[Yes, yes, I am aware that it is February 2020. Unlike last year when I mentioned that the delayed publishing of this article was mostly intentional, this year it really just came down to bad timing and conflicting schedules in order to compile and aggregate all of the data. I hope you can agree that it is indeed better late than never, however.]
We may have already posted every list imaginable for the year of 2019, and we may have turned the corner well into our coverage of 2020 and all of the goodness it has to offer, but there is still one order of business we have to attend to: which albums were, definitively, the top-rated ones across the wide expanse of music publications and blogs that cover metal and heavy music? We have asked that question now for 5 years (see the results from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018), which seems insanely long but also like the blink of an eye.
Normally what will happen in these posts is that I set them up (like so), post the individual lists we pulled from, the aggregate list, a few stray observations from myself, and then a series of analytical takes from the rest of our editorial crew. The last part generally is critical of certain trends that can be seen in said lists or other trends we’ve noticed through the greater metal journalism sphere that we are less than pleased about. I make mention of this because I am dispensing with said portion for this year. After 4 years of mostly hitting the same kinds of points again and again about the predictable and overly homogenous nature of these lists, doing so for a fifth year feels just as predictable and homogenous.
Not only that, but I genuinely think this is a respectable list! There will always be things to quibble about in terms of taste, who gets exposure and receives accolades over others, etc., but the gulf between what we felt was most important in 2019 and what others did in the end wasn’t actually as wide as perhaps we might have expected. So instead what I will be doing is offering a few superlatives based on this data, with one or two perhaps being a little bit tongue-in-cheek but still all in good-natured fun. Sound good? Then let’s do it.
2019 Meta-AOTY “Participants”
Angry Metal Guy
Consequence of Sound
Ghost Cult Magazine
Heavy Blog Is Heavy
Heavy Music HQ
Raw Music TV
Toilet ov Hell
Your Last Rites
*Unranked list; not included in aggregated list but included in “mentions” list
Similar to previous years, the pool of data we have pulled from includes all music publications of note that cover metal/heavy music in some way and put out their own AOTY list. I’ve loosened the definition of what “of note” means a bit over time for the sake of inclusivity, and it remains pretty ambiguous, but basically if I could find your list through a simple Google search and you had Facebook followers in the thousands I threw it in.
Also similar to previous years, I only included institutions that released aggregate staff lists as opposed to individual staff lists only (many do both). This separates us from the other person who has made a name for themselves doing this sort of work, Peter van der Ploeg, aka To the Teeth. His annual List of Lists treats every single individual staff list as its own data point, which I think is worthwhile as its own thing, though I prefer how we handle it personally as 1) it doesn’t place equal weight on individuals from a certain outlet as outlets that only put out single aggregate lists, and 2) many publications are closed ecosystems in which there is naturally enough overlap that it makes sense to consider their collective taste as a single entity rather than completely disparate things.
Now for the differences from previous years. First thing you might notice is that I have included our own list in the pool for the first time since doing this. The original justification for not including ourselves was as a means of comparison to the rest of the field, but ultimately I think it’s more important now to recognize that we are a part of this whole greater ecosystem rather than intentionally segregate ourselves.
The other difference is something you will see borne out below, which is that there are two separate/complementary lists included. The first is our traditional data aggregate using Noyan’s special algorithmic sauce. The one directly below that will be a list ranked simply by the number of mentions an album received across the lists included. This is useful both in that it offers another view at which albums had the broadest appeal, and it also allows me to include data from several important sources who only posted unranked lists, including Bandcamp, Invisible Oranges, Loudwire, Metalsucks, and Pitchfork.
With all of that said, here are the results.
