Top Ten Albums of 2019

Happy New Years, Everybody! Here’s my favorite albums of the year!!

10. Billie EilishWHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Watching the 17 year old’s dominant performance on Saturday Night Live, one would find it hard to believe that Billie Eilish’s break out LP was released just earlier this year. While she’d found some success before, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Rocketed the young singer/songwriter into the stratosphere and sent ripples into the world of pop music.

Hits like “Bad Guy,” and “You Should See Me in a Crown,” continue to flood the airwaves months after their release while clever cuts like “Wish You Were Gay,” show the true lyrical abilities of Billie and her brother Finneas. Above all else, however, it’s Finneas’ production work which sets this album apart. The entire album is drenched in a bass-heavy, nocturnal mix and accented with a smattering of unique vocal and instrumental effects that make for a very intriguing listening experience. This is certainly not the most experimental record of the year, but it’s one of the more daring projects to hit the mainstream of pop music in quite some time.

9. Tyler, the CreatorIgor

After an enjoyable but under appreciated early career, the Odd Future member reinvented himself in 2017 with his ambitious fifth release, Flower Boy. The record saw Tyler portrayed in a much more vulnerable light, coming out as gay and writing heavily personal lyrics which eschewed his trademark vulgarity for more honesty and candor. Igor followed in much the same vein and, while it’s much less groundbreaking, the record also has a much clearer vision than its predecessor.

The album charts some unexplored territory with a unique blend of Motown and neosoul sensibilities and modern, electronic instrumentation. Some synthesizers are even somewhat abrasive, particularly in the latter half of the LP. It’s also perfectly paced, with a gentle blend of danceable hits like “EARFQUAKE” and thoughtful cuts like “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” Ultimately, IGOR is a brave blend of styles which takes no prisoners in its forging of a brand new sound.

8. Bruce SpringsteenWestern Stars

An undeniable legend of rock music, Springsteen has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. His sound generally rotates between the indulgent style of records like Born in the USA and more somber storytelling of albums like Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve always much preferred the latter, but Western Stars finds a way to synthesize these two like few previous Springsteen efforts have. “The Wayfarer,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” are some of my favorites, but every track on this album is impressive in its own right.

The ethos of this LP is Bruce’s attempt to recreate the sweeping, stringy sound of 70’s country music, specifically that of Western soundtracks and, in this, he absolutely succeeds. The massive instrumental pallet leaves a surprise waiting around every corner, making the relatively slow pacing much more bearable. Beyond this, Springsteen’s voice is aged perfectly and his lyricism is both moving and clever. Western Stars is yet another masterpiece from The Boss himself.

7. JPEGMAFIAAll My Heroes are Cornballs

JPEGMAFIA has long been a titan in the world of experimental hip-hop. His fantastic Sophomore album Veteran topped many year end lists in 2018 thanks to his unique flow and willingness to explore difficult and controversial topics quite fearlessly. While his first two albums were ambitious in their own right, they certainly couldn’t have prepare fans for All My Heroes are Cornballs.

This record is certainly not for the faint of heart has Peggy shifts rapidly between flows and instrumentals with little concern coherence or even track divisions. Despite the experimental style of nearly every cut, the record is still packed with catchy, genuinely enjoyable moments. The title track, for example, is one of my favorite hip-hop tracks of the year, as is the lead single, “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot.” Ultimately, JPEGMAFIA manages to keep listeners hooked on listenable hooks and interesting lyrics while remaining unflinchingly experimental on nearly every song.

6. HozierWasteland, Baby!

After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry and a personal favorite of mine. Unfortunately, his DIY style and insistence on keeping a small circle of influence meant that this LP was followed by relative silence for half a decade. Finally, Wasteland, Baby! Arrived as a nearly perfect follow up. His lyrical work on “Almost,” and the softness of a track like “Shrike,” were everything fans had hoped for and more, but there were also some interesting changes.

Percussion, which had been mostly ignored on the debut, took a front seat on this album with constantly creative decisions and a tendency toward more natural percussion sounds. This also saw a much harder turn toward political writing on cuts like the opener, “Nina Cried Power.” All told, Wasteland, Baby! Doesn’t quite top the excellence of its predecessor but it is still, without a doubt, fantastic. Hozier has a power in his voice that is almost breathtaking and combined with his instrumental talents and creative arrangements, I’m left very excited for future releases.

5. Todd SniderCash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

Todd Snider was an early progenitor of the lyrically focused, folk inspired style of country which has overtaken much of the genre today. While he had a handful of strong live albums, he’d always struggled to find his stride in studio releases. That changed this year when he partnered with John Carter Cash, the single most exciting producer in country music today, and dropped this brilliant LP. Tracks like “Workin’ On a Song,” and “Like a Force of Nature,” are certainly highlights, but its just an overall enjoyable listen from front to back.

As I said, John Carter Cash is the best producer in country music today and he lives up to that title on this project as he brings a warm simplicity to every cut. Snider’s vocals certainly won’t knock a listener off their feet, and neither will his instrumentals, but the record is really more than the sum of its parts. The carefree nature of the record bleeds through from the writing to the production and creates and extremely intimate final product. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak in some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.

4. Ariana Grandethank u, next

Ariana Grande has long been considered one of the queens of modern pop music and thank u, next is her best work to date. This is her second release in a six month period and though sweetener was impressive, this record takes her sound to brand new heights. Following a string of personal tragedies, Ariana pens heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other cuts like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.

