Andrew Sacher’s Top Metal Albums of the Decade
Metal had some prevalent trends in the 2010s (“blackgaze” being the first one that comes to mind), but right now, I think what I’ll remember most about this decade of metal is how it wasn’t defined by a few key subgenres or a few key bands. Here at Invisible Oranges, individual writers are making their own lists, and though there is some crossover between the lists, it’s not surprising how different they all are. We all lived through the same decade, but lived it so differently and formed connections with such vastly different records. The records on my list tend to be the ones that flirt with punk, psychedelia, post-rock, and straight-up rock — with a few exceptions — and some of these records came from long-running legends while others came from newer bands whose careers didn’t really take off until this decade. Because we had to narrow this down to 20 picks and there were way more than 20 bands who released future classics this decade, I kept my list to one album per band to allow for the most amount of variety possible. In some cases, it was a no-brainer which album was going to make it, but some of these bands might’ve had three albums on my list if we went to 50.
That all said, read on for my 20 favorite metal albums of the 2010s, with commentary on picks ten to one. I hope this list is of some value to you, and if it’s not, feel free to rip it apart in the comments. Rock on, and see y’all in 2020.
Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat (Century Media, United Kingdom)
Electric Wizard – Black Masses (Rise Above, United Kingdom)
Nux Vomica – Nux Vomica (Relapse, United States)
SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (Profound Lore, United States)
Neurosis – Honor Found In Decay (Neurot, United States)
Oathbreaker – Rheia (Deathwish, Belgium)
Martyrdöd – Elddop (Southern Lord, Sweden)
Torche – Harmonicraft (Volcom, United States)
Thou – Magus (Sacred Bones, United States)
Windhand – Eternal Return (Relapse, United States)
Way back in 2017 when Nightmare Logic came out, I used to say it solidified them as my favorite modern thrash band. Even then, I was underselling it. Power Trip are one of the best thrash bands, period. They regularly play shows with the bands who defined this genre in the 1980s, and they hold their own next to all of them. It’s important to celebrate originality and the act of breaking ground, but to quote Drake, “It ain’t about who did it first, it’s about who did it right,” and Power Trip did it very, very right. Nightmare Logic gives you all the thrills that you got from the best of 1980s thrash and crossover thrash, but it continues to feel like a new album. They take obvious influences from 30+ year old albums, but while lots of modern thrash bands simply pay homage to those albums, Power Trip breathe new life into the genre. At this point, they’ve been in the game for over ten years and they have their own festival. They’re tastemakers, signifiers of cool, and they don’t seem like they’re going anywhere any time soon. I won’t be surprised if they’ve got an even better album in them, but for now, Nightmare Logic is already going down as a classic.
It doesn’t always work out this neatly, but with Converge, each decade of their career has been a separate chapter. In the 1990s, they were going through lineup changes and still figuring out their sound (and striking gold a few times in the process). In the 2000s, they cemented the lineup of Jacob Bannon, Kurt Ballou, Nate Newton, and Ben Koller, and released classic after classic, from 2001’s generation-defining Jane Doe up through 2009’s wildly ambitious Axe to Fall. This decade, they’ve slowed their output down a bit (but members have also been very prolific with a number of side projects), and the two albums they put out will probably always be known as the “after the classics” albums. That doesn’t mean they’re of lesser quality though; Converge just sound a little more settled-in. They’re at a similar point in their career to, say, The National. For both bands, it seems like they’re less concerned with topping their last album and writing a new classic, and more concerned with just operating in their own world, doing what they do best. It’s made Converge seem a little more relaxed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the music itself is slower or less aggressive. Sometimes it is, like on “Coral Blue,” which might be the most pure pop moment in the band’s career — but All We Love We Leave Behind is still an intense, extremely heavy album. From the math-punk of fiery album opener “Aimless Arrow,” to the tech-y, riff-forward standout “Sadness Comes Home,” to the heavy-as-bricks closer “Predatory Glow,” All We Love only strengthens Converge’s reputation as one of punk and metal’s most powerful bands. They’re elder statesmen at this point, but they’re still as creative and forward-thinking as the younger bands who are hungry to prove themselves.
Before Deafheaven’s mix of black metal and shoegaze made the unfortunately named “blackgaze” the most popular metal subgenre of the 2010s amongst music critics; before bands like Nothing and Cloakroom infiltrated the metal scene with straight-up shoegaze records; Alcest had mastered black metal, shoegaze, and a blend of both at once, and their 2010 sophomore album Écailles de Lune remains perhaps the most pivotal turning point in the development of this music. Alcest already perfected the whole black metal/shoegaze blend on their 2005 EP Le secret and their 2007 debut full-length Souvenirs d’un autre monde, but on Écailles de Lune they proved they could do actual shoegaze too. If My Bloody Valentine didn’t end up putting out a long-awaited comeback album this decade, Alcest’s “Solar Song” might’ve gone down as the best MBV song of the 2010s. It’s gorgeous, and Alcest’s ability to write gorgeous music is what always kept them ahead of the “blackgaze” competition. A lot of metal bands have learned how to do swirling guitars, but very few of Alcest’s peers and followers can meld aggression with dreamlike vocal harmonies the way Alcest can.
