I’m apologising in advance if this selection’s a bit miserable, but with the year we’ve had and the people we’ve lost, some of these songs chime in perfectly with the zeitgeist. In no particular order, here are five of my favourite songs of this year from albums we’ve reviewed on MusicRiot. Please don’t trust my attempts to convey the importance of these songs, click on the links and hear them in all their glory. These songs will enrich your lives.
“Please Let it Rain in California Tonight”
From Anna Elizabeth Laube’s stunning album “Tree”, “Please Let it Rain in California Tonight” shone out like a beacon as a powerful secular reworking of “”The Lord’s Prayer” with a sparse piano backing. It’s beautiful and moving and you really need to listen to it.
“Red Dress” – Amanda Rheaume
From yet another high-quality album, “Red Dress” stands out by virtue of its simplicity and emotional message. Amanda delivers a political message about the disappearance and murder of indigenous women in Canada (and by extension the North American continent) in a very matter-of-fact way with a focus on victim-blaming, Simple and incredibly effective.
“Ordinary Day” – Chris While and Julie Matthews
From the album “Shoulder to Shoulder” (which is packed with exceptional songs), “Ordinary Day” gives an insight into the everyday tragedy of the loss of a family member. The pathos isn’t emphasised, it’s just expressed in an ordinary way with an empty chair. One of the most moving songs I heard this year.
“Shadow in the Window” – Michael McDermott
Michael McDermott is a prodigious talent who you should have heard of already but probably haven’t. He released two stunning albums this year and this is a song from his acoustic album “Willow Springs”. “Shadow in the Window” is on the theme of loss again as he tries to make sense of the death of his father and the gap that it created in his life. It’s powerful on the album, but you really should hear him play it live.
“Unplug the Machine” – Wild Ponies
From another album (“Radiant”), absolutely packed with great songs, “Unplug the Machine” taps into the energy of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as it runs through a list of things that are wrong with the world today (and this was released before Trump was elected) at breakneck speed. I could listen to this time after time after time and then maybe a few times more.
We’re big fans of Anna Elizabeth Laube here at Riot Towers, so we were delighted that she was able to make a contribution to this year’s High Fives. Her album “Tree” deserved every on of the five stars it received. We were even more pleased that she did something that no featured artist has done before; she opted for five favourite videos. Here we go:
Beyoncé – Hold Up
I didn’t really understand Beyoncé-mania until her last record, Beyoncé, when the genius finally hit me. I covered her song “XO” (as did John Mayer, a version I also really like) on my most recent record, Tree. Beyoncé is a masterpiece of an album, as is Lemonade. This video for “Hold Up” sums up the contradictions implicit in this album. Playful, rageful, knowing, confused, lighthearted, heavy. Feelings. It’s gorgeous, sexy, powerful.
Maggie Rogers – Alaska
The music and images in this video are unique, fresh, inspirational. Maggie Rogers was propelled to fame by a Pharrell masterclass, but her talent and merit is all her own.
Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man In A White World
I first heard Michael Kiwanuka in a Starbucks on State St. in Madison, WI, one cold winter afternoon. This new video is disorienting, important, timely, thought-provoking.
Lady Gaga – Million Reasons
I don’t love this video as much as the rest of the ones on this list, but I love the song. One of the best new songs this year. I’m sure we’ll have an official video out soon, but for now this live performance will suffice. (Unfortunately, the video Anna chose has been blocked in the UK for copyright reasons, so here’s the official video).
Danny Denial – Sell Me Out
I moved to Seattle this year and am happy to report the music scene is alive and well. This song and video are by local pop-punk artist Danny Denial. Raw, real, precocious.
We absolutely loved “Ingrained” by Carly Dow at Riot Towers earlier this year, so we were double plus pleased when Carly was able to contribute to High Fives this year with (apologies to Julie Andrews) a few of her favourite things. And we’re looking forward to seeing her in the New Year. Almost forgot to mention that Carly Dow is the only contributor to include a video of herself playing live in a boat on The Yukon.
As a completely indecisive person, it’s been terribly difficult trying to narrow down a high five list for the entire year – but here we go! I’ve created a mishmash list of *some* of my favourite things that made this year so special.
