Isolating solo this past year, hidden downtown in a much too quiet metropolis that would slowly become the American epicenter of a global pandemic, new music helped while away the much too idle hours while maintaining my sanity. The darker, somber and shadowy sounds of various unlit genres we love filled my headphones, sometimes even moved my body and soothed my languished soul.
These 30 albums, meticulously hand picked from an avalanche of nothing else to do but make music this year releases, stood and continue to stand above the rest. They impacted my life. Thank you, dear artists (and distributors), for making 2020 survivable. And now, dear reader, may these 30 essential 2020 albums impact your life as well.
Shouts out first to Indonesian teen neo gothers Camlann for their dreamy efforts, NNHMN for their stunning EPs (especially the first two), and La Scaltra for getting 2020 label distribution on their 2016 self release Cabaret which was enjoyed endlessly and would rank very high had it not been four years old.
30. Apocryphos: Against Civilization – Dark ambient favorite Robert C. Kozletsky of Pennsylvania returns charting guitar driven territory that’s still wrapped in that 4am solemn blanket of sound Apocryphos is known and loved for. With nature taking it’s space back during the lockdown, even here in downtown Los Angeles, these cold and emotional soundscapes made for 2020 soundtrack perfection. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Cryo Chamber
29. Forndom: Faþir – The historic traditions and melancholic scenes of central rural Sweden shape the musical universe of Forndom and on Faþir (father in Old Norse), L. Sward tunes into deities who sometimes offer nurturing wisdom and sometimes lead us into death and despair – albeit with an underlying purpose. Another sublime monolith of artful thick atmospheres rooted in ancient ways. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Nordvis
28. The Kentucky Vampires: Crimson Curse – They’re from Louisville, Kentucky, and they’re vampires! Well, the first part we know is true. Crimson Curse spills a warm red gothic rock puddle that’s dripping with superb song writing and performance, though the stereo production, which does work beautifully at times, often keeps this from really kicking ass. Nonetheless, a definite must for your collection. Favorite track: Saint Vincent. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram
27. Fearing: Shadow – These Oakland, California, based post-punk cold wave somber shoegazers have washed James Rogers’ vocals and gloomy lyrics in reverb beneath catchy guitar hooks for the kind of full length debut that Audrey Horne would love to endlessly sway to. In other words, “Isn’t it too dreamy?” Favorite track: Sherbert. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Funeral Party
26. Genetic Variation: Fortress of Solitude – Despite cliches, Morrigan De Veil’s latest cybergoth EBM release from Greece really built something strong last year, doing so with shards of Covenant and others to deliver many a solo late night dark kitchen dance party. All 10 tracks are quality pieces of construction, and created a fortress of solitude we all were in need of. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / ScentAir
25. Fall Shock: Interior – Italian electronic music artist Francesco Kay teamed up with death metal guitarist Markus O. to create an album of dark synthwave, synthpop, new wave anthems for a new generation. Whether listening or dancing, these urgent tracks call out to us in the here and now with deep musical roots into the past. Favorite track: The Holy Rage. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Manic Depression
24. Nils Frahm: Empty – This quietly melancholic classical crossover release of distant dark and sad piano and field recordings from the Berlin based musician, composer, and record producer, was reliably counted upon for many an unlit 2020 late night session. There’s an intimacy to this somehow too that plays out, yet reminds us that one day this too will all be lost like tears in rain. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Erased Tapes
23. Trobar de Morte: Book of Shadows – Trobar de Morte’s dark pagan folk offering is a compendium of legends and tales cradled by shadows, mysticism and esoteric traditions. Blending celtic, tribal and the neoclassical, Trobar de Morte, meaning “find death” in Catalan, takes us on a magickal ancestral journey and Lady Morte and her Barcelona, Spain-based band mates continue to astound us 20 years later. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram
22. Abu Nein: Secular Psalms – The highly anticipated full length debut from this enigmatic electronic dark wave trio from Malmo, Sweden, did not disappoint, and proved they can do anything, serving up a variety of styles and sounds. Rotten Garden and Love in Vain rank amongst the best singles last year. The end result feels a little disjointed, but we can’t wait to see what’s coming next. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Progress
21. Iamtheshadow: Pitchblack – We aren’t crazy about the cover either, but Pedro Code’s dark and emotional music out of Lisbon, Portugal, not only filled that Henric de la Cour void last year, Pitchblack is deep, thoughtful dark wave that travels inside your bones and blood to send projections from your soul to your mind. It’s end goal is to ultimately lead us towards the acceptance of our truest selves. If that sounds heavy, it is. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Cold Transmission
