A Band Called Pain (Post-Grunge/Hard Rock)
Broken Dreams (3/4)- 2006
It’s unfortunate that radio rock is populated by one mundane clone after another while bands like this one are left in the underground. A Band Called Pain play the same style of post-grunge as bands like Godsmack, Puddle of Mudd, and others. The difference is that these guys are actually talented. Songs like “The Pieces” show actual songwriting ability, and it’s rare to see a genuine heavy edge in this style of music, which is odd since many of the bands have made a living off of copying Alice in Chains. It’s far from original, but it’s also so much better than what else is out there that it’s easy to overlook the flaws. If A Band Called Pain can add a little variety to their sound and improve their production, we’re looking at a band that can really stand out from the crowd.
A Perfect Circle (Alternative/Hard Rock)
Mer de Noms (3.5/4)- 2000
More than just a Tool side project, Mer de Noms is a nearly masterful hard rock album that takes the heavy edge of Maynard James Keenan’s other band and combines it with a pure hard rock sound. The Tool compassions are impossible to ignore, especially with Maynard’s distinct vocals remaining, well, distinct, but A Perfect Circle stands on their own as an exceptional hard rock band.
AC/DC (Hard Rock)
High Voltage (3.5/4)- 1976
The international version of High Voltage is full of catchy songs with a heavy edge. It’s simple music to make, but oh so satisfying. If you can listen to it for what it is and leave your brain at home, you’ll find an unapologetically stupid rock album that’s very good at what it does.
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (3.5/4)- 1976
Much like High Voltage before it, this as fun of a rock album as you’re going to hear. It never takes itself seriously, but achieves the rare combination of being both catchy and worthy of headbanging.
Let There Be Rock (3.5/4)- 1977
While it’s another simple but catchy AC/DC album, it’s also one of their most creative. The riffs are as memorable, the lyrics are cheesy, and the sound is pure hard rock.
Powerage (2.5/4)- 1978
Powerage tries to be more than just your typical AC/DC album. Unfortunately, the band’s weaknesses are much prevalent as a result. Their past albums kept it simple, while here Bon Scott repeatedly goes out of his range from both a lyrical and vocal stand point. There are moments where it works, as the classic “Sin City” is an example of this, but too often it fails.
Highway to Hell (4/4)- 1979
There’s a reason the songs on Highway to Hell are so memorable. Yes, it’s just as simple as everything else in AC/DC's catalogue, but combine some of the catchiest riffs ever recorded with a punkish attitude and taboo lyrics, and you have a recipe for success. It knows what it wants to be, and achieves it with flying colors.
Back in Black (4/4)- 1980
Back in Black is filled with rock ‘n roll anthem after rock ‘n roll anthem. This is rock at its most fun, and there’s nothing like turning the volume up and simply rocking out. As far as pure hard rock goes, this is as good as it gets.
For Those About the Rock (2.5/4)- 1981
The title track is a classic. The rest of the album is forgettable.
Flick of the Switch (2/4)- 1983
Flick of the Switch is very similar to the rest of AC/DC’s discography. The difference here is that these songs are forgettable at best, and flat-out boring at worst.
Fly on the Wall (1.5/5)- 1985
Just as forgettable as their last two albums, only this time the production is awful. Even hardcore AC/DC fans should skip this one.
Blow Up Your Video (2/4)- 1988
Another forgettable AC/DC album. Really not worth mentioning, nor is it is worth listening to.
The Razor’s Edge (3/4)- 1990
Out of nowhere, AC/DC take a huge step forward with The Razor’s Edge. Most of the songs here are memorable and catchy, as well as some of the heaviest of their career, but there are some songs on this record that are unlike anything else that they’ve done. Unfortunately, the whole album can’t live up to classics like “Thunderstruck,” but there are enough great songs to earn it a solid recommendation.
Ballbreaker (2/4)- 1995
Boring songwriting and some of the worst vocals of Brian Johnson’s career make this an unfortunate return to the monotonous records of 80’s AC/DC.
Stiff Upper Lip (2.5/4)- 2000
Unlike The Razor’s Edge, Stiff Upper Lip is hardly a new direction for the band. This is the same type of simple yet catchy hard rock that AC/DC has been doing for years. However, Stiff Upper Lip is much closer to the fun hard rock of classic AC/DC. Again, it’s nothing new, but far more enjoyable than most post-Back in Black AC/DC albums, even if Brian Johnson’s vocals haven’t improved.
Black Ice (2/4)- 2008
Black Ice is an unnecessary release that is simply more generic AC/DC. This shows the band at their worst, and the riffs are even simpler than on their early records.
Agalloch (Black/Folk Metal)
Pale Folklore (3/4)- 1999
Far from their best and most polished effort, Pale Folklore is essentially an introduction to Agalloch’s unique sound. That sound involves elements of black, folk, drone, death, and symphonic metal while not fitting into any of the aforementioned genres. Pale Folklore sounds almost like a rough draft of the masterful The Mantle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it should be an awe-inspiring listen for anyone who has yet to hear Agalloch’s more accomplished work.
The Mantle (4/4)- 2002
A true masterpiece that is unlike anything else out there. The brilliant combination of black metal, neofolk, progressive rock, and other genres is as beautiful as it is heavy. Black metal purists may say that it’s not true black metal, but that’s the point. This is true art that cannot be classified by a single genre.
Ashes Against the Grain (3.5/4)- 2006
Ashes Against the Grain’s only flaw is that is just isn’t as awe-inspiring as The Mantle. Agalloch perfected their sound with that album, and have essentially created eight more brilliant songs within that same style. It’s still incredible music, and just about everything that can be said about The Mantle can be said about its follow up.
