This article will mark the fourth time I've created a "Top 20 Albums of the Year" piece and after glossing over my previous lists in comparison to this one, I can say that my choices are definitely drifting more-so towards the underground and away from the mainstream. That's not to say that the albums below will be obscure hipster central, there certainly are some records that everyone has heard of, but I feel as if it is my responsibility to highlight some of the lesser-known releases deserving of true praise.
Also, it's important to understand that these are simply subjective choices as my favorite albums of the year and not necessarily "the best." I chose these records for a myriad of reasons whether I found the music to be impactful, the lyrics insightful, or any other aspect to be innovative in some way. Considering the list below consists of progressive, metalcore, djent, hardcore, experimental, deathcore, blackened, death, and non-metal albums, I hope everyone can find at least something that will align with their tastes. Thank you and enjoy!
20. Wolf King – Loyal to the Soil
I wouldn't exactly consider myself a diehard fan of either black metal or hardcore, however when combined together, that's a whole 'nother story. Wolf King shoves the sharp, jarring tones and vocal deliveries of black metal with the mosh-inducing clamor of hardcore to produce a most sinister and riveting album. The raw conviction that is so purely demonstrated through songs like the title track, "Hail the Ash," and "Greater Power" are strengthened by the shockingly clean production.
Released via Prosthetic Records / Review / Listen to "Hail the Ash" below:
19. Silent Planet – When the End Began
For the longest time, I held off on giving Silent Planet a chance because they were given the 'Christian metalcore' label, but I now hold sincere regret. After looking past this shallow dealbreaker and realizing that their music isn't even pushing an agenda as I assumed, I recognized that I had been missing out. Frontman Garrett Russell is easily one of the most underrated lyricists in the metal game right now. Every song is filled to the brim with clever literary references and critical statements against modern society. Although there are some moments that lean a tad too far on the melodic side for my tastes, When the End Began has plenty of heavy-hitting parts to even it out.
Released via Solid State Records / Listen to "The New Eternity" below:
18. Alien Weaponry – Tu
As soon as I heard Alien Weaponry's lead single, I knew I had found something special. I imagine those lucky enough to witness the rise of early Sepultura were in the same awe as the Brazilian group reinvented the game with their primitive style. While these New Zealanders are comparable to the aforementioned band due to the tribal-like musicalities, aspects including Alien Weaponry's Maori tongue and sense of song structure conveys a mature band, despite the fact that the members are teenaged. Although I'm already astonished by the band's current abilities, I'm eagerly awaiting the follow-up and future of this project.
Released via Napalm Records / Listen to "Kai Tangata" below:
17. Unprocessed – Covenant
Although I have a few other djent-y releases on this list down below, this band delivered the most straight-forward and eyebrow-raising material of the subgenre this year. In a world where big-name djent bands like Tesseract or Monuments are releasing recent 'meh' albums, it's the new bands such as Unprocessed that are reaching to grab the torch out of their hands. All things considered, this album is phenomenally solid and will hopefully be the fire to ignite the band into the mainstream because I have a strong feeling that Unprocessed are on the rise towards the big stage.
Released via Long Branch Records / Listen to "Ghilan" below:
16. Windrunner – Mai
I'm always in support of bands located in regions where you wouldn't necessarily expect metal to flourish and therefore Vietnamese metalcore act Windrunner caught my attention. Their style is rooted mostly in modern prog-core similar to Erra, The Devil Wears Prada, or Periphery, however the characteristic that I find to be most charming and representative of their striking sound is their use of traditional oriental instrumentation. The wide musical spectrum created on Mai represents both catchy, melodic vocal patterns via female vocalist Duong Bui as well as powerful djent and hardcore jabs.
Released via Famined Records / Listen to "Sakura" below:
15. Daughters – You Won't Get What You Want
It has been eight long years since these noisy experimentalists churned out some music. Admittedly, I wasn't even aware of Daughters prior to this release, but I am definitely going to dive down the rabbit hole of their catalog after being enlightened by the band's radical blend of industrial soundscapes and mathcore dissonance on You Won't Get What You Want. Furthermore, I find solace in the fact that a project so underground and non-conventional has gathered much praise in the metal and hipster community with this release.
