The Best Records by Year: The 2020s
My fourth decade of keeping track of this shit! Read on!
2020 may have been a tough year, but it was actually quite good in terms of music. I got into some new bands, which always helps the pool from which to choose and between old and new, I was happily surprised at the outcome.
I'll admit that for some promising releases, I was less than impressed. A pair of My Dying Bride offerings didn't stay on repeat very long at all, Katatonia failed to elate me, Naglfar's first album in eight years wasn't my cup of tea and even the mighty Testament doled out a mediocre effort. The long-awaited third Demons & Wizards was good, but never drew me back to it and even John Petrucci's second solo LP couldn't utilize Mike Portnoy's skills to lift it into the top-10. The aforementioned list all improved as it went on, but I simply didn't love any of them.
Other noteworthy items were a pair of Ihsahn EPs which featured only a few keepers, fellow-Emperor vet Mortiis returning to the music that I loved decades ago and even a Dark Tranquillity that was by no means bad. None beckoned me to return to them, unfortunately, but the top-10 did, and that is where we shall focus - alongside a bonus #11 just because.
#11) Alestorm: Curse Of The Crystal Coconut (UK)
This band consistently ranks pretty high on my lists, but never too high. Curse Of The Crystal Coconutís title alone exemplifies how seriously these guys take things, but make no mistake: the musicianship is stellar and some songs are tremendously catchy. Tortuga may cross genres too much for some people but that breakdown towards the end is legendary! I was set to see these guys in 2020 but Covid put an end to that dream. Just missing the top-10 is nothing to be ashamed of - this album is great for when your mood matches its tone!
#10) Ymir: Ymir (Finland)
A 20-year-old band releases its debut record and lands itself at #10. The Finns may have been dormant for quite some time but this album is a solid, if not predictable affair. This isnít an every-day listen to me, but like Alestorm before it, Ymir scratches an itch that presents itself every so often.
#9) Brothers Of Metal: Emblas Saga (Sweden)
My Sweden Rock 2019 discovery, Brothers Of Metal released their sophomore album filled with a handful of memorable and hum-worthy tunes. The musicianship (and Ylva Erikssonís voice) are brought to a new level, partly as the band actually tried this time around. My kids love this band and the Viking lore that they bring with them which only makes me love this album even more!
#8) En Minor: When The Cold Truth Has Worn Its Miserable Welcome Out (USA)
This one was a sincere surprise. I havenít historically liked any of Philís projects outside of Pantera and Down and even went into this record with hesitation. However, it features a brooding melancholy which is only improved by Philís guttural vocal efforts. There are a few skippable tracks here, but the good ones are simply fantastic and this record was on replay for a few weeks in the latter half of 2020. I donít return to it as much, but when I do, Iím immediately reminded why I love it. It certainly is unique and quite different than most other entries on this list.
#7) Soilwork: A Whisp Of The Atlantic (Sweden)
After releasing three "singles" following the somewhat-disappointing Verkligheten in 2019, news broke of an EP collecting those alongside a 16-minute Soilwork song. As odd as that sounded, and my initial listens didnít give me reason to believe it worked well, the track eventually grew on me. As a whole, this EP does feel a bit scattered and less cohesive. But such is my love of this group that mediocre Soilwork is better than most bands on a good day. (to be clear, bad Soilwork is particularly bad!) Now I enjoy this release as if it werenít a compilation of singles...but not enough for it to warrant anything above #7 on my 2020 list.
#6) XIV Dark Centuries: Waldvolk (Germany)
Categorized as German, pagan metal, just the genre itself gives you a sense of what to expect. While this hardly pushes any boundaries and is really middle-of-the-line heathen music - itís the best new stuff Iíve heard in a while and I thoroughly enjoyed my time listening this past year. Good enough for this list, at least!
#5) Hšllas: Conundrum (Sweden)
One of my most-anticipated releases of the year, Hšllas is like Brothers Of Metal in that I discovered them at the Sweden Rock 2019 Festival. So enamored I became with their sound that I counted the days until Conundrumís release. Unfortunately, there was no way this could live up to their debut LP. Several songs are quite catchy including the albumís finale, but it's a more uneven album, a plight which their first record didn't suffer. The highs soar indeed but are held back by a few "just ok" songs.
#4) Carcass: Despicable (UK)
The follow-up to 2013ís #3 album, Surgical Steel was another of my highly-anticipated 2020 releases. Unfortunately, that damn Covid messed with plans and instead we only got an EP by the legendary UK band. The four-song offering was exactly what I yearned for with the initial two tracks being simply incredible. Riffs, drums, production, complexity - this EP has everything I love about the band - except more tracks. Simple and to the point, just like this review. I just want moar.
#3) Skyforest: A New Dawn (Russia)
Never has a Russian band placed in the top of my lists, so a #3 showing by newcomer Skyforest is surprising indeed! Atmospheric/post-black metal? Genre tags donít always convey things perfectly, but neither the category nor the country of origin matter when listening to this vast, sprawling, epic music. Itís droning and emotional even if itís not incredibly ambitious. Another band Iíd never heard prior, this one-man project (with an extra member just for clean vocals) produced a spectacular entry that was entirely fitting for my feelings in 2020 - half hopeful, half bleak and hopeless. I love this album.
#2) Mors Principium Est: Seven (Finland)
Another band Iíd never heard before (this is the 5th on this yearís list!), my friend mentioned how Iíd probably like this veteran Finnish group. He was right. While the only real member appears to be from the U.K. and not Finland itself, the music has Scandinavian roots and sounds positively incredible. From the riffs to the production, this is the whole package and really represents everything I love about metal music. Unfortunately, thereís always another pesky Finnish band standing in the way of AotY contenders.
#1) Havukruunu: Uinuos SyŲmein Sota (Finland)
Iím not entirely sure how I came across Havukruunu but the country + genre tag probably helped pique my interest. It took virtually no time for this band (along with their back catalogue) to become one of my favorite of recent time. Moonsorrow they are not (is anyone?) but the sheer magnitude of their sound is hard to match. Fast, raw, raspy, melodic, chunky, epic and entirely Finnish, the only real downside to Uinos SyŲmein Sota is the fact that their prior album, 2017ís Kelle Surut Sot is superior to this entry. Damn, just thinking about this band makes me want to turn it on and turn it up. Theyíve got thrashy parts, super fast sections and vocals that I simply love, despite not having a clue WTF theyíre saying. Par for the course for us metal folk, I know. Easy AotY crown this year. I knew within a day or two that this would win. Fuck yeah!
|Top 11 of 2020
||Uinuos SyŲmein Sota
|2. Mors Principium Est
||A New Dawn
|6. XIV Dark Centuries
||A Whisp Of The Atlantic
|8. En Minor
||When The Cold Truth Has Worn Its Miserable Welcome Out
|9. Brothers Of Metal
||Curse Of The Crystal Coconut