Best of 2013 (Part 2): Top 10 Rock Albums of 2013

Part two of my “Best of 2013” retrospective takes a look at the best rock albums of the year.

Before commencing this countdown, here is a quick look back at Part 1:  The Top 15 Rock Songs of the Year:

15. Deftones- “Swerve City”

14. Filter- “What Do you Say”

13. Rob Zombie- “We’re an American Band”

12. Arctic Monkeys- “Do I Wanna Know”

11. Avenged Sevenfold- “Hail to the King”

10. A Perfect Circle- “By and Down”

9. Ghost- “Secular Haze”

8. Korn- “Love and Meth”

7. Nine Inch Nails- “Came Back Haunted”

6. Queens of the Stone Age- “If I Had a Tail”

5. Paul McCartney/Dave Grohl- “Cut me Some Slack”

4. Volbeat- “Lola Montez”

3. Pearl Jam- “Sirens”

2. Black Sabbath- “God is Dead?”

1. Alice in Chains- “Stone”

And now without further ado, my top 10 rock albums of 2013:

10. Motorhead- “Aftershock”    

This year was rough on Lemmy Kilmeister, who battled through a slew of health issues.  However, Motorhead endured.  “Aftershock” is a testament to Kilmeister’s resilience and consistency as one of rock’s most beloved and unique singers. There are few bells and whistles here, few twists on the classic Motorhead formula of rock/punk/metal/blues guitars and rough-edged, acidic vocals.  Yet, “Aftershock” still manages to sound fresher than ever.  The album is simply Motorhead doing Motorhead, and doing it damn well.

 

9, Korn- “The Paradigm Shift”    

Korn benefited immensely from the return of second guitarist, Brian “Head” Welch in 2013.  “The Paradigm Shift” marks the band’s first album as a nearly-reunited outfit in many years, and their old chemistry shows.  “Love and Meth,” “Spike in My Veins,” and “Victimized” stand as some of Korn’s best songs over the past decade, while songs like “Punishment Time,” echo the ridiculously anger-driven guitars and vocals that allowed them to scare radio stations back in the early 1990s.  “The Paradigm Shift” has brought Korn back to relevance.

8. Dave Grohl- “Sound City: Reel to Reel”    

Ever wonder what it would sound like if members of Nirvana, Cheap Trick, Kyng, and Slipknot all joined forces on a song?  Well, thanks to the ambitious mind of Dave Grohl, now you can appease such fantastical curiosity.  “From Can to Can’t” (the aforementioned super-song scenario) is just one many interesting collaborations found on Grohl’s “Sound City” soundtrack.  Grohl contributes to original tracks featuring the likes of Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Josh Homme, Stevie Nicks, Lee Ving, and many more.  The twelve-song all-star sampling of Sound City Studios is an expertly-crafted soundtrack effort.

7. Nine Inch Nails- “Hesitation Marks”    

Hot off a stellar outing in the film-soundtrack industry, Trent Reznor gave Nine Inch Nails fans everywhere a surprising treat last summer.  That treat was “Hesitation Marks,” NIN’s first studio album in four years.  The album puts a fresh spin on the evocative songwriting approaches one would come to expect from NIN.  Clear standouts- in terms of such innovation- include “Copy of A,” a repetitious piece of clever wordplay, and “Find My Way,” a haunting masterpiece of dark meditation.  Reznor is a genius.  A genius in a mad scientist kind of way, but a genius nonetheless.  “Hesitation Marks” is stunning.

6. Queens of the Stone Age- “…Like Clockwork”    

It was a fairly long wait, but Queens of the Stone Age finally returned this year with “…Like Clockwork.”  The album is beautifully-bizarre in that distinguishable QotSA way, but it is also- at times- emotional and personally-driven.  There is no better example of this than “I Appear Missing,” a moving song about Josh Homme’s recent near death experience.  Homme has taken a fairly dark moment in his life and turned it into an overwhelming positive.  “…Like Clockwork” is quite possibly the most impressive and all-around perfect creative monument of QotSA’s tenure as a band.

5. Ghost- “Infestissumam”    

Let’s just get one thing clear right away:  there was no other rock album like Ghost’s “Infestissumam” in 2013.  The album is like a beautifully-painted, segmented nightmare of dark catharsis that slowly dances to its climax: the mesmerizing “Monstrance Clock.”  Think Blue Oyster Cult meets Marylin Manson meets Foo Fighters meets King Diamond.  “Infestissumam” is a reminder that it’s still okay to bring a fresh approach to heavy metal.  If you haven’t checked Ghost out yet, do yourself a favor.

