So…our AOTY list looks a little different this year. Ok, a LOT different. You’ve probably noticed how much we’ve diversified our coverage over the last few years. As we started pulling together our collective favorites from the year, it became clear that a ranked list simply can’t capture all the albums and trends we found noteworthy in 2020. Instead, we narrowed down a handful of categories that did encompass everything we wanted to touch on with our year in review. Some are funny, others serious, and all cover a wide array of genres. We hope you enjoy this format as much as we did writing for it. And be sure to let us know what you’d pick for these categories in the comments!
Just woke up from cryosleep, what year is this?
Albums that did the retro thing exceptionally well this year.
Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity (heavy metal, doom metal)
Okay, first things first, Spirit Adrift aren’t retro, they’re classic. Here’s the difference: where a lot of bands are doing homework, studying the golden oldies, squeezing technique from their chosen inspirations like water from a stone, Spirit Adrift are just writing whatever they want and it happens to fall into a “retro” camp. The appropriate word for their sound is, I think, “timeless,” in the sense that (barring the crisp contemporary production) one could just as easily imagine them sitting alongside Manowar or Manilla Road or Cathedral with nary a hint of chronological discomfiture.
This is roughly a third of what makes Enlightened in Eternity a great album. Obviously, another core component is the no-bullshit, ass-kicking riffs that you would expect from Nate Garrett and Marcus Bryant at this point. The duo fire off classic heavy metal riffs with nary a second thought here on tracks like “Ride into the Light” and “Harmony of the Spheres,” and closer “Reunited in the Void” is their heaviest and most impressive doom outing to date. It’s hard to find catchier or more impressive metal songs from the past few years.
Perhaps the most important piece, though, is the album’s infectious optimism. After a couple of darker albums focusing on Garrett’s personal struggles and the inescapable tension of America’s past several years, Enlightened is filled with anthemic tracks about growing beyond your inner turmoil and emerging from hardship with a better understanding of yourself. It’s a beautiful and necessary shot in the arm at a time like right now, and it’s what has kept me coming back to this album time and again this past year. Even the truest heavy metal warriors need a bit of self-assurance sometimes.
Video Age – Pleasure Line (synthpop, hypnagogic pop)
Whenever I listen to Video Age, I always laugh at the fact “the dude from The Mountain Goats” introduced me to my new favorite retro-pop band. In a feature with Vice, John Darnielle praised the NOLA quartet’s “80s pastiche” as something that “made a person who was there for the first wave of that style of music want to cry.” As a ’90s kid raised on a steady diet of my parent’s teenage favorites, I had a vicarious yet similar experience with Pleasure Line. There’s something so pure and genuine about Video Age’s music; it exudes basic universalities like love, fun, and happiness, yet never succumbs to the saccharine pitfalls of the new wave of ’80s revival.
Coloring in this portrait is a familiar palette: watery synths, infectious melodies, schmaltzy guitar licks, and all the starry-eyed lyrics fit for print. I can’t help but smile every time “Blushing” serenades me with “Tell me baby is it alright/If I love you till the end of time?/Do you really want to be mine?/Let’s get married in the sunshine.” The underlying track feels tailor-made for an ’80s prom slow dance, complete with Video Age performing the song in the flesh on stage. Yet, my favorite moments on the album see Video Age bumping up the tempo for bonafide summer anthems. “Aerostar” sounds like The Cars doing their best Talking Heads impression, producing a road trip soundtrack that’s equal parts goofy and endearing. Even on my umpteenth listen, moments like these still make me long for an ’80s time warp as much as someone who experienced the decade firsthand.
In Malice’s Wake – The Blindness of Faith (thrash metal, death metal)
Seeing In Malice’s Wake finally receive widespread international recognition as one of the best thrash metal bands on the planet has been one of the most gratifying aspects of 2020, and they did it all by Slayering harder than even Slayer ever dared. The Blindness of Faith not only blows away everything that band have put out over the last three decades, but is strong enough to stand among their pre-1990 material as well.
The added death metal edge harks back to the days (before I was born) when thrash metal was a genuinely extreme genre, the record’s flawless modern production accentuating the inherent violence and exhilaration of In Malice’s Wake’s sound. 2020 was packed with outstanding thrash records, from veteran acts like Testament and Annihilator, among others. Nevertheless, in a year when thrash metal was defined by a lot of older bands returning to form with often forward-thinking, modern-sounding records, the newest act among the genre’s highlights have undoubtedly delivered the best old-school thrash record of them all.
Wytch Hazel – Wytch Hazel III: Pentecost (heavy metal)
I swear this is about Wytch Hazel so bear with me for a second: when I was younger, and buying CDs was still what everyone did, I used to go into stores and buy albums based on their cover art. Surprisingly, I was rarely disappointed. Not only that, I encountered some of my all time releases, and artists, from this method. One of those was Wishbone Ash; Argus’s cover art just called out to me and I bought it on a whim, not knowing I was about to listen to one of the best progressive rock albums of all time. When I first played the album, I was blown away and the joy of random discovery enhanced that feeling immensely.
Now, I didn’t happen upon Wytch Hazel randomly but they still manage to conjure up all of those feelings for me. Listening to Pentecost, like any of their other releases, I am just transported into my old apartment, my entry-level speakers, and the joy of discovering new music. They have that effortless blend of rock, folk, and metal-adjacent riffs and tones that evoke Wishbone Ash for me. And evoking that legendary band is nothing but the highest praise. More than that, they conjure that feeling of timelessness, of the joy of music distilled into a-temporal pleasure, that makes them a natural fit for this category. It’s also just a fantastic, uplifting, and powerful album that everyone should hear.
Dogleg – Melee (emo, post-hardcore)
I attended college in the early 2000’s, a serious sweet-spot for the merging of alt-rock, post-hardcore, and emo. Each was simultaneously finding its own way and learning how best to play with the others. It was a pretty magical time to be obsessed with music, and Melee makes me feel thoroughly energized in a way that’s very familiar when I think back to those years. It’s not just the thrill of discovering a great band, it’s the breathless excitement you derive from the tangible youthfulness and frantic creative release of the artist. In 2001, I was a member of the generation making that music. The fact that I’m almost 40 now and am able to experience the same fire in my guts 20 seconds into this album as I often did then is a testament to its strength. Albums this bracingly vibrant and emotionally earnest don’t come along often, and we should embrace them with a full heart when they do. Melee is one of those records that feels like it’s going to be etched into the souls of its generation for years to come, like Relationship of Command is for mine – somehow all at once timeless and timestamped. It will maintain a pulsing heartbeat with listeners as if it were perpetually released yesterday, but will also serve as an essential mile marker years from now when today’s 20 year-olds are waxing nostalgic about the days of their youth. Hell, I’m an old guy now I guess, and Melee has my heart as if I were coming to it fresh out of high school. That’s a rare power indeed.
Wombripper – Macabre Melodies (OSDM, melodeath)
It’s been another banner year for old school death metal revival. If you’ve even been half paying attention, you’re plenty aware how rapidly the pantheon of new-greats is expanding and just how saturated the space is becoming. It’s pretty overwhelming to keep up with, especially when half of them are locked in a weird who-can-sound-more-like-Incantation competition. It can be discouraging once you start to wade into the meat of some of these albums to find there is nothing particularly interesting about them at all. And worse, in the ensuing melee of four-sided long sleeve peddlers, some of the real gems get pushed to the bottom. Wombripper, for example, who brought us the filthiest slice of old Gothenburg the world has seen in years.
Macabre Melodies is swedeath at its finest. Channeling the proto-melodeath years when perennial acts like At The Gates and Soilwork ripped through the scene alongside eternal darlings Entombed, Wombripper’s heart is frozen in 1995. Despite this, Macabre Melodies is still written with the same disgusting death metal sensibilities of its contemporaries. While it bobs and weaves through breakneck thrash beats and grandiose solos, its backbone is a runaway train burning hot charnel riffs for fuel. Tracks like “Devastation Into Waste” and “Already Dead” throw open the grate and shovel the magmic coals right down your throat, compelling your body to move against its will. We likely won’t get another spiritual successor to old Gothenburg for quite some time, so enjoy it while it’s here.
THE AGE OF MEN IS OVER
A LOT of 2020’s best albums were authored and/or led by women and non-binary individuals
Circus Trees – Delusions (post-rock/metal, slowcore)
I was already a fan of Circus Trees when I visited them for an interview last summer in anticipation of their debut full-length Delusions. When I left their Massachusetts home, however, I possessed not only an entire new level of respect and admiration for the three teenage sisters. I felt an entire new hope for the next generation of music in general, one built upon the ideals of radical love, openness, and collaboration. Delusions is angry and filled with feelings of wistfulness beyond their years, yes. But it’s righteous, with an urgency and immediacy that cuts right to the emotional core. More importantly, it represents a huge step for the McCarthy sisters as musicians and as a collective unit. Full of killer hooks, rollicking heaviness, and a kind of musical and emotional depth that represents the best of post- music, Delusions is everything we should want rock and heavy music to be now and in the future.
Katie Malco – Failures (indie rock, indie folk)
Northampton, England indie singer-songwriter Katie Malco came to my diminishing attention earlier in 2020 and was resigned to my “CHECK THIS OUT” list until December when thoughts were resurfacing in my mind about my year-end list. Slightly disillusioned with the ol’ “release-your-year-end-list-in-December-because-that’s-what-people-do” convention and influenced by my fellow writers here at Heavy Blog, I decided not to, and thank god I did.
Failures is a wonderful weighted blanket of an album, and it seemed to come at the optimal time for me right as personal issues reached their emotional zenith and winter’s crooked claw grew more oppressive. I would go on walks around my local area and get so wrapped up in Katie’s gorgeously glowing melodies and touching storytelling that the sub-zero gales hitting my face would hardly induce a flinch. The 1-2-3 punch of “Animal”, “Brooklyn” and “Fractures” is some of the most thrilling and stomach-churning indie rock I have heard in 2020. The former showcases Katie’s knack for high-flying choruses while “Brooklyn” tones it down several notches before piling on the heartache for a final flourish. It’s a masterclass in scene-setting and getting right down to the crux of euphoric and foreboding emotions. From swaying to a mediocre country band with a drink in one hand and your friend in another, to contemplating the simple hugeness of longing the next morning with the same friend while looking over the ocean; it’s excruciating that moments like that can’t last forever.
Despite fixating on the first portion of the album, Failures is certainly not front-loaded and has plenty more highlights, whether it’s the irresistibly earworm-y “Creatures” or the sad-girl piano ballad “Peckham”. The record is a standout in its particular niche and deserves just as much attention as a Phoebe Bridgers or Julien Baker.
Sa-Roc – The Sharecropper’s Daughter (conscious hip-hop, neo-soul)
As much as I love hip-hop, the genre’s longstanding toxic masculinity have made it difficult for anyone but cis male rappers to break into the mainstream. I think this is an issue from the standpoint of representation and diversity, but it’s more than that. Having the same script delivered by almost exclusively male emcees over the last several decades has led to stale narratives and sounds from a good portion of the mainstream. Of course, this is hardly true for the hip-hop underground, where the main source of adversity and critique comes from backpackers combing through your bars on Genius. With minimal effort, you can find women and members of the LGBTQ+ community tapping just as well (if not better) than the same rap archetype labels have trotted out for decades.
This narrative serves as the backdrop for my love of The Sharecropper’s Daughter, the most criminally underrated hip-hop album of 2020 and beyond. I say that because Sa-Roc has been dropping albums since 2010 and I legitimately never heard of her until one of our writers recommended this album late last year. He compared her inflection and beat selection to Kendrick Lamar, which is an apt but incomplete comparison.
Sa-Roc may not frame her lyrics within the broader concepts that Kendrick does, but she’s just as skilled an emcee and brings distinct singing chops to the table as well. She offers a blend of conscious hip-hop over powerful, sample-heavy beats with smooth neo-soul, like a more refined version of Section.80-era Kendrick. Perhaps most impressive is Sa-Roc embracing the structural bias working against her without letting it consume her. While she does comment on the discrimination and sexism she’s faced, she primarily lets her verses speak for themselves and silence and doubters.
Feminazgul – No Dawn for Men (black metal)
I mean, was there ever really a choice other than this album? The name of the category is straight from Lord of the Rings, as is the inspiration for this album. And even if the names didn’t line up, No Dawn for Men is one of the most aggressive, effective, and downright enjoyable cries against the patriarchy in all its destructive horror. It channels the foundations of atmospheric black metal through the lens of unique instruments, like the theremin and an accordion, to invoke a sound and vibe that’s wholly its own. Mix in the powerful lyrics, their highly engaging and violent vocal execution and you’ve got an album that transcends “just” its important message, backing it up with some of the best black metal we’ve heard in ages.
