December 31, 2009

The 50 Most Significant Albums of the Decade

Let me clarify one point very quickly: this list is NOT my favorite albums of the decade. This list is the albums that I think are most important to hard rock and heavy metal for this decade. You may, as always, state your opinions as you wish.

And now, I give you, the 50 Most Significant Albums in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal of the Decade!

#50-43: The Prophets of Metalcore

50. The Poison by Bullet for My Valentine
49. Waking the Fallen by Avenged Sevenfold
48. The Way of the Fist by Five Finger Death Punch
47. The Impossibility of Reason by Chimaira
46. The War Within by Shadows Fall
45. The Fury of Our Maker’s Hand by DevilDriver
44. The Fall of Ideals by All That Remains
43. Ascendancy by Trivium

These eight albums are responsible for pushing the boundaries of metalcore and popularizing it to the degree that it is today. Released between 2003 and 2007, these albums all take the basic structure of metalcore and make it unique in their own way. All eight albums are excellent compositions and worthy of multiple listens.

42. The Incurable Tragedy by Into Eternity

One of the best concept albums to be released this decade, The Incurable Tragedy is an album that speaks purely from the heart. I have always liked albums that talk about real-world issues and deliver thought-provoking lyrical content, and this album absolutely does. For anyone who has ever been touched in their life by cancer, this album is gut-wrenchingly real. Not an easy listen by any means, but still an amazing album.

41. Awaken the Dreamers by All Shall Perish

This album is the absolute archetype for any deathcore band ever. Everything about it is the essence of the genre. Pummeling guitar riffs, lightning-fast drums, and the most assaultive vocal delivery known to music are what you will find here. There are many fans who would disagree, but those within the genre and metal purists alike know that Awaken the Dreamers is the genre-defining album that deathcore needed and didn’t have for the first five years of its existence.

40. Vigilance by Threat Signal

Another genre-defining album, Vigilance is the new standard of industrial metal. Fear Factory’s glory days are long over, and the new kings have finally arrived. Threat Signal doesn’t need keyboards or samples to deliver the same brutal onslaught that their mentors did. Guitar effects and the excellent vocals of Jon Howard are all that’s necessary to make you feel like you’re listening to Demanufacture all over again. This album positively slays.

39. Colors by Between the Buried and Me

Words can’t even begin to describe the beautiful intricacies of this album. I could go on forever about how amazing this album is. But rather than do that and confuse you all with a lot of music theory terminology that only 1% of you would understand, I’ll just direct you instead to listen to the song “White Walls,” the last track on the album. Come back to me after you’ve heard that song and tell me how you feel.

38. Alien by Strapping Young Lad

The “wall of sound” production style has been around for quite some time. But only one album has ever utilized it perfectly, and that is Alien. Devin Townsend shows us the true depths of both his genius and his insanity with this album. Every song is a towering monster of musical composition. Trying to tab a Strapping Young Lad song is probably one of the most difficult undertakings a person can attempt. The best part of the album is its diversity. No one can touch Devin Townsend in that category. He draws from so many different styles, it’s damn near impossible to tell what he will do next.

37. Miasma by The Black Dahlia Murder

This album is the genesis of America’s second generation of death metal. Playing faster and heavier than anyone else had attempted to do in years, The Black Dahlia Murder crafted an album that can only be described as violent. Bruising tracks like “I’m Charming” and “Statutory Ape” incite moshing like Cannibal Corpse and Deicide did in the early 90’s. That is probably the best part about this album – you can tell that The Black Dahlia Murder know their roots, and they know how to build on them as well.

36. Souls to Deny by Suffocation

A resurrection of old-school death metal and a breath of fresh air into that area of the scene, Suffocation brought the first generation of American death metal back into relevance with this album. Souls to Deny recalls Suffocation’s glory days, while at the same time modernizing their sound to reflect the new methods of production that exist. Bringing back Mike Smith on drums is what makes this album one of Suffocation’s best. His drumming is the best of anyone in the death metal scene worldwide.

