30 Best Metal Albums of 2020
Of all the things 2020 was a terrible year for, metal was not one of them. There were countless great releases all across the spectrum of heavy music this year, and even with our weekly metal song roundups, the weekly metal album roundups over at Invisible Oranges, and the several metal albums we reviewed this year in Notable Releases, it can be hard to keep up with all of it. But in order to help narrow things down, we've put together a list of 30 metal albums from 2020 that we highly recommend listening to if you haven't done so already.
In order to shine a light on more stuff, we kept off big crossover albums like Deftones, Hum, and Code Orange (but we do love all three of those and we included them on our top albums of 2020 list), and we also kept off metalcore and metallic hardcore/screamo because we already included a lot of that in our best punk/etc albums of 2020 list. What we did include was a mix of black metal, death metal, post-metal, doom, sludge, and all kinds of hard-to-pin-down stuff in between, with albums by long-running legends and promising newcomers alike.
Narrowing it down to 30 meant still leaving off albums we love, and if your favorite album isn't here, leave it in the comments (maybe we just haven't heard it yet). For much more metal from 2020, check out the series of 'Best of 2020' lists from individual writers (and a few musicians) on Invisible Oranges, and also check out lists we ran by Stephen Brodsky (Cave In, Mutoid Man, Old Man Gloom) Neurosis' Steve Von Till, and members of Thou, Pallbearer, Bell Witch, Inter Arma, Spirit Adrift, Dead to a Dying World, Infant Island, Sharptooth, and BIG | BRAVE.
Read on for our list, unranked, in alphabetical order...
Afterbirth - Four Dimensional Flesh
Langdon Hickman wrote: Normally, my issue with slam is largely one built around songwriting. For me, a song predominantly focused around building up its breakdown and predominantly focusing on making that breakdown simply atom-bomb heavy doesn't quite work for me; it can feel, after a while, like the rest of the song is dead air, a waste of time, something to space out the slams and mosh riffs rather than something designed to be an equal-footed element of the song. Afterbirth, as a band, are smarter than that. These songs are tightly composed prog death, packing tons of twists and turns and plenty of shocking, delightfully strange dissonant chord choices and swirling proggy melodies -- these in turn make those deep, intense slam passages feel deeply earned. You can tell listening to Four Dimensional Flesh that Afterbirth wanted to make a set of songs where neither the neanderthal brutality or the PhD-level avant-riffing felt like the main course; they are synchronous halves of a broader whole.
Atramentus – Stygian
20 Buck Spin
Jon Rosenthal writes: You don't really read much about funeral doom outside of small blogs and Metal-Archives reviews anymore, lest a legend like Skepticism or Esoteric makes an occasional, lengthy statement. Why? Frankly, most newer funeral doom metal sucks: it's a genre where you can be as low-effort as you want if you simply concentrate on the "slow" aspect of the whole thing, and this is what makes Atramentus' debut all the more wondrous. Impeccably composed to the point of being compelling, even at dense lugubre, Canada's Atramentus, the brainchild of Phil Tougas (also of Chthe'ilist, First Fragment, Serocs…) plays the "long game" fairly well with their mammoth debut. It's new funeral doom metal, but it's also really good. Really good. There's always an exception to the rule.
Black Curse - Endless Wound
Jon Rosenthal writes: Holy hell, this is outrageous. I generally know Eli Wendler as a drummer (you can find him kit-fronting Colorado's Spectral Voice), but, as it turns out, he has quite the mastery of black/death metal guitar riffing. Endless Wound is grotesque and chilling, never losing itself in its cavernous qualities, but rather using the spooky ambiance they craft as a means of aggrandizing their already massive music. Also featuring Jonathan Campos of Primitive Man fame and Wendler's Spectral Voice bandmate Morris Kolontyrsky, Black Curse's pedigree is clear, and the talent which comes with it is unreal. One of my favorite death metal albums of 2020 for sure.
