Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2020

So… 2020 has been a year. However, if there has been one positive for me, it’s that working from home makes it even easier to listen to music all day. While I was initially worried that COVID-19 was going to see bands pushing back their albums until they can tour again, the latter-half of the year saw a number of high-profile and much-anticipated releases. Beyond that, coping with quarantine led to several cooped-up bands being able to sit down and put out new music or livestream concerts across the globe. With lockdowns and no end in sight of restrictions, there’s still plenty of time for you to experience fresh music, so why not check out the new albums I listened to this year and see if anything tickles your fancy?

Oh and one other thing – I usually do a countdown of the best movie posters of the year as well around this time. Obviously, due to COVID, most movies have had their releases pushed back so I decided to forego the rankings this year as the selection of posters is just too little to work with.

Honourable Mention: Somebody That I Used to Know EP, Three Days Grace
So this one is a really weird case. Normally I don’t bother to cover singles and I usually only include EPs on this list if there are at least two tracks (hence why “Stairway to Nick John” made the list last year, despite having only a live and a studio version of the same song). Three Days Grace’s Somebody That I Used to Know EP is really weird though because it’s just a new cover track and then three songs lifted wholesale from their last album. It would be one thing if they reimagined these songs, but they’re literally the same recordings. What makes it even weirder for me is that these three songs are all pretty damn good, certainly far better than the “meh” Gotye cover that this EP is named after. It’s obvious that these three tracks were just put on here to lure in new fans or old fans who stopped paying attention after Adam Gontier left the band. As a result, I can’t really justify putting this in the rankings, nor would I really know where to put it for that matter.

Honourable Mention: We Are The Lost Ones, Tear Us Apart and More To Living Than Being Alive, Anberlin

I’ve made it clear before that Anberlin are one of my all-time favourite bands so seeing them reunite in 2020 has been a real treat. They’ve been doing a series of livestreamed shows where they perform each of their albums in its entirety and they’ve been great. At the time of this writing, We Are The Lost Ones (the live recording of their first album, BlueprintsForTheBlackMarket) is the only one which has been released, but there are two more live recordings in the wings and at least four more shows coming over the next year. As a result, I’m going to refrain from ranking each of these albums individually in order to avoid swamping the countdown with Anberlin live albums in 2020 and 2021. Suffice to say they’re great, seeing Cities performed live was a truly magical evening that I’ll never forget, even if it would have been nice to be in the same room as them.

Anyway, with that out of the way let’s get to the rankings, starting with a real, steaming turd…

24) Shadow Work, Trapt
Like most people my age, my only experience with Trapt was their angsty one-hit wonder, “Headstrong” waaaaay back in 2002. It probably would have stayed that way too, except while doing research on a band with some shady political leanings (don’t worry, we’ll get to that band shortly) Trapt’s name came up as being a contemporary with awful politics. I’ve looked into it and, holy shit, they are seriously the biggest assholes in the music industry, getting into fights with everyone and bragging about how much money they make (and yet they can’t seem to pay the guy who did their album art, imagine that). Like, how bad do you have to be to get your own Wikipedia section about all the awful shit you’ve said on Twitter? Anyway, after going into this rabbit hole I discovered that Trapt had put out a new album this year and… well, I couldn’t resist the temptation.

I’m not sure what sort of music I was expecting to get going into Shadow Work, but it sure as hell wasn’t an ass-load of toothless pop-rock. Like, say what you will about “Headstrong”, but at least that song had some energy to it. The music in Shadow Work sounds like limp Backstreet Boys, stripped of any talent. For a band who is only known for one song, you’d think that there’d be at least one obligatory bro-metal, pump up song, something with some energy. From what I’ve heard, the band normally has more of a nu metal flavour, but they tried to sell out even harder on this album by watering down their sound and going for what’s hot in radio rock right now, meaning that Shadow Work doesn’t even please the people who normally like Trapt’s music.

In case you’re wondering, Trapt avoid bringing their shitty politics into their music (suggesting to me that it’s more of a social media grift to get attention). You could say that it’s wise that Trapt don’t bring their political leanings into their music, but it would have been nice if they had brought anything at all into it. Every song on this album is the sort of shit that killed radio rock – false sincerity, vapid songwriting, and every single track is about love or relationships… it all blends together into a boring sludge meant to be enjoyed listened to by the widest possible audience. And good God the songwriting is just embarrassing at times, to the point where I feel like I owe Five Finger Death Punch an apology. Like, check out these lyrical highlights:

“I’m going to make it/Going to make it/Going to make it out alive/I’m going to make it/Going to make it/Going to make it out alive/Make it out alive/Make it out alive/Make it out alive”

“I want to want what I want/I don’t want to have to have a need/I want to want what I want/I just want to be set free/I want to want what I want/I don’t want to have to have these needs/I want to want what I want/I just want to be set free/I want to want what I want/I want to want what I want”

“Tell me how you really feel/Tell me how you feel/If you really want to make it real/Then tell me how to/Tell me how you feel/Tell me how you feel”

“Looking for love in so many places/I think I took a wrong turn back there somewhere/So many pictures, so many faces/There’s not a soul that I know that well to tell/Looking for answers by going within/It’s getting harder to know where I’ve been/Crashing and burning before I begin/I don’t want it withheld/I want to hold and be held”

These look like the sorts of lyrics I tried to write back when I was in high schooler and I sucked at songwriting. Even the titles of the songs are lazy and cliched – like, the fifth track is “Far Enough Away” but then the ninth is “Too Far Away”. Any competent artist would use this sort of mirroring to make some sort of statement, but here it’s just a coincidence to wring out some sort of emotion based on the sentiment of the titles. Tracks that would be filler on any other album, like “Far Enough Away” and “Trying Too Hard” end up being highlights because at least they meet the level of bog standard. The best track though is “Save Your Soul”, a Jewel cover. It’s not amazing, but it feels like some actual effort was put into it, which is more than I can say about everything else on Shadow Work. That’s really the main issue here – even if you leave the band’s shitty politics out of the equation, Shadow Work is fucking boring and lazy, low-effort trash with no artistic merit to it.

I feel bad about making these annual rankings sometimes. I call it “Ranking The Albums I Listened To” for a reason – I’m generally not seeking out stuff that I won’t enjoy, so even the bottom-rung albums on the list aren’t necessarily awful in any given year, they just may be middling. Not so in this case though – Shadow Work is easily one of the worst albums I’ve listened through and has set a new standard for me for how shitty a band can be at everything they do. Oh and congrats on selling a grand total of 600 copies of this album in the first week, Trapt, it’s more than it deserved!

(Post-script: A week before posting this Trapt finally got banned from Twitter for defending a statutory rape. Classy!)

(POST-post-script: Mere hours before this article went live there were rumours circulating that Chris Taylor-Brown had been fired from Trapt, complete with a profanity-laden Parler meltdown. Unfortunately, as funny as this would have been, it appears that this is fake news.)

23) 2020 EP, Smile Empty Soul
I know I said back in 2018 that I didn’t have a lot of interest in Smile Empty Soul after being underwhelmed by their album Oblivion… but then a new EP called “2020” showed up in my “new releases” on Spotify and I knew I had to at least see what Smile Empty Soul think are the pressing issues in the turbulent times we’re living in. After all, 2020 is such a loaded, meaningful title for an album, you can’t really avoid tackling serious subjects, right? Well… Smile Empty Soul have some things to complain about, but holy shit are their priorities out of place. The album opens with “Entitled”, which spends its entire runtime whining about the kids these days with their Instagram and opinions. It’s seriously the sort of rant I’ve heard on more than one occasion from my aunt and it immediately put me in a sour mood with this EP. Like, you think that this is the biggest issue in 2020, to the point where you put it first on your album? You’re the dude who makes your money putting your opinions out there in music, if you don’t like it then stop caring about what they think. I mean, musically it’s an alright song but the lyrics completely ruin it for me, nothing more than out of touch whining.

After “Entitled” put me off right out the gate, “Excommunicated” at least takes a break from the bullshit. It seems to be about the breaking up of a friendship rather than a political song, all-in-all it’s fine. “Land of the Lost” put me back into hesitant territory though. The song itself seems innocuous enough, but “Entitled” put me off so badly that I started second guessing Smile Empty Soul’s intentions everywhere. Like, look at the album cover – a barcode on the forehead, a mask on and a needle killing you… is Smile Empty Soul anti-vax..? I honestly don’t know, but these lyrics calling out “smart people” who can’t think for themselves and let the government trample over our freedom don’t make me any less suspicious:

When you tell yourself you’re the smartest kind/But you’ve never thought your own way out/Of the box, land of the lost/I hope you’re ready this time/You’ve been away for so long/You fell asleep in another lie/The one that buries us all/ […] Nothing’s ever gonna save you now/Go tell your children that they aren’t free

Now, to be charitable, these lyrics are ambiguous enough that this song could also be about people who sit idly by as fascists take over, which would be quite fitting for an album with a loaded title like 2020. I get the sense that that’s not the case though, the lack of specificity just makes it come across like so many mealy mouthed, commercial “protest” songs that sell themselves on the language of protest but don’t actually stand for anything.

On the more positive side, “Go Broke” does seem to be pretty clear about how screwed up a society where everyone’s in debt to someone is, making it probably the only appropriately “2020” track on the EP. The album then closes out with “Same World”, which is just dull song on its own merits before you even look at the message which boils down to “I don’t understand the world anymore”. Again, you’re not helping my case that you’re just out of touch, dude.

