2019 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 30 Albums Of The Year

I know, I know, it’s nearly the end of January 2020 and I’m only just publishing my review of 2019. I could, of course, come up with all sorts of excuses for it being so late but the truth is that I’ve just been too drunk and too lazy. So, for the two of you who have been waiting eagerly for this nonsense, please accept my sincere apologies for the delay in posting this blog. For the rest of you, please accept my sincere apologies for posting this blog.

2019 was one of the best years for new music that I can remember in a long time but, as I say every year, I will only ever include albums in my chart that I’ve physically purchased. This means that as I only have a finite budget and there aren’t (sadly ) enough waking hours to do my day job, keep Mrs Egg Box happy AND physically listen to everything I want, it’s a sad inevitability that I miss out on lots of brilliant music. Thankfully, it means that I also miss out on some utter shite too. Every cloud and all that…

As an ageing mod and a long-standing soul/ r&b fan, one of the big plusses for me in 2019 was seeing something of a renaissance in the genre. Especially pleasing was the number of young acts embracing the scene and releasing new music throughout this vintage year. Apart from those acts in my Top 30, there were cracking new soul/ r&b albums released by Eli Paperboy Reed, Nick Waterhouse, The Dip (who were an excellent support act on the Durand Jones tour), French Boutik, Alexis Evans and old stagers Mavis Staples and The Brand New Heavies. And these are just the ones that I got round to buying.  Long may it continue!

My other favourite things in 2019 were:

Gig:  Durand Jones & The Indications – The Thekla, Bristol, 22nd October

Film:  Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

TV:  After Life

Book:  Dylan Jones – The Wichita Lineman: Searching In The Sun For The World’s Greatest Unfinished Song

Disappointments Of The Year:  The utterly shambolic state of British politics and politicians. Climate change deniers. The death of Scott Walker.  Morrissey

So there we have it. If you get to No.1 without falling asleep or wishing a plague of boils on me, I’d like to thank you for your time. If, however, you really can’t be arsed to read any more of this complete cobblers, there’s a Spotify playlist below.

30: KELLY FINNIGAN – The Tales People Tell (Colemine)
29: THE GRIEF BROTHERS – 35 Years On Woodfield Street (Country Mile)
28: ELBOW – Giants Of All Sizes (Polydor)
27: LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS – It Rains Love (Big Crown)
26: BLACK PUMAS – Black Pumas (ATO)
25: ANGEL OLSEN – All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
24: FONTAINES DC – Dogrel (Partisan)
23: PAUL ORWELL – Smut (Heavy Soul!)
22: RW HEDGES – The Hills Are Old Songs (Wonderfulsound)
21: MERCURY REV – Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (Bella Union)
20: JENNY LEWIS – On The Line (Warner Bros)

After four albums with her band, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis launched her solo career in 2006 with the quirky alt.country album  “Rabbit Fur Coat”. Now, thirteen years later she’s released her best and most personal collection so far. Collaborators on the record include Ringo Starr, Don Was, Beck and Jim Keltner who have helped add a knowing edge to Lewis’s lyrically dextrous songs, not least “Little White Dove” about the reconciliation after twenty years with her heroin-addicted, terminally ill mother.

19: EDWYN COLLINS – Badbea (AED)

After suffering two near-fatal brain haemorrhages in 2005 it’s more than noteworthy that Edwyn Collins turned sixty in 2019. The fact that he’s still with us is great news; the fact that he’s still making fantastic records like “Badbea” (his ninth solo album) is a heroic achievement. From the opening Northern Soul style bars of “It’s All About You” via bittersweet ballads and post-punk rockers to the album’s titular, reflective closing track, Collins ruminates on a life well-lived. The story of his journey is none-more-evident than when he sings “Long ago back in Glasgow, Ambition drove my life, Now I note I must admit, I couldn’t give a fuck” over a driving electronic beat on “Glasgow To London”. It’s so good to still have you with us Edwyn.

18: YOLA – Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound)

In early 2019 I watched Yola perform in the small Rough Trade venue of Bristol (her home city) to launch this, her debut album. Possessing one of the most powerful voices I’ve heard in a long time she really was jaw-droppingly good. Although she had previously sung with Massive Attack, it wasn’t until The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach offered to produce this production services after watching a video of her singing in Nashville, that her career started to flourish. “Walk Through Fire” has a foot in both soul and country camps with each song showcasing a different facet to Yola’s expressive and versatile vocals. Notable tracks are the soaring Dusty Springfield channelling  “Faraway Look”; the beautiful country-tinged ballad “Deep Blue Dream” complete with pedal steel and fiddles and “Love All Night (Work All Day)” that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mavis Staples LP. This young lady with a big personality and even bigger voice is certainly one to watch.