The production on the album is certainly impressive, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and great vocal tuning, all of which is dripping in nocturnal mistique. Easily the highlight, however, is Grande’s fantastic vocal performance across every second of this album. She has an awe-inspiring power which is mixed perfectly with soft, emotional moments and she even reaches up into a few whistle tones from time to time. All in all, thank u, next is just a masterclass in great pop music lead by one of the most impressive vocalists in the world today, and a testament to the creative depth of pop music as a genre.

3. The HighwomenThe Highwomen

The formation of country supergroup, The Highwomen, had been rumored for quite some time before the release of their self-titled debut in the latter half of 2019. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby formed the group as a female answer to the classic group, The Highwaymen and their sound seems to have be reminiscent of the same era.

Virtually every part of this project works in every way. The chemistry between the four women is phenomenal with airtight harmonies and excellent interplay between vocal lines, Dave Cobb turns in one of his best performances to date on the production end, and the instrumentals are the perfect blend of nostalgia and organic creativity. Its strongest point though, comes in the seriously powerful lyrics, written primarily by the four women with the help of friends like Jason Isbell and Ray LaMontagne. Cuts like the title track and “If She Ever Leaves Me,” are some of the most powerful pieces of writing in the last decade and they elevate this record to a whole new height.

2. Xiu XiuGirl With Basket of Fruit

There isn’t one single album on this list and very few albums in my life that have left the kind of lasting impact on me that was left by Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit. In terms of highlights, if you listen to nothing else on this album, I must suggest that you hear “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” provided you have the strong stomach to handle its violent subject matter. The track tells the true story of a lynching in the American South with powerful, excruciating honesty.

Simply put, this project is horrifying. Xiu Xiu is an experimental group and this album pushes music to its outer most limits in the most brutal way possible. The sound pallet is gut wrenching, frontman Jamie Stewart’s vocals are often nightmarish, and the record itself seems to be influenced by everything from grindcore and death metal to traditional reggae and samba. To listen to Girl with Basket of Fruit in one sitting is to be bombarded with an unflinching look at existential horror. It may not have the most replay value of any album this year and it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with an album this year, but Xiu Xiu’s hellish masterpiece is the most daring, the most challenging, and above all the most memorable record I’ve heard thus far this year.

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

  • Joy Williams – Front Porch

DefeaterDefeater

Little SimzGREY Area

meth.Mother of Red Light

Charli XCXCharli

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

1. ToolFear Inoculum

When I look back on 2019 a decade from now, I will always remember it, first and foremost, as the year when the 13 year wait finally came to an end. I have tried and failed many times to separate my personal opinions of the band and simply listen to this objectively as a new album, but it will always be the album that brought my long wait to a close. In many ways, however, Fear Inoculum is all the stronger for this connection.

Speaking, first, as objectively as I can, this record is a masterpiece of instrumentation. Adam Jones, in particular, spends the entire 90-minute runtime frantically cramming in one explosive guitar riff after another into each track. And, of course, Danny Carey is one of the best drummers to ever live, which is further exemplified on this record. “Invincible,” and “7empest” are two of the best tracks in all of Tool’s catalog and each of the seven tracks is just infinitely creative and listenable. Maynard’s lyrics are excellent and thoughtful, the production is crisp, and the decision to narrow the album to just seven multi-movement songs was simply brilliant and totally unexpected.

All of that aside, though, Fear Inoculum tops this list because I remember where I was when I got it. I was waiting by my mailbox for more than an hour to meet the FedEx driver and dash to my CD player. I felt like a kid on Christmas opening the brilliant case and pulling out the disc. This album had me excited in a way that few albums ever have or will and it fulfilled every bit of that excitement and more. For that, Fear Inoculum is my favorite album of 2019.

Tool Lives Up to the 13 Year Hype!

Tool is back, and it was well worth the wait.

Tool is an alt-rock/prog-metal four piece who rose to popularity in the early 1990’s thanks to their unique sound, bizarre live performances, and their fantastic 1992 demo EP  Opiate. At this time, their sound was heavy, often droning, and far more melodic than the majority of the underground metal in the early nineties. As they progressed, there were extended delays between releases as 2006’s 10,000 Days was the last studio project from the metal legends before one of the longest hiatuses in music history. Throughout the 13 year gap, the infamous “new Tool album,” became almost mythic and when Fear Inoculum was finally announced, fans worried that no band could live up to 13 years of hype. Luckily Tool can and did.

The record opens with the title track and lead single. The song’s original drop about a month ago was the final gas on the fire needed to raise the album’s hype to a fever pitch, and for good reason. This song is, undeniably and essentially, Tool. With the long, spacey intro, the track seems to descend onto the listener with Maynards calm, melodic vocal as the cherry on top. But as the cut progresses, new layers of guitar and bass riffs are slowly unraveled, presenting a complex midsection which finally shifts into a brutal finish with all four members bringing their all. From the beginning, it’s clear. Tool is back.

“Pneuma,” follows and seemed to draw some of the most attention from critics with early access to the record. The attention is very much deserved as this is easily one of the most daring efforts in the tracklist. The clean guitars in the intro are a surprising touch, but it doesn’t last long as Adam Jones’ signature, distorted tone rips into the track’s first real groove. Justin Chancellor’s bass really shines here as well with a thumping groove driving large chunks of the early sections. “Pneuma”’s highlight, for me, comes near the end of it’s 12 minute runtime as the band breaks into a punishing breakdown featuring all four members performing as well as we’ve ever heard them and leading toward an awe-inspiring crescendo. This is yet another full throated proclamation of Tool’s return, and it’s a blast to hear.

