What I’ve been listening to in 2019

Here is a YouTube playlist of 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 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.

#10. Steely Dan — 1974 — Pretzel Logic (3 listens)

I’ve been listening to this on and off since 2002, and it just happened to creep into my top ten for 2019. I like it a lot, without ever really having understood the reverence that Steely Dan are held in by some people. (David Crosby rates their Aja as one of the all-time great albums.) To me, Pretzel Logic is very pleasant, very easy to listen to; but lacks anything challenging about it that would raise it above that level.

#9. Flying Colors — 2019 — Third Degree (5 listens)

Flying Colors are just one of the Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy supergroups. (The Prog Report just recently named Portnoy and Morse jointly as their Artists of the Decade — noting that Portnoy alone, across all his various projects, has released 19 studio albums plus a further 18 live albums in the 201x’s.)

All the Morse/Portnoy bands have distinctively different styles. This one has a deliberately simplified sound with the goal of being more accessible than some of the proggier projects, trying to marry prog with pop, as It Bites did before them. Their first album made it onto my 2012 list and their second onto my 2014 list, so it’s no surprise that their third joins them.

Love Letter is probably the poppiest song on the album, with a very sixties vibe and a catchy sing-along chorus. Maybe that makes it not very representative of what is otherwise a rather harder rocking album, but I chose it anyway because I love its straightfowardly joyful quality.

#8. Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer — 2013 — Child Ballads (6 listens)

I’ve been reading Andrew Rilstone‘s blog for many years now. As well as Spider-Man, politics, Tolkien, Christianity and Doctor Who, he writes a lot about folk music, often quite traditional folk. Because he writing often refers to different performers’ versions of a common repertoire of songs, I’ve found myself wishing I was familiar with a section of traditional songs. A while back, I asked Rilstone for a recommendation of an album that I could learn such classics from, and this is what he recommended.

Well, it’s gorgeous. All the songs have sparse textures made up of only a couple of acoustic guitars and two voices in harmony. Everything is done so cleanly and effortlessly that the songs glide by beautifully — in fact, the only criticism I might make is that the actual is so lovely that I don’t always remember to listen to the words. Riddles Wisely Expounded is representative, but so would almost any of the other songs be.

#7. Riverside — 2018 — Wasteland (7 listens)

Shortly after recording their magnificent 2015 album Love, Fear and the Time Machine, the four-piece Polish band Riverside suffered a genuine tragedy when their guitarist Piotr Grudziński suddenly died of a heart attack, aged only 42. The band decided to continue as a three-piece, with bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda writing and recording the guitar parts and session guitarists filling in for live dates. Wasteland is the first album to be released by the three-piece incarnation.

There is plenty to like about it — enough that I’ve listened to it a lot — but I can’t escape the feeling that, with the death of Grudziński something very fundamental has been lost. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the guitar parts on the new album; but I think that having one less creative voice in the composition process has stripped away some of the layers and deprived the band of some of its freshness. Grudziński’s guitar parts were rarely very technical (I suspect I could get around most of them myself with some practice) but they really were impeccably judged as contributions to the songs. And that sense of the guitar perfectly complementing the drums, bass, keyboards and vocals is not quite there in the new album.

I very much hope that the trio are able to move past their present phase and take on a new full member. They will never sound the same as they did with the classic line-up, but there are new rivers to cross.

With all that said, River Down Below is a fine song, atmospheric and melodic.

#5=. Pink Floyd — 2014 — The Endless River (8 listens)

I bought The Endless River as an act of tribute, or even of sympathy. Having loved the classic run of Pink Floyd albums since my teens, it seemed only fair that I should hear their final musical contribution — even if I was five years late. I didn’t particularly expect it to actually be any good, especially as the band members had been careful to talk it down: not to present it as a new studio album, but as what it is: a collection of instrumental out-takes edited together and overdubbed.

So it came as a complete surprise to find that I really liked it on its own terms, and would have liked it very much even if I’d never heard of Pink Floyd before. Although in general I think instrumentals can be cop-outs and tend to be the weakest tracks on most albums, I’ve come around to thinking that releasing The Endless River as almost entirely instrumental was the right choice: omitting the vocal slets the instrumental textures speak through more clearly and highlight how very distinctive both Dave Gilmour’s guitars and Richard Wright’s keyboards are. And it means that when the the vocals do finally arrive on the very last song, Louder Than Words, they mean much more than they would if we’d been hearing singing all the way through.

