Whether you choose to digest your music via hi-res audio downloads, 180-gram LPs, streaming services, standard-issue CDs, and/or full-on 5.1 surround sound, this past year delivered a wonderfully wide spate of full-length aural goodness. In reverse order, here are The SoundBard’s Top 31 long-players of 2017.

  1. Neil Finn: Out of Silence. (Lester). Multi-hour live-streamed rehearsals between songmeister Finn and a variety of bandmates, a full choir, and a string section over four consecutive Fridays led to ten stark, deeply touching songs recorded live in just four hours and released only days later. “These new songs seem particularly exciting, and I liked finding new ways to make an event of making a record,” Finn told me back in September. “I’ve made a lot of records by now, and I’m fully aware there are mysterious forces out there I cannot predict.” These brilliant sounds of Silence speak volumes.


  1. Bob Seger: I Knew You When. (Capitol). Veteran Midwest rocker shows why there’s much value to be had in being an unwavering lifer. Seger’s long-throw gritty perspective adds a certain weight, bite, and gravitas to the title track and the heartfelt nod to his friendship with the late Glenn Frey (“Glenn’s Song”), not to mention his spot-on, of-the-moment covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” and Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith.” We knew you when too, Bob, and we’re sure as hell honored to know you now.


  1. Lindsey Buckingham / Christine McVie: Lindsey Buckingham / Christine McVie. (Atlantic). Once and future Fleetwood Mac ’mates combine forces for their first dual/titular album together and find the exact right balance between Buckingham’s slightly left-of-center breathy earwigs (“Sleeping Around the Corner,” “In My World”) and McVie’s always sweet singalong melodies (“Feel About You,” “Too Far Gone”). With Mick Fleetwood and John McVie handling all the rhythm section duties, this is one mostly Mac attack for which I can only say: Don’t stop.


  1. Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim. (Mute). Avant-guitarist best known for being one-half of the ever-experimental axe tandem in Sonic Youth absolutely explodes with endless exploration on his latest solo effort. (Bonus: Cue up the video for “New Thing” to see the push/pull of modern/vintage technology in action.) Regarding the overall M.O. for his approach to recording the album, Ranaldo told me back in August, “This is going to be a different experience. It’s going to take its own time, and do its own thing.” Indeed, Electric Trim cuts no corners in delivering a fine smorgasbord of envelope-pushing sonics — just the way I like it.


  1. Filthy Friends: Invitation. (Kill Rock Stars). Riot grrl icon Corin Tucker steps out of Sleater-Kinney, fronts new indie-rock supergroup, and kicks major ass in the process. The always adventurous operatic vocalist and buzzsaw-precise guitarist took even more chances this time around on the songwriting front, with a damn good amount of sonic success too: “I just really wanted each song to have a unique voice,” Tucker told meback in August. “I wanted to try a bunch of different things, so I wasn’t afraid of each song being different from the other — and it was really fun to do it that way, actually.” Invitation very much RSVPed.


  1. Kaki King: Live at Berklee. (Birncore). Iconoclastic acoustic guitarist takes another left turn following her innovative projection-mapped multimedia project to sit down with with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra at The Red Room @ Café 939 at Berklee and perform 11 of her most interesting songs in creatively revised/new arrangements. “I think it’s good to have an audience that expects something new each time,” King told me back in September. “It’s challenging, but it’s what I truly want to be doing for the rest of my career. I mean, I love playing the old tunes, and Berklee was a way of changing them up a bit, and push the boundaries.” Verily, Kaki is the Queen of Strings.


  1. Nad Sylvan: The Bride Said No. (Inside Out). Erstwhile featured vocalist for Steve Hackett proffers part two of his own vampirate trilogy with quite a strong middle by expanding upon the rich sonic palette of 2015’s Courting the Widow by incorporating biting, expansive jams with lyrical melancholy and proto-metal riffage, not to mention a fine swath of funk elements. “It just felt right, and I really don’t care if people think things are derived from Genesis, because a good song is a good song,” Sylvan told me back in May. “It’s OK to show your roots, and I’ve always felt my audience knows where I’m coming from.” In this case, the Bard very much says yes.