Airbourne (Hard Rock)
Runnin’ Wild (2/4)- 2008
It’s been nearly two years since Wolfmother made it big with their catchy retro-rock single “Woman,” but it seems that the success of that single has once again brought a trend of 70s and 80s hard rock riffs to the mainstream. Airbourne is yet another recent band that is been heavily influenced by classic hard rock, and although it could be argued that they are the first of the modern day retro-rock bands to successfully mimic the style of AC/DC, there is really no reason to listen to Runnin’ Wild when AC/DC has been playing this same sound better for over 30 years. Unlike Wolfmother, who would have fit in alongside their influences as a separate band in the 70s, Airbourne make the mistake of copying only one specific band, as opposed to simply being a modern band that plays a classic style of rock. The biggest problem with trying to copy a band like AC/DC is that their style is exceptionally basic and easy to copy, and it’s not the style itself that made AC/DC timeless in the first place. Back in Black and Highway to Hell have stood the test of time, not because they did anything particularly complicated or unique, but instead because the songs contained heavy yet catchy riffs that almost begged to be air guitared along to. Runnin’ Wild is proof that even the most accurate of copies can’t replace timeless riffs. Airbourne brings nothing new to the formula, and the flaws of the AC/DC-influenced sound are far more apparent in 2008. That being said, this is one of the most accurate AC/DC clones out there, and it can be mildly recommended to those who are willing to settle for a forgettable clone until the next AC/DC album is released.
Alarum (Progressive Metal)
Eventuality… (3/4)- 2004
Alarum make no attempt to hide their influences, namely Cynic, Atheist, and other jazz-metal hybrids from the early 90’s, but thankfully they also make no attempt to top the works of the genre’s masters. Alarum focus instead of the technicality of the music, and on that level they succeed. Eventuality… is an album of superb musicianship, and it’s hard to fault it for doing achieving exactly what it sets out to do. This is album for fans of technical metal only, but it’s very good as what it does.
Alcest (Shoegaze/Black Metal)
Souvenirs d'un autre monde (4/4)- 2007
It’s just about impossible to put into words the sound that Alcest achieve on Souvenirs d'un autre monde, but what can be said is that this album is a journey through musical territory never before reached. It’s a brilliant mixture of shoegaze and the modern atmospheric style of black metal, but it’s influences don’t really matter. Alcest have created something that goes far beyond simple categorization, and is instead an atmospheric soundscape that is among the most beautiful and emotional experiences in the world of music.
Alexisonfire (3/4)- 2002
Canada’s Alexisonfire takes the usual post-hardcore formula and turns it upside down. There’s traces of actual punk music in their sound, while still using the popular style of screaming and melodic singing found in modern “hardcore” bands that have strayed far from their punk roots. This album may be too raw to appeal to fans of bands like Underoath and Norma Jean, while also too toned down to appeal to punk fans, but it’s certainly worth checking out.
Watch Out! (3/4)- 2004
Watch Out! isn’t quite as raw of Alexisonfire’s debut, but it strays even further from typical post-hardocre. It’s somewhat of a transition album between the more screamo-esque style of their self-titled album and the more melodic side of the band that becomes more prevalent in later releases. As such, it may be the easiest Alexisonfire album to recommend, as anyone who can tolerate the vocal style should find something to like here.
Crisis (3/4)- 2006
Crisis comes just short of being the definitive Alexisonfire album. It’s the perfect blend of melodic hardcore and screamo, featuring two vocalists that are far more talented than what the genre usually produces. The songwriting is also among the best you’ll find in post-hardcore, leaving variety as the album’s major weak point. It also doesn’t help that some songs sound like definitely worse version of tracks found earlier on the album. However, the highlights are good enough to appeal to even those otherwise uninterested in screamo, and also act as a breath of fresh air in what has become a stale genre.
Old Crows/Young Cardinals (3/4)- 2009
Old Crows/Young Cardinals features far more clean vocals than past Alexisonfire albums, which turns out to not be a bad thing. The singing is actually quite good, and the songwriting is as solid as ever, but variety is still an issue.
Alice in Chains (Grunge/Metal)
Facelift (3/4)- 1990
A couple of great tracks, a few more solid ones, and about half an album of filler is what you’ll find on Facelift. It’s a promising debut, and all in all is worth listening to simply for gems like “Man in the Box” and “We Die Young.”
Dirt (4/4)- 1992
Dirt not only one of the greatest albums to come out of the grunge era, but simply one of the greatest rock albums to ever be released. Layne Staley’s pained vocals are resonate perfectly with the Jerry Cantrell’s songwriting, and the result an often overlooked grunge masterpiece.
Alice in Chains (3.5/4)- 1995
Even darker than Dirt, Alice in Chain’s self-titled third album sees the band going from melancholy to pure despair. This is grunge in its purest form, while still furthering the genre bending sound that Alice in Chains established with Dirt. It’s not as polished, and its depressing nature makes it a much tougher listen, but pain can often lead to true art. In this case, it does.
Black Gives Way to Blue (3/4)- 2009
Released 14 years after their last album, Black Gives Way to Blue is one of the biggest surprises of 2009. William DuVall replaces the deceased Layne Staley on vocals, but does little more than mimic his style. If this album had been made just a decade earlier it would have likely been a failure. However, with so many poor copycats populating mainstream rock these days, it’s refreshing to hear new material from the real thing. It also helps that this album contains a few strong gems that rank among the best of AiC’s career.
All That Remains (Metalcore)
Behind Silence and Solitude (2/4)- 2002
At this point, All That Remains was nothing more than side project of then Shadows Fall vocalist Phil Labonte. Terrible production and a lack of variety are major issues.
This Darkened Heart (3/4)- 2004
For metalcore this is heavy, but still melodic. It’s nothing new or original, but easily some of the most polished and musically impressive metalcore you’ll hear.
