Hello, and welcome to the final post we will have about 2018! Yes, it’s late January. And yes, this is coming out much later than in previous years. After several years of completely burning myself out assembling these industry lists, I made the decision early on in planning out our end of 2018 coverage to push this post to 2019. This also had the benefit of including other metal journalism outlets and blogs who either released their lists at the very end of 2018/beginning of 2019 or put out aggregates following publishing individual staff lists.
This will be the fourth year we have put out a meta-aggregate “list of lists,” and based on the comments and emails we’ve received about previous ones and the run-up to this one, it seems that we have gained some notoriety for the work we’ve done. This is great as we genuinely enjoy putting these together and writing about them. As people who take a rather large interest in the general shape of the metal industry and metal journalism as a whole, these lists are both fun/interesting from a sheer curiosity standpoint, as well as informative about what actually broke through to the greater metal community and beyond. It’s important to understand what sort of music and bands were generally accepted as great and worthy of note, what trends we can connect from years past and how it might inform what we can expect to be popular in the coming year(s).
It also presents us with an opportunity to look at the state of the industry as a whole and question why certain things are valued or viewed as “better” than other things. And though it’s relatively easy for us to compare ourselves to others and rag on everyone else for not matching our “impeccable” tastes, this is not meant to be an exercise in shitposting and condescension. So what follows are a series of observations and longer-form thoughts we have about this group of albums and what it means that so many people, blogs, and institutions saw fit to elevate them.
As has been the case for the past couple of years, we used our pairwise aggregation system to compile the below list. We used lists from the following places (including 3 aggregates we compiled from groups of staff lists):
Angry Metal Guy (Top 10)
Consequence of Sound (Top 25)
Decibel (Top 40)
Exclaim! (Top 10)
Ghost Cult Magazine (Top 70)
Invisible Oranges* (Top 20)
Kerrang! (Top 50)
LA Weekly (Top 10)
Loudwire (Top 30)
Metal Assault (Top 20)
Metal Hammer (Top 50, not publicly available)
Metal Injection (Top 20)
Metal Insider* (Top 9)
Metalsucks* (Top 15)
Popmatters (Top 20)
Revolver (Top 30)
Rolling Stone (Top 20)
Stereogum (Top 10)
The Obelisk (Top 30)
The Quietus (Top 20)
Toilet ov Hell (Top 25)
Trebelzine (Top 25)
What Culture (Top 10)
Your Last Rites (Top 25)
*aggregate compiled by HBIH using individual staff lists
As we did last year, we are including metrics on the number of times albums were voted upon and their average ranking, and once again, we do so with the disclaimer that these are not fully reflective of how our system tabulates points and results.
- Yob – Our Raw Heart (voted for 16 times with mean score: 6)
- Sleep – The Sciences (voted for 15 times with mean score: 10)
- Judas Priest – Firepower (voted for 11 times with mean score: 5)
- Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit (voted for 12 times with mean score: 8)
- Ghost – Prequelle (voted for 9 times with mean score: 5)
- Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (voted for 11 times with mean score: 15)
- Tribulation – Down Below (voted for 13 times with mean score: 13)
- Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want (voted for 8 times with mean score: 9)
- Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest (voted for 7 times with mean score: 6)
- Vein – Errorzone (voted for 10 times with mean score: 16)
- Pig Destroyer – Head Cage (voted for 10 times with mean score: 13)
- Khemmis – Desolation (voted for 9 times with mean score: 11)
- Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name (voted for 8 times with mean score: 11)
- Tomb Mold – Manor Of Infinite Forms (voted for 10 times with mean score: 16)
- Turnstile – Time & Space (voted for 7 times with mean score: 10)
- Mournful Congregation – The Incubus of Karma (voted for 8 times with mean score: 13)
- Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology (voted for 8 times with mean score: 12)
- Amorphis – Queen Of Time (voted for 6 times with mean score: 8)
- Thou – Magus (voted for 8 times with mean score: 17)
- Møl – Jord (voted for 6 times with mean score: 12)
- A Perfect Circle – Eat the Elephant (voted for 5 times with mean score: 9)
- Voivod – The Wake (voted for 6 times with mean score: 11)
- Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods (voted for 7 times with mean score: 20)
- Sumac – Love In Shadow (voted for 5 times with mean score: 16)
- Horrendous – Idol (voted for 10 times with mean score: 21)
- Conjurer – Mire (voted for 5 times with mean score: 15)
- High On Fire – Electric Messiah (voted for 7 times with mean score: 21)
- Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It (voted for 6 times with mean score: 19)
- At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself (voted for 6 times with mean score: 17)
- Skeletonwitch – Devouring Radiant Light (voted for 6 times with mean score: 15)
Here are some of my not particularly deep thoughts:
No surprises: There’s nothing particularly enlightening here, but it goes without saying that there is nothing here at all unusual or surprising to us. In fact, we’ve said it every single year we’ve done this! With the possible exceptions of three bands on the list who managed to burst from relative obscurity into the top tier of coverage – Tomb Mold, Møl, and Conjurer – these are pretty much all very well-established and connected bands who were big prior to 2018 with mounds of pr and label support behind them. Also, more so, the range of styles represented here is not particularly wide and very shallow. In this way Eden’s piece from last year’s list holds up exceedingly well.