4. Pearl Jam- “Lightning Bolt”    

There aren’t many bands as consistently great as Pearl Jam.  “Lightning Bolt” provides a logical next step after 2009’s “Backspacer.”  Eddie Vedder keeps to his usual tricks on “Getaway,” “Mind Your Manners” and the album’s title track, but he also shows he’s not afraid to experiment with different arrangements;  “Sirens,” “Yellow Moon,” and “Sleeping by Myself” (adapted from Vedder’s recent “Ukulele Songs”) attest to this.  “Lightning Bolt” shines immensely through creative guitar riffs and a beautifully-arranged upbeat/slow melodic dichotomy of tracks.

3. Volbeat- “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies”    

This year was an important one for Volbeat:  “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies” produced two of the band’s most successful singles yet (“The Hangman’s Body Count” and “Lola Montez”).  As a whole, the album is one of the most versatile and exciting of Volbeat’s career, ranging from the crushing force of “Doc Holliday” to an uplifting cover of Young the Giant’s “My Body.”  One could call it a sleeper hit, but “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies” was nonetheless one of 2013’s most complete album experiences.

2. Black Sabbath- “13”    

The legendary Black Sabbath returned in 2013, and they did so in a huge way.  “13,” their first studio release since 1995, is so much more than a return to the motions that built their legacy, it is a nearly unparalleled force of nature compacted into eight tracks.  “End of the Beginning,” “God is Dead,” “Loner,” and “Live Forever,” include the types of bluesy/heavy Toni Iommi guitar riffs and spiritually-themed Ozzy Osbourne lyrics that will make listeners think they stepped back into the 1970s.  However, the songs also have a noticeable modern gloss that makes them all the more appealing.  If ”13” truly ends up being Sabbath’s last album, then let it be known that they went out with a massive bang.

1. Alice in Chains- “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here”    

Captivating, proud, and undeniably robust in construction, Alice in Chains’ “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” takes the impressive post-Layne Staley bar set by 2009’s “Black Gives Way to Blue,” and shoots it to the moon.  Jerry Cantrell and William Duvall strengthen their chemistry in dual-harmony through powerfully-heavy tracks (“Hollow,” “Stone,” “Lab Monkey”), as well as emotionally-evocative ones (“Scalpel,” “Voices,” “Choke.”)  “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” is brilliant because it finds Alice in Chains blending their typical grunge gloom with a shimmering layer of upbeat confidence.  The album is evidence of a band focused on progressing an already-winning formula, a band done with drugs, done with grief, and done with doubt.  “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” stands as 2013’s finest rock achievement.

The Wrap:

Much like 2012, 2013- as a whole- was mostly defined by the success and sales of alternative metal and other variations of hard rock.  It’s easy to see that Alice in Chains dominated 2013.  The band provided the year’s fullest album experience, as well as three chart-dominating singles (Hollow, Stone, and Voices) that allowed them to keep momentum month-by-month.  Nipping at their heels were fellow grunge-era icons, Pearl Jam, and living metal legends, Black Sabbath, who more than proved their continued relevance in a genre they helped define.  At the same time, Danish genre-blenders, Volbeat quickly imbedded their way into rock’s top tiers, carving their niche- in spite of veteran competition- thanks to the overwhelming success of “The Hangman’s Body Count” and “Lola Montez.” Ghost, easily the most interesting band of 2013, also gained further attention with “Secular Haze” and the clearly eye-catching aesthetic appeal of centerpiece lead singer, Papa Emeritus II.   Those with a taste for industrial metal were treated to new material from genre-mainstays, Nine Inch Nails and Filter, along with monstrous debut tracks from David Draiman’s Device.

Meanwhile, bands like Cage the Elephant, Arctic Monkeys, and Queens of the Stone Age kept traditional alternative rock well-represented amidst an electronic haze generated from successful charting groups like the Imagine Dragons and Awolnation.  Other bands like Deftones and Korn kept consistent with the experimental sounds and songwriting approaches that have kept each of them intriguingly unique.   And who could forget Dave Grohl?  Sound City market a stellar directorial debut for the Foo Fighters frontman, and conceived a variety of interesting collaborative songs.

