2017 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part Two: 10-1)

So here we are then, the ten best albums of 2017 as decided by the sole judging panel that is The Acoustic Egg Box. It was great to see new acts like Bette Smith and Childhood releasing music that bodes well for their future success, an outfit as hard-working and talented as Stone Foundation FINALLY getting some recognition for their many years of hard graft, the sensational return of one of the UK’s very best songwriters, Michael Head and established acts including this years worthy winners, The Clientele,  still making exceptional music after many years in “the business” and despite not always getting the commercial success that their talents surely deserve. The one sad note though, is that despite, without any doubt, having her best years still ahead, Sharon Jones will never get the opportunity to release another record – and that is a real tragedy.

Anyway, as it’s New Year’s Eve and I have a surfeit of gin secreted around the house, I will bid you a fond farewell and hope that 2018 brings you everything your music loving heart desires (as long as it’s not a new Sam Smith album in which case I hope you develop a painful, unsightly boil on the end of your nose).

 

10: STONE FOUNDATION – Street Rituals (100% Records)

From their meeting nearly twenty years ago, Stone Foundation’s main men, Neil’s Jones and Sheasby, have, with the release of their seventh and career-best studio album, “Street Rituals”, finally seen their incredible hard-work and talent translated into long overdue recognition and with it, their best-selling record to date.  It also helps, of course, that they’ve garnered the help and support of a big fan – a certain Mr Paul Weller. Street Rituals was recorded at Weller’s Black Barn Studio and the great man also produced, played and sang on the album, most notably on the soulful “Your Balloon Is Rising”. Along with PW, other notable contributors to the record include the vocals of Stax legend William Bell on “Strange People” and the amazing Bettye LaVette on “Seasons Of Change”. Having watched them live at the Fleece & Firkin in Bristol earlier in the year, I can honestly say that I’ve rarely seen a band look so grateful to, and in tune with, their audience. Great work gents – you deserve all the accolades you are getting.

9: BETTE SMITH – Jetlagger (Big Legal Mess Records)  

With the sad death of Sharon Jones in November 2016, the soul music world lost one of its greatest female singers and, as is often the case when we lose a true-great, there remains a void which is often difficult, if not impossible to fill. However, when I saw the video for Bette Smith’s storming first single “Manchild” back in the summer, it didn’t take a genius to realise that this was someone with the potential to fill Ms Jones’ very talented shoes. Everything about this young lady hollers star-quality; from her flamboyant wardrobe, her larger than life personality and a big voice that just makes you sit up and listen. Bette is coming over to the UK in early in 2018 to play a couple of dates in Manchester and London so I suggest you get to see her now so you can say “I was there”! If you would like to read the full review of “Jetlagger” that I wrote back in November, you can get there by clicking here.

8: MAVIS STAPLES – If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)

With a magnificent solo career of nearly fifty years behind her, Mavis Staples, now seventy-eight, is enjoying something of a vibrant, 21st-Century rejuvenation. This renaissance, plus an unlikely alliance with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has co-written and produced three of her last four albums, is no fluke either, as he has developed a knack for coaxing out some great performances from this legend of soul and gospel. Although “If All I Was Was Black”, an album very much made for these days of political and racial difficulty, is at times a sparse and quite dark record, it is still brimming with her trademark messages of hope and redemption, especially on the lovely “Peaceful Dream” and the superb title track on which this amazing lady tells us “Sometimes I have regrets, but I ain’t done yet”. We sincerely hope not Mavis because the world needs more people like you, not less.

7: MICHAEL HEAD & THE RED ELASTIC BAND – Adios Senor Pussycat (Violette)

If you ever see a poll listing the greatest British songwriters of the past few decades and Liverpool’s ridiculously underrated Michael Head isn’t on it, it’s not a list you should take seriously. As former frontman of The Pale Fountains, Shack and The Strands, Head has been responsible for some truly great albums (check out Shack’s “HMS Fable” or The Strands “The Magical World Of The Strands” if you need proof) and the great news is that Adios Senor Pussycat, his first record for eleven years, sees him returning straight to the top-table once again. Album opener, the bittersweet Scouse Americana of “Picasso” kicks us off in fine style, offering up a sense of melancholy that pervades much of the rest of the album. Other songs of note include “Winter Turns To Spring”, a fragile beauty of a ballad; the Velvet Underground channelling “Queen Of All Saints”; a great version of Scottish standard “Wild Mountain Thyme” and the breezy album closer “Adios Amigo”. 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.

