My 2015 In Music: Highs, Lows, and Shows

It’s my yearly installment of a whole bunch of shit you ain’t gonna read! Cue up Huey Lewis and the News, cause it’s about to get all Patrick Bateman up in here. But anyway, this is the music I dug this year, the music that let me down, and whatever else fell in between. Here goes!

The Top Ten

1. Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
It was honestly really hard for me to pick a number one album this year, or even a top five of any sort. But OPN gets the top spot for one very good reason: Garden of Delete is the most challenging, boundary-pushing album I’ve heard all year. Few albums ever give me that rare “what the hell is this and why do I like it?” feeling like Garden of Delete’s blend of angular, distorted synths, schizophrenic bursts of noise, and oddly melodic samples and robotic vocals did. It’s an album that refuses to stay in any one place for more than a minute, drawing in influences as far reaching as ambient and drone, dance music, rock, even industrial and metal, and yet somehow managing to make sense of it all. These disparate influences aren’t used as a way of showing off OPN’s production skill or as some hipster display of his own music taste either, they’re put to use as the building blocks of interesting songs and melodies – something that quite often falls by the wayside. No matter what genre you might claim as your favorite, I think Garden of Delete has something to offer you, and if you like being challenged by new sounds, it’s my highest recommendation of the year.
2. Death Grips – The Powers That B
Last year was an odd year for Death Grips. Within a month, they dropped their most esoteric and labyrinthine slab of music yet, Niggas on the Moon, “broke up” (but not really), and announced that that album was actually the first disc of a yet-to-be-finished double album. Well, that album was finally completed this year, with the March release of Jenny Death. Jenny Death is the polar opposite of its first half – where NOTM was built upon layers of skittering drums, vocal samples, and introspective lyrics, Jenny Death brings the aggression back in full force. This album finds the band incorporating more of a hard rock sound into their trademark blistering electronics, introducing psychedelic guitar riffs and crushing live drums to amplify their sound to the point of constant, audible distortion. And where NOTM found vocalist Stefan Burnett looking inwards, here he projects outwards, raging at the world and using that anger to try and cover up his own crippling depression instead of being consumed by it. When taken as a whole, it creates a thematic contrast between both halves of the album, and musically it presents the most evolved and intelligent version of the band yet. That, and there’s no better song to break in a new set of speakers with than the title track, “The Powers That B”.
3. Periphery – Juggernaut: Alpha and Omega
Periphery’s evolution as a band has been pretty interesting to watch. What once started as a one-man bedroom project has grown into a full-fledged creative force, with all six of its members having an equal, yet different, influence in the music it writes. And there’s no clearer example of that force than on Juggernaut, the band’s first concept album. Where once the band had a tendency to try and pack too many ideas into one song, here the songwriting is streamlined and purposeful, aiming to evoke a specific emotion or sound instead of showing off technical chops, while still retaining each member’s voice. There’s big pop choruses, bright electronics, crushing drop tuned 8 string riffs, progressive song structures, and brooding instrumentals that all combine to tell a single story with a range of emotion. It’s quite possibly the band’s best music yet, and having a concept behind it to dive into and puzzle out makes it even more rewarding to listen to over and over again.
4. Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic
BTBAM is a band that fell off for me, hard. After their landmark album Colors, each new album felt like another, lesser iteration of that sound, and it was losing steam fast. Possibly sensing that themselves, they took a left turn with their sound on Coma Ecliptic into entirely new territory. While their progressive metal elements will always be there, Coma Ecliptic finds itself rooted much more strongly in the prog music of the 70s, featuring just as many synth lead lines as guitar riffs. And on top of that, vocalist Tommy Rogers has finally stepped his game up to the point of being able to carry most of a song with his clean vocals, rather than his one note growls. It’s a refreshing change to hear the band’s music buoyed just as much by melodic vocals AND crushing growls, instead of just a moment or two of singing, and it’s a change that makes this new batch of songs instantly memorable and catchy. It’s the first time in years that a BTBAM album has truly surprised me, and what a good feeling it is to be surprised.
5. The Dear Hunter – Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
Simply put, there’s no other band out there that makes music quite like The Dear Hunter does. Of a certain kin with Coheed and Cambria, the bulk of the music is conceptual, telling one long story across several albums. And after taking a break from that concept to explore other sounds, Rebirth in Reprise finds them taking all those things they’ve explored and using them to make an even better record. From the start, this album is lush with string arrangements, layered vocals, grand soundscapes, and sticky melodies. At their catchiest, they write huge pop tunes like Waves or King of Swords, and at their most progressive, they write sprawling epics like A Night On the Town. That term ‘epic’ may have been horribly misused at the turn of this decade, but The Dear Hunter is truly deserving of it, because they’re capable of telling a story just as much with the music as they do with the lyrics. If you want to hear something refreshing, layered, and gorgeous all at the same time, you want to give this album a spin.
6. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
While I’m on the subject of big changes in sound, I can’t leave out Kendrick. After showing the world his talent as a storyteller and a wordsmith on 2012’s Good Kid, Mad City, To Pimp a Butterfly shows him taking not just one step from there, but a couple dozen further. This album is built upon a hypnotic blend of free jazz, funk, and soul, completely sidestepping pretty much any sort of “banger” beat you’d find on most of 2015’s hip hop releases. The music is dense and huge in scope, and boasts an all star cast of musicians and producers, from Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, and Dr. Dre. But all that would be for nothing if it wasn’t backed up by great lyrics, and that’s where Kendrick truly shines. TPAB tackles a broad range of social, racial, personal and political issues, tying it all together with a poem that details his own struggles with fame, influence, and success, and thus grounding all these issues in the realities of his own life. Any way you look at it, it’s a modern classic.
7. Bring Me the Horizon – That’s the Spirit
As much as I hate to admit it, I think I’m officially a fan of BMTH. After 2013’s excellent Sempiternal, which found the band maturing into their metal sound while expanding it with melody and texture, 2015 finds the band deciding to take the world by storm – and somehow succeeding. That’s the Spirit is, by pretty much any definition, a pop rock album. Gone are the metal and deathcore influences of their past, as well as much of the screaming, too. Instead, Oli’s learned to sing, and the band’s learned not to rely on drop tuned chugs, and they end up defying all expectations you might have for the band that once penned “Pray for Plagues”. But while they may have traded much of their old sound for a much more polished, melodic, and even a little calculated one, the reason this album succeeds is because it still has heart. The lyrics tackle Oli’s issues with addiction and depression, and how embracing your problems and wearing them like armor can help you through to the other side. But even besides all that, these songs are just ridiculously catchy – just try getting “Throne” or “Happy Song” out of your head for the next day or two after hearing it.
8. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature
I first fell in love with Silversun Pickups because they were like a more subtle, more pretty version of Smashing Pumpkins. They brought the same sort of dreamy, fuzzed out riffs and airy vocals that even the Pumpkins hadn’t delivered in years, but without any of the cringey angst or hamfisted-ness they were capable of. But as time went on, they evolved away from that, dropping much of their guitars in favor of electronic elements and empty space, and it was a hard change for me to adjust to. But with their newest record, Better Nature, they’re found an equilibrium between guitars and electronics that leaves their trademark sound intact. Better Nature has more edge than its predecessor, Neck of the Woods, but it’s also prettier and mellower, sometimes opting for the obvious melodies and sometimes exploring a texture instead. And it’s all tied together with the band’s penchant for writing inherently ear-grabbing music, no matter which of those two things they’re doing, making this album a great next step for the band.
9. Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun
I mentioned Coheed earlier while talking about The Dear Hunter’s record, and here they are again. Coheed is another band that’s taken multiple albums to tell a sprawling story, but in their case, it was just as much to cover up their singer’s own insecurities as it was to actually tell that story. So this time around, Coheed switched things up and decided to drop the concept entirely for this album, and to put singer Claudio Sanchez’s real life at the front and center. The result is their most heartfelt, down to earth album yet, ditching much of the space opera sound they built their name on in favor of simpler, easier arrangements. Much of the music is bright and bouncy, evoking memories of their poppiest songs (“A Favor House Atlantic”, “The Suffering”) while keeping things feeling fresh and energetic. But the lyrics are a bit darker, detailing the conflicts and fears that come with reaching middle age and starting a family, yet eventually finding the security and meaning that comes from it. Who knew real life could be the most interesting story of all, huh?
10. Clutch – Psychic Warfare
You could call Clutch dad rock. Because they definitely are. But no other rock band in America does dad rock quite like Clutch does – while a lot of rock bands opt to drench their music in irony, Clutch doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word. For years they’ve been pumping out tough, hard hitting, kick ass rock n’ roll music and they mean every damn note of it. Psychic Warfare is no different, as it finds Clutch picking up where they left off on Earth Rocker. Dropping most of their stoner rock influences, Clutch instead take us through a gritty southern-fried romp through tales of no good women, monsters from another world, and good old fashioned mind control. Clutch is one of those bands that you know exactly what you’re gonna get every time they put out new music, yet for some reason, it just never gets old.