2020 is a meh EP on its own, but is title really doesn’t do it any favours. It doesn’t even make any sort of relevant statement about the times we’re living in for that matter – seriously, replace the Instagram references in “Entitled” with Facebook references and this whole EP could have easily been released a decade ago. It just feels like out of touch bullshit… which put me down the much more enjoyable rabbit hole of trying to figure out what sort of political inclinations Smile Empty Soul have and see if my anti-vaxxer suspicions were correct. While I couldn’t find any evidence of that, it’s pretty clear that the band (which is really just one guy, Sean Danielsen) don’t like the government at all. To promote their shows they post a lot of imagery of Guy Fawkes and guns (oh Jesus Christ, they had an Austin, TX show with a gun poster that says “Come and take it”). There’s nothing wrong with any of these by themselves, but it gives me the distinct impression that Sean Danielsen is a conservative libertarian, which would make the toothlessness of his opinions in 2020 make a lot more sense. This also isn’t helped by the explicitly political post the band made where he liked when someone said he sounded like a conservative and then called someone else a social justice warrior because they pointed out that black people didn’t have it so good 125 years ago… like, dude, you’re supposed to be a punk. You tell me that you look out the window and look at what’s going on in the world and you think that the real problem is that the government tells you what to do too much? Worrying about government overreach is a legitimate concern and both political parties in the US do suck, but are you telling me that you can’t think of something to say about all the corruption, blatant authoritarianism, mass death from incompetence and rise in hate groups that are 100% specific to Donald Trump’s presidency? You are, after all, the guy whining about people who have opinions that don’t matter. Ugh, fuck 2020, this EP sucks.

22) Like A House On Fire, Asking Alexandria
I’ve never really had any interest in checking out Asking Alexandria before, but one day their newest single showed up in my Spotify recommendations with a, uh, interesting title: “Antisocialist”. Luckily for Asking Alexandria, “Antisocialist” is a misnomer whereas “anti-social” would be more accurate, because otherwise I would have gone right off on this band. However, I was interested enough that I decided to check their new album, Like A House On Fire, just out of curiosity. Unfortunately, the music here doesn’t really warrant any of that curiosity because it’s largely “meh”. Like, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say that any song on here is “bad”, but none of them are interesting either, just a lot of commercial hard rock looking for radio airplay. Vocalist Danny Worsnop doesn’t really help either, when he isn’t yelling he sounds like a whiny, hard rock Callum Scott. Normally I take notes on every track while going through albums for this ranking, but Like A House On Fire lost me about halfway through its bloated 52 minute playtime. On “All Due Respect” Danny sings “I can fly, and you’re gonna fall face down while/I inspire greatness/As long as I’m alive, I’ll fight, and you’ll be stuck in the shadows of/The heights of my greatness”. All I can say to that is… got a pretty high opinion of yourself, bro?

21) Supernatural Miracle, Stillwell
I saw Stillwell live back in 2010 or 2011 when they opened for Korn and Disturbed. It was actually a big deal for me because Wuv, the drummer for P.O.D., is the drummer for Stillwell so it was the closest I had ever been to my childhood favourite band at the time. Even better, I actually got to meet him after the show and get a picture together, which was easily one of the most exciting moments of my life and the only time that I was ever truly starstruck. Maybe I should have been more excited that freaking Fieldy from Korn was there too but at the time I was just too tongue-tied to think straight. Anyway, as you can expect I was on a high when I bought a copy of the band’s debut album, Dirtbag, and got Fieldy, Wuv and Q-unique to sign it, but as soon as I popped it into the CD player I knew I had made a mistake. The band put on a great show and there are a couple tracks which are straight fire, but Dirtbag was… rough to say the least. With each subsequent listen I was basically just listening to “Street Metal” and ignoring the rest. Due to this distaste, I never really bothered to check in again on Stillwell – in fact, they managed to put out a whole second album without me noticing. However, when the band put out their third album, Supernatural Miracle, this year and it popped up in my Spotify recommendations I grit my teeth and decided to take the plunge. I mean, I’ve already listened to goddamn Trapt this year, how bad can Stillwell be?

If I’m being honest, I actually expected Supernatural Miracle to be really bad, maybe even second worst album of the year bad, but I was pleasantly surprised when “You Don’t Wanna Know” started up. Gone were the rap and lite-metal proceedings of Dirtbag and instead in their place they gave us a pretty solid and polished rock track. I was even more surprised then when “Gasoline” kicked in and had me legitimately rocking along and having a good time. Even the most outright-Christian song on the album, “A Come to Jesus Moment”, was much better than I would have expected, bringing some hard-rockin’ swagger to the proceedings. By the time “Could’ve Sworn” rolled around my expectations had already been blown well past, but this also marks the point in the album where Supernatural Miracle starts getting really mediocre. The next six tracks are all “fine” at best, largely let down by their mediocre, shallow and uninspiring lyrics, although the closing track “Contagious” picks the energy back up a bit.  The album is also short at only 32 minutes and definitely feels like it, it’s quick, breezy and inoffensive. Like I said, I was not expecting much out of Supernatural Miracle, but the album easily surpassed these expectations. It’s a big step up from Dirtbag and while it’s unfortunate that more than half of the album is pretty meh, there are a few tracks here that are well worth listening to!

20) Curse of the Crystal Coconut, Alestorm
Alestorm have a long career of keeping the delicate balance between being fun and comedic but still taking themselves seriously on their past outings. However, Curse of the Crystal Coconut definitely crosses that line and just keeps going, resulting in an album which alternates between uproarious laughter and mind-numbingly stupid in equal measure. On the positive side of things we have fun tracks like “Treasure Chest Party Quest”, “Fannybaws” and “Pirate’s Scorn” (a freaking Donkey Kong Country cover of all things and also where the album’s title comes from!), which I can see myself sitting in a tavern singing along to with my mates. Leaning on the more “serious” side for Alestorm we get two fantastic tracks, “Chomp Chomp” and “Henry Martin”. Then there’s the epic “Wooden Leg Pt. 2 (The Woodening)”, which threads the needle brilliantly between deathly serious and laugh out loud funny.

Unfortunately, Curse of the Crystal Coconut is filled to the brim with embarrassing joke tracks, the first of which is “Tortuga”, this weird pop-rock track that turns into Run DMC-style rap-rock when Captain Yarrface steps in. It’s such a staggeringly stupid track that you need to hear it to believe it. You might even end up appreciating the audacity of it, but on repeat listens I’ve just found myself growing more and more tired. “Shit Boat (No Fans)” and “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” are just dismal. “Shit Boat (No Fans)” sounds like it was written verbatim from an angry internet commenter, whereas “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” is just vulgar for the sake of vulgarity (because “Fucked With an Anchor” was so popular last time, got to just do the same thing again right guys?). Meanwhile, “Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship” and “Call of the Waves” are just “meh”, but clock in over ten minutes between the two of them, almost a quarter of the total album length. As a result, half the album is practically unlistenable, especially on replays. Alestorm have really gone too far with turning themselves into a one-note joke this time, to the point where several of the tracks just feel half-assed. It’s too bad, there’s some tracks here which are great, but Alestorm may have finally scraped right through that barrel and out the other side.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, less-stingy critics seem to think it’s a blast so what do I know.

Also, like No Grave But the Sea before it, Curse of the Crystal Coconut comes with a gimmicky bonus disc on the deluxe edition. Whereas No Grave But the Sea had a funny but unlistenable version of the album with all the vocals replaced with dogs barking, Curse of the Crystal Coconut‘s bonus disc is a little more interesting, taking the songs on the album and running them through a 16-bit compression filter. The result is that each song sounds like it’s being run off a SNES, which would make it kind of cool to listen to while playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! or something like that. It’s not really worth paying extra for but when the album dropped it was actually cheaper to buy the deluxe edition so I snagged it.

19) F8, Five Finger Death Punch
I’ve made it clear in the past that I really don’t like Five Finger Death Punch. Musically they’re right in my wheelhouse, but lyrically they are just awful. However, I knew going in that F8 (it’s their eighth album, get it?) was the first album coming off Ivan Moody and Zoltan Bathory both getting sober, so maybe the band would find it in themselves to do some introspection. Also worth noting was that this album had no covers on it, which would normally be great news, except that FFDP are so bad at writing lyrics that their covers are almost always their only good songs on a new album. Still, I was curious and willing to give F8 a shot… and honestly, this is probably the band’s best album since American Capitalist.

After the tone-setting, title track instrumental the album goes right into the single-baits “Inside Out”, “Full Circle” and “Living the Dream” which immediately demonstrate that lyrics are still FFDP’s achilles heel. These songs all sound catchy, but their lyrics let them down as usual (“Living the Dream” in particular has trendy/cringy references to superheroes and then alludes to Ghost in the Shell… which makes me wonder if the band think that the Major is a superhero too). That said, at least “Living the Dream” has something to say, actively criticizing the American Dream as a ploy that doesn’t benefit us. While it could be articulated better, it makes for a more interesting song than FFDP’s usual oeuvre.

Then they go into “A Little Bit Off”, which I initially thought was a joke interlude – Ivan Moody puts on an air of intentionally-false optimism over an acoustic rock track. But no, you soon realize that this is a legitimate effort on FFDP’s part, so much so that it’s actually the album’s second single (and, what the hell, actually did really well for them)!? Once again, it’s nice to see the band trying to branch out, and the writing is deeper than they usually go (coping with the difficulties of mental health), but I can’t get over the fact that this sounds like a joke track. Maybe it’s just the way FFDP present the song, but it doesn’t work for me.

Luckily “Bottom of the Top” comes up next and is explosive, its drums sounding like gunshots in the chorus as FFDP rage back at the chinstrokers who say they aren’t “real metal”. It’s definitely one of the best tracks on the album, although the best has to be “Darkness Settles In”. In my opinion, “Darkness Settles In” is what “A Little Bit Off” should have been, a slowed-down, introspective and somber track which provides a stark look at recovery from alcoholism.

The rest of the album putters along, with a couple more decent tracks like “Brighter Side of Grey” and “To Be Alone”, but most of the rest are unremarkable (although “This Is War” is “classic” FFDP in all the wrong ways, as are the two bonus tracks on the deluxe edition). F8 ends up in a bit of an awkward place as a result. FFDP are clearly trying to expand their sound and are far less pissed off than they usually are. The lyrics are also better than they usually are, but are still far short from adequate. It’s enough to give me some hope for the future of the band, but I’m not exactly holding my breath, especially if they pull a Disturbed and decide that “A Little Bit Off” represents the band’s future.

