Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Best Metal Albums of 2010

Well, 2010 is almost over, and it was an incredible year for metal. The sheer number of fantastic releases, from both the old guard and the new, has been overwhelming. Of course, the number of disappointments has been pretty big too. So, let's take a look at the best (and some of the worst) metal albums of the year. I've split them into categories instead of trying to rank different genres against each other. That's like comparing apples to corpses. But I did pick a best album of the year, beating all other contenders.

This list is dedicated to Ronnie James Dio and Peter Steele, two irreplaceable, top-tier members of the metal pantheon, and Paul Gray, who set me on the path to extreme metal.

Debut of the Year

KvelertakWhat better place to start the list than with the best debut? Kvelertak defeated the competition soundly with their self-titled album, an incredibly energetic and fun blend of black metal, sludge, thrash metal, stoner metal, hard rock, hardcore punk, and just about everything else out there. As recently as May, nobody had even heard of this band, but now they're impossible to miss. I was one of their earliest champions, giving them a perfect score back on July 16.

Honorable Mention: Castevet's Mounds of Ash is an arty but entirely satisfying blend of black metal and hardcore.

Best Comeback

Deth Red Sabaoth Glenn Danzig had been off his game for the last 16 years, but he came back strong with Deth Red Sabaoth. In my original review I mentioned how it combined some of the best elements of the first four Danzig albums. It's catchy rock-and-roll played with a thunderous heavy metal sound. Anyone who stopped buying his albums needs to seriously consider this one.

Honorable Mention: Fear Factory's Mechanize is easily their best since 1998's Obsolete, proving that the core lineup is Bell and Cazares, and they know the futuristic industrial/death/groove metal style best.

Biggest Disappointment

The Panic Broadcast (CD/DVD)Soilwork should have come back stronger than ever. Their hook-writing skills had just reached their peak, and guitarist Peter Wichers came back to lend his capable hands to the mix. But Bjorn Strid put in his wimpiest performance ever on The Panic Broadcast. It's still not a bad album, but it should have been amazing. It wasn't. Read my review here.

Dishonorable Mention: Nevermore (The Obsidian Conspiracy) also put out a mixed-bag album marred by weak vocal performance from someone who is capable of much better. And Mastodon's Jonah Hex soundtrack, well, I won't even go there.

Worst Album of the Year

PeripheryPeriphery's self-titled debut is djent metalcore, and it would have been a pretty good album if it weren't for annoying radio-metalcore vocals and the cheesy joke they threw in. It's sadistic the way it draws you in with some cool instrumental work, and then, instead of rewarding you with better things, spits in your face. It was kind of like that M. Night Shamalamadingdong movie The Village, which started out really cool, but when the twist came it ruined it. But it's worse, because after this album was ruined, they promised it would get cool again, and then ruined it again, and kept repeating this cycle. For more on this one, don't read my brief review: Read the Wikipedia article on the cycle of abuse. It applies equally well here.

Dishonorable Mention: Anathema's We're Here Because We're Here is dull post-rock packaged up and sold to metalheads based on the fact that the band used to be one of our own. I had to mainline some Behemoth after listening to this. East of the Wall's Ressentiment is another pile of crap being sold to metalheads, although it would have been listenable if the tracks weren't so long.

Song of the Year

The rest of this list is going to be about albums, but I have to pick a song, because the winner is so freaking good.

YlemDark Fortress's "Ylem" (from the album by that name) is absolutely incredible. It starts with an unforgettable fast, high lead followed by an almost bouncy, heavy blackened riff. This absolutely slays, and I guarantee it will never leave your head once you've heard it.

Honorable Mentions: Volbeat's "7 Shots" (Beyond Hell / Above Heaven) is kind of like a metal "Ghost Riders in the Sky" or "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", and it features guest vocals by Kreator frontman Mille Petrozza. Borknagar's "Worldwide" (Universal) and "Damnation Pentastrike" by Lightning Swords of Death (The Extra Dimensional Wound) are other great blackened picks, while Electric Wizard's "Turn off Your Mind" (Black Masses) will have you do just that, while blowing out your entrails with the bottom end. "Iron Crow" from Ramesses (Take the Curse) is another doom selection, featuring what may be the best riff of the year, and if I keep going on this list it's going to give away some of the rest of my top album choices.

Traditional/Power Metal Album of the Year

Hammer of The NorthGrand Magus's Roadrunner debut Hammer of the North is the hands-down winner in this category, with ultra-catchy tunes like the title track and "Northern Star". These guys could be the next Iron Maiden. Read my review here.