20. Icy Men: Low Light – Lytvyn and Den Stavitskiy of Kiev, Ukraine, dedicated this low lit dark wave goth rock release to victims of the Medieval Inquisition, and others born at unfortunate times only to be disallowed by societies which couldn’t understand them. Submerging us with minor guitar and synthesizer sounds, along with massive bass guitar, Low Light illuminates sorrow for all that was lost. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Cold Transmission
19. AES Dana: Inks – His 8th solo album is a synthesis of everything Parisian Vincent Villuis’ music has been, but Inks takes a liquid black deep techno bass step downward with deliciously dark ambient shading. You don’t often get to file something under melancholic, spooky and drum and bass, but Inks is something somber, cinematic and very special. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Ultimae
18. The Black Capes: Lullabies For The Dead – The Black Capes are a gothic rock band from Athens, Greece, and with this second release they’re becoming a real favorite. For us good gothic rock sometimes makes you smile as much as brood, and the self proclaimed “elite of all things dark” know just how to make that happen. Even their cover of Rain (Sisters of Mercy) takes on a new tone in their capable hands. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram
17. Matte Blvck: I’m Waving, Not Drowning – If Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails had a baby, one could only hope it’d sound this good. After dropping two favorite 2020 singles (Pure and Bare), we were excited for the oddly Stevie Smith reverse titled release, but it felt a little phoned in (2 decent instrumentals, a known DM cover that reveals nothing new). The majors on here are so out of your seat strong though they still manage to carry the whole. Matte Blvck, with a v now instead of an a. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram
16. Astari Nite: Here Lies – This debut release out of Miami, Florida, crosses gothic rock and post-punk while exploring themes of death, love and the occult. The resulting tracks, some with a Chameleons flavor, shine like rare shimmery stars in a truly empty midnight sky. Here Lies is poetic, brilliant, and if it was more than 7 tracks and a couple remixes it’d be even higher on this list. Favorite track: Disease of the Divine. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Negative Gain
15. Mary: Die Before Death – This Canadian melodramatic goth rock post-punk debut seeks to detail the evolution of finding the true self as well. Many were talking about Mary in September, and with good reason. The Robert Smith comparisons are justified, and while we love the cover and title, obviously, if this had been marketed differently it probably would have dominated alternative airwaves everywhere. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Cold Transmission
14. Desiderii Marginis: Departed – Swedish dark ambient mastermind Johan Levin delivered a sonic melancholic meditation on mortality, death and grief that was particularly on point for 2020. Departed takes us deep within a pitch black cave of cinematic horror film laden sound that concludes with new reworkings of a couple favorite tracks of his from the early 2000s. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Cyclic Law
13. Slow Danse With The Dead: Slow Danse With The Dead – Listening to the maudlin lyrics and deeply baritone vocals from this New Mexico based gothic/cold wave solo project always makes me smile. It’s his on point song transitions here though that really make this one of the most cohesive albums all year. Favorite Track: The Escape. Links: Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Bandcamp Profile
12. Selofan: Partners in Hell – The Greek dark synth duo did it again, not resting on their highly danceable cold wave infused laurels. Joanna Pavlidou’s haunting vocals and Dimitris Pavlidis’ throbbing bass guitar remain a match made in heaven and hell as their sound continues to evolve and is delivered in several languages. Favorite track: Absolutely Absent. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Fabrika
11. Horror Vacui: Living For Nothing – Horror Vacui’s gothic death rock from Bologna, Italy, is punker than dark, darker than punk, and packs more here into 8 little tracks and 30 minutes than most bands could ever hope to. They’ve stripped away previous production distractions to arrive with a powerfully memorable goth-punk album that is truly worth living for. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Agipunk
10. The Glass Beads: Therapy – These coldwave gems with silent film aesthetics shine like dark and sorrowful jewelry. The Ukranian band’s full length debut is strange, cold, tragic and sensual. Sometimes less can be so much more and these stripped down, affected and honest couch laid confessions had us coming back for more Therapy all year long. Favorite track: City of Anger. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Fabrika
9. Delphine Coma: Tortuosa – The Austin, Texas, band’s highly anticipated 2nd album combined dark wave, post punk and shoegaze to create a mesmerizing wall of sound we loved getting lost in for hours. Ashe Ruppe and Amendoa Lizzbeth Tamburri describe their sound as “The ideal meeting between Sisters of Mercy and My Bloody Valentine.” One of our favorite 2020 covers too. Favorite track: Desolation. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Swissdarknights
8. Hørd: Bodies – Arctic synth pads, ghostly reverbs and urban spleen deliver Hørd’s shoegaze gothic/darkwave aesthetic from France, creating haunting soundscapes, sometimes beat-driven, sometimes contemplative, but always prolific. Hørd is the solo project of Bordeaux-based synthwave producer Sebastien Carl. Favorite track: #02. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Avant!
