Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals -- Walk Through Exits Only. Though this record narrowly missed my top 10, it's certainly the most interesting I heard this year. Dubbed by Anselmo as anti-music, the album is loaded with hooks while, at the same time, being very chaotic and jarring.
Death Angel -- The Dream Calls for Blood. Another solid album in the resurgence of Death Angel, it proves again just how underrated they were in the 1980s.
Ashes of Ares -- Ashes of Ares. Made up of former members of Iced Earth and Nevermore, this record sounds pretty much like what you'd expect -- very melodic and dramatic thrash. It's nice to hear Matt Barlow's voice again without the specter of Jon Schaffer hanging around.
Best EP: Skid Row -- United World Rebellion, Chapter 1. Talk about a big turnaround. After a mediocre first album with vocalist Johnny Solinger and a downright awful second one, I thought Skid Row was dead and gone. Then, they unleash this five-song EP that, at times, seems like an extension of their classic Slave to the Grind record. Suddenly, I have a newfound interest in the band.
Best Sing-Along: "Angus McFife," by Gloryhammer, from the album Tales from the Kingdom of Fife. Alestorm's main buccaneer Christopher Bowes turned his attention to epic, heroic power metal with this project and gave me some of my most memorable musical moments of the year. My eight-year-old son and I enjoyed many rides with this tune blaring out of the speakers as we sang along at the top of our lungs. No one wants to hear that cacophony, but it was great fun and created memories that will stick.
Best Live Set: Nightwish -- Showtime, Storytime. Floor Jansen makes her recorded debut with the symphonic metallers and impresses immediately. She hits the highs of Tarja Turunen and has the rock 'n' roll grit of Annette Olzon. It's just a fantastic performance all the way around.
Best Cover: "Ain't No Sunshine," by Black Label Society from the album Unblackened. Zakk Wylde delivers a moaning, tough, but yet very faithful cover of the Bill Withers classic.
Best Queensryche Record: Pamela Moore -- Resurrect Me. OK, I'm kind of joking, but not really. With two bands out there under the Queensryche name, it's the vocalist who played Sister Mary on Operation: Mindcrime that delivers the record that most captures the spirit of that band. If pressed into picking one of the albums with the Queensryche name on it, I'll go with the Todd LaTorre fronted version, if only for the tune "In This Light," which is the best QR song probably since Mindcrime.
Looking at the list of albums due out in 2014, it could be another good year for hard rock and metal if even half of these pan out. Here are the releases I'm most looking forward to.
Iced Earth -- Plagues of Babylon (January): Man, I keep on hoping. For me, Jon Schaffer has kind of made a mess of Iced Earth with the canning of Tim Owens, the return of Matt Barlow, the departure of Barlow again and the hiring of Stu Block. Dystopia had some great songs on it (including the incredible "Anthem"), but it just didn't connect with me like the band's earlier albums.
Annette Olzon -- Shine (February). Will Olzon shine outside of Nightwish. We'll soon see.
Down (February). Though Phil Anselmo says the next EP installment of Down IV will be out by February, it remains untitled and without a release date. Things have a way of changing with Down.
Black Label Society (April). It's been a long time since we've heard new music from Wylde and Co. Here's hoping the long wait will produce another record as good as 2010's Order of the Black.
Metallica. Will it happen this year? Band members say so. I'll believe it when I see it.
Judas Priest. Originally rumored for a release as early as late 2013, a new Priest record will most likely see light this year. I'm hoping for a recovery from the disappointing Nostradamus.
Iron Maiden. OK, I'm not sure if I really have a lot of anticipation considering their recent history, but it's still Maiden, so I have to give the benefit of the doubt.
Sebastian Bach (spring). Bach is working with Guns 'n' Roses bassist Duff McKagan and guitarists John 5 (Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson) and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol) for the follow-up to the surprisingly good Kicking & Screaming.
Anthrax. Who would have thought I'd be looking forward to a new Anthrax album with Joey Belladonna? They proved me wrong with Worship Music, though, so I look forward to hearing new stuff.
Armored Saint (fall). I could get the best of both worlds, though, with some new music from John Bush, too. There have been hints of a new Armored Saint record in the fall.
Blind Guardian -- A Sign of Hope. Singer Hansi Kursch says the work is coming well, and a title has been announced. We'll see.
Body Count -- Manslaughter. This one intrigues me. I was a fan of the early work from Ice-T's metal outfit, but after a long break and the loss of numerous original members to leukemia (drummer Beatmaster V), cancer (guitarist D-Roc) and violence (bassist Mooseman), I wonder if they can recapture that.