35. Fiction by Dark Tranquillity

Fiction is a reminder to everyone that the Gothenburg scene is not dead. This album features all the musical elements that made the scene as popular as it was in the early part of the decade, and also shows the diversity that is possible within the melodic death metal genre. Dark Tranquillity display more than just musicianship on this album. They show the rarest and most important characteristic that a band almost two decades old can show: growth. This album indicates that Dark Tranquillity are going to still be around making amazing melodic death metal for many years to come.

34. obZen by Meshuggah

Undoubtedly the biggest album of Meshuggah’s career, obZen has everything that math metal should have and nothing that it should not. The drumming is where it all begins. Drummers worldwide will be attempting (and failing more often than not) to play Tomas Haake’s parts from this album for years to come. There are drums sections, and in some cases, entire songs on this album that leave composers and tabulators baffled. If you are looking for the standard by which technical and math metal will be judged for the next 20 years, this album is it.

33. The Black Halo by Kamelot

Traditional power metal is quickly fading away in favor of the power-prog amalgamation that Kamelot, Symphony X, and other bands brought into style during this decade. The Black Halo is Kamelot’s best album for me because they play both styles on this album. The traditional speed-laden power metal of their roots is very present, and the power-prog songs are some of the best compositions within the newer genre. Also, the story of this concept album is quite enjoyable, making the entire album a good listen.

32. Animosity by Sevendust

Many critics will give you a list of albums that killed nu-metal. However, I believe that Sevendust’s Animosity is the one that began the killing process. This album, coming from a band that rode the tide of nu-metal to popularity, is almost the antithesis of nu-metal. With the gorgeous compositions and unbridled aggression that these songs carry, this album doesn’t need any of the nu-metal gimmicks that so many albums by their peers used. The album is straightforward and heartfelt, and no other album in the scene at that point could say both of those things. Sevendust killed their own genre with this album, signifying that they were ready for more.

31. Natural Born Chaos by Soilwork

When people talk about albums that define the Gothenburg scene, there are three that are always named: Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates, and The Jester Race and Colony by In Flames. I believe Natural Born Chaos belongs in this group as well. When this album was released in 2002, At the Gates were defunct and In Flames were changing their sound. Soilwork, on the other hand, perfected their sound on this album. With amazing production by Devin Townsend and totally unique compositions by the band, this album is the pinnacle of Soilwork’s career. To me, this album defines the melodic half of the melodic death metal genre perfectly.

30. Storm the Gates of Hell by Demon Hunter

This album appears here for two reasons. The first is because Demon Hunter, much like the first eight albums on my list, helped push the boundaries of metalcore with this album. Storm the Gates of Hell, however, employed melody and brutality in equal measure to expand in both directions, rather than just one or the other. The second reason is because Demon Hunter delivered an album with hard-hitting lyrics that covered real-life topics that their fans could relate to. Their previous album, The Triptych, also had powerful lyrics, but Storm the Gates of Hell delivered both musically and lyrically, something that is quite rare in today’s metal scene.

29. Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia by Dimmu Borgir

When discussing Dimmu Borgir, fans often argue that their best albums are either the two preceding this one (Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and Spiritual Black Dimensions) or the two following this one (Death Cult Armageddon and In Sorte Diaboli). For me, though, Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia is the pinnacle of Dimmu’s career, for several reasons. One, it features one of their best lineups. The only lineup that is better for me has Hellhammer on drums. Two, the musical balance of the album is perfect, with equal parts melody and brutality. Three, this album really puts the right emphasis on the symphonic part of symphonic black metal. It’s not neglected and not overdone, putting the perfect accentuation on the rest of the music. Definitely one of the best black metal albums of the decade overall.