Honorable Mentions

Tesseract – Polaris
Polaris shows original vocalist Dan Tompkins returning to the fold after a 3 year break. In the meantime, the band has honed their songwriting from the sometimes amorphous lumps of riffs present on their first and second albums into something more approachable, giving each song it’s own distinct character. Combine that with Dan’s growth as a vocalist and you get Polaris, an album that can be atmospheric, heavy, and soft without forcing any of it. My only real complaint is that it could’ve been a song or two longer, but hey, it is what it is.
Tricot – A N D
Tricot is one of the best rock bands out there right now, not just in their homeland of Japan, but in the world. Their music takes elements of math rock – that is, odd time signatures, unique chord voicings, and distinctive rhythms – and combines it with the best elements of J-Rock and J-Pop. The result is a band that can rock hard, lay on the technical guitar chops, and write hugely catchy choruses all in the same song, without ceding any ground to typical rock cliches. And did I mention they’re all girls?
The Armed – Untitled
There’s not a whole lot to say about The Armed. They’re ferociously heavy, they play at breakneck tempos, and they can somehow infuse melody into all that chaos. Untitled is only their second full-length record in 6 years, but it’s well worth the wait – from start to finish, there’s rarely a moment to breathe, with each successive song finding another way to punch you in the gut. And you can get punched in the gut totally free at thearmed.bandcamp.com.
Babymetal – Babymetal
This is an honorable mention because technically, it came out last year – it just wasn’t released in America until this year. Babymetal is the guilty pleasure of all guilty pleasures, slamming heavy metal and Japanese idol pop together without any regard for the consequences. It’s catchy, it’s fun, you can dance AND mosh to it, and you can do it without understanding a single damned word in the process. Just do what the Fox God says, man.
Good Tiger – A Head Full of Moonlight
Good Tiger was formed out of the ashes of The Safety Fire, an excellent progressive metal band that ended far too soon. Recruiting former Tesseract vocalist Elliot Coleman, they continue on The Safety Fire’s sound with a slight twist. Coleman brings a soulful, almost RnB sort of sound to the band’s knotty technical riffs, opening up interesting melodic doors for the band that weren’t once there. It’s a short listen at a little under 40 minutes, but as far as debut albums go, it’s packed with potential, and I can’t wait to hear more from them.
Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Deafheaven made their name on the unique blend of shoegaze and black metal they presented on 2013’s Sunbather, but they knew they couldn’t just recreate that album for the follow up. Instead, New Bermuda shifts things more towards a metalcore influence, dropping the long ambient passages and focusing more on hard hitting riffs and pure aggression. They still bring a lot of texture to the music, but New Bermuda just feels a lot different than its predecessor, with more varied vocals and more focus on keeping things uptempo and energetic.
Foo Fighters – Saint Cecilia EP
I’m actually pleasantly surprised by this EP. Sonic Highways was a huge letdown for me, since the band had a chance to incorporate new sounds and influences and wasted it instead. But on this new EP, instead of walking that bland middle of the road sound they walked on Sonic Highways, this EP sounds much more like the classic Foo Fighters stuff. And if I can’t see them grow as artists and try new things, I’ll at least take something that’s a shade on the classic sound I first fell in love with from them.

The Disappointments

Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
I’ve been a fan of Modest Mouse for about 6 years now. I love just about all of their albums, but in the time that I’ve been a fan, I’ve never seen them actually release something new. The band took a sort of almost-hiatus in the 8 years between We Were Dead… and this new release, and expectations were high. Instead, Strangers to Ourselves finds the band having not evolved in the slightest in that time, mailing in a collection of songs that sounds less like a complete album and more like just that – a collection of random songs. I really liked this album on my first few listens, but it just didn’t hold up, and in the end there were only a few really songs worth keeping on it (“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, “Sugar Boats”, “Lampshades on Fire”, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”). Otherwise, Strangers is a very middle of the road album from a band that used to be very insistent on pushing their boundaries and making statements, and as such, it’s a let down.
Muse – Drones
Muse have been bad longer than they were good at this point. After a foray into cheesy Queen worship and overabundant keyboards in the past few years, Drones marked their return to the guitar based music of their roots. But even bringing guitars back can’t save them at this point: Drones finds the band succumbing to every arena rock cliche in the book, from overblown “epic” songs, obvious attempts at pop hits, recycled riffs, and godawful lyrics about Big Brother. Matt Bellamy has become the musical equivalent of a teenage kid typing a rant about the evil government on Facebook, and the rest of the band couldn’t seem to care less about stopping him – or ever writing a great song again.
Cloudkicker – Woum
I hate to be hard on Cloudkicker, because Ben Sharp is one of my favorite musicians, but Woum did nothing for me outside of being pleasant background music. The fun part about following Cloudkicker is that you never know what to expect from each new release, but once in a while that comes with a downside, too. Woum is a nice, warm listen, but it doesn’t have much in the way of actual songs or memorable melodies. I’m happy to hear artists explore new musical directions, but only as long as there’s great songs to back them up, and that just didn’t happen here.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Sweet, Asunder, and Other Distress
This is another album that I liked a lot initially. But the more I listened to it as a whole, the more its 20 minute drone midsection wore on me, until I eventually stopped listening to it altogether. The two main movements of the album stand right alongside the rest of the band’s material in terms of quality, but as a full piece of work, it unfortunately falls apart in the middle.
Chrvches – Leave a Trace
I liked Chrvches debut album. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was a nice little slab of well-crafted synth pop that didn’t overstay its welcome. But the problem with their newest effort is, well…it’s the exact same thing. There’s pretty much no measurable artistic growth between the two albums, outside of maybe slightly glossier production on this new record. And since I’m already familiar with The Bones of What You Believe, I can’t really see myself taking the time to familiarize myself with another album of the same thing.