17: LLOYD COLE – Guesswork (earMUSIC) 

Along with his Commotions, in 1984 Lloyd Cole made one of the best albums of the decade in “Rattlesnakes”.  In 1991, as a solo artist, he made one of the best albums of that decade in “Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe”. Now, nineteen years and eleven studio albums later, this bookish intellectual-about-town golf-nut should be a household name. However, in a world in which Ed Sheeran is one of the biggest selling artists, Cole’s brand of intelligent, lyrically sharp and impeccably crafted music tends only to appeal to the astute music-lover who appreciates substance over, well, shite. With all his songwriting gifts still intact, Cole has employed synthesizers to great effect on Guesswork – often with unexpected, hugely enjoyable results. This is no more evident than when, sandwiched between the lush, melancholic beauty of album opener “The Over Under” and final track “The Loudness Wars” is “Violins” – an incongruous little ditty which could be a companion track to Abba’s “The Day Before You Came”. It’s great to have you back Lloyd!

16: JESSICA PRATT – Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer)

Jessica Pratt’s gorgeous third album, “Quiet Signs”, is a perfect antidote to the relentlessly dismal and damp days of a British winter.  With echoes of Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”, the album drifts into existence with the beautiful piano-led instrumental “Opening Night”. With more than a nod to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Ms Pratt’s hypnotic vocal weaves its way through the course of the album’s eight tracks like a gentle Californian breeze. The whole lysergic experience (for that’s what “Quiet Signs” is – an experience) only lasts for around twenty-eight soothing minutes before gently floating away on the final notes of “Aeroplane”. Had a bad day? Put your feet up, your headphones on and let this delicate but enchanting record soothe your soul.

15: RICHARD HAWLEY – Further (BMG)

Back in 2001, Sheffield’s Richard Hawley released his first solo record (a self-titled seven-track “mini-album”) and over the course of the following eight studio albums (his last record, “Hollow Meadows” was my joint album of the year in 2015) he has become into one of the UK’s most consistently excellent performers.  With his soothing, Orbison-esque baritone gracing sublime songs that often hark back to an era when melody and arrangements were king, Hawley has carved out his own 21st-century balladic niche. “Further” (his first album without a place name in the title) just cements his place at the singer/ songwriter’s top table. The album opens with “Off My Mind” – a raucous 70s style wig out proving that there’s more to the man than just being a crooner backed by strings – and closes with the gorgeous, twangy ballad, “Doors”. Sandwiched in between are nine superb tracks of vintage Hawley.

14: RAPHAEL SAADIQ – Jimmy Lee (Columbia)

Unless you follow the soul/ R&B scene, Raphael Saadiq is probably a name that will mean little to you. But, for those of us that do, this polymath of the black music scene is a bit of a legend. Now aged 53, Saadiq has forged a career as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He has worked with, amongst others, Prince, Whitney Houston, Mary K Blige, D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar. He was also the main man in Lucy Pearl and chart -toppingTony! Toni! Tone! before embarking on a solo career.  “Jimmy Lee”, (named after his brother who died of a heroin overdose), is his 5th (and most accomplished) solo album to date. With songs dealing with addiction, racial injustice, love, loss and redemption across a variety of styles encompassing soul, blues, gospel, jazz and hip-hop, Jimmy Lee is the sort of album that, if they were still with us Marvin, Curtis or Gil would have been proud to call their own.

13: LAVILLE – The Wanderer  (Acid Jazz)

Occasionally, British soul acts emerge that rivals anything the Americans can throw our way. In 2019, North London’s Laville is one of those acts. An accomplished young singer who, if “The Wanderer” is anything to go by, has a big future ahead of him. The sultry, summery groove of “Easy” sets the tone for the rest of the album with the mood only broken by the funky disco beat of “This City” which leads us out of the bedroom and straight into Studio 54.  With a voice as smooth as silk, Laville is very much a soul man in the classic old-school sense. “Giants”, “Thirty One”, “Love Shine” and “What You Won’t Do For Love” are all as laid-back as they come and I suspect that fans of Grover Washington Jr, Bill Withers and more recently, Omar, will find much to enjoy here.  Laville is most definitely a lover, not a fighter.

12: BRITTANY HOWARD – Jaime (Columbia)

Most people will know Brittany Howard as the lead singer with the powerful Southern Soul voice from Alabama Shakes.  The great news is that on her debut solo album, “Jaime” (named after her late sister) she’s lost none of that soulful power and has also expanded her musical palette to include funky rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, jazz and psychedelia. Through the course of “Jaime’s” eleven tracks, Howard deals with subjects as diverse as her sexuality (“Georgia”) racial prejudice (“Goat Head”) and her faith (“He Loves Me”). The ghost of Prince looms large throughout the album, not least on “History Repeating”, “Baby” and “Run To Me” and on one of the record’s high points, the gorgeous “Stay High”, you’d also be forgiven in thinking that Curtis Mayfield was alive and well and alongside Howard in the studio. Alabama Shakes as a band were good, but Brittany Howard as a solo artist is absolutely bloody fantastic!

