To say 2020 has been fun would be a lie so egregious, we’d choke on it before uttering it out loud. This year really showed up to the door with its arms full of plagues — COVID-19, police brutality, civil unrest across America, an insane presidential election, and Tiger King. It got to the point where Eddie Van Halen’s death, which might have defined any other year, just felt like another drop in the ocean of deuce that was 2020. When we pop the bubbly at midnight on New Year’s Eve, it will be celebrating both the coming of a fresh year and the death of this one.
That said, though 2020 was a fire so hot it melted the dumpster, it also yielded some pretty incredible metal. Whether it was albums which dropped before anyone knew what was coming or records that soldiered through the raging storm, these releases made us happy to be alive even as the planet burned around us. And though metal fans lost their cultural bedrock of live music this year, this music showed us that even without a stage, metal is stronger than all.
In honor of the year, and for brevity’s sake, The Pit decided to limit its end-of-year list to 20 albums. So before counting down our final choices, we’d like to shout out Trivium, Paradise Lost, Zeal & Ardor, FEVER 333, Tallah, Boundaries, Midnight, Vile Creature, Mondo Generator, Temple of Void, Skeleton, Malokarpatan, Laser Dracul, Unleash the Archers, Revolting, Uada, Pallbearer, Overdose, Rebel Wizard, Mantar, Trash Talk, Wombripper, Gulch, Sepultura, Hum, Ulver, and Vampire for their amazing releases this year.
Now: here are the 20 albums that made 2020 worthwhile…
20. Kvelertak, Splid (Rise Records)
After the departure of longtime vocalist Erlend Hjelvik, many wondered if Kvelertak would be able to keep up their relentless charge of upbeat black’n’roll. Not only did the band fire back on that front with Splid, but they doubled down by pulling in huge helpings of influences from across rock and metal’s vast landscape. Whether you’re here for black metal or punk or even Meat Loaf-esque classic rock, this record is an eclectic mixture of everything that sets Kvelertak apart from the pack. Sometimes it takes a big change to create an album this good.
19. Necrot, Mortal (Tankcrimes)
It’s hard to imagine a death metal album as cool as the cover art for Necrot’s Mortal — and yet the Oakland trio found a way. Churning, arcane, and unstoppable in its momentum, Mortal shows how death metal can sound old-school and reverb-drenched without going the full cave treatment. Whether it’s the seasick sway of “Asleep Forever” or the frantic skipping of “Malevolent Intentions,” the songs on this album transport the listener to the front row of a dark club, sweating through their leather jacket as they headbang with total abandon. If you’re gonna die, die to this.
18. Deftones, Ohms (Reprise Records)
With Ohms, Deftones showed that their development as a band is far from over. On their ninth studio release, the Sacramento nu-metallers-turned-art-metallers dive deeper into their fuzzy, dreamy experimental side than ever before. Cuts like “Ceremony,” “The Spell of Mathematics,” and the looming title track show how Stephen Carpenter’s riff stylings and Chino Moreno’s vocal patterns continue to branch out into territory that fans of the band’s earlier work might never have foreseen. This black turtleneck ain’t a costume, it’s a fuckin’ way of life.
17. Mr. Bungle, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo (Ipecac)
Sweet ass-clapping Christ, who saw this coming? When Mr. Bungle announced that they were returning after 20 years to rerecord their original demo with Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Slayer’s Dave Lombardo, we all scratched our heads, shrugged, and thought, Hey, who doesn’t love clowns? Instead, Bungle managed to outrage even their far-out listeners by writing a merciless, unhinged thrash metal album, where the band’s trademark weirdness only heightens the music’s freakish menace. The expression of genre love is pure on Raging Wrath that it’s almost sweet — no nostalgia, no pizza parties, just devotion the pure, grinding riff. This one laughs all the way to the grave.
16. Nothing, The Great Dismal (Relapse Records)
In the bleak cultural landscape of this year, metal fans needed something pretty and unorthodox. They got it in the form of Nothing’s The Great Dismal, a shoegaze-inspired album that trades heavy music’s usual wallow in doom for something dreamier and more listenable. Channeling acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Microwave, Sonic Youth, and The Cult, this Philly-based quartet offered listeners a warmer shade of darkness, still shadowy even as it comes from a place of grace. For those who needed to listen to something less brutal than the world around them in 2020, this album provided the perfect cure to their persistent hangover.
15. Carnation, Where Death Lies (Season of Mist)
To call Where Death Lies ‘old-school death metal’ does this gem of an album an injustice. Sure, Carnation’s sophomore effort is gloriously straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s all a bunch of pre-chewed Repulsion worship. Instead, the album incorporates the most gripping parts of all of death metal’s dark corners, from the indomitable blast of “Iron Discipline” to the melodic speed of the title track to the lurching stomp of closer “In Chasms Abysmal.” With every song, these Belgian newcomers sound more and more like everything you love about the genre, until it hits you that they’re its newest champions. What more can we say, other than fuck yeah?