So all in all, this album is a fitting capstone to Pink Floyd’s career.

The album is divided into four “sides”, each of three to six tracks, and they all run into each other. So there’s no good way to pick a track without a harsh cut at the start and end. Sorry about that: try to ignore the abrupt beginning to It’s What We Do and the even worse end, and enjoy what lies between. The first time I listened to this, I found the entry of Wright’s distinctive organ sound, from beyond the grave, very moving.

#5=. Richard Shindell — 2016 — Careless (8 listens)

I bought this album at the recent Richard Shindell gig that I went to. It’s eleven songs, all but one of them self-penned, and almost all of them introspective and insightful. The album suffers from the placement of its weakest and most disposable track, Stray Cow Blues, as the opener; but that aside it offers a wide range of characters, situations and emotions, all expertly inhabited by one of the most versatile singer-songwriters I know.

I could easily have chosen Infrared, a quirky and catchy exposition of the scientifically detectable manifestations of young love. Instead, though, I chose All Wide Open, a heartbreaking portrait of a father welcoming home his addict daughter despite suspecting — maybe even knowing perfectly well — that she is not, as she claims, clean. That she will betray and desert him again. But his heart remains wide open.

#4. Pendragon — 1996 — The Masquerade Overture (15 listens)

Late in 2018, I went to see the Von Hertzen Brothers in Birmingham with my very fine next-door neighbours Jen and Mario. Before the show started, I got chatting to a fellow audience member about how the VHBs are sort of prog but sort of not-prog, and how that makes them a welcome change from the kind of prog-metal that I’ve listened to so much of in the last decade. I asked for recommendations of other modern prog bands who are doing different things, and he recommended Pendragon. When I pushed him to nominate a single album, he went with Masquerade.

Well, in some ways I was fed this album under false pretenses: Masquerade was released in 1996, 24 years ago, so it’s hardly “modern”: it was released closer to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Innervisions and Dark Side of the Moon than to today. But that’s OK, I’m not too hung up on chronology. The truth is that it sounds very like Fish-era Marillion, and I’m cool with that because I like Fish-era Marillion. (In fact, it sounds even more like IQ, but not so many people are familiar with them.)

Bottom line, it’s melodic and inventive. If it’s a bit more eighties-synthy than I would ideally like, that’s an easy flaw to forgive. Good as Gold, above, has much the same cheerful energy as most of the rest of the album.

#3. We Came from Space — 2018 — While You Were Away (18 listens)

We Came From Space is a side-project by Bill Hubauer, who I know as a keyboard player, singer and multi-instrumentalist for the Neal Morse band. A while back, he got together with an old school friend and some other colleagues to put the band together, but their debut album How to be Human disappeared without trace. When the followup came out in 2018 it was better publicised due to Hubauer’s recent prominence. For some reason I didn’t get around to listening to it till 2019, but when I did it really landed.

As you’d expect from a Neal Morse-related project, it has prog at its heart, but WCFS’s interpretation of that term is idiosyncratic, shifting between genres between and within tracks. Living Colour has a poppy sixties vibe, All Rights Reserved is basically sped-up reggae, and the title track (above) has something of the epic about it, the opening onslaught reminding me of Kashmir. Most of all, the songs are catchy and likeable, and I keep finding them running through my mind.

#2. The Neal Morse Band — 2018 — The Great Adventure (34 listens)

Long-time readers will remember that my top album of 2016 — by a long way, with 32 listens to only eight for the second-placed album — was the Neal Morse Band’s The Similitude of the Dream. That was a gigantic, sprawling, narrative-dense and musically spectacular interpretation of John Bunyan’s classic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. But after something so monumental, what can you do for a followup?

It turns out that what you can do is another gigantic, sprawling, narrative-dense and musically spectacular interpretation of John Bunyan’s classic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, and that’s what The Great Adventure is. No-one saw that coming.

It’s a sequel to its predecessor rather than a retread, telling the story of the original protagonist’s resentful son, adapting some sequences from Bunyan’s novel and inventing new material. It recapitulates many of the themes from Similitude, re-using them in surprising and inventive ways, but doesn’t let them dominate the new album. The new themes are just as strong, and there are plenty of them — as you’d expect from a hundred minutes of music.

