“Don’t use cliches”, they say in the “how-to-write-better” manuals, however, hasn’t the year flown by: you’re looking well: haven’t you grown! They say time accelerates as you get older and, worryingly, as I’m about to enter a “milestone” birthday year, it appears that Lewis Hamilton has jumped into my personal cockpit and is now hurtling me headlong into a future littered with prescription drugs, arthritis, memory loss and, um… memory loss.
Once again (and I know I’ve said the same thing every year since I started writing these reviews back in 2014…) some fantastic music was released during the past 12 months. If anything, I’m finding it harder to keep up with listening to all the new stuff, especially as it means there’s lots of great old stuff that I’m sad to be missing out on. Initially, I sat down in front of a long-list of 60 albums which needed to be whittled down to this final 30 – and even then it didn’t include some great ones I know I haven’t even discovered yet. Of the ones I have heard, just missing out on the cut were Belle & Sebastian, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Chris Bangs & Mick Talbot, Tim Burgess, Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbot, Johnny Marr, Lambchop, Leah Weller, Soft Cell, Horace Andy, C Duncan and Working Men’s Club among many others.
I genuinely wish I had more time to dedicate to the task of writing about my passions, but it’s a tough ask for us music and culture-loving “amateur” bloggers to keep up with everything that’s going on with only a limited amount of hours to do it in. This is a huge struggle as our listening time has to be shared with all the books and magazines that need to be read, the movies and TV shows that need to be watched and, most importantly, getting out to see as many gigs as possible. Of course, on top of all that is the small matter of fitting in our “real” jobs – ie the things we need to do in order to pay for all the above…
With all the above in mind, I thought I’d use up even more of my spare time by launching The Acoustic Egg Box “Radio Show” music podcasts on Mixcloud back in May; hour-long shows during which you get to hear a bunch of my favourite records whilst what sounds like a drunken West Country farmer rambles incoherently about them during the gaps. Give them a listen, if anything, you’ll be amazed that I really do sound more stupid than I look. There will be more of this nonsense in 2023 – elocution lessons permitting.
One last thing: I always encourage any of you who read my posts to get in touch via the contact page on this site (or alternatively via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or email) if you have any suggestions, ideas or comments about my blog or music, books, films etc that you think I need to hear or see. And for those of you who I have already built up valuable friendships with via these very pages, thank you for your continued support and (mostly!) polite and constructive suggestions. It really is greatly appreciated.
One last, LAST thing before I get on to the essential review bits below. As you wade through the page, you’ll notice some red, highlighted, and underlined text. Clicking on the text/ links will take you to pages with additional info about the subject in question (previous reviews/ blog posts etc), or it’ll be a link to relevant videos/ live recordings, external reviews etc. (and if you can’t be arsed to read everything (or indeed, anything) on here, there’s a Spotify playlist available right at the very end).
2022 – THE IMPORTANT BITS
GIGS OF THE YEAR: 1: Stone Foundation – Koko, London 2: Father John Misty – St. George’s, Bristol 3: Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Thekla, Bristol
HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR: Sir Paul McCartney’s emotional (well it was for me!) headline set at Glastonbury
LOWLIGHT OF THE YEAR: My cultural heroes shuffling off this mortal coil at a horrible rate. Terry Hall leaving us unexpectedly at just 63 years of age was the one that really floored me
ALBUMS OF THE YEAR: ↓ (If you can’t be arsed with reading the drivel below, just skip to the end where you’ll find the link to a much more edifying Spotify playlist).
