Saturday, December 8, 2018

Aural Awakenings Top 25 Albums of 2018

Shortly before the beginning of this year, I officially decided to launch a second station that would differ in many ways from my other long-running station Journeyscapes. My vision was to present music that would convey an overall revitalizing and brighter mood than the generally more entrancing and otherworldly Journeyscapes. Likewise, in contrast to Journeyscapes’ greater emphasis on ambient/electronic music, Aural Awakenings would have a more notable acoustic bent. This inspiration would come from much of the music my parents introduced me to as a child from record labels and catalogs like Narada and Windham Hill, which differed from the ambient/electronic music that I subsequently got heavily into as a teenager.

So the venture began as a simple blog and weekly one-hour program, which quickly blossomed into another full-time streaming station that broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I also began (and am still in the process of) republishing album reviews I’d written for Journeyscapes on Aural Awakenings of music that is now being programmed on the latter. By that point, I knew I wanted Aural Awakenings to be something other than a traditionally “new age” radio station that played music primarily intended for massage or healing therapies. Rather, the music offered would be, for the most part, melodically engaging and perfectly suitable for listening to while working, writing, or going about daily activities – yet convey an overall relaxing mood nonetheless. Hence, the station’s format began taking a more tangible shape by merely allowing it to evolve naturally over the months – I simply picked out and played the songs I thought would “fit” and that listeners would respond positively to.

Today, listeners can hear a refreshing and harmonious integration of Celtic, nouveau flamenco, acoustic guitar, solo piano, contemporary instrumental, some film score pieces and gentle world music. More recently, Aural Awakenings has expanded to include many classical crossover favorites such as 2Cellos, Sarah Brightman and The Piano Guys.

Our Top 25 Albums of 2018 features a list of albums that were programmed and charted before November 1st, 2018. Several of these artists and albums are also programmed on Journeyscapes, although different tracks from them are played on our sister station. While incredibly hard to narrow the list down to just 25 selections, the albums presented here proved to be especially notable releases that not only elicited generally positive feedback, but really seemed to further define the overall Aural Awakenings atmosphere. However, since this list only includes a portion of outstanding music that I had the pleasure of hearing and sharing with listeners over the past year, be sure to visit the Monthly Top 25 Albums section of this site for many more amazing albums!

So to wrap up a fantastic first year at Aural Awakenings, we present a special two-hour show chaptered into five sets with commentary along the way. You can also read a short overview of every album listed in alphabetical order by artist name below.

2002 – A World Away

2002 is the ‘neoclassical new age’ musical family trio of Randy, Pamela and Sarah Copus. Originally having debuted as a husband and wife duo in 1992, their talented singer/harpist daughter Sarah joined the band a few years ago. Playing out like an epic fantasy-romance novel, A World Away beautifully stuns with its magical blend of Celtic harp, ethereal vocals and cinematic orchestration.

Aidia – A Beautiful Fall

Composed and arranged by Kevin Keller, Aidia’s A Beautiful Fall delicately weaves subtly melodic piano atmospheres with other minimal ambient and classical instrumentation. One of the most mesmerizing seasonal themed albums I’ve heard, it pleasantly recalls some of the mood evoked on Jon Mark’s now classic Sunday in Autumn album that was released many years ago.

Áine Minogue – Eve

Áine Minogue is a renowned traditional Irish harpist, singer and composer whose album Eve tempts the ears with its enchanting blend of wispy lyrical vocals, Celtic instrumentation and other minimal textures for an overall listening experience that is whimsically lulling.

Briana Di Mara – Haven

Briana Di Mara is a composer and violinist whose remarkably impressive debut album Haven draws from Celtic, Balkan, Turkish and Arabic musical traditions for a striking amalgamation of classical world fusion. Likewise joined throughout by several guest musicians, she is certainly a potential rising star to keep an eye on.

Carl Weingarten – This Is Where I Found You

Veteran guitarist and composer Carl Weingarten plays both acoustic and electric slide guitars on his enthralling album This is Where I Found You. Overall sleekly rhythmic with smoky atmospheres, the album features a handful of guest musicians (including Ulrich Schnauss of Tangerine Dream) who variably provide additional guitar, piano, percussion and subtle wordless vocals.

Christopher Boscole – Soul Dreams

Pianist and composer Christopher Boscole released a beautiful “new age” solo piano album this year entitled Soul Dreams. Conveying a reflective mood and tender romance wrapped in wondrous awe of the natural world around us, his music is colorfully expressive yet serenely introspective.

Eamonn Karran – I’ll Be With you

Irish pianist and composer Eamonn Karran released his fourth album I’ll Be With You on the prestigious label Real Music earlier this year. Making the list as this year’s top Celtic album and possibly one of the genre’s all-time best, I’ll Be With You is a resplendent synthesis of traditional Irish music with contemporary instrumental and ethereal-ambient soundscapes.

Echo Us – To Wake a Dream in Moving Water

Echo Us is the recording alias of composer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Matthews who brought us his incredible fifth album To Wake a Dream in Moving Water late last year. Lending Celtic overtones to ambient and progressive rock signatures, the eclectically enchanting arrangements often recall the music of Mike Oldfield, while Ethan’s occasional lyrical signing sounds reminiscent of Al Stewart.

Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning – Eirlandia

Keyboardist and percussionist Jeff Johnson and flutist Brian Dunning are a legendary musical duo who’ve released many albums over the years. Comprised of traditional Irish and contemporary instruments, Eirlandia is a gorgeous Celtic fusion album that boasts classical and ambient signatures along its enchanting course.

Jim Brickman – Soothe, Vol. 4: Subzero

Although Jim Brickman may officially be the best-selling solo pianist to date, he’s certainly never been a one-trick pony – having mastered other styles of music and particularly as of late. Subtitled Subzero, volume four of his Soothe series is a piano-led album that ventures into chill, jazz and exotic musical terrain for an overall sound that is hip, sexy and groove-laden.

Joseph L Young – Every Moment

Joseph L Young is a world flutist, keyboardist and composer who explores new ground on his album Every Moment, as he crafts a kind of space-jazz with these saxophone-led compositions, which feature varying arrangements of violin, synthesizers and gentle percussion with an occasional touch of hazy vocals.

Ken Verheecke – Between Earth & Sky

Guitarist and composer Ken Verheecke has released nine alums since his debut in 2002. His second album on Heart Dance Records, Between Earth & Sky delves into a chill-rock sound, as its soulful electric guitar leads are beautifully accompanied by lush acoustic-electronic arrangements.

Lena Natalia – Lonely Satellite

Lena Natalia is a pianist and composer who creates deeply emotive ambient piano and classical minimalist soundscapes. Easily this artist’s best work since discovering her intoxicatingly beautiful music a couple of years ago, Lonely Satellite orbits in as this year’s top piano album.

Loreena McKennitt – Lost Souls

Loreena McKennitt is a composer, harpist, accordionist and pianist – as well as most notably perhaps – a singer with an unmistakable soprano vocal range. Her long-awaited album Lost Souls is characteristically Celtic with notable Middle-Eastern influences, while displaying an overall prominent acoustic-folk sound.

Marcia Watson Bendo – Woodland Moons

One of this year’s finest debuts comes from Marcia Watson Bendo, a flutist, composer and member of the Potawatomi tribe. Inspired by the moon lore of the North American Indigenous Woodlands people, her enchanting album Woodland Moons is led by contemporary melodies performed on Native American-style flutes, accompanied by delicate arrangements of keyboards, strings and percussion.

Michael Kollwitz – Serenity II 

Michael Kollwitz is a lifelong master of a unique instrument called the Chapman Stick, a kind of guitar/piano hybrid in both its sound and functionality. His album Serenity II is comprised of dreamy, flowing melodies that often seemingly shift between the two contrasting environments of the Hawaiian Pacific and Arizona desert.

Michael Whalen – Kiss the Quiet

Michael Whalen is a highly versatile musician and composer with a plethora of TV and film scores to his credit. His latest album Kiss the Quiet showcases hauntingly beautiful ambient piano soundscapes that often convey affecting and reticent moods, which is further enhanced by the impeccable mastering skills of Tom Eaton.

Monica Williams – Journey of Tears

Flutist and composer Monica Williams is one-half of the musical duo Phoenix Rising. Her gorgeous solo debut Journey of Tears was released on Heart Dance Records this year, and is comprised of soothingly melodic instrumental soundscapes. Likewise, the album includes guest performances by flutist Sherry Finzer and guitarist Darin Mahoney.

Neil Patton – Solitaire

Neil Patton is a composer, pianist, keyboardist and singer (although I’ve yet to hear him in that latter capacity). The sublime compositions on his latest album Solitaire makes it easily one of this year’s finest solo-piano releases, while the music often bears reminiscences along the way to George Winston, Liz Story and David Lanz.

Nitish Kulkarni – Listen.

Nitish Kulkarni delivered one of this year’s favorite out-of-the-box albums. Somewhat genre-defying, Listen. offers a stunning sound collage of eclectic world fusion drawn from Celtic, Turkish, Baroque and Aboriginal influences that's intricately laced with electronic instrumentation.

Nouveau Papillon – Enchantment Blooms

Nouveau Papillon is a Phoenix-based duo who create beautiful melodies led by acoustic guitars and Native American style flutes. Set to soothing arrangements comprised of harp, keyboards, gentle percussion and nature sounds, their album Enchantment Blooms aptly conveys images of desert plains and nocturnal woodlands.

Sherry Finzer & Mark Holland – Somewhere New

Flutists Sherry Finzer and Mark Holland released their second collaborative album this year entitled Somewhere New. Comprised of melodically meditative soundscapes, the album features an acoustic amalgamation of flute, guitar, harp, piano and organic percussive instruments, courtesy of contributing guest musicians throughout.

Steve Rivera – Beyond Measures & Time

Pianist and composer Steve Rivera released his second album entitled Beyond Measures & Time in September of this year. Comprised of eleven contemplatively engaging solo piano compositions, the music elicits both light and shadowy atmospheres, while touching on sensitive emotions along its splendid course.

Symphonex Orchestra – Music That Tells a Story

Symphonex Orchestra is a concept project by musician and composer Peter Xifaras who’s been releasing music since 2000. His refreshingly innovative and rather eclectic double-album entitled Music That Tells a Story features a mesmerizing sound collage of classical, contemporary, global and electronica motifs.

White Sun – White Sun III

Also releasing a double-album this year was the California-based musical trio White Sun. Infused with the band’s Sikh spirituality, their album White Sun III offers an exquisite musical blend of east-meets-west, with Gurujas’ ethereal vocals blissfully guiding along the compositions.