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.)
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 the kitchen, 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.
#7= UFO — 1975 — Force It (2 listens)
2016 was a strange year for me, music-wise. I simply didn’t listen to a lot of albums — 159 listens in total, compared with 238, 193, 268, 434 and 481 in the five preceding years counting back from 2015 to 2011. As a result, the first four entries in the yearly list creep on by virtue of just two listens each.
We open with an album that I have loved since I was fourteen, by one of the bands that, along with the likes of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, formed my musical taste when it first started to expand beyond the Beatles. Truthfully, I have never considered UFO to be quite up there in the very top rank of rock royalty, but they did release a sequence of seven superb albums between 1974 and 1981 before falling off a cliff rather suddenly with 1982’s dire Mechanix. The second album in the main sequence, Force It, happens to be the one that made it onto this year’s list, but it really could have been any of that run, with 1977’s Lights Out a particularly strong contender.
Most of the album is a blend of dumb-fun rockers (Let it Roll, Shoot Shoot) and surprisingly introspective ballads (High Flyer, Out in the Street), but two of the tracks skew hard away from these twin themes and present something darker and more chaotic. One of them, Mother Mary, opens side two; the other is the selection above, This Kid’s, which includes a closing instrumental passage credited separately as Between the Walls. The main song is an angry, flailing rocker, apparently a tale of a kid who just doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life. The transition into Between the Walls (from 3:25 onwards) is effective if abrupt, and leaves us with a hallucinatory haze which I can only think represents medication, with the kid perhaps consigned to an asylum — hence the walls of the title. It’s a curiously downbeat ending to an album that opened as a party, and all the more effective for that.
#7= The Waterboys — 1990 — Room to Roam (2 listens)
I first loved the Waterboys as the angry/inspirational U2-like band of their first two albums — the eponymous The Waterboys and especially their second, A Pagan Place. I loved their third, This is the Sea, when it was released 1985, but I was perplexed by the trad-folk leanings of 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues and completely uninterested at the time in their fifth album, Room to Roam, which I felt was cutesy and rather childish and completely lacking in guts.
And to be fair to 22-year-old me, there is really nothing among the 18 short tracks of Room to Roam that at all resembles the Big Music of those early albums. It took me a long while to appreciate it on its own terms, but over the years it’s become my very favourite of their albums. There is a simplicity and honesty to it that I find beguiling, and the track I’ve chosen from it (Something That is Gone, above) is very representative. It’s a song about having lost something — it’s never clear what, but one could imagine childhood innocence, perhaps. What stands out is that, where the early-career Waterboys would have been angry or despairing about it, the 1990 model are more realistically and straightforwardly sad. As I wrote about the same song sixteen years ago, “I love the simplicity and lack of bombast about a song that speaks so straightforwardly about something so important.”
#7= Voodoo Sioux — 1995 — S.K.R.A.P.E (2 listens)
I have to declare an interest here: I like Voodoo Sioux not only because they are an enjoyably mindless pop-metal outfit rather along the lines of Judas Priest, but also because their bassist is my next-door neighbour and good friend Mario Ermoyenous — who is also the bassist of our occasional prog-rock band Crooked End. They rock hard live, and studio recordings really only catch a part of that.
S.K.R.A.P.E. (Songs about Keeping Religion A Private Experience) was their debut album, more than 20 years ago now. I’ve cheated in my track selection here, because Damage (above) is actually from their much more recent Grotesque Familiares (2013) — because it conveys what they’re about much better than the poor-quality available live recordings of their older songs. (Also, the video itself is rather good, and captures Mario’s manic side.)
#7= Yes — 1973 — Close to the Edge (2 listens)
The last of the two-listens entries this year is Yes’s stone-cold classic album Close to the Edge (though it could equally have been Fragile, which I think I like even more). It hardly needs saying that Yes were one of the key handful of bands that defined what prog rock is — though at the time, like Genesis, ELP and the rest, they were not aiming to build a genre, but just to make music that was meaningful to them. What emerges is overwhelmingly creative, and makes for an exhilarating if sometimes difficult listen.
Close to the Edge is one of those albums where it’s hard to pick a single representative song. The title track is prohibitively long, filling the whole of side 1, and side 2 contains only two songs, both of them also long: the relatively folky And You and I (above), and the rockier Siberian Khatru. All three are superb pieces of work, but And You and I is perhaps the most approachable of them.
