Friday 13th January: OK, I’m probably not in the best position to put this part of my year in review together but if I don’t do it now I’m probably never going to get round to it. So, here goes…
During 2011 I added eighty-two albums and five EPs/Singles to my CD collection.
Starting with the EPs/Singles, I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not really a fan of either format. To me, both seem to be a waste of time – you’ve no sooner put them into the CD player and pressed play than you have to go back and do it all again. (Yes, I still play most of my music through a CD player – I guess if I used MP3, EPs and singles would work better for me.) Anyway, two of the five were freebies. One was a Judy Dyble sampler which came with an issue of Prog, the other a copy of Morpheus Rising’s Fighting Man single, which the band were giving away during Graeme Tennick’s farewell gig. Of the others, I bought Differences of Light (Also Eden) as part of a bundle offer of all their recorded material and, at nearly twenty-five minutes long, you don’t have to revisit the CD player quite as quickly as some others. Altitude (Panic Room), I bought more or less for completeness sake and was a little disappointed by it as it only really contains one track, the cover of ELP’s Bitches Crystal, that I didn’t already have in other. The animated video for Satellite is quite impressive but, obviously, has to be played on a computer. On the other hand, I put off buying The Phoenix Suite (Heather Findlay) until it was available from Play, having heard less than brilliant reviews of it. It didn’t grab me when I first listened to it but while re-listening in preparation for seeing the live performance it really did start to grown on me.
I won’t bore you with a full breakdown of the eighty-two albums that I bought (or had bought for me). Even discounting the ten that were given away free with Prog, it’s more than I expected to buy and I haven’t had a chance to listen to a lot of them yet. I did take advantage of cheap deals from Play to start working on back catalogues of 70s prog bands such as Camel, Caravan, The Strawbs, Uriah Heep and King Crimson as well as more modern prog from Dream Theater, Opeth and Porcupine Tree and straight rock from Foreigner, Alter Bridge and Wolfmother. I also carried on my tradition of spending money to support bands that I saw live, buying albums from local bands such as Glass and Two, as well as those from touring bands like Vega, The Crave, Jeniferever, Also Eden, Amplifier and The Pineapple Thief.
Ignoring the free albums, twenty-four of my new albums were actually released during 2011 and, as is the tradition I have tried to pick my favourites from them. Firstly a few words about my criteria. I have listened to all twenty-four at least once and I have tried to rank them in order. It’s impossible – some of them are so different to others that it would depend on my state of mind while listening to them as to whether one was better than another. Similarly, my choice of favourites might change from one day to the next. Also, I very carefully chose the word “favourites” – these aren’t necessarily the best albums that I bought (I’m certainly not qualified to judge a CD based on the production or writing), but they are the ones that, as I look at the list, jump out as ones that I would l listen to right now if I had the time. With repeated listening to some of the others, that list might change over time. This might also explain why some albums which feature highly in other people’s top ten lists don’t even make an appearance in mine. Anyway, enough preamble, without further ado here are my favourite ten albums (in alphabetical rather than any other order…)
The Octopus (Amplifier):
This is a monster of an album – a double CD of proggy goodness, a concept album (but I rarely “get” concepts) that is choc-full of interesting and, at times, sublime music. It took me a couple of listens to get into but, eventually, was worth the effort.
Tao Of The Dead (…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead):
This was pretty much an impulse purchase, based on a review in Prog and the fact that I thought there was a free graphic novel with it. Sadly that turned out not to be the case with the version that I ended up buying. The music, however, is quite brilliant – prog tinged with a little punk and, in one small section, something unmistakably “indie”. It’s not the easiest of listening experiences but it is powerful and, with its repeating themes, ends up being quite memorable if not catchy. Worth listening to for the epic, sixteen-minute final track, if for nothing else.
Coldplay are one of the few non-prog bands that I am guaranteed to buy a new release from and their latest is, for me, a return to form after the disappointing Viva La Vida. This one is definitely catchy and, with few tracks lasting over four minutes, nothing one it outstays its welcome. I liked this album from the first play and it is one of the few from this year’s releases that I can get away with playing while Debbie is in the room. Perhaps the only weak spot is the collaboration with Rhianna.
