Dear readers, your votes have been cast, counted and your choice of best guitar album of 2020 has been thrown to the tender mercies of the democratic process.
What can we say? Well, it’s like the electric guitar is like a Mark Twain with strings: rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated, and they always will be.
Your favorite albums of 2020 showcase a wide variety of styles that all but chart rock ’n’ roll’s evolution, from its roots in blues right to a present day in which technology has shorn us of innocence, where virtuosity is cleaving new landscapes in guitar playing.
Pleasingly, the guitar instrumental is as popular as ever, but not just popular: the imagination behind the compositions shows no sign of running dry.
Just as the trailblazers before us, there are always new approaches, note combinations, tones and phrasings to take guitar playing somewhere new. We just have to work at it. We just have to be open to them.
20. Larkin Poe – Self Made Man
Megan and Rebecca Lovell play a style of music threaded from the very fabric of American popular culture, music that generations have played before. Only the Lovell sisters are not the sort of revivalists who see life through a sepia filter, nor do they feel the need to cosplay some imagined past of southern roots and blues. They are modifying it, one song, feelgood hook, lick and melody at a time. Self Made Man is a fun record. It’s life-affirming. And it’s kinda funny, too.
Take the title track, She's A Self Made Man – it's not taking life too seriously while making the point that this music belongs to everybody, and only thrives upon thrilling reinterpretations such as this.
And the guitar playing dynamic, with Megan on her lap-steel (she also experimented with a baritone lap-steel on this one) and Rebecca, typically on a Strat, has a telepathic understanding that binds these jams together.
19. Covet – Technicolor
Yvette Young is part of a new generation of guitar players who have seemingly transported to this cursed rock from another star system entirely, and are clearly set on rearranging our magnetic north away from the 5s, 7s, and 8s of the pentatonic rock paradigm towards more musically adventurous note choices. Yet as ambitious and technically adroit as Young is, her songwriting, feel and, indeed, her tone are all endowed with an organic and musical quality.
There are some guitar players you’d want to analyze in a lab, with the suspicion that, yep, they are not a carbon-based life-form. At least, nothing that was ever committed to tape would support their case. But not Young. The tones and textures on Technicolor – which, gun to the head, you could call math-rock – are very much of this earth. Hell, this is just indie pop-rock as composed by a genius.
18. Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo
Even amid the frenzied tenor of 2020, the re-emergence of Mr. Bungle with frontman Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn and guitarist Trey Spruance being joined by thrash blue bloods Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo on guitars and drums respectively, was a hell of a story. And how appropriate that the unlikely comeback of one of the West Coast’s most gonzo rock acts of the '90s should have a stylistic spasm as to record an album of wall-to-wall crossover thrash.
Mr. Bungle always was a riot, the Looney Tunes cartoon versus the Citizen Kane of, say, Faith No More, only this time it was of the mind and the body, as they take you into delirium and on into a state of catatonic mosh.
17. Deftones – Ohms
Congratulations, Stephen Carpenter, your riff for the title track made the Top 10. The people agreed; yes, this was exactly the sort of release that was needed. But it’s just one act of greatness in an album that's full of them – full of left-field ideas, sounds to get lost in. In 2020, the word “boutique” is engrained in guitar culture. It is to gear what “craft” is to beer.
Nothing just “is”. But even if that is symptomatic hyperbole’s command of our critical faculties – maybe not, just a theory – let us embrace the modifier and declare Deftones a “boutique metal” band, because that’s very much how they sound.
A hugely popular metal band who make you feel like you are listening to My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins? As in, that’s the emotional payoff… C’mon, who does that?
STAFF PICK: Adrianne Lenker - songs/instrumentals (opens in new tab)
Recorded in a secluded cabin in the woods of Western Massachusetts, Adrianne Lenker's songs/instrumentals is one of the great double-albums of the 21st century so far. Its two diametrically opposing halves are tied together with skillful, hypnotically beautiful acoustic guitar playing that tethers Lenker's songs to earth, while – sometimes almost in the same breath – simultaneously pushes them to scarcely believable heights. – Jackson Maxwell
16. Al Joseph – Labyrinth
The idea of someone rewiring progressive metal guitar playing sounds intriguing on one hand, and a little too “science lab” on the other. After all, if you need safety goggles and a lab coat, is it even music?
