The Best Metal Albums of 2015

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2015 will go down as a terrible year for the music writing racket – I don’t know any fellow writer who had a good year, and personally it’s been so brutal I’m looking to exit full-time freelancing altogether – but when it comes to metal music the past year will go down as one of the most abysmal in the genre’s history. Wheels continue to spin, innumerable bands are always cranking out new music, but very little traction is being made. More than ever metal feels as if it’s on the cusp of a turning point. It’s a foregone conclusion that a true “classic” album – that perfect trifecta of creative peak, commercial success, and universal critical acclaim –  will probably never happen again, and with icons starting to die (so long, Lemmy) I keep wondering if a metal band will ever galvanize people again like Pantera, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, et cetera did. Of course metal sinking back underground isn’t a bad thing, but as an ’80s headbanger I do yearn for that simpler time, and the more I cover contemporary metal, the more tired I get. It’s not so much disappointing as mediocre, and it’s gotten to the point now where all I want is a good song. One good song. For a genre that loves to boast that it’s still album-oriented, that’s a sad state of affairs. And considering that metal fans make up the most fertile audience for streaming music, the desire to listen to a full album could very likely fall by the wayside. Metal survived iTunes, but it might not survive Spotify and Apple music, especially if young bands fail to master the basic craft of songwriting.

Much has been made of heavy metal’s diversity, especially over the last 15 years, during which the breadth of the genre has far exceeded what was once perceived as “metal” 30 years ago. With expansion, however, comes division, and with each passing year it feels like metal is being divided between different audiences who want different things from their heavy music. Underground fans want to keep their music insular. Mainstream fans like the status quo. Traditionalists prefer metal to be more song-oriented than technically proficient. Prog-oriented audiences love the increasing technicality of extreme metal. Others like it when metal bands venture outside the genre for inspiration. Some want theatricality, some would rather see bands perform in street clothes. What was considered heavy metal 30 years ago might not be what a teenager considers to be heavy metal at all. Escapism versus catharsis. Cartoonish rubber masks versus kvlt corpse-paint (both are wonderful contrivances, come on, people!). DecibelRevolverChips & Beer. Great variety, yes, but often little common ground.

That division bugs me to no end, especially as a writer who prefers to think of metal as being inclusive rather than exclusive. Every pocket of aficionados has its own little hive mind, disapproving of whatever style of heavy metal they deem uncool. I’ll defend power metal to extreme metalers, then the next minute I’m defending “hipster” metal to a power metal peer. I’ll argue the merit of classic metal to a millennial who thinks it’s boring dad rock, but then I’ll do my best to tout newer bands to stubborn oldsters my age. Which is why I just want to step away from all those hive minds and get back to enjoying all facets of metal, because if it’s good at what it’s supposed to be good at, that’s all that matters. Read Decibel. Read Revolver. Read Chips & Beer. Read Stereogum’s monthly underground metal recap. Read Metal Rules’ power metal coverage. Read NPR’s avant-garde metal reportage. Read Paste magazine’s new monthly metal column. Read Invisible Oranges’ thoughful editorials. Avoid clickbait. Avoid Eddie Trunk and any other writer/personality with the delusion that they’re as cool as the musicians they cover. Know the difference between honest writing/criticism and a self-serving piece whose only means is to further the career of its author. Know who the most trustworthy metal “park rangers” are (because the “gatekeeper” critic has gone the way of the dodo) and let them guide you towards exciting music, both new and old. Most of all, think for yourself. Discover. Have fun. Go to a metal show your friends would consider embarrassing to attend. Embrace it all with joy.

Because the variety in heavy metal is so broad, it’s always very easy for me to compile 50 of the best albums from every corner of the genre. However, as the year went on I began to realize that there was not one clear-cut standout, that is until the greatest metal band of all time came along and did the unthinkable, releasing a masterpiece that actually united all those stupid divides in metal. No, not everyone loved the album – again, metal is too huge to ever produce a “consensus” favourite – but it brought so many people of differing metal tastes together in a way that I had not seen in many years. It ended 2015 on an exuberant note, and as disappointing as the year was on so many fronts, it created a glimmer of hope for 2016.