The big question is how it measures up to Similitude. It’s very hard to say. The two albums are certainly on a par for quality, but the first one had a shock-of-the-new impact that was always going to be difficult to replicate. Ultimately, I find myself thinking of these two albums as making up a single four-disc, three-and-a-half-hour masterpiece. Which half is better? It’s a draw!

Welcome to the World (above) comes early in the story, as the resentful son rejects the world he’s been born into — before he sees that there is an alternative. It’s one of the harder rocking songs on the album, but melodic, clean and drenched in harmony. It’s also a great singalong.

#1. Big Big Train — 2017 — Grimspound (57 listens)

If I loved The Great Adventure so much, what could have come in ahead of it? Only the absolute Band Of 2020. As I mentioned in the comments on Pendragon, I’ve been searching this year for prog bands that sound completely different from the sort of Neal Morse/Dream Theatre axis I’ve listened to so much of — I love that stuff, but you can’t listen to it all the time. In the end, I posted a message on the Neal Morse Facebook group asking for recommendations, and the band that came up over and over again in response was Big Big Train.

Grimspound was the first album of theirs that I got, and it ended up getting listened to the most; but in fact, were it not for my “only one album per artist” rule, Big Big Train would have taken four of the top five spots this year, as I also listened to Grand Tour (2019) 28 times, The Underfall Yard (2009) 27 times and Folklore (2016) 21 times. They are exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Essentially what we have here is a band that has the same level of ambition and creativity as the Neal Morse Band or Steven Wilson, but who paint with very different colours. As well as the usual instruments, their line-up includes a violinist, and many of their songs also use a brass band. (When I saw them live with my eldest and youngest sons, sitting in the very back row at Birmingham Town Hall, there was a five-piece brass section on stage with them.) Despite the sizeable band (six full members plus a touring keyboardist and the brass section) many of their arrangements have a spacious quality and a folky feel — something that recalls Gabriel-era Genesis without ever merely aping them.

There are so many songs I could have chosen to represent the album. At first I wanted to go with the opener Brave Captain — not so much a story about WWI fighter pilot Albert Ball, but about a child in the 1970s finding out about him. But that one feels maybe too epic to properly represent what the band are about. Or I could have picked album closer As the Crow Flies, a beautiful mostly acoustic meditation on the mingled joy and sadness of releasing your grown-up children out into the world — a song featuring that rarest of sounds in prog, a female vocal. But in the end I went with A Mead Hall in Winter, an extended epic in which the mead hall stands for the emergence of enlightenment values and the scientific method as a source of warmth and light during a time of darkness.

Honorable mentions

As noted, three other Big Big Train albums would have made it into the top five this year had they been allowed. Those aside, only two other albums were excluded by the rules: Riverside’s Shrine Of New Generation Slaves (14 listens) because it appeared last year, and Neal Morse’s solo album Songs from November (4 listens) because it’s sort of by the same artist as The Great Adventure.

It’s been a great year for prog, with seven of the ten selections falling more or less into that genre. (The exceptions: Steely Dan, Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, and Richard Shindell.) I wonder if 2020 will swing back towards the folky or at least singer-songwritery end of the scale?

4 responses to “What I’ve been listening to in 2019

  1. Nice write-up — I always like to hear more about how people respond to music. I’m firmly in the “Steely Dan are geniuses” camp, though I’d say Aja and Countdown To Ecstasy are both better than Pretzel Logic. The song “My Old School,” would be in the running for my favorite song of all time, were I ever to try to determine such a thing, and so would Donald Fagan’s solo track, “I.G.Y.”

  2. Aja is the other Steely Dan album I know reasonably well. I always enjoy it when I listen to it, but it’s not like I ever get a Lightning Strikes moment. I’ll check out “My Old School”, though.

  3. Nice list as usual. Just wondering. Have you listened to the more recent Haken albums? Affinity was wildly praised, and I also liked Vector a lot.

  4. I listened to Vector once, and found it a bit more towards the metal end of prog-metal for my taste. (Or, to put it more honestly, too far from the prog end of prog-metal.) I get that it’s brilliant; it just might not be my kind of brilliant.

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