My Top 20 Albums of 2015 + supplemental lists

2015

Introduction

I have always had a procrastination problem. To hear my mother tell, it’s more like a birthright. My parents are both procrastinators and so I was hit with both barrels. I “never had a chance,” she’s told me more than once. At the conclusion of what I thought was a fairly banner second year, I closed up shop for DAE on December 18, 2015, leaving myself time off for all my various holiday travels and, in theory at least, building in enough room to comfortably finish my traditional year-end album countdown within the roughly three-week window. Or so I thought. Unlike last year, this vacation time did not especially cry out to be shared, plus I received a slew of unexpected bumps and priority adjustments that I did not experience in 2014. I still occasionally get annoyed that essentially taking the month of August 2014 off in order to write my “Iron Maiden Saved My Life” essay precluded me from reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy or paying my proper, bottomless respects to the late Robin Williams. Unless I have something at least under construction at all times, I can’t maintain the schedule I want for this blog, which is, roughly, to produce one reasonably thorough/polished piece per week. In just over two years, I’ve had a couple dozen ideas fall by the wayside because I simply ran out of time. The annual Top 20 post, however, is the one exception. The 2014 edition came in several days past “deadline”. The 2013 edition was the impetus to start this blog in the first place. It has to get done. I’ve spent the past month or more splitting my free time into equal thirds, alternately working on individual pieces I actually stood a chance at finishing within a 24 to 36-hour period (my process is my process, and my output is my output), slowly but surely adding onto the behemoth you’re currently reading, and, blessedly, sometimes barely giving writing a passing thought. As an inveterate procrastinator by nature, I liked that last posture the best of all, but, in hindsight, it screwed me royally when the time came to get down to business. There’s nothing quite like summoning 8500 words on, essentially, twenty-four individual topics out of the thin air to get the blood pumping.

Lest anyone scold me too terribly about that, I completely agree…though I’ll just state for the record that, in the days since December 18, 2015 – because I had no official “aloha” post this year – time I spent goofing off and paying short-shrift to my year-end writing duties, I still managed to publish just under 17,000 words on six subjects too dear to my heart to possibly be left unremarked upon, including, of course, the intolerable passing of, in Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister and David Bowie, two of the biggest icons in rock and roll history, not to mention revered personal heroes. How also was I supposed to overlook the end of the Steelers’ season, or the first new Star Wars episode in a decade, or the first new Tarantino movie in what only seemed that long? None of this is meant to be an excuse, or a dodge, just a declaration. Things did get in my way this time around that I never even contemplated a year earlier. Chief among them was the unwieldy, unruly scope of this damned countdown, which, of course, is a holdover from edition #1. Daunting as it may feel when I’m staring at a blank page, I wouldn’t change it, and now, after a patently unacceptable time invested in filling that page, I’m finally on the other side, freed up and reasonably content.

Assuming you noticed something was missing, I thank you so much for your patience, patronage, and good humor. I think I’ll resume regular breathing now.

Metal

No need to belabor the point here. A fresh, gnawing concern grips my subconscious annually that maybe this will finally be the year that metal music, with its glut of bands and riot of discordant styles and postures, definitively passes me by. I worry that, eventually, I won’t be mentally able to keep up with the overarching genre anymore, almost as much as I worry that, eventually, I won’t want to try. This year, just as in past years, those concerns happily receded with the passing days. Eleven metal albums actually made my top twenty this year, and I thought that those just out of the running made, on the whole, a stronger case as also-rans than did their non-metal brethren. Mors Principium Est’s Dawn of the 5th Age technically came out in December of 2014, but slipped my radar until a month later. For almost a quarter of 2015, it was the only metal album in my media player, though it eventually got swallowed up in a landslide of only slightly superior releases. In a down year, it would’ve been a top ten cross-genre offering. Elsewhere, European extreme metal super group Alkaloid produced the year’s most giddy and absurd tech death, Pennsylvania’s Rivers of Nihil struck a blow for multifaceted traditional death, and the third post-“reunion” release from beleaguered mechanical thrash kingpins Fear Factory turned out to be the band’s most affecting and accomplished effort since the mid to late ‘90s.

  1. Faith No More – Sol Invictus
  2. Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things
  3. Enslaved – In Times
  4. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
  5. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
  6. Ghost – Meliora
  7. Khemmis – Absolution
  8. Napalm Death – Apex Predator-Easy Meat
  9. Horrendous – Anareta
  10. Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
  11. In Twilight’s Embrace – The Grim Muse
  12. Mors Principium Est – Dawn of the 5th Age
  13. Alkaloid – The Malkuth Grimoire
  14. Rivers of Nihil – Monarchy
  15. Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
  16. Deafheaven – New Bermuda
  17. The Black Dahlia Murder – Abysmal
  18. Fear Factory – Genexus
  19. Gama Bomb – Untouchable Glory
  20. Byzantine – To Release is to Resolve

Non-Metal

This year’s non-metal list was replete with new talent, as eleven of the twenty albums were my first ever purchases for their respective bands. Five of those even made the cross-genre countdown, though most of the remainder, predictably, came from elder statesmen. Turns out it only seems like I’ve loved Chvrches forever. Among those that just missed the cut, variety abounded. Mutoid Man’s odd prog alchemy is done with such gleeful abandon and lands with such fury that it’s entirely possible I miscategorized the band. Muse’s martial Drones was far and away its best album since the days before “Supermassive Black Hole” surreptitiously found its way onto the Twilight soundtrack. Wistful punk practitioner Beach Slang was a critical darling that sometimes dazzled but all too often left me insufficiently moved. Elsewhere, The Decemberists reconvened and rattled off an arch, dry, perfectly decent record that could not help but shrink in the lingering shadow of 2011’s #1 overall, The King is Dead, Royal Thunder’s second album was a winning fusion of female lead classic rock with metal attitude, and Nathaniel Rateliff counterintuitively announced his presence to modern audiences with an authoritative throwback to the soul-peddling juke joints of the 1960s. In exciting news, my apparent continuing efforts to corner the market on music conventional wisdom might suggest is a full decade past its sell-by date saw me finally own my first ever full albums by beloved (in some circles) alt institutions Modest Mouse and Failure. Better late than never, I guess. Right?

