Thursday, January 24, 2013

Curtiss' Top 26 of 2012

About 3 weeks before we put together the aggregate list of the HigherEd Music Critics top picks of 2012, I was asked to join the group. At that time, I had listened to a handful of albums that were released in 2012, but I needed to listen to a few more before I could put together a good list. All together, I listened to about 50 new albums, and picked out the following as my top 26 (I meant it to be a top 25, but my numbering was off somewhere along the way, and I ended up with 26).

  1. Celldweller - Wish Upon a Blackstar

    This is one of three albums released in 2012 by an artist that, in various incarnations, has consistently ranked near the top of my favorite artist list since the early to mid-90s. When Klayton began working under the name Celldweller in 1999, he took four years to release that moniker's debut album. Over the next 5 years, he released two more full-length albums. Almost four years later (the first of this latest batch of albums was released in December 2011), he released four full-length recordings (a full-length collection of remixes and recreations of his previously released tracks [The Complete Cellout - 2011], a live album [Live Upon a Blackstar], a full-length "album" [Wish Upon a Blackstar] and a collection of songs he'd written and put together for various movie, TV and video game soundtracks and trailers [Soundtrack for the Voices in my Head Vol. 2]) in less than a year.
    This album, Wish Upon a Blackstar, ranks at the top of my list for a few simple reasons. First, the music on this album is unparallelled by any except possibly Celldweller's other efforts. Celldweller is the perfect mix of hard-edged industrial, dance-inducing electronica and trance-inducing ethereal. The range of music found on Celldweller's albums is only found in a handful of other electronic artists' efforts. Secondly, the anticipation of this album was overwhelming. Celldweller initially released this album in five distinct chapters, beginning in 2009, as he finished writing and recording each batch of four tracks. When this album was finally released as one full-length collection, I'd already been rocking out to many of the tracks (along with remixes and mash-ups of those tracks) for 3 years.
    This album is undoubtedly one that should be checked out by anyone that's even remotely into industrial or house music, and very well might appeal to a majority of metal heads, as well. In reality, I would have liked to rank all 3 of Celldweller's 2012 albums as 1-3 on my list, but I didn't think that would go over all that well, so I'll just mention that, if you like what you hear on this album, you should definitely pick up Live Upon a Blackstar and Soundtrack for the Voices in my Head Vol. 2 (SVH2), then start working your way through the rest of his back catalog.
  2. Prong - Carved Into Stone

    Carved Into Stone is a return to what made metal so great in the 90s. Prong is a force to be reckoned with, and brings their unique, heavy, industrialized sound to new levels on this album. It's clear that, while Tommy Victor (the main force behind the band) has maintained his own individual sound across the years, he's picked up a few new tricks while working with Danzig and Ministry in the past few years. This album is solid metal from beginning to end, and will delight anyone that's enjoyed Prong's sound in the past. While the album doesn't include anything quite as catchy as their classic "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck", it does have a sound extremely similar to that found on Cleansing and Rude Awakening. The screeching guitars, driving bass lines and aggressive, modulated vocals are still a welcome sound in my ears.
  3. Propagandhi - Failed States

    This album combines elements of Propagandhi's signature sound with bits and pieces of emo-core and classic metal, and results in yet another phenomenal effort from the band. Long gone are the imprecise, three-chord, ska/reggae-influenced elements of the band's first album; they've been replaced with precision solos, vocal breaks and hard and fast guitar riffs. While, musically, this album is probably the band's greatest effort to-date, it doesn't seem to include nearly as many of the overtly radical political statements that have come to define Propagandhi. It is, however, a fantastic example of musicianship, and an amazing example of what can be done by a group with such varying influences. I have no doubt that fans of the last few Propagandhi albums are happily slam-dancing and breaking things while listening to this album, but I also suspect this is the type of album that could pick up a number of new fans from other genres for the band.
  4. deadmau5 - >album title goes here<

