Like every avid music listener, many of our favorite musical discoveries each year have actually been around for a while. Of course, these “new” albums don’t qualify for our annual end of year roundups, so we launched a new list last year dedicated exclusively to celebrating our staff’s top picks from outside of the current year. The following albums come from a wide variety of genres and range from releases we overlooked in 2016 to decades-old classics we finally got around to checking out. This has quickly become one of our favorite end of year features, and we hope you also discover some gems from yore that received just as much (if not more) playtime than some of the newer releases we’ve celebrated over the past twelve months.
Black Peaks – Statues (2016)
Though I will be forever upset that I was not made aware of the debut album from the Brighton, UK progressive post-hardcore band Black Peaks when it originally came out last year – because it would have undoubtedly landed a very high spot in my year-end list – Statues ultimately came to me at a perfect time. Facing the impending beginning of what would be the single most tumultuous and emotionally-trying year of politics and news in my 30 years of life on this earth, I needed music in my life this January that I could just fucking belt and scream with huge hooks and grooves that I could return to time and time again, and Black Peaks had a formula seemingly designed in a lab to provide exactly just that.
Mixing the furious energy of other modern post-progcore bands like Eidola and Stolas, the dark, brooding instrumentals and clean melodies of O’Brother, the slick riffs and eclectic heavy muck of progressive sludge acts like East of the Wall and Mastodon, and far more, the 11 tracks that form Statues form an incredibly sleek pressure cooker of bubbling rage. It’s an album filled front to back with absolute gems and practically zero filler, each song doing its best to top the other with soaring vocal hooks, breakneck intertwining Mastodonian riffs, and crushing sludge grooviness. It’s been the album I’ve been able to turn to throughout the year when all of the horrible shit that is the world we now live in has threatened to consume me entirely and send me into a blackened void of paralytic despair. I honestly cannot stress just how important that emotional lifeline has been, and I owe a debt of gratitude to this band and album for providing it to me.
Blind Guardian – Somewhere Far Beyond (1992)
When I first joined Heavy Blog in January, I received a multitude of inquiries from other staff members regarding my taste in metal. One particular question that I remember vividly was from my colleagues and friends Andrew and Eden, who wanted to know my thoughts on Blind Guardian. I confessed that I had never heard one of their records. That… didn’t go well. To make up for this apparently egregious error, I committed to working through the band’s extensive back catalog over a week. Boy oh boy, am I ever glad I did.
Power metal has never been my jam overall. I tend to find myself most often enraptured by the ugliest and most frenetic sounds in metal, but Blind Guardian don’t care about your predispositions regarding their chosen subgenre. They’re here to melt your face off, and melt they absolutely do. Of the band’s discography, I found myself most taken on first listen by the band’s fourth record Somewhere Far Beyond, which in my limited knowledge base of this particular time to metal seems to be a quintessential listen. Containing one of the best and most invigorating opening tracks I have ever heard in “Time What Is Time”, references to Tolkien’s universe throughout, and a thrash-centric speed that is almost relentless, but never once lacks in fierce and powerful melody, I was enthralled from the very first notes through the album’s epic conclusion.
Of all the new and incredible things I heard this year, one of my absolute favorites was a record decades old, opening my perspective to power metal in a new and powerful way. Hat’s off to Andrew and Eden for encouraging me to give this band a listen. Consider me a believer.
Cult Of Luna – Somewhere Along The Highway (2006)
My iTunes says that this album is ‘Unknown Genre’ and I totally agree cause every time I spin a new Cult Of Luna record I have no idea what i’m getting myself into. Never has an album where the music is so slow made my morning commutes fly by so fast. Dim and Dark City Dead Man is the undisputed world champion of album closers. This is probably the closest we will come to the perfect core CoL experience. Everything before it now seems half-baked and everything after it took exit 99 to Synth City™. I mean none of those are bad things, in fact making the albums before it seem weaker is the best compliment I can give because…those albums are not weak at all. but this album is the probably the origin of a CoL flow chart. Based off whatever aspects you love here, you can branch off into their discography and find more to love.
This is a watershed album. We got new band members gaining new dynamics. Those new dynamics lead to such a serious shift that this album basically destroyed the mold of progressive-post metal. It perfects what Salvation should have been and is a dividing line in their discography towards what would later build its way to the Ultimate ASMR™ Vertikal albums. It’s all about the bleak yet powerful soundscape seeded with emotion. It gets into your head and locks you in for hours, and it’s worth walking through. Or, driving.
Cirith Ungol – King of the Dead (1984)
You’d have to be blind to not se that the traditional heavy metal revival is only just beginning. Where 2016 had some great releases in the field, 2017 resounds with the clash of heavy metal. Bands like Lunar Shadow, White Wizzard, Monolith Cult and more are reaching back into the 80’s and 70’s and bringing back the roots of metal into today. Is it a coincidence then that 2017 also saw the re-release of Cirith Ungol’s King of the Dead? Perhaps but, intentional or not, the re-release of one of the most important and genre defining albums of proto-doom and heavy metal cannot be ignored when talking about the revival of just the same genres.
