30. The Weeknd – After Hours
Abel Tesfaye always had the ’80s flair in him. Instead of the blatant hedonism of his reference decade, he uses the same tropes to criticize the lifestyle he lives. Self-loathing his way through new wave-y, dream-poppy R&B, Tesfaye appears less dysfunctional than ever, yet fails in becoming the man he strives to be. It seems he possibly can never become that man: the night never ends, the drugs never stop, and plastic surgery isn’t unaffordable anymore. Under such conditions, it’s no surprise his newest collection of songs falls into the category of the nocturnal mega-bangers, the kind of songs that ravage everything in its path thanks to its intelligent fusion of 808s rhythms and ’80s nostalchic elements. I bet this guy will crush the competition at the upcoming Grammy Awards. –Erwann S.
29. Akhlys – Melinoe
Naas Alcameth is part of a restricted niche of artists who manage to embody their spiritual dimension in all its fullness. Those who are aware of his many musical projects know that his own private reality roams between consciousness and dream, trapped within a disturbing parallel existence. It is simply not enough to add some random dark tone to a composition to make it terrifying; it must be able to genuinely reverberate that unsettling dimension. Melinoë mirrors that inner darkness magnificently, both for its terrifying atmosphere and for its frantic and dramatic musicality that lends Naas’ black metal signature a deeply expressive and scary aura. Stylistically, it lies between dark surrealism and expressionism, not only due to its ubiquitous theatricality but also because of the intricate technique that pushes the concept into complex and artistically relevant territories. Melinoë is thus much more than a mere conventional black metal testimony: it is a glorious artistic expression that will surely be remembered as one of the best metal releases of the first half of the decade. –Fernando Alves (Notrap)
28. Mac Miller – Circles
Among other recent posthumous albums (Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD), Circles stands tall as the most refined. This is due to two elements: the sheer amount of care put by Jon Brion to come up with a cohesive piece, and the evident stylistic change performed by Miller. Hip-hop is now gone, replaced by neo-soul and R&B singing. This stylistic volte-face is supported by Miller’s vocal adjustment: singing at a lower tempo, he also lets his voice catch notes he couldn’t hit before. With such material, one might consider how much further Miller could have gone. What remains is a what if. That’s something. Wait, no, scratch that. What remains is Circles, and that’s the best goodbye Malcolm could have given us. –Erwann S.
27. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
A lot of people like The New Abnormal. The album marked a return to form for The Strokes, who apparently decided to make good music again. This good music comes in the form of bubbly indie rock (with synthesizers!) and vocals so high in the mix you cannot miss the fact that Julian Casablancas does, in fact, have a good voice (and falsetto!). “Bad Decisions” is a self-aware song about how the band would put out some bad music in the past (they made some bad decisions) but thankfully that is not the case anymore. Elsewhere, “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” exemplifies The New Abnormal‘s relative minimalism, centering the track around a pleasant guitar line and glitchy synths. This enjoyable simplicity is reflected in its lyrical content, as Casablanca contemplates life before fame extensively (thanks Genius!): “I scramble, fight just like a child / Hey nah nah nah nah nah nah nah / I’m staying hungry, I’m staying hungry.” The Strokes are back. –Jesper L.
26. Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
Brave Faces Everyone is, at its core, an album about working class anger, frustrations, and hopelessness. There has been a lot of dialogue around it being a perfect album for 2020, but the issues discussed in it are systemic and long predate the past year. Experiencing income disparity, a lack of upward mobility, police brutality, etc., can create intense emotions and calls for deep and intense self-reflection. It can also lead to an intense realization of those unfair systemic processes that are leading to the death of the working class. Those realizations may lead to calls for equity and realizing that your personal experiences are the experiences of many perpetuated by the actions of a few unfairly powerful power brokers. It may also lead down a road of conspiracy theories, intense prejudice, othering in order to find someone to blame, and, eventually, an insurrection on the United States Capitol Building. Spanish Love Songs, luckily, chose the former and created Brave Faces Everyone, a pop punk reckoning that is both intensely personal and inherently political in its content. –Mathias
25. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
What are the attributes of a modern classic? Although the answer may take several forms, it must satisfy three essential criteria: artistic relevance, modernity, and the ability to transcend its time. In short, it should be able to cross multiple generations and their respective artistic cycles. The major problem in this equation is the fact that it is still too early to ascertain whether or not a recent album like Mestarin Kynsi meets all the requirements since it lacks a greater degree of maturation, both in the eyes of the present and future generations. In this sense, such a bold statement carries not only a significant amount of subjectivity but also an appreciable sense of divination and unshakeable conviction. That being said, I will trust my instinct and claim that Oranssi Pazuzu’s most recent psychedelic nightmare covers all the requirements. Its extravagant blend of black metal and Krautrock-esque psychedelia, in addition to its artistic value, echoes a distinctive modernity that sets it apart from the rest of the blackened pack. “Uusi teknokratia” symbolizes this contemporary dark aesthetic, being the supreme embodiment of a timeless artistic manifestation that escapes the boundaries of style and time. A modern classic indeed. –Fernando Alves (Notrap)
24. Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Paradise Lost have taken their time refining their sound, and yet Obsidian is so good, one could argue that the UK-based death/doom project have always been at the top of their game. Introspectively, Obsidian is at a whole new level, taking the nuance that has defined both the genre and the band over the course of the last thirty years and summarising it into a single, unwavering release.
