My Top Comics of 2016

December 29, 2016

 

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10) Saga

Okay so one one hand I’ve been tempted to call Saga the most over-rated comic in conversation today but..here I am placing it on my list of best 2016 comics. There were a lot of other worthy titles shipping monthly this year that could have slotted here but ultimately Saga takes the spot because of that wide reach and enthusiastic embrace. It’s comics little ambassador, a book to prove to someone on the fence that comics are a viable and exciting medium today (though be careful because some of those gross out closeups are adults only). Brian K. Vaughn’s best work IMO remains Y the Last Man but Saga may become a close second depending on how it all wraps up.

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9) Wonder Woman

Will DC finally make a good movie post-Nolan? Maybe. Maybe. The previews for Wonder Woman look terrific and after losing her job as a global ambassador IRL (don’t get me started), we at least need a good WW comic. Azarello’s run a couple years ago started great and really played up the mythology but then seemed to derail. No one in recent years has really gotten Princess Diana so DC just went back to one of the last scribes to do so and now we have new Greg Rucka Wonder Woman issues, alternating the latest version of her origin story with a new tale month to month. Of the “trinity” this title is by far the best DC is currently doing though King’s take on Batman is not bad.

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8) Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets was one of indie comics most frustrating (and unintentional) cliffhangers in history. 40 issues or so of masterful storytelling and art self-produced by David Lapham and then…who’s in the trunk? Radio silence for a decade or more. Lapham did a few other things (including the also excellent Young Liars for Vertigo which faced the axe too soon and had a rushed ending) and then finally…Stray Bullets came back! He not only wrapped up that original arc and then released the whole series in a giant omnibus but he launched a series of continued stories featuring our favorite doomed miscreants. Each issue stands on it’s own, hits like a fist to the gut, but also ties together for the overall story.

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7) Nailbiter

Joshua Williamson continued his horror-fan homage with 11 or so more issues of Nailbiter this year. We’re still not sure what all lurks in and behind the town where so many serial killers are born but we may be getting closer. Along with a dozen or more siblings Nailbiter cemented Image Comics as the torchbearers of classic Vertigo storytelling.

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6) Archie

Though I read my fair share of Archie digests as a kid, I would never have thought in a million years past the age of 10 that Archie would be a worthy consideration in any “best of” list. Yet somehow the entire Archie line has managed to not only survive the digital age but thrive and evolve without losing the essence of why they worked in the first place. We got not only the almost adults-only zombie action of Afterlife With Archie and the Lovecraftian horror of Sabrina we also got the primary all-ages in-universe Archie line updated for a new generation in a non-pandering way. Mark Waid knows what makes these simple stories work and every issue this year was a blast to read.

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5) Paper Girls

If you watched Stranger Things and enjoyed it you should really check out Paper Girls as it touches the same spots in the nostalgic brain in different ways. Sci-fi, kids on bikes, a big mystery–what’s not to love? Oh and yeah, this is another BKV title and one that, at least this year, I liked better than Saga.

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4) Bitch Planet

In addition to being a great sci-fi story, an excellent commentary on society. a wholly new way of introducing gender studies and feminism, Bitch Planet is also a masterclass in the monthly comic. With the back-matter pieces, the letter column, and the overall presentation of each issue, Bitch Planet is a cover-to-cover joy every time an issue ships. Much like Orange is the New Black these are characters that once never got a fully-developed narrative arc and eye. Yet, in my opinion, Bitch Planet far out-ranks that Netflix original.

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3) Mockingbird

For a newcomer to the medium, writer Chelsea Cain seems to have an uncanny touch for maximizing the art of panel storytelling. Her bread and butter are thriller novels and Mockingbird, her modern take on Bobbi Morse (much more than Hawkeye’s girlfriend) was her first comics project. And it was awesome. Sadly, gamergate style knuckledraggers harassed the hell out of her on Twitter for things like the above cover and ultimately this project either didn’t sell or whatever because a year in and we’re done folks. But both arcs, especially the first, were awesome (5 issues that can be reread in any order to reveal new layers to a comic caper complete with multiple sight gags and Easter eggs!) Light-hearted and fun yet puzzle-box intricate Mockingbird was what comics are all about.

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2) The Vision

Part American Beauty part Watchmen, this doomed crime and family take on suburbia featuring the Avengers’ Vision and his self-fashioned synthetic family was the most outside of the box take on an established superhero of 2016. Tom King is a writer who comes to the field after leaving a career with the CIA (!) and the medium is lucky to have him. The Vision is his strongest work yet.

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1)  Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron gives us a gritty warts and all Gothic take on life in the south, specifically Alabama. His Alabama may be over the top but as a native who spent his formative years there he gets the uniqueness and love-hate ratio right for a gripping take on homecoming. Southern Bastards is never really the story you think it is and I’m not sure where things will end up though I doubt they end up happy this being a true and through noir and all. Latour’s pencils are original and provide a great aesthetic for this story.

 

My Top Albums of 2016

December 10, 2016

 

 

 

 

634934910) Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust

The Jayhawks have long since moved on from the bulk of the original twang present in their alt-country beginnings to a more 1970s radio aesthetic which really kind of suits them even better. Rainy Day Music was one of the downright prettiest albums of the ’00s and Paging Mr. Proust almost matched that this year. Mark Olsen’s vocals are just so gorgeous and the soft (but not weak) rock that supports those vocals is full of melody and melancholy. Put on “Isabel’s Daughter” or “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” and you’ll think you’re living in an alternate ideal version of 40 years ago.

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9) Cobalt: Slow Forever

I know the fans loved Gin and with the loss of the two-piece’s original singer most probably didn’t hold much hope for a follow-up album. Yet as raw and talented a vocalist as Wunder was, Cobalt is really drummer Phil McSorley’s band and project. This may be one of the only bands this side of jazz this truly drumcentric. The drums create the thunder and rhythm that propels this warbeast forward, intense and at times overwhelming. However, new vocalist Charlie Fell of Lord Mantis fame perfectly fits right in with an intensity fans of his previous work knew he could match. They work together excellently here (and live). Slow Forever adds swaths of blues, bayou, goth and folk to the black metal stew and in that finds a hauntingly unique sound. The ghost of Ernest Hemingway is present once more as he’s the spiritual father of Cobalt in the “Iconoclast” intro to the title track near the end of the record. Cobalt toured with excellent German upstart two-piece Mantar (whose Ode to the Flame this year was also fantastic) showcasing the power of the drum.

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8) Leonard Cohen: You Wanted Darker

Did we Leonard? Did we want darker? If so you certainly delivered. The opening title track might contain Cohen’s darkest imagery to date and that’s quite a feat for a cynic (or an optimist masked as a cynic) like Mr. Cohen. “Treaty” follows up without dialing it back. While listening to this record when it first came out I (like most others) had no idea we would soon lose Cohen. This album seems to be his making peace with death but as always he finds beauty in the darkness and hope in the hopelessness. Recorded minimally in his own home as he was dying he nevertheless sounds strong and timeless. The only other album to come close to this in stark desperation is Nick Cave‘s Skeleton Tree which somehow managed to find great music in the artist’s struggle to deal with the death of his teen son.

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7) Lydia Loveless: Real

They may market her as “Americana” which really nowadays just means “country that doesn’t suck” as mainstream Nashville continues to disintegrate culturally and musically (a long slow death that bro-country just put the cherry on) but Lydia Loveless is really just great damn country music, to me so good that she reminds you the genre is worthy of attention. Real is a perfect title for this album because that’s what she gives you-realness. Real stories, real emotions, real hope, real desperation, real feelings produced by honest lyrics, honest vocals and warm welcoming music.”Out on Love” was easily one of my most played songs this year.

 

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6) Subrosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Subrosa have been making captivating and unique music for years now and their latest record is their most creative yet. Musically they continue to mix doom metal, classic rock, classical, chamber, and indie to create complex, layered long-form songs (or movements). Lyrically this time around they use a (to most American readers) rather obscure Russian dystopian sci-fi novel from the 1920s as a jumping off point for songs of a near and all to close future of state suppression and loss of identity. Rebecca Vernon’s vocals sound stronger and more emotional than ever and violinists Sarah Pendelton and Kim Pack give listeners chills. Some of the best lyrics committed to music of any genre this year were on this record, phrases and codas that simply demand to be heard and felt.

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5) Anthrax: For All Kings

2016 was a year in which veterans of Thrash Metal decided to do their best work since their prime. Megadeth has been notoriously incapable of making a great record in a long time yet in February they released, to the surprise of everyone, their strongest work in more than two decades with Dystopia. Though it doesn’t reach the peaks of their classic 80s work (Rust in Peace) it was arguably as fun as their last great record (Countdown to Extinction).  Then near the end of the year, Metallica went and released their strongest record in more than 20 years as well with Hard Wired to Self-Destruct. Testament, though never considered in the “big 4” has actually been more consistent than any of them and kept their train rolling with Brotherhood of the Snake. Yet none of the above matched up to Anthrax’s For All Kings. which may very well be their best record EVER not just since their prime. The songs, riffs, vocals, drums, production and everything here is better consistently than anything they’ve ever committed to record. Anthrax has always been better live than on record (and if you got to see them on tour for this record you saw they haven’t lost it) but this time they matched the quality of those live performances on record. Anthrax in many ways are unique among their thrash peers and descendants in that (with vocalist Joey Belladonna) their vocals are closer to older pure “heavy metal” with soaring highs and melodic lows (no growls, barks or grunts to be found) and their lyrics are generally upbeat, positive and fun…heck even that “pentagram” on the cover and their merch is actually and “A” for “Anthrax” logo. Though a tad on the long side this record is a blast front to back with a fun joyful energy that is welcome even to the dourest of metalheads particularly in the pit. Who else can make calling out religious extremism and terrorism sound fun?

 

 

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4) A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it from Here Thank You 4 Your Service:

Wow we had De La Soul return this year AND a final album from Tribe? Other than those two it was a rather sparse year for hip hop (IMO) other than a few solid entries from DJ Khaled, Common and maybe Drake (though a last minute drop from J.Cole I’ve yet to digest is likely worth some time too).  Anyway, Tribe was far in the lead of the pack for Hip Hop and “We Got It From Here” works as a tribute to their fallen Phife Dog and a state of the nation address. Even with the politics and the weight of their fallen member there is an unmitigated joy to be found on here reminding us how much fun hip hop can be. The production on these tracks showcases the best use of samples, original beats and instrumentation combinations to be found in classic or modern rap music.

 

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3) Khemmis: Hunted

Doom Metal is often inaccessible to casual listeners–what with the extra long songs, repetitive riffs and often harsh vocals most of the modern classics of the subgenre are loved only by diehards. Pallbearer broke that mold a little bit over the past few years by finding a way to inject heavy doses of melody and outright beauty into the formula without sacrificing the heavy and Khemmis traverses that same path. Khemmis’ debut album Antediluvian just dropped last year and it was more than solid–yet here they are to immediately follow it up with an even stronger work. Hunted has fewer but longer songs than its predecessor and even more melody (clean vocals make up 85% or so of the singing) but the riffs are heavier, more intricate and catchier than ever. The lyrics are great too, and even the longest of songs here never meanders or even feels its length, nary a wasted or superfluous note to be found and that’s saying something for work this weighty. If you like what you hear on Spotify or whatnot, head over to 20BuckSpin and order this one on vinyl or CD as the packaging and booklet, artwork, etc. seems to add another level.

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2) Drive By Truckers: American Band

If not for Beyonce this would have been my pick of the year. I mean, DBT have long been my favorite modern band and this is the best album they’ve made in a decade. This is their most timely, topical, and mature work yet and each song catalogues the state of the world today in assured but often subtle and complex ways. Not to mention that it rocks, the band sounds tighter and more focused than ever. DBT mixes the classic sounds of Exile era Stones, original (and hippy) line-up Skynard, bar band era Springsteen and witty, turn of phrase lyrics that evoke classic Dylan and nineties college rock. “Ramon Casiano” is an excellent opener and one of Cooley’s best ever, Hood’s “What It Means” eulogy for Trevon Martin and other black victims of gun violence, the sly repudiation of those who defend the confederate flag “Surrender Under Protest” and the immigrant history of “Ever South” stretch the focus of DBT’s keen eye for detail to the entire nation. A truly great and new statement across the board from one of America’s finest touring and recording bands working right now.

