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.
#9= Anthony John Clarke — 2009 — Lively at the Davy Lamp (2 listens)
I think Anthony John Clarke is my second best discovery from the Forest Folk Club (after Chole Hall). He’s an Irish singer-songwriter who’s been around since forever — the oldest album for sale on his website is from 1992. I saw him perform in March 2012, and the very grounded imagery of his songs made an immediate impression. I bought his live CD at the gig, and I’ve found it too engrossing to listen to while I work (hence the very low apparent number of listens). In fact I’ve listened to it a lot in the kitchen while I cook, and the songs have really got under my skin.
None of the tracks from the Lively at the Davy Lamp album seem to be available on Youtube, but the song I embedded abovc is on that album — a sympathetic but clear-headed look at the life of a girl living on the streets.
#9= Blue Öyster Cult — 1986 — Club Ninja (2 listens)
Blue Öyster Cult are a band that I come back to again and again — and I doubt a year goes by that I don’t listen to all their albums at least once. But by unhappy coincidence, the one that got two listens this year was Club Ninja, probably their worst. (Some people would reserve that title for 1979’s Mirrors, but at least that album feels like someone involved believed in it, albeit wrongly.) I couldn’t in good conscience recommend the album, certainly not as anyone’s introduction to the band. But it does have one superb song, which seems somehow to have landed on the wrong album, and that is Perfect Water (above). Written and sung by lead guitarist Donald Roeser, who was also responsible for Don’t Fear the Reaper, it sounds beautiful, and perfectly captures that classic BÖC sense of being right on the edge of grasping something profound, pervasive and sinister.
#7= Dido — 2013 — Girl Who Got Away (3 listens)
I bought this album because I’ve loved much of what Dido’s done in the past. I’m an unashamed fan of the openness and simplicity of her debut album No Angel, which is essentially a singer-songwriter album in dance/electronica clothing. And her third album, Safe Trip Home, is even better. Centered on the death of her father, it sounds fragile, undemonstrative and thoughtful throughout.
Unfortunately, I found her fourth album, The Girl Who Got Away, rather a disappointment. The musical backing is much denser and more insistent — presumably in the hope of making it more danceable — and the sense of vulnerability and emotional nakedness is lost. The exception is the final track, The Day Before we Went to War (above), which seems to be a meditation of how simple things were before 9/11. As with all her best material, it’s what’s missing that makes it work: with all rhythm excised, what remains is only the skeleton of a song, and for that reason it speaks much more clearly.
#7= Luke Jackson — 2012 — More than Boys (3 listens)
I bought this on the strength of several stellar reviews by Andrew Rilstone, who unblushingly describes Jackson as “the next big thing”. To be completely honest, I like it but don’t love it. It’s not grabbed me the way it has Andrew, so I’ll let him tell you why it’s so good:
Hearing Luke singing this song [The Big Hill] at Frome was one of the high points of my folk year; I vividly recall the moment when the meandering verse went into the big clear reflective refrain — the exact moment at which the entire audience went from thinking “Oh, this act Steve Knightley has picked to support him is really pretty good” to “We are in the presence of the Next. Big. Thing.”It’s not really a rite of passage song — rite of passage songs are about young men whose mothers would rather they didn’t take their guns to town, surely? Not even exactly a “growing up” song, either. More a “remembering the exact moment when you realized that something had slipped from the present to the past” song. Sort of like Proust would have been if he’d had a guitar and been English and been writing about contemporary suburban adolescence.
I’m still listening to it this year, too, so maybe I’ll eventually catch what he’s talking about. Not quite happened yet, though.
#6 Joni Mitchell — 1970 — Ladies of the Canyon (4 listens)
In any given year it’s a toss-up which Joni Mitchell album I’ll end up listening to the most. This year, as it happens, it’s her most accessible, and I think the best entry point for someone new to her music. Ladies of the Canyon is more cheerful than most of her albums, and finishes with a big 1-2-3 punch of relatively well-known hits: Big Yellow Taxi (above), her eponymous ode to the Woodstock festival that she missed, and The Circle Game. Three superb songs, all very different, all of them absolutely covered to death.
(The rest of the album is just as good, just not as well known.)
#5 David Crosby — 1971 — If I Could Only Remember My Name (7 listens)
This is a very strange album. It was Crosby’s first solo release (and would remain his only one for 18 years). It splits opinion pretty sharply between people who love its unfocussed, meandering quality and those who find it frustrating. Of the nine songs, three are essentially instrumentals — they feature vocals, but no words — and another (Orleans) has only a single eight-word sequence, repeated twice. In its unfinished quality, it reminds me of Paul McCartney’s self-titled first solo album, although that one really was solo whereas this features contributions from all the people you’d expect — Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell.
