Review // The Album Years podcast – A New Pair of Ears

The Album Years, a new music podcast by No-Man colleagues Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, went off to a roaring start, with fans applauding the first two episodes. The new series even hit the top 3 on Apple Podcasts in various countries. 

My opinion? The enthusiasm and insights of Wilson and Bowness make you want to pick up a pencil and take extensive notes. I’m afraid this series is going to cost me a small fortune in record stores. If a music podcast can achieve that, it’s a success in my book.

Each episode zooms in on a particular ‘album year’, a year from an era where albums existed as a unified art form, not just a random collection of hits. For Wilson and Bowness, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, the era started in the mid-60’s–which is true, as long as you don’t take jazz albums into account–and ‘ended’ around the year 2000, which seems to be a more arbitrary choice, especially since the album era never really ended. But you need to draw the line somewhere. I get that.

Beyond Bowie and Pink Floyd

The first two episodes, focussing on 1980 and 1973, where lots of fun already. Without spoiling anything, I can say that while ‘Closer’ by Joy Division, Bowie’s ’Scary Monsters’ and Pink Floyd’s ’The Dark Side of the Moon’ are briefly mentioned they don’t feature in the official selection. As Wilson rightfully comments, these albums have been dissected and reconstructed over and over already: “There’s nothing more to say.”

Instead, Wilson and Bowness pick favorite, significant and strangely-under-the-radar records of a particular year and reflect on it, placing the albums in their historical context, commenting on sonic innovations, adding personal recollections and funny ad-libs (like only friends can), talking about the influence and nachleben of certain albums, often connecting the dots between them. It’s history, debate and annotated playlist rolled into one.

Real discussion

They don’t always agree, which is the kind of dynamic you need to make a podcast like this interesting. Even more so as the podcast isn’t allowed to use any sound clips, so both hosts have to work extra hard to ‘dance about architecture’ and they’re magnificent at it.

Wilson talks quite quickly and in a confident voice (almost as if his knowledge and opinions are fighting to get out), at times cutting off the soft-spoken Tim Bowness mid-sentence.

The Album Years Podcast - Steven Wilson & Tim Bowness - No-Man

The latter chooses his words with great care and manages to keep his composure when Wilson questions his choices or statements. It really makes you want to be a fly on the wall during No-Man recording sessions, which have consistently spawned great albums. Maybe that’s their magic.

But both offer remarkable insights and analysis. Even when they talk about records you already know, you’ll be inclined to dig up that LP and listen to it with a new pair of ears.

Just to give you one example: in the 1973 episode, Wilson talks about the horrific drum sound on Todd Rundgren’s ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. So I went back to the Zen Archer, and lo and behold, he’s right. Though one could argue it’s part of the DIY aesthetic of the album.

Insightful and exciting

There’s really no point in judging the selection of albums. Wilson and Bowness have been sharing their playlists online for years. Together they turned me on to dozens of albums. They set out the boundaries of the podcast clearly and within that framework I’m confident they’ll keep balancing every episode between the familiar and the obscure, the accessible and the bizarre. The Album Years has been both insightful and exciting so far.

Enjoy ’The Album Years’ now on all major podcast platforms.

Eureka - The Explorer's Guide to Discovering MusicEureka - The Explorer's Guide to Discovering Music

Eureka! The Explorer’s Guide to Discovering Music

Discovering new music is one of the great thrills in life. I know I won’t stumble upon a ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Skylarking’ every day. But I’m always either fixing holes in my record collection or reaching out my antennae to find gripping melodies, off-kilter sounds and downright musical iconoclasm.

Some sixty years ago, you needed a traveller’s mind, a portable tape recorder and preferably Lomax for a last name. Today, you can become a music explorer operating from the toilet! Well, most of the time.

Guiding light

I’m not referring to more haphazard ways of discovering music, like sitting by the radio and wait endlessly for a refreshing tune, or randomly picking songs on Spotify. No, you better have a guiding light, some guarantee that you’re at least looking in the right directions.

The following tips reveal how I’m unearthing music. Now and in the future. Use what you like and do let me know what you discover!

Never a dull moment!

1. Dive into your parents’ or uncle’s record stash. Ask what they grooved to when they were young. And join them on a trip down their memory lane. Chances are you’ll find more obscure titles than ‘Rumours’ or ‘The Joshua Tree’.

