Chris’ Top Ten Hard Rock and Metal Albums of 2020

I had a few long paragraphs typed out where I rambled on a bit about 2020, trying to make sense of all the crazy shit that has happened in my life this year.  But I just ended up deleting it because I’m so goddamned tired of 2020.  I’m tired of living it, and I’m tired of talking about it.  And you are probably tired of reading about it.  It’s been miserable and, like everyone else, I just want it to be over.  All of that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that this year has also made it starkly obvious how fortunate I am in this life.  By any measure, I have it really, really good.  And so I am grateful, even in a super shitty year like 2020.  I’ve made it this far, as have you.  Let’s be good to one another as we push on towards better days. chris chris chris

Ok, on with it then. chris chris chris chris chris chris chris chris chris chris

I’ve more or less said this same thing in every Top 10 list I’ve done for Metal Nation, but it bears repeating: we are living in nothing short of a golden age for heavy music, to the point where creating lists such as the one below feels not only overwhelming but also futile.  I dreaded making this list, honestly.  I cannot possibly narrow this year’s offerings down to the 10 “best” albums, let alone pick a standalone favorite from this year.  I just can’t.  I’m one person.  I have  limited time, and my taste in music is different than yours.  Why are we doing this?  But I guess that is sort of the point, right?  Anyway, the purpose of this list isn’t to foist my opinion on you so much as it is intended to help you uncover a few nuggets you may have missed from the past year.  As such, I encourage you to take a couple of minutes to check out any of these albums you haven’t already heard.  And if you like what you hear, consider shifting some coin into the pockets of the artists involved via Bandcamp (or the service of your choosing).  Lord knows they need our support, perhaps this year more than ever.  Cheers, and thanks for reading.

Honorable Mentions:

I limited myself to only 5 selections, making this list woefully inadequate, but here goes…

Deftones – Ohms:  Deftones are really the only “nu metal” band worth talking about, largely because they aren’t really a ”nu metal” band at all.  They are an exceptional hard rock band who write atmospheric, moody, beautiful music, and Ohms is a very solid album from Chino and the boys.

Kvelertak – Splid:  Despite the departure of their owl-worshipping-shirt-hating frontman, Erlend Hjelvik, Kvelertak returns with a blistering set of Scandanavian party metal in a year when we needed it most.  Mastodon frontman Troy Sanders even shows up on a song–marking one of the only occasions where it is possible to actually decipher the lyrics.  But lyrics do not matter when an album is this fun to listen to.  Splid makes me want to get drunk and throw furniture into a bonfire.

Pallbearer – Forgotten Days It is most certainly a crime that this album isn’t in my top 10, because it is probably my favorite album from Pallbearer to date.  These guys have long been considered one of the saviors of the American doom scene–so it’s not like they need me to nudge them towards notoriety–but Forgotten Days is a massive sounding album and a tight, cohesive offering which should not be missed.

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu:  As the years pass by, the genres continue to bend, and at the dusty crossroads of Americana, doom, and neo-psychedelia sits a haunting little masterpiece of an album called Tohu Wa Bohu by Lord Buffalo.  I really hate myself for not finding room for this little gem in my top 10 list.  It’s just not right.

REZN – Chaotic Divine:  Chicago’s REZN follows up their solid 2018 debut (Calm Black Water) with Chaotic Divine–an album which deftly blends unconventional instruments (sitar, saxophone, etc.) with thundering doom riffage to create an album full of lush, ethereal soundscapes.  Headphones are a must!

10. Spirit Adrift – Enlightened in Eternity (20 Buck Spin/Century Media)

I’ve never really considered myself a true metalhead.  And by “true” I mean the kind of person who wears a patch covered jean jacket and salivates at the thought of having sweaty mops of hair flailing all around them in the pit at a metal show.  Call it a lifestyle choice.  Anyways, I’m a banker, and that look doesn’t fly in my world.  Plus, the true metalhead seems like it might be a dying breed–but not on Spirit Adrift‘s watch, no sir!  Enlightened in Eternity is the band’s fourth album, and while they do not seem inclined to deviate much from the foundations of classic thrash metal, they have honed their ability to kick out tightly performed, triumphant fist-pumpers to an impressive sheen.

