1. Deafheaven, Sunbather
This album made it on to more “best of” lists than I can count, which is quite a feat for an American black metal band on Deathwish. But Sunbather is a landmark album, one that best found a way to merge post-rock sensibilities with black metal’s core power. Though this is not a concept album, it feels like one, because you begin with the reflections of class division and America’s religion of materialism on “Dream House” and end with the hopeless declaration that finishes “The Pecan Tree”: “I am my father’s son/ I am no one/ I cannot love/ It’s in my blood.” It feels like an outsider manifesto that doesn’t really believe in itself. There’s a lot of familiar ground here, particularly a strong affinity for early Jesu, and these guys owe a big debt to Wolves In the Throne Room, but Sunbather manages to carve out its own mark in a bold way. This is an album that will be remembered for a long time. Oh, and they can pull it off live, something very few bands this heavy can claim.
2. Gorguts, Colored Sands
The best band with the dumbest name. Guitarist/vocalist Luc LeMay finally found the right people to reform Gorguts with, notably trained/monster musicians Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel of Dysryhthmia. The result is a tour de force of composition and LeMay’s evil-genius approach to rhythmic dissonance. It’s an inspiring album, one of the few in the “tech metal” genre that I think is worth its salt. Album opener “Le Toit Du Monde” was one of my favorite songs of the year, but I also loved the nasty martial grooves the band locks into on “Enemies of Compassion.” I’ve loved this band since 1993, why stop now?
3. The Dillinger Escape Plan, One of Us Is the Killer
To me, this is the album where DEP figured it all out. They could play it safe with a Calculating Infinity repeat, or trot or more radio-friendly fare like “Milk Lizard,” etc. This is the perfect middle ground, and particularly showcases once and for all just how good a vocalist Greg Puciato is. This album was on such heavy rotation for me in 2013, and “Paranoia Shields” was a particular favorite – a great example of what I’m talking about with all the elements coming together.
4. Mogwai, Les Revenants Soundtrack
Mogwai’s appropriately haunting soundtrack for a French TV show about the dead coming back to life was a staple soundtrack for my miserable daily slog into Hoboken. I love Mogwai’s soundtrack work, as it shows off the moodier, “softer” side of the band, and in this case is very piano-driven. Beautiful songs, and the album rewards multiple listens.
5. Russian Circles, Memorial
Less heavy than Empros, which I absolutely loved, Memorial is Russian Circle’s most concise effort. And that’s my beef with it – that it isn’t longer, damn it! Like Dillinger, I feel like RS really hit its stride on this album and decided to really show off what it can do. As a result, the band just created a new high water mark for this kind of instrumental post-metal. Pelican should take notes. (Also, bassist Brian Cook is awesome on Twitter.) This was another “commuting” album, and “1777” is part of this daydream I have about a comet slamming into Secaucus…
6. Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks
This was a surprise for me. I’m a big NIN guy, but I haven’t liked much that Reznor has done with the band since Year Zero. Happily Hesitation Marks is a mash-up of old NIN with some of the best elements of the new. Pino Palladino’s basslines throughout are fuckin’ nasty, and I like the ’80s pop feel of “Everything,” which I know lots of people loathed. These people are dumb. However, the album does peter out toward the end and could’ve used some more muscle here and there, but overall much of this nestled happily in my brain since coming out. Plus who can beat the David Lynch video for “Came Back Haunted”? Also of note: the “VEVO presents” series Reznor did is outstanding. NIN with back-up soul singers! Everybody dance! (Seriously!)
7. Palms, Palms
This album was divisive, as is much of Chino Moreno’s side-project work. To me it’s a great blend of later-era Isis and Deftones that in the end manages to stake its own ground pretty well. My only quibble with the album is the “Kokomo” vibe it veers into suddenly on “Tropics,” but otherwise I really liked this. (The official video for “Future Warrior” is an abridged version of the song but hey, it features a tattooed model cavorting about!)
8. Grouper, The Man Who Died In His Boat
I came late to the Grouper party, but I’m glad I snuck in. This is dreamy, ethereal stuff, with echoing vocals smeared over ambient-folk minimalism. I really ate up this kind of thing in 2013, as two other albums are similar to this and come later in the list – Chelsea Wolfe’s Pain Is Beauty and Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe. I think over time I will wind up turning more to Chelsea Wolfe, but I listened to Grouper a lot this year and only got into Pain Is Beauty late in the year, so that’s why this ranks so high. Also, I love the concept: Liz Harris’ childhood memory of watching an unmanned boat washing ashore, its captain presumed to have drowned at some point. Hence the album’s haunting isolationism and creeping claustrophobia. There’s a lot here that puts me in the same space as Jasper TX, and I’m glad someone else is exploring this realm now that Dag Rosenqvist has pulled the plug on that project.
9. Cult of Luna, Vertikal
This album, an homage to Metropolis, seemed to fly below the radar this year. It’s challenging and atypical of post-metal these days, but I also think there are moments here that represent the finest work Cult of Luna has ever done. My issue with these guys continues to be the one-dimensional approach of the singer, who often drags down what would otherwise be transcendent songs – really, that’s how good the other musicians are in this band. (Mouth of the Architect’s new album was also ruined by horrible vocals, which is why they’re not on my list this year, even though I love the music.) “Vicarious Redemption,” the 19-minute midpoint of Vertikal, was by far one of my favorite songs of the year. There’s more here than some bands manage to pull off in years of playing.
10. Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt
Probably the biggest surprise for me in 2013 was this album. I haven’t bothered with Pearl Jam since Yield, and I wound up checking this out on a bored whim just to see what they were doing now after all this time. Well, here ya go, a great album full of solid songs, hooks that never leave your brain…all the reasons that made me like Pearl Jam so much when they first burst onto the scene. “Swallowed Whole” is easily one of the band’s best songs since the Ten days. I’m not ashamed to say, I played the shit out of this.