  1. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
  2. Steven Wilson – Hand Cannot Erase
  3. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
  4. Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool
  5. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain
  6. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
  7. Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor
  8. Clutch – Psychic Warfare
  9. Coliseum – Anxiety’s Kiss
  10. Mutoid Man – Bleeder
  11. Muse – Drones
  12. Royal Thunder – Crooked Doors
  13. The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn
  14. Beach Slang – The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
  15. Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
  16. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
  17. Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
  18. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
  19. Destroyer – Poison Season
  20. Failure – The Heart is a Monster

Comedy

2015 had the look of a dreadfully pedestrian year for stand-up albums until a pair of absurdists and one high-strung uber-nerd finally arrived in Q4 to rescue it. Dan Telfer made the honorable mention section of my Top 10 New Millennium Stand-Up Albums post, and while his Ocean of Panic couldn’t approach its predecessor’s lofty heights, it was pleasure enough just to sample his good-natured, angular intensity again. Terminally silly Irish troubadour (of the tiny Casio keyboard persuasion) David O’Doherty has been one of my very favorites since I first stumbled across him holding court on the Pete Holmes podcast You Made it Weird. His third album, You Only Live (known, I imagine, by some as “YOL”), was another smorgasbord of irreverent philosophy and goofy, bipolar, misplaced musical confidence. Great as they all were, the remaining top ten (including pun master Randy Liedtke’s winning debut, or human lightning rod Sean White utilizing stand-up as extreme grief therapy) couldn’t help but pale in comparison to the year’s most ambitious and divisive album of any stripe, let alone comedy, I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome) by the high priest of non-sequitur absurdity, Eugene Mirman. A nine-disc, 545-track monstrosity containing an exhaustive homemade/a cappella sound effects library (e.g. “Cat III”, “Group of Businessmen Agreeing”, “Hurricane”, “Jihadist After Seeing ‘About a Boy’”, “Telephone Calling a Toaster”, “Puddle”, “Misogynistic Maple Trees”, “Salad”, “Gender Roles on Their Way to a Football Game”, etc.), almost one hundred pre-recorded voicemail greetings, a guided meditation program, and a conversational Russian phrasebook, I’m Sorry garnered serious consideration for a spot at number twenty overall (its actual stand-up set, a superior re-recording of his Netflix special Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store, is quite likely Mirman’s best ever) just as a gesture of respect for such an inventive and unconventional use of the medium (its physical edition included a companion chair and a bathrobe along with nine LPs), an inspired and truly awesome act of whimsical defiance at a time when the comedy album’s days seem increasingly numbered.

  1. Eugene Mirman – I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome)
  2. Dan Telfer – Ocean of Panic
  3. David O’Doherty – You Only Live
  4. Kyle Kinane – I Liked His Old Stuff Better
  5. Louis C.K. – Live at the Comedy Store
  6. Randy Liedtke – I’m on a Roll
  7. Christopher Titus – Angry Pursuit of Happiness
  8. Nate Bargatze – Full Time Magic
  9. Sean White – Dead & Gone
  10. Emily Heller – Good for Her

The Top 20 Albums of 2015

My previous two top 20 lists were interesting exercises in that they offered a fairly clear #1 overall album with a traffic jam/scrum just underneath, consisting of between four and six contenders each. By contrast, 2015 had no consensus #1 but, rather, a sextet of albums I all at least momentarily considered for the top spot. The upper half of this year’s top ten is dominated by, for lack of a better term, heavy hitters, long-established and loved bands for whom each new album is an event, though all the aura and accumulated goodwill in the world is meaningless, of course, if the music doesn’t measure up. Thankfully, that didn’t prove to be a problem. I continue to be surprised and pleased by the number of new bands (or at least new to me) that break through and make an impression strong enough to deserve, or demand, consideration for my year-end awards. Competition is ever fierce. When that new music pipeline finally dries up, the time may well have come for me to officially retire this countdown and enjoy every last second of my winter break, but – again, thankfully – we’re not close to that point yet. 2015 may have been an off-beat, highly contrary, and, at times, utterly heartbreaking year, but I have to admit its soundtrack was pretty awesome. Behold.

