1 The Gathering Light by Karnataka
Karnataka’s long-awaited fourth album marked a new beginning for the band. Founder member Ian Jones had the unenviable task of rebuilding the much-feted band almost from the ground up, but with new collaborators Lisa Fury (vocals), Gonzalo Carrera (keyboards) and Enrico Pinna (guitars) he put together a remarkable record that spoke volumes about the travails of the period of time over which it was made. The Gathering Light is loosely themed around the ideas of loss, isolation and separation; from the emotional highs and lows of the instrumental State Of Grace, reflective of the joys and hardships of reconstructing the band and of Jones’ creative life, to the baleful stamp of Your World, the redemptive beauty of Moment In Time and the staggering emotional payload of Forsaken, the album takes you on a genuinely involving emotional journey that ends in the catharsis of the title track, where the shackles of the past are thrown off in dramatic style and you are launched into the unknown future with hope and determination, the title track reassuring us that “We all do the same / Hold onto the pain / But scatter the past and move on / Look to the smiles and not of the trials we had / Be free and move on / Into the gathering light.” It’s a hugely significant and powerful song – and album – for me; musically, but also personally.
The Gathering Light is one of those records that’s become a mission statement for me as much as a powerful collection of music; a Desert Island Disc, the sort of record that turns me into the kind of person that actively sits people down with this band’s music and wants them to hear it the same way I do. The sort of record that made me want to do this Top 25 project in the first place. If you’re familiar with it, you probably know what I mean. If you’re not, give it a listen – you may be surprised.
2 We’re Here Because We’re Here by Anathema
I was slow to appreciate Anathema, I admit it. I never warmed to their earlier output, and whilst I liked some of their mid-period material, I was never sold on them as a band. It was only when this album appeared that I began paying proper attention. It was quite an introduction, though: we were sitting in a friend’s garden on a warm summer evening, drinking beers and watching the sun slide below the horizon, and he had put a record on about ten minutes earlier and not said what it was. It took about that long to impinge on my consciousness, but finally I had to ask what it was, as it was blowing me away. “Oh, it’s the new Anathema record.”I was completely dumbstruck.
More time passed, and finally, round about the tail end of A Simple Mistake, I made a scribbled note of the album’s title on a piece of notepaper that I stuck in my pocket, with the words “BUY THIS!” underneath. A few days later I had my own copy, and I’ve been playing it to death ever since. The album’s songs of love, loss and regret resonate deeply with me, and have turned a band I was totally ambivalent towards into a big favourite. Not just one of my favourite albums of 2010, but of the 21st century so far. Truly, a modern progressive rock classic.
3 Missa Atropos by Gazpacho
Missa Atropos is the sixth record from Norway’s Gazpacho, and the third to be a true concept album based around a single story or idea. Whilst its predecessor, Tick Tock, is likely to remain my favourite of their albums, this one really captured my imagination too. Essentially it’s the story of a man who sequesters himself in a remote lighthouse to write a piece in celebration of the Greek goddess of Fate, Atropos. Naturally enough, in true The Shining style, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and the isolation has a powerful effect on him. I won’t elaborate further lest I spoil the denouement of the album for anyone who hasn’t heard it yet and thinks this all sounds intriguing. The whole thing is wonderfully atmospheric – you will feel the sea breeze and hear the waves crashing outside your windows as you listen – and the band summon an effortlessly evocative and deeply moving backdrop to the story as it unfolds, featuring some of their sparsest and elegaic music as well as some of their heaviest and most powerful. Honestly, if you’re not already addicted to this band’s output, you’ve got some catching up to do.
4 Hybrid Child by District 97
Of all my musical discoveries in 2010, District 97 might be the most memorable of them all. I’d heard the band’s name mentioned in dispatches on a forum I was frequenting at the time, but knowing next to nothing about them, attached little importance to it. Imagine my surprise, then, when looking at something else on YouTube, I saw the name District 97 in my video feed at the side of the screen. “Oh, that’s that band I saw mentioned”, I thought, and idly clicked on the link. That was probably the most important clicks of a mouse button I’ve ever made. The video was or the band’s song Termites. Thirty seconds later I was smitten. A little over five minutes later I’d ordered the band’s debut album, Hybrid Child.
