The Day I Met….Mark Knopfler

Way back in the olden days when you had to sell more than a hundred singles to get to number one, album sales were still in rude health and the internet was just a twinkle in most people’s eyes, I started work as a Sales Rep for PolyGram Records. Believe me, for someone who was (and still is) obsessed with music, this was nothing short of the dream ticket and to coin a phrase, I felt like the proverbial pig in shit. It was 1990, the year in which Thatcher resigned, Mandela was freed, West Germany won the World Cup and Bruce Forsyth was celebrating only his 62nd birthday. It was also the year that I had a surreal meeting with Mark Knopfler. At the time, he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world, largely due to the phenomenal success of Dire Straits’ previous 30 million selling release, “Brothers In Arms” which was, incidentally, the first album to sell a million copies on CD 

I had only been with the company a few weeks when the sales team was invited to the famous Metropolis Recording Studios in Chiswick, West London, for an advance playback of the upcoming Notting Hillbillies album, “Missing…Presumed Having A Good Time”

 The Notting Hillbillies were, to all intents and purposes, Knopfler’s country-rock side project; a band also comprising accomplished musicians, Brendan Croker, Steve Phillips and Guy Fletcher – names I wasn’t even remotely familiar with. However, as a West Country soul-boy whose only previous claim to fame was meeting a man who once came third in the National Life Insurance Sales Awards, whilst working for my previous employer, The Prudential, these guys were obviously rock-gods and I didn’t much care that I’d not heard of them. I also didn’t much care that I’d recently referred to Dire Straits as Dire-reah or that “country-rock” was about as interesting to me as 18th-century Russian literature – I was getting paid to go to and meet a bona fide pop star and so suddenly I was a massive fan…..

What exactly is the protocol for meeting the rich and famous from the showbiz world? In the 15 years I worked in those circles, I never really found out, but as a general rule of thumb, I discovered that, although there were a handful of notable exceptions,  the bigger the star the more charming and pleasant they were and at 6pm on this cold winter evening that premise was about to be tested for the very first time.

The beautiful, black, Porsche roared into the parking lot at a rate of knots, driven by someone who was obviously exhilarated by speed – I subsequently discovered that Knopfler has a collection of classic sports cars which he likes to race. Much to my surprise there was no advance party of make up girls, an entourage of heavily armed bodyguards or even a manager smoking a fat cigar, just a lone, slightly dishevelled, regular looking bloke speaking in a soft Mid-Atlantic Tyne & Wear accent – albeit emerging from the brand new, privately number-plated car of my dreams!

After some small talk about the weather, we were ushered inside to the warmth of the studio and formally introduced to my new friend, Mark, who had already taken the mickey out of my Somerset burr but self deprecatingly admitted that his own regionally accented speaking voice hadn’t stopped him singing like a native New Yorker! The new album was then presented by it’s leading performer and whilst listening, drinks and snacks were served as we got to spend a good hour or so with him discussing the making of the record and also some of the highlights of his Dire Straits’ career.

The evening sped by and it was after we had said our goodbyes that Knopfler turned to ME and asked where the loo was. I didn’t want to appear rude so pointed to a door on the lower level of the building that looked like it could be the toilet, although worryingly I wasn’t 100% sure. My eyes followed him down the stairs and then watched, mortified, as Mark Knopfler, world superstar and multi-million selling recording artist opened the door to the room I had decided “looked” like a toilet where was greeted by the clattering of brooms and buckets due to the fact that I had given him directions to a rather overfilled cleaning cupboard. I froze in horror as the room went quiet bar a few muffled sniggers. It was at this point that I expected to be looking for another job in the morning, but this engaging, witty man looked up to where I was stood and laughingly shouted the words that are indelibly imprinted in my brain:

“Nice one! If I’d known calling you a yokel was going to piss you off that much I’d have asked one of your mates where the crapper was”


ALBUM REVIEW: Childhood – Universal High (Marathon Artists)

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: “Lacuna”, the 2014 debut album from South London’s Childhood, was NOT a bad record. However, with nods to Puressence and the House of Love here, Toy and Temples there and several others of that broad ilk in between, the major problem that Childhood had was being a composite of many other indie guitar bands of the past 25 years. Writing decent songs and being competent musicians is one thing, but if the noise you’re making is derivative of your already established peers, you need be something special to stand out, and despite the album containing two excellent singles in the baggyish Stone Roses channelling “Blue Velvet” and the soaring, anthemic “Solemn Skies”, I’m not entirely sure that they managed it.