28. The Great Misdirect by Between the Buried and Me

My reaction after finishing listening to this album from beginning to end the first time went something like this: “Holy crap! Are you serious? A prog album that actually has the feel of a full album experience? Like you used to get from Pink Floyd and Rush back in the 70’s? This still exists? No way! I can’t believe it!” Well, believe it. Between the Buried and Me managed to create an album where all the songs come together to create an album-long musical experience similar to what you’d get with The Wall or 2112. Granted, this is nowhere near as powerful as those two albums are, but still, The Great Misdirect changes the whole realm of progressive metal. It is phenomenal.

27. Follow the Reaper by Children of Bodom

Fans and critics have often said that Children of Bodom is unclassifiable genre-wise. This album is the reason why. Follow the Reaper is equal parts death metal, black metal, symphonic metal, thrash metal, progressive metal, and metalcore. And since “symphonic progressive blackened death thrash metalcore” would never catch on, it’s easier to just say the band is unclassifiable. That is the beauty of this album. Nothing is predictable, and everything sounds totally unique. You really need to listen to the whole album to appreciate its musical aesthetics. No other album by Children of Bodom comes close to Follow the Reaper in that category.

26. A Matter of Life and Death by Iron Maiden

For a band that has been around for almost four decades, Iron Maiden still know how to put together amazing albums. A Matter of Life and Death is the best of their three releases this decade because it displays just how much the band has grown over the course of their careers. They started out composing short, punk rock-influenced metal tunes and have grown to create songs that truly deserve the description of “epic.” With an average song length of around seven minutes, A Matter of Life and Death is a complex album that deserves full attention. It ranks with The Number of the Beast and Powerslave as one of Iron Maiden’s best overall albums of their career.

25. Phantom Limb by Pig Destroyer

In the late 80’s, grindcore started with Napalm Death. It continued in the 90’s with Terrorizer and Brutal Truth. Now, the grindcore scene is led by Pig Destroyer. Phantom Limb is an absolute beast of an album, laying waste with furious blastbeats and guitars down-tuned beyond all reasonable measure. The best parts of this album sound like Scum-era Napalm Death sped up to about 6000 bpm. There is plenty of diversity here, also, with songs like “The Machete Twins” channeling Discharge and other grindcore forefathers. The whole grindcore scene now follows where Pig Destroyer leads. It’s good to be on top.

24. Nymphetamine by Cradle of Filth

No one saw Nymphetamine coming. Not the critics, not the fans, and definitely not the legions of people who have peppered Cradle of Filth with insults and scorn throughout their career. This album towers high and above everything else the band has done, because it just has more. More brutality, more symphony, more melody, more quiet, more speed, and most importantly of all, more evil. And honestly, what other band could possibly get away with having a song called “Gilded Cunt” AND have it be one of the most popular tracks of their live set?

#23-22: The Comedy of Metal

23. The Dethalbum by Dethklok
22. Total Brutal by Austrian Death Machine

These two albums go together because they are proof that metal is not all about being angry and hating the world. Metal can be fun, enjoyable, and even make you laugh. The Dethalbum is great because it could be a legitimately awesome death/black metal album if not for two reasons. First, the lyrics are beyond ridiculous. Second, the band is a cartoon! As I said, though, it’s a great album musically, and the fact that it’s a fun listen is a nice touch. Total Brutal is even better, though, because the music is the most over-the-top thrash metal you’ll ever hear, combined with singing and commentary by The Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger (not really, but it’s a damn good impression). If you ever want to experience headbanging and laughing at the same time, listen to either of these albums. Metal needs more albums like this.

21. Toxicity by System of a Down

The next three albums are the ones most responsible for hard rock and heavy metal entering the mainstream to the degree that they have now. Toxicity is easily the most popular of the three because of how catchy and fun it is to listen to. However, it is also the album that has the most powerful, insightful commentary on society today, both here in America and worldwide. Who would have guessed upon hearing “Chop Suey!” for the first time that the song was about domestic abuse and teen suicide? System of a Down are The Beatles of my generation, lyrically speaking. No other band has spoken for an entire generation so universally on issues of government, war, family, relationships, and life since The Beatles, and that is quite a place of honor to hold.

