Well, it's December, and we all know what that means. It means this is the time to start releasing our best-of-the-year lists. Before I start mine, I'd like to make a few notes:
- I did not do a very good job this year of keeping up with new releases, so it's quite possible that I missed out on a number of albums that deserve "Top 10" status. I can't rank what I haven't heard yet, though, so these are the top 10 albums from 2011 that I've heard.
- This list is just my personal opinion, so when you see that releases by groups like Mastodon got left off, don't freak out about it. I'm not claiming they're bad by excluding them, I'm just saying that they didn't do much for me personally.
- You'll notice that the genre distribution is not terribly balanced. To be fair, I'm not crazy about power metal, and only a handful of thrash groups interest me. There may well be many great releases this year in those genres, but I don't follow them closely enough to be a good source of information on them. Death metal, on the other hand, is a genre I really enjoy. Unfortunately, it didn't produce much that really stood out to me this year, though I guess I could give honorable mentions to the newest releases by Vomitory and Autopsy. As such, for me this was a year dominated by pagan/folk/viking and sludge/stoner/doom.
Alright, time for the list.
TOP 10 METAL ALBUMS OF 2011
10. Opeth - Heritage
I was a little torn over this album. On the one hand, I love Opeth and I love that they are willing to experiment and expand their sound. On the other hand, the end result of this particular experiment was not one of their best efforts. The weird, proggy developments and lack of death vocals made this an unusual release. It was still interesting, and there were some excellent moments here and there, but considering the strength of their back catalog, this record simply settled to the middle. That's still good enough to make my personal Top 10, just barely.
9. Moonsorrow - Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa
Another good-but-not-great release by one of my favorite bands. This one was not weird, though. It just didn't do much that other Moonsorrow albums haven't done already. These Finns are probably the best viking metal band on the market, and I don't really have much to say about this album other than that if you like Moonsorrow or just epic viking metal in general, you will probably like this.
8. Weedeater - Jason... the Dragon
These sludge/stoner doomsters are like a great, lumbering beast. This time around they produced something a little slower and more druggy than their last album. It's not them at their harshest, but the deep, fuzzy grooves make for some fun listening.
7. Amon Amarth - Surtur Rising
I'll assume that anybody who likes metal enough to read this list already knows who Amon Amarth are. I also assume that if you're familiar with this pack of Swedes, you already know what this album sounds like. With that in mind, there's not much reason to describe this record. As an aside, this was the only death metal release to make this list.
6. Kroda - Schwarzpfad
The Nazi-esque politics of this Ukrainian pagan metal outfit make mass appeal somewhat improbable. However, their music is brilliant and I highly recommend this album to anybody who enjoys black/pagan/viking/folk metal. The songs are all long, with just 5 tracks in 50-minutes, and they tend to start slow and mellow before building to heights of cold northern hostility and then returning to quieter passages. The hard/soft dynamic is not unusual in long metal tracks, but Kroda handle it better than most bands in my opinion.
5. Cruachan - Blood on the Black Robe
This Irish band produces some of the most genuine-sounding Celtic metal you'll ever find. With this release, they opted for a much heavier approach than on their previous albums that I've heard. The folk instruments are still present and this is still clearly Celtic folk metal, but for all those listeners who feel that folk metal allows those elements to sap all the harshness from the music, this should be a pleasant surprise.
4. Wizard's Beard - Pure Filth
Who knew a group from England could sound so much like they belonged in a deep southern swamp? On their debut album, Wizard's Beard have created a brilliant slab of sludgy doom that sounds like a cross between Weedeater and a pissed badger. This is heavy, hostile, and infectious in the extreme. It's also my favorite surprise find of the year, despite its rather short run-time. I'm really excited to hear more from these guys in the future.
3. Gernotshagen - Weltenbrand
Yet another entry from the pagan/folk/viking metal sphere, this time from Germany. I had thoroughly enjoyed their previous release, but by adding more melodic structure and variety this time around, I feel that they outdid themselves. Multiple vocal styles, tempos, and song lengths help keep things fresh without ever disturbing the flow of the record. This album also expertly balances the harshness of black metal with the catchiness of folk.
2. Witch Mountain - South of Salem
I don't like female metal vocalists, so when a female fronted metal band captivates my attention, it's something special. Portland's stoner metal outfit Witch Mountain have succeeded in doing just that with their newest release. The heavy, groove-laden music contrasts wonderfully with the clean female vocals, creating a sound that at times borders on bluesy. It's an excellent, though not conventional sounding, album. Those who like some variety in their collections should really look into this.
1. Primordial - Redemption at the Puritan's Hand
After I brought this album home, I couldn't stop listening to it for about 3 weeks. That alone stands testament to the quality of this release. I've long been passingly familiar with these somewhat un-folksy Irish Celtic folk metallers, but it wasn't until I bought this album that I finally gave them a real listen. I was impressed. The gritty vocals which had always grated on me when I'd heard bits of them previously really hit a sweet spot for me on this record, and I came to realize why fans always cite them as Primordial's standout feature. In the end, I got more enjoyment from this album than anything else I heard released in 2011, and that's why Redemption at the Puritan's Hand is my selection as the top metal album of the year.