Inevitably, every “best of” list features some tiny–or not so tiny–bias from its compilers. Journalistic objectivity takes precedence, sure, but when even the definition of “metal” is subject to interpretation, there’s no true one-size-fits-all best-of list. But that’s often the best part of the entertainment for the reader/armchair critic–the “What the fuck is this deaf mother-effer thinking?!” And then weighing in with their own, much better list.
How to compare/choose between Lita Ford and Ishan? Between the Melvins and Toxic Holocaust? In short, it’s impossible. By not including, for instance, Cali hipster metallers Deafheaven on the list, and by including Fates Warning, well, let’s just say, “Let the lambasting begin!”
That said, overall, metal in 2013 was remarkably healthy, with progenitors Black Sabbath topping the Billboard chart for the first time in their long career, and many hundreds of worthy heavy music albums fomented in dark depths of metal minds. All art is valid, even if it’s made by Monster Magnet in 2013. Let’s do this.
See also: The Ten Best Metal Albums of 2012
10. Black Sabbath
In the beginning there was Sabbath. And 45 (!) years later, Sabbath perseveres–or reemerges–triumphant with 13, with a darkly ominous vibe redolent of its first three albums. Kudos goes to producer Rick Rubin for putting Sabs into the way-back machine for this first all-new CD with the (almost-) original lineup (minus drummer Bill Ward) since 1978″s Never Say Die. With kudos and horns raised to the Ronnie James Dio-era Sabbath (1979-82), as well as the eternally imperturbable genius of Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, it’s still not truly Sabbath without Ozzy at the helm. Archetypes endure for a reason, and 13 and Sabbath are the real deal.
Carcass: Are they grindcore? Splatter? Melodic death metal? Yes. And with Surgical Steel, the Liverpudlian trio (yes, they share a home city with the Beatles) release their sixth album since forming in 1985. (A smallish output due to a “hiatus” from 1995 to 2005). From machine-gun-fast blast beats on “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard” which seemingly features lyrical digs at unnamed brethren (“Artistically moribund / Soulless ghosts of the underground”) to the Thin Lizzy-style twin guitars, Carcass are back in decisive (but not moribund!) form. Riffy, classic, blistering metal (unlike 1988’s Reek of Putrefaction, most songs are longer than 1:30), Carcass have lost none of smart, gross intensity that made them pioneers.
8. Monster Magnet
The smart, hippie stoner metal-rock that emerges from Dave Wyndorf’s darkly comic brain and soul is influenced by everything cultish, cool and timeless. From Captain Beyond to Donovan, whose trippy “Three Kingfishers” MM cover superbly on Last Patrol, Wyndorf, with his 70s’s-porn-look, personifies the cool kid down the block whose band you’d worship as they rehearsed in his mom’s garage. Their commercial apogee to date may be 1998’s “Space Lord,” but Last Patrol sees a band at the top of their game, walking the fine line between being endlessly hip but not annoyingly hipster.
Not just because the iconic Lemmy Kilmister’s had a health scare. (Nobody needs to throw Lemmy a bone!) Not because of the seminal “Ace of Spades.” But because even though Lemmy says his lineup of more than 25 years are NOT metal–“Motörhead is primitive brutality, I suppose,” the singer/bassist acknowledges–Aftershock is a genuinely praiseworthy, um, “heavy music” album. Metal or no, the trio’s unrelenting, speedy but heavy musical and lyrical celebration of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, delivered with Lemmy’s gruff whisky ‘n’ cigarettes growl, is at once reliable and rousing.
Clutch singer Neil Fallon’s voice and approach are aggro and insistent, imparting Clutch with an in-your-face musical and aural punkiness that’s bolstered with a metal heaviness and thick psych groove. The Maryland-based quartet delivers 44 minutes of ferocity and precision in Earth Rocker, the band’s tenth album. Somewhat akin to Down meets Monster Magnet with a dash of Helmet, Clutch have consistently released their unrelenting, blues-influenced brand of heavy rock/metal since 1993, and with Earth Rocker, thankfully, show no signs of slowing down. As the title of Clutch’s 2001 album claimed: Pure Rock Fury. Indeed.
