I really like winter. The lack of light kind of sucks, but I enjoy cold, crisp days. And in December, I get to read all of the “Best of” lists which inevitably lead me to discover lots of really awesome music, TV, and videogames that I’d missed or just plain overlooked. In an attempt to recreate the grandeur of these “Best of” lists without actually becoming a music reviewer, I decided I wanted to think about my Top 10 albums of the year and post them here. If you try any of these and enjoy them, do let me know! I’d love to hear about it!
Important caveat - these aren’t necessarily albums that came out in 2020. But I discovered them this year. Here are my favourites, counting down to my #1!
#10. Haken - Virus (Progressive Metal): Haken’s twice-delayed-in-an-attempt-to-be-sensitive album is really fun chunk of crunchy progressive heavy metal. They pack both fun melodies and bizarre song structures together really well. Try “Invasion” - probably one of my favourite tracks of the year.
#9. Unleash the Archers - Abyss (Power Metal): Unleash’s previous album quickly became one of my favourites, with bombastic melodies and a superb vocalist in Brittney Slayes. This lacks the same hooks as its predecessor, but is still super enjoyable. Try “Abyss”.
#8. ZETA - Zeta (Synthwave, Pop): Wonderfully 80s sounding, ZETA are a ‘supergroup’ of metal artists who decided to try their hand at something different. The result is a great set of synthy pop. Try “Beat the System”.
#7. Run The Jewels - RTJ4 (Rap): Run The Jewels are one of the very few rap artists I really get on with. Whilst it’s not as accessible as their first or third album, RTJ4 has some gems in it, and some truly powerful moments. Try “A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)”.
#6. Method Cell - Curse of a Modern Age (Futurepop, Electronic): I hope the two members of Method Cell don’t live together. Curse of a Modern Age is a fantastic set of bop-along futurepop / electronic songs, each of which seethe with a bitter undercurrent of someone who’s angry at absolutely everything and at breaking point. Try “Push” and “Drop Dead”.
5. Tim Minchin - Apart Together (Pop)
Tim Minchin’s previous music has typically been a mixture of comedy and anger. In the song “Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long”, Tim labels himself as a “Long-haired lefty joker”. Up until the release of Apart Together, I’d say that was pretty accurate. For old-style Tim, look for songs like “Storm” and “If I Didn’t Have You”. Tim Minchin is a great lyricist and an even better pianist, and in Apart Together, Tim directs this energy into music that I would hesitantly label as more accessible.
Apart Together deals with Tim’s take on relationships, ones that are living, thriving, or failed. The songs run the gamut from catchy and humorous to low and sorrowful, but almost exclusively deal with loss in some form or another - in his live show where he played the album for the first time, Tim described his obsession with the idea that “Loss has mass”.
Where the music worked for me is in the multiple levels that are easy to decipher. Airport Piano, one of my favourite tracks, both pokes fun at the mid-life crisis whilst showing Tim firmly in its grasp, as he sings about desperately trying to finish the song and wanting to stay at the piano rather than being called away to get on a plane and face reality.
The more serious side of Apart Together is sweet and touching, bringing songs about love into the 21st Century with songs like I’ll Take Lonely Tonight and I Can’t Save You.
Apart Together is one of the albums that I think most readers of this blog would enjoy (unlike, perhaps, some of the upcoming entries). And although it’s a relatively new release, it’s had quite an impact on me. Try “Airport Piano” and “Apart Together”.
4. Catalepsia - Inheritance (Doom Metal)
I’m a sucker for concept albums, that is, music with a story - no matter how abstract or tenuous. I’d never heard of Catalepsia until December of 2020, but when I discovered Inheritance, it very quickly became one of my top albums of the year. Inheritance tells the story of a man who is possessed by a demon - from first contact, to desperately fighting, to failing and finally being overcome. The album closes with the protagonist being forced to watch himself carry out actions he never would’ve considered before.
Inheritance triumphs in its atmosphere. This is not an album which works at all on shuffle, or if odd tracks were to come up in your rotation. This is an album to be listened to, and to be absorbed. The music spans both down-tempo and gloomy Doom Metal, and just occasionally it hits you with a sudden flurry and blast of Death Metal. Tracks 2 and 3, II: Incarnation into III: Oppression, showcase this dynamic perfectly as the demon begins to emerge, infecting the protagonist’s mind before screaming its rage and fighting directly for his mind.
And through all this, Inheritance manages to put enough catchy hooks into the songs that they stick even when the album is over. The aforementioned tracks II and III, the desperate cries of “Can you stop me before I trespass?” from IV: Possession, and the fantastic instrumental section at the end of VI: Becoming keep drawing me back.