20. Iowa by Slipknot

Iowa is by far Slipknot’s heaviest record, and while Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses might have garnered Slipknot more fans, Iowa is the record that still shows just how far this band was willing to push the line of acceptance. Nu-metal still was trying to adjust to the precedent set by the band’s self-titled album when Iowa showed up, and when “People = Shit” came blasting through the speakers the first time, no one knew how to react. This album is one of the most violent, angry, aggressive, and hateful pieces ever put to record, and it became an outlet for millions to express their outrage at the state of the world. Iowa is, above all, unapologetic, and that is how it should be.

19. The Sickness by Disturbed

Every hard rock band that has made it onto the radio today can include Disturbed in their thank you section of the liner notes, because if not for The Sickness, we would not have a scene as diverse and popular as it is today. If not for “Stupefy” and “Down With the Sickness” becoming the biggest songs of the year 2000, no hard rock band would even attempt to mix rock and metal styles the way that Disturbed did. If not for massive touring on Ozzfest and the band’s own Music as a Weapon tour, hard rock bands would not be headlining stadium tours and music festivals the world over. Disturbed are the ones who made that possible, and The Sickness is the beginning of that story.

18. Ghost Reveries by Opeth

Opeth are musical juggernauts because of Mikael Åkerfeldt. The man is a songwriting genius, putting together 10-minute epics that cross multiple genres and display technicality beyond what most bands can dream of, while making it all look effortless with a smile and a few shy words of thanks. Ghost Reveries is the band’s return to form after the Deliverance and Damnation split albums, and what a return it is. This album re-balances the band’s mixture of jazz elements, folk music, and death metal, giving equal emphasis to all three parts. The atmosphere of this album is tremendous and all-encompassing, which is rare on non-concept albums. Credit Per Wiberg’s keyboards for that effect. Ghost Reveries is a strong album and definitely shows how well Opeth can do when they are unified in their goals.

17. Twilight of the Thunder God by Amon Amarth

Viking metal is a tough genre to play because often you are forced to push too deeply into folk metal, and then your music doesn’t convey what you’re looking for. Amon Amarth unlocked the secret, though. Viking metal is all about having the correct lyrical themes matched with appropriately epic compositions. The fact that Amon Amarth manages to do this without delving into folk metal at all is, in itself, impressive. Twilight of the Thunder God is even more amazing, though, because it is an incredibly well-composed melodic death metal album, but for the lyrics. This album is remarkable in its consistency and its attention to detail, especially the guest appearances. Utilizing Apocalyptica for one track makes all the difference in the world.

16. Wintersun by Wintersun

This album is the defining power metal album of the decade. But it’s not just power metal. It’s also folk metal, thrash, symphonic metal, and death metal rolled into a metal wrecking ball that crashes through your speakers like a herd of mammoths. This album is the pinnacle of musical ambition. There are so many things going on in each song, between guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, vocals, and other elements mixed in. And the fact that everything except the drums is done by one person is even more astounding. Now if only Jari Mäenpää could get their second album finished sometime before 2020…

15. The End of Heartache by Killswitch Engage

The End of Heartache is an incredible undertaking because of what Killswitch Engage were going through at that time. They had a new singer, a new drummer, and a huge reputation to maintain. With The End of Heartache, they not only succeeded in maintaining it, but they increased it tenfold. This album has the huge choruses of hair metal’s biggest songs in the 80’s, matched with some of the tightest, most technical musicianship that the metalcore scene has ever put out. This combination is undeniable awesome in every sense, and Killswitch should be proud of themselves for their achievements with this album.

