I could wax for paragraphs on how 2020 leapt into the toilet in March and continues to swirl, deeper in, teetering just on the edge of complete obliteration, but that would be news to no one. In a year when bands could’ve easily went into hiatus based on no way to tour or support themselves—and honestly no one would’ve blamed them—we are damn lucky to have any music at all much less any best of lists. Thankfully the bands turned it up, tuned low, and cranked it out anyway, despite the thought of any sort of monetary return. In short, metal freakin’ ruled this year and kept me sane while the world crumbled and hope was fleeting at best. My music collection grew like my headphone time at dangerous volume levels (according to my apple stats) and I loved the fact that bands sounded angrier and louder, experimented more, stretched thin genre lines to the limit, and generally laid their balls on the chopping block in a way we haven’t heard in a long time. That chopping block bit was one of ten rules I made for my 2020 list back in January and all the artists that made my list did just that in one way or another but my picks this year were also about the albums that really stuck with me for either the long haul or made a fast impression. So, keep reading and maybe one, or more, of these will hit you the way it hit me.
With the exception of a three year hiatus, 16 have been cranking out some of the angriest, most vitriolic sludge for 29 years. Two things regarding that length of time that are odd; 1) Dream Squasher is just their eighth full length and 2) they still don’t get the respect or wide acclaim they deserve, which pisses me off as to no end as I’ve been on board the 16 train since 93’s Curves That Kick and know how important they are to the scene. They’ve had their ups and downs, lineup changes, and just stuff anyone would suffer after 29 years but through it all they’ve grown stronger, more pissed off, and more bleak the more they age. And, I’m here for every damn bit of it. Here, the opening trio of “Candy In Spanish,” Me and the Dog Die Together” (my fave song of 2020), and “Sadlands” isn’t only the strongest opening salvo of the band’s career but also shows the most variance of their capabilities I’ve ever heard on the same album. “Candy” is their signature sludge meets heavy as hell tones while “Me and the Dog” is a cavalcade of slamming hardcore set over razor tipped metal and “Sadlands” slowly lurches forward through a doomy sludge filled abyss and really, have you seen the video? Jesus. Perfect for the song title and not so much if you’re struggling with depression or a tough emotional day. But, that right there is exactly what’s kept me coming back for all these years; the band’s ability to go to those depths and make you believe, feel it, and suffer it 100%. It’s real and tangible while being so utterly and devastatingly heavy. “Harvester of Fabrication” immediately recalls the groove heard throughout Bridges To Burn and “Summer of 96” showcases one of the most sunny yet downtrodden melodies they’ve ever done. Sunny and downtrodden in the same song, much less sentence? Yep, you bet because it is what it is. So, a lot of ‘most’ or ‘best’ ‘they’ve ever done’ here which just reinforces what I said earlier about respect and acclaim this band hasn’t had but is finally getting. About damn time, honestly. But, anyway, I absolutely adore this band and this album, they both have helped push me across the finish line of this raggedy ass year and has held more of my time and attention than anything else on, or off, of this list in 2020. If you missed this, please do yourself a favor and try it on for size. I promise it’ll blow your socks off.
The news of vocalist/guitarist/founding member of Deeds of Flesh and CEO/founder of Unique Leader, Erik Lindmark, hit me hard as it did so many others. Erik was a light in the dark that gave voice to so many amazing bands including his own. So, thoughts of a future Deeds album were grim, at best. Yet, here we are with their 9th full length and third in a trilogy of otherworldly matters. Deeds have always been on the cusp of ruling death metal with an iron fist and here, with Jacoby Kingston leading the fray amongst several GIANTS of the scene, they not only continue their reign but seal the fact that they are indeed the undisputed kings of death metal, in any form. “Alyen Scourge” is a testament to the technical prowess this band and its generous assists is capable of while “Catacombs of the Monolith” calls on early Deeds brutality in a way that Erik would’ve appreciated. The title track leans heavily on the gut-punch attitude the band has been known for and “Terror” is aptly titled for its no-holds-barred approach to balls out technical death metal. And to be clear, I don’t mean tech death. Deeds are so much more than that. With the sci-fi bookends of “Odyssey” and “Onward” this plays out like a mechanized arm of alien warfare and with the band’s penchant for brutality, it sounds like the destruction of the world as we know it. Erik had a large hand in this as well as being an ever present entity presiding over the final product and this final product is beyond amazing. And, as far as bars go, the bar has been set so ridiculously high here, and throughout Deeds history, that I don’t see any band scaling it anytime soon. Whether this is the final journey or the first in a litany of releases, long live DEEDS and RIP Erik.