The great news is that on their exceptional new album, “Universal High”, they haven’t just repeated the same formula hoping that it would somehow attract a bigger audience the second-time around, they’ve reinvented themselves so completely that, whilst listening to these ten gloriously sunny pop/soul tracks, you might well be forgiven for thinking that there are two bands called Childhood – with this one being the far superior version!

Back in June, whilst we were enjoying the rarity of warm, sunny day in the UK, I heard what sounded like a classic, but unfamiliar, 70’s soul number drifting mellifluously from the radio. With shades of Roy Ayers and the Young Rascals plus a soaring falsetto that Curtis Mayfield would have approved of, I was excited to know who this new old band was. It came as something of a surprise then when it turned out that the track I’d just enjoyed, the groovy, summer swoon that is “California Light”, was recorded by a British act – not only that, a British act who only three years previously were indie-rock also-rans and who had seemingly disappeared from the radar.

In Ben Romans-Hopcraft, Childhood now have a versatile lead singer whose new-found style lends itself perfectly to the songs on Universal High; an album which, although very much a product of 2017 with more recent touchstones being the electro-poppy psychedelia of Tame Impala, MGMT, B.C. Camplight or Mac DeMarco, wears its love of 70’s/ early 80’s soul and disco very much on its sleeve. Opening track “AMD” tips a nod to the Isleys, “Cameo” might be the best song Imagination never recorded and Kool & The Gang’s classic, synth-heavy instrumental, “Summer Madness” pervades several tracks with its woozy groove. Elsewhere the summery theme continues with one of the many album stand-outs, the bouncy sing-along “Don’t Have Me Back”, with its gorgeous Beach Boys infused melody, complete with sax solo and a beat borrowed from the Motown canon.

Overall then, whilst Lacuna was certainly an accomplished record, it got lost in a sea of sameness. Universal High, on the other hand, is the sound of a young band who, even though the album’s influences are many, have found a sound of their own that pays tribute and reinvents their inspirations rather than getting bogged down and swamped by them. All we need now is for the rest of the world to wake up and discover Childhood too because if they come back in three years’ time reinvented as a heavy metal combo, my review will be far shorter………….

ALBUM REVIEW: Judy Dyble/ Andy Lewis – Summer Dancing (Acid Jazz)

Take an erudite, semi-retired ex-librarian who was the original, crystalline voiced singer in Fairport Convention, a member of pre King Crimson band Giles, Giles & Fripp, and also one half of critically acclaimed but short-lived folk duo Trader Horn; put her in a recording studio with an eclectic soul/ funk DJ who is also a solo recording artist, a producer, and a bass-player with Paul Weller’s band; add a generous dusting of sunny psychedelia and a pinch or two of gently burbling synths to a collection of richly textured, pastoral, occasionally elegiac songs and voila you have Summer Dancing – the beguiling new Acid Jazz release from Judy Dyble/ Andy Lewis.

Although on paper the most unlikely of bedfellows, Dyble with her cut-glass almost RP vocal style and Lewis with his deft, retro-modern production values (with the aid of Japanese hand drums, timbales, glockenspiels and a vintage Optigan of course…..) have somehow forged a fertile alliance. Due to the subtle lysergic currents, especially evident on album opener and first single He Said/ I Said (below), swirling through many of the fourteen tracks, the spirit of 1967’s “Summer of Love” is never far away, which is especially serendipitous as earlier this month Dyble performed at Cropredy with The Band of Perfect Strangers as part of Fairport Convention’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.

As a whole, but especially amongst the bucolic swoon of Up The Hill and Saint Etienne-esque paean to the capital, A Net Of Memories (London) (complete with travel report!), the album often evokes memories of an imagined past when life was simpler, summers were warmer, birdsong was

louder, bees were buzzier and lazy, hazy holidays were never far away. Other themes of the human condition are addressed; the intensity and power of love in the hypnotic, A Message; insomnia, in the woozy, dreamlike, Night Of A Thousand Hours (below); and ageing in the poignant and heartfelt Tired Bones “now the smell of canvas fills my nose, as they count me out in old-mans clothes, when the fight has all but gone from tired bones”. For me though, the highlight of an album that contains barely a wasted note, let alone a duff track, is the beautiful, yearning love song, No Words.

Although it’s difficult to align this exceptional collection of songs to anything else currently swirling around the musical ether, if you find them as captivating as I have, you might also enjoy the last couple of releases by legendary British singer/ songwriter Bill Fay who inexplicably, before his masterful resurgence in 2012 with the stunning Life Is People and follow-up, Who Is The Sender, in 2015, decided to “retire” for forty-one years. Once you’ve fallen in love with Bill’s work, you can then move on to Californian, Linda Perhacs who, after releasing the influential but poorly selling Parallelograms in 1970, like Bill, thought she’d also have a little rest and “retired” from music for an even more staggering forty-four years! However, it was well worth the wait as in 2014 she gave us the incredibly beautiful psych-folk opus, The Soul Of All Natural Things.

