A Rock & A Hard Place

Appetite For Destruction

Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses' debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late '80s -- it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. On the surface, Guns N' Roses may appear to celebrate the same things as their peers -- namely, sex, liquor, drugs, and rock & roll -- but there is a nasty edge to their songs, since Axl Rose doesn't see much fun in the urban sprawl of L.A. and its parade of heavy metal thugs, cheap women, booze, and crime. The music is as nasty as the lyrics, wallowing in a bluesy, metallic hard rock borrowed from Aerosmith, AC/DC, and countless faceless hard rock bands of the early '80s. It's a primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales. It also makes Rose's misogyny, fear, and anger hard to dismiss as merely an artistic statement; this is music that sounds lived-in. And that's exactly why Appetite for Destruction is such a powerful record -- not only does Rose have fears, but he also is vulnerable, particularly on the power ballad "Sweet Child O' Mine." He also has a talent for conveying the fears and horrors of the decaying inner city, whether it's on the charging "Welcome to the Jungle," the heroin ode "Mr. Brownstone," or "Paradise City," which simply wants out. But as good as Rose's lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Rolling Stones, and that's what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late '80s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Lest We Forget: The Best Of

Marilyn Manson
It's rather ironic that Marilyn Manson, an artist who kept the idea of the concept album alive during the '90s, turns out to have a greater impact as a singles artist, as the 17-track hits compilation Lest We Forget: The Best of Marilyn Manson illustrates. While each of his post-Portrait of an American Family LPs were designed to be heard as a whole, their singles unfailingly distilled the attitude and ideas behind the individual albums to their catchy core. Yes, catchy -- at his best, Marilyn Manson had a knack for a heavy, glammy hook, the kind that's hard to get out of your head, no matter how hard you try. Not every single had a great hook -- "Tourniquet" is a moody dirge, indicative of what awaits a listener on the album tracks -- but the best of them did, whether it was "Lunchbox" from the debut, the delirious "The Beautiful People," the glam-stomp of "The Dope Show," or the Faith No More homage "mOBSCENE." All these are here, but Lest We Forget doesn't have all the hits -- charting singles "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)" and "Rock Is Dead" are conspicuously missing, as are video hits like "Dope Hat," "Man That You Fear," and "Coma White." These omissions are curious, considering that album tracks and covers are used as substitutions. Nevertheless, it has enough of the hits to make this worthwhile for the casual fans, as well as those listeners who never wanted to admit that these late-'90s alt-rock radio staples were guilty pleasures. [Lest We Forget was also released as a limited-edition set, featuring a bonus DVD containing all the music videos Manson released during the '90s.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Living Things

Linkin Park
Linkin Park got pretty moody on 2010's A Thousand Suns, settling into a sulky electronica groove that pretty much screamed "growing pains" to anybody who listened closely. On its 2012 sequel, Living Things, Linkin Park attempts to graft guitars back onto their newly mature musical outlook, and the reintroduction of visceral force certainly helps give this album a pulse lacking on A Thousand Suns. It's hardly a step back to the old angst-ridden rap-rockers of the turn of the millennium, however. Admirably, Linkin Park revels in a near-middle-aged angst, letting their songs address adult concerns and giving their productions contours and texture; the additional noise isn't an expression of fury, it's used to enhance the drama. Generally, the songs feel sharper on Living Things -- there is definition to their structure, some of the choruses catch hold without too much effort -- but this album remains one of sustained mood, not individual moments. And in that regard, Living Things handily trumps A Thousand Suns: it doesn't stay still, it peaks and ebbs, flowing steadily between brooding and explosions of repressed rage, a fitting soundtrack for aging rap-rockers who are comfortable in their skin but restless at heart.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies

Volbeat
In the two-and-half years since Volbeat's wildly successful Beyond Hell/Above Heaven, they've traveled some miles, both literally and figuratively. They toured not only Europe but the U.S. and Canada in support for nearly a year, and parted ways with lead guitarist Thomas Bredahl. A permanent replacement was found in Robert Caggiano, formerly of Anthrax, who was enlisted to produce Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies and play on select tracks. His addition has proved integral to the band's ever evolving sound. While the meld of various kinds of heavy metal, country, and rockabilly is still present here -- it is now undoubtedly the sound of Volbeat itself -- the lines between those styles are less pronounced. The sometimes jarring shift from rockabilly to thrash, from death metal to the Johnny Cash-country on previous albums, still happens, but here these sounds often coexist within the same song. While it is accurate to say that this set is more accessible than anything Volbeat has attempted previously, it is also the most ambitious set of tracks they've committed to tape. The songwriting is tight, focused; there are lots of hooks, most of them heavy -- thanks, no doubt, to Caggiano's presence. His playing style is full of insanely catchy riffs, vamps, and intricate melodies. Michael Tomas Poulsen's vocals still blend Elvis, James Hetfield, and Keith Caputo, but they growl less; they're expressive and natural sounding. Hard rock and vintage HM are the prevalent sounds here -- as heard on cuts like "Pearl Heart," the riff-arific "The Nameless One," and the aggressive attack in "The Hangman's Body Count." The slow, doomy chug of "Room 24" melds early Black Sabbath to death metal with King Diamond guesting on vocals. Another surprise is in the cover of Young the Giant's "My Body." Thanks to Poulsen's awesome singing and the blasting guitars, it could pass as a Volbeat anthem. An excellent example of all the band's styles converging at once is in "Black Bart," with death metal, Gun Club-style punk-country, and even Thin Lizzy's twin lead guitars. Former Dubstar and Client vocalist Sarah Blackwood sings with Poulsen on "Lonesome Rider," where slap bass rockabilly and hooky '80s metal commingle. Thin Lizzy also get channeled on the killer "The Sinner Is You," while Civil War-era banjo introduces the theatrical country meets death metal choogler "Doc Holliday." A high lonesome desert harmonica à la Ennio Morricone introduces closer "Our Loved Ones," which is as fine a melodic headbanger as anything the band's ever cut. While it is accurate to say that Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies is more accessible than anything Volbeat has attempted previously, it is also the most ambitious -- and arguably enjoyable -- set they've committed to tape.

Superunknown

Soundgarden
Soundgarden's finest hour, Superunknown is a sprawling, 70-minute magnum opus that pushes beyond any previous boundaries. Soundgarden had always loved replicating Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath riffs, but Superunknown's debt is more to mid-period Zep's layered arrangements and sweeping epics. Their earlier punk influences are rarely detectable, replaced by surprisingly effective appropriations of pop and psychedelia. Badmotorfinger boasted more than its fair share of indelible riffs, but here the main hooks reside mostly in Chris Cornell's vocals; accordingly, he's mixed right up front, floating over the band instead of cutting through it. The rest of the production is just as crisp, with the band achieving a huge, robust sound that makes even the heaviest songs sound deceptively bright. But the most important reason Superunknown is such a rich listen is twofold: the band's embrace of psychedelia, and their rapidly progressing mastery of songcraft. Soundgarden had always been a little mind-bending, but the full-on experiments with psychedelia give them a much wider sonic palette, paving the way for less metallic sounds and instruments, more detailed arrangements, and a bridge into pop (which made the eerie ballad "Black Hole Sun" an inescapable hit). That blossoming melodic skill is apparent on most of the record, not just the poppier songs and Cornell-penned hits; though a couple of drummer Matt Cameron's contributions are pretty undistinguished, they're easy to overlook, given the overall consistency. The focused songwriting allows the band to stretch material out for grander effect, without sinking into the pointlessly drawn-out muck that cluttered their early records. The dissonance and odd time signatures are still in force, though not as jarring or immediately obvious, which means that the album reveals more subtleties with each listen. It's obvious that Superunknown was consciously styled as a masterwork, and it fulfills every ambition.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Aerosmith's Greatest Hits

Aerosmith
Aerosmith's Greatest Hits remains one of the most popular and enduring best-of collections by any rock band, selling nearly ten million copies in the U.S. alone since its release. But when it was issued in 1980, the band had just about reached its nadir. With original guitarist Joe Perry gone (and Brad Whitford soon to follow), Aerosmith had turned into a directionless, time-consuming ghost of its former self. Since there would be a three-year gap between 1979's Night in the Ruts and 1982's Rock in a Hard Place, Greatest Hits was assembled, more or less, to fill the void and buy the band some time. With the album clocking in at only 37 and a half minutes, many Aerosmith classics are not included, such as what many consider the band's quintessential track, their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'." The only poor selection is the forgettable "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," but nine out of ten are bona fide classics -- "Dream On," "Same Old Song and Dance," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk this Way," "Last Child," "Back in the Saddle," and "Draw the Line." Also featured is their venomous cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," previously only available as a single and on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the casual fan, Greatest Hits will do the job, as well as its sister album, 1988's Gems.

