1 Evaporate by Midas Fall
Scotland’s Midas Fall served up a blinder with their fourth album, Evaporate. Whilst their earlier albums have all been hugely enjoyable, the stars aligned in dramatic fashion on this, their latest offering. A cinematic record in the best sense, the songs don’t feel written so much as beamed in from space; things of crystalline beauty, they evoke wide open starlit skies, and showcase vocalist Elizabeth Heaton’s spectacular vocals as never before. By turns hushed and possessed of the power of supernovas, these songs carry extraordinary power: on my first listen, I had to pause three tracks in because I was covered in goosebumps from head to toe. Heaton’s amazing voice may be the focus, but it is the music that moves the material up through the gears and makes the whole so transcendent.
With Evaporate, Midas Fall have come of age. Even after just a few months, I can safely say that this album has become a Desert Island Disc, something I’ll never tire of; one of those records that feels like the universe is giving you a hug. Beyond stunning.
2 Equinoxe Infinity by Jean-Michel Jarre
It’s always particularly special when an artist who you’ve been listening to for years knocks it right out of the park. Jean-Michel Jarre had already managed to do this three times in the past three years (with the two volumes of his Electronica project, and 2016’s Oxygene 3), and it almost felt like I couldn’t expect any more of him. Jarre is in his seventies now, and whilst clearly he has plenty more to say, he has reached the stage of his career where I’m always left wondering if each release is his final record. Oxygene 3 ended so powerfully that it almost felt like a perfect curtain call. So it was with mild trepidation mixed with a huge amount of trust and belief that I awaited this record.
I needn’t have worried. Jarre’s muse is on fire at the moment, and Equinoxe Infinity is a fine record that has a real knack for mixing the old and familiar with the new and adventuresome. Whilst the iconic ‘watchers’ from the sleeve of the original Equinoxe album might make us think of this as a sequel to that album, it is so much more. If anything, it successfully mixes up Jarre’s recent influences with his classic material to produce a record that sounds like another evolution, another step forward for Jarre’s established style. Effortlessly atmospheric, supremely melodic, and as emotive and memorable as ever, this may be the best of his recent releases, which is not faint praise. It’s no secret that I’m a serious Jarre nerd, and even I was mildly surprised at just how great this is. It is just wonderful when one of your heroes delivers something this spectacular.
3 Prequelle by Ghost
This is perhaps a predictable choice, given that many rock magazines and sites have lavished a great deal of praise on it, but frankly the thousands of people who have been blown away by the latest offering from Sweden’s Ghost can’t all be wrong. Ghost is essentially a solo project from vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tobias Forge, and a project this conceptually dense – not just musically but in terms of its presentation and ongoing mythology – benefits from that kind of singular vision. It also doesn’t hurt that Forge is, by any standard, a sensational songwriter. Prequelle is crammed with instantly memorable songs, chock-full of rock anthems that most bands of their ilk would kill to have written. And yet somehow it finds time to include not one but two superb instrumentals that effectively mix classic 70s progressive rock with the metal stylings of their best-known material. Helvetesfönster sounds like a fugitive from the heyday of Andy Latimer’s Camel, which can never be a bad thing. Clearly they are more than ‘just’ a metal band; yet songs like Faith and Rats are evidence that the band can rock out with the best of them.
It’s hard to imagine Ghost topping the consistency of this record without making some changes and trying new things, so I await future developments with great interest. In the meantime, this is a hugely entertaining record that manages to write with great empathy about mortality and entropy. It’s a great band indeed that can write a great sing-along chorus that runs “Don’t you forget about dying / Don’t you forget about your friend death / Don’t you forget that you will die.” Prequelle is Ghost’s most consistent record yet.
