Rick’s Best of the Decade

I’ve kept a spiral-bound notebook titled “Core Discs: The Honor Roll” since the mid-1990s, when I was deeply into a classical music binge at the height of that genre’s last recording boom. Over the years, as I migrated through jazz (courtesy of the Ken Burns documentary) and country/folk (blame Johnny Cash & Leonard Cohen) back into my earlier love of rock, I find it intriguing that my picks started shifting in tandem with the prog revival of the 21st century, long before I started writing for this site in 2017. But unlike Bryan’s methodology for finalizing his excellent list, when I sat down to pick my ten favorite albums of the last ten years, I looked at my top favorite for each year and said, “yeah, those are all still up there.” Which is why I also decided to just list them by the year of their release (not always the year I first heard them) instead of ranking them from 10 to 1. (Oh, and links to my original reviews are embedded in the artist/album listing from 2017 onward.)

It’s true that, in more recent years, my picks have been busting out of genre boundaries — but, if you’ve been generous enough to sample my wares before, you’ve probably figured that out. And hey, if such a tendency isn’t progressive, then what is? Whether the following list confirms or challenges your preconceptions of “what’s prog”, I fervently believe that every one of these albums is worth checking out — but be warned, your mileage may vary!

So, without further adieu:

2012 – Flying Colors: gotta agree with Time Lord here — this one’s a total winner from start to finish. Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy had captivated me long before this with the first three Transatlantic releases and Morse’s two Testimony albums, but Flying Colors showcased an even broader stylistic range, from the Beatlesque “Fool In My Heart” through the retro-80s prog-pop vibe of “Blue Ocean” and “Kayla” to the cutting-edge Museings of “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” and “All Fall Down”. The album also proved that Morse and Portnoy know how to pick collaborators! Guitarist Steve Morse applied his unique mix of Southern-fried chicken pickin’, fusion a la Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Purpleish power riffs to winning effect (solidly supported by his longtime bassist Dave LaRue), and vocalist Casey McPherson proved he could run with the big boys, stirring fresh melodic and lyrical flavors into every track, including more familiar constructions like the inspirational “The Storm” and the epic finale “Infinite Fire”. This one also gets nostalgia points for being available at Best Buy stores back in the day (remember when you could get CDs there?).

2013 – Big Big Train, English Electric Full Power: OK, I actually didn’t discover this one until 2016, when the BBT bug finally bit me — more on this in a future post. And while I sort of wish I had done so earlier, maybe hearing EEFP on the British trip my wife and I took the year it was released would have been too much of a good thing! Steeped in a love of their native land and affectionate empathy for its people, Greg Spawton and David Longdon doubled down on the longform approach of 2009’s The Underfall Yard to probe forgotten milestones of British history (“The First Rebreather”, the heart-stopping “East Coast Racer”) and portray unforgettable characters (“Uncle Jack”, “Curator of Butterflies”) against a bucolic landscape (“Upton Heath”, “The Permanent Way”), along with the perennial challenges of the heart (“The Lovers”) and the soul (“A Boy in Darkness”, “Judas Unrepentant”). All in a style that recalled original prog touchstones (looking at you, Gabriel-era Genesis) but blended in the dizzying guitar of Dave Gregory and the wicked drum grooves of Nick D’Virgilio to awesome effect. The two separate volumes of English Electric and the Make Some Noise EP certainly have their charms, but in the scope and sequence of this complete package, Spawton, Longdon and company touched on perfection.

2014 – Dave Kerzner, New World: another late arrival in my collection, this is the album that convinced me a genuine prog-rock revival was afoot beyond the continuing efforts of Morse/Portnoy and Steven Wilson. Kerzner’s mastery of cinematic soundscapes was evident from the first Floydian flourish of “Stranded” to the closing upward spiral of “Redemption”; his ability to involve guest stars like Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson, as well as quality players like guitarist Fernando Perdomo and Nick D’Virgilio (him again!), bore impressive results; and his intuitive grasp of pop hooks proved a solid foundation for irresistible shorter songs like “The Lie” and “Nothing”. Stir in longer, brooding tracks “Into the Sun”, “Under Control” and “My Old Friend” (in memory of performer/producer/polymath Kevin Gilbert), and you had a consistently gripping effort. Whether in its single-disc or deluxe double-disc format, New World aimed high and hit every target that a latter-day concept album could — thoroughly immersive, richly compelling and a breakthrough kick-off for Kerzner’s ongoing solo career.