Anyway, I digress. If, as I suspect, due to the fact that you’re reading this blog, you really are a discerning music lover, Summer Dancing is a bona fide, genre-spanning classic which absolutely all of you MUST hear; I will even go so far as to say that with four months of 2017 still remaining, if there’s a better record released this year, I’ll happily eat my trousers.

ALBUM REVIEW: Pete Fij/ Terry Bickers – We Are Millionaires (Broadcast Recordings)

Pete Fij and Terry Bickers are best known as the lead-singer in Adorable and the guitarist in The House Of Love respectively. Both bands had varying degrees of success on the (then) relatively unknown Creation label in the late 80’s and early 90’s and although critically lauded in the press and touted as the next big thing(s), by the mid 90’s both men were treading different musical paths. As Pete Fij/ Terry Bickers, they first started writing and playing low key gigs together in 2009 although it wasn’t until 2014 that the journey started in earnest when they released “Broken Heart Surgery” – their critically acclaimed debut album.

If it really is true that the greatest source of songwriting material is derived from the pain of a broken love-affair, on the evidence of their deliciously maudlin second LP, “We Are Millionaires”, these two gents haven’t half been through the wringer! However, despite the melancholic tone that Fij’s careworn vocal style sets, the melodies throughout are beautiful, and despite their downbeat nature at times, the superbly crafted lyrics often display plenty of wry, ironic, humour.

Although it would be difficult to describe any of the songs on “We Are Millionaires” as happy, there are light moments, notably on album opener “Let’s Get Lost Together”; the Lee Hazlewood channelling, “Waking Up” and also, (eventually!) during the closing track “Sometime Soon” in which, over Bickers’ Twin Peaks style twang, a weary Fij declares that “everything will be OK”. Other highlights include the catchy, string-drenched opening single “Love’s Going To Get You”; the haunting late-night shimmer of the album’s title track; Bond theme in waiting “If The World Is All We Have” and the poignant “I Love You”, in which Fij pleads “I love you, is it really so hard to say, it doesn’t matter if it’s not true, just say it to me anyway”.

The undoubted charm of this fine record lies is in its lush, richly textured arrangements combined with quirky takes on love, loss and redemption – universal themes that have been given a fresh perspective by these two massively underrated musicians. Fans of Lloyd Cole, Richard Hawley, I Am Kloot, Lee Hazlewood, The Libertines et al will find much to love here, although if there was any justice in the world, Pete Fij and Terry Bickers would already be on that list.

LIVE: Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds – Glastonbury Abbey Extravaganza, 5th August 2017

After the torrential downpours and thunderstorms that crossed the region earlier in the day, it was at a chilly, but mercifully dry and sunny Glastonbury Abbey that I witnessed something as melancholic and sad as it was beautiful and touching, when Brian Wilson and his band rolled into town to perform one of the greatest albums ever made on the latest leg of their Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary tour.

Glastonbury Abbey grounds – pre-show

The fact that Wilson is now 75 and embarking on this run of global dates is exceptional in itself, the fact that he is now 75 with a well documented lifelong history of mental illness, drug addiction and crippling self-doubt behind him renders this feat even more remarkable.

The set was split into three parts; well-known hits, the full Pet Sounds album, more hits to finish – and make no mistake, despite the pathos unravelling before our eyes, it was still rollicking good fun and great to hear these timeless songs, especially being performed in such a beautiful setting.

A supremely talented band containing original Beach Boy Al Jardine, the ebullient, occasional member, Blondie Chaplin, and Jardine’s son, Matt, whose exceptional voice effortlessly took over most of what would have been Wilson’s parts, gave everything the appreciative audience could have hoped for. However….. I constantly found myself wondering, with the obviously struggling maestro looking vulnerable, confused and at times almost missing in action, especially during his tear-inducing, barely coherent stab at the beautiful “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, whether some things would have been better off left at the “great idea” stage and then quietly forgotten.

As glad and privileged that I feel having got to see what will almost certainly be Wilson’s last ever dates in the UK, I left the venue after their final song, the hugely popular Beach Boys singalong hit, “Fun, Fun, Fun” with the ironic yet heartbreaking thought that this evening may have been about as far from fun for the great man as it was possible to get

The Day I Met……..Cathy Dennis (Among Others!)