  1. The Black Angels: Death Song. (Partisan). The mighty kings of fuzz, those proud purveyors of ear-pummeling distortion from Austin, Texas are back on the attack, expanding the scope of their fuzz-laden palette with some fine dollops of vocal layering and Native American rhythms. “This record just has so many connections to current-day America and the current-day world, whether it’s interpersonal relationships, our relationships with politicians, or our government with other governments,” bassist/vocalist Alex Maas told me back in April. “It’s very difficult to maintain these kinds of relationships. There’s this idea of, ‘What do I even put my faith in if I believe half of what I see, and nothing of what I hear?’ It’s unreal.’” Clearly, a Death Song for the ages.


  1. Close Talker:  Lens. (Nevado). Saskatchewan trio regroups and recharges with aurally exciting angular, atmospheric tones on their meticulously recorded and fully rewarding sophomore album. “When we approached writing and recording Lens, we wanted every part included in each song to count,” drummer Chris Morien told me back in April. “We looked at songs like, ‘Well, is it a song if you play it with an acoustic guitar and vocals?’ We were more focused on layering things and having each part contribute the right thing to each song.” Lens looks to be (and sounds like) the start of something big.


  1. Vök: Figure. (Nettwerk). Ethereally satisfying first full-length album following a string of heady, impactful EPs from this electro-driven Icelandic foursome benefits greatly from the creative-tension push-pull input from producer Brett Cox. “You have to make sacrifices, whether it’s you, the producer, or your bandmates,” drummer Einar Stef told me back in July. “We’re all making sacrifices with our tastes and preferences to get something everybody is happy with. And Brett’s goal was to expand our reach to take things out of that sterilized, digital sound.” Mission accomplished! Incidentally, Vök is pronounced “Verk,” which translates to English as “hole in the ice” — about as fitting as it gets.


  1. Amanda Palmer & Edward Ka-Spel: I Can Spin a Rainbow. (Cooking Vinyl). A prime example of how crowdfunding the merging of the free-form creative sparks of both mentor and mentee can result in a veritable sonic tour de force. “We were piecing the songs together in the room, so it was like we were working on the mixes as we went,” Palmer told me back in May. “We were stacking and layering things, trying to figure out where everything sat and what it needed, or didn’t need. There was no sense of drama. It was all so perfect. It was just this extreme enjoyment process of building this strange-looking thing together.” There’s much sonic gold to be had at the end (and the beginning) of this sweet Rainbow.


  1. Flobots: Noenemies. (Flobots). Denver-based alt-hip-hop trio create a fine bouillabaisse blend of hip-hop, alt-rock, and jazz via a multi-tiered, locally driven Kickstarter-funded campaign. “We actually spent a lot of time immersed in building community power through collective singing,” Flobots emcee Jonny 5 told me back in May. “The focus wasn’t on performance; it was to get groups of people to claim their own power through singing together. The album is designed to speak to different emotional moments within the lives of people trying to engage in social movements.” Noenemies is nonpartisan music for forward-thinking earwig hunters.


  1. The Bloody Beetroots: The Great Electronic Swindle. (Last Gang). Electro-house dance-punk masters led by Italian born-and-bred spiritual leader-cum-mastermind Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo have crafted the exactly right sound-palette mixture of samples and live performance. “I hear people say, ‘How did you create a 17-track album with all great songs? That’s not possible!’ No, it is possible,” Rifo told me back in November. “All the songs here are necessary to tell the overall story. And that’s why you make an album — to tell the story.” Bloody well right, I say.


  1. Steve Earle & The Dukes: So You Wanna Be an Outlaw. (Warner Bros.) Outlaw country curator/progenitor-cum-hardcore troubadour tips his creative hat to honky-tonk heroes Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to embrace a musical intersection between Delicate Touch Road and Heavier Grit Alley. “I had to find an audience that wasn’t dependent on country radio,” Earle told me back in May. “And what I actually think outlaw music is all about is artistic freedom. That’s what it’s really about.” Ride ’em hard and true, cowboy.


  1. Project Mama Earth: Project Mama Earth. (Stone’d/Provogue). British chanteuse Joss Stone and four top-tier collaborators improvisationally explore a pair of Cameroonian rhythms (Mangambe and Bikutsi) and emerge with one of the most uplifting and organically bred EPs for/of our modern times. “It was just complete and total freedom,” Stone told me in early December. “Everybody was individually involved, and I think that’s why it’s such a special thing. This was just, ‘You do you, and I’ll do me. We’ll stick it all together, and that will be that.’ This is a project that five people came together to create.” Mama say: magnificent.