14. Watershed by Opeth

Watershed is Mikael Åkerfeldt paying tribute to every great classic rock artist that has influenced him. But in doing that, he created a musical epic that really showcases the roots of the entire rock and metal scene. With elements of Pink Floyd, Rush, Yes, The Who, The Doors, and so many other classic rock legends heard throughout the album, Watershed is an amazing tour of the 70’s and 80’s in rock music. However, don’t think of this as merely a tribute composition. There’s plenty of Opeth’s amazing brand of progressive death metal to be found here as well. The union of Opeth’s sound with the classic rock elements, though, makes this album a truly special piece of music.

13. As the Palaces Burn by Lamb of God

Normally, I hate albums that don’t have good production. However, As the Palaces Burn is an exception because of how appropriate the raw production is. When combined with Lamb of God’s acidic songs of that time in their career, it’s a perfect fit. This album is grisly and unapologetic to a fault, and unlike its predecessor, New American Gospel, the production is just raw enough so that the lyrics are still distinguishable. This is a good thing, because Randy Blythe’s lyrics are an essential part of Lamb of God’s sound. It’s not the best lyrical performance of his career, but it comes damn close.

12. Mind Tricks by Disarmonia Mundi

The next two albums go together because of how they affected the Gothenburg scene. Mind Tricks is the album that revived the scene from stagnation and reminded everyone what made the Gothenburg sound so popular. This album takes the roots of Swedish melodic death metal and injects them with new life. The songs retain the basic structure, but the melodies are catchier, the choruses are bigger, and the aggression is more unrestrained. This album reinvigorates the whole scene and gives other artists the chance to revisit their roots.

11. Holographic Universe by Scar Symmetry

While Mind Tricks brought the Gothenburg scene back to life, Holographic Universe morphed it into a whole new creature with so many new elements. With soaring vocal melodies, futuristic cyber elements, and intellectual scientific lyrics, Scar Symmetry gave the genre its new prototype with this album. They had been using that sound on their previous two albums as well, but this is the album where they perfect it. Almost all the songs are incredibly catchy while also highly technical and complex. This album is a modern death metal masterpiece.

10. Leviathan by Mastodon

This album is easily the most academic album put out by any band in the past twenty years. How many bands could even attempt to write an entire album about “Moby Dick” and make it sound good? Other bands have attempted concept albums around books, but almost none of them have been about novels. Musically, Leviathan is incredibly ambitious, stringing together riff after riff effortlessly and changing structures without missing a beat. This album is the reason why music critics the world over kiss the ground that Mastodon walks on. Their other albums are great too, but this one is at the top of the heap.

9. Daylight by West Gate

Daylight appears here because of potential. This album has the potential to revolutionize hard rock as we know it. No other band has such a strong sense of musicality, and no other band incorporates as many elements and genre influences into their music. West Gate delivers a phenomenal first album with Daylight, and their music is already influencing many bands in their local scene. With larger exposure, a new wave of rock music will be born.

8. Ashes of the Wake by Lamb of God

The foundation laid by As the Palaces Burn enabled Lamb of God to move forward by leaps and bounds in their ability to deliver metal to large audiences. Thus, they matured in their sound to deliver the titanic Ashes of the Wake, an album that cements Lamb of God as one of the leaders of American metal. The most noticeable difference here is that the production values on Ashes of the Wake are much better than those on As the Palaces Burn, making the music sound much crisper and revealing the technicality therein. The thing that makes Ashes of the Wake so huge, though, is Randy Blythe’s lyrics. Delivering one of the most inflammatory political statements of the decade, Ashes of the Wake is a massive indictment of the American political system. No other band has dared make such a blanket statement, and Lamb of God are still doing it now. Ashes of the Wake is the anthem for those who truly desire change.

7. The All-Star Sessions by Roadrunner United

This is the most ambitious album ever made, hands down. Getting together 55 musicians from 42 different bands is, in and of itself, the largest undertaking ever attempted by any group. The fact that this beginning was achieved is enough to earn this album plenty of recognition. When you throw in the fact that almost every song on the album is breathtakingly excellent, though, you know you have something special in your hands. The All-Star Sessions contains some of the best songs that have resulted from any collaboration of musical minds in metal history. This album will definitely be remembered as one of the greatest ideas ever spawned by a record label.

