I’ve enjoyed the music of Mike Oldfield since I was about 15. Wow, I’ve just realised that’s about 20 years. What makes me keep coming back to this artist? What tracks would I recommend if you wanted to get an overview of his work?
I used to hang out with a group of kids who loved all kinds of music. I admit that I didn’t have much of an idea myself, but took on board their recommendations, and quite early on one of them gave me a cassette tape of “Tubular Bells 2”.
I had never heard of the artist before, but that wasn’t unusual. What impressed me initially were the titles of some of the tracks. “Weightless”, “Blue Dawn” and “Sentinel” sounded awesome to this hapless, sci-fi loving word-nerd. But when I stuck it in my stereo, it was the sound that really amazed me.
Looking back now on the albums released around that time, I can see this one represented a clear shift in Mike’s style. For years he’d been releasing albums of rock music, with tracks typically around 5 minutes, lots of prominent vocals by mostly unknown artists, and some outstanding music and guitar solos.
Over the years, my favourite albums from this era have become “Islands”, “Discovery” and “Crises”, with the latter being the most challenging and rewarding of the three.
Paradigm Shift #
But this album, Tubular Bells 2, was a paradigm shift. When “Songs of Distant Earth” was released a short time later, I instantly bought the CD (for £18 I might add). I listened to it constantly for years.
This album still is my absolute favourite. It’s sublime arrangements, for me at least, defy any genre classification. They instill in me a sense of wonder that only the TV series “Babylon 5” has managed to compete with.
At the time, I was getting into James Joyce. His idea of the “literary epiphany”, a moment when you might percieve some kind of absolute beauty, I think is expressed by this album. Loved it.
Over the next few years I soaked up everything Mike published, which morphed into a dance / trance influenced style, I am told which came from living on the island of Ibiza.
I think of this era of ending with the very left-field classical album “Music of the Spheres”. Mike doesn’t talk about this album much, and I secretly wonder if was a studio-ordered collaboration between Mike and Karl Jenkins, which may have been difficult for such an independent and determined artist.
The album is nonetheless fantastic and one I listen to very frequently.
Others that I would recommend from this era are “Tubular Bells 3” and “Tr3s Lunas”.
But there are two albums near the beginning and end of this group that are totally different: “Voyager”, which consists mostly of arrangements of folk music, and “Man on the Rocks”, a heavily vocal-led collection which seems to have been a bit of a catharthis from the solely classical “Music of the Spheres”.
Origin Story #
Mike had originally started out bringing, as I like to call it, classical structure to rock music. His original few albums had very few track splits, each being around the 20-minute mark.
I was very pleased to hear that Mike was going to go back to this style with “Return to Ommadawn”, for a few reasons.
Primarily, it seems this album was “one for the fans” - Mike was rewarding the people who had stuck with him through the years, even if it seemed as if that style of his was a thing of the past. But listening to interviews, it’s clear that this is Mike’s “home style” - that he’s most comfortable with this structure and form of composition.
I must be honest, it took me years to understand and appreciate these albums.
I think my first mistake was believing that I had to enjoy the original Tubular Bells in order to do so. I didn’t - and still don’t - enjoy the one single album that people generally remember Mike for!
Yes it was a groundbreaking album that displayed a certain genius. But for me, it doesn’t resonate for some reason.
Now, going through that early set, I genuinely can say I enjoy these albums as much as the others. Something that helped a great deal was the Elements album, which showcases shortened excerpts from these longer works.
The Future #
Mike Oldfield has produced a body of work that I constantly go back to. I eagerly anticipate his next work, and appreciate that even if I don’t love it, at least I know I will enjoy and appreciate it.
Mike might not be one of those artists who get a vast amount of attention. However, his work on the whole has really resonated with me. I hope this short tour gives you some background and insight into an artist who is multi-layered, complex and deeply moving.”