One of these days, I promise to organize my music listening habits a little better. With that said, this is a far cry from any type of "best of" list. First off there is just way too much music released each year to make any kind of judgment. Seriously, there are so many albums released that it would be impossible to listen to it all. For my efforts here, I have simply gone back over the albums I reviewed this year and compiled those that topped the scales. I then took those albums and placed them into a top ten list format.
To recap, these are my best reviewed albums of 2009. It is not a terribly large sample and I did listen to some good albums that I have not (or not yet) reviewed. So, take this for what you will. Just, rest assured that these albums are all worth your time.
1. Cynic - Traced in Air. It's 16-years since Cynic released an album. How could the reunited band possibly live up to the greatness that came so long ago? That is a thought I had going into this experience. A thought I had without being familiar with their prior highly regarded release. As it turns out, it does not matter what your experience with the band is, this is an amazing album that lasts an all too brief 32-minutes. Flawlessly produced and beautifully executed, this combination of progressive, metal, jazz, and experimental music is an album to be savored. The band is replete with virtuoso instrumentalists who have plenty of opportunities to show what they can do, all while never falling prey to egotistical displays of excess. There are no rambling jaunts, or overdone solos, everything works toward the benefit of the song at hand. This is an album that begs to be explored by anyone with a love for music.
2. Drag Me to Hell - Music Composed by Christopher Young. That's right, my number two album is a film score. If you have heard it, you will likely understand why. The score is filled with somber violin solos, big choral pieces, Gothic bombast, and not a little bit of restrained sweetness. The music covers a wide range of range of emotions while never letting you escape from its grasp. What really makes the composition click is the film's main theme, which is introduced by a solo violin in the opening track. Put it in, press play, enjoy.
3. Rhino - Dead Throne Monarch. What would you get if you mixed sludge metal, doom metal, thrash, death metal and grunge (yes, grunge) in a heavy iron cauldron? You would get an album called Dead Throne Monarch with a side of Rhino. What a pleasant surprise this was. This is an album I did not have a lot of expectations with, but when I gave it a listen I discovered something special. Vocals that run the gamut from vocal cord destruction to a Layne Staley-like wail pair with punishing guitars that threaten to pound your skull in. Yes, over used phases to be certain, but highly effective in describing an album that oozes originality.
4. HORSE the Band - Desperate Living. It is hard to believe that I initially did not care for them. Their two subsequent releases since that unfortunate initial encounter have shown the band growing by leaps and bounds. This may just be their most accomplished work to date. It seems that the metalcore tendencies have been pushed down into the mix in favor of atmospheric ramblings, synth-experimentation, and a general aura of individuality which has furthered their ability to stand out from a crowd. Raw guitars, solid drums, and their signature 8-bit synth come together to craft a fascinating album that is as familiar as it is unique.
5. CrimsonFaced - Lunatic Binge. Independently produced, endlessly imaginative, and worthy of a larger stage, Lunatic Binge is an album that leaps from the speakers and offers a unique musical experience. It is the creation of a singular vision, a blend of love and hate and spiced with dark recesses of the mind. This music is crafted with a blend of old school and new school influences creating something that is accessible but also distinctly different. Strong vocals and even better guitar work pepper the album that revels in its independent nature. It is not a flawless production, but it is one that is distinctly human. In addition to the music, the album has personality, which is something lacking in so many big releases.
6. Behemoth - Evangelion. This trio push their skills to the edge and deliver an engrossing experience that leaves me in awe while reinforcing the thought I am listening to the voice of Satan, perhaps not his words, but definitely his voice. This album is not overly long, but it really packs a punch. The brutal speed seems to be front loaded and gradually slows down throughout, taking you on a musical journey, a path that allows the different sides of the band to shine through. They are definitely a band to be experienced as they do their best to stand out.
