Despite being an awful year with restrictions, quarantines, cancellations, and all types of health care regulations that have deeply affected the touring schedule of many artists, the music industry didn’t come to a full halt. In terms of studio releases, this year was quite a fruitful one with many bands putting out quality music that brought hope in a better tomorrow and added so much color to many otherwise grey days. From great debut albums to records from seasoned bands all the way to some cool live releases (and everything else in between), I would mark 2020 as a rather great year for metal… in a glass-half-full kind of way.
Disclaimer: this is not necessarily a “best of” list, but a countdown of the albums that have been in more or less heavy rotation in my playlist, making 2020 easier to bear. Music is a subjective listening experience and we each rank albums based on different criteria, and at the end of the day it all comes down to personal preference. Without further ado, here are the albums I gravitated towards the most this year.
20. Conception – State of Deception
After a spectacular comeback in 2018 with the EP “My Dark Symphony,” CONCEPTION has released its highly anticipated follow-up to 1997’s “Flow.” Titled “State of Deception,” the album sees the band pursuing its style of progressive metal but with a symphonic layer to it that makes the songs feel bombastic and complex. And Roy Khan’s voice has matured gracefully, sounding almost as rich and smooth as during his prime. However, since this is not exactly my idea of how a melodic album should sound, I am still of the opinion that “what it may lack in melody, it more than makes up for in drama and theatricality.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Waywardly Broken”
19. Paralydium – Worlds Beyond
Progressive metal drenched in keyboard soundscapes and djenty riffing is what PARALYDIUM is selling, and I am more than buying. Add to that Mikael Sehlin’s smooth and powerful vocal delivery, a tight rhythmic section, melodic hooks galore, and an interesting concept behind the lyrics and you have one hell of a debut album in your hands. I still stand by what I wrote in my review of the album when I stated that “Worlds Beyond” is “the type of album that disguises its heaviness with melody,” concluding that it is a layered and complex effort that “requires multiple listeners to uncover all its lyrical secrets and musical aromas.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Crystal of Infinity”
18. Black Fate – Ithaca
How about some Greek mythology set to epic music? Yes, please! Taking inspiration from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the album’s lyrical content details Odysseus’s journey home, without being a concept album per se. In between Vasilis Georgiou’s gorgeous and rich vocal delivery, Gux Drax’s tasty guitar moments, and Themis Koparanidis’ keyboard accents, this legend is painted in vivid colors that make it spring to life beautifully. As per my review of the album, “Ithaca” offers “plenty of surprises along the way from the lofty vocals to the tight rhythmic section, all the way to the guitar work and symphonic nuances. There’s a sense of poetic grace to be found on this album that will surely enchant the listeners.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Nemesis”
17. Kamelot – I Am the Empire: Live from the 013
This superb DVD/Blu-Ray was a long time in the making but it was well worth the wait. Recorded in September 2018, in The Netherlands, it was finally released in August this year, since KAMELOT wanted to make sure of the quality of the offering, as per usual. And true enough the visuals are stunning, the playlist is well put together, and the guests add so much color and dynamism to the music; a true spectacle. But then again KAMELOT knows how to put on a show. As noted in my review “this is not your standard ‘watch us play and admire our musicianship’ -type of event, as KAMELOT’s live shows are very much tailored to the ‘we’re all in this together’ approach, making the bond between the band and the fans that much stronger.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”
16. Smith & Myers – Volume 1
It should come as no surprise that I love acoustic music. And I especially love these two – Brent Smith and Zach Myers of SHINEDOWN fame – since they released “Acoustic Sessions” back in January 2014. This year the duo is back with the double treat that is “Volume 1” and “Volume 2,” which again sees them creating their own brand of acoustic magic in the studio. Alternating between original material and covers, the ten songs that make “Volume 1” are stripped down and direct with many emotions and moods running though the album from anthems “Not Mad Enough” and “Rocking in the Free World” (Neil Young cover) to heartbreaking “Since You Were Mine” all the way to the bouncy “Coast to Coast” and “Valerie” (Amy Winehouse cover). For more acoustic delight see this list.
