In many ways, 2021 has been a hangover year. 2020 was such an unexpected shitshow for so many people that this past year felt like the entire world rubbed its head, felt through its pockets, and wondered what happened last night. And while we’re not out of the woods yet — until a few weeks ago, we thought ‘Omicron’ was just a planet in Futurama — it feels like we’re officially getting back into the swing of normal life. And that, of course, includes the release and enjoyment of killer fucking metal records.
Whatever else it was, 2021 was an amazing year for metal. This year saw some of the genre’s greatest champions releasing breathtaking new efforts while young and underground acts emerged with incredible new material that bodes well for the future. In fact, this year’s crop of extreme releases was so good that we expanded our end-of-year list cap from last year’s Top 20 of 2020, simply because we wanted to showcase all the truly exceptional albums that dropped this year.
Here are the 30 albums that made 2021 a standout year….
30. Cognitive, Malevolent Thoughts of a Hastening Existence (Unique Leader Records)
With each album, New Jersey’s Cognitive expand the scope of their brutal death metal sound; this time around they’ve outdone themselves. Malevolent Thoughts of a Hastening Existence has a ton of texture to it, even as it brings all the cinderblock-headed chug that one wants from any album like it. Moments of Pantera-ish flair and staccato accenting shake things up, but the core never goes full scene, rooted in death metal proper no matter what new things the band tries. After the weeping rash of 2020, metal needed its body tenderized with a good beating, and these guys answered the call with their gloves off.
29. Blue Ox, Holy Vore (Self-released)
Normally, we don’t give a lot of thought to Minnesota in the metal world, but Holy Vore has put it on our map. On this album, Blue Ox play metallic hardcore at its most frantic and desperate, never rushed but always urgent. The record sounds like a salty attitude accurately put to music, like a bristling mood that you can’t really name until you’re in it and enjoying yourself. Sure, it feels like getting hit with a hammer, but sometimes that’s necessary, and this is one of the finest hammers you can find.
28. Iron Maiden, Senjutsu (Parlophone)
Everything about Senjutsu suggests it was an album that Iron Maiden made at their leisure. The record’s short promo cycle, its sprawling epic tracks, the massive animated video that ushered in its first single, all imply that the record was in no way rushed or made under pressure. And that’s why it feels so excellently laid-back and thoughtful — this is Iron Maiden sitting back and enjoying themselves, taking a long-view approach towards where they’re at right now, in 2021. The beast lives, even if it’s chilled out considerably.
27. Aborted, Maniacult (Century Media)
All Aborted had to do was release another blood-soaked collection of ultra-brutal death metal songs and fans would’ve screamed for it. Instead, the Belgian band went one step further, upping their atmosphere and darkness and thus making Maniacult one of their most exciting releases. Most of all, the album believes in the title’s premise, exploring the spiritual side of slasher murder rather than just the anatomy it unleashes. An album we didn’t know we wanted from this band, but one for which we are overjoyed to receive.
26. Gojira, Fortitude (Roadrunner Records)
To listen to Fortitude is to hear a band’s vision finally reach its full form. Gojira have been hinting at this moment for a long time, refining the double-jointed chaos of their sound into something more streamlined, more direct, less chorded in metaphor. There might be a loss of pure savagery, but what listeners get in return is a blaring earnestness and a level of arena-friendly energy that the band are finally able to reach. A track like “Amazonia” is going to feel amazing when sung by 50,000 screaming metalheads, even if it’s not the perfect track for brooding in your room. Sure, it’s their ‘Black Album’ moment, but how good is the fucking Black Album?
25. VHS, I Heard They Suck…Blood (Wise Blood Records)
A “vampire death metal album” might not sound awesome on paper, but VHS prove that on tape, it’s fucking gold. That’s in part because on I Heard They Suck…Blood, the Ontario trio tradeflowery gothic horror for late-nite creepy-crawly vampires of classic cinema. From taking a moment to throw horns at Dracula’s brides (“Fake Blood and Push-Up Bras”) to the delicious schlock of 1985’s Fright Night (“Undead Casanova”) to the stark and spine-chilling realism of 2008’s Let The Right One In (“I’m Sorry, Abby”), these children of the night make music that’s as sweet as it is gruesome. Enjoyable til the last drop.
