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 laptop 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=. Paul McCartney — 2018 — Egypt Station (5 listens)
I bought McCartney’s new album as preparation for going to see him again in December — an outstanding gig that I loved, just as I had when I saw him in 2015. Egypt Station has had pretty good reviews, and I rate it as his best new material since 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. His voice is not as strong now as it was thirteen years ago — which is fair enough, as he’s now 75 years old — but the songwriting still has that characteristically likeable quality.
My favourite song on the album is Despite Repeated Warnings, a multi-part allegory of a ship’s captain steering onto the rocks, just as world leaders are steering us all into a series of avoidable crises right now. But since this year’s WIBLTI albums are overwhelmingly proggy, I’ve skewed the other way in my selection from Egypt Station, choosing the pleasantly dopey song of contentment Happy With You, which I keep finding myself humming.
#7=. Gentle Giant — 1972 — Octopus (5 listens)
I’ve had Gentle Giant on my really-ought-to-listen-to list for years. In 2018, I finally got their album Octopus, and very much liked what I heard. They are best known for their intricate vocal harmonies, which were a major influence on Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse. Knots is essentially an extended showcase for their vocal versatility. (If you like this kind of thing, I also recommend Spock’s Beard’s Thoughts and Thoughts part 2.)
#7=. Genesis — 1973 — Selling England By The Pound (5 listens)
It’s easy to forget just what a unique sound Genesis were making back in the 1970s. Most people’s minds, when they hear “Genesis”, leap to the radio-friendly Phil Collins era, with catchy but ultimately mundane hits like Invisible Touch and That’s All. It’s not my purpose to talk down the newer songs — they do what they do very well — but really the 1970s Genesis not only sounded absolutely nothing like anything that had come before, but 45 years later there’s still not really been anything else like them. Marillion are the obvious point of comparison, and have sometimes been (rather unfairly) considered straight-up imitators. But in truth they always had a more streamlined sound, even at their most Genesis-like.
But actual Genesis had a relentless inventiveness to them that extended to every part of what they did: not just the complex multi-part compositions, but exotically angular melodic lines, distinctive singing, and individual instrument sounds without precendent — especially Steve Hackett’s unique endless-sustain guitar sound. For Dancing with the Moonlit Knight (above), we open and close with delicate passages that could be from traditional folk music, but it’s all interwoven with passages of lament, fury and even inquisiveness. You really have no idea where it’s going to go next; yet the whole thing ties together so well that in retrospect it has a feeling of inevitability about it.
A superb song from an outstanding album by one of the truly great bands, and one well overdue for critical reassessment.
#7=. Chroma Key — 2004 — Graveyard Mountain Home (5 listens)
What does prog rock sound like if you remove all the rock? And, for that matter, most of the melody and harmony, and pretty much everything except the atmosphere? Well, it sounds like Chroma Key. Having loved their second album You Go Now back in 2009, I bought their their third (and last, sadly) this year, and I love that too. It’s very different from the first. Where that was mostly composed of things that were recognisably songs, albeit with the emphasis on texture rather than tune, this one is largely made up of repetitive atmospheric fragments that form sound collages. The album is intended to be an alternative soundtrack to the educational film Age 13, though the film has to be slowed to half speed in order to synchronise with the music. (I’ve not watched it yet, but I will.)
#6. Eric Gillette — 2016 — The Great Unknown (8 listens)
Gillette is the guitarist and co-vocalist in the Neal Morse Band, who long-term readers will remember from their album The Similitude of a Dream, which competely annihilated all other contenders for my slightly coveted Album Of The Year award in 2016. This is Gillette’s second solo album (I’ve not heard the first), progressive metal that’s played and sung just as well as his contributions to the various Neal Morse Band albums. But, if I am honest, I feel that it lacks a spark. I’ve listened through it 13 times now (four in 2017 and one in 2019, as well as the eight in 2018), and it’s still not really landed. I like it, but I don’t love it.
I think what’s happening here is that Gillette needs the creative sparking that you get when you work with other people: his own ideas in isolation are not as melodic as what he comes up with in a band context — neither vocal melodies nor guitar solos. Although the style of music is completely different from Paul McCartney’s, I feel that Gillette working without Morse and co. is a bit like McCartney working without Lennon and co. There’s a sharpening effect when these people work together.
That said, there’s a lot to love in The Great Unknown, and I feel bad that my comments here have been mostly negative. Maybe you should listen to it for yourself? You can start with Escape (above), the album’s epic, which includes enough different sections to give you a sense of what he’s about.
#3=. Von Hertzen Brothers — 2017 — War is Over (12 listens)
One of the discoveries of last year, a Finnish band that my prog-hating neighbour Jen insists are not a prog band because she likes them. They are certainly very different from the stereotypical notion of prog as we often think of it, having a sort of indie feel to them in places. (Though since “indie” generally means “cannot really play their instruments”, that’s a very harsh compliment to pay the VH brothers). What I’d say is that they bring a proggishly adventurous attitude to primarily guitar-band instrumentation. What emerges is a wall of sound that’s powerful in a very different way from metal. Also: they are an absolutely storming live act.
Check out the title track from the most recent album, War Is Over (above): it opens — as does the live show — with a long atmospheric build-up, but if you’re impatient you can skip the first three minutes to get to the actual song. The energy and conviction are compelling.
