#1 (1) Pawn Hearts – Van der Graaf Generator

Pawn_Hearts_(Van_der_Graaf_Generator_album_-_cover_art)

(UK – 1971)

Imagine a 19 year-old, dazed and confused newbie in adult life, listening to this album for the first time. He has found a second hand copy without lyrics, the US pressing with no inner sleeve. It takes him years, decades, to find out what the hell this is all about. But he remains faithful to the album – and vice versa.

In 1981, 10 years after its release, there was probably no album that nailed the condition of the world better than “Pawn Hearts” (click on pic). The title refers to the manipulation of human beings are almost always subject to. Politicians, religious leaders and captains of industry always seek to take advantage of our weaknesses.

The music exactly follows the meanings of the songs, it is an onomatopoeia par excellence.

“Lemmings” is about the ideology of doom, the nihilism of the early 1970s, the “I-Decade”. The hippie revolution had left us with the Vietnam war, an ever intensifying cold war and civil wars all over the just recently decolonized South. Dictators were as abundant as never before. But still, VdGG opposes the idea that we should just run from a cliff into our death. We have an obligation towards the next generations:

Cowards are they who run today
The fight is beginning…
No war with knives, fight with our lives
Lemmings can teach nothing
Death offers no hope, we must grope
For the unknown answer
Unite our blood, abate the flood
Avert the disaster…
There’s other ways than screaming in the mob
That makes us merely cogs of hatred
Look to the why and where we are
Look to yourselves and the stars and in the end
What choice is there left but to live
In the hope of saving
Our children’s children’s little ones?

What choice is there but to live?
What choice is there but to live?
What choice is there but to live?
To save the little ones?

What choice is there left but to try?

This could be the message for today as well.

Theme One” is the added song on the US pressing, the cover of the Radio 1 theme written by (yes, him) George Martin. David Jackson powers away on sax, a totally different atmosphere than the rest of the album.

“Man-Erg” (it is commonly believe that this is an anagram for “German”) has been discussed during my PH70 blog series in 2018, approaching Peter Hammill’s 70th birthday. The “Angel/Devil’-dilemma which can lead to heroism, cowardice and dictatorships is very hard to resolve. We are prone to all good and bad.

And I, too, live inside me and very often don’t know who I am,
I know, I’m not a hero, I hope that I’m not damned
I’m just a man, and killers, angels, all are these,
Dictators, saviors, refugees
In war and peace
As long as Man lives

The finale of this album, of this top 100, probably the soundtrack of the apocalypse, is the unequalled “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”. In November 2018, just minutes before PH’s birthday, I called it ‘the ultimate metaphor‘. The 10-piece suite has been lauded and fled from. It is a tough piece to crack. The reward is unbelievably rich.

“Pawn Hears” just has it all: poetry, jazz, rock, experiments, classics and an unmatched profundity. A well-deserved retention of first place.

I leave you with the famous live version of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” from 1972 (Belgian TV) and the 2013 version in Berlin.

Happy 2020 to you all, hope to see you again on this blog, which will be upgraded at some point during the coming year. In 2021 the next Top 100 is due. I will be counting down my 100 favorite songs until my 60th birthday.

Keep listening to the music!

#2 (10) A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

John_Coltrane_-_A_Love_Supreme

(US – 1965)

Wynton Marsalis is quoted to have said that when he got his hands on “A Love Supreme” (click on pic), he played it for 6 months straight, just to understand what was happening. I must admit, I didn’t play it as often, but often enough to understand that something unbelievable was happening.

Trane, Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums invite the listener to a journey into the world of love. Love of life, love of music, love of anything you can imagine.

“Acknowledgment” draws you in so deeply that you’re actually liable to stay submerged for 6 months or longer. It doesn’t get any more intense. The theme is all-enveloping.

“Resolution” is another soul-deep theme, but with a phenomenal groove. McCoy Tyner takes it out of this world and Trane takes us even further.

“Pursuance” is where the solos reign. Drums, bass, piano and sax again. Mastery and magnificence.

“Psalm”: the intensity is back, but even more intense. The finale beats the upbeat. It’s just Coltrane here, exploring the divinity of love the love of the divine.

“A Love Supreme” is more than an album, it is an anthem of humanity.

#3 (3) Still Life – Van der Graaf Generator

still life

(UK – 1976)

Puns and metaphors – such is not just how Peter Hammill deals with the complexity of life, but it is also life itself. “Still Life” (click on pic) mirrors this perfectly: (no matter how bad it looks, it is) still life, or: (so quiet and unspectacular, it feels like) still life. And it goes on and on.

