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20 Best Metal Albums of 2016

Vintage thrashers, modern mathletes and more: The year in heavy

20, Best, Metal Albums

Whores., Metallica and the Dillinger Escape Plan made three of 2016's best metal records.

Miikka Skaffari/Getty, C Flanigan/Getty, Miikka Skaffari/Getty

Metal provided a perfectly agitated soundtrack to an agitating year, whether the frustration was Meshuggah's oblique commentary on Europe's inability to treat refugees humanely and Megadeth's dystopian vision of a "Post-American World"; or something more existential, like James Hetfield sneering "We're so fucked" and Neurosis declaring "the end is endless." Dread and anger were expressed in the unpredictable hyper-spazz seizures of the Dillinger Escape Plan, the jazzy off-time menace of Virus and the seismic pummel of Crowbar. Here are 2016's best.

Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, Mariner
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Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, ‘Mariner’

When Swedish post-metal band Cult of Luna embarked on writing their collaborative album with Brooklyn-based singer Julie Christmas, they were inspired by the concept of "a journey into the unknown." Each of the record's five dynamic cuts bring out new shades in both the band's long-form ambient metal and Christmas' elastic vocals – ranging from Björkian squeals and whispers to harrowing screams, as displayed previously in groups Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice. Unlike the group's kinsmen Neurosis who, on their joint album with Swans' Jarboe, offloaded vocal duties to her, Cult of Luna keep roaring on Mariner, meshing their bellows with Christmas' croons and cries in a way that make her feel like a true member of the band, not a onetime guest. When the tight interplay reaches its climax in the upward-spiraling crescendo of closer "Cygnus," it's hard to deny that this journey into the unknown has landed somewhere revelatory. B.G.

Gojira, Magma
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Gojira, ‘Magma’

Celebrated French prog-metal quartet Gojira abruptly changed directions on their sixth album, dialing back their technical excesses in favor of a more streamlined, straightforward approach. The uncharacteristically groove-oriented results – and the Pantera-meets-Pink-Floyd sound of songs like "The Shooting Star," "Silvera" and the title track – certainly alienated some longtime fans. But the visceral, hard-punching music turned out to be a surprisingly apt vehicle for Joe Duplantier's cathartic vocals and emotional lyrics (reportedly inspired by the illness and death of his mother), while the atmospheric epic "Low Lands" and the spare acoustic instrumental "Liberation" closed the album with a nod to the possibility of a greater cosmic truth beyond the grit and pain of earthly existence. D.E.

Deftones, Gore
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Deftones, ‘Gore’

With vocalist Chino Moreno and bassist Sergio Vega (formerly of Quicksand) leading the songwriting charge, Gore leans towards the darker, artsier end of the Deftones spectrum. But lead guitarist Stef Carpenter still finds space to unleash some serious seven-string aggression on "Doomed User," and Alice In Chains axeman Jerry Cantrell stops by to wail on "Phantom Bride." An intensely moody record that often shifts without warning from hard-grooving metal to dramatic arena rock to shoegaze-y space explorations, Gore is another gorgeously textured masterpiece from a band with no shortage of greatness in their discography. D.E.

Megadeth, Dystopia
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Megadeth, ‘Dystopia’

After Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine witnessed half of his band abruptly quit following the touring for 2013's more commercial-leaning Super Collider, he responded by enlisting Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler and former Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro to record some seriously ferocious and hard-hitting thrash. Tightly crafted tracks like "The Threat Is Real" and "Death From Within" attack with neck-snapping efficiency (and feature some deliciously dazzling fretwork from Loureiro), while "Fatal Illusion" boasts Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good!-style roller coaster riffing. The guitar solo tradeoffs that populate the back-end of "Dystopia," meanwhile, recall the similarly-styled six-string sparring of Rust in Peace-era classic "Hangar 18." An unexpected and awesome return to form. R.B.