Snapped at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton during the 1991 PolyGram Autumn Conference, this photo depicts the sheer delight on the lovely singer, and mega-successful songwriter, Cathy Dennis’s face at being surrounded by the “care in the community” sales team (that’s me, 2nd right).

Did she want to touch any of us all night long? My professional integrity is still intact so it would be wrong of me to say, but with the choice on offer, you have to admit that it must have been virtually impossible for her to resist………

The tales I could tell of this particular event would probably fill a book, however, talking to Bob Geldof in a ridiculous Irish accent, to be sure, witnessing a sales rep fighting with Wet Wet Wet’s perennial bell-end, Marti Pellow, in a corridor and asking scary heavy rocker Glenn Danzig if he would “like to wrestle later” before running off clucking like a chicken, are a few of the highlights.

When in Rome……….

2016 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part One – No’s 20-11)

Here it is then, the, ahem, eagerly anticipated Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year. Despite there being some great records released during 2016, it was a forgettable year for many reasons, not least for the fact that we saw the untimely deaths of some true musical legends, and in my book at least, the truest and most legendary of them all, David Bowie. However, let’s look on the bright side, at least the year remained largely Sam Smith free…………..

20: GREGORY PORTER – Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note)      The follow-up to 2013’s platinum-selling “Liquid Spirit” sees Gregory Porter eschew some of his overtly jazz-based compositions for an altogether more soulful and at times funky set. The exceptional voice is still, first and foremost, his biggest asset, but for those of you put off by the “j” word, start with the album’s lead single “Steam” and ease yourself into what is a very rewarding listen.

19: NICK WATERHOUSE – Never Twice (Innovative Leisure)      The third album from Nick Waterhouse, California’s blue-eyed soul/ R&B revivalist sees him ploughing a familiar, but increasingly confident and assured retro-furrow, throughout his best set of songs yet. Although late 50’s/ early 60’s influences abound, “Katchi”, a funky duet with kindred spirit Leon Bridges sounds modern and fresh – he also covers Dylan’s “Baby I’m In The Mood For You” with aplomb.

18: THE LAST SHADOW PUPPETS – Everything You’ve Come To Expect (Domino)                                                                              Although there are still welcome echoes of the Scott Walker-esque baroque orchestral musings so evident on their superb 2008 debut The Age Of The Understatement, they’ve been toned down somewhat in favour of a more straightforward, but still melodically strong, lyrically smart and lushly produced set of solid pop songs.

17: THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE – Third World Pyramid (A Recordings)                                                                      The 15th album since BJM’s early 90’s formation stands proudly beside their best work but for those of you still unaware of them, the title of the album’s best track “Like Describing Colors To A Blind Man On Acid” is all you need to know! Great tunes, nods to psych era Beatles, a hypnotic 9-minute version of Nina Simone’s “Assignment Song” included, “Third World Pyramid” is a triumphant, late-career delight!

16: CHARLES BRADLEY – Changes (Daptone)                                    The Screaming Eagle of Soul landed his third LP in 2016 and, as bonkers as it sounds, chose a 1972 Black Sabbath cover as the lead single and album title. The fact is though that it was far from bonkers, it was an inspired choice taken to a new level by a man who sweats soul from every pore. The whole 11 track album is an emotional, passionate tour de force that old JB himself would have been proud of.

15: WHYTE HORSES – Pop Or Not (CRC)                                      When you stuff your 17 track debut full of seemingly jarring ideas and sounds there’s a chance that you risk a lack of identity. However, lead Horse and music obsessive Dom Thomas has managed to create a whole very much greater than its sunny psych, electronica, baggy, acid house, Brazilian The Go! Team and Stone Roses parts! In “The Snowfalls” they also released one of the tracks of the year.

14: WHITNEY – Light Upon The Lake (Secretly Canadian)  Winsome, melancholic, pastoral, dreamy – yep, this debut is all of these things but it’s also so much more. The 10 tracks weigh in at just over 30 minutes but in that short time you are transported to a sunny place, maybe even Laurel Canyon, where a stoned Neil Young is woozily joined by “Ventura Highway” era America, plus added atmospheric trumpet flourishes. Put this on and chill the fuck out.

13: MAVIS STAPLES – Livin’ On A High Note (Anti)                          After Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced her 2 previous efforts, the honour this time is bestowed on singer/ songwriter M Ward who has excelled in bringing out the best in our Mave’s ultra-soulful, bourbon soaked vocal delivery. Songwriting credits go to luminaries including Valerie June, Ben Harper, Justin Vernon, Aloe Blacc and Nick Cave with the album’s most affecting track “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”.

