Welcome, patient reader, to yet another self-indulgent, anticlimactic celebration of some of the best albums the realms of “Extreme Metal”, “Indie Rock”, and “Other” had to offer in 2019, now that the page on that year has been definitively turned. I’m glad you’re here. The following post does not/cannot include every great album 2019 produced, since, to maintain my precious sanity, I steadfastly refuse to listen to everything I could. Much of what I do try also kinda sucks. I dunno. More new music is available now than at any point in my life, but with considerably less general buzz around it, not to mention fewer reliable resources with which to uncover it. Every new release is not by rights worthy of inclusion in my personal collection, let alone these countdowns, but the ones that are have something in common. During some fishing expedition to Bandcamp and/or Amazon last year, I happened to like a particular album enough to purchase it. Whether the latest from an established artist, or a recommendation from a friend, peer, or site, you may rest assured I performed five or more minutes’ reconnaissance on each album before deciding it was good enough to own. If it’s good enough for me to own, then it’s theoretically also good enough to talk about, and that, after an unhealthy amount of sweat expended in winnowing down three categories – metal, non-metal, and comedy – to twenty (or ten) standouts, and, from there, combining those into a loose personal representation of the year’s best, leads us here. For the seventh straight midwinter, DAE presents its proudly esoteric list of purely personal faves. I hope you find something you agree with, or are intrigued by, preferably more than one. FWIW, I think this post contains some of my better written work of the year. If you disagree, you’re obviously reading the wrong review (or reckoning the wrong year). Try again. There are twenty, after all.
Without metal music as one of the predominant stabilizing, and if you can believe it, calming influences in my life, I’d probably go some uninteresting form of crazy. At an age that is now well past the average new fan’s expiration date, it is undeniably metal that keeps me interested in music as a whole, its live experience that does the most to energize me, and its jaw-dropping variety and reliable quality that makes me want to do the dirty, tedious, often fruitless work of investigating parts unknown in search of significant sounds both similar and different. Metal more than held up its end of what’s becoming an increasingly shaky bargain in 2019. In addition to the – I believe but am too lazy to confirm – unprecedented twelve albums that dominated my cross-genre year-end countdown, the mothership spawned other polished but imperfect gems that missed the final cut by an eyelash. Tennessee Deathcore stalwarts Whitechapel unleashed The Valley, a visceral and wholly compelling concept album that shone perhaps unwelcome light into the darkest corners of singer Phil Bozeman’s traumatic childhood, while Finnish melodic death explorers Insomnium offered up Heart Like a Grave as yet more unnecessary proof of their total mastery of the form. Esoteric sounds from the Sisters of Mercy meets Ghost Goth metallers Idle Hands and the frankly uncategorizable Mysterium Tremendum, the multi-layered, full-spectrum breakthrough from the until now rather categorizable, if still underrated, Oregonians in Lord Dying took the roads less traveled and less visible, respectively. Venezuelan throwbacks Nocturnal Hollow turned heads with A Whisper of a Horrendous Soul while Chile’s Critical Defiance applied a fresh coat of sandpaper to the classic sound of ‘80s thrash. The year’s biggest surprise in terms of expectations for this countdown may have come with comparative flameouts from recent party crasher Tomb Mold and perennial pack leader Overkill, but they still made you take notice. As ever, the underground turns in unpredictable ways.
- Allegaeon – Apoptosis (Technical Death Metal)
- Misery Index – Rituals of Power (Death/Grind)
- Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas (Grind)
- Shadow of Intent – Melancholy (Deathcore)
- Spirit Adrift – Divided By Darkness (Heavy Metal)
- Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race (Technical Death Metal)
- Death Angel – Humanicide (Thrash Metal)
- Hath – Of Rot and Ruin (Hybrid Death)
- Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind (Thrash Metal)
- Blood Red Throne – Fit to Kill (Death Metal)
- Gatecreeper – Deserted (Traditional Death Metal)
- Tool – Fear Inoculum (Progressive Metal)
- Whitechapel – The Valley (Deathcore)
- Nocturnal Hollow – A Whisper of a Horrendous Soul (Traditional Death Metal)
- Insomnium – Heart Like a Grave (Melodic Death Metal)
- Lord Dying – Mysterium Tremendum (Progressive Metal)
- Idle Hands – Mana (Goth Metal)
- Critical Defiance – Misconception (Thrash Metal)
- Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance (Traditional Death Metal)
- Overkill – The Wings of War (Thrash Metal)
Beyond my always coveted Top Two spots – Queen of Jeans and The Regrettes are flat amazing – there’s no point sugarcoating what an uninspiring year 2019 was outside the realm of metal. Many of my metal heroes are still out there playing, after all, serving as superior examples to the younger generation, and making pretty decent new music themselves. By contrast, Indie Rock, the pool from which I’m lately forced to pan for gold, sometimes feels like it’s on life support, having learned next to none of the lessons the ‘90s alternative boom had to teach about style, passion, or making a lasting impression. The few attentive students very often find their way to my headphones and, by extension, my year-end countdowns, but this year their numbers were especially thin on the ground. Even more of an issue was the series of comparative let-downs from artists upon whom I’ve come to rely in my old age – Angel Olsen, whose aptly named All Mirrors enveloped her luminous voice in wave upon wave of unnecessary accoutrements; Sleater-Kinney, who internalized a little too much of producer St. Vincent’s future-shock M.O. while simultaneously losing founding drummer Janet Weiss in a pointless internecine squabble; any of the ten remaining lower albums, only three by artists new to my collection, who essentially turned the winnowing process into a seven-way competition to avoid being named my cross-genre #20. Familiarity obviously played to the benefit of Bad Religion and The New Pornographers, who were already among my favorite bands of any genre, and there were edifying surprises to be found elsewhere scattered amongst the rocks. Mannequin Pussy’s punk confessional “Drunk II” was one of the year’s best songs, Mini-Mansions’ practical time travel one of its happier accidents, and Backxwash perhaps its most unexpected export – a modern mixtape rapper with an ear for beats and rhymes that actually compliment one another instead of indiscriminately stepping on every tongue and high-top in sight.
