First, caveat emptor: if you're still obsessed with metal being as "brutal" or "extreme" as inhumanely possible (i.e., if you didn't start looking elsewhere when said ugliness turned into the most tedious cliché on earth, like, 20-plus years ago), there's a good chance you'll find plenty to disagree with amid the selections below. Ditto if your idea of metal "innovation" is undie rockers playing shoegaze snooze really loud (which was maybe an interesting idea for a couple months a decade or so ago, until the first time I saw Isis live and wished there were chairs to fall asleep in). On the other hand, if you enjoy metal that actually, you know, rocks -- with songs and riffs that'll stick to your innards when the album's over, no less -- you've come to the right place.
Prior to 2011, I had given up on metal more or less completely at least two or three times in my adult life. And ambivalence had pretty much been my mindset for a few years, before the Napster folks courteously asked me this spring to start specializing in metal. (I've had a long, tumultuous history with the genre, having once written an infamous record guide ostensibly about it and stuff.) But once I stopped grumbling and dug out my metal detector and started excavating for actual new noise, I found way more to appreciate than I ever would have guessed -- my overall rock-critic best-of lists this year will be more metallic than they've been in decades, and maybe more than at any time since I started writing about music, period. Whether that means that 2011 was an especially amazing year for metal, or just that I finally managed to open my ears up to more of it, has yet to be determined.
Anyway, before I get to my top 25 metal albums of the year, one thing worth noting is how much of it hails from the Western Hemisphere, and not just Oakland and Atlanta and Boston, but such relatively provincial middle-of-nowheres as Wichita, Indianapolis, small-town western Pennsylvania and Tempe, Ariz. Not to mention that three of my list's 11 highest-placing long-players come from Ontario, Canada, of all places. Not sure what all that geography adds up to, except that all the Northern European wizards who had seemingly had a lock on metal domination in recent epochs better watch their backs: something might be gaining on them. (Though a Viking ship's worth of those still wound up on this list, too, of course.)
Meanwhile, speaking of wizardry, I've apparently also developed a taste for black masses in my advanced age, seeing how such occult shtick figures in at least three of the top 15 albums below: Blood Ceremony, Ghost and Electric Wizard, all of which also happened to come out on London-based Rise Above Records. That was easily my label of the year, with two more entries (Gentleman's Pistols, Gates of Slumber) in my top seven. (I count Ghost and Electric Wizard, and Woods of Ypres too, as 2011 since that's when they were released in the U.S. and when I heard them, even if other nations got 'em first.) Anyway, enough filibustering! Bang what thou wilt ...