Favourite Albums of 2016

2016 has been a pretty great year, music-wise. I've put together a playlist of songs from my favourite albums, which (I think) works pretty well as a stand-alone entity as well as giving a taste of the albums.

There's a YouTube and a Spotify playlist.

Oathbreaker - 10:56/Second Son of R.

Oathbreaker are on Deathwish Inc, the label run by Converge's Jacob Bannon. On Instagram, he mentioned something about their intensity. I checked out their latest album, Rheia, and my God, it's wonderful. The mix of haunting clean vocals and primal, animalistic screaming might have been a bit too 'emo' with a male vocalist, but Caro Tanghe nails it. Not really in sound, but in feel, Rheia reminds me a lot of Converge's Jane Doe.

Gojira - Silvera

Gojira are one of those bands that I like whenever I hear them, but never really give any time to. I'm guilty of that with thier latest album, Magma, too, though I'm starting to recitfy that.

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Wanting Not so Much as To

This is TDEP's last album, and they're kicking off a huge final tour which hopefully will see them back in Aus. They're one of my favourite bands, and this is a pretty solid way to end things. As with all Dillinger albums, it'll take me another 100 listens to start to fully get it, of course.

Devin Townsend Project - Secret Sciences

Devy is awesome, and DTP are such a weirdly joyous prog metal band. The new album, Transcendence, is a whole lot of fun and still heavy AF. Secret Sciences isn't my favourite song, but it's so damn catchy.

Plini - Inhale

I saw Plini support Ne Obliviscaris last year. I smiled throught he whole set. Technically amazing and joyful, yet like DTP still heavy AF, Plini's one of the few prog/dgent instrumentalists that I've really gotten into.

The Black Queen - Secret Screen

Because being one of the best frontmen in metal isn't enough, Dillinger's Greg Puciato has a few side projects. One of them, and my favourite, is The Black Queen. Think Nine Inch Nails cross Depeche Mode and you'll be in the right ballpark. This whole album is so good, it's close to the my top pick of the year.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Girl in Amber

Always haunting, Nick Cave is just devastating on this album.

It Seemed the Better Way - Leonard Cohen

In high school, a friend played Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits for me, and I've loved it, and him, ever since. It was weirdly early in his career for a Hits record, but every song on that album is a killer. Possibly because I think almost every song he ever wrote was. This new album, where he's clearly preparing for his death, is wonderful.

Cloud Cult - Time Machine Invention

Cloud Cult are a left-field new discovery for me. I guess they're alt-folk, or something. But they're so, so good. Listening to their Light Chasers album is pretty much like mediation for me. I haven't put a lot of time into their latest album, but it's got some great stuff on it, like Time Machine Invention, which is fun and poignant.

David Bowie - Lazarus

Bowie, man. If I'm honest, Leonard Cohen making a 'death' album isn't that surprising - he seemed like the sort of guy who'd get a kick of it. But I didn't expect it from Bowie. Black Star is an excellent album, and Lazarus is my favourite track off it.

New Music

Ne Obliviscaris

These guys came through town a couple of weeks ago. I'd listened to their albums a couple of times, but wasn't really familiar with them. I decided to take a chance and see them, and it was one of the best performances I've seen. It was tiny (though intense) crowd but they played like they were in front of 10,000.

The more I listen to their latest album, Citadel, the more I like it. Technical, melodic metal with a lot of atmosphere and enough clean vocals to draw you in. Oh, and a violin. A very metal violin.

Seven Impale

These guys describe themselves as "progressive jazzrock", and that's about as good a description as I can think of. Their latest, City of the Sun, is so much fun to listen to.

Son of Aurelius

This is another prog metal band that's just put out a great album, in Under A Western Sun.

Leonard Cohen

I've been listening to Leonard Cohen since I was in high school, but really only his very early stuff. I've started listening to his more recent work, like Old Ideas, and it's just flat out brilliant.

Beyond Creation

These guys were the main support for Ne Obliviscaris, and after they played I already thought I'd got my money's worth. I was a little worried about NeO being able to follow them, actually. They're definitely more towards the death-y end of the prog-metal spectrum, which I'm not usually all that into. But their latest, Earthborn Evolution, is really solid, and really listenable. Plus, they're Canadian. Everyone loves Canadians.

The Core Idea: 5 Books That Changed My Life

Great books change your life. Even the not-so-great can contain a nugget of truth that resonates, and set you on a different path. Here are 5 books, and their take-away concept, that have done that for me.

Minimum Effective Dose: Tim Ferriss (The 4 Hour Body)

Tim Ferriss is an interesting guy. At times he seems like an arrogant prick, at times a humble guy on the path to self-betterment. The 4 Hour Body is a good book, if you're interested in health and experimentation, but it's not "great". It has, however, changed my life.