Ghost continue to be incredibly polarizing: Ghost’s Prequelle was not the number one album of the year according to the industry as a whole, but you would be excused for thinking it was based solely on scanning many of the lists included. Despite receiving fewer votes overall than most of the other albums in the top 10, it still landed at number 5 in aggregate. This is because of the 9 votes it received, 4 were #1 picks (tied for the most #1s with the actual #1 album, Yob’s Our Raw Heart), another was a #2 pick, and two others were top 10 picks. It had the highest average score overall of 5.2, just ahead of Judas Priest’s Firepower at 5.5. Ghost have always been quite polarizing for their embrace of metal’s aesthetics and theatrics while borrowing much more on the traditions of classic rock, prog, and proto-metal than any more modern sounds, but Prequelle and its hard shift towards self-aware cheese was divisive even by their standards.
The industry’s biggest publishers did not put out the most representative lists: This one is a bit more difficult to back up definitively, but if you look at this list and like what you see, the website I would recommend you follow is not any of the big names you would expect. Not Metal Hammer, not Decibel, not Rolling Stone, not even Metal Injection or Metalsucks. Rather, the place that appears to have put out a list most closely matching what we have here with 16 of 25 of their picks matching and the general order following suit is Consequence of Sound. This is surprising if only because CoS are definitely not primarily known for their metal coverage. Much like how Pitchfork seemed to play that role previously though when their metal coverage was more robust, it seems that more mainstream and general-leaning sites might be the best place to understand where the “median” of the metal industry lies.
Metal coverage continues to fall further from the mainstream: Over the past two years of writing these articles I’ve focused on the trend of metal falling out of favor with bigger, more mainstream publications, especially print newspapers. In the past few years we’ve seen a major contraction in metal coverage – extensive or even cursory – over many websites and publications. Unfortunately this appears to be a trend with no real end in sight, and we can add yet another publication of note to the list who has dropped their coverage and didn’t even bother publishing a year-end list for 2018: UK’s The Guardian. Perhaps it seems strange now that such an institution ever covered metal in any serious way, but given that the New York Times still had a full-time music journalist covering metal up until a couple of years ago, it shouldn’t. It’s a shame that as metal has continued to grow and advance and, ironically, be more accepted in the mainstream as possibly ever, it’s becoming harder and harder to access high-quality writing and coverage on it. In that sense it’s no surprise that what remains feels like it lacks in diversity and curation beyond the biggest names from the biggest labels. In many ways metal journalism is fighting for its life, and for many reasons signs point towards it losing that fight.
Metal journalism’s affair with the traditional metal revival continues to be surface level
Look, not everyone has to like traditional heavy metal; we’ve come a long way since that sound was the dominant one and it’s perfectly fine to not enjoy it. Even though I do enjoy it myself, none of the releases from 2018 in the style made it to my Top 10 (though several were featured in my personal Top 25, like Visigoth or Ursa). But the metal journalism clearly likes the sound; the list above includes not only Judas Priest and Khemmis, clear proponents of the style, but also many more bands who could certainly be considered adjacent to traditional metal, like Tribulation or High on Fire.
And yet, none of the truly excellent releases from traditional heavy metal bands made it to the Top 25 of the industry. We can give several explanations for this, all of them valid. First, the boring one: they just didn’t think those releases were that good. That’s a boring point to make because it kills discussion and also because it’s a bit far-fetched, seeing as we’re talking about a good dozen of amazing releases and even more writers. But hey, if that’s what float your boat, go ahead. The second explanation is a bit stronger: those bands are just obscure. Khemmis are a well known name by now and Judas Priest is, obviously, huge.
