13. Chelsea Wolfe, Birth of Violence (Sargent House)
Initially a strange, black metal-referencing curiosity at the beginning of the decade, Chelsea Wolfe has metamorphosed into a genre-bending artist who has been able to attract audiences from a wide spectrum of music. Being such a clingy crowd, the metal scene particularly took an obsessive shine to Wolfe’s music, partly because of her mysterious, gothy persona and her tendency towards dark lyrical topics, and to no one’s surprise she spent the last few years catering to those listeners. 2015’s excellent Abyss and 2017’s weaker follow-up Hiss Spun delved deep into doom metal territory, which was all well and good, but both records pushed Wolfe’s entrancing voice to the backseat, and by the time Hiss Spun came out, the formula was starting to feel tired. An artist as versatile as Wolfe shouldn’t have to repeat themselves like that, and for her sixth album it seems as though she knew she needed to hit the reset button. Birth of Violence returns to the stripped-down acoustic style of her first two albums, The Grime and the Glow and Apokalypsis – and especially her Unknown Rooms collection – but what separates the new record, and what makes it arguably Wolfe’s finest, is how she augments her stripped-down compositions with ambient touches which provide the right amount of mood without detracting from the music. And those compositions are very strong: most of the time it’s just Wolfe and her guitar, delving deeply into the dark, weird side of Americana, as waves of noise, drone, and feedback whoosh in the background like rolling thunder on the prairie. The metal nerds might disagree, but this is Chelsea Wolfe at her absolute best, not to mention most creative, and is this year wasn’t already astoundingly strong, it would have placed much higher on my list. Forget Norman Rockwell – and more on him in ten days or so – this is the real American Gothic.