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.
Let’s listen to some of them, together.
THANK GOD IT’S CHRISTMAS
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?
If the creation of this award was a year zero for new age music, then 1990 was the year the genre came of age. If the term “new age” ever meant anything other than candles, dolphins, crystals and incense, after 1990 it could never mean anything else.
But was the album that forever cemented the idea of new age music any good? Let’s find out!
Middle Earth or Middle Age?
Poor Windham Hill Records. When the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording was first introduced in 1987, I imagine they started clearing space on the mantelpiece. It must have felt like this new award was created just for them! After all, they were the multi-million selling new age label that may have been responsible for getting the academy to create the new category in the first place.
But despite having two separate label compilations nominated in the first awards, Windham Hill took nothing home. They had a number of horses in the race for the award’s second year, too. Alas, once more, no Grammy for Windham Hill.
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?
Let’s find out!
The second album to win the Grammy for Best New Age Recording will certainly take you places. You might not necessarily enjoy the journey, but the destination is bliss.
The late Yusef Lateef was a worldly innovator, a boundary-breaker who never once rested on his laurels. He didn’t so much book studio time as set himself new challenges – fresh fusions to try, fresh frontiers to conquer. His body of work is an ocean of sound, and I’m still paddling in the shallows.
Up until very recently, I’d only heard one of his albums: 1957’s Before Dawn, which I acquired through Jonny Trunk’s astoundingly generous 50p Friday initiative. Trunk describes Before Dawn as “one of the greatest jazz records of all time.” And while I don’t think I’d count it among my very favourites, its irresistibly groovy progressive bop sounds are often exactly the sort of sounds I want to hear.
30 years after Before Dawn, Yusef Lateef would win the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording for Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony. As a band leader, it was at least his 37th album. It also seems it was the last record he ever put out.
To go straight from the warm and organic Before Dawn to the austere and paranoid Little Symphony was a bit of a shock. I can only imagine the adventures that took place between his late 50s cool and his late 80s visionary period. I’ve got a lot of listening to do!
But first, let’s munch over the mysterious odyssey that won the New Age Grammy in 1988.
The winner of the inaugural Grammy for Best New Age Recording is a slap bass neon fairytale, with bells.
In an attempt to better understand what makes New Age Music New Age Music, I’m going to study ever album that ever won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.
I’m calling this project the New Age Grammy Challenge: Healing Assessments of Musicians Perceived as Awful, or NAGCHAMPA for short.
Or maybe I’ll just refer to it as my New Age Grammy Challenge Thing.
The Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was introduced in 1987. The first ever award went to Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider for his 1986 album Down to the Moon. It’s a totally tropical deep dive into a muggy fairy realm. It’s the only album I can think of that could soundtrack both a magical fantasy adventure and a gritty ’80s cop drama. It sounds otherworldly, but it also sounds like pastel shirts in a neon mall.
If all the winners are this interesting, this is going to be a very fun challenge indeed.
I have 59.2 hours of New Age music in my library.
All the usual suspects are there. Enya. Laraaji. Iasos. Constance Demby. I’ve got a lot of more obscure stuff too, plus a few compilations. Among those is Light in the Attic’s astounding I Am The Center collection, which I hold responsible for getting me into this New Age thing in the first place.
Some of this music is self-consciously New Age music – as in, the artist themselves said “this is New Age music!” Some of it is music that I myself have labelled as New Age. You might disagree with some of my labelling.
Some of this music was specifically recorded to aid meditation or to soundtrack rituals. I’ve got some excellent recordings of Tibetan singing bowls, for example. Some of this music was created for specific occasions or spaces. But some of it is simply ambient music with a worldly, spiritual or “ethnic” feel to it.
And yet, it all sounds like New Age music to me. But what makes New Age music New Age? What separates New Age music from, say, ambient music? Or “world music”? What sets it apart as a genre in itself?
It’s not just that it’s blissfully naff. So what else could it be?
Can I shock you? I love prog rock.
This much-maligned genre delivers songs like symphonies and albums like Chinese puzzle boxes. Structures to get lost in and lyrics you can chew on. It’s colourful, expansive, visionary, and oh so beautifully naff.
Today I’d like to talk about a concept that I call Ultraprog. This is where a prog rock song just pushes itself that little bit further. Intensity builds. Maybe the tempo increases, or the band introduces a particularly fiddly riff. Things go interstellar – heavenly, or hellish. It’s one of those things that you just know when you hear it.
To better explain what I mean by ULTRAPROG, I’m going to show rather than tell. Here are a number of examples of moments in songs where things jump from prog to Ultraprog.
Please note: There will be no examples of Ultraprog moments from Tool, Yes, or Emerson Lake and Palmer. This is because these three bands seem to exist in a state of perpetual Ultraprog. It’s all they know. You can’t really take things higher or further when your starting point is so intense already!
So light some incense, pour yourself some green tea, and come along and Ultraprog with me.