Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Top Ten Albums Of 2017

Every year is its own journey, new paths leading through unseen terrain, landscapes rising out of the horizon fresh with each step we take. Looking to the past is fruitless when moving forward, as all we will be able to see are our own footsteps, not able to tell if we have been moving towards or away from our goals. We only look backwards to make sure we haven't doubled back on ourselves, repeating history in an endless loop, time running like a mobius strip.

This year has been unlike any other than I can remember. As an avid music fan, it has been a wild ride filled with a panapole of great albums that have built a list of favorites I am more than happy with, while at the same time providing me with more albums that offended my very soul than I can ever remember. This was a year of extremes, with the good being great, and the bad being truly horrific. Perhaps that is merely a reflection of age, where I have less energy to devote to records that don't meet my standards, since the collection of music I do love continues to grow, and time is needed to make sure I don't ignore old favorites in favor of mediocre newer releases.

The crop of good music this year was very good, and does extend beyond the album listed below. I was disappointed to not be able to include the albums from Eclipse and Skarlett Riot, as they are both fine efforts that I listened to repeatedly, but this was a tough year to earn a spot. They would have made the list in several of the previous years, but there were just a couple extra good ones this year that kept them relegated to honorable mention status. That's not anything to be ashamed of.

There were plenty of surprises to be found, including in the top half of this list, but the one thing about the year that disappointed me is the smaller than usual number of albums I was able to find from small and independent artists to showcase. That is one of my favorite aspects of doing this, but only one such album stood any chance of being one of the best of the year.

So with that out of the way, let's now talk about the best that 2017 had to offer.

EP Of The Year:

The Winery Dogs - Dog Years
The Winery Dogs were one of the best stories a few years back, coming out of the gates with a debut album that was a stunning bit of hard rock majesty. Their follow-up didn't live up to those standards, going off in more indulgent tangents, which is to be expected from three players with massive amounts of instrumental talent. This EP gathers the songs that were left off their albums, and it brings us right back to the start. These five tracks are beautiful blends of instrumental flourish and melodic hooks, showing the diversity of what the band is capable of. These are strong, focused songs that are immediately engaging, and deep enough to sustain repeated listens. These are the kinds of songs that remind me why I thought The Winery Dogs could be the next big thing. This is what modern rock and roll is supposed to be.

The Top Ten:

10(tie). Nightmare - Dead Sun
My favorite singer in the world is not terribly prolific, nor involved in music on the heavier end of the rock spectrum, though I have often wondered what that would sound like. Thanks to Nightmare, I now know the answer. Introducing new singer Maggie Luyten to their ranks, "Dead Sun" is a crushing, heavy, thrashing power metal attack that never lets up on the intensity. This is heavy metal in the real sense of the word, bristling with energy and strong songwriting. Capping all that off is Luyten, who pushes her voice to its limits, and in doing so is a near clone of my heroine. It's a sound I absolutely adore, and the fact the album lives up to her performance makes it one of the best of the year.

10(tie). The Black Marbles - Moving Mountains
As both a listener and a musician, I have always appreciated music that sounds natural and organic. That's why I have been supportive of the retro/vintage rock movement, even if most of the bands aren't producing much good music. The Black Marbles are one I stumbled across late in the year, and they fit the bill perfectly as far as what I'm looking for. They play 70s classic rock, but updated with the power of modern production. They embrace the songwriting of that time, letting the songs push and pull, and go wherever the next good idea happens to be. When it's done right, classic rock and roll is timeless. That's what I feel this album is.

9. Orden Ogan - Gunmen
Orden Ogan has slowly built a name for themselves, but they are still less known than they should be. They took where Blind Guardian was with "A Night At The Opera", and turned it into a roaring metal beast. Heavier than power metal has any right to be, Orden Ogan writes songs that sound epic on every front. They have been doing this for a while, and have never released an album that wasn't very good, but this is their most solid effort since my personal favorite, "Easton Hope". In fact, "Gunmen" is a more focused effort that that one, and is relentless enough that metal fans of all stripes should love it, which means it might be the album that ultimately defines them.

8. The Warning - XXI Century Blood
I would not have expected a pop/rock album made by three teenage girls from Mexico to be a can't-miss, but this album is. These three ladies have, on their own, written an album that stands up with anything that comes from the melodic rock factories or the big labels. If you compare them to a band like Halestorm, The Warning has done by themselves what took an entire team of industry professionals to achieve for Halestorm. There are moments where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and there are moments when you are fully immersed in the sun. The Warning's future isn't bright. Their present already is.