18) Odyssey, Kaleida
After the fantastic Think EP, I really wanted to like Tear the Roots, but the album just didn’t work for me at all. Three years later, Kaleida are back with their sophomore effort, Odyssey. Going in, I was expecting this to be largely the same as Tear the Roots – chill vibes, echoed voices and a sparse soundscape, but just too lethargic for its own good. Luckily, Odyssey is quick to demonstrate that it is not just more of the same. I mean, their distinctive style is still there, but they’ve just built on it by bringing in some new influences from pop, electronic and jazz. In the songs where they do try to experiment a bit more with their distinctive sound, like “Other Side”, “Feed Us Some” and “No Computer”, Kaleida gain a lot more energy to their music. The title track and “Josephine” also take the Kaleida sound and do something different and enjoyable with it, with “Josephine” building up a defiant tension throughout its playtime (although I wish they had capitalized on this and really set it loose). Unfortunately, there’s still a bunch of tracks which have the same sort of energy as background music at a mall, but they’re outweighed by the more interesting stuff here. I think Kaleida still have a ways go to before they really knock it out of the park, but Odyssey is a promising next step in their evolution and I can only hope that their next album sees them venturing out even further.

17) S&M2, Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
S&M2, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours in length, is a roller coaster to parse through with soaring highs and crushing lows. Part celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the original S&M (which is, in my opinion, one of the best live albums ever), part celebration of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and part true sequel, S&M2 is a far less focused experience than its predecessor. I have to give Metallica some props for clearly trying to do something a bit different, but part of me wishes that they had just stuck to the formula of the original S&M instead. S&M worked so well because it was wall-to-wall bombast, giving lesser-known Metallica tracks just as much time to shine as the heavy-hitters like “One” and “Enter Sandman”. S&M2 opens nearly identically to its predecessor for over ten minutes, going through “The Ecstasy of Gold” and then into “The Call of Ktulu” before moving to “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. From there, the rest of disc 1 focuses a lot on latter-day Metallica tracks, which gives a new lease on life to some unappreciated bangers, with particular highlights being Death Magnetic‘s “The Day That Never Comes” and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct‘s “Halo on Fire”. Unfortunately, this part of the album is threaded with several tracks from the original S&M, meaning that we only actually get four brand new orchestral tracks before moving onto the second disc.

While familiar at least these returning tracks are good (particularly the fantastic “No Leaf Clover”). The same can’t be said when disc two opens with a five minute history lesson before going into two tracks which put the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra front and center. It’s undoubtedly a nice gesture to give the orchestra more attention here and let them choose their own songs to play, but it grinds the momentum of the album to a standstill for a full fifteen minutes. Like I said before, S&M worked so well because of the relentless bombast of it all. This part of the album makes for a decent curiosity on a single listen, but I can guarantee you that this part of the album is going to be skipped over every single time on future replays. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of S&M2‘s woes, because when the Metallica tracks start up again, we get very low-key renditions of “The Unforgiven III” and “All Within My Hands”, which do very little to get the energy going again. Instrumental track “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth” also gets treated with what I believe is a full-on cello solo. It is at least an interesting curiosity compared to the original track, but this also takes a long time to get going. The album finally gets back on track with the final five tracks, but these are a double-edged sword as well – they’re the band’s major hits, but they were all on the original S&M, and of these only “One” sounds noticeably different (improved, even!).

So, if you break it all down, we’ve got 11/22 tracks which are repeated from the original S&M, only one of which is noticeably different and improved. Then, of the new tracks, four are history lessons and full orchestra arrangements, while only four or five of the truly new tracks are worthwhile. It’s really too bad, this album is at its absolute best when it is giving the orchestral treatment to Metallica tracks we haven’t heard from them before and there isn’t anywhere near enough of that here. Meanwhile, the repeated tracks are enjoyable but they’re nothing I couldn’t have gotten on the original S&M. S&M2 just tries to be too much and fails to capitalize on what it does right. Drop the symphony-focused bits, swap out a couple of the repeated tracks for maybe five or six new tracks (I would have died if they played “Dreaming No More” after “The Call of Ktulu”) and then this could have easily been on-par with the original S&M. As it is, I’m probably just going to take a few tracks from it and bolt them onto the original album to make one even more epic concert experience.

16) Medium Rarities, Mastodon
I’ve stated in the past that Mastodon tend to operate on a two year album cycle, but here we are three years out from Emperor of Sand with no follow-up in sight. Instead, Mastodon are choosing to whet our appetites with Medium Rarities, a compilation of B-sides, live recordings and assorted oddities, clocking in at over an hour and ten minutes. Listeners looking for the band’s next great epic will probably be disappointed, but for fans Medium Rarities is a bizarre, scatter-shot treasure trove of curiosities. The tracklist is made up of four instrumentals, five live recordings, four covers, two B-sides and one new track. Of these, the covers, B-sides and new track were by far the most exciting content for me. While the new track “Fallen Torches” is heavy, sounding like classic, Leviathan-era Mastodon, the covers are all very different from the band’s usual sound in exciting ways. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” was particularly enjoyable and surprising and Bran Dailor’s vocals are perfect for the song. It sounds exactly like The Flaming Lips’ original before turning into something heavier as it goes along. The other covers are similarly interesting, although “Atlanta” might be just a bit too weird and distorted for its own good. The B-sides are similarly diverse. “Cut You Up With a Linoleum Knife” was written for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie as a pre-movie “warning” to the audience, so you can probably guess what to expect from that. I found myself laughing at the lyrics (which include such gems as “If I see you videotaping this movie/Satan will rain down your throat with hot acid/And dissolve your testicle/And turn your guts into snakes”), but it’s not the sort of song I’d listen to on its own merits. On the other side of the coin is “White Walker”, which was written for Game of Thrones. It’s a very solemn, haunting track, sounding more neolithic or medieval than metal, but it’s one of my favourites on this compilation.

As for the instrumentals and the live recordings, these mostly feel like filler. The instrumentals in particular feel like little more than curiosities, given that they are literally just the studio recordings of the songs without the vocal track. None of them are bad by any means (in fact, it’s really cool hearing “Jaguar God” as an instrumental track), but they’re probably the least exciting content on this release. That said, I got into Mastodon in the first place after hearing instrumental versions of “Crack the Skye” and “Oblivion” in Brutal Legend, so maybe these will draw more people in, who knows? As for the live tracks, I wasn’t particularly interested because Mastodon’s vocals aren’t great live and because we already got live recordings of “Circle of Cysquatch” and “Blood & Thunder” on Live at the Aragon. However, when I realized that at least some of these live tracks were recordings made before their respective albums were released I sat bolt upright. That is how you make a live filler track interesting, give it some historical importance! It also helps that the band’s live vocals are better here than they usually are.

All-in-all, Medium Rarities sets expectations well – it’s half-baked and it’s not going to suit all tastes. There’s maybe a bit too much filler and it can get a bit too weird for its own good at times, but there’s a plenty here to be enjoyed. I just hope that Mastodon are enjoying their extended break and using it to get their creative juices flowing once again. If “Fallen Torches” is anything to go off of, then Mastodon may just be preparing us for the main course.

15) Re-Stitch These Wounds, Black Veil Brides
So apparently Re-Stitch These Wounds is a re-recording of Black Veil Brides’ debut album We Stitch These Wounds. Having never listened to the debut before, I can’t tell you whether this is wildly divergence from the original or just a re-recorded version with better production, so just be aware that I’m judging Re-Stitch on its own merits. I’ve heard a few Black Veil Brides’ tracks previously and they seem to be all over the place, musically. Like, they have an emo/metal aesthetic, but the pompously-titled Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones sounds like freaking Nickelback of all things. Thankfully Re-Stitch These Wounds is closer to what I expected of Black Veil Brides, sounding strikingly similar to heyday-Bullet For My Valentine but without the overwhelming emo angst. Most of the music sounds good, being enjoyable heavy rock that you can happily headbang to, but there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about it. The one big sore spot is the overblown “The Mortician’s Daughter (Overture III)”, which brings the album’s momentum to a grinding halt right in the middle and which goes on for an agonizing three and a half minutes. I thought it was a joke intro at first, but then it just kept going and going. It’s actually bad enough that it soured my experience with the album as a whole. All-in-all, Re-Stitch These Wounds is fine, but it wasn’t enough to make me rush out to hear the rest of Black Veil Brides’ music.

14) Brand New Vision, Point North
We all have that one friend who we share new music recommendations with on the reg. Well, one day they recommended me this album and said it was a R&B/rock fusion. It wasn’t really the sort of thing I’m into, but I decided to check it out anyway (plus, y’know, that album cover is dope). As I kind of expected, Brand New Vision isn’t really the sort of thing I would choose to listen to, but it’s fairly solid. It definitely leans closer to R&B than it does to rock, although tracks like “Heartbeat” feel like they could be on rock radio. The other nice thing about Brand New Vision is that Point North are doing there own thing to fuse the two genres together instead of just replicating the sound of Imagine Dragons like most commercial rock bands struggling for relevance seem to do these days. If I was more of a pop fan then I might have liked Brand New Vision more, but as is it was a nice little diversion from my usual barrage of depressing metal.

13) Inner Universe EP, Words of Farewell
I say this a lot but I often find new music by browsing Spotify, seeing what it recommends to me, and then leaning towards music with striking album art. Well, the Inner Universe EP is by far the coolest goddamn album art of the year and instantly had me rushing to check Words of Farewell out. Like… look at that damn thing, it’s gorgeous and evocative! It’s also obviously in my wheelhouse because the artist has definitely been playing a lot of FromSoftware games. Beyond the general aesthetic, the woman is the spitting image of the Fire Keeper from Dark Souls 3, while the skeletal figure’s massive sword hilt has the mark of sacrifice from Berserk, the obvious inspiration for the Hunter rune from Bloodborne.

