The Best Albums of the Past 10 Years

Those of you who know me will know that music is a deeply integral part of my life, from listening to performing to composing. Even as a child, I knew there was a magic in music, something that spoke deeply to my soul and lifted me up, even out of the deepest depressions.

As my musical tastes evolved from classical to rock and metal, I’ve never stopped enjoying everything that I’ve ever liked, and what’s wonderful about this is that I have only an ever-expanding list of music that truly bring me joy. And the best of that music, the songs, works and albums that stand head and shoulders above the rest, are those I would take with me truly to a desert island – they are those I could not live my life without.

There has been a great deal of incredible music released over the past ten years, and I feel that the beginning of 2020 is an apt time to look back on the last decade, sift through the hundreds of albums I’ve amassed in my library, and see which ones spoke to me deeply, truly, and with heartfelt passion. It was no easy task, but I was finally able to whittle it down to ten albums that, for me, are the essential highlights of the 2010s.

10. Ritual – In This Moment

Ritual, released 2017

In This Moment are a band I’ve kept a close eye on ever since I heard the title song from their album, Beautiful Tragedy. There was something raw and powerful about Maria Brink’s angst-ridden vocals, and although there were issues with her tone and pitching, I knew this was a band that could truly come to the forefront of the alt-metal scene with a bit of practice.

The good news is, Brink has definitely been practicing. Album after album her vocals improved, as did the songwriting, and slowly a mix of genres begin to find their way into the scream-ridden despair of their music. 2014’s Black Widow was a masterpiece of bleak, gothic metal, dripping with rage and fear, but it was with Ritual, in 2017, that I felt they’d truly come into their own. With influences as wide-ranging as blues and pop, and a cameo appearance by Judas Priest’s very own Rob Halford, it sounds nothing so much as if Adele were tortured, nailed to an upside-down cross, and force-fed to a wild pack of wolves – and I love it. Ritual is, so far, their crowning masterpiece, and for me one of the best alt-metal albums of the decade.

9. Black Labyrinth – Jonathan Davis

Black Labyrinth, released 2018

Ever a fan of Korn’s low-tuned nu metal antics, I was curious to see what frontman Jonathan Davis’ first solo album would be like. Would it be a Korn 2.0? Would it be 80s alternative? Would it just be a rip-off of whatever bands came before Korn?

The answer, oddly, is a bit of all of that. More personal than Korn, and indeed at times darker (imagine that!), Black Labyrinth is a journey through the mind of a deeply hurt, guilt-ridden and exhausted person – someone who’s been through all the shit the world could throw at him, and still keeps coming back for more. Nowhere is this more evident than on tracks such as Happiness and Your God, with Davis cursing the vile minds surrounding him for stripping him of joy, faith, and humanity. Musically, the style is reminiscent of Korn, but if Korn had started in the early 80s rather than the 90s, and the influence of his childhood music is evident here. The opening to Underneath My Skin sounds like it could have been taken straight from an early Sisters of Mercy track, and the deep bass riff of What You Believe could have been a Michael Jackson bass line, distorted and on speed.

More than this, though, this album connected deeply with me emotionally, the lyrics relatable and meaningful to someone who also struggles with mental illness, addiction, and finding self-worth. Davis truly poured himself into this album, and it shows.

8. Hammer of the Witches – Cradle of Filth

Hammer of the Witches, released 2015

Ever since their seminal debut, Cradle of Filth have set the bar for melodic black metal, and whilst they’ve had their ups and downs in the quality of their output over the years, there are a few albums that stand out as true masterpieces of the genre, blending gothic style, brutal riffs, searing vocals and orchestral flourishes into something straight out of hell.

Hammer of the Witches is one of these. Opening as they so often do with an orchestral prelude, we’re thrown to the beast immediately with the first true track, Yours Immortally …, and while the following tracks are excellent examples of Cradle of Filth’s mix of horror and the gothic, when we get to Blackest Magick in Practice we’re treated to a truly gorgeous riff – something straight out of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue, leading relentlessly onward over the course of nearly seven minutes to a flourishing finish, laden with razor-sharp solos and soaring female vocals.

The rest of the album is equally enjoyable, and for its 57-minute run time it never feels dull or drawn-out. Every song is unique, yet instantly identifiable, and is unreservedly their best album of the past ten years.

7. The Ninth Hour – Sonata Arctica

The Ninth Hour, released 2016

Over the years, Sonata Arctica have stayed in the running for one of my favorite bands of all time. When they’re bad they’re good, and when they’re good they’re nothing short of musical perfection.