Personal favorite: “Never Tear Us Apart” (INXS cover)
15. Leaves Eyes’ – The Last Viking
Ah, symphonic metal, with your beautiful operatic vocals, epic backing orchestrations, and majestic sounds, aren’t you just an enchanting subgenre? Despite having a few flaws and shortcomings along the way, “The Last Viking” is actually quite an enjoyable release that puts all the charm of symphonic metal to good use. Elina Siirala steals the show on every song with her lofty vocals with Alexander Krull playing the part of the beast really well, while the arrangements only add to the atmosphere and storytelling. As I noted in my review, the album “offers everything one could possibly want from a metal album, symphonic or otherwise – glorious vocal parts, hefty guitar lines, and over the top solos, cinematic moments, hooky choruses, and a rich sound.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “War of Kings”
14. Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Who knew there could be so many nuances to a straightforward Gothic/Doom metal album? Well, PARADISE LOST managed to capture so many moods and textures on “Obsidian,” making it a very dynamic and emotional album that showcases all of the band’s strengths as musicians. After 3 decades of doing music, the band is as creative as ever and this album really taps into their artistry. As per my review, “what you get with ‘Obsidian’ are deep emotions covered in haunting heaviness, dark romanticism, and melodic (and melancholic) delight, spread out over the course of nine diverse tracks.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Hope Dies Young”
13. Ad Infinitum – Chapter 1: Monarchy
Another high-quality debut from a metal band that puts its own spin on the symphonic metal subgenre, revitalizing it. Melissa Bonny absolutely shines on this album as her melodic vocals drive the music forward, while the rest of the band deliver a tight and polished performance. More subdued but quite cinematic in its approach, there is plenty of drama and intensity to the music even without a wall of choral arrangements, it’s so well-written and put together. As per my review “AD INFINITUM have crafted an album that is simply drenched in melody and uplifting moments. It has hooky chorus after hooky chorus, while the guitar melodies, lush symphonic orchestrations, and keyboard harmonies keep things interesting and engaging.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Fire and Ice”
12. Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber
One of the best metal bands to hail from the US, and one of the best emerging bands of the last decade, OCEANS OF SLUMBER are at their absolute best on this album. Incredibly tight songwriting, excellent vocals from Cammie Gilbert, superb atmosphere, and great musicianship all across the board… and all this after a line-up overhaul. If they wanted to prove to the metal world who they are and what they can do, they surely did it with this magnificent album. To quote from Laureline’s review “it’s no wonder the album carries the name of the band, as with ‘Oceans of Slumber,’ they have created an out-of-the-box, spectacular release that introduces a brand new and exciting chapter in the band’s history.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “A Return to the Earth Below”
11. Balance Breach – Dead End Diaries
Hands down one of the best debuts of the year, coming in hot from one of the most promising young metal acts to hail from Finland, alongside I AM YOUR GOD. In between the versatility of Aleksi Paasonen’s vocals, the fierce guitar work from duo Terho Korhonen and Saku Heimonen, Antti Halonen’s impressive drumming, and Joni Härkönen’s powerful bass lines, “Dead End Diaries” is lit with metalcore anthems, heavy breakdowns, and headbanging-worthy moments. I am completely sold not just on this album, but on this band as well. As I stated in my review “It’s not even funny how fucking talented these guys are,” and I am expecting more from BALANCE BREACH in the years to come. Full review here.