In particular, the album’s main strength comes with its compositional prowess. The guitar work encapsulates mood and essence, giving both life and death to each swell and lull, clearly conveying a theme and certain sound to the listener. Largely, Obsidian is everything the fans deserve from a band so far along in their career. They’ve had their forays with experimentation, some lighter, less successful records along their journey, and now their magnum opus is unveiled to the world defining once again who Paradise Lost are. –Robert Garland
23. Elder (USA-MA) – Omens
What a time to be alive: a prog band is progressing beyond their established soundscape. After being lauded for their heavy take on psychedelic and fuzzy music, Elder slowly incorporated prog elements into their cosmic recipe. The evolution is now complete with Omens, an album that drastically dials down the stoner doom vibe in exchange for a refined production and an extensive focus on vocals. Not everybody will be on board, but the sonic landscape is the logical conclusion to a smooth transition. Elder have never betrayed their core approach — the dreamy atmosphere is still present — but the monolithic stoner climaxes have simply been replaced by more adventurous and ever-changing compositions. –Erwann S.
22. Loathe (UK) – I Let It In And It Took Everything
For an album as explicitly rooted in the idea of presenting an immersive experience, I Let It In And It Took Everything is surprisingly digestible. The album takes the listener on a journey through every shady back alley of metalcore and shoegaze, from the ominous sounds of “Theme” to the gentle final rings of the title track. While such twists and turns seem completely random, Loathe manage to operationalise this relative lack of cohesion as the record’s very point of unison. The black metal-inspired passages in “Heavy Is The Head…”, the crushing shoegaze of “Two-Way Mirror”, “New Faces in the Dark”‘s nu-metal breakdowns: everything is meticulously executed to the extent where the haphazardness becomes an integral and essential aspect of the album, solidifying its themes of entrapment, solitude and dissociation. –Jesper L.
21. Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald
No doubt Im Wald is a lengthy epic, but it’s a timely piece. For all the misgivings the modern day fan will have about the black metal genre, there remain a few stoic acts out there pushing against the very foundations just enough to make the casual listener think the music will shift again. Rounds of sweeping tremolo, furious blast beats, building crescendo and wintry, icy compositions embrace. The two hour journey Paysage d’Hiver takes us on is a massive undertaking to say the very least, but there is no musical stop-gap, no compromise to which Wintherr releases his Wintry pressure — but there is no denying the primal ferocity that defines each and every track, transporting a listener to the barren, icy paths broken only by a dead tree limb. The canvas is set, simple from a distance… but as you get closer — take another step, stay for another listen — the details emerge. For all the stigma black metal has created over the years, there are few acts (and fewer albums) that dispel with the dogma and rise above; Im Wald is one of those few records worthy of that status. –Robert Garland
20. Envy – The Fallen Crimson
Of all the rebirths that happened last year, Envy’s was the most satisfying. After decent but ultimately slightly disappointing 2010s releases, The Fallen Crimson sees the return of singer/whisperer/howler Tetsuya Fukagawa, resulting in Envy’s best possible version of themselves. Both musically or vocally, they always seem on the verge of collapsing, yet never stumble into whiny lamentations thanks to the underlying musical muscle. The hardcore roots bolstering the band’s music are more evident than in the last twelve years, and the post-rock crescendos invoke swirling beauty instead of the traditional yawn-inducing shtick. Envy finally found their formula again; the experience is as uplifting as it is depressing. –Erwann S.