  1. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: The Tourist. (CYHSY). Multi-instrumentalist indie-music-making machine Alex Ounsworth again proves his mettle, along with some studio-bred mind-melded help from producer Dave Fridmann, to create a fine mix of acoustic delicacies, furious guitar jamfests, and echo-drenched feedback squalls. “At first, I was not sure this job would be perfect for Dave until we started adding more and more layers to it, and then I realized he was the guy,” Ounsworth told me back in February. “There’s supposed to be a sleepy-dreamy quality to some of these songs, and I really like the bizarre effects that double-tracking can have on the vocals.” Hands down, The Tourist has its adventurous sonic palette mapped out for maximum impact.


  1. Robert Plant: Carry Fire. (Nonesuch). The once and future Percy continues to defy taking a fully ledded victory lap, musically speaking, and our ears continue to be the collateral benefactors. From the tribal acoustic twang ’n’ strings of “May Queen” (he still has a knack for springing wink-nudge title nods upon us, though!) to the echo-laden imperialistic spitfire lament of “Carving Up the World Again…a wall and not a fence” to the angelic shimmer of “Heaven Sent,” Plant’s creative Fireburns ever steadfast and true.


  1. Living Colour: Shade. (Megaforce). As connected with the ever-shifting pulse of America as ever, Shade shows exactly how Living Colour’s cultural-frontline relevancy is purely second nature. “We’re in furious, furious times right now,” LC’s virtuoso guitarist Vernon Reid told me back in July. “A lot of what we tackle in our songs is a constant dialogue about what it means to be us — what it means to be an American. It’s a crazy-weird thing to say what we’ve written is still relevant. It’s great for us, but it’s weird for the country.” The furiously defiant dialed-in tones of Shade once again raise the flag and up the stakes for a band with its hand forever on lock.


  1.  Deer Tick: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. (Partisan). After an extended hiatus, John McCauley & co. return with a pair of stellar new DT releases. Each volume focuses on two different facets of how well the band works as a creative unit, with a) their acoustic songwriting mastery dominating Vol. 1, and b) their more raucous brand of punklike abandon thundering forth on Vol. 2. “I think the break definitely helped,” McCauley told me back in August. “I’m definitely proud of what we accomplished. A lot of it was instinctual. I sing a little bit different as I’ve gotten a little older, and my voice has gotten deeper. It’s still all there; there are just new things I can do that have come with age, I guess.” Eliminate any guesswork here, as both Volumes tick off all the right sonic boxes across the board.


  1. Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder. (Arts & Crafts). Perennially supercool Canadian collective reconstitutes for their first new album in seven years, resulting in a rich 12-track tapestry. “As a band, we’re used to leaving space for other musicians,” BSS multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin told meback in July. “When we’re writing a song, we often end up having too many ideas, even when we’re holding back. We’re piling more and more ideas into the songs, and then we have to go in and selectively remove certain things to make more space. It’s like gardening, in a way. You have to start pulling it back a little bit.” This fully enveloping Hug proves that sometimes, too many cooks are exactly the right amount needed to properly sweeten the sonic broth.


  1. Spoon: Hot Thoughts. (Matador). The Austin alt-rockers’ first studio effort in three years fires on all cylinders, from the echo-driven joy of the title track to the percussive explosiveness of “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” to the funky kicks going down in “Can I Sit Next to You.” As Spoon drummer Jim Eno told meback in March, “We treat the recording experience like it’s really special. It’s gotta be unique, and it’s gotta be great.” Spoon have figured out how to draw a literal map to the expressway inside your skull, with both their heady/catchy music and the Aura Reader app via Spotify, which enables you to create your own customized skull cover art for the album based on your personal playlist. Hot stuff indeed.


  1.  Twin Peaks: Music From the Limited Series Event &Limited Event Series Soundtrack. (Rhino). These two bookend-perfect aural complements to David Lynch’s beguiling, sometimes baffling, but oh-so-Lynchian fever-dream revival/continuation of the seminal Twin Peaks could not be more spot-on as the show’s sonic supplements. Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting “Deer Meadow Shuffle” and Lynch & Dean Hurley’s scratchy era-exact “Slow 30’s Room” add new exactitude to the included classics on the Soundtrack portion, while Chromatics’ “Shadow,” Blunted Beatz’s “I Am,” and Trouble’s “Snake Eyes” all capture that smoky-twangy Roadhouse haze like nothing else can. Lynch’s singular eye and ear have never been better at cajoling the senses in both linear and nonlinear fashion. This is the water, and this is the well.


