By now -- by three decades ago, really, but now more than ever -- metal is all sorts of things. And since there are countless vantage points from which to observe this mammoth, any list of a year's best albums is, by definition, dependent on the subjective aesthetic of the listmaker. So this tally won't be like any other metal list you'll encounter. It doesn't include Deafheaven's Sunbather, which is probably 2013's most critically raved-about metal album, but which I find somewhere between mildly tolerable and a total snooze. In general it doesn't go deep into the ambient sort of Pinkish Black/Russian Circles/Cult of Luna elevator-metal embraced in certain indie hipster circles, or for that matter the bullied-and-bullying sort of hissy-fit screamo-core embraced in certain rock radio circles. My list shares only one album (Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats' Mind Control) with Decibel magazine's 2013 Metal Top 30; only two (Ghost B.C.'s Infestissumam and Kvelertak's Meir) with Revolver's 2013 Top 20. So by all means, check out those lists, too. But no apologies -- I think my picks are best.
If there's a thread running through my selections, it's that I tend to gravitate toward metal that's not only barbaric and noise-ridden, but also has discreet songs -- complete with choruses, melodies and especially riffs -- you'll still remember five minutes after they end. And I am drawn to vocalists who can actually sing them, preferably so you even can understand the words, which preferably aren't all junior-high tantrums about being angry and evil. Don't get me wrong: There were things to admire (mostly the guitars) about über-extreme albums that meanies from Gorguts to Aeternus to Revocation unleashed in 2013; if you love those more than I do, more power to you. But several, if not most, albums on my list at least remember how metal sounded back before the genre sunk into a tedious contest about who can be uglier than the next brute.
Satan, Metal Church, Voivod and Manilla Road all have been putting out albums since at least 1984, and -- as much as I honor my elders, especially the gods who invented this universe -- they all made 2013 albums more consistently compelling if less applauded than Black Sabbath's 13 or Motörhead's Aftershock (both somewhat easier to respect than to really get excited about). Black Star Riders are a Thin Lizzy spin-off featuring five guys born between 1951 and 1966; Dug Pinnick, the King's X frontman gone solo, is older than any of them. And though proggy-to-doomy-to-bikery bands like Corsair, Mustasch, Magister Templi, Mothership, Earthen Grave and Asomvel are a whole lot younger, you might not figure that out just by hearing them.
Havok and Holy Grail are hugely indebted to the early days of thrash; Kadavar, Horisont, Five Horse Johnson and Gozu paint in sundry post-'70s stoner shades; Blood Ceremony, Uncle Acid, and Ghost B.C. worship at the sacrificial ritual altar of antique-store acid rock. Yet these bands don't necessarily sound like the metal of yore, per se, so much as admit its virtues. And heavy harmolodic fusioners Hedvig Mollestad Trio, black metal garage punks Kvelertak, forest-humppa hobbits Finntroll, and pagan psych-folk coven Hexvessel might be even more committed to taking metal someplace it hasn't been before -- or alternately, someplace it hasn't been since eons before the dawn of Christendom. Whether it's a place you'll want to visit is for you to decide. If not, metal still goes plenty of other places, too. Fortunately, mostly loud ones.