The Industry Awards 2021: Music Journalism’s Top 50 Metal Albums & More

I am Sisyphus, and this series is my boulder. Last year I swore I would not do this again without some major help. And while I did have a few

2 years ago

I am Sisyphus, and this series is my boulder. Last year I swore I would not do this again without some major help. And while I did have a few people reach out to me with some valiant attempts at automating this whole process and making it as smooth as pressing a few buttons (shout-out in particular to Discord member Tor, aka BlackKoala), ultimately I don’t think there is ever going to be a way to not make the process of gathering all of the data, inputting it properly/consistently, and then analyzing it (and using re-analyzing it at least one or two times as new stuff you weren’t expecting comes in) smooth and easy.

So here it is, quite possibly my most impactful legacy from my time on this site, forced through one last time. I love doing this kind of weird, very niche analysis, but if I never have to copy paste various spellings and formatting of albums from a bunch of various websites again it will be too soon. Therefore, this will be the last of these posts we publish that at least come from me. If anyone wants to pick up the heavy mantle, I will gladly offer you all of my work.

Anyway, let’s get on with it. We’ve got 25 publications this year, largely the same as the past few with a few changes.

Angry Metal Guy
Consequence of Sound
Cursed Magazine
Everything Is Noise
Ghost Cult Magazine
Heavy Blog Is Heavy*
Heavy Music HQ
Invisible Oranges
Metal Hammer
Metal Injection
Nine Circles
Pop Matters
Rolling Stone
The Obelisk
The Pit
The Quietus
Treble Zine*
Your Last Rites
*Unranked list; not included in aggregated list but included in “mentions” list

First things first. There are a couple of glaring omissions on this list from last year, namely Metalsucks and Toilet ov Hell. As has been the case in the past, these two publications only published individual staff lists and not an aggregate. In the past I have taken it upon myself to do the painstaking work of aggregating for them. This year I did not do that because I am a human and have limits. Also, these two places tend to have very little actual overlap between different individual staff lists, making aggregated lists not all that useful anyway. In terms of other differences from last year, we are saying goodbye to both Brooklyn Vegan and Metal Assault and welcoming Everything Is Noise, the latter of which posts their AOTY lists well into January like we do now, but I was able to catch them just in time.

Okay, list time! Reminder as usual that there are two separate lists below, one based solely on rankings, and one based on number of votes, which allows outlets (like us) that released unranked lists to also participate.

Ranked Top 50

  1. GojiraFortitude (4.684)
  2. MastodonHushed and Grim (4.555)
  3. Iron MaidenSenjutsu (4.511)
  4. CarcassTorn Arteries (2.969)
  5. SpiritboxEternal Blue (2.75)
  6. Converge & Chelsea WolfeBloodmoon: I (2.223)
  7. Every Time I DieRadical (2.179)
  8. TurnstileGlow On (1.988)
  9. KhemmisDeceiver (1.733)
  10. TribulationWhere The Gloom Becomes Sound (1.727)
  11. King WomanCelestial Blues (1.694)
  12. ArchspireBleed the Future (1.547)
  13. TriviumIn The Court Of The Dragon (1.460)
  14. SuccumbXXI (1.308)
  15. Cannibal Corpse Violence Unimagined (1.224)
  16. FluisteraarsGegrepen Door de Geest der Zielsontluiking (1.166)
  17. Lamp of MurmuurSubmission and Slavery (1.125)
  18. First FragmentGloire Éternelle (1.125)
  19. King BuffaloThe Burden of Restlessness (1.076)
  20. Rivers of NihilThe Work (0.877)
  21. Between The Buried And MeColors II (0.863)
  22. Panopticon…And Again into the Light (0.833)
  23. WormForeverglade (0.819)
  24. At The GatesThe Nightmare Of Being (0.771)
  25. DordeduhHar (0.734)
  26. Hooded MenaceThe Tritonus Bell (0.627)
  27. Green LungBlack Harvest (0.601)
  28. Fear FactoryAggression (0.591)
  29. The ArmedUltrapop (0.586)
  30. Obscura A Valediction (0.571)
  31. MonolordYour Time to Shine (0.538)
  32. DarkthroneEternal Hails…. (0.533)
  33. AmenraDe Doorn (0.532)
  34. Wolves In The Throne RoomPrimordial Arcana (0.562)
  35. DeafheavenInfinite Granite (0.513)
  36. Genghis TronDream Weapon (0.511)
  37. Helloween Helloween (0.511)
  38. HerzelLe Dernier Rempart (0.5)
  39. Cerebral RotExcretion of Mortality (0.489)
  40. StormkeepTales of Othertime (0.447)
  41. Unto OthersStrength (0.44)
  42. Dream UnendingTide Turns Eternal (0.414)
  43. The Ruins of BeverastThe Thule Grimoires (0.393)
  44. SoenImperial (0.391)
  45. GatecreeperAn Unexpected Reality (0.387)
  46. Holding AbsenceThe Greatest Mistake Of My Life (0.342)
  47. Lingua IgnotaSinner Get Ready (0.341)
  48. SkepticismCompanion (0.335)
  49. Thy CatafalqueVadak (0.330)
  50. JinjerWallflowers (0.323)

