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.
#9=. George Harrison — 1970 — All Things Must Pass (5 listens)
This is widely felt to be the best of all the post-Beatles Beatles albums, and I want to love it — especially as George’s two songs (Something and Here Comes the Sun) are the best that the Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road, has to offer. Which is saying something.
And I like it; but I don’t love it. I wonder whether the problem is the double-album format. After years of being restricted to one or at most two compositions on each album, we can forgive Harrison for wanting to spread his wings, recording and publishing a huge backlog of songs that had never made it onto collaborative albums. But I can’t help feeling that (for example) Let It Down and The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll) are just not up to the standard of (for example) I’d Have You Anytime and Beware of Darkness. There is certainly a single album in here that’s up with the best of McCartney’s, but the filler means that for me it falls short of greatness.
Anyway, I’d Have You Anytime (above) sounds gorgeous: effortlessy and understatedly melodic, and quite unspoiled by Phil Spector’s production.
#9=. Sting — 1999 — Brand New Day (5 listens)
I adore Sting’s first four solo albums (The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Nothing Like the Sun, The Soul Cages and especially Ten Summoner’s Tales) — partly because, although they’re styled as “solo” albums he has the good sense and humility to surround himself with musicians better than himself. After that, while I like his subsequent albums, I feel that the spark of creativity has slightly faded. This is the sixth album, and while it has lots of high points, it’s not as consistent as the earlier offerings.
Still, whatever else you say about Sting, whether you find his environmental activism admirable or risible(*), he is and has always been a master of texture. However strong or weak his songwriting, however meaningful or meaningless his lyrics, the actual sounds are always just beautiful. I’ve been listening to Brand New Day on and off for 20 years, but for some reason this is the year I came back to it repeatedly.
The song here is Tomorrow We’ll See: a strange song, sung in character as a transvestite or transgender prostitute seeking understanding and acceptance. Whether or not that works for you as a song subject, just listen to the sound: you can’t tell me that’s not lovely.
(*) Plenty of people seem to be in the latter camp, but I just don’t get it. The environment’s a good thing, isn’t it? Aren’t we broadly in favour of it?
#7=. Donald Fagan — 1982 — The Nightfly (7 listens)
I know Fagan from his involvement in Steely Dan, a band whose every song I like, but who I rarely tip over into loving. (Yes, I know I said the same about All Things Must Pass, and implied the same about Brand New Day. That’s just how it happens to fall out this year.) My friend Jon loves this album, so I listened to it on his recommendation. And … I like it a lot but without loving it. Who would have guessed?
As with Brand New Day, every song here sounds superb; but there is not always necessarily a ton of substance behind those sounds. At the risk of being too harsh, this is a good album to have on in the background when you’re working. Yeah, that sounds mean, doesn’t it? It wasn’t meant to.
Above, you have The Goodbye Look, a first-person song about someone caught in a revolution while holidaying on a Carribean island, knowing he’s about to be shot. What makes it work is the resolute cheerfulness. And there is something strangely compelling about the delivery of the line “Won’t you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen?”
#7=. Paul Simon — 2006 — Surprise (7 listens)
After three albums that I like but don’t love, here’s one that I love but find harder to like. Paul Simon, at this point having reached the standard retirement age of 65, shrugged off the expectation of drifting into obscurity, or into doing covers albums and remakes. Instead he came out with a strikingly modern-sounding and experimental album. I admit I didn’t take to it immediately as I have done with most of his albums, but coming back to it repeatedly over the years, its depth become ever more apparent. The bottom line here is that Simon may be a rather nasty human being(*), but in purely artistic terms he is a genius, and that can’t really be repressed.
Sure Don’t Feel Like Love (above) is one of the more meditative songs in what is probably Simon’s most political album since the 1960s. “Who’s that conscience sticking on the sole of my shoe”, he asks. Life is never simple, is it?
(*) Exhibit: I was at his last ever UK concert in Hyde Park in 2018. It was superb, as you’d expect; but during a slideshow highlighting his long career in music, Art Garfunkel simply didn’t appear at all. That’s not just mean, it’s dishonest.
#6. Chris Wood — 2009 — Handmade Life (10 listens)
One of my best discoveries of the last few years, due in part to Andrew Rilstone’s advocacy, Chris Wood is a singer-songwriter whose gentle, laconic delivery belies a razor-sharp wit, acute observation and an occasionally withering sense of judgement. If you get a chance to see him live, after the pandemic retreats, I highly recommend it: it’ll be dirt cheap (solo folk gigs always are), and it’ll be one of those concerts that stays with you forever.