 

beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_cover1) Beyonce: Lemonade

I know I sound like a copycat to say it but Lemonade was my favorite record of 2016 by far. So many others are saying the same thing so one would be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of critical contagion, an opinion spreading that takes over or whatever. All I know is that I’ve been a Beyonce fan her entire career and while she’s had many great songs she’s never had a great full album…until now. I knew from the first time I heard these tracks last summer this would be my pick of the year barring an unforeseen upset and here we are at the end of the year and only one other album has even come close (see above). I’ll also disclose this–I haven’t seen the videos. I know this is a video album and I’m sure that adds an entire other level to the experience but I simply haven’t yet. I’ll likely purchase a 2 disc copy at some point to get those but just judging the songs as they are I’m confident in declaring this my winner. Each song works on its own and as part of a stellar overall whole. The crossover layers of genre, nods to outside art, the detailed inner journey of the artist–the production, the guest spots, the lyrics, everything works completely. There’s not a wasted or skippable moment to be found and declaring THE best moment is even difficult as I found “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom” to each be equally fantastic…but then again everything surrounding those few highlights is top-notch as well. Who’d have thought it? A true album-lovers album delivered in 2016 by a world-famous popstar released initially through a niche streaming service and accompanied by HBO videos.

Honorable Mentions:

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AMSG-Hostis Universi Generis/Gevurah-Hallelujah/Myrkur-Masoleum/Inquisition-Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith

Black Metal has always been the most controversial, least accessible and most aggressive subgenre of them all and while it moves into its third decade or so of existence many may argue (as they did with punk) it is no longer “really” black metal if it’s being made today particularly in North America. Whatever. It is true that it has moved away from it’s original birthplace and pretensions in many ways. The last few years have found black metal to be experimental, complex and diverse in a multitude of ways from the identities of its performers to their philosophical leanings and instruments. This year Chilean to US transplants Inquisition made their best record yet; female multi-instrumentalist Myrkur stripped songs from last year’s great M. album and added a few covers–recording them live in a mausoleum backed by a girl’s choir. Her hauntingly beautiful vocals sing the songs in her native Danish language and showcase black metal as high art. Two of the year’s best BM records came from Canada–Gevurah‘s esoteric and challenging Hallelujah and best of all AMSG’s disturbing, terrifying and captivating Hostis Universi Generis.

Other Notable Mentions: Experimental post-metal artists Neurosis made their most accessible yet uncompromising work yet with  Fire Within Fires, Veteran sludge metal band showcase riffs galore with Crowbar: The Serpent Only Lies, Meshuggah perfected their formula decades in with The Violent Sleep of Reason, Neko Case and pals Laura Veir and K.D. Lang showed everyone how to actually do a “supergroup” with Case/Lang/Veir, American R&B proved more exciting than hip hop for the year with, in addition to Beyonce, great new albums from Maxwell, Alicia Keys, and Frank Ocean and speaking of hip hop–I almost forgot Common’s Black America Again. I’m leaving a lot out as it was one of metal’s strongest underground years ever and there was even great new jazz to be found.

 

Best Albums of 2012

December 14, 2012

So it’s that time of year again, the time everyone rolls out their top picks and I’m starting with my top 10 overall best album list. I’ll follow this up with my top 10 Metal Albums, top 10 Hip Hop and R&B Albums, and Top 25 Songs lists over the next month. By January or early in that month I’ll have the top 10 Comics/Graphic Novels as well as (once I’ve had a chance to see as many of them as I can as they are slowly released in prep for award season) top 10 Films. Thanks for reading and fell free to comment with your own picks!

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10) Beach House – Bloom

Like a bubble bath with a glass of cognac after a hard day, Beach House music is a warm, sensory soothing full immersion. Chill-wave  dream pop, synth music that is the best de-stress record of the year. Looking at my i-tunes play counts I see that I didn’t play another record anywhere near as often as I did Bloom. Of course, it’s at the number 10 spot so I’m not saying that it is the absolute best album of the year, just that it serves a particular function very well and apparently I needed to chill out quite often this year. Most of these tracks soak together and thus this works best as a one-piece deal (much like the next pick, but that’s the only thing these two albums share in common). There are a few stand-outs, notably the opening track “Myth,” which has the best lyrics of the batch and which sonically sets the scene for everything which follows. “Other People” bubbles up as a stand out in that the hooks and melodies come together terrifically and actually make for a sure-fire pop single. All in all, this is an arty relaxation session that edged out all other such competition, notably the almost-there album by Frankie Rose.

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9) Pig Destroyer – Book Burner

In direct contrast to the previous pick, Pig Destroyer unleashed a ferocity unchecked by anything else approaching “music.” A five year gap between albums has not slowed down this VA based grindcore band; though with age lead singer J.R. Hayes ear-shredding vocals might sound a little less ferocious and range pushing (perhaps the reason for a few guest-vocal spots?) as they were when they were so harrowingly employed on the debut album Prowler in the Yard, but that is only a matter of minor degrees in that he can still scream more jarringly yet oddly melodically than anyone else in the business. Grindcore is a form of music which pushes the boundaries of punk and metal to make something most folks would call “noise,” and most grindcore bands sound just as such. Pig Destroyer elevates the genre to a dark art, making quick, ferocious meditations on sanity and society that bury stellar guitar riffs under a mountain of rapid-fire drums and vocal howls. Throw in a scene solidifying dialogue sample here and there, organize all things under the banner of theme, this time around about book-based truth claims burnt altogether,and you have the best possible introduction to the band that you could ask for or another satisfying chapter in the discography for the long-time fans.

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8) Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy

This was the first great record I heard all year long. while wading through the crap the first month or so of the year offered after the end of year lists last year were complete; nothing popped new and good for my ear-buds until I heard this one. Nada Surf are an inde pop/rock band of some caliber, always a bit underground since their one-hit wonder status of “Popular” in the mid-nineties (which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded). They’ve released a series of earnest (in a good way) and literate (also in a good way) post-collegiate soft-to-mid rock with hooky choruses. I think this is their best album yet and there are a load of stand out tracks, especially “No Snow on the Mountain,” and “Waiting for Something.” This is a perfect growing up, ending your twenties and entering your thirties rumination record for anyone who came of age in the era of college radio.

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7) Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears

The best country album of the year, unquestionably–but I may be biased. That’s because most country artists fail to make worthwhile country music whereas Dwight always delivers. Perhaps I just am not a “country” fan, but I love the classic artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, etc.,. as well as a slew of superb alt-country border edgers, but it’s only in the folks like Dwight  Lyle, Steve Earle, and such that I hear genuine song craft  folky intelligence  and pop-infused catchiness that works as authentic country music and that doesn’t insult the senses or the intelligence. Dwight has never made a bad record, and this may very well be his  best overall album since his debut, though he’s certainly had a history of perfect singles and songs in the meantime. This is a snapshot album of everything Dwight and his band does best — ready for country radio singles like “Take Hold of My Hand” and “Waterfall” that could also play on the right rock, pop, or college radio station; a rip roaring cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” which roars and rocks harder than anything he’s ever done; beautiful mid-range ballads like “Nothing But Love” and “A Heart Like Mine; tear-jerkers sung soulfully and excellently like “It’s Never Alright” and “Long Way to Go,” and the perfect John Lennon pop tribute title track. A fun, musical homage and display to all great Yoakam influences and the absolute best country music made in 2012.

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6) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid m.A.A.d. City

Lamar is the best young rapper working in 2012. His potential is enormous. He plays with cliches and stereotypes but invokes uniqueness onto them. As such he is faulty in some sense and there are a lot of factors that kept me from wanting to include this record on my list, but in the end I just couldn’t avoid it. As a solid, cohesive statement this album simply does not fail as a whole, though pieces of it may a bit on their own.

First off, Lamar is a great rapper and all of the promise he showed on last year’s minor-label Section 80 comes to the big screen in a big way here on this concept album about growing up in the mean streets of Compton. This is all couched in narrative, opening in prayer and bringing that back near the end in the ghetto baptism “Sing For Me/Dying of Thirst.” But in between there are peer-pressure induced violent actions, hormonal gropings, over-indulgence and consumption–yet all with analytical eyes for detail which sociologically and spiritually break down the events and provides a warning to those who might follow suit. There’s the infamous backseat freestyle which is obviously mysognistic if not taken with a grain of salt and stepped back from to be seen as a recreation of a young dude with something to prove through an early rap.

The production from Dre, Pharell, and the rest all glosses artfully the work of a creative, interesting young artists who cetainly has faults but is also certainly aware of those faults–where he will go from here is the question. Will he fall into a cycle of the stereotypes and cliches  he toyed with and tried to attack with insight here, or will he find a way of rising above those cliches and steroteyps to make art withhis talent that is something from another place entirely?

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5) The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

This is a rather cheesy record in many aspects. It is not a bold, new statement, no matter what the pre-release hype might have promised. It is also in many ways not as good as the last few Gaslight records. But despite all that, it is excellent rock and roll. No one really makes rock and roll so straight-forward, romantic, fun, and unpretentiously as Gaslight does anymore. I had personally hyped up this album for myself so much so that after the first few spins it slipped down my list of faves for awhile, but over the past couple of months it has really grown on me. The lead off “45” single is solid, but “Muholland Drive” is fantastic. Many might find D”Mae” too much, but it hits the sweet spot that older Gaslight classics like “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” did so well. As always, this band channels the timeless ethos of pure rock and roll’s finest elements and delivers them with a punk twist.

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4) Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

So yeah, no new DBT album this year but we did get last minute live solo albums from Mike Cooley and ex-trucker Jason Isbell, and this–another excellent Patterson Hood solo album. Heat Lightning chronicles the downward spiral Hood had in his younger years as his first band and his first marriage both imploded, several friends and family members died, and he was generally down and out. Yet this is far from a depression only affair. Much of this is couched in hindsight and you get glimpses of the settled family-man and great band leader that he is now. You get pretty ballads with the likes of Kelly Hogan (“Come Back Little Star”) and general meditations on life, growing up and old, finding your way, knowing yourself and your place in history and the cosmos. This is an album born out of a scrapped auto-biography and it works as such but it works as excellent music as well. A really solid album, and all in all his best solo work yet.

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3) Bob Dylan – Tempest

I raved about this upon its release and I stay with that initial assessment. Another in a run of latter-day Dylan classics, following the thread established by Time Out of Mind and maintained with every release since. This one catches you right out of the gate on first spin and even the 13 minute Titanic reminiscence doesn’t get weighed down by its scope or length. Some great slow ones, some great fast ones, some solid blues throughout. Good stories sung in a ragged yet worth hearing voice.

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2) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

As he is  my favorite musician, I have to be careful in ranking albums by Mr. Sprinsgeen and company. I want to make sure my love for his career doesn’t: a) cause me to over-evaluate the latest record out of love for the artist or conversely, (b) unfairly castigate the latest record in comparison to the artists previous high-points  When it came to the last major Springsteen record, Working on a Dream, I didn’t even place it on my album recap in 2010. Since, it’s grown on me enormously and if doing that year’s list over again, I would rank it highly. So here, with Wrecking Ball–immediate reception for me was pretty high. Higher than the last 2 or 3 records. I gave it some time, it subsided a bit, fluctuated up and down the best-of picks, and now almost a year after its release it settles in decisively as the number 2 album of the year. It does this because it is a great record, a timely and relevant record, and a catchy one as well—just short of classic in the perfect sense, but close enough. 

“We Take Care of Our Own” is a perfect scene-setting 2012 Springsteen kick-off single, a song to remind America what it should but has failed too often to do. It is a call to camaraderie and care couched in catchy, take it how you want to but remember the true meaning experience. “Rocky Ground” finds Springsteen toying with hip hop as much as he’s apt too in a public release (I remember rumors of a shelved Hip-Hop influenced Springsteen record in the mid-nineties). It’s a great gospel-hip hop rock fusion track of church and state, spirit and flesh, hope and change.”Death to My Hometown” is a raging, Irish fueled protest song that invokes the unfortunate timelessness of oppression and classicism.All over, Springsteen is singing to a divided America, an America where rich devours poor and poor are fed up. He ties this in populist rage and protest, linking it to irish, hispanic, african-american, and all other past struggles for equality. The first studio release of the concert staple “Land of Hope and Dreams” thus never sounded so timely and good. “We are Alive” ties the dreams of past workers for a better life to todays and delivers a promise on their behalf. The title track is the studio version of last year’s excellent live football stadium anthem. All in all, the best E-Street band record one could hope for 5 decades in.

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1 )Frank Ocean  – Channel Orange

So back when I did the review of this album, I raved about it but I was somewhat tempered in some regards as well, especially toward its first half. I also made the claim that it may not be the best R&B album since D’Angelo’s Voodoo but that it is the most creative. Now I revoke the tempered aspect for the first half, and I remove that qualification–Channel Orange is indeed the best (as well as most creative) mainstream R&B album since Voodoo. This album has done nothing but grow on me and where I saw “rich kid blues” before I now since a well rounded series of personality vignettes, a whole host of emotional ennui observations plaintively observed and annotated across the widest spectrum of imaginable people. There’s really not a verbal clunker to be found either–an odd turn of phrase here or there that really only grows on you as you absorb the overall work at hand.