Top 50 By Votes

1. Converge & Chelsea WolfeBloodmoon: I (15)
2. Iron MaidenSenjutsu (12)
3. MastodonHushed and Grim (11)
3. GojiraFortitude (11)
3. Cannibal CorpseViolence Unimagined (11)
6. CarcassTorn Arteries (10)
6. SpiritboxEternal Blue (10)
8. ArchspireBleed the Future (9)
8. Panopticon…And Again into the Light (9)
10. Every Time I DieRadical (8)
10. TurnstileGlow On (8)
10. TribulationWhere The Gloom Becomes Sound (8)
10. Rivers of NihilThe Work (8)
10. DeafheavenInfinite Granite (8)
15. KhemmisDeceiver (7)
15. TriviumIn The Court Of The Dragon (7)
15. Between The Buried And MeColors II (7)
15. Green LungBlack Harvest (7)
15. Wolves In The Throne RoomPrimordial Arcana (7)
15. Genghis TronDream Weapon (7)
21. King WomanCelestial Blues (6)
21. WormForeverglade (6)
21. At The GatesThe Nightmare Of Being (6)
21. HelloweenHelloween (6)
21. GatecreeperAn Unexpected Reality (6)
21. Lingua IgnotaSinner Get Ready (6)
21. Full of HellGarden of Burning Apparitions (6)
28. SuccumbXXI (5)
28. Hooded MenaceThe Tritonus Bell (5)
28. The ArmedUltrapop (5)
28. DarkthroneEternal Hails…. (5)
28. AmenraDe Doorn (5)
28. StormkeepTales of Othertime (5)
28. Unto OthersStrength (5)
28. The Ruins of BeverastThe Thule Grimoires (5)
28. ExodusPersona Non Grata (5)
28. Dream TheaterA View From the Top of the World (5)
38. DordeduhHar (4)
38. Fear FactoryAggression (4)
38. Cerebral RotExcretion of Mortality (4)
38. Dream UnendingTide Turns Eternal (4)
38. SkepticismCompanion (4)
38. JinjerWallflowers (4)
38. CynicAscension Codes (4)
38. Employed To ServeConquering (4)
46. FluisteraarsGegrepen Door de Geest der Zielsontluiking (3)
46. Lamp of MurmuurSubmission and Slavery (3)
46. First FragmentGloire Éternelle (3)
46. King BuffaloThe Burden of Restlessness (3)
46. SoenImperial (3)
46. Thy CatafalqueVadak (3)
46. Spectral WoundA Diabolical Thirst (3)

Album(s) of the Year: Gojira – Fortitude / Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon: I

Writing up this entry honestly has me conflicted. On one hand, much of what I want to say here also appears in the Iron Maiden blurb I wrote below (spoilers!) because I feel like Gojira‘s Fortitude is an OK album by a band who should be held to a much higher standard. On the other hand, while Converge & Chelsea Wolfe‘s Bloodmoon: I is not one of my favorite albums of the year, I appreciate and like the album a ton. I mean, it’s not every day that one of the biggest names in hardcore and one of the biggest names in gothic folk/doom collaborate and create a twisted, heavy, and extremely unique sounding album.

