We all know that 2020 was a very unpleasant year (to say the least). You don’t need me to list all the ways it was awful. We are all painfully aware of the details, and even more so as we look back at our 2020 new year’s resolutions we had made (travel more, drink less; you know). So enough of that, let’s focus on a bit of positivity and good that emerged from the past 12 months. For instance, there were so many new and wonderful musical releases that I could not even keep up. Every new album I listened to brought some joy, some goosebumps, and some pain—but in a good, cathartic way. As usual, my super indecisive self had a difficult time narrowing down the list of favorites. I managed to finally settle(ish) on a list. These selections are different (with the exception of my number one pick) from when I weighed in on the group list and different on the EOY Podcast episode—apologies for the inconsistency but, again, I’m indecisive (and also anxious).
Here are my top 13 as of this moment (because I love all things spooky, and c’mon, we’ve already had all the bad luck brought upon us) and a little list of some nonmetal favorites.
13. Without Light – All the Kings Must Burn
Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I love doom metal. It is the genre that I am generally drawn towards the most. Without Light is a band that describes their sound as “cosmic doom,” which I love and can definitely get behind. The album opens with an eerie atmospheric introduction containing ambient and synth sounds. The synths are heard throughout and add to the cosmic vibe, along with heavy riffs and raspy growls. However, vocals are not always heard, and track “Wretched Ascent Part One” is instrumental—heavily featuring some groovy synth work. The lack of vocals in some areas adds to the journey of the album and makes way for this four-piece band to showcase their skills as instrumentalists. All the Kings Must Burn is one that I have revisited several times since its release in May. It is dynamic and textured in really creative ways that keeps me coming back.
12. Occlith – Gates, Doorways, and Endings
Surprise! Another doom album (and not the last). Gates, Doorways, and Endings is Occlith’s debut album and it is sad, slow, and spooky in the most amazing way. This album contains only five tracks but in typical extreme doom fashion, each one spans just over 10 minutes. The music is haunting, dense, and crawling with killer riffs, crashing cymbals, and atmospheric/acoustic moments that feel like the musical equivalent to fog rolling in. Guttural vocals are featured as well as far-off droning clean vocals. The songs are often mournful, crushing, low and oh so doomy. At times, the music reminded me of Pallbearer, Bell Witch, or Esoteric, yet Occlith is a band with a sound of their own. They add something new and very bewitching to the doom scene and I cannot wait to hear more.
11. Elder – Omens
I will only ever have good things to say about this band. I stumbled upon Elder just a few years ago and instantly connected with their music. This album feels like an Elder album, yet it is different from their earlier releases. I love to see bands experiment while also keeping their essence and I think Elder has done that here. Omens has a lot of layers and textures, and more synth and keyboard work that makes it a unique entry in the band’s discography. There are three people playing keyboards here including guest pianist, Fabio Cuomo. The music is very dreamy—specifically the instrumental moments—and at times feels ethereal. I especially feel this in the instrumental opening of track “Halcyon.” There are plenty of impressive riffs and guitar solos, progressive drums, and catchy melodies that make Elder the wonderful band that they are. Omens is comprised of five songs with cascading waves of sound that will capture the attention of any listener.
Check out Charles’ full review of this album here.
10. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence
This is a fun and artistic album that tells a story. The opening introductory track is full of a twangy piano and fiddle that sets the scene and the mood for the music to come. Right away, you feel like you have traveled back in time and just swung open some double doors and walked into a saloon in the wild west. The introduction fades and soon the crash of cymbals is heard, and black metal elements pour in as the riffs roll and the bass booms. A Romance With Violence contains the black metal sound that Wayfarer is known for with some Western aspects sprinkled in throughout. This album contains more clean singing moments than earlier releases from the band and features some acoustic guitar. I really love the final track, “Vaudeville,” which contains all the components heard throughout the album and ties it up beautifully. A Romance With Violence is dynamic, captivating, and well produced. I am eager to see where Wayfarer goes next, whether they dive deeper into this theme or try something new, I know the band will do great things.
Check out Ian’s full review of this album here.
