This was a year of hooks for me. I usually favor at least a couple extreme records each year, but frankly as I get older, I don’t have the attention span for anything that doesn’t have things I can hum back to you. That’s not to say I’ve gone completely soft; I liked the Full Of Hell record, Dead Cross was cool too – but this is probably my most straight-ahead top 10 I’ve turned in for this site.
Overall, as I learned by checking my year-end stats on Spotify, I spent more time listening to podcasts than I did actual music: The Boogie Monster and My Favorite Murder were my favorites, and I sunk a ridiculous 14 hours into Bruce Springsteen reading his autobiography on Audible, so there’s some extra recommendations for you, free of charge.
10) Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand (Reprise)
After a somewhat hit-and-miss stint of more accessible, “poppy” releases, Mastodon are back in a big way on this record. Emperor of Sand strikes a more measured balance between what’s at this point, “the two Mastodons.” There are more hooky tracks that would be perfectly at home on Once More ‘Round The Sun or The Hunter, but there’s spidery prog not unlike their best album, 2009’s Crack The Skye. Vocally, they’ve come a long way; drummer Brann Dailor has been a central voice of the band since he started sharing mic duties, but here he channels a voice not unlike Jon Anderson of Yes, wonderfully offsetting bassist Troy Sanders’ throaty growl and lead guitarist Brent Hinds’ unique country-tinged flavor. Big riffs abound.
Key Tracks: “Scorpion Breath,” “Sultan’s Curse”
9) He Is Legend – few (Spinefarm)
This album has a great mix of things that I love; there’s some huge groove riffs here, but the hooks are just as big, and it’s all got a bit of a southern-fried rock vibe to it as well – as much swaggering guitar rock as it is metal, equal parts pummeling and partying. That’s really the best way I could sum it up; it’s a great, dark, heavy rock album, strong and straight-ahead songs played well.
Key tracks: “Air Raid,” “Sand”
8) Mutoid Man – War Moans (Sargent House)
When people ask me why I still love guitar music, one of the first bands I point them towards these days is Mutoid Man. It’s all of your favorite classic rock albums thrown into a blender, tuned down to B, and jacked up to triple tempo. The fact that when I say “slightly longer-form songs” here, I really only mean a maxium of 4 minutes should tell you what you’re dealing with here. War Moans expands what the band does best; big fat melodic hooks from Steve Brodsky, and Ben Koller playing like he replaced all of his blood with Red Bull. Mutoid Man rules, and if the idea of “tech-Motorhead” doesn’t appeal to you, then you hate fun and you’re beyond help; don’t even talk to me.
Key tracks: “Melt Your Mind,” “Kiss Of Death,”
7) Royal Thunder – Wick (Spinefarm)
Royal Thunder hasn’t necessarily been very metal since their debut album, but they’re a great example of being heavy in other ways than overt brutality. There’s the occasional fuzzy guitar tone and more rocking moments, but frontwoman Mlny Parsonz is, as always, a total show-stealer here. I’ve described her before as the Janis Joplin of stoner rock; demonstrating an immense vocal range – every time I think I’ve heard everything she’s got, there’s another incredibly powerful high note in her arsenal. The band’s more straightforward arrangements allow for near-bottomless pits of texture; from the washes of guitar on “Burning Tree,” to the tambourines and Stevie Nicks vocal harmonies on “April Showers,” to album highlight “Plans,” where a solitary guitar line and reverb-soaked drums provide a very restrained musical bed for some of the most achingly beautiful vocals I’ve heard in years.
Key tracks: “April Showers,” “Burning Tree,” “Plans”
6) Zeal & Ardor – Devil Is Fine (MVKA)
These guys have been making the rounds online for a little while now, and for good reason. Melding black metal with old slave spirituals is definitely a unique idea, and the band’s debut record captures the sense of menace and off-kilter strangeness extremely well. The production lacks some of the emotional impact of their live show, but it gets the point across in a way that still keeps black metal’s low-fi DNA. It’s beautifully weird.
Key tracks: “Devil Is Fine,” “Blood In The River”
5) In The Presence of Wolves – Of Two Minds Stages 1-2: The Ape And The Cage (Self-released)
I’m so glad that 2017 was the year of prog bands using their powers for good. In The Presence Of Wolves released one of my favorite records of 2014, and their followup – the first in a series of EPs with an overarching concept about grief and mental illness, is no exception. This is technically proficient, musically literate art where the band’s best strength is making you forget how techy they are. There’s plenty of wild, jazzy chords and tapped basslines, but it’s all presented in a way that’s musical and beautifully hooky first – I’ve been humming the main motif and lead lines of “White Noise” to myself since I first got ahold of this record.
Key tracks: “White Noise,” “As We Speak”
4) Byzantine – The Cicada Tree (Metal Blade)
Think about your favorite band, and how they have that one riff that makes you do the “stank face.” You know the one I mean, where you scrunch your face up and go “MMMMMM” when it happens. Byzantine are a band that has literally nothing but stank face riffs, 100% nonstop, for their entire discography. Their Metal Blade debut after a troubled history with labels and a couple of crowdfunding slam-dunks is no different; it’s much darker and melodic in spots, but it’s just a mutation of the same formula that these guys have ridden into absolute riff lord status. They’re the Crowbar of thrash, in this reporter’s humble opinion, and a total player’s band, especially live; if you have a chance to see them, DO NOT pass it up – the mosh energy is irresistable, but their riffs are so tasty in their technicality and pure meanness that I can never look away long enough to get in the pit, so I just sit there grinning like an idiot.
Key tracks: “New Ways To Bear Witness,” “Trapjaw,” “The Subjugated”