2017 seems to have come and gone in a flash; though truth be told, I’m not all that sad about it.
Obvious political blunders aside, last year felt a little bleak, musically speaking at least. A large number of albums that I had highly anticipated triggered only a lukewarm reaction from me, even those beyond the progressive genre. Even the records that I found most compelling this year are a far throw from how captivated I was by 2016’s Blackstar, Spirit Phone and my other favourites. Maybe I’ve just missed out on some of the hottest albums from 2017? Maybe I’ve just grown bitter with age? Probably the latter.
Cynicism aside, there have been a lot of great albums from 2017, and it’s really been difficult to rank one over another. As such, my ‘Album of the Year’ list this year is split into three tiers: Part the First, Part the Second and Part the Third, where each subsequent group of 5 albums exceeds the last, but the albums listed are in no particular order.
It’s taken me a long time even to make these groups as the lines between them are extremely blurred, so don’t take the groups as gospel – I highly encourage you to listen to each and every album in this AOTY list if you haven’t done so already!
Before we hit the first 5 best albums of 2017, I’d like to name some honourable mentions:
Squintaloo – Uber Börd! (Progressive Rock / Experimental Rock)
Fun instrumental prog with a bohemian flair that’s often quite sinister; Uber Börd! from German experimentalists Squintaloo is an odd but thoroughly enjoyable record, even if the song progressions are so numerous that you can barely differentiate the tracks. The title track is a definite favourite with its fantastically catchy polyrhythmic main riff.
Zola Jesus – Okovi (Darkwave / Art Pop)
Wailing backing vocals; strings; sporadic aggressive percussion and booming synths drenched in a black-tar veneer make for an addictively moody pop album. Nicole Hummel’s solo project, Zola Jesus, sounds like if Chelsea Wolfe went pop, but even that would be underselling her.
Radiohead – OKNOTOK (Alternative Rock)
To include the remastered version of the legendary OK Computer in this AOTY list would be cheating, yes; but the second disc of B-sides and a few unreleased tracks are enough to get Radiohead a well-deserved commendation. ‘Lift’ is utterly transcendental and may just be one of my favourite Radiohead songs – and this clown forgot to put it in Prog Talk’s ‘Best Songs of 2017’ playlist.
Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom (Glitch Hop / ???)
What is this? Is it glitch hop? Is it grime? Is this what grime is? I can’t exactly describe Neō Wax Bloom aside from a single word: ‘banger’. You’ll just have to go check it out for yourself!
Kairon; IRSE! – Ruination (Progressive Rock / Post-Rock)
Not quite as outstanding as Kairon;IRSE!‘s phenomenal 2014 shoegaze record, Ujubasajuba, but the retro-psychedelia of the synths used in ‘Sinister Waters II’ and the heaviness of ‘Starik’ are brilliant. Ruination is an extremely solid prog album for what is essentially a post-rock band!
The Physics House Band – Mercury Fountain (Math Rock / Psychedelic Rock)
Mercury Fountain feels interstellar, with the lines between synth and guitar leads blurring past you as you warp into hyperdrive. The Physics House Band are either at 0 or full throttle as tracks like ‘Holy Caves’ and ‘A Thousand Small Spaces’ provide the anticipation through building ambiance before the explosive segues into ‘Surrogate Head’ and ‘Obedient’. Great stuff, even if it’s a little short-lived.
Forest Swords – Compassion (Ambient Dub / Experimental)
Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, blends together tribal and traditional music with electronica in his excellent sophomore album, Compassion. Chants and vocals are sampled and obscured to blend in with the electronic percussion to create eerie tracks that are almost danceable, but drawn out strings and vague ambiance bring an element of tension to the reverent atmosphere.
Nomade Orquestra – EntreMundos (Jazz Fusion)
Brazilian jazz outfit Nomade Orquestra really puts the ‘fusion’ in ‘jazz fusion’ in Entre Mundos. ‘Rinoceronte Blues’ touches upon western and ragtime music; ‘Felag Mengu’ strikes heavy on Latin American influence with its trumpet flairs; there’s a Steve Wonder vibe in the funk of ‘Vale da Boca Seca’ and there’s even a DJ breakdown in ‘Madame Butterfly’ – and that’s just half the massively fun record.
