By Andrew Bansal
Out of all the articles I write, list-based articles are the most time consuming to write, and are the least appreciated. But I simply love making these lists, and my favorite has always been the year-end list of best albums. Even though today is November 29th and the year hasn’t ended yet, I feel it’s appropriate for me to do this now, because firstly I’ve already heard all of the albums that are scheduled for release in the month of December, and secondly, December looks like a very busy month in my calendar, so I’d rather do this now while I have ample time to give it proper thought and do it complete justice.
I’ve heard a lot more music than I did in 2010, so I feel I’m in a much better position to give you a year-end list. Just to clarify, I have not considered EPs, demos and re-releases for the list. I have also not taken into account albums that didn’t see a 2011 US release even if they were released in other parts of the world, simply because I didn’t get to listen to those albums.
So without further ado, here’s my list of 20 albums I picked as the best albums of the year 2011, starting from #20 and going down to #1.
#20. Chthonic – Takasago Army: If you’ve followed my website at all, you know by now that I’m not a huge fan of tr00 black metal, but I do appreciate and enjoy music that’s a variation of black metal in some way, shape or form. This year, Taiwanese metal warriors Chthonic excelled at giving me that something extra, with Takasago Army. Aside from being dark and extreme, the album exudes a strong oriental vibe, and through the use of traditional Taiwanese instruments, they add a unique dimension to the music. Highly recommended for any and every extreme metal fan.
#19. Red Fang – Murder The Mountains: When it comes to stoner metal, this album truly stood out for me. Even though it was released in the early part of the year, not many albums in this sub-genre really came close to topping it. The music comes across as smooth and heavy, while the raw production captures the essence of the sound they pursue to create. Songs like “Painted Parade”, “Wires” and “Dirt Wizard” are some of the most enjoyable tunes I’ve heard all year, and in a live setting, the band takes it to a whole another level, unlike some other stoner bands who are better known but simply can’t pull it off live.
#18. Havok – Time Is Up: I’ve been tracking the progress of these guys for a while now, and with whatever they do, they never disappoint me. Their latest album certainly surpasses their debut effort “Burn” and gives the listener 42 minutes of fast, aggressive, exuberant and technically proficient thrash metal. As a fan of this sub-genre, it’s near-impossible to not enjoy this album. Right from the opening track “Prepare To Attack” to the closing moments of the title song, this one is a pure rager.
#17. Warbringer – Worlds Torn Asunder: This was an album I was really looking forward to. Warbringer have been getting better and better with every studio album, and this one proves that fact. It’s their third release, and their most aggressive, musically well-rounded effort. John Kevill’s vocals are filled to the brim with ferociousness, while John Laux and Adam Carroll have put together some blistering guitar work. And with Carlos Cruz on drums, the rhythm section is better than ever. Tunes like “Living Weapon” and “Shattered Like Glass” give it a breathtaking start, and the intensity never subsides. This album met my expectations.
#16. Opeth – Heritage: Swedish progressive metal masters Opeth are easily one of my favorite bands. Looking at it purely as a musical composition, I enjoy Heritage. The reason it’s so low down in my ranking is because while there are a couple of songs I absolutely love, like “Slither” and “Folklore”, the rest of the album is just too random, too spacey, and doesn’t quite hold my attention. But Mikael Akerfeldt and co. deserve to be in my top 20 with this album simply because they dared to do something out of the norm, and didn’t repeat themselves. It takes a high level of creative talent for a band to be able to come up with an hour of music which sounds like nothing they’ve previously done, and Opeth succeed at that.
#15. Megadeth – Th1rt3en: A Megadeth release is always exciting, even if it comes sooner than expected. Despite the fact that they couldn’t do any kind of justice to their previous album Endgame on their recent touring cycle, the band went into the studio this summer and finished this album in a mere two months. It’s a solid release, and a great one considering the turnaround time. It’s a set of songs pretty much all Megadeth fans are enjoying, myself included. The thing I love most about it is the mid-90s Megadeth vibe it carries for the most part, resulting from the re-working of some of those hidden gems. There is nothing wrong with the album, at all. It’s at #15 simply because of 14 albums released this year that I feel are better than Megadeth’s Th1rt3en.
#14. Abysmal Dawn – Leveling The Plane Of Existence: This is the band’s third album, and certainly one that takes the listener by storm. Boasting of boundless amounts of brutality, Abysmal Dawn has done the Los Angeles metal scene proud with this crushing release. Unlike a few other death metal albums, the music here isn’t one-dimensional by any means, and each song has its own identity. When played live, it literally does justice to its title, and tears venues apart. If you’re a death metal fan, I am almost certain you’ve already been basking in the ear-splitting glory of this album. If you haven’t heard it, you owe it to yourself to do so.
