In an annual tradition rapidly taking on as much importance as the Queen’s Christmas Message, remembering to remove the plastic bag containing the turkey giblets, and avoiding Mrs Brown and her Boys until they’ve all been imprisoned on a remote Scottish island without any form of communication, I bring you the first instalment of The Acoustic Egg Box Albums of the Year for 2018.
I’ve undoubtedly missed some wonderful records again this year and I actively encourage you to let me know what they are. I only have a finite amount of hours in a day and, generally speaking, if I’m not listening to music I’m reading about it so I genuinely rely on my many equally sociopathic friends on various social media platforms to keep me informed about things I might have overlooked.
Although they would undoubtedly have been high up in my chart, I haven’t included the posthumous Charles Bradley album “Black Velvet” as, out of the ten tracks, only three are new. Likewise, Primal Scream’s “Give Out But Don’t Give Up: The Original Memphis Recordings” is exceptional but it’s not “new” as such and therefore can’t be included (my gaff, my rules!). Also, an honourable mention to those that fell just short of the Top 20: The Coral “Move Through The Dawn”; Janelle Monae “Dirty Computer”; Belle & Sebastian “How To Solve Our Human Problems”; Khruangbin “Con Todo El Mundo”; James Hunter Six “Whatever It Takes”; Jonathan Wilson “Rare Birds; Corduroy “Return of the Fabric Four”
My other favourite things this year were:
Gig : Georgie Fame – Rosemoor Gardens, Torrington 25th May
TV Show: A Very English Scandal
Book: Stuart Cosgrove’s “Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul”
Disappointments of the year for me were the new Suede album “The Blue Hour”, which I’ve persevered long and hard with but just can’t get into, the fabulous John Grant’s “Love Is Magic” which is just hard work and not up to his usual very high standard. And Morrissey.
Anyway, enough of this bollocks, here’s the Top 20 – a Spotify playlist of which you can listen to below.
20: JONATHAN JEREMIAH – Good Day (PIAS)
Previously unheard of by me, it came as a surprise that “Good Day” is North London-based singer/ songwriter Jonathan Jeremiah’s fourth studio album. Jeremiah possesses a warm, soulful voice which has more than a hint of John Martyn about it. His voice is perfectly showcased on the album’s title track, a gorgeous slice of summery soul which was the opening single and, for me, one of the records of the year. Other album highlights include “Deadweight”, a seven-minute epic, apparently inspired by the Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra classic “Some Velvet Morning” and “U-Bahn (It’s Not Too Late For Us)”, a track that sounds like a lost ’70s classic that Glen Campbell never recorded.
19: TARA MILTON WITH THE BOY AND MOON – Serpentine Waltz (Boy & Moon Recordings)
A handsome, edgy, talented musician and songwriter, Tara Milton should have been a major star. In 1991 he was the bassist and singer with Mod rockers, Five Thirty, who recorded one classic album, “Bed”, before disbanding acrimoniously shortly after its release. In the twenty years since Milton’s second band, The Nubiles, split, the only hint of him resurfacing was the occasional rumour that he was working on new material. Earlier this year, happily, those rumours proved to be true when “Serpentine Waltz” was born; and what a triumphant return from the wilderness it was. With shades of Dylan, Drake and “22 Dreams” era Weller, he has treated us to nine lush, beautifully crafted tracks. From album opener, the cinematic “Assassins” through the gorgeous, late-night jazz-club feel of “Getting It On With The Man In The Moon” and the exceptional, existential two-part epic “Double Yellow (Lines 1 and 2)”, Serpentine Waltz is without a doubt the comeback album of the year – just don’t make us wait another 20 years Tara!
* You can read a full album review by clicking on the brilliant Monkey Picks blog here.