30: LADY WRAY – Piece Of Me (Big Crown)
29: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – Only The Strong Survive (Columbia)
28: BRIAN JACKSON – This Is Brian Jackson (BBE Music)
27: WET LEG – Wet Leg (Domino)
26: THE HANGING STARS – Hollow Heart (Loose)
25: DRUGDEALER – Hiding In Plain Sight (Mexican Summer)
24: THE HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS – Look Up! (Colemine)
23: URAL THOMAS & THE PAIN – Dancing Dimensions (Bella Union)
22: LEWIS TAYLOR – Numb (Slow Reality)
21: BOBBY OROZA – Get On The Otherside (Big Crown)
20: ARCTIC MONKEYS – The Car (Domino)
In 2018, Arctic Monkeys released “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”. With its “lounge” vibe and Alex Turner pitching himself somewhere between Scott Walker, Bowie and Sinatra, it marked a radical departure from the sound of their previous albums. Although it garnered critical acclaim in the press, to say it divided opinion amongst the record-buying public would be something of an understatement. On release, I hated it (it wasn’t even close to an AEB chart position), but over the following months, it grew on me and has subsequently become a favourite. “The Car”, their 7th studio album sees a continuation of the band’s mellow, baroque, orchestral direction, and with 3 UK top 30 singles released from it, it certainly has a more accessible edge than Tranquility Base – the highlight being the haunting, cinematic “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball”.
19: OLIVER SIM – Hideous Bastard (Young)
To give Hideous Bastard some context, 33-year-old XX vocalist, Oliver Sim, announced shortly before its release that he was diagnosed as HIV positive when he was 17 and therefore, given this context, Sim may well be using the album as a form of therapy. Although many of the 10 tracks contain dark but moving ruminations about his sexuality and troubled relationships (not least on the heartbreaking, Jimmy Somerville guesting title track) this isn’t a depressing record – if anything it’s full of positivity and hope as our storyteller works through his issues. With Jamie XX on production duties, the album’s well-crafted electronic backdrops will appeal to fans of John Grant and, vocally, David Sylvian. Finally (no cheating!), from what Northern Soul classic is the sample on “Romance With A Memory” lifted? Answers on a postcard…
18: SAY SHE SHE – Prism (Karma Chief/Colemine)
Despite the main focus of Say She She (apparently a wordplay of C’est Chic – their heroes) being the 3 ladies up front and centre, they are in fact an 8 piece band from Brooklyn. Describing their style as “discodelic soul”, Prism, their debut album is a shimmering half-hour of catchy, instantly loveable songs straight from the Chic/ Rose Royce/ En Vogue institute of songwriting. What sets Say She She apart from many of their contemporaries though are the sweetest 3-part harmonies courtesy of classically trained singers, Piya Malik, Nya Parker-Gazelle and Sabrina Cunningham. Stand-out tracks for me are “Prism”, and “Fortune Teller”.
17: LEE FIELDS – Sentimental Fool (Daptone)
Veteran, gravel-voiced, North Carolina soul man Lee Fields’ first album for Daptone is a yearning old-school classic. Like his late label mate, Charles Bradley, Fields spent many years plying their trade in the musical hinterlands before (eventually) their vocal prowess was properly appreciated. Fields’ physical and vocal style was modelled on his hero, James Brown, but now, rather than sounding like a JB tribute act, he has become a star in his own right. I’m off to see this exceptional performer in Glasgow at the end of January, I just hope he dresses from the same drawer that he did in the video for the album’s wonderful title track. What a dude!
16: TANIKA CHARLES – Papillon De Nuit: The Night Butterfly (Record Kicks)
On her third album, “Papillon De Nuit”, Canadian chanteuse, Tanika Charles, has broadened her soulful palette somewhat. Whilst her first 2 records (Soul Run and The Gumption) were decidedly old-school, although still rooted in classic soul, her latest offering has a more contemporary feel about it – in fact, the album’s opening 2 tracks illustrate this subtle shift perfectly: the poppy, breezy “Million Ways” followed by the Motown style groove of “Hold Me (Like A Grudge)”. My favourite track on the album is the gorgeous mid-tempo ballad, “Gin & Wine” (there’s a surprise!) which, to these old ears at least, sounds like something the great Stephanie Mills would have had a big hit with back in the day.