The Fall of Ideals (3/4)- 2006
This is where All That Remains really start to shine. It’s very accessible, but still heavy enough to please most metalheads. The vocals and instrumentals are some of the best that metalcore has to offer, especially on tracks like “Six” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Unfortunately, the band relies too much on typical metalcore conventions, which hurts its longevity.
Overcome (2.5/4)- 2008
Overcome is much more melodic than past ATR albums, even to a fault. There’s a lack of variety here, and the instrumentals are much simpler. Still, this is some of the best metalcore you’ll hear. That’s not saying much, but fans of hard rock and and “light” metal should enjoy this.
The Almost (Alternative Rock/Pop)
Southern Weather (2/4)- 2007
This side project of Underoath’s Aaron Gillespie shows a very different side of the post-hardcore musician. Southern Weather is a religious themed album with no screaming and a far bigger emphasis on lyrics and songwriting. Truth be told, it’s not all that bad. Gillespie has a decent voice and many of the songs are catchy. However, there’s nothing original or especially captivating here. It’s been done before and done better, but Southern Weather might very well have been the best Underoath-related album when it was released in 2007.
Amaran’s Plight (Progressive Metal)
Voice in the Light (3/4)- 2007
Featuring progressive masters such as DC Cooper (Royal Hunt, Silent Force) and Gary Wehrkamp (Shadow Gallery), Amaran’s Plight is a supergroup that works. Voice in the Light is a far more personal album than anything Cooper’s done before, as well as a more creative album that the last few Shadow Gallery offerings. Very rarely do new bands release something as unique and creative as Amarn’s Plight has, and even more rarely do supergroups release albums that actually fix the problems the musicians’ respective bands have had in the past. Amaran’s Plight does both, and in doing so creates an experience unlike anything else this year. Prog fans will most likely appreciate the epic story that ties the album together, but just about anyone can appreciate the fantastic musicianship.
Amesoeurs (3.5/4)- 2009
Amesoeurs only studio album is a beautiful atmospheric experience. This is what Alcest or Wolves in the Throne Room would sound like if they focused more on the shoegaze elements of the music and less on the black metal. As such, it will divide black metal fans, but fans of ambient or post-rock will almost certainly enjoy it.
Amon Amarth (Melodic Death Metal)
Twilight of the Thunder God (3.5/4)- 2008
Amon Amarth is a band that cannot be accurately described. They just simply have their own unique style of metal that must be heard before being judged. If you’re a metalhead, give Amon Amarth a try. They’ve improved and farther polished their sound with each new album, and Twilight of the Thunder God is their best effort yet. It’s a heavy, brutal, oddly melodic, and wonderfully over-the-top album that is one of the best of 2008. Few bands are so unique in their brutality, and Amon Amarth continue to harness a truly unique sound with a ton creativity and some of the tightest and most technical musicianship you’ll ever hear. Twilight of the Thunder God is an essential metal album, and it belongs in the collection of every melodeath fan.
Amorphis (Melodic Death Metal)
Eclipse (3.5/4)- 2006
Eclipse is a different take on melodic death metal, and one that accentuates the “melodic” element of the genre. It’s a very accessible album, but it never comprises its sound to gain that accessibility. This is great melodic metal that won’t alienate non-metal fans.
Silent Waters (3/4)- 2007
Amorphis have abandoned their melodic death metal sound on recent releases, but Silent Waters marks a compromise between their melodeath roots and their recent experimentation with progressive metal. Unfortunately, the album itself isn’t strong enough to warrant a place among the top albums of the year, but it is a high quality album that should please fans of progressive and melodic death metal. When a band has changed their sound as many times as Amorphis has, it’s nearly impossible to please everyone. Although it comes at the expense of a truly creative experience, Silent Waters is an album that might actually come close to pleasing all fans of Amorphis. Hopefully they will go back to experimenting on their next album, but Silent Waters is an album that shows a great deal of balance between Amorphis’ many sounds, and almost any fan of the band should find something to like here.
Animal Collective (Indie Rock/Electronic)
Merriweather Post Pavilion (4/4)- 2009
Merriweather Post Pavilion is an album that is difficult to describe, but not difficult to grade. It's hard to point out what exactly makes it a masterpiece, yet it’s easy to tell that it is in fact a masterpiece. There is so much going on here that it's hard to filter out what's coming from where and how everything has been put together. That, however, is the genius of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Each listener will have a completely different experience with the music, and not just in the way that you'd expect from a work of art. The album's first impression will depend entirely on what you pick up first, and Animal Collective haven't made one specific part of the album stand out more than another. Just about everything stands out, and again, it can be overwhelming. However, with each listen more and more of the album comes together, and eventually it will click. The fact that someone actually wrote music like this and recorded an album with as many layers as Merriweather Post Pavilion is staggering. It's simply genius, as nothing about this album is simple other than its genius, and each song is completely different from the last. As a whole, the album is noisy, catchy, trippy, intelligent, clever, and incredibly subtle. There's more here than what one can write about, and there's more here than what one can pick up on after even a few listens. Animal Collective have crafted a gem in Merriweather Post Pavilion, and any true fan of music should not only listen to it, but invest the time into understanding all that's going on in this beautifully chaotic album.
Another Black Day (Hard Rock)
Another Black Day (2.5/4)- 2008
The self titled debut from hard rock band Another Black Day is admittedly a rather generic album. That being said, it’s not trying to do anything new or groundbreaking. This is simply solid hard rock that is much tighter, heavier, and intelligent than most of what’s on the radio these days. If you have either a guilty pleasure for radio rock or are a proud fan of mainstream hard rock, this is a much better option than almost any other radio rock album from 2008. If you or the person you’re shopping for is looking at the new Nickelback or Hinder albums, get them this instead. It’s a far better in just about every respect, and is even a good album in its own right.