18: WOODEN SHJIPS – V. (Thrill Jockey)
V. is Wooden Shjips (named after the Jefferson Airplane/ Crosby Stills & Nash track – adding the extra “j” to make themselves sound Swedish!) fifth album to date. Across forty-three minutes and six tracks, in V., the San Franciscan psychedelic space-rockers have, at least for them, released a more accessible record than their previous efforts which, especially on album closer “Ride On”, is almost stately in places. That said, the album is far from sedate. The cracking opening track, “Eclipse”, kicks things off with a driving, motorik beat underpinning echoey, Stone Roses-esque vocals, while the shimmering “Staring At The Sun” sounds like a superb reimagining of Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth”. If it emerged slap bang in the middle of 1967 V. would still sound great which only enhances its credentials as one of the best rock albums of 2018.
17: STONE FOUNDATION – Everybody, Anyone (100% Records)
The hardest working British band around, have followed up last year’s excellent Top 30 album “Street Rituals” (AEB 2017 No.10) with another accomplished set of funky, soulful, grooves. “Everybody, Anyone” is the band’s eighth studio album in just over thirteen years – a period in which they’ve toured relentlessly and gained more fans (including a certain Mr Weller) with each release. Heavyweight guests on this album include former Style Councillors, Mick Talbot and Steve White; Dr Robert from The Blow Monkeys; singer/ songwriter Kathryn Williams and legendary Average White Band guitarist Hamish Stuart. Best tracks; rich with brass and strings, the sultry, uplifting seven-minute groover, “Standing On The Top” and the gorgeous, lilting “Don’t Walk Away” featuring Kathryn Williams. As good as their recorded output is, the band need to be seen live as the obvious love and passion for what they do shines through like a big, funky beacon. For me, their gig at Bristol’s Thekla in November was one of the best, and most enjoyable of the year.
16: SPIRITUALIZED – And Nothing Hurt (Bella Union)
After surviving liver failure, a recent bout of double pneumonia and years of rampant “self-medication”, praise be that Jason Pierce is still with us let alone releasing arguably his best work since 1997’s classic, “Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space”. “And Nothing Hurt” was, apparently, recorded alone in the spare room of his apartment with “no one on the record being in the same place at the same time”; some achievement given his state of health. Of the nine tracks on the album, only two are uptempo, “On The Sunshine” and “The Morning After”, the rest feature Pierce’s fragile vocals backed by heavenly choirs, dense orchestration, psychedelic synths and lullaby melodies whilst on country-tinged ballad “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” he even doffs a cap towards early ’70s Stones. As with all Spiritualized records, “And Nothing Hurt” is, still thankfully, the aural equivalent of being half asleep in a warm bath whilst a flickering candle casts occasionally unnerving shadows on the walls.
15: LEON BRIDGES – Good Thing (Columbia)
Leon Bridges 2015 début album “Coming Home” (AEB 2015 No.19) was a reverent homage to the great soul singers of the ’60s. “Good Thing”, however, whilst retaining many traditional “soul” elements, sees Bridges move towards a more contemporary sound, albeit a contemporary sound rooted in the ’80s & ’90s than the late noughties. “If It Feels Good (Then It Must be)” enters Pharell territory; “You Don’t Know” has Nile Rodgers’ influence running through it; opening single, the brilliant “Bad, Bad News”, is a swinging, jazzy number and “Beyond” is one of the most heartfelt ballads you’ll hear this year. It will be interesting to see which direction this talented, 29-year-old Texan takes next.
14: INSECURE MEN – Insecure Men (Fat Possum)
When Saul Adamczewski, the songwriter and newly clean former heroin-addict from perennial miserablists Fat White Family, joined up with his old friend Ben Romans-Hopcraft, frontman of pop-soul outfit, Childhood, (“Universal High” AEB No.5 2017) to form Insecure Men, the outcome was far from certain. However, the resulting, self-titled album is, on the surface at least, a tuneful delight awash with echoey vocals, loungey exotica, squelchy synths and the occasional Bontempi organ underpinning off-kilter easy-listening melodies. Scratch just beneath the surface though and you will discover an incongruous lyrical bleakness running through many of the album’s eleven songs, especially “Mekong Glitter” (about Gary Glitter), “The Saddest Man In Penge” (a painful memoirs), “Cliff Has Left the Building” and the heartbreaking “Whitney Houston & I”. “Insecure Men” is definitely one of the year’s unexpected treasures.
