List

The 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2013

By Michael Nelson / December 10, 2013 - 10:33 am

In our May Premature Evaluation of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, I compared the album to Agalloch’s 2010 LP, Marrow Of The Spirit. In my opinion, Marrow is the best metal album of the millennium (so far), the apotheosis of what had also been, I believed, the best metal year of the millennium (so far) — perhaps a supernova moment for modern metal, in fact. The genre enjoyed very fine, well-above-average years in 2011 and 2012, too (and I presided over lists here and here attesting to just that), but they felt to me like the slow descent from the peak of Kilimanjaro. As of May, I believed 2013 would also fail to match the heights of 2010, but I was excited and encouraged just the same, by a lot of the records I was hearing, but in that moment, especially so by Deafheaven. “Sunbather is not a better album than Marrow Of The Spirit,” I wrote, “but it is the most successfully ambitious album to emerge from the wreckage left behind by Marrow.”

But as the year progressed, I found myself almost overwhelmed by the volume of truly extraordinary new releases vying for my attention: from new bands like Inter Arma and Lycus and Vattnet Viskar and Bölzer, as well as established acts like Gorguts and Skeletonwitch and Aosoth and Darkthrone. On September 17, Windhand’s Soma was awarded Stereogum Album Of The Week honors (the third metal album in 2013 to achieve that status, following Kvelertak’s Meir in March and Kylesa’s Ultraviolet in May). Also released that same day were outstanding new records from Carcass, SubRosa, Grave Miasma, Wolvserpent, Pinkish Black, Grave, and Ulcerate. It might have been the single-best release week for metal ever. It was on that day, I think, that I realized 2013 had surpassed 2010 as the best metal year of the millennium (so far). And from there, the stakes only got higher. Over the next few months, bands like Inquisition, In Solitude, Oranssi Pazuzu, and Castevet released records that could easily vie for Metal Album Of The Year honors. It was, by any definition, a boom time. It was an embarrassment of riches.

The Year That Was produced a few capital-E Events, some via bands that brought us the year’s best albums — such as Deafheaven and their aforementioned Sunbather — and some others that merely made the year’s best albums look better by comparison. Among the latter group was Infestissumam, the disappointing sophomore album from Swedish opera-metallers Ghost B.C. That band’s fantastic 2010 breakout debut, Opus Eponymous, was such a terrific smash that Infestissumam would have been a big deal (and a big letdown) even if it weren’t the band’s first release on major label Warner Bros., with whom Ghost B.C. signed for the insanely exorbitant reported sum of $750,000 last May — but that fact did add additional depths to the album’s narrative arc. Another high-profile dud was 13, the Rick Rubin-produced Black Sabbath album, the first new work in 35 years from a Sabbath lineup featuring original members Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler. Ultimately, though, 13 was more notable for the band’s choice to exclude original drummer Bill Ward from the project than it was for its songs, which were flat and forgettable. Both those albums arrived with great fanfare (and extended tours, and in the case of Ghost, um … a butt plug), but were met with mixed reviews. Neither was included on our list, and neither would have been on this list if it collected the 100 best metal albums of 2013 instead of only the 50 best. Neither was bad, exactly, but both were badly overcooked, and over-covered, and in the best metal year of the millennium (so far), they were exceedingly poor ambassadors for the genre.

Another pair of Events — these yielding much better results — were the highly publicized returns of ancient death metal legends Gorguts and Carcass, both of whom released their first new albums in 2013 after absences of 12 years and 17 years, respectively. Both represent not just successful comebacks, but artistic and psychic triumphs. Gorguts effectively ceased to exist after the 2002 suicide of drummer Steve MacDonald. The band’s mastermind and only core member, Luc Lemay, retired the name and announced he was leaving music to focus on his work as a self-taught furniture maker. But in 2008, Lemay hooked up with a handful of musicians whose careers he had helped to inspire — Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston (both of Dysrhythmia; Marston also of Krallice), and John Longstreth (of Dim Mak and Origin) — and reclaimed the Gorguts name. That version of the band spent five years playing together and working on new material before finally releasing Colored Sands this past September, and it was, at once, a landmark.

