It's that time again, and as usual, I must preface this list by stating that there are many "high-profile" releases that I simply haven't heard, as I tend to not be so interested in what everyone else is listening to and writing about. As always, there are also a number of strong releases that have been on my radar this year that I just haven't gotten around to purchasing yet—albums from Black Magnet, Deathwhite, Realize, etc. Too much music, too little time. So, despite what I'm sure I've missed, these are my personal favorites from what I was able to dive into throughout this disastrous clusterfuck of a year. No runners-up for 2020, just one big list, in alphabetical order...
Anxious Arms, Head Toward Heaven (Sunday Drive)
Sacramento's Anxious Arms crossed my path in the weeks leading up to the release of Head Toward Heaven, and I regret being unable to pull together a proper write-up on the band due to the timing of whatever else was going on for me at that moment. Each year, my favorites lists tend to lean heavy on this style—a little bit emo, sort of post-hardcore, but atypically heavy with a grungy foundation and loads of outside influences. I'll always be a sucker for energy and catchiness, and when this group really lets go and opens up into hard-hitting power chords and unfeigned vocals, there's some pretty freakin' massive potential at work. Head Toward Heaven also gets a nod for one of the best-looking album covers of the year, too—totally love that aesthetic!
Bas Rotten, Surge (Various Labels)
I really don't listen to a ton of fast-paced grind-type stuff these days, but Bas Rotten is such a fuckin' powerhouse! Surge is the perfect title for this album, because it totally encapsulates the listening experience of the group's frantic-yet-flawless transitions between energetic high-speed blasts, rambunctious mid-paced grooves, and even the occasional dissonant scrape—occasionally bringing to mind classic acts such as Nasum and the like. I referred to Surge as the "grindcore album of the year" when I did a mega-interview with the band last month, but it's also one of the best albums of the year! Period! Especially once the world gets back to a point where some degree of touring is possible and these cats can get back to their relentless D.I.Y. touring regiment, expect to hear much more from Bas Rotten.
Depending on where you reside, check out Abnegat (Germany), Aim Down Sight (Germany), Destroy it Yourself (Portugal), Hexerei (Switzerland), Loner Cult (Belgium), Raging Planet (Portugal), or To Live a Lie (U.S.) for Surge on LP. Lower Class Kids has got the cassettes. The band's got you covered on Bandcamp, and of course there's Spotify, too.
Be Well, The Weight and the Cost (End Hits/Equal Vision)
Every year, a few releases land amongst my year-end favorites even though I was never able to write about them prior for one reason or another, and The Weight and the Cost is one such album. Be Well boasts a "supergroup" lineup with ties to Ashes, Bane, Battery, Daltonic, Darkest Hour, Fairweather, Miltown, etc. and hits me like Four on the Floor era Dag Nasty meets Exit English era Strike Anywhere meets This Time Next Year by The Movielife—with occasional bursts of more hardcore-centric fare. Plus, one of the most heartfelt/sincere vocal/lyrical performances of the year, by far:
I lie awake, totally afraid
Of all the thoughts in my head and the things that I'll never face
There's got to be a better way, but I'll drink enough to put it off for another day
A fresh coat of paint, the broom swept emptiness looks like a new place
We just covered the stains, they're not gone...
When it comes to melodic hardcore circa 2020, it simply gets no better. I must mention the excellent visual aesthetic on this one, too, packed with gorgeous photography that really catches the eye.
Grab The Weight and the Cost digitally at Bandcamp. For an assortment of physical formats, go through End Hits in Europe, and in the U.S. visit Equal Vision. I'm sure it's floating around at various distros as well. If you're too young to care about actually holding music in your hands, you can load the tunes up on Spotify.
Blood From the Soul, DSM-5 (Deathwish Inc.)
Even though we must excruciatingly wait until April of next year for physical copies, DSM-5 has been out digitally for over a month now, and the fact that the album even exists is probably the most thrilling surprise of the year for me. Over 25 years after the fact, Shane Embury's industrial metal offshoot Blood From the Soul has finally returned with a new full-length—and a new lineup. I won't lie, original vocalist Lou Koller's presence is missed—part of the charm of the band's underrated debut, To Spite the Gland That Breeds, was hearing a prominent hardcore vocalist so effectively transposed into such a different musical landscape—but with Converge frontman Jacob Bannon, Jesper Liveröd (Nasum, Burst), and Dirk Verbeuren (Megadeth, Soilwork, Scarve, etc.) rounding out the current lineup, one cannot complain, you know? Imagine some of Embury's most discordant and experimental contributions to Napalm Death extracted and refined into a full-length dystopian sci-fi audioscape. DSM-5 is the result, and it is wonderful.
