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Nine album challenge

The Instagram and Twitter trend ‘9 albums that changed my life/mean most to me’ (#9albums) which appeared in January 2018 didn’t pass me by but its appearance on various social media platforms made me somewhat wary; as a piece of social investigation it’s an interesting topic but when internet monopolies get involved it becomes a little more sinister. I can’t be the only person in the world to get annoyed by adverts, including smart adverts, driven by clicks on Google, Facebook and Amazon. I want to make my own choices and just because a large proportion of Yes fans might like Rush, it doesn’t mean that I do, or want to. Put another way, I’m not a lemming or a sheep and I know what I like (in my wardrobe).

But should I show an interest, the first question would be ‘why nine albums?’ After all, most countries have adopted a rational, decimal system. Is it because it forms a neat 3x3 square for an Instagram photo or does the Instagram generation have an average of nine significant events in their lives? The next obvious question is ‘how are we defining significant?’ There were appearances of this ‘challenge’ in January 2016 and 2017 but there’s evidence that the trend goes back to at least 2013. I can’t find any directions for measuring significance so it’s open to personal interpretation, which is all the better for a data-scrape. I suggest that it ties in with the New Year resolution phenomenon which serves to disguise the fact that your data is being collected; it’s fun because it’s a reflection on your life but one that doesn’t necessarily require any form of reappraisal or change. The social media companies want you to be as open as possible so there are obviously no rules. It’s all part of the challenge!

I thought I’d give it a go, keeping the source data away from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I’ve arranged my nine choices chronologically by date of impact on my life and as I got into prog fairly early, the chronology also fits roughly, but not exactly with the release date of the albums. Laid out in this way, it becomes clear how your personal choices might be of interest to Meta, especially when they’re part of a metadata set. Anyway, these are my personal choices:



Close to the Edge (1972) – Yes

It wouldn’t be right to include the debut Roxy Music album, released three months prior to Close to the Edge, although Roxy were the first band to pique my interest in rock music when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops playing Virginia Plain, because I only ever heard that single from the album. In September 1972 Close to the Edge was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and remains, in my opinion, the definitive progressive rock album and as close to musical perfection as you can get. It’s the reason I got into prog.


The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd

An album likely to appear in a large number of the lists compiled across the world, this was the first new Floyd album to appear after I’d set out down the road of progressive rock. Before its release I’d borrowed a couple of bootlegs from a school friend and bought Relics but this seemed like a massive leap forward. I was hooked by the whole package; not just the music and the way the whole album linked together but the stickers and posters and the prism and pyramid imagery (I studied physics at school.) I was even impressed by Roger Waters’ lyrics which came in for some criticism in the music press.


Focus 3 (1972) – Focus

I was given a small transistor radio as a present for Christmas 1972 and one of the things that always seemed to be on Radio Luxemburg around 10pm was Sylvia, released as a single by Focus in January 1973. Focus 3 was circulated amongst friends of my brother and I was struck by the flute and what I felt was a distinct branch of highly melodic prog, to which I’d later add Camel and Steve Hackett’s earlier solo works.


Birds of Fire (1973) – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz was the predominate musical form in our household even after my brother and I began to buy our own records, so the fusion of jazz and rock was something quite easy to get into, having been introduced by rock radio. The fluency and attack of the guitar, drumming like I’d never heard before and the interplay between guitar, keyboards and violin was just amazing; I bought the album in 1975 and it became key to opening up the extraordinary world of jazz rock where melody was sometimes sacrificed for proficiency: Isotope, Brand X, Weather Report, Return to Forever and even mid-70s Soft Machine.


Starless and Bible Black (1974) – King Crimson

This was the first Crimson album in our household and I still regard it as a mixed bag which goes relatively unnoticed between the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the influential Red. I find the first side of the original LP slightly unfulfilling despite the strength of Lament and The Night Watch; side two is brilliant and demonstrates the power of the group and a sublime mastery of tension and release. This obviously kick-started a life-long fascination with King Crimson but the cover inspired me to seek out Tom Phillips’ work at the Tate when I first arrived in London and more than that, I became such a great fan of John Wetton’s bass playing that when I inherited some money on my 18th birthday, I spent a portion of it on a bass guitar.


