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:
When you ask creatives to contribute to a publishing feature, you never know what you’ll get but it’s almost guaranteed to be interesting. High Fives has had its fair share of hilarity in its five year history, but we’ve never had a contribution from someone who wanted to thank people for their kindness over the year. Sofia Talvik has done just that and we salute her.
In these times, I feel like it’s extra important to be kind to the people around you. So I want to high five these awesome people who made my life a little easier this year.
Larry and Michael in Greenville, TX, US
When I was on my last U.S tour my little tour RV Lil’Chief broke down in Greenville, TX. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before the first car pulled over and just a few more until another guy showed up offering his help. Larry and Michael, the guys that pulled over for us, helped us push Lil’Chief into a parking lot and did their best to help my husband Jonas try to find out what was wrong. After a while they came to the conclusion that it was the ignition coil. A quick search on google showed that the closest store that carried the part was 40 miles away. Larry offered to drive the 40 miles there and back to get the part, and not only that, he also paid for it. With the new part Lil’Chief started right up and we could make it to our concert that evening. What an amazing person!
Kent in Dallas, TX
This summer I was playing an outdoors concert in Sweden in full storm. My beloved acoustic guitar fell over from the wind and smacked into the concrete, giving it some ugly cracks in the body. So after that I was on the lookout for a new Guild D25. I found one on Ebay but it was a bit too expensive for me. I thought I’d be a little bit cheeky so I posted the ad on my artist page on Facebook with the caption, “who wants to buy me this guitar?”. Kent commented on the post and said he had a similar guitar, a Guild D35, that he could gift me if I wanted it. Needless to say I was overwhelmed by gratitude. He sent it to me and I have just installed a new pickup, planning to use it live as soon as possible!
Malcolm and Terry, DE
When we end our U.S tours we have to find somewhere to park Lil’Chief until the next time we come over. We had arrangements to park him in Pennsylvania at the end of the last tour, but the plans fell through. I was looking online for a cheap and safe parking but couldn’t find anything suitable. So then I joined the network boondockers welcome. (Boondocking is the word for camping somewhere without hook-ups, ie not in a campground.) The site is basically like air b’n’b but for RV:ers that need a place to park for a night or two. I checked out the hosts in the Philly area and sent out a few emails hoping that someone would have space for Lil’Chief for a few months. Malcolm instantly got back to me and offered us to leave Lil’Chief in their barn for free until spring. We were thrilled, because that meant that he would be under a roof and protected from the snow. We had imagined an old barn, but when we got there it was a really nice big garage. Malcolm and Terry were so nice and even treated us to pizza.
Frau Tropoja, Berlin Germany
This is my neighbour. She lives on the floor above me and always takes cares of packages that are being delivered when I’m not at home. She is always so sweet and has a big smile on her face whenever I see her.
Nathan Reich and David Duchovny, USA
Nathan is a good friend of mine and has been since we ended up sharing a bill in Birmingham, AL many years ago. He now plays guitar in David Duchovny’s backing band and when they came to Europe for a tour he asked me if I wanted to open for them in Munich. It was an amazing night, and very cool to meet David Duchovny, since I’m both an X-files fan and a Californication fan. Along with Nathan I want to give a shout out to all my other artist friends that have helped me along the way, with concert venue recommendations, hosting house concerts at their home and being generally wonderful. I’m really lucky to have so many great and talented friends.
And, as an added bonus, Sofia has a Christmas single out which you can download here on a ‘name your price’ basis. Here’s the video:
Sofia Talvik’s sixth album, “Big Sky Country” is partly inspired by a sixteen-month US tour she did around four years ago. It’s very much Americana but with an outsider’s perspective; Sofia grew up in Sweden and there’s a Nordic accent to add to the Celtic, traditional and Native American influences that run through the album. Using European and American musicians helps to create the rootless, almost lost, other-worldliness that permeates the album from the ethereal opener “Aha-Aha” to the closing song, “So”, a ballad of love and acceptance. It’s an album that’s very easy to listen to and be pulled in to; the playing is understated throughout and even the brass used on “Bonfire” and “So” is gentle and a long way away.
There have been comparisons in the past to various seventies singer-songwriters and it’s not difficult see how those came about (even without the giveaway of the Buffy Sainte-Marie cover, “Starwalker”). Sofia sings in a pure, clear voice and her songs are a mixture of personal events and reactions and awe at her surroundings. The title song demonstrates this perfectly as it moves from the grandeur to the prosaic: ’ 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’.
There’s a streak of melancholy running through the album (which is never a problem for me), highlighted in the failed relationship tale of “Dusty Heart, Empty Hand” and “Lullaby”, describing the world from the point of view of someone suffering from depression. It’s not pretty but it hits the mark perfectly. “Big Sky Country” is an interesting mixture of influences and impressions which ranges from the inward-looking and introverted to the widescreen love letter to Sofia Talvik’s second country. The gentle, haunting musical arrangements are seductive and powerful, pulling you into a world of magnificent vistas and broken spirits.
“Big Sky Country” is out now on Makaki Music (MMSCD17).