  1. John Mellencamp: Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. (Republic). One of our most poignant observational songwriters continues to depict the litany of American tomfoolery and social malaise, all on pointed display. From the double-wide drawl of “Grandview” to the whispery barbed-wire hiss of “Easy Target” to the rootsy country-folk blend of “Sugar Hill Mountain” — one of the album’s fab featured duets with Carlene Carter — Sad Clownsis a relatively happy amalgamation of fine analog sounds. “We try to keep it as organic as we can,” Mellencamp told me in person back in May. “We were just doing what we do. I’m very lucky. I live the way I want to live and do what I want to do, and if people don’t like it, tough shit. And that’s it.” Ain’t that America. . .


  1. Matisyahu: Undercurrent. (Fallen Sparks/Thirty Tigers). Noted Jewish reggae/hip-hop beatboxer takes live improv to another level on eight free-form/free-flowing tracks in his newly reborn, clean-shaven, and literally less Orthodox incarnation, alongside an ace jam band. “The record unfolds as a reflection on some past ideas, and then it moves forward on other ones where I left off,” Matisyahu told me back in June. “It’s done in eight moments, as eight songs celebrating the spiritual search a person might go through, as well as finding a balance for someone who’s constantly yearning for what’s beyond. But then there’s the realization that, at some point, what is beyond is not as relevant as what it is that’s right in front of you.” As Current a soundtrack for modern thinking/creating/personal growth as it gets.


  1. Dhani Harrison: IN///PARALLEL. (HOT Records). A propulsive EDM-tinged aura serves as the sonic halo for the first full-fledged solo album from George Harrison’s always envelope-pushing son Dhani. “There were so many things I loved that I never got to use anywhere,” Harrison told me back in October. “I was stockpiling — but not so much songs as I was instruments, pads, and things like stereo panning or weird granular synthesizers. Most of the time, it was things I had made and sampled and tuned to different keys, and then put into different samplers. I wanted to set a very trippy tone, and let the record tell the story without having to walk everyone through it.” Like///unlike father, like///unlike son.


  1. Neil Young + Promise of the Real: The Visitor. (Reprise). Is there any other artist who’s consistently ridden his muse to the ends of the creative earth and beyond than Neil Young? His current collaboration wave with Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real only scales newer heights and proffers further challenges, both politically (“Already Great,” “Almost Always”) and sonically (“Forever”). And “Carnival” is exactly that: a fierce travelogue through a topsy-turvy world that continues to spin on its axis in a nonlinear (and sometimes nonsensical) fashion. No matter the cost, Young will be there at the fork to question every road taken and/or avoided. Promise very much delivered.


  1. Slowdive: Slowdive. (Dead Scrolls). Undisputed pioneers of the ’90s shoegazing movement return with a vengeance, by way of eight tracks hell-bent on turning up the distortion, blaring the feedback, and transmogrifying vocals across the dreamiest of dreamscapes around. “It does seem like the shoegaze sound of our music has found a place in the expression in other bands 20 years later,” Slowdive mastermind, guitarist/vocalist Neil Halstead, told me back in July. “When we were talking about putting the band back together, it was fun figuring out how we were going to make these sounds again — whether to go with the old equipment, upgrade, or do some mixing and matching. I wound up using a lot more newer pedals than I thought I would originally. I just plugged in the effects, turned the volume level loud, and went, ‘OK, this is how I remember it.’” No matter how you distort it, it’s all just Slow-damn good.


