2018 was full of huge comebacks, big surprises and resounding statements. Stoner metal's definitive band exhaled its first full-length in two decades on 4/20 with only a Morse Code warning in advance. NWOBHM gods re-enshrined themselves with their best record in 30 years. Satanic popes were assassinated and supplanted by an awkward mustachioed Cardinal. Hardcore upstarts pushed the boundaries of what "hardcore" even sounds like, while all sorts of other sonic alchemists melted down any number of other genres — from black metal to hip-hop to industrial — into epic, unclassifiable lava flows. It was a year of game-changing music and stunning albums — here are the 30 best.
Having evidently learned their lesson from 2014's underwhelming, impersonal comeback LP At War With Reality, Swedish death-dealers At the Gates took a more vintage-inspired approach on To Drink From the Night Itself, corralling the thrashing spirits of their Nineties heyday into a flaming house of horrors. Zoe Camp
Now that the novelty of former Dillinger Escape Plan frontman Greg Puciato not screaming in our faces has worn off, his electronic project the Black Queen (also featuring Josh Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv and Puscifer) can be evaluated and enjoyed in full relief. Like its predecessor, the group's second full-length is cold, sleek and futuristic in a retro Eighties kinda way, the soundtrack to a love affair with a gorgeous android dreaming of electric sheep. Puciato croons and wails, channeling his R&B influences on Infinite Games' bedroom jams, but the real beauty of the album is its undercurrent of danger and distance, which adds another intriguing neon-soaked layer. Will Navidson
For Erase Me — their first effort featuring founding drummer-vocalist Aaron Gillespie since 2008 — Florida post-hardcore mainstays Underoath didn't write songs so much as they performed brazen, repeated acts of self-exorcism, parlaying their freshly-sharpened sound and agnostic lyrical approach into a proud statement of personal liberation. Z.C.
A marked pivot away from corpse-painted orthodoxy to proggy goth-rock populism is much easier said than done for most successful blackened bands, particularly those with large fan bases. Not so for Swedish stalwarts Tribulation, who soldered primordial chaos to mainstream catchiness on their phenomenal fourth album. The end result is a timeless collection of murky anthems that we'll be toasting with our chalices for years to come. Z.C.
Between the punkish grit of Rico Nasty and Hyro the Hero, the industrial fury of Ho99o9 and JPEGmafia, and (for better or worse) the apotheosis of proud heshers Post Malone and Lil Xan, 2018 was a banner year for metalhead-courting hip-hop. (See also Ghostemane, at No. 21 on this list.) NYC duo City Morgue's inaugural mixtape ranks among the most lethal efforts to channel this zeitgeist, striking a winning — and sometimes terrifying — balance between deft wordplay and sonic warfare. Z.C.
Gnarly, antisocial hardcore, pedal-to-the-floor grindcore and good old fashioned punk collide on Good to Feel, Candy's head-spinning debut LP. Fans of Crossed Out, Infest, early Trash Talk and more will appreciate the album's visceral emotion and churning riffage, but what really takes the record next level are the outside-the-box nods to drum-and-bass, power electronics and ambient music. Fred Pessaro
Expanding on the youthful ambition of their breakout back-to-back albums Anareta and Ecdysis, Horrendous have opened up more than "this fucking pit" with their latest. Idol eschews the straighter path of past work, instead playing out like a galloping, raucous carousal with animatedly evil vocals punching through the dense grooves and whiplash blast beats that establishes the band as an official force in the metal world who've outgrown and out-played their initial splash in contemporary death metal. Kelsey Chapstick
A dark heartbreaker with overwhelming restless spirit, Emma Ruth Rundle has once again managed to inject an ample dose of searing pain into dreamy refrains that bleed breathless languor and contemporary folk sensibility with every note. This is an album for long walks on misty gray days, when sadness feel like comfort and leaning into it is therapy. K.C.
New Jersey hardcore crew Old Wounds have always been a fascinating act — part Hatebreed tough-guy pummel, part AFI goth androgyny — but with the return of briefly departed frontman Kevin Iavaroni and the reconfiguration of its lineup around him, the group has more fully and artfully embraced its once-split personalities. The Glassjaw-style melodicism hinted at on past releases comes to the fore on heart-on-sleeve anthems like "No One Listens When You Fall Apart," which, thankfully, only serve to amplify Old Wounds' more-in-character mosh-pit churn with the dynamic contrast. W.N.