Carcass, meanwhile, broke up in 1996, only three years after releasing one of the most important and most successful death metal albums of all time, Heartwork, but several months before releasing one of the most reviled death metal albums of all time, Swan Song. Secondary guitarist Mike Amott had quit the band soon after Heartwork, and primary guitarist Bill Steer sort of admitted he should have done the same thing, as he was no longer interested in playing heavy metal (hence Swan Song). Bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker and drummer Ken Owen started a new band, Blackstar, playing hard rock; Steer formed a blues-based rock band called Firebird. In 1999, Owen suffered a brain hemorrhage, ending his musical career. But in 2007, a reunited Carcass built around Steer and Walker started playing select headlining dates internationally. Six years later, they went into the studio, dug up some old unused riffs, and on September 17, 2013, released Surgical Steel — perhaps the best album of their genre-defining career.

The returns of Gorguts and Carcass also tie into one of the year’s other major Events — although it’s more of a capital-T Trend — the bold resurgence of death metal. Most of metal’s great successes in recent years have been black metal-derived (such as Agalloch, and Wolves In The Throne Room, and Krallice …) or sludge-derived (Mastodon, Baroness, High On Fire …), or doom-derived (YOB, Pallbearer, Witch Mountain …), but in 2013, raw, brutal, ugly, uncool death metal ruled. There were the awakened gods (again: Carcass, Gorguts), the technical masters (Ulcerate, Wormed), the old-school originals (Immolation, Autopsy) and revivalists (Vastum, Entrails), as well as the entire “cavern-core” microgenre, which was most prominently represented by England’s amazing Grave Miasma, but included dozens of other bands playing dank, suffocated, ambient death metal. That’s not to say the genre was invisible in years prior to 2013 — or even that other metal genres flagged in comparison — but in 2013, death metal was a more dominant force than it had been since … well, probably since 1993, the year Carcass released Heartwork.

The final Event demanding inclusion here is a deeply sad one: the loss of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who passed away on May 2, of liver failure, at the age of 49. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hanneman was one of modern metal’s prime movers. He wrote nearly all Slayer’s best-known (and best) songs, including (but by no means limited to) “Raining Blood,” “Die By The Sword,” “South Of Heaven,” “War Ensemble, and — perhaps most notably — “Angel Of Death,” arguably the single most important song in the history of extreme metal. I can’t count the number of concerts I attended in 2013 at which Hanneman was paid tribute by the band on stage, nor can I count the number of lovely remembrances and eulogies I read in the days after Hanneman’s death. Two of those were written by my good friend (and occasional Stereogum contributor) Justin Norton, who wrote Hanneman’s obituary for the great metal magazine Decibel, and soon afterward, penned the cover story for Decibel’s Hanneman tribute issue. I was especially moved by — and honored to publish on Stereogum — Doug Moore’s eulogy to Hanneman, which beautifully illustrated Hanneman’s influence and legacy.

Doug was also involved with one of my personal favorite metal events (lowercase-e) of 2013: the launch of Stereogum’s new metal column, the Black Market, which he, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and I kicked off in February, and produced on a once-monthly basis thereafter. I certainly don’t think our work here played a role in making 2013 the best metal year of the millennium (so far), but it was a joy to cover that year so closely, with such good friends. It was a greater joy still to connect with a readership that seemed to appreciate the column, and heavy music, and an opportunity to discuss heavy music on Stereogum. Throughout 2013, I was overwhelmed by the response to the Black Market. For logistical reasons, the column fell into limbo for the month of October (and technically the month of November), and during that hiatus, I was contacted on a near-daily basis by readers, through a host of channels (email, Twitter, Stereogum’s comment section) asking after the column and its future. I shared all that correspondence with Aaron, Wyatt, and Doug, and I can say without qualification that we were, to a man, humbled and moved.

This list of the 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2013 was initially intended to serve as the November edition of the Black Market, but for purposes of editorial consistency, it’s running in the second week of December, and for purposes of archival consistency, it’s not branded as “The Black Market.” But for the many readers who reached out to us, I want to make perfectly clear that this is the Black Market — same authors, same process — and assure you, too, that going forward, the column will run on the same monthly schedule we established in 2013, starting with a new edition in the last full week of December.

This list was compiled and written by me, Aaron, Wyatt, and Doug, and though there were more than 50 albums we loved this year, more than 50 albums that deserve to be included here, I think this list does a pretty good job of capturing 2013 — the best metal year of the millennium (so far). I don’t think 2014 can possibly top this, but I wouldn’t bet against metal surprising me, surpassing my expectations.

Our list kicks off here. Thanks as always for coming out, caring about this stuff, and doing this with us in 2013.