13: VILLAGERS – The Art Of Pretending To Swim (Domino)
Conor O’Brien, the driving force behind Dublin’s Villagers has had a busy year. Not only has he released the most accessible and sonically interesting Villagers album to date, but he also co-wrote and produced a track for Paul Weller’s current LP. Maybe spreading his wings is the reason that Villagers’ latest effort has a more eclectic feel to it, with elements of electronica weaving interesting and often unexpected textures through many of the tracks. Always melodically strong, O’Brien’s songwriting on “The Art Of….” has taken on a greater maturity with “faith” being a central theme, especially evident on the album’s best track “Trick Of The Light” where he writes “If I see a sign in the sky tonight / Nobody’s gonna tell me it’s a trick of the light / May never come but I’m willing to wait / What can I say? I’m a man of the faith”.
12: JOSH ROUSE – Love In The Modern Age (Yep Roc)
Josh Rouse is one of my favourite singer/songwriters and yet, despite “Love In the Modern Age” being his twelfth album in twenty years, is virtually unknown to the casual music fan. So, before I start this mini-review of his current LP, here’s a plea – if you love “proper” songs and don’t know his work, start with 2003’s “Under Cold Blue Stars” and then work backwards and forwards from there. “Love In The Modern Age” is superb, but it’s the least “Josh Rouse” album he’s ever released. Goodbye acoustic Americana tinged pop-folk and hello shiny ’80s production values and synths. It’s a supremely catchy album with earworms at every turn, no more so than on opening track “Salton Sea” with its electronic drum patterns, vocodered vocals and a guitar riff reminiscent of The Cure’s “A Forest”. Other album highlights are the title track, and “Businessman”; two perfect slices of smooth, retro-pop, both of which could have been inspired by The Blue Nile. A marmite album for sure, but I am a sucker for some good old-fashioned synth-pop, a well-placed saxophone and a drum machine so it’s definitely a “yes” from me!
11: ISRAEL NASH – Lifted (Loose)
Back in 2015, Nash’s wonderful fourth album “Silver Season” (AEB 2015 No.3) was my introduction to this enigmatic artist. Three years on, and although the Neil Young/ CSNY influences are still very much in evidence, they have also been joined by celestial Beach Boys harmonies and a production that gives this suite of expansive, widescreen songs room to grow and breathe – “Looking Glass” being the prime example. If you’ve ever wondered what War On Drugs would sound like with added smatterings of woozy pedal steel, a sprinkle of psychedelic space dust and produced by a hippie Phil Spector, you’ll probably find “Lifted” fits your bill.
10: THE FERNWEH – The Fernweh (Skeleton Key Records)
In January, BBC6Music got behind The Fernweh’s excellent début single, “The Liar” – a record that for thirty seconds sounds like a lost Joy Division single but then the vocals kick in and it takes a left turn before veering off down a sunny, psychedelic country lane. In March the second single “Is This Man Bothering You”, a rockier number that tips its hat to “John Barleycorn” era Traffic, followed whilst in June, the band cemented their place in my heart with the release of “The Next Time Around”, a song with a melody and vocal so pretty and timeless you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d resurrected a lost Syd Barrett penned Peter & Gordon track from 1964. In fact, dotted throughout the album there are subtle ’60s folk and psychedelia influences with nods to Fairport Convention, The Zombies and latter-era Beatles. In 2017, my album of the year was The Clientele’s wonderful “Music For The Age Of Miracles (AEB 2017 No.1) and the biggest praise that I can give “The Fernweh” is that they have made a superb record that inhabits the same woozy, autumnal sphere, conjuring up a bygone, sepia-toned, age when bonfires, bicycles and birdsong were kings.
