Kathleen Richards' Top Ten Albums of the Year 

From Black Cobra to Red Fang, our critics recommend the best music of 2011.

Mastodon

The Hunter

It might have seemed difficult for Mastodon to top Crack the Skye, a proggy, spacey, conceptual album that alienated some of the Atlanta band's older fans but solidified its position as one of the country's biggest metal outfits. But The Hunter suffers from no such identity crisis. Like Crack the Skye, it manages to be both creatively ambitious and commercially accessible at once, but it's also more straightforward (shorter songs, anthemic riffs) and more experimental (weird rhythmic changes, Flash Gordon-like effects) at times than its predecessor. There's still hyperactive, laser-precision drumming and dazzling, complex guitar work that Mastodon has become known for. It's undoubtedly one of the most addictive, infectious metal albums of the year. (Reprise)

Wye Oak

Civilian

Wye Oak has just two members, but you'd never tell from the monumental sound it creates: indie rock with elements of folk, Americana, dream pop, and noise. It's an earnest, blissful, heavy mix, prone to teasing hooks from loud-soft dynamics and simple guitar phrasings. Singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner's gently swinging voice contains that perfect combination of vulnerability and strength, while Andy Stack supplies a solid rhythm section (drums and bass via keyboard, playing both simultaneously live). It's a more Americana-fied version of Land of Talk, and a modern take on Neil Young; it's rock with heart and hooks. Bliss. (Merge)

Black Cobra

Invernal

San Francisco duo Black Cobra has spent the last seven years playing doomy sludge metal with a particularly vicious kind of ferocity. And with Invernal, its fourth album, the band sticks with its formula but somehow cranks things up a notch. Pushing beyond the limits of exertion, as singer-guitarist Jason Landrian barks in "Erebus Dawn." Within this grinding, thunderous mix, Black Cobra always throws in nuggets of melodic hooks, and this time even adds some guitar solos and quiet, mellower parts. That just makes the record even more intense. (Southern Lord)

True Widow

As High as the Highest Heavens and From the Center of the Circumference of the Earth

It's rare to come across a band so firmly committed to a particular aesthetic, and that alone could distinguish True Widow from other bands. But in this case, the Dallas trio plays a very specific sound it dubs "stone-gaze" — drop-tuned, narcoleptic-paced, repetitive, dreamy, and undeniably ear-wormy, like a heavier, more distorted version of Low. While not quite as compelling as the band's debut, As High As the Highest Heavens still contains plenty of head-nodding hooks. (Kemado)

The Joy Formidable

The Big Roar

"Subtlety" doesn't appear to be in the vocabulary of The Joy Formidable. It's clear from the title of its debut album and from its walls of noise, big grungy guitars, and anthemic hooks that this Welsh trio is primed for the stadium. But who doesn't love some epic rock now and then? And epic it is, from the double-bass action on the climatic ending of "Whirring" to the saturated grandiosity of "Buoy." This is music for blasting in your car; not subtle, or particularly groundbreaking for that matter, but rewarding just the same. (Atlantic)

The Atlas Moth

An Ache for the Distance

In recent years some of the most interesting metal releases have explored psychedelia and progressive rock. The latter-day releases of Enslaved, Nachtmystium, and Mastodon proved not only that experimenting with melody, instrumentation, and songwriting structure could expand the parameters of the genre, but also that there was an audience hungry for something different. And now add Chicago's The Atlas Moth to the list. Its second full-length, An Ache for the Distance, incorporates elements of black metal — shrieking vocals, bleakness — into a melting pot of psych, stoner, sludge, and doom. With a strong focus on melody and composition, the album also features cleaner singing, sprawling guitars (there are three guitarists), and atmospheric nuances. It's a highly addictive record that keeps getting better the more you listen to it. (Profound Lore)

Saviours

Death''s Procession

Throwback metal can sometimes feel a bit, well, contrived. But one never gets that sense with Oakland's Saviours. These guys seem to have genuinely been transported from the late-Seventies and early-Eighties, complete with denim jackets and bong haze. On Death's Procession, Saviours' fourth album, the band gets a little more epic: cranking out more dual-guitar leads; composing longer, somewhat slower songs; and making unexpected changes mid-track, which keeps things interesting. Consider it a thoughtful party album. (Kemado)

The Antlers

Burst Apart

Maybe it's the lilting falsetto of singer Peter Silberman, or that ringing, heavily reverbed guitar, or that sparse drumbeat over which it all floats, but Burst Apart has the ability to whisk the listener, instantly, to some far-off contemplative place where emotion bubbles to the surface. Occasionally, it calls you to dance ("French Exit"), or to sit at your kitchen table in the middle of the night pondering your future ("Rolled Together"), or to make you think you've just slipped into some haunted film-noir soundtrack ("Tiptoe"). Only on the mandolin-driven "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" does the soulfulness start to sound cheesy. Overall, though, a gorgeous record. (Frenchkiss)

Red Fang

Murder the Mountains

There's something to be said for a band that's content to just rock. And Red Fang makes it seem easy. This lumberjack-ish, working-class foursome from Portland channels heaviness in the vein of The Melvins and Big Business: big riffs and bigger hooks. Its second full-length, Murder the Mountains, is a goldmine of sludgy stoner gems, rife with memorable melodies and sing-along hooks. Produced by The Decemberists' Chris Funk, it's a fun, pretension-free album that you'll want to headbang to from beginning to end. (Relapse)

Northless

Clandestine Abuse

Sludge/doom fans had plenty of notable releases to chew on this year (see: Whitehorse, Batillus, Indian), but the second album by Northless really stands out. Going beyond the standard drop-tuned riffs played at molasses-paced tempos, the Milwaukee band incorporates elements of post-hardcore, prog, and even post-rock within its grinding, churning guitars and Erik Stenglein's pissed-off vocals, which sound like they're being pushed through a closed throat and clenched teeth. It's an extremely heavy record — the band describes it as "a documentation of pure, unmitigated hatred of the way things are." Well, at least something good came of it. (Gilead Media/Halo of Flies)

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