The age of men is over; long reign the age of the black metal fiends!
Rina Sawayma – Sawayama (power pop, occasional nu metal)
Sawayama is one of those albums that’s so good and so unexpectedly brilliant that I found myself listening to it three times on repeat, upon first listen. Who was this Rina Sawayma and how dare she blend sudden bursts of nu-metal with the something so similar to Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” so shamelessly and somehow make it work so well? (not that the combination was entirely without precedent). More importantly, why had no one told me about this already?!
“XS” is surely Sawayama’s sticking point, but its eponymous artist is far from a one trick pony. “Dynasty” is bubblegum pop blended with ‘80s heavy metal melodrama (bring on a Jorn Lande cover!), while “STFU!” leans further into the nu-metal aesthetic, instantly rendering Poppy even more obsolete than she already is in the process. Yet it’s the more straightforward pop propositions where Sawayama truly excels. “Comme des Garçons” is a dance-club anthem for the ages, while “Love Me 4 Me” fits the substance of an ‘90s and early 2000s female-empowerment anthem to a 70s funk and 80s rock aesthetic, shouting out RuPaul in the process. The pick of the bunch, however, is surely colossal power pop anthem “Who’s Gonna Save U Now”, which comes complete with the dense reverb and faux crowd noises it deserves. It’s a prophecy, a glimpse of Sawayama at the apex of pop stardom she will surely achieve, and there’s rarely been an artist more deserving.
Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure? (pop)
My fellow southern hemispherans – look no further than What’s Your Pleasure for your record of choice on those sweet summer drives. Jessie Ware’s voice is gorgeous and warm, moving between sultry, relaxed and fun with ease. If you’re a listener without a sweet tooth, fear not, for this isn’t just another saccharine snack without substance. This is thoughtful and considered pop that utilises disco, funk, electronics and strings with aplomb. It offers a bit of everything, as the hooks of “Ooh La La” and “Read My Lips”, the emotion of “Save A Kiss”, and the bombast of “Step Into My Life” all hit just right. Seriously though, I dare you to get through a full listen of “Read My Lips” without nodding, dancing or singing along (spoiler alert, you can’t, it’s amazing). This is what pop should be, so stop sleeping on it and get listening.
Svalbard – When I Die, Will It Get Better? (post-hardcore, shoegaze)
This is the one. When I Die, Will It Get Better? has risen above a loaded pack to become my favorite album of 2020. It recalls elements of two bands I very much enjoy – Astronoid and Rolo Tomassi, but in a way that focuses on the aspects I love and discards the ones I don’t. First and foremost, the band nails the balancing act of aggression and emotion, providing an experience that first engages and then inspires. The perfect ratio of throaty screams to hazy, alluring clean singing, guitars that soar in all the right spots, drums with a precise and thoughtful control of pacing – everyone is seriously doing their part here. It’s not just that Svalbard demonstrates the ability to nail all of the styles they approach, it’s that they have an innate sense for the formula that allows them all to fit together and blossom into something unique and exciting. Serena Cherry’s confrontational, no bullshit lyricism subverts the musical styles it lives in by not only offering a female perspective, but also by being mostly decipherable without the aid of a lyric sheet. As a result, When I Die, Will It Get Better? not only fucking kills, it possesses the ability to affect positive growth within a number of scenes that have long harbored an unfortunate misogynistic streak. The Julien Bakers and Phoebe Bridgers’ of the world do amazing work on their own terms, but in 2020 we saw bands like Svalbard, Feminazgul, Circus Trees, War On Women, and Sharptooth swagger into historical male-dominated genres, jump directly into the belly of the beast, and hack their way out with impressive aplomb.
Take these lyrics from “Physical Currency,” for instance:
“Physical beauty is not currency / I’m not more valuable if I’m pretty … We need to change the way we talk about girls / Stop measuring them on such shallow terms / Stop diminishing them to physical conquests / Stop viewing them as empty objects / Stop fucking rating us / Stop fucking hating us / This isn’t a pageant / And it isn’t a compliment / To receive such shallow judgement”
As someone who came up in metal and hardcore scenes, I can attest that there are a LOT of guys that need to really pay attention to that message. I’m glad that Svalbard is here to help deliver it, but I’m thrilled that they are doing so in the context of an album that is head and shoulders above most of this year’s releases..
Unleash The Archers – Abyss (power metal)
It has been a very long time since a power metal album grabbed me by the hair and sent me soaring to glory. In fact, I grew out of my power metal phase well over a decade ago and never looked back. I said goodbye to it for many reasons, the foremost being that the magic was gone. Everything started to sound the same, and there was only so much operatic tenor vibrato sung by men on Social Security in tight leather pants I could stand. That initial injection of majesty had long since worn off for me. It wasn’t until the frothing hype surrounding Abyss pulled my gaze that I even considered checking Unleash The Archers out. Imagine my surprise when I found myself crying not even five minutes in having unearthed something I’d lost those years ago.
With Abyss, Brittney Slayes and company have reignited that magic flame, and not just for me. It’s easy to get dismissive of bands or whole genres when you’re far enough removed for hindsight to kick in. Sometimes it takes a cultural force of nature to break through the cynicism and help you rediscover old joy. Abyss has become that inflection point for many, and I count myself among the converted. Not just because it is masterfully written, and not just because Brittney’s vocals were exactly what had been missing in my life and my power metal experience up to this point, but because it is one of the only albums that truly moved and helped inspire me in this hellfuck of a year. Not only will this stay in my rotation for years to come, but Unleash The Archers have written an album that will stay burning in my heart forever.
I can’t drive 55
It’s fucking fast. That’s the joke.
Bütcher – 666 Goats Carry My Chariot (speed/heavy metal)
This is the year in which I started Flash of the Blade, my column dedicated entirely to fast music, so you know I had a lot to choose from for this category. But Bütcher ended up conquering my heart because not only is their music seriously fast (it is) but their entire sound is a tribute paid to those who have gone fast before them. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and more are directly referenced on this album and, somehow, it doesn’t sound trite. Instead, it sounds like the essence of what makes that unique space between speed, thrash, and heavy metal pulsate with the energies we so love in the genre. Long story short, play this album loud, have a beer or two (or five) while doing so and bask in the glory that is fast metal, played well, without apology.
Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment (extreme extreme metal)
Just because Endarkenment is probably the most melodic Anaal Nathrakh album to date, doesn’t mean it’s still not going to flatten you with an unstoppable barrage of blast beats the entire time. The British duo have long been in the running for the most “extreme” extreme metal band but they’ve never been more in control of their chaos than they are here.
Hitting play on Endarkenment is an instant adrenaline shot to the face. There’s plenty of moments to catch your breath along the way, but you never stop being swept up by its assault, and the frequent moments of respite are only so it can come back in and hit you even harder next time. Endarkenment isn’t as bumpy a ride as The Codex Necro (2001). Instead, it’s a razor sharp serrated one, and you’re definitely going to want to strap yourself in.
WVRM – Colony Collapse (grindcore)
Hi kids, do you like going fast? Like, really fast because you’re really pissed off? And when the fast stops, do you like getting hit with artillery fire breakdowns? If you could spend every day punching Nazis and dragging the corporate elite from their ivory towers, would you? Then boy do I have an album for you!
South Carolina antifascist grind machine WVRM blessed us with arguably their best work to date in 2020’s Colony Collapse. In among the 26 minutes of vicious neck-to-throat grindcore are anthems of sorrow and woe, dreams of nuclear winter, and calls to arms for the derelict and destitute. It’s bleak, beautiful, necessary work; a righteous heart burning bright beneath mountains of steel. Few artists even came close to being on WVRM’s level this year lyrically or sonically. If you’re sick of the ever-present boot heel overhead, dig into Colony Collapse for some welcome respite.
Loud Night – Mindnumbing Pleasure (d-beat, metalpunk)
Totally didn’t see this one coming, it’s that fast. Seriously though, this one came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting to be binging d-beat this year, but Loud Night’s piss ‘n’ vinegar fueled Mindnumbing Pleasure was the kick in the ass my 2020 desperately needed, and it took just one spin to click. It’s consistently fast and reckless, a maniacal toss-a-cinder-block-on-the-gas-pedal-and-bail, give ‘em hell with everything ya got kinda burner that’d slap a grin on Lemmy’s face. For me, Loud Night filled a void with everything gritty, raw, and pissed; sounding like getting covered in someone else’s beer and sweat – and really, what more could you want in a year isolated from the rest of the world? Every track is like rocket fuel for your fist pumping, headbanging fantasies, that is until everyone can get their shit together and we can do this for real, as this music was intended to be enjoyed. So, as unexpectedly as Mindnumbing Pleasure became my favorite d-beat album of 2020, it just as easily might be my favorite d-beat record of all time. This one really, really fuckin’ rips.
Lost in the woods
For when it’s just you and the trees
Skullcrusher – S/T (alt-folk)
Every so often a record makes you want to turn the lights out, close your eyes and just get transported. It’s the type of music that you put on a playlist specifically for solo drives through the mountains, or those quiet moments on camping trips when everyone else is asleep and you’re still just gazing at the stars over a dimming fire. Skullcrusher’s debut EP is one of those records, and good lord has it received some quality time from me.
If you’re a fan of Phoebe Bridgers, Fleet Foxes, or indie rock/alt folk in general there’s plenty here for you to love. The songwriting is melancholy, walking through memorable contemplations on romantic and personal relationships, all encased in a sonic template that’s simply gorgeous. The instrumentation here is sublime and simple, allowing atmosphere and acoustics to blend into a woozy soundscape that’s both unique and familiar. The long and short of it is this: If you need a sequence of songs to gaze into the sky to, look no further. Skullcrusher has your back (and heart).
Caspian – On Circles (post-rock)
Caspian played a huge part in creating modern post-rock in America and they have again and again set the bar with each record, a bar that seemingly only they can clear. If you’re not acquainted with them, or if it’s been a while, go back through their albums. None of them sound the same. The production on each is purposefully different, the approach to songwriting is perpetually maturing, and there are always new layers to dig into. The only consistent element is the fact that every one of their releases was amongst the best of its year. That deserves seriously loud praise. With On Circles the band brought vocals even further into the fold, both with guitarist Philip Jamieson’s performance on the closing track and the guest appearance of Pianos Become The Teeth vocalist Kyle Dufrey on “Nostalgist.” We also got one of the band’s heaviest tracks to date in “Collapser,” as well as tunes like “Wildblood,” “Flowers of Light,” and “Division Blues” that are destined to become integral parts of their storied live performance. On Circles is not only 2020’s finest post-rock record, it’s just one of the best records, period.
Tycho – Simulcast (chillwave, IDM)
Second in the Weather trilogy, Tycho’s Simulcast is the instrumental companion to last year’s acclaimed Weather, which found Scott Hansen finally experimenting with vocal features in a direct collaboration with Saint Sinner. Fans of Scott’s work as Tycho have long been accustomed to his lush instrumental approach, only ever dabbling in airy fragments of vocal textures or building around old spoken word samples like on 2004’s Past Is Prologue. In writing Weather, Hansen had to arrange tracks around the vocal stylings of Saint Sinner, resulting in a much more direct approach than his usual dreamy, meandering sequences. Simulcast, on the other hand, is what Weather may have originally been, or simply became when experimenting with arrangements without the presence of vocals.
Some tracks and titles have stayed more or less the same, but that feeling of hiking through a coastal forest on a warm summer day as light filters through the canopy remains constant. Tycho continues to be one of the most untouched and prolific talents in the world of ambient IDM, an absolute master of dreamy, blissful, pensive textures that invoke meditative trances and nourish the soul. Take Simulcast on your next hike, zone out, and breathe in the sunlight until it transforms you.
Dawnwalker – Ages (progressive metal, blackened folk metal)
Black and folk metal are of course no strangers to making musical and lyrical appeals to the virtues of nature. What has always separated Dawnwalker from the rest though is its distinctly progressive nature, in all meanings of the word. Musically, Dawnwalker have constantly pushed the boundaries of the genres they play in by pulling in influence from progressive music old and new in addition to folk traditions blended with the occasional foray into heavy blastbeats and screamed black metal territory. But lyrically Dawnwalker are leagues beyond the countless metal bands who extol “purity” in nature as a kind of retreat from modernity. Rather, on Ages, the band not only paint a stark picture of a world under siege and destruction, but also provide a glimmer of hope. Yes, the world is on fire, and yes, we need to mourn what has been lost. But ultimately the only way we are going to save what’s left and move forward is through collective action, by taking care of every person and living thing. As the opening of “Colony / A Gathering” illustrates:
Above all, feed the young
Heed your mother’s call
Feather your own
And you will yet prevail
Where the others have already failed
These are the thoughts I wish to hold onto as I gaze at the world around me and the beauty it contains. We are all connected by this physical space we share, and it is our duty to respect it, preserve it, mourn for it, and fight for it. Ages is a reminder of all these things. Oh, also the music fucking rules.