Greg Prato, Rovi

House Of Gold & Bones Part 2

Stone Sour
Continuing the two-album arc started on House of Gold & Bones, Pt. 1, Stone Sour resume their two-part concept album on House of Gold & Bones, Pt. 2. Musically, the album feels quite a bit like its predecessor, making the band’s decision to release them as two separate discs a smart move, allowing listeners a chance to take a breather before diving back in for a second helping. That said, the quality of the record is still on par with the first part, so anyone who enjoyed the previous record will certainly find more to love here.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Mezmerize

System Of A Down
Adjectives like "ambitious," "jagged," and "startling" have always defined System of a Down, and their third official full-length is no different. Prerelease, the band described Mezmerize as being the first part -- the first side -- of what's essentially a double album. The records' packaging would even slot together, making the eventual "Mezmerize/Hypnotize" whole. Appropriately then, there's an intro to System's first new material since 2001's brilliant Toxicity. On "Soldier Side" Daron Malakian and Serj Tankian harmonize as they do throughout the record, and Malakian's guitar has a mournful, Eastern air. But it's just a lull before "B.Y.O.B.," a thrash assault pierced with rabid and incredulous screams. "Why do they always send the poor?" Suddenly the gears switch, and the song stomps in crunchy half-time as its lyrics riff with a sick grin on cultural ignorance. The government's lying, System's saying, but "Blast off!/It's party time." The vocal exploration between Tankian and Malakian on Mezmerize is a thrill -- they spur each other on like a two-headed hardcore hero. Their intermingling voices make "Cigaro" more aggressive, frantic, operatic, and totally bananas; they'd be triumphant over the break in "Violent Pornography" if they weren't spitting out lines like "Choking chicks and sodomy." The fantastic "Pornography" is a rusty shiv of absurdity, another example of System's ability to effectively skewer society with little more than hyper guitar, blistering percussion, and weird turns of phrase. Their volatile mix of righteousness, wordiness, odd meters, and thrash has balanced System's activism since their self-titled debut, making them "unique heavy music" over the much more problematic "unique, heavily political music." And Mezmerize doesn't fail to be unique. "Old School Hollywood" essays the bizarre experience of a celebrity baseball game ("Tony Danza cuts in line!") over keyboard effects from "Beat It" and a brutally simplistic rhythm, "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song" is more twisted-tongue histrionics and explosive playing, and Tankian and Malakian's harmonies are the catalyst (again!) for making "Revenga" a truly feral epic. System of a Down -- what's another adjective for "awesome"? [Columbia released a clean edition.]

Johnny Loftus, Rovi

The Strange Case Of...

Halestorm

13

Black Sabbath
13 is the 19th studio album from heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath, arriving nearly 20 years after 1995's Forbidden. Produced by Rick Rubin (Slayer, Metallica) and featuring the vocals of Ozzy Osbourne for the first time on a Black Sabbath studio album since 1978's Never Say Die!, 13 is a blistering return that includes the single "God Is Dead?"

Daniel Clancy, Rovi

Amaryllis

Shinedown
With a trend toward the uplifting, Shinedown push their sound in an increasingly positive direction on their fourth album, Amaryllis. While the album still has the driving, hard rock backbone that the band has been building their post-grunge sound upon for years, there's something more anthemic about this effort, as if every song is an attempt to rouse listeners out of their seats, and to that end, it's largely successful. Though songs like "Adrenaline" and "Enemies" still have a good, hard edge to them, the sweeping arrangements of tracks like "Unity" and "I'm Not Alright" always seem to pull the album back into more inspirational waters. Even with this change of tone, the album is still classic Shinedown, and though this kind of triumphant mood will probably disappoint fans looking for something to cut loose and pump their fists to, with such positive overtones at work, at least it'll leave them feeling good about it.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Wretched And Divine: The Story Of The Wild Ones

Black Veil Brides
With their third album, Black Veil Brides complete their transformation from a heavily made-up metalcore band to a full-fledged gothic glam metal band, mixing drama and swagger on the sprawling and conceptual Wretched & Divine. Channeling the freewheeling power of Mötley Crüe into their moody sound, the album finds the band really carving out a niche for themselves among the faceless waves of metalcore/post-hardcore acts. While the 19-song Wretched & Divine is ostensibly a concept album complete with a two-act structure and recurring elements, stripping those elements away reveals an album that is, at its core, a pretty straightforward set of ripping glam metal. Though the conceptual elements do a great job of tying the album into the band's dark image, the music at the heart of the album is solid all on its own. That said, the two come together to create a pretty entertaining package of over the top rock & roll escapism, drawing the listener into the gloomy world created by Black Veil Brides before attempting to rock their socks off with some old-fashioned riffage and big singalong choruses. For fans of the band, the transition from metalcore to third wave glam will have been a (relatively) long time coming, given their steady transition to make their sound match their teased-out appearance. For anyone else who might've picked up this album and immediately began searching for the release date after seeing the bands photo on the back cover, Wretched & Divine is a solid album of neo-hard rock that might just be the thing your inner Crüe fan has been looking for.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses' Greatest Hits may bear all the hallmarks of a hastily assembled compilation -- there are no liner notes, the cardboard packaging is flimsy, the remastering isn't notable -- but it does offer all the band's biggest hits: "Welcome to the Jungle," "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Patience," "Paradise City," "Don't Cry," "You Could Be Mine," "November Rain," and "Live and Let Die" among them. While there are certainly several noteworthy tracks missing -- charting singles like "Nightrain" and "Estranged," and essential album tracks like "It's So Easy," "Mr. Brownstone," and "Used to Love Her," for instance -- for listeners who want a collection containing the group's biggest hits on one disc, this disc will serve their needs nicely. (Of interest to diehards is the band's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," previously only available on the Interview With the Vampire soundtrack and making its first appearance on a GN'R album here.)

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Number Of The Beast

Iron Maiden
Routinely ranked among the greatest heavy metal albums of all time, The Number of the Beast is the birth of Iron Maiden as we know it, a relentless metal machine lifted to soaring new heights by the arrival of erstwhile Samson frontman Bruce Dickinson. Dickinson's operatic performance here made him an instant metal icon, challenging even Rob Halford for bragging rights, and helped launch the band into the stratosphere. The Number of the Beast topped the charts in the U.K., but even more crucially -- with Judas Priest having moved into more commercial territory -- it also made Iron Maiden the band of choice for purists who wanted their metal uncompromised. Maiden took the basic blueprint Priest had created in the late '70s -- aggressive tempos, twin-guitar interplay, wide-ranging power vocals -- and cranked everything up faster and louder. The album's intensity never lets up, the musical technique is peerless for its time, and there isn't a truly unmemorable song in the bunch. Blessed with a singer who could drive home a melody in grandiose fashion, Steve Harris' writing gets more ambitious, largely abandoning the street violence of old in favor of fittingly epic themes drawn from history, science fiction, and horror. The exceptions are "22 Acacia Avenue," a sequel to "Charlotte the Harlot" that sounds written for Di'Anno's range, and the street-crime tale "Gangland," which Harris didn't write; though the punk influences largely left with Di'Anno, these two definitely recall the Maiden of old. As for the new, two of the band's (and, for that matter, heavy metal's) all-time signature songs are here. The anthemic "Run to the Hills" dramatized the conquest of the Native Americans and became the band's first Top Ten U.K. single. It features Maiden's trademark galloping rhythm, which in this case serves to underscore the images of warriors on horseback. Meanwhile, the title track's odd-meter time signature keeps the listener just slightly off balance and unsettled, leading into the most blood-curdling Dickinson scream on record; the lyrics, based on nothing more than Harris' nightmare after watching a horror movie, naturally provoked hysterical accusations of Satan worship (which, in turn, naturally provoked sales). "Hallowed Be Thy Name" is perhaps the most celebrated of the band's extended epics; it's the tale of a prisoner about to be hanged, featuring some of Harris' most philosophical lyrics. It opens with a superbly doomy atmosphere before giving way to a succession of memorable instrumental lines and an impassioned performance by Dickinson; despite all the tempo changes, the transitions never feel jarring. Elsewhere, "The Prisoner" is a catchy retelling of the hit British TV series, and "Children of the Damned" is a slower, heavier number patterned after the downtempo moments of Dio-era Black Sabbath. CD remasters integrate "Total Eclipse," first released as the B-side of "Run to the Hills," into the running order. Though some moments on The Number of the Beast are clearly stronger than others, the album as a whole represented a high-water mark for heavy metal, striking a balance between accessible melodicism and challenging technique and intensity. Everything fell into place for Iron Maiden here at exactly the right time, and the result certainly ranks among the top five most essential heavy metal albums ever recorded. A cornerstone of the genre.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Greatest Hits Vol. 1

Korn
A decade after changing the metal landscape drastically with their self-titled debut juggernaut, Korn got the best-of treatment just as their standing began to seem increasingly shaky, commercially at least. Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 sadly isn't the disc it ideally could be, but it nonetheless summarizes how steady Korn were over the years, developing their sound oh so slightly from one album to the next and, in the process, coming up with several unquestionably killer songs every go-round. The band's six full-lengths resulted in enough of those killer songs to fill this best-of to the brim; in fact, there are quite a few more that could have been compiled here if there were more space on this single-disc release (a double disc would have been definitive). As it stands, however, practically every song here is a highlight in and of itself, with the sole exceptions of the below-par "Alone I Break" and a pair of album-opening covers: Cameo's "Word Up!" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pts. 1-3." These newly recorded covers are here undoubtedly to bait the legions of Korn fans who already own all the band's albums but are loyal enough to purchase this best-of as a way to hear these songs. And yes, they're quite curious, so much so that you'll want to give them a listen if you're a fan (download them, though -- they're curious, no doubt, but certainly not worth the price of this disc alone). The band's "Word Up!" cover is awesome, and the Pink Floyd cover is overwrought, yet enticingly so. Then again, these two songs are "so" well known that you have to wonder, what's the point? Like Korn's previous cover of Metallica's "One," though, the point seems to be one of curiosity rather than one-upmanship.

In any event, these covers aren't the best way to start off this best-of -- not at all -- nor is the reverse chronological sequencing ideal. Because Korn developed their sound over the years, even if only slightly, it'd have been better to map out that progressive trajectory here, rather than hear the band regress from the elaborate, theatrical bombast of their later albums to the stripped-down naked rawness of their fierce debut. These quibbles aside, it's worthy stating again that nothing but great songs are featured here. If you're new to Korn, the most influential and successful metal band of the '90s, this disc should blow you away -- that is, assuming you're a fan of extreme music with a dark, disturbing edge. But if indeed you're new to Korn, you'd be better off skipping over this best-of and heading straight for their self-titled debut (their one undisputed classic), and then moving chronologically forward through the band's catalog. Each album stands well on its own, albeit some better than others, and here you're only getting the tip of each iceberg. If money is a concern, however, and you can only afford one Korn disc for your collection, don't think twice about picking up Greatest Hits. You won't be disappointed. No chance of that. Plus, there's a bonus DVD here of Korn's 2003 show at CBGB's that will give you a good taste of what the band is like live.