Rubycon (1975) – Tangerine Dream

This was my introduction to electronica. One of my rules for discovering and enjoying new music was the presence of keyboards, so Tangerine Dream had something of an advantage! I bought Rubycon shortly after its release having heard and been intrigued by Phaedra in 1974 and sold on the suggestion that they were influenced by Pink Floyd. I loved the single composition format over the two sides of the LP (Rubycon part 1, Rubycon part 2) which seemed to be a Virgin Records thing, but it was the amorphous other-worldly nature of the music, transporting you somewhere alien but largely benevolent which most attracted. I still maintain it’s the best record to listen to through headphones in the dark.


Cook (1974) – Premiata Forneria Marconi

Cook has probably had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge and is responsible for my appreciation of Rock Progressivo Italiano. I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar but I must have seen their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but we were also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog.


UK (1978) – UK

As brilliant as this album is, it’s disappointing because it marks the end of the first era of progressive rock. Even at the time it seemed like it marked a new beginning, a strong album with excellent tunes and great playing and incorporating, through Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, a jazz rock sensibility. Following the demise of King Crimson, it seemed like the formidable rhythm section which drove Crimson from 1973 – 1974 had, after some wandering that added to their musical educational, found an ideal home. Of the other ostensibly prog releases that followed, only National Health produced music of a quality that could match anything from the golden age of progressive rock. Genesis were down to three members and consciously going pop; Camel, directed by their record company, had given up on epics; Yes seemed bereft of a coherent concept and put out the patchy Tormato, where poly-Moog drenches everything apart from flanged bass… and ELP produced Love Beach.


Lux Ade (2006) – La Maschera di Cera

By 2005 I had begun to fully appreciate the breadth of output from Italian prog bands operating during the golden period of progressive rock, despite rarely featuring in the UK music press at that time. 2005 was the first year of an almost unbroken series of annual pilgrimages to Italy and the first where I consciously sought out record stores in an attempt to build up a collection of classic Italian prog. Fast forward to 2008 and it was only by chance that I came across a copy of Lux Ade in Beano’s second hand record store in Croydon and tempted by the obvious 70’s keyboard set up with production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, plus the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of Beano’s, I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made. This CD opened up the Italian progressive rock scene that re-emerged in the mid 90s to me and in a parallel to hearing Close to the Edge, the first rock album I’d ever listened to, I think that Lux Ade is the best of the current wave of Rock Progressivo Italiano albums.


I found it relatively easy to come up with the bands that made up my nine but I originally chose Moving Waves instead of Focus 3 and Red instead of Starless. I seem to recall hearing The Inner Mounting Flame before Birds of Fire, but I didn’t own the first Mahavishnu album for some time and I actually most like Between Nothingness and Eternity (which I also bought in 1975.) It seems a shame to miss out some of my favourite albums but that’s not the point of the exercise; I tried to choose titles which had the most meaning and I’d say my taste tended to expand organically, with an appreciation for The Nice subsequently opening up ELP and then Refugee. It’s not unfair to say that my predilection for music hasn’t really changed at all in the 35 years I’ve been buying records, including life-affirmative events like getting married and becoming a father. My wife went through the exercise and almost instantly came up with a fairly eclectic mix that seems to have less to do with life events than musical evolution, including Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Vienna by Ultravox, Chris Rea’s self-titled fourth album, True by Spandau Ballet and ending up with Truth Came Running, the first album by Australian singer-songwriter Mark Wilkinson, bought from the man himself as he was busking in Sydney in 2012.


I thought it might be interesting to ask a group of close friends and relatives, all with an interest in prog nurtured in the golden age, to come up with their nine albums. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions but I was still blown away by their response when asked to submit their ‘life changing’ albums. My guidelines were deliberately woolly but included the following points: to list the nine albums that had the most significant impact on their lives, or were at least associated with significant events in their lives; to provide a short summary of their choice should they wish to do so; and to compile their choices before I revealed my own selection. Some just provided me with a list, one a list with bullet points and the remainder of the submissions were roughly along the same lines as my selection last week, including explanatory notes.

