My Favorite Non-Prog Pop/Rock of 2017

nomusicnolifeI’m not sure that I’m the most non-proggy of the many esteemed Progarchist contributors, but I do tend to run a bit hot-and-cold when it comes to my prog listening. So much so, I am almost hesitant to offer up my Favorite Prog of 2017 (forthcoming!), but since it contains the all-important adjective “favorite,” I think I’m on safe ground. As usual, most of my listening this past year was in the realm of jazz and other instrumental music, but that list is also forthcoming. Between those two wide, general genres is my current list, which I think has a couple of interesting twists and turns. Here then are my Favorite Pop/Rock albums that cannot, in good conscience, be called “prog”.

• Top of the Glorious, Musical Heap: “Grace Street” by Big Wreck. Ian Thornley and Company continue to impress and dazzle in big ways, producing a sprawling but incredibly masterful collection of songs that are, as I wrote in my February review, notable for being “defiant” and “hopeful” in equal measure, reflecting the aftermath of Thornley’s divorce. This album stood out to me because, despite having nearly a full year to marinate in its musical flavors, it never became tiring or dull; on the contrary, I continue to listen to it on a regular basis. The songs are varied but cohesive; the playing is stellar; the vocals are unreal; the guitar solos are stunning. And, despite not being prog, even the most die-hard progarchist will nod in admiration at extended, complex cuts such as “A Speedy Recovery” and the instrumental “Skybunk Marché”. Recommended without reservation.

• “Live at the OT Arena/B-Sides and Rarities” by Alter Bridge. This 3-CD set is a gift that keeps on giving, especially for the price. The third disc (b-sides, rarities) is so good, I’ve only listened to the two live discs a few times. In fact, I think it easily holds its own among the many exceptional Alter Bridge albums; the first three songs—”Breathe,” “Cruel Sun,” and “Solace”—are astonishing examples of slow-burn brilliance, with echoes of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell, both musically and lyrically. The guitar is, of course, stellar, and Myles Kennedy demonstrates again his broad range, remarkable control, and emotional vibrancy. And speaking of Kennedy, his much anticipated and long awaited solo album “Year of the Tiger” is being released on March 8, 2018; here’s the title cut:

• “Roll With the Punches” and “Versatility” by Van Morrison. The mercurial, gruff, and indefatigable Belfast Cowboy is now into his seventies and yet, if anything, has only picked up his already impressive pace, releasing two collections of new material, both consisting of adroit mixtures of originals and standards. “Versatility,” the most recent, is a mellow affair that finds Morrison in the more laid back groove that he has inhabited in recent years, his elastic voice moving with relaxed ease through and over the accomplished, if not original, arrangements. Although Morrison is in fine vocal form, a standout track for me is the 6-minute-long, mostly instrumental “Affirmation,” which captures the sense of pensive longing that marks much of the artist’s best work. “Roll With the Punches” is more surprising—and enjoyable—because of the high level of energy and superior sound. It doesn’t hurt that guests such as Jeff Beck make notable, up front contributions; the result is a focused, in-the-pocket album that romps through traditional blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, and even a dash of country, with nary a throwaway cut in the hour long collection.

• “Scatterbrain” by KXM: King’s X has long been one of my favorite hard rock bands; their first five or six albums established the trio has one of the finest (and most criminally overlooked) rock bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Alas, drummer Jerry Gaskill has suffered health problems in recent years and the group hasn’t put out a new studio albums since 2008’s solid “XV”. Meanwhile, ageless singer-bassist Doug Pinnock has kept busy with several different projects, including KXM, a trio formed a few  years ago with Korn drummer Ray Luzier and and Lynch Mob/ex-Dokken guitarist George Lynch. (The band’s name, according to Lynch, is derived each member’s full-time band: K from Korn, X from King’s X, and M from Lynch Mob.) The result has been dynamic, hook-heavy rock with elements of metal, prog, African music, gospel, and whatever else is in the trio’s bottomless bag of tuneful tricks. Pinnick, now 67, is a revelation; he sounds fresh and revitalized, and hits all the notes effortlessly—and with a bit of attitude to spare. Lynch’s playing is tasteful and economical, yet equally big and aggressive, and Luzier is simply a rhythmic monster on the skins. What really stands out is the creativity and detail of each cut; the songs are big, brash, and catchy, all with a winning mixture of cussedness, slyness, and thoughtfulness. One of the top surprises of 2017.