24. Black Mass, Feast at the Forbidden Tree (Redefining Darkness Records)
The true power of Feast at the Forbidden Tree is that it delivers everything we want from a metal record without ever feeling corny or cliche. Black Mass’ new album is straight-up witching thrash, its galloping speed metal tinged with black metal occultism and death metal extremity. At the same time, there are no throwback tracks here, no obvious desire to be associated with the genre at its most cheesy and referential. It’s just an earnest thrash album, loaded with head-on charges, serpentine riffs, and big-ass chorsues. And that’s why it fucking slays.
23. Gatecreeper, An Unexpected Reality (Closed Casket Activities)
A new Gatecreeper album is always a treat, but an album where they finally decide to up the tempo is an unexpected gift for everyone. Thankfully, the Arizona game-changers prove they’re as fearsome a band at full stampede as they are at cavernous slog. An Unexpected Reality is a snotty, genuine blast of rancor that could only come from a band in the throes of their upward ascent. We’re not surprised that these dudes pulled this off in the slightest, but we’re goddamn stoked that they succeeded so expertly.
22. Domkraft, Seeds (Magnetic Eye Records)
Plenty of doom albums beckon your third eye to crack, but Domkraft‘s Seeds snaps that shit open real quick. The Stockholm stoner sludge trio make music that sounds bellowed out of a cave at dawn by some sort of primitive missing link. At the same time, the record is soothing in its sheer size and swing, acting as both a call to mayhem and a balm for your chapped ass after 2020. We don’t know what they’re growing out there in Sweden, but we’d love to try some.
21. Converge and Chelsea Wolfe, Bloodmoon: I (Epitaph)
We can understand how Converge collaborating on an album with Chelsea Wolfe sounds questionable — the former is so emotionally volatile, while the latter is so mournful and languid. But Bloodmoon: I proves that when meeting in the middle, both artists can create something beautiful and frightening. The album never sacrifices one or the other’s unique flavors, instead expertly combining them into a monolith of heartfelt shadow and infectious realism. Not for every moment of every day, but in the right mood, nothing else will do.
20. Archspire, Bleed the Future (Season of Mist)
What if a machine had a heart? That seems to be the guiding principle behind Bleed the Future: finding the human among the clashing, finger-ripping gears of a technical monstrosity. The dudes in Archspire sound as sharp and poised in their playing as ever, creating a rhythmic barrage of sound that buries the listener. And yet there’s a ton of emotion here, too, with minor chords and carefully-placed accents inciting excitement and melancholy as they go. It’s hard to imagine discovering such powerful personality in such precise death metal, but hey, we’ll take it!
19. The Crown, Royal Destroyer (Metal Blade)
It’s awesome to find out that over two decades since the release of their incredible Deathrace King, The Crown are still making the perfect music for drag-racing with Satan. Royal Destroyer is definitely a little more death metal than their previously thrash-oriented material, but it still rages like a motherfucker. Tracks like “Motordeath,” “Scandinavian Satan,” and the unfuckwithable Hannemanthem “Let The Hammering Begin!” embody everything you love about this loud, razor-edged culture we call metal. Burn, baby, burn.
18. Rob Zombie, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy (Nuclear Blast)
Damn, how much fun can one dude have making a record? It’s obvious that Rob Zombie is just enjoying himself at this point, and The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy reminds fans that that’s a good thing. The record provides some of the shock rocker’s most hard-hitting and exciting tracks in years, packed to the brim with all the massive choruses, ass-shaking rhythms, and pure monster worship that make one remember that metal should be about a good time at heart. You don’t have to be a weed-smoking, hot-rod-driving, Frankenstein-loving creep to adore this album, but Lord knows it helps.
17. Cannibal Corpse, Violence Unimagined (Metal Blade)
Every Cannibal Corpse release is a renewed celebration of the band, and Violence Unimagined is no different. The record just fucking rages, from start to finish, never relenting to see how you’re doing or try something out on you. In that respect, it’s the mirror in which we see our own excitement about death metal, and creates a perfect cycle of the rabid, grinning energy that first drew you down the left hand path. Oh yeah, and the uncensored fucking cover is about as disgusting as it gets, so it’s good to know those boys still got it.
16. Steel Bearing Hand, Slay In Hell (Carbonized Records)
Well, SHIT, this is about as rad an album as one can find! The new Steel Bearing Hand album is a ferocious onslaught of extreme metal insanity that’ll make you wonder what the fuck most other bands are doing with their time. This record utilizes all the echo and rabidity of old-school death metal, but races forward with the cutthroat attitude of classic thrash. You can tell these dudes enjoy playing this music just as much as you love listening to it. Time to sweat through your vest.