  1. Ronnie Montrose Featuring Ricky Phillips and Eric Singer: 10×10 (Rhino). The late great Ronnie Montrose’s elegiac curtain call, as shepherded with undying love by Ricky Phillips and Leighsa Montrose, is a rousing testament to the Bay Area guitar maestro’s legacy. Not only does it feature great guest guitar solos from the likes of Toto’s Steve Lukather, Rick Derringer, Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, and Joe Bonamassa, but 10×10 also boasts stellar vocal contributions from Sammy Hagar (“Color Blind”), Styx’s Tommy Shaw (“Strong Enough”), Gamma’s Davey Pattison (“Head on Straight”), and founding Santana/Journey keyboard maestro Gregg Rolie (“I’m Not Lying”), to name but a few. “Musically, Ronnie really had a fiery thing about the way he played,” Sammy Hagar told me back in March. “He came out of the Jimmy Page/Jeff Beck era before the Eddie Van Halens and Joe Satrianis of the world arrived. He was one of those guys. He was right there with those guys. And I’m still humbled by what other musicians tell me every time Montrose is brought up. I probably get as many compliments and shout-outs about Montrose as I do Van Halen. I really do.” Have you heard the news? Ronnie Montrose rides again, times ten.


  1. Steven Wilson: To the Bone. (Caroline). Following the heady sonics of his mind-blowing 2015 solo release Hand. Cannot. Erase., the man who continues to set the bar for hi-res recording and aural experimentation hit the reset button to emerge with the deeply layered To the Bone. “I think what’s different here is the emphasis on melodic songwriting and the pop sensibility in my music,” Wilson told me back in August. “There was never a question for me that I wouldn’t follow my instincts. People have to redefine what they think about what kind of musician I am, or what they might have decided I am. But I welcome that. I think that’s a very healthy thing.” Make no mistake — while the piano-melody hook that drives “Permanating” could have landed Wilson on Top of the Pops circa 1986, the viciously aggressive “People Who Eat Darkness” and the quite seductive/percussive “Song of I” highlight the thrust of the man’s always forward-thinking sonic palette. An absolutely fantastic repeat listen to the, well, bone.


  1. Gord Downie: Introduce Yerself. (Arts & Crafts). An elegy in its own literal wake, Introduce Yerself is a celebration of live, love, hope, and an unwavering joie de vivre, albeit in the harsh face of the imminent and unavoidable passing of its creator, Gord Downie, who succumbed to inoperable brain cancer in October. Lovingly, sympathetically, and tenderly produced by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, it is album-as-mirror of the man machine poet I was proud to call a friend for life (and beyond). I’m truly honored that Gord somehow found the time and strength to email me a final personal sentiment, not to mention handwrite lyrics to my favorite song of his, in the face of all he had to face – but that’s just who he was. As nakedly honest in presentation as John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, these 23 songs are eulogical love letters to the full 360 degrees of Gord’s inner and outer life, to all those he knew and cherished both near and far. “Suddenly you were gone / From all the lives you left your mark upon” (Rush, “Afterimage,” 1984). Actually, that’s not entirely true, as Gord and his singular music will reside inside me forever and a day. “First person. . . goodbye.” See you in the next world, sweet Gord.


  1. Styx: The Mission. (Alpha Dog 2T/UMe). The melodic prog-rocking band out of Chicago celebrated its 45th year of operation in 2017 with a powerfully cosmic new studio effort that far surpassed all expectations. A concise, 43-minute-long concept album about the first manned mission to Mars, The Mission builds on not only Styx’s hi-res-leaning recording mantle, but also on the high-octane performance muscle they tirelessly flex out on the road. (The band has averaged a minimum of 100 live performances a year uninterrupted since 1999.) Believe me, I would be the absolute first in line to point out any flaws or weaknesses here as one their most critical of listeners, but having been clandestinely privy to the record’s evolution over the past 2½-plus years, I can report that The Mission is easily the band’s best, most fully realized effort since its literal perfect bookend, The Grand Illusion, which was released 40 years ago on the intergalactically perfect stardate of 7/7/77.

    The Styx six, at #1. Photo by Jason Powell.

    “The truth is, it is a dream fulfilled,” the album’s chief architect, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, told me back in June. “The Mission reflects a vulnerability and rawness we never experienced as a band. We are rough-edged and badass on the road, and we know it. But, to a man, in making this record, everyone got very real and dug down deep in unfamiliar territory, and gave the performances you hear.” Reinforcing a consistent, unbroken level of staying power while also remaining a relevant force musically are two things virtually impossible to sustain in today’s music business, let alone throughout the decades. That said, all across the group starboard, Styx has defied the odds to deliver the album of their collective careers. Mission very, very, very much accomplished.