- Queen of Jeans – If You’re Not Afraid, I’m Not Afraid (Indie/Dream Pop)
- The Regrettes – How Do You Love? (Indie/Alternative Rock)
- The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Indie/Alternative Rock)
- Mini-Mansions – Guy Walks Into a Bar… (Alternative)
- Taylor Swift – Lover (Pop)
- Charly Bliss – Young Enough (Indie/Alternative Rock)
- Bad Religion – Age of Unreason (Punk)
- White Denim – Side Effects (Indie/Alternative Rock)
- Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (Indie Rock)
- Mannequin Pussy – Patience (Indie Rock/Punk)
- Titus Andronicus – An Obelisk (Indie Rock)
- Angel Olsen – All Mirrors (Alternative)
- Filthy Friends – Emerald Valley (Alternative/Indie Rock)
- Vagabon – Vagabon (Indie Rock)
- Oso Oso – Basking in the Glow (Indie/Alternative)
- The Hold Steady – Thrashing Thru the Passion (Rock)
- Tacocat – This Mess is a Place (Indie/Alternative)
- Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold (Alternative Rock)
- Sheer Mag – A Distant Call (Rock)
- Backxwash – Deviancy (Indie Hip-Hop)
I’ve spent previous introductions to my largely incidental Comedy albums list – only four albums have made the cross-genre top twenty in now seven years of attempts – bemoaning industry changes beyond my control and the chilling effect they’ve tended to have on release schedules and the overall quality of any given year. The time has come instead to proclaim a low key rebirth of sorts, if not a full-blown renaissance then at least the kind of reconfiguration of expectations that conclusively demonstrates just how much of a future the Comedy album form still has…assuming, of course, that it wants it. Never count on the establishment to accomplish anything. Always put your trust in hungry young upstarts to make the necessary change, then watch the establishment grudgingly fall in line when they succeed (but show less compunction about taking undue credit). 2019 was a year rife with new blood overtaking the establishment, as New Yorkers Katie Compa and Noah Gardenswartz drolly redefined gender roles and pierced ethnic biases, Wisconsinite Gareth Reynolds “solved race” and other puzzlers, Canadian Karen O’Keefe packed a massive punch into a disarming twenty-two minutes or so, and dry wit from a dry county Tennesseean Shane Rhyne mined his own personal struggles and impending middle age for some of the year’s most assured and funny material. Elsewhere, list perennials Chad Daniels, Mike Birbiglia, and Jim Gaffigan delivered sub-optimal sets that nevertheless hit the mark due to their unflagging playful professionalism (Gaffigan’s purposely audience-alienating 18-minute treatise on “Horses” was an especial delight, despite the repeated, increasingly horrified protestations of his famous inner voice). Fellow stand-up lifer and “B-minus human being” Christian Finnegan takes the top spot with the breezily sardonic 60% Joking, a career-best set that, after an extended absence from the sort of spotlight he only ever deferentially shared before, makes his unique and clever brand of blunt force whimsy seem not just refreshing but vital.
- Christian Finnegan – 60% Joking
- Shane Rhyne – The Golden Age of Shane Rhyne
- Katie Compa – Hard Pass
- Noah Gardenswartz – White Men Can’t Joke
- Jim Gaffigan – Quality Time
- Chad Daniels – Dad Chaniels
- Gareth Reynolds – Riddled with Disease
- Mike Birbiglia – Thank God for Jokes
- Karen O’Keefe – Surprised Eyebrows
- Erica Rhodes – Sad Lemon
The Top 20 Albums of 2019
The clock has long since struck midnight, and 2019 has turned back into a pumpkin. It’s now twenty ‘til three. I get it. Long overdue – as ever…as is, unfortunately, established custom ‘round here – this, the seventh consecutive publication of my year-end cross-genre top twenty album list, represents, first and foremost, the successful satisfaction of a precious compact made…with myself. As darkadaptedeye settles into its sixth year of existence, I am, now more than ever, unafflicted with delusions that anybody other than myself can be realistically termed a “regular reader” of this site. That’s not meant to disparage anybody who might or does happen to qualify – on the contrary, I offer my sincerest gratitude and best wishes for the future – merely to state, up front and unequivocally, that which should absolutely not have to be stated but does, because this is the $*#&@(! internet: this is MY list. Not Rolling Stone’s, or The New York Times’, or The AVClub’s, or Pitchfork’s. Or yours. I may, in fact, have already read your 2019 list as I write this. (I read a lot, which is part of the reason I can respectfully suggest the same of people who happen to stumble onto my property while engaged in a drunken web crawl.) If so, it is because you are either afflicted with a better work ethic than mine, a saner/less ambitious scope of communication, or both. Mazel Tov. I’m sure I enjoyed it. If I’ve missed something here, I missed it straight up, as in I probably didn’t hear it, or heard it somehow but still didn’t connect. If you’re confused about how my list is composed, I can only point to the obvious, which is that I like extreme metal and I like Indie Rock. I also enjoy (and tout) additional stuff in moderation. I bear no responsibility for any figurative whiplash you might experience at my regular shifting between these two disparate gears, or upon reading entry #14 specifically, nor do I apologize. For anything.
I’m under no obligation to meet your approval as to what happened to move me musically in 2019, but I do hope there’s some overlap. Discussing music is so much fun, and the world affords us only so much latitude to truly exercise our inner geekery. That’s why I continue to devote the better part of three months every year to this single, ludicrous, sometimes excruciating exercise, the one that originally launched DAE. The only thing I’ve ever promised my readers – both the few of you, and the brave – is that I would always try to give them my best work. Here’s some of it. As always, thanks for reading.
