Features

The 50 greatest albums of 2020

The only countdown that matters: Kerrang!’s 50 greatest albums of 2020.

It’s been A Year, hasn’t it? But as the world changed around us in a manner unthinkable back in January, even with live shows a joyous memory, the power and importance of music took on an even more vital role than ever over the past 12 months. And even though many of the records released in this annus horribilis were written and recorded before most people had even heard of coronavirus, the emotion and passion that went into them took on new meaning when forced under the intense focus of 2020

Here, we present the 50 greatest albums of this year. Whether for their artistic brilliance, their poignancy, the way their anger and frustration mirrored that of the times in which they were released, the comfort they gave in low moments, the escape they provided, or the sheer, uplifting, fuck-off joy they brought as the sounds of life broke through the layers of difficulty and reminded us just how alive music can make you feel even in the hardest and weirdest of times – every one of these records made a deep impact. 

And thank fuck for that, because without them, and the many, many other great albums that were released this year, traversing the trials and tribulations of this challenging, sad year would have been even harder. So, turn it up loud and celebrate, as we present the 50 best albums of 2020

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50. grandson – Death Of An Optimist (Fueled By Ramen)

Almost two years ago, in January 2019, we were already tipping grandson for something special. With a clutch of creatively fecund EPs to his name and a genuinely exciting energy in his engine, Jordan Edward Benjamin just had something about him – intelligence, artistic curiosity and skill, a cool charisma – that made you want to watch his next moves with great interest. 

He may have taken longer than anticipated to make his full-length debut, but Death Of An Optimist was an album that, in hindsight, needed to come out at the right time. And although more by accident than real design, the themes of searching for answers, looking for change, and the battle between grandson’s cautious sense of hope and the pessimism of his darker alter-ego X chimed harmoniously with a year where change and new beginnings – COVID, Joe Biden’s election win, the increasing squeeze of climate change – have featured heavily. Writing his concept on a musical canvas that took in hip-hop, grungy alt.rock, a bit of punk and twenty one pilots’ sense of really not having a lane in which to stay, and you had one of the most illuminating and exciting debuts of the year. (NR)

49. Corey Taylor – CMFT (Roadrunner)

Fronting one of the world’s biggest metal acts is a massive job, so Corey Taylor could therefore be forgiven for seeking a little diversion, something a bit different. Behold: that’s exactly what the Slipknot singer did for this solo debut album. While the resulting record was eccentric, this bouncy hard rock outing also showcased The Great Big Mouth’s great big personality, and provided a surge of relief from the year’s endless bad news. 

CMFT was a wild ride, embracing AC/DC bluster, sawtooth blues-rock and OTT chest-beating with a wicked grin. Samantha’s Gone unleashed perhaps the most instant hook Corey’s ever come up with, and Black Eyes Blue wasn’t far behind. In intriguing contrast, the jazz-dipped The Maria Fire and European Tour Bus Bathroom Song’s hardcore kept matters unpredictable to the finish. Corey even roped in hip-hop buds Tech N9ne and Kid Bookie for a nu-metal styled shout-out, entitled CMFT Must Be Stopped. It was the type of fists-aloft anthem he might walk on to if he were a wrestler – but let’s not give him ideas. Big, bold and brash, it was very much Corey Taylor being Corey Taylor. And equally, this timely sidestep was a whole lot of fun when we needed it most. (SB)

48. Kvelertak – Splid (Rise)

When owl-hatted founding vocalist Erlend Hjelvik announced he would be departing Norwegian black’n’roll icons Kvelertak in July 2018, fans were understandably upset. Would the Stavanger syndicate be able to maintain their energy, their swagger, their sheer sense of filth and fury, without their inimitable frontman at the helm? Yes. Enter new singer Ivar Nikolaisen, bringing with him all the crusty, carefree abandon of a drifter who’d (literally) dropped off the grid to work construction in the deep-freeze of the Scandinavian winter and squat in the woods. 

Kvelertak’s resultant fourth album, Splid (tellingly, the Norwegian word for discord) arrived from the February cold boasting new levels of attitude and ambition. Chest-emptying three minute bangers like Necrosoft and Uglas Hegemoni nestled up against shapeshifting epics Fanden ta Dette Hull! and Delirium Tremens, as elements of thrash, goth and classic rock dropped into the punky black metal mix. The sound of a band pummellingly back on track, and perhaps more euphorically unhinged than ever. (SL)

47. Public Enemy – What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? (Public Enemy PS/Def Jam)

A lot of factors converged to make What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? the most thrilling Public Enemy album in a long time: the reinterpretation of some old classics, a host of A‑list guests including Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Mike D, Cypress Hill, Ice‑T and more. That’s not to mention the single greatest use of the word bozo’ in recent memory. 

But most important of all was its prescience. Public Enemy delivered an album that hit back at 2020 with the same devastating intensity with which it struck the world. Released in the aftermath of COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests, Chuck D tore strips off Donald Trump and grasped at the ugly roots of institutional racism and police brutality. Dazzling moments racked up, from the booming State Of The Union (STFU) to the makeshift Prophets Of Rage reunion on GRID

But nestled in among these instances were also moments of real intimacy and vulnerability. If the sound of Chuck D mourning hip-hop’s fallen icons on Rest In Beats didn’t get you, Flava Flav reflecting on his past on R.I.P. Blackat certainly did. Here was a record with the capacity to move you in more ways than one. (GG)

46. PVRIS – Use Me (Warner)

With all due respect to the other members of the band, it wasn’t truly all that much of a surprise when Lynn Gunn revealed that she was the creative force within PVRIS. But even so, this news changed the expectation for their third album significantly. 

Thankfully, Use Me delivered the goods brilliantly. As a representation of Lynn’s step into the spotlight to bask in her own achievements and honesty, it was bold, fresh and brimming with confidence. That confidence wasn’t at the price of the fragility and honesty that’s characterised PVRIS throughout the years, though, and Lynn put potent topics in her crosshairs, with Good To Be Alive and Dead Weight examining the expectations of fame and the treatment of women in the music industry respectively. She would know much about both, of course, having soldiered on in the face of a number of health conditions, but here she turned her suffering into majestic music to empower a fanbase she’s been dedicated to from day one. (JH)

45. Midnight – Rebirth By Blasphemy (Metal Blade)

Midnight take the age old approach of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, perfecting the art of sleazy blackened speed metal and repeating it on every release without ever diminishing the urge to party. The ability to play this stuff over and over again and keep it sounding new and exciting is a skill that the hooded U.S. maniacs aren’t praised for enough, and the way they supercharge the influence of the likes of Venom and Motörhead is a key part of their charm. 

Rebirth By Blasphemy was a snarling, hedonistic aural assault that managed to be catchy and fun while still feeling dark and dangerous. Imagine a beer in one hand and a sacrificial knife in the other – nobody ever said that summoning demons couldn’t be a laugh. In fact, here Midnight brought the party so hard, it may be worth checking underneath frontman Athenar’s hood to make sure he’s not actually Andrew W.K. in disguise. (AD)

44. The Smashing Pumpkins – Cyr (Sumerian)

Boasting both an enviably broad musical palette and a thoroughly distinctive frontman in Billy Corgan, The Smashing Pumpkins are a rare example of a band who are simultaneously ever-changing and immediately identifiable. Across two discs, 20 songs and 72 minutes, Cyr relentlessly tested this theory to its limit.

It was certainly worlds apart from its predecessor, 2018’s Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol 1. That album found 75 per cent of the band’s classic line-up easing back into active duty with half an hour of music that felt precision-tooled to call back to their commercial peak. Cyr’s comparative capaciousness wasn’t confined to its duration, with Billy leading the Pumpkins through passages of post-punk, electronica and synthpop, severely restricting the audible presence of guitars in favour of dominant keyboards.

