Hello, and welcome back to the article about the previous year that always comes long after the previous year has ended! Joking aside, based on the number of comments and messages I received asking if we were still going to publish an industry list and when, I know how much you all value these posts. This is frankly about the only reason why this even still happened this year. Despite this being the sixth year I’ve assembled this list, somehow this has not gotten any bit easier over that time. If anything it’s just become even more laborious and time consuming.
I deeply love these posts and picking apart the data that comprises them. However, I really can no longer justify the countless hours spent doing data entry into a Google spreadsheet. So while I very much want to keep doing these in the future, I can tell you right now that if it does happen again I will be outsourcing or crowdsourcing the hardest parts of it. Got another year to figure those parts out, so stay tuned.
Now that I’ve prefaced all of that with my bitching and moaning, let’s get to the good stuff. Similar to last year, we’ll be doing less of a media criticism thing following the list and more “superlative”-style entries, some more serious and some more tongue-in-cheek. First off, here’s the list of outlets included in this year’s list.
Angry Metal Guy
Consequence of Sound
Ghost Cult Magazine
Heavy Blog Is Heavy
Heavy Music HQ
Toilet ov Hell^
Your Last Rites
*Unranked list; not included in aggregated list but included in “mentions” list
^Individual staff lists aggregated into single list by Heavy Blog
Outlets missing this year from years past include Exclaim, LA Weekly, Pitchfork, and What Culture. As has been the case for years now, the trend is that larger, more mainstream-facing outlets are dropping their coverage of metal either entirely or to a large enough extent that they aren’t bothering to assemble year-end lists for it anymore. Pitchfork has oscillated between offering year-end metal lists for a few years now, but my guess is that this time it’s gone for good. I don’t see metal fitting into the Conde Nast publication’s future strategy in any way.
In its place we have a few newcomers, including Cursed Mag, Forbes (???), and The Pit. Welcome to the club. Love seeing my financial publications moshing along with the rest.
And with that, here are the lists!
Traditional Aggregate Top 50
1. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
2. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
3. Code Orange – Underneath
4. Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
5. Spirit Adrift – Enlightened in Eternity
6. Katatonia – City Burials
7. Necrot – Mortal
8. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
9. Deftones – Ohms
10. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
11. Enslaved – Utgard
12. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
13. Paradise Lost – Obsidian
14. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better
15. Armored Saint – Punching the Sky
16. Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence
17. Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
18. Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
19. Wake – Devouring Ruin
20. Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero
21. Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron
22. Trivium – What The Dead Men Say
23. Sweven – The Eternal Resonance
24. The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
25. Primitive Man – Immersion
26. Lamb of God – Lamb of God
27. Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo
28. Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man
29. Haken – Virus
30. Atramentus – Stygian
31. Kvelertak – Splid
32. Elder – Omens
33. Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald
34. Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber
35. Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything
36. Havukruunu – Uinuos syömein sota
37. Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment
38. Midnight – Rebirth by Blasphemy
39. Black Curse – Endless Wound
40. The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous
41. Body Count – Carnivore
42. Uada – Djinn
43. Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions
44. Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God
45. Lamp of Murmuur – Heir of Elliptical Romanticism
46. Poppy – I Disagree
47. Testament – Titans of Creation
48. Touché Amoré – Lament
49. Xibalba – Años En Infierno
50. Nothing – The Great Dismal
Top 50 By Mention
1. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi (15)
2. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full (14)
3. Spirit Adrift – Enlightened in Eternity (12)
Code Orange – Underneath (12)
Katatonia – City Burials (12)
Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (12)
7. Necrot – Mortal (11)
Pallbearer – Forgotten Days (11)
Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still (11)
10. Deftones – Ohms (10)
Enslaved – Utgard (10)
12. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (9)
13. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better (8)
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black (8)
Paradise Lost – Obsidian (8)
Wake – Devouring Ruin (8)
Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! (8)
Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence (8)
Armored Saint – Punching the Sky (8)
20. The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (7)
Atramentus – Stygian (7)
Primitive Man – Immersion (7)
Sweven – The Eternal Resonance (7)
Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron (7)
Haken – Virus (7)
Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero (7)
Kvelertak – Splid (7)
Lamb of God – Lamb of God (7)
Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo (7)
Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man (7)
Trivium – What The Dead Men Say (7)
32. Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment (6)
Elder – Omens (6)
Havukruunu – Uinuos syömein sota (6)
Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber (6)
Black Curse – Endless Wound (6)
Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald (6)
Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything (6)
Midnight – Rebirth by Blasphemy (6)
40. Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions (5)
Lamp of Murmuur – Heir of Elliptical Romanticism (5)
Nothing – The Great Dismal (5)
Touché Amoré – Lament (5)
Uada – Djinn (5)
Xibalba – Años En Infierno (5)
Body Count – Carnivore (5)
Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God (5)
Poppy – I Disagree (5)
Testament – Titans of Creation (5)
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous (5)
Album of the Year: Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
What even is black metal anymore? A quick scouring of genre offerings on Bandcamp displays an array of bands as wide and diverse as any in metal. Whether we’re discussing blackened forms of death and doom metal, “kvlt” offerings from one-person projects like Paysage d’Hiver or Lamp of Murmuur, or the much reviled yet highly influential post- and atmospheric black metal scenes that seem only to grow with each passing month, black metal has officially become “big tent”, for better or worse depending on your outlook. There are few acts that exemplify the open range of black metal’s current influence like Oranssi Pazuzu. As the metal blogosphere continues to expand its palate beyond the historical trappings of what specific genres should sound like, records like Mestarin Kynsi, which blends psychedelic rock, noise, and black metal elements into a roiling stew of extreme metal goodness, are gaining a level of support and recognition that is, in my humble estimation, rightly deserved.
I speak on behalf of only myself (though given conversations I’ve had around the blog I don’t feel that this opinion is exclusive) when I claim that Mestarin Kynsi deserves every scrap of the praise it has received. I personally named this album my favorite black metal-adjacent release of the year, and it made my top 10 records of the year overall. The compositions contained on Mestarin Kynsi are as batshit, hazy, syrupy, and arresting as anything the band has previously produced. The cyclical elements present in opening track “Ilmestys” are trance-like, highlighting one of the band’s greatest strengths: Setting inescapable atmosphere and mood that feels transportative rather than suffocating. But the almost shamanistic quality of some tracks on this record never serve to minimize its potential power. “Uusi teknokratia” is one of the most interesting and propulsive tracks the band has yet written, transforming a thoroughly psychedelic vibe into black metal mayhem that blasts and bludgeons its way through an utterly euphoric 10 minutes of sonic bliss. All of this incredible music is also encased in an album so impeccably produced that one could write an entire piece on it (which our dear friend Simon did in our favorite albums of 2020 list published last month). There are few albums released in 2020 that felt as unpredictable yet decipherable and powerful as Mestarin Kynsi, and I must say that this is a rare occasion where I personally feel that the industry highlighted an album that actually deserved the praise it received.
Whether or not Oranssi Pazuzu’s style of psychedelia-infused weirdness is up your alley, the breadth of influence and recognition that bands of this level of experimentation are garnering in the extreme music world is at bare minimum encouraging. While enough shade (though markedly less negative than our thoughts in 2017!) is about to be deservedly thrown at Code Orange’s placement on the above lists as “industry darlings” for no discernable reason, for something this “risky” and unabashedly singular to garner the attention and praise that it has is worthy of celebration in my mind, especially in the historically insular world of black metal. If there is any branch of the metal tree that deserves a judicious trimming, this is it. Like it or not, NSBM and adjacent bands continue to hold positions of influence and power in the black metal world, and the religious adherence to a particular brand of sonic templates has made black metal in many ways a difficult genre to crack for many metal listeners. The transition of the genre’s core sounds into completely new musical templates has caused more than a few wars within this community, and continued exposure for bands that are intentionally breaking open the boundaries of what black metal can be sonically and thematically is a cause for celebration. Agreeing with the “industry” on the best album of the year feels strange, but I’m all the way here for it. So I propose a toast to progress, however small, for the ugly, weird, and mesmerizing. May it ever be so.
The “Industry Standardbearer” and “Industry Renegade” Awards
I’m here again using somewhat specious math and data to determine which media outlets’ lists were closest and most representative of the industry aggregate list as a whole, and which were completely out of left field and out of step with the rest. Once again I used the average of two scores: rank based on percentage of albums in outlet list appearing in aggregate list, and rank based on number of albums in outlet list that were in the top 10 albums of the aggregate list (Orannsi through Pallbearer). Once again, not perfect, but definitely paints a clear picture of which media outlets are well within the industry herd and which are running outside of it.
