Yes, another top ten list. This isn’t intended is a list of what I think are the most ‘important’ or ‘influential’ releases of 2009, and certainly bears no resemblance to those awful lists compiled by committees of groupthinking music journalists you’ll read in major newspapers which seem to be filled with albums of social-commentary lyrics or drug-addled personal angst with some hastily thrown-together music tacked on as an afterthought. Which is not my kind of thing at all.
This is all about my music – my personal soundtrack for 2009. In the end, I couldn’t cut down my shortlist to just ten, so I chickened out, and went for 15.
- 15: The Mars Volta – Octohedron
Although this album doesn’t have the energy level or sheer bonkersosity of their incendiary first album, this is still the best thing they done since Francis the Mute. They’ve gone and done an album full of actual songs, with tunes. Alhough some people might decry this as a dreadful sell-out, the compelling “Twilight is my Guide” is worth the price of admission alone.
- 14: UFO – The Visitor
There’s still life in Phil Mogg’s veteran hard rockers yet. The Visitor sees Mogg team up with American guitarist Vinnie Moore. I’d known Moore’s playing from mid 80s shred-metal albums on Shrapnel Records. Now an older and wiser Moore has abandoned high-speed shredding in favour of a bluesy style that’s the perfect foil for Mogg’s songwriting and often underrated hard-boiled lyrics.
- 13: Pure Reason Revolution – Amor Vincit Omnia
PRR take a major left turn with their second album. Their debut “The Dark Third” came over as a sort of prog Darkness. Anyone expecing more of the same was in for a very rude shock, as they’ve gone all electro, swapping the Pink Floyd inflence for Depeche Mode. It’s actually a very good album, especially when the guitars return a couple of songs in, harder-edged and more abrasive than their hypnotic debut, but filled with memorable songs.
- 12: Parade – The Fabric
Parade is the brainchild of Fish guitarist and former Mostly Autumn keyboard player Chris Johnson, with the collaboration of Anne-Marie Helder, Gavin Griffiths, Patrick Berry and Simon Snaize. It took me a few listens for this one to click; on the surface it’s an indie-sounding album with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but listen more closely and there’s some real musical depth there.
- 11: The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
I bought this album on the basis of a luke-warm review by The Guardian’s Alexis Petredis, where he said “What we have here is a terrible infestation of Jethro Tull”. From the opening organ chords it’s obvious that while marketed as ‘indie’, this is a prog album, with a classic 70s prog appoach to melody. There’s even a Hammond B3 wig-out at one point that reminds me of Uriah Heep.
- 10: Mastodon – Crack the Skye
For some reason, the hipster crowd seem to have picked up on Mastodon despite the fact that this is full-blown no-holds-barred prog-metal. Perhaps it’s the sludgy 70s-style production that makes it more accessible to that demographic than someone like Opeth. Saying that, it’s still a greatly entertaining album, with the 12-minute epic “The Czar” as the high point, with everything from a galloping Sabbath-like riff to an utterly over the top solo.
- 9: Heaven and Hell – The Devil You Know
Heaven and Hell is, of course, the reunion of the early 80s incarnation of Black Sabbath with Ronnie Dio on vocals and Vinnie Appice on drums. Such reunions of veteran artists have a mixed track record, but on this occasion they’ve delivered the goods with great slice of the sort of epic operatic-tinged metal we got in Ronnie Dio’s previous stint with the band. Who’s have thought they’d have such a good album in them this late in their career?
- 8: Touchstone – Wintercoast
Jeromy Irons’ spoken word introduction opens Touchstone’s powerful second album, which fuses melodic hard rock with prog to great effect to produce a hugely varied and entertaining album. It marks a major step forward from their debut and makes them a force to be reckoned with in the growing British female-fronted prog scene.
- 7: Dream Theater – Black Clouds and Silver Linings
Prog-metal giants Dream Theater were a major band for me in the 1990s, with albums such as the intense Awake or the majestic Metropolis II. Their noughties output has been uneven; some strong individual songs, but sometimes self-indulgent soloing and instrumental virtuosity for it’s own sake seemed to take precidence over composition. Despite some lenghy epic songs, Black Clouds and Silver Linings is a major improvement in that regard, and is probably the best overall album they’ve produced in the decade.
- 6: Porcupine Tree – The Incident
Steve Wilson’s band take a step back from the metal-orientated recent albums towards the atmospheric progressive rock that characterised earlier albums. Although made up of separare songs, it’s intended to be listened to as a single continuous piece of music. High spot is “Time Flies”, with is musical quoting of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”.
- 5: IQ – Frequency
80s veterans IQ may wear their influences on their sleeve, especially Gabriel-era Genesis, but unlike some other neo-prog outfits of the 80s and 90s, they do it well enough to become far more than a simple pastiche of older and better bands. Frequency sees them as good as they’ve ever been, possibly even topping 2004′s Dark Matter. If you like swirly keyboards, strange time signatures and melodramatic vocals, this one’s for you.
- 4: Mostly Autumn – Live 2009
This one’s cheating a little bit, since they released what is effectively a double live album as two single albums; I’m treating it as one album for the purposes of this list. Previous Mostly Autumn live albums have been very disappointing; some of them have been little better than bootleg-quality recordings that have failed to do a great live band justice. This one, recorded on various dates from the 2009 spring tour, blows every previous MA live album out of the water, and really captures what it’s like to be in the front row at one of their gigs. The 2009 incarnation of the band with Iain Jennings on keys and Gavin Griffiths on drums is the best MA live lineup I’ve seen, and they were on fire this spring.
- 3: Muse – The Resistance
It’s not often I buy the number one album in the charts; the last time was, well, the previous Muse album Black Holes and Revelations. Sometimes you just want something bombastically over the top, and Muse deliver that in spades; fans of twee indie hate them with a passion. There’s something great about seeing a band who aren’t ashamed to be influenced by prog selling out major venues. Muse’s best to date? Possibly. They’re the band The Darkness would love to have been, if only they had the talent.
- 2: Panic Room – Satellite
Panic Room’s debut, Visionary Position was a complex multi-layered affair composed in the studio, and gave the band some headaches when trying to work out how on earth they were going to reproduce it all live. In contrast, many of the songs from their follow-up had been performed live long before the band went into the studio to record them. The end result is an album of simpler, more direct songs. The very different musical backgrounds of the five members combine in an alchemical mix which results in far more than the sum of the parts. Elements of hard rock, prog, pop, folk and jazz contribute to a sound that defies easy pigeonholing, with some very thought provoking lyrics from Anne-Marie Helder.
- 1: Breathing Space – Below the Radar
Many people wondered how York’s Breathing Space would be able to follow 2007′s excellent Coming Up for Air, especially after the departure of guitarist Mark Rowen. But Breathing Space’s third album, recorded with Mostly Autumn’s Liam Davidson standing in on guitar, emerged even stronger that it’s predecessor. Without Mark Rowen or saxophonist John Hart they’ve lost the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder-edged rock approach, which mixes hard rock numbers with atmospheric and emotionally moving ballads. Iain Jenning’s production and keyboard playing is superb, and Olivia Sparnenn’s soaring vocals just get better and better. Yes I know I’m probably too close to the band to really be able to judge their music objectively any more, but as I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list.