All-in-all, 2013 produced some of the most memorable and all-around impressive rock music in recent history, and with highly-anticipated new releases from Metallica, Tool, Foo Fighters, Mastodon, and Black Label Society currently on the horizon, readers can rest assured that the ball has only just begun to roll as we move into 2014.

Best of 2013 (Part 1): Top 15 Rock Singles

I understand that this blog has been inactive for some time now.  Between various life events, finals, and a crashing hard drive, remaining consistent to my writing has been next to impossible, until now.  Unfortunately, a lot of great material from noteworthy artists has come out (and ultimately gone unrecognized by the blog) since my last post.

In an attempt to compensate for this matter, I have decided to bring the blog back into action with a three-part retrospective on 2013.  This year was a really good one where rock music was concerned, and it’s important that we look back on the songs, albums, and artists that helped define it.

Expect parts 2 and 3 between now and New Year’s Day.  As always, I greatly appreciate your interest and feedback.

Now then, let’s kick things off with my top 15 rock singles of the year:

1. Alice in Chains- “Stone”          

Alice in Chains’ “Stone” is one of those rock songs that makes you remember where you were when you first heard it.  This is mainly a result of its bellowing, ferocious guitar riff- one of the best Jerry Cantrell has ever penned.  The song exemplifies AiC’s talent for innovating their sound, all while keeping in contact with the kinds of evocative blunt force that has kept their work so powerful to this day.

2. Black Sabbath- “God is Dead?”        

The first indicator that Black Sabbath was BACK, “God is Dead” quickly exceeded any expectations fans had about the band’s comeback effort, “13.” The song dances over a haunting guitar arpeggio, periodically exploding into madness before finally climaxing with a classic Toni Iommi guitar solo.

3. Pearl Jam- “Sirens”      

If “Mind Your Manners” was a reminder of Pearl Jam’s angst and aggression, then “Sirens” was a testament to their mastery of sensitive emotion.  “Sirens,” a ballad of uncertainty and loyalty, is a moving accomplishment that could only be topped off by the wavering, cathartic voice of Eddie Vedder.

4. Volbeat- “Lola Montez”      

“Lola Montez” stands as a defining moment on Volbeat’s “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies, drawing strength from a catchy chorus and a collection of upbeat lead runs from new member, Rob Caggiano.  The song boasts a made-for-radio sound that juxtaposes its clear sense of creative pride.

5. Paul McCartney/Dave Grohl- “Cut me Some Slack”      

First debuted during last year’s iconic “12/12/12” benefit concert, “Cut me Some Slack” finds Paul McCartney teaming up with the remaining members of Nirvana to deliver a jam reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”  Collaborations don’t get much better than this.

6. Queens of the Stone Age- “If I Had a Tail”

It’s hard to pick one track to represent Queens of the Stone Age’s splendid “…Like Clockwork,” one of the year’s standout rock albums.  However, “If I Had a Tail” is simply too infectious to deny.  The song grooves along at a steady pace and benefits from a strong, moody vocal performance from Josh Homme.

7. Nine Inch Nails- “Came Back Haunted”      

Where good Nine Inch Nails songs are concerned, “Came Back Haunted” does it all:  swirling layers of chirping synthesizers and crunching guitars, battered, anxiety-tinted vocals, and a collection of dark themes.  The song draws from a lot of NIN’s notable past works.

8. Korn- “Love and Meth”      

After Korn re-united with former guitarist, Brian “Head” Welch, fans were initially put off by “Never, Never,” a song that favored electronic mixing over guitar work.  “Love and Meth,” the band’s follow-up single, quickly eased these anxieties.  The song features the kind of groaning, pulsating riffs and breakdowns that helped define the popularity of Korn’s late 90’s releases.

9. Ghost- “Secular Haze”      

Ghost are a band based heavily on spectacle, and this spectacle is what fuels “Secular Haze,” one of 2013’s most mesmerizing rock songs.  The track is a slow-paced death waltz centered on a haunting blend of organs, guitars, and the band’s signature tongue-in-cheek satanic imagery.

10. A Perfect Circle- “By and Down”      

They finally did it:  A Perfect Circle unveiled new material in 2013, much to the joy of the band’s eager fanbase (who had been waiting since the release of 2004’s “Passive”).  “By and Down,” an eerie trip through the darkest confines of Maynard James Keenan’s brain, is not a new song per say; it had been performed live for years prior to its studio release in October.  Still, APC’s presence on the charts was refreshing, and continued to fuel hope for a new album.

