If you'd picked up a pen at the end of last year and listed the things to look forward to in 2020, you'd have been spoiled for choice.
Whispers suggested the big names were back: A new AC/DC album, perhaps. The fruits of Guns N' Roses' long-awaited return to the studio, maybe. A new Deep Purple album, definitely. Plus a plethora of releases from rock's rising stars. And a year's worth of gigs to look forward to.
It hasn't quite happened like that. There's no sign of AC/DC. Or Guns N' Roses. Deep Purple's Whoosh! has been delayed until the summer. And gigs? Who knows.
Throughout all the uncertainty, rock has kept rolling. With the first three months of 2020 rapidly disappearing into the rear-view mirror, the picture is clear: 2020 has been a very good year for album releases.
Apart from Ozzy and Pearl Jam, the big names have been largely absent. But there's been some extraordinary releases from faces new and old, from the Killing-Joke-plays-Black-Sabbath bedlam of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs to the gleaming melodic highs of H.e.a.t. Don't let anyone tell you that rock music isn't in rude health in 2020.
These are the 25 best albums of the year so far.
Burning Witches - Dance With The Devil
Dance With The Devil is an absurdly exciting and wickedly nails-hard heavy metal record, full of dazzling musicianship, giant tunes and an overall sense that the Swiss quintet are giving the none-more-classic a significant sonic upgrade.
New vocalist Laura Guldemond asserts herself from the off, imbuing explosive opener Lucid Nightmare with a presence and punch that their previous records occasionally lacked.
The Cadillac Three - Country Fuzz
Their country is almost to the point of parody, with a harder southern rock edge to keep things interesting, and there’s not a single song on here that doesn’t tip its weathered trucker cap to the simple wonders of ice-cold beers and/or whiskey, while the rolling, swaggering Hard Out Here is nothing short of a rollicking game of redneck bingo, taking in brews, “hot girls”, NASCAR, smokes, hound dogs and chicken wings for a Nashville full house.
Mainly, this isn’t music intended to inspire soul-searching. With its fat, fuzzy riffs and living-for-the-weekend vibe, it’s made entirely for boozy barbecues and blokey banter, and maybe the odd trip to a monster truck rally. And you can be sure that The Cadillac Three wouldn’t have it any other way.
Candlemass - The Pendulum
One of 2020’s cultural high points thus far was the sight of Candlemass having a lovely time at the Grammys. The Swedes were nominated for Astorolus – The Great Octopus, a monstrous slab of epic doom featuring a guitar solo from Tony Iommi. They were robbed, of course, by a lengthy, Tony-free Tool song that literally nobody can whistle in the shower. It’s a funny old game.
Fortunately, disgruntled acolytes have The Pendulum to cheer them up: five fresh monoliths to The Riff (and a rather pretty acoustic outro), with iconic prodigal frontman Johan Langqvist bellowing soulfully throughout, and absolutely no mucking about.
Robert Cray - That’s What I Heard
Despite flirting with mainstream success and smooth, major-label productions in the 80s, Robert Cray has kept his feet and his supremely expressive fingers firmly rooted in the blues, whether he’s toughening up with a rock edge, channeling funk and soul or, as he also does on this album, drawing on gospel sounds.
When he’s not letting loose with some typically emotive soloing on this mix of covers and originals, his voice is still every bit its equal. Fans of his rockier side will particularly appreciate the dark, prowling funk rock of This Man and the nuggety edge to his take on Don Gardner’s My Baby Likes To Boogaloo.
Drive-By Truckers - The Unraveling
Drive-By Truckers always sounded like a good idea: super-smart lyrics, a rocky twist on country and an unashamedly progressive outlook. Alas their actual sound hasn’t always delivered, and too often they’ve surrendered to stodge.
The Unraveling (recorded at Sam Phillips’s place in Memphis) sees their righteous anger complemented by a musical surge, where the Steve Forbert-esque 21st Century USA is propelled by strings, and the spartan, atmospheric near-nine-minute Awaiting Resurrection is a slower, spooked state-of-the-nation address which evokes major-label-era Butthole Surfers.
Drive-By Truckers have never been angrier, but, just as crucially, they’ve never been more musically eloquent.
Greg Dulli - Random Desire
Having come up through the grunge era but never really fitting in with the sound of the time, it’s fitting that his first solo album is a master class in mining the musical spectrum, taking in everything from Prince’s carnal yelps on Scorpio to a sparse, desert-bound echo of Nick Cave’s devil-baiting gothic drama on A Ghost, somehow combining it with a backbone of Dr John hoodoo in a manner that seems entirely natural.