Boris - NO
As the world caught on fire, Boris returned with their fastest, most direct album in years. It's almost entirely made up of punk-informed thrash and speed metal, and it's done in a way that's unmistakably Boris. They eschew generic thrash tones and play this stuff with the same thick sludge tones that are more typical of their music, and they work in a handful of snail-paced sludge breakdowns too. It's overflowing with anger, and that anger is channelled in all the right ways. English-speaking listeners may not understand the lyrics, but that was sort of the point. "These shouts that have no proper meaning as words will help release the raw, unshaped emotions within you," Boris said. [Andrew Sacher]
Carcass - Despicable EP
Four killer songs from one of the best death metal bands in existence -- clear and precise without toning down the band's raw attack, melodic and tuneful without letting up on the abrasion. I don't know what else you can ask for from a band with a back catalog as solid as this one. [A.S.]
Cirith Ungol - Forever Black
Joe Aprill writes: ...the metal world has been full of returns to glory rightfully praised such as Satan, Carcass, At the Gates, Celtic Frost and quite a few more. Cirith Ungol’s return may have been less believed than many of those were, but it’s just as important if not even more consequential given how much of a triumph Forever Black is.
The album feels like a mixture of the best qualities of their four legendary previous records purified in a production alchemy worthy of elder gods that makes it feel as timeless now as if it had been released in 1986. Every song is a track I’d love to hear them play live, including the rousing call to action of “Legions Arise” to “Stormbringer’s” epic storytelling of the band’s long time visual focal point, the doomed albino emperor Elric of Melniboné, to the sure sing-along with your comrade in arms fist-pumper “Before Tomorrow.” To paraphrase from fellow writer Langdon Hickman, Cirith Ungol has the absolute essence of heavy metal beating in its heart, something that only a few like Judas Priest can be said to have as well.
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
Langdon Hickman writes: Each one contains traces of the other, a dreaminess and absinthe headiness latent within Thou and a resolute feral heaviness lurking within Emma Ruth Rundle, so this combination makes tremendous sense on paper and delivers more or less exactly what you'd hope for in that arrangement. It doesn't sound like a collaboration; it sounds like one band, almost like the previous records from both were solo projects of a larger band we just hadn't heard yet.
Eternal Champion - Ravening Iron
Formed by Jason Tarpey (Iron Age) and including long time member Blake Ibanez (Power Trip), it's hard to not look at Ravening Iron through the lens of the trying year that has faced both bands. And yet the triumph that is the Austin band's sophomore effort is far from a sympathy vote– it's track after track of epic heavy metal of the highest caliber, bursting at the seams with impeccable riffs and soaring vocals. The key here is the personnel on the new effort, which counts the core of the classic heavy metal crew Sumerlands and hardcore favorites War Hungry. It's this massive intersection of jawdropping players that proves sometimes the sum of the parts can be much bigger than the whole. [Fred Pessaro]
Faceless Burial – Speciation
Faceless Burial's Speciation is everything you want in a death metal record– It's mean, exploding with genius riffs, with a strong ear for killer songwriting and production is nothing less than terrifying. There's a technicality that's more impressive than showy, a trait found in the best moments by bands like Death, Immolation and Suffocation– all of whom make inspirational appearances here. But most importantly, Speciation is filled with utterly fantastic songs that take unexpected left turns, making for a truly memorable and endlessly listenable record that is nothing short of genius. [F.P.]
Godthrymm - Reflections
We said: Godthrymm is the new band of vocalist/guitarist Hamish Glencross (ex-My Dying Bride, Vallenfyre, Solstice), drummer Shaun Taylor-Steels (ex-My Dying Bride, Anathema), and bassist Bob Crolla, and as you'd probably expect from that lineup, they make death-doom in the style of classic My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost. Maybe you don't feel like you need this in a year where there are actual new My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost albums on the way, but Godthrymm are far from a pale imitation and they make for a nice counterpart with what those bands are up to today. Hamish brings with him a harsh growl that keeps Godthrymm from falling into the more alternative rock tendencies that clean-sung death-doom can fall into, and when he does sing clean, it's often in a brooding, Swans-like way that keeps this album sounding evil. And maybe most importantly of all, the riffs! [A.S.]
Huntsmen - Mandala of Fear
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.S.]
