It’s that time of year where Limelight Magazine ranks its top 10 albums of the year. While the pandemic wrecked havoc on the world in 2020, it was a great year for new music which brought comfort during these challenging times. Here are the 10 best records of 2020. We highly encourage our readers to give these albums a listen or even add them to your collection.
#10 Deep Purple – Woosh!
On their 21st studio album and third with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, Deep Purple show no signs of slowing down. Woosh! is one of the band’s most diverse studio offerings. If there is one thing that stands out with Ezrin behind the boards is his ability to give the band the freedom to breath and have fun in the studio. Don Airey’s keyboard wizardry is more profound and at the forefront on most of the songs on the album. I thought no one could replace Jon Lord in Deep Purple but Airey has filled the part nicely with his keyboard excellence, especially on the Hammond A-100. The rhythm section of Roger Glover and Ian Paice is in typical fine form and guitarist Steve Morse continues to dazzle with his six-string tones and phrasings. It’s hard to believe that he has already been in the band for 24 years and has recorded six studio albums with them. Lastly, it’s interesting to note that the band re-recorded the instrumental “And the Address” from their debut album Shades of Deep Purple (1968). It is the first song on that album and it’s the last one on Woosh!, excluding bonus tracks. If they did this deliberately to mark the end of their studio output, it was a nice touch. But, here’s hoping the band doesn’t go away anytime soon. (Standout tracks: “Throw My Bones” & “Nothing At All”)
#9 Kansas – The Absence of Presence
On their second studio album since the retirement of former vocalist Steve Walsh, Kansas continue to exceed expectations in every way. From the first song “The Absence of Presence” to the final track “The Song the River Sang,” it’s clear the band made a concerted effort to record songs that were in the vein of former member and primary songwriter Kerry Livgren. Whereas their last album The Prelude Implicit (2016) was more prog rock sounding, this album has that quintessential Kansas sound with some of the best harmonies the band has ever recorded in the studio. Tom Brislin has replaced David Manion on keyboard and is another welcome addition to the band, writing or co-writing seven of the nine songs. Once again, we want to give major kudos to original members Phil Ehart and Rich Williams for keeping the band going for nearly five decades and raising the bar high for quality musicianship and songwriting. (Standout tracks: “The Absence of Presence ” & “Throwing Mountains”)
#8 Metal Church – From the Vault
I’m sure that it is tempting to simply write off From The Vault as a run-of-the-mill compilation release since if features live cuts, songs left over from the recording sessions for the Damned If You Do album and other such material.
But if you do that, you are missing out on what I consider my own personal album of the year. While the various tracks may have been sourced from other parts of the band’s recording history, where they come from matters less than just how amazing the material actually is.
The newly written songs like “Dead On The Vine” and “For No Reason” are amazing. The Damned If You Do material like “False Flag” and “Tell Lie Vision” demonstrate that they could’ve been justifiably included on that release and the band’s covers of “Black Betty” and “Please Don’t Judas Me” are filled with a ton of emotion and adrenaline. Even the live songs fill a void you didn’t know you had!
Yes, strictly speaking, this is a compilation release. But the quality of the material amply demonstrates that Metal Church’s From The Vault is a utterly undeniably great album! (Standout tracks: “For No Reason” & “Above the Madness” – Jay Roberts, Special Contributor to Limelight Magazine
#7 Testament – Titans of Creation
While the studio output of some thrash metal bands from the 1980s has been inconsistent over the years, Testament never fails to disappoint. Since releasing The Formation of Damnation in 2008, Testament seems to only get better with age. On their 13th studio album, Titans of Creation contains 12 highly aggressive, in your face, tracks that matches anything up-and-coming bands of the genre have released. Furthermore, this album even raises the bar for their peers. If you’re a fan of trash metal, this a must have release. It’s full throttle from start to finish. (Standout tracks: “Children of the Next Level” & “City of Angels”)
#6 Stryper – Even the Devil Believes
When hair metal bands were at their peak in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I’ll admit that I never listened to Stryper other than when their videos aired on MTV. I found myself drawn to the excesses of Motley Crue than the Christian four-piece band. While my musical tastes have expanded over the years, it wasn’t until the release of No More Hell to Pay in 2013 that I paid attention Stryper. That record blew me away. It was the first Stryper release I purchased and I eventually bought their entire back catalog to add to my CD collection.