Channel Orange is really a record of beauty.From the lush soundscape of “Real Life” to the harrowing yet poppy drug mule escapade of “Lost,” and the ballad of unquestionable beauty in the form of taxi cab confession that is “Bad Religion,” complete with an intertwining cohesive narrative skit framework throughout to bind it all together. Not to mention a solid, great singing voice by Mr. Ocean to deliver it all. The centerpiece of the record is “Pyramid,” which re-envisions Cleopatra in a modern day Vegas club. For almost 10 minutes, Ocean works his voice around a hypnotic and positively repetitive beat which changes pace and texture in exciting measures. The talk that spiralled out when this was released may have often concerned Ocean’s personal sexuality reveal, but sexual orientation is far from the most important and unique factor this artist has going for him even if it is interesting that a mainstream hip-hop influenced R&B singer (and member of the same musical consortium as homophobic lyrical spinner Tyler the Creator) is so comfortably “out.”

I try to get my best-of lists out as soon as is possible while giving myself enough time in the year to hear and contemplate all possible releases,including last minute ones,  but I did notice this year’s Rolling Stone top picks as I was compiling my own list. My top 5 has been locked in for about 2 or 3 months, and most of the top 10 as a whole was fairly certain for the past month. I always knew this would be the number one record granted that no other surprise upset came along–RS gave this one the number 2 spot and awarded Springsteen the top honor. I wanted Springsteen to be number 1 in that as my favorite artist I wanted his latest album to be a classic number 1 album–for me though, my choices flip-flopped RS’ picks. Here we have the case of legendary artist making solid work versus an upstart new artist delivering a classic right out of the gate (well, on the heels of a phenomenal free mixtape from last year)–the freshness and newness of Frank Ocean just (barely) edged out the solid expectations I got from the Boss.

 

Read “Part I” here.

Part II: The Golden Age of Heavy Metal

As the 1980s set in, metal as a genre began making fervent attempts at mainstream acknowledgement and ultimate embrace. 1982s “Number of the Beast” record by Iron Maiden was a smash, drawing in fans and deriders in almost equal numbers. It set up what would be the main sound of heavy metal for a brief time; released the same year, Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” sparked the LA metal scene which melded pop and metal to create what were at first catchy yet heavy records worth hearing but which would eventually over-saturate the genre and the airwaves through hordes of near-talentless imitators and scenesters eager to cash in on the fad and almost kill the genre itself in the process. Backlash to such mainstream slabs of “metal,” emerged through the young, fast, angry creation of Thrash Metal, pioneered and perfected by “the big three” of Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth. Later as a shift away from thrash, the global and overwhelmingly underground explosion of Death Metal would push Thrash to its extremities. Leading into the early 1990s as Grunge began to dominate the forefront of “heavy” music and its key figures lambasted and derided metal, most of metal became primarily underground yet key tweaking and fusing of metal with other sounds, like hip hop, prog-rock,  and garage rock, would open the door for another wave of mainstream metal to come.

11) Motley Crue: Shout at the Devil  (1983)

Most of what would become known as “Hair Metal” would be looked on by metal fans and purists as at best a guilty pleasure and at worse an embarrassment. Selling millions and creating lifelong mullet-wearing fans, seeping into the mainstream through the ubiquitous “power ballad” to which scores of high school dances were sound-tracked, the excess of the genre would almost implode metal and the “tough” reputation it strove for. A lot of this pop-metal music was trash, a lot of it was a fun if silly guilty pleasure. Shout at the Devil is the album that stands out as the best and most untarnished artifact of this type of metal. It was and remains a great record and though its success and sound would inspire a bloated and ridiculous scene, one that Crue themselves would fall victim to in much of their later work, Shout remains a solid and important step in the history of metal. Motley Crue’s debut, Too Fast For Love, was an excellent record deftly fusing punk influences with the intensity and feel of early eighties underground metal, sung with plenty of melody and featuring catchy choruses. The follow up, Shout at the Devil, dropped most of the punk influence and drew out the metal a bit more, almost in caricature (the pentagrams and bondage on Crue at this phase couldn’t have looked “authentic” or “serious” even then). They kept the pop, which in this fusion worked perfectly–the end result is a big, loud, over-the-top record that sounds both raw and catchy, polished and slightly dangerous. The title track is the best song a pop-metal band ever made and standouts like “Looks that Kill,” “Too Young to Fall in Love,” and “10 Seconds to Love” keep this record at full-tilt. It doesn’t hurt that Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, and Mick Mars are all solid musicians (Sixx perhaps incredibly so) and that singer Vince Neil at this point wasn’t yet a joke. The only reason to keep a record this good from a list like this is an unfair one–for the unfortunate influence this album had that led to the creation of bands like Faster Pussycat.

12) Metallica: Kill ‘Em All (1983)

Metallica managed to release the first real thrash record in 1983 with Kill ‘Em All. There were other bands that were crafting their own thrash records at the time–Metallica had circulated the majority of the songs that wound up on Kill in demo versions through the metal tape-trading circuit, and knowledge and love of this emerging style was growing fast in the underground. Exodus was trying to get their Bonded by Blood record out and a slew of other artists were doing likewise, some stumbling through legal and label issues while others were simply slower on the draw than Metallica. So despite admirable competition, Metallica pulled off the first official release of what would become known as thrash Metal, and the result is one of the best (if rough) metal records of all time. Hetfield had never wanted to be a singer and seems to have gotten stuck with the job due solely to having the least atrocious voice in the band; on the debut record the songs that had circulated in demo-form were now polished off with a revamped vocal technique in which Hetfield now barked out, growling with an occasional note of melody grafted onto the end of a word or phrase, but what came out worked perfectly. The real draw is the full on punch of the music–especially Hetfield’s fast yet technical, thrashing yet precise mastery on the guitar and Cliff Burton’s excellent bass playing (even providing an excellent extended bass solo in “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”), but the entire band plays tight and excellent. The roar of the music was faster than Metal had ever been, harder than metal had ever been, simply more metal than metal had ever truly been. There’s room for musician showmanship around the entire record but things are so compact and fast that it never bloats itself in instrument wanking-off as arena rock had begun doing in the late 1970s. Yet unlike some later Metal, there was still melody drifting through every hard edge to make the music flow and stick in the listeners head yet so subtly that it never softens the force–“Jump in the Fire” almost begs for a crowd shout and sing along. “Whiplash” is ridiculously fast and catchy, justifying its title. “Seek and Destroy” slows down a bit to introduce a low crunch, “The Four Horseman” hits the high notes to thunder in the apocalypse, “Motorbreath” gives drummer Lars Ulrich room to gallop in with the kick drum and “Metal Militia” gives us a dated and rather cheesy outro by way of celebration of Metal’s praises but it is notable for Hetfield’s shriek-growl vocal approach that worked so well for  later metal songs like Exodus’s “Bonded by Blood.”

13)Dio: Holy Diver (1983)

Dio probably has the best pipes of any singer in Metal’s history. He had sang for bands like Rainbow and led up post-Ozzy Black Sabbath for a series of solid records and at least one classic (Heaven and Hell). His self-titled band delivered another series of solid metal records in the 1980s, the highpoint of which was Holy Diver. Released the same year as Metallica’s debut, it differs quite differently in approach. Dio never conceded to Thrash or Speed Metal–with vocals that soar so strongly, why hide them behind noise or condense them into a corner with technical and intense riffs? Dio delivers pure Power Metal in the vein of Iron Maiden but without the fantastical instrumental scope; his years in straightforward rock and roll kept his focus on delivering fast, full, but concise songs. The lyrics are littered with swords, dragons, rainbows, messiah figures, and other Fantasy tropes but if anyone can make you feel those as real it’s Dio. The title track here deserves to be on in anyone’s short list of all time metal song classics. “Rainbow in the Dark” even makes the omnipresent keyboard of the eighties rock in a metal vein. There’s not a weak song here: “Straight Through the Heart,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” and “Stand Up and Shout,” stand even today as metal songs that can deliver the goods in a heavy manner yet can be sung along with.

14) Megadeth: Peace Sells, But Who’s Buyin? (1986)

In many ways, Megadeth is less accessible than their thrash counterparts. Metallica’s broach of the mainstream drew a wide audience even to their earlier work and Slayer’s overall image and consistency of intensity has made them an institution among metalheads as their entire catalog draws a new generation of teenagers into the fold every year. Megadeth on the other hand is an odd combination of these various aspects, often to their detriment. Mustaine’s vocals are simply odd–it’s doubtful that even the most ardent Megadeth fan ranks them as “great.” But they work for the band and their instrumental in the overall sound of their unique approach at thrash. Upon being exiled from Metallica before their first official release, Mustaine formed his own band and unleashed every blazing riff saved up in his arsenal onto their debut Killing is My Business…and Business is Good. There are great riffs on that record, sometimes two and three competing lead sections intertwining together to near-overkill. Once that announcement of his guitar prowess was behind him, Mustaine and the guys crafted an actual classic album–Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? The guitars are still fast and technical, but they have more room to breathe and thus actual songs begin to emerge in fast-paced bursts. Impending nuclear devastation is a lifelong concern and worry of Mustaine’s and he’s written roughly 60 songs or more pointing to that fear over the past 3 decades. That concern itself isn’t as bluntly evinced on this classic record but the overall fear of an unwanted global meltdown simply hangs over the entire thing. Hopelessness leading to regretful drunken driving in “Wake Up Dead,” and the witchcraft-tinged “The Conjuring” are intros to the centerpiece of a title song which announces itself with one of the most classic bass lines of all time, a sound familiar to a generation of MTV viewers who didn’t even know who the band was. The title song is an indictment of an entire system but sarcastically so; “Devil’s Island” more effectively indicts at least one part of the system in its meditation on capital punishment. “I Ain’t Superstitious” reinserts the blues into metal, an influence that thrash metal had consciously avoided but which works here. They follow that with a return to classical influence and pure speed on “My Last Words.” Peace Sells is the best and most consistent record in the bands catalogue, one that deserves a spot in any examination of the history of metal. Its flaws work as part of its appeal. Megadeth would make a few further classic metal records though the power in the youthful creative burst here has rarely been matched since.

15) Slayer: Reign in Blood (1986)

Nothing could likely have prepared listeners for the intensity and terror of hearing Reign in Blood for the first time in 1986. When Tom Araya, Kerry King, and company entered into the studio with producer Rick Rubin, nothing in their noisy and rough approach at proto-black metal had quite hinted at the full power of the thrash metal they would throw down on Reign and forever after. Moments in the previous Hell Awaits had shown Slayer could be scary, but from the moment Araya unleashes the soul-shredding shriek that opens the albums first song, “Angel of Death,” and Kerry King immediately launches into an insanely fast yet technical riff, listeners are pulled into something that had not been heard on record before. The first half of the album just builds relentlessly upon itself–faster and faster, harder and harder, heavier and heavier. King plays so fast that it becomes an athletic work-0ut for him to keep up with his own riffs. Lombardo lays down an intense rhythmic drum beat and Araya manages to bark and sing lyrics that keep up with the beat even when that becomes ridiculously hard to do, as in “Necrophobic.” No matter how heavy the songs become, the lyrics remain audible as Araya belts out his and King’s written words detailing the horror in daily life and history, a down-to-earth terror far more grounded (and therefore often uncomfortable) than those depicted in Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath songs. There are a few songs that slow things down in the middle of the record just enough to keep the train on the tracks however perilously so and then barely over the half-hour mark the band brings things to a close with the title track, marked by a (literally) thunderous intro in which listeners likely picture the downpour as King builds up to one last insanely difficult, technical, heavy, ridiculously fast riff. Slayer isn’t for everyone, and it’s hard to imagine the type of person who can only listen to stuff like this, but the darkness of the entire package works in that anything this fast and terrifying sonically can be rounded off and delivered in no other imaginable way. Reign comes off not as a celebration of terrible things but more as an observation of them and a cathartic purging of them. Slayer would deliver a few other classic metal albums in succession to this one (South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss) which sought to work by introducing a tad more melody and dialing back the speed, likely with the knowledge that repetition of the same album was pointless and outdoing it was out of the question. More than any of their peers, Slayer have unapologetically continued to do what they set out to do here–play fast, thrash metal with no concessions.

16) Metallica: Master of Puppets (1986)

Master of Puppets caps off the trilogy of Metallica’s classic era. Cliff Burton’s last record before his untimely death, the record showcases the culmination of what the band was building to and capable of. Kill ‘Em All had been the result of a young band kicking out of the gate to introduce a new way of doing rock to the world; they followed that up with an album that introduced song structure, lyrical consciousness and focus, and a better sense of melody with Ride the Lightning. Metallica had come into their own as a band that would play real metal without muddying it up with false attempts at shock or occult, instead crafting songs that told stories or addressed real issues. Master of Puppets brings it all together with an added hugeness of scope. Three songs on Puppets break the eight-minute mark and the rest are all well over five. Where the same year’s thrash statement made by Slayer in Reign in Blood was a quick, brutal assault, Puppets was a concentrated, epic meditation. Incorporating more of the European classical influences that were becoming important to the next stage of metal than arguably any of their predecessors, Metallica produced musical pieces that mixed full-on thrash breakdowns with epic guitar solos, quiet melodies, and intermittent beauty. The title track showcases every musician’s full potential and stands as one of the five most important heavy metal songs of all time. Metallica turns their social criticism from the death penalty focus of Lightning to another favorite subject of metal–war– in “Disposable Heroes,” and creates an authentic way to do a ballad in metal without condescending into power-ballad superficiality in “(Welcome Home)Sanitarium.” From the opening roar of “Battery” to the extended instrumental close of “Orion,” Master of Puppets stands as the single best work Metallica has ever done–And Justice for All would be a suitable epilogue to this trilogy of classic work and then Metallica would step fully into the mainstream very much akin to how Judas Priest had in British Steel with their self-titled “Black Album” in the 1990s. Metallica remain solid musicians with decent work but they would never quite be the metal band that had been in the eighties.

