Listen, we all just lived through the same year, so let's not bother rehashing it. Instead, let's jump right into fifteen albums that were bright spots in 2020, like finding graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars right next to a big ol' dumpster fire!
Honorary List Addition: Deafheaven - 10 Years Gone
I know you're thinking I just threw up the ol' HLA to include 16 albums under the ruse of 15, but I genuinely thought it was the best way to include 10 Years Gone. Recorded live in studio after Covid cancelled their 10 Year Anniversary Tour, 10 Years Gone serves as both a Greatest Hits So Far and a testament to the raw energy and power Deafheaven bring to the stage. What could have come across as a (completely understandable) cash grab is instead a truly spectacular celebration of the first decade of Deafheaven.
15. Barrens - Penumbra
I've always preferred doing my grocery shopping earlier in the day, but COVID has brought that to a new extreme: I'm at the grocery store every Sunday when they open at 6am. And since it's about a twenty-five minute drive from my house to the grocery, that's a lot of time for pre-daylight music. And Penumbra got a lot of plays to and from Albertsons. Synthy, atmospheric, and completely instrumental, it manages to be completely engrossing while allowing the listener to zone out and get lost in their thoughts.
Favorite Track: "Penumbra"
14. The Ditch and the Delta - The Ditch and the Delta
Ditch's debut album, Hives in Decline, completely blew me away when it came out in 2017, and I was very excited when they announced their self-titled follow up. The Ditch and the Delta overall is a stronger album than its predecessor, going from a galloping roar to a runaway freight train all within the sludgy framework the band has constructed. It's the trio of songs that close the album - "Bleed the Sun," "Hiraeth," and "Tectonic Selves" - that really elevates The Ditch and the Delta to its highest highs.
Favorite Track: "Bleed the Sun"
13. Stygian Bough - Volume 1
Favorite Track: "The Unbodied Air"
12. Atramentus - Stygian
Boasting one of, if not the, most metal as fuck concepts I've ever seen in a concept album, Stygian is doom to the extreme. Across three tracks, Atramentus creates a rich tapestry of evocative soundscapes that perfectly capture a world frozen under a dead sun. Sometimes moving at the (appropriate) glacial pace of funeral doom, other times speeding up to more traditional doom, Atramentus makes you feel every ounce of melancholy suffering that their protagonist does. Originally written in 2012 and 2013, Stygian is a complete debut, and I hope we don't have to wait another eight years for a follow up.
11. Hum - Inlet
When I discovered Inlet, I also discovered a whole host of people online saying "Oh shit there's a new Hum album!!!" to which I thought "Hm?" Having never heard the band's previous albums, the last of which came out in 1998, I had no idea what to expect. The shoegazy riffs and clean singing quickly won me over; Inlet is filled with songs that initially seem like they're going to be twice as long as they need to be, but instead end up being even shorter than you want them to be.
Favorite Track: "In the Den"
10. An Autumn for Crippled Children - All fell silent, everything went quiet
Favorite Track: "None More Pale"
9. Sea - Impermanence
Post-metal that lives up to its namesake, with heavy riffs crashing over the listener like waves, Sea's debut full-length delivers the swelling emotion and powerful riffs expected from the genre. But it's the quieter moments when the band's strengths are truly highlighted, as the vocal harmonies of Stephen LoVerme and Liz Doom create truly beautiful moments.
Favorite Track: "Ashes"
8. Pallbearer - Forgotten Days
Somehow moving further away from their early doom sound while simultaneously being the most forlorn material the band has written, Forgotten Days finds Pallbearer at a crossroads. While undeniably heavy and riff-filled, Forgotten Days feels like a bridging album, a watershed moment where fans that fans will look back on and see a "before" phase, and an "after." Not that this is a bad thing; the band's songwriting has never been stronger than it is on Forgotten Days. In a genre that often times leans more on guitar tones and pacing to sell its emotion, Brett Campbell and Joseph Rowland have written lyrics that are absolutely gut-wrenching to hear. Whatever the future holds for their sound, Pallbearer continue to be one of the torchbearers for modern metal.