- Allegaeon – Apoptosis (Technical Death Metal) – The best album I heard in 2019 was also among its least publicized, a deceptively impressive accomplishment in extreme metal circles. The thin membrane of protection delineating the underground from points above sea level rarely applies anymore, because the gap has simply grown too large to be bridged. With no accompanying worry as to whether undue exposure might corrupt, compromise, or cause their newest favorite band to rot, modern metal fans become amateur evangelists and proclaim the “good news” to everyone within a mouse-click. Perhaps I’m not keeping the right company, or my palate is maturing in directions opposed to the flow of prevailing wisdom, but, for my Monopoly money, Apoptosis, the plainly spectacular fifth album by Rocky Mountain tech terrors Allegaeon, is a work of staggering craft worth seeking out, crawling inside, and screaming about, early, often, incessantly. Instead, I heard, or at least registered, next to nothing about it, on the boards, in the trades, or through the grapevine. To that I can only say…Your. Frigging. Loss. Paradise for music geeks, Apoptosis is a breakneck, non-stop procession of “holy shit” moments engineered to take your breath away, building a titanium palace atop the near-impenetrable bunker of 2016 top-fiver Proponent for Sentience. This is not merely skill but next level musicality on display within the oft-unforgiving confines of technical death, particularly the fluid and furious guitar work of songs like “Interphase / Meiosis” and “Exothermic Chemical Combustion”, which boast unconventional riffs, seamless transitions, and vertiginous bullet train solos (single and double-tracked) that must be heard to be believed. Hell, instrumental opener “Parthenogenesis” was already among the most reliably thrilling two minutes I experienced all year, and it was only ever intended as a harbinger of things to come. In video game terms, Apoptosis is like playing Megadeth’s Rust In Peace on “Brutal” difficulty, dying immediately, and coming back for more before the game has even had a chance to prompt or properly taunt you.
- Misery Index – Rituals of Power (Death/Grind) – Merciless Maryland juggernaut Misery Index has been my favorite metal band from practically the moment it hit the scene in 2001 as a more socially minded, grindcore-influenced offshoot of death metal overlords Dying Fetus. Ever since, it’s been a boulder (covered in spikes) rolling downhill (as shot from a canon), unleashing a succession of worship-worthy albums – 2006’s Discordia, 2008’s Traitors, 2010’s Heirs to Thievery, and 2014’s The Killing Gods were all personal cross-genre top-fivers – upon a no longer unsuspecting listening public, one conditioned through repeat exposure and hardened through increased intervals between missives to expect nothing less than excellence. Misery Index delivers just that on its utterly ripping sixth release, Rituals of Power, walking back the interesting experimentation that powered The Killing Gods in favor of something much more primal. This is a perfect album with which to become repeatedly acquainted on headphones and, in the process, at least temporarily drown out the mundanity and stupidity of the modern world. I can’t tell you how many work mornings in 2019 I retreated to the barbed wire welcome of “New Salem”, “Hammering the Nails”, or “I Disavow” to shut out unhealthy or unproductive distractions. Misery Index’s guitar sound and outstanding mix of the unstable explosives at play simply astound me. Jason Netherton remains one of the premier voices in the underground (both on the mic and behind the pen) while the drumming by burgeoning legend Adam Jarvis is probably career-best work, not least because every new Adam Jarvis album seems to raise his already impossible bar. Misery Index isn’t nearly the fastest band in extreme metal, or the heaviest, or the most brutal, complex, or vitriolic, the most political, or the most intelligent (well…one out of seven ain’t bad). What they are is simply the best, and in the final analysis, no one else really comes close. Rituals of Power is a suitably triumphant addition to what has become a winning streak for the ages.
- Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas (Grind) – So long as you don’t look to Washington for leadership or insight, there is currently more scientific, social, and political consensus around the dire, existential threat posed by climate change than at any moment in recent memory. Or you could just look at your thermometer. Such breakthroughs in understanding tend to happen organically, of course, the closer one’s feet are held to the fire. As professional consumers of depressing news and (hopefully) voters-in-waiting, we are assailed daily with warning after warning that the planet’s time, or at least ours as inhabitants upon it resembling anything beyond sentient charcoal briquettes, is fast running out. Death Atlas, Cattle Decapitation’s latest venomous treatise in a long and magnificent line of them, posits that the sands have already outpaced the hourglass and, like the honest-to-god horror movie so many critics incorrectly characterized former Vice President Al Gore’s Oscar-winning buzzkill An Inconvenient Truth as, seeks nothing more than to rub our noses in the settled fact of our species’ impending extinction. “Vulturous”, “One Day Closer to the End of the World”, “Time’s Cruel Curtain”, and “Finish Them” are cheery songs for cheerier times, each more epic and unsparing than the last. Conjure all your preferred similes for musical extremity and brutality, none of which are likely to pay proper shrift to the band’s astonishing technical proficiency – which, like most every other of their listener-facing aspects, skews toward insanity – and Cattle Decapitation will nevertheless run rings around them, backwards, without breaking a sweat. Ringleader Travis Ryan delivers his savage critiques of global society backed by musical co-conspirators of uncommon skill, plus his own trademark array of accentuating voices. Whether the sound takes the form of a chorus of taunting children, a cackling backwoods witch gleefully feeding you into the oven, or issues, coated in audible bile, from his own roaring gullet, Ryan’s point is never dull, misinterpreted, nor lost amidst the chaos.
