Monday, December 30, 2013

Albums of the Year: 2013

2013: The Year of the Snake!

Another year is coming to a close; and if you're an old hag like me, 365 days can go by “as quick as a wink”, as the saying goes. One minute you're heralding in the start of a new year, then you turn around, and year's end is staring you right in the face!

This is also the time when everyone takes stock of the past 52 weeks and assesses what 2013 has meant to them. Whether it's counting down the top news stories, determining which celebrities made the greatest impact, or deciding what fads and trends captured our attention; everyone has their own way of defining the preceding 12 months, and what they hope others will remember when we open up the time capsule many years from now and try to pinpoint what exactly 2013 was all about.

For those of us to whom music is the soundtrack of our lives, we prefer to look back on past years by way of the music from that place in time. Which one of our favorite bands released new material? Did it live up to the hype, or did it fall short of the mark compared to past efforts? What new talent did we discover out there that we just had to hear more of?

One thing I can say about 2013 is that it definitely did not lack in music! I have always believed that good music is out there, if you are willing to take the effort to find it. However, in 2013, it seemed like the music was so abundant that you didn't need to search very hard. If I had to say one negative thing about the state of music in 2013, it is that 12 months was not nearly enough time to process it all!

Come to think of it, another downfall to having so much to listen to over the course of a year also means that it becomes more difficult to narrow down the best of the bunch; especially if you're someone like me, who finds it tough to play favorites. But if I'm going to write a blog about music, I suppose it's time to roll up my sleeves, get to work, and give the people what they want!

So, after spending ample time thinking this through as best I could, here are my top picks for the albums that rocked my world in the year 2013. These are not listed in order of preference, but in chronological order. Enjoy! Happy New Year!

Winter 2013 (January-March)

Stratovarius: Nemesis

This year got off to a great start with this release from one of my favorite Finnish power-metal bands. This is their first album with new drummer Rolf Pilve, who is yet another infusion of “young blood” to the band's lineup. Stratovarius parted ways with their iconic guitarist/songwriter Timo Tolkki over half a decade ago, but they have not seemed to suffer much for his loss. Beginning with the addition of bassist Lauri Porra back in 2005, then guitarist Matias Kupiainen replacing Tolkki in 2009, and now Rolf occupying the spot once filled by Jörg Michael; Stratovarius keeps gaining fresh, new perspective that is coupled with the tried-and-true standard sound that fans have come to expect from Timo Kotipelto and Jens Johansson (the two remaining bandmembers from the “classic” Stratovarius lineup). Nemesis continues the trend started by 2009's Polaris and picks up where 2011's Elysium left off: the band has truly become a group effort over the past several years; everyone contributing their share to the music and seeing to it that their creative voices are equally heard, which has kept things exciting and interesting. Stratovarius is still serving up their distinct brand of power-metal, and after more than 2 decades, their well of inspiration shows no signs of running dry just yet!

Depeche Mode: Delta Machine

Just because I love metal doesn't mean that I can't appreciate other types of music; and as far as music outside the rock or metal realm, Depeche Mode is my favorite non-rock/metal band. After over 30 years in the business, they can still make amazing music, and Delta Machine is proof of this. Where many of their “new-wave” contemporaries sound uninspired or have been forever pigeonholed into the '80s; Depeche Mode is one of the few bands from that era who can still sell out large venues and still make music that sounds just as good today as anything they released at the peak of their popularity. Songs like “Heaven” and “Soothe my Soul” show that DM still has the ability to craft a damn good hit song that is catchy and sticks in your head, while managing to stay well enough outside the borders of predictable cookie-cutter pop music with the lyrical depth and musical complexity that Martin Gore does so well. Combined with the hypnotic, sensual vocals of Dave Gahan, it's nothing short of “Heaven”-ly perfection.

Spring 2013 (April-June)

Within Temptation: The Q-Music Sessions

Although this is an album of covers, I still think it should get a mention because I particularly like when bands can take a cover and really make it their own. Within Temptation not only did this, but The Q-Music Sessions was a unique project to begin with. It started when Belgian radio station Q-Music issued a sort of “assignment” for 15 weeks (as part of the station's 15-year anniversary): each week, the band would perform a new cover tune, with only 7 days to learn the song and to rearrange it to their own individual style. WT met the challenge and aced with flying colors. Whether it was taking on current pop favorites like Bruno Mars' “Grenade”, classic favorites like The Who's “Behind Blue Eyes”, or obscure tracks from one-hit wonders like Frankie Goes to Hollywood's “The Power of Love”; Within Temptation managed to take each song and strike the balance between putting their own twist on it, while still maintaining the integrity of the original song.