Non-2015 Releases I Discovered in 2015

Brand New
Man, I am so late on this band. But within the past two months, I absolutely fell in love with Deja Entendu, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, and Daisy. There’s a distinct core of sadness and anger that runs through their music that I’m an absolute sucker for, and Jesse Lacey is a brilliant lyricist. So, even though I’m over a decade late on discovering these guys, I’m so glad I did.
letlive.
letlive. is my other big discovery of the year. Their first album, Fake History, is one of the best heavy albums I’ve ever heard. They somehow manage to take these intense moments of pure aggression and combine them with poppy elements, social commentary, and even a bit of soul in Jason’s vocal delivery, and that makes for a really unique mix. On top of that, their live energy is unprecedented, with the band giving such intense performances night after night that you wonder how Jason hasn’t been killed yet.

Concerts

Circa Survive
This was my third time seeing Circa, but my first time seeing them as a full-fledged fan. I finally had all the albums, knew all the songs, and I had the extra cash to spend on the meet and greet and acoustic session to boot. I got to sit in a circle a few feet away from them while they performed an intimate 3 song acoustic set, before taking to the stage later on in the night and delivering on every level. They’re a band that truly loves their fans and truly loves making music, and it shows in everything they do.
Slash
While it’s been a long time since I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, I’ve made it a point to see as many of their members as I can. I finally got the chance to see Slash this May when he came to the Sherman theater, and it was actually a damn good show. I got to see the GNR hits that first sparked my love of music as well as newer songs from his current band, The Conspirators. It was great to touch base with my adolescence that way and revisit the music I once loved.
Death Grips
There are few words to describe the raw power of this show. After waiting over two years for the chance to see them, I was already beyond hyped for this show. And when I got there, the band knew how to play the crowd like a fiddle – instead of having any openers, they instead played the band’s side projects and a 40 minute noise remix of unreleased material, making everyone antsy and on edge. So, when they finally did take the stage, the crowd fucking EXPLODED into a throbbing mass of pure hype and rage. I’ve never been literally scared of getting trampled or crushed at a show before this night, but that’s how intense the crowd was. The band ran through nearly two hours of music in one long, (nearly, thanks to a laptop glitch) uninterrupted set in which each song seamlessly transitioned into the next. How Zach Hill can drum like he does for so long without a rest is beyond me, and the same goes for how long Stefan Burnett can bellow his lungs out and contort his body. All around, it’s one of the craziest, best shows I’ve ever been to, and probably ever will go to.
Tricot
I never, ever expected I’d get the chance to see Tricot. But the stars aligned and this October, they crossed the globe to do a short North America run, and I got to see them on the first show of that run in a tiny, intimate venue. It’s rare that you’re literally close to enough to lean on the stage all night, and man, does it make a show so much better. I was blown away by the level of energy the band had, and how much they jumped around despite the tiny stage. I could tell this was another band who truly loves what they do, giving their all into every performance, and it was made all the more special by the small venue I got to experience it in.
Rise Against
I actually went to this show solely to see letlive. as an opener. As I expected, letlive. played an intense, albeit short set, which saw Jason Butler climb into the balcony of the Sherman Theater and get a circle pit going (I’ve seen many opening bands try, but never succeed). And I was lucky enough to see them play a brand new song, too, from their upcoming album. But I wound up being really impressed by Rise Against – I was familiar with their music, and I enjoyed a few songs before that, but they put on a heartfelt and powerful enough show that convinced me I need to pay more attention them as a band. I didn’t expect the crowd to go so nuts for them, but they definitely did, because they managed to get the second circle pit of the night going, which I definitely didn’t expect from a punk band. It’s a great feeling to leave a show as a fan of a band you didn’t like before.
So that’s that. What I loved, what I liked, what I downright hated in 2015. If you’ve made it this far, well, congratulations, and I hope I turned you onto some new music! If you just scrolled all the way to the end, well I see you too fam, it’s okay. Till next year!

Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun [2015]

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Coheed and Cambria have been the crowning nerds of rock since their first album was released way back in 2002. Spanning 6 full-length albums, their music is woven with a grand sci-fi concept that runs the gamut between love and loss, epic space battles, and even the destruction of the universe itself. But all that was partially a front – lead singer and songwriter Claudio Sanchez had been afraid to sing about himself, and used this concept as a way to veil his feelings without putting himself fully out there. But now, after a series of personal shake ups, he’s finally ready to take the band away from the fiction and into the real. Fans were worried what this band would be without the concept, and not surprisingly – it’s what’s kept a lot of them around or caught their interest in the first place.

So it’s funny that this album isn’t quite so different after all. Opening track “Island” starts with something akin to their normal intro tracks, with a sample of a subway announcement and the grinding rails of a train coming to a halt, before launching into Coheed’s signature muscular pop-rock sound. The song is a deceptive one – with its airy chorus and bouncing rhythm, it still sounds exactly like one of Coheed’s poppier tunes. But a closer listen reveals that instead of grand space battleships, Claudio is instead singing about being trapped in a big city and the stagnation that can come from it. There’s no trick or disguise to it, simply his feelings as they are. “Island” winds up setting the tone for much of the album, both lyrically and stylistically. Coheed has traded most of their progressive tendencies for sheer pop songwriting on this album, simplifying the riffs and leads for the catchiest results. For most bands, that would seem like a dishonest attempt at gunning for a hit and cashing in.