9. Ritual King – Ritual King (Ripple Music)

Manchester-based power trio Ritual King was not a band who was on my radar heading into 2020, but their self-titled debut grabbed me from the first listen and somehow managed to stay high on my playlist as the year wore on.  The Ritual King sound bears sonic signatures from influences that will be immediately familiar to anyone with an ear towards the underground stoner/psych/doom scene, sure, but the thing that makes them stands out to me is the soulful and bluesy lead guitar playing.  An excellent debut from Ritual King and, if it can be topped by future offerings from the band, an exciting glimpse of what these lads are capable of. 

8. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence (Profound Lore)

I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually listened to a black metal album from front to back before, let alone considered one for inclusion on my top 10 list.  But hey, it’s 2020.  Anything goes I guess.  Wayfarer is certainly no stranger to the metal world, thanks in no small part to their presence in Denver’s burgeoning metal scene (Khemmis, Cobalt, Green Druid, etc.), but I only heard about them after seeing their name on the roster for the 2020 iteration of Fire in the Mountains Festival (cancelled, obviously, but you can bet your ass I’ll be there in 2021) which takes place in the shadow of Wyoming’s majestic Teton Mountains.  A Romance With Violence concerns itself with the mystique of the American Old West as it weaves together a sprawling, sonic narrative spread across a searing 45 minutes, implementing elements of folk and Americana along the way.  Take it from someone who doesn’t typically dig this sort of stuff when I say that this album is a very compelling listen, particularly if the dusty environs of the West are yours to call home.

7. Mount Hush – Mount Hush (Independent)

I am not going to type very many words about Mount Hush’s self-titled debut.  Two reasons for that.  First, I don’t know much about these guys besides what little they reveal on their Bandcamp page (which is hardly anything) and, second, this album absolutely speaks for itself with its warm, accessible immediacy.  Grab a beer, take a rip–whatever it is you gotta do–and let this album be the soundtrack as you let your mind drift off into the ether. chris chris chris chris chris chris chris chris chris chris

6. All Them Witches – Nothing as the Ideal (New West)

When it was revealed that All Them Witches would be entering the hallowed halls of Abbey Road Studios to record the follow-up to 2018’s marvelous ATW, I imagined they’d emerge with a collection of tracks that were moody, warm, and quirky–in keeping not only with the vibe of the space in which they’d been recorded (or at least what I imagined the vibe to be), but also with their recent trajectory as a band.  I was…well, I was mostly right.  What I did not anticipate is that they would indulge their heavier side.  Nothing as the Ideal still finds All Them Witches refusing to adhere to the constraints of genre or structure, much as they always have, but there are several moments of clarity and focus here which is surprising given the “anything goes” nature of their sound.  Maybe it shouldn’t be?  Anyway, I never thought I’d hear these guys lock into a Tool-inspired groove, such as they do on “41”, or drop a proper country song like “The Children of Coyote Woman”.  But that is what makes this band so special, and so very near and dear to my heart.

5. Lowrider – Refractions (Blues Funeral)

As much a fan as I am of the Swedish rock scene (and, cousin, I am a fan), imagine my surprise when I started hearing rumblings about a new record from this band called Lowrider who–it was absolutely made clear–was just now getting around to releasing new material some 20 years after their landmark debut!  20 years?  Apparently these dudes were Sweden’s answer to Kyuss or something?!  And before you go all “But, America INVENTED stoner rock bro!” on me, let us admit that while it is true that America more or less invented the stoner rock genre, it absolutely cannot be argued that the Swedes have fucking perfected it.  Fight me.  As evidence, I present to you Refractions, which is an absolute masterclass in stoner groove.  Good stoner rock is all about feeling out a bunch of different riffs until you find that ONE riff, and then playing said riff 47 times in a row.  The trick has always been in keeping the repetition interesting.  And Lowrider just gets that.  This album could have easily been my #1.  For many days this year, it totally was–it’s that good.  And whoever mixed this album–I did try to find a name–deserves an award because it sounds absolutely incredible.

