This week we are going to take a look at all of our reviewers Top 10 album picks of the year. Please pipe up down in the comments with any that we may have missed or if you don’t agree with any of our picks. Our first is our newest team member, Gary Hill.
As a music journalist these “best of” lists are something that one finds oneself doing year after year. They never seem to get easier. And, I’d bet everyone’s list is likely to change a bit based on the day they write it – in order if not in terms of what’s included and not included, just because our tastes tend to change a little from day to day. Some years I struggle to find enough great material to make a whole list of ten. Other years, like this one, there has been so much great stuff released, that it’s hard to get it down to just ten. Well, this time around, I’ve added a few categories (EPs, live albums, cover album/tribute albums) along with an “honorable mention” list to give the chance to recognize some stuff that doesn’t necessarily make the top ten for my tastes today, but might if it were a different day. Not all of those categories have a full ten items in them. Also, please note that the sequence of this list might change based on the day, but I heartily recommend everything presented here. Also, some of the items in the extra lists would likely have edged out something from the main list, but since I had it represented in one list, I chose to just keep it there rather than give it two entries.
Main Best of 2012 List
Gandalf’s Fist – From a Point of Existence
My list from last year was topped by the Gandalf’s Fist album that preceded this one. With the new release they’ve gotten a little distant from the pure Pink Floyd like sounds of the last album, but it’s an incredible set. I’m still not sure if I like this one better than the last one or not, but I do like it better than anything else released this year.
Abandon Jalopy – Death & Joy
This is the solo project of the bassist for Blind Melon. There are a lot of different styles represented, but overall it’s got a lot of pop rock in the mix. There’s not much to say except that this disc is great.
Mimi Page – Breathe Me In
There’s a lot of electronic sound here, but in a lot of ways it’s quite close to the music of Kate Bush. The vocals certainly have a Kate Bush or Tori Amos element to them. No matter what you call this, though, it’s a great disc that really works very well. I’ll be spinning this for years to come. I’m sure of that.
Dave Fields – Detonation
Take plenty of blues rock and add in some psychedelia and you are close to the sound on this album. Comparisons to Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix are often earned. Even Deep Purple is sometimes a valid reference point. However, you slice it, though, it’s a great disc.
Gazpacho – March of Ghosts
This is likely to make a lot of people’s best of 2012 list. It seems to convey a theme in the way it’s constructed. Musically, it works between a modern progressive rock sound, something closer to Beatles-like pop music and older prog textures. However you see the leanings falling, this is an exceptional disc. It’s also got an incredibly cool, book like, classy package. All in all, this one comes highly recommended.
Tom Maxwell – Somebody
This is quite a strong release. In fact, it would be pretty difficult to find anything to fault here. The music is potent and all the performances are strong. The blend of musical styles presented is classic and yet fresh. It never seems redundant or slows down. This will likely find its way into some “best of 2012” lists. Maxwell is a master at his craft and this album is surely proof of that fact. It has a great flow and serves up plenty of variety and contrast. Yet, nothing is weak by any means. In addition, this is the kind of music that should appeal to a wide range of listeners.
Beyond the Bridge – The Old Man and the Spirit
When I first spun just little bits of this to get a feeling for it, I thought it was a metal album. Surely some progressive rock purists would put it there. It’s far more prog rock than metal, though. It’s also very powerful with extremely innovative and creative musical and vocal arrangements. This is related to epic metal, but it’s far more progressive rock aligned than that suggests. If you like your progressive rock with some crunch, you’ll love this album.
The Charlie Wheeler Band – Line ‘Em Up
Jam band music and killer rock along with other sounds are combined to make an exceptionally accessible, fun and strong two album set. It’s the kind of thing just about anyone will enjoy.
Euler’s Number – Escape to Eurybia
It would seem that progressive rock audiences would be the most obvious fan base for this album. It’s a concept disc with the only vocals appearing as spoken female narrations on the odd numbered track. The music itself seems to move between jazz, electronic and progressive rock stylings. Mike Oldfield would be a valid reference, but different sounds appear throughout. Euler’s Number is essentially one person, Giuliano Vangelista who wrote all the music and provided all the music. The only other performer here is Giorgia Rambelli who provides the vocals. An album like this can be tough to pull off. It might have become tedious and felt redundant, but that was avoided here. In fact, this thing is an amazing work of art that grooves as well and challenges the intellect with new ideas. It’s a fun adventure that’s likely to make a number of “best of” lists.
The Beatenpath – Solace
Sisters Lena Boone and Gwen Beyer come by musical talent through their DNA. Their father is Jerry Yester of The Lovin’ Spoonful. So, it should be no surprise they’ve created a strong album. Just how strong, though, might be unexpected. The music seems to be tied closely to the modern progressive rock of groups like Porcupine Tree, but with female vocals that often beg comparisons to Clannad and Enya. This is a nearly perfect release, and every song shines. It would have been nice to have a song or two with a bit more energy in the tempo department to break a sometimes too similar tempo pattern. Still, when a disc is this strong, that’s only a minor observation.
Voodoo Terror Tribe – Stands to Reason
This EP presents an intriguing sound. It seems to land somewhere in the territory bordered by gothic rock, heavy metal and aggressive newer hard rocking sounds. Perhaps the biggest shocker here is a cool cover of a Journey song. These guys are quite entertaining and cool, and their sound is pretty original. I’d love to hear more from this outfit.
Cerulia – The Wishing Tree, Vol. 2: The Birth of a Titan
It’s a safe bet that prog purists will hate this EP. I still think it fits into progressive rock. Melodic prog is mixed with extreme metal to create something unique and insane in many ways. This is high energy, challenging music that rocks. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you’ve got an interest in music that challenges the senses, you really should check these guys out.
Tiebreaker – Tiebreaker EP
This outfit from Norway have produced a nearly perfect set of tunes. In fact, the only real problem is that more would have certainly been appreciated. It seems that certain parts of the world might be somehow time-locked. Sweden is one such place because a lot of the music that comes from there feels like it could have been created in the 1970s. If this disc is any example, perhaps Norway is also caught in a musical time-warp. Whatever it is, though, these guys just rock. There’s nothing here with which to find fault.
Rie Sinclair – Bee Sides
This is a four song EP that has a lot of Tori Amos influence built into it. Still, it’s more progressive rock oriented than that statement might lead one to think. Sometimes comparisons to Radiohead are warranted here.
Sound Behavior Troupe – Metamorphosis Shaman
This set features two songs, both instrumentals that land sort of in the territory of King Crimson and California Guitar Trio, but there are also elements of jam band sounds and even some surf music.
Bang OK Bang – Chemicals
I’d love to hear more than just four songs from these guys. Their blend of sounds includes lots of stoner metal along with punk and psychedelic and more old-school metal. There’s nothing wholly new or original here, but the sound they have is all their own. It’s also quite strong.
Mars Hollow – Live
I can see why these guys are getting so much attention these days, they are without question one of the most compelling modern progressive rock bands. They deserve all the accolades they are getting and more. This live album is awesome. The group does a great job of merging both modern prog and classic prog sounds. This is definitely the best live album I heard all year. It’s one that probably would have made the main top ten list, displacing something that’s on there, had I not set up a separate section for live albums here.
Duran Duran – A Diamond in the Mind (Live At The MEN Arena, London, England / 2011)
Duran Duran live – really does one need to say much more? This is a great live album and there’s an accompanying DVD/Blu-Ray release for it. If you like Duran Duran, you’ll love this.
Return To Forever – The Mothership Returns
When it comes to fusion, you just don’t get a much more impressive supergroup than Return to Forever. So, when the group gets back together and tours, that’s a big deal. This live album (with bonus DVD) captures that experience for all time. It comes highly recommended to all fans of the group and fans of fusion in general. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Spock’s Beard – The X Tour Live
When Spock’s Beard filmed and recorded this show in 2010, they had no idea the type of significance it would have. Since the show Nick D’Virgilio left the band. That made this the final US appearance for the drummer / singer. In addition, this concert would ultimately be the only US performance of the tour for the X album. These guys played their hearts out and it was a great show. The majority of the set was made up of material from that same X album, but they included a few older numbers, too. I really think the material came to life in the live performance. This double disc set (in the deluxe edition) also includes a killer DVD of the entire concert. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out the Beard live, buy this thing right away. Those who have seen the band will know what it’s all about and don’t need to be told to get this.