“Pilgrims” is the metaphor of the wandering and seeking human being, always looking for some kind of purpose, in a throng, all together bound in the same quest.

Then the monumental title song, starting off with an a capella soliloquy and subsequently bursting into a resentful array of questions:

“What is the dullest and bluntest of pains,
Such that my eyes never close without feeling it there?
What abject despair demands an end to all things of infinity?
If we have gained, how do we now meet the cost?
What have we bargained, and what have we lost?
What have we relinquished, never even knowing it was there?
What thoughts now of holding fast the line,
Defying death and time?
Everything we had is gone,
Everything we laboured for and favoured more
Than earthly things reveals the hollow ring
Of false hope and false deliverance.

The higlight of the album – but opinions differ – is “La Rossa”, a multi-layered song about Apollo and Dionysus, but reversed compared to Rush’s “Hemispheres”. This time the Dionysian side has been neglected and PH wonders if platonic friendships should be valued more than friendships with a sexual touch. His final answer is clear, but a major battle with the ‘organ monkey’ precedes.

Take me, take me now and hold me
deep inside your ocean body,
wash me as some flotsam to the shore,
there leave me lying evermore!
Drown me, drown me now and hold me down
before your naked hunger,
burn me at the altar of the night –
give me life!

I don’t believe the act of sex has ever been described more poetically in a song, at least not by a man. The music beautifully interprets the lyrics and you will feel the rush of blood (=La Rossa)!

“My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)” is a bleak song about feeling abandoned by the world – knowing that connections are often just an illusion – just the opposite of what “Pilgrims” was telling us.

And the Grand Finale is a philosophical essay about reincarnation. “A Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End” is a magnum opus in 12 minutes, in which the band goes all-out (again). The final verse:

“In the death of mere humans life shall start” sums it up. There is always the consolation of dying for the greater good. Or dying to attain a better next life. We can always invent another narrative. That’s our privilege as human beings.

An album for eternity.

#4 (2) Foxtrot – Genesis

Genesis-Foxtrot-462939

(UK – 1972)

The crew of Genesis were still very young when they made this attempt to create a classic. Most of the songs have proven to be as such until this very day. I can imagine the satisfaction after finishing this album. It is said of Tony Stratton-Smith, the boss of the Famous Charisma Label, wept when he listened to the entire album for the first time.

“Foxtrot” (click on pic) is not about minor issues. “Watcher of the Skies” tackles the relationship between God and the humans, “Time Table” is about the relationship of past and present, “Get ‘em Out By Friday” can be understood as a complaint against rogue capitalism, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” as one against syncophants and “Supper’s Ready” is the good old battle between good and evil. The little instrumental “Horizons” doesn’t have a trivial title either.

“Foxtrot” is one of those “pure prog” albums giving you exactly what you expect, and more. “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” is an underrated gem offering a string of different tempos and melodies, all bound together in really exciting track. But it’s the main track that draws most of the attention, of course.

“Supper’s Ready” (the current #1 in my song top 100) is an almost superhuman achievement of joining a bundle of different songs together into one massive suite. This is an album on its own (and in fact it is longer than the shortest album on this list). I am incredibly grateful to have listened to “Supper’s Ready” being played live in 1977. But it took me years to get the full meaning and to understand the full genius of this symphony.

The highlight of the song is the drum/keyboards exchange over some heavy bass pedals on part vii: “Apocalypse in 9/8”, displaying the mastery of both Tony Banks and Phil Collins. The finale, in which we are taken to the New Jerusalem, can certainly drive you to tears.

“Foxtrot” is a truly divine album.

#5 (16) Close to the Edge – Yes

Yes-close

(UK – 1972)

From here there are not many songs left – the next albums carry the long ones. Such as the title and opening song of “Close to the Edge” (click on pic), which continues to be one of the most impenetrable songs of all times, lyrics-wise. It is said to be based on the famous “Siddharta”-novel by Herman Hesse, but as I never read that one (mainly because everyone at my high school did – rebel without a cause complex?), I never got this song. But the music does take me to another world. It is arguably one of the most daring songs in rock history, except for a few coming up next during the very last days of this week.

“And You and I” is this very unusual but beautiful (divine) love song and “Siberian Khatru” lives on this spectacular bass riff by Chris Squire that seems to make everything rock.

