As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

So, where would this little Ben Kunder gem sit in the racks of your local music store? It’s almost impossible to say but I guess it’s going to land in that current catch-all, the Americana section because it features that well-known roots instrument, the synthesiser. The lasting impression of the album is of positivity; the two words of the title cropping up across various songs. It certainly ends on a positive note with a celebration of the birth of a baby in “Night Sky”. Lyrically, the album falls squarely into the introspective singer-songwriter category, but the stylings vary dramatically across the nine songs; let me explain. 

While “Fight for Time” “Better Days” and “Hard Line” fall in to fairly standard arrangements for this genre (okay “Hard Line” features a string section towards the end), “Jessi” has the feel of a eighties drive-time classic driven with some insanely catchy synth hooks thrown in for good measure. In common with the rest of the album, there are hints of Jackson Browne in the writing and the vocal intonation. “Lay Down”, however, is pure E Street Band with perhaps a few hints of Bob Seger in there as well. It’s over five minutes long and the combination of piano and organ from the beginning set the tone; maybe there are hints of The Band in there as well. As the song builds, no opportunity’s missed to gild this particular lily, with extra percussion from congas and tambourine, a falsetto vocal and a huge slide solo. The frantic drumming towards the end sums up the production; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. “Come On”, which follows immediately, is a welcome chance to catch your breath before the album closes with the lovely “Night Sky”. 

“Better Human” is an immensely uplifting album, focussing on the ways we can make things better for ourselves and each other. The fact that the sentiment is helped along by interesting and innovative arrangements lifts it well above the ordinary run of singer-songwriter albums. 

“Better Human” is released on Comino Music (BKBH002) on Friday September 28th.

I’m not sure that the term ‘single’ means anything in music terms any more. Radio professionals talk about lead tracks from albums, but I’ve got to the point where I just call them great songs. Most of the albums I hear won’t actually have a physical single released from them; it’s twelve songs on iTunes or Spotify. So I’m not picking five favourite singles, I’m picking five favourite songs that I’ve heard for the first time this year, in no particular order.

“Living on Lonely” – Hannah Aldridge – This song is from Hannah’s “Gold Rush” album, which was released this year. I’ve heard Hannah play the title song live over about eighteen months and I was convinced it would be my favourite song on the album (it’s a stunningly good song) but after hearing the album and hearing Hannah play the songs live this year, it’s “Living on Lonely” that has really made an impact. It’s a slow-paced piece dealing with the loneliness of life on the road and the inevitable temptations of that lifestyle. There’s some gorgeous low-register guitar running through the song and Hannah’s vocal is heart-rendingly melancholic. It’s just beautiful.

“I Knew You When” – Bob Seger – When he released “Ride Out” in 2014, it had the feel of a farewell to the music business and there were plenty of rumours that it was Bob Seger’s swansong, and maybe it was, at that time; it would have been a great album to bow out on. Everything changed on January 18, 2016 with the death of his good friend from Detroit, Glenn Frey. It’s taken a while to process, but he’s used the pain and love for his old friend to form the back bone of another great late career album. He’s always been a master of the mid-tempo rock song evoking late fifties early sixties smalltown America and “I Knew You When” is a perfect example of the style with the added poignancy of a personal connection.

“1954” – Hannah Rose Platt – This is one of those that grabbed me instantly: first play. I know it’s four years old, but 2017 was when I heard it first, so it’s going in. I love Hannah’s songs; she has a gift for melody and knows how to tell a story. This is based on a story told to her by a housemate about a care home patient who dressed up every evening to wait for a date that never arrived. Hannah relocated the story from Liverpool to America, added just enough detail to make it feel real and created a heart-breaking little masterpiece. I heard her play it live last weekend and it was just perfect. She has an album coming out in 2018 and I’m certain we’ll be reviewing it here.

Your Balloon is Rising” – Stone Foundation featuring Paul Weller – I have so much admiration for these guys. They’ve done it the hard way without any help (until this year) from the music establishment. They’ve written, recorded, gigged and written, recorded, gigged until they built up a substantial fanbase in the UK, Europe and Japan then suddenly Paul Weller was producing their latest album “Street Rituals” at Black Barn as well as co-writing and making guest appearances. Here’s one of those guest appearances on a beautiful soul ballad that’s absolutely timeless. Weller’s voice works with the song, but even without him it sounds just fine with a Neil Jones vocal.

