Best Music of 2020

The global pandemic affected all aspects of our lives this year, and that includes music releases. A lot of bands found new ways to record, and with no tours to sell tickets and merchandise, I feel they could use our album purchases more than ever. My collection grew with 59 albums from 2020 as well as the usual catalog backfill.

One category of music that really rose in prominence this year was, for lack of better terminology, "solo albums from rock/metal guitarists". Paul Wardingham regularly makes appearances on my list, but this year he's joined by strong albums from John Petrucci (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment), Kiko Loureiro (Megadeth, Angra), and Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake, Dokken). We also got a couple of genre-busting surprise albums from Taylor Swift, which would qualify as my top 2 favorites from her.

All that said, progressive rock and metal tend to be my favorites, and this was an exceptional year for prog. There's a lot in my list to love for the prog fans. If you wish to be transported back to the 1970's with an album that sounds like the love child of Yes, King Crimson, and ELP, then definitely don't miss Wobbler's newest. Links to everything are below.

Top 6 albums of the year

#6: Lucifer III by Lucifer

The third album from German hard rock band Lucifer is my first exposure, and I find there's a lot to love in their 70's influenced occult tinged presentation. Johanna Sadonis is positively beguiling as the perfect front woman for the band. Their name will unfortunately mean that many in the US will likely never listen to their music; the subject matter is less of an issue as Sweden's Ghost has proved with their US explosion with their own 70's influence occult-centric "Meliora", my favorite album of 2015. If you skip this album because of the name of the band, you're doing your ears a disservice.

#5: Versions of the Truth by The Pineapple Thief

The Pineapple Thief have been delivering solid progressive rock albums for more than 20 years. I heard this release described as a salve for the fact that Porcupine Tree are no longer recording music. In truth, the style of this album feels more like a blend of the heavier bits of Porcupine Tree and the more introspective pieces of Steven Wilson's solo career. It probably doesn't hurt that drum legend Gavin Harrison is playing with the band (and also played with Porcupine Tree); he has a uniquely colorful percussion style that permeates a lot of the music here to cause the comparison. Regardless, this is an extremely well done and enjoyable album on its own right and easily earned a slot on my list this year.

#4: Rise Radiant by Caligula's Horse

The followup to 2017's "In Contact" and 2015's "Bloom" had pretty big shoes to fill. I consider Caligula's Horse to be one of the best modern progressive metal bands playing today, and this album certainly does a lot to cement that faith I have in them. This was one of my most anticipated albums of the year, and it has not disappointed even through what I imagine to now be running closer to a hundred plays than not. This is a perfectly crafted album: not just the writing, but also the recording and production care that went into providing us this welcome entry to their beloved catalog. Emotion and dynamics thread their way through the entire outing, and the experience is always enriching audibly and mentally.

#3: Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple's debut album "Tidal" absolutely blew up the music world in 1996, and remains a mainstay in my musical collection today. Her followup "When the Pawn..." was another massive hit for the singer, and spent a lot of time in my rotation in the early 2000s. Between then and now, though, I can't honestly tell you much about what she's been up to, at least in part because of the fall of radio (for me) and rise of portable music inspired by the iPod which debuted the same year as her sophomore effort. I still have many great memories of that debut album, so it was with some trepidation that I bought this new album on the recommendation of a friend.

Turns out I needn't have worried, because "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" is everything you'd hope for from a modernized version of Fiona Apple: still fiery and opinionated, with that incredible voice and sharp writing talent, refocused for 2020. I hope a new generation of listeners discovers this powerful and inspiring woman.

#2: Oceans of Slumber by Oceans of Slumber

I am, as always, entranced by the vocal style of Cammie Gilbert. The new self-titled album from Oceans of Slumber gives her many opportunities to show off a voice that would be just at home in a jazz club in the early 20th century as it does fronting a metal band in the 21st. The change in direction for this album is undoubtedly in part due to the substantial line-up change (both guitarists and the bass player are new, and two of the three provide backup vocals which include death-style growls). The sound on this album is even more lush and ambient than previous outings, and it becomes harder with every album to categorize them into any single genre. This is a band that deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

#1: Utgard by Enslaved

Enslaved return with a fantastic new album, a followup to my 2017 2nd place pick "E". This album is one that takes a few listens for the hooks to be fully embedded, but you expected nothing less than sonic perfection from the Norwegian progressive black metal standard bearers. From the harmonious chanting and tribal-feeling opening of "Fires in the Dark", through the post-punk inspired "Urjotun", and finally to the ambient-sounding and clean vocalized "Distant Seasons," this is surely their most diverse album, but still full of dark brooding power that epitomized the year for me.

Honorable mentions

Manifest by Amaranthe

Transitus by Ayreon

For the Music by Blackfield

Starting Over by Chris Stapleton

CMFT by Corey Taylor

Moment by Dark Tranquillity

Ohms by Deftones

Apocalypse & Chill by Delain

III by Demons & Wizards

The Phoenix by Derek Sherinian

Music To Be Murdered By by Eminem

Women in Music Pt. III by HAIM

Virus by Haken

Wonder Woman 1984 by Hans Zimmer

Mind Freeze by Haunt

Mother by In This Moment

Reunions by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Alive in Melbourne by Jinjer

Shapeshifting by Joe Satriani

Terminal Velocity by John Petrucci

City Burials by Katatonia

OPEN SOURCE by Kiko Loureiro

Lamb of God by Lamb of God

H V M A N . :||: N A T V R E . by Nightwish

Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic by The Ocean

Panther by Pain of Salvation

Obsidian by Paradise Lost

Day Zero: Rise of the Horde by Paul Wardingham

A View from the Inside by Reb Beach

RTJ4 by Run the Jewels

Obscura by Semblant

Motiva by Silentium

MMXX by Sons of Apollo

evermore by Taylor Swift

folklore by Taylor Swift

Titans of Creation by Testament

Abyss by Unleash the Archers

Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee

Dwellers of the Deep by Wobbler