I’ve listened to “Close to Edge” since I was about 16 years old and it never tires. Somehow it is the music I used as a mirror to understand my complex teenage me and later discovered as a catalyst for my even more complex adult me. It just spins my head and my heart around in circles…

#6 (-) Lateralus – Tool

Lateralus (2)

(US – 2001)

The highest new entry on this list – somehow overlooked 5 years ago, but no more! The greatest metal album of all times! The totally unique Tool approach to music and to lyrics welded together into an eduring masterpiece.

“Lateralus” (click on pic) passes a harsh judgement on the human condition. All the major songs are preceded by intermezzo pieces, giving the listener a break from the unconvenient truth.

“The Grudge” is clearly about, well, holding a grudge, “like a crown of negativity“. It is clearly no way to be.

“The Patient” is about secondary gain (from disease), describing the condition that many of us don’t want to heal (from any kind of condition) because the benefits (people having to take care of us or at least taking our ‘condition’ into account) will also disappear. It’s actually about manipulation. Not such a good trait either.

“Schism” is undeniably one of the best single metal songs ever. “I know the pieces fit”, but that’s in the past tense:

There was a time that the pieces fit, but I watched them fall away
Mildewed and smoldering, strangled by our coveting
I’ve done the math enough to know the dangers of our second guessing
Doomed to crumble unless we grow and strengthen our communication

Can communication prevent the crumble of love between two human beings?
Second guessing is the worst, but if there is no communication:

“Cold silence has
A tendency to
Atrophy any
Sense of compassion
Between supposed lovers”

We’ve all been there, and Tool will poke into the wound, no mercy.

“Parabola” refers to our inclination to reduce the greatness of things to a smaller category for irony’s sake. “We are all eternal, pain is an illusion” – referring to the “Holy experience” of being part of a larger entity.

Is this doable? Can we overcome our petty suffering?

“Ticks and Leeches” could be about the Volcano Entertainment label, which Tool tried to abandon, or about illegal streaming services like Napster – though the real meaning is still not clear. But the song is quite straightforward:

“Suck and suck
Suckin’ up all you can, suckin’ up all you can suck and suck
Workin’ up under my patience like a little tick
Fat little parasite
Suck me dry
My friend is bruised and borrowed
You thieving bastards
You have turned my blood cold and bitter
Beat my compassion black and blue
Hope this is what you wanted
Hope this is what you had in mind
‘Cause this is what you’re getting
I hope you’re choking
I hope you choke on this
I hope you’re choking
I hope you choke on this”
And so is the intensity of the music.
“Lateralus” is probably one of the few songs about the (spiral) Fibonacci sequence:
“Swing on the spiral

Of our divinity
And still be a human”
Finally, “Reflection” answers the question put by “Parabola”:
“I must crucify the ego before it’s far too late
I pray the light lifts me out
Before I pine away”
So yes, the only way is beyond pettiness and insignificant suffering and look beyond “this place so negative and blind and cynical
“Triad” rocks it off in a typical orgasmic Tool fashion, and Faaip de Oiad adds to the mystery, as this literally means “Voice of God”, but it is actually a call from a staff member of Area 51 declaring the existence of aliens.
“Lateralus” is a heavy, mysterious and far-reaching message to mankind, dressed in a plethora of musical options, that seem to have been created by the Fibonacci sequence the album is based upon. Spiraling outwards, it finds outer space and alien life.
Thus the role Tool play in the universe of music. Inside out and outside in, and on this album totally nailing it!

 

#7 (53) From the Lions Mouth – The Sound

from the lion's mouth

(UK – 1981)

It has taken me almost 40 years to find out just how good this album is. “From the Lion’s Mouth” (click on pic) is the utlimate album depicting the depressed state the world was in back in 1981. The economic crisis that hit the world at that time, in combination with the threat of nuclear destruction from the US-USSR standoff plus a total decay of values in general after the “egocentric age” of the 1970s, didn’t offer young people really a head start.

The Sound, i.e. Adrian Borland, nevertheless escaped from the Lion’s Mouth, from being eaten by the monster of doom looming over us. This album has some clear optimistic   overtones. Every song carries the pace and the scars of the time.

“Winning” is the ultimate roll call to never abandon hope and overcome your difficulties. Other positive songs are “Sense of Purpose” and “Contact the Fact”. The gloomy side is audible in songs like “Skeletons”, “Fatal Flaw” and of course the heartbreaking “Silent Air”.

The finale is the anthem of the age: “New Dark Age” doesn’t leave anything out.