Since that release, Stryper has continued to create the best music of their career with Fallen (2015), God Damn Evil (2018), and again with this year’s Even the Devil Believes. This record oozes confidence, supreme songwriting, and showcases all the elements of Stryper’s trademark sound, from catchy rock (“Make Love Great Again”) to emotional ballads (“This I Pray”) to the hard and heavy (“Divider”). Whether you are a casual or die hard fan, this is definitely an album you need to listen to and have in your collection. This band continues to operate on all cylinders and we can only hope their renaissance continues well into the future. (Standout tracks: “Divider” & “Blood From Above”)
#5 AC/DC – Power Up
The first AC/DC album I ever bought was The Razor’s Edge in 1990. I recall reading a review at the time that said the band continues to release the same album over and over again. While that may be a detriment to some bands, it’s clearly worked in AC/DC’s favor throughout their career and they clearly take pride in it.
On AC/DC’s 17th studio album Power Up, which opened at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the band reunited with producer Brendan O’Brien who helmed Black Ice in 2008 and Rock or Bust in 2014. I still can’t pinpoint the reason, but those continue to be my least played AC/DC albums. I enjoyed O’Brien’s work with bands such as Stone Temple Pilots, King’s X, and Mastodon, but I was unsure if he was the right fit for AC/DC. Power Up clearly changed that perception as this is one of their best releases to date.
Every song on Power Up maintains AC/DC’s signature sound and is solid and catchy. It’s everything you’d want an AC/DC album to be with no filler. While this is the band’s first release without co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcom Young, his fingerprints are all over the songs. He received co-writing credit on every track with his brother Angus. To quote vocalist Brian Johnson from an interview in The Guardian on Nov. 13th, “When we were in the studio, and I was trying out singing certain lines, it just kept flashing through my mind: ‘Is this how Malcolm wants this song?’ Malcolm was a strong character. He just commanded respect without even trying. And even though he’s not with us anymore, it’s still there. We don’t want to sound gooey, but facts is facts.”
In short, AC/DC are once again not trying to reinvent themselves on Power Up, but instead proving that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Standout tracks: “Shot in the Dark” and “Demon Fire”)
#4 Blue Oyster Cult – The Symbol Remains
I have always found Blue Oyster Cult’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror (2001) to be a mixed bag. While I enjoyed the songs, I have played the album less than any other in their catalog. For a while, it looked like that was going to be their final studio effort, but the band surprised us this year by releasing The Symbol Remains on October 9th. The 19-year gap between albums has proven to be well worth the wait. Production-wise the 14 tracks sound amazing. Collectively, the songs contain all of the elements that Blue Oyster Cult fans have come to enjoy for nearly five decades. From the hard driving “That Was Me” to the instant classic “The Alchemist,” this album doesn’t disappoint and makes a strong case for them to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Yes, we believe they should have been inducted years ago and it’s a darn shame they have been overlooked for so long!)
As to the band itself, original members Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Eric Bloom are in fine form, while “newer” members Richie Castellano, Danny Miranda, and Jules Radino make many worthy contributions, especially Castellano who wrote/co-wrote many of the songs, sings lead on three outstanding tracks (“Tainted Blood,” “The Machine,” “The Return of St. Cecilia”) and co-produced the album with Roeser and Bloom.
In 2020, Blue Oyster Cult may not get the airplay or press coverage they once did. But it’s truly heartening to see a band who can still hold a candle to their glory days. (Standout tracks: “The Alchemist” & “Stand and Fight”)
#3 Lady Gaga – Chromatica
About 10 years ago, we ran a contest asking our readers to create their own supergroup of musicians. Our former managing editor had Lady Gaga as the lead vocalist of her supergroup and I was indifferent either way. Fast forward to February 5, 2017. On this date, Lady Gaga headlined the Super Bowl LI Halftime show and I was blown away by her performance so much that I actually started to listen to her music. I picked up her most recent album Joanne and loved the stripped back approach she took to this record. I eventually purchased her entire back catalog and saw her twice in concert since then. So, now that I consider myself a fan, it’s time to delve into her newest studio album.
