This year was such a good one for heavy music, I wound up having to cheat when putting this list together. I just couldn't settle on ten albums that kicked my ass the hardest in 2009; there were dozens of candidates. The best I could do was fourteen, so each of my top four slots are ties.
Dave Mustaine's latest iteration of his high-tech thrash band is possibly the best since Marty Friedman left; new guitarist Chris Broderick, formerly of Nevermore, is a shredding machine, firing off squiggling leads left, right and center. Hell, this album opens with a two-minute instrumental that's nothing but a platform for solos. Fortunately, there are songs here, too, from "Head Crusher," which lives up to its title, to the drag-racing anthem "1,320'." Even the token ballad and Mustaine's batshit political rants can't sink this one.
World Painted Blood
Another gang of old dudes shows the kids how it's done. Slayer wrote the majority of this album in the studio, and the result is a loose, punk-like set of tracks that offer raw, energized performances (Tom Araya sounds almost breathless at times) built around some of their best riffs since the early '90s. The production, by Gregg Fidelman, echoes that of Metallica's similarly organic-but-still-crushing Death Magnetic, minus the mastering issues that marred that otherwise excellent release. The covers collection Undisputed Attitude
aside, Slayer's never made a truly bad album, but this one is easily in their top five.
8. Heaven & Hell
The Devil You Know
The Ronnie James Dio-fronted version of Black Sabbath released its first album since 1992 this year, and it's exactly as doom-haunted and world-crushing as should be expected from guys in their late fifties and older who've been making this kind of music since...well, since Tony Iommi invented it. Lyrics straight out of the Old Testament paired up with drums like the gates of Hell slamming shut on your head, and riffs that carve the very earth into majestic sculptures.
Axe to Fall
People are still calling these Massachusetts-based noise-rockers a hardcore band, even though their jagged, dissonant songs have more in common with Unsane than Sick of It All. And on their latest album, they expand their pool of influences to include Disfear (whose last album was produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou) and Tom Waits. So what the hell do we call them now? For the moment, "awesome" will have to do.
6. Sunn O)))
Monoliths & Dimensions
Long legendary in the hipster underground and with art critics, Sunn O)))'s live shows are astonishing, physical experiences, the sheer volume and ultra-low frequencies caressing and punishing the audience. But the band's never really made a studio masterwork until now. Bringing in guests ranging from jazz trombone legend Julian Priester to a full female vocal choir, Sun O))) has assembled a four-track, hour-long epic that's a journey from peak to peak, with no weak moments and some passages of staggering beauty. Is this metal in the traditional sense? No. But it's as heavy as a planet.
See our picks for Nos. 5-1, including all those ties, tomorrow.