 64.
4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave was toward the end of the recording sessions for Skeleton Tree when his 15-year-old son Arthur died after an accidental cliff fall at the Ovingdean Gap in Brighton, England in July 2015.
In the wake of that tragedy, this gothic album takes on an even heavier tone. The opening track “Jesus Alone” is one of the darkest songs I’ve heard in a long time. This atmosphere is obtained with a simple arrangement of eerie synthesizers, piano, and Nick Cave’s voice. Backup vocals and strings sneak in later. If you need a soundtrack to your next Witches’ Sabbath, here you go.
It’s hard not to hear prophetic overtones all across this album, especially in the opening lines of this first song:
You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur
Flowers spring from the ground
Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers
It’s not all death, darkness and goth rock though. “Rings of Saturn” is a painfully romantic love song. The words are delivered quickly and breathlessly, capturing the rush of feeling and thoughts one has when they fall in love.
This positive tone is perhaps necessary to contrast with Jesus Alone’s morbid opening. But by the third track, “Girl in Amber”, that dark atmosphere returns in the verses. There’s a certain self-awareness at every mention of death, which carries an extra weight that music often lacks. “Magneto” plunges even deeper into the darkness. The sparse arrangements recall Hex by Bark Psychosis.
“Anthrocene” has a unique drum beat which fades in and out, giving the song a frantic sense of urgency. Nick Cave’s deep vocal delivery reminds me of Jim Morrison here.
I don’t really care for “I Need You”. It’s probably the weakest song on the album.
“Distant Sky” has some great lyrics, instrumentation and a guest appearance by Danish soprano Else Torp. The pace is absolutely sedative. Violins and vibraphones mix beautifully toward the end.
The album ends on the title track, which is sad and sombre but also has a strangely uplifting quality in the pace and vocal arrangement. Many of these songs have a choral effect from reverb-heavy backup singers. That harmonious “spiritual” quality helps compliment the melancholy “lost soul”, embodied in Nick Cave’s voice and words.
Some critics have argued this album isn’t a good introduction to Nick Cave’s discography, but I disagree. Skeleton Tree captures his cerebral songwriting style and his gothic atmosphere, while hinting at his more romantic talents in songs like Rings of Saturn. If you want to hear Nick Cave’s more romantic side, check out his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call.
3. Deftones – Gore
Deftones have been in a weird place ever since they lost their bassist. Chi Cheng was left in a semi-comatose state after a car accident on November 4, 2008. He tragically died five years later on April 13, 2013, despite showing some signs of recovery.
He wasn’t wearing his seat belt.
Their last album with Cheng, Saturday Night Wrist, was an interesting affair but not one of their best albums. The album they were working on when the accident occurred, Eros, seems to have been permanently shelved. Their 2010 album Diamond Eyes was hugely successful but felt too polished and didn’t really appeal to me. Their 2012 album Koi no Yokan was the first one to really strike me since their 2003 self-titled album.
Gore not only builds on the progress they made with Koi no Yokan, but brings the band full circle – back to the brutally heavy music they shine brightest at, along with everything they’ve learned since.
The album starts out pretty positive and accessible with “Prayers/Triangles”, but by the third track it begins showing its true colors. Stephen Carpenter’s downtuned guitar provides a lot of that textural color.
Chino Moreno’s voice is alternately sensual and aggressive. His lyrics are often as meaningful as wallpaper, but it fits their musical style of “heavy ambience”, and emotion over rationality. He makes sense when he needs to – on tracks like “Hearts/Wires”.
Hearts/Wires has a haunting familiarity to it, like deja vu. It feels like ones of those songs I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear.
“I feel like that’s when the record jumps up a notch,” as Chino Moreno said back in April.
“Pittura Infamante”, like many tracks here, sounds like a lost recording from their self-titled album. “(L)MIRL” has a very special atmosphere. The title track is heavy as fuck. More great downtuned guitar here. The closing track has some good parts. It feels like a follow-up to their song “Minerva”.
The album isn’t perfectly even – “Xenon”, and “Acid Hologram” feel like particularly weak songs to me. They’re too repetitive and get tiresome after repeated plays. The closing track also drags on too long.
Jerry Cantrell’s guest appearance on “Phantom Bride” is impressive. It’s great to hear these two sounds collide. I wouldn’t call it the highlight of the album though. Outside of Cantrell’s great solos and the ending, I don’t consider Phantom Bride to be a good song. Moreno’s story on writing the song is cool though.
He also reveals his opinions on writing lyrics, which don’t surprise me at all. It’s actually refreshing to hear.
“The truth is that I hate writing lyrics. I mean, I don’t wanna say I hate it, but it’s the hardest part of making a record, honestly. For one, I don’t feel like I have anything to say and I know that sounds weird, but I really don’t. Listen, I’m not a political person. I don’t have like all these opinions or things that I feel like wow, ‘you need to know about this, because this is the way I feel about this or that.’ Or ‘here’s a story that I think you should be interested in.’
Honestly, I want people to hear the music, be affected by it and take what they want from it.“
Deftones are very set in their ways, but they know what works. When it all clicks on songs like Hearts/Wires, it’s magical.
2. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner
Julie Christmas has been quiet since the dissolution of her two primary bands, Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice, so it’s great to see her finally return. Her insane, singular vocal style hasn’t changed at all, thankfully. She still screams as maniacally as ever.
These songs strongly recall her work with Battle of Mice. The formula of her singing over masculine screams and post-metal sludge riffs can be traced back there. Unfortunately, Battle of Mice only released one album and a split LP with Jesu before breaking up.
They leaned more on traditional sludge metal though, whereas Cult of Luna draw from post-rock, slowcore, ambient music, and other experimental genres.
Cult of Luna’s music is heavily layered, with Julie Christmas’s voice becoming just another instrument in the aural monolith that creates their sound. Julie ends up surfing their ocean rather than commanding the lead like she normally does. In a way, it makes her much more listenable.
The opening track begins with two minutes of ambience, before launching into a mid-tempo march that sets up the duality of the album – feminine singing against masculine screaming.
When Julie takes the lead on tracks like “Chevron”, she assumes an identity closer to what she had in Made Out of Babies – comfortably weird lyrics, creepy whispers, and howling screams. The track is wonderfully bass heavy.
The only real problem this album suffers from is a lack of variety, and an over-repetitious structure that plagues many post-rock bands. “The Wreck of S.S. Needle” is the best example of this, and may be the weakest track as a result. It only changes a few times, and repeats the same lyric for 3 minutes straight at the end of the song.
“Approaching Transition” does change up the atmosphere though. It’s a slowcore jam straight from Codeine’s playbook. Julie interestingly doesn’t appear here, and the identity of the track is instead driven by Cult of Luna’s wispy male voices. This becomes the breather before their masterful climax, “Cygnus”.
Cygnus is quite simply a godsend. I haven’t heard anyone reach this level of intensity since Garden of Light by Isis. It takes patience for a band to build layer upon layer, slowly and meticulously over 14 minutes the way Cult of Luna have done here. And it takes skill to pull it off without sounding too repetitious. The last 5 minutes here are pure bliss.
Julie’s voice is no doubt the element that takes them over the edge – beyond great and into astonishing territory. This album is a stellar collaboration, and it’s great to see Julie Christmas back on the mic. If you’ve never checked her (or Cult of Luna) out, here is a good place to start.
1. Hail the Sun – Culture Scars
Culture Scars is one of the best post-hardcore albums I’ve heard in years. The guitar lines are fast, the drums are heavy, and the vocals are catchy. The music continuously introduces new elements; screamo, math rock, death metal, and even a bit of jazz, viewing them all through the lense of a modern “emo” band.
The music is very forward-thinking – Hail the Sun rarely revisit a verse or chorus without changing their angle or perspective. The effect is that of a band which is continuously changing and evolving.
The influence from Dance Gavin Dance’s “swancore” style is pretty obvious, but they’ve managed to preserve their identity better than most bands in that genre. Several points in this album hearken back to earlier bands – the three opening tracks remind me of emo bands like Chiodos that were big in the 2000s. Many parts are reminiscent of At the Drive-In, like the end of “The ‘Fun’ in Dysfunction”.
Donovan Melero is notably the lead vocalist and drummer. It’s a fact easily forgotten with the way his voice floats effortlessly over the music. His high, youthful voice is perfectly fitting for the style as he shifts from soft crooning, loud wails and harsh screams – often without warning. He has a great scream, but doesn’t overuse it. He loves to disarm with soft lines, before breaking to brief sections of screaming / singing over heavy music.
The heavier songs are balanced out by a few softer ‘ballads’ like “Words of Gratitude (Parents)” and “Never Kill a Mouse; Let It Kill Itself”. But these ultimately serve as breathers between the stronger, louder tracks. Shane Gann’s guitar lines are a defining element of this album – not only in the softer moments, but filling out the sound in general. He even provides occasional guitar solos, like in “Paranoia”.
The amount of math rock elements here is definitely surprising. Time signature changes are common; they can be easy to miss. The song “Ministry of Truth” starts on 7/8 before slipping into 3/4, returning to 7/8 halfway through. The closer shifts between 3/4 and 4/4. “The People That Protect Us” shifts from 3/4, 4/4 and swing time for the chorus. Melero’s drumming is impressively technical.
A few tracks also sneak in some great tempo changes, like “Burn Nice and Slow (The Formative Years)”. It is undoubtedly the apex of the album. It also has a pretty interesting music video.
The closer also has a really unexpected jazz break, perhaps hinting at more experimentation down the road?
They haven’t entirely shed their death metal roots, which are much more prominent on their previous album Wake. Melero’s drums can get pretty heavy in some songs, returning to the death metal territory of bands like Architects. As a whole though, these songs are pretty accessible, even if you’re only a casual fan of music.
If you’re a fan of post-hardcore music, prog rock or death metal, you will love Culture Scars.
Some honorable mentions here: The Glowing Man by Swans, Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown, “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino, Passenger by Artifex Pereo, Weezer’s White Album, Blackstar by David Bowie, You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen.
This blog post came out way longer than I expected. Good thing I didn’t end up reviewing 10 albums like I originally planned, haha. Thanks for reading! 🙂