#13. Septicflesh – The Great Mass: This is one release that took me completely by surprise purely because of how good it sounded when I first heard it. And I heard it again, many times. The feeling didn’t disappear. Greek metal bands like Septicflesh and Rotting Christ have always had something about their music that draws me towards it, but even then, I didn’t expect this album to be as good as this. The music is not only theatrical, it’s amazingly dark and melodic, with an exotic touch that you can only expect from a Greek band. Tunes like “Rising”, “Apocalypse”, “Five-Pointed Star” exemplify the beauty and menace this album possesses. An unmissable release.
#12. Amon Amarth – Surtur Rising: Swedish melodic death metal giants Amon Amarth released their eight studio album, and this is not only an album I’ve listened to plenty of times this year, but also had the pleasure of hearing live twice, as the band played it in its entirety at their Hollywood and Anaheim shows. Johan Hegg’s beast-like vocals are as brutal as ever, and his band mates don’t disappoint with the music either. It has an excellent flow to it, and once you hit ‘play’ on the first track, it’s pretty hard to stop it without listening to the whole thing. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of most highly enjoyable releases of the year, but just like Megadeth did with their new album, Amon Amarth took the safe route on this one and didn’t offer anything they’ve not done before, and that’s why it’s not higher than #12.
#11. Obscura – Omnivium: I thought it would be hard for Obscura to top what they did with their 2009 release “Cosmogenesis”, but the Germans proved me wrong and came up with this fantastic album. From start to finish, Omnivium thrills and delights the listener. The band has carried on from where they left off with the previous album, and broken new ground with tracks like “Concerto”, which present a new side of their musicianship. This album definitely offers more than Cosmogenesis and Retribution while it keeps fans extremely satisfied. A splendid album, without a doubt.
#10. Saviours – Death’s Procession: Definitely one of the most impressive albums of the year, Saviours’ fourth studio release Death’s Procession left me amazed, stunned and thoroughly pleased. If you want to know what “metal heaven” feels like, just listen to the song “Gods End”. Besides that one, the album offers delightful tunes like “Cret’n” and “Fire Of Old”, specially the latter as it somewhat reminds me of early Maiden. In fact, every song is a gem in its own right, and there isn’t even a single moment of mediocrity on this glorious release. Pure awesomeness. Enough said.
#9. Symphony X – Iconoclast: Whenever Michael Romeo announces that he is composing new music, I wait with bated breath. Symphony X’s previous release “Paradise Lost” came out in 2007, which was a long time ago, and the onus was on Romeo and co. to deliver with this release. They did that with emphatic success. Iconoclast is a breathtaking, mind-blowing, eargasmic hour of music that left me speechless. Other than Romeo’s expectedly genius-like work on the guitar, Russell Allen did a superb job on vocals, and paid the ultimate tribute to his hero Ronnie James Dio by putting in a performance that’s almost as good as the great legend himself. Obviously, I would want the band to release another new album soon, but even if they don’t, it’s all good, because I know for sure that I’ll be listening to Iconoclast for years to come.
#8. Iced Earth – Dystopia: This year, Iced Earth underwent a change in vocalist and brought Into Eternity’s Stu Block to replace the departing Matt Barlow, who announced his retirement. This album marks the beginning of a new chapter for the band, and a lot rested on it. I don’t agree with any of the so-called critics, detractors and haters in their opinion of this album, because I absolutely love it. Stu does a commendable job on the vocals and manages to combine the characteristics of both Matt Barlow and Tim Ripper Owens’ singing styles. Guitarist and musical mastermind Jon Schaffer also doesn’t disappoint, and comes up with music that not only suits the new vocalist but also keeps up with what the fans like to hear from the band. But for a change, they’ve released a compact 45-minute album as opposed to some of their epic compositions of the recent past, and I’m really appreciating that. It’s one of the finest heavy metal albums of the year. The Symphony X album is technically better, but Iced Earth beats it due to the good old fist-pumping metal it possesses in plenty.
#7. Lazarus A.D. – Black Rivers Flow: I’m not lying when I say that this is the album I was most eagerly anticipating at the beginning of the year. Ever since I heard the band’s first album “The Onslaught” and saw them perform some of it live for the first time, I was an instant fan. After seeing them perform a number of times after that, I was hungry for more music from them, and as soon as they released Black Rivers Flow in early 2011, I jumped on it. I had enough confidence in their abilities to know in advance that it would be a great album, but what I heard was way, way better than expected. With this tremendous effort, they broke into new territory, mainly due to guitarist Dan Gapen’s clean vocals. True, it’s not as fast as the debut album, not as thrashy, but that’s totally fine with me. I love how heavy and musically rich it is. “American Dreams” gives it the perfect start, and it never looks back from then on. Black Rivers Flow is right up there with the best music released in 2011.
