Lists. People love them and love to hate them. There is always going to be a bunch of things to criticize end-of-year lists about, and many of those criticisms will always have merit. Placing any sort of artificially-objective construct onto something that is as wholly subjective a thing as listening to and expressing opinions on music or any art is going to come with its many pitfalls. We keep doing them and reading them though because they’re fun, they’re (sometimes) informative and shed light on things we may have missed, and they’re also useful as a way to measure what individuals, collections of people, and entire industries feel are the products and trends worth noting.
It is that last one that we’re most concerned with here and is the reason why for the previous two years we have spent a painstaking amount of time assembling industry-wide lists of ranked best-of metal lists to form Voltron-like MECHA AOTY lists. Apparently some of you have taken notice as we received multiple comments this year asking if we were going to do it again. I am happy to report that we have! Taking our experience from previous years and also of assembling our own AOTY list, we have refined our system to something that is much more manageable and also much more representative of the big picture of what “the industry” (i.e. journalistic publications and blogs of note that cover metal music and/or culture) feels is important and stands out. Once again if you would like to learn more about our aggregation methodology, please go and read Noyan’s very in-depth explanation of it (and if you are as much a nerd about these things as we are, he is even offering the algorithmic code he uses to form these ranked lists!).
First off below, we have the list of publications whose lists we included this year. The criteria we used to include places wasn’t particularly stringent beyond whether 1) a sizable proportion of the albums included could be considered metal or at least “heavy”, 2) the lists were ranked clearly, and 3) the blog or outlet had more than a relatively minute following (measured in Facebook likes of more than a few thousand). We’re not going to pretend that we’ve captured every single metal list from blogs and websites out there, but the 21 publications we included form the most robust sampling we’ve had creating this list yet.
Ghost Cult Magazine
In the case of three places – Metal Injection, Metal Insider, and Metalsucks – we took the extra step of aggregating their various individual staff lists since they did not do so themselves (Ed Note: Metal Injection released their official internal aggregate after we assembled all of this, so our own aggregate stands). After that step, we plugged everything into our spreadsheet, had Noyan crunch the numbers, and came up with the list you see below. Unlike previous years, we are publishing a smaller set of albums, as the value of the data drops off pretty precipitously after around the top 25. You will also notice that we have included some additional data on each album, including the number of times they were placed on the lists we included and their “mean” ranking. This is to just offer a more complete picture to you on how these publications voted, though it is not intended to align perfectly with how they are ranked here as our algorithm does not actually use these metrics specifically to determine their ranking.
Without further ado, here are the top 25 metal albums of the year, as voted on by the metal journalism “industry.”
25. Artificial Brain – Infrared Horizon (voted for 3 times with mean score: 10)
24. Spectral Voice – Eroded Corridors of Unbeing (voted for 4 times with mean score: 15)
23. Sólstafir – Bedreyminn (voted for 4 times with mean score: 12)
22. Ne Obliviscaris – Urn (voted for 3 times with mean score: 9)
21. Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep (voted for 5 times with mean score: 15)
20. The Contortionist – Clairvoyant (voted for 5 times with mean score: 17)
19. Immolation – Atonement (voted for 5 times with mean score: 13)
18. Zeal & Ardor – Devil Is Fine (voted for 4 times with mean score: 8)
17. Mutoid Man – War Moans (voted for 5 times with mean score: 7)
16. Kreator – Gods of Violence (voted for 4 times with mean score: 10)
15. Trivium – The Sin and The Sentence (voted for 6 times with mean score: 13)
14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World (voted for 6 times with mean score: 14)
13. Leprous – Malina (voted for 5 times with mean score: 10)
12. Myrkur – Mareridt (voted for 5 times with mean score: 8)
11. Full of Hell – Trumpeting Ecstasy (voted for 7 times with mean score: 12)
10. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun (voted for 8 times with mean score: 10)
9. Wolves in the Throne Room – Thrice Woven (voted for 7 times with mean score: 8)
8. Paradise Lost – Medusa (voted for 8 times with mean score: 11)
7. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper (voted for 9 times with mean score: 6)
6. Enslaved – E (voted for 11 times with mean score: 7)
5. Code Orange – Forever (voted for 12 times with mean score: 7)
4. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand (voted for 13 times with mean score: 7)
3. Pallbearer – Heartless (voted for 15 times with mean score: 11)
2. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic (voted for 16 times with mean score: 11)
1. Converge – The Dusk in Us (voted for 15 times with mean score: 7)
As is tradition, we will now offer some extensive analysis of this list, some hot takes on it, and what we feel it says about the status and health of the industry as a whole. This year myself, Eden, Scott, and Jonathan all picked one topic to write about at length, so buckle in, kids. This is going to be a long one. Hope you enjoy, and see you next year!