So obviously the band’s visual art is on-point, but how’s the music? Well, I’d say that Words of Farewell are pretty good. They aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary or different, but they do it solidly. The Internet tells me that they’re a melodic death metal band but I’d say they’re closer to progressive metalcore with some light death metal elements. Opening track “Chronotopos” is probably the heaviest track on offer with a very fast tempo. The other three tracks operate at a far slower pace, but offer plenty of heaviness and up the use of electronic synthesizer elements… again, nothing I haven’t heard before, but the band executes it well enough that it’s an enjoyable listen. That said, Inner Universe is a sparse 18 minutes, is over far too quickly and leaves me feeling hungry for more. Hopefully it’s just the prelude to something more substantial because I can guarantee that I’ll be keeping my eyes on Words of Farewell.

12) The Sinner, Kill the Lights
Yet another Spotify recommendation that caught my interest, Kill the Lights further intrigued me because the band is a supergroup featuring the current drummer for Bullet For My Valentine, a band which I’ve been on a nostalgic kick for this past year. Plus, just look at that album cover – it’s no Words of Farewell, but it’s still freaking awesome. I’ve seen Kill the Lights be described as a metalcore act and I’d agree that that’s part of their sound, but I’d argue that they lean closer to a progressive metal sound (tracks like “The Faceless” sound like heavier versions of classic Judas Priest or Iron Maiden). The tracks here tend to be high energy and very heavy, with tracks such as “Watch You Fall” and “Plagues” instantly managing to get my head banging. Kill the Lights also dabble with slowed-down tracks, interspersed evenly throughout the tracklist. Of these tracks, “Rest” is by far the best, reminiscent of Bullet For My Valentine’s more introspective tracks and is just begging for radio airplay. That said, while I enjoyed The Sinner and would say that it’s worth a listen, there’s nothing about it that particularly stands out (other than “Rest”, that track is great). Kill the Lights are clearly industry veterans with a lot of talent to back them up, but I just feel like they need a bit more time to hone their craft before they’re really going to blow my socks off.

11) Kindred: Act I, Red Cain
Red Cain know how to pique my interest – the album art for their singles is incredible (especially for “Kindred”, holy shit that looks like something out of Bloodborne). That’s all well-and-good, but how do Red Cain sound? Well, I’d say that the best way to describe their sound is “epic fantasy power metal”. The band’s vocals are exaggerated and theatrical, similar to power metal bands like Powerwolf or Manowar and the fast and packed full of guitar solos. It makes for an enjoyable mixture, but whether you’ll enjoy Red Cain will come down to your taste for power metal. Opening track “Guillotine” kicks the album off in bombastic style, but it’s arguably too excessive – I feel like the mix is so much that it feels like you’re getting blasted with a wall of sounds all at once. It also doesn’t help that this track has electronic effects on it which get close to shrill at times. Luckily, this is an isolated issue because the rest of Kindred: Act I is much more enjoyable, albeit conventional, power metal. “Wing of the Crow” is a particular highlight though, with the band’s soaring vocals harmonizing beautifully with guest singer Kobra Paige. All-in-all, Kindred: Act I is enjoyable and fans of power metal should definitely give it a listen.

10) Firelink, Firelink
The Dark Souls-inspired black metal band Firelink are back on ICS2 already, with their sophomore effort releasing just over a year after their enjoyable first album, The Inveterate Fire. This self-titled album largely follows the template set by The Inveterate Fire, giving us more punishing, atmospheric and technically accomplished black metal. However, the main thing that sets Firelink apart is that the album tells a story this time, covering the second half of Dark Souls‘ plot. It opens with the epic and moody “Cerulean Athenaeum”, which is just a fancy way of saying “blue library”, aka the Duke’s Archives. From there it moves into the haunting “Where Demons Bore”, an obvious reference to the realm of the demons, lost Izalith. “Cloak of Marrow” (another obvious reference, this time to the Tomb of Giants and Gravelord Nito’s literal bone cloak) then pushes the album into a more direct, heavy and punishing black metal sound. “Kingseeker” brings back the haunting atmosphere, which is appropriate because while the title is a reference to Kingseeker Frampt, the lyrics make it clear that this song is about the ghost-infested New Londo and the Four Kings. Finally, the album closes on “End of Piety”, which opens on a reflective tone before going into the typical black metal sound, flitting between heavy and sombre as it goes. The lyrics here reflect the choice the player is given when they defeat Gwyn – link the fire or become the ruler of the darkness? It makes for a fitting end for the album and it’s nice to see the album telling a story to tie it all together. You don’t even have to be a fan of the games to appreciate the music or the story, although obviously it helps. Musically, it’s still more of the same quality black metal, so while I do find the genre itself to be a bit too indistinct for its own good, I do find myself enjoying Firelink’s albums when the mood strikes me.

9) Aurora, Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are notorious for just putting out the exact same music over and over again (that said, the “one song” they keep putting out is so damn good), so when it was announced that their newest album would be an acoustic reimagining of past hits I couldn’t help but laugh. Naturally, there’s also one brand new track so that completionists can’t just sit this one out. Luckily, Aurora doesn’t feels like a half-assed release meant to squeeze a few more dollars out of fans. Featuring a bevy of guest appearances from the likes of Red’s Michael Barnes, Three Day’s Grace’s Adam Gontier, Flyleaf’s Lacey Sturm, Underoath’s Spencer Chamberlain and Cold’s Scooter Ward, Aurora is a real treat for fans to appreciate old favourites in a new way. Tracks that I already thought were fantastic, such as “Failure”, “Angels Fall” and “Red Cold River” are given new dimensions by their arrangements. “Red Cold River” in particular sounds quite nice without the obvious auto-tuning which was present on the original recording. Other tracks, like “So Cold”, “Never Again” and “Torn In Two” are functionally similar to their original arrangements, but with electronic elements swapped out for acoustic ones in a way that just makes it feel like a slightly different, toned-down version of the original. The real highlights of the album though are the two big inspirational anthems, the reimagined “Dear Agony” and the new track “Far Away”. “Dear Agony” was already basically an acoustic track, but Lacey Sturm’s vocals compliment Benjamin Burley’s so well that it sends an already great song to even greater heights. Meanwhile, “Far Away” also makes the most of its guest collaborator, playing Scooter Ward’s baritone vocals against Benjamin Burley’s soaring singing. It’s easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, a song that just begs to be sung along to. The album is enjoyable in whole, but these two songs in particular propel it beyond a curiosity to a must-own for fans of the band.

8) Fracture, Bleed From Within
Like most new music I find, Fracture showed up in my Spotify recommendations and the album art was so cool that I had to give it a shot. What I got was fast tempo, high-intensity metalcore in the vein of As I Lay Dying, with primarily screamed vocals. If you’re into this kind of heavy music, then Fracture will likely be very enjoyable. I love to headbang along to tracks like “The End of All We Know” and scream “This is not a war it’s a victory!” along to “Into Nothing”. The only real issue is that Bleed From Within never let up the intensity, which causes the tracks to bleed together after a while. Still makes for a great album to rage or get pumped up to (or, in my case, do menial office work to), but a little bit more variety might have pushed Fracture that much higher.

7) Under a Godless Veil, Draconian
I checked out Draconian on a bored whim during lockdown this year and was instantly impressed by what I heard. As I’ve said in the past, I’ve been looking for a band to scratch the itch that Agalloch left me in their dissolution and Draconian are the closest I’ve come to recapturing that atmospheric doom metal feeling, while also crafting their own unique style. Draconian put out moody, atmospheric, gothic doom metal which really stands out due to the interplay between its two vocalists – the death growling Anders Jacobsson and the operatic female vocals of Heike Langhans (I have heard this dynamic referred to, hilariously, as an angel vs the cookie monster). It’s a great dynamic and Draconian make it work fantastically.

Anyway, after listening through all of Draconian’s music I found out that they had a new album slated for 2020 and so I eagerly awaited it. Under a Godless Veil is another solid effort from the band but it doesn’t really shake up their sound all that much, emphasizing melancholic, atmospheric soundscapes over a more traditionally heavy metal sound. That can make the album feel sluggish at times, but that’s not to say that Under a Godless Veil doesn’t have its heavy moments – “The Sethian” should get your head banging during the chorus and “Lustrous Heart” is a rock-solid doom metal track, easily my favourite on the album. Under a Godless Veil is good, but whether you’ll enjoy it will largely depend on your taste in metal. I don’t think I’d say it’s among Draconian’s best, but it’s a quality effort and worth listening to if you’ve never experienced the band’s sound before.

6) The Sun and the Cold, Oceans
The Sun and the Cold might just be the biggest surprise of the year for me – and remember, this is coming in a year where I had some praise for the newest Five Finger Death Punch album. This album showed up in my recommended list on Spotify and I decided to give it a shot, despite the fact that “Oceans” sounded like the sort of band name that a pop or soft-rock outfit would have. Imagine my surprise then when I am immediately met with a very interesting mixture of grunge, industrial and various styles of metal (on various tracks you can hear influences from doom metal, death metal, sludge metal and metalcore, among others). It also helps that the production is spot-on, every track sounds fantastic and there are some really great songs on here – in fact, The Sun and the Cold is probably the album I most replayed on this list. “We Are the Storm” is easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, it makes you want to sing along and headbang at the same time, while “Dark” turns things in a relentlessly heavy direction and the title track makes for a solid opener. There’s even a bluesy track, “Water Rising”, which I didn’t appreciate at first but on repeat listens has become on of the highlights of the album. I also found it interesting that there’s a thematic throughline in the album relating to water and the dark unknown of the depths, lending the band’s name some unexpected significance. All-in-all, I like “The Sun and the Cold” quite a bit, it’s a really enjoyable album. I went in with zero expectations when it showed up in my Spotify recommendations and found myself pleasantly surprised, to the point that I bought a copy the next day. I’m more than happy with what’s on display here and am excited to see where Oceans go in the future.