 

“Tennessee Night” – Ed Dupas – I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of Ed Dupas as a songwriter and a singer. He has a passion for his craft and combines rock and country sounds in a way that reminds me a little of Bob Seger (coincidentally). “Tennessee Night” is the title song from his 2017 album and is a perfect little vignette that evokes “Texasville”, the sequel to “The Last Picture Show”, where the small-town girl returns from the big bad city and there might be a happy ending, or there might not. The answer’s left hanging in the Tennessee night. It’s a classic piece of songwriting from an artist with a true passion for his craft.

If you use Spotify, give these songs a listen. They’re all worth it.

If you want to treat yourself or someone close to you to who’s a music fan to something interesting for Christmas, then we’ve got a few ideas for you. There are books, an album and a very interesting merchandising idea.

Sound of the Sirens merchandising – I love Sound of the Sirens. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood are incredibly talented writers and performers, but there’s a lot more to it than that. They attract like-minded people into their orbit and create friendships between fans from all over the country. They also have some interesting ideas about merchandising. Selling mugs is fairly standard, but why not take it a stage further and sell tea towels with a picture of the band. And what a great strapline: “Wipe your mugs with our mugs”.

 

“Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life” (book) – Wilko Johnson – Wilko has put together a memoir/autobiography that covers more than forty years in the music business, success, failure, cancer diagnosis and recovery, and coming to terms with his status as a legend. It’s a great fly-on-the-wall insight into the workings of bands and the music business and it’s well worth reading. I had a bit of a shock when I realised that the Solid Senders bass player who I had photographed in 1977 in Dundee was the same person I photographed playing bass in Phil Burdett’s band in  Southend last year. Small world.

“I Knew You When” (album) – Bob Seger – Another one of my teenage heroes who’s still around and still relevant. This album came out of the blue; his 2014 album “Ride Out” had the feel of an album that was closing out a career and it might have been his swansong but for a tragic event. His old friend from Detroit, Glenn Frey, died earlier this year and this album is largely inspired by their friendship. Sometimes it’s right in your face (the album cover, for example) and sometimes it’s a bit more subtle – the title track is classic mid-tempo Seger with no names mentioned, but it’s obviously about Glenn Frey. It’s sad that it took such a tragic event to kickstart the album, but wonderful to hear a hero still so fired up about social issues.

“Going on the Turn” (book) – Danny Baker – It’s the third volume of Danny Baker’s memoirs, covering events to the present day, including his battle with head and neck cancer and high profile local radio sacking. He’s a natural writer who always manages to find a unique twist on even the most difficult subjects. It’s a life-affirming book and it’s all based in the area I’m working in at the moment, which gives it a nice personal touch. It’s a great read.

“Some Fantastic Place” (book) – Chris Difford – There’s a link to the previous book; Danny Baker went to the same school as Chris and their careers have touched at many points. I’ve always been a massive fan of Squeeze and this is a fascinating insight into the fraught relationship between Chris and Glenn Tilbrook. He doesn’t try to pretend that he’s perfect (far from it) and the book’s all the better for that. The only criticism (if you’re a geek like me) is that it would have benefited from some more rigorous fact-checking. It’s still a fascinating read.

 

After his outstanding debut “American Life” in 2015, this must be that difficult second album for Ed Dupas. However difficult its conception (and it sounds like there were a few painful moments), the end result is a fulfilling follow-up to his debut. It’s a progression of course; at times Ed puts his acoustic to one side to add a second over-driven electric to the guitar attack, creating a big widescreen sound that brings to mind early Bruce Hornsby and maybe even “Darkness”-era Springsteen.

