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The 10 Best Metal Albums of 2021

Arena fillers, dwellers of the underground, and more. We run down the year’s finest — and heaviest

The year's best metal records included the latest from Iron Maiden, Mastodon, King Woman, and Portal (pictured clockwise from top left).

from top, left to right: courtesy of John McMurtrie; Clay Patrick McBride; courtesy of Portal; Nedda Asfari

Metal has always served as the perfect vehicle for catharsis, so it’s no surprise that the most notable metal offerings of 2021 — some of which were made while the world reeled in agony during Covid-related shutdowns last year — each provided a unique sort of escape: the determination of Iron Maiden, the chaos of Portal, the brooding of King Woman. Elsewhere, everyone from big-name headliners like Mastodon and Gojira to underground torchbearers like Skepticism and Panopticon took their dark arts to new heights (or depths). Here are the 10 best metal albums that got us through the year.

From Rolling Stone US


Converge, ‘Bloodmoon: I’

In the works since 2016, this stunning collaboration between hardcore legends Converge, gothic-folk priestess Chelsea Wolfe, her musical partner Ben Chisholm, and Cave In’s Stephen Brodsky was more than worth the wait. There’s none of the compromises or watered-down ideas that so often mark “supergroup”-style projects; everyone brings their A game here, their respective visions and talents blending to create a remarkably haunting post-metal song cycle that’s as brutal and bracing as it is melodic and atmospheric — and which proudly stands among the best work that any of the participants have produced. Will there be a Bloodmoon: 2? We should only be so lucky. D.E.


Carcass, ‘Torn Arteries’

On their 2013 reunion LP, Surgical Steel, Liverpool extreme-metal institution Carcass effectively rewrote history, combining the breakneck blurt that defined their earliest years with the polished rock & roll swagger they’d honed by the time of their ’96 breakup. On Torn Arteries, the second album of their second chapter, they finally sound liberated to forge ahead. It’s the most surprising set of songs they’ve released yet, ranging from playfully elaborate suites like the 10-minute “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited” to hard-grooving midtempo workouts like “Eleanor Rigor Mortis,” with a few familiar death-thrash ragers mixed in. As they expand their musical blueprint, Jeff Walker’s still-scathing growl (and enduring love of a vicious pun) and guitarist Bill Steer’s impeccable riffsmanship add that unmistakable touch of Carcass class. H.S.


Gojira, ‘Fortitude’

There are moments on Fortitude when noise overwhelms the melody — sparkly guitar harmonics, screeching feedback that bends in pitch, lost souls hollering — and when it happens, it’s beautiful. On Gojira’s seventh studio album, the French bruisers balance the walloping guitar riffs they’re known for with moments of euphoric melody, and in between, they’ve hidden all sorts of ear candy that makes you want to keep listening. It’s rare for metal, a genre known for its directness and purity of sound, to support so many textures. Even better, guitarist-vocalist Joe Duplantier uses these tableaus to rail against social inequity — deforestation (“Amazonia”), avarice (“Born for One Thing”), totalitarianism (“Into the Storm”) — making the record as heady as it is heavy. K.G.


Mastodon, ‘Hushed and Grim’

Mastodon’s last few albums sounded like dispatches from a mid-career comfort zone. Having streamlined their maximal prog-metal on 2011’s The Hunter, they made only minor tweaks to that radio-ready formula up through 2017’s Emperor of Sand. But Hushed and Grim makes bold new demands on the listener, and rewards them handsomely. It’s not only the longest Mastodon album to date, clocking in just shy of 90 minutes, it’s also the moodiest, befitting its title. Some tracks, like “Had It All,” plunge headfirst into somber ballad territory, while others, like “The Beast,” conjure R&B-like pathos. Elsewhere, we get everything from some of the band’s hookiest rockers to date (“Teardrinker,” “Pushing the Tides”) to some of their most awe-inspiring epics (“More Than I Could Chew,” “Gobblers of Dregs”). Once the album’s full scope sinks in, it’s clear that this a feast to file with your favorite Seventies gatefold classics. H.S.


Iron Maiden, ‘Senjutsu’

As much as Maiden fans may wish the band would rehash warhorses like “Run to the Hills” or “The Trooper,” the long-running headbangers have never looked back. Senjutsu, their 17th album, is their most progressive masterstroke yet. They still play the sort of hypnotic, vaguely Celtic riffs that made them famous, and frontman Bruce Dickinson could still win a John Henry–like battle with an air-raid siren, but as on 2015’s The Book of Souls, they’ve elevated their songwriting with more intricate structures and smarter lyrics than when they started out 40 years ago. Senjutsu’s longer epics (“Hell on Earth,” “The Time Machine”) are the best here — the group gets lost in the journey and brings listeners along with them — proving Iron Maiden are still innovators as much as they are legends. K.G.