Favorite Track: "Rite of Passage"
7. Skeleton - Skeleton
I've been working out in my garage every morning, since *you know, 2020,* and Skeleton has been in heavy rotation. Usually when Tom or Mick tell me to listen to something and can only describe it as "metal," it's not usually my thing. But Skeleton? Skeleton is absolutely my fucking jam. Some parts thrashy, some parts deathy, some parts hardcorey, Skeleton gets right to the fucking point on each song and that point is always to rock out as hard as possible.
Favorite Track: "Catacombs"
6. Elder - Omens
I wrote this twelve years ago back in March when Omens came out, and I stand by every word. This band deserves your attention and your respect, and if you aren't listening to them, I have to question what you're doing with your life.
Favorite Track: "One Light Retreating"
5. Spectral Lore and Mare Infinitum - Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine
Since I moved to Idaho almost three years ago, I've become a bit of a stargazer. It's a little easier to see stars out in the country than in downtown Chicago, and I've become enamored with staring at the night sky, learning which star is which, seeing planets with the naked eye, and occasionally catching a glimpse of a meteor or two. All of which is to say a two-hour album of cosmic black metal, with each song being composed around a planet, is entirely my jam. Spectral Lore and Mare Infinitum combined for Wanderers, which at just under two hours is honestly perfect, alternating songs/planets on a journey through the solar system. If you've listened to either band before, you know what you're in for, but the collaborative nature of the project has elevated both bands to even higher highs, and the two-part album closer "Pluto (The Gatekeeper)" sees them combining forces to cap a truly stunning achievement.
4. Ulcerate - Stare Into Death and Be Still
Ulcerate has been around for so long, and been so consistently fantastic, that I've absolutely begun to take them for granted. Their brutal, dissonant take on death metal is primally ferocious while also being undeniably catchy, and Stare Into Death and Be Still is the apex of their sound. The title track is as pummeling as you want it to be, while elsewhere the band slows down to almost a doomy crawl to let the dissonance take the wheel (the stellar "Visceral Ends"). Stare Into Death and Be Still is a revelation, a notice from a band that's been so good for so long that they deserve to be appreciated and not taken for granted.
Favorite Track: "Visceral Ends"
3. Deftones - Ohms
Eventually, I'll stop being surprised that Deftones are the undisputed winners of the nü-metal era; much in the same way it took me three seasons to realize that Adam Scott and Rob Lowe weren't just guest stars on Parks and Recreation, it's taken me a full decade to realize "Huh, yeah, the White Pony guys aren't slowing down anytime soon." Ohms is without a doubt the band's best work since White Pony (which just turned 20), and if I'm being honest, it definitely hits harder and resonates more with me than White Pony did with 13 year old Durf. The band sounds energized, excited, and like they're tired of people being surprised they're still around.
Favorite Track: "Radiant City"
2. Wayfarer - A Romance With Violence
Much like the top prospect whose talents get lost in the shuffle of bigger stars before breaking out to the general public in a big way, Wayfarer announced themselves to the metal world at large this year with A Romance With Violence. And it's about time, as the Colorado band has been among the upper echelon of American black metal for three albums now, and somehow continue to get better. While much has been made (rightfully so) of the cinematic bombast and explosive nature of "Masquerade of the Gunslingers" and "Vaudeville," to me it's the smaller, more intimate "Fire & Gold" that truly showcases the band's growth and ties the album together. That said, the dizzying opening riff to "Vaudeville" is probably my favorite musical moment of the year, so maybe I'm just trying to find a different piece of this gem to shine. Truly compelling music that exceeds everything you've read about it.
1. Psychonaut - Unfold the God Man
A complete, out of nowhere discovery, Psychonaut's Unfold the God Man is hands down my Favorite Album of the Year. Blending Cult of Luna and Intronaut-esque post-metal with the psychedelia of early Pink Floyd, Unfold the God Man is alternately heavy and melodic, driving and distanced, seventy minutes of twists and turns equally suited to spacing out on your couch or going ham at the gym. Unfold the God Man has moments that make you sit up straight and pay attention, moments that blend together and cause time to stand still and move all too quickly, and by the time "Nothing is Consciousless" fades out, you're left thinking "What the fuck was that?!?!" Kind of like a certain year I won't mention, only, you know, good.