The (now officially) annual list of the prior year’s top 20 albums is, and will continue to be, a post that holds extra significance for me. After all, spending the better part of two months researching and writing the 2013 edition, only to find no acceptable place to post it, was the impetus for me to launch this blog in the first place. That was the best snap decision I’ve made in quite some time. Even though I fudged some of the housekeeping around it, for all intents and purposes that 2013 edition was the original centerpiece and first post ever for this blog, darkadaptedeye, 8000+ words long and self-indulgent to a fault. That was exactly one year and, now, seventy posts ago. Over the past year, I’ve taken my first real, fledgling steps as any sort a critical mind and tried to remain open to incorporating new topics into my overly busy but, hopefully, appealingly passionate writing style. And while I enjoyed creating that 2013 post very much – I stand by its choices and, we’ll say, approximately 85% of its words – I feel sort of like taking a mulligan on it as a whole. I feel like starting fresh for a new year, DAE’s second year, right here and right now.
2013’s opening was labeled “Intro/Disclaimer”. Thankfully, there should be no need for a disclaimer this time around. You’ve probably already been warned, in one way or other. As with last year, I’m providing supplements to the master list, which I’ve subdivided into three categories: Metal (because that remains my bedrock genre), Non-Metal (which incorporates everything else musical I enjoyed, from folk to hip-hop to, admittedly, lots of indie rock), and Comedy (which, for the record, is only concerned with stand-up albums, not non-album comedy specials [a la CC or Netflix] and not musical comedy like “Weird Al” Yankovic). It’s the rare comedy special I watch more than once, whereas I just find comedy albums much more appealing. Even if they weren’t a huge help for me in compiling the cross-genre top 20, I still think the supplemental lists are inherently kind of interesting, since they point out numerous worthwhile albums that didn’t quite make the final cut. Unlike last year, where everything and more went in terms of descriptions allowed, I’ve instituted strict word limits this time around for both the supplemental intro sections (300) and individual album reviews (225). Suffice it to say that many hundreds of words selflessly gave their lives to the cutting room floor.
What follows is a rough representation of what I most listened and responded to in 2014. I must say I’m pretty happy with the end result, which I think is more streamlined and readable than its forerunner. I’d be curious to know what you think, both on that score and, of course, on the albums I’ve nominated here. This is also the part where I’m supposed to nobly concede that, when it comes to art, all taste is subjective and individual. Blah, blah, and, also, blah. It’s a list of favorites. Isn’t that the entire point? If you somehow happened to also love everything on this list, I’d probably offer you shaky/hearty congratulations and suggest (as a well-wisher) that you seek medical attention. This was a pretty crazy musical year all told, full of new voices, odd sounds, and old friends. Music caressed my ears, charged and recharged my batteries, challenged my preconceptions, and turned well-established comfort zones into exhilarating moving targets. I loved almost every minute of it, as I hope the text to follow illustrates. Thanks for reading, and one last thanks, 2014. Here’s to even better days ahead…
Not as top heavy as the 2013 edition, the top twenty metal list of 2014 is nevertheless replete with hard hitters and demonstrates an appealing balance of subgenres reflective of the breadth and depth of the genre as a whole. Though thirteen out of twenty albums contained herein carry at least a little bit of DM in their DNA, just remember that because a description reads “death metal” doesn’t necessarily mean it ends there. More often, death is merely a basic musical foundation/approach over which more specific styles and embellishments are layered, often several at a time. Of these albums, #1-10 were obvious inclusions for my cross-genre list, with the midpoint ending up as a clear line of demarcation and the second ten basically vying for position in an approximately seven-way tie for #11. DM stalwart Cannibal Corpse unleashed a thirteenth studio album that rests comfortably in the upper half of its considerable discography, enough to make a serious play for year-end consideration, and, in “Kill or Become”, one of its most irresistible singles, arguably the best metal track of 2014. Slipknot, the genre’s preeminent lightning rod, not to mention a band so image-conscious and popular that it routinely inspires nonsensical debates from within the nerdiest corners of fandom on whether or not its clamor even qualifies as “metal”, weathered the passing of founding bassist Paul Gray and the departure of flashy, overrated drummer Joey Jordison to forcefully and emotionally reestablish its prominence. Mastodon took another step in its unlikely mainstream ascendance, albeit by backtracking slightly from 2011’s overslick Hunter into something better-rounded. Polish death metal ruled the day in a welcome throwback to its routine early millennium dominance, with Behemoth, Decapitated and Vader sharing prime real estate for the first time since 2006.