Now let’s get to the first 5 of my 15 favourite albums of 2017:
Bent Knee – Land Animal (Art Rock / Progressive Rock)
Now that the honeymoon period is over, Land Animal doesn’t quite resonate with me as much as it did around its release; nonetheless, Boston-based art rockers Bent Knee have released yet another excellent album that sustains the bar that they’ve set for the genre.
‘Terror Bird’ and ‘Holy Ghost’ still get my heart racing after toying with it in their anticipation-riddled openings; and Courtney Swain continues to make me swoon with her graceful delivery in ‘These Hands’ and ‘Land Animal’s climax. The cheery ‘Belly Side Up’ and ‘Hole’ pale a little compared to the gravitas of ‘Insides In’ and ‘Holy Ghost’, but still provide the poppy sound that Bent Knee seem to be warming towards with each release. ‘Boxes’ remains my favourite from the album, with its imposing drums and bass overpowering the haunting vocals, acting as counterweights to the erratic structures of the rest of Land Animal.
Land Animal is another worthy addition to Bent Knee’s impressive discography and I’m excited to see where they will go next – though I selfishly hope they backtrack and make another wildly stunning Shiny Eyed Babies.
Leprous – Malina (Progressive Metal)
If you can cast your mind back to 2015, Norwegian prog metal band Leprous’ fourth album, The Congregation, was fantastic and still holds up today. To hear that their fifth LP, Malina, would have a relatively ‘softer’ sound, I was curious to see they could pull off another stellar album. Almost – Malina is a little bottom-heavy in that it lacks the consistency of The Congregation as Malina’s opening half feels a little safe, but good Lord is its latter half astounding.
Whilst ‘Bonneville’ is a great opener, the tracks between ‘Stuck’ and ‘Leashes’ inclusively feel a little by-the-numbers, especially the lead single, ‘From the Flame’. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very well arranged and all have epic and memorable choruses, but everything in between fails to captivate like The Congregation does or what is yet to come in Malina. A tiny slip up that still irks me is the transition, or lack thereof, from ‘Stuck’ to ‘From the Flame’ – ‘Stuck’s closing segment starts to build up before abruptly being cut off by ‘From the Flame’s sole guitar chords. It still bugs me half a year later.
The sorrowful ‘Malina’ and ‘The Last Milestone’ are by far the most spellbinding tracks on the album; Einar Solberg’s vocals are transcendental when set against woeful strings and cacophonous drums in the former – these tracks blew away all expectations of what any ‘softer’ Leprous song could entail. ‘The Weight of Disaster’ and ‘Coma’ manage to balance Leprous’ heaviness with an air of grace in their softer segments, especially with Solberg’s higher registers; and ‘Mirage’ brings the heaviness and a fantastic closing segment that I am just dying to experience live.
If Malina was solely comprised of material in its latter half, it could’ve been ‘Album of the Year’ with little contesting. It’s still a damn fine album, but more often than not I impatiently skip to ‘Mirage’ after ‘Bonneville’ ends.
Saagara – 2 (Jazz Fusion / Traditional Indian)
Saagara’s music is envisioned by Polish clarinettist and composer Wacław Zimpel and brought to life by an ensemble hailing from India; only this time in 2, the production is by German electronic artist, mooryc. The unlikely pairing of Indo-Polish music in Saagara makes for a beautiful fusion of Western and Indian music, both traditional and contemporary.
The duelling clarinets opening 2 in ‘Daydream’ are utterly mesmerizing; a third enters the fray for a freeform solo, but when the wave crashes and the bass and clockwork percussion envelops you, all that’s left after ‘Daydream’ are the chills running down your body. The arrangements in this opening track are utterly breathtaking, resulting in ‘Daydream’ being one of the most phenomenal instrumental tracks of the year.
It’s a shame that I can’t say that for the rest of the record, but it’s still pretty darn good. The rhythms and clarinet duets are groovy in ‘Spring Fever’ and ‘Uprise’; the eeriness of ‘Hot Blooded’ and the airy ‘Ebb and Flow’ and ‘Morphidia’ are also very commendable. 2’s highly repetitive percussion, bass grooves and countermelodies bring a hypnotic vibe that flows throughout the record, providing a near minimalistic aesthetic.