Criteria, Years (15 Passenger)
Another one that I stupidly never wrote about, Years hit the streets all the way back in January with seemingly low visibility—I've still barely seen a mention of the fact that this LP exists through whatever sources tend to cross my path on social media, etc. The only reason I found out about it was because I posted about one of Criteria's old albums on Instagram, and when I was digging around for information discovered that they had released their first new material in like 15 years!? I unfairly ignored this band for far too long before waking up to the fact that they crank out some uniquely quirky emo/indie rock with crisp production and just the right dash of oomph. If you're at all familiar with their time on Initial Records or Saddle Creek way back when, you won't be disappointed one bit. Admittedly, I haven't listened to this one as much as I should have throughout the year. Another stunning surprise release from 2020.
Cruelty of the Heavens, Nothin's Cool (Self-Released)
As I've stated probably 100 times prior, Cruelty of the Heavens is one of my favorite current bands, and—as the past has indicated—if they release something, it's going on my end-of-year list, plain and simple. Nothin's Cool seeped out way back in February—which now feels like an eternity ago—with its striking cover art and incredible songwriting that I've absurdly taken to describing as "grunge-gazing alternative post-metal emo-rock," simply because they draw from such a wide range of influences that's familiar and cohesive without being able to be pigeonholed into any singular clean-cut genre. There are quite a few more popular acts out there that could never even dream of coming close to this level of greatness, so I'm sort of stunned that this EP remains digital-only and hasn't been pressed onto some crazy-looking beautiful vinyl variant yet. Still the most underrated band out there. People are sleepin'...
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, May Our Chambers be Full (Sacred Bones)
I've been a massive Emma Ruth Rundle fan ever since 2014's Some Heavy Ocean, so I absolutely had to pick this up. I actually sat on listening to it for months because I was waiting for the CD to arrive (it's still stuck in USPS purgatory), but I recently got sick of waiting and finally threw the mp3s on the ol' iPod. I'm not super familiar with Thou's rather hefty discography, but the results of this collaboration sound about as I'd expected: Emma's lushly dark, chilling atmospherics fused into Thou's scathing/swirling doom/sludge for a powerfully diverse and dynamic journey. I really haven't had enough time to properly digest the full weight of this outing, but... whew, excellent. They've recently announced a companion EP called The Helm of Sorrow, and I can't wait to hear it!
Entropy, Liminal (Crazysane)
The debut full-length from German quartet Entropy is certainly one of the most slept-on releases of 2020. I was tipped off to the group's surging, midpaced alt.-rock with an air of grungy post-hardcore over the summer shortly before the album's release date, and was hooked from the very first track. Combined with a relaxed-yet-catchy style of singing and dashes of shimmery textures, the tunes bring to mind Failure meets Sugar as sort of a loose reference point. This truly is a mandatory listen for any fan of the heavier side of the '90s alternative rock world. It's just that good.
It seems that Entropy has been starting to gain some well-deserved attention, however, because the CDs are actually sold out—love to see that! For vinyl nerds, it's still available on LP direct from the label. Haters of tangible music, find Liminal on Spotify.
Epitaph, Echoes Entombed: The Demo Anthology (Divebomb)
As usual, I try to limit my favorites to one reissue per year—almost always from Divebomb Records, my favorite active record label 10 years runnin'. The label's 2020 lineup included sizeable collections from Kinetic Dissent, Hostile Rage, Deus Vult, Uncle Slam, and numerous others; but this succinct set from Tampa, FL's Epitaph has gotta be my favorite. Perhaps a tough sell since the band only recorded five tracks throughout their existence (this disc also includes three beefed-up remixes), but those five tracks are top-shelf progressive, technical, intelligent death metal of the highest order. This collection is kind of a big deal because Epitaph featured Tony Teegarden, who later performed the aggressive vocals on Cynic's masterful Focus, and this is a band that sincerely deserved to have been regarded in the same light as Atheist, Cynic, and other Florida legends of the era. It's a damn shame that never worked out, but at least now—almost 30 years later—a proper document of Epitaph's output finally exists.
The Feeds, The Feeds (Self-Released)
It's a sure sign of 2020 and my personal music-adoring freakouts that two of my absolute favorite and most-played releases of the year are self-released, digital-only outings. For an old fart physical media collector like myself, that basically equates to flicking me in the ear and spitting in my face at the same time. Depressing. Anyway, I was ridiculously excited to discover The Feeds—a semi-continuation of stellar '90s outfit Lustre. A few tracks on this album are even reworked rarities from Lustre and guitarist/vocalist Will Marley's other prior band, The Nickel Slots. We're talkin' amazingly catchy alt.-rock with a twinge of that folky edge that seems to sometimes get called "Americana," though I hate that term. When I stumbled across this gem back in June, I probably listened to it daily for several weeks, and I almost never do that. Of all the overlooked and underrated music on this list, The Feeds are probably the utmost #1 painfully obscure and unheard of 'em all. So fuckin' good.
