1996 was a pretty cool year in metal. Things were definitely changing for the better as the sub-genres expanded. Glam was dead as disco, and everyone's fascination with bland American thrash faded. That said, better years were ahead, as the amount of quality albums would continue to increase. Really many of these albums listed below are not that great, but it was still a good year nevertheless.
One special note here, I considered including the debut from The Lord Weird Slough Feg, but because the CD that is in print now is really more of a demo with extra tracks, I decided it really was not proper to include here.
10. Iced Earth - The Dark Saga
After Burnt offerings, this was a bit of a let down, but it is still a really good album. I think there is a lot of filler (I hate that term, but here I think it is appropriate) here, and this album could have been better. On the flip side, The Hunter is one of Iced Earth's best and Violate, Slave to the Dark and the title track are all stand outs. Of course Barlow's vocals are great, and the riffage is top notch.
9. Arcturus - Aspera Hiems Symfonia
Arcturus' debut can hardly be called black metal, so I am unsure why it is considered in that genre. They are labeled as "atmospheric" black metal, but really black metal is more of an influence here than a description. It is like calling Trivium NWOBHM because they were influenced by Iron Maiden. This is not my typical music, as it is has a ton of keyboards, but it is well done, and quite enjoyable.
8. Opeth - Morningrise
Opeth - love 'em or loathe 'em. I think this album is overrated in their catalog. Black Rose Immortal is a cool song and all, but at twenty minutes, it is a bit of an earful. Still, their second album lays the foundation for the better albums that would follow, and this itself is worthy of inclusion here.
7. Orphaned Land - El Norra Alila
This is the second album from the kings of Israeli metal. I really enjoy the Middle Eastern elements in Orphaned Land's music. I think it is original, and adds a really cool groove.
6. Motörhead - Overnight Sensation
Really, this is a mid grade 1990's Motörhead album. Not as good as Bastards, but not as bad as March or Die. To me, the change back to one guitar from two meant very little, since Motörhead has never been a guitar band. However, the songs are a bit slower, and do have a tad more of a Bomber feel that its predecessor. Still, there is not much more to add, if you like Motörhead you will like this, if not, Overnight Sensation will not convert you.
5. Falkenbach - …En Their Medh Riki Fara…
The debut from Vratyas Vakyas' Falkenbach is a great start to an interesting "band". Since he is the only member, I do not know if I can call Falkenbach a band, but I digress. Anyway, this album is what I consider the original Viking metal album (his demos date back to the late 1980's so; I think that makes him first - close enough for this reviewer). This album is powerful and melodic, taking the best elements from black metal and Nordic folk.
4. Moonspell - Irreligious
I really do not care for Moonspell, as gothic metal really does not float my boat. I have heard most of their catalog, and this is really the only one of their albums I like a lot. Maybe because the song Opium is one of my all time favorite songs ever, but that is not the only good track here. All of the tracks have their own appeal or hook, keeping the album interesting and fresh. This is a dark record for sure, one I like more now than I did when I first heard it.
3. Rush - Test for Echo
T4E is a step up from Counterparts. To me it is more Rushlike. That said, it is not without its flaws. Virtuality is as dated as old milk, and Dog Years is trite crap. The rest of the album is really good though and despite the two aforementioned clunker, this is probably the best Rush album of the 1990's (I think there were three, and it is not really saying much).
2. In Flames - The Jester Race
I guess any album that defines a genre is worthy of inclusion in a top ten list. It was not the first of its kind, but it was clearly the best, and it has aged quite well, and is not at all dated. It would be easy to digress into how crappy this band is today, so I won’t do that and I will say that The Jester Race really did define the melodic death metal sound, and is the top album of that sub genre.
1. Bruce Dickinson - Skunkworks
Perhaps placing this at number one is proof positive that I am the ultimate Maiden fanboy. Sue me. Bottom line is, that while 1996 had a great blend of albums from old-timers like Rush and Motörhead and from newcomers like Falkenbach and Arcturus, I cannot deny the best singer in metal history. Skunkworks was not praised by the critics; many felt Dickinson was trying to cash in on the Seattle sound so popular in the USA. Horse hockey. There is nothing grunge about Innerspace and Solar Confinement. Besides, this album is all sci-fi and stuff, which is very ungrunge. So, it is not the most metal of Dickinson's solo albums, but it is one of the better ones.