Writing an AOTY list, for anyone nerdy enough to want to do such a thing, can be a nail-chewingly agonizing process of ranking and elimination, harder still for the ultimate arbitrary, subjective apples-and-oranges nature of it. It’s a fun sort of agony, though, one I’d recommend doing. Even if not for publication, share it with friends and ask for theirs, because it’s sure fun to end the year with an overwhelming plethora of albums to dig. Here goes:
10. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones
As dark and as dense as the center of the earth, this album has the crushing complexity of acts like Portal, but with more genuine spiritual inspiration (or so I think). Let the devotion shown on the bizarre introductory orchestral part serve as a warning for the metaphysical evil which lies beyond.
9. Terra Tenebrosa – The Reverses
With their third album, The Cuckoo Man (the character whose visage graces this and all of their album covers) takes us further into the deranged nightmare world of Terra Tenebrosa in which all paths are walled with thorns and turn sharply without warning. There are, I’m sure, many bands who try to do what these guys do, but those other cats don’t have as many tricks under their belt, and aren’t willing to get as weird.
8. David Bowie – Blackstar
Moving with the times while keeping his own voice ‘till the very end, this album, if you haven’t heard it (you’ve heard it), draws from ambient production soundscapes and employs jazz horns to capture the melancholic war Bowie was waging between the contractive, final nature of his cancer (the Blackstar) and the expansive, infinite desires of his spirit, now free, just like that bluebird.
7. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
While I haven’t spent as much time with this album as some of the others, it’s one I know I’ll be returning to. Remember in the ‘90s when Commander Cohen put out The Future and it just wasn’t conceivable that he could become any more world-weary and cynical? Remember when he proved that notion a silly one by putting out Old Ideas in 2012, and how the song “Going Home” discussed how ready to die he was even then? On this last album, he is even sick of the light that has sustained him all these years. He is now finished living by those laws, and playing that game.
6. Those Poor Bastards – Sing It Ugly
The eighth full-length of this feral country duo sees them branching out to mix their themes of doomed spirituality, isolation, and decay with odd-ball musical and vocal ideas that seem emotionally incompatible until they finally come together like a binaural beat into some as-yet undefined third sensation. Between the ballads, the righteous anger of “Ten-Ton Hammer” and the sort of dark polka they sometimes pick up, a whole lot of ground is covered in this album, scorched, barren ground.
5. Anaal Nathrakh – The Whole of The Law
What perfect hate, what satisfyingly snarling antagonism. While Anaal Nathrakh have, for some time now, been utilizing industrial drum-machines, grindcore, black metal to conjure their particular brand of chaos, and using soaringly operatic clean vocals to contrast the frenzy with a clear vision of meaning, this is them at their most visceral yet. This is what the taste of hot blood sounds like.
4. Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts
While some epic metal bands, after about five albums, go so far down the prog-hole as to forget that music is meant to be listened to (sup, Opeth?), Katatonia’s latest goes right into it with low, sorrowful vocals melodically cutting through all pretense with a pure melancholy which, while echoing through the mountains, comes straight from the sinew. I’m happy to report their song-writing instincts have grown sharper, and they have not cheered up, not one bit.
3. Psalm Zero – Stranger to Violence
The only new-comer on this list (i.e. a band I haven’t heard before this year), Psalm Zero really blew me away with the specific expression of a whole cavalcade of influences on Stranger to Violence. Part VNV Nation and Front 242, part Godflesh, part Depeche Mode, their sound coheres on this, their second album, to tackle the very human weltschmerz of late-capitalism in an unforgettably original way.
2. Iggy Pop – Post-Pop Depression
Moving from the hard and fast life of, well, Iggy Pop into the grey acceptance of modern American life, we’re walked through (as we are on Stranger to Violence) the cultural emptiness and lack of meaning and glory that comes part and parcel with a world of capitalist values in which we, as L. Cohen sung this year, “die to make things cheap” (gee, there seems to be something in the collective unconscious; fucking funny, that). While any of these songs could be a smooth addition to The Idiot or Lust For Life musically, the production and guitar work of Josh Homme (who I think is a shithead that did a good job here) from Queens of the Stone Age bring this album into the time and place Iggy now finds himself in.
1. Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate
How have twelve years out of the game not touched these melodic hardcore OGs? Are they rust proof? Are they perpetual motion machines who can just release such tightly written, high-energy songs the way us mortals release running water from a faucet? How do these guys in their forties and fifties balance their pop sensibilities with the energy of their endearing nerd-rage just as well as they did when they were teens in the early ‘80s? How was their live show so on point when they came through town this year? This album raises many more questions than it answers, and, for all its mystery and wonder, shall be crowned king of this awful, awful year.
Sean Barrett is a Philadelphia-based writer and singer/songwriter who can be found bodily at The Fire’s Monday night open mic with alarming regularity.