Thursday, December 22, 2011

Top 10 albums of 2011

Well, it's that time of year again. Music critics around the world are revealing their Top 10 (or for the really ambitious, Top 25) albums of the past year, while angry, anonymous internet commenters are ripping them to shreds for being too mainstream, too obscure, too hipster, too hip-hop, too trendy, too nerdy, too old-school, too new-school or some other petty grievance. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people take it as a personal affront every time you pick 10 things and rank them, but hey, that's what we're here for. Some people make lists, and some people bitch about them. I'm happy to be in the former camp.

In my case, you could justifiably label my Top 10 as "too metal." It's no secret that I'm a metalhead first and foremost, but it's hardly the only style of music I listen to. Over the years, I've shown plenty of love to non-metal releases in my year-end Top 10 lists, but this year just seemed to be a really good year for metal (or maybe just a down year for hip-hop, indie rock, etc.). Outside of a pair of country albums, this list is all metal. Hell, even the two country acts on my list have metal albums to their credit.

But you know what? So be it. Maybe I'm just getting old and set in my ways, but these are the 10 albums that moved me the most this year. Throwing in a token nod to Fleet Foxes, White Denim or the Black Keys just didn't seem right in a year that featured so many great heavy releases. So feel free to leave a comment below lambasting my picks. I've developed some thivk skin over the past few years, and it just wouldn't feel like a proper Top 10 list without disgruntled commentary.

10. Hemoptysis - Misanthropic Slaughter 
Call this a homer pick if you want, but if anything, I think I sometimes have a tendency to underrate local albums. At the very least, I'm frequently guilty of judging a local band by how they compare to other local acts in their genre, as opposed to sizing them up against the national music scene. That said, Hemoptysis is a different animal. There's something special about this band, and it's baffling that they have yet to land a North American record deal. With Misanthropic Slaughter, Hemoptysis have set the bar for Arizona metal about as high as it's been since Flotsam and Jetsam and Sacred Reich were playing local dives in the mid '80s. But there I go localizing them again. In truth, Hemoptysis are every bit as talented as the majority of bands on the roster of any given indie metal label. The have the right sound -- a seamless hybrid of retro Teutonic thrash and modern melodic death metal -- at the right time, and it's only a matter of time before the rest of the metal world catches on.

9. Gentlemens Pistols - At Her Majesty's Pleasure
As much as I love bands that push the envelope and defy easy classification, I'm also a sucker for a band that takes an existing, well-worn sound and hones it to near-perfection. And when that sound happens to be fuzz-drenched, salacious '70s hard rock, well, consider me firmly on board. This UK foursome combines the bluesy riffing of Deep Purple and Blue Cheer with the glam rock swagger of Slade and T Rex. The result is an infinitely catchy (if not particularly groundbreaking) collection of songs that practically demand to be blasted at full volume, preferably in the cassette deck of a classic muscle car.

8. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
After the release of 2008's Cardinology, the normally prolific Ryan Adams took a respite from writing and recording new music, going so far as to announce his retirement in early 2009. In the interim, he married former teen pop sensation Mandy Moore and released a pair of poetry books and three albums' worth of previously recorded material, including a Voivod-inspired, sci-fi metal concept album titled Orion. But Adams' strong suit has always been melancholy alt-country, and Ashes & Fire represents an excellent return to form for the eclectic singer-songwriter. It's an understated, heartfelt album that reaffirms his status as alt-country's standard bearer.

7. Fair to Midland - Arrows & Anchors
Fair to Midland's long-awaited follow-up to their fantastic 2007 debut, Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True, proved to be worth the wait. The Texas quintet tempers their prog metal leanings with a healthy dose of pop sensibility. This sounds like what Tool would be doing if they weren't so in love with themselves. Read my full review here.

6. The Atomic Bitchwax - The Local Fuzz
A single, 42-minute instrumental track that somehow never loses steam. Chock full of riffs, solos and psychedelia, The Local Fuzz is stoner metal's answer to Girl Talk, except the Atomic Bitchwax actually wrote the whole thing. Read my full review here.

5. Hank3 - Ghost to a Ghost / Guttertown
Back in September, Hank3 flooded the market with a doom metal record, a speed metal album featuring samples of cattle auctioneers and this two-disc set of classic country, folk, zydeco and hillbilly weirdness. While the two metal albums left a bit to be desired, Ghost to a Ghost / Guttertown proved to be an ambitious, sprawling work that pushes country music to its limits and beyond. Read my full review here.

4. Mastodon - The Hunter
Mastodon topped my 2009 Top 10 list with their epic concept album Crack the Skye. The follow-up, The Hunter, is the band's first non-concept album since their 2002 debut, Remission, and their first album not based on one of the four classical elements (Fire, Water, Earth and Air). That's not to say that it's lacking in scope or ambition. The songs might be shorter and the hooks might be, well, hookier, but Mastodon still retain their title as the Thinking Man's Metal Band.

3. 40 Watt Sun - The Inside Room
Moody, atmospheric post-rock from former Warning frontman Patrick Walker. Few bands are capable of making heavy music so transcendently beautiful. Read my full review here.

2. Anthrax - Worship Music
After spending most of the past year reminiscing about 25-year-old thrash metal albums, it's hard not to get a little nostalgic. But what makes Worship Music -- Anthrax's first album with vocalist Joey Belladonna in more than 20 years -- so wonderful is that it's completely devoid of nostalgia. This is not a "throwback" record, but a thoroughly modern metal album featuring some of the best music that any of thrash metal's "old guard" have released in decades. Read my full review here.

1. Elder - Dead Roots Stirring
I don't think I could gush about how great this album is any more than I did in my original review a couple months ago, but suffice it to say, this album still blows me away. Dead Roots Stirring is not only the best album of 2011, but one of the best hard rock/metal albums I've had the pleasure of reviewing in my five-plus years of writing about music.

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