Countdown To Extinction

Megadeth
The remixed and remastered Megadeth albums released in 2004 aren't your typical cash-ins. They're stark improvements over the originals: group leader Dave Mustaine did the remixing and remastering himself, making especially significant revisions to the earlier albums, and he includes insightful liner notes for each reissue, including track-by-track commentary for the bonus tracks, as well as lyrics and period photos. The reissue of Countdown to Extinction, like those of the albums that postdate it, isn't all that different from its original incarnation. Megadeth was a big-budget band by this point and afforded itself top-shelf production. So, unlike the band's earlier albums from the '80s, there's not too much to improve upon with Countdown to Extinction. Even so, Mustaine does slightly improve upon the album's already glossy sheen, especially bringing his vocals to the fore (think "Sweating Bullets") and giving the bottom end a little more oomph. Of course, the sheen of Countdown to Extinction has always been a thorny issue with some longtime fans, and this further polishing isn't likely to remedy those too-slick criticisms that have increasingly dogged this album with the passing of time. To go back to 1992 for a moment, you should remember that the "almost" chart-topping Countdown to Extinction was a major turning point for Megadeth as well as for the thrash metal movement they'd helped lead throughout the late '80s. For a thrash metal band to debut at number two on the Billboard album chart (a slim notch below Billy Ray "Achy Breaky Heart" Cyrus' Some Gave All) would have been unimaginable a few years earlier, when Megadeth and their thrash ilk were on the cutting edge of the metal underground -- firmly antithetical to pop-metal chart-toppers like Poison and Mötley Crüe. So it's curious to ponder what the hell happened in a few years' time. Such a chart-topping position (Mustaine writes in the liner notes that he was "pissed" upon learning of his number two debut -- because he'd "wanted number one") was as much a result of Megadeth's growing acceptance among the metal community at large as it was the band's more mannered songwriting (much in the spirit of Metallica's mannered songwriting on their 1991 self-titled, black album -- make of that what you will). For instance, the speed is toned down here -- significantly! -- the singing is quite melodic, and the songwriting is very lyrical, all of this well illustrated on the pair of heavily rotated MTV favorites: "Symphony of Destruction" and "Sweating Bullets." Given how little the remix of this album differs from its original mix, the bonus tracks should be the primary draw: an okay Diamond Head tribute of sorts titled "Crown of Worms" and a trio of demos, most notably an interesting version of "Symphony of Destruction" that resembles the live version recorded for the Rude Awakening, Rovi

Greatest Kiss

Kiss
Greatest Kiss is a fine 16-track collection of the group's biggest hits presented in their original studio versions, with the notable exception of a live version of "Shout It Out," a track recorded at the opening of the group's 1996 reunion tour that was added to entice dedicated collectors. Ignoring "Shout It Out," Greatest Kiss lives up to its billing, since it captures the band's most familiar material -- "Rock & Roll All Night," "Strutter," "Beth," "Cold Gin" -- on one disc, making it and Alive the only necessary albums for casual Kiss fans.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Mother's Milk

Red Hot Chili Peppers
A pivotal album for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1989's Mother's Milk turned the tide and transformed the band from underground funk-rocking rappers to mainstream bad boys with seemingly very little effort. Mother's Milk brought them to MTV, scored them a deal with Warner Brothers, and let both frontman Anthony Kiedis and the ubiquitous Flea get back out into a good groove following the death of co-founding member Hillel Slovak. With a new lineup coalescing around the remaining duo with new drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante, and with producer Michael Beinhorn again behind the boards, the band took everything that The Uplift Mofo Party Plan hinted at, and brought it fully to bear for this new venture. If anyone doubted the pulsating power that leapt from the blistering opener, "Good Time Boys," it took only a few bars of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' outrageous, and brilliant, interpretation of the Stevie Wonder classic "Higher Ground" to prove that this new lineup was onto something special. Wrapping up with the aptly titled and truly punked-out "Punk Rock Classic" and the band's own punched-up tribute to "Magic Johnson," Mother's Milk was everything the band had hoped for, and a little more besides. Effortlessly going gold as "Knock Me Down" and "Taste the Pain" careened into the charts, the album not only set the stage for the band's Blood Sugar Sex Magic domination, it also proved that funk never died; it had just swapped skins. [The 2003 reissue of Mother's Milk includes six bonus tracks, five of which are previously unreleased, including the "Salute to Kareem" demo and a live version of "Crosstown Traffic."]

Amy Hanson, Rovi

Infest

Papa Roach
Papa Roach's debut album Infest quietly became a Top 20 hit in the first half of 2000, slipping underneath the radar of most pop critics and fans. It's easy to see why the pop elite passed them by, since the quartet just isn't hip, and since they are pushing an amalgam of every heavy sound that was popular in the late '90s. Basically, Infest is pitched somewhere between the classic grunge/industrial of the early '90s with hints of late-'90s behemoths like Korn and Limp Bizkit. There's singing, but it's balanced by rapping, and the heavy riffs are run through effects boxes that give it the controlled distortion common to alt-metal; it's loud, but you can hear each note being articulated. Lyrically, there's a lot of angst here, directed at everyone from parents and society to themselves. Strangely, each member thanks their families and God in the liner notes, but that's sort of beside the point, since this has the form and feeling of angst-ridden, post-grunge, rap-riddled alt-metal. Is it good? Well, if you're not into this stuff, this won't change your mind, but the band does work up some energy, sounds pretty muscular on most of the album, and has some good hooks, even if they tend to overplay their hand by throwing too many hooks into the riffs or screaming just a bit to much. Still, that's par for the course with alt-metal. So, it winds up that Papa Roach doesn't really distinguish itself from the pack in terms of sound, but they do stand out in terms of capability and consistency. Infest is a pretty solid alt-metal record, circa 2000, both for better and worse. It's a little generic, yes, but as far as the genre goes, it's not bad.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Notes From The Underground

Hollywood Undead
Working again with American Tragedy producer/co-writer Griffin Boice, masked alt-metal/rap outfit Hollywood Undead returned with their testosterone-fueled signature sound for their 2012 album Notes from the Underground. The record boosts the knowing arena rock posturing with titanic contemporary production. Going for a grand scale enhances the power of their rap-metal attack, which can get tedious, but as they did on the previous year's outing, Johnny 3 Tears, Charlie Scene, Da Kurlzz, Funny Man, J-Dog, and Danny divide their songs up into club pop, rap-rock, and power ballads to break up the sameness of Hollywood suburbia. There are two lyrical themes, too, almost as if they are partying recklessly when the masks are on, and inner angst is revealed when the masks are removed. For every song that revolves around juvenile humor -- for instance, the thinly veiled sports gag "Pigskin," where Charlie Scene raps about his weenie and Danny sings "Hike up your skirt girl, let's get naughty" -- there's a seemingly heartfelt song about dejection. The party rhymes are pretty played out at this point, and knowingly so, as evidenced by a line like "Girls look at me like that guy must make pornos/Yeah, I'm pushing 30 but I still drink Mickey's four O's," but otherwise, the group shows no signs of slowing and will probably still be going strong if and when rap-rock makes a resurgence. [The black-covered edition of Notes from the Underground is the unabridged version and features three extra songs, "Medicine," "One More Bottle," and "Delish."]

Greatest Hits

Billy Idol
Billy Idol's recording career did such a fast fade in the early '90s that his beleaguered record label Chrysalis (since absorbed by Capitol) didn't even put out a best-of in the U.S. (Idol Songs: 11 of the Best was an interim report issued in Great Britain in 1988.) But the rise of the '80s rock radio format and Idol's own interest in a comeback make this belated hits collection timely. With one caveat, it is a well-chosen collection of the singer's most successful recordings. The exception, oddly enough, is his biggest hit, "Mony Mony," which is presented in a 1983 studio version rather than the 1987 live take that topped the charts. (The annotations claim "This version was never released as a single." Actually, it was -- as Chrysalis 2543 -- but it flopped.) Otherwise, all of Idol's big hits are here, among them "Cradle of Love," "Eyes Without a Face," "To Be a Lover," "Rebel Yell," and "White Wedding," each of which reached the Top Ten on one side of the Atlantic or the other. Also included are an "unplugged" live version of "Rebel Yell" and a newly recorded cover of the 1985 Simple Minds hit "Don't You (Forget About Me)," which was co-written by Idol's producer, Keith Forsey. The only omitted chart singles are "Prodigal Blues," a track from Idol's 1990 album Charmed Life, and "Speed," the title song from the 1994 film; both missed the American pop charts. In his day, Idol seemed to some a commercial sellout of the punk ideal, having abandoned Generation X for a slicker image and sound. In retrospect, he seems more like a logical successor to the kind of portentous baritones who preceded him, particularly Jim Morrison and David Bowie, while Forsey's new wave/disco sound, anchored by guitarist Steve Stevens, holds up well.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Disarm The Descent

Killswitch Engage
Though their (second) self-titled album found Killswitch Engage reintroducing themselves as a more accessible, albeit still plenty frenzied, metalcore band, their sixth album, Disarm the Descent, feels as though they're reintroducing themselves not to the audience, but to one another. Returning to the band after the departure of Howard Jones in 2012, original vocalist Jesse Leach finds himself once again picking up vocals duties after parting ways with the group in 2002. Though Leach was a part of the band during their formative years, over a decade has passed since then, and while the performances by all parties involved here are certainly solid ones, they don't quite capture the raw power of their earlier work. In the time since Leach left the fold, Killswitch Engage have matured into a tighter, more refined band than they were for Alive or Just Breathing, and while Leach has certainly grown as a singer in the intervening years, the album doesn't quite recapture that sense of catharsis the band possessed back then. This isn't to say that the album is bad -- in fact, it's quite solidly constructed, an almost watertight specimen of technical acumen -- but that fans expecting this album to be a full-on time machine back to 2002 might be a bit disappointed. What the album might lack in muscle, however, it makes up for in speed, often feeling like a throwback to the days of thrash's blistering technicality, but where past album rampaged, this one merely races. At the end of the day, defining the exact shade of Disarm the Descent's melodic aggression might be splitting hairs, the most important thing for Killswitch fans is that while the band might be adjusting after a shake-up like losing a singer, they've still managed to create another riff-fest that, while not a throwback to their older sound, has them continuing down their current path without much trouble.

