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 and the desktop box 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.
#10=. Dire Straits — 1985 — Brothers in Arms (3 listens)
The year is around 1989. My friend Andy Charles and I are big fans of Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold. I ask to borrow his CD of Brothers in Arms, but he is reluctant. “It’s always the same”, he says: “You lend something to someone, and you never get it back”. But I persuade him I will return it, and he lends me the CD.
I gave it back to him in 2019.
I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since. Not always the CD, of course, much more often MP3s in recent years. And it really is worth its reputation of being beautiful to listen to. Even the throwaway songs (So Far Away, Walk of Life), though there is almost nothing to them, still sound great.
It happened to creep into the bottom end of my top ten this year really just on that basis. Above, I’ve included the song Your Latest Trick — a downbeat and uncharacteristically jazzy breakup song that makes great use of brass instruments.
#8=. Marillion — 1987 — Clutching at Straws (4 listens)
During the 1980s, Marillion almost alone kept the prog fire burning (though, alright, IQ and Pendragon would have something to say about that). Their first four albums, with Fish as the singer, followed a distinct trajectory. They started out sounding so like early Genesis that a snide person could have described them as a tribute act — and there were plenty of snide people around.
But those four albums progressively tightened up and shaped the sound until the band sounded definitively like themselves. Along the way there was a minor hit single as part of their best selling third album, Misplaced Childhood. But for me it all came together with the fourth album, Clutching at Straws, a loosely autobiographical concept album about a singer’s descent into alcoholism and despair.
Sadly, the story was all too true, and Fish was soon out of the band. Marillion have gone on to a successful 40-year post-Fish career with replacement singer Steve Hogarth, but for a lot of fans those first four albums are still the ones that feel fresh and alive.
As with so many concept albums, it’s nearly impossible to pick a single representative song, so I’ve gone for the album’s opening, Hotel Hobbies. It begins in an ominous wash of sound before landing on the verse melody, and erupting into furious chorus that collapses in on itself leading to the radically different final verse. (Then the video just shuts off, where the album should go into track two!)
#8=. Morse, Portnoy, George — 2020 — Cov3r to Cov3r (4 listens)
Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Randy George have been recording albums together since 2004’s One, and currently make up 60% of our old friends the Neal Morse Band. To make bonus tracks for the special editions of their main albums, they like to record covers of songs they love in lots of different styles. And they occasionally release an album collecting some of these covers. The awkwardly named Cov3r to Cov3r is the third of these (following Cover to Cover and Cover 2 Cover) and is just plain fun to listen to.
Above is their version of Gerry Rafferty’s classic Baker Street, rocking much harder than the original and really bringing out the latent power of the guitar parts in particular.
#7. Chris Wood — 2013 – None the Wiser (7 listens)
Here’s the brilliant Chris Wood, with one of those apparently effortless observational songs made up of a stream of vignettes that build to a picture of 21st Century life in all its messiness. Of course, it’s not effortless at all: he makes it look that way though diligence and perseverance. But, oh my, how it works.
That said, I have to admit that the rest of the album has not really landed with me as So Much to Defend and Handmade Life did. Several of the songs seem to pass me by every time I listen to them, so this isn’t where I’d start if you’re new to Chris Wood.
#6. Big Big Train — 2013 — English Electric Part Two (8 listens)
Here once more are my band of 2019, with an album that is not so much a followup to English Electric Part One as it is the second disc of a double album that was released separately for procedural reasons. Most of the songs on this second volume are similarly sprawling and ambitious as those on the first, with lots on the passing of heavy industry as a way of life for British working-class families. but Leopards (above) is an aberration for Big Big Train: an acoustic ballad that (as the band explain in detail) examines the feelings of a once-abandoned beloved wondering whether the returned lover can really have changed his spots.
#5. Fiona Taylor — 2021 — Empty Nest (11 listens)
I’ve written before about Empty Nest, an emotionally profound and musically sophisticated examination of every stage of motherhood that just happens to have been written and recorded by my wife Fiona. There are albums that I have listened to more times this year (four of them, as you are about to read), but no other album has so defined my year — I’ve heard embryonic fragments, I’ve heard the shapes of the songs starting to come together, I’ve heard demos, I’ve attended events. Let me just quote myself from that earlier article:
To me, it stands alongside Joni Mitchell’s Hejira as one of the great albums about what it is to be a woman — but Empty Nest shows a very different experience of womanhood, arguably a more mature and complete experience. Honestly, I think it’s that good.
If you are, or have ever known a woman, or have ever had a mother, this is an album that will resonate deeply with you, and I urge you strongly to get yourself over to Bandcamp and buy it immediately!
Above is the closing song, Empty Bedroom, taken from the end of a broadcast of the launch event. It captures the complexity of a parent’s feeling as their children leave for university: joy as they are successfully launched into the world, mingled with sadness about what is being lost, and about nineteen other emotions.
