In what has become something of an unfortunate tradition inside a tradition, once again it takes me until February to officially close up business for the prior year (though the Valentine’s Day publishing date was an unexpected coincidence). I don’t know what to tell you. There’s not a lot to recommend researching, compiling, writing up, and releasing a comprehensive top twenty music countdown without fellow contributors to help shoulder the workload. I write professionally in addition to running this little backwater, and I can tell you that there are days when the last possible thing on my mind is trying to fill yet another blank page with pop culture ephemera. There’s also a level on which I was probably too consistently consumed with national and world events in 2017 to let the year’s roster of music go about its transporting and soothing work to the degree it was needed. Lord knows I could’ve used the break. It’s bittersweet to think about the quality albums I quite possibly missed out on because my head was elsewhere. I know I unwittingly discovered a handful just in the process of drawing up and fleshing out this list. It’s a good thing that another year’s worth of familiarity, plus easy access to the archives, has made an introductory paragraph such as this even more unnecessary for my readership than ever, because I also have less interest in writing it than I ever have. Nutshell: three lists (Metal, Non-Metal, and Comedy), and then one Top Twenty to rule them all. Individual entries are between 200-325 words apiece, because that’s the only way to guarantee I might get done before Memorial Day. Enjoy!
In terms of truly exceptional metal, 2017 may have been something of a down year. It burst at the seams, however, with general above the line quality. Narrowing the list below from its initial 38 to a qualifying group of 25 was difficult enough, but whittling that further down to twenty was second-degree murder, to say nothing of putting the finalists in order. The cross-genre top twenty, as you’ll read later, is populated with a heady mix of metal name brands and soon-to-be name bands, though in a year where no album truly separated itself from the pack and seized the spotlight – there was no room at the top for a true breakout performer like Abysmal Dawn, nor a perennial all-star like Misery Index, nor a returning conqueror like Faith No More – that competition was still raucous, ravenous, and a whole lot of fun.
Greek dramatists Septicflesh came on like an advancing army, carrying the symphonic death metal banner high, while, elsewhere, kinetic violin punctuated and enhanced the swirling din of Australia’s Ne Obliviscaris, helping the band deliver arguably the most balanced album of its ascendant career. Dying Fetus and Cannibal Corpse fortified their long-standing positions at the top of the death metal heap, while the upstarts in Necrot produced, in Blood Offerings, a brutal mid-tempo gem that, to my ears, was alone responsible for knocking the terrific self-titled comeback from old school DM royalty Obituary off the list. Elsewhere, Norway’s Enslaved and Arkansas’ Pallbearer each did their part to infuse metal with elegance and gripping emotion best experienced via headphones. Pallbearer actually channeled Pink Floyd at points of its fourth and best album so far, Heartless, and Enslaved slipped further down the highly personal, invariably delightful rabbit hole only they can chart, let alone predict. After years of false starts, onstage implosions, and weird backstage drama, Californian tech-death iconoclasts The Faceless somehow released In Becoming a Ghost, fusing the silly and sublime in a way that split popular music’s most notoriously picky arbiters of quality seemingly straight down the middle but steadfastly refused to be ignored by either side.
- Decapitated – Anticult (Death)
- The Black Dahlia Murder – Nightbringers (Death)
- Dyscarnate – With All Their Might (Death/Thrash)
- Overkill – The Grinding Wheel (Thrash)
- Immolation – Atonement (Death)
- Mutoid Man – War Moans (Metal/Hardcore)
- Body Count – Bloodlust (Metal/Hardcore)
- Power Trip – Nightmare Logic (Thrash/Death)
- Lo-Pan – In Tensions EP (Stoner)
- Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained (Death)
- Enslaved – E (Black/Avant Garde)
- Necrot – Blood Offerings (Death)
- Pallbearer – Heartless (Doom)
- The Faceless – In Becoming a Ghost (Technical Death)
- Dying Fetus – Wrong One to F&*% With (Death)
- Ne Obliviscaris – Urn (Death)
- Sepultura – Machine Messiah (Thrash)
- Septicflesh – Codex Omega (Symphonic Death)
- Cannibal Corpse – Red Before Black (Death)
- Byzantine – The Cicada Tree (Thrash/Death)
If narrowing down the metal contingent into something the least bit malleable proved tricky, doing the same for its more unorthodox brethren was just short of excruciating. This is the yearly dilemma with which I’ve presented myself. I take a deep breath, lower my head, and try my best to barrel through. As usual, the “non-metal” catchall, once properly assembled and trimmed, quickly became a churning stew made up of great tastes that didn’t always necessarily taste great together, mixing the standard solid indie (New Pornos, Spoon, St. Vincent, arresting newcomers/grunge throwbacks Charly Bliss, former “next big thing” Cloud Nothings still thinking big) and hard rock (QOTSA and Black Angels in top form, Foo Fighters regaining theirs, plus Royal Blood and The Menzingers) spreads with a dash of hip-hop (the peerless Run the Jewels), a pinch of alt-country (the stubborn, surprising Old ‘97’s), two cups full of LCD Soundsystem’s triumphant dance-rock return, the folk sensibilities and Caribbean flavor of Hurray for the Riff-Raff, the sprawling, involving dream pop of The War On Drugs, the moody swamp rock of All Them Witches, Formation’s odd, involving, percussion-heavy debut, and whatever the hell indie legends Guided By Voices were able to cram into 32 songs’ worth of August by Cake, a kid’s party grab bag in album form which objectively contained a majority of the styles and subsets not covered above – running them through a pop-punk filter – plus a good number that were. Not appearing in that sonic pastiche, of course, was alt-rock piano goddess Tori Amos, who fits no particular predetermined mold and, despite years beyond count in the wilderness of late, still connects on a personal level like nobody’s business. Her Native Invader proved the perfect mystery ingredient, sufficient to prime and set the whole cauldron to boil.
- Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (Hard Rock)
- Tori Amos – Native Invader (Alternative/Singer-Songwriter)
- The Black Angels – Death Song (Alternative)
- The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions (Indie/Alternative)
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (Rap & Hip-Hop)
- Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling (Alt Country)
- Hurray For The Riff-Raff – The Navigator (Alternative)
- Steven Wilson – To The Bone (Alternative)
- Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Alternative)
- Guided by Voices – August by Cake (Alternative)
- The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (Alternative)
- All Them Witches – Sleeping Through the War (Hard Rock)
- Charly Bliss – Guppy (Alternative)
- Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound (Alternative/Punk)
- LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (Alternative)
- St. Vincent – Masseduction (Alternative)
- Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold (Hard Rock)
- The Menzingers – After the Party (Rock)
- Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark? (Hard Rock)
- Formation – Look at the Powerful People (Alternative)
The year’s first significant comedy album was far and away its best. After that, relief came in dribs and drabs, if at all, and at some point it became a fair question as to whether tracking the genre was worth the effort anymore. Look, I’ll never stop loving or listening to stand-up comedy, but years of false starts and ill omens add up, and I became increasingly sure as the year progressed that 2017 would finally be its last inclusion as a contributing factor in this countdown. The business paradigm has shifted too much, away from regular album releases and toward online streaming and less structured or official sketch-based chicanery. The internet distribution model just makes too much sense. Fools like me who actually prefer to own music rather than rent month to month or pluck it on demand out of a sea of disparate choices are going the way of the dodo, the compact disc, and the political moderate. It’s not as if comedy albums were ever really big business or even high priority – maybe when I was an infant – but more than ever they seem like complete afterthoughts. Case in point: three of this top ten, by ace stand-up pilots John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, and Pete Holmes, were album releases of television specials that had aired months (and, in some cases, additional months) earlier on Netflix or HBO (Oswalt’s super-delayed album release even closely paralleled the debut of his latest streaming stand-up special, the painfully personal and far superior Annihilation).
Case in point, um, part 2: In late 2017, curmudgeon-in-chief Lewis Black managed to release a perfectly fetching double album of biting, then-topical material recorded before the 2016 presidential election. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that albums aren’t released with a snap of the fingers. I’m happy all these sets exist. John Mulaney’s aptly named Comeback Kid in particular served as a welcome reminder of just how good the arch observationalist is in his element and at his best. But, after the ridiculous year we just endured, how cathartic would it be to hear Black really be able to tear into the Trump Administration like a kodiak bear instead of wasting his breath on the outdated likes of Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or his own frustrating tendency toward false equivalency between Republicans and Democrats, Trump and Hillary, and so on? So, anyway, I ended 2017 in a pretty mirth-free spot and state, and stand-up comedy, for once, proved little to no help. But then I started reviewing the year’s spoils and came to a surprising conclusion – the year’s first significant comedy album wasn’t just its best, but one of its best overall. Do read on.
- Chad Daniels – Footprints on the Moon
- John Mulaney – The Comeback Kid
- Dana Gould – Mr. Funny Man
- Lewis Black – Black to the Future
- Mark Normand – Don’t Be Yourself
- Patton Oswalt – Talking for Clapping
- Hari Kondabolu – Hari Kondabolu’s New Material Night Vol. 1
- Pete Holmes – Faces and Sounds
- Nick Thune – Good Guy
- Joe DeRosa – You Let Me Down
The Top Twenty Albums of 2017
The difficulties I describe above are, in the end, just as much self-inflicted as they are derived from any dearth of quality music. I honestly listened to as little new music in 2017 as I have in any year since my post-millennium personal doldrums of 2001-02, though when I applied myself, I reliably had a blast. Music shouldn’t be work, of course, and I see no end of irony in the fact that this site and my silly, irrational commitments therein have so rendered it. This is the fifth DAE year-end cross-genre Top Twenty countdown. To put that in perspective/spread the blame around, DAE didn’t even exist when I finished the first one, four years and a month ago. I actually started this platform so that single haggard, haphazard, incredibly self-indulgent post would have a place to live, only to see the site mushroom into what, for better and occasionally worse, it’s since become. In all honesty, I hated the process of writing this countdown more than I did any of the prior four – it’s real work, after all, for negligible return – though I will say I’m already happier now with the results than I ever imagined I might be months ago when the page was blank. That’s because doing this kind of research can’t help but be fun, and because when I finally dig my way out of my imagined rut and get to work in earnest, the process has a headlong momentum and inherent sense of achievement that, indeed, is very appealing. So, ten metal albums, nine defiantly non-metal albums, and even a sneaky comedy gem stuck on at the very end to keep me honest. For the first time ever, I had almost no preconceived notion where the list was going before I was first knee- and then neck-deep in the process of creating/curating it. Gotta admit that aspect was fun too.
I love music, I love writing. I hope I always will. I try to make the intersection of the two more complicated than it has any right being, and even succeed up to a point. But only to a point.
Good riddance, 2017. Rock onward, all. Thank you – as always, as ever – for reading.
