‘Every Mike Oldfield Album Ranked From the Worst to the Most Ridiculous According to Me’
I was a huge Mike Oldfield fan as a teenager and the impact, impression and influence his music had on me was profound and lasting (I’m convinced Oldfield is the reason my radio shows contained so many sound effects and overdubs). A remarkable musician Oldfield’s compositional approach, for me, seemed to consist of three distinct elements combined — Minimalism, rock and folk. Although by Oldfield’s own admission he simply cribbed the aspects of Minimalism — Glass, Reich, etc — he fancied the sound of whilst his rock playing is borderline schizophrenic and his interpretation of folk music so bombastic it has more in common with Michael Bay than anything you’d ever hear being played in a pub. All of this is in the service of one, explicit aim — to induce intense ecstasy in the listener. However, with great ecstasy also comes great agony so with that in mind I decided to sit down and re-visit every single Mike Oldfield studio album ever made to see how they all stood up against each other. It’s a list of savage extremes and violent contrasts yet considering that’s how Oldfield’s music operates I feel all the below is only fittingly appropriate.
25/ The Millennium Bell (1999) –
With a list such as this it’s inevitable that we start from a place of rabid negativity and raging spite so I feel bad for giving Oldfield such a kicking straight off the bat, although once you listen to this album you realise that Oldfield has brought this all on himself as this is a record that should never have been recorded in the first place let alone released and listened too.
24/ Voyager (1996) –
An album that sounds as shit as the cover looks. Oldfield has spoken openly and admirably about his mental health problems and depression for which he should be lauded and, at his best, his music represents a channelling and transforming of that psychological distress. Listening to albums such as ‘Voyager’, however, you wonder if his music might actually be the cause of it.
23/ Tubular Bells (2003) –
One of the aspects that makes the original Tubular Bells so magical is not just the music but the way it was recorded and the specific sound it creates; it as important and idiosyncratic as the notes themselves. Take that away and you’ve stripped out vast chunks of the charm and that’s exactly what Oldfield has done here. Not only an exercise in redundancy but also a wilful act of self-vandalism. And John fucking Cleese?!
22/ Tr3s Lunas (2002) –
Bland, unlistenable bollocks. Tres Awful, more like.
21/ Light + Shade (2005) –
An album supposedly consisting of two sides — one light, the other dark. Unfortunately both could be more correctly described as uniformly shit-brown. The sonic equivalent of watching your dad at a rave dancing to substandard Enigma (and that’s saying something!) and just as embarrassing to sit through. Absolutely appalling.
20/ Music of the Spheres (2008) –
Another cast-iron argument for why rock stars should stay the hell away from using an orchestra. The pretentious title should be a warning as is the lack of David Bedford as orchestrator. Tedious beyond belief although it might appeal to people who find Classic FM a little too challenging and edgy. A section of the album was performed live on The Alan Titchmarsh TV Show which sums up all you need to know about this record.
19/ Man on the Rocks (2014) –
Ever wondered what it would be like if Mike Oldfield had joined some shit, middle of the road AOR rock band? No, neither have I and this album of insipid, excruciating songs is the proof that it should have remained a matter of abstract speculation as opposed to a concrete reality.
18/ Tubular Bells 3 (1998) –
Whenever Oldfield needs to financially sustain his mid-life crisis driven, Mediterranean lifestyle he rolls out the Bells moniker, although this album should be more accurately titled ‘Flogging a Dead Horse in an Ibiza Night-club, Resuscitating it Then Beating it to Death Again Before the Poppers Wear off’.
17/ Return to Ommadawn (2017) –
An album that shouldn’t be as violently bland as it is. Like listening to a Chieftains album if they were all comatose, dead or held folk music in utter contempt… which is how folk music should be held in my opinion. An album that makes the listener wish every single penny-whistle in existence would be melted down into scrap and thrown in the sea.
16/ Guitars (1999) –
How can an album played entirely on guitars, the instrument Oldfield is most skilled playing, end up so flat and unexciting? Maybe he should’ve played the whole album on an instrument as far removed from his comfort zone as possible so he could rise to a challenge. With that in mind I suggest he should’ve called the album ‘Spoons’ and performed the entire LP using only cutlery.
15/ The Songs of Distant Earth (1994) –
Possibly the last Oldfield album I could tenuously claim to enjoy, or maybe ‘tolerate’ would be the more accurate word. His most successful ambient work even if it does become boring and grating on side two and a harbinger of the mediocre blandness that would go on to dominate Oldfield’s work from here on.
14/ Heaven’s Open (1991) –
Oldfield sings! And we all know how bad that tends to sound. Another patchy album of substandard songs whilst containing a fragmented long piece, Music From the Balcony. Saxophonist Courtney Pine pops up on this one raising the interesting question — “what if Mike Oldfield had dabbled more with jazz as opposed to slavishly sticking to minimalism, rock and folk?”