17) Guns N” Roses: Appetite For Destruction (1987)

Whereas Motley Crue released the classic Shout at the Devil at the beginning of (or arguably before) the pop-metal bandwagon and thus shouldn’t be overlooked or lumped in with sub-par copycats, Guns N’ Roses delivered their classic debut Appetite for Destruction at the height (and near-end) of the hair metal fervor…yet what they presented audiences with was something much better than what they were used to. Appetite uses the same basic playbook that the hit pop-metal of the time was working from, but it did everything better than the competition and it reinserted nasty heavy blues-riffs, trimmed the candy-coated sheen, turned up the attitude and brought back the danger. Appetite was looser and noisier and rocked harder than anything in popular metal had since Shout at the Devil had created the blueprint for the sub-genre. Slash embodied the guitar hero but in a way that was effortless and jaded, practically asking you to not to bother learning guitar because the train was off the tracks already anyway. Axl was crazy but no one knew how much quite yet. The band was drunk and drugged-up to the point that if they all had been master musicians it wouldn’t have worked, so who knows if anyone was really talented–it was just raw and it worked in much the same way late 1970s unpolished punk rock had worked. A lot of the anger, rock, and destruction is unhinged yet highly listenable: “Out to Get Me,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Nighttrain.”  Somehow the band managed to inject pure pop magic into the mess and deliver classics like “Sweet Child O Mine” as well. “Welcome to the Jungle” is the last great LA mainstream metal song of the era and demolishes most of what came before it. GNR would flash a few great songs off and on following their debut but would never match the greatness of a record that seemed to just emerge accidentally out of the burnt-out Sunset strip milieu.

18) Death: Human (1991)

People argue about who the first or the creator of any genre is, and death metal is no exception. Many give credit to Chuck Schuldiner, who was the lead- guitarist and vocalist for Death. His band’s iconic logo and name itself certainly helps his candidacy stick as a top choice and the band’s seminal Scream Bloody Gore record in 1987 pretty much summed up a coherent vision of what such a sub-genre was all about and it became the blueprint to which most other death metal bands followed from thereafter. Death’s own work actually got better, pushing the boundaries of the what would seem highly limited genre. Schuldiner’s playing got exceedingly more technical and intense, yet his riffs retained a great sense of melody lost on many of his counterparts. His vocals never sought to change from the intentionally rough and ugly bark of the death metal growl, yet they remained clear enough as to be mostly discernible. Human is the band’s strongest work in that the playing, vocals, and lyrics all coalesce into a seminal statement. Moving from the mere gross-out lyrical content of Gore, Human instead tackles real issues and problems, especially those of a dark nature: Suicide Machine” and “Together as One,” deal with their subject matters bluntly but without reveling in them in a shock and awe manner. Schuldiner’s lyrics simply work for his sound without a sense of needless exploitation, a feat lost on imitators like Cannibal Corpse. Songs like “Cosmic Sea” even manage to introduce proggy, dream-like textures without subduing the sound or compromising the genre. “Vacant Planets” opens up enough for almost arena-ready solos. Human stands as the prime example of Schuldiner’s death-metal forefather qualifications and as a testament to what the often derided, misunderstood and lambasted sub-genre of Death Metal is capable.

19) Monster Magnet: Spine of God (1992)

The Doom and Stoner-Rock sub-genre of heavy metal can often have a very specific and limited appeal when it revels in its own excess (as Monster Magnet, albeit effectively, did on their follow up to this record 25…Tab or as the sludgier angrier High on Fire often do). Yet when it’s used as a grounding texture for other things to spring off of, it can be a breath of fresh air as it is on Monster Magnet’s terrific debut Spine of God. A mixture of Black Sabbath, winking Spinal Tap, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, and a dose of grunge, Monster Magnet’s first record is so silly yet so arty at the same time that you must either love it or hate it. It thrusts all of the tropes of metal into a blender and plays even the jokiest results as straightforward. The music is fuzzy where even the coolest riff is druggy; Wyndorf’s vocals are like a clearer more melodic Lemmy but his lyrics are a stoned geek treasure trove of monster movies, bad trips, comic books, eastern mythology, and metal shows. Later Magnet records would turn up the volume and drop a lot of the fuzzy-noise, glamming it up to often excellent results but their debut is simply the band doing what they want regardless of what others might want to hear. Opener “Pill Shovel” is the missing link between Black Sabbath and Type O Negative. “Zodiac Lung” subverts metal to a sort of “sounds from a background radio” while druggy folk music barely pushes it away. “Snake Dance” is as close to full-tilt as the haze gets but it rocks as such quite effectively. “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother” hints at the blues through a layer of haze. “Ozium” tucks listeners in by closing with a metal interpreted dose of dream-pop. The entire record is engineered to sound like a hazy attempt at rocking out and it’s done so well that even a tee-totaller can appreciate it.

20) Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine  (1992)

When rap and metal fuse it is almost always a terrible thing. Such a hybrid has produced arguably the worst metal band in history to have their moment in the sun (Limp Bizkit). Yet despite all of the pitfalls, the melding has produced at least one remarkable band and that is Rage Against the Machine. Rage delivered a series of excellent records the best of which was their fist, their self-titled debut. What makes Rage work so well first and foremost is the intelligence, passion, and intensity of their lyricist, rapper, and lead-singer Zack de la Rocha. Taking a cue from hip hop and punk-rocks best moments, Zack approaches the mic with something to say. Using the power of the most intense and stripped down aspects of the genres the band blurs together, Rocha uses the sound to augment messages he must get out while has the time, saying things others were too timid to, using music as a force to address that which too many politicians had abandoned. Yet for this to work as great music, the politics and message has to be backed up by chords and sounds good enough to get listeners listening and hooks catchy enough to stick. Guitarist Tom Morello helps to deftly accomplishes this by being a virtuoso on the guitar, transforming his axe into a combination guitar and turntable, playing chords and making noises that no one had ever done on a guitar before. All of the noise and bluster is authentic though, something that helps the entire package lodge into its audience intensely. “Killing in the Name,” strips down those emotions to so basic a level that almost any teenager could relate, and then they were apt to stick around for the complexity and power found in the musical indictments of “Know Your Enemy,” and “Wake Up.” Rage Against the Machine were a singular force when they were at their height and no imitator ever came close to their power–arguably in hip hop Dead Prez carried the banner in their own manner later and System of a Down has occasionally touched on a similar ethos in their own way, but in “message music” and in the rap-metal hybrid, Rage remains unparalleled.

 

songs: “Bonded By Blood”- Exodus; “Caught in a Mosh” – Anthrax

Partly as an expanded correction of my METAL! article going further than my Addendum yet not redundantly producing a somewhat revised list of “best” artists, I’ve compiled a list of the 30 greatest Metal records of all time, ordered chronologically and divided into time-periods, the first of which is listed below. Metal-for-life fans who listen to little else other than their beloved genre will likely find a lot of fault with what is assembled here; I’m certain to have left out many genre classics and many people’s personal favorites, but hopefully what is discussed here is a good sample of both cultural milestones and formative albums in the canon of the metal genre as well as timeless and superb work from the formative years of the genre’s development and recent time as well. As with all such lists, it is subjective and beholden to the author’s personal opinion and as with any such genre-highlighting piece it is always open to revision as new music is released, I discover older masterpieces for the first time, and particular works click with me as they haven’t before. So, (hopefully) enjoy!

Part I: The Roots of the Sound and the Genesis Days:

The First Wave of Heavy Metal was built off of blues riffs that were amped-up by aggressive chords and played by guitar heroes and icons. The last vestiges of psychedlica, that music that had cranked-up the noise and turned on the distortion and thus inadvertently laid the ground work for what was to come dissipated into stadium rock bands like Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, etc. The first section of this 3 part piece I’m assembling focuses on the early days of heavy metal; the work produced by it’s reluctant originators (Led Zeppelin) and early creative artists who fully defined it and embraced its label(Black Sabbath), those that gave it a look and presence (Alice Cooper), those that gave it more room to grow and began the steps that would lyrically ground much of it (Judas Priest), those that only understood the power of the riff and that sometimes that was enough (Van Halen, AC/DC), and those that would stumble into new ways of being and doing metal, ways that would evolve among imitators as  both fantastic and ridiculous (Iron Maiden). Much of what is present at this phase would have been termed “hard rock” had it been released 10 years later, but at this early stage has to bear the Metal label for the inspiration it grew from and would in turn inspire.

1) Black  Sabbath : Black Sabbath (1970)

Particular albums become obligatory on certain lists; you can’t find a reliable or legitimate “Best Rock Albums of All Time” list without Sgt. Pepper’s or Highway 61, a “Best Hip Hop Albums” list without Fear of a Black Planet or Paid in Full, a jazz list without Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme, etc. Such is the case with the debut album of Black Sabbath; and just as is the case with those other “obligatory” choices in other genre lists, Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath remains a powerful work that stands the test of time and remains fresh to listening ears despite a canonized status that could easily cause it to be relegated to one of those records which you pay credit to in conversation, recognizing its importance to the history of the genre but rarely actually revisiting it or, if you’re a younger fan, ever truly listening to it at all.  Black Sabbath demands a listen from anyone even remotely interested in metal. If you want to know what Heavy Metal is and where it started, you listen to this record. If you want to know what makes Metal great, you listen to this record. Once you hear the title track or “N.I.B.” you know what this genre is. If you want to encounter this album in depth for the first time and you have the means to do so, the best way is to snag (if you can find them) a vinyl copy of the original British pressing and the 2009 Deluxe Edition CD. For one, the tracks are slightly different on the two; as is the case with a lot of records from this time, the US and British versions differed and since the band was in the process of becoming who they were, singles changed and labels attempted to market the product in different ways. The 2009 CD divides the massive “WASP/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Basically/N.I.B.” and “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning” tracks into their own separate entities, includes the “Evil Woman” single and throws in a bonus disc of alternate takes and early versions that showcase Ozzy, Butler, Iommi and Ward nailing down what Metal music is to a fuller extent. Going beyond that, an old vinyl, even with scratches, will fully bear witness to the ominous eeriness of the opening title track. The CD remaster restores it to sonic perfection and gives the instruments room to breath and awe while retaining most of the scare factor, but an old vinyl of this one shows the horror vibe the band chose to signify and identify themselves and their sound with to the fullest.

Okay. Audiophile and sound geek observations aside. This record is what metal is. Other bands (Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, even Cream) inadvertently created the groundwork for the genre, some then moving more fully into and embracing it after Sabbath and the like got it named, others avoided the term and the scene for the entirety of their careers, but it was Sabbath that knowingly and intentionally stepped into this groundwork and built the house itself. Ozzy’s voice was majestic in a wrecked sense long before drugs and abuse deteriorated it. Tony Iommi basically created every riff Metal has in its arsenal and every metal guitarist since must repeat, adapt, or deconstruct those riffs in the same way every pure rock and roll guitarist must with the riffs built by Chuck Berry. Iommi’s fateful factory accident which shaved off the tips of his right hand fingers forced him to adapt and create many of these riffs almost accidentally, which when matched with Ozzy’s intentionally horror-themed lyrics defined mainstream heavy metal forevermore. Bill Ward and Geezer Butler round the package out by being masterful drummers and bassists, respectively. The entire album, but especially “N.I.B.”, gives audiences the dark tunnel at the flip end of the love decade. “N.I.B.” is so close to being a hippie song, especially in its breakdown, that the dark divergences from that take on a whole other effect. Right down to it’s creepy cover artwork, Black Sabbath announces something new, something unexpected, something the mainstream will be nonplussed by for sometime, many even derisively so. Sure metal would get louder, faster, and permutate into a million fractured subgenres, but the compass of the genre is forever oriented by this album.

