We've never needed heavy music the way we do in 2020. When the world seems to be falling apart around us every day, great songs and great albums have helped us get through those days. While the live show circuit has been shut down by the COVID-19 crisis, leaving a hole in our lives, bold and visionary artists have thankfully kept creating and sharing their hard-hitting, energizing music. From Code Orange's Underneath, which dropped just as the pandemic was sweeping the globe and echoed the apocalyptic vibes, to Run the Jewels' RTJ4, which arrived at the perfect moment to voice our outrage, fear and hope, here are our picks for the 20 best albums of the year so far.
Across 17 years and nine albums, August Burns Red have cemented themselves as one of heavy music's most consistent bands. Like an AC/DC or Slayer of metalcore, they're not ones to futz with something that ain't broken, and on Guardians, they stick to their guns, refining and refreshing their raging, sinuous attack, not overhauling it. From propulsive opener "The Narrative" to wide-screen, post-metal-inflected closer "Three Fountains," the band have never sounded more united, focused and epic.
Ice-T and Body Count have been on a tear since re-forming for 2014's Manslaughter, which was their first album in eight years at the time. The renaissance continued with March's Carnivore, a Molotov-cocktail-throwing riot of an album packed with reverent covers (Motörhead's "Ace of Spades," Ice's own "Colors"), fiery protest anthems ("Point the Finger") and big-name guests, from Hatebreed's Jamey Jasta and original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo to Power Trip's Riley Gale and, in the record's biggest surprise, Evanescence's Amy Lee.
Code Orange set the bar almost impossibly high for themselves with 2017's Forever, our pick for the best album of that year. With Underneath, the Pittsburgh juggernaut roared back with more of everything. More massive, mosh-driving riffs. More industrial beats and dense horror-show atmospherics. More infectious alt-rock vocal hooks from Reba Meyers. More conceptual WTF surrealism. You could never question their creative ambition; on Underneath, those ambitions are fully realized. Stand back in awe.
Featuring current and former members of Dillinger Escape Plan, Counterparts, Fit for an Autopsy, Misery Signals, Shai Hulud and Reign Supreme, END are the rare heavy-music supergroup that manages to live up to the sum of its parts. Just blast Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face at full volume to see what we mean: Atmospheric and crushing, it sweeps, surges and slashes with surgical violence worthy of the aforementioned heavy hitters.
Higher Power's 2017 debut LP, Soul Structure, showed tons of promise, offering shades of Life of Agony, Leeway and Bad Brains, but their follow-up, 27 Miles Underwater, sees the U.K. melodic hardcore upstarts not only making good on that potential but also well surpassing it. Think Jane's Addiction's spacey whine meets Helmet's crunch and rumble. Sunny, bittersweet and savage all at once.
Simply put, Killswitch Engage's leftovers are better than most bands' best. The metalcore pioneers proved this in May when they collected six cutting-room-floor salvages as Atonement II: B-Sides for Charity, donating the Bandcamp proceeds to COVID-19 relief. "They are deeply meaningful songs that I believe in wholeheartedly," singer Jesse Leach said at the time of release. Rip-roaring anthems like "To the Great Beyond" and "No Devotion" ring with that conviction.
For fans wondering what Lamb of God would sound like without founding drummer Chris Adler, the answer is clear: exactly like Lamb of God. The Virginian metal stalwarts' self-titled album — their first release with Adler's full-time replacement Art Cruz — boasts all the neck-snapping technical riffage and burly roars we've come to love. There are a few new tricks — the Sisters of Mercy-esque intro to "Memento Mori" comes to mind — but mostly, this is as the title suggests: LOG at their most tried and true.
Goddammit if Manchester's Leeched aren't one of the most mercilessly crushing bands around today. Part Nails, part Godflesh, their sound on sophomore album To Dull the Blades of Your Abuse is that of a nightmare factory tearing itself apart from the inside. All corroded steel, grinding gears, furnace blasts and broken hearts.
Yes, the Deftones influence is undeniable, but U.K. metal experimentalists Loathe put more than enough of their own edge — notably, elements of mosh-pit-primed metallic hardcore and eardrum-scouring industrial textures — into their breakthrough second album to make it rise far above mere hero worship. Gauzy and gorgeous yet utterly terrifying, I Let It In and It Took Everything marks the arrival of bold new heavy-music visionaries.
Behemoth frontman Adam Nergal Darski enlisted a veritable rogues gallery of famous friends for the second album from his blues-rock project Me and That Man: Slipknot's Corey Taylor, Trivium's Matt Heafy, Emperor's Ihsahn, Grave Pleasure's Mat McNerney, the list goes on. More impressive, the swaggering satanic songcraft outshines the headlining-making guest list.
