This year proved to be an interesting one for me as a music fan, and not just because it marked my official foray into the world of criticism. After a few albums in the last several years began the trend, this was the year that prog became a larger presence in my listening. While not all of them will appear in the following list, there were more prog albums I enjoyed than any other subset of rock and metal, a fact that caugth me off guard. But when confronted with solid albums from bands like The Flower Kings and Affector, which didn't even make the list, and followed up on with those that did qualify, it was a banner year for prog. None of the albums will top my list, as Dream Theater did last year with their incredible “A Dramatic Turn Of Events”, but this year was defined, in my mind, by prog.
For much of the year, I was worried that this list was going to have to be filled with albums I was less than enthused by. Whether it's a case of having standards that are too high or not is something I don't know, but I don't always find ten albums by the end of a year that I feel strongly enough about to want to single them out. A strong late-year surge stopped this from being a problem, with a flurry of albums coming out in the fourth quarter to not only make the list, but make a run at the top.
Here then, are my picks for the top ten albums of 2012:
Honorable Mention) Monsterworks - “Man: Instinct” and “Man: Intrinsic”: The only reason these don't make the list is because they are incomplete. These two EP's feature six songs that run the gamut of styles, blending things you never would have thought of putting together in a way that still makes sense. The music Monsterworks makes can be bizarre, but they manage to blend enough melodic sensibility into the most abstract of compositions to keep them memorable even for listeners who don't deconstruct the pieces. If the entire “Album Of Man” had been released in time, it certainly would have earned a spot in the top ten.
10)Orden Ogan – “To The End”: Though taking different routes, I loved both of their previous albums. One was a simple-minded power metal album, the other an orchestrated concept album, but both were packed with great songwriting. “To The End” tries to bridge the gap, and by doing so, never feels like it has its own identity. The first half of the record is a strong set of hooky material, but the back half bogs down, and the decision to re-record two songs off their self-released debut was not wise. They don't fit in with the band's current style at all, and completely ruin the flow. It's still a good album, but is clearly the weakest of the band's efforts.
9)Tremonti - “All I Was”: Supposedly a straight-ahead metal album, the advertising isn't quite accurate. Tremonti's first solo album isn't that far removed from his work in Creed and Alter Bridge. It's the same melodic rock, just with a few heavier riffs gluing the melodies together. It's certainly good, but doesn't do anything we haven't heard from his other two outlets, which renders the whole thing a bit pointless.
8)Neal Morse - “Momentum”: There's not much prog in this latest Neal Morse album, which will disappoint a lot of people. I don't call it a bad thing, because the one moment of pure prog, the 33 minute album closer, is also the weakest epic Neal has done in many an album. The shorter songs leading up to it, however, are more enjoyable. They feature diversity, hooks, and plenty of appropriately impressive musicianship. “Momentum” isn't one of Neal's best works, but like everything he's done since leaving Spock's Beard, it's good music.
7)Adler - “Back From The Dead”: Without a doubt, the biggest shock of the year is the fact that I'm enjoying an album with Steven Adler's name on it. I never cared much for him as either a person or a drummer, so his reclamation project wasn't high on my list of priorities. But after hearing lead single “The One That You Hated”, I enjoyed it enough to give the record a chance. “Back From The Dead” tries to return to the glory days of the Sunset Strip, but that's not what it is. Despite appearances and claims to the contrary, this is actually a solid melodic rock album, and not a return to 80's sleaze. I suspect Adler had little to do with penning the songs, the best of which boast some excellent hooks, and the worst of which are still enjoyable. This came out of nowhere, and I'm glad it did.
6)Flying Colors - “Flying Colors”: A collection of prog musicians, teamed up with a pop singer, let loose to make whatever music they felt like, the group's debut is a fine example of what pop music can be. Well-crafted, well-played, and never dumb enough to insult your intelligence, it's the sort of thing that would have been big a number of years ago. With former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, current Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse, and prog legend Neal Morse on board, the songs are more basic than might be expected, but they're a compelling collection of pop-minded rock.
5)Slash - “Apocalyptic Love”: Without Axl around to fuel the fires, Slash has never been as interesting as he should have been. His post-Guns projects have always been disappointing in one way or another, but he's finally found someone to bring out the best in him. Myles Kennedy is the perfect singer to front Slash's band, the first singer Slash has worked with since Axl who can produce vocals able to match Slash's guitar heroics. This is the best collection of songs Slash has put to tape since Guns, and a worthy redemption of someone who has spent so much time underwhelming us.
4)Bad Salad - “Uncivilized”: Starting life as a Dream Theater cover band, Bad Salad has already turned into something more. Their debut album is an accomplished work of progressive metal, the kind that few bands manage to produce at any point in their careers. There's all the requisite technical wizardry sprinkled throughout the tracks, but the biggest draw are the vocals, which break the prog mold and offer a less piercing tone and plenty of great melodies. Dream Theater may still be on top of the mountain, but Bad Salad isn't as far behind as you would think.
3)Trail Of Murder – “Shades Of Art”: One of the most frustrating experiences I've had as a fan recently has been following Bloodbound, who have alternated singers through their four albums; two fantastic albums with Urban Breed, and two disappointing albums with other singers. Urban now has a band of his own, Trail Of Murder, who have put together a debut that sounds a lot like Urban's work in Tad Morose (guitarist Daniel Olsson was in that band with Urban), but better in every way. It's straight-ahead heavy metal in the classic mold, with plenty of Dio-esque melodies, and another great performance by a voice that seems to have limitless power. Color me happy.
And now we come to the part of the list that is a complete cop-out. I admit it, but I'm not going to apologize for doing so. There are two ways to judge the top album of the year, and depending on which one I use, the answer is different. Both albums atop my list are things I truly loved, but for different reasons. It didn't seem fair for either one of them to have to take second place, so I have for the first time decided to anoint co-winners of the award for top album of 2012:
1b) Halestorm - “The Strange Case Of...”: When I think about what album is my favorite from this year, Halestorm is the clear winner. As the year wore on and I had more and more albums to choose from, I kept coming back to this one. The combination of Lzzy Hale's voice (she's one of the top vocalists in all of rock right now), and a bunch of songs that aren't afraid of being pop music with the guitars revved up, is addictive. There's an old adage that says “there's nothing better than a three minute pop song”, and this album proves it. I listened to this album more than any other this year, and I got more enjoyment out of each listen than anything else. For that reason, it's my top album.
1a) Graveyard - “Lights Out”: On the other hand, the critic in me wants to crown the best album of the year. An issue of semantics, to be sure, but one that changes the dynamic drastically. The most well-honed, well-written album of the year was “Lights Out”. I wasn't a huge fan of Graveyard's previous album, but this one came out of nowhere and wowed me. The songwriting takes simple concepts and builds them into songs that span various moods and textures, with all of them hitting the mark. The shorter rock songs are able to worm into my ear, while the more dramatic pieces are devastating in their effectiveness. “Lights Out” is a masterclass in songwriting, and clearly the best executed work I heard all year. For that reason, it's my top album.
Top Ten Songs Of 2012:
1. Trail Of Murder – Carnivore
2. Graveyard – Hard Time Lovin
3. Rush – The Wreckers
4. Bad Salad – Sights From Within
5. Slash – Anastasia
6. Monsterworks – All Suns Die
7. Adler – Just Don't Ask
8. Tremonti – Decay
9. Adrenaline Mob – Indifferent
10. Halestorm – Here's To Us