Hum, Inlet (Earth Analog)
You might be surprised to learn that I've never been the biggest Hum fan. To be honest, it's only in recent years that I had again revisited and finally started to appreciate their classic work, which timed out perfectly for my appreciation of Inlet. For being the band's first new album in freakin' 23 years, this is an incredibly strong return. In fact, since I didn't grow up jamming their earlier material, I could even argue that this might be their best album—it's certainly their album with the most songs that jumped out at me right away during the first run. Listening now, I really hear in retrospect the impact that I'd have to assume Hum had on acts like Cave In and such, in terms of helping to pioneer a style that's really heavy, but very spacey, and not shoegaze, but certainly more than blanket "alternative rock." I'm sure longtime fans are shitting themselves over how good this is, and I can understand why.
If you're not a Spotify fan (and you shouldn't be), this one's distributed through Polyvinyl Records on vinyl—or, yes, even CD! It's showing as sold out in Europe, but the U.S. store has both formats readily available. Bandcamp's got you covered digitally.
Moral Mazes, Moral Mazes (Little Rocket/Rad Girlfriend)
It's a bit weird for a mere two-song release to make the cut here, but my god are both of these songs so fuckin' killer. It's always a good sign when a release leaves you borderline demanding to hear more, and that's absolutely the case with this incredible 7". The core of Moral Mazes is J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines, etc.) on bass, drummer Darren Zentek (Donora, Kerosene 454, etc.), and Jeff Dean (Explode and Make Up, Airstream Futures, etc.) on guitar. For this release, they were joined by vocalist Michael Feerick from Amusement Parks on Fire, achieving a catchy-yet-dreary alt.-rock aesthetic. "Gold Beach Fortress" just might be the single finest song I've heard all year. If they wait another six years to release additional material, we should all be eligible to sue them for pain and suffering!
Napalm Death, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Century Media)
I'm now embarrassed to admit that Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism was the first Napalm Death album I had bought in about 20 years. Peak Napalm Death for me was, say, 1990 - 1995, and eventually I just sort of lost interest for no real reason other than the fact that their discography is simply enormous, and there's been too much other music to keep up with. That being said, Killing Joke-esque pre-release track "Amoral" really grabbed my attention, so I went ahead and bought the album and holy shit: if you liked a band when you were a kid and decades later they're still releasing music, check in every now and then to be sure you're not missing out! 'Cause I have been missing the fuck out, so now I'm slowly buying up all the albums I had foolishly skipped! Everything that I loved about Napalm Death in 1992 remains intact—grinding ferocity, churning topsy-turvy riffing, atmospheric and experimental dissonance—and it's all amplified times 10. Just superb. Wow. That's all there is to it.
Peroxide Blonde, Never Made Me Cry (Self-Released)
Here's another band that's no stranger to my year-end lists. Peroxide Blonde doesn't really sound like anyone, and—in the most complimentary sense—they're getting even harder to categorize. In much the same way that a lot of "metal" bands are "metal" simply because they're too heavy to be anything else, this material is "alternative rock" simply because... what else? Emotional, sure, but far from "emo." Too dark and swirling for simply "indie rock," but absolutely not a shoegaze band. Far too creative and indirect to be considered overly pop-centric. More polished than garage acts, but still weathered and D.I.Y. enough to appeal to the cassette-loving lo-fi crowd. So... yeah. Let's just broadly call it "alternative rock," shut up, and enjoy the tunes, shall we?
Unreal City, Cruelty of Heaven (Closed Casket Activities)
The best metallic hardcore release of the year, without question. All of Unreal City's classic influences—primarily Cleveland + Cro-Mags—thrown in a blender with more than enough of their own spin to avoid being a xerox. Perfectly-honed songwriting efficiency and amazing production (this shit sounds phenomenal out loud through a stereo). Not to mention probably the only release of 2020 to contain a totally legitimate "A-Double!" shout-out—always a mark of true excellence, as is the beautiful artwork by Stephen Kasner (R.I.P.). I provided more appropriate gushing and background information on this album earlier this year, so this snippet is too brief, but... if you're even vaguely familiar with the increasingly excellent work of Unreal City, it's kind of a no-brainer that this release would be on this list.
Cruelty of Heaven is still available on pink and white with green splatter LPs as well as CD (which contains two bonus tracks from the Satyr/Sheol 7") through Closed Casket Activities, and a number of other sources. Stream it on Spotify or whatnot, and use Bandcamp for downloads.