- Decapitated – Anticult (Death) – You’d be hard pressed to imagine anybody not already struggling day-to-day who experienced quite the kinds of ups, downs, and challenges thrown by 2017 at the experimental death metal stalwarts in Decapitated. The Polish quartet had already weathered a painful road from their beginning as head-turning prodigies, losing a drummer and a singer in a horrific car accident and enduring wholesale lineup turnover as they clawed their way through its aftermath. Mastermind guitarist Waclaw “Vogg” Kieltyka remains Decapitated’s lone surviving original member, and, at this point, following all that turmoil, tragedy, and two flawed, hardscrabble, and tepidly received comeback albums, it was fair to question whether he’d finally call it a day. The band’s seventh studio offering, Anticult, is, against the odds and apropos of nothing, a massive exclamatory statement, and the sort of album that summarily renders such misgivings not simply moot but offensive. A heady, punishing marriage of brutal execution and fluid musicality that, in its flirtation with perfection, harkens back to the pre-wreck glory days of Negation and Organic Hallucinosis – listen to “Impulse” or “Never” and then argue otherwise – Anticult nevertheless outstrips them in its thrilling, applied aggression. How heartbreaking then that what set up as a celebratory touring year was cast into dismal chaos and uncertainty by formal, though unsubstantiated and since dismissed, charges of rape and kidnapping levied by a female concert-goer following a show in Washington. Decapitated spent what should have been the beginning of their career renaissance shamed, shunned, and confined to jail, awaiting a trial that never came. Now that they are again free men, it’s almost as difficult to envision their next steps as it was after Vogg so tragically lost his bandmates years ago. If Decapitated never toured America again, no one could blame them, and if subsequent listens to Anticult can’t on some level help but be bittersweet, the excess baggage should, over the course of time, still do little to diminish its triumph.
- Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (Hard Rock) – At a time when mass approved, straightline rock and roll seems almost non-existent, how can we possibly take a great band like Queens of the Stone Age for granted? Moreover, how can anyone with a pulse listen to them and not come away smiling? I fashioned one of the truly wonderful nights of my 2017 out of naught but a hillside, a rainstorm, a few friends, several hundred other assorted well-wishers, and QOTSA live. It was perhaps two weeks after the release of the Californian desert rock tribe’s seventh album, Villians, and I already had the thing damned near memorized. As ever, Josh Homme does the heavy lifting, leaving only his audience to listen, absorb, and move their asses. Villains at once rolls QOTSA further down its own impenetrable, high quality, high fidelity highway while ably demonstrating Homme’s gifts as both a crooner and a craftsman. I’m continually fascinated by his/their ability to sound like nobody and everybody simultaneously. Power-groove standout “The Evil Has Landed” has more than a little Family Stone about it. Note also the Bowie allusions on “Un-Reborn Again”, a song that cheekily quotes Georgia Satellites outright. Homme even skirts Meatloaf vocal territory on the frantic, fun “Head Like a Haunted House”. But Villains is so much more than just a game of “spot the influence”, as made abundantly clear by the simmering stomp of opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” or the gravitas of aching closer “Villains of Circumstance”. It’s both a complete statement and a dramatic one, in a year appreciably lacking for either. QOTSA should be challenging Foo Fighters in the popular imagination for the mantle of “only hard rock band that matters”. They should be co-headlining Foo tours instead of appearing as their “special guest”. I defy/double dog dare you to listen to irresistible crowd pleaser “The Way You Used to Do” and remain the least bit still. Why would you possibly want to?
- The Black Dahlia Murder – Nightbringers (Death Metal) – Since I’m rolling in rhetorical questions just now, I think I’ll pose another: Who exactly does The Black Dahlia Murder have to (figuratively) kill to gain more than a modicum of unqualified respect from the larger metal community? I’ve never remotely endorsed the division (and derision) that trails the hard-charging, fun-loving, metal-bleeding Michigan quintet on message boards, in comment sections, etc., as if chained to its collective ankle. I’ve seen TBDM live at least fifteen times since a chance encounter opening for Vital Remains in a North Ohio outhouse introduced me to their lethal combination of metal fundamentals, stage presence, and relentless – and, especially at the time, revelatory – energy. Never in all those evenings did I notice their gifts dim or flag. If anything, they’re hitting harder as they go/grow, with consistency and deadly accuracy. If Nightbringers, the band’s eighth album overall and best in a decade, doesn’t nudge the skeptics at least a step towards sanity, well, then I guess I’ll just weep for the future. The last time TBDM surfaced with clear intent to prove something beyond their allegiance was on 2007’s stunning AOTY Nocturnal, and I could see Nightbringers, which spotlights the band’s three primary attack modes – berzerk paddle thrash, blast-heavy tank procession, tasteful, proportional melodic death – to spectacular effect, making a similarly airtight case. However strongly the album starts, mid-set standouts like “Jars”, “King of the Nightworld”, and “As Good As Dead” are just about as good as I’ve heard TBDM sound since Nocturnal, and I didn’t think they’d fallen off to begin with. New lead guitarist Brandon Ellis is an unassuming star in the making with his satisfying solos and terrific riff embellishment, while everyman frontman Trevor Strnad, he of the ecstatic permanent grimace-grin and bottomless lung capacity, remains the genre’s pre-eminent ringleader. I often picture him astride the bridge of a pirate ship, screaming delightful obscenities at the horizon as his bandmates bend their oars ever forward.