But Al Joseph – leader of HYVMINE, blower of minds – performs that activity on the D.L. While you’re following where that guitar part is going, he’s clearing the dead wood from the forest. Just as we try to grasp how he plays something, he’ll pan out and to leave you with a piece of audio that is akin to seeing the night sky for the first time.
The technique is off the charts but who cares – most of us won’t get that good, most pursue other styles – this is guitar playing as world-building.
15. Sons of Apollo – MMXX
Sons of Apollo were either born too late or too early. You decide. On one hand they have a '70s sensibility when it comes to progressive-rock largesse – one that extends beyond their tastes in gear – and yet, on the other, they are resolutely modern.
Their flavor of boogie often lies in that double-whopper djent style, with the chemistry between Bumblefoot’s guitar, Billy Sheehan’s bass and Mike Portnoy’s drums the secret sauce.
Stylistically daring (and how could they not be, given the personnel), Sons of Apollo come across as more band than supergroup on MMXX. Still, there’s a heck of a lot of super going on here. Double-necks, multiple banks of synths, bandanas… Gentlemen, this is a Wendy’s!
14. Pearl Jam – Gigaton
Pearl Jam swung for the fences with Gigaton. Pearl Jam have always been swinging for the fences. A grunge band who decided to busy themselves playing a totally different style, inconsistent with what grunge was supposed to sound like, Gigaton found Stone Gossard and Mike McCready in expansive mood.
It found them playing around with our expectations. Of course, all the elements were there. Eddie Vedder’s voice, power undiminished by the years, remains a focal point. The groove, which made Pearl Jam a poor fit for grunge in the first place, remains tight – verging on disco on Dance of the Clairvoyants.
And with Comes Then Goes, Pearl Jam once again prove themselves masters of nu-Americana, with a masterly blue-collar ballad.
13. Testament – Titans of Creation
What keeps the Testament recipe so fresh? Undeniably, a lot of it has to do with frontman Chuck Billy’s no b.s. quality control, which, as guitarist Alex Skolnick describes it, is unsparing, like bearing gifts for a medieval tyrant whom you very much would like/need to stay on the good graces of.
Or it could just be his drive and dedication, which on one memorable occasion, had him answering the phone for an interview while sitting in the dentist’s chair. Then you have Eric Peterson, who knows exactly what is required to make a Testament riff work, how to make the song hang together, and then Alex Skolnick putting his jazz trio chops and studied genius into the lead parts.
Seriously, they should do a TED Talk on this. Front to back, Titans of Creation is packed with jaw-dropping moments, feel changes, riffs upon riffs. That’s entertainment. Heck, that’s value for money.
STAFF PICK: Pallbearer – Forgotten Days (opens in new tab)
Ironically enough, this masterpiece from Pallbearer was forgotten from this coveted list. Fortunately, we’re on hand to administer some editorial CPR, restoring both balance and order to the chaotic planetary network that is this year’s top guitar albums. Sure, Open Source is the Sun around which the other celestial bodies orbit, and while heavyweights Terminal Velocity and C.S.I.L. may take the place of Jupiter and Saturn, somewhere in the latter’s rings sits Forgotten Days, with enough doom-metal weight to keep the entire system from collapsing. – Sam Roche
12. Lamb of God – Lamb of God
Is there a more sinewy cut on the butcher’s slab than the Lamb of God? Seriously, Willie Adler and Mark Morton’s guitar sound is like Iggy Pop’s torso circa-’71, and it wraps itself round some of the biggest grooves we have heard in metal.
This record has been a long time coming, but for Adler and Morton it’s like riding a bicycle – the momentum keeps driving them forward. It helps that Art Cruz picks up where Chris Adler left off on drums, because if ever there was a metal band who leaned hard on their drummer for direction it is LoG. But the venom, the aggression, the energy remains undiminished for the undisputed heavyweight champions of the groove.
If only Rocky Balboa had this album back in ’76, he wouldn’t have had to have run up all those stairs to get ready for the ring. And no raw eggs for breakfast.
11. Richie Kotzen – 50 for 50
Oftentimes, we take our hats off in appreciation for Richie Kotzen because he has done something improbably musical in an improbably virtuoso fashion, but can we just take a moment to appreciate this young man as a maven and practitioner of guitar tone? Signature Victory amp or not, Kotzen’s sound really is premium-grade, top-line.
