Pick O' The Year (2013)

In previous years, I've divided the list into two categories; "New CDs" (that would be anything with a 2013 publishing date) and "Back Catalogue & Reissues" (which may or may not include compilations). This year, I've decided not to do that. It's becoming increasingly difficult to think that way, considering the kind of music I tend to buy and the way it is delivered now. Can I still say "New CDs" when I've purchased quite a few of them in digital download form? Previously unreleased archive recordings get issued as new releases. Some may finally be released as 'new' albums but have been the result of years, even decades of on/off work. Do newly released 'official bootleg' recordings count as 'new' albums? Anthologies? Film soundtracks which include old songs? It's a right old pickle, I can tell you. But here's the top three, without a shadow of a doubt...

Steven Wilson - "The Raven That Refused To Sing and Other Stories" (KScope)
Sorry, sorry, deepest apologies to everyone else out there in Musicland, I know it's not fair... but it's almost inevitable now. If Steven Wilson brings out a new record, then it heads straight for my own "Album of the Year" slot, no questions asked. I wouldn't actually say he can do no wrong, but his records (under whatever band name) always ooze pure class. He's disbanded all his other combos for now, and is going out under his own name... but this is still very much a band album. Having assembled a stellar cast to do his bidding, the material they have been given to learn is almost entirely played live in the studio. And played bloody well. Steven Wilson possesses the best ears in the business. His own demos are better than many people's proper records and he's still the go-to guy for remastering classic seventies prog for the audiophile market - this year he's also done Yes' "Close To The Edge" and Hawkwind's "Warrior On The Edge Of Time" and had another crack at King Crimson's "Red" for both vinyl and an expensive box set. So you just know that anything that comes out of that studio is at least going to sound lovely at the end of the day. Especially when the legendary Alan Parsons is there at his side as engineer and the original Crimson Mellotron makes a guest appearance. And if that's not enough he also gets my "Best Gig Of The Year" (at the Royal Festival Hall) and "Best Multimedia Package" (the "Drive On" CD/DVD EP or whatever you call it) awards.

The Vicar - "The Vicar Songbook #1" (DGM Panegyric)
Now this is exactly what I was talking about. Here is a 'new' album with a 2013 publishing date... but those of us who have been following the progress of the mysterious Vicar will be aware that many of these songs are a decade or more in the making, some having already emerged as demos and free "Hot Tickle" downloads from the DGM website. So I already knew that the album would be full of cracking tunes and exquisite arrangements, with echoes of "Odessey & Oracle", the studio work of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, early 10cc, a touch of Sufjan Stevens and, of course, lashings and lashings of very English prog. But nothing prepared me for what tickled my ears the first time I put on the LPCM Stereo 2.0 DVD. The long wait has certainly been worth it, because they've clearly put a lot of work into getting it right this time! I don't have a clue what all the comic book stuff and Punk Sanderson's video blogs are supposed to be about, but I know I like the music in its own right. Who is The Vicar? Well, everyone has their theories. Many of them are wrong. Suffice it to say, he makes exquisite pastoral pop music which will particularly appeal to people who hate drums and cymbals.

Matt Berry - "Kill The Wolf" (Acid Jazz)
This is the follow-up to the wonderful "Witchazel", my Album of The Year in these very pages for 2011. If you took any notice of my raving and bought that album on the back of it, then you won't be disappointed with the sequel. This is a similar blend of sunshine pop, prog-rock and psychedelic folk, mostly played and multitracked Oldfield-style by the man himself. It's all very organic and analogue-sounding, performed almost entirely on real vintage instruments and is quite quite delightful. Fans of the Isle of Wight's own "The Bees" will also find much to enjoy here. You might recognise some of the tunes if you've watched Matt's quirky sitcom "Toast Of London", although there he substitutes different words to suit the episodes.