12: ARVIDSON & BUTTERFLIES – Arvidson & Butterflies (Kool Kat Music)                                                                                      Although new to me, Sweden’s Roger Arvidson is a veteran of the Gothenburg music scene and when his band, Arvidson & Butterflies, can produce power-pop anthems this good, the rest of you need to know about them too! Over the course of these 12 hummable Beatles, Byrds, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub and Tom Petty influenced gems, this album became one of 2016’s best musical surprises.

11: TRASHCHAN SINATRAS – Wild Pendulum (Red River)          26 years on from debut LP “Cake”, Scotland’s woefully underrated Trashcan Sinatras gave us “Wild Pendulum”. Although by far the most melodic and tuneful album in my list, labelling it as “jangle-pop” would be doing them a huge disservice. So, for an idea of what to expect, go straight to “Best Days On Earth”, a masterful slab of perfect pop that Aztec Camera or Prefab Sprout would be proud to call their own.

2016 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part Two – No’s 10-1)

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning, in no particular order, the albums that on another day with a fair wind behind could have made it into the Top 20; FRENCH BOUTIK – Front Pop, C DUNCAN – The Midnight Sun, LEONARD COHEN – You Want It Darker, MADNESS – Can’t Touch Us Now, LAMBCHOP – Flotus, ED HARCOURT – Furnaces, THE CORAL – The Distance Between Us, THE HOSTS – Moon, DEXY’S – Let The Record Show, WHITE DENIM – Stiff, STEVE MASON – Meet The Humans, ABC – The Lexicon Of Love II, ELI PAPERBOY REED – My Way Home, RICHARD ASHCROFT – These People, SUEDE – Night Thoughts, THE SENIOR SERVICE – The Girl In The Glass Case.

10: KUTIMAN – 6AM (Siyal Music)                                              According to press articles, Kutiman (Israeli multi-instrumentalist/ producer Ophir Kutiel) is a “psychedelic funk architect” and although not my words, it’s an epithet that fits like a glove. On some tracks we get spaghetti-western guitars, on others, subtle Middle Eastern influences. In places, it’s jazzy, funky and cool, in others, psych-rock elements appear. Put it all together though and you have a superb genre-mashing listen!

9: DAVID BOWIE – Blackstar (Columbia)                                          In light of his death, it would be easy for me to write gushingly about the final record from my musical hero irrespective of how good or bad it was, however, “Blackstar”, whilst not being his best ever record certainly sits up there alongside them. Bowie’s bravery in making this enigmatic and, in hindsight, extremely moving album, knowing it would be his last, is a testament to an artist who pushed boundaries, broke the rules and single-handedly redefined rock-stardom. RIP

8: VAN MORRISON – Keep Me Singing (Caroline)                        Whilst enjoying his 70th year, Van Morrison released his 36th studio album and, as I have the other 35, in my opinion, it’s his best since 1991’s “Hymns To The Silence”. In “Keep Me Singing” the (occasionally) hoary old goat has, it appears, mellowed like a fine wine, as this set of 12 songs are as warm, melancholy and reflective as anything he’s ever released. Be warned though, if you’re not already a fan, this album probably won’t change your mind.

7: THE JAMES HUNTER SIX – Hold On (Daptone)                              From the moment the funky Hammond and sax kicks in seconds into the album’s opener “If That Don’t Tell You” to the jazzy piano and brass fade on closing track “In The Dark”, this superb, 30 minute, 10 track set from one of the best R&B vocalists (and his shit-hot band!) around, is a soul fan’s delight with shades of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Chuck Jackson et al permeating throughout. White, middle-aged British men never sounded so damn groovy!

6: MAN & THE ECHO – Man & The Echo (1965 Records)                I’d not even heard of Man & The Echo until November when Steve Lamacq played “Operation Margarine”, their wonderfully titled nod to 70’s soul, on his 6 Music show, but since then I’ve listened to this brilliant album almost daily. Contained within are elements of the Style Council, The Divine Comedy, Monkeys of both the Blow and Arctic variety, Ian Dury and even Madness in places. Lyrically quirky, politically astute and supremely tuneful but always massive fun and catchy as hell.

5: WILLIAM BELL – This Is Where I Live (Stax)                            William Bell is an indisputable Southern Soul legend who started out way back in 1961 on the original Stax label. Now 76 and recording on the rejuvenated Stax for the first time in 40 years, he has made one of the best albums of his career. Stand-outs for me are the ballads “The House Always Wins”, “The Three Of Me” and the title track, plus a superb, swampy version of his own best-known song “Born Under A Bad Sign”. This is a must-have record for any discerning soul-music fan.