Personal favorite: “November”
10. Jinjer – Alive in Melbourne
Presenting one of the last shows to be played live in 2020, this JINJER live album is not just a landmark in time, but also a presentation of the band’s live sound. What is special about this release is the fact that the band did not exactly plan to record it for posterity, it just somehow ended up this way. This is the reason why we see the band performing a regular show (no pyrotechnics, no special set, no unusual stage setup) that could have taken place anywhere in the world (see video online). As I pointed out in my review “this live album offers a solid insight not just into what it is like at a JINJER concert, but also why they are such heavily praised musicians.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Retrospection”
9. Ensiferum – Thalassic
The addition of clean vocalist Pekka Montin has breathed new life into ENSIFERUM. And this fabulous album proves how much better they are now as his vocals and keys add new layers to the music, enriching it. Their folky melodeath is ramped up to eleven here as they explore some interesting myths, while also sneaking some raise-your-fists type of moments in between. The most anthemic album I’ve listened to this year, it’s so much fun to sing-along to. As per Laureline’s review of the album “the theme that is tying these songs together is very well executed, with a variety of intriguing stories that are extremely well written; the music adds an extra element to the stories told, as both aspects are very well thought out.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Andromeda”
8. Draconian – Under a Godless Veil
One of the best releases in recent years to feature a truly well-played ‘beauty and the beast’ routine, “Under a Godless Veil” is the epitome of gothic beauty. The purity and ephemeral qualities of Heike Langhans’ vocals add a sense of sensibility and fragility that is counterbalanced by Anders Jacobsson’s perfectly places growls and harsh vocals. The accompanying instrumental is top-notch, bringing texture and atmosphere to the superb storytelling of the gnostic mythology embodied by Sophia. It’s doomy, dark, and gloomy, but also melodic, melancholic, and enchanting. As per my review “this is the type of music where the focus lies on the compositions, on what the songs themselves need to tell a certain story or to transmit a particular emotion, reason why the instrumental feels so restrained, so soft, even minimalistic at times, letting the vocals guide the listeners.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Sleepwalkers”
7. Ayreon – Electric Castle Live and Other Tales
What happens when you put Simone Simons, Anneke van Giersbergen, Damian Wilson, Dianne van Giersbergen, Mark Jansen, Marcela Bovio, Fish, and many other talented musicians on stage together under the guiding hands of Arjen Lucassen and Joost van den Broek? Epicness, what else! And this live offering from Ayreon is nothing short of epic and bombastic. While the front-to-back theatrical live rendition of the highly acclaimed “Into the Electric Castle” (1998) is the definite focus of this concert, the ‘other tales’ are beautiful gems from Arjen Lucassen‘s other projects. Among these, AMBEON’s “Ashes” and GUILT MACHINE’s “Twisted Coil” are among my favorite as Simone Simons and Damian Wilson respectively sing them to perfection. As Kalle Uotila states in his review of the live DVD (for Musicalypse), “finally, some fucking quality.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Cosmic Fusion”
6. Illumishade – Eclyptic: Wake of Shadows
ILLUMISHADE is by far one of the year’s best surprises. With an updated and modern take on what symphonic metal can become, “Eclyptic: Wake of Shadows” is a promising debut album that showcases the tremendous talent of the band. Enigmatic and utterly charming, full of catchy hooks and topped off by Fabienne Erni’s mesmerizing and outstanding vocal performance – best of the year, in my opinion, just listen to “Muse of Unknown Forces” – this album offers an immersive experience like few others. As I pointed out in the review “with a mix of progressive and symphonic metal, musical stylings, and poppish hooks, ‘Eclyptic: Wake of Shadows’ is a cinematic album that needs to be listened to from start to finish, and deserves your full attention. It’s well worth the deep dive.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Rise”
5. Katatonia – City Burials
This is one moody and atmospheric album, probably the reasons I like it so much. Carried mostly by Jonas Renkse’s soothing vocal performance, “City Burials” almost feels like an experiment in minimalism as the instrumental is not overwhelming but it is there to create atmosphere and add a bit of dynamism and melody to the songs. Melancholy and wistfulness drip from every word he sings while the guitars and drums enhance the feeling of gloominess and sorrow. The way this album is created and put together is like painting using only shades of grey. Some parts are darker, others a bit more sparkling, but the canvas that KATATONIA has created is fragile yet radiant. To quote Jani’s review (for Musicalypse) “the nuances are usually so subtle that they reveal themselves over time, and when they do, the impact is massive.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “The Winter of Our Passing”