Allelic – À Contre Vent (atmospheric/folk black metal)
Admittedly, it has been a while since I was lost in any form of trees, let alone something that would be described as “woods”. However, from what I remember of the times where I was walking through some forest or other, the sensation wasn’t as bleak and solemn as many people would describe. For me, there was something jovial and uplifting about being in the presence of so many stolid, hearty lives. And so, I associate the feeling with music that’s more upbeat but still possessed of a sort of grand and inherently colorful theme.
That’s exactly the case with Allelic’s À Contre Vent. Although the album has plenty of elements that could be classified as “lo-fi”, it’s black metal also has a spring in its step, a marvellous flowing of energy, vitality, and verve that cuts right to the heart of folk music. It’s an interesting synthesis; usually folk music is used to make black metal feel more intimate, darker or more brooding but here, the sound is used to make the music feel like a celebration of everything that’s still alive. When I reminisce about the woods of yesteryear, I want to remember them as they were, lit by magnificent sun and bounding with the power of renewing life and this album is the perfect soundtrack for it.
Maserati – Enter the Mirror (funky disco, post rock)
I’m not sure I really understand this category, but I know the first thing that came to mind when I saw it was the scene in Hot Rod (2007) where, frustrated that he won’t be able to beat his belittling step-father Frank in a fight before his death by cancer, stuntman extraordinaire Rod Kimble goes down to the forest to “punch-dance it out”. When perusing this year’s offerings for punch-dance soundtracks, there’s one clear standout, and that’s Maserati’s Enter the Mirror.
Has there ever been a more danceable album? Although the record starts out in the band’s trademark, minimalist, robotic fashion, it’s not long before it explodes into some hard hitting funky disco beats, the deep, constant throb of the bass guaranteed to make you move. Next time you hate someone so much you just want to smash their face in, throw on “Der Honig” or, better yet, the divine “Wallwalker” and work out that frustration!
How do you do, fellow kids?
Best albums from veteran acts
Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide (alternative hip-hop)
Look, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that I know a ton about hip-hop and its intricate history, many scenes, and beyond. One thing I know pretty well though is that it’s very much viewed and played out as a young person’s game. There are very few artists from the 90s and 2000s still going out there and bringing their A-game in nearly the same way they once could. In many ways the language of hip-hop is one tailor made as a vessel for the extreme passions of youth, in anger, hunger for more, of love and lust, and well beyond. Most people in their 40s simply don’t have the fire they once did.
And then there’s Aesop Rock, who probably more than just about anyone out there, already spoke like he was decades beyond his years – and exhausted by it – even at his peak. Now that he’s officially middle aged, he seems more content than ever to simply explore the vagaries and straight-up weirdness of getting old and still having to figure out your place in the world. All of which is what makes the psychedelic surrealism of Spirit World Field Guide such an absolute joy to listen to. Aes’s music has always possessed a certain air of abstractism, especially in recent years as he’s started leaning more into experimental and conceptual conceits. Spirit World simply takes all of that at its most weird and conceptual, giving Aes the freedom to go in any damn direction he wants. His production is the best it’s ever been, his beats and grooves taking on all sorts of unexpected turns while retaining his usual sense of rhythm and flow. And it marks a distinct attempt in Aes himself playing around with some new lyrical and delivery schemes. For my money it’s his best album in over a decade and a standout for the year as a whole.
Incantation – Sect of Vile Divinities (death metal)
Old school death metal is a soft spot of mine, but over the past several years some of the genre’s biggest names have released a bunch of records that just felt middling at best. Despite raves from the blogosphere, there are few recent releases from the death metal powerhouses of yesteryear that can hang with the brilliance of the genre’s newer names like Blood Incantation, Tomb Mold, and Horrendous. But Incantation aren’t your average old school band. Every new release they drop seems to only bolster the band’s sterling reputation, and Sect of Vile Divinities is their best in at least a decade.
Front to back, Sect is an absolutely punishing and infinitely interesting affair. For a band that has established their sound as concretely as Incantation has over the past few decades, it’s remarkable that they can stay this vibrant. The riffs here are heavy as all hell, with the cast this time around laying waste to all in sight with aplomb. The songwriting is also oddly catchy and somewhat accessible, and actually would be a fairly decent starting point for those who are interested in diving into the band’s work. If you’re not completely averse to old school chug fests, give Sect of Vile Divinities a fair shake. I feel confident that you’ll like what you hear.
Deftones – Ohms (nu metal, alternative rock)
2020 was the year I truly fell in love with Deftones. I’ve listened to White Pony a fair amount since high school, and I’d checked out Around the Fur, Diamond Eyes, and Koi No Yokan, but something clicked in March of this year and I started listening to Deftones nonstop. After Steely Dan, they were the band I listened to the most in 2020. (Last.fm tells me I racked up 878 spins of the Dan in 2020 and 581 Deftones listens. Rounding out the top five are Elder, Manilla Road, and King Crimson, if you’re curious.) I don’t really have an explanation, I just woke up one day and subconsciously decided Deftones was a new favorite.
I feel as though this is an important context because when Ohms came out, Deftones were still a relatively new band to me. As such, I got to have the context of seeing where they came from but also going into the record as a fresh fan. And man, is this exactly what I wanted from them. Ohms eschews the traditional Deftones “heavy song/light song” (“Stephen song/Chino song”) dynamic that’s served them so well before, instead bringing these two halves together into what, to me, feels like their best and most developed release since White Pony came out 20 years ago. Transcendent moments like the jarring opening of “Urantia” or the incalculably tense buildup in “This Link is Dead” feel like they were always hiding in plain sight for Deftones, always the end result of the band’s dialectical songwriting. After a few years spent as a group of separate musicians (hello Gore), Deftones feel here like they’re finally a singular unit again, and the end product is intoxicating.
Adding to the sense that everyone was more involved in this affair than they’ve been in some time, Frank Delgado’s Vangelis-inspired soundscapes are an essential element of Ohms. They create a sense of scope that’s lacking from most of their other work and provide a moody, gloomy canvas onto which the rest of the band layer their various anxieties and frustrations. Each member has moments like these, from the pummeling bass work opening “Radiant City” to the driving, booming drums of “Error.” Everyone shines this time around, everyone is present. Everyone is Deftones and Deftones is only ever everyone. This is how you do a fucking album.
Sepultura – Quadra (groove thrash)
There’s been a slew of fantastic records from veteran thrash acts in 2020, but it’s the long-written-off Brazillian veterans in Sepultura who stand tall above them all, delivering their best album since Roots (1996) and maybe their best album outside of it as well. The band have had thirty-five years to hone their craft and, with their fifteenth full-length album, they’ve managed to pull together the best of everything they’ve done before, while pushing some of the more progressive ideas they’ve been dabbling with over the past decade or so to new heights as well. Quadra’s quality is not unprecedented, given the recent run of form they’ve been on. Yet, even then, the album stands out, not just as the best Sepultura album of the twenty-first century, but also maybe as one of the finest thrash albums ever made.
Katatonia – City Burials (melancholic prog rock)
It only took me until their 11th studio album, but I finally listened to a Katatonia album more than a couple of times – and boy was I rewarded for that investment. 30 years and (at least) two major stylistic shifts since their debut Katatonia continue to deliver. Jonas Renske’s vocals are pure silk. Moody and evocative, consistent and colourful – they are the record’s centrepiece and with good reason. From the very first word of opener “Hearts Set to Divide” they ensnare the listener, wrapping velvet tendrils around their attention span and refusing to let go. “Lacquer” is one of the standout tracks, the smooth and soothing vocals embellished with stunning harmonies as pulsing electronic beats drive the song forward.
As strong as the vocals are, City Burials is far from a one-trick record, with a louder than life guitar tone and percussive rhythms bringing an energy to complement Renske’s style of delivery. The music is strong, though rather than blowing one away through technical prowess, it stands out in a suitably subtle way: by knowing exactly when to explode and, crucially, when to pull back. This restraint allows Katatonia to play to their strengths, their songwriting experience showing through as they stand head and shoulders above their younger contemporaries.
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black (proto-doom, heavy metal)
All those kids doing the traditional heavy metal revival (love them) need to step aside because the undisputed kings of proto-doom are back! Talk about a “phoenix from the ashes” sort of story, Cirith Ungol resurrected themselves from one of the most begrudged, lamented, and regretted slumbers in metal history to release an album chock full of what made them one of the style’s titans to begin with. I’ll be honest with you: I expected absolutely nothing out of this album. I was worried the band would be tired or out of touch with where things lie today. Boy, was I proved wrong. There’s more effortless swagger, oozing cool, and fantastic heroism in one of the riffs on this album than in most full releases in the style.
It might be considered less of an achievement to have a comeback when the genre you originated is having its own resurgence but I actually think that, in this case, it’s more impressive. There are so many great heavy metal albums released this year that could have competed, and outshone, this release and yet, Cirith Ungol managed to slice through all of that with the vorpal blade of their incredible composition, evocative vocals, and just a deep understanding of what makes this style of metal tick. Forever Black is a true testimony to the legend and prowess of this band, a worthy comeback and a worthy throwback album at the same time.
The Acacia Strain – Slow Decay (beatdown hardcore, doom)
I have written about this album on multiple occasions already and have no problem doing it one last time considering Slow Decay reigns supreme as my favorite album of the year. It ended up being a close race on my list, but nothing hit home more than this megalith of doom-drenched, nihilistic beatdown from scene legends The Acacia Strain. It is astonishing that after almost twenty years, veteran acts like TAS can still drag these behemoths into reality to lay waste to our senses. Slow Decay is what happens when the sky turns to stone and shatters, raining megatons of hammering death down on the world as the void peers out above.
Not only is this album just absolutely heavy as shit, it managed to hit some remarkable milestones. Touting four vocal features from some of the best underground talent in the wide world of core, Slow Decay also charted Top 5 on Billboard upon release, back to back with artists like Taylor Swift and the Hamilton soundtrack. That is a feat that had never occurred in the history of the genre, and rivals achievements made by legends like Metallica. Then again, if there was ever a time for an album as bleak and crushing as this to make waves, 2020 was definitely it.
Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (grindcore)
It always seemed to me that grindcore is a young man’s game. It’s chaos energy given form to me. But maybe the thing about the genre is that once you’re in, you’re always in. That’s what I would have to assume based on the most recent outing from heavyweights Napalm Death. Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism brings in the band’s special brand of social commentary with their trademark brutality at just the right time for all of society. If 2020 wasn’t a good year for an acclaimed grindcore record, then I can’t tell you when would be a good time for this.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Napalm Death before hearing this record, but I’m exceptionally interested in their career now that I’ve listened to Throes multiple times. The aggression is infectious, and it’s presented in ways that always serve the song. It isn’t just blast beats for the sake of it, nor is the entire album just a pummeling exercise is grind-style micro songs. I came in to the record expecting that and was completely floored at the surprising melodic quality of tracks like “Contagion”. I’m hoping this is the case for the rest of their catalog, but I’ll always have Throes regardless.
Envy – The Fallen Crimson (screamo, post-hardcore)
It deserves special mention that Envy has been able to maintain a high level for more than twenty years in a subgenre that is largely characterized as a “burn bright, break up young” sort of style. Due to its frantic nature and impossible-to-maintain intensity, screamo/emotional hardcore is rife with bands that release one EP and one LP, achieve underground legend status, and then split before they’re 23. Maybe it’s the forays into post-rock stylings that have allowed Envy to maintain momentum for all these years, giving them precious moments to take a breath here and there. Still, to continue releasing material at this high a level and with this kind of breathtaking emotional fervor and earnestness well into their forties is beyond impressive.
Boris – NO (hardcore, sludge)
Who would’ve thought that at this late into the game Boris would be cranking out some of their fastest, most rippinest shit to date? Honestly, NO sounds like these dudes stepped out of a time machine. Who drops their most energetic album – and arguably their best, if we’re being perfectly honest – decades into their career? Nobody. Of course, there are some moments where they go big an’ slow, but for the most part, the trio sounds energized, pissed off, and …youthful? This is a band who’s revisiting their roots and as they do, they seem to find themselves in a younger headspace, too. The DIY flavor of this one has them scraping up remnants of hardcore punk and thrash and simply having their way with things.