    Deadmau5 is never one to disappoint. With each album, his sound evolves slightly into something the world's never heard before. This time is no different. While it took me a few listens to really get into this album, because I had become such a huge fan of the sound on his previous album, it definitely comes in as a powerhouse in electronic music. This new album features a bit more pop sensibility than you'll find on some of his other efforts. The album flows nicely from driving, fast-paced funk-laced tunes to slower, reflective tracks with quasi-ethereal vocals and back again.
  5. Everclear - Invisible Stars

    This is probably the biggest surprise on my list this year. While I've always casually enjoyed Everclear's radio hits, and I am a bit of a fan of frontman Art Alexakis' personality, I've never really paid much attention to the band. While you won't find any phenomenal guitar solos or drum fills on this album, it is a consistently solid rock album (which seems to be becoming rarer & rarer as time goes on) that I enjoy from start to finish.
  6. Bleeding Through - The Great Fire

    Fantastically brutal. Great use of synth, amazing solos.
  7. Adrenaline Mob - Omerta

    It took me a few tries to really get into this album. There was something about this album that took a while to sink in in my brain. The guitar work is fantastic, and the drum lines are phenomenal (I would expect nothing less from Mike Portnoy, one of the greatest rock drummers of all-time), but the music itself didn't quite gel the first few times I listened. As I've given the album more plays in my rotation, however, it's definitely grown on me. The combination of hard, fast and extremely heavy guitar & bass with Russell Allen's unique vocals and Mike Portnoy's lightning-fast, jazz-inspired drum lines is unique to Adrenaline Mob, and definitely points to great things coming down the pipeline.
  8. Dinosaur, Jr. - I Bet On Sky

    Little has changed about Dinosaur Jr. in the past 20 years. While this is a good, solid album with many enjoyable moments, it's not really anything you couldn't find on the group's slew of albums from the 90s. While I normally get sick of bands releasing the same basic album over and over again (I gave up on Motorhead about 5 years ago for that very thing) and praise bands that are continuously evolving to bigger and better things (ala Ministry, Propagandhi, etc.), I can't help but feel a little bit of comfort in knowing what to expect every time I pick up a Dinosaur Jr. album, no matter when it was recorded. Listening to this latest effort from the group is kind of like hanging out with a great friend that you haven't seen in 15 years.
  9. Shadows Fall - Fire From the Sky

    While this album is far from ground-breaking, it is yet another fantastic effort from the band. Anyone that is a fan of Shadows Fall, especially those that enjoyed the heck out of their 2007 album "Threads of Life", will absolutely enjoy this album. It has a very similar sound and feel. For those that aren't familiar with Shadows Fall, they have a similar vibe to Avenged Sevenfold, but the music focuses more on melodic guitar work and screaming guitar solos, and less on the bottom-end, heavy riffs and drum breaks that are found in Avenged Sevenfold's work. In this reviewer's humble opinion, Shadows Fall also features better vocals than anything you'll find from A7X.
  10. Rush - Clockwork Angels

    Yet another truly solid effort from a band that's somehow managed to continuously evolve their sound without losing the elements that make them truly unique. This album brings it with it a slightly darker and heavier sound than we've heard from Rush in a while, while also harkening back to some of what made them so classic to begin with.
  11. Ministry - Relapse

