This was an ok year for the kind of music I like. There were plenty of new albums by my favorite bands, but — weirdly — there were a ton of live albums this year. Maybe there’s something in the water. At least 11 bands that I listen to released live albums in 2013, and that’s quite a lot. There were only 5 last year. So this year, I’m naming an album of the year and a live album of the year. It’s more fun for me that way.
Here’s the deal. Last year, I did pretty good. I picked Ugly Kid Joe as number one, and Devin Townsend and Prong as runners up. Pretty good choices, as it turns out. Fear Factory as another runner up, less good. And the year before, I was clearly wrong picking Anthrax. The last time I listened to Worship Music was in May, and the play count is only 17. But the runner up, Nightwish’s Imaginarium, has play counts of 24 and I listened to it just last week.
So this year, I’m trying to figure out what’s got the staying power. What can I pick that I’ll stand behind next year?
Vagabond · Michale Graves
I can pick Vagabond by Michale Graves, that’s what.
The former Misfits singer has, since leaving the band, released lots of music that consistently grabs my attention and is worthy of many, many follow up listens. In Graves’ own words, “the album features 12 new and never before released songs that display my rock/folk/pop sensibility.” It’s true. These are extremely accessible songs that, as an album, seem to tell a story about love and loss and hope.
To my ear, it sounds like folk music with a super high-quality Ramones-like wall-of-sound production. Graves’ vocals are powerful and clean, but the album doesn’t sound like a vehicle for his voice. It sounds like a album of songs made by a tight band.
What it doesn’t sound like is the Misfits. Oddly, I can recommend this album to nearly everybody I know, including my dad, which is saying something. If my dad had his choice, I suspect he’d basically just listen to Enya 24-7 because as far as I can remember, her music has no drums.
Anyway, this music reaches in and stimulates a part of my brain and heart that I can really only think of as sentimentally. It’s the Critical Creig album of the year.
Key Song · All the Hallways • Album available on iTunes
Showtime, Storytime • Nightwish
I’m not gonna get fooled again. Nightwish released a live album? It’s gotta be the best, right? As it turns out, yes, that’s right.
Nightwish got started with a woman named Tarja Turunen on vocals. She had a mid-range, operatic vocal style. She was kicked out of the band and replaced by Anette Olzon, who has a higher, poppier voice, and with whom the band created their masterpiece, Imaginarium. I was seriously bummed when I found out she’d left the band. I figured that would probably be it for this band.
Oh, boy, was I ever wrong.
Former After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen is now at the helm and she’s amazing. I imagine it’s not easy singing in a band like Nightwish. You’ve got to have super heavy metal chops, but you’ve also got to have that etherial dreaminess required for the creepy songs. She’s got as much of both as you could want. (She also has all the sex appeal you could want.)
Floor sounds like Tarja — only better — on the old songs, and she sounds like Anette — only better — on the new songs. The rest of the band sounds awesome, and the setlist is fantastic. As a live album, it’s everything you want, and it’s an ideal introduction to this singer in this band. I can’t wait to see what the next album sounds like. I thought it would be hard to top Imaginarium, but with Floor on vocals and the energy evident in this, the Critical Creig live album of the year, I think it’ll probably be the Critical Creig album of the year in 2014.
Key Songs · Amaranth, Song of Myself • Album available on iTunes
Lost Skeleton Returns · Michale Graves
Interestingly, the first runner up to Michale Graves’ record is Michale Graves. He released two albums in 2013, and the other one, Lost Skeleton Returns, is much heavier than Vagabond.
I love this. It’s a bunch of Misfits and previous Michale Graves songs, re-recorded. They sound spectacularly good, and the Misfits songs — all of which still hold up on their own right — got a breath of fresh air. The new songs fit right in and sound great. My only complaint is that Graves’ first two post-Misfits albums were ignored — this is particularly criminal because one of his best ever songs, Seasons of the Witch, is only available in low-quality MP3. A re-recording of that would have been most welcomed. Oh, well.
Key Song ·
Seasons of the Witch Dig Up Her Bones • Album available on iTunes
Russian Holiday · Blaze Bayley
Blaze Bayley’s Russian Holiday is also a clear runner up. It’s sort of a live album, though there’s precious little audience noise. It’s guitar and violin acoustic interpretations of Blaze and Iron Maiden songs, and it’s wonderful. I only wish there were more songs. Sign of the Cross sounds great, but this record’s stand-out is One More Step, a song about never giving up. This acoustic version is so good, I cannot oversell it.
Key Song · One More Step • Album available on iTunes
Straight out of hell · Helloween
I want to be pithy and say that Helloween released a Helloween album, and it’s great, but it deserves more than that. It’s an exceptional Helloween album. Doesn’t really break new ground or anything, but it’s a best of breed. Plus, the song Asshole is wonderfully funny.
Key Songs · Asshole, Wanna Be God • Album available on iTunes
Retinal Circus • Devin Townsend
This thing is incredible. It’s a live album, but it’s so much more than just songs played on a stage to an audience. It was planned for months, and follows a sort of a story.
But that’s not what makes it amazing. Part of what makes it amazing is how well Devin Townsend’s songs translate to a live setting. They sound good, not compromised. Devin’s music tends to be incredibly layered and complex and I’d never really listened to his live material before. It’s actually kind of incredible.
But what makes it really really amazing is watching the thing. Watching the interaction between Devin and super talented (and let’s face it, super hot) Anneke van Giersbergen is a lot of fun. It’s available on DVD/Bluray, and many of the songs stream on YouTube, and it’s something else. It’s more song and dance musical production than mere concert.
Also, weird, all the guys in the band are bald.
Key Songs · All the songs. Criminy, this whole thing is just so weird and good. And it’s available on iTunes.
So there you have it. That’s the best. In all, it was a pretty good year for music. The mighty Black Sabbath released new material, and that’s awesome, but I’m still withholding judgement on it. Other mighty bands also released other solid music, but in my opinion, this is the top tier material. 2014 looks to start off super strong with an Iced Earth studio album, so I’ve got high hopes going forward. When there’s good metal, it’s hard to count the year as a total loss no matter what else goes on.