It seems to be traditional to start these things by saying just how difficult it was to choose 10 of the best albums, and that if you asked me to tomorrow the list would be totally different. However, to be honest, this felt rather easy and on the whole the great majority of this selection would more or less stay the same apart from maybe 2 or 3 at most. Needless to say (so why say it?!), it’s a nonsense choosing the ‘best’ 10 albums… what we actually mean is our 10 ‘Favourites’. These selections are no more valid than anyone else’s choices and are totally subjective. What all these albums have in common are the following:
• in some way they have made a personal connection that resonates with me, sometimes for inexplicable reasons (that’s the great mystery of music – what music touches a nerve or pulls on a heart string is impossible to fathom most of the time.
• I have repeatedly returned to all these albums for many repeated listens over the years and NEVER bore of them – not many albums pass that test, and those that do should be treasured
Hopefully, some of these have also touched you in some ways…
We’re Here Because We’re Here – 2010
Anathema made a remarkable transformation from once being death metallers into a band capable of such sensitivity and feeling, and made a significant breakthrough with We’re Here Because We’re Here in 2010. I LOVE this album, which touches me on so many levels, starting with the building, chiming and anthemic power of Thin Air. The ethereal, shimmering Dreaming Light is simply one of the most beautiful songs of the last 20 years.
Throughout this captivating album, Lee Douglas’ voice combines so beautifully and soulfully with Vince Cavanagh, whilst his brother Danny Cavanagh orchestrates such widescreen, emotive music. The connected songs Angels Walk Among Us and Presence characterise their ability to write sweeping, resonant rock songs which then subside into such sweet tenderness, touching on deep issues such as our sense of mortality – truly a special album to touch your soul.
Someone Here Is Missing – 2010
I fell in love with The Pineapple Thief back in 2004 with Variations on a Dream and it’s so satisfying to see them break through with legendary King Crimson/Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison on their last two albums, Your Wilderness and Dissolution, playing major venues in the UK and Europe and touring the USA. The mainman behind The Pineapple Thief has always been Bruce Soord, who writes and arranges songs drenched with emotion and melody. Touched by personal tragedy early in his career, he has used his music cathartically and has developed an ever growing number of fans. Someone Here is Missing saw them step up in class with a mature and captivating selection of songs imbued with passion, feeling and musicality.
Probably leaning more towards Radiohead-like indie rock with a progressive sheen, The Pineapple Thief have always just ploughed their own distinctive path, and certainly do not fit into the classic ‘prog’ tropes at all.
The incendiary, feedback filled 3,000 Days is a major highlight on this album, and remains a live highlight to this day, but the bubbling, fizzing electrobeat of opener Nothing at Best immediately grabs the listener and doesn’t let go until the epic slow-burning grandeur of So We Row. Along the way, Soord and his assured band take us down the strange pulsating paths of Wake Up Dead and the plaintive acoustic Barely Breathing, with Soord’s soft, emotion-filled voice. This is a special band who are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
When Age Has Done its Duty – 2011
Cosmograf is basically the genius of Robin Armstrong, for my money THE MOST UNDER-RATED progressive rock artist of our times. Every album is bursting with musical invention, great playing, interesting themes and wonderful songs. This guy should be as big as Steven Wilson as far as I am concerned!
I chose this album because of the more emotional, personalised theme of dementia chosen by Robin Armstrong – the dementia of a relative… I got this album around the time of my Father’s own decline into severe dementia so that resonates with me again on another level. Indeed, for a while after my Father’s passing I couldn’t listen to this album, but now it gives me comfort. Multi-instrumentalist Robin Armstrong goes from strength to strength and has recently been playing in Big Big Train’s live band, but it is with his own project Cosmograf that he really hits the heights with brilliantly executed, imaginative and varied albums.
Echolyn – 2012
echolyn by American band Echolyn was a real surprise for me – it just came right out of left-field and I wasn’t expecting just how captivating this strange and sometimes disturbing album would be for me. This is a superb album full of disquieting but fascinating music with peculiar but arresting lyrics, such as in Some Memorial which bursts in spectacularly before settling into a weird world and some stellar guitar… and some truly bizarre lyrics. When Sunday Spills is chilling as it includes field recordings of the verbal abuse and arguments heard through the walls of one of the band’s neighbours.