4. Amaranthe – Manifest
High-energy, feel-good music – this is how I would describe AMARANTHE’s sound. It’s impossible to not feel energized and in a good mood while listening to their songs. And “Manifest” finds the band at their best in a while, offering variations of the core-sound with some neat little experimental moments. All the pieces of the puzzle have fallen in the perfect position and the end result is impressive, to say the least. As I mentioned in my review, the three vocal lines mesh together way better than before “and the listeners get to hear this synchronicity all throughout the album; not just in how present each of the three vocalists are, but how well their vocals are combined, especially in the choruses, as it’s not just Elize Ryd in the forefront.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “BOOM!1”
3. Dark Tranquillity – Moment
Fact: Swedes have an uncanny sense of melody. It’s not for nothing that ABBA, ROXETTE, or EUROPE are well-known Swedish bands. Most everything that comes out of Sweden is incredibly melodic and catchy. And this album is just the pinnacle of harmony and nuanced songwriting. You can’t get much closer to perfection than this; absolutely stunning. And what more can be said about Mikael Stanne’s vocals as both his harsh and cleans are simply outstanding. As noted in my review “there’s a superb sense of melody that carries this album forward, which comes not only from the way the vocal parts are divided and delivered or from the guitar riffs, but also from the atmosphere created by the piano and drums.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Remain in the Unknown”
2. Apocalyptica – Cell-0
Ah, to be lost in a world of sounds, such wonderful bliss. And each time I listen to this album, I always find myself enchanted by the sonic universe these Finns have created with just cello, drums, and piano. For an instrumental album, “Cell-0” is pretty layered and complex, offering plenty of intense moments, serene passages, and crushing heaviness that many other bands cannot pull off with a whole set of instruments and choir arrangements. They have explored the versatility of their instruments and have created melodies and compositions that won’t unravel in the absence of lyrics or any type of vocals, and that in itself is a feat of excellent musicianship. As Laureline noted in her review, “Cell-0” is an album that is “crafted to smoothly transition from one track into another, making this an intriguing introspective journey through phenomenal soundscapes that often surprise you and cause chills.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Rise”
1. Dynazty – The Dark Delight
The album I connected with the most this year is DYNAZTY’s magnum opus “The Dark Delight.” Nils Molin’s lyrics (and vocal performance) resonated with me more so than most anything else I have heard this year, and the more I understood their message, the more I fell in love with the songs. The album offers such thought-provoking themes as: the search for redemption (“The Road to Redemption”), the idea of a predestined fate (“Paradise of the Architect”), the impact of our mentality on the quality of life (“Presence of Mind”), the search for perfection (“The Dark Delight”), dealing with a negative headspace (“Waterfall“) or the impact of social media (“Apex”), just to name a few. Musically, this is their most diverse album yet, with songs ranging from straight-up melodic metal to having a hard rock vibe to them to light and bouncy to deeply emotional all the way to having a western twist, all featuring killer hooks. It’s music with a clear message, and I am all for it. As I mentioned when I reviewed the album “the variety that is on display in ‘The Dark Delight’ is a testament to the band’s creativity and desire to further expand their sound and not to be pigeonholed into a particular genre or sound.” Full review here.
Personal favorite: “Waterfall”
Honorable mention: VV – Gothica Fennica vol. 1 [EP]
Released on March 20th, just as quarantine was really setting in, this three-track EP was, in many ways, the light at the end of the tunnel for me. Hearing Ville Valo’s voice on his own songs again brought a sense of serenity and joy that made lockdown a lot easier to bear. A bit different from the usual gloomy sound of HIM, Salute the Sanguine,” “Run Away from the Sun,” and “Saturnine Saturnalia” have a warm, airy, and even oddly optimistic feel to them. They are akin to the pop-rock melodies he sang last year while on tour with AGENTS (think of “Orpolapsi Kiurun,” “Kaunis Maailma,” or “Kuihtuu Kesäinen Maa”). This is music made with love and passion, which at times are quite palpable, and I am eagerly awaiting the full-length. As Laureline noted in her review of the EP “given that the EP is called Vol. 1, it’s safe to assume there might as well be a Vol. 2 at some point. Like Ville Valo once said to Kerrang: *… The HIM part is done, as it is now, the chapter is closed, but the book is still unfinished…” Full review here
Personal favorite: “Run Away from the Sun”
Written by Andrea Crow