As we here at Progarchy continue to celebrate our tenth anniversary, we’re moving from talking about our favorite artists of the decade to our favorite albums. Since 2014 I’ve compiled a “best of” list highlighting my favorite music of the year. Looking back, I still stand behind my lists because they represent where I was with music at the time. But now as I look back and try to compile a top ten for 2012-2022, my list looks a little bit different. The following list reflects my views and tastes regarding the last ten years as they sit right now. It’s all very fluid and subjective.
But enough blathering. On with my top ten. The only limit I put on myself was I didn’t want to repeat artists, because otherwise it would all be Big Big Train or Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy. Limiting myself to one album from each of those artists was difficult, but I’ll steer you back to my yearly best of lists at the end of the article, for those artists abound in those lists.
[Headline links, for those that have them, link to Progarchy reviews, articles, or interviews associated with the album.]
10. Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light Of Day (2017)I missed this album when it came out, although I remember reading about it in Prog magazine. I came to appreciate Pain of Salvation with their 2020 album, Panther, which was my top album of the year. I finally started to dig into their back catalog this summer, and I’ve been blown away. In The Passing Light Of Day is a brilliant tour-de-force of emotions. Some of the lyrics I think are too sexually explicit, which is primarily why I rank it at number 10 and why I almost kicked it off my top ten. But the music and melodies are so good, and most of the lyrics are incredibly profound. I also think Ragnar Zolberg brought a lot to the table and was a great balance to Daniel Gildenlöw.
9. The Neal Morse Band – Innocence and Danger (2021)
It was hard to pick one of the MANY albums made by Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy over the past decade. They’re all just so good, so I took the easy way out and picked the most recent. I think this is the most well put-together of all the Neal Morse Band albums. “Beyond the Years” is one of the finest pieces of music to come out of the last several years.
8. TesseracT – Portals (2021)
Portals is a brilliant album. It is unique on this list for being a live release, but it is also unique for being a live-in-studio release – a product of the pandemic. I suppose that’s why I don’t rank it higher on this list, but I’ve been listening to it a ton since it came out. I even broke down recently and bought the fancy deluxe CD/DVD/Blu-ray edition. I think most of the tracks on here sound better than they do on the original albums. The album also introduced me to the band, as well as to the world of djent. The way the band blends djent riffs with Floydian spacey motifs is just perfect. One of the finest bands in the world right now.
7. Haken – The Mountain (2013)
I go in spurts when listening to Haken (like I do with many bands). The Mountain has a magnificent blend of metal with splashes of 70s golden age prog. Songs like “Atlas Stone,” “The Cockroach King,” “Falling Back to Earth,” and “Pareidolia” have become prog metal classics, in my book. I’ve come to think Haken isn’t as compelling in their quiet tracks as bands like Riverside of TesseracT, but this entire album is still very listenable nine years later.
6. Marillion – F.E.A.R. (2016)
Marillion’s F.E.A.R. was my introduction to the band, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed diving back into their catalog. I’d have to say I think this is one of their best with Hogarth. Their latest album, “An Hour Before It’s Dark,” comes very close to it, but “Reprogram the Gene” knocks it down a peg for me. F.E.A.R. combines musical prowess with cultural critique to wonderful effect, even if I may disagree with Hogarth at points.
5. Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves (2013)
I had a hard time deciding which of Riverside’s three studio albums from the past decade to choose. Love, Fear and the Time Machine and Wasteland are both brilliant, and if I had allowed myself to choose multiple albums from the same artist in a top ten, Wasteland would probably be here too, but I think Shrine edges both of them out. It’s heavy, both musically and lyrically. Several of the songs turn into real earworms for me, and I’m never disappointed when I return to this record. And it’s another one on this list that I discovered several years after its release.
4. Oak – False Memory Archive (2018)
Oak is my favorite new band of the last decade. Both their 2013 (2016 release on CD) album Lighthouse and 2018’s False Memory Archive are brilliant albums, if not perfect. This record was my top album of 2018, and Lighthouse was my top album of 2016 (I didn’t realize at the time it had been released digitally earlier). The Norwegian melancholic aesthetic is dripping from both albums. It was hard to pick one of the two, but the closing track on False Memory Archive, “Psalm 51,” is one of the finest album closers I’ve ever heard. I think that gives this record the edge.
