Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best of 2015

This past year was a strange one for me musically. While there were a few albums that I’d consider outstanding, I had a very hard time finding new music that connected with me. Some highly anticipated records disappointed me, and an album for which I really had no expectations stunned me and rose to the top of my Best of 2015 list.

Rather than culling from a big list as usual, I had to stretch a little to get it to 10 entries, and the bands on the list are all pretty well-established acts. It’s certainly not the strongest top 10 that I’ve ever turned in, but those few records at the top would be there in any year.

Here’s hoping for a more fruitful musical search in 2016 …

10. PRO-PAIN – THE VOICE OF REBELLION: This is the first of a few surprises on the Best of 2015 list for me. Though the veteran hardcore band has been popping out albums every year or two since their 1992 debut Foul Taste of Freedom, I haven’t really given them much thought since that record. I liked the debut but, as with most hardcore, the sound got old to me after a while. I gave this one a listen with somewhat fresh ears, and songs like the raging title track and the catchy “Age of Disgust” pulled me in.

9. IRON MAIDEN – THE BOOK OF SOULS: It’s no secret to anyone who read my review that this album disappointed me. I enjoyed it more than some of their more recent offerings, but it wasn’t quite the return to form that I’d hoped for. Still, it was a solid record and, even at their weakest, Iron Maiden outshines most other bands out there.

8. SLAYER – REPENTLESS: I came at this record with knives out, ready to slash it to bits for trotting out the same old tired songs again. In many ways, it did, but for some reason, I found myself drawn in. Sure, there are the standard Slayer tracks we’ve heard dozens of times before but, here and there you find a little spark — like the heavy, lumbering riff of “Pride in Prejudice.” It’s not all that different, but it has more staying power than most of Slayer’s more recent outings.

7. LAMB OF GOD – VII: STURM AND DRANG: Lamb of God’s seventh album comes after a tumultuous period in the band’s history that included singer Randy Blythe being arrested in the Czech Republic and charged in the death of a fan who hit his head in a fall from the stage. That incident had a clear impact on this record, which deals — as the title suggests — with storms and stresses of life. The band takes a few chances here, including some clean vocals and more melodic pieces, but it’s still a very heavy album — and, to my ears, one of their best.

6. NIGHTWISH – ENDLESS FORMS MOST BEAUTIFUL: As I kind of expected, the first album with new singer Floor Jansen returns a little more to the soaring, operatic style of the Tarja Turunen era. Mainman Tuomas Holopainen delivers his usual exquisite compositions, and while Jansen spends most of the album lilting through those big vocal lines, we do occasionally see some of the more raw rock ‘n’ roll style of second singer Anette Olzon on tracks like “Weak Fantasy,” a personal favorite.

5. ARMORED SAINT – WIN HANDS DOWN: The members of Armored Saint do what they do on Win Hands Down. There’s nothing really stunning or surprising about it, but it’s a solid set of kick-ass heavy rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Singer John Bush sounds great, the band is tight, and the title track might be the best song they’ve recorded in years.

4. QUEENSRYCHE – CONDITION HUMAN: Fans have been waiting for this record for a long time — and our next Best of 2015 entry was worth the wait. The second outing with new singer Todd LaTorre finds a re-energized and refocused Queensryche that manages to capture the sound and mystique of their classic work from the late ’80s and early ’90s while still sounding fresh and not dated. Condition Human is easily the best thing they’ve done since Empire.

3. GLORYHAMMER – SPACE 1992: RISE OF THE CHAOS WIZARDS: Fun is an element that’s too often forgotten in metal these days, but Christopher Bowes definitely remembers, and he injects plenty of it into his projects. He doesn’t forget the musical chops and the big, memorable melodies either. No other record put a bigger goofy smile on my face this year. Sometimes you just need to wave your imaginary sword in the air and sing about the Goblin King of the Darkstorm Galaxy.

2. AMORPHIS – UNDER THE RED CLOUD: Skyforger was my favorite album of 2009, and I thought it would be the pinnacle of Amorphis’ power. Their latest, though, gives that record a good run for its money. The folk elements of their music get ramped up more on Under the Red Cloud, but they also stick with the heaviness that has seen a resurgence in their sound since Skyforger. It’s a great recipe for a really powerful progressive folk metal piece.

1. MARILYN MANSON – THE PALE EMPEROR: Where the heck did this come from? Though I’m a big fan of his first three records, I had pretty much written Manson off years ago. While his work since Mechanical Animals has produced a song here and there that I really like, none of it has been as compelling as those early records. Until now. The Pale Emperor returns to the Bowie-inspired glam of Mechanical Animals, but also brings some fresh elements into the mix. It sounds, to me, like the natural progression from that album, and I’ve returned to this top Best of 2015 entry time and again throughout the course of the year.

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