- Abysmal Dawn – Obsolescence
- Triptykon – Melana Chasmata
- Overkill – White Devil Armory
- Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral
- Misery Index – The Killing Gods
- Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
- Fallujah – The Flesh Prevails
- Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun
- Behemoth – The Satanist
- Dog Fashion Disco – Sweet Nothings
- Machine Head – Bloodstone & Diamonds
- Cannibal Corpse – A Skeletal Domain
- Slipknot – .5: The Gray Chapter
- Vader – Tibi Et Igni
- Decapitated – Blood Mantra
- Goatwhore – Constricting Rage of the Merciless
- Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun
- Grand Magus – Triumph and Power
- The Haunted – Exit Wounds
- Artificial Brain – Labyrinth Constellation
Fairly typical of me to harp on about the bounteous variety of styles and viewpoints to be found within the metal genre overall, while, under the radar (or under my nose, whichever you prefer), my non-metal list turned out to be the truly spastic affair, like a $.99 curio store run by John Waters, or a lowbrow comedy festival curated by David Lynch. Here, the top nine spots qualified for the cross-genre master list, though another few were solid contenders. The toughest competition seemed destined to come from indie pop chanteuse Ingrid Michaelson, whose Lights Out was among the most delicate, affecting music I heard this year, or at least the uncompromised 3/5 of it that didn’t sound like some American Idol runner-up’s corporate debut. Elsewhere, Sweden’s Blues Pills channeled Janis Joplin with the volume turned way up, the trans-hemispheric Sunny Day in Glasgow married dream pop, indie rock and shoegaze, and Foo Fighters returned with an ambitious but undercooked album accompaniment to its remarkable recent HBO docu-series. Primus eschewed the Seas of Cheese for a sail down the Chocolate River with a twisted, heartfelt adaptation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that never bored but mostly succeeded in being creepy. New York indie popsters Bleachers couldn’t assemble a worthwhile full album, but, in “Rollercoaster” and “I Wanna Get Better”, did become the rare commercial act to produce not one but two songs that did not reflexively force me to change the radio station. Finally, hard rock godfather AC/DC capped a difficult 2014 with the release of its long-awaited fifteenth album, Rock or Bust, which, despite the tragic forced retirement of foundational guitarist Malcolm Young (and however the hell Phil Rudd spent his free time), proved refreshingly lean, fun and no-nonsense…everything an AC/DC album should be, in other words.
- Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
- St. Vincent – St. Vincent
- Spoon – They Want My Soul
- Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for no Witness
- Royal Blood
- The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
- Wye Oak – Shriek
- “Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
- AC/DC – Rock or Bust
- Ingrid Michaelson – Lights Out
- Blues Pills – Blues Pills
- F*cked Up – Glass Boys
- A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Sea When Absent
- Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
- Interpol – El Pintor
- Jack White – Lazaretto
- Tori Amos – Unrepentant Geraldines
- Primus – Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
- Bleachers – Strange Desire
This year’s comedy docket saw a welcome infusion of new blood (at least to me), as three of the top five and half the top ten albums came from comedians with whom I was previously unfamiliar. Morgan Murphy’s unfiltered, semi-confessional Irish Goodbye was the most promising debut by a female standup since Amy Schumer released Cutting in 2011. Nick Thune took the tired convention of the laid back, guitar-playing comic to unlikely heights with his sly Folk Hero. Hari Kondabolu’s Waiting for 2042 was an insightful, clever, and, above all, confrontational hour – it’ll likely be anathema for non-liberals – whereas “1940s auctioneer” Mark Normand’s Still Got It! was brisk and overly playful without sacrificing or lacking for insight itself. Unlike last year, no comedy album stood out quite enough to crack the cross-genre top 20. The most serious competition came from jovial, sex-obsessed storyteller Big Jay Oakerson, who is talented (and quick) enough to release an album that is 70% audience interaction and still have it be the funniest long-player of the year. Though I returned to The Crowd Work Sessions more than any comedy album in 2014, the top spot still goes to Dave Attell disciple Kurt Metzger, whose White Precious almost produced more surprised, disarming laughs than its nine runners-up combined. Metzger has been reflexively dismissed and much derided throughout his career, but his blunt, borderline Neanderthal persona remains a convincing but calculated con, allowing him to be as coarse and juvenile as he wants, while not only belying but effectively camouflaging the depth of his arguments and the breadth (and occasionally surprising warmth) of his humor. Also released in late 2014 was Dan Mintz’s The Stranger, which is surely of note for any Bob’s Burgers fans who have secretly longed to hear Tina Belcher tell naughty, non-sequitur jokes.
- Kurt Metzger – White Precious
- Big Jay Oakerson – The Crowd Work Sessions
- Morgan Murphy – Irish Goodbye
- Mark Normand – Still Got It!
