OK, here 'tis: my year-end list. It was supposed to be a Top Ten, obviously, but there were so many great albums released this year that my top four slots wound up being ties. So...
Crack the Skye (Reprise)
Blue Record (Relapse)
2009 was Georgia's year. Atlanta-based Mastodon released a prog-metal epic that holds its own with the most ambitious hard rock of the '70s, combining lyrics that told the most bizarre, convoluted story (it involves astral traveling, the Russian monk Rasputin and more) since Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The music was brilliant, too -- less assaultive than earlier efforts, but just as awesome. No wonder they played the whole album on tour this year. Meanwhile, their friends in Savannah's Baroness issued a sophomore full-length that displayed a rare combination of ambition and restraint, building on the successes of 2007's Red Album without feeling pressured to go as prog as Mastodon, or get heavier for heaviness's sake. Blue Record is unashamedly beautiful.
Maranatha (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
In 2004, Marduk hired Daniel "Mortuus" Olsson as its new frontman, and this year the band released its greatest studio work to date. This is not a coincidence. Like its predecessor, 2007's Rom 5:12, Wormwood builds on the blasting black metal of the group's 1990s catalogue with complex songwriting and more thoughtful lyrics. The same qualities were also present on Mortuus's second solo album, the breathtaking, thoroughly blasphemous (yet deeply philosophical) Maranatha, released under the name Funeral Mist.
3. Born of Osiris
A Higher Place (Sumerian)
Existence is Futile (Relapse)
It was a great year for young bands, too. Revocation's second album, following a self-released 2008 CD, blended technical thrash and shredding guitar solos with addictive riffage worthy of Lamb of God. Born of Osiris, while more unrelenting, is also more progressive, stacking keyboard solos atop complex guitar interplay and raw-throated deathcore vocals.
4. Job for a Cowboy
Ruination (Metal Blade)
Breathing the Fire (Prosthetic)
Job for a Cowboy overcame derision from purer-than-thou metal bloggers and message-board trolls to release a genuinely ferocious death-metal album that, from its blitzkrieg opener to its death-march closing title track, proved they were far more than a MySpace sensation. These Arizonans are serious comers, with chops and riff-carving skills to spare, and in years to come, they'll be a band to beat. Skeletonwitch's second full-length mixed thrash guitars with black-metal vocals and death metal's pummeling force, and their live shows are rapidly becoming a must-see.
All Shall Fall (Nuclear Blast)
These Scandinavian black-metallers get ridiculed for their excessively Kiss-like corpse paint and pro-wrestling poses in promo pics, but one listen to this astonishing comeback album, their first release since 2002, will call a halt to any and all snickering. The production gives them the epic power they've always sought, while the songs are some of their most aggressive, and yet catchy...in an extreme-metal way. If your ideal weekend is spent wandering amid snowdrifts, furiously headbanging, you've got a brand-new life soundtrack.
6. Sunn O)))
Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord)
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.
Axe to Fall (Epitaph)
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.
8. Heaven & Hell
The Devil You Know (Rhino)
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.
World Painted Blood (Sony)
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.
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.