15: MONOPHONICS – Sage Motel (Colemine)
Along with the Daptone and Big Crown record labels, Colemine (and all their wonderful offshoots) are the modern-day equivalent of Motown and Stax. San Francisco’s Monophonics represent the Temptations-esque psychedelic-soul arm of the label, and the vaguely conceptual “Sage Motel” certainly reinforces that feeling. In lead singer, Kelly Finnigan, the band has one of the great vocalists of the 21st-century soul generation and on the album’s standout track, “Warpaint”, you can hear why. I’m sure fans of the aforementioned Temptations plus Curtis Mayfield or Sly & The Family Stone will find much to enjoy about this album.
14: FOXTON & HASTINGS – The Butterfly Effect (Absolute)
When a duo comprises one bloke who used to be in The Jam and is now in the rather good tribute act, From The Jam, and another bloke who used to be in a Jam tribute act called The Gift with a Jam member, but is now also in From The Jam with another Jam member (neither of who is Paul Weller), there’s a chance that their music might sound a bit Jam like. And it does, in a very good way. “The Butterfly Effect” is the third album Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings have recorded together and their influences are, obviously, obvious. That said, they are accomplished songwriters in their own right, as evidenced by the poppy, hook-laden songs that make up the album’s 12 tracks. Especially worthy of attention are “Feet Off The Ground”, “She Said”, “Time On Your Side” and one of my favourite tracks of the year, the gorgeous “Lula”.
13: GABRIELS – Angels & Queens Part 1 (Atlas/ Parlophone)
Anglo-American 3 piece, Gabriels, received an “Eggbox” in 2022 as their brilliant single, “Love & Hate In A Different Time” was my track of the year. That song isn’t included on Angels & Queens Part 1, but the 7 that are (part 2 is being released in 2023) showcase the work of a band who are going to be big news in the next 12 months. In L.A. raised lead singer Jacob Lusk, Gabriels have a frontman in possession of an incredible voice. Pitched somewhere between Anhoni (formerly of Antony & The Johnsons), Nina Simone and Prince, once you’ve heard the man who finished 5th in American Idol back in 2011 singing, I guarantee you ain’t going to forget him. This is a modern soul record which also encompasses elements of gospel, funk and jazz, but unlike so many of their contemporaries, it’s the quality of the songwriting which gives it a distinctive edge.
12: SAULT – 11 (Forever Living Originals)
It’s difficult to keep up with, let alone write about the enigmatic, 2020 AEB Album Of The Year winners, SAULT, as they spring things on us without much notice or hardly any promotion or advertising. And apart from the indefatigable Inflo on production duties they’ve never confirmed who actually IS in the group. So, when they released their critically well-received (I played it once – it was VERY hard work…) choral/ classical album in April, I assumed that would be it for the year. Wrong. On 1st November and completely out of the blue, 5 more new albums appeared (11, Aiir, Earth, Today & Tomorrow, Untitled (God)). “11” is the most consistent and listenable of the bunch with their trademark funky vibe (“Glory”), afrobeat (“Together”), jazzy soul (“Fight For Love”) and disco (“Higher”) all joining forces with the other 7 groove-heavy tracks to form another highly rewarding and future-facing set from the most interesting and prolific act around.