2019 Meta-AOTY Results
Traditional Aggregate Top 50
- Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
- Opeth – In Cauda Venenum
- Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance
- Baroness – Gold & Grey
- Inter Arma – Sulphur English
- Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
- Tool – Fear Inoculum
- Cult Of Luna – A Dawn To Fear
- Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind
- Devin Townsend – Empath
- Spirit Adrift – Divided by Darkness
- Idle Hands – Mana
- Rammstein – s/t
- Full of Hell – Weeping Choir
- Crypt Sermon – The Ruins of Fading Light
- Killswitch Engage – Atonement
- Gatecreeper – Deserted
- Lingua Ignota – Caligula
- Knocked Loose – A Different Shade of Blue
- Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas
- Darkthrone – Old Star
- Candlemass – The Door to Doom
- Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
- Venom Prison – Samsara
- Ithaca – The Language of Injury
- Blut aus Nord – Hallucinogen
- Korn – The Nothing
- Mizmor – Cairn
- Big|Brave – A Gaze Among Them
- Funereal Presence – Achatius
- Devil Master – Satan Spits on Children of Light
- Moon Tooth – Crux
- Sunn O))) – Life Metal
- No One Knows What the Dead Think – s/t
- Dawn Ray’d – Behold Sedition Plainsong
- Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
- Employed To Serve – Eternal Forwards Motion
- Mayhem – Daemon
- White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
- Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence
- Wilderun – Veil of Imagination
- Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect
- Esoteric – A Pyrrhic Existence
- Whitechapel – The Valley
- Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes – End of Suffering
- Schammasch – Hearts of No Light
- Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling
- Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into Light
- Torche – Admission
- Amon Amarth – Berserker
Top 48 Albums By Mention
1. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race (20)
2. Opeth – In Cauda Venenum (14)
Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance (14)
4. Baroness – Gold & Grey (12)
Inter Arma – Sulphur English (12)
6. Alcest – Spiritual Instinct (11)
7. Cult Of Luna – A Dawn To Fear (10)
Tool – Fear Inoculum (10)
9. Devin Townsend – Empath (9)
Idle Hands – Mana (9)
Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind (9)
Spirit Adrift – Divided by Darkness (9)
13. Crypt Sermon – The Ruins of Fading Light (8)
Full of Hell – Weeping Choir (8)
Gatecreeper – Deserted (8)
Killswitch Engage – Atonement (8)
Lingua Ignota – Caligula (8)
Rammstein – s/t (8)
19. Candlemass – The Door to Doom (7)
Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas (7)
Darkthrone – Old Star (7)
Ithaca – The Language of Injury (7)
Knocked Loose – A Different Shade of Blue (7)
Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings (7)
Venom Prison – Samsara (7)
26. Blut aus Nord – Hallucinogen (6)
Korn – The Nothing (6)
Mizmor – Cairn (6)
29. Dawn Ray’d – Behold Sedition Plainsong (5)
Devil Master – Satan Spits on Children of Light (5)
Funereal Presence – Achatius (5)
Moon Tooth – Crux (5)
No One Knows What the Dead Think – s/t (5)
Sunn O))) – Life Metal (5)
35. Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence (4)
Dream Theater – Distance Over Time (4)
Employed To Serve – Eternal Forwards Motion (4)
Esoteric – A Pyrrhic Existence (4)
Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes – End of Suffering (4)
Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect (4)
Mayhem – Daemon (4)
Schammasch – Hearts of No Light (4)
Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into Light (4)
Torche – Admission (4)
White Ward – Love Exchange Failure (4)
Whitechapel – The Valley (4)
Wilderun – Veil of Imagination (4)
Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling (4)
The 2019 Meta-AOTY Awards
Best Album: Blood Incantation’s Hidden History of the Human Race
No surprises here. Blood Incantation’s sophomore LP received not only the most overall votes by far, but it also received the most #1 votes (4 to Opeth’s 3). Whereas there hasn’t been a clearly distinctive winner in some years recently, this isn’t one of them. Some folks around these parts might argue that there’s a little bit of a classic “bandwagon” effect going on with this one from people who were late recognizing the greatness (if not superiority) of the band’s previous album Starspawn. Regardless, if there’s one thing that the metal masses could agree upon in 2019 it’s that Hidden History was a ridiculously filthy, trippy, and ambitious album worthy of recognition. And when so much of the rest of the top part of the list is filled with well-established A-listers (many of whom could be argued are past their prime), it’s cool to see a band that could still be called underground rise to the top.
The Most/Least “I N D U S T R Y” Awards
Something I’ve done in passing the past few years is take a look at the final aggregate list we’ve compiled and compare it at a glance against the individual publications’ lists to determine very loosely who is most in line with the herd. This year I decided to take it a small step further and actually rank them based on two (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) metrics. One is more obvious, which is the percent of entries in their lists also appearing in the aggregate list. The second is the number of albums in the top 10 spots from the aggregate list (Blood Incantation through Devin Townsend) that appeared in the individual lists. My reasoning here was that a publication could reasonably put out a list comprised almost entirely of albums that made it onto the big list but without any of the albums that actually had the most consensus, which would seemingly make it less similar than others that contained more of those top 10 albums.