11: LANA DEL REY – Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor/ Interscope)

It’s eight years since the enigmatic Lana Del Rey burst onto the music scene with her mega-selling single “Video Games” and twelve-million selling No.1 album, “Born To Die”. Some people wrote her off as a quirk but “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” (named after the American author, artist and social commentator) is now the artist formerly known as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant’s fifth studio album and proof that those people were idiots. Del Rey is a master of discombobulation; the sweet melodies and lush arrangements of these songs hide shadowy secrets. Her unique brand of beautiful but darkly skewed Laurel Canyon melancholia draws you in, makes you feel warm and comfortable but then punches you in the face with lines like “And if I wasn’t so fucked up, I think I’d fuck you all the time” (“Fuck It I Love You”). There’s a definite retro feel to NFR (think The Shangri-las style “death-discs” of the 60s) but with Del Rey’s own twisted 21st-century slant stamped into every nuanced line. It’s a Sunday morning album for sure, but a Sunday morning which follows a really fucked up Saturday night.

10: NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – Ghosteen (Ghosteen Ltd)

Much like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits et al, some people refuse to listen to Nick Cave as they’ve already decided they won’t like him; that he’s too niche; an enigma; difficult to “get”. So, if you’ve arrived at this review and fall into that camp, please suspend your preconceptions right now. Before you listen to “Ghosteen”, read about the tragic death of Cave’s son in 2015 and only then, with the perspective of a grieving parent, give this achingly beautiful double-album a chance. In Cave’s words: “The songs on the first record are the children. The songs on the second record are their parents. “Ghosteen” is a migrating spirit.” The instrumentation throughout is synth-heavy and hymnal; mournful washes of sound serve as a backdrop to Cave’s cryptic, plaintive meditations and allusions to an unspecified spirituality. This is no more evident than on the ethereal, spoken word “Fireflies” when he intones: “We are photons released from a dying star. We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar. And everything is distant as the stars. I am here and you are where you are”. Given the tragic nature of the subject matter, in less skilled hands “Ghosteen” could have ended up a mawkish dirge but, in Cave’s, it has a redemptive almost uplifting quality. Fans of The Blue Nile, David Sylvian or late period Talk Talk will find much to love about this mesmeric, otherworldly album.

9: WEYES BLOOD – Titanic Rising (Sub Pop)

The sublime “Titanic Rising” is the fourth studio album in eight years from Weyes Blood (aka Natalie Mering), and whilst she’s gained favourable reviews for her previous work, this sublime record has raised her to another level altogether. Although some of the album’s subject matter (climate disaster, the perils of the internet, the failure of capitalism) is serious and earnest, Merings honeyed vocal delivery disarms the listener and delivers the weighty messages with hypnotic charm. Either side of the album’s instrumental title-track and the soaring electronic grandeur of “Movies”, the tone of “Titanic Rising” shouts, unashamedly, “seventies singer/ songwriter”. “Everyday” and “Something To Believe”, especially, owe much to the legacy of Carole King or Judee Sill but channelled effortlessly through a dreamy Karen Carpenter. This is an exceptional album for extraordinary times.

8: DRUGDEALER – Raw Honey (Mexican Summer)

When I came across the video for “Fools”, the superb first single from Drugdealer’s second album, “Raw Honey”, I wasn’t sure whether they were taking the piss. I’m still dubious. However, pisstakers or not, Michael Collins and his merry band of stoners have crafted a supremely accomplished, harmony drenched (dare I say) “yacht-rock” album that could have been recorded at any time between 1967 and 1977. It appears that they wear their influences like large tie-dye patches: “Lost In My Dream” (Crosby, Stills * Nash); “London Nightmare” (Beatles/Kinks); “Wild Motion (feat Dougie Poole)” (Roy Orbison), and even the instrumental album closer “Ending On A Hi Note” has the hallmark of a Beach Boys classic stamped on it. In fact, you could spend a lost weekend rolling fat ones and guessing who each track sounds like. Pastiche? Maybe. But if you’re going to go down that route, make sure you do it as well as these guys and no one will ever care. Bong!

