All things considered, with the the entire world warped in the Covid-19 pandemic chaos, this was a fruitful year for metal music, but then again it always somehow is. In the end, the leading theme, by an enormous margin, was traditional speed/heavy/doom and classic hard rock. Even though bands with a retro style commemorating the late the 70s and 80s have always drawn me in, this year was a particularly veritable cornucopia of such releases, as represented by my top 20 picks, and many other good albums spilled over into my top 50. Old school won the day. Indeed, in my top 10 alone I have 6-7 releases that can instantaneously trace their lineage back to the sounds of disco and Cold War mania. The Chronus sophomore might be a slight outsider among that motley crew of releases, since they have a much more updated take on trad metal, with quite a few nods to their more infamous countrymen Ghost, but regardless, it was a stellar late entrant into my list. I think I consumed a larger and broader quantity of music this year than the 2-3 years before (although I have no way of accounting for it) though surprisingly this hasn't necessarily enlarged the variety of genres and styles that are always represented to some degree in my picks.
If anything, this was a rather dull year for innovative, experimental, idiosyncratic metal music in general. Strange and avantgarde acts like Imperial Triumphant, Ulcerate, Old Man Gloom, Mountaineer - bands who gained considerable attention both in the mainstream and in underground circles - failed to impress me, and mostly exhibited a further marriage of metal and post-hardcore elements as the new frontier for envelope-pushing within the genre. That statement obviously excludes Eden in Reverse though, a dizzying exercise in kraut, space rock, black metal and alien shrooms. Perhaps not my favorite by the Greek mavericks - that would have been a tall order - but certainly an apt contender for the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I probably browsed more RYM lists than any previous year, and hopefully I was able to at least touch upon the bulk of releases that represented their respective sub-genres. Death and black metal acts (as well as black/death hybrids) seemed to dominate extreme metal enthusiasts' lists, and this is certainly well-earned. There was an enormous quality of solid black and death, though in the end there were only a few that were particularly remarkable for me. UK veterans Anaal Nathrakh and Napalm Death continue to annihilate and terrify with their distinct, by now well-matured panoplies of brutalizing grindcore and industrialized malice, respectively. Meanwhile totally new bands like Ossaert and Serment made lasting impressions with enveloping, icy atmospheric black records. Heavy/doom is well-represented, with Lucifer, Spirit Adrift and Pallbearer blazing trails for a newer, more melodic generation. The Hallas record isn't strictly speaking metal, so it could go into either of my lists below, but it was not only a natural refinement of their debut, but also a fantastic journey across the cosmos with a medley of haunting, psychedelic, synth-driven soundscapes that sounded like the lovechild of Hawkwind and Gentle Giant. Finally, the Bütcher record stands out as the most outlandish of the bunch, but it's retained its delicious speed and manic intensity throughout the year, and deserves a spot on the top 5.
When push came to shove, though, I think there was only one record that shone through and came the closest to perfection in 2020. The Sölicitör debut was just that, a sublime and unreal merger of equal parts Holy Moses, Vicious Rumors, and Exciter with a fittingly dilapidated production to boast. What an amazing record, channeling everything I love about all those bands at their respective career peaks and more, an absolute ass-kicker from start to finish. No other record this year - and, indeed, few records in the few years - made me want to strap on spikes and leather and cascade the empty streets of my city more. And it's the band's debut? Insane.
Edit (January 2021): Added Ulthar's Providence and Valdrin's Effigy of Nightmares, pushed back the Necrophobic album.
As always, YouTube links have been embedded below.
** Top 20 Metal Albums **
Runners-up: TIE Eternal Champion (US) – Ravening Iron | Pallbearer (US) – Forgotten Days
20. High Spirits (US) – Hard to Stop
19. Hail Spirit Noir (Gr) – Eden in Reverse
18. Anaal Nathrakh (UK) – Endarkenment
17. Orbit Culture (Swe) – Nija
16. Vader (Pol) – Solitude in Madness
15. Armored Saint (US) – Punching the Sky
14. Ossaert (Nl) – Bedehuis
13. Ulthar (US) – Providence
12. Valdrin (US) – Effigy of Nightmares
11. Serment (Ca) – Chante, ô flamme de la liberté
10. Midnight (US) – Rebirth by Blasphemy
09. Napalm Death (UK) – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
08. Cirith Ungol (US) – Forever Black
07. Enslaved (No) – Utgard
06. Hällas (Swe) – Conundrum
05. Lucifer (Int) – Lucifer III
04. Chronus (Swe) – Idols
03. Bütcher (Be) – 666 Goats Carry My Chariot
02. Spirit Adrift (US) – Enlightened in Eternity
01. Sölicitör (US) – Spectral Devastation
For my non-metal picks, I tried to be a bit more structured this year. I think there was enough interesting material across a swath of genres for me to eke out a top 15. A lot of these albums found their ways into my ears in the last 3-4 months of 2020, and indeed they were quite refreshing to hear after dozens of static black/death metal spelunking. There's a metric ton of 80s-inspired synthpop there, which is what I suppose my interests lie towards when I'm on the look for something moodier. The production standards on some of those records were insanely gratifying. Other artists (Dool, Ulver, Myrkur) received widespread attention in metal circles due to their associations with the scene, despite, in a lot of cases, having completely evolved from their metallic origins (I'm looking at you, Bergtatt). Never a bad thing. Besides the synthpop frenzy, an eccentric bevy of electronic, pop and rock releases round out the bulk of the list. Honorable mentions include Korine's The Night We Raise and Squarepusher's Be Up a Hello.
*Top 15 Non-metal Albums*
15. Jessie Ware (UK) – What's Your Pleasure? (pop)
14. Rian Treanor (UK) – File Under UK Metaplasm (electronic)
13. Myrkur (Dn) – Folkesange (neofolk)
12. Dool (Nl) – Summerland (occult rock)
11. Riki (US) – Riki (synthpop)
10. Ulver (Nr) – Flowers of Evil (synthpop)
09. Everything Everything (UK) – Re-Animator (art pop)
08. Blaqk Audio (US) – Beneath the Black Palms (synthpop)
07. Black Nail Cabaret (Hu) – Gods Verging on Sanity (synthpop)
06. The Birthday Massacre (Ca) – Diamonds (synthpop)
05. Wailin Storms (US) – Rattle (doom rock)
04. Ludwig Göransson (Swe) – Tenet: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
03. Molchat Doma (By) – Monument | Монумент (post-punk/darkwave)
02. Phantogram (US) – Ceremony (electronic)
01. Assemblage 23 (US) – Mourn (electronic/industrial)