Favourite New Music Discovery
Big Thief. I have been listening to their debut album, “Masterpiece”, non-stop since first hearing the track “Paul”. This music is grungy, emotive and beautiful. It’s a sad party, and we’re all invited! I love the intelligent and thoughtful lyrics, the gorgeous melodies, and the heartbreaking delivery of Adrianne Lenker’s voice.
This isn’t really a 2016 high five, if I’m completely honest. It’s an all-time forever and ever favourite. This little hole-in-the-wall bar in Winnipeg, MB (smack-dab in the heart of Canada) is a place you can count on for being full of good music and good people, every night that it is open. I’ve had some of the best shows of my life at Times, and have seen even more from the audience, beer in hand and smile on face.
15-Day Canoe Trip on the Yukon River. I was so fortunate to be accepted as 1 of 10 artists to participate in the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency over the summer, which took place in the Yukon Territory. A portion of the residency involved a long paddle journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City through the Yukon wilderness, which was an incredibly humbling and beautiful experience. Here’s a video of me playing banjo while floating down the river in a canoe, if you want a peek into what the trip was like:
Joel Plaskett at the Summer Lights Festival in Brandon, MB. I haven’t swooned this hard since I was 18. Seriously. I know about Joel Plaskett (everyone in Canada does), but I had never seen him live before. An intimate, solo performance on an outdoor stage in the summer – it was freaking magical and I left the concert with a sore face from smiling. What a charming fella!
Madeleine Roger. Ok, I have a LOT of favourite people. But Madeleine in particular is an absolute doll, and has been there for me through some of the best and worst parts of the year. She is a spectacularly lovely human, and lights up every space she is in. She is also a fantastic songwriter, and you can check out her project Roger Roger with her equally lovely brother, Lucas. We had our fair share of adventures together this year with two tours out to the Canadian West Coast.
Here’s the second set of my photos of female artists, taken in widely differing venues with one thing in common; live music. It’s fair to say there were that conditions were challenging in some of the venues, but if it was easy all the time it would be no fun and photographers wouldn’t have use creativity to get killer shots. It’s just a matter of attitude. So here are the shots.
Kit Bennett (Wildflowers) @Bush Hall (14/10/16)
I saw Wildflowers a couple of times this year, once at an AMA UK showcase and once supporting Sound of the Sirens at Bush Hall and the obvious subject seems to be Siddy Bennett, centre stage and lead vocal, but we don’t like obvious do we? To one side of the stage is Siddy’s sister Kit, effortlessly cool keyboard player and if you want extra photographic wow factor, she plays accordion as well, and you don’t see that every day. I got some decent shots of Siddy but, at both gigs, I loved the photos of Kit, particularly at Bush Hall where the lighting was spot on for subject and background. As a bonus, Kit can look quite intent when she plays, but this pic caught a bit of a twinkle in her eye. See the full gallery here.
Hannah Wood (Sound of the Sirens) @Bush Hall (14/10/16)
The very same gig. I admit it, I’m a fan and I’ll take every chance I can get to see Sound of the Sirens; my photos tend to be 40% Abbe, 40% Hannah and 20% both together. One of my fellow photographers, Richard Bolwell, likes to catch Hannah when she’s at her most animated (and very successfully too) but there’s a peaceful, serene side to Hannah that shines through when she’s totally immersed in the music and that’s what I was trying to catch here by wedging myself against a wall to try to get the right angle to frame the shot. I’m pleased to say Hannah then created the perfect image for me. See the full gallery here.
Lux Lyall of Sister Witch @The Unicorn, Camden Road (30/07/16)
One of those gigs where anything could happen, and a bit off the beaten track for me (at least half a mile away from Camden Parkway). I’d gone along to see Anna Christina and Belle Star from Lilygun playing in David Ryder Prangley’s band, Sister Witch and I was looking forward to photographing all of them again, although I had no idea what the light would be like (not too bad, as it happens). Turns out that, despite the undoubted photogenic qualities of that trio, I had overlooked a true star. Sister Witch singer Lux Lyall has that bit of mystique and theatricality that the camera can’t resist. There were a few good shots on the night, but this one seemed to capture her cool, almost disdainful stage persona perfectly and with only a bit of colour correction at the processing stage. See the two galleries here and here.