4: THE JUNIPERS – Red Bouquet Fair (Sugarbush Records)      The Junipers are from Leicester and for the second time this year Leicester has something to be immensely proud of, as, like a certain Mr Ranieri, “Red Bouquet Fair” is exceptional! This is an album as sun-drenched as a Californian summer and as comforting as your favourite pillow. Bathed in shimmering psychedelic instrumentation beneath Robyn Gibson’s dreamy, easy on the ear vocals, the 12 tracks that make up this record are THE perfect antidote to the winter blues. Buy it!

3: TEENAGE FANCLUB – Here (Merge)                                          Teenage Fanclub are another band on my list who are now making some of their best music over 25 years into their career. Power-pop opening track “I’m In Love” was one of the singles of the year, “Steady State”, “I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive” and album closer “Connected To Life” are as immersive and dreamy as anything they’ve ever recorded whilst “I Have Nothing More To Say” and “Live In The Moment” are TFC at peak flow. This is quite possibly their best ever album.

2: THE MONKEES – Good Times (Rhino)                                          Take a band who haven’t released anything since 1996, who are in their 50th year, are fronted by a septuagenarian, ask “modern” pop-stars to write songs for them and it’s going to be as cringeworthy as Madonna shagging Bieber, right? Wrong – it’s fucking brilliant! The opening 5 tracks, including the brilliant Andy Partridge composed and virtually perfect pop record “Here Comes the Summer” could be lifted from any album in their 1960’s heyday, “Me & Magdalena” from the pen of Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is stunning, Michael Nesmith’s “I Know What I Know” is so moving that it made me cry, “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” by Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher is, well, what you would expect a Paul Weller/ Noel Gallagher track sung by The Monkees to sound like, and we even get a lead vocal from the now sadly departed Davy Jones on the re-recorded 1967 original “Love To Love. This is an album that EVERYONE who loves music should own as, even if you’ve never heard of The Monkees or the songwriters that worked on it, Good Times is a bona-fide pop masterpiece.

1: MICHAEL KIWANUKA – Love & Hate (Polydor)                          In 2012, the then 25-year-old Michael Kiwanuka released one of my favourite albums of the year with his outrageously mature folk/ soul debut “Home Again”. In 2016 he has gone one better and released THE best album of the year in Love & Hate. When opening single, the brilliantly funky “Black Man In A White World” was released at the start of 2016, Kiwanuka described it as “slave music” and when he sings “I’m In Love, But I’m Still Sad/ I Found Peace But I’m Not Glad” you really do feel the inner turmoil regarding his ethnicity. This sentiment plus his own sense of insecurity is a nagging thread throughout the 10 tracks of what is an immensely personal record. The wonderful 10-minute opener, “Cold Little Heart” is a stunning piece of work and almost 2 tracks in one with the opening 5 minutes redolent of a Pink Floyd classic before it morphs into a soulful, handclap-led “proper” song with full orchestral backing and mournful guitar. The 7-minute title track follows a similar path to “Cold Little Heart” and once again, despite its length, draws you in with the sheer insistence of a fantastic arrangement. The album’s closing track, the beautiful ballad, “The Final Frame”, possibly gives you a real insight into Kiwanuka’s state of mind when he recorded the album and the lines “And we can’t pretend, we’re reaching the end, it’s true/ love’s been a strain, a strain on my heart” reveals that he may have suffered the pain of a broken relationship. Overall, and for those of you may not know this exceptional record or artist yet, the touchstones are Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers with a little Gil Scott-Heron thrown in for good measure. Of course, it always helps when you get to share 5 minutes with the singer of your favourite album of the year after a great show last October at The Phoenix in Exeter – especially when he then turns out to be the most charming and humble man you could wish to meet. Great work indeed sir and very much looking forward to seeing you in Bristol in 2017!

2015 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part Two – No’s 10-1)

It’s here! The Acoustic Egg Box Top 10 favourite album of 2015 as compiled by a bloke who has too much time on his hands and considers editing and grammar to be the unnecessary enemy of a poor vocabulary. Joking aside, if anyone reading this blog decides to go out and buy one of these albums as a result of doing so, I’ll be a happy man, as these talented musicians deserve all the support they can get. Oh yes, and if anyone wants to complain that I have a joint No.1 then they can write to my publisher.

