Heavy Mental: Top Albums of 2009

It was a hectic year, and trying to come up with a top-10 list to close things out seemed like an almost overwhelming task. Where there really 10 albums that stood out to me? Well, when I finally sat down to build and rank a list, I realized there were, and then some. There were obvious picks, happy surprises, and a couple that came out of left field and completely blew me away. At the end of the day, this represented, to me, the best 2009 had to offer.

So, without further ado…

Best albums of 2009…

10 (tie).

Taking Back Sunday – New Again
Warner Bros.

30 Seconds to Mars – This is War
Virgin Records

Eyes Set to Kill – The World Outside
Break Silence Records

And in a cheat of sorts, a three-way tie for the No. 10 slot. Taking Back Sunday sounds positively invigorated on New Again, snarling through an enjoyable mix of high-energy tracks with the typical trademark tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Check out the catchy-as-hell “Summer, Man”, the melancholic “Where My Mouth Is” and infectious “Swing”.

While a daunting task to follow-up the break-out A Beautiful Lie album, 30 Seconds to Mars didn’t try to make a sequel, instead crafting one of the most interesting albums of 2009. From the slow build of “Escape” to the explosive anthem “Kings and Queens”, the band continues to surprise as an alternative standard-bearer.

Finally, with the sophomore release from Eyes Set to Kill, the beauty of the music that they are beginning to craft is in the juxtaposition of the various elements, continuing to mature. Whether it’s the dual-vocal approach, the quieter piano moments sandwiched between stutter-stop riffing and thunderous groove, or when the parts pull into one mass attack (executed to perfection on “The Hollow”), the band never seems to get lost or overdo it with the individual elements.

9.

Pearl Jam – Backspacer
Universal

“When something’s broke, I wanna put a bit of fixin’ on it / When something’s bored, I wanna put a little exciting on it / If something’s low, I wanna put a little high on it / When something’s lost, I wanna fight to get it back again”

Pearl Jam’s recent rocker, Backspacer, follows in the footsteps of 2002’s Riot Act, and while the band has, in many ways, moved away from the raw power of Ten or Vs. (something I think they tried to recapture with the self-titled album a few years ago), they’re still able to put out a raucous collection of music, continuing an almost twenty-year streak and pretty much solidifying a spot as one of the most reliable rock bands of the last, well, twenty years.

8.

Thursday – Common Existence
Epitaph

“When I first saw you there were guns in the river / Black birds of warning circling high above the marquee where the blue notes of lovers mixed with the loneliness of others / Turned our breath into snowflakes as we whispered in the gutters”

Thursday seemed to have rediscovered and recaptured the energy and emotion so prevalent on the band’s first two albums and channeled it into one raging beast of an album. While they sort of drifted off into mellower, experimental fare gradually over the past couple of albums, Common Existence is a true return to form. From the abrasive album opener “Resuscitation of a Dead Man” to the slow-burn dirge of closer “You Were the Cancer”, every song is a Thursday masterpiece.

7.

Slayer – World Painted Blood
American / Sony Music

“Like a storm that devastates / Religious power instigates / Take religion to my confession / There is no filter on my aggression / With a blister open wide / To keep the massacre alive / I got cold devastation / With my moral imperfection”

What World Painted Blood does manage to do, is far outshine Slayer’s more recent releases (2001’s God Hates Us All and the oft-overlooked 2006 release Christ Illusion), and it does so by pulling from a deep bag of tricks, strung together to craft their best offering of the new millennium. There’s a little bit of everything on here: Tom Araya’s schizophrenic vocal delivery on the blistering “Hate Worldwide” and deliberate “Public Display of Dismemberment”; the pure thrash bliss of “Unit 731″; the punk aesthetic of “Snuff”; the chilling dirge of “Playing With Dolls”. Truth be told, the band almost seems to have taken a page out of 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, shifting between the roles of chaotic thrash masters or slowing things down to sound like the metallic bringers of death.

6.

Mastodon – Crack the Skye
Reprise Records

“The screaming arrows tear through my soul / In the dawn your face is haunting / White ghostly dreams”

Mastodon continues to push the boundaries of metal, and Crack the Skye further solidifies the band’s post as one of the genre’s best new bands. While the album seems more polished and directed than some of the group’s previous efforts, this set is still chock-full of crushing riffs and features two ten-minute-plus epics as the band drifts and lilts over a musical landscape. A little less stoner-metal, a little more ’70s-inspired progressive rock, they never disappoint, as each song impresses more than the last.

5.