  1. Faith No More – Sol Invictus (Metal) – Faith No More was so unquestionably my youth’s gold standard for adventurous metal that its status stretched years beyond an acrimonious breakup and lingers as an aura even today. Not only did I never get to witness the Bay Area juggernaut live, I never got particularly close, and presumed, quite sensibly, that I never would. When FNM shockingly reunited, a full decade after disbanding, it seemed more out of terminal boredom than anything else. The four superb core musicians had always gotten off on pushing boundaries and, occasionally, buttons, whether scattered or as a volatile whole, and here rose from the grave in order to…embark on a sporadic, obscure touring schedule – low stakes, high expectations – centered around the European festival circuit. Typically maddening behavior. Faith No More built its reputation on risk-taking and box-mangling thought. Normalcy was boring, complacency actively upsetting. Now it wouldn’t even allow me to indulge my raging nostalgia without a struggle. Interminable time passed, unlikely worms turned, and, as in a waking dream, I prepared to see the band on its first full stateside jaunt in fifteen years, three+ hours away in Detroit. Despite ticket in hand and better than best efforts, that show cruelly evaded me, due to a procession of increasingly frustrating, Lemony Snicket-worthy “unfortunate events”. As if to magically soothe my lingering anguish, the following week saw the long-awaited release of the rich, varied, oft-startling Sol Invictus, an album that, from the stampeding “Superhero” to the unnerving “Separation Anxiety” to the towering “Matador”, provided a microcosm of Faith No More’s prodigious gifts, albeit with possibly even more sonic variation than normal. Though perhaps not as overtly metallic as past efforts, ample approach and landing room was allowed for Mike Patton’s more unhinged vocal moments, cut as always with insinuating melody. It’s about all I could’ve asked for. Sol Invictus counts as FNM’s fourth straight year-end, cross-genre #1 album, though never was its route to the top more circuitous.
  1. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Alternative/Indie Rock) – By comparison, one of my happiest concert going memories of 2015 was its next to last, when, after fifteen years of fandom, I finally got to see Pacific Northwest indie royalty and riot grrrl next levelers Sleater-Kinney live for the first time. Logistical concerns conspired to keep a larger review out of these pages, but suffice it to say the night itself was just about all I could’ve wanted. If 2015 wasn’t entirely the year of Sleater-Kinney, the band still at least bookended the hell out of it, beginning with the January release of the year’s first significant album, No Cities to Love, a fully-formed, equally, surprisingly, rustless and lustrous comeback following almost a decade in self-imposed exile. One listen and the sense memories came rushing back tenfold – Carrie Brownstein’s inventive, gymnastic guitar; Janet Weiss’ muscular, invaluable drumming, and, of course, Corin Tucker, wielder of one the deadliest, most weaponizable voices in all of popular music, in high form – at once indicative of a band still pushing strongly forward and of exactly why its legion of imitators will never be anything more than adorable. It’s about the songs, stupid. Hopelessly biased by my own personal point of entry, I had always considered 2000’s near-flawless All Hands on the Bad One the pinnacle of S-K’s powers, but Cities gives it a serious run for its money, from the bubbling cauldron of “Fangless” to the insistent Tucker showcase “Surface Envy” (I was going to say she possesses a trademark, searing wail, but, in truth, it’s just as likely the other way around), to mid-album anchor “A New Wave”, which stands among a handful of the catchiest songs the band has ever written, quite a feat given history. “Wave’s” driving beat, tilt-a-whirl guitar line, and saucy vocal tradeoffs will possibly haunt your dreams long after hearing it – the year’s most unshakeable single certainly did the trick for yours truly – but at least they’ll be good dreams.
  1. Steven Wilson – Hand Cannot Erase (Progressive Rock) – Porcupine Tree is one of a handful of the most important bands in my personal musical history. The English explorer’s seamless, fearless blend of classic and progressive rock, ambient electronic, and art metal pulled me back from the figurative abyss at a time I was feeling particularly weary and stultified by the limitations of post-millennial music. After a sublime four-album cycle in the early 2000s, the band took a sharp turn toward the conceptual and eventually went on indefinite hiatus, freeing up prolific PT mastermind Steven Wilson to create art on his own esoteric and exacting terms, as if he hadn’t been doing exactly that for years. Perhaps out of a sense of mourning, I gave his solo work a wide berth. When the time was right, I reasoned, I’d return to him, or Porcupine Tree would return to me. Either way, I’d win. Luckily, Wilson is still in the liberation business. The serendipitous arrival of Hand Cannot Erase late in the year proved the impetus I needed to finally declare 2015 closed for business in terms of new releases. Something tangible had been missing up until then. I have no idea whether Wilson’s solo work might eventually dig itself into the same rut I sensed toward the end of Porcupine Tree. I imagine there are jaded fans somewhere feeling that the expansive, uncompromising Erase just doesn’t measure up. I envy the breadth of their knowledge if so, because I found it effortlessly engrossing. Wilson’s gifts as a conceptualist, composer, and sneaky amazing guitarist survived the rift intact. The man can make a pretty song just as well as he can make a pummeler, alternating the pastoral or tightly controlled with the grand and explosive, and, forever pushing outward, seems to set or recognize no boundaries in construction. “When you’re on your own, that’s when you’re free,” he sings on the plaintive “3 Years Older”. It’s clear Wilson isn’t speaking only of his protagonist.
