I couldn't do it. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn't prune the list to just five albums that deserved to be highlighted. You'll have to forgive the indulgence. This year was simply packed front to back with great albums. Even stopping at 7 was a concession.
In addition, this year I've added headphone recommendations. This is not likely to be an annual thing, as the technology here generally doesn't change quickly.
It's no secret that I have a soft spot for female-fronted metal bands. Power metal can be a little sketchy, if the lyrics are cringe-inducing or the song construction is mediocre. Unleash the Archers are the real deal: my favorite power metal discovery since Symphony X, who they faintly remind me of. They craft well-built songs, backed by extreme talent and buoyed by the soaring voice of Brittney Slayes. Of course the (other) videos will have the inevitable face paint, bonfires, and ancient weapons, but it still just makes me smile and bang my head. I dare you to listen along and not be bobbing your head through the scorching intro. Great album.
Level setting: Every Mastodon album is great, and some of them are fucking amazing. This is one of the former. A great Mastodon album is better than almost anything else that gets released, but this lands at #6 because there are so many worthy, perfected performances this year. Gloriously large soundscapes are present, vocals are to die for, crazy time-changing riffs to entertain...but you already know all of this. This is great Mastodon. Go ahead and revel in it.
Described as a progressive metal superband, Soen's members hail from bands like Opeth, Death, Testament, and Willowtree. The album suffers from mediocre production quality (as do previous recordings). That's a shame because it's some of the best laid down prog metal in a year which includes great albums from the likes of Caligula's Horse, QotSA, The Contortionist, The Great Discord, and Threshold. The vocals are smooth and powerful, the harmonies excellently executed, and the melodies are stuffed full of great hooks and impactful riffs. It's one of those albums that begs to be listened to over and over again until you just can't stand it anymore...except that moment never really comes.
This was a really good year for rap music. Logic crafted something better to my ears than Jay-Z and Macklemore, which should only be shocking to someone who's new to his music. The song "1-800-273-8255" was a huge hit this year, and for good reason: it was an excellent collaboration with an important message, terrific music, emotional punch, and an amazing star-studded video. That's not the sum total of the experience, though: the album is chock full of variety, fun & anger, tremendous musicality, sick beats, plus several appearances by Neil deGrasse Tyson as God. In short: Logic perfected.
Ne Obliviscaris is a new-to-me band that I discovered after watching the Lost in Vegas reaction video for "And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope" from an older album. I was blown away by their live performance and decided to pick up that album (Portal of I) as well as 2017's Urn. I really don't know how to categorize the music: what do you call a band that's part new age and part extreme metal? I will "forget not", and it's definitely worthy of the list this year.
With an almost parallel history (and many more albums), it's easiest/laziest to describe Norway's Enslaved to new listeners as the black metal version of Sweden's Opeth: they both started with a more or less pure take on their genres (black and death metal, respectively), and over time they've added progressive elements to the music. To my ear, "E" is to Enslaved as "Ghost Reveries" is to Opeth: the perfect blend of progressive elements and core style that's bound to be my go-to favorite for many years to come. (I seriously doubt Enslaved will follow Opeth into a pure progressive rock transformation. 😉) This album is full of lush backgrounds, layered with a combination of clean and black vocals; it's definitely more progressive and hook-filled than black metal these days, and that suits my tastes just fine.
Well, I mean. Of course. Steven Wilson is on the list twice this year (also in the honorable mentions for his Blackfield collaboration). In just about any guise—solo, with Porcupine Tree, with Blackfield, or with Storm Corrosion—he's going to make a favorite album of the year. Every solo album represents an evolution of sound; 2015's "Hand. Cannot. Erase." landed at #2 on my list. Some hardcore fans had trouble with this album, I suspect because at times we get as near to the happy version of Steven as has ever been recorded:
Here above the clouds;
I am free of all the crowds;
And I float above the stars;
And I feel the rush of love.
Hardcore fans be damned. This is a masterwork.
The Rise of Chaos by Accept
Will to Power by Arch Enemy
The Source by Ayreon
Blackfield V by Blackfield
The Cicada Tree by Byzantine
In Contact by Caligula's Horse
Concrete and Gold by Foo Fighters
Something to Tell You by HAIM
Incorruptible by Iced Earth
4:44 by Jay-Z
Malina by Leprous
Gemini by Macklemore
Embers of a Dying World by Mors Principium Est
Ballads by Paula Cole
Contingent by Pyramaze
Villains by Queens of the Stone Age
Hydrograd by Stone Sour
Reputation by Taylor Swift
Clairvoyant by The Contortionist
The Rabbit Hole by The Great Discord
Strength in Numbers by The Haunted
Legends of the Shires - Threshold
The Sin and the Sentence by Trivium
Parking Lot Symphony by Trombone Shorty
False Idol by Veil of Maya
Ghost Mile by Voyager