11: SUEDE – Autofiction (BMG)
After their disappointing 2018 album “The Blue Hour”, I can report that Suede are back on track with “Autofiction” – their most Suede-sounding album since 1996’s “Coming Up”. From the moment the insistent guitar and drum intro of the rousing opening track “She Still Leads me On” kicks in you suspect things are going to be ok, but after Brett sings “when I think of all the things my mother said” you have absolutely no doubt they are! Although the album is largely upbeat and guitar-driven, I have a real soft spot for the bands’ more plaintive moments, and with the emotive “Drive Myself Home” they haven’t let me down – it’s an atmospheric beauty of a song. Sadly, I haven’t got enough room here to tell you about every track so you’ll just have to trust me that Autofiction is right up there with their best records
10: PANDA BEAR & SONIC BOOM – Reset (Domino)
To help them assemble the various parts of their hugely enjoyable new album, “Reset”, it appears that Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox from Animal Collective) and Sonic Boom (aka Peter Kember from Sonic Boom) went on a 1950s and 60s crate-digging extravaganza. As a listener, picking out the samples and influences these 2 purveyors of sunny psychedelia have weaved and reimagined into the album’s 9 electronically enhanced tracks, is nearly as much fun as the listening experience itself. You’ve got bits of Buddy Holly rubbing sonic shoulders with Eddie Cochran, The Drifters and Love whilst snippets of The Beach Boys drift by along with a Randy & The Rainbows riff here and an Everly Brothers harmony there. Finally, here’s your starter for 10: pick out the glorious nuggets from “Edge Of The Edge”, “Gettin’ To The Point”, and “Go On”.
9: TEARS FOR FEARS – The Tipping Point (Concord)
Tears For Fears’ No.2 UK charting 7th studio album, “The Tipping Point”, is their 1st in over 18 years, and yet, despite this lengthy hiatus, they’ve returned with a fine record that sounds every bit as good as anything they recorded in their 1980s heyday. After their well-documented and bitter split over 30 years ago (Curt) Smith and especially (Roland) Orzabal went through some torrid times before their reconciliation some 10 years later. And it’s their lives (not always well/happily) lived that informs a good chunk of the album’s subject matter – not least the poignant, Beatle-ish “Please Be Happy”, about Orzabal’s late wife’s tragic battle with alcoholism. It’s not all melancholic and reflective though, the anthemic TFF of old roar into life on the title track and the building, atmospheric “Masterplan”. Unlike some of the talentless chancers from the 80s trying to cash in on an ill-advised “comeback”, it’s a pleasure to welcome these 2 back into the intelligent-pop fold.
8: SYLVIE – Sylvie (Full Time Hobby)
Uninteresting fact: at 28 minutes and 30 seconds, the 7 tracks that make up “Sylvie” form the shortest album to ever grace the AEB Top 10. Interesting fact: it’s the 2nd album in this year’s Top 30 featuring a band formed by Ben Schwab of Drugdealer fame. And it’s a beautiful (if short) thing; a paean to the great sun-drenched Laurel Canyon classics of the early 1970s. If you’re longing for warmer days and a much-needed boost of Vitamin D, lay back, put your feet up on a comfy pouffe and wallow in the gorgeousness of pedal steel and the lushest, dreamy harmonies wafting over you like a warm Santa Ana breeze. And to top it all off, the guest vocalists Sam Burton and Marina Allen complement the laid-back mood to perfection. Now grab your pouffe, relax and check out the fabulousness of “Further Down The Road” and “Shooting Star”.
7: ELI PAPERBOY REED – Down Every Road (Yep Roc)
When it was announced that for his 7th studio album, powerful-voiced young soul man Eli “Paperboy Reed was going to cover the work of country legend Merle Haggard, I took a metaphorical deep breath and wished him all the best with that particularly bold task. But I needn’t have worried, ‘cos “Down Every Road” is easily his best album yet. No, he didn’t write the songs, but he interprets them with his own wonderful southern-soul style – a style that old Merle would surely have been proud to have endorsed. His band, especially the horn section, are as tight as the proverbial gnats bottom and add heft to the upbeat numbers like “It’s Not Love, But It’s Not Bad” and warmth to the ballads like “If We Make It Through December”. If you’re one of those heathens (like Mrs EggBox) who insist they hate country music, maybe give this a listen and prepare to be amazed
6: FATHER JOHN MISTY – Chloe & The Next 20th Century (Sub Pop)
Former AEB Album Of The Year winner (“I Love You Honey Bear” – 2015) Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty) is back in my Top 30 again (for the 4th time no less) with his 5th record as FJM, Chloe & The Next 20th Century. This time, one of the greatest “story” songwriters of all time (right up on the top table with Randy Newman) has delivered an album full of lush orchestral beauty with a swinging, jazzy big-band air reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age; prime example “Funny Girl”. It’s also an album about love; albeit never straightforward love. His songs’ characters are often portrayed in bizarre/ tragic/ hilarious situations – and often all 3, as in the fantastic, epic album closer “The Next 20th Century” (read the lyrics while you’re watching the video as he delivers a literary masterclass). In other news… I have an apology to make to Mr T as, despite being a huge fan of his music, I’ve always thought of him as an irascible, difficult, temperamental curmudgeon. However, having seen him perform live earlier in the year in the intimate setting of St. George’s, Bristol, with just a guitar and piano accompaniment, I’m so happy to announce that he was a gentleman: charming, self-deprecating, and very funny. A wonderful evening was had by all, including the great man I suspect.
