I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.
Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.
Back in June I lamented the evisceration of the year in terms of music, and since then not much has changed. I just did not have the emotional energy for really investigating new music. My album list is ridiculously thin — it won’t even reach a Top Ten. However, I continued to pay more attention to individual songs, in an effort to reduce the wastage (both of money and storage space) of buying albums I rarely play. Spotify Discovery and Release Radar lists provide a rich mine of suggestions, more than I can rightly get to, and it is possible to purchase individual tracks through Bandcamp and iTunes. Of course the downside is that I end up with fewer albums on the Year End list. If that really is a downside….
So this year I will start with an individual Songs of the Year list, essentially a short-list of songs that I heard and flagged for follow-up, and then decided that I liked them enough to buy them. I used to make playlists constantly on cassette way back in the day, and I recall having some excellent ones. I need to do that more often (not on cassette, of course).
The songs here are either standalone singles, or from albums or EPs that did not make my final Album list. They are sort of ranked…I mean, I like them all, but some I do play more than others. Continue reading The Music of 2020 — The Songs→
I remember the first movie soundtrack that had an impact on me, lingering long after I watched the movie. That soundtrack was Doctor Zhivago, and I was captivated by Maurice Jarre’s dark, orchestral take on old Slavic traditional music (and the pomp of Russian classical). The great choruses and rich folk melodies hit some deep spot in me that must have been there from the beginning. I was too young to understand it in terms of music appreciation, but it was the beginning, and eventually led to an abiding love of folk-rock.
Fast forward many decades….
I discovered Lunatic Soul. That music dug in more deeply than anything had before, finding a Lunatic Soul-shaped space inside me I didn’t even know was empty. The earlier albums (LS I, II, and Impressions) weren’t strictly folk-driven, but did have a rich, vaguely eastern feel that served much the same purpose. With the fourth album, the project shifted to something sparser, electronic, and song-driven rather than atmospheric, but even so, hints of that primal heart sneaked through.
The seventh Lunatic Soul album, Through Shaded Woods, heralds a return to the acoustic folk-themed feel of the first three albums, but it follows a different path. The early albums tended towards ambience with some heavy moments worked in; but this album is pure joyous folk-rock. The eastern Slavic influence gives a weightiness to the the tracks that the music of the early LS albums did not possess. And there is no hesitation — right from the first note the album kicks into high gear, plugging straight into that ancient part of the brain that is connected to rhythm, pulse, and heartbeat. It is impossible for me to sit still while this album plays, and I mean that quite literally.
Lyrically, the album falls in with the story arc of the first two LS albums: death and rebirth, facing the past or losing it, and Duda does dip deliberately into the lyrical past with clear references to LS I and II. However, while the words evoke a yearning search for resolution, the music is for the most part hard, bright, and upbeat, driving the album along. It is an interesting contrast. There are monstrously heavy, distorted bass riffs, chants and shouts, layered acoustic guitar, thudding drumbeats (Mariusz plays everything on this album, including the drums), and of course Duda’s soaring vocals throughout (words and wordless). Not every track is a folk-rock juggernaut, of course, but the overall feel is one of chugging forward motion, right to the end. Which comes rather quickly, the album being a brief 39 minutes long.
Duda aimed (apparently) to have less eastern/oriental influences in this album than the others; however he didn’t completely escape them, as can clearly be heard in the title track. This is a song of the steppes, evocative of both the east and of dark Slavic folk. One can imagine the music the ancient travellers on the Silk Road must have heard as the sun dipped behind the cliffs and the caravanserai hove into view. The vocals are juddering and thickly distorted; spooky music indeed.
The star of this musical show though is the brilliant and compelling “Summoning Dance” — the longest track, and one that at times reaches almost ecstatic heights of pure rhythm and melody. This track demonstrates Duda’s masterful command of the style, and may have the most apt title of any: whoever does not respond to its call probably needs medical attention.
A feature of the later LS (and Riverside) albums has been a “wind-up” song — usually short, simple, and optimistic, even if not necessarily upbeat. While the core of “The Fountain” is a beautiful guitar/vocal/keyboard melody, it is so overpowered by the relentlessly swelling electronic strings and effects that the song itself struggles to survive under the weight of it all. It is distracting at best, and a bit of a disappointing end.