6: PETE FIJ/ TERRY BICKERS – We Are Millionaires (Broadcast Recordings)

Every year an album comes out of nowhere and completely takes me by surprise. In 2016 it was the self-titled début from Man & The Echo (AEB No.6) and this year it’s “We Are Millionaires”, the magnificent second album from former Adorable singer Pete Fij and ex-House of Love guitarist Terry Bickers. Put your dancing shoes down for a minute, as this is very much a record to sit with and wallow in; a record beautifully crafted by two men who have undoubtedly had plenty of hard-knock life experience and who need to share with us their pain and heartbreak. However, despite the largely downbeat feel of the album’s nine tracks, their intricate and beautifully crafted lyrics are imbued with a wry sense of humour. If you take, for instance, the opening couplet on “Mary Celeste”, “Like a crossword puzzle without a clue, there is no working out you”, you get a feeling that a knowing smile is never far away. If you’d like to read a little more about “We Are Millionaires” and hear the single “Love’s Going To Get You”, my full review of the album is available by clicking here. 

5: CHILDHOOD – Universal High (Marathon Artists)

In 2014, Childhood released their début album, “Lacuna”. Whilst it was by no means a poor effort, it lacked identity and, despite some favourable critical reviews, it drifted away into a fog containing other bands all trying to plough the same musical furrow. Fast forward to the Spring of 2017 and the transformation in the band has been astonishing; not only did they release my single of the year with the summery, shimmering soul of “California Light”, but also completely reinvented themselves and released the coherent and superbly crafted pop-soul album “Universal High”.  If the band can continue to evolve and lead singer Ben Romans-Hopcraft continues to hone his wonderful falsetto and write more songs as catchy and melodic as the ten tracks on this fantastic album then it surely won’t be long before they are major stars. If you would like to hear the brilliant “California Light” and also read the comprehensive review of “Universal High” that I wrote back in August, you can get there by clicking here.

4: PAUL WELLER – A Kind Revolution (Parlophone)

When you’ve been in one of the best British bands of all time, written several of the greatest songs ever to grace the UK pop charts during a career spanning over forty years and are fast approaching your 60th birthday you might think it’s time to start putting your feet up but not if you’re Paul Weller and still bursting with ideas and ambition. “A Kind Revolution” may be Weller’s thirteenth solo studio album but he continues to defy the critics as, despite its eclecticism, it’s also one of his most cohesive and satisfying. Opening track, the PP Arnold and Madeleine bell backed “Woo Se Mama” is a full-on funky wig-out and certainly the most upbeat track on the album.  This is followed by the Bowie-esque fuzzy psych of “Nova” and then three stunning tracks in a row; an exceptional and beautiful ballad, “Long Long Road”,  the jazzy, lilting “She Moves With The Fayre” which features vocals and trumpet flourishes from Robert Wyatt and could have been lifted from a Style Council album and finally in this superb trio of songs, “The Cranes Are Back”, which is possibly one of the most soulful and affecting songs he’s ever written. Elsewhere, “Hopper” is a Beatley tribute to painter Edward Hopper; “New York”, complete with honking horns and traffic noise is a groovy grower about the Big Apple; Boy George shares vocal duties on the brilliant six-minute Balearic beats of “One Tear”; “Satellite Kid” is a cracking swampy blues number and last but not least, the waltz-time album closer “The Impossible Idea” is classic Weller – a song which, he stated in an interview with Q Magazine, is about him still having “this mad, impossible idea that music can make a difference”. Well Mr Weller, on the strength of your current output, I think it’s safe to say that you’re still doing a hell of a job with that task!

3: SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS – Soul Of A Woman (Daptone) 

Back in 2014 I reviewed Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings excellent fifth studio album “Give The People What They Want”, the release of which was delayed because Sharon had undergone treatment for cancer. However, the great news was that the treatment was working and so she and the band continued to tour and record with the fervour and enthusiasm that was always generated by this always positive lady. Sadly though, it turned out that all wasn’t well; Sharon’s cancer returned and, despite a brave battle during which she continued gigging and sometimes working from her hospital bed to complete the recording of “Soul Of A Woman”, she sadly passed away on November 18th, 2016 aged just sixty. As a tribute, this exceptional album was released on the first anniversary of her death and although sentimentality could conceivably cloud any subjective reviews that might be written about it, it’s so good that it would be considered no less of a classic if she was still with us.  I wrote a full critique of the album only a few weeks ago, so if you would like to read it and watch the videos for the singles “Matter Of Time”, “Sail On” and “Call On God”, please click on the link here. 

