STAFF PICKS: Chris Latta’s Top Albums of 2020

Every decade has its own set of trends that define it. It normally takes hindsight to see what will make a particular decade stand out but 2020 has already made a horrifyingly immediate distinction for itself. A pandemic-induced alteration of the scene itself has resulted in delayed releases, canceled tours, musicians at near equal ratios of inspiration and burnout, Zoom as a primary means of communication, and livestreams taking the place of proper concerts. All things considered, I am glad that a top albums list could still be made with a multitude of strong candidates. It’s been a shitty year with the light at the end of the tunnel still out of sight, but we still got tunes.

20. All Them Witches – Nothing As The Ideal

All Them Witches’ first album as a trio does a great job of preserving the momentum they’ve maintained over the last decade. The adjusted lineup fills out the sound while still keeping their signature live feel, resulting in one of their heaviest albums to date with some of their most aggressive riffs at work. Of course, the expected mix of drawn-out psych-jams and folk excursions remain at the forefront. 2018’s ATW remains the band’s most definitive statement in my eyes, but Nothing As The Ideal has plenty of power behind it.


19. Pale Divine – Consequence Of Time

I must admit that Pale Divine’s first album as a quartet took some time to get used to. The inclusion of Dana Ortt as a second vocalist/guitarist really shook up their working-class Doom Metal approach, putting more emphasis on haunting atmospherics and Seventies Rock influences. Fortunately, Consequence Of Time retains its penchant for catchy riffs, and the band’s enthusiasm for the style can still be felt throughout. It still feels more like a hypothetical third Beelzefuzz album rather than the sixth Pale Divine record, but it’s great at what it does regardless.


18. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi

Oranssi Pazuzu’s Blackened Krautrock remains one of the most unique approaches to Extreme Metal out there, but it can still feel like business as usual at times. Fortunately, the band still finds new ways to tinker with their formula. Mestarin Kynsi reflects influence from their Waste Of Space Orchestra collaboration in 2019 with a narrative flow between songs and a more epic scale holding it all together. The livestream that had the band playing it in its entirety was also a nice touch.


17. Dopelord – Sign Of The Devil

As fun as it is to see bands expanding the boundaries of a given style, sometimes you just want to see that style done well. Dopelord has become one of my favorite bands in the crowded Stoner Doom scene, crafting their post-Electric Wizard riffs in a familiar yet still lively fashion. Their fourth record, Sign Of The Devil, is their most potent release so far, putting the band’s strongest set of songs with influences dipping into Psych Rock and Punk. It isn’t the most unique stuff out there, but that fun factor was enough for repeat listens.


16. Greyhawk – Keepers Of The Flame

As a musician, I often encounter albums that I could see myself making. This is especially true of the first album from Portland’s Greyhawk. The style is a perfect fusion of Classic and Power Metal with a touch of Eighties Shred, and the songs’ hooks are delivered in a confidently operatic baritone that I find myself gravitating to. With how much it sits in my sweet spot as a listener, I’m pretty sure this was legally obligated to end up on my list. It’s certainly a Keeper after all. No, I’m not sorry.


15. Big Scenic Nowhere – Voyage Beyond Horizon

Tony Reed has certainly been prolific throughout 2020 with Mos Generator, Constance Tomb, and a solo record among other projects, but the first album from Big Scenic Nowhere was my favorite release that involved him. Voyage Beyond Horizon’s jammed-out Psych Rock template allows for contributions from a variety of guest performers as well as enjoyable excursions into Stoner, Prog, and even a bit of Hardcore Punk for good measure. It’s a potent mix that gets more enjoyable as it goes on.


14. Ambush – Infidel

Ambush’s third album is another stellar example of an orthodox style done right. Infidel has all the Classic Metal tropes associated with Judas Priest and Scorpions but also brought enough hooks to back up the assertion. The musicianship allows the Speed Metal tracks to be executed with great enthusiasm and the earworm chorus on songs like ‘Yperite’ and ‘Hellbiter’ could’ve come straight from the Blackout/Love At First Sting playbook. It may not go too out of the box, but it still has a hell of a good time in it.


13. Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost

With 2020 being what it has been, I have made efforts to seek out more optimistic bands and Wytch Hazel’s third album has sufficiently delivered on that front. The band’s Thin Lizzy meets Wishbone Ash style has never been this effective and the album’s first half is an absolute onslaught of the catchiest, most life-affirming sing-alongs that they’ve ever written. The live music circuit may still be a way’s away from a full revitalization, but I can imagine these songs sounding pretty righteous in that setting when the time is right.


12. REZN – Chaotic Divine

I may often prefer albums with straightforward structures and snappy runtimes, but I’m not opposed to a good old-fashioned adventure. Chaotic Divine is a fine example, putting forth an otherworldly Stoner Doom-style that is driven by glacial riffing and a broad sonic palette. It’s an album that’s made for tripping out with a variety of different moods and memorable sequences that play well into loose atmospherics. My only nitpick is that there isn’t as much saxophone as there was on 2018’s Calm Black Water, but that’s hardly a dealbreaker.


11. Death the Leveller – II

Death The Leveller may be one of the more understated picks on my list but this album’s solemn approach to Epic Doom is commendable. It provides a more contemplative look at the hearty battle attitude of Solstice or Atlantean Kodex as bright guitar tones are frequently intercepted by dragging tempos, mournful baritone vocals, and gradually building song structures. It’s a somber yet inspiring listen with ‘The Golden Bough’ standing out as a particularly stirring track.


