In time-honoured fashion, then, as we come towards the end of the year, I’ve jotted down some thoughts on my favourite albums of the year. As was the case last year, we’ve been really spoilt this year with an absolute glut of top-notch albums – so much so that for the first time, I’ve been tempted into making a Top 20 rather than a top 10. I always despair when I hear people moaning that no-one’s making great music any more – it actually makes me angry, because all it means is that the person who is complaining hasn’t bothered trying to find out what’s out there, and is instead content to sit back and be fed whatever is flavour of the month. If they then believe that they’re getting fed the cream of the crop, rather than whatever is having hods of cash thrown at it by the dying embers of what is now laughingly called the ‘music industry’, then frankly they deserve to be unhappy with their lot.
Anyway, lest this descend into a suitably festive attack on that subset of the human race that has failed to master the complexities of using Google, here’s some of the stuff that’s turned up this year that has really excited me :-).
 Beyond The Shrouded Horizon by Steve Hackett
It’s a mark of the quality of the opposition this year that Hackett’s latest offering only just barely makes my top 20. His recent marital breakup seems to have really lit a fire under him – not that he really needed one lit, since his output over the past 20-odd years has been of a sensationally high standard, but there really is a sense of a man rediscovering his mojo in a big way. His last album, Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth was an absolute blinder, and if this album isn’t quite as consistently brilliant, it’s not for lack of trying.
As always, the album runs an enormous gamut of styles, and as you’d expect from Mr Hackett, the guitar playing here is beyond sublime – many guitarists go their whole careers and never come up with anything anywhere near this good. There’s a little musical surprise around every corner, and even though the album clocks in at a perfectly respectable 57 minutes, it manages to feel a fair bit shorter: the first time I heard it, it was so immersive that I lost all sense of time, and felt sure that it couldn’t be much more than 40 minutes long. This is typical of Hackett, whose albums are always this immersive.
The theme this time is a travelogue of sorts, and Hackett whisks you around the world in a series of songs and instrumental vignettes which are effortlessly beguiling and atmospheric. It has to be said, though, that the real jewel in the crown here is the closing track, the 12-minute long Turn This Island Earth, which has the same essential effect as watching back-to-back David Attenborough documentaries: by the end of it all, you feel very small and humbled by everything you’ve seen (or in this case, heard). It’s an utterly beautiful, powerful piece of work, and further proof that the ex-Genesis guitarist is still at the very peak of his powers. Long may it remain so.
HIGHLIGHTS: Between The Sunset And The Coconut Palms, Two Faces Of Cairo, Turn This Island Earth
 Evanescence by Evanescence
Finally, the third Evanescence album arrived… an album some of us were starting to wonder if we’d ever see. First we waited whilst sole remaining original member and vocalist Amy Lee took ‘time out’ from the band in the wake of the controversy-dogged album The Open Door. As the years passed, the break seemed to be more than temporary, especially once Amy fell pregnant. Then, news that she was writing – but that it only “might” be for Evanescence. Then, the news that they’d started to write an album, and that the material had been scrapped, followed by talk of experimenting with loops and electronics. The words “trip hop” were mentioned. Many metal fans became worried (not me, I like me some trip-hop and/or electronica, so I was merely curious). The wait continued.
Now it’s here, it seems that the talk of a shift in the Evanescence sound was overstated. Yes, there is some subtle electronica here and there, but then there was on The Open Door as well. This is basically business as usual for the band that gave us Bring Me To Life, Going Under and Lithium – in fact if there’s a surprise here at all, it’s that the album lacks the light and shade that delivered a classic ballad of the My Immortal ilk; it’s feisty femme metal with a distinctly radio friendly feel throughout. It’s a pity that Lee didn’t feel able to continue the experimentation with the band’s signature sound that led to some pleasant surprises on The Open Door. Then again, perhaps the comparatively hostile reaction that that album had from the band’s older fans was all the dissuasion she needed on that front.
That’s not to imply that the album isn’t a good one, though: what it lacks in comparative variety, it happily makes up with melody, enormously memorable choruses and Lee’s typically gutsy, larger-than-life delivery, which squeezes every last drop of emotion out of every line. Some may view her approach as OTT, which I think is unfair: clearly writing from personal experience as ever, Lee pours herself into every song and it’s very easy to be drawn into the material. It’s not hard to see why she and her band remain so popular, even after so long away from the scene.
If you weren’t a fan to begin with, there’s not likely to be much here to sway you one way or the other. That said, it’s virtually impossible to hear a song like What You Want *just once* and not come away with its chorus stuck in your brain like a pickaxe handle. This has always been Lee’s talent, and happily, nothing has changed.
HIGHLIGHTS: What You Want, My Heart Is Broken, Erase This
 The Path Of Totality by Korn
It’s always nice when an experiment goes well instead of going sadly wrong. It seems quite a few bands have been content to throw their self-imposed rule books out of the window, but very few have worked anywhere near as well as Korn’s bold experiments with adding dubstep (of all things) to their signature sound.