What remained constant was Billy’s way with a catchy tune, with Ramona and the title-track hitting that sweet spot of yearning nostalgia that’s marked many a Pumpkins classic. If Cyr couldn’t match the gonzo opulence of their Mellon Collie era (and they’re working on a follow-up to that), it nevertheless made a convincing case that there’s still plenty to enjoy in these alt-veterans’ explorations. (OT)

43. Nova Twins – Who Are The Girls? (333 Wreckords Crew)

Nova Twins could well be the future of UK punk. A bold statement that may be, but the evidence was all there on Who Are The Girls?, the London duo’s ferocious debut album that set the world to rights in no uncertain terms. 

Sound-wise, there was simply nothing else like it around in 2020. Part punk, part grime, part ridiculously heavy electronica, Who Are The Girls? was a melting pot of ideas, both musical and lyrical, something to which songs like the progressive, incendiary and punk as fuck Bullet attested. And the choruses, they simply banged, with Taxi’s electro-infused punk spirit elevated by some seriously catchy sonics. Smart, stylish musicians with their sights set squarely on shaking things up, Nova Twins here made something that sounded unique, but with recognisable, infectious fire in its belly. (JR)

42. Cold Years – Paradise (eOne)

There was a real emotional vulnerability at the heart of Cold Years’ stunning debut album. Just listen to the way Northern Blue swells with melancholy or how the slow-motion lament of Burn The House Down shimmers with a broken majesty even as it builds up into a huge roar of anthemic noise. 

But it wasn’t just matters of the heart that this Aberdeen quartet were concerning themselves with here. Just like blue-collar bands like The Gaslight Anthem to whom they’ve so often been compared, Cold Years infuse their music with a sense of place, heritage and history. As such, these were more than just songs – they were hopes and dreams of making an escape, of becoming something bigger than what life so often seems to present to people, something no more evident than on the raucous burning desire of Hold On. It was also an album that was unafraid to be political, with 62 (My Generation Is Falling Apart) a seething, scathing indictment of the whole Brexit fiasco. It all made for a striking, stirring debut that marked Cold Years out as something very special indeed. (MP)

41. Bury Tomorrow – Cannibal (Music For Nations)

One place you generally don’t find metalcore is inside the Top 10 of the UK Album Chart. But in July, Bury Tomorrows sixth LP Cannibal went there, signifying not just the loyalty fans feel to the Southampton brutalists, but also the band’s ever-advancing qualities. It’s true that, musically, it followed a similar route map as previous Bury Tomorrow albums, but Cannibal was shot through with a deeper honesty. 

From the rapid-fire bombardment of opener Choke to heavy closer Dark, Infinite, this was an altogether more personal affair than previous outings, confronting mental health issues in a way that many could relate to. Lucidity is hard to come by when you’re still afraid of the world,’ rattled frontman Dani Winter-Bates on the final track, while Imposter was perhaps the first song ever to centre on the syndrome of the same name. The Grey (VIXI), meanwhile, showcased guitarist Jason Cameron’s emotive singing, interspersed with the usual rage, while throughout, Cannibal’s relentless energy and soaring melodies were classic Bury Tomorrow. It was altogether a bulkier, sharper, stronger beast – the mark of a band that continues to improve. (SB)

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40. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days (Nuclear Blast)

Considering Pallbearers trajectory into more progressive territory on 2017’s Heartless, under normal circumstances, their decision to revisit their roots by stripping back to the funereal melancholy of their older material on Forgotten Days would seem regressive and almost baffling. However, these were definitely not normal circumstances, and Pallbearer essentially released the soundtrack to the sombre mood shared the entire world over here. 

The one glimmer of hope amongst all of the doom and gloom on this record was that the guitars were just as magical as has come to be expected of the Arkansas quartet, adopting the approach that if you’re going to play at a painstakingly glacial pace, you may as well use it as an opportunity to shoehorn in elaborate solos until the songs are fit to burst. This weighty slab of emotionally-wrought doom was a solid reminder that while nothing really feels certain at the moment, the one thing that will always remain a constant is the power of a good riff. Here, Pallbearer delivered them by the bucketload. (AD)

39. Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor (Atlantic)

A slow-burner of a record, Hayley Williams’ debut solo album didn’t possess the immediacy of Paramore, but its impact was profound. Spreading her wings as a songwriter and crossing into territory previously unexplored in her music, the vocalist’s first album as a solo artist was a considerable creative success.

Rooted in alt.pop and indie, and with an air of experimentation running throughout, Petals For Armor certainly stretched further away from Hayley’s roots than anything she had put her name to before, but some links remained. Paramore guitarist Taylor York helmed the production desk and helped bring the songs to life, as did touring musician Joseph Howard. Drummer Zac Farro, meanwhile, got involved to direct the video for the single Dead Horse.

A solemn, introspective record that saw its creator expressing herself with a gritty rawness, Petals For Armor was proof that Hayley Williams is more than capable of blossoming as a solo artist in her own right, unencumbered by the expectations that come with the band in which she made her name. This album may have been low-key, but it remained no less an impressive victory. (JR)

38. The Chats – High Risk Behaviour (Bargain Bin)

Good rock music doesn’t have to be big or clever. In fact some of the most joyful listening experiences are neither. Case in point: The Chats’ debut album. Rocketing past at just 28 minutes, the Aussie trio proved they’re more than a viral video about a cigarette break here, using their Buzzcocks-meets-IDLES lo-fi punk to tell stories of contracting STDs, the dangers of buying drugs online, and being refused entry to swanky clubs. In fact, this litany of everyday events connected on a more meaningful level than any pseudo-political manifesto could, simply by saying what they see like an episode of Catchphrase if Mr Chips was gakked off his head. 

It wasn’t all about excess, though. Sometimes food formed the backbone, such as on Pub Feed and Dine N Dash – the latter offering I wanna go out and fill my gob and I don’t have a fucking job’ as possibly the best opening line of 2020. Fuelled by rumbling bass, revved-up guitars and boisterous gang vocals, High Risk Behaviours simple, unpolished reflection of working-class Queensland had its tongue poking through its cheek throughout. If you were looking for a good time in 2020, this was it. (LM)

37. Green Day – Father Of All… (Reprise)

Green Day have a long and fruitful history when it comes to shaking things up between records, and never was this more apparent than on the bold Father Of All Motherfuckers (also politely renamed Father Of All…). Teaming up with producer Butch Walker for album number 13, the Oakland punk rock titans playfully took everything they’d built on the slick return-to-form predecessor Revolution Radio and pretty much ditched it entirely. It was way about exploring new territory and music and things that we never really tried out before,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong excitedly told Kerrang! in 2019. Everything was a new way.”

Sonically this lane-change might not have been for everyone, but for those willing to take the plunge with the trio, Father Of All… had rewards aplenty. The scuzzy, fired-up rock’n’roll of Stab You In The Heart, Sugar Youth and Take The Money And Crawl were oozing with newfound attitude, while Meet Me On The Roof and Graffitia showed that Billie Joe will never not be able to write a damn great melody. At just 26 minutes long – the shortest record of Green Day’s career – it came and went in no time at all, but it never failed to leave a lasting grin. (EC)

36. Grey Daze – Amends (Loma Vista)

Amends was an album impossible to separate from the context of its conception and birth. If you’re unaware of the story, Grey Daze were Chester Benningtons pre-Linkin Park band. They cut two albums – now obscure and long out of print – and built up their status as local heroes around Phoenix, although not managing wider success. In 2016, Chester initiated a project with his former bandmates to re-record their early material, which they started to do at the start of the following year. The singer intended to redo his vocals after Linkin Park’s tour in support of One More Light, but had not done so when tragically, he took his own life. After much soul-searching, Grey Daze decided to continue the project Chester had instigated, recording new instrumentals and using original Chester vocals from the band’s 90s run. 

