I'll go ahead and disclose that I'm a heavily biased metalhead, therefore metal albums have a distinct advantage in my enumeration. Without further delay, my top albums of 2005:
1) Clutch, "Robot Hive/Exodus". Musically expanding on 2004's "Blast Tyrant" with addition of a keyboard player, Neil Fallon and Co. have taken their hilariously mind-blowing lyrics and matched it to some of their wildest songs to date. If you ever had a doubt that Clutch are the real deal, just check out their webpage at www.pro-rock.com. The lyrics page is the greatest, backing up all their ridiculous mystical creature references with Wikipedia links. If Black Sabbath was from Maryland, they would be called Clutch.
2) Opeth, "Ghost Reveries". The level of creativity required to make this album never fails to amaze me, and in fact my admiration for Mikael Åkerfeldt grows with each repeated spin. The songs are slightly more accessible to fans of progressive music than newcomers used to normal radio song format. Many of the tracks exceed 10 minutes in length, taking you on a musical journey that traverses so many genres that it makes labeling their sound impossible, all the while retaining a chemistry that is unmistakably Opeth's. If you have an appreciation for well-composed music, you must give this disc a try.
3) Bruce Dickinson, "Tyranny of Souls". I've got to warn you all, "never question Bruce Dickinson". Iron Maiden fans finally have something memorable to listen to, because Bruce and guitarist/producer Roy Z pick up the creative slack that Maiden seem to have left behind in this decade. Some tracks feature brutally metal riffage, and some feature textured, layered ballads painted by Bruce's excellent vocals. The end product is not so much progressive, but it is a rock and roll album that fans of classic Maiden cannot afford to ignore. It just needs more cowbell.
4) Corrosion of Conformity, "In the Arms of God". Corrosion comes back with another excellent release, this one featuring jazz drummer extraordinaire Stanton Moore, of Galactic fame, on the skins. I can't be very objective about this, because CoC is one of my favorite bands of all time, so I'll just say that if you love rock, metal, and the blues, then you'll really dig this big 'ol melting pot that Pepper Keenan cooked up in his Nola studio.
5) Nine Inch Nails, "With Teeth". Trent Reznor is one of the best musicians, composers, and producers in music today. "With Teeth" has a notably distinct sound, and I actually like it even more than his older records. Most everybody has heard the radio singles, which by themselves are almost excellent enough to earn this very high ranking even without the support of the rest of the album.
6) Soulfly, "Dark Ages". All hail the return of Max Cavelera. Mark Rizzo's brilliant lead guitar work adds texture to Max's thrashy riff in a fashion reminiscent of Sepultura's Max/Andreas combo that we all practically worship. The overall production sounds somewhere in between Sepultura's "Arise" and "Chaos AD" thanks to the mixing of Terry Date. This marks a distinct break back towards the thrash metal that made Max so famous, leaving the nu-metal influences behind to rot. Anybody that's ever made fun of Soulfly before by saying they're no longer metal will be officially rocked by the time the riff to "Babylon" hits them.
7) Exodus, "Shovel Headed Kill Machine". Thanks in part to Gary Holt's "gift of riff", Paul Bostaph's lightning footwork, and partly thanks to the mastermind Andy Sneap, the new Exodus album is one of the most brutal, abrasive records ever released. Make sure you know what you're getting in to before you pick this one up, you might throw your back out because it's so heavy. This is pure musical violence, like Slayer, except on steroids and twice as pissed off.
8) Nevermore, "This Godless Endeavor". Jeff Loomis is perhaps one of the greatest shredders of our time, and Nevermore's power-metal sound is the perfect showcase for his untouchable axework. Several of the songs on "This Godless Endeavor" stand out as some of the best in Nevermore's most impressive catalogue of music, but as an album it lacks the cohesiveness of previous masterpieces, such as "Dreaming Neon Black", or "Dead Heart in a Dead World". I really cringe to say anything negative about this band, because they are an amazing group of musicians who together create the most "metal" sound on the planet (this is another one of Andy Sneap's creations), because song by song it is nearly flawless. Many of the most respected metal webpages on planet earth gave it an honest 10/10. Maybe I'm used to the concept album flow, but Loomis' solo on "The Final Product" is easily the best solo of the year. Think differently? Try to play it.