If you thought Chelsea Wolfe's 2017 album, Hiss Spun, was heavy, wait until you dive into Mrs. Piss' self-titled debut. A collaborative effort with her longtime friend and current go-to drummer Jess Gowrie, the LP sees these two "mega babes of the wild order" channeling the gnarliest, noisiest grunge-sludge sounds of the Nineties, plus plenty of the era's riot grrrl attitude. "Nobody Wants to Party With Us" goes the title of one song. We sure as hell do.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross delivered the score to the COVID-19 quarantine when they surprise-released not one but two new instrumental Ghosts albums in March and did so for fucking free. Ghosts V: Together "is for when things seem like it might all be okay," the duo explained in a joint statement at release, "and Ghosts VI: Locusts ... well, you'll figure it out." Of course, we gravitate toward the hypnotically menacing latter.
In 2020, Old Man Gloom — the noise-sludge supergroup comprised of current and former members of Cave In, ISIS, Converge and other forward-thinking heavy bands — dropped two albums (or "seminars," as they like to call them), their first since the untimely death of vocalist-bassist Caleb Scofield. Our favorite is Darkness of Being, which they surprise-released in March. Its companion piece, Light of Meaning, is great, too, but Darkness stands out for its spacious, cleanly sung moments, like the dark folk ode "Death Rhymes," which punctuate the crashing cacophony brilliantly.
If most traditional black-metal bands sound like they've tromped in from wintry, windswept forests, Finland's Oranssi Pazuzu sound beamed in from another planet entirely. The otherworldly vibes reach fever pitch on their fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi, or "Master's Nail," which spins together Krautrock, prog, acid house, jazz and more. It's so Technicolor it's hard to even call it black metal at all.
After a year of health scares and canceled shows, the Prince of Fucking Darkness re-emerged reinvigorated on solo album No. 12. Helmed by Post Malone producer and guitarist Andrew Watt, and featuring rock-star assists from Slash, Elton John, Post and others, Ordinary Man is anything but ordinary, capturing the septuagenarian godfather of heavy metal in fine form, whether shrieking, "It's a raid!" or moaning of the inevitable end on "Under the Graveyard." The crazy train still has plenty of steam in it yet.
Much like her equally prolific counterpart Ghostemane, viral phenom Poppy seems dead-set on annihilating the idea of genre, mashing together metal, punk, pop, hip-hop, EDM, industrial and whatever else she can get her hands on across her kaleidoscopic 2020 album, I Disagree, all while blowing minds at WWE events and with her arthouse-prankster music videos. It's the sound of a future we want to live in.
Could an album arrive more exactly when we needed it? Or speak more precisely to its moment? We think not. With the incendiary RTJ4, Killer Mike and El-P dropped a vivid testimonial to our times and a speaker-busting reminder that hip-hop is best when it goes hard, not when it mumbles. Oh yeah, and did we mention that they brought Rage Against the Machine's reclusive Zack de la Rocha along for the ride, spitting fire like only he can? Of course they did.
Trivium have never been afraid to polarize their fans, veering from melodic metalcore to throwback thrash to a more hard-rock-inflected sound across their career, while frontman Matt Heafy alternately embraced and abandoned harsh vocals. All of which makes the Floridian metal stalwarts' ninth full-length something of a crowd-pleaser. An immediately gripping listen with plenty to offer old-school heads and newbie fans alike, the LP practically bursts with anthemic choruses, vicious screams and, of course, lots of instrumental shredding. It's Trivium's finest in years.
With his post-rock project Wear Your Wounds, Converge frontman Jacob Bannon indulges his mellower inclinations; with the new supergroup Umbra Vitae, with also features WYW's Sean Martin and Mike McKenzie, he swings to the other extreme, going as heavy, dark and death-metal as he ever has. Boasting current and former members of Hatebreed, the Red Chord, Job for a Cowboy and Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats as well as the aforementioned bands, Umbra has a lot to live up to: The band's debut LP, Shadow of Life, delivers and then some.
From Crowbar to Down to Kingdom of Sorrow, Kirk Windstein is the godfather of the sludge-metal sound so identified with his hometown New Orleans. With his first-ever solo album, Dream in Motion, he's taken that sound next level, addressing and cultivating a more mellow, introspective and classic-rock-leaning side of his creativity. Never fear, though, the riff master still comes through with massive headbanging grooves to spare.