Per usual, Boris make it one helluva ride, too. From blastbeat-riddled hardcore (“Temple of Hatred”) to apocalyptic doom (“Zerkalo”) to dreamy speedpunk (“HxCxHxC – Perforation Line-”) to noisy death metal (“Kikinoue”) to ripping thrash (“Lust”) to blistering d-beat (“Fundamental Error”) to brakechecking pit-friendly sludgecore (“Loveless”), it’s perfectly sequenced and paced from front to back. NO comes out of nowhere with all this crazy ‘tude and swagger with absolutely killer riffage, and yet, it’s still surreal to have one of the all-time greats crafting their most aggressive album nearly 30 years after getting started. It just never seems to happen this way. I guess we should’ve known better?
It may have taken a few listens to really appreciate, but it was worth it
BleakHeart – Dream Griever (funeral doom)
We’ve spoken a lot on the blog about how liking albums is made up of so much more than “just” the music itself; mood, timing, pure chance, the capricious nature of human emotion, and many more parameters make the formula impossible to deduce. Usually though, I can at least explain it after it happens. An album doesn’t make sense to me until it does and once it does, I can look back and say “oh, I just wasn’t angry in the right way for this until now” or “ah, it was a seasonal thing!” or some such explanation. But with BleakHeart’s Dream Griever, I can’t rightfully say what it was. I listened to it a bunch of times and it didn’t leave a mark on me…until it did. I heard it once more and suddenly, it was if the sky had opened up and the sun shone on me.
A very dark sun, of course, since Dream Griever is about as bleak as albums can get. Suddenly, the whorls and patterns of the somber guitars, the crushingly fragile pianos, the air-splitting vocals, all came together into one of my favorite doom albums of the year. So, I can’t rightly recommend a mood, a scenario, or a mindset to listen to this one in. Just try it out and see what sort of chord it strikes and, if it strikes none, perhaps consider it giving multiple chances to sink its claws into you. Because once it does, it will swallow you whole.
Elder – Omens (doom metal, progressive rock, psychedelic rock)
Elder’s batting average has been pretty high as far as I’m concerned. From their earliest days writing doom metal that pulled a shocking amount from Sleep’s salad days to the gorgeous stoner prog of Lore and Reflections of a Floating World to the krautrock jams of The Gold & Silver Sessions, Nick Disalvo and his merry band have truly never led me wrong. Before this year, it was pretty much always love at first listen. Omens, however, didn’t take immediately for me. “Embers,” the first single, while still full of little Elder-isms, is a far cry from the full-stack riff worship of their previous work throughout. As far as singles go, it set the tone for Omens well: it’s an altogether softer, less aggressive take on their sound, with more emphasis than ever before on Disalvo’s vocals and the keys (laid down by guest talent Fabio Cuomo). I wouldn’t say it turned me off immediately, but compared to the enormity of their previous works, Omens felt disappointingly reined in.
However, the more I sat with Omens and placed it in the context of Elder’s oeuvre thus far, the more I grew to appreciate it as its own beast, an album where Elder really pull back the curtain on their songwriting process and exchange the heavy metal showmanship for a mature and soft-spoken wisdom. When I reviewed the album back in April, I wrote that Omens is “more melodically lush than any of Elder’s works to date. There are an order of magnitude more degrees of complexity for the band to play around with courtesy of the reworked dynamics between the guitars, vocals, and synthesizers, and the dulling of their metallic edge means this newfound interplay and its kaleidoscopic result never stumbles over its own momentum or loses its footing due to largesse of scale.” Every time I listen to Omens, I only grow surer in this assessment. Since hearing the record in full for the first time, this has gone from being a peculiar misstep to an assured personal classic. Now I just have to get everyone else to agree with me.
Lady Gaga – Chromatica (dance pop, power pop)
I initially dismissed Chromatica—like I had most of Lady Gaga’s previous material—as “just a bunch of auto-tuned Madonna rip-offs”. Something about songs like “911”, “Rain on Me” and “Enigma” that kept me coming back, however. Flash forward nine months and “Alice” is, by far, my most played 2020 song of the year (74 plays to Carnossus and Code Orange’s 38), only being outdone by Gaga’s older material which has become quite the life-altering obsession (“Venus” leads the pack with 96). It might have taken me ten-years, but I finally “get” Lady Gaga, and I owe a lot of high school friends, to whom I vehemently preached the gospel of Blood Duster in the face of “Just Dance”, a lot of apologies.
Chromatica is far from the best Lady Gaga album (see; Artpop (2013)), but it’s undeniably one of the best pop albums of the year and a firm reiteration of Gaga as one of the world’s most ambitious and inventive pop stars after a bit of a dry spell as an aspiring country-artist and award-winning actress. These songs might sound superficial on the surface, but there’s more genuine personality and emotion rippling here beneath Chromatica’s surface than 99% of pop starlets could ever muster.
O’Brother – You and I (alt rock)
O’Brother leapt out from complete obscurity (to me) with one of the best records of 2016, so expectations were high ahead of 2020’s You and I. On the first few listens it felt like those expectations had fallen flat. The songs were fine and nothing was wrong with it, but it was lacking in immediacy, with the energy and drive of tracks like “Slow Sin” and “Your Move” largely abandoned. Nevertheless, I stuck with it and O’Brother repaid that faith in spades.
What You and I lacks in immediacy it makes up for in consistency, cohesiveness and atmosphere. The quality is strong from beginning to end, lending greater consistency than the somewhat top-heavy Endless Light. The sound is much more cohesive throughout as melodies and motifs are seamlessly woven in and out throughout the record’s runtime. This lends itself well to the more atmospheric nature of the record, as an emphasis on emotion and subtlety truly shines with further listens. To those who had written this record off – give it another chance. And another 10 after that. Because this band, and Tanner Merritt’s incredible vocals in particular, are fantastic and not to be given up on. In a world filled with so much uncertainty right now, this is one investment guaranteed to pay off.
I’M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION
If you weren’t crying in 2020, did you actually live it?
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (indie rock/folk)
Since bursting on the scene with 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers has taken a leading role in the “sad indie songs for sensitive souls” department. Along with friends and collaborators Julien Baker and Lucy Dacas, Bridgers has ascended in this new generation of extremely talented young women songwriters who know all the perfect ways to extract deep emotions from their listeners. In so many ways 2020 was all Bridgers’s year to shine though, as her sophomore album Punisher managed to capture the year’s tragic, anxious, sad, and surreal energy all at once. “Just fuck me up, Phoebe” became a rejoinder of her fans online for good reason.
Tracks like “Garden Song,” “Punisher,” “Chinese Satellite,” and “Moon Song” have a way both musically and lyrically of containing equal measures of sardonic wit and emotional profundity that will catch you by surprise until you realize you are a total wreck. Who else is out there turning anecdotes about screaming at evangelicals holding signs about people going to hell into the crushing line of “But you know I’d stand on the corner; Embarrassed with a picket sign; If it meant I would see you when I die.” Follow that up with the absolutely ascendant chorus, and I’m a goner. And that doesn’t mention the moments of catharsis that bubble throughout Punisher as well, such as the loud regrets of bopper “Kyoto,” relationship screed “ICU,” and the apocalyptic cacophony of horns and screams that concludes “I Know the End.” Whether they’re tears of pain, loneliness, loss, anger, or simply laughing at the cosmic jokes of the universe, Phoebe Bridgers and Punisher are here for you, ready to fuck you up.
Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything (prog metalcore)
Scouse five-piece Loathe weren’t really on my radar until the band’s second album was released way back in February to hype, hype and more hype. I try to be impervious to hype bands but it was particularly difficult to maintain this once I began to hear the heaping praise Loathe were getting and the assemblage of genres and sounds they were working with. I was hearing about rich, detailed production, progressive leanings, unflinching aggression and an air of mystique as to the themes of the record; all things I cannot get enough in music. What I didn’t expect however, was to be so profoundly moved by the record in a year that has dished up the fattest helping of anxiety.
I Let It In is a stunning display of how to sound delicate and soulful, while also possessing the power to crush. There’s a spectral, dream-like quality that runs through it, and helps support a loose concept that feels akin to a nonlinear filmmaking style. This initially felt disorienting but simultaneously alluring as I felt compelled to “work out” the puzzle that Loathe were laying down. But work it out I did not for this is beside the point as the record exists to soundtrack tumult, fogginess and doubt. They certainly picked the right year to release it.
Think about it, many tracks allude to hazy impressions of what could be. “Two-Way Mirror” conveys a tragic and uncontrollable sense of falling victim to the same vices your elders did, while they watch in agony from a different time dimension. “Is It Really You?” provides a similar thread of feeling an immense attachment to something. There is an implied ambiguity, is it a partner? A mother, father or friend? You don’t find out but it doesn’t matter, you’re there for each other.
Gold Key – Panic Machine (alt rock)
There’s often something exhilarating about Panic Machine, from the opeing drum swell of “Sweet Darkness” to the Tom Morello-esquealt rock freak-out of a song like “Fly into the Sun”. Yet the album is also always underpinned by an unshakable melancholy that resonates all the more for its upbeat presentation. The album is a ton of fun, but it also perfectly captures the sound of someone desperately trying to keep it together. Even at their most raucous, Gold Key carry their (sweet) darkness with them. The rollicking “Don’t Sleep”, for example, is the sound of an anxious mind unravelling in isolation, while album highlight “Human” revolves around a chorus of: “I wanna live, I wanna shed these demons, until the day I die; The problem is, I wanna be dead, brick to my head, each day I’m alive”. As mainman Steve Sears explains: “This one is pretty literal; it deals with sadness.”
Panic Machine is variously frantic, elated, despondent and frequently heart-breaking. Yet the album is far from the madness-infatuated, melancholy-loving alt rock opuses of yore. This isn’t the sound of an artist wallowing in their unhappiness, but rather a band making the best of things while still acknowledging that everything is falling apart around them, inside and out.
Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone (pop punk, emo)
Pop punk was admittedly very low on my list of genres I expected to make my AOTY list, or be writing about for end of year content. While it was a formative genre back in grade school, other than some nostalgic throwbacks it’s not something I’ve paid much attention to over the past decade. That being said, it’s always undeniably had a certain charm to it. This sense of not taking itself too seriously, and just being fun and relatable. Spanish Love Songs bridged that charm back to me this year with their third album Brave Faces Everyone.
A big reason why this album worked for me is it’s also very emo. Both in drawing stylistically from the emo genre, and well, the lyrics. SLS have this brilliant blend of painful self-deprecating honesty, and an angst and disdain for things that you can easily empathize with. Yet, it’s written with this infectious enthusiasm that can’t help but lift you up. This feeling of, yeah this fucking sucks, but we’re all in this together. It hits on concepts like ennui, drug and alcohol abuse, being a “walking tragic ending”, being priced out of apartments, feeling it’s cheaper just to die – and the prick inside your head is laid off and daring you to try. The vocalist’s delivery is full of catchy hooks and melodies that flow with the instrumentation for great replay-ability. Despite the frequently tragic lyricism, Brave Faces Everyone is an album that genuinely makes you feel alive, and not alone.
We don’t have to fix everything at once
We were never broken, life’s just very long
Brave faces, everyone.
Wake – Devouring Ruin (atmospheric death metal)
Wake occupies a strange space in metal that’s difficult to pin down. Going as pretentious and journo-core as possible, we could call the spectrum of sounds on Devouring Ruin blackened post-deathgrind (okay so that combination of sounds wouldn’t be too incredibly dissimilar to contemporary crust punk but bare with me here). Yes, Wake are often aggressive and heavy beyond belief, but Devouring Ruin’s emotive qualities run deep and the mood is very specific. It hits like the exhausted emotional fog following a panic attack; not quite free of the turmoil, but you can breathe a little better knowing it’s almost over, while offering a moment of introspection and reflection of the preceding chaos. Maybe it’s the album title doing the conceptual heavy lifting here, but Devouring Ruin just resonated with me this year on an emotional level that other death metal just isn’t capable of reaching.
This time, it’s personal
Activist/protest/fuck the man albums
Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (hip-hop)
There’s not much I can say about RTJ4 that hasn’t been said already (including by myself). It’s a truly iconic record that sees El-P and Killer Mike at the peak of their powers, spitting venom in the face of an establishment that surely had it coming. The record is far from a the opportunistic zeitgeisty affair so many recent “political” records have a tendency to be, nor is it some kind of prophecy only Killer Mike could have seen coming. As the album’s star-studded gust spots – from the likes of Rage Against the Machine frontman Zac de la Rocaha, who sounds as pissed-off and fired-up as ever, and legendary soul singer Mavis Staples, whose work dates all the way back to the late 1940s – show, systematic racism has been part of American culture for as long as popular and recorded music has been a thing (and obviously long before). The album’s coincidence with the beginning of the George Floyd protests was perhaps incidental, yet only because it’s something Run the Jewels lived with and observed every day. There’s been many amazing records released in 2020, but RTJ4 is the one it will be remembered for
Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction (metallic hardcore, death metal)
One of the best releases from 20 Buck Spin this year, Little Rock’s Terminal Nation brought the militant hurt with label debut Holocene Extinction. Leaving no earth unscorched, the album pummels through every topic plaguing the American landscape: from institutional corruption in the face of late stage capitalism to environmental crises, the prison-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, warhawks, bootlickers, charlatans, and everything in between. There isn’t a single second of this record that isn’t dominated by scalding hot downtempo riffs or vocalist Stan Liszewski’s one-of-a-kind bellow, which may be the purest distillation of disgust I’ve ever heard recorded.