HIM: Tears on Tape

After a 3-year absence due to parting with their record label and a wrist injury that kept their drummer out of commission for nearly a year, the Finnish “love metal” outfit led by frontman Ville Valo has returned with their 8th album. The songs are shorter, most of them just short of the 4-minute mark (the longest song at just a little over 5 minutes); yet the music is no less lacking in the dark, melancholy and romantic atmosphere that HIM is known for. With song titles like “All Lips go Blue”, “I Will be the End of You”, and “Hearts at War”; it's plain to see why HIM has become a staple on the playlists of every tragically star-crossed goth couple.

Delain: Interlude

Riding the wave of success from 2012's We Are the Others, this album serves as a sort of “appetizer” for fans while they wait for new material from the band. This compilation of new songs, alternate versions of fan-favorites, and live tracks is the perfect mix of all that makes Delain great. It’s definitely one of those albums designed as a good “starter kit” for the new fan, while also featuring songs that longtime fans know and love, but presented in a new way. Getting to finally see this band live for the first time this year also helped to push this album a little further up on the playlist.

Pamela Moore: Resurrect Me

Known for her vocal contributions on Queensrÿche's legendary 1988 album Operation: Mindcrime, as well as her work with bands like Solna and Primal Fear, Pamela has been a respected voice on the metal scene for many years; so it might come as a surprise to some that Resurrect Me is her first genuine metal album as a solo artist. Incorporating different sounds from all the metal sub-genres, Pamela manages to seamlessly bring them all together to pack a heavy punch, disguised in the velvet glove of her seductive voice. This is exactly the album you would expect “Sister Mary” to make, and while it was a long time coming, it was worth the wait!

Timo Tolkki's Avalon: The Land of New Hope

Over the 5 years since his break with Stratovarius, Timo Tolkki has had a string of “unfinished symphonies”; projects that began with promise and ultimately never saw the light of day. But his “metal rock opera” Avalon was worth waiting for; showcasing all the elements that Tolkki’s fans love. Featuring guest musicians from across the metal scene from Within Temptation's Sharon den Adel to his former Stratovarius bandmate Jens Johansson; the breakout star on this album was Amaranthe’s Elize Ryd, providing vocals for the main female character in the first installment of the saga, The Land of New Hope.

A Sound of Thunder: Time's Arrow

Bringing back the sounds of traditional heavy metal coupled with the powerful vocals of frontwoman Nina Osegueda, this prolific quartet from Washington D.C. simply cannot be stopped. I would definitely say that A Sound of Thunder was my favorite “new discovery” this year; as my friend Tim described them, “they are the future of heavy metal”, and Time's Arrow shows that the future is now! Whether it's epics like the title track, paying homage to The Walking Dead with a tune called “I'll Walk With You”, or sharing the spotlight with guest musician Blaze Bayley on the song “My Disease”; A Sound of Thunder keeps getting better with each album and continues to prove why they are a force to be reckoned with not just on the femme-metal scene, but on the entire metal scene, period!

Queens of the Stone Age: ...Like Clockwork

For me, Queens of the Stone Age is one of those bands that is all about setting a mood or capturing a certain ambiance. If their music had to be given a theme, I would say the theme is exploration. They're always pushing their own boundaries; trying to see how far they can go and how much they can outdo what they've done before. Though they've tried over the years to shed their “stoner-rock” image, one must admit that when listening to Queens of the Stone Age there is a sort of vibe there that almost insists that you be of a certain state in order to take in everything that's going on. They're definitely not music for wantonly banging your head, or for relegating to background noise. Queens of the Stone Age is music that requires your undivided attention, and if you're not a music listener that can plumb the depths and peel back the layers of what a song has to offer, then this is probably not a band for you. However, if you are a Queens of the Stone Age fan and appreciate this very thing about their music, you will not be disappointed by ...Like Clockwork. The music is sophisticated yet quirky at the same time; just take a look at the videos for “I Appear Missing”, “Kalopsia”, and “If I Had a Tail”, if you don't believe me. Or hell, just take some time to chill out with songs like “I Sat by the Ocean” or “Smooth Sailing”. If you really need a selling point to check out this album, maybe the collaboration with Elton John might pique your curiosity?