  1. Intronaut – The Direction of Last Things (Progressive Metal) – L.A. prog metal tsunami Intronaut finished just out of the money on 2013’s metal list, but roared back to settle accounts with the utterly fantastic The Direction of Last Things, a jaw-dropping blend of jazz, progressive rock, and experimental metal that became far and away my year’s preferred destination for both car and headphone listening. This is a fairly staggering sustained level of musicianship and applied conceptual thinking, with songs given ample room not just to breathe but expand and evolve, buoyed by fluid, jazzy, utterly assured drumwork from Danny Walker that continually redefines the line separating nimble from frenetic. It’s difficult enough to predict this music from minute to minute, let alone on a song by song basis – behold the eye-rattling opener “Fast Worms”, or the neckcracking breakdown at the title track’s two-minute mark – and, in this game, the “misses” are somehow more rewarding than the “hits”. Intronaut’s vocals, a subtly impressive tandem effort from guitarists Sacha Dunable and Dave Timnick, are wisely backgrounded without necessarily being discounted. The music here is the clear headliner, with all individual egos sublimated to the good of the whole. When unleashed, the singing invariably strikes the right chord, expertly mixing together death growls, unaffected blues rock, and traditional clean vocals wherever they make sense, up to and including some truly impressive harmonization, such as the left field CSNY-esque flourishes of tripped-out palette cleanser “Unlikely Event of a Water Landing”. The best Intronaut songs deposit the listener into the calm eye of a raging storm, affording him the zenlike opportunity to hear, parse, and appreciate every bit of sonic variation and exquisite execution, and The Direction of Last Things is lousy with Intronaut’s best songs. This is music to hurtle through the cold, unforgiving expanses of outer space to, the soundtrack to a skydive sans parachute, and just when you think you have the band finally figured out, it turns on a dime toward regions as yet unexplored.
  1. Enslaved – In Times (Black Metal) – How does one go about effectively rebelling against a style of music that was itself already largely built on iconoclastic thought and action? Norway’s Enslaved, an ancient practitioner if not exactly founding father, emancipated itself from the greater black metal genre by rejecting its narrowly defined, practically myopic sonic and thematic obsessions and embracing a more full-bodied sound, in which blast beats, buzzsaw guitar, and throat-shredding shrieks are augmented by clean vocals and tempos of all varieties, not to mention the occasional piano or orchestral string flourish – or even a sub-Gregorian chant! – and unencumbered by the genre’s tiresome anti-religious bent. My complicated general antipathy toward black metal is no secret, to the degree that I’ve long maintained any personal fondness I might show towards certain individual bands is, in fact, damning proof they are almost certainly doing something wrong. Enslaved is an exception that proves the rule, an unfettered creative dynamo currently riding the crest of a mighty impressive wave. An album like In Times, its third straight excellent release of this decade alone, is, at once, an extra-genre adventure getaway and black metal comfort food, in which Enslaved rewrites its governing rulebook more extensively than the NFL does in an average offseason. Every song comfortably exceeds the eight-minute mark, a threshold I would argue is practically required to ensure multifaceted incantations like “Nauthir Bleeding” and “Daylight” bloom fully, given the harsh and unforgiving northern soils in which they were planted. Elsewhere, “Building with Fire” and “One Thousand Years of Rain” provide full-throttle thrills, while “In Times” follows and even adds significantly to Enslaved’s solemn tradition of grand and grandiose title tracks. Like a surprising and edifying number of other albums on this list (Wilson, Intronaut, Maiden, Khemmis, Andronicus) In Times doesn’t lend itself so much to piecemeal listening. There’s just a bit too much to take in and process, not to mention far more shades and textures to melancholy than you likely realized.
  1. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls (Metal) – Far removed from the period of astonishing verve and creativity that saw its four greatest classics released in a five-year span, each new Iron Maiden album is now an unquestioned event, meticulously labored over and long anticipated. You might think the band wouldn’t have the ability to surprise its fans anymore. One listen to The Book of Souls, its 92-minute magnum opus of a sixteenth album, should disabuse skeptics of such notions permanently. Maiden has returned in high style, its all-important sense of drama intact, perhaps even heightened, and provided the mark by which traditional heavy metal may well be measured going forward. The overall breadth and depth here is astonishing. The comparatively compact “Speed of Light” feels cut from cloth similar to previous punchy post-millennium/reunion lead singles, but otherwise all bets are off. Bold openers “If Eternity Should Fail” and “The Great Unknown” hint at the scope to come, and the rousing “Red and the Black” is one of a handful of my favorite Maiden tracks of the new era. There are few deviations from galloping, insistent, established form until momentum finally dips in the final quarter. Even then, songs like the heartfelt but odd “Tears of a Clown” and piano-laden, eighteen-minute epic “Empire of the Clouds” are clear labors of love, fitting since The Book of Souls itself feels like a passion project in all the best senses of the term. Bruce Dickinson, as always, is in fine voice, despite the fact that he recorded his part only a few months before a cancer diagnosis. Release was delayed out of respect for Bruce’s treatment, and it’s a relief to report that the famous bon vivant apparently conquered the disease with flying colors. The first leg of the world tour has already been booked, and it’s time to finally take this imperfect but magnificent XL statement of purpose out on the road, and to the fans that waited so intently, just where it belongs.
  1. Chvrches – Every Open Eye (Alternative/Electronic) – Enthralled by its potential but inevitably frustrated by its limitations, storytellers and musicians have sought for decades to imbue the computer with the breath of life. Despite thrilling as a college student to the menacing buzz and whir of nine inch nails and Public Enemy, I always thought myself, as an adherent of blues-based rock and roll, largely above the fray, amenable to technology’s place at music’s table without ever feeling truly moved or even terribly impressed by it. Scottish electronic trio Chvrches arrived as if conjured to confound such thinking with its bewitching 2013 debut The Bones of What you Believe, an album which presented, in both contrast and concert, a piercing, fragile, human voice walled in by alien sounds, and achieved great effect without ever seeming to strain for it. Though its overall chart position might not suggest so, its follow-up, the superb Every Open Eye, lands even harder and lingers even longer, while improbably retaining all the charm and emotional heft that originally made the story of the girl in the machine so resonate. I watched with delight last fall as Lauren Mayberry emerged from her seeming cocoon into command as a dynamic front woman and treated the stage as if she was born there. Her band’s corresponding overall uptick in craft and confidence is noticeable on lead single “Leave a Trace”, and from dizzy, pirouetting opener “Never Ending Circles” – if, somehow, not my favorite song of the year then at least the one I’ve most listened to – to the steroidal post-Depeche Mode thump of “Bury It” and “Clearest Blue”, it permeates the entire album. The charming homemade edges that on occasion betrayed Bones as merely an unusually assured maiden voyage have been completely sanded away here, revealing expansive, often luxurious electronic soundscapes – “Down Side of Me” and “High Enough to Carry you Over” are more subdued standouts – in their stead. There is no curse attached to this sophomore album.