#4= Blue Öyster Cult — 1974 — Secret Treaties (3 listens)
I’ve written before about Blue Öyster Cult, and at length about their 1981 album Fire of Unknown Origin. Suffice for now to say that, while nearly everyone now knows only one of their songs (Don’t Fear the Reaper), they were one of the most influential of all the early heavy rock bands, and their work has a consistently sinister undertone. Secret Treaties was the last of the three “black and white” albums that opened their recording career, and arguably the best — though I retain a soft spot for their uniquely warped debut album.
It’s not a long album: only eight songs, totalling less than 39 minutes, but it covers a huge amount of stylistic ground in that time, with some tracks — Cagey Cretins, Harvester of Eyes — pretty much defying categorisation. The penultimate song, Flaming Telepaths, builds to a frenzied conclusion that seems to have nowhere left to go, but subverts expectation by falling away into the uncharacteristically gentle ballad, Astronomy, that I’ve included above.
Even in a song as relatively approachable as this, though, things are never quite what they seem with the Cult. As the song progresses, oblique references intrude: by the third line we’re singing about “acid and oil on a madman’s face”; by the time we reach the first climax it’s all “the queenly flux, eternal light, or the light that never warms”; and in the closing verse, maybe most resonant of all: “the nexus of the crisis, the original of storms”.
What does it all mean? Don’t ask me, I’ve only been listening to it for thirty years.
#4= Genesis — 1981 — Abacab (3 listens)
The year was 1983 or thereabouts. I had a second-hand copy of Black Sabbath’s Dio-era album Mob Rules, which I think I might have bought from Gareth Southgate for £2. Having loved Genesis’s Duke (1980) I swapped it with Richard Tilbrook for his copy of their Abacab (1981). I wonder what happened to Gareth and Richard? I’ve not seen either of them for thirty years.
In retrospect, Abacab is the album where the rot really set in with Genesis. Although they had their greatest commercial success in the 1980s, not many critics would deny that their best days artistically were the early-to-mid seventies, when they produced a string of five startlingly idiosyncratic albums, from Nursery Cryme (1971) to A Trick of the Tail (1976). From then on, they started to streamline their sound, and by the time of Abacab, many of the songs had become rather mainstream and forgettable — Man on the Corner, Like it or Not and others could really have been by any band; and the less said about Who Dunnit?, the better.
But in among these throwaways there are still some fascinating songs. Keep it Dark tells a deliciously ambiguously story of a man who has either been kidnapped by thieves, visited an alien world, travelled to the future, had a spiritual vision, or suffered a hallucination — there’s really no way to tell which. Better still is Me and Sarah Jane (above), a charmingly meandering song that shifts through several moods to tell a story of … well, I don’t know. Can anyone help me out?
#4= Paul Simon — 2016 — Stranger to Stranger (3 listens)
Paul Simon is 75 years old — he was 74 when this album came out. His career has been frankly astonishing, and nobody could complain if he chose to rest on his laurels. Instead, he continues to work, not just churning out more of the same, but continually breaking new ground. Stranger to Stranger uses custom-made microtonal instruments, involves Italian electronic dance music, Peruvian drums and a whole bunch of other unusual elements. And they work together. Because Simon makes them work together.
Wristband (above) is the second song on the album, and one of the more immediately appealing ones. It starts out telling the story of how Simon got locked out of one of his own concerts, and couldn’t get readmitted without a wristband, then goes on to use that wristband as a metaphor for all the privilege and opportunity that so many across America lack. As usual, with Simon, there is no bludgeoning — you’re left to think through the implications rather than told what they are.
By the way, this is one of those albums that I listened to much more than the raw numbers suggest. because I had it in the car and the kitchen for so long. The same goes for entries #2 and #1 below.
#3 Opeth — 2011 — Heritage (4 listens)
At the end of 2015, our whole family went to the studio of a local photographer and we had a couple of hundred excellent photos taken. (You can see two of them juxtaposed on the About page of the Thief Cops webcomic.) The photographer’s experience is that sessions go better with music, so he asked us what kind of music we like and the three boys and I all said prog. (Poor Fiona didn’t get a vote.) The album he put on was Opeth’s Heritage, which I liked enough to get a copy.
A year on, I’d not listened to it as much as I thought I might; but as I’ve listened again to prepare for writing this piece, I’ve found myself liking it more and more. What it reminds me of more than anything else is what Emerson, Lake and Palmer would have sounded like if they’d had a guitarist — not least in the song above, The Devil’s Orchard, which ends with an intriguingly oblique guitar solo that sounds like the kind of thing Guthrie Govan might have come up with.