- Dyscarnate – With All Their Might (Death/Thrash Metal) – No less calculated than The Black Dahlia Murder but markedly fresher in the public consciousness is the utterly outstanding British hybrid death trio Dyscarnate, whose album With All Their Might appeared suddenly last summer in the crosshairs of metal purists who’d apparently been otherwise consumed with either jamming to or damning TBDM lo their prior thirteen years of existence. Bubbling like a beast coming up out of the deep, the opening strains of “Of Mice and Mountains” are the harbinger of an album that can both cry havoc and proclaim supremacy like a Viking chieftain, while backing up such talk with a hundred varieties of steel. “Prepare yourself for a storm of swords!” booms singer Henry Bates on “Iron Sharpens Iron”, one of Might’s eight unassailable anthems (but I digress). An album that verily demands attention, With All Their Might had me convinced from the jump that I was listening to the debut of the decade instead of the sound of seasoned journeymen hitting their spectacular stride. Even now, I’m stunned this band evaded detection for so long, because you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more well-balanced extreme metal sound, or performance genetically engineered to get my synapses firing. With its piercing guitar lines, crystalline and crushing, busy yet precise drumwork, vocals that alternate between a Deicide-style guttural/scream tag-team and Randy Blythe’s patented roar, Dyscarnate raise one hell of a ruckus for three people. They don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel but, rather, make it a more efficient and deadly tool. With All Their Might has the feel of the tip of the iceberg for a band poised to be a force for years to come, and even if the cynic in me thinks it might well qualify as Lamb of God’s best album since Wrath, that’s meant as much a compliment as a complaint. Said inner cynic is far too busy headbanging and air drumming to muddy the picture with needless snark.
- Tori Amos – Native Invader (Alternative/Singer-Songwriter) – It was inevitable, this musical rekindling. Almost as much as the college sweetheart who introduced me to her music and far more than anyone else, Tori Amos was the great love of my youth. The equal parts mystical and confessional singer-songwriter and piano virtuoso charted a singular path through the Grunge era of the 1990s by trusting her instincts and granting an array of muses I could barely ever comprehend unfettered access to and use of her prodigious musical gifts. I thought of her as both songbird and siren, earthy and esoteric, just relatable enough to allow me the realization she was almost completely unknowable, which, of course, only made her more intriguing. I was smitten. Half the time I couldn’t have cared less about what she was singing; the other half, she cut surprisingly deep. Majestic and mysterious, Amos’ thirteenth studio album, Native Invader, sounds both eerily of a piece with her seminal ‘90s work and somehow equally other. The haunting, seven-minute opener “Reindeer King” sets both the mood and pace, and though the album that follows is actually far from perfect, its high spots (the bluesy, hopeful “Broken Arrow”; “Up the Creek”, with its marriage of electronic and acoustic and infectious chorus collaboration with daughter Tash; the Choirgirl Hotel echoes of “Wildwood”; the girl on her stool solo throwback “Breakaway”) are vertiginous in a way that couldn’t help but involuntarily transport me back in time. After so many years estranged, I was already unconsciously set for the trip. I certainly didn’t hear anything more piercing or primal in 2017. A wise man once remarked, upon hearing Tori Amos for the first time, that it felt as if, in/for all the world, she was singing to you alone. Native Invader not only made me embrace that element especially in what I had once loved so much, it made it feel new. It was inevitable, this musical rekindling; overdue, and terribly sweet.
- Overkill – The Grinding Wheel (Thrash Metal) – I’ve said it before, and haven’t been near wrong yet: New Jersey thrash royalty Overkill represent far and away the safest bet in all of metal. Every two years, like clockwork, they release a new album of near-unimpeachable quality, then hit the road hard to The Americas, Europe, and back again, filling their show ledger with a procession of tremendous evenings, positive karma, and audience appreciation that reliably ranges from stoked to stunned. Wash, rinse, repeat. Just because the band is safe, however, doesn’t mean they play it safe. As yet more now unnecessary proof of their powers, the sinister quintet offers up another no-frills, no-filler triumph in The Grinding Wheel – their eighteenth album overall and third of their last four to chart significantly in my year-end, cross-genre top ten. In something of a mild upset, it did take this one a little longer to personally click, though once the cylinders began firing, they took on the distinct feel of an artillery battalion. I initially thought the chorus of lead single “Our Finest Hour” distractingly simplistic, see, and, indeed, it did distract mightily from my appreciation of an otherwise quality Overkill rager, not to mention spectacular supporting acts like the slavering “Goddamn Trouble”, the bouncy, exhilarating “Come Heavy”, and the relentless opener/mission statement “Mean Green Killing Machine.” You’d think I wouldn’t fall prey to such a rookie mistake, but then grading Overkill’s recorded output just since 2010 feels like needlessly nitpicking one album or moment over an equally excellent, imminently deserving other; grading it against the larger genre sometimes feels unfair. Overkill is justly romanticized for their late ‘80s/early ‘90s output, with a place of honor reserved just outside of thrash metal’s Big Four, but they’ve never, ever been remotely as strong as they are now, with Years of Decay almost three decades in the rearview. And, wouldn’t you know it, I’ve read recent reports that album nineteen is already under construction. Amazing.
- The Black Angels – Death Song (Alternative) – Austin, Texas’ Black Angels defy easy categorization, which, in the end, is both a mild headache and a big part of what make them so interesting. A swirling, bewitching amalgam of indie rock, roots rock, psychedelia, and the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic tendencies of an early nineties all-star, I strained and struggled to find a valid comparison point and came up mostly with thin air. The only analogy that has stuck with me at all was to hastily christen them the Pixies of our moment, albeit an incarnation surely a little more grounded and brooding than the shrapnel-spitting explosive and self-aware originals, one maybe informed more by Southwestern than Northeastern sensibilities (whatever that means). It’s a fun puzzle to tackle, and Death Song’s eleven tracks make for a diverse but consistently engaging soundtrack to all the mental gruntwork. Whether drenched in echo, reverb, or maybe just bad, bad juju, Alex Maas’ ghostly vocals are the throughline here, the thing that ties together such otherwise disparate points on the map as slithery opener “Currency”, the quirky “I Dreamt”, the barroom head-nodder “Hunt You Down”, and the spare, desolate Major Tom allusions of harrowing closer “Life Song”. Through it all, Black Angels have an unpredictable outlook on and opinion of life, death, love, and music that I find incredibly refreshing, plus more than enough tricks in their bag to start the party at ten and shut it down just past dawn. For a fun illustration, look no further than the chorus of the the loud, mildly deranged “I’d Kill For Her”, on which Maas howls, “I would not kill for her…again”. This, of course, slightly alters the underlying sentiment, though I think we’ve all kinda been there, right?