7: PURPLE MOUNTAINS – Purple Mountains (Drag City)

Purple Mountains IS David Berman and David Berman was one of America’s finest songwriters of recent years. I say “was”, as tragically, shortly after the album was released, he took his own life. “Purple Mountains” was Bermans first new music since his band The Silver Jews broke up in 2009 and whilst these (now poignant) songs will serve as a wonderful parting gift, the world has most certainly lost a lyrical titan. Like so many geniuses, Berman struggled with addiction and depression throughout his life and the death of his mother (the subject of one of his most beautiful songs “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”), in 2016 floored him. Listening in hindsight to his deep Johnny Cash like drawl on the incongruously upbeat “All My Happiness Is Gone” and the signs of his frail state of mind are there: “All my happiness is gone, It’s all gone somewhere beyond”, whilst “Darkness & Cold”, offers up: “Darkness and cold, darkness and cold, Rolled in through the holes in the stories I told, Conditions I’m wishing weren’t taking control”. However, despite the often self-loathing subject matter, this is one of the funniest, most passionate and listenable albums in my chart. Berman confronted the imperfections of the human condition head-on and through “Purple Mountains” sang it back to us with a wry and perceptive nod and a wink. I mean, how can you not laugh out loud at these lines in “That’s The Way I Feel”:  “I met failure in Australia, I fell ill in Illinois, I nearly lost my genitalia, To an anthill in Des Moines”. RIP David, you’ll be missed.

6: THE SPECIALS – Encore (UMG/Island)

When it was released in 1979, The Specials’ self-titled debut album changed my life forever. I’d never heard anything quite like it, or them, before. Despite already being a music-obsessed teenager, they, along with their hugely influential 2-Tone label opened my sixteen-year-old mind to a world of music, culture and attitude that has never really left me. Forty years on and still as vehemently anti-racist and anti-Tory as ever, the current incarnation of The Specials (Terry Hall, Lynval Golding & Horace Panter) were deservedly rewarded with their first No.1 album. The record kicks-off with a funky cover of The Equals’ “Black Skin, Blue Eyed Boys” quickly followed by the wonderful BLM (Black Lives Matter) which has Lynval Golding narrating his personal story of racist treatment in the UK after arriving from Jamaica in 1954, and then more of the same when he moved to the USA some forty-years later. Throughout the album,  political or social commentary is rarely more than a line or two away. “Vote For Me” (which gently reprises the classic “Ghost Town”) is about snout-in-the-trough politicians; “10 Commandments” sees activist Saffiyah Khan reworking Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments Of Man”; “Embarrassed By You” berates the current generation for their lack of respect and obsession with gang culture and knife crime. Album highlight for me though is the lilting reggae of “The Life & Times (Of A Man Called Depression)” – a spoken word track in which Terry Hall bares all and tells of his battles with bipolar disorder.  Album closer, the plaintive “We Sell Hope” brings things to a close with the lines: “Looked all around the world, We’ve gotta take care of each other”, which, in an increasingly divided society, might be the best advice of the year. The Specials, like all of us original fans, may well be getting old, but “Encore” is more than enough proof that they’re sure as hell not hanging up their loafers just yet.

5: P.P. ARNOLD – The New Adventures Of…P.P. Arnold (earMUSIC)

When a soul legend releases her first new album in over fifty years, it’s a noteworthy event. When that legend is mod icon P.P. Arnold and her Steve Cradock and Paul Weller produced album is one of the best things she’s ever done, well, that’s just a massive bonus! Although this isn’t the first we’ve heard from Ms Arnold recently, (Cradock was also instrumental in getting her “lost” late sixties LP “The Turning Tide” released in 2017) it’s obvious from the opening notes of the poppy Northern Soul belter, “Baby Blue”, that she’s lost none of her power or range. The New Adventures Of… is certainly value for money. It weighs in at over an hour and, across the album’s fifteen tracks, P.P tackles a variety of styles and genres, all with some great aplomb. There are gorgeous ballads: “Though It Hurts Me Badly”, “I’m A Dreamer; groovy house “Hold On To Your Dreams”; a funky nine-minute spoken word version of Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts Of Woodie Guthrie” and a brand new Paul Weller penned track “When I Was Part Of Your Picture” (plus a Weller cover, “Shoot The Dove”. On top of all this, Steve Cradock (not just content with production and playing duties) wrote one of the albums many highlights – the rousing, Motown-esque cracker, “Magic Hour”. Without any doubt, The New Adventures Of P.P. Arnold is THE comeback album of the year.

4: CARLTON JUMEL SMITH – 1634 Lexington Avenue (Timmion)

It seems that every year at least one album appears out of nowhere and completely blows me away. This year that album is “1634 Lexington Avenue”, from one of soul music’s unsung heroes, Carlton Jumel Smith.  I’m not sure what’s more bizarre, the fact that he’s left it until his late fifties to release such a brilliant set of songs or that in 1999 he somehow failed to become a huge star after appearing as James Brown in Barry Levinson’s excellent movie, “Liberty Heights” . “1634…” contains ten original tracks of classic old-school soul straight from the Al Green, Bobby Womack and (his hero) James Brown school, each expertly performed by the flamboyant and charismatic Smith and expertly supported by Timmion Records’ in-house band, Cold Diamond & Mink.  Every track on this wonderful album is worthy of mention here but “Woman You Made Me”, “You Gonna Need Me” and one of the singles of the year “This Is What Love Looks Like” (if you can watch the video here without smiling then you’re probably a serial malcontent). Don’t leave it too long between records next time please Mr Smith.