Kirk Windstein - Dream In Motion
We said: Crowbar frontman Kirk Windstein called this solo album "my version of a mellow Crowbar basically." That's a pretty perfect description of Dream In Motion -- though note that he's using the word "mellow" very relatively -- which probably could've just been a Crowbar record if Kirk wanted it to be. I get why he didn't; the upcoming Crowbar album (which is being worked on as we speak) is sure to be even heavier than Dream In Motion, but the level of quality control that Kirk put into this album is on par with that of his main band. Dream In Motion isn't a tossed-off side project or less fleshed-out ideas; it's just different ideas. Compared to Crowbar's hardcore punk-informed sludge, Dream In Motion is more like metal and prog-informed rock. Kirk ends the album with a mostly-faithful but slightly-sludgier cover of Jethro Tull's 1971 classic "Aqualung," and fans of that song are most likely gonna dig Kirk's originals on this album too. [A.S.]
Liturgy - Origin of the Alimonies
Liturgy's most honest, sincere album yet is also quite possibly their best. Liturgy always approached black metal on their own terms, embracing many of its traditions wholeheartedly but also reshaping those traditions into something the band's mastermind Hunter Hunt-Hendrix could call her own. Her uncompromising vision and outspokenness is what turned a lot of black metal purists against Liturgy, but it's also what made them awesome, and what made them continue to stand out amongst a sea of tremolo-picking Darkthrone worshippers. Liturgy nearly left black metal behind on 2015's art rock-leaning The Ark Work, before returning with the whiplash-inducing H.A.Q.Q. in 2019, and in hindsight, those albums feel like stepping stones for Origin of the Alimonies. Liturgy's vision is clearer than ever, and this album feels like a culmination of everything they've been working towards, with orchestral arrangements, trap beats, avant-garde pieces and more all worked into the unmistakable brand of black metal that Liturgy have been perfecting since day one. [A.S.]
MSW - Obliviosus
MSW already makes raw blackened doom as Hell and ambient piano music as Cloud, and for his first album under his own name, Obliviosus, he pulls from both of those worlds and beyond. There's no lack of harsh shrieks and extreme, abrasive parts, but there's also a lot of beauty and melancholy on the album. "This album is dedicated to my brother R.A.W. and his struggle with addiction and how it has affected the rest of our family for over a decade now. These songs were written over a course of five years or so. The struggle is never ending," writes MSW in the liner notes. There are ethereal clean vocals by Karli Mcnutt with Jess Carroll, violin by Weeping Sores' Gina Eygenhuysen, and post-metal crescendos that would fit alongside Neurosis or Jesu or Boris. With its loud-quiet-loud formula and its interest in both post-rock and extreme metal, Obliviosus is some of MSW's most dynamic work. Even with over a decade of numerous albums and splits (including with Thou, Primitive Man, and Mizmor) that are very worth hearing, it's clear from Obliviosus that MSW is not only not losing steam, but continuing to push forward. [A.S.]
Napalm Death - Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
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 ND, 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. [A.S.]
Necrot - Mortal
We said: It's the exact opposite of a sophomore slump; it's bigger and better than their great 2017 debut Blood Offerings in every way. The recording is bolder and crisper, really allowing for Mortal's myriad of mind-melting riffs, throat-shredding growls, and bulldozing rhythms to punch you in the gut even harder than they did on Blood Offerings. [A.S.]
Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin Kynsi
Finland's Oranssi Pazuzu push psych-metal to ecstatic heights and evil depths on this year's rip-roaring Mestarin Kynsi. The year's pre-eminent metal headphone listen, these long-gestating freakouts are draped in experimental electronics and effects, using hypnotic repetition to build towards explosive passages of heaviness. Opener "Ilmestys" exemplifies this approach as minor-key guitar figures and and stuttering synths swirl around an ominous bassline, only to erupt into a swaggering, head-bobbing doom groove. They've moved away from black metal (the album-closer "Taivaan Porti" is the only thing here that recognizably falls into that category), which used to be a much bigger part of their sound. What they've kept are the Satan's-croak vocals, which enhance the feeling that we're participating in some kind of unholy rite. There's also a palpable sense of fun; some of this stuff is even dancey. The industrial "Kuulen Aania Maan Alta" is like an evil club song (it's reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song"), built around an unctuous synth-bass and stuttering, grimey drums before going full death metal. It's an album of apocalyptic party music. It's unlike a lot of contemporary psych in that it isn't content to rehash old sounds, but rather seeks to move the druggy spirit of the genre in new sonic directions. It's an absolute blast. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]
Pallbearer - Forgotten Days
We said: Forgotten Days finds Pallbearer doing what they do best. Brett Campbell's vocals still sound like Ozzy Osbourne and Geddy Lee in a blender, the band's riffs still worship at the altars of Sabbath and Candlemass, and Pallbearer still dabble in atmospheric prog passages that tip their hat at Pink Floyd. For some bands, employing the same tricks four albums in would start to get old, but Forgotten Days is as compelling as just about anything this band has done previously. [A.S.]