One of Ferriss' core concepts in the book is finding the minimum effective dose: that is, what's the least amount you need to do to get the outcome you want. For the most part (given the subject matter of the book) he applies this to health-related ideas: exercise, supplimentation etc. But I've found it applies everywhere.

I've been following this principle since I was 13, without having a name for it. After being a very conscientious student in primary school, I wised up in high school. I worked out how hard I needed to study to get the grades I wanted, and stopped there. I needed a university entrance rank of 65 to get into the course I wanted, so I aimed for 75 (and got 74.7). This frustrated my teachers who were certain I could get into the 90s, but that seemed like a whole lot of extra work for no real gain.

Thanks to Ferriss I've realised that this is a broadly applicable idea, not just a result of my laziness. So long as I'm clear about my goals, I find this a great way to not over-commit, and to leave myself the time and energy to do more things.

Dichotomy of Control: Epictetus (The Enchiridion)

It should be no surprise that Epictetus makes my list. The dichotomy of control (coined by William Irvine to describe the central Stoic concept) has fundamentally changed the way I approach the world.

Put simply: everything in life fits into one of two categories: it is completely within my control; or it is not. To be happy, and to improve as a person, I should focus solely on those things that I control and ignore those that I don't.

What this boils down to, in practice, is focusing entirely on my actions and reactions. I can't control how the kids behave, but I can control how I react to them. I can't control if my work is appreciated, but I can control how much effort I put in.

Time as a Filter: Nassim Taleb (Antifragile)

Antifragile is a rare book, in that it (along with its companion, The Black Swan) have many life altering ideas. The one that has probably made the most day-to-day difference for me is the idea that time acts as a filter.

To back up a little, the core idea of Antifragile is that things can have a spectrum of reactions to change: fragile things dislike change, robust things don't care, and antifragile things like, or improve with change. Time by its nature exposes things to more change events, which leads to the conclusion that those things that have lasted a long time are at worst robust and at best antifragile: time weeds out the fragile.

This has most affected the types information that I consume. I was already rapidly tiring of (and in many instances removing) news from my reading list. I've been a heavy user of Pocket for years, which I found gave me more opportunity to avoid sensationalist articles: often by the time I got to them an hour or so later, I'd lost interest.

Armed with Taleb's idea, I took things to the next level: I reversed my Pocket list so that I read the oldest artilces first. This has been wonderful. I immediately cull a good 30% of articles before I open them, because I'm just not interested any more: either it's no longer the issue du jour, or my interests have changed. Best of all though, there are some absolute gems, and I find myself happy with year-ago-me for finding such good stuff.

Time as a filter has also influenced the books I read. I'm more likely to pick up something that's been around for a while, particularly in non-fiction. I have a backlog of pop-science, pop-sociology and pop-tech type books that I may never read now, and I'm fairly sure I'm the better for it.

How the Amish Adopt Technology: Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants)

Kelly points out that, rather than being the luddites most people suspect, the Amish are not so much anti-technology as they are against the thoughtless adoption of technology. They go through long evaluation processes to determine if a certain techology will improve their community: will it enhance their family lives, support their values, or undermine them?

Regardless of whether you agree with the Amish values, the idea of cognisantly assessing the things that we bring into our lives is brilliant. And it applies more broadly than technology. I ask of a lot of things: does this make me a better person? If the answer is no, I have to seriously think about what I'm doing.

Loved and Lovely: Adam Smith via Russ Roberts (Theory of Moral Sentiments)

Unlike the Stoics that inspired him, Smith is concerned less with controlling our human impulses, and more with understanding how to use them to our, and society's, advantage.

One of his brilliant concepts is that people want to be "loved and lovely": that is, we want appreciation and respect, but also to deserve it. It's this concept of being deserving of love that instructs our actions and prevents us from gaming the system.

This has added an extra dimension to my own stoic-inspired thinking. In practice, the day-to-day actions of a Smithian and a Stoic are very similar, but with Smith the persuit of personal perfection seems much less lonely.

Change starts with me: Utah Phillips (The Past Didn't Go Anywhere)

This one's a bonus: not a book, but a spoken word album, and one of the most soul-enriching things in my life.

Utah closes out a story, as told to his son, about his time in the Korean war with:

"Right then I knew that it was all wrong, and it all had to change. And that that change had to start with me"

It's a simple idea, and not that original. But the delivery, in the context of his experience, gives me chills every single time I hear it.

The album as a whole grounds me, feeds my empathy and makes me want to be a better person.