But here’s the thing: would Bloodmoon have garnered the same amount of attention if it were released by artists with a less well known name? On one hand, this question is pointless because it wasn’t; this album, a unique release as we said, was released by these artists and it wouldn’t sound the same were it released by anyone else. But, on the other, the sort of space that Bloodmoon operates in has had a wealth of smaller bands working in it before this collaboration occurred, to little or no notice by most of the “industry” or “metal media”. Acts like Dreadnought, The Flight of Sleipnir, Eight Bells, Exulansis, and more have been experimenting with the sort of gothic, abrasive, heavy-as-hell, doom-cum-hardcore that Converge and Wolfe channel on this release.

On the third hand (yeah, I know this isn’t a thing), of course an album by two big names would garner more attention; that’s literally how attention works! And, also of course, I’m happy that Bloodmoon, an excellent release, scored so high on this list. Which brings me back to Gojira, where else. See, Bloodmoon enjoying the sort of attention that it’s gotten is the good side of how attention works; it means that when well-known artists release truly great albums, they’ll probably be recognized for it. But the bad side of how attention works is that when a band like Gojira (and Iron Maiden) release completely mediocre albums, they’ll also get recognized for it.

In Gojira’s case, it’s a classic case of an “mirror J curve”. A what? OK, imagine a graph and place the letter J on it, right, and then mirror it. You get this steeply declining line (AKA Gojira’s output over the last few albums) which culminates in rock-bottom (AKA Magma) but then, suddenly, there’s the slight increase at the end (Fortitude). Objectively, when viewed from the outside, things are still pretty bad. If you compare Fortitude with The Way of All Flesh, it will be found extremely wanting. But compare it with Magma instead, and it seems like an excellent album. Now, will the curve continue to rise? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. Gojira have already been lauded for their “great success” in making Fortitude, and many outlets are calling it a “return to form”.

Who cares? I care! I care because I love Gojira and I want this entire community, journalists and listeners, to ask them to do better. To not go falling head over heels when they release a fine album, admittedly not as bad as their last release but no where near the quality, thought, and attention that they used to give their music. In short, I want the community to laud Gojira when they release their Bloodmoon. I want to have the good of how attention works without the bad. I want the impossible. But I will keep wanting it!

Eden Kupermintz

The “Bleeding Edge” and “Dead Center” Awards

Yes, I’m changing up the names of these again. Basically these are the two awards for the publications/outlets that most and least closely resembled the ultimate ranked list. For those who don’t recall, I use the average of two scores to determine this. 1) Percentage of entries in single list to appear in the meta list by rank, and 2) Number of entries in single list to appear in the top 10 of meta list by rank. This helps balance out some of the inherent differences between shorter and longer lists (as in shorter lists tend to have a leg-up on the first score, and longer lists tend to benefit from the second score). To win the “Dead Center” Award, an outlet must have published a list that is very representative of the ultimate meta list, and “Bleeding Edge” is for the outlet that does the opposite.

So how did our 25 participants fare?

Publications in yellow represent unranked lists

As you can see, the winner of this year’s “Dead Center” Award goes to probably the most dead center and synonymous with “the industry” publication out there, Rolling Stone! This is actually RS‘s first time winning this award and first time appearing in the top 5, which is somewhat surprising. My suspicion is that given the nature of this year’s list to really prioritize veteran and top-selling acts though that it feel straight into what RS does best, which is give more attention to bands who surely don’t need it. With their meager list of 10, however, they managed to land a perfect 100% in the first round of scoring, and somehow 6 of those 10 picks were ultimately in the top 10 of the meta list. Rounding out the top 5 beneath them are Metal Hammer, last year’s co-winners Consequence of Sound and Heavy Music HQ, and, uh, Forbes. No, really, the guy they have covering metal at Forbes apparently has his pulse on the industry.