Paradise Lost - Obsidian
Joe Aprill writes: The real highlight for me in this current era for these metal veterans has been this year’s Obsidian. The album embodies almost every aspect from the band’s history, from the aforementioned death-doom roots to the gothic tinged heavy metal anthems to the alternative pop-rock experimentations, all swirled together and mixed to a stunning level of perfection. If this album were a pint of ice cream, every bite’s profile would be a bit different from the one before and after, but each pivotal element/ingredient is present in each. All of which can be perfectly experienced just in the transition from one of the harder hitting tracks like “Fall from Grace” to the goth dance floor shaker of “Ghosts” followed by “The Devil Embraced” where growls and croons are equally a sing-along joy.
Paysage d'Hiver – Im Wald
Jon Rosenthal writes: Is this the right Paysage d'Hiver album to listen to without any prior listening? This is a hard question to answer. While Im Wald captures the varied nature of each individual Paysage d'Hiver demo album (the terms are interchangeable in the Paysage d'Hiver universe) and essentially offers a survey of what the project itself is… this is also two hours of torrential, raw, exceedingly atmospheric black metal. Wintherr makes a big ask here, but he wholly delivers with his project's most complete vision to date.
Primitive Man - Immersion
There's nothing we can say about this album that Andy Gibbs from Thou didn't say better, so, to quote Andy: "The arms race is over. Primitive Man has won. They’re heavier than your band. I don’t care how much money you spend on amps this year, you won’t be heavier. Yes I’ve heard that Burning Witch record or whatever other record you’re thinking of right now. We all had a good time competing but it’s over now."
Sweven - The Eternal Resonance
Morbus Chron's Sweven, released in 2014, is one of the very best metal records of the decade, one of the very best death metal records of all time, and any other superlative you want to throw at it. That the band broke up afterwards has only served to deepen its mystique, as has the fact that -- for all the great new death metal bands that have sprung up or continued to release new material in the past few years -- none of them really scratch the same itch that that record did (although Horrendous comes closest). But like manna from heaven, The Eternal Resonance appeared this year from a new band, fronted by the same guy (Robert Andersson, convincingly making the case that he was the principal creative force all along), named after that already-canonized classic. And it feels like Andersson hasn't missed a beat as we're plunged once again into this lush sonic landscape. One doesn't often think of death metal as pretty, but that's often the descriptor that comes to mind here. The Eternal Resonance delves even deeper into proggy dreamscapes, but while that description might conjure noisy cacophony or trippy psychedelia, Sweven's great strength is their gestural clarity. It's full of harmonic complexity without sacrificing direct emotional hits. There are times when it rolls into post-rock or black metal, but it's never fully one thing, morphing unpredictably as soon as we think we have a handle on its sound. It has plenty of fist-pumping, riff-tastic moments, and its more plaintive passages are often driven by jazzy arpeggiation which keep things constantly engaging, avoiding an over-reliance on ambience or slowness that can bog down proggy work from lesser bands. When the album-closer "Sanctum Santorum" bursts, with shocking beauty, into a choral outro, it feels completely appropriate: for the past hour, we've been in metal church. [R.S.F.]
Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction
20 Buck Spin
Hardcore-infused death metal with in-your-face lyrics about dismantling the racist, classist US government and justice system? Yes please. Read more about it in the track-by-track breakdown the band made for us earlier this year, or just listen to it. Their message comes through loud and clear. [A.S.]