14. Mrs. Piss, Self-Surgery (Sargent House)
In her solo work, Chelsea Wolfe normally creates music as through a shroud; with Mrs. Piss, she rips the curtain down and tosses it into the fire. On Self-Surgery, Wolfe, alongside drummer and friend Jess Gowrie, bring together their twin loves of gloomy death rock and bristling riot grrl in an agitated whirl of introspection. Songs like “Downer Surrounded By Uppers,” “Nobody Wants To Party With Us,” and the grinding title track add an electric charge to Wolfe’s normally-languid sound that’ll have depressive fans jolted to action. Whether it’s the debut album in a growing discography or a stand-alone project, Self-Surgery made 2020 better for existing, albeit a little scarier.
13. Tombs, Under Sullen Skies (Season of Mist)
Brooklyn’s Tombs change their sound with each consecutive release, but with Under Sullen Skies the band appear to have finally revealed their final form. The album’s combination of death metal, groove metal, doom, and goth feels genuine even as it dives headfirst into pitch-black pageantry. Frontman Mike Hill goes all in on his Tom G. Warrior worship here, and in giving himself over to it uncovers aspects of both his harsh and clean vocal delivery that we’ve never heard before. Even if vampires, ghosts, and inverted churches aren’t normally their thing, listeners will find themselves inexorably drawn into the endless darkness blanketing this enthralling record.
12. Code Orange, Underneath (Roadrunner Records)
After the massive public response to 2017’s Forever, Code Orange had their work cut out for them. Thankfully, the Pittsburgh collective decided to turn left even from their winning formula, and as such made an album more mature, interesting, and unusual than its predecessor. Underneath certainly includes lots of the band’s signature nu-metal-influenced impact, but also brings thick helpings of industrial, thrash, and noise rock. Each song becomes a landscape, full of texture and visceral emotion that will have some fans furrowing their brows and others destroying every light fixture in the immediate vicinity. These kids could’ve taken the easy way out; that they didn’t speaks to why they’ve become such critical darlings.
11. Bedsore, Hypnagogic Hallucinations (20 Buck Spin)
Plenty of bands are playing ‘cavernous death metal’ these days, but Bedsore were the ones to plumb the full Lovecraftian depths of those caves in 2020. Hypnagogic Hallucinations is long-form, multi-facted, and eldritch as hell in its feedback-drenched howlings and grindings. But what makes this weird, twisted record so special is that it never loses its sense of momentum, the many movements of its songs still driven by the energy and emotion that powered acts like Obituary and Dissection early in their careers. It can be hard to find albums that are both ‘important’ and ‘killer’ in this day and age, but this Italian quartet decided they couldn’t have one without the other, and the result is a bitter treat for the ears.
10. Avatar, Hunter Gatherer (eOne)
With each subsequent release, Sweden’s Avatar have refined their bizarre, buoyant sound to worldwide applause; with Hunter Gatherer, they reached a new plateau. This time around, the band brought significant doses of their early death metal (“Silence In The Age of Apes,” “When All But Force Has Failed”) while never fearing to enjoy some bounding clownishness (“Colossus,” “Wormhole”) and even the occasional plaintive ballad (“Gun”). Diverse but hard-hitting, Hunter Gatherer showed the world a band who finally have the confidence to do whatever they want, from the brutal to the brilliant. Roll up, roll up.
9. Killer Be Killed, Reluctant Hero (Nuclear Blast)
How is Reluctant Hero this incredible? Killer Be Killed seems like such a good idea on paper — bring together Soulfly’s Max Cavalera, Mastodon’s Troy Sanders, Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato, and Converge’s Ben Koller — that it felt instantly doomed to be just okay, even good, but more an exercise than anything else. Instead, the 11 tracks on this album are pure entertainment — opening anthem “Deconstructing Self-Destruction,” road dog thrash blitz “Filthy Vagabond,” pendulous crusher “The Great Purge,” and the epic closing title track are all as riveting as they are a pleasure to blast over and over again. Proof that a supergroup can actually be as good as it looks.
8. Wayfarer, A Romance With Violence (Profound Lore)
On A Romance With Violence, Denver’s Wayfarer have redefined ‘American metal.’ The songs thereon trade camo shorts for dusty riding leathers and bar crawls for the railroad, merging the folk traditions of the American frontier with sweeping, heartfelt extreme music. 10-minute epics like “The Crimson Rider (Gallows Frontier, Act I)” and “Masquerade of the Gunslingers” come off as a bluesman’s take on classic Opeth, while even more soothing, atmospheric tracks like “Fire & Gold” are spurred on by the vast melancholy one can only find on the American frontier. Huge in scope, thrilling to listen to from beginning to end — this is the kind of album we all dream of.