On the opposite end, the “Bleeding Edge” Award for excellence in posting about stuff no one else is talking about is repeat champion The Obelisk. They are truly the undefeated champs of the obscure and underrated. Trailing not far behind them are Pop Matters, Everything Is Noise, Bandcamp, and, well, us! This is actually atypical for us as we tend to fall squarely in the middle of the pack on these metrics. As you can see in our published list, however, we differed from the consensus far more strongly than usual this year.


The “Wide but Shallow” and “Narrow but Deep” Awards

Also bringing this back for the third year in a row. I will allow past me describe how this works again to those who don’t remember.

“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.”

Got it? Here’s how all of that shook out.

On the “Narrow But Deep” side of things, we have the albums that received more high ranks in lists than total votes compared to the rest. In particular, Holding Absence (average rank 6, 2 votes) and Herzel (4.5, 2 votes) can attribute their appearances on the meta list to a couple of publications that felt very strongly about them. Similarly, Fluisteraars managed to land two #2 votes and one #3, propelling it to a rather high position on the meta list and and top of the average score list. Interestingly, King Woman, which just missed out the top 10 in the meta list, received 6 votes and all individual rankings in the top 10, but only four of those votes were ranked, so it didn’t score quite as highly as the other albums in the top 10. In terms of sheer efficiency per vote, I think I will break with tradition a bit and give the “Narrow But Deep” Award to Celestial Blues for muscling its way into the conversation among albums that received as many as ten more ranked votes.

Now, Khemmis, on the other hand, is an interesting case where a top 10 album also managed to land in the same exact place in average ranked score. They represent the unicorn group, like Code Orange did last year, that attracts a wide array of high-praise amongst the metal journalism sphere.

On the other end, there were some albums that clearly garnered a wide amount of praise but consistently landed lower down people’s lists. In particular, Tribulation (average score 18.4, 8 votes) and Archspire (average 18.5, 9 votes) stand out. Tribulation managed to squeak its way into the top 10 overall on the back of several high-ranking scores and a bunch of mid-to-lower ranking ones. You can make a case for Iron Maiden to win this one if you squint at the raw numbers, but its average rank of 9 is quite high given the 12 ranked votes it received. So Tribulation it is! A lot of people liked Where the Gloom Becomes Sound but evidently weren’t head-over-heels for it.


The “Insert Long and Loud Groan” Award: Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

Look, I don’t really want to argue with anyone about whether this album is good or not; end of the day, if you like Senjutsu musically, then that’s “fine” and there’s nothing I can say to convince you that it’s “bad”. You know, I don’t even really think it’s bad; I’m a huge Iron Maiden fan and the basic parts of what made me one are all present here. But I do think that Senjutsu is a lazy album and one which doesn’t deserve to be the number three (!!!) album of the year in a year with so many interesting, engaging, and well-thought out albums. Don’t get me wrong, veteran bands can make great albums and, when they do, we should by all means recognize it.

But part of being such a veteran band should be higher standards for what a great album entails. I mean, we all know at this point that Iron Maiden can play and write this kind of music, right? There’s literally zero here that is new or interesting or which involved Iron Maiden playing with their formula in a meaningful way. Which is totally their right of course, don’t get me wrong; it’s their music and they can do whatever they’d like with it. But why are we, as an industry, as a group of blogs, as whatever, highlighting such a lackluster effort? What, exactly, is gained by putting Senjutsu at the top of your list?

