Where to even begin with the year that was 2020? The year that just was provided us all entirely too many evenings alone with our respective thoughts – night after night after interminable night – nights of the sort that have always been habit throughout my life to either fill or drown out, as the moment requires, with music. To that end – and especially as it became increasingly obvious that any semblance of normal concert-going was lost along with so many of life’s other pleasures – I attempted to fill the resulting void in as many directions as I responsibly could. It was aimless overcompensation for the most part, but when the connection did kick in, I felt something like normal again…at least for a minute at a time. For one minute at a time, it felt like old times. For a long time, only music helped. Reality always intrudes, but those minutes spent in personal indulgence were never wasted. Music held the loneliness and frustration at bay for a little longer than it would have otherwise relented. Music approximated connection where there might have been none to be found. It took a little brain power and legwork to complete the circuit, or to maintain the illusion, but that effort was always worth it. Nobody needs another reminder of the year that’s just passed, and yet we must not discount its many varied if scattered gifts in our haste to sweep the whole sordid business under the rug. To do so would shortchange the many life-affirming musical gifts it had to offer, the legitimate efforts and tremendous creativity of so many artists who struggled acutely alongside their listeners. With any luck, there’ll never be another year like 2020 in human history, though from a musical standpoint, there was the occasional silver lining visible through the haze, assuming you endeavored to look. Let’s reminisce a bit, shall we?
A couple of months ago, I engaged in a fairly nuanced and far-reaching conversation with my father, a renowned high school band composer, clinician, and contest judge, on the ins and outs of performance evaluation. The various lists you are about to review were only then just beginning to take shape, and though interest in my life is in his job description, he seemed unduly intrigued by the thought process that annually goes into the act of whittling down approximately eighty albums into fifty, organized by genre, and then that fifty into a final twenty with the genre restriction lifted. It was the most engaged in a single conversation I probably felt in 2020, though, given the year, there’s if not a caveat then at least an asterisk built in by default. The two main supplemental lists, one apiece for metal and what I condescendingly term “non-metal”, are always much trickier to create than the final cross-genre countdown, and, strangely enough, I never have half the trouble sorting out the “non” – this year culled from an especially wide array of seemingly incompatible standalone genres – that I do the metal. It may sound counterintuitive, but I’d argue there is actually more variety in what represents the unified front of “metal” – the hydra has many, many heads – and that it is of a uniformly better, or at least more reliably good, quality, year after year. Especially this one. You’ve got traditional metal torch bearers Spirit Adrift, channeling Maiden and then pushing beyond, or the simultaneously hilarious and heart attack serious Bear Mace, against whose punishing attack the namesake repellant may be your only refuge. Inexorum made black metal panoramic, Firelink steered into the swerve of its famous self-indulgence, and A Light in the Dark injected electronic elements and gothic sensibilities to great effect. Elsewhere, old guarders like Sepultura, Vader, and Katatonia released their best albums in years, while Ulcerate’s monumental meditation on loss, Stare Into Death and Be Still, was almost too much to take given the circumstances. It was an amazing year in the heavier realms, one incredibly difficult to properly parse. And if my perhaps over-reliance on metal to buttress and pad out these countdowns reveals a potential lack of imagination on my part, first of all, that’s only, like, your opinion, man, and, secondly, shut up already. Heh. The yearly dilemma of culling the best from music’s most vital genre, fueled and informed by lots of nights of escape via headphones, smart speaker, or car, makes me feel alive and plugged in. Don’t think I would change it for the world.
- Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions (Progressive – Technical)
- Abysmal Dawn – Phylogenesis (Technical Death)
- Testament – Titans of Creation (Thrash)
- Cytotoxin – Nuklearth (Technical/Brutal Death)
- Elder – Omens (Progressive – Psychedelic)
- Gama Bomb – Sea Savage (Thrash)
- Midnight – Rebirth by Blasphemy (Blackened Speed)
- Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Grindcore/Death)
- Pallbearer – Forgotten Days (Doom)
- The Glorious Dead – Into Lifeless Shrines (Brutal Death)
- Spirit Adrift – Enlightened in Eternity (Traditional)
- Bear Mace – Charred Fields of Slaughter (Brutal Death)
- Katatonia – City Burials (Alternative/Gothic)
- Inexorum – Moonlit Navigation (Melodic Black)
- Sepultura – Quadra (Thrash)
- Firelink – Firelink (Melodic Black)
- Dark Tranquillity – Moment (Melodic Death)
- A Light in the Dark – Insomnia (Post-Black)
- Vader – Solitude in Madness (Death/Thrash)
- Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still (Technical Death)
The aging process as not just a music fan but ostensibly a fan of new music is cruel but constructive. Longtime favorites steadily recede from prominence, then from view altogether, as others arise from Parts Unknown and converge to replace them. At the same time, the ground shifts inevitably beneath our collective feet, creating all new mutant or hybrid styles culled from disparate influences. Given that fact, at some point in their journey, it’s going to fall to the listener to quantify a new artist they really like but for whom they have limited reference. It was only while researching The Front Bottoms, Into It Over It, and Car Seat Headrest, three young bands who made an impression in 2020, that I made the unsettling discovery that I now apparently like Emo music. The thought left me nonplussed. 2020’s non-metal slate boasted a veritable cornucopia of wacky styles and approaches, of course, a vanishing few with which I had any real level of comfort. When in doubt, call it Emo I guess. Still dunno if I buy it. There was luckily little doubting the power elsewhere of autobiographical rapper The Koreatown Oddity, Soccer Mommy’s evolving indie folk or Jessie Ware’s sophisticated disco, rootsy revivals from alt-country standard bearers Old 97’s and misnamed heartlanders Country Westerns, or, strangely enough, Inlet, a sprawling, absorbing, out of the blue revival from “buzzworthy” ‘90s artifact Hum that kinda put its original work to shame. Oldies radio certainly still lives and rocks as well, as evidenced by the welcome return of clearly re-energized FM royalty AC/DC and the reformed Broadway punks in Green Day, who put out the year’s head-noddingest and toe-tappingest collections respectively. Finally, the current deluge of unshocking revelations alleging Marilyn Manson’s already pretty-well documented life of sordid domestic/self abuse and general scumbaggery make it likely his career is over (for at least the next several years). Last on purpose, the middling, typically self-serious We Are Chaos, while hardly an awful album in its own right, provided a suitably ambiguous note on which the asshole might take his ultimate bow.
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (Rock/Singer-Songwriter)
- Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter)
- Taylor Swift – Folklore (Pop/Singer-Songwriter)
- Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (Rap & Hip-Hop)
- Ratboys – Printer’s Devil (Indie Rock)
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter)
- The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames (Indie Rock)
- Pearl Jam – Gigaton (Rock)
- Tim Burgess – I Love the New Sky (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter)
- The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominique’s Nosebleed (Rap & Hip-Hop)
- AC/DC – Power Up (Hard Rock)
- Old 97’s – Twelfth (Alternative Country)
- Green Day – Father of All… (Pop/Punk)
- Country Westerns – Country Westerns (Rock)
- Hum – Inlet (Alternative/Grunge)
- Into It. Over It. – Figure (Indie Rock/Emo)
- Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure (Electronic)
- Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open (Indie Rock/Emo)
- Soccer Mommy – Color Theory (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter)
- Marilyn Manson – We Are Chaos (Alternative)
Comedy clubs were just as shuttered as concert halls for the majority of 2020, and even when they tentatively reopened, they bore but passing resemblance to the raucous communal dens of old. Overly restrictive, if not necessarily overly cautious, social distancing policy has ensured I won’t return to my preferred haunt until the unfiltered crowds safely can as well, so it’s left for me to sustain myself on a sporadic, low-calorie diet of pilfered Youtube scraps and only technically new comedy albums. On the latter front, everyone’s favorite year had comics across the socio-economic spectrum scrambling to make sense of their new surroundings, and the general malaise was perceptible most everywhere you turned. In a year where I took chances on more novel music than any in recent memory, I found myself relying more on steady hands and established voices whenever I needed a laugh. Cut from similar cloth, the carefree self-deprecation of Kyle Kinane, the septic sarcasm of Doug Stanhope, and the hyper-analytic cynicism of Marc Maron are good bets in any year, but especially potent in this one. Workhorse clubbers Mark Normand and Dan Cummins continue to reinforce their standing as rising stars, while Jim Gaffigan delivered a ridiculously uneven if never less than fascinating double-album travelogue recorded in front of generally receptive if occasionally puzzled audiences across multiple continents (and Florida). Much as I wanted to reward the unbridled joie de vivre of Irish children’s keyboard enthusiast David O’Doherty for having the moxy to record a new album on his phone while marooned overnight in a seaside rainstorm and also somehow caring enough to make it good, the crown inevitably goes to the reigning, defending funniest person on the planet, Maria Bamford, whose Weakness is the Brand partakes of some rare air indeed. Already one of only four comedians (with Stanhope, Patton Oswalt, and Chad Daniels) to appear in the cross-genre top twenty album list in its now eight years of existence, she is the first to make it twice. All hail the queen.