As such, this was a strange time capsule of an album. The music mixed grunge and alternative rock with impressive dynamism, but the vocals were always going to be the main point of interest. They captured Chester at his rawest, yet to find some of the finesse he would go on to develop, but already a passionate and emotive singer. For anyone who grew up with Linkin Park, it was an album that couldn’t fail to produce shivers as it delivered a lost gem from one of rock’s true greats. (PT)

35. Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone (Pure Noise)

When it came out in early February, Spanish Love Songs vocalist/guitarist Dylan Slocum said he wanted his band’s third album, Brave Faces Everyone, to help make the world slightly more bearable, even if it’s just for 40 minutes”. You suspect he’d appreciate the irony of how dorkily innocent those words sound now, given everything that’s happened since. It’s so typically this band’s luck, too, that they would launch their new record just before basically everything got shut down, cruelly nipping even the best laid plans in the bud. 

But this was an evergreen collection of songs – regardless of when they came out – built on hopes and dreams laying bare a litany of insecurities and existential millennial dread. Dylan and the gang here reinforced the growing impression that his band may prove to be an important one, being as they are very much of and also made by these strange times in which we live, asking the biggest of life’s big questions and offering some respite from the often alienating feelings of not always seeing a way out of your problems. Brave Faces Everyone may have been born with modest intentions, but the courage and the soul-baring honesty with which the songs were executed belied a boldness that any band would be proud of. (DM)

34. Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo (Ipecac)

Mr. Bungle are a band whose career has consisted almost entirely of curveballs. Even so, they’ve made few moves bolder than ending a 20-year absence by entirely ignoring the absurdist prog-ska-jazz-noise shenanigans with which they attained cult status in the 90s. Instead, they dropped the best thrash album of 2020

The clues were there when they unveiled their new line-up for a run of reunion shows, with original members Mike Patton, Trey Spruance and Trevor Dunn joined by 80s metal heroes Scott Ian of Anthrax and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. The first release from this mighty conglomeration arrived in June with an unlikely cover of USA by Scottish punk stalwarts The Exploited, but Mr. Bungle’s ultimate mission was to rerecord their first demo tape from way back in 1986.

The genuine devotion the then-teenagers felt for thrash and crossover punk remained very much in evidence, while the pranksterish tendencies they’d go on to explore more fully could be found in nascent form in tunes like, ahem, Anarchy Up Your Anus. But the present-day band had also taken something that could have been a mere curio and reshaped it into a work of deranged genius. Ripping a hole in the space-time continuum never sounded so good. (OT)

33. Sharptooth – Transitional Forms (Pure Noise)

Not exactly lacking in self-awareness, Sharptooths second album was a brutal takedown of the hardcore scene from which they emanate. Mosh call! Generic mosh call!’ barked singer Lauren Kashan on opener Say Nothing (In The Absence Of Content), picking apart the plethora of bands who spend more time on their merch than music with the acerbic, It must be nice to say nothing at all.’ Her throat-scorching screams permeated the chainsaw guitars that swaggered through the record, spewing pure venom about everything from demagogues to mental health to gender politics, with the superb You’re not a feminist just because you fucked one’ hitting like a sledgehammer to the skull on Hirudinea.

The message Transitional Forms presented was worth the admission price alone, and set Sharptooth apart from their peers, but they also had a huge strength in their willingness to fuck with the formula. From 153’s straight-up punk flavour, to The Gray’s crushing passages, this was streets ahead of most other hardcore albums this year, while closer Nevertheless (She Persisted) hinted at the beast they will doubtless grow into, allowing the music to breathe and incorporating angelic clean vocals into the mix. In fact, that this wasn’t Sharptooth’s final form made it all the more exciting. (LM)

32. NOTHING – The Great Dismal (Relapse)

The Great Dismal marked the point where NOTHINGs downer rock lived up to its pessimistic potential. As befits the snarky nihilism of the band’s caps-locked moniker, this was not a record that oozed positivity. And yet, with the Philadelphians at their most sonically assured, there was a beauty at the heart of their frazzled shoegaze that had never shone through with quite such clarity before.

Crucially, everything about this album sounded huge, from lovely slowcore opener A Fabricated Life, to dream-grunge finale Ask The Rust. Famine Asylum boasted some of The Great Dismal’s most defeated lyrics (‘Send the bombs / We’ve had enough of us’), but they were wrapped up warm in snug guitar fuzz. And while it hardly qualifies as a surprise to hear NOTHING tilting at My Bloody Valentine’s signature blend of dreaminess and violence, it’s startling how close they came to its inimitable majesty on Say Less and April Ha Ha.

Frontman Dominic Palermo has cited a black hole as a key inspiration for The Great Dismal. While the oft-troubled singer probably intended this to flag up the all-devouring bleakness contained therein, it’s also a perfect allegory for the way this fine record inexorably draws the listener into its cold, cold heart. (OT)

31. Palm Reader – Sleepless (Church Road)

The weight of expectation can be debilitating. Then again, Nottingham post-metal outfit Palm Reader have never truly given a damn about the thoughts of others. Their own restless spirit has driven them admirably onwards for the last decade: the band’s 2018 effort Braille being hailed as something of an underground masterpiece. Sleepless, their fourth album, was another huge leap forward, creating a sound that was no less complex but arguably more accessible than their previous works. Melodic, emotionally-driven and textured, the 10-track effort was a defining statement best enjoyed as a whole and with as few distractions as possible in order for you to truly lose yourself in the music. (PA)

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30. Envy – The Fallen Crimson (Pelagic)

Never quit. There is no future of Japan without Envy.”

It was these 10 words – delivered by Taka Goto of post-rock luminaries MONO to Envy’s Nobu Kawai at the dawning of 2016 – to which the entire genesis of The Fallen Crimson can be traced back. At the time, Envy were in a state of flux following the abrupt departure of founding vocalist Tetsu Fukagawa; it would soon be an inch from the cliff’s edge”, said Nobu, when another half of the line-up followed him out of the door. The easy decision in that moment would have been to lay the ghost of Envy to rest, their place as a pioneering force in the joining of post-hardcore and post-rock safely assured. Instead, time – that great healer – was afforded; a new line-up formed; and, two years after his departure, Tetsu was welcomed back.

The Fallen Crimson stands as a monument to Envy’s rebirth; a luxuriant soundscape of guitar melodies interwoven with vocals that range from the screamed to the angelic. In an age where convenience reigns supreme, there were richer rewards still to be found in investment in the album’s (helpfully translated) liner notes, which brought even greater resonance with the soul-stirring Hikari and Swaying Leaves And Scattering Breath. (SC)

29. Brian Fallon – Local Honey (Lesser Known)

It is a true testament to Brian Fallons ability as a songwriter to make a close-to-home album about his day-to-day life sound so beautifully powerful. A record simply about the now, Local Honey saw the former Gaslight Anthem frontman take stock and use topics like quitting smoking (21 Days), giving advice to his young daughter (When You’re Ready) or simply his love for his wife (You Have Stolen My Heart) as lyrical fuel. It wasn’t really that easy to say things that are about right now, because you sort of feel like they’re not that important; when you think about your life and what you do on a daily basis, it’s like, That’s not worth a song,’” he told Kerrang! of the writing process. But I think everyday life can affect people just as much as the big stuff.” 