19. Enter Shikari – Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
Listening to Take to the Skies back in — I don’t know, like 2011 or something? — I’m certain lil’ angsty fourteen year-old me never would have guessed he’d be sitting at his cluttered desk ten years later, still remarkably angsty, praising Enter Shikari’s sixth and latest album as the band’s greatest creative endeavour, period. A group whose craft is as haphazard and hectic as Rou and co.’s shouldn’t have had the longevity that they’ve managed — nor should they possess the continued capacity for growth and innovation that they do after over a decade — yet the bois from Hertfordshire seem to have achieved the impossible, doing so with rather impeccable class on Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
It is precisely this class in their approach to artistic development that makes the quartet’s latest effort as tastefully ridiculous and enjoyable as it is. The 2020 incarnation of Enter Shikari is a band that have somehow managed to change a great deal while staying true to what they have always been. The wild experimentation and genre clashes are still present, yet everything is much more streamlined and actually seems to make sense… well, kind of. Going from pop punk to trance to what sounds like a marching band having an absolute meltdown in the space of three songs? Sure, not a problem; but on Nothing is True and Everything is Possible every sudden shift is accompanied by elegant transitions and a wide array of genuinely touching moments — look no further than the atmosphere and gorgeous falsetto on “the pressure’s on.” or “Elegy For Extinction”‘s symphonic majesty. Resolutely haphazard and reliably angsty, we’re grateful Enter Shikari are still here, as bonkers and unyielding as ever, standing like statues. –Jesper L. & Asleep
18. Ichiko Aoba – Windswept Adan
She waited until the very end of the year to take the apple from the tree and unleash a curse on us all — a bold move that could only be seen as an unhinged flex, considering what she was about to put out in the world — putting to shame those precocious AOTY lists blooming in the mid of November. And I say ‘curse’ because I struggle to define a record like Windswept Adan, a piece of work whose immediate effect is awe, then blushing, and finally surrender. Kyoto’s prodigal daughter returns a little over a year later with what is without a doubt her best album since the emblematic 0. Her tenth album is a carefully curated collection of whimsical tunes featuring incredibly tasteful arrangements, superb production work by Toshihiko Kasai and, of course, Aoba’s otherworldly singing. It’s an album whose flow is like a clear brook of sounds down a snowy mountain under the warm touch of early morning sun rays. A fidgety Aoba jumps around the studio and tries it all: piano, guitar, a cappella… she plays it all, she sings it all, and for fifty elusive minutes, your ghost belongs to her. –Dewinged
17. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
How I’m Feeling Now is one of the few albums that can give a slightly different ring to defeatedly exclaiming, “Man, what a year!” Even though a lot of great music was released in 2020, Charli XCX didn’t just unveil the record during this cursed period of time: she crafted the entire project over the course of the first two months of lockdown. Moreover, framing it as a collaborative record and hosting multiple Zoom sessions to receive feedback and additional input from fans, it can be considered an album that was not only created during, but also by quarantine.
This might all sound pretty, eh, overblown for an album that kicks off with lyrics such as “I just wanna go real hard” and “In real life, could the club even handle us?”, but that’s exactly what makes How I’m Feeling Now tick. In essence, the record presents a very human summary of quarantine-related anxieties packaged in glitchy, relentlessly catchy three-minute pop songs. Sometimes, it’s a tad shallow, which only amplifies its rather paradoxically high level of humanity among the many vocal effects: aren’t we all a tad shallow, at times? Most notable, however, is the fact that Charli XCX managed to provide a sense of hope with this album. Inspired and curated by an incredibly grim time, it showcases the ability of such discomfort to allow for the creation of lively, catchy music that is deeply rooted in compassion and intimacy. –Jesper L.
16. The Microphones – Microphones in 2020
It should not have worked. A single Microphones song, for forty-five minutes, the companion short film only showing hundreds of old photos being flipped? Hell nah.
Yet, it worked, and not only because of the avant-folk aesthetic. Elverum reviving his earliest moniker is no coincidence: he’s finally feeling like he did during the recording of The Glow Pt. 2. It’s a work that desperately wants to acknowledge the passing of time, Elverum detailing his entire musical legacy without glorifying it; rather, he makes himself remember these moments to better reacclimate himself in the present. Through that short story, he unravels his memories, ultimately realizing that, if his past self sure cast his present self, he is not what he was, and he will not be what he is. There is no end; there is now only. –Erwann S.
15. Protest the Hero – Palimpsest
Rody Walker has no business sounding this good. It was expected that, after undergoing complicated vocal surgery, there would be a necessary readjustment period where the vocalist wouldn’t quite be at his apex. A year or two would be required to regain the strength that turned the various records in Protest the Hero’s catalogue into certifiable earworms. Fans were content knowing Walker was healthy again, yet he decided to come out guns blazing. In probably the most profound comeback story of the music industry in a turbulent calendar year, Rody manages to sound rejuvenated — not recovering — on a fifth release that exhibits the band at another potent culmination of their explosive performances. Even while reckoning with member changes, Protest the Hero appear perfectly comfortable in this novel iteration of the collective. It’s made perfectly evident by opening number “Migrant Mother” that the Canadian gents have maintained the momentum that has propelled them into the progressive metal spotlight. The leads are astounding, the drumming is an adrenaline ride, and the choruses are humongous. In short: it’s a textbook Protest the Hero record in the best way possible.