I hope in their next record Saagara manage to pull off an entire tracklist like the spellbinding ‘Daydream’, but for the time being, 2 is a great display of Saagara’s prowess in the world of jazz fusion.
Arca – Arca (Art Pop / Experimental Electronica)
The student has become the master – Venezuelan electronic artist Arca, the alias of Alejandro Ghersi, gained some extra media attention after collaborating with Icelandic pop queen Björk on Vulnicura and her rather polarizing 2017 release, Utopia. During their time working on Vulnicura, Björk encouraged Arca to incorporate vocals in his new album. The result? An album that surpasses Björk’s Utopia on all fronts: vocal, instrumental and even emotional.
Comparing Arca to Utopia is doing it a disservice as its qualities shine on their own. Arca’s self-titled record is consistent in its song-stylizations, with improvised vocals sifting over dunes of modulated pianos, electronic snaps and booms, and an eerie ambiance permeating beyond the background. Even though the vocals are in Spanish, the laments of ‘Piel’, ‘Anoche’ and ‘Miel’ are incredibly moving and Arca’s sensual delivery of ‘Desafio’s verses is sublime.
(n.b. – I wouldn’t recommend watching the video for ‘Anoche’ in public, it’s a little NSFW)
Though even without Arca’s vocals, instrumental tracks like ‘Castration’ and ‘Urchin’ stand out for their sporadic bursts of rhythmic pulsations, making them some of the more aggressively gripping tracks. ‘Whip’, however, is such to the extent that it’s irritating and generally skip-worthy.
Due to the rather limited instrumentation palette, Arca can feel a little homogenous; but the largest barrier between me and being able to enjoy this record wholeheartedly is my inability to speak Arca’s native tongue. To quote myself a few months back: It’s simply a beautifully chaotic record, and I don’t understand a word of it.
Motorpsycho – The Tower (Progressive Rock / Psychedelic Rock)
Norwegian outfit Motorpycho’s previous record, Here Be Monsters, went under my radar back in 2016; but the Babylonian proportions of their latest record, The Tower, hit me like a ton of bricks. The streamlined rock instrumentation, catchy vocal melodies and a great balance of energetic and calmer tracks make The Tower a grossly enjoyable album that makes 85 minutes feel like 40.
The title-track opener, ‘Bartok of the Universe’ and ‘In Every Dream Home’ are total jams, especially the latter’s funky riffs and sassy chorus. The lackadaisical parts of ‘Intrepid Explorer’, ‘A Pacific Sonata’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘The Maypole’ are psychedelic singalongs that prevent the exhaustion of heavier sections, but are still enjoyable in their own right. Closer ‘Ship of Fools’ is the only track I feel lukewarm towards, but maybe it’s because I don’t finish the album all too often as I’m dying to replay the previous tracks.
The standout track has to be ‘A.S.F.E.’, what with its groovy hard rock, backing hype-man vocals, addictive chorus and lyrics that are cheesy as all hell. Take a look at this verse and chorus:
(Come on! Come on!) Well it’s bound to get crazy
(Come on! Come on!) It’s just bound to get weird
(Come on! Come on!) You know it’s gonna get hazy
(Come on! Come on!) Do you think they’ve prepared?
There’s a song for everyone, and a singer for every song [ad infinitum]
On paper, it sounds like a recipe for the worst butt-rock imaginable, but Motorpsycho manage to pull off the prog party anthem of the year with its boundless energy; especially towards the song’s end that borders on crescendo-core. Easily the strongest track on The Tower and one of my favourites of the entire year.
My only main gripe with The Tower is that there’s nothing particularly emotionally or lyrically beguiling or jaw dropping here, but it still remains a very solid album. The Tower may not be quite as spellbinding as 2012’s seafaring The Death Defying Unicorn, but Motorpsycho have once again put out an excellent record that’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.
There you have it, the first third of Cerpin’s favourite albums of 2017! The next installment, Part the Second, should be arriving shortly and a lot more concisely, given that the honourable mentions are out the way.
What do you make of these choices? Were any of the albums mentioned here your favourite record of 2017? What albums do you think topped these? Can you guess what’ll appear in the next part of my AOTY 2017 list? You probably can, the album covers are in the opening graphic. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!