Gregory Heaney, Rovi

The Real Thing

Faith No More
Starting with the careening "From Out of Nowhere," driven by Bottum's doomy, energetic keyboards, Faith No More rebounded excellently on The Real Thing after Mosley's firing. Given that the band had nearly finished recording the music and Patton was a last minute recruit, he adjusts to the proceedings well. His insane, wide-ranging musical interests would have to wait for the next album for their proper integration, but the band already showed enough of that to make it an inspired combination. Bottum, in particular, remains the wild card, coloring Martin's nuclear-strength riffs and the Gould/Bordin rhythm slams with everything from quirky hooks to pristine synth sheen. It's not quite early Brian Eno joins Led Zeppelin and Funkadelic, but it's closer than might be thought, based on the nutty lounge vibes of "Edge of the World" and the Arabic melodies and feedback of "Woodpeckers From Mars." "Falling to Pieces," a fractured anthem with a delicious delivery from Patton, should have been a bigger single that it was, while "Surprise! You're Dead!" and the title track stuff riffs down the listener's throat. The best-known song remains the appropriately titled "Epic," which lives up to its name from the bombastic opening to the concluding piano and the crunching, stomping funk metal in between. The inclusion of a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" amusingly backfired on the band -- at the time, Sabbath's hipness level was nonexistent, making it a great screw-you to the supposed cutting edge types. However, all the metalheads took the band to their hearts so much that, as a result, the quintet dropped it from their sets to play "Easy" by the Commodores instead!

Ned Raggett, Rovi

Device

Device

Use Your Illusion I

Guns N' Roses
The "difficult second album" is one of the perennial rock & roll clichés, but few second albums ever were as difficult as "Use Your Illusion". Not really conceived as a double album but impossible to separate as individual works, "Use Your Illusion" is a shining example of a suddenly successful band getting it all wrong and letting its ambitions run wild. Taking nearly three years to complete, the recording of the album was clearly difficult, and tensions between Slash, Izzy Stradlin, and Axl Rose are evident from the start. The two guitarists, particularly Stradlin, are trying to keep the group closer to its hard rock roots, but Rose has pretensions of being Queen and Elton John, which is particularly odd for a notoriously homophobic Midwestern boy. Conceivably, the two aspirations could have been divided between the two records, but instead they are just thrown into the blender -- it's just a coincidence that Use Your Illusion I is a harder-rocking record than II. Stradlin has a stronger presence on I, contributing three of the best songs -- "Dust n' Bones," "You Ain't the First," and "Double Talkin' Jive" -- which help keep the album in Stonesy Aerosmith territory. On the whole, the album is stronger than II, even though there's a fair amount of filler, including a dippy psychedelic collaboration with Alice Cooper and a song that takes its title from the Osmonds' biggest hit. But it also has two ambitious set pieces, "November Rain" and "Coma," which find Rose fulfilling his ambitions, as well as the ferocious, metallic "Perfect Crime" and the original version of the power ballad "Don't Cry." Still, it can be a chore to find the highlights on the record amid the overblown production and endless amounts of filler.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Use Your Illusion II

Guns N' Roses
Use Your Illusion II is more ambitious than I, but it's also more pretentious. II is heavy on epics, whether it's the charging funk metal of "Locomotive," the antiwar "Civil War," or the multi-part "Estranged,” which are balanced with corrective lighter moments. "14 Years" may have a lean, Stonesy rhythm, and Duff McKagan's Johnny Thunders homage, "So Fine," may be entertaining, but GNR goes off the rails with ridiculous "Get in the Ring," where Axl Rose threatens rock journalists by name because they gave him bad reviews; a misinterpretation of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"; and the bizarre paranoid closer, "My World." Yet there are numerous strengths to Illusion II, particularly those epics that play like a cross of Elton John and Freddie Mercury.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Daughtry

Daughtry
Everything that made Chris Daughtry insufferable as a contestant on American Idol -- his utter lack of humor, his oppressive earnestness, his desire to sing every song in the same gut-wrenching fashion, a style that only suited the post-grunge brooding that is his chosen specialty -- work for him on his post-Idol debut album, Daughtry. Technically, this is not a solo album, it's the debut of a band called Daughtry, which is actually spelled all in capital letters, which could be seen as a sign that Chris Daughtry might have a bit of a credibility complex. It certainly seems as if he thinks he'll only be taken seriously as part of a band that, like lots of bands from the grunge revolution, is spelled in a specific, exacting way, even if it means that by the rules of the internet he is, quite literally, shouting at us -- which is only appropriate for a singer who is fueled by Fuel and lives by Live. And, let's face facts, DAUGHTRY was formed by Daughtry not only after his run on American Idol, but "after" he recorded this debut album: the band is for show, to prove that he's the real deal, baby, not some pansy TV singer. It's a posture that's not only just a teeny bit defensive, but one that's utterly unnecessary because the album DAUGHTRY is actually very good, whether it's judged by the standards of American Idol or by the standards of Fuel or Nickelback. Compared to Fuel -- the band that invited Daughtry to be their frontman after he was voted off Idol -- Daughtry has a lighter touch not just in his delivery but also in his songs, which are far hookier than most post-grunge; and if he's compared to Nickelback, he's a far more appealing frontman than that lunkhead Chad Kroeger, with a greater vocal range and far more sensitivity in his singing. Daughtry's way with a hook and empathetic emoting are placed far up in the unapologetically professional mix on DAUGHTRY, which is designed to cross over not to the pop market -- everybody involved knew that DAUGHTRY had that anyway thanks to Daughtry's TV celebrity -- but to the rock market, so everybody involved made sure not to temper the guitars with layers of synths or even to indulge in too many power ballads. The resulting album may play strictly by the rules of mainstream post-grunge and it may never achieve the sweat and grit that real rock bands do even after they've been cleaned up in the studio, but it follows the modern rock blueprint exceedingly well, creating drama even in its pedestrian moments. It also helps that the songs are sturdier than most post-grunge, with big, anthemic hooks on the choruses and verses that are lively enough not to bore. In short, it sounds like the work of a bunch of professionals, which is true to a certain extent: it was produced by Howard Benson, best-known for LPs by My Chemical Romance and All-American Rejects, but Benson and DAUGHTRY didn't draft in a bunch of pros to write the songs -- each tune bears a writing credit by Daughtry, and most of them are solo credits. Listening to these songs, it would be easy to mistake them for the work of seasoned pros: they not only follow the template of post-grunge well, they do it with better hooks and a commercial flair lacking from bands like Fuel and Shinedown, bands that have inspired Daughtry but who he betters here. To put it mildly, that's a surprise -- not just that Daughtry pulled off the tricky move of being pop enough for his Idol fans and rock enough for post-grungers, but that he pulled it off on the strength of his own work. While he hasn't shaken off all the problems that plagued him on the show -- he still could learn that a sense of humor helps add depth to his music, or at least he could realize that rock & roll should be fun at least "some" of the time -- but he's made those qualities work on a debut that's not only a lot more credible than any American Idol-affiliated rock album should be, but it's a lot easier to digest than most of its ilk.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Heaven And Hell

Black Sabbath

Mer de Noms

A Perfect Circle
A Perfect Circle is one of those bands that nobody realized was needed until it happened. A grand claim, perhaps, but there's little question that the addicting combination of Maynard James Keenan's aching voice and Billy Howerdel's accomplished songs and production skills made for one of 2000s best splashes in whatever was left of "modern rock." That the band had in its initial pre-debut album tours performed an audacious, entertaining medley of Ozzy Osbourne's "Diary of a Madman" and the Cure's "Lovesong" -- regularly matching one's words with the other's music and vice versa -- indicates where Mer de Noms ended up. Howerdel's earlier work with Billy Corgan makes perfect sense as a result, since the Pumpkins regularly fused the extreme theatricality of metal and goth just so, but Howerdel's work is no clone. His guitar work operates on setting the mood rather than driving everything before it, balancing sheer power with a textured approach that's quite beautiful. Nine Inch Nails-inspired touches crop up in the distorted percussion of many songs, such as "Rose," but for all the derivations everything becomes its own smart fusion, with Keenan's vocals the killer touch. His abilities in delivering on-the-edge emotional collapse had long been clear thanks to Tool -- here, with a slightly different musical bed to carry things, he often holds back from complete explosiveness, but it's still clearly him, just about to crack. His astonishing call-and-response exchange on the single "Judith" marks another high point in his career. The choice of who else to make up the band was a smart one -- Paz Lenchantin's violin and string arrangements add even further to the air of dark, moody mystery, while Josh Freese's abilities on drums once again come to the fore. Alan Moulder adds in some fine help on mixing, polishing the glowering sheen of Mer de Noms, Rovi

The Living Infinite

Soilwork
When a band loses one of its longtime songwriters, it seems almost expected that the band would play it a little safe, testing out the waters before diving in. Not looking to take the path of least resistance, Soilwork, who once again find themselves without the services of guitarist and songwriter Peter Wichers, have done just the opposite. Rather than attempting to steady the ship with a quick album of throwaway tracks, the Swedish band has returned with The Living Infinite, a sprawling double album that finds Soilwork returning to a more distinctly Scandinavian sound in the wake of their more metalcore-influenced 2010 album, The Panic Broadcast. While The Living Infinite is certainly a whole lot of record, it's filled with enough vigor and creativity that it doesn't feel as though it's dragging along, and though fans might be disappointed to see Wichers leave the band yet again, it's clear that Soilwork seem to be getting along just fine without him.

Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits

Alice Cooper
With the future of the original Alice Cooper band in doubt by mid-1974 (they would soon break up for good with Alice going solo), Warner Bros. decided to issue a best-of compilation entitled Greatest Hits. If you're a newcomer to Alice, this 12-track compilation is a must-hear -- all the selections are exceptional. While many have chosen to focus primarily on Cooper's theatrics over the years, the original bandmembers were indeed supreme rock songwriters; such anthems as "I'm Eighteen," "Under My Wheels," "School's Out," and "No More Mr. Nice Guy" are unquestionably among the finest hard rock tracks of all time. And the other selections prove to be just as strong -- "Is It My Body," "Desperado," "Be My Lover," "Elected," "Billion Dollar Babies," and "Muscle of Love" are all outstanding as well. The only criticism of the original release is that the collection overlooked the band's key album tracks never issued as singles.

Greg Prato, Rovi

Antichrist Superstar

Marilyn Manson

Songs For The Deaf

Queens Of The Stone Age
Certain people would have you believe that Queens of the Stone Age's third album, Songs for the Deaf, is the return of real rock -- a bonecrushing work of boundless imagination, the cornerstone in a new era of great rock, much like Nevermind was a decade beforehand. These people, coincidentally, happen to be in the same group that criticizes the Strokes and the White Stripes, claiming that those two bands are nothing but hype, while shamelessly indulging in breathless hyperbole whenever they speak a single word about QOTSA. Anybody who heard Songs prior to its release claimed it was the greatest rock album in years, at least the greatest since Rated R, setting up expectations impossibly high for this very good album. To begin with, this ain't accessible -- not because the music is out-there or unfamiliar (lots of Cream filtered through garage rock, prog-metal, album rock, and punk does not make one a Borbetomagus, nor does it make it "imaginative," either), but because it is so insular, so concerned with pleasing themselves with what they play that they don't give a damn for the audience. This extends to the production, which sounds like a stoned joke gone awry as it compresses and flattens every instrument as if it were coming out of a cheap AM car radio. Sure, that might be the point -- the album begins with radio chatter, and there are lots of jokey asides by a fake DJ -- but Deaf winds up being entirely too evenhanded and samey, since every guitar has the same beefy, mid-range, no-treble tone and Dave Grohl (aka the Most Powerful Drummer in the Universe) is pushed to the background, never sounding loud, never giving this music the muscle it needs. As such, it becomes "tiring" to listen to -- too much at the same frequency, all hitting the ear in a way that doesn't result in blissful submission, just numbness undercut with a desire to have "some" texture in this album. Once you get around this -- which is an "effort"; unlike, say, the Strokes' Is This It?, whose thin production worked aesthetically and enhanced the songs, this sound cuts QOTSA off at the knees -- there indeed is plenty to enjoy here since the band "is" very good. They're exceptional players, especially augmented here by Grohl on drums, Mark Lanegan on vocals, and Dean Ween on guitar, plus they're very good songwriters, whether they're writing technically intricate riff-rockers or throwbacks to Nuggets. All of this is sorely missing from most guitar rock these days, whether it's indie rock or insipid alt-metal, so it's little wonder that so many fans of great guitar rock flock to this, regardless of its flaws. But that doesn't erase the fact that, above all, QOTSA is a muso band -- a band for musicians and those who have listened to too much music. Why else did the greatest drummer and greatest guitarist in '90s alt-rock (Dave Grohl and Dean Ween, respectively) anxiously join this ever-shifting collective? They wanted to play with the prodigiously talented Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, two musicians who share their taste and willingness to jam. It results in interesting music and an album that, for all of its flaws, is still easily one of the best rock records of 2002. But, to be needlessly reductive, the analogy runs a little like this -- QOTSA is King Crimson and the White Stripes are the Rolling Stones. Which one is "better" is entirely a matter of taste, but which one do you think plays to a larger audience, and is more about "real" rock? [The album was issued digitally in 2007.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Badmotorfinger

Soundgarden
Bidding for a popular breakthrough with their second major-label album, Soundgarden suddenly developed a sense of craft, with the result that Badmotorfinger became far and away their most fully realized album to that point. Pretty much everything about Badmotorfinger is a step up from its predecessors -- the production is sharper and the music more ambitious, while the songwriting takes a quantum leap in focus and consistency. In so doing, the band abolishes the murky meandering that had often plagued them in the past, turning in a lean, muscular set that signaled their arrival in rock's big leagues. Conventional wisdom has it that despite platinum sales, Badmotorfinger got lost amid the blockbuster success of Nevermind and Ten (all were released around the same time). But the fact is that, though they're all great records, Badmotorfinger is much less accessible by comparison. Not that it isn't melodic, but it also sounds twisted and gnarled, full of dissonant riffing, impossible time signatures, howling textural solos, and weird, droning tonalities. It's surprisingly cerebral and arty music for a band courting mainstream metal audiences, but it attacks with scientific precision. Part of that is due to the presence of new bassist Ben Shepherd, who gives the band its thickest rhythmic foundation yet -- and, moreover, immediately shoulders the departed Hiro Yamamoto's share of songwriting duties. But it's apparent that the whole band has greatly expanded the scope of its ambitions. And Badmotorfinger fulfills them, pulling all the different threads of the band's sound together into a mature, confident, well-written record. This is heavy, challenging hard rock full of intellectual sensibility and complex band interplay. And with their next album, Soundgarden would learn how to make it fully accessible to mainstream audiences as well.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Hellbilly Deluxe

Rob Zombie
Just as White Zombie was on the verge of becoming the most popular metal band in the land, Rob Zombie decided he was an auteur. Stopping short of breaking up the band, Zombie set out to make sure everyone know that "he" was the main force in the band, as if there were any doubt in the first place. He did extracurricular animation, managed a band, started a record label, drew a sequence in Beavis & Butt-Head Do America, appeared in films, wrote the script for The Crow 3 (which he planned to direct), and most tellingly of all, he recorded a solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe. Since White Zombie was always his baby, it seems a little strange that he had the need to break away from the group, especially since the album sounds "exactly" like a White Zombie record, complete with thunderous industrial rhythms, drilling metal guitars, and B-movie obsessions. For most listeners, it doesn't matter if Hellbilly Deluxe is technically a White Zombie or Rob Zombie album, since it delivers the goods, arguably even better than Astro-Creep: 2000. To outsiders, the entire schlock enterprise may seem ridiculous or sound monotonous, but even the weak cuts here hit hard and give fans exactly what they want. [Hellbilly Deluxe was also released in a "clean" version, which removed all the profanities from the original recording.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Alice In Chains
Greatest Hits is not, alas, the antidote to the botched Nothing Safe: Best of the Box compilation, but rather a lower-priced, ten-track sampler of Alice in Chains' career. The songs are mostly excellent and well-chosen, but unfortunately, there are simply too few of them. Greatest Hits will serve the needs of casual fans who just want ten of Alice in Chains' best songs on one disc without shelling out too much money, but there are too many other good moments in the group's back catalog to make this a good buy for anyone else.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Fever

Bullet For My Valentine
Welsh thrash/metalcore band Bullet for My Valentine sold a lot of records out of the gate with their 2006 album The Poison, blending old-school metal riffing and emo lyrical content in a manner similar to Stateside peers like Atreyu. On their second album, 2008's Scream Aim Fire, they evolved into a much more aggressive and assured metal act, going a little easier on the overwrought diary-entry lyrics in favor of Trivium-style anthems like "Eye of the Storm" and "Waking the Demon." On their third disc, they consolidate their style and split the difference between their two previous discs, offering ultra-clean singing and overwrought lost-love lyrics atop a bed of gated and triggered drums, staccato guitar riffing, and arena-friendly soloing. Having apparently overcome the throat problems that plagued him around the time of Scream Aim Fire, Matt Tuck's vocals are powerful and committed, whether on heavy tracks like "Your Betrayal" or ballads like "Bittersweet Memories." This isn't a pathbreaking album by a band with any chance at reshaping their genre in their image; it's a solid disc by a group that knows its own strengths.

Phil Freeman, Rovi

Blizzard Of Ozz (Expanded Edition)

Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne's 1981 solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz, was a masterpiece of neo-classical metal that, along with Van Halen's first album, became a cornerstone of '80s metal guitar. Upon its release, there was considerable doubt that Ozzy could become a viable solo attraction. Blizzard of Ozz demonstrated not only his ear for melody, but also an unfailing instinct for assembling top-notch backing bands. Onetime Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads was a startling discovery, arriving here as a unique, fully formed talent. Rhoads was just as responsible as Osbourne -- perhaps even more so -- for the album's musical direction, and his application of classical guitar techniques and scales rewrote the rulebook just as radically as Eddie Van Halen had. Rhoads could hold his own as a flashy soloist, but his detailed, ambitious compositions and arrangements revealed his true depth, as well as creating a sense of doomy, sinister elegance built on Ritchie Blackmore's minor-key innovations. All of this may seem to downplay the importance of Ozzy himself, which shouldn't be the case at all. The music is a thoroughly convincing match for his lyrical obsession with the dark side (which was never an embrace, as many conservative watchdogs assumed); so, despite its collaborative nature, it is unequivocally stamped with Ozzy's personality. What's more, the band is far more versatile and subtle than Sabbath, freeing Ozzy from his habit of singing in unison with the guitar (and proving that he had an excellent grasp of how to frame his limited voice). Nothing short of revelatory, Blizzard of Ozz deservedly made Ozzy a star, and it set new standards for musical virtuosity in the realm of heavy metal. [2011's 30th Anniversary edition of Blizzard of Ozz (which was also released on double vinyl) featured a newly remastered and restored edition of the original album, as well as the bonus cuts "You Looking at Me, Looking at You (Non-LP B-Side, Previously Unreleased in the U.S.)," "Goodbye to Romance (2010 Guitar & Vocal Mix, Previously Unreleased)," and "RR (Previously Unreleased: Randy Rhoads Guitar Solo)."]

