Friday, December 05, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

It's probably late enough in the year to do one of these, right? These albums aren't in any particular order - I'll happily take the coward's way out and avoid the extremely difficult apples to oranges comparison that comes from trying to compare relative musical merit, particularly across genres - and aren't all metal. To merit possible inclusion on this list, the album had to meet two criteria:
  • Have a US release date some time in 2008
  • Have a siren-like ability to get me to listen over and over again, month after month.
Here's the list, with some commentary:
  1. Rise Against - Appeal to Reason. I've had this album since the middle of October and I can't stop listening to it. Originally a Walmart project, it broke precedent by staying in my at-work iTunes list (reserved for albums I'm demoing for possible inclusion in my permanent collection home) for weeks after I turned in the description, because I needed it around to get a quick fix. I'm pretty sure every glorious track of this 13-song release has gotten stuck in my head at some point, no doubt because of the dozens of times I've played it. Really the most perfect piece of melodic hardcore I've heard since The Offspring put out Smash.

  2. Metallica - Death Magnetic. Even though I have problems listening to this album all the way through because of the terrible mixing problems, the songs themselves are too good to ignore - and as I've commented on one occasion, they've acquired extracurricular meanings as well. Death Magnetic has seen enough controversy since before its release that I don't need to describe it any further: you've made your decision and chances are, you either love it or hate it. I think it's not only the best thing the band's done in years, but is a really strong Metallica album in its own right.

  3. Opeth - Watershed. I think I'm well beyond the point where I'm able to speak objectively about Opeth, but that didn't stop me from trying with Ihsahn, so why not continue the charade? What I love most about Opeth is that although every album, when played in chronological order, fits into the progression that the band has followed up into Watershed, there's still something that makes the album stand out not only from the band's peers, but from its own siblings. In the case of Watershed, who would have thought that Black Metal and 70's AOR rock would mix so well and so convincingly? Brutality, majesty, a bit of the psychedelic aesthetic, the counterpoint guitar lines, and a hundred other little details that take hours of pleasurable listening to pull apart, all weaving together to create a magnificent addition to the catalog that is both unique and uniquely Opeth.

  4. Eluveitie - Slania. These guys impressed me so much at Paganfest that I was a little concerned that their recordings wouldn't live up to the impact of their live show. Fortunately, I was dead wrong: Slania is gorgeous and powerful mix of metal and folk music, offering up singalong choruses (in English and Helvetican), dancable/slammable tunes, a heavy emphasis on swirling melody that doesn't sacrifice the potential for balls-out rawk, and an edge that makes the whole thing seem slightly mysterious (in an "entering another world" sense), not hokey. Check out "Slanias Song" for a good representation of how awesome this album - and the genre as a whole - can be.

  5. The Dresden Dolls - No, Virginia.... What continues to amaze me about this album is that it's made up of remnants, b-sides, and compilation tracks - you know, the trash of recording sessions that's not quite good enough to put on the album but still worthy of salvaging - but it's still fucking fantastic. And not in a "that's good for a compilation" sense, but in an honest to goodness "this stands on its own as a strong album" sense. Quite possibly as a "best of The Dresden Dolls catalog" sense, which is pretty significant. I originally picked this one up as a Walmart assignment in June, loved it, then took a break for a few months. A couple of weeks ago, I cued it up again and remembered why it's so amazing. If you love The Dresden Dolls it's a must-own; if you've heard good things (or want to know how in the world a piano and drums can make really good punk rock), No, Virginia... is an excellent place to start.

  6. Keep of Kalessin - Kolossus. I believe I have the guys at Metal Sucks to thank for turning me on to this album. Why do I love it? Black metal, in my opinion, is a genre just begging to mix it up with progressive rock idioms: the common love of the grandiose in both genres makes a natural fit. Keep of Kalessin not only gets this idea, but they understand how to weave the two elements together to create progressive black metal that's actually still black: Kolossus is ripe with well-placed blast beats, a strong mix of bleak arpeggiation and high-speed riffing, and lyrics about individual struggle against titanic forces - and empire building on the backs of a thousand corpses. The whole package is probably best exemplified by "The Rising Sign," which moves from a brilliant syncopated opening riff to an Amon Amarth-style explosion to a chorus with one hell of an epic hook to an acoustic bridge that rivals Ihsahn for atmospherics with envy-creating ease.

  7. The Sword - Gods of the Earth. I know these guys are basically Black Sabbath for the new millenium, but between the sledgehammer riffs, the distant wail of J. D. Cronise on the microphone, and the songs about war, frost giants, and George R. R. Martin novels, I don't particularly care: I'm in love with the music, dammit, and we're moving in together next month. Turn on "How Heavy This Axe," crank up the volume, find a suitable stimulant and drift off into fantasies of braining someone with a large piece of sharp steel.
  8. Gama Bomb - Citizen Brain. While it's true there are plenty of thrash revival bands out there these days, Gama Bomb seems to have this - admittedly derivative - genre down to a science on Citizen Brain: every song thrashes in the best head banging style, the singer sounds like he takes himself just seriously enough to sing properly while still having fun, and the songs...let's just say that any album that has fun songs about rampaging zombies, using time travel to commit crimes, being sentenced to thrash, RoboCop, Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and General Zod gets a big gold star in my book.

  9. Ihsahn - angL. I've read from interviews that Ihsahn is a huge perfectionist who is never happy with the recordings he puts out because they never quite live up to his expectations. I imagine each of his recordings to be like darts hitting an already small target of tremendous results: with each throw, he gets closer and closer to that point of menetal perfection. angL is the majesty of the Emperor recordings mixed with beautiful, bleak atmospherics that tempt you to step inside - and possesses your soul once you do. The duet with Mikael Akerfeldt in "Unhealer," where Akerfeldt's clean vocals, supported by a simple chorused guitar line and - of all things - a fretless bass build into the alternations of Akerfeldt and Ihsahn scorching out the chorus makes for a haunting, theatrical glory, almost akin to a gothic 19th century horror - and that's just one among equals.

  10. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip. It's possible this album ended up on this list because of the concert this summer - which goes to show you how important touring can be - but I think what originally sold me on The Slip - besides liking Discipline enough to listen to it once a day after I originally downloaded it - was the rehearsal video of 1,000,000 put out in June. As I said at the time, that video was like a four minute tutorial on how to rock...and it proved to be not only a very effective prequel for the live experience in August, but an excellent representation of this album's elegantly simple (if slightly schizophrenic) outlook. Soon enough, I was waking up with the chorus of "Echoplex" stuck in my head, or humming the tune to "Lights in the Sky." In other words, I was hooked for good.
Honorable mentions:
  1. Arsis - We are the Nightmare.
  2. Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I - IV.
  3. Protest the Hero - Fortress.
  4. Emarosa - Relativity.
  5. Testament - The Formation of Damnation.

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