Hey. Me again. You like music? Yeah? Me too! Let's talk about some. And when I say 'music', I don't mean what's 'popular' or 'American Idol worthy'. Let's talk about some lesser-known music that doesn't get much radio play. Let's talk about artists that can actually play instruments. There is a TON of music this year that I didn't get to hear, but of the stuff I did, here were my favorites:
10. 36 Crazyfists -- Collisions and Castaways. These guys have been plugging away for close to ten years now, opening for some bands that have no right to be bigger than them. Is it because Brock Lindow's voice is an acquired taste? When I first heard their debut album, it took a few listens to adjust, but now I think he's one of the stronger vocalists in alternative metal. This new album isn't quite as consistent as their last one, but it's very good nevertheless. I'm glad they're still plugging away.
Favorite Track -- 'Mercy and Grace'
9. The Mag Seven -- Black Feathers. Their last album made my list in 2009, and here they are again a year later, although this time there's even more variety in fewer songs. This EP flips from jazzy rock to reggae dub to punk, and yet it all holds together surprisingly well. They also have a surf-inspired cover of Black Flag's 'My War' that has to be heard to be believed. And then there's that amazing artwork by James O'Barr, who is regularly seen at their Dallas shows. I'm not sure where their next album will take us, but I can't wait to find out.
Favorite Track -- 'My War'
8. Far -- At Night We Live. Probably the most mainstream-sounding album on the list, this one smacked me from out of nowhere. These guys had a small measure of success ten years ago, and then broke up. Then one day, I get an e-mail from a friend saying, 'Did you know Far is back together? Their new album is good.' And good it is. In fact, I can say I like this record more than anything else they've released before it. Great vocal hooks, yet aggressive in just the right places. I never would've expected these guys to come back, much less put out something I would play as much as I have this album. I hope they stick around this time.
Favorite Track -- 'Give Me A Reason'
7. MC Frontalot -- Zero Day. What the hell? A rap album on this list? Well, it's 'nerdcore', but hey, rap is rap. I regularly read Penny Arcade, and Frontalot was mentioned there a few years ago (as he plays their PAX convention every year). As a result, I've been listening to his music for a couple of years now, but only the free stuff he posts on his website (and he's posted a LOT of it). Since he's been a Charity Case to his fan base for years, I figured it was time to show some love, so I bought his new one and I'm glad I did. It hasn't left my car since it released in April. By the way, if you have Netflix streaming, check out 'Nerdcore Rising', which is a documentary that follows him on his first national tour. It shows what the road is like for smaller bands, and how it's not very glamorous, but doing what you love can pay off in more ways than one. It's something every aspiring young musician should watch.
Favorite Track -- 'First World Problem'
6. The Contortionist -- Exoplanet. Finally, some fucking METAL! What an impressive major-label debut. They're a cross between the mathematic riffing of Meshuggah, the insane soloing of Necrophagist, and the occasional moments of beauty of early Hopesfall. Sometimes they mix all three in the same song, and on tracks like 'Flourish', if you appreciate the heavier side of music, it can give you goose bumps. As a whole, the album isn't as consistent as some other metal releases this year, but they have a ton of potential. This album got overlooked on most top metal lists for 2010, but I hope more people come around to it because they're very promising.