5) The Reckoning Dawn, Winterfylleth
After putting out the unconventional The Hallowing of Heirdom back in 2018, Winterfylleth are back to their usual tricks with The Reckoning Dawn. Winterfylleth have a history of putting out punishing but indistinct black metal. I hoped that Winterfylleth would expand on the territory they covered in 2016’s The Dark Hereafter, where they changed up their sound by adding more epic, atmospheric and contemplative sounds which gave each song its own distinct identity. The Reckoning Dawn draws a little bit from this template, but unfortunately it goes back to Winterfylleth as usual, only with some choir parts and better production quality. While it’s disappointing that the band decides to settle back into their comfort zone, they still manage to put out some high-quality, atmospheric black metal here and it’s hard to deny the craftsmanship on display. That said, you have to be in the mood for black metal to really get the most out of it – it’s an album you need to listen to in one sitting to really appreciate. While I admire just how good it sounds, it isn’t one that I’m going to put on very often.

4) Valley of Kings, The Wise Man’s Fear
The Wise Man’s Fear return to the IC2S albums ranking, closing out their “Codex trilogy” with another round of fantasy-inspired metalcore. Given how good Castle in the Clouds and The Lost City were, this was easily one of my most hyped albums of the year. While I was expecting Valley of Kings to be good, I wasn’t expecting The Wise Man’s Fear to be nearly as ambitious or experimental as they are on this album.

The album opens on a very heavy note with “The Relics of Nihlux”, showing off the strength of their duelling vocals, swapping between near-deathcore growls and soaring clean vocals. It’s something I’ve always loved in metalcore and The Wise Man’s Fear are masters of it. “The Relics of Nihlux” flows seamlessly into “Breath of the Wild” (what can I say, The Wise Man’s Fear have always worn their influences on their sleeve), which flows seamlessly into “The Tree of Life”, with each song shifting the tone of the album. “Breath of the Wild” brings this very epic, wide-open soundscape, while “The Tree of Life” slows things down a bit and even features a freaking pan-flute solo at one point! It only lasts for a single line (not even a whole verse), but it’s a cool bit of experimentation that I wish they had allowed a bit more time to shine because it never comes back again on the album. “The Forest of Illusions” marks the start of the album’s second act, ending the seamless transitions between songs, but keeps up the experimentation, incorporating what I believe is a mandolin into its epic soundscape. “The Cave” then moves the album into a darker place, opening with distant, echoed wailing before blasting into aggressive deathcore and sharp, synthesized strings. From there, the album takes a bit of an angsty and introspective turn with “What Went Wrong” and “The River and the Rock”, providing us with probably the most “standard” songs on the album before moving back into the heavy third act. The third act is an assault of deathcore with “The Sands of Time” and “The Door to Nowhere” really punctuating how dire the story has gotten. “Firefall” takes it to a whole new level though, this song get brutal and demands that you headbang along to it. There’s even a sword-slicing sound effect which punctuates the song’s brutality and just makes it feel that much nastier. Then, as per The Wise Man’s Fear tradition, the album takes a very sudden turn back into more standard, positive metalcore fare with the closing title track. After how dark and brutal the third act had been, it’s a bit of a tonal whiplash, but it’s a very enjoyable outro that you just want to sing along to. It even manages to be surprisingly nostalgic, ending with a distant, echoey version of the opening from Castle in the Clouds, tempting you to go back and start the trilogy all over again.

Valley of Kings is easily the most ambitious album from The Wise Man’s Fear, demonstrating that they aren’t content to just make the song music over and over again. The Wise Man’s Fear flirted with deathcore sounds on The Lost City, but Valley of Kings makes them a core part of their sound that they can carry forward with them. It’s also a testament to The Wise Man’s Fear’s compositions that I can get a good sense of the story beats of the album without having to dive into all the extended plot that they have developed for the really hardcore fans to get into. Valley of Kings takes multiple listens to really appreciate it, but it’s undeniably an extremely well-crafted album and I can’t wait to see where The Wise Man’s Fear are going to take us from here.

3) WE ARE CHAOS, Marilyn Manson
Marilyn Manson has had a very up-and-down career. Despite being more renown for their shock tactics, the band put out some legitimately good music with Antichrist SuperstarMechanical Animals and Holy-Wood, only to seemingly buy into their own hype and put out several dreary albums throughout the 2000s. It wasn’t until 2015’s The Pale Emperor that the band came surging back to prominence. While refreshing and featuring a bold new sound, I personally felt like The Pale Emperor was half of a fantastic album weighed down by a mediocre second half. It’s follow-up Heaven Upside Down was also lauded by critics, I personally found it disappointing. With all of this in mind, you can understand why I went into We Are Chaos (sorry… WE ARE CHAOS, because everything in this album is in all caps) with some trepidation.

After a fairly standard post-The Pale Emperor opening in “RED BLACK AND BLUE”, Manson pulls off a big surprise – thanks to his collaboration with co-producer Shooter Jennings, the first half of the album is loaded with acoustic guitar and piano-driven pieces. It harkens WE ARE CHAOS back to the David Bowie-inspired sounds of Mechanical Animals. This part of the album houses some of the best songs on here, including the great title track and the emotive but disturbing “PAINT YOU WITH MY LOVE”. The second half of the album then goes back into the more standard industrial metal and bluesy sounds that Marilyn Manson have made a career off of and all the tracks here are enjoyable enough. WE ARE CHAOS finishes with another acoustic track, “BROKEN NEEDLE”, a song that just keeps building on itself and makes for a really powerful way to end the album.

It also helps that, like in The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson dials back his bad habit of being a provocateur, instead allowing his songs to make an artistic statement on their own merits (although “KEEP MY HEAD TOGETHER” feels a bit gratuitous in its vulgarity). Probably the most important element of WE ARE CHAOS though is that Marilyn Manson really knows how to write a lyrical hook. So many times during my first listen-through I was making notes of interesting lines that Manson would repeat and get stuck in my head: “We are sick, fucked up and complicated, we are chaos” (“WE ARE CHAOS”), “Don’t chase the dead or they’ll end up chasing you” (“DON’T CHASE THE DEAD”), “You’re dead longer than you’re alive” (“INFINITE DARKNESS”) and “I’m not special, I’m just broken and I don’t want to be fixed” (“SOLVE COAGULA”). I had my reservations going into WE ARE CHAOS, but I’m happy to see that Marilyn Mansion isn’t up to his usual, tired tricks. Who would have thought that focusing on making good music instead of focusing on your reputation would pay dividends?

2) Mother, In This Moment
Going into Mother, the lead single “The In-Between” primed me to expect it to carry on the heavy sound and occult tone of Ritual. I probably should have known better though – In This Moment have always done something wildly different on every single album and while it does carry over some of the witch aesthetics those expecting another Ritual or even Blood are going to be disappointed. In fact, Mother has proven to be somewhat divisive amongst fans as it is far less heavy than previous In This Moment albums and incorporates more electronic elements into its sound, similar to Black Widow. Those who write the album off for not sounding the same as what’s come before are going to be missing out though because, as far as I’m concerned, Mother is one of the best-crafted and touching In This Moment albums ever.

The album gets the heavy stuff out of the way early, opening with a surprising but amazing cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”. Having seen In This Moment in concert, I can just imagine how much this song would slay live, it makes for a shockingly good opening track. From there we go into “The In-Between”, which I already loved when it was a pre-release single. It’s a top-tier In This Moment track, like something off Blood but with the spirituality of Ritual… it’s also the last particularly heavy track we get on the album for a long time. “Legacy” then comes in as a slower, powerful, more electronically-laden track – it’s really good! From there we get another surprising cover, particularly from a band that isn’t known for them, with “We Will Rock You”. Lzzy Hale and Taylor Momsen getting their own verses, turning this song into an overt GIRL POWER anthem. It doesn’t do much different from the Queen original, but it’s hard not to enjoy listening to the girls having the time of their life on this track, especially given the marginalized status of female vocalists in rock and metal music.

From there we move into what is, in my opinion, the best track on the album: the title track, “Mother”. Maria Brink’s powerful vocals and songwriting are on full display on this track, which serves as the thematic statement for the whole album: an appreciation of mothers. The theme runs through nearly the entire album. The inclusion of “Fly Like an Eagle” makes more sense when you realize the album’s theme, as Maria is careful to emphasize this line:

“Feed the babies/Who don’t have enough to eat/Shoe the children/With no shoes on their feet/House the people/Livin’ in the street/Oh, oh, there’s a solution”

Similarly, “The In-Between” opens with the line:

“My mother said that I was holy/My father said that I would burn/My mother said I was an angel/My father said that I would turn/So I believed these words and I turned on myself/’Cause maybe he’s right, maybe I’m worthless/Or maybe he’s wrong and my mother was right/I got a killer in me to give me purpose”

Meanwhile, the entire point of “Legacy” can be summed up in the chorus, “We are one, we run free/I am you and you are me/You sacrificed everything/I am and will always be your legacy”. The girl power of “We Will Rock You” is obvious already, but when you realize the album’s themes it just gives it that much more gravitas.

Of course, once the motherhood theme gets punctuated with the title track, the album takes a detour into entirely unrelated territory with “As Above, So Below”. It’s so out of place that it makes me wonder if In This Moment initially set out to make an album a bit more akin to Ritual, but the theme of motherhood emerged halfway and subsumed the rest of the album. The album begins to drag just a little bit at this point – while “Born in Flames”, “God is She” and “Holy Man” (the obligatory “Sure this album’s about mothers, but what about us men?” track) aren’t bad songs, they just don’t hold a candle to the strength of the first half of the album. Things start to get back on track though with “Hunting Grounds”, the last heavy song on the album. It has a weird, haunting atmosphere to it as Maria Brink and Joe Cotela of DED (Maria’s current partner) harmonize together. This also marks the point where the album drops the motherhood throughline, as “Lay Me Down” and yet another cover, “Into Dust”, close out the album sounding like something from Blood (not a bad thing at all, considering that’s their best album). I kind of wish that Mother maintained its theme throughout the entire album, it would have been nice if the second half was just a bit stronger (seriously, just drop “Holy Man” and you’ve got a tighter album right there) and maybe a little bit more heaviness wouldn’t have hurt, but these are fairly nitpicky. In This Moment clearly put out the album they wanted to and I feel like it’s one of their most thoughtful and mature releases yet.