#6. Skeletonwitch – Forever Abomination: One of my favorite bands, Skeletonwitch have given me plenty of jizzworthy moments with their music in the past, and I expected the same from them with this release. They kept intact the musical elements they’ve been known for, but outdid themselves by coming up with their darkest and most aggressive album till date. It simply grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. New drummer Dustin Boltjes seamlessly fits right in, and every other member of the band has raised his individual level of musicianship. The five of them have combined together to create an incredibly impressive end result. They have proved that they will never cease to amaze me.
#5. Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn Of Events: There is no doubt that progressive metal veterans Dream Theater exceeded everyone’s expectations with this release. Most fans thought that drummer and co-founding member Mike Portnoy’s departure was going to weaken the songwriting, and the album would be sub-par. That was far from the case, as the band came up with their best release in a long time. This album is pure delight to the ears, and has been frequently spinning on my turntable ever since it released. It’s filled with endless amounts of sheer musical goodness. I don’t have any favorite songs on this one, because everything is pristinely amazing. A Dramatic Turn Of Evens is the richest, cleanest, most well-rounded albums I’ve heard not only in 2011, but in a long time.
#4. Graveyard – Hisingen Blues: Graveyard released their second album this year, one that gave me a feeling of absolute bliss. The music reminds me of my favorite band of all time, Led Zeppelin, and the combination of that old-school 60s and 70s blues rock with a strong European flavor makes this a memorable effort. I can draw comparisons to Zeppelin not only in terms of the music itself, but also because of how well the album ebbs and flows. It’s a true “album”, much in the same vein as the album-oriented rock of the 60s and 70s. The albums ranked lower than Graveyard’s Hisingen Blues in my list might be technically richer, but I always look for that something unique, something refreshing, and Graveyard is one of the answers. The music varies between heavy rock to blues rock to psychedelic rock, but everything makes complete sense. Hisingen Blues is simply out of this world.
#3. Danava – Hemisphere Of Shadows: Danava’s third studio album Hemisphere Of Shadows completely shocked me and left me in utter disbelief. It came out in October, I couldn’t stop listening then, and I can’t stop listening to it even now. Every time I listen to it, it takes me to a whole another planet altogether, and this happens without any usage of marijuana-based products. It recreates the early 70s bluesy heavy metal vibe that was started by the one and only Black Sabbath, but Danava does it their own way. Their music has such a strong retro feel to it, it almost takes you back in time. Frontman Gregory Meleney lays down vocals that go perfectly with what he does on lead guitar, and to add further, he switches to the synth for a few segments. To me, the use of the synth is the most endearing quality of the music, one that separates it from the rest of the pack. Danava’s new album is one of the best things to have happened to metal in 2011.
#2. Anthrax – Worship Music: No band was under more pressure than Anthrax this year, with the release of their long-awaited tenth studio album Worship Music, an album that was in the making since as far back as 2003. Finally, it saw a release, and thankfully, it did not turn out to be another Chinese Democracy. I think it’s pretty safe to say, the album rocked everyone’s socks off, and garnered unanimous approval from anyone and everyone who heard it. Joey Belladonna’s return to the band has proved to be a major triumph, as he has given the best vocal performance of his career. Musically, the album is heavy and catchy, and encapsulates both the old-school and modern sides of Anthrax’s musicianship. It’s the kind of album that turns haters into fans, that’s how good it is. I find it impossible to nit-pick and point out anything bad about this album, but I just wish it was a little bit shorter. If it had ended with “Judas Priest”, it would have been my number 1. But aside from that, Worship Music simply blows everything away, and leaves listeners with a huge smile of satisfaction.
#1. Machine Head – Unto The Locust: And lastly, Machine Head’s seventh studio album Unto The Locust is my choice for the best album of the year. I strongly feel that the band outdid anything and everything they did in the past, and I’m sorry to say, but I completely disagree with anyone who says that The Blackening is a better album. On this album, frontman Robb Flynn has done things he has never done before, vocally and on guitar. His bandmates Phil Demmel on the second guitar, Dave McClain on drums and Adam Duce on bass have raised their game as well, and collectively they’ve hit a creative peak with these tunes. Production-wise, it’s flawless. You might think that it’s an obvious thing for a band as big as Machine Head to make a well-produced album, but quite often with bands even bigger than them, it’s not the case. Ask Metallica. So I’m glad Machine Head have given us an album that not only boasts of great songwriting, but is also great-sounding. I cannot wait to see what impact these songs have when the band plays them live on their upcoming headline tour, but I expect it to sound even better, even more mind-blowing than on the record. All in all, Unto The Locust succeeded in pleasing my metal ears more than anything else that was released in 2011.