9: J.P. BIMENI & THE BLACK BELTS – Free Me (Tucxone Records)
On his multi-cultural debut album, “Free Me”, London-based, Burundian born J.P. Bimeni, along with his superb Spanish backing band, The Black Belts, has absolutely nailed the unmistakable sound of classic ’60s soul. Having been shot, poisoned and witnessed the murder of several school friends, Bimeni managed to flee his country’s civil war as a refugee in the early ’90s, bringing with him a deep well of life experience to draw on. Because of these experiences, you know that when he says: “When I sing, it feels like I’m cleansing myself; music is a way for me to forget” he means it. All great soul singers have a certain undefinable gift that sets them apart from “normal” vocalists and on “Pain Is The Name Of Your Game”, “Honesty Is A Luxury” or album highlight, “I Miss You”, you realise that Bimeni has that gift in bucket loads. With the loss of soul heavyweights Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley in the last couple of years, J.P. Bimeni has the voice, the looks, the band and the songs to be a huge future star.
8: GRUFF RHYS – Babelsberg (Rough Trade)
Former Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is one of the most eccentric, but utterly brilliant, British songwriters of his generation. On this, his fifth solo studio album, Rhys has followed up 2014’s “American Interior” (AEB 2014 No.19) (a concept album about 18th Century Welsh explorer John Evans!) with a set of mini-masterpieces – all enhanced by a seventy-two piece orchestra. Opening track, the brilliant “Frontier Man” is an acerbic “Rhinestone Cowboy”- the sort of record that Lee Hazlewood might have made if he’d grown of in the Rhondda Valley. The catchy, “Limited Edition Heart” is as lyrically daft as it gets (“I’m not interested in your limited edition lies, limited edition porcupines, I’m just interested in your limited edition heart”); “Take That Call” is a string-laden AOR delight lifted straight from the ’70s, and album closer, “Selfies In The Sunset”, a duet with Lily Cole, is a love song but with the bizarre a backdrop of impending nuclear Armageddon. No one writes quite like Gruff Rhys which is why he remains this country’s most unique musical maverick.
7: MICHAEL NAU & THE MIGHTY THREAD – Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread (Full Time Hobby)
In my book, anyone who makes music that sounds uncannily like “Nixon” era Lambchop, and there is plenty on this record that ticks that very agreeable box, is worthy of further investigation. When the gorgeous, season-defining “Can’t Take One” floated from the radio back during our long, hot summer, my musical love affair with this previously unknown artist began. Nau writes beautiful, textured pop music of indefinable but classic provenance. The album’s opening track, “Less Than Positive”, has Cash and Orbison undertones which give the track a richness and depth often lost these days due to unnecessary over-production. Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, the lush, summery arrangements give it a warm, soulful feel; “On Ice” and “What’s A Loon” being prime examples. Swooning pedal steel, slightly off-beat vibraphone and Nau’s languid, comforting voice add to the narcotic ambience which, by the end of final track “Smudge” will have calmed even the most irascible mood.
6: FATHER JOHN MISTY – God’s Favourite Customer (Sub Pop)
Those of you hoping to hear an electroclash dance anthem or a jazz-fusion wig-out will be disappointed, as this is an unmistakably FJM album. Although the former Fleet Fox isn’t known for his three-minute party anthems, “God’s Favourite Customer” takes on an even more melancholy tone than his previous releases, feeling somewhat like an aural morning-after-the-night-before, narcotic hangover. Starting with the romantic, love-drunk feel of career-best, “I Love You Honeybear” (AEB No.1 2015) through last year’s majestically sprawling, “Pure Comedy” (AEB No.11 2017) his current effort plays out like a cryptic break-up album and is (possibly?) the third part of an exceptional, personal journey, trilogy. Self-confessional, self-absorbed and occasionally self-loathing, Tillman’s beautifully crafted and elegantly composed songs resonate with emotion; they move in an orbit inhabited by the classic works of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, early ’70s era Elton John et al. If you need proof of this, listen to the best track on “God’s Favourite Customer”, the exquisite, piano-accompanied minor-chord ballad, “The Palace”, and after the pleading last line “I’m In Way Over My Head”, fades out, let me know I’m wrong…….