“Invincible,” falls third on the album and readers of my most recent Tool Concert Review may remember that this song absolutely blew me away at their live show in Saint Louis. It’s no less effective here, I can assure you. This is another instrumental powerhouse with some of the best bass work on the entire album and one of the most brutal breakdowns yet. With every listen, though, I find myself more and more moved by Maynard’s performance and lyricism as the track follows an older warrior coming to terms with his aging body and giving up the chase of youth. This is of course, and analog for the band itself and for any long time fan, it’s a bit of an emotional listen. It reads like Maynard preparing to write and perform one last Tool album, and god am I glad he did!

“Descending,” is another track which had been played live before the official release, but this one seems to have grown quite a bit since it’s appearance on tour. Once again, the band utilizes long, atmospheric builds in its first few minutes and goes through sections of rise and fall, each more complex and creative than the last. Every element really works together here with Maynard’s performance being one of his best on the record, Adam and Justin’s interplay flowing fantastically, and Danny Carey playing drums with a skill and speed that genuinely seems like it shouldn’t be impossible.

The record continues with “Culling Voices,” and a large portion of this track is surprisingly calm. The opening minutes are a fun listen as the clean guitars and simple chords under Maynard’s tight vocal runs feel almost like a calm in the storm, but this doesn’t last forever, of course. When the track finally crescendoes into its big finish, it’s one of the best on the record. Adam’s central guitar riff is simply fantastic and the thunderous drum and bass combo near the close brings the song to yet another overwhelming wave of music.

“Chocolate Chip Trip,” is an interesting inclusion on the record. The track itself is simply a Danny Carey drum solo which seems to have been workshopped across several tours as the first part of the band’s encore and, while we will of course discuss the drum work, it’s worth pointing out that the backing track, composed of a buzzing, sci-fi groove is the perfect backdrop for Carey’s style. The drumming itself is, as expected, remarkable. On first listen, the flashy fills and inconceivably fast rolls will catch the ear of most listeners, but after revisiting, it’s Danny’s creative timings and unconventional beat placement that will have me coming back again and again.

Finally, there is “7empest.” The 15 minute odyssey closes the album and it becomes clear quite early that this is what we’ve waited for. There isn’t a moment of down time here. Maynard’s vocals harken back to the Aenima era as he angrily growls the confrontational lyrics, Justin’s bass is rattles away with intensity, and Danny Carey’s drumming is, once again, jawdropping, but we simply must talk about Adam Jones on this track. “7empest,” is, without a doubt, the masterwork of Adam’s career as his guitar drives every second of the track with biting leads which layer over each other for a cacophonous tidal wave of sound. There isn’t a second of this track which isn’t filled by Jones’ fantastic lead guitar and it makes the perfect finale to a perfect LP.

Is it possible for an album to live up to 13 years of hype? I’m not sure. This album has meant something different to many people and everyone will experience the record differently. That being said, as far as I’m concerned, this is everything I could’ve hoped for. As a dedicated Tool fan for the majority of my life, I couldn’t ask for much better. The long track lengths could easily have been filled with wasted space, but instead, every track is an event in of itself with long builds, breathtaking climaxes, and perfectly paced movements and each of the four members sound as fantastic as we’ve ever heard them.

Tool is back, and it was well worth the wait.

10/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Tool Sells Out the Enterprise Center For An Incredible Performance

Tool is still one of the best rock bands in the world, without a doubt, and this tour has only further codified their place in rock history.

Tool is an alt-rock/prog-metal four piece who rose to popularity in the early 1990’s thanks to their unique sound, bizarre live performances, and a fantastic debut EP called Opiate which came out in 1992. At this time, their sound was heavy, often droning, and far more melodic than the majority of the underground metal in the early nineties. As they progressed, and thanks to the additions of Peach bassist Justin Chancellor and King Crimson producer David Bottrill, Tool took on a more experimental and cutting edge tone which led to massive success and critical acclaim which has continued to this day.

I’ve seen Tool three times, and this was by far the best of the bunch. My first experience came in 2016 at the Chaifetz arena in Saint Louis. It was a smaller tour and Chaifetz is a smaller arena, but the show was fantastic and seeing one of my favorite bands for the first time was a blast. The second came as the headliner and final performance at 2018’s Rock on the Range festival where Tool, though not on tour at the time, brought the house down musically but didn’t quite have the stage set up one would expect from the group. Last night, I saw them for the first time in their peak form, in front of a sold out crowd of about 18,000 roaring fans at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

Of course, a giant question looms over any review of a Tool concert in 2019, and so I’ll answer it immediately. Yes, they played new music and it was fantastic. Coming into the show, I’d heard a few shoddy cellphone videos of new tracks like “Descending,” and “Invincible,” but I found myself shocked at the extent to which those videos don’t do these songs justice. The former was brutally heavy, featuring a few of the thickest breakdowns in Tool’s catalog and the latter has an interestingly bright tone and some of the best drum work of Danny Carey’s career. As the intermission before the encore came to an end, the screen went blank and lit back up the word’s “August 30th” written in white, referring to the release date for Tool’s first new LP in 13 years, and having heard these new songs in person, I found myself filled with a brand new excitement like I’ve never felt for an album before.

Beyond new music, all four members of the band gave simply incredible performances on a litany of Tool’s best hits over their long career. They opened with “Aenima,” which was a perfectly heavy way to kick off the show. Maynard’s cleaner vocal sounded excellent on tracks like “The Pot,” and his screams were gravelly and powerful. Adam Jones’ guitar work on songs like “Jambi,” was thick and impressively fast-handed.