That being said, they’ve suffered in recent years from a series of lackluster albums, experimenting with various compositional aspects, failing as often as they succeeded. Ever since 2009’s The Days of Grays (to this day my favorite album of theirs), they followed with Stones Grow Her Name, with some odd songs and odder production, and Pariah’s Child, which frankly had some very silly stuff on it.

After two albums of, I hate to say, disappointment, I really didn’t have high expectations for The Ninth Hour. Perhaps that was a good thing, because it blew me away. Whilst they remain far from the best lyricists in the world, the sensitivity and delicate treatment of their quieter moments, juxtaposed with the fast-paced, juggernaut power metal they built their reputation on, made for an astonishingly good album. Even at 62 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the middle of the album – typically reserved for a band’s weakest songs – are supported by the deeply sad Til Death Do Us Part and the ever-so-delicate Among the Shooting Stars. Even the 10-minute sequel to White Pearl, Black Oceans feels natural and thought-out, and the gentle, almost tragic subtlety of On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal), borrowing from the lyrical and musical themes of the opening track, is an absolutely perfect end to a nearly perfect album.

7. Shadows of the Dying Sun – Insomnium

Shadows of the Dying Sun, released 2014

Winter’s Gate aside, Insomnium are not a band who veer too far from their tried-and-true formula for making albums. You always get a short opening track that builds to lead directly into the second track, invariably the catchy, riff-laden single, before veering away into longer, more cerebral songs. Shadows of the Dying Sun is no exception, but the difference here is that where many of their previous albums’ later songs are somewhat interchangeable, each track on this album stands out in its own right, placed exactly where it should be, and following each other in a very natural order.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that Shadows of the Dying Sun is so far Insomnium’s best work, and make them for me one of the strongest staples of the melodic death metal scene. From the lyrical and memorable chorus of While We Sleep to the roaring fury of Black Heart Rebellion, and even the upbeat and encouraging Ephemeral, every moment of this album is crafted and tailored with care to ensure that ever song is as important as the next. There are perhaps better albums than this in the past decade, but something keeps drawing me back to this release – something honest, melancholic and yet hopeful.

5. The Book of Souls – Iron Maiden

The Book of Souls, released 2015

When Bruce Dickinson returned to the fold in 2000, bringing Adrian Smith with him to complete a triple-lead guitar lineup, it was to create one of their most masterful albums ever – the seminal Brave New World. Taking inspiration from their attempts at progressive metal in the 90s, and blending it with the melodic and bouncing riffs of the 80s that put them on the map, Brave New World was a sensation, truly proving that even an aging 80s metal band could still have something important to contribute to the world of music.

The succeeding releases, however – Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death and The Final Frontier – were progressively less impressive, harkening back to the unfortunate days when Blaze Bailey was on vocals and nobody could take them seriously. So when Iron Maiden announced that they would be releasing a double album including an 18-minute track about a British airship disaster, I was hard-pressed to think anything good could come out of it.

I have never been so glad to be so wrong. The Book of Souls is Iron Maiden’s most cohesive, structured and ambitious release ever, and if it becomes their swansong, it would be an absolutely perfect one. From the moment the ominous drone of If Eternity Should Fail, leading to Dickinson’s operatic vocal solo, to the epic finale of Empire of the Clouds, there isn’t a dud on the album – despite its massive 93-minute runtime. The true standout track, however, is The Red and the Black; over 13 minutes long, it contains one of the longest – and best – Iron Maiden rock-outs ever, with solo after solo coming fast and furious from all three guitarists, and Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris keeping a rollicking drum and bass rhythm that only urges the song further forward. Second to Brave New World, this is hands-down one of Iron Maiden’s best albums. Ever.

4. Feel the Misery – My Dying Bride

Feel the Misery, released 2015

My Dying Bride have literally never had a bad album. Even the somewhat contentious, electronic-tinged effort 34.788% … Complete in 1998 is still one of my favorites, and they’ve only matured and improved as the years have gone by.

That being said, their previous release, A Map of All Our Failures, was surprisingly brutal and heavy, even for a doom metal band, and whilst I learned to enjoy it over time, it still comes across as a little too harsh to me.

So when they released Feel the Misery in 2015, I was worried about the direction they were going in; were they returning to the more death metal roots from whence they came?

I need not have worried. Feel the Misery is quite possibly their most gloomy, melancholic album to date. It’s also one of their most concise, consisting of only eight tracks, most of which are under six minutes long. And whilst the first three, somewhat more epic tracks, flow smoothly into each other and have each their magic moments, it’s really when we get to the title track that you realize just how masterful this album truly is. Not only are A Thorn of Wisdom and I Celebrate Your Skin some of My Dying Bride’s most unique tracks ever, the penultimate song, I Almost Loved You, is on the level of 1996’s Gods of the Sun‘s closer, For My Fallen Angel. One of the saddest albums of the decade, this is truly one that will live in my hall of fame.

