2014 In Review

The 50 Best Metal Albums Of 2014

In last month’s Black Market, while wrapping up a short commentary on Decibel Magazine’s list of the 40 best albums of 2014, I wrote: “[T]his was a very good year for metal. Every year, though, it seems like the genre expands — to the point that, today, the thing we talk about when we talk about metal is not a thing at all, but an artifact of an idea.” And now that we’re here, about to present you with our own list of the year’s best metal albums, I find myself fixated on that notion:

What are we talking about when we talk about metal?

Everyone has an opinion — and all those opinions are valid. Here’s one, written for Popmatters by my friend and colleague Adrien Begrand, from his year-end writeup on the Japanese band Babymetal, which he (accurately) described as “a full-fledged bridging of extreme metal and J-pop [featuring] three teenaged girls singing atop a wickedly tight metal band”:

In a day and age where the notion of extreme metal is so antiquated and narrow that it’s practically a joke, Babymetal is a revelation, a breath of fresh air. Like it or not, it is by far the most truly extreme metal album of 2014, not to mention one of the most inventive.

Here’s another; this one is pulled from the intro preceding Rolling Stone’s list of the 20 Best Metal Albums Of 2014 — a list compiled by a group of writers whom I respect very much:

Metal may have the heart of a rebellious teenager (and keep it in a jar in the basement), but in 2014 it had the face of a grizzled vet … It was a year when wizened electric wizards rocking low and slow (YOB, Crowbar, SunnO))), Ommadon, et al.) crawled by the fast and the furious on the path to ascend. Grunge pioneers, avant-garde longtimers, and even a hip-hop O.G. got in on the metallurgy and made magic. But anyone under the age of, say, 30? Not as much.

So there ya have it: two declarative statements from two authoritative sources. And … they directly contradict one another. Everyone has an opinion! Here’s mine: I do not agree that Babymetal was “by far the most truly extreme metal album of 2014,” nor do I agree that Ice-T’s rap-metal novelty band Body Count made the 10th best metal album of 2014, and furthermore, that you can use the Body Count album, Manslaughter, as evidence that in 2014, “metal had the face of a grizzled vet.”

It’s not like there are no good counterexamples. Re: the “grizzled vet” thing: I can think of a bunch of young bands — Horrendous, Morbus Chron, Thantifaxath — who in 2014 made better (and more relevant) records than Manslaughter. Re: Babymetal: Extreme? In its own way, yes. But that Wolves In The Throne Room new-age record was just as extreme in its own way as Babymetal, right? And we’re not praising that one for being so extreme. In fairness, you can’t really define the WITTR record as “metal” in any way, shape, or form, but here’s the thing: I don’t really consider Babymetal to be “metal,” either. And while we’re on the subject: That Rolling Stone list includes a pair of records — the Austerity Program’s Beyond Calculation and Scott Walker + SunnO)))’s Soused — that I also don’t really consider to be “metal.” I’m not saying those are bad records, though — they’re good records! And I’m not calling anyone out on their definitions of metal, not saying anyone is wrong; I’m not the metal police over here. If there’s a problem, I’m part of it. It’s up to you. What do you think?

What are we talking about when we talk about metal?

Was 2014 the year of grizzled vets or the year of teenaged girls? Or was it, for you, the year of Pallbearer: a band made up of four 20-something guys who delivered 2014’s most-anticipated and best-received metal record, their sophomore LP, Foundations Of Burden? Or was it the year of Judas Priest: five 60-something guys who released their best album in two and a half decades, though only the 10th best album of their career? Was it the year of Bölzer: a two-piece from Switzerland whose three-song debut EP, Aura, ended 2013 making unexpected appearances in high slots on half the year’s best-of lists, who came to Maryland Deathfest 2014 an unknown entity and went home unquestioned champions, who then released another excellent EP, Soma … but truly came to prominence only when they publicly talked about their swastika tattoos? Or maybe it was the year of Myrkur: an artist who was introduced to us in 2014 as a “one-­woman black metal project from the darkness of Scandinavia,” was later revealed to be 29-year-old Ex Cops member/one-time Chanel model Amalie Bruun (working with a drummer named Rex Myrnur), who closed out the year announcing that she’s in the studio with two of Norwegian black metal’s most-revered and highest-profile musicians, two of the genre’s genuine visionaries, prepping for the 2015 release of what could be a massive LP?

Was it any of those things for you? Or none of them? Let’s go broader: Was it the year metal altogether relinquished its commercial aspirations? Or the year in which a metal album unexpectedly debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts? Was it the year metal stopped being metal?