2) Black Sabbath: Paranoid (1970)

Released the same year as their creative breakthrough debut, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is an equally important metal classic. Nothing as frightening as their moniker sharing title track from that debut is present here and a song or two (notably “Rat Salad”) could be done without, but what is notable about Paranoid is immensely so. Most importantly, songwriting and riffage talent galore runs rampant here. “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and “Iron Man” are three of the most important songs in Metal’s history and equally solid tracks like “Faeries Wear Boots” and “Planet Caravan” round out the album solidly. Sabbath’s sound, like much of the metal to come, may intentionally distance itself and even stand in middle-finger defiance of much of the then-perceived failures of the peace and love generation music and ethos, but Ozzy evokes much of the same sincerity and viewpoints of the best of that other genre and era (though perhaps more roughly and abrasively) in “War Pigs,” a song which condemns war with fiery indignation, picturing generals as “witches in black masses.” Such a lyrical statement was not meant to label war practitioners as “cool” anti-heroes either– evil when it is present on Ozzy-era Sabbath records is always a present force but one not worshiped or invoked, one which instead is suffocating and terrifying, depicted in the songs but not embraced. When “Satan laughs and spreads his wings,” Ozzy ripostes with a “Please God help me!” (Venom, the buffoons who later created Black Metal did so in intentional contrast to such Ozzy lyrics). The War Pigs are the victims of military and political leaders who orchestrate violence for their own reasons, much in the same vein as Dylan’s “Masters of War.” The true evil that Ozzy paints in the song and Iommi gives sound to is inhabited by the cruel manipulators of war in this song and the depiction of one of the hapless “War Pig” victims on the cover provoked the occurrence of perhaps Metal’s first act of censorship; the band intended to name the record “War Pigs” and in conjunction with the album artwork were told to change it to “Paranoid” at pressing time so as not to so bluntly draw the comparison visually the way the song itself does. So the album title and artwork as was a result make no sense, an interesting development for a classic work. Ozzy would later show other signs of hippy-tendency in his lyrics, as is the case with his many songs depicting environmental devastation and pleas that humans better care for “Mother Earth,” but “War Pigs” is the only socially conscious song on Paranoid. What’s left is what would forever be a fixture of metal lyrics–meditations on paranoia, substance abuse, isolation, depression, and confusion. Yet powered by Iommi’s, admittedly gloomy yet powerful, chords, Ward’s pounding drums, and Butler’s bass riffs such sentiments somehow remain energetic.

3) Led Zeppelin: IV (ZOSO)   (1971)

Led Zeppelin released their first two records in 1969, closing out the sixties with the larger-than-life, heavy-riff take on the blues that became known as heavy metal. Frontman Robert Plant especially but supposedly the rest of the band as well never embraced the label, often cringing in derision when critics or fans applied it to them. Yet their sound, stage presence, lyrics, album sequencing, cover art, notorious exploits on the road, and bizarre misadventures (including allegations of, yes, occultism) all coalesced together to make them undeniably the first heavy metal band–admittedly first only by a year when compared with Sabbath, and the two bands couldn’t have been more different in their relationship to the genre they helped create. Zeppelin’s third record, released in 1970, contains the irrefutable metal classic “Immigrant Song.” All three of their quickly released first three albums are classic in their own right, but everything came together in a timeless way with their fourth record in 1971, causing it to become one of the most classic records in all of rock music, due in no small part to the haunting 8-minute epic “Stairway to Heaven.” “Stairway” is a song that is 90-percent quiet build up which makes the 10-percent of it that is full-on metal all the more powerful. On repeat listens that ending section is cast back in the form of anticipation on the entire song making even the quietest notes pure metal, a trick that would be done in varying ways to differing degrees of success throughout metal’s history. “Stairway” may be iconic and timeless and it may have been over-played on classic rock radio so much that it should be in danger of losing its power (it isn’t though), but the rest of IV (ZOSO) is strong enough to support such a centerpiece. “Black Dog,” and “Rock and Roll” are crunchy-quick slabs of powerful rock and roll which rake through the blues to make stadium bombast, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Misty Mountain Hop” take Zeppelin’s folk and fantasy preoccupations to a new level.” Going to California” simply offers up a beautiful soft rock number before delivering a perfect pseudo-apocalyptic closer in “When the Levee Breaks.” Zeppelin might have tried to shirk the weight and stigma of the Metal label but could not because in their work and career they represented the good and the bad of the genre, the excess and silliness, the sweatiness and showmanship, the power and glory, the transcendent potential laden within heavy riffs, the literate qualities in songwriting techniques that plumb the depths of horror, fantasy, religion and literature for ways of expressing emotions that lie beyond those words–whether those emotions be primal or super-conscious. Zeppelin’s re-appropriation of blues riffs would influence the sound of other great (and many sub-par) metal bands and ultimately the sound would be more at home in what today is termed “hard rock” while more intentional metal acts would veer toward Sabbath’s down-tuned sludgier chords. Of course, both such sounds would often be subsumed when metal bands later drastically sped up the riffs and looked more to European classical music for groundwork, but the genre of Metal cannot avoid acknowledging the importance of Zeppelin as a formative force.

4) Alice Cooper: Love it to Death (1971)

Alice Cooper remains one of the most interesting figures in heavy metal. Nowadays as an evangelical Christian he continues to relentlessly record and release new material that remains rather solid and hard-rocking and usually further details horror-themed stories in the lyrics of those new songs though according to Alice he does so now as a way of depicting what life without God is like–he sees his career as sort of a way to proselytize through pure metal without conceding his passion to make sub-standard “Christian Rock.” Cooper can also be seen on various heavy metal documentaries and in interviews offering funny yet often self-aggrandizing quips fully claiming the honorific title of “Father of Shock Rock” while simultaneously lambasting folks like Marilyn Manson for “taking it too far.” Alice Cooper became the name of just the frontman fully on the 1975 solo-debut of Alice, Welcome to My Nightmare. Prior to that, “Alice Cooper” had been the name of the entire group, the title passing onto the solo artist at the dissolution of that group. Alice’s solo career has had many highs and lows but rarely has he lived up to the artistic peak reached in his group. Alice Cooper began as an acid-rock styled group offering up last-gasp era psychedlica. Beginning with 1971’s Love it to Death and lasting for five full-length albums, Alice Cooper became a full-on heavy metal group. Their shock-rock stage techniques gained them infamy and resulted in songs like “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but the albums were good enough to make them more than a surface only flash in the pan. The best of these albums was Love it to Death and though it contains only one real major hit (“I’m Eighteen”) and one equally great but less successful hit (“Is it my Body?”), the entire thing works perfectly and captures the essence of Alice–both the frontman and the band. From it’s album cover to it’s nine minute bad-trip “Black Ju Ju,” the chilling organs in “Hallowed Be My Name,” to simply solid songs like “Second Coming” (was he already proselytizing?) and “Ballad of Dwight Fry.” Alice is probably right that he invented the shock-value frontman and exuberant metal stage show that his friend Rob Zombie and in-print nemesis Marilyn Manson, among many others, would later follow. His antics led to his infamous on-stage freak-out competition with Ozzy, a classic metal legend. Behind all of the masks and shows though Alice Cooper (Vincent Furnier) has a knack for slightly wicked pop hooks and catchy songs as evinced most fully on Love it to Death though almost equally on the three follow-ups Killer, School’s Out, and Billion Dollar Babies.

 

5) Aerosmith: Aerosmith  (1973)

Aerosmith is a band, like at least one other later on this list, which has tarnished its own image and reputation by several periods of mediocrity (or worse). Much of their comeback 1980s albums, though a step above the atrocious work of many of their glam-era copycat artists, fell victim to the metal mistakes of the pop-fusion times. Yet even those works had highlights which their turn of the millennium work did not; and let’s not even mention their major malfunction of an attempt to fully acknowledge their debt to the blues that was Honkin’ on Bobo or Steven Tyler’s biographical confessions of which supermodel’s urine he would drink or his presence on American Idol. All of that noise almost makes one forget the rock excellence exhibited by the group on their first 5 albums released between 1973 and 1975. Those records would have a diverse influence on every genre that evolved from the heavy scene, from Motley Crue and their sub-par imitators to Kurt Cobain who listened to Rocks repeatedly when writing his own work for Nirvana. The self-titled first Aerosmith record is a solid classic that would become the blueprint for many of the metal sub-genres, both in good and bad ways. “Dream On” is likely the first power ballad, and by far the best. Joe Perry’s riffs all over songs like “Mama Kin,” “Make It,” and “One Way Street” push the filtered pilfering of the blues to the next level from Led Zeppelin, and Tyler layered enough macho-tinged glam to position the work as something markedly different than what had come before. Metal would go in many different paths in the decade to follow Aerosmith’s first creative burst, but the fusion of pop and the blues into a heavier sound found on their first album would always pop up in various corners of what was to follow.

 


6) Judas Priest: Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)

Their 1974 debut Rockarolla had been nothing specially so it’s doubtful anyone expected the 1976 follow-up to be as seminal a work as it proved to be. The height of Judas Priest’s popularity wouldn’t really come until 1980s mainstream breakthrough British Steel which would earn Priest a slew of hits and attention and kick off a run of eighties metal albums that would sell big, rock hard enough, and dominate (along with Maiden) the center of Heavy Metal’s attention–the Maiden/Priest reign would end only when thrash decimated the ground Metal had seemed to be built on. Yet prior to those eighties hits, Judas Priest had a whole other series of notable work; their ’70s classics were definitive, ground-breaking works that took Metal away from Sabbath and rounded it out with a slightly different sonic approach, one that gave Heavy Metal more room to breathe. Judas Priest are the link between Sabbath and Maiden and the album run that began with 1976’s Sad Wings and ran through Sin After Sin, Stained Class, and Hell Bent for Leather are their strongest works. The first of those is the most notable. Sad Wings of Destiny opens on vinyl with a piano melody that hints of tragedy but doesn’t veer so close to it that you really know that’s where you are going. From there listeners are led through sketches of real life horror; gone are Ozzy’s devil-winged Satans, here are “Tyrants” ruling with iron fists and ordering state-sponsored “Genocide.” Later will come character sketches of Jack “The Ripper.”  Possibly due to wanting to give listeners what they know is coming first off, CD versions of the album have always flipped the A/B sides and started us off with 7-and-a-half minute classic “Victim of Changes” which gives excellent guitar-hero K.K. Downing room to wind through kick-ass riffs while Rob Halford croons in all his shrieking, occasionally falsetto vocals. The entire record stands as a definitive moment. It lacks the hits that Priest will produce–“Better By You, Better Than Me,” “Diamonds and Rust,” “Hell Bent for Leather,” “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight,” etc.– but it packs the full potential of their talent and vision.

7) Van Halen – Van Halen  (1978)

Van Halen have had their share of musical missteps, both due to David Lee Roth’s buffoonery in their first incarnation and to Sammy Hagar’s leniency towards cheesy schmaltz during VH phase-two (and nearly everyone has tried to forgot they tried it with a third guy in the late ’90s). But there are a number of great singles spread across their career and even their lesser moments were often elevated significantly by the guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen. I would say they had exactly two classic albums–I may be the only one who grants that honor to the Hagar-led and forgotten Balance record from 1995 but my other choice is one even many staunch Halen-haters might begrudgingly concede–their 1978 self titled debut. Most of their later work is not heavy metal in the slightest, more accurately “hard rock” and often even pop-rock, and though there are hooks galore and pop choruses spread all over their debut record, thanks to Eddie’s virtuoso techniques on lead guitar an entire generation of metal musicians and fans would find a new direction. Eddie Van Halen reinvented the way hard rock guitar was played, hell even how the guitar itself could be played. The fact that VH as a group came up in California was instrumental–the big bands that would dominate and define metal in the mid- to late-eighties and evolve it to an entire new sound (Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth) would study and admire the first creative blast of Van Halen, taking note of Roth’s stage presence and behavior and most of all Eddie’s guitar tricks. There are some perfect moments on Van Halen: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” is one of the greatest rock songs of all time, certainly the band’s best. The quick instrumental blast of “Eruption” signaled the arrival of something new and sent teenagers around the world rushing to buy and teach themselves to play guitar. “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Jamie’s Cryin'” are more than solid singles. The only thing that falters on the entire record is arguably “Ice Cream Man” which signals the future goofiness of Roth but in the context of everything else here even that can be forgiven.

8 ) Motorhead – Ace of Spades  (1980)

There are a handful of figures that metal-heads and often those with a bit of knowledge about the music on the periphery of metal point to as definitive of the genre and scene: Ozzy, Alice, Slayer’s Kerry King, Maiden’s Dickinson, etc. One of the largest and most frequently hailed is bassist and vocalist Lemmy from Motorhead. Motorhead is often credited with creating speed and thrash metal, sub-genres that would be integral to the evolution of metal’s sound and vision. Motorhead have unfailingly and uncompromisingly played rough-edged speed metal for more than 30 years. Speed Metal as a whole never retained the popularity of its Thrash counterpart, yet Lemmy and co. play it so well that they’ve sustained a three decade career, though obviously a cult one. The band’s finest album is 1980’s Ace of Spades and it edges above the group’s other solid work (like 1979s Bomber and Overkill) mainly due to the title track which became their signature song, the one that many who are otherwise unfamiliar with the band came to know and love and which Motorhead can play anytime to a room full of fans who will never tire of hearing it. The title track is hard to beat, and by opening up the album it gets the listener’s adrenaline raging; yet consequently nothing that follows on the record quite lives up to that initial burst. The rest of the record does sustain itself, though, delivering a series of quick, rocking numbers in fast succession: “Bite the Bullet,” “The Chase is Better Than the Catch,” “Emergency,” “Fast and Loose,” all coming at you without a breather yet without getting redundant either. Lemmy’s rasp and the speeding riffs of “Fast” Eddie Clarke cement this album as the best in Motorhead’s peak period.