But there’s a good reason for this album to sound so upbeat, and that’s because in the past few years, Claudio has become a father for the first time. So instead of angst at former girlfriends or the damage done by his family and friends’ drug addictions, the focus is on the future. Sure, there’s still some themes of identity crisis (“Eraser”) and depression (“Colors” and “Ghost”), but the overall feel here is much happier. Tracks like “Here to Mars” and “Atlas” are nothing but pure love and joy, “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” is a tongue in cheek self-pep talk, and “Peace to the Mountain” is a beautiful acoustic track about acceptance and change. Given all that, it makes sense that these songs aren’t crammed to the brim with technical riffs or crushing drum parts, and the band’s always had a strong pop sensibility, anyway. And despite the overriding upbeat mood of most of the album, there’s still plenty of variety to be found. “Colors” is a moving slow tune that lingers and evokes a strong sense of melancholy, but without being totally defeated. “The Audience” is a slab of classic Coheed prog, boasting a Tool-esque riff and plenty of fuzz, as well as breaking out of the verse-chorus-verse structure most of the album sticks to. And the aforementioned “Atlas” almost sounds like it could fit on the band’s first album, Second Stage Turbine Blade, because of it’s driving rhythm, length, and emotional vocals.

With all that said, it’s not a perfect album. “Young Love” is one of the blandest tracks the band has ever written, and as much as I like the track by itself, “You’ve Got Spirit, Kid” doesn’t add much to an album already stuffed with big pop hooks. And part of me is a little disappointed that they didn’t push any of their musical boundaries on this album, because Coheed’s reinvention from album to album has always been one of their best qualities. The tone of the album is different, sure, but it’s still comprised of the same parts the band’s always used (in fact, maybe less of them – a lot of the band’s weirder tendencies are completely missing, and the album feels very pared down as a result). But then again, given the band’s discography, there’s not much they haven’t done already, anyway, so it’s hard to blame them.

So maybe it’s not the band’s most essential album. But the result is an album that’s absolutely refreshing to hear in its simplicity and emotional honesty, and easy to revel in its large hooks and catchy melodies. It’s a hard album to hate unless you’re some absolute early-Coheed diehard, and it might even serve as a more palatable gateway album for a lot of new fans, too. So whether you’re a long time fan or someone just checking this band out, The Color Before the Sun is definitely worth the time.

Top 20 of 2013

2013 was a great year for new music, at least personally, and since I like to review my favorite albums I slowly put together a top 20 through the year. Past my top 5 or so, the rankings don’t mean a lot since it’s hard to put different kinds of music above or below one another, but whatever. Call me a nerd or tell me I have too much time on my hands, here’s my top 20.

1. The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us is the Killer

I knew this was probably going to be my album of the year after the 2nd listen. I may have listened to other albums more, or for longer, but One of Us is the Killer was special for me. If you’ve ever heard Dillinger before, you know what to expect from one of their albums (that being tightly-wound, frenetic mathcore with an experimental slant). That being said, this album actually distills a lot of the ground they’ve covered into a more coherent, straight forward attack compared to previous efforts. But the reason this album was special was that it came at a time when I needed something angry and aggressive to kick me out of a funk, and it did the trick marvelously.

Top Tracks: Prancer, One of Us is the Killer, Paranoia Shields

2. Cloudkicker – Subsume

On the other side of heavy things, this year Cloudkicker delivered what’s possibly Ben Sharp’s best work to date. Inspired by the novel 1Q84 (which is a great read in and of itself), Subsume is an ambitious record that jumps back and forth between the djent-influenced riffing of his past and the more introspective, quieter side of his present without ever sounding disjointed. From start to finish Subsume feels like a journey, starting off gently and then rocketing through layers of sound until reaching it’s fuzz-drenched climax during ‘You could laugh forever but never end up happy’.

Top Tracks: A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time, You could laugh forever but never end up happy.

3. Protest the Hero – Volition

For all the music I listened to this year, my top three wound up being all metal albums.

Protest made waves when they decided to forego a label’s backing and crowd fund their new album, and their fans responded in kind by giving them more than twice the amount they needed. The result is their best album since 2008’s Fortress.

I have to admit, their last album before Volition lost me a little. The lyrics were pretty cringe-worthy for a band that used to write thought-provoking concept albums, and some of the songs just didn’t feel very inspired. That’s all changed with Volition, though – Rody’s stepped up his game lyrically, and with Chris Adler filling in on drums, they sound heavier and faster than they have in a while. Stylistically, things haven’t changed much, but the one thing I have to commend most is the themes tackled in the lyrics. It takes guts to write songs about bigotry and rape culture on a metal album (with metal not being the most open-minded fanbase out there), and it’s even better when it doesn’t feel like they’re pandering or talking down. All in all, Volition shows Protest at the top of their game.

