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.
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.
I’ll start with the odds and ends of 2018. A few EPs were released that deserve mention but aren’t really long enough to be included in the album list. As well, some of the albums that didn’t make the list in the end did provide a great track or two, even if the rest of the album wasn’t up to snuff. And as always, I find stuff during the year that was released the year before, I just wasn’t paying attention at the time.
Gary Numan: The Fallen
An addendum to the spectacular Savage album from 2017, the ep provides 3 additional tracks.
It has been an interesting year for music – lots of good releases, a few disappointing follow-ups from bands I had found earlier, strong entries in genres I did not expect. The best albums of the year examine the human condition and find it wanting, and this year the expression of it has crossed all genres: the thrash-metal anger of Heart Attack and While She Sleeps, the existential philosophy of Alex Reed (Seeming), the bleak vision of Gary Numan, the push-back rage of race and poverty from Ice-T and Ice Cube. A beloved musician – one who is no stranger to lyrics of pain as it is – placing his torn-up heart on view with an album whose intensity of self-examination is almost too personal. It has been a tough and exhilarating year for listening.
This year brings a new Lunatic Soul, always a cause for celebration even if the album itself doesn’t strike quite as hard as previous ones. Once again, a plethora of unknown names with some great releases, and well-established acts who finally caught my interest with worthy efforts. In terms of genres: still some metal, still industrial electronica, some albums on the edge of prog (but no actual prog to speak of), some albums on the edge of pop, and this year a bit of…gangsta rap. Well, as I often say, You Just Never Know.
2017 also heralded the discovery of a band whose (recent, anyway) music has hit me inexplicably hard. They have been around for thirty-five years and I suspect for most of that time I would not have paid them any attention (if I had heard of them) … but their last four albums (new producer, entirely new sound) have just blown my head off. Those albums (and the related side-project by the lead singer) have all been on pretty heavy rotation since early spring, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Every year brings its particular sorting challenge, but this year it is a bit different. The top two spots are not in dispute; the issue here is that these albums tower so far above the rest of the pack I have given them their own slots, and kept 15 albums for the rest. In other words, I have a list of 2 and a list of 15, or I have a list of 17…whatever.
After the first two…well, things get much harder to sort out. Most of the subsequent fifteen albums are almost equivalent in quality; the mix of genres and styles is so wide that blunt comparison may as well be decided by closing my eyes and pointing: how does one fairly compare an album of country-rock by Swedes to gangsta-metal by an experienced Los Angeles media stalwart? Each album brings its strengths, and its weaknesses, and it becomes a matter of deciding which strengths are stronger and which weaknesses are least intrusive to the listening experience. That said, the first six albums in the List of 15 are almost equal in quality. But we will start with Number 17 overall (15) and work our way up. Continue reading Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse Or: The Year of Introspection 2→
The Music of 2017, Part 2 — Honorable mention, and albums 17 to 8.
You can read the introduction to the Music of the Year posts here.
Tune – III
I did not receive this album until the second week of December, which is too late for it to be considered for a spot in the Album of the Year list. But I do want to comment on it.
Tune are a rather odd bunch, a quirky art rock quartet out of Poland; I liked their second album (Identity) from three years back, showcasing clever and accessible pop songs but with a bit of an edge, but still there was something a bit too fey about them.
III is a step in the right direction. It is a very short album, pretty much EP-length, but I have never really been concerned with that sort of thing. It is better to have an album on the short side than one that outstays its welcome. At any rate: the songs here are darker, heavier, much edgier, demonstrating maturity and experience, and less quirk. The production is rich and up-close, showcasing the nice chunky bass sound and guitar – suddenly it is obvious that these guys are pretty damned good musicians. Hopefully this album will bring them a bit more attention – it is worth the listen.
Steven Wilson – To the Bone
Steven Wilson continues down the road well-traveled as he heads closer and closer to pure pop. The last album had its pop moments, but this one Is pretty unapologetic: breakthrough is what he wants, and To the Bone gets him a lot nearer. It is not a bad album but it is a rather boring one, really; Wilson is sticking to the safe route. There are those who excoriate him for his apparent abandonment of the prog that made him so beloved in the first place, but he has always been an International Pop Star at heart. Album review is here.
Necro Deathmort – Overland
Another new album from one of the more prolific of the ambient electronic acts out there. Necro Deathmort never seem to be overt: they don’t promote themselves much, they don’t have a major social media presence, but they never quit and somehow I have amassed quite a collection of their stuff. Overland is smooth and chill and unsettling, as befits the best of their music. The duo appeared on Steven Wilson’s latest album and they have slyly made use of the same colour scheme on Overland.
Eclipse – Monumentum
Eclipse is a hard rock quartet from Sweden, been around for a few years now, and they make pretty decent no-frills rock songs: melodic and heavy and not too long, definitely worth a listen or two. I like the album, and I really like two or three tracks from it. Eclipse joined with Pretty Maids singer Ronnie Atkins to make one of the better hard rock efforts from 2016, Nordic Union. Rumour has it they will do it again in 2018. Thumbs up for that one.