On Chromatica, Lady Gaga has returned to her dance orientated pop sound of the early days of her career. Ignoring three orchestral interludes, the 13 songs are deep, personal and extremely catchy. In fact, each song could be a stand-alone hit on its own. As many critics have noted, Chromatica is Lady Gaga’s love letter to disco and house music and we fully agree with this sentiment. From the infectious lead single “Stupid Love” to the retro pop sounds of “Replay” and her collaborations with Ariana Grande (“Rain On Me”), BLACKPINK (“Sour Candy”) and Elton John (“Sine From Above”), this is Lady Gaga’s catchiest album since Born This Way. Quite simply, it’s pure pop perfection and we can’t wait to see her perform these songs live when it’s safe to do so again. (Standout tracks: “911” and “Sour Candy”)
#2 Alcatrazz – Born Innocent
Alcatrazz is one band that I never expected to release another studio album. After calling it quits in 1986, Alcatrazz resurfaced in 2006 and has had a couple reincarnations since then with various lineups. With the core lineup of vocalist Graham Bonnet, bassist Gary Shea and keyboardist Jimmy Waldo back together, the band recruited drummer Mark Benquechea and guitarist Joe Stump for the new record. So, how does their first album in 34 years hold up? It’s nothing short of fantastic and flat out rocks!
At 72 years old, Bonnet’s vocals are in top form and he belts it out on the title song “Born Innocent” and “Dirty Like the City.” Shea and Waldo, who are also members of the underrated rock band New England, are in fine form and always create magic when they record together in the studio. The percussive stylings of Benquechea fit in perfectly with the rest of the band. And while Alacatrazz will always be known for featuring young guitar phenom Yngwie Malmsteem on their debut album No Parole from Rock ‘n’ Roll (1983) and Steve Vai on their sophomore release Disturbing the Peace (1985), Joe Stump is every bit their equal. His fretwork is incredible especially on songs like “London 1966” and “Polar Bear.” In short, Alcatrazz is back with a vengeance and Born Innocent delivers the goods. (Standout Tracks: “We Still Remember” and “London 1966)
#1 Static-X – Project: Regeneration Vol. 1
Our top album of 2020 is a complete shock to us! Prior to this year, I never considered myself a fan of Static-X. My brother used to listen to their debut album Wisconsin Death Trip when he was a senior in high school, and I saw them twice in concert because they were part of the WBCN River Rave and Ozzfest lineups of 2000. If you asked me to name a song other than “Push It,” I sadly could not name one. I recall vocalist Wayne Static’s passing in November of 2014 at the age of 48, but other than that, I never paid attention to the band or even considered listening to them.
Fast forward to the spring of this year. While I rarely watch anything on TV, I decided to tune into the news to get an update on the Covid-19 pandemic. I accidentally hit a wrong number on the remote and ended up on the Music Choice Metal channel. Static-X’s music video for the song “Hollow” was airing and it immediately caught my attention. I absolutely loved the song and couldn’t get it out of my head. I went online to gather more information about the song and found out it was the band’s first single in 10 years taken from Project: Regeneration Vol. 1 that would be released over the summer.
In a press release, I read the album would include some of the last vocal recordings of Static and his role would be filled by new front man XerO. The album would mark the return of original Static-X members Tony Campos, Koichi Fukuda and Ken Jay and long-time producer Ulrich Wild who was behind the boards for Wisconsin Death Trip. I was looking forward to the release, and finally delved into the band’s back catalog for the first time.
While I liked almost everything I heard from their previous six albums, Project: Regeneration Vol. 1 is the band’s finest recording to date. The album is relentlessly heavy. The 12 songs manage to be both industrial and melodic with none of them sounding like leftover tracks that were omitted from previous albums. Finding a new vocalist to fill someone else’s shoes is no easy task but Xer0 absolutely kills it in every way, especially on “Otsego Placebo” and “My Destruction.” Static-X’s returning members don’t miss a beat and capture the essence of the band’s sound. But most of all, everyone involved in this project does Wayne Static justice. This is a pure Static-X album from start to finish and is the album that made me a fan of the band. I cannot wait for Project: Regeneration Vol 2 and to see the band perform some of these songs live when the pandemic is over. (Standout tracks: “Hollow” & “Terminator Oscillator”)