Last year, I boasted about how “my listening habits are going sideways and backwards.” I was dreaming of a day when I would look at the various various best-of-the-year lists and not recognise a single release.
That didn’t really go according to plan. This year I listened to 99 new albums. I counted. And I only actively disliked three of them! I’ll tell you which ones if you pay me £10. Sure, many of them were unremarkable. But many more were… what’s the opposite of unremarkable?
Let’s look at 20 of the best. For my sins, I’m listing them in descending order of magnificence. That’s right. This is a ranked list. Ranked!
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.
There are more than 50,000 albums in this collection. The majority of them look perfectly innocuous. Amid the innocuous is lots of promising new age music. But also lots that looks simply bizarre: Inadvisable and not at all safe for work.
Trawling through the collection, I found myself saving links to stuff that stood out. And these links have been stacked in my OneTab for 18 months. Since May 2019, every time I’ve “hit the net” I’ve been greeted with a wall of text that says things like NATIONAL FUNKY BITCH and THE 666 X MURDER PROJECT.
It’s finally time to purge these demons. Let’s jump down this rabbit hole together, shall we? See how deep it goes.
This is my first ever blog that could be tagged NSFW. You may be added to a list.
IN THE YELLOW CORNER: They dream in orange. They dream in German. Tonight, they dream of victory. You’ve had this dream before. It’s the mighty TANGERINE DREAM.
IN THE MAUVE CORNER (for this battle’s taking place in a pentagonal ring): Is he finally ready to burst forth from his Chryssomallis? It’s YANNI, ya’know?
Picture those five New Age prizefighters, primed by their New Age coaches in their colourful corners. A beaming woman walks into the centre of the five-sided ring, holding a sign aloft. On the sign is a number. The number is one. She’s followed by a grizzled salt-and-pepper ex-sailor in a striped shirt. He turns to each corner in turn, making eye contact with every contender, gruffly demanding a good, clean fight. A bell rings. Our five peaceful fighters rush into the middle. Five potent powderkegs holding five flaming matches. When they meet in the middle, the universe swallows its tongue.
Christmas is a terrific time of year for new age types.
They can bask in the holiday’s pagan roots, or reflect on how pretty much every belief system has a feast of light in the midst of the bleakest time of year. In fact, with all the candles, the indoor foliage, the singing, the optimism and the sparkles, many people inadvertently live a new age sort of life throughout the festive period.
So it comes as no surprise that there are so many Christmassy new age albums out there.
Which means, among other things, that it’s time to list your favourite albums of the year that was [CURRENT YEAR].
My listening habits are going sideways and backwards. I’m bravely exploring the furthest reaches of various forgotten sounds and movements. And I’ve long-since concluded that no new music can possibly be as good as The Music of the Ages. My ambition is to one day look at the various best-of-the-year lists and not recognise a single release. It very nearly happened this year! Better luck next year. It would be so much easier if everyone stopped making such incredible new music.
Here are my 10 favourite albums from 2019, carefully ranked in order of smashing-ness.
The 1992 New Age Grammy went to Chip Davis and his Mannheim Steamroller group. Fresh Aire 7 is a concept album about the number seven. It’s well naff.
When you take a deep dive into an unfamiliar music genre, you discover entire worlds you never knew existed. Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of Mannheim Steamroller. But it turns out they’re quite a big deal. They’ve released more than 70 albums, and people seem to go nuts for them. Nine of their albums went Gold, three went Platinum, and four went multi-Platinum. What the ‘ell?!
I first met them during the 1991 Grammy Awards, when their Yellowstone album got a nomination for the New Age gong. I described that collection as “pure Disneyland”, but not necessarily new age. But in listening to it, I discovered Mannheim Steamroller’s formidable back catalogue, which I was delighted to find contained a number of Halloween albums.
Of course, I listened to the first in their Halloween series. 23 tracks, “deranged by Chip Davis”! It’s a strong contender for the strangest album I’ve ever heard. The first half contains a number of seasonally-appropriate classical compositions arranged for affordable synths. Toccata in de Mole, The Hall of the Mountain King, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Night on Bald Mountain – that sort of thing. None of them sound particularly good. It’s certainly unnerving, but not necessarily in the way they intended. It’s uncanny, like a robot humming to itself in the oil shower. But halfway through its mammoth 90 minute run-time, the album transforms into one of those Halloween sound effects records. There’s over 40 minutes of creepy ambiance that includes a long spell spent on an alien spaceship. It’s quite the tonal shift.