Ulcerate - Stare Into Death and Be Still
Debemur Morti Productions
There's no band quite like New Zealand's Ulcerate. Their latest LP embraces melody through death metal with open arms, all while riding the line between mind-blowing instrumental prowess and pitch black ambiance. Ulcerate executes with proficiency and in service of the song– dazzling throughout the duration of the offering but making sure technicality never takes priority. All of this is to say that Stare Into Death and Be Still may be Ulcerate's best offering, a balanced mix of menace and musicality that never sacrifices one for the other. In the battle between melody and brutality, Ulcerate win on all fronts with Stare Into Death. And so do we. [F.P.]
Undeath - Lesions of a Different Kind
Rhys Williams writes: Gruesome but slightly off-kilter gore death, the sort of thing that evokes classic Florida death but is consistently its own beast. Songs meander and flow in the same way as many of the classic Florida masters (i.e.early Death, Cannibal, Malevolent Creation), but a crisp modern production brings their technique to the forefront. Top notch vocals too, super deep but not gurgley for a change, and man, their guitarist can shred! Also the cover art is so bizarre and fucked up, it rules: is that a toxic waste mutant beheading Hank Hill in the middle of a Vasaeleth cover?
Undergang - Aldrig i livet
It's hard to believe that Denmark's Undergang have been around for more than a decade, spreading their primitive death metal hate across five LPs along the way. On their latest offering Aldrig i livet, the Danes aren't pioneering a new take or reinventing death metal. In fact, in a time where death metal is flooded with newcomers, the Danish band keep it simple and primitive by attacking with tasty riffing, tons of evil ambiance and relentless dive-bombs and trills. Undergang pull it all off with a terrifying style that never gets in the way of the subtly melodic song writing that elevates them over the flavor-of-the-week masses. Aldrig i livet is a snapshot of masters at work, a manual for the legions of new jacks and one hell of a death metal record. [F.P.]
Vile Creature - Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
We said: It's perhaps their most intense statement yet. At the very least, it's their best-sounding record, and the cleaner production really brings out the best in Vile Creature's music, which is like a more blackened version of Neurosis' post-sludge metal. Black, sludge, and post-metal have crossed paths before, but Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! puts a new spin on it, especially on the epic, two-part, 14-minute title track. "This song is the most cathartic, personally satisfying song I have ever written from start to finish," KW told us. They wrote it with guest vocalist Laurel Minnes, who adds a classic 4AD-style goth element to VC's usual racket, and it takes their sound to a whole new level. [A.S.]
Wake - Devouring Ruin + Confluence EP
Ivan Belcic writes: ...after having mastered the meticulous technical madness-grind of previous records, Wake released their towering blackened post-deathgrind masterwork Devouring Ruin. This album has been chewing through AOTY lists across the board this year, and it belongs on every single one of them. It’s rewarding to behold a band consciously in the process of reinventing themselves and watch them succeed so winningly at it. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Wake’s prior work, it’s just that their output this year—this record as well as their follow-up EP Confluence—is so stupefyingly perfect.
Wayfarer - A Romance With Violence
Joe Aprill said: For a long time I’ve pondered how great it would be to hear more metal try to incorporate the sounds and atmospheres of the wild west. There’s certainly been some who have approached it, like drone doom masters Earth upon their reformation in the mid 2000s, along with the not explicitly metal, but still at times heavy, Wovenhand. Wayfarer looks to lay a strong claim to this approach with their latest album A Romance With Violence, a distinct combination of black metal and some doom metal with the atmosphere most modern listeners will recognize from spaghetti western movies and Red Dead Redemption games.
Xibalba - Años En Infierno
We said: Now that the whole hardcore/death metal crossover thing is really on trend, here comes Xibalba with their first album in five years to remind you that they've been doing it since before it was hip and now they whip even more ass than ever. Años En Infierno (which translates to "years in hell"... yep) is the band's first album produced by Power Trip/Code Orange collaborator Arthur Rizk, and the bigger, cleaner production only makes them sound more furious. The rhythm section is a total gut punch, and Nate Rebolledo's growls have grown far more evil in the past five years. Things really suck right now, and sometimes when things suck you just want the most white-knuckling, jaw-clenching shit in the world to help release all the bad feelings you're harboring up inside, and that's exactly what Años En Infierno is. [A.S.]