5: WEYES BLOOD – And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow (Sub Pop)
Natalie Mering (AKA Weyes Blood) graced the 2019 AEB Top 30 at No.9 with the sublime “Titanic Rising”. Now firmly established as one of America’s foremost singer-songwriters, her 5th album, “And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow” is her best, most consistent body of work so far. For the uninitiated, if you dig Joni Mitchell/ Aimee Mann/ Karen Carpenter (to name but 3), I’m sure you’ll find much to love about Weyes Blood, and this album is as good a starting place to discover her flourishing talents as any. Like Josh Tillman, Mering is an engaging, introspective storyteller but eschews his humour and absurdity in favour of a more spiritual and romantic approach to love, loss and the human condition. No better is this point illustrated than in my track of the year, the exquisite, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody” or the meditative, achingly beautiful, “God Turned Me Into A Flower”.
4: THEE SACRED SOULS – Thee Sacred Souls (Daptone)
There’s “retro-soul” and then there’s “retro-soul” – the outstanding San Diego trio Thee Sacred Souls most certainly fall into the latter camp. So, because I’m lazy, and their biographer is way more literate than I, this review is lifted directly from the band’s website: “”Thee Sacred Souls” is a warm and textured record, mixing the easygoing grace of sweet ’60s soul with the grit and groove of early ’70s R&B, and the performances are utterly intoxicating, with (lead singer, Josh) Lane’s weightless vocals anchored by the rhythm section’s deep pocket and infectious chemistry. Hints of Chicano, Philly, Chicago, Memphis, and even Panama soul turn up here, and while it’s tempting to toss around labels like “retro” with a deliberately analogue collection like this, there’s also something distinctly modern about the band that defies easy categorisation, a rawness and sincerity that transcends time and place”. See, I told you! Anyway, it’s an utterly brilliant debut and here, for your listening pleasure, are just 2 of the 12 reasons why: “Easier Said Than Done” and “Can I Call You Rose”.
3: STONE FOUNDATION – Outside Looking In (100%)
There isn’t enough room here for me to bang on about how much respect I have for these guys and the obvious love they have for their craft. Celebrating their 25th year together in 2023 (a fantastic documentary about them came out on DVD in 2022 – see details here), they tour relentlessly (their gig at KOKO in November was out of this world), selflessly interact with their loyal (and growing) fanbase on social media and at their shows, and continue to release superb new music. For me, “Outside Looking In” (their 4th consecutive Top 40 UK album, and the follow-up to 2020s AEB No.4 charting “Is Love Enough”) is their best, most consistent record yet. From the soulful album opener “Soon You’ll Return” through the funky title track (with its large nod to Talking Heads) and onwards to “Now That I Want You Back” – their fine collaboration with disco legend, Melba Moore, the songwriting and musicianship is first-class. My personal favourite track from the album is “Feel The Colours” which, intentionally or not, has a fabulous sax break airlifted out of Bowie’s “Young Americans”. So, if you haven’t hopped aboard the Stone Foundation love train yet, do yourself a big favour and buy a ticket as soon as possible – I guarantee they’ll appreciate it, and knowing them, will probably thank you in person at some point.
