Andrew Sacher’s Top Metal Albums of 2020
You don't need another year-end list intro telling you what an insane year it's been, so I'll keep this short and get right to the music, which was one of the only good parts of 2020. My listening habits were all over the place this year, but these are my top 20 heavy albums, and they include metal, hardcore, and some other "adjacent" stuff. If your favorite album isn't here, maybe I just haven't heard it, so feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.
Read on for the list. Fuck racist, fascist, and "apolitical" metal.
20. Year of the Knife – Internal Incarceration (Pure Noise, US)
19. Drain – California Cursed (Revelation, US)
18. Necrot – Mortal (Tankcrimes, US)
17. Chamber – Cost of Sacrifice (Pure Noise, US)
16. Sharptooth – Transitional Forms (Pure Noise, US)
15. Boris – NO (self-released, Japan)
14. Carcass – Despicable (Nuclear Blast, UK)
13. Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction (20 Buck Spin, US)
12. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones, US)
11. Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! (Prosthetic, Canada)
Huntsmen owe as much to 1970s prog like Yes, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull as they do to the roaring sludge of bands like Mastodon and High on Fire, and they've got all the riffs, folky passages, sprawling prog odysseys, and soaring vocal harmonies needed to pull it off. It's too metal for classic rock radio and too clean and melodic for the extreme metal crowd, but if your taste exists somewhere in between those two extremes, few albums in 2020 scratched the itch as perfectly as this one did. Huntsmen really make sure there's strong songwriting at the center of everything they do, which makes Mandala of Fear a record that keeps you coming back for more. These songs stick in your head long after it's stopped playing.
A lot of classic screamo bands were short-lived, but Tokyo's Envy are a rare one who have maintained longevity and everlasting relevance. They helped shape the genre in the '90s, released splits with Thursday and Jesu in the 2000s, toured with Deafheaven and La Dispute in the 2010s; their influence is felt on so many screamo and post-rock adjacent bands, and they continue to put out new music that keeps them as interesting as all the Envy-influenced bands who have risen to prominence over the years. This year's The Fallen Crimson -- the band's first album in five years -- is up there with the band's best work, and it feels as fresh as any of today's newer screamo bands too. The Fallen Crimson finds Envy continuing to explore the prettier post-rock side that they've embraced in later years, and it does so without losing the intensity and the ferocity of their earlier work. It can be easy to take a band for granted after 25 years, but when they keep churning out music this compelling, it'd be a crime to stop paying attention.
Over 30 years since releasing the genre-defining grindcore classic Scum, Napalm Death are still pushing boundaries. Lesser bands start losing stream by the fourth or fifth album; Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is Napalm Death's 16th album, and it sounds as energized and inspired as this band ever has. It pulls from grindcore, death metal, punk, post-punk, industrial, and more, and some even lighter music that you might not hear on first listen like My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins. "I kind of twist [those influences], make it more abrasive," Barney says. Throes sounds almost nothing like classic Napalm Death, and it barely even sounds like their last album, yet you'd never mistake this for the work of any other band. It's no small feat to be able to reinvent yourself over and over while remaining so distinct.
On their third full-length, Bristol's Svalbard have evolved from a pummeling hardcore band into a band that swirls together anything from dream pop to black metal. It's not just post-hardcore but also post-rock, post-metal, post-everything. It's a gorgeous, futuristic rock record, and though it might shimmer sonically, its lyrics are full of scars. The songs address domestic abuse, sexual assault, depression, and other real-life issues, and Serena Cherry tackles them with incisiveness and fury.
Toronto's Respire have been making boundary-pushing heavy music since debuting a half-decade ago, and their third album Black Line just might be their best yet. Previously a band known for introspection, this record looks outwards at "a world growing increasingly ill... a world that abets the rise of fascism and drives climate catastrophe," and it's also their most musically ambitious. It's got melodic black metal blasts that nail the heavy/beautiful divide as well as anything by Deafheaven or Alcest, orchestral post-rock that's towering enough to rival Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and shouty screamo that brings to mind the emotive yet experimental sounds of bands like Circle Takes The Square and City of Caterpillar. It also works in an array of other sounds, from clean-sung emo to roaring sludge metal, and it does all of this in a way that's entirely seamless. This is an album where you don't know if you should call it screamo or metal or none of the above; it can't be pigeonholed. It's also an album that feels like heavy music's answer to Broken Social Scene - like on that band's classics, almost every individual song on Black Line is a mini epic of its own, and they're so climactic that almost any of them sound like they could be the grand finale. When do you finally get to the closing crescendo of final track "Catacombs Part II," though, you'd never argue with Black Line's sequencing. There's no better way this intense journey could have ended.