Paramore – Brand New Eyes
Fueled By Ramen

“And the worst part is before it gets any better we‘re headed for a cliff / And in the free-fall I will realize I‘m better off when I hit the bottom”

Every band has one of those moments; it’s not necessarily a break-out song or album, but a time where everything falls into place to become a defining moment. This is that moment for Paramore. On this album, the band fires on all cylinders to amazing affect. The music is tight and the lyrics smart and thought-provoking, while the songs are catchy at times and deep at others. While All We Know Is Falling established the group, and Riot! caught everyone’s attention, it’s Brand New Eyes that proves lead singer Hayley Williams can front a band and command a stage, and the rest of the band continues to craft nice little power-pop/punk songs. Of note is the snarling “Ignorance” and “Brick by Boring Brick”, the melancholy of “The Only Exception” and album closer “All I Wanted” and the near perfection of the album’s best moment, “Turn it Off.”

4.

Lamb of God – Wrath
Epic

“Everything you’ve ever begged me to be / Could never have meant any less to me / Everything you’ve ever asked me to say / It’s so far away from the truth”

Wrath is everything you expect from a Lamb of God album: crushing blast beats and choking rhythm along with the snarling, haunting vocals of Randy Blyth. The fact of the matter is that, while perhaps not the most innovative metal band out there, Lamb of God has pretty much set the stage to be the best metal act of the decade. Album after album of blistering metal—at times insanely catchy—and with little filler, their latest is no different. Opening with a slight curveball, with the layered “The Passing” the band soon explodes with fury with “In Your Words”, grabbing ahold of the listeners’ throats and never letting up. And hey, Slayer is a little predictable, too, but no one’s trying to deny their status as legends.

3.

Silversun Pickups – Swoon
Dangerbird Records

“How many times do you wanna die / How many ways / Do you wanna die / Do you feel safe again? / Look over your shoulder / Very carefully look over your shoulder”

I can’t think of a song in the last five years that has captured my ear quite like the gentle drone of “The Royal We”. It’s like the band somehow recaptured that moment in 1994/1995—the tail end of Jawbreaker and the beginning of Sunny Day Real Estate, with the lo-fi dirge and muddy guitar play. The band is definitely channeling a lot of classic ’90s acts (the aforementioned, and possibly Pixies, or Mudhoney), with just a hint of something like Coheed and Cambria (in the vocal delivery). It sounds like a throwback, but manages to somehow sound fresh at the same time.

2.

Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue
Virgin Records

“And I always paid attention to all the lines you crossed / Forgive this imperfection, it shows, and know / I am the child that lives and cries in a corner, dies in a corner”

The album really picks up where the band left off. Most of the time, you almost forget Layne Staley isn’t still front and center with the group, both a comfort and a curse as a long-time listener. William DuVall does a great job continuing in the tradition of the classic AIC sound, managing to somehow emulate Staley but push through with his own style, too. Without going through track-by-track, I’ll simply say that the band does a good job of mixing all the different elements of its sound—with some hard-rockers (“Acid Bubble”), mellow fair à la Jar of Flies (“Your Decision”) and thunderous dirges (“A Looking in View”)—to craft a complete experience. Perhaps not quite the perfect release, it’s exactly what fans were hoping for. And, with the replacement of such a legendary vocalist, way more than most bargained for. In the end, Black Gives Way to Blue is quite the little gem to turn a whole new generation of fans onto the band.

1.

Silverstein – A Shipwreck in the Sand
Victory Records

“You broke my heart, You promised me the moon and stars / I fell for your dreams, I fell for your lies / There was no other way, you know I tried / And I knew you could never love me, I had so much sorrow inside / You could never reach, but can I still keep / A place in your heart”

While they could have easily been lumped in with the rest of the dual-vocalist screamo bands that popped up in the early part of the decade, Silverstein offered a little something more. The clear vocals were just melodic enough, and the groove in the guitar work just deep enough, that the band managed to stand out and craft a sound uniquely its own (when you hear a Silverstein song, you can immediately tell it’s Silverstein). On this album, everything that made the band unique—each element of its sound and approach to songwriting—seems to have been ratcheted up a notch or 10. Just listen to “American Dream” with its balladic opening that gives way to a hardcore dirge (the spark) that the band is more than willing to douse with enough melody (the fuel) to start, well, a house fire. That driving, hook-laden guitar work pops up in every song, but this time out the band looks to rely on a lot of solid bass work, too, to push the songs forward (check out “You‘re All I Have”). Ultimately, what the band has done a fantastic job of here, is creating a series of moods, dragging the listener on a musical journey through the heartache, betrayal, vengeance and angst—weighty matters to be sure—that are tempered with a lighter mood in the music’s melody.

In closing…

And that’s that. As always, drop me a line. Until next time, I’ll be here at Machine Gun Funk making sure that metal continues to have a voice.

Take it easy…

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