Exhibit: Spitfires, a profoundly evocative song on how a glorious piece of engineering that is a legitimate signifier of British pride has been co-opted by the far right in a nationalist cause that Hitler would easily have identified with. When he sings “From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl upon the lathe” you really do feel we’re all in it together; but then “sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that’s not my own / It’s a “Land of Hope and Glory” voice, an Anglo-Klaxon overblown”. Wood wins by not spelling it all out, by not even bothering to address the co-opters on their own terms, but just quietly ending the song with the observation that the reason those Merlin engines were built was that “they hung a little fascist out to dry”. Dating from six years before Brexit, Spitfires is frighteningly prescient. I would love to hear how he handles this song when he sings it now.
#5. Daniel Taylor — 2020 — The Road Behind (13 listens)
The followup to 2015’s Satellites, this again consists of a wide selection of adventurous instrumentals with plenty of stylistic variation, this time rather more jazz-infuenced. What makes it work is the concentrated invention: the shifts in and out of different textures, switches between different rhythms, the sheer playfulness.
Above, we have Poly (as in polyrhythm), an exploration of different time signatures and how they can interact, which somehow avoids being a mere technical exercise.
#4. Joni Mitchell — 1975 — The Hissing of Summer Lawns (16 listens)
The “lost album” in my Joni Mitchell journey until this year: I’m deeply familiar with all her first eight albums but this one, which somehow got skipped over in my leap to Hejira. As the missing link that connects Court and Spark to that album — and these are maybe my two favourites of hers — I would have expected Hissing to land very squarely for me and become a big favourte. But that’s not quite happened. While there are plenty of songs here that I love, I feel that the album falls away quite badly at the end, with Sweet Bird fairly dispensible and Shadows and Light‘s cheesy synth chords horribly dated.
To be fair, similar accusations of weak endings can be aimed at the albums before and after: Court and Spark, after eight solid-gold songs, included both Raised on Robbery and Twisted in the last three: either of these works fine in isolation, but both of them so close together feels like a loss of nerve. And even the near-perfect Hejira has its weakest song, the stylistically incongruent Blue Motel Room, cropping up just before the end — though it finishes very strongly with Refuge of the Roads. I don’t know what we can draw from all of this, beyond the observation that Joni perhaps tended to push her weaker songs towards the back end of her albums. Although tell that to Blue, which closes with the devastating one-two-three punch of The River, A Case of You and The Last Time I Saw Richard. So much for that theory.
Anyway, there’s lots to love about The Hissing of Summer Lawns, even if we might wish it had been shortened by one or two songs. Above, we have Shades of Scarlett Conquering, a simultaneously withering and compassionate portrait of a woman so drawn to the idealised notion of the Southern Belle in movies that she delusionally imagines herself living such a role — or that’s my interpretation, anyway. How economical and resonant the lines: “Cast iron and frail / With her impossibly gentle hands / And her blood-red fingernails”.
#3. Big Big Train — 2012 — English Electric Part One (22 listens)
Big Big Train were unquestionably my band of 2019, and would have taken four of the top five slots last year had my rules allowed it. This year, I went a bit easier on the back catalogue, not wanting to use up all their albums at once, and English Electric Part One is the one I landed on. (Yes, there is a Part Two — it’s a separate album.)
BBT don’t really sound like any other band, and that’s a crucial part of what I love about them. They combine conventional rock band instrumentation with flutes, violins and the occasional use of folk instruments like banjos, mandolins and accordions; and they use all these colours, plus the occasional brass band, to create long, complex songs that tell interesting stories.
Case in point: The Last Rebreather (above), which the band themselves explain on their website: “The true story of Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880 … Conventional diving equipment was used to try to close an iron door in the tunnel to hold the water back. The equipment failed due to the air-hose continually being snagged. The tunnel engineer had heard of a man called Henry Fleuss who had developed an experimental diving apparatus called a Rebreather (in effect, it was the first aqua-lung.) … Lambert … carried out a number of dives which involved swimming 1000ft up the flooded tunnel in complete darkness.”
In a world where so very many songs are about the same few topics (being in love, a bad break-up, music itself, assertions of masculinity), it’s refreshing to hear albums that cover such wildly different thematic material, much of it deeply moving. If Big Big Train’s songs were somehow shorn of their musical complexity, they would still be beautiful and emotional.
