Ignoring compilation albums that came free with Prog magazine, I added fifty-three albums and three EPs to my collection in 2012. With the apparent demise of the three-for-£10 offer from play.com, there was less opportunity for me to buy older releases. In fact, all but one of the albums that are over ten years old were bought for me as Christmas or birthday presents, while the vast majority of my own purchases were made at gigs.
The year saw me buy full back catalogues from Touchstone (four albums) and DeeExpus (two) and debut albums from theFALLEN, Pelico, Riversea, Natalia Safran (an artist I supported during my brief dalliance with Sellaband), SKAM and Stolen Earth. New releases from the likes of Panic Room, The Reasoning, Hope & Social, Muse and Mostly Autumn were added to already full collections, while I started sections for, amongst others, such established bands as District 97, Curved Air, Manning, Big Big Train, It Bites and Aynsley Lister.
Of the fifty-three, only twenty-nine were released in 2012 and,of them, three were live albums, three were compilations of acoustic re-workings of previously released songs and one was a compilation of local bands put together to raise money for charity. So, by my own rules, my top ten of 2012 is being chosen from just twenty-two albums.
As usual, I would like to point out that the following countdown is based on how an album makes me feel, not necessarily technical or creative merit. When putting it together, I don’t compare new releases with previous albums by the same band (for example, to see whether it shows any progression in style). I also freely admit that my purchases this year don’t include some “big” releases that have shown up in many other top ten lists.
Before the top ten, a quick note about a handful of albums that didn’t quite make it. I only got The 2nd Law (Muse) and All The Wars (The Pineapple Thief) for Christmas and have only listened to each of them once. I suspect that, had I listened to them more, both would have appeared in the ten, but I feel that I need to get this written while we are still in January. One album that seems to be a favourite with quite a few people is District 97’s Trouble With Machines. This is another one that I only got in December and while I have listened to it enough times for it to start growing on me, I still find that the vocals (by Leslie Hunt, ex-American Idol contestant) don’t quite fit with the music. Again, repeated listens might eventually move the album up my “chart” but, at present, it can be seen as number eleven.
…and so to the top ten:
10: Last Of A Dyin’ Breed (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
I’m almost ashamed to admit that this is the only representative of this band in my collection (apart from a two disc “Best Of”). I bought it on-spec as one of those Classic Rock magazine fan-packs and, obviously, as a studio album from any version of the band, I have nothing to compare it against. On its own merits it’s a foot-stomping slice of Southern U.S. flavoured rock whose style is instantly recognisable from the back catalogue songs known by everybody. It even includes a new version of Gimme Three Steps. It may not be classic Skynyrd (but that doesn’t matter, see the caveat above) but it is the best pure rock album I bought this year.
9: Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (Rick Wakeman)
This is actually a re-recording, with extra bits added due to the increased storage available on CD (compared to the original vinyl release) but I’m treating it as a new release because I like it so much. Similar to Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, but with the story being told in song and music, with narration rather than acted parts, this release overcomes its faintly nostalgic cheesiness to deliver an excellent orchestral progressive rock concept album which is, apparently, the version that the keyboard wizard originally envisaged. It gets extra points for the fact that my ten-year-old daughter has specifically asked me to play it on a couple of occasions.
8: XXX (Asia)
I have been a fan of Asia since Tommy Vance gave over the whole of one edition of his Friday Rock Show to the release of their debut album back in the eighties. This one, commemorating the band’s thirtieth anniversary, is arguably the strongest of the three albums released since the original “supergroup” line-up got back together. There’s nothing particularly new here but John Wetton’s vocals are once again strong, while the music retains its mix of not-quite-prog and not-quite-AOR to produce something that belongs in stadia, rather than the more modest venues the band now find themselves playing in across the UK.
7: Clockwork Angels (Rush)
Rush are pretty much the band that got me into music back when I was in school, but I went off them with the release of Moving Pictures (and I still don’t hold it in the high regard that most fans seem to). While I have picked up a few later albums since, I’ve always preferred when they mixed music with science fiction ideas to produce such mini-concepts as 2112, Cygnus X-1 and Hemispheres, as well as the likes of Xanadu and By-Tor And The Snow Dog. This is the band’s nineteenth studio album and their first full concept album (previous concepts filled one side of vinyl releases) set in a steampunk world ruled over by the Watchmaker. Once more mixing music with science fiction, it is more reminiscent of early Rush to me and, therefore, it was almost inevitably going to make my top ten.