Released via Ipecac Recordings / Listen to "Long Road, No Turns" below:
14. Anaal Nathrakh – A New Kind of Horror
Holy lord almighty, these guys will never stop redefining the game. I thought I heard it all before, but Anaal Nathrakh's industrial, extreme fusion metal is ground-breakingly noteworthy on this record. The abrasive soundscapes that support each pummeling song is so hellish and provoking. And even though a majority of these tracks carry harsh undertones, the band nonetheless was capable of cultivating catchy and groovy compositions.
Released via Metal Blade Records / Review / Listen to "Forward!" below:
13. Will Haven – Muerte
Akin to Daughters, it's been a long time since Will Haven tossed fresh material out to the public to consume, but god damn, they still got it. And in addition to that, I'd confidently claim that Muerte is their best LP. Each song is so dense and packed with heavy, sludgy riffs. Although the band did a superb job on crafting such a tight and chaotic LP, the guest appearances like Mike Scheidt (Yob) and Stephen Carpenter (Deftones) stretched Will Haven's stylistic range to a region that I didn't even realize was possible.
Released via Minus Head Records / Review / Listen to "El Sol" below:
12. Haken – Vector
From day one, Haken have been masterminds in cranking out genuine, quirky progressive metal. While The Mountain will always stand out in their discography in being the most eccentric, I think Vector will achieve an equally great notoriety for its sheer heaviness. With the addition of some newly found djent in their arsenal, the band has developed an even larger range in dynamics. Also, the hook in "Veil" may be one the most memorable in their catalog as well as "The Good Doctor" being an excellent single for those just getting into the group.
Released via Inside Out Music / Review / Listen to "The Good Doctor" below:
11. Sails of Serenity – The Crossing
I find it so admirable when an album holds the ability to transport the listener to a new world. Sails of Serenity focused their efforts towards creating an immersive experience on this release and it definitely paid off. Through hard-hitting and catchy progressive metalcore bangers, The Crossing uses nautical imagery and epic orchestration to establish a killer conceptual debut record.
Released via Famined Records / Review / Listen to "Left Behind" below:
10. Ihsahn – Amr
There always seems to be something different and, dare I say, magical about Ihsahn's releases. Although Amr doesn't differ all too much from his previous progressive solo endeavors, this LP seems to be the first to fully pique my interest. In my opinion, there were a lot of daring choices made throughout this material and I truly respect the risks taken. Through the peculiar guitar tones and contrasting vocal deliveries, this album allowed me to gain a greater appreciation of Ihsahn.
Released via Candlelight Records / Review / Listen to "Arcana Imperii" below:
9. Black Tongue – Nadir
Although I prefer the albums listed below for other various reasons, Nadir is by far the heaviest. This might even be the most fucking heavy record I've ever heard in my whole damn life. I know I throw terms like "crushing" or "hefty" to describe certain songs in reviews, but I'm seriously speechless when it comes to defining how unbelievably monumental the riffs that Black Tongue conjures. Even better, the band keeps you on your toes. This isn't your average breakdown compilation. Each song differs from the last while still maintaining a significantly strong pace.
Self-released / Listen to "Ultima Necat" below:
8. Letters From the Colony – Vignette
This is, simply put, a sublime debut. Letters From the Colony managed to fuse aspects of djent, tech-death, and progressive metalcore better than most seasoned bands. For being a fresh, new band, they have a remarkable sense of atmosphere, tension, and release. Most of all though, this band seems to be one of the very few acts where the Meshuggah influence is clearly pulsing through their blood, yet the music is nonetheless innovative on its own.
Released via Nuclear Blast / Listen to "Terminus" below:
7. Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name
When Rivers of Nihil's previous LP Monarchy came out in 2015, I definitely sensed a successful future for the tech-death metallers, but I never foresaw such a leap in musical quality and experimentation on the follow-up. Where Owls Know My Name has a distinct tone that I don't think has ever been explored before. The ferocious riffs clash with the orchestral instrumentation of sax, cello, and trumpet alongside keys in a visceral manner that accurately depicts the scenery of a dark forest matching the artwork. It goes without saying, but this album is clearly on a lot of other metalheads' minds this year and I'm certain will catapult the band into their much deserved spotlight.
Released via Metal Blade Records / Review / Listen to "A Home" below:
6. Nekrogoblikon – Welcome to Bonkers
Like yeah, I know, I know. Nekrogoblikon has historically been labeled as a "gimmick" due to their goblin mascot image and it's a tad difficult to take the whole package seriously, but in the end, who cares? In my opinion, metal isn't supposed to be taken too seriously anyways. If they want to sing songs about magic spiders and dragons, then so be it. And hell, Nekrogoblikon's surprisingly impressive virtuosity and self-awareness is exceedingly superior than most other bands in the game right now. In the end, Welcome to Bonkers is undoubtedly a game-changer that I can't wait for the next wacky release from these guys.
