2011 has been a great year for rock music, in particular for progressive rock and melodic death metal. While I still hold that 2009 was the best rock music year of recent times I still think there are plenty of great records that should be on your shopping list when those Christmas vouchers come flooding in next week. There have been some notable misfires too. The second Black Country Communion album pissed me off. Leaves Eyes’ Meredead and Sirenia’s The Enigma of Life were just plain shite.
Meanwhile Mayan’s Quarterpast confused the hell out of me. I suppose we should be glad Mark Jansen got all of that nonsense out of his system before recording another – hopefully great – Epica record. Then of course there was the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration Lulu. This wasn’t just the worst album of the year it might actually be the worst record ever released, yes much worse than the reggae version of Waltzing Matilda Joe Dolce release, or the Soft Cell version of Tainted Love. All involved should be very ashamed of themselves. Any road up let’s get back to good music, there were some bloody great records that didn’t make it into my top ten of the year. So let’s start with a rundown of great records that would have populated my top top 20 records, in no particular order. And we’ll also check out my favourite song of 2011.
THE 2011 RUNNERS-UP
Draconian – A Rose for the Apocalypse
Fabulous 90s style doom metal. A mix of male and female vocals and a real treat for fans of bands such as Paradise Lost. Joe Bonamassa – Dust Bowl Joe released about a gazillion records this year. This is the best one. Putting the rubbish Black Rock behind him this a wonderful exploration of blues and blues rock. Tasteful, melodic and with plenty of soul.
Amorphis – The Beginning of Times Here we have some state of the art melodic death metal. This is beautifully crafted music. And while the songs aren’t quite as good as the previous album it’s definitely worth a listen.
Chickenfoot – III I was rather disappointed with the first record feeling that four great musicians should create something better than a collection of so-so songs about whatever Sammy Hagar wants to do with his cock. Here on the amusingly titled second album – III – they get things right. So this time around it’s a collection of great songs about whatever Sammy Hagar wants to do with his cock.
Savage Messiah – Plague of Conscience In theory this is an album released in January 2012. But the band released a free download version last month and so it sneaks into the 2011 list. Really it should be in the top ten, and in a year’s time expect to see it riding high in my favourites of 2012. Great to hear a British band making a storming, state of the art, classic heavy metal album. Fans of Megadeth will lap this up as will anyone who loves heavy metal done properly.
Autumn – Cold Comfort The atmospheric Dutch band return with another collection of melancholy gothic pop rock songs. It’s not as good as the previous album Altitude, but still better than most of the albums I’ve heard this year. And as ever Marjan Welman’s voice is gorgeous and so is she.
Amon Armarth – Surtur Rising The vikings have returned. There is no one more metal than Johan Hegg. Once again the band rips it up with a great collection of heavy metal tomfoolery best enjoyed with a large stein of beer to hand. Classic, fun and powerful metal.
Anathema – Falling Deeper This is Anathema’s second stab at revisiting older doomier tracks with their more recent trademarked ambient post-rock sound. Here we also get an orchestra and this is perhaps the most beautiful record of 2011. Had me in tears the first time I heard it. And there’s a wonderful cameo from Anneke van Giersbergen.
Cradle of Filth – Evermore Darkly This mini-album from the Filth is great fun. Comes complete with a DVD and is bound to annoy miserable bastards who seem to have forgotten heavy metal is fun.
Leprous – Bilateral Leprous hail from the Norwegian town of Notodden – a place punching above its weight in metal terms having also produced Emperor and Ihsahn. The hairy Norwegians play metal at the progressive end of the spectrum and in Bilateral have produced one of the most intelligent and interesting albums of the year.
Omnium Gatherum – New World Shadows These guys are big in Finland, topping the charts with their latest melodic death metal album New World Shadows earlier this year. Can you imagine a death metal band doing that in the UK? This is a bloody great metal record and well done Finland for recognising that.
Symphony X – Iconoclast The problem I have with Symphony X is that they make me feel so untalented a guitar player I wonder if I should give up. This is progressive tech metal beautifully recorded. I preferred the previous album Paradise Lost, but this is still thrilling stuff.