I’ve known about Cirith Ungol for a while now and have listened to their music before. But only in 2017 did their importance and impact become clear to me. Whether you prefer the remaster or the original version, King of the Dead is an incredibly competent album, containing many of the “trade” classics that can still be heard today. The bass is prominent and gallopy but the vocals are a slower and have a drawl to them that heavy metal usually avoids. The lyrical content is steeped in the influence of Tolkien but also touches upon social and political issues.
All in all, you can’t really understand what metal has done in 2017 without taking King of the Dead into account. Beyond any of the historical imperatives, it’s also a great album, containing everything that ran through the veins of metal during its earlier days. Now, with its descendents along for the ride, it sounds even more powerful, ringing out with a fresh context and approach. As metal continues to go down the twisting lanes of retro fashion and archival rummaging, the legacy of Cirith Ungol and King of the Dead should only grow. For now, it’s a fantastic album re-released in 2017 and perhaps the most important of the albums on this list.
The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I (1999)
My relationship with Emergency & I is a storied tale dating back to my freshman year of college. When I was first branching out from a steady diet of deathcore and dubstep in high school, I leaned on several of Pitchfork’s reviews and “Best of [Insert Decade Here]” posts to expose my tastes to music that didn’t revolve around breakdowns and wobbles. I found innumerable classic albums and personal favorites with this method, but one especially acclaimed album on their Top 100 Albums of the 1990s list proved particularly elusive and intriguing. Just months after releasing Emergency & I, The Dismemberment Plan were lauded by Pitchfork as torchbearers of “groundbreaking pop” that any wise-minded music fan should jump on immediately. Yet, I never saw the album at my local music store, and the cheapest CD copies on Amazon were way above my preferred price point. Thus, the album was shoved onto my “Need to Spin” list along with countless other classic albums dubbed “must listens,” and as the years went on, it simply slipped from the forefront of my mind and never made it into my Spotify search bar.
Fast forward to earlier this year—as I’m shopping for music with a friend, my eyes happen to lock onto a copy of, you guessed it, Emergency & I. At a bargain price of $5, I immediately snatched it off the shelf so I could finally quell my freshman year curiosity. When I finally pressed play, the waves of regret were severe and immediate; why the actual fuck did it take me so long to spin such an incredible album that was clearly groundbreaking in every sense of the word? Emergency & I clearly made a huge impact on nearly all the indie rock, post-hardcore and math rock I’ve heard over the years, and more importantly, it’s an exceptional collection of songs that make consecutive listens effortless. Armed with quirky lyrics, oddball instrumental choices and catchy choruses galore, it’s difficult to pick out key tracks when the whole album is full of highlights. From the infectious math rock noodling of opener “A Life of Possibilities” to the addictive chorus on “What Do You Want Me to Say?” to the charmingly quirky lyrics and delivery on “Girl O’Clock,” there’s seemingly no end to the appall the album’s songwriting continues to have nearly two decades later.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)
It would be really cool to sit here and tell you all about how I’ve been getting into Bjórk these past few weeks, but that would be to deny that the true female pop sensation who has ruled over my 2017 was anyone other than the delightful Carly Rae Jepsen. There was a narrative surrounding Emotion, upon its original release, that it was the true air to 80’s pop nostalgia in lieu of Taylor Swift’s world conquering 1989 (2014). For whatever reason, I ignored the album at the time, and I’m really not quite sure why—it’s even not like I’m particularly averse to “Call Me Maybe” or anything. Either way, this record has been sitting at the periphery of my consciousness since then and, upon finally giving into curiosity, I am absolutely kicking myself for not having investigated sooner.
While I don’t think it comes within range of toppling the modern pop masterpiece that is 1989, it’s a worthy successor to that record, whose bubbly, coy innocence seems even more appealing in the era of the New Taylor™. The album also gave birth to an eight-track b-sides collection the year after that likewise puts every other pop album I’ve heard in recent years to complete and utter shame. That collection itself was updated with the fantastic “Cut to the Feeling” as a Japanese exclusive this year, which has properly gone on to be perhaps my most listened to and enjoyed song of 2017 as well. Emotion is truly an album that keeps on giving and with the Old Taylor™ haven reportedly fallen victim to regicide, the way is now clear for Carly Rae to step forward and take her rightful throne.
Mashrou’ Leila – Ibn el Leil (Deluxe Edition Re-Issue) (2015)
Originally released in 2015, Ibn el Leil is a record that certainly flew under the radar here at HeavyBlog, and one can understand why. Arabic pop isn’t exactly in regular rotation for our staff, or for most of our readers. I know I’ve probably lost 85% of my readers by this point, but the open-minded amongst you who have stuck around are in for am absolute treat. This year Mashrou’ Leila re-released Ibn el Leil in the form of a deluxe edition, with the addition of a fantastic new track (and video), “Roman”, a handful of live versions of songs, and some snippets of early demos.
