It’s been a hell of a year, and we’ve needed every ounce of good music to get us through. 2020 saw a huge resurgence of insane mathcore, traditional metalcore revival, crossover hardcore, and much of the djenty deathcore scene start fading away into obscurity. It was rough narrowing it all down, but our dedicated team of riff analysts and mosh aficionados managed to come up with an aggregated list of the best albums of 2020. Read on for our top favorites, some honorable mentions that didn’t make the cut, and a full playlist of the best offerings from all around the hardcore sphere this year had to offer.
Thanks for giving Rotten to the Core so much love while we worked out the kinks in the months following the 3.0 relaunch. We appreciate you all deeply, and we’re ready to keep the ball rolling in 2021 with even bigger and better content. Stay safe out there, friends. We’ll see you again soon!
10. Year of the Knife – Internal Incarceration (hardcore, metalcore)
Much like how Thomas Hobbes described life before the organised political state, the state of nature he termed it, Delaware hardcore unit Year of the Knife’s music could also be described as nasty, brutish and short. It gets in, throttles you about your skull while delivering white-hot social commentary with cutting personal angles, and gets out in 30 minutes and change; about the life expectancy in a Hobbesian state of nature.
The record is a tragic triumph in the power of an inclusive and benevolent music scene when home life leaves you feeling trapped and dejected. You can absolutely tell what the Delaware hardcore scene means to the members, not only from the bombastic celebration of the scene in 2 minute breakdown “DDM”, but in the bruised background that vocalist and lyricist Tyler Mullen leads us through in his scabrous lines. From moving on from mental entrapment after traumatic events in the title track, to the power of empathy in “Through The Eyes” and the all-consuming desperation of America’s opioid crisis in “Sick Statistic”. A personal highlight is “Manipulation Artist”, taking aim at the gaslighters, coercive controllers and rotten charmers, it’s an acid spit back in the face of the people who feed on your forgiveness like a drug. In fact, Mullen puts it exactly as so: ‘I’m not the first grave you dug/But soon you’re gonna/Die on your own drug’.
As tortured and moulded by raw reality as the record is, it’s never draining to just throw on and jump off your bedroom walls to like Ezio Auditore da Firenze, especially not with a meaty production job from Converge’s Kurt Ballou. Internal is refreshingly spritely for its morphing of genuinely harrowing, bleeding-heart testimony into proud vigour, albeit in a caustic fashion. For Year of the Knife to have provided an excellent and righteous statement during a year that made a lot of us feel profoundly damaged and lost in one way or another, and for it to be their debut as well, is nothing to balk at. That statement is resolutely positive: “hold on, endure and fight back, because you can use this pain in your own arsenal”.
9. Tallah – Matriphagy (nu-metalcore)
Undeniably one of the biggest trends in metalcore right now that continued into 2020, was the re-infusion of nu-metal into the genre. Tallah was at the forefront of that movement this year with their breakout debut LP Matriphagy. This album is a balls-to-the-wall assault of frantic spin-kicks and Tripp pant wearing throwbacks. They really wear their influences on their sleeves, with Korn, Slipknot and Linkin Park being the easiest lines to draw, and I really can’t complain about it. I’ve joked that this is the best Korn album in years, and that’s not a knock at either band. Some might see it as a bit of a shameless rip of these styles, but there’s enough of their own identity to bring a certain authenticity to their sound. That really comes across in the drumming and some of the heavier death metal influenced riffs.
I’d be remiss to not touch on vocalist Justin Bonitz. His dramatic, frenzied and highly varied delivery is really what makes this album so special. From his Jonathan Davis-esque scatting (yeah), to almost Fred Durst style rapping, and choruses where you can tell he listened to a lot of Chester Bennington growing up. It’s like listening to a theatrical re-imagining of the 90s through the lens of modern metalcore, and I want more.
8. Misery Signals – Ultraviolet (progressive metalcore)
Genre influencers Misery Signals are back after a seven year hiatus with the return of their full original lineup. While this particular group hadn’t written anything together since 2004’s seminal Of Malice and the Magnum Heart, they managed to pick up right where they left off without skipping a beat. Ultraviolet may be styled as a direct thematic follow up to 2013’s Absent Light, but it’s clear to any Misery Signals devotee that it’s really the spiritual successor to Of Malice finally completed after all these years.
Marrying the technical salvos of the Morgan twins with years of refined atmosphere and the heartfelt rasp of Jesse Zaraska makes Ultraviolet an instant hit with fans of traditional metalcore and fourth wave aficionados alike. Their trademark bittersweet melodies and tight syncopated runs are on full display, this time giving way to bigger passages of heart-tugging leads building on top of each other. “Cascade Locks” especially feels like old Misery Signals rekindled, like an Of Malice B-side lost to time and repolished for release 16 years later. While it carries that nostalgic torch, Ultraviolet is truly an album that shines on its own merits independent of history. While the rest of the melodic metalcore world has adopted big arena rock choruses, you can rely on the OGs to deliver the sound that inspired those youngbloods to pick up an instrument in the first place.
