2020 was a shit show, no doubt. But it was a shit show with an awesome soundtrack. Yes, it was a real Saturday Night Fever kind of year. The Flash Gordon of decade starters. The entire year was Maximum Overdrive, and it even came with a brand new AC/DC record. So, picking twenty albums that best represent the whole mess was a challenge. These lists are always deeply personal, which is why I think we all love reading them so much. Even if we disagree a good portion of the time.
There was so much great music this year, I could probably do a top 20 genre by genre and still have leftovers. Doom gave us albums by Poema Arcanus and Vacant Eyes. Black Metal gave us great albums by Armagedda, Panzerfaust, and Feminazgul. Don’t even get me started on Death Metal, because fans of Graceless, Black Curse, and XPUS are already gonna want to fight me by the end of this! And if they don’t finish me, the Cryptic Shift, Undergang, and Cardiac Arrest fans will rip me to shreds. Hey… what about Ripped to Shreds? That shit was heavy as fuck! My point? There were a ton of top notch albums this year, all of which deserve a mention, and we’ll get to most of those one way or another.
Still, you can’t please everyone. I expect, and wholeheartedly welcome, lively debate and creative name-calling to ensue after this is published. All in good fun. What follows are the twenty albums that helped get me through the fetid skid mark that was 2020. Enjoy!
20 – Phobetor – “When Life Falls Silent”
Thanks, in part, to the shrieking growl of vocalist Debora Conserva, Phobetor managed to release one of the most exciting debut records of the year. The album started making its rounds here at TMW early in the Summer, and immediately had a good number of us screaming “FUCK YES” to anyone within ear-shot. The thing is just excellent, from start to finish. A bit of a Progressive Death/Groove Metal mixture, “When Life Falls Silent” is the kind of record that will keep you coming back for repeated spins, and for a very long time. Expect Phobetor to be around for a while, folks!
19 – Undeath – “Lesions of a Different Kind”
From the moment I heard the opening riff of the title track, I knew “Lesions of a Different Kind” was going to be one of my favorite Death Metal records of the year. Undeath reminds me of why I love Metal in exactly the same way as bands like Cannibal Corpse and Bloodbath. These guys smoke what they’re selling, and you can tell because they wear their influences on their sleeves in a completely carefree manner. Not to mention the fact that Kyle Beam’s guitar work on songs like “Acidic Twilight Visions” and “Phantasmal Festering” damn near bring tears to my eyes.
18 – BUTCHER – “666 Goats Carry My Chariot”
BUTCHER is a blackened Speed Metal band from Belgium. The album is called “666 Goats Carry My Chariot”. That is all the information I had before hitting play on this for the first time, and that is all the information anybody fuckin needs! It is a damn shame more people didn’t hear this record in 2020, but that’s just fine because this kind of kick ass never goes out of style. For as long as there have been heads to bang and leather to wear, bands like BUTCHER have given us all a reason to proudly throw up our horns!
17 – Sallow Moth – “The Larval Hope”
Ah, Sallow Moth. I can’t tell you how many times “The Larval Hope” helped get me through the shittiest of days this year. It was one of the first albums I heard in 2020, and it stuck with me the entire time. Never losing steam. Never cracking a smile. Always providing much needed slaps about the face when necessary. The thing is a goddamned sci-fi Death Metal masterpiece, and Garry Brents is a wizardly presence in the underground. It’s about time Garry comes out of the shadows and starts infecting the planet with millions of tiny spores of heavy greatness! All hail the Sallow Moth!
16 – Depravity – “Grand Malevolence”
The first of several Transcending Obscurity Records releases on this list, “Grand Malevolence” came out pretty late in the game, loudly, unapologetically punching a hole right through the top of my head. Seriously, when archeologists dig up my bones they’re going to say “what the fuck happened to this dude?!” It will become a mystery as old as time. Depravity, like both Morbid Angel and Hate Eternal, play the sort of Death Metal one does not soon forget. If the world ever becomes a place where Americans can go to concerts again, I’m going to hunt Depravity down, and I just realized how awful that sounds. Tell my wife I love her.