Years later, my friend are probably bored rigid from me continually harping on about this amazing band – quite easily my favourite American discovery since Dream Theater, some sixteen years earlier. Hybrid Child remains an incredible debut; it marries the technicality and ambition of King Crimson with the melodicism of classic Genesis, the metallic crunch and virtuosity of Dream Theater with pop hooks and thoroughly modern, bleeding edge, arrangements. The writing is so smart, and the individual performances are without exception incredible, especially then-keyboardist Rob Clearfield, drummer Jonathan Schang and vocalist Leslie Hunt. Plus it contains a twenty-minute plus track about alien abduction (Mindscan) – what’s not to love? It’s a measure of just how great the three albums above are that this isn’t in the number one slot.
5 II by Lunatic Soul
This was the second record by Riverside‘s Mariusz Duda under the pseudonym Lunatic Soul. In many ways it’s a direct sequel to the eponymous debut album, which had a completely black cover: together, the two records examined the passage of life into death (and perhaps the reverse) and whilst the first album really captured my imagination, in many ways I prefer this second record. I see it very much as the journey towards the light – evidently a theme other minds were considering, judging from Karnataka‘s The Gathering Light (see above) – after a turbulent time, and I still find it a comforting, positive album that I often turn to in times of turbulence myself. Duda’s compositional skills still dazzle me, but the first two Lunatic Soul albums are a perfect example of just how talented the guy really is. So much is said on these albums without the need for vocals or conventional structure. A trip, in all senses of the word.
6 The Final Frontier by Iron Maiden
After the sensational war-themed A Matter Of Life And Death, Maiden returned with this, their 15th record. Again largely comprised of long, more progressive-styled tracks, The Final Frontier eschewed a central theme but served up a rich diet of diverse, atmospheric material. Highlights include the Faustian El Dorado (it’s hard not to smell Nigel Farage in that lyric, retrospectively), a visit to Arthurian legend courtesy of Isle Of Avalon, and the taut drama of Starblind. Even the otherwise standard Maiden gallop of The Alchemist is thrilling. Some fans seem to find this one too long or too inconsistent, but I’ve always loved it. But then Maiden always struggled to disappoint me – I even liked a lot of the stuff they did with Blaze Bayley (vocals 1995-1999) which some fans seem content to airbrush from Maiden’s illustrious history altogether. What a band, eh?
7 Someone Here Is Missing by The Pineapple Thief
After the sensational run of albums that Yeovil-based HippyDave favourites The Pineapple Thief had produced, I had very high hopes for this album, and yet at the time I was a little disappointed with this one – it’s The Pineapple Thief at their most accessible and direct. However, seeing the band perform material from it live was a revelation, and time has been very kind to it. These days, all is forgiven and it has found its way back into regular rotation. It’s chiefly memorable for being the last time that the band used electronics so extensively, driving along songs like Nothing At Best and Wake Up The Dead with a dancefloor-friendly pulse that really appeals to me. There were plenty of riffs, too: it was around this time that The Pineapple Thief really came into their own as a live band after years of playing very few gigs, and that new-found confidence and swagger definitely came across on this record and its predecessor, Tightly Unwound. This was also around the time that the band finally started to see some success, having signed to the Kscope label and receiving word-of-mouth support from Steven Wilson. They deserved more attention and I was so pleased to see them get it that I could forget that I’d preferred some of their earlier records.
8 Hammer And Anvil by Pure Reason Revolution
Hammer And Anvil was to be Pure Reason Revolution’s last record before they split for a lengthy hiatus, and it was a real shame, because for me this remains their finest hour. Unlike many of my friends, I never took took to their debut The Dark Third, which I never felt to be more than the sum of its influences. The second album, Amor Vincit Omnia, was much more interesting to me as it picked up the threads of a more electronic, modern sound; this album took those influences to a new extreme, producing a thoroughly modern band who were more likely to sound like The Prodigy than Pink Floyd, and yet preserved the amazing vocal harmonies that had become their trademark. Opener Fight Fire With Fire was a formidable statement of intent, but tracks like Valour and Never Divide showcased a band who were genuinely creating something new and interesting, that could kick your arse one minute and be highly emotive and restrained the next. I’m hoping that their recent reformation leads to more records like this one.