7. 156/Silence – Irrational Pull (dissonant metalcore)
There is so much metalcore around that rides on spiny yet bone-snapping guitar work that it’s increasingly futile to even attempt to make it sound fresh and/or appealing. We have all heard wiry panic chords interspersed with the revs of an old Mustang, while Blegh McBleghface insights a riot in the pit. Despite all that, Pittsburgh natives 156/Silence have, against all odds, created a variation of that style that is refreshingly rough at the edges, cartoonishly heavy and that crucially leaves room for experimentation in the future.
Discordant, sabre-like guitars are the standard on Irrational Pull, but they’re not always just saved for breakdowns. Instead they litter tracks like pieces of glass dotted throughout a hearty stew, providing jarring but bizarrely hook-y moments aplenty. For how off-kilter some of 156’s embellishments are, they still manage to come off accessible, like the anthemic “Upset / Unfed” or the dizzying close of “Conflict of Interest”.
The real promise in Irrational Pull however, is the taste we get of another side of the band, and that’s a penchant for the uneasy and the dreaded. This comes in the form of the band interspersing their core ferocity with sprinklings of stark instrumentals and vocalist Jack Murray’s slurred, lethargic tone that bring up the likes of Daughters’ lauded You Won’t Get What You Want. Take the title track, where Murray eerily quivers like your sleep paralysis demon reading you a night time story on top of a dreary and faintly psychedelic instrumental, before erupting into pissed off chuggery. It’s this extra sonic dimension that the band inhabit that’s kept 156 in my rotation throughout the previous year and certainly well into the future. It’s a direction I can see them further enhancing and refining in the coming years.
6. Dragged Under – The World is In Your Way (melodic hardcore, pop-punk)
The World is in Your Way was the first standout album of 2020 for me and one that has stuck with me throughout one of the best years for music in recent memory. This album helped me fall back in love with music, after a fairly turbulent and underwhelming 2019, and back in love with melodic hardcore after the genre seemed to have deteriorated into complete insignificance.
My love for it has only grown stronger with time. I was amazed to see how well the record held up when revisiting it in anticipation of these end of the year shenanigans. Initially it was the album’s second half that stood out to me but, now, it’s the first half that hits me hardest. Tracks like “The Real You” and, especially, “Hyperchondria” showcase the band at their sharpest and most refined, while “Roots” blends the best of underground like Stray from the Path, letlive. and Comeback Kid with the kind of melodies that have seen bands like Beartooth and Sum 41 become almost household names without having produced anything near as thrilling or vital as Dragged Under’s debut (and I say this as a sincere Does this Look Infected? (2002) appreciator).
5. Drain – California Cursed (hardcore, crossover thrash)
Let’s be real: 2020 was awful and it’s somehow managed to seep its way into 2021. Not cool! Well, something that is cool is Drain’s first proper full length, California Cursed. The California based band have been slogging it out since their first EP in 2016. Since then, they have been releasing various EPs and singles. The band’s debut full length, released on the veteran hardcore label Revelation, is summed up in one word: FUN! Hence, it being on our favorites of the year list.
Let me further elaborate: When I say fun, I mean full of energy that is extremely contagious mixed with RIFFS FOR DAYS! If this is your first introduction to the band then a great comparison is the energy of Turnstile mixed with the riffs of Slayer. They have a great crossover appeal and could share the stage with bands such as Enforced and Power Trip, but make no mistake, the band leans more on the hardcore side of things. Their secret weapon is the one-two punch of vocalist Sam Ciaramitaro and guitarist Cody Chavez. Sam has an unwavering energy in his vocal presence that is just palpable and Cody’s guitar playing would put a grin on Kerry King’s face. This incredible production is the icing on the cake in their recipe for success. I have yet to see them live but I have heard their shows are nuts and they will be high on my list to check out when life gets back to normal and bands can tour again.
As someone who listens to hardcore almost daily and has done so for years, this record has not left my rotation since it was released in April. The band is a really great crossover act that can appeal to both hardcore and metal fans alike. One of my favorites of the year beyond this list!
4. Xibalba – Años En Infierno (hardcore, death-doom)
Swinging the pendulum in the complete opposite direction is Xibalba’s newest record, Años En Infierno. Just looking at the name alone, it translates into “Years in Hell”, which fully depicts 2020. It was released at the tail end of May, but the band must have been given information that the year would only get worse from there on out.
