The Stars Look Down — A Review of The Rise of Skywalker

Out of all the movies I’ve seen, Star Wars Episode IX is certainly one of them. I feel as though that’s probably the highest praise I can afford it — it’s a movie. It’s got a plot, it’s got some characters who do some things, there’s a score and some visual effects — it’s a movie. That’s more than I can probably say for The Last Jedi.

The Rise of Skywalker — whose title makes exactly zero sense until the final sixty seconds of the movie — feels a bit like the result of that game you played in drama class where everyone would say one word and try to form a cohesive sentence. Either that or the result of a game of Ultimate Chicken Horse. In 2015 Director JJ Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan (of Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark fame) gave us what was, essentially, a soft reboot of the Star Wars series — but a serviceable one. It gave us interesting new characters, some satisfying story beats with our old favorites, and plenty of mysteries for its sequels to solve.

Then along came Rian Johnson, writer and director of The Last Jedi. Don’t get me wrong, Rian Johnson has made some phenomenal work. Not only did he write and direct the delightful murder mystery Knives Out, he directed Fly and Ozymandias, which I consider to be the two best episodes of Breaking Bad. By all accounts, Rian Johnson is capable of creating some amazing work. The Last Jedi isn’t it.

TLJ was a colossal mess, for lack of a better term. The plot accomplished nothing, the new characters were pointless at best and mind-numbingly irritating at worst, the established characters completely flipped the script on their personalities (Luke being a profoundly bad offender here), and ultimately Rian Johnson took all of the interesting mysteries Abrams and Kasdan established and said ‘never mind’ to all of them. Who are Rey’s parents? No one. Who’s this Snoke guy? Doesn’t matter, he’s dead. What will Luke do to train Rey and join the fight against the First Order? Pout and then die, mostly. How will Leia’s character be effectively sent off following the untimely death of Carrie Fisher? She, uh … won’t. Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico were infuriating characters who made increasingly questionable decisions, all of our main characters became frustratingly dense, and the plot made almost no progress beyond the meaningless deaths of Luke Skywalker and Supreme Leader Snoke. So Abrams, who wrote and directed The Rise of Skywalker, had a lot of things to contend with. Did he make a great movie in spite of this adversity? No. No, he did not.

Below this picture, spoilers abound. Skip to after the next picture to avoid them.

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From literally word one, Episode IX is frustrating. Literally. The opening crawl references events that most likely all viewers have no concept of — Sith Emperor Sheev Palpatine returning from the grave and broadcasting a threatening message across the galaxy. If you had a difficult time remembering when in the Star Wars timeline that occurred, let me help you out — it happened in Fortnite. Yes, perhaps the most crucial element of the film’s plot is glossed over, and only expounded upon or even mentioned before this in an event in Fortnite. So, that’s neat. The rest of the movie is plagued by other issues just as egregious.

To start with, Leia Organa is handled incredibly poorly, to the point where it would’ve been better to have killed her off between films. She only has ‘scenes’ with Rey, and those are stilted and awkward. It’s abundantly clear that this is recycled footage (she uses the same voice clip of saying Rey’s name at least twice) to the point where I was reminded of the “my name is Judge” scene from Arrested Development every time she spoke. I understand the desire to pay tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, but the proper moment to do that would’ve been in the previous film, when they had plenty of places she could’ve died convincingly (being sucked into the vacuum of space instead of using the Force to fly like Superman, for instance).

C-3PO has been relegated to awkward comic relief for the bulk of the movie. He occupies the position decently enough, but it gets to the point where he’s making some joke in the background every thirty seconds and you just get exhausted thirty minutes in. He represents a similar issue to Korg in Thor Ragnarok, where he just kind of overstays his welcome. Similarly, Poe and Finn are basically completely different people to who they were in the last movie. Finn has, once again, a new semi-love interest, making his third in as many movies, and Poe just seems … anxious, the entire time. Luckily, there’s much more of them, unlike in The Last Jedi where Rian Johnson relegated Poe’s entire role to ‘getting told no by Admiral Holdo for unjustifiable reasons’.