Given those two metrics, I then ranked the publications in each one, then averaged out the two rankings for a final score (between 1 and 29). Is this a highly data scientific way of doing things? No, not at all. It gets the job done well enough though I think.
So which lists made it to the top? It was actually pretty definitive. At least according to the AOTY lists they submitted this past year, the three publications that appear to be most in-touch with the “mainstream” thinking of the metal journalism sphere are Metal Hammer (average score: 3), Consequence of Sound (average score: 3.5), and Metal Injection (average score: 4). Obviously one of these is not like the other, but it’s not at all the first time I’ve noticed that a publication that doesn’t predominantly cover metal found themselves as the most representative of the industry’s feelings. Pitchfork has been in that position before, and CoS received the very same honor last year! So if you’re looking for places to go to get a sense of where the focal points of metal popularly are and for the most middle-of-the-road coverage, those three are your safe bets.
On the other hand, if what you’re looking for are some truly unique takes and coverage that hits very different areas and bands than the mainstream, I would recommend Stereogum (average score: 27), The Obelisk (average score: 28), and Angry Metal Guy (average score: 28). Having followed two of these three to varying levels, I can confirm that they indeed do seem to pride themselves on finding hidden gems and highlighting deep underground acts (along with the occasional contrarian take).
And just in case you’re curious where we landed, we were pretty much right in the middle of the pack, in the top of the middle third percentile to be precise (average score: 11). We actually had the biggest split between rankings in the first and second metrics, as our list was comprised of only 40% albums from the aggregate (rank 20), but it also contained 8 of the top 10 albums (rank 2). This means that we agreed almost entirely on the top-most albums but also had a great deal of divergence when it came to everything else, which sounds about right for where we like to be.
Most Obligated To Include/Most Cult Albums
Here’s a very weeds-y and tongue-in-cheek category that I am nonetheless fascinated by. When it comes to lists like these, I am always interested in seeing if there are any particular albums that make their way high up and receive a lot of votes in spite of people not seeming to actually think all that highly of them. Likewise, are there albums that didn’t actually receive that many votes but the places that did include them thought extremely highly of them? To figure this out I took the average rank/score of each album in the list, sorted those from highest to lowest, and compared that to their aggregate rank. The results of that were pretty darn interesting!
There were a slew of albums that performed far worse when comparing average scores, but the very worst were Killswitch Engage (18.57 average score, 36th place) and Ithaca (27.14 average score, 45th place), who both fell 20 spots from their aggregate ranking to their average score ranking. This means that although they received more votes than most on the list and ranked in the top half of the aggregate, their actual placement in the individual lists wasn’t very impressive. Do I really feel journalists felt “obligated” to stick them on their lists? Not really. More likely is that a lot of people just felt that the album was good but not nearly as good as other releases.
On the flipside, there were a few albums that really shone in terms of average score versus their placement on the aggregate list. Esoteric jumped a whopping 34 spots – 43 to 9 – due to its average score of 9.5. White Ward also performed very well in this regard, rising 26 spots – 39 to 13 – on the back of a solid 10.25 average score. No doubt our own awarding it the #1 spot in our list plays a significant part in that. These were albums that may have flown under the radar for some larger publications, but the ones who found them and enjoyed them really enjoyed them.
The “What Year Is This?” Award: Korn’s The Nothing
If you were to take a time machine back to the end of 2018 and show avid metal consumers this list, there are likely plenty of bands appearing on it that wouldn’t surprise them. Possibly the most immediate surprise would be the inclusion of Tool merely by virtue of the fact that Tool finally released a new album after over a decade of speculation. But that album was always going to make it onto the industry list one way or another. So what well-known and longstanding band’s inclusion would be the most surprising?