7. Beyond The Ghost: Eternal Drift – A dark and shadowy album from France ripe with film-like ambience and sonic details from abandoned cityscapes. You must have walked these streets a thousand times before, searching for someone, anyone. Eternal drift is our dark ambient album of the year cause it just doesn’t get much better than this. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Cryo Chamber
6. Iamnoone: A Primitive Trinitas – Offering two cold & dark wave intertwined perspectives, this Italian duo points us to the primal instinct, the flesh, while aiming at deeper more metaphysical knowledge via their very dreamy, hypnotic and oh so chilly music. The soft edges soothe and this quiet little creeper of an album just gets better and better with every listen. Favorite track: Stillborn. Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Cold Transmission
5. Hilary Woods: Birthmarks – A labor of intensity and intuition from Ireland, Woods’ recorded this while heavily pregnant, doing so in her slow, pensive and Lynchian tone, while taking a huge step up with this thoughtful and cohesive work. Field recordings, analogue bass synthesizers, hushed vocals, and the breath are underpinned with heavy noise processing. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Sacred Bones
4. Clan of Xymox: Spider on the Wall – It’s the legendary Dutch dark waver’s best release since their 4AD classic self titled (1985) & Medusa (1986) hands down. Of course seeing them play these tracks live just before lockdown really sealed the deal for us too. Whatever you’ve been doing (or not doing) Ronny Moorings, by all means keep it up! Favorite track: Into The Unknown. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Metropolis
3. Ataraxia: Quasar – 25 albums later, Italy’s Ataraxia, one of the most underrated dark wave/neoclassical bands of all time, present what can only be called a masterpiece. Ethereal gothic psychedelic time travel awaits on the other side of this stargate, mixing ancient and modern instruments within a dimension all their own. Ataraxia remain witchy and other worldly while blowing our minds again. Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram
2. Black Angel: Kiss of Death – These London sorcerers took familiar goth rock shades, added pinches of black metal and death rock, a dash of goth-punk, and a dose of danceable dark wave, put it all in a hot fired cast iron cauldron and spun themselves one hell of a spell. Inspired by “The Whip”, an 80’s UK club that played the best goth music, Black Angel combines elements from Matt Vowles favorite legendary bands, and they’re doing it better than anyone else. Goth Rock Album of the Year! Links: Website / Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram
1. Schonwald: Abstraction – Schonwald knocked me out of my chair with their 4th album. Inspired by esoteric hymns, aesthetic mantras and echoes of savage human nature, while similar in mood to their previous releases, Abstraction’s dark wave post-punk here is technically improved, stronger and even darker too. All we can say is: Album of the Year! Links: Bandcamp / Apple / Spotify / Instagram / Manic Depression
That’s our Top 30 Unlit Essential Albums of 2020. Congratulations to all who made the list, and thanks for joining our official site launch with a look back at the year that was. After all, we’re not only celebrating some amazing music, we’re giving you a good look at what Unlit is all about. Did our selections show up on your list as well? Do you disagree or think we missed something? Let us know in the comments below.