6. Blackwater Park by Opeth

This album is the most amazing achievement of Opeth’s career. The songs on Blackwater Park are definitely the most intricate compositions that Mikael Åkerfeldt has ever put together, and the band’s performance finally reaches the maturity needed to play those songs. You can’t go wrong with “Bleak,” “The Drapery Falls,” and the title track. The best part about this album is that it flows together brilliantly. Each song transitions into the next one seamlessly, creating no awkwardness or clashing in the atmosphere of the album. Opeth will likely never top this album.

5. Clayman by In Flames

This is the best Gothenburg album released this decade, hands down. Critics often say that Clayman was the start of the band’s descent into mediocrity, but I disagree. Clayman is the album where the band reaches their fullest musical potential, expanding their horizons to the greatest limits they could while remaining true to their sound. Other Gothenburg albums may stay closer to the original Gothenburg sound, but Clayman shows just how diverse the genre is capable of being. Additionally, there are several tracks that are perfect examples of the Gothenburg sound’s essence, such as “Pinball Map,” “Swim,” and the amazing title track, which may be one of the fastest songs In Flames ever recorded. Clayman is the album that shows the world that Gothenburg metal can contain a great deal more than previously thought possible, and it is the album that led so many American metal bands to incorporate the Swedish sound into their music to create metalcore.

4. Lateralus by Tool

How many different ways can you say that your mind has been blown? To determine this, all you need to do is read every review of Lateralus ever written, and you’ll figure it out. This album boggles the mind to even comprehend from a musical standpoint. The compositions and song structures are practically inhuman because they are so atypical and complex. Add in the inherently bewildering nature of the lyrics, and you have the perfect recipe for an album that mystifies everyone that hears it. Lateralus is a powerhouse album that will go down in history as one of the best rock albums ever written.

3. The Blackening by Machine Head

The Blackening redefines metal as we know it for the modern age. This album is the dark, evil spawn of thrash, prog, hardcore, and technical metal all blended perfectly into an opus of pure metal. The Blackening truly has it all: precision drumming, well-crafted bass lines, unique riffs, brain-melting solos, diverse vocal patterns, and thought-provoking lyrics. Critics have given this album every possible accolade in the books, short of a Grammy award, and those accolades are well-deserved. The Blackening is easily one of the best albums in metal history.

2. Alive or Just Breathing by Killswitch Engage

Metalcore exists because of Alive or Just Breathing. This album is the first album to successfully bring together Swedish death metal with American hardcore to create the metalcore sound that immediately was popularized by countless other bands, including several listed here. The thing that makes this album so amazing, though, is that it withstands the test of time. To this day, there are very few albums that measure up with Alive or Just Breathing in terms of being able to successfully and tastefully execute the metalcore sound. Many have tried and failed to follow in this album’s path. The entire genre owes a debt of gratitude to Killswitch Engage for this album’s existence.

1. The Oncoming Storm by Unearth

Everything that a metal fan could ever want is on this album. It has the technical solos and speed of thrash. It has the pure, unbridled aggression of hardcore. It has the intricate compositions and riffs of death metal. It has the powerful, insightful vocals that most lyricists can only dream of writing. The Oncoming Storm delivers metal to its audience in a package that can be enjoyed and repeated effortlessly. This album is the unsung masterpiece of metal, and that fact in and of itself is why it is at the top of my list. There have been many other albums that have received awards, praise, and honor from the critics. The Oncoming Storm has kept its status quiet and let its music speak for itself. That humbleness makes this album more metal than any album receiving any awards anywhere.

There you have it, my friends. My reviews of both 2009 and the past decade are now complete. I hope you have enjoyed my musical insights. Here's to 2010 and the start of another excellent musical decade!

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