On paper, it might seem like an oxymoron: Folk Metal. But on Blodsvept it’s a revelation. Helsinki, Finland’s Finntroll mesh black and folk metal to dramatic and cohesive effect. Yes, there might be a momentary inkling of “Oh how they danced, the little people of Stonehenge,” to reference Spinal Tap, but Dio would be proud of Medieval-sounding song titles like “Skogsdotter” (“Daughter of the Forest”) or “Midvinterdraken” (“The Mid-Winter Dragon.”) The octet even seems to use horns on “Mordminnen” (“Memories of Murder”) which is the heaviest danceable black metal song in recent history. There’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Finntroll’s melodic, Pagan-esque ultra-heaviness fall on the clever side.
4. Amon Amarth
Deceiver of the Gods
Though Swedish metallers Amon Amarth may fall into the “death,” subgenre, they’re not afraid to delve into thrash and more old-school metal. Influenced heavily by Viking history for their lyrics and stage show (but singing in English) their nine albums since 1992 have included Fate of Norns, With Oden on Our Side, and Twilight of the Thunder God. Thankfully, Norse mythology is a rich vein to mine, and there’s no shortage of topics–or strong, varied material–on Deceiver of the Gods. From the commanding power of “Hel,” the macho and melodic quintet aren’t merely fodder for heavy-music Renaissance Faire devotees, they’re true metallic warriors.
See also: What Makes NYC Metal?
3. Church of Misery
Thy Kingdom Scum
Psychedelic doom metal from Japan. Songs about serial killers. Does it get any more metal? Founded by bassist Tatsu Mikami in 1995, COM didn’t make it to the US until 2012, but in the interim they put out five albums and numerous split singles. Album titles including 2001’s Master of Brutality and 2009’s Houses of the Unholy are meant, says Mikami, as ” not a parody, but respect for these artists,” while of his serial killer fascination he says, “I just write their ‘story’ as lyrics. I am really interested in their process; from innocent child to becoming a gruesome mass murderer.” Hence, BTK (about Dennis Rader on the new record) Fans of Trouble, Black Sabbath and St. Vitus (and BTK serial murder Dennis Rader, who receives 6:33 of instrumental treatment on Scum), will worship Church of Misery.
2. Fates Warning
Darkness in a Different Light
Old school but fresh-sounding, Los Angeles lineup Fates Warning are prog-metal pioneers, but likeably less melodramatic than peers like Queensrÿche and Dream Theater. Formed in 1982, but featuring current vocalist Ray Alder since 1988, it’s been nine years since Fates released an album (and the resultant Darkness in a Different Light was way more worth the wait than Chinese Democracy). With surprising and successful acoustic moments (“Falling”) to the haunting gentleness of “Lighthouse” to the mid-tempo riff rock and stellar solos of “Kneel and Obey,” to the muscular commercial/cool of “I Am,” Fates are back and in fine form, musically illuminating the darkness.
1. Ghost BC
Let the disparaging begin! Sweden’s Ghost B.C. LOOK metal (cloaks/hoods for the “Nameless Ghouls” that comprise the band; singer Papa Emertitus done up as a Roman Catholic Cardinal.) Their lyrics READ as metal: Infestissumam focuses on the good ol’ Anti-Christ with songs like “Depth of Satan’s Eyes,” while the spooky waltz-like “Secular Haze” sounds like it should be the soundtrack to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction. The clean vocals and pop-leaning heaviness of the strongly structured and memorable songs are certainly the least metal things about Ghost BC, who some may deride as a shtick-laden flash in the pan. Hmmm, pop-metal, costumes… KISS, anyone?
Honorable mention: Rivers of Nihil, Watain, Death Angel, Newsted, Tesseract, Broken Hope, Noctum, Deafheaven, Five Finger Death Punch, The Black Dahlia Murder, Watain, Jolly, Kylesa, and Kvelertak.
Katherine Turman is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal.