Every album on this Top Twenty list is a standout. They are all worthy of your purchase (in hard-copy, not just streaming service). The discs in the bottom half of the TOP 20 are not any less worthy than # # 10 through 1, rather, they just did not move me with as much excitement and passion as the ones I will be posting later. Many of these albums were at one time in my TOP TEN but gradually slipped to this lower tier as the year wore on and as I continued to listen and pour over these works of art. Enough blather. Here are my TOP TWENTY bottom half (in descending order):
20) MONARCH TRAIL/Sand
This is the second effort under the moniker “Monarch Trail” for Canadian keys wizard and composer Ken Baird. As much as I enjoyed 2014’s “Skye” this second album surpasses it on all counts. This has a pleasant “British pastoral sound” that hearkens back, for me, to the joys of first hearing Barclay James Harvest (with Woolly on the keys). This is beautiful and relaxing without being twee or saccharine. My favorite tracks are ‘Back to the Start’ and the 25 minute closer–the self-titled ‘Sand.’
I believe that this eponymous release is the 5th album for Agusa. These Swedish musicians have a blend of folk-rock and lightly flavored psychedelic prog. The Van Gogh tinged cover art (at least that’s what I’m calling it) by way of Jethro Tull and Genesis filtered through 2017, is what you’ll get…and love! Favorite track: ‘Landet Langesen’
18) CAST/Power And Outcome
Where have these guys & gals been my whole life, and, how could I have missed them. This release is so good that I will be attempting to collect their back catalog. This is a Mexican symphonic/orchestral prog act that has been releasing little gems since 1994 and has over two dozen albums to their credit. The seven member consort delivers on this current endeavor a rich and lush collection of strings, killer guitar, and beautiful Annie Haslam worthy female vocals by Lupita Acuna. At times sounding like a big-budget movie score the songs follow one another like movements in a prog tone-poem. And, when it gets almost too beautiful (elegiac overload) killer “axe” comes shredding in by Claudio Cordoro to anchor it back to reality. Every song gets a 10/10 from me but my favorite track is the instrumental #4 ‘Details: B Start Again.’ This is “the find” for 2017.
17) THIS WINTER MACHINE/The Man Who Never Was
While preparing for this list I’m really glad I went back to scour earlier posts and websites. This was a January release that until a few weeks ago had slipped through the cracks and wasn’t even on my prog radar. It is now, and should be audio-scoped by you as well. And check out that cool “Doctor Who meets Narnia” cover art. With four of the five tracks at 8 minutes or longer, this first album by the 6-man Yorkshire group might be termed neo-prog morphed into a British symphonic epic balladeer tradition of place, struggle, sacrifice, and integrity. The playing is both gritty and sensuous while the lyric story line holds your attention with an ebb & flow of the musics energy. The opening track ‘The Man Who Never Was’ is my favorite. And, clocking in at 16 minutes it is one of the best prog epics of the year. A+ And this is just their debut….wow have we got some great music coming our way.
16) I AM THE MANIC WHALE/Gathering The Waters
I discovered this London based group by pure happenstance while browsing through Bandcamp one day about a month ago–talk about buried treasure. With what appears to be their second (or third?) album the listener is given a mature fully developed presentation of gorgeous melodies and ‘cracker-jack’ musicianship. The music, again, is a blend of neo-prog, classical prog tropes revisited but freshly re-imagined, and just catchy hooks and runs. Bands this good should just be noticed and given the accolades that they deserve. I’m giving them a well-deserved #16 ranking. My favorite track is ‘The Lifeboatmen’ (a heartfelt ‘story-song’), but not to be missed is the quirky and captivating ‘Strandbeest.’
15) BIG BIG TRAIN/The Second Brightest Star
At first I wasn’t going to consider this album eligible for inclusion. BBT is just too darn good and it isn’t fair to the rest of prog that they release veritable masterpieces every year or so, much more so, two releases in a year. For awhile this summer TSBT was in my Top Five for 2017. Over time, and in comparison with their other release (in due course) and the flood of great music by other well deserving bands, this release slipped to this status. I listen to it a lot and it always makes me smile and feel good about life. What greater compliment can a work of music elicit? I think the one-two “punch” of ‘The Passing Widow’ leading into ‘Leaden Stour’ are my two favorite songs. A+ (which, with BBT is like saying the sky is blue).
14) THRESHOLD/Legends Of The Shires
Though Threshold has been around for awhile, and I have liked some of their past releases, this is the album that put them into my special category of treasured bands/acts! This is also probably the ‘heaviest’ band on my list, though, the prog metal stylings of some of the songs is always more Spock’s Beard than Dream Theater (both bands of which I am very fond of) This 82 minute double album is more of a loosely based and themed album then a direct story concept wherein each track and its libretto necessarily pushes a direct narrative forward (at least that’s how I hear it). Nonetheless it’s a stunning tour-de-force of musical alchemy with vocalist Glynn Morgan soaring like a Cantor in Middle Earth. My favorite track is ‘The Man Who Saw Through Time.’
13) SPACEPORT UNION/Permanent Frequency
I love Hawkwind. I love space music, instrumental surf, weird kosmische inspired psychedelia, and stoner/sludge rock. Spaceport Union is none of these and all of these while at the same time harmonic web-weavers of stunning melodies, ambient backgrounds and ear-wigging tunes. These guys are the jam-band that does it “right” in the studio (the longest song ‘Drone’ being only 9 minutes) and are now one of my favorite bands out there. Any lover of Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Joe Satriani, Alan Parsons, and jazzy Toto, will love this disc. The melancholic 9th track ‘Blue Marble’ is painfully beautiful and the entire album is a true 10/10. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.
12) COSMOGRAF/The Hay-Man Dreams
Buy this album. Everything Robin Armstrong creates is a true work of art and should be distributed to all school children along with milk at lunch. You can’t be a modern lover of prog and not know his canon. This album is so good that it was riding on my mid-Summer tentative list at #1 battling it out almost day by day with GRIMSPOUND. Alas, as brilliant as this album is (and I think it’s Armstrong’s best) my penchant for “Italian-style” (is that a thing?) orchestral prog that is melody rich in “sing along” choruses, allowed other bands to creep into the Top Ten. This is a heavily themed concept album that deals with…well…rural England, family, personal loss, memory & memorial, longing for freedom and release, and the universal quest for reunion, restoration, and familial peace at the last. This epic will be talked about 50 years from now. A+ My favorite track are ALL OF THEM.
11) KARFAGEN/Messages From Afar: First Contact
Following on last years brilliant “SPEKTRA,” Antony Kalugin and his friends return with another magnum opus in their oeuvre of full-blown orchestral Ukrainian prog. If Antonin Dvorak had written progressive music this is what it might have sounded like (with some Andrew Latimer and Vangelis thrown in to electrify things a bit). This work might have been ranked even higher on the list had I the opportunity for as many multiple listens as the Top Ten selections. Karfagen is the veritable “blue-print” of what I love about full-blown, epic art-rock. Not a “wall of sound” so much as a “wall of Lothlorien Elven Magic” as played by Kalugin and his six-person orchestra.
What a nice bunch of “stocking stuffers” the aforementioned ten albums would make for friends and family…if your loved ones have great musical tastes and truly appreciate complex beauty.
Mellotron set to 11