Epic Island is stirring and exciting in an off-kilter, unconventional manner – this is an almost undefinable album, which makes it feel so dark and yet so magnetic.
English Electric (Full Power) – 2012/2013
Big Big Train has risen to the pinnacle of modern-day British prog since The Underfall Yard in 2009, the first album to feature David Longdon on vocals, XTC’s Dave Gregory on guitar and ex-Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio. However, I only came to appreciate that album in retrospect – for me, my love of Big Big Train commenced with the evocative English Electric, Part One, which they later combined with Part Two and additional tracks into English Electric (Full Power). This album combines progressive rock elements and melodic folk with pastoral themes and a sense of industrial history, for which they have become renowned.
Of course, none of that would matter if they could not write good tunes with great melodies and memorable lyrics – but they can with great success and feeling.
Abel Ganz – 2014
A wonderful, virtually perfect album of folk-tinged, pastoral progressive rock, with even a bit of jazz on Unconditional. This is such an unusual album as it covers a lot of musical territory, but it feels so consistent and fits together perfectly. I think it’s probably my most played album of the last five years. Abel Ganz moved away from their more ‘neo-prog’ roots into a truly progressive album which was adventurous in its diversity of musical influences, and yet so cohesive in ‘feel’. There are moments of full-on ‘prog rocking’, but this is an album which covers so much territory smoothly and skilfully from the multi-faceted Obsolescence epic song cycle through the world music and acoustic delights of Recuerdoes and Heartland, amongst others. Unconditional is a wonderful conclusion – a catchy song full of hooks but extended brilliantly. They even managed to squeeze in some touching ‘country prog’ with the partly Gaelic Thank You, written from the perspective of the singer and his sister to their parents.
I’ve NEVER grown tired of playing this album – it’s food for the soul.
The Road of Bones – 2014
I believe IQ are simply one of the best progressive rock bands of the last 30+ years. I have followed them since their very first album, and they still produce high-quality albums this far into their career, like Frequency and The Road of Bones (take note other more veteran prog bands, who just tour their old material constantly). The Road of Bones is a remarkable album, full of darkness and deep feeling. For instance, Until the End is a wonderfully atmospheric song with such a touching and poignant end that I will always associate with spending time alone with my Dad on his last night, as he lay dying. A very personal connection, but sometimes it’s those personal angles which resonate for some albums with us.
Peter Nicholls’ voice is sublime and Michael Holmes is a brilliant arranger and guitarist – the whole band is superb. I could have chosen any IQ album – they’re ALL class.
Cocoon – 2014
A stunning debut from the incredible talent of Peter Jones… straight OUT OF NOWHERE he produced an instant classic, chock full of great melodies, fantastic musicianship, eccentric charm and weird storybook characters, such as The Merry Vicar and the Isle of Witches. Pete Jones indulges in his much loved Steve Hackett-like guitars on The First Lament and the brilliant Tigers in the Butter. He somehow evokes a beguiling, nostalgic melancholia in the wonderful A Visit to Chigwick, which has become a modern-day prog classic he simply HAS to play at every gig.
Similarly, Don’t Let Go, Feels Alright has become another modern-day prog classic – it’s a simply wonderful song infused with such emotion and almost brings me to tears every time I listen to it. Blind since early childhood, Peter Jones remarkably plays everything superbly, and it’s led to a burgeoning new career in prog playing with the likes of Magenta and in the band of Frank Dunnery of It Bites fame, as well as also joining Red Bazar. Most notably. Pete joined and helped to reinvigorate the legendary prog heroes Camel, on vocals, keyboards and woodwind…, and penny whistle… and sax! But this is where that prog journey began so touchingly and brilliantly.
Love, Fear and the Time Machine – 2015
Riverside totally and utterly hooked me on the 2007 album Rapid Eye Movement with the combination of rock power and subtle melodies throughout that imaginative album. Love, Fear and the Time Machine is an album punctuated with memorable lines and melodious hooks that many will subsequently be humming to themselves as Riverside combine lovely music with lyrics and ideas that touch the heart. The central lyrical theme of transformation permeates the whole album, suffused with optimism and a belief in change for the better. This is the sound of a band contemplating their past and looking to their future with optimism and even joy.
