The criterion for this list was simple: Only the hardest, heaviest metal albums were considered. Bands who play a hybrid style of metal that is not thrash, speed, death, black metal, hardcore, grindcore, or some amalgamation thereof were not included. What follows is pure f'n metal.
Bang your head . . . off.
1. Lamb of God
Debuting at No. 8 on Billboard this year, Sacrament is Lamb of God's most technical album to date. Yes, the band still slays with jackhammer-to-the-head thrash and death metal, but except for a few tracks -- most notably "Foot to the Throat" and "Beating on Death's Door" -- Sacrament is a sonic step forward for the band, employing more guitar solos, more demonic vocal overdubs, and more furious fills that show off Chris Adler's dexterous drumming. Producer Machine (Clutch and King Crimson) helped clean up the band's usually raw sound, simultaneously capturing the mind-blowing layers of dark harmonies and monstrous melodies.
Tearing Through the Roots (Willowtip)
Sulaco reframes grindcore as a fluid, forward-reaching form that will still sound vital and ultra-heavy 100 years from now. While guitarist Erik Burke possesses jaw-dropping chops, Sulaco's imagination yields song structures so complex, your memory will go slack trying to grasp them. Throw in some dark melodies, and the future of grindcore looks promising indeed.
From Mars to Sirius (Prosthetic)
Gojira leads the latest wave of French metal, and one listen to this potent and progressive album shows why. The band creates both extremely heavy grind like "Backbone" and such technically twisted jams as "Unicorn" and "From Mars" -- without sacrificing power or precision. Critics frequently compare Gojira to the Swedish tech-metal band Meshuggah, which delves even deeper into experimental song structures. But Gojira's scorching compositions come wrapped inside a lyrical optimism, making the band an anomaly in a genre characterized by darkness and violence.
Call of the Mastodon (Relapse)
Though most fans freaked for Mastodon's debut for Warner Bros., the acclaimed band topped itself in 2006 via this reissue of some of its earliest recordings. Mastodon's stock-in-trade has always been the blending of thrash, extreme metal, stoner, and prog. And here, the band distills them into a seamless, compelling whole.
Kill (Metal Blade)
Kill contains the same searing guitars and Cookie Monster vocals for which Cannibal Corpse is known -- only more gory and brutal than before. With song titles like "Five Nails Through the Neck" and "Submerged in Boiling Flesh," there's nothing quaint or kitschy about this disc. Every moment on Kill -- with the exception of "Infinite Misery," a lurching instrumental that closes the album -- shatters ears and induces nightmares.
Monotheist (Century Media)
Celtic Frost returned this year with its most challenging work to date; that's saying a lot about a band that could never keep still. After the first two songs resurrect classic thrash (but with the breathtaking clarity of modern production), Monotheist proceeds to make short work of your expectations. It's slow, even plodding at times, but more than ever before, Celtic Frost captures the despair, rage, and tragedy of a human race marooned in the middle of a godless universe.
Children of Bodom
Chaos Ridden Years: Stockholm Knockout Live (Universal)
These Finns packed this live album with their melodic mash-up of black metal, thrash, and death metal. Culled from a February 2006 concert in Sweden, Chaos Ridden Years provides a variety of songs from CoB's five-album catalog, including a wicked rendition of "Follow the Reaper." All the Bodom basics are here: blast beats, breakneck tempos, elaborate keyboard and guitar solos, and those croaky vocals.
Smear Campaign (Century Media)
After an experimental phase in the mid-'90s, Napalm Death returned to its grindcore roots, but it's only now that this return has been captured with optimal production. Any band that invents a genre must eventually come to terms with its past, and Napalm Death has found balance and dignity while acknowledging its legacy. On Smear Campaign, Napalm is at the peak of both its writing ability and anger -- thanks to the Bush administration. And in our political climate, the band's caustic soundtrack to power abuse sounds reassuring.
A Haunting Curse (Metal Blade)
This New Orleans quartet remains faithful to traditional black metal while adding several ambient elements. Prime cuts are "Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult," which combines midtempo grooves with sadistic riffs, and "In the Narrow Confines of Defilement," where tripped-out bridges span a relentless drumbeat. Singers Sammy Duet and Louis Benjamin Falgoust II have toned down their usual high-pitched screams, opting for more howling and rasping. And ex-Morbid Angel guitarist Erik Rutan applies immaculate production.
This album consists of songs about deformed and mentally handicapped people from rural communities who -- among other things -- kidnap babies and raise 'em as feral animals, as well as dragging young girls into vans in order to climax while shocking them with Tasers. Now, in the time it takes to say "gimmick," it also becomes clear that Cretin brings rickety punk energy to its grindcore. That's no small feat, considering that Cretin forgoes precision altogether for a slurring, repetitive approach that sounds like you're listening from inside a garbage can. Of course, one would think Cretin is overplaying the shock hand, but with some wit up its sleeve, the band comes up with a rousing work of comedy-horror.