The decade’s best metal
Around this time every month, The A.V. Club forgets to lock its back door, and Texas-dwelling scumbag Leonard Pierce lets all of his disreputable longhair friends in to spike the water cooler with SoCo and listen to thrash until someone calls security. This month, however, is different. This month, as part of The A.V. Club’s wide-ranging end-of-year coverage of the best culture of the decade, Metal Box forsakes its usual barely coherent ramblings and focuses on the best metal releases of the 21st century. So grab a pen, look up your local record store (it’s a place in a bad part of town that sells music in a physical format), and get your holiday shopping lists ready for the best metal of one of metal’s best decades.
BEFORE THE STORM. First of all, I’ll let you in on a little secret: In a little while, The A.V. Club is going to release its list of the best music of the decade. And most of it will be pretty damn good—even the bands named after helpless woodland creatures. But there’s more going on the music world this decade. In case you haven’t heard, this has been an amazing decade for metal music. (Hard rock has fared less well; we’re still waiting for a latter-day Van Halen, and until one comes around, AC/DC will keep holding the fort, as they have for about 35 years.) That’s part of the reason this column exists; metal is a big, diverse, and incredibly dynamic tent right now, and it easily deserves as much attention as hip-hop, electronica, or indie-rock. After a rough patch in the 1990s, when nü-metal almost managed to finish the job of killing off the genre that was started by hair metal in the 1980s, metal has made a roaring, screaming comeback in the 2000s. Particularly in the last half of this decade, more and better metal has come from every corner of the globe than we’ve seen in three decades, to a degree that if you aren’t listening to some kind of metal on the regular, you just aren’t paying attention. The choice of 30 albums for this list was purely arbitrary; I could easily have gone to 50
And yes, this list reflects my opinion and my opinion only. I’ve tried to mix it up and include examples from most of the major metal subgenres, but by necessity, this is going to be a big hunk of meat seasoned to my tastes. So keep in mind as you’re preparing your badly misspelled hate-posts that I’m not pretending to be comprehensive. The mere fact that there’s so much room for disagreement about the best metal of the decade reflects exactly how goddamn good the genre is these days.
Finally, thanks to everyone who’s made this column a hit; your enthusiasm and support just prove to me that I was right to ask the bosses to take a chance on running it. Now: Presented in alphabetical order (I may be crazy, but I’m not crazy enough to try ranking these in order of preference), the best metal albums from 2000-2009.
Even if it weren’t blessed with the greatest album title of the decade, Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s second album would make it on this list by virtue of distilling latter-day grindcore down to its essence. Scott Hull almost gives the game away by sprinkling the record with samples from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s blasphemous, surreal film The Holy Mountain, but the proof in this blood pudding is in the eating. Cramming every bit of ugliness into the hilariously cruel song titles, Agoraphobic Nosebleed steps out of the way and just lets the pulverizing power of the music do its worst.
Amon Amarth, Twilight Of The Thunder God (2008)
Since the first primitive rock critics crawled up from the primordial muck, they have argued over what’s meant by “Viking metal.” Is it metal that Vikings might make? Is it metal played by the descendents of Vikings? Reliable Swedish death-dealer Amon Amarth cleared it up with this stunning release: It’s music that makes you feel like a Viking. One rip through Twilight—which, unlike most death-metal albums, holds up surprisingly well from beginning to end—and you’ll want to invade your neighbor’s yard, burn his crops, and steal his treasures. Metal should always be this fun.
Anaal Nathrakh, The Codex Necro (2001)
Exploding like Armageddon out of Birmingham, England—the birthplace of metal—Anaal Nathrakh has been putting out great records for eight years. Those records have been remarkably consistent, but none as pure a statement of purpose as the first, which combined the sinister roar of early black metal with the scuttling wail of death metal. It’s soaked in a mystic moodiness (the band is named after a sorcerer’s chant from John Boorman’s Excalibur), which gives it another dimension altogether. The Codex Necro set a standard of blackened death that still hasn’t been equaled.
Baroness, Blue Record (2009)
I was a late adopter with Baroness. The earliest stuff left me cold, and while the virtues of Red Album were easy to see, it had downsides that I found distracting. There was no room to cavil with Blue Record, though, thanks partly to a tremendous production job by John Congleton. A perfect blend of Southern-fried sludge and proggy playing that almost spills into death-metal territory with none of the accompanying clichés, Blue Record is already seeing some “hipster metal”/ “metal for people who don’t like metal” backlash. Don’t let that scare you off of what might be the best heavy music album of 2009.