But there’s a problem with that explanation: first, it’s kind of sad. Isn’t it metal journalism’s job to look past the veneer of recognition and find lesser known acts? To be honest, the same criticism could be levied against our own list this year and I accept it gladly; I’ve already started giving some consideration into how we can highlight smaller acts when we come to wrap up a year. This is another example of it; an industry where Khemmis are on a list but Visigoth or Ursa aren’t is one with a too narrow view.
The second problem, however, kind of flies in the face of that; a lot of these publications (us included) knew about a lot of the acts omitted from this list. Haunt is perhaps the best example; Decibel gave them a lot of air time this year. So did Revolver. So did we. There was hype around them, journalists were listening to them and then…they were left off many, if not all, end of year lists. The aforementioned Visigoth are another example but I can keep going: Gatekeeper is another band which was talked about in our circles but ended up appearing nowhere in end of year coverage.
The key, in my eyes, to explaining this absence of traditional heavy metal is twofold. It’s first part communicates with our last point and simply offers a more nuanced version of it: obscurity is not just whether people know or don’t know about a band. Obscurity is also, and mainly, about not having a clear narrative or a group to be placed in. The traditional heavy metal revival is still relatively small (compare to the revival of doom metal which started in the beginning of the decade more or less or the rise to power of post metal). It’s hard for journalists to “latch on to it” because there isn’t enough there, not yet. Bands that were included have a clear narrative: Judas Priest are making a comeback and Khemmis are “that one band” everyone knows.
The second part of my explanation is that traditional heavy metal is just that; it is inherently backwards facing. It looks to the past and often innovates on it but is mostly about bringing it back. It’s hard to put something like that on an end of year list. These albums feel like they belong on the end of year list of 1988 (or 78, depending on the album) and not our current, blessed year. It sort of fits into the narrative point from about; the story feels off. Saying “this is one of the best albums of 2018 because it does something we’ve been doing since the 70’s but really well”, is odd.
But it shouldn’t be. The traditional heavy metal revival is here to say; in fact, as I’ve recently written on the blog, I expect it to get stronger and bigger this year. When that happens, the bands from it we have already accepted as a community will be the chinks in the dam through which the torrent floods in. With releases from names like Traveler, Gatekeeper and many more slated for 2019, will this be the year that the metal establishment finally gets the narrative it needs to latch on to the movement and more prominently figure it in their coverage? Time will tell, but I think we should make it a conscious effort on our end, as journalists, to look into this revival and cover it because there’s a lot of excellent music being made out there that deserves our attention.
Everyone loves a comeback
While 2018 had its fair share of fantastic releases from young upstarts, our list above indicates a different, continued general trend in the metal scene. That is, old bands producing new music, and dominating end-of-year lists. Of particular note this past year is the amount of comeback albums populating the industry’s top 30 records. YOB, Sleep, A Perfect Circle, and Daughters in particular all released albums after extended absences or unique circumstances to widespread acclaim. To be clear, I’m not of the opinion that any of these records are bad (as a matter of fact, all but one of them found a spot on my personal top 25). But given the community’s historical penchant for celebrating comeback releases regardless of quality (Metallica circa 2016, anyone?), we shouldn’t be surprised to see a few comebacks populating our 2018 findings.
I’ve always found the metal community’s general obsession with comebacks odd. In the pop world in particular, such releases seem to uniformly receive a much less enthusiastic reception. To be fair, I think both poles of this spectrum are faulty. An album from a band that hasn’t been around for a while is not inherently good or bad based on its unique circumstances, and I think both of these communities would do well to approach such releases at face value. But, thankfully (and in “a broken clock is right twice a day” sort of way), the majority of metal’s big comeback releases were uniformly excellent. YOB’s comeback after frontman Mike Scheidt’s near-death experience, Sleep’s return from a decade-plus hiatus, and Daughters’ utterly manic catapulting from noise rock obscurity made for premium listening across the board. But then we get to A Perfect Circle, which, to me, just isn’t up to par with the quality of the other releases here. I was genuinely shocked to see that it made the list at all. I’m fully aware that taste is subjective, and I’m definitely approaching this argument from my own perspective, but 2018 in this regard showed that, even if a broken point of emphasis can every so often strike gold, it’s just as likely to highlight material that smacks of toxic nostalgia more than actual merit.