The Union – Siren’s Song Luke Morley is a national treasure and a sadly unsung one. This is the man who has written some of the best British classic rock songs of the last 20 years in his role as guitarist in Thunder. Now he’s teamed up with vocalist Peter Shoulder. Siren’s Song is their second record and it’s beautiful bluesy old-school classic rock that fans of Thin Lizzy, Bad Company etc. will lap up.
Riverside – Memories In My Head This Polish band from Warsaw are clearly influenced by progressive rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Marillion and The Porcupine Tree. I’ve enjoyed all their albums but the EP Memories In My Head is by far my favourite thing they’ve done. Ambient, powerful and in tone not a million miles away from Pink Floyd’s Animals, this is one of the best records of the year. And with three songs stretching to 30 minutes it’s not far off a full album for an EP price. Hopefully a full album of this quality will be released in 2012.
Whitesnake – Forevermore If you have a set of balls you should own this record, there’s no excuse not to. Classic British hard rock from one of the best voices the genre has ever seen or heard – Sir David of Coverdale.
Let’s take a look at my favourite song of 2011…
BEST SONG OF 2011 The Gathering – Heroes for Ghosts
The Gathering is a band that’s interesting for having several incarnations. The early years saw this Dutch outfit as a doom/death metal band. Ambient post-rock beckoned with the addition of stunning vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen, where they became one of my favourite bands. Giersbergen’s departure could have spelled doom, but her replacement Silje Wergeland hit the ground running with 2009’s brilliant album The West Pole. This year The Gathering released the single Heroes for Ghosts. As the cheeky reference to Wish You Were Here suggests there’s a Floydian sound to this release and it could easily be a track from that album. If this is an indication of the new album set for release in 2012 then it’s likely to be one of the best releases of next year.
And while on the following pages you’ll read about my favourite albums of the year, this is my favourite song.
And so onwards then to my top ten albums of 2011…
THE OFFICIAL GRUMPYROCKER TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2011
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #10 ANTHRAX – WORSHIP MUSIC
After eight years of fannying around unable to decide on which of three vocalists the next record would be made with I think we were all surprised by (a) the return of Joey Belladona, and (b) his stellar performance on this record. This is the big surprise album of 2011. Who would have thought Anthrax would return with such a strong, hook-laden, fun and powerful record as this. Brilliant to see such a veteran band giving it large this year – and the first of two albums by the “big four” in the top ten (no there’s no surprise appearance by Metallica).
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #9 WHILE HEAVEN WEPT – FEAR OF INFINITY
This US prog metal outfit released one of the best albums of 2009 in the form of Vast Oceans Lachrymose. Once again the band led by Tom Phillips has created a beautiful, powerful and emotional slab of progressive metal. To Grieve Forever might just be the most depressingly emotional song I’ve ever heard. In a fine year for progressive music Fear of Infinity is one of the best releases.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #8 DREAM THEATER – A DRAMATIC SERIES OF EVENTS
Now here’s a surprise, but a very welcome one. After all that childish pissing and moaning from ex-drummer Mike Portnoy his former bandmates have gone on to release one of the best records of their career. Perhaps rejuvenated by the arrival of new drummer Mike Mangini DT has crafted an epic and beautiful progressive metal album. Sure it sounds suspiciously like a re-write of the brilliant early album Images and Words, but it’s no less wonderful for that. This record is also winner of worst album cover of the year. What were they thinking? No guys, it’s not deep.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #7 MOONSORROW – VARJOINA KULJEMME KUOLLEIDEN MAASSA
Bloody marvellous depressive death metal from Finland. This bleak and beautiful record has its tracks divided by the sound of a man walking through a snowy forest and ultimately to his death. You don’t need to understand the Finnish lyrics of the album (which translated means As shadows we walk in the land of the dead) to understand the bleak power within. Majestic and epic in the truest sense.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #6 NIGHTWISH – IMAGINAERIUM