Catalepsia is a pretty unknown band - Spotify says each track on this album has had maybe ~1000 plays in total - and I was pleasantly surprised by the talent on offer. Vocals are often a catch in Doom Metal, but Erwin Franz nails both the down-tempo cleans and the Death Metal roars.
3. Fvneral Fvkk - Carnal Confessions (Doom Metal, Terrible Band Names)
I’d understand if you’d skipped reading this entry. The band name and album title don’t inspire the notion of music that is enjoyable to listen to, or even vaguely melodic or emotional. I’m quite upset that Carnal Confessions is so good, because it means I have to write about it here, and attempt to sell people I speak to about a band called Fvneral Fvkk.
Angry Metal Guy, my favourite Metal review site, summed it up really well in their review of this album:
If there was ever a case of a band’s name totally not fitting their style, we’ve found it here with Fvneral Fvkk. When I see that godawful moniker all I can think of is [a] band that sounds like a demon in a metal trash can getting thrown down steel fire stairs.
[Carnal Confessions is] a piece of music that grips you from the first moment and refuses to let go until the album’s final notes fade away. Beautiful and disturbing in equal measure, this one is something else.
Carnal Confessions is an album about sexual abuse and sexual oppression within the (Catholic) church. The music revolves often around single guitar riffs and melodies which are left to float and haunt within the music. The vocals fit perfectly into the music, lending themselves to the bleak topic of the album whilst still soaring above the crunchy riffs in the verses.
And yet, an album so bleak and often blunt still produces emotions and moments that I keep coming back to. A Shadow In The Dormitory’s lines describing the long-lasting effects of abuse on the victims haunts me, but at the same time, When God Is Not Watching is a surprisingly sweet forbidden love story that I did not expect to find at the end of this album.
2. Leprous - Pitfalls (Progressive Rock / Metal)
Pitfalls was my favourite album of 2019. So, I guess technically, it shouldn’t be included in this list. But it’s here because it’s had such incredible staying power with me that, despite all of the great music that came out in 2020, it’s still amongst the top in terms of sheer number of plays this year.
Pitfalls feels like the culmination of a slow journey that Leprous have taken over the course of their 6 albums, from quirky and rhythmic progressive metal into melancholic rock with enough of a heavy flair to kick in where it counts. Pitfalls deals with vocalist Einar Solberg’s battle with depression, and gently leads you through denial of the problem (Below), falling into the pits of the illness (I Lose Hope), and Einar’s fights against his own mind as well as how he tried to deal with it.
On Pitfalls, Leprous show themselves to be the masters of the “slow build” style of track. Songs such as At The Bottom and Distant Bells start off very slow and minimalistic, and gradually build up to a dramatic and often utterly triumphant final chorus. Despite the subject matter, I find that Pitfalls is actually a message of hope. And even when the lyrics are at their bleakest, the songs on Pitfalls have an unmistakable catchy groove to them that feels in contrast to what’s being sung about - I Lose Hope is such an example.
Einar Solberg has quickly become my favourite vocalist in Metal. His range is incredible and it’s utilized to its full extent on Pitfalls, and he can pour emotion into everything he sings.
1. Protest The Hero - Palimpsest (Progressive Metal)
In contrast to a lot of the other albums in this list, which inspired emotion and built atmosphere, Palimpsest is here primarily because it’s just plain FUN. I enjoy music that tells stories - and Palimpsest is a collection of stories which detail great American failures, either personal or on a macro level, some of which still persist today. It deals with racism, sexism, and incarceration - but each song is so incredibly catchy, and a ride in of itself, that it never once feels gloomy.
The first single The Canary sings about Amelia Earheart, the first female to fly across the atlantic solo, and the judgement and notoriety that she faced along the way. All Hands describes the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 which killed 21 people in Boston, as well as making an allegory to the conditions of the dock workers caught up in the flood. The Fireside focuses on the Great Depression before WW2, and the stark contrast between the poverty and suffering of the peoplem and the gentle reassurances coming from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” on the radio at the same time.
I could write blurbs like that for every song on the album, and it’s these micro-stories that make Palimpsest such a fascinating listen to me. That’s not to detract from the music either - Protest the Hero take “Progressive Metal” to its extreme, merging incredibly complex music with accessible melodies and head-banging riffs.
If you haven’t listened to Protest the Hero before (or even if you have), it’s the vocals that might take the most getting used to. Rody Walker’s wails fit the music really well, but are perhaps a little jarring on first listen, and have proved somewhat divisive in the metal community. In that regard, Palimpsest was a grower for me.
Regardless, Palimpsest is a fantastic album, an upbeat burst of escapism that I sorely welcomed, and is definitely my go-to listen for 2020. Pick a song, and open the Genius page for its lyrics so you can read the story as you go - like “Reverie” (Lyrics), or “The Fireside” (Lyrics).