- Immolation – Atonement (Death Metal) – Running a close, if comparatively clandestine, second to the aforementioned Overkill on the list of your neighborhood bookie’s least favorite metal bands on which to accept action is New York death metal institution Immolation. For approaching a quarter century, Ross Dolan, Robert Vigna, and company have existed squarely among the genre’s vanguard but purposely out of its limelight, all by adhering to a simple creed: be yourself, which is already difference enough. Indeed, Immolation, for all its traditional, mid-’90s death metal trappings, remains one of the genre’s easiest bands to identify by sound, positioning itself a couple of sonic degrees askew of its peers’ arguably more generic trajectories. Their albums are almost all of such quality that grading them against one another is a frustrating if not hopeless task. We already know that they tend to stand up against outside competition. Immolation’s tenth studio release, Atonement, is both a monument to its DIY initiative and creative breadth and a neat encapsulation of near everything – the angular composition, odd but compelling, punctuated by trademark atonal guitar squalls; the thunderous drums that book almost equal time in front of and behind the scenes; Dolan’s unmistakable vocal stylings that split the difference between growl and whisper; a refreshing general indifference to being “brutal” at the expense of being inventive – that makes the band so singular in the extreme metal realm. Listening to the lead drums that propel “Fostering the Divide” or the painterly early guitarwork that colors “When the Jackals Come” is a heady reminder of just how much this band has to offer. Atonement stands among and adds to an already great band’s best work, and floats, easily, part elegant and part avant garde, in the upper half of any recent metal year you’d care to offer.
- The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions (Indie/Alternative) – Though the roles intersect but don’t always overlap, The New Pornographers has always been both a singer’s band and a songwriter’s band beneath a single umbrella, historically boasting four of the former and two of the latter. Carl Newman was, and is, the band’s songwriting engine, and it’s evolved for him over seventeen years from hobby into career, rendering him, in effect, the only truly indispensable Pornographer amongst seven in the class photo. Tour after tour, Newman leads his merry band out in a variety of configurations meant to highlight the inclusion or camouflage the absence of its two simultaneously most electric and least dependable elements, alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, and his songwriting – well, not partner… – say, counterpart Dan Bejar, part-time Pornographer and mercurial fountainhead of indie rock darling Destroyer. TNP’s propulsive seventh album, Whiteout Conditions, finally puts on record what has often been the case on the road, and though Bejar’s absence – and, through it, the beguiling weirdness with which he infuses the band as a contributor – is palpable, his spot in the lineup seems to have been assumed by a heretofore unknown sense of focus. Inspired by the high sheen impact of 1970s German “krautrock” and driven, for some reason, to produce songs high in beats per minute, Whiteout proves tricky sailing for listeners both new and old. But then Newman’s essential craft begins to shine through – on the bemused anti-Trump screed “High Ticket Attractions”, the appropriately jaunty “Juke”, the should-be future concert staple “Darling Shade” – and his voice melds with those of Case and Kathryn Calder into the rock world’s most dependable sugary treat. When Dan Bejar wrote for TNP – and hopefully he will again someday – they were, for all their roughspun charm, still Dan Bejar pop songs. Carl Newman writes New Pornographers songs, and Whiteout Conditions is full to bursting with strong ones. I don’t particularly fear this budding dictatorship. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy as autocrats go.
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (Rap & Hip-Hop) – Hip-Hop, as a type of music, as an artform, has passed me by. This is not a recent occurrence, but it is still a dearly lamented one. It may seem weird for a metal fan to feel the absence of rap in his musical diet so acutely, but here we are. Something is just missing. I can’t listen to Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar, L’il Wayne or (god forbid) Drake and feel near the same kind of invigorating rush I once felt with Public Enemy, or Eric B & Rakim, Ice Cube, or Biggie, or Dre. The crucial musical underpinning, the style itself, has just changed too much. Run the Jewels is the exception that continues to prove this rule. The all-star duo’s third album is another intoxicating trip down the rabbit hole/through the wormhole, full of punchy, economical jams, efficient and impactful, whether the intent is to walk tall (“Talk to Me”), to walk with swagger (“Legend Has It”), or just to walk on. El-P’s beats run the gamut of tactics and attacks, sound modern without risking banality or sterility, and are almost without exception memorable and complementary to genius lead rapper Killer Mike, whose unspoken throwback MC authority counts for even more than the effortless, blistering verbal flow of a siege like “Call Ticketron”. Run the Jewels remains, unfortunately, the exception that proves the hip-hop rule. They are about as terrific as they ever were, which is saying something. As it turns out, RTJ3 is never not saying something, or providing a truly compelling, invigorating listening experience. I do hear echoes of Chuck D and Eric B about them, and those moments give me hope for the future even as they take my breath away. In a genre that went over the course of my lifetime from pug fighter to king of the world, a genre that was literally born to break the rules, we need more exceptions like them.