City Burials has been my security blanket and my safe place to go when the world is too much to handle. And that has been A LOT of the time this year. Sure they’re a different band than they were on Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day but they’ve aged like a fine bourbon that I’m all too eager to drink in with each new release. It’s funny though, for some stupid reason I was expecting a part 2 of The Fall of Hearts and was initially put off a bit by this one since the heavy aspect from Hearts was eschewed by a more rock friendly stance. But, time spent was the best time indeed as tracks like the slow burn “Lacquer” and the laid back attitude of “The Winter of Our Passing” were tracks that got me through whatever life threw my way. “City Glaciers” features one of the most memorable melodies I’ve ever heard from the band and “Neon Epitaph” is like the dark rock savior I didn’t know I needed. Bottom line, Katatonia offer me something I can’t get anywhere else which is a safe and knowing place I can go to float away and immerse myself in their velvety smooth yet barbed music. And for that, I’ll always be grateful that they have consistently evolved over the years into a band that stays at the tip of my favorites and one that I’m always excited about when new music is announced.
Man, Enslaved. They just don’t make a bad album. Now, I realize some of you will never come out of ‘the early days glory’ and that’s fine, for you. But, for me, they’re a better band now than they’ve ever been and the chances they take elude to the fact that they’re in it for what they love in lieu of what any one else wants. And, I admire that about them. See the synth pop of “Urjotun” if you’ve no idea of what I’m speaking to. What you’ll find is a band that can still find a way to make synth heavy as hell. “Jettegryta” takes full advantage of their ability to harmonize the hell out of some vocals and couple it with hard hitting black metal while “Homebound” hits all the right ‘epic’ notes they’ve been building on since Ruun. Look, I’m getting older and so are they so maybe I’m connecting with their progressive black metal and folk inspired Viking roots but so what? I fully believe they’re a better band today then they’ve ever been but am not stupid enough to think their history is unimportant. Without Frost, Eld, and Blodhemn we wouldn’t have the Enslaved we have today. And all those are stone cold classics, to be sure. But, today, and on Utgard, Enslaved are the best version of themselves as they’ve ever been. Black metal, melody, epic songwriting, killer vocals, and freaking heart is what this band is all about and I’m here for all of it.
The projects that Akhlys’ main man Naas Alcameth is involved with is staggering, but for me none of those outshine this particular project. And with Melinoë, he enlisted a fully fleshed out band to get the point across and it works in spades. The Dreaming I made a huge impact on me back in 2015 with its sleep/dream based theory and haunting atmospheric black metal to back it up. And now, with Melinoë, the sleep/dream psyche theory is even more haunting and terrifying. Between the buzzsaw black metal, engulfing dark atmosphere, and lyrics that inspire countless nightmares, Akhlys are onto something completely unique that no one else is doing. And furthermore, no one else is doing better than them. Period. The serpentine manner of “Somniloquy,” the rawness of “Pnigalion,” and the jarring yet disturbed nature of “Succubare” put me in a trancelike state and I found myself, over and over, trying to deconstruct this trio multiple times over before ever hearing the rest of the album. But, the rest of the album plays out in much the same manner; haunting like Freddy Krueger coming to claim his place while we’re trying to fight it off by staying awake with a case of Five Hour Energy. Akhlys have summoned a different beast in black metal than your standard fare of Satan kicking Christ’s ass and to say that I’m head over heels for it is an understatement.
Spirit Adrift turned the corner on straight up heavy metal with their last album Divided By Darkness but Enlightened In Eternity seals the deal, and bests it, with power, glory, force, and heart. “Ride Into the Light” became my 2020 anthem with its heavy chorus and trad metal teeth and not to mention the insane riffs throughout its midsection. “Astral Levitation” is the best arena ready anthem you won’t hear on the radio and “Screaming From Beyond” has some of the catchiest melodies on any metal album of the entire year. But, it’s the power combo of the heavy as hell “Harmony of the Spheres” and the hard hitting “Battle High” that makes this album such a success. There’s so much in just these two tracks that shows how far the band has come since their inception and just how far Nate Garrett has come in the vocal department. Seriously, dude sounds like he got hit with a cross between Rob Halford and Lemmy, overnight. His range is insane but he holds tight to the gruff stance he’s had all along but here, the vocals are as perfect as I’ve heard yet from him and fit this album to a capital T. More please.
