2009 was one of the best years I can remember in both new music and music that I discovered for the first time. Before reading my countdown of the Top 20 albums of 2009, be sure to check out my “A Brief History of Prog.”
20. Jars of Clay – The Long Fall Back to Earth
I just like these guys; a mix of Coldplay and U2, with great lyrics. And if you’re not aware of Blood:Water Mission, get over there and read about how $1 can give an African one year of clean water. Jars of Clay began this very important ministry, and were featured on the cover of Christianity Today back in November - read about how “Jars of Clay is well on the way to bringing fresh water to 1,000 African communities” here.
19. Eureka – Shackleton’s Voyage
Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctica expedition of 1914 - 1917 is one of the most incredible adventure stories of all time. He intended to cross the Antarctic continent from one coast to the other via the South Pole. However, his ship (ironically called Endurance), was crushed by the ice at a time when there was no chance of contacting the outside world, let alone of being rescued. Shakelton and his men cleverly escaped certain doom with no lives lost. Shackleton was one of the greatest heroes of the 20th Century. Imagine a movie about this voyage, and imagine the soundtrack being done by a Progressive Rock band with shades of Pink Floyd, Tony Banks, and Rick Wakeman. "Shackleton's Voyage" is a 51-minute symphonic, concept-based journey. Most of the songs are instrumental, but there are a few lyrically-driven songs as well, sung by Billy Sherwood (ex-Yes). Also appearing on the album are RPWL’s Yogi Lang playing the moog, and Iona and Nightwish member Troy Donockley playing flute and bagpipes (yes, bagpipes! And it works wonderfully!).
18. Mastodon – Crack the Skye
Progressive Metal has certainly arrived if Mastodon’s new album got to number 11 in the United States. Also, Crack the Skye is on many "top albums of 2009" lists (Paste, Rolling Stone, Spin). Paste’s Michael Saba writes, “Mastodon’s past flirtations with prog have consistently pitched toward the metal side of scrimmage, never fully embracing the melodic pomp of Yes and ELP. Crack The Skye—though still intrinsically a metal album—is rife with unabashed overtures to the symphonic rock of yore.” Yep. It’s evident in the three-part epic “The Czar” and “The Last Baron,” clocking in at 13 minutes. It sounds like Black Sabbath meets Yes, if that makes sense…
17. Within Temptation – Black Symphony
This CD was my introduction to the "Symphonic Metal" of Within Temptation, who combine the aggression of heavy metal with the majesty of Classical music, featuring strong melody and bombastic choruses. Many of the most popular Symphonic Metal bands feature female vocalists (Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, The Gathering, Evenesence, Epica), and Sharon den Adel is one of the best. This is a live performance of their most popular songs, but it is not your run-of-the-mill concert CD. For this show, they employed the 60 piece Metropole Orchestra and the 20 voice Pa'dam Choir to accompany them. The result is extremely impressive. For those who always suspected that there was a thin line between Metal and Classical music, here’s the proof.
16. U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Even after all these years, U2 still creates some of the best rock grooves out there, emotional and heartfelt. The band continues to move forward, not resting on its laurels. Bono’s lyrics still connect deeply, especially to one with a Christian worldview. And he knows that he is a very blessed man, being connected with the great musicians of U2, and getting the opportunity to sing the music that he believes in. As he testifies in "Magnificent": I was born / I was born to sing for you / I didn’t have a choice / But to lift you up / And sing whatever song you wanted me to.
15. RED – Innocence & Instinct
With their second album, RED continues to excel with their mix of hard rock and metal; there’s no “sophomore slump” here! While many hard rock bands are using strings these days, RED does it right – creating moods and tension. Though a “Christian” band, they don’t preach; rather, they dig deep into how God offers grace in the difficulties of life, wearing their anger and longing on their sleeves. On "Confession (What’s Inside My Head)", they sing, I feel fine / And I can smile / But I feel the anger coming / It's underneath / I don't know why / It's always overflowing / It's a constant fight / Deep inside/ And I wanna forget it.
14. Explosions in the Sky – All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007), The Earth Is not a Cold Dead Place (2003)
This is a band that I discovered in 2009, though their last album is two years old. EITS is “Post Rock,” a style of instrumental music using rock instruments to create compositions that are epic and full of texture, at times atmospheric, at other times loud and blasting. Very proggish in that it makes you wonder if this would have been the music that some classical composers would have created if they had an electric guitar, a bass and a drumkit. Instrumental music doesn’t get any better than this. As Rolling Stone magazine reviewer David Fricke wrote, “In this band, a real singer would just get in the way—or get run over.”
13. Dream Theater – Black Clouds & Silver Linings
Sure, Mastodon hit it big (Billboard no. 11) with “Crack the Skye,” but the masters of Prog Metal broke into the top 10 with Black Clouds & Silver Linings (hitting number 6 on the Billboard 200 chart). Not that there’s a competition; I’m glad that prog is finally selling to a larger audience. And Dream Theater is the epitome of the "Prog Metal" genre – every member is a virtuoso at his instrument. I remember seeing them in concert for the first time…I stood there with my mouth open in awe. At one point, after a long and precise instrumental segment, in which each member showed his precision at playing, I turned to my friend Matt and said, “Oh come on! Their just showing off now!!” DT is not just head-bangin’ metal (though they are that!), they also offer very good lyrics. "The Count of Tuscany" (clocking in at just over 19 minutes) tells a story that Edgar Allen Poe could have written (very much like “The Cask of Amontillado"). On "The Shattered Fortress," Mike Portnoy offers the last installment of a twelve-part song (here we have parts 10, 11, and 12; the previous parts were on the last three albums) that allows us to join him in his spiritual journey. I once thought it better / To be right / But now I have finally seen the light / Sometimes you've got to be wrong / And learn from mistakes / I live with serenity now / Not self-righteous hate. If only more metal artists would learn this lesson!
12. Gazpacho – Tick Tock
You eat Gazpacho in the summer; it is a cold refreshing soup made from various fresh ingredients. So this is a great name for this band—a refreshing mix of musical influences, but with a freshness that is all their own. Sure, you can hear some Marillion, Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, and even a little Pink Floyd in there, but it is all finely mixed together into a refreshing dish. This is their sixth album (I really like their previous release as well, “Night”). This concept album is based on the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who, on December 29, 1935, attempted a long distance flight from Paris to Saigon. He crashed in the desert, where he barely survived the trek across the sands. The metaphor of a desert walk lays the foundation for the album. Atmospheric and moody, but it does not get monotonous because of surprises at every turn (the Middle-Eastern guitars and violins in “The Walk (Part I)” are awesome, only to be topped with the Gregorian chant in “Tick Tock (Part I).”
11. IQ – Frequency
IQ got their start way back in 1983. Strongly influenced by Peter Gabriel era Genesis, they offer an up-to-date hard-edged and powerful sound, full of symphonic, textured, and emotional music. Vocalist Peter Nicholls gives IQ its distinctive sound, along with the band's lush keyboards and soaring guitars. In the past, IQ has been a little too derivative of Genesis, acting like they were afraid to get too far from their daddy. But this album, in the spirit of “progressive music,” actually progresses. It takes the symphonic progressive genre further and deeper. There is not a weak cut on the album.
next: 10 through number 1