(1) “Land Animal” by Bent Knee: One of my favorite albums of 2017, regardless of genre, classification, categorization, etc. As I marveled in my mini-review for Progarchy: “the whole of Bent Knee is, again, hard to describe, a mixture of orchestral-ish passages, raw but tight guitar, polyrhythmic craziness, classically-imbued moments of open tenderness, angst-packed explosions, and much more.” Don’t miss it.
(2) “In Contact” by Caligula’s Horse: The lads from Down Under rarely disappoint, and this powerful, masterful album catches them at the height of their powers. As I wrote in my fairly detailed Progarchy review: “In Contact proves the band is incapable of producing anything less than exceptional, and it is arguably their best work to date.”
(3) “Malina” by Leprous: More pop-ish and less overtly prog-ish than previous releases, this is a lean, catchy, and often anthemic album that still packs plenty of heavy punch while clearly reaching out to a wider audience. Great driving music!
(4) “The Source” by Aryeon: A wild, over-the-top sprawl of an album filled with more hooks than a deluxe fishing kit, equalled only by the number of singers (dozens? hundreds?). Considering the dystopian, apocalyptic nature of the story and lyrics, this is simply aural fun at its best. Ear candy deluxe!
(5) “Planets + Persona” by Richard Barbieri: Gorgeous, richly layered dreamscapes demonstrating that electronic music is indeed an art. From my Progarchy review: “It is certainly cinematic, although that word has limitations as well; again, I find it to be highly visual music, full of light and shadow, with a rich palette of tones, strokes, and details. That said, ‘Planets + Persona’ is simply great music: beautiful, mysterious, wonderfully played and produced, memorable, entrancing.”
(6) “KOYO” by KOYO: A late surprise that impresses me more with each listen. Shades of Radiohead and similar English artists (they cite Ozric Tentacles, The Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and Kurt Vile as influences), with a psychedelic haze and some nifty jazz-inflections throughout. Remarkably assured and mature debut album that is rightly being hailed as one of the best of 2017.
(7) “Faced with Rage” by Godsticks: I’ve always liked this trio’s work, and was very happy to hear how the trio has expanded its songwriting and palette, with an extra dose of funky metal-ness, some lovely acoustic passages, and a rather unique mixture of technical precision and deep soulfulness. Guitarist and singer Darran Charles shines, but this is a complete band effort. A sleeper and a keeper.
(8) “Lykaia” by Soen: This is a very, very late addition to my list—I first heard it a week ago, courtesy of Chris the TimeLord. And it’s been on nearly perpetual rotation (I’ve been mixing it with Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ stunning neo-jazz masterpiece “Free of Form”). This is my kind of metal, in the vein of King’s X, with incredible, complex grooves, fabulous songwriting and vocals, and an otherworldly rhythm section. “Lucidity” offers a good taste of the slower, softer side of this supergroup.
(9) “War Is Over” by Von Hertzen Brothers: It took me some time to get into this album, in part because the wall-of-sound production—to my ears, at least—threatens at times to overwhelm the usual outstanding writing and performances by these Finnish siblings. But repeated listens were rewarding, as the cohesive, big arc of the album comes to a moving conclusion with the lovely “Wanderlust” and the anthemic “Beyond the Storm”, featuring the trio’s trademark vocals.
(10) “Blackbox” by Major Parkinson: Much like Bent Knee, this Norwegian group is nearly impossible to describe; it simply has to be heard. There is a sweeping cinematic quality to many of the songs, with strings and choirs, but also wild moments of cabaret, rock, electronica, and more. This is “love or leave it” music, and I find it fascinating, weird, occasionally fun, and a bit macabre at moments. It’s as if Edgar Allen Poe decided to compose an musical and perform it with rock musicians—from Norway. This review offers a deep dive.
(11) “To the Bone” by Steven Wilson: I’ve read some of the debates about whether this is prog or pop, but the bottom line, in my book, is that is fabulous, moving music. I think this is possibly Wilson’s most emotionally vulnerable album, with some truly breathtaking moments of fragile beauty and rousing declaration. The vocal work by Sophie Hunger and Ninet Tayeb take this album to another level, turning it into a gem of modern pop.
(12) “On Her Journey To The Sun” by Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly: A classic case for me of “cover does not match the music,” even though I don’t mind the cover. The Beardfish vet has produced a dreamy, jazz-flecked album bursting with melodic twists and turns, imbued with a sort of innocent, bucolic wonder. Upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable without ever being saccharine or boring.
(Bonus!) “Leftoverture Live and Beyond” by Kansas: Nearly forty (!) years after the fabulous double-album live set “Two for the Show,” the Midwestern vets—with drummer Ehart and guitarist Williams holding down the fort—have produced an excellent live release on the heels of 2016’s triumphant “The Prelude Implicit”. It’s true that no one can match Steve Walsh in his prime, but Ronnie Platt is more than respectable, and his focus and precision are palpable. A very worthy addition to this classic band’s catalog. And I should note that Walsh’s new album “Black Butterfly” is a pleasant surprise, with strong vocal performances, fine guitar work, and some modern sounds at the service of songs that fall mostly on the heartland rock side of the register.