10) Lamb of God - Lamb of God
Given the departure of founding drummer Chris Adler in 2019, I was concerned how the band's tenth studio album would turn out. Adler was such a cornerstone of the Lamb of God sound, but the band's self-titled release turned out to be their most ferocious work for quite some time. Dispensing with the experimentation found on both 2012's Resolution and 2015's VII: Sturm und Drang, which were both fine records, Lamb of God is a back-to-basics album that saw the band release a collection of songs to rival the primal nature of 2004's Ashes of the Wake. New drummer Art Cruz fits in like a glove, and his performance is a big part of why the album is so good, but it is the overall songwriting that really makes Lamb of God shine. Nothing has been significantly changed formula-wise, but the band seem passionate about just being themselves again after spending much of the 2010s trying out new things. I enjoyed the band's more experimental phase, but there is something comforting about the rage contained within Lamb of God, which made it a perfect companion piece for 2020.
Listen to: Memento Mori, Gears & New Colossal Hate
9) Fish - Weltschmerz
In many ways I feel that Fish's final studio album should be higher up this list, but the truth is that I feel that I still have a lot to discover within it - despite listening to a lot over the past few months. It is a long, dense album that is packed full of different moods and themes; so as a result it is an album that demands your full attention and repeated listens. It is an album that will no doubt rise through the rankings over time, but I am certain that it is a masterpiece despite its relatively low position here. Many albums are described as a 'journey', but Weltschmerz is one that truly deserves that moniker. While the album is not a concept album, I cannot help but feel that many of the song share similar themes at their core. It is clear that Fish has lost none of his lyrical power over the years, and the cast of musicians involved in the album is a real who's who of Fish collaborators throughout the years - which is fitting for his final ever studio project. As a result of its length and themes, Weltschmerz can be a very difficult album to listen to at times; but this does not diminish its power, and it is an album that I am sure to only appreciate more as time goes on.
Listen to: The Grace of God, Rose of Damascus & Waverley Steps (End of the Line)
8) Sylosis - Cycle of Suffering
There was a time when Reading's Sylosis were one of the most hotly-tipped British metal bands out there, but they never seemed to quite break through the glass ceiling despite releasing a string of great albums throughout the 2010s. When the band's main man Josh Middleton joined Architects in 2017, I thought that Sylosis would likely be quietly taken out into the yard and shot - and indeed it did seem for a while that that had happened. However, back in February, the band's fifth album Cycle of Suffering was released and Sylosis fans the world over instantly rejoiced. While Cycle of Suffering is perhaps not as progressive as some of the band's other albums, it picked up nicely where Dormant Heart left off in 2015 - bringing that album's more riff and song-based formula into the new decade with aplomb. Like the Lamb of God album, Cycle of Suffering has quite a lot of fury to be found within, but there are a lot of other emotions present too which make this one of the heaviest albums of the year that I have revisited on a regular basis. There is certainly a case to be made for Middleton being one of the best guitarists and songwriters in metal at the moment, and Cycle of Suffering is a full display of his various talents.
Listen to: Empty Prophets, I Sever & Abandon
7) Blue Öyster Cult - The Symbol Remains
A couple of years ago the thought of a new Blue Öyster Cult album seemed like a farfetched one, but one of the year's biggest surprises came in the form of The Symbol Remains back in October - the band's fifteenth studio album. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting Blue Öyster Cult to sound like in 2020, but The Symbol Remains turned out to be a varied and extremely engaging album packed with numerous memorable songs and great performances from the band's long-standing current line-up. Due to the band's overall experimental and esoteric nature, some of the songs do not quite hit home for me, but when the album gets it right it does so in a big way. All three of the singles that kick off the album nail the band's core sound, while heavier moments occasionally showcase why Blue Öyster Cult have often been listed as an influence by a great number of metal bands. It is certainly not the most consistent album on this list, which is what stops it from being placed higher, but it is an album that makes me smile no matter what; and it is great that the band are still so experimental and 'out there' so late in their career.