In 2017, Scott and I wrote a piece about Decibel Magazine’s coverage of the modern death metal scene in which we argued that the author’s sense of nostalgia excluded newer, equally fantastic bands from receiving the exposure they deserved. While this argument was directed at one particular piece of coverage, it can be extrapolated as a microcosm of the toxic nostalgia that is pervasive throughout the metal community. I would never argue that bands from metal’s early days can’t still produce amazing music. Hell, Judas Priest, Voivod, and Immortal dropped some of their best records in decades this year. But to praise them exclusively because they are a part of metal’s vanguard that is still making music is ridiculous. 2018 blessed us with several amazing comeback releases that deserve all the praise they have received, but it’s disappointing that the journalistic community continues to champion such releases simply because they exist, rather than on their merit. Here’s to more new and worthy faces and names populating the ranks of the industry’s end-of-year lists next year.
The expanding definition of “heavy music”
Before we kick off this segment, let me clarify that I won’t be critiquing the industry’s growing inclusion of non-metal albums on their year end lists. Considering how eclectic our coverage has become over the last several years, we’d probably be the least appropriate outlet to make such a claim. More importantly, metal writers broadening what’s “acceptable” to cover is something worth praising, even if “normal” music publications don’t seem to fully share that opinion regarding heavier music.
In any case, even a cursory glance of this year’s aggregate list reveals several unique picks not squarely within the realm of “metal.” Of course, this isn’t new, as anyone who’s read our previous aggregate posts can clearly see. In the past few years, metal adjacent or squarely non-metal artists like Prurient, Chelsea Wolfe and Sólstafir have all earned praise from the industry via their year-end lists. But what strikes me this year is not only how many more examples of this are present, but how high-up they appear.
Starting in descending order, both Rolo Tomassi and Conjurer snuck onto the list this year, despite being on the fringes of post-hardcore and metalcore. Of course, Converge topped our list last year, but they’ve had quite a bit more time to make a name for themselves. Rolo Tomassi has flown a bit under the radar to this point in terms of mainstream press recognition, and Conjurer have just burst onto the scene. But perhaps most notable is the high placement earned by Turnstile, a NYxHC band through and through. This is the first time in recent memory I’ve seen a punk band earn this much favor with metal journos, and it’s even more surprising they were able to pull to the middle of the list with their sophomore album.
This would be more shocking if not for Vein securing a spot a few places up. Just to get the negativity out of the way quickly, I’d describe Errorzone as a Vein’s garish attempt to sound like Slipknot and Converge simultaneously. Now, to stick more to the topic at hand, the fact that this synthesis of sounds rounded out the top ten is dumbfounding to me. This strain of nu-nu-metal certainly has an audience, and there’s no denying its popularity. But other than Deftones, music journos haven’t given the highest praise to nu-metal over the years. Then again, the simple, catchy heaviness of Vein reminds me quite a bit of what Code Orange successfully pedlled last year, which also received a surpising amount of acclaim.
Finally, sticking with the top ten reveals two other interesting selections. Both Daughters and Zeal & Ardor received well-deserved acclaim this year, with Z&A leaping from 18th on our 2017 list all the way up to fourth place this year. While each of these albums is heavy in their own way, neither is traditionally metal at all. Yet, here they are – a synthesis of black metal and spirituals and an abrasive, kraut-inspired noise rock alnum sitting among some of the most highly-acclaimed metal bands of the last decade.
After all this, the main thing that surprised me is just how unsurprising these selections are. As the year progressed, all of these albums were very clearly popular among my circle of friend and fellow contributors, both online and off. As we progress further and further into our current culture of music consumption, the diversity of music tastes is only going to broaden further. One of the beauties of the democratization of art is its ability to compound and influence. As social media and the ability to use it to share music becomes further ingrained in our culture, sharing music will be more and more effortless. In our own private blog chat, several contributors collectively share five to ten new albums daily, and that spikes when we compile our weekly Release Day Roundup post.
Music journalism is reflecting this more, too, especially in the metal blogosphere. Journalists are people too (surprise!) who are fully capable of using these tools in the same way. But more importantly, this cultural shift has also changed what’s worth covering for metal publications. Some blogs like ours have started covering a wider array of music because that’s what we genuinely listen to and enjoy, and we’re in the business of recommending good music, not necessarily just good metal music. But even for blogs who are/were indifferent or don’t want to change, their readership’s changing tastes and openness to new genres makes covering non-metal bands a viable option.
When we first dropped our “metal-only” restrictions, we would routinely get comments that our non-metal coverage was surprising, sometimes pleasantly so and other times not as much. Now, just a handful of years later, we have commentors regularly respond to our non-metal or metal adjacent posts with their own thoughts and recommendations. That fact, and the list we’ve aggregated this year, gives me hope that we’ll continue seeing a broader acceptance within the metal community. Because innovation can only thrive if there are people to recognize what it’s bringing to the table.