Common Core – Metal Journalism’s Shared Taste Continues To Be Monochrome
Now look, there are plenty of metal journalists which I respect and some of them I even admire; some of these even write for publications included above. It’s not that I think that metal journalists are boring by definition; I’m a metal journalist and I’m pretty cool (right, guys? Guys?). But at the bottom line, when you look at this year’s aggregated list (and those before it), a very monochrome, drab and clear cut image of what metal journalism likes becomes instantly clear, especially on the Top 10.
It can be summarized like this: above a certain place in the aggregated list (usually 10 and above), you will very likely find releases from the doom, “establishment” black metal and stoner metal persuasions. For some reason, metal journalism just likes a very specific guitar tone, always ranging on the minor, the buzzsaw and the fuzzed out and if they can’t get that, they default to the likewise austere realms of atmospheric black metal. Just like the inclusion of Khemmis, Meshuggah, Oranssi Pazuzu and even Gojira (whose Magma is a goddamn embarrassment), all bands that released albums which move between underwhelming to downright bad, metal journalism drifted this year towards that sound which they seem to love.
And some of the resulting picks are great, don’t get me wrong: Converge, Wolves in the Throne Room, Pallbearer, Power Trip, all of these bands and more are definitely potentially solid picks for a Top 10. But don’t you think it’s a shame that everyone picks these albums? Don’t you think it’s a shame that huge swaths of the metal community aren’t represented on this list? You’ll almost never find progressive metal at the top of these lists (the closest you get here is Enslaved but they really fit in into the “establishment” black metal narrative). You’ll almost never get new and exciting technical death metal; Artificial Brain is at the bottom of this list for crying out loud and no other tech death bands appear here. In the ridiculously prolific and amazing year tech death has had, that’s a real shame.
It’s as if the metal journalism establishment is somehow allergic to melody and the more colorful ranges of the metal genres. The problem is that this prevents them from accurately telling their readers about what’s happening in their own community. Look at how many movements and trends are missing from this list. The traditional heavy metal revival, which saw several amazing albums in 2017, is completely absent (to be fair, it’s absent from our Top 25 as well but present in plenty of our personal lists). The rise of “skronk” tech death gets a solitary nod in the above mentioned Artificial Brain. The metal community’s relationship with synthwave is overlooked and uncommented upon. The Denver scene is almost completely absent, with only Spectral Voice representing a scene that produced several amazing albums this year (Khemmis scored highly last year and are also from Denver, but I believe that has more to do with their sound, which perfectly fits the establishment’s taste).
I can go on but here’s the bottom line: we’re obviously not telling people what to listen to and what to like. You rank your own damn AOTY lists and you decide what to put where; that should go without saying. But when you aggregate metal journalism’s list and find an incredibly specific type(s) of albums on it, and multiple trends which are absent even as they proliferate through the community, that should cause concern. In a genre experiencing an untold era of proliferation and work (accessible work, at that) journalism has an obligation and should have a passion for variety, originality and for shining a light on lesser known acts or genres. Sure, being obscure does not automatically grant you a spot on a list. But when an aggregate of a fair number of blogs and magazines results, year after year, in the same flavors and tastes, and the absence of important, other sounds, we as metal fans should be concerned. These publications can be vehicles for change and meaningful, quality discovery, but this list indicates that that potential isn’t really being fulfilled.
I Guess We All Love Code Orange Now?
