It’s a matter of taste of course but the same cannot be said for sound quality. You would not be here if sound didn’t matter to you and nor would these 14 albums. Each has been chosen by one of our contributors as the best combination of music and sound quality that they have heard all year. So without further ado and presented in alpha order here are the Ear’s finest albums of 2018.
MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice
Universal Island Records
From Clapton’s seminal 1992 performance that became the best selling live album in history, to Scorpions’ 2013 atmospheric extravaganza in Athens, the MTV Unplugged partnership has produced a few gems over the years, and A-Ha’s ‘Summer Solstice’ is up there with the best. Recorded in 2017 at Harbour Hall, an intimate venue in Giske, Norway, the Scandi-trio are bolstered by an additional seven musicians who play a treasure trove of forgotten acoustic instruments to deconstruct their synthpop into something far more earthy. Four guest vocalists take their turns on stage to perform duets with the band and it is the two lesser-known artists, Texan-born singer Lisse and Norwegian singer-songwriter Ingrid Helene Havik, who make the most memorable impacts with their collaborations. Havik’s duet on ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ is especially moving and a strong contender for best track on the album. 59-year old lead vocalist Morten Harket seemingly defies the ravages of time and has managed to retain the ultra-pure vocal timbre and almost all of the soaring falsetto he held in his twenties. The stripped-back arrangements leave him very exposed, yet his voice remains flawless throughout. Summer Solsticeis available on CD, vinyl, DVD and Blu-ray, and I highly recommend the DVD or Blu-ray because, in addition to receiving truly stunning sonics in uncompressed LPCM – genuinely among the finest I’ve heard on any live album – the visuals provide you with an even deeper appreciation of the musicianship on display.
With The 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
After securing the services of Kelly Hansen in 2005 to replace the irreplaceable Lou Gramm as lead vocalist, Anglo-American rockers, Foreigner, have gone from strength to strength. In its most recent project, the band ambitiously arranges the best tracks from its 40 year catalogue, not just for a 58-piece orchestra but also a 60-strong choir, for a one-off 2017 performance in Lucerne, Switzerland. The concept of rock groups teaming up with orchestras isn’t new, in fact many consider it clichéd and contrived. For it to work, the arrangements must provide a fresh perspective, and the ensemble’s contribution must strengthen and not dilute or distract from the sentiments being conveyed. Done well, it can even reveal new meanings in well-worn pop rock classics, and there are many moments on this album when it ‘Feels Like The First Time’. Kelly Hansen’s voice ties the whole performance together and steals the show on more than one occasion. While he doesn’t quite possess Lou Gramm’s superhuman range or timbral contrast (who does?!), Hansen’s tonal warmth and vocal agility, does proper justice to the band’s anthems and I’m sure many would agree is the next best thing to having Gramm himself on stage. Despite being dynamically compressed, the sound quality of this release is excellent on all formats (CD, vinyl, DVD) and captures the intricacy, vibrancy and scale of the performance brilliantly.
Duelling recorders, a crumhorn and a bassoon, are very much the stock in trade of Gryphon who surprisingly return with a brand new album after forty years. Rather than trying their luck with contemporary sounds, Gryphon go back to the medieval blend of folk music and progressive sounds that made the band’s name way back in the seventies. The end result is a collection of songs and instrumentals that sound timeless and utterly compelling. It’s got to be the surprise return of the year; only the rather unlikely reappearance of Gentle Giant could better this.
Both Directions at Once: the lost album
It is impossible to fathom why this album, recorded in March 1963, by John Coltrane’s classic quartet, has never seen the light of day until this year. This session catches Coltrane’s band at a critical juncture where its leader, keenly aware of the success obtained with ‘My Favorite Things’ is now beginning to explore new possibilities whilst still being rooted to tradition. Rudy Van Gelder’s masterful production provides the icing on the cake. Here the quartet sounds more elegant and powerful than ever before. Quite simply unmissable.
Kacy & Clayton
The Siren’s Song
This was the album I listened to most often in 2018. It’s a folk tour de force by two Canadian cousins, paying a nod to the folk rock of the sixties. A highly recommended musical escape filled with harmonies and tunes that will sooth the heart of any modern music loving beast.
Michael Wollny Trio Live
Wartburg finds pianist Wollny alongside drummer Eric Schaefer and double bass player Christian Weber for most of the album, with soprano sax player Emile Parisien joining them on the last four tracks. They can play the gamut from calm and sophisticated on a great cover of Scott Walker’s ‘Big Louise’, to dynamic and powerful, the drumming in particular is spectacular on Perpetuum Mobile.