And he more than proved this theory. To accompany such intimate introspection, Brian teamed up with producer Peter Katis for a similarly stripped-back sound, opting for eight gorgeous acoustic guitar and piano-based tracks as sweet as the album title suggests. It was a far-cry from his early punk days – or even his more rocky’ solo albums that pre-dated it – but it showed that no matter what side of the genre he sets his mind to, Brian always delivers the goods. (EC)

28. Lamb Of God – Lamb Of God (Nuclear Blast)

On the eve of the release of Lamb Of Gods self-titled eighth album, frontman Randy Blythe told Kerrang! that he found the creative process emotionally exhausting, but also that he hated the thought of wasting time and opportunity. And however much he may not enjoy being in the studio, the man and his band absolutely exploded with pent-up energy and emotion here. 

Where predecessor VII: Sturm Und Drang dealt with and was darkly coloured by the aftermath of Randy’s indictment on manslaughter charges, the new album raged wholly at the world around them. It was a political beast that mixed world-weary cynicism with a more positive call to arms, every bit as incendiary as that sort of lyrical approach demands. Musically, meanwhile, they were on fire. Throw in guest appearances from Hatebreeds Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy from Testament, and you had an aptly self-titled album that presented Lamb Of God at their belligerent best. (PT)

27. Napalm Death – Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism (Century Media)

After 16 albums, most bands would either have given up the ghost or become pale imitations of their younger selves. When it comes to Napalm Death, nothing could be further from the truth. Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism was an outrageous album in every sense of the term. Musically, its ferocity was overwhelming, while frontman Barney Greenway continued to rail against humanity’s greatest injustices. 

Sonically speaking, the album also offered up an amalgam of musical extremism and echoes of eternal influences as diverse as Killing Joke, Swans and Young Gods. Those nods did little to detract from the sheer cohesive power of the album as a whole, though, making it something of a genuine career highlight, even after so long at the grind mill. Outrageous, indeed. (PA)

26. Puscifer – Existential Reckoning (Alchemy/BMG)

Puscifer have always been a band to hold up a mirror to both the comic absurdity and arch seriousness of life on Planet Earth. Never has this been more true than on Existential Reckoning. Beneath all the accompanying extra-terrestrial imagery, it was a record profoundly preoccupied with people. Or rather, on songs like Apocalyptical and Grey Area, their shortcomings.

The good news was that Puscifer made our shared misery sound utterly mesmeric, be it with rich atmospheric guitar passage and electronic flourishes, or the tightly-coiled vocals of Maynard James Keenan and Carina Round. Look no further than their interplay during the nuclear sarcasm of Fake Affront, a song which continued the group’s marked ability to deliver venomous putdowns, as previously glimpsed on The Remedy. But while Puscifer often sounded disillusioned with, well, everyone, their great gift was that on songs like Personal Prometheus they never seemed dispassionate about our plight. 

Existential Reckoning likely resonated with anyone who had taken a look at the world around them and diagnosed a common ludicrousness that united all people, no matter their belief system. The message here, it seemed, was that we are all complicit in the same failure of basic humanity. It was much-needed in a year like this. (GG)

25. Boston Manor – GLUE (Pure Noise)

Boston Manor frontman Henry Cox labelled GLUE an album of 21st century fury’. Channelling his anger at the government, at himself, and at the world around him in general, it sounded killer before the pandemic. In the months since its release, it has become even more essential. 

A sonic leap for the Blackpool quintet following the alt.rock/pop-punk of 2018’s Welcome To The Neighbourhood, GLUE saw Boston Manor aiming rock’s big leagues, dabbling in electronics throughout to add fresh elements to their infectious and creatively inspired sound. Electrifying opener Everything Is Ordinary was, frankly, one of the most exciting songs of the year full-stop, while the likes of On A High Ledge and Terrible Love sent important messages to listeners – particularly the former, which so vitally addressed toxic masculinity (‘I want to cry but I don’t know how / My lips are chapped / My hands are soft / Circles don’t fit into squares’). Awarded the full 5Ks in our review as well as securing the band’s first-ever cover, Boston Manor showed that they are true superstars in the making on GLUE. The sky is the limit from here. (EC)

24. END – Splinters From An Ever Changing Face (Closed Casket Activities)

The ferocious opening charge of Covet Not, the opening track on Splinters From An Ever Changing Face, is a tune with a simple message: be thankful for what you have. A rule to live by in 2020. In many respects, ENDs debut was the perfect soundtrack to what has been a horrifically punishing year, made by an amalgam of musicians who have the experience of the dark stuff. 

Boasting a line-up that consists of frontman Brendan Murphy (Counterparts), bass player Jay Pepito (Shai Hulud), drummer Billy Rymer (The Dillinger Escape Plan), guitarist Greg Thomas (Misery Signals) and producer/guitarist Will Putney (Fit For An Autopsy), END are often described as a supergroup. In fact, this full-length debut proved that they are united in their purpose to make music that managed to sound overpowering and totally cathartic at the same time. (PA)

23. Poppy – I Disagree (Sumerian)

Remember the first time you heard BABYMETAL and you were left scratching your head at what you had just experienced? It seems as if Poppy – aka Boston-born and LA-living online personality-turned-musician Moriah Rose Pereira – heard the kawaii metal stars and thought, Hold my milkshake!’ 

Teetering ever-so skilfully around the edges of genre and good taste while flirting with novelty and art thanks to a playful, endless energy for mashing contrasting sounds into fresh new shapes, third album I Disagree was genuinely unlike anything else heard in 2020. In one moment it could be a nasty, nihilistic industrial affair, before drifting off into saccharine-sweet pop territory, with the baseline starting point feeling something like Slipknot fronted by Robyn. Its brain-twisting diversity, invention and chameleonic nature made for a fascinating insight into an artist most definitely doing her own thing, but while those strengths gave I Disagree a distinctive allure, it left you wondering whether there’s a human heart beating underneath it all, or something more alien indeed. Either way, this went so hard and in so many WTF?’ directions that you can’t help but respect if not admire the spirited madness at its core. (DM)

22. Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero (Nuclear Blast)

For the past four years, metal supergroup Killer Be Killed have operated under a set of unwritten rules: no stress, no bullshit, no hype, no talking about Killer Be Killed to anyone outside the immediate circle of the band.

With 2016’s self-titled debut, ex-The Dillinger Escape Plan man Greg Puciato, Sepultura/Soulfly legend Max Cavalera and Mastodons Troy Sanders (Converge/Mutoid Man drummer Ben Koller signed up shortly after) had discovered a space in which they could operate away from the pressures, expectations and relatively rigid stylistic templates of their main concerns. After 20-plus years in the game, KBK was a return to the freewheeling adolescent wonder with which they’d first picked up their instruments: music for the sheer hell of it.

It was an approach which saw Reluctant Hero hit all the harder when it was announced out of the blue at the start of autumn. A body of work crafted across a handful of intermittent Arizona desert sessions spanning years, it had no right to be as fluid, compelling, or downright invigorating as it has proven to be. Cramming vocals from each of the original trio onto all of its 11 songs, and veering from the distended prog-sludge of From A Crowded Wound, via the face-smashing grind of Animus, to the cathartic moodiness of the title-track, it was simply a record that had to be heard to be believed. (SL)

21. A.A. Williams – Forever Blue (Bella Union)

Few albums emerged in 2020 that exhibited quite so much bruised beauty and old-soul depth as Forever Blue. On her first full-length, London folk-noir artist A.A. Williams painted in a rainbow of dark shades to create a record that smouldered quietly on the surface, but revealed a truly stunning depth once you dove in, and even in its heaviest moments like Melt, there was no getting away from the quiet intimacy at the heart of these songs. 