So I present to you the 50 finest metal albums I heard in 2015, first with the Metal album of the Year, followed by the other 49, listed alphabetically because comparing apples, oranges, and the odd fig is a pointless process. Read on, sample the music with an open, unbiased mind, and discover.

Oh, and the most disappointing album of the year was Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, while the worst were Halestorm’s Into the Wild Life and Danzig’s Skeletons. Shame on you all.

(above photo stolen from Cvlt Nation)

The 2015 Metal Album of the Year:

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Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls (Sanctuary)

Iron Maiden are in a place in their career where they could very easily spend the autumn years of their career resting on their laurels. Instead, the older the band has gotten, the braver they’ve become, showing a willingness to take massive creative – and financial – risks so fearlessly it shames metal bands half their age. That Maiden’s 16th album is a 92-minute double album was a big enough surprise in 2015, but that was nothing compared to how successful The Book of Souls turned out to be. Best experienced as two separate halves, the album’s rewards are plentiful. The first half is the best-paced 45 minutes of music since 1984’s classic Powerslave, bolstered by the rampaging “Speed of Light” and the soaring title track. The second half, meanwhile, is all about the 18-minute suite “Empire of the Clouds”, an inspired piece of heavy metal theater unlike anything the band has ever recorded. Throughout the album the energy among the sextet is fierce and palpable, and singer Bruce Dickinson, who beat throat cancer this year, sounds indomitable. This is an astonishing late-career masterpiece by one of heavy metal’s all-time greats. (Spotify)

The best of the rest, in alphabetical order:

Adolyne, of Ash / of Shit / of Shame (self-released)
The most obnoxious, misanthropic album I heard all year, this is the perfect soundtrack to your daily Two Minutes Hate. (Bandcamp)

Aktor, Paranoia (High Roller)
What do you get when you have members of Circle and Dawnbringer making music together? Only a startling encapsulation of Club Ninja-era Blue Öyster Cult. (Spotify)

Amber Asylum, Sin Eater (Prophecy)
A welcome return by Kris Force’s great avant-garde string ensemble, highlighted by a stunning reworking of Candlemass’s “Tot”. (Spotify)

Amorphis, Under The Red Cloud (Nuclear Blast)
Another superb blend of melody and aggression by one of the most consistently good bands working today. (Spotify)

Between The Buried And Me, Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade)
After slipping into self-indulgence for almost a decade, Between the Buried and Me came through with a wonderfully disciplined album of intricate progressive metal. (Spotify)

Black Fast, Terms of Surrender (EOne)
Not since Vektor has a new band injected so much creativity into thrash metal. These youngsters get it. (Spotify)

Black Star Riders, The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
Scott Gorham’s band continues to tastefully follow the path of his old band Thin Lizzy with a joyous blast of hooky heavy rock. (Spotify)

Blind Guardian, Beyond the Red Mirror (Nuclear Blast)
The German power metal greats returned with their best album in ages, a return to the aggressive sounds of the 1990s that had devoted fans joyous. (Spotify)

Bosse-De-Nage, All Fours (Profound Lore)
Not only does this band creatively blend black metal with a very strong experimental rock element, but they actually write lyrics that grab your attention as well. (Spotify)

Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth (Neurot)
Grunge great Tad Doyle returned with a new sludge band that churned out one of the heaviest albums of the year. (Spotify)

Clouds Collide, All Things Shining (self-released)
If there’s one “metalgaze” album from 2015 that deserves your attention, it’s the latest by budding talent Chris Pandolfo. Dreamy, powerful, blissful. (Bandcamp)

Clutch, Psychic Warfare (Weathermaker)
Clutch are incapable of making a bad album, but this groovy, bluesy sucker is the rockers’ finest work since 2004’s Blast Tyrant. (iTunes)

Enslaved, In Times (Nuclear Blast)
Speaking of bands that don’t make bad albums, the latest by the Norwegian innovators once again blends icy black metal with meditative, melodic passages with grace and authority. (Spotify)