Somewhere between a horror film, a stuttering electronic nightmare and trap music emerged Ghostemane with his revelatory new album N/O/I/S/E. Truly a modern effort in every sense of the word, the LP sees Ghostemane skillfully embracing and reimagining all manner of genre — from rap to industrial to black metal to EDM — in pursuit of his completely original take on the dark arts. F.P.
Written and recorded after YOB leader Mike Scheidt nearly died from diverticulitis, Our Raw Heart fused the aggressive attack of 2011's Atma with the doomy psychedelia of 2014's Clearing the Path to Ascend, while adding a newfound sense of uplift and exhilaration. The rage to live never sounded more ferociously beautiful. Dan Epstein
Unrelenting groove and thick, throaty vocals pop amid the abject chaos swirling on Tomb Mold's 2018 breakout record. The rookie brutalizers took no time in establishing themselves as death-metal masters riding atop the tidal wave of OSDM-inspired bands, and Manor of Infinite Forms is a whiplash-inducing banger that will outlive its buzzy arrival on the scene. K.C.
On Too Far Gone, New Orleans troublemakers Cane Hill take a good, hard look at their long-seated depravity — a "live fast, die young" worldview shaped by bad acid, suicidal panic, wrathful libido and self-loathing — and reject it outright, swapping nihilistic turn-up anthems for relatable groove-metal screeds detailing frontman Elijah Witt's struggles with addiction ("10 Cents"), toxic relationships ("Why?") and Trump-era racism ("Hateful"). For an album that's all about the comedown, Too Far Gone is nothing short of a come-up moment for the Southern upstarts. Z.C.
Harm's Way raised the bar for industrial-strength hardcore with 2015's stunning Rust LP; they broke that bar over their knee with its follow-up, Posthuman, a groovy, death-cyborg upgrade on their previous work, and the Chicago straight-edge crew's most cohesive statement to date. It's ferocious, cold as ice, and the sound of a band finding its own path. F.P.
Diagnosed with CTE following his near-fatal 2015 beating, Nothing leader Domenic Palermo channeled his depression, anger and frustration into the Philly/NYC shoegaze band's third album, but also infused it with a sense of delirious wonder at the sheer absurdity of existence. Produced by indie-rock legend John Agnello, Dance on the Blacktop's fuzzy, swirling music powerfully and perfectly complemented Palermo's cosmic musings. D.E.
Only an amputated toe could (temporarily) sideline Matt Pike in 2018. Otherwise, the grizzled riff-master was restlessly bestowing upon an undeserving world not one but two of the year's best albums (see also Sleep's The Sciences, at No. 5). High on Fire's latest long player thrashes and snarls alongside the group's gnarliest classics, but does so with new ambition and psychedelic expanse (just check out two-part Sumerian rock opera "Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil"). Makes sense considering the record's roots in Pike's dreams and LSD trips. Brandon Geist
With ethereal synths, wispy, dream-like vocals and an overall vibe of gothic darkness, Iceland's Kaelan Mikla earn a spot on this list of year-end highlights with the massive Nott eftir nott. Their incredibly well-executed post-punk witchcraft is as beautiful as it is mysterious, nodding to everything from Depeche Mode to the Cure (Robert Smith is a fan). Perhaps most exciting of all, this trio is only just getting started — expect even brighter things in its future. F.P.
Six albums and two decades in, these Beltway grind masters sound as ferocious as ever. Incorporating unlikely noise-rock influences alongside their usual face-shredding blast beats, Head Cage rips and roars with political screeds and absurdist fantasies alike. Incredibly, it's also the band's first album to include bass. J. Bennett
Though it contained some typically extraordinary bursts of guitar firepower, Deafheaven's fourth album found the controversial blackgaze quintet branching out into more contemplative, melodic and song-oriented realms, including a collaboration with Chelsea Wolfe on the Bowie-esque duet "Night People." Deeply satisfying in its own right, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love offered the tantalizing prospect of even broader stylistic strides in Deafheaven's future. D.E.