Carina Round @The Lexington (05/08/16)
You know, of course, that all gig photographers always play by the rules and would never cheat (unless it meant getting a really cracking shot), don’t you? Well, I was puzzled when the three songs rule was applied to a gig in a room above a pub (admittedly a great live music room, but three songs?). I spent the first three songs down at the front of the stage in almost pitch darkness trying to get anything usable. I even blocked the view of someone in a wheelchair (it’s ok, I asked her and she very kindly allowed me to stand in front of her for a few seconds and we had a lovely chat). After three songs, I wasn’t really happy with anything that I’d shot, but I could see that the projection Carina was using was warming up and would create some interesting effects later. Towards the end of the set, I could see an incredible image starting to appear and, without realising how it happened, I had a camera pointing at the stage to record this. I’m saying now, I have no regrets whatsoever about not playing by the rules. Sorry Carina, but it is a stunning image, particularly with the black and white treatment. See the full gallery here.
Elisa Zoot (Black Casino and the Ghost) @Camden Roundhouse (17/02/16)
Elisa’s another one of these people that I’ve photographed a few times now (and a serial offender in my photos of the year) in various venues, but this was something else. Black Casino and the Ghost had landed a support slot with Kula Shaker for a European tour and the London gig was at The Roundhouse. The photo pit was really busy and most of the pros gravitated to centre stage where the action usually happens. I sloped off to stand in front of Elisa’s keyboard on my own and waited for the band to start. Before the end of the first song, I was surrounded as everyone realised where the focal point was. Elisa’s a bit like Mollie Marriott in that it’s quite difficult to take a bad picture of her; there were probably three from this particular night that could have been in this selection, but the action and the lighting made this my favourite. See the full gallery here.
Well, we’ve almost reached two weeks of High Fives and the juggernaut’s still rolling, although it was only a cinquecento when it started on this road trip. Joe Francis (Winter Mountain) has opted for the highways and the byways with his exploration of his favourite tour van music.
It’s more than just a car journey from A to B. Your vehicle is imbibed with a multiplicity of purposes, like the Tardis with a personality disorder. It becomes a diesel-powered bedroom on wheels, a dressing room, a hotel, a guesthouse, a calm port, a storage facility, a temple and a garbage bin. Its significance greater to a touring musician than any average road user may ever understand.
And so too are the songs you listen to on the road.
Free from distractions of everyday life, you’ve no option but to really listen. And because of this your choices matter. Selecting songs for a tour is not a casual thing. The tracks you listen to will help shape your experience and will take you back to there each time you hear them in the future. Here’s 5 songs that mean a lot to me…
“Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel
You begin your tour full of optimism and hope, feeling vitalised by the promise of the dawning of a new musical era. Fewer songs capture the spirit and the sparkling, spiritual blue sky soul that surrounds this moment than PGs extraordinary 1977 classic ‘Solsbury Hill’. An exquisite riff that sounds like morning.
Best listened to when – The vans loaded? Gear, guys and girls all present and correct? Then start the engine and hit ‘play’.
“Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen
Too obvious? Yeah, totally. But for good reason. As a kid from a small village where nothing much seemed to be happening Springsteen’s 1975 track showed me there was real magic to be found in the mundane. It’s romantic and rocking and a poetically pure promise to aim for glory no matter the consequences. And ain’t that just like a musical life? ‘Have a little faith, there’s magic in the night…’
Best listened to when – The first few shows are under your belt and you’re loving it. The journey is well underway, the roads are clear…NOW!
“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC
Heavy, primitive, menacing, soulful and sexy. Sometimes basic is best. AC/DC’s behemoth will help you through the longest of journeys, through the worst of driving rain, damaged tyres and badly worn tarmac, when the van is straining under the weight of you and your gear. It’s devilish and dirty and after 3 weeks on the road you will be too.
Best listened to when – You’re two thirds of they way through the tour. The fatigue’s setting in and you need an injection of pure Taurine rock and roll to keep your stamina up and an anthemic sing along chorus to unify the weary musos.
Any track from “Blue” – Joni Mitchell
Transport yourself to a place of warmer climes, pretty people and free love. Check out any song from Joni’s beautiful folksy masterpiece and you’ll be smiling like a Californian under the summer stars within seconds.