Though much of this post will dissect the problematic predictability of the metal industry’s year-end picks, the universal acclaim bestowed upon Code Orange’s Forever came as a genuine surprise. Twelve of the lists we included in our aggregate included it among their top picks for their, with four publications crowning it their album of the year and four others placing it in their top ten. The accompanying words were no less glowing either: Rolling Stone (yes, that Rolling Stone) rounded out their overall top 50 with Forever and placed it atop their top 20 metal picks for the year, praising the band’s “state-of-the-art heaviness.” Revolver hailed the album as “The year’s finest combination of forward-thinking experimentalism and reptile-brain fury.” And perhaps the most raving review of all came courtesy of The Independent, who closed out their write-up with some resounding verbal fellatio:
“Forever is a game-changer, a milestone album as important and vital to the progression of heavy music as The Shape of Punk to Come, Slipknot and Calculating Infinity were almost 20 years ago. Records of Forever’s magnitude don’t come along all that often and it’s important to cherish them when they do. Out with the old, in with the new.”
There are a number of reasons why this stellar reception caught us off guard, with the primary point of contention being the music itself. Admittedly, the album received a handful of votes for our own top 25 list, and some of our contributors feel the hype is well-deserved. But from the point of view of our editorial body, Forever is one of the most overrated metal albums of the year, and perhaps in recent memory. The metal industry may call it groundbreaking hardcore, but to our ears, Forever is nothing more than tough guy metalcore that barely strays into any truly experimental territory.
This isn’t to say there’s no obvious attempts at adventurous songwriting, but rather, the “experimental” moments praised by the metal industry are hardly revolutionary for the genre. Apparently, adding in some periodic electronics and occasionally going off-genre qualify as experimental these days, at least in terms of the metal industry’s coverage. The brief electronic passages on tracks like “The Mud,” “The New Reality” and “No One is Untouchable” are mild, adding some glitches and ambiance that do little to enhance the overall composition. And while “Hurt Goes On” does venture into some dark industrial territory, its awkward pacing and meathead climax ultimately come across like a dumbed down Nine Inch Nails track from their early years. Code Orange’s obsession with the late nineties and early aughts continue throughout the record, including a bad nu-metal rendition of Godflesh’s Songs of Love and Hate on “Real” and what sounds like a slightly polished and heavier hybrid of Rob Zombie and Coal Chamber on “Ugly.”
Some bland early aughts melodic metalcore on “Bleeding in the Blur” and the moody, inconsequential “dream2” round out this mixed bag of tricks, none of which accurately represent what the bulk of the album leans on: pit fodder breakdowns and simple, chugging riffs. The album certainly packs in plenty of proof for the metal industry’s “pissed off Pittsburghers” narrative, but not to its benefit, frankly. Though Code Orange present perfectly inoffensive mosh pit anthems, there was no shortage of more well-written heavy music this year, and the fact that the metal industry seemed to be spellbound by standard metalcore beatdowns and vague experimentation is truly baffling. To think this is the first metal album in recent memory (and perhaps ever) to break on to Rolling Stone’s overall album of the year list is discouraging, to say the least, as it implies that this is the best mainstream publications think metal has to offer.
Beyond the quality of the album itself, however, the other curious part of Forever’s acclaim is how far it falls outside the metal industry’s prefered genre bubble. As evidenced by our previous aggregate lists and the top picks this year as well, the metal industry seems to prefer late-career albums from established artists and young bands playing revivalist metal or doing something slightly new with the genre, traditionally within the genres of black, death, doom and sludge metal (Eden touched on this more in-depth above). This being the case, it’s unusual to see this level of doting for a relatively straightforward metalcore album with barely any impressive frills. And as Revolver pointed out in their blurb, this isn’t isolated praise. Over the past year, Code Orange has opened for big name bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Gojira, Hatebreed, System of a Down and Trivium, and the title track from Forever received a Grammy nomination for “Best Metal Performance.”