“Silent Air”, about the suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis a year earlier, was to have a sad sequel. Adrian Borland also took his life on april 26, 1999. He will be remembered as one of the most uncompromised musicians of the 20th century. He knew beauty, he knew pain, he knew music. We are still at loss.

#8 (-) Cursed to See the Future – Mortals

Cursed to See the Future

(US – 2014)

It was about 5 years ago that I was introduced to death metal – it was my daughter wo showed me the way – and now it has become an acquired taste. From what was called “heavy metal” in the 1970s through punk rock and “doom” to death metal is not a straight line, but the dots connect.

“Cursed to See the Future” (click on pic) is not for the faint at heart. These women mean business and explore many styles within one song. There’s a lot of doom involved, much to my liking. Caryn Havlik is an incredibly achieved drummer, which gives their music an extra layer.

A View From a Tower” is my absolute favorite. The different tempos are stunning and the band shows no mercy. “Devilspell” is also a 24-carat song. Mortals are known for their creativity, not just endless repetition. And can you imagine they started off as a Slayer cover band?

 

#9 (4) Pretties for You – Alice Cooper

Alice_Cooper_-_Pretties_for_You

(US – 1969)

I believe this is really the only way to release a debut album: get all the songs you can play and like the most yourself together and record them no matter what. No pressure at all, just be cool about it. But there’s just a few bands around willing to take that risk. Alice Cooper were lucky, of course, the producer was a guy called Zappa. This makes “Pretties for You” (click on pic) quite a special one. The critics were not really amused, nor was the general audience.

The year is 1974. One of my elementary school friends moves out of the village and his father, who has heard of me being an Alice Cooper fan, has a gift: the double album “School Days”, containing the two first Alice Cooper albums. My fav AC songs back in the day were “Halo of Flies”, “School’s Out” and “Elected”, but wtf, I need to hear this. Both albums (the other one is “Easy Action”) totally elude me. Psychedelica of the third kind is a little too much for a 12 year-old. I would play the albums probably a few times a year and the vinyl gets lost somewhere in my twenties. “Pretties for You” make a huge come-back after stumbling upon “Swing Low Sweet Cheerio”, the absolute masterpiece, probably of the entire psychedelic wave of around 1970. At second glance, this album is solid gold. No matter how weird, it never derails completely and you can always follow the ideas behind the songs. This one is ART.

“Living”, “Fields of Regret”, “Reflected” (the prequel to “Elected”!) and the experimental “Titanic Overture”, “10 Minutes Before the Worm”, “Levity Ball”, “BB on Mars” and “Today Mueller” build the backbone of the album, strong and supple. The final three songs: “Apple Bush”, “Earwigs to Eternity” and “Changing Arranging” are a little bit less “off balance”, but normality never sets in.

This is dangerously optimistic music, which frankly today I like much better than the commercial successes Alice Cooper is known for. This album is genuine, straight (and released on “Straight Records”!) and full of gems!

#10 (12) Relayer – Yes

Relayer_front_cover

(UK – 1974)

This year’s top 10 contains the undisputed essence of what I consider to be great music – for the moment, because people, music and taste evolve. “Relayer” (click on pic) contains the song most played between 1977 and 1980, and I know that because I was a total list nerd at the time and I kept a playlist as a preparation for a top 100 that was never composed during my teens, but the attempt counts…

“The Gates of Delirium” is presently (i.e. in 2016) #22 in my song top 100, with some potential, because after playing it almost to death in the 1970s it didn’t reappear until way into this century.

It is the typical “the battle between good and evil” song, very popular in prog land in those days. Yes take this one into all kinds of territories, with Chris Squire leading the way with his characteristic ‘double-touch’ sound which expands the bass sound in such a way that it becomes the lead instrument. And with Patrick Moraz replacing Rick Wakeman, it was to be a lot of pomp and circumstance.

“The Gates of Delirium” is basically two songs: after the roaring battle, with one of my absolute favorite lyrics of all time “Peaceful lives will not deliver freedom, fighting we know“, the calm sets in and “Soon” (released as a separate single) creates a totally different atmosphere.

Moving on, “Sound Chaser” is zeuhl (see #22 on this list for an explanation)-approaching madness, the fastest song ever played by a prog rock band. It rocks in overdrive, the bass again driving an unrelenting pace. The quiet piece in the middle is absolutely gorgeous.

The finale is intense and emotional. Like the finale of “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, but a bit longer and a lot more bombastic. On “To Be Over”, Steve Howe’s guitar starts to sing and becomes a symphonic orchestra. When the last notes drift away, you’re hooked.

Play – Replay – Loop.