    This latest album from Ministry is an unrelenting assault of blistering speed, unnerving syncopation and angry humor. The slowest moments on this album are still heavier and more brutal than anything found on Psalm 69, their most popular album. Unfortunately, this album also suffers from more imprecision and disjointedness than the albums that preceded it. The songs seem to have no real connection to each other, and there is no solid message throughout the album. In addition, the vocals on this album seem much more repetitive than anything in the past, causing some of the hooks to become overplayed and boring. Coming off the heels of the Bush trilogy (Houses of the Mole, Rio Grande Blood and The Last Sucker), which was an amazing display of musicianship and songwriting, this album is a bit of a disappointment. There is one gem on this album, a song called "Git Up, Get Out 'n' Vote" that harkens back to the Bush trilogy for a moment, with political wit, classic Ministry sound and activism baked in. It ranks on my list for two basic reasons: 1) It is a new album from one of my favorite bands of all time, which is especially impressive considering their previous album was supposed to be their last. If history has taught me anything about this band, it's that these seeming missteps are actually a precursor of great new things to come; 2) The speed of the guitar work on the album is truly a marvel, faster and heavier than many of the speediest speed and thrash metal artists most of the time, and more brutal than many death metal and black metal albums you'll find.
  12. Jamiroquai - Rock Dust Light Star
    Jamiroquai is the one-hit wonder that keeps on giving. In 1996, they released their third studio album, off of which they had their massive US hit "Virtual Insanity". After that, they had two more minor hits with their singles "Deeper Underground" (which was featured in the 1998 trainwreck of a movie Godzilla) and "Canned Heat", which receieved a decent amount of airplay and was featured in the cult hit "Napoleon Dynamite" a few years later.
    Other than that, however, the group hasn't had all that much commercial success in the US (they rank a bit higher and had quite a few more hit singles in the UK). That hasn't stopped them from releasing three solid albums over the next 10-12 years, though.
    The latest effort from Jamiroquai is titled "Rock Dust Light Star" and is another tour de force from the group. This album, released in the UK in November 2010, waited nearly 18 months (April 2012) before making its way across the pond to the US. The album is a bit of a departure from the group's earlier stuff, featuring a bit mellower, funkier groove than their previous efforts. This album from Jamiroquai is a great example in this day & age of what an "album" should be, flowing naturally from one track into another.
  13. Soundgarden - King Animal

    This album came as a bit of a surprise to me (and probably quite a few others). To hear a brand new album from a group that split almost 15 years ago is nothing short of inspiring. For me, this album falls somewhere in between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. All of the tracks have that classic, unique Soundgarden sound. Many are heavier than anything you'd find on Superunknown, but none have quite the edge that was found in most tracks of Badmotorfinger. All-in-all, it's an impressive effort and an enjoyable album, but I suspect a lot of my fondness for this album is a result of the band's long absence from the scene, rather than being impressed explicitly by the musical quality of the album.
  14. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...

    This album is an interesting release with a bit of a new sound from Fiona Apple. While it once again fails to capture the strong, soulful sound she found on Tidal, this latest release does include some odd combinations of bouncy rhythms and sad, melancholy melodies. There are moments on this album where Apple's voice almost returns to that deep, sultry, soulful sound she exhibited in her debut, but there are other times when it's almost tinny. Overall, it's pretty fantastic jazz-influenced album, with haunting melodies, though.
  15. P.O.D. - Murdered Love

    P.O.D. is one of the very few bands classified as "nu metal" that you'll ever find in my album collection. For fans of P.O.D., this album is almost certain not to disappoint. This album is another great example of the band's signature latin-influenced metal/hardcore sound with hip-hop sensibilities and mostly positive messages. This album also brings with it more external influences than we've seen on previous P.O.D. albums. There are times when I feel like I'm listening to some wonderful combination of Fishbone, Cypress Hill and Sepultura all rolled into one.
  16. Dark Tranquillity - Zero Distance EP

    This EP from Swedish death metal band Dark Tranquillity is just the latest in a consistent string of unique releases from the band. Dark Tranquillity is defined by their heavy, driving guitar riffs, mixed perfectly with keyboard fills and complex drum and basslines, along with a unique growl. Occasionally, the songs are broken up by melodic, almost relaxing guitar solos before breaking back into the brutal, driving force of their metal roots.
  17. Anti-Flag - The General Strike

    Anti-Flag tends to go through cycles where they release an amazingly ground-breaking punk album with extremely politically-charged lyrics and concepts, then they release one or two albums that seem to rehash the sounds and ideas found on previous efforts. This album is more of the latter than the former, but it's still a great punk album. For those unfamiliar with Anti-Flag, it's difficult to describe their sound. They tend to mix equal parts influence from revolutionary punk bands like The Clash and Dead Kennedys with classic elements of Oi and their own unique musical elements. This album, like many of their previous efforts, is heavily reliant on driving basslines and catchy, aggressive hooks.
  18. Fear Factory - The Industrialist