3. Endless Forms Most Beautiful – Nightwish

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, released 2015

I’ve always loved Nightwish’s bombastic, symphonic power metal, but when they started recording with live orchestras in 2002 with Century Child, they really became a different beast altogether. Never looking back, Nightwish have gone from strength to strength, even through three different vocalists, and when they released the concept album Imaginaerum in 2011, I didn’t think they’d be able to top it.

I was wrong. 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, is all that Imaginaerum was, and more. Not quite a concept album, the songs are more loosely based around the magic and wonder of the natural universe, with several songs directly referencing evolution as the most wondrous thing to ever occur in the history of time.

But beyond the lyrical content, the songs themselves are perfectly balanced, the orchestra blending seamlessly into the metal to the extent that neither one would work without the other. Every song is crafted masterfully, and the closer – the 24-minute epic The Greatest Show on Earth – is perhaps the album’s highlight, featuring spoken words from Richard Dawkins, blends of whale song and lion roars, and a dark, atmospheric piano opening that builds and builds to a massive crescendo by the final third of the song.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is not only one of the best symphonic metal albums of the decade, it is truly one of the best albums, period.

2. .5: The Gray Chapter – Slipknot

.5: The Gray Chapter, released 2014

Slipknot are an unstoppable force; beyond a band, they spawned an entire culture around their music, affectionally calling their fans ‘maggots’, and taking their time between releases, ensuring that every album and song they create is nothing more than sheer perfection, a soundscape of rage and despair that echoes into the souls of millions, bringing people closer together through their shared love of this band. In recent years they’ve toured endlessly, released We Are Not Your Kind to critical acclaim, and seem stronger than they’ve ever been.

This wasn’t always the case. When original bass player Paul Gray overdosed in 2010, it seemed that Slipknot’s career might well be over. Coming only two years after the release of their fourth album, All Hope Is Gone, the band, ever a family, were thrown into despair, and it was unclear if they would ever be able to recover.

Coming on the heels of this tragedy, in 2013 Slipknot also lost their longtime (and famed) drummer, Joey Jordison. At first there was a great deal of rumor and conflict around the exact reason for his departure, and although it was later revealed that a neurodegenerative disease had been a factor, the animosity between the band’s members had never been higher.

So when it was announced that they were working on a fifth album, it wasn’t clear whether or not they’d be able to work through the pain, the grief and the rage, and come up with something that could top their previous four efforts. But of course, Slipknot delivered. And not only did they deliver, they did so in the only way they knew how: by dedicating the album to their lost companions.

.5: The Gray Chapter is a requiem to Paul Gray, and from Corey Talor’s powerful opening lines (“I don’t want to get back up / But I have to, so it might as well be today”) it was immediately clear that here was a band that not only refused to give up, but found strength in despair and courage in the face of tragedy. To me, .5: The Gray Chapter is Slipknot’s totemic masterpiece, a testament to grief, rage, loss and renewal that can – and will – never be topped.

1. Heritage – Opeth

Heritage, released 2011

And so we come to our number one album of the past ten years. For those of you who know me, you should know that Opeth are hands-down my favorite band of all time, so it may come as no surprise that I would cite one of their four albums this decade as my number one favorite. Yet with Heritage, Opeth took a hard left turn into uncharted musical territory, and along that path, turned into something so far removed from the Opeth of yore that it might as well be a wholly different band.

Completely abandoning the progressive death metal that has served them so well for nearly 20 years, Heritage is a look back to the 70s prog influences that had hitherto only been hinted at. Inspired by bands such as Genesis and King Crimson, the songwriting is intricate, complex, and masterful. Each song feels like a session improvisation, and yet with such meticulous attention to detail that it could only have been written and planned over months, with blood, sweat and tears poured into it.

On top of that, the production of this album is quite simply exquisite. From barely audible flutes to roaring rock organs and crunchy guitars, this isn’t an album to listen to lightly; in fact, some of it is almost unlistenable except with very good headphones, or an expensive sound system. And oh, is it worth it to listen to it like this! The sound and production is as much an art here as the notes that make the songs themselves, and despite continuing this style throughout the rest of the decade, they have simply never topped this first ‘new’ Opeth album.

Thought of the Week: Poor Drummers

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Yeah. I have a big kit.

Let me preface this by saying that I am a music snob. I require my music to have depth, meaning and thought. Though my tastes lean heavily towards metal and anything before 1900, I am not closed to other styles of music per se; I simply find that most styles of music are…how to put this tactfully…banal. (Somehow despite this, I find jazz unpalatable. Sorry.)

