Last year was an interesting year for gold investors. In January 2016, the gold price per ounce had fallen to $1,060 after reaching highs of $1,230 in 2015. By July 2016, the precious metal climbed to highs of $1,365 per ounce before plunging on a rollercoaster trajectory to $1,150 by year end. (See also: What Drives the Price of Gold?)

Gold is climbing again in 2017, trading at around $1,272 per ounce as of August 4. SPDR Gold Shares (GLD), the SPDR ETF that tracks gold bullion, is up 7.7% year to date. Perhaps this is because gold has traditionally been perceived as a safe haven investment in times of economic uncertainty – and no one can argue that major shakeups such as Brexit​, Donald Trump's surprising presidential victory and the shaky performance of many Western economies have contributed to a general feeling of unpredictability. (See also: Gold Prices Soar on Brexit.)

If you're interested in getting in on the movement in gold prices, you have many options besides gold-indexed ETFs or purchasing a stash of the precious metal. Some of the hottest gold stocks for 2017 are mining and exploration companies. Take a look at these picks for the top gold and gold mining stocks to gain exposure to the market this year. Companies were chosen on the basis of year-to-date performance, and all figures are accurate as of August 4, 2017. (See also: The Gold Showdown: ETFs vs. Futures.)

Barrick Gold Corporation (ABX)

Barrick is the gold mining leader, both in terms of size and low operating costs – its all-in sustaining costs (AISC) were down to just $730 per ounce last year. The gold miner also cranked out an impressive $1.5 billion in free cash flow in 2016, which may have contributed to a 42% dividend hike to investors last year. Analysts are predicting another huge dividend in 2017 of 47%. Second quarter 2017 earnings per share (EPS) were also up 57% over the second quarter of 2016, blowing out analysts' expectations.

If gold prices stay above $1,000 per ounce and the company can continue its low AISC, Barrick could be a good medium-term investment, especially if it can continue to slash debt from its balance sheet. The stock is currently trading at about $21, near the low end of its 52-week range of $18.52 to $29.29. (See also: Dividend Yields: Barrick Gold vs. Newmont.)

Royal Gold, Inc. (RGLD)

Royal Gold isn't like the traditional mining companies that have to invest in a lot of costly equipment and operations to actually get the precious metal from the ground – it makes its money through royalty and streaming agreements with the heavy earth movers. In fact, one of Royal Gold's major sources of revenue is a streaming agreement for a Dominican mine with Barrick Gold. This low-cost business model is a gold mine (pardon the pun) for Royal Gold in terms of free cash flow; the company was able to convert about 60% of its revenue into cash flow in the first three quarters of fiscal 2017.

The stock currently trades around $84 per share, right at its 12-month price target of $84. It was upgraded from Hold to Outperform this year. Royal Gold's fiscal third quarter 2017 revenues came in at $107 million, up 14% over the same period last year. (See also: Royal Gold Comes Up With Operational Update for Q4.)

Franco-Nevada Corporation (FNV)

This is another precious metals streaming and royalty company that is heavily focused on gold. The Canada-based company turned in solid revenue numbers in 2016 of $610 million, representing an average annual growth rate of over 14%. Dividends and EPS were also up, with first quarter 2017 EPS of $0.25 beating first quarter 2016 numbers by over 47%.

Franco-Nevada has a more diversified portfolio and in fact recently gained exposure to oil with a $100 million investment in Oklahoma's STACK play. Another deal for gas and oil royalty rights in the Permian Basin is also in the works. The stock is currently trading at about $73, above its 12-month price target of $70. Franco-Nevada was also recently upgraded to Outperform.

Agnico Eagle Mines Limited (AEM)

This Canadian gold producer is headquartered in Quebec and has a market cap of around CAD $13 billion ($10 billion USD). Its balance sheet shows low debt, with a debt-to-equity ratio hovering around 25%. Agnico Eagle reported second quarter 2017 EPS of $0.24, reflecting an average growth rate of roughly 140%, and second quarter revenue of $550 million was up 2.28% over the same period in 2016.

The stock is currently trading at about $45 per share, down about 25% over the previous 12 months. It carries a 12-month price target of $58, which represents potential upside of nearly 27% from current levels. (See also: Assessing Agnico Eagle Mines Valuation.)

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