In fact, this is how I experienced my big bang. At the age of 9, I played my uncle’s copy of Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits’. Things expanded from there.

2. Flip through a music or genre book or encyclopaedia. ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’, ‘The Great Rock/Metal/Psychedelic Discography’ by Martin C. Strong, ‘The Rough Guide to the Best Music You’ve Never Heard’, ‘Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’ by Rob Young, Allmusic.com, …

And check out the editorial picks and the albums behind the stories. Fascinating stuff!

3. Shake the Twitter tree by searching for particular hastags like #psychsoul or #nowspinning (almost exclusively used by vinyl enthusiasts). Whatever niche you like. Did you encounter accounts that regularly share reviews or recommendations? Set up a Twitter list of music sources. That way, you’ll keep the milk of paradise flowing …

Next step: use TweetDeck to create your own music discovery dashboard, with colums for each of your lists and keyword/hashtag searches.

4. Get the most out of Spotify (or Deezer). The platform is loaded with excellent playlists, compiled by users. Just feed the search bar with keywords like ‘mellotron’ or ‘new york punk’ and put your headhones on. Also, try the Discover function. The more you listen, the more accurate the suggestions you get.

And are your friends notorious for their great taste in music? Keep an eye on the right sidebar to get inspired by what they’re listening to.

5. Start a conversation with the record store clerk. Come on, don’t be shy! I understand it’s tempting to just get your records, and get out. But these guys are surrounded by new and reissued music 24/7. So use their knowledge, tell them what kind of records you’re looking for and rush home to discover the gems you bought.

6. Read music blogs and magazines. Hype Machine keeps a list of over 800 handpicked blogs. Me? I like old school magazines like Mojo and Uncut. Because they have it all: great pictures, expertly written, evocative reviews of albums and reissues, in-depth pieces on new and old bands by seasoned journalists, an excellent cd with each issue and … a crossword puzzle.

7. Exchange mixtapes. One of the greatest aspects of any friendship is to discuss music, to meet at the front row for a concert, and to recommend albums. Does that mean you should have your notebook ready every time you go out for a drink? Well, why not?

Better still, ask your friends to put their latest favourite tunes on a cassette, CD-r, MiniDisk, … Before long, you’ll even know the running order by heart and you’ll be tracking down some of the original albums.

Also consider this nerdy alternative: invite your music buddies for a music night, to introduce and share songs that the others musn’t miss. Usually an inebriated affair, I picked up a lot from every single one of the so-called Deurne Sessions!

8. Find out what your favourite musicians are spinning. Sneak into their apartment? That’s one option, but not the one I would suggest. Instead, check if they have a listening now-list going on their website, or a playlist covering their influences on Spotify. In my experience, a lot musicians have a taste that stretches far beyond the style they’re known for themselves. And lots of interviews are sheer name-dropping feasts. Harvest time!

The most epic example of an artist playlist is surely Dan Snaith’s (aka Caribou) Longest Mixtape – 1000 Song for You.

9. Go where other music explorers go. On Last.fm or Discogs, on RateYourMusic or Progarchives, … On all of these platforms you’ll find countless discussions and/or personal lists. Moreover, Last.fm keeps track of what over 58 million users listen to on their computers or mobile devices. Find people with an interesting taste and enjoy their discoveries!

On the artist side of things, a lot is happening on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

10. Dig into musician’s collaborations. If you’d bring together the discographies of everyone who ever played with Miles Davis, you’d have thousands of hours worth of excellent music: by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarret, … Of course, Miles is an extreme example. But you get the picture.

11. Follow records labels very closely. They usually have a very clear concept. Some focus on a certain genre, others only hire bands that bring a unique expertimental voice to the table. If a certain label delivers the goods for you, it will probably continue to do so in the future.

Don’t know where to start? Just look for the label’s logo on the back of your favourite albums, and browse their discography online. Or try it the other way around: Wikipedia has an impressive list of record labels.

Interestingly, there are labels specifically oriented towards uncovering and reissuing burried treasures. Light In The Attic Records, obviously. Their catalog is simply mindblowing. Some personal highlights: ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ by Michael Chapman (1970), ‘Dreamin’ by Donnie & Joe Emerson (1979), ‘L’Amour’ by the elusive Lewis Baloue (1983) and ‘Songs from Suicide Bridge’ by David Kauffmann and Eric Caboor (1984).


Now it’s time to get out there and discover new music. Do let me know what you’ve found. I want to hear it too!