- Nick Thune – Folk Hero
- Hannibal Burress – Live from Chicago
- Chad Daniels – Natural Selection
- Hari Kondabolu – Waiting for 2042
- Patton Oswalt – Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time
- Dan Mintz – The Stranger
The Top 20 Albums of 2014
A quick comparative glance at how this year measures up to its predecessor reveals a few interesting tidbits. 2013’s top twenty broke down as follows: 9 metal albums, 9 non-metal, 2 comedy. 2014 broke down as 11 metal albums, 9 non-metal, zero comedy. Though I think 2014 is actually the significantly superior year overall, not only didn’t it have a resounding choice for the top spot, its quality isn’t even half as clear at the forefront. Any of 2013’s top five albums – Frightened Rabbit; Clutch; Anciients; Carcass; Chvrches – would probably have been the number one album of 2014. Remove those five, however, and the hypothetical combined ‘13/’14 top twenty would likely have been overflowing with albums from 2014, as the latter year features a far less steep drop-off from #11 on. Over the course of researching, writing, and refining this list, no fewer than six of the top ten albums changed places from their initial order, including one that moved into first the top ten and then the top five from a place in the low teens and one that initially barely made the top twenty at all. In the end, however, I was never as racked with doubt over the top album as I was with nineteen that followed it. From almost the first time I heard Abysmal Dawn’s Obsolescence, I thought to myself, “this may well be the album of the year.” It took a few more listens to remove all doubt, and I was left/free to do my true (and difficult) deliberations elsewhere. That was also the case in 2013, albeit it for a vastly different type of album. Oft times you just know. You know? It’s a fun but funny process.
- Abysmal Dawn – Obsolescence (Technical Death Metal) – I confess initial surprise upon learning that the outstanding latest album from California death merchants Abysmal Dawn was, in fact, its fourth, though it makes sense. Obsolescence has all the hallmarks of a journeyman metal band’s triumphant mid-career breakthrough, which drops, unassuming and deadly, like a bomb out of a clear blue sky, supercharging a flagging or underappreciated career while altering the terrain around it irrevocably. Skyscraping, monolithic death metal in the vein of a less elegant Immolation, Obsolescence is a stunning fusion of songwriting chops and musical skill, risk-taking and name-taking, powered by Scott Fuller’s gargantuan yet perfectly controlled drumming, and, in frontman Charles Elliott, some of the most splendid and elevated guitar leads I’ve heard in years. I knew of the band in positive general terms well before I ever heard a note. When that time came, I needed only a sample. My decision was head-slappingly obvious. Listen to “Perfecting Slavery” for head-spinning technical wizardry, or “Loathed in Life” for off-kilter death variations cunningly, seamlessly applied, or, especially, “Inanimate”, owner of an assortment of 2014’s greatest riffs, for involuntary head-banging at its finest. I still don’t entirely know whether Obsolescence represents some quantum leap forward, or I’m just hideously late to the party and Abysmal Dawn has been kicking ass on this epic level for years. It hardly matters. Either way, they’re awesome.
- Against Me! – Transgender Dysmorphia Blues (Punk) – One doesn’t need to know or particularly understand Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace – who, after years of making incomplete traditional punk statements, came out as a transgender woman in 2012 – to empathize with her personal struggle or enjoy her music. Both are now necessarily intertwined. For an album boasting so many obvious demons inadequately caged/primed for exorcism, Transgender Dysmorphia Blues is an urgent, effortlessly compelling, strangely celebratory journey. It moves me on an elemental level, more than any other five 2014 albums you might select, combined. I could parse the lyrics for days. Each time I listen, the album stirs me anew, as if for the first time, scares me a little (less), and I love it more. Grace is sage enough to encase her missives inside a shimmering shell of glorious, anthemic punk, which is fortunate, since she lacks both filter and any inclination to mince words. Even an incomplete list of great Blues songs – “Paralytic States”, “True Trans Soul Rebel”, “Black Me Out”, “Unconditional Love” – would be as long as my arm. “Even if your love was unconditional,” she states plainly on the latter, “it still wouldn’t be enough to save me.” Grace seeks love, as all do, needs no saving, and would likely be the first to tell you if she didn’t trust her spine-tingling, fist-pumping punk proclamations to speak instead.