If you've heard anything about Gulch, you've probably heard that they're known for quickly selling out of limited-edition merch -- designed by guitarist Cole Kakimoto, who's responsible for their artwork, songwriting, and overall vibe -- which then gets flipped online for insane prices like a Supreme hoodie. It's a strange phenomenon that the band aren't even necessarily proud of, and it caused some people to criticize the Gulch hype for being more about merch than music, but when Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress came out, it silenced the haters. You don't need to know a thing about Gulch to know that Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is one of the most adrenaline-rush-inducing albums of the year. Drummer Sam Ciaramitaro always sounds like he's about two beats ahead of the rest of the band, vocalist Elliot Morrow's scream is nasty as all hell, and Cole Kakimoto shakes up their hardcore sound with the evil riffage of black and death metal. Part of what makes Gulch so refreshing, though, is that when so many other bands turn music into homework, Cole will be the first to tell you he doesn't actually listen to the bands people think Gulch sound like. "I didn’t listen to Madball or Terror or Breakdown or any of the staple hardcore bands, and I also didn’t listen to Entombed or Obituary, and I also didn’t listen to Darkthrone or any of that stuff," he told Bandcamp. "It’s funny, because some guy will be like, ‘This is total Repulsion worship,’ and I don’t even listen to that fuckin’ band." The similarities exist for one reason or another, but Gulch sound so fresh because they weren't trying to emulate their heroes, they were trying to recreate the music they were hearing in their heads. Judging by how distinct Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress sounds, it worked.
Sometimes a great live show makes you fall even more in love with an album, and even though these are album of the year lists, we'd be lying if we said live shows didn't sway us at all. This year, there were almost no live shows to sway us in either direction, but there were livestreams, and on that front, Code Orange pretty much perfected the form. They did three major livestreams, all of which were inventive and concert film-quality, and one of which was an MTV Unplugged-style stream that became the unplugged album Under The Skin. Every Code Orange stream felt like an event, but none of it could have happened the way it did without the excellent new album Underneath. It's easily their best yet, their most experimental and their most accessible, with a shapeshifting blend of industrial rock, metalcore, nu metal, glitch, and more. It sounds like Slipknot jamming with Garbage, or Converge covering Nine Inch Nails, or a handful of other "X meets Y'' combinations that you really don't hear everyday. It's an album that yearns for the days when MTV played heavy bands, but has its sights set on the future. It singlehandedly makes the case that loud, guitar-based rock music can still be both populist and innovative.
Virginia's Infant Island put out two records this year, the mini-LP Sepulcher and the full-length Beneath, both of which are very good, but it's Beneath that turns Infant Island from a great band into an extraordinary one. It's the kind of album that you can only hear start to finish, as it functions more as one grand piece of work than as a collection of songs. Each individual song is so different -- throughout the record, Infant Island touch on screamo, black metal, sludge metal, post-rock, noise, ambience, and more -- and they make the most sense when you hear them in succession. At various points, the album finds Infant Island at their most metallic ("Here We Are"), their catchiest ("Stare Spells"), and their most avant-garde ("Signed In Blood"), really scratching every itch you could've thought of this band scratching, and a few you'd never expect them to. It's a record that doesn't fit easily into any pre-established category, while being able to appeal to fans of all different types of punk, metal, and experimental music at once. That's a sign of a genuinely great record.
Few bands who came to prominence within or adjacent to the '90s nu metal band have continued to push forward in the way that Deftones have, and with Ohms, they've made a top-tier album that rivals their classics and sounds fresh today. Deftones (and their own heroes Hum, who also made a comeback this year) might be more influential now than ever, and Ohms will have just about all of the young, hungry, Deftones-inspired bands playing catch-up. It breathes new life into rock music today the way White Pony did 20 years ago, and it's just loaded with instant-classic songs. I already feel like I've known it forever.
Having gone under-appreciated during their initial 1990s run, Hum went on to influence the entire shoegazey punk movement of the 2010s (and Deftones), and they returned after a 22-year break with an album that might actually be better than their classics. The shoegazey parts are shoegazier, the heavy parts are heavier, the songs are varied but focused, and the whole album is their most airtight collection yet. It scratches the itch that you want Hum to scratch, but it feels forward-thinking and modern, almost effortlessly surpassing so many of the buzzy punkgaze bands who took after them. If only every reunion album could be this good.