While this is the part of the analysis where we’d offer some further insight, Forever’s acclaim is truly inexplicable based on everything we’ve observed from the metal industry over the last several years. The closest parallel genre-wise might be Nails, but they haven’t received this level of widespread attention, and they fit a bit more comfortably into the metal industry’s standard pool of prefered genres. One hypothesis floated around our Heavy Blog groups credits the attention to an intense marketing campaign from Roadrunner Records (owned by Warner Music Group) to favorably pitch the album to a wide swath of metal and mainstream journalists alike. Granted, marketing doesn’t guarantees positive coverage, and it would be odd for a label to dedicate the resources to a single band that hasn’t garnered much attention in the past.
Of course, the most obvious explanation is that the acclaim is genuine, and the metal industry truly does think Forever is a future classic that boldly takes the genre in new directions. From our vantage point, the album hardly fits this criteria, nor does it succeed as an interesting iteration of the genre textbooks it pulls from. It’s certainly nice to see a young band earning all this attention, but at the very least, it’s an odd pick considering how many other young metal bands are doing much more in terms of progressing and upholding their respective genres.
Death Metal’s Toxic Nostalgia, Part 3
As has been harped upon from time immemorial (i.e. March or April), Scott and I have found 2017 to be one of the most fruitful years for fresh, innovative, and exciting new death metal since the 1990s. For reference, our year-end installment of Death’s Door highlighted a great many of these albums, and I strongly encourage you to jump in and listen to some of these incredible records. We here at Heavy Blog could not be more excited about all of the incredible new sounds and textures that death metal will bring us in 2018! Unfortunately, it does not appear that this sentiment is held industry wide, which is one of the most mind-numbing trends of 2017.
Back in July, Scott and I collaborated on a piece highlighting Decibel magazine’s infatuation with death metal’s old guard, with their cover story on the state of death metal almost completely ignoring death metal bands less than a couple decades old. As we argued, Immolation, Incantation, Suffocation, and others highlighted in the piece are not bad bands (the first two whose most recent albums received positive reviews on this site), but the exclusive coverage of these bands while completely ignoring the amazing work of bands like Pyrrhon, Ingurgitating Oblivion, Succumb, NYN, and other groups changing the face of what death metal is and can be is just preposterous. Furthermore, the attitudes of some of these bands against new and innovative sounds and songwriting within death metal was just backwards and stupid. But what’s published is published. We said our piece, and moved on to more incredible music.
Unfortunately, Decibel seems to be the vanguard of a general trend in death metal coverage that is discouraging at best for young bands trying to navigate their way through an incredibly crowded scene. Let it be stated here that there is little objectivity when it comes to taste. We are not claiming that all death metal tastes should flow in one particular direction. Hell, most of us here have shrines to Chuck himself in our living rooms, so hatred of the old ways is not in our blood. But coverage and taste most certainly have degrees of separation, and the lack of coverage given to some of death metal’s most exciting artists and albums is a damn shame. Code Orange madness aside, our meta list details more than a few sad indicators of the state of death metal coverage in 2017.
For starters, let’s look at the year’s best reviewed pure death metal record, Immolation’s Atonement, which comes in at number nineteen. As I previously stated, many of us here at Heavy Blog enjoyed this record, but as I wrote in my review of it, it is not new or innovative in any way. Innovation is not a virtue in and of itself, but when bands decades old continually rehash and retool their sounds around the basics of their already established sounds, the results are not always positive or welcome. Cannibal Corpse, Obituary (whose inclusion just absolutely blows my mind), and Morbid Angel each received multiple votes (6, 5, and 4, respectively) for albums that were at best treading water or heralding back to each band’s glory days, offering little in the way of anything that we could not find in their previous work. Granted, there are some bright spots on this aggregate list. Artificial Brain and Spectral Voice landing in the top 25 (with The Black Dahlia Murder only landing a bit further down) is encouraging to be sure. We could go back and forth regarding what this means for the future of death metal, but it is exceptionally clear that the old guard of death metal still holds sway in the metal community when it comes to coverage and end-of-year exposure, and this is less encouraging, especially when these death metal records in general lacked something special to truly set them apart from the death metal pack.