One of the most brilliant things here is that this was only A.A. Williams’ debut, released barely 18 months after she first performed live. That it’s simultaneously both so wonderfully bleak and also gave the listener such a warm embrace was a mark of the genius and pure emotion that went into it. In a year with a lot of loneliness, isolation and staying indoors for days at a time, Forever Blue was the most perfect, comforting hug of an album with which to ride things out. Aptly, she’s been working on a selection of lockdown covers for an album due out early next year, dubbed Songs From Isolation. Nobody is more qualified to do a perfect job of it. (NR)

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20. Neck Deep – All Distortions Are Intentional (Hopeless)

To say you could see Neck Deeps latest album coming a mile away sounds harsh, but it’s not meant to. Since forming in 2012, the Wrexham quintet’s strain of pop-punk has provided one of the more unexpected and enjoyable success stories in modern British rock. Not that they were looking for easy wins. Indeed, their inability to sit still is one of the most endearing traits. So while their previous outing, 2017’s The Peace And The Panic, symbolised a peak for the band, marrying as it did a broader musical palette with experiments in overarching narratives, you could tell they hadn’t reached the summit of their ambitions quite yet. 

All Distortions Are Intentional was that next step, utilising the evolving musical tastes of the band’s members to create an entire conceptual world. Sonderland wasn’t just the home of the album’s main characters, Jett and Alice, but an environment terraformed by singer Ben Barlow’s reflections on love, mental health, and searching for purpose. As well as being swaggering and sombre in all the right places, All Distortions Are Intentional was an album for these times. Life is a patchwork quilt of positives and negatives that we have to endure as much as enjoy. Here, Neck Deep delivered a superb soundtrack for that journey. (JH)

19. IDLES – Ultra Mono (Partisan)

If IDLES’ last album, 2018’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance, managed to tackle subjects both deeply personal to widely political, then its successor was an angrier, heavier and broader-sounding affair. 

Opener War managed to both pound and stab simultaneously, while frontman Joe Talbot used the history of conflict as a metaphor for his own inner turmoil. Self-examination and all-out-questioning continued to play a large part in Joe’s outlook on tunes like Grounds (an attempt to sound like AC/DC meets Dizzee Rascal”) and Anxiety (featuring Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow for added gnarl factor), but ultimately Ultra Mono was about railing at the world in order to find peace within yourself. It was a message that clearly hit home, providing IDLES with a Number One album in the UK. (PA)

18. AC/DC – POWER UP (Columbia)

Let’s be honest, a lot of nonsense gets written about rock music. In an effort to communicate something that works on an inherently primal level, us critics often tie ourselves in knots, needlessly trying to express how a record feels when all anyone really cares about is whether it rocks or not. Thank Beelzebub then for AC/DC, who have perfected the art of rock’n’roll across four-plus decades, and what is now their 17th studio album, POWER UP, that there’s no need for any flowery bollocks dressing up yet another vintage outing from the Aussie legends. Does this one rock? C’mon – don’t embarrass yourself by asking. 

After a pisser of a year, hearing the warm familiar sounds and raw power of Angus Young, Brian Johnston, Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams raising Hell and celebrating life again hit like a cold beer on a scorching hot day. Not a damn thing had changed here, and POWER UP not only introduced 12 new classics to the DC canon, but the added poignancy of paying tribute to late guitarist Malcolm Young, who sadly passed away in 2017, was a sweet touch that made this one feel extra special. (DM)

17. All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine (Fueled By Ramen)

Occasionally, Kerrang! will give artists the (rather cruel) task of ranking their own discography. When we set All Time Low frontman Alex Gaskarth the job to coincide with the release of the Baltimore pop-punks’ Wake Up, Sunshine, he wasn’t thrilled about it (“This is fucked-up thing to ask someone to do!”), but his answer was emphatic: Shamelessly, I’m declaring our new record the best one we’ve ever made,” he grinned. I’m convinced the songs will become staples of ours.” 

It’s easy to see why. Armed with bags of songwriting experience but still exhibiting the youthful energy of their classic’ albums So Wrong, It’s Right and Nothing Personal, album number eight combined everything that’s great about the quartet and ramped them up to luminous new levels. The likes of Melancholy Kaleidoscope and Sleeping In are the most brilliantly fun songs All Time Low have penned in years, while the swaggering attitude of Monsters (featuring blackbear) and January Gloom (Seasons, Pt. 1) boast a sky-high confidence within the band. That’s not to mention the fact that, at 15 songs and 46 minutes, Wake Up, Sunshine is the longest full-length of their career. Clearly, All Time Low knew they were on to a good thing here, and they ran with it. (EC)

16. Creeper – Sex, Death And The Infinite Void (Roadrunner)

I reinvented my image so many times that I’m in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman.” So said David Bowie, whose way with a natty quote was matched by his ability to alter his sound and vision throughout his career. It certainly had a profound effect on Will Gould. So much so, in fact, that when it came time for Creeper to end their campaign in support of debut album Eternity, In Your Arms, the singer utilised the same words his hero had used to kill off his Ziggy Stardust alter ego in 1973 to seemingly end the Southampton band onstage in 2018.

Given what a blatant bit of cribbing it was, did anyone really think Creeper were gone forever? Probably not. But surely no-one could have guessed how effective this new era would turn out. Swapping black duds for uniform whites, punk for a pomp sound similar to another of Will’s heroes Meat Loaf, Sex, Death And The Infinite Void provided Creeper with a new level of cohesion. Not only did the songwriting fortify an identity suggested by an aesthetic influenced by Bowie’s Young Americans era, it was a sizeable step up in their storytelling too, vividly bringing Calvary Falls and its fascinating inhabitants to life. Because, really, you can’t kill off something as good as Creeper that easily. (JH)

15. Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man (Epic)

When we went to see Ozzy Osbourne at home in Los Angeles back in January, he had his reasons not to be cheerful. In fact, he told us that, This has been the worst year of my life.” A list of health problems had meant he’d spent most of 2019 stuck at home recuperating, which itself meant putting back his No More Tours 2 jaunt more than once, which also meant visiting his real home in the UK wasn’t happening. But, but, when he told us about Ordinary Man, that massive, impish Ozzy grin came back over his face. He wasn’t even meant to make an album, but having provided vocals on Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding, and seen how much doing music had helped him, he got together with Postie producer Andrew Watt as well as a host of mates including Duff McKagan, Slash, Chad Smith, Tom Morello and Elton John to throw ideas around. 

The result was a record that was not only packed with some of the best stuff Ozzy’s ever done – particularly the touching, reflective ballad of the title-track and the punky Post Malone duet that is It’s A Raid – but also served as a reminder of the restorative powers of rock’n’roll when it feels like everything else has gone to shit. The Prince Of Darkness didn’t just sound good, he sounded truly alive, excited, like he was horsing around and having the time of his life with his mates. It is exactly the sort of joy that Ozzy is meant to make you feel. And with what’s happened in the months that followed its release, such things have been more necessary than ever. Thanks, Ozzy. (NR)

14. Higher Power – 27 Miles Underwater (Roadrunner)

The mid-’90s hardcore scene was full of ambition. You could hear it on albums by the likes of Quicksand, Sick Of It All, Shelter and CIV, all of whom had graduated from the Revelation Records stable and released records that reached a wider audience. Higher Power, stalwarts of the burgeoning Leeds HC scene, possess that same desire to do more than preach to the converted. 

As a result, the quintet – aided and abetted by producer Gil Norton (whose pioneering work with Throwing Muses and Pixies in the 80s remains the benchmark by which all alt.rock records are judged) – delivered a second album full of progressive intent and sharpened, melodic hooks. Riff-driven tracks like Seamless, Shedding Skin and Low Season were prime examples of this – proper songs designed for the pit that sound equally good on the radio. All they need to be able to do now is head out and play them live… (PA)

13. Trivium – What The Dead Men Say (Roadrunner)

Ascendancy, the second album that many (including a young and back-then admittedly gobby Matt Heafy) felt would launch Trivium into the stratosphere turned 15 this year. Since then, the band have become a staple of modern metal, but that young cockiness took a quieter back seat to simply being very, very good. In 2020, though, they returned with a pure barnstormer that brought to mind those early pronouncements that they would be the next Metallica”, and with it a fresh, pumped-up energy not seen since those humble first days. 