Grindcore didn’t trip my trigger this year like in years past, except for Pleine Noirceur. There’s a sense of exploration and will to expand the genre far beyond its limits. I mentioned ‘balls on the chopping block’ earlier and this may be the biggest example on display throughout this whole list. One perusal of Fuck the Facts’ Metallum page shows a bloated release list and they’ve spent the past 21 years refining their sound from a noisy grindcore band to a grindcore band with some serious skills and even more serious thought processes. Opener “Doubt, Fear, Neglect” covers some major ground from grind to doom to straight up metal in its epic-for-grind runtime and the title track bludgeons but with purpose to the song. “Sans Racines” might be the most typical grindcore track at a mere 30 seconds and change but still is at professor level of execution while “Dropping Like Flies” could hang with Matt Pike and his battle march style of metal any day of the week. Cephalic Carnage may have broken the seal on this type of bastardized grindcore but Fuck the Facts have perfected it with a kind of heavy that hits deep and leaves a mark.
Death metal black enough for a coffee. No shit, get your bag at their Bandcamp store and trust me when I say it’s good. I know, terrible way to begin a discussion but it gets the point across about Angerot’s sophomore effort. There’s a distinct early Morbid Angel vibe here which is never a bad thing but they’re not aping at all, instead they’re taking bits and pieces of that formula and making it their own, which I adore. The choir moments of “Below the Deep and Dreamless Sleep” put a unique spin on death metal in general and the lumbering Swedeath present in “Vestiments of Cancer” hits like a sharpened chainsaw to the chest while “Counsel of the Ungodly” showcases their ability to go full on guitar virtuoso mode and chop heavy on the drums. There’s so many twists and turns here that while being a death metal album, and a barbaric one at that, it does so much more than just blast and conquer. This is a band that has a bright future and the strides taken between their debut and this one are measured in miles and not feet. Death metal heavy enough for a strong cup of coffee to go with it, sign me up.
In all honesty, Einderlicht was a late night Bandcamp find. And again, total transparency, that album cover caught my attention. I mean, if that’s not a total statement of 2020 in a single feeling I don’t know what is. But, I found it at a low time so it makes sense that the album title translates to ‘light at the end.’ So, make of that what you will. Then there’s the music which is a genius mix of melodic death metal, doom, and hushed moments that reach right into the soul and that’s not even mentioning the power of harsh vocals clashing with heartfelt cleans that really hits hard. “When All Is Said” is probably the best example of what the band do best with its death metal opening that slowly fades into haunting funeral doom and “Deformed” hits like a freight train with melody and razor sharp, coffin ready riffs. The way the band handles themselves throughout is exemplary and even though this one lands at number nine, it was my biggest surprise of the year in a sense of how fast it rose through the ranks. Exceptional in every way; heartbreaking at times and fist clinchingly heavy at others, Marche Funèbre have given us the best album of their career.
The Honorable Mentions
10. Couch Slut – Take A Chance On Rock ‘n’ Roll
Couch Slut has never been an easy listen but this has not been an easy year. Every time I found myself needing dirt, grime, maniacal noise, and feeling utter disdain for humanity I pressed play on this album and literally melted away. I get lost in the musical violence and deep hurt behind Megan’s tortured vocals and while it plays I don’t care to find my way back, any album that has that effect is a keeper.
11. Frowning – Death Requiem
I didn’t dabble in a lot of funeral doom this year for whatever reason but the call of Frowning pulled me in like a swan song straight from six feet under. Death Requiem is the best parts of Mournful Congregation and My Dying Bride for those of you needing a point of reference. It’s so good in fact that two of the six songs here are covers but you’d never know it as they make them completely their own and BETTER than the originals. Sole member Val Atra Niteris is an absolute genius at funeral doom so get acquainted.
12. Dool – Summerland
I spent an overwhelming amount of time with Dool’s dark occultish rock jams this year which left no doubt as to my allegiance to their insanely catchy melodies, over the top vocals, and wicked songwriting abilities. It’s amazing that as dark as this album is, at its core, it was what I returned to anytime I needed a reset from whatever blanket of crap that had been dealt my way. Their power is undeniable and how they aren’t a household name yet is beyond me. Molasses really tried but couldn’t crack the power and beauty of Dool and Summerland.
13: Beyond Deth – Accept Your Fate
Maybe it’s in the way that Beyond Deth remind me of Grimfist. Or, maybe it’s how much they remind me of melodic death and thrash from the 90s. But no matter the memories, Accept Your Fate is a steamroller of an album that fires on every available cylinder and never once lets off the gas. It’s an ass kicker from start to finish that will leave newcomers to metal picking their jaws up off the floor and leave the old guard grinning from ear to ear knowing they’ve found their new saviors. Indeed, it’s that good.
14. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
Ulcerate are champions of the impenetrable wall of atmospheric blackened death metal and here they master it, completely. Casual listens don’t do it justice but good time spent with this thing finds the band at their best. The atmosphere they create is suffocating and the charred death metal they wield is a thing of beauty.