4 Dead Magic by Anna von Hausswolff
Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff continues her unbroken run of great records with what is, for me, her finest hour. Dead Magic, like its predecessors, is preoccupied with death and the passage from life into death. Unlike the reflective, meditative nature of her much-lauded album Ceremony, however, Dead Magic vibrates with an uncanny energy. The spooky, Nick Cave-esque The Mysterious Vanishing Of Electra showcases one of many possible ways von Hausswolff’s music might develop, but once more it is in the longer pieces like The Truth, The Glow, The Fall and Ugly And Vengeful that best showcase her incredible ability to tackle these big questions about life, death and our place in the universe with hypnotic intensity. Cathartic, dark, yet strangely and powerfully hopeful, this is a record that cast its spell on me quickly yet whose hidden depths I’m only just beginning to plumb. Spectacular.
5 No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds by The Orb
I’ve been a fan of Dr. Alex Paterson’s The Orb for a very long time. The Orb’s debut album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, completely destroyed my preconceptions about dance music and opened up a whole new world to me, and the band’s subsequent albums have been wonderfully unpredictable and hugely enjoyable, soundtracking many late-night writing/coding sessions from my college days onwards. However, there was a period of several years where it seemed that Paterson’s voyage of musical discovery had run aground; several albums which seemed to lack any significant direction or, more specifically, focus. Recent records like Chill Out World and Moonbuilding 2703 A.D. went a long way towards reassuring me that there was plenty of life left in The Orb, but No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds is a different proposition altogether.
For the first time since 2001’s Cydonia, the almost perfect balance between highly melodic, more commercial fare and Paterson’s lengthy voyages into outer (and inner) space is restored. Over its 70s minutes, No Sounds Are Out Of Bounds packs in some memorable songs as well as the usual euphoric, ambient journeys; cunningly sequenced, it also manages a perfect narrative curve, the layers slowly being stripped away until you’re left with tinkling piano, and the fragile pulse that propels joyous album closer Soul Planet into the uncharted, starlit depths of deep space. Scarcely a day of this year’s scorching summer passed without this album being wheeled out, and I became thoroughly addicted to it. Their best album in a long time, it has reignited my love for The Orb in a big way. A joy.
6 Exsolve by Jo Quail
Every year, there’s at least one record that I approach with no preconceptions and which simply blows me away. This year it’s the turn of cellist Jo Quail. This, her fourth album, sees her embrace the possibilities offered by longer tracks, allowing her loop-constructed soundscapes and virtuoso cello playing the space to develop a thrilling tension that makes this record utterly captivating. Clearly at least partially inspired by the dark atmospheres of post-rock and folk-infused black metal, Exsolve also embraces the rhythmic momentum of Peter Gabriel’s explorations into African and Egyptian traditional music, and the twists and turns of Mike Oldfield’s long-form compositions. This is the kind of record you want to stick on at four in the morning, sit in the darkness and just lose yourself in. It’s a stunning piece of work that’s scarcely been off the Hippy Towers stereo since I first heard it. Mesmerising.
7 High As Hope by Florence + The Machine
It seems astonishing to me now, but I was actually quite underwhelmed by High As Hope on first listen. It’s a much more restrained reflective record than its three predecessors, and at first that restraint manifested itself as a lack of striking melodies. I should, naturally, have had more faith in Florence Welch and her band: further listening has unveiled a deeply personal and highly emotive record that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her best work. Particularly powerful are the youthful reverie of South London Forever, the beautiful confessional song dedicated to her sister (Grace), and the simply stunning The End Of Love, which pretty much melts me into a puddle every time I hear it. Florence is often compared to Kate Bush – not without good cause in my opinion, for all the vocal dissimilarities – but this is especially true in terms of the way their lyrics talk to the listener. There’s no judgement, only acceptance; an empathy and camaraderie that’s almost beyond words. Welch is a special artist, and this is another special record.
