I listen to a lot of music every year, and in most cases I really enjoy it. But there are only a few cases each year where I feel an album on a visceral level. My spine tingles when I see the cover art in my library or a song comes up on shuffle, and I salivate at the opportunity to see the artist support the album live. I pride myself on listening to a variety of music, but the fact is, some (heavier) genres have this effect on me more than others. That’s why five of the 10 albums here are metal releases. There were some fantastic albums in many styles that have been on numerous major end-of-year lists but didn’t make it here (Flying Lotus, The Hotelier and Death From Above 1979 come to mind), but these are the 10 I love the most.
10. Code Orange – I Am King
It’s somewhat odd that this Pittsburgh band dropped the “Kids” from “Code Orange Kids,” seeing as the music on their sophomore LP is strictly youthful hardcore for young people. The quartet dropped much of the shoegaze-inspired sections of their previous material in favor of a purer, mosh pit-ready beatdown attack. One might think that this simplification would make for a step down from 2012’s Love is Love // Return to Dust, but in actuality it’s an improvement. Code Orange are simply better at making bone-crushing music than most of their contemporaries, and it suits them better than heavy-handed interludes. The tri-vocal fury of guitarists Reba Meyers and Eric Balderose and drummer Jami Morgan attacks the listener from all sides, and the sludgy riffs never relent. A 30-minute adrenaline rush.
9. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
This was hovering around my top 25 at first, but upon further listening this mostly female Vancouver group knocked me on my ass. Mish Way’s wailing vocals command a surging punk assault enhanced by Kenny McCorkell, one of the most inventive guitarists in modern punk music. White Lung don’t have the hooks of the 90s riot grrrl bands that they inevitably draw comparisons to, but this 20-minute blast is the super-charged 21st century equivalent, perfect for the shorter attention span of the digital age.
8. Horrendous – Ecdysis
The Chills, Horrendous’ 2012 debut, put the Philadelphian trio at the forefront of the “old school death metal” revival movement. While not terribly original, it served as a stirring homage to the titans of early 90s Stockholm. Now taking influence from all over death metal’s history (a little Dismember here, a little Death there), Horrendous return with Ecdysis, the year’s best album in the genre. Progressive and psychedelic touches adorn meaty riffs and powerful vocals from Damian Herring and Matt Knox for a combination that’s both heavy and memorable. It will be exciting to see where these guys go next.
7. Eyehategod – Eyehategod
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this definitive band of the New Orleans sludge scene twice this year, and it was amazing to hear just how many riffs and grooves the quintet have up their sleeves. No other band can make their audience hate humanity while showing a big riff-induced grin the way Mike IX Williams and his merry band of misanthropes can. Blues and boogie have always been as integral to Eyehategod’s sound as substance abuse and depression, and there is no shortage of those elements on their first album in 14 years–although some will surely be lost with the death of drummer Joey Lacaze. Eyehategod make the gutter sound so inviting.
6. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
What is there to say about Killer Mike and El-P that hasn’t already been said? RTJ are the toast of music publications everywhere, and I covered their Chicago show just last month. In a relatively weak year for hip-hop, the duo has delivered once again with both comical braggadocio and deadly serious political agendas. I don’t love this quite as much as the debut (my album of the year in 2013), but its highlights are better than the consistent greatness of that album. The sequence of “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)” is the best trio of songs on any album this year. At 39, El-P is still the best producer in the game, and his chemistry with Killer Mike is unmatched.
5. Godflesh – A World Lit Only By Fire
For over a quarter of a century, Justin Broadrick has been one of the most prolific musicians in the metal underground, whether he’s leading the dreamy doom project Jesu, trying experimental hip-hop with Techno Animal or remixing songs by bands like Cult of Luna, the 45-year-old Brit doesn’t seem to slow down. But the band that established him as a force was Godflesh, the industrial metal duo he established with G.C. Green that arguably invented the subgenre with 1989’s Streetcleaner. The project disbanded in 2001, but Broadrick and Green have reunited to pummel us once again with this supremely heavy work. The low end on this album will shake the foundation of your home if you’re not careful, and the music will grind you into dust. It’s as ugly and mechanical as they come. What more could a metal fan ask for?
4. Gridlink – Longhena
In a year of notable comeback releases, it’s easy to overlook a quality swansong. Gridlink were a grindcore collaboration between former Discordance Axis vocalist Jon Chang and Japanese guitarist Takafumi Matsubara, along with a rotating cast of bassists, drummers and second guitarists. Their third and final album, Longhena, exemplifies chaos. Chang’s screams are mixed in with a whirlwind of oddly timed riffs from Matsubara’s wholly unique guitar. The tone is much cleaner than that of a typical grindcore band, and Matsubara spends more time on the high end than anyone I’ve heard in this genre, creating an original sound in a style that’s usually lacking. Rather than gore-themed like many grind bands or politically charged like many others, Chang’s lyrics (which require reading to understand) are actually quite emotional, dealing with heartbreak and loss. I was unaware of Gridlink before listening to this album, and now I’m sad to see them go—especially as an infection in Matsubara’s brain may rob him of ever playing guitar again. The least I can do is love this album.
3. Ne Obliviscaris – Citadel
This Australian progressive metal band made a stunning debut in 2012 with Portal of I, an album that fans had been waiting for with baited breath after their demo, The Aurora Veil, took the underground by storm in 2007. Ne Obliviscaris have come a long way from their black metal roots, increasing the violins, clean vocals and polished production while decreasing the screams and tremolo riffs. This is strictly for prog nerds, and it delivers. While Portal of I was a 70-minute collection of several long songs packed with ideas, Citadel starts with one three-part, 23-minute suite, a 10-minute centerpiece and a two-part closer to fill a condensed 48 minute runtime. There’s still plenty to unpack on this shorter follow-up, with everything from cello to fretless bass melding into a hurricane of proggy excess, and all of it is worth the effort.
2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Moving away from the metal world, we enter the art rock realm of A Silver Mt. Zion (their name is always changing), the genre-bending art rock offshoot of Godspeed You! Black Emperor led by Efrim Menuck. Fuck Off Get Free opens with the perfect sample: a little boy saying, “We live on the island called Montreal, and we make a lot of noise because we love each other.” Thus begins this shambling masterpiece of an album. The songs are mostly long and unpredictable, always sounding ready to fall apart. Menuck’s bleating vocals can be a turn-off for many, but his warble is perfect for the shakiness of the music behind him. Violin and contrabass and guitar and drums all bounce off each other until they find inexplicable moments of like-mindedness during powerful crescendos. There aren’t many albums quite like this, nor are there many that are quite as good in this day and age.
1. Swans – To Be Kind
People often ask me why I listen to extreme metal, sometimes saying that it’s “scary.” They, of course, are wrong. Metal is fun. If they want to hear scary, they should check out Swans. Michael Gira and company have produced yet another two-hour behemoth of an album as a follow-up to the highly acclaimed The Seer. But whereas that record’s repetitiveness could lead to boredom or inattentive listening, To Be Kind has a sense of groove that makes it impossible to escape from. After drawing the listener in with hypnotic bass playing and inventive percussion, Swans punishes them with a jarring blast of noise or Gira bellowing something insane. “Just a Little Boy” features a chorus of laughter that will terrify the unprepared, while 34-minute “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” contains the sounds of a horse and Gira repeating the line, “your name is ‘fuck’” over and over again. It’s a bizarre, crushing titan of an album that demands its place as the best of 2014.