Taken as a whole, though, Random Desire could only ever have come from Dulli. It’s a deeply intimate, deeply beautiful examination of regret, loss, disappointment, solitude and personal demons, made all the more alluring by his warm, frank, subtly emotional vocals. As he reaches the status of elder statesman, here he takes the mantle with the utmost grace.
Five Finger Dearth Punch - F8
The blend of metallic muscle, melodic hooks and grungey turbo-complaining is familiar, but it’s working as well as ever on Full Circle, and has a gut-level incision on heavier tracks such as Bottom Of The Top.
There are even whiffs of power metal in the more anthemic flourishes, but their trump card is an immediacy of songwriting that many of their contemporaries would kill for.
The bonus tracks are particularly effective, with Making Monsters riding in on a juggernaut riff and Death Punch Therapy the aural equivalent of demolishing a house to treat anger issues.
Gorilla Riot - Peach
Soundgarden and Alice In Chains are clear influences, particularly on frontman Arjun Bhishma, whose impressive range and deep, rich timbre owe a debt to both Chris Cornell and Layne Staley, while shades of Kyuss’s stoner stomp entwine with the us-against-the-world attitude and riffing melodicism of blues rock, resulting in a sound as timeless as it is irresistible.
Expect nothing but great things ahead for these great apes.
Green Day - Father Of All Motherfuckers
Having delivered their latest bruising and brilliant portrait of gun-rampaging, post-truth America on 2016’s Revolution Radio, Green Day have knocked together a breezy pop-punk party record about, according to Billie Joe Armstrong, “not giving a fuck”.
There’s an age-defying playfulness in the glam hand-claps decorating White Stripes-blasted shimmy rockers like Fire, Ready, Aim and the title track, or the euphoric indie synth-pop of Oh Yeah!. On Take The Money And Crawl they come on like the love child of AC/DC and Arctic Monkeys.
Such carefree, nostalgic hedonism might be as untimely as offering Prince Andrew out for a Pizza Express, but it’s refreshing, comforting even, to have Green Day back in their exuberant element, unburdened by message or morality.
H.e.a.t - H.e.a.t II
H.e.a.t II is a gleaming chrome comet of pure class, its core DNA made up of 10 per cent cheekbone and 90 per cent ‘whoah-oah-oah’s. It’s all the more glorious because the band who made it know full well that it’s never going to sell enough to enable them to buy mansions in the Hollywood Hills with underground cineplexes and taps that run hot and cold cocaine.
In an age when truly blockbusting choruses are rare, H.e.a.t II possesses an embarrassment of riches. And therein lies the great tragedy of H.e.a.t: no matter how good a record they make, they’re destined to be overlooked for something trendier, shallower and way less exciting. But as long as they keep making records this good, there’s still hope in the world.
Kamchatka - Hoodoo Lightning
Opener Blues Science Part 1: Thunder Rise is a rollicking dose of pure stoner psych, replete with spiralling acid-rock solos and a skittering rhythmic undertow, while the title track proclaims ‘the power of the mojo hand’ before erupting into some of the cockiest-sounding proto-metal riffs you’ll hear this millennium.
The rest follows a similarly exhilarating path: balls-out and traditional, but peppered with smart, quirky ideas, from Rainbow Ridge’s snotty, Black Betty stomp to El Hombre Dorado’s spiky, lysergic strut. There’s no mistaking the real deal, and Kamchatka make it look easy.
Magnum - The Serpent Rings
The band succeed in weaving subtle twists into the song structures without taking outlandish risks, keeping things fresh without straying too far. The Archway Of Tears builds gradually with harmonious layers of keyboards and guitars to deliver a 10-storey chorus, retaining the orchestral flourishes of previous album Lost On The Road To Eternity, and strings also enliven opening rocker Where Are You Eden?
Tony Clarkin’s skill in crafting enduring melodies is in plentiful evidence; Not Forgiven and Madman Or Messiah featuring especially keen hooklines, belted with grit by Catley. As ever, the lyrics alternate between fantasy (the title track) and stark reality (Man). Free of any filler, The Serpent Rings looks set to continue Magnum’s hard-won late-career revival.
Naked Six - The Lost Art Of Conversation
The Lost Art Of Conversation is full of gutsy, sinewy punk rock vim that reminds you most of garage-y early noughties snarlers such as The Vines, Jet and The Datsuns, but their lyrical targets are very much of the moment.
The title track takes aim at all-pervasive social media, Song Of The City rails against the dehumanising effect of the urban jungle, Poison Apple despairs at the current post-Brexit state of the nation.
