Top Albums of 2017 – Andrew Sacher
It’s been a shitty year for a lot of reasons but lack of great music was not one of them. There are good new albums every year if you look for them, but 2017 felt especially full of music I genuinely loved. Narrowing down a list this year was harder than it’s been in a while. As you’ll see from my choices, my taste in metal usually veers towards bands with a punk side or stuff that kinda just fall under “heavy rock.” If you think I overlooked an album like this, let me know in the comments! I’m always looking to listen to more stuff.
20. Wode – Servants of the Countercosmos (Avantgarde Music, UK)
19. Couch Slut – Contempt (Gilead Media, USA)
18. Tau Cross – Pillar of Fire (Relapse, UK)
17. Uniform – Wake In Fright (Sacred Bones, USA)
16. Amenra – Mass VI (Neurot, Belgium)
15. Nine Inch Nails – Not The Actual Events & Add Violence EPs (The Null Corporation, USA)
14. Falls of Rauros – Vigilance Perennial (Bindrune Recordings / Nordvis Produktion, USA)
13. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World (Armageddon, USA)
12. White Ward – Futility Report (Debemur Morti Productions, Ukraine)
11. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore, USA)
Metal can be dead-serious — and basically everything on my list this year is dead-serious — but it’s important to remember that it can also be really fucking fun, right? The most fun metal album I heard all year was Mutoid Man’s War Moans. They employ a Motorhead-style chug, and Stephen Brodsky and Ben Koller still find time to work in the technical nuances of their main bands (Cave In and Converge, respectively). Brodsky’s bluesy wail and endless riffage is perfect for this kind of beer-fueled, party-ready heaviness, and Mutoid Man up the shredding even more when they bring in Marty Friedman for a solo on the title track. It’s the kind of album you can play again and again and it revs you up every time.
Woe returned this year with the ass-kicking Hope Attrition, their first album in four years, and they picked up right where 2013’s great Withdrawal left off, only sharper and clearer than ever before. Like its predecessor, Hope Attrition has Woe sounding like a hardcore band playing black metal — or vice versa. They certainly aren’t “atmospheric,” though they do show off a pretty side with some bright tremolo-picked riffs and one instance of clean vocals. Where a more traditional black metal band would fill their sound with reverb, Woe keep things blunt and dry. The riffs are thick, aggressive, and to the point, and Hope Attrition has Woe switching up their black metal shriek with a lower, death-ier growl. With no gradual buildup or anything to kick things off, Hope Attrition is the kind of album where you get dropped right into the fury and there are only a couple of brief moments where things let up.
A Wake In Sacred Waves is the first album I’ve heard from Denver’s Dreadnought (though they’ve got two before it), and it instantly struck me as something I knew I’d love. They’re doing something similar to SubRosa (who was high on my 2016 list and whose drummer Andy Patterson recorded and mixed this Dreadnought album); that is, they’re going way back to when heavy riffage crossed paths with folk music. When stoner metal bands pull from Zeppelin, they’re pulling from stuff like “Black Dog” and “Whole Lotta Love,” but Dreadnought aren’t forgetting about the folk songs on Zeppelin III or the Sandy Denny collaboration on “The Battle of Evermore.” A Wake In Sacred Waves has its fair share of doom (and some black metal shrieks here and there), but it also has the soaring clean vocals of Kelly Schilling and Lauren Vieira, as well as mandolin, flute, piano, and saxophone. It’s the perfect album for fans of both delicate singer/songwriter sounds and crushing doom.
It’s rare that a supergroup sounds as good as they seem like they would on paper, and it’s not everyday that a band’s drummer is as big an appeal as their singer, but Dead Cross are an exception to both of these rules. With Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, etc) on the mic and original Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo on the kit — plus bassist Justin Pearson (The Locust, Retox) and guitarist Mike Crain (Retox) — Dead Cross have written a chaotic hardcore album for the ages. Dave Lombardo attacks the kit with as much rage as he did on Reign In Blood, and this Dead Cross album has the thrill of prime-era Slayer more than the album Slayer did after Lombardo’s recent departure. Mike Patton was never really a hardcore vocalist, but he proves to be a master at it and still finds time to work in his usual utter weirdness. All the while, Justin Pearson and Mike Crain keep things simple, which is exactly what Dead Cross needs. I know this list is about albums, but I’d be remiss to not point that seeing Dead Cross live really sealed the deal. They may all come from various musical backgrounds, and they may be relatively new to playing together (though Patton and Lombardo did previously team up in Fantômas), but they seemed like a pro band who had been at it forever. They take Dead Cross seriously, they’re too humble to flaunt their star power, and they know how to make one hell of a racket.
I should reveal my personal bias that Electric Wizard are my favorite non-’70s doom band. Sabbath are obviously the all-time reigning kings of the genre, and — for me — no band has tapped into Sabbath’s style the way Electric Wizard have. They haven’t stopped paying homage to Sabbath on this new album (just look at the title) and they haven’t really changed their sound much, but a new Electric Wizard album is usually gonna top most of the other music that comes out that year for me, and this one is no different. I think the band’s been on a role this decade, with 2010’s Black Masses, 2014’s Time to Die, and now this album really hitting as hard as their classics do. The new stuff has been just a little faster and more accessible, which works out just fine. If anything, it adds to the instant gratification of the new stuff. And there’s something to be said about a band who never deviates from their style and makes consistently great records every time. It allows for any of their albums to be an entry point, which means Electric Wizard now have over two decades of worthy entry points into their career. At some point in the near future, we’re supposed to get a new album from competing doom legends Sleep. It’s probably gonna be awesome, and it’s probably gonna get lots of praise since the wait for it has been so long. Wizard Bloody Wizard hasn’t been talked about in that way for obvious reasons, but it should be a reminder that consistency is as valuable as a major comeback.
