This year has been one of remarkable depth. While every year features a few select albums I love dearly, not many have a wealth of others I would feel bad about neglecting. Often, by the time I get to the tenth slot on my list, I'm struggling to find choices that I feel passionately about. I'm not sure if that's an indictment of the quality of most releases, or a statement as to my particular taste. So the fact that this year I did not have to struggle to find albums to mention, but had to carefully consider which ones would make the last few slots, is a bit of a strange turn of events. Really good albums from newcomers like Witherscape and Caligula's Horse narrowly missed out on inclusion, and veterans Fates Warning put out their best album ever, again narrowly missing out on making the list. Leaving them out was a tough call, as was not being able to place Avantasia's latest album somewhere on the list. Avantasia is usually a sure winner in my book, so not finding them on the list is the single biggest surprise of the year.
Before we commence, I want to hand out some awards:
Label Of The Year: Inside Out
In what was another strong year for progressive music, no label did a better job of delivering it than Inside Out, who led the way with three albums in my Top Ten, not to mention the very good Fates Warning album that almost made the cut. It was a banner year for the label, and 2014 looks to once again be strong for them, with a new Transatlantic album leading my most anticipated releases list.
Best Album I Shouldn't Have Enjoyed But Did: Carcass – Surgical Steel
I'm not a death metal guy, which I've said more than once. But every so often there is an album of that kind that I can enjoy and appreciate because it transcends the usual standards. Carcass had done that before with their legendary “Heartwork”, and come close to doing it again with “Surgical Steel”. Clearly, this was the best extreme metal album of the year.
Best Newcomer (not made up of well known musicians): One Second Hotel
Here's a little band I caught wind of through a passing recommendation, and I'm glad I did. Their debut EP is available as a free download from their website, and it's definitely worth checking out. They mix modern heavy metal and progressive tinges with striking melody. I'm very hopeful for what a full-length album from them will sound like. If these songs are any indication, they have a world of potential.
So now, without further ado, the Top Ten(ish) Albums of 2013:
11. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
Many people complained that this album sounded too much like a copy of 70's prog rock, which is precisely its best feature. Steven Wilson made an unabashed love letter to that style of music, and did it in the form of a great prog album. Both the most intricate and sparse music he's ever made, this album is his crowning achievement as one of the most prominent progressive songwriters of the day. The long tracks are deeply involved workouts, but the shorter tracks are the real show-stealers, especially the long guitar solo weaving through the end of “Drive Home”. It's simply beautiful.
10. Queensryche – Frequency Unknown
As someone who has long thought Queensryche one of the most overrated bands in history, the acrimonious split between the factions was highly entertaining with no ill side-effects. What surprised me wasn't that bad blood and money broke up a band, it's that all of that led to the first Queensryche album I can say I enjoy. “Frequency Unknown” got savaged by critics (though not me) for things unrelated to the music, which is more interesting than anything any band calling itself Queensryche has done in years. It's not a great album, but I always enjoy listening to it.
9. Dream Theater - Dream Theater
Following up my favorite progressive metal album ever was a tall task, and Dream Theater didn't manage to do that. But "Dream Theater" is still an excellent album with some of the most fully realized songs the band has written in ages. The shorter songs are amazing, and it's only the slight disappointment of the epic that keeps "Dream Theater" from being one of the best albums of the year.
8. Circle II Circle - Seasons Will Fall
While power metal may have fallen out of favor with me, there are still a few bands in that style that I really enjoy. Circle II Circle is one of them, and this time out they may have just made their best album ever. "Seasons Will Fall" has plenty of heavy riffs, some unexpected twists, and a boatload of great vocals and melodies from Zak Stevens. There isn't a bad song in the bunch, and this album completely wipes the sour taste of their last album out of my mouth.
7. The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose
Last year was the year of prog, which included a very good Flower Kings record, and this year they come back with an even better album. “Desolation Rose” isn't as expansive as most prog, but it's a conceptual suite made up of some exceptional prog pieces. The band's never done a better job of integrating catchy melodies into their work, which does a nice job of tying the diversity of the songwriting together. “Desolation Rose” is classy, well done prog the way it should be.
6. Tony Scalzo - My Favorite Year
Fastball is a criminally underrated band. There aren't many rock bands out there who are better at playing pop music. Tony Scalzo's first solo album steps away from that sound a bit, a melancholy set of songs that is a perfect dark pop album. His weathered vocals give the perfect voice to these songs, and top to bottom this is a strong set of slyly addictive melodies that slowly worm their way into your mind.
5. The Winery Dogs - The Winery Dogs
Supergroups rarely live up to expectations, but The Winery Dogs are one of the few that can make that claim. The combination of Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan, and Mike Portnoy came together to make the best pure rock record of the year. Everything about “The Winery Dogs” is nearly perfect. The playing is impeccable, the sound is phenomenal, and the songs are everything you could ask for. The heavy numbers rock, and the softer songs are gorgeous. There really isn't anything I can criticize.
4. Bad Salad – Puzzled [EP]
I debated whether to include this in the main list, since it's only a three song EP, but the more I listened to it, the more I was convinced I had to. Bad Salad put out a great debut last year that came in at #4 on my list, and “Puzzled” is even better. These three songs are as good as progressive metal gets, and I'm blown away by the band's ability to mix technical playing with heartfelt melody. This EP proves to me Bad Salad is one of the best young bands going today, and if “Puzzled” had two more songs to bump it up to a full-length, it would have ranked even higher than this.
3. Spock's Beard - Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep
For much of the year, I thought this was going to end up atop my list. The fact that it didn't shows how strong this year was. This album is everything a good prog rock record should be, and is easily the best album of Spock's career. New singer Ted Leonard gives the band a new pop edge they'd never had before, and the compositions are both inventive and addictive. There are some awesome hooks all over the record, culminating in my favorite song of the year, the unbelievable “Afterthoughts”, co-written by former member, and my favorite prog songwriter, Neal Morse.
2. James LaBrie - Impermanent Resonance
In a fair year, this would have easily been my top album. “Impermanent Resonance” is the epitome of what modern heavy metal should be. It has all the down-tuned riffing you could ask for, but uses them to build the heaviest pop music you've ever heard. LaBrie and collaborator Matt Guillory have made the catchiest damn metal album in ages, one of those albums that reminds you no matter how many times metal fans say it, 'pop' is not a derogatory term. I'm amazed how addictive this album has proven to be.
1. Dilana - Beautiful Monster
But this wasn't a fair year, because Dilana released “Beautiful Monster”. As I said in my review, certain voices are able to move us in unexplainable ways, and for me, that voice belongs to Dilana. Listening to her sing these songs takes me somewhere no other release this year could possibly hope to. She, and this music, gives me such an emotional experience that there was no chance of any other release ever topping my list. “Beautiful Monster” is not just the best album of the year, it's quickly become one of my favorite albums. Period. Full-stop.
The Top Ten Songs Of 2013
1. Spock's Beard - Afterthoughts
2. Dilana - Silver Ashes
3. Dream Theater - Surrender To Reason
4. James LaBrie - Undertow
5. The Winery Dogs - Damaged
6. Queensryche - Cold
7. Bad Salad – Pain That Binds Us
8. Circle II Circle - Without A Sound
9. Fates Warning - Into The Black
10. Jorn - Make Your Engine Scream