Most disconcerting of all (and indicative once again of metal journalism’s overwhelming obsession with old school death metal), is the inclusion of Decapitated’s latest record on a few of these lists, pointing directly to an utter poison infecting the heart of metal journalism. As most are by now aware, Decapitated have been extradited and are on trial in Washington state on charges of brutal rape. To give them a positive platform at all is dubious at best, but to specifically call out the incident and include their work anyway is just flat-out mind-blowing. Does the band, charged of a truly heinous crime, deserve special mention and recognition just because they are part of the old guard? What insulates a band from the magnitude of its crimes? I am completely aware that I am making a moral judgment here, and I dig in behind that fact with utter conviction: Providing this band a positive platform because of its legendary status and history is utter hogwash, and displays some of the most toxic elements of fandom within the metal community. I do not exclude myself from this indictment. We all love bands that have done unseemly things in the past, and I am not attempting to police what one listens to. There’s some real shit out there, but ultimately it’s the individual’s prerogative regarding what they choose to ingest. But it is a journalistic imperative to provide, when we can, a voice for victims and the integrity of the music we all love. To deny that goodness by giving platforms to bands who are currently on trial for truly sinister acts is an abomination to this incredible music and one of the most blatantly problematic instances of toxic nostalgia we are likely to see.
This toxic nostalgia that we have been writing about for about half of the year finds its home in many different avenues and sectors of the death metal community, and each of them present some type of roadblock to the evolution of this music. We are not asking publications to stop covering the old guard of death metal. We are not blanketing these bands as inherently useless or bad (both would be flatly untrue). We instead plead with the journalistic community in metal to also include the experimental, the risk-taking, and the new in their evaluation of death metal. There was far too little of it in a year where death metal thrived harder and more brightly than any other subgenre in metal. And for the love of god, let’s stop giving bands on trial for truly despicable acts ANY form of positive platform. Death metal fans deserve better. This incredible music deserves better. Here’s to the annihilation of death metal’s toxic nostalgia in 2018 and beyond.
The Important Voices from Metal Journalism Are Disappearing, and So Is Metal From Mainstream Music Journalism Altogether
We would like to close this piece by talking about a couple of things that have less to do with the results of this list specifically and more to do with the general environment and “health” of music journalism when it comes to metal and heavy music as a whole. Last year I noted a few observations made by Michael Nelson of Stereogum, who was writing for the year-end edition of their Black Market column, which he had started a few years back. His overall take on both the state of metal as a music and metal as an industry were pretty bleak, and though I found his arguments about the former to be pretty thin and unconvincing, I was much more receptive to his opinions on the latter. Citing departures of key metal journalists from places like Pitchfork and the New York Times (and myself noting the collapse of TeamRock/Metal Hammer, which happened around the time we published that article), there seemed to be noticeable trend forming that signified a deterioration of strong voices championing metal as an art and significant cultural force in wider, more mainstream media.
I’m sad to report that not only does that analysis one year later hold up pretty well, but that it now feels less like any sort of aberration than a single point in a trend line that is quickly plummeting downward. We were prepared to write that Pitchfork – that much-maligned but still useful bellwether institution that defines and promotes the meeting ground of culturally relevant music and financially-lucrative corporatism – had completely ignored metal in their year-end coverage for the second year in a row, but due to a last-minute article from their sole metal writer Sam Sodomsky, that would not be entirely true. Once again though zero metal albums made it onto their top 50 albums list, and even though that best metal albums of the year article does exist, it technically isn’t actually a part of the sitewide “Year In Music 2017” coverage and is instead relegated to its own tiny corner where they stick Sodomsky’s column (which does actually explore some interesting territory). Contrast this with the separate genre-specific ranked best-of lists they did for pop and R&B, electronic, experimental music, rap, and rock though (mercifully there is no Best Memes list like in 2016), and it’s abundantly clear that they view their metal coverage as something to be isolated and set aside from the rest of their normal music coverage. It appears that the Condé Nast-owned publication has officially decided that metal is no longer enough of a culturally-relevant or financially-lucrative force in popular culture to warrant much beyond a token space.