9) AC/DC – Back in Black  (1980)

AC/DC released a slew of excellent Aussie rock ‘n roll albums with Bon Scott in the mid to late ’70s; Highway to Hell, Let There Be Rock, and Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap (to name just 3 of 7 near-perfect albums in a row). Scott’s alcohol abuse led to an unexpected and untimely death as the decade drew to a close and most figured the band were done. Yet the excellent lead and rhythm guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, respectively, who built the rock and roll foundation that Scott had so lively animated kept the band together, delivering Back in Black with a new lead singer (Brian Johnson) as tribute to their departed friend. Back in Black contains a handful of songs that would become classic rock staples (the title track, “You Shook Me All Nite Long,” “Hells Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill”) and the band became primarily a vehicle for full-tilt electrified stadium filling rock and roll, yet that doesn’t stop this album from being a classic for the metal genre. Opening track “Hells Bells” sets off with ominous bells clanging and one of the most memorable opening metal riffs of all time; the title track has the meatiest “crunch” of all, a sound imitators would later despoil but remains effective here at its source. “You Shook Me All Nite Long,” manages to be a radio hit 3 decades later despite being really dirty simply because Johnson and the Young brothers deliver it with an addictive catchiness that makes it irresistable. Later, whether due to Johnson or the direction the band would have eventually gone in anyway, AC/DC would rarely live up to the range and rock energy of their Bon Scott days. Later albums would recycle the same work infinitely, usually entertainingly so but not gloriously. Yet the tribute delivered to one of the greatest rock frontmen of all time that is Back in Black remains a metal classic.

10) Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast (1982)

Prior to 1982s Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden had been a fusion of punk and metal–though not without charm, because the two records they made with raspy barker Paul Di’Anno rocked hard enough and provided the group with a set of songs that they would perform from their classic catalog ever after. When the band broke with Di’Anno and recruited vocally soaring frontman Bruce Dickinson, the punk edge was abandoned and Iron Maiden became a full fledged over-the-top Heavy Metal band. Beast isn’t absolutely perfect and it’s arguably not Maiden’s finest work, certainly not in the sense of displaying their full talent, potential and scope, but as a concise expression of the state of metal at the moment of it’s release it retains it’s place on any list of this sort as a watershed moment for the entire genre. This is a metal record with fully discernible vocals and lyrics delivered through a high-ranged ringing vocal approach buoyed by balls-out guitar solos. The title track and the album cover drawn from that song’s lyrics caused controversy and accusations of satanism–compared with what the work actually was and what we’ve seen in more extreme bands since, such a claim is laughable now. But in 1982 a song inspired by Dickinson’s nightmare after watching a horror movie in which the narrator of the song expresses fear and apprehension over a demonic destruction of the world coupled with a (cartoonish at that) depiction of the devil on the album cover was enough to spark frantic fears among parent and teacher groups. Anyway, such accusations likely only fueled higher sales. The album itself mostly took lyrical cues from Priest albums like The Sad Wings of Destiny in focusing on the horrors of the real physical world–the villains of album opener “Invaders” and side 2 opener “Run to the Hills” are the British who become the first Americans as they decimate the native population of the new world; the threat in “Gangland” are violent youths. The title track remains one of the most memorable metal songs of all time, as well as power-ballad in disguise album closer “Hallowed Be Thy Name” which is a first person narration of a man waiting to be executed in medieval times–“Hallowed” contains one the most classic riffs in the entirety of heavy metal history. Maiden would go on to define themselves as a band with a string of classic albums– Powerslave, Piece of Mind, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Somewhere in Time— and prove they had a shocking level of persistence and global appeal by churning out hit albums on a global scale as recently as 2009s The Final Frontier. Yet it was 1982s Number of the Beast that gave them their biggest success, that put them into the public eye at the highest level they would ever be, and which fully defined and raised the bar for what heavy metal after the height of Sabbath but in the pre-thrash era could be. Story songs with musical theatrics and discernible clear vocals sung in high-octane soars would soon fade from mainstream metal though bands like Maiden, imitators like Iced Earth, and the Power Metal sub-genre enthusiasts would diligently strive to keep it alive, but it would never define metal in the mainstream as it did on Beast.

 

Notable Songs from this era: “Angel Witch” – Angel Witch (1980); “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”- Blue Oyster Cult (1976); “Am I Evil?” – Diamond Head (1981); “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple (1972)

Next Up: Part II- Metal’s Golden Age

10 Best Films of 2010

December 27, 2010

 

The Town Poster

10)  The Town

“Inception” was good, but I think the best action sequence edits this year in the vein of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” were found in Ben Affleck’s superb directorial work, “The Town.” Affleck’s performance is suitable–you rarely step back and think, “I’m watching Ben Affleck rob banks,” so you can envision him as the character he is supposed to be. The story is great and crime-noir gritty, with just enough depth to make this feel like a semi-“serious” film.  Audiences have been exposed to these Boston area crime noirs before in recent years, often starring folks like Affleck, but this one is creative for focusing on a particular neighborhood which, at least in the movie, is the ground zero of bank robbers, hoods who train and live to rob banks for a career. “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm is the obligatory FBI agent stock-chracter here, but he works just fine. The love story is a good plot supplement, and the protagonist’s journey to get out of the role etched out for him from birth is captivating throughout; the unhinged performance of Jeremy Renner after his breakout Oscar winning role in “Hurt Locker” was arguably the best in the movie, but as mentioned above, those marvelous action sequences that kept audiences on the edge of their seats was what cemented this one on the list–smartest action pic of the year.

Robin Hood Poster

9) Robin Hood

Aparrently the bulk of the critical world hated Ridley Scott’s reinterpretation of “Robin Hood.” Really, this is “Robin Hood: Year One” done with all of Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” flair. Great battles, historical hyperbole that tweaks your nerd gauge to 11, wit, charm, thrills and nice performances. Another retread of Nottingham would’ve been fine in this team’s hands, but this origin tale gives us something pleasantly new that maintains the characters and gives us backstory we never thought to wonder about as Robin Hood and his band get to know each other in the aftermath of the Crusades. King John certainly is an over-the-top villian trope, but works nonetheless. Crowe is stoic and bloody–this is no light hearted Erroyl Flynn Hood trying to earn the fair maiden’s hand. Russel Crowe and Cate Blanchett as Robin and Lady Marion were a nice adult touch–thank God this wasn’t a “Twilight” inspired casting call. Big, full scale, historical action with the mythos of Robin Hood spun in a creative new way, the most overlooked blockbuster of the year.

Hereafter Poster

8 ) Hereafter

Clint Eastwood is a consumate filmaker, he’ s yet to direct a dud. “Hereafter” isn’t as wonderful as his classics “Mystic River” or “Unforgiven,” but this is such understated spiritual beauty I can’t help but rank it with the best of the year. The opening disaster sequence is harrowing; cameras follow the Tsunami as it destroys lives and buildings in its wake and the near-death sequence of one of the central characters–Marie–is handled artfully. That’s as much action as the film provides as Eastwood uses Matt Damon as a psychic who can authentically communicate with the dead yet who sees this ability as a curse rather than a gift as the focal point for a series of stories and characters facing death through the loss of those close to them. In many scripts (hmm…”What dreams may Come”?) this could have been over the top or mushy sentimentality. Eastwood gives us genuine spirituality and a smart plausible script about what might come after this life in contrast to science and religosity. The climax sequences, wrapping up the story of the child who lost his twin brother in a heart-warming supernatural manner and the love story of Damon’s psychic and the disaster survivor turned near death experience author are phenomenal and satisfying scenes.

The Last Exorcism Poster

7) The Last Exorcism

The thing that drives this movie is the intense character portrayal of protagonist Cotton Marcus. Cotton is a charismatic preacher from the south that began in the field as a child preacher doing revival meetings and progressed to a ministry of performing exorcisms for sizable fees. Now middle-aged with children of his own, Cotton is quickly losing his faith. News reports of botched “exorcisms” that caused much more harm than good lead Cotton to film his last exorcism to expose the procedure as fradulent. Patrick Fabian delivers a terrific performance in this what appears to be his first major film role: a performance of great warmth, humor, conviction; a performance that has to traverse every imaginable emotion and Fabian does so exceedingly well. There have been a lot of these faux-documentaries with first-person horror thrills and most have been poor. This one works well for being pretty original for the most part; the horror is left ambiguous and approahces a “conclusion” that leaves the audience with a satisfying “answer” to all the horrors before twisting back with a shock horror ending that angered many but which produced some authentic jolts and wasn’t a complete detour since it tied many premonition plotlines together from earlier in the film. Topping it all off was a defiantly creepy and acrobatic performance by Ashley Bell as the demon possessed (or not?) victim.

 True Grit Poster

6) True Grit

The Coen brothers rarely dissapoint and usually deliver classics–Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men–and “True Grit” is no exception. Though not their best ever work, though some hyperbolic infatuated with the new aspect of it may say, it is certainly enjoyable with great action and a surprising (for me anyway) amount of comedy. Jeff Bridges, the Dude, is terrific as always giving a grizzled, comic performance. Hallie Steinfeld as Mattie is the real star here though as she plays the 14-year-old girl consumed with bringing her father’s killer (Josh Brolin) to justice and enrolling bounty-hunter Rooster (Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to do so. There are really great scenes in this one and the final 30 minutes are classic Coen cannon.

The Social Network Poster

5) The Social Network

What more is there to say about this movie not said by many others? I’ve yet to read a negative review, it’s pretty much universally praised. While in the theater to see it on a rainy Saturday afternoon on opening weekend, I noticed all the single people strewn across the theater. I was alone as well, having the day to myself and I noticed I was the only loner to not be playing with a smartphone. The guy in front of me was perusing his Facebook page, which was a bit surreal since it was that added layer of subtext to this whole film taking place in the audience–he continued to do that throughout the movie.
The folks at Paste magazine had an interesting article the weekend before this opened that stated this movie had a low “excitement” ranking pre-release, with most who saw early previews for it not overly jazzed to see it; then it opened to universal acclaim, holding a 100 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes from all the compiled ‘net rankings. And everyone loved it. Paste’s later review mentioned that “The Social Network” was much more of a true successor to “Wall Street” than it’s own sequel which opened the same month. Folks have been comparing this to “Citizen Kane!” Structurally it is that in many ways–the flawed protagonist who seems consumed with proving himself to the world but never seems to be happy or really close to anyone at all, but let’s give this one a few years before artistically we make such comparisons. Everyone does put in a good performance and scenes like the one where Napster founder Shawn Fanning (played by Justin Timberlake) seduces Zuckerburg and friends to his vision is one for the cannon of movie history. Reznor does a wonderful job with the score, one of the best I’ve heard since “Dark Knight” or “There Will be Blood.” David Fincher has been one of my favorite directors for years with such classics as “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” and “Seven,” and he is top-notch on the camera here–cutting and pacing scenes in action-like frenzies then slowing things down to showcase screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s trademark snappy dialogue, creating high-tension drama from scenes about out of court depositions and dorm room backdealing, even out of computer programming marathons! Zuckerburg has done his best to laugh off the movie as pure fiction, noting that the details like the clothing his character wears are spot-on but the big things–like the protagonists dire quest for female attraction and social approval—are pure fabrication, missing out on the real life details (such as the fact that he in real life has been dating and now lives with a long-time girlfriend omitted from the film). I wouldn’t hold this up to the truth microscope–this is purely window dressing with factual hints to paint a portrait of an entire generation and culture now “wired in.”

Winter's Bone Poster

4) Winter’s Bone

This one could have been called “True Grit” if that title wasn’t taken! Louisville,Ky newcomer Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the absolute finest performances of the year as Ree, a teenage girl fighting to take care of her entire family in the Ozark mountains, a setting which is as icy and dark as the film’s title. She crosses the mountains in search of her bail-jumping absentee father who has placed the home housing her, her mother, and younger siblings up for bail and now they are in danger of being homeless. Standing in her way are crazed meth dealers and users, armed criminals, police officers, and the harsh environment; extended family prove untrustworthy and through the violence and struggle, Ree never gives up yet never obtains real hope either. A stark movie about survival, one of the best crime pics in ages, a script that does its own thing and zones in with a literate attention to detail, setting and dialogue.

