Here is my now-traditional top-ten list of the albums I’ve listened to the most in the previous calendar year. (See previous entries for 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.) Note that this is for 2013, not 2014 — I won’t know the final 2014 tallies for another few weeks, and I want to get this out before it’s a whole year late.
I listen much more to whole albums than to individual tracks, so each year I pick the ten albums that I listened to the most (not counting compilations), as recorded on the two computers where I listen to most of my music. (So these counts don’t include listening in the car or on the iPod.) I limit the selection to no more than one album per artist, and skip albums that have featured in previous years. Then from each of those ten objectively selected albums, I subjectively pick one song that I feel is representative.
Here they are in ascending order of how often I listened to them.
#10. The Winery Dogs — 2013 — The Winery Dogs (3 listens)
It seems ridiculous that I only listened to this album three times in 2013, when it was the one I most anticipated — thanks to the absolutely stellar opening song, Elevate (above) which was released ahead of the album. I’m not sure why it didn’t rack up a lot more listens: I can only assume that it will this year!
If you want to summarise Elevate in six words, you might say it’s Black Dog for the 21st Century. It shares the stop-start quality of the Led Zeppelin classic’s verse, but breaks into a soaring sing-along chorus that in a saner world would have made it a big hit. Strung through it all are instrumental breakdowns of breathtaking fluidity and virtuosity. It’s quite astonishing that a three-piece band can generate such a rich, full sound.
By the way, the Winery Dogs drummer, Mike Portnoy, appears on three of my most-listened 2013 albums. He gets through a lot of work, and among others is the drummer for Transatlantic and the Neal Morse band. He’s also by far my favourite drummer: so much more than a rhythm-keeper, he’s a musician: his drumming feeds on a comments on the songs rather than just being their foundation.
#8=. Spock’s Beard — 1998 — The Kindness of Strangers (4 listens)
Spock’s Beard are a tough band to summarise: maybe it’s best if you just listen to the song. They sit squarely in the prog-rock tradition, but take (or at least took) a much more melodic approach that genre than most of its practitioners. I say “took” because much of that melodicism is due to singer/keyboardist Neal Morse, who left the band after the 2002 album Snow to pursue various other projects; and while the band has continued without him, I find their post-Morse albums to be less inventive.
Picking a single song from a Spock’s Beard album is always a challenge, because everything that’s truly representative is too long to sit comfortably on a list like this. There are short songs on The Kindness of Strangers, but they don’t really give a fair representation of what the band is about. So I went for the ten-minute opener, a three-part suite consisting of an Introduction, The Good Don’t Last and The Radiant Is.
#8=. Transatlantic — 2001 — Bridge Across Forever (4 listens)
Transatlantic are my absolutely favourite band — I can say now (in March) that their 2014 album Kaleidoscope is likely to come out as the year’s overall winner. They’re a part-time project by four musicians whose day-job are in other bands, and that definitely comes though in an out-of-school feeling that everyone involved is having a lot of fun. Two of those musicians are Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse, who keep cropping up in this year’s selections.
They’re classified as a prog rock band — largely because of their predilection for very long songs — but if I had to pick out a single characteristic of their music, it would be a delight in melody. Even their longest, most sprawling songs are knitted together from fragments of the most gorgeous, unexpected melodies. Often they’re just thrown in, then we move on: you’ll hear a melody just once, as a fill between two lines of vocals. Other times, they return repeatedly, transformed, working together with other fragments. It’s rich music that rewards repeated re-listening.
The album Bridge Across Forever opens and closes with half-hour-long epics. Of the other two, one (the title track) is an unrepresentative piano ballad that is really a Neal Morse solo piece. So more or less by default, I picked the relatively digestible Suite Charlotte Pike, which comes in at fifteen minutes. It consists of five parts: If She Runs, Mr. Wonderful, Lost and Found part 1, Temple of the Gods, and Motherless Children/If She Runs (Reprise). (Lost and Found part 2 is part of the closing epic.)
#6=. Buffalo Springfield — 1966 — Buffalo Springfield (5 listens)
Buffalo Springfield were a classic burn-brightly, burn-out-fast band. They came up with three albums in three years from 1966 to 1968 before finally coming apart at the seams as a result of musical differences, personality clashes and drug arrests. The shrapnel included Stephen Stills, who would of course go on to become the keystone of Crosby Stills and Nash, and Neil Young — so it was one of those break-ups that yield parts that are more than the whole had been.
Their debut album is very eclectic, reflecting all those conflicting band members’ favoured forms. On the whole I find Young’s contributions the most appealing. I wondered about picking Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, but in the end I went with the charmingly surreal Flying On The Ground Is Wrong.
#6=. Haken — 2013 — The Mountain (5 listens)
Yes, it’s more prog — better get used it, if you’re going to get anything out of the 2013 selections. Haken are a relatively new band, and The Mountain is their third album. Their shtick is to incorporate elements of lots of different musical styles: for example, The Cockroach King (above) has a jazz interlude has a jazz interlude in the middle of all the choral interplay and metal riffage. There’s even a comedy sound-effect in there.