Fuck the Facts, Desire Will Rot (Noise Salvation)
Four years removed from their last album, the Canadian grindcore geniuses took a completely independent approach to this latest release, which not only sounds viciously intense but highly creative as well. (Spotify)

Ghost, Meliora (Loma Vista)
Ghost’s third album tightens up the songwriting, turns up the volume, and like every time before, has devilish fun combining blasphemy with a strong pop sensibility. (Spotify)

Graveyard, Innocence & Decadence (Nuclear Blast)
The Swedish reto rockers step away from the doom influences, focus more on psychedelic/garage rock, and come through with an enjoyable, taut-sounding album. (Spotify)

Helloween, My God-Given Right (Nuclear Blast)
So mired were these German greats in a slump that I’d lost hope that they’d ever have another excellent album in them. Hope was restored on this exuberant record. (Spotify)

High on Fire, Luminiferous (eOne)
Matt Pike and the mighty High on Fire returned stronger than ever before with an album that reminded one and all why they’re one of America’s finest metal bands. (Spotify)

Jess and the Ancient Ones, Second Psychedelic Coming: The Aquarius Tapes (Svart)
The Finnish band smartly ditched the NWOBHM influences for something more unique, and this much-overlooked psychedelic experiment shows they’ve chosen the right path. (Spotify)

Kamelot, Haven (Napalm)
Ignored by the media and looked down on by the cool kids, this crazily popular progressive power metal band put together a fine album that deserved a lot more critical attention than it got. (Spotify)

KEN Mode, Success (Profound Lore)
The Canadian noise kings ditch the doom, skronk things up, and come through with the album they were born to make. An inspired transformation. (Spotify)

Khemmis, Absolution (20 Buck Spin)
It’s great to see more American doom bands bringing singing back to doom metal, and this band sounds poised to follow in the footsteps of Pallbearer. (Spotify)

Krallice, Ygg Huur (Avantgarde)
American extreme metal would be awfully boring without these experimental geniuses. Their latest effort turns out to be their finest work since their landmark debut. (Spotify)

Lamb Of God, VII: Sturm und Drang (Epic)
Randy Blythe and Lamb of God returned with a new lease on life in 2015, and you can hear it on album number seven, their most impassioned work in a decade. (Spotify)

Locrian, Infinite Dissolution (Relapse)
Unlike any other band on the planet, the great, prolific trio are in peak form here, focusing more on riff-based music than ever before. (Spotify)

Lucifer, Lucifer I (Rise Above)
In the wake of The Oath’s unfortunate collapse, singer Johanna Sadonis rebounded quickly, teaming up with Gaz Jennings of Cathedral, continuing where her band left off, only in a heavier direction. (Spotify)

Magic Circle, Journey Blind (20 Buck Spin)
The Boston band show tremendous growth on their latest album, sounding more in command of their doom sound than ever before, evoking Trouble, Candlemass, and of course the almighty Sabbath. (Spotify)

Magister Templi, Into Duat (Cruz del Sur)
The Norwegian band follows up 2013’s excellent Lucifer Leviathan Logos with another album that approaches classic NWOBHM/doom sounds with flamboyant mastery. (Spotify)

Melechesh, Enki (Nuclear Blast)
Not only do Melechesh continue their journey through Mesopotamian and Sumerian lore on this spellbinding album, but their songwriting has never been better, alternating between epics and anthems with ease. (Spotify)

Motörhead, Bad Magic (UDR)
Lemmy ended his time on earth on a triumphant note thanks to this fiery 22nd album, concluding a tremendous late-career run with the bruising “Victory or Die” and a phenomenal cover of “Sympathy For the Devil”. (Spotify)

Napalm Death, Apex Predator – Easy Meat (Century Media)
The grindcore progenitors sound the best they have in a full decade on this impassioned, raging, articulate blast of malevolence. (Spotify)

Night Demon, Curse of the Damned (Century Media)
These loyal students of classic heavy metal sound fully realized on their assured and fun debut album, which follows the lead of Angel Witch and Diamond Head and creates something all their own. (Spotify)

