The Top 5 Mike Oldfield Albums
Mike Oldfield is a brilliant musician and composer whose career has spanned over 40 years. His most famous work ‘Tubular Bells’ was his very first album and sold millions of copies and launched his career at the young age of 19. This is a list of the top 5 Mike Oldfield albums.
There are a lot of list out there that attempt to rate his albums. Most of them are compiled purely on individual taste, as music is an art form and not science. I wanted to create a list to put things in perspective based on the ‘essence’ of what a Mike Oldfield album embodies.
Oldfield’s earliest influences and childhood training were in folk music. Oldfield himself states that his conceptual intent for Tubular Bells was to try and create a mix of rock and classical music. The piece was written as one continuous song consisting of a number of movements, similar to a symphony. It had to fit the format of the industry standard of the day, which was the LP or ‘long playing’ record. This limited the artist to about 25 minutes per side.
If you break that down to a simple summary, the essential Oldfield album should be a single musical piece, based on folk roots and consisting of rock in a classical format.
- Tubular Bells
The simple fact that every list compares all of Oldfield’s works to Tubular Bells is pretty convincing evidence that this is the gold standard of Oldfield albums. It set the format for his style, sound, musicianship and originality.
Ommadawn is pretty much the exact same format as Tubular Bells, down to the final track that features a short little ending or ‘dessert’ for the ears of the listener. What makes this album so powerful is the strong melody or theme that continuously runs throughout.
- Songs of Distant Earth
Oldfield had a subject on which to base his music- Arthur C Clarke’s science fiction work ‘Songs of Distant Earth’. Although this album is subdivided into ‘songs’ similar in a way to Tchaikovky’s ‘the Nutcracker’, the entire work itself runs seamlessly so it still fits within the framework of a textbook Oldfield album. What sets this album apart is the incredible moods, melodies and overall vibe of the music. It is mainly based on spacy sounding synthesizers but still has plenty of great guitar parts as well. This album is definitely a concept piece and not a bunch of individual songs compiled together.
Islands diverges from the standard Oldfield album in that the second side consists of a few standard format pop tunes instead of a long musical work. Oldfield had previously diverted from his standard format with his 5th album ‘Platinum’ and continued with this new format for a number of albums.
However, Islands took this new format to a higher level with some great songwriting. In particular, ‘North Point’ , ‘The time Has Come’ and ‘Islands’ are brilliant and catchy songs while the long instrumental ‘the Wind Chimes’ takes up the entire 1st side and is up there with his best stuff.
Voyager is a group of Celtic style folk songs played on acoustic and classical guitar. Although it does not fit the standard Oldfield formula, there is a cohesiveness of the songs that make it seems like an entire work and not just a grouping of songs. The musicianship is top notch and the melodies are beautiful. This is Oldfield getting back to his deepest folk roots and showing his incredible talent as an accomplished guitarist.
Honorable Mentions and why they come up short.
Crises has a very strong melody and has the classic Oldfield format with the first part taking up the entire side. Side two is a series of individual songs with the hit ‘Moonlight Shadow’ as the featured song. The other songs are definitely weaker melodies even with guest singers like Jon Anderson from Yes and Maggie O’Reilly which knock this album down a few notches. Of exception is the instrumental ‘Taurus 3 which is a particularly impressive classical guitar piece.
This was Oldfield’s follow up to Tubular Bells. It has many merits and fits the Oldfield format beautifully, however it is lacking in 1 thing- the main theme or melody is just not very strong and kind of slow to build. It sold a ton of records but was riding on the coat tails of Tubular Bells’ success.
Oldfield says this is probably his favorite album but if you read his autobiography, it’s pretty clear there’s a very thin line between madman and genius. Although the genius can produce great works of music, the madman is not a very good judge of his own music.
This album is a burden to listen to because it constantly borders on the psychotic. It’s hard to listen to for the same reason no one listens to the theme music for Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for pleasure, even though it’s a brilliant piece of music.
Return to Ommadawn
Return to Ommadawn is Oldfield’s newest release and a throwback to the earlier Oldfield albums. It could have been titled ‘Return to Hergest Ridge’ because there are a number of similarities to that as well. The melodies are a bit more subtle but the guitar playing is some of his best.
The downside is the arrangement. It’s pretty obvious that Oldfield played every instrument himself because it’s more of a series of solos bouncing back and forth as opposed to a group of musicians gelling together. Tubular Bells, Ommadawn and earlier albums have the feeling of a group effort even though Oldfield played almost every instrument himself.
About the writer
Rick Costello is a songwriter and musician who currently owns the Royalty Free Music website ‘FreeMusicPublicDomain.com’
He is the primary songwriter and guitarist for the bands Angelwing, Lost European and The Lemming Shepherds. He has written and performed on a number of albums which are heavily influenced by Mike Oldfield as well as other artists such as Renaissance, Pink Floyd and the classical composers.
If you like the music of Oldfield, I suggest you have a listen to Angelwing and the Lemming Shepherds in particular. All the songs are available for free download on http://www.freemusicpublicdomain.com/royalty-free-music/
If you are ‘old school’ and prefer the actual CD, there are few still available which offer the music is the original sequence and context. I highly recommend you check it out.