9) Auidoslave, "Out of Exile". Tom Morello is one of the most innovative special effects guitar players out there. I can even enjoy the songs that the radio has beaten to death with repeated airplay by admiring the brilliant solos, and then thinking about how I just heard a guitar solo on FM radio. Audioslave seems to have left behind the high expectations and pressure of former bands to just write music and kick back. I can put down my metallic war-hammer with comfort and listen as classic rock and roll is still being released under the name of "Audioslave".
10) Dream Theater, "Octavarium". The torch-bearers of progressive rock and metal put out an extremely mellow, keyboard-driven record that without the reputation earned by their previous releases, would go completely unnoticed by any except the "prog-rock" community. I can't put it down any further, because Mike Portnoy's drum fills literally propel some of these tear-jerkers over the top, and some of the Petrucci (guitar)/Rudess (keyboards) wankery is at least amusing.
11) Brand New Sin, "Recipe for Disaster". This band really caught me by suprise. I was expecting them to be a one hit wonder from KNAC.com's repeated spins of "Black and Blue", but the New York State biker band really created a good collection of unapologetic hard rock songs. If I had to compare to others, I'd say it's like the rhythm hooks from the Black Label Society, without Zakk's solos, and better vocals. I bought this album while shopping on a discount spree late in the year, and now I wish I'd gotten to the Corrosion of Conformity show a little earlier to see them open up. Check it out if you're into that American brand of whiskey-soaked rock and roll.
12) Shinedown, "Us and Them". Shinedown have officially staked their territory by creating their own sound and ditching all the nu-metal from the previous album. It's more mellow, and more rock than metal, but it shows a great talent for songwriting that will ensure that this band is not just another ship floating around on the trends of the time. Another great thing about this album is it has "relevancy" to today's masses, and it fits right in on an FM playlist. it's quite rare to find music of this quality that's compatible with the short attention span of FM radio.
13) Nile, "Annihilation of the Wicked". That's right, a death metal album that's actually worth listening to. The dual guitar attack from Karl Sanders' Nile is quite amazing, but the production sends clarity to the backseat enough to allow some of the pure speed of the fretwork to be lost in the sea of music that the band creates. To summarize Nile's music, if you were robbing the tomb of a Pharoe, and the eye of Horus fell upon you as your soul was being devoured by the minions of the gods, this would be the soundtrack to your sentencing and ultimate torture. It's completely brilliant in its historical accurcy, and it even has what one could almost call a "hook" in some songs, albeit played at lightning speeds with machine-like precision. If you're not afraid of the dark, you might give it a shot.
14) The Darkness, "One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back!" Here’s more classic rock from the masters of retro/cock/poser rock. I've given them enough attention by myself, unfortunately it doesn't seem to be catching on with the masses. Read my review of this record at www.treehouseofdeath.com if you're interested.
15) Judas Priest, "Angel of Retribution". Coming from someone blasphemous enough to have never really been hooked by Judas Priest, this record really punched me in the face. Produced by Bruce Dickinson producer/guitarist Roy Z, this is a record with all the legendary quality of classic Priest, with a modern relevance that even younger metalheads like myself can appreciate.
16) Black Label Society, "Mafia". Freaking Zakk. This record proves what I'd suspected immediately after I opened my brand new copy of "The Blessed Hellride" in 2003: he needs to lay off the booze and take a vacation from music for a while. There are some tracks on this CD that are simply awesome, but most of them are the same forgettable filler that scarred the last three albums. Please, Zakk, get help for your drinking problem, and take the time to get your head right instead of bombarding your fans with watered-down records every single year. I'd gladly trade in the last three BLS albums for one more Pride & Glory, or "Sonic Brew", or "Stronger Than Death". I credit Zakk for being my gateway into the metal community, but I really wish he'd get back to what he does best instead of constantly making an ass of himself in the public spotlight with drunken ramblings and mediocre concerts.