- Maria Bamford – Weakness is the Brand
- David O’Doherty – Live in His Own Car During a Pandemic
- Marc Maron – More Later
- Kyle Kinane – Trampoline in a Ditch
- Doug Stanhope – Dying of a Last Breed
- Mark Normand – Out to Lunch
- Dan Cummins – Live in Denver
- Jeff Simmermon – Why You Should Be Happy
- Lewis Black – Thank You for Risking Your Lives
- Jim Gaffigan – The Pale Tourist
The Top 20 Albums of 2020
- Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions (Progressive Metal – Technical) – My inner music geek would like it stated up front that he is the one running this show. This is the jerk that keeps me up at 5am watching Peart live videos and Hoglan playthroughs when my insomnia is naturally waning and I desperately need to get back to sleep. That said, my inner music geek has heard your protestations in advance and is…somewhat moved. He is not wholly without conscience or self-awareness. He’s just digging so hard on Fluid Existential Inversions, the sixth and mightiest album yet from SoCal potpourri powerhouse Intronaut – even now, approaching (as of this writing) a year from its release – that he frankly can’t be bothered to care. Lots to unpack and chew on with this one, with the usual Intronaut melange of psycho-jazz-polyrhythmic thrash, just cranked up way past 11, to 12 and beyond. The band’s first priority post-Covid simply must be to snap up and officially induct into its ranks Alex Rudinger, the free agent (?!) extraordinaire currently listed on Wikipedia as Whitechapel’s touring drummer. Dude is a deity in the making, except already made, and the rest of the band are, of course, no slouches themselves. For proof, I offer exhibits A-C, the sneering chorus of “Cubensis”, the breakneck breakdown in “Contrapasso”, and, dear god, pretty much the entire, aptly named “Tripolar”. I do a lot of waxing rhapsodic in these countdowns on the joys of hybrid metal, but the truth is that you’ll rarely hear a song elsewhere that so pleasingly amalgamates metal’s legit smorgasbord of flavors in any coherent manner. Rarer still is the Intronaut song that does not. Fluid Existential Inversions is the best salve for any inner music geek of a heavier temperament. It’s whiplash that can only be properly treated with an exorcism.
- Abysmal Dawn – Phylogenesis (Technical Death Metal) – Perhaps it’s how my mind is bent, but there must be real power inherent in being the best technical death metal band on the planet. Those are bragging rights actually worth exercising. You are musically untouchable, not just set apart but above, sky high in both directions, boasting levels of talent and stamina that normal players – with their two-dimensional thinking and comical lack of extra limbs – can barely contemplate, let alone approximate. As a younger man, I used to dream of drumming in any number of awesome bands. Over years of fandom, I’ve deconstructed what made each one resonate and rise above, even taught myself a song or two. The true realm of dreams is reserved for watertight, devastating outfits like Abysmal Dawn, not that there are many of those. Phylogenesis, the fifth album by the Angelino assassins, builds upon the foundation of its predecessor, 2014 AOTY Obsolescence, and pushes yet further into the stratosphere. Exactly what you were expecting is exactly what you’ll receive here – shotgun barrels full of it – rendering excess expository comment moot. Abysmal Dawn’s last two album covers have featured post-apocalyptic Gieger-esque monoliths of the kind routinely battled by superheroes at the end of their latest blockbuster. It’s hard to think of a better representation of the music contained within, or a harder proposition for any aspiring conqueror.
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You (Rock/Singer-Songwriter) – Good times or bad, I do love me some Bruce Springsteen, though the times in question tend to dictate whether his music can be seen as a luxury item more than as a basic nutritional requirement. In a year of forced isolation and multidirectional upheaval, an empathetic, unifying, boundary-erasing figure like Springsteen becomes utterly essential, assuming he still has something to say (he does), and, politics aside, I’ll go out on a limb to assert that any person who spent quality time with Letter to You was all the better for the investment. Letter to You isn’t just good Springsteen, it’s prime Springsteen – a legitimate marvel now twenty albums in – a collection of soul-stirring rock anthems (“Burning Train”, “House of a Thousand Guitars”, song of the year “Ghosts”) and heart-seeking balladry (“One Minute You’re Here”, “Song for Orphans”) boasting an intimacy and immediacy that makes good on its titular promise. Chances are you’ve never met Bruce Springsteen, yet somehow you’re on his mind. There’s perhaps never been a better moment for, or example of, someone living simultaneously in the real world yet a world away reassuring an individual listener – and thus each individual listener in kind – that they’re not alone.
- Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter) – Maybe not the prettiest voice, you think in spots, though the girl can definitely hang; Perhaps not the most profound lyrics – not all the time, at any rate – though I bet they’ll surprise you. As soon as you think you have Katie Crutchfield pegged, be it within a song, a verse, a single line, or – heaven help your hubris – somewhere seemingly definitive within the runtime of Saint Cloud – the album that by rights should have but didn’t quite make hers as Waxahatchee a household name beyond the critical realm – she gracefully morphs into something that slips through your fingers, rebounds, and resets. Soon enough, you realize you’ve been looking subconsciously for something to criticize, when you should have focused on listening instead, or, better yet, simply relaxed while listening until your mind started to drift of its own accord. By “you”, of course, I mean “me”, and I could always address the problem with another listen. The Southern inflections in Crutchfield’s voice – the breezy “Can’t Do Much” and contemplative “Arkadelphia” were two of my favorite songs 2020 had to offer, while, elsewhere, “Witches” and the stolid title track address some of the aforementioned stock criticisms by way of their surpassing quality – stand out in a landscape that tends to reward the homogenous, and add to the general feel of effortless heavy lifting. Saint Cloud demonstrates that you can expand the world without setting it on fire. Some artists just have that certain something.
- Testament – Titans of Creation (Thrash Metal) – After a career of hard-won runner’s up prizes and largely reputational gains, 2020 was primed to finally be Testament’s year. I couldn’t wait to celebrate it with them. The band’s freshly dropped twelfth album, Titans of Creation, was a live wire showcase of musical creativity and dexterity sufficient to overpower any functioning pair of ears it encountered. Plans were to sustain the momentum of a successful European tour with Death Angel via a potentially mind-blowing U.S. jaunt featuring Black Dahlia Murder and Municipal Waste. But when the plane landed, Death Angel drummer Will Carroll was found gravely ill with something called Coronavirus. Testament singer Chuck Billy soon followed suit, and all bets were suddenly off. And so, instead of propelling the band into orbit as it should have, Titans of Creation had to settle for setting the pace for a singularly strange albeit creative year in music history – both men thankfully recovered, though 2020 only got worse – and serving as the first thing to provide me a genuine smile once the consequences of our worldwide diagnosis blew normalcy straight to hell. One day I still hope to personally meet the pound-for-pound metal champions of my youth/life after an awesome show at the end of a spectacular day spent exploring a new city. I canceled just such plans for Boston last May. Until then, it’s some comfort, however cold, that Testament, already never known to take a day off, is stronger now than they’ve been this century.
- Taylor Swift – Folklore (Pop/Singer-Songwriter) – In monitoring Taylor Swift’s moves over the past several years, it’s been interesting to intuit and even actively observe a war of sorts between her commercial commitments and introspective instincts. There’s arguably no bigger pop star on the planet, yet she can lately be seen carving out a corner suite of prime real estate all her own, for her own use, on her own terms. It’s a development both daunting and exciting, for fans as well as Swift herself. Lots of artists saw 2020 as an opportunity to exercise their creativity generally free of external constraints – there were no stadium tours to support the warm but overstuffed Lover, her most recent peace offering to the pop order and presumptive casualty of the aforementioned war – but nobody made as much of the downtime as Swift, who emerged from radio silent seclusion with the languid Folklore, her best album top to bottom since 2012’s Red first signaled her new path. Swift’s well-honed pop instincts remain not just intact but sharp – I smile instinctively upon each fresh listen to opener “the 1” and remain reliably engaged throughout the following fifteen – serving her well despite the marked downshift in accoutrement. Folklore is an album of steady, hard-won confidence and craft, professional without being pandering. Though Swift’s next move is a mystery, this snapshot is well worth savoring as far and away the most comfortable she has ever sounded in her own skin.
- Cytotoxin – Nuklearth (Technical Death Metal) – Cultural appropriation is big business, and continues to be despite a year which most consumers spent stuck in neutral or reverse. Nowhere is the practice as simultaneously bald-faced and fruit-bearing as in the heavy metal genre, its many offshoots and tributaries, though with metal it may be helpful to think of it more as fusion cooking. It’s the far more appetizing analogy. Do they have gumbo in Germany? Metal connoisseurs looking simultaneously for a taste of the old world and the flavor of home are well-advised to sample Nuklearth, the pummeling fourth album from heretofore unknown (to me) German death dealers Cytotoxin. Opener “Atomb” is certainly an attention grabber, with its jackhammer blasts, “Flight of the Bumblebee” fretboard flourishes and harmonics. What emerges, and strengthens from there, plays as a surgical combination of Slipknot and Dying Fetus – with a dash of Decapitated and a pinch of Meshuggah for flavor – cascading outward, in continuous, ear-catching waves. It’s rare that a band can so smoothly synthesize influences so obvious, with a success rate that not only doesn’t turn off discerning listeners but has the extreme opposite effect. Though it may seem like faint praise, Cytotoxin has a future of headlining Monster Energy Mayhem tours and the like, assuming those sorts of expeditions catering to the highly caffeinated themselves have a future. Their presence alone may even be sufficient to make me attend again.
- Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (Rap & Hip-Hop) – I came into this year-end countdown, my eighth now operating under the auspices of DAE and third in that time to prominently feature cataclysmic rap crew Run the Jewels, with yet another mealy-mouthed apology all locked and loaded. But I’m sick of qualifying every statement I make on the subject in some misguided attempt to appear plugged into a scene that otherwise hasn’t legitimately interested me in years. I’d much rather just listen to Run the Jewels, whose eponymous fourth album sets such an impossible standard to follow – of artisan quality; of focus, ferocity, and flow; of giant, swinging, freaking balls – that it’s probably a good thing there are seemingly no takers. From the trap drum overdrive of “Yankee and the Brave”, to throw-down banger “The Ground Below”, to the perfect propulsive synthesis of “Out of Sight”, I hear seismic echoes of my personal holy trinity – Chuck, Cube, and Rakim (in your preferred order) – manifesting in the joyous marriage of El-P’s bombastic beats with Killer Mike’s peerless, quadruple-jointed rhymes. Ace collaborators – Soul legend Mavis Staples, Pharrell Williams, DJ Premier, Greg Nice, QOTSA frontman Josh Homme, RATM frontman Zach De La Rocha in his now obligatory cameo – crowd in from every edge of music to bask in and further burnish the band’s glow. And it’s marvelous. Returning readers might understandably misinterpret my recurring characterization of Run the Jewels as the only game in modern hip hop, when I meant to bastardize The Clash’s classic ad copy instead. Run the Jewels is the only game in modern hip hop that matters.
- Elder – Omens (Progressive Metal – Psychedelic) – One walks a narrow line when proclaiming the worth of an established artist with whom he is otherwise unfamiliar. It’s a tricky business, requiring perspective, humility, and the same sort of open mind you’re theoretically trying to impress. I, luckily, have all those qualities in abundance, and am secure enough in my general taste level to shout to the heavens while still withholding overly grand pronouncements. With no tracks clocking under nine minutes, abundance would also seem to be the primary attribute of Omens, the fetching fifth album by Boston psychedelic stoner rock pilgrims Elder, though it is tempered by a patient professionalism that recognizes the virtue of exploring a groove rather than just piling parts and progressions one atop another into a figurative mountain. Here, the mountain rises naturally, forged from the cooling of volcanic guitar riffs by unoppressive Yes-like keyboard flourishes and steady, rumbling rhythmic underpinning. A strong peer comparison might be Coheed & Cambria, though Elder, who appears to neither possess traditional commercial instincts nor care to, tends to meticulously contain explosions where the former lets them rip. Omens is a hell of a journey that demands to be experienced in a single sitting, and one I took many times in 2020. I have no idea whether it’s Elder’s best album, some unfortunate digression, or a status quo standard-bearer, though, given its standalone quality, those last two possibilities have me keen to get started on additional field research.
- Ratboys – Printer’s Devil (Indie Rock) – Attentive readers of the series may identify the inclusion in this edition’s top ten of Printer’s Devil, the arresting third album from out-of-nowhere by way of Chicago garage popsters Ratboys, as a predictable call in the seeming game of music Bingo – another tight, noisy, female-led indie overachiever, ala Wolf Alice, Charly Bliss, et al., you say? – that fills its column inches each year, though chances are they’ll oversimplify the reasons. People hovering around my officially undisclosed age (you can deduce and do the math, trust me) tend to over-romanticize the Grunge music of their youth, though it’s likely their memories reflexively prioritize MTV anthems over the more textured moments – from bands like Throwing Muses and The Breeders, plus deep cuts from STP, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and the like – that provided the movement so much of its depth and staying power. Julia Steiner makes for an unassuming frontwoman, but an album this ingratiatingly odd and fundamentally solid hardly needs to be flashy. Grunge is remembered today as being as much about fashion as it was about music, which is both an outsider’s perspective and a convenient reduction. Printer’s Devil rocks indeed – see “Look To” and “Anj”, among others – but its best tracks (the angular “Victorian Slumhouse”, the pensive “My Hands Grow”) blend power and emotion in a way that doesn’t diminish either, and, albeit on a smaller scale, evoke some of the same feelings that first convinced me there was more to life than metal as a lad of sixteen.