Where Palimpsest diverges from the robust discography of the gang is in its more reserved nature. This is perhaps the most ‘tamed’ the group have appeared, reining in the bombastic technicality in favor of more contained ventures. An emphasis upon backing keys punctuates each track, aiding in enhancing the ubiquitous theatrical presentation. Melodic guitars are abounding in an album that favors a more straightforward approach, stunning the audience in their glorious tones. This isn’t to say that Protest the Hero are in any way dulling themselves, nor are they adopting a handicap by shifting from crazier musicianship. The instrumental exhibitions here are still capable of awing those that lend an ear, remaining unpredictable throughout the 52-minute duration. Rody, for his part, is exploring the entirety of his range, seeming more confident than ever before, his delivery exceptionally supported in its piercing highs and remorseful low notes. These elements collide in fabulous creations such as “From the Sky” — the operatic keys and soaring guitars beautifully complementing Walker’s resonating tenor belting — eventually segueing into quite possibly the single finest climax the band have ever committed to a disc. It feels absolutely earned, having been built towards in the titanic number, and the emotion Walker possesses is simply gorgeous.
Hindsight would dictate that Protest the Hero were set up to fail; too many variables had collapsed against their favor, from their injured frontman to key departures among the ranks. There should be no conversation about a new release that captivates to the extent that it deserves Album of the Year consideration. It’s undeniable, however, that Palimpsest is a triumph for both the group behind it and their musical category of choice. All too often are progressive metal albums marred by allegations of wank or shallow emotion, discarded by some but adored by others. Offered here is a craft that merges both realms, infusing palpable, human sensations into tunes that serve delicious compositions on repeat, failing to lose a touch of spirit during its runtime. Without concerning these thoughts, it can be condensed into a very quaint concept: this is outstandingly entertaining. A song like “All Hands” doesn’t require investment on a deeper level should a listener be reluctant for whatever reason — less feels, more sweeps! — and excels at being a damn fine, foot-tapping, anthemic jam. With a resurrected Walker at the helm, Protest the Hero have firmly reestablished themselves, proving any doubters wrong that no fire still burned in the crew’s hearts. The Canadians are more motivated than ever, and it’s all but certain their passion will endure for years to come. –Mitchell D. W.
14. Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
On paper, Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou, as separate entities, may seem worlds apart. However, May Our Chambers Be Full showcases the exact opposite as the two artists find themselves at a perfect crossroads, encapsulating punishing beauty solely united by the notion of absolute darkness. For Rundle, the collaboration provides an opportunity to dive further into the sludgy, droning sounds of 2018’s On Dark Horses, whereas Thou jump at the chance to further unearth the more melodic, grungier tendencies they have been displaying for quite some time. Thankfully, neither artist sacrifices even a drop of quality as their realms collide, intersect and intertwine.
Some of the project’s most intriguing moments appear when such collisions find Rundle and Thou succumbing to one another, allowing for absolutely otherworldly sections. “Magickal Cost” quietly builds up to a sublimely hellish second half, reaching peak chills once Rundle’s vocals enter the mix and bounce off Thou’s sonic annihilation. Besides this, the solo artist adds notable, subtle instrumental tweaks to the project, providing dynamic guitar work that prevents the album from being entirely camouflaged in gloom. May Our Chambers Be Full ends on the magnificent “The Valley”, a nine-minute epic that could not have been titled more appropriately. The song is one that has to be experienced; utilising every quality the two artists possess, it exudes an entirely unique, vulnerable atmosphere that is maintained even during its all-encompassing, entirely destructive climax. Closing the curtains on the album, the collaboration is far from over with a brand new EP releasing in January. Thank God. –Jesper L.
13. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
There was once a delicate balance between beautiful and unpleasant toed by dissonant death metal. A veritable arms race occurred where abrasiveness was pushed onwards, searching for whether or not an ending to the game could be found. New York’s own Imperial Triumphant had been spending their collective careers searching for where the edge of the abyss lied, merging unfathomable darkness with inspiring musicianship, bastardizing beauty in discord in order to evolve it into something more enthralling. It may seem premature to declare the race over, but if ever a boundary existed, Alphaville would be the definite demarcation. On paper, what the metropolitan rockers constructed is a complete beast that any listener would struggle to appreciate based on appearances. Such is the goal of the band; they quite nearly tease less adventurous audiences to escape, souls intact, while the more willing attempt to march into the shadows. The realm Imperial Triumphant dwell within is foreboding, complex, and unquestionably challenging. To pull off a unique experience in this manner requires a level of arrangement capabilities that rests on a level exponentially above competitors. The dissonance becomes lush as the ominous record unfolds, ensnaring travelers in its captivating depths.