Night Viper, Night Viper (Svart)
This debut by the Swedish band was one of the year’s more pleasant surprises, a collection of energetic and theatric classic metal tunes with just the right amount of filthiness to complement the melodies. (Spotify)

Nightslug, Loathe (Broken Limbs)
If you want sludge, these Germans will give you sludge, thanks to this wonderfully vile-sounding record that feels equal parts Tad and the Jesus Lizard. (Spotify)

Nile, What Should Not Be Unearthed (Nuclear Blast)
The death metal masters come through once again with a brilliant lesson in how to create punishing music while still remaining mindful of what makes a compelling song. (Spotify)

Panopticon, Autumn Eternal (Nordvis)
Hands down the finest black metal album of the year, the exceedingly talented Austin Lunn continues to mesh blistering black metal, folk, bluegrass, and expressive guitar solos, this time evoking the melancholy of fall. (Spotify)

Pinkish Black, Bottom of the Morning (Relapse)
This Texas band has always proved that you don’t need guitars to create devastating heavy music, and this third album is their finest yet, the soundtrack to a horror film only the two musicians can see. (Spotify)

Pyramids, A Northern Meadow (Profound Lore)
Extreme metal, avant-garde, goth, and shoegaze coalesce beautifully on this entrancing album by the Texas band. (Spotify)

RAM, Svbversvm (Metal Blade)
If you yearn for the kind of heavy metal from the days when it wasn’t cluttered with too many subgenres, the Swedish band put out their best album to date, which sounds like it came straight from 1984. (Spotify)

Raven, ExtermiNation (SPV)
The Newcastle NWOBHM heroes continue to crank out the new music, and this album is a joy one again, the Gallagher brothers sounding as fiery as they did 30 years ago. (Spotify)

Royal Thunder, Crooked Doors (Relapse)
The Atlanta band turned in a stunner in 2015, a highly personal exploration of loss that replaced sonic heaviness with emotional heaviness, with Mel Parsonz turning in the year’s best vocal performance. (Spotify)

Scorpions, Return To Forever (Legacy)
What a great pleasure it was to hear the German legends on their finest album in a very, very long time, sticking to what they do best, and excelling in the process. (Spotify)

Therapy?, Disquiet (Amazing Record Co.)
The Northern Irish band found a new gear on their 14th album, thanks to refocusing their sound to something resembling their early-’90s glory days. (Spotify)

Tribulation, The Children Of The Night (Century Media)
Although thy’d be a lot better with a singer instead of a generic growler, these Swedes are an instrumental force, rivalling King Diamond circa 1987, and the power of this album is undeniable. (Spotify)

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, The Night Creeper (Rise Above)
Uncle Acid’s fourth album is a strange departure, opting for mostly for slow-trance-like grooves, and consequently requires time to settle in. Months later, however, the music starts to click very well. (Spotify)

Undersmile, Anhedonia (Black Bow)
Utilizing female vocal harmonies much like SubRosa, the UK band creates a mood very nearly as majestic, juxtaposing tenderness with brutal doom passages. (Spotify)

Vattnet Viskar, Settler (Century Media)
The New Hampshire band proves once again why they’re one of the only American black metal bands worth caring about thanks to this soaring, uplifting, defiantly positive album. (Spotify)

Venom, From the Very Depths (Spinefarm)
Cronos and his mates have been merrily playing the hits for fans, but this new album is a terrific reminder that the guys are still capable of fun, blasphemous heavy metal. (Spotify)

VHÖL, Deeper Than Sky (Profound Lore)
The West Coast supergroup followed up their promising debut with a rollocking, eclectic album that feels like a celebration of everything that’s great about heavy metal, bridging classic metal, crossover thrash, and extreme metal. (Spotify)

W.A.S.P., Golgotha (Napalm)
Although he’s a far cry from the outrageous shock rocker of the mid-1980s, in fact a full-fledged born-again christian, Blackie Lawless is still a superb musician, and W.A.S.P.’s superb 15th album is a reassertion that he and his band cannot be taken for granted. (Spotify)