Honorable Mentions: Firewind's Days of Defiance is less goofy than your typical Euro power metal fare, and shows the Greeks at their best. Holy Grail is an upstart trad metal band to really watch out for, with their Crisis in Utopia.

Doom/Sludge Metal Album of the Year

TerminalDoom has been a particular favorite of mine this year, playing on my iPod more than any other genre. The female-fronted Salome takes the prize for the best doom or sludge metal album of the year with Terminal, and it fits in both categories nicely. The album takes ultra-heavy, ultra-simple riffs, pairs them with lots of feedback and other amp noises, and the inhuman vocals of Kat Katz. Read my review here.

Honorable Mentions: There are a lot of honorable mentions, including the wonderful Cough (Ritual Abuse), with their excellent riffs and solos, and the post-doom outfit Year of No Light (Ausserwelt). Unearthly Trance (V) has grown on me even more since I reviewed it, as they successfully bridge the gap between the riff-heads and the audiophiles, although just slightly less compellingly than Salome.

Thrash Metal Album of the Year

Evil PowerI'll be honest: I did not listen to very much thrash this year. Sometimes I feel like the genre has said everything it had to say to me (but I'll undoubtedly go on a thrash kick at some point). Even stretching the definition, I only listened to six of them (plus two EPs). But Lair of the Minotaur's Evil Power is definitely my favorite of the bunch. In my original review, I said it was like the soundtrack to 300: The Musical, and it's both triumphant and brutal.

Honorable Mention: Witchery's Witchkrieg is a very compelling piece of blackened thrash, although it is a bit hit-and-miss.

Grind or Anything-core Album of the Year

Option Paralysis (Dig)Mathcore masters The Dillinger Escape Plan handily earned the award in this category with Option Paralysis. My original review (a poorly written experiment) notes the band never stops evolving, breaking ground with huge steps forward on every release, and this is no exception. It works the poppy elements of Ire Works into the mathcore itself, without having to jump back and forth between the styles. Simply brilliant.

Honorable Mentions: Cephalic Carnage's deathgrind high watermark Misled by Certainty is also a leaps-and-bounds evolution over its predecessor, topped off with the epic "Repangaea". Progressive metalcore (and Jesus lovers) Norma Jean also showed maturity and improvement with Meridional.

Progressive Metal Album of the Year

Axioma Ethica OdiniEnslaved. Axioma Ethica Odini. Yeah, no surprise here. They've done to black metal what Opeth did to death metal: made it amazingly epic and progressive, and kicked their roots in the style almost all the way to the curb. My original review made the point that they are a band that is reliably interesting and excellent. Beauty and ugly are complementary.

Honorable Mentions: I never did get around to writing a review of Ihsahn's After, but holy crap is it good. The saxophones are blended perfectly into this progressive extreme metal masterpiece. And Orphaned Land's Never Ending Way of OrWarriOR was also snubbed in terms of a review, but their brand of Middle Eastern metal grew on me as the year went on. Great stuff. And let's not forget Borknagar's extremely catchy Universal, which sounds like black metal meeting arena rock.

Folk Metal Album of the Year

Marrow of the SpiritAgalloch's Marrow of the Spirit is, without any doubt, the most compelling folk-influenced metal release this year. It's introspective and lonely, understated, natural, pastoral, and feral, full of surprises at every turn. Memorable music and atmospherics married, with profound emotional impact. Check out my original review for more.

Honorable Mentions:  Negură Bunget was extremely impressive, if not completely metal, with their pagan metallish Vîrstele Pămîntului. And even though some of the shine has worn off Finntroll's Nifelvind since I first heard it, their bombastic polka-metal is still an exhilarating listen.

Black Metal Album of the Year

Lawless DarknessWatain pulled off the amazing feat of bettering the legendary Sworn to the Dark with Lawless Darkness. In my review, I compared this run of excellence to some previous reigns, and noted their incredible songwriting, knack for subtlety in the midst of brutality, and their mix of genius with not-quite-right-in-the-head-ness.

Honorable Mention: I was tempted not to select anything here, as Watain is simply so far ahead of the pack as to render it a moot point, but Dark Fortress's Ylem (mentioned above) is catchy and black, with some Mercyful Fate rhythm to it and plenty of variety.