Live At The Cafe 68 (Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson):
This is a recording of a special, acoustic live gig that Heather and Chris played in front of just a couple of handful of lucky ticket-holders. Sadly I wasn’t one of them although, if I had known how good the recording was going to sound, I might have made more of an effort to get hold of a ticket. Comprising track from Heather’s solo EP, Mostly Autumn’s back catalogue and Parade (now Halo Blind) along with others, it’s an extremely nice album which is enhanced by the stories told to introduce some of the songs. Easily the best of the three live albums I bought this year.
Sleep Sound (Hope & Social):
The third album from one of my favourite live bands is another return to form. Also, being released on the “pay what you want” basis, it can represent superb value for money. Once again, Hope & Social push the boundaries of self-recording/release, this time by including a full choir on the opening track. Sleep Sound is full of great songs that you just can’t help singing along to and that manage to run the gamut of emotions while you are listening to them.
Apart from a Best Of album, this is the first thing I have bought by Journey and, in my opinion, most of it is better than a lot of the “Best Of”. Yes, everybody knows Don’t Stop Believin’ but this album’s opener. City Of Hope, is head and shoulders above that anthem. There’s an energy to Eclipse that makes the album seem to erupt to the speakers. A definite must-buy for fans of AOR, as well as air-guitarists and air-drummers everywhere.
Telling the story of the Holy Grail as it travels across Europe after being used by Christ at the Last Supper, this is a suitably grand and epic album which might easily be the soundtrack from a stage musical. Full of pomp, wonder and theatrics it sometimes hovers on just the right side of cheesy but ultimately it is superbly written and features not only great music but some fantastic vocal performances.
Like No Other (Chantel McGregor):
Chantel is another live favourite and I have been looking forward to this album since she announced she was working on it. It ended up being not quite what I expected and is, perhaps, a more commercial album than the solely Blues/rock album release I suspect most fans were expecting. Opening with the pop-diva Fabulous could be seen as a brave move but the inclusion of a stripped-down, acoustic version of Rhiannon and a superb rendition of Daydream was inspired. Original songs easily stand alongside those and even the, for me, uninspired Cat Song can’t take away the fact that this is one of the best debut albums I have come across.
Let The Sleeper Awake (Morpheus Rising):
Let’s face it, this release had very little chance of disappointing me. Not just one of my favourite live bands but my favourite York band (at the moment), Morpheus Rising survived the departure of vocalist Graeme Tennick and his replacement with Simon Wright to produce one of the best heavy metal albums I have heard in a long time. I sometimes worry that people think I “big up” certain bands in my live reviews because I have got to know the members. I don’t and in the case of Morpheus Rising they have never failed to impress me and have continued to do so with this album, which may have single-handedly revived my interest in a genre that I have barely listened to for some time.
The Unforgiving (Within Temptation):
I’ll admit to a little reticence before I first played this album. I had bought a couple of prior releases on the recommendation of a friend and they hadn’t grabbed me, to the point where I wasn’t actually certain why I bought this one when it came out. After leaving it on a shelf for a few months I finally gave it a play and was more than impressed. It’s a bit more mainstream rock than the others I had listened to and a little less dark than I remembered them. It’s a mark of how good it is that, after the first listen I immediately put it on again.
So, there you have today’s rather varied top ten. On another day it might include Steven Wilson’s Grace For Drowning, another album I worried about listening to when I started reading reviews saying that it was dense and inaccessible but which I found quite easy to get into during its only play so far. Or, perhaps, Anathema’s Falling Deeper, mostly instrumental re-workings of some of their back catalogue, which is pleasant enough but which I don’t know enough about to appreciate properly yet. Also bubbling under would by the newest releases from Whitesnake (Forevermore) and Yes (Fly From Here), while the new album from returning veteran Stevie Nicks (In Your Dreams) is unlikely to ever make my top ten – not that it’s bad, it’s just not that good. For completeness, the 2011 releases that I haven’t yet mentioned are: Think Of The Children (Also Eden), Breaking The Silence (The Crave), A Treasure Of Well Set Jewels (Liam Davison), Gown (Jo Hamilton – probably my least favourite of the year), Silesia (Jeniferever), Still Beautiful: Live 2011 (Mostly Autumn), Heritage (Opeth), Live In The U.S.A: The Bottle Of Gettysburg (The Reasoning), and Siren’s Song (The Union)