8 Atropa by Luna Rossa
Their other band, Panic Room, may currently be on ice, following the departures of their bassist and guitarist, but there’s just no holding back vocalist Anne-Marie Helder and keyboard player Jonathan Edwards. They make a formidable writing team, and their semi-acoustic side project Luna Rossa‘s latest record is just further evidence of how effortless they make it all feel. Atropa – guest starring vocalist and harpist Sarah Dean, as well as Panic Room drummer Gavin Griffiths – is Luna Rossa’s finest work to date. It avoids the stale exactitude of so many acoustic records and embraces the use of drums and guitar, albeit sparingly, to provide further colour and energy. Spooky opener Midnight is positively paganistic with its chanted lyric and ghostly vocal harmonies, and the album refuses to rest on its laurels, every track being notably different in sound and feel. You get sultry Latin (Red Moon), haunting folk-infused rock (Deadly Nightshade) and a stunning, sparse reading of Abba’s The Winner Takes It All… and that’s just the opening four tracks. By the time the album closes, with its deeply moving meditation on loss, This Is Not…, and the hazy, psychedelic coda of Halo Falling, you’ll just want to play this album again and again. Thoroughly addictive.
9 Auri by Auri
Auri is essentially a trio, formed by Nightwish members Tuomas Holopainen and Troy Donockley, with Holopainen’s wife, vocalist Johanna Kurkela. With such a strikingly original and recognisable musical talent like Holopainen’s on board, I was initially concerned lest Auri sound too much like Nightwish – which I’m sure would still have made for an enjoyable record, but as always with side projects, I’m more excited by projects that do things somewhat differently to the mothership.
Happily, Auri, whilst sharing some similarities with Nightwish – notably Holopainen’s orchestral flourishes – maintains its own very specific identity. Far more folk-oriented than Nightwish, and entirely removed from Nightwish’s metallic bombast, Auri’s speciality is introspection, lovelorn balladry and a quiet sense of peace and contented solitude – all things that reflect the project’s title (Auri is an unusual but lovable character from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles books, a free-spirited young girl who lives in the catacombs beneath a university-style institution that teaches magic; they’re fabulous books and well worth a read, even if fantasy isn’t typically your bag). Donockley’s stunning pipe work is given ample space to shine, and Kurkela’s sweet vocals are an ideal counterpoint. Whilst not falling into the trap of sounding like Nightwish, Auri strikes a similarly immersive, emotive chord. I had hoped this would be special, and it is.
10 An Abandoned Orchid House by Talitha Rise
This was a complete surprise to me. Talitha Rise is the alter ego of vocalist Jo-Beth Young, and An Abandoned Orchid House is her debut album. the preview blurb sounded interesting, and the striking cover art piqued my interest, so I thought it would be worth a listen. I ventured onto YouTube and watched a couple of videos. And then watched them again. An hour or so later, I had ordered the album.
An Abandoned Orchid House is powerfully atmospheric, it’s sparse acoustic framework filled with simmering synth, plangent piano and Young’s extraordinary vocals, pitched somewhere between Kate Bush at her most ghostly and Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan’s wounded yearning. At first, the focus appears to be firmly on Young’s vocals and lyrics, but the music itself, whilst unobtrusive, is beautifully put together. The more you listen, the more fine detail you notice and the more tiny flourishes become evident. In short, it’s a beautifully crafted record, and one that’s strikingly hard to forget. This is a haunting album in every sense of the word, and I can’t wait for the next instalment.
11 Soyuz by Gazpacho
Well, they’ve done it again. Norway’s Gazpacho seem clinically incapable of making a bad or even average record, and Soyuz is just further evidence of just how accomplished they’ve become. As with all their albums since 2007’s Night, there’s a central conceptual idea at work here, albeit a less narrative one this time out: the idea of fate, of moments that can’t be escaped, or the desire to freeze time and cheat fate, to live in a moment without proceeding to the next one. Consequently there’s a great deal of impending doom and anticipated failure here, and Gazpacho’s soundtrack to the soul-searching the various characters inhabiting these songs is suitably desolate, but as emotionally powerful as ever. This is the sound of one of the greatest contemporary progressive rock bands serving up another classic.