6: Out Of An Ancient World (Riversea)
This album took Marc Atkinson (guitar and vocals) and Brendan Eyre (keyboards) nearly five years to complete and eventually came to include guest spots from a veritable who’s who of past friends and associates. It’s a much more introverted and gentler release than most prog rock albums, giving it a slightly more grounded feel. In fact, even though it is being covered by various prog magazines and websites, there might be an argument that it doesn’t properly fit into the genre. Marc’s fantastically emotive vocals are used to tackle such subjects as old age and what people will do for their God, while I seem to hear something new in the music every time I listen to the album. Some of the guest artistes might, arguably, be better known than Marc and Brendan but, even with their involvement, this comes across as a very personal album.
5: SKIN (Panic Room)
If I’m honest, I expected this album to be higher up the list. Panic Room are one of my favourite current bands and their first two albums are brilliant. There’s nothing wrong with this one, the first since signing to Cherry Red Records, but, for me, there’s nothing stand-out about it. It lacks the instant appeal of the previous releases and, while I often fins snatches of songs from those albums floating around my head, when I re-played SKIN recently, I found that I had no recollection of what was on it. Having said that, when hearing it again, I enjoyed it. There does seem to have been some progress made from the earlier releases, it’s just that the result isn’t quite a memorable.
4: English Electric Part 1 (Big Big Train)
I only discovered Big Big Train this year, when members of the Facebook group Thursday Night Is Music Night (a great place to hang out but one that I can see costing me lots of money…) started plugging their last album, The Underfall Yard. My first impression was that they were reminiscent of Genesis (primarily in the vocals but also, if in a lesser way, musically) which is, in my opinion, no bad thing. English Electric shows the same influence and is, for me, incredibly easy to listen to.
3: A Far Cry From Home (Stolen Earth)
When Breathing Space fell apart, most of the members stayed together to form Stolen Earth. A Far Cry From Home was released after over a year of playing live, both as a headline and support act, and building a fan base and it seemed to catch people a bit by surprise. I’m not sure why, I would have thought that most people who initially bought the album would have known the songs from the live set and knew how talented the songwriters and musicians were. Maybe it was the very clean production of the album, which mixes powerful yet soulful vocals with great music. At times Adam Dawson seems to be channelling David Gilmour, at others Heidi Widdop’s low whistle adds an almost mournful tone. Highlights are Perfect Wave and the full band versions of Adam’s previous solo releases Silver Skies and Mirror Mirror. The one bit I still can’t bring myself to like is the effect that, the first time I played the album, made me think my CD player had packed up.
2: Adventures In Neverland (The Reasoning)
For a while, this album held the number one spot in my top ten. It has been suggested by some that it adds nothing new to The Reasoning. I would argue against that. With the (slightly acrimonious?) departure of Dylan Thompson, the distinctive male vocals parts have gone but the backing vocals, provided by the whole band, combine brilliantly with the gorgeous, near-classical voice of Rachel Cohen. Musically, this is my favourite Reasoning album. Songs such as Hyperdrive and Forest Of Hands And Teeth are favourites while Omega Point sees the band encroaching on Muse territory (if only in thematic terms) with a song about the end of the universe and the title track is simply stunning. An excellent release which sees The Reasoning bouncing back from some harrowing times.
This year’s winner by a country mile. I only have one other album by Anathema – last year’s Falling Deeper, which contains mostly instrumental re-workings of songs from their back catalogue. Not finding that one particularly inspiring, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Weather Systems. Others have said that it isn’t as good as the band’s previous studio album, that it is a “lite” version of that album and that it comes in from an era when it is “cool” to like the band. I can’t comment on any of that but I can say that there hasn’t been any album before that has affected me in the way this one has. There have been albums that I have played every day for up to a week after the first play. I got Weather Systems for my birthday in early December and have pretty much played it every day since then. It is atmospheric, it is powerful, it is gentle and it is emotional. The incredible monologue about a near death experience which is wrapped around and through Internal Landscapes rarely fails to bring a lump to my throat. The vocals, particularly those from Lee Douglas, are stunning and the music is about as perfectly formed as I think you can get. This may not be as good an album as the previous one, but I heard this one first and, while I have every intention of buying We’re Here Because We’re Here, I suspect I will always prefer Weather Systems simply because I heard it first.