10. Judas Priest- Nostradamus
This is probably the most controversial album of the year, and the most controversial album in Judas Priest history. They're great at writing rocking metal tunes on forty-five minute albums, so what the hell are they doing making a double album about the life and times of a French prophet? Well, they fumble around in the dark some of the time and throw in some unnecessary interludes, but all in all, I think they fucking nailed it. No one expected this from Judas "Breaking the Law" Priest, but they did it. Rob Halford sounds more evil on "War" and "Death" than he has in his entire career, "Conquest" rocks harder than anything the band has done since 1990, and the closing one-two punch of "Nostradamus" and "Future of Mankind" is an appropriately climactic ending to a very epic album. Controversy or not, Judas Priest or not, this album is an impressive feat.
9. This Will Destroy You- This Will Destroy You
With a band name like that, you had better back it up with some seriously earth-moving music. Fortunately, the Texan post-rockers don't disappoint on their full-length debut: equal parts Explosions in the Sky and electronica are evoked on songs like "A Three-Legged Workhorse" and the impossibly great "They Move On Tracks of Never-Ending Light", and "Villa Del Refugio" and "The Mighty Rio Grande" do what instrumental music should do in evoking the landscape from which the band comes. The songs stick to the tried-and-true post-rock of rising and falling instrumentation, but many of the climaxes are difficult to find, and invite further listening. The subtlety of the album is probably its strongest point, and the band will hopefully continue to put out such excellent music for many years to come.
8. Protest the Hero- Fortress
This is progressive metalcore, alright, but it has almost nothing in common with Between the Buried and Me. The primary outlet for Rody Walker's vocals here is a jovial power metal croon, with his shouts and screams acting more to accentuate his full-bodied singing. Musically, it's a grab bag of styles and speeds, time signatures and key changes. I'm not sure any band could really imitate this style, and it's a little bit physically exhausting to listen to. I'm not sure if they can keep going at this pace and continue to make satisfying albums, but the total disregard for rules and embrace of insanity is refreshing.
7. Lemuria- Get Better
Somewhere between Blink-182's breakup and Green Day's Grammy, pop punk lost all of its credibility. Lemuria are the only band I can name that are doing it a favor and bringing it back, albeit with a hip indie edge. The traded vocals between the lovely and talented Sheena Ozzella and the band's drummer, Alexander Kerns, create amazing contrast and serve to enhance the overall vibe of the album, which already has a warm-and-fuzzy feeling most of the time. The flow is excellent, and the almost pedestrian lyrics complete the package: this is how indie punk should be done.
6. Amon Amarth- Twilight of the Thunder God
Sweet Jesus, erm, Thor...there is no band that is more effortlessly metal than Amon Amarth. You can't avoid banging your head when they come on, and each album is just as good as the last. If you've ever heard Amon Amarth before, you know what to expect from this album: pounding rhythms, Norse-centric lyrics, shredding solos, and vocals bellowed from the depths of Hel. A few new elements are added to this album as well, most notably the guest cellos of Apocalyptica on the excellent "Live for the Kill". By the time the seafaring wanderlust of "Embrace of the Endless Ocean" fades out, you'll be ready for a swig of mead and a funeral pyre to send you off to hall on high. This is what metal should be.
5. Opeth- Watershed
Bold title, guys. It's not quite accurate, but this is another terrific album from Stockholm's favorite progressive death metal band. Mikael Åkerfeldt fearlessly ventures into new territory with every damn album Opeth puts out, and the blastbeats of "The Lotus Eater", pure death metal fury of "Heir Apparent", and haunting female vocals of "Coil" do nothing but reinforce this fearlessness. There's really nothing to complain about on this entire album, other than the fact that it's slightly less awesome than its predecessor. When Opeth drop a new record, it's always nerve-wracking because it seems impossible that they could keep being awesome, but Watershed shows that they have, at bare minimum, nine awesome albums in their system.