Speaking of that, Abrams seemed completely unwilling to accept any of the decisions Rian Johnson made in the previous movie. While this is a laudable choice considering everything that happened in The Last Jedi was fervently stupid, it gives the movie a very disjointed, stilted feeling. The only real references to the last movie that I could identify were the character deaths and a few off-hand references to Crait and something called “The Holdo Maneuver” (which is immediately discounted as unlikely to succeed). Rose Tico is here, barely, and seems to be shoved into the backseat with Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz and whoever Dominic Monaghan was playing. While these characters are all meant to be coordinating with Leia, none of them ever speak to her at all; in fact, the only times she ever speaks in the base at all she very obviously removes herself from the area so there are fewer people to green screen in with her.

Moreover, Johnson’s defiant decisions about Rey’s parentage and Snoke’s presence as a leader are overturned once more, and it almost seems like several of the lines here are directed solely at him. Luke’s Force ghost catches Rey’s thrown lightsaber and tells her that it’s no way to treat a Jedi’s weapon (remember when he did that at the start of TLJ?). Kylo Ren informs Rey that yes, her parents were nobody, but her grandparents are another matter entirely. Palpatine similarly tells Ren that Snoke was entirely his machination in the first place. As such, we’re expected to believe that the grand mastermind this entire series has been him, despite zero evidence to suggest that existing prior to the Fortnite event. The idea of Rey potentially joining the Dark Side is recycled yet again, as is her awkward Force-Skype-call long distance relationship with Kylo Ren.

A lot of this movie just feels like fanfiction, to be completely frank. Palpatine is back from the dead, and even directly quotes several of his most-memed lines from the prequel trilogy verbatim. Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, somehow, and decides to change her name to Skywalker by the movie’s end. Kylo Ren experiences a heel-face turn akin to Darth Vader’s, albeit a much more unearned one. Rose is nonexistent. Finn is Force-sensitive. A fleet of Star Destroyers equipped with Death Star-esque planet-destroying lasers exists, but just … sits there. Chewie finally gets the medal he never got at the end of Episode IV (I was laughing out loud at that). We even get Lando Calrissian and hear flashes of the voices of Ewan McGregor, Alec Guinness, Frank Oz’s Yoda, and Hayden Christiansen, as though Abrams wanted to feature those characters but couldn’t completely commit.

As Abrams seems completely unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the previous film, he has to introduce his own concepts and see them come to fruition in the same movie. Did you know you could use the Force to heal others’ wounds? Kylo Ren will use that in his final act of self-sacrifice a la Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. Did you know that Leia trained to become a Jedi and had a lightsaber that she gave to Luke? Rey will use both in her climactic battle with Palpatine. Did you know that you can transfer objects over Force-Skype-call? Or that Force ghosts can interact with the corporeal world? Or that there’s a Sith language, and Threepio isn’t allowed to translate it? It reads like a bunch of nonsense in a similar way to Holdo blasting her ship through another ship to destroy it. Why couldn’t we do that with the Death Star? Or Starkiller Base? Whatever.

This movie feels like three movies squished into one, and it suffers greatly for its rushed plot. Kylo Ren and Rey’s arcs are difficult to believe, discovery upon discovery are heaped on us so fast it becomes impossible to parse what nonsense just happened before new nonsense is thrust in our faces. In sixty seconds, we see that Rey is strong enough with the Force to stop a spaceship from taking off, we learn that Rey can use Force lightning, we watch Chewie get killed in an explosion, and learn that he survived it after all. Similarly, Threepio heroically sacrifices his memory for the common good before getting it back an hour later. We meet an old flame of Poe’s and see that she hates him, but in the very next scene all tension between them is completely resolved. Rey’s climactic battle with Palpatine amounts to her holding two lightsabers for thirty seconds and him frying himself like in Revenge of the Sith. The deus ex machina of the final battle comes out of nowhere because the fact that Lando is going to get reinforcements is never really made explicit to begin with. Everything feels weightless, and the major character deaths are completely predictable. At one point a character literally announces “I’m the spy” after we learn that he’s the spy. It was kind of hysterical.