The Rest
As is customary, there has been an endless stream of King Crimson-related material purchased as downloads this year. Best of the bunch have been the latest from Stick Men, "Deep" and the series of "Official Bootlegs" documenting The Crimson ProjeKCt's three-night stint at Tokyo's Club Citta'... Hugh Laurie's "Didn't It Rain" carries on where the award-bestrewn "Let Them Talk" left off, featuring a further selection of New Orleans jazz and blues oldies given a respectful airing by the sickeningly talented Mr Laurie and his band of fellow enthusiasts... Topping the Guilty Pleasures list this year are the (so-far) two volumes of original soundtrack material from the compellingly bitchy TV saga "Nashville" (a sort of Dallas with Telecasters, or a Twang Dynasty, if you prefer). The music rises above the rest of the run-of-the-mill soundtrack compilation fodder by virtue of having the great T-Bone Burnett as executive producer. Therefore 'It's Country, Slim, But Not As We Know It', an entirely different kind of 'fusion' from the one I've been listening to for the last forty years! While still having one foot in the puddle of 'tradition', this music shares the same reverb-drenched spooky atmosphere of Robert Plant's recent countrified (country fried?) collaborations or the best of Daniel Lanois' work with the likes of Emmylou Harris.


It is most telling that my three favourite albums of the last twelvemonth all sound like they could have been released some time before 1976.

It is probably true to say that my musical tastes were fully established, if not carved in stone, way before punk's so-called "Year Zero" rolled around. 'Progressive' rock and all its funny little sub-genres; 'modern' jazz with the emphasis on the improvised; 20th century 'classical' composition. These were the things that rocked my world, then and now. Admittedly, some of the 'clever' music I listened to during The Golden Age of Prog did indeed turn out to be self-indulgent bollocks. I won't name names, although several spring to mind immediately. Some of them I would even have counted as 'favourites' at some time or another. But even the least listenable of them had an element of "At least they're having a go!" or "How the hell do they remember it all?".You could at least be impressed by what you heard, even if you didn't always actually like it. It was real music.

Now and again I might come into contact with the 'mainstream' (i.e. the kind of music that everyone else listens to), but rarely do I hear anything built to last. Pop is fickle. It's surely not intended to last past next Thursday. Trends may have come and movements may have gone, but how much of it has stood the test of time as MUSIC?

Let's be honest.

In the late seventies, I was a student in my late teens. I gained some considerable enjoyment from a lot of the 'punk' 'music' of the day. But it was just a laugh. A bit of rumbustious, good time, rock & roll nonsense for the purpose of leaping about the room at parties. Surely it wasn't for listening to?

'Round 'bout this time there was also some pretty fine dance music about. This was the height of my 'clubbing' days. I would bop the nights away to some top hole jazz-funk and dancehall reggae (remember this was several years before all 'dance' music became mechanized and purely functional). But sit down and listen to it? Are you serious?

When 'post-whatever' rock did get all serious again in the early eighties, it rarely succeeded. I've occasionally paid a return visit to the kind of post-punk experimentalism I was 'REALLY INTO, MAN' at the turn of the eighties. Little of it has dated well. Much of it is unmusical, amateurish rubbish. What was I thinking?

For me, the music that still has LASTING VALUE over the decades tends to be the stuff that I wouldn't personally be able to create, not in a million years, no siree bob. Excuse my flimsy attempts at self-deprecation, but anything that triggers a reaction of "hmm, I could easily have done that myself" can't possibly be any good, can it? Surely your musical heroes are supposed to be better at it than you are?

Invariably then, when I sit down and think about what I've purchased and listened to over the previous year, I will usually consider whether I think I will still be listening to it in another year or more*. This music defies trends and contemporary hype, stands on its own terms, without pandering to the mainstream. But with some cracking tunes thrown in...

(*One of these days, I will see if I can find any of my "Pick O' The Year" lists from the eighties and nineties. I'm sure they're in a box somewhere. Then I'll probably find that my premise has been completely blown out of the water! Ho hum...)

STOP PRESS... Late entry alert! The Burning Shed fairies have just been, and left on my doormat both KScope CDs by the progtastic, 'somewhere-west-of-Canterbury'-styled jazz-rock collective HENRY FOOL (one is the latest album from 2013, "Men Singing", and the other is the freshly reissued debut album from 2001). It's another feather in the cap of TIM BOWNESS, he of No-Man and Judy Dyble fame. That STEVEN WILSON makes an appearance in the credits too, along with a cast of several. Both albums would certainly fit my stated remit, sounding like they could have been made 'back in moy day': more vintage keyboards than a Rick Wakeman garage sale, including mellifluous Mellotrons and Fender Rhodes (tremolo and vibrato and a-flanging-oh, alive alive oh!); pastoral flute and sax cadenzas, straight out of the Book of Jimmy Hastings; filthy-sounding guitars, some of which are provided by the very wonderful PHIL MANZANERA himself, channeling the spirit of Quiet Suns past. Bloody marvellous!