I offer these up with one of those typical "in no particular order" disclaimers. That may seem chickenshit to some, but there are just too many disparate strands of metal these days to draw rational lines between whether, say, the best funeral doom album of 2011 was superior to the best progressive death album, for instance. I can't even claim with a clear conscience that all of these albums are strictly metal, but that's the state of our genre today. Embrace it, it wasn't that long ago that there were effectively only 3 or 4 salient sub-genres rotating in and out at any given time. There's really no place in today's world for a critical consensus when it comes to music, if indeed there ever was one to begin with, so approach the following with the understanding that these are all equally elite in their own way.
This was my first real taste of the Chicago quartet, but one quick bliss fix and I went scrambling immediately back to my dealer. In a year in which "atmospheric" ruled in the sludge/doom kingdom, Indian weren't afraid to issue forth a visceral rabbit punch to the nuts, and for this I salute them. The closing track "Banality" is worth the price of admission alone, but if there were a bad track in the bunch the album wouldn't have made this list.
I usually think most unanimous choices for year end lists are overrated, but it's hard to deny the aesthetic breakthrough Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (which I still think sounds like a porn pseudonym) and crew made on just their second go at it. This isn't a museum piece, either; it's a rousing listen, somewhat akin to post-metal being played at a grindcore pace. Honestly this probably would have made my number one this year except that a few two many songs seem to be built around minor variations on the same tremolo-picked riff.
Supernatural Cat is one of those labels that frequently gets overlooked in the US. Owned by the guys from Ufomammut – itself a band that should make at least a handful of top 10 lists every year but rarely do – Supernatural Cat doesn't put out a lot of material, but when they do it's worth paying attention to. Morkobot is an instrumental trio from Italy that is kind of hard to describe, but they specialize in funky bass riffs pivoted around stilted, hairpin percussive bursts. If Primus played industrial rock it might sound somewhat like this.
Glad to see this has been showing up on a lot of the year end lists already published elsewhere. I was immediately taken with it upon its release this summer (though it's definitely more of a winter record) but it didn't seem to get a lot of love at the time. In some ways it was the most important metal album of 2011, in that it proved once and for all that a band can convey deeply personal emotion without resorting to high school diary emo tropes to get the job done. Take that, metalcore.
I appreciate the free form approach to extreme metal, but in all frankness there are too many semi-talented bands that are using the "free jazz" excuse to just throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks. Ulcerate is that rarest of bands: a progressive death ensemble that doesn't rely on sheer virtuosity yet seems to have a clear idea where they're going with their music even as they eschew the standard verse-chorus-verse format. I believe that's what they call songcraft, ladies and gentlemen.
There were a lot of great tech death releases this year – Obscura, Illogicist, Cynic – many of which exhibited a greater display of chops than Carnival Is Forever, but this latest by Decaptitated trumped them all with its catchy riffs and allegiance to filthy, old school death metal production values. Not that there was anything one dimensional about it: the title track and "A View From a Hole" are two of the strongest metal songs written in 2011 from a composition standpoint.
Heavy metal only in the 1970's sense of the word, Graveyard took four years to follow up on their first album, and it shows. Without sounding at all derivative, the Gothenburg group exhibit their ability to pen songs covering all the retro bases, from the Trouble-some jamming of "Ain't Fit to Live Here" to the Free-dom rock ballad "Uncomfortably Numb". In essence, Graveyard hark back to a time when hard rock bands weren't too concerned whether all of their material was quote-unquote heavy metal or just plain ol' rock.
Am I the only one that feels like I'm describing cajun seafood when I apply the modifier "blackened" to a heavy metal genre? Either way, Encoffination are ostensibly a funeral doom band but they utilize a lot of black metal elements in their sound as well… this is exactly 0% sludge influenced, let's just put it that way. You can object to my high placement of this album on a year end list but however you slice it this is high in the running for slept on album of 2011.
This may be the most uncontroversial entry on my list. A couple of years ago Tombs were an under-the-radar surprise when I saw them open for Kylesa… flash forward 18 months and I'm kind of bored with Kylesa while Tombs continues to ascend up my list of favorite bands. I'm fickle like that. Which is really just a way of admitting that I have no idea whether Paths of Totality will stand up in 10 years time but here in 2011 it's definitely tonic for what ails.
Opeth aren't even really a metal band anymore, but you know what? I don't give a fuck. Although Heritage has effectively ended their streak of unanimous accolades, I personally had long since gotten bored with their overly studied mix of clean vocals/acoustic guitars shoehorned together with polished extreme metal riffs. Heritage for me is actually kind of a comeback record as I've felt that Opeth had painted themselves into a box the last few albums. One of my favorite tracks off of 2008's Watershed was the digipak bonus cover of Robin Trower's "Bridge of Sighs", so it wasn't entirely shocking to me that Opeth chose to go full on 70's prog rock this time around. This is arguably Opeth's most musically accomplished work, although frankly Mikael Akerfeldt's vocals leave a bit to be desired when he sings clean. Still beats the shit out of anything Dream Theater have done lately, though.
Honorable Mentions: Honorable mentions are for teenyboppers and prison bitches. Pick a top 10 and stick with it. Haters gonna hate, raters gonna rate.