A straightforward odyssey this is not; Imperial Triumphant explore the scope of their capabilities in every regard. The atmosphere surrounding Alphaville is suffocating in its unyielding dissonance, a hazy production clouding the environment in a threatening, cynical air befitting of the dystopia the collective portrays. Stray electronic elements and brass make appearances to assist in the formation of a futuristic realm in disarray, syncopated compositions providing an incessant unpredictability and unease. Making matters more difficult to digest, and simultaneously more exhilarating to behold, are the copious amounts of jazz excursions included in the LP. Guitars, drums, and bass all dance about the album’s duration, ensnaring listeners with their dizzying technicality, bounding from one section to the next with precision, liberally bending time signatures and grooves at will. It’s as if proceedings are held together by a mere string, the output both chaotic in its expression, yet buoyed by incredibly tight playing by the involved members. Those searching for melodies to grasp onto will find the abyss provides none — light is not a resource available fathoms below in personal turmoil — and therefore leave the soundscapes of Imperial Triumphant bare for examination.
Though it has been depicted as an arduous endeavor — indeed, Alphaville is a release that relishes in its off-kilter design — enjoying the latest effort from the New York gents is an infinitely rewarding experience. Due to the intense quality of the tracks, it is amazing to spend days peeling away the layers, the various components, and those spiraling jazz passages that seem to arch straight down to Hell itself. A new detail erupts where never before was one seen, increasing appreciation in every passing second. Awash in delirium and adoring each minute of it, this fourth product is one intended for the brave audiophile unflinching in the face of a monument to all things beautifully ugly. This destructive force is undoubtedly among the more inimitable forays to grace death metal in 2020 per its unconventional nature. Practicing patience with Alphaville allows it to unravel perfectly so as to justify such praise, gradually swaying one under its invasive aura, hypnotizing until only the abyss remains to cling to. –Mitchell D. W.
12. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
Jessie Ware is egotistical: she seems to be the only one to have had genuine fun while tearing the clubs up. Her sultry take on dance-pop, disco, and funky shit should have set the clubs on fire. Beware though, her music does not fit the kind of dancefloor Berghain-aficionados go to, no — rather the kind where the fleeting sentiment of magnetic attraction dominates any drug-taking. Mind you, it does not mean this is music to have sex to: it’s music to have fantasies to. If you don’t find no lover, there remains this invigorating shudder of being single, and that special feeling we all had when we indulge ourselves in boogie intimacy — that is, dancing with a stranger before you each dissolve back into the crowd. Whether a kiss, a caress, or absolutely nothing happens, What’s Your Pleasure? is full of that erotic desire to fully live communal moments. I don’t know about you, but I can’t fucking wait. That ass needs some shaking. –Erwann S.
11. Touche Amore – Lament
If Touche Amore are known for one thing, it’s being angsty, with an angst that has matured as the band and their fanbase matured. After Stage Four, which documented vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s experience with his mother’s terminal cancer, there were questions of where the band could go next. I’m not sure many could have predicted Lament and its near bordering of happiness. Opener “Come Heroine” is a song of appreciation of the people who provided unconditional love to Bolm across the events of not just Stage Four, but the events documented across the band’s entire discography. The opener sets a lyrical theme for much of the album that does not quite describe happiness, but the path towards attempting to become happy. Grief is still a focus, struggles with mental health are still a focus, the fragility of day to day life is still a focus, self-deprecation that borders of self-hate is still a focus — but the journey and tools used to cope with all of these topics is also a focus. Musically, this inkling of joy also sneaks through. There is still the traditional post-hardcore sound that Touche Amore popularized and nearly perfected, but there are also songs that border on pop punk. Major chords are more common than ever — the music is more traditionally accessible — but it’s also some of their most inventive. Lament‘s closing track has a near post-rock feel, a perfect backing to Bolm’s vocal performance and what are some of the best lyrics he’s ever written — essentially an anthem about he, and those in his life, are not OK all the time. And that’s OK. While the album is not about Jeremy Bolm and the rest of Touche Amore completely finding happiness, it is about his journey towards something resembling joy. Some days they feel that joy and some days they don’t. And that’s OK. –Mathias