1) Declaration, Red
I’ve said it many times in the past, but Red are a really inconsistent band. They’re just a likely to put out a “meh” album as they are to put out one of my favourite albums of the decade. It makes every new release a roulette wheel, but you can tell that there’s something different about Declaration. This is the first album where Red has gone fully independent and, as the title suggests, the band is keen to make a statement. Red gave us a sneak peak of the direction they were heading last year with The Evening Hate EP. I had said back then that I liked what I heard and hoped that it would be indicative of the quality of the band’s next album, but I was really not expecting Declaration to be this good.

Simply put, Red aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary on Declaration – it’s very much their usual sound, if a bit heavier than usual. The difference maker is that they bring their A-game, delivering a rock-solid album of ferocious, catchy hard rock from start to finish. The rock-solid tracks from The Evening Hate EP appear here and are just as good as they were a year ago, but brand new tracks like “Infidel”, “Cauterize” and “Sever” confidently stand toe to toe with them. The only issue with Declaration is a glaring one – “Only Fight”. This track shows up near the end of the album and sticks out like a sore thumb, sounding like something from one of Red’s weaker albums and being of considerably lower quality than any other track on Declaration. It straight-up sucks and is literally the only thing holding Declaration back from being the uncontested best Red album. Seriously, listening through this album I was agonizing over whether I liked it more than of Beauty and Rage, but the second “Only Fight” started I thought “welp, well second place is still good”. That one blemish aside, Declaration is a fantastic album, enough so that I would say that it’s a strong contender for my future “Best of the 2020s” list in ten years time. If you like this sort of heavy music, you owe it to yourself to check Declaration out!

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Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2018

Hey, it’s that time of year again! That’s right, the time of year when I look back on the random-ass music I’ve listened to, most of which no one has heard of or cares about! If you’re curious about last year’s picks, you can read the list here. I decided to change up the title of these lists going forward because, while “Favourite Albums” is less wordy, by no means do I want people seeing some of the low-ranked crap on this list and thinking it was one of my favourite albums of the year.

Also, in February I had the pleasure of seeing In This Moment and P.O.D. in Detroit, along with opening acts New Year’s Day and Ded! It was a fantastic time and I’m so glad that I got to see two of my favourite bands live. Was also a great experience to share with with my fiance, along with my longtime friend and fellow blogger at The M.

Alright, let’s get to the rankings…!

19) Evolution, Disturbed
Oh how the mighty have fallen. About a decade ago, I would have said that Disturbed were one of my favourite bands. You could justifiably say that their songs all sounded pretty similar, but it was hard to deny that they weren’t refining their sound for the better with each successive album.

…and then the big four-year hiatus happened. At the time I had hoped that this break might give them a creative refresher, but their triumphant return Immortalized was anything but triumphant. It was a creative mishmash and definitely felt like the band’s first major step backwards. The only breath of fresh air was the band’s surprisingly evocative cover of “The Sound of Silence”, which became a major radio hit and changed the public perception of the band. This surprising hit most clearly influenced the band’s direction on Evolution, as Disturbed splits the album evenly between their traditional hard rock sound and slowed down ballads… and the results make me wish that “The Sound of Silence” never happened, because Evolution sucks.

The album opens with “Are You Ready”, which is probably the best song on the heavier-half album, but doesn’t really hold a candle to Disturbed’s previous singles. It also doesn’t help that it’s a totally empty protest song that doesn’t dare make any sort of actual statement. Bland, uninspired and not daring enough to make any sort of statement is pretty much what you could say about almost all the heavy songs on this album. Considering that Ten Thousand Fists had “Deify”, an overtly political song criticizing the presidency of George W. Bush, you’d think that Disturbed could find something to take a stand on, right?

If Evolution was just a bunch of bland heavy tracks, it would be a mediocre album, but it wouldn’t be awful. However, half of this album consists of slowed-down ballads which make you realize that Disturbed don’t really understand why “The Sound of Silence” was such a hit for them. For one thing, the songwriting is (again) really bland at best and the slowed down tracks utterly waste the talents of the rest of the band. David Draiman seems to be going for an inspirational tone with his singing, but when the most “inspirational” track “Hold Onto Memories” has nothing more to say than “appreciate life”, it comes across as weak. Album closer “Already Gone” ends the whole thing on a dull, unsatisfying note. Even worse, the album has four bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, one of which is by far the best track on the whole album, let alone the best ballad: “Uninvited Guest”. The fact that it’s a bonus track is baffling and I can’t help but think that this was done for cynical reasons to shift copies of the deluxe edition.

As a longtime fan of Disturbed, I say with confidence that Evolution is the worst album that they’ve ever released. It’s just a total mess and far from the step forward that the title would imply. Even if the individual songs didn’t range from mediocre to bad, the album’s structure just makes things worse, threading between heavy and slow songs haphazardly and with little sense of flow. By the time the album comes to an end I literally said “wait, that’s it?” Immortalized was bland enough, but after this album, all I can think is that it’s about time that I evolved beyond Disturbed.

18) And Justice for None, Five Finger Death Punch
As you might have gathered from my recent blog post, I really hate Five Finger Death Punch, so the fact that their newest album comes in ahead of Disturbed should just further illustrate how bad Evolution is. On paper, they seem like the sort of band that I should like: I had heard a bunch of songs of theirs which were really enjoyable and I typically enjoy aggressive, angsty heavy metal. However, Five Finger Death Punch embodies the absolute worst elements of that type of music, pushing their macho rhetoric to the point of toxicity. A band can only rage so much at the world, blame everyone else for their problems and posture about how they’re going to beat your ass before they come across as a bunch of whiny losers instead of the badasses that they think they are. This also isn’t helped by the fact that their songwriting is some of the most embarrassing stuff I’ve ever heard, repeating the same kinds of macho phrases and chalked full of swearing thrown in for no other reason than because they think it makes them sound tough. The end result is a “tired formula that makes wannabe badasses swoon”. They might be the only metal band that I actually like more when they’re selling out for radio hits, as their slowed down stuff tends to be better written and lacks the toxicity of their typical material. Their radio hits also tend to be covers, which admittedly they are usually fantastic at and really give a unique spin to (again, not having to write their own material helps significantly). It’s actually too bad that FFDP’s songwriting is so cripplingly abysmal because they clearly are a talented band that can make good music.

Anyway, that brings us to And Justice for None. I skipped Got Your Six when I heard just how lame the lead single “Jekyll and Hyde” was, but it’s immediately obvious that the band hasn’t changed a bit since I last checked in on them. For what it’s worth, the album is 100% typical FFDP. There are some enjoyable songs (“Top of the World” and, awful title-pun aside, “Sham Pain”), some good songs (“Blue on Black” and “Gone Away”, both of which are covers which just further illustrate this band’s strengths and weaknesses), lots of mediocre stuff and some utter garbage (“Rock Bottom” and especially “Fake”… just look at these lyrics and try to imagine taking them seriously). Unexpectedly, the second half of the album is actually somewhat slowed down compared to the first half, kind of like Evolution (although it never goes quite that far into ballad territory). This works better than expected since it actually makes the album itself have some flow to it, although I feel like it’s ultimately just a weak attempt to pander to a wider audience.

Like I said at the start, And Justice for None is better than Evolution, if only because I know for a fact that I’m going to come back to some of the songs on this album again someday. While it definitely has its lower points and hasn’t changed my opinion on FFDP in the slightest, at least it has some moments of enjoyability.

Also, just because I don’t have anywhere else to put this, have a good laugh and look at this stupid fucking mic-stand that FFDP uses!

17) Oblivion, Smile Empty Soul
This is the first entry on that made its way onto this list thanks to random Spotify recommendations. While listening to a random discover station, the song “Bottom of a Bottle” came on and I was digging the sound, while also being floored by the brazenly hedonistic lyrics (although apparently they’re meant to be metaphorical, you’d never know it though) and the ridiculously emo band name. I was pretty intrigued in any case and decided to check out Smile Empty Soul when I saw that they had a new album named Oblivion. Unfortunately, Oblivion is pretty forgettable and has basically turned me off from bothering to spend much more time on Smile Empty Soul. Oblivion is a passable but mediocre post-grunge hard rock effort that doesn’t seem to have much to say (the fact that their one protest song is yet another “the whole system sucks!” anthem is distressing). Hell, the only song which had any sort of impact for me was “Small Incision”, which is just a short, moody piano interlude… yikes. If you’re into post-grunge then you might enjoy Oblivion more than I did, but I can say with reasonable certainty that this is an album I will probably never listen to again.

16) The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth
Winterfylleth are a band that I got into early this year while hungering for something to fill in that Agalloch-shaped folk metal hole in my soul. Winterfylleth don’t exactly meet that lofty expectation, but they do put out some decent black metal, even if all their songs all sound pretty similar. Their last album, The Dark Hereafter, took some steps to differentiate each song and incorporated more clear folk influences, which was a welcome step and which made seeing where they were going to go in the future more exciting.

When a new album for 2018 was announced, Winterfylleth were quick to clarify that they were doing something completely different and it’s probably a good thing that they did so. Whereas their previous albums were raw, black metal with plenty of folk inspiration, The Hallowing of Heirdom goes full-on traditional English folk music. It’s an understandable fit for the band considering the style that they’ve carved for themselves, but it’s a major departure from their usual sound and definitely takes some getting used to.

For my own part, I don’t have a ton to say about this album. I preferred the harmonizing of black metal and folk on The Dark Hereafter, but The Hallowing of Heirdom presents an intriguing experiment for Winterfylleth. I just hope that this isn’t indicative of the band’s long-term future. The Hallowing of Heirdom is a decent album, really well-crafted and beautifully atmospheric, but it’s also just not really something I can see myself listening to on a regular basis. It would make for really atmospheric background music in a Dungeons & Dragons session, but that’s about the only way that I can see myself interacting with this album again.