5: TRACEY THORN: Record (Unmade)
I love Tracey Thorn. She is the rarest of beasts in an entertainment world full of professionally incompetent narcissists – a supremely talented yet disarmingly modest and genuinely charming lady. Not only has she been involved with some of the greatest pop records of the past forty years, penned one of the best music autobiographies ever (Bedsit Disco Queen) and is currently the writer of a witty, intelligent monthly column for The New Statesman, but in 2018 Thorn has just made the best solo album of her long, distinguished career. “Record” (2012 Christmas album Tinsel & Lights apart) is her first release since 2010 and is also her most successful solo effort to date. A synth-pop tour de force, “Record”, in her own words, comprises “nine feminist bangers”, the most strident of which is the menacing “Sister”, an eight-minute collaboration with Corinne Bailey-Rae and Warpaint’s pounding rhythm section. With the opening lines “Don’t mess with me/ don’t hug my babies/ I’ll come for you/ you’ll find you’ve bitten off/ More than you can chew” Thorn certainly seems like she means business! Although lyrically the album appears disarmingly confessional at times, the catchy, uplifting Human League style electro-pop of album opener “Queen” is a rumination on what-ifs (“What happened if we never met?/ If I’d just ignored/ Those sliding doors”). The bright, breezy “Guitar” hints at an adolescent crush teaching her about music as well as love; “Babies” is a humorous take on not wanting/ wanting kids and the ensuing travails of motherhood and “Go”, is a melancholy ballad about those same “babies” then leaving home for University. Very few artists make intelligent “pop” music these days and, sadly, Tracey Thorn may well be a member of the last generation doing it this well.
4: ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS – Look Now (Concord)
In a career spanning over forty years and (including collaborative efforts) forty-three albums encompassing genres as diverse as pop, jazz, country, rock’n’roll and reggae, you can hardly accuse the former Declan MacManus of being lazy or lacking in diversity. “Look Now” is Costello’s first album for five years and his first with The Imposters for ten, it is also his most melodic and emotionally satisfying work since the stunning 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, “Painted From Memory”. No surprises then that Bacharach co-wrote and played piano on album highlights, “Don’t Look Now”, “He’s Given Me Things” and “Photographs Can Lie” although his influence can also be found throughout, especially on the sublime “Stripping Paper”. Dear old Burt isn’t the only living-legend involved with “Look Now” though, as Carole King also contributes a co-write on the upbeat stomping soul of “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter”. As one of the most talented and best-loved songwriters that this country has ever produced, it came as a shock to many when news broke earlier in the year that the sixty-four-year old Costello was having treatment for an aggressive form of cancer. Hopefully, the treatment he’s received has resulted in a cure because on the strength of this wonderful record, there is still plenty of creative life left in the old dog yet.
3: R W HEDGES – THE HUNTERS IN THE SNOW (Wonderfulsound)
In an era when most of what passes as pop music is often generic, derivative overproduced tat with not even so much as a memorable melody to rescue it, it is always a huge pleasure when I discover new British talent who can still combine great tunes with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics. RW Hedges, is in fact, a collaboration combining (Roy) Hedges and Luca Nieri, old school friends now working in tandem to create music born of their passion and love for songs from the classic American songbook. Whilst the influences of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer or Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe may lurk knowingly in the background of the nine songs on this delicate and, in places, achingly beautiful album, there are also harmonies and melodies that would sit gracefully on any classic Everly Brothers album. The opening two tracks, the yearning, plaintive “Out Of Your Rain” and “Night Owl” are both imbued with a “Roy Orbison meets Richard Hawley and a “True Love Ways” era Buddy Holly in a smoky gin bar”, vibe. “Some Girl” opens like “Close To You” before settling into a lovelorn lament about a man struggling to find a good woman, before the superb opening single, “Signal Man”, offers a change of tack with a stunning song based on the Charles Dickens ghost story of the same name. Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a flavour of what to expect from “The Hunters In The Snow”, however I’m not going to run through every track as I’m hoping to interview Roy and Luca at some point soon and I’m sure they will offer up a more personal insight into how some of the songs were conceived. Before that happens though, do yourselves a favour and take a chance on this exceptional record – you really won’t be disappointed.