#2. Neal Morse — 2020 — Sola Gratia (24 listens)
Yes, it’s long-time WIBLTI favourite Neal Morse, back again with another concept album. This one tells the story of Saint Paul (previously named Saul). If you know your New Testament, you will remember that Saul first appears as a Jewish religious leader who is implacably composed to Christianity until — one a mission to imprison converts — he encounters God on the road to Damascus and becomes a convert himself. (His name-change to Paul came later.)
Apart from the endless inventiveness, ambition and dynamism of the music itself — which we expect from any Neal Morse project — what makes this work so well is the rounded portrait in the first two thirds of the album of Paul’s pre-Christian history. He’s not painted as a pantomime villain who flips from black to white, but as an honest and dedicated man whose hatred for what he perceives as a heretic sect is motivated by a genuine love for God, and a longing to understand him better. When his Damascus-road moment arrives, it’s not just a 180-degree flip, but also a culmination, a consummation, of who has been up to that point.
As the sample track I nearly chose Never Change, a dark, gloomy meditation that I love for its very Dave Gilmourish guitar solo. But instead, I went for Seemingly Sincere (above), which tells of Saul’s witnessing the martyrdom of Saint Steven. It has, for Morse, an unusually electronic feel, and a propulsive quality that thrusts it through the narrative while focussing more on Saul’s internal processing than on the events themselves. So much to love about this!
(The title, Sola Gratia, is Latin for “by grace alone”, a reference to Paul’s post-conversion writings, especially the letter to the Galatian church. The album is in part a belated sequel/prequel to 2007 Sola Scripture (“according to the Bible alone”), which tells the story of Martin Luther and the ninety-five theses. It revisits some musical themes from the earlier album, but is mostly original.)
#1. Blue Öyster Cult — 2020 — The Symbol Remains (27 listens)
And so we come to not just my most-listened album of the year, but the biggest surprise. I am a long time fan of Blue Öyster Cult, going right back to their first album of 1972, but even I didn’t honestly expect an album released 48 years after their debut to actually be good. For that matter, this album comes nineteen years after their previous release of new material, 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror, so one would forgive them if a certain creative decay had set in.
Truthfully, I bought The Symbol Remains basically out of curiosity and sympathy — as a sort of tribute to a band that I have loved. And it blew me away by actually being really good. More than that: it’s fascinating. Its fourteen tracks each sound completely different (which makes it very hard to pick a representative example), and every single one of them is catchy, melodic, and superbly performed and recorded. And I do mean every one: there’s not a single filler track on here, which is saying something in an album of 14 tracks, and I have at various times found myself humming every one of them.
This comparison will feel strange — heck, it is strange — but the album this reminds me of most is Revolver. Yes, one of them was made by young men in their mid 20s and the other by old men in their 70s. But otherwise I think the analogy holds. Beyond a general compelling quality, what they have in common is that very broad stylistic range. While Revolver juxtaposed (for example) the childish playtime of Yellow Submarine with the claustrophobic acid nightmare of She Said She Said, So The Symbol Remains follows the Judas Priest-like Stand and Fight with whatever the heck Florida Man (above) is — an immediately likeable and catchy pop/rock tune that reimagines a comical meme as the result of an ancient curse. Finding the sinister in the mundane — that’s about as close as it gets to a Blue Öyster Cult manifesto.
How does it work so well? A big part of it is that — again like the Beatles — they have three major songwriting talents, which helps to generate that broad stylistic range. And of those three, two — Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom — are classic-era members and long-term survivors; while one — Richie Castellano, a positively sprightly 40 years old — is a relative newcomer who brings something fresh to the mix. That’s not to underplay the contribution of the rhythm section, Danny Miranda and Jules Radino; but the album really belongs to the big three.
So 2020 was a pleasant surprise of a musical year for me.
Apart from All Things Must Pass and Brand New Day, five other albums each made it to five listens this year:
Big Big Train’s Grimspound was ineligible both because it appeared last year and because there is another Big Big Train album in this year’s selection. Flying Colors’ Third Degree was also in last year’s top ten, and a second Big Big Train album, Grand Tour, also misses out due to English Electric Part One coming in third this year. That leaves Neal Morse’s Songs from November, which was mentioned last year but didn’t make the cut; and Chroma Key’s Dead Air for Radios, which is just unlucky.
I can tell you already that one album is absolutely dominating my 2021 listening, and that it’s a 2021 release. We’ll see if that stays true as the year progresses; and I’ll try to get the 2021 list out a bit more quickly than I did with this one!