2: JUDY DYBLE/ ANDY LEWIS – Summer Dancing (Acid Jazz)

Before I get taken to task over it, in the last line of my full review of “Summer Dancing” which I wrote back in August, I stated quite confidently that “if there’s a better record released this year, I’ll happily eat my trousers” because it’s so good and I truly didn’t expect to hear anything better during the rest of 2017 (and in most other years I wouldn’t have). So, although this album is truly exceptional I am now faced with a wool based diet for the forseeable future. “Summer Dancing” is a timeless beauty of a record that works incredibly well even though it probably shouldn’t. Couple Judy Dyble, the original, very English, 1960’s singer in legendary British folk group Fairport Convention with Andy Lewis – the former Paul Weller Band, bass playing, rare soul and funk DJing, solo recording artist, producer and all-round clever-clogs and the results could have been distinctly odd, but, what we are treated to instead are fourteen songs of such rich musicality and depth that, from the moment I first heard them, I felt sure my trousers were safe from the dinner table.  I will leave you with a quote from my original review in which I try to summarise what makes this such a gorgeous album, however, my words can never do it justice and so I implore you to seek out a copy and spend some time alone with it – I promise that you won’t be disappointed: “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 voilà you have Summer Dancing – the beguiling new Acid Jazz release from Judy Dyble/ Andy Lewis”

PS I’ll keep you posted on the trousers………….

1: THE CLIENTELE – Music For The Age Of Miracles (Tapete Records)

Until I heard the spellbinding “Lunar Days” on BBC Radio 6 Music back in the late summer, I genuinely thought that The Clientele, one of the greatest British bands never to have really “cracked it” despite having released a number of intelligent, melancholic and critically lauded albums, had disbanded for good back in 2011. I suspected that “Lunar Days” was a track from their past; the forerunner of a record company cash in and “soon-to- be-released-compilation” of lost classics from a band who had developed cult status but with an unfathomable lack of commercial success. And yet it wasn’t a “lost classic”, it was a brand new track from Alasdair Maclean and his slightly reshuffled and added to band of talented musicians who had already recorded “Music For The Age Of Miracles”, their first new album in over six years. As a fan, the fact that the band were, completely out of the blue, releasing new material was great news but nothing could have prepared me for how consummately wonderful this album is. Short of repeating the review I wrote about “Music For The Age Of Miracles” in this brief summary, nothing I write here will do this exceptional record justice, so I urge you to visit and read that review, give the two tracks I’ve linked to it (“Lunar Days” and “Everyone You Meet”) a listen, and then, after you’ve also fallen head over heels in love with it, rush out and buy the Acoustic Egg Box Album of The Year!

 

 

 

 

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Bette Smith – Jetlagger (Big Legal Mess Records)

It still gives me a huge buzz when I discover a previously unheard artist, especially when they’ve got a voice and personality as big and bold as New York’s sensational new soul singer, Bette Smith.  Ms Smith was born and raised in the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and, when you watch the video for “Manchild” (below), you instantly know that just like her influences, Etta James, Tina Turner, Millie Jackson et al, she’s one feisty lady that ain’t going to take any messing!

In a music industry obsessed with dull, over-styled singers warbling melismatic, pro-tooled nonsense over generic backing tracks, Jetlagger is a breath of fresh air and devoid of any artificial additives.  Over the course of this, her debut’s, ten “live” studio recorded tracks (six originals and four covers), and under the expert tutelage of multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter Jimbo Mathus (a former colleague of blues legend Buddy Guy), Bette, growls, hollers and sings like a seasoned Southern Soul blues(wo)man.

The album is bookended by two absolute belters; self-penned, “I Will Feed You” is a reflective mid-tempo ballad that builds to a rousing climax, showcasing Smith’s more soulful and vulnerable side – it also sounds like the best song Macy Gray never recorded. The album closer, however, is one of four well-chosen covers – a superb version of the Staple Singers 1974 classic, “City In The Sky”, which I’m pretty sure Mavis would approve of.

In between these two crackers, we are treated to the Tina Turner channelling title track, the aforementioned single “Manchild” (above), plus the other Mathus penned originals; the swampy street-blues of “Durty Hustlin'”,  Southern Soul classic-in-waiting “Shackle & Chain” and the country-tinged stomper, “Moaning Bench”.  Alongside “City In The Sky”, the eclectic choice of well-executed cover versions include the rocking Steve Van Zandt/ Maria McKee penned Lone Justice track “I Found Love”; a glorious gospel take on “Flying Sweet Angel Of Joy” by fellow Fat Possum Records (of which Big Legal Mess is a  subsidiary) artist, the mysterious Famous L Renfroe and finally, a sultry version of the 1971 Isaac Hayes classic “Do Your Thing”.

All in all then, “Jetlagger” is a fine debut from a singer who demands to be heard and, as more people get to discover her, they will realise that she has grabbed the classic blues and soul genre by the scruff of the neck and injected it with some welcome attitude and sass. On 27th February next year, she’s coming to the UK to play one night at the London Borderline and I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to be a show not to miss.