Top Tracks: Skies, Clarity, Animal Bones, Plato’s Tripartite

4. NK – Nothing to Be Gained Here

I’ve been following NK since they were called North Korea, and this year they finally released their debut album. They’ve softened a bit since their first two EPs, but their sound still features a unique blend of grungey riffs, Radiohead-esque soundscapes, and a rhythm section that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Top Tracks: Set A Fire, Shoulder Gorilla, Vacation Days

5. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension

The second half of their double album, The Afterman, lives up to it’s predecessor and continues to deliver Coheed’s trademark sound. While front-loaded with some of the bands heaviest and most progressive songs in years (Gravity’s Union being the first Coheed song recorded on an 8 string guitar), it starts to tail off towards the end into more sentimental, poppy sounds. Away We Go sounds like the eighties’ idea of a pop-punk love song, and 2’s My Favorite 1 is straight up cheese, in the best way. This works best when paired with it’s other half, Ascension, as it serves as a sort of come-down to the 18 track whole. Overall, while it could’ve been tracklisted a bit better, Descension is still a great album.

Top Tracks: Gravity’s Union, Sentry the Defiant, Dark Side of Me,  2’s My Favorite 1

6. Death Grips – Government Plates

Government Plates is experimental even for Death Grips, eschewing most song structure and even vocals in favor of a more free-form, electronic approach. For a band that managed to somehow cram hooks into music that rightfully shouldn’t on their first three albums, Government Plates is a disorienting listen, but one that’s all the better for it once it finally clicks.

Top Tracks: You might think he loves you…, Birds, Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

7. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

I checked out Fuck Buttons solely because I needed to know what a band with a name like that even sounded like. The answer? An electronic band whose music is structured like a post rock band playing noise music. They’re aggressive and trance-inducing at the same time.

Top Tracks: Brainfreeze, Hidden Xs, Stalker

8. Danny Brown – Old

Half street music and half club music, Old is a concept album about the struggles of growing up the ghetto and not letting it define his entire life at the same . Combine that with Danny Brown’s wicked sense of humor, and you get one of my favorite rap albums of 2013.

Top Tracks: Side A (Old), 25 Bucks, Way Up Here

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

For all the things that could be said about Kanye, the one thing you can’t take away from him is his music. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a grandiose ‘I’m sorry for being Kanye West’, then Yeezus is the exact opposite, shoving his arrogance in the face of the world. Nothing in his discography could’ve predicted the sound of Yeezus, its being laced with dark, almost industrial synth lines and minimalist beats, and as a result it has more bite than much of his work could ever hope to have. For an artist as mainstream as Kanye to release an album like this takes courage, and it mostly proves itself. However, some of the lyrics are certainly pretty cringe-worthy, and it takes a bit of a dip in the second half, so I can’t call it one of my absolute favorites. Either way, Kanye has proved himself as an artist by taking this chance.

Top Tracks: New Slaves, Black Skinhead, Blood on the Leaves

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather

Sunbather took me a bit by surprise. I usually don’t like black metal, or anything that sounds like it, but I had to make an exception for this record. Deafheaven takes the vocal approach of black metal (the shrieking, screamed vocals) and pairs it with a sound that’s more akin to My Bloody Valentine moving to Scandinavia and playing metal. With most of its songs going well over the ten minute mark, the music takes on a nearly hypnotic effect as it swells and crescendos, only stopping for the three interludes after each main track. While admittedly, their vocalist doesn’t have a lot of range (he has two speeds – AHHH and AHHHHHH) and threatens to bring the band’s unique sound down at times, I still think it’s a great album.

11. Nice Hooves – Nice Hooves

Featuring members of my other favorite hardcore band, The Armed, Nice Hooves deliver a more punk take on thrashy, noisy metal. Their album is free to download at http://nicehooves.bandcamp.com/ and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in any of that.

12. Palms – Palms

Palms is a supergroup made of of members of Isis and fronted by Chino Moreno of Deftones. While some of the songwriting could certainly be stronger, the atmosphere the album delivers alone makes of for it, delving into dreamy, shoegaze influenced post-rock that neither Isis or Deftones truly explored.

Top Tracks: Mission Sunset, Future Warrior, Antarctic Handshake

13. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

…Like Clockwork is QOTSA’s first album in 6 years, and as you’d expect from that big of a gap, it sounds pretty different than any other album of theirs. Stripping away most of their ‘stoner rock’ sound, Like Clockwork finds the band focusing more on straightforward rock numbers, and surprisingly, piano ballads. While this could have been disastrous for a band like Queens, by drawing on Josh Homme’s near-death experience, they infuse the songs with real meaning and atmosphere that give it a unique character from start to finish.

Top Tracks: I Appear Missing, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, I Sat By The Ocean, My God Is The Sun

14. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I’ll be honest, I’m totally biased when it comes to Eminem. I grew up on his music so I’m a lot more lenient on his newer stuff. But even though the guy basically gets a free pass from me, MMLP2 is actually really goddamn good, even if it can never touch the original MMLP. Em revisits Stan on Bad Guy, shows an insane level of technical skill on Rap God, apologizes to his mother on Headlights, and kills it on a hilarious track with Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a start to finish masterpiece, and it’d be great if he’d stop shouting so damn much, but MMLP2 proves that Eminem is still the same old Shady.