Apocalyptica (Symphonic Metal)
Worlds Collide (3/4)- 2007
Released last September in Europe, it's taken a long 7 months for Apocalyptica's latest album to reach American soil. Thankfully, the album will finally be available this Tuesday, and it is highly recommended to both longtime fans and newcomers to Apocalyptica's unique sound. For those aforementioned newcomers, Apoclayptica's brand of "cello metal" may seems like an odd idea at first, and you would be correct in assuming that. However, the extraordinary talent of the band's three cellists not only proves that "cello metal" is workable, but also that Apocalyptica is one of the most unique and talented band in the metal scene today. The band has made a name for itself with fantastic covers of classic hard rock and metal songs (most notably by Metallica), but Worlds Collide is an entirely original album that ranks as both the band's most prolific original effort and as their most accessible offering to date. The band's uncanny ability to replace lead, rhythm, and bass guitar parts with cellos and still be able to create an authentic metal sound is just as strikingly beautiful and impressive today as it was when Plays Metallica by Four Cellos was released in 1996, but the band has only improved since then. Now, with the help of guests vocalists such as Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), and Till Lindermann (Rammstein), the band has evolved into a project that is not only unlike anything else in music today, but also represents career highlights for many of the guest musicians featured.
Regardless of what you think of their original bands, each vocalist provides a unique sound that couples with Apocalyptica's increasingly impressive and varied songwriting to create songs that are every bit as good, if not better, than the best the guests' respective bands have recorded. Longtime fans of Apocalyptica's classical approach may be disappointed to find a more pop-like structure to many of the songs (especially the radio friendly "I'm Not Jesus" with Corey Taylor and "I Don't Care" featuring Adam Gontier of Three Days Grace), but there's still enough beautiful instrumental pieces to please all but the most unforgiving of fans. The album's highlight is the absolutely beautiful "S.O.S. (Anything But Love)," which features Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia on vocals. Much like the album's other vocal tracks, the structure is more pop-like and radio friendly, but the sheer beauty of the lyrics and contrast between the band's three cellists and Scabbia's beautiful vocals make this one of the finest tracks released last year. Now, it's finally available in the United States, and even though the album may not entirely satisfy every Apocalyptica fan as a whole, it does an exceptional job of making one of the best and purest sounds in metal accessible to the masses without entirely changing what made the band great in the first place. Worlds Collide may not be on many top 10 lists come the end of the year, but it's more than deserving of a place in any music fan's collection.
Arcade Fire (Indie Rock)
Neon Bible (3/4)- 2007
Neon Bible has been out since March, so chances are that fans of the band’s debut already own this album. If you’re one of the few Arcade Fire fans that are still up in the air, know that Neon Bible has some truly outstanding moments that make up for its shortcomings. The album is a solid experience as a whole, and many of the songs themselves stand alone as some of the best of the year. Alternative fans who aren’t sure if they should buy into the band’s massive hype are advised to take the plunge, but not at the expense of some of the other albums on this list. There are times when the Arcade Fire sound amateurish, and Neon Bible is not as polished of an album as their debut. However, what works is generally outstanding, and there’s enough of what works to highly recommend Neon Bible to all alternative rock fans.
Arch Enemy (Melodic Death Metal)
Rise of the Tyrant (3/4)- 2007
Rise of the Tyrant is an album that should please almost any Arch Enemy, and despite a lack of variety, fans of melodic death metal should at least give it a listen. The album starts off with a bang, and although that bang never changes, it remains great throughout. This may, in fact, be the best Arch Enemy has ever sounded. The Amott brothers’ guitar work is superb, the keyboards are a beautiful contrast the album’s consistent brutality, and Angela Gossow’s vocals seem to only get better with time. If Arch Enemy can take the outstanding sound they’ve settled on with this album and add some variety to it, the next album should be truly incredible. As it stands now though, Rise of the Tyrant is a high quality melodic death album.
Arctic Monkeys (Alternative Rock)
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (3/4)- 2005
Catchy, witty, and fun are all adjectives that describe the debut album from the Arctic Monkeys. This album was a huge hit in Britain for a reason, and for once that reason is because it’s actually really good. On the surface the songs are catchy pop fluff, but there’s a subtle layer of darkness hidden within the witty lyrics and danceable riffs. It’s clever throughout, while never straying from the catchy pop that millions fell in love with, even if it can get a little tiresome.
Favourite Worst Nightmare (3.5/4)- 2006
After hitting it big with their breakthrough debut, the Arctic Monkeys went in a surprising direction with their sophomore release. Instead of using the same style found throughout the catchy first release, the band lets their dark subtleties become less, well, subtle. What’s even more surprising is that it works. Favourite Worst Nightmare is even more clever than its predecessor and it shockingly manages to be just as fun. This is an album that builds on the strengths of the first one, and shows a new side of a promising band that loses nothing of what made them great to begin with.
Humbug (2/4)- 2009
It may not be apparent in their music, but the Arctic Monkeys are apparently huge Queens of the Stone Age fans. QotSA frontman Josh Homme produced this album, and the result is unfortunately nothing more than the Arctic Monkeys trying their best to sound like Queens of the Stone Age. It’s not a bad album so much as an all too forgettable one, as well as a pointless and disappointing third effort.
Arsis (Death Metal)
We Are the Nightmare (3.5/4)- 2008
It’s no surprise that Arsis’ latest album is good. This is one immensely talented band, and they seem to get more technically complex with each release. Purely from a guitarists’ perspective, these are some of the most complicated riffs found in any 2008 album, and once again, no death metal fan should be surprised. What may be a surprise to some, and the main reason We are the Nightmare achieves greatness, is due to the shocking amount of subtlety and progression on this record. Musically, there is far more here than great solos and complicated riffs. There is actual melody to the solos, uniqueness to the chord progression, and just a sense of true emotion that is often missing from death metal. Even things as subtle as using the same riff to start and end the album makes this a true experience, as well as a great technical death metal album. While it may be too extreme to appeal to anyone outside of the death metal community, Arsis has created an album that deserves to be listened to by any open-minded music fan.