For myself, I’m not sure what to make of it. Of the three CSN principals, Crosby is generally the one whose songs I love the most (Guinnevere, Wooden Ships, Déjà vu, Shadow Captain). But these really are songs, with a shape and a coherent lyric. I feel that the presence of Nash and Stills as equal partners might have forced the drug-addled Crosby to straighten up and fly right, whereas when let loose on a solo album, his music suffers from the lack of that restraint.
Still, there are certainly some beautiful songs on it. Top of my list is Traction in the Rain, a slow meditative harmony with Nash. I couldn’t tell you what it’s actually about, though.
#4 Neil Young — 1972 — Harvest (8 listens)
I love Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush, so I thought I ought to check out the next one he produced — especially as it’s widely considered one of his best. And I like it a lot but somehow it’s not quite captured my imagination the way the earlier album did. Young tends to write songs that are undemanding on the surface but conceal a real insight, so that they draw you in effortlessly before delivering their payload. But when that trick doesn’t come off, the songs can end up as merely unmemorable — and I’m afraid that may be what’s happened here. I realise I can’t bring half the songs on the album to mind.
Still, there’s a lot of beauty in there. Old Man (above) is a deceptively simple meditation on ageing. It’s also worth listening to this live version if only to better appreciate the guitar work.
#3 Flying Colors — 2014 — Second Nature (9 listens)
Just like he does every year, Neal Morse comes crashing into my top ten — this time in the form of one of his many side-projects, the “prog pop” band Flying Colors. As with much of Morse’s work, it also features living drum legend Mike Portnoy, to great effect — he’s by far the most musical drummer I know, and keeps every song sparklingly alive.
This is the follow-up to their self-titled 2012 debut, and is a more even album than that was — although arguably there’s no individual song on Second Nature with quite the same sheer exuberance as Blue Ocean. For me, the pick of the new songs is the opener, Open Up Your Eyes (above), a semi-epic that serves as a sort of manifesto for the album and for the group. Packed with catchy melodies, driving riffs and lyrical enigmas, I find myself singing along with the opening instrumental passage every time I listen to it.
#2 Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — 2012 for 1976 — Human Highway (15 listens)
Bizarrely, my second most-listened-to album of 2014 is one that doesn’t exist — at least, not in any official release. It’s one of the albums created by soniclovenoize’s “Albums That Never Were” project, in which he assembles his own versions of albums by classic artists that were planned but never completed. Obviously there’s a lot of guesswork involved, and a lot of garnering songs from other places where they eventually appeared, or from demos, or what have you. But he somehow does an astonishing job of making abandoned projects come to life.
In this case, he’s put together a version of an album that CSNY first tried to make in 1973, then again in 1974 and finally in 1976 before giving up on it. He explains the selection process in detail, and justifies the choices of versions when multiple options were available for a given song. The resulting album is an absolute joy, ranking right up there with CSN and Déjà vu. I could have picked almost any of the songs, but I’ve gone with the opener. Carry Me (above) is in fact just a Crosby and Nash song, lifted from their 1975 album Wind on the Water, but multi-tracked harmonies give the impression of all four singers.
#1 Transatlantic — 2014 — Kaleidoscope (29 listens)
And the most-listened-to album of the year? Yes, it’s Transatlantic again — the most unashamedly prog-oriented of all contemporary prog bands. Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy make their second appearance on this list, this time accompanied by Roine Stolt (usually of the Flower Kings) and Pete Trewavas (of Marillion). There is a special alchemy about this particular combination of musicians: each of them seems to bring out the best in the others, so that the cocktail is a rich and endlessly creative one. Notably, the bass parts in Transatlantic albums always sound like melodies in their own right, rather than just being harmonic underpinning.
Kaleidoscope was a much-awaited album, and has been very well received: it won Album of the Year in the 2014 Progressive Music Awards. As usual with prog albums, it’s tough to pick a single representative track, since the three short ones each represent only one facet of the band’s very multifaceted sound. So I’ve gone with my gut and chosen the opening epic Into the Blue (featuring a guest vocal from Pain of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlöw in part IV). Yes, it’s 25 minutes long. They are 25 glorious minutes. If it helps, don’t think of it as a long song, but as a short concept-album.