In January, Aaron predicted this would be “the year of hideous sludge,” citing as evidence the then-forthcoming LPs by Indian, Thou, Coffinworm, and Lord Mantis. That same month, I called Woods Of Desolation’s As The Stars “the one to beat” in 2014. There was some validity to those claims, but they were self-fulfilling prophecies, too; results of our own confirmation bias: They were true in part because those were the things on which we focused most intently. But when it came time to make this list, none of us — the five guys who write the Black Market column every month — seemed to agree on anything. There was a lot of, “Yeah? Well, you know, that’s just like your OPINION, man.” There were some areas in which those opinions overlapped, but there was little consensus. We all experienced metal differently in 2014. We all had different definitions.

Me, I listened to a lot of metal — a lot of metal — but there’s no question about this: My year was defined by At The Gates. In January, the Swedish band — one of my favorite bands of all time in any genre — announced 2014 would bring the release of At War With Reality, their first album in 19 years, the unexpected follow-up to their 1995 classic Slaughter Of The Soul — one of my favorite albums of all time in any genre. In May, I saw At The Gates play at Maryland Deathfest. In August I got an advance of the album. In September, its first single dropped. In October, the album was released. And here we are in December, talking about the best albums of 2014.

I spent just about the entire year either thinking about or listening to At The Gates. I love At War With Reality: I won’t say it’s objectively the best album of 2014, because I can’t be objective about the thing, but it’s the album I listened to the most. And I’m pretty comfortable predicting it will be the 2014 album I listen to the most in 2015, and 2016, and beyond. It is an album that means a lot to me — I needed it to be great, and I think it is great — but if it didn’t mean a lot to you, then you might disagree with my assessment. I get that. It all depends on who you are, and where you’re coming from, and what you want, and what you feel. You gotta answer this stuff for yourself.

What are we talking about when we talk about metal?

This list was compiled by me, Ian Chainey, Aaron Lariviere, Wyatt Marshall, and Doug Moore. The only album on here that achieved complete consensus was the one at the very top. That record got votes from all of us, and it deserved those votes. Beyond that, opinions split. Understandably so — the ear that appreciates Artificial Brain (hyper-technical progressive death metal) might not appreciate Woods Of Desolation (lo-fi melodic blackgaze), and vice-versa. Or it might. You gotta go with your ear, just as we went with ours.

Before you even look at the list, though, let me warn you: It is missing some stuff. Some of that is by design. We didn’t consider EPs or splits, which is why you won’t find Bölzer’s Soma or Necros Christos’ Nine Graves or Myrkur’s Myrkur or the Panopticon/Falls Of Rauros split or the Forteresse/Chasse Galerie/Monarque/Csejthe four-way split. There was one full-length, too, that we immediately eliminated from consideration: Pyrrhon’s The Mother Of Virtues. That’s because the guy who sings for Pyrrhon — Doug Moore — also writes for the Black Market. That kinda sucks for Pyrrhon, of course, because The Mother Of Virtues really should be on this list, and it really would be. I’m not gonna pretend to be unbiased, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It is a fucking fantastic album. You don’t have to take my word. Listen to it.

But other things are missing, too, and when you don’t see them here, you will have questions: How do you make a list of 2014’s FIFTY best metal albums and not include, like, Mayhem? Coffinworm? Midnight? Electric Wizard? Earth? Motherfucking EYEHATEGOD?! I don’t know; I really don’t. But we did. There’s more: Trap Them, Cannibal Corpse, Lord Mantis … We didn’t forget about those albums, nor did we dislike them. We wrote about them throughout the year! We loved them! But when it came time to vote, none of us took the stump for them.

So know this: We fought for the records on this list. We challenged one another, put each other’s choices to the crucible. We sacrificed something else if it meant saving what’s here now. So, you ask: How do you make a list of 2014’s FIFTY best metal albums and not include [X]? It’s because one (or more) of us refused to let go of [Y]. I wasn’t gonna let go of At The Gates, and I didn’t expect anyone else to let go of a record he loved as much I loved At War With Reality. We made a lot of compromises, sure, but to compromise any more than we did would have resulted in a list that represented somebody else’s opinions, not our own.

I do think this was a very good year for metal, no matter how you chose to define it. And I’m really lucky and really thankful that I was once again able to cover it for Stereogum. I’m impossibly lucky and impossibly thankful that our metal coverage in 2014 constantly received such thoughtful, passionate feedback from you guys: I’m blown away to know that you care about this stuff as much as we do. Finally, I’m especially lucky and especially thankful to have shared this space this year with Aaron, Doug, Ian, and Wyatt. We all met working over at Invisible Oranges starting in 2011, and we’ve been friends ever since. The Black Market publishes only once a month, but I swear, we’re all talking to each other just about every day, throughout the day: talking trash, talking writing, talking records.

This is what we talk about when we talk about metal.

Start the list here.