I’ve been writing album reviews for a while now, so you may have noticed that I pretty much never award an album a full score. Many of my selections for album of the year have failed to draw a 10/10 out of me, and that includes years like 2015 when there were incredible albums coming out week after week. So, if I’m such a hardass then, you might wonder what some of my favorite albums are. What do I consider a 10/10 album?
So what are my criteria? First of all, I have to like every song on the album. Secondly, I have to be able to listen through the whole album every time without feeling the need to skip a song. On top of that, it has to be an album that makes me feel something – it can’t just be good, it has to be memorable, to strike something in me. It also has to be a musical style that I can go back to in any mood, though that’s a bit subjective… album reviews will never be 100% objective though. That in mind, here are a few of my picks (compilations not included):
01. Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud (2015)
I didn’t write the review for this album last year, but I certainly could have. Amorphis was, until this album’s release, a band that I enjoyed live, and could name a few hits that I thought were great, but ultimately felt rather neutral about as a whole. However, Under the Red Cloud is one of those perfect sorts of albums that you can listen through without feeling any sort of annoyance (yes, I’m even giving “Sacrifice” a pass – though it is an inoffensive radio hit, it’s still catchy and enjoyable), without wanting to skip a single song. The concept is great, the lyrics are great, the music is great, and Tomi Joutsen’s vocals are great. Because of this album, I now officially consider myself a fan of Amorphis.
02. Machinae Supremacy – A View from the End of the World (2010)
I discovered Machinae Supremacy back around the release of this album when my partner came into the room declaring, to some then-unfamiliar music, “I’m gonna do you a favor and not teabag you for your behavior” (“Crouching Camper, Hidden Sniper”), to which I declared with amusement, “No, those are not lyrics. No band is that silly.” I was wrong. This is one of MaSu’s less risky or experimental albums, certainly, yet the lack of risk makes nearly every song on the album an instant hit. Perhaps the riskiest song on the album is “One Day in the Universe”, a song that Spinefarm was hesitant to allow the band to include, which is in my opinion one of the greatest love songs ever written. Combined with classics like “Indiscriminate Murder is Counterproductive” and another tasty piece of the “March of the Undead” series, there’s nothing I don’t love on this album. While Rise of a Digital Nation easily gets a 9/10 and Phantom Shadow earned itself a near-perfect 9.5/10, their predecessor is one of my all-time favorite albums, and one that I can go back to any day when I need a pick-me-up.
03. Ayreon – The Human Equation (2004)
Concept albums are hard to nail (refer back to my thoughts on MaSu’s Phantom Shadow), but Arjen Lucassen has been fairly consistent in his efforts to make true and proper concept albums that really dig deep and hit hard. While the entire album series that follows the concept of the Forever has been incredible as a whole, the only album that I would call truly perfect is The Human Equation – with a cast of legends at his disposal, including James Labrie, Devin Townsend, Mikael Åkerfeldt, and so many more, not a single voice or instrument went to waste. Every song (and there are many) serves a deep and touching purpose to the storyline, and every time I listen to the album, the final crescendo makes me shed a tear. It’s hard to listen to any song on this album out of context – to listen to one song means you have to listen to them all, and there is nothing that I ever want to skip. Each song is vital, integral to the story, and exactly zero of them fail to hold up the musical or vocal standard. This is a concept album in all its glory, and the success of the live production of The Theater Equation will back me up on this.
04. Bruce Dickinson – Accident of Birth (1997) and The Chemical Wedding (1998)
While it may surprise those who know me that I don’t think that Iron Maiden has a perfect album, Bruce Dickinson managed to nail it twice within a year with Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding. While these were some of my starter albums as a metalhead, there is just something about both of these albums and all of the songs on them (extended editions not included) that pleases me. “Accident of Birth” was one of the first ‘heavy’ songs I really enjoyed and every year I listen to the album I have a different favorite song, while pretty much everything on TCW appealed to me straight out of the gate. There was something fantastical about both albums and when I discovered them, I was in a place where I needed that. These are two albums that are very close to my heart to this day.
05. Ensiferum – From Afar (2009)
I am a bit hesitant to declare this a 10/10 instead of a 9.5/10, but let’s be honest, if the fault I find in this album is the fact that the two “Heathen Throne” songs are a bit long and epic… that’s not really a fault. It’s more an issue with my attention span, because those are both excellent songs. As for the rest of the album, it has some of my favorite songs from Enska, and their CD release show back in September 2009 is still one of my fondest live memories, so I’m going to have to give this one a full score.