- Triptykon – Melana Chasmata (Gothic Death Metal) – Coming of age in the metal scene when I did, some of the genre’s most influential early lights ended up as unfortunate blind spots in my education. Chief among those was many-pronged Swiss trailblazer Celtic Frost, whose ferocious authenticity and restless experimentation paved the way for bands to come in not one but numerous subgenres. I never had quite the attachment to prime Frost that others did, though its worth is beyond reproach, but I’ve found myself positively enthralled by Tom G. Warrior’s post-Frost outfit, Triptykon, whose second album, Melana Chasmata, is exactly the sort of all-encompassing, uncompromising metallic experience – polished enough to sound professional, but possessed of a tangible and exhilarating sense of danger – that I imagine Frost’s seminal works were in the mid-1980s. Sonically, Warrior is clearly as uninterested in repeating himself as he ever was, and Melana Chasmata exists comfortably on multiple planes simultaneously, effortlessly bridging (and inhabiting) the distance between death metal and doom, between black and thrash, boasting monumental atmospherics, a sublime and penetrating multi-tiered vocal touch, and absolutely crushing power overall. Melana Chasmata is a true widescreen (dark) Technicolor album, resonant, unassailable, unforgettable, and one of the best pieces of music 2014 had to offer.
- Overkill – White Devil Armory (Thrash Metal) – Overkill’s latter-day renaissance not only barrels forward but, improbably, picks up speed. 2010’s Ironbound was a jaw-dropping sneak attack from the New Jersey paragons, the kind of rare “lion in winter” achievement that’s easy to over-romanticize out of awe and simple fan gratitude. How incredible then that the band’s seventeenth (?!) album, the brash, commanding White Devil Armory, is not only its legitimate better on almost every level, but arguably Overkill’s best album in 24 years, and, quite possibly, ever? Though it lacks Ironbound’s unscalable individual heights, Armory’s (the album and quicksilver pseudo-title track) strengths lie in hard-nosed unity of purpose and devastating execution. There isn’t a remotely bad song here. Has Overkill somehow discovered the fountain of youth? Hardly. The truth is that its hallmarks – sneering, personalized, ground-level thrash metal shot through with frenetic drum/guitarwork and anchored by Bobby Ellsworth’s gleeful air raid siren voice – have remained intact since day one. The difference, as I see it, is that while some of its few remaining contemporaries have seemed increasingly content to trade on past glories, Overkill has made real efforts to fortify itself for an active future – guitarist Dave Linsk and drummer Ron Lipnicki have proven to be crucial contributors – and to consistently produce music not only worth hearing but celebrating. As an Overkill/metal/anything album, White Devil Armory is a wild, uncompromising, edifying success.
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (Rap & Hip Hop) – A few years after the millennium turned, so too, seemingly, did hip hop. Rap shed its insistence on upholding the tenets of funk and flow, becoming increasingly pop and ridiculously popular in the process. I turned into an old man overnight and, grudgingly, resolved myself to stop caring. I never imagined then that I’d see the like of Run the Jewels 2. The second high octane collaboration between underground fixtures El-P and Killer Mike embodies (and perfects), to my ears, much that rap has been lacking in recent years – buzzing, insinuating beats that, depending on the song, slam like a tidal wave or cut like a razor with agile precision and no wasted motion; deft, dizzying rhymes that are substantial yet still drip confidence; attitude, gravitas, and, crucially, a true sense of foreboding. Mike, whose impenetrable mic command recalls luminaries KRS-One and Chuck D, establishes his fierce, magnetic presence, which is inextricably tied to the album’s quality, with authority and never gives below maximum effort, while El-P’s production surprises and steamrolls in equal measure. The duo taps ace collaborators like The Coup’s Boots Riley on the harrowing “Early” and RATM’s Zack de la Rocha on the poison-tipped “Close Your Eyes”. Though not everything works equally, RTJ2 is a total head rush in its best moments, brutal and immediate, unleashing all sorts of invigorating hell.
- St. Vincent – St. Vincent (Alternative Rock) – Listening to “Rattlesnake”, the lurching, stuttering, beeping (and booping) opening salvo of St. Vincent’s eponymous fourth album, one almost can’t help wondering whether the one-woman band’s creative wellspring Annie Clark is just making this stuff up as she goes along or whether she actually has inexplicable insight into how music will sound in the future. The latter answer would surely explain much, but the former, if true, is actually the more intriguing option, since it so emphatically underlines the limitless scope and capacity of Clark’s imagination. Either way, her talent as a songwriter, guitarist and performer is quickly and decisively outpacing our ability, or contrarian desire, to question it. There is serious complexity in this music, which incorporates all manner of instruments, digital and analog, pointed both inward and in all manner of otherworldly directions, overt and subtle, up tempo and sideways (as on unconventional college rock radio singles “Digital Witness” and “Birth in “Reverse”), unwieldy and beautiful (as on the sighing “I Prefer Your Love” and the moody “Prince Johnny”, which favorably recalls Tori Amos’ late-‘90s electronic period), wily and weird, never less than memorable, often approaching unforgettable. Subsequent listens to St. Vincent burrow devotees ever deeper into Clark’s brain, where there is always more around the bend to hear, discover or interpret, no matter whether this is trip two, twenty, or two-hundred.
