It’s that time of year again, where I emerge from my cave of blog inactivity and make a list ranking the top games of the year. Almost. That list is coming (don’t worry, it’s coming), but I figured this year I’d also jot down some notes about the best new music I found myself listening to in 2017. There was a lot of really fun stuff this year, with new material from old favorites and new discoveries alike. I’m gonna keep this at a short and sweet 5 albums, so you know that these 5 are really the best of the best. Kicking it off is one of my all-time favorite female vocalists.
5. Alison Krauss – Windy City
Windy City is a somewhat different turn for Alison Krauss, shifting away from her usual bluegrass fare to a batch of simple but delightful covers that run the gamut from jazz standards to country classics. When I heard this was coming last year, I was excited for something new from Krauss, as her last activity was in 2011 with the fantastic Paper Airplane. While it’s somewhat disappointing that this album is a solo effort, and not more work with her frequent collaborators Union Station, it’s by no means a disappointing album, with a couple of standout tracks. Tracks like Losing You, River in the Rain, and the title track are haunting and beautifully brought to life by Krauss’s ever-spectacular vocals, and the country covers are excellent as well, with Glen Campbell’s Gentle on my Mind being perhaps my favorite track on the album. Some of the songs are given a different weight by Krauss’s unique style and vocal presence, and tracks like You Don’t Know Me are almost entirely different with the new life she breathes into them. By no means a complex album, Windy City simply gets the job done for those looking to get their Alison Krauss fix. Hopefully soon we’ll get to see more from her with the Union Station gang.
4. Styx – The Mission
I’ve been a huge Styx fan for quite some time — longer even than I’ve been a Rush fan. Styx was one of my first musical loves, one of the first bands I listened to when I was old enough to decide to listen to music for myself, and while Dennis DeYoung’s masterful vocals will always hold a special place in my heart, Tommy Shaw’s classics like Blue Collar Man and Renegade are among my favorite Styx songs. The Mission delivers more of that Tommy Shaw goodness, with many tracks like Hundred Million Miles from Home and Radio Silence being immediately reminiscent of Styx tracks from the late 70s. On the proggier side of things, Red Storm and Khedive give the listener a taste of the musical prowess brought to the table by newer members like keyboardist Lawrence Gowan and drummer Todd Sucherman. Rounding out the album are catchy, simpler tunes like The Outpost and Gone Gone Gone, and it wouldn’t be a Styx album without a vocal turn from James “JY” Young, which we get in the all-too-short Trouble at the Big Show. While The Mission might not be Styx’s best work, it’s certainly the best we’ve seen from them in 35 years, and hopefully indicative of a return to form for the legendary group, showing that they still have something to say 45+ years in.
3. Sons of Apollo – Psychotic Symphony
Ever the king of the modern prog scene, virtuoso drummer Mike Portnoy kept himself busy as usual this year, playing shows around the world with a whole slew of talented musicians, traveling and playing with a roster that’s a veritable who’s who of progressive music. In keeping with that tradition, he co-founded Sons of Apollo this year with fellow ex-Dream Theater member Derek Sherinian, bassist Billy Sheehan (with whom he’d previously worked in The Winery Dogs), guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal of Guns ‘N’ Roses fame, and vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, known for his work with Yngwie Malmsteen and a brief stint with Journey. Certainly an impressive line-up, but how does the music work? Fortunately, pretty damn well. Leaning more into the “metal” side of “progressive metal,” Psychotic Symphony is a great freshman effort from a new supergroup, with a decent variety of tracks ranging from more ballad-sounding tracks like Alive and Divine Addiction, to more straightforward metal in songs like Coming Home and Signs of the Time, to full-on prog epics like God of the Sun and the instrumental Opus Maximus. Sons of Apollo does a great job showing off the various musical talents present here, and I’m certainly excited to see more from this group.
2. Toehider – “Good”
Mike Mills’s (not the REM guy) Toehider was a new discovery for me this year, brought on by my further looking into Ayreon. Toehider is Mills’s solo effort, fully written, sung, and played by him. Mills is an insanely talented musician and vocalist (one need only check out his cover of Wuthering Heights to get some idea of his spectacular range and control), and his songwriting is pretty much the result of bubbling in all the kinds of music I like. As such, Toehider pretty much became my new obsession this year, as I vociferously sought out and bought up all his past material as soon as I found it. To new listeners, I’d describe Toehider as “Tom Lehrer does progressive rock”. “Good” is a delightfully strange album, and every one of its eight tracks is wonderfully weird. The title track is short and comprised of acoustics and harmonies, leading right into [funnythings], a fast-paced metal romp about a guy and his cousin who accidentally break a cabinet at an estate sale. Other standouts include Millions of Musketeers, recounting the tale of what happens when you fall asleep in a rocky field, How Do Ghosts Work, which asks all the questions its title implies, Dan vs. Egg, an acoustic number about a guy named Dan … fighting an egg … and the funky I’ve Been so Happy Living Down Here in the Water, a tale that continues a long string of songs about a man named Malcolm, his wife (a rock giant), and their child (who may or may not be Malcolm’s child), who is some sort of creature (his travails about discovering his identity are documented in 2013’s What Kind of Creature am I?). Yeah. It’s definitely weird stuff, but it’s all just so damn … well … good.
1. Ayreon – The Source
I came across Ayreon last year by way of Neal Morse and James LaBrie, and fell in love with it this year with The Source. Ayreon is the project of Dutch musician Arjen Lucassen, who’s been telling a huge, arcing space opera across many albums since 1995. The Source is a prequel to his hugely complicated story, and, as always, he employs an all-star cast of great vocalists to tell the tale. Standouts from these are Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, Edguy’s Tobias Sammet, Symphony X’s Russell Allen, and the aforementioned Mike Mills, but every vocalist is given a chance to shine. The Source shows off some of the best of Ayreon’s style, ranging from epic prog metal to mournful ballads, and everything in between. The Source is shorter than most of Ayreon’s albums, and it really cuts out the fat of some of Arjen’s more bloated releases like 01011001 and The Human Equation. Pretty much every track here is great; all of the instrumental parts are spectacular, with longtime collaborator Ed Warby doing his usual great work on the drums, and some great guest solo work (the guitar solo from Guthrie Govan on Planet Y is Alive! is heavenly), and the vocalists all work together exceptionally well. The opening track, The Day that the World Breaks Down, is a proper prog epic, setting the scene with panache. Some of the other great tracks include Run! Apocalypse! Run!, a panicky speed metal jaunt, Deathcry of a Race, a proggy look at survivor’s guilt(!) with a great flute riff, and the best track on the album, Everybody Dies, which basically sounds like what would happen if Queen did heavy metal thanks to Mike Mills’s impressive voice work. It’s seriously awesome, and the whole album manages to tell a cohesive story and tie into that of the rest, while balancing 10 excellent vocalists and the sizable instrumental talents of Arjen Lucassen. It’s definitely the best album of the year.
So that about wraps that. I listened to a lot of new music this year, but these were definitely the cream of the crop. We’ve got some prog rock, some metal, some downright crazy stuff, some bluegrassy jazz, and some classic rock, so really, this list is pretty comprehensive and should have at least one album for everyone to check out and enjoy. Man, I listen to weird shit. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my top games of 2017!