Steve Huey, Rovi

L.D. 50

Mudvayne
Mudvayne boasts a couple of elements that distinguish it from most contemporary heavy metal outfits. The band adopts bizarre facial makeup that is less suggestive of Kiss than of a bunch of boys who, having failed to plan their Halloween costumes, threw something together by raiding their mother's vanity case. And lead singer Kud (they have funny pseudonyms, too) doesn't always sing in a typical hardcore howl, sometimes descending into a more conventional voice, as if he were auditioning to replace Sebastian Bach in the Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde. Such characteristics suggest that, for Mudvayne, the thrash style is something of a pose, a suspicion enhanced by reference to the CD booklet, which contains an acknowledgments section as lengthy and gushy as what you'd find on a teen pop album. Can these guys giving thanks and love to family and friends be the same ones performing aggressive lockstep metal, spewing obscenities, and singing about suicide? It seems so, but it's hard to take seriously. (The "L.D." in the album's title refers to "lethal dose," and the "50" refers to a level of toxicity at which 50 out of 100 test animals will die.) [A 'clean' version of the album was released in 2001 as well.]

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Destroyer

Kiss
The pressure was on Kiss for their fifth release, and the band knew it. Their breakthrough, Alive!, was going to be hard to top, so instead of trying to re-create a concert setting in the studio, they went the opposite route. Destroyer is one of Kiss' most experimental studio albums, but also one of their strongest and most interesting. Alice Cooper/Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin was on hand, and he strongly encouraged the band to experiment -- there's extensive use of sound effects (the album's untitled closing track), the appearance of a boy's choir ("Great Expectations"), and an orchestra-laden, heartfelt ballad ("Beth"). But there's plenty of Kiss' heavy thunder rock to go around, such as the demonic "God of Thunder" and the singalong anthems "Flaming Youth," "Shout It Out Loud," "King of the Night Time World," and "Detroit Rock City" (the latter a tale of a doomed concertgoer, complete with violent car-crash sound effects). But it was the aforementioned Peter Criss ballad, "Beth," that made Destroyer such a success; the song was a surprise Top Ten hit (it was originally released as a B-side to "Detroit Rock City"). Also included is a song that Nirvana would later cover ("Do You Love Me?"), as well as an ode to the pleasures of S&M, "Sweet Pain." Destroyer also marked the first time that a comic-book illustration of the band appeared on the cover, confirming that Kiss were transforming from hard rockers to superheroes. [In 2012, Universal issued a Resurrected edition featuring a new mix by original producer Bob Ezrin. The in-album version of "Beth" is extended, featuring a verse not heard on the original release, while a version of "Sweet Pain" with an alternate guitar solo is added as a bonus track.]

Dead Sara

Dead Sara
Do not come to L.A. band Dead Sara looking for subtlety or restraint. Oh, sure, there's about 30 seconds of holding back at the beginning of "Dear Love," and a minute or so of relatively soft, slow build-up in the otherwise rocking power ballads "Face to Face" and album closer "Sorry for It All"—and you'll be happy for these moments of calm, because otherwise they're all about red-lining, amped-up rock 'n' roll. Frontwoman Emily Armstrong has a sweet voice, but she lets it snarl and howl at operatic levels, and she and guitarist Siouxsie Medley trade riffs that mean to crush like brick walls toppling, with loud/quiet/loud combos that repeatedly punch hard.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best Of Scorpions

Scorpions
By one-upping the 1989 best-of Best of Rockers 'n' Ballads, Scorpions' 20th Century Masters makes the claim of being the hair metal band's definitive single-disc best-of. It does so by adding "Send Me an Angel" and "Wind of Change," the latter being one of Scorpions' largest and most well-known hits ever. Since these two songs were released after Best of Rockers 'n' Ballads, they don't appear on that best-of. Besides the inclusion of those two latter-day songs, not much else is different. All the big '80s metal anthems are still here: "Rock You Like a Hurricane," "Big City Nights," "No One Like You," "Still Loving You," and so on. Once again, this album reminds listeners just how impressive Scorpions were in their prime, as most of the included songs date back to the early '80s, with the earliest dating back to 1979. That, of course, means this best-of ignores Scorpions' mid- to late-'70s output, but that's no surprise since those recordings for RCA didn't make their way onto Best of Rockers 'n' Ballads nor the double-disc Deadly Sting.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

See You On The Other Side

Korn
Korn first talked reinvention with 2003's Take a Look in the Mirror. Self-produced, it was a muscular, effectively brief record that nodded in some intriguing new directions. After that they talked celebration -- 2004's greatest-hits set looked back on a decade of influence and intensity. And yet, it's 2005's See You on the Other Side that's Korn's "real" reinvention celebration. It's their first album as a quartet after getting left behind by born-again guitarist Brian "Head" Welch. It's also their first venture for new label Virgin. But really Other Side is Korn's acknowledgement that their life isn't all that bad, and it's time to party. It's a heavy record that swings, an album that takes Korn's rap-metal template toward the red-light swagger of the Dirty South's rap revolution. Is it really surprising that Lil Jon plays Jonathan Davis in the video for "Twisted Transistor"? That song's one of eight on Other Side produced and co-written by the Matrix, and it shows. It's Korn all the way, cocky and funky. But it's slick too, concerned more with the shock value of groove than trying to be some poor kid's slap bass confidant, his surrogate therapy session. And it works. It's cool to hear the Matrix getting down with Korn; they keep each other honest, balancing the sheen with the sleaze. Davis, Munky, Fieldy, and David Silveria still bring it, but in a way that's aware of the manufacturing. And that's key, since after ten-plus years, their act was getting a little tired. Why not embrace the cash, embrace the slinkier side of Fieldy's vertical rhythms? The target of "Politics" is obvious, and "Hypocrites" rails against organized religion. But beneath the polemic is the Korn sound stripped, made truly economized and catchy. Diehards are going to gnash their teeth, and clog the message boards with dismissive comments. But isn't it about time for them to move on, too? Other Side is a little "too" processed at times -- "Love Song" says "Motherf*cker!" just to know it's alive. But then there's "Open Up," running a NIN influence through weird processing, and "Getting Off," which wavers and lurches like Korn chopped and screwed. If rap-metal were ever meant to evolve, See You on the Other Side is the record that does it. [The album was available in both clean and unedited versions for its regular and deluxe versions.]

Blood Mountain

Mastodon
The two-year long wait is over, and those Mastodon fans encouraged but leery of the slicker production of Leviathan over Remission will be even more bemused, or downright bewildered, by Blood Mountain, the band's first foray into major-label territory since signing with Warner Brothers' Reprise imprint (after all, this was the label conceded to Frank Sinatra as his own when he threatened to leave it). Blood Mountain is everything fans both hoped for and feared. Mastodon has dug even deeper in its foray into prog metal, but without losing an ounce of their power, literacy, or willingness to indulge in hardcore punk, doom, and death metal. Like Leviathan, Blood Mountain is both melodic and downright raging in places. Matt Bayles is in the producer's chair once more and he's encouraged this Georgia quartet -- Bränn Dailor (drums), Brent Hinds (guitar and vocals), Bill Kelliher (guitar and vocals), and Troy Sanders (bass and vocals) -- to take it to the limit. And they have. Blood Mountain indulges and goes deep into the territory of prog metal beats and quests and spiritual revelations that have less to do with Tolkein-ism and more to do with Conan-ism. There are utterly beautiful melodic passages woven into the heaviness that are reminiscent of Thin Lizzy's dual guitar lyricism -- and the band has confessed to digging Phil Lynott and company. The vocals -- with guest spots from Neurosis' Scott Kelly, the Mars Volta's Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme -- are mixed way upfront and the number of sheer stylistic changes is dizzying.

No, Mastodon should not lose their street cred over this. For every old fan alienated, a new one will step into the gap and there will be throngs of new ones, more than likely. Why? Simply because this band does the technical thing as well or better than Meshuggah without sacrificing a bit of the black blood which courses through their veins toward their dark thrash metal hearts. The set opens with the completely in-the-red thrashcore metal of "The Wolf Is Loose," complete with a chanted chorus. As the guitars twin and scream, bass and drums chop away at convention. Tempo changes, from fast to faster to a refrain that gives the listener time to shout along. The doubled leads and repetition in the verse are countered by the swelling, pulsating thud from the drum kit. Lyrically, it appears that Mastodon is trying to create a new mythological present. But the bridge goes into the netherworld with actual sung vocals and angular, elliptical phrases that defy elucidation. The echoey sound effects on the drums at the opening of "Crystal Skull" quickly give way to a plodding power metal riff. "Sleeping Giant" comes out of the gate, slowly, dreamily, seductively, there are digital delays on the guitars that gather tension as they (relatively) whisper by, and create an ambience that crosses early Black Sabbath and Opeth. It's the vocals that are most remarkable, however, sung cleanly to a slow tempo, each word is distinct and the effect is nearly hypnotic as the strange, self-created cultic myth is further woven into a web of dislocation, epic ambivalence, mystery, and power. Prog metal is made plain on "Capillarian Quest," where intricate patterns and bludgeoning guitar riffs vie for dominance but are authoritatively held in Mastodon's deafening balance. "Circle Cysquatch," with its bloodcurdling extreme thrash and burn, tips it toward a virtual creation idea born of pagan rites, blood sacrifice, the spirits of extinct species, and the hollow ring of organized religion, all given their freedom here to drift back to prehistory and the days of fire and rage in the rough and tumble founding of "civilization."

