I've always resisted the trend to supply a year-end list of what I thought were the best metal and hard rock albums of the preceding calendar year. The reason for my resistance is a simple one - not having heard every single album released during the year, I feel entirely unqualified to name the best of the lot. Spinning every album released is practically impossible, of course, what with having to devote significant amounts of time to earning money, raising a family, and hockey, so I've decided to take the plunge this year and through my hat in the ring. Keeping in mind that my list is restricted to just the albums that I have personally listened to, here are those that I feel rise above the masses.
#10 - Burning Fortune by Cauldron (Earache Records)
The Canadian traditional metallers released their second full-length album in 2011 and easily avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" that plagues so many bands. While it's true that throwback metal has achieved somewhat of a fad status lately, the style remains appealing to me and Cauldron put out the most solid effort of its kind this year.
#9 - A Series Of Unfortunate Concurrencies by Scar Of The Sun (Scarlet Records)
The debut album from Greek Gothic Doom outfit Scar Of The Sun is noteworthy for its accessibility. The catchy synth hooks blend with admirable vocal performances, which range from death metal growls to a melodious Gothic baritone, to weave an appealing sound that fans of bands such as Sentenced and Type O Negative will enjoy. Groundbreaking it is not, but A Series of Unfortunate Concurrencies is noteworthy as a strong debut from a promising outfit.
#8 - Welcome 2 My Nightmare by Alice Cooper (Universal)
An album that ranked high on my "most anticipated" list for 2011, Alice Cooper's sequel to his seminal 1975 concept album cannot touch its predecessor. In fact, Welcome 2 My Nightmare takes a couple of spins to fully reveal itself, but when it does...genius. The Coop's sardonic sense of humor and subtle innuendo permeates the album, often eliciting double-takes (or double-listens, I guess) as he traverses a number of stylistic formulas to bring his twisted tale to life. While this album isn't the instant classic that Welcome to My Nightmare was, it nevertheless reinforces Alice Cooper's dominance of the shock rock genre.
#7 - ...Of Wariwulfs and Bluotvarwes by Wizard (AFM Records)
German power metallers Wizard keep their album-ever-two-years track record alive with the semi-conceptual ...Of Wariwulfs and Bluotvarwes. Crunchy, weighty, and simply ass-kicking, the band's 2011 effort is as memorable as it is gritty. Wizard does what they do extremely well, with ...Of Wariwulfs and Bluotvarwes certainly one of the best efforts of their long-running career and unquestionably one of the more powerful power metal albums of the year. (Full review here)
#6 - Book of Dowth by Suidakra (AFM Records)
An engaging blend of blackened power metal and folkish melodies, Book of Dowth continues the Celtic theme that Germany's Suidakra initiated with their 2009 album Crógacht. Folk metal may have become pedestrian for some, but for those who are still enamored by the style (such as yours truly) Book of Dowth represents one of the better albums to hit the streets in 2011. (Full review here)
#5 - The Beginning of Times by Amorphis (Nuclear Blast)
Finland's Amorphis has always been one of my favorite metal bands, even during their jazz-fusion Am Universum and Far From The Sun years. The Beginning of Times ignores that awkward period in Amorphis' career and instead blends the best of the death metal years with the enveloping atmosphere of their more Gothic/progressive albums. Excellent.
#4 - The Lay of Thrym by Týr (Napalm Records)
I was blown away by Týr's 2003 sophomore album Eric The Red. Aside from being surprised that there was a metal band from the Faroe Islands, Týr's infectious melodies and bardic tales were a refreshing mix that captured my attention and imagination. The Lay of Thrym strays little from the signature Týr style, but that makes it just as strong and anthemic as anything the band has done thus far. (Full review here)
#3 - Meredead by Leaves' Eyes (Napalm Records)
Leaves' Eyes, led by the captivating Liv Kristine, sits firmly atop the female-fronted Gothic/symphonic metal genre. Liv's use of olde English, Norwegian, Danish, and Gaelic lyrics to tell tales of medieval and mythological Europe further distances the band from peers such as Nightwish. The melodies of Meredead are, like those of the band's previous efforts, engrossing and nigh unforgettable. (Full review here)
#2 - Tiurida by Falkenbach (Napalm Records)
The one-man German outfit Falkenbach helped pioneer the Viking metal style, taking the tales of longships and bearded warriors to atmospheric heights. Present on Tiurida, Falkenbach's first full-length album of new material in six year, are the enraged vocals, medieval melodies, and misty-fjord imagery that makes the band's work some of the most unique and influential music in the metal world. Tiurida is a great return from a band long missed. (Full review here)
#1 - Where Distant Spirits Remain by Falloch (Candlelight Records)
The debut release from Scotland's Falloch defied my best efforts to describe it when I first set out to write a review of the album, and even after repeated spins adequate words elude me. Where Distant Spirits Remain embodies longing, despair, and solemnity, yet underneath what seems a forlorn experience lies a hesitant optimism. Falloch has created an aural experience that I never felt would be anything less than my album of the year for 2011. (Full review here)
So there you have it. A number of albums crossed my desk that I had hoped would crack the top ten (Saxon's Call To Arms and Anthrax's Worship Music to name but two), making it very difficult to reduce the list to its final form, but after many spins and shuffling of the rankings my list is complete. I know there were a lot of other worthy albums released in 2011, and I hope to eventually hear as many of them as possible, but now it's time to look forward to what surprises 2012 has in store for the world of heavy metal!