Not that the music community is sitting on the edge of its seat . . . but I thought I’d join in the list making so prevalent here at the close of the 2010’s. When I make these gratuitous lists, I always make sure to say “favorite” instead of “best” because not only are lists so subjective, but chances are I haven’t heard the best albums out there lurking in obscurity or otherwise off my radar. But enjoy these recommendations . . .
— Steve Deaton, Whiteside’s Daughter
10. Rival Sons – Pressure and Time (Earache, 2011). The second album from from these Long Beach rockers, Pressure and Time manages to evoke early Led Zeppelin, while avoiding becoming a mere knock-off like Greta Van Fleet. The songwriting is what sets this LP apart from the retro-70s noise–the first three tracks are the one of the strongest openings I’ve heard in a long time. The cover art by Storm Thorgerson adds that special Hipgnosis classic 70’s vibe.
9. The Sword – Warp Riders (Kemado, 2010). I’m a sucker for concept albums and this one pushes all the right buttons. This exceeds the usual stoner metal bandwagon on the basis of guitar tones alone, but the concept and songwriting make this a thrilling listen from top to bottom. Warp Riders has much of The Sword’s usual Sabbath riffing, but often pays homage to fellow Texans ZZ Top, most blatantly with the cleverly titled “Tres Brujas” (Three Witches). The drum part on “Lawless Lands” is also a highlight.
8. Zeal & Ardor – Devil is Fine (Reflections, 2017). This album is perhaps the weirdest, most original, most bone-chilling music I’ve ever heard. This one-man band, African-Frenchman Manuel Gagneux, fuses Norwegian black metal and Negro spirituals to weave a dark blend of Satanic voodoo from the point of view of an African slave. I’m not easily frightened, but the call and response lyric “Burn the young boy, burn him good” from the second song “In Ashes” actually scares me. Wikipedia calls it avant-garde metal, but this is one you must listen to, as no label quite does it justice.
7. Opeth – Pale Communion (Roadrunner, 2014). Much to the dismay and irritation of Opeth’s original fans, the 2010’s saw these Swedes dropping the death growls altogether and pursuing more melodic progressive rock (granted, still quite heavy overall). Of their four albums this decade, Pale Communion rises to the top for me–the most memorable vocal and guitar melodies Mikael Akerfeldt may have ever produced. Side guitarist Fredrik Akersson may be my favorite guitarist still working. He has the all the chops of Yngwie but the tasteful phrasing of Gilmour. His soloing on “Cusp of Eternity” is a case in point. The vintage electric pianos and mellotrons are used tastefully as well.
6. Ghost – Opus Eponymous (Rise Above/Metal Blade, 2010). Ghost is one of the most polarizing bands of the current era–fans either love them or hate them. And the latter group will certainly roll their eyes at my inclusion of two of their albums in this list. Part of the problem, I think, is that they are labeled a metal band, which they aren’t, any more than Blue Oyster Cult is. Even though Ghost-mastermind Tobias Forge claims that BOC was not an obvious influence at the time, a song like “Ritual” has all the elements I love from BOC juxtaposed in one song–big dark heavy riffs and AOR power-pop choruses. This band of Nameless Swedish Ghouls continues to astound.
5. Witchery — Witchkrieg (Century Media, 2010). These Swedish blackened thrashers do something that most occult metal acts don’t–hooks. Amidst the lightning pace, growls, and screams are riffs as memorable as classic Iommi. This album received some modest attention because of several guest guitar soloists (including Slayer’s Kerry King, Mercyful Fate’s Hank Shermann, Exodus’s Gary Holt & Lee Altus, and other notables), but for me it is the songwriting that makes this album shine. Opeth fans will note that drummer Martin Axenrot is present and demonstrating that he is one of the best, most versatile drummers alive. “The God Who Fell from the Earth” and “Conqueror’s Return” are standouts.
4. Wolf People – Fain (Jagjaguwar, 2013). These English lads are often labeled psychedelic rock and they play the British psychedelic festivals, but their music is much more structured and interesting that the meandering sonic experiments of the psychedelic genre. Jack Sharp’s lyrics in some sense create its own universe, not quite the sword and sorcery of Middle Earth, but some sort of timeless Englishness. And Sharp delivers the story with a voice that entrances in the same way that Peter Gabriel or Steve Winwood do. I love the production here as well–sparse and straightforward. Drums, recorded with two or three mics, punch through beautifully, and drummer Tom Watt always grooves. “Theif” is my favorite track.
3. Ghost – Meliora (Loma Vista, 2015). Tobias Forge took a bold step for a band in the metal genre–hiring pop producer Klas Ahlund, who has worked with the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry. Nonetheless, the album contains some of Ghost’s heaviest and most memorable riffs (“From the Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Mummy Dust,” for example). The Grammy-winning track “Cirice” has classic metal riffs combined with soaring pop-rock vocal choruses polished beautifully by Ahlund’s production. This album proved to me that this band was much more than the hype about the Papa Emeritus stage show (even as brilliant, ironic, and iconic as the band’s persona is).
2. The Devil’s Blood – The Thousandfold Epicentre (Van, 2011). These Dutch occult rockers are a recent find for me. Unfortunately the band is no longer active, following the suicide of guitarist/songwriter Selim Lemouchi. Melodic and dark, Selim Lemouchi’s songs should become classics in the rock and metal catalog. Over the heavy, memorable riffs and progressions, Selim’s sister Farida provides vocal leads reminiscent of Grace Slick and double-tracked backing vocals that evoke a haunting Mamas and Papas beauty. Imagine the vocals of “California Dreamin'” with lyrics about Satan or Osiris. And the LP packaging is brilliant as well–a 24-page booklet of lyric art in the style of William Blake’s poetry/art prints.
1. Rush – Clockwork Angels (Roadrunner, 2012). Clockwork Angels is the album that I, as a lifelong fan, have always wanted Rush to make–a double LP concept. The steampunk story on the album was accompanied by a novel and graphic novel by Peart’s close friend, sci-fi bestseller Kevin J. Anderson. The story by itself is a compelling quest, but the songs return Rush to the glory of their best songwriting, on such classics as Moving Pictures or Signals. Geddy’s gnarly and aggressive bass parts, Alex’s crunchy riffs and inventive solos, and Neil’s thundering intricacies provide the familiar Rush cocktail. Their 20th and final studio album was a perfect way to end a brilliant and honest career.