15. Andrew WK, God Is Partying (Napalm Records)
Is ‘winning metal’ a genre yet? Because that’s what Andrew W.K. has made with God Is Partying — a triumph-metal record, a revival of the gods of 1985 Movie Montages. Every song is solidly metallic in its riffs and synth accents, but they all run on gym rhythms, tailor-made for pumping iron or walking long, empty city streets. All the while, this white-shirted hair-creature is keening shit like, “You’re betting on a guessing game!” at you like a hobo guardian angel. You stare in the mirror. The nerdy-but-hot chick wakes you up after you’ve fallen asleep studying. Freeze frame of you punching the air. It’s that kind of album.
14. Ice Nine Kills, Welcome to Horrorwood: The Silver Scream 2 (Fearless Records)
Welcome to Horrorwood is proof that if you’re going to go for it, you gotta just fucking go for it. With 2018’s prequel, Ice Nine Kills were officially vaulted to a place where they could’ve abandoned horror movies and embraced a relatable, romantic metalcore sound. Instead, the band overdid it, penning elaborate, multi-faceted metalcore showtunes to everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Eli Roth. Self-aware and stoked about its own premise, the record soars with boundless enthusiasm, leaving fans and newcomers alike impressed if not entirely won over. It’s Halloween somewhere.
13. Thirdface, Do It With A Smile (Exploding In Sound Records)
On Do It With A Smile, Thirdface have too many elbows to be ignored. The Nashville band manage to bring a powerfully hostile vibe to this album without ever sounding like they’re trying to be frightening or brutal. It’s more that every song makes you imagine the packed, humid room in which you’d hear it, and as such prepares you for getting accidentally hit in the face. In that respect, it’s a killer hardcore record about killer hardcore music, feeling effortlessly human even as it cranks up your internal temperature. What else can we say but, what do these guys have up next?
12. Wolves In The Throne Room, Primordial Arcana (Relapse Records)
On 2017’s Thrice Woven, Wolves In The Throne Room reclaimed their Cascadian black metal pedestal; with Primordial Arcana, they set it on fire and dance around it. The album is steeped in elemental darkness and playful witchcraft, enjoying its crushing side even as it nestles into a bed of grass and fallen leaves. So much of that are Nathan Weaver and Kody Keyworth’s guitars, which take an especially wily turn at some point during every song. Lovely, dark, and deep.
11. Frozen Soul, Crypt of Ice (Century Media)
The bulldozer of Frozen Soul’s full-length debut is just a pleasure with which to be run over. The album is a steady, unstoppable crush of throttling death metal that’ll have fans of Bolt Thrower, Enforced, and latter-day Morbid Angel salivating at the very sound of it. Throughout, there’s a genuine viciousness that cuts through any hints of contemporary trends and makes the whole thing sound like a stampede without equal. When we finally catch these guys live, we expect to leave with a shirt, a bloody nose, and a big-ass grin.
10. Khemmis, Deceiver (Nuclear Blast)
Every Khemmis album sounds like an ascetic on a mountaintop sinking one level deeper into their subconscious. On Deceiver, the listener falls backwards in slow motion through a realm of spiritual grandeur on the brink of collapse. Cracks rocket through looming marble columns, and half-smashed colossus heads roll in the street. There is the sense that a place we’ve only ever seen in ruins is just now falling apart around us, before our very eyes. The moment of cataclysm is witnessed in reverse time by one who is plummeting perpetually inward. So yeah, that’s pretty fucking amazing.
9. portrayal of guilt, We Are Always Alone (Closed Casket Activities)
Austin blackened hardcore act portrayal of guilt released two albums in 2021, and while November’s scathing Christfucker is exceptional, it has nothing on January’s We Are Always Alone. The album is an ugly, split-ribbed gush of vulnerability, punishing primarily in its honesty. Even at their most disturbing and atmospheric, these guys never lose their momentum this time around, rushing forward even as it sounds like they’re just tiptoeing murderously. Few if any of 2021’s releases feel as true to themselves as this one, and it’s hard to imagine any sounding quite as ugly.