The California band are veterans in the scene and have been honing their craft for almost 15 years. With their roots in hardcore, they are not a band to be pigeonholed and combine elements of death, doom and beatdown hardcore. Like Drain, I used one word to describe this band and that is, BRUTAL. From the moment you hit play, the band just bludgeons you with the lowest drop tuning you have ever heard and Nate Rebolledo’s vocals sound like they were literally plucked from the bowels of hell. The band are great at mixing all the above genres but keeping the cadence of hardcore bands like Hatebreed. Not many bands have been able to pull this off successfully. If you enjoy this, make sure to check out the Kruelty record released last year and the recent album from Frozen Soul.
There is a reason this album is on this list: it perfectly combines the elements of so many things we all love and a great record/band is one that is capable of bringing various genres together. I will be spinning this record long into the new year and hopefully for many years to come. As a long time fan of the band, I can say with great certainty that it is one of their best, if not THE best in their career.
3. Palm Reader – Sleepless (post-hardcore)
Post-hardcore has evolved to be one of those umbrella genres over time, with multiple styles of bands fitting under it who don’t necessarily sound very alike. This shift arguably began with the Myspace and scene-core style bands that began to deviate away from the Glassjaw’s and Thrice’s of the genre. Palm Reader are one of several newer bands bringing that latter, old-school approach back to the genre, and the world is better for it. Since their debut in 2013 they’ve had a gradual progression of their sound, from a more metalcore and hardcore punk leaning start, to melodic hardcore, and the gradual post-metal leaning post-hardcore of their 2020 release Sleepless. Here, they’ve really found a fantastic balance between catchy, grunge-tinted melodies, and a visceral heaviness.
In dissecting this album, it’s hard to begin anywhere other than the vocals. They’re such a driving force behind everything with his impassioned delivery that feels like a perfect middle-ground between a harsh scream and clean singing, while frequently leaning into either side depending on what the song calls for. One of the album highlights “False Thirst” really exemplifies this as the song takes a lot of dynamic shifts. One thing that bridges the two off-shoots of post-hardcore that I touched on earlier, is just how damn catchy this album is. The finding yourself absent-mindedly humming some of the melodies without thinking about it kind of catchy, yet not in a way that detracts from the song-writing. As far as the writing goes from an instrumental perspective, there’s a healthy amount of build-and-release post-metal style riffing, with turbulent mathcore-leaning riffs and dense and dark breakdowns spliced in. With the emotional and instrumental range on display, this is an album I don’t anticipate growing tired of and is truly one of the shining achievements in –core music this year.
2. Code Orange – Underneath (industrial hardcore, alt rock)
What’s left to say about maybe the most talked about heavy music release of 2020? Everyone has an opinion about Code Orange at this point—mostly ranging in the extreme, from hardcore messiahs to overhyped buzz band—but I know I’m not the only one-time detractor convinced by their most recent opus. Underneath took everything about 2017 lauded breakthrough record Forever and absolutely blew it out of the water.
The heavy parts are heavier—so much heavier—and the melodic arts are more melodic—so much more melodic. It’s crazy to think of a “critics’ choice” record opening with songs as aggressive and utterly apocalyptic as “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole”, “In Fear” and “You and You Alone”, but these songs are simply undeniable (unless you’re Eden). The record’s crossover appeal, perhaps makes more sense when you get to more melodic tracks like instant classic “Sulphur Surrounding”, the grunged out “Autumn and Carbine” and the Nine Inch Nails-in their arena-rock-phase-esque “The Easy Way”. Underneath is far from a “sellout” record however. The band revel in their melodic alt-rock leanings, but they refuse to be defined by them, leading with their hardest and heaviest material and leaving all (but one) in their wake.
If our number one pick represents hardcore music distilled to its purest, most (self-)destructive form, then Underneath represents the cutting edge of everything hardcore could and can be. “Thinners of the herd” might still be a bit much, but Code Orange are undeniably leaders of the pack.
(They’re on the hunt, they’re after you…)
1. END – Splinters from an Ever-Changing Face (metallic hardcore, grindcore)
It was a razor-thin margin, but Splinters from an Ever-Changing Face reigns supreme as Rotten to the Core’s best album of the year. Supergroup END’s first official full-length had us running for the proverbial hills dodging its hellish rain of tank-busting breakdowns and unforgiving dissonant salvos helmed by top talent from all over the core spectrum. Featuring genre vets from legendary acts like Fit For An Autopsy, Counterparts, Misery Signals, and Shai Hulud, it’s no surprise END delivered on supplying one of the most massive and punishing records of the year.
The keen attention to detail, from the disemboweling riffs to the tones that engulf you from everywhere and nowhere at once have Will Putney’s writing and production written all over them. Not to be outdone, vocalist Brendan Murphy penned some of the darkest lyrics of his career: a wicked descent into fighting a losing battle with God, nature, and yourself. Perhaps a bit on the nose now, lyrics like the anthemic finale to “Absence” (with guest vocals by Pete Morcey of 100 Demons) “Hell is a reflection of myself / Branded in the skin of those I love / My hell is me” hit hard in the age of quarantine’s mental quicksand.
