Well, 2017 is over! I mean, of course 2017 is over, this is January 27th! I mean that 2017 is over for my music reviews. I have finally reviewed every album from 2017 that I wanted to do an article on, except for what I’m going to throw into two upcoming articles (which will be called “6 2017 Metal Releases I Missed Reviewing in 2017” and “Miscellaneous Albums 2017, Part 2.”)
Also, the Grammy Awards are tomorrow, and I want to join that discussion about the best albums of 2017, even if the Grammys don’t truly mean much of anything.
This year at least, I won’t be going into Grammys commentary though, except to say that it’s completely ridiculous what they’ve done with the rock and metal categories, despite that there are some good nominees there. . . Yeah, I’ll stick to the topic at hand.
So now we get to one of the most fun kinds of articles for many reviewers, including myself, to put together: my top list of albums, my favorites from the year.
Look, 2017 was a sad year for music where we saw an unfortunately large number of prominent artists die, like Greg Allman, Chester Bennington, Chuck Berry, Glenn Campbell, Chris Cornell, Fats Domino, Paul O’Neill, Tom Petty, Mel Tillis, and Malcolm Young. And we mourn their deaths. However, 2017 was also a pretty good year for a lot of music, especially for hip-hop and metal, and it was also the year of risks, new directions, and exciting releases. Naturally, I have many albums I’d love to include. However, I will limit myself to ten favorite albums, ranked, with my honorable mentions below, listed alphabetically, my honorable mentions only being albums that were in very serious consideration for a spot on the main list.
Now, to clarify, this is my top favorites list. These are the works I most enjoyed or appreciated, especially ones that struck some kind of chord with me or that I really felt I could relate to, not necessarily the works released that I thought were objectively the best. As a result, you will see albums here to which I assigned a variety of grades. When I give grades, I try to be a bit objective. The grade is partially my feelings about the art, but it’s also much of how good I think that art actually is. When I make a list of favorites, that’s completely my feelings on the art.
Also, only LPs will be featured here. I feel that’s only fair, and in the true spirit of what an album is. If I were to include EPs, I would have featured somewhere Impalers’ “Styx Demon”, the Khemmis/Spirit Adrift “Fraught with Peril” split EP, Mastodon’s “Cold Dark Place”, and Underwing’s “Kaela Upsweep”.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s dive in!
My Top 10 Favorite Albums of 2017
10. Pallbearer’s Heartless
The best thing I can say about Pallbearer’s Heartless is it got me interested in doom metal again. I have kind of a rocky relationship with the doom metal subgenre. Sure, doom is pretty much the direct result of Black Sabbath, and Black Sabbath is one of my favorite bands of all time, but I feel that most doom bands learned all the wrong lessons from Sabbath. We could get into all that right now, but let’s save it for another day. Here, Pallbearer brings just the right mix of doom-laden sounds to the table for my ears to love it. The repetition and slow, weighty movements are there, but so are interesting, varying riffs and instrumentation. The sound is huge, spacious, and wide-open, yet also with flourishes of personality. The mix also does a fantastic, effective job layering everything and bringing attention to the best parts as needed, while also giving us wonderful soundscapes for a backdrop to Pallbearer’s lofty themes. It also helps that Campbell’s soaring yet grounded lead vocals don’t annoy me like most doom singers’ voices do.
Favorite Track: “Lie of Survival”
9. Blondie’s Pollinator
I first decided to look into this album and do a review on it for my wife, who loves Blondie. In the end, it became one of my favorite albums of 2017! Debbie Harry is one of the coolest chicks of all time, and she has always maintained a sort of fun mix between a faux-ditzy blonde and a vicious punk rocker, some kind of blend of the one-time public image of Marilyn Monroe and the Ramone’s Sheena the Punk Rocker. One minute she’s crooning about love, the next minutes she’s calling “rip her to shreds.” Plus, the music behind Debbie has always been, though it evolved over time, a wonderful combination of punk and new wave. What Pollinator did then is successfully interpret Blondie’s sound for this age in music and effectually implement Debbie’s imperfect, aging voice. And that finale to the album, “Fragments,” is one of my favorite songs Blondie has ever done.
Favorite Track: “Fragments”
8. Unleash the Archers’ Apex
Power metal lovers got some really fun releases this year, like Battle Beast’s Bringer of Pain and DragonForce’s Reaching into Infinity. Yet the best thing I found in power metal from 2017 is Unleash the Archers’ Apex. In the past, Unleash the Archers, who mix power metal with speed metal, melodic death metal, and traditional heavy metal, have struggled with both poor production quality and themes that are too far-reaching and cheesy. This time around, Unleash the Archers’ fourth studio album corrects the production quality issue, and though the theme is cheesy, it’s a high fantasy concept they pull off with intimacy and conviction. If you can’t stand any power metal, and you just hate the idea of a high fantasy concept album, you’ll probably not enjoy Apex. But if you can put that aside, I think Apex is a treat for just about anyone. I know I love it, both the music and the album’s story and characters.