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Despite all my gripes, I still think this is a better movie than The Last Jedi. To be clear — it’s not a good movie. But it’s at least a movie. The score is, as usual, brilliant (though the Imperial March is hugely overused, and the Star Wars theme appears at an awkward time). The visual effects are staggering and beautiful. Some of the new characters are effective, like Keri Russell’s Zori and Naomi Ackie’s Jannah, and it’s still great to see some of the classic actors in their old characters’ shoes again, despite how poorly most of them are handled.

It’s become increasingly clear over the course of this series that it should’ve been planned from the outset. The prequel trilogy was a mess, but at least it told a story and had a singular vision for what that story was going to be. The sequel trilogy was a jumbled mess of orphaned plot threads, contrived explanations and coincidences, and absurd decisions. It’s really a shame it went this way — I firmly believe that JJ Abrams or, frankly, even Rian Johnson could’ve done a passable job if they’d been given the reins over an entire trilogy. Instead we got a weird game of hot potato with neither one of them wanting to surrender their own disparate visions, and the result was a trilogy in which the third movie had to do the work of the other two and inevitably failed.

The Rise of Skywalker is a spectacular disaster. It looks and feels like a great sci-fi action movie, but makes so little sense otherwise that it’s almost surprising it even got made. I’ve been in Star Wars fatigue for the better part of three years, and sincerely hope the franchise is permanently put to bed, but I’m sure we’ll see more. Hopefully whoever helms the next set of films will learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.

The Studio Walls — Top 20 Albums of the 2010s

It’s December, which means it’s once again that time of year where I crawl out of my cave and do some year-end nonsense about video games or music or something. Given that we’re nearly to 2020, I thought I’d do something a little more encompassing and tackle an enumeration of some of the best music of the last decade. As such, herein are the 20 albums released in or after 2010 that I think rise above the rest. There’s plenty left out here, and a lot of representation from a few prolific artists, but I decided not to restrict myself to only one album from each artist because that would be, quite frankly, unfair to the people here that have several albums representing them. Let’s kick off with some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mention — 2 by Mudcrutch

Mudcrutch’s history as a band is storied, forming in the early ’70s, disbanding, and reforming to release an album in 2008. Mudcrutch 2 is a lovely bit of southern-country blues rock. It’s nothing special or cerebral, but it’s plain goodness and easy listening. While a solid album, its presence as an honorable mention is, admittedly, mostly an attempt for me to get some recognition on this list for the late, great Tom Petty, whose last recorded work was on this album.

Honorable Mention — Aquarius by Haken

Haken is probably the greatest new presence on the progressive rock scene to come about in the last decade, and their debut album Aquarius is brilliant, if unrefined. Some musical bits go on a bit too long or get a bit too heady, but the trademark Haken absurdity is here in full force. Vocalist Ross Jennings and keyboardist Diego Tejeida really showed their stripes here, but Aquarius is missing some of the sting and complexity that would come later from the band. I highly recommend the stripped-down, 22-minute medley of the album from their 2017 live release to get a real feel for the greatness here.

Honorable Mention — Mandatory Fun by “Weird Al” Yankovic

It’d be unfair to talk about my favorite music without at least a passing mention of the genius himself, the person I’ve seen in concert more than anyone else, Al Yankovic. Mandatory Fun may not have some of the same genius as his earlier releases, but he showed his continue relevance here tackling some more modern hits. His parodies of Blurred Lines and Radioactive are outstanding, and his style parodies like Mission Statement, a painfully accurate parody of CSNY, are tremendous. It’s a bummer he won’t be releasing traditional albums anymore, but Mandatory Fun was a great send-off into a new stage of the comic legend’s career.

