When crafting the official list of EW’s best albums of 2015, we kept coming back to the fact that there weren’t many straight rock records to get excited about this year. Mainstream rock had a weak year, with the closest thing to a breakout hit coming in the form of Walk the Moon’s effervescent “Shut Up and Dance,” which admittedly stretches the definition of rock.
While all the radio-ready rock stuff this year was mostly garbage, the metal community had a monster year. The 10 albums below are all brutal in some way, but they also represent some of the most dynamic, most experimental, and most inventive sounds in then universe at the moment.
The albums below can all be described as “metal,” but they exist in a multitude of sub-genres that sound silly to lay people but are important distinctions, from death to black, from thrash to doom, from goth to hardcore, from stoner to sludge. Rock isn’t dead, it just went underground, got a lot more tattoos and wants to growl about the devil with even less remorse than usual.
With apologies to Prurient, Royal Thunder, Venom, Wolfheart, Vattnet Viskar, Iron Maiden, and Leviathan, here are the 10 best metal albums of 2015.
10. Failure, The Heart Is A Monster
After an excruciatingly long hiatus (19 years between albums!), Failure returned with an impeccably executed dose of beastly space rock. Somehow both cleaner and more rugged than they were on their watershed Fantastic Planet, Monster chugged and twisted and darted all over the place, never settling into a single pocket for too long before spinning into something else. Few albums were more thrilling in so many different ways. Hopefully we don’t have to wait as long for the next one.
9. Torche, Restarter
Maybe it’s because it reminds me of a lot of the Soundgarden and Alice in Chains albums I obsessed over in my youth, but I’ll pretty much listen to anything that falls into the category of sludge metal. There’s something about the thickness of the production and the churn of the rhythm sections that feels warm and inviting, and I often use slow burns like Torche’s Restarter as ways of centering myself after a long day. Torche continue to get heavier even as their songs become more dynamic and hook-filled (there’s a parallel universe that looks relatively like our own wherein “Minions” was a huge crossover smash—maybe as the theme song to that movie about the animated yellow guys?), and Restarter is as sound a manifesto as any band made in 2015.
8. Deafheaven, New Bermuda
Like a lot of groups on this list, it’s almost reductive to refer to Deafheaven as a metal band. But while New Bermuda often ventures off the reservation to explore the limits of droning trance rock and lovely indie instrumentals, their home is made of glistening shards of pure black metal. Deafheaven make it work because each side of their personality is treated with the same reverence and sense of execution. Just listen to the juxtapositions in “Brought to the Water” to get a sense of Deafheaven’s unique plane of existence.
7. Ghost, Meliora
Ghost have never made the same album twice, and that’s by design. Each album has pitched forward in the band’s mythological timeline, with a subtle shift in sound to go along with it. Meliora finds them exploring a Metropolis-esque past-future dystopia, transforming the Renaissance Goth of 2012’s Infestissumam into a sleeker, sci-fi damaged blast of doom and death riffs. The vocal melodies remain so pretty it’s easy to miss the intricate violence underneath. Ghost are one of the best bands on the planet, and you get the sense from Meliora that they haven’t even peaked yet.
6. Tribulation, Children of the Night
Most metal bands are either hard (pummeling with some combination of blinding speed and jackhammer power) or heavy (wherein the music manages to create a whole new sense of gravity). As Chuck Klosterman once helpfully pointed out, the best way to understand the hard/heavy divide is to listen to Metallica: Master of Puppets, with all its dexterous agility, is hard, while the groovier thump of Load is heavy. Lots of bands jump back and forth over the course of their career, but Tribulation’s Children of the Night manages to be both hard and heavy at the same time. They pound as briskly as the next Swedish death combo, but they leave just enough daylight between the riffs to allow an infusion of atmospheric dread. It’s the punchiest fever dream you’ve ever had.
5. High on Fire, Luminiferous
Also produced by Kurt Ballou (clearly a metal VIP), Luminiferous is loud and heavy and groovy. The single “The Sunless Years,” which premiered right here on EW.com, tells the whole story.
4. Black Breath, Slaves Beyond Death
Is it possible that the best Swedish death metal act in the world right now is actually being made in Seattle? It’s entirely possible. Black Breath’s 2012 album Sentenced to Life was a big, banging blast of death metal delivered with post-hardcore speed and power. Once again produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, Slaves Beyond Death goes a little deeper and gets a little crustier, just for the heck of it. Extra props to frontman Neil McAdams, one of the finest lyricists in all of metal.
3. The Resistance, Torture Tactics
These Swedes haven’t been around for long, but they carry a lot of experience—members had previously put in time with In Flames and the Haunted before coming together in 2011. Their 2013 full-length debut showed some punishing promise, but on Torture Tactics, they leapt up and found their peak. You need look no further than “For War,” as efficient and exacting a headbanging delivery system as there was in 2015.
2. Nile, What Should Not Be Unearthed
The South Carolina death trio’s eighth album jumps forward by looking back. Their 2005 album Annihilation of the Wicked stands as one of the greatest American death metal collections of this still-young century, but then spent the next decade evolving in a number of different directions. None of those particularly stuck, so it’s refreshing to hear What Should Not Be Unearthed returning to the group’s core sound. Sharp without being overly technical and brutal without losing the plot, Unearthed has a pulverizing, guttural intensity not often seen when a group is this deep into its career.
1. Baroness, Purple
It’s mildly remarkable this album even exists. Back in 2012, Baroness were on the road in Europe in support of their watershed 2011 release Yellow & Green when the band’s bus crashed in England. A total of nine people were hurt, and the injuries—particularly frontman John Baizley’s busted arm and leg—curtailed Baroness-related business for a while. During the group’s break, the rhythm section (bassist Matt Maggioni and drummer Allen Blickle, both of whom suffered fractured vertebrae in the crash) left the collective.
But Baroness got back on the horse, hired a new rhythm section, plotted a fresh world tour, and now delivered the best album of their career and one of the greatest musical accomplishments of 2015. Produced by sonic weirdo Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, Spoon, OK Go, and many others), Purple deftly hones the psychedelic undercurrent that the band has always suggested but never fully harnessed. The extra bit of atmosphere lets the songs expand and contract, allowing them to be as tight or as epic as they need to be. A bunch of these tunes arrive arena-ready, particularly the current single “Shock Me,” the shreddy shout-along “Kerosene,” and the slow-burning “If I Have To Wake Up (Will You Stop The Rain).” But even as they drift further toward a crowd-pleasing sense of melody, they have not forgotten their jackhammering, sludgy roots. It would have been impressive had Baroness merely resurrected, but they came back stronger.