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.
10 Chris Wood — 2016 — So Much to Defend (4 listens)
Annoyingly, there seems to be no online video of any of the songs from Chris Wood’s album So Much to Defend, so I’ve picked out a live performance of an earlier song that does a pretty good job of conveying what he’s about.
I was lucky that Wood did a gig in a village hall up the road from me in May this year. I’d not heard him before, but the gig was just marvellous. Wood is a very thoughtful songwriter, a fine if unostentatious guitarist, and a sensitive singer — always aware of the nuances of his self-penned material, and opening up layers of extra meaning beyond those stated in the words. I delightedly bought his album So Much to Defend, and would have loved to give you the title song — a sequence of economical portraits of different people living in Britain and clinging on to their respective lives. Sadly, the Department For The Prevention Of Publicity has made that impossible.
Anyway — I expect to listen to a lot more Chris Wood. He’s exactly the kind of songwriter I love, with a keen eye for the quotidian and a distinctive turn of phrase.
9 Sons of Apollo — 2017 — Psychotic Symphony (5 listens)
The debut album of a new prog-metal supergroup including Mike Portnoy (who’s been on basically every good prog-metal album ever), Billy Sheehan, Derek Sherinian and others. I’ve not got deeply into this album yet, but it would not be too far wrong to describe it as how Dream Theatre would sound if they had a grittier singer — I’m reminded for some reason of the vocals from Creedence Clearwater Revival. If you like this kind of thing, you will find that this is done about as well as this kind of thing can be done.
Psychotic Symphony is instantly appealing, and flawlessly executed. Whether it goes beyond that into greatness, I don’t yet know. It’s not immediately apparent to me that it’s about anything, and that makes a difference to me. Ask me in 2019.
8 Paul Simon — 1980 — One-Trick Pony (10 listens)
I listened to One-Trick Pony a ton as I prepared my in-depth analysis of it. It’s a strong contender for my Desert Island Albums selection and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Absolutely gorgeous from start to end.
7 Joni Mitchell — 1972 — For the Roses (11 listens)
In Joni’s chronology, this album is bracketed by Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974), both of which I absolutely adore. I wanted to love For the Roses, too, but somehow it’s not happening. I struggled mightily in picking a song from Court and Spark in 2015, because I absolutely loved almost every song on that album. But now I am struggling to pick a song from For the Roses because (sorry) not a single one of them really grabs me. There are songs like Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, which have an immediate hook, but which then seem to sit in the same space for the full four minutes. There are throwaways like You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio. There are self-consciously ambitious undertakings like Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune). But there is nothing that grabs the heart like Blue‘s A Case of You or Court and Spark‘s Same Situation.
I don’t get it. Am I missing something?
Oh, well. I picked Lesson in Survival for the naked vulnerability of the line “If you ever get the notion to be needed by me”.
5= Dream Theater — 1999 — Metropolis pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (12 listens)
This is an absolutely monstrous concept album, telling a complex story of a reincarnated love triangle with almost unrelentingly powerful music. It actually took me a long while to get into this album, because it’s so constantly demanding and you really can’t slip into its groove while you’re doing something else (like programming). In the end, the breakthrough came by splitting it into two “sides” and listening to side 1 alone until it landed.
You might legitimately ask: why do so much work to enjoy an album? Why not just listen to something that you love right out of the gate? I’m sympathetic to that position, but in the end I am really glad I did the work to get into Scenes from a Memory: I love it, and it is by every measure a truly great album. (Mike Portnoy reckons it as one of the three that define his career, along with The Whirlwind and Similitude of a Dream; it came out on top of Rolling Stone‘s all-time best prog album poll.) After all, what in life that has any real value can be attained without work? An Innocent Man or Jollification is instantly appealing, but Scenes from a Memory has depth and substance, dammit.
The whole album is tied together so tightly that this is one that you can’t really pick a single song from. I went with Strange Deja Vu above, but it makes so much more sense in the context of the album.
5= Steven Wilson — 2017 — To The Bone (12 listens)
Steven Wilson is a genuine music genius: a thoughtful and distinctive songwriter, an excellent singer, guitarist, keyboard player and drummer, and an outstanding arranger/orchestrator, with a command of texture that can be absolutely dazzling. For those reasons, his 2015 album Hand Cannot Erase was by far my most-listened of 2015. So I had very high hopes of his new album.
Unfortunately, it’s not at the level of Hand Cannot Erase — for two reasons, I think. One is that, while the previous album told a story, and so all its songs were bent to serve a coherent narrative, To The Bone is an anthology of unrelated songs, none of which can build up the emotional momentum of Wilson’s best work. The other reason is that Wilson has mostly had the good sense and egolessness to surround himself with musicians who are even better instrumentalists than himself: for example, guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Nick Beggs, keyboardist Adam Holtzman and drummer Marco Minnemann on Hand Cannot Erase. By contract, To The Bone is much more of a solo album, with Wilson not only writing all the material (as he usually does) but playing most of the parts. The result is that it slightly lacks the spark you get from creative interplay.