For the second year in a row, the “Industry Standardbearer” award goes to a predominantly non-metal outlet, the same one, in fact. Tied for first place is Consequence of Sound (ranks 5 and 1, respectively) and Heavy Music HQ (2 and 4). I said it last year and I’ll say it again: CoS is the best place to go if you want to understand what the median metal journalist and tastemaker is listening to and enjoying. Rounding out the top 5 are Metal Injection (2 and 7), Metal Hammer (9 and 3), and The Pit (2 and 12), which also isn’t particularly surprising.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, our “Industry Renegade” winners from last year have continued to hold firm in their dedication to the niche and obscure. Coming in at the very bottom of the scores is The Obelisk (27 and 26), followed closely by Angry Metal Guy (20 and 27), Your Last Rites (26 and 18), Stereogum tied exactly with Metalsucks (20 and 20).
And once again our own list (yes, we did in fact have a semi-official list that we ultimately decided not to publish for reasons Eden explained last month) landed us squarely in the middle of the pack at #15 of 27 (19 and 7). Yet again we largely agreed with the top 10 and diverged quite a bit outside of it.
The “Wide but Shallow” and “Narrow but Deep” Awards
Another repeat from last year, I wanted to see which albums on the list made it more due to intense fervor or widespread appeal with less passion. This isn’t meant to be a judgment on any particular band or album. If they made it on the list that means that a lot of people thought it was quite good! But it is interesting to pull back the layers a bit to understand the kind of appeal certain albums actually had within this group.
To determine this, I compared their rank on the aggregate list to their rank in average score/placement. If the difference between the two ran deep into the negatives (high aggregate rank, low average score rank), this is an indication that the album received a lot of votes but largely lower-scoring ones. And if it was the inverse and produced a high positive score, that indicates that the album likely didn’t receive that many votes overall, but those votes were all quite high.
So how did the albums fare?
Here are the albums that wound up on the positive side of things all the way to zero (I’ll get to those in a minute). As you can see, albums like those by The Black Dahlia Murder, Havukruunu, and Paysage d’Hiver landed pretty far down in the aggregate list of 50, but their average ranks were quite good (5.75, 9.3, and 10, respectively). They didn’t receive a ton of mentions (5, 6, and 6, respectively), but the people/outlets who voted for them thought very highly of them and consistently placed them in the top 10. But one clearly stood above the rest, so the winner of this year’s “Narrow but Deep” award goes to TBDM for their fervent following.
And on the other end, there were a collection of albums that definitely had more widespread consensus of being a good album deserving of some recognition even if they didn’t elicit particularly strong reactions. Just like how the albums with high positive scores here were largely on the lower end of the list of 50, the high negative albums were predominantly in the top half of the list. A few bands were particularly prone to this though, namely Cirith Ungol (average rank 20.9), Armored Saint (21.7), and especially Pallbearer, which just found its way into the overall top 10 albums despite having an average rank of 22. For a band as much of a critical darling as Pallbearer (their previous album Heartless landed them 3rd on this list in 2017), you would be excused for wondering how many of those votes were based more on the band’s track record and reputation rather than their deep love for Forgotten Days (which, to be clear, is still a decent album but certainly not their best). For that, Pallbearer is the recipient of 2020’s “Wide but Shallow” award.
To return to the first group though, perhaps the most interesting album of the bunch here is Code Orange’s Underneath, which somehow managed to pull off the miraculous feat of being both the third highest ranking album in the aggregate list and also by average rank (6.9). Say what you will about the group (and we have more to say on them further down), but it’s clear that the band’s esteem and popularity among metal journalists and bloggers is not only widespread, but quite deep.
The “Long Distance Runner” Award: Katatonia
Out of the attributes of the “metal industry” I most relate to, the almost universal love of Katatonia is at the top of the list. While City Burials was not on my Top 25 albums of the year (although, to be fair, if I had bothered with a Top 50, it would have been there) that indicates what a fantastic year in music 2020 was rather than any lack on the album’s part. It shows that the love which many people feel for the band is rooted not in one fact but in two: first, Katatonia are excellent “just” because they are, well, really good. Their music is moving, well made, and well composed, showing a degree of commitment to making music over a massive career stretching three decades (!) now.
