You’ve seen the rest of the year-end lists. You know their story: compiled more from group-think than a list of purely amazing albums. So, as one of the final lists to go online, we’ve saved the best for last.
Presented in chronological order of release, the following 11 albums pull from the acclaimed and the unsung — some of the best as well as most boundary-pushing releases from rock and beyond.
Want to see even more favorites? Head here for our 51 favorite albums of 2013.
Putting the “rock” back in “rock super-group,” Tomahawk makes a mighty return with Oddfellows, a “re-launch” of a band whose last album (Anonymous in 2007) was an aggressive interpretation and expansion of Native American motifs.
The group’s core — singer/sampler Mike Patton (Faith No More), guitarist Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard), and drummer John Stanier (Battles) — is now joined by bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle), resulting in tunes with even more muscle and flexibility. Pugilistic riffs are front and center once more, but Patton expands the band’s range with “heavy pop” vocals — including some downright cooing — for soaring choruses.
There are a few other twists and turns, including a jazzy organ here and a deep piano melody there, but the band is still founded on those vocals over winding melodies, thick bass tones, and pounding, syncopated beats. Don’t believe us; hear it for yourself. Oddfellows is one of the best albums of 2013.
– Scott Morrow
Influenced by old punk and hardcore albums and devoid of full-blown sonic excursions, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s fifth full-length album is, if there is such a thing, a “straightforward” affair. Raging, intricate blasts of metalcore mayhem still rule One of Us Is the Killer, but with only one “radio-friendly” track, no epic piano jams, and most songs under four minutes, it’s pure adrenaline — and still adventurous as all get out.
Featuring the same recording lineup, the band now benefits from better chemistry between guitarist/songwriter Ben Weinman and drummer Billy Rymer, not to mention an even wider range from vocalist Greg Puciato, who works from eruptive anger to cooing, crooning, chanting, and even spoken (and shouted) word. Sonically, it’s still über-diverse, with bits of glockenspiel, piano, horns, “choir” effects, and keyboard squiggles, plus a “dark bossa nova” interlude, an instrumental synth jam, and an organic drum-and-bass intro.
With it all said and done, One of Us Is the Killer — with Dillinger as mind-blowing as ever — is one of the best albums of 2013.
– Scott Morrow
“I Won’t Forget”
When Norway’s Shining released Blackjazz in 2010, it marked more than a bold new direction in progressive metal — it was the final phase of transformation of a former acoustic jazz outfit that had delved into classical melodies, prog rock, and synth-driven industrial madness.
One One One, the latest from Shining songwriter Jørgen Munkeby, isn’t another shock to the system; instead it refines and streamlines, pairing more rock-’n’-roll grooves, blazing tempos, and traditional song structures with the brutality. The tracks here are all “ones” — each a singularly digestible piece, each a miniature masterpiece of metallic, fist-pumping avant-rock.
– Scott Morrow
Though less tenured than Mediterranean neighbors Septicflesh, Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse has been a quickly ascending name in symphonic, operatic death metal. Labyrinth is the band’s third full-length, and it’s another masterful effort — demonstrating endless technical talent whether via double-bass insanity, guitar-shredding madness, or piano-playing psychosis.
Yet despite the jam-packed riffs and beats, Fleshgod always demonstrates a knack for songcraft, balancing sonic brutality with symphonic strings and brass, marching snares, and piano runs, and alternating death growls with chants and operatic falsettos. The result is utterly epic.
– Scott Morrow
“We Hit a Wall”
Don’t make the mistake of hearing Chelsea Wolfe’s Pain Is Beauty without a headphone session. The range of sounds and the boost in sonic theatrics are breathtaking — “The Warden,” “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter,” and “Sick” offer up Eastern-sounding hammered dulcimers, vocal cooing over dirty and jangly guitar tones, and a dose of Berlin-era Bowie, all within the span of just three tracks.
Wolfe’s new album takes the intimate and creepy ponderings of previous release Apokalypsis and drastically expands and explores the space within each track. Previously, the songs were a collection of confessions told by a flickering campfire; now each track blazes and roars like a cliff-side bonfire.
– Brandon Goei
For 10 years, quirk-rock quintet Man Man has delivered hooks, grooves, and throaty croons in a style like no other. The group’s fifth studio album, On Oni Pond, is described as a “band reboot,” merging its Tom Waits-ian, trop-pop weirdness with Talking Heads inspirations, old-school soul, and other oddities.
The album opens with the horn- and organ-driven boogie of “Pink Wonton,” a transfixing ditty. From there, the album blossoms with the marimba-and-bass infectiousness of “End Boss,” the stringy exotica of “Head On” (whose melody conjures Ritchie Cordell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”), and the synthesized dub of “King Shiv.” “Loot My Body,” a heavy pop number, transforms into a tropical psych-jazz jam; “Deep Cover” is a ukulele-and-brass ballad; and “Pyramids” splices a dark-rock solo into an otherwise upbeat pop offering.
Continuing a streak of each album being even better than its predecessor, On Oni Pond is a wonderful “reinvention” — even if it’s still classic Man Man.
– Scott Morrow
“When the Lightning Strikes”
Proving that the worlds of dirge-laden doom metal and electro-funk death-disco are less than a stone’s throw away, London’s Chrome Hoof prog it up and mix genres into a synth-heavy corkscrew of operatic — er, opera-erratic — rock music on its fourth full-length, Chrome Black Gold.
An ever-expanding psychedelic sci-fi orchestra helmed by Leo Smee (of Cathedral), Chrome Hoof on this album has tapped vocalist Shingai Shoniwa of UK indie rockers Noisettes as a guest on four tracks. Similar to that of Royal Thunder’s Miny Parsonz, Shoniwa’s voice is powerful but sultry.