All but one person had a social media account which could have exposed them to the challenge on any of its annual outings but I could find no evidence that any had done so, and I didn’t stipulate that they must choose progressive rock releases. This is certainly not hard science but I thought it would be interesting to note their route into music and any divergence from core prog. Their responses have been anonymised to prevent targeting from marketing bots:


‘B’

The albums are arranged in chronological order of their release. Thick as a Brick I didn't discover until about 1975 but is the best Tull, saw IA perform it in Newcastle a few years ago along with TAAB2. Close to the Edge is the best Yes and any prog album and one of my earliest discoveries. The Dark Side of the Moon still sets the bar and was another of my early favourites. Refugee is still Patrick Moraz's finest work along with Relayer. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is another early find and remains brilliant. Red runs close with In the Court of the Crimson King as the best Crimson album but I chose it as it features Bill B[ruford]. I got Harbour of Tears last year on holiday in Krakow and is as good as any Camel album. Dust and Dreams and Rajaz both from the 90s are also up there with their best work. AD 2010 I got on holiday in Sienna which was a great holiday made even better by this find and I have been seeking out other recent post-2000 PFM albums which are really good. Rattle that Lock is D[avid]G[ilmour]'s best solo effort and compares favourably with any Floyd. I was very tempted to include a Water's Edge album for personal reasons but probably not prog enough! So there you have my thoughts, make of it what you will. Number 10 would have been Aerie Faerie Nonsense by The Enid.


‘G’

1. Days of Future Passed

A linked piece (concept) with varied writers and instrumentalists contributing to a fine album supported by a full orchestra, it was one the first pieces of progressive music I heard. Having grown up in a house where classical music was enjoyed by my dad, it was as if 'pop' music was going somewhere and albums were works in themselves.


2. Argus

Loved the music, harmonizing guitars, lyrics and extended progressive middle sections. Although Wishbone Ash have a rocky sound at times, it had sustenance in its tracks and delivered open lengthy pieces.


3. The Snow Goose

Had read the book and someone lent me the album. Hooked and to this day I enjoy it as much as ever. The sounds and progression! A great work.


4. Tubular Bells

One man's concept album or was it? But life was never the same after hearing this and subsequent albums were certainly more fluid and impressionistic. It was different!


5. Nursery Cryme

Ahh, Genesis. Perhaps the one band I committed to wholly. This really was 'fantastic' music, story-telling, picturesque, album after album but it started for me with Nursery Cryme in the mid 70s.


6. Tales from Topographic Oceans

Of all the Yes albums, I came to this first! Fascinated by the other worldliness of its sounds, by the album sleeve and its escapist, visionary nature. You travel with the music.


7. Brain Salad Surgery

I had a friend who had Pictures at an Exhibition (I knew the classical work) and had enjoyed it, then this. Big, brash, funny and a moment of sublime love (or so it seemed to a teenage girl J). Played my dad Jerusalem over a cup of tea. Even my sister (not her usual stuff) played it ...well, some of it. You had to be in the mood to go through all the three movements of Karn Evil 9 but it anchors me to a time and place.


8. Meddle

I'd had an amazing first listen to Dark Side of the Moon; lights out, candles lit, a group of us listening in an attic bedroom but it was Meddle that I returned to in 1975 as a soundscape when revising for my ‘O’ Levels. Experimental, varied influence, perhaps no real concept but some tremendous pieces. A favourite to this day.


9. The Condensed 21st century Guide to King Crimson 1969-2003

Essential inclusion for me and with thanks to [ProgBlog]. I had heard In the Court of the Crimson King at parties (the lads in a room wowing at whatever) but it is, criminally, only in relatively recent times that I've immersed myself in KC as a unit and this collection is stunning. This may has enhanced my prog listening. Am still on that journey.


‘J’

The albums represent:

1st single purchased; 1st album purchased; 1st prog album I heard; 1st gig attended; 1st album heard at Uni; 1st CD purchased; 1st double album purchased; Favourite prog album; Favourite prog track; Favourite album cover; Favourite album; Favourite non-prog album; Album with the most versions in my collection (vinyl, half-speed remastered vinyl, hi-res 24 bit download, CD, picture disc CD); Album I play the most often (but not necessarily my favourite.)


‘M’

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon

The very first album I bought, second hand from Paul Thompson for £3.50 in 1980, mint condition with the posters and stickers. What a way to start your music listening career! The first album being prog-related set a tone for the music I got into in the immediate years following, and a lifetime of listening beyond that.

Jethro Tull – Repeat the Best of Jethro Tull Vol.2

A 14th birthday present from [ProgBlog] and ‘B’. Having struggled a little at first with the Songs From the Wood album this pulled me in hook, line and sinker. Several years of Tull obsession followed. A very good compilation from the classic Tull prog years.