2015 – Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase: speaking of latter-day concept albums . . . Seems like *everyone*, especially the ex-SW fans who think he lost the plot with To The Bone and The Future Bites now cite this as his best effort; me, I remember the online ruckus when “Perfect Life” became the pre-release single. (“IT’S! TOO! POP!” As I’ve said before, if only they had known . . .) But as Bryan mentions in his article, Wilson struck conceptual paydirt with the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent’s lonely death, unearthing both the bleakness and the beauty inherent in a life of urban isolation. His sharp, highly committed writing met its match in the blistering playing of his band: guitarist Guthrie Govan (“Regret #9), keyboardist Adam Holzman (“Home Invasion”) and singer Ninet Tayeb (“Routine”) all have some of their best recorded moments featured here. HCE’s enduring appeal does partially stem from its similarity to Porcupine Tree in their prime — but both Wilson’s musical growth in the intervening years and his return to a humane lyrical vision after the voyeurism of Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning were what made the difference then, and now. The melancholy inherent in the final track “Happy Returns” still feels like we’re mourning a life, lived and lost, for real.

2016 – Marillion, FEAR: that rare example of a band hitting a creative and commercial peak simultaneously. Marillion as a band got even more serious about musical substance here, with lush, detailed sonic backdrops adding depth and resonance to their smash-cut collages. All of which fused seamlessly with Steve Hogarth’s lyrical concerns — for example, the opener “El Dorado” built from self-satisfied, affluent peace to twitchy paranoia, as the lyrics and music stewed in the pressure cooker of an over-connected, unsettled world. The heartfelt road narrative of “The Leavers” made a consummate live epic that captured the special relationship between the band and its fans, while ominous closer “The New Kings” (capped by H’s heartbroken refrain, “Why is nothing ever true?”) still seems way too spooky — and way too relevant six years later. Since its release, FEAR’s success has enabled Marillion to go from strength to strength both live (as I witnessed in 2018) and with their equally powerful follow-up, this year’s superb An Hour Before It’s Dark. Which testifies to its ongoing impact, then and now.

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kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: New Albums

Here are the albums of new music from 2018 that grabbed me on first or second listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for those that achieved Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to the ones I’ve previously reviewed are embedded in the album titles.  But first, a graphic tease …

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Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth

“There are dark parts to life.  We all want to tuck our heads down and cry somewhere.  But there’s a lot that’s really beautiful.  It’s amazing, a blessing, that we have all these influences.  That’s what this album is saying: you don’t have to be overwhelmed.” — Kamasi Washington, quoted in July 2018’s MOJO magazine.

If you take mainstream American media seriously (just once, for fun), Kamasi Washington is the latest Savior Of Jazz.  Leading a vanguard of hot young musicians from South Central Los Angeles, Washington has been everywhere at once since he emerged in 2004, working in the bands Young Jazz Giants and Throttle Elevator Music, playing with R&B/hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg and Flying Lotus, even writing string charts for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

In 2015, Washington unleashed his first solo statement, The Epic, and the jazz world was understandably blown away.  The 3 hour, 3-CD concept album, performed by The West Coast Get Down (Washington’s 13-piece, double-rhythm section band) with strings and choir, channels the “spiritual jazz” of 1960s heroes like John Coltrane and Sun Ra into a fluid, expansive historical survey of black consciousness.  One example of the man’s range and ambition: Disc Three, subtitled The Historic Repetition, whipsaws from Charlie Parker’s “Cherokee” through Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” to Terence Blanchard’s “Theme for Malcolm,” moving from a whisper to a scream, contentment to anguish, simplicity to maximum overdrive with seemingly effortless mastery and power.

Crossing over to a wider public, Kamasi Washington had it all, and everyone wanted him on their side (critic Greg Tate, riffing on Washington’s work with Kendrick Lamar, tagged him as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”).  After The Epic, the floodgates opened: Washington composed a suite for New York’s Whitney Biennial, guested across the modern musical spectrum, and toured worldwide — including a stop in Ann Arbor, where I heard his 8-piece band The Next Step live in 2016. 

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So when you’re on top of the heap, or in the center of the storm, where do you go next?  With Heaven and Earth (only a double album — but hold that thought!) Washington makes a classic move, diving deep into a personal take on African-American spirituality, with new music informed by the gospel tradition and the blues.  As he said to the British magazine Dazed:

The inspiration for that is this idea I had that the world is the way we imagine it to be, but it’s also informed by the way we experience it … The journey, you realise, is one and the same: how you imagine the world affects how you experience it. The world your mind lives in, lives in your mind.

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