Listen to: Box in My Head, Tainted Blood & The Alchemist
6) H.E.A.T - H.E.A.T II
There have been a number of strong melodic rock albums released this year, but for me the best pure AOR album is the sixth album from Sweden's H.E.A.T. After going for a more cinematic sound on 2017's Into the Great Unknown, H.E.A.T II sees the band returned to their core riff-based sound with a number of great stadium-worthy choruses and shredded guitar solos. H.E.A.T might not be the most original band out there, but they are one of the best modern AOR acts going in my opinion, and their back catalogue has a wealth of anthemic songs. H.E.A.T II is probably one of my favourite albums from the band so far too, and this is because it just goes for the throat throughout. Each song is packed with a killer chorus, while the overall songwriting is sharp and perhaps a little heavier than the band are often known for. Like Lamb of God's album, H.E.A.T II is a back-to-basics release that ensures that the Swedish five-piece remain at the top of the tree when it comes to modern melodic rock. It is also retrospectively notable for being the band's last album with frontman Erik Grönwall, who left the band in October to be replaced by the returning Kenny Leckremo. It is a shame that Grönwall never got to tour his final effort with the band, but H.E.A.T II is a fitting end to his era of the band.
Listen to: Dangerous Ground, Come Clean & Heaven Must Have Won an Angel
5) Kansas - The Absence of Presence
While 2016's The Prelude Implicit was a great comeback album for the legendary American band, The Absence of Presence sees the Ronnie Platt era of Kansas really take off in a big way. The nine-track album is filled with all of the band's trademark sounds - with progressive rock, arena rock, and intricate musicianship all coming together to create something which is greater than the sum of its parts. What is more impressive is that the band's two newest members, guitarist Zak Rizvi and keyboardist Tom Brislin, essentially wrote the whole album - showing that a band can continue to thrive following the departure of their main songwriters and still produce excellent material. In truth, this is an album that could have been higher up the list, but I think my relative lack of history with the band is what is keeping it down at 'only' Number 5. Kansas are a band that I am continuing to explore and enjoy, and if I was to revisit this list again in a couple of years I can see this one placing higher. Nevertheless, The Absence of Presence is an album that I have been enjoying an awful lot this year, and I have to credit it with finally making me 'love' Kansas, rather than merely 'liking' them.
Listen to: The Absence of Presence, Jets Overhead & The Song the River Sang
4) Cats in Space - Atlantis
If H.E.A.T II was the best pure AOR album of the year, then Atlantis is the best overall melodic rock release of 2020. Borrowing more from the British glam rock scene of the 1970s than AOR, Atlantis is the British six-piece's fourth studio album - and their first with frontman Damien Edwards. All eyes were on Edwards here, but he knocked it out of the park from the off and proved throughout why he is the perfect choice to take the band forward. While I still feel that 2019's Daytrip to Narnia is a better album overall due to its slightly more progressive nature, the individual songwriting on Atlantis is some of the band's strongest yet. A few of the songs here would have been huge hits in a fairer world, and the lush production that the band have become known for sounds as good as ever here. In fact, there are times throughout the album that sound the biggest the band have ever sound - with layers of Queen-esque guitars and Def Leppard-esque vocal harmonies creating a sonic tapestry that all classic rock fans will enjoy. Cats in Space have never been shy of wearing their influences on their sleeves, and as a result Atlantis is a great retro rock album that is packed full of memorable songs and performances.
Listen to: Spaceship Superstar, Listen to the Radio & I Fell Out of Love with Rock 'n' Roll
3) Deep Purple - Whoosh!
Despite my review of Deep Purple's Whoosh! stating that I thought that Now What?! represents the best of modern Deep Purple, I think that over the past few months Whoosh! has surpassed the band's excellent 2013 release. Now three albums into their relationship with producer Bob Ezrin, the veteran British band are sounding more vital than they have for a long time. Now What?! is a great album, but I feel that Whoosh! has a real confidence and swagger about it - with keyboardist Don Airey in particular turning in a fantastic performance. This is possibly his finest recorded performance of all-time, which is staggering considering the amount of albums that he has been involved in over the years, but the rest of the band manage to match him for intensity. There are plenty of great instrumental trade-offs between Airey and guitarist Steve Morse; while the aging Ian Gillan finally seems to have found a way to use his diminished vocal powers appropriately. Gillan's performance throughout Whoosh! is wonderfully assured, and his unique lyrical and vocal phrasing that fans of his have become accustomed to over the years is still present despite his change of approach. While Blue Öyster Cult's album was more of a surprise due to that band's lack of studio activity of late, Whoosh! takes the crown for being the best album by a veteran classic rock band of 2020.