The stars of the night, however, were certainly the drums and bass. Justin Chancellor’s bass line on “Schism,” was as excellent as ever, and throughout the show, he was an absolute ball of energy, swinging his hips like an ape and playing with a deep, rich tone that seemed to shake the walls of the entire arena.

Just behind him, Danny Carey helmed a massive drum kit and proved once again that he is one of the best drummers of all time. From his complex rhythms on “Forty Six & 2” to his explosive playing on “Vicarious,” and “Intolerance,” his playing commanded respect and attention for the entirety of the show. The encore began with an extended drum and synth solo from Danny, alone on stage, which was an extremely welcome break in the action to appreciate one of the most talented musicians to ever pick up a set of sticks.

Highlights of the show included a sprawling, expansive performance of “Parabol/Parabola,” early in the set and the ferocious performance of “Stinkfist,” to close the show. These were made that much better by an awe-inspiring light show which included an array of lasers, a lighted, colorful pentagram which moved about in the background, and a multitude of entrancing videos on cranes behind the band, most of which consisted of Tool’s infamously strange music videos.

All in all, this was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. Nearly 30 years after their debut, to see Tool returning to form in front of a sold out arena is an exhilarating experience. It’s hard to believe that we’re only about three months away from finally hearing the new album and this show left me more excited than ever.

Tool is still one of the best rock bands in the world, without a doubt, and this tour has only further codified their place in rock history.

Five Artists With Great Albums to Come in 2019

Here’s just a few of the great things to come in 2019!!

Tool

First and foremost, we’ll start with the most obvious choice. Maynard James Keenan announced over Twitter earlier this month that Tool had finished recording and were now only waiting on the mastering process to complete their fifth studio album. Their first release in 12 years, this album which is still yet untitled could be one of the most hotly anticipated rock albums of all time. There’s been no release date set, but it’s safe to assume that Maynard’s traditional format of Spring or Fall releases will hold steady.

When it comes to sound, it’s anyone’s guess. While recent albums have trended in a softer, more progressive direction, there is really no analog for a band as iconic as Tool returning to the spotlight after such a long hiatus. This becomes even more unique when one considers that Tool’s discography is essentially perfect, and that each member has actually been quite active outside the group, growing in their own excellent side projects. Despite the questions, though, I must simply fall back on the aforementioned perfect catalog to date, along with the incredible performances they’ve given both times I’ve seen them live recently, and say that this album will be well worth the weight.

Slipknot

The nu-metal juggernauts from Iowa have wained in popularity in recent years, but it’s worth remembering what heights they’d once reached. As a staple in the 2000’s hard rock scene and under the guidance of the legendary Rick Rubin, they were able to craft a sound which held onto much of the grit and grime of underground metal while weaving a plethora of catchy hooks and melodies that extended an olive branch to non-metal fans. This, combined with the gimmick of wearing horror masks during live performances, put Slipknot on the map.

That being said, all reports and interviews seem to suggest that the band is headed back to basics. Corey Taylor recently said that the new album will be “one of the darkest chapters in Slipknot’s history,” and that seems to be the case having heard the newest single, “All Out Life.” While the track features a bit of annoying electronic influences, the bulk was true heavy metal. Taylor’s screams are brutal and the guitar tone is the most abrasive it’s been in years. If the single is any indication, we could be in for a heavy addition to the band’s catalog.

Kanye West

Kanye West is one of the most divisive artists of all time, and he was incredibly prolific in 2018. In addition to his own solo record and an LP with Kid Cudi under the newly created KIDS SEE GHOSTS moniker, he produced multiple releases for artists like Pusha T.  He also released three non-album singles, one of which was an extended poop joke, and another was released at the Pornhub awards. Last but not least, he had a fully televised meeting with the president in the oval office. Put simply, Kanye West has placed himself at the center of our culture.

While I didn’t love the majority of his output in 2018, there is no denying the excitement of a Kanye album. While we will likely get one of the albums long rumored to be in the works, namely Watch the Throne 2, Yhandi, or Turbo Grafx 16, though there is really no predicting what could come from Ye. The one thing we do know, is that every Kanye release thus far has been miles ahead of the curve, influencing the culture for many years to come. We can expect nothing less from a Kanye record in 2019.

Hozier

Hozier rocked the music world in 2013 with two EPs which eventually coalesced into 2014’s self-titled LP. It’s an absolute masterclass in lyricism and vocal performance and has become a staple of the modern singer/songwriter scene. From there, we got radio silence for four years. Though he toured and released a few videos, there was little to no hint of a sophomore release anywhere on the horizon until, in 2018, he dropped Nina Cried Power. The four track EP was extremely well received and renewed the public fire for a new record, a request which may finally be granted in 2019.

When wondering what the album may sound like, it’s striking to think that, for all his critical praise and artistic ability, Hozier is still relatively young in his musical career. This was quite apparent on the new EP as he pulled in hip-hop and gospel influences for an entirely new sound. That being said, there are a few things we can count on with a Hozier record, namely, excellent lyrics, dark themes, and fantastic instrumentation. One can only hope for a second record that holds up  to his debut.

Richard Edwards

Aside from Tool, I’m far more excited for this album than any other. After shuttering the indie-rock group Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos, Edwards dropped his solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, in 2017. It was a sweetly arranged and well written contemplations on the divorce, sickness, and loss that he’d experienced in his few years between releases. He followed up with Verdugo, on the best albums of 2018, a darker approach to similar issues where he fully realized the orchestral folk sound he’d begun to experiment with.

