Top Ten Progressive Rock Albums of the Year
10. Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, by Steve Hackett
This is the 22nd Hackett solo album for the former guitarist for Genesis (he was with them during their artistic progressive rock era, 1971-77). A legendary guitarist who has influenced guitarists for years (think Steve Rothery of Marillion, Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings, and Nick Barrett of Pendragon), this is the second best album he has ever made (after “Watcher of the Skies,” which was a revisioning of old Genesis classics). With this album, Hackett offers an eclectic sound experience. Download the proggy “Fire on the Moon” (a song that sounds like it could have been on “A Trick of the Tail” by Genesis), or the middle-eastern flavored “Last Train to Istanbul,” or even “Nomads” with its Flamenco guitar styling which then ends with the classic Hackett soaring electric guitar, or the truly dreamy “Sleepers.”
9. The Underfall Yard, by Big Big Train
With this album, Big Big Train (Gregory Spawton, Andy Poole, David Longdon, and Nick D’Virgilio) continue to impress with a sophisticated symphonic progressive sound, similar to old-school Genesis and Yes. The new singer, Langdon, was a finalist to replace Phil Collins in Genesis ten years ago, and you can tell why: he sings very well, and reminds us of the Peter Gabriel / Phil Collins style. Drums are handled by our old friend D’Virgilio, singer/drummer for Spock’s Beard. Download the emotional “Victorian Brickyard” or “Last Train” (which reminds me of something I could have heard on “Selling England by the Pound” by Genesis).
8. Scratch My Back, by Peter Gabriel
Leave it to Peter Gabriel to try something totally different. With Scratch My Back, he performs covers of some of his favorite songs by other artists. Only there’s a catch: No guitars, no electric bass, and no drums. Just Gabriel's vocals accompanied by strings, woodwinds, brass and piano. This “limitation” inspired Gabriel and John Metcalfe to arrange the songs in innovative ways. Download his rendition of “Listening Wind” (originally recorded by The Talking Heads) or “Mirrorball” (originally done by Elbow).
7. Grappling Hooks, by North Atlantic Oscillation
Here’s a different sounding band, and they’ve created a very modern and accessible album with catchy melodies, yet with adventurously quirky sounds and rhythms. For anyone with interest in Radiohead, Elbow, or E.L.O., try them out by downloading “Some Blue Hive” and “Alexanderplatz.”
6. Size Matters, by Marillion
This 2CD live album is available exclusively from the Marillion website through their personal label, Racket Records. Recorded at the Marillion Weekend Festival in Holland in 2009, the band decided to do a set of all their longer songs (the 10 songs clock in from 9 to 17 minutes), including the Fish-era “Kayleigh/ Lavender/ Heart Of Lothian,” to the excellent “Neverland” from Hogarth-era Marbles.
5. Someone Here is Missing, by The Pineapple Thief
For those that yearn for the musical style of early Radiohead (OK Computer, The Bends, Kid A) featuring accessible melodies and rhythms yet innovative sounds, textures, and transitions, then the new album from The Pineapple Thief is right up your alley. It also is in the same vein as Muse and Porcupine Tree, with plenty of progressive rock influences throughout. Download some excellent tracks like “3000 Days” and “Nothing at Best.”
4. X, by Spock’s Beard
Has it really been 10 albums for the venerable leaders of the new Progressive Rock genre? Amazing. It seems like only yesterday that I first discovered this band and was re-invigorated in my passion for Prog Rock. Spock’s Beard has carried the banner of symphonic prog forward into the new millennium, following the tradition of bands like Genesis, Yes, Kansas, Gentle Giant, and Jethro Tull. Of course, the last four albums have been in the “After Neal Morse” era, the founding member and artistic driving force behind some of the finest music made in the last fifteen years. But when Neal Morse left the band for a solo career, they courageously struck out on their own (brother Alan Morse on guitar, Nick D’Virgilio on drums and vocals, Dave Meros on bass, and Ryo Okumoto on keyboards). With X, they show that they have indeed matured into song composers of their own, with the prime examples being “From the Darkness” and “Jaws of Heaven” – both around 17 minutes with four accessible movements featuring incredible melodies and amazing playing. These two longer songs are available for download at amazon.com, but not through iTunes.
3. Victims of the Modern Age, by Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s Star One
Star One is one of the many projects from the incredibly talented Arjen Lucassen, who is also the mastermind behind Ayreon (and other side projects including Guilt Machine, Ambeon, and Stream of Passion). Lucassen’s modus operandi is to write and create music journeys and then employ the best instrumentalists to play and various vocalists to sing the roles of the people in the songs. Star One’s “niche” is Progressive Metal coupled with science fiction themes; all the songs on the two Star One albums are all based on science fiction films. Check out “Earth That Was” (based on one of my favorite television shows, “Firefly”) and “24 Hours” (based on the cult classic film “Escape from New York”).
2. Night is the New Day, by Katatonia
Speaking of Arjen Lucassen, it was on his last Ayreon album, “01011001” that I was first introduced to the incredibly haunting vocals of Jonas Renkse (Lucassen, remember, recruits the best vocalists for his projects). Renkse’s voice is full of yearning, melancholy, and expression - like no other I’ve ever heard. Renkse’s band, Katatonia, had established themselves earlier in their career as a leader in the “Doom Metal” genre (which features harsh sections mixed with calm sections along with lyrics and vocals characterized by despondency). Hints of that past are apparent in this album, but this album is much more melodic and textured. This album is more in the vein of Porcupine Tree and the melodic side of Opeth. It is quite clear that these are artists that understand musical composition. Have a listen to “Liberation” and “Forsaker.”
1. Wintercoast, by Touchstone
Touchstone creates the perfect blend of symphonic melodies and soundscapes with the edginess of aggressive guitars and drums. Rob Cottingham wins best new musical composer, hands-down. Cottingham plays keyboards and sings lead and backing vocals, but he has wisely placed Kim Seviour at the front of the band as the key vocalist. She provides the melodic vocals that make these songs resonate with the listener long after the iPod is turned off. I am very glad to have discovered Touchstone, and Wintercoast is one of the best albums in my music collection. Download the title track (“Wintercoast”), “Zinomorph,” and “Joker in the Pack.”
next: THE TOP 25 ALBUMS OF THE DECADE