Top Tracks: Bad Guy, Love Game, Rap God, Headlights, The Monster

Other Favorites:

15. Lorde – Pure Heroine
16. O’Brother – Disillusion
17. Clutch – Earth Rocker
18. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
19. The Dear Hunter – Migrant
20. J. Cole – Born Sinner

Top 20-ish of 2012

 1. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension

 I have to say, Coheed has made me really, really happy to be a fan this year. This is the first album by them I’ve gotten to wait for by them since I’ve been a fan, and it was a bit of a wild ride. Mic Todd left the band after a run in with the law, and Chris Pennie quit shortly after due to creative differences. I thought the band was about to break up when they started dropping cryptic videos on YouTube. Instead, it turned out that drummer Josh Eppard, who had originally been kicked out in 2005, was rejoining the band – something totally unexpected, and honestly, the only right choice. Then we get introduced to the new bassist, Zach “Super Dooper” Cooper, who blended right into the band’s sound flawlessly.

 And finally, Coheed announced their new album. Free of a record label, they were finally able to write and record however and whatever they wanted – and this time that meant a double record. Ascension is the first part, a 40 minute ride that travels through mellow piano intros, a twisting 8 minute lead single, classic bouncy Coheed pop rock, and gentle electronics. It’s seriously crazy that they managed to pack so much into such a short album, but that’s one of it’s defining features. It’s short, to the point, and begs to be listened to again as soon as the last notes of Subtraction ring out. If Descension is even half as good when it drops in February, the album as a whole has serious potential to rank as their best. Hats off to the ‘Heed.

 2. Deftones – Koi No Yokan

 Deftones’ previous album, Diamond Eyes, was a beast that kicked ass from start to finish. It saw them reaching insane new highs 15 years after their first album, which is no easy feat for any band. So naturally, Koi No Yokan was my most anticipated album of the year.

 The result is an expansive album that expands on what Diamond Eyes did in terms of texture and sonic landscapes. Diving into it with a good pair of headphones is a must, because it’s the most sonically expansive and lushly textured album of their career. Eleven years after White Pony, Deftones has finally made good on the promise that record held, and have unarguably hit their stride.*However, that being so, it’s not as immediate as it’s predecessor. Several songs stand out immediately, like the monster Leathers, the spiraling dream pop of Entombed, the otherworldly Tempest. The highs are up there in the stratosphere with their best work, but that very quality is also something of a curse. At times it feels as if things are blending together, and a fair few of the songs took me a lot longer to get into and remember than some of the ones I named.

 That said, the “blending together” is also a good thing – each song flows into and complements the next so well that it doesn’t feel like almost an hour has passed by the time ‘What Happened to You?’ closes it out. Few albums dare to work so well as a whole in this era of singles and one-hit wonders, and the total package ends up being pure ear candy.

 3. Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal

 Periphery’s first album was definitely not one of my favorites. I liked some of it, but I just couldn’t really get into them. I liked the singing, but the screaming just wasn’t up to par. I loved the riffing, but it got too repetitive over a whole album. I felt like they could really be a great band though, and I decided to give them another chance when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Man, was I surprised – everything I hadn’t liked about the first record was gone. Spencer’s screams were absolutely throat shattering, the songwriting was leaps and bounds ahead of PI, and really, they just finally felt like a band (the first album had been written and recorded over a few years and with a few line up changes, so it wasn’t as cohesive as it could’ve been). It’s a fun record, insofar as djent can be fun. The choruses soar and stick in your head, the heavy parts make you feel like you could just walk through a brick wall, the drumming pummels you into submission (or at least into a complex toe tapping session).  It’s a record I can put on and jam to with no pretense, and one that has finally made me a fan of Periphery.

 4. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here

 On the other hand, I’ve pretty much always loved P.O.S. I’ve heard few artists fuse such disparate genres as punk rock and rap into something that works so well, hits so hard, and never feels forced or cliched. You only need to listen to ‘Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty)’ to know what he’s about.*So go figure that my favorite album of his comes in the form of his least punk, most ‘club’ album yet. WDELH rips the floor out from underneath his punk experimentation and replaces it with a slick, futuristic sound, worthy of clubs around the world. Most other artists would be getting shouted down as sell outs for this, me probably being one of the shouters, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work perfectly here.And that’s because P.O.S’ core message hasn’t changed. At heart, his lyrics are still the same brutally honest and subversive ones he’s best at, it’s just the instrumentation that’s changed. And this sound even allows him to take that one step further – ‘Get Down’ is a scathing indictment of vapid club songs that manages to also be one a damn fine club song itself, and ‘Fuck Your Stuff’ pokes and prods at the materialistic pop culture that’s dominated the media the past decade. Honestly, this album is so packed with great songs, it’s all one giant stand out.