  1. Tribulation – The Children of the Night (Metal) – Some critics might reflexively chuckle at the funeral organ intro to “Strange Gateways Beckon”, the opening salutation of The Children of the Night, the breakthrough third album from Swedish not really death metal craftsmen Tribulation, finding it corny or a little too on the nose. Such stuffed shirts have no appreciation for drama. Both the sound and intention behind “Gateways” are entirely appropriate, since Children is, in essence, an auditory haunted house tour, with a rough half of its songs featuring beautiful, mournful preambles, perfect for setting the proper scene. Heavy metal, after all, has been the most disreputable genre in music ever since the eerie introductory strains of “Black Sabbath” first bedazzled an unsuspecting general public. Why not have fun with it? Like its countrymen in Ghost, a not insignificant portion of Tribulation’s intrigue derives, I suppose, from its perceived golf clap appreciation of the occult – another genre trope that dates back to Sabbath, if not before – though it’s harder to know here where winking band implication ends and audience inference begins. With the blunt, visually outlandish Ghost, the split is probably 90/10, whereas Tribulation is just mysterious enough by contrast without making a big deal out of it to make listeners at least wonder. Ultra-gothic in lyrics and general theme but never, or at least rarely, silly – singer Johannes Andersson’s death growl devolves, early and often, into something of a wizened croak, which is surprisingly effective in this context – insinuating and insistent without being manic, The Children of the Night is a singular sort of back alley heavy metal journey that is all about mood and feeling, a throwback to a fair number of bands I can’t easily pinpoint. Songs like “Melancholia” and “Holy Libations” sound like nothing so much as the updated modern soundtrack to a classic Hammer horror film. If you have no idea why that might be awesome, keep your distance. Otherwise, swing wide that creaky front door and enter.
  1. Ghost – Meliora (Metal) – It’s a tricky business, trying to predict what artists people will respond to. Though my career as an amateur musicologist is undeniably long, and even distinguished in other areas, my record as a prognosticator is spotty at best. Take Ghost for example. I resisted the weird Swedish sextet mightily at first, seeing their mock papal lead singer and supporting cast of so-called “nameless ghouls” as a transparent gimmick that couldn’t possibly mask actual substance. I was wrong then, and with the release of the cunning, sweeping Meliora, I’m even more wrong now. It seems the height of counterintuitive strategy for a band so unabashedly theatrical visually, but Ghost prefers to let its music do the talking. I had to be dragged to the trough to sample its admittedly excellent debut Opus Eponymous, though traces of my initial skepticism remained. Meliora washes them away definitively with its commitment to insidious craft, resulting in songs – crackling riff-fests like “Cirice” and “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” – likely to have the most staying power yet within its greater canon. With album #3 comes front man #3, and the much ballyhooed (in some circles) arrival of Papa Emeritus III, who, even more than his predecessors, shreds the metal singer’s handbook and sounds like nothing so much as a (formerly) mild-mannered accountant now on his fourth song and fifth beer at his first ever karaoke night. If that seems an overly specific description, it’s because I’ve been there. It’s tremendously freeing. I have no proof beyond a sneaking suspicion that Ghost’s singer roulette is akin to Mexican boy band Menudo’s policy of jettisoning members as soon as they commit the cardinal sin of entering puberty. I’m no authority on more traditional cardinal sins, but Ghost’s lyrics tend to invite critics bearing fine-toothed combs, and, as always, they’ll find much to parse if properly motivated. Why bother, I say, when the total package is as catchy and fun as this?
  1. Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool (Alternative/Indie Rock) – “Keep your beady eyes on me,” coos Ellie Rowsell by way of introduction, “to make sure I don’t turn to dust.” As opening lines go, and opening statements, it’s an attention grabber, and purposely disarming. London’s Wolf Alice turns a great many directions over the course of its marvelous, highly referential debut My Love is Cool, though rarely ever the one you’d expect that moment, given the invariably shaky context provided by the previous song. The band never gets particularly easier to read as it goes along, or less worthy of the listener’s thorough consideration, and employs what seems an apparent split personality to great effect, sounding at times very close to fully-engaged, L7-style proto-grunge and at others brushing a hand across the folkier side of, say, a Sharon Van Etten, never leaning too hard in any one direction, always letting the needs of the song be its guide. Nor are the updated extremes of Alternative Nation the only fodder for Wolf Alice’s restless appropriation. The airy “Bros” beats “Dreams”-era Cranberries at its own game, and echoes of The Breeders, Throwing Muses, and Liz Phair’s critical darling phase are easily detectable in the DNA of the otherwise wildly disparate sounds behind “You’re a Germ”, “Giant Peach”, and “Swallowtail”. Though it lacks depth, there’s a touch of the perpetual duel between the fragile and furious that also dwells within one Polly Jean Harvey, and, at times, intoxicating hints of her same sort of extra-sensory perception. It’s difficult to grasp whether the other bands here mentioned should be flattered, given that Wolf Alice so often co-opts the spirit of the source and not just the sound, transmuting it from imitation into something closer to outright ownership. I have no idea of what Wolf Alice may eventually sound like once it matures and the wheel of fortunate influences stops spinning, but I’ve little doubt the results will be worthwhile.
