Sunday, September 23, 2012

Top Albums of the Year 2000, Part 1: The Masterpieces

Let's begin with a reminder:  I would like my readers to be(come) aware of the amazing music being produced today, recently, in the 21st Century. So, I will begin a series of posts highlighting some of my favorite albums of the 21st Century. Also, later I will be putting up some posts discussing some of the albums that have garnered a lot of attention that I feel are overrated--are not as deserving of praise and recognition as other less commercial, unnoticed or obscure albums. It is this latter group of albums that motivate me to blog; these are the albums I hope my readers might give a listen. So, let's begin. With the year 2000, Y2K.

My Favorite Albums of 2000 
(In some semblance of order)

***Author's note:  Below you will find two different rankings for this year's albums. The first is merely a list consisting of a Top Ten with a following list of "Honorable Mentions." These are my favorite albums of the year, that is, the albums to which I have formed the greatest emotional attachments. The ensuing Reviews are ordered according to my personal, more objective judgment as to their quality, that is, the "best' albums of the year. Here I have tried to order the albums reviewed according to my personal determination as to what are the "best" albums of the year from a more critical, qualitative viewpoint, that is, without as much emotional attachment as "My Favorite" albums.
     On my list of Best Albums of the Year you will find that I have rated three (3) albums masterpieces and three (3) albums as near-masterpieces of progressive rock music. All in all, a decent year in progressive rock music.  

The Rankings
(My Favorites)

1. DOVES Lost Souls
2. IONA Open Sky
3. THE GATHERING If_then_else
4. KBB Lost and Found
5. PORCUPINE TREE Lightbulb Sun
6. COLDPLAY Parachutes
8. CABEZAS DE CERA Cabezas de Cera
9. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
10. THE FLOWER KINGS Space Revolver

Honorable Mentions:
ULVER Peredition City
EVERON Fantasma
TRISTEZA Dream Signals in Full Circles
ECHOLYN Cowboy Poems Free
STEVE & JOHN HACKETT Sketches of Satie
CAFEINE Nouveaux mondes

The Reviews

***** 5 star Masterpieces:

***** Album of the Year for Y2K! *****

1. KBB Lost and Found

Amazing violin and keyboard led instrumental Prog Fusion from Japan that harkens back to the debut album of the 1978 supergroup UK as well as to late 1980s JEAN-LUC PONTY. Bass player, "Dani," drummer Shirou Sugano, keyboard player Toshimitsu Takahashi, and violinist/composer, Akihisa Tsuboy are all incredibly gifted musicians, but what's more, they each have an extraordinary gift for melody and rhythm. Also, a special shout out has to go to bass player, "Dani"--who is also the album's engineer--for his great recording/engineering job.

The album begins with the hard-driving, bass-grooving 1. "Hatenaki Shoudou" (6:24) (9/10)

2. "Catastrophe" (9:31) is an amazing offering of frenzied, multiple layered electric fusion (another mostly hard-driver) in which the band's cohesive play and interplay are put on full display. Parts jaw-dropping, parts are goose-bumpy gorgeous. Incredible song. (10/10)

3. "Antartica" (13:28) has a much more neoclassical, symphonic soundtrack feel to it. At times this sounds like something from traditional Scottish folk melodies, at times like a military march, at others concerto-like, and even some brooding KITARO-like folk. This is a complex and maturely constructed piece that only impresses. It's only shortcoming is in the flow and that it doesn't have quite the melodic draw of the previous two songs. (9/10)

4. "The Desert of Desires" (7:38) opens like a ELP or ASIA tune before establishing an organ based, Bruford-drummed bass display. Soloing electric guitar enters at the one minute mark. Very accomplished 80s EDDIE VAN HALEN-like playing. At 2:17 everything drops away to allow an electric piano to establish a slower tempo in order to display a more emotional, bluesy guitar solo style. Reminds me of WHITESNAKE. The chord and melody work of the last two minutes is the best part. Nice work. Nice piece. I don't connect with the emotion of this electric guitar playing or heavy rock style as much as the fusion violin work of the first two. (8/10)

5. "Another Episode" (8:28) again opens like a familiar VAN HALEN song before displaying its violin-centricity. Some absolutely stunning melodies are quickly established and heart-wrenchingly performed. Even the piano and bass are integral parts of the emotional mix of this song. I like the presence of some more Japanese feeling melodies in this song. Very much like the incredible soundtracks put together for Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki films by composer Joe Hisaishi. Awesome synthesizer solo in the sixth minute! The ensuing "farfisa" organ doesn't fit quite as well but its presence is only brief. The next percussive synth chord section is also a bit out-of-date but it evolves into a piano-based return to the opening melodies (though on electric guitar and synthesizer instead of violin). Still a pretty awesome song! (9/10)