17) Sevendust, "Next". I really thought they were going to break the chains of monotony by being free of TVT records, and they did to some extend, but "Next" sounds like the b-sides from "Home" more than their career re-defining opus that we had been told of. Clint Lowery replacement Sonny Mayo is an average guitarist at best, so he doesn't add much to the Sevendust sound. Their self-titled album remains one of my all-time favorite records, and they still haven't done anything after "Animosity" that even comes close to it. I'm not going to lie though, I'll still gladly go see them in concert anytime.
18) Arch Enemy, "Doomsday Machine". Great guitar chops, but Angela's multi-layered, hoarse screaming really gets on my nerves. I can't say enough about the music that Michael Amott (guitarist) plays, but I'd credit the great sound of the record to mixer Andy Sneap, and take away as many points as possible for vocalist Angela Gossow's contribution. It sounds a lot like Metallica's guitar chops, with a terrible female vocalist.
19) Megadeth, "The System has Failed". Dave is back, and he really has some killer riffage on this new record. It's nothing on the order of "Countdown to Extinction", but it'll remind you of all the great things Megadeth used to do.
20) Disturbed, "Ten Thousand Fists". I heard this best described as "video game rock". Its nu-metal for sure, but it's not too bad. The radio singles are obvious highlights, as is the surprisingly great cover of Genesis' "Land of Confusion". Nomatter how lean this record is, it's still great to see even a pseudo-metal record top the billboard chart.
21) Iommi, "Fused". This is very cool stuff for fans of classic Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Glenn Hughes sings very well on this one, and what else could I possibly say about the guitar work? It's IOMMI for God's sake, the godfather of the riff!
22) Mudvayne, "The End of All Things to Come". Somewhere in between Slipknot and Disturbed we have Mudvayne, who sacrifice not too much quality to gain mainstream popularity. All the highlights come early on this record, so after about track 4 it really gets boring quickly. As an album, it's hard to listen to the whole thing, but the songs fit in nicely on a radio playlist.
23) Crowbar, "Lifesblood for the Downtrodden". I really dig guitarist Kirk Windstein's riffage on his side-project Down, but Crowbar really hasn't ever spoken to me. Thanks to former Pantera bassist Rex Brown's contribution, this new record has an awesome new edge that Crowbar hasn't ever had. Kirk's vocals annoy me to no end, but I put up with it because it's southern sludge metal, which has a very special place in my heart always.
24) Nickelback, "All the Right Reasons". Chad Kroeger's lyrics are so cheesy that I can't take them to heart, and you almost feel embarrassed for even listening. The highlight of the entire record is the Dimebag Darrell solo donated by Dime's brother Vince on the song "Side of a Bullet", which is about the death of the great Pantera axeman. The Canadian rockers almost have a good hard rock album here, they just need to stop writing lyrics as if this is a country record.
25) Bongzilla, "Amerijuanican". This is stoner sludge metal, which is very repetitive and heavy for those who aren't familiar. I happen to dig it, even though I don't smoke. The only reason I rated this one so low is because it's so fuzzy, smokey, and loud that I can't listen to it regularly. It's perfect background music for wrenching in the garage, just don't spend more than $6 on it.
26) Behemoth, "Demigod". This record is the only one of the bunch that I consider unlistenable. Nergal's vocals sound like he's drowning in a vat of molasses, and the whole thing sounds blurry. It didn't grow on me, which isn't so much of a surprise since I don't have a big appreciation for extreme death metal.
I'm certainly looking forward to 2006. We'll have a new Tool album this year, and most likely a new Metallica album (which is going to blow hard if they get Bob Rock to produce again-mark my words). Of course I've missed a lot of great ones, so let me know what your favorites are!