Ever since Black Sabbath had the stroke of genius to combine the tritone (also known as the "devil's interval") with sinister lyrics on "Black Sabbath," heavy metal has been a fertile ground for artists to explore the darkest aspects of the human condition. In light of 2020's COVID-19 crisis, this year's additions to the heavy-music canon feel even more poignant: We Are Chaos, Slow Decay, Existential Reckoning, The Great Dismal, Post Human: Survival Horror, Lament, I Let It In and It Took Everything … But what we know — and non-metal fans don't get — is that during uncertain times and personal strife the hard-hitting music we love actually helps lift us up and shoulder the weight that life throws down on us. Thankfully a lot of artists stepped up to the plate with killer offerings to get us through the year. Below are our picks for the 25 best albums of 2020.
If you're going to name your album after one of Jean Luc-Godard's most unsettling films, you'd better make it great. Imperial Triumphant succeeded in doing so with 2020 masterpiece Alphaville thanks to a fearless blend of spastic free jazz, terrorizing wails of despair and unorthodox rhythmic patterns that have no mind to please listeners so much as destabilize their sense of reality. Alphaville is catharsis through nightmarish aural immersion — and, like Hell, the only way out is through. Kelsey Chapstick
Los Angeles outfit Touché Amoré have been responsible for some of post-hardcore's best melodies and storytelling this past decade. But their new record, Lament, is another level up from an already astonishing height. Produced by the notoriously confrontational Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot, Sepultura), the band were pushed into places they hadn't been before. As sweet and comical as it is typically saturnine, Jeremy Bolm's lyrics are surprisingly conversational and direct, the guitars are textured to sound like a shoegaze-y maelstrom, and the world of the album is just that — a world. In fact, Lament feels like its own planet. Emma Madden
Although the Acacia Strain helped pioneer deathcore in the early 2000s, they never fit neatly alongside the wave of bands that followed their lead. The Massachusetts group has always delivered their best moments when they infect their nihilistic chugs with other heavy styles, and Slow Decay fully embraces that holistic approach. Their 10th record finds a pummeling middle ground between deathcore, metallic hardcore, sludge, and even straight-up death metal — and tracks like the scorching "Seeing God" and the decimating "Feed a Pigeon Breed a Rat" are some of the best they've ever crafted. Eli Enis
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. Revolver Staff
Avatar are an odd, ambitious bunch. They're deeply avant-garde for Swedes who make heavy metal, but 2020's Hunter Gatherer saw them take music seriously again after the carnival antics of 2018's Avatar Country. Melodic, chug-a-lug riffs are peppered with squealing solos and gut-ripping roars that lyrically tackle anxiety, detachment and alienation with distinctly Gothenburg flair. Dystopian experimentation on tracks like "Colossus" maintains the band's stylistic signatures, and the lofty aesthetics of this cycle's videos prove they're still the weirdos fan have always loved. K.C.
With their hotly anticipated second album, Oakland death-metal trio Necrot turned up the power on 2017's Blood Offerings with more technicality, more speed and more intensity. Along with bands like Gatecreeper, Tomb Mold and Blood Incantation, they're spearheading the rejuvenation of old-school death metal. Mortal recalls the insane whirlwind of Morbid Angel's Altars of Madness while taking a lyrical cue from Death's introspective milestone, Human. If you haven't heard this blasterpiece yet, what are you waiting for? J. Bennett
Perhaps no other album this year began with as timely a line as "Here we are in the middle of our existential reckoning." You're also highly unlikely to find another album that explores the fear and loathing of our uncertain times in as chill a fashion as the latest from Maynard James Keenan's art-rock outfit Puscifer. From the opening synth dirge of "Bread and Circus," Keenan and Co. face it down with a soundscape melding everything from trip-hop beats to desert-rock guitars. It's a rich, layered experience full of dread, hope and caustic criticism — as suitable for a mescaline-fueled mind expansion in the Arizona wilds as it is for a cozy mid-afternoon space-out in your apartment. Roger Riddell
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. R.S.
After 15 years of inactivity and 21 since their last album, avant-metal weirdos Mr. Bungle reappeared from the mists of time to re-record their 1986 demo. Not content to merely rehash their high school days, core trio Mike Patton, Trey Spruance and Trevor Dunn enlisted help from Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. To make things even more interesting, they revived three unrecorded tracks from their early thrash era and topped them off with S.O.D. and C.O.C. covers. The result is — in the words of super fan Eric Andre — pure, awesome "'carve 666 into your desk and get in detention' metal." J.B.
For the band Nothing, processing trauma seems to be a languageless thing, which can emerge either in fragments of consciousness or in great swathes of sound. In fact, you could say the hardcore-turned-shoegaze band's sublime new record, The Great Dismal, is the music of trauma. Bandleader Domenic "Nicky" Palermo and Co. have been plumbing these depths since first breaking onto the scene in 2010 — but reach new levels of beautiful and painful articulation on their fifth album. Not everyone will be able to relate to a band who uses PTSD for musical fodder, but those who can will have something to treasure forever in this album. E.M.
