People rated their music, and found it wanting.
My quest to listen to every album that ever won, or was nominated for, a New Age Grammy is partly a quest to understand just what the deuce people mean when they describe music as “new age.”
Yet it’s also a quest for the best. I just want to hear some really good new age music.
But you’ve got to take the good with the bad. If you want to understand what makes for a good film, you’ve got to watch Ghostbusters (1984) AND Ghostbusters (2016). You’ve got to watch A New Hope AND The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to explore the glittering towers of the crystal heights. You’ve got to wade into the potent swamps too, areas where the air’s so thick with searing pungent vapours your eyeballs curdle and your tears cake and rot in their ducts.
So I decided to listen to the worst new age music ever made.
Rate Your Music is a site that allows people to rate their music. Through allowing people to rate their music, the site’s developed an extensive database of consensus that you can organise in any way you see fit. In this way, it’s possible to see the albums the Rate Your Music community agrees to be the worst new age albums ever recorded.
Let’s listen to the bottom five, together.
THE WORST NEW AGE ALBUM OF ALL TIME: Timo Tolkki – Saana: Warrior of Light Pt. 1 – Journey to Crystal Island
My instinct was to descend gradually into the depths, but I thought instead we’d start at the bottom and work our way up. That way, if you agree with the Rate Your Music consensus, by the time you reach the end of this journey you’ll at least be listening to music that’s marginally less lethal than this, the worst new age album of all time.
It’s a concept album. More than that, it’s a rock opera. But it’s a rock opera without the rock, which is why people tossed it, disdainfully, into the new age category. It tells the romantic tale of the Warrior of Light’s journey to Crystal Island, and it does so using synthetic Celtic pipes, operatic duets, laptop beats and occasional samples of the natural world.
You’ll hear two different voices, and this being a rock opera they’re presumably playing two different roles. Jennifer Sowle plays the woman, and she sounds fine – competent, but not particularly affecting. The other voice belongs to Heikki Pohyia, who the album’s Metal-Archives entry tells me comes from “Finnish butt-rock kings Twilightning.” I don’t know what butt-rock is. But I know that I dislike Heikki’s voice. He sounds like he’s really straining to match Jennifer’s operatic chops, and the results are often painful.
At its worst, the songs on this album remind me of the dreary ballads that drain all the joy from your Eurovision party the second they groan into existence. There’s something about this sort of mid-paced earnest cheese that warps your perception of time and space. This album’s less than 45 minutes long. But there are times when it feels like it will never end. I cannot believe that Sadness of the World is over in just three and a half minutes. Before it had even reached its halfway point, not listening to that song had started to feel like something that happened to other people. This is me, I thought. This is what I do now. I listen to Sadness of the World from Timo Tolkki’s Saana – Warrior of Light, part 1: Journey to Crystal Island. It’s my life. My choice. My eternity.
It’s not all bad. Most of the songs are atmospheric instrumental mood-setters, and I’m fine with the mood they set. As ambient music goes, it’s bland and lifeless. But this is by no means the worst new age album I’ve ever heard. And I can’t help but admire something that’s at once so naff yet so heartfelt. It’s yet another occasion where, above all, I’m just glad it exists.
So why the hate? Why does this album have an aggregate score of 1.19/10 on Rate Your Music?
It’s no doubt due to its creator: Timo Tolkki from the proggy power metallers Stratovarius, a man famed for his fast, furious, astoundingly accomplished guitar playing. I’m guessing the majority of the bad reviews are from fans who were disappointed by the general dearth of guitars on their favourite guitarist’s solo album.
Even the more direct songs here are ultimately dissatisfying. Warrior of Light has pounding drums and a bombastic chorus. Yet it sounds less like a chorus and more like a bridge, something that should build into something truly epic. But it doesn’t. That’s it. That’s all you’re getting. Picture the fingers of Timo’s fans, folded into devil horns as they awaited the shredding, instead being used to wipe the tears of disappointment from their faces.
I came to this album not as a power metal fan, but as a new age fan. I found bits of it to be awful. But on the whole, the worst I can say about it is that it’s underwhelming. At its best it’s pleasant background music. And I know by now that new age music can be much, much more. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s just there.
The BasedGod – Tears 4 God & Choices and Flowers
The BasedGod is Brandon Christopher McCartney, who also goes by the name Lil B. He’s a rapper, a producer, a philosopher, an author, and the god of all things based. For Brandon, being “based” means “being yourself. Not being scared of what people think about you. Not being afraid to do what you wanna do. Being positive.” I can get behind that. New age music? Based. Very, very based.
The BasedGod has not one, but two albums in Rate Your Music’s bottom five list of the worst new age albums of all time. Tears For God is the second lowest-rated new age album in the database, with an aggregate score of 1.70/10. Choices and Flowers is the third lowest-rated, but only just, with an aggregate score of 1.89/10.
I don’t keep up with modern rap at all. It’s just not my scene. I appreciate that I’m not exactly qualified to write about Lil B. Indeed, I’d never even heard of him when I woke up this morning. But within moments of learning about his existence, I was a convert. The man’s a polymath and a beacon of wonder and positivity. Some say that his albums of surrealistic free-form verse over beatless dreamlike ambience sound more like self-hypnosis tapes than hip hop. He also made a song with his cat. I’ve been missing out.
Choices and Flowers, apparently the third worst new age album of all time, is composed of instrumental versions of songs that originally appeared on other Lil B albums and mixtapes. So this is hip hop stripped of its beats and its raps. Given Lil B’s philosophy, and given the general airiness of the music, it seems only natural that people would dismiss it as new age music.