No matter how you slice it, 50 for 50 is a big deal. Here, Kotzen got up in the morning, realized that life was getting too easy, and so decided to record 50 songs to commemorate his 50th birthday. It'll be interesting to see what he does when he’s 60.
Needless to say, this is a concept that will get more difficult as the years go by, the cake becoming a fire hazard, with vinyl releases so heavy you need a flat-bed truck to bring them home from the record store. Many happy returns, Richie.
10. Marty Friedman – Tokyo Jukebox 3
With melodies more sophisticated than a Daikanyama boutique, more energy than Shibuya at rush hour, and… Okay, you get the picture. Anyway, Marty Friedman’s third installment in his Tokyo Jukebox series is another stylistic supernova that performs a neat trick in actually capturing the hyper-sensorial delight of walking around downtown Tokyo during magic hour.
We were introduced to Friedman as Jason Becker’s wingman in Cacophony, before he brought some box-office lead-guitar magic to Megadeth’s golden era, but it’s only in recent years that we're really getting to know him. His style was always so inherently melodic, so crafted, so vivid; it jives perfectly with the neon-lit streets of Shinjuku, and brings this material alive.
9. Intervals – Circadian
There is something resoundingly meta about Aaron Marshall’s style. And this, no doubt, is unconscious. It’s not like there seems like there's a grand design at play, that he pulling all these different elements together – arcade melodies, feel-good rock, etc – on purpose.
Intervals’ sound is too instinctive for that, but there is a Ready Player One feel to its arrangements, a multicolor cavalcade of progressive metal arrangements that resist the alien sci-fi atmosphere that can leave some of his contemporaries out there in inhuman cold of deep space. His is a more playful and earthbound brand of feel-good virtuosity.
STAFF PICK: Loathe - I Let It in and It Took Everything (opens in new tab)
2020 was set to play host to a new Deftones album, but in February – before the world fell apart – underground UK metallers Loathe released a collection of baritone-fuelled anthems so brutally beautiful that the collective guitar consciousness briefly forgot about the long wait for Stef Carpenter and co's latest opus. Yet to make such comparisons sells ILIIAITE's ambition short; its metalcore freneticism is tempered by ambient interludes, driving alt-rock and melodic hardcore – not to mention littered with must-learn riffs across an astonishingly realized 14-track journey. – Michael Astley-Brown
8. Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man
Ozzy Osbourne is many things. He once tuned car horns in a factory. He gave voice to heavy metal. He then ate a bat, snorted ants, shaved his head and wore a thrift store wig that had to have the desiccated wasps removed from it before he could take the stage.
He also was the subject of a fly-on-the-wall reality TV series and urinated on the Alamo. Ozzy is many things but Ordinary Man he is not. His first solo album in a decade is no ordinary record either.
Produced by Andrew Watt – who no doubt will be getting headhunted by some major cat-herding conglomerate out of Utah – Ordinary Man gathers an all-star supporting cast to support Ozzy’s inimitable pipes, with Slash, Post Malone and Elton John all featuring on the record.
Watt provides much of the guitar playing himself, too, and it is one of Ozzy’s under-celebrated achievements that whenever his name is on a record sleeve the playing in it is guaranteed to be more than ordinary.
7. Trivium – What the Dead Men Say
Corey Beaulieu and Matt Heafy are good enough to do epic. Not many are. Many think they’re good enough, as though playing the …And Justice for All tab book front-to-back is enough.
What’s really needed, and what these cats showcase on Trivium’s latest album, What the Dead Men Say, is endurance, and not just in terms of playing but imagination. There’s a lot of music here and it’s got to stitch together, and for that you need a lot of ideas.
Many of you voted for the title track as riff of the year, but, see, that’s the thing: there are multitudes of riffs on that one track alone. Sometimes a riff will repeat itself, but in the process of the song the riffs evolve, multiplying like Mogwai under a power shower.
6. Joe Satriani - Shapeshifting
While it’s too soon to call Shapeshifting the defining album in Joe Satriani’s career, it nonetheless is a defining album. In the sense that, if the Martians were to land tomorrow, and demand someone explain the concept of Satch to them (once they had complained to their travel agent, surely), this would do the trick.