But in that timeline lies the second fact: it’s not just that Katatonia’s music is so good, it’s that it has been so good for so long and across so many styles and genres. To be sure, if you played City Burials to a Katatonia fan ten or even twenty years ago, they would recognize the band. Considering the fact that City Burials sounds nothing like Night is the New Day (beyond a few nods here and there) and certainly nothing like Brave Murder Day, that’s a pretty susbstantial achievement. There’s just something so Katatonia about it and that unique signature carries through the entirety of the band’s career. Ironically enough this face, which emerges from an extended career, is also the reason why Katatonia have been able to have such an extended career in the first place!
Out of all of the bands we can point to that have had comparable careers, like Opeth, Anathema or Dream Theater, I think it’s safe to say that no other band (save maybe Anathema, for whom you know I have a warm place in my heart) have executed not one but two incredible transitions in sound as well as Katatonia have. Add in the fact that many of the people running blogs and writing for magazines, yours truly included, grew up on Katatonia as one of our “gateway” bands into metal and you have the formula for everlasting, eternal love. And when the music stays as good as it does, is there a problem in that? Definitely not.
The “I’m Glad This Is On Here But It Should Be Much Higher” Award: Sweven – The Eternal Resonance
There are albums you see coming and albums you don’t. Within each year, there are releases you’re looking forward to and then they come out and they’re great; you saw it coming but they’re still great. And then there’s albums which just arrive. Perhaps the band is obscure or you just have a whole in your musical “education” but, whatever the case, their release simply arrives in your inbox or in a comment thread and it blows you away. In Sweven’s case, it was a bit of both: the band have history within the die-hard death metal community, seeing as they are a sort of spin-off of Morbus Chron. That’s not exactly a big name but if my education was up to speck, I probably would have recognized it. But, by the cruel and/or benevolent machinations of fate, it transpired that The Eternal Resonance erupted onto my listening lists completely unannounced.
I was immediately blown away. Sure, the album is good, but it’s not just that. It’s how unique it sounds. Even categorizing this release as death metal seems off; there are elements of doom and post-metal all over this thing. But even these sub-genres just don’t cut it; Sweven sound like Sweven and not much else. And yes, to circle back, it was also extremely good. There’s something about The Eternal Resonance which just cuts me to the core like very few albums do, inside of death metal and outside of it, biting me to the quick with its odd, evocative vocals, its singular approach to composition, and the overall atmosphere of depression, elation, personal conquest, personal downfall, and faint spirituality.
All of which to say: I’m really glad that The Eternal Resonance is on this list but, to my ears of course, it should be much, much higher. It was number three on my own Top 25. There are days where it was number one. There are days where I couldn’t listen to anything else. And yes, while we’re at it, I’m the only Heavy Blog staff members who even put the album on their list and that’s a damn shame. But hey, at least I got the chance to rant about it here and tell all of you: see that album coming in on this list at number 23? It deserves that rank and more. Go listen to it!
The “Oh, We Still Like This?” Award: Code Orange – Underneath
I could probably copy/paste my thoughts on Forever from 2017 and call it day. Yet, while my general opinion on the oddest metal journo darlings remains intact, I have a bit more of a positive spin this year. That’s due in large part to Underneath; it’s good! Not great, and not all the way through, and not even really that good. But compared to the undeservedly positive reaction we saw to Forever, the critical acclaim I saw for Underneath made a bit more sense.
First, the good. Code Orange didn’t completely abandon their simplistic, metalcore foundation, which actually turned out to be Underneath’s greatest strength. Forever felt like the same kind of tough guy metalcore that’s been around since…forever. On the flipside, Underneath sees a relatively bolder take on the genre aided by some well-placed industrial metal elements. Is it any more groundbreaking than what the band have already put out there? Not really. But it’s a hell of a lot more interesting and enjoyable this time around.
Now, the bad. What the hell is up with the faux-goth, quasi-grunge nonsense, especially on the backend of the album? It’s like Code Orange found their cool uncle’s collection of ’90s metal and rock tapes and tried to cram it all into one album. While the heavy industrial moments feel like Code Orange added Sehnsucht to their rotation of early metalcore records, the “weird” genre explorations sound like early Nine Inch Nails doused with water. I’m glad to see progress in some areas, but these moments ruined any chance I’d finally come around on these guys.