12 No Tourists by The Prodigy
Oof. It’s taken The Prodigy a while to really climb out from under the controversial Maxim and Keith Flint-free Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (personally I always enjoyed it); Invaders Must Die was a promising start, and 2015’s The Day Is My Enemy sounded splendidly pissed off and seemed to see The Prodigy of old firing on all cylinders once more. The question was: what next? The Prodigy’s mastermind, Liam Howlett, seemed to struggle to escape from under the shadow of his classic 90s output, so how would he fare having returned The Prodigy to their former glories?
Thankfully, Howlett’s answer seems to have been, “Who gives a fuck? Let’s party!” No Tourists is comparatively brief (barely 40 minutes), but in many ways is the better for it: a no-holds barred, frenetic slice of The Prodigy at their most combative and relentless. From the slow-burning menace of the title track (best described as The Prodigy vs Kashmir) to the clattering, sweary chaos of Fight Fire With Fire, this is prime Prodigy goodness. Don’t expect Howlett to go ambient any time soon.
13 Wasteland by Riverside
The untimely death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński has clearly weighed very heavily on Polish progressive rockers Riverside – so much so that it has informed much of vocalist and bassist Mariusz Duda’s writing both for Riverside and for his other project, Lunatic Soul. Forging on as a trio, the band have turned in a stunning record with Wasteland, their first without Grudziński. His absence hangs over the record like a thundercloud, and the material is unquestionably bittersweet, but what’s truly wonderful about this album is that it meets the band’s tragic loss head on yet never succumbs to hopelessness; there are always silver linings here, even to the blackest clouds. It’s a cathartic yet healing record, for band and listener alike; something you sense the band needed to write. For those who have suffered a similarly devastating loss, this is a particularly powerful record with great empathy at its heart.
14 Vector by Haken
Following the deliberate 80s stylings of previous album Affinity, I really wasn’t sure what direction the next Haken record would take. Pleasingly, this is very different in tone and feel to its predecessor, opting for outré displays of technicality – not for nothing are Haken frequently described as the UK’s home-grown Dream Theater – allied to a more conventional type of linear storytelling familiar to Haken’s fans from their earlier records. If anything, Vector feels like the bolder, grown-up sibling of Haken’s earlier album, Visions. It tells the tale of a doctor’s unhealthy interest in a seemingly catatonic patient, though of course it’s not long before things begin to spiral out of control. Haken’s traditionally dense, complex music is perhaps denser and more complex than ever before, and the performances here are simply incredible. Thankfully, they’ve not allowed their virtuosity to eclipse a good tune and some intriguing storytelling. This is a cracking record, chock-full of monstrous riffs and memorable set-pieces that will stay with you long after the last track has ended.
15 Anatomical Venus by Black Moth
I’ve long enjoyed Black Moth‘s music, having picked up on them shortly after their debut album, The Killing Jar, was released in 2012. Despite the frequent Black Sabbath comparisons, they were always more than just copyists, possessed of a punkish swagger and a pleasingly queasy psychedelic edge. What really set them apart from so many of their contemporaries, though, were their songs: rather than lengthy, chugging doom metal odes to death and entropy, Black Moth focused squarely on contemporary concerns, some from a refreshingly female perspective. This is the band’s breakthrough album: it’s slicker, heavier and more memorable than its predecessors, and it’s scarcely been out of rotation since its release early in the year. A great record from a band who have really levelled up this year.
16 Bad Witch by Nine Inch Nails
After opting for a lush and increasingly electronic sound on 2013’s Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails‘ subsequent releases have disposed with the blunt edges and returned the band to their brutal, minimalistic roots. Bad Witch – the third and final of three releases that have essentially reconstituted the band – is in many ways the epitome of this new approach. Despite heavy use of electronics, this is a dark, abrasive record; an assault on the senses that is utterly compelling. There is an astounding amount of tension throughout the record – from the stark soundscaping of I’m Not From This World to the clattering techno-influenced assault of God Break Down The Door, or the squalling sax-assisted Play The Goddamned Part, this is the soundtrack for the disquietening ride that 2018 has been on the world stage. It captures the anger, despair and disdain for the crumbling edifices of democracy and neoliberalism perfectly without directly addressing it all; as if our collective state of mind was captured like an insect in a jar. Raw, honest, thrilling and unsettling, this is the sound of a band recapturing the potency and urgency of their best work.