6. "Ness No Kioku" (9:41) opens with a low and then high toned SHANKAR-like solo violin. The melodic style here is also much more akin to Middle Eastern or Indian traditions. Truly awesome musicianship in the rhythmic support of the bass and drums. Probably the best and most exciting song on the album, start to finish. (10/10)

7. "Divine Design" (9:26) opens with perhaps the most engaging three sections of the album. Very JEAN-LUC PONTY and DANIEL KOBIALKA-like. A simpler song construction establishes itself for the first four minutes--though there are at least five shifts in that time. The sixth shift at the 4:45 mark goes straight for the J-L PONTY jugular--much in the same way Jean-Luc did in his faster-placed songs and soli from 1975-84. And great, very tight band support throughout the song, into and with every style and tempo shift. Guitar appearance leads into a return to some of the song's opening themes--layered one over the top of another! Cool song! (10/10)

So professionally done, such high level of musicianship and composition. With the amazing start with the first two songs and the equally amazing final two songs, this one is very close to a masterpiece.

92.85 on the Fish scales = five stars, for sure a masterpiece of progressive rock music.

2. DOVES Lost Souls

Doves are a British alternative rock band from The Midlands (Cheshire, Manchester) whose music has become progressively less alternative and more Indie-pop. A three man band comprised of twins Jez and Andy Goodwin in the rhythm section and singer guitarist/bassist, Jimi Williams. Their studio productions defy the three man concept because of the multiple layers of instruments, samples, sounds, and incidentals worked into and beneath their songs, which, unfortunately, has a crippling effect on their very loud live performances. 

One of my Top 20 All-time Favorite Albums, doves burst into my life like a fresh burst of thunder, making music as I would have wished to make, sounding very much like my brothers and my garage band of the late 80s and early 90s. Side One offers such a stellar run of songs that I barely ever got to know Side Two until years later. "Firesuite" (10/10), "Sea Song" (10/10), "Rise" (10/10), and "Catch the Sun" (10/10) each blew me away when I first heard them and are all still some of my favorite songs from the Naughties.

One of Lost Soul's traits that make me urge for its inclusion into the world of progressive rock is the plethora of absolutely amazing special effects on voices, guitars, keys, drums and production subtleties! I am referring to the band's very creative uses of reverb, flange, chorus, echo, etc. Plus, each song is just filled with sounds and twists that are so reminiscent of the most creative bands I know (e.g. Genesis, King Crimson, The Beatles, David Sylvian). I am quite reminded of NEKTAR's albums of the 1970s because of this and some of the vocal stylings.

Other great songs include: "Here It Comes" (9/10), "Break Me Gently" (9/10), "Lost Souls" (9/10), Melody Calls" (9/10), "The Man Who Told Everything" (9/10); "Zither" (9/10); the PAUL WELLER-ish "Darker" (8/10), and; "The Cedar Room" (8/10). 

91.43 on the Fish scales = five stars: a masterpiece from a (then) new band whose sound crosses over so many prog, pop, Indie, folk, and even pop-jazz boundaries as to defy categorization.

3. IONA Open Sky

IONA is a band from the United Kingdom that uses traditional Celtic instruments to augment and enhance its rock music. Comprised of five musicians who each have virtuoso command of their instruments, they include: Dave Bainbridge on guitars, Joanne Hogg on vocals and keyboards, and Troy Donockley, the master of dozens of traditional Celtic folk instruments, including uillean pipes, low whistles, tin whistle, vocal, acoustic & e-bow guitars, bouzouki, portugese mandola, harmonium, while multi-bass player Phil Barker and drummer and violinist Frank Van Essen form a formidable rhythm section. Since their formation in 1989, the band has used their Celtic roots, poetic lyrics and complex music to help convey a Christian message. Open Sky was Iona's fifth album release.

Iona's Open Sky is one of my favorite albums of the 21st Century. It is one of those collections of songs that I enjoy playing start to finish, though I do have my favorites ("Woven Chord," "Wave After Wave," "Castlerigg," and "Hinba"). Other reviewers have eluded to the fiery guitar soli, the driving drumming, the amazing interplay and interweaving of traditional Celtic instruments, the peaceful, sometimes-ambient lulls, and Joanne Hogg's voice. I am here to reiterate and reaffirm all of it. I will add that the intricate song structures are often unpredictable, usually quite interesting, and always delightful. Take "Castlerigg" (a veritable prog masterpiece, IMHO):