9. Envy – The Fallen Crimson
I was so excited to see a new Envy album released this year! This is the first new studio album from the band in five years. This was a big one that I was looking forward to and Envy, as usual, did not disappoint. The album was almost never created due to personal and creative struggles from the band. Envy had some different band members and changeups in the past five years, but they have managed to keep their style and sound while adding some new talent. This may be my favorite Envy album to date. It is dynamic and beautiful. There are peaceful choral and acoustic moments, along with sonic, melodic thrash, and post-hardcore sounds which make Envy the band that they are. Each track is unique, and the album has a rise and fall that keeps intrigue and interest. Each of the 11 tracks offers something different and enchanting. The Fallen Crimson is something to dive into, experience, and savor.
8. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
I had the lovely experience of co-writing a review for this album with Ian back in October. I just love Pallbearer. They are a band that I always cannot wait to see when they tour because they put on an amazing, authentic show. Forgotten Days brings all the flavor of a live Pallbearer performance. Brett Campbell’s vocals are more prominent without overpowering, each instrument is defined and crisp, and the energy is high and enthralling. The sound surrounds you and pulls you in. The album has all the wonderful doom elements that are heard in earlier releases from the band, while also bringing in more psychedelic/groovy moments and experimentation. All these sounds work together and create an emotive, powerful album. There is a strong theme of family throughout which is something that has proved to be very important in 2020. Whether it is a family you have chosen or blood relatives, I think we have all relied on loved ones this past year to help get us through. Needless to say, Forgotten Days slaps on all fronts and will hold me over until I can see Pallbearer perform live again.
7. Afsky – Ofte jeg drømmer mig død
I had not listened to Afsky or really knew of the band prior to this release, but I was instantly astounded by the music. This album caused me to go back and check out the rest of the one-man-band’s discography, all of which I would recommend. Ofte jeg drømmer mig død begins with a calm atmospheric opening of water flowing, an acoustic guitar, and cello. This plays for a while until drumming is quietly heard in the background and steadily grows into the foreground before consuming everything in its tracks along with equally ferocious riffs. Black metal sounds take over and harsh vocals are added. Each track on this album brings brutal head banging energy with blast beat drumming and tremolo picking, but also offers scattered moments of quiet echoing acoustic guitar. The music is at times mournful and always emotive. The pleasant mix of raging, melodic black metal and atmospheric acoustics is extremely well done and engrossing.
6. Feminazgul – No Dawn for Men
There are so many reasons why I love this band—the big one being that the duo is unapologetically feminist and anti-fascist. In fact, you can find this album under those two tags on Bandcamp. I love promoting and supporting bands that not only rock but also stand up for human rights and make that clear in all that they do. The passion behind Feminazgul’s music is always heard and it is what makes their albums so powerful and energetic. No Dawn for Men is a mainly black metal album with soulful, atmospheric, instrumental segments that elevate the music. There are sounds of nature, choral vocals, piano, violin, synth, and theremin (what?!) sprinkled in throughout the savage eight tracks. I am mystified by track “Forgiver, I Am Not Yours” which has minutes of this beautiful juxtaposition of killer black metal music and piano with choral vocalization all playing at the same time. It works! The sounds are enchanting and create something very original and daring. There are other dynamic combinations of sounds throughout the album that make it truly unique. No Dawn for Men is a work of art with many layers and something new to find with each listen.
5. Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou – May Our Chambers be Full
Who doesn’t love a good collaboration? These are two artists that I admire so needless to say, I was very excited to see them create something together. The album did not disappoint, and I am so happy that there is more to come—an EP due to be released on January 15. The mixture of Emma Ruth Rundle’s beautiful clean vocals alongside Bryan Funck’s harsh vocals is alluring and haunting. This is another heavy and emotional album which seemed to be the trend for 2020 (not surprisingly). However, the music does not weigh the listener down as it exudes a cathartic, beautiful energy. Each track is melodic and dynamic, featuring the downtuned doominess that Thou excels at, along with the bewitching vocals from ERR in a perfect blend. Thou is a band that masters collaboration and they are not afraid to experiment or do whatever they please. The band’s collaborative albums are some of my favorites in their discography and May Our Chambers be Full is now my favorite of these projects!