Blut Aus Nord, The Work Which Transforms God (2003)
Black metal—the controversial subgenre that’s led to murders and, even worse, tedious arguments over authenticity—has been around long enough to break out into many divergent paths. One of the richest is the French black metal scene, with its increasing emphasis on creepy ambience and textured layers of sound. Nowhere is that emphasis more clearly heard than on the game-changing The Work Which Transforms God. One-named founder Vindsval created a soundscape both sparse and rewarding, with truly challenging lyrics and an overall feeling of being part of something magical and dangerous—like a spell you can’t stop casting.
Boris, Pink (2005)
Long before The Sword, Boris was getting smeared as poseur metal. It’s unlikely that would have happened if the band wasn’t Japanese, and if lead guitarist Wata wasn’t a woman; if the titanic sounds she wrenches out of an instrument almost as big as she is isn’t metal, then there’s no such thing. Boris is one of the most restless bands out there, never willing to settle in one place for long, but here, when it lands on the sweet spot between heavy drone and crushing stoner riffs, the band manages to become, for almost an hour, one of the best on the planet.
Converge, Jane Doe (2001)
Jane Doe is a perfect example of the triumph of quality over genre. Metalcore has never been my thing, and Converge has rarely lived up to my expectations, but a record with the raw power and aggression of Jane Doe simply cannot be denied. Kurt Ballou channels The Jesus Lizard in his meaty blasts of guitar noise, and the band as a whole finally manages to prove that it belongs in the same class as Cave In. It’s an essential album of its kind, proving even to doubters the value of skillful exploration of the gray area between punk and metal.
Deftones, White Pony (2000)
Deftones was one of the few bands left after the great nü-metal crash of the late 1990s to stumble from the wreckage with any credibility intact. After some very shaky early work, its members finally hit their mark with Around The Fur, and, almost as if they sensed a moment in time was fading, followed it up with the best record of their career. Heavily symbolic, mature, and with a tight sound that Deftones never achieved before and never would again, White Pony was the last hurrah of the alternative metal movement—and the first great metal album of the 21st century.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, Ire Works (2007)
Though their sounds are nothing alike, it’s easy to think of The Dillinger Escape Plan as the Minutemen of metal. The band’s hardworking approach to touring, commitment to a D.I.Y. ethos, emotional and personal approach to politics, and angular, almost free-jazz musical attack recall the trio from Pedro, and Ben Weinman is equally thoughtful and passionate about his work in interviews. (Both have also been plagued by endless bad luck.) With Ire Works, DEP finally recorded an album as explosive and shattering as its legendary live shows, with an intensity and sophistication that matched its power.
Earthless, Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky (2007)
In only three songs—two monster, 20+ minute instrumental jams and one short, perfect rock song with vocals—this little-known San Diego trio recorded something close to the Platonic ideal of heavy rock. From its rumbling opening to its screaming close, Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky never gets fancy or tries to do something unheard of; all it does is put three masterful musicians together and lets them play off of each other until the listener’s ears start to bleed.
Electric Wizard, Dopethrone (2000)
In the band’s early days, the knock against Electric Wizard was that it was too slavishly devoted to mimicking the slow-and-low doom-metal sound of early Black Sabbath. If that’s a crime, lock Jus Oborn up, and put me in the cell next to him. The phrase “stoner-metal” gets applied to just about any band where you can hear the bass guitar, but no album has ever fit the description better: This awesome, rumbling masterpiece reeks of resin, with Oborn’s lyrics mixed so low and distant they sound almost like a hallucination.
Goatwhore, Carving Out The Eyes Of God (2009)
Metal, more than most genres, rewards consistency; a lot of headbangers would just as soon their favorite bands keep making the same record over and over. As elsewhere, though, there’s always something to be said for progress, and Goatwhore’s most recent record is a great leap forward. Ben Falgoust’s vocals and lyrics go way, way over the top, and Sammy Duet’s guitars sound more savage than ever. Both a culmination and a progression, Goatwhore reminds listeners why metal has a reputation for being terrifying.
Harvey Milk, Life… The Best Game In Town (2008)
Maybe the best answer to the charge that metal doesn’t have a sense of humor about itself, Athens’ Harvey Milk combines a loopy approach to the material with powerful chops that sound entirely unique while still managing to incorporate bits and pieces of everything from ZZ Top to Iron Maiden to the Melvins. Life…The Best Game In Town features a truly hilarious cover and a killer sound from beginning to end, as if you made a mash-up of the best hard rock and noisy metal of the last two decades.
