Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.

A Life Unlimited Title“A Life Unlimited” – Stone Foundation

It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.

Soultime Title“Soultime!” – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Heart of Gotham” – Pete Kennedy

This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Razor Wire” – Hannah Aldridge

This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.

Black Casino Scroller“Until the Water Runs Clear” – Black Casino and the Ghost

Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.

And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.


It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?

Simon Murphy Title“Not in My Name” – Simon Murphy

Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Parchman” – Hannah Aldridge

This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Union Square” – Pete Kennedy

Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - Title“Flag” – Ed Dupas

From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.

Into the Sea“Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra) – Dean Owens

Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.

I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.


Here’s a contribution from someone I’ve met a few times in the last few years. Pete Kennedy is one half of The Kennedys, along with Maura Kennedy and they are two of the nicest people and finest songwriters I know. This year, Pete released “Heart of Gotham”, his masterpiece and labour of love which has been ten years in the making; it’s a huge Riot Squad favourite already. We asked him to contribute to High Fives for the second year and he’s kept to the spirit of “Heart of Gotham” with this wonderful piece.

These excursions all happen in my neighborhood, the East and West Village…I’m sure the museums further up town, and the goings-on in Brooklyn are great as well, but I’m sticking to my home turf. First of all, don’t go anywhere near Times Square, unless you want to pay ripoff prices at the same shops you already have on the High Street back home. You want to spend your hard earned pounds sterling on the music, food and atmosphere of the real New York, so follow me down below 14th Street.

Mud Cafe East VillageDay One…Lunch at the Mud Cafe on 9th Street in the East Village, where you can sip local grounds while paging through a worn copy of Howl or On The Road. Don’t have any real books with you? Put that e-reader away, and let’s head down St. Mark’s Place to East Village Books. This tiny basement is that perfect Bohemian environment you pictured in your mind on the flight over…if you leave with a jones for more books, head over to The Strand, America’s greatest bookstore, on Broadway at 12th Street. Browse the outdoor stalls, a la the left bank, and throw a stack of 48 cent used books in your backpack. Dinner is at Rai Rai Ken, another tiny place, on 10th Street. It’s dark and rough hewn inside, and humid from the steam of huge pots of curry ramen. When your bowl arrives, just let the steam wash over you while it cools. Now it’s time for some music. The newest spot in this ‘hood is Treehouse, an intimate little stage three flights up, above Jesse Malin’s 7A and a new basement club, Berlin…

VeselkaDay Two begins at Veselka, the 24 hour Ukrainian diner/deli where you can get your blintzes, bagels, bialys, and so forth. This is where I wrote the lyrics to the “Heart of Gotham” album, under the big mural of East Village writers. Then we head down 9th Street, stopping at Katinka to say hello to owners Jane and 9th Street Billy, paying silent homage at Jimi Hendrix’s basement flat, and shopping for vintage stuff at Fabulous Fannie’s, where Declan McManus is rumoured to sometimes stop by for a fresh pair of specs. The street is lined with small boutiques…one shop, recently closed, sold only candy and rain gear. For dinner, we go down the next block to Jules, for a salad Nicoise and live jazz with no cover charge. Then it’s a short hike up to the Hi Fi Club. The best juke box in town, the walls are lined with LP jackets, and the music is intimate and always good. Amy Rigby’s three week residency here has already passed into legend.

PanyaDay three starts out with Japanese breakfast at Panya, continuing our theme of haunting tiny places that tourists would never find. Pick up a packet of green tea biscuits for quick energy later in the day. Next we head up to the Union Square green market. This is where the city’s cutting edge chefs and foodies gather four days a week, and the perimeter is lined with artists, musicians, booksellers and chess players. Dinner? This will sound like heresy, but I’m going to say Whole Foods. The Indian buffet is by no means Brick Lane, but it’s serviceable, and the upstairs seating area has one of the best panoramic views in the city…Union Square, with the Empire State Building and other iconic structures looking like you could reach out and touch them. all for the price of a samosa. Now it’s music time, and we head down to the Bowery Electric for rockabilly and punk in the basement, or indie songwriters in the tiny Map Room upstairs. It’s at the corner known as Joey Ramone Place, and you can scoot a few doors down the block to mourn the passing of CBGB’s.

Caffe ReggioDay four begins in the West Village, with strong espresso at Cafe Reggio. The legendary template for all American coffeehouses, it features the first cappucino machine to emigrate here, and it is indeed imposing, resembling a navy cruiser dominating the small room. Reggio is featured in the film Shaft, when mobsters crash a car through the plate glass. No telling how many songs, poems and novels have been written on the semi-darkness of this place. Speaking of legends, we head up the block to Washington Square. In a way, there’s little need to pay a club cover charge for New York music, because it is happening here en pleine aire all the time. Folk jams, of course, but you will also hear classical pianists and cellists, rappers and poets, and everywhere the sound of Coltrane style sax in its natural element, the streets of New York. For dinner, let’s grab a quick burger at The Kettle of Fish, where someone will probably be playing Robert Johnson on an old Martin over in the corner. Music time…we’ll check out Le Poisson Rouge. Last show I saw there was a rare dbs reunion. Always something interesting going on here in Bleecker Street.

John's PizzeriaDay five, the last day of our excursion, begins at John’s Pizza in the West Village. Early for pizza? I forgot to mention that, in the Village, the day begins at noon. We will have to split a pizza, because following a deal hammered out long ago with Al Capone, there is no pizza by the slice at John’s, Lombardi’s, or Patsy’s, America’s original pizza joints. Apres pizza, we head across the street to Matt Umanov’s, the venerable guitar shop where every six string slinger you’ve ever hero-worshipped has bought at least one axe. After ogling the vintage Martins and Gibsons, we head around the corner to Carmine Street Guitars, where Rick Kelly caters to the working class guitarist, and specializes in building Telecasters out of hundred year old wood from demolished buildings in Brooklyn. You will want to take home a piece of twanging New York history. We’re getting peckish now, and the major bit of local cuisine that we haven’t sampled yet is pasta, preferably with a simple salad, cheap house wine, and a checkered tablecloth. That can all be taken care of right on the corner, at Trattoria Spaghetto. For our final night of music, we travel just one block to the Cornelia Street Cafe, where musical polymath David Amram has held court for years, with an eclectic mix of jazz, classical and folk combined with tales of his exploits with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Charlie Parker.

In the morning, we share a refreshing egg cream, which contains neither, at Gem Spa, the favorite deli of the Beats, and then, under the Keith Haring sculpture at the corner of St. Mark’s and The Bowery, we put you in a taxi headed for JFK, sated with music, food and the great vibes of our little neighborhood, Greenwich Village.


Part One

It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.

BWB Hockley ScrollerThe first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.

DSC_0007Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.

Kennedys Gallery ScrollerNext up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.

04) Gary RollinsWell that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.

Part Two coming soon…