Having announced a new release slated for 2019, there’s every indication that he could drop the best album of the year. His use of strings and other unique instrumentation has created one of the most fascinating and recognizable sounds in all the music industry. His lyricism is thoughtful and visual and considering the trend of his latest work, he seems to be on track for the best release of his career.

Thoughts on the Return of Tool

What it will sound like is anybody’s guess, but for my money, I expect nothing less than greatness from one of my favorite bands of all time.

April 28, 2006. George W. Bush was president, the second Pirates of the Caribbean film was gearing up to hit theaters, and the Saint Louis Cardinals had just won their tenth World Series. Of course, I don’t write about any of those things, I write about music, and in the music world of 2006, Tool had just dropped their long awaited fourth studio LP, 10,000 Days.

The album was sprawling, conceptual, and one of the band’s most personal to date. In many ways, it the final step in Tool’s transition from an especially impressive member of the West Coast alt-metal scene to a fully fledged, internationally successful, prog-metal outfit. Most importantly, it put an end to a five year wait for a follow up to 2001’s Lateralus. It was a gap that frustrated fans at the time, but would soon be dwarfed in the coming years.

To date, We’re coming up on 13 years since we last heard new Tool material, and the explanations are numerous. The most common reason given is legal issues as the band has recently been involved in two major law suits, each of which they won. Additionally, each of the four members have been quite active in side projects. Regardless of the reasons, the law suits are over, the side projects are on brake, and according to Keenan’s Twitter account, we could see new Tool music as early as mid-2019. 

This, of course, brings with it many questions, two of which are quite pressing. Firstly, what can we expect to hear? Second, will we be disappointed for the first time in Tool’s long and nearly perfect run? Neither of these questions will be answered until we’re holding the physical CD’s in our hands, but we can take a stab at them now.

When it comes to expectations, there is even less to go on for this record than for your average new album. Where as most bands provide fans with a litany of sneak peaks, updates, and interviews, Tool has, predictably, not done this. Instead, they’ve released only a few images from inside the studio, one of which showed Danny Carey’s elaborate drum kit, and sporadic messages of assurance that the record is in the process of being made and will release in 2019.

So, to know what we can expect, we can only look to a few sources for hints. First and foremost, at least one track, reportedly entitled, “Descending,” has been performed at a few live events, one of which I was lucky enough to see at Rock on the Range in Ohio. The track is entirely instrumental, uses heavy delay effects, and feels like a continuation of growing emphasis on a prog style that we saw on 10,000 Days. That and its tentative title lead me to believe that this may be an opening track to the new album, which could be another longwinded outing for Tool. 

On the other hand, the setlist of the recent tours have been almost entirely populated with the band’s earliest material. This could easily be something of a thank you to longtime fans for waiting as long as they have, but it could just as easily indicate that they aim to return to the simple, heavier sound that put them on the map.

Considering the new album also leads one to wonder how much the changing landscape of rock and metal will influence the sound. The waves of nu-metal which Tool rode in on though never falling in with are long gone. In their place, bands like Code Orange and Daughters have done their part to bring back a more brash, explosive form of metal. I, for one, would love to hear an older act like Tool take a few notes from the recent work of bands like these in developing a more primal, visceral sound. More than likely, though, we will be treated to the most lengthy and conceptual entry of the band’s catalogue, which, of course, raises questions of disappointment.

Even the most avid fan can’t be blamed for wondering if it’s still there; if the Tool we know and love has survived the long hiatus and can return without obvious rust or aging. A bit of hope can be found in side projects.

Maynard James Keenan’s work on the side has been the most public by far. In the time since Tool’s last release, he’s started a new band in Puscifer and released three original LP’s under the moniker, not counting the multitude of remixes and EPs. He’s also become a massively successful wine maker in Arizona, an activity which he has long credited with keeping him grounded in his writing. Not to mention the newest A Perfect Circle album, which did quite well. All of this work, though I can’t speak to the quality of the wine, has been quite impressive in its own right. Most importantly, his vocal melodies and lyricism don’t seem to have lost a bit of quality.

The rest of the band has been quite active as well. Danny Carey has played with the jazz-fusion band Volto! for several years including a fantastic 2013 album, Incitare. His work with the group is as complex and groove heavy as its ever been and the album serves as further proof that Carey is one of the greatest drummers in rock history. Justin Chancellor worked with his own side outfit, MTVoid to create the 2013 album, Nothing’s Matter, an underground, industrial metal record that relied heavily on his excellent bass work. He’s also had a rumored collaboration with the experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips in the works since early 2018. In short, there is far less rust on the joints of Tool than casual fans may think.

As far as disappointment, that burden falls squarely on the shoulders of fans and our ability to mitigate our expectations. If you’re waiting on an Earth shattering, world changing, metal record, then you’ll absolutely find yourself disappointed. On the other hand, if you expect a great metal album from a great metal band who’s discography is essentially without a blemish, then you’ll likely get what you want in spades.

Tool is one of the most enigmatic bands in rock history and so it’s unsurprising that we’re headed into a new album after a decade and a half of silence with little to no information. While rumors swirl, including the theory that, along with this release, the entirety of Tool’s catalogue may finally be available for online streaming and sales, virtually nothing is confirmed, and it will likely stay that way until the album is here. What it will sound like is anybody’s guess, but for my money, I expect nothing less than greatness from one of my favorite bands of all time.