4. Slift – Ummon (Vicious Circle)

Although this album was released in February, it came to my attention much later than that.  Like, just before Thanksgiving.  Slift is a 3-piece space rock outfit from Germany, and on Ummon these cats chart a course into the heart of the sun and damn near get there.  From the opening twinkles of the title track, to the hypnotic 13-minute bass guitar orgasm that closes the album on “Lions, Tigers, and Bears”, Slift demonstrates an absolute stunning command of their craft.  These dudes just flat out understand the art of the build, and they use it to great effect across the album’s 72 minute (!) run time.  It meanders at times–as space rock albums tend to do–but it never feels mindless or self-indulgent.  Ummon is an exceptional mix of floaty grooves and thundering riffage, and it finds the band unified in purpose in ways which seem to be unique to the power trio.  Fearless and bold, with an unwavering fixation on the great beyond.  You’d do well to take this trip.

3. Elephant Tree – Habits (Holy Roar/Magnetic Eye)

With the release of their debut album Theia in 2014, Elephant Tree established themselves as a band with tremendous potential.  2016’s self-titled follow-up did nothing to diminish that potential, even if it didn’t necessarily vault them to elite status.  I’m not exactly sure what happened in the ensuing four years between albums–though I suspect heavy touring played a role–but Elephant Tree have fully blossomed in 2020 with the release of Habits.  The Elephant Tree sound remains thick and heavy, like cold honey, but there is warmth in the psych-laden grooves they lay forth.  Habits is peppered with generous melodical flourishes, and a tremendous sense of space and flow–it is in an intoxicating mix of suffocating heaviness interspersed with sparse and ethereal sonic explorations.  Chill-doom has arrived, and Elephant Tree is leading the charge.

2. Empress – Premonition (Petrichor)

The heavy underground music scene is essentially a collection of bands and musicians who, almost as if by symbiosis, build and innovate on the works of those who came just a few years before.  It’s a process that has been playing out beautifully for several years now, and I’m always fascinated by not only the number of well established bands who continue to release compelling music with remarkable consistency, but also by how many great young bands are emerging in their wake.  It’s the reason I believe–as I stated above–that we are in a golden age for heavy music.  On their debut LP Premonition, Vancouver 3-piece Empress make it abundantly clear that this is a trend which will continue for the foreseeable future.  Premonition is a devastating and haunting mix of black, post, sludge, and doom metal, brimming with emotion and catharsis.  Bassist Brenden Gunn passed away before the album could be released, and while it is impossible for me to know if the circumstances surrounding his passing informed the album’s emotional heft, it is equally impossible for me to separate these two things each time I listen to it.  Premonition hits you square in the chest.  Hard.  This is one hell of an artistic statement for a band this early in their career, and it is my sincere hope that Empress is able to find a bass player capable of stepping in for Gunn because these guys are clearly ready to be torchbearers for the heavy underground in the years to follow.

1. Elder – Omens (Armageddon/Stickman)

When this era in heavy music comes to its eventual conclusion (which I hope is never), and when future generations ponder the impact of the various bands who comprised this scene, one has to figure that the influence of the almighty Elder will loom much larger than most.  In just a shade over a decade Elder has constructed a discography worthy of reverence, and on Omens they make it clear that they have no intention of slowing down anytime soon.  The textural flourishes first hinted at on 2015’s Lore and explored further on 2017’s Reflections of a Floating World have now fully come to life on Omens, thanks in large part to the contributions of famed Italian pianist and composer Fabio Cuomo who was brought into the studio to execute on the band’s growing infatuation with synths and keys.  As a result, Omens pushes Elder further towards dreamy psychedelia, and while the album deals in lyrical themes that are undoubtedly gloomy (and timely given that they describe a civilization in decline), this album just makes me feel good.  I’m uplifted every time I listen to it.  And in a year when feeling uplifted was a fleeting thing, I see no reason why Omens shouldn’t be my album of the year.   

All Them WitchesElderElephant TreeEmpressLowriderMount HushRitual KingSliftSpirit AdriftWayfarer
Comments (1)
Add Comment
  • Pierric Gisquet

    for the records, Slift is from Toulouse (France)