I used to do these ‘top ten’ lists with my friend John all the time, and I still have a fondness for year-end lists of all kinds. This, then, will be my top ten albums of two-thousand and eight, along with a few near-misses, and perhaps my biggest surprise – and biggest disappointment – of the year. I’ve listed each album in reverse order, and only albums released this year are eligible. Comments are, as always, appreciated, though I reserve the right to point to my music degree in a childish manner and claim that I know best.
My biggest disappointment of last year was Chris Cornell’s “Carry On”, an album so far up it’s own arse it was able to wear itself as a hat. The former Soundgarden man once produced music that was relevant, inspiring and occasionally jaw-dropping, but now, after turning Rage Against the Machine into Nickelback, appears to have transformed into the sort of musician my dad would listen too if he wasn’t cool enough to listen to Bruce Springsteen and Santana. And once again, I find myself drawing the same conclusions about this year’s lame duck: Weezer’s self-titled ‘red album’.
Good Christ, this album is a mess. With no hint of irony, Rivers Cuomo has produced the musical equivilent of Gigli. He is so utterly out of touch and devoid of even average ideas that he has opened up the songwriting and vocal duties to the rest of the band. At this point I’d have rather he produced a solo album comprised entirely of him sneezing. It’s difficult to pick stand-out tracks on an album this woeful, but ‘Heart Songs’ is close to the worst song I’ve heard all year. I think it’s even more damning that they haven’t released a decent album since the green one, meaning that they only really had to trump ‘average’. That they failed in even this modest task should see them scrubbed off everyone’s fan list, even the Japanese.
Guns N’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
How exactly did this happen then? Not only is it not shit, but it’s actually really good! The task of getting “Chinese Democracy” out seems to dwarf even the challenges God allegedly set his only Son, making Axl Rose something of a messiah himself. Being the last true prophet of straight-up hard rock – Brian Johnson is a bit too old if I’m honest – would seem to suggest an album out of touch with the modern musical climate.
And that’s largely what I was expecting, but my ears were treated to an audible delight, an album of songs at once classic in their composition, yet thoroughly modern in their execution. Even the borderline-power ballad “Sorry” – a duet with Sebastian Bach, no less – somehow transcends the 80s nostalgia and sounds utterly convincing. Axl clearly still has a lot to say, and he has lost nothing of his relevance. The electronic touches are tasteful, and the production time has been spent polishing each and every track to be exactly as the girly-voiced one wanted it. Care and dedication shows throughout, which is even more astonishing given the revolving-door line-up and public infighting. It’s not quite good enough to make my top ten proper, but if you still hold a soft spot for denim jackets and patches, give it a listen.
I’m a massive fan of Enslaved, but for me there is always something missing from their albums. I really can’t put my finger on it – by rights they should be my favourite band by a country mile. I think it’s something to do with how ‘full’ their albums sound, lacking for example the depth present in Opeth’s body of work. So, despite a 9.5 from Terrorizer, this album sits just outside of the top ten for me. Featuring their trademark black metal meets Pink Floyd sound, “Vertebrae” is another fine album of melancholy and Northern darkness. Grutle Kjellson’s voice is an acquired taste for some, but for me he’s in the top tier of BM vocalists. On this album he shows a much greater comfort with his clean delivery, and the dense harmonies he weaves with keyboardist Herbrand Larsen are simply beautiful. Highly recommended listening.
Gama Bomb: Citizen Brain
Riding the crest of the thrash revival wave, Dublin’s Gama Bomb are more Tankard than Slayer – similar in lyrics and style to Municipal Waste and most definitely ready to rock. Geek and pop culture references abound, and it’s as much a pleasure picking them out and chuckling to yourself as it is listening to the fine thrash on offer. The riffs are tight and assault your ears like machine gun fire, nodding to just about every previous thrash metal band and throwing in a few nuances of their own. There are many stand-out tracks on “Citizen Brain” but if you want a highlight it’s hard to overlook the genuinely funny “Zombi Brew” – hey, zombies like to get pissed too!
Candiria: Kiss the Lie
This is a bit of a cheat actually because it wasn’t technically released in 2008. The album has been completed for two years, but record labels being the money-grabbing *bleeps* that they are decided not to release it seeing as the band had pretty much given up touring. And it’s a crying shame. Eventually released this year through iTunes, “Kiss the Lie” is an astonishing record of post-hardcore frailty and New York stomp. There’s little here that harks back to the hip-hop-jazz-fusion of “300 Percent Density”, but the progression from album to album is obvious. After the (understandably) lackluster “What Doesn’t Kill You”, this is the real Candiria.
10. Belleruche: The Express
I loved “Turntable Soul Music” and this is pretty much more of the same. Perhaps a little bluesier and harder-edged in places, but still that post-Portishead vibe with a real flare for genuine soul. I listened to a lot of new electronica and soul this year, but nothing to hit the top ten. Interestingly if I extended it out to a top twenty or thirty, you’ll find TM Juke and Quantic and Jamie Lidell floating around out there, but the top ten is largely all-metal. And that really tells you how strong Belleruche’s sophomore album is. Lead single “Anything You Want… Not That” is so sultry it should be made illegal. Compared to Portishead’s unrelentingly grim “Third”, this is the flipside of the DJ/guitarist/female vocalist sound. Mmmm, nice.
9. Blind Melon: For my Friends
Blimey, who saw this one coming? Despite the recent controversy – and what a shame to lose Travis Warren after such a promising debut – this is an album that can stand shoulder to shoulder with it’s peers. The opening track, if you close your eyes, makes it easy to forget Shannon Hoon’s death, sounding like a lost track from their 1992 debut. From here the album takes a few different turns, with vocalist Warren making it his own and managing to bridge the stylistic gap between “Blind Melon” and “Soup”. Wishing Well is a gem of a track, one of the best the band have written, but the album as a whole is incredibly strong. It’s not quite as good as “Soup” but it had no right to even be close. 12 years was a long time to wait – let’s hope they don’t take so long to record the next one.