It’s not just them. Unfortunately I don’t have hard data to back this up because I focused only on metal-specific lists for this article, but it shouldn’t take more than a casual observant to notice that more mainstream and “hip” music publications that cover all music they find to be worthwhile have steadily reduced metal coverage and have largely, if not completely, abandoned their inclusion in their year-end lists. And for those who continue to cover the music and actually pay decent writers to do so like Noisey, any metal albums that make their way into year-end coverage tend to have a tokenized feel to them as they’re almost entirely relegated to the bottom part of the list (Power Trip being the one exception to break their top 50 this year).
Perhaps more than ever, there is a sense that metal exists in a niche within a niche of fans and listeners. This is especially true as the idea of “rock” music as a whole has long passed the rubicon of publications and journalists wringing their hands, crying out for it to be “saved,” and instead has been almost completely relegated as a dying thing that will spawn fewer bands deemed worthy of extensive coverage and prioritized further and further below other forms of music that are capturing and moving much larger (and younger) groups of people. This closely tracks with the trendline in charts and sales, both of which I analyzed intensely at the beginning of this year when Nielsen released their official 2016 report. Simply put (and to state the obvious), metal as a whole is not a lucrative money-making industry, either on the music side or the journalism side. As media institutions continue to become more and more crunched by shrinking ad revenues and continue to push towards content that will deliver the highest number of views in the shortest period of time, covering metal music and culture becomes a harder sell. And as fewer journalists who cover the music passionately find their way into these companies and publication staffs, the less likely it is that there will be anyone there to make a case for smaller boundary-breaking or pushing acts in metal to be celebrated and highlighted in end-of-year lists.
On that note, I would like to end this by recognizing yet another important voice in metal journalism who we just lost. I already mentioned Stereogum’s Black Market column and Michael Nelson, but for the past 2 ½ years Nelson has not been the pointman for the column. Instead it’s been Doug Moore of the well-liked and respected Pyrrhon, who cut his metal journalism teeth over at Invisible Oranges before moving to Stereogum along with several other IO writers. Taking the baton from Nelson’s frequent use of the intro to each installment as a way to write a mini essay on whatever metal-related topic he found interesting, Doug has written extensively on a wide variety of topics from the more esoteric aspects of being a fan of music he freely admitted derives its value largely in what punishing and ugly terms it could be described, to entertaining accounts of attendance at Maryland Deathfests, to acting as an even-handed reality check against some of the metal community and culture’s least desirable impulses. That last one in particular has been of immense value this past year as the combination of forces and ruptures in American and global politics and culture has forced many of us to reckon with many of the conflicts and contradictions present in modern metal. In particular his pieces on metal’s sometimes problematic relationship with Nazi imagery and history (and the limits of “edgelord”-ism as a defense), plagiarism in metal cover art, and Matt Harvey of Exhumed’s incredibly long-winded and flawed defense of buying music from, selling, and promoting NSBM artists are absolute must-reads.
Just as important though was Moore’s curatorial eye and vision, leading a team of great metal writers and listeners and constantly lifting up scores of underrated bands in metal’s underground scene to the forefront. Not surprisingly, Stereogum’s end-of-year metal lists are routinely one of the most diverse and interesting lists out there (including this year’s). It is in that same list though that he announced that he would be stepping aside and would no longer be focusing his energies on metal journalism and blogging. He assured his readers that the Black Market would be in good hands and continue to shine a light on as many great bands, and I have little reason to suspect that won’t be the case. However, Moore’s particular insights and talent for bringing level-headed clarity and authority to issues that so many other writers in the field seem to trip over routinely or avoid altogether will almost certainly not be replaced, and the community will be worse off for his absence. That being said, we wish nothing but the best for Doug and whatever he chooses to do next (presumably in addition to continuing to front one of the best and criminally underrated tech death bands out there currently).
As I wrote in last year’s version of this article, “Great metal journalism isn’t a given. It’s not just something that happens and is guaranteed to happen into perpetuity.” This is as true as it’s ever been, and the only remedy for it is to continue to recognize and support the people and outlets who are rising above the rest to shine a light on the best of what this music has to offer and challenge it when it seeks to get in the way of itself. We will continue to do our best to play that part, and we thank you for your continued support as we look towards even bigger and better things in 2018.