2: MICHAEL HEAD & THE RED ELASTIC BAND – Dear Scott (Modern Sky UK)
Although I strongly suspect he doesn’t realise it, the unassuming Mick Head is a National Treasure. Liverpool has produced many exceptional songwriters over the years (you might be able to name a couple) and MH is right up there with the best of them. As the main man in The Pale Fountains, Shack and The Strands he’s been writing and recording lyrical, melodic songs for nearly 40 years, and yet, somehow, still remains a bit of a cult hero rather than a well-known, mainstream troubadour. And for many reasons, I reckon he probably likes it that way. The inspiration for the Bill Ryder Jones produced “Dear Scott” (the follow-up to 2017s “Adios Senor Pussycat” – AEB No.7) came from a postcard the great American writer F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote to himself when he was down on his luck and struggling for recognition, and given Head’s often self-destructive past, it’s easy to see why this resonated with him. The 12 songs that make up the album are brimming with North (Western) soul, not least the heartrending, Motown-esque “Broken Beauty” – a co-write with his daughter, Alice. Other high points on an album that already occupies a considerably lofty position are: “Kismet” – a song which finds Head at his poetic best, describing in inimitable terms a story about fate, an out-of-charge mobile phone, and the kindness of strangers; the Bacharach flavoured “American Kid” about an old (secretly trans) friend from Kirby and his obsession with Americana, and the melancholic beauty of “Fluke” in which our bard narrates an (imagined?) hallucinatory trip around Hollywood, or as he calls it “the boulevard of fractured dreams”. I’m going to finish this mini-review with the last sentence from my appraisal of his previous record back in 2017. And even if I do say it myself, I reckon these words still stand up exceptionally well! “Let’s hope that “Adios Senor Pussycat” is the herald of a golden new Mick Head era because when people keep citing Ed Sheeran as a great songwriter, you know that this man’s hugely talented presence is desperately needed”. Now go and buy all his records!
1: MAMAS GUN – Cure The Jones (Candelion)
In an odd move, the winners of this year’s coveted Acoustic Egg Box Album Of The Year are getting a relatively short review. Why? With the greatest respect, no matter how skilful I or anyone else writing about music is, all the finest, most expressive words in the world will never replace the experience of actually hearing the records being gushed over. For this reason, I won’t spend too long lavishing praise on UK-based soul band Mamas Gun and their fabulous 5th studio album “Cure The Jones”, because a) you probably won’t have heard of them and b) like me, you HAVE to “discover” them for yourselves. Fronted by songwriter and silken-voiced singer Andy Platts (also of Young Gun Silver Fox renown) and despite (ridiculously) never troubling the British mainstream charts, this 5 piece band have been active since 2008. I own their previous records and, although they are decent pop/soul affairs (the last one being 2018’s “Golden Days”), nothing could have prepared me for this amazing reincarnation 5 years later. From the moment the first, soulful notes of album opener “When You Stole The Sun From The Sky” (live from Karma Studios version here) embrace you with a warm hug, you hope you’re in for a treat. And by the time the Bill Withers channelling 2nd track “Looking For Moses” has finished, you absolutely know you are! Without ever becoming parodic, the mood throughout “Cure The Jones” has a distinctly 1970s Philly feel to it, although there are nods to the aforementioned Mr Withers, Heatwave and even Marvin, as heard on the title track. As I’ve already mentioned, in the case of a (forgive me gents) relatively unknown act, my words can only lead you so far, so I genuinely hope the tracks I’ve highlighted here will encourage you to play (and buy) this brilliant album – especially as they’re a British soul outfit who are every bit as good as their American cousins.