Holocene Extinction is wall to wall cop-bricking, building-burning music for those of us who have been stepped on one too many times. It’s the snake’s rattle before the bite. It’s mean, heavy, and imbued with years of justified indignation at the systems that betray us every single day — essential listening for the burgeoning comrade in arms. “Those who bow to their own oppressor are the weakest link in the chain of being.” Remember that, friends.
Zeal & Ardor – Wake of a Nation (alt metal, blues, black metal)
I don’t think there’s any greater piece of subversion in metal currently than that of a black man using the musical legacies of black metal to protest systemic and state-sanctioned white supremacy and the police state. That is exactly what Manuel Gagneux accomplished with Wake of a Nation though, and not a moment too soon. With the US and much of the world gripped by protests against racist police brutality and commonplace use of law enforcement as a personal violence service for white folks this past summer, this set of 6 songs could not have dropped at a better time. Addressing America’s racist present head-on with the mournful “Vigil” and drawing direct connections to its more obvious manifestations of subjugation of black bodies in “Tuskegee,” Gagneux pulls zero punches in laying out the evidence of the sins of the structures that uphold white supremacy. It also features some of his sharpest writing to date, the subject matter offering the perfect vessel to explore some truly heavy and angry shit. It’s the perfect distillation of the potential of Zeal & Ardor made manifest, and it only makes me hungry for far more.
Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned (experimental hip-hop)
While the predecessor to Visions of Bodies Being Burned was arguably more explicitly political, this release is political in a way that is perhaps magnified by its subtlety. By making the album more about the horror story, more about the details about the monsters, their horror, and the terror they create, Clipping. have employed a device that should be familiar to fans of literature: understatement. That’s how the anti-slavery, pro-rebellion message of “Pain Everday” pulses beneath the track, juxtaposing the story of ghosts and poltergeists with the vengeance that cries from every American history page. That’s how “Something Underneath” channels both the idea of some horror waking up and shattering the peace of a pastoral scene and the awakening of the people, their power set to sweep aside the order of things as they are. This makes Visions of Bodies Being Burned like an onion, to be consumed in layers, diving deeper as you listen again and again. Don’t blink.
Protest the Hero – Palimpsest (progressive metalcore)
In a politically tumultuous year, Protest the Hero dropped a concept album drawing parallels to present-day American political turmoil and that of the previous century. Palimpsest poses the question: does that cursed phrase (which shall not be uttered here), emblazoned across red hats all over America, imply the needed return to a bygone era? Which era, exactly? Because at the turn of the century, America was rife with jingoistic propaganda, sexism, racism, crime, economic depression, drought, and disasters stemming from poor industrial regulation. If there’s greatness to be found, where is it, exactly? And in a moment of inspiration, that racist rallying cry is juxtaposed against the chorus of the Depression-era classic “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” to great effect. And while Protest are quick to admit that their own country of Canada is far from criticism — “no country’s history is free from bullshit / but everyone just seems so fuckin’ proud” — Palimpsest offers a passionate track-by-track teardown of the concept of American Exceptionalism, and the timing couldn’t have been better. It also helps that Palimpsest is legitimately the best thing the band have done in over a decade.
It’s my first day
Best new band/debut album
Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (metalcore)
Californian hardcore juggernauts Gulch have been on a killing spree since 2017’s Demolition of Human Construct, kicking ass and taking names in quantities previously unheard of for bands with only 11 songs under their belt across a couple EPs and a two-song demo. One listen to Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress, though, confirms that there’s plenty to justify their instant ascendancy. By fusing the blinding speed of classic grind and powerviolence with the splattered-brain, Entombed lovin’, d-beat bludgeonings that made Southern Lord and Closed Casket household names in the early to mid 2010s (although guitarist and mastermind Cole Kakimoto would be the first to tell you he doesn’t give a fuck who you think influenced Gulch), Gulch have arrived at a sound that is loud, bombastic, and aggressive to an almost unheard-of degree. It’s impossible to not get swept up for the ride.
Each track on Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (including an insane Siouxsie and the Banshees cover to close things out) is so massive, so overflowing with pure spite and fury and rage, that it’s easy to forget that this is only 15 minutes of music and that only four of the songs here are new tracks. It also helps that each member of the band, especially vocalist Elliot Morrow, is a true master of their craft. As Gulch move from machine gun Swedeath riffs to blast-furnace grind to caustic Bay Area hardcore, they are incalculably precise and just fucking on it at a level that outstrips performances of master statesmen on their fourth or fifth album with ease. Look, either you get it or you don’t – this is music for crushing fools and smashing shit up, and if that’s what you need, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is one of the best jams since Unsilent Death.
Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind (death metal)
New York death metal outfit Undeath are one of the most hyped up-and-coming death metal bands of the year, and their debut Lesions of a Different Kind went above and beyond in following through with the promise of their 2019 demo. It’s very much in the wave of OSDM that saw the rising popularity of acts like Tomb Mold, with that same dank production and thick riffing imbued with an idiosyncratic New York-style death metal personality that doesn’t fall too far down the rabbit hole of unfiltered ignorance (see: Sanguisugabogg). One might be wary at this point of those that refer to a death metal band as being particularly catchy, but Lesions is packed with stunning death metal riffage that caught praise from more mainstream music critics like The Needle Drop’s Anthony Fantano and Pitchfork. Whether or not that’s a compelling selling point is up for debate, but Undeath are poised to be one of the more prominent acts in death metal in the coming years if Lesions is any indication.
wthAura – Grocery (math rock, synthwave)
If it weren’t for the fact that, astoundingly, Grocery is the first album from one-man math rock project wthAura (aka Brian J Davis), this would be a perfect candidate for the “Close your eyes and you’re there” category. Because one listen to the first of four “Announcement” interstitial tracks that combine a collage of vintage in-store public service recordings and pitch-perfect retro production, and I am immediately transported to the grocery store aisles of my youth, or at the very least the ones of the original run of Supermarket Sweep. Or maybe it belongs in the “Can they even do that???” category, because prior to hearing Grocery I didn’t even know it was possible to combine the technical chops and compositional style of Tosin Abasi/early Animals as Leaders, the sugary sweet brightness of instrumental math rock, and the dreamy pastiche of synth/vaporwave in such a way.
Grocery was such an absolute wildcard of an album for me and many of us here in 2020. It came out of seemingly nowhere, as we stumbled upon it by chance with no real marketing or social media presence behind it. Its mystery only added to the album’s allure though, as it felt like a magical secret we had the privilege of holding onto and releasing to a wider audience. The experience of sharing it and witnessing others discover all of the ways that it confounded and entranced us is the gift that keeps on giving though. If for some reason you have not given yourself the gift of this album yet, then I gleefully look forward to the shots of serotonin and nostalgia you are about to experience.
Mountain Caller – The Truthseeker (stoner rock, progressive rock)
I wouldn’t be surprised if every single entry in this category will include the words “blown away”. That’s how it feels to play an album by a band you’ve never heard about before (probably because this is their first release, which makes sense). This is how it felt to first play The Truthseeker. I’ve written about this album many times on the blog this year and every time, I mention the fatigue with which I think about the genre of progressive stoner these days. That’s why I was so blown away; I was expecting another mediocre addition to the genre’s roster but instead found a debut album that had that elusive balance of skill and raw knowledge that so many albums in the style try, and fail, to capture. The Truthseeker makes me incredibly excited for Mountain Caller’s future; if they can inject so much energy into this tired genre with their first release, all that’s left is for us to wait for what they can do in the future.
Release the Blackness – Tragedy (progressive death metal, technical groove thrash)
Even in a year as strong as 2020, a virtually unknown band came along and managed to release a record that immediately put almost everything else released this year to shame (sadly edging my beloved In Malice’s Wake out of my personal top ten). Tragedy exists at the unlikely intersection of bands like Rivers of Nihil, Hath, Lamb of God and Unearth; it’s a sound almost tailor made to my tastes and I couldn’t be more excited to see what they come up with next.
The main selling point remains the riffs, which are lifted straight out of the As the Palaces Burn/Ashes of the Wake-era Lamb of God playbook. However, the ambition of tracks like album highlight “Samsara” and the technical intricacies of songs like “As Cold Snow and Flesh” and “Where Voids Gather” prove there’s far more going on beneath the hood here than on all the many Sacrament-imitators put together. Tragedy is as forceful an opening statement as a band could possibly make and one suspects Release the Blackness are only scratching the surface of what they are capable of.
Dragged Under – The World Is In Your Way (Hardcore Punk/Pop Punk)
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures because honestly, who the hell cares what you listen to?! Ok, well if I did have to list one band that has equal parts hate and love, its Beartooth. Maybe it’s Caleb Shomo’s history with the band Attack! Attack! or the fact that they don’t commit to being “heavy”, whatever that means. Either way, whats wrong with a band that takes hardcore and punk and mixes it together with clever lyrics that relate to anyone? Absolutely nothing! While we wait for the new Beartooth album, we can settle for the incredible debut album from Seattle’s Dragged Under. Combining the in your face bite of bands like Beartooth and Letlive. with the hooks and swagger of hardcore that bring to mind acts like Comeback Kid, the band has nailed the perfect formula. The great thing about the band is that they have somehow found a way to combine all these elements and make something that’s not only heavy but catchy as well. The sad thing is the band released the album during a time when the world was hit with a pandemic so many people have not been able to see them and their talent. Lucky for us the band released a deluxe edition of the album towards the tail end of the year to remind us just how great it is. This album was truly adored by many of the Rottentothecore staff and made it on our aggregate list so please do us a favor and check it out!
Bartees Strange – Live Forever (alternative/indie)
This might be one of the most compelling debut albums I’ve heard in quite some time, and it promises us an artist that will continue to re-shape our understanding of genre and fusion for years to come. Much has been made of genre mashups over the past several years, but if we’re all being honest with ourselves, 99.9% of the time you can tell what style a band is most comfortable with, and which styles are the ones they decided to fuse with that. But when it comes to Bartees Strange, I just have no idea, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. There are elements of alternative radio rock, emo, hip-hop, R&B, EDM, singer-songwriter, and more, but the way it all exists together in a completely fluid fashion that never feels disjointed or forced is a near-miracle. On paper there’s no way this should work, but here we are, and Live Forever is for certain one of my five favorite albums of 2020. I don’t know that I can recall another artist this impressively capable of traversing so wide a canvas of musical styles with such ease.
Nord – The Only Way To Reach The Surface (progressive post-hardcore)
Coming out of nowhere to deliver one of this year’s best post-hardcore records was a little French group called Nord. Their debut The Only Way To Reach the Surface grabbed and held my attention for a variety of reasons. Nord hit on the booming “swancore” or math/prog leaning brand of this genre with a maturity that’s seldom found in it. Not too unlike Good Tiger‘s new album, they lean more into the progressive side of things, with some heavier prog metal elements making their way in. On top of that, there’s a certain emotional weight that’s carried across this album. The vocalist’s serene, angelic voice that breaks through in the first track is very reminiscent of A Lot Like Birds’ last album. This is quickly broken up by… blast beats? Yes. A startling introduction to the eclecticism of this wonderful little gem.
It’s hard to say if the guitar work or the vocals stand out more, but the correct answer might just be how it all comes together in their song-writing. Sure, there’s an abundance of dazzling technicality, tapping and solos, and some genuinely fun and memorable riffage. They even rip some of their fellow-countrymen Gojira‘s “Global Warming” tapping riff, but who hasn’t at this point. And yeah, the vocalist clearly has a knack for this style of melancholic melodic singing and post-hardcore screaming. But this is truly an album that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’ll move you emotionally, impress the hell out of you, uplift your spirits, and even make you dance! Pretty much everything you could ask for from this style of music. It’s safe to say they have reached the surface, and are set to shoot far beyond it.
