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.
It can be easy to define an album by what it isn’t rather than what it is. “Shoulder to Shoulder” doesn’t push anything up to eleven, there aren’t any self-indulgent solos and there isn’t any autotune or electronic trickery to fool you into hearing substance where none exists. What this album has is eleven powerful and beautifully-crafted songs, superb vocal performances and arrangements that allow the quality and emotion of the songwriting to shine through. The album features the current single “Here It Comes Again”; it’s probably the most radio-friendly, but it’s not entirely representative of “Shoulder to Shoulder”.
The album is strongest when the songs deal with serious subjects. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the two Charlie Dore/Chris While co-writes “Slim to Nil” or “Nothing Yanks My Chain (Like You Do)”; they’re bouncy and full of clever wordplay and they offer a contrast to some of the more serious songs that define the overall mood.
“Pride” opens slowly with a gentle guitar intro and picks up momentum to become a full-on anthem to sexual tolerance and standing shoulder under the rainbow banner; it’s a cracking song with a potent message. “Are We Human” challenges insularity generally, and in particular our attitudes to the current refugee crisis and the haunting “Pinjarra Dreams” shines a light on the scandalous treatment of British children sent from homes and orphanages to Australia. The songs have a definite political edge, but they’re generally told from a human perspective.
“Leap of Faith”, the final While/Dore composition is the joyful and poignant story of a mother about to be reunited with her daughter after twenty-five years apart on opposite sides of the world, closing out beautifully when the two actually meet. Equally moving is Julie Matthews’ “Ordinary Day”, a bleakly tragic piece of the everyday pathos of bereavement (with a little hint of WH Auden). It’s not happy but it’s beautifully observed.
“Shoulder to Shoulder” is a hugely accomplished piece of work that reflects the talents and experience of Chris While and Julie Matthews. The songs are varied musically, moving with ease from gentle contemplation to pop inflections and even anthems, and the lyrics range from whimsical to profound. I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.
“Shoulder to Shoulder” is out on Friday September on Fat Cat Records via Circuit Music (FATCD 035).