I've decided to do a series of obscure top 10 lists. The first will be the best albums, pegged to break bands free of their "classic" albums, but don't quite do it, but still manage to pull off a really good record.
10. Chixdiggit! - Pink Razors
After staying way under the radar for years, Chixdiggit! seemed to pop back up out of nowhere (read: Alberta) and release this little gem in 2004. After their debut came out on legendary indie label Sub Pop, they quickly jumped from Honest Don's to Fat Wreck, both labels started by Fat Mike of NOFX. You can tell they try to go for a little bit more commercial appeal on this album, and I think that's what holds them back a bit. The lyrical hooks are enormous, and their venture into electronic integration on "Nobody Understands Me" in a step in a great direction, but they don't have the bashful charm of their debut. The lyrical themes on their first album were so ridiculously inane and catchy, that you had to love it - and somehow KJ manages to mention his Mom in every other song. Though it does lose points for bashing Rollins. Bad form.
Superior Prerequisite: Self Titled (1996)
9. The Locust - New Erections
If you were into hardcore in the late 90's and say you didn't like The Locust's self titled record, you're a liar. They made keyboards cool, which I suppose is kind of a bad thing, but still. Save for a few 7"'s they did after, they continually turned out drivel until New Erections came out in 2007. The toned down the distortion (only a little), didn't quite do that high pitched scream all the time, but didn't do the whine found all over Plague soundscapes, and really expanded their influences. You can hear a much bigger presence of noise and doom interspersed within their usual grind/electronic half breed. Maybe it was a more polished to their beginnings as just "Locust" (pre lawsuit), but it worked. Buuuuuut, not as much as their Self Titled LP. They'll never top "Skin Graft At 75 MPH". Never. Ever ever ever.
Superior Prerequisite: Self Titled (1998)
8. Mayhem - Ordo Ad Chao
Their fifth album, and a big comeback after the years of drivel Mayhem turned out since the days of Euronymous. In fact, I think the circumstances surrounding the death of Euronymous (and Dead, Varg's incarceration, and the church burnings) rocketed the band's careers forward after what was an unbeatable album. But, enter Atilla, famed vocalist off of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and his eight dozen different voices and vocal sounds. Ignoring the high production trends, they embraced their roots and truely created a polished version of the classic lo-fi black metal sound. It's weird, ecclectic, genre defying. And, they've shedded the now over done corpse paint for elaborate costume design and stage themes. Like this:
Still though, they'll never top De Mysteriis. Especially when that first growl comes in on the title track. There was something dark and dangerous about that line up and that place and time. They made the world, both in and outside metal, fear Norway.
Superior Prerequisite: De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
7. Propagandhi - Potemkin City Limits
Still as wordy, overly thought provoking, and indiscriminately politcally driven, these fellow Canadians come back with their longest effort to date. Released on double LP, and containing their usual 40,000 word booklet with in depth explainations, essays, and personal anecdotes from each member. Being only slightly less preachy this time around, the music is much more thought out, showing they really upped the chops on song writing and structure. Clinging to alot more metal influences in keeping things upbeat, they also break into jazz interludes and softer points. All things considered though, it's slightly less poignant than the album that made them big. Maybe it was John K. Samson's departure, but they don't hit as hard, both musically and emotionally.
Superior Prerequisite: Less Talk, More Rock (1996)
6. Alkaline Trio - Agony & Irony
Now dangerously stradling the line between commercial rock and underground punk rock, Alkaline Trio pull it off with was a great combination of the two battlegrounds. Still retaining the dark edge of their earlier records, they delve into a way slick production, and stick to some listener friendly album tricks. Rather than on Crimson, their previous album, where they got alot more creative and really spread their sound out, they seemed to have compacted it more this time around - sticking to formulaic rock songs. That being said, it's catchy as hell and rock solid. To boot, they bring in some great collaborators, including Norwegian black metal legends, Ulver. The overall result is an excellent album, falling just short of the bite their earlier efforts had.
Superior Prerequisite: Crimson (2005), Good Mourning (2003), From here to Infirmary (2001)
5. Neurosis - Given To The Rising
More wide open sounding than ever, the Oakland boys again rise from the grave they laid in in the early 2000's when the decided to cease touring. But in classic Neurosis form, they tread new ground like it was their hometown. They give the overall album a cavernous sound, dialing in the same melodramatics they're legendary for. The highlight of the album for me is the nearly 10 second gutteral that Scott Kelly lets loose on "To The Wind" marking the shift of the song. But, all that said, the boundary pushing, breaking, and rebuilding that made them legends will never be outdone. Maybe if they threw some bagpipes on this one it would've moved the chains.
Superior Prerequisite: Times Of Grace (1999)
4. World Burns To Death - The Graveyard Of Utopia
In my opinion, World Burns To Death are the best current crust band in the world. They've got raw, staunch politics which are never, ever deviated from. The look of their records, to the players themselves, to their DVD is so bleak it perfectly compliments the music. Once subscribing only to an ultra elite group of crust/punk bands who fly extremely low under the radar (maintaining NO internet presence, playing and booking with ONLY bands in this circuit) with bands like Tragedy, Severed Head Of State, etc - these guys have finally branched out and begun playing to new crowds, i.e. Fun Fun Fun Fest with Atmosphere, Kool Keith, ALL, etc. This record is a bit of a representation of this. Recorded in Japan, it has a slicker production than their previous records, and encompasses much more classic hardcore punk songwriting, ala 'Never Again' era Discharge. There's guitar solos galore (even guest solos), and even some southern rock style riffery. They compiled a brilliant album overall, but it leaves me yearning for the stripped down, bleak hardcore of their earlier releases. The novel of lyrics, quotes, essays and explanations that comes with the record fairs better to the their last two. Plus, those ones have pictures of dicks on the covers. Though...this one has Satan.....that's a tough call.