You probably know how Korn have tended to sound over the past decade or so: big, detuned riffs and flirtations with so-called ‘Sport Metal’ (a very unfortunate tag, but there you go): well, the fury has not abated noticeably, if at all, but the re-tooled Korn have definitely made a substantial shift in their sound. The big programmed drums of dubstep are present and correct – and it might seem like drummer Ray Luzier might not have too much to do, but he plays in and out of the thundering beats with skill and a fine ear for what helps to drive the material onwards – in some ways he’s the real star of the show this time out. That’s not to diminish the other members of the band, though, especially guitarist James Schaffer’s typically chunky riffing and Jonathan Davis’s typically intense and dramatic vocals, which have been fearlessly processed here and there to add another element to his delivery.
It’s almost a complete 180-degree turn from the ‘old-school Korn’ approach of their last album, and they should be applauded for having the belief to make it work. Yes, at times it comes across almost like a new Pendulum album, but as anyone who’s heard me waxing lyrical about Pendulum’s last album, the wonderful Immersion, will testify, that’s no bad thing in my eyes. Full of humour, bile and bloody-minded energy, this is the sound of a band with something to prove. I don’t doubt that there’ll be Korn fans out there that can’t come to terms with the change, but this is the most energised Korn have sounded in ages – possibly since Issues back in the 90s. This is a recent arrival compared with pretty much everything else in my top 20, but I loved it right out of the box, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.
HIGHLIGHTS: Kill Mercy Within, Burn The Obedient, Bleeding Out
 Fly From Here by Yes
Well, there’s life in the old dog(s) yet. It had become increasingly easy to accuse Yes of creative stagnation, what with nearly a decade passing between this and their last album, the Yes-goes-orchestral experiment of Magnification, and the band touring almost constantly in the interim, seemingly content to rest on their laurels. It seemed the wheels were going to come off altogether when long-standing vocalist Jon Anderson was essentially given his marching orders, and Yes tribute band vocalist Benoit David was brought in to take his place… and yet, whilst David lacks the charisma and talent for truly bizarre lyric writing that Anderson has in spades, the impossible has happened: the substitution – and the return of past members Geoff Downes on keyboards, and Trevor Horn in the producers chair – has enabled the band to return to the studio and produce this album – which is also happily their best for quite some time, at the very least since 1994’s fabulous Talk.
Typically, there is a faction of the fanbase that can’t adjust to life without Anderson at the mic, but it really is their loss, because this is a great record. There’s some real fire in the belly again (clearly evident on the closing Into The Storm, and elsewhere too), and several Yes traditions (the lengthy titular multi-part suite, and an acoustic showcase for guitarist Steve Howe – who still plays electric guitar quite unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard – among them). David acquits himself quite well for his first time in the studio with the band, and Downes slots in as if he’d never left.
I was starting to think that without the guiding influence of departed guitarist/writer Trevor Rabin at the helm, Yes were essentially moribund, or at least a pale shadow of their former selves. This album has caused some hasty reassessment. This is ‘old-fashioned’ progressive rock done precisely how it should be, with energy and style. And yes, that *is* a Roger Dean sleeve you see before you.
Welcome back, fellas. It’s been a while.
HIGHLIGHTS: Fly From Here, Solitaire, Into The Storm
 The Enigma Of Life by Sirenia
Symphonic metal – especially the female-fronted variety – seems to be undergoing a bit of a revolution lately. This is no bad thing, since recently the genre has seemed singularly lacking in imagination, seemingly content to produce material mired in the increasingly clichéd styles pioneered many years ago by the true trailblazers of the genre. Sirenia, happily, have rarely been dull or unimaginative since their inception and have managed to keep their output fresh and modern.
Like their forebears Nightwish, they’ve recently opted to take a very different tack with their vocals, ditching the more operatic stylings of their past vocalists and filling their lead vocalist spot with Spanish Pop Idol contestant Ailyn. As with Nightwish’s recruitment of the much more mainstream vocals of Anette Olzon, Ailyn’s recruitment caused its own fair share of controversy among Sirenia’s fans when it occurred, but – as has been the case with Olzon in Nightwish – Ailyn’s presence has helped to steer the band in a somewhat different direction. Whereas the Sirenia of the past very much fit the symphonic metal template, Ailyn’s mainstream – dare I even say ‘pop’? – vocals have enabled the band to produce two very slick, modern albums with one eye on the Gothic stylings of the past and another firmly fixed on the charts and a wider audience. Sirenia’s kingpin Morten Veland, who writes the majority of the band’s material, has managed to marry Ailyn’s vocal style to a more melodic, concise approach to songwriting. Nowhere is this more apparent than on new song The Twilight In Your Eyes, where Veland’s overtly gothic flourishes and crunching riffs are married to full-bore orchestration (complete with massed choir) and a completely bewitching performance from Ailyn, with a chorus to die for. Veland and his bandmates should also be congratulated for embracing technology in a way that many metal bands seem unable to wrap their heads around. There is ample use of loops, vocal effects, samples and even a stutter edit(!) here, which wraps things in a pleasingly contemporary air.
Whilst the highs are undeniably rather high, this latest offering is unfortunately hamstrung by two failings: a slight lack of variety (too many of these songs sound interchangeable; not an especially horrific sin as the standard is very high, but more variety would be welcome), and a sadly non-impactive production which robs the guitars in particular of their power and at its worst makes you feel like you’re listening to the rhythm guitars through a brick wall. If the band can address these problems next time around, there’ll be no stopping them – a band that until recently have rarely played live, Sirenia are now in real danger of making a real breakthrough.
HIGHLIGHTS: Fallen Angel, The Twilight In Your Eyes, Fading Star
NEXT TIME: 15-11!