The consensus appears to be that not only was What The Dead Men Say the best album Trivium have made in a long, long time, it’s one of the finest metal releases of the past few years, full-stop. Distilling the essence of pure Trivium into just over 45 minutes, it was an irresistible amalgam of contemporary and classic metal. There were elements of metalcore, melodic death metal and even black metal in there, but the common thread was just metal’, and they delivered it with a fire and joy that’s impossible to deny. As a recharge, it was positively nuclear. (PT)

12. Run The Jewels – RTJ4 (Jewel Runners)

The next time you hear some dullard moan that there’s been no good protest music since Rage Against The Machine, slap them with a copy of Run The JewelsRTJ4. By far the year’s most vitally-messaged record, dropping during America’s summer of discontent following the death of George Floyd – in fact, rush-released two days earlier than scheduled – it was a damning indictment of society that this album could have been released any time in the past decade and still feel relevant. 

You could practically hear the tension surging through Killer Mike and El‑P’s barbed lyrics. The music didn’t simply play; it strutted, oozing confidence, as the duo took turns tearing apart prejudice, capitalism, classism, social media and corporate greed. Album centrepiece and incredible one-two of walking in the snow and JU$T was a focused dismantling of systemic racism, delivering headshot after headshot, with Killer Mike’s Never forget that in the story of Jesus the hero was killed by the state’ targeting Christian America with piercing accuracy. 

At times, it was less of an album and more a state-of-the-nation address, delivering verses like sermons, a fact not gone unnoticed in epic closer, a few words for the firing squad (radiation), with its, He could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin / She told her partner I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.’ And it’s in this final track that RTJ proved they’re more than wordsmiths, surrounding themselves with strings and a saxophone, dedicating it all to their family, the downtrodden, the abused and The ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit’. There was no flinching, no blinking, just one jugular strike after another from the best lyricists-cum-philosophers on the planet. The revolution starts here. (LM)

11. Touché Amoré – Lament (Epitaph)

You can actually pinpoint the second on Lament when the listener’s heart rips in half. Longtime admirers will be well-versed in the power of Touché Amoré to achieve such an emotional impact. Theirs has been a career built upon deeply personal connections universal truths – for better or for worse. It’s hard hav­ing to stom­ach trag­ic sto­ry after tragic sto­ry while some­times being asked advice when I absolute­ly don’t have the answers,” frontman Jeremy Bolm told Kerrang! in our October Cover Story. I live in such jeal­ousy of the oth­er guys who can walk through a crowd at a show who will get a high-five, while I walk through and get, My sis­ter died of brain can­cer last week.’” 

Preceding this year’s fifth full-length work, 2016’s Stage Four was Jeremy’s stark account of mourning manifested in an airless, heartfelt suffocation. Four years removed, Lament, by contrast, was a balletic dance through those same shadows of a conflicted mind still searching for stability. What’s changed are the newfound flecks of light and hope that expanded Lament’s emotional resonance – delivered through the lyricism of love-song opener Come Heroine, say, or the spirit-lifting gang vocals of Reminders. They are deployed fleetingly but to masterfully disarming effect, creating the opening for Limelight to throw a breathtaking haymaker of a gut-punch, thanks to stunning guest vocals from Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull. It’s a pure moment indicative of the power of a sadly disappearing craft of the album’, something with which Lament is created and sequenced to fully embody its spiritual essence. (SC)

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10. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones)

If 2020 gave us anything, it was an overwhelming sense of existential dread. Its obsidian talons clutch onto the edges of our lives, gripping tighter and tighter, refusing to let go no matter how hard we shake or scream. But if this feeling’s not going anywhere, we might as well embrace it, and this debut collaboration from singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle and bludgeoning sludgemonsters Thou showed itself to be the perfect soundtrack.

Merging the disparate worlds of Emma’s celestial vocals with Thou singer Bryan Funck’s bloodcurdling retches, and backed by a murky soundscape that straddled the line between malevolence and melancholy, May Our Chambers Be Full conjured up imagery of darkened rooms and secrets being kept. It was less of a record to listen to and more one to experience as you enter a trance-like state, wandering amongst the hypnotic guitars that ebb and flow, but rather than crashing like the tide, it went deeper, hitting with all the might of tectonic plates.

Teetering on the edge of dream and nightmare, the record took cues from doom, sludge, post-metal, shoegaze, grunge and prog throughout its seven-track journey. At just 36 minutes, it wasn’t a rush to the finish or a constant cacophony; each song encapsulated a different feeling and flavour, being given room to breathe and stretch as necessary. From the abject bleakness of Into Being (‘When will it all end? It all just ends’) to the joyous, almost-spiritual Magickal Cost, it beautifully built the tension until you were left crying out for the cathartic release.

Epic closer The Valley was the real MVP here, though, taking up a quarter of the album’s duration, wrestling with the idea of bravery and what it means to be good, but also survival and desperation in a heartbreaking performance from Emma, before Bryan’s glass-guzzling vocals crashed in, juxtaposing the previous warmth with vicious frostbite. It was the final full-stop on a record with its own definition of heaviness, one that pulls down on your soul harder than any beatdown ever could. (LM)

9. Machine Gun Kelly – Tickets To My Downfall (Bad Boy / Interscope)

Go ahead and criticise my life you know so much about,’ spat Machine Gun Kelly on the one-minute skate-punk blast of WWIII. I will not minimise the fact that you counted me out.’ Indeed, when the rock scene learned in late 2019 that Cleveland’s own rap devil’ would be turning his hand to pop-punk on album number five, eyebrows were raised – and he knew it.

I made this [record] literally already feeling okay with the fact that everyone wanted to see me fail,” the musician – real name Colson Baker – told Kerrang! earlier this year, so this was probably the most raw version of myself, because everyone had nothing but negative things to say about me. People are already angry that I was a street kid with blond hair and blue eyes, or that I was a punk kid who was on the hip-hop charts…”

Go figure that Tickets To My Downfall has since become Machine Gun Kelly’s most successful album to date. And with good reason. The blink-182-worshipping rapper teamed up with drummer extraordinaire Travis Barker for the follow-up to 2019’s Hotel Diablo, channelling his pop-punk heroes while also bringing fresh new elements to the genre. New Jersey electropop superstar Halsey lent her vocals to infectious highlight Forget Me Too, while Floridian R&B vocalist blackbear hopped on board for chart smash My Ex’s Best Friend, and Ohio rapper Trippie Redd helped pay homage to Operation Ivy (yes, really) on the Knowledge-sampling All I Know. 

More than just jamming great tunes with famous pals, though, Tickets… showed Machine Gun Kelly as a genuinely real artist. From opening up about the loss of his father (Lonely) to writing a beautiful song for his daughter (Play This When I’m Gone), MGK combined emotional heft with Warped Tour nostalgia to endlessly gripping effect. With plans to release another album in 2021, it’s safe to say his detractors will be in far fewer numbers next time around. (EC)

8. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better? (Church Road)

Svalbards last album, 2018’s It’s Hard To Have Hope, was a record full of anger, frustration and fiery politics. But it was all facing outward, screaming righteously at targets as part of a desire to point out the problems and push for change. Two years later, it was a somewhat different rage the Bristol quartet had brought with them on When I Die, Will I Get Better?. The political fire remained, but with a feeling of exasperation at having to keep telling people that these problems exist, such as on Click Bait, where singer/guitarist Serena Cherry railed against media outlets who use female artists to create a backlash under the mask of representation. But there was also a far more personal depth to these songs, as Serena detailed with painful honesty a period of depression that deeply affected her, and made her for a time worry that the record would never get finished.

