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:
This review’s going to be different from most of the things you’ll read about Mollie Marriott’s album “Truth is a Wolf” in one important way; I won’t be saying anything about Mollie’s musical heritage. You can read about that elsewhere, and I want to focus on Mollie and the superb team she’s created to deliver her musical vision. As a songwriter and singer she deserves to be judged on her own merits (and on the merits of her writing and performing partners) as she releases her debut solo album. The band deserves a special mention here as well. This isn’t an album put together by a bunch of studio hacks; Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley (guitar), Sam Tanner (keyboards), Henrik Irgens (bass), Alex Reeves (drums) and Izzy Chase-Phillmore (backing vocals) are Mollie’s live band (in various acoustic and electric permutations)and Sam and Johnson collaborate on songwriting as well. In a live setting, it’s obvious that they’re all great players, but equally obvious that they love working together and they’re good mates.
The other songwriting collaborators include Judie Tzuke, Graham Kearns and Jim Stapley (one of the best voices in rock at the moment) and to add little spice, there are a couple of non-originals; a storming version of World Party’s “Ship of Fools” (Mollie’s first single, released last year) and the title track, written by Gary Nicholson and Bonnie Hayes. Mollie’s channelled a lot of heartbreak through these songs, including the opener “Broken” which deals with a failing relationship, and “Love your Bones” about the death of a good friend, but it’s ultimately a hugely uplifting album, despite the serious themes. So, how does that happen?
There are a couple of reasons; one is Mollie’s huge voice and the other is the incredibly good band. Let’s start with the band. The rhythm section does exactly what it says on the tin (there’s even a few melodic bass riffs thrown in)and creates a platform for the interwoven guitar and keyboard arrangements, which are all beautifully played without ever straying into muso ‘look at me’ territory. The second single, “Transformer” is driven along by Johnson’s infuriatingly catchy, over-driven earworm of a guitar riff while Sam’s smoky keyboard riff is the impetus behind “Truth is a Wolf”. And then there’s Izzy, also a great singer, whose voice works perfectly alongside the lead vocal.
And Mollie’s voice? Well, what can I say? She can do the pop singer thing, hitting all the right notes and sounding crystal clear and that might be enough for a lot of people, but there’s another dimension. When she goes up through the gears, she finds a raw emotional edge that only the best soul and rock singers have, and she can move seamlessly between these styles.
In putting the album together, Mollie’s written about a lot of painful episodes, but she’s managed to create a superb, powerful album from those episodes. This is an incredibly assured debut album packed with personal, well-crafted songs and technically perfect but often under-stated instrumental performances. This sounds like Mollie’s breakthrough.
Oh, and just one more thing, go and see the band live if you get the chance; you won’t regret it.
“Truth is A Wolf” is out in February 2016 on MITA Records.