 

Now onto the list proper …

20. Second Nature by Flying Colors

You won’t be surprised to know that the legendary Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy combo will be appearing on this list numerous times. I know I’m not alone in thinking that these two are among a few keeping the spirit of classic prog rock alive, and Flying Colors is just one of many outlets of theirs in that endeavor. Second Nature, the sophomore release from the band, is equal parts punchy, ruminative, and grandiose, with epic tracks Open Up your Eyes and Cosmic Symphony bookending the album, punchy love songs like A Place in your World and One Love Forever, and straightforward rockers like Mask Machine and Bombs Away throughout. It’s a great catalog of the band’s different musical styles, and while it doesn’t quite reach the peaks of their first release, there’s plenty here to love.

19. Distance Over Time by Dream Theater

In a rare example of a band listening to their fanbase’s desires, Dream Theater splashed big this year with Distance Over Time, the follow-up to 2016’s misguided attempts at recapturing the magic of their first concept album. While The Astonishing had good bits sprinkled throughout and an ambitious tale to tell, it was bogged down with unnecessary noodling, extended sections of weak musical efforts, and the ever-present poor mixing that made Mangini’s drums sound like buckets and John Myung’s bass completely absent. Enter Distance Over Time, which not only vastly improved their sound, but also their songwriting. Riff-driven and energetic tunes dominate, with standouts like Barstool Warrior and S2N giving a glimpse of what made us all love Images and Words almost 30 years ago. Myung is back in the mix, Mangini’s drums sound like drums, and while the two epics here (At Wit’s End and Pale Blue Dot) are rather weak, Distance Over Time is by far the band’s best showing in a decade, and their best work since Mangini’s replacement of Mike Portnoy all those years ago.

18. The Mission by Styx

Styx doing a concept album sans-Deyoung is certainly an odd prospect, but the veteran pomp-rockers gave a surprisingly great showing with this release in 2017. Plenty of tracks hearken back to their old, Shaw-led material like Lights and Man in the Wilderness, and relative newcomers like keyboardist-vocalist Lawrence Gowan (yes, that Gowan) and drummer Todd Sucherman prove themselves as phenomenal additions to the line-up, which includes original members JY Young and Chuck Panozzo as well as Tommy Shaw. Radio Silence and Hundred Million Miles from Home ring of classic Styx hits, Gone Gone Gone and The Greater Good are great showcases for Gowan’s considerable vocal prowess, and they even get a bit proggy with songs like Red Storm which features some excellent drumming from Sucherman. It’s safe to say that this one beats out Kilroy by a substantial margin.

17. Vector by Haken

Released last year, Haken’s most recent effort is an exercise in downsizing with great results. Clocking in at just 45 minutes, Vector is veritably minuscule by prog standards, but not a second is wasted. Relaying a tale of a sinister doctor and his patient that makes subtle and fun references to their earlier material, Vector is full of that chaotic sound Haken is known for with intermingled ballads and instrumentals to keep things fresh. It’s got everything you want from Haken — a short lead-in tune, three straightforward prog-metal rockers, a 12-minute epic, a somber ballad with a flugelhorn solo, and a frenzied instrumental. That they could accomplish this in such a relatively short album is laudable, and Vector easily stands among their best material, representing the refinement of their musicality and storytelling.

16. The Theory of Everything by Ayreon

A brief respite from Arjen Lucassen’s sweeping space epics that are as corny as they are genius, The Theory of Everything is a sort of new kind of Ayreon album. This is the first and only Ayreon album not to reuse any vocalists from previous projects, and the only album whose story isn’t deeply-rooted in sci-fi pulp. The Theory of Everything has a bit of an uninspired story, most likely as a result of its disconnection from the larger Ayreon mythos, and as such the lyrics are a bit awkward, but the vocalists and guest musicians are all a great treat to hear. This album represents the first appearance on this list of Toehider’s Mike Mills, who has become a favorite musician of mine, and also has great vocal turns from Kamelot’s Tommy Karevik and the late, great John Wetton of Asia and King Crimson, not to mention guest solos from prog legends like Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett. The Theory of Everything is, to me, one of Ayreon’s weaker releases, but still stands tall as a testament to progressive extravagance and over-the-top storytelling and music.