3: DURAND JONES & THE INDICATIONS – American Love Call (Dead Oceans/ Colemine) 

When Indiana based Durand Jones & The Indications released their excellent self-titled debut album in 2016, I didn’t expect them to follow it up with one of the finest soul albums of the 21st century (so far!). Trust me, “American Love Call” is a classic. It’s vintage, old-school soul made by a bunch of young men who pay homage to the greats (Al Green, Smokey Robinson, The Dramatics among many others) but whose style is very much their own. In Durand Jones, the band possess a dynamic, cool-as-fuck frontman (as evidenced when I saw them perform at Bristol’s Thekla back in October) whose pleading vocals dovetail perfectly with drummer Aaron Frazer’s sweet falsetto. “American Love Call” is a more laid back album than their funky debut and this new approach works in their favour. Frazer’s vocals, plus the lush arrangements on tracks such as the Stylistics channelling Philly-soul of “Court Of Love” and the dreamy “How Can I Be Sure?” are exquisite, whilst the mid-tempo “Don’t You Know” and “Circles” plus the jaunty “Long Way Home” lend themselves more to Jones deeper delivery. What sets this album apart from their debut is a greater sense of cohesion. This is especially evident on the album’s opening three tracks:  the not-so-optimistic state of the nation lament, “Morning In America” plus the pleading “Don’t You Know” and “Circles” on which this supremely talented quartet all gel together and are at the top of their respective games. If album number three continues this upward trajectory then we really will be in for an even bigger treat.

2: MICHAEL KIWANUKA – Kiwanuka (Polydor/ Interscope)

Michael Kiwanuka’s brilliant number one LP, “Love & Hate” was my 2016 album of the year and because it was such a commercial and critical success, it could have been easy for him to sit on his laurels and succumb to the “difficult third album” syndrome. However, I’m extremely pleased to report that his Dangermouse and Inflo produced follow up, “Kiwanuka”, is every bit as good as its predecessor. Admittedly, there’s nothing quite as grand as “Love & Hate’s” atmospheric, ten-minute opener “Cold Little Heart” (“Kiwanuka’s” gorgeous two-part “Piano Joint” comes close) but across the album’s fourteen tracks there’s a greater overall sense of cohesion plus evidence of an artist who at last is starting to feel more comfortable in his own skin. The album opens with two upbeat belters; “You Ain’t The Problem” starts out sounding like a distant Caribbean party before bursting into a funky, fuzzy barefoot groove straight outta ’71. The psychedelic soul of “Rolling” then takes up the reigns with a driving percussive beat before segueing into one of the album’s gentler tracks – the glorious gospel-tinged “I’ve Been Dazed”. There are references to racism, police brutality and division dotted throughout, no more so than on “Another Human Being” a telling gunshot ends the track abruptly after a passage of recorded civil-rights commentary. The gorgeous seven-minute love-song-of-sorts “Hard To Say Goodbye” (which to these ears wouldn’t sound out of place on Weller’s “22 Dreams”) drifts in and out like a daydream. It also marks the point at which “Kiwanuka” starts its gentle descent into another aural realm, culminating in the lysergic, orchestral (heavenly?) final track “Light”, in which he appears to have found some kind of peace. “Shine your light over me (shine on me), (All of my fears are gone), All of my fears are gone, baby, gone, gone (And it don’t bother me), It don’t bother me, don’t bother me, now… “. Three albums in and MK has now released two bona fide classics in a row. Make no mistake, he is one of the most important and vital artists to have emerged from the UK this century.

1: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – Western Stars (Columbia)

And so to this year’s Acoustic Egg Box Album Of The Year. Although since its release, not a week has gone by when I haven’t played “Western Stars”, I honestly don’t know how to go about reviewing one of the best ever albums (in my opinion!) made by one of the greatest rock stars of all time. It sounds like a cop-out but I genuinely don’t feel that I can add anything worthwhile to the thousands of reviews that have already been written and are widely available anywhere you care to look. I love Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. I love his music and I respect him immensely as a person, however, I realise that he is one of that select group who has obsessive fans who know (I mean REALLY know) every last detail about him and his music. They can tell you how many different pressings (plus the catalogue numbers) there are of his nineteen studio and twenty-three live albums; they will know who designed and printed the cover sleeves for each of his seventy singles and they will probably have the name and address of the man who drove his tour bus in 1985. So, rather than harp on about the specifics of “Western Stars” and then recycle the millions of words already written about its creator, below I’ve written just a few words about why it’s become such an important record to me.