Every Maynard James Keenan Album Ranked!!

This one took me quite awhile, but here it is! Every Maynard James Keenan album (post Opiate) ranked!!

12. Emotive (2004)- A Perfect Circle

     The most critically maligned effort in Maynard’s post-Tool career, and admittedly the most underwhelming, I will still be the first and loudest defender of this album. All too often, Emotive is subject to overly brutal criticism because it is viewed through the same lens as the band’s previous work. Instead, the album toes the line between full blown third release and something of a side project. I think, had this been followed quickly by a true end to the band’s trilogy with Virgin Records, much of the distaste would’ve subsided. However, Emotive is what it is, that being, by all accounts, a mixed bag.

   Maynard’s lyricism can hardly be discussed here, as the album is made up of political covers, but the song selection does provide an interesting peak into his inspirations. Track’s like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” come off admittedly awkward, but “Passive,” is one of the band’s best efforts, and incidentally the only original on the album, enlisting the help of fellow industrial rock legend, Trent Reznor in the writing process. Additionally, Maynard’s choral rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum,” is one of my favorite songs of all time. In short, while the album does land at the bottom of the list, it is by no means a bad album.

11. Money Shot (2015)Puscifer

   While this is, admittedly, the weakest of the three Puscifer LP’s, that certainly doesn’t make it unenjoyable by any means. Money Shot’s biggest sin is its inability to differentiate from the band’s previous two entries. While this is decidedly not a meaningful failure in the eyes of many fans, it does seem to run counter to Puscifers appealing quality. While Tool and APC have solidified styles, Puscifer is meant to be an outlet for Maynard to use his complete control to radically experiment with a multitude of new ideas. In this vein, I’m much quicker to forgive the outfit’s few misses on earlier projects than to excuse the safe tracklist of Money Shot.

   That being said, there’s plenty to enjoy here. “The Arsonist,” may be Puscifer’s best song, and “The Remedy,” brings back a bit of the cynicism and comedy of the band’s debut, a quality which is completely absent on the rest of this album. The instrumentation is more organic on this album, and performed quite well by all involved. All in all, Money Shot is an enjoyable effort, but Maynard seems to be in a bit of a creative rut throughout, unsurprising as this would be his 11th LP in just over 20 years. Fitting then, that this would be the last puscifer LP for awhile as MJK began to undertake the writing process of APC’s return in 2018.

10. Opiate (1992) – Tool

    There are very few bands with a stronger debut than Tool. The majority of the record is recorded live, but it still lands on this list because the tracks don’t appear anywhere else in the group’s discography. The live raw energy of a Tool show really comes through on this album as well, and it’s hard not to laugh when Maynard says “get that Bob Marley wannabe motherf***ker out of here.”

   There is plenty not to love here, on the other hand. The recordings, being live and probably cheap, lack the excellent production we would hear on later Tool releases. The tracklist itself is a bit of a weakness as well, mostly coming in around four to five minutes and missing much of the lyrical thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from MJK. The closer and title track, however, remains one of my favorite Tool songs of all time and stands as the first chapter in the very long, open dialogue between Maynard and organized Christianity. This kind of bold, angry writing from such a young band, coupled with the jarring and mildly offensive cover, set a tone for a band and an artist that would speak their minds loudly in the years to come.

9. Conditions of My Parole (2011)Puscifer

   The second Puscifer release certainly doesn’t exceed its predecessor the way Thirteenth Step did, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable entry on this list. The tone is much closer to the larger body of MJK’s work, sacrificing some of the debut’s uniqueness for a more palatable, anthemic style. It did, however, retain much of what makes Puscifer such a unique side project.

   The changes are most notable on tracks like “Tiny Monsters,” and “Green Valley,” where the industrial instrumentation and drum heavy mix is still very present, but the lyricism and, even more so the vocal melodies, are much more in line with what longtime fans have come to expect. “Telling Ghosts,” could very easily have landed on an APC album. A few of the tracks can come off as somewhat forgettable, but the bulk of Conditions of My Parole is an absolute blast.

8. “V” Is For Vagina (2007)Puscifer

   With APC on hiatus and Tool stuck in a perpetual creative vortex, Maynard found himself sat idle for this first time in many years. This seemed to last all of a few days as V Is For Vagina was released just a year after the Tool record and Puscifer was born. While the band wouldn’t receive a lot of mainstream attention until their ’09 single, “Cuntry Boner,” longtime Maynard fans were greeted in ’07 by a total 180 degree turn with surprisingly enjoyable results.

   Puscifer’s sound embraces a form of industrial rock which was only slightly present in MJK’s previous work, and combines it with the kind of sardonic humor which Maynard is known for. Tracks like “Queen B,” and “Vagina Mine” may be somewhat jarring for Tool and APC fans, but they are very well crafted and infinitely listenable pieces of industrial rock, some of the best of the era. V Is For Vagina is a must listen for any and all MJK fans, especially considering his near total creative control over the project.

7. Eat the Elephant (2018)A Perfect Circle

   Perhaps the most divisive of Maynard’s albums among fans, Eat the Elephant marked the return of A Perfect Circle to prominence after a nearly 15 year hiatus which had been filled with three MJK releases under the Puscifer moniker. As a result, this album does often seem to capture more of Puscifer’s experimental nature than APC’s anthemic tendencies. It’s one of stranger albums on this list, but it’s one that I enjoyed quite a bit.