- Spoon – They Want My Soul (Alternative/Indie Rock) – I have a complicated relationship with pop music. I recognize it as a necessary evil. I grudgingly acknowledge its right to exist. I am as susceptible as anyone to an insidious melodic hook or particularly infectious beat, though, when confronted, my instinct is usually to flee, no questions asked. Spoon has long been an “artistic credibility” exception at the summer’s various radio-sponsored pop festivals, and it’s not difficult to see why. Britt Daniel has as dependable and discerning a pop ear as any number of passing fad producers one might suggest. Spoon’s eighth album, They Want My Soul, expertly straddles the fence separating purist rock sensibilities from outright sugar crush, and plays more like an ad hoc “greatest hits” album than a typical late period surprise. When Daniel decamped to co-form Divine Fits with Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, speculation was that Spoon’s high indie pop standards might have finally caught up with the fastidious frontman. If anything, the Fits’ bouncy irreverence seems to have positively infected its parent company. Daily Show fans might recall seeing Spoon unveil Soul’s two most immaculately crafted gems – the playful “Do You?” and gorgeous “Inside Out” – during the show’s recent Austin residency, but this album is stacked back to front with songs that are consummately radio friendly without ever pandering. It is at once the year’s catchiest and classiest escape.
- Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral (Death Metal) – Throwback supergroup Bloodbath – a sort of metallic comet that visits Earth every five years, generating feverish excitement amongst the nerdy – began in 1998 as a meeting of executive minds between Katatonia and Opeth, two of the colossi of second wave Swedish death metal. Sixteen years later, Opeth has now embraced a perplexing, marginally understandable progressive rock identity, while Katatonia’s refined gothic metal routinely displays such a delicate touch that its allegiance isn’t a settled question. Once upon a time, however, what Katatonia’s Anders Nystrom and Jonas Renske and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt and Martin Axenrot lived for was death metal. Bloodbath harkens back to that time with the fun, ferocious Grand Morbid Funeral, an album that not only stands tall alone but wouldn’t be terribly out of place in a playlist featuring Entombed’s Clandestine and Grave’s Into the Grave. Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes assumes vocal duties for now professional noodle-maker Akerfeldt, and arguably fits in even better. With its perfect pacing and dueling buzzsaw guitars, Funeral captures the grit, grime, and glory of that faraway time so forcefully and uncannily that great swaths of the larger metal audience might actually come away from it unmoved. I pity them. I can’t readily recall an album that both looked backward and leapt forward with such uncompromising spirit and splash. No one said that reminders have to be gentle.
- Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for no Witness (Alternative/Indie Rock) – “I walk back in the night alone,” reflects Angel Olsen on “White Fire”, “got caught up in my song / Forgot where I was sleeping, none of the lights were on / I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth / I laughed so loud inside myself, it all began to hurt.” Burn Your Fire for no Witness is a spare, haunted album – inarguably among 2014’s hardest both to process and to shake – mournful and elegiac in its quietest moments and even decidedly unsettling with a beat behind it. Its 44 minutes are steeped in shadow and drenched in melancholy beauty. Angel Olsen floats at the center like an apparition, her insinuating whisper/wail operating at the intersection between modern indie and ‘50s country, as piercing as a sniper’s bullet despite heavy low-fi vocal processing. Initially claustrophobic, almost to a fault, the album slowly begins relaxing and expanding musically, but never loosens its grip on the listener, and Olsen’s unblinking, evocative lyrics rarely strain for effect yet scour her psyche clean. Released in January, Fire made a strong first impression but slipped off my radar in favor of higher profile releases, a mistake I didn’t rectify until the heart of awards season. Who knows how my year might’ve sounded had I acted decisively earlier. This kind of album seeps into your bones.
- Misery Index – The Killing Gods (Death Metal/Grind) – Yeah, Maryland’s Misery Index was on quite a roll there for a while. The greatest deathgrind band on the planet – and among the handful of best metal acts, period – held my ostensibly coveted cross-genre #1 album spot with both 2008’s Traitors and 2010’s Heirs to Thievery. By those lofty terms, it might be forgiven to view the band’s 2014 return The Killing Gods as something of a disappointment, which is, of course, utter lunacy, and only a reflection of the immaculate standard set/maintained over the course of its fifteen years. Its muse as intellectual and restless as its music is concussive and relentless, Misery Index spent much of the four-year interim between albums refining and expanding its lethal din, allowing for the implementation of more tasteful variation in riff patterns and breakdowns, structured, majestic guitar solos, and, most importantly, the occasional split-second for its songs to breathe. Growth in certain areas does nothing to dull the impact of the band’s murderous traditional M.O., powered by the lyrics and bellow of bassist Jason Netherton and the blistering cyborg drumming of Adam Jarvis. What’s scarier, after all, a sudden explosion, or a pinless hand grenade rolling toward you? With The Killing Gods, Misery Index embraces that crucial extra split-second in its writing approach and, improbably, finds itself improving what was, I’d argue, already a perfect sound.