- Queen of Jeans – If You’re Not Afraid, I’m Not Afraid (Indie/Dream Pop) – I hated paying Angel Olsen short shrift in my non-metal introduction above. She’s become such a staple of these lists. I’ll never forget the dawning realization of just how special Burn Your Fire For No Witness was during my first listen, nor the difficulty of converting that reaction into coherent words. By the same token, it almost hurt to concede that All Mirrors would be excluded this year, but we’re operating in the theater of gut reactions here. Stepping into, and filling perfectly, the Olsen-sized hole in my countdown is a most unlikely understudy, an unassuming trio of Philadelphia songbirds, defiantly DIY but only low-fi in appearance. Queen of Jeans produced those same sorts of ripples and chills upon my initial exposure to If You’re Not Afraid, I’m Not Afraid, and I can only hope our relationship blossoms into routine fulfillment of precisely the same sort of outsized expectations. “Love will always fuck you over,” Miriam Devora sings during standout “Only Obvious to You”, and despite the calm she radiates, it’s the closest thing I’ve heard in recent indie music to an arena rock-ready anthemic refrain. Like Olsen, Devora impresses most with her voice, reminiscent of the angel who sneaks an occasional cigarette off the clock, but it’s only when paying proper attention to the moods in which that amazing instrument is wrapped – expansive on arresting opener “Get Lost” and pastoral stunner “Bloomed”, channeling Patsy Cline on “Tell Me”, beneficiary of gorgeous choral doubletracking on “Not a Minute Too Soon”, aloft amidst the stirring swell of closer “Take It All Away” – that Devora’s unfair advantages as songwriter and bandleader come into focus. In truth, it’d be far easier to list the songs that weren’t genre-subverting expressive and lovely than the ones that made a significant impression. That’d be a short list indeed, and, not coincidentally, that is where If You’re Not Afraid, I’m Not Afraid both belongs and resides: on the year’s shortlist.
- Shadow of Intent – Melancholy (Deathcore) – Metalcore has long been the black sheep among metal’s grazing flock of subgenres, but without all the cool connotations you’d think that designation might carry for people who, as fans, are often individualists, free thinkers, suspicious of convention, attracted to darkness, etc. That shouldn’t suggest I’m immune to its sweaty charms. After years of wandering the lower half of stacked concert bills, the talented New Englanders in Shadow of Intent happened upon a novel approach to transcend their metalcore roots: try really hard to sound like everything at once. Seriously. Their third album, the absurdly titled but undeniably massive Melancholy, is an improvised explosive device that reflects each word of that description while spraying subgenre-shaped shrapnel in an assortment of directions. Sometimes the results lean uncomfortably on the canned orchestral flourishes of Fleshgod Apocalypse or Dimmu Borgir (less successful live, in my limited experience). There’s crosstalk aplenty in the vein of The Black Dahlia Murder’s well-known “shriek and gurgle” vocals (because it’s impossible for forty bands to patent a single approach) strewn across several songs, while the conspicuously frostbitten “Oudenophobia” simply gets away from them. For the most part, Shadow of Intent display astonishing growth and command of wild musical horses no ten random tourmates could more capably harness. The game of “Spot the Reference” ends in gleeful exhaustion when staring down dizzying ten-minute instrumental epic “The Dreaded Mystic Abyss”, a cleansing balm that converts subsequent listens to lead single “Gravesinger” and fierce closer “Malediction” into vastly improved experiences over their initial spins. No matter how many signifiers of the subgenre they seem poised to outgrow any day now might rear their tattooed heads – the glacial “beatdown” sections in “Under a Sullen Moon” and the otherwise excellent “Chthonic Odyssey” are still hilarious, just in an endearing way – Shadow of Intent is unquestionably on its way to great, and increasingly greater, things. Melancholy was a well-placed shot of adrenaline, administered at 2019’s time of greatest need.
- The Regrettes – How Do You Love? (Indie/Alternative Rock) – With the notable exception of Nevermind by Nirvana, a winner for which I neither received nor deserved congratulations, I have an abysmal track record of picking “next big things” in popular music until well after they’ve already broken wide. Were they a superstitious lot, this might prove cause for concern for The Regrettes, the evolving yet still ridiculously young Californian power-pop dynamo whose danceable but sneaky sophisticated sophomore album How Do You Love? struck me like a bolt from the blue back in August and effectively ruled my playlist unchallenged for the balance of 2019. Nobody gets into the music business with the intention of starving. Luckily for The Regrettes, they appear to be blissfully unaware of my unwitting curse and are off living the exact life I kinda always dreamed of, traveling the world and participating in nightly cultural exchange from a procession of different stages. Goofy, breezy Instagram stories and a regularly updated Youtube channel make their travels easy to follow, if not always comprehend, and their innate style and verve would make them easy to root for even if their songs didn’t kick so much ass. How Do You Love? is a full-bodied, head-bobbing showstopper. Lydia Night wraps her husky voice around trenchant lyrics which approach the shopworn topic of love from intelligent angles, unleashing a cavalcade of shoulda-been/might-still-be hits, including the playful “I Dare You”, contemplative “Pumpkin”, kinetic “Stop and Go”, plaintive “More Than a Month”, and headlong pop-punk perfection of “Dress Up”, my favorite song of the year. This is a band with energy, talent, and charisma to burn, and, moreover, something surprisingly insightful – and, even more surprisingly, universal – to say about the condition of being a young adult, whether in, out, or temporarily undecided on love. Though I have far too much affection for The Regrettes to tempt fate by anointing them anything here, I still have the strongest feeling possible that they’re going to be just fine.
- Spirit Adrift – Divided By Darkness (Heavy Metal) – People expend too much effort on making a good first impression, when it turns out the only thing truly necessary to stand out from the crowd is to simply look, sound, and be different from it in most every way possible. That’ll get you some attention. Just ask Spirit Adrift, whose third album, Divided by Darkness, hung tough with some historically heavy hitters at the top of the 2019 metal countdown and even landed its share of impactful punches on the way to a most unlikely of contested draws. An awesome auditory anachronism, Divided by Darkness, with its tasty guitar harmonies, clean vocals, and focused, mid-tempo attack, is an album out of time that harkens for inspiration back to the now-depressingly distant past – or, to be precise, 1992. In retrospect, all sorts of cool, formative things were happening to metal in 1992, but the ones that randomly infected my memory banks while listening to Spirit Adrift were a trio of famous, conspicuous descents, one from a lofty perch and two others from a middle-high rung – Countdown to Extinction, or Megadeth’s “Black Album”, a canny bid at commercial success in the wake of Rust in Peace’s game-changing complexity; The Ritual, wherein Bay Area royalty Testament dialed back its trademark melodic thrash until only trace elements remained; and Fear of the Dark, the incredibly spotty yet historically relevant ellipsis on Bruce Dickinson’s initial time in Iron Maiden. It may seem odd to namecheck three ostensible long-ago disappointments when reviewing one of the current year’s best albums, but they only failed to measure up in their time. Transport those albums to 2019 and meld them into a single musical and vocal beast, and the Voltron that emerges is Divided by Darkness, a potent combination of Maiden’s trademark melody, Megadeth’s innate technicality, and Testament’s underlying power that works completely outside modern metallic constraints to create something regal, rocking, replayable, and, if not strictly of this era, damned near timeless.
- Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race (Technical Death Metal) – Heavy metal is a critic-proof business, both by its nature and by design, an entrenched and intractable members only club whose bar for entry is purposely, ludicrously high. That makes it all the more curious (and humorous) when outside intelligentsia – who treat the genre with blanket disdain on their best days, assuming its existence is acknowledged at all – not only deign to report on a particular band or album but are suspiciously effusive in their praise. So much figurative ink was invested this past November in ecstatic celebration of Hidden History of the Human Race, the objectively impressive sophomore effort from Coloradan tech quartet Blood Incantation, that it kinda made you wonder. What about this specific album connected with so many reviewers from outlets unknown for the breadth, depth, or mastery of their metal coverage? How exactly did this apparent landmark, once-in-a-decade release not register the kind of impact on everyday listeners so clearly mandated by the spawn of Paranoid, Master of Puppets, and Death’s Human? Were these reviewers blissfully high and therefore wide open to possibility/suggestion? Had they heard a modern extreme metal album before? They always say you never forget your first. Leaving aside goofy conspiracy theories about industry powerhouse Dark Descent Records somehow bribing influence-free extra-genre publications like Pitchfork and Stereogum for fawning reviews that would surely translate into tens of tens of additional copies sold, Hidden History is still a damned fine slab of tech death, simultaneously short (four songs) and expansive (see the eighteen-minute closer), and utterly assured. From the pinch harmonic squeals and see-sawing back and forth between competing BPMs, galactic, occasionally Middle Eastern, guitar interludes, and diligent if unspoken focus on (re)branding Blood Incantation as “thinking man’s metal”, it just sounds like something a “critic” would like. If so, I welcome our enthusiastic new metal converts, and recommend they next check out Blood Incantation’s underrated, arguably superior debut, Starspawn, among a cavalcade of other worthy possibilities.
- The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Indie/Alternative Rock) – Despite being billed as an Indie Rock supergroup from their inception, The New Pornographers have never been any sort of traditional democracy. At its best, the unusual 75/25 partnership between lead Pornographer Carl Newman and Destroyer capo regime Dan Bejar – which resulted in years of completely separate songwriting channels, wildly varying output in quality and quantity, and live concert sit-ins from Bejar more akin to special guest appearances – produced magic, while also largely avoiding tedium, itself an accomplishment. Whether abdication or bloodless coup, the famously mercurial Bejar exited stage left, as fans always suspected he might, to concentrate on his 817 other projects, and the result, 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, was a jangled, jittery collection of polished but uncentered songs. Newman seems altogether more comfortable shouldering the burden of In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, and throws himself into the task with aplomb, providing, if not quite a fully convincing approximation of the “golden age” Pornography of Twin Cinema or Electric Version (or Challengers, for that matter, or Together), then one with an innate applied mastery of the requirements for their creation. One after another, bright, driving songs like “The Surprise Knock”, “One Kind of Solomon”, and “Dreamlike and On the Rush”, tunes more worthy of being spoken of in terms of Technicolor than Stereo, explode off the figurative canvas and take their places in posterity. Even when operating at TNP’s aforementioned heights, Newman always preferred creating symphonic smart bombs rather than common earworms, and is aided to no end in their deployment by his farthest ranging collaboration yet with the always sensational Neko Case. With opener “You’ll Need a Back Seat Driver”, lead single “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile”, and the appropriately grand “Colossus of Rhodes”, he reserves the album’s choicest cuts for her spotlight. All that’s missing from the classic formula is Bejar, and for the first time in approaching two decades of New Pornography, the joker isn’t particularly missed.
- Death Angel – Humanicide (Thrash Metal) – The story of Death Angel is a classic one of rise, ruin, and redemption, of close-cut identity crises and dramatic course corrections, great music and somehow greater potential, of time sacrificed both to the road and the scalpel. It’s told in three distinct parts, which is, I suppose, appropriate for a band whose best known album was called Act III. That milestone release came near the end of their beginning, however, now almost thirty years ago. Trust me when I say you’ll want to stick around until their end, whenever that may be. Death Angel has spent its personal “Act III”, currently fifteen years underway, grinding gears in the studio, putting miles on the odometer, and pushing its expiration date further into unknown territory. Humanicide is the sixth album of the Bay Area thrash originals’ post-millennial resurrection and ninth overall, and rarely in my experience has any band this settled and seemingly comfortable in its abilities sounded hungrier. Founding guitarist Rob Cavestany continues to drink deep from the well of inspiration (a teenager at Death Angel’s launch, he was always young), and has surrounded himself with ace collaborators, especially the only other member to accurately remember the 1990s, original singer Mark Osgueda. Death Angel’s thrash attack here is still reminiscent of past glories – see “Alive and Screaming” and “I Came For Blood”, among others – but the most telling passages come when Cavestany gives himself permission to tinker with formula – the interlude shoehorned into paddle thrash beast “Divine Defector”, the aerobicized catchiness of “Immortal Behated”, the all-purpose headbanging goodness of superhero theme song “The Pack”. All the while, Osgueda charmingly over-enunciates every bark of punctuation like Bruce Lee mid-flying kick. Even the Recording Academy took notice of the feast Humanicide offered, although that didn’t stop it from awarding the “Best Metal Performance” Grammy to Tool, another band trying to outdistance its past. While each made this countdown, there’s no confusion whatsoever as to my personal preference.