Elsewhere, the Floydian sax and psychedelic touches lacing 21st Century Brawl and Inside Looking Out add to the impression that this is a band who have their sights set beyond the limits of three-square rock’n’roll.
The Night Flight Orchestra - Aeromantic
Although not billed explicitly as such, Aeromantic is effectively a concept album, thematically driven by the bittersweet consequences of jet-set romance, each of its 13 tracks a cinematic vignette in an ambitious, opulent aero-opera.
The classic 70s and 80s rock is complemented by cheeky nods to ABBA (If Tonight Is Our Only Chance and This Boy’s Last Summer), Elton John (the fabulous title track), throbbing disco (Transmissions) and smooth 70s soul (Curves).
Aeromantic is euphoric, life-affirming, joyously over-the-top and all the better for it.
Ozzy Osbourne - Ordinary Man
There’s a case that Ozzy Osbourne operates best with his back to the wall, and his twelfth album comes off the ropes swinging. Eat Me has the album’s toughest riff and an enjoyably literal lyric (‘My meat is nice and tender’).
Today Is The End kicks off like Enter Sandman’s maladjusted cousin, before Ozzy’s melodic instincts sugar the pill. Holy For Tonight’s instrumental break is pure Beatles, as is the title ballad, with Elton John tickling ivories and taking the second verse.
If this is Ozzy’s swansong – and his lyric sheet, advancing age and post-millennial work rate suggest that’s not inconceivable – then, like Sabbath’s 13, it’s a credible end to an extraordinary career. But if history has taught us anything, it’s to never write him off.
Pearl Jam - Gigaton
It’s been seven years since the last Pearl Jam studio album, and the world has changed irrevocably since then. But thankfully some things remain reliably the same. Opener Who Ever Said is a by-the-book Pearl Jam rocker, its chorus a plea to check ourselves and not give up – ‘Whoever said: “It’s all been said”, gave up on satisfaction’ – and offers a solution that: ‘All the answers will be found/In the mistakes that we have made…’
And mistakes the human race has made are writ large and discussed throughout, from global warming – the melting icebergs on its sleeve, and references to ‘seas raising’ and ‘oceans rising’ – to political dissatisfaction and rage. But, ultimately, in these uncertain times, Pearl Jam have given us an unexpected album of hope.
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs - Viscerals
Pigs X 7 have reined in some of their more digressive tendencies of late, and this follow-up to 2018’s King Of Cowards does away with the superfluous fat to deliver a trimmer, more focused set of songs that, if anything, punch a little harder.
The Newcastle five-piece are imposing at full tilt. On Reducer, over crashing chords and Christopher Morley’s battering drums, frontman Matt Baty yells: ‘I’m not here for my health’, suggesting there’s more to the band’s mission than mere noise. In fact Killing Joke are as much a reference point as Black Sabbath on Viscerals, especially on the brutal World Crust. Utterly enthralling.
Rose Tattoo - Outlaws
In 2016, Rose Tattoo’s future looked bleak. Drummer Paul DeMarco’s imprisonment capped a decade in which founding slide guitarist Pete Wells and rhythm guitarist Mick Cocks lost their lives to cancer. Few would have blamed vocalist Angry Anderson for calling it quits. Against the odds, he returned in 2017 with an Oz-rock all-stars line-up featuring bassist Mark Evans (AC/DC) and guitarist Bob Spencer (The Angels) alongside Wells’s hand-picked replacement, Dai Pritchard.
Re-established as a potent live force, the new Tatts have made the risky move of re-recording their classic debut Rock N Roll Outlaws and three creditable songs (Snow Queen, Sweet Love and Rosetta) demoed for the record. The original is irreplaceable, but as an opening statement from the current crew this delivers bare-knuckle renditions of favourites (One Of The Boys, Nice Boys) and deep cuts (Remedy). Reverent with occasional new twists, Outlaws finds the Tatts alive and rabid.
Sky Valley Mistress - Faithless Rituals
By recording at the celebrated Rancho De La Luna studios in Joshua Tree, California, Sky Valley Mistress have not only tapped into the source of down-tuned rock, they’ve also added commendably to a legacy that includes Queens Of The Stone Age, Fu Manchu and Mark Lanegan, among others. What makes this album even more remarkable is that the band are not from parched environs, but Blackburn.
Like peers Saint Agnes, Sky Valley Mistress have infused a classic sound with a contemporary sensibility that drags the form kicking and screaming into the 2020s.