Superior Prerequisite: Sucking Of The Missle Cock (2002), Totalitarian Sodomy (2006)
3. High On Fire - Death Is This Communion
Two things Matt Pike will never be able to rid himself of: the fact that he was in Sleep, and the guitar tones he got out of his Matamps on the early HOF albums. Sleep are easily the most influential stoner rock band of all time. Most big trends in the subgenre can be traced back to something they did initially - including setting the bar really, REALLY high for long songs with the 74 minute Jerusalem/Dopesmoker opus. The fact that Matt Pike could write a 74 minute song about marajuana is a task most potheads would masturbate too. And then, later in the day, they would masturbate to Pike's guitar tone. He made using a mountain of cranked amps not just for cock-rock assholes, and many people followed suit. Even looking past Sleep, his guitar tone on the first two HOF records makes many guitar nerds drool with jealousy. And ever since Pike stopped using Matamps, there's been a loyal following of those guitar nerds who obsess over everytime he changes his guitar setup. How do I know this? Because I'm one of them.
Death Is This Communion shows a true maturing of Pike's song writing, and his ability to combine heavy stoner metal, with modern rock delicacy. The production has gone way up, the grit to his guitar tone has gone way down, but anyone can admit these are amazing songs. For my money though, I've gotta stick with the OG. It is heavier, and even though I don't do drugs, knowing how potted out he was during those initial years makes it better.
Superior Prerequisite: The Art Of Self Defense (2000)
2. Black Flag - My War
Here's my novelty, non-new release. Much to some of my colleagues shagrin, Rollins was the best Black Flag vocalist. He had more personality than Dez, and more intensity than Keith. Some people call him cheesy or melodramatic, but that was part (and still is) of his charm. But I digress. The title track to My War is one of the best Black Flag songs ever written, and possibly one of the best punk songs to ever be put to tape. It's got the urgency in every aspect of the song that makes a punk song a classic, and Hank's intensity near the end of it is the icing on the cake. You can literally hear him step away from the mic while he enters some other state of mind amidst his screaming during the last minute, only to step back in for the last triumphant "MY......WARRRR".
Past that, to be perfectly honest, the album is pretty ho hum (save for "Beat My Head Against A Wall"). You can tell in the three years since 'Damaged' the band had degenerated a little and was trying to tread new land. Maybe it was the fact that Greg Ginn was the only writer/string player on the album, that no one could stop him from going into more sludgy song structures. They're still good, but Black Flag is famous for their faster punk stuff. It's what worked best, and I think if it wasn't for the title track, this album would have been very easily forgotten.
Superior Prerequisite: Damaged (1981)
1. Metallica - Death Magnetic
Cliff died in 1986. Many would argue that the band died with him that day in Sweden. I'm not one of them though. I'll admit that their best stuff was done with Cliff on bass, but I'll never dismiss some efforts after that.
I think the big thing you have to remember when you think about current Metallica is that the band has been together for 25 years. All of the core guys are in their mid 40's, and though it's no excuse for 'Load', I'm sure my interests will have changed in the next twenty years when I'm their age.
On 'Death Magnetic', they FINALLY fired Bob Rock - longtime producer and potential man of blame for some of he biggest atrocities in metal history, including 'Some Kind Of Monster' the in depth, cry fest documentary on the band in the early 2000's. The brought in long time high esteem producer Rick Rubin to sprinkle some fairy dust on them and try to snap them out of their 15 year rut. He succeeded. Kinda.
Apparently, before writing began he told the gents that if they wanted to make a comeback record, they had to get into the same headspace they were in when they wrote 'Master Of Puppets', because that was their high point. Knowing that, when I listen to this album, I can really hear 'Master' all over it.
The big thing is they are a commercial band. This is their job and they've got more people to please than just their egos (or fans who are still stuck in 1986). I think there is alot of commercial appeal on this record, aimed toward the new generation of metal fans. People who are stuck on Disturbed will like this, and I think that was part of their intent. If they wanted to make a successful album this late into their career they had to appeal to everyone: 17 year old new jacks and 37 year old metal heads. Looking at tracks like "The End Of The Line" or the ballad-esque "Unforgiven III", you hear alot of commercial appeal, but still maintaining qualities long time fans can appreciate (at least if they liked The Black Album). But, when "All Nightmare Long" or the album ending scorcher "My Apocalypse" kick in, you could swear it was a re-recorded outake from '...And Justice For All'.
The end result was a really strong album, on par if not better than The Black Album. Did they beat the classic 'tallica? Hell no. They never will. Did they redeem themselves from their atrocities spanning from '96 to '03? Definitely. You just can't expect a band this old to re-create what have become some of the best metal albums of all time and still be as important as they once were. Cliff is dead. Newsted plays indie rock now. Yes, the guys are still trying to be young, but then again, so are you.
Superior Prerequisite: Everything 1983 - 1988