Close your eyes and you’re there
Albums that transport you to a different place
Fleet Foxes – Shore (indie folk, progressive folk)
When I read Robin Pecknold’s interview with Apple Music about Shore, it felt like he was describing my exact means of coping with the pandemic. He shared that during the writing process last year, he began taking day trips from his NYC apartment up to the Catskills to seek inspiration. He was ultimately driven to write songs that “celebrate life in a time of death,” and help “find something to hold on to that exists outside of time, something that feels solid or stable.”
While New Hampshire has little in common with New York (or any major metro for that matter), my wife and I exercised the exact same tactic to find sanity outside our two-bedroom apartment. We mapped out scenic weekend road trips through New Hampshire’s idyllic north country, complete with sublime views of the mountains and forests, covered bridges, and rural life seemingly untouched by the pandemic. It served as not only a literal escape, but a reminder that beauty, hope, and positivity are waiting to be found if you’re willing to look.
Shore offered the same experience amid the tribulations of 2020, and I couldn’t think of a better pick for my album of the year. Musically, the album is yet another triumph from Pecknold, building on the progressive tendencies of Crack Up to produce a stunning, engaging collection of indie folk anthems. But lyrically and thematically, Shore offered its most powerful statement, starting with its release on the autumnal equinox. With each listen, I felt transported back to the rural New Hampshire landscapes that brought me peace as I navigated everything 2020 threw at me. In the years to come, I imagine I’ll feel the exact same warmth and calm, mixed with nostalgia and gratitude for Pecknold providing exactly what I needed at the exact right time.
Lucid Planet – II (trippy prog rock/metal)
I’m not quite sure where Lucid Planet are trying to transport me with their second LP, but I’m than happy to let them take me there. One look at the psychedelic forest vagina that adorns the album’s cover should tell you straight away what you’re in for. The Melbourne band blend the longform progressive metal of bands like Tool and The Ocean with even more “new age” textures, including Indigenous and “tribal” elements, in a manner reminiscent of Australian progressive metal pioneers The Alchemist and Cog.
Although II is a very “you get what you paid ($20AUD on bandcamp) for” affair, there’s still a few surprises to be had. Not least is “Organic Hard Drive” which erupts into a hard-hitting rave about halfway through, as though The Prodigy were into psychedelics instead of uppers (is that how drugs work? IDK; they scare me). II certainly won’t be for everyone, but anyone vibing with that cover art should check it out immediately.
Covet – technicolor (math rock, progressive metal)
I wrote about technicolor for our mid-year review, but it bears repeating just how gorgeous and instantly transformational this album is. Virtuoso Yvette Young and company are simply incapable of writing a bad song, to the degree that even the least memorable tracks on any given album, technicolor especially, are delightful shakes of a snowglobe or afternoons in the sun with your friends. Even that description feels modest, for between Covet, there exists enough talent and effortless flair for song structure that puts them in a league all their own. After a few more listens over the course of the year, I think technicolor feels more like a twilight drive with your favorite co-pilot. Put it on and let the sun sink low on the horizon. Watch the lights twinkle on under the pinks and purples of retreating daylight. Roll the windows down and let it mingle with your breath on the air as night rolls in to greet you. Trust me on this one.
Kvelertak – Splid (hardcore, black metal, hard rock)
The only place I wanted to go in 2020 was to a goddamn live show. I never thought I’d miss paying for overpriced tallboys, moving side to side for a better look because some super tall asshole (says the tall asshole of the regular variety) redecided to stand in front of me, or wafts of the putrid B.O. of an overripe crust punk, but 2020 made it happen. So what was my remedy? Kvelertak. Loud. All the fucking time.
The Norwegians are still choppin’ it up with their blackened, hook-laden hardcore, a comforting consistency in a world that’s feels irreversably upside down. The live angle is perfectly captured on this outing. Where Nattesferd felt a little stiff to me, Splid elevates those rock’n’roll tendencies with a dose of the infectious buzz and hyper hybridization that made their debut so special. The energy is kept high, but also regulated enough for, as any great live show, a bit of ebb and flow.
Opener “Rogaland” spans the breadth of their sound, fusing some of their brighter rock moments with a give-no-fucks hardcore ‘tude. “Crack of Doom” ticks the box for the early set banger, I mean, who can hear this song and not belt out “D-E-S-T-R-O-Y” at the top of their lungs? “Necrosoft” ramps things up with blackened blasted goodness juxtaposed against stadium rock chords and a locomotive chorus. And really, the hits keep coming. There’s really no letting up, and even at the point where I always feel like the album is starting to get long – right at mellower rock standard “Tevling” – “Stevnemøte med Satan” pops in to deliver a second wind strong enough to carry me through to the end – it honestly makes for a great set list. Splid sees Kvelertak put it together better than they ever have (really), and the live feel is just icing on the cake.
Music to test new headphones with
The crispest, most well-rounded, or satisfying production work to break in those new ’phones
Black Taffy – Opal Wound (trip-hop, vaporwave)
While some folks on staff had a difficult time paring down their picks, every category that interested me conjured an immediate selection from my AOTY list. This was perhaps the easiest choice of them all, considering I zoned out with headphones and Black Taffy on many lazy weekend mornings. I owe Bandcamp Daily for recommending a number of highlights from 2020, and Opal Wand just might be my favorite of the bunch.
Dallas producer Donovan Jones has a knack for balancing lo-fi aesthetics with rich textures. His blend of trip-hop, vaporwave, and plunderphonics made for some of the most engrossing instrumentals I heard all year. Imagine Forest Swords and Madlib collab album made exclusively with classical samples then played on a vintage phonograph. Wild, right? It’s the kind of album you can listen to passively or intently and come away satisfied. And isn’t that the dual purpose of headphones? Block out the world, or home in on every minute detail?
Moses Boyd – Dark Matter (jazz, trip-hop)
What makes the music of UK producer Moses Boyd so utterly captivating and compelling also makes it a perfect album to put your headphones through its paces. The mixture of organic jazz instrumentation, deep bass and all, with electronic percussion and other flourishes creates a futuristic jazz environment in which the genre’s past, present, and future can exist all at once. There are more straightforward jazz/afrobeat-style tracks like “B.T.B” that do a good job in themselves of demonstrating dynamic range and the ability to adequately reproduce warm studio production via headphones. But more often it’s the blend of styles that really allows Boyd’s music and production to shine, particularly on collaborations with vocalists like Poppy Ajudha on “Shades of You” and Obongjayer on personal highlight “Dancing in the Dark.” The latter blends gravelly vocals, cosmic sax, and crisp percussion constantly bouncing left and right, providing an ideal soundscape for really testing the depth and profile of whatever you’re listening through. On top of it all, it’s just an absolutely killer album that will get you moving and grooving like a fool, headphones or no.
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant (progressive metal)
There are a lot of things I love about Caligula’s Horse but the crispy, all-encompassing feeling that their sound has, crossing across so many of the basic noises that I love about metal, might be my favorite. That’s why they’re perfect for this category; if your headphones can handle both the chuggy, lower riffs of a song like “The Tempest” and the higher range vocals of “Slow Violence” then you should be good. And even if you’re not breaking in new headphones, putting on your favorite pair (like my trusty Sennhesier PXC550’s or RS185’s) and sinking into the dulcet sounds of Caligula’s Horse is truly a treat.
Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi (avant-garde black metal)
Mestarin kynsi is pure delirium writ in sound. Fifty minutes of headrush and spacey weirdness. A journey through the weirdest parts of the grand eldritch cosmos, ferried along by warbling, whirring, chittering synthesizers and Jun-His’ phlegmy rasp. Stalwarts of freaked-out black metal Oranssi Pazuzu have done it again here, creating the perfect sequence of sounds to make you enjoy your brain slowly being turned into mush through an unstoppable pnakotic influx of impossible colors and Nth-dimensional prisms. I really can’t recommend this enough, and a big part of why Mestarin kynsi works at all is Julius Maraunen and Jaakko Viitalähde’s incredible recording, mixing, and mastering work. They’ve clearly gone to great lengths capturing the cosmic largesse that Pazuzu and friends invoke here. The guitars burn like great wheels of cosmic fire, the drums pummel away, the bass rattles and slinks, and the keys move like skittering insects across it all. The production of Jun-His’ vocals in particular deserves special mention: he slips and slides across the sonic space, moving between your ears, tunneling into your brain and tearing it to shreds. Oranssi Pazuzu are doing phenomenal work here, to be sure, but this would be a half-listenable pile of sound if it wasn’t for the engineers’ incredible attention to detail and their ability to maintain clarity while the group sound like they’re hurtling through the universe at comet-like speeds. If having your mind offered up to a Lovecraftian nightmare by a group of sorcerous weirdos isn’t reason enough to check this out, let the promise of simply unbeatable production push you towards listening to Mestarin kynsi.
I need to break out my calculator for this
The most complicated of tech-deck progressive fuckery
Peripheral Cortex – God Kaiser Hell (avantgarde technical death metal)
Uuuuhhhhhh. This is the sound I made upon first making it through Peripheral Cortex’s God Kaiser Hell. It’s not just that the album is weird (I mean, it includes a noir detective narrating their tale over tech death so yeah, it’s kinda weird) but that it’s also weird in its own unique way. We’ve spoken about this for: there are accepted codes and methods to being weird and finding a band that casts off those codes is truly refreshing. But this isn’t whyI chose to write about these guys under this category. It’s part of it for sure but it’s more about how that weirdness interacts with how technical the album is that drew me to write about it.
You see, beyond being “just” incredibly weird, God Kaiser Hell is also technical as, well, hell. Its weirdness is channelled through furious guitars, breakneck drums, and overall approach to meter that feels like chaos but, of course, holds a sort of broken order in its heart. This means that the album truly makes you reach for the calculator, as you are blasted not only by weird music but also weird music that goes incredibly fast towards an incredible number of directions at the same time. You look at the calculator and all it says is “run”. Your mouth is filling up with blood. The speakers are loud. You’re listening to Peripheral Cortex.
Cryptic Shift – Visitations From Enceladus (progressive death metal, tech thrash)
I’ve never understood all the hype around Blood Incantation. Sure, there’s a lot of good stuff going on there, but none of it ever seems to come together for me the way it does for other people. Visitations From Enceladus takes the Blood Incantation template and translates it into a form where the musical progressions appear actually intentional and the song structures are actually apparent. It’s still a tall order, but I’ve been back to the twenty-six-minute “Moon Belt Immolator” more times than anything in Blood Incantation’s discography and always come away with my ears filled and my mind satisfyingly blown.
What Visitations From Enceladus most strongly suggests, however, is that swirling Blood Incantation-style prog death might actually work better in shorter, rather than unnecessarily inflated forms. As good as “Moonbelt Immolator” is, it’s the briefer offerings, like “(Petrified in the) Hypogean Gaol” and “Arctic Chasm” that are most immediately rewarding leave the longest lasting impression. Maybe it’s just the hefty dose of tech-thrash Cryptic Shift have mixed in with their sound, but this album is just so lethal and efficient that, for me at least, it immediately usurps Hidden history of the Human Race and anything else of its kind that came before it.
Focusrights – Ew, Music! (mathcore)
2020 was a lot of things, and a banner year for unhinged, dump-acid-on-your-brain-and-smear-shit-on-the-walls mathcore was definitely one of them. There were a handful of entries in this category that deserve writeups, but Focusrights take the crazy cake. Duo Asics Endorser and Guitar Janitor (yep, those are their names) penned what I imagine to be the closest thing to an electric lobotomy, and it functions in much the same way. Careening through sounds, themes, and time signatures like cartoon baboons in a stolen Lamborghini, Ew, Music! actually features some of the single greatest seconds of music I experienced all year.
Ever heard a bree through a didgeridoo? Want to hear what happens when Rubber Johnny appears to lick your windows at 2 AM? Do you like literal feral hooting over panic chords and full tracks of fast forwarded noise? Good, then Ew, Music! is exactly what you need in your life, you fucking freak. It’s only 15 minutes long, so take some time today to run a wire brush over your frontal lobe and do us all a favor.
Pyrrhon – Abscess Time (avant garde death metal)
New York avant garde death metal act Pyrrhon have been playing with the sounds of technical death metal, noise rock, and mathcore for years, and therefore, have always sounded weird as shit. Abscess Time itself might be the group’s magnum opus, particularly to the ears of those who have albums like Obscura, Hell Songs, and Irony Is A Dead Scene already sitting on your shelf. We’re talking about a flurry of scratchy syncopated riffs with layers of aimless textured leads, blasts that can turn on a dime, and wailing deranged vocals filtered through various effects. There’s improvisation aplenty which keeps Abscess Time feeling fluid and organic where loads of other technically-minded bands feel snapped to a grid and overly produced. At some level, pulling this monstrosity off has got to be more of a statement of artistry and technical proficiency. I suppose anyone can cut up and quantize a neat riff, but Pyrrhon are doing something even more remarkable here; I mean, I’m dying to see how a band can pull of something like the track “Overwinding” in a live setting. Hopefully we’ll see sooner than later when bands can actually tour again.