Queensrÿche: Queensrÿche

A chance meeting between Queensrÿche guitarist Michael Wilton and Crimson Glory vocalist Todd LaTorre at a NAMM convention ended up being the catalyst for what would become the greatest comeback story of the year, and quite possibly one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of metal. Shortly after that fateful encounter, a snowball effect happened that would ultimately result in the long-overdue firing of original vocalist Geoff Tate, and an ugly “divorce” between the two parties where both were battling for custody of the rights to the Queensrÿche name. Although the official court trial is not set to take place until January 2014, it's apparent that the court of public opinion has already rendered their verdict. Making a bold statement by simply calling the album Queensrÿche; the album entered at #23 on the Billboard charts, proving that both the band and the fans knew undoubtedly who was the rightful owner of the name. Promising to return to the classic sound that fans knew, loved, and had missed for many years; Queensrÿche made good on their word by bringing back the high, soaring vocals, combined with the melodic twin-guitar assault and thought-provoking lyrics. Recruiting former producer Jimbo Barton and procuring the services of “Suite Sister Mary” herself, Pamela Moore; Queensrÿche was returning to their roots in every way possible. The end-result was a 35-minute masterpiece that emphatically heralded their triumphant return to the metal scene, and to the hearts of the fans who never gave up on them. While the album clearly embodies all of the trademark elements that Queensrÿche is known for, the sound has also been given a modern-day makeover, so that nothing here sounds outdated or repetitious. If you have already read the full review here on my blog, I don't think I need to tell you that this was, hands-down, my favorite album of 2013. In the words of bassist Eddie Jackson: “It's better than Cats!”

Summer 2013 (July-September)

Sirenia: Perils of the Deep Blue

Sirenia has seemed to be in a slump for the past several albums; even after the merry-go-round of singers appeared to come to a stop with the acquisition of Ailyn, the music still left much to be desired with longtime fans. So Perils of the Deep Blue was a welcome sight; not only was Sirenia back on track with a talented vocalist, but now the music was back to the dark gothic goodness that Morten Veland does best.

Lydia's Libido: Lydia's Libido

Redefining the term “supergroup”, this 5-piece from Texas consists of musicians who are also actors, writers, and artists (when they're not busy rocking out!). Their debut album is an upbeat, catchy, straight-up rock album; with playful, sexy, tongue-in-cheek lyrics to match. The band's Little Blue Pill tour is making its way across America, and their EP of the same name is due for release sometime in 2014. It goes without saying that this band will be going strong for a good long while!

Tarja: Colours in the Dark

Her 3rd solo album of original material, this is Tarja’s most experimental record to date and in my opinion, her best solo record thus far. It appears that she has finally come to terms with her Nightwish audience and has a clear direction musically on this album; whereas her past albums seemed to suffer from a sort of uncertainty as to where they wanted to go. She can still enrapture the listener with her voice, and knows how to give them what they want to hear. Whether it’s the merging of the heavy with the avant-garde on songs like “Victim of Ritual”, straight-up headbanging tracks like “Neverlight”, or ethereal sonic journeys like “Lucid Dreamer” or “Medusa”; Tarja has put together some of her strongest material since going solo.

Fish: A Feast of Consequences

The “obscure Scottish poet” returns after a 5-year hiatus, but picks up right where he left off with an ambitious album featuring a 5-song suite based on World War I, among other things. From the tracks “High Wood” to “The Leaving”, we're taken on a journey through the bloody rigors and bleak futility of battle. The album itself opens with the 10+-minute opus “Perfume River”, showing why he is still one of the best progressive frontmen out there. Even so, Fish is known best for his poetic lyrics; showing us the depths of his soul through his words. Whether he's expressing his wonder and confusion about the state of the modern world on songs like “All Loved Up”, or baring his soul on the hauntingly lovely “Blind to the Beautiful”; Fish continues to live up to his reputation of “keeping it real” and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

ReVamp: Wild Card

2013 was definitely the year of Floor Jansen; and while “Nightwish” seemed to be the biggest buzz-word surrounding her, Floor's band ReVamp didn't do too bad garnering some attention of their own. In Floor’s own words, Wild Card is a heavier and more experimental album than the first one. To start with, the album begins with the first part of a 3-song set subtitled “The Anatomy of a Nervous Breakdown”, which is a lyrical account of Floor's real-life “burn-out” that caused her to withdraw from music and touring for over a year. If anything else, this album stands as a good piece of evidence as to why Floor Jansen is so respected and so beloved on the metal scene, and why she has clearly earned her spot with Finland’s finest.

Dream Theater: Dream Theater

Although this is the second album since parting ways with original drummer Mike Portnoy, this is the first album to truly feature replacement drummer Mike Mangini as part of the band; meaning that he was present during the songwriting process (not just playing parts already written, as opposed to their previous album), and has brought his own distinct sound to the dynamic. However, this is not a radical departure from the standard DT sound. If anything, over the years Dream Theater has become quite intuitive to what their fans come to expect from them, and have spent the past several albums giving them exactly that. In some respects I think the band has tried to stick more to their standard formula even more after Mike Portnoy's departure, so as to prove that they are still the same as they've always been and that fans need not worry that they will change into something that they won't recognize. But I do admit that I miss the musical exploration and hope that they will go back to trying new things on their next album. Yet whatever minor shortcomings (which might easily be chalked up to nothing more than longtime fans simply nit-picking), it's still a solid piece of work and DT keeps a perfect score in that they have yet to release an album that disappoints me musically. In short, Dream Theater is still Dream Theater: they've still got the insanely-long songs, the epic showmanship, and the labyrinthine solos that their audience loves to hear.