Black Swan Poster

3) Black Swan

Black Swan is undeniably a horror film; with its critical pre-release buzz that was a bit surprising, but there’s no getting around the fact and that is a good surprise especially in light of what kind of horror film this–this is claustrophobic, harrowing psychological horror like Roman Polanski and the like were making in the late ’60s…this is truly frightening, unsettling, artistic, and intelligent horror: art-house horror. Natalie Portman gives a terrific performance; she’s a wonderful actress and was far overdue for another great role and “Black Swan” delivers that spot for her and she gives herself over to it moving from fragile to ferocious to sexual. The camera hones in so tight that the tension surrounds the audience with sonic intensity to bring each moment home. Mila Kunis also delivers a great performance, given this chance to display more range than any previous role has given her. The director (Darren Aronofsky) is new to me but I plan to follow his work from here on out because he gives us this non-redundant but pleasantly reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Suspiria” equivalent horror film. This film does a great job of setting the pace of things by breaking things up with a good amount of comic relief, another nice surprise for a so strongly artistic piece. With the attention to character and craft–this is afterall about a woman who works for a ballet company in preparation for the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake”– the script masterfully weaves the themes of that ballet with the themes of the characters, giving us the drive, ambition, care,  strength and work of  Portman’s “Nina” and her ballet trade.  

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Poster

 

2) Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Scott Pilgrim is certainly a film not intended for everyone–it makes no attempt to be middle of the road or explain its every reference and instead launches fully into its own world complete with its own language and vocabulary, texture and environment. Second only to “The Dark Knight” as a comic adaptation, it gives the essence of its characters and landscape to the mainstream without needless concession. It’s a beauty of a film, graphically it is light years ahead of anything else in the multiplex this year–if you’re not hip to the story and can’t follow its hip and frantic pace, just sit back and enjoy the jaw-dropping visuals (and to be honest, it’s not too complicated for the uninitiated–sure it’s a mashup of indie rock, comic books, video games, anime and internet, but this isn’t a convoluted or head scratching narrative). The jokes are funny, the action sequences are exciting, the performances are superb–Michael Cera as an action hero? Only in “Scott Pilgrim” and seeing him embody the character it seems no one else could have done it this well. This was a creative, entertaining, original and start-to-finish fun movie.

The American Poster

1) The American

“The American” is a remarkable picture that American studios rarely produce–its pacing is not geared towards being of the “crowd-pleaser” status; if you have a short attention span, you’re likely to lose focus and not enjoy this film, which is a shame. Because this one’s all about atmosphere, mood, subtlety and things just underneath the surface. The previews made this one look as if it would be an action movie, but they should have marketed it as a noir piece instead. This one gives you the details and lets the big story come secondarily. Granted, the “big story” is not overly complex, but that’s not the point of this movie. George Clooney plays Jack (the man without a given last name) wonderfully; Clooney has gotten very good at depicting these characters who can express a lot of emotion with minimal words and at creating relatable protagonists who are much more than a little morally suspect. The supporting cast is spot on also. This film is shot incredibly beautifully; it’s not just something pretty to look at though, as many critical of it seemed to think. Certainly the scenery is gorgeous and there are art-shots galore; watching the protagonist’s car wind around European side streets and countryside might make the impatient wonder what happened to the plot, but it is always part of a very delicate pacing act. It’s emotionally deeper than just a “pretty“ picture. Through the conversations Jack has with the priest and through the interactions he makes along the way of his tragically fated mission, it’s more a story about living in hell and searching for salvation only to lose the one shot you have at that. The action sequences are appropriate when they do show up, and the movie provides the audience great suspense in delaying that action. The violence is so subtle that when it occurs it shocks and hits like life. This is the type of movie you’d expect from a Japanese studio, not an American one, and it’s likely to be over-looked come awards season as being the masterpiece that it truly is even with the star power behind it.  As I mentioned, it truly is a noir picture posing as an art-house film–it presents a deeply flawed character that you know is on a trajectory toward imminent collapse that is introduced to us in a heinous manner yet becomes someone we root for and support even though we as an audience know it’s hopeless. Clooney was terrific in “Michael Clayton,” and changes the business suit for assassin gloves to give an equally riveting performance here–as enjoyable as he finishes, cleans, and builds a weapon for sale as he is when doubling back to take down his would be killer.

Honorable mentions: The Fighter delivered a familiar underdog-style script that was enjoyable and greatly enhanced by top notch performances by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale that turned this into a film about the strain and loyalty of family; Tron delivered some of the years best visuals of the year; The Kids Are Alright was a very solid and engaging family drama;  Get Him to the Greek was the best rock-comedy since “This is Spinal Tap” and let Jonah Hill play a straight-forward role for once ; Kick Ass and Red were fun comic adaptations ;  127 Hours was carried by a primarily solo full force performance by James Franco; Inception gave us some stop-gap thrills until the 3rd Dark Knight ;  Toy Story 3 packed more emotional punch than it had any right to and looked beautiful while doing so. I have yet to see either The King’s Speech or I Love You, Phillip Morris so they are exempt from this ranking.

20 Best Songs of 2010

December 13, 2010

A reminder like I post each year I do this that I pick the 20 songs without counting any from albums that make my “top 10 albums of the year” list. This allows me to feature more music than I’d otherwise be able to on such limited lists, and most often if an album makes the cut there are many songs of note present on it. Also, some of these are singles, some are album cuts that I found to be album highlights. Enjoy (I hope).

 

20) Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian featuring Carey Mulligan

This song may be entirely too cute or pretentious for many listeners but I found everything about it amusing, and though nerdy, charmingly so. Belle and Sebastian quite often make soft-spoken depressing songs, but here we have an upbeat pop tune with actress Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) trading harmonies and verses with them about a young woman who hates her job and spends her lunch breaks on the rooftop of her office writing romance pieces (songs, poems, screenplays?) including descriptions of her dream guy (“he’s intellectual and he’s hot, but he understands”). This song bounces around and sounds like it came from an an indie band that was transported back to 1960s era London. It’s pop, mod, hippy, glam, folky, dancey, charming.


19) Drink the Kool-Aid – Ice Cube

I didn’t know Cube had such a good hardcore record in him anymore. Much of “I Am the West” is solid, even though he admits he’s “doing this for my kids” (“It is What it Is”), this one’s likely the highlight–the best west-coast gangsta rap in years, better than much of it was in its limelight. “Step up to the alter” and Cube’ll make you “drink the &*&^ kool aid.”



18) Tennessee Me – The Secret Sisters

The Secret Sisters debuted with a soft album that covered classic country, folk, and Sinatra in a fresh yet classical-traditional manner (I’m catching onto a theme here–a lot of great indie work this year stretched back to older periods of influence). Interspersed on their wonderful self-titled debut were original numbers of their own, including this beauty which sounds like it came from the golden age of country radio; the girls do dual-harmony and understated rhythms that are terrific. If you’re on the fence about their album, it was produced by T Bone Burnett and got the early support and help of Jack White of the White Stripes; both of these factors should clue you into whether its your sort of thing or not. Though very throwback style, it was likely my favorite country album of the year not counting Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem River Blues.”


17) The Promise – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Springsteen is an artist that stockpiles material that most others would throw on the record; in the course of making each album, he and the band will often cut dozens of songs and cull the tracks down to make sure that the final album is lyrically and musically cohesive to present the mood and theme he means to do with that particular album. This gave his fans a wonderful 4 disc box-set about 15 years ago, and this year to celebrate the remastered release of 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of T0wn,” he released some excellent concerts, a documentary, the rough-penned lyrics of that record, and two-discs of the material trimmed from the original record. Bruce has had many creative highpoints in his career, but it’s hard to deny that the back to back “Born to Run” and “Darkness” records and the live shows to support each of those albums was the highest of all such points, so a deeper dig into this most fertile of creative periods is excellent. There were several great rock songs on these “Lost Sessions,” but the best is this one, the never before released original studio version of “The Promise.” We got to hear a Bruce and piano version of it on “Tracks,” and it popped up here and there live, but the original studio withe the full E Street Band version is the definitive one and it sounds absolutely terrific despite being a song that is really sad as all get out.

16) No Love – Eminem featuring Lil Wayne

There’s no substance here as far as worthwhile message or moral; there’s just a moderate Weezy verse that mainly works to set up the mood and allow Eminem to show off as the best rhymer in hip hop; Em’ gives us a run of bars that twist and turn and rhyme more syllables in a shorter amount of time than seems possible, he “ignites the stage” and hits the parking lot leaving the crowd roaring. Additional props for taking such a cheeseball nineties dance track and flipping it into a killer beat…

15) Power – Kanye West

When absorbed into “Power” the first time, I was temporarily convinced it was the greatest hip hop song of all time. Kanye has that ability, to overpower you with such intensity and sonic polish to make you think nothing has ever sounded better; though logically you know this is not the case, he can bypass rationality in a listener’s brain to tap directly into sensory and emotional zones…heck, all good pop music aims at doing that. “Power” is over-the-top and better than most hip hop songs this year.


14) How I Got Over – The Roots

I wrote about how the album from which this title track is pulled from came very close to making my top ten album list this year but that it ultimately didn’t. If every song had been as perfect as this one, it certainly would have. A great rap song with a vibrant live studio band backing it (The Roots are phenomenal on the mic and with every instrument they play) giving lyrics that contrast much off-the-cuff rap that tells you not to care about anything–“that type of thinking can’t get you nowhere, someone has to care,” the roots insist.


13) The Show Goes On – Lupe Fiasco

Still no “Lasers” as the year closes out…but word is we finally get it in early spring next year. “I’m Beamin” teased the album early this year, and “The Show Goes On” closes the year out, one of Lupe’s poppiest and best singles yet. The melody is not unlike some of 2Pac’s celebratory work from certain points in his career, but the lyrics are all Lupe; supporting the kids in the ghettos of Detroit, California, Gaza Strip, Haiti and around the world, freshly declaring that he “hopes your son don’t have a gun and never be a d-boy.”

12) Rill Rill – Sleigh Bells

M.I.A. signed this cheerleader noise-pop punk rock mash-up of a band to her own record label and the distortion pushing loudness is likely a factor of their work that appealed to her. There are a lot of uber-catchy hard pop songs on “Treats,” but “Rill Rill” is the standout for me in that the noise is tuned down just enough to let the melodies and vocals really stick this one in your memory and put it on repeat. I’ve read that the lead singer and songwriter taught middle school before joining this group and that these “have a heart,” “what does your boyfriend think about your braces,” etc. lyrics were drawn from her empathy with her students; some have used that to explain that “sixteen, six-six-six and I know the part,” line–it’s not a Slayer invocation (well, unless of the old-school Buffy variety) but a “high school is hell at puberty” motif. Anyway, a song I’ve probably played more than most any other this year, oddly enough.

11) I Should Have Known It – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I love Tom Petty and was thrilled to get a 3 disc live anthology that thoroughly rocks last year. That made me all the more excited for “Mojo,” the new Heartbreakers record that came out this year, especially from the prerelease hype which promised to give guitarist Mike Campbell free reign to step out from behind his understated glory and really tear into some blues drenched rockers. Ultimately, “Mojo” wasn’t my favorite album. “I Should Have Known It,” the first single from it, is amazing however. Campbell’s great catchy riff is what grabs on, but Petty’s vocals are also great here…and of course the rest of the band is in excellent form.

10) Window Seat – Erykah Badu

Badu is eccentric, to say the least. The video for this song landed her in court for public nudity–it showcased her walking down the street in Dallas where JFK was shot completely naked, mock-shot in the head at the end of it as the word “groupthink” bleeds out of her. No permit was used to approve that filming, so a few hundred dollars extra went into that video I suppose. The song is simple enough and seems unrelated to the video concept. It’s just a smooth r&B track about wishing for a safe flight with a window seat–of course “she needs your attention,” so maybe that’s the tie in because the video certainly got her that! Badu is so immensly talented that she need not resort to anything that seeks attention superficially, though I respect her artistic integrity enough to assume her reasons for treating this song as she did made perfect sense to her at least. Anyway, enjoy the song for what it is which is great.

photo by Pieter M Van from indierockcafe.com

9) Next Girl – The Black Keys

The Black Keys are super talented, and though their albums never contain much in the way of filler, I always end up honing in on a few particular singles of theirs to listen to over and over and never really get to appreciate the rest of the album. “Your Touch” was certainly like that, being a blues-based rock song better than almost anything on the radio last decade and “Next Girl” is the best Keys single since that one. Very enjoyable.

8 ) Wide Eyes – Local Natives

I really love this song. The drumbeat opening, the chord cycling back and forth to build up to nice vocal section and chorus backed by those nice backing chants and refrains. “Oh, to see it with my own eyes.” The middle percussion break and jam session before a perfect last verse just stays with you, those drums really drive this song. “Could it ever be on earth as it is in heaven?” We’re not given an answer or any inclination that they have an opinion, they just leave us with one last frenetic band jam.

7) Free Energy – Free Energy

Free Energy are a fun group. Like Weezer if Weezer was more influenced by the ’70s; actually, FE is more like Thin Lizzy. This is old-school guitar rock, complete with cow-bell, car rides, “Dazed and Confused” evoking weekend nights, pleasantly losing control in the night. One of the best rock songs I heard all year without question. Make it right now, while every “thought is electric.”