Also: I love that, as the video shows, they’re capable of not taking themselves too seriously. (Which isn’t at all the same thing as not taking the music seriously. As soon as you do that, you might just as well not bother.)
#5. The Flower Kings — 2012 — Banks of Eden (6 listens)
I’ve still to make up my mind about The Flower Kings. Their singer/guitarist Roine Stolt is one of the four members of Transatlantic, and I absolutely love his guitar work for them. He’s not a particularly outstanding technician, but seems to have a wonderful knack of knowing exactly what to play — of finding the perfect little melodic fill between verses, or conjuring up a solo that speaks as part of the song rather than merely being superimposed on it. Yet the two Flower Kings albums I know well (this one and 2000’s Space Revolver) both seem to me to lack the invention of the very best prog. There are gorgeous moments in Banks of Eden, but I’m still waiting for the lightning to strike regarding the album as a whole.
If that sounds a bit lukewarm, check out the song above, Rising the Imperial, and experience some of those gorgeous moments for yourself. Then ponder how the song as a whole hangs together, or perhaps just fails to. To me, they feel like they’re about 80% of the way to being a great band.
#4. Daniel Taylor — 2013 — All the Different Flavours (8 listens)
Taylor composes and records prog-flavoured instrumentals. Now that I’m writing this, more than a year on from the release of All the Different Flavours, he has much better material; but that will have to wait for another time. For now, try this relaxing piece, Fourth of Thirth, and enjoy the effortlessly subtle gear-changes at 1:13 and 2:50.
Disclosure: Daniel is my eldest son.
#3. Steven Wilson — 2013 — The Raven That Refused to Sing (11 listens)
Steven Wilson is the driving force behind the prog band Porcupine Tree (though he’s not fond of the “prog” label, which he feels sets up expectations that are not necessarily aligned with what he’s trying to do). This solo album is a set of six ghost stories of various kinds, all executed with the most perfect musicianship — by which I don’t just mean technique, but taste.
It was tough to pick a single track from this album, because I absolutely love both of the first two, in very different ways. The opener, Luminol, is a fierce, endlessly inventive jazz-metal ballad. But in the end I went with Drive Home, an achingly beautiful story about man whose memory simply blanks out the night his wife was killed in a car crash. The video that tells the story captures its simplicity perfectly. And the guitar solo (beginning at 5:06), while technically undemanding, is just about the most perfect I have ever heard.
#2. Neal Morse — 2012 — Momentum (15 listens)
Neal Morse remains possibly my single favourite musician — a superbly inventive and melodic keyboard player, guitarist and writer. (Also a pretty mean drummer, but since Mike Portnoy and he are best mates, there’s little need for Morse to do his own drumming!) His best albums (One, ?, Sola Scriptura) stand among my all-time favourites; even his less stellar offerings are fully of beautiful moments. To me, Morse is the proggiest of all musicians: all his projects (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, the Neal Morse Band) share a spirit of constant exploration and experimentation.
With that said, although there’s a lot to love about Momentum, it’s not among the top rank of his work, lacking the thematic unity that makes those albums so satisfying. Here’s the title track, perhaps the most accessible on the album, featuring a spirit-lifting guitar solo from Paul Gilbert.
#1. Graham Nash — 1971 — Songs For Beginners (22 listens)
After a very prog-dominated year, it turns out my most-listened-to album is about as light and folky as it could be. It’s the first solo album by Crosby Stills and Nash’s Graham Nash. It’s a straightforward album, dominated thematically by his breakup with Joni Mitchell, but refreshingly free of self-pity. There is a starkness to it, a clear-sightedness that prevents it from ever becoming maudlin.
The song Simple Man is good representative. It’s easy to listen to, but heartbreakingly honest and open.
Neal Morse’s albums Sola Scriptura (6 listens) [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] and Testimony 2 (5 listens) [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] would have made it on to the list had his Momentum not been placed higher.
Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (5 listens, plus many more in the car) [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] would have made the list, but it had already been featured in 2011 and of course I wrote about it detail for the Desert Island Albums series.
My records show only two listens to Joni Mitchell’s Blue [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] in 2013, so it didn’t make the top ten here. But that’s completely wrong: I listened to it obsessively more a month or so — probably twenty or thirty times — but all in the car or on my iPod. That album is just stupidly brilliant. I wrote a bit about it at the start of the Hejira post.
There’s no Beatles album this year, rather to my surprise. Help! [amazon.com. amazon.co.uk] and Beatles for Sale [amazon.com. amazon.co.uk] both registered three listens in 2013, so the latter could have been included, but I thought the Winery Dogs album was a more interesting choice. (Help! appeared in the 2011 list.)