Here is my now-traditional top-ten list of the albums I’ve listened to the most in the previous calendar year. (See this list of previous entries.) Also in accordance with tradition, it’s ridiculously 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 my phone.) 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 Pine Hill Project — 2015 — Tomorrow You’re Going (2 listens)
I helped to kickstart this album, a collaboration between two repeat what-I’ve-been-listening-to veterans Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, so I was really keen to hear it. It’s an album of covers of their favourite country-folk songs, and based on how much I loved Cry Cry Cry I thought it had a good chance of hitting it out of the park.
Yet somehow, it just didn’t quite happen for me. It may yet prove to be a slow burner, but as I write this (having listened to the album twice more in early 2016) I can’t name a single song on it. I guess that tells its own story.
So how did it get onto my annual top ten albums? Simply because, for reasons I don’t understand, there are very few albums that I listened to very much in 2015. Only the top five made it into double figure — indeed only the top five accumulated more than four listens!
#8= Paul Simon — 1983 — Hearts and Bones (3 listens)
Now this album is an absolute stone-cold classic, and I can’t begin to understand why it was such a commercial flop on its release. It may even be my very favourite Paul Simon album, which is saying a lot.
I won’t write too much about it now because at some point it will be the subject of a full-length essay in my Paul Simon series; but I will say that when I was Warwick university in 1989, some friends bought me this LP as my 21st birthday present, and its emotional power was so effective that it ruined my day.
#8= The Beatles — 1963 — Please Please Me (3 listens)
It surely doesn’t need saying that this album was the result of the single hardest day’s work ever put into any project. Fourteen tracks recorded (eight of them Lennon and McCartney compositions, six of them covers), in a little over twelve hours (10am-10:45pm). It was the Beatles’ debut and therefore the recorded beginning of what was indisputably the greatest musical journey of the late 20th century — perhaps ever.
I also listened three times each to With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Abbey Road this year; and twice to Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver; and once to all their other albums. They just don’t get old.
#6= Judas Priest — 1980 — British Steel (4 listens)
I don’t admire this album, but I have to admit it’s really grown on me since I wrote about it for the Heavy Metal Timeline series. As I said back then, this is really pop music played in a metal idiom. But whereas I said that with a bit of a sneer in 2014, now I say it with more affection.
#6= Steely Dan — 1977 — Aja (4 listens)
I like Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic very much, so I decided to listen to Aja when I read that it’s one of David Crosby’s favourite albums. So far, it’s not really settled into my mind: I enjoy listening to it, but only one track (Deacon Blues, above) has really landed with me.
#5 Porcupine Tree — 2005 — Deadwing (10 listens)
Parts of this album are gorgeous; but my sense with this, as with the same band’s The Incident, is that there’s a big gulf between the songs that work magnificently and those that are really disposable. The title track (above), Lazarus, Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, and Glass Arm Shattering are quite lovely; Shallow and Halo I can get along very well without.
I feel like Deadwing ought to be one of those albums that adds up to more than the individual songs; but if it is, I’ve not yet got it.
Porcupine Tree is the band led by Steven Wilson, who we’ll be hearing more from later in this post.
#4 Dar Williams — 2015 — Emerald (11 listens)
A welcome return to top form after the good-but-not-great The Promised Land and In The Time of Gods. I rate Emerald as Williams’ best album since 2005’s My Better Self, which is saying something. Her eye is clear, her mind is sharp, her lyrics are incisive and her tunes are singable. How is she not better known?
#3 The Neal Morse Band — 2015 — The Grand Experiment (13 listens)
The king of prog rock returns with a not-exactly-solo-album. Previous outings hsve been credited to Neal Morse, with the songs all written by him; but this one is a band effort. His long-term collaborators Mike Portnoy and Randy George are on drums and keyboards as usual, but this time they’re joined by guitarist Eric Gillette and multi-instrumentatalist Bill Hubauer. The result is a typically inventive album, but perhaps with more of the feel of Transatlantic than a Neal Morse solo album. Which is fair enough since this, like that, is the result of a collaboration.
The album opens with Following the Call (above) ten minutes of fascinating and ever-changing music introduced by perfect harmony vocals. Lovers of harmony will also enjoy the album’s very gentle third track, Waterfall, which I’ve more than once seen likened to the work of Crosby, Stills and Nash. (One of the great things about this band is that four of the five members can and do sing.)
This is a very joyful album, and I’ve loved listening to it — not only the 13 times that my records show I’ve heard it on my computers, but also many times in the car and on the kitchen CD player. And I am absolutely pumped about the Neal Morse Band’s forthcoming double concept album The Similitude of a Dream.
#2 Joni Mitchell — 1974 — Court and Spark (18 listens)
Arguably Mitchell’s most immediately appealing and approachable album, and certainly her most commerically successful one. But that doesn’t mean that the music is at all dumbed down; even less so, the lyrics. As always, she is razor sharp, perceptive and expressive — and she leaves plenty of work for the listener to do in arriving at conclusions about the songs.
More than her other albums, Court and Spark is a unity — especially on side 1, where all five songs feel like part of an intergrated suite. One side 2, the individual songs can be picked apart a little more easily, which is why I chose Just Like This Train (above) as the sample track. But I could so easily have chosen Down to You or Trouble Child. Oh, there is so much goodness on this album.
#1 Steven Wilson — 2015 — Hand. Cannot. Erase (31 listens)
Absolutely, unambiguous, overwhelmingly the album of the year for me, by a mile. Wilson has always been clever, and he’s never made an album without absolutely beautiful tracks on it. But this time he’s upped his game, and Hand Cannot Erase is magnificent from start to finish. There is honestly no weak track anywhere on the album.
Hand Cannot Erase is a concept album, based very loosely on the true story of Joyce Vincent, who died of unknown causes in a London flat in 2003, but whose body was not found for more than two years — a woman so disconnected from the society she lived in that no-one even noticed when she wasn’t there any more. The viewpoint character of Hand Cannot Erase is not Vincent: all the details of her life are made up. But the outcome is the same.
Muscially, this is just perfect: a marvellous combination of prog rock, ambient, and even dubstep. Despite the wildly varying styles, there are common threads running through the whole album so it really is a unity. It’s difficult to pick a single track, so I’ve gone with the video above which includes both the brief instrumental introduction First Regret and the opening song Three Years Older. Wilson is himself a consumate musician, but is not afraid to surround himself with even better instrumentalists — not least Guthrie Govan, a guitarist of sensational technique but also, more importantly, with perfect judgement. He knows what to play, and when, and how, to best serve the song. And each song is there to serve the album.
The big honorable mention this year is the first CD of Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning — with 21 listens, it was actually my second most-listened album of the year, and I absolutely love its somewhat Radiohead-like Deform to Form a Star. But as there was already a Steven Wilson album at #1, it was ineligible. The next honorable mention was Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (ineligible due to the inclusion of Court and Spark and because of its own previous appearance in 2011). Otherwise it was a bunch of albums (mostly Beatles ones) with three listens each that either had appeared in earlier years or were by artists appearing higher on this year’s list.
Only one of last year’s YouTube videos has gone away in more than eighteen months since I wrote that post, which gives me some encouragement that the rate of pointless copyright-related publicity-prevention may be slowing down. Accordingly, I’ve put together a YouTube playlist of this year’s favourites, so you can listen to them all if you wish.