This spastic collection of expertly crafted tracks shifts seamlessly from searing rage to quiet contempt at will and without warning, taking listeners on a dissociative trudge through blackened hardcore, dark Americana and desolate breakdowns without skipping a beat. Furious and foreboding, Cult Leader stretch their wings and land on hallowed ground with this one, especially on standout tracks like goth-folk invocation "To: Achlys." K.C.
Last year A Perfect Circle ended their 14-year silence when Maynard James Keenan, Billy Howerdel and Co. surprise-dropped "The Doomed" — their heaviest track to date. This year's full-length, Eat the Elephant, may not be similarly heavy throughout, but it doesn't lack in heft. To the contrary, the near-hour-long record is thick with atmosphere, and showcases Keenan pushing his vocals to new levels of intimacy and urgency. Ultimately, more than just music, Eat the Elephant is a message — and example — of doing, reconnecting and taking responsibility for yourself … all things that humankind circa 2018 needs. Sammi Chichester
Florida's Gouge Away have come a long way quickly from the politically charged powerviolence of their past. The quartet's new album Burnt Sugar combines all manner of indie- and alt-rock sounds — whether that's shades of Superchunk or shards of the Jesus Lizard – with poignantly personal lyrics courtesy of fiery singer/screecher Christina Michelle. The result is a remarkably cohesive and compulsive trip that effortlessly connects all of the dots on the punk map. F.P.
Following his unexpected gothic-country-folk turn with side project Me and That Man, Behemoth main man Nergal made room on I Loved You at Your Darkest for clean vocals, children's choirs and melodic dirges that favored moody atmospherics over blast beats. But rather than dilute the band's blasphemous brand of blackened death metal, such heretofore-unfamiliar elements only bolstered the mesmerizing power of Behemoth's 11th album. D.E.
Combining elements of industrial, techno and early goth, Oakland's Luis Vasquez, a.k.a. the Soft Moon, built a collection of catchy, eldritch tracks that fester anxiously just beneath the surface before bursting out periodically into unapologetically creepy dance music. The hypnotic web of layered synth tones and mechanical samples is a little scary on the surface, but don't be fooled: It's a party front to back. K.C.
Zeal & Ardor turned a lot of heads when they released their acclaimed 2016 debut Devil Is Fine, on which main man Manuel Gagneux merged two seriously dissimilar musical styles: African American spirituals and black metal. But as the dust settled, questions lingered: Could he evolve this new form? Did he paint himself into a corner? Stranger Fruit squashes those concerns: Gagneux's genre-splicing has reached new levels of subtlety and artful weirdness, while his poignant social commentary has become even sharper. B.A.
Stoner-metal fans got a special treat this 4/20 with the surprise drop of The Sciences, Sleep's first new album in nearly two decades. As heavy and heady as anything from the legendary trio's Nineties output, crushing cannabinoid jams like "Marijuanaut's Theme" and "The Botanist" offered potent proof that Sleep's bowl was far from cashed. D.E.
A smoldering, satisfying blast from the past, unleashed ahead of its creators' 50th anniversary (and on a sadder note, axman Glenn Tipton's retirement), Judas Priest's Firepower isn't just the band's strongest effort in 30 years — it's a towering, unforgettable hard-rock behemoth, with unparalleled riffs, hooks and, most vitally, attitude. Z.C.
As leaders of a new generation of hardcore heroes with little regard for genre boundaries, Turnstile threw down a supremely kinetic mission statement with their second album. Time & Space boasts a highly melodic mélange of staccato riffage, soaring backing vocals, huge bass grooves and psychedelic guitar breaks. Indisputable confirmation that, as dark as it often gets, heavy music can be feel-great music, too. J.B.
If having your eardrums shredded by razors is the kind of fun you're looking for, Vein have just the treat for you. Caustic, virulent dueling hardcore vocals and impenetrable walls of fury pause for punchy hip-hop and drum-and-bass interludes as a light dusting of nu-metal's heaviest bits shrouds the entire work with an honest sense of reverence for the rising band's forebears and influences. K.C.
Ghost's fourth full-length album elevated the band's Eighties-influenced brand of satanic pop-metal to a new level of infernal excellence with Tobias Forge's wickedly catchy songs of infestation, disease and decay. Lush, melodic, anthemic and filled with more steely hooks than a medieval torture chamber, Prequelle was truly the apocalyptic party album that 2018 deserved. D.E.