I’ve listened to a lot of new albums this year and a huge chunk of those have been very good indeed. I’ve reviewed a lot of Americana/country/roots albums, but there’s been thrash metal, blues, London indie, British folk, jazz instrumental, European electronic pop and one or two that defied classification. Here, in absolutely no order are my five favourite albums of this year; theses the ones that stayed with me, refusing to be replaced by new kids on the block. I’m including links to them where possible so that you don’t have to trust me, just click and listen for yourself.
“Shaky Path to Arcadia” – Phil Burdett Group
Phil Burdett released two albums almost simultaneously at the beginning of the year, leaving me with a really difficult choice about which to include (not the only example of that dilemma this year) and I think it’s “Shaky Path to Arcadia” by a hairsbreadth. It’s a great example of Phil’s work pulling together lyrical references from the American popular songbook, Dada,travel across the American continent, and Basildon (where Phil grew up and was in a band with a pre-Depeche Mode Martin Gore). Match up a breathtaking range of references with pure poetry and some lovely ensemble playing from Southend’s finest and you have an album that’s a thing of rare beauty. I really can’t understand why the world has never discovered this singer/songwriter/poet/renaissance man. Maybe this year. No Spotify link for this, but check out the first album in the trilogy “Dunfearing and the West Country High”
“Six on the Out”- The Westies
The Westies is Michael McDermott’s band project, running parallel with his solo work as Michael McDermott. In 2016, within the space of a few weeks, he released this Westies album, followed by the “Willow Springs” solo set (which could easily have made this list). “Six on the Out” is mainly the darker side of his past; the twilight zone inhabited by losers, petty criminals, addicts and misfits. It’s a dark and almost unrelenting journey through the things that did happen and the things that could have happened at the whim of fate. The ideas and the inspiration behind the songs are solid, but Michael’s lyrics (inspired and informed by the likes of Dylan and Springsteen) turn them into perfect little vignettes. When an album opens with the song “If I Had a Gun”, you know it won’t be easy listening; “Six On the Out” will leave you emotionally wrung out but elated to be in the presence of songwriting greatness.
“Double Take” -- Frankie Miller
Frankie Miller; best soul singer ever from the UK? No contest. Frankie had a massive brain haemorrhage in 1994 which incapacitated him for over a decade and from which he’s still slowly recovering. Around four years ago a batch of seventies demo tapes of unpublished songs resurfaced and Frankie’s supporters (with some firm guidance from Frankie) decided that they were suitable for release and that the perfect way to get them noticed would be to create duets with other singers. Not surprisingly there was no shortage of takers, including Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson and “Double Take” was born. But it’s not those cameos that make it great; it’s a whole bunch of great three-minute songs, simple and effective, and that phenomenal voice. The quality of the vocals is so good that it’s hard to believe that these are demos; this is the business. The duet idea’s been handled fairly well, none of them sound jarring, and Elton John sounds like he’s having a great time, but the highlight for me is still the three band demos with “Full House” proving what a superb rock ‘n’ soul outfit they were.
“Big Sky Country” -- Sofia Talvik
In a year when I reviewed a lot of Americana , “Big Sky Country” stood out from the crowd because of the way it blended American and Scandinavian influences to create a voice that’s uniquely Sofia Talvik. The album was a result of a lengthy tour of the USA and manages to capture the vast open spaces of the deserts and prairies while keeping the intimacy and melancholy of tales of broken relationships and depression. Sofia’s pure, ethereal voice floats gently above a variety of musical stylings, creating an atmosphere that’s widescreen and ethereal, grandiose and mundane, summed up by these lines from the title song : ‘I’ve seen the Blue Ridge Mountains rise tall, I’ve heard the San Francisco sea lions call, I left my heart in a dirty old bar, in Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car’.
“Truth is A Wolf” -- Mollie Marriott
This one’s the album that never was. I had a review copy for months, played it to death in the car. Loved the songs, the singing, the playing, the whole lot. As the release date kept slipping, I held off publishing the review until I just had to get it out there. Apparently the album won’t ever be released in that form, but some dodgy reviewers have been selling copies on eBay. Mollie has a tremendous voice that’s backed up by impressive songwriting (and choosing her collaborators well) but the album works so well because you can feel that it’s a real band. They’re all great players, but it’s more than that, you can feel a sense of unity running through the entire album. I’d love to be able to share the album with you, but the best can do is share this single video for “Ship of Fools” and point you in the direction of YouTube:
A long time ago, I really struggled with the musical concept that the most important thing wasn’t the notes, but the space between the notes. I was a bit literal and musically unsophisticated at that time, but I managed to get my head around the idea before it got me into any arguments. The reason I’m inviting you to have a laugh at my expense here is that Phil Burdett’s album “Humble Ardour Refrains” has some wonderful examples of using the space between the notes to create atmosphere and emotion. This is one of two albums that Phil’s releasing simultaneously on Drumfire Records (you can read about “Shaky Path to Arcadia” here) and if you take the two albums together, it’s an extraordinary achievement.