Sammy Hagar: Sammy Hagar & Friends

Sammy Hagar's music is all about feeling good and having fun, and usually when you're in that state of mind, you want to share the feeling, right? So then it probably comes as no surprise that Sammy would want to take his good-time music and rock out with his fellow musicians. Collaborating with everyone from Kid Rock to Toby Keith to Heart's Nancy Wilson, and covering songs like Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus” and Jimmy Buffett's “Margaritaville”; Sammy and his friends have put together the perfect party-time album that is just ideal for your next shindig!

Autumn 2013 (October-December)

Ayreon: The Theory of Everything

When it comes to the term “prog-rock genius”, most people are inclined to think in the past tense and name legends from progressive rock's heyday in the '70s. But there are modern-day prog visionaries, and I think it's safe to say that over the last decade and a half, Arjen Anthony Lucassen has held fast to that title. More than just complex time signatures or lyrics based on sci-fi or fantasy; Ayreon is unique in that Arjen allows the music to speak for itself, literally. Ayreon is not a band as much as it is a revolving door of musicians that best fit into Arjen's grand scheme. The cast on The Theory of Everything is quite impressive: from prog-rock royalty like Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson to metal superstars like Marco Hietala, Cristina Scabbia, and Tommy Karevik. It's the perfect fusion of metal aggression and progressive intricacy.

Chastain: Surrender to No One

After over 20 years, '80s metal band Chastain has reunited with original vocalist Leather Leone, kicking as much ass as they ever did! Considering the wave of American femme-metal bands to crop up over the last several years that are/were clearly influenced by vocalists like Leone, it seems the timing is perfect for Chastain to reunite with Leather and show the younger metal audience a thing or two! From start to finish, this album is a fast-paced assault on the senses. If you're one of those metal fans who think that the bands from back in the day aren't making music as good as they used to, you might want to pick up a copy of Surrender to No One and reconsider your assessment.

Rush: Clockwork Angels Tour

Throughout their 4 decades of existence, the 2012-2013 Clockwork Angels tour was the first time in the history of Rush that they became more than a 3-piece band. Taking a strings ensemble with them on the road, the band brought to life their concept album Clockwork Angels, while at the same time providing a unique take on some old fan-favorites. I was lucky enough to see the band on this tour last year, and all I can say is: every Rush fan should have the chance to hear “YYZ” with strings. If they were not fortunate enough to hear this live, then they can at least listen to this live album to get an idea of how eargasmically delicious this was. Wrapping up this tour on the heels of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction earlier this year, Rush has shown that they can pretty much do whatever the fuck they want at this point in their career. Or more accurately, they are finally at a point where no explanation is needed as to why they have always done whatever the fuck they want.

Benedictum: Obey

I first caught wind of this band by way of A Sound of Thunder's “Queen of Hell” single, where Benedictum's vocalist Veronica Freeman did a duet with Nina on an alternative version of the title track. Like A Sound of Thunder, Benedictum is among a handful of bands spearheading a movement in the U.S. that, for lack of a better term, I can only refer to as “The New Wave of American Femme-Metal”. Steering decisively away from the operatic vocals and the glamorous stage presence of their European counterparts, these female-fronted bands are instead embracing the traditional components of heavy metal; blending a sonic return to metal's glory days while incorporating a female perspective. If you like straight-up, ass-kicking metal with vocals that can shatter glass and guitar riffs as tough as nails, then Benedictum is right up your alley. Running the gamut from anthemic tunes like “The Evil That we Do” to melodic slow rockers like  “Cry” (their duet with former Black Sabbath vocalist Tony Martin), Benedictum delivers their brand of metal with no frills and no bullshit.

Nightwish: Showtime, Storytime

The Finnish symphonic metal powerhouse rises once again after another controversial singer departure. With Dutch export Floor Jansen at the mic and “master of the Uilleann pipes” Troy Donockley adding even more to the band’s huge sound, this live album from the Wacken Open Air Festival captures the renewed energy within Nightwish; yet also hearkening back to the glory days with classics like “Ghost Love Score”, “Ever Dream”, and “She is my Sin”. And hell, I'm actually on the DVD for half a second, so I think I have a right to be a little biased!


All in all, I'd say 2013 was a pretty awesome year for music. It's not very often that I have this many albums on an end-of-year list, so I think that goes to show right there just how much there was to listen to in 2013. Believe it or not, there were still some albums out there that didn't make this list, or that I didn't get a chance to listen to. But to have 22 albums here on this list, when some years I barely have a top 5...I'd say that's pretty damn good!

I only hope that 2014 will be just as bountiful; but if not, I will not complain, considering that 2013 had enough music to compensate for a few years!

How about you? What albums made your list? Which ones on my list were also your favorites this year, if any? I'd love to read your posts in the comments section.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year! See you in 2014!