Favorite Track -- 'Flourish'
5. Deftones -- Diamond Eyes. Besides political leanings, this band is the one thing the regular contributors on this blog have in common. They got started when we were all in college, and their first two albums turned a lot of heads in the alternative rock and metal communities. Yet when other bands from that time either called it quits or release stagnant cash-grabs, these guys continue to compose solid records. I really liked their last one, and thought it was their best since Around the Fur. Now I have no choice but to repeat that same sentiment for this one.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Diamond Eyes', 'Sextape'
4. Misery Index -- Heirs to Thievery. This band is a prime example of how metal should be done. They write catchier riffs than most death bands. At times, they're faster than a lot of grindcore bands. Lyrically, they're more intelligent than most bands in any genre. And they made the album available to stream before it released, showing they know how to market themselves. Even though I like their previous releases, that stream was what sold me on the new one, and I ordered it the same day. Like The Red Chord last year, these guys stepped up and released their best album to date.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Fed to the Wolves', 'The Seventh Cavalry'
3. Ihsahn -- After. Black metal can be one of the cheesiest genres of music. Corpsepaint, Halloween outfits, and demonic lyrics that try WAY too hard. However, Emperor was one of the few black metal bands that I could appreciate. While they helped popularize the genre (and led to many less-talented imitators), they always had a little something more going on in their music. So when they broke up in 2001, I was disappointed. However, if I'd have known their front man was going to go on to release albums like this, I would've cheered their break up (blasphemy, I know)! The record is heavy, but not 'black metal'. Then in one song, you have to strain a little to make sure, but oh my god, is that a saxophone? Who the fuck puts that in a metal song? Is Ihsahn completely insane? Then a little later it comes further into the foreground, with a passage that's so mournfully beautiful you can't help but respect it. Then further listens, you can't imagine the album without it. Powerful and unexpected. 'After' came out in January, so some top ten metal lists forgot about it. Considering I've had that sax line in my head for almost 11 months now, I didn't have the option.
Favorite Track -- 'Undercurrent'
2. Periphery -- Periphery. Word of mouth and repetition. They work. I heard about this disc so many times on different metal websites, I finally gave in. A reviewer on Amazon called this album 'warm and fuzzy math metal', and I think that's pretty spot-on. They can flip between a song that could be a alternative rock radio hit, and then to a track that wouldn't sound out of place on a new Fredrik Thordendal solo project. And yet, it never loses its sense of cohesion. The guitar player is the driving force behind the project, and produced the album himself over a span of almost five years, switching vocalists in and out many times. I'm not entirely sold on the vocalist on the final album (and many on metal websites recommend an instrumental-only version that's on iTunes). His growling isn't very strong, but his clean vocals are very good, and that's enough for me. Besides, it's better than the alternative, which would be having a good death growl and then singing off-key. Regardless, it's not about the vocals; it's about the guitar work, which is stellar. Part prog-rock, part math-core, all amazing. I just hope it doesn't take another five years for the next record.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Jetpacks Was Yes!', 'Zyglrox'
1. The Ocean -- Heliocentric. It started innocently enough. 'Stream the new album from The Ocean!' I'd only heard of them a couple of times, but when a band feels strongly enough about a release to stream it beforehand, I'll always give it a listen. However, this may be the only streamed album that I immediately played again afterwards. They make so many interesting decisions that pay off for any open-minded listener. At times they sound like a more-orchestrated Isis, then they throw a couple of piano ballads at you (yes, you read that right). Yet, they're so good, I don't skip them. In fact, I don't skip anything on this record, and never have. I said 'open-minded listener' earlier because some fans of The Ocean's previous works aren't happy with 'Heliocentric'. I went back and picked up 'Precambrian' which is widely considered to be their magnum opus. It's a LOT heavier, so I get why some fans aren't happy, but it feels one-dimensional (especially since I heard it AFTER this one). I don't get how a fan can listen to this album and not appreciate it, even if it's vastly different. They're not trying to sell a million copies or guest-judge on some music game show; they're pushing themselves as artists. That's something I'll always support, even if I don't entirely like the end result. However, this end result is nothing short of incredible. You wanna know what was the capper? This band got me reading again. The lyrics on 'Heliocentric' draw from many different scientific and philosophical texts, asking questions about the birth of religion that beg for further contemplation. After doing some digging, I pulled the trigger on some book purchases. Because of this band, I've read Richard Dawkins and am currently getting through some Nietzsche. From someone who's had a video game controller glued to his hands for the past three years, that's quite an accomplishment. For all of these reasons, this was my favorite album of 2010.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Firmament', 'Metaphysics of the Hangman', 'The Origin of Species'
I was going to use this space to whine about how disappointed I was in the new Dillinger Escape Plan record, or how uninspired the new After the Burial sounds, but I won't do that(?). Instead, let's take the high road and talk about some upcoming 2011 releases that I can't wait for:
Devin Townsend Project
And I look forward to being surprised by some unexpected albums too. I'd barely heard of The Ocean at the start of the year, and that ended up working out nicely...