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.

 

Soultime TitleIf you’re looking for something that’s easy on the ear to use as aural wallpaper for your commute or as background music for a dinner party, then stop right here; this is proper music. Southside Johnny has been making music with various Asbury Jukes for over forty years and compromise isn’t something that he’s about to start now. The quality of the songs, the playing and the arrangements is what it’s all about; always has been, always will be. Southside had fraught relationships with his various labels in the days when bands signed to a label and hoped that the label would make them successful but it hasn’t worked that way for a while now so Southside has moved on to a completely different way of working; he has control over the creative and business processes. ‘When’s the album being released? When it’s ready’. And “Soultime!” is well and truly ready. It’s taken a while (the last album “Pills and Ammo” was released in 2010), but Southside’s a very busy man these days; not only is he trying to keep an eight-piece rock and soul band in line, but he’s also working with his Americana project The Poor Fools, comprising various Jukes and some of the extended Jersey shore family.

Through the various incarnations of The Jukes, Southside has always had a collaborator helping with songwriting and musical director duties; Steve van Zandt moved on to the E Street Band as Springsteen went up through the gears and Bobby Bandiera took on the ‘safe pair of hands’ role with Bon Jovi on his seemingly endless world tour. Which, after an overlap with Bobby, left Jeff Kazee, keyboard virtuoso with a great high tenor soul voice, as the partner in crime. And, as much as I love the work of Little Steven and Bobby Bandiera, the Jeff and Johnny combination is producing some stunning results as Southside takes more credit for his songwriting contributions and Jeff Kazee adds his voice to the mix as well; it’s a potent combination.

In 2001, Southside released “Messin’ with the Blues”, an album of songs illustrating his love of blues, but also demonstrating the variety of styles within blues music; fourteen years later, “Soultime!” applies the same template to a cross-section of soul styles. It’s not too difficult to identify the influences, but the quality of the writing and the performances ensure that this is an album to be judged on its own merits.

The opening track “Spinning” throws all the ingredients into the blender to create a manic Stax feel. Everything’s there, from the horn fills to the breakdown, building back up with John Conte’s bass, Jeff Kazee’s Hammond and Glenn Alexander’s guitar, to the call and response vocal and the big horn finish. There’s barely time to get your breath back before “All I Can Do” the mid-tempo Johnny/Jeff duet. The two voices combine perfectly and a sweet tenor sax solo from John Isley is the icing on the cake. “Don’t Waste my Time” could be early Jukes, musically and lyrically as Southside tells the ‘my girl done me wrong’ story supported by backing vocalists Elaine Caswell, Layonne Holmes and Catherine Russell before Neal Pawley steps up for a trombone solo.

Looking for a Good Time” is the album’s defining song. The inspiration for the album came from hearing “Superfly” in the booze aisle at the supermarket and watching how the shoppers reacted. “Looking…” captures the upful mood of Curtis Mayfield in 1970 perfectly; if anything ever made me wish I could dance, this is it. The namechecks in the lyrics say it all, really: ‘Isley Brothers and Curtis and Sly and Bobby Womack too’; it’s perfect. “Words Fail Me” is a mature love ballad with very tasteful backing (even drummer Tom Seguso is reined in), muted horns and a lovely flugelhorn solo from Chris Anderson; Johnny’s voice is sublime and it would melt a heart of stone. “Walking on a Thin Line” has a faintly menacing Latin feel evoking Isaac Hayes, The Temptations and The O’Jays but still totally Jukes.

What comes next is a very rare thing indeed; an instrumental on a Jukes album. “Klank” is the love child of “Soul Finger” and “Third Stone from the Sun” with harmonica and tenor sax solos; they’re allowed to have fun as well, you know. Carrying on with the levity, “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” is a bit of light-hearted fun with a cast of Damon Runyon characters and a nod to “Check Mr Popeye” from way back when, which takes the intensity down a little bit before the final three songs.

I’m Not That Lonely” totally nails the Motown sound (Four Tops, anyone?) while “The Heart Always Knows” harks back to a much earlier time (Sam Cooke, or maybe The Cascades). It’s a slow, gentle ballad with some nice pizzicato strings courtesy of Jeff Kazee and acoustic guitar from Glenn Alexander and it takes off the heat for a few minutes before the final offering. “Reality” takes its influence from the psychedelic soul of the late sixties/early seventies with some interesting synth sounds and John Isley’s flute (and is that bass sax on there as well?), strings and muted horns; it gets kinda busy in there at times.

Southside Johnny set out to evoke a certain era of soul with this album; he wanted to make us feel good, the way we did when we first heard all of the great artists who influenced this album, and it’s an unqualified success. The arrangements perfectly capture the feel without sounding like The Faux Tops; he and The Jukes have created a perfect homage to music that was the soundtrack to the sixties and seventies. Over forty years down the line, he still has that raw, emotive voice that cuts through Hammond and horns and straight to the heart. Working with Jeff Kazee and the latest incarnation of The Jukes, he’s turned out a modern soul classic.

“Soultime!” is released on September 1 on Leroy Records.