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter) – Backing musicians be damned, I have this prevailing (invented) mental image of Phoebe Bridgers, sitting on a conspicuous barstool by the window of a hospital room to which she is only a visitor, singing “Garden Song” or “Halloween” as she ponders an unnamed urban landscape lit up like a Christmas tree beneath a starless night sky, pushing through in hopes that her voice might be sufficient to pierce the void and…connect. The genius of her breakthrough album, Punisher, lies in just such evocation, in that it not only invites weird, intensely personal interpretations without judgment but offers up the possibility of fresh new ones with each listen. The songs seem written on the spot, arranged spontaneously to the advantage of instrumentation – lovely lines of lone violin, drums that almost drown her out at strategically random moments – she can only hear in her head. Phoebe’s so cute, with her ubiquitous, becoming-iconic black skeleton long sleeve and voice that appears to float on the air without ever lilting, let alone plummeting. I loved the infectious, heady trip of “Kyoto”, of course, feeling somehow late to that party despite timing that was, for a change, damned near impeccable. Bridgers has already long since raced off to her next thing – multiple Grammy nods, SNL guesting – but at least had the courtesy to leave my initial impressions intact. The city sprawls out beneath her windowsill yet, in hushed anticipation.
- Gama Bomb – Sea Savage (Thrash Metal) – All manner of mythic creatures roam the seven seas, plundering pirates, tentacled titans, and the like. Cross those two in spirit if not (physical) stature, break their compass and supercharge their vessel, gift them music lessons and grog by the gross, and the resulting ruckus might sound something along the lines of Gama Bomb. The Northern Irish quintet has been among the world’s foremost thrash practitioners for more than a decade, keelhauling little-suspecting listeners with their potent mix of energy, irreverence, and disarmingly precision firepower. Sea Savage, Gama Bomb’s infectious seventh full length, distills the band’s many gifts into a particularly potent stew, spewing forth their trademark cheeky and vivid auditory flights of fancy in a non-stop barrage guaranteed to entertain. You can practically feel singer Philly Byrne stalking the poop deck of some sinister schooner bedazzled with patch, parrot, and peg leg. Some of the choicer cuts on Sea Savage – “Rusty Jaw”, “Monsterizer”, the banshee title track – appear to actually reference monsters of the deep conjured for the occasion, while killer left fielders like “Miami Supercops” and “She’s Not My Mother, Todd” hew somewhat closer to, ahem, reality, without, thankfully, ever lingering there more than a second.
- The Front Bottoms – In Sickness & In Flames (Indie Rock) – One of several rules of thumb under which my life as a music fan has evolved in recent years is this: most any new metal band worth its salt is automatically also worth seeing live, whereas non-metal neophytes necessarily have more to prove. Without that guidance, frankly, I’d risk going insane, or broke, or both. However unfair it may initially read, I don’t think the standard is itself unreasonable, or that its validity hasn’t since been borne out via extensive clinical trials. Poised to assume the mantle of Screaming Females, Against Me!, The Regrettes, Frightened Rabbit, etc. is one of 2020’s few unironically happy offerings in any respect, The Front Bottoms, the aforementioned “Emo” trio member whose online designation made the least sense to me. Simultaneously earnest and not a little twisted, the New Jersey duo’s third album In Sickness & In Flames was the year’s biggest grower, rocketing up the countdown on repeat listens from a spot just outside the top 20 to one just inside it, and then leapfrogging another half dozen more established artists to claim its rightful place at the table. Keep your Dismemberment Plan comparisons because I’m honestly not familiar. Heady but heartfelt, Brian Sella’s piercing and literate speak-singing from behind a wall of well-deployed Marshalls had me pondering instead a never-before-heard mixture of Hold Steady and They Might Be Giants, with some Decemberists thrown in for additional flair, and however weird that may sound to you – I’d agree, but still can’t shake it – I all but guarantee you won’t also think it’s boring. More than any new band on the list, I absolutely can’t wait to see Front Bottoms live. More insular fare like “Camouflage” and “The Truth” connects every listen, while the only practical way to improve already brassy songs like “Everyone Blooms” and “Montgomery Forever” is with audience participation.