8. Hooded Menace, The Tritonus Bell (Season of Mist)
Fuck, hell, and shit, the new Hooded Menace is fun to listen to. Rather than slough into the swamps of death-doom, this time around our Finnish ooze-lords injected their sound with a renewed sense of momentum and a love of gothic horror. The result is a record that still crawls and decays, but does so steadily, with a lot of killer melody thrown in to boot. There may be no greater feat than a metal band changing their sound without betraying what made them rad in the first place, and with The Tritonus Bell these guys did just that with gusto. Put on a leather jacket and fucking headbang.
7. Trivium, In The Court of the Dragon (Roadrunner Records)
Maybe Trivium should’ve been going harder on the fantasy shit earlier in their career. In The Court of the Dragon isn’t exactly Manowar, but there’s a level of chivalric storytelling throughout the whole record that looks awesome on these dudes. Putting a little armor on Trivium’s otherwise introspective groove metal gives it just that much more of an edge, making the listener wonder how many people they could fend off with a spear or morningstar. Maybe that’s why it’s one of their most metal releases in a long time. Must be something in the hangar.
6. Spectral Wound, A Diabolical Thirst (Profound Lore)
One normally associates ‘drinking metal’ with flame tattoos and Viking tankards, but Quebec’s Spectral Wound have taken things in an imperial stout-hued direction. A Diabolical Thirst definitely brings a frostbitten whirlwind of black metal, but it wrestles and binds that sound with rhythm and riff to give it an exceptionally effective power. The songs on this album are chaotic paeans to hell, but are just thrashy and melodic enough to make it enjoyable to the last drop, and to undoubtedly instill the record’s title upon the listener. Drink deep, know darkness, die for metal.
5. Exodus, Persona Non Grata (Nuclear Blast)
The music on Exodus‘ Persona Non Grata will make you angry. Maybe that’s Steve Souza snarling tidings of hate and exhaustion which he spits at you in a voice like a snickering reptile. Maybe it’s Gary Holt’s riffs, which are all the sonic equivalent of using a hot needle to dig a splinter out of your brain. But mostly, it’s Tom Hunting, man, kicking cancer in the teeth over and over with this brilliant mixture of precision and attitude. That shit hits you, and it just makes you fucking furious. So, just a warning: be careful of kids and pets. You’re about to lose it.
4. Darkthrone, Eternal Hails…. (Peaceville Records)
Eternal Hails is the sonic equivalent of an incredibly epic ‘70s sci-fi movie watched on a really shitty old VHS. The album’s sticky, caramelized black metal ragers feel huge in their scope, seeing huge shapes on the horizon…but it’s all a watercolor on a flaking tape sleeve that Darkthrone have had on their shelves for decades. This gives the album a street-level view of the cosmos, and makes it feel more like an album about being a metalhead than anything else. If the simple pleasures in life escape you, we’ve got nothing for you.
3. Cerebral Rot, Excretion of Mortality (20 Buck Spin)
It’s been a while since a death metal band wrote an album that sounds like your body actually rotting around you. Cerebral Rot‘s Excretion of Mortality is like a soundtrack to the listener decaying in a field somewhere, with only the maggots in their skull to keep them company. The record finds a perfect balance of cave, butcher’s shop, and crypt, so that it feels like an incredibly gnarly take on the genre without falling into any niche of trend. You look at that cover, and you think you get it, and then you hear the album, and you really get it, and it’s horrible.
2. Demiser, Through the Gate Eternal (Boris Records)
Demiser are a dying breed, but they sure aren’t going out quietly. Through the Gate Eternal is like how one imagines an evil heavy metal album from the ‘80s, absolutely jam-packed with blasphemy, revelry, and awesome gallop riffs. Every track is a black-thrash paean to Satan that makes you want to drink beers, race vans, show your ass to a cop, and light a million candles in a graveyard. Every song gets more fun every time you listen to it. It makes you proud to be a metalhead. If the guys in Demiser all died tomorrow, their legacy would be absolutely flawless — because that’s exactly what this record is.
Album of the Year: King Woman, Celestial Blues (Relapse Records)
Simply put, Celestial Blues is just one of the coolest fucking records we’ve ever heard. It’s creepy, it’s violent, it’s incredibly thoughtful and super satanic. Kris Esfandiari sounds like a strung-out Greek chorus singing about dead gods and angry red dreams. You pick up on new things in each song every time you listen to it; in fact, you keep revising your Favorite Song of The Record choice with each passing track. It feels blasphemous to look at this album cover while listening to these tracks. The record makes you a little afraid of it, which is the most a metal album can possibly be. A little scary, kind of forbidden, unbelievably cool.
Words by Chris Krovatin