Gulch's album arriving in a year without concerts is like teasing a dog by pretending to throw the tennis ball. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is as much of a mosh-inducing, neck-snapping, flail-on-the-floor hardcore album as its terrifically badass name implies. It's a 15-minute burst of foaming-at-the-mouth savagery that finds the equivalent of the handshake emoji between powerviolence blast beats, metalcore stomps and two-step-til-you-trip riffage. The first seven tracks are spitfire insanity, but they ingeniously tease out a future pivot to ambitious post-hardcore with the transcendent closer "Sin in My Heart." E.E.
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. R.S.
The Antichrist Superstar's 11th studio album found him collaborating with country artist Shooter Jennings, though it's not necessarily the odd-couple pairing you might expect. The result is an outing that, at its peaks, deftly mashes the glam-goth stylings of Mechanical Animals with a vibe akin to Darkness on the Edge of Town Springsteen ("Don't Chase the Dead," "Paint You With My Love"), often careening wildly between swaggering defiance ("Red Black and Blue," "Perfume") and somber lamentation ("Half-Way & One Step Forward," "Broken Needle"). It's a ride we're here for either way. R.R.
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. R.S.
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. R.S.
The highly prolific, genre-defying Ghostemane ups the terror and aggression on his latest Anti-Icon, stepping away from the Venn diagram of extreme-music influences to dive deeper into his own shadowy realm of squelching, overdriven beats and chugging guitars. Independently produced and released, Anti-Icon is every bit as ferocious as it is deliciously off-putting — as Ghoste weaves deeply personal subject manner into tracks that embrace elements of noise, goth and industrial, as much as rap and metal, all with a subtle ear for melody. Fred Pessaro
On their surprise second album, supergroup Killer Be Killed outgun their 2014 debut with help from new member and Converge drummer Ben Koller. Recorded in secret over the last few years, Reluctant Hero sees former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato taking musical leadership and ripping tasteful guitar solos all over the place. Meanwhile, the triple vocal attack of Puciato, Mastodon's Troy Sanders and living metal legend Max Cavalera reaches a thrilling apex on the anthemic "Dream Gone Bad." J.B.
Just one year after Spirit Adrift released their stunning Divided By Darkness album, bandleader Nate Garrett and drummer Marcus Bryant emerged with another trad-metal banger, Enlightened in Eternity — which further illuminates the duo's mastery over epic song structures, soaring vocals and Eighties-influenced guitar virtuosity. What separates Spirit Adrift's latest entry from their prior work is where Divided mines the darkest moments in Garrett's life, Enlightened in Eternity explores the world that follows — one filled with hope, light and possibility. Nothing could be more welcome in 2020. F.P.
In the not-so-distant past, metal and pop were considered by many to be arch enemies. But it's 2020, and in case you haven't noticed, binaries are fucking passé. U.K. shapeshifters Bring Me the Horizon have long embraced this concept and pushed boundaries accordingly. Their latest EP may just be their most ambitious outing yet. Singer Oli Sykes leads listeners through a narrative concept built around the year's ups-and-downs: from lockdowns ("Dear Diary") and the coronavirus itself ("Parasite Eve") to the mental effects of isolation (Teardrops") and idiotic politicians ("Obey"). Musically, the guys build on the massive hooks of 2019's Amo but seriously up the aggression, joined by all-star cast of guests including YUNGBLUD, Babymetal and Evanescence's Amy Lee. A cinematic, cyber-metal crusher, POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR legit sounds like the future of heavy music. E.M., R.S.
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. R.S.
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. R.S.
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 late singer Riley Gale and, in the record's biggest surprise, Evanescence's Amy Lee. R.S.
You never know what you're going to get from Greg Puciato, and his debut solo album honors that. Child Soldier: Creator of God is a thoughtful marriage of all his other projects — the head-walking intensity of the Dillinger Escape Plan, the gothy synthwave of the Black Queen, the snarling metal of Killer Be Killed — and then some. From the smoky post-punk of "Deep Set," the shimmering soul of "Temporary Object," the rollicking alt-rock of "Down When I'm Not," and the writhing sludge madness of "Roach Hiss," Puciato contorts his chameleonic play-style into an hour's worth of nonstop surprises. E.E.
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. R.S.
Check the hype on Ohms and you'll find 100 dudes proclaiming, "If you told me this was made in 1999, I'd believe you." Which makes sense — the alt-metal champs' ninth album surges with the same electric current that fed game-changers like Around the Fur (1997) and White Pony (2000). Was it the added contributions from guitarist Stephen Carpenter (who was largely missing during the writing for their last record Gore)? Or Deftones returning to their Sacramento clubhouse-turned–rehearsal studio The Spot? Or the fact that they recorded live without click with producer Terry Date (who was behind the boards for the previously mentioned bangers)? Who knows. What's indisputable is that Chino Moreno and Co. brought the goods. From the ominous synths of opener "Genesis" to its powerful closing single "Ohms," the album is rife with tension and release and soaring with majestic melody and riffage. It's a stunning, shoegazing scourge of down-tuned reverie that's arguably their best since Diamond Eyes, maybe even White Pony. And while Deftones may be conjuring the wistful desperation that made them alt-metal superstars in the Nineties, Moreno's themes are au courant for 2020's challenges. The lyrics for "Ohms" epitomize the approach. The singer leads us into a dark and desperate place full of longing and despair before offering a resolute statement of hope that we will, eventually, get through our difficulties. "Time won't change this," he sings. "This promise we made. And time won't change this. We shall remain." K.C.