But lads, it’s so good. On the surface, it’s a bunch of exploratory synth improvisations. It feels like he spent a few minutes finding a sound he liked, then played around with that sound for as long as it was interesting, before moving on to a different sound. The melodies are simple, and a lot of it sounds like basic synth patches played by a machine, or by someone enthusiastically experimenting with their brand new keyboard.
So why does it work? Why does it sound so enthralling, so magical? Perhaps it’s because it has heart – this might be aimless noodling, but it’s heartfelt aimless noodling, dammit! The noodling of someone who believes in you, and who wants the best for you.
Or perhaps it’s because it’s so long. Over 17 glacial, repetitive tracks and 98 dreamy minutes, of course the music’s going to cast a spell on you, if you let it.
The good people at Rate Your Music declared Tears 4 God to be the second worst new age album ever recorded, and the lesser of Lil B’s two “classical” albums. This might be because it’s significantly longer. At two hours, it’s an endurance test for anyone. But also, the music on Choices and Flowers may have already been familiar to Lil B fans, while Tears 4 God appears to feature entirely new compositions.
Beyond that, there’s not a whole lot to separate the two albums. Simple melodies, basic synths, apparently improvised compositions. Spellbinding, and I struggle to articulate why.
I speculated that Saana – Warrior of Light was deemed the worst new age album of all time by disgruntled power metal fans upset by the lack of power metal. Is something similar going on here? Disappointed hip hop fans dismissing a rapper’s thoughtful instrumental ambient album due to the lack of rap and beats?
Remember that, for a lot of people, “new age” is a four letter word. If they see this music as a failed experiment, dismissing it as “new age” music could be the worst insult they could think of. But in attaching that new age label, it’s just ensured that hideous mutants like me will eventually hear it. Am I appreciating this music on its own terms? Am I hearing something that these artists’ existing fans could not? Or is my taste in music really that far gone?
Tangerine Dream – Ambient Monkeys
With an aggregate score of 1.79/10, this album has a lower rating than The BasedGod’s Choices and Flowers, which scored 1.89/10. But the latter’s based on 194 ratings, and the former on just 59 ratings. So people might hate Ambient Monkeys more, but more people hate Choices and Flowers, making that the third worst new age album ever recorded, and this the fourth worst. If that makes sense.
Tangerine Dream has so many albums. Hundreds. I’ve long suspected that not even Tangerine Dream could tell you exactly how many albums Tangerine Dream’s released. But I don’t think Ambient Monkeys qualifies as a Tangerine Dream album. It’s an archival release, a curio for the completists and the superfans.
During Tangerine Dream’s 1997 tour, the group played gentle music and nature sounds over venue PA systems before they took to the stage. It set the mood. It seems that some found the mix of familiar Tangerine Dream melodies, animal noises and train sound effects baffling. But others liked the mix so much they recorded it. Bootlegs circulated, so the group decided to release an official version of this strange soundscape. It’s just giving the people what they want.
If the Rate Your Music consensus is truly representative of “what people really think”, then once again I feel totally at odds with the rest of the world. I simply cannot understand how anyone who enjoys Tangerine Dream cannot enjoy this music. It’s surreal and mercurial, and it has all the driving synths and futurist beats that one might expect to hear in a 90s Tangerine Dream mix.
So why the hatred? Do those 59 negative reviews come from bootleggers who are furious that the band’s official release broke their racket? Or perhaps Tangerine Dream hardcores view this as a cheap cash grab, a cynical release with no real reason to exist?
Who knows. Who knows. But this is a strong recommend from me – an immersive world full of life and colour. Dive in, brother.
Jon Anderson – From Me To You
Finally, the fifth worst new age album ever released. With an aggregate score of 1.33/10, it’s rated lower than Tangerine Dream and either of The BasedGod albums. But as that score is based on just 14 ratings, it slips into fifth place in the rankings. The album appears to be intensely hated. But not enough people hate it to make it really sink.
This is another archival release, part of a planned 20 disc selection of lost recordings from the Yes vocalist. As of 2009, it seems that only eight or nine of those discs have seen the light of day.
Lads, I’m profoundly sorry to say that I couldn’t find this anywhere. Or at least, it wasn’t on YouTube, Spotify, or any of the other streaming platforms. This is disappointing not just because it means our exploration of the worst new age music ever recorded must end with a limp fizzle. It’s also disappointing because the descriptions of the album make it sound wonderful. From what I can gather, it’s three long tracks featuring looped birdsong, followed by Jon impersonating that birdsong. I need that in my life.
Most every review I’ve encountered describes this as a bad thing. It’s a BAD THING that Jon Anderson released birdsong recordings interspersed with his own interpretations of birdsong!
And maybe it is. Maybe it sounds awful. Maybe it’s an embarrassment.
Or maybe it’s even more otherworldly and enchanting than the devastatingly beautiful Olias of Sunhillow.
More people need to hear that album. So if I can’t embed Jon messing about with birds, I’ll embed his cosmic masterpiece:
As I’ve not heard From Me To You, my speculation doesn’t count for much. But we might have a similar situation here to the one we encountered with Timo Tokki and The BasedGod: Jon’s audience may have expected an album of the man’s signature ultraprog. Instead, they got an hour of birdsong and mansong. Disgusted, they cast if off as naff “new age music”. Because there’s nothing worse than new age music, is there?
But just like with The BasedGod, scorning this music as “new age”, as if that’s a bad thing, may ultimately mean that the album finds its true audience.
I’ll find this album, Jon. I’ll listen to your experiments with birds. I’ll sing along, if I can.