Death Metal Album of the Year

PolarityI've said many times that death metal is my favorite subgenre, but I've also said that it's stagnant. Well, Decrepit Birth is not stagnant, as I made clear in my review of their incredible Polarity. It combines the technicality of Necrophagist with the emotional impact of latter Death, without sacrificing brutality as Cynic has done. It's absolutely essential.

Honorable Mentions: Even when it's not evolving, death metal can be very good and catchy, as Unleashed demonstrated with As Yggdrasil Trembles. And it can be fun, too, as Goat the Head proved with Doppelgängers.

Non-Metal Album of the Year

Yeah, I know this is the best metal albums of the year, but I did spin some rock and I wanted to give props to Wino for his amazing singer-songwriter abilities on Adrift. Review is forthcoming.

Honorable Mentions: Monster Magnet released their best album in a while, Mastermind, and Asteroid brings the psychedelic rock with Asteroid II.

Cover Art of the Year

Full of HellHowl takes the award for cover art of the year on debut Full of Hell. It's sort of like a Baizley-style interpretation of Mercyful Fate's Melissa. Incredible.

Honorable Mentions: Kvelertak (mentioned above) is actual Baizley, and you can't go wrong with that. And although the album was a disappointment, Death Angel's Relentless Retribution has the most feral looking pack of wolves ever captured by an artist, and they're all wearing sheepskins.

Free Album of the Year

These days, labels get accused of simply cashing in short-term on bands, not taking the time to develop them. But a few (and a few bands without labels) are giving away albums in the hopes of earning wider attention. Denovali is one of these labels, dedicated to more avant-garde fare of metal and other genres. With Celeste's Morte(s) Nee(s), they have presented an extremely compelling black metal album with hardcore influence. Read my full review here.

EP of the Year

Maree NoireI don't write a lot of reviews for EPs, but Beneath the Massacre's Marée Noire is an incredibly brutal technical death offering. It sounds a lot like Necrophagist mixed with a good deal of Suffocation, so if you're a fan then you don't want to miss these Canadians.

Honorable Mentions: The one EP that's going to show up on everyone else's list (whether they have an EP category or not) is Torche's Songs for Singles. They play pop songs in a bowel-rattling sludge style. What's not to like? Also, check out Altar of Plagues and their Tides EP, which shows how post-black metal should be done.

Most Overrated Album of the Year

Ecailles De Lune (Digipack Edition)Before I get to the best, I'm going to shoot down some of the worst. People go apeshit over Alcest and their ultra-pretty post-rock (Écailles de Lune) and have the gall to call it post-black metal. Sure, it's pretty, but it ain't for metalheads. And it definitely ain't black metal.

Dishonorable Mention: I decided against doing an alt-metal or nu-metal category, because I've lost almost all interest in those styles. Even so, the Deftones should have brought the goods. And though Diamond Eyes has an excellent tone, and a couple great tracks (especially "You've Seen the Butcher") the vocals are really wimpy. I really don't see what everyone else seems to see in "Beauty School", either--it's a snore-fest. I may have underrated it when I reviewed it, but it doesn't deserve all the credit it's gotten.

Album of the Year

Eparistera DaimonesThere should be no question in anyone's mind that Triptykon's Eparistera Daimones is album of the year. (And yet, it's hit the top spot very few times, notably coming in at number 3 in Decibel.) Tom Warrior, after creating one of the most influential bands of all time in extreme metal, came back 25 years later and shook it up again with this ultra-heavy, ultra-scary piece of death/doom goodness--outdoing everything else he's ever done. Yeah, I said it. In my original review I gushed over the dissonance and string bending, but I glossed over how powerful the vocal performance is. The songs are both dark and catchy, and even when they go past 10 minutes they never bore you. Fully three of the songs ("Goetia", "Abyss Within My Soul", and "A Thousand Lies") could be contenders for song of the year. The softer, eerie passages (featuring ethereal female vocals) add even more spice to the suffocating nature of the rest of the work. Plus, it could have won the best album art category with H.R. Giger dementia. If you don't own this album, you're kidding yourself.

Now, let's look forward to another great year. I'll take a break from blogging until then, but I'll be back with more of the metal.



  1. A really great list, and, more importantly, great discussion! Why haven't I been reading your blog??? I just subscribed.

    I'm still not sure what to make of that East of the Wall record. It didn't strike me as utter crap; it seemed more like parts that didn't fit together right, like an askew version of Intronaut. That was the record on which I was the most undecided this year.

  2. Good list. I agree with a lot of the stuff in your post. My end of the year post is coming, probably Saturday.

  3. The Finl Frontier best album of the year!