It begins sounding like a traditional Irish song bordering on New Age with flutes and heavenly background keys. The music puts you into an ancient wood, as if you are walking with a group on a hunting or reconnaissance party. Then at 1:20 an ominous drum, tambourine and bass thrum begins as a bagpipe seems to "walk into the song" as if another party--the traveling minstrel or bar--has just walked out from behind a rock escarpment, or from out of a cave, marching right into the majestic mellotron forest glen (sounding a lot like a Kate Bush song from The Dreaming). Then the minstrel stops. All ears turn to the soft 'responsorial' music of an acoustic guitar picker and his violin side-kick laying down the setting for Joanne to begin to whisper some unearthly and ever-so-powerful words of "light" and "memory" and "waves" until the intensity builds with Joanne's wordless keening at the 6:05 mark until an Enya-like pause at the 6:50 mark clears the glen for response of the flutes and bagpipes with a full accompaniment of a driving drums, bass and synths chords, building, building as the drums and cymbols crash and clang to a climax and finale. Masterful song construction, beautifully orchestrating the listeners' mood sways.

1. "Woven Cord" (9:28) is a powerful instrumental; great start to finish. (10/10)

2. "Wave After Wave" (6:15) uses a great complement of instruments to help build around Joanne's powerful voice and catchy melody. (10/10)

3. "Open Sky" (5:39) is a soft, simpler song with wonderful vocals and vocal harmonies. Mostly acoustic. (8/10)

4. "Castlerigg" (9:25) is an amazing song. (See above.) Song of the Year for me. (11/10)

5. "A Million Stars" (3:19) is a beautiful solo violin (accompanied by background synth wash) piece. The melody is quite haunting--very VAUGHAN WILLIAMS-like. (10/10)

6. "Light Reflected" (5:11) begins by showcasing Joanne's extraordinarily sensitve, subtle voice talents. Nice fretless bass, background piano arpeggio melody. Nearing the three-and-a-half minute mark the song threatens to break into full power, more so at the 4:00, then finally does with an awesome electric guitar solo before falling back to the ambient sounds from the beginning. (8/10)

7. "Hinba" (4:57) is another song with an odd Celtic/not-Celtic/World music feel to it. The violin sounds more like that of SHANKAR from Peter Gabriel's Passion Sources. A rather straightforward 'rock' chorus is this song-full-of-subtleties's only 'flaw.' Great instrumentation in last two minutes. (9/10)

Songs 8, 9, & 10 = "Songs of Ascent" (Parts 1, 2, & 3). I used to think that the "Songs of Ascent" suite was weakest part of the album because of their soft, 'going nowhere' feel. Nice sounds, very ambient, just not a lot of development or power; little catchy melody making. More like movie soundtrack music (very pleasant, often beautiful, soundtrack music). But upon years of listens I have come to appreciate the plethora of subtleties and beautiful pacing. 

"Part 1" (7:59) develops like a synth-orchestral BRIAN ENO/SAMUEL BARBER piece before low flute enters in the fourth minute. Full band ushers in Joanne's vocal at 4:15. Nice fretless bass work. Odd whispered vocal mirroring Joanne's lead vocal. Sounds a bit like the Titanic soundtrack music themes. (9/10) 

"Part 2" (9:07) begins with some gorgeous harp, percussion and treated piano work. More and more layers are added with synths, acoustic guitar, and Uillean pipes joining in. All instruments drop out at the three minute mark leaving behind a kind of synthy stream/waterfall sound--not unlike that of the intro to Yes' "Close to the Edge." Percussives and Uillean pipes pepper the background, as if from far away in the woods. Gradually the percussives, pipes and synths start coming closer and closer until by the five minute mark they are up front and center. Then they fade away leaving by the 6:30 mark an empty space which eventually begins to fill with soft synth and the slow playing of a repetitious melody of single piano notes. Eventually pipes, strings and sustained electric guitar notes join in. (9/10)

"Part 3" (4:55) is very folkie with acoustic guitar and bazouki (and later Portuguese mandolin) playing while Joanne weaves some gorgeous wordless vocals throughout. The final two minutes explode into a full band rocking climax. (Check out the electric guitar and Uillean pipes duet/duel!)  (9/10)

11. "Friendship's Door" (7:15) is most interesting for it's reiteration several of the album's previous themes (often in the background, as if listening to review tapes). The song itself is otherwise not very memorable. (7/10) 

Aside from the album's weaknesses, it makes up for it in its unusual and distinctive sound. Truly something worth checking out for every proghead.

90.91 on the Fish scales = a five star masterpiece; one of those albums that I never fail to listen to from start to finish, one of those albums I will always carry with me, one of the best albums to have been released in the 21st Century.