Best listened to when – Traffic is at a standstill, the tour is nearly over, tension‘s a little high…
“Lost in the Dream” – The War On Drugs
Maybe the pace is going to get to you or the band need to get some shuteye to deal with the comedown before the next show and a little ethereal peace is in order? Stick on ‘Lost in the Dream’ by the War On Drugs and you’ll be floating through the early hours like a character from a stylish formulaic Netflix series about what it means to be young and on a comedown.
Best listened to when – It’s 3am on a post gig drive, through the French Alps, a silver cloak of moonlight laid over the mountains and lakes. The amber glow of a small village down in the valley below and way up ahead, a fire burns on a distant peak…
The album that kicked started the year here at MusicRiot was “Carnival of Hopes” by Jane Kramer. We loved it at the time and we still love it, so we were delighted when Jane made a contribution to keep the High Fives train a-rollin’ for another day, and give Malcolm Holcombe his third mention in the feature this year. Read about her top five gigs here.
I’m honored to be included in this wonderful list! I’m sharing with you the top 5 live shows that I’ve attended this year that a.) Made me want to keep writing better, deeper, braver songs. b.) Made me glad to be alive and wearing skin and c.) Knocked me on my bum and helped me realize that music is more powerful; it’s bigger than all of us. It’s a language we mustn’t be afraid to speak and share.
Three Women and the Truth at the Altamont Theatre in Asheville, NC
This tour consists of…wait for it…Mary Gauthier (a friend and mentor of mine), Eliza Gilkyson AND Gretchen Peters. Three of the most brave, unabashed, TALENTED, accomplished, truth-telling songwriters that live. They are each so passionately authentic and so advanced and graceful in their craft. Besides the fact that each of their songs floor me, they have a wonderful friendship and their shows together are full of hilarious, witty banter and stories. The reverence they have for each other’s art is also very moving and the amount of talent on the one stage is staggering. I loved watching Mary’s face when she was moved by certain lines in her peers’ songs, and I loved the way they would chime in on harmonies for one another off the cuff because they were moved to and didn’t worry if it was polished or perfect. Mary put me on the guest list for the show, and I hung out in the green room with the ladies before they performed. They were just as authentic and warm as their songs. The venue has wonderful sound and only seats 150, so it was nice and intimate. I left so humbled and inspired!
Malcolm Holcombe at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC
Malcolm is the real, raw, gruff yet shiny, deal. I’ve spent almost 20 years now in this little corner of the world; the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and Malcolm (a local fixture here who is also known internationally) and his songs represent home to me. Like, if you could bottle up the wild woods here and the divey bar rooms and the rivers and the hollers and the way the blueish mountains make you yearn, it would look and sound like one of Malcolm’s songs. I remember going to see him at the Town Pump, a serious dive bar, when I was in college. I was floored. I was a young songwriter and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He gave no sh*ts about the audience or social conventions. He smoked his cigarettes and his dentures would fly out of his mouth sometimes while he was singing. His eyes flutter-rolled into the back of his head while he sang and played like he was in some kind of snake-charmer trance. I remember thinking: “This is how it’s supposed to be. He is not playing us his songs, he IS his songs.” It was very formative for me.
I even got to sing a duet with him once and it was a crowning moment in my career. I have loved keeping up with Malcolm over the years and never miss an opportunity to see him play. This show at the Grey Eagle was intimate and perfect. Just Malcolm, his fierce finger picking and beautiful growling vocals and poetry, and he had a great dobro player accompanying him. It was, apparently, a release show for his new album, but you never would have known it from him – he never mentioned it. The only story he told was about a dog. He just kept the songs of life hard-lived and hard-loved rolling and he was authentically himself and the crowd drank him in with reverence. I was so happy to be there. I never want him to stop.
Akira Satake in his pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC
Akira, in my opinion, is one of those humans who got ALL the GREAT genes. He is brilliant. He is a mind-blowing potter. He is an exquisite banjo player. He’s produced records for Tim O’Brien. He grew up in Osaka, Japan and discovered the banjo and mountain music from his brother’s Flatt and Scruggs albums. He’s become a master of shamisen (Japanese banjo) and played all over the world. He has a pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC, and his pieces look just like his banjo playing sounds: earthy, wild, sturdy; a mystical fusion of the sounds of Japan and the sounds of the old-time mountain music of this region. It’s really something. I haven’t made it to a formal Akira concert yet, but I stumbled into his pottery studio on an open-gallery Sunday and there he was,
sitting at a little table in his studio (that also houses an adorable tiny cafe that his wife operates), and he was casually playing his banjo with his Altoid Mints box full of picks open in front of him. I have never in my life heard anything like it. It was effortless and every note showed how dear these two disparate lands: Japan and the NC Mountains, are to him, and filled the gaps between them. Pure magic.
