2020 was a year for the history books, and not just in terms of global events. For the music industry, it was the year of livestreams and singles, upending the traditional album and touring format. Although there was undeniable loss and hardship for artists, they also embraced the new challenges as a call to impressive creativity.
Recognizing that ingenuity, The Grizzly Awards launched fan voting a vast array of categories. Be sure to head over to thegrizzlyawards.com/vote to cast your vote. Voting is open through January 28, 2021.
In celebration of the year that was, the Rock On Purpose staff shared their thoughts on their favorites in a few of the categories.
Best Full Length Album
Matt Durlin’s Picks:
As I started taking inventory and looking back over 2020, I realized there were a lot more full length albums released than it felt like in a year dominated by singles and livestreams. There were a number of high profile releases, like Who We Are by Fireflight. 2020 also included a good showing from the metalcore and heavy music genres, like The Path by Fit For A King.
This is a hotly contested category at the top as well. Fight The Fade delivered a top notch rock album, In Love. In Hope. In Peace., what seems like a very long time ago in February. But in the end, RED takes the top spot on my list with Declaration. This album is a return to the band’s creative roots and their first as an independent artist.
Zach Van Dyke’s Picks:
In a process that spans the entire year and critically listens to every album I’ve collected over that year, nailing down my pick for album of the year was such a challenge. But the final choice ended up being somewhat obvious to me: it was the album Taming Tongues by the band Dens. The creativity in this album, from the naming of the songs to the lyrical content tying into their own individual names, but also the theme of the whole album– genius. This was an album that still sticks with me and has me listening over and over. It is very well done.
Sharayah Franklin’s Picks:
2020 didn’t allow for many releases of full length albums, but a lot of singles. Disciple released Love Letter Killshot in 2019, but 2020 brought about Love Letter Killshot: Deluxe Edition, which included three previously unreleased songs: “Darkness Dies,” “Enemy,” and “Kingdom Come.” I have found that deluxe editions feature some of my favorite songs on them, and Disciple’s addition is no different. “Darkness Dies” is one of my favorite tracks off an already amazing album that doesn’t have a bad track on it. I loved how Disciple stretched themselves as a band and tried different things on this album, and it made for one of their strongest outings yet, in my opinion.
Skillet was also busy in 2020, even though there was the lack of physical tours. They toured some in the beginning of 2020, but after touring ceased, they did many acoustic performances from home. John Cooper wrote a book, Eden II was released, and they went out on a few drive-in shows. They also released an expanded album with Victorious: The Aftermath Deluxe Edition. Victorious was released in 2020, but Skillet’s Deluxe editions have always offered an amazing array of remixes and previously unreleased tracks, making for a completely different listening experience than the original release. I thought that the original release of Victorious was a great culmination of Skillet’s projects to date, taking the best elements from previous projects and working them together seamlessly into a masterful work. The deluxe edition took the album to new heights.
Mary Nikkel’s Picks:
I’ve been listening to Fireflight since the “You Decide” days, and I legitimately think a case could be made that Who We Are is their best album yet. In a year where a lot of conventional marketing wisdom cautioned bands to hold on to new music until the world normalized, Fireflight chose to birth these songs directly into the chaos instead. That choice truly feels like an act of love, particularly given the poignant themes of solidarity and hope that ring through every note of Who We Are. Beyond being deeply thematically relevant, musically this album hits a maturity sweet spot that sees the band’s many years of work paying off.
Two words in this category: Taking. Over. Could’ve said Glam Rock too, but either way the best EP in faith-based rock this year was released by everyone’s favorite sisters. Taking Over by Gold Frankincense & Myrrh (GFM) was a bit heavier and more mature, while still maintaining the sense of fun energy that we have come to know and love from this band.
Even though 2020 has been a year fraught with difficulties, Switchfoot has been able to leave their mark across several categories in 2020. Switchfoot released an album titled Covers this summer that was genius. While it was an album strictly of cover songs, it had Switchfoot’s fresh take on it. They incorporated some of these in livestreams this year as well. Each track has Jon Foreman’s recognizable vocals and the band’s signature sound. The songs they chose felt intentional and well thought out. It speaks from the different perspectives of the original artists, but is driven home by Switchfoot’s unique style. My favorite track off Covers is “Swim Good,” which they did an acoustic version of on one of their “Fantastic Not Traveling Music Shows” as seen below.