Modern doom rarely gets as sugary as it got on Pallbearer’s great 2014 album Foundations of Burden, and the first two songs on this year’s Heartless, “I Saw the End” and “Thorns,” are even catchier. They suggest that Pallbearer could have Mastodon levels of crossover success if they keep churning out bangers like that, but after those two songs, Heartless takes a left turn. It’s not their pop album, it’s their prog album. Heartless ditches the “Ozzy-era Sabbath riffs meet Dio-era Sabbath hooks” approach, and goes full on “if Pink Floyd was kinda metal.” These songs, especially album closer “A Plea for Understanding,” aren’t long because of doom’s slow tempos, they’re long because they need time to go in all kinds of various directions. Clean guitars are as essential to Pallbearer’s sound as beefy distorted guitars on this album, gently crooned vocals matter as much as soaring wails. Foundations of Burden may remain my favorite, but Heartless proves that Pallbearer are far from a one-trick pony and it makes me so excited to see where they go next.
I haven’t heard all of Boris’ gigantic discography of studio albums, collaborative albums, live albums, EPs, and whatever other projects they’ve released in the past 25 years, but Dear immediately hit me as one of my favorite Boris albums in a while. The sludge parts are at their most crushing, the dream pop parts are at their most beautiful, and Dear really feels trimmed of all possible fat. Boris say they wrote three albums worth of material and cut it down to ten songs, and you can feel the efforts of that editing process in this concise album. Every song feels like it belongs, and every song brings something unique to the table. Some of this year’s best examples of multiple genres of rock are all found on this one album. “Absolutego” is one of the year’s best heavy rock bangers, “Biotope” is one of the year’s best shoegaze songs, and “Distopia -Vanishing Point” is one of the year’s best progressive rock songs. Though Dear will not likely go down as one of Boris’ all-time classics, it ends up being a good starting point for the uninitiated. It takes all of their strongest sides from over the years and puts them on one cohesive album.
There was some cynicism surrounding Myrkur when main member Amalie Bruun kept her pop music past a secret to pursue a career in black metal. There were people who didn’t want to take her seriously as a metal musician, and, perhaps as a reaction to that, she fully embraces her pop side on her second album Mareridt. As it turns out, the results are even better. Like her past work, Mareridt still mixes black metal, folk music, and pop music in a way that’s gained her several comparisons to early Ulver (whose Kristoffer Rygg produced her 2015 debut), but Ulver didn’t start writing choruses this catchy until they abandoned blast beats. There are parts of Mareridt that sound like ’90s Tori Amos and parts that do to traditional Scandinavian folk music what Fairport Convention did to traditional British folk music. Myrkur is pulling from all across the musical board, and that’s when exciting stuff really starts to happen. She’s too pop for the metalheads and too metal for pop fans. But for those of us who fall somewhere in the middle, Mareridt is one of the most addictive records of the year.
Converge have basically become metalcore’s Radiohead. They’ve been around for just about the same amount of time, they have the same amount of albums, and whenever they release a new one, you know critics are gonna go nuts for it and it’ll be on countless year-end lists. Well, guilty as charged. Converge’s ninth album is here, ranked so highly, because it truly rivals their classics. It may not have the widespread impact of Jane Doe or the towering ambition of Axe To Fall, but The Dusk In Us finds thrilling ways to expand their sound without changing their stylistic core. They offer up some of the heaviest riffs they’ve got on “Arkhipov Calm,” they go totally ballistic on opener “A Single Tear,” “I Can Tell You About Pain,” and “Wildlife,” and they’ve got new readymade shoutalongs in the form of “Under Duress” and “Trigger.” On the lengthy title track, they take their quiet side into desert-rock territory that they haven’t explored as much in the past, and penultimate song “Thousands of Miles Between Us” has Jacob Bannon excelling at slowcore even more than he did on this year’s Wear Your Wounds album. It took Converge five years to make The Dusk In Us, their longest break between albums yet, and it reminds us to always give Converge the patience they deserve. As we’ve learned again and again, Converge won’t drop an album on us until they know it’s on this level.
I’m just gonna go ahead and say it: Power Trip are the best modern thrash band around. They’re probably the only band in this genre whose albums and live shows get me as excited as the ’80s-era greats, and it’s not exactly because Power Trip do anything new. They just breathe so much life into the genre that anytime you hear them whip out a familiar-sounding mile-a-minute chug or squealing solo, you’re hit with too much of an adrenaline rush to think about what other bands it might sound like. And at this point, Power Trip seem original because they’re just acting like themselves. They have more of a punk side than the Big Four but they’re not exactly Cro-Mags or anything either. The production on their debut was clearly meant to sound like an ’80s thrash record, but on Nightmare Logic (helmed once again by the great Arthur Rizk) the production is crisp and modern. And lyrically, the album has a message and a purpose that’s firmly rooted in the now. It was actually written before Trump was elected, but with lyrics that drill their way into your brain like “Who’s going to be the difference? If not us, then who?” and song titles like “Executioner’s Tax,” Nightmare Logic has served a purpose all year as Trump-era art. Whenever you’re at your angriest about the latest nonsensical thing that man has done, just put this on.