I can't even think of 20 albums I liked this year, so I'll do my top 5.
The ordering of this list is almost insignificant because these are all great records. The honorable mentions are almost as good as the top 5, so don't forget about them. Listen to the samples, fall in love, then check out some of the artists referenced within.
1. Mastodon - Blood Mountain
At first listen, I wasn't quite sure what to think of this album. Some tracks, like "Siberian Divide" (featuring Cedric from the Mars Volta), push the prog-metal envelope, and others like "Bladecatcher" took some getting used to. I still think "Bladecatcher" is a terrible song, but overall, Blood Mountain doesn't disappoint. "Siberian Divide" is now one of my favorite songs on Blood Mountain, and I actually think Cedric's vocals sound great. The band has added even more diversity to their mix of sludge, southern riffs, and fist pumping hardcore by adding prog-metal textures. Drummer Brann Dailor pounds the skins with jazz-like virtuosity, and the band's dual vocal attack has only improved. It might not be as great as Leviathan, but it would take quite a masterpiece to match that album's impact.
2. Converge - No Heroes
You Fail Me was my least favorite Converge album (but its still a great album), and I didn't know what to expect from No Heroes. Early reports from the band were calling for the heaviest album since Jane Doe, which is a modern hardcore classic. Come October, No Heroes landed in my disk tray and pounded my ears into submission. Their heaviest album? Quite possibly. Its a comfortable transition for old fans, but the band still manages to advance their artistic growth. "Grim Heart/ Black Rose" features guest vocalist Jonah Jenkins in a nine minute long song that manages to naturally progress from a prog-metal style to Jacob Bannon's trademark scream. Others, such as the self-titled song, will enter the list of Converge Classics. It may not amaze like When Forever Comes Crashing or Jane Doe, but No Heroes is still one of the band's best albums.
3. The Black Heart Procession - The Spell
This is my first Black Heart Procession album, but it certainly won't be my last. I always thought that traditional chamber arrangements would work perfectly with the slowcore style pioneered by bands like Codeine and Bedhead in the 90's, but the Black Heart Procession is the first band I've heard that pulls off this feat to great effect. The Arcade Fire somewhat hinted at this kind of mix with 2004's Funeral, but the Black Heart Procession truly dives into dirgelike rhythms and a brooding atmosphere. Still, they always manage to retain memorable melodies, never letting the atmosphere suffocate the songwriting. A great album by a band with a great track record, yet this LP seems a bit overlooked on the year end lists.
4. Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies
I always thought Dan Bejar was too eccentric to compose an album completely driven by traditional instrumentation and catchy (!) melodies. Then again, Destroyer's Rubies opens with a nine minute long song, which isn't necessarily the next step to a wider audience. Dan Bejar's songwriting suffered a bit with Your Blues' canned midi symphony. It seemed like he completely immersed himself in his pocket symphony, sometimes disregarding listenable structures. Destroyer's Rubies completely reinstates Bejar as one of indie rock's Canadian heroes, reinforcing his always memorable lyrics with sweeping melodies and great arrangements. By embracing such traditional instruments (piano, electric and acoustic guitars), Bejar only seems more confident in his songwriting abilities.
5. Tie: TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain vs. Islands - Return to the Sea
With one album, we have a band that continues to tread the line between artistic, self gratifying experimentaion and accesibility. With the other, we see a new artist trying to distance itself from a former project. Return to Cookie Mountain immerses itself in David Sitek's beautiful production, with loops, samples, and all manner of instrumentation creating a rich sonic tapestry. Of course, Tunde Adebimpe's vocals don't disappoint, reasserting his versatility and restraint. He continues to use his amazing falsetto, weaving it in between backing vocals and electronic textures. Some tracks near the end threaten to derail the album's momentum, but the band's songwriting instincts always keep this LP on the tracks. With Return to the Sea, Nick Diamonds and Jaime T'ambour of the Unicorns showcase their chops. Where Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone was unfocused and childish, Return to the Sea is mature and elegantly melodic. Diamonds and T'ambour have found the perfect balance between cutesy twee and stately orchestration. Stand up bass, horns, strings, keys, and a saw all adorn this album's varied instrumentation. This group's ability to transition between melodic figures is astonishing, especially considering that the Unicorns seemed to be lost in non linear song construction.
The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off (this is actually just as good as the two albums tied for number 5, but I thought a three way tie might be excessive)
Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Built to Spill - You In Reverse
Chavez - Better Days Will Haunt You (complete discography compilation of out of print material)
Liars - Drum's Not Dead (this and You In Reverse barely missed the cut)
Man Man - Six Demon Bag (a live experience to die for)
Blood Brothers - Young Machetes
I know Evan really likes this album but I think it is quite mediocre. Its definitely a huge disappointment after Crimes (my favorite Blood Brothers album), which saw the band balancing artistic calm with their spazzcore tendencies. It seemed that the Blood Brothers were heading into Brainiac territory, but Young Machetes finds them sounding like the bastard children of Steven Tyler and David Bowie. Some tracks retain the Brothers' spastic intensity, but the awful forays into glam, hair metal, and dance rock (as seen on "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" and "The Giant Swan") completely derail the album's momentum. There's nothing wrong with an artist experimenting with new styles or textures, but when he/she completely misuses these new ideas, disaster almost always ensues.
Preview Blood Mountain
The Black Heart Procession - Not Just Words
Destroyer - Watercolours Into the Ocean
Destroyer - European Oils
Streaming clips of No Heroes
A few songs from Return to the Sea
Chavez - The Guard Attacks and Unreal Is Here
Man Man - Van Helsing Boombox
Preview some tracks from You In Reverse
Belle and Sebastian - Another Sunny Day