2020 was a year of tremendous stress throughout the world, and I think many of us leaned on music to help us keep our bearing. Putting together an end-of-year list of favorite music is a nice way to reflect on the importance of art in one’s life, and also serves as a form of curation. Not everyone has the time or energy to seek out new music, or peruse reviews; budgets, also, are limited. Curation helps bring attention to the music that might have been overlooked, or just not discovered yet.
These are albums that were released in 2020 that I found myself repeatedly putting on. They are in no particular order.
All Thoughts Fly by Anna von Hausswolff
Southern Lord Records
Created entirely on the pipe organ, All Thoughts Fly is a beautiful collection of instrumental tones and patterns that simultaneously functions as ambient soundscape, meditative journey, and cinematic score. I listened to this record quite a bit during long walks in fall when the leaves began to change. This album is a perfect companion to moments of pondering, or just by itself for the listener to absorb.
Flowers of Evil by Ulver
House of Mythology
Jack-of-all-trades Ulver’s trajectory into synth-pop continues on this release, but underneath the beats and hooks are allusions to war, tragedy, and bloodletting. Ulver reminds us that humanity’s grasp on civility is ever-tenuous. 2020 made it clear that despite our advancements, the state of nature is never very far.
Raw and Disfigured by Holy Sons
Thrill Jockey Records
Holy Sons is the solo project of prolific musical mastermind Emil Amos, who also plays in Grails, Lilacs & Champagne, and Om, and also has a podcast called Drifter’s Sympathy. There’s no way to pigeonhole this record into one bucket; the songs touch on a multitude of styles, including lo-fi, indie rock, psychedelic, easy listening, and pop. Raw and Disfigured is a perfect example of Amos’s ability to meld raw emotion with spacey sumptuousness.
Eternity of Shaog by Esoctrilihum
I, Voidhanger Records
Eternity of Shaog is one of the best black/death metal albums I’ve heard in a while. Esoctrilihum has done a phenomenal job of fusing atmospheric black metal with a variety of instrumental embellishment that is simultaneously grandiose and otherworldly. Piano, violin, kantele, and synths are all employed to provide full immersion in dimensions beyond. There are also moments, reminiscent of early Cryptopsy, that are so frothing-at-the-mouth frenetic, that they sound like barely contained chaos. Yet, it is all cohesive, listenable, and downright catchy. And, it is the work of a solo musician — Asthâghul — who has been releasing full-length albums at a pace few others can match. This is an impressively creative and fascinating piece of work.
Forever Gone by Wino
Forever Gone is a primarily acoustic album from The Obsessed frontman and former Saint Vitus vocalist Scott “Wino” Weinrich. Most of the tracks are morose contemplations on love, loss, and self-examination. Here Wino reminds us all once again that he’s an impeccable song writer and musician.
Ex Cathedra by Creature
I, Voidhanger Records
Ex Cathedra is a forward-thinking advancement of metal into symphonic/orchestral territory and incorporates a broad range of sounds, including violin and wind instruments. There’s a very neo-classical feel to the entire work; to my ear, it almost feels like a kind of bizarro-world combination of Mannheim Steamroller and Fear Factory-esque stop-and-start riffing. Hard to categorize, but a rewarding listen.
Éons by Neptunian Maximalism
I, Voidhanger Records
Another solid release from I, Voidhanger Records, which has really been a beacon of phenomenal artists. Éons is the sound of a group of artists that has seemingly jettisoned all interest in conforming to any single genre in favor of blending many of them. One might expect that this is at its heart a metal album, but I’m not so sure. I suppose I would call it something like rhythmic psychedelia. Fundamentally many of the tracks are built upon a substrate of tribal drumming and ambience, but there is a lot going on in this brilliantly unique work that consists of over two hours of music.
Endless Wound by Black Curse
Sepulchral Voice Records
There is a kind of beauty in music that revels in ugliness. Perhaps that is at its most apparent on Black Curse’s Endless Wound. Everything is dialed up right out of the gate and the only substantial breathing this album has comes in the fifth track, Lifeless Sanctum, which is more mid-paced but still very ominous. Endless Wound is not any one of black, death, or doom metal, but rather a roiling, agonized murk full of all three in perfect proportion. There’s plenty of abrasion but the band has done a fine job of infusing these songs with readily-grasped structure. The vocals are tortured screams that occasionally shift into growls, but always complement the instrumentation. Overall this album is a shining example of how to convey total menace. Not for the faint of heart.
Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism by Napalm Death
Century Media Records
Napalm Death should need no introduction. The grind stalwarts have been around, in various configurations, since the 1980s. They have consistently been releasing solid albums for just as long. Their latest is no drastic departure from the band’s recent work. But on Throes of Joy, the band sounds quite a bit more deliciously unhinged than on prior releases. The album is loaded with caustic, rapid-fire grind like Fuck the Factoid, and Backlash Just Because. Mid-paced songs like Invigorating Clutch and the Killing Joke-esque Amoral help round out the release and add balance. Any band with three decades of time put in might be tempted to call it quits or start phoning it in. Not so in this case. This sounds like a band hungry and on the attack.
Atomic by Helen Money
Thrill Jockey Records
These abstract instrumental compositions, predominantly based on the cello, are thought provoking and emotionally moving. They blend and shift from somber and calm to forceful and turbulent and back again. Some of the tracks are minimal and delicate; others engulf with distortion. Each of the pieces tells its own story, and moves the listener into a reflective state.
Carnival of Killers by Macabre
Nuclear Blast Records
Chicago’s Macabre is back with another full length album of their unique blend of death and thrash metal thematically centered on humanity’s worst examples: murderers. The album is conceptualized as a carnival with infamous serial killers occupying its many stations. Macabre has always had a knack for clever songwriting, mastery of their instruments, and a very warped sense of humor; Carnival of Killers is no exception. Standouts include: Stinky, in which a narrative about John Wayne Gacy hosting a barbecue ends with a hilariously debauched version of the Slinky toy’s advertising jingle; Them Dry Bones, a macabre (heh) take on the spiritual song Dry Bones that discusses notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes’s penchant for selling his victims’ remains. Macabre is definitely not for everyone, but this new record — their first in nine years — strangles any notion that their sick minds might have run out of ideas.
Sect of Vile Divinities by Incantation
Incantation do death metal precisely how I prefer it: containing a fair bit of dynamics, plenty of tempo changes, and a lot of atmosphere. They’ve been releasing full length albums at a very consistent pace, Sect of Vile Divinities being their fourth in fewer than ten years. I also happen to enjoy the clear mix that Dan Swäno has accomplished on the last couple Incantation albums. The instruments are clear, but not too clear, and the album retains all the gloomy ambience that I look for in an Incantation record. Incantation has never released a disappointing album and they’ve kept my interest since the 1990s.
No Wilderness Deep Enough by Steve Von Till
Steve Von Till’s latest solo offering charts a course through psychedelic folk and understated beauty. Von Till crafts waves of soothing textures and slow-building atmospheres, all while lyrically pondering the fundamental questions of what we are and where we are going. His solo projects have always, on some level, emphasized a reconnection with nature, and this work continues in that vein.