- Mini-Mansions – Guy Walks Into a Bar… (Alternative) – The Eighties, thank Zappa, will never die. At first blush, mood-altering Angelino trio Mini-Mansions would appear cut from altogether different cloth than what really binds them together – the silhouette of some scruffy Indie Rock poseur mumbling into a microphone he bought when the local Radio Shack folded in 2017, maybe – but it doesn’t take long for evidence to the contrary to accumulate. In fact, it takes all of one track before the intrepid listener is lost in the lovingly calibrated turbo-throes of “Bad Things (That Make You Feel Good)”, otherwise known as the best Devo song you’ve never heard. Elsewhere, the not-in-a-Phish-way jamming “I’m in Love” recalls Electric Light Orchestra at its power-pop heights, while the irresistible post-chorus of “Forgot Your Name” approximates a cocaine-fueled late night at a bumping club without the need to even leave home. I mean, or so I assume. Since so few of the bands that make my year-end countdown are ones with whom I’m intimately familiar, a little bit of research is inevitably required to fill out these capsules, and I was shocked – shocked – to hear Mini-Mansions there compared to The Beatles and Elliott Smith, when the New Romantic synth-pop of the early to mid-1980s so clearly flows through their veins. Even songs that attempt something more subdued – the wistful “Don’t Even Know You”, dreamy “Time Machine”, or stereophonic closer “Tears in Her Eyes” – betray both their influences and intentions through kaleidoscopic keyboards, electronic drum accents, and perfectly pitched, tastefully deployed post-Tears for Fears guitar tone. These are not criticisms, by the way. I’m far too busy smiling as I write this to consider complaining. Mini-Mansions is essentially a one-stop Eighties theme night condensed into a single, kick-ass house band. While Guy Walks Into a Bar as an album title may call to mind an inevitably corny set-up with no punchline, and the shoulder-shaking music it contains may be blissfully free of both calories and consequences, it’s no joke.
- Hath – Of Rot and Ruin (Hybrid Death Metal) – Two (or more) great tastes don’t always go great together – except, that is, in metal, where the unadulterated strains of its various subgenres tend to have both a definable “classic” sound and a natural affinity for potential intermingling with one another. This pliability between technically segregated if comfortably neighboring styles invariably infuriates purists whilst delighting the remaining balance of us who don’t live by flickering torchlight in some dank dungeon on the Norweigan fjords (or the online equivalent). A genetic biologist with the right breadth of metal knowledge would have a field day mapping the genome of a band like New Jersey’s Hath, who, with an overarching appreciation of and facility for applied atmospherics, splice together death, thrash, doom, and black metal in a way that, no matter what kind of mongrel abomination it may appear to be in theory, never sounds anything less than natural and engaging in practice. I understand that this kind of stylistic cross-pollination is increasingly becoming the rule in extreme metal rather than the exception, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call out quality and get excited when I see new bands doing things right. The opening salvos of Of Rot and Ruin are just that, declarations of war and statements of purpose, imposing a mood of impressive oppression on the listener before Hath really starts showing off just past the midpoint, turning what was a noteworthy, if fairly anonymous, sophomore album into something altogether more than that, regardless of pedigree. A multifunction, three-and-a-half-minute drone whipping nimbly through the field of six to eight-minute heavy machinery, “To Atone”, with its fluid transitions between tempos, guitar tones, and singing styles, employs almost every weapon in the arsenal. “Accursed” ramps back up the deliberateness but injects some Goljira-style weirdness into the equation, while the brutally beautiful “World Within” soars in their wake, pointing the way toward the likelihood of even more tantalizing sounds just over the horizon.
- Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind (Thrash Metal) – There’s a possibly apocryphal tale about the Ramones that applies equally to other notable bands who have ever found themselves boxed in by public perception. “Those Ramones,” goes the famous line. “They only know three chords. They only play one song.” Maybe, but they’re the right three chords…and it’s a damned good song. People who don’t already like Slipknot – the modern era’s most popular metal band nevertheless has legions of vocal detractors – are unlikely to find themselves swayed by the unflinching, unfailingly strong We Are Not Your Kind, in large part because, having applied one half of the Ramonian paradox to their prevailing thinking, they’ll refuse to listen to it. This would be a mistake even if the idea that Slipknot only makes one kind of song hadn’t long since been proven a fallacy. The masked Iowans’ sixth album is another cathartic treasure trove of rich and rancid feeling animated by alternately simmering and bubbling rage, albeit one that confidently and skillfully negotiates a stylistic gauntlet that would’ve been ill-advised if not unthinkable years earlier. Maturity, a dread concept long hinted at and even taken for the occasional test drive, suits Slipknot, adding restrained texture to spots that might benefit – terrific tablesetter “Birth of the Cruel”, the creepy, tinkling piano of “Spiders”, the metronomic pulse of “My Pain”, like a faint beacon barely audible from the bottom of a mine – whilst leaving the remainder – lead single “Unsainted”, throwback thrashers “Red Flag” and “Orphan”, towering closer “Solway Firth” – still chafing against its straightjacket straps. We Are Not Your Kind offers the band’s most consistent and consistently engaging set in, well, arguably ever. Slipknot has always been angry. That’s their schtick, and it’s turned the already costumed wraiths into living cartoons in the minds of many. We Are Not Your Kind is their pointed rebuke, one that deserves to be heard and judged on its own merits, which, however uncomfortable the news might prove, are considerable.