15. The Great Adventure by the Neal Morse Band

A sequel to 2016’s The Similitude of a Dream, this year’s The Great Adventure continues the story inspired by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, this time focusing on the son of the protagonist from the first album. That sentence is really only something you can say when talking about progressive rock. The Neal Morse Band is a collection of enormous musical talent, the previously-mentioned Portnoy and Morse joining bassist Randy George, keyboardist Bill Hubauer, and guitar master Eric Gillette. The Great Adventure manages to be a worthy successor to Similitude, bringing in great new hits like the title track, Welcome to the World, and the poppy Vanity Fair, and while every track has its own personality and musical themes, Morse and co. manage to deftly tie in the musical themes of the first album in something that really becomes a treat for fans and newcomers alike. The Great Adventure defies the odds and stands strongly as an effort of its own and as part of a larger picture, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical undertakings in recent memory.

14. What Kind of Creature Am I? by Toehider

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing what the hell Toehider is (hit YouTube) or not quite understanding just what’s going on with their music on first listen. Mike Mills, the sole instrumentalist/songwriter/vocalist behind the band, writes some truly strange and hare-brained music, but for whatever reason pretty much everything he does checks my boxes. Creature is a great collection of some of Mills’ best work, with the title track a continuation of a decidedly weird story about a little monster whose father got cheated on by his wife, who was a rock monster who left dust wherever she went and as such he went to the locals to dust them off and determine who she — … you get the idea. Alongside it are some great classic rock tracks like Whatever Makes you Feel Superior and The Thing with Me, and proggier outings like Under the Future we Bury the Past and the epic Meet the Sloth. It’s all downright odd, to be sure, but it’s all just … good. More on that later.

13. Tracker by Mark Knopfler

Those who know me were probably wondering when we’d get some Knopfler on this list. Here he is! Definitely different from everything that’s come before him on this ranking, Mark Knopfler is the folk-rock genius behind not only Dire Straits and some great film scores, but also a slew of solo albums, each one rife with some of the best songwriting and atmosphere to be found today. Tracker is melancholic and thoughtful, and boasts some of the most diligent song creation found on a Knopfler album to date. The opener, Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes is both catchy and heartfelt, as are other works of storytelling like Beryl and River TownsLights of Taormina and Mighty Man give us some mournful ballads, and Broken Bones and Skydiver serve to lighten things up a bit. Wherever I Go, the final piece on the album, features not only some excellent saxophone work from Nigel Hitchcock, but also beautiful guest vocals from Ruth Moody, who’s worth checking out on her own as well. The bonus tracks are also all exceptional and run the gamut from campy banjo country to homages to classic rock.

12. Kaleidoscope by Transatlantic

The only release by the prog-rock supergroup in the 2010s (though more is coming), Kaleidoscope is a great representation of the musical talents in the group. Featuring yet more Morse/Portnoy genius, the quartet is rounded out by guitarist Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings, and bassist Pete Trewavas of Marillion. The opening and closing epics, Into the Blue and the title track, are grandiose as ever, and are indicative of a much tighter and more riff-driven approach to the prog epic than we saw on their previous outing, 2009’s The Whirlwind. Where their earlier work would often meander off into vagueness or ambiance on their longer tracks, the lengthy tracks on Kaleidoscope (both of which clock in at around half an hour) are mostly punchy and exciting throughout. Shine and Beyond the Sun show off Morse’s particular talents in the ballad form, and Black as the Sky is just some rollicking prog rock goodness. Truly, Kaleidoscope is the best we’ve gotten yet from Transatlantic, and I can’t wait to see what else they’ve got coming.