15 – Killer Be Killed – “Reluctant Hero”
I was a big fan of the first Killer Be Killed record. Of course, a project featuring Max Cavalera and Greg Puciato was intriguing right away, and with the help of Troy Sanders, they pulled off an exceptional debut that was at the top of many lists in 2014. While “Killer Be Killed” was an excellent example of what a “supergroup” can be, with stand out moments from each musician, “Reluctant Hero” is a master class in collaborative songwriting. From the massive riffs of “Deconstructing Self-Destruction” to the badassery of “Filthy Vagabond”, and everything in between, all eleven tracks are ridiculously well-written slabs of Metal goodness. My personal favorite, and I believe the best example of Killer Be Killed coming together as one, is “Inner Calm From Outer Storms”. I love this record, and I suspect my enjoyment of it will only grow with time.
14 – Igorrr – “Spirituality and Distortion”
I was introduced to the music of Igorrr quite by accident. “Savage Sinusoid” was part of a grab bag I got at a local record shop on Record Store Day a few years back. That album is bat shit crazy! So, I had an inkling of an idea what was about to happen to my ears going into “Spirituality and Distortion”. However, I was not quite prepared for such consummate brilliance. It was extremely difficult for me to write about then, and it isn’t much easier now. My review ended with the following words:
“Spirituality and Distortion” is an absolute masterpiece of genre-bending insanity, and Igorrr as a collective just might be the most innovative voice in experimental music.”
I have not changed my mind in the slightest. In fact, as with any great record, S&D gets better with every spin.
13 – Death Courier – “Necrotic Verses”
Transcending Obscurity put this one out early in the Summer, and I became a fan almost instantaneously. There is something so assuredly genuine about Death Courier’s sound. It possesses a sort of weighty snugness that Metal fans can wear like a blanket. It had been quite some time since a Death Metal record hit all the right buttons for me, but “Necrotic Verses” really opened my ears and awakened a desire within me to explore heavier sounds. It has been on near constant rotation since its release, and has been great company to me on some of the loneliest days of the year.
12 – Convocation – “Ashes Coalesce”
Funeral Doom can be a challenging listening experience. Although, like any sub-genre, its moments of glory do not go unnoticed by many. In the span of just two years, Convocation has proven to be on par with staples of the genre like Esoteric and Evoken, in part due to the dual nature of their sound. Part Funeral Doom, part Death/Doom, this Finnish duo isn’t here for the lighthearted. 2018’s “Scars Across” was masterful, and “Ashes Coalesce” carries on from there, bringing with it all of the emotion and deep-rooted viciousness of their debut and expanding on that sound exponentially. This is a wonderful record that has been close to the top of my list since its release.
11 – Frayle – “1692”
Frayle’s Sean Bilovecky and Gwyn Strang are quite a spooky combo. I mean that in the best way possible, of course. Bilovecky’s down-tuned, Orange amplified guitar tone mixes so well with Strang’s willowy, nebulous voice, the sound of it will either make you cry or shiver with fright. “Heavy, Low & Witchy” is the way they put it, and Amen to that! “1692” came out early on this year, and it stuck to the walls of my brain like a webby Epoxy glue. Expect great things from this Ohio band, as they put a spell on the world with a whole new approach to Atmospheric Doom.
10 – Imperial Triumphant – “Alphaville”
There are many occasions when experimental Metal comes off as pretentious and contrived. Occasions when the band seems more concerned about appearing edgy than actually contributing to what should be the forward motion of the avant-garde. Imperial Triumphant is not that kind of band. Dedicated to sonically representing their beloved New York City, warts and all, following in the footsteps of jazz greats like Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins, as well as atmospheric Black and technical Death Metal groups like Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, Imperial Triumphant take heavy music to a whole new level. Their newest effort, “Alphaville” was released in July, right when Metal fans across the world began to realize there would be no live music for months to come. As it turns out, at least for me, the timing couldn’t have been better. I have listened to this near perfect album at least a dozen times, and new sounds become apparent on each spin. A glorious record.
9 – Temple of Void – “The World That Was”
Death/Doom from Detroit, Michigan. Those five words had my attention from the jump. Though they’ve been around for several years, Temple of Void was a new name to me in 2020, and “The World that Was” is quite a fitting album title, considering how much has changed since its release early in the Spring. With cover art by the great Adam Burke (Bell Witch, Creeping Death, Solothus), “The World That Was” just begs to be heard. And the moment that happens, nary a listener will be left unscatherd. Temple of Void was recently signed to Relapse Records, quite deservedly so, and I simply cannot wait to hear what these guys do next.