7. Bill Leverty - Deep South. Does that name sound familiar? No? How about Firehouse? If you were a fan of music through the "hair" era it likely does. Bill Leverty is Firehouse's guitar player. This album is a collection of interpretations of old school Southern tunes. It is not a collection of shredding instrumentals or 80's throwbacks, rather it is a personal album crafted by a man paying tribute to his roots and influences. It is a very easy album to get into and also very easy to appreciate.
8. Chimaira - The Infection. This album rises like a zombie, the violence and darkness that came with their rise from the dead has turned them into an angry, vicious monstrosity that is ready to infect anyone in the vicinity with its mix of metalcore, hardcore, death, industrial, groove, and sludge metal. No two albums from this band sound quite the same, each one chronicles growth, change, and maturity in their creation. The album is slower than past releases, but still houses plenty of brutal metal. It shows the next step in their evolution with the instrumental "The Heart of It All" acting as the perfect centerpiece. Turn it up and bang your head!
9. Kylesa - Static Tensions. Fascinating album. This band is rather experimental in their technically proficient in their jam-band like metal excursions. In some ways they are reminiscent of Mastodon. Static Tensions is not a passive album. Sure, you can toss it on for interesting background music, but that will only last so long. At some point a riff, a chord progression, a vocal yowl, a drum fill, something will get your attention. At this stage you are trapped. It may take one song, or three, or five, but it's bound to happen. Once hooked you will be on for the ride. It begs for multiple listens as the open compositions and diabolical rhythms toy with your head.
10. La Coka Nostra - A Brand You Can Trust. At the same time this album is like meeting up with old friends and listening to something completely fresh. There is a familiarity there that does not breed contempt, it is built on something that brings nothing but happy thoughts. It is that high school reunion where you meet up with your old buds and see how they have changed and the successes they have had. They are the same people you know but they are different. La Coka Nostra is something of a House of Pain reunion as it features Everlast and DJ Lethal. The difference is that this House of Pain has gone back to the streets, the beats are rougher, the raps edgier, yet still catchy and easy to get into. I am not the biggest fan or most knowledgeable when it comes to hip hop, but I know what I like, and I really like this.
Other notable albums that are worth taking a peek at:
Hellsongs - Hymns in the Key of 666. This is a fascinating album of metal cover tunes that have been deconstructed and rebuilt in mellow acoustic driven fashion. It is really quite good.
Shadows Fall - Retribution. This release does not break any new ground, but it is the creation of a band possessed. If you like metalcore, this is one for you.
Ghost Brigade - Isolation Songs. Here is a band still finding who they are and giving you a chance to get in on the ground floor. They shift from heavy, sludge filled riffs that could grind bone to powder to soft, melodic passages with ease, crafting a standout album.
Mark Knopfler - Get Lucky. If you want some nicely written and executed laid back tunes on the folk-rock tip, this is going to be one you want. There is some strong guitar work and you cannot find anyone who sounds quite like Mark Knopfler.
Iron Age - The Sleeping Eye. It has a sound that begs to be listened to more. The more you listen, the more you pick things up, things like the solo work that you may be tempted to gloss over, or the transitions between the thrashy and the sludgy portions. If you like metal, you will want to give these guys a listen.
Seventh Void - Heaven is Gone. Kenny Hickey and Johnny Kelly have a side project and it has resulted in a solid slab of hard rock that brings to mind early Black Sabbath and 90's grunge.
Tombs - Winter Hours. Tombs' sound is akin to a reverse prism, taking all the colors of the rainbow and reintegrating them into white light, so Tombs takes the varying styles of metal and integrates them into one big post-metal wall of sound.
Lamb of God - Wrath. This is one hell of a band. If you like your metal raw and aggressive, this album will fit the bill. Raw vocals, jackhammer drums, heavy riffs, all from a band that actively attempts to transcend the genre will remaining happy just inhabiting it.
That wraps up this years releases. Keep an eye out for more music reviews from yours truly. And hopefully a more organized 2010 list!