Favorite Track: “The Matriarch”
7. Byzantine’s The Cicada Tree
Byzantine have never received the respect they deserve. Now, that is partially their own fault. Lots of band drama and problems with marketing themselves have kept them lower on the radar than comparable peer acts like Lamb of God or Killswitch Engage, but I still hold that had circumstances been a bit different, had the band been managed better, Byzantine would be right up there. This album really proves their ability. It’s an album worthy of the legendary Metal Blade Records, which Byzantine moved to for this album. I would call Byzantine’s sound here groovy, thrashy prog metal, influenced by the likes of Pantera, Testament, and Meshuggah, while also bringing a lot of their own identity to the table, mixing now-traditional technical and aggressive sounds with tight yet sprawling instrumentation, jazz influences, and Sepultura-like tribal beats.
Favorite Track: “Trapjaw”
6. Warbringers’ Woe to the Vanquished
Coinciding with the Big 4 of Thrash each releasing an album within a year of each other, thrash is in the midst of a new revival that started somewhere around mid-2015. Sure, we saw the neo-thrash revival of the 2000s, but that movement was plagued by pizza thrash, extremely poor production, too-often lazy assembly, and a flood of groups no one remembers anymore. This current thrash revival is different, I think. For one, each of the albums the Big 4 released were actually pretty good and both well thought out and well put together. Then, other legacy acts like Testament and Death Angle also produced good works around the same time. On top of that, you have bands like Vektor who aren’t content with past worship and instead are forging a new future for thrash, bringing new sounds into the fold instead of just playing around with old sounds. Also, you have bands like Havok or Warbringer holding high the banner of more traditional thrash, and not only holding the banner high but also producing excellent music. Woe to the Vanquished may not be Warbringer’s most ambitious release. That title belongs to their previous effort, IV: Empires Collapse. Yet I think Woe to the Vanquished is their best release, filled with eight awesome thrash tracks, and it contains my favorite tune of theirs, the eleven minute, proggy thrash epic, “When the Guns Fell Silent.”
Favorite Track: “When the Guns Fell Silent”
5. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ Soul of a Woman
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are a unique band for this age, or were a unique band. Sharon Jones herself sadly passed away in late 2016, and I’m not sure what the band’s future is going forward. They’re unique because their sound is pure soul and funk worship, but it somehow, especially on this release, avoids feeling stale or overused. In fact, on each track of Soul of a Woman, Sharon Jones and the band give us exactly what we remember soul music sounding like but don’t always get consistently when we revisit it, especially if listening to whole albums. Throughout this whole album, they get right at the feeling, expressiveness, and identity that can be communicated through soul music. And after each track, I wanted to play it again. Especially the album finale, “Call on God.”
Favorite Track: “Call on God”
4. Turnpike Troubadours’ A Long Way from Your Heart
This year, Turnpike Troubadours opening track from A Long Way from Your Heart, “The Housefire,” brought me back to country music. Not that I’d ever truly left it, but I hadn’t felt that country music had much to offer me. And mainstream country still doesn’t. Neither does much of indie country to be honest, except for exceptions like Sturgill Simpson, and producer Dave Cobb is doing some good work in the genre. But Turnpike Troubadours, with that song and this album, reminded me of how deeply country music can affect me. I grew up on bluegrass music, and then country, folk, Americana, and roots rock grew my maturing musical tastes. Turnpike Troubadours have elements of those sounds, and A Long Way from Your Heart reminds me of all those things. Plus it’s just a great, standout album, not just in country but in any genre for 2017.
Favorite Track: “The Housefire”
3. Queens of the Stone Age’s Villains
If you’re looking for fun, swaggering, confident hard rock with real touches of maturity and ability, 2017 had nothing better to offer than Queens of the Stone Age’s Villains. Now, I know not all Queens of the Stone Age fans loved Villains as much as I do, but I have to wonder if they have found or will find Villains growing on them. On Villains, Queens took their specific hard/alternative/stoner/desert rock and injected the glam rock, glam punk, and dance rock stylings into it with which they had always flirted. However, then they got together with funk producer Mark Ronson and gave the album a dry, funk-infused production quality. That last part is what confused and went against the grain of a lot of QotSA fans, including me . . . at first. After listening to the album again, I began to get into the groove of what Queens was trying to do, and the album clicked for me! QotSA fans, don’t kill me, but, uh, I think Villains is one of my favorite Queens of the Stone Age albums, only under Rated R and about even for me with Songs for the Deaf and …Like Clockwork.