On it goes. Mastodon seeks no easy answers but poses dozens of questions about origin, and "culture." Forget "thinking man's metal," this is metal, period, and the guys that make it "think". The music, as varied and tumultuous and, in places utterly beautiful as it is, place the band beyond the pale -- check the intro to "Bladecatcher" before it falls apart into pure chaos and cacophony where lyrics and themes are barely articulated in the hammering thunder of apocalyptic noise. Sound effects that perhaps are the voices of the spirits themselves make themselves heard in the din -- but indecipherably. "Colony of Birchmen" and "Hunters of the Sky" are both prototypically metal and act as the album's hinge pieces, where Mastodon completes its achievement and establish a new heavy metal. "This Mortal Soul," with its elongated beginning and utter lyricism may alienate those who live for heaviness alone, but it will attract those who can see outside the genre's subgenres. The set closes with "Pendulous Skin," a track that amounts to a densely populated power ballad with gorgeous guitar soloing, and a major/minor key chord progression (instead of riffs and a Hammond B-3) played by Bayles followed by a long silence, where at the very end, a "fan" letter is read and responded to. What does it add up to? Something old and something new, a heavy metal that's utterly gargantuan to wrestle with because it actually moves the style into brand new territory, an unfamiliar terrain which will accord it much name calling and crying of "sellout" by the unwashed masses who are more conservative about their steely brand of "folk music" than the Newport crowd was about Dylan going electric. Yet, for those daring enough to take this in, there are true bloody treasures to behold and receive. If Leviathan was a masterpiece, then this is too -- only more so.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Era Vulgaris

Queens Of The Stone Age
Josh Homme is a man of many talents, but he's not quite a man of his time. He floats outside of it, sniping and sneering at it, but he's not part of it -- he's too in love with rock & roll to belong to a decade that's seeing the music's slow decline. You could say that Queens of the Stone Age keep rock's flame burning, but unlike other new-millennium true believers -- like Jack White, for instance -- Homme lacks pop skills or even the interest in crossing over (which isn't the same thing as lacking hooks, mind you), and unlike the stoner metal underground that provided his training ground, he's not insular; he thrives on grand visions and grander sound. He's an anomaly, a keeper of the flame that will never be played on "Little Steven's Rock & Roll Underground" because Queens of the Stone Age are too heavy, too muso, too tasteless in all the wrong ways to be commonly accepted or embraced as among the next generation of rock heroes -- which only makes them more rock & roll, of course. And if rock & roll is indeed in decline in the 2000s, Homme and his Queens of the Stone Age prove that rock & roll can nevertheless be just as potent as it ever was with each of their remarkable albums. All are instantly identifiable as QOTSA but all are quite different from each other, from the sleazoid freak-out of R to the dark, gothic undertow of Lullabies to Paralyze, a record so willfully murky that it alienated a good portion of an audience ready to bolt in the wake of the departure of Homme's longtime partner, Nick Oliveri. Its 2007 successor, Era Vulgaris, is as different from Lullabies as that was to their dramatic widescreen breakthrough, Songs for the Deaf: it's mercilessly tight and precise, relentless in its momentum and cheerful in its maliciousness. Like other QOTSA albums, guest musicians are paraded in and out, but here it's impossible to tell if Mark Lanegan contributed anything or if that indeed is the Strokes' Julian Casablancas singing lead on the lethal "Sick, Sick, Sick," because Homme has honed Era Vulgaris so scrupulously that it's impossible to hear anybody else's imprint on the overall sound. QOTSA retain some of the spookiness of Lullabies -- there's a ghostly hue on "Into the Hollow" -- but this is as balls-out rock as Songs for the Deaf, only minus the mythic momentum Dave Grohl lent that record. But Era Vulgaris isn't designed as a monolith like Songs; its appeal is in its lean precision, how the riffs grind as if they were stripping screws of their threads, how the rhythms relentlessly pulse, and, of course, how it's all dressed up in all kinds of scalding guitars, all different sounds and tones, giving this menace and muscle. If the songs aren't pop crossovers -- not even the soulful seductive groove of "Make It Wit Chu" (revived from one of Homme's Desert Sessions) qualifies it as a potential pop hit -- they still have hard hooks that make these manifestos even if they aren't anthems: "Misfit Love" digs in like a nasty Urge Overkill, "Battery Acid" is metallic and mean, blind-sided only by the gargantuan, gnarly "3's & 7's." It's hard to call Era Vulgaris stripped-down -- there's too much color in the guitar, too much willful weirdness to be that -- but this is Queens of the Stone Age at their most elemental and efficient, never spending longer than necessary at each song, yet managing to make each of these three-minute blasts of fury sound like epics. It's exhilarating, the best rock & roll record yet released in 2007 -- and the year sure needed the dose of thunder that this album provides.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Out Of Exile

Audioslave
Given that most supergroups last little longer than a single album, it was easy to assume that Audioslave -- the pairing of Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell and the instrumental trio at the core of Rage Against the Machine -- was a one-off venture. That suspicion was given weight by their eponymous 2002 debut, which sounded as if Cornell wrote melodies and lyrics to tracks RATM wrote after the departure of Zack de la Rocha, but any lingering doubts about Audioslave being a genuine rock band are vanished by their 2005 second album, Out of Exile. Unlike the first record, Out of Exile sounds like the product of a genuine "band", where all four members of the band contribute equally to achieve a distinctive, unified personality. It's still possible to hear elements of both Rage and Soundgarden here, but the two parts fuse relatively seamlessly, and there's a confidence to the band that stands in direct contrast to the halting, clumsy attack on the debut. A large part of the success of Out of Exile is due to the songs, which may be credited to the entire group but are clearly under the direction of Cornell, sounding much closer to his past work than anything in Rage's catalog. Even the simple riff-driven rockers are tightly constructed songs with melodies and dramatic tension -- they "lead" somewhere instead of running in circles -- while the ballads have a moody grace and there's the occasional left-field surprise like the sunny, sweet psych-pop gem "Dandelion"; it's the strongest set of songs Cornell has written in a decade. Which is not to say that Out of Exile is without excesses, but they're almost all from guitarist Tom Morello; his playing can still seem laborious, particularly when he clutters single-string riffs with too many notes (the otherwise fine opener, "Your Time Has Come," suffers from this), and his elastic stomp box excursions verge on self-parody on occasion. Still, these are isolated moments on an album that's otherwise lean, hard, strong, and memorable, a record that finds Audioslave coming into its own as a real rock band.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Made In Japan

Deep Purple
Recorded over three nights in August 1972, Deep Purple's Made in Japan was the record that brought the band to headliner status in the U.S. and elsewhere, and it remains a landmark in the history of heavy metal music. Since reorganizing with singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover in 1969, Deep Purple had recorded three important albums -- Deep Purple in Rock, Fireball, and Machine Head -- and used the material to build a fierce live show. Made in Japan, its selections drawn from those albums, documented that show, in which songs were drawn out to ten and even nearly-20-minutes with no less intensity, as guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and organist Jon Lord soloed extensively and Gillan sang in a screech that became the envy of all metal bands to follow. The signature song, of course, was "Smoke on the Water," with its memorable riff, which went on to become an American hit single. But those extended workouts, particularly the moody "Child in Time," with Gillan's haunting falsetto wail and Blackmore's amazingly fast playing, and "Space Truckin'," with Lord's organ effects, maintained the onslaught, making this a definitive treatment of the band's catalog and its most impressive album. By stretching out and going to extremes, Deep Purple pushed its music into the kind of deliberate excess that made heavy metal what it became, and their audience recognized the breakthrough, propelling the original double LP into the U.S. Top Ten and sales over a million copies. On November 17, 1998, Warner Archives/Rhino issued "the remastered edition" of the album, a two-CD set that added more than 20 minutes of encores on a second disc that contained "Black Night," previously released only as a European B-side, and versions of "Speed King" and Little Richard's "Lucille" that were previously unreleased.

Mechanical Animals

Marilyn Manson
Antichrist Superstar performed its intended purpose -- it made Marilyn Manson internationally famous, a living realization of his fictional "antichrist superstar." He had gained the attention of not only rock fans, but the public at large; however, many critics bestowed their praise not on the former Brian Warner, but on Trent Reznor, Manson's mentor and producer. Surely angered by the attention being focused elsewhere, he decided to break from Reznor and industrial metal with his third album, Mechanical Animals. Taking his image and musical cues from Bowie, Warner reworked Marilyn Manson into a sleek, androgynous space alien named Omega, à la Ziggy Stardust, and constructed a glammy variation of his trademark goth metal. With pal Billy Corgan as an unofficial consultant and Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn manning the boards, Manson turns Mechanical Animals into a big, clean rock record -- the kind that stands in direct opposition to the dark, twisted industrial nightmares he painted with his first two albums. It can make for a welcome change of pace, since his glammed-up goth is more tuneful than his clattering industrial cacophony, but it lacks the cartoonish menace that distinguished his prior music. [Mechanical Animals was also released in a "clean" version, with edited lyrics and altered cover artwork.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Black Gives Way To Blue

Alice In Chains
It's hard not to feel for Alice in Chains -- all the guys in the band were lifers, all except lead singer Layne Staley, who never managed to exorcise his demons, succumbing to drug addiction in 2002. Alice in Chains stopped being a going concern long before that, all due to Staley's addictions, and it took guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney a long time to decide to regroup, finally hiring William DuVall as Staley's replacement and delivering Black Gives Way to Blue a full 14 years after the band's last album. To everybody's credit, Black Gives Way to Blue sounds like it could have been delivered a year after Alice in Chains: it's unconcerned with fashion; it's true to their dark, churning gloom rock; and if you're not paying attention too closely, it's easy to mistake DuVall for his predecessor. There's a difference between desperately attempting to recapture past glories and reconnecting with their roots, and Alice in Chains fall into the latter category. While they'll never be mistaken for a feel-good band, there is a palpable sense of relief that they get to play together again as a band, and what's remarkable is that they still sound like themselves, capturing that weird murk halfway between '80s metal and '90s northwestern sludge, reminding us that we were missing something in their absence.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Last In Line

Dio
Following the extremely warm reception given his self-named band's well-deserving debut album, Holy Diver, Ronnie James Dio figured there was no point in messing with a winning formula, and decided to play it safe with 1984's sophomore effort, The Last in Line -- with distinctly mixed results. Although technically cut from the same cloth as those first album nuggets, fist-pumping new songs like "We Rock," and "I Speed at Night" curiously went from good to tiresome after just a few spins (a sign that the songwriting clichés were starting to pile up...read on); and the otherwise awesome, seven-minute epic, "Egypt (The Chains Are On)," inexplicably lost it's strikingly sinister main riff halfway through, in what sounds like a mastering snafu of some kind. On the upside, more dramatic, mid-paced numbers such as the title track, "One Night in the City," and "Eat Your Heart Out" -- as well as the driving "Evil Eyes" -- delivered enough compelling riffs and melodies to outweigh Ronnie's once endearing, but now increasingly troublesome repetition of words like "rainbow," "fire," and "stone" in seemingly every song. Finally, the distinctly more commercial pairing of heavy rocker "Breathless" and the power ballad/single "Mystery" gave undisguised notice (along with the slightly sleeker production throughout and more generous keyboards from new member Claude Schnell) of Dio's intention to broaden their audience by tapping into the rising tide of pop-metal. This would bring dire circumstances on their next album, Sacred Heart, but despite the telltale signs of decline cited above, anyone who loved Holy Diver will likely enjoy The Last in Line nearly as much.