Do you think you’ll be introducing someone to Iron Maiden? I mean, that’s technically possible but 99.9% of your readers already know who Iron fucking Maiden are, yeah? Are you highlighting something special that’s happening on this release? You’re not because nothing special is happening on this release. If you’ve ever heard a Maiden album post-Brave New World, you’ve heard Senjutsu. It’s not even a return to form or a throwback! Like, if Iron Maiden were to release a “Killers II” (preferably not named that), going back to their early style with all they know today, I’d pay attention. It’d be nostalgia speaking out of my throat but I would probably love that album, write about it, and rank it pretty high. Because Iron Maiden kick ass and if they ever do anything original again, I’m sure it would rule.

But they haven’t. And they aren’t. And they probably won’t. They’re a business at this point (which is fine), they’re a machine. I mean, the album art, font, and name all tell you that, even if you haven’t listened to a note on this album. They’re so cheap, shoddy, and masticated, not to mention downright offensive and stereotypical as fuck (hint: ask a Japanese person you know what they think about the font and the image). They’re just like the album itself: lazy, contrite and obvious. To close the loop, if that’s what you want to listen to, go ahead! But what possible reason could you have for writing up this album at the top of your list (at the top of so many lists)?

Of course, the grim answer is that people write about Senjutsu because they want the cheap thrill of saying “I too, enjoy Iron Maiden”. Which, at the risk of repeating myself, is OK, I guess. I mean, I get it; sometimes you just want that warm glow of knowing that literally millions of people like the same thing you like. You want to feel validated and a part of a community. I want to as well. But is the Album of the Year list really the place to do that? Can’t you just, oh I don’t know, dedicate a whole category of posts to this sort of thing and have your desires met there?

I mean, I guess not, because if you think that if 2022 doesn’t bring us another album like Senjutsu and that it won’t be pretty high up on almost everyone’s list, you’re wrong. This happens almost every year. Guess I’ll just be in a corner over here, listening to Brave New World and pretending that Maiden broke up then.


The “Fallen Out of Favor” Award: Deafheaven – Infinite Granite

The crux of my analysis falls in line with what Eden outlined above — Infinite Granite received critical acclaim despite the fact that Deafheaven are hardly the originators of the “heavy shoegaze” trend. We’ve covered excellent, underrated bands in the space over the last few years, including BleakHeart, Bound, Dust Moth, Holy Fawn, Sugar Horse, and Vivid Illusion (to name a few).

That doesn’t mean Infinite Granite is a bad record; it’s a solid example of heavier modern shoegaze. While I don’t think the inclusion of more black metal elements would have automatically made it a better album, it’s hardly a coincidence that “Mombasa” is both the best and most blackgazey song of the bunch. I’ve said this since they started dropping singles — I genuinely don’t think we would collectively care about this Infinite Granite nearly as much if it wasn’t Deafheaven.

And you know what? It seems like critics agree, to some extent. Since Sunbather, any new Deafheaven album has been a lock for the top of our industry aggregate; New Bermuda topped the list in 2015, and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love landed at six on our 2018 roundup. With Infinite Granite, Deafheaven plummeted out of the top 10 all the way down to 35, despite receiving one of the higher vote totals (8) among all albums. While it’s unrealistic to expect a band to drop a top 10 record with every new release, losing nearly 30 spots between records is certainly significant.

I have two theories for what happened here. The less likely of the two is the fact that Infinite Granite has barely any metal elements, which feels like an especially flimsy argument considering Bloodmoon topped the list this year. Sure, Bloodmoon is considerably heavier and darker than anything on Infinite Granite, but it’s obviously much less metallic than any preceding Converge record. Besides, publications have regularly expanded the scope of their “metal” lists to include the broader universe of “heavy music.” I wouldn’t really classify The Armed, Genghis Tron, or Lingua Ignota as metal artists, but they don’t feel out of place among their fellow honorees this year.

A more likely explanation is, shall we say, an “imbalance” in what I’ll call the Reviewer’s Holy Trinity: quality, originality, and popularity. The weight put behind these ares will depend on any given critic’s vantage point and experience. But speaking broadly, albums with widespread appeal typically have excel in at least one or two categories — an artist who wrote a genuinely original sound, a downright great record, and/or enjoy significant popularity and put out new music. Sunbather checked all of these boxes, even if Deafheaven didn’t invent blackgaze like some folks seemed to suggest at the time. Still, they had their own distinct approach to the subgenre and wrote some excellent songs to deliver that blueprint, which ended up appealing to metal fans and average listeners alike. New Bermuda and OCHL shifted the balance of this “Trinity” for most people (for better or worse, depending who you ask), but Deafheaven still maintained their status as one of the most well-regarded metal bands with crossover appeal.

