As I had promised, here is the list of my top 10 albums of 2009!
10. U2 – “No Line on the Horizon”
What Is It?: A cross between the “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” and “All that You Can’t Leave Behind” albums, with traces of the “Pop” era.
Why I Recommend It: U2 seems to have a slightly different sound on each album. Yet, each one uniquely and unmistakably sounds like U2. If that makes any sense. “No Line on the Horizon” is less rock n’ roll than “Atomic Bomb” and has the more reserved feel of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” with some experimentation. And like their previous albums, “No Line on the Horizon” has plenty of diversity, from the sexy “Get On Your Boots” to the rootsy “Stand Up Comedy” and then the soaring “Fez – Being Born.” Oh, and the intro for “Magnificent” is just as memorable as that of “City of Blinding Lights.”
But No Album Is Perfect: The two longest songs, “Unknown Caller” and “Moment of Surrender,” were kind of boring. If a song is going to push the 6-minute mark, it needs to hold the listener’s interest, IMO. And as solid as this album is, it doesn’t quite match up to my favorite U2 albums (“Atomic Bomb,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” and “Achtung Baby”).
Bottom Line: No matter what U2 does on each album, you can’t deny that they still know what they’re doing after all these years.
Best Songs: “Magnificent,” “Stand Up Comedy,” “Fez – Being Born”
9. Kells – “Lueurs”
What Is It?: Straightforward and energetic melodic nu metal – performed entirely in French.
Why I Recommend It: I’ve heard only a few songs from Kells’ first album “Gaia,” and as soon as I started listening to “Lueurs” (French for “lights”) I knew this was a BIG improvement. The band is continuing its trend of fairly short and to-the-point songs, and its tight, groovy chemistry is not governed by the booming bass or rattling percussion that has soured other recent “femme metal” nu metal offerings. The all-French lyrics also give Kells a unique edge over similar bands.
But No Album Is Perfect: Personally, I would have loved to hear more of the choir. It’s only featured on two songs, and it truly delivers both times. Also not a big fan of the alarm-bell keyboard intro on “Delivre-moi” or the drummer’s grunts on “Lueur.”
Bottom Line: Kells’ concentration may be on metal fans who share their language, but “Lueurs” has the European allure and quasi-mainstream charm that will win over fans beyond France’s borders. And for this, Kells should be commended for “un travail bien fait.”
Best Songs: “Avant que tu…,” “Sans teint,” “Le dictat du silence”
8. Daughtry – “Leave This Town”
What Is It?: America’s favorite fourth-place “Idol” churns out another powerhouse punch.
Why I Recommend It: Besides the fact that Chris still sounds great and is a cutie? *lol* Well, Daughtry has put out a solid alternative pop/rock dozen that’s sure to sell like hotcakes. Formulaic as they may be, the new songs are addictive and well-crafted, and range from heavy (“You Don’t Belong”) to light-hearted (“Supernatural”). This album contains more lyrical variety than the self-titled debut; besides relationships, Chris sings about death (“Open Up Your Eyes”), coming of age (“September”), and taking leaps of faith (“Tennessee Line”).
But No Album Is Perfect: A lot of people say “Leave This Town” is a rehash of the first album. I don’t know about that. They’re definitely not recycling stuff, but they’re not doing much that’s new apart from the country twang of “Tennesee Line.” So yes, I would have liked to have heard the band try more new things. But they do what they do very well, so I can’t complain much.
Bottom Line: Sophomore slump? Not for Daughtry.
Best Songs: “You Don’t Belong,” “September,” “What I Meant to Say,” “Call Your Name”
7. Amanda Somerville – “Windows”
What Is It?: The hair-flipping blonde diva who helps out Epica, Kamelot, and lots of other metal bands releases her new solo album. And guess what? It’s not metal. 😉
Why I Recommend It: Amanda is one of the best genre-hoppers around. She weaves in and out of pop, rock, R&B, world music, electronica, jazz, and metal and somehow manages to tie everything together into a pretty nice package. The middle quarter of the album is a great example of this: You’ve got the snappy 80’s-voguer “My Song for You,” then the slick grooves of “Get Me,” followed by the sassy “Inner Whore” and the merry-go-round ballad “Carnival.” Amanda’s songwriting style is also interesting. She mixes a wide variety of musical influences with an equally broad array of lyrical styles and themes.