  1. Khemmis – Absolution (Doom Metal) – A little cursory research assures me that Khemmis, purveyor of ultra-fine, so-called “doomed rock and roll”, only has two guitarists, though there are times when the Denver quartet’s monstrous debut Absolution seems to be packing an entire axe-wielding soccer team, plus late substitutions. The wall of sound Khemmis deploys – oppressive Crowbar-like riffs, four feet thick and dripping with sludge – would be a smokescreen in other hands for lesser bands, meant to hide creative or compositional shortcomings while tickling the listener’s lizard brain with single-minded determination. I see a dozen such earnest, undistinguished groups opening metal shows every year, but Khemmis, assuming it even still is an opening act, almost certainly won’t jerk the proverbial curtain for much longer. This band is the real deal, Holyfield. Its wall of guitar isn’t some obvious magician’s trick, but rather a canvas to be painted upon. While the stereotypical doom band moves at a snail’s pace and works a few brutally downtuned chords into submission, on Absolution, Khemmis blows up the “typical” and focuses on the “stereo” part. Metal fans of any disposition are likely to find something to love, or, rather, since Khemmis’ foundational guitar squall is so primal and pleasing, something else, be it the appealingly varied dual vocals, the interjection of comparatively bright, Maiden-esque twin leads at just the right time, or the deft songwriting acumen displayed on tracks like “Antediluvian” or the aptly-named “Serpentine”. Nine-minute album closer “The Bereaved” is a spectacular emotional outpouring in multiple movements, done in multiple gears. I could exhaust myself describing its every twist and turn but to what end? That dark, dirty guitar tone is like a lighthouse, a beacon of safety beckoning the way home for all the metal ships at sea, and the moments, reliably more than one per song, when a solo explodes against the monolithic backdrop of that rhythm guitar – as in the opening explosion of “Torn Asunder” – are reliably spine-tingling.
  1. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain (Alternative/Punk) – Screaming Females scored perhaps the year’s most unexpected home run with its sixth album, the alternately grimy and lovely Rose Mountain, though I first became enamored with the explosive Portland trio years earlier, swallowed up, as were many margin scavengers, by the buzz surrounding its fifth album, 2012’s altogether messier, presciently-named Ugly. I never quite pulled the trigger on purchase, however, a problem I definitely did not experience with its successor. A rare authentic blood and guts indie rock power trio, Screaming Females traffics in a spare but hooky brand of unguarded emotional availability, and I initially unfairly reduced Rose Mountain, with its refined ear, off-kilter but ingenious guitar lines, pulsing rhythm section, and brassy, arresting vocals, to unusually accomplished Sleater-Kinney worship. Though the trailblazer’s fingerprints are detectable, repeat listens made increasingly, embarrassingly clear the depth and talent of singer/guitarist Marissa Paternoster and her band. The precision headhunter “Ripe” is unquestionably one of my favorite songs of the year, and Paternoster’s chorus plea/threat/entreaty to, “peel the skin raw” works fabulously as a combination mantra and instruction manual informing the band’s work overall, even on softer, more intimate moments like “Hopeless” and the title track. As with Wolf Alice, I tend to respond instantly to Screaming Females’ grungier, borderline metallic outbursts, which come only as befits the individual song (“Ripe”, the majestic “Triumph”), but are insanely memorable, playing to the hilt the juxtaposition of an effortlessly strong female voice with uncommonly tasty and splendid guitar riffs. The occasional ripping solo from Paternoster, as on album closer “Criminal Image”, settles matters definitively. Pairing the Steve Albini-produced Ugly with the slicker but still gut level Rose Mountain is a rags to riches fidelity equation not unlike Nirvana’s fabled journey from Bleach to Nevermind. My relative unfamiliarity with the, to its credit, widely-lauded Ugly is the only thing preventing me from making a similar, albeit rash and more potentially foolhardy, comparison in terms of their overall quality.
  1. Napalm Death – Apex Predator-Easy Meat (Grind Metal) – Troubled times beget, and deserve, troubling music. More than ever, it’s a comfort to know grind institution Napalm Death is out there still fighting the good fight. At this point in the band’s career, with a benchmark level of performance not only established but fiercely maintained over the course of so many consecutive albums I’ve almost lost count, Napalm Death feels like an old drinking buddy, assuming, of course, your friend announces his presence by ripping/blowing the doors out/off of each club or pub he enters, smashes every glass surface in sight on instinct, and screams directly into the bartender’s face for 39 minutes straight. The Birmingham, UK portable indoor tornado has railed against the brutality and crass inequality imposed on the world by its various ruling classes for so long and with such vehemence that, on some level, it’s a miracle the band is still upright and coherent, let alone so scarily committed (and sneaky talented). The band’s fifteenth album, and seventh straight unalloyed post-millennial gem, the harrowing, unstoppable Apex Predator-Easy Meat, surely belongs in the conversation with its best albums ever, or would if it didn’t fold into an uncompromising larger body of work so neatly and completely. What do you really need to know? The speed is blistering, the anger is energizing, and the writing – on songs like “Dear Slum Landlord…”, “How the Years Condemn”, and “Bloodless Coup” – is impeccable. Barney Greenway’s bark has as much bite as his lyrics, and his mates seem primed to focus and inspire another thirty years of snarling youngsters. Making music this extreme actually sound the least bit musical is a real accomplishment. To make it not only viscerally but intellectually impactful is damned near impossible, or so it would seem if they didn’t accomplish the feat with such startling regularity. Some bands have extra gears. Napalm Death begins in extra gear and seeks, with improbable vitriol, thoughtfulness, chutzpah, and success, ways to go even higher.
