Friday, December 20, 2013

The Top XIII of 2013 (plus a few honourable and dishonourable mentions)

I've been a bit lax on the blog posts this year.  I blame this squarely on my employer, for reasons I've previously explained.  The 'best of 2013' list was always going to happen, though.  And here it is!

Seriously, there was a lot of great music released this year.  2011 was marginal, 2012 was very good, and 2013 was even better.  Most of my favourite bands released albums - if I was to make a list of my 15 favourite bands I think the only ones that didn't put anything new out from the studio this year would be Nevermore (who are now defunct), Testament (who released a live album), Overkill (who have announced a new album for next year), Foo Fighters, Iron Maiden and Metallica.

On that note, 2014 is already shaping up well with Sevendust set to release a new acoustic record, Testament and Overkill also set to drop new studio albums, Metallica also rumoured, and Foo Fighters recording a new one with Butch Vig at the controls (for god's sake boys, just for once make an album where the second half is as good as the first half!).

But before we get into the good stuff, here's a few disappointments:
Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt
Some great tracks (Sirens, in particular), but overall it's an album that struggles to hold my attention.  After Backspacer, I'm getting close to viewing Pearl Jam as a band with their best days behind them.  Still look to be a real force live though.

Megadeth - Supercollider
It's not as horrible as a lot of fans say.  It's just not particularly good, other than opening track Kingmaker, and it's a bit bland in a very un-Megadeth way (particularly given the talent of their current line-up).  Megadeth showed on Endgame that even this far into their career, they can still produce stunning thrash metal albums.  This is not one such album.

Dream Theater - Dream Theater
I really wanted to believe this band could still be a force without Mike Portnoy.  Unfortunately this album marries technical proficiency with approximately none of the melody and hooks that held it all together on their great albums.  Listen to the album-closing epic Illumination Theory, and it sounds fairly good, if a bit unremarkable.  Now listen to a Portnoy-era track like The Count of Tuscany, or Octavarium, or A Change of Seasons - and realise that this band used to be so much better, that they could string amazing epics together with great hooks that kept you completely hooked (excuse the pun) for 20+ minutes.  Sorry guys, time for you to call it a day.

On a slightly more cheerful note, a few honourable mentions that just missed the cut in a very good year:
Rob Zombie - Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor
The best album he's recorded in a long time - heavy, catchy, and quirky.

Airbourne - Black Dog Barking
OK so they're basically an imitation of AC/DC.  But they do it so well!

Monster Magnet - Last Patrol
Back to the future as Dave Wyndorf and co. produce an intriguing, psychedelic-tinged record that sounds more like what they did 20 years ago than what they've done more recently.

The Winery Dogs - The Winery Dogs
Great debut album from Mike Portnoy's new project with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan.  Strong classic rock influences, great interplay between the musicians, a good listen.

And without further ado, the Top XIII of 2013...

13. Five Finger Death Punch - The Wrong Side of Heaven and The Righteous Side of Hell Vols 1 & 2

So this band seems to get hated on in some quarters because they're something like the current generation's equivalent of nu-metal and they lack real credibility.  OK, so how many metal acts get guest spots from both Rob Halford and Max Cavalera?  Pretty sure that's credibility, right there.  Personally I prefer Volume 2 over Volume 1 - the former is generally more hard rocking and direct, but occasionally a little repetitive, whereas Volume 2 is a great listen throughout - better paced and balanced.

12. Endless Boogie - Long Island
I don't think there's another band around that can craft extended meandering rock jams like Endless Boogie.  Truly the foundation of this band is in the chops of steel possessed by their rhythm section who lay down unbelievably tight grooves throughout - only two tracks clock in at under nine minutes - for the guitars to layer over the top in all sorts of weird and wandering ways.  How a band can consistently write such long songs without ever getting boring is a source of marvel in itself.  And then just to break things up you have Taking Out the Trash and General Admission, which at a meagre 6 minutes each, and with plenty of fun shout-alongs, are probably the closest this band is ever likely to come to 'radio friendly' (i.e. not very).

11. Death Angel - The Dream Calls For Blood
Seminal thrash metal act releases classic record, disbands, then reforms 11 years later and produces a series of increasingly good albums.  Sounds unlikely.  But it is in fact true.  The Dream Calls for Blood sees Death Angel continuing a series of good albums with a further step up.  Aggressive, unrelenting and very much in the classic thrash metal vein.  To be blunt, on the strength of recent output in the last 5 years, the Big 4 of classic thrash metal should now be Testament, Overkill, Death Angel and Anthrax.  Metallica haven't put anything new out, Megadeth have been pretty uneven since the brilliant Endgame, and Slayer have not only not done much, they fired Dave Lombardo.  Enough said.

10. Deltron 3030 - Event 2
Dan the Automator and Del tha Funkee Homosapien reconvene 13 years on for a follow-up to 2000's cult classic Deltron 3030.  Of course it was never going to be quite the left-field, ground-breaking album that was.  But it's still a great listen, and opening track The Return alone justifies its existence.  No-one else around is producing quality hip-hop that sounds quite like this.