Characterised by tar-thick riffing and grooves that ensure as much rolling as rocking, the band are both conscious of the world around them (She Is So) and, as evidenced on bong-loaded centrepiece Blue Desert, keen to expand consciousness. Singer Kayley Davis matches the power of her bandmates throughout and the result is a highly recommended pile-driving debut.
Stone Temple Pilots - Perdida
On Perdida (Spanish for ‘loss’) there isn’t a power chord in sight; in fact the electric guitars spent the vast majority of the recording sessions collecting dust in their racks, while the four-piece crafted a mostly light-touch, airy, virtually acoustic collection.
Overall exuding a melancholic, longing feel musically and lyrically, but without sounding at all gloomy, it’s a record focused on looking back, recalling times good and bad, old friends, lost love, mistakes made, opportunities lost, all delivered in slow to mid-paced tempos and often with a Spanish feel.
While on first listen the album will surprise some Stone Temple Pilots fans and disappoint others, with repeated listens it could well come to be seen as being among the band’s best.
Supersuckers - Play That Rock N’ Roll
Supersuckers are more than 30 years old at this point, but Eddiie Spaghetti continues to crank out vital, life-affirming rock’n’roll in direct defiance of time’s incinerator. If Supersuckers had an expiration date, they musta burned it for fuel a decade ago.
This album is for that slavering rock’n’roll beast that still lingers inside us all, waiting for one too many drinks or an especially long weekend to come roaring back. We deserve this album, and we should suck it down greedily and with wild abandon. It’s right there in the title, man. Supersuckers still play rock’n’roll, and they do it better than just about anybody.
Testament - Titans Of Creation
At this stage of their lives, Testament could be forgiven for moving away from those trademark heavy roots. Thankfully, though, there’s no sign of these veterans losing commitment to full-on, riotous music.
This album thunders along right from opener Children Of The Next Level, as vocalist Chuck Billy roars with typical bullishness, complemented by guitarists Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson, who swoop and snarl in tandem.
There’s no respite as power surges through WWIII, Dream Deceiver and The Healers, yet occasionally they do head for fresh territory, as on the black metal-influenced tornado of Night Of The Witch and the doom stylings of City Of Angels.
Titans Of Creation is a peerless example of Testament’s craft, and among their best albums in a 30-plus-year recording career.
Those Damn Crows - Point Of No Return
This follow-up to Murder And The Motive takes the promise inherent in their debut, ratchets up the intensity 10-fold and positively rams home the qualities that made that record special. Here we have titanic riffs and instantly memorable choruses in blissful harmony, kind of like a Welsh Alter Bridge or Shinedown.
With Colin Richardson and Andy Sneap producing there was no chance this was going to sound anything other than immense – Send The Reaper with its Metallica-sized riffing, Kingdom Of Dust, Go Get It, Devil In My Pocket, just take your pick and prepare to be flattened by the breathless momentum.
Difficult second album? Nope.
Various Artists - Earache Presents: The New Wave Of Rock N Roll
Earache Presents: The New Wave Of Rock N Roll is an essential state-of-the-nation address. Rightly celebrating the scene’s British wing, it brings together 15 uniformly brilliant bands, all of whom are bringing something new and something different to the table.
What’s striking is how many bands here go beyond the usual suspects influence-wise. Sure, all of them have the DNA of Led Zeppelin, and The Black Crowes too. But you can hear The White Stripes in Jack J Hutchinson’s frantic howl, and Lzzy Hale would have been proud to call Tomorrow Is Lost’s We Are The Lost her own.
What’s even more striking is how many of these artists are female. Yeah, we should be over that conversation by now, but the sad fact is we aren’t. This album goes some way to redressing that, front-loading it with a run of superior-quality numbers such as Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin’ Stones’ Bomb Through The Breeze, Elles Bailey’s swampy Medicine Man and Verity White’s scything Inside Your Love.
Wishbone Ash - Coat Of Arms
In contrast to the overly bluesy direction of their latter-day albums, Coat Of Arms has pleasing, prominent overtones of their classic sound. Powell has credited recent addition Mark Abrahams (guitar) with re-energising the band, and, sure enough, strident opener We Stand As One bursts out of the traps with a renewed edge and hunger, twin guitar riffs to the fore.
The blustery title track and the folky Empty Man hit the mark with intricate long-form arrangements, allowing Powell and Abrahams to weave harmonised leads over shifting rhythms. A couple of weaker tracks (Floreana, Back In The Day) fail to connect, but the overriding consistency and variety make Coat Of Arms their strongest record in years.