7. Video Nasties, Dominion (APF Records)
Shrieking, horror-obsessed black’n’roll — Jesus, what more do you need? The debut full-length album by Liverpool’s Video Nasties does justice to the infamous films after which the band is named, drenched as it is in the atmosphere of ‘70s and ‘80s grindhouse cinema. But while these guys use the occasional dialogue sample to spice up their tracks, it’s the razor-sharp edge on their guillotine riffs and stygian howls that make the listener want to swap in a green light bulb and break out the fake blood. For fans who like their metal spooky but still want it to slay, this record is a gem of pure cinematic viciousness. The horror! The horror!
6. Body Count, Carnivore (Century Media)
With Carnivore, Body Count proved that they’re anything but a legacy band. Ice T’s vocals and lyrics weave steel-hard poetry that sounds more relevant in this sucker-punch of a year than ever. From the nose-busting title track to the blazing “Bum-Rush” to the galloping “Thee Critical Beatdown,” this record hits all the sweet spots that so many other traditional metal bands seem to miss time and time again. The fact that the album includes guest appearances from Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta, Evanescence’s Amy Lee, and late Power Trip vocalist Riley Gale is incredible, but almost feels like an afterthought — even on its own, this record is a fucking gem.
5. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones)
The true beauty of singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle’s collaboration with NOLA doom act Thou is its unity. May Our Chambers Be Full is a perfect combination of the former’s melodious ache and the latter’s crashing anguish, to the point where one hopes the two continue on together in perpetuity. No track ever feels like Rundle doing guest vocals for Thou or Thou acting as Emma’s backing band; instead, one can hear both artists’ combined journey on the shadowy, long-form tracks that fill this record. Tirelessly introspective but never boring, Chambers is a soundtrack not only to one’s darkest depths, but also their most personal truths. Simply gorgeous.
4. Primitive Man, Immersion (Relapse Records)
There’s only one band on earth who could out-ugly 2020, and with their new album they met the year head-on. Immersion shows Denver’s Primitive Man shaking up their sonic Pandora’s Box a bit, adding discernible rhythms where past albums reveled in pure noisy grossness. Not to say that tracks like “Lifer” and “Foul” won’t line the walls of your soul with pitch and nails — or that their videos aren’t as disturbing as any that Primitive Man have ever created — only that they might have newcomers headbanging along to their spasming heartbeats and throbbing, moon-cracking riffs. It’s hard to imagine a time in history where a Primitive Man record would feel so relevant and comforting, but here we are, down in it.
3. The Black Dahlia Murder, Verminous (Metal Blade Records)
Bands are always trying to go bigger, higher, up up up — but after 2017’s massive Nightbringers, the Black Dahlia Murder made the wise move of turning back to the underground. Verminous still has all the delicious riffage one demands from this band, but this time a thematic shift towards fetid sewers and the metal that dwells there has given Michigan melodeath crew a horrific kick in the ass. Even Black Dahlia’s traditional horror festers repulsively here — “The Leather Apron’s Scorn” tells not of Jack The Ripper’s top hat but his perverse mania, while “Removal of the Oaken Stake” features a vampire’s corpse rotting away as it awaits resurrection. With Verminous, the Black Dahlia Murder took a step back from the spotlight and sank down into the rotten guts of the earth, exactly where good death metal belongs. Ashes to ashes, scum to scum.
2. Spirit Adrift, Enlightened In Eternity (20 Buck Spin)
Spirit Adrift have made a name for themselves by combining traditional heavy metal with powerful emotional honesty — but even diehard fans couldn’t have foreseen how damn good Enlightened In Eternity would be. This time around, band svengali Nate Garrett has perfectly incorporated his Arkansas doom chops with the old-school metal he lives and dies by, so that the band feels in no way shallow or cheesy in their balls-out gallops and singalong choruses. Positivity oozes from tracks like “Ride Into The Light,” “Astral Levitation,” and the blistering “Harmony of the Spheres,” each one overflowing the confidence and sense of possibility that Spirit Adrift are finally confident enough to embrace. Heavy metal at its purest and most rad.
1. Ozzy Osbourne, Ordinary Man (Epic)
Only one album of 2020 was so big, so interesting, so awesome that it stood above the insanity of the past year. Ordinary Man came out just short of a month before COVID-19 shut down the world, and yet the risks taken on this album kept it on the minds, hearts, and stereos of metal fans throughout all of 2020. Ozzy’s employment of Post Malone producer Andrew Watt resulted in a reinvigoration of his sound; tracks like “Under The Graveyard,” “This Is The End,” and the heartbreaking title track (featuring Elton John, no less) harkened back to Ozzy’s’ salad days while showing us sides of his personality that surprised even those fans who’ve followed him his entire career. No album is a greater monument to the terrifying new world that was 2020 than this, an exceptional new addition to the sterling catalog of metal’s one and only Prince of Darkness.
Words by Chris Krovatin