And finally, the ugly (or confusing, or whatever). With two acclaimed albums in a row, I guess Code Orange’s sound is…cool now? As I mentioned in 2017, our surprise with the acclaim around Forever was twofold: the album wasn’t very good, but more importantly, it didn’t fit the “industry” mold for a metal album. Like, at all. But maybe Underneath is showing how that’s beginning to change. A few years ago, could you imagine an album like the one Poppy put out landing anywhere near a metal journo’s AOTY list? Even Loathe made it in a year where the real Deftones put out a new album. It’ll be interesting to see how much this eclectic brand of alt-metalcore continues to earn its place among the industry’s list of “acceptable” genres.
The “Fall From Grace” Award: Elder – Omens
Look, I absolutely love Elder. This site very much loves Elder and pretty much everything they’ve done. As far as I’m concerned they ascended to an entire new level with 2015’s Lore and haven’t left there since. Omens was my personal 3rd favorite album of 2020, and it was in very close contention to being the number one-rated album by our staff.
Sadly, the band’s turn to less aggressive and more psychedelic prog sounds on Omens was not appreciated by everyone. They still landed in the top 50 albums overall, but at a rather humdrum 32. Looking at the figures from the Wide/Shallow//Narrow/Deep section, it’s evident that this was more the result of a lack in widespread enthusiasm rather than depth, as its average ranking of 11.1 was quite good. This rank is also a marked decrease from their previous two LPs. In 2018 Reflections of a Floating World landed them a respectable (but still criminally low) #14, and Lore landed at #26 in 2015 despite the band only having just started popping up on many more mainstream outlets’ radars.
I know of one instance (Brooklyn Vegan) that purposely left Elder off of their metal list because it had already been featured on their general best-of list and they wanted to focus on heavier and more “metal” albums for that list. It’s possible a similar logic guided some other outlets, who did not believe that Omens really “qualified.” I’m rather suspicious of that given how wide the definition of “metal” has become across most mainstream and even niche outlets over the past decade, but it’s a possibility. Either that or they just really don’t like Nick DiSalvo’s voice and the album’s focus on them. I don’t know what else it could be. Those riffs are fucking bulletproof.
Don’t change what you’re doing, baby. It’s them, not you.
The “Goldilocks with a Devilock” Award: Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
We’ve often criticized the metal blogosphere for covering albums through an industry-approved lens. Year after year, these lists produce few surprises. Heavy Blog always has some albums in common with the industry list, and some years the overlap is even more significant. For us, our gripe is the fact those picks are predictable, and often skew toward established, veteran acts or safe, trending genres, with few underground bands being able to share the spotlight.
But there’s one category that seems to be checked off each year, which sees the industry almost purposefully trying to buck this notion. With every new AOTY season, there’s always a metal-adjacent, “heavy music” album that stands out among a sea of safer picks. Maybe it’s for variety, maybe it’s genuine. But it’s interesting to me how most industry lists I see always have an album that fits this mold. I don’t mean this as a total critique, given my own music tastes, it’s usually an album that made my shortlist. It’s just interesting to see a very specific box being checked again and again, while never seeing that influence the overall selection process.
Chelsea Wolfe has been an artist in residence within this category for a while now. With her signature brand of post-metal tinged dark folk, she rounded out the top 10 in 2017 with Hiss Spun and landed in the top 50 last year with Birth of Violence. In 2018, it was the “blackened blues metal” of Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit, which was dark in it’s own, unique way while being stylically diverse and plenty heavy to fit this mold. In 2019, it was Lingua Ignota’s Caligula, a harrowing, abrasive death industrial album that was comfortably metal-adjacent.
The clear belle of the ball this year has to be May Your Chambers Be Full, the excellent collaboration between slowcore singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle and NOLA sludge band Thou. The results could not fit the industry mold of this category any better: different, and not entirely or traditionally “metal,” but still dark and heavy in its own way. May Your Chambers Be Full blends dark folk and post-metal to great effect, as if Emma and Thou have been writing music together throughout their entire careers.
Again, this is somewhat more of an observation than a critique. Emma and Thou deserve the praise for one of my personal favorite metal-adjacent albums of 2020, and seeing land at #2 overall is pretty crazy. My question is: why can’t more spots on industry AOTY lists be reserved for these kind of inventive, boundary-pushing releases, instead of another tired retread from a veteran or overhyped trend-hopper? The definition of “metal” shifts pretty much every year; why can’t the criteria for these lists follow suit?