17 Le Kov by Gwenno
One of 2015’s most delightful surprises was Gwenno‘s debut album, Y Dydd Olaf (‘The Final Day’). A kaleidoscopic album of richly atmospheric electronic pop with a psychedelic, folky vibe, it was an unexpected favourite here at HippyTowers. The follow-up has been more than worth the wait. This time adopting the native Cornish language, Le Kov (‘A Place Of Memory’) weaves a tapestry of Cornish futurism, where far from the marginalised position the language and the people of the county currently enjoy (the language is apparently only spoken by around 600 people today and is facing imminent extinction), Cornwall and its people form an industrial hub, a society with pride in itself and true purpose – a sharp contrast with the county’s current status and a reflection of unhappiness with the looming spectre of Brexit, which threatens to reduce Cornish ideas of community still further. Gwenno’s expressive vocals, a thrilling sense of melody and those lush, unhurried layers of synth all combine to make this thoroughly immersive. A beautiful, beautiful record.
18 Monsters Exist by Orbital
Orbital‘s previous ‘comeback’ record, 2012’s Wonky, was a welcome return but perhaps not quite as stellar as some fans were hoping it would be. It’s taken a little while to arrive, but all good things clearly come to those that wait, as Monsters Exist is a more satisfying and intriguing record.
Whereas Wonky seemed content to play to the gallery, Monsters Exist takes a more thoughtful, atmospheric approach to things that recalls the Hartnoll brothers’ mid-period Orbital records, Snivilisation and In Sides. The surprisingly downbeat and shadowy title track opens proceedings at a slow canter, and this more sober approach succeeds in making this a richer and more emotional experience than its predecessor. The subtext of the record appears to be one of hope in the face of darkness, reaching its logical conclusion in the wonderful, Brian Cox-assisted finale of There Will Come A Time, where Cox’s reassuring tones reaffirm how ultimately vital our actions are over a mesmerising celestial sprawl of electronica. That’s not to say this darkness consumes the record, however: the traditional Orbital sense of humour is alive and well. The sprightly Hoo Hoo Ha Ha is as demented as it sounds, and the mirth-inducingly titled P.H.U.K. is as frenetically addictive as the brothers’ best work. This is a wonderful and timely record, and it’s wonderful to have them back once more.
19 Dove by Belly
It’s always a bit worrying when bands return to active duty after a lengthy lay-off, and Belly‘s Dove came a full 23 years after previous album King. Tanya Donelly’s solo work proved that she had never lost her knack for writing great lyrics and addictively twisted melodies, but – like many others, I suspect – I held my breath when playing this album for the first time.
Not that I need have worried. It’s almost as if the intervening two decades never happened. From the moments those first chords ring out at the start of opening track Mine, there’s a warm sense of the familiar as well as the fresh breeze of change. Belly have become more focused and confident in their time away, and every track here simultaneously feels comfortable and thrillingly vital. Donelly’s vocals are as wonderfully acrobatic as ever, and the band seem more at ease, more comfortable… perhaps their runaway success back in the early 90s was a classic case of too much, too soon? Whatever the reasons for their dissolution, give thanks for a most triumphant return.
20 Dissolution by The Pineapple Thief
My hopes were very high for this album following The Pineapple Thief‘s previous record, 2016’s spectacular My Wilderness. That it doesn’t quite manage to live up to them speaks to the quality of that album rather than to any lack on the part of Dissolution. This new record sees The Pineapple Thief at their most forthright and powerful – the addition of Porcupine Tree and King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison has steered the band in the direction of the kind of energised progressive metal that Porcupine Tree enjoyed in the latter stage of their existence. Then, as here, some of the band’s fondness for atmosphere is sacrificed to make room for titanic riffs and Harrison’s thunderous playing. On the face of it this may sound like a purely bad thing, but Bruce Soord’s winning way with a song ensures that everything is as memorable and thrilling as ever – it is merely a case that Dissolution is the yin to Your Wilderness‘s yang. It says a great deal that this, the band’s 12th studio album, is as powerful and as intense as ever.