Albums like this come imbued with that special x-factor, that almost unquantifiable, unnameable quality you know exists but can’t put your finger on. It’s that special sauce that wins every side-by-side comparison to other records with similar sounds and structures. END isn’t doing anything revolutionary with Splinters, they’re just doing it demonstrably better than the rest and it’s hard to parse why. But I think I may have figured it out.
It’s not just the star-studded roster and their collective talent and songwriting prowess. It’s not just the unique and extremely well-executed blend of genres that evolved into END’s titanic, unstoppable, technical grindcore machine. No — it’s their killer instinct. It’s that trait you can’t teach. It’s the ability to birth something bigger than the sum of its parts and let it loose, letting it live and breathe all its own, rather than composing something for a purpose. Splinters stalks, seethes, rips, and tears with the cunning and fury of an apex predator staking its claim at the top of the food chain — right where it belongs.
The Hell – Doosh (the best around)
I don’t know if there’s a single thing I’ve got more enjoyment out of than the line “boot to your face and your mush goes doosh”; maybe the line “drop an LP and the sales go woosh”, or “T-H-E-H-E-double-L / Black Mist, man I’m gonna make you spell”, or the mosh call “I need everyone in this place to dooooooooosh!!”, or the Cockney accent on the chorus of “Best Aro[’]nd”, or the epic “it’s the motherfuuuuuuking Heeeelllllll” that opens the track, or breaking it down to the “the best around, we’re fucking on it / Shaking the ground like plate tectonics”; or the berating of nu metal-denying “miserable pricks” on “Jump the Fuck Up” and the hardcore Vinegar Strokes vibes it invokes, or the option paralysis invoked by ice cream flavours on “Taste the Flava” (“so many to choose from”!). Point is, Doosh packs more hilarity and enjoyment into eleven minutes and four tracks than anything else released this year.
(…except maybe the “Dickheads for Life” suite at the end of their “full length” Joris: A Hardcore Opera, Part 1, which culminates in the “Redbone” pastiche “Daydreamer” and its inspirational chorus “Joris got the whole world in his hands, he can feel his future changing (changing)”, which my partner and I still sing around the house constantly. Or maybe the bit in “Let’s Get Outta Here”, where he says “But Barry, what about yer dreeeeams?”…)
Novelty bands are usually a bust, but they also aren’t usually this funny; nor have The Hell been as funny as this before, outside of maybe “I’ve Got Loads of Money,” and I desperately need one of those Kickstarter-exclusive “Doosh” shirts in an extra-large if anyone has one lying around and wants to hook me up?
Mutually Assured Destruction – Fever Dream (hardcore)
I just want to take a second to shout out one of my favorite EP’s of 2020. Mutually Assured Destruction or M.A.D.’s debut on Edgewood Records, Fever Dream. A super group of sorts with members coming from notable acts in the Richmond Hardcore scene. I love when hardcore bands think outside the box and this is one such album. Combining elements of Only Living Witness and Life of Agony, the band deliver 6 tracks of metal infused hardcore that is incredible front to back. Ace isn’t afraid to talk about topics that are dark and hit close to home for many.
I cannot wait for what they bring us in 2021. They have signed to Triple B Records and have a full length in the works. Bring it on guys!!!
Emmure – Hindsight (nu-metalcore)
You may be rolling your eyes, but if you haven’t heard Emmure’s latest release Hindsight, you’re missing a redemption arc in progress. Always the trendsetter but never the bride, Emmure is one of metalcore’s most infamous outfits. Releasing some of the most undisputed keystone albums in the genre’s ever-growing history, Frankie Palmeri and crew have always managed to solidify the sound of the times while courting controversy. They’ve written some pretty edgy, cancellable stuff, there’s no doubt about that. But it was good.
After 2011’s Speaker of the Dead, Emmure went through a revolving door of members that led to a few release duds. However, with a revamped roster including principal songwriter Josh Travis (The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza, Glass Cloud), 2017’s Look At Yourself saw a step back in the right direction. Bandleader Frankie Palmeri had been clear on which direction that was for a while – he just needed the right people around him to pull it off. And on Hindsight, he finally got his wish. While new, young bands are clamoring to fashion themselves after the nu-metal sounds of old, Emmure has already written the alpha and omega of the day’s nu-metalcore sound. On top of doing so, it’s clear that after a career painting himself as an agent provocateur, Palmeri has taken to serious self-reflection and written odes to the serial fuck-ups in us all. Hindsight is a flooring experience that deserves a dedicated listen.