It’s a quintessential document of Satriani – his style, his influences, and his gift for telling a story through instrumental music. Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me? That’s ridiculous, audacious, threading the history of rock from Farka’s proto-blues rock through Dick Dale’s inverted Strat surf style.
And then the Alien and Me? Well, that’s Satriani on both counts, a comment on both his otherwordly gifts as a player, and Joe Satriani, from Westbury, New York. You know the one? Regular guy, loves rock ’n’ roll, plays a bit of guitar now and then…
5. Plini - Impulse Voices
One should not operate heavy machinery or drive an automobile when listening to Plini. His compositions tend to flower at inopportune moments, and send your mind elsewhere, far, far away.
Is Plini the player of his generation who changes what we do on the instrument, setting a fresh template? Time will tell, but you could tab this, and in a thousand years people might start taking cosmic meaning from his arrangements.
Is it 21st-century progressive rock fusion, or a map to the stars, to a new habitable planet? In the here and now it’s a holy shhh… A technical ecstasy that players and non-players alike can lose themselves in. Think of it as a vacation where you don’t have to visit the airport.
4. AC/DC - Power Up
In many respects, Power Up is the spiritual successor to Back in Black. It similarly sees AC/DC process grief through the medium of electric guitar, as the first AC/DC release since rhythm powerhouse and fountainhead of rock ’n’ roll anthemry Malcolm Young passed away.
Malcolm’s designs are still writ-large on the AC/DC machine, sharing co-writing credits on all tracks, with songs dating back to when Black Ice was being written, and he and younger brother Angus stockpiled riffs and ideas.
With nephew Stevie holding down Malcolm’s spot, AC/DC continue unabated, albeit riding out the pandemic like the rest of us. But it’ll soon be time to get Angus’s school uniform back from the dry cleaners, and see what these songs will do to a stadium full of people.
3. John Petrucci - Terminal Velocity
Terminal Velocity presented John Petrucci with the perfect opportunity to let his hair down – cranial and facial – drafting in former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy for the pair’s first collaboration since he left the band.
Some of these songs would not make sense in a Dream Theater context. Not to say that Dream Theater is not fun, but, well, it’s not all about having fun, whereas, Happy Song and Snake In My Boot are.
That said, there’s no slouching from Petrucci here. No slop. Just casual genius, his Majesty basking in a little RnR, barbecuing some riffs, downing some refreshingly cool solos, and, y’know, making a warm-up exercise for his instructional DVD one of your riffs of the year.
2. Andy James - C.S.I.L
Ever since the industrial revolution, each passing generation has had its titans of efficiency. There was that Henry Ford fella, the production line revolutionizing the automobile industry. The Windows operating system… Well, here’s another candidate from our timeline, Andy James’s right hand. This thing moves, it shifts, and nary a scintilla out of place. They should take a cast of it and display it in the Smithsonian.
What perfect anatomical structure it must have to facilitate such ruthless levels of alternate picking. This, allied to James’s taste for the theatrical feel change makes C.S.I.L such a thrill.
This is the electric guitar as spectacle – it’s like filling a swimming pool full of Diet Coke and throwing in a Mento the size of a Volkswagen. Try listening to this bleeding-edge shred without your knuckles turning white. Try playing it? Ho, ho, no, oh no, thank you. We’re good. Happy watching! Have a nice day. Stay safe!
1. Kiko Loureiro - Open Source
In a guitar-playing sense, this is like Beyoncé stepping out from Destiny’s Child to really cut loose and show the world what she can do. It’s not like Megadeth has Kiko Loureiro playing three chords and eight bars of pentatonic box work per song – but this is next-level, stop-the-bus guitar playing.
There’s such flamboyance to Loureiro’s writing. He probably takes a sparkler and umbrella in his morning orange juice. Even those who have become jaded and suspicious of the rock-guitar instrumental will take notice.
It really is uncanny how, after all these years, Dave Mustaine retains his ability to attract the guitar world’s brightest talents to one of its most challenging gigs. Has he ever had better than Loureiro? Is there anyone who can play contemporary metal better? Maybe, who can say. But they’re not in Megadeth. They’re not making music like this. And they’re not inviting Marty Friedman onto the jam, splitting the atom and blowing minds.