• “Zeta” by Zeta and “Atone” by White Moth Black Butterfly. Both of these atmospheric, keyboard-driven albums are headed by singer-songwriter Daniel Tompkins, known to progarchists for his stellar vocal work with TesseracT. Zeta, as the band’s page states, “fuses the retro synth heavy decade of the 80s with futuristic and breathtaking imagery, bringing past and future together in a Cyberpunk-esque package.” That’s a tall order, but the trio comes up with the goods: think George Michael fronting an ’80s syth-heavy group but with 2017 technology and some prog sensibilities. This is especially evident on “Right Time” and “Beat the System”, which are clever, fun, and (I’m guessing) danceable. WMBB’s second full album finds Tompkins aiming for a more cinematic, even symphonic, aesthetic that dives into some deeper waters, as evidenced by songs with titles such as “Incarnate,” “Penitence,” and of course “Atone”. As one review nicely sums it up: “Tompkins and company combine the subtleties of prog and post-rock, elements of modern pop, British soul, and a hefty dash of ambient sensibilities to yield an arresting, cohesive album immersed in introspective, occasionally impenetrable, opacity.”

• “Windy City” by Alison Krauss. Setting aside the bluegrass and aiming for more of an updated cosmopolitan country sound, Krauss covers songs by Glenn Campell, Roger Miller, and others, and the final result is timeless country that goes down smooth while registering just enough emotional bite to make it linger. Krauss sings like an angel, but she also has a certain reserved ache and angst that rewards repeated listens; she never over sings or tries to overwhelm. The final two cuts capture her abilities perfectly: “Poison Love” is upbeat and in-the-pocket, while “You Don’t Know Me” has just the right measure of quiver and longing. Gorgeous modern country rooted in the best of the tradition.

• “A Love So Beautiful” by Roy Orbison. This is not, of course, new material: it is a remix of 17 Orbison hits featuring strings performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (it follows on the heels of the 2015 album “If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra”). Such an approach has promise, but there is also plenty of peril involved as well, especially if the arrangers get too ambitious or schmaltzy. Thankfully, the promise is realized here in spades, and famous songs such as “Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely” sound fresh, re-energized, and immediate—and the sound is fantastic. There’s also the fact that Orbison’s astounding four-octave voice always had an operatic quality, and so strings make sense. Yet, oddly enough, the strings end up, to my ears, reemphasizing the rock ‘n’ roll side of Roy, as a listen to “Mean Woman Blues” demonstrates.

• “Broken Machine” by Nothing But Thieves. Think Muse but with more punk and attitude, or Radiohead with guitars—lots of guitars! Still in their early twenties, singer Conor Mason and crew offer up songs with punk-ish swagger (“I Was Just a Kid”), confused angst (“Amsterdam”), heart-felt balladry (“Sorry”), funky falsetto swagger (“Broken Machine”)—and that’s just the first half of the album. This is modern, anthemic rock that (here’s looking at you, Radiohead) enjoys being exactly that. One of the best rock albums of the year from a band that continues to deliver on their early promise.

• “Standards” by Seal. For the record, I think Seal’s first three albums—Seal, Seal (yep), and Human Being—are about the finest trilogy of pop albums ever made. Period. I listen to them all the time. And then, well, he took some detours, including severing ties for quite a while with producer Trevor Horn, who was key to Seal’s distinctive nu-soul sound. Then came Heidi Klum, David Foster, and those “Soul” albums. But 2015’s “7” was a very strong return to form—and now comes a collection of standards. I had my fears: how cheesy might this be? But Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel is clearly serious about the music and manages a near impossible feat: he stays true to himself and to the songs without making bland pap. The arrangements are crisp and detailed, and Seal is in great voice, which means there is power (“Luck Be a Lady”; “I Put a Spell on You”) and vulnerability (“Autumn Leaves,” “My Funny Valentine”) aplenty. A pleasant surprise.

• Finally, I had to mention that one of my favorite Northwest artists, Brandi Carlile, has a new album coming out this coming spring. The first single, titled “The Joke”, is a slice of chamber/power pop bliss, with some truly chill-inducing moments:

 

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