Sunbather might be the album that made Deafheaven metal’s biggest critical darlings of the 2010s, but its 2015 followup New Bermuda is even better. The big talking point surrounding New Bermuda when it came out, was that it was a much heavier album than Sunbather. Sunbather took a lot of influence from shoegaze and post-rock and often sounded as pretty as its pink cover art, which was not unrelated to the cynicism the album was met with from many metalheads. But New Bermuda came with black artwork and riffs that were descended from Slayer and 1990s metalcore. It was a tougher, meaner, more traditionally metal version of Deafheaven, as if to convince the haters that they are a true metal band, or maybe to challenge some Sunbather fans with a more alienating album. But New Bermuda isn’t just better than Sunbather by default because it’s a heavier album, and it’s selling the album short by only talking about how it’s Deafheaven’s heaviest. It also has some of Deafheaven’s prettiest post-rock parts, and some of their most memorable, melodic riffs. Deafheaven didn’t just get heavier, they also got better at everything they do. New Bermuda offers up the same beautiful/aggressive dichotomy that Sunbather did, but with more finesse than its predecessor and with a greater sense of musical diversity. It doesn’t just give you heavy, baby; it gives you more of everything.
Pallbearer proved they were a force to be reckoned with on their trad-doom reviving 2012 debut Sorrow and Extinction, and they proved their ambitions were limitless on their third album, 2017’s Heartless, which saw Pallbearer pushing their sound to two different extremes, from digestible sludge-pop to sprawling prog. And right smack in the middle of those two albums is Foundations of Burden, the sweet spot between where they started and where they are now. They’re still a trad-doom band on this album, but you can tell from songs like “Worlds Apart,” “Foundations,” and especially “The Ghost I Used to Be” that Pallbearer were getting interested in crafting great pop melodicism, not just copying Sabbath and Candlemass riffs. And on “Ashes,” Pallbearer begin to venture outside of metal with a glistening nugget that’s more like Sigur Ros or Bon Iver than like any doom band. “Trad-doom” is a tricky genre, because, as satisfying as it can be to listen to, it’s tough to do anything new when your genre literally includes an abbreviated version of the word “traditional.” But on Foundations of Burden, Pallbearer managed to (mostly) stick within the confines of the genre, while making a record that we really hadn’t heard before, and that remains fun as hell to listen to.
Sometimes an album just comes along that checks every one of your boxes and skyrockets its way into your list of favorites. For me, one of those albums was Dead To A Dying World’s Elegy, the only 2019 album that I’m already sure is in my top-ten metal albums of the decade. Lots of trends prevailed within heavy music during the 2010s, and instead of picking one highly specific subgenre to fit into, Dead To A Dying World successfully combined a whole bunch of them, and they never did this better than on Elegy. From evil black metal to roaring sludge metal to Godspeed You! Black Emperor-like climaxes to Swans-like menace (and help from Swans collaborators Jarboe and Thor Harris); from quiet, clean-sung folk music to harshly screamed metal to captivating instrumental passages — it’s all here, and blended together seamlessly. Including guests, Elegy has five lead vocalists, and it also has strings, clarinet, hammered dulcimer, hurdy gurdy, and tubular bells in addition to a traditional rock/metal band setup. It could end up being too ambitious for its own good, but Dead To A Dying World executed it all expertly and came out with songs that genuinely get stuck in your head in the process. It’s still early enough in this album’s existence that I’m namedropping Swans and GY!BE to sell it, but like those bands, DTADW are one of a kind, and in a just world, one day people will namedrop them as legends to sell you on some newer group who swing for the fences like these guys do.
Since forming in the mid 2000s, Sweden’s Tribulation had been gradually transforming from a relatively straightforward death/black/thrash metal band into something much grander, and by 2015’s The Children of the Night, they finally kicked the doors of their sound wide open. Bassist/vocalist Johannes Andersson still sounded as evil as he did in the band’s early days, but the band started embracing the melodic riffs of arena rock and the swagger of glam, while also diving deeper into the atmospheric psychedelia they began exploring on their previous album. It made for a record that managed to fully capture the extremity of black and death metal while also remembering that metal doesn’t always have to be dead serious; it can also be really fucking fun. For the perfect example of this, look no further than “Melancholia,” one of the most fun songs — metal or otherwise — released this entire decade. And then of course stick around for the rest of The Children of the Night, because while “Melancholia” is one of those songs where a band just so happens to strike gold, the other songs on this album rip pretty hard themselves.