I had to include another EP that was an unexpected release for this year, which is what I felt defined 2020: unexpected. Paradise Now became a fast favorite of mine when this band from Wales toured with Disciple in 2019. Though they’ve only released one album and then the Lockdown Mixtape, the way they are able to formulate lyrics and melodies is enthralling. This EP holds six songs. Four of the songs are new tracks, and two are remixes of previously released songs. One of the most surprising features on this EP is the track “Monsters,” featuring Ryan Kirby of Fit for A King. Catch the music video below:
I’d have to give my pick of top EP to the Dawn EP from Wolves at the Gate. This reimagining of some of the key tracks off their Eclipse album is absolutely stellar. Where that album was hard-hitting and powerful, this EP takes those tracks and strips them in such a way that the songs still carry their weight but hit on a new emotional level. Take “Drifter” for example. The original is such a fast-paced and thrilling rush that hits so many powerful notes. But on Dawn, it becomes a far more vulnerable and introspective affair. The entirety of this EP just connects with me in ways that make this stand out to me among others.
Jessica Walker’s Picks:
Although the title is definitely a mouthful, I’d have to give one of my top picks for Best EP to Death Therapy for their instrumental electronic EP Dance Therapy Part I: Pre Apocalyptic Cyber Funk For Late Stage Humanoids. This EP has songs that feature Patrick Judge from Demon Hunter and Jack Daniels from War of Ages. Gotta love collaborations, and it’s unique because it’s fully instrumental!
This is the only category that has a clear cut winner from my perspective. Lacey Sturm released “The Decree” in May, and when Lacey releases music, there is a ton of intentionality and effort and passion behind it. In a year so full of singles, this one stands out.
In my opinion, there’s not a single released this year that hits harder than Nine Lashes single “Dear Self.” In this track, there is such a painful honesty in the lyrics, and the way Jeremy delivers vocally is raw. There’s an accessibility in his voice within this song that is just powerful. A song that looks at how we can be our own worst enemies, “Dear Self” is a track that so many can connect with, and there is such a triumph in calling that out.
I have deemed “Greater” by The Protest to be a Christian rock anthem, as it blatantly tells of the motivation that drives many in the Christian rock music industry. Powerful lyrics in the chorus sing “I don’t do it for the money / I don’t do it for the fame / As long as someone listens / I don’t care who knows my name… This is all for something greater than me.” This song is my pick for Best Single!
Although 2021 is going to hold Love & Death’s full return in the form of a new album, 2020’s single “Down” was an explosive harbinger of things to come. When you look at the creative team behind the track, it’s not hard to see why: collectively, the Love & Death members’ resume includes Korn, Breaking Benjamin, Islander, Spoken, and RED. The result is a rock track that is aggressive in all the right ways, hooky, and musically tight. If I could only listen to one song from 2020, it would be this one.
Best Lyric Video
Lyric videos are some of my favorite things because many times they include not only the powerful lyrics, but also allow for artistry, meaning, and creativity to shine in how the lyrics are portrayed. Here are some of my favorites from 2020:
I loved Skillet’s “Dead Man Walking” lyric video from their Victorious: The Aftermath Deluxe Edition release. This had a comic book feel creatively, which hints at their graphic novel, Eden II.
I have always been interested in looking at and recognizing mental illness and struggles, especially in those that give their all. That is why Seventh Day Slumber’s lyric video for their song “Man Down” is so poignant. It not only gives you the sobering and thoughtful lyrics, it also gives imagery of what a military personnel goes through not only in a physical battle, but with a battle of the mind.
Spoken never disappoints with powerful tracks, and the lyric video for “Nightmare” is no different. The lyrics are a poignant cry, almost a prayer speaking from a worn down place that I think many can relate to in this time of uncertainty and questions. The chorus rings out, “My faith may become thing but it will never disappear. If I ever wake up from this nightmare I know you’ll be by my side.” The lyric video is just as enthralling as the lyrics and melody with the melting colors and video design.
Love and Death is probably in the running for single of the year, but they also have a solid lyric video for their single, “Down.”
In my opinion, Nine Lashes captures the win here with this absolutely stellar lyric video for “Rise.” I want this to be a legitimate video game.
My pick for Best Lyric Video is “Gonna Get Through This” by Mike Mains & The Branches. It really couldn’t have released at a better time than in the midst of the pandemic. The lyric video has a mixture of every day pictures, objects, and lyrics that appear in handwritten-like fonts and doodles. These make the video feel like an animated journal and visually add to how extremely relatable this song is.
Best Music Video
Disciple was able to do a lot in a year that was void of physical touring. With a cover song release, a deluxe edition release, two live streams, and one upcoming, they put a cherry on top of this year by releasing a live performance of “Panic Room.” This is one of my personal favorites off of Love Letter Killshot. I was at the show they filmed this at in Frankfort, KY as the last day of the Love Letter Killshot Tour, and it was amazing! The video was produced by Joel Burris. This live performance video just made me long for the day that they are back touring again.