11. Avenged Sevenfold- “Hail to the King”      

Avenged Sevenfold’s “Hail to the King” takes a modern approach to classic Maiden-style metal and sprinkles it over top themes of medieval war.  Many viewed the song as an acquired taste, but its fresh, catchy impact on 2013’s rock charts proved to be more than evident over time.

12. Arctic Monkeys- “Do I Wanna Know”      

The Arctic Monkeys are a band that deserves more recognition.  “Do I Wanna Know,” may be the major segue track they have been looking for; Alex Turner plays off the song’s defining dirty, bluesy riff with a series of smooth alliterations that are comfortable on the ears and rough on the soul.

13. Rob Zombie- “We’re an American Band”      

When you take the mind of a brilliant modern metal act and apply it to a vintage rock favorite, great things are bound to happen.  Rob Zombie achieved success in putting a fun, gritty twist on a Grand Funk Railroad classic.

14. Filter- “What Do You Say”      

Filter made an unexpected comeback in 2013, blazing a trail for themselves with “What Do You Say.” The hard-hitting track that could easily be viewed as a sequel to the band’s mid-90s classic, “Hey Man, Nice Shot.”

15. Deftones- “Swerve City”      

On “Swerve City,” Deftones stay true to their method of layering entrancing vocals atop a brutally heavy guitar section.  The song is a great cut from “Koi No Yokan”- which received high amounts of praise upon its release in 2012.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Chi Cheng, Lou Reed, Jeff Hanneman, and all the other wonderful and irreplaceable rock musicians we lost during 2013.

Album Review: Avenged Sevenfold- “Hail to the King”

Avenged Sevenfold albums are usually hit or miss, but the metalcore/hard rock favorites from California have developed a decent track record as of late.  This continued, full-album resilience is more than evident on “Hail to the King,” the band’s latest record.

Unlike the entirely-modern roar of past works like “Nightmare” and “City of Evil,” “Hail to the King” pays a massive amount of tribute to the band’s heavy metal predecessors.  An immediate Metallica influence can be traced to the blistering intro, “Shepard of Fire, ” and is later carried on through “Crimson Day” and the pulsating Lar’s Ulrich-esque beat of “This Means War.”

There will be some who point a finger at A7X and yell “plagiarism,” but the open-minded will be able to recognize the original spin the band puts on each of the album’s tracks, homage or not.

Truth is, there is actually a notable amount of originality on “Hail to the King.”  “Coming Home,” “Requiem,” “Planets,” and the medival-themed title track transcend nearly every element of the band’s past material.  Furthermore, the album’s conclusion, “Acid Rain,” is one of the most beautiful and charged ballad songs the band has ever attempted.

Take the ambition of “Nightmare,” the hooks of “City of Evil,” and the dark subject matter of the self-titled album, compliment it with a healthy dose of classic metal homage, and top it off with something fresh and demonic.

What you’re left with is one of Avenged Sevenfold’s finest albums in quite a while.

All in all:

Standout Tracks:  “Shepard of Fire,” “Hail to the King,” “This Means War,” “Coming Home,” “Requiem,” “Acid Rain”

Avenged Sevenfold- “Hail to the King:” 4.5/5

Song Review: Pearl Jam- “Mind Your Manners”

When it comes to keeping things fresh and unexpected, Pearl Jam stand as experts.  The band has one of the most versatile catalogs of any band rooted in the Seattle grunge scene- ranging from the all-out furious (“Do the Evolution,” “Why Go”), to the beautifully melodic (“Just Breathe,” “Light Years”), to the emotionally powerful (“Black,” “Come Back.”)

Now, in wake of 2009’s smoothly-produced masterpiece, “Backspacer,” the band has called yet another audible- they have recorded a punk rock song.

Well…okay, “Mind Your Manners,” the band’s latest single, isn’t COMPLETELY a punk rock song, but it might as well be.  It’s fast, to the point, and plays like a backhand to the face.  Think “Spin the Black Circle” with a touch of Black Flag.

The song is like a 3 minute joyride in a hot-wired war vehicle – kicking into high gear with sputtering guitars and never stopping for air.

“Mind Your Manners” makes it clear that anything can happen on the forthcoming “Lightning Bolt.” Major Pearl Jam fans will immediately love the song.  Casual listeners might be a little confused at first, but will slowly conform to the track’s appeal.