  1. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Punk/Indie Rock) – Uncommonly ambitious for an indie rock/punk hybrid, New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus provided arguably 2015’s most challenging listening experience. A self-proclaimed “five act rock opera”, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is actually the second 92-minute opus on this countdown, but whereas Iron Maiden packed four years’ worth of exploratory metal into a mere eleven tracks, Titus Andronicus’ fourth album is a sprawling, ungainly, compulsively listenable mess almost any way you slice it: conceptual, emotional, logistical, etc. I’d like to think I could’ve picked an easier point of entry, and for most bands that would even be true, but my pleasant, incomplete memories of another massive Andronicus undertaking, the obtuse Civil War concept album The Monitor, couldn’t hold a candle to Tragedy’s potent, overdriven mix of Life Won’t Wait Rancid and Wrecking Ball Springsteen, with a splash of The Clash for extra flavor. Here is a record that practically screams the word “PRETENSION” alongside its infectious, properly delivered other exclamations, replete with underwhelming, if not wholly pointless, interstitial tracks, a pair of songs that share the same name, and album bookending anthems that are technically the latest chapters in a greater whole unheard by me. If you look beyond and focus on the songs that land, you’ll find a near perfect synthesis of the rowdy and the reverent, and as much emotional capital expended in any random trio of tracks as many modern bands invest in a whole album. Vastly easier to digest to as one super-sized statement than as 29 missives of drastically varying length, approach, and effectiveness, I prepared a “streamlined”, twenty-song edit of The Most Lamentable Tragedy specifically tailored for the romance of long road trips, where all its aching soul and omnidirectional fire might find both its best avenue of expression and chance for consumption. No surprise that this abridged version is one of my favorite albums of the year. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I recognize that brevity can be a virtue.
  1. Horrendous – Anareta (Death Metal) – The extreme eleventh hour nature of cobbling together this countdown brought with it ample occasion to uneasily consider the nature of being an active metal fan. As I get older, it’s a conversation I have with myself at least semi-annually. Thankfully, I can rationalize with the best of them. Being a “retired” metal fan isn’t the same thing as being a “former” metal fan. It means you’ve given up on all the frustrating legwork and endless digital crate-digging necessary to find new bands. Some things just feel like home. I’ll always love what I love. The new and continued existence of bands like Philadelphia’s Horrendous, a pleasure-laden throwback to the halcyon days when death metal was more overly melodic and not beholden to blast beats, makes retirement seem far off yet. Singers Damian Herring and Jamie Knox comprise a perfectly unholy fusion of the clipped growl of Immolation’s Ross Dolan and the guttural, ear-catching, deathbed hysterics of Obituary front-man John Tardy, which is to say together they sound like a sentient garbage disposal, untethered and off terrorizing the suburbs. No matter how laser-trained on the sweet spot of old school death its Anareta may be, rich with beautiful, Maiden-esque harmonic guitar leads and intricate layering, it also reflects a refreshing refusal to blindly bow to nostalgia, presenting a general flexibility/dexterity that wasn’t quite there on Death’s early albums, no matter how awesome they unquestionably were. There’s also no “Pull the Plug” to be found, a song destined to be revered and referenced by fans decades from now, but that’s understandable. Whether he was accidentally inventing the wheel or rewriting music theory in his spare time, Death mastermind Chuck Schuldiner was a certifiable genius. Anareta is a loving monument to his memory among others, though one that stands on its own merits and provides a genuine kick to its no doubt ecstatic listener – in the face, the teeth, the butt, the brain, whatever have you.
  1. Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor (Alternative/Hard Rock) – Now an unfathomable, to many disconcerting, two decades in length, Marilyn Manson’s career as an arch musical provocateur goes a little something like this: manic firebug turns artisan arsonist turns nihilistic survivalist. His later wilderness years are, indeed, harder on the digestive system than most, and of a disconcerting flavor that hardly earmarked him as a likely candidate for resurrection. Manson never stopped being prolific, but at some point he more or less did stop being good, a few striking individual salvos notwithstanding. It was fair to question whether, after basically falling off the map in the wake of his last terrific album – 2003’s propulsive The Golden Age of Grotesque – he would ever truly be heard from, in the way he once both so voraciously demanded and, sans compromise, rewarded attention, again. The Pale Emperor, then, is the best kind of surprise, a compelling, whole cloth, late period evolution that comes off as organically as an inveterate shape-shifter like Manson is probably capable. This is the anarchist in repose, his fearsome, famous sound and fury audibly tempered yet somehow sharpened, as if emerging fresh from the epiphany that in order to progress, or reemerge, as an artist, he would have to definitively burn away the burden of his past. It’s tricky to put a finger on what precisely the difference is between Emperor and its alternating frankly horrific and merely anemic predecessors, but the new album is possessed of an overall ease that previously would’ve made the former Brian Warner break out in hives. No longer feeling pressure to live up to his overwrought past has freed the always underrated songwriter to play to his moodier strengths, and songs like “Deep Six” and “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” are his best efforts since the late nineties. To the combustible career arc outlined above, The Pale Emperor adds an unlikely, occasionally mesmerizing, fourth act: Nero playing the fiddle, with Rome in flames around him.
  1. Clutch – Psychic Warfare (Hard Rock) – My final concert memory of 2015 was actually also my first of 2016, as Maryland rock crusaders Clutch played to a packed and expectant New Year’s Eve crowd at Bogarts in Cincinnati. The NYE show, overburdened, I would argue, with newer, less road-tested songs, was a great night all told, though hardly prime Clutch by a long shot. At this point, with so much sustained success in its rearview, Clutch is almost as much and as often a prisoner of high expectations as it is a conqueror of them. Case in point: the band’s passionate but scattershot eleventh album, Psychic Warfare, would be the crowning achievement of any number of younger, lesser acts, but for a group whose roll call features the #1 album of 2004, the #2 album of 2013, and at least three other solid top ten finishes, it almost can’t help but feel like an honorary mention. Not that Warfare’s best songs don’t burn with worthy intensity – Neil Fallon remains one of rock’s primal, indispensable front men – swing like a rollercoaster – loose-limbed, improvisational wizard Jean-Paul Gaster seems more to me daily a perfect synthesis of John Bonham and Ginger Baker – and churn with guitar-drenched executive backbeat courtesy of riff-master Tim Sult. “X-Ray Visions” is a prototypical Clutch hard-charger and album closer “Son of Virginia” a simmering, slow-building monolith. The cheeky “A Quick Death in Texas” is a swaggering monster, and “Your Love is Incarceration” somehow one-ups it, lacking only the additional cowbell necessary to push it off the cliff. This band has set such a ridiculously high standard. For the record, I wish for nothing so devoutly than 10,000 more days with Clutch as the soundtrack. Psychic Warfare outstrips and outworks 99% of all modern rock, but still seems a little by the numbers compared to the heights of, just for example, 2013’s Earth Rocker. That album was inspired. This one is merely awesome.