- Midnight – Rebirth by Blasphemy (Blackened Speed Metal) – In metal history, more albums than you or I can probably name begin not with music but ambience, some plodding, introductory track of creaking floors or stirring crypts – the harbinger of some unimaginable beast with a thirst for blood – the better to establish the bonafides of the artist in question as sufficiently sinister to be worth your money. I appreciate the approach of Cleveland, Ohio’s Midnight instead, who kick off Rebirth by Blasphemy with the blistering, charmingly titled “F@#%ing Speed and Darkness”. Dispense with the pleasantries, unleash the hostilities, batten down the f@#%ing hatches. If all that follows is suitably capital-E “Evil”, that one song is really all you need to “get” Midnight, though the lead trio delivers a comprehensive and wicked first impression. From the frothing opener, to the galloping title track, to the wacked out reverse zombie apocalypse of “Escape the Grave”, Rebirth is a welcome throwback to the times, not so long ago but more elusive by the day, when I used to grade/praise club shows in part by how many over the counter pain relievers were necessary the morning after. When you break the form down to its studded leather basics, metal is supposed to be fun, all ridiculous scowling and throwing the horns while headbanging with abandon. Most of what I learned about having fun with metal came from Iron Maiden, but I understand and increasingly appreciate folks like Midnight, who partook of their own seedy back alley education from speed/black metal progenitors Venom. It’s a different kind of both sound and attitude, where the sound is all attitude, behind ripping guitars, overmic’ed drums and a voice like a northeastern squall that can somehow articulate its consonants amidst the extensive wind damage.
- Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Grindcore/Death Metal) – In the nascent days of the Trump regime, mere hours after his astounding victory and scant months before the duly elected aspiring dictator began in earnest his scorched earth campaign of kneecapping hallowed institutions and obliterating political norms to his own benefit, I extracted my last bit of solace in the face of the looming world order by sharing space in a concert hall with an even greater force of nature, indomitable English grindcore godfathers Napalm Death. Something told me then that democratic resistance would weather the coming storm. Four years and tens of thousands of lies later, right on time as it turns out, the band unleashed the towering Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, an unofficial survival guide for the most difficult year in its listeners’ collective memory. A non-stop barrage of pointed songs (“Contagion”, “Backlash Just Because”, “Amoral”, “That Curse of Being in Thrall”, “Zero Gravitas Chamber”), that slash, stab, and burn forever like the acid in frontman Barney Greenaway’s tongue, Throes of Joy continues Napalm Death’s enviable streak of world-beating albums while noticeably upping the ante. Grindcore, and the political punk from which it mutated, was never a form to pull punches or shy from inventing enemies during pedestrian intervals, the better to prepare for the arrival of real tyrants. This is galvanizing music, for and by the people. It’s music to defend the Capitol by.
- Pearl Jam – Gigaton (Rock) – Long removed from its status as the biggest band in rock and roll yet stubbornly prominent among the genre’s shrinking list of brand names, Pearl Jam has spent its intervening twenty-six years evolving into the Dad Rock equivalent of comfort food, an amorphous, chameleonic blob of steady professionalism and dependably simmering if sporadically searing musicality. At times, it has seemed little more than Eddie Vedder’s backing band, an unfortunate if understandable misconception that the suggestively titled Gigaton seeks, persuasively, to correct. Predictability has never been Pearl Jam’s problem so much as dependable engagement. This is a quality band even when going through the motions. When they aren’t, look out. How else to explain “Dance of the Clairvoyants”, a clipped, almost European club groove that, at once, constitutes both stylistic outlier and pulse-quickening tone-setter. Vedder’s soulful self-expression has usurped full band explosiveness as a latter day calling card, and he is given a wide berth with which to work on stirring playbook ballads like “Alright” and “Comes Then Goes”. Those highlights blend with minimal seams into the scruffy bangers (propulsive “Never Destination”, grunge memento “Quick Escape”) surrounding them, creating a full spectrum snapshot of a band not just unified in winter but defiant. Ample evidence to the contrary, there are long stretches where Gigaton suggests a band, still wailing away, that never quite escaped the garage. If they believe it, we begin to as well.