9 Opus Eponymous by Ghost
On paper, Sweden’s Ghost sounded ridiculous. Tongue-in-cheek satanic metal? In costumes? All the musicians are known as ‘Nameless Ghouls’, and they’re fronted by ‘Papa Emeritus’ who dresses like a satanic Pope? It all sounded too gimmicky. I was as sceptical as anyone. And then I heard the record… Opus Eponymous is an absolute joy. It wedded a metallic crunch to monastic chanting (in Latin, natch), which made for a pleasingly atmospheric start, and freed of the on-stage gimmicks the material turned out to be surprisingly memorable. For one thing, it was very well written; for another, it made some interesting societal commentary under the musical stylings. For someone like me, who loves horror films and who has always been fascinated by the occult and its portrayal in film and literature, the entire package was mesmerising. When I realised just how much fun the band – the brainchild of Tobias Forge, as we discovered later – were having with their image, the big grin-inducing promo videos and suchlike, I was sold. This is hugely atmospheric, highly memorable and a great deal of fun. Play loud and worry your neighbours.
10 Go Well Diamond Heart by Mostly Autumn
Many were ready to write off Yorkshire’s Mostly Autumn after the departure of long-term vocalist and songwriter Heather Findlay following the lacklustre Glass Shadows, but sometimes adversity breeds creativity and hardens determination – and so it proved with Mostly Autumn. Bryan Josh’s band re-emerged with sometime backing vocalist Olivia Sparnenn promoted to the lead mic and with their best record in several years to back up his claims that the band were a long way from being ready to call it a day. This was plainly a very creative time for the band, with the deluxe edition of the album containing a second full-length album of new material as bonus material. If occasionally the quality control wavered (the lyric of Something Better reads like something that UKIP would put in its campaign leaflets, and Hold The Sun is perhaps a little overlong), any failings the album might possess are more than compensated for by the positives: Sparnenn is astonishing throughout, the return of stalwart songwriter and keyboardist Iain Jennings is very welcome, and Josh himself seems inspired by the task of picking up the pieces. Perhaps the crowning moment is the farewell tribute to Heather herself, Violet Skies; a stunningly beautiful track which still reduces me to jelly every time I hear it. They’ve rarely sounded better.
11 Eparistera Daimones by Triptykon
None more black. After the slow but somehow inevitable collapse of death metal pioneers Celtic Frost, founder member Thomas Gabriel Fischer founded Triptykon to essentially pick up where Celtic Frost left off. Consequently the ghost of Celtic Frost’s grimly nihilistic final album Monotheist looms large here, and Eparistera Daimones is largely comprised of longer tracks driven by monolithic riffing, Fischer’s wounded vocals swimming through the freezing black waters beneath the ice. Clearly the events that led to the demise of Celtic Frost still festered – the closing The Prolonging positively hums with Fischer’s contempt for those that made it inevitable (“As you perish, I shall live / You shall drown in my contempt.“) – but if the album is filled with bitterness and the misanthropy that informs Fischer’s worldview, it is also a survivor’s record; the gospel according to someone who has survived the seemingly unsurvivable and is striving towards the light. For all the bleakness, this is a very powerful and cathartic record.
12 Eleven. Return And Revert by Midas Fall
Hands up: this one is a late addition to my 2010 list, as I only discovered it in retrospect. This flew right under my radar at the time, but it really is a stunning piece of work. Scotland’s Midas Fall wed sturdy indie rock to the powerful atmospherics and song construction of shoegaze and post-rock, so whilst there are memorable hooks and riffs aplenty, the band’s real power is in slow-burning orchestrations that simmer with intensity before exploding with the might of a supernova. The extraordinary vocals of Elizabeth Heaton are the final piece of the puzzle, providing the band with an added emotional heft that renders me absolutely helpless every time I stick this album on. Great as this album is, each new album has reached dizzy new heights. Midas Fall are a fairly recent discovery for me, but are one of those bands who never disappoint. I suspect their best work still lies ahead of them.
13 Aquarius by Haken
Aquarius was London-based Haken’s debut album. The band’s Dream Theater-influenced progressive metal sound made them a lot of friends very quickly, as did the overt progressive tone of Aquarius – as with almost all of Haken’s records, Aquarius is a good old-fashioned concept album with a complex story to tell. The record tackles climate change head-on: with disaster looming as increasing numbers of countries suffer flooding as a result of global warming, the unexpected discovery of a mermaid holds the potential for mankind’s survival. Whilst there is hope, Aquarius tells a gritty, downbeat story filled with moral ambiguities – and the music is as dense, powerful and evocative as you could wish for. Haken have made better albums since, but this one (and its successor, Visions) made a huge impact on me at the time of release, and remain sentimental favourites.