Britney who?

Britney who?

This is why I find myself disliking ‘artists’. I don’t like Britney Spears’ music. I don’t like Justin Timberlake’s music. I’m impartial to Madonna’s. Why? Because their music either isn’t theirs, or is utterly trite. Although their style isn’t aligned with my personal tastes, I do like The Black Eyed Peas; I do like Eminem. I grudgingly like Oasis. I’d like Kelly Clarkson if she stopped writing about breaking up with her boyfriends. Their music comes from a different place; it comes from passion, or from beliefs, but most importantly, from them. Marshall Mathers has written or co-written every one of his songs. The Black Eyed Peas are a self-made band, both performing and writing together. Oasis are…well, Oasis.

So what do I admire? I admire composers. This is probably because I am a composer myself. I see (and know) the sweat and the tears that go into writing a good – good – song, be it vocal, metal, orchestral or anywhere in between. I was raised listening to Bach and Beethoven and Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and the ingenuity these people had – the extraordinary creativity – astounds me to this day. Ultimately this is what drew me to metal, because I see that same drive, passion and compositional talent there as well. Some metal is formulaic, or course, and some of it is banal – as is some of any genre of music. But by and large, there is a great difference in mentality.

Still, in all areas of music there are people who go uncredited, under-appreciated and unseen. In pop, it is usually the original songwriters. In classical music, it’s ironically often the performance artist. In avant-garde experimental music, it’s everybody.

And in rock, metal and any other band-based style, it’s the drummer.

Poor drummers.

As any drummer will tell you, the drummer is the core of the band, the foundation and backbone without which the entire thing would collapse in on itself. The drummer is a technically better and more proficient musician than any other part of the band. Singers only have one thing to do; guitarists have two (strumming and fingering); bassists have nothing to do; but a drummer has to deal with four separate limbs doing four separate things, at the same time, in time with each other – and sometimes singing as well. Just think about that for a moment.

These poor guys and girls are chronically underrepresented and unseen. The bands themselves, of course, would bow down to their drummer (or they should, anyway), and go out of their way to allow the drummer the spotlight on stage (think epic drum solos), but outside of the arena no one seems to care about them.

So to rectify that, here are ten of my favorite, most respected drummers:

  1. Martín López – Opeth

Not only is Martín my favorite drummer, he’s from my favorite band, so that kind of makes him a double-favorite. All the members of Opeth are musically talented, but Martín’s knack for seeming to hit more than four pieces of kit at a time boggles my mind. Perhaps he plays with his face. Check him out:

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  1. Joey Jordison – Slipknot

If anyone epitomizes the hardcore drummer, it’s Joey Jordison. He can freaking play drums upside-down in a cage. And he wears a terrifying mask. And his kit is bigger than lower Manhattan. Oh, and he’s in Slipknot. Did I mention that?

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  1. Nicko McBrain – Iron Maiden

First of all, yes – that’s his real name. That right there is enough to make him awesome. The second thing that makes him awesome is that he plays barefoot. Really – watch them live sometime! He’s been the steady tub-thumping time-keeper for Iron Maiden for – count ’em – thirty-one years, and he’s as perfect today (age 60!) as the day he joined Maiden.

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  1. Bill Ward – Black Sabbath

We wouldn’t have Iron Maiden without Black Sabbath, and Bill’s role in the distortion-drenched blues of the band’s formative years is undeniable. Listen to him play War Pigs and tell me he isn’t amazing:

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  1. Evelyn Glennie

I had the opportunity to see Evelyn Glennie in concert once, and it was one of the most profoundly astonishing performances I’ve ever seen. She’s not strictly a drummer, playing instead a vast range of percussion instruments, but her talent is unmatched. Oh, and she’s deaf.

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  1. David Gray – Akercocke

The drummer of any black metal band probably deserves to be up here, but for sheer technical ability there is no substitute for Akercocke. Stylistically they’re about as extreme as black metal gets, yet still willing to push the boundaries of the genre. As for David Gray…see for yourself.

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  1. Dave Grohl – Nirvana (not his own band!)

Before Dave Grohl was Dave Grohl, he was the drummer for Nirvana. Kurt Cobain killing himself was arguably the best thing that could have happened to Dave (I might be struck by lightening for that), so it’s a little unfair to call him an ‘unrecognized’ drummer. However…he’s a really nice guy, but I still reckon he’s better behind the kit than in front of it.