The album’s bizarre, and about as far away from cool as it’s possible to get – which obviously makes it an essential listen. It’s definitely going to become a staple of future Halloweens. And as we enter the festive season, I’m looking forward to listening to the group’s Christmas albums. The first two in the series went 6 x Platinum. It’s likely that there are people out there who simply couldn’t imagine Christmas without Mannheim Steamroller. Like I say – a whole world that I never knew existed.
But today, we’re focusing on Fresh Aire 7 – the seventh album in Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire series of albums, and the winner of the 1992 New Age Grammy. It’s every bit as naff as that Halloween collection, but is it any good? And more importantly, is it new age?
The 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance went to the man of the movies, Mark Isham!
Mark Isham’s just a guy who can’t say no. He’s recorded a number of superb ambient jazz albums. By 1991, two of these had already been nominated for New Age Grammy awards: 1988’s Castalia and 1990’s Tibet. But he’s mainly known for his soundtrack work.
Since 1983, he’s been involved in at least 137 soundtrack recordings. And looking at his CV, I have to wonder: Has he ever turned any work down?
He’s not just prolific. He’s a machine. And the sheer diversity of the projects he’s taken on suggests that he has no filter. He’s scored trashy action flicks (Point Break, Timecop); slick horror (Blade, The Crazies); kids’ films (Thumbelina, Duck Duck Go); a surprising number of animal adventures (Racing Stripes, Fly Away Home); and enough thrillers and dramas to fill the recent releases racks at your nearest Pick a Flick.
I haven’t seen many of the films he’s scored. And for those I have seen, I can’t really remember the music. Maybe seasoned Mark fans can detect “the Isham touch” in everything he does. But I wonder just how much of himself he puts into his film work.
When scoring a film, I suppose it makes sense to serve the scene, rather than yourself. And it seems that when Mark does add a personal touch to his soundtrack work, he has limited success. For example, his score for Waterworld was rejected for being “too ethnic and bleak”. All that remains from his contribution to the film is that haunting music box melody. The rest is all generic action film bombast.
While I wouldn’t use such adjectives myself to describe what I’ve heard of his solo work, I can understand how someone might listen to Tibet and describe it as “ethnic and bleak”. So perhaps there are two sides to Mr. Isham. The film stuff? That’s his day job. That’s bacon. But his solo work? That’s the real Mr. Isham. That’s where he bares his soul and dares you to look.
Today we’re looking at Mark’s 1990 album, Mark Isham. It’s so personal that Mark saw no alternative but to name it after himself. No worldly concepts or distant lands to hide behind here. It’s like he’s saying: This is me. Hear me. Judge me. Love me. And for this he won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance.
A worthy win? Or should Mark have stuck to the day job? Let’s find out!
The New Age Grammy enters the 90s. Peter Gabriel is a worthy winner. But a new age hyperstar is waiting in the wings…
Peter Gabriel’s Passion is a landmark album. It was the first album ever released on his Real World label. That means it was the first CD to have that lovely earthy rainbow spine. It was the moment WOMAD became an institution, rather than a financial disaster that could only be rescued by the power of prog. And it was very likely the first time many in the west were exposed to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, and Baaba Maal.
It also marked the first time the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was won by a superstar – and I don’t mean Jesus Christ.
Peter Gabriel isn’t cool now, and he wasn’t cool then. He was and is the exact opposite of cool, and that’s what makes him so wonderful. But though he wasn’t cool in 1989, he was certainly respected. This was three years after So, which went triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the US. It was the same year In Your Eyes achieved immortality when it was blasted from a stereo held aloft by John Cusack in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. And the album in question was the soundtrack to a Scorsese film about Jesus.
No question about it, Passion was an Important Album by An Artist of Note. And it won the New Age Grammy! In previous years, the award went to an eccentric harpist, a jazz veteran and a “chamber jazz” band. In 1990, it was won by an artist everyone knew, and millions loved. Did this legitamise the award, and the genre? Is this the year new age went mainstream?
Windham Hill missed out on a Grammy at the 1989 awards, too. That year, they didn’t stand a chance: Not a single release from their roster got a nomination. And to add insult to injury? The album that did win, Shadowfax’s Folksongs for a Nuclear Village, was the band’s first album not to be released on Windham Hill!
That must have stung. Many an empty beer can must have been thrown at the TV screen in the Windham Hill office when the 1989 New Age Grammy award winners were revealed.
But what of the album? Was it a worthy winner, or were Windham Hill justified in their (totally imagined by me) contempt?