  1. Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction (Grind) – The aforementioned grindfathers in Napalm Death imparted to their scores of fevered progeny a commitment to extremity both aural and ideological, though only a handful ever proved talented and committed enough to escape obscurity or avoid immediate implosion. Finland’s relentless Rotten Sound springs to mind as a superior modern example, as does American stalwart Cattle Decapitation. Each makes music that is more or less exactly as cheery as it seems it probably would be. If only the surface told us everything. The vicious Bay Area quartet carved its own niche with a sly, fervent, often humorous, always unsettling lyrical espousal of animal rights all costs that verged on and in many cases crossed the line into outright misanthropy, always striking and maintaining an admirable sonic balance between the intricate and the unhinged. In recent years, the band, too long a perennial early slot-filler on underground festivals and a challenging and obscure darling of genre deconstructionists, has made impressive strides toward seizing the high profile it probably always deserved, by consciously expanding grind’s traditionally constricting parameters to the near-bursting point. To that end, The Anthropocene Extinction completes the work undertaken by 2012’s cross-genre album of the year, Monolith of Inhumanity, which was to impart upon Decap’s clever, ferocious, but still generally undistinguished grind a sense of the stirring and truly epic, along the lines of what Vital Remains once did to its own seasoned but pedestrian death metal in order to break through critically. The new album nails Monolith’s supreme confidence to the wall – standout tracks like “Plagueborne” and “Not Suitable for Life” are self-contained mini-mission statements powered by Dave McGraw’s superhuman drumming and frontman Travis Ryan’s queasy, magnetic vocal mélange, one part guttural wallop and the other self-satisfied, hyper-supervillain drone – but lacks its prevailing structural integrity in a few too many spots. If trying and failing to equal an AOTY is Extinction’s biggest sin, however, it is a laudable, imminently forgivable one.
  1. In Twilight’s Embrace – The Grim Muse (Blackened Death Metal) – No one, I imagine, is at this point particularly clamoring for an inside look into my writing process, nor I to provide one, but I doubt it’ll come as any surprise to learn that I rarely write in linear order, especially on a list-type feature like this one. Rather, I flit hopefully around the board, adding stray thoughts to each individual entry in a haphazard, stream of consciousness manner, watching those bon mots theoretically pile up into something worthwhile, and counting on myself to provide the proper context and connective tissue later. That last part really impeded me this time. Some albums were quite easy to write about, once I applied myself, while others were disagreeable bastards. The Grim Muse, by Poland’s In Twilight’s Embrace, one of the very last reviews I completed despite being one of the year’s better records overall, falls like a meteor into this second category. Muse, with its funereal aesthetic, low-fi production and thematic focus on creatures of the night, is ostensibly a black metal album – like Enslaved, ITE occasionally modulates formula in order to keep its core values from turning the proceedings into a slog – but is, upon closer inspection, a sinister, practically seamless hybrid of several exceedingly unruly metal subgenres (black, melodic death, actual death, thrash), near impossible to fully dissect on first listen, but full of easily identifiable pleasures. Its default posture is one of attack, with majestic solos layered atop furious tremolo picking, and, underneath, sustained volleys of rampaging double bass that sound like a chain gun with unlimited, auto-fed ammunition and a trigger-happy, otherwise indiscriminately angry owner. Songs often begin in generic overdrive but escalate in interesting directions – “Chainclad” and “Gravitate Towards the Unknown” are savage standouts – and even though ominous, foreboding opener “Postmodern Postmortem” is an immediate attention grabber and one of my year’s go-to pieces of music of any description, the album gets even better as it goes along.
  1. Coliseum – Anxiety’s Kiss (Alternative/Hard Rock) – The last of the three long-established alternative bands here enshrined, after Screaming Females and Titus Andronicus, to whom, depending on your point of view, I either came shamefully late or precisely on time, Louisville, KY’s Coliseum presents perhaps the slipperiest, most interesting sonic profile yet. The weird but undeniably compelling mutant offspring, in terms of both music and vocals, of late, lamented grungy power pop (with an emphasis on “power”) megalith Sugar and, say, late period Helmet, back when the band still hit hard but plied a more eccentric trade – ever since the realization dawned that singer Ryan Patterson sounds something like a direct cross between Bob Mould and Page Hamilton, I’ve been unable to shake it – Coliseum seems one moment like meat and potatoes alt-rock and the next blindsides the listener with its sophistication. This isn’t the sound of a band finding its way, but rather of one going unperturbed about outstanding personal business as it waits for the inevitable audience to assemble. I’d advise the stragglers to hurry. The songwriting chops displayed on Anxiety’s Kiss – amazingly, the band’s fifth album in over a decade of existence – are deceptive but considerable. Quirky opener “We are the Water” was one of the year’s more dependable earworms, while “Wrong/Goodbye” piles memorable guitar lines onto a foundation of subtly funky bass only to bow out provocatively at the moment of climax. Song after song revels in the push-pull dynamics of light versus shadow – a healthy lyrical preoccupation that fuels “Sunlight in a Snowstorm” and “Driver at Dusk”, among others – and accumulation versus release – brooding, snaky album closer “Escape Yr Skull”, which doubles as a stealth title track, seems to coil itself forever in preparation for a strike – making for an interesting breed of prevailing sustained tension throughout. The more one listens, the more intriguing Anxiety’s Kiss becomes.

My Top 20 Albums of 2014 + supplemental lists

My Top 20 Albums of 2013 + supplemental lists

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