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  1.  Mike Portnoy – Dream Theater

Mike Portnoy will probably be remembered as the guy who pissed off the world’s entire prog-rock audience by leaving Dream Theater for, of all things, Avenged Sevenfold. Urgh. Nonetheless, he is a superb drummer, as any footage of any Dream Theater concert anywhere and any time will demonstrate (is that three kick drums I see?):

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  1. Doktor Avalanche – The Sisters of Mercy

Okay, so Doktor Avalanche isn’t a drummer, but for someone who doesn’t play drums, he plays drums pretty well. He’s very precise – almost like a machine. A machine…that plays drums. What an invention – if only it’d been around in the 80s!

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  1. Shane Rout – Abyssic Hate

It’s not likely you’ve heard of this drummer; it’s not likely you’ve heard the music of Abyssic Hate; it’s not likely you’ll ever find it on iTunes. Shane Rout is (possibly was) a misanthropic megalomaniacal nut, but the impressive thing (if there is one) is that he was the whole band. He once said that 99.9% of humans should be exterminated, and that the point of his music was for people to be “entranced by the sounds they hear, and blow their head off with a shotgun.” Pleasant guy. I haven’t seen any updates about him in seven years, so it’s quite possible he’s dead.

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Who are you favorite drummers? Who do you feel is criminally unrecognized? Let me know!

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Thought of the Week: Heavy Metal Silliness

Iron Maiden, in all their aging glory.

Iron Maiden, in all their aging glory.

I came across a fascinating tidbit yesterday about a catholic school and its radio station. Certain heavy metal bands, it seems, are not allowed to be played or mentioned because of the moniker the band members chose to take. Quite a few of them are pretty vulgar and I won’t repeat them here, but some just made me laugh, because they are actually pretty popular – Alien Sex Fiend, Cannibal Corpse, Cradle of Filth, and even Heaven Shall Burn. If metal is completely not your bag, baby, then bear in mind that Alien Sex Fiend (completely not metal, but whatever) reached #3 in the UK charts with E.S.T. (Trip to the Moon) in 1984; Cannibal Corpse had a glorious cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and even Heaven Shall Burn write songs mainly about their disgust with racism and injustice.

Some of the most notorious songs are – notoriously – misunderstood by a surprisingly wide demographic.

However…it isn’t like we don’t bring it on ourselves (I include metal bands and fans together, because honestly there isn’t one without the other). Band names like Cannibal Corpse and Revolting Cocks (a side project of Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen; remember Ministry? Every Day is Halloween?) are, frankly, absurd. Granted, there is a strong element of provocation in heavy metal, which is one of the reasons the stricter religious sects are often so put out; religion is often a target of condemnation in metal lyrics (note: religion, not god). No one really likes to be called a hypocrite, and this sort of cynicism abounds in metal.

Some of the most notorious songs are – notoriously – misunderstood by a surprisingly wide demographic. Marilyn Manson was famously excoriated after the Columbine shootings for his song Get Your GunnGet Your Gunn, of course, is about the murder of physician and abortionist David Gunn in 1993 by a pro-life activist, and not, in fact, a suggestion to go out and get gunns. Even heavy metal choir boys Iron Maiden are often called out for the well-known The Number of the Beast, which naturally is about the fear of evil, and the hypocritical actions people take to protect themselves. The members of Iron Maiden are in fact outspoken christians.

Heavy metal has been a part of my life (has more or less defined it, in fact) since my early teens, and while there is a lot of ‘serious’ stuff out there, there are also some examples of spectacular silliness. Take German New York power metal band Manowar:

Just a tad disturbing, wouldn't you agree?

Just a tad disturbing, wouldn’t you agree?

These guys wrote a heavy metal song about playing heavy metal, and in an impressive display of sheer pig-headed stupidity managed to garner themselves three records for loudest band in the world (in 1984, 1994 and 2008), reaching as high as 139 dB. In case you’re wondering, this is about the equivalent of standing with your ear to the engine of a 747 during takeoff. Good stuff.

Rob Halford – none more metal.

Rob Halford – none more metal.

We even look silly, with our unkempt long hair, leather underwear and inability to appear even remotely appropriate for a job interview. We like to shock people, which is probably because we were all shy nerds in high school and want to get back at all the sliced-white-bread twerps that grew up to have 2.4 children, 2 cars, a dog and a six-figure salary.

So yes, catholic school – ban our music. I wouldn’t want Goatwhore playing in my own child’s school either, even though I blast in the car on the way to work every day (not really – I’d actually never heard of them). In fact, bravo for allowing heavy metal to air on their radio station at all. A lot of ‘non-denominational’ schools wouldn’t be so brave. Now if only we had some actual catholic heavy metal bands; Avenging Pope would be awesome.