He’s used the same musicians (with the addition of flute and sax on this album from Paula Borrell) to produce two very different albums; musically, “Humble Ardour Refrains” has a more acoustic, folky vibe and there’s a much more confessional, intimate feel to the autobiographical material. I’m sure that everyone listening to this will pick out different songs that they love, but my instant favourite was “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”; Russ Strothard’s melodic bass line works perfectly with John Bennett’s clipped guitar and Jack Corder’s congas to create a backing that rolls along seemingly effortlessly under Phil’s sub-apocalyptic vision of Southend and Canvey. When you add Paula Borrell’s meandering flute, the result is sublime. It’s a song that took me back to John Martyn at this very best.
If we’re talking comparisons (and we are), Tom Waits would be proud of the lo-fi stomp of “Jackleg Preacher” with its ‘ruffian choir’ and yuppie-vilifying lyrics; the band can do subtle, but they can also crank it up like a bar band. I should really mention “Chickenwire” as well; I can’t think of any other songwriter who can write a love song (unusual in itself for Phil) that includes the lines ‘This sick life worships morning tide & Satan’s sleeping on the shore, He’ll leave his bitter truths behind – callous, cruel & raw’.
As always, the metaphors range far and wide, from The Bible to French literature with musical references from Dexys to Dylan and Songdog dropped into the mix as well. “Humble Ardour Refrains” is a very personal album exploring childhood and lost innocence, London, absent friends (“Likes of Us”), some very dark times and the mental and physical place that Phil finds himself in at the moment.
Even if you ignore the simultaneous release of “Shaky Path to Arcadia”, this is an astonishingly good album from an artist who really should be much better known than he is. I can’t even choose between the two albums; you should just give yourself a treat and buy both.
“Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” are both out on January 29 on Drumfire Records.
So, on to the second part of our mid-term report, and it kicks off with a band that the Riot Squad saw live a couple of times last year. Federal Charm released their debut album in 2013 and have been on the circuit trying to reach as many people as possible with their melodic blues/rock. This year they’ve also been recording their second album which is ready for release in the Autumn to coincide with a major support tour with Joanne Shaw Taylor in September and October. We’re looking forward to reviewing the new album and the live shows will definitely be worth seeing.
Phil Burdett’s album “Dunfearing and the West Country High” (again from Drumfire Records) was another MusicRiot favourite last year. It was the first part of Phil’s “Secular Mystic” trilogy, and a work of rare beauty. The second part of the trilogy, “Shaky Path to Arcadia”, is due to be released in late summer/autumn 2015 and based on the songs that the Riot Squad have heard so far at a couple of gigs in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea, this is shaping up to be another classic. There’s also the first part of an acoustic trilogy which may be released later this year, but we’ll tell you more about that later.
Did we feature anyone from New Jersey? We did? Now that’s a surprise. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have a new album which should be released later this year and that’s always something we look forward to here at Riot Towers. The album’s called “Soultime!” and the band has been previewing some of the songs at shows over the summer in the States; apparently they’re sounding pretty good. The one snippet we’ve heard from the live shows, “Spinning”, sounds like The Jukes at their very best with the band cooking on gas and the horns blowing up an absolute storm.
Bob Malone’s also from New Jersey, although he lives in California these days. We reviewed the “Mojo EP”, which was a sampler for his “Mojo Deluxe” album, last year. After a year of touring the States with John Fogerty and Europe with his own band, “Mojo Deluxe” is just about ready to go and he’ll be touring the UK later this year in support of the album. If the album lives up to the standards set by the EP, it should be a little bit special. As for the live shows, you really should get along to see one of those; we’ll give you some dates later in the year.
That’s it for the bands we featured in the predictions for 2015 and so far it’s looking pretty good for all of our selections. In the third and final part of the report, we’ll bring you up to speed with some of the great bands and artists we’ve seen for the first time this year who we think you’ll be hearing a lot more of.