3. Devin Townsend – Empath (2019)
I was blown away by Devin Townsend’s Empath when it came out – so much so that I bought the 2CD deluxe version that year and the super deluxe version when Inside Out funded that project the next year. The record masterfully blends all the aspects of Devin’s career into a truly unique and truly Devin experience. It has the heavy bombast of Strapping Young Lad at points, yet it’ll soar into orchestral and even operatic highs elsewhere – or even at the same time. Pure musical theater in the best way. Devin’s vocal performance on “Why?” is stunning, and the message of hope on “Spirits Will Collide” is always a pleasant reminder that life is worth living. The production side of things, with Devin’s famed “wall of sound,” is unmatched in his career, or anyone else’s for that matter.
Here we come to one of the truly great albums of our time. I would certainly rank this in a top 10 best albums of all time. Back in 2015, this album was my number 3 pick, with The Tangent’s “A Spark in the Aether” coming in at number 1. Now I still think that’s a great record, and I wrestled with whether or not to include it in my top 10, but I think over time Wilson’s masterpiece has proven to be a generational album. Both the music and the story sound fresh, even seven years and many listens later. The themes of isolation and loneliness in city life (or life in general) will always be relatable. Someone 100 years from now could listen to this record, and while they may miss some of the references (even I still miss some of them), the underlying theme will still connect. That’s what places this record up there with the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
1. Big Big Train – English Electric: Full Power (2013)
The defining band and defining album for the last decade of prog. Looking back, this record was the one that got me into the contemporary progressive rock scene. Returning to it today is a special treat, as I hope it always will be. It contains everything you might want out of a quintessentially “English” progressive rock band. It has the rock, the folk elements, the complex musicality, the well-told stories. And then there’s David Longdon’s voice, showing us his command of the material and his command of the upcoming several years in the prog scene. When I traveled to England in 2015 (which to me felt like a longer distance between its release than it feels between now and that visit – it’s weird how your perception of time changes as you grow older) I really wanted to listen to this album while being out in the hedgerows and fields. I can still remember sitting on a bus traveling between towns listening to English Electric (I wrote more about this in a piece back in 2016). There are a lot of good emotions connected to this record for me. But beyond that, Big Big Train showed us all that they were THE powerhouse in the new generation of prog bands. They were who all the younger bands were going to look up to for the next decade, and they did it all themselves. Sure, the journey began when Longdon boarded back in 2009 for The Underfall Yard, but English Electric was where they really picked up steam. Every album since has been magnificent, with many topping my best of lists in the ensuing years, but this one will always be the quintessential Big Big Train album for me.
As a coda to this review of the past decade in the best of prog, I want to give you the albums I picked as my favorites for the years 2014-2021 (I didn’t start my best of lists until ’14). I’ll include links to those lists as well. I find it interesting how I’ve “discovered” albums and bands even within the last year that have soared up my list, even if I missed them when they came out. Better late than never.
- 2014 – Flying Colors – Second Nature – I saw them live right after this was released. It’s a great record and a great band, but the poppier edge doesn’t stick with me as much as the records on my list above do.
- 2015 – The Tangent – A Spark in the Aether – I shared above how Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. has grown in my estimation. I still think this is one of The Tangent’s finest records.
- 2016 – Oak – Lighthouse – Even if its original release was 2013, this record still dominated my listening in 2016 and was my album of that year.
- 2017 – Big Big Train – Grimspound, The Second Brightest Star, London Song, Merry Christmas EP – Enough said. Brilliant band. Brilliant music. Brilliant year for them.
- 2018 – Oak – False Memory Archive
- 2019 – Devin Townsend – Empath
- 2020 – Pain of Salvation – Panther – I still think this is a great album. I listened to it yesterday at work, in fact. It was my intro to the band, and maybe I was shocked by how different it was from everything else I had been listened to in the genre. I’d still rank this record extremely highly, but I don’t know if I would put it at the top of the list if I were making a 2020 list today.
- 2021 – Big Big Train – Common Ground – What can I say? I like Big Big Train.
Thanks for reading through all this. If you’ve been a prog fan throughout this past decade, I hope this brought back some good memories. If you’re new to prog, consider every album mentioned in this post as your homework over the coming weeks. Prepare to be blown away.
Here’s to hoping the next decade is even better.