And that’s the way the album opens; “Too Big to Fail” is a rocker packed with big, loud guitars delivering Ed’s perfectly crafted song. His lyrics are clever and subtle, combining the “too big to fail” business/sports franchise mantra with subtle allusions to the state of contemporary America; it doesn’t matter how bad things are, ‘love’s too big to fail’. I really hope so. The album’s second song, “Two Wrongs”, continues the two guitar attack with lyrics seamlessly interweaving the increasing isolation of rural America with a short-term, unwise, dalliance; real life might look simple on the surface, but it’s usually messy underneath.

The remainder of the album mixes country and rock stylings to great effect, combining the two perfectly in the title track, which takes up the themes of “The Wild Side of Life” and “Bright Lights, Big City” while giving the story a happy ending (well, maybe). The album’s closer “Hold Me Tight” has echoes of Bob Seger’s acoustic side (well, Ed is based in Ann Arbor) and neatly finishes the journey from the opening rockers to the closing mixture of regret and nostalgia.

I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of Ed Dupas; the delivery is impossible to fault and his songs are superbly crafted with the emphasis on subtle allusion rather than declamation. It’s difficult not to admire a songwriter that trusts his audience to think and interpret for itself and put in a little effort to appreciate the songs.

While I’ve got your attention, I’d just like to point you in the direction of a song from Ed’s 2015 debut album. “Flag” is a beautiful example of the songwriter’s craft and would move the hardest heart. Give it a listen and tell me I’m wrong. Now how about some UK appearances, Ed?

“Tennessee Night” is released in the UK on Friday July 28 on Road Trip Songs.

Rackhouse Pilfer - 'Love and Havoc' - cover (300dpi)‘Why don’t we open the album with a song about busting out of prison, I mean it worked for Thin Lizzy, didn’t it?”. Well, it certainly did and just as “Jailbreak” set the tone perfectly for the album of the same name, “Dust on the Road” does the same for Rackhouse Pilfer’s “Love and Havoc”. The frenetic banjo and fiddle interplay drives along a tale of freedom or death that’s only resolved with the half-speed coda signifying success. By the end of the song, you know you’re in good hands. Rackhouse Pilfer is an Irish six-piece outfit and, if I can’t use the catch-all term Americana, I’d have to say they play original songs influenced by country, bluegrass and a hefty dose of seventies Laurel Canyon troubadours and another hefty dose of homegrown Irish fun. If you can carry that off, you’ve got something a little bit special and they don’t just carry it off, they heave it into the air and juggle it with one hand. OK, I admit it, we’re a bit behind the curve on this one; it was released in 2014 but it’s just popped up in the Riot Towers inbox ahead of a Rackhouse Pilfer UK tour.

“Another Dirty Joke” rattles along in the same light-hearted way with a theme of drunken and stoned escapism, but it’s not just about the craic; there’s a serious side to the album as well. “Me and a Polar Bear” is an uptempo piece with an environmental theme while “Angela” tells the story of a woman who wants to escape a relationship by murdering her partner. You can hear more traditional string band influences on the slow “A Sailing Song” with its mournful unison fiddle and mandolin and the rollicking “Shady Grove”, which gives all of the players a chance to show off their skills with short solos.

And the Laurel Canyon influence? Well “Two Oceans” evokes early Jackson Browne perfectly; the song, the vocal and even the title could have featured on any of his first three albums. You can hear an Eagles influence in the harmony-laden midtempo country-rock of “Calico Sky” and “I’ll Find a Way” (maybe a hint of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” in there as well) and “Bright Lights” could be Bernie Leadon era Eagles.

“Love and Havoc” assimilates a huge number of influences, weaves them into a bunch of diverse and memorable songs and tops the mix off with a touch of Celtic good humour. And I’m willing to bet they do a cracking live show, so maybe you should look out for dates near you on their UK tour.

“Love and Havoc” is out now.

photo[1]Let’s just say that my preconceptions have been well and truly shaken up. Two songs in to the latest offering from Wille & the Bandits, and I was on the verge of filing it under ‘generic Southern rock/slide guitar’, but we don’t give up that easily at Riot Towers. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the slide and Hammond (courtesy of Don Airey) of “Miles Away” or the Dire Straits meets Pink Floyd of “Hot Rocks”, with its congadelic breakdown, but they have the feel of a starter before the main course, “Scared of the Sun”, which brings all of the elements at the band’s disposal into play.

