This post is about 2 years too late. I should have put this together at the end of 2010, but no matter, better late than never. I had the happy problem of deciding my favourite 10 albums and failed miserably. Instead of 10, I ended up with almost twice the number. So, here I go with my first Top 10 and I will try to post a consolation Top 10 in a few days.
1. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (2005)
This was perhaps the most highly acclaimed album of 2005. Released on Stevens’ own Asthmatic Kitty label (his stepfather housed a stray cat named Sara which suffered from asthma), it is an incredible achievement by the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter. His music in general reflects his strong spiritual beliefs and this album in particular sparkles with the bright sounds of trumpets, strings and choir vocals. The most well-known single from the album is ‘Chicago’, which is his signature song and was featured in the film Little Miss Sunshine. Other standout tracks include ‘Jacksonville’, ‘The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts’ and ‘Come On! Feel the Illinoise!’.
2. Dream Theater: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (2002)
I had heard great things of prog-rockers Dream Theater since the early ‘90’s, but somehow had never got my hands on one of their albums until late 2006. And the album I picked up turned out to be this 2-CD epic, which in my opinion is their best album ever. It is a ‘concept album’, thematically strung together around various forms of ‘personal turbulence’, such as alcoholism, mental illness and so on. The stand out song is the multi-part title track which occupies the entire 2nd disc, with my favourite segments being ‘About to Crash’ and ‘Solitary Shell’. ‘Misunderstood’ is the other great track which appears on the 1st disc. It is difficult to describe what is so good about this album…it’s just the entire package, from the lyrics, the storytelling, the vocals and of course, the incredible musicianship of guitarist John Petrucci, drummer Mike Portnoy and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. If you can find the concert DVD, it is definitely worth picking up too.
3. The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (2006)
This album represents all that I love about ‘indie bands’. The focus is on songwriting and musicianship. There is no commercial angle at all, I haven’t even seen a music video of any of the songs, nor do I know what the artists look like. This is not eye candy masquerading as music, but musicians working together for the love of their craft. Nevertheless, the music is very accessible and the songs are catchy and infectious; particularly ‘Yankee Bayonet’, ‘O Valencia’ and ‘The Perfect Crime’. The title track is based on a Japanese folk tale, which many of us have probably come across in children’s folk tale books. The variety of instruments used on this album is mind-boggling. For example, guitarist Chris Funk also plays the bouzouki, the dulcimer, the banjo and the hurdy-gurdy. Together they give the music a lush, layered feel that goes very well with Meloy’s somewhat melancholic vocals.
4. Mastodon: Blood Mountain (2006)
Since the mid-90’s, I have been desperately searching for the next big metal band after Metallica, but to no avail. Then, in 2006 I started reading rave reviews about Mastodon’s 3rd album Blood Mountain and soon after, one of its tracks ‘Colony of Birchmen’ was nominated for a Grammy. At that time, the band was classified as a sludge metal outfit, based on the slightly muddied/ distorted sound of their earlier releases Remission (2002) and Leviathan (2004), but they went with a cleaner sound in Blood Mountain. This is a concept album with a fantasy storyline, revolving around a person trying to get hold of a Crystal Skull and climbing the Blood Mountain with it. Today, after two more outstanding albums Crack the Skye (2009) and The Hunter (2011), I like to think that they are the most inventive and melodic metal band in the world…reaching out well beyond narrow categorizations like sludge or stoner metal.
5. Kate Bush: Aerial (2005)
Sometime in the mid-‘80’s, I tuned in to a series on BBC World Service, which told the story behind classic albums of the past 20 years. One of the albums covered was Kate Bush’s 1978 debut, The Kick Inside. I was completely bowled over by the unique sound of songs like ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Them Heavy People’. It was not until a visit to London in 2004 that I actually purchased a copy of the CD, but during all those years in between, her output was sporadic and I wondered if she ever would scale the heights of her debut work. The answer came in 2005 with this double album, the 2 discs subtitled A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey. And what a return to form it was! Compared to the soaring vocals and theatrics of The Kick Inside, the sound of Aerial is mellow and thoughtful. I would recommend listening to this album with a pair of headphones on and no one to disturb you. It’s a truly rewarding, almost emotional experience. A bit of trivia…Australian entertainer Rolf Harris (of ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ fame) provides guest vocals and plays the didgeridoo on two of my favourite songs, ‘An Architect’s Dream’, ‘The Painter’s Link’.
6. Coheed and Cambria: Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (2005)
In much the same way that Mastodon answered my search for the next great metal band after Metallica, Coheed and Cambria answered my search for the next great prog rock band after Rush. The similarity in sound between C&C and Rush is uncanny, although they claim they had not even listened to Rush until well into their career. The album with the long name listed here contained some of their most commercially accessible songs up to this stage of their career…songs such as ‘Wake Up’, ‘The Suffering’ and ‘Welcome Home’. As with all their albums till date (they just released Afterman: Ascension a few weeks ago), the songs deal with the characters and storylines of the scifi graphic novel series The Amory Wars, written by C&C leader Claudio Sanchez.
7. System of a Down: Toxicity (2001)
SOAD were perhaps the most inventive, innovative rock/ metal band since Metallica. No doubt, their unique sound came from their ability to blend music from their Armenian roots with the classic heavy metal sound. In particular, their 2nd album Toxicity became famous for its signature rapid fire vocals from Serj Tankian and for its politically charged lyrics, especially in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. The stand out songs from this album include ‘Science’, ‘Deer Dance’ and of course, the famous ‘Chop Suey!’. A great pity that they disbanded a few years ago.
8. Coheed And Cambria: In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (2003)
My 2nd C&C album in the top 10 is their 2nd studio album. I discovered all the C&C albums at around the same time and to be honest, it is quite difficult for me to rank them in order of preference, because I like so many songs from each of the albums. Given a choice, I would have probably put their first 4 albums into this Top 10, as they were all released during the last decade. The title track from this album is perhaps their signature song and I was lucky enough to hear them perform this live at KL Live, where they were the main act in July 2010 and then again in Singapore the very next day, where they opened for Slash. It was an emotional experience when the small but fervently loyal crowd at KL Live went wild as the opening guitar lines played out and roared “Man your own jackhammer, man your battle stations” during the chorus. The album is filled with other great songs such as ‘Blood Red Summer’, ‘A Favor House Atlantic’ and ‘Cuts Marked in the March of Men’.
9. Daft Punk: Discovery (2001)
Sometime in early-2001, I switched on MTV and saw a really cool looking video in ‘80’s-scifi-anime-style featuring a blue-skinned pop group, spaceships and a futuristic city. The vocals were altered using Auto-Tune which had become popular after Cher used it for her hit single ‘Believe’ a couple of years earlier. The song was ‘One More Time’ and was the breakout mainstream hit for French duo Daft Punk; the album Discovery went on to become a global phenomenon, featuring other great tracks such as ‘Digital Love’, ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ and ‘Aerodynamic’. The music videos for these songs were all part of a feature-length animation film titled Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem which was released a couple of years later.
10. Incubus: A Crow Left of Murder (2004)
This album was my introduction to Incubus. Although their previous album Morning View sold more copies, I prefer A Crow Left of Murder of all their releases. Brandon Boyd’s pleasing vocals blend well with their uncomplicated pop-rock sound, particularly on songs like ‘Agoraphobia’, ‘Talk Shows on Mute’ and ‘Southern Girl’. Their follow-up album Light Grenades (2006) was a close contender to get into this Top 10 as well, particularly since ‘Dig’ is my favourite Incubus song. Unfortunately I missed them when they toured KL last summer.