8 – Tomorrow’s Rain – “Hollow”
Tomorrow’s Rain is a Gothic Death/Doom band from Israel. What attracted me to the project initially was the list of guest musicians (Greg Mackintosh of Paradise Lost, Jeff Loomis of Arch Enemy, and various members of Septicflesh, Draconian, and Swallow the Sun, among others). As one would expect, given a list of names like that, “Hollow” is pure Doom brilliance front to back. It is a truly spectacular listening experience, which is enhanced exponentially by the fact that the album was also released in Hebrew. Now, while much of the music remains identical, hearing these songs sung in Hebrew takes all of the pain and beauty of the English version and turns it upside down and inside out. You can listen to “Hollow” both ways and receive totally different results within your mind’s eye. This very much gives the impression that Hebrew is the language the material belongs in, and that’s how I would recommend newcomers to the band to begin. You will not be sorry. Consider yourselves lucky, because this one is a two-fer!
7 – Sepulchral Curse – “Only Ashes Remain”
As stated, an overwhelming amount of exceptional Death Metal was released in 2020. So, when it came to picking one to include in my top 10, I went with the one that I played the most. “Only Ashes Remain” is Sepulchral Curse’s first full length release, but the band has been around a while, releasing two EP’s prior (one of which also with Transcending Obscurity). That isn’t to suggest these aren’t a bunch of busy dudes, as they’re in multiple projects (Solothus, most notably, as well as Yawning Void), all of which possess their own wonderful darkness. Sepulchral Curse has a bit of a Hardcore element to them in the vocal department, and even splurghes into Thrash territory with some of the more melodic guitar passages, yet they remain unappologeticaly Death Metal. A very interesting amalgamation, to be sure, and one many have found positively addictive. Myself, clearly, included. “Only Ashes Remain” is the kind of record you know will remain as fresh as the first time you listened as it will be the thirtieth time you listen, and something you’ll be able to consistently point to as a key example of the best Death Metal has to offer.
6 – Konvent – “Puritan Masochism”
If someone wants to know what Death/Doom sounds like, there is no need to look much further than Konvent. I’m confident that upon hearing this incredible debut, one will develop the desire to explore the genre into its foggiest depths. “Puritan Masochism” has been a fixture in my playlist literally all year long, as it was released before the end of January, and I have recommended it to absolutely everyone remotely interested in heavy music. The pulverizing guitar work of Sara Norregaard, coupled with the monstros growl of Rikke List’s vocals, along with the backdrop of Julie Simonsen’s drumming and Heidi Brink on bass, is just downright infernal. Seriously, these ladies are no fuckin’ joke! Napalm Records is lucky to have them, as are the Metal masses. I do hope they release new material soon, although I’m still going to play the shit out of this one.
5 – Terminal Nation – “Holocene Extinction”
Adam Burke, once again, provides the cover art on this monster. And, once again we’ve got a Hardcore/Death Metal match up with Terminal Nation’s impossibly devastating “Holocene Extinction”. While the guitar work (gifted to us by Dalton Rain and Tommy Robinson) is unquestionably thick with heaviness, vocalist Stan Liszewski is a bit more on the Hardcore side of things (at least when compared to Sepulchral Curse). I have absolutely no problem with this, and I suspect many will hear different things in his style, which shines an even brighter light on the man’s talent. The whole band is on fire with aggression, raging at everything from America’s political climate, institutional racism, and the pharmaceutical industry to police brutality, injustice, and the hive-mind that fools people into thinking mask wearing, and a curfew during a global pandemic is some sort of infringement upon their rights. This is not a nice record. It’s raw, gritty, and mean as hell. 20 Buck Spin released this one in August, and I don’t think I’ve gone more than a couple days at a time without listening to it since. Terminal Nation really represents well how many of us have felt about the condition our country is in, and I think “Holocene Extinction” needs listened to by everyone who’s still got middle fingers.