21 Rainier Fog by Alice In Chains
After two sensational records, Seattle’s Alice In Chains surely have nothing left to prove in terms of their resurrection, following a long lay-off prompted by the death of original vocalist Layne Staley. Rainier Fog is a more concise and less chilly record than its predecessor The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. At first I felt it was a little underwhelming due to its more claustrophobic feel, but spending more time with it proved that the band’s mix of twisted harmonies, bent and shaped by sepulchral forces, and anvil-heavy riffing was undiminished. By turns lushly harmonious and blackly malevolent, it’s another cracking entry in one of hard rock’s most consistent catalogues.
22 Penelope Two by Penelope Trappes
One of the year’s nicest surprises for me. I was aware that The Golden Filter’s Penelope Trappes had released some solo work, but had never really sat down and properly listened to it. News that a second album was to be released reminded me that it might be a good idea to spend some time with it. Little did I realize what a treat I was in for. Penelope Two is a thing of rare beauty, a minimalist ambient record with a difference, combining field recordings, stripped-back arrangements and Trappes’ vocal tapestries to weave a deeply immersive, soulful and cathartic spell. Essentially it’s a record about loss and entropy, but is shot through with a quiet strength and a warm sense of hope that renders it anything but depressive. I bet the live shows are something else. A stunning record from a musician who deserves much more attention.
23 Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt
Moby is not a happy camper. His despair at the state of the modern world is palpable throughout Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt. The record takes a long hard look at humanity and finds us wanting. The results are bewitching; songs designed for the aftermath of the apocalypse, all shimmering chords, Moby’s forlorn vocals that nevertheless contain fragments of desperate hope, and a background hiss of white noise and a chilly silence. If humanity’s progress over the last hundred years can be likened to a boisterous party, this record is the soundtrack of the aftermath. It is possessed of a beautiful melancholy that will stay with you long after it has ended. For me, this may be the best record he’s made to date.
24 Singularity by Jon Hopkins
Any thoughts that Jon Hopkins had peaked with his previous record Immunity were shattered immediately upon hearing this year’s Singularity. The album’s cover is a perfect illustration of what the music contained within feels like: widescreen, with the icy twinkle of the stars above. The tracks are given plenty of space to grow and develop, but Hopkins maintains a fine balance throughout between dancefloor-friendly momentum and truly euphoric interludes of tremendous, almost transcendent, beauty. It’s cunningly sequenced, the more rhythmic first half giving way gradually to a hauntingly ambient second half. Hopkins’ glitch-friendly electronica has never sounded so vital or atmospheric. Filmic and immersive, this is his best work to date.
25 Arcane Astral Aeons by Sirenia
Sirenia‘s second album with new vocalist Emmanuelle Zoldan is nothing if not ambitious. Whereas its predecessor, Dim Days Of Dolor, retreated a little from the overtly progressive tendencies of the two albums that preceded it, writer Morten Veland embraces the unexpected wholeheartedly on his band’s latest record. The sprawling and unpredictable In Styx Embrace sets the tone for a more adventurous and diverse record that revels in the freedom a pre-order campaign allowed the band. In the course of the record, gleefully dark death metal butts heads with classical bombast, polished pop hooks, modernist electronica and even a touch of Scandinavian folk whimsy. Naturally, Veland’s lyrics focus on death, decay and misanthropy, with cathartic and oddly anthemic results. You can always rely on Sirenia to blur genre boundaries and do what they please; this is another highly accomplished and somewhat addictive entry into the band’s idiosyncratic catalogue.