- Mutoid Man – War Moans (Metal/Hardcore) – I hate to slap arbitrary labels on a band as manic and eager – if not to please, exactly, then at least to play – as Mutoid Man. Most of what you need to know is there in the name anyway: Mutant/Sorta/Man, which rolls right off the tongue. If the loaded moniker doesn’t intrigue you in and of itself, it probably is best you move on to the next carnival exhibit and save some time/bother. Any such quick trigger reaction might prove the listener’s loss, because the New York hardcore/post-metal supergroup’s second album, War Moans, is a shapeshifting barnburner fashioned from reclaimed remnants (Converge and Cave-In literally, plus a veritable army of uncategorizable faves like Kilgore and Faith No More) rather than whole cloth. Though I neither knew nor cared about their pedigree before listening, that essential unpredictability does play into making the band so consistently engaging, and, on occasion, thrilling outright. “Please excuse all this blood rushing to my head,” sings Stephen Brodsky, summing the band up where I’m hamstrung. “I’m sick but I’m not dead.” Neither fish nor fowl, Mutoid Man plays with the energy and aggression of a thrash band, but with clean singing (when allowed to open up, Brodsky sounds like Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, for heaven’s sake) and a conspicuous lack of guitar solos or foundational riffs. You’ll have to forgive me. I want more than a mere side project; Mutoid Man is way better than a mere side project. I could foresee their short term pairing with a theatrical touring powerhouse like Gwar if not for those pesky day jobs, and also if I wasn’t absolutely certain they’d quickly overtake their benefactors in a bloody palace coup. At any rate, they’d probably qualify as the one opener that, on their own considerable musical merits, Gwar fans wouldn’t want to see gruesomely murdered as a lead-in to the main set. Hardly faint praise, I promise you.
- Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling (Alt Country) – I can’t quite remember my first exposure to the musical stylings of Old 97’s, but I remembered the name for years after, so it must’ve made a positive impression – maybe some creative cover, like how I was first introduced to dream folk marvel Wye Oak by hearing them transmute Danzig’s “Mother”. Some artists just linger in your subconscious, earmarked as something likely worth hearing even if you never quite had the bandwidth to do so. Graveyard Whistling sat near the chronological top of the new release master spreadsheet I maintain until 2017 was almost over. Only then did I note the album was free to stream through Amazon Prime. So it was that my first extended listen to Old 97’s came, almost as an afterthought, on my phone, in the waiting room of a full service shop. It was bliss. I don’t often have cause or occasion to reckon the nutritional value of country music, and avoid the genre’s modern offerings like the plague. Warm, weird, witty, and woodsy, Old 97’s are another matter entirely. Listening transports me to the Tennessee of my childhood, or at least those days I wasn’t consumed with hating it in favor of a city life I wouldn’t experience until after college. That’s a mood I find myself missing acutely as I grow older. Songs like “Bad Luck Charm” and “Nobody” reheat my abiding love for troubadours like Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakim, while the sly bluegrass and rockabilly stomp of (respectively) “Jesus Loves You” and “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” call to mind my favorite live band ever, Southern Culture on the Skids. I’d similarly like to spend some more time listening to Old 97’s, whether two feet from stage down front or on the figurative porch with the sun setting over the Smokies. At eleven songs and 41 minutes, Graveyard Whistling effortlessly ingratiates without ever wearing out its welcome. It’s not nearly country in the way I was expecting.
- Body Count – Bloodlust (Metal/Hardcore) – Original rap gangsta Ice-T has been an anti-establishment, countercultural force/fact of life in the music business for so long that his career not only predates that of every other artist on this list, some weren’t even born when he first got paid to pick up a microphone. Ice’s post-millennium evolution into an industry elder statesman and well-regarded television actor has done little to dull the anger that has always inspired and motivated him, though it has contributed to an unfair perception that his underlying authority is somehow lacking. Far from mellowing with age, Ice has, in recent years, increasingly spoken not through traditional rap but via his notorious metal/hardcore hybrid vehicle, Body Count, making all those forceful and persuasive diatribes about activism, poverty, street violence, and institutional racism even harder to ignore or discount. Body Count’s spectacular sixth album, Bloodlust, is the personification of deadly intent, spelled out in its title and embodied in song after furious song (“Black Hoodie”, the piercing “No Lives Matter”) illustrating the multilayered societal malaise currently haunting America. Urgent and vital, Bloodlust is the sonic equivalent of a crackback block in football, just as vicious, just as immediate. Nor does Ice’s band rest on its laurels, instead calling in tasty favors from famous friends like Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe. “All Love Is Lost” remains, in my opinion, the single best use of Max Cavalera since Sepultura released Chaos A.D. in 1993. Ice-T has seen it all and experienced so much that his audience, or, more pointedly, its parents and other elders, can barely fathom. Problems don’t get solved anymore, instead festering or getting shifted out of sight until the day finally comes that there’s no other choice but to confront. That’s what I love about Ice-T: He doesn’t want to wait for tomorrow to come. If you won’t hear sense, he’ll grab you by the throat and scare some sense into you.