Pearl Jam- “Mind Your Manners:”  4.5/5

Listen to “Mind Your Manners” Here:

Song Review: Avenged Sevenfold- “Hail to the King”

Avenged Sevenfold arguably has one of the most loyal and passionate fanbases of any modern heavy metal band.  So naturally, there should be a reasonable level of elation from deathbat worshipers everywhere in response to the band’s newest single, “Hail to the King.”

The song- hot off the presses as of two hours ago- is like a three-way hybrid of Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica.  It includes much of what one would expect from a standard A7X tune:  and a gravely M. Shadows vocal performance, a powerful rhythmic backdrop from Johnny Christ and Zacky Vengance, and a collection of Synyster Gates lead riffs that will hurt the fingers of the guitar-illiterate.  The only notable deviation from the band’s  typical metalcore/classic metal formula is the contributions of Arin Ilejay (who replaced the late James “The Rev” Sullivan earlier this year).  Ilejay pounds away at his kit and makes it clear that he is a solid replacement for a nearly irreplaceable musician. 

“Hail to the King” packs a punch, but not a wallop.  It lacks the overtly-dominate hooks and stand-out guitar riffs displayed on older songs like “Beast and the Harlot” and “Nightmare,” but it still gives listeners a strong sampling of the upcoming album’s potential.

Avenged Sevenfold- “Hail to the King:” 3.5/5

Listen to “Hail to the King” here:

Song Review: Nine Inch Nails- “Came Back Haunted”

Lately, Trent Reznor has been up to a lot of different things:  strengthening his career as a composer by scoring the very successful “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” forming the side project, How to Destroy Angels, contributing to Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” project, and even winning an Academy Award.

But Reznor’s musical claim to fame, Nine Inch Nails, has remained untouched since 2008’s “The Slip.”

Not anymore.

Nine Inch Nails have returned with “Came Back Haunted,” the first single off the forthcoming and newly announced “Hesitation Marks” (or “HALO 28”).

The song- a partial hybrid of “Pretty Hate Machine” and “Year Zero-” buzzes with twisting synth beats and is driven by a creeping undertone. Reznor’s voice is, for lack of a better word, haunting and eerily calm in melody.  A churning guitar breakdown echoes “The Downward Spiral” and tops the song off in a powerful way.

It’s clear that Reznor’s success in his other musical endeavors has maximized his confidence and ambition as an artist.  He has poured this newfound creative energy into Nine Inch Nails in a very logical manner.  The result is a song that respects the past, but is not afraid to take a big experimental step into the unknown.

“Came Back Haunted” is no “Head Like a Hole,” but it’s pretty close.

Nine Inch Nails- “Came Back Haunted:” 4.5/5

Listen to “Came Back Haunted” here:

Album Review: Alice in Chains- “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.”

Writers tend to used a lot of recycled adjectives when discussing the music of Alice in Chains: grungy, grimy, sludgy, dark, harmonic…etc.  And it’s safe to say that all these overused, yet appropriate words still apply to the band’s newest material (and then some).

The Seattle legends have continued their post-90s “comeback” with a logical and bold next step in “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.”

If 2009’s “Black Gives Way to Blue” was Alice in Chains’ healing process for their tragic past, then consider “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” their first post-therapy breakthrough.  The album is far from nostalgic, but still manages to pay homage to the band’s roots.  Fans will find moments to reminisce the days of “Dirt” and “Facelift.”

New and old fans alike will mutually enjoy the pulsating palm mutes of “Hollow,” the bellowing main riff of “Stone,” and the chaotic arrangement of “Phantom Limb,” among many others.

Content-wise, Jerry Cantrell and company- at times- venture into territory never explored in-depth on past albums.  The best example of this is the album’s  title track, a tell-it-like-it-is evaluation of the overly-religious.   Cantrell’s songwriting also soars on the acoustic/electric balancing act of “Voices,” a song seemingly about helplessness and confusion that plays like “No Excuses” with attitude.

In general, the album succeeds in building an overall sense of thought-provoking emotion and anxiety, all while maintaining a confident, triumphant tone.  No song ever comes off as out-of-place or forced.

“The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” is the quintessential modern Alice in Chains experience: rough, loud, beautiful, and more ambitious than ever.

All in all:

Standout Tracks: “Hollow,” “Stone,” “Voices,” “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” “Low Ceiling,” “Scalpel,” Phantom Limb”

Alice in Chains- “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here:” 5/5