15) The Now Now, Gorillaz

Gorillaz usually release one album per presidential term. This irregular cycle has left me wondering if the band had dissolved unceremoniously on more than one occasion, although it does give new albums an “event” status and a provides a unique flavour on each release. The one time they broke this pattern was with 2010’s The Fall, which was recorded on an iPad during the touring for Plastic Beach, which was released less than a year earlier. It was by far their weakest and most throwaway album at the time, owing to its spontaneous and experimental nature.

I mention all this because The Now Now came out just as unexpectedly, a little over a year after last year’s Humanz and I was left wondering whether it would be another The Fall. The Now Now is thankfully better than that, although it definitely feels like a “lesser” Gorillaz release. The album has a very chill tone to it, much more cohesive than the chaotic grab bag that was Humanz and with far less guest contributions. That said, the only big standout is “Hollywood”, which meshes the album’s chill tone with a really mesmerising house/dance sound. Other than that, none of the songs really stand out to me as being anything special. The Now Now isn’t a bad album, it it lacks that special feel that a Gorillaz release typically has. I know Damon Albarn has said that he doesn’t know how many more years the band has left in it so he wants to release albums while he can, but if that means that we get more albums like The Now Now rather than a Plastic Beach or Demon Days, I question if it’s worth it.

14) Attention Attention, Shinedown
Shinedown are one of those bands that I have heard and enjoyed on the radio, but have never really looked into. However, when I heard that there was a new Shinedown album out and that it was supposed to be pretty good, I decided to give it a look. I had always dug tracks like “Devour”, “Sound of Madness” and “Cut the Cord”, they had an undeniable, hard-hitting energy to them which always made Shinedown stick out amongst the hard rock crowd, so I was excited to see how Attention Attention would harness that. Unfortunately, this expectation might have blunted my enthusiasm for the album, because Attention Attention is very unlike Shinedown’s heyday. There are some fairly heavy songs, such as “Devil”, “Black Soul”, “Evolve” and “The Human Radio”, which are where the album shines brightest. However, Shinedown have apparently taken a turn into pop rock on Attention Attention, because the album as a whole is much lighter and poppier than their previous work. Like, throughout this album Shinedown sounds like a heavier version of Imagine Dragons (most evidently on “Darkside”). Attention Attention isn’t exactly bad, it’s just not my thing at all and is just even more disappointing considering that it’s not the sort of product that I look to Shinedown to create. Maybe you’ll dig it, but I definitely did not.

13) Outsider, Three Days Grace
Other than what I hear on the radio, I’m not particularly familiar with Three Days Grace’s catalogue, other than the fact that founding singer Adam Gontier (the most notable aspect of Three Days Grace’s sound) left the band a few years ago. I figured that would be the end of the band, but here were are with the second post-Gontier Three Days Grace album and they seem to be going about as strong as ever. In fact, there are some songs here on Outsider, such as “The Mountain” and “Infra-Red”, which are about as great as any of the other major hits of the band’s earlier years. That said, the album is very much typical Three Days Grace, for better or worse. If you already have feelings about Three Days Grace’s brand of angsty, radio-friendly rock, then they are unlikely to change any. For my own part, I feel like Outsider has a few strong songs, but most of the album is fairly forgettable and is unlikely to leave a major impact.

12) Erase Me, Underøath
As someone growing up with Christian metal, I’ve always been aware of Underøath, but I’ve never really listened to them. This puts me into a weird place with Erase Me, as I have no real measuring stick for this album’s place in their career. What made me check this album out was the story of the band’s lead vocalist and last-remaining founding member, Aaron Gillespie. To put it simply, Aaron had a major falling out with evangelicalism and came back to Underøath on this album with a new direction for the band. Rather than continuing to just crank out music for the Christian music scene, Underøath are just playing what they want, including such “controversial” things as swearing in their music (as the reaction to P.O.D.’s Murdered Love shows, this is a MAJOR no-no in the evangelical scene). Honestly though, the controversy is pretty silly to me because thematically this is still very much a Christian album, featuring songs about hope, sacrifice and struggles which somehow get completely invalidated by the fact that Aaron punctuates them with a very real and raw “fuck” on occasion. Interestingly, these struggles with faith might have actually led to some legitimate angst which those who have had a falling-out with religion can relate to. Songs such as “ihateit” are infectious and enjoyably angsty and there’s a strong metalcore vibe to most of the album.

That said, the music itself is going to be hit-or-miss for some people. On the one hand, their evangelical fanbase has been turned off out of the gate. Furthermore, metalcore fans might be turned off by the electronic elements of the album, such as “No Frame” which almost sounds like a weird pop song. Even general audiences could be turned off by the fact that Erase Me ultimately just sounds like well-made but fairly generic metalcore. I’d say that Underøath are clearly talented and make some pretty good music, but it suffers a bit for being a tad generic. It’s kind of unfortunate, I was so primed for this album and the mindset behind it, it’s just so much more compelling than the actual music is.

11) Ember, Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are a band I’ve passed over for most of my life, but I’ve finally started getting into them late into this year. I like the band’s heavy, dour and angsty sound and thought that I would check out their newest album, Ember. A couple tracks in and I was having a pretty great time – “Feed the Wolf” and “Red Cold River” were very enjoyable, if a bit samey and very much in the mold of Breaking Benjamin’s usual fare (if a tad heavier that previously). However, as the album progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that “that usual fare” is all that Breaking Benjamin is interested in producing, because all of the songs on Ember sound very similar. Some songs are a little better than others, but they basically all have the same sort of sound, the same tone and same angsty themes that Breaking Benjamin have been mining for their entire career. The only songs which change things up at all are “The Dark of You”, which is quietly moody, and “Close Your Eyes”, which is basically the same as the rest of the album aside from the fact that it’s the only song with any sort of hopeful tone to it. Other than that, Ember is only really going to appeal to you if you already are really into Breaking Benjamin’s sound. When the tracks are all so samey, only the strongest ones actually stand out, making half of the album pretty much throwaway. Ember certainly isn’t a bad album – in fact, I quite like it. However, the lack of ambition and willingness to try something different makes it considerably less than it could have been.

10) White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, Neckbeard Deathcamp + United Antifascist Evil, Neckbeard Deathcamp/Gaylord
I’m putting these two entries together since they basically sound the same. Neckbeard Deathcamp is a pretty good black metal act that shot into prominence early this year with the amazingly anti-alt-right White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, which was quickly followed-up with a split EP with Gaylord, United Antifascist Evil. Neckbeard Deathcamp are satirical geniuses, everything from the album covers, to the song titles, to the lyrics (“Chrischan Conservatism”, “Incel Warfare” and “Please Respond (I Showed You My Penis)” are probably my favourite songs of theirs) and even the band’s pseudonyms are absolutely amazing. Neckbeard Deathcamp absolutely hate the resurgence of the extreme right and have provided us with an appropriate soundtrack for the times that we’re living in. The only reason I don’t put them higher on the list is because of the low production quality and that the awesome lyrics are wasted on growled vocals (I know that that’s the scene they’re in, but it’s still unfortunate that you can’t hear any of it). Still, the releases are only a couple of dollars each and the music is still pretty solid black metal regardless, so if you’re interested then they’re definitely worth checking out.

9) Space Nazis Must Die, Countless Thousands
Space Nazis Must Die is a charming little bit-sized EP from Countless Thousands. The titular song plays very much like a track from their debut album called “The Devil & Davey Munch”, a delightful narrative-song which is a very obvious “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” homage (for my money, the resulting song is infinitely better than simply covering the Charlie Daniels Band, which most bands would have just gone and done). While “The Devil & Davey Munch” serenaded the band’s bassist (the titular “Davey”), “Space Nazis Must Die” pays tribute to drummer Jon David, who gets to dropkick AstroHitler to death with the power of rock before blasting “The Star Spangled Banner” as a victory celebration and telling all the nazis to “get off my moon”. It’s as epic as it sounds.

Lyrically it’s not as savage or biting as Neckbeard Deathcamp, coming across like more of an anti-fascist power fantasy, but God what a sweet fantasy that is in this modern political climate. And here I was last year saying that I had hoped Humanz would be the soundtrack to the Trump years – nope, it’s anti-fascist anthems like Neckbeard Deathcamp and “Space Nazis Must Die” which are really capturing the modern zeitgeist. Big bands such as Disturbed and Five Finger Death Punch don’t want to get into politics because it affects their bottom-line (hence the toothless nature of Evolution), but indie bands can actually capture the feelings of our times in a manner such as this.

I give Space Nazis Must Die the edge over Neckbeard Deathcamp’s output since you can at least understand the lyrics and it’s just straight-up delightful to listen to. I do wish that it was a bit more substantial (the entire package is about 8 minutes long), but at only $3 it’s hard to consider this an unfair trade-off by any means.

8) Black Reign, Avenged Sevenfold
I have been off of the Call of Duty train for about 7 or 8 years now and never really got into the Black Ops games, so finding out that Avenged Sevenfold have contributed music to all of Treyarch’s entries in those games came as something of a surprise. I mean, a Call of Duty EP from a major metal act? Perhaps even more surprising, there are some really killer tracks on this EP. “Carry On” really shows off the stellar guitar work of Synyster Gates, but “Not Ready to Die” is the real highlight of the album. Oddly enough, the one track written specifically for the EP and for Black Ops 4, “Jade Helm”, is by far the weakest of the bunch, often cutting to silence for seconds at a time as if it’s meant to be used in trailer snippets rather than actually listened to. Still, Black Reign is way better than a Call of Duty EP has any right to be, demonstrating Avenged Sevenfold’s talents in the process.

