Artwork from Cormorant's
Artwork from Cormorant's Dwellings. Alice Duke
I made it my personal goal to listen to more death metal in 2011. We all have our blind spots and this was a gaping wide hole in my horn-raising knowledge. I'm happy to report that I spent a massive amount of time and cash on these filthy sounds, and particularly fell hard for such harbingers of death like the Nuclear War Now! and Hells Headbangers labels. Strangely, when it came time to rank my 25 favorite metal albums of the year, that investment only landed one album in my top ten: Ulcerate's The Destroyers of All, maybe the most inside-out album of the bunch. What can I say? I'm a creature of doomed and blackened habit.
Black-metal had a strange year: Liturgy pissed off everybody over a thoughtful philosophy that was dwarfed by Hunter-Hunt Hendrix's outsized personality (surprise, an opinionated metalhead!). It created some of the most interesting, albeit tiring, conversation around the genre in some time. (And after much contemplation, Aesthetica was a solidly good, but not revolutionary, record). The year's best black-metal goes to bands that I hesitate to categorize as such: Altar of Plagues is far too spacious and wandering, Ash Borer is the promising next step beyond American innovators Weakling (far more than other copycats), and Negative Plane seems to get at the genre's inherit weirdness more than most, but doesn't care.
Metal's urge to cross genres was also strong in 2011. Tombs, Ulcerate and Flourishing illustrate this aspect best, each exploring the extremities of sound to all ends, tempering blast beats with caustic melody, gutteral darkness with post-punk misery and all sorts of seamless, unlikely pairings.
I'd be remiss to not acknowledge the free-for-all efforts of Bandcamp-based labels like Grindcore Karaoke, Throatruiner, Seventh Rule and, recently, Handshake Inc. There are many more, but these labels have shown that great music doesn't always need a heavy publicity push or a physical product to show merit. Grindcore Karaoke, in particular, is to be commended for over 100 (!) releases in 2011 alone that are actually all worth hearing. That's unheard of.
For some reason, I always limit myself to 25 albums. It makes me ask myself what I really loved and what will still spin on the turntable (or iPod) years from now. You can listen to the top ten of those picks below and let Google guide the rest. As always, I couldn't possibly hear every metal record released in 2011 (though I damn sure tried), which is why reading other year-end lists (and your comments) makes for good filling-in of the gaps.