6) Fifty Ways to Bleed Your Customer – B Dolan

B Dolan drops the tightest, most jaw-dropping verses I’ve heard in almost any rap song in history. There’s not a wasted word here, everything is so incredibly spot-on and hinged on each other line, a scathing indictment of hyper-capitalism and lost values of modern American culture couched as a “how to” on bleeding your customer to make as much money as possible, i.e. “feed ’em all they meds til they forget what the drugs cost,” “treat the side affects and supply the next disorder, poison the well and bottle the water, if all else fails you start a war up.” Don’t forget the tummy tucks and plus-sized caskets, privatize by the pen or the sword and if the “kids got a problem tell ’em throw up a peace sign,” just make sure the public “works til they can’t breathe, dream or think” and you can bounce to the islands with your money even if you are “bloody,” heck the chorus is a mock celebration of that and the ending verses trace this mentality back for decades and as ignorantly embraced by some in hip hop itself. A fast, furious, perfect rap song.

5) F*** You! – Cee Lo

Only in 2010 could a song with such a blatantly profane song title and chorus actually be an upbeat soul jam with the best pop structure of practically anything else on the radio this year, catchy enough to get  soccer moms singing along with it. Cee Lo has been a hidden genius talent for 10 or fifteen years–his excellent genre encompassing solo albums, his rap career with Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family, and then finally mainstream and indie attention with Gnarls Barkley. Now he’s got another solo record that settled straight into soul seductive jams that’s really good–but the highlight is this Al Green/Marvin Gaye throwback about being dumped by your girl because she wanted a man with more  money.

4) I Was a Teenage Anarchist – Against Me!

Against Me! release their best song in years criticizing much of the movement that they started in–a punk song rejecting the culture of punk, how punk is that? It’s an adult look back at the “politics of true conveniance,” about having read all the right books and thinking you were in the enlightened and open movement that would make true “revolution” only to have the “sights set” on you, in a scene gone to rigid and realizing the “revolution was a lie.” Rather than being bitter about it all though, it’s a romantic nostalgia about remembering “when you were young and wanted to set the world on fire.” Great chords, passionate vocals, catchy as hell, an excellent song.

3) Candy – Magic Kids

This is bubblegum pop, certainly. Not of the Justin Bieber or old Nsync variety, more like Cheap Trick, the Beach Boys, or some late 60s or 70s post hippie pretty teen rock. It’s just so catchy and subtly smart; very lighthearted and not for everyone I suppose–that girl popping out the accent of “no candy’s sweeter than my baby” in response to the same statement by the lead singer might be sweet as a cavity to some listeners.  But the lush beat, violin framing, background harmonies, and sheer silly romance of the whole thing is too much for me to pass up.

2) You and I Know – Ra Ra Riot

Ra Ra Riot fuses Afro-pop, bookish lyrics, and indie rock in a way not that dissimilar of Vampire Weekend. Weekend and Riot both released solid records this year that were really fun to listen to– I ultimately enjoy “The Orchard” a bit better than “Contra,” but the standout track from it for me was undoubtedly “You and I Know,” a song that lead vocalist Wesley Miles steps down from to let Alexandra Lawn, the cello player, take a lead vocal turn. What results is a gorgeous, encompassing song similar to the best Mazzy Star moments from the early nineties (in fact, “Fade Into You” played back to back with this song might be just too much to take in terms of pop music beauty).

1) Something Better – Lyrics Born featuring Francis and the Lights

This song was my introduction to Lyrics Born; if you read my “Best Albums of 2010” article you know I really dug the debut album from Francis and the Lights. Lyrics Born gave this song away for free around the web to promote his “As U Were” album a few months before it was released. I played this song repeatedly and got LB’s record on release day. It’s a very fun, good record, but this song is still the highlight for me. This was my favorite song of 2010. Lyrics Born lays out 3 verses of excellence–great rhymes, great voice, and fantastic lyrics; hopeful, joyful lyrics about God’s inclusive love for all and against any political or religious voices that might say otherwise, about pulling yourself up and living life as it is meant to be; lyrics that are what need to be heard in many corners of the radio but that aren’t preachy and that don’t keep the song from being incredibly fun and full of funk. Francis croons an irresistible chorus that is just icing on the cake of the best hip hop single of 2010.

Honorable Mentions: Committed – Jenny and Johnny; Enjoy the Silence (cover)- Nada Surf; Hard Times – John Legend featuring the Roots; Unforgettable – Drake featuring Young Jeezy;Run Back to Your Side – Eric Clapton; If It Wasn’t for Bad- Elton John and Leon Russell

A few years ago at Halloweentime, I posted a blog with my 10 Favorite Horror Films. This year I have 2 new posts for the season, starting with this, 10 (of the) best horror novels. I’m stressing the “of the,” here, because there are several newer titles (past 10-15 years) that certainly would be outranked by certain classic horror works (some of which are also found here); this list is not “authoritative” or all-encompassing, it just consists of 10 novels that are pretty terrifying in different ways, most of which are pretty literate to boot.

10) The Store – Bentley Little

Little’s books are a bit preposterous. He takes everyday concepts–moving into a gated community, getting an insurance policy, and in this case, shopping at the newly opened mega-mart in town–and blankets them with creeping horror that becomes exceedingly worse until it reaches epic proportions. The build-up in such tales make these books page-turners, but with such constant “one-ups” in the narrative process, Little is never quite able to deliver an ending worthy of all that has come before it. I always close his novels feeling a bit let down because of that; but the process leading up to that ending usually makes it worth the read. That being said, “The Store” is my favorite work of his, probably because I hate Wal-Mart so much. The citizens of a small Arizona town are at first ecstatic over the newly opened “The Store” mega-mart, but as it begins to push out all of the local businesses and recruit all of the thus-unemployed workers, things get increasingly dark. The Store begins to ask odd demands of its workers and to provide dangerous products for its customers.

9) Endless Night – Richard Laymon

First off, I have to issue a warning– Laymon’s books are not for everyone. Despite a seemingly general consensus of support and acclaim from within the horror-writers community (from indie writers to King and Koontz), there’s a reason some critics labeled the work Laymon did as “churning porno-violence,” (as one memorable reviewer put it). At his worst, Laymon is not worth your time and probably not good for your soul (skip his short stories, most of which remove all wit to leave only mindless gore). At his best, though, as “Endless Night” showcases, Laymon can truly terrify you more than any other writer. “Endless Night” opens with a home invasion–a group of teenage boys armed with hatchets and spears, dressed in clothes made out of flesh break into a house for the sole purpose of murder. Teenage Jody, who is sleeping over with the daughter of the family, escapes with the family’s 12 year old son. From there, the story races along at practically break-neck speed, pausing only to focus on the back-story of the murder club and how they began (scenes which rank with the scariest of the book). “Endless Night” works where other Laymon books do not, partly because the protagonist is likable. Many of his works focus on leads that are so corruptible that you cease to want to root for them–when they turn out to be like their opponents, it’s simply too nihilistic. Granted, he wasn’t usually gifted in full character development, but it works well enough here to propel the story along. Another worthwhile book of his is “In the Dark,” a great mystery like scavenger hunt with a charming lady librarian as protagonist.

8. Horns – Joe Hill

I reviewed this book here earlier this year when it first came out. It’s a bit new to add to a “best of list,” but it’s so good and Hill is such a fresh talent that I can’t help myself. His characters work wonderfully, his setting seems real, the suspense keeps the pages turning, but the substance of the story is what sticks with you and keeps you pondering it afterward. A dark love story and fantasy, a Shakespearean drama in many ways–a really excellent horror novel that bursts out of the genre in the right ways but stays within in the right ways as well.


7) Off Season – Jack Ketchum

Ketchum’s “Off Season” and Laymon’s “The Woods are Dark” have a very similar history–both focused on a surviving tribe of cannibals that time forgot, living in America and encountering vacationers. Both books received cult praise but were faced with publishing difficulties resulting in edited and misshaped versions hitting the shelves in the states to lackluster reviews while the full versions (or closer approximations to them) hit in the UK and Europe, resulting in a bigger fanbase abroad for the authors while they were unknown at home. Both novels were eventually pieced back together and published as originally intended this past decade. Ketchum’s is  a much more fulfilling and terrifying work. Ketchum is a real writer, which makes his scares all the more scary. He works at the reader both viscerally and psychologically, getting into the inner workings of his characters.  I think more than any horror writer, Ketchum shares much more with classic noir and pulp writers like Raymond Chandler in that you get the sense that a literary writer is “slumming it” in the “lower” genres. His attention to detail sends each jolt over the top but not in a forced or non-genuine manner. “Off Season” presents us with a survival race from a group of people who should be unbelievable but who are painted so well that we feel they could very well exist. (I also recommend Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door,” a book that will stick with you longer than you wish it to. Its tale of hideous evil done by “ordinary” people, mostly youth, would be hideous were it played for exploitation value, especially since the story is based on fact. Yet Ketchum works it into a non-glorifying meditation on evil–which is worse, that which is done or that which is allowed to happen without an effort to halt it? And what does that do that type of evil do to the community, those goaded into it, those victimized by it, and those that survive it?

6) The Hellbound Heart – Clive Barker

Barker was the standout talent to emerge from the aftermath of the “splatterpunk” movement of horror writers–those balls-to-the-wall, in your face, shocking, blood dripping writers. Barker has a mind built for dark fantasy and a talent that is equal parts literate and obscene. “The Hellbound Heart” at it’s 130 some odd pages was the inspiration for countless “Hellraiser” films due to the gripping imagery of the main baddies present here, the cenobites (of which “Pinhead” is one). “The Hellbound” heart is a great short novel with truly great (but horrific) prose. It’s about desire that knows no bounds, about betrayal, sin, corruption and violence. It’s a warning to those that chase the “highest pleasures” without grounding a foot in reality, and it’s a modern day Faustian fable of (practically) unequaled parallel.

5) Ghost Story – Peter Straub

I’ve babbled about “literate” qualities in quite a few of these entries, but Straub takes the cake in that regard–he’s truly like the old generation of horror writers, those who worked squarely in “literature,” whose work probed terror areas yet delivered artistic work and prose, developed characters, and cemented immaculate settings. This isn’t quick, flashy, or violent horror. This is creeping, supernatural revenge horror. It’s much more like Hawthorne than Koontz or Laymon. It’s a modern classic novel that just happens to be a horror novel that takes its time to settle into you for scares that come with thought.

4) Pet Sematary -Stephen King

I’ve argued for King’s literary respect before; I’ve always felt that, despite his glowing popular reviews and massive sells (and somewhat because of those factors), King has often been slighted by the more “upper-end” literary critics. “Pet Sematary” is not his absolute best work–that honor could belong to “The Stand,” “The Dark Tower” series, or “Bag of Bones,” among others–but it is his scariest tale, his most stream-lined horror story. The only competition in that area would be his massive “It” tome, but what “Sematary” lacks in epic scale against “It,” it makes up in morbid yet oddly sentimental meditations on subject matter often swept under the rug in modern Western society. “Pet Sematary” is about death, and the statement made by a character in it (Jud) that “sometimes dead is better” is its theme. King’s own fear of losing his son (which didn’t happen) inspired this close look at what could have happened (well, until the part where the resurrected Gage comes back in worse shape).

3) Lord of the Flies – William Goulding

You might try and say that “Lord of the Flies” isn’t horror, that it’s literature…but you’re kidding yourself. This tale of “civilized” private school children resorting to ruthlessness in their own constructed society when marooned on a desert island is a horror classic.

2) Dracula – Bram Stoker

“Dracula” may not bet the best vampire story of all time, but in Stoker’s original presentation of it, it’s certainly on the short list and every vampire tale to come after owes a nod to it whether it follows from it or reacts back on it. It’s epistle style narration works very well for the story and learning of the neurosis that Stoker had and the history behind the real “Vlad” only adds to the reading of the work itself.

1) Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Shelley’s novel is a milestone even if the distortions and over-use of the “Frankenstein” monster character inadvertently attempt to dilute the importance and artistry of the original story. So, forget everything you’ve ever read or seen regarding this myth and pick up the original novel. It’s deeply literate and gothically romantic–not in the love story sense but in the passion-more-than-intellect, feel-more-than-think trajectory of events. This is a sad book; a heartbreaking terror story, each moment of scares is tempered with the overall tragedy of affairs. Yet it’s so nicely written that it’s joyful, in a dark way. The depth of this work really comes in the philosophical realm–is this man creates monster a dark mirrored version of the Creation myth in Genesis? No doubt that’s a blasphemous thought for many to entertain, but in a more “positive” religious sense, is this what happens when humanity plays at being Godlike? Yet the monster is the tragic hero, despite the violence he gives to the world in “Frankenstein”–he wanted only love and did not receive it even from his creator–he wanted a companion and was denied it. He lashed out in violence and his story became the best modern monster tale and the blueprint for every good horror story to follow it.