With all that said, it’s still a fine album and a worthy addition to Wilson’s already very impressive discography — just not at the same level as his greatest work. Several of the individual songs are gorgeous, not least Pariah (above), a duet with Ninet Tayeb. Wilson has cited the solo albums of Peter Gabriel among the influences for To The Bone, and I wonder whether Pariah is a conscious echo of Gabriel’s 1986 duet with Kate Bush, Don’t Give Up.
4 Suzanne Vega — 1992 — 99.9 F° (13 listens)
One of my many low-priority background plans is making my way through Suzanne Vega’s albums in chronological order. 99.9 F° (not 99.9°F, for some reason) is her fourth, following on from three that I love, and guess what? I love this one, too. Vega’s songwriting is clean and penetrating, and she has a fine ear for a distinctive image and memorable sound. As an example, In Liverpool (above) is a real ear-worm, with its effortlessly pulsing “Boy in the belfry” chorus.
3 The Pineapple Thief — 2016 — Your Wilderness (16 listens)
My colleague John Coburn put me onto The Pineapple Thief, whose album Your Wilderness I picked because it has the very wonderful Gavin Harrison drumming on it. I wasn’t disappointed. I would classify the sound as “ambient prog”, somewhere in the triangle whose corners are Chroma Key, Porcupine Tree and Radiohead, without sounding derivative of any of the three.
2 Daniel Taylor — 2016 — Satellites (21 listens)
Fifteen wildly creative prog-influenced instrumentals, written, recorded, arranged and almost entirely played by Daniel Taylor — the only exceptions being the addition of flute on three tracks by Fiona Taylor and guitar on two tracks by me.
Some of the tracks are relaxed, some are angry, some are meditative. View from a Satellite (above) definitely falls into the latter category, evoking both a sense of isolation from a remote world, and a profound connection with that world. For some reason, I find the very simple mono-synth solos at 1:51 and 3:03 particularly moving; and the very organic feel of the live flute parts provide a perfect contrast.
I love this album very deeply, and the fact that it was created by my son has nothing to do with that fact. You can hear more on Soundcloud. (If you want to hear my guitar solo, it comes in at 2:50 on the song Purple Fire, but you really need to listen from 2:20 to get the context.)
1 Riverside — 2015 — Love, Fear and the Time Machine (30 listens)
I very much enjoyed Riverside’s 2005 album Second Life Syndrome, but for some reason never got around to listening to any more of their work until my son persuaded me to give this, their most recent proper album, some attention. It took a while to land with me, but it really is the most lovely piece of work. Much of it is very atmospheric (though I picked a more driving sample track, #Addicted, above, for its immediate appeal). Riverside have a great ability to choose their textures, introducing instruments and dropping others out as songs progress to keep the sound fresh, constantly evolving.
Here is an oddity, though. Although I love this album when I am listening to it while focussed on doing something else — be it programming or cooking — I find it strangely unsatisfying when it has more of my attention, for example when I am driving. Riverside like to use a lot of repetition, which works well in building atmosphere and letting ideas breathe, but which I start to find makes me feel itchy when I am too aware of it. For example, the absolutely beautiful song Time Travellers from the same album repeats the “Let’s go back to the world, that was thirty years ago” phrase over and over, and I am ashamed to admit that I lose patience.
Still, that will not bother most people — and indeed I think I could legitimately characterise Love, Fear and the Time Machine as prog for people who think they don’t like prog. Check it out.
Among the albums that would have merited a mention were it not for my strict rules, the stand-out is the Neal Morse Band’s epic two-CD prog concept-album The Similitude of a Dream, which was ineligible because it appeared on (and won by a mile) last year’s selection. In fact, I listened to this 23 times this year (plus many more in the car and the kitchen), which would have made it my second most-listened album of the year, just edging out Satellites.
Also of interest:
- Dream Theater’s A Change of Seasons (1995) with 10 listens, ineligible because of a higher-placed Dream Theater album.
- Any of The Eagles’ Hotel California (1976), Neal Morse’s One (2004), Eric Gillette’s The Great Unknown (2016) and Von Hertzen Brothers’ War is Over (2017), all with 4 listens, could have been awarded the last place that I arbitrarily gave to Chris Wood instead.
- Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark (1974), Dream Theater’s Images & Words (1992) and Opeth’s Heritage (2011) also each had four listens, but were ineligible due to the artist placing higher with another album or, in Heritage‘s case, having been on a previous list.
I’m relieved to see that I listened to a lot more music this year than last — 447 albums as opposed to 159 is a huge 181% increase. I still don’t really understand why 2016 was such a blank spot, but while it was by this metric my least musical year since records began in 1999, 2017 was the fourth most musical.