If I’m honest, from the moment I first heard “Western Stars” back in June, I knew that it would be my album of the year. It felt like a record that I’d always known; a record crammed with proper songs and gorgeous melodies that sounded new and yet familiar at the same time. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the sixties and seventies on an aural diet of Bacharach & David, Glenn Campbell & Jimmy Webb, Roy Orbison, Harry Nillson and Jim Reeves that I love records with sweeping orchestral arrangements. Records with lyrics telling stories about the loved or the scorned, the lost and the found; about gamblers, chancers and unsung heroes from far off places I’d never been to but where I knew I wanted to go. Those songs burrowed their way into my young brain without me even realising it and they’ve stayed there ever since.  The songs on “Western Stars” have that quality. Every single one of them. They are sumptuous and textured songs; sweeping widescreen epics as big as the Nebraskan sky and telling tales of drifters, hitch-hikers and lovers who are too many miles from where they long to be. “Wichita Lineman” or “Everybody’s Talkin” or “Rhinestone Cowboy” also achieve this feat. In the space of just a few beautifully constructed verses, these songs fill your head with characters and emotions brought to life by fine words, all carried along on melodies to die for. The songs on “Western Stars” have that quality. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

2017 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part One: 20-11)

And so, without further ado and after many hours of turmoil, sleepless nights and long conversations with myself, I present for your delectation (and dismay no doubt), the first half of this year’s prestigious Acoustic Egg Box Album’s Of The Year for 2017. I’ve based the chart on nothing more than my own exceptionally good taste in music, but, due to the fact that I also have a “proper job”, (yes I know, how selfish), I only have a finite amount of hours listening time in what, I think at least, has been an exceptional year for new music. There will, of course, be records that some of you equally discerning readers think should have been included among these magnificent examples of music being made in 2017- but it’s my blog and therefore I’m obviously right! Seriously though, the wonderful thing about any art is its subjective nature and its ability to create debate and discussion; I know this is true as, when my gorgeous wife is questioned about her strange choice of husband, she always replies with “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”…………

 

20: BECK – Colors (Capitol)

Beck’s sublime, career-best record “Morning Phase” was The 2014 Acoustic Egg Box Album Of The Year so he was going to have to come up with something pretty special to equal that feat.  As something of a genre-hopping chameleon you’re never sure what you’re going to get with Mr Hansen and on Color’s (his 13th studio album) he has traded in wistful and melancholic introspection for classic pop. Although not quite reaching the dizzy artistic heights of its predecessor, “Colors” is still a cracking album and with the opening single, “Up All Night”, it gave us one of the catchiest tracks of the year.

19: ELBOW – Little Fictions (Polydor)

I love Elbow, they are my comfort blanket; a band of quietly unassuming but richly talented blokes who make gorgeous, grown-up music that warms your cockles even during the bleakest of moments. Although “Little Fictions” is still unmistakably Elbow,  in the time that’s elapsed since 2014’s gorgeous “The Take Off & Landing Of Everything” (AEB No.5), drummer Richard Jupp’s shock departure from the line-up has resulted in the band taking on a more experimental and percussive sound than on recent albums. However, despite the slightly different direction they’ve taken in places, we were still treated to another lush Elbow classic in the anthemic opening single  “Magnificent (She Says)”.

18: THUNDERCAT – Drunk (Brainfeeder)

Thundercat’s (AKA Steven Bruner) hugely entertaining and utterly bonkers set, was, for me, one of the highlights of Glastonbury 2017 and made me sit up and take notice of this extraordinarily talented musician. With his inventive, yet accessible, brand of “cosmic” jazz, bassist Thundercat, along with Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington et al, is one of the most innovative of a new breed of young black musicians kicking fresh life into the R&B/ Hip-Hop scene. Don’t be put off by the jazz label though, as this album will also appeal to fans of, among others, Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan and, on “Show You The Way”, he even enlists the unlikely help of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on one of the singles of the year.

17: CURTIS HARDING – Face Your Fear (Anti-)

The great news is that this year has seen something of a resurgence in classic soul music made by proper singers singing decent songs accompanied by real musicians and with “Face Your Fear”, former CeeLo Green backup singer Curtis Harding has definitely made some classic sounding soul music. Although more introspective than his 2014 début, “Soul Power”, the eleven co-penned, Dangermouse produced, Gaye/ Mayfield influenced tracks on show here aren’t without their uplifting moments. Highlights include the terrific, Motown-esque single “Need Your Love” which is impossible not to tap your toes to and “Dream Girl” on which Harding’s falsetto conjures up visions of Prince doing psychedelic-soul. A great second album indeed that bodes extremely well for the future of Curtis Harding and the soul genre overall.