In true 2020 fashion, Ledger performed a previously unreleased song, “Goner,” from home. In a time that needed positivity and hope, and frankly still does, this song spoke to just that. This song was arranged by Skillet’s Korey Cooper. “All of a sudden I don’t feel so hollow / No matter where You lead, I’m gonna follow / ‘Cause You’re the only one that I wanna know / Wanna know / I can’t stop now / There’s no way out / I’m a goner”
This one probably snuck in under the radar a bit, but MxPx released a series of songs and animated videos throughout quarantine in addition to live streaming full sets a few times. “Fever Dream” was a middle of the year pandemic treat for punk rock fans in need of a bit of comic relief.
I also recommend “Smile” by GFM. Their videos always portray the fun personality of the band and explode with so much color (and glitter).
I loved Zahna’s music video for “Underneath” when it released in 2018, and she released the song/video in Spanish this year. “Lo Más Oculto En Mí” is unique and worth mention for Best Music Video!
Bayless has quickly become one of my favorite rising bands of the past decade. They have a commitment to excellence that spills into all areas of their craft, a passionate approach that delivered a 2019 EP that had me floored (Ready. Aim.). It seemed impossible to bring that work to any higher level of craftsmanship, but their music video for “Ready. Aim.” somehow managed to do exactly that. The concept was cinematic and ambitious in scope, and the band delivered on their vision. The result is a masterpiece that harkens back to days when music videos were an essential part of the creative story bands told with each release.
Best Livestream Show/Festival
Disciple’s Love Letter Lockdown and People’s Choice have been some of my favorite rock live streams because they were done so well. Love Letter Lockdown Livestream was basically the show you would have seen if you went to the Love Letter Killshot Tour that was supposed to have happened this year. It was an amazing set list, and the band was full of energy. The People’s Choice livestream was completely unique from the Love Letter Lockdown livestream because the setlist was completely voted on by fans. The fans had some surprising choices, and made Disciple dive deep into the archives for some tracks, and that was part of the fun and allure of the show. The livestreams continue with the Anniversary X livestream this month with the anniversary live stream of Horseshoes and Handgrenades.
The way that Jon Foreman and the guys from Switchfoot processed the shutdown and quarantine was interesting. It started out with Jon Foreman posting what he called “Quarantine Chronicles.” He would play a song or two a day acoustically. Then they brought in the “Distancing Duets” on their social media where they would blend Jon or one of the guys with an artist friend. Then the “Fantastic Not Traveling Music Show” was born. This is a livestream version of what their tour had been in 2019. Every show is different and has a different theme. They involve two sets, just as if it was in person: an acoustic set and a rock set. They provide a “season pass” option and merch solely for that particular stream, just like a tour. It has been one of the highlights of 2020, because literally no livestream has been the same. It’s been amazingly done and a fantastic escape. They summed up their 2020 with this Ernest Hemingway quote, which rings so true: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
I’m going to follow Sharayah’s lead here! Although there were so many exceptional livestream events this year, for me Switchfoot quickly emerged as an industry leader, as they have been many times in the past. Their livestream subscription model has been an incredible ways to bring the joy of a concert experience into our homes, and the production and creativity behind each monthly stream has kept them fresh and fun. It’s been almost like having a Switchfoot mini series to watch– my husband and I even spent Christmas afternoon watching the Christmas “episode!”
Contagionfest 2020 was a great way for bands to put together a 3 to 5 song mini set and be featured as part of a streaming event over the course of two days. Shoutout to iChristianRockX and Christian Rock X for bringing in some bands that I hadn’t heard before. Kind of a cool way to get to know some other artists in a year when it was hard to tour and do festivals.
I have to agree with Matt– Contagionfest 2020 was a thing of beauty, and I really hope it is something we can get another taste of in 2021. It introduced me to the likes of Amongst Wolves, Windvent, and Ever Eden, and I just couldn’t have been happier to discover them through a livestreamed festival. Oh, and it was through Contagionfest that I was introduced to Ben Dixon, and he is someone I have loads of respect for and have built a solid connection with. Who would have thought an online concert could build connections like that?
Best Cover Song
In a turn I didn’t see coming was Disciple releasing a Christmas song in 2020. They did a cover of “Mary Did You Know” for their Patreon supporters, and it is one of the best versions that I’ve heard.
I’d have to give this to Convictions cover of the Billie Eilish track, “Everything I Wanted.” It’s interesting to me how well Eilish’s music lends itself to metalcore– or maybe it’s Convictions’ ability to translate the track, but this works so well for the band. The song is delightfully heavy and full of some perfectly paced breakdowns and excellent clean vocals.
Islander released a solid cover of R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” In the middle of a global pandemic, it’s gutsy to not only cover a song about the end of the world, but also to cover a classic R.E.M. song. They did a great job keeping the original structure of the tune while adding their own flavor to it.
One of my favorite covers was released at the very end of 2020: Zahna’s metal version of Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” Between liking the original song and loving Zahna’s vocals, I practically feel giddy over this one. It’s a really great arrangement that suits her perfectly.