Weird flex, but ok
Weird album structures, instruments, concepts, etc.
Neptunian Maximalism – Éons (drone metal, avant-garde jazz, “world music”)
I, Voidhanger Records is the only label that would have put this beast of an album out, and thank God they did. Éons, the second album by the Belgian “drone orchestra” Neptunian Maximalism, is a thick, smothering two hours of avant-garde jazz, pounding rhythms, guttural chanting, and blaring horns. It all comes together to create something overwhelming, overpowering, and completely hypnotic. As one might expect, it’s also an album with something to say. From the IVH press copy regarding Éons: “By exploring the evolution of the human species, NEPTUNIAN MAXIMALISM question the future of the living on Earth, propitiating a feeling of acceptance for the conclusion of the so called “anthropocene” era and preparing us for the incoming “probocene” era, imagining our planet ruled by superior intelligent elephants after the end of humanity.” Rock on.
If perhaps two hours of droning saxophone atop arrhythmic chanting and drumming, said to investigate and celebrate the human race and our inevitable replacement by hyper-intelligent pachyderms, sounds self-indulgent or pretentious, well, you’re not wrong. But if you go in accepting Neptunian Maximalism at face value and can manage to give yourself over to Éons, it’s a pretty incredible experience. The drumming and guttural chants, deep guitar and pulsing horns, the freewheeling saxophone and the sitar, all come together to create something entrancing, gorgeous, and otherworldly. Across the three suites comprising this triple album, the orchestra move between lurid psychedelia, fiery jazz, and deeply unsettling drone with ease to create completely unique soundscapes. Description simply doesn’t do Éons justice – clear your schedule for this behemoth, put on your good headphones, press play and find yourself totally under Neptunian Maximalism’s spell.
Horse Lords – The Common Task (experimental rock, krautrock)
A memorable band name significantly increases the chances I’ll check out a band’s music (see: Callous Daoboys). I may or may not have put on The Common Task just for the off rhyme delight of saying Horse Lords to myself again and again. But after the “Fanfare for Effective Freedom” launched me into outer space, it became exclusively about the band’s bizarre approach to krautrock revival. The cover art couldn’t be more apt; listening to The Common Task feels like a maze with infinite possibilities but no easy escape.
Horse Lords have been at it for a while, and after listening to their back catalog, I’m not sure why it took until their fourth album for folks to catch on (myself included). The band seemingly stopped at the experimental music bazaar for inspiration and exited with a cart overflowing with ideas from across the musical spectrum. Their own self-proclaimed influences range from Glenn Branca to raucous Saharan guitar music to Albert Ayler, which itself piqued my interest as the buzz around The Common Task continued to grow.
Upon arrival, it’s clear Horse Lords prioritize substance over anything else, and any oddities arrive as a byproduct of their musical ingenuity. That said, it’s a weird listen through and through, with complex, microtonal structures filled with elements from across the rock universe: math, jazz, kraut, psych, you name it. Again, oddities aside, this is a genuinely enjoyable album that’s as nerdy as it is adventurous. Whatever influences inform their music or genres you ascribe to it, I’m all in on whatever Horse Lords release going forward.
Code Orange – Underneath (industrial hardcore, alt rock)
I was going to get on here and say something about how, while Underneath is undoubtedly my album of the year, cutting Side A off in the middle of a song for the album’s vinyl release is the kind of meaningless gimmickry that kept the band’s much hyped previous record, Forever (2017), from clicking with me, despite the obvious potential and ambition it showed. And then actually I listened to it with the break…
On the vinyl version of Underneath, Side A cuts off midway through “The Easy Way”, at about 2:08, right as the song is about to go into the bridge, at which point the listener would have to get up and physically flip the record over to hear the end of the song on Side B. Code Orange have played around with this sort of thing before. The final track on Forever, “dream2”, suddenly cuts off midway through a verse, leaving the record on a striking, unresolved note. Odd pauses and jolts were one of the defining features of that record and one of the many elements of its sound the band have refined on Underneath and also harnessed in their videos and outstanding live streams to superb and haunting effect. Turns out the same is true of the split in the “The Easy Way”.
At the risk of getting too Jennifer Egan about it, but—even having only recreated the experience digitally—the split has a palpable physical effect that’s perfectly deployed by a band who are essentially playing “four-dimensional chess” at this point. Cutting the song off just as it’s about to erupt into the bridge is equivalent to when a band pause a song live to get the crowd hyped up, right before the breakdown or a big riff comes in. In this case however, that the hype is entirely internal and self-reinforced, building in anticipation before the listener themselves pulls the trigger on its release. The physicality of heavy music is something that is often overlooked, but it’s something Code Orange have become masters of manipulating. The mid-song split extends that physical manipulation beyond the compositions themselves, somehow becoming yet another reason why Underneath is the best album of 2020.
Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion (avant-garde metal)
Igorrr’s progression from Savage Simunoid to Spirituality and Distortion reminds me of Mr. Bungle’s progression from Disco Volante to California. Disco Volante was impressively creative and limitlessly adventurous, but it was so fucking weird that it wasn’t really something you could keep coming back to listen to. You admired it more than you enjoyed it. Whereas California crystallized all their bizarre musical schizophrenia into a package that was somehow actually (sort of) approachable. Twenty years on, California remains the Bungle album I come back to most often. That’s how I feel about Spirituality and Distortion. It’s an album that retains their trademark sonic lunacy, but gives it to you in a more digestible form. It’s still one of the strangest albums I’ve heard in the past year, but that’s just an indication of how difficult to grasp their previous material was. This record is likely the one that will connect them with as many potential listeners as they could possibly draw with this kind of utter madness.
Clown Core – Van (cybergrind, jazz-fusion)
Can YOU play brutal industrial saxophone cybergrind in costume in a moving van while filming shorts for Adult Swim? The answer to that is probably, but you’ll never do it as well as Clown Core. From the band that brought you Toilet, Van is a revelation in cacophonic, dirty, brilliant grind through the lens of deranged clowns that went to jazz school. It’s a wild ride from start to finish, whether the baby blue Toyota Previa they’re traveling in is going the speed limit or parked in a McDonald’s drive-thru.
Not content to just write excruciatingly fun cybergrind, enjoy the saccharine 80’s sitcom stylings of “Tears of God” or the detuned vaporjazz musak finale “Infinite Realm of Incomprehensible Suffering” for further studies in how to not be a one trick pony even if you’re in a gimmick band. Van is quietly one of my favorite releases of the year, and I truly hope we get more Clown Core down the road. Maybe in a different vehicle this time, because I’m pretty sure they crashed that Previa.
Crispin Wah – Crispin Wah Type Beat (shredgaze)
One of my most listened-to records of the year was Crispin Wah Type Beat. Crispin Wah’s wholly unique toolkit of prog, electro, and hip-hop is simply leveled up on this effort. The at times smoother blend of their sound (“Five Star Frog Splash,” “Holographic Grandparents,” “Hundred Hand Slap”) is ideal chill, but they also work in some bursts of heavy metal (“Laser Ramon”), woofer-wrecking hip-hop (“Spinebuster Type Beat”), melty psych loops (“Tai Chi Thai Tea Type Beat”), and who the hell else knows what. What’s more is their impeccable sense of timing and flow. The “drop” after that shreddy bit in “Lion-Sault” is some real chef’s-kiss kinda shit, and they seem to make this stuff happen with consistency and ease.
Each track’s personality is fleshed out nicely and doesn’t overstay its welcome, but more importantly, Crispin Wah let things hang around juuust enough to sink in and vibe with it, then move on with things. CWTP is littered with fun vocal samples, and ear-catching curiosities in each track, but no matter how “out there” they get, they develop cohesion across the record with a superbly relaxed vibe. In that sense, it feels like a no-misses classic hip-hop record, it feels like a synthy summertime favorite, and it feels like a soundtrack to a better future, because frankly, these dudes are way ahead of their time. There’s a lot to process and this record is certainly worth the dissection, but I’ve just been enjoying myself way too much to get that far.
There is no horizon
Albums to gaze into the void to
Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still (tech death, post-metal)
Ever had a moment where you found a piece of art that mesmerized you. Like, literally? Where you found yourself gazing intently at a painting, or reading a chapter of a book, or watching a scene of a film that caused the outside world to dissipate almost completely? Ulcerate has that kind of effect on me, and has since their earliest releases. Inside all of the stellar drumming and mathematically obtuse songwriting, there’s a core of otherworldly transcendence that permeates their music. It’s a whole vibe, and I’ve found it compelling from the first moment I dived into Everything is Fire years ago. But none of their records have reached the emotional, existential apex of Stare Into Death and Be Still, and for that it fits this category like a glove.
Those familiar with the band’s aesthetic will find plenty to love in this record. The key elements that make Ulcerate great are all there. The absolutely fantastic drumming, the acrobatic yet menacing guitar work, and the soul-crushing vocals are all in peak form, and just on a technical level Stare Into Death is a triumph of technique and composition. But what makes this record stand out in the band’s discography is its heightened sense of melodic and emotional heft. These tracks are titanically heavy in a multitude of ways, lending not only to the cerebral aspects of the band’s music, but hit the soul in a more impactful and powerful way. Staring into the void while listening to this record has become my standard assumed position, and each new listen lends fresh perspectives to sink my teeth into. Emotionally and intellectually, Stare Into Death and Be Still is one of the band’s most stunning and triumphant moments. There are few titles that could have fit it better.
Uniform – Shame (industrial metal, noise rock)
“You are what you’ve done/You are what’s been done to you”, vocalist Michael Berdan drawls all over a gloomy instrumental that could perfectly encapsulate a looming, but hidden fear constantly closing in on you. Like the horror film It Follows where the protagonists are perpetually pursued by a malignant threat hiding in numerous forms, Shame presents fear as omnipresent but not always immediately perceptible, so you can never relax for too long. Is it that guy over there? The one who keeps looking up from his newspaper with a glint in his eye. Or is it the old woman you just helped with her shopping bags? She was pleasant but something was off about her…
The industrial power trio create their reptilian sounds from deep within their amygdalae. Although this kind of cursed, uncanny style has been around for a while now, and has many different offshoots from clipping.’s murderous hip hop to Meth.’s deranged noisecore to even 65daysofstatic’s most recent output of dark, twitching electronics. However, Uniform blend their own pot of influences to create their own brand of “gazing-into-the-void”-core. It comes together with Berdan’s commanding and cavernous voice that he occasionally allows to roar and wretch with horrific effect. The overall production job is stellar for this style, the vocals reverberating inside your skull, the roomy drums, and guitars so crunchy they could shatter teeth. If I could point you in the direction of any track to showcase what Uniform do best, it would undoubtedly be the monolithic closer “I Am the Cancer”. Starting with a barrage of dirty noise rock, the track quickly U-turns into manic sludgy riffs before completely collapsing into a lethal trudge. Perfection.
The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (progressive post metal)
I seem to be out of step with the overall Heavy Blog consensus on this one but, for me, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic is a massive return to form after 2018’s lauded Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic continually failed to leave an impression. Try as I might, the appeal of Palaeozoic alludes me and every time I put it on, with the intent to discover the records allusive hidden treasures—something that happens with some regularity—I find my mind almost instantly wandering and can never recall anything about the record once it’s through. Mesozoic | Cenozoic, however, had–and has kept—me hooked since day one.
There are two clear standout tracks that jump out with every listen. First is lead single “Jurassic | Cretaceous,” a sprawling thirteen-and-a-half-minute epic centred around the serene vocal melodies of Loïc Rossetti, Robin Staps and Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse delivering an almost career-best performance. The other is the sullen, four-minute instrumental “Oligocene,” which never fails to stop me completely in my tracks. The record has been overshadowed somewhat by some later 2020 records and recent post-metal releases like Cult of Luna’s A Dawn to Fear (a hot contender for my retrospective album of 2019) and it’s not the landmark masterpiece that Pelagial (2013) was. Still, it remains a transfixing experience, and one I’ll never forget.
Cross Bringer – The Signs of Spiritual Delusion (blackened crust)
I am famously not a fan of traditional black metal, but apply its teachings in a cross-pollination of genres and buddy, I’m there. ‘Blackened’ versions of things are almost always better for some reason. Usually it’s the import of black metal’s oppressive, dissonant atmosphere that checks the box a band is missing in its sonic profile, instantly turning mediocre songs into passable, dynamic tracks. While others lean on that neat trick a little too heavily, Cross Bringer exemplify how to assimilate that sound into a cohesive, transformative experience.