16: LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – American Dream (DFA/ Columbia)

Back in 2011, after releasing three exceptional “new-wave electronica dance rock” (ok, I made that up) albums, LCD Soundsytem’s main man and Bowie acolyte, James Murphy, decided to “retire” the band with a spectacular last concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. However, with the untimely death of his hero (and whose Blackstar album Murphy was a contributor on) his creativity has been jolted back to life. As you’d expect, Bowie’s influence is all over the album – “Change Yr Mind” could have been lifted from Scary Monsters and echoes of his Berlin period abound but if you want further reference points, think OMD (“Oh Baby”); Talking Heads (“Other Voices”); PiL (“How Do You Sleep”) and Human League (“American Dream”).  Despite all the touchstones though, this is an album as fresh and relevant as anything released in 2017. Welcome back Mr Murphy, you were missed!

15: SAINT ETIENNE – Home Counties (Heavenly)

After a gap of five years, this quintessentially English band return with a quintessentially English album about the Home Counties. Over the course of these nineteen tracks, the band embark on a typically melodic musical journey through the areas surrounding London as envisioned by lyricists in chief Sarah Cracknell and Bob Stanley. The songs, replete with birdsong, dulcimers, a church choir and mentions of apple-tree orchards, rail replacement buses and characters including “Train Drivers In Eyeliner”, are little kitchen sink dramas often wistfully referring to England’s (imagined?) idyllic past. High points include the lush, synth-driven “Whyteleaf” in which they imagine what would have become of David Bowie if he’d never left the area and the exceptional Cracknell narrated, swirling psychedelic majesty of seven-minute epic, “Arcadia”.  Bands twenty-six years into a brilliant career have no right to be making albums this good, but then again most of them don’t contain songwriters of the calibre of Cracknell and Stanley.

14: THE LEN PRICE 3 – Kentish Longtails (MRI)

To my detriment, until the September release of their fifth studio album “Kentish Longtails”, I had never heard anything by Medway band, The Len Price 3. So, for those of you who are still in the Len Price 3 wilderness that I was in August, here’s a quick introduction to the band and their music: imagine it’s 1979 and the post-punk Mod revival is in full swing, throw into the mix some Buzzcocks, Undertones and Sham 69 along with The Jam, The Chords and Dr.Feelgood, stir in the best bits from the mid-nineties Brit Pop era and garnish generously with classic The Who and The Kinks songwriting, and you’ll get a sense of what to expect. This album is so good that many of the fourteen catchy, three-minute power-pop mini-classics on Kentish Longtails would almost certainly have graced the Top 10 in another era, especially “Childish Words”, “Saturday Morning Filmshow”, “Stop Start Lilly”, “Paint Your Picture Well” and the beautiful ballad “Telegraph Hill”. Find of the year!

13: REAL ESTATE – In Mind (Domino)

New Jersey’s Real Estate are as good an aural antidote to the British winter as you’ll find. Since the release of 2014’s sublime “Atlas” (AEB No.3) and despite being shaken by the acrimonious departure of founding member, guitarist and sonic lynchpin Matt Mondanile, I’m happy to report that they are still intact and every bit as mellow and melodically sublime as ever. Lead singer and songwriter Martin Courtney has once again worked his magic on “In Mind”, their fourth album, and given us eleven more tracks that would sit comfortably among the best Laurel Canyon offerings from the late 60’s/ early 70’s, and on the stoned, swooning “After the Moon”, he has penned something of a minor classic.  Put this record on, pour yourself a Pimms and daydream about the summer

12: DON BRYANT – Don’t Give Up On Love (Fat Possum)

75-year-old Don Bryant is something of a legend – not so much for his singing career but as a songwriter. Married to soul star, Ann Peebles since 1974, Bryant was responsible for penning her biggest hit,  “I Can’t Stand The Rain” along with many other songs for Hi-Records artists including Al Green and Otis Clay. He also wrote the classic “A Nickel & A Nail” – a big hit for O.V Wright and the opening track on this, his first album for forty-eight years! Other album highlights include the yearning title track;  the swinging Southern Soul of “Something About You”; the upbeat and bluesy “I Got To Know” and the gospel call and response belter “How Do I Get Here”, on which he demonstrates that vocal control and power isn’t just the domain of the young. Comeback album of the year.

11: FATHER JOHN MISTY –  Pure Comedy (Sub Pop)

Although the former Fleet Foxes drummer, Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty), can act like an arrogant bellend of some aplomb, when it comes to the task of making music, there are few singer-songwriters currently working that can touch him for sheer lyrical and musical brilliance.  Although as an album “Pure Comedy”, which addresses themes of fame, technology and the human condition, doesn’t quite hit the heights of “I Love You Honeybear” (The 2015 Acoustic Egg Box Album of The Year) it has given us, in the title track, possibly the greatest song he has ever written: “Their languages just serve to confuse them, Their confusion somehow makes them more sure, They build fortunes poisoning their offspring, And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure”.  Based on his recent output, the man is an undoubted genius and, as we all know, geniuses are often flawed, so, in his defence, and as long as he keeps making great music, I will forgive him his twattery.

2014 – The Acoustic Egg Box Top 20 Albums Of The Year (Part Two – No’s 10-1)

Well here’s the bit you’ve all been waiting so patiently for – numbers 10 to 1 in 2014’s “The Acoustic Egg Box Albums Of The Year”.  If the amount of letters, emails, tweets and phone calls are anything to go by after the 20-11 section was issued, it appears both of you were disappointed to see there were no entries from One Direction, Mario Lanza or Anal Vomit. Never mind, there’s always next year…….

10: ALLAH-LAS – Worship The Sun (Innovative Leisure)            The second album from L.A based Allah-Las sees them once again ploughing their own retro furrow of fuzzy psyched up/ 60’s garage, but with a more assured feel than their 2012 debut. The influences are many (The Byrds/ Love/ Seeds etc) and their version of The Frantics’ 1960 single “Werewolf” (No Werewolf) is great, mad fun.

9: DAMIEN JURADO – Brothers & Sisters Of The Eternal Sun (Secretly Canadian)                                                            Although still as inventive and “out there” as ever, Jurado’s Richard Swift produced 11th album is the most eminently listenable and coherent record of his prolific career. In places, the songs are shimmering and beautiful, in others psyched up and jazzy but all of them worthy of repeated listens.

8: SLOW CLUB – Complete Surrender (Caroline)                                From 2009’s folky debut to 2011’s poppier follow up and on to this, their fantastic, tune laden and soulful third, Sheffield’s male/ female duo, Slow Club, have certainly been anything but formulaic in their musical progression. The production, although polished, stops short of being too contrived, allowing their superb vocals room to shine.

7: TY SEGALL – Manipulator (Drag City)                                                Manipulator is the longest album in this top twenty with its 17 tracks running to just over an hour – an hour of joyous, rocky, glam, psychedelic, driving, garage from start to finish. Segall may be prolific but he certainly doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. Fans of Bolan, Bowie, Iggy, The Stones, Yardbirds et al won’t be disappointed.

6: CHERRY GHOST – Herd Runners (Heavenly)                              Cherry Ghost is, essentially, Simon Aldred – one of Britain’s finest, most underrated songwriters. This is an album of proper songs; songs of romance, heartbreak, lost love and found love – all sharing a soulful, melancholic beauty. If you can listen to “Drinking For Two” without a lump in your throat, you must have a heart of stone.

5: ELBOW – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything (Fiction)      For a band who have now been together for nearly 25 years they aren’t having a bad run of form! Their trademark melodies and orchestral flourishes are here in full effect and the vivid songwriting and unique lyrical aphorisms are better than ever. In summary: the more things change the more they stay the same – but in a good way. Gorgeous

4: MANIC STREET PREACHERS – Futurology (Columbia)            The fact that Futurology was recorded in Berlin is evident from the off. The album brims with influences from Neu! to Bowie and even the early (good) incarnation of Simple Minds. Synths are used to great effect throughout but especially so on “Let’s Go To War” – one of 2014’s best tracks. A brave, brilliant album from a band still very much at the top of their game.

3: REAL ESTATE – Atlas (Domino)                                                          It could be lazy of me to describe Real Estate’s “Atlas” as “21st Century Byrdsian”, but that’s pretty much the vibe that they conjure up, and an absolutely joyful vibe it is too. Listening to this album on a cold, wet and windy English December day has the power to transport you to summertime on a Californian beach.

2: REIGNING SOUND – Shattered (Merge)                                      Greg Cartwright is the best American songwriter you’ve never heard of and, on “Shattered”, he’s honed Reigning Sound’s (largely) garage rock output into a brilliantly eclectic Stax era soulful, funky, country rock album replete with horns, strings, pedal steel and flourishes of Hammond organ. To hear it is to love it!

1: BECK – Morning Phase (Capitol)                                                      Comparisons to 2002’s sublime “Sea Change” are inevitable but, as good as that album is, “Morning Phase” blows it out of the water. This is a record that could have been made at any time during the prodigious late 60’s/ early 70’s Laurel Canyon era and still been hailed as the classic that it most certainly is. It is an often mournful but always mellifluously beautiful suite of songs that luminaries such as Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young, The Byrds, Dylan, Nick Drake et al would have been proud to call their own. This is quite simply a stunning, timeless album and a career-best by some way.  A worthy Number One!