As I Lay Dying (Metalcore)
An Ocean Between Us (3/4)- 2007
Personal preferences aside, As I Lay Dying deserve some credit. Not long ago, they were just another generic metalcore band that did very little to differentiate themselves from the many other metalcore outfits populating MTV. To their credit, they’ve played that style better than most, and the band did potentially have the talent to break out and evolve. With An Ocean Between Us, they finally do. The album introduces a moderate amount of thrash metal influences that finally cause the band to stray from the generic metalcore sound that has held them back throughout their career. At the same time, the band doesn’t compromise the sound that garnered them a large fan base to begin with. The metalcore base is still the same, but couple that with surprisingly great guitar work and a heavier thrash metal edge, and you have as good of a metalcore album as there is. Fans of the band should either already own this or add it to their collection immediately, but even if you’re the type of person that’s found only marginal interest in As I Lay Dying in the past, An Ocean Between Us may very well be worth a purchase.
Ashes Divide (Alternative/Hard Rock)
Keep Telling Myself It's Alright (2.5/4)- 2008
The debut album from Billy Howerdel (A Perfect Circle)'s latest project, Ashes Divide, does not sound like a new A Perfect Circle album. That, for the most part, is a good thing. Howerdel is a creative musician, intelligent lyricist, and also someone who knows how to write a melody. For that reason, it's great to see Howerdel branch out and release an album that strives for something new. Problem is, this is not that album. Howerdel may attempt to create a bridge between atmospheric experimentation and radio rock melody, but he settles into familiar territory all too soon, and fails in achieving anything truly spectacular at all. It's a shame that so much of the album sounds similar, as there are moments of brilliance to be found. Keep Telling Myself It's Alright is definitely worth listening to for those select moments, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it could have been a whole lot better.
Astra (Progressive Rock)
The Weirding (3.5/4)- 2009
The Weirding is a brilliant psychedelic record, and one the best debut albums of 2009. It’s an original and refreshing take on the classic progressive rock of Pink Floyd and King Crimson, and it gets the atmosphere right without copying what those bands did.
At the Gates (Melodic Death Metal)
The Red in the Sky Is Ours (3.5/4)- 1992
Before At the Gates revolutionized the Gothenburg melodeath scene with Slaughter of the Soul, they released one of the most brutal death metal albums of the 90s. The Red in the Sky is Ours is that album. It takes some getting used to, even for fans of the genre, but it’s one of the most raw and technical death metal albums available.
With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness (2.5/4)- 1993
At the Gates’ second album is an early indicator of the Gothenburg sound would later evolve to. It’s melodic at times, but mostly another raw death album with moments of melodeath riffs. It all tends to blend together, and while still raw, it’s not as brutal as their debut.
Terminal Spirit Disease (3/4)- 1994
The first true melodeath At the Gates album is somewhat of a revolutionary album. It’s far too short, but what’s here is excellent.
Slaughter of the Soul (4/4)- 1995
Arguably the greatest melodic death metal album ever released, Slaughter of the Soul is a perfect balance of raw brutality and melodic instrumentals. It was way ahead of its time, and few albums in the genre have matched it. This is an essential album for metalheads.
Atheist (Death Metal)
Piece of Time (3.5/4)- 1990
For its time, this album is a classic. The mixture of jazz and technical death metal is only matched by Cynic, but Atheist would outdo themselves and just about every other death metal band with their next release.
Unquestionable Presence (4/4)- 1991
One of the most instrumentally complex metal albums ever created, as well as one of the creative and intelligent. Unquestionable Presence is the rare album that reaches for the stars and hits perfection. It goes without saying that this a must for any metalhead, but also an essential listen for anyone who doubts the artistic merits of the genre.
Elements (3/4)- 1993
It’s well known that Elements was made for the sole reason of fulfilling Atheist’s contract with their record label. As expected, it’s an uninspired release, but it’s far from uninteresting. The jazz elements of their past two albums are more prevalent than ever, and the instrumentation is just as technical as ever. It’s not a classic by any means, but Elements is far better than it has any right to be.
Overcast! (2.5/4)- 1997
Much less introspective than later Atmosphere, Overcast! is essentially an album full of clever one-liners and raw production. Slug and Spawn, who left the group after this album, alternate MC duties, neither of which have a lot of charisma. Still, there are some moments of brilliant lyricism here, and the vast potential shown on Overcast! is not hard to spot. It’s worth listening to, if only because this is a side of Atmosphere you aren’t likely to hear anywhere else.
Lucy Ford (4/4)- 2001
Lucy Ford may be a collection of songs from the Atmosphere EP’s Lucy and Ford, but it may very well be the best collection of songs in Atmosphere’s discography. Slug’s lyrics are some of the most personal and beautiful you’ll find in any genre of music, and his half-sung, half-rap verses mesh perfectly with Ant’s production. Get this album. It’s absolutely stunning, and impossible not to fall in love with.
God Loves Ugly (4/4)- 2002
God Loves Ugly is an emotional journey that ascends into territory rarely reached in hip-hop. The love, passion, and pain that has been put into this album makes this an absolutely essential album, regardless of how you feel about hip-hop.
Seven’s Travels (3/4)- 2003
Despite being the closet thing to a concept album in Atmosphere’s discography, Seven’s Travels lives and dies by its individual tracks. “Trying to Find a Balance” and “Always Coming Back Home to You” are masterful. The rest of the tracks are forgettable at best, and the failed attempt at a story makes this album harder to connect to than most of their other work.