My reaction to this album is on two levels. On one hand, the melodies and rhythms are absolutely compelling, and I love them. They do the heart of this old folky some real good, and I play the record a lot. On an individual basis, these tracks hit me right where it counts.
However, one of my tests for an album is the resonance, so to speak, it leaves behind when it is over. The best albums feel bigger than they are: their effect lingers in the soul, and one does not want to play anything else until those echoes subside. I have to say that Through Shaded Woods doesn’t have that effect. The album, as a whole, feels insubstantial: not as much depth or meat as my favourite Lunatic Soul albums, and I think this is because the songs do not really connect together. There is no song-to-song continuum that carries the story along. This is very different from the three albums TSW is meant to follow. As well, for the first time for any of Duda’s shorter albums, it feels short. When it is over, I have fragments of songs playing in my head, bits of rhythm, but the main reaction is a sense of incompleteness: there should have been something more.
There is a bonus disc, which consists of three tracks including a 27-minute-long epic. “Vyraj” and “Hylophobia” sound like instrumental folk-rock outtakes — not bad songs by any means, and nice and danceable on their own, but it is clear why they didn’t make the main release.
Then there is “Transition II” — and it is hard to find words to describe this one. The closest I can come in the Mariusz Duda canon is probably “Eye of the Soundscape” from the album of the same name, but this is in spirit, not in sound. “Transition II” is a long, contemplative wander through the history of LS, with lots of references to past songs, reworked and linked together in a brilliantly-conceived and executed compendium of ideas that swirl around, lush and atmospheric one moment, spare and almost electronic the next. Impressions of Impressions, fragments of familiar themes, ideas and snippets on the edge of memory… This is the kind of track you need when you need something that is more than just aural wallpaper; an atmospheric soundscape that forms both a sonic backdrop, and rewards close listening. As far as I’m concerned it is right up there with the best of the genre: Tangerine Dream, Fripp and Eno, Bass Communion, early Mike Oldfield.
Apparently, there is one more Lunatic Soul album to come, one that will take its place on the “Life” side of the Circle of Life and Death, and I am very curious about how this album will wind things up. I say that because Through Shaded Woods has an air of finality about it; it very well could work as the last episode. But the plans have been laid out well in advance, and when that eighth album comes, it will spell the end of a remarkable musical journey.
A couple of years ago I gathered up my pile of ticket stubs, most of which I had saved from the beginning of my gig-going career, and began to organize them. The physical stubs are in an ever-expanding catalogue, and dates, bands, and venues are recorded in a document. It’s a long and interesting history, although there is a large gap in the middle, but all that is probably a topic for another post. What is relevant here is the second gap: The Year of No Gigs, the enforced global pause.
I have two shows listed under 2020: The Musical Box in January, and then the Katatonia live stream that happened in May. I decided to list it because I paid for a ticket to watch it, and it was better than many gigs I’ve seen in person, not just by Katatonia themselves, but other bands as well…once you got past the eerie silence at the end of each song.
Everything else has been cancelled, or postponed. There were some shreds of hope in the early days of the lockdown, that maybe by June there would be a return to normalcy or something close to it, but as the weeks went by it became depressingly clear that no such thing was going to happen. Tours were cancelled, postponed gigs were jettisoned, and even the gigs shifted from March to August are looking unlikely. It is probably safe to say that concerts, at least in any meaningful sense, are going to be the last things to return.
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
Back in July, I observed that the music of 2019 consisted largely of music I missed from 2018; and that continued through the rest of the year. However, new music also continued to appear, and most (but not all) of the expected releases finally materialized (exceptions: the new Body Count, and the oft-delayed new Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster, theoretically due early in 2020).
Overall, I find the musical year has been a bit lacking — almost all of the albums range from definitely listenable to very good, but none of them strayed into Great territory. Even the best album of the year has a handful of songs that could have been left off. Out of the 10 in the final list (and a shorter list this year than has been the case lately), I can listen to only 4 others in their entirety without my attention drifting; the rest are either solidly competent without being outstanding in any way, or have some excellent tracks among general indifference. This may be the first year where this has happened.
At any rate, on to the list, from 10 to 1.
10. Queensrÿche: The Verdict
My first Queensrÿche album; I have avoided them largely for the same reason I do not listen to Iron Maiden: I cannot stand operatic metal vocals. However, the tracks are solid, listenable, professional hard rock, the sort of album you can play when something is needed that isn’t quite aural wallpaper but also doesn’t demand a lot of attention. Satisfyingly heavy and melodic.