Glass Apple Bonzai – In the Dark
Upbeat synthpop from Toronto, cheerful retrowave about satanism and devil-worship. Well…why not? It is actually a pretty good album. And the guy does have a great voice.
Nathan Gray Collective – Until the Darkness Takes Us
In July, I said this: “At some point in his life, Nathan Gray lost his faith in God and it made him very very angry.” Well, he’s still pretty pissed off, but the album has grown on me a bit. Dark and dense and pretty heavy at times, and Gray certainly sounds like he means what he says.
These guys are a metalcore quartet from Sheffield, been around for a decade or so, and with You are We they have created a pleasingly melodic but face-meltingly heavy collection of tracks well worth checking out. Alternating between screams and clean singing, they have a bit of a Linkin Park vibe, but in a good way.
Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
An outfit that has been around for a while, but I can’t say I have paid them much notice. They do seem to shift styles and genres to a considerable degree, however, and this incarnation has managed to catch my attention. This version of Ulver seems very synth-driven, dense and musical, and they do some interesting things here. Definitely worth a listen.
The Quill – Born From Fire
Stoner blues rock from the southern US, an album about redemption, reclamation, conversion, finding God.
Oh wait – these guys are Swedes.
Well, they do this thing very well indeed. I’ve been putting a lot of mileage on this album, and if I’d started playing it a bit earlier, it might have risen higher than 10. It is certainly engaging, and I like it a lot better than I thought I would.
Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
Everyone needs a little pop in their lives, I think. But make it good pop. Real pop, heavy and fun – like Royal Blood, the British bass-and-drums power duo. These guys are pretentious, popular, and very good at what they do, and I have an unaccountable fondness for them. The album is short and to the point, and they put out so much wattage you would swear they have onstage help – but I have seen them. They don’t.
Mastodon – Emperor of Sand
I never really paid much mind to Mastodon, and at this point in the year I don’t even remember why I listened to the new album. But I did, and I liked it a whole lot, and went to see them live and everything. In the meantime Emperor of Sand continued to grow on me. I don’t know if I will dig into the back catalogue, but I’m happy with this one.
Sometimes an album comes along that reduces you to awed silence – there is so much to say about it that you actually have no idea what to say about it. This album is one of those.
Seeming consists of a couple of academics: Aaron Fuleki, a software and application technologist and designer, and musician (obviously) from Denison University in Ohio, and Dr. Alex Reed, professor of music at Ithaca College. Reed seems to be the main driving force: composer and author and musician and performer and clearly stuffed with so many ideas that he can hardly keep up with himself. Along with the album Sol are accompanying EPs that provide different mixes of the tracks, and some additional background context for the development of the ideas in Sol. Since all of that is too much to take in for one year, I will stick with the main release.
Sol is a masterpiece of dark post-industrial pop-rock, richly lyrical, sweeping and chunky and ironic, and so incandescently intelligent I’m surprised my speakers have not burst into flames. The main theme of the album seems to be about human transformation — it is time for humanity to move on, to change from the creature we are now into something more transcendent, or at least less harmful to the environment, other species, and ourselves. Those are the broad strokes. Every song presents this existential dilemma in a different manner; I could fill this entire review with nothing but quotes from lyrics of the songs, but best you hear them for yourself. As with most philosophy, everyone will have a somewhat different take on what Reed is trying to say here, and a different favourite song that conveys it.
The album relies profoundly on its lyrical content, so vocals take centre stage: Reed has a very good voice, rich and powerful at times if not particularly distinctive, well-employed and well-articulated – a lyric sheet is almost unnecessary. Around those words swirls music that ranges from dense and relentless post-gothic industrial (“Let’s Talk About Bones”) to delicate electronic pop (the poignantly ironic “Citizen”) to beautiful ballads (“Wildwood”), to broad orchestral sweeps of sound (horns included) in “Doomsayer”, and remarkably each track blends seamlessly into the next, despite their differences.
It is hard to pick out one outstanding track – each one possesses a slightly different identity, a unique shift in style, a surprising twist of construction – somehow apt given the theme of the album. However, I gravitate towards “Doomsayer”, the monster opening track that pummels with breathless declaration of obsession, shifts towards delicacy and then pounds one again with an electronic hammer – I recall the first time hearing it, with my jaw hanging open. Between the words and the music, it was all too much to absorb in one sitting.
In the end, the best I can say is: Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual really is an astonishing album and this review doesn’t come near to doing it justice. Simultaneously challenging and accessible, it rewards repeat listening—hell, it demands repeat listening– because between the music and the lyric ideas there is so much going on that it is impossible to take it all in at once. It is sing-along thinking-man’s music for the future of us. If we are lucky.