- Hurray For The Riff-Raff – The Navigator (Alternative) – It was the late film critic Gene Siskel whose requirements for baseline cinematic quality boiled down to a single question: “Is this movie more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” Because of the expansive difference in mediums, that formula isn’t applied much to popular music, but I can imagine some possibilities, even a number of cases where both ends of the equation might shine through equally. For instance, I am fascinated by the background of Alynda Segarra, the Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent who first fell in love with music via the hardcore punk shows of her youth but, after relocating to New Orleans and absorbing arguably the most vibrant, multi-faceted scene in America, now finds herself a freshly minted source of similar inspiration fronting the delightfully uncategorizable Hurray For The Riff-Raff. Judging by the impressive The Navigator, somehow Riff-Raff’s sixth album in a nine-year existence, it’s probably a heck of a story. I’m still not entirely sure whether Riff-Raff is a traditional band and Segarra its conductor (FWIW, other members are listed on Wikipedia), or the name is yet another in an ever-lengthening parade of pseudonyms (St. Vincent, Destroyer, Iron & Wine, et al) currently masking some of the brightest and/or most introverted talents in the Indie realm. It sure feels like her show alone. Segarra’s husky, unfussy voice is part Joni Mitchell, part Nina Simone, part urgent catalyst, part gentle anchor, enticing the listener ever deeper into the gravity of simple, effective street busker songs like “Living in the City” and “Hungry Ghost”. Elsewhere, “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” trades on being lush and being spare while the heartfelt “Rican Beach” picks up the beat for a particularly refreshing interlude. Neck deep in a heady mixture of folk, blues, latin, country, and electronic styles, The Navigator couldn’t be less concerned with the fact that it is near impossible to pin down, possibly because it’s equally difficult to shake.
- Steven Wilson – To The Bone (Alternative) – The spectre of Porcupine Tree lingers in the subconscious of its fans/mourners, and, arguably, looms over former frontman Steven Wilson with an intensity that grows by degree with every mile he books between there and here. It’s impossible to know how much the crush of outside expectations plays a part in Wilson’s various artistic movements since he is, by nature, an eclectic and inscrutable sort, but I imagine the answer is “not much”. Part of the personal joy of encountering his 2015 opus Hand.Cannot.Erase came not just in the inevitable comparisons to its creator’s prior gig, but in just how much the album seemed prepared to encourage such overanalysis and answer any attendant criticisms with sheer quality. As a longtime PT supporter but recent solo convert, I came away believing very much that Wilson could do no wrong. The limits of such impulsive thinking are laid open upon repeat listens to Erase’s quality comfort food successor, To The Bone. Much airier and less overtly mysterious than its predecessor, Bone sees Wilson relaxing and letting his famous instincts take complete control, resulting in a collection of songs that may lack Erase’s impact but leaves no doubt of its authorial voice. Early on, “Nowhere Now” harkens back to Porcupine Tree’s more placid moments, complete with gorgeous trademark vocal harmonies in the chorus, while “The Same Asylum As Before” recalls the sorts of punchy hard rockers that spurred their momentary post-millennium heyday. Beyond being engaging in their own right, the main thing that extended walkabouts like the title track and the nine-minute “Detonation” communicate is just how tasty and tuneful a guitarist Wilson always has been, and, happily, remains. That tends to get lost, or at least downplayed, the more Wilson uses his brain. After the wide-canvas painting and tonal gumbo of Erase, To The Bone sounds like a holiday in the country comparatively. That’s not such a bad thing. It’s uncharted country, after all.
- Power Trip – Nightmare Logic (Thrash Metal) – Like a shot of adrenaline administered directly to the heart of a listless year, the late-February arrival of Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic was both conspicuous and timely. Even though there were better albums in the offing, with more thrilling depths to be plumbed and far more shadowy corners to be explored, I still tend to think of 2017 in two parts – pre-Nightmare and post. The terminally intense Texas quintet gives lie or at least pause to my repeated, mantra-like proclamation of thrash metal as, “the happiest music on Earth”. Maybe if you’re listening to tremendous, if cheeky, 1980s revivalists/Nuclear Assault-acolytes like Municipal Waste or Gama Bomb, but Power Trip specializes in a grittier, altogether grimier strain that bypasses immediate distribution to the listener’s pleasure centers in favor of all-out war. The heavy dosage doesn’t really kick in until the paddle thrash mayhem of “Firing Squad”, but, by then, the bloodstream is already saturated past the point of recovery. If Power Trip does eventually make its listener weak in the knees, it’s largely because they’ve been busy sucking the marrow from his bones. With its irresistible, nigh inescapable, chorus, the pounding “Executioner’s Tax” was the year’s premiere metal anthem, and, in the brilliant, mid-paced headbanger “Waiting Around to Die”, the old school intro/outro combo of “Soul Sacrifice”, and the title track’s exquisite exquisite foundational riffage, it was surrounded by ringers. A lot of what I love most about Power Trip, besides their swell attitude, unquestionable commitment level, and, yes, inherent power, is that I hear as much old Motorhead at their core as I do Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica (which is appropriate, since their hollow point, booming gunshot drums are worthy of Motorhead’s Orgasmatron). They don’t let you off easy. They don’t equivocate, and they don’t back down. Somewhere, your snooty neighbor’s lawn is dying as we speak, succumbing to Lemmy’s famous prophecy at the hand of yet another reckless run through Nightmare Logic.
- Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Alternative) – From the tenor of critical crosstalk preceding the Spring release of Hot Thoughts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Spoon had spent the afterglow of cornerstone release (and my #7 of 2014) They Want My Soul morphing into some strange country-calypso-black metal abomination. While that would possibly have been a problem with teeth, we were warned nevertheless that extra patience and persistence would be necessary to be able to properly digest their new direction. As a long time well-wisher who became a true, card-carrying fan with Soul, I know Spoon has it within them to follow any gilded path they find interesting, but that’s not what happened here. Britt Daniel has always understood how to write terrific songs, even as Spoon the band has carved out and occupied a shifting sort of personal niche that crossbred and, occasionally, conflated indie rock with radio pop, arena rock, blue-eyed soul, sticky sweet funk, and even the occasional flamenco horn flourish. The only true digressions come at the very beginning and end of Hot Thoughts, with the fey Euro-disco pomp of the title track and the amorphous, sax-driven meditation “Us”. In between, the band regularly vacillates with between its primary sonic identities as, for lack of a better description, Big Spoon and Little Spoon, but more or less stays on the same continuum. There’s a noticeable added spring to Daniel’s step, maybe, but it doesn’t come at the cost of catchy indie tunes, which have always been Spoon’s stock in trade. In fact, songs like the swooning “First Caress”, the urgent “Shotgun”, and the dance floor groove of “Can I Sit Next to You” fold comfortably into the overstuffed pantheon of memorable Spoon exports. If Daniel thinks he’s reinventing the wheel somehow by dabbling in electronics, adding fluttery Chic-style guitar, or inserting tantalizing extra space between his beats, let him go right ahead. The rest of us, myself included, could probably stand learning not to protest so much.
