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.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Clientele – Music For The Age Of Miracles (Tapete Records)

For the uninitiated, The Clientele are a London-based British band from deepest, darkest Hampshire who specialise in a superior and unique brand of intelligent, literary dream-pop.  They released “The Violet Hour”, the first of their (now) seven superb albums in 2002, but, despite huge critical acclaim, have never gained the commercial success in the UK that their rich talents deserve. It came as no surprise then, that after their lauded 2010 mini-album “Minotaur” once again failed to give them a much-deserved break, in 2011 they announced they were taking an “indefinite hiatus”. Plus, with founder member, vocalist and main songwriter Alasdair MacLean also recording material with his “other” band, Amor De Dias, most fans, I suspect, thought that the game was finally up………….until now!

Although having always trodden a somewhat Arcadian path, on “Music For The Age Of Miracles”, more so than on their previous records, the band have explored a more gentle, pastoral psychedelia; an autumnal palette of sounds born in leafy London suburbs but imbued with the warmth of a Californian Santa Ana breeze. The album’s twelve new, but dreamily familiar songs (including three instrumentals) imparted as always in MacLean’s breathy, languid vocal style, have a lysergic quality – seemingly plucked from that magical realm somewhere between wake and sleep. It’s no coincidence either that the hiring of multi-instrumentalist and arranger Anthony Harmer, who, whilst complementing original members, James Hornsey and Mark Keen, has also brought subtle new dimensions to the band’s sound by introducing, amongst other things, the exotic santur (a Persian dulcimer) and saz (a Turkish stringed instrument) into the mix.

Album opener, the hypnotic and hymnal “The Neighbour”, is one of the most beautiful tracks you will hear this year and sets the tone for the rest of this exceptional album. Through the swooping choral backdrops a violin solo gives way to uplifting and sublime key changes whilst MacLean gently, but optimistically, intones that, “In the corridor, the face of God is smiling”

Running hand in hand with the album’s abstract, dream-state imagery, themes of both the natural and celestial worlds abound. Superb first single “Lunar Days” is (possibly?) a lament, wrapped up in an autumnal metaphor, about the creep of London’s suburban decay: “When it’s late November and you’re lost in the leaves/ And you speak in beaten copper tongues that nobody hears” followed a few lines later by “So, I walked along the street with no one home/ Lamps no one lit, roads no one drove” are magical lyrics and encapsulate the feel of the whole album.

“Falling Asleep” is a stroke of genius –  a musical adaptation of celebrated First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon’s bucolic poem of the same title, which, for this budding writer and music lover at least, is worth the purchase price of the album alone. The melodic, orchestral “Everyone You Meet” with opening couplet “Pleiades fall/ Pleiades rise”, the brooding and elegiac “Constellations Echo Lanes” and two of the three instrumental tracks, the brief but lovely semi-classical vignettes “Lyra in April” and “Lyra in October”, have stellar connotations while the third instrumental, “North Circular Days” is a pretty tribute to an ugly road.

Harmer’s instrumentation and arrangement on “The Circus” push it in a “folky” direction and with a little stretch of the imagination, it could have been a track that the late great Ronnie Laine may have been happy to record. The lyrical stream of consciousness of “Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself”, complete with harp, insistent guitar refrain and uplifting trumpet flourishes complementing the lush, layered vocals, is another album high point; “The Museum Of Fog” is a spoken word track recounting the tale of a young man’s evening attending a real/ imaginary gig which may, or may not, have been fuelled by narcotics of a hallucinatory nature……..

“Swallows wheel from sun-bleached eaves/ Trucks glow on peripheries/ Light the lamps, the empty house is falling” are the opening lines from the exquisite, goose-bump raising final track, “The Age Of Miracles”, and which, in just a handful of words, explain far better than I ever could why the return of The Clientele should be lauded as one of the musical high-points of 2017.

Fans of Belle & Sebastian, Tindersticks, The Blue Nile, Nick Drake, The Byrds and even Broadcast or Saint Etienne in their more tender moments should embrace and then rush out to buy “Music For The Age Of Miracles” because, if this wonderful band decide to take another extended sabbatical through lack of sales or wider recognition, we will all be the poorer for it.