15. Abrams – Modern Ways
I fell head over heels for Abrams’ last album Morning and its heavier take on riffcentric rock and soaring melodies so it was no surprise to me that Modern Ways fell into that same head over heels category. Honestly, I can’t believe it didn’t come in higher but it was a strong year. Their catchy songwriting tightened and they played with a little post-punk while finding a way to make those vocals soar even higher. I can’t say enough about Abrams and how far they’ve come over the years and this album cements two winners in a row so the sky as a limit may not hold them on the next one.
16. Fluids – Ignorance Exalted
Fluids makes filthy death metal for filthy minds. Period. And honestly, what more can you ask from death metal? Rhetorical, of course. Call it grind in parts or industrial in parts or caveman in parts and you wouldn’t be wrong but that’s the sweet spot of this band; they can hit from any angle and still rip your favorite death metal band a new asshole in five seconds flat.
17. Netherlands – Zombie Techno Undead
Yes indeed Netherlands have made another of my year end lists and it’s because they don’t give a damn what anyone thinks they should be and just go out, every time, and kill it with heavy as lead riffs, pop hooks, melodic structures, and here showcase a ballad that slays. I mean, COME ON MAN. And I picked the Undead version of this one due to three extra tracks including a smokin’ Jacksons cover. YES, a Jacksons cover—and they own it. At this point it’s safe to say Netherlands don’t have it in them to put out a bad album or even a meh album and with the next full length pending, be ready to see them here again next year.
18. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence
If you can believe this, I never fully connected with Wayfarer until this album. They were oh-so-close to nailing their spaghetti western vibe but, for me, didn’t seal the deal until now. This is dark americana and the violent wild west all wrapped up with a vicious black metal bow ready for the next generation of western scores.
The Special Mentions
With Mutoid Man as the house band and a slew of amazing guests, Two Minutes to Late Night has been the thread that’s kept me tied up and happy since their Covers Vol I hit Bandcamp which led me to their YouTube page and the rest was 2020 history. In an era of Zoom meetings, Teams meetings, Skype and all that mess that’s not live shows, this amazing idea turned into the thing I looked forward to the most when most of social media was in the shitter. And the cover song picks? Most fall into the category of “might not work as metal” but end up being “totally kicks ass as metal.” Part of that belongs to the heart and soul behind the project and part of that belongs to the talented guest musicians from all across the metal landscape. If you didn’t know, now you do and I fully expect you to investigate. The Bandcamp covers are only available for a day so when announced, don’t delay.
And one other cover album of sorts, or rather a sort of reimagining. Hence the Dirt Redux name. I’ve never been one to fully buy into a redux of albums but the impact Alice In Chains and Dirt has had on me since back then, I had no choice but to check it out. And I’m glad I did, Magnetic Eye put together an astounding line up of bands that do an astounding job with each and every track here. There’s anything from a straight up cover in that particular band’s style to complete reimagining of tracks altogether and they all rule in their own way. So much so that I’m certain Layne is looking down in full approval and the rest of that album’s lineup is proud of this gathering of talent to pay tribute to one of the best bands and best albums ever released.
Metal wasn’t the only thing that got me through this shitstorm of a year. I’ve been a music lover all my life and my favorites have always been a honky tonk sawdust floor, and a loud ass guitar. You’ve got my loud ass picks up above but what else tripped my trigger this year? Even though Paul Cauthen, aka Big Velvet, didn’t release new music this year, Room 41 from last year has been on constant rotation as well as Sturgill Simpson’s Cutting Grass series that has seen two releases this year. Charley Crockett put out a barn burner of a western flavored honky tonk ass kicker with Welcome to Hard Times and Cody Jinks finally released the audio from his immaculate Red Rocks concert from last year, Red Rocks Live—you know, back when concerts were a thing. Tyler Childers put out Long Violent History and continues to be country’s fightin’ side and of course, there was plenty of Waylon Jennings mixed in throughout the year, as there always is. And, AC/DC roared back into the spotlight with Power Up and it’s a shit load of fun. Besides editing and listening to our own podcast, I’ve had a ball with Cody Jinks A Couple In With Cody Jinks which opened a new season with none other than Pepper Keenan as a guest and existing with no parameters, this thing rules and I highly recommend it. Elsewhere, if you missed any of the Enslaved live events this year, you really missed out.
Thing is, 2021 will not start like we wish it will; live shows are a ways out still and ‘normal’ life won’t be normal for some time to come. Shitty as it is, we’ll have to rely on YouTube and wherever you get your livestreams from to get your fix of concert type content from. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here cranking metal and old outlaw country with a big glass of bourbon trying to forget about all the bullshit we’re currently going through. And, don’t forget to check out our “All In” 9C picks of 2020 to see where we methodically and scientifically fell across the board.
Anyway, thanks for reading and we’ll see you ’round these pages very soon. Happy New Year.