You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having (3/4)- 2005
Much like Seven’s Travels, this is an album that is masterful only on a song-to-song basis. About half of the album consists some of the most polished lyrical work of Slug’s career (“Little Man,” “Say Hey There” and “Smart Went Crazy” to name a few), while the other half lacks the passion that makes Atmosphere such an outstanding group. Ant’s production is easily the most complicated of his career, as is Slug’s flow, but the two often fight each other as opposed to working together on an artistic level. Still, the highlights are enough to save YCIHMFWH and earn it a solid recommendation.
When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (4/4)- 2008
Indie hip-hop duo Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is an album that has no business being as good as it actually is. Yes, this is still the same group that released that superb Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly early in their career, but their last few albums have been far less consistent than what fans have come to expect from Atmosphere. The highlights on the group’s early albums not only touched on topics that are often overlooked in hip-hop, but also contained some of the most genuinely real lyrics in the genre. Contrary to most rap acts, even in the underground, there was very little self promotion in Slug’s rhymes, but instead storytelling that focused on genuine lyrics that provoke thought and sympathy as opposed to quick rhyme schemes and complicated flow. Because of this, Slug became one of the easiest rap lyricists to relate to, as well as an emcee that had achieved the all too underappreciated art of genuinely expressing himself through his music and personal reflections. Couple that with Ant’s outstanding production, and you have the formula for one of the finest and most accessible groups in hip-hop. 2003’s Seven’s Travels saw Slug improving on his flow and a style of rhyming that was often too raw for its own good, but other than a few awe-inspiring standouts, replaced many of the genuine moments that Atmosphere fans fell in love with on Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly with an unfortunate amount of filler. Two years later, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having completed Atmosphere’s transformation into a group that silenced anyone who doubted Slug’s rapping ability, but Slug’s improved flow came at the expense of the masterful storytelling of the group’s finest moments.
In retrospect, the group’s sixth album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is a make or break album. Either Atmosphere can return to top form or disappoint longtime fans of the group with another mixed record. Thankfully, Atmosphere fans can stop holding their breath. When Life Gives You Lemons is here, and despite its arguably immature and ridiculous title, it’s the group’s most mature, focused, and overall best album to date.
When Life Gives You Lemons is filled with 15 intelligent and well-written songs and absolutely no filler to speak of. The album isn’t a return to Atmosphere’s early style, nor is it a continuation of the group’s more recent albums. Instead, Slug presents himself as no longer the young rapper trying to express himself through his rhymes, but a mature adult who has refined his stories and message into something that has the potential to leave the listener speechless.
The songwriting on When Life Gives You Lemons is nothing short of superb, and it marks the peak of Slug’s lyrical talents to date. The stories that Slug tells are not as literal as they have been in the past, as the lyrics are littered with subtleties and thought provoking twists. As one would expect from Atmosphere, the topics of the lyrics are often personal and almost always rare for hip-hop. Many of the songs focus on darker subject matter than what is found on even the darkest of rap songs, but Slug’s lyrics aren’t delivered in a way that is especially dark, and his often depressing stories aren’t there for anyone to pity him or themselves. Atmosphere’s lyrics have always been that way they are because they are real. There is darkness in reality, and the darkness in Atmosphere’s music comes from Slug’s mastery of expressing his perspective of reality through his aforementioned storytelling. Only this time around, the playfulness of the group has been restricted and replaced with mature lyrical substance that has the same sincerity of even the most genuine reflections and stories Slug has told through his music. Now, however, Slug has both the skills as a rapper and maturity as a lyricist to write an album full of songs that both meet and surpass Atmosphere’s already phenomenal achievements in songwriting.
However, Slug is not the only member of Atmosphere, just as he is not the only reason that the album is as phenomenal as it is. Even during Atmosphere’s more inconsistent years, Ant’s beats have continued to improve, and that trend continues on When Life Gives You Lemons. The samples Ant uses are a more significant part of Atmosphere’s music than the beats of most other hip-hop acts, and there are few producers who can match the atmosphere that Ant’s samples create for Slug’s stories. The variety in the samples is just as varied as the songs themselves, and Slug’s rhymes and Ant’s beats connect throughout the entire album. Both Slug and Ant have improved in their distinct own ways as Atmosphere has grown, and for the first time since 2002’s God Loves Ugly, they appear to be on the same page on a consistent basis. That essentially means that When Life Gives You Lemons has the same musical atmosphere, both in terms of lyrics and beats, as Atmosphere’s early records, but the improvements in Ant’s production is just as clear as Slug’s improvement as a rapper. Both have matured, refined their skills as musicians, and are once again able to connect musically.
When Life Gives You Lemons opens with “Like the Rest of Us,” a song that contains one of Ant’s most beautiful samples to date. Although the song itself is actually one of the weaker songs on the album, that’s more to do with the phenomenal tracks the album presents the listener with later on than the song itself being weak. On first listen, it immediately renders one common complaint with Atmosphere in the past null and void. Slug has often been criticized for his sometimes overly aggressive delivery, but “Like the Rest of Us” shows a much more controlled Slug, both in terms of delivery and lyrics. Unlike many past Atmosphere songs, Slug doesn’t force the listener into his story with aggressive passion, which can either incite the same amount of passion from the listener as a reaction or repulse them, but on this and many other songs on When Life Gives You Lemons, Slug is more passive. He still has the same amount of passion as he’s always had, but it’s his improved focus and maturity as a rapper that allows him to constrain his passion into more focused story and song. It still incites passion from the listener, but anyone who found Slug to be too aggressive on his first few albums should be pleased to find that he has improved dramatically, but still has the same passion that fans identified with.