Martin Stephenson & The Daintees – Gladsome Humour & Blue

“Who?” you may say. A former carpet fitter from Washington, Tyne & Wear, that’s who. Rather like The Dark Side of the Moon, an album written by a man with immense maturity for his tender years. Heart melting stuff bought second hand at the record shop in the Newcastle University student union. Martin’s almost a shaman character, who shunned the majors for a simple life doing music his way, which he still does to this day from the Highlands of Scotland.

Johnny Cash – American III Solitary Man

Early 2000s, I’d heard Folsom Prison and thought it was quite quirky, so bought this on the hop for a fiver at Fopp. The (on the face of it) bizarre collaboration of hip hop producer Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash produced heavily stylised recordings that turned ok originals into probably the most dramatic music I’ve ever heard.

Various Artists – The Best of Blue Note Vol.1

Introduced me to the world of Blue Note, and very heavily influenced the next ten years of listening and purchasing. Included the Donald Byrd version of Cristo Redentor, a beautifully pure trumpet tune with eerie backing “woos” (not words as such) from a gospel choir. A song which will be played at my funeral. Included other future faves like Horace Silver and Art Blakey.

Genesis – Live

Bought this for a pound off John Carrott, when he was selling his albums. Played to death then replaced on CD. Played very frequently to this day, and I keep hoping they issue an expanded version one day. Five songs, all great, but side 2 with The Knife and The Musical Box is surely one of the greatest sides of music ever issued. The music is interesting.

Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

A 1974 compilation bought at Hitsville in Newcastle. Poetry meets jazz meets funk meets politics meets human rights. A pioneer of rap from the late 60s, but with really strong messages, from the very raw at the start to really sophisticated pieces near the end.

Various Artists – First Time I Met The Blues

I’d started seeing some live roots music, then picked up this Chess compilation, which led me to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chicago blues that had come from the fields originally, very raw black music, the punk of its day.

Various Artists – Blue Brazil

A Blue Note compilation of very melodic Brazilian jazzy numbers, laced with fantastic rhythms and beautiful voices. Strange, because none of the music had been released on Blue Note originally. Set off another investigation into rhythmic music from other countries that picked up some things I already liked including funk rhythms and jazz, Afro-centric music, and pulled at my own South American heritage (albeit much more interesting music than the native stuff from Chile and most of South America).

I know these compilations are cheating a bit, but they’re random purchases that opened doors. There you go!


‘N’


A Nice Pair – Pink Floyd

This release of the first two Floyd albums was my real initiation into music that was to become ‘mine’. Although I had heard my brother playing albums in his bedroom in the early 1970’s it wasn’t until I was played A Saucerful of Secrets in a music lesson at school that I began discovering music outside the charts. I will forever be thankful to that teacher, Mr Peter Nurse.


Evening Star – Fripp & Eno

I first heard this when visiting my brothers flat. The music had an otherworldly quality that resonated with me and indeed still does.


Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield

This is an album I remember hearing my brother play and it became one of the first albums I bought, the first was actually Hergest Ridge also by Oldfield. However, if I hadn’t heard this album as much as I did I’d never have bought Hergest Ridge. It’s not my favourite Oldfield album, that remains Ommadawn, but without it, a love of instrumental music may never have been forged.


Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Rick Wakeman

This one album sparked my love of electronic keyboards and synthesisers. I was introduced to it by a friend called Richard Key who used to give me lifts when we went to fishing matches. One day on our return he invited me in to hear this album and I was hooked. Much was to follow from that day.


Close to the Edge – Yes

Having discovered Mr Wakeman it didn’t take long to discover Yes. This remains the quintessential progressive rock album to me and the best that Yes released. Other individual Yes songs may have come close, The Revealing Science of God, Gates of Delirium, Awaken, Starship Trooper and Heart of the Sunrise immediately spring to mind but this album had it all in just three songs.


The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

This is another album that isn’t my favourite from the band, that would be Wish You Were Here, but when I first got the album, bought as a Xmas present on cassette, I played it to death. I’ve since had the album on vinyl and CD (4 times) and I never tire of it.


Phaedra – Tangerine Dream

I believe I first heard this album in the ‘Tracks’ record shop in Royston where I grew up. The guys in the shop were beginning to suggest albums to me knowing my interest in electronic keyboard based music and the decision to purchase was immediate when I heard the sequencer kick in. This has been a really important album for me and gets played at least once a month even now. It may not be as technically proficient as subsequent albums but it retains a distinct charm all of its own.


