What with the economy circling the drain and Sarah Palin coming down from the tundra and then refusing to go back, 2008 has been that kind of year. Good thing there were so many awesome records available to serve as a soundtrack. We've broken them down into the three categories that seemed to dominate '08 — metal, Latin, and pop. The following albums and pop singles prove that accessibility doesn't necessarily preclude creativity.
Five years after their last comeback, they did it right. Combining the punishing thrash of their early glory years with the thick, bluesy grooves of their 1990s output, the members of Metallica reclaimed their throne as America's kings of metal. Songs like "That Was Just Your Life," "My Apocalypse," and "Cyanide" are made to be heard blasting through speakers bigger than your goddamn house, but even on an iPod, they'll have you clenching your fists and banging your head like a fourteen-year-old amped on testosterone and Red Bull.
Opeth's last album, Ghost Reveries, took its progressive black/death-metal sound to its logical endpoint. So the band took a sharp left turn, incorporating a new guitarist and drummer, psychedelic studio trickery, odd rhythms and even a female vocalist on the folky, emotionally affecting opening track, "Coil." Of course, none of this means that Opeth has forgotten how to bring the heavy: "Heir Apparent" is one of the most assaultive songs of its career, including a drum solo that announces its evolution quite capably.
Twilight of the Thunder God
The Vikings have returned. Over the course of their last four albums, these burly Swedes have earned the devotion of an increasing (and increasingly rabid) fan base. This time out, they bring guests on board their wooden ship for the first time, including Entombed vocalist L.G. Petrov, Children of Bodom guitarist Roope Latvala, and, on "Live for the Kill," the cellists of Apocalyptica. Oh, and there was a limited edition that came with bobblehead dolls of the entire band.
A lot of veterans returned this year — Metallica back after five years, Guns N' Roses after fifteen. AC/DC took an eight-year break after 2000's Stiff Upper Lip, and the downtime did the band good: The 15 tracks on Black Ice are among the strongest of its career. The group's members have somehow managed to remain totally unaffected by their legacy, cranking out one riff-heavy slab after another as though being one of the world's greatest hard-rock bands were no big deal. Well, it is, and songs like "Decibel," "War Machine," and "Money Made" prove that Angus and the boys will be kings as long as they feel like it.
Guns N' Roses
Was it worth a 15-year wait? Not really. Is it great? Yeah, it kinda is. Axl Rose is a perfectionist, and every second of Chinese Democracy sounds amazing. And musically, even though some of the songs date back to the Use Your Illusion writing sessions, it holds together as a cohesive work of art. The band's new high-tech, industrial-metal sound doesn't sound dated or cheesy, and Axl's vocals, though slightly roughened by age, are as powerful as ever. This is one hell of a welcome comeback.
The Way of All Flesh
Calling a group "France's best metal band" might have been enough to get you punched a few years ago, but lately the French have been stepping up to the plate, and Gojira's no joke. Environmentally conscious lyrics mix with riffs that are Meshuggah-esque, if the members of Meshuggah were human and not, you know, evil cyborgs from the future. The rhythms are intricate but thrashy, and the production is absolutely impeccable. The bigger your speakers, the better this album sounds, and if you can catch Gojira live, it'll make your year.
The Thin Line Between
Gorguts, Voivod, Cryptopsy: There's something in the water in French Canada that makes dudes go berserk and join ultra-complex technical metal bands. Neuraxis changed vocalists in '07 and labels in '08, and the combination resulted in its catchiest ("catchy" is a highly relative term here) album to date. The riffs are almost simplistic enough to headbang to without a calculator, and the drumming will make you want to climb a concrete wall using just your teeth. Fair warning: Frontman Alex Leblanc is a wrestler, and not the WWE kind, so hecklers beware.
The metal gods' first album with returning frontman Rob Halford was just okay, but they went big on this one. Nostradamus is a double-disc concept album about the prophet of the same name. There's no need to follow the "story," though; you can headbang straight through, only pausing to giggle when Halford sings in Italian. The occasional synth patches are made up for by awesome guitar solos, and watch out for "Death," possibly the heaviest song in the entire JP discography. These guys helped invent metal, and they're still leading the pack.
Gods of the Earth
The obnoxious term "hipster metal" was slapped on these guys early, but this sophomore full-length is all the proof anybody should need that the Sword is 100 percent for real. Fuck, the band is opening Metallica's U.S. tour, and those guys know their metal. Sword songs are fist-pumping, headbanging anthems with fierce guitar riffs and skull-cracking drums. There's plenty of room in the club for a group this heavy and aggressive.
The Gates of Slumber
These guys play a classicist, fantasy-minded blend of doom metal and biker rock; their album cover depicts Conan holding a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other, and looks like it could have come straight off the side of a custom Chevy van. The riffs are thunderous, the vocals raw-throated and powerful, and the songs epic. Don't sleep on this obscure but deserving album.