Can we say any of this about Infinite Granite? Obviously Deafheaven are still popular, but what about the other two points? Originality? I would challenge even the biggest fans of Infinite Granite to look at me with a straight face and tell me Deafheaven are doing something new. Of course, an album doesn’t have to be original to be good…but is Infinite Granite really that good? Obviously we can’t answer that objectively, but at least according the the Industry, the answer seems to be, “sure, but it’s not great.” Short of a legacy artist vomiting all over themselves (see: Illud Divinum Insanus), metal journalists are almost guaranteed to include anything they put out, even if it’s at the bottom of the list verging on an “honorable mention.” And at this point, it feels like Deafheaven owe more to their track record than their latest studio sessions for making this year’s list at all.

Scott Murphy

The “Better Late Than Never” Award: Archspire – Bleed the Future

Of all the topics covered in this section of our year-end coverage, I’m not going to lie… this one surprised me the most. After all, Archspire have been a staple in the technical death metal world since their divisive debut All Shall Align dropped a decade ago. Four lauded and increasingly high profile full-length records in the books and it feels like it should be safe to assume that Archspire would be a repeat offender on our yearly industry meta list. Alas and alack, such fanciful thinking is only that. But here we are, in 2022, looking back on a year where Archspire finally receive their just reward. As stated above, better late than never.

It’s this author’s most humble opinion that Bleed the Future is Archspire’s best record to date, so it comes as no surprise to me that it is featured prominently in the industry’s year-end lists. The sheer performative technicality, increasingly more coherent and clever songwriting, and strong production values all worked together to make this tight tech death affair something truly special and infinitely bingeable as a repeat listen. But if we’re being honest, the groundwork for Bleed the Future was laid (and some argue say more effectively) by 2017’s Relentless Mutation, which garnered high praise here and within the tech death world at large. So while Bleed the Future is, in my estimation, a grand improvement over an already great record, it still boggles my mind that Archspire are just now garnering universal acclaim when they’ve been peddling this formula to great success for well over a decade. So why now?

In case you didn’t notice, tech death had an absolutely insane year in regards to quality. First Fragment and Obscura both make appearances on the above lists, while subgenre focused comment sections, forums, and blog posts critically lauded albums from Atvm, Ad Nauseam, Ophidian I, and a host of other quality technically-inclined death metal bands. If my memory serves me correctly, it’s been a good while since tech death has enjoyed such high profile success in the general press as well as in the most underground circles. This manifestation of quality music in the subgenre could be anecdotally cited as an assist for Archspire in getting inside more ears and in front of more eyes through published reviews. But I think circumstance is only part of why Archspire is making waves in the general consensus for the first time.

To be frank, Archspire have worked their asses off to make better music with each subsequent recording, and one would be remiss to not laud them for carving a path within the tech death world that has encouraged other bands within the subgenre to innovate and push their skill levels as musicians and songwriters to new extremes. If the above assertion of increased quality across the board in tech death helped this band rise to prominence this year is true, it wouldn’t be a stretch to hand Archspire part of the credit for helping steer this brand of music in a more robust and quality-heavy direction. I like to think that Bleed the Future would be featured in industry lists in any year, but I think 2021 is particularly significant as a breakthrough because of what many of us are hoping it represents for tech death as a whole. Quality songwriting, expert musicianship, and aberrant creativity are back in the driver’s seat and we couldn’t be happier about it.

So while this is a recognition that should have been bestowed to Archspire years ago, welcome to the fold. May we see your name many, many more times on this list in the coming years.


Nick Cusworth

Published 2 years ago