- Taylor Swift – Lover (Pop) – The world has watched Taylor Swift grow as woman, performer, and songwriter beneath a spotlight more suited to barbecuing ants by the million. All the while, a hurricane of inane commentary swirls around her, whether or not she is an active contributor. I haven’t the least bit of interest in this conversation, and, indeed, came to Swift’s music gradually over a period of nagging years. Conceived during a lull in which she removed herself from the hurricane’s uncomfortably public eye, Lover is the first of Swift’s albums I had the opportunity to purchase at its release, meaning I’d be subject to the full measure of its relentless hype, if never quite carried away. It’s the difference between watching weather reports and personally chasing tornadoes across Oklahoma, and, as you’d suspect, not particularly fun for someone who first got into Swift following the surprise discovery that she makes good music. Lover is neither Swift’s most accomplished (1989) or cohesive (Red) album, despite cherry-picking elements of each. At eighteen songs and an hour long, call it her “most” album, bursting with so many passable songs that their numbers begin to actively obscure the outstanding ones. Much has been written about bouncy, agreeable singles “Me!” and “You Need to Calm Down” as overcalculated course correction, and I’ll admit their incongruity in the greater context, however desperately Reputation’s course needed correcting. Better not to dwell on those focus-tested crowd-pleasers, nor the noble but stilted Taylor-by-numbers of “The Man” or “Afterglow”, but, rather, Lover’s numerous great songs. High school and congressional halls conflate in “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”, while the Dixie Chicks lend delicate harmony to the crushing “Soon You’ll Get Better”. Elsewhere, from the conspiratorial sunshine of “I Think He Knows”, to lush single “Cruel Summer”, to the utterly joyous “Paper Rings”, Swift’s phenomenal songwriting gifts expand the parameters of her chosen genre even as she transcends it. One day, she’ll hopefully outgrow the conversation as well.
- Blood Red Throne – Fit to Kill (Death Metal) – The heavy metal genre as a catch-all concept offers something for everyone in a way that no single metal band could accomplish. There are simply too many possibilities and too much ground to cover. That is central to its enduring appeal, but also to the by turns pitiful and hilarious turf wars that pop up periodically online between self-appointed civilian guardians of its integrity. If law required that 2019 offer up one band with near-universal appeal that everyone could agree on, my slightly unconventional vote would go to Norwegian death metal locomotive Blood Red Throne, whose excellent ninth album, Fit to Kill, offers a neat encapsulation and winning deployment of so many of the genre’s basic pleasures – attitude that is bold but not bellicose; consistently hard-hitting impact that doesn’t overwhelm the listener; musical proficiency that undergirds and doesn’t distract; dumb (but not blitheringly dumb) lyrics about the wildly fun fantasy video game brand of indiscriminate killing; and riffs, chord progressions, and mid-tempo, tanklike song structures that produce sore necks and effortless smiles without the accompanying sort of existential questions that tend to lead metalhead gatekeepers to identity crises and flame wars. Like its spectacular predecessor, 2016’s Union of Flesh and Machine, the album is also a triumph of production aesthetics, a joy to listen to in a musical milieu infamous for scattered artifacts that occasionally sounded like they were recorded in a bathroom (and “mixed” in a toilet) or for confusing snare drums with trash can lids. Fit to Kill is death metal comfort food with true untapped crossover potential beneath the growls, tasteful gore, and intermittent blast beats, steady and professional with strength to spare, an album that rages plenty without overstaying its welcome or ever overplaying its hand. Seek it out.
- Charly Bliss – Young Enough (Indie/Alternative Rock) – There’s a truism in the realm of death metal that, while certainly not a cure-all, can occasionally help new fans come to grips with its predominant, shall we say, unorthodox vocal stylings. Listeners instinctively turned off by the genre’s tortured, rarely-intelligible, ultra-guttural vocals are advised to treat those aural offenses as just another musical instrument in the mix. This approach worked a little too well for me, actually, at a time in my early twenties where I had trouble processing anything much heavier than Meshuggah. Now, years later, my resistance to the “wrong” kind of death metal vocals is hardwired, and damned near intractable. I offer this anecdote as a cautionary tale, since I worry I’ve already fallen into the same trap with Eva Hendricks, the helium-infused cartoon singer of otherwise excellent Indie/Alt quartet Charly Bliss, a band making waves while expertly channeling/reconfiguring the ‘90s “MTV Buzzbin” sound of heavyweights like Breeders and Throwing Muses for modern day audiences who didn’t grow up on them and might therefore feel vague, inexplicable pangs of loss. Their sophomore album, Young Enough, which manages not merely buoyancy but outright flight despite Hendricks’ unwitting attempts to vocally sabotage it, is more than assured and accomplished enough to deserve higher placement than I’ve given it here. I really love some of these songs – the rousing opener “Blown to Bits”, shoulda been radio hit “Capacity”, the unadorned and beautiful “Camera”, the halted breath title track – and just want her to consider dialing it back. A little. There is a conventionally beautiful voice hiding beneath all those misguided affectations (which many singers couldn’t duplicate without the aid of a serendipitous Autotune malfunction). Perhaps that’s the issue, and Hendricks thinks she desperately needs a signature, when the truth is that Charly Bliss’ songwriting growth and the care behind all that unnecessary artifice has already rendered the question moot. Trust yourself and your band, girl. There are great things ahead for you.
- Gatecreeper – Deserted (Traditional Death Metal) – That legendary buzzsaw blade guitar tone communicates so much without saying a word. Mindless noise to the masses, it is a clarion call to metal fans of a certain age or description, summoning them to that sweet spot right down front, or pressing them into service as a living partition or human ping pong ball within the roiling pit, or, even better, maybe both. That guitar, cutting through the B.S. like a guillotine and tickling something primal within its listener, is, appropriately, the first sound heard – no atmospherics, no creaking doors, no long-winded acoustic openings – on Deserted, the sterling second album by the Arizonan melodic death revivalists in Gatecreeper. Witness the steel press midsection of the appropriately named “Ruthless”, the melodic axe throughline of “Barbaric Pleasures”, or the ominous rumble of “Everlasting”, and just try to stay stationary. I always personally prefer to stand on the periphery when I can – the better to watch the band – but Gatecreeper, who are building a steady name for themselves as modified modern caretakers of the magnificent sound of ‘90s Swedish death metal once popularized by bands like Grave, Entombed, and Dismember, sure make it tempting to want to dive in headfirst and start a classic “circle pit” of the sort so many singers seem to call for from the stage but so few are able to legitimately conjure. For such a young band, Gatecreeper has already proven itself equal to the task, whether serving as the meat in a gristly but delicious deli sandwich concert bill that also included immortal gorehounds Exhumed and ascendant Californians Necrot, or, especially, on Deserted, a 43-minute exaltation where calls to action and calls to arms are stacked ten-deep, powered by guitar engineered to elicit an involuntary response. That sound, that tone, that feeling – in your pounding heart and pit of your stomach, extending to each and every nerve ending – is irreplaceable to fans, and in the best of hands going forward.