11. The Union by Elton John and Leon Russell

Here’s a bit of a strange one for you. British pop icon Elton John and American veteran songwriter Leon Russell might not seem a likely combination at first, but from the very first this album demonstrates just how sublime this duo and their music can be. The Union represents a bit of a genre shift for both musicians in different directions, but their voices and piano compliment each other so incredibly well it’s kind of amazing that something like this didn’t happen before. While John and Russell are the stars of the show here, the album is a veritable who’s-who of songwriting, with John accompanied by his ever-present writer Bernie Taupin, backing musicians consisting of the likes of Booker T. Jones and T Bone Burnett, and backing vocalists like Neil Young, Brian Wilson, and Chicago’s Jason Scheff and Lou Pardini. The music here is all tremendous, going everywhere from dark ballads like Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes and There’s No Tomorrow, plaintive love songs like When Love is Dying and I Should Have Sent Roses, historical fare like Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream and the excellent Gone to Shiloh, and more upbeat piano-driven tunes like If it Wasn’t for Bad and my personal favorite Hey Ahab. There’s a lot to love here, and it’s a shame John and Russell never got together to do something else like this again before Russell’s death in 2016. Needless to say, The Union was a stroke of genius.

10. The Grand Experiment by the Neal Morse Band

The Neal Morse Band comes back in at number 10, this time with their debut album. The Grand Experiment exemplifies its title well, boasting an assortment of different genres in its five tracks. The title track is rock played straight, with Morse’s rougher vocals given a chance to shine. Waterfall wouldn’t sound out of place as an acoustic track on a contemporary Christian album, and gives guitarist Eric Gillette’s vocals considerable time to shine. Agenda is a goofy, up-tempo tune showcasing the guitars, while Alive Again, the album’s finisher, is a 25-minute prog epic that gives every vocalist and instrument in the band time in the spotlight. It’s incredible, if a bit bloated. The album opener, The Call, is probably the best prog song of the past decade, sweeping and majestic while remaining relentlessly catchy and musically impressive. The famous Neal Morse keyboard sound is all over the place here, and Portnoy’s drums are especially technical and showy. The bonus tracks are also quite good, with particular mention going to Bill Hubauer’s rendition of MacArthur Park and his vocal showcase on Doomsday Destiny. The Grand Experiment may have just been the newest iteration of Neal Morse’s band testing the waters, but it lives up to its name as a tremendous debut.

9. Flying Colors by Flying Colors

What’s that? You want more Morse/Portnoy? Enjoy. Flying Colors’s 2012 debut was a bombastic showcase of what the new combination of prog, rock, and pop forces could muster. The album plays like an introduction to not only the band, but each individual member, with each having a few songs that showcase them specifically and a few that feature some excellent combinations of their efforts as a full band. Guitarist Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs, bassist Dave LaRue, and vocalist Casey MacPherson add some excellent texture to our favorite duo, and somewhat refreshingly this doesn’t feel entirely like a Morse-helmed ship (though there are two of them) as many of the Morse/Portnoy projects tend to. MacPherson on lead vocal duty is a welcome, poppy addition to the crew, and the other Morse’s guitar work soars, bringing some creativity from his instrumental work with the Dregs. The album opener Blue Ocean is one of the catchiest songs of the past decade, and Portnoy’s lead vocal on Fool in my Heart is a refreshing surprise before the epic Infinite Fire closing the album. Flying Colors is one of the only bands to successfully combine the sound of mainstream pop rock with the ingenuity of prog, and their first release is a perfect example of their worth as a supergroup.

8. Paper Airplane by Alison Krauss and Union Station

Another shift here as we get into the final entries on the list. In my efforts to compile this list, I scrolled back through Wikipedia to ensure there weren’t any gems I’d forgotten, and this one from 2011 nearly escaped my recollection. How the hell has it been almost 9 years since we got an album from Alison Krauss and Union Station? Krauss is one of the best female vocalists in the industry right now, and has been for the better part of 35 years. Her bluegrass stylings were on display in full force here, and her deeply talented backing band has never been better. Special note goes to dobro player Jerry Douglas, and guitarist/vocalist Dan Tyminski, who provide what I believe to be the quintessential bluegrass sound behind Krauss’s mellifluous vocals and stirring fiddle work. Krauss shines especially on her rendition of Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell and the title track, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t Tyminski’s tremendous vocals and guitar on songs like Dust Bowl Children and Bonita and Bill Butler that really made this album for me. When Paper Airplane arrived, it had been far too long since the last collaboration between Alison Krauss and Union Station, and we find ourselves in that place again. I hope the next decade brings more.