The dynamics are perfect, from the quiet intro with gentle keys and to the full-on anthemic chorus. We hear the full range of Matt Brooks’ six-string bass, particularly at the upper end of the register acting as a second guitar part, Andy Naumann’s drums power the verse and chorus along and Don Airey adds some Vangelis-like like sounds to the mix. Meanwhile Wille Edwards is doing his guitar thing (ok, things with electric, acoustic, lap steel, Weissenborn and Dobro) and delivering a vocal that’s as close to very early Bob Seger as anything I’ve ever heard. And here’s the real surprise; it’s a song about global warming. I’m not an expert on Southern ‘rawk’, but I’m guessing that environmental concerns aren’t high on the list of lyrical topics. It’s probably quite a way behind highways, Harleys, guns and Saturday night.

The instrumental inspiration for the album is the American south in the seventies, so the song “1970” should come as no surprise; driven along by drums and a pumping bass, it mourns the passing of that era while extolling its virtues (‘Good times, love and peace’) in a seventies rock style. If the environmental concern wasn’t enough of a shock, there’s a song written from the point of view of a refugee from a war-ravaged country. “Crossfire Memories” begins with quiet acoustic guitar and builds through the addition of a Matt Brooks string arrangement and slide fills to a big slide solo to close out the song; it’s powerful stuff.

The playing is every bit as good as you would expect from the people involved in this album, and it’s worth listening to for that alone, while the presence of some lyrical content that steps out of the usual limits of the genre gives it an undeniable edge. I have a sneaky feeling these guys will sound even better live.

“Steal” is released on Friday January 20th on Jigsaw (SAW 6).

Uncouth Pilgrims Scroller“Uncouth Pilgrims”: the title’s a quotation from Mark Twain’s travelogue, “The Innocents Abroad”. It’s Keegan McInroe’s fourth solo album and it pulls together various strands of Americana, weaving them together with (mainly) stories of Keegan’s own musical pilgrimage around the world. He succeeds in uniting some diverse styles with his travelling minstrel theme and honest lyrics that shift easily from gentle and pastoral to the raw and urban. It’s difficult to pin him down to a single genre as the album shifts from the Nashville country of the openers, “Country Music Outlaw” and “Tonight” through the boogie of “Lumberjack”, the raw electric blues of “Uncouth Pilgrim” and the folk of “Woody and Ruth”.

There’s no doubt about the quality of his voice. He goes all the way from the growling early Bob Seger feel of “Uncouth Pilgrim” to the quiet and close-miked “Verona” and “Resolutions” and he sounds completely convincing all the way, backed by musicians that always sound assured but never flashy. This is all about the voice and the songs, but it helps that the arrangements and the musicians create a backdrop that works superbly whether it’s a full band or just a couple of instruments.

The songs are very much lyric-driven, a wanderer’s tales of hangovers, romantic opportunities missed and lustful opportunities taken across several continents. Virtually everything on the album sounds autobiographical, apart from the folk ballad “Woody and Ruth” which surely has to be a Woody Guthrie story and, with Woody’s reputation, who knows whether it’s true or false. It’s a very sparse arrangement built around simple guitar and drum parts with a very laconic vocal, but it works beautifully, connecting Woody’s journeys around America with the modern troubadour’s journeys around the world. And it’s not just about quality, the album weighs in at a hefty fourteen songs, so no-one’s going to feel short-changed.

The album’s a fine piece of work, pulling together Keegan’s roots in various forms of American music to create an evocative musical picture of the life of ‘Just another shaggy singer of songs’. It’s also a shoo-in for the ‘Most Cities and Countries Mentioned on One Album’ category at the next AMA UK awards.

“Uncouth Pilgrims” is released on Friday May 27th and you can get a CD copy here.

Matt Andersen ScrollerYou barely make it past the intro of the album’s opener, “Break Away”, before it hits you; Matt Andersen has a phenomenal voice. It’s a rich baritone from the same mould as the great Paul Carrack and it’s the perfect vehicle for this set of songs harking back to the glory days of Stax and Atlantic. Matt’s previous work has been filed under blues, but there’s no doubt at all that this is a soul album (with a few detours into reggae rhythms and a hint of seventies rock). The album has a lot in common with last year’s Southside Johnny classic “Soultime!” in that they’re both inspired by the glory days of sweet soul music; you can find little references to all sorts of artists and styles throughout the album, but it’s ultimately held together by that superb voice.

