Beth’s Top Ten Releases of 2020
By Beth Jones
Well, what a year, eh? We’ve seen some terrible things happening, and we’ve seen some positives. We’ve also seen some things that are just completely weird and crazy. But through all that has happened in the outside world, terrible, bizarre, or otherwise, one thing has stayed steadfast. The quality of music being released.
In fact, if anything, the standard has taken a massive leap up, and I have been privileged and honoured to hear what is, in my opinion, some of the best music ever laid down. It has been an incredibly difficult job to formulate a list of my favourite, but after some wailing and gnashing of teeth, I’ve got my top ten. So here it is, my ‘crème de la crème’ of this historic year.
10. Vega – Grit Your Teeth (June 2020)
After 3 months of working from home, home schooling, and watching the daily briefings, we all very much needed a feel-good album. Enter classic hard rocker’s, Vega, with their sixth studio album. Riff laden and anthem driven, this upbeat album was the perfect antidote to the Groundhog Day we found ourselves in. I mean, who doesn’t need a bit of classic, 80s/AOR inspired rock in their lives, whatever’s happening outside, right?
9. Helix – Eat, Sleep, Rock (September 2020)
As September dawned, things were starting to look slightly more positive. Mainly because the kids went back to school!! This did however mean that I had to leave Wine O’clock until after the school run! But I didn’t mind so much, because I could listen to “Eat, Sleep, Rock” in the car. My little 7-year-old rocker approved of this greatly, and now knows all the words to the opening track, ‘The Story Of Helix’.
If you’ve never experienced Helix, then you need to. Hi-octane classic rock at its best, with an injection of dry humour, from a band who’ve been kicking it for nearly half a century. If you like AC/DC, Alice Cooper, et al, then you need this album in your life.
8. Tomorrow Is Lost – Therapy (March 2020)
In March, when things were still pretty normal here in the western world, a talented young band from Newcastle, UK, released their debut album, “Therapy”. Their catchy, alt rock/metal sound is masterfully captured on this album. It has thumping beats, memorable riffs, and super vocals a plenty. They’re a combination of Evanescence, Skunk Anansie, and Paramore, and it’s very good. For such a young band, they really display a great deal of musical skill and talent in this album, with well-constructed songs, that gel well, without needing to overstate anything.
7. White Walls – Grandeur (October 2020)
One thing that this year did give use was the truly splendid European Metal Festival Alliance – a virtual festival, which saw some of Europe’s biggest festivals come together to bring the music to us, in the comfort of our own homes! It was a great weekend, which let me discover even more new music! And one of those discoveries was Romanian progressive metal band, White Walls. They were easily my band of the weekend, so discovering their third album was due for release was very exciting.
They mix progressive rhythms, with hard hitting riffs and vocals, and have been compared to the likes of Opeth and Leprous. The album is inspired by the state of the world, exploring the juxtaposition of the grandeur presented by the shiny and glamourous things in life, vs the realities of life. Very fitting for the time we’re living in, and masterfully approached by the band, too.
6. Ensiferum – Thalassic (July 2020)
Nothing says summer better than folk inspired melodic death metal, right? And if you want to fill your boots with grand, orchestrated, all conquering, theatrical metal, then there’s no better way that to do that than with Finnish aficionados, Ensiferum. “Thalassic” is a truly stunning album, centred around the theme of the sea (which they have a fair amount of in Finland, to be honest). It’s full of jiggy, bouncing tunes, epic solos, and catchy melodies, and for me, is the liveliest release of the year. I will wager good money with anyone on the fact that you cannot listen to this album without indulging in a bit of headbanging/dad dancing, even if you’re listening to it through headphones, and everyone around you thinks you’ve finally cracked! Let’s face it, Ensiferum never really make a bad album, but this one has to be one of my favourites.
5. Freddy Spera – Temper (April 2020)
Freddy Spera is an Italian/Brazilian musician, who some may know as the hugely expressive bass player from Liverpool based band, Novacrow. He’s also an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist, and music producer. His first solo EP, “Temper” was definitely my easter treat this year. I didn’t know what to expect with it, but it only took me a few bars to make up my mind that it was absolutely stunning. It’s mellow, proggy, and in places, a touch on the 90’s indie/grunge side of things. Vocally, it reminded me of a lot of Devin Townsend’s recent releases, which pleased me a great deal, as Devin is a god amongst men in my eyes! I loved this EP so much that it was actually the first one to make it on to my list for releases of the year.