7. Down the Road Wherever by Mark Knopfler

Down the Road Wherever feels like the other side of Tracker’s coin. Here Knopfler manages to maintain the sense of beautiful melancholy that permeated his previous record without retreading the same ground (except perhaps on a couple of tracks that sound suspiciously similar to some of his other work). Whatever Tracker lacked in this endeavor, Down the Road Wherever picks up the slack. Knopfler delivers his usual atmosphere and storytelling prowess to these tracks, with an overall pervasive feeling that the album is a fond farewell (though let’s hope it isn’t). Trapper Man and Good on you Son are instantly ear-catching, Drover’s Row and My Bacon Roll’s irreverent storytelling are nonetheless poignant, and the album-titler One Song at a Time and gentle acoustics of Matchstick Man easily slot in with the best of Knopfler’s 40+ year career as a master songsmith. There are tinges of his past works here, with some songs sounding like they’d be at home on Sailing to Philadelphia or Shangri-La, but as with everything he does, this is an entirely unique effort only Mark Knopfler could produce. Here’s hoping it’s not the last we get.

6. Good by Toehider

Speaking of unique, Toehider’s Good is certainly that. This was my first real exposure to Toehider, back in 2017 and straight off my real introduction to Mike Mills (which is coming up on this list). Good is an aptly-named and deeply strange effort that certainly reeks of Mike Mills’s particular brand of comedy-prog-metal, and no two tracks sound alike or like anything else anyone’s ever released. Good trims some of the fat present on Mills’s previous releases, ending up with a perfect microcosm of Toehider’s music. Present are the fantastical and somewhat disturbing storytelling in I’ve Been So Happy Living Down Here in the Water and [funnythings], the surprising depth in This Conversation is Over, the pithy acoustics in Dan VS Egg and the title track, the deconstruction of a simple concept in How Do Ghosts Work? and the downright absurdity in It’s So Fikkis! Good is distilled Toehider, and whenever anyone asks me what the hell Toehider even is, it’s the album I point to. Everything is strange, everything is unique, everything is clever and musically complex. Everything is … good.

5. The Mountain by Haken

Top five time! With their first two releases, Haken proved they could tell a story and write some long-form, complicated prog. With The Mountain, they solidified themselves as masters of the art, stripping away the bloat, cutting out some of the headiness, and refining their musical talents to a sharpened point. The Mountain is certainly the pinnacle (no pun intended) of their career thus far, and is completely lacking in basically any of the weaknesses their previous work had. In Memoriam and Atlas Stone are true earworms, Pareidolia and Falling Back to Earth are sweeping epics, Because it’s There and As Death Embraces are somber ballads … Haken made the wise choice of separating themselves from the ambitious rock operas they wrote earlier in their career, and the result is a set of semi-related but all exquisite ‘shorter’ tracks. And of course, we can’t mention this album or even Haken without special note to Cockroach King, representative of the strangeness of their early work and the tighter structure they’d adhere to in the future. While all of Haken’s albums have great tracks, The Mountain is pretty much full of them.

4. The Source by Ayreon

The Source was my introduction to Ayreon, and still stands among my favorite of Arjen Lucassen’s work in this wacky sci-fi epic of a music project. Lucassen’s vast instrumental prowess is the show-stealer here, with his story largely retreading the same beats of 2008’s 01011001. That said, The Source is still chock-full of badass prog-metal, and Lucassen pulls some seriously great vocalists and instrumentalists, including vocalists Tobias Sammet of Edguy (a longtime rival of Lucassen’s in this rather niche genre), Nightwish’s Floor Jansen, Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, and the aforementioned Mike Mills on vocals, and Paul Gilbert and the incomparable Guthrie Govan as guest instrumentalists. The Source is rather short for an Ayreon project, but certainly benefits from its brevity for the most part. Where many previous releases (particularly 01011001) floundered under their own weight, The Source is refreshingly sprightly, with a large supply of upbeat tunes like Run! Apocalypse! Run!Journey to Forever, and who could forget, Everybody Dies. Each vocalist is used tremendously well, with special note going to Mills’s crazy binary singing and James LaBrie, who manages to bring emotion and depth to his performance in a way we’ve never heard him do with Dream Theater. The Source is perhaps not Lucassen’s best work (that crown goes to Into the Electric Castle), but it’s certainly a strong representative of his musical prowess at its best.

3. Privateering by Mark Knopfler

If Down the Road Wherever is the other side of Tracker’s coin, then Privateering is the other side of 2009’s Get Lucky, which, had it been released a year later, would’ve certainly found a home on this list. Privateering is the longest album Knopfler’s put out to date, and its 20 tracks and 3 bonus tracks have nary a weak spot among them. I’ve already gushed about Knopfler’s sublime storytelling, atmosphere, and instrumental prowess twice on this list, so there’s not too much else to say here other than that Privateering is an insanely strong collection of songs. Favorite of mine include the jaunty Corned Beef City and Privateering, the intensely somber Haul Away and Dream of the Drowned Submariner, the brash Hot or What and Don’t Forget your Hat, the atmospheric Seattle and Radio City Serenade, and my personal favorite Knopfler tune of the past decade, Yon Two Crows, equal parts melancholic, ambient, and profound. Listen to that and tell me you can’t feel every bit of the chill and determination Knopfler sings about. Privateering is nothing short of a crowning achievement for Knopfler, and includes some of his finest work. While what came after is just as brilliant, Privateering just has something about it that places it above them. There’s no weakness here. Only artistry.

2. The Similitude of a Dream by the Neal Morse Band

My rather verbose review of Similitude from when it first released pretty much covers all the bases here, but it truly is a work of art. Listening to this as someone familiar with Neal Morse’s work one gets the feeling that this was the album he’d been waiting his entire life to make, and merely had to wait til the right combination of inspiration and bandmates came his way. Morse had been well into the idea of the religious prog epic by 2016, with previous efforts like Sola Scriptura, Testimony, and One all trying, with various degrees of success, to capture the sound and feeling of what was no doubt rattling around Neal Morse’s soul for the past few decades. The Grand Experiment was Morse seemingly testing the waters with his assembled bandmates, having worked with all of them prior in some capacity or another, and Similitude solidified everything this group and Morse himself had been working up to. It’s impossible to even pick out a few tracks that are the best material here; it’s a cohesive piece meant to be experienced as a whole, and while most of the tracks are just as good alone, when put together the album becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Neal Morse created nothing short of a masterpiece with The Similitude of a Dream, and there’s nothing else like it.

1. Clockwork Angels by Rush

If you’re at all surprised by this, you’ve simply not been paying attention. Clockwork Angels, what we’ve mostly resigned ourselves to accepting to be Rush’s final album, is simply exceptional. Rush’s only release in the past decade, their 2012 showing proved not only to be a tremendous realization of an ambitious form they’d never attempted before — a full concept album — but also their best work in at least 20 years. Start to finish, Clockwork Angels is driving, captivating, and poignant, while relating a complex narrative that deals with the themes of wanderlust, autonomy, envy, and loss. Smartly, Neil Peart is never too on-the-nose with his lyrics, retaining enough clarity to follow the story should one choose, but remaining vague and thematic enough for the songs to all relate their specific themes just as well. Whether it’s the ideas of envy leading to self-destruction in The Anarchist and The Wreckers, the driven exploration of Seven Cities of Gold and Caravan, the awe and majesty of the title track, or the wistful pensiveness of Halo Effect and outright tear-jerker The Garden, the themes are all explored just as beautifully by Peart’s lyrics as they are by the masterful music that brings them to life. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart are in top form here, with Headlong Flight in particular standing out as a bombastic display of how immensely talented these three are as musicians. This album represents the end of Rush, but it also represents a phenomenal group of musicians closing the book on a 40-year career on their own terms. Devastating though it may be to see the end, how lucky we are to have this as the final word. Clockwork Angels sits comfortably amidst not only Rush’s best work, but the best progressive rock ever made, and is without a doubt the greatest album released in the past decade.