Main songwriter Mariusz Duda explores transformation in our lives, and the feelings associated with making decisions – excitement about change, fear of the unknown. The songs delve into those areas of our lives when we have to make decisions in which we consider where we have come from, and project ourselves into the future – our very own ‘Time Machines’ of the mind. This beautiful, poignant album became all the more resonant after the sad loss of the guitarist Piotr Grudziński shortly after it’s release.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. – 2015
Let’s not beat around the bush, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is one of the finest progressive rock albums released in the 21st Century, and must rank up there amongst the truly great albums of any era… no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, no ‘maybes’. Some things are just undoubtable and irrefutable facts.
This piece is filled with themes of sadness, disconnection and anxiety. The story is told with such consummate musical skill and imagination, framed in a brilliantly inspired melodic and lyrical framework. Hand. Cannot. Erase. pulls together the musical paths of Wilson over many years, including multi-faceted progressive rock songs like 3 Years Older and the haunting and emotional Routine, or the more rock/pop slanted, such as the catchy theme song or the sun-filled optimism of the gorgeous Happy Returns and the gossamer-thin and delicate acoustic Transcience. Perfect Life is a hypnotic, outstanding piece in which Katherine Begley’s monologue about a girl’s memories of a brief but influential relationship with an older ‘foster sister’ is conveyed with a synth intro and then a pulsing, percussive setting over which Steven Wilson repetitively chants of “We have got, we have got the Perfect Life…”
Alongside those golden moments you have the dramatic, darker heavy rock-inflected Home Invasion and Regret #9, albeit with a shimmering progressive slant, and the truly visceral instrumental tour de force of Ancestral, in which this supremely talented band truly excel themselves. Such powerful moments are bookended by the more ambient or cinematic pieces First Regret, suffused with an atmosphere which draws you into the world of this story, and the ethereal conclusion of Ascendant Here On. This brilliant, diverse album is set out perfectly as a cohesive and engrossing whole.
Whilst the majority of my list chose itself fairly easily, there were quite a few albums that did come pretty close to the Top 10, so it’s probably only fair to ‘mention in dispatches’ the following notable albums:
• SEAN FILKINS – War and Peace and Other Stories
– indeed, I am now struggling to recall why this wonderful album did not make the Top 10 – perhaps the fact it was a ‘one off’ with still, sadly, no follow up may have counted against it eventually?
• LEE ABRAHAM – Black and White
• MYSTERY – The World is a Game
• GAZPACHO – Soyuz
• DAVID BOWIE – Blackstar
• ANATHEMA – Weather Systems
• BAROCK PROJECT – Detachment
• COSMOGRAF – Capacitor (or ANY Cosmograf album, to be honest!)
• FISH – A Feast of Consequences
• MARILLION – F.E.A.R.
• R.P.W.L. – Beyond Man and Time
• THE GIFT – Land of Shadows
• RIVERSIDE – Anno Domini High Definition
• SHINEBACK – Rise up Forgotten, Return Destroyed
• SOUTHERN EMPIRE – Civilisation
• STEVEN WILSON – The Raven that Refused to Sing…
• TONY PATTERSON & BRENDAN EYRE – Northlands
• UNITOPIA – Artificial
• TWELFTH NIGHT – Sequences 2018
• PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING – The Race for Space
(In fact it was easier doing the Top 10 than the following 20!)
I sometimes wonder why do I keep listening to and collecting new music, and still attend many gigs? Upon reflection, I believe there is an element of searching again for that intangible feeling, that thrill when I was a teenager and a piece of music or a great gig blazed a trail through to my soul.
In those moments there was real and pure magic – in truth, it’s probably futile trying to re-live those moments of juvenile discovery, amazement and enlightenment, but like many of us, I’ll keep trying…
…and just occasionally that magic does briefly spark again with a marvellous new album or a great gig – there are certainly such golden elements for me in these selections.