- Pallbearer – Forgotten Days (Doom Metal) – Growth and exploration are all well and good, but there’s a lot to be said as well for dependably delivering on an implied promise. Arkansan doomsayers Pallbearer have ruled the roost atop the mountain representing their narrow musical niche from pretty much the moment of their 2012 debut release Sorrow & Extinction, infusing emotion more than sufficient to enliven and cut through the standard drone, and it’s been a steady upward trajectory since. I’m as much a Sabbath fan as any self-respecting metalhead, and I dabbled in Cathedral back in the day, but it took 2014 sophomore effort Foundations of Burden to land doom firmly back on my radar. 2017’s Heartless represented the band’s personal high water mark, expanding Pallbearer’s musical parameters until they even approached classic rock in spots. Forgotten Days is perhaps THE quintessential 2020 long-player, paying proper homage to Pallbearer’s dark, dirgey roots while taking another minor step forward, smoothing down the sporadic overtly Floydian passages that elevated and complicated Heartless. Pallbearer demands respect even when standing still, though they rarely do so. You’ve witnessed the progression in real time right here in these countdowns. It’s a safe bet they’ll be back in 2023…assuming we all are.
- Tim Burgess – I Love the New Sky (Indie Rock/Singer-Songwriter) – “You’re so scared of stepping wrong,” proclaims Tim Burgess in the second verse of jaunty sing-along “Lucky Creatures”, “you’ve never stepped right”. It’s a straightforward yet nonchalant, practically throwaway, statement against artistic timidity from a man who seems to embody unencumbered freedom from the top of his mop to the tips of his toes, and it informs every second of I Love the New Sky. Burgess certainly seems unafflicted by any such doubts himself. Whether as a solo artist or fronting The Charlatans, the lithe Englishman was a largely unknown commodity to me before his fifth album showed up in a new and recommended column on bandcamp.com, and though it didn’t quite connect on the level that power-pop contemporaries The New Pornographers (as a singer-songwriter, Burgess actually splits a nifty difference between Carl Newman at his most earnest and Dan Bejar at his most obtuse) ever did, catchy, kaleidoscopic concoctions like “Empathy for the Devil” and song-of-the-year finalist “I Got This” never failed to deliver a smile. Most music this weird seems to think it’s making some sort of grand statement but the Manchester minstrel glides through, smooth and unaffected. I’ll be keeping careful track from here on out.
- Maria Bamford – Weakness is the Brand (Comedy) – As far afield as she might range lately in the ongoing (and much deserved) public awareness carpet-bombing campaign touting her unquestionable awesomeness – see Netflix original Lady Dynamite, plus podcasts, web series, and animated guest spots almost beyond count – I have to shamefully admit I haven’t hung with Maria Bamford every step of the way. No one could. Lucky for me that the woman of 1,000 neurotic voices is drawn back to the stage like a moth to flame. Stand-up is her foundation and first love, and if Weakness is the Brand isn’t her career-best set – I’d place it at least behind How to WIN!, cross-genre top 20 trailblazer Ask Me About My New God!, and The Special Special Special, in which Bamford performs New God-era material to a captive audience of her chipper Minnesotan parents – it is head and shoulders above 2020’s remaining Comedy pack, and most other contenders to boot. “I’ve done well with the mental health schtick,” she deadpans early on, “but the last two years have been so good I don’t have any new material.” Don’t you believe it. Whether eavesdropping on the extended Bamford family’s latest session of “Sharing and Caring” therapy, previewing the ambitious “Social Justice Sexual Fantasy”, an incredibly timely three-act play in six+ minutes, or bearing witness to the glory that is “Saturation Point”, an adorable duet about dysfunctional marriage “sung” with husband Scott Cassidy, just listen and be amazed.
- The Glorious Dead – Into Lifeless Shrines (Brutal Death Metal) – “The secret to making a good horror movie,” offered the late, great Wes Craven (who would know), “is to nail your audience almost immediately. That way, you don’t have to hit them hard again until the end.” Craven’s wisdom is hardly proprietary, of course, and no one has ever flustered himself looking for analogues between horror and heavy metal. There is, in fact, no surer bet in all of music than the front-loaded metal album, a handful of which I’ve already mentioned on this very countdown. Which brings me to Into Lifeless Shrines, by obscure but feisty Michiganders The Glorious Dead, a fairly glaring exception of an album that actually proves Craven’s rule in the process of breaking it. I sample dozens of anonymous new metal releases each year. The ones that don’t immediately grab me rarely get a second glance, let alone a second chance. Into Lifeless Shrines flaunts precedent by boldly leading with an uninspiring instrumental intro followed by its unequivocally worst song – a berzerk concoction shot through with graceless transitions and a passage of plodding paddle thrash – then immediately undertakes the task of digging itself out from said hole via the power of song, one marked improvement after another. Imagine the primal force of, say, End Complete-era Obituary juxtaposed with the polish and stylistic variety of The Crown circa-1999. By the end of track twelve, The Glorious Dead have completed a massive reclamation project worthy of their name, transforming a most unlikely comeback into an (almost) unqualified triumph.