13/ Platinum (1979) –
‘Platinum’ answers the question “What if Mike Oldfield had dabbled in jazz?” and the results aren’t pretty. A vitally needed stripped back affair after the excess of ‘Incantations’, ‘Platinum’ is an album desperately trying to feel laid back and fun but only partly succeeding. I mean, do we really want to hear Oldfield dabble with Gershwin, soft-shoe and scat? Oldfield might be able to wring ecstasy from repeating, shifting patterns but this overly focused approach precludes him from being able to swing. Still, there are some nice moments such as when Oldfield’s unmistakable guitar kicks in after the vocoder intro to Airborn and side one contains some rather nice bass playing (Oldfield’s guitar playing gets plenty of praise but he’s also a striking bass player).
Interesting more as a transitional album for Oldfield, both musically and personally, than anything else.
12/ Islands (1987) –
One of those Oldfield albums with one long side and a side of songs. The songs range from the innocuously naff to the aggressively irritating whilst the long piece, ‘The Wind Chimes’, is extensively aggressively irritating yet sprinkled with flashes of maniacal genius. Here Oldfield, once again, plunders music from around the world with abandon, specifically Indonesian gamelan, and transmogrifies it into, well… whatever the hell this nonsense is.
But be careful not to flippantly dismiss ‘The Wind Chimes’ entirely as it contains some seriously impressive playing. It’s just a shame it is utilised towards such ridiculous exhibitionism. Has a high ranking here due to these levels of ridiculousness.
11/ Discovery (1984) –
An album primarily consisting of songs and this time they’re not too bad, some even approaching being listenable. However, despite the ever dependable Maggie Reilly this album highlights one of Oldfield’s core problems, namely his difficulty in finding a decent male vocalist, although I do like the title track which features some nice bass playing. The instrumental piece, ‘The Lake’, contains some nice moments even if it feels somewhat inconsequential and shallow.
10/ Hergest Ridge (1974) –
Easily Oldfield’s most achingly plaintive and lonely sounding piece and one I wished I loved more than I do. I think it’s because it contains some tedious and clunky passages which, combined with a somewhat muffled sounding production, makes the album a hard one for me to fully immerse and lose myself in. Still, side one has some atmospheric passages whilst its climax with piano, sleigh-bells, guitar and, ultimately, choir evoke that sense of intense isolation Oldfield obviously felt at that time.
Yet for all that plaintive atmosphere ‘Hergest Ridge’ can still be shrill, muddy and dull.
9/ Earth Moving (1989) –
‘Earth Moving’… above ‘Hergest Ridge?! You betcha. You see, I’m not one of those Oldfield elitist asshole snobs who look down on his song albums and ‘Earth Moving’ is, by far, my favourite of those. The opening track, ‘Holy’, is one of the best tracks he’s written (and contains a phenomenally berserk guitar solo only that Oldfield could concoct) and even though there’s plenty of filler I have a big soft-spot for both the title track (Oldfield strives for and actually achieves a sense of soul here?) and especially ‘Nothing But/Bridge to Paradise’, the latter being a concise package of Oldfieldian excess and sonic daftness in song form… and I love it.
An abomination for some compared to his instrumental albums but there’s a sense of clarity, direction and energy here that can be lacking elsewhere in his discography. Sometimes putting the chains and restraints on Oldfield could be a benefit.
8/ Tubular Bells II (1992) –
I have to admit a massive bias here as I saw ‘Tubular Bells II’ premiered in concert at Edinburgh Castle back in 1992 and it’s always been an album I’ve liked.
The only example of Oldfield revisiting a previous album and it actually working, ‘Tubular Bells II’ has plenty of legitimately excellent moments. For example, Sunjammer is a superb track and perfectly encapsulates what Oldfield’s music at its best can deliver, namely sheer exhilaration. And whereas John Cleese was an embarrassment in 2003 here Alan Rickman feels like an inspired choice. Although this is also a warning sign of future cannibalisation by Oldfield to come.
7/ QE2 (1980) –
Now I really like ‘QE2’ as, for me, it’s the album where Oldfield found the sound that I most identify him with, i.e. — rock meets folk and played with more of a band feel than countless one-man overdubs, although there’s still plenty of those.
Sure, ‘QE2’ is tasteless as hell veering from sea shanties to Abba, musicalised ship sirens to The Shadows, Bach and vocoders so it’s no wonder that prog-loathing music journalist Paul Morley absolutely hated this record. Although anything that brings Paul Morley intense distress and pain is nothing but a force for good in my books.
Contains the excellent, and fantastically intense, ‘Mirage’ plus a ludicrous duet on the title track between electric guitar and Northumbrian pipes that boggles the ears. The album did exceptionally well in Germany and, listening to it, it’s clearly evident why.
