It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?

Simon Murphy Title“Not in My Name” – Simon Murphy

Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Parchman” – Hannah Aldridge

This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Union Square” – Pete Kennedy

Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - Title“Flag” – Ed Dupas

From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.

Into the Sea“Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra) – Dean Owens

Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.

I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.

 

Here’s a contribution from someone I’ve met a few times in the last few years. Pete Kennedy is one half of The Kennedys, along with Maura Kennedy and they are two of the nicest people and finest songwriters I know. This year, Pete released “Heart of Gotham”, his masterpiece and labour of love which has been ten years in the making; it’s a huge Riot Squad favourite already. We asked him to contribute to High Fives for the second year and he’s kept to the spirit of “Heart of Gotham” with this wonderful piece.

These excursions all happen in my neighborhood, the East and West Village…I’m sure the museums further up town, and the goings-on in Brooklyn are great as well, but I’m sticking to my home turf. First of all, don’t go anywhere near Times Square, unless you want to pay ripoff prices at the same shops you already have on the High Street back home. You want to spend your hard earned pounds sterling on the music, food and atmosphere of the real New York, so follow me down below 14th Street.

Mud Cafe East VillageDay One…Lunch at the Mud Cafe on 9th Street in the East Village, where you can sip local grounds while paging through a worn copy of Howl or On The Road. Don’t have any real books with you? Put that e-reader away, and let’s head down St. Mark’s Place to East Village Books. This tiny basement is that perfect Bohemian environment you pictured in your mind on the flight over…if you leave with a jones for more books, head over to The Strand, America’s greatest bookstore, on Broadway at 12th Street. Browse the outdoor stalls, a la the left bank, and throw a stack of 48 cent used books in your backpack. Dinner is at Rai Rai Ken, another tiny place, on 10th Street. It’s dark and rough hewn inside, and humid from the steam of huge pots of curry ramen. When your bowl arrives, just let the steam wash over you while it cools. Now it’s time for some music. The newest spot in this ‘hood is Treehouse, an intimate little stage three flights up, above Jesse Malin’s 7A and a new basement club, Berlin…

VeselkaDay Two begins at Veselka, the 24 hour Ukrainian diner/deli where you can get your blintzes, bagels, bialys, and so forth. This is where I wrote the lyrics to the “Heart of Gotham” album, under the big mural of East Village writers. Then we head down 9th Street, stopping at Katinka to say hello to owners Jane and 9th Street Billy, paying silent homage at Jimi Hendrix’s basement flat, and shopping for vintage stuff at Fabulous Fannie’s, where Declan McManus is rumoured to sometimes stop by for a fresh pair of specs. The street is lined with small boutiques…one shop, recently closed, sold only candy and rain gear. For dinner, we go down the next block to Jules, for a salad Nicoise and live jazz with no cover charge. Then it’s a short hike up to the Hi Fi Club. The best juke box in town, the walls are lined with LP jackets, and the music is intimate and always good. Amy Rigby’s three week residency here has already passed into legend.

PanyaDay three starts out with Japanese breakfast at Panya, continuing our theme of haunting tiny places that tourists would never find. Pick up a packet of green tea biscuits for quick energy later in the day. Next we head up to the Union Square green market. This is where the city’s cutting edge chefs and foodies gather four days a week, and the perimeter is lined with artists, musicians, booksellers and chess players. Dinner? This will sound like heresy, but I’m going to say Whole Foods. The Indian buffet is by no means Brick Lane, but it’s serviceable, and the upstairs seating area has one of the best panoramic views in the city…Union Square, with the Empire State Building and other iconic structures looking like you could reach out and touch them. all for the price of a samosa. Now it’s music time, and we head down to the Bowery Electric for rockabilly and punk in the basement, or indie songwriters in the tiny Map Room upstairs. It’s at the corner known as Joey Ramone Place, and you can scoot a few doors down the block to mourn the passing of CBGB’s.

Caffe ReggioDay four begins in the West Village, with strong espresso at Cafe Reggio. The legendary template for all American coffeehouses, it features the first cappucino machine to emigrate here, and it is indeed imposing, resembling a navy cruiser dominating the small room. Reggio is featured in the film Shaft, when mobsters crash a car through the plate glass. No telling how many songs, poems and novels have been written on the semi-darkness of this place. Speaking of legends, we head up the block to Washington Square. In a way, there’s little need to pay a club cover charge for New York music, because it is happening here en pleine aire all the time. Folk jams, of course, but you will also hear classical pianists and cellists, rappers and poets, and everywhere the sound of Coltrane style sax in its natural element, the streets of New York. For dinner, let’s grab a quick burger at The Kettle of Fish, where someone will probably be playing Robert Johnson on an old Martin over in the corner. Music time…we’ll check out Le Poisson Rouge. Last show I saw there was a rare dbs reunion. Always something interesting going on here in Bleecker Street.

John's PizzeriaDay five, the last day of our excursion, begins at John’s Pizza in the West Village. Early for pizza? I forgot to mention that, in the Village, the day begins at noon. We will have to split a pizza, because following a deal hammered out long ago with Al Capone, there is no pizza by the slice at John’s, Lombardi’s, or Patsy’s, America’s original pizza joints. Apres pizza, we head across the street to Matt Umanov’s, the venerable guitar shop where every six string slinger you’ve ever hero-worshipped has bought at least one axe. After ogling the vintage Martins and Gibsons, we head around the corner to Carmine Street Guitars, where Rick Kelly caters to the working class guitarist, and specializes in building Telecasters out of hundred year old wood from demolished buildings in Brooklyn. You will want to take home a piece of twanging New York history. We’re getting peckish now, and the major bit of local cuisine that we haven’t sampled yet is pasta, preferably with a simple salad, cheap house wine, and a checkered tablecloth. That can all be taken care of right on the corner, at Trattoria Spaghetto. For our final night of music, we travel just one block to the Cornelia Street Cafe, where musical polymath David Amram has held court for years, with an eclectic mix of jazz, classical and folk combined with tales of his exploits with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Charlie Parker.

In the morning, we share a refreshing egg cream, which contains neither, at Gem Spa, the favorite deli of the Beats, and then, under the Keith Haring sculpture at the corner of St. Mark’s and The Bowery, we put you in a taxi headed for JFK, sated with music, food and the great vibes of our little neighborhood, Greenwich Village.