9. Torche: Admission
If you like it short, no pretensions, sludgy and heavy, these guys deliver. They can certainly settle into a groove when needed, but most of the songs here are brief and to the point.
8. Front Line Assembly: Wake Up the Coma
The return of the Canadian industrial stalwarts, first new material for a few years, and a few guests included. I still don’t think FLA is as good as Noise Unit (another Bill Leeb project) at its best, but they are legends.
7. 3Teeth: Metawar
The third album from the guys on the front lines of industrial metal, presenting their dark vision of the state of the world today. It is a hard, polished album, perhaps less gritty and fierce than their last one (<shutdown.exe>) and honestly I think it suffers for that.
6. Pelican: Nighttime Stories
It’s hard to believe these guys have been around for almost 20 years, but they are indisputably one of the best known instrumental post-metal outfits in the world, and this new album just reaffirms why.
5. The Tea Party: Black River EP
This year marks 30 years of existence (more or less — there was a hiatus for a few years) for this Canadian trio, although they have not been very active lately. A new album in 2014, few shows here and there, a Canadian tour in 2016, but little else. Late in 2018 they played a few gigs (I caught them in Toronto) in support of a new EP called Black River, and this was released at the end of November.
Generally I like songs here and there across their discography but nothing like an entire album, but this EP — six tracks over about 20 minutes — is surprisingly good. Very strong bluesy rock, rather less pretentious than is often the case with Jeff Martin; there really are no weak songs at all. I’m almost tempted to move this EP up a slot in the ratings, but for sentimentality’s sake I will leave it here.
4. Pretty Maids: Undress Your Madness
The fourth album of all new material since 2010, the year of their resurrection; it is safe to say that this past decade has been one of the strongest in their career, which says something considering that career spans damn near 40 years. I discovered them in 2016 with their album Kingmaker, (review here) and it was a revelation.
The Pretty Maids formula remains untouched: intersperse killer hard-rock stompers with monster metal face-melters, toss in the occasional hard rock ballad (which these guys do so well), keep melody to the forefront, and feature the work of Ken Hammer, probably one of the best and most entirely-overlooked guitarists in all of hard rock/metal. Overall, however, I think this album lacks some fundamental grittiness and drive that is present in Pandemonium (2010) and Motherland (2013), and to some extent Kingmaker. It seems a bit smoother, maybe looking back to an earlier era. It starts out with a huge bang, but it is hard for the rest of the album to live up to those three opening tracks. It is a very good album, but not the best they’ve done these past 10 years (that title track, though…!!). One does hope for the best of course, given that Ronnie Atkins was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019.
3. Russian Circles: Blood Year
In the July post, I observed that I had only heard the new Russian Circles once, but it certainly held a lot of promise; I think it is safe to say (seeing where the album landed in the top 10) that it has lived up to that promise. Blood Year consolidates the band’s reputation as maybe the best out there at what they do, uncompromising instrumental post-metal, delivered with all the professionalism and passion the guys are capable of. I’m not about to argue whether it is their best album, but there is very little wrong with it. And the accompanying tour may well be one of the best I’ve seen from them.
2. Klone: Le Grand Voyage
The Frenchmen have surely delivered this year. Back in 2015 they released Here Comes the Sun, which marked a rather new prog-driven sound for them, and gained them a whole new following. Le Grand Voyage continues even farther down that road; they have left most traces of their metal past behind and have thoroughly embraced the lush, orchestral sound of the last album while completely avoiding the self-referential prog tropes that mar the presentations of so many current “prog” outfits. Le Grand Voyage is gloriously melodic, cinematic in scope, with some very immersive tracks (“Yonder”, and “Breach” particularly); alas it is not completely consistent in quality but definitely one of the best albums of the year in any genre.
1. New Model Army: From Here
NMA: another of those outfits that has existed for more than 3 decades, with a solid and dedicated following; this time however I wasn’t completely oblivious to their existence since a good friend happens to be a fan, and had recommended them before this, but somehow the appeal passed me by. But again, Spotify to the rescue: a song from their 2016 album appeared in my recommendations, and playing that led me to try the new album.
Which intrigued me enough to play it again, and then I noticed the lyrics.