The recording of this concert is so good that the album has become a reference that I return to for virtually every product that gets reviewed. The bass in particular has superb extension and a very natural balance, it doesn’t seem to have been EQ’s in any obvious way and that becomes apparent on very good hardware. It is also musically very compelling, with lots of energy but no lack of finesse. Wollny and his cohorts have reached a level that only the best jazz musicians attain.
Keyboard maestro Frahm built himself a new studio last year, or to be more precise he refurbished a studio in the former GDR Radio Funkhaus building in East Berlin. He also built a pipe organ that could be controlled with MIDI and sat down to produce his most acoustically rich album to date. It is largely a serene state of affairs in the manner of his ambient works on synths but the use of harmonium, strings, marimba and gongs mean that All Melodyis a tonally beguiling album where the quietest sounds are given the same treatment as the more powerful ones.
He also uses human voice for the first time, not singing actual words but creating a polyphony that opens up the soundscape in beautiful fashion. Trumpet features on the standout ‘Human Range’ and adds an emotional depth to the piece that makes it particularly resonant. Well worth a spin in analogue or digital this one’s a grower.
Sarathay Korwar and the UPAJ Collective
My East is Your West
Recorded live in an East London church this is a truly vibrant and alive concert that has been mastered to vinyl in Gearbox Records’ enviable vintage analogue equipped studio. It’s part of a series where artists are invited to interpret the music of their heroes and in drummer Sarathay Korwar’s case those include Pharoah Saunders, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and other great jazz musicians.
The UPAJ Collective is a large band who play Indian classical and western jazz instruments, creating a fabulous fusion of the sort you rarely hear. Their renditions of ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, ‘The Creator has a Master Plan’ and Joe Henderson’s ‘Earth’ are exceptional. In fact the whole three disc album is almost as good as being there.
The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers
A Renaissance Christmas
This CD is a delight from the first note to the last. These songs celebrating the Nativity are made fresh and totally contemporary by Harry Christophers and the choir of the Sixteen. Music written for the most part in the 16thcentury, these pieces of wonder and adoration reach across the centuries to touch the heart of even this committed agnostic. Recorded in the ideal acoustic of St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, this is the disc to play when your tolerance for Noddy Holder and Cliff Richard finally runs out. Sit quietly and this music will take you to another place. Wonderful ethereal and, dare I suggest, spiritual stuff.
Sonar with David Torn
In which the Swiss band, famed for its minimalist and largely King Crimson inspired sonic architectures, meets one of avant-rock’s most famous practitioners. It is clearly a marriage made in heaven as Torn’s guitar lines often pierce through the band’s intricate structures like a powerful laser-like ray cutting through dark clouds. Like an abstract painter, Torn splashes about in a judicious fashion never attempting to pervert Sonar’s true course. The end result makes both sides sound bolder and stronger than ever before.
Susie Arioli Swing Band
Pennies from Heaven
This has been the album that has seen the most playback in my car. The album combines Arioli’s prodigious voice with that of her lead guitar player Jordan Officer (no relation to Heller’s fictional Major Major), for an intoxicating romp over jazz standards heavily dipped in western swing and the Jango Reinhardt sound. This is the ultimate weapon against boredom and BBC radio’s declining standards.
Tord Gustavsen Trio
The Other Side
This has been played most on my home system over the past few months. In many respects it feels like a musical pair of well worn boots. It evokes the familiar pleasure of realising once more just how great Gustavsen’s piano playing is. It is a glorious return to a trio form and a great one to discover him with. For those who are looking for an album to relax with during the Christmas break it’s highly recommended.
Uniting the Opposites
Lastly, an album that was not reviewed but is a gem and a hoot to listen to again and again.The band plays what can be described as sitar driven prog rock with jazz influences accompanied by killer bass lines. Available as either download or a LP, it’s one for those who are interested in world music of the most enjoyable type.
Reflections on Bach
I am no music scholar, but I have always enjoyed hearing the music of JS Bach. Here we have a 77 minute recital of some of his best known works transposed for the piano and played with panache by Mr Olafsson. Recorded in the Harpa Concert House in Reykjavik, this is a ravishing sounding disc, which at least on my system, delivers a wonderful account of the instrument being played. I was genuinely sad when the last note of the final piece, faded away.
Highly recommended to anyone with a love of great music being played with immense skill, energy and sensitivity.