Sometimes I regret that people can learn so much about me and what I’ve gone through just through reading Svalbard lyrics,” she told Kerrang! just before the album’s release.​“All they need to do is read the lyrics to the new album and they can see some of the hell that I’ve been through. It’s painfully honest, this album – there’s a lot of harsh truths.”

But finish the album they did, and it was a masterful work of metal, hardcore, blackgaze and post-rock that achieved a staggering balance between introspective darkness and explosive light. The painful honesty Serena spoke of made its presence felt as a raw energy, one that was recognisable to anyone hearing her lyrics. Nowhere more so than on Listen To Someone, in which she laid bare her own journey, while urging the importance of listening – actually, properly listening – to your mates when they’re struggling. 

In all this, When I Die… not only saw Svalbard grow, it also gilded an already known truth: that they are quite simply one of the best heavy bands operating in the UK right now. At times beyond angry, at others almost upsettingly fragile, often surprisingly uplifting as it finds a way through the darkness, here was an album that truly spoke on many levels, in human terms, to connect in a genuinely honest and compassionate way. And it was awesome. (NR)

7. Loathe – I Let It In And It Took Everything (Sharptone)

I Let It In And It Took Everything was the album where Liverpool metallers Loathe well and truly arrived. The band’s 2017 debut The Cold Sun promised much from the quintet, and here they delivered on that potential in scintillating, thrilling fashion that pushed them to the forefront of the UK metal pile.

Few records released in 2020 blended sheer ferocity and tranquil melodies with the same sublime effect as this. Aggressive Evolution, for example, effortlessly flowed between frontman Kadeem France’s Hell-raising vocals and moments of ethereal post-metal, and this continual coming together of musical components that would ordinarily be at odds with one another was a true triumph of the album.

Since the record’s release, repeated references have been made to the similarity between Loathe’s output and that of Deftones. While I Let It In… was certainly a nod to Chino Moreno and co., such comparisons do a disservice to Loathe’s own creative vision. For all the wide nets cast, this was far more than a collection of individual songs, but one grand idea expressed across many parts, with a delicate balance struck between earth-shattering impact and serene soundscapes. No matter how heavy or not any particular track was, though, what’s constant throughout this album is emotion, and it’s the blend of everything Loathe have going for them – genuine heart, imaginative songwriting and technical prowess – that makes them a genuinely exciting band, and one destined for greater things than comparisons to those who’ve gone before.

Given the diverse way in which Loathe approached the writing of I Let It In And It Took Everything, it’s impossible to predict the band’s future direction. But after dropping an album that was this good, whatever they do next promises to be a thrilling ride. Let them in. (JR)

6. Pearl Jam – Gigaton (Monkeywrench / Republic)

There’s still a fire in the engine room,’ sang Eddie Vedder on the glorious bridge to one of Gigatons many highlights, Seven O’Clock. He appeared to be referencing the urge to resist self-destruction, yet he could just as easily have been summing up why Pearl Jams 11th album was so spectacular. Here was a record that captured the Seattleites burning with both righteous indignation and blooming creativity. Indeed, they hadn’t sounded this focused since 2006, nor had they pushed themselves musically like this since 1998.

Upon release, two aspects of the record dominated conversation: the numerous direct lyrical swipes at Donald Trump, and the bold new musical paths taken. In the case of Quick Escape they did both simultaneously, mocking POTUS while riding out on a chiming riff. The biggest WTF?’ moment came via the Talking Heads-inspired lead single Dance Of The Clairvoyants, which even saw guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament switch instruments. The first listen was beguiling. By the fifth it was infectious. Nine months on? It’s hard to imagine a time when Pearl Jam didn’t have this absolutely stunning curveball in their canon. 

Gigaton’s most impressive trick of all, however, was not just its musical elasticity, it was its deceptive qualities. The most euphoric-sounding track – the garage rock riot of Superblood Wolfmoon – is actually freighted with heartache, while one of the most tranquil moments contains some astonishingly cutting lines (Comes Then Goes). Even when a song sounded straightforward, it was anything but. It’s highly likely many people were probably too busy enjoying frenetic opener Who Ever Said to even notice its wonderfully unorthodox song structure: verse, chorus, instrumental break, chorus, bridge, different style verse, refrain, verse and chorus.

With Gigaton, Pearl Jam didn’t just deliver some of their greatest individual songs yet, but also one of their most compelling albums to date. Thirty years into their exalted career, that is one hell of a grandstanding achievement. (GG)

5. Enter Shikari – Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible (SO Recordings)

In a year that has been smothered in grey-brown slurry, Enter Shikaris sixth album painted the world in glorious Technicolor. Written pre-pandemic, there are no mentions of the C‑word, but still plenty of ferocious social commentary from alt.rock’s poet laureate, Rou Reynolds. Not as on-the-nose as the likes of IDLES, Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible was full of metaphor and whimsy, layered with vivid imagery and unashamed joy – you can almost hear the smile plastered across the band’s faces as they belt out the infectious chorus to { The Dreamer’s Hotel } and the glorious satellites* * that celebrates love in all forms.

Alongside this inherent joy was a burning desire to develop as a band. Ahead of release, Rou told Kerrang! that this would be the definitive Shikari record, and while it did pay tribute to the band’s neon past, it also burst with fresh ideas and a lust for experimenting with their already non-conformist stripe. Each track seamlessly flowed into the next, embellished with movements and reprises, presenting the album as a singular piece of music to be digested.

Elegy For Extinction exists as the prime example of this scorching ambition. Written by Rou and performed by the 70-piece Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, it doesn’t feel out of place amongst a sea of bubblegum bangers. But more importantly than being catchy, this was fun – something gravely missing from rock in 2020.

It wasn’t a one-paced smilegasm, however, and the rage behind the pop sensibilities made a break for the surface. On Waltzing off the Face of the Earth (I. Crescendo) Rou spits, There’s dead kids on the beach / Bigoted parents now decide what teacher’s teach,’ while the two-parter of Marionettes urges the population to rise up against their oppressors. It was in these moments that we saw who Shikari are destined to be: more than that band who do the clap-clap song’, more than that band with the light show’, more than that band with the synth’ – here they definitively became one of the world’s most forward-thinking bands, both musically and idealistically. This was just another step in their evolution and journey to the top of the food chain, shining with brighter, bolder colours than any of their peers. (LM)

4. Ghostemane – Anti-Icon (Blackmage)

Whatever you thought you wanted from heavy, dark music in 2020, chances are you weren’t expecting Ghostemane as the answer. Dank, dark slimy, threatening, mysterious, aggressive, nasty, stressful and hard work to pin down, Anti-Icon found the Florida musician truly going beyond the realms of the straitjacket tag of alt.rapper’ and becoming one of the most uniquely weird artists of his generation. And even with millions of eyes on him on social media and making his debut on the cover of Kerrang!, somehow the man born Eric Whitney managed to appear even more elusive and enigmatic than ever.

If Anti-Icon was based on a rap foundation, it’s one that had been blown to smithereens and put back together all wrong. In fact, where the heart of this album truly lay wasn’t in its individual songs – indeed, for the most part Ghostemane sees things like song structure as something that happens to other people – but in the scraping, gnawing discomfort of his harsh, electronic atmospheres, a similar musical wringer to Nine Inch Nails or Ministry at their most difficult and anti-social. This wasn’t for clubs, it was for a wet alleyway several hours after the clubs shut and a couple more before the sun comes back up, where everything feels like a threat, and you’re a very long way from comfort. Even during the more normal’ moments, Ghoste sounded like Korns Jonathan Davis at his most hyper and itchy, barking and scratching out his lyrics in a form that paid no heed to convention or niceties. 