2: TRACYANNE & DANNY – Tracyanne & Danny (Merge)
When the lead singer from one of my favourite bands of the last twenty years teamed up with the man who released my favourite album of 2012, there was always a likelihood that something special might happen. It did. This beguiling, ’60s tinged eponymous début from Glasgow’s Tracyanne (Campbell), of Camera Obscura and Bristol’s Danny (Coughlan) who is, to all intents and purposes, Crybaby is VERY special. Much like the RW Hedges record, there is a gentle, timeless quality to this album’s ten Edwyn Collins produced songs on which Coughlan’s Morrissey meets Orbison croon dovetails perfectly with Campbell’s sweet Caledonian country-soul voice. This combination (along with a cameo from Collins himself) is no more evident than on the album’s greatest track, Alabama – a warm, pedal steel infused tribute to Campbell’s best friend, Camera Obscura’s Carey Lander, who died of cancer in 2015 aged just thirty-three. Although Ms Campbell with her unmistakable vocal style takes centre stage on most tracks, Coughlan delivers the goods on “Jacqeline”, a mournful Leonard Cohen style ballad about love gone wrong “Jacqueline/ Heart-breaking porcelain/ Cursed with a winning smile/ Tears of a crocodile”. With Camera Obscura on what we are led to believe is an uncertain hiatus, this stunning record is everything, and more, that fans of the band could have been hoped for. Tracyanne Campbell is most certainly back and in fine form and the great news is that in Danny Coughlan she’s found a new and very talented partner in crime.
1: PAUL WELLER: True Meanings (Parlophone)
As he’s my biggest (living) musical hero, I find it difficult to write objectively about Paul Weller – not only that, it’s difficult to add anything original when writing about one of the few remaining, and most documented great British rock icons still performing. Through his various incarnations, Weller, even at the arse end of the ’80s when it seemed that he was about to become a burnt-out footnote (an important, influential burnt-out footnote mind you), his songs and lyrics continued to be as important to me as they ever had. Happily, with the UK release of his self titled, solo début album in 1992, the great man resurrected himself and, although unknown to any of us at that time, was about to enter, Lazarus like, the most productive period of his career. “True Meanings” is now Weller’s fifteenth solo album and his third in as many years, coming hot on the heels of 2017’s superb “A Kind Revolution”, (AEB No.4 2017) and “Saturns Pattern” from 2015,(AEB No.18 2015). Released to coincide with his sixtieth birthday, this album is, without doubt, one of Weller’s most accomplished and satisfying records, however, anyone expecting an angry, politically charged rant will be somewhat disappointed. A largely acoustic, modestly paced record replete with orchestral flourishes and string arrangements courtesy of The Unthanks’ Hannah Peel, “True Meanings” is aligned more to the pastoral folk of Wild Wood and 22 Dreams than, say, the more experimental and rockier “Saturns Pattern” or “Wake Up the Nation”. Although notoriously a man in supreme control, Weller has given up co-songwriting/ vocal duties on four of the album’s fourteen tracks. Villagers Conor O’Brien takes a co-writing and vocal credit on soulful opener “The Soul Searchers” and Erland Cooper of Erland & The Carnival is a co-writer on “Bowie”, reportedly written the day after the titular star died, the bucolic, folky “Wishing Well” and album closer, the gorgeous, reflective “White Horses”. It is, however, on the album’s self-penned ballads that Weller shines, tracks that see him ruminating on, and coming to terms with, his advancing years. “Gravity”, (“Find the child inside of me/ This rusty key will set him free”) written back in 2011 is simply one of the most beautiful songs he has ever written and is the track that the album is reportedly based around. “Glide” (“Glide, glide/ Through a portal to my youth/ When the stillness of silence/ Bought its undisputed truth”) is a beautiful, dreamy lullaby whilst “May Love Travel With You” (“Wherever your mind wanders/ While coming through the years/ May love travel with you/ Forever and without fear”) is an orchestral, soaring, almost hymnal epic. I did state at the outset of this review that it’s difficult for me to write objectively about Paul Weller, but, in my defence, whoever had the supreme talent to release something this good in 2018 would be looking at the top spot as this album is an absolute masterpiece.