There are plenty of veteran acts who have maintained a certain level of consistency that their inclusion is not particularly shocking. Opeth for sure mounted a true return to form with In Cauda Venenum, but their other recent forays into progressive rock/metal, though divisive in the community, nonetheless still landed on plenty of year-end lists. Likewise, Slipknot seem to just have an auto-lock on this sort of thing at this point. If you like Slipknot, then when the band put out an album that sounds like Slipknot you can be pretty much guaranteed that people will like it. Similarly, Dream Theater will seemingly always have a solid bloc of people ready to trumpet even the slightest bit of life, so when they inevitably released something not as embarrassing as The Astonishing it’s not shocking that the DT stans came out in full force.
Fellow nu-metal vets Korn, however, have trended in the wrong direction over the past decade and change. While continuing to consistently put out albums every 2-3 years, the last time they put out something that received anything better than lukewarm critical reception was 2002’s Untouchables. So in that sense seeing Korn place right smack in the middle of the top 50 albums of the year is probably the most unexpected inclusion on this list. Call it a comeback. Call it the truest sign that we have hit peak nu-metal revival. But it is for sure one of the most surprising and head-scratching parts of 2019.
Band Most Likely To Top The List With Their Next Album: Tomb Mold
I may not know a ton about what bands in extreme metal are hottest compared to some of my compatriots on staff who live and breathe this stuff, but I do know this: The metal industry fucking loves Tomb Mold, okay? They hit the kind of middle-brow, technical but not overly complex, utterly brutal but not just caveman riffs, death metal that the industry laps up. After exploding into the mainstream in 2018 with their sophomore LP Manor of Infinite Forms (landing at #22 on our own list that year and #14 in the aggregate list), they propelled themselves further with another LP one year later in Planetary Clairvoyance.
With the benefit of being more well-known in the industry and memory fresh, it’s not hugely surprising that they managed to do even better this year. In many ways Tomb Mold represents the ideal of underground extreme metal that is still accessible to the metal masses. It’s a pick that everyone can feel good about, that burnishes their cred and connection to the scene, and that is unlikely to elicit strong negative feelings from anyone who is into this kind of music. I would be surprised if the band didn’t find themselves as near-locks for placement in the top 10 of these lists for many years to come.
As the actual winners this past year, Blood Incantation also is obviously contenders for this award, though my feeling with them is that their brand of more experimental and progressive-leaning tech death could fare a bit less well over time and be a bit more divisive as time passes depending on the direction they go in.
Band Most Criminally Not Included In This List (Or Basically Any Lists): Dreadnought
Why some bands catch on while others don’t is something that is affected by such a strange confluence of factors that it is a fool’s errand to try to ascribe any one thing to pretty much any one situation/band. I think the one I am most surprised to see still not hit that beautiful alchemy though is Denver’s prog doom outfit Dreadnought. Despite earning a steady and increasing stream of mainstream coverage since around their breakthrough on their sophomore LP Bridging Realms in 2014, they somehow have yet to get that big boost that lands them squarely in these kind of end-of-year conversations. Instead they seem to be the band most likely to land on the kind of “Albums You May Have Missed” lists that heap praise on them – in the case of that particular Decibel article it literally says “Denver’s prog-doom prodigies do no wrong, ever” – while seemingly not recognizing that if they feel that strongly there’s another very good place they could talk about them!
Dreadnought seem to be almost an inverse of Tomb Mold: a young band with a good deal of journalistic and critical cred but one that these people feel don’t have enough mainstream appeal to include when all is said and done. Why that is I can’t really say, though it probably doesn’t help that their sound shifts in tone and color from album to album in accordance with the elemental concept they’re focusing on. It’s the kind of thing that works for a band like Mastodon with immediately sticky riffs and the kind of progressive songwriting that sounds complicated but isn’t difficult to listen to and parse. Dreadnought’s music, on the other hand, requires your full attention and multiple listens to really parse and pick out everything that’s going on. It’s the kind of highbrow that might just not be for enough of the gatekeepers at the end of the day even though they’ll all say they like and “appreciate” them. Or maybe it’s just all the flute.
. . .
And with that, that’s officially a full wrap on 2019. Apologies again for getting this one out so late. Please send all complaints to [email protected] As much as this thing is a humongous undertaking and kind of a gigantic pain in the ass, I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it and get something interesting out of it every single year. I hope you all feel the same way because my personal sense of accomplishment pales in comparison to the dopamine injection of external validation.
See you sometime next year!