At this point (due to space constraints) I’ll just observe that I tend to be fairly critical of lyrics and with few exceptions I don’t spend much time with them. But I am happy to be surprised by the exceptions.
Justin Sullivan is a master lyricist. I am extremely impressed, enormously captivated by his narrative power, his irony, his acute ability to grasp and illustrate relationships with a few well-placed words. The full review of this album will follow, and I could probably just write the whole thing with quotes from the songs. But of course, they are songs, and one cannot neglect the music: the album is almost entirely bass-and-drum driven, with acoustic guitar laid over that foundation. On this spare core are layered plenty of orchestral effects, heavy guitar, lots of density where needed … and entwined throughout are those words, telling us things about ourselves that we often don’t want to think about.
It is not a perfect album; there are a few tracks that could easily have been left off to the overall benefit of the album — they just are not up to the quality of the rest and end up as distractions.
I’ll leave you with “The Weather”. I’ll let you cogitate on it yourself, but if there is any song out there that is a song for our current times, this is it.
When I wrote the March State of the Music, the first few months of 2019 seemed to consist mostly of albums from 2018 that I missed, with most of 2019’s offerings still to come.
At this point, many of those albums have been released, and the discovery of the older stuff continues apace. I’d like to pretty much erase last year’s Albums of 2018 posts and start again, but oh well. It’s what I had at the time, and there are a few keepers in there.
Back in March there were three albums that had early releases: While She Sleeps — SO WHAT?, Queensrÿche — The Verdict, and Front Line Assembly — Wake Up the Coma. You can read those reviews here. It will become clearer as the year moves on how they will stack up against the rest of the offerings, but so far they are managing to hang in.
So: on to what has appeared this year since March, a look forward to the few remaining releases (barring any surprises), and a summary of the old stuff that you should check out if you haven’t already (in a separate post since this one got long). The albums are in no particular order as yet, but it is fairly obvious which ones I like more than others.
Here is a rundown of the the Albums of 2019, which are so far mostly the Albums of 2018 I should have found last year. Well, I suppose better late than never and all that. Interestingly, most of these finds have popped up in my weekly Spotify Discovery list, so I must be tweaking it right. Yes, the platform comes in for a lot of grief from some of my acquaintances for its pathetically low payouts to artists, and if streaming is your primary listening source then you need a good kick in the ass. However, it has done a pretty good job at turning up music that has led me to buy albums. Some of its suggestions are entirely unexpected given that it is an algorithm, and it is nice to have an alternative source of new music, because quite honestly I think I have exhausted the musical possibilities of most of my FB friends; I can often predict whether their recommendations will work or not, and there is not a lot of convergence any more between their tastes and mine, with one or two exceptions.
As well, I will do a quick run-down of the anticipated releases for this year. If even some of these albums live up to the potential of the last ones the bands released, it could be a pretty mighty year for new music.
So … starting with what came out in 2018 that I didn’t find:
Illusion is a post-punk/grunge metal quartet from Gdańsk, Poland, founded in 1992 and with a rather on-again off-again career; Anhedonia came out early in 2018 and is their sixth album. It is a brief album, a shade over 30 minutes long. The songs are short, straight-up grunge rockers, nice and heavy but still quite melodic; these guys get right to the point without too many frills. This is not intellectual music by any means, but I find myself playing the album quite a bit. I have to say, the vocalist is excellent — some serious chops lurk beneath that gritty grunge style.
Author and Punisher: Beastland
When this one turned up in my Spotify Discovery list, I was a bit surprised. I happen to love drone metal, but admittedly I don’t search it out much in Spotify and as far as I know there is none in my playlists. But for some reason, Spotify suggested a little ditty called “The Speaker is Systematically Blown”… and, well, “brutal” is one of the milder descriptors for what came blasting out of my headphones.
Turns out that Author and Punisher is one Tristan Shone, who has been around for a while, a former mechanical engineer who has designed and made his own industrial musical “instruments”; Beastland was released in October of 2018. It is hard to describe exactly what we have here, except to say … imagine what a dozen drill presses might sound like wired up to a vocoder and run through a MIDI controller, turned up to eleven. Which isn’t to say that it is just noise. It’s not: it is industrial metal, and it sounds exactly like it should — a massive wall of rhythm and melody and a LOT of weighty drone. I love it.
The Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.