The album opens with the Hammond-led gentle reggae feel of “Break Away” which hints at “Graceland”-era Paul Simon and The Staples’ “Come Go with Me”, moves into the slow and subtle soul of “The Gift” with its beautiful cascading guitar before the title track throws a whole bunch of influences into the blender. “Honest Man” opens with a riff that’s not a million miles from “Crossroads”, develops with some Memphis Horns-style brass (including the trademark rasping baritone sax) and drops into a chorus with backing vocals which could have been inspired by Don Henley’s scathing “Dirty Laundry”.

So, you get the picture; the album pulls dozens of influences into the blend without ever sounding derivative. “All the Way”, with its hint of a reggae beat, languorous vocal and wah-wah guitar has a hint of seventies Clapton, “Last Surrender” has echoes of Sam Cooke and “Who Are You Listening To?” suggests late seventies Bob Seger, both musically and lyrically. It’s a celebration of some of the classic stylings from our musical history combined with a bunch of well-constructed contemporary songs.

There are a few political and social references, but the songs cover a variety of lyrical themes including love and friendship. “I’m Giving In” is a haunting piano ballad with an intimate, late night vocal while the album’s closer, “One Good Song”, describes the things that a songwriter would suffer to create the one song that makes an audience stop and listen. It’s fair to say that he’s done that a couple of times on this album with the title track and “Last Surrender”. “Honest Man” is a joyous piece of work placing a superb soul voice in settings which demonstrate its quality to perfect effect.

Honest Man” is released on True North Records (TND612) on April 1st.

 

Bob Bradshaw Cover TitleBob Bradshaw’s sixth album, “Whatever you Wanted” is a collection of songs inspired by the musical styles he’s been exploring in his adopted country, America, taking a leisurely stroll through various styles and adopting arrangements and textures from new country, old country, roots, and tex-mex along the way. The instrumentation on the album covers a wide range, from the reined-in acoustic, electric and strings of the opening song “The Start of Nothin’” (not sure that I would want to open an album with that particular message) to the old soul vibe of “Before” with horns, Hammond and strings creating a lush background for the laconic vocal. The arrangements all have a very light touch, and “Before” still seems to have lots of space even with trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and strings adding spice to the percussion, bass, guitars and keys.

The songs are all well-crafted and very listenable, but Bob Bradshaw’s voice is the real selling point for the album; it’s warm and soulful and the close-miking creates a very intimate feel that shifts seamlessly from the silky, Chris Izaak-like “Crazy Heart” to the Bob Seger feel of the album’s perfect closing track, “The Long Ride Home”. The lyrical themes shift from the opening song’s nostalgia, through several breakup songs (including the title track and the album’s most raucous song, the swamp rock of “Losing You”), introspection (“Dream” and “High”) and the allegorical “Sparrow”, which has more than a hint of “Norwegian Wood”.

It’s certainly not a chore to listen to “Whatever you Wanted”, but, for me, everything fits into place on the album’s final song. “The Long Ride Home” is a superb little vignette, evoking perfectly the band on the road leaving the scene of the crime. The backdrop is minimal with only piano, guitar and lap steel supporting Bob Bradshaw’s laconic, world-weary, end-of-a-long-day vocal and the Bob Seger comparison’s difficult to resist, the theme bring the same as Seger’s road classic “Turn the Page”.

As a whole, the album suffers a little from the Bob Bradshaw’s eclecticism; every time you think you’ve got a grip on it, a new style comes along and it slips out of your grasp. There’s nothing you wouldn’t want to listen to again, but it never quite seems to hang together and it feels like you want the band and Bob to really cut loose and rock out a little. After the first eleven tracks, it’s a very solid three-star album, but the final song ensures that the album creates a haunting impression that fixes it in the memory.

“Whatever you Wanted” is out on Friday November 13th on Fluke Records.