14 X by Spock’s Beard
Whilst the previous three Spock’s Beard albums (Feel Euphoria, Octane and Spock’s Beard – their first three records without founder member and chief songwriter Neal Morse) all showed that the band had plenty more to say, this was the album that brought everything together again. Easily their strongest album with drummer Nick D’Virgilio at the mic, X showcases their eccentric West Coast variant on modern progressive rock to its best, whether on epics like Jaws Of Heaven or From The Darkness, on quirky, humourous songs like The Emperor’s Clothes, or nimble, fiery rockers like Edge Of The In-Between or the instrumental Kamikaze. D’Virgilio’s drumming is, as always, stunning, but here he sounds truly at home behind the mic too, for the first time – it’s sad that this was his last album fronting the band, and it’s hard to avoid wondering what might have been. Spock’s Beard’s strength has always been as an ensemble, however, and here they sound revitalized and ready for a new chapter. Along with its successor, Brief Nocturnes & Dreamless Sleep, X displays the band at its latter-day best.
15 Awakening by Winter In Eden
We Brits have never really got to grips with symphonic metal. Perhaps we just felt that the Scandinavians and the Dutch had made such a success of it that it wasn’t worth the hassle for us to try to top them. Winter In Eden are the exception that prove the rule. This, their debut album, is every bit as technically demanding and atmospherically arresting as the best of bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation, and in vocalist Vicky Johnson they can boast a vocalist who has a unique sound and identity and isn’t just a stereotypical symphonic clone. At times their music cleaves so close to the Nightwish songbook that they could fairly be accused of looking at the Finn’s homework (nowhere more so than on the instrumental Windelfell), but they pull off the style so well it’s easy to forgive. Elsewhere they plough their own furrow with confidence and a welcome crunch (and plenty of big choruses). They’re a great live act too – don’t miss them if you get the chance to see them in action.
16 ReVamp by ReVamp
Between her long stint as lead vocalist with Dutch symphonic metallers After Forever and her much-publicised arrival in the ranks of Finnish veterans Nightwish, Floor Jansen formed ReVamp, who made two excellent records before being mothballed after Jansen’s recruitment into Nightwish. This eponymous debut is narrowly the better of the two records for me, but that’s largely because of the sheer impact it had. Much, much tougher sounding than After Forever and even much of Nightwish’s catalogue, this record is perhaps the most effective showcase for Jansen’s extraordinary vocal skills. She is dazzling on the ballads as might be expected, her operatically-trained voice swooping through the songs to great effect; what is truly remarkable though is how at home she sounds on the heavier material and how powerful her voice really is in a lower, harsher register. Her bravura performance is paired with taut, muscular material that possesses the stopping power of a wrecking ball. Easily one of my favourite metal releases of the year.
17 Broken Lives & Bleeding Hearts by Christina
A long-awaited debut. Magenta‘s Christina Booth is an industry veteran whose long-term musical partnership with keyboardist and songwriter Rob Reed has taken many forms of which Magenta is the most successful and long-lived. Her solo debut was a long time coming, but once again her collaboration with Reed comes up trumps with a diverse, assured album that is a world away from Magenta’s music. There are big, windswept ballads, rootsy blues rock, gospel-tinged pop in the shape of stylish single Free, and even Gabriel-esque social commentary in the shape of the pattering, brutally honest Immorality. Everything here showcases Booth’s spectacular, emotive vocals to their best effect and shows there’s a great deal more to this talented lady – and to Reed’s compositional skills – than Magenta’s much-loved progressive rock.
18 Écailles De Lune by Alcest
A glorious slow-burn of a record, Écailles De Lune is as wonderfully atmospheric and otherworldly as its gorgeous cover art would seem to indicate. Originally a black metal act, Alcest were well embarked on becoming a crossover act by the time they recorded this record, influenced heavily by My Bloody Valentine and shoegaze acts like Slowdive. The music is utterly hypnotic, and despite its dark, occasionally metallic tone, the general impression left is one of unhurried, effortless beauty. The two-part title track which opens the record is powerful enough, but for me the star of the show is closer Sur L’océan Couleur De Fer, a truly spectacular mini-epic that never fails to have me reaching to hit play again a soon as the album ends. Alcest have made several beautiful records, but I’m not sure they’ve ever surpassed the perfection of this one.
19 Barking by Underworld
Underworld had become somewhat dysfunctional by the time they embarked on making a follow-up to Oblivion With Bells. Struggling with communication problems and a general sense that the band wasn’t really operating as it should any longer, they turned to a series of collaborators to remix and rework their material before revisiting it themselves, a process that produced the diverse, surprisingly upbeat Barking. It would take more time, during which the duo would do a great deal of work on their own projects away from the band, to truly put Underworld back on track, but this is an inventive, experimental record that has a unique feel amongst the exceptional Underworld back catalogue.