#2 Joni Mitchell — 1968 — Song to a Seagull (8 listens)
It’s not news that Joni is transcendently brilliant, The one good bit of celebrity-death news of 2016 was that she somehow made it through into 2017, despite some serious health issues. Against that backdrop, it’s sobering to hear her very first recorded album –very minimally produced by David Crosby, who she was then in the process of breaking up with. Almost the whole album is just Joni’s guitar and voice, and it’s none the less for that: the very simple arrangements let the songs breathe, and their unique blend of naive enthusiasm and sophistication shines all the more brightly.
Really, this is an astonishingly mature debut, both musically and lyrically. It’s packed with arresting images and unexpected musical changes, each reinforcing the other. She would go on to yet greater things, of course, but in retrospect Song to a Seagull is a perfect manifesto for her career: thoughtful, insightful, rich in allusion and metaphor. I could easily have chosen another of the songs (I Had a King and Cactus Tree, the opening and closing tracks are both particularly strong) but in the end, the simple and undemonstrative story of Marcie (above) won out. In the end, she leaves town: we never find out exactly why, we’re just left with an impression of her dissatisfaction and restlessness.
#1 The Neal Morse Band — 2016 — The Similitude of a Dream (32 listens)
And so we come to, by a mile, my album of 2016. It was only released in mid-November, but the 32 listens it racked up between then and the end of the year (plus many more in the car and the kitchen) are more than the total (29) of the other nine albums that made my top ten. I have been listening obsessively to this, and I still am now in the new year.
It really is prog writ large. It’s a double-disc concept album coming in at an hour and three quarters in total, mixing up metal, jazz, blues and even country music to make something so much more than the sum of its parts. The Neal Morse band has now settled down as a five-piece, every single one of whom is the absolute master of his instrument, and most of them of multiple instruments. Also, four of them sing — three of them sing lead, even, which lends the album a richness and variety reminiscent of the Beatles. The band’s ability to sing multiple parts comes in particularly handy in the more dialogue-heavy songs, where the characters can be shared around — unlike, for example, poor Peter Gabriel, who had to sing all the parts in Genesis’s dialogue songs (Get ‘Em Out By Friday and similar).
The album name is taken from the full title of John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian classic The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream; and the album’s story is a free adaptation of the first half of that book. The narrative works really well, especially if you read the book and know who the characters are. (Otherwise it can be a bit confusing to keep hearing contradictory ideas expressed: “I’ve got to get out of the city” / “I’m going back to the city”, for example. When you realise that different characters are singing these lines, it all makes sense.)
Of course it’s ridiculous to choose a single song as representative of 105 minutes of music. But since that what I have to do, I’ve selected So Far Gone (above), a piece from near the end of the first disc. Our protagonist has wandered from the path of grace, drawn away by the idea that it’s simpler to live a life that keeps all the rules. When he realises how futile that is — how completely unable he is to live up to even his own standards — he wonders how he got so far away from grace, and whether he’s lost his chance of reaching his destination. At this point, as in the book, the character Evangelist turns up: the music changes, and he tells him “You can turn / You’re not too far / The king loves you / with all his heart”. The music changes again and the protagonist wonders “You think he will have me still?” It’s powerful stuff — musically, emotionally and, yes, spiritually.
(Even as I re-read this to proof-read it before posting, I found myself distracted, and listening through the So Far Gone video to the end.)
By the way, I am really excited to be seeing the band tour this album not once but twice in April: I’m taking my eldest son to see it in Birmingham, then the youngest to see it in London. (The middle son is not so excited about prog: I am taking him to see Stewart Lee in Cheltenham instead.) I’ve seen bands with similar line-ups live before a few times (once in an earlier incarnation of the Neal Morse band and twice as Transatlantic, which is a very similar sound and two of the same musicians). I know from experience that they do absolutely sensational live shows.
So that was my musical 2016 — a year utterly dominated by one album, and I am abashed to think that had it not come out this top-ten list might have been made up of ten album that I listened to a total of 31 times!
Finally, a nice observation. In the four months since I (belatedly) posted my 2015 selection, all ten of the videos I embedded have survived. Even more impressive, in the nearly two years since I posted the 2014 selection, only one song (Neil Young’s Old Man) has vanished. And in just over two years since the 2013 set (which was nearly a year late), every song has survived. I think this means that copyright holders’ War On Free Advertising is easing up. It would be nice to think so.