4. Kamelot – I Am The Empire: Live From The 013 (August 2020)
Now we’re getting to the business end of proceedings, and this is where deciding on who got the top spot for my releases of the year got a million times tougher. So, here we go with the top four, who are all separated by the smallest of margins.
August saw the release of an epic live album from American Symphonic Metal giants, Kamelot. I’d never really listened to Kamelot before (I know, I’m a fool – you may all point and laugh) but was completely blown away by this release. “I Am The Empire: Live From The 013” is nearly 100 minutes of extravagant, indulgent, perfection. It brought me pure joy, in the shape of stunningly orchestrated compositions, with grand melodies, both new and classic, encompassing intricate harmonies, powerful rhythms, and insatiable instrumentation that fills every beat with drama and beauty. All this is topped off by the spine-tingling vocals of Tommy Karevik. And if that wasn’t enough, there are guest appearances from the likes of Alissa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy), Charlotte Wessels (Delain), Elize Ryd (Amaranthe), Lauren Hart (Once Human) and Sascha Paeth (Avantasia, Epica and more)!
3. Osyron – Foundations (July 2020)
Canada has a bit of a habit of producing some kick-ass musicians. And Symphonic Metal band, Osyron, are no exception. “Foundations” theme is a view on Canadian history, spanning topics from the country’s colonization, to the mistreatment and recognition of indigenous tribes, and the country’s participation in global warfare. It’s hard-hitting subject matter, tackled superbly, by a very talented band. There was no doubt in my mind when I heard this album that it would make it high up on my top ten of the year.
Musically, it’s symphonic and proggy in all the right places, and if you like bands such as Nightwish, Symphony X, Dream Theater, Kamelot, and Wintersun, you’re going to like this. But the real masterstroke within this release is the lyrics. They’re superb, tackling difficult subject matter with emotional integrity, and displaying real thought and depth, to create something truly awesome.
2. Wilderun – Veil Of Imagination (July 2020)
Disclaimer – this was actually a re-release because they signed to a label. But it was simply too good not to include. Wilderun are a Melodic Death Metal band from Boston, Massachusetts, who chuck more than a hint of prog, folk, and orchestral elements into the mix, in order to create their sound. “Veil Of Imagination”, their third album, took me to places that most music doesn’t reach. It’s got such a musical intelligence about it, that creates something so beautiful it’s difficult to describe.
The dynamic peaks and troughs of this album are on a vast scale, going from full on, in your face, walls of sound, to subtle and tender solitary piano, and lilting vocals, in the blink of an eye. This is less of an album of individual tracks, and more a classical work of art consisting of many movements to make up a full symphony.
I originally listened to this release back in June, to write the review for it, and instantly had it as my album of the year, without question. They even managed to break maths, by scoring 11/10 from me. Simply superb. No other words are necessary.
1. Scardust – Strangers (October 2020)
So, as I said, for a large portion of the year I thought I had my top album pinned down in the shape of Wilderun. But then “Strangers”, the second album from Israeli progressive metal band, Scardust, happened.
This release made the impossible possible, reducing me to tears with its brilliance, and reducing my scoring system to irrelevant nonsense. It is, without question, a complete masterpiece, which my inferior words do not do justice to. It’s punchy riffs, insane vocals, equally insane solos, and orchestration that would have pleased classical renaissance composers, will, for me, remain unrivalled for a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I heard an album so complete, and so perfect. And it’s been added to the very short list of works that really hit me in the feels every time (Mozart’s Requiem, and Queen’s “Made In Heaven” are the other two).
Music truly is the only universal language. And good music, wherever it sits in terms of genre, is a powerful force for good. And, whatever the future holds, this album will always have a very special place in my heart, because of the way it spoke to me. And, for that reason, it takes my number one spot, by a country mile.
To sum up, in general, this year’s been a crock of shit. But musically, this year has delivered, and then some. And it’s been joyous to have the ability to share my thoughts on this wonderful language with you. To the bands here, and all the others who didn’t make my final cut, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. And to anyone reading this, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, take care, stay strong, and let the music play.
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