- Bad Religion – Age of Unreason (Punk) – The trouble with the kind of dissenting social commentary Greg Graffin practices is that inspiration inevitably flags. The ardor of youth cools, edge gets worn down to a nub by competing forces. Even today, when outrage is manufactured at an historic pace and fed like so much “clean coal” into the furnaces that power our public discourse. You’ll forgive the venerable SoCal punk academics in Bad Religion if their 17th album, Age of Unreason, occasionally seems a bit frazzled and overwhelmed. Still, there is no field guide I would rather enlist than singer/lyricist/evolutionary biologist Graffin, who does not yet seem to have succumbed to the disease I describe above, and, as both revered elder statesman and fairly unimpeachable intellect, is the rare punk frontman to possess not simply balls in the modern sense but the gravitas to properly wield them. I began fervent prayer for a new Bad Religion album on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, hoping I might be gifted an oligarch-seeking-missile akin to their deadly focused real-time response to Bush foreign policy, 2004’s The Empire Strikes First. It is only in direct comparison with the former album that the latter’s faults really glare. But are you precisely as angry about anything as you were fifteen years ago? Or are you angry, but older, wiser, and, therefore, exasperated? Graffin’s ordinance on Age of Unreason rarely takes the form of Empire’s savage broadsides – though standout “Big Black Dog”, about the Conserative Right’s weaponization of social media, pulls no punches – but, rather, desperate appeals for logic and sanity themselves. Punchy, pithy songs like “Since Now”, “The Approach”, and “End of History” make a strong case that applied brainpower still matters, no matter how bleak the times, or their innate resistance to such, may appear. Age also gets appreciably better, both as it goes along and upon each fresh listen, which is wonderful news given the circumstances. The world needs Bad Religion, now more than ever.
- Tool – Fear Inoculum – (Progressive Metal) – Our long national nightmare of anticipation and endless waiting came to an almost anticlimactic end in August, and when all the dust settled, the hype finally dissipated, and the streaming records had been definitively rewritten, perhaps for all time, Tool still pretty much sounded like Tool. There’s certainly no mistaking them for any other band on the planet, or, now more than ever, lending particular credence to any of their bold but dying breed of imitators. Boasting no legitimate songs with a running time under ten minutes, Fear Inoculum, the band’s first effort in thirteen years, is heavy on almost oppressive space, giving its arrangements more room to breathe and/or fester than at any point before in Tool’s already esoteric and counterintuitive history – almost, but not quite, to their collective detriment. Adam Jones’ riffs coil and twist like serpents while Justin Chancellor’s MVP bass lines – written alternately in 7/4, 7/3, and 7/8 time – provide not just rhythmic underpinning but meaty, fully dressed skeletons for songs like the pensive title track and closing colossus “7empest” that the peerless (now that Neil Peart has passed) Danny Carey’s sublime drumwork can then power across the finish line. What’s largely missing are the hooks that first made Tool’s math metal palatable to the masses – singer/lyricist Maynard James Keenan still phones in better performances than the majority of folks who try with all their might – and, with absence making the heart grow fonder and all, continues to fuel their illogical, almost inexplicable superstardom twenty-six years later. There’s little love evident in Fear Inoculum’s cold, black, desolate expanses. What we’re left with instead is a bracing record of intricate and intense labor, of artisan craftsman perfectionists whose baseline is so far above street level that it might as well be a mountaintop, even in those moments when it’s clearly not.
- White Denim – Side Effects (Indie/Alternative Rock) – My music collection contains an embarrassingly great many alternative long-players whose creators impressed me sufficiently during some random Saturday morning purchasing spree only to disappear soon after, rarely to be heard from again. You’ll notice them often in these year-end posts, sticking out like sore thumbs from the bottom half of my Non-Metal top twenty, cross-genre top twenty, or both. They’re fine artists on the whole, and while I perform due diligence on many of them in hopes of identifying lasting connections, I do get tend to get disproportionately stuck with one-night-stands. Figuratively speaking, of course. White Denim had already loitered on my radar far longer than some of their more timid or elemental brethren, to the point where, at a moment when I probably should’ve been moving on after a few years of processing mixed signals, Side Effects, their ninth album but third in my collection, finally announced the Austin, Texas-based indie cornucopia/stylistic buffet as the semi-permanent member of my meritocratic musical menagerie I’d always hoped they’d be. Turns out those infrequent frequency spikes were part of the plan, much more a feature than a bug. I just had to tune to the correct channel to process them. The countdown’s shortest album is also its most unsettled and borderline schizophrenic, a psychedelic/soul/free jazz pupu platter that puts the “hip” into hippie funk (in every sense of that combination of words) and somehow still comes out smelling like a daisy. Tasty grooves bounce off of carnival organ and some seriously dextrous playing – James Petralli and Michael Hunter are twin acrobats on guitar and keyboards respectively – is first discernable then undeniable lurking beneath all that flip attitude. “The drugs quit working, though I find them inspiring,” sings Petralli on centerpiece “NY Money”, leaving us ample room to ponder any lingering side or aftereffects. Disarmingly gentle as roller coasters go, Side Effects is also almost every bit as fun.