But No Album Is Perfect: “Windows” loses steam towards the end. Most of the uptempo or stronger numbers come early on, leaving the album’s two weak tracks (the clunky Euro-popper “Out” and the tinny “Clean”) as well as most of the ballads for the second half. In some ways this works, especially with the title track to close it out and tear at your heartstrings. Yet, it would be a shame for someone to pick up “Windows” and never finish it because they lose interest before it ends.
Bottom Line: With “Windows,” Amanda has created a first-rate combination of style and substance with little repetition of any kind. It’s a great addition to the lighter side of female-fronted rock and metal – and a colorful, uninhibited glimpse into the mind of a gifted artist.
Best Songs: “Windows,” “Inner Whore,” “Mayday,” “Carnival”
6. Dejafuse – “Dejafuse”
What Is It?: The Energizer Bunny goes rock n’ roll. And, Nienke de Jong (ex-Autumn) is back in front of the mic. Woot woot!
Why I Recommend It: Dejafuse offers fresh, no-frills alternative rock with hints of blues, funk, and progressive rock, all of which equates to a whole lot of fun. Everything about Dejafuse’s music screams “energy,” from Arno Krabman’s skillful guitarwork to the lively and impressive drumming of Ludwig Witt (Firebird). Even Nienke’s simple, relatable lyrics capture the rhythm of each song, making them all the more memorable. “Brother” and “More” are probably the best examples of what the band can do.
No Album Is Perfect: Two-thirds of this album are raucous uptempo numbers that don’t let up. So some listeners will be thrilled, and others will get worn out after a while.
Bottom Line: “Dejafuse” is a buoyant rock joyride that sounds like it’s been powered by a turbo-charged engine. And let me tell you, it’s one fun ride you’d be sorry to miss.
Best Songs: “More,” “Shapeshifting,” “Brother”
5. Stream of Passion – “The Flame Within”
What Is It?: Lush, romantic gothic metal with beautiful harmonies and strings throughout.
Why I Recommend It: Stream of Passion went through the mother of all lineup changes in 2007. Many fans thought their signature sound would change as a result. Great news: It hasn’t! “The Flame Within” retains much of the harmony, dynamism, and romanticism of SoP’s debut “Embrace the Storm.” The new songs are shorter and less complex, and there are more up-tempo and mid-tempo tracks – an instant improvement over “Storm,” which was a bit overloaded with ballads. The departure of guitarist Lori Linstruth means drastically fewer guitar solos and more room for experimenting with the bridges, including some exquisite piano solos by new keyboardist Jeffrey Rivet (especially on “My Leader”). Marcela sounds as lovely and mysterious as ever, especially on “When You Hurt Me the Most,” “In the End,” “Games We Play,” and “The Art of Loss.”
But No Album Is Perfect: One question: ¿Dónde están las letras españolas? (Where are the Spanish lyrics?) Marcela used a considerable amount of her native language on “Embrace the Storm,” but the new album features only two lines. (¡Que lástima!) Besides that, “Flame” features only a few uninspired moments, such “A Part of You,” “Run Away,” and “All I Know.”
Bottom Line: “The Flame Within” erases all doubts about Stream of Passion’s future and will leave its melodious mark in female-fronted metal.
Best Songs: “The Art of Loss,” “Games We Play,” “In the End,” “Far And Apart” (bonus track on limited edition)
4. Autumn – “Altitude”
What Is It?: A path through metal, alternative rock, and pleasant soundscapes that veers slightly to the left.
Why I Recommend It: If you liked Autumn’s new direction as heard in 2007’s “My New Time,” chances are you’ll enjoy “Altitude” as well. The new songs are bold and catchy, the lyrics poetic and thoughtful, and the overall contrast between grooves and ambiance natural. They are also diverse in length and complexity; and progressive epics like “Paradise Nox” and “A Minor Dance” balance well with shorter songs such as “Skydancer” and “Cascade (For A Day).” New vocalist Marjan Welman doesn’t sound exactly like Nienke, but my gosh how could you replace the ideal lead singer for Autumn with another young woman who fits the band just as perfectly?
