A Companion, Unobtrusive – Top 10 Albums of 2020

[Sanctimonious monologuing about unprecedented times and the joy of artistic creation amidst darkness and dismay]

Here are the top 10 best albums of the year.

10. Ayreon – Transitus

I’m going to come out of the gate here and say that, as a devotee of Arjen Lucassen and his many projects, Transitus was a massive disappointment to me. Its story is trite (ostensibly meant to serve as a movie script, which I have no doubt would’ve produced a borderline unwatchable feature), the cast of guest vocalists is rather weak when compared to prior efforts, it’s overly narrated to the point of absurdity, and its musical themes aren’t nearly as inventive as on albums like The Theory of Everything and Into the Electric Castle. All that said, an Ayreon album is a bit like French toast — even when it’s not very good, it’s still pretty great. And for all the problems I have with Transitus, it’s still an enjoyable and corny prog romp with some outstanding musical performances (special mention goes to Ayreon rookie Juan van Emmerloot and his incredibly inventive and captivating drumming). Doctor Who’s Tom Baker does an admirable job as the narrator, though he overstays his welcome with at least 30 seconds of usually unnecessary exposition preceding every track, and though they only have one song each, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and Toehider’s Mike Mills knock their songs out of the park. Tommy Karevik is serviceable, and Marcela Bovio and Simone Simons (all three of whom have previously been on Ayreon records) are always a joy to listen to, but the rest of the vocalists are simply forgettable or, at the least, very much not to my taste. I appear to be rather alone in the Ayreon community with this opinion, but Transitus feels very much like an album that could’ve been cut down to about 40 minutes of music to tell its uninspired story, and suffers from the same bloat as some of Lucassen’s previous work. However, the music on here that’s good is very, very good, and it’s still a worthwhile listen despite likely being Lucassen’s weakest album.

Best tracks: Listen to my Story, Dumb Piece of Rock, Get Out! Now!

9. Dennis DeYoung — 26 East, Vol. 1

Dennis DeYoung is on the short list of artists that I’ve seen in concert at least thrice (amidst such stars as Neal Morse and Al Yankovic), and as a big fan of Dennis’s work with Styx I had high hopes for his first solo effort in over a decade (and the first one that got any notable fanfare since the ’80s). While 26 East doesn’t give us Styx, it certainly gives us Dennis DeYoung hearkening back to his 3-decade tenure as its frontman — one only needs to look at the album art to see the obvious Stygian inspiration — with a batch of tracks that perhaps wouldn’t sound out of place on the B-sides of late ’70s/early ’80s Styx hits like Too Much Time on my Hands or Come Sail Away. DeYoung’s voice has aged, though astonishingly gracefully, and the 73-year-old is still very easily recognizable as the voice and keys behind so many Styx chart-toppers. The saccharine You My Love and To the Good Old Days are DeYoung flexing the same muscles that gave us Babe and Don’t Let it End, and the more grandiose pomp of Styx’s early years can be found in Run for the Roses and Unbroken. He’s managed to reproduce the iconic Styx harmonies in a few songs as well, and that’s not to mention the rather gratuitous album closer A.D. 2020 that directly quotes (one could say rips off) the main theme of Paradise Theatre. A standout is With All Due Respect, which features an incendiary DeYoung telling off the mainstream media with a hysterical chorus: “With all due respect / you are an asshole / With all due respect / you make me sick!” And though, ultimately, 26 East is essentially a Styx tribute album, that’s far from a bad thing, and DeYoung has produced the best batch of songs he’s written since 1981. There are a few misses (A Kingdom Ablaze and The Promise of this Land are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose) and a general air of whimsy and perhaps pomposity, but what else might we want from a Styx alumnus? I look forward to Vol. 2.

Best tracks: With All Due Respect, East of Midnight

8. Paul McCartney — McCartney III

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not what one would consider a Beatles fan. I’ve been known to enjoy a spin of Revolver or Rubber Soul on occasion, and of course I know all the hits, but as far as I’m aware the real gift the Beatles gave us was the latter work of Paul McCartney (with an honorable mention to George Harrison, especially his work with the Wilburys). As the story everyone knows goes, McCartney defied all expectations with his first two completely solo albums, released in 1970 and 1980, on which he wrote, produced, and played all the instruments himself. It was a bold strategy that paid dividends, and though those albums aren’t necessarily among my favorites in his catalog (give me Ram or Band on the Run any day of the week), they were ambitious and showcased a musical genius playing with his craft. McCartney returned to do it again amidst a year rife with isolation and cabin fever; the lockdowns took a heavy mental toll on many, and rather than turn to alcohol or video games like many did (ahem), he took to the studio and turned out a batch of songs that at worst are listenable, and at best rivals to some of the best songs the 78-year-old veteran has produced. McCartney III runs the gamut of the purely acoustic and sentimental with The Kiss of Venus and Pretty Boys, classic diner rock with Find My Way and Seize the Day, longer-form, experimental wandering with Long Tailed Winter Bird and Deep Deep Feeling, and even some output that could serve well on a Mark Knopfler solo effort, which from me is the highest of praise. Not everything here is up to the standards we might expect from a typical out-of-Beatle experience, but the simple fact is that everything here is quite good, and the wisdom of McCartney’s years in the industry is on full display — not to mention the fact that it was all written and recorded by one man during a period of time in which most of us just binge-watched TV and tried to bake bread.

Best tracks: Women and Wives, Slidin’, Seize the Day

7. John Petrucci — Terminal Velocity

In what may be the greatest musical hatchet-burial since the 1993 Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour, John Petrucci’s first solo album in fifteen years sees him once again joined by former bandmate Mike Portnoy, with whom he hadn’t played since the latter left Dream Theater over ten years ago. Joining them again is veteran bassist Dave LaRue (whom I know best from Flying Colors and the Dixie Dregs), and the musical energy abounds. Terminal Velocity is an exciting listen from start to finish, and though at times Petrucci feels like he’s retreading old ground and often can’t help himself from showing off his considerable shredding muscles (and I mean *muscles*) on tracks that he probably shouldn’t, like the otherwise laid-back Out of the Blue, Terminal Velocity is a guitar masterclass and a real treat for any Dream Theater fan. Portnoy and Petrucci seem not to have missed a step, which bodes well for the forthcoming Liquid Tension Experiment release, and you can sense the camaraderie and downright fun the two exude together. The title track is classic Petrucci shreds, songs like Happy Song and Snake in My Boot are lighthearted and catchy as hell, and it’s also good fun to hear some classic riffs Petrucci used to incorporate in solos at Dream Theater concerts in several other tracks. While some of the tracks are predictable and overstay their welcome a bit, Terminal Velocity is a nice return to form and sets a great tone for future collaborations between Portnoy and his former bandmates.

Best tracks: The Oddfather, Temple of Circadia

6. Sonny Landreth — Blacktop Run

Sonny Landreth has been a favorite of mine ever since 2008’s From the Reach, and his slide guitar prowess has yet to disappoint. This year’s release, Blacktop Run, is no exception, and benefits well from Landreth trimming some of the fat off his material to keep the focus where it should be — on the guitar, front and center. Landreth’s aged voice is a peculiar treat as well, not unlike his frequent comrade-in-strings Mark Knopfler. Peppered with instrumental tracks and classic blues rock, Blacktop Run is easy to listen to and flies by more quickly than you’d think. While it’s true that the album can tend to get a little same-y, there’s no question that it’s the work of a virtuoso guitarist with a creative and completely inimitable style.

Best tracks: Groovy Goddess, Mule, Something Grand

5. Darren Korb — Hades OST

It’s no surprise that (spoiler alert) one of the best games of the year would also have one of the best soundtracks. I’ve gushed time and time again about Darren Korb’s unique and delightful soundtrack work in every Supergiant title thus far, and the Hades OST is no exception. Once again Korb pairs seemingly disparate influences from all around the world (his music is the only place you’ll hear a sitar and a bagpipe) with his unparalleled acoustic style and vocal work from both him and his ever-present vocal collaborator, Ashley Barrett. Korb’s wonderful soundtrack expertly punctuates an equally wonderful game, and while it works as a fun and catchy listen on its own, it obviously works even better in the context of Hades’s relentless and pulse-pounding combat. There are some great musical themes throughout that are evocative of where in the game you encounter them, and Ashley Barrett’s gorgeous vocals have never been better accompanied. Hades may well be Supergiant’s magnum opus (at least thus far), and while I don’t think this is Korb’s best soundtrack (that title is still held by Pyre), it’s incredibly punchy and expressive, and worth a listen even outside the context of the game.

Best tracks: Good Riddance, God of the Dead, Lament of Orpheus

4. Ayreon — Electric Castle Live and Other Tales

It may perhaps be unfair to pit material from 1998 up against other albums from 2020, but ITEC Live is such a transcendently good performance that I don’t care. While I didn’t end up able to attend these shows (I had a ticket!), the live album release more than makes up for it. Not only is it one of the best-mixed productions and best-looking concert videos I’ve seen (barring a few issues here and there), it’s one of the best live performances ever recorded. ITEC is my favorite Ayreon album by a wide margin, and hearing it brought to life by most of its main vocal cast (with worthy substitutions where they were needed) is superb. All of the singers perform admirably, with special mention to Fish of Marillion fame and the ever-amazing Damian Wilson. The instrumentalists are all also splendid, with dutiful Ayreon drummer Ed Warby as consistent as ever, and let’s not forget John de Lancie’s turn as the narrator, a perfect casting choice if ever there was one, considering his Forever character is essentially Star Trek’s Q with a fresh coat of paint. The encores are a veritable who’s who of Lucassen’s other work (with an extra Marillion track for Fish), and the new narrations from de Lancie are a delight, especially as someone who has all the original narrations memorized. I would venture to say that this would be a near-perfect introduction to the Ayreon canon, as basically everyone here is turning in a career-best performance. This is certainly not a live album to be missed.

Best tracks: Amazing Flight, The Garden of Emotions, Twisted Coil

3. Neal Morse — Sola Gratia

Neal Morse is as prolific as they come in the progressive genre, with an energy and drive to make music that’s not often seen. It seems like there’s always new work from him to be enjoyed, and it’s always, at worst, perfectly enjoyable. Sola Gratia is a good bit more than that, though it takes a few listens to really settle in. While not as complex or engrossing as his work with the Neal Morse Band, Sola Gratia is Neal Morse in his comfort zone, full of keyboards, extended instrumentals, and God. A spiritual successor to his 2007 masterwork Sola Scriptura, this year’s release is about the life of the apostle Paul and very obviously draws inspiration from some of Morse’s best solo work. There are tracks on here that could fit right in on Question Mark, Testimony, or even some of his Neal Morse Band albums (thanks to the presence of most of that band’s members on one track or another), and for a fan of Morse’s work this album is a bit like a comfortable pair of shoes. All of the Morse staples are here — an overture, some complicated instrumental work, some catchy straight-ahead rockers, a few epics, a healthy dose of religious spiritualism, a few ballads, and some musical and lyrical references to the album’s predecessor. While Morse doesn’t necessarily do anything new or exciting here, it’s still a lovely album that shows him drawing on all of his strengths as a songwriter, musician, singer, and indeed, a Christian. The religious overtones here are as strong as ever, which may turn some away, but considering the subject matter it feels appropriate and not overbearing. While Sola Gratia may not be as strong as Sola Scriptura or the albums from the Neal Morse Band, it’s a wonderful bit of progressive extravagance that sounds like quintessential Neal Morse.

Best tracks: Ballyhoo, Building a Wall, Seemingly Sincere

2. Haken — Virus

Virus was another album this year that took several listens to grow on me, but grow on me it most certainly did. When I read that Haken was coming out with a sequel to 2018’s Vector, I was a bit confused at what that might even look like, but now having heard Virus, I can’t imagine Vector standing on its own. The unfortunately-named latest release from the English proggers is a perfect companion to not only Vector, but the entire Haken catalog. Haken takes a page from Dream Theater’s book and attempts to create something of a sequel or backstory to their most popular song, Cockroach King, with Vector and Virus, and the result is a totally unique concept album pair that sounds at once completely distinct from any other work, and very much in keeping with the Haken tradition of absurdism, chaos, and depth. Virus is simply outstanding, though it never quite reaches the heights of their greatest works. Every member of the ensemble puts in tremendous work here, but guitarist Richard Henshall and drummer Ray Hearne deserve special consideration for their increasingly inventive styles. While some tracks like the album opener Prosthetic and the rambling epic Carousel may overstay their welcome, the new sounds the band experiments with on tracks like Only Stars, a closer that echoes Vector’s opener, The Strain, and Canary Yellow are all rousing successes, and the album’s capstone epic Messiah Complex is one of their best songs, period. Full of fun references to all of their other albums as well as outside references to the genre itself, Messiah Complex could’ve carried the album to the number 2 position all on its own; it just so happens to be in the company of a handful of other great tracks that add some great texture and personality to the Haken palette. I’m very excited to see where the band goes from here, as Virus certainly seems like the end of a chapter of the band’s already storied career of finely-crafted prog metal.

Best tracks: Messiah Complex, Invasion, Canary Yellow

1. Toehider — I Like It!

Perhaps a bit of a left field pick for people who aren’t familiar with my musical proclivities, but Australian songwriter Mike Mills and his work under the Toehider moniker (ably accompanied by artist Andrew Saltmarsh) continues to impress me with musicality, depth, and humor. I was one of the early adopters of the Toehider Patreon three years ago, and since then Mills has written and recorded more than 50 songs — many original releases and a slew of covers — to eventually make up the track listing for this year’s album. Those who contribute to the Patreon were given the opportunity to vote on what songs made it onto the album, so I Like It! turns out to be a very appropriately-named excursion, representing what Toehider fans considered to be Mills’s best musical work. This is by far his most diverse outing, with everything from power metal to synth pop to country rock, and almost everything in between. The trademark zany lyrics are at the forefront here, with some highlights being Moon and Moron, a song about someone who doesn’t believe in the moon, Concerning Lix and Fairs, a Muse-inspired track that continues Mills’s ongoing story that began way back in 2011 with Malcolm Dust ‘Em, and Died of Dancing, a funky bass-driven number that tells the story of the Dancing Plague of 1518. While not every song I voted for made it to the final cut, this still plays like a best-of, which is no mean feat considering the sheer amount of quality music Mills has written and played over the last decade. I Like It! is peak Toehider, and if you’re at all interested in quirky and fresh music, look no further than the land down under.

Best tracks: wellgivit, Bats Aren’t Birds, That Guy That No-One Really Knows