Released via Mystery Box / Listen to "Dressed as Goblins" below:
5. Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs
Dating even back to their formation in the early 90's, this Israeli act has revealed an abundance of talent and success for pioneering the oriental metal style. With the release of Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land dive even deeper into the folksy experimentation of their identity with soaring string sections and ethnic instrumentation acting as the driving force amongst their progressive death metal tendencies. Overall, I find this LP to be the band's most captivating release due to the compelling lyrical messages and undeniably unique music.
Released via Century Media Records / Review / Listen to "We Do Not Resist" below:
4. Distorted Harmony – A Way Out
I am completely hooked on this album. Every time I give it a listen, I am reminded of how smooth everything meshes together. Distorted Harmony's djent-y side reminds me of Periphery, yet they also hold a progressive and subdued identity alike Porcupine Tree or Dream Theater. On top of that, A Way Out boasts such an infectious impact balancing catchy, melodic vocals and headbanging wizardry.
Self-released / Review / Listen to "Room 11" below:
3. Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
When this project dropped their debut LP a couple years ago, I was pretty impressed by the genre fusion, but Stranger Fruit presented a whole new level of the artistry behind Zeal & Ardor. Every single moment within this album is equally emotionally powerful as it is musically vivid. Even songs that one would assume to just be filler like the intro track or instrumentals ("The Hermit," "The Fool," "Solve") possess imagery and character that brings this record to life. Furthermore, there are parts where a swarm of black metal musicality sneaks up behind these folksy build-ups and hits the listener with grace and might.
Released via MVKA / Listen to "Don't You Dare" below:
2. Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy
Liquid Anatomy was released back in May and this album is still blowing my mind. Alkaloid has somehow blended the genius contained in the progressive rock movements of the 70's and 80's with the technical death metal insanity of the 21st century impeccably. If you can somehow wrap your mind around the concept of a lovechild between Rush, Gojira, and Opeth, you just may be able to comprehend how crazy heavy, complex, bold, and stimulating the songs presented here are. From the alluring vocal harmonies and unconventional instrumentation to overpowering riffs and growls, this LP redefined how dynamic metal can be to me.
Released via Season of Mist / Review / Listen to "Kernel Panic" below:
1. The Dali Thundering Concept – Savages
This album is absolutely flawless and strives for so many reasons. Not only does the amount of quality songwriting ideas and innovative production techniques ooze throughout Savages, but all of the tracks flow in such a beautiful and fluid manner. Although The Dali Thundering Concept has been forward-thinking in previous releases, this LP sets an incredibly high standard for progressive metalcore/deathcore. I've probably spun this record at least once a week since it's release and I'll likely continue to explore the rich depths of this material at a frequent pace in the future as well. Considering this group hasn't fully achieved mainstream status, I urge all to give this a listen and truly experience the magnitude of intellectual heaviness that overflows from this album. I love every single detail on this album and simply can't praise it enough.