7. Creeper - Eternity, In Your Arms
There was a time some years back when bands like My Chemical Romance and AFI were redefining emo into a theatrical sound that emoted like the biggest over-actor on the stage. That sound died out quickly, but is brought back to life by Creeper. Borrowing the themes of Peter Pan (much like Jim Steinman did), this album is a bit pop, a bit punk, and completely a reminder that you can pack plenty of drama into three minute morsels. In some ways, Creeper has made the album "Bat Out Of Hell" would have been if it was made by twenty year olds with electric guitars. That sounds like music to these ears.

6. Nocturnal Rites - Phoenix
Nocturnal Rites was one of the power metal bands that helped get me into heavy music, but it was easy to forget about them during their ten year absence. That time away was put to good use, as they return with an album that picks up right where they left off. Combining the deep riffing and flashy solos of modern heavy metal with leather-lunged hooks pop songwriters would kill for, Nocturnal Rites is firing on all cylinders here. "Phoenix" is heavy, catchy, and an absolute delight.

5. Sorcerer - The Crowning Of The Fire King
Music can effect moods, which is why I try to avoid music that aims to depress. I don't see the need, as a listener, to intentionally go down that road. That means I listen to very little doom metal, and nearly skipped out on Sorcerer's latest effort entirely. That would have been a collosal mistake, as Sorcerer has made what might just be the best doom album I've ever heard. Instead of grinding a handful of slow riffs into the ground, Sorcerer's sound is a beautiful tapestry of guitars that weave epic and beautiful soundscapes. Cap that off with utterly fantastic vocals and melodies, and the result is a stunning effort that needs to be heard to be believed. If it helps, you can think of it as slow power metal, because doom doesn't convey its grandeur.

4. Rise Against - Wolves
I have a feeling that the next few years will be ripe with political rock and punk music decrying these troubled times. While waiting for those albums to come to fruition, Rise Against fills the void with a political album that reminds us the world was going to hell long before this latest turn. Taking on issues from water pollution to lack of self-worth, this is a biting, powerful album that wraps up a message of engaged empowerment in a veneer of rousing punk-ish rock and roll anthems. A triumphant effort.

3. Harem Scarem - United
Over the course of a year, I get to hear plenty of melodic rock bands that are melodic, and sort of rock, but don't deliver anything truly memorable. Harem Scarem, after decades together, found something special in themselves, and delivered easily the best album of their career. While formerly a rather bland act, this album sees them upping the ante in every respect. The guitar playing is more inventive, while the songs are hookier than a backwoods bait shop. Imagine if The Winery Dogs introduced more pop elements into their vocals, and that gives you an idea of just how good "United" is.

2. The Dark Element - The Dark Element
I have long loved Anette Olzon's voice, and was excited to see her return to the world of rock and metal. If you wondered what Nightwish could have been if they hadn't been trying to prove themselves as composers rather than a metal band, The Dark Element is the answer. Symphonic metal done the right way, this project is a tightly constructed juggernaut of orchestras, roaring guitars, and stirring vocals. Anette is every bit as good as on Alyson Avenue's seminal "Presence Of Mind", and the songs deliver her the best material she's had to sing in ages. My expectations were high, and this still exceeded them. That's a hard feat to achieve.

1. Soen - Lykaia
The best album of 2017 is one I have wanted for years now, but didn't expect to get from Soen. I fall into the category of people who thought Opeth ditching their death metal side was a good thing. What I thought would be the result of that change was a sound that took the quirky and inventive guitar playing, kept the rhythmic intricacies, and added in more doses of somber melody. That never happened until now, when Soen delivered the record Opeth seemed destined to make. "Lykaia" is deep, challenging, and beautiful at the same time. It finds the balance between being cold and depressed, and being overwhelmed by the beauty of a moonlit winter's night. While there were plenty of albums this year that were great, and offered up fantastic songs, "Lykaia" felt like something more, something closer to an artistic manifesto. They have been shape-shifters so far, so there's no telling if this will be a one-off along their circuitous path, but what I can say for sure is that "Lykaia" is hands down the best album of 2017.

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