The album then moves into another slower starting song, and one with just as superb of a beat as the last. “Puppets” is the name of the track, and Slug’s famous singer-songwriter style of rapping is once again found here. Initially, it’s a reminder that Slug is just as unique of a rapper has ever. He’s improved his flow, but he hasn’t conformed stylistically, lyrically, or otherwise. About halfway through the song, the beat kicks in, and it’s at that point where When Life Gives You Lemons grabs the listener and never lets them go. The female vocals found on the song are a perfect contrast to Slug’s vocal style, and the lyrics are simply top notch. “Puppets” is not only one of the album’s highlights, but it’s one of the best songs the group has ever recorded. At that point, Atmosphere has officially matured, and one of the best albums of the decade, rap or otherwise, kicks into gear.
The album continues with a couple of lyrical gems in “The Skinny” and “Dreamer.” Both of which contain a more passive approach by Slug, and two very different but equally great samples by Ant. “The Skinny,” in particular, tackles a familiar topic, but the perspective and maturity that Atmosphere provide make it standout. This is once again due in part to Slug’s impressive storytelling, but also because of the sincerity of the duo’s lyrics. The theme of “The Skinny” is one that is often glorified in rap music, but Slug’s passionate yet passive delivery puts a truthful perspective on it, and makes the song a rather unique one. “Dreamer” is another gem, both in terms of lyrics and beat. The chorus of the song is one of best connections between Ant and Slug, and it provides a hook for the song. However, the hook isn’t one that makes it catchy so much as it draws the listener into the story of the song. The upbeat sample combined with a more positive delivery from Slug nails the message in ways that Atmosphere had only shown the potential of doing in the past. It's also is a song that can be shown to anyone who calls Atmosphere “emo” or “too depressing.” Yes, they deal with dark subject matter, but their commentary is real and maintains an optimistic perspective. Now more than ever that is reflected in Atmosphere’s music, and with that comes a new realm of subtleties that add father depth to lyrics that are already full of substance on literal level.
Quite possibly the weakest track on the album is the first single, “Shoulda Known.” Granted, it’s a quality song, but it’s a more typical rap song than most of the other tracks on the album. It’s on this track and only this track where Slug’s more passive style doesn’t work because this particular song lacks the passion that is found on the most memorable tracks on the album. The beat, although solid, is also forgettable, and despite being unique enough to separate itself from the rest of tracks in context with the album, it’s the closest thing to filler on When Life Gives You Lemons.
Thankfully, the album regains its momentum with the upbeat and bass driven “You,” the subtle yet beautiful “Painting,” and the fantastic “Your Glasshouse.” All three of these songs are different from the anything else on the album, as well as anything Atmosphere has done in the past, yet once again show the variation and maturity that can be found on this record. “Your Glasshouse” is one of the darker and almost intentionally sluggish songs on the album, but just like one would expect from Atmosphere that isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It just is, and it continues the dark but real perspective that Atmosphere’s music has always had. However, it’s the type of focused excellence that fans have been longing for since Atmosphere first turned heads with their Overcast EP.
One of the most personal songs on the album is “Yesterday,” which is yet another wonderfully produced and passionately written highlight that has the power to make anyone who’s lost a loved one sit and think about what they've just heard. Like the best of Atmosphere’s music, it has the power to stay with the listener, and that’s something that is an element of art that is not easy to achieve. On a similar note, the acoustic blues-rap of “Guarantees” is another standout that has similar staying power. The simple acoustic riff that Slug passionately raps over is yet another beat that does an outstanding job of complimenting the lyrics and creating the dark and powerful atmosphere of the song.
The first ten tracks on When Life Gives You Lemons are almost entirely outstanding, but the album somehow improves in its final five tracks. Arguably the two best songs on the album are “Me” and “The Waitress,” two powerful stories that rank as not only two of the greatest songs Atmosphere has recorded, but also two of the most moving rap songs this critic has ever heard. The final line of “The Waitress” is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is guaranteed to make some sort of emotional impact on the listener. There really isn’t anything that can be said for the song other than it will send chills down your spine and that it must be heard to be believed. There are many underground rap songs that exemplify the power of hip-hop, but “The Waitress,” among other songs on When Life Gives You Lemons, exemplifies the power of music and lyricism as a whole.
Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold is not only the group best album since Lucy Ford and God Loves Ugly, but it’s also one of the most intelligent, mature, and poetic albums to come out in some time. This is not only a crowning achievement of an album that is an example of just how great underground rap can be, but it’s an accessible and unique masterpiece that isn’t constrained by its genre. Regardless of how much or how little you enjoy rap, buy this album immediately. It’s spectacular from start to finish, and it has earned my highest recommendation.
To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EP's (3.5/4)- 2010
While technically billed as a “double EP",” To All My Friends… is as long as a full length album, and it’s one of the best hip-hop releases of 2010. Much like other Atmosphere EP’s, the songs are more single based and generally more upbeat. There is no concept tying the tracks together, and as such it feels like listening to an extended Sad Clown EP. Fortunately, that’s a good thing. Slug and Ant have done some of their best work outside of Atmosphere’s major releases, and it’s great to hear the more fun and playful side of Atmosphere side for longer than four or five songs at a time. Also true to from are Slug’s outstanding lyrics. He keeps it simple on To All My Friends…, but every word is necessary and used with meaning. “The Best Day” is an example of this, as well as the highlight of the 12 tracks, as it’s hard not to relate to Slug’s storytelling. Sometimes a simple song reminding you that everyone goes through their own shit is just what you need to get through the day.