Listen to: Drop the Weapon, Nothing At All & Man Alive
2) Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You
Despite enjoying 2019's sparse Western Stars, what I really wanted from Bruce Springsteen was a new album with the legendary E Street Band. Prior to the release of Letter To You in October it had been 11 years since the Boss has recorded an album that solely featured his multi-talented backing band, but Letter To You turned out to be everything that I wanted it to be and more. Despite initially feeling that the album was short a couple of potent rockers, Letter To You has continued to improve with each and every listen, and I do not think that there is weak song here at all. Springsteen's knack for storytelling and cramming a number of deep themes into his compositions is as strong here as it ever has been, and the E Street Band sound really fired up throughout. From Roy Bittan's piano to Stevie Van Zandt's trashy guitar rhythms, Springsteen never sounds as good as when the E Street Band are behind him and Letter To You is a real tribute to this - with much of the album being recorded live by the band in the studio in a matter of days. Everyone gets a chance to shine throughout, but of course it is Springsteen that comes out on top. Pretty much every song here is now an earworm for me, and that is the reason that it has placed so high on this list. I really hope that he is able to tour this album soon too, as most of these songs are begging to be played live.
Listen to: Burnin' Train, If I Was the Priest & Ghosts
1) Conception - State of Deception
I said at the start of this piece how hard it was put this list together, and deciding which album was going to top it was no different. In the end I went with the album that hit me from the off with its power and moody tendencies, and it is also probably my most-listened to album of the year (one of them certainly). Conception's first album since 1997 has certainly received mixed reviews, but I loved it from the off and spending many months with it now has not changed my view. I like the album's compact nature, which makes it a very easy listen, but there are enough progressive twists and turns here to keep long-time fans of the band happy. As a long-time Roy Khan fan however, it is great to hear how vital and enthused he sounds here. His full vocal range is put to great use here, and it is probably his best vocal performance as a whole since Kamelot's 2005 masterpiece The Black Halo. Each time I listen to the album I hear something new, and it is usually something from Khan - a slight inflection or injection of emotion that just makes the song that little bit better. State of Deception is not just the Khan show however, with the whole band a few guest musicians pulling together to create something truly great. It would have been nice to hear a few more guitar solos from the great Tore Østby, but in truth his slightly restrained style fits in with the album's dark and moody tones. It is also these tones that have made State of Deception the perfect soundtrack to a pretty depressing year overall, which is why it is fitting that it should top this list and be considered my Album of the Year.
Listen to: The Mansion, By the Blues & She Dragoon
While the above is what I consider to be the best of 2020 from an album perspective, it is in truth only a snippet of the music that I have enjoyed this year. As I said earlier, there are a number of other albums that I could have included here, some of which I was sure would end up in this list. Some of them missed out as I have not quite given them the time that they probably deserve, while others have not been included as perhaps they did not quite live up to expectations despite still being enjoyable. Both Delain's diverse Apocalypse & Chill and Magnum's explosive The Serpent Rings could have easily been included here, as could Marko Hietala's excellent debut solo album Pyre of the Black Heart. His day job, Nightwish, also missed out as Human. :II: Nature. has not stuck with me as much as I thought it would have done - and also for the fact that the album's second disc still does little for me. I also wanted to include Paradise Lost's doomtastic Obsidian in the list too, but in the end there were other albums that I preferred just that little bit more. It just goes to show what a good year 2020 was for new albums, and also just how similar in quality many of them were. 2019's list was easy to put together as there were a number of absolutely stellar releases put out during that year that easily rose to the top, but this year was more consistent quality-wise. I have already looked forward to 2021's releases in yesterday's post, so all that is left for me to do now is to thank you all for reading my reviews throughout 2020 - and let's all hope for more strong albums to enjoy over the coming months!