10. Wolftooth – Valhalla

Throwing out some local love now, Wolftooth has come to be one of the top bands in the Indiana scene thanks to their particularly catchy mix of Doom and Heavy Metal. Their second album successfully lives up to their 2018 self-titled debut and leans even further into the latter influences. The riffs keep a beefy foundation, the atmosphere is as wintery as ever, and the hooks on songs like the title track are even more potent. Having seen them live countless times in the last couple years, it felt weird to not have any chances to do so in 2020.


9. Paradise Lost – Obsidian

In a way similar to 2015’s The Plague Within, Paradise Lost’s latest album plays like a kitchen sink of the various phases that have defined their thirty-year career. The sluggish Doom riffs from Medusa are given a more dynamic makeover circa Draconian Times while holdovers from their Goth Rock years are given a chance to shine in the sparkling synths and infectious hooks of songs like ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Forsaken.’ The latest efforts from Katatonia and My Dying Bride are certainly solid, but Obsidian is another reminder of why Paradise Lost has always been my favorite of the Peaceville Three.


8. Judicator – Let There Be Nothing

Having been introduced to Judicator via the glorious Crusader Metal of 2018’s The Last Emperor, their fifth album was quite a grower in comparison. The tone is considerably darker with more methodical structures but Let There Be Nothing ultimately comes through as an inspired work of Prog/Power Metal. The band’s Blind Guardian influences are well conveyed in the extensive vocal layers and intricate guitar work, and the hooks reveal themselves to patient listeners. The subsequent departure of founding guitarist Tony Cordisco only gives weight to the album’s contemplative nature.


7. Kingnomad – Sagan Om Rymden

While Kingnomad had been on my radar since their debut, their third album was what truly brought them to my attention. Sagan Om Rymden is a brilliant work of Prog Rock, striking a perfect balance between spacy textures befitting its galaxy-spanning concept and infectious hooks that are cut from the same cloth as their fellow Swedes in Ghost. The albums from Hallas and King Gorm also made for enjoyable AOR/Prog fusions, but this one left the biggest impact.


6. Nils Patrik Johansson – The Great Conspiracy

Of all the albums on my list, this is the one that I didn’t see anybody else talk about much. It’s understandably easy to overlook as Nils Patrik Johansson’s various band affiliations have made for an admittedly spotty track record, but there’s a surprising amount of conviction and efficiency behind The Great Conspiracy. It retains his signature Power-tinged Classic Metal foundation, but a combination of conceptual lyrics and Prog flourishes makes for a less conventional listen. The sheer amount of cheese will make it a hard sell for some, but I still appreciate this album’s focus and dedication.


5. Forming The Void – Reverie

Forming The Void is one of those bands that seems to have a guaranteed spot on my top albums list with each new release, and their fourth full-length is certainly no exception. The heightened grunge influence on Reverie is especially welcome as the band’s penchants for trippy textures and husky vocals are expanded upon even further. Songs like the psychedelic ‘Onward Through The Haze’ and the bludgeoning ‘Ancient Satellite’ may be the closest we’ll ever get to revisiting classic Soundgarden.


4. Freeways – True Bearings

I don’t think there was a better example of feelgood Rock n’ Roll in 2020 than Freeways. True Bearings is a very easygoing listen, presenting an earnestly optimistic makeup characterized by breezy structures and a vocal performance that is casual yet without irony. There are several upbeat anthems present and the slower songs still keep a melodic edge to them, allowing the short overall runtime to retain a sense of fullness. The RV on the album cover is enough to reinforce the feelings of comforting sincerity.


3. Traveler – Termination Shock

Traveler’s second album may subsist on the same Speed Metal orthodoxy as their 2019 debut, even featuring a similar album cover, but it is a massive leap forward in every regard. The songwriting is at its most developed, making the straightforward scorchers hit even harder while also allowing the band to explore more elaborate textures. I knew that it was going to be an enjoyable venture, but I did not expect to love it as much I do. If you’re going to check out any Heavy Metal record from 2020, this is the one to go for.


2. High Priestess – Casting The Circle

High Priestess’s second album is another brilliant example of a band taking their sound to even greater heights with conceptual framing. Casting The Circle plays like the soundtrack to an arcane ritual, perfectly fitting the trio’s esoteric take on Stoner Doom, as the building riffs and lush vocal interplay casts a foreboding yet welcoming atmosphere. The worst I can say is that the seventeen-minute ‘Invocation’ may run too long, but you may not even notice how effectively it can envelop its listeners. Ripple Music has dominated a lot of my listening in 2020 as you’ve no doubt noticed, and this is easily the most powerful effort they had to offer.


1. Elephant Tree – Habits

Even in a year like this one, I can still tell what my number one album is going to be as soon as I hear it. I absolutely love Elephant Tree’s Habits. I love the way it mixes the Blues Doom of its 2016 predecessor with shades of Alt Rock, Shoegaze, Post Rock, and Prog. I love how well its emotional core holds everything together. I love the mix of hooks and dynamics in songwriting. I love how it basically sounds like what would happen if you had Steven Wilson make a Stoner Metal album yet still manages to carve out a distinct identity. This album is truly something special and I really hope it can keep getting the attention that it deserves.