Another year, another chance to partake in our society’s two favored pastimes – the ranking of things, and the arbitrary judgment of subjective arts. That being said, let me of course follow with the usual tongue-in-cheek rigmarole about how this list is the definitive list of all the lists you will read, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and Chris’ list is right, too. How does that work, when we don’t have a single album in common? The answer is, it’s our blog.
In all honesty, perhaps more this year than in year’s previous, what I bring to you should not necessarily be taken as unmolested gospel for the best albums of the year. What you, gentle reader, should glean from this is that these are what I thought to be the best records of the year, and I firmly believe that they are worth your time and exploration. You may or may not agree with my choices, but let’s have that conversation, and the only way for us to start that conversation is for one of us to make a statement. Therefore, this is my statement.
The rules, as frequent readers have come to know them, are brief and as follows: all entries must be original studio material. No live albums. No compilations. No cover albums. No re-releases. Oh, and I do a top 11, because, say it with me now, it goes to eleven. That’s pretty much it. Without further preamble, let’s get to it:
EP of the year: Charcoal Tongue – “24 Hours: My Deterioration”
I’m taking a page from Chris’ book here and declaring and EP of the year, because there were a number of them worth mentioning, and it doesn’t always feel fair to judge an EP against a full album. Unless that EP is Nine Inch Nails’ “Broken,” it’s hard to go up against records of full sample size. But that by no means lessens the quality of Charcoal Tongue’s effort, which is very raw but full of promise, as they send out cascades of rock and metal at full bore into your speakers.
Honorable Mention – Serenity - “Lionheart”
Listen, I don’t want to sound all pompous, but I often feel like I’m ‘done’ with power metal as a genre. Like, most of the bands sound similar to me, the records are similar, and the songs all follow the same progressions and arcs. Don’t get me wrong, there are many I hold dear, but more often than not, I hear a new power metal record and I shrug and go on about my business. Serenity’s “Lionheart,” managed to grip my attention several times, and each time I thought I knew what was going to happen next, the band would mix in some new, powerful riff that snapped me right back to attention.
#11 – Life of Agony – “A Place Where There’s No More Pain”
This album is here because of what it is, but also because of what it represents. From a musical standpoint, it’s a more mature, careful Life of Agony, but that brings it with it a new paradigm, a pleasant shift from the fury of their youth. It’s well designed and expertly executed. It also represents the accomplishment, at least in part, of a marginalized segment of the population. At the risk of making a political stand, no one should be marginalized because of who they are. There’s a lot of that going around, and it needs to stop.
#10 – ELM – “Dog”
Every year, there’s an album that cracks my list because it throws all the rules of style and convention forcefully out the nearest airlock, and plays music solely based in grit, piss and vinegar. And for all the artistic vision of the other albums on this list, ELM sits here proudly in blatant defiance of that. Their record is noisy, overdriven, disorganized, and a pure joy to listen to. The music is so fuzzy it makes you feel like you’re chewing on a mitten. And I love it.
#9 – Dead Quiet – “Grand Rites”
In stark contrast to the comparative miasma of ELM up above, Dead Quiet’s “Grand Rites” is a slow-burning, trippy, rising tide of music that gradually consumes your senses with its weird but infectious combinations of drawn-out harmonies, rocking melodies and authentic vocals. Don’t ask me to put my finger on exactly why I like this album, just know that I do.
#8 – The One Hundred – “Chaos + Bliss”
And we’ve officially hit the first album that requires some specific punctuation if you want to google the title. I honestly don’t know if rap metal will ever make a comeback, but if it does, this could well be the form it will take. The One Hundred do an excellent job of combining some of the tenets of that genre with a more mainline take on alternative metal, and a healthy dose of hardcore thus mixing three sounds ranging between forgotten and stale into something new and novel. The creativity and dare I say bravery of this effort lands it in this spot.