06. Wintersun – Time I (2012)
I might get some scorn from the Mäenpää haters for this, but fact is, this is a great album. I don’t even enjoy listening to the songs without the other songs present. This album is one whole, complete unit, and it’s beautiful. So even though the debate over who is right in Mäenpää’s argument with Nuclear Blast is still raging on, I will simply say that this album is beautiful and pretty much perfect. Let’s see if Time II can live up to it… if it ever gets released.
07. Bring Me the Horizon – That’s the Spirit (2015)
I gave this album a full score in its review last year, though honestly in hindsight I’d knock it down to a 9.5/10 if I was grading it today. That may just be proof of me getting a little harsher in my old age though. “What You Need” and “Run” are the two weak spots on the album, though they don’t actually drag it down in any way (unlike The Dark Ride‘s two low points, below), and as such, it seems I was willing to give this album a full score.
08. Blind Channel – Revolutions (2016)
This album came out this year and for some reason, I gave it a 9.5/10 on its official review. After a great deal of consideration, I asked myself what held this album back? What kept it from being a 10/10 album? I listened to “Unforgiving”, and “Don’t” a fair bit over the summer before the album officially came out, so by the time the album had come out, I was sick of the latter two songs, but that was more a result of over-listening than the songs not actually being as good. Ultimately, if I gave Bring Me the Horizon’s latest album a full score, this easily deserves one too and if I’ll be backdating an updated full score for these guys.
09. Ember Falls – Welcome to Ember Falls (2017)
[ed: added in 02.2017]
Much like Blind Channel’s debut, Ember Falls absolutely kicked the shit out of their self-defined genre. Blending dance/electronica/pop sounds with heavy metal growls, sweet guitar solos, and rock solid drumming, along with the glorious vocal stylings of Thomas Grove, this album is pretty much a pure blend of pop nostalgia and metal awesomeness. There isn’t a second of this album I don’t love.
For curiosity’s sake, here is a list of 9.5/10 albums, along with the reason I think they missed half a point. Sometimes it’s a good reason, sometimes it’s just due to my own weirdness.
01. Iron Maiden – Brave New World (2000): One of my all-time favorite albums, I’ve never quite gotten on board with “The Mercenary”, no matter how hard I’ve tried. Ultimately, I end up skipping that one song each time I listen to this album. I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that “Brave New World” gets skipped from time to time.
02. Machinae Supremacy – Phantom Shadow (2014): I have mixed feelings about this album as a concept if we take the canon story into consideration, but if I was to think about my own theory from before I knew their version, I am better able to integrate “Throne of Games”; if we were going on my theory, this would be a perfect album, but since I’m going off the band’s story, it misses a point for including the filler song and for being a concept album that doesn’t really cover enough of the concept to be a concept (case in point: “Renegades”).
03. Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle Earth (1998): This is another rather successful concept album; however, because I could never chew my way through The Silmarillion, I don’t have as much use for the full story as the average listener, and therefore I tend to skip over all of the non-song tracks/interludes on the album. If only I had been able to stomach that book…
04. Helloween – The Dark Ride (2000): Another first favorite album of mine, and one that continues to be a favorite to this day. This album is nearly perfect, except for the two songs that don’t quite fit into the mix: “All Over the Nations” and “Salvation” to a lesser degree. If these two super power metal tracks hadn’t brought the heavy and dark feeling down, this album would be 100% pure bliss.
05. Devin Townsend Project – Z2 (2014): I had wanted to give this album a full score because the sheer amazement of some of the songs alone made me want to allow it. However, I do have my standards, so “Fallout”, “Universal Flame”, and “March of the Poozers” couldn’t make up for the 25% filler songs or music that both Sky Blue and Dark Matters have, so the album certainly doesn’t fit the criteria to be considered perfect. However, it surely says something that its good songs earned it a 9.5 with so much filler!
06. Entwine – Chaotic Nation (2015): This one is really, really borderline between 9.5 and 10 for me. I like the whole album, I always listen through the whole album without skipping anything, so the only missing thing is that last factor, that thing where it has to affect me on some deeper level. As much as I truly enjoy this delightful slice of comeback, I can’t say that it has managed to hit me hard in any way, so it didn’t quite make the list.
07. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate (2016): While Lene was happy to give this a full score, I am hesitant to call it perfect, though I’m not sure why exactly that is. What she wrote about the album is true – it is essentially perfect. Perhaps it lacks a bit of that thing that grips me (though I adore the original story), or perhaps I liked the story better than the album (though I love when music is put to stories), or perhaps it is just a concept that doesn’t make me feel the way something like The Human Equation does (though I think the adaptation was excellent). Ultimately, maybe I don’t want to call it perfect because it is a dark, heavy album that is hard to get much out of if you don’t give it your full attention. It’s not something I could put on at any time – it’s an album I have to be in the mood to take on, like reading a book.
08. Kiuas – Lustdriven (2010): Oh how I want to declare this album perfect! This album has achieved greatness in a way that many albums have not, and I would be willing to declare this one of the greatest ‘band’s last albums’ of all time. However, “Cry Little Angel” tends to get skipped when I listen most times, and “Aftermath” gets skipped maybe 50% of the time, so as such, I cannot declare this a 10/10.
09. Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015): Another album I wish I could declare perfect, but alas… as impressed as I am by Floor Jansen’s growling in “Yours is an Empty Hope”, I really just can’t get behind that song – it throws off the groove and feeling of the album for me. Plus I’d be lying if I said I didn’t skip the last two songs from time to time. I have high hopes for their next album though…
10. Norther – N (2008): Yet another borderline case makes the list. While I do enjoy every song on this album, this is a case where the album entirely consists of 4 star or 5 star songs, meaning while I like all of the songs, I don’t like them all equally, so sometimes I listen to the album as a whole and sometimes I just listen to my favorites. There is some degree of a gap between the good songs and the great songs that holds this one back just enough that I don’t want to call it perfect.
11. A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms (2000): Not unlike N, this is an album I will gladly listen straight through, however, I do have clear favorite songs and I will skip about half of the songs on this album if I’m not in the exact perfect mood for them.
12. Santa Cruz – Santa Cruz (2015): If party rock is your thing, you might disagree that this album doesn’t hold up. I adored this album from the first listen onward, but after listening to it quite a lot over the last year, I no longer feel the need to come back to it. I suppose I feel like it more or less ran its course and while I don’t mind listening to it if someone else puts it on, I don’t feel the need myself to play it anymore, hence the missing half a point.
13. Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again (2016): This album is a 9.5 largely because power metal is just not exactly my genre. I can’t put on a power metal album whenever to just enjoy, although if I would, it’d be this one. Also, there is one faulty song on the album, which is “Wounds” – a decent track, but as the year has gone by, it’s lost favor with me.
14. Turisas – The Varangian Way (2008): In spite of the fact that this was my favorite album for a solid 2-3 years, like N, it has a few flaws. As a concept album it works extremely well and the songs are for the most part fantastic; however, a few songs simply don’t work for me day in and day out, like “In the Court of Jarisleif”, so I will have to leave it at a 9.5.
15. Within Temptation – The Silent Force (2004): There was a time in my life when I would’ve gladly called this a perfect album, however, the songs simply just didn’t hold up the way many of the above-listed perfect albums did. Back in 2008 I would’ve called nearly every song on this album a 5 star track, but nowadays I might say that they are all very solid 4 star songs, as they just don’t have the same effect on me as they once did.
16. Ayreon – The Source (2017):
[ed: added 07.2017]
If I’m being honest, my initial score for this album was a full 10/10, but I was somewhat rushed before the release date when I did the review. I couldn’t give it time to settle in and leave an impression. The first impression was overwhelmingly positive, yet now that some months have passed, the album’s heavy concept and heavier songs weigh down on me at times. I love it as a complete unit, but sometimes I just want to skip the full force of it and listen to the fun stuff – maybe that’s cause to keep its 10/10 score, but for me personally, right now I’d drop it half a point because it doesn’t have the same lasting effect and positive feeling as The Human Equation.
17. Eluveitie – Evocation II: Pantheon (2017):
[ed: added 08.2017]
This one is simple and you can find the details in the review – the album works wonderously as a complete conceptual piece, but if you try to listen to some songs out of the full-album context, a few of them lose their luster. This album is best as a whole unit.
So that’s that! Now you can peg my taste in music against yours to see if you have anything in common with me, and can see how my feelings towards some albums compare to your feelings, to see if you want to trust my judgment or not!