Favorite Track: “The Way You Used to Do”
2. Mutoid Man’s War Moans
The least known group on this top ten list, Mutoid Man is one of the bands that blew me away the most in 2017. I love when bands effectively meld genres, and Mutoid Man does this ever so well. Whereas some bands I like that are difficult to categorize like Mastodon or Unleash the Archers can be defined under something at least (prog metal and power metal respectively), Mutoid Man defies even that. The best thing to do is just call them heavy metal and stop there. They throw hardcore punk, metalcore, traditional heavy metal, hard rock, math rock, thrash, sludge, prog, and psychedelia into a blender and produce a bloody good concoction. On top of all that, War Moans is their best written, best performed, best produced work yet, after their first EP and first LP were awesome but not necessarily stellar. Oh, it also doesn’t hurt that the ever-versatile Marty Friedman makes a guest appearance on the title track.
Favorite Track: “Date with the Devil”
1. Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand
I’ve known about Mastodon for a while now, but late in 2016 and early in 2017, leading up to the release of Emperor of Sand, Mastodon became one of my favorite bands. I love going through their discography and hearing Mastodon’s evolution as a band, from their days of mixing meat-and-potatoes sludge with prog tendencies on EPs Lifesblood and Call of the Mastodon and on LPs Remission and Leviathan; to the mixing in of Neurosis-type avant-garde sludge and similar elements in Blood Mountain; to their leaning in more heavily on prog metal, psychedelia, and, eventually, prog rock on Crack the Skye, The Hunter, and Once More ‘Round the Sun. Then, Emperor of Sand released, and I loved it. Sure, fans of Mastodon’s earlier days, wishing for more of a return to sludge and aggression, may not have been fully satisfied, but, for me, Emperor of Sand combines many great things about the entirety of Mastodon’s career thus far and packages them in a concept album that is more personal and relatable than anything Mastodon put out previously.
Favorite Track: “Jaguar God”
My Honorable Mentions
I truly regret that I didn’t get the chance to review this one in 2017, as I totally overlooked it, but I highly recommend it to all you heavy metal fans out there, especially if you love Elder and are missing, say, Blood Mountain-era Mastodon, as Asheran is an excellent mixture of sludge, stoner, doom, and death metal, plus it has some amazing cover art to look at as you spin the record!
Impalers’ The Celestial Dictator
This is probably the most overlooked, underrated thrash release of 2017, and it’s highly worth the listen, no matter what kind of thrash fan you are, or even if you’re just a fan of aggressive music in general, especially if you enjoy seeing some thought behind the lyrics.
Kreator’s Gods of Violence
Gods of Violence is Kreator’s best album in years and probably one of their top five for me, though it’s at least beat by Coma of Souls. The album’s not just good thrash, though there’s plenty of that in there; it’s good heavy metal in general.
Sepultura’s Machine Messiah
Hands down, Machine Messiah is the best Sepultura release of the Green era, and, in my opinion, it easily beats out anything released even from Soulfly or Cavelera Conspiracy.
Japandroids’ Near to the Wild Heart of Life
I discovered Japandroids just this year, and I’m loving them, because Near is a cool record of punk meets heartland rock. It isn’t as good as their last effort, Celebration Rock, but it is more mature.
Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic
I’ve wanted to dismiss, I admit, Power Trip’s sophomore outing here as overhyped, yet every time I hear “Executioners Tax,” I feel the punky, thrashy awesomeness of this album envelop me, and, often, I end up spinning the entire record after that, even if I disagree with some of the sentiments expressed.
Lich King’s The Omniclasm
This is just purely fun thrash, and I would call it pizza thrash, but with this album Lich King has actually elevated themselves a bit above that sort of pizza thrash sub-subgenre, of which they’ve definitely been squarely a part in the past.
Third Day’s Revival
Third Day went for it; they really went back to their roots with Revival, making their most Southern, even Southern Gospel-influenced, album since 1999’s Time.
Alison Krauss’s Windy City
Windy City is a charming, entrancing release of covers of country genre classic songs by the always wonderful Alison Krauss, and, for my money, she’s highly deserving of the Grammys she’s nominated for this year.
There it is! My 2017 top albums list. I’m glad I got to do it, and I look forward to doing it every year. One note: for now, I won’t have any ten worst lists because this is only a hobby for me. I have a job. I don’t usually listen to records I think will suck. As a result, I don’t hear enough of those terrible albums that belong in such a list, though I certainly listen to more bad albums than I watch bad movies.
What are your favorite albums of 2017?
Update 6/24/2018: After spinning all the 2017 records I intended to hear, I should have included the following albums in my honorable mentions: Greg Allman’s Southern Blood, At the Drive-In’s Interalia, Dan Auerbach’s Waiting on a Song, Chuck Berry’s CHUCK, Body Count’s Bloodlust, and Ed Sheeran’s Divide.