Shovels and Rope at the Reeb Ranch (Hendersonville, NC)
What a breath of fresh air these saucy, raspy, young southern rabble-rousers are. How can you even begin to not love a young woman who belts out soulful poetry in harmony with her husband WHILE banging on the drums?! These guys are on the rise for a good reason. They are the whole package: songwriting, musicianship, unique voices and humility. I got to see them in a lovely festival setting, under the stars, cuddled up on a blanket with my honey. Doesn’t get much better than that. They were gracious and funny with the crowd, and gave such fire in their performance. They walked on and off stage holding hands and somehow manage to play and tour and do business together and still be in love. I’m in awe. They closed with the song “Birmingham”, tender and achey and one of my favorites.
Darrell Scott at the Altamont Theatre, Asheville NC
I never miss a chance to hear Darrell perform. I even was so lucky as to be his student in a songwriting intensive workshop a few years back. With the heartbreaking loss of so many of the masters of the songwriting craft over the last few years: Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, to name a few, I believe that songwriters such as Darrell Scott are carrying their torch forward. Not only is he an exquisite songwriter; he is an incredibly accomplished guitar player and an amazing vocalist. The full package. He commands the stage with quiet grace, and seeing him in this intimate venue was beautifully special. His son’s band, ‘A Boy Named Banjo’ opened for him, and it was incredibly sweet to see Darrell swell with pride for his bass-playing son. They did some numbers together and I loved watching Darrell be the band leader in such a paternal (but not patronizing) way. He would gently nod to each boy, trusting them to solo, and nod again as if to say “you got this. Play out!”
Darrell was reflective and well-spoken and performed a staggeringly beautiful version of his dear, departed friend Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. I left with quiet resolve to write a song of my own that I’d be proud to share with Darrell.
Well, after spending a morning trying to pick my five favourite photos of female artists this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m either very indecisive or a rampant egomaniac (answers on a postcard please). After a lot of soul searching, I managed to narrow it down to ten photos that I really like, so I’m going to split them over two days. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.
Gabi Swiatkowska (Tildon Krautz) @Green Note
I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Green Note this year and I’ve now stopped moaning about the lighting. I know what it’s going to be and I’ve actually had some great results there. So why complain. This was a Josh Harty gig and he was supported by Tildon Krautz, a surreal and incredibly entertaining string band. The image of Gabi dwarfed by the upright bass was too good to miss, but it took a few attempts to get the perfect angle and even more attempts to get a shot where the neck of the bass wasn’t in front of Gabi’s face. The lighting at Green Note always gives muted colours on stage, so black and white was always the way to go with this one. You can see the whole gallery here.
Dani Sylvia @The Unsigned Music Awards
I was really pleased to be invited to photograph the UMA’s at The Troxy in Limehouse this year. The discipline was very different from either the first three songs only for major venues, or complete freedom at smaller venues. Each artist did one live song and the photographers had to move away from the front of the stage before the end of the song to avoid being caught by the TV cameras as they moved from the main stage to the awards stage. Dani Sylvia’s performance was so visual and colourful that it would have been difficult to take a bad photo. This one captured the atmosphere and ambience perfectly and I was really chuffed that Dani liked it. Result.
Hannah Aldridge @Green Note
If you’ve read any of my random ramblings about music, you might have worked out that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She’s a singer-songwriter from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her astonishing first album grabbed my attention immediately. Hannah’s songwriting and live performance are absolutely exceptional, but she also understands the value of the visual image. I’ve photographed her in several settings now and always produced something I was really happy with, but this shot from Green Note (again) in black and white (again) had the look of a promotion photo for a silent movie star from the forties. Once again, I was really pleased that Hannah loved the shot as well.