9. Vista Chino - Peace
After some tours as Kyuss Lives and some fights with people about names, John Garcia, Brant Bjork, Bruno Fevery and various bassists (including Nick Oliveri when he isn't having SWAT called out to his house for drug and gun benders) recorded an album called Peace and released it under the Vista Chino moniker.  With Garcia, in my opinion of the greatest rock vocalists of his generation, and Bjork in the fold it was always going to be worth checking out.  Solid stoner rock throughout, but the band takes things up a notch to awesome on Mas Vino, Dark and Lovely, and best of all, closing track Acidize... The Gambling Moose.

8. Sevendust - Black Out the Sun
This is a really good album, although I have to concede that a really good 13-track album could've been an amazing 11-track album.  Sevendust always deliver some gems on every record - in this case Mountain, Murder Bar, Decay, and Til Death.  And of course Faithless, which has one of the most stunning riffs this band has produced - and this is from a band responsible for countless great riffs.  There's a couple of filler tracks but I guess when there's this much quality on offer that's a small (and probably unfair) gripe.

7. Alter Bridge - Fortress
Ironically, the quietest 30 seconds of this album is the first 30 seconds, with a classical guitar introduction leading into the explosive Cry of Achilles (I dare you not to sing along with the chorus!).  The rest of that song really sets the tone for the album - bombastic, dialed to 11, and featuring some big hooks and stunning guitar solos. Although it's probably AB's hardest record yet, there are enough slower, melodic tracks like All Ends Well and Lover to provide a good balance.  Myles Kennedy confirms his reputation as about the only decent rock front man to emerge this century, and Mark Tremonti shreds like a beast.

6. Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
Pretty exciting news when Trent Reznor came out earlier in the year and said that not only had NIN been 'reactivated', but also that a new NIN album was finished and would be released in September.  It's definitely a change from the tight verse/big chorus approach that NIN adopted on Year Zero and to a lesser extent The Slip.  Skittery, sparse and with barely a shouted word, it almost owes more to Pretty Hate Machine than it does to its recent predecessors.  It's hard not to be excited when it provides moments like Copy of A and All Time Low which sound like Mr. Reznor is very reinvigorated indeed.  There's a couple of dud tracks but overall a worthy addition to the NIN discography.

5. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
With Josh Homme fresh after a long layoff, and Dave Grohl back on the kit for the first time since 2002's brilliant Songs for the Deaf, I expected a hard-rocking QOTSA album.  This is not what we got.  Instead we got a brooding, melodic, moody thing which sounds almost nothing like their earlier material.  But there's something so darkly infectious about this album that it's impossible not to be sucked in.  It's a very hard album to put down.

4. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
This, people, is hip-hop.  You can forget all your deluded, big-ego high-rollers like Kanye and Jay-Z.  El-P and Killer Mike are generally snarling, occasionally absurd and consistently excellent throughout Run the Jewels' lean, mean 10 tracks and 33 minutes.  This is the sound of two talented guys, both at the top of their game, joining forces to create something even better (also it's the only album on Pitchfork's Top 50 of 2013 I own, which is most definitely a good thing).

3. Alice in Chains - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
A worthy follow-up to the band's outstanding re-introduction on Black Gives Way to Blue.  It's not always an easy listen (12 tracks spanning 67 minutes should give you some idea) although admittedly AIC and 'easy listening' are somewhat foreign concepts.  But it winds its way through a lot of territory with a great deal of finesse: fairly direct rockers (Hollow, and the huge Stone), snarling, swirling numbers (Pretty Done, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, Hung On A Hook), acoustic groovers (Voices, Scalpel), and best of all, the huge epic Phantom Limb, one of the best tracks AIC have written.  As a start to finish listen, it's hard work, but a great journey.

2. Testament - Dark Roots of Thrash
OK, so it's a live album and not a studio album, but it is extremely good.  Testament have already produced two very good live albums - this one is better.  Individually and as a unit, this band is better than they've ever been - I said earlier their recent studio output is better than most of the so-called Big 4 and this is the evidence that the same is true of them as a live band.  The setlist is almost perfect too - there are great performances of great songs spanning Testament's entire career from The Legacy through to Dark Roots of Earth.  About the only complaint is the absence of Electric Crown, but that's a minor gripe.  I cannot wait to catch these guys at Soundwave in February.

1. Clutch - Earth Rocker
Don't even pretend this was a surprise.  Everyone knows I am an enormous fan of Maryland's finest.  Anyway Metal Hammer (UK) thought so too, so it isn't just me.  Drawing upon classic rock and roll influences, Clutch have crafted an album that is great even by their own discography's consistently high standards.  Earth Rocker sees them in full throttle rock mode, eschewing the (intriguing) quirkiness of Strange Cousins for the West and the blues influences of From Beale Street to Oblivion.  Whether it's the harmonica-led grooves of DC Sound Attack, the vivid lyricism of The Face, the brilliant chorus of Earth Rocker,  or the imposing closing track The Wolfman Kindly Requests, Clutch absolutely nail it on every song on this record.  Singer and lyricist Neil Fallon is in typically fine form, producing gems such as:

"You wanna know my political persuasion? Well sugar, I howl at the moon."  

As you'd expect there's plenty of subtle musical detail throughout, particularly from drummer JP Gaster, but one of the album's cleverest touches is placing the slow bluesy, groover Gone Cold at the halfway point - which is the perfect time to catch one's aural breath between the thunderous bursts of rock that occupy the rest of the album.  Overall, a fantastic record from a fantastic band.

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