   Tracks like “Disillusioned” and the title track featured surprisingly soft piano passages while “The Doomed,” and my personal favorite, “TalkTalk,” fall much more in the vein of APC’s arena rock style. The latter half loses quite a bit of steam, but overall, Eat the Elephant is a respectable return to form for a group which seems to have matured quite a bit during its hiatus.

6. Meir De Noms (2000)A Perfect Circle

   Following the massive success of Tool, and during a very odd time for rock music in general, A Perfect Circle was formed by MJK and Billy Howerdel and released their debut album, Meir De Noms to massive critical and commercial success. The group’s sound was much more oriented toward arena and alternative rock, as apposed to the progressive and industrial styles that filled Tool projects.

   Meir De Noms contains the band’s best and most popular song by a mile in “Judith,” but also features classics like “The Hollow,” and “3 Libras.” Throughout, Howerdel’s guitar is anthemic and Josh Freese’s drumming is explosive. Maynard’s vocals are, in many ways, given more focus here than on previous Tool projects and his lyrics take a turn for the platitudinous in the best possible way. If the album has one strike against it, it’s a general lack of cohesion and clear vision. However, Meir De Noms is an excellent debut LP and did a great job of setting APC apart from Maynard’s other projects. 

5. Undertow (1993) – Tool

   Oh, how we all miss the days of two Tool releases in back to back years! Following the breakout success of the Opiate EP, Tool followed up with their first full length project, which improved on their previous work in virtually every way. This album features classics like “Prison Sex,” and “Swamp Song,” as well as Tool’s first major hit, “Sober.”

   Undertow is also where we hear Maynard beginning to come into his own as a writer and performer. His screams are powerful and his running vocal lines are nearly ethereal. The record is far better mixed and recorded, though still not as tight as later projects, and there’s a certain air of professionalism about Undertow that begins to make Tool feel like as special a band as they are. Overall, it’s an excellent studio debut and features some of the band’s best instrumentation and MJK’s best lyrics.

4. Thirteenth Step (2003)A Perfect Circle

   The highlight of APC’s catalog, Thirteenth Step is the Terminator 2 of alt-rock albums. Everything we loved from the debut is back, but better focused and turned up to 11. The non-cohesive but impressive tracklist of the debut is replaced with a moody, melodic piece of alt/arena rock with a clear and decisive aesthetic.

   Nearly every song on this album is fantastic, but a few of my favorites include, “Blue,” “The Outsider,” and “Pet, although my personal favorite from the album has to be the orchestral reimagining of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me.” The entire album is a testament to what can be accomplished by two especially creative artists when they mesh well and benefit from excellent work ethics. Thirteenth Step was APC’s second consecutive platinum album and it left the band with hits that are still popular today, 15 years later.

3. 10,000 Days (2006) – Tool

   For many Tool fans, this is the end all be all of Tool albums. In fact, I’d even call it my personal favorite, if I wasn’t speaking critically. Released in 2006 after a five year hiatus, 10,000 Days is the most recent Tool album to date, and it is, in some ways, the completion of an arc which began with ’96’s Aenima, that being the gradually increasing psychedelic and progressive influences into the band’s alt-metal roots. This album gives itself fully over to the prog side and it is from this that both its strengths and weaknesses are born.

   There isn’t a single track that clocks in under six minutes, save the “Blame Hoffman,” interlude which is nearly four minutes of purely atmospheric build up. “Rosetta Stoned,” is nearly 11 minutes of blistering rock music with some of the best drum work of Danny Carey’s career. The highlight of not only the album, but possibly Tool’s entire catalog, is the two part epic of “Wings for Marie,” and “10,000 Days,” which chronicles the passing of Maynard’s mother, and her ascension to heaven. It’s a piece of pure art which will leave goosebumps on the arms of anyone with a pulse.  My only hangup with this album, however, comes in the long and sometimes aimless interludes. Where earlier intros like “Parabol,” felt like a lingering shot of runners on their blocks before a race, a track like “Lipan Conjuring,” seems to spin its wheels and never get anywhere. Regardless, 10,000 Days is Tool’s most personal effort, and one of my all time favorite albums.

2. Ǽnima (1996)Tool

   When it came to deciding my top two for this list, I found the decision virtually impossible, and my opinion may even change day to day, but in the end, and through no fault of its own, Aenima lands at number two. Following the breakout success of Undertow, Aenima takes Tool’s hard rock sound and adds a multitude of brand new layers.

   “46 & 2,” and “Pushit,” deal in complex issues with a kind of reverence which was somewhat new to the band at this time. On the other hand, “Stinkfist,” “H.” and “Eulogy,” touch on serious moral issues with a cynical humor that only Maynard can execute this well. Beyond that, even, tracks like “Hooker With a Penis,” and the title track feature the kind of dark humor which would be largely absent from either of Tool’s post Aenima efforts. But it’s the closer, “Third Eye,” that sets a precedent for what we could expect in the future. Clocking in over 13 minutes and making the most of a couple hilarious Bill Hicks samples, the track is a sprawling, expansive end to an incredible album. Aenima is so very close to being perfect, but for me, it’s beat out ever so slightly by our number one.

1. Lateralus (2001)Tool

   It’s virtually impossible to name the best Tool album, let alone the best album from all of MJK’s catalog, but if it must be done, I simply can’t place anything above Lateralus. I tend to view Tool’s last three albums as a trilogy, following an especially gifted alt-metal four piece as they grow to an infamous, prog-metal juggernaut, and in that sense, the fast majority of the leg-work is done by Lateralus. With a tracklist featuring much longer tracks, including “Reflection,” which clears 11 minutes, lofty concepts, and a heavy influence on math and sequences, Tool challenged themselves in nearly ever conceivable way and they succeeded.