5. Circa Survive – Violent Waves

I found this album totally on chance. I always passed over these guys because I’d somehow lumped them in with a million other generic scene-y bands. But after seeing a lot of hype for Violent Waves, and finding a way to, ahem, acquire it, I figured it couldn’t hurt. And damn – right from the seven minute opening track I knew I was totally wrong about them the whole time. Violent Waves is spacey, progressive rock at it’s finest.

 Honorable Mention:

 6. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

 I hadn’t even known Big Boi was putting out a new album this year, so VLaDR came totally out of the blue when Spotify recommended it to me. If it had come out sooner it would probably be higher on my list, but I haven’t had much time to listen to it yet. And yet, in the week it’s been out, it’s quickly rocketed up to being one of my absolute favorites this year. It’s right on par with Sir Luscious Left Foot, with tons of experimentation, plenty of hooks, and some straight out wacky guest appearances (Wavves, anyone?).

 And now, in no particular order, here’s the rest of the stuff I liked this year.

 Cloudkicker – Fade

Ben Sharp can really do no wrong, and Fade continues to prove that. Strangely, he’s taken on a sound that’s in part reminiscent of alternative mixed in with the more atmospheric stuff he’s been doing lately, which is far removed from his old djent style, but is still just as good.

 Japandroids – Celebration Rock

You seriously don’t find a rock record more fun than this one. It’s perfect summer music.

 Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Mark Lanegan’s voice is untouchable. He’s one of the most distinctive singers I’ve ever heard, and his voice alone sounds like it could tell a few stories. Plus, the album is really, really good. It’s bluesly and electronic at the same time, which is actually a lot better than it sounds.

 Soundgarden – King Animal

I had really, really low hopes for a new Soundgarden record, but it came out a lot better than I thought it would. It’s still not a shade on their earlier stuff, but it’s new fucking Soundgarden music in 2012. Who would’ve thought?

 Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

Even though it’s just Billy Corgan with some other dudes these days, Oceania still has some really classic Pumpkins-sounding stuff on it. Plus, bringing back that classic Siamese Dream guitar fuzz is a dream come true.

 Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods

I wanted to like this album more, but it just didn’t stick with me as much as Carnavas or Swoon. Still, it’s got a lot of really good songs on it, and hearing their more electronic influenced side is cool, too.

 Say Anything – Anarchy, My Dear

I think I actually like this band better when they sound as laid back as they do on this album. Burn A Miracle, The Stephen Hawking, and Say Anything are all great songs.

 Muse – The 2nd Law

Having been massively disappointed in their last album, I was surprised that The 2nd Law was actually pretty damn solid (seriously, Panic Station is fucking funky) – even if it’s sorely lacking in their trademark guitar theatrics.

 Linkin Park – Living Things

I only actually started listening to these guys back when A Thousand Suns came out, so I’ve never been totally partial to the old nu-metal sound. This album takes the best parts of that style (most lyrically and song-structure wise) and combines it with the new electronic style they’ve been going for the past few years, with a ton of catchy songs.

 The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet

I like long songs, and progressive music, but I usually can’t stand TMV. They tend to suffer a lot from audio wankery that stretches their songs out way past their welcome. However, Noctourniquet actually pares the song lengths down and focuses much more on songwriting than what I’ve heard from them in the past, and I think that makes for a much more enjoyable experience with this album.

 Between the Buried and Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence

I wish I could’ve put this album in my top five, but either I’m just not feeling BTBAM as much these days, or they’re getting a bit boring. While it does get a bit repetitive over the full hour+ run time, there’s still a lot of great riffs and songs in there – they’re just a bit…buried.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Simply put, AWLWLB is Converge delivering yet again. The modern-day hardcore pioneers continue to thrash harder than bands half their age, and show no signs of stopping.

 Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

This guy has one hell of a voice, and channel ORANGE is smooth and soulful as fuck.

 Jack White – Blunderbuss

It’s a bit of a departure from the White Stripes and Dead Weather stuff, but hearing a bluesy, countrified album like this is a refreshing change once in a while. Sixteen Saltines and Love Interruption are two of my favorite songs from this year.

 Rush – Clockwork Angels

And here’s another band that’s still better than guys half their age, despite having been around for the better part of thirty years. It’s their first full concept album, and probably one of their heaviest records, too.

The Prize Fighter Inferno – Half Measures

It’s only an EP, but it was actually one of my highlights this year. PFI is Claudio Sanchez’s (Coheed and Cambria singer/guitarist) side project, which has a lot more of an indie/electronic feel to it. It’s really cool to hear such a different side to his music, and to hear him branch away from the concept album thing as well.

The Armed – Spreading Joy

Clocking in at only 9 minutes, I don’t think it could even be called an EP. But Spreading Joy is the angriest, heaviest, most intense 9 minutes you’ll hear all year.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allalujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

I actually didn’t get into these guys until very, very recently. The two drone tracks aren’t really anything special, but the two twenty minute beasts that are Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire are masterpieces.