7) You’re Not Alone, Andrew W.K.
I really love Andrew W.K.’s ambitious, hard-rocking sophomore album, The Wolf, even more than his more popular debut, I Get Wet. However, nothing that he has put out since then has gotten my attention. You’re Not Alone is a decent course correction, feeling very much like a long-awaited follow-up to his first two albums. Everyone knows that Andrew W.K. loves to party, but on You’re Not Alone he combines that with the self-help philosophy that he has been developing over the last several years, to the point where this album almost feels like it’s forming the basis of a cult of partying (such as the highlight “Music Is Worth Living For”). The music itself is a classic Andrew W.K. overwhelming wall of sound, complemented by his awesome harsh vocals (which had been missing from some of his more disappointing releases). I do feel like the album itself, along with some of the songs on the latter half, are a bit too long though and the overall package could have done with some fat trimming. Still, You’re Not Alone is a pretty decent Andrew W.K. release, it’s just still nowhere near the same level as his first two albums and none of the songs stick with you quite as along either.

6) The Sin and Doom, Vol. II, Impending Doom
Impending Doom are, in my opinion, low-key one of the best Christian artists out there. There are few bands in the Christian music scene which could legitimately hold up against other bands within their genre, but Impending Doom put out some brutally heavy deathcore that can be appreciated whether you agree with their faith or not. Funnily enough for a deathcore band, their songwriting is a key component of this – most of their songs tend to have moments which you just want to scream along to. The Sin and Doom, Vol. II doesn’t stray too far from this formula, although it does take a little while to really hit its stride. The first few tracks are decent but don’t particularly stand out from the rest of Impending Doom’s output. However, by the time “The Serpent’s Tongue” comes up, the album really kicks into overdrive. The song itself is somewhat silly, disparaging Satanism in the black metal scene, but you kind of have to appreciate Impending Doom for having the balls to take a stand for what they believe in in this case (it doesn’t hurt that this track has one of those awesome “scream along moments” when lead singer Brooke Reeves shouts “Satan hates you because you’re made in the image of God’s only son!”; a classic Impending Doom moment if there ever was one). If there was any doubt about Impending Doom’s place in this scene after “The Serpent’s Tongue”, that’s totally washed away by the awesome “Unbroken” and “Devil’s Den” (which, again, will leave you screaming “Slaughter the demons that are crawling on my brother’s back!”). It takes a while to really get going, but once it does, The Sin and Doom, Vol. II makes for some really killer death metal. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s high quality and really gets your blood pumping and your fist bumping.

5) Circles, P.O.D.
I’m always a bit nervous whenever a new P.O.D. album comes out. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for almost 16 years and were what got me into heavy music in the first place. That said, they always try something different with every new release and I’m never really sure if it’s something that I’ll enjoy, that perhaps their new music will somehow hurt their legacy for me. For their last couple albums, P.O.D. have also been starting to feel like “the old guys in the room”, complaining about the current music scene and hearkening back to a time when music was better (their last album, The Awakening, was made as a concept album for this very reason). Thankfully, Circles doesn’t lean too hard into this negativity and reminded me just why I still love P.O.D. after so many years.

P.O.D. never really stick with one uniform sound from album-to-album. Circles sounds somewhere in the neighbourhood of Murdered Love and Satellite, with tons of different influences dotted throughout the album – lots of heavy hard rock, rap, reggae, funk, punk and even a gospel-flavoured tune. It’s also quite interesting that lead singer Sonny Sandoval raps the lyrics to nearly song on this album, something which P.O.D. hasn’t really done since their earliest albums. I know some people just can’t stand rap-rock, but I think it works and makes for an interesting mixture when you consider all the myriad of influences and styles P.O.D. works in throughout the album.

There are some real standout tracks here: the title track is really good and “Listening for the Silence” is fantastic, with a powerful chorus that you’re going to struggle to get out of your head long afterwards. These are definitely two of my favourite songs of the year, hands down. There are some other big standouts as well: “Rockin’ with the Best” is enjoyably heavy and I can see it being amazing live, “Fly Away” (the aforementioned gospel-inspired track) is really unique and “Soundboy Killa” is a really cool rap-rock fusion which would probably be even more of a standout if the band hadn’t released it as a single more than a year ago (having seen the song live though, it definitely is a killer track to witness). There aren’t really any stinkers on the album, although I’m not sure yet whether I like the really strained screaming on “Panic Attack”, and some of the songs have excessively repetitive and simple choruses. The album could also do with being a little longer (it’s less than 40 minutes in total), but the band really does make the most of each song and I really have to commend them on how they’re still trying to find unique avenues for their sound after 25 years (cough Breaking Benjamin cough). Circles is a very solid effort by P.O.D. and while not every track is top notch, even the weaker tracks are unique enough to be interesting and worth checking out.

4) When Legends Rise, Godsmack
Godsmack can usually be relied on to put out decent music, but they never have hit that “next level” and I’d struggle to say that they have ever put out a truly good album. They’re usually like Breaking Benjamin – releasing music which is largely the same as what they’ve done before. As a result, the fact that Godsmack named their newest album “When Legends Rise” made for a pretty big statement from them. While the album doesn’t really meet the lofty standard of “legendary”, it is definitely the band’s strongest release ever and puts Godsmack on a much more interesting course going forward. When Legends Rise sheds most of the aggression, angst and casual misogyny that defined their earlier, drearier releases, in favour of a more hopeful hard rock sound. It’s still familiar but refreshingly updated and (dare I say it) matured. “Bulletproof” is a particular highlight, sounding very different than anything else Godsmack has ever done and is possibly my favourite song of the year. That said, the album is definitely frontloaded – after the slowed-down “Under Your Scars”, the second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the first, feeling a little more like their usual output. Still, When Legends Rise was a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting much, but Godsmack have put themselves onto an interesting track here and I’m very excited to see where they go in the future.

3) The Sacrament of Sin, Powerwolf

Powerwolf feel like the band that was made for me – a musical fusion of metal, werewolves and religious fanaticism. Sign me the hell up! They can usually be relied on to put out great albums, even if their sound and style has been set in stone for over a decade now. Enter The Sacrament of Sin, which goes to show that if you’re not going to reinvent the wheel, then make sure that that wheel is rock solid. Thankfully, even if it’s largely more of the same, Powerwolf have crafted some really high-quality tracks which show off their “metal mass” style (power metal with traditional Catholic mass songwriting and organs). “Demons Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a particular highlight, as is the powerful “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone”, which really shows of Attila Dorn’s operatic vocals.

The deluxe editions of The Sacrament of Sin also come with a bonus disc called Cummunio Lupatum, featuring other artists covering Powerwolf tracks in their own style. I was super excited for this because Powerwolf’s last album had a similar bonus disc where they covered some of their favourite music, resulting in some absolutely killer tracks. Unfortunately, Cummunio Lupatum lands with a damp squib because most of the covers are either mediocre or straight-up bad. The only track which is any good is Kissin’ Dynamite’s cover of “Let There Be Night”, which sounds absolutely amazing. If the rest of the covers had been anywhere near as good then the deluxe edition would be a must-buy, but thankfully this doesn’t take away from the more consistent quality of The Sacrament of Sin.

2) Disobey, Bad Wolves
Disobey is the case-in-point on why Five Finger Death Punch’s abysmal songwriting is so crippling. Bad Wolves’ sound is very similar to Five Finger Death Punch’s – their style of metal is similarly heavy, aggressive and, hell, the biggest single off this album is even a cover. The key difference though is that Bad Wolves can write a damn song and don’t make themselves come across as assholes in the process. Disobey has a number of different lyrical topics, although it largely revolves around themes of protesting overbearing authorities. Tracks such as the killer opener “Officer Down” at least flirt with political topics, in this case police violence, which is more than you can say about many of the other toothless “protest” albums on the lower-half of this list. There’s also plenty of musical variety from song-to-song which always keeps things interesting. Disobey largely succeeds due to the fact that it’s a constantly inventive, polished and very high-quality release which isn’t afraid to say something. I can only hope that Bad Wolves can top it going forward.

1) Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle
I’ve been into Tool for quite a long time now, but I never really made the jump to James Maynard Keenan’s other band, A Perfect Circle. However, I was looking for new music for this list and remembered that A Perfect Circle had put out their first new album in almost 15 years. On a whim, I decided to check it out and… well, let’s just say that I thought that Disobey was going to be my album of the year until I was about 3 or 4 tracks into Eat the Elephant.

First off, if you’re expecting something like Tool, you’re not going to find it here. It’s quite hard for me to really categorize this album’s genre, because it’s so unique, although I might have settled on it being alternative rock or hard rock. Eat the Elephant really shows off James Maynard Keenan’s singing, which is immediately evident on the sombre but hopeful title track

One of the more refreshing aspects of Eat the Elephant is that the songs actually feel like they have something to say. From tracks calling to overcome the obstacles we face (or build) in our lives (“Eat the Elephant”, “Disillusioned”) to pointed political statements (“The Contrarian” for corrupt politicians, “The Doomed” and “TalkTalk” for the evils in evangelicalism), Eat the Elephant usually has something interesting to say. The album also has my hands-down favourite song of the year, “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”, which immediately gets points for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference. It’s a really cool song, alluding to the dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to honour the deaths of celebrities in 2017, as if they’re escaping Earth before our nuclear annihilation. It’s a fantastic song, simply put. Most of Eat the Elephant is just well-crafted music, far more ambitious than basically any other album I’ve heard this year. Unfortunately, the latter quarter of the album isn’t quite as triumphant as the rest – tracks like “DLB” and “Feathers” certainly aren’t bad, but they don’t hit anywhere near as hard as earlier tracks. Worst of all though, the album ends on a really poor note with the overly-long “Get the Lead Out”, by far my least-favourite track and a very dull closer. It’s too bad that it closes the album out on a bit of a sour note.

I went into Eat the Elephant totally blind, not sure if I was actually going to like it. The resulting album really impressed me though and I’m certain that I’ve still got plenty more layers to uncover in further listen-throughs. I feel like I’m going to come back to some of the other, lower-ranked albums more often, but it’s hard to deny that Eat the Elephant is the best, most well-crafted album I’ve heard all year.

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