4. Genghis Tron- Board Up the House
This was Relapse's gem this year. They always manage to find a band that sounds unlike any band I've ever heard and change the way I think about the metal genre as a whole. Genghis Tron play furious grindcore, but infuse that style with heaping helpings of electronica and progressive rock keyboards. All of the drums are programmed, and only one member plays a "real" instrument. That's fucking crazy. They shouldn't be able to make some of the best metal I heard this year, but dammit if they didn't just keep doing the unexpected. Aside from being one of the most exciting live acts you're bound to see, Genghis Tron can make a mean album that goes not only all over the musical spectrum, but all over the emotional spectrum.
3. Cynic- Traced in Air
Progressive metal is probably the most diverse subgenre of metal, just because anyone who does anything remotely unique seems to get the tag. Cynic defy that logic and produce music that is truly progressive, and at times beyond comprehension. The songs here probably sound most like the mellower moments of Between the Buried and Me mixed with the heavier moments of Porcupine Tree, but even that is a butchered description. The eight songs on Traced in Air flow brilliantly into one another, creating what amounts to a single piece of music with eight movements rather than a thrown-together collection of songs. The vocals are wisps of smoke, accented by the occasional rage of backing death growls, and the guitar work shifts from elegant jazz-like runs to unequivocally metal soloing on a dime. This is really unlike any other album I have heard, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of progressive music owes it to themselves to take a listen.
2. Made Out of Babies- The Ruiner
Maybe I'm a little bit masochistic, but I love being disturbed. Just being genuinely freaked out. Horror movies can't really do it for me unless they're extremely surreal, and most so-called disturbing music is just goofy or boring. Made Out of Babies frontwoman Julie Christmas actually scares me shitless. She can sing like a frightened little girl ("Buffalo"), a strong, independent woman ("Invisible Ink"), a sultry bombshell ("The Major"), a tattered wastrel ("Stranger"), or an apocalyptic madwoman ("How to Get Bigger"). She isn't so much a singer as she is an actress. Each song is sung from the perspective of a character she has created, and the combination of her vocals and too-close-to-home lyrics makes for a genuinely terrifying experience. If you can listen to the howling "Run! Run for your life!" that closes "Cooker" without looking over your shoulder, or keep from choking up when she sings about a waitress with "dirty strands to veil the face" whose "small tattoos name big mistakes", then you're just a stronger man than me. Behind Christmas' lunatic ravings and sheer poetic brilliance, a very skilled band matches her tones with their style that drifts from NYC noise rock to post-metal to sludge to industrial with ease. The album is best experienced as one piece of music (as with most great albums), and is just the mindfuck I think we all sometimes need.
1. Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes
It should be no surprise at this point that the best thing I heard this year was the debut full-length from Sub Pop's worst-kept secret, Seattle indie folk act Fleet Foxes. Every music journalist in the country is giving them props this year, so I'm sure I seem very trendy naming this album of the year, but simply put: this album affected me. The vocals, melodies, lyrics and atmosphere of the album are from a simpler time: nature is evoked at every turn, the very best elements of folk, indie, rock, and gospel are gathered in one place, and the songs are endlessly addictive and generally beautiful. "White Winter Hymnal" makes even more sense to me now that winter has fallen over Ohio, and each song seems to have certain elements of the natural world that it works best with. "Blue Ridge Mountains" was even more effective when I was actually in the Smokies over Thanksgiving. "Oliver James" sounds great when observing a long riverbank. The greatest part of this is the pure anachronism of it all: Fleet Foxes are from Seattle. They don't live in the mountains of Tennessee. They don't walk around in the woods. Everything is an illusion, yet they make it so real. And that, in a nutshell, is what music should do. You should be enveloped by it. You should suspend your disbelief. You should miss your connecting flight to the Blue Ridge Mountains over near Tennessee. You should not know what you have done and turn yourself into a demon. Music is so much more than something to fill your eardrums with to kill the time for me, and this album reminded me of how important it really is in my life.