10: MERCURY REV – The Light In You (Bella Union)           Another comeback album in my Top 20. This time only a seven-year gap, but the itch has more than been scratched with this set of beautifully arranged and mesmerising songs – no more so than on the six-minute orchestrally lush mini-epic “Central Park East”. Poppier track “Are You Ready?” breaks things up a little, but the sweeping late 60’s psychedelic feel permeates this whole glorious affair.

9: SAUN & STARR – Look Closer (Daptone)                              Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings backing singers have made the best soul album of the year and are now quite deservedly a bona fide act in their own right. This album was my soundtrack to summer 2015 with its old school retro vibe and sunny disposition rendering it hard not to love. Standout tracks are Mr Teddy, Sunshine (You’re Blowin’ My Cool) and Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah. Timeless cool

8: NATALIE PRASS – Natalie Prass (Spacebomb)                                That she’s signed to Matthew E White’s label is in itself a virtual guarantee of quality. Over the course of nine songs Ms Prass’s pure as the driven snow voice glides effortlessly through this soulful, lyrically astute & lushly arranged debut in a way that would have made our very own Dusty Springfield proud. If she never makes another, this record is an immense legacy to leave behind.

7: NEW ORDER – Music Complete (Mute)                                    Another great comeback album in my top 20 is this “just like they’ve never been away” effort from New Order. Their first one proper since 2005, this is the best album they’ve made since 1989’s Balearic masterpiece, Technique – it also contains several songs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on it including “Plastic” which was one of the dance tracks of the year. Peter who?

6: KONTIKI SUITE – The Greatest Show On Earth (Sunstone)  Had I been publishing a chart in 2013, their debut “On Sunset Lake” would also have been in the Top 10 – one album on and how Carlisle’s finest have remained largely undiscovered is a mystery! Purveyors of their own sublime take on Byrdsian style psychedelic country folk/rock, I can assure all discerning music lovers that you NEED this band in your collection! (Full LP review – 8th Oct)

5: C DUNCAN – Architect (Fatcat)                                              Recorded in his Glasgow bedroom, classically trained multi-instrumentalist (viola, piano, bass and acoustic guitar and drums to name but a few) and composer C Duncan’s Mercury Music Prize nominated debut is an intricate, multi-layered work of immense craft and at times utterly beguiling beauty. It also contains “Garden” which is 2015’s best single by a Scottish artist by a country mile!

4: MARTIN COURTNEY – Many Moons (Domino)                    Singer and guitarist with Real Estate, whose “Atlas” album was No.3 in the Acoustic Eggbox 2014 album chart, Courtney has delivered a warm, sunny, Autumn afternoon of an album which is distinct enough to be his own work but also recognisably Real Estate-esque. If you like jangly 60’s country/ folk with nods to Big Star, Jonathan Wilson and, inevitably, the Byrds, this is for you. Gorgeous.

3: ISRAEL NASH – Israel Nash’s Silver Season (Loose)                It’s hardly surprising that this superb fourth from Israel Nash is in my top 3; the soulful, cosmic country with a hint of psychedelia and gentle steel guitar over the top of occasionally impenetrable lyrics and enough melody to make the songs warm and memorable is right up my Laurel Canyon in a Fleet Foxes meets Neil Young kind of way. Check out LA Lately as it really is a totally cool tune, man.

=1: RICHARD HAWLEY – Hollow Meadows (Parlophone) Sheffield’s finest released his most personal and heartfelt album yet in 2015. “Heart Of Oak” and “Which Way” aside, the remaining nine tracks are proper, string-laden, emotional ballads – ballads which lend themselves to Hawley’s fine baritone and recall great singers of a bygone era: Orbison, Presley, Monroe et al. If you’ve got any soul, opening track “I Still Want You” will bring a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye and when you’ve finally pulled yourself together, the closer “What Love Means” will start you off again. Treasure this man, we don’t have many of his ilk left in this country – unless of course you class Sam Smith as a singer, in which case you can just fuck off and stop buying records now!

=1: FATHER JOHN MISTY – I Love You Honeybear (Bella Union) Father John Misty is erstwhile Fleet Foxes drummer, Josh Tillman and this is his second breathtaking album. He’s given us eleven songs that are by turns, cynical, bitter, heartbreaking, funny and painfully personal and which recall the humour of Randy Newman (especially Bored In The USA), the early piano-led genius of Elton John and the tunesmithery of Burt Bacharach. The lushness of the orchestral arrangements and the beauty and content of his lyrical output put him on the top table of today’s current crop of singer-songwriters, if not at the head of that table. Anyone that writes the line “And the malaprops make me wanna fucking scream, I wonder if she knows what that word even means” in a bitter anti-love song aimed at an old, irritating lover deserves our respect. Make no mistake, this album is a classic and will be lauded as such many years from now.