4. Zeal and Ardor – Wake of a Nation (EP)
Wake of a Nation is technically an EP, but I had to include it on my list. It is my most listened to release of 2020 and after every listen, it left me craving more. Zeal and Ardor’s signature blend of gospel, soul, blues, and black metal is incredible and shines so brightly on this EP. The reasons for what sparked the inspiration for these songs are obvious and they absolutely fucking suck, but these six powerful tracks will stop you in your tracks and are a creative response to all of the heartache and rage. Manuel Gagneux explains that the creation of these songs is “… a knee jerk reaction to what has happened to my fellow people in the last months.” There is so much packed into this EP. You can feel every emotion that went into each song. Every punching riff, every scream, every mournful word and chant—you feel the anger and the anguish. Wake of Nation is moving and will stir up all the emotions felt over the horrific events of 2020 and the ever-present systemic racism that started it all. This is the most important release on my list and deserves to be not only heard but felt.
3. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
This album is a huge group favorite of the Nine Circles staff. It came in as our collective number one pick, and for good reason. It absolutely slaps. Stare Into Death and Be Still, as the title suggests, thematically focuses on the concept of death reverence. These eight tracks are stunning, meaningful, and so skillfully created that you may just have an out of body experience listening to them. This is the sixth full length release in the band’s discography and it definitely feels like an Ulcerate album. Everything listeners love from the band is present—complex tracks with driving riffs, coarse growls, atmospheric surges, and intense drumming. However, I feel this album is a bit more melodic and the production a bit more fine tuned and crisp, making this a polished listening experience that will completely consume you. Stare Into Death and Be Still is extremely well crafted and I cannot even imagine what the band will do next but I know it will be remarkable.
Check out Charles’ full review of this album here.
2. WAKE – Devouring Ruin
This is another group favorite! It was our album of the month pick for March and we had a lot of fun discussing how much we love it. The tracks are absolutely crushing and contain all the instrumentation that the band excels at. WAKE began as a grindcore/crust band but have more recently ventured into the territory of death metal. Devouring Ruin pulls from both sides and showcases blastbeat drumming, melodic guitar (the solos on this album are incredible), heavy riffs, echoing growls, electronic atmospheric pauses, and grinding overdriven bass—to call out just some of the elements that make the music great. The ebb and flow of each track is smartly crafted and makes for a bold and intense album. WAKE also released an EP this year that is equally as impressive. Expert songwriters and skilled musicians created these tracks, and of course both of these releases from band were mixed and mastered by Dave Otero. What more could you want?
Check out the Nine Circles Audio Thing episode about this album here.
1. Vile Creature – Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm
This is the only album that remained in place throughout all the drafts of my list. I absolutely adore this album and this band. I have said it once and I will say it again, I love seeing shes, gays, and theys in metal. This is another band that is not afraid to be vocal of what they stand for as they are champions of LGBTQ+ rights and self-identify as “angry, queer, gloom cult.” If that isn’t enough to make you fall in love with them, they also enjoying talking about their six cats and one dog that they consider to be a part of the band. Vile Creature has also released the most unique and awesome merch this year, including a calendar featuring photos of their creature companions. On top of all of this, they create amazing music that is raw, yet polished, meaningful, and fierce. Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm contains three fiery tracks full of harsh vocals, distorted instruments, and heavy rhythms, one track that features a choral arrangement with delicate vocals and beautiful harmonies, and one track that combines everything into a conclusive piece. The final track, “Apathy Took Helm!,” is extremely well done with a delightful mix of slow, heavy doom, shrieking vocals, screeching feedback, and choral vocalization that takes over in brief moments throughout. This album is powerful and striking (much like the fantastic artwork) and deserves all the praise.
Check out Chris’ full review of this album here.
Other (nonmetal) listens that got me through this year, in no particular order:
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
The Oh Hellos – Boreas
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Fleet Foxes – Shore
Jonathan Hultén – Chants from Another Place (I reviewed this album way back in March of 2020.)
Anti-Flag – 20/20 Vision
PUP – This Place Sucks Ass
Myrkur – Folkesange
Osi and The Jupiter – Appalachia (My other half reviewed this album in August of 2020.)
There are many more albums I could have listed. Albums that do not appear above are only missing due to lack of space/time/energy… and more indecisiveness and anxiety. My fellow Nine Circles heathens have wonderful comprehensive lists posted that contain a plethora of music and more of my favorites. I am so grateful to be a part of this group and love working alongside these talented writers/podcasters! Cheers to Nine Circles, cheers to all the amazing musicians out there that give us things to write/talk about, cheers to you, lovely readers, and cheers to 2021.