High On Fire, Blessed Black Wings (2005)
Few people—myself included—thought that big, shirtless Matt Pike could possibly follow up the greatness of his old band Sleep with anything nearly as great. After a few false starts, his new band, High On Fire, delivered Blessed Black Wings, one of the few metal albums of the decade met with nearly universal acclaim from both inside and outside the scene. Ramping up the hypnotic stoner riffs of his previous work with ever-increasing guitar heroics and a simpatico recording job from Steve Albini, Pike and his henchmen (including the underrated Joe Preston) delivered one of the best records of the decade by any account.
Isis, Oceanic (2002)
One of the problems with what’s come to be called “post-metal” is that too frequently, in its search to be dense and meaningful, it forgets to be heavy. That’s not the case with Oceanic, the appropriately named album that marked Isis’ graduation from interesting to legendary. While its complexity and sophistication—light-years beyond what most bands would even contemplate—are unquestionable, Oceanic never lets up on the hardness, conjuring bands like Godflesh and Swans at their most intense. A library without this album is missing a major reason why metal remains such a vital art form.
The Mars Volta, Frances The Mute (2005)
The Mars Volta hasn’t done much since 2005 to preserve its initial reputation. The band’s albums have decreased in quality; solo projects have been too many in number and too little in necessity; and the vocals are still intolerably Geddy Lee-ish. But for one glorious moment, TMV did everything right: Frances The Mute simply connects on every level, from the striking cover art to the creepy lyrics to the diverse elements thrown into the musical mix. The band was never again able to be so eclectic without calling attention to that eclecticism, or so progressive without being overblown, but here, it got everything just right. Well, except for those vocals.
Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)
One of the first metal albums of the decade to reach a non-metal audience, Leviathan— Mastodon’s epic retelling of Moby Dick—was, naturally, one of the first albums to become part of the “hipster-metal” backlash that got applied to any band that drew in crowds who weren’t hardcore headbangers. Fuck what the haters say, though: Mastodon’s masterpiece is an impeccable piece of work, delivered with an intensity that makes it seem like the band is going to burst out of the speakers and trash the joint, and an intelligence that belies the neck-snapping power of the riffs.
Melechesh, Djinn (2001)
Every list of this sort deserves an indulgent pick of an unjustly slept-on band; here’s mine. Jerusalem’s Melechesh—a mixed group of Arab and Jewish musicians who have actually spent time in jail because of their home town’s strict anti-blasphemy laws—offers living proof of metal’s latter-day international presence, and its hyper-intense, rapid-fire death metal riffing, combined with the Middle Eastern sounds, results in a fiercely original sound. When I first played this for a non-headbanging friend, he said, “This is what I think metal should sound like.” I couldn’t agree more.
The Melvins, (A) Senile Animal (2006)
Talk to almost any good metal band of the last 20 years, and chances are good that they’ll cite the Melvins as an influence. So how come nobody sounds like the Melvins? Well, because the band is just that good. And when some bands finally got the hang of aping that sludgy, powerful, immovable-object sound, the Melvins switched it up; on A Senile Animal, they absorbed the likeminded band Big Business and created a crushing sound that was a major development, but also unmistakably Melvins. The result was Melvins’ best record of the aughties, a rollicking, filthy celebration of noisy and beautiful squalor.
Meshuggah, Catch Thirtythree (2005)
For quite some time, Meshuggah, the Swedish five-piece that mixes extreme death metal and complete fucking insanity, has been, in the vernacular of another favorite musical genre of mine, on some next-level shit. But even fans of groundbreaking work like Destroy Erase Improve and the I EP were caught flat-footed by Catch Thirtythree, which even now is a pretty hard thing to wrap one’s head around. A concept album about paradoxes, it fittingly contains plenty of them: Its jaw-dropping guitar work somehow combines the nearly ritual composition of death metal with the footloose improvisation of free jazz, and the equally stunning drum work of mastermind Tomas Haake isn’t actually played on the drums. Don’t try to understand it; just put it on, turn it up, and let it happen.
Opeth, Watershed (2008)
Another band it takes some getting used to, Sweden’s Opeth combines prog rock, folk rock, and death metal in a way that can either blow listeners away or alienate them. The band put out a number of albums this decade that garnered high praise, especially Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries, but the former was a bit too prog-stained and the latter inconsistent and inchoate. Watershed, however, brought it all together in a way Opeth’s previous albums promised but never quite delivered. Its sound was the sound of a band, settled and finally fully comfortable working together, doing exactly what it set out to do, and doing it well.