4 – Aphonic Threnody – “The Great Hatred”
Aphonic Threnody has been on my radar for quite some time. Transcending Obscurity releases their label samplers super early in January, and Aphonic was a standout for me on the 2019 sampler. These are always things of beauty. Several dozen tracks featuring an astonishing array of talented artists from all over the world. The Aphonic tune from the 2019 sampler is called “Locura”, which happens to be the opening track on “The Great Hatred”. So, I have known since January 2019 that I was going to be a fan of this album. I had no idea, however, the extent to which the remainder of its contents would move me. Aphonic Threnody (a voiceless lament) is the perfect name for a project so deeply rooted in opaque emotion. Funeral Doom doesn’t quite cut it as an adjective where Aphonic Threnody is concerned, but the experience of listening to them encapsulates precisely what that genre as a whole attempts to express. Riccardo Veronese is an immensely talented guitarist, and his ability to paint pictures with his instrument shines all over “The Great Hatred”, while Juan Escobar’s voice soars, roars, and whispers throughout, at times all at once. It is an immaculately crafted piece of art, and if listening to it doesn’t knock the wind right out of you like a punch to the gut… well, you’ve probably got no soul. I’m sorry to be the one to break that to you. I don’t make the rules.
3 – Paradise Lost – “Obsidian”
For the record, my top three picks have all at one time been at number one. What you will find, if you choose to pay attention to such things, is that each of these last three enjoyed the spotlight alone for a short while. “Obsidian” by Paradise Lost was released on May 15th, right smack in the middle of that first COVID-19 lockdown, and holy shit! That thing hit me in the face like an iron fist! The opening lines of “Darker Thoughts”, the driving Cure-like vibe of “Ghosts”, “Ending Days”, “Forsaken”, “Hope Dies Young”… AHHHHH! Unbelievably masterful shit! This was my first real exposure to Paradise Lost, and it really opened my ears to the rest of their catalogue, which as many of you know is quite extensive. I was vaguely familiar with “Medusa” and “The Plague Within”, but it didn’t go much further than that. What “Obsidian” allowed me to do was dive into the ocean that is Paradise Lost at a time when such musical adventure was deeply needed. It helped me maintain an acceptable level of emotional stability when it seemed very much like the whole world was losing its mind, and I can honestly tell you that I owe Paradise Lost a huge debt of gratitude.
2 – Jupiterian – “Protosapien”
Jupiterian’s “Protosapien” was released at the beginning of September. Aided by the success of their previous release (2017’s “Terraforming”), a glorious cover image painted by the great Mariusz Lewandowski (Bell Witch, Abigail Williams), and a preview track on the 2020 Transcending Obscurity sampler (“Mere Humans”), “Protosapien” was highly anticipated. As much as I loved the Paradise Lost record, Jupiterian knocked it down a peg, I suspect because it spoke more directly to the darkness within me. I didn’t feel quite as at home with “Protosapien”, but that made it just a little bit easier to get lost in. I loved the challenge it presented. The uneasiness, draped in cobwebs, trudging through the loneliness of a long, humid, glutinous summertime twilight. An absolute masterpiece, flawlessly well-written and executed, I could listen to this record for days.
1 – Draconian – “Under A Godless Veil”
Here we are, at the top of my list, and I hardly know what to say. This album touched me on such a deep level, it’s difficult to articulate exactly why. The words I write here certainly won’t do it justice, but that’s no reason not to try. If you’re unfamiliar with Draconian, they are a Gothic Doom band from Sweden. “Under A Godless Veil” is their seventh full length effort, the second with vocalist Heike Langhans, and it is spectacular beyond measure. Heike’s voice alone sends shivers with every syllable, enchanting the doom-flooded landscape with flurries of heartbreak and tenderness. Filling in the darker, less angelic edges with unmistakable wrath, the voice of Anders Jacobsson is a jarring (though welcome) contrast. The rest of the gracefully melencholic tapestry unfolds like epic poetry. Ancient stories told by countless generations. Oddly familiar newness spreading with each retelling, filling hearts and minds with passionately enlightening philosophies. Each time I listen to “Under A Godless Veil”, it is favored above the time before, and I have no doubt this trend will continue in perpetuity. Easily the most enjoyable album I’ve had the privilege of hearing throughout this considerably unenjoyable year.
Thank you all so much for reading. May the coming new year collectively shower us with greatness. Or at least permit us to see a few concerts, for fucks sake!