Rick Wakeman – In the Nick of Time: Live in 2003:
This live album from Rick Wakeman is a powerful disc. It seems like it might not be a full concert, though. Still, we get a wide range of music here, finding Wakeman in the progressive rock bombast period more than anything else. It’s a great addition to his catalog.
Foreigner – Alive and Rockin’
Foreigner got into some seriously generic and one might say “wimpy” music at some points in their career. It lost them some respect in the minds of many rock fans. That’s a shame because they really have created some great hit songs with a real rocking edge over the years. While Mick Jones is the only original member of the band still in the group, Kelly Hanson’s performance as singer is probably the biggest departure. The thing is, at times it’s hard to believe there has been a change, his vocals sound so close. With only one exception, though, I’d have to say that I prefer Hansen’s vocals over Lou Gramm’s. I know, that might be blasphemous, but it’s the truth. It’s also the truth that no matter how you feel about this lineup, these guys rock and this set is packed with Foreigner hits.
Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe – Live at the NEC October 24th, 1989
I saw Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe on this tour and it was purely magical. The opening section was unusual with solos by each member starting things, but it really worked. It was kind of an interesting way to show that while there were ties to Yes, this wasn’t going to be precisely a Yes show. It’s always seemed a shame that the one live recording that was officially released of this tour featured Jeff Berlin on bass instead of Tony Levin. That’s not to say anything negative about Berlin at all. He is an incredibly talented bass player and did a great job (with very little time to practice the material). It’s just that Levin played on almost all the shows of the tour and wound up in the hospital when the big day arrived for the recording so Berlin had to fill in on bass. So, it’s great that they’ve released this set which features Levin. The original audio recording seems to have a few audio glitches, but there are small and there aren’t that many of them. In addition, there was something weird done with the track sequence here that seems bizarre. It’s even more bizarre in that the correct sequence (the order played in concert) is shown on the label for the set. Those things, though, can’t take away from the fact that this is an excellent concert and great to have on an official release. In addition, this set is packaged nicely (other than the glitch on the cover) in a DVD styled box and includes two audio discs, a DVD (a short documentary styled black and white film) and replica of the original tour programme. All in all, it’s quite a classy set that only has a few minor flaws.
Gary Moore – Blues for Jimi
Basically, this album is a live recording with Gary Moore covering tunes by Jimi Hendrix. For that reason, it could have fit under the “Cover Albums, Tribute Albums” section, too. With Moore’s recent passing, this now becomes a tribute to two lost masters of the guitar. Moore does a great job and Hendrix’ two Jimi Hendrix Experience partners guest on this, too. All in all, this is highly recommended, but some cuts work better than others.
Deep Purple – Total Abandon: Australia ’99
This live album from Deep Purple finds the band in a killer performance. It’s amazing how much jam band seems to be built into this Deep Purple machine. It’s a cool disc that showcases both classic Deep Purple songs and some that were quite new at the time. Sure, this isn’t Blackmore era Deep Purple, but it’s time for people to get beyond that. Steve Morse seriously rocks on this disc and the rest of the band are also on top of the performance game. That makes this one a vital and potent release.
Triumph – Live At Sweden Rock Festival
There were always a lot of sides to the Triumph sound and different aspects seem to dominate during different periods of the group’s history. When this concert was recorded, they were leaning more towards the heavy metal side and it shows in the performance. That’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that the other elements of their sound weren’t presented. It just means that this live recording lands closer to the heavy metal end of the spectrum than a lot of their other stuff does. All in all, this is a solid recording and it even comes with a bonus DVD. That’s what I call “value
Cover Albums/Tribute Albums
Nektar – A Spoonful of Time
The whole “do an album of covers” concept is a popular approach these days. This album is Nektar’s entry – and it’s a great one. They include a lot of progressive rock “royalty” as guests on various tunes and cover a wind range of material. This is so strong, in fact, that while I’m a little hesitant to do such with a disc of covers, this probably would have displaced something on the main list if I hadn’t set up this separate category. It’s that good.. It is a great album, and I highly recommend it.