8. Meshuggah: obZen
If you’ve been following Meshuggah’s career so far then it might have been easy to predict this album’s direction. Feeling tighter and more direct than either “Catch 33″ or the “I” EP, it nonetheless draws heavily on the band’s recent affinity for spaced-out electronics to complement the usual death metal battery. Still arguably leaders in a field of one, Meshuggah’s real strength is in delivering complex atonal polyrhythms without forgetting to write songs. Some of these tracks are just downright catchy. The biggest and most pleasant surprise here is Thomas Haake’s return to the drum kit, ditching his programmed beats and producing something even more technical: “Bleed” is easily one of the most challenging pieces of drumming commited to tape.
7. Nachtmystium: Assasins, Black Meddle Part 1
Ah, the true evolution of the American black metal sound. Nachtmystium have been quietly shaping their own sound away from the ears of most black metal fans, but with this album they have delivered a killer collection of songs. This is far from traditional black metal territory and, much like Enslaved, they aren’t afraid to experiment. There’s plenty of Pink Floyd influences here, including some tasteful saxophone to close the album out. The clue is in the title really, and that’s largely what makes this such a pleasure to listen to; like with all good albums, you keep picking out new sounds and textures with repeat listens. Definitely one to savour with a nice bottle of wine I think.
6. The Gutter Twins: Saturnalia
Wow, this came straight outta leftfield. The long-promised collaboration between former Screaming Tree and Queens of the Stone Age collaborator Mark Lanegan and Afghan Whigs mainman Greg Dulli was finally released at the back end of this year. And the wait, my friends, was well and truly worth it. The opening two tracks alone are some of the finest acoustic-led melancholy songwriting you’ll hear in this or any other year. Lanegan’s bowel-rumbling delivery (I’m sure he’s dropped another octave) is the perfect counterpoint to Dulli’s fey drawl, and the music draws heavily on the work of Nick Cave and his ilk. Lush strings, tasteful rock-out electric guitars, and the occasional use of electronics build a vivid picture that would work quite happily as the soundtrack to an unreleased David Lynch film. Haunting and beautiful in equal measure.
5. Keep of Kalessin: Kolossus
Obsidian Claw, shredmeister and pretty boy of black metal, has returned with another slab of lightning-fast, Le Guin-quoting metal. Opening track proper “A New Empire’s Birth” features probably my favourite riff of the year, mixing classic heavy metal chord progression with some seriously quick tremolo picking – nice! Thebon sounds like he’s commanding a legion of warriors throughout, barking and screaming his tales of dark fantasy. I’ve listened to this so much this year already, and although I still think Armada is the better album – just – with Kolossus I think we can safely put Keep of Kalessin in the top tier of black metal.
4. Metallica: Death Magnetic
I awaited the release of this album with some trepidation having been traumatised by “Saint Anger”. The very early live demos of some of the songs didn’t bode well, being a continuation of the same sound I was hoping they’d moved away from. How pleasant it was to discover that they bore no resemblance to what was on the actual album! Right from the off they bury the ghost of “Saint Anger” and then jump up and down on it just to be sure. There’s homages to Battery and Blackened on here, as well as – no, really – an instrumental. In summary, it’s better than both Megadeth’s and Slayer’s last albums and sits stylistically somewhere between “…And Justice For All” and the black album. Look, it’s just so much better than anyone could have hoped for, you really ought to put aside your prejudice and pick up a copy.
3. These Arms are Snakes: Tail Swallower and Dove
Previous album “Easter” is still on heavy rotation in my iPod, and this 2008 effort is likely to follow suit. Although they still sound a little too much like Fugazi for their own good, the fact that they’ve produced arguably better albums than those hardcore pioneers makes it more than forgivable. Mixing subtle electronic elements and just the right amount of melody with their rawk and roll, These Arms Are Snakes are exactly the sort of band I will keep coming back to. Second track “Prince Squid” is as tight a slab of “The Argument”-style post-hardcore as you’ll hear this year. “You want to be there” shouts frontman Steve Snere, and he’s absolutely right.
2. Made Out of Babies: The Ruiner
God, this was a close call. I had no idea this album was going to be as good as it turned out, especially given that 2008 has already produced a brace of fine hardcore albums. In the end Opeth won out, but “The Ruiner” is so very close to being a stone-cold classic. I think the combination of scary/beautiful is the album’s biggest strength, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Julie Christmas’ voice. With such atonal riffs to work around, she writhes and screams with passion and vulnerability, mixing raw emotion and cold distance with devastating effect. The times when they let their foot off the gas are welcome relief, drawn into sharp focus by the noise everywhere else on the album. It just pips “Tail Swallower and Dove” as the best hardcore album of the year, and is consistantly brilliant throughout.
1. Opeth: Watershed
Well, I guess it had to be really. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by anything Opeth have released and, although it’s not quite as good as previous album “Ghost Reveries”, “Watershed” is still a monumental piece of work. The loss of drummer Martin Lopez was a blow, but fellow Martin Mr. Axenrot has added a bit more pace to the Opeth sound, including a blast-beat on one of the tracks. Everything else is still present and correct, this album being more a refinement of the sound than a change in direction. I think that’s partially why “Ghost Reveries” stands out so much, but to ask them to shift up another gear after so many astonishing albums is being a bit picky. As with all Opeth releases the album works best as just that rather than a collection of songs, although opener “Coil” is quietly beautiful, complete with female vocals provided by Nathalie Lorichs. Top of the pile again.