But No Album Is Perfect: As good as she is, Marjan is not nearly as charismatic vocally as Nienke. Most of “Altitude” doesn’t suffer from this, except for the should-be-menacing “Sulphur Rodents,” which barks more than it bites. Also, while some fans love “Altitude,” others says it’s not as catchy or as interesting as “My New Time.” I guess it’s all in the “eye of the beholder” – or in this case, the ear of the listener.
Bottom Line: “Altitude” swoops between solid ground and uncharted territory – right untilits final dying note, when it gently guides the listener back down to earth.
Best Songs: “Skydancer,” “A Minor Dance,” “Paradise Nox,” “Altitude”
3. Witchbreed – “Heretic Rapture”
What Is It?: One of the most aggressive and powerful new bands on the female-fronted metal scene.
Why I Recommend It: Produced by the renown Waldemar Sorychta, “Heretic Rapture” is one raging bull of a debut. It pairs aggressive black metal with progressive song structures and subtle keyboards for a true heavy metal experience. No choirs or orchestras on this set, but we’ve got Ruby Roque, whose vocals are raw, seductive, and wildly powerful – the perfect fuel for Witchbreed’s fire. You’ll get commanding choruses (“Thy Eclipse”), crushing riffs (“Rebel Blood”), not-so-standard power ballads (“Firethrone”), and two pretty good interludes, particularly the Portuguese-flavored “Heretica.”
But No Album Is Perfect: The demo of “Brotherhood of Fang & Claw” album turned me on to Witchbreed. The final cut – known as “Fang & Claw” – is a much weaker animal. Easily one of the most disappointing songs of the year – and fortunately the only blemish on this album.
Bottom Line: “Heretic Rapture” is not just some force to be reckoned with. In truth, it’s an absolutely wicked reckoning.
Best Songs: “Thy Eclipse,” “Rebel Blood,” “Eden’s End”
2. Guilt Machine – “On This Perfect Day”
What Is It?: A nearly seamless blend of emotional vocals, powerful prog rock/metal, introspective lyrics, and brooding ambiance. All courtesy of the master of prog rock and metal, Mr. Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon, Star One, Stream of Passion).
Why I Recommend It: I gushed about this album at length back in October (read here). Basically, it’s an exceptional slice of prog metal/rock heaven. The songs are lengthy, layered, and complex, yet they don’t sound alike and are all memorable in their own way. Arjen also struck gold with his choice of vocalist. Jasper Steverlinck (Arid) is not only consistent throughout the album, but he nails both the soft and powerful parts with great range and earnest. Guitarist Lori Linstruth (ex-Warbride, ex-Stream of Passion) and drummer Chris Maitland (ex-Porcupine Tree) also make some top-notch contributions.
But No Album Is Perfect: Only one song, “Leland Street,” hasn’t captured my interest as much as the others have.
Bottom Line: Mr. Lucassen doesn’t know how to produce bad music. The last Ayreon album was stellar, and now this Guilt Machine CD ranks just as high.
Best Songs: “Green and Cream,” “Twisted Coil”
And now, drum roll please…
1. Epica – “Design Your Universe”’
What Is It?: The Dutch symphonic power metallers return with their heaviest, most varied, and most mature album to date.
Why I Recommend It: Prior to buying DYU, I liked Epica’s music but wouldn’t have said they were one of my top five favorites. Then I got DYU – and was completely blown away! This is their darkest and heaviest album to date. The guitars are more varied, not just the jumpy riffs on their last two CDs. Simone Simons’ vocals are stunning and also more diverse; she uses a lot more classical vocals this time as well as some of her lower range on two songs. And the choir and orchestra also sound more theatrical here than on Epica’s previous albums. I could go into more specifics, but then I’d be re-writing my “On Repeat” entry on this gem (read here).
But No Album Is Perfect: “Deconstruct” and “Semblance of Liberty” are probably the two weakest tracks on DYU. But they’re still very listenable… Meaning that I still can listen to the album the whole way throughout without skipping a track. And that’s the first time I’ve been able to do that with an Epica album.
Bottom Line: “Design Your Universe” is to Epica as “Comalies” was for Lacuna Coil. This is the album that truly defines Epica’s sound.
Best Songs: “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Burn to a Cinder,” “Design Your Universe,” “Tides of Time,” “Unleashed”
And there you have it – my top 10 albums of 2009. Let’s see what kind of music reaches my ears in 2010.
Till then… Happy New Year!