Various Artists – Songs of the Century: An All-Star Tribute To Supertramp
Who doesn’t like Supertramp, really? This album brings in some progressive rock greats, along with some people from outside the prog world to cover Supertramp. There’s a song at the end that’s not a Supertramp tune, but meant to be song that sounds like it could have come from Supertramp. This is quite a strong set.
The Midtown Men – Sixties Hits
These guys met as part of the original Broadway cast of “Jersey Boys” and decided to from a singing group. They cover a lot of great 1960s music from soulful tunes to things set more in doo-wop style. All in all, it’s a fun set that really rocks. The thing is, I love the disc, and I’m not a huge fan of this type of music.
Various Artists – Who Are You – An All-Star Tribute to the Who
I like The Who quite a bit. I mean, they aren’t one of my favorite bands, but I do really like them. So, I would have liked this album, anyway. But, when you look at the cast of characters here, that gives me another reason to enjoy it. There are members of some of my all time favorite bands playing here. And some of the combinations are amazing. It all adds up to an enjoyable release that brings new angles to familiar Who songs.
Tangerine Dream – Under Cover
The concept of bands doing albums of covers seems to be a trend that’s gotten popular in the last decade. In fact, a disc from Nektar came out at about the same time (and is referenced earlier in this list) and featured covers. While that one included a lot of guests, this one is just the band by themselves. I know some people don’t like this kind of concept. Personally, I do. I’d have to say that this is quite a strong release and I like it quite a bit.
Various Artists – Re-Machined: A Tribute to Deep Purple’s Machine Head
I’m a big fan of Deep Purple, particularly the classic stuff. So, I was really looking forward to this disc. I’ll say that, for the most part I was satisfied with the results. This isn’t a perfect set, but it’s got a lot of great music here. Getting to check out variants of such classic music is a cool experience.
Rush – Clockwork Angels
This album isn’t the best Rush album, but it is the best Rush album in a very long time. It has, in some ways, a return to the sounds of 1970s Rush. It’s a very strong disc that might not land in the top ten, but surely deserves a mention.
The 71s – We Are The 71s
It’s hard to pin down the sound on this album, but it has a lot of jam band sound along with power pop and smoking hot guitar riffing. Acts as diverse as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin and Cheap Trick seem to be influences at various points on the disc.
These next three are a special case. I would have put all three of them into my ten best of the year list, I think. The problem is, I was in charge of the PR campaigns for all three, so that means I’ve got a conflict of interest/bias. So, I’m not about to include them there. That said, it seems unfair to skip them entirely, when I feel they belong in the list, just because of my ties to the releases. So, I’m including them separately at the end here – that way you can take the recommendation with the disclaimer.
Clark Colborn – Again
Clark Colborn is an amazing guitarist and this release (mostly instrumental, but there are a few songs with vocals) showcases his guitar talent, but that’s not all. This doesn’t fit as a “shred first, ask questions later” type of album. Indeed, the song is king here. And, the musical style ranges from progressive rock to classic rock to pop rock and even leans on nu-metal at times. If you like killer guitar work, this comes highly recommended.
Corvus Stone – Corvus Stone
Combining classic progressive rock with modern sounds is a pretty good description of this extensive release, but that referencing isn’t complete. Most of the music here is instrumental, but there are a few songs with vocals. One thing that’s clear from the song titles, these guys have a sense of humor and it does show up in the music itself, too. Listen for some nods to classic rock music in some of the arrangements.
Six Elements – If
Featuring vocals from Stanley Whitaker of Happy the Man fame, this album is very much a symphonic progressive rock album, in the style that was so popular in the day. It does have more of a focus on concise story-telling type songs than virtuoso instrumental sections. That means it’s more accessible than a lot of other similar progressive rock. This is thinking man’s prog, too, particularly when it comes to the lyrics.