Every year we sit down and try to cobble together the list of the best releases of the year. It's agonizing. It's painful. But somehow, it still manages to be fun. We invent ridiculous, imaginary criteria to narrow the list down, and even more nonsensical ways to provide some sort of order. But we've made it our own.
There are, inevitably, albums we missed, didn't listen to enough, or were just completely unaware of until it was too late. With that, here are the Top 20 Albums of 2015:
10. Amorphis - Under The Red Cloud. They've long been the model for consistency in the metal world, churning out solid album after solid album. But this wasn't just another brick in a sturdy wall of records; Under The Red Cloud is a defining moment for the second stage of their career. Amorphis have embraced every nuance of their sound, and have made an album that, while still containing some of the heaviest elements of their back catalog, has focused on their keen ears for melody and masterful songwriting.
9. He Whose Ox Is Gored - The Camel The Lion The Child. First, a confession. This album sat in our inbox for far too long. It burned a hole in our desk. Every day was the next in a series of, "Today, I'll get there." But with the first listen, we knew we were wrong to wait as long as we had. It stands as one of the most complete albums of the last few years, a spit in the face to modern music industry focus on singles. And in doing so, it defies genre tagging and the nonsensical "sounds like" arguments. He Whose Ox Is Gored are doing something all their own, and doing it well.
8. Enslaved- In Times. Much of what we've said about Amorphis also applies to Enslaved; they've undergone a great deal of change and progression over the course of a career free from duds. In Times is further proof that evolution doesn't have to mean compromise; it can be dynamic, and for the better. Those still expecting crushing, viking-esque black metal anthems may not find what they're looking for here. But they won't be disappointed. If you're a fan of anything and everything in the quarter century this band has been productive, you won't ever be given reason to stray.
7. Draconian - Sovran. It's fine to admit that we fear change. When Lisa Johansson left the fold, I'm sure we weren't alone in thinking Draconian may never truly be the same. And, to a degree, we were right.The addition of new vocalist Heike Langhans wasn't just a band filling a void; they were moving on to something greater than we could have hoped. Sovran is a triumph of an album, fusing together melodies and morose in a way few bands can really claim to. By album's end, you weren't pining for the days of one singer over another. You've accepted them as different, but both equally inspiring.
6. Sannhet - Revisionist. We've seen numerous mentions of this album on the "best albums you didn't hear" type lists, and that begs a question. If no one heard it, how has the praise been so widespread and positive? From rave reviews in Pitchfork, to glowing accounts from live show attendees, Sannhet seem to be doing damn near everything right. Instrumental metal that can carry and convey emotion without the need for epic, borderline-too-long song structures, and all the while keep you in awe of how easily they make it come together? Sounds like something more people should be touting as one of their favorite albums of the year.
5. Swallow The Sun - Songs From The North I, II & III. First and foremost, beyond any sort of "journalistic" tendencies we may (try) to show, we are fans of music. Swallow The Sun has long occupied a space in our pantheon, and Songs From The North did a tremendous amount of good solidifying that place. Three distinct and varied styles, all of which are executed to an astonishing degree. Where many bands try and fail to deliver one solid, front to back record, the pride of Finland gave us three. And while quantity will NEVER trump quality, that isn't even a remote concern when you hit play.
4. Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss. We can have the metal or not debate a another time, in another place. Chelsea Wolfe's Abyss was as dark and heavy as damn near anything else released this year, on this or any other list. I have no problem admitting that we came late to this party, but hearing Carrion Flowers was more than enough to brings chills down our spines. There is a great deal of emotional investment you have to surrender to listen to this record, and every ounce you put in is returned tenfold. It's mood music, the way good metal should be.
3. So Hideous - Laurestine. The hype train has a way of killing good albums. You wait so long for it to come, and by the time it does, your expectations have become unreasonable. Fortunately, that same hype train can't kill great albums. So Hideous had, by our estimation, one of the most anticipated records of the end of the year, and Laurestine delivered in every possible way. They've torn down the walls that confine traditional and mass produced metal, infused it with cinematic soundscapes and dared you to try to turn away. We couldn't. And we don't think you would either.
2. Melted Space - The Great Lie. Ah yes, the fabled metal opera. We did what humans do, and prejudged the album before ever pressing play. We knew exactly what it'd sound like, having heard it all before. But when Pierre Le Pape assembled his cast of characters, he changed the entire stigma of the metal opera. This isn't the same old formula, up tempo and bright; this is a well crafted story, acted out by some of the most talented vocalists in metal today. It's unrelenting and powerful, whether in the midst of a ballad or a crushing, death metal voiced orchestra. It's not what you expect, and everything you wanted.
1. Malnatt - Swinesong. When our mid-year list came out, we had the nagging feeling we'd forgotten something. Sure, we were happy with our choices, but it felt wrong. We had forgotten Malnatt. Whether they make another album or not, Swine-song will stand as a testament to a different tier of heavy music. Even a half-assed translation of the lyrics prove to more thought provoking and earnest than we've come to expect from our metal heroes. And the musicianship, as tight and deft as it is, only enriches the experience. Malnatt have long been innovators in their blackened metal craft, and if this is the end of their journey, oh, to make such an end.