Released via Apathia Records, Thundering Production / Review / Listen to "The Myth of Happiness" below:
HONORABLE MENTIONS (Some More Releases Deserving of Love and Attention):
15. Gaia – Aerial (this Indian progressive metalcore project expands the reaches of djent to include an even deeper sense of melody, atmosphere, and shred factor)
Self-released / Listen to: "Nebulous"
14. Crucial Rip – The Object of Infection (one of the most menacing executions of deathcore/brutal death/slam metal I've witnessed lately)
13. Levels – Levels (with elements somewhat nostalgic of early metalcore and djent, this LP balances zany with heavy in a way that makes you hungry for even more)
Released via Famined Records / Listen to: "Mind"
12. Cabal – Mark of Rot (just as Wolf King was successful in the coalesce of black metal and hardcore, this album was similarly capable in producing a striking blend of the two subgenres)
Released via Long Branch Records / Listen to: "Nothingness"
11. Vexes – Ancient Geometry (it goes without saying that Deftones comparisons will be inevitable, however this LP is a valid example of how alternative metal can still possess mature song-writing)
10. Zombie Eating Horse – The Worst of Us (if you miss the NWOAHM and metalcore scene of the mid 90's to early 2000's, this release has put a modern twist on that classic sound and will definitely be up your alley)
Released via Infinite Strength Records / Listen to: "Z Rex"
9. Sha Nova – The Speed of Nothing (this instrumental prog release spans from heavy Animals as Leaders territory to more chill and experimental regions like Chon or The Aristocrats)
8. Sutej Singh – The Emerging (another instrumental album, yet this one excels in the ability to gradually build-up up lush lead guitar driven compositions into more heavy soundscapes)
Released via Pinecone Records / Listen to: "Oceans Apart"
7. Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury (I am both equally terrified and intrigued by the dissonance constructed on this LP to the point where every time I listen, I am swept away to the demonic jazz club that is portrayed by these tunes)
6. Parius – The Eldritch Realm (I recall hearing this record for the first time earlier this year and being so floored by the band's mastery to concoct these proggy pieces that evolve through a plethora of different styles effortlessly)
5. Howling Sycamore – Howling Sycamore (with a stacked lineup including members from Ephel Duath, WatchTower, Obscura, Yakuza, Gorguts, etc., this project was inevitably fantastic and the result was so so satisfying)
4. Dead Empires – Designed to Disappear (there's a small wave of metal bands in the past few years that can fuse musical styles so easily without disregarding their sense of heaviness and Dead Empires is easily one of the more engaging of this impressive new breed)
3. Nik Nocturnal – Undying Shadow (although I was already inspired by the cover song skills and creative endeavors on his YouTube channel, Nik Nocturnal has proven his worth even greater with this mostly instrumental djent/progcore solo LP)
2. Alizarin – Cast Zenith (while some of the material is more fitting to be described as "cinematic rock" due to the instrumental muzak feel of the songs' structure, this album possesses the punch of a Dream Theater release and the momentum of a King Crimson record)
Self-released / Listen to: "Faint Home"
1. Time, the Valuator – How Fleeting, How Fragile (I normally stray away from metal albums with such a dependance on clean and poppy, melodic vocals, however the memorable and dynamic quality that consistently flows through this LP is so enthralling that I had to keep listening over and over again)
EPs (Short, But Sweet):
5. Hammerhedd – Essence of Iron (if you hadn't seen the viral videos of these teenagers performing live as tight as Gojira, you're missing out… and their debut EP is pretty reflective of how solid they played in those videos too)
Self-released / Listen to: "Restoration"
4. Godless – Swarm (this is the second EP from this Indian band and I can't wait until they show the world how strong their death-thrash metal fusion is with a full length)
Self-released / Listen to: "From Beyond"
3. Sum of Us – Sharp Turns in Dark Tunnels (it's weird and groovy and catchy and I fucking want more from this band)
2. Night Verses – Copper Wasp (in retrospection, my enjoyment of this EP probably will translate to me loving the full LP that this band released this year as well once I give that a full listen, but for now I'll say that these three songs are the most forward-thinking approach to melodic shred-like music I've encountered as of late)
Released via Equal Vision Records / Listen to: "Copper Wasp"
1. A Light Within – Epilogue (I have been following this group for awhile now and I am constantly amazed by their savviness in establishing remarkable atmospheres, the highest quality of production, and a lovely variety of vocal styles)
NON-METAL (Genres Stated Below):
10. VOLA – Applause of a Distant Crowd (25% djent, 25% pop, and 50% electronic rock)
Released via Mascot Records / Listen to: "Alien Shivers"
9. Failure – In the Future Your Body Will Be the Furthest Thing From Your Mind (alternative, space rock)
Self-released / Listen to: "Dark Speed"
8. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (modern jazz)
Released via Young Turks / Listen to: "Street Fighter Mas"
7. Alice in Chains – Rainier Fog (sorta sludgy/doom metal, but mostly alternative rock, grunge)
Released via BMG / Listen to: "The One You Know"
6. Colin Stetson – Hereditary (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (cinematic ambience)
Released via Milan Entertainment / Listen to: "Mothers & Daughters"
5. Father John Misty – God's Favorite Customer (indie folk)
Released via Bell Union, Sub Pop / Listen to: "Mr. Tillman"
4. All Them Witches – ATW (stoner rock)
Released via New West Records / Listen to: "Diamond"
3. Tune-Yards – I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (experimental)
Released via 4AD / Listen to: "Look at Your Hands"
2. Planet B – Planet B (industrial, hip-hop)
Released via Ipecac Recordings, Three One G / Listen to: "Disease Control"
1. Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance (post-punk)
Released via Partisan Records / Listen to: "Samaritans"