- Royal Blood – Royal Blood (Rock) – I’ve never enjoyed compartmentalizing music, which is to say I tend to instinctively favor bands that resist easy classification. Take Brighton, U.K. power duo Royal Blood. The two raise a joyful, unseemly racket in studio and on stage. They are not proper metal at all, though they convincingly whip and flail in their more intense moments, but, rather, an exemplary blues-based English rock band, modern without being miles removed from the swagger of Zeppelin or prime Stones. They flaunt time-honored rock conventions with their instrumentation (drums/bass/vocals), and resemble nothing so much as a pretty boy and his personal mechanic, yet what comes out of the Marshalls isn’t precious, processed mediocrity but full-bodied, tooth-rattling thunder. As any overdriven rhythm section would be, Royal Blood’s default sound is drenched in low end and cymbal wash at its most frantic, though appealingly modulated depending on the needs of the song. Mike Kerr’s vocals call to mind a less showy Matthew Bellamy (Muse), and Ben Thatcher holds down the beat with ace professionalism reminiscent of Clutch’s Jean-Paul Gaster at his most elemental. Ominous opener “Out of the Black” was 2014’s most fearsome earworm, and deeper cuts like the swinging “Come on Over”, stomping “Ten Tonne Skeleton” and careening “Little Monster” make an eloquent case for the band’s quality and mark it as one worth watching, this year and onward.
- Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden (Doom Metal) – Black Sabbath is the George Washington of heavy metal. Without it, there is no us. Every band (and fan) to ever carry the flag owes the Birmingham lads homage, even if, like me, your point of entry wasn’t “War Pigs” or Master of Reality, but, rather, comparatively more frantic fare like Iron Maiden and Motorhead. I try to recalibrate my instinctive programming whenever approaching a direct Sabbath uber-descendant like Arkansas’ Pallbearer, though rarely is the effort as worthwhile as it is here. Doom metal, a sound directly informed by Sabbath’s slowest, most impossibly heavy aspects, sometimes seems designed to chafe the expectations of someone geared toward instant gratification. It requires patience from a listener, though an album like Foundations of Burden, which is the best example of the form I’ve heard in years, also rewards it in spades. Burden doesn’t hold listeners at arm’s length, or practice sonic oppression, but, rather, relaxes, unfurls, and exhales, filling 55 minutes of canvas with a procession of thick, painterly, expressive guitar riffs, buoyed by singer Brett Campbell, whose wailing vocals recall prime Ozzy Osbourne throughout. It is, at once, a statement, a progression, and a fair work of art. Again, I’m no expert on the subgenre, but I know a great metal album when I hear one. Foundations of Burden is downright uplifting. Gloom can be beautiful too.
- Fallujah – The Flesh Prevails (Technical Death Metal) – The space where the free-flowing jazz influences and tasty self-indulgence of progressive metal meets the harsh, mathematic hyper-shredding of technical death is a tiny convergence where only the best writers, thinkers and players may comfortably congregate. There, pretenders are chewed up like so much dog food. The latest exciting young band to emerge unscathed from this gauntlet/forge is San Francisco, CA’s Fallujah, whose excellent second album, The Flesh Prevails, is an alternately breathless and breathtaking nine-stop tour of the summits and valleys of aural extremity. I’m such a sucker for this kind of stuff. A florid and forbidding sonic landscape, largely instrumental but shot through with tactful and well-integrated death growls, the album tumbles a few spots on the demerits of its overwrought production, which can make the proceedings sound muddled, as if every instrument is being emphasized at once and, hence, bleeding together. That said, the musicianship is absolutely top notch, the arrangements outstanding, and the musical ideas alternately lush, punishing, and invigorating. Fallujah could surely incite a mosh pit with some facility, but that almost seems a poor use of its prodigious talent, in favor of inhabiting (and enlivening) the space between my ears instead. The Flesh Prevails is 2014’s definition of superior headphone metal.
- Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun (Melodic Death Metal) – Beneath today’s metal establishment lies a glut of earnest, talented bands straining for notoriety in a climate where everyone can release music. Too many shocking efforts have screamed out of complete obscurity recently for me to discount the potential contained within that unholy tangle of artists, which still doesn’t mean that I can do it proper justice. There’s just too much to process. Case in point: Finland’s Insomnium, which I initially pegged as a superficially heavier version of one of my favorite bands, Sweden’s beautiful, enigmatic Katatonia. While that comparison still holds water, Insomnium’s deep and beguiling sixth album, Shadows of the Dying Sun, portrays more as a full service shop for melodic Scandinavian death metal, in all its many facets – running the gamut from exquisite, keyboard-laden dark explorations to high gothic pomp to outright paddle thrash, sometimes within the same song – the emphasis always on the word “melodic”. Melodic DM flourished regionally in the 1990s, propelled by the form/fury of Swedish trailblazers Dark Tranquillity, still a leading genre light, and At the Gates, whose own celebrated 2014 comeback, At War with Reality, provided professional, reliable but somewhat empty fan service. With Shadows of the Dying Sun, Insomnium confidently asserts its place as a true peer to the former and a surprising heir to the latter, on some levels beating it at its own game.
- The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers (Alternative/Indie Rock) – Critics and, I suppose, “purists” still invest a good bit of effort in pining for/harkening back to a time in the early 2000s when The New Pornographers were all bright and shiny and new, purveyors of purest power pop, flip and propulsive and infectious. Now six fairly brilliant albums into its existence, the Vancouver supergroup is an almost entirely different animal, given over to rich textures and aural variety, though Brill Bruisers plays to its greatest strength, which then, as now, is sublime songwriting acumen. At the band’s heart is the triumvirate of Carl Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case, a sort of three-headed monster of indie rock singer-songwriter starpower (though Case doesn’t write for the band) remarkable for the way its disparate sounds styles meld into a harmonious whole. Each head gets a turn or three in the spotlight here – Newman’s “Backstairs”, Bejar’s “War on the East Coast” and Case’s “Champions of Red Wine” are all highlights, despite being different as different can be – and full volume, full band efforts like the lush “Fantasy Fools”, the upbeat throwback “Dancehall Domine”, and the triumphant title track, which sounds not unlike The Mamas & The Papas reimagined as a Viking raiding party, show that this whole, more than at any time in the band’s increasingly rich history, is far greater than the sum of its parts.
- Behemoth – The Satanist (Death/Black Metal) – Behemoth’s tenth album, its first since leader Adam “Nergal” Darski won his battle against leukemia, begins in grand fashion, with a sense of occasion and arresting fervor notable even for this band, for which a straight for the throat mentality and pronounced air of superiority have been hallmarks since it landed upon the metal scene with meteoric impact and the subtlety of a military coup over a decade ago. Nergal clearly has much to prove, and no time whatsoever to engage in half measures. Powered by the exploding-clockwork, superhuman drumming of Zbignew “Inferno” Prominski, these openers are pitched at the aural level of a natural disaster, as if Nergal is consumed with reannouncing his presence, with authority, at all costs. The gambit pays off. In the interim separating the band’s trio of name-making, world-beating albums – 2001’s Thelema 6, 2003’s Zos Kia Cultus, and 2005’s Demigod – from this one, it became perhaps a little too easy to take Behemoth for granted. The Satanist then is the sound of Nergal belligerently reestablishing his band’s position in metal’s larger musical/philosophical conversation, a lustful, 45-minute cry of exaltation from a man who has aggressively confronted moral hegemony his entire public life. The Satanist’s unyielding sonic attack feels, at times, overwhelming, even for established fans, but from track four on, the album congeals into a towering, exhilarating statement of purpose.
- Wye Oak – Shriek (Alternative Rock) – Most bands of prominence anymore seek to operate efficiently within the parameters of an established signature sound. Among the most significant, and instantly appealing, aspects then of lovely and esoteric Maryland duo Wye Oak is how little, over the course of four albums, it has seemed beholden to expectations, preferring to explore outward in multiple directions from a single, elusive starting point. There is still substantial folk in the mix – in spite of its gradual migration in the direction of a warmer, more expansive, electronic sound – and post-rock and illusory pop, but the band’s heart is its personnel, guitarist/bassist/ keyboardist/singer Jenn Wasner and heroically multi-tasking drummer/keyboardist Andy Sack. If the dreamy, (at times) defiantly angular, (at times) painfully beautiful music the two create is somehow identifiable as something called “Wye Oak”, that is a testament to talent, passion and pure creativity rather than anything calculated. Wasner’s luxurious voice remains among my very favorites, achieving a heavenly fusion of Kate Bush and Annie Lennox without breaking a sweat, whether barely contained beneath the percussive rumble of “Paradise”, fluttering ethereally on “I Know the Law”, or soaring on the wings of “Glory”, one of 2014’s unequivocal best singles. I’ve long since stopped bringing my baggage to Wye Oak, content instead to let it lead the way. To quote J.R.R. Tolkien’s old axiom, “not all who wander are lost.”
