Monday, December 21, 2015

The Top 11 Albums of 2015!

I think by this point we’ve covered everything that needs to be said by way of introductions, so here we go with a recap on the rules of this game: To merit consideration, all records must be composed of entirely new studio material – no re-releases, live albums, re-masters or compilations.  Also, we do a top eleven here, because as we all know, 'it goes to eleven.'  Got it?  Here we go:

Other Receiving Votes) Clutch – “Psychic Warfare,” Iron Maiden – “The Book of Souls”, Mongol Metal – “Mongol Metal” (disqualified only because it was made up of previously released material.)

Honorable Mention) Niche – “Heading East”

A late comer to the party!  Niche blends classic rock and with folk and just drop a psychedelia in a way that harkens back to the storytelling rock heavyweights of yesteryear.  Three part vocal harmony and intricately layered melodies make “Heading East” an absorbing and yet relaxing listen.

11) The Great Game – “The Great Game”

This record doubles as my Little Record That Could for 2015, as it stuck in my memory for most of the year.  For those following, 2015 was the Year I Tried to Hear Something Different, and really, each time someone would ask me what I had heard this year that fit the bill, “The Great Game” jumped back in my head.  Infectious in its liberal deployment of genres and tropes, The Great Game, a band of the world if ever there was one, can tie together a melody with everything from a guitar to an accordion and back again.  This is an expansive effort that can be a challenging listen, but its heart is a passion for experimental music that just plan works.

10) Annihilator – “Suicide Society”

Because very year there’s a record that’s worthy of the cut solely because it’s fun to listen to, more than that it actually possesses novel artistic merit.  Jeff Waters’ guitar tone remains one of the all-time greats, and becomes his de facto signature on every track of this album.  You can say what you want about Annihilator; that they’ve put out some very average records (true) and that they’ve never really tried to change their game plan (also probably true,) but that steadfast dedication to what got them here also means that they can drop a great record at any time.  “Suicide Society certainly isn’t going to qualify for the ‘Something Different’ title like The Great Game does, but it’s a blast to listen to, and damn it, that counts for something.

9) Pentagram – “Curious Volume”

And yet, amidst all the upstarts, we see a second legacy act join the fray and produce their best record in years.  Every metal fan keeps in his or her heart a small, burning love of doom metal, and Pentagram fills that niche will not getting bogged down in the idea that doom must be slow or plain.  Rich melodies, hook-y blues riffs and veteran craftsmanship show those damn kids how we did it back in the day!  (Note: back in the day for me was like, 1992, so I can’t really lay legitimate claim to the ‘we’ there.)  Anyway, Pentagram.

8) Children of Bodom – “I Worship Chaos”

After the shoulder-shrug of “Halo of Blood,” CoB comes back re-engineered as a quartet, which oddly ends up expanding their repertoire rather than collapsing it.  Alexi Laiho ends up writing a couple emotional pieces that no one would have ever expected from the alcohol celebrating, Finnish, metal champions and perhaps most surprising of all, they work!  This is a more mature sound from Children of Bodom while at the same time really bringing their keyboard work back into the fore.  The style is a work in progress for these guys still, but this record shows a ton of promise.

7) 6:33 – “Deadly Scenes”

Am I cheating here?  I think I might be cheating a little.  If memory serves, there were parts of the globe that got this album in the latter half of 2014, but Kaotoxin Records lists the official release date at January 15th, 2015, so I’m going with them.  Anyway, 6:33 is in that same vein as The Great Game, music designed to go way beyond the borders, except that 6:33’s production is both more compelling and well, this might sound simple, but more fun.  The best moments on “Deadly Scenes” have a jaunty swing in an inverse relationship with how much sense the songs make, which is weirdly all the album’s benefit.  Five dudes in masks with no live drummer playing music that wanders in a hundred directions?  Sold!

6) Cancer Bats – “Searching for Zero”

Following up the singular greatness that was “Dead Set on Living” was a tall order, but Cancer Bats delivered with “Searching for Zero,” an album that eschewed some of the rock overtones of its predecessor to deliver crunchy, ugly riffs circled around personal torment and rebellion.  There’s depth here in the bass tones alone, never mind the slow, churning drudgery that the band mated with it to create an authentic feeling of dread.  It’s rare that a band with hardcore roots can show this much discipline and growth, but Cancer Bats fit the bill.

5) Midnight Ghost Train – “Cold Was the Ground”

I’m starting to sense a theme within my own list, which is that everything I really connected to this year largely fell into one of two categories – different and complex, or ugly and fun.  Midnight Ghost Train swings the needle the farthest in the latter direction, slopping out fuzzy riffs and channeling immense amounts of distortion to create a romp that sounds, well, like I imagine a midnight ghost train would.  What sets this album apart and finishes its showcase is two-fold; first, that if you can sift through the grime, there’s a really accessible metal album underneath and second, there’s a sense of humor here that makes the proceedings lighter than the music would seem at first blush.  An enjoyable ride, and hey, they made a tour poster with a vintage-style nude woman hiding in the shadows on it.  Bonus!

4) Mountain of Wizard – “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances”

Apparently, it’s becoming a trend that I put an instrumental album in my top ten.  Well, here’s this year’s entry, an avalanche of inspired, monster riffs that nod heads and demand notice.  It’s a curious thing when an album can capture attention without speaking a single syllable, and that makes Mountain of Wizard all the more notable for what they’ve accomplished here.  Each of these songs feels like an organic, handcrafted creation, a thoughtful plan executed by musicians who had an idea and then jammed it out a bunch of times until it sounded right.  There’s a lot to like here.

3) Powerwolf – “Blessed and Possessed”

Okay, if Midnight Ghost Train was the ugliest of these albums, then by comparison in the ‘ugly and fun’ category, “Blessed and Possessed” is the most fun.  Don’t get me wrong, every Powerwolf is fun just because of what it is and what the band does, but this album in particular screams ‘road-trip sing-a-long.’  The Christian werewolves have outdone themselves this time, creating a tome of epic anthem after epic anthem, running the gamut from thumping arena rock to heart-pounding chase.  Attila Dorn’s vocals are as resonant as ever, but the brothers Greywolf outdid themselves this time with sharp, poignant riffs and excellent articulation.  Just look at that video!  I mean, doesn’t that look like fun?

2) Graveyard – “Innocence and Decadence”

Okay, at this point, Chris C and I have salivated over this album enough that everyone knows why it’s on here.  “Innocence and Decadence” is the most complete, best composed record of 2015, assembled and executed by talented musicians who display not only a complete mastery of their sound, but a healthy respect for the heritage of it.  So, what’s holding it back from being #1?

1) Shawn James and the Shapeshifters – “The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters”

This would be the answer.  Sometimes, there is an album so raw, echoing with the vibrations of sheet power, that it overwhelms even the best-laid blueprint of its competitors.  “The Gospel According…” may not be a match for “I&D” when it comes to precision or craft, but the pulpit-shaking bellow of Shawn James stirs the listener on a different level altogether.  This is vigorous, commanding music that’s tempered with enough sense of humor to prevent it from being melodramatic.  The fury and bluster of opener “No Gods” is balanced only too perfectly by the stark, cold grip of “Lost.”  Each track has a different character, a different feel, as the down-home riffs and bluegrass instrumentation create a dynamic sound from the album’s beginning to end.  If you are someone who appreciates being moved by music, or if you simply enjoy being absorbed by the album you’re listening to, there’s something for everyone on this record.  It’s the clear choice for Album of the Year.

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