If you can get past the language barrier, you’ll find an expertly-crafted work of art resplendent with stunning vocals, groovy bass lines, fantastic violin and more. The melodies are infectious, regardless of whether they’re fun and uplifting or sombre and melancholic. Frontman Hamed Sinno runs the listener through the full gamut of emotions with his silky smooth vocals the perfect vessel for whichever emotion he is looking to evoke. Further, his lyricism (see here https://www.ibnelleil.com/) is as good as you’ll find, with brilliant word play, clever juxtapositions of imagery, and a variety of themes including religion, mythology, and sexuality. Reading into them is well worth the investment.
Putting the vocals and lyrics to one side, we’re still met with driving synths, flashes of guitar, a splattering of electronics and, of course, a dazzling violin which swoops in and out with aplomb. Ibn el Leil is replete with catchy and emotional songs which will make you dance, cry, smile, think and reflect. Beneath the polished exterior are a host of intricately woven layers of lyrical and instrumental ideas, and I implore you to dive deep into this fantastic release.
George Michael – Faith (1987)
When I was in my early teens, my mom showed me the music video for “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael. She told me when it ran on MTV it was censored because it was so provocative for suggesting that sex was a beautiful act when performed with a partner you were in a monogamous relationship with. Watching it about twenty years after its release definitely dulled the video’s sharp edge, but the music was still very good. She would later show me the videos for “Faith” and “Father Figure”, songs that I always heard and liked, but never really absorbed. With the recent release for the remastered version of his sophomore album, Listen Without Prejudice, I thought it was time to give his debut solo album Faith a full, attentive listen.
This choice was an excellent one as it turns out. The songs on Faith still pop thirty years later, exploring soundscapes such as R&B, synthpop, funk and soul. “I Want Your Sex (Pt. 1 & 2)” is a nine minute seventeen second long funk opus that is down and dirty initially, but shifts into Stevie Wonder territory when horns come in to single that the second half has begun. One More Try is a slow burning R&B ballad that shows George in an incredible state of vulnerability. Throughout the album, George displays his vocal dexterity, going from soft singing to full belt in seconds flat.
Not only are the vocals top notch, the messages in the songs can get pretty heavy, especially for an album that was not only insanely popular, but also won the album of the year Grammy in 1989. Subjects range from the aforementioned celebration of sex as an act of passion all the way to America’s willingness to overlook those in need and stay silent when they should speak the loudest in the quiet, heart-rending “Hand to Mouth.” Even if the music on Faith is dated by some of the instruments and styles used, the songs themselves exist outside of time. Faith was George Michael’s loud, bold and well-written statement of intent where he promised to love us until the end of time, while only asking us to have a little bit of faith in return. Even though George Michael passed away December 25th, 2016, that faith continues to grow stronger. Always welcoming new listeners, longtime fans and everyone in-between with unwavering enthusiasm, wide open arms and love everlasting.
Soundgarden – Down On the Upside (1996)
Chris Cornell’s tragic passing was particularly affecting. The deaths of other musicians have been always been sad to me, but nothing seemed to shake me quite like this one. Soundgarden were one of those bands I was exposed to as a very young person simply because I had cool older brothers, but the impact was nonetheless lasting and powerful. While my burned copies Badmotorfinger and Superunknown got worn out to the point of needing to be burned again, Down On The Upside was always the outlier. In comparison, it was always a more passive and weirder listen. For a teenager who wanted to just let it fucking rip and air drum, strum, and scream his face off, Down On The Upside offered the fewest opportunities to do so, and never quite got the attention it deserved. It was easily my least favorite. I always heard it as “the last” Soundgarden record, knowing they wouldn’t be back to create another heavier than hell banger.
So, as standard for anyone’s passing nowadays, I tribute-binged on Soundgarden after Chris passed. In retrospect, Down On The Upside still has the feel of something final, but there’s so much more that’s been illuminated by way of matured taste over time or just a fresh perspective. Tracks like “Dusty,” “Never Named,” and “Applebite” were always just “weird Soundgarden,” but now seem so much more appropriate in the context of the album, which seems to parallel Pearl Jam’s “fuck you” album No Code. DOTU is similarly varied in its approach – there’s a real sense of freedom that never lets up – and it’s all highlighted by Cornell’s no-boundaries approach. Whether by the trebly guitars of “An Unkind,” the psych swirls of “Switch Opens” (which Torche needs to cover, ASAP) or the stonery “Overfloater,” each song works nicely in this kaleidoscopic piece which spans their some of their lightest, strangest, and heaviest material in the course of a single record. Sure, the lyrics sting a little bit harder now, but I’ve just might have found my new favorite Soundgarden record this year.