- Dog Fashion Disco – Sweet Nothings (Progressive/Experimental Metal) – Dog Fashion Disco returns after the entirely unacceptable amount of time it spent being (technically) disbanded with a bracing and welcome reminder of its schizophrenic brilliance. A sort of Play-Doh Fun Factory brought to dazzling musical life, DFD is ostensibly a metal act, and certainly brandishes the necessary menace and snarl, but appropriates other sounds (spastic jazz, carnival music, soul, torch song balladry, eighteen kinds of funk) into its stew with amazing dexterity and an almost compulsive fervor. Practically every song on the album is a pastiche of exquisite, outwardly disorienting hairpin turns brought to expert, energizing, shockingly palatable sonic life. Even surface ragers like “War Party” and “Down the Rabbit Hole” don’t stay straightforward for too long. Sweet Nothings may not quite match the thematic unity and maturity displayed on 2007’s then-swansong Adultery, but it really has only to exist, to rock mightily, and to cast its exploratory net dependably wide, in order to assume its natural place within both Dog Fashion Disco’s confounding discography and my year end list. This band, like the infamous Mr. Bungle (its most obvious spiritual forebear), scratches an itch within me I’m never particularly aware of until the moment I press play.
- Machine Head – Bloodstone & Diamonds (Thrash Metal) – Where some bands can’t cobble together a second act, Machine Head has already had three: mutant thrash vanguard, transparent nu-metal scenester, and, finally, reconquering hero, a perfectly-calibrated mixture of old and new schools, ferocious and musical, singular yet commercially viable. This third act, which began with shattering force, stalled somewhat on 2011’s unbalanced Unto the Locust, but sputters back to life with the intense, frustrating Bloodstone & Diamonds. Like its predecessor, Bloodstone’s opening four tracks are an eruption comparable to any in the band’s discography, though it subsequently encounters a problem that even Locust avoided: crippling bloat. MH’s creative renaissance was marked by a significant expansion of its already impressive sonic palette, resulting in songs that routinely exceed six minutes. Robb Flynn began limiting the number of tracks per album even as he pumped up their content. 2007’s The Blackening is essentially an album-length canonical highlight. By comparison, Bloodstone clocks in at 12 songs in 71 minutes, and hits a wall of its own devising with track #5. These aren’t bad songs, necessarily, but the landscape is littered with dead weight and pointless digressions. Flynn has earned the right to indulge his creativity. It’s just a shame his calling cards – “Now We Die” and “Night of Long Knives” in particular are concert highlights in waiting – and his well-intentioned experiments can’t share the same success rate.
- “Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun (Rock) – It is a measure of the esteem in which I hold “Weird Al” Yankovic that, despite his stature as history’s most famous musical parodist and three “best comedy” Grammy awards, not only did I not categorize Mandatory Fun as comedy when considering my year end list, it didn’t even really occur to me that I should. Despite appearances, the musical component of Al’s albums has always been at least as important as its laugh quotient, and Mandatory Fun follows that stealth tradition. It features the requisite roster of sharp parodies (Pharrell Williams’ inescapable “Happy” becomes the delightfully goofy “Tacky”; Robin Thicke’s sleazy “Blurred Lines” becomes the grammar nerd manifesto “Word Crimes”) but some of the originals (the CSNY-flavored boardroom doublespeak of “Mission Statement”, and, in “Jackson Park Express” – a doomed, epic romance occurring entirely in the narrator’s imagination after he momentarily locks eyes with a pretty girl during his morning commute – one of his ten best ever) make an even better case for Al’s deft wordplay, abiding whimsy and conceptual mastery. Changing consumption/distribution models in the advanced internet age have conspired against Yankovic, who has all but said that, even though his career continues unabated, Mandatory Fun will probably be his last traditionally structured and released album. I’ll miss the polkas dearly, but, if that ends up being the case, it’s a terrific swan song.
EDITOR’S NOTE (6/8/15): After initial publication, Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” was moved from #2 non-metal to #1, and from #5 overall to #2 – in both cases swapping places with Run the Jewels’ “RTJ2”, and, in the latter, also kicking Triptykon down a notch – because it’s simply too good and undeniable to remain where I left it. I apologize if this disrupts the space-time continuum somehow, but what, I ask you, is the point of running a music geek blog that doesn’t allow you the space to grow in your assessments and, on rare occasions, to right previous wrongs? I’m not intent on making this a habit, only saying that I’ve almost listened to “TDB” (which, you’ll recall, came out in early 2014) more this year than to every legitimate 2015 album I’ve purchased, combined. The title track alone breaks my heart, then invariably makes it soar EACH NEW TIME I HEAR IT. I just think “TDB” is a fairly remarkable statement, both personally and musically. It’s a challenging, uncompromising, deeply human record which demands hearing, and whose praises deserve to be sung, neither of which has happened nearly enough in my estimation.