- Lo-Pan – In Tensions EP (Stoner Metal) – There is a certain cache to being the first significant something (album, movie, book, fight, etc., etc.) of a brand new year. I still remember an advertisement for Depeche Mode’s Violator touting it as “the first great album of the nineties” (Ah, kill me). Released on January 13, the first great anything of 2017 was an unassuming item indeed, a outwardly nondescript five-song EP by a nationally touring but still somewhat obscure, albeit terrific, stoner metal band from Columbus, Ohio. I’ve seen Lo-Pan, consummate pros and possessors of one of the greatest movie reference band names ever, gig around our mutual hometown over the years, opening for the like-minded likes of High on Fire and Corrosion of Conformity. I’d never before felt their studio efforts particularly reflective of their live power until I heard In Tensions, an EP whose length is, at once, its most obvious virtue and a sneaky gateway drug/express lane toward a far better, and lasting, appreciation of the band behind it. Jeff Martin is one of the few true affect-free belters in the blue collar metal realm, and although his vocal gifts dictate that Lo-Pan almost can’t help but spotlight him, the equation works because he is every bit as punchy and memorable as the music around him without being the least bit flashy. Every song on In Tensions – the stirring opener “Go West”, the driving “Sink or Swim”, the balanced attack of “Long Live the King” – plays to his strengths while also showcasing the marvelous everflowing riff stream of guitarist Chris Thompson. No dead air, no wasted motion, no head stationary, anywhere. I listened to In Tensions exponentially more than any other album in 2017, and loved it every time. It never left my consciousness regardless of whatever high profile alternatives I was presented. Outside of maybe catching a random episode of Simpsons Season Four, I can recommend offhand no better spontaneous twenty-two-minute investment of your time.
- Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained (Death Metal) – I am among the vanishingly few metal fans you’ll meet who holds no fixed opinion on Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus. Like a burning car on the roadside, I know enough to keep my distance from it and just drive on. Derided like few other albums in the history of a genre with the longest memory and sharpest knives in all of music, with even its scattered adherents mumbling about bravery and offering carefully qualified praise, Insanus, goes the conventional wisdom, was almost exactly that, a spontaneous, pseudo-industrial brain hemorrhage that threatened to derail and permanently tarnish the legacy of one of extreme music’s foundational bands and brands. For six years we waited, with occasionally bated breath, for Morbid Angel to rise again and answer their alleged crimes, though nobody knew what to expect, or, after a time, even whether to expect it. The album we eventually got in response, part throwback, part leap forward, is damned near triumphant in its fearless reconstruction and rejuvenation of what was a thoroughly scourged ancient battlefield. If Kingdoms Disdained, in its surpassing ire and intent to subjugate foe and friend alike, harkens back naturally in feel to turn of the century Angelic statements like Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, there’s good reason. Erik Rutan’s signature production synthesizes everything through a figurative fog of war. Gone is polarizing classic frontman David Vincent, succeeded by professional replacement upgrade Steve Tucker. Gone but not forgotten is extreme drum architect Pete Sandoval (though new skinsman Scott Fuller is fairly astonishing in his stead), leaving pioneering guitarist, esoteric weirdo, and all-around beautiful soul Trey Azagthoth as the last founding member standing. From the opening strains of (gulp) “Piles of Little Arms” to the towering closer “Fall of Idols,” Azagthoth seems to have taken the creation of Kingdoms Disdained as a sacred trust, and a forceful demonstration of the folly of certainty in the face of determination. Morbid Angel’s paid us back in full.
- Chad Daniels – Footprints on the Moon (Comedy) – We should appreciate Chad Daniels while we still have him, at least in this form. Quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and martini dry, the acerbic Minnesotan soccer dad is a budding comedic marvel onstage, not to mention a sage artisan at joke construction and congenial audience provocation. He seems so relatable, so damned ordinary, this plain-dressed single father of two, but his underlying edge is palpable, surprising, and gleeful. There is nothing quite like playing live witness to his surgical needling of an unsuspecting comedy crowd, playfully prodding tipsy patrons into (slightly?) uncomfortable revelations amidst all the belly laughs and snarky asides, gently reconfiguring in real time their preconceptions and expectations. Were I a network television executive, my first (and possibly last) official act would be to throw a family sitcom at him. Lord knows I’d watch it if given the opportunity. He seems to have an unexpected angle or three on just about everything. Strangely enough, Daniels’ fourth album, Footprints on the Moon, though terrific, isn’t even technically his best, but benefits from both its predictable level of quality and an admittedly down year in the music realm to sneak onto the year-end countdown like a grifter stowaway. A fairly sly customer himself, the alternately charming and prickly Daniels would possibly appreciate this logic/method of inclusion. I do look forward to the day his kids finally move out and force him a bit farther afield for subject matter, but, at this moment, mining that conceptual vein, I have no problem asserting that he is among the very best stand-ups working.