Audioslave (Hard Rock)
Audioslave (2.5/4)- 2002
Taken on its own, Audioslave is an above average hard rock album with some nice riffs and catchy hooks. Considering that the band is a supergroup containing three members of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell, it’s hard not to look at this at disappointment. Even the great cuts (“Like a Stone,” “Show Me How to Live”) are far from the best material of Rage or Soundgarden, and Cornell’s voice never meshes with the rest of the band. Still, this is a decent hard rock album with a few memorable tracks, and while far from essential, is a pretty solid album for anyone who can keep their expectations in check.
Avantasia (Progressive/Power Metal)
The Metal Opera (3.5/4)- 2000
Avantasia takes the “metal opera” formula of early Ayreon albums, but puts a fantasy twist on it. With an impressive cast of singers and an engaging albeit generic fantasy story, The Metal Opera is every bit as good as pre-Human Equation Ayreon.
The Metal Opera, Pt. II (3.5/4)- 2002
If you enjoyed the first Avantasia Metal Opera, you’ll almost certainly enjoy its sequel. Very little has changed, but it’s just as entertaining and technically impressive as its predecessor.
The Scarecrow (3/4)- 2008
Avantasia’s third album starts a completely new story. Unfortunately, the concept is not nearly as engaging as The Metal Opera, and the musicianship is far more pop-oriented. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and having a lower number of vocalists greatly increasing the story’s coherency, but fans of the group’s first epic might not be as pleased with The Scarecrow. It’s a solid prog metal album, just not as enjoyable as it could have been.
Avenged Sevenfold (Hard Rock/Metalcore)
Sounding the Seventh Trumpet (1.5/4)- 2001
Avenged Sevenfold’s debut is a mostly awful metalcore album with poor production, boring instrumentation, and some of the worst screaming the genre has to offer. Even fans of the band are advised to skip this album.
Waking the Fallen (2.5/4)- 2003
Quite possibly Avenged Sevenfold’s peak, Waking the Fallen is a perfectly respectable metalcore album. The vocals are well below average, but the riffs are far more complicated and melodic than what the genre is used to. Many of the songs build up from a basic metalcore sound into more melodic and varied sounds, a rarity for the genre. It’s not exceptional by any means, but Waking the Fallen is an interesting album, and certainly above average for its genre.
City of Evil (2/4)- 2005
City of Evil may have been Avenged Sevenfold’s mainstream breakthrough, but it’s actually a step down from their decent sophomore album. City of Evil is, for the most part, a bad album that takes the worst of Guns N Roses style hard rock and combines it with a more modern faux-metal sound. Obviously, the fault of the album has nothing to do with its genre, but it’s when things start to build up and get heavy that Avenged Sevenfold back down and return to their radio rock comfort zone. This is a safe album in the worst way possible, and despite the band’s drastic genre change, it takes very few risks. On top of that, vocalist M. Shadows is among the worst rock singers this critic has heard in some time. Songs like “Seize the Day” are painful to listen to due his complete lack of pitch control. Please, don’t sing a ballad if you can’t hit the notes.
Avenged Sevenfold (1.5/4)- 2007
Avenged Sevenfold’s fourth album (second as a hard rock band) is little more than City of Evil part two. Other than the use noticeable use of electronic pitch correction, there’s little to separate the two. This is more generic radio rock, just done a little heavier and a little more obnoxious, especially on “Critical Acclaim,” where M. Shadows complains about people who complain, making what could have a been a genuine support the troops message into a laughably ironic train wreck.
Ayreon (Progressive Metal)
The Final Experiment (3/4)- 1995
Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s debut album as Ayreon is an outrageously ambitious effort that achieves only a fraction of its potential. Thankfully, that potential achieved and even surpassed on Lucassen’s future masterpieces. The aforementioned Lucassen is the only constant member of the group, as well as the brain behind the music, but each album contains a series of accomplished metal and progressive vocalists playing different characters in what is essential a sci-fi musical in the form of a progressive metal album. The story here is fairly basic, but also interesting in its own right, and it grows into something truly special in future releases. Ayreon gets better, but The Final Experiment is still essential listen for anyone who wants to experience one of the greatest projects to ever grace the genre of heavy metal, especially if you want to understand the many subtleties and references found in the series.
Into the Electric Castle (3.5/4)- 1998
Into the Electric Castle is where Ayreon starts to become something magical. It’s a near masterpiece in its own right, as well as a turning point in the project. Like other Ayreon albums, the vocal cast is simply unbelievable, and Arjen Lucassen’s songwriting is wonderfully ambitious.
Universal Migrator, Pt. 1: The Dream Sequencer (3.5/4)- 2000
Easily the “least metal” Ayreon album, as the first of two Universal Migrator album is a tame and often beautiful intro to its heavier sequel. Despite that, The Dream Sequencer is just as masterful as part two. Even compared to other Ayreon albums, the vocal work is impressive, and this is one of the most accessible progressive albums you’ll find while maintaining the superb quality of Lucassen’s other work.
Universal Migrator, Pt. 2: Flight of the Migrator (3.5/4)- 2000
Part two ends the Universal Migrator albums with a bang. Heavy throughout, this album is both the conflict and the resolution of the Universal Migrator story, and it’s just as impressive as anything in Ayreon’s discography apart from The Human Equation.
The Human Equation (4/4)- 2004
The holy grail of progressive metal albums, and simply one of the greatest albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. The philosophical story is both intriguing and well written, while still being easy to follow. Find an online lyric sheet, turn off the lights, and absorb yourself in this masterpiece.
01011001 (3.5/4)- 2008
The Human Equation is not an easy album to follow. Fortunately, 01011001 is an outstanding follow up that, while vastly flawed, is another prog metal masterpiece. The vocal talent on this album is easily the best on any Ayreon album, but there is unfortunately too much of it. Numerous singers are underused, and the story sheds the philosophy of The Human Equation for pure space opera. You will certainly have to overlook those flaws, but anyone willing to do so will find an experience unlike any other.