****+ 4.5 star Near Masterpieces:

4. COLDPLAY Parachutes

Coldplay?! Another Indie-pop group/album on the list? This album was such a complete winner, so refreshing in Y2K, and remains such a favorite, again, played start to finish, that it needs to be recognized for its contribution to the pantheon of great albums. For many (including my daughters' generation), it'd be hard to imagine a world without Coldplay. This album, however, remains my favorite of theirs.

My favorite songs include "Shiver" (9/10), "Spies" (10/10), "Sparks" (10/10), "Trouble" (9/10), and my absolute favorite Coldplay song, "High Speed" (4:13) (10/10). Also great are:  "Don't Panic" (2:16) (9/10); "Everything's Not Lost" (7:16) (8/10), and; "Yellow" (4:29) (8/10).

88.0 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music recognized for its whole-album consistency, fresh sound from a (then) new group, and fine use of space and subtlety.

5. PORCUPINE TREE Lightbulb Sun

Herein contains STEVEN WILSON & Company's most consistently interesting, melodic, diverse and engaging song collection (album). These songs are not as heavy as later PT will produce and not quite as Floydian as previous. In my humble opinion, this is the perfect Steven Wilson/PT album. Yes, it's poppy. It's light.  It's full of simplicity and beauty. The obvious replication of the styles and sounds of older musicians is one way in which Wilson excels--above ALL others--and yet, he manages to make everything sound original, modern, his own. I especially like the songs that harken back to the pop-psychedelic sounds of the 60s ("How Is Your Life Today"[7/10], "Four Chords that Made a Million" [8/10], and "The Rest Will Flow"[9/10]), the STEVE HILLAGE-like "Shesmovedon" (7/10), the haunting NEIL YOUNG/CSN&Y-like "Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recylced" (9/10), the bass work, treated piano chords, 'sitar' work, and BLACK SABBATH-like middle section (You go, RICHARD BARBIERI!), and GILMOUR-like guitar work at the end of "Hatesong" (8/10), the RENAISSANCE "Midas Man" 12-string strums, amazing vocals, and Frippertronics of "Where We Would Be" (8/10), the mood setting jazzy electric piano intro, slow, ominous buildup, PF vocal harmonies, strings, delicate jazz guitar and emotional GILMOURian lead guitar work, and amazing synth work of Richard Barbieri, and the heavy bass line and powerful drumming in the heavier instrumental section on "Russia on Ice" (9/10), and the BEATLES-esque strings and ending Enossifications on "Feel so Low" (9/10).

***** 5 stars: "Lightbulb Sun" (5:31), "Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled" (4:48); "The Rest Will Flow," "Where We Would Be," "Russia on Ice".

**** 4 stars: "How Is Your Life Today," "Four Chords that Made a Million," "Shesmovedon," "Hatesong," "Feel So Low."

This is a near masterpiece of beautiful 'psuedo-', proto- and crossover prog. Highly recommended. In my opinion, an essential addition to any music lover's collection. 

87.0 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music.

6. THE GATHERING If_then_else

THE GATHERING is a band from The Netherlands that has been putting out albums since 1992. This, their sixth, and fifth since vocalist-extraordinaire Anneke van Giersbergen joined them. They started out as a "refined" Death Metal band, but the band has been mellowing, adding more space, synths, acoustic instruments and ambient pacing on recent albums--and giving way for the front and center focus on their extraordinary vocalist. 

What a way to open the 21st century! What an album! What unexpected variety! From heavy ("Shot to Pieces" [7/10] and "Colorado Incident" [7/10]) to dreamy ("Herbal Movement" [10/10], "Morphias Waltz" [9/10], and "Pathfinder" [8/10]), loud to subtle soft (often within the same song!)--and so EMOTIONAL! Such beautiful vocals! In my opinion, this is the best of THE GATHERING's contributions to the music world. Superlatives are necessary to describe the likes of "Rollercoaster" (8/10), "Amity" (9/10), "Beautiful War" (8/10), "Analog Park" (10/10), "Saturnine" (9/10) and especially my favorite Gathering song of all-time, "Herbal Movement" ("makes everything hazy"--and gives me the feeling that I, too, had taken the hookah.) I can't say enough about the inclusion of synths, classical acoustic instruments, and alternating heavy-yet-subtle and sublime-yet-heart-wrenching themes within individual songs (like "Rollercoaster," "Beautiful War," and "Saturnine"). I love this album. A prog masterpiece? I think nearly so. There is a lot of experimentation with sound and effects but the overall effort is not one that truly challenges musical form and constructs. Still: Highly Recommended! Anneke's 'breakout' album--that is, the Gathering album on which her voice becomes the lead, the center, the most important talent and instrument on display. 

86.36 on the Fish scales = 4.5 stars. A near-masterpiece of prog and one of my favorite albums of Y2K.

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