6/ Tubular Bells (1973) –
So this isn’t his number 1 album for me? It’s seminal, that’s for sure but maybe over familiarity with it has kept it off my top spot, but for a debut album it’s still a staggering achievement. The piano intro still illicit chills whilst those icy stabs stop it all from descending into monotonous fluff.
It’s not just the music but also, as mentioned above, HOW it sounds. Why is it that when those dampened guitars kick in at the 17 minute mark they sound so unique and raise the hairs on the arms? This album creates a fantastic atmosphere so it’s easy to hear why it was so influential and why re-recording it was such a stupid idea because so much that’s integral to the magic gets lost.
The end to side 1 is still a blast and notice how Stanshall’s Master of Ceremonies is, essentially, asking us to pay strict attention and listen very closely to what we’re hearing. This invitation to close listening is always present in Oldfield’s work.
5/ Ommadawn (1975) –
Easily Oldfield’s most gorgeous and shimmering release it’s the album where Oldfield nailed his approach to giving his music that certain lift, an extra sparkle, usually by tuning everything up slightly at moments for an extra boost. The sequence on side one at the 8:17 mark with the choir that leads into one of Oldfield’s best electric guitar solos is still one of the most uplifting, and achingly beautiful, pieces of music the guy has ever recorded.
Side two continues the prettiness with, after a five minute wall of sound to supply sonic contrast, there’s a really sweet section for acoustic guitar and Uilleann pipes. Possibly Oldfield’s most approachable album.
4/ Five Miles Out (1982) –
I’ve always loved ‘Five Miles Out’ and it might best represent what I would consider the archetypal Oldfield sound where the mix of minimalism, rock and folk blend in the context of a band performing extended instrumental pieces.
‘Taurus II’, the side long effort here, continues the Euro-pop feel of ‘QE2’ and expands it to a whopping (unbearable?) 24 minutes that miraculously manages to sustain interest and engagement. ‘Family Man’ and ‘Five Miles Out’ are fun songs although it might be the group composed ‘Orabidoo’ that’s my favourite piece on this album.
A commercial success for Oldfield and that success would only increase with his next, even better album, which was…
3/ Crises (1983) –
Now I adore ‘Crises’!
This is the first of the albums Oldfield made with drummer/producer Simon Phillips and this is by far their best work together. ‘Crisis’ jettisons practically all vestiges of folk to focus purely on rock minimalism where synths replace vibraphones and Phillips’ kit provides the main thrusting power. The climax to side 1 is a great example of this in action.
It’s the album with ‘Moonlight Shadow’ on it but, for me, ‘In High Places’ is the superior track here as I’ve always thought Jon Anderson was an excellent male vocal fit for Oldfield and makes me wish they’d made more than just a couple of songs together.
2/ Incantations (1978) –
Where to even begin with this sprawling monster? This is the album where the minimalism is at the fore which is why it frequently sounds like a deranged version of Steve Reich’s ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians’ or a cacophony of hyperactive vibraphones inside a tumble dryer.
Like nearly all double albums it contains filler (side 2 is a bore) yet this is the album where, for me, lurks some of Oldfield’s most powerfully beautiful sequences. Side 4 is all shimmering luminescence with a powerfully moving climax, whilst at the 3:30 mark on side 3 Oldfield executes one of the most extraordinary guitar solos of his entire career (this might be his greatest moment).
Flawed but thrilling and one of the clearest examples of Oldfield furiously pursing the ecstatic and achieving precisely that.
1/ Amarok (1990) –
A legitimately certifiable album driven by bitterness, insanity and a lack of taste so violent it comes with a health warning. ‘Amarok’ is an unremitting exercise in sustained intensity which contains playing by Oldfield that starts at a blistering furious pace and only becomes more frenetic from there to the point of delirium and beyond.
An album of severe sonic contrasts the way Oldfield uses dynamics is wilfully extreme to the point of becoming obnoxious; this is where Oldfield’s reach for ecstasy merges fully with the agony resulting in an insufferable experience that’s totally captivating in its monstrosity.
A deliberate middle finger to Richard Branson and his Virgin label this is an unbroken hour of Oldfield at peak Oldfield, pushing himself further than he ever had before and would never come close to reaching again. It’s some statement.
But if Amarok is a vigorous “fuck you!” to the label and a statement for artistic freedom then it immediately raises the question — what the hell had Oldfield been doing until now? I mean, I don’t really associate Oldfield with the term “compromise” or with reining himself in in any way whatsoever!
It was a huge load of fun to revisit all these Oldfield albums and, despite the naff ones, I can understand why I was into his music so much. Yet for all the ridiculousness, musical pyrotechnics and rampant excess it’s the raw emotional intensity of his music and playing that I responded too so much, and Oldfield’s music was frequently as emotionally raw as an open wound. That and the fact that there is still nobody else out there who plays, sounds or composes like Oldfield does. He is utterly unique, ridiculously unique in fact and things of such rarity should be cherished.