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Lullabies To Paralyze (Explicit Version)

Queens Of The Stone Age
Before heading into the studio in early 2004 to record the fourth Queens of the Stone Age album, Lullabies to Paralyze, the band's guitarist/vocalist/chief songwriter, Josh Homme, kicked out bassist Nick Oliveri for undisclosed reasons. Since Homme and Oliveri were longtime collaborators, dating back to the 1990 formation of their previous band, Kyuss, this could have been a cause for concern, but QOTSA is not an ordinary band, so ordinary rules do not apply. Throughout their history, from Kyuss through Queens of the Stone Age's 2002 breakthrough Songs for the Deaf, Homme and Oliveri have been in bands whose lineups were as steady as quicksand; their projects were designed to have a revolving lineup of musicians, so they can withstand the departure of key musicians, even one as seemingly integral to the grand scheme as Oliveri -- after all, he left Kyuss in 1994 and the band carried on without him. Truth is, the mastermind behind QOTSA has always been Josh Homme -- he's the common thread through the Kyuss and QOTSA albums, the guy who has explored a similar musical vision on his side project the Desert Sessions -- and since he's wildly indulging his obsessions on Lullabies to Paralyze, even hardcore fans will be hard-pressed to notice the absence of Oliveri here. Sure, there are some differences -- most notably, Lullabies lacks the manic metallic flourishes of their earlier work, and the gonzo humor and gimmicks, such as the radio DJ banter on Deaf, are gone -- but it all sounds like an assured, natural progression from the tightly wound, relentless Songs for the Deaf. That album contained genuine crossover pop tunes in "No One Knows" and "Go With the Flow," songs that retained QOTSA's fuzzy, heavy neo-psychedelic hard rock and were channeled through an irresistible melodic filter that gave the music a serious sexiness that was nearly as foreign to the band as the undeniable pop hooks. Homme has pulled off a surprise of a similar magnitude on Lullabies to Paralyze -- he doesn't walk away from these breakthroughs but marries them to the widescreen art rock of R and dark, foreboding metal of Kyuss, resulting in a rich, late-night cinematic masterpiece. One of the reasons QOTSA have always been considered a musician's band is that they are masters of mood, either sustaining tension over the course of a six-minute epic or ratcheting up excitement in the course of a two-minute blast, all while using a familiar palette of warm, fuzz-toned guitars, ghostly harmonies, and minor-key melodies. While Lullabies is hardly a concept album, its songs play off each other as if it were a song cycle, progressing from the somber Mark Lanegan-sung opening salvo of "This Lullaby" and steadily growing spookier with each track, culminating in the scary centerpiece "Someone's in the Wolf." The key to QOTSA's darkness is that it's delivered seductively -- this isn't an exercise in shallow nihilism, there's pleasure in succumbing to its eerie, sexy fantasies -- and that seductiveness is all musical. Specific lyrics don't matter as much as how Homme's voice blends into the band as all the instruments bleed together as one, creating an elastic, hypnotic force that finds endless, fascinating variations on a seemingly simple sound. Simply put, there is no other rock band in 2005 that is as pleasurable to hear play as QOTSA -- others may rock harder or take more risks, but no one has the command and authority of Queens at their peak, which they certainly are here. They are so good, so natural on Lullabies to Paralyze that it's easy to forget that they just lost Oliveri, but that just makes Homme's triumph here all the more remarkable. He's not only proven that he is the driving force of Queens of the Stone Age, but he's made an addictive album that begs listeners to get lost in its ever-shifting moods and slyly sinister sensuality.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Contraband (Parental Advisory)

Velvet Revolver
Contraband features Slash, Duff, and Matt Sorum (as well as additional guitarist Dave Kushner) cranking out an updated version of Guns N' Roses swagger behind Scott Weiland's glammy, elastic vocals. With STP's vocalist and such a high percentage of ex-Gunners, Velvet Revolver really is a supergroup. "Went too fast I'm out of luck and I don't even give a f*ck," Weiland spits on "Do It for the Kids," and a peel from Slash's arsenal backs him up. Maturity has clearly come at a price for both parties. Weiland still mugs and sings like a florescent lizard king. But his appetite for the spotlight has somehow become more voracious even as he fights cynically against it, and longs for an escape. For their part, Slash, Duff, and Co. like stirring up their old demons -- check the explosive entrance on "Set Me Free" to get things a-tingling like the old days. But they're not running a nostalgia show, so there are new tricks and sounds, too, and plenty of choruses that shift into STP-style layering and vocal phrasing. The bass-heavy throb of "Big Machine"'s verses surges into a hard-charging '90s alt. rock chorus; "Headspace" alternates representative chunks of both bands' sounds with veteran skill; and "Superhuman" rants about illegal substances in language everyone can understand. Overall, Contraband sounds pretty much like you'd expect of such a collaboration. Lead single "Slither" is an immediate highlight, its gasoline-drinking cocaine strut staining it as the offspring of "Big Bang Baby" and "Nightrain", while the album's detours -- "Fall to Pieces", the gorgeous "Loving the Alien" -- are painted in dusty reds and browns, like idealized fever dreams of escaping to the desert with the one you love. These mediations point to the pain behind Weiland's cynical veneer, and perhaps the entire band's veteran hope for a head-clearing open space. Remember, between them they've probably seen it all. With Contraband, Velvet Revolver pull off something tidy - their music manages both hedonism and maturity.

Johnny Loftus, Rovi

Prime Cuts

Suicidal Tendencies
Prime Cuts is a good overview of Suicidal Tendencies' career, featuring such hardcore classics as "Institutionalized" and "I Saw Your Mommy," plus two new songs, "Berserk!" and "Feeding the Addiction."

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Sunbather

Deafheaven

Van Halen II

Van Halen
It's called Van Halen II not just because it's the band's second album but because it's virtually a carbon copy of their 1978 debut, right down to how the band showcases their prowess via covers and how Eddie Van Halen gets a brief, shining moment to showcase his guitar genius. This time, he does his thing on acoustic guitars on the remarkable "Spanish Fly," but that temporary shift from electrics to acoustics is the only true notable difference in attack here; in every other way, Van Halen II feels like its predecessor, even if there are subtle differences. First, there's only one cover this time around -- Betty Everett's "You're No Good," surely learned from Linda Ronstadt -- and this feels both heavier and lighter than the debut. Heavier in that this sounds "big" and powerful, driven by mastodon riffs that aim straight of the gut. Lighter in that there's a nimbleness to the attack, in that there are pop hooks to the best songs, in that the group sounds emboldened by their success so they're swaggering with a confidence that's alluring. If the classic ratio is slightly lighter than on the debut, there are no bad songs and the best moments here -- two bona fide party anthems in "Dance the Night Away" and "Beautiful Girls," songs that embody everything the band was about -- are lighter, funnier than anything on the debut, showcases for both Diamond Dave's knowing shuck and jive and Eddie's phenomenal gift, so natural it seems to just flow out of him. At this point, it's hard not to marvel at these two frontmen, and hard not to be sucked into the vortex of some of the grandest hard rock ever made.

Heavy Rocks (2011)

Boris
Heavy Rocks is one of two simultaneously released albums by Japan's power trio Boris on the Sargent House imprint. The other is Attention Please. It is also one of four planned full-lengths by the group during calendar year 2011. (The other two are a collaboration with Masami Akita -- aka Merzbow -- entitled Klatter, and New Album, which mixes tracks from Attention Please and Heavy Rocks with other new material. These latter two will be available only in Japan.) Heavy Rocks carries the same title as a 2002 Boris album, but it's not the same record. While the earlier one bore the extreme, blasted, dissonant crunch and crackle that helped to establish their sonic identity, the 2011 set, while undeniably heavy, is also unapologetically more accessible, and straight-up embraces glam places. It is less formulaic than 2008's Smile, but it shows that there isn't any going back to the primitivism of earlier albums, either. (This is also born out by Attention Please, with its generally slinkier, more atmospheric textures and Wata's lead vocals on all tracks.) That said, there is plenty of Boris' careening, storm force guitar, in-the-red throbbing bass, and exploded drumming here with an ear toward more sonic experimentation. It's simply more structured: check the slow, ultra-riffing opener "Riot Sugar," the double-time shout and shove of "GALAXIANS," or the car crash intensity of "Window Shopping" for evidence. There are some other interesting things here as well; like the slow, drifting balladic psych of "Missing Pieces" that builds to a truly menacing noise crescendo before becoming an abstract sonic architecture before returning to song form. The tune "Aileron" is the one piece in common with Attention Please. Where that album's take was a brief acoustic guitar interlude, this one is nearly 13 minutes long; full of brooding, shimmering shoegaze with an increasing sense of moody drama as the guitars distort, crackle, and feed back before whispering their way out. The set closes on the short but bruising power of "Czechoslovakia," which fades out rather than ends. Heavy Rocks is diverse; but since it relies on the trio's blasting power over form, it is is more consistent than Smile and sounds like a refreshed and renewed Boris back on deck.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

All Hell Breaks Loose

Black Star Riders