Neurosis, Fires Within Fires
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Neurosis, ‘Fires Within Fires’

For the past two decades, Neurosis have been refining and tweaking the sprawling, riff-rattle-repeat grooves of their Nineties high water mark, Through Silver in Blood, occasionally interpolating folky textures and eerie sampled orchestral filigrees. Their latest, Fires Within Fires, is no different: It both whispers and wails with trippy koans like, "The end is endless." But what makes it a standout is it's the most concise presentation of the Neurosis Experience since 1999's Times of Grace. Its five, foundation-shaking cataclysms of sound last a mere 40 minutes – a nanosecond in Neurosis time – and it all builds to the slow-grinding payoff riff that closes end-track "Reach." The group has always aspired to making great art, rather than metal – a nuance lost on all the psych-metal copycats who've tried to ape their sound in recent years – and with Fires Within Fires, they created a work worthy of the old masters. K.G.

Dillinger Escape Plan, Dissociation
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The Dillinger Escape Plan, ‘Dissociation’

After nearly two decades of mathcore mayhem, Dillinger Escape Plan decided to call it a day – though not before leaving us with a head-spinning parting shot. As ferociously eclectic as anything the band has done in the past, Dissociation is a twisted turnpike pile-up of off-kilter hardcore, glitchy electronica, chaotic jazz-metal and fist-fighting hard rock, with genuine hooks occasionally poking through the carnage. And then there's the elegiac title track, which caps the album (and DEP's recording career) with six minutes of pulsing electronic beats, funereal strings and frontman Greg Puciato crooning "Finding a way to die alone" like a mantra. Less of a graceful exit than a startling door slam. D.E.

Sumac, What One Becomes
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Sumac, ‘What One Becomes’

Indie tastemaker Aaron Turner has been casually exploring noisier and more ambient paths since the dissolution of famed post-metal hypnotists Isis; but the second album from Sumac, his collaboration with powerhouse hardcore drummer Nick Yacyshyn, delivers his most pummeling art-metal in more than half a decade. There's some familiarity to his previous work, with some traces of Turner's hoarse growl and penchant for repetition; but What One Becomes is defiantly experimental and exploratory, full of dissonant bursts of sludge, quick punches of math, desert-wandering Morricone metal, throbbing Swans-ian slamming and sections opened up for improvisation. Their scope seems limitless, and even extends into the excellent companion EP, Before You Appear, featuring demented electronic treatments from Emptyset's James Ginzburg, American noise veteran Kevin Drumm and more. C.W.

Meshuggah, The Violent Sleep of Reason
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Meshuggah, ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’

Bionic perfection has become second nature to Meshuggah, but in order to make their latest quantum leap, the veteran Swedish band needed to embrace their human side. For The Violent Sleep of Reason, the group recorded live in the studio for the first time in more than 20 years, getting closer than ever to capturing the sweat that goes into drummer Tomas Haake navigating these warp-speed riff labyrinths. Meanwhile, the band's famously byzantine songs have never sounded so demented or punishing: The rhythmic slice-and-dice of "Born in Dissonance" one-upped Meshuggah staples such as "Bleed," while the tumbling, endlessly winding "By the Ton" found the quintet exploring new frontiers of compositional WTF. An entire metal subgenre, djent, now builds on Meshuggah's unmistakable sonic signature, but Violent Sleep proved that the originators are still the ones setting the pace. H.S.

Metallica, Hardwired... to Self Destruct
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Metallica, ‘Hardwired… to Self Destruct’

Although metal's biggest band has reveled in being one of the genre's most unpredictable (no one expected that Lou Reed collaboration), Metallica are always at their best when they allow themselves to just be Metallica. Their 10th album, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – a two-act psychodrama of sorts about the devolution of humanity – finds them indulging the sounds of their first few records: machine-gun tempos, crushing riffs and apocalyptic lyrics delivered in drill-sergeant barks. The breakneck lead track, "Hardwired," presents James Hetfield's fatalism at its most dramatic ("We're so fucked!") while closing track and album standout "Spit Out the Bone" is an epic indictment of technocracies. Echoes of the group's landmark Black Album and Master of Puppets resound throughout, as do formative influences like Black Sabbath's groove, Mercyful Fate's orchestration and Iron Maiden's theatrical flair, making it the best representation of the Metallica experience in years. Best of all, they didn't even bother writing ballads. K.G.

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