Nightwish releasing one of the albums of the year, how can that be? The metal band popular with sappy young girls and Andrew Lloyd Webber fans (essentially the same thing) has come out fighting after the somewhat disappointing Dark Passion Play. I like one or two older tracks but I don’t understand the Tarja worship – now there was someone who could really mangle the English language. Anyway, I was really surprised by the album. Very good indeed – amazing production and a real powerful and varied treat at times. I can’t say the scouse bloke reading the poetry was my cup of tea on the penultimate track. But plenty of great songs on offer, particularly like Ghost River. And I love Annette’s insane performance in Scaretale, she really lets herself go on that one. The only thing that stops this being album of the year is the last ten minutes, which closes the album with a whimper rather than the needed proverbial bang.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #5 INSOMNIUM – ONE FOR SORROW
Yes I know, yet another Finnish death metal band. This time around though we’re waving the flag for melodic death metal. On One for Sorrow Niilo Sevänen’s death grunts are counterpointed by the clean vocals of guitarist Ville Friman. The result is a combination of very heavy music and beautiful melodies all wrapped up in a state of the art modern production. This is European heavy metal at its finest.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #4 MEGADETH – THIRTEEN
If I was Dave Mustaine I’d have posted this CD to Lars Ulrich with a post-it note which read “Hahahaha”. In the year when Mustaine’s former bandmates proved even more they have no concept of quality control Megadeth has put out yet another fabulous thrash metal record. While I think I prefer the previous record Endgame, there’s no denying that Thirteen is great fun. Mustaine is as snarlingly defiant as ever (though worryingly starting to sound like a mad old Christian-right conspiracy nut rather than hardcore Democrat) and Chris Broderick’s guitar solos are killer. Add to the mix the wonderful return of David Ellefson and you have one of the catchiest and most fun metal records of the year. It also features one of the best guitar tones of the year – the wondefully saturated crunch in the main riff from New World Order.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #3 WITHIN TEMPTATION – THE UNFORGIVING
Black Symphony saw Holland’s Within Temptation take their girly symphonic metal sound to its ultimate conclusion. For the band’s return they’ve changed tack – bringing us an eclectic mix of 80s rock, pop, disco and metal. The result is superb, a bonkers and hugely fun pop rock record that rarely lets go of the listener. Sharon den Adel and guitarist hubby Robert Westerholt have never sounded better. An absolute belter of an album. No it’s not very heavy, or very fashionable, but it’s a great selection of rather fabulous songs from a band really hitting its stride.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #2 STEVEN WILSON – GRACE FOR DROWNING
For some time I was confused why Steven Wilson would record a solo album. With Porcupine Tree he’s the master of his own direction and it’s a band famous for experimentation and no one album sounding like another. So why make a solo record? Well here he gets to work with such musicians as Jordan Rudess, Steve Hackett, Tony Levin, Nick Beggs and Trey Gunn. The final product is perhaps Wilson’s best work to date. A sprawling majestic progressive rock album that could stand head to head with anything Pink Floyd has released. Essential.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2011 #1 OPETH – HERITAGE
The surprising thing about Opeth’s Heritage is how many people were surprised by it. This album has been on the cards ever since the release of Watershead in 2009. The other surprise was that all the fans annoyed by the lack of death metal on this album struggled to find a good reason to hate it and settled for “it’s not progressive enough”. Muppets. Here Opeth has taken a break from progressive death metal and death grunt vocals and instead crafted a largely acoustic album full of beautiful clean singing by Mikael Åkerfeldt. There are no grunts, no heavy metal guitars and no blastbeats. And while there are heavy moments, the powerful electric guitars of Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson never sound like something coming out of a Marshall stack. This is a beautifully produced record, full of warmth, where the drums and bass sound like drums and bass rather than overproduced weapons of mass destruction. This mellow yet power-packed album that delivers plenty of thrills and surprises. There are moments of humour too – such as the touching yet playful tribute to Ronnie James Dio in the form of the Rainbow-esque Slither. As a whole Heritage is a love letter to 1970s progressive rock and clearly a labour of love for Åkerfeldt. My favourite track is Folklore, which vies with the Gathering’s Heroes For Ghosts as my favourite song of the year. It’s a slow burning but epic track that recalls the best of 1970s progressive rock. I love every second. I’m sure Opeth will return to Death Metal in grand style, but this album proves to me whatever they do, it’ll be interesting and exciting. Meanwhile we can look forward to a 2012 where Mikael Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson will be releasing an album together. How good is that going to be?