On “Varkada Blues,” her hypnotic, lounge-swaying enunciations are a disarming foil to the guttural growls of another guest — Jeff Walker, the current bassist/vocalist of Carcass. The song is a good example of the genre blending for which the band is known; everything comes together in a brutal, other-worldly-sounding but entirely danceable, six-minute mix permeated by metronomic synthesizers that carry listeners through the outro. Another standout is “When the Lightning Strikes,” on which Shoniwa’s voice swoops like a vulture out of dark clouds amid a metallic but deeply classical crunch reminiscent of the Fucking Champs.
Overall, Chrome Black Gold collapses space and time and pries open listeners minds, continuously whetting them for the weird.
– Brendan Dabkowski
So Hideous: Last Poem / First Light (self-released, 10/22/13)
Fusions, crossovers, and poly-influenced musical projects were abundant before the Internet became accessible to most, but the Information Age has yielded an entire generation of musicians who are exposed to whatever they’re interested in hearing. It has produced a “post-everything” type of mindset, and NYC quartet So Hideous is an exciting product of these times.
Formerly So Hideous, My Love, this symphonic blackened hardcore band is as inspired by post-black-metal outfit Celeste as by post-rock giant Mono and minimalist composers Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. Now, with its debut “full-length” (27 minutes), the quartet expands its orchestral reach, enlisting the studio aid of The First Light Orchestra, a collection of 10 string players, a tuba, and four vocalists.
Last Poem / First Light opens with a Dimmu Borgir-esque piece of haunting and terrifying symphonic metal, propelled by heaps of double bass before falling into an eerie, barely there outro. “Stabat Mater” follows with a dark intro comprised of bells, operatic vocals, clean guitar, and rising cymbals. A mere minute passes before the band explodes with a full-bore blast of blackened hardcore — an eruption of anger that yields the song’s close to a sad piano passage.
The rest of Last Poem / First Light is a similar swing of emotions, but it’s always a sonic punch in the gut. Quite simply, it’s one of the most exciting debut LPs of the year.
– Scott Morrow
What do you get when you throw Napalm Death’s Shane Embury and Jon Poole of The Cardiacs into a blender with the likes of Merzbow and none other than The Fall’s Mark E. Smith? (Yes, you read that correctly.) The answer is this debut album by the “eight-man beast” working under the aptly chosen band name Mutation.
Predictably, the PR for this album hypes it as some of the most out-there shit in extreme music today. What’s actually most audacious about this music, though, isn’t its frequent twists and turns through a barrage of genres but how cohesively it all comes together. Error 500 proves that, after decades of spazzing out, the most revolutionary thing that underground musicians can do is focus. The fact that the personnel on this album can communicate in the first place — to say nothing of breaking new ground and making it listenable — counts as nothing less than a miracle.
– Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
“Balance of the 19”
Some bands change your life; some bands change your worldview; some bands change the very way that you hear music, forever altering your understanding of what can be achieved. Secret Chiefs 3 accomplishes all of these things and more, and with the first half of its long-awaited Book of Souls — the second piece in an epic “mega-trilogy” that began with 2004′s Book of Horizons — the indefinable fusion masters (led by Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance) make good on a decade on anticipation.
Amazingly, most of these songs began being tracked from 2003 to 2006, with more and more layers added every few years by a slew of talented members and guests. Each regular-length track is interspersed with “suprasensory radio spots,” blasts of melodic and rhythmic bliss/adrenaline that last anywhere from 20 seconds to two minutes — and that give a taste of new drummer Kenny Grohowski, a technical dynamo who must be seen live to be believed.
The most widely circulated track herein is the spruced-up rendering of theHalloween theme, a live favorite that was released via seven-inch in 2007. Though a creepy, head-banging standout, it’s least representative of the album — one that, this time around, draws more from early American classical influence than Middle Eastern. This is most evident in the above-mentioned “radio spots” as well as mini-masterpieces “Potestas Clavium” and “Scorched Earth Saturnalia,” the latter being a seven-minute “ballet miniatures suite in four elemental movements.”
Calling “Saturnalia” a masterful epic would be an understatement. It’s one of the album’s greatest and most tightly wound pieces, set up with racing pizzicato strings and bells, a thumping dance beat, and haunting operatics before flutes, piano, strings, and snares all march in lockstep. The rest is an interwoven audio puzzle, with bassoon, strings, piano, harpsichord, operatic vocals, and harp dancing around, through, and atop one other.
Later, the album presents a Chiefs rarity: a vocal-based track, sung by none other than former Mr. Bungle colleague Mike Patton. This alternative version of Jacques Brel‘s “La Chanson de Jacky,” a song that was popularized in the United States by Scott Walker, too was released in limited seven-inch form, but the LP version includes instrumental additions of flute and harp.
Book of Souls: Folio A easily vies for album of the year…and that’s without the upcoming Folio B. Miss this at your music collection’s peril.
– Scott Morrow
There’s clearly something in the Boston area’s water, and it’s a good bit stronger and weirder than tea. Already having affected Doomriders and Zozobra this year, the mystery substance has clearly made its way into the systems of Stephen Brodsky (Cave In) and Ben Koller (Converge), collectively Mutoid Man.
On their debut outing, Helium Head, the pair exhibit a similar ferocity and tempotic abandon as the aforementioned bands, plowing through seven songs (including a killer Animals cover) in about the time that it takes to boil an egg. Yet true to form, Brodsky doesn’t let the music dictate his vocal style, growling occasionally but for the most part lilting along harmoniously to the guitar’s lead, while Koller pounds away as violently as a machine gunner but with the precision of a sniper.
Whatever demons have invaded these two men clearly aren’t the kind that are easily exorcised, but the pair does its best, making Helium Head one of the most blistering yet complex records of the year.
– Oakland L. Childers