By Greg Maki
You don’t need me to tell you 2020 has been a year unlike any other we have experienced. With virtually no concerts except virtual concerts since mid-March, the music industry is reeling, and no one knows when—or even if—we will see a return to “normal.” Artists continued to create and release records, however, and even though rock and metal are further from the mainstream than maybe they’ve ever been, there has been no shortage of quality heavy music unleashed in the past 12 months. It feels more important than ever to celebrate that, so here are my favorite albums of 2020.
AC/DC – “Power Up”
Avatar – “Hunter Gatherer”
Fever 333 – “Wrong Generation”
Poppy – “I Disagree”
Sons of Apollo – “MMXX”
10. Ozzy Osbourne – “Ordinary Man”
Little about “Ordinary Man,” Ozzy Osbourne’s 12th solo studio effort, sounds like anything he’s done in the past, save the vocals—and even those sound a bit off, auto-tuned as they are. This record is the brainchild of Post Malone producer Andrew Watt, who also tracked the guitars, more than anyone else. But no matter who played or who wrote what, and how much studio wizardry was involved, it’s still unmistakably Ozzy. The mere fact that it exists—10 years after his previous solo effort, three years after Black Sabbath played its alleged final concert—is cause for celebration. That it includes the Ozzman’s best song of the 21st century, “Under the Graveyard,” is borderline miraculous.
9. Ad Infinitum – “Chapter I: Monarchy”
I’ve never given much attention to symphonic metal, but the debut album from Ad Infinitum has me rethinking that. Led by dynamic vocalist Melissa Bonny and with songs steeped in historical events (with a wild time travel story backing them up), this is a band lacking in neither talent nor ambition. Bonny’s soaring melodic tones carry each song, and just when you’re settled in, thinking you’ve got this act figured out, she unleashes a bloodcurdling, guttural growl. It adds a whole new dimension, taking the band to another level and giving it a more modern edge. The band also demonstrated its versatility this year, recording and releasing “Chapter I Revisited,” an acoustic version of the entire record.
8. Eternal Champion – “Ravening Iron”
Eternal Champion was a recent discovery for me, and I only wish I had found this Texas band sooner. (“Ravening Iron” is its second full-length.) With fantasy-based lyrics and imagery—vocalist Jason Tarpey (Iron Age) has written a fantasy novel (“The Godblade”) and often takes the stage wielding a sword—this is “traditional” metal in the very best sense of the word. Epic, grand, soaring—all those adjectives and more apply, without the camp factor that makes so much power metal come off as pure cheese. Whenever concerts become viable again, Eternal Champion is at the top of my list of bands to see.
7. DevilDriver – “Dealing with Demons I”
“Dealing with Demons I,” the Dez Fafara-led band’s ninth record and the first of a planned double album, sees the groove aspect cranked up a few notches and even a dalliance with—gasp!—clean vocals on one song (the superb “Wishing”). It feels like a triumphant return to form for DevilDriver, which hadn’t released an album of original material in over four years. “Dealing with Demons II” is high on my list of anticipated albums of 2021.
6. Stitched Up Heart – “Darkness”
“Darkness,” the sophomore effort from Stitched Up Heart, finds the band forging a clearer identity for itself, employing more of a modernized sound that isn’t afraid to embrace pop sensibilities. Vocalist Alecia “Mixi” Demner stands at the forefront, giving a dynamic performance, singing songs of hope, strength and empowerment.
5. Five Finger Death Punch – “F8”
With a rejuvenated, sober Ivan Moody, Five Finger Death Punch’s eighth album, “F8,” might be its best yet, packed with some of its heaviest material and some of its most brutally honest, heartful songs. It has everything we’ve come to expect from the band—huge, chunky, fists-in-the air riffs and rhythms; blasts of pure rage and aggression; huge singalong hooks; and, from time to time, a softer, more contemplative side. It’s everything the band does pushed further in each direction.
4. Lamb of God – “Lamb of God”
Lamb of God’s self-titled 10th studio album, its first since drummer Art Cruz took over for Chris Adler, feels like a restatement of purpose. That’s not to say that the Richmond, Virginia, band ever strayed far from its pure metal roots, but this record seems to double down on everything it stands for and does best. Cruz seamlessly slips in as the rock-solid, thunderous foundation, keeping the band as crushingly heavy and tight as ever, while frontman Randy Blythe growls and screams with purpose about the world around him. There hasn’t been a more consistent act in metal over the past two decades, and “Lamb of God” is one of its best efforts to date.
3. Sevendust – “Blood & Stone”/Clint Lowery – “God Bless the Renegades”/Morgan Rose – “Controlled Chaos”
All things considered, 2020 proved to be quite a year for Sevendust fans. The main event was “Blood & Stone,” the band’s 13th(!) studio album, one of the strongest efforts in a prolific career. This collection of tunes (including a rare cover, Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried to Live”) is exactly what you’d expect from the band at this point, which isn’t a problem, because no one balances heavy, crunching riffs and sumptuous melodies with more skill. Earlier in the year, guitarist/vocalist Clint Lowery released his solo debut, “God Bless the Renegades,” a songwriting showcase that, despite leaning in a poppier direction, shows how integral he is to the Sevendust sound. (He then followed it up with the recorded-in-isolation “Grief & Distance” EP, released in June.) And if that wasn’t enough, November brought us “Controlled Chaos,” the first solo outing by drummer Morgan Rose, showing his talents extend beyond pounding the skins (which, by the way, he continues to do as well as anybody).
2. Trivium – “What the Dead Men Say”
Album number nine for Trivium melds all the different styles of metal it has dabbled in throughout its career into a cohesive, compelling whole. The band mixes and matches elements from previous releases within songs to create a batch of tunes that feels fresh and new, rather than simply rehash what already has been done. That’s how you get a masterpiece of a song like “The Catastrophist,” which starts along the more straightforward lines of something from “The Crusade” (2006) or “Vengeance Falls” (2013), then ventures off into progressive territory a la “Shogun” (2008) and even gives us blast beats before wrapping up. On his second Trivium album, I’m now convinced that the incredibly complex and precise drumming of Alex Bent is what has pushed the band to the next level. “What the Dead Men Say” is a defining record for Trivium, one of the finest metal bands of the 21st century.
1. Lucifer – “Lucifer III”
Moving further from the doom metal sound of frontwoman Johanna Sadonis’ previous band, The Oath, with each release, Lucifer now is deeply entrenched in a heavy rock sound straight out of the ‘70s. Big, big riffs and infectious rhythms leave ample space for Sadonis to belt out hook after hook in beautiful tones that somehow are at once gentle and forceful, and always packing otherworldly power. While the lyrics trade in spooky metaphors and call out the band’s namesake, Sadonis’ delivery and the undeniable energy the band brings to the recording can’t help but make it all feel upbeat and uplifting. There is no filler on “Lucifer III,” not one wasted second; in short, it’s a masterpiece.