   Tracks like “Schism,” and “Ticks and Leaches,” showcase Tool’s remarkable ability to bend time signatures and tempos, “The Grudge,” and the title track feature Adam Jones’ gritty, powerful guitar work, and “Parabol,” and “Parabola,” is one of the best two part tracks of all time, slowly developing into explosive payoffs. Throughout Maynard’s voice is dynamic, ranging from guttural screams to droning, contained melodies with equal intensity and brilliance. His melodies are every single bit as well written as any riff or beat on the project, and his lyrics are meticulous, yet thematic. All of this is tied together by the legendary David Bottrill, who’s work in the producer’s chair elevates this record to all new heights. Put simply, Lateralus is a remarkable accomplishment for one the greatest bands of all time, and the crown jewel in MJK’s legendary catalog.

Highlights of My Vinyl Collection

I’ve been collecting vinyl for awhile now. A few years and a few hundred albums later, here’s five highlights from my collection!

5. Richard Edwards – Pity Party LP

R-11145459-1519071279-3636.jpeg     On first glance, this may not seem like much. It’s been kept in relatively great condition, the cover is minimalistic and interesting, and the lightning blue vinyl is striking. What makes it special, however, is it’s status. The record only sold about 500 copies, and hasn’t been reprinted since. It was produced as a collectors edition, and as a place holder between Edwards’ excellent solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, and his even better follow up, Verdugo.

   The album itself is a combination of tracks from the two aforementioned projects, each performed solo on an acoustic guitar with minimal production. Edwards has such a gorgeous voice and talent for commanding attention to stripped back performances. In most cases, the less barrier between him and the listener, the better. In the end, this is one of his best projects to date, and I only wish it was in full circulation for those who weren’t able to procure it on it’s first and only print.

4. Tool – Lateralus LP

tumblr_n55pmsbyt01rgojw1o1_500_600x   Turning from one of my favorite folk artists to may absolute favorite hard rock group of all time, my second choice has got to be my Lateralus by Tool. The design on the case is gorgeous enough, sporting the colorful spirals associated with the record’s theme, but the picture discs on the inside are even more impressive. They show the upper half of a human body, removing one layer for each side of the two discs. It’s a purely Tool design, and it sets the mood before the record has even played.

   Musically, what is there to say? It’s a Tool album. It’s fantastic. Lateralus is the band’s most technical work, mixing in complex mathematical elements and executing polyrhythms with a rare precision. Instrumentally, this album is a peak, especially for Justin Chancellor’s bass work, as he begins to find his footing with the group in a major way. Maynard’s vocals and lyrics are, of course, incredible, and overall, the album is just a pure master work.

3. Pink Floyd – Collection

  From progressive metal to pure progressive rock, we’ll turn to my personal choice for the greatest band of all time, Pink Floyd. My collection is missing only a few entries, namely Wish You Were Here and A Momentary Lapse of Reason, but the bulk of their massive discography sits comfortably near the front of my record box. The designs are breathtaking in their simplicity, one of my favorite qualities of Floyd’s album covers. Dark Side of the Moon and Atom Heart Mother in particular create so much meaning with basic covers.

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   When it comes to content, as I said, I consider Pink Floyd the greatest rock band of all time. Listening to their discography in order, you’ll hear them grow and breathe as a group with very few stumbles along the way. Their prime period, from Dark Side of the Moon in ’73 to The Wall in ’79, is nothing short of perfect. However, their earlier, more experimental work is fun and exciting and their later work is expansive and powerful. They’re simply the best to ever do it.

2. Kendrick Lamar – Autographed Damn. LP

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 8.42.39 AM.png   Though rap music doesn’t have nearly the tradition in the vinyl world that other genre’s do, I just can’t resist including this gem. The blood red vinyl references one of the best tracks on the album and Kendrick’s enigmatic face peaks out irresistibly as one flips through their stacks of records. Above all, however, the autograph elevates this LP above the rest of my Kendrick collection.

   Musically, DAMN. certainly isn’t my favorite album from Lamar’s discography. That being said, it’s still one of the best records of 2017 by a mile. The heavy trap influences and simple aesthetic is a notable difference from To Pimp a Butterfly’s jazzy, maximalist style. Kendrick’s flow is blistering, and his lyricism is second to none in modern hip-hop. He’s one of the greats, and it is a pleasure to be alive during his run.

1. Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s – Broadripple is Burning/Holy Cow SINGLE

R-745551-1518276605-9152.jpeg   This was my white wale, and last year, I finally caught it. The debut single for one of my favorite bands is the reason I started collecting vinyl in the first place and it was brutally hard to get my hands on. I eventually got my hands on it for less than $100, a score as far as I’m concerned, and it now sit’s proudly atop my collection. The cover is simple and hand-drawn, the disc is a basic black, and the packaging is fairly worn, but it still stands as my crown jewel.

   The lead track is beautiful, as one would expect from a band fronted by Richard Edwards. His voice is youthful and the instrumentation is full in a way that it wouldn’t be on later releases. Lyrically, it’s one of my favorite tracks of all time, as evidenced by the line from it’s second verse which rests permanently on my arm. The B-side, “Holy Cow,” is fun as well, sounding much more like the band’s later work, but nothing tops “Broadripple is Burning.” I’ve collected nearly 200 records at this point, but none of them have given me the feeling of excitement I got from this single.