20 Immersion by Pendulum
The album Pendulum were always destined to make. The budget was bigger, the collaborations more colourful and varied, and the band’s increasing reputation as a live draw led to a much slicker, grander record. Long-term fans might have thought they were selling-out, but their evolution was always going to lead to them outgrowing the clubs that had provided them with a launchpad. Their chiptune-influenced drum & bass had also evolved to take in more overt influences from metal, trance, dubstep and numerous other sources, and here these influences were given full reign, leading to collaborations with metal band In Flames, prog wunderkind Steven Wilson, and The Prodigy‘s mastermind, Liam Howlett. The results were predictably thunderous and addictive, but here and there there was a new-found thoughtfulness and introspection that spoke of greater triumphs to come. Sadly, a long hiatus means that we’re still waiting for them to arrive.
21 Head First by Goldfrapp
Head First is often regarded as the runt of the Goldfrapp litter, not least by the duo themselves, but whilst there probably is cause to think of it as their least satisfying record, it’s still crammed with highlights. Feelgood break-up song Rocket sets things up nicely, and the highly emotive synthpop just keeps coming, reaching a glorious high with the 70s disco stomp and soaring chorus of Alive. The second half of the album tends towards the more introspective, and closes with one of the duo’s most experimental tracks, the aptly named Voicething. Amply demonstrating Goldfrapp’s magical synergy in beautiful but utterly abstract music, it serves as a reminder that they were never happy being ‘just’ a pop band.
22 The Fool by Warpaint
Their debut album, The Fool showed the world that Los Angeles-based Warpaint were more than a manifesto and a couple of shoegaze-influenced hit singles. As informed by the lo-fi melancholy of Joy Division as by the more colourful washes of sound used by Slowdive and Lush, The Fool ebbs and flows wonderfully through forty-six minutes (more if you have the deluxe edition) of sumptuous, evocative soundscaping, a haze of guitar, metronomic drumming and echoing, disembodied vocals. The band would steadily grow in confidence and ability and would go on to make more great records, but for me there’s something special about this one. The looser playing and the unfocused feel lend it a dreamlike surrealism that have ensured it remains a regular late night listen years after its release.
23 Further by The Chemical Brothers
After a couple of – by their standards – unremarkable records, Further was an attempt to dial back the celebrity collaborations and concentrate on their work as a duo. The result is pleasingly solid; an unusually ethereal opener gives way to an epic trip to outer space (the mesmerising Escape Velocity) whilst Horse Power shows that their appetite for clattering techno had not dimmed, and the closing Wonders Of The Deep is a surprisingly emotive final flourish. A nice mix of chilled and more powerful tracks lend the album the same kind of gravitas as classic Chemicals albums like Dig Your Own Hole and Surrender. Shorn of the big name collaborators, Further proved The Chems still had plenty to say.
24 The Family Jewels by Marina & The Diamonds
Marina Diamandis’ debut album seemed like a bolt from the blue, but she’d been single-mindedly honing her craft for some years before a label took a chance on her. My first impression was of someone similar to Kate Bush – not stylistically, but in terms of intent. Marina successfully marries the unexpected and surreal to effective pop hooks in the same way, and her voice is equally elastic and versatile. From the fever dream of Mowgli’s Road to the effortless electronic strut of Shampain and the boisterous Oh No!, and from the thoughtful I Am Not A Robot to the melancholy Numb, this is a memorable and diverse record. However, as her subsequent records go to show, she was only getting started.
25 These Hopeful Machines by BT
If American EDM wizard BT has one achilles heel, it is that his meticulous attention to detail can be overwhelming. These Hopeful Machines, BT’s sixth record, indulges his vices to the extreme: clocking in at nearly two hours but comprising only twelve tracks, it is a lengthy, self-indulgent record that nevertheless showcases BT at his boldest and most uncompromising. Intros are stretched way beyond their usual span, vocals from a cavalcade of collaborators are cut and pasted into intriguing shapes, frequently using a dizzying array of effects, and tracks merge seamlessly into each other, mutating along the way in classic club DJ style: these are progressive pop songs that utilise every known trick in the book to suspend time – and disbelief – and fill dance floors in the process. It even throws in a shimmeringly beautiful reading of The Psychedelic Furs‘ The Ghost In You as a showstopping coup de grace. Of all BT’s records, this is perhaps the most divisive, but there’s beauty aplenty here for those prepared to strap in for the ride.