Baroness have gone through lots of lineup changes and a nearly-fatal bus crash that threatened to end the band’s career, but no matter what happens, they persevere in one form or another. Right now, frontman John Baizley is the only original member, and though they aren’t a band with a clear-cut “classic lineup,” the closest they would come to one is probably any lineup where Baizley, guitarist/backing vocalist Pete Adams, and drummer Allen Blickle are all involved. Blickle had been with the band since day one, and his intricate yet overpowering style became a key element of their sound, and once Adams joined for the making of 2009’s Blue Record, the interplay between his and Baizley’s voices and guitars became crucial to the overall sound on Baroness. The two became a dynamic duo on Blue Record, which entirely eclipsed the band’s already-great debut album (2007’s Red Album), and when it came time for Yellow & Green — the final album with Allen Blickle (who left after the bus crash) — Baroness pushed their sound drastically forward once again. It’s the kind of double album where each disc has its own distinct vibe, and where a band takes advantage of the extra wax to try out just about every idea that comes to mind. They’ve got the two catchiest songs of their entire career (heavy alt-rock anthems “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea”) alongside some downright pretty balladry (“Twinkler”), danceable rock (“Little Things”), psychedelic art rock (“Collapse”), and still so much more. It completely defies the limits of heavy metal, but as far as how daring and uncompromising it is, it’s metal as fuck. It’s the past decade of heavy music’s best answer to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and like that album, it aims to be a classic and succeeds.
The indie band of choice that metal bands namedrop when they want to try something prettier is usually Sigur Ros, but for Kylesa, it’s Beach House. And even if you didn’t know for sure that Kylesa were fans of Beach House’s hauntingly beautiful psychedelia, you could probably guess it. After emerging in the 2000s as a sludge metal-friendly punk band, cementing their now-iconic two drummer approach on 2006’s Time will Fuse Its Worth, and sewing the seeds for what would become their most classic sound on 2009’s Static Tensions, Kylesa came into the 2010s swinging with what is still the best album of their career. On Static Tensions, they have a mind-melting rhythm section, fiery sludge-punk riffage, and hooks for days, and by 2013’s Ultraviolet, they were basically a straight-up psychedelic rock band. But right in the middle on 2010’s Spiral Shadow, they found the sweet spot between those two things, and nearly a decade later, it’s still the most rewarding listen the band has ever given us. It’s a much trippier album than Static Tensions, which in Kylesa’s case, only makes them sound better, but it’s still got the grit and the anthemic choruses that would start to fade on later albums. It seamlessly goes from meandering psych to bone-crushing sludge to the single catchiest song to come out of the whole Georgia sludge scene (“Don’t Look Back”) (sorry, Mastodon), and it makes for a record that’s both endlessly inventive and endlessly enjoyable. When it first came out, it filled a void for me that I didn’t previously know existed, and all these years later, it’s still pretty much the only album that scratches that very specific itch.
I said in the intro that, for some of these bands, it was hard to narrow it down to just one album. The hardest of all was Kvelertak, who gradually progressed and evolved their highly distinct sound from their self-titled 2010 debut to their 2013 sophomore album Meir to the album that ultimately topped my list of the best metal albums released this decade, 2016’s Nattesferd. It was obvious that Kvelertak were onto something from the start, and their debut remains one of the finest debuts in heavy music this decade. They basically put some of the most iconic classic rock, metal, and punk bands in a blender (Metallica, Sabbath, Ramones, Motorhead, Zeppelin, AC/DC, etc), added a dose of extremity via black metal and hardcore, and turned it into something that was full of familiar thrills yet sounded entirely fresh. For a band who never stopped wearing their influences on their sleeves, Kvelertak have been increasingly unique, and most importantly of all, they’ve consistently been fun. The thing that all those aforementioned classic bands have in common, is that you can throw them on at a party or blast them in the car or see them live, and they’ll always be a fucking blast. Kvelertak offer up the same pure adrenaline rush that those bands do, and they do it while crafting innovative songs that genuinely add to the heavy music canon, not just imitate it. Kvelertak pretty much laid out their vision in full on their debut album, and they sharpened their tools more and more each time, which is part of why I pick Nattesferd as my favorite. A second reason is this: those comparisons to classic bands always come to mind when I listen to Kvelertak and Meir, but by album three, Kvelertak had become so distinct that the only band I could think about while listening to Kvelertak is Kvelertak (save for the blatant Van Halen homage, “1985,” Nattesferd‘s one misstep). And the third reason is, put simply, Nattesferd just has the best songs Kvelertak ever wrote. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik was a huge part of Kvelertak’s appeal, and I cautiously await the band’s next album now that he left the band, but they’re a band where the guitars hook me first and the rest is all secondary, and the riffs on Nattesferd rival Page and Iommi and Hetfield and any of the other godlike axe-slingers who paved the way for Kvelertak. Take the entire intro of the title track, or the mid-section of “Berserkr” — these are riffs and arrangements that combine pure badassery, earworm melodicism, and air guitar worthy shreddery to create hard rock and metal perfection. In a genre that has spent the past three or four decades searching for the filthiest, most evil, most discordant sounds in the world, Kvelertak proved you could still break ground with the good old blues scale.