2015 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part One – No’s 20-11)

Well, I purposely decided that this year’s feverishly anticipated 2015 Top 20 albums overview would be fashionably late, and it is. There’s still nothing from Mario Lanza in the chart, but, despite massive technological advances, this is largely due to his being dead for 55 years. Anyway, hold on to your hats and swing your groovy pants, here are numbers 20-11:

20: CATHAL SMYTH – A Comfortable Man (Phoenix Rising)    The man formerly known as Chas Smash of Madness has released an album as far from the Nutty Boys jaunty pop as is possible to get. In places, this album is so heartbreakingly sad (You’re Not Alone/ Love Song No.7) that it really is a difficult listen. This is a set of songs that reflect a deeply personal, probably cathartic, casting out of his demons – don’t give it a play if you’re feeling emotionally fragile!

19: LEON BRIDGES – Coming Home (Columbia)                          The debut album from this talented 25-year-old Texan is a paean to a bygone era when soul music relied on the singer’s voice and proper instrumentation to convey emotion, not a bank of gadgets and pro tools. Fans of Sam, Otis and Marvin will find much to love here. An extremely accomplished set which hopefully will see him go from strength to strength.

18: PAUL WELLER – Saturns Pattern (Parlophone)                    Yes, I’m a big Weller fan, no, this isn’t his best solo album, but at 56 he’s still pushing his own musical boundaries and has delivered an enjoyable and eclectic album of psychedelic noise, sunshine pop, soulful Style Council-esque grooves and melodic, well-crafted pop-rock which still trumps most of his contemporaries hands down. There sure is plenty of life in the old mod yet.

17: JOHN GRANT – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union)  John Grant was cruelly and largely ignored when recording as the Czars, but on this, his 3rd solo album, he is continuing to carve a niche as an exceptional and unique songwriter. Songs on “Grey Tickles” whilst not as immediate as his previous work are still full of wit, pathos and oblique and acerbic references to his troubled past. Now go and check out his older material – you’ll be glad you did.

16: MATTHEW E WHITE – Fresh Blood (Domino)              Matthew E White is a living oxymoron. He looks like he should have been a murderous roadie for the Grateful Dead but sounds like the angelic voiced progeny of a Stax/ Motown/ Randy Newman union. Lead single rock & Roll Is Cold is not only one of the best tracks of the year but one of the most uptempo songs on this, his soulful second album. His idol, Stevie Wonder, would surely approve!

15: JACCO GARDNER – Hypnophobia (Polyvinyl)                        You may not read the words “Dutch 60’s Psychedelic Folk Wizard” in one sentence again today but apart from the obvious Syd Barrett/ Nick Drake comparisons that are inevitable, that description is pretty accurate. This could easily be the dreamy, lushly orchestrated soundtrack to a movie about fevered sleep and nocturnal parasomnias – the 8 minute track “Before The Dawn” is especially gorgeous.

14: TAME IMPALA – Currents (Fiction)                                        Kevin Parker is sad and lonely. He’s also written an album about the breakdown of a relationship, but unlike Mr Smyth’s offering, this is a shimmering, summery, melodic and gorgeous psych-synth album that owes much to our French friends, Air and on the more upbeat numbers their dancier fellow countrymen, Daft Punk. A change of direction from his previous two albums but what an inspired one!

13: BLUR – The Magic Whip (Parlophone)                                     One of the year’s big comeback albums – and a great one it is too. In some respects, after 12 years away, this is their most Blur-like album ever – a composite of the best bits of all their previous releases assembled in one place. Albarn’s songwriting has matured and Coxon’s guitar playing is as good as ever and although there isn’t a duff track on the album, for me Ong Ong is definitely the highlight.

12: LIANNE LA HAVAS – Blood (Warner Bros)                                The follow-up album to her critically acclaimed debut “Is Your Love Big Enough” sees Ms La Havas release a more polished overall set but this certainly does not mean that her superb voice is in any way diminished. “Never Get Enough” is an experimental departure, with distorted rocky vocals maybe pointing to future directions and the single “Unstoppable” is, for me, her best track to date.

11: THE CHARLATANS – Modern Nature (BMG)                            The death of the band’s drummer Jon Brookes 18 months previously galvanised the band into releasing this, one of their best albums, but the melancholy of his passing is noticeable throughout, even on the cover photo. “Talking In Tones”, the atmospheric first single and album opener is superb and although nothing else quite matches it, this is a classy return to form for one of our most enduring bands.