#3=. Riverside — 2013 — Shrine Of New Generation Slaves (12 listens)
Riverside’s Love, Fear and the Time Machine was my top album of 2017, so this year I went back two years and listened to that album’s predecessor. Shrine Of New Generation Slaves, or SONGS as it rather neatly abbreviates, is a much heavier album than LF&tTM, but shares many of the attractions of the later album: in particular, an ever-present brooding atmosphere, and meticulously detailed arrangements that make full use of all instruments to create ever-changing textures.
The Depth of Self Delusion is representative, with the bass-driven introduction mutating into an effortless vocal verse in which the bass becomes a subsidiary lead instrument, and the guitar then takes over that role as the bass finally drops down to something more like its traditional role. Riverside are endlessly inventive within the four-piece format (guitar, bass, keyboard and drums), moving through more different textures in any given song that most bands do in a whole album.
Riverside fascinate me because I feel I can learn from them. Back in 1998, when I was playing football, I’d watch the England team and see someone like Paul Ince; and I’d think, I can learn from how he plays. I can see how he positions himself and how he reads the game, and do that kind of thing (much less well, but still). Whereas I’d watch someone like Mathew Le Tissier spontaneously perform some ludicrous piece of magic and think, well, he’s just on a different planet. There’s nothing to be learned from what he does, other than “be born with outrageous talent”. In the same way, I listen to the music of Dream Theatre or the Neal Morse Band and I love it, but there’s nothing there for me to learn, because all the musicians are operating in a completely different space from me. But Riverside feel like mortals who have learned to harness their mortal gifts in marvellous ways, and to blend their individual talents into a much greater whole. Their guitar parts are not that difficult technically: they are just very, very effective. There is a tantalising sense that maybe I could do that, too.
#3=. Distorted Harmony — 2014 — Chain Reaction (12 listens)
My eldest and youngest sons both absolutely love this album, so I’ve made every effort to give it a fair hearing. Thirteen times through, and it’s still not really clicked for me. (I could say the same of Haken’s The Mountain, which I admire without loving.) Maybe one day I’ll get it; or maybe it’s just my prog-metal Bob Dylan.
#2. Neal Morse — 2018 — Life and Times (15 listens)
I know and love Neal Morse from his full-band prog rock, of course, but he also has a sideline going as a singer-songwriter. Life and Times is a set of small, self-contained songs, most of them going very much against singer-songwriter type by expressing various forms of contentment, peace and joy. It is arguably a rather slight album — certainly no-one should come to this expecting another The Grand Experiment. But its very smallness is a strength: there is an intimacy, and the songs become like gentle shared jokes. (That came through very strongly, too, in the one-man live show that the three of us saw in Leicester.)
And, hey, you know what? The world can use the occasional happy album. As brilliant as The Wall, Hand Cannot Erase and Hejira are, there is a sense in which they are cheating a bit by dwelling on negative emotions which can’t help but seem to have a certain profundity — as every teenager who’s ever written angsty poetry instinctively knows. Given what a simple joy Life and Times is, the one real downer on the album feel jarriing — He Died at Home, a true story about an ex-soldier who suffered with PTSD and eventually killed himself. It’s a good song in its own way, but when I’m listening to the album I often skip it (a very rare thing for me) because it breaks the mood.
#1. The Pineapple Thief — 2018 — Dissolution (23 listens)
And so we come to the year’s number one, the new album from The Pineapple Thief, who I only discovered last year. Like Riverside, they have a knack of building gorgeous textures that change under your feet. But where Your Wilderness last year was mostly a gentle, relaxed album, Dissolution is harder-edged: many of the songs have a dark quality to the harmonic palette, and convey a sense of quiet menace. More of a warning than a threat.
White Mist, above, is fairly representative. It comes in two separate sections, one built around “When did you lose control?”, the other on “You were never in control”. (Given that the band is British, it’s hard not to suspect that this is at least partly about Brexit, and its vaccuous “take back control” slogan.) Like most of their songs, it eschews sudden changes, but presents a constantly shifting sonic landscape, all of it underwritten by Gavin Harrison’s distinctively flexible and inventive drumming. In fact, I can’t think of another band who are (to my mind anyway) so dependent on their drummer — which is ironic, since The Pineapple Thief have been around for 20 years and released a dozen albums, of which Harrison appears only on the most recent two. Some time I shall have to go back into their first ten, and see how they work for me.
Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream (1999) came in at five listens, the same as the the first four albums I listed here. It could have taken the place of any of them, but I didn’t feel I had as much to say about it, so it drew the short straw.
Five other albums would have got in on the number of listens, but I’d already written about them in previous years so they were ineligible. They were:
- Sons of Apollo — 2017 — Psychotic Symphony (17 listens)
- Riverside — 2005 — Second Life Syndrome (14 listens)
- The Pineapple Thief — 2016 — Your Wilderness (9 listens)
- Riverside — 2015 — Love, Fear and the Time Machine (8 listens)
- The Neal Morse Band — 2016 — The Similitude of a Dream (8 listens)
- Porcupine Tree — 2005 — Deadwing (5 listens)
Finally, it’s noteworthy that The Similitude of a Dream is now my all-time most listened-to album, at least since I started keeping records in late 1998. That’s pretty remarkable for a double album that runs to a total length of over an hour and three quarters. It just keeps drawing me back over and over.