Orthrelm, OV (2005)
In Inventory, the delightful A.V. Club book that’s in stores now and makes a perfect Christmas gift, someone cites Orthrelm’s OV as the perfect music to clear out a room when the party’s over. That someone was me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. In fact, the album—featuring insane guitar playing by Mick Barr and inhuman drumming by Josh Blair—takes the ultra-formalist strain of technical death metal about as far as it can possibly go, completely transcending genre. By the time the spellbinding, patience-testing 45-minute title track is over, it’s gone beyond metal into a sort of minimalist program music of a sort that wouldn’t seem alien to fans of Terry Riley or Steve Reich.
Pelican, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw (2005)
Chicago has been a hotbed of modern metal, spanning terrific bands like Lair Of The Minotaur, Born Of Osiris, and Nachtmystium. But Chicago has also long been a formidable producer of post-rock, and those tendencies come together in Pelican, the closest thing post-metal has to a supergroup. Making its reputation with a series of hypnotic, powerful live performances, the band has successfully translated that vibe to record, and this is the best of the lot. Its slow, throbbing builds form a perfect transition from the moodier post-rock sounds of the band’s early work to the stunning riffage of its later albums.
Pig Destroyer, Phantom Limb (2007)
Metal may be a big tent, but it’s not immune to the influence of attention-grabbing talents. There are a handful of bands and performers whose skill and vision are such that they could almost dominate this list by themselves; Scott Hull is one of them. Though there are marked differences between his work with Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Pig Destroyer, and Anal Cunt, the unifying factor is his terrifying instrumental ferocity that sounds like an entire band playing at once. Vocalist J.R. Hayes shouldn’t be ignored, though; his surprisingly deep, menacing lyrics are among the best in metal.
Queens Of The Stone Age, Songs For The Deaf (2002)
Songs For The Deaf was a huge chart success, and a lot of critics predicted that it would be the album to set off a new age of metal chart domination. That didn’t happen, but it shouldn’t stop anyone from recognizing it for the stone classic that it is. Josh Homme incorporated his High Desert past into every song on the album and then added more, assembling a crackerjack band (including Dave Grohl doing the best drumming of his career) to pound out song after memorable song of superb hard rock.
Skeletonwitch, Breathing The Fire (2009)
While it’s gratifying to see bands like Slayer, Testament, and Megadeth still doing excellent work, it’s even more fun to see a whole new generation of young, skilled, and enthusiastic bands spearheading the thrash revival. And while there’s plenty of fun to be had with the more purist groups like Warbringer and Municipal Waste, Skeletonwitch raises its game by incorporating death metal and black metal shadings into hyperactive thrash. The band’s follow-up to the amazing Beyond The Permafrost is even better, with more great riffs per song than most bands manage on a full album.
Slayer, Christ Illusion (2006)
If L.L. Cool J is done with it, Slayer would probably like to borrow “Don’t call it a comeback” as a slogan. Every album since Seasons In The Abyss has been critiqued through the comeback lens, but none makes the return-to-greatness argument more convincingly than Christ Illusion. Featuring some of Kerry King’s best guitar playing, head-crushing drums from Dave Lombardo, and even a controversial hit single in the form of “Jihad,” it convincingly make the case that Slayer is still the greatest metal band in the world.
Sleep, Dopesmoker (2003)
Considering all the trouble that Matt Pike had to go through—including innumerable production delays, cost overruns, and a duel with his record label, which considered it unmarketable—to get Sleep’s masterpiece released in the format he wanted, he had to have wondered on occasion if it was all worth it. Not many people heard the stoner epic Dopesmoker, but those who did are in unison: Accept no substitutes. This is the one and only of its kind.
The Sword, Age Of Winters (2006)
Insert snide comment about hipsters here. Decorate with photo of J.D. Cronise wearing a trucker hat, and add a generous helping of snotty aspersions about the character of people from Austin. Top off with dismissal of any song appearing in a Guitar Hero game. Now erase all that and just sit down and listen to Age Of Winters. If you’re not banging your head by the second track, then you’re letting your preconceptions get in the way of the music. This is simply a kick-ass heavy metal album, and anything else is just a distraction.
System Of A Down, Toxicity (2001)
The capstone—and death knell—of the nü-metal movement came the week before September 11, when System Of A Down released its massively successful Toxicity album. It was all downhill from there. As Daron Malakian (lately of the dreadful Scars On Broadway) gained more control of the band and Serj Tankian became less interested in its direction, SOAD’s albums became less worth hearing. But for one album, Tankian’s keen voice, Malakian’s intricate guitars, and John Dolmayan’s polyrhythmic drums came together to deliver song after song of exciting yet radio-friendly art-metal.