Perhaps the best thing about Anti-Icon, though, was that for all its triumphs and genius, it didn’t feel like a magnum opus, like something designed to be definitive. As a genuinely prolific artist – eight albums in five years – there is a sense that for Ghostemane making a record is simply a case of periodically pouring out the contents of his head and slapping it about a bit. It’s why the whole thing sounds twitchy, urgent, not something that insists upon itself as it gracefully reveals itself. But in doing so, ironically, the strange, dark, compelling results revealed far more about this musical oddity than if he’d written an entire book to go with it. (NR)

3. Deftones – Ohms (Warner)

Deftones’ last outing, Gore, exposed some very interesting fault lines not only within the ranks of the Sacramento band, but also their fans. As is now legend, guitarist Stephen Stef’ Carpenter struggled to locate his role within some – and for the record it was only some – of the songs on that 2016 album.

When the record came out, I think people felt that Stef wasn’t as big a part of it and that it may have suffered in certain areas because of that,” singer Chino Moreno told Kerrang!. So one of the most important things now is that everybody is engaged and everybody is excited.” This was Ohms in a nutshell: Deftones – all of Deftones – operating on the same wavelength.

The album’s title-track was proof of this concept, boasting a gargantuan Stef riff that somehow sounds both joyous and elegiac. It was far from being the only thing to drop jaws this time around. According to the good folks at the European Space Agency, the densest measurable object in the universe is a Neutron star because a black hole can only be inferred by its effect on surrounding celestial objects and other interstellar material”. Hence, we can assume they still haven’t heard Stef’s tone on The Spell Of Mathematics. Take a bow, returning producer extraordinaire Terry Date (the man behind Deftones classic first four albums). Take a very, very big bow. 

And the stunning moments just piled up on Ohms, from the eerie seagull squawks and rich atmosphere of Pompeji, to Sergio Vega’s drilling bass run on Radiant City, and Abe Cunningham’s rattling drumming at the end of Error. Frank Delgado’s eerie synth passages on This Link Is Dead, meanwhile, suggested a lucrative career composing sci-fi horror film soundtracks would very much be on the cards.

Last, but by no means least, was Chino Moreno’s decisive contribution. Throughout he was not only in brilliant vocal form, he was more candid than ever before. I’ve definitely gone through a lot just dealing with myself,” said Chino.​“After all the years of doing what we’ve been doing and living the way I’ve lived, I had to do some introspective stuff. I did some therapy, which I’d never done.” A byproduct of this is that, lyrically, Ohms constituted something of a lifting of the veil. Chino’s lyrics were still rich in metaphor, but also with more identifiable autobiographical breadcrumbs. I finally achieve balance,’ he sings defiantly on Genesis. So, too, it seems had his band, and Ohms saw Deftones in imperious form. (GG)

2. Biffy Clyro – A Celebration Of Endings (14th Floor)

There is a strange beauty in chaos, sometimes, and Biffy Clyro have long-since proven themselves masters of its perplexing textures and puzzling shapes. In that regard, ninth album A Celebration Of Endings might just be their masterpiece. 

Conceived and composed under heavy psychological skies – broken relationships, socio-political angst – long before 2020 opened its box of nasty tricks, these songs could’ve been forgiven a little muteness or some downbeat indulgence, as the stresses and strains of life at the top tier of the music industry took their toll, and the dread of Brexit Britain had begun to seep in. Rather than wilting in the shade, however, the Ayrshire trio hit back with a defiantly exultant statement: a unique, compelling collection that was awesome to behold.

There’s nothing below,’ declared daring opener North Of No South, Up above us is only Darkness…’ To the contrary, listeners were set for a kaleidoscopic trip into vibrant light.

Where 2016’s Ellipsis (and 2018’s accompanying MTV Unplugged recording) felt at times fragile in their near-obsessive focus on lyrical vulnerability, and 2019’s Balance, Not Symmetry soundtrack expunged some more unruly avant-garde ideas, Celebration… was a perfect marriage of the many elements that make Biffy great. It was all there: the serrated alt. sensibilities of their earliest days, the pounding prog-pop of those breakthrough years, the arena bombast with which they’ve become a massive festival headliner. 

Brilliantly, they structured and spread that wealth of inspiration across a perfectly-measured 45-minute run. The Champ contrasted its seething environmentalist message against resplendent pop melody, while Weird Leisure confronted addiction with all the springiness of a slinky fight in a mattress factory. Space embellished its (perfectly) simplistic snapshot of romantic nostalgia with surges of swelling strings, before explosive closer Cop Syrup painted its abstract militant motifs in pure nitroglycerin.

Becoming their third consecutive UK Number One album, A Celebration Of Endings triple-cemented Biffy’s place among the British musical elite. More thrillingly, though, it felt like a confirmation of their belief: that the further they climb, the more dazzling high-wire acts like this should be. (SL)

1. Code Orange – Underneath (Roadrunner)

Just as modern history will now be defined as pre- and post-COVID, heavy music may well be evaluated against the existence of Code Oranges Underneath. Three years ago, their third album Forever shook the world of heavy music to its core, causing a seismic shift in not only how bands sound but how they portray themselves in the new reality. We should have known, though, that this wasn’t the sound of the future, but one element on the vast blueprint the Pittsburgh crew were laying out.

Underneath wasn’t so much as an evolution of Forever as a different species entirely. Taking the electronic elements that previously formed their backbone, the glitching, digital terrorism was thrown hurtling to the front, used less as a tool and more like a weapon bent and twisted to their will. Gilding the album’s razor-sharp edges with harsh sounds and white noise, the pulverising programming added to Underneath’s formless structure, with songs stuttering and changing direction to explicitly defy your expectations. Comfort’ isn’t in Code Orange’s vocabulary: just when you think you can latch onto something familiar it turns its back on you, leaving you lost in the labyrinth.

The record played out like a psychological horror movie, with opener (deeperthanbefore) drawing you down into the nightmarish abyss, as it whispers Let’s take a good look at you’, almost trying to decipher how best to punish you for even daring to push play. What follows is an album as densely-packed as the centre of a black hole, with every second and micro-movement pored over for thousands of hours – it’s no wonder they had to cancel last year’s Bloodstock performance to continue working on it. Not a single note or bleep is out of place, creating a maelstrom of melodic dissonance, drawing on everything from Korn to Throbbing Gristle to Alice In Chains to Venetian Snares.

Speaking to Kerrang! earlier this year, drummer-turned-frontman Jami Morgan called Underneath the band’s most psychotic” music to date, adding, You can’t point to it and say, That’s not hard.’ It’s some of the hardest shit that there is – not just from us. Period.” And it’s true, you can’t argue with that. The thundering percussion, the chainsaw guitars, the claustrophobic electronics, the fact that Jami’s voice now resembled that of a grizzly bear, all added to the Vantablack tapestry that examines how technology (and social media in particular) is changing society for the worse.

But it wasn’t just a constant battering ram, with guitarist/vocalist Reba Meyers getting more involved as the focal point for standout tracks Who I Am and A Sliver, that owe more to 90s alt.rock than anything in 2020 hardcore. Every word sounds like it comes with a sinister grin and a knowing look, suggesting she can see your darkest secrets, no matter how deep you hide them. At times it’s disorientating how much is going on, leaving you a quivering slush on the floor, but always crawling back for more, addicted to the hurt.

What’s more scary, though, is that while the rock world continues trying to wrap its head around these 14 tracks of sonic experimentalism and extremity, Code Orange have already moved on, no doubt drawing up another schematic diagram of genre reinvention, leaving behind a raft of bands to try and recreate this formula. Not content with redefining hardcore, or being certifiably the most dangerous-sounding band on the planet, or the album’s title-track being one of 2020’s greatest songs – they are, and will always be, hungry for more. This is Code Orange’s world, we’re just living in it. (LM)

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