Mollie Marriott @Time Out Rising Stars
So it’s Mollie again. A bit like Hannah, I find it almost impossible to take a bad, or even ordinary, picture of Mollie. When she sings, she gives it everything, every time, and that passion is clear in every shot. There were two shots of Mollie in my (not so) shortlist for this selection and this made the cut because she’s so obviously singing her heart out and the purple backlighting creates a lovely halo effect on her hair. With Mollie, I’m not sure I can even take any credit for good photos because every time I’ve seen her (and that’s quite a few times now) I’ve managed to grab some exceptional shots. Here’s the original gallery, and you really need to listen out for Mollie’s debut album which will be released in early 2017. And thanks to Ray Jones at Time Out for the invite.
Sarah Kayte Foster (Daisy and the Dark) @Ace Hotel, Shoreditch
For various reasons, this year I tried to get along to every gig that I was invited to and this one came about because of an invite from Quite Great PR. I’d never visited the venue before and I hadn’t heard anything from Daisy and the Dark. The lighting wasn’t great in this basement venue, which meant that black and white was favourite, a decision that was helped along by Sarah’s very sixties hairstyle. This was a gig that I could have very easily missed and it’s a great advert for taking every opportunity that comes your way. It was a challenge to navigate around the video camera setup, but it worked out perfectly in the end. Here’s the original gallery.
More to come soon.
I admit it; I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve been to loads of gigs featuring bands and artists across a range of musical styles and I haven’t seen a bad one; fifty-two weeks of great gigs and now I have to pick out my five favourites. It was never going to be easy and the gigs that made this list were truly special for many different reasons. So, in no particular order, here we go.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016
Little Steven, Steven van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio from The Sopranos. This is someone who’s had a huge impact on popular culture as an Asbury Juke, an E-Streeter, an actor and the man who wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”. If you grew up loving The Boss and Southside Johnny (and I did) you knew and loved this man. When I heard about this gig, part of the BluesFest at the O2, my only concern was to get a photo pass. Despite pulling every string I could, there was no joy, but I wasn’t giving up, so I borrowed my wife’s camera (a Nikon Coolpix P530 for the record) to try to grab one good shot of the main man. The thirteen-piece band (with horn charts written by fellow E-Streeter and Juke Ed Manion) was stunningly good as Steven ran through a set of his own songs, blues covers and old soul classics. There wasn’t a second’s respite and there was even a guest appearance from Richie Sambora. And I got the photo. What a night.
Underhill Rose @ Green Note
I’d been looking forward to this one for months, ever since I missed them at the same venue in April because of other commitments. After a lovely meal with Plus One, we made our way to the venue a fashionable fifteen minutes after doors open, only to find that the doors were still firmly closed and there were no lights. Power failure? Not a problem; the Green Note team lit up the venue with dozens of candles and Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson decided to play a genuinely unplugged set. The setting was perfect for the band’s beautiful melodies and glorious tight harmonies and created a level of intimacy that even Green Note doesn’t achieve very often. During the interval the power was restored, but Eleanor, Molly and Salley decided to carry on with a second completely acoustic set. A magical night.
Pete Wylie/The Mighty Wah @Water Rats 09/11/16
As memorable as the previous gig but for very different reasons. I was a big fan of Pete Wylie in the eighties, but somehow managed to avoid seeing him live. This was the chance to find out what I’d been missing. Water Rats is a room at the back of a pub in Kings Cross; cosy but with a great atmosphere. The last time I was there, there were three people watching a band; me, the band’s manager and the sound engineer. This was different; ten minutes after the doors opened, it was rammed; not only that, but rammed with fans, people who wanted to see Pete Wylie. In that atmosphere, failure wasn’t an option. Pete has put together another powerful incarnation of The Mighty Wah! and their playing throughout was spot on; subtle when necessary and thunderous for the anthems; and there were plenty of those. It was a night of passion, humour and power with a performer who knows his worth and an audience who know their music. It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip either. He featured a stunning new anthem, “I Still Believe”, from his upcoming album titled, with typical Wylie moxie, “Pete Sounds”. The will to survive’s come back.
Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church
Rewind to the beginning of the year as musicians start to emerge after their short hibernation and the lovely St Pancras Old Church (lovely if you aren’t a photographer). It was gloves, woolly hat and brass monkeys looking for welders weather, but inside the church a full house was waiting for Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. This was one of those intimate gigs where two incredibly accomplished musicians play material they love to play with a passion that the audience taps into, leaving everyone with a warm glow. Playing mainly Weissenborn (Martin) and upright bass (Daniel) the two wove complex textures that sometimes had you wondering where all of the other musicians were hidden. The two voices worked perfectly together and the interplay between songs was sometimes hilarious with Martin’s ‘Englishman Abroad’ persona as the subject of Daniel’s dry observations. Good news is they’ll be back next year. This was the only gig this year where I actually wanted to hear a bass solo (and I wasn’t disappointed).
Michael McDermott @Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 04/12/16
I waited until seeing this gig before selecting my five favourites of the year. After hearing Michael’s two superb albums released this year (the “Willow Springs” solo and “Six on the Out” by his band The Westies), I wasn’t going to miss this performance. It was a solo show, using guitar and keyboard (and the inevitable harmonica) to create different textures and settings for the songs. Stripping away the full-band arrangements allowed the audience to focus on the quality of the writing and the raw emotional roar of Michael’s voice. The first half of the show, featuring songs taken mainly from the 2016 albums was an intense experience, emotional, sometimes harrowing and primal, songs punctuated by monologues which were surreal, often hilarious and sometimes tinged with sorrow. The second half was less of a roller-coaster but still packed with great songs. Michael McDermott provokes the same sensation I had when I listened to early Springsteen for the first time; there’s poetry, passion and a grim and gritty reality in his work that grabs you by the lapels and stares you straight in the eyes; you know that he’s lived the life. This is for real.
This time it’s a welcome return for MusicRiot alumnus John Preston, who moved on a couple of years ago to write for Vada but comes back to the fold each Christmas to share his favourites with us. John was part of the first High Five in 2012, and it’s always refreshing to read his passionate and committed work. And we’re so pleased that he continues to champion the wonderful Dawn Richard.
Album of the year
Tough call, but the reason this isn’t Mitski’s “Puberty 2” or Beyonce’s “Lemonade” is because neither artist quite captured the intensity and diversity of heartache -- and these are all sublime records whose central theme is that of violent retribution -- of Anonhi’s “Hopelessness”. That isn’t to say that this is a hard slog but Anonhi’s first album as a trans artist and without the Johnsons features her most accessible and exciting material to date. Touted initially as a dance record, “Hopelessness” undoubtedly uses densely modern and electronic R’n’B styles with steely production by Hudson Mohawke and OPN, but sensibly resists the urge to cast Anonhi as some fallen disco diva. Domestic violence, Barack Obama, surveillance culture, climate change and religion are some of the many aspects of its title’s state of mind. Beautiful, haunting, catchy and progressive; Anonhi has old school pop star values and she’s never been more radiant.
Independent Artist of the Year
One of the biggest music injustices of the last few years is that Dawn Richard is still not taking up the amount of mainstream, musical media space that she should be. It’s unlikely that this will change with November’s release of her third and final album in the “Heart” series, “Redemption”, and it’s quite possible that this is the way that Richard prefers it. She could now choose to work with producers or collaborators that would propel her into a world she once knew when working with Sean Combs, but this might mean that Richard would have to compromise and this is not a concept that appeals to the tireless, electro-R’n’B artist. “Redemption” feels less conceptual than “Golden and Black” and, although its first half is frenzied and beats heavy, Richard is just as reflective and thoughtful as before. The episodic and ambitious “LA”, featuring an incredible Trombone Shorty play-out, shows just what Dawn Richard is capable of.
Album Title of the Year
“Monto (Take Her Up to Monto)” is an a 1958 Irish folk song by George Desmond Hodnett which means that Roisin Murphy can’t take sole responsibility for the name of her fourth solo album – “Take Her Up to Monto” . Monto itself is a nickname given to the one-time red light district in Dublin and quite what the relevance to this area and Murphy’s brazenly out-there collection of songs left over from last year’s “Hairless Toys” sessions is unclear. Where that album was curvier and had a deceptively gentle demeanour, “Take Her Up To Monto” is by far a more angular collection which in turn still thankfully indulges Roisin’s flirty and humorous tics. “Thoughts Wasted” is her magnum opus, a by-turns sung electro-pop, spoken-word orchestral stream of consciousness which has a surreality that punctuates the majority of her work whilst being touchingly relatable. Roisin Murphy always acts as though she is a bigger star than she actually is, one day let’s hope that this genuine visionary gets the stage she deserves.