Oxygene – Jean Michel Jarre

This was another of those albums that just had to be bought once I’d heard the single from the album, Oxygene IV. This was really accessible electronic music which couldn’t be said so easily of Tangerine Dream. I’ve followed Jarre’s career ever since. He’s released some real duds in the last 40 years but Oxygene is an electronic music classic and is another of those albums that I still get real enjoyment out of listening to.


Deadwing – Porcupine Tree

This was my introduction to both Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson who has since become a very important musical personality in my listening. Strangely, I only started to find out about the group when I discovered that Robert Fripp would be the support artist on the second UK leg of the Deadwing tour. As I wanted to see Fripp performing his soundscapes live I thought I’d find out more about the group he was supporting. I’d be a lot richer now if I hadn’t bothered but I’m so glad I did. I now have nearly every album that Steven Wilson has released either with Porcupine Tree, as a solo artist, with Blackfield, Bass Communion or No-Man. Tickets for four gigs on the upcoming UK tour might give an indication of how important his music is to me.


‘R’

Yes - Close to the Edge

Yes - Relayer

King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic

King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black

ELP - Trilogy

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

Miles Davis - Star People

Camel - Snow Goose

Focus - Best of Focus


‘T’

1) Yes - Close to the Edge

2) King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic

3) Yes - Fragile

4) Yes - Tales from Topographic Oceans

5) King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black

6) The Nice - Nice (Red Cover)

7) Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon

8) ELP - Pictures at an Exhibition

9) Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway


Probably think of some album I'd rather include but can't check record collection. All oldies, number 1 has remained so since age 14, the others might move about a bit.



The group of respondents, including me, have an age range of 47 – 61; the mean age is 56 and the median age is 58. Six of the group spent their formative years in a relatively close-knit community, separated by only a very few houses and three of the six are closely related; one is from the Birmingham area, one from a small town in Hertfordshire and one from Leeds. More importantly, the musical tastes of this cohort don’t appear to have changed during the intervening years. With the exception of one respondent, all were teenagers at a time when progressive rock was a recognised and commercially successful genre, though competition from other musical styles was fairly restricted to outright pop (appealing to the predominantly pre-pubescent), blues-based rock, glam-rock and soul; my household was filled with a wide spectrum of jazz and at least one household featured a range of classical music. The oft-observed gender imbalance of prog fandom is evident here, with only one of the eight being female.

About 80% of the albums listed are from the 70s, and all but one of the respondents was a teenager when progressive rock was at its creative and commercial peak. Studies have shown that the age when most people start to take music more seriously and develop ‘musical taste’ is typically about 14, peaking at around 24, as their social networks are strengthened and the kind of music you like is a badge of identity, suggesting that the replies are an indication of a resonance with progressive rock which has lasted up to the present. It appears that most have stuck with the music of their teens but there is an element of tastes branching out. The influence of older siblings and friends is also clear, so that both Close to the Edge and The Dark Side of the Moon albums feature heavily but different examples of works by ELP, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes, five of the leading exponents of progressive rock, are scattered throughout the lists, potentially indicating personal preference for one of a band’s albums over another. The degree of homogeneity between respondents is further demonstrated by Camel, Focus, Jethro Tull, Mike Oldfield, PFM and Tangerine Dream all appearing in more than one list, but there is a subtle divergence from the core bands identified in the responses reported by both the subset who grew up in a different geographical location to me, and by the subset with the greatest age difference from the mean.

There’s also an indication that some of the choices aren’t the favourite albums by a band, though they still appear in the list. My personal choice wouldn’t all be in my favourite nine albums as I prefer Hamburger Concerto to Focus 3, Refugee’s self-titled LP from 1974 would be in my top five and however good Starless and Bible Black may be, I like In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Red and USA even more. I looked upon each choice as a gateway to further discovery so that I couldn’t include Refugee or Snow Goose or any Genesis.


As I’ve said, this exercise wasn’t scientific and the musical tastes of a cohort of family and friends all within a fairly narrow age range, especially those that accompany me to gigs, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. It would have had more value as a piece of research if everyone had linked an album to an event but even without that information it’s probably still a good thing that the data was kept away from social media companies… Anyone for Rush?


Thanks to everyone I asked for their nine albums for their illuminating replies – you know who you are.

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