The Signs of Spiritual Delusion is built on a bedrock of crusty, chaotic hardcore and molded to perfection through transcendental blackened leads and lurching blast routines that feel pulled from a fresh wound. While blackgaze relies on big, layered sections to breathe and mesmerize its listener, Cross Bringer manages the same effect through twisting stop-and-start sequences that bewilder and lull your senses into passivity. “Torture Incantation” is the pinnacle of this feat; a track like being chased through a labyrinth with seconds to go until you’re overtaken and destroyed. The whole album carries a similar feeling, waxing and waning between panicked hopelessness and acceptance of what comes after. It may not be your normal voidgaze, but it sure does the same trick.
Serpent Column – Kathodos (dissonant black metal, mathcore)
Last year, Serpent Column‘s formidable sophomore LP, Mirror in Darkness, made it into my top 10 overall, and would have been my nominee for a category called Albums That Sound like how the Album Artwork Looks. While of that similar aesthetic, Kathodos’ cover doesn’t quite illicit that same visceral reaction. Yet, the music speaks for itself and perfectly fits that disorienting bleakness, gazing into the void atmosphere. The term kathodos comes from a greek word for “descent” or “way down”. While the concept of a “the void” is something abstract that lets your imagination take hold, the listening experience produced here is fittingly of descending into one. Their blend of mathcore-influenced dissonant-avant-garde black metal is suffocating and enthralling in the best possible way.
Serpent Column evidently are a band who do not rest. Just six months after Mirror in Darkness in March of 2020, they released a 9-track EP of short bursts of pure chaotic, mathy blackened rage called Endless Detainment. Six months later, they returned again with their subsequent full-length Kathodos, and a return to their more fleshed out, border-line progressive black metal sound. While some fans preferred the approach of the EP, for me this band resonates stronger when they take their time to build that captivating atmospheric darkness. Their use of building through repetition of these distorted, dark, dissonant riffs conjures that sense of delirium and and a cascading emptiness. It’s also just technically impressive, aggressively heavy and unpredictable. Absolutely one of the stand out black metal releases of the year, and a prime void-gazing soundtrack.
Can they even do that???
Albums that made us question what was possible
Nihiloxica – Kaloli (industrial techno, kwaito)
One of my musical resolutions for 2020 was to expand my musical horizons beyond a Western perspective. Of course, given the vast majority of music publications I follow also reside in the West, this proved challenging and less successful as the year dragged on. I ended up with a list with artists primarily from the US, UK, and Europe, with much less diversity than I would have hoped. It’s not just a matter of representation, but broadening my musical tastes to include genres I’d never heard of before.
There were a few success stories, and none were more wild and fulfilling than whatever the fuck Nihiloxica produced with Kaloli. Hailing from Uganda, the group’s approach to electronic music offers exactly what I’m looking for: traditional music presented in a fresh, invigorating way. Yet, even while I celebrate the success of Kaloli, I can’t help but reflect on the album’s insane concept, but more importantly, how natural the execution sounds.
Nihiloxica at their core are an industrial techno group that lean on the driving, percussion-heavy side of the genre. You of course have intense blasts of noisy synths atop it all, but it’s really the beats that make the album such a fun yet unsettling listen. The intrigue comes from the source of that percussion, being traditional African drumming from what sounds like a large group of players. Every track features pummeling rhythms with a distinct African flair, which give the compositions an extra boost of energy and power.
Moon Hooch – Life On Other Planets (dubstep, EDM)
OK, those genre tags say dubstep and EDM but instead of some fancy DJ in a suit or a rave-holder in a gas mask and neon green overalls, we get three dudes. Two of them are playing the…saxophone? And the other one is playing the drums? Can they even do that? Apparently, they sure as hell can and they can use that to make one of the most danceable albums of the year (and that’s an accomplishment in a year that gave us another TWRP album). Life On Other Planets is a joy of an album, using the harsh sounds of aggressively blown saxophones to flesh out breaks, lines, beats, and other musical ideas from the worlds of dance music. The end result is a groovy album that also manages to be gritty, hitting that sweet spot that really good dubstep (AKA dubstep not made in the last ten years or so) is so great for.
My listening recommendation is to play this one loud and while standing, so you can inevitably break out into dance when “This Is Water” plays. It’s hands down one of the best tracks of the year and 100% the most gyration inducing. OK, I’ve used the word “gyration” so it’s time for me to stop writing. Just listen to this album.
Dessiderium – Shadow Burn (progressive death metal)
It’s not that I didn’t believe that keyboards and death metal can work together; bands like Nocturnus, Amorphis and Children of Bodom have clearly shown they can. No, what surprised—and continues to surprise—me about Dessiderium is just how well they make death metal and keyboards work together.
Progressive death metal albums—including Dessiderium’s previous material—are often such melancholic affairs, drenched in minor keys and sullen, monotone artwork. Everything about Shadow Burn, however, is just so bright and welcoming, and not in a forced, Devin Downsend Epicloud (2012) sort of way either. The album is still plenty punishing and abrasive but, largely thanks to the keyboards, every aspect of it also just (soul) burst from the speakers in a comfortable, enveloping prog metal embrace. Electric purple progressive metal? I’ll take it.
Mora Prokaza – By Chance (black metal, experimental trap)
I really don’t expect anyone to read this and fall down the rabbithole that is By Chance, since to date, no one else has. I have recommended this album to everyone that will listen, and the response is largely, “Calder what the fuck is this?” before losing that last shred of respect for me and returning to dunking on other Twitter users. But hear me out, okay? What if… black metal, traditional east European and Asian folk instruments, and uhhh… trap? Okay, I lost you there, I get it, but you’re missing out on one of the most unique listening experiences 2020 had to offer.
Mora Prokaza managed the unthinkable with By Chance, though I admit it’s probably due to the fact that no one had ever thunk it before. Take a traditional black metal duo, hand them a trunk full of instruments like an accordion, alto sax, and samisen, then replace the bass with 808 hits and imbue the vocalist with the audacious swagger and rapped, growled vocals of a cult Soundcloud star, and you have the very basic outline of what this album has in store for you. “Can they even do that???” you ask. The answer is a resounding, unequivocal: too bad, they already did, and it fucks.
Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind (psych rock/pop, glam rock)
The first time I heard “Gospel for a New Century,” the lead track from experimental pop producer Yves Tumor, with its horn blares leading into a simultaneously retro and modern raucous funk groove, I was both incredibly confused and excited all at once. I had literally never heard anything quite like it before, and listening to it now produces the same level of thrill. Heaven to a Tortured Mind as a whole pretty much produces the same effect, alternately confounding and thrilling me. For a while I really felt like I didn’t possess the language or knowledge to speak on it, or at the very least describe what it actually is. For a while I ironically threw around the nonsensical genre label of “steamfunk” to describe its clearly retro roots intertwined with completely futuristic production and packaging. I’ve since seen glam rock attached to it frequently, which makes sense given the colorfully ostentatious nature of its songs – every song sees fit to pack in as many sounds and elements as possible – as well as the outwardly flamboyant presence and persona of Sean Bowie.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a psychedelic spirit quest through time, with love as the guiding force. It is clearly heavily influenced by classic pysch rock and soul, and the effect is that of putting the entire 1970s into a sonic blender, reverse engineering it from the barely coherent scraps, and then re-interpreting it to fit on a modern dance floor. It’s an absolute trip, but never a chore.
Big riffs. Bigger oughs.
Black Curse – Endless Wound (blackened death metal)
This record is so fucking nasty. I’m genuinely not even sure what else to say. There was nothing else released this year as grotesque, dark, and just purely misanthropic as Endless Wound. One of the less prolific Denver death metal bands, Black Curse stormed out the gates with this record in April and set my world on fire instantly. Their ever-so-slightly psychedelic approach to death metal makes sense considering drummer Eli Wendler and guitarist Morris Kolontyrsky are also members of Spectral Voice (and Kolontyrsky pulls triple duty playing guitar in Blood Incantation). Unlike those bands, though, Black Curse lean more towards black metal, especially bestial black metal, eschewing the existential bent of their brethren for something more overtly horrifying and occult. Endless Wound is pure negative energy forged into blackened death riffcraft, a sulfurous furnace of wretched power that only slows down to prepare for an even larger assault on the sense to come. Although they don’t sound terribly alike to those as desensitized to extreme metal as us, Black Curse remind me the most of Dragged into Sunlight, especially their first record. A maelstrom of untouchable and unbridled hatred, laced with a particularly lysergic strain of sacrificial witchcraft, that devours everything and leaves you in a far worse mood than you were when you began listening. You get the idea, so I’ll just close by saying once again: this record is so, so, so fucking nasty.
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering (progressive groove thrash)
If there was ever an album custom built for this category, it’s Cycle of Suffering. “Shallow words from apathetic heads, Nothing more than empty prophets!!” yells Josh Middleton, about a minute into opening track “Empty Prophets”, at which point the song plummets into an unexpectedly downbeat open riff, in the vein of golden-age Gojira. The song builds and expands from there, in a flurry of the band’s trademark tech-groove brilliance, until Middleton’s once again ushers in a neck-snapping apocalypse, growling “This illusion you hide behind, Is your broken axe to grind”. It’s two of the hardest-hitting musical moments of 2020 within the album’s first three minutes and we’re only just getting started.
The oughs start coming and they don’t stop coming. Sylosis are kings of the tempo change and they lay them on thick throughout Cycle of Suffering, amid frequent bouts of palm-muted brilliance. “I Sever” was the first “2020” song I heard late last year, and remains one of the year’s best, its spiteful chorus coupled with increasingly intense stompage. Maybe the best actual “ough” comes at the start of the record’s title track, as the band kick into its pummelling main riff, which they then take through various ough-inducing permeations until it reaches its final, suffocating form at the track’s climax. Another, more revolted “ough”, comes in answer as Middleton spits “are you not sickened enough?” at the apex of “Idle Hands”, while late-album highlight “Arms Like a Noose” blends a crushing call of “progression ends” with what might very well be progressive groove thrash perfection. Even recently released bonus track “Worship Decay” outclases almost any other album tracks of its kind released this year, lifting the beginning of Pantera’s “Domination” breakdown and running it through a filter that sounds like if Trivium listened to Metallica even harder than they already do.
Despite being been such a consistently brilliant band for so long, Sylosis have somehow gone largely overlooked. This time around they’re going to make sure you get the message, by hammering it into listeners ears one devastating riff at a time.
Konvent – Puritan Masochism (death metal, doom metal)
One of the coolest things about doing this category based list is that we get to shine a light on otherwise overlooked albums, freed from the constraints of ranking and aggregation. A great example of this is Konvent making it into this category when I don’t think they would have appeared on a Top 50 style aggregated list. Through absolutely no fault of their own! Releasing in January, Puritan Masochism set an incredibly strong note for the year, channeling incredibly powerful riffs and vocals into an album that oozes “OUGH”. This is, straight up, one of the most in your face death/doom albums I’ve heard in a while, effective, punctual, and unrelenting in its delivery of caustic, violent metal. That’s it. Go listen to this. OUGH OUGH OUGH.
Like Rats – Death Monolith (death metal)
Like Rats is the death metal alter ego of powerviolence kings Weekend Nachos, and if that alone doesn’t pique your interest, just listen to “Crimson Cosmos” for one of the straight up best riff blasters of the year. If you’re not banging your head off to its sweet midtempo grooves, you’re already dead inside. OUGH WATCH at 3:01 sharp, so be ready to sing along, partner.
Death Monolith may not have ranked on most lists as one of the standout death metal releases of the year, but that’s more a testament to the genre’s saturation of great artists than a mark against Like Rats. Play it loud and leave plenty of room for stomping and banging – you’re gonna need it.
Necrot – Mortal (death metal)
Come get your buzzsaw death metal riffs! If it’s brutal death metal riffs you want, Necrot has those in spades. Mortal was nothing but them showing off just how good they are at making some fun as hell death metal. I personally loved Blood Offerings, but this year’s release blows that one out of the water. It’s quite remarkable how a band can just come together to take what they do seriously so that the rest of us can have so much fun headbanging at our desks.
Mortal makes me think of the central question I always have at this point in the year: is this record critically brilliant or do I just love it a whole lot? When you think of critically acclaimed records, I always think that something has to be a mind-blowing examination of the human condition or something huge like that. But now since Heavy Blog has switched up how we do end of the year wrap-ups, I can say an album is amazing because I personally loved it. I love Mortal and I don’t care who knows it! The riffs are incredible, the rhythms give me energy, and the entire package is an absolute delight for any metal fan regardless of their preferred genre.