Nearly there of the Year
Sleigh Bells last two albums have been disappointingly pallid impersonations of their bruising 2010 debut. On “Jessica Rabbit”, Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss don’t exactly go back to the drawing board but they do attempt to try some new things. Krauss has always been essential to Sleigh Bells densely layered textures, a key part of the formula but sometimes frustratingly buried, the point maybe, but on occasion there is a yearning to experience her vocals yanked out and pushed high into the mix. This then seems to have been their objective on “Jessica Rabbit”, and obvious highlight “I Can Only Stare” is straightforward pop and Krauss’ voice is the stuff of diva dreams. Other tracks are fantastically bizarrely structured, episodic and bursting with musicality whilst the remainder sadly bottles out on this promise and just delivers more of the same. In part at least then, this is one of the most thrillingly dynamic records released in 2016.
Disappointment of the Year
Lady Gaga has thus far been a brilliant and thrilling pop-star but around the arrival of her fourth album, “Joanne”, something changed. Its best tracks are, surprisingly, reminiscent of Bette Midler’s rawer and stripped material from the early 1970s but the majority is sentimental and derivative middle of the road Americana-lite. Shania Twain and Bon Jovi seem key, irony-free references. The fact that the record has constantly been referred to by Gaga, executive producer and nostalgist Mark Ronson, and large parts of the music press as ‘real and authentic’ is profoundly depressing -- so what does this make the long period preceding it? Oddly, Joanne feels like the most contrived album of Stefanie Germanotta’s career and one that seems to mark her as a cynical fraud, “Poker Face” being more autobiographical than initially suspected.
Molly Rose Reed is one third of Underhill Rose, who featured in an album review on MusicRiot this year, and also played one of the most amazing gigs we saw this year when they ignored a power cut in Camden and played a completely acoustic set in a candlelit Green Note; if you saw it, you’ll never forget it. Molly’s sharing her favourite gigs with us (plus a few near misses).
Malcolm Holcombe at the Sunflower Public House, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast, Ireland
It was a rainy and unseasonably cold day in May, and nearing the end of Underhill Rose’s first tour to the UK. The band had the afternoon off, so we put on our coats and drove to Belfast. While holding a cup of warm coffee, sitting on a small stool to the right of the stage, I was bathed in the richness of Malcolm’s songwriting. Jared Tyler perfectly accompanied Malcolm’s dynamic guitar playing on lap steel and backing vocals. Hearing Malcolm play on the small stage to a crowded bar of intent listeners brought me home to the Swannanoa Valley of North Carolina, where Malcolm is from and also where I went to college with my bandmate Eleanor. There is nothing like being reminded of home when you are on the road.
Lori McKenna at 12th and Porter, Americana Music Festival, Nashville, TN
Her album, The Bird and the Rifle, was my introduction to this wonderful songwriter. Mostly writing hits for pop country greats like Tim McGraw, Lori McKenna’s album touched me with it’s feeling of authenticity. I could tell from the record that she feels her songs, sings from her heart and ain’t got nothin’ to prove. Seeing her live was 10 times better than the record!
Jonas & Jane, opening for Underhill Rose at the Stables, Milton Keynes, England
I admit to my bias on this Top 5 pick, but Katherine Marsh (aka Jane) and Charlie Jonas are the real deal. They sing into one microphone, and Charlie’s picking on mandolin/guitar and singing beautifully compliments Katherine’s pure voice. Their harmonies are tenderly worked and perfectly executed, and their songs will take you on a journey back in time.
Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and worth every penny (and it was a lot of them)! I can’t even remember how many harmony parts I heard in one song. It was truly a magical night to hear the full orchestration of a work of genius.
Chantae Cann at my wedding, Black Mountain, NC
I had to put this one on the list, because this is one of the most memorable days of my life! Chantae is an amazing jazz singer from my hometown of Atlanta, GA. She performs her original tunes but learned “At Last” for our first dance. My family and friends danced and danced to her amazing quartet. You can see her singing with grammy-award-winning Snarky Puppy here .
John Paul White at the Grey Eagle, Asheville, NC
Dylan LeBlanc at the Mothlight, Asheville, NC
The Broadcast at Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY