(Long-time NCS contributor Wil Cifer weighs in here with his picks for the favorite Top 20 metal albums of the year.)
There are voices that cry out against lists such as these, saying music is subjective, and its merit cannot be measured . The obvious flaws with this might include highly derivative artists who are tribute bands trying to pass off songs as originals. The real measuring stick for a great album is songwriting. Do the songs get stuck in your head, finding you returning to them with a craving to hear more? How well music stands up over the course of time is another, though an end of the year list is not the best unit of measure since they have so far only endured 12 months at most.
My Last FM determined how much I actually listened to an album. Writers want our lists to appear as cool as all the other writers because the Corpse Painted Butt Plug demo is on it, but if I only listened to it once how inspiring could it really be? Sounding brutal is the easy part, you only need the right gear and producer, but writing songs is more telling . A rip your face off guitar tone might hold my attention for the first song, then after that the question is … but can you write a song?
Thus the number two album on this list had more songs that hooked me in far more listens than the number 12 album on this list. It does not mean number 13 sucks. The fact they made this list at all is impressive considering that I listen to what averages out to 3 new albums a day, and some days if I am spending hours typing away it can be as many as 6 or 7. So the conservative estimate with this formula is 1080 albums a year. They either show up in my in-box, or I contact labels, hunt them down on torrent sites, or peruse Bandcamp.
I might have dug albums by bands like Tomahawk and Mastodon but they are not metal (in my view) so will not be on this list. For those types of albums I write other lists for more appropriate publications or sites who focus on those genres. Truth be told, the new Danny Elfman, which is heavier than you might expect, might be my favorite album of the year, but heavy is just one color he paints with.
If you regularly read my reviews here it will not surprise you that these artists tend to be sonically heavy forms of metal and the bulk are also pretty dark. Many use sonic shades outside of the traditional bounds of metal. While there is a wide range of genres here from progressive metal to sludge, only two black metal albums made this year’s list, with death metal and doom claiming the most slots. Perhaps among them all you might find an overlooked gem that brings you the same joy it brought me. Here are my top 20 metal albums of 2021.
20- Withered – ”Verloren”
I admire the fact this band is in a state of constant evolution. Grief Relic being my favorite to date, here they bathed their former earth metal stage in atmosphere and emerged with a sludged out brooding. Due in part to the band crawling out from under another lineup change with a new guitarist and bass player. It continues to grow on me with each listen.
19- Bridge Burner – “Disempath”
This New Zealand band blends genres into a style that could only be defined as heavy as fuck. While the lead growler grew up listening to more hardcore music than Morbid Angel, the hyper aggression and dark violence of the guitars make this death metal at the angry heart of these songs, proving to be a fun listen.
18- Hundred Headless Horsemen – “Apokalepsia”
Finland had a strong year when it came to exporting metal. Of all the Finnish death metal I came across this band set themselves apart the most. They are not ones to overtly beat your eardrums into submission, but weave their attack around you in a more progressive fashion while still wallowing in the darkness of your soul.
17- Confusion Master – “Haunted”
Germany must have better weed these days, as these worshippers of the evil bong bring to life droning mesmerizing grooves. The ghostly whine of the vocals deliver lyrics dealing with horror movies or serial killers. Taking drugs is not required for this album, but it would be a whole lot cooler if you did.
16- Plaguewielder – “Covenant Death”
The first of two black metal bands that made this year’s list. While they do not shy from blast-beats , they are just not a one-trick pony that relies on them. They have expanded their sonic range to bring a darker, more melodic sound that is in the same aural zip code as Tombs. It is their songwriting that earned them the spot here where hundreds of other black metal bands that showed up in my inbox this year fell short.
15- Crypt Crawler – “Future Usurper”
This Australian death metal band understands that being progressive means to take the song somewhere and not an excuse for obtuse wanking. The riffs have the kind of hooks that recall old school thrash and snarled vocals articulate enough to understand the lyrics. It’s more of an adventure than a math class.
14- Noctambulist – “Noctambulist I: Elegieën”
The second of the two black metal albums that made this year’s list. More atmospheric than Plaguewielder, the expansive songs wander out into a gray wilderness like where Agalloch once ventured. They deliver everything fans of your more generic veins of black metal might want to use to maintain their scowl, while sprawling it out into something with more sonic grandeur.
13- Sunnata – ”Burning in Heaven, Melting on Earth”
If you asked me where I thought these guys were from when I first heard this album I would have told you Arrakis, not Poland. My second guess might have been Seattle. They hynotize you before raping your ears with their psychedelic wall of sludge. The sonic darkness stirred up by their instruments is heavier than any wall of Orange Amps no matter how the gain is boosted.
12- Hooded Menace – “The Tritonus Bell”
I was over the whole death-doom bandwagon even before it could gain much momentum. This Finnish band is an exception to the rule as really they are just playing old school death metal with an emphasis on darker guitar melodies that hook you in. The fact they covered W.A.S.P’s “The Torture Never Stops” should tell you all you need to know about paying homage to an era of metal that is timeless, and it paid off when it comes to nuanced songwriting.
11- Ruin – “Spread Plague Death”
I do not want kinder, gentler death metal. I want death metal that celebrates death. This album accomplishes that in such a grisly fashion it makes your ears feel dirty afterward. The bludgeoning blast sections are balanced out by eerie guitar melodies that even at their most brutal serve the song.
10- Glassing – “Twin Dream”
This album is at its heaviest when they are choking you with the atmosphere. Hardcore, screamo and sludge are the instruments of torture they use to paint this portrait with the blood of your eardrums. All that and they come from a place of honest emotion that shines through rather than cut-and-paste tough guy posturing.
9- King Woman – “Celestial Blues”
One good thing about the demise of the clown world we live in is that the bleak nature of the coming end of things is more tangible. This is making many artists like King Woman, who have had a heavy undercurrent, lash out and give into anger with full-on snarling vocals and chugging guitars here. The odes to Lucifer being some of the album’s highlights.
8- Monolord – “Your Time to Shine”
Their 5th album recalls the more classic Sabbath-influenced groove of their first rather than following the trajectory of their 2019 album into blues rock swagger. Not to say the weed in Sweden is any less potent these days, their riffs just hold more weight here.
7- Flotsam and Jetsam – “Blood in the Water”
The masters of power thrashing put younger bands to shame with the energy they summoned in throwing themselves into these songs. While it might not clock in at the same BPMs as No Place For Disgrace the deliberate nature of the riffs gives this a heavier sound.
6- Cynic – “Ascension Codes”
A return to their more metallic beginnings. Since the deaths of two crucial members, this album pays homage to what they did and brings the past into the future, their past being more metal, making this one of their heavier albums even with all the New Age alien meditations.
5- Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – “Bloodmoon I”
Two of my favorite artists combine their powers like the Wonder Twins to create songs that play to the strengths of what both do. When you consider the myriad of styles both employ it was not an easy feat, and while it leans on the more sludge side of Wolfe’s excursions into heavy, there’s enough room for her to explore her singing.
4- Witnesses – “The Collapse”
Heavier than their previous album DOOM II, here they employ the more traditional weaponry of metal. Where the story told on DOOM II was one of lingering foreboding, this one is the climax of the fears explored in that narrative. This band continues to excel at concept albums that are not overburdened but the storytelling.
3- Hypocrisy – “Worship”
The second album about aliens on this list. Where Cynic is peaking on a DMT, these guys crashed and realized the reptilian overlords are not benevolent beings that want us all connected. The lyrics are just as heavy as ther hitting refresh on the hooky ’90s groove of death metal to take us back to a place where death metal had catchy songs.
2- Iron Maiden – “Senjutsu”
The only reason this album did not take the top spot is it plays too safely within the toy box of sounds this band has played with since the beginning of their careers. However with a band like Maiden it’s a catch-22, as you want their legendary legacy untarnished by something that is not their classic sound. The key for them here is Bruce sounds great and they do not just punch the clock by recycling riffs from their greatest hits.
1- Portrayal of Guilt – “We Are Always Alone”
This album brings the sonic shade of heavy I love. The vocals could not be meaner or more suited to rage the chilling chord structures. This is a beautiful dark mess that kicks your face in, which is the most fitting soundtrack to the world right now. They prove just because you are confrontationally heavy does not mean you have to give up writing dynamic songs worth returning to. Which is why this was my most listened to metal album of the year and taking the number one spot.