#7 – Ember Falls – “Welcome to Ember Falls”
We’ve talked about this a lot through the years, but one of the private and unexpected joys of being a music journalist is those rare occasions when you find something that’s different. In some ways, this is superior to even finding an album you really like. This album came out early in the year, and every time I thought about if I had a totally unique listening experience this year, my brain returned to Ember Falls. Not only is this a quirky record with a lot of different genre mixing and oddly matched cadences, but it’s actually fun to listen to, which separates it from the crowd of albums that want to be different just to be different.
#6 – “Galaktikon II: Become the Storm”
It’s not quite Galaktikon, and it’s not quite Dethklok. It is, in fact, an amalgam of both, equally representing Brendon Small’s ability to be melodic and forceful in his musical explorations. There’s probably not a lot I can say here that you at home don’t already know. This is a great record, and it still strikes me as interesting that one of the year’s best metal albums came from a guy who isn’t necessarily part of the inner metal circle. There’s a lesson there, to be sure.
#5 – Power Trip – “Nightmare Logic”
The one great thrash record of the year was a really great thrash record. These upstarts from Texas exercised all the right lessons when constructing this album – great riffs, lot of open space to let them breathe, percussion that has an accurate sense of when to push the pedal and when to lay off. In a year where thrash spun rather in circles and couldn’t get out of its own way, Power Trip took the flag and ran with it.
#4 – Troubled Horse – “Revolution on Repeat”
I think I finally have this album properly rated. When I first heard it, it passed by me without much though, but by some Providence, I kept coming back to it. I spent a month in Waco, Texas one week this summer, and this album was a frequent companion on my travels and travails. Now that we’ve settled into the winter, I think this is where the record fits in the grand scheme. Rock fans will love it; it’s loud, it’s tight and the message is on point. If Graveyard wasn’t going to release an album this year, this is the next best thing.
#3 – Nachtblut – “Apostasie”
And now we come to what might be the most ‘fun’ album of the year. Which is odd only because so much of the record’s imagery lingers around skulls, darkness and bodies painted black. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading it wrong; I don’t care, if I'm wrong, I like my version better. Anyway, there’s a lot of power on this track, and the German band finds ways to integrate the best traits of KMFDM, Rammstein and Combichrist into one gleefully raucous experience. The riffs are catchy as hell, the drums pound like hammers and the contrasting pacing in the songs between the gothic leads and the industrial walls of noise is perfect. Bonus points for the band’s cover of the German pop song “Was Ist Denn Los Mit Dir.” The album would made it on this list without it, but having it just puts it over the top.
#2 – John 5 and the Creatures – “Season of the Witch”
In the history of my year-end top ten lists, there have only been two albums to crack the rankings while not featuring a single lyric. This one, and John 5’s previous album “Careful With That Axe.” Unlike so many other virtuoso guitar players, John is trying to not just entertain with his impressive skill, but write songs that actually have movements and sound like songs people would want to listen to. His variety of styles doesn’t hurt, as he bends from rock to metal to country to ballad and occasionally mixes them with great success. Part of what made the old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons work so well is that the artists had an amazing ability to tell stories without words. It’s a rare talent and John 5 taps into that same vein, though through a different medium.
#1 – The Midnight Ghost Train – “Cypress Ave”
No album this year has me coming back to listen to it again and again more than this one. Robert Heinlein has a great quote in his book “Time Enough for Love” that concludes with “Specialization is for insects.” Midnight Ghost Train, off the strength of their very solid previous album “Cold Was the Ground,” adamantly refuses to specialize, exploring six or seven different musical idioms within their one album. They can play rock, blues, metal, hip-hop with brass accompaniment, ballads of hurt and songs of praise. They are, in turn, comedic and campy and angry and cautious and chastising and thoughtful. All of that occurs on “Cypress Ave,” before you even get to the best part. The album’s final cut, “I Can’t Let You Go,” as powerful an expression of the combination of blues and metal and pure songwriting as has ever been recorded. It’s the best song of the year, on the best album of the year. If you ignore everything I’ve said up to this point, then I urge you to take heed of this record. It’s that good.