    I'm not sure what to say about this album, other than "if you're a fan of Fear Factory, you'll more than likely enjoy it." It's essentially more of the same from Fear Factory, but that doesn't mean it's not good.
  19. Therapy? - A Brief Crack of Light

    With Therapy?'s "Nurse", "Troublegum" and "Infernal Love" all being so classic in my eyes, I wanted to love this album so badly. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite reclaim that unique sound that they had in the early-to-mid 90s. It's still a pretty good, solid rock album, but just doesn't have that politely aggressive, hard-rock Irish sound that made Therapy? so intriguing in the first place.
  20. Tourniquet - Antiseptic Bloodbath

    Tourniquet is one of my favorite metal bands of all time, and has impressed me with far more albums than it's disappointed me. Unfortunately, this particular album falls closer on the disappointment side than it does on the impressive side. While it's still an extremely solid metal album with out-of-this-world drumming and a few spots of phenomenal guitar work, it's nothing really new or groundbreaking. This album feels like the group is falling into the comfort of riffs and concepts they've used in the past, rather than moving forward with new ideas. If you are a Tourniquet fan, you'll probably enjoy this album; but if you've never heard the group before, I'd highly recommend you pick up their previous effort "Microscopic View of a Telescopic Realm" rather than grabbing this one.
  21. All That Remains - A War You Cannot Win

    This latest effort from All That Remains fails to capture the unique, driving, drum-driven sound that they unleashed upon the world with their 2006 album "The Fall of Ideals". The vocals are a little more melodic than they've been in the past, while the whole album feels like someone's taken their previous efforts and slowed them down to more of a rock pace than a metal pace. All-in-all, it's still a decent album, but it is far from the masterpiece that was "The Fall of Ideals".
  22. Maroon 5 - Overexposed

    I honestly can't say how much my love for Adam Levine's personality (as showcased on The Voice) influenced my decision to include this album on my list, but I did find this release to be an enjoyable pop experience. Levine's vocals are sometimes haunting, but always fun to listen to, and the music complements his voice extremely well. At times, this release even reminds me a tiny bit of some of the songs I love most from Erasure, which can only be considered a good thing in my mind.
  23. Lamb of God - Resolution

    See note for "Fear Factory"
  24. Soulfly - Enslaved

    This album actually came as a bit of a surprise to me. I loved Max Cavalera when he was in Sepultura, but I've always thought Soulfly's music came up short. This time around, though, he seems to be moving in the direction I'd like to hear. It's still far from amazing, but much better than anything I've heard from Soulfly in the past.
  25. Testament - Dark Roots of Earth

    This is another one of those albums that I enjoy just as much for the nostalgia value as for the actual musical value. This album does very little to depart from that classic sound that Testament put together in the 90s, but it's still an enjoyable, inoffensive power ballad metal album to put on.
  26. Corrosion of Conformity - Corrosion of Conformity

    This album might have been doomed to fail from the moment it was conceived. While I do enjoy CoC's older work as a 3-piece, they really didn't come into their own until they picked up Pepper Keenan. This album marks the band's return to a 3-piece group without Keenan's unique vocals or guitar work. While this album is a decent effort, it feels too much like an attempt to re-hash what was done on the band's first few releases, without anything really new. The members of the band have grown considerably older than they were when they released Animosity or Technocracy (which was recorded as a 4-piece, but had an extremely similar sound to Animosity), but their sound, sans-Keenan, seems to be stuck in a bit of a timewarp. While this album isn't nearly as sad as hearing the guys from Skid Row try to relive their glory days by continuing to perform rebel anthems of their youth (like Youth Gone Wild), it is still a bit depressing to hear how far the group backslid when they lost their defining member.

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