#4. Steve Wilson — 2021 — The Future Bites (15 listens)
I loved Wilson’s 2013 album The Raven that Refused to Sing, and absolutely adored his 2015 offering Hand. Cannot. Erase, which was my most-listened-to album in that year. At that point, I thought he was poised to take off into the stratosphere and become my single favourite musician. But while I liked 2017’s To The Bone a lot, it struck me as essentially rather conservative compared with its predecessor. It felt as though Wilson was slimming his sound down in search of mainstream success, but he has gone through so many different sounds in his career that I gave him the benefit of the doubt in assuming that was what he wanted to do for his own artistic reasons. He’s certainly earned the right to follow his own muse. As he says:
If you want to be an entertainer and please your fans, you end up giving them the same stuff all the time. If you’re an artist, you do it because of some deeper need inside you that’s more conducive to experimentation and innovation. Sometimes it disappoints your fans.
Now comes The Future Bites, and … I’m disappointed. It feels like a continuation of the trajectory towards simplicity, and the cool detached voice that the album presents doesn’t quite come off for me. I get that Wilson is playing a role, but it’s not one that draws me in, and the concept of The Future Bites as a fictional high-end consumer brand seems more Roger Waters than Steven Wilson.
The thing that can’t be denied is that Wilson’s music sounds absolutely lovely. Witness the moment sixteen seconds into 12 Things I Forgot (above) where the lo-fi guitar intro takes off into the beautifully crafted verse, and then the soaring chorus. It might not mean all that much, but it’s put together immaculately.
#3. The Neal Morse Band — 2021 — Innocence and Danger (16 listens)
Honesty, it’s this simple: when the Neal Morse Band releases an album, I’m going to love it (exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C). This time, I’ve picked a slightly unrepresentative song, where they sound much more like Pink Floyd than their usually rather more metal sound. Beautiful.
#2. Genesis — 1982 — And Then There Were Three (20 listens)
Time to hold my hands up and say I was wrong. Back in Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 2: the Collins years I described And Then There Were Three as:
… a selection of eleven mostly forgettable songs. Honestly, as I read through the track-listing now, I find myself completely unable to remember how more than half of the songs go.
This year, I decided to give it one last chance … and somehow, it clicked. I can’t explain it: I’d listened to ATTW3 nineteen times before 2021 without it ever landing; then, suddenly, it did. On the 20th try, I guess.
Above is Say It’s Alright Joe, a song that starts out as a lonely drunk asking the bartender for validation, then shifts into what seems like a psychotic break or a hallucination. We have to assume that the chaos of the “kings who were laughing in the rain” represent the internal turmoil of the narrator — all squashed down and repressed in his interactions with the barman.
#1. Transatlantic — 2021 — The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (69 listens)
Honesty, it’s this simple: when Transatlantic release an album, I’m going to love it (exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C). But this one — despite being a double album — has in the year of its release leaped straight to the top of my all time most-listened list, just beating out the Neal Morse Band’s Similitude of a Dream. It’s just so magnetic, I couldn’t stop listening to it. Listen for example to the joyous explosion of the chorus in Higher than Morning (above).
There are times when I feel that Neal Morse’s projects are deliberately punking us by being as proggy as possible: as for example when the Neal Morse Band’s followup to their double concept album based on The Pilgrim’s Progress was another double concept album based on The Pilgrim’s Progress. But this time they’ve really outdone themselves. When there was disagreement among the band members about whether the new material should be compressed into a single album or spread across a double, the conclusion was that they would do both. So The Absolute Universe was made available in two editions: the single-disc Breath of Life and the double-disc Forevermore (which is the one I have). BoL is not just an abridgement: it contains songs that are not on Forevermore, and changes at least some of those that are on the double-disc version. (I learned only when preparing this post that the BoL version of Higher than the Morning is significantly different from the version I know!) Needless to say, some fans wanted a version with all the songs, so a third release was made, the Ultimate Edition, which runs six minutes longer than Forevermore.
In among all this complexity, what should not be lost is the sheer melodicism of the whole thing — the freedom and burgeoning creativity that means every track overflows with ideas. Really, it’s a delight.
At the end of last year’s post, I wrote “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.” It absolutely did!
There were nine albums that I listened to more times than the three listens racked up by this year’s #10, but which were unavailable for the list. Seven of them were ineligible because I have featured them before: Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Neal Morse’s Sola Gratia, Blue Oyster Cult’s The Symbol Remains, Big Big Train’s English Electric Part One, Neal Morse’s Life and Times, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads. And two other Genesis albums (A Trick of the Tail and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) that didn’t make it because of the presence of And Then There Were Three higher on the list.
Down at #10, I could also have included either of two other albums that got three listens: Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing or Dido’s Life For Rent. I chose the Dire Straits album ahead of them mostly so I could include the anecdote.
Eleven further albums got three listens, but were ineligible because I’ve included them on previous years’ lists (six of them), or because they were by artists already represented on this year’s list (all but one of them).
Is it a bit predictable that my top three albums of last year would be prog rock by Transatlantic, Genesis and the Neal Morse Band? Yes, I suppose it is. I love all my top ten this year, but I have to admit that, Empty Nest and None the Wiser apart, it’s a bit low on variety. This year, I hope to push into some more different territory. I’ll be happy to take recommendations for music that sounds completely different from what I’ve got on this list, but which offers richness and complexity in some form. Leave a comment!