Here at AUK towers we used to quite often fall out over our end of year list, and even the stronger among us walked away in a sea of blood, sweat and tears (the things). It was the block vote what done it. And so, like Ed Miliband before us we moved to a one member one vote system in a non-secret ballot and things seemed to work out much better. We don’t settle on a definitive list, who can in these troubled muddled times, but here, dear readers, are our picks of the best stuff we’ve listened to over the last 12 months. Complaints and accusations of nepotism to the usual address please. Oh and tomorrow we’ll have the results of YOUR picks of 2017. Contain your excitement if you can.
David Cowling: Joana Serrat “Dripping Springs” (Loose) This is the year when I’ve been busier than any other year and I’ve had less time to devote to anything, so my attention has to be grabbed quickly – as it was by this beguiling record. And not only did it grab me quickly, it has also endured. Fragments of it keep popping into my head and I keep going back to it and discovering nuances that I’d missed before. It’s immersive and it takes me away from everything else and for that, I am thankful.
Michael Farley: Robert Cline Jr “American Mojo” (Independent) This album offers a varied dose of Americana recorded at the iconic Muscle Shoals studios. A wide range of styles are on offer from lonesome country to raucous honky tonk and soulful songs complete with horns and great funky grooves. An album for playing loud with a smile of your face.
Paul Kerr: Chuck Prophet “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins” (Yep Roc) Chuck’s been on a roll with his last couple of albums but this slice of “California Noir” may be his best yet. Stuffed full of memorable songs with a fine nod to lost heroes and the best Jesus song for a while, Jesus Was A Social Drinker.
David Jennings: Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires “Youth Detention” (Proper) Optimistic, angry at times but always brutally honest, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires have honed their sound from the coruscating “Dereconstructed”, but retained the irresistible stream of consciousness lyrics and incisive social commentary. A turbo-charged, stereotype-busting snapshot of America today with great energy and tunes. Like The Clash? Give it a listen.
Rick Bayles: Hannah Aldridge “Gold Rush” (Rootsy) I reviewed it back in June when I gave it an 8/10; if I were to review it again today, after many playings, I would certainly give it a 10. It’s everything you could want from a Muscle Shoals recording – the perfect blend of rock and soul with just a little bit of country creeping through. Hannah Aldridge has a great voice, writes great songs and delivers them with commitment and panache and a confidence that belies her years. There’ve been some great albums this year but, for me, this one stands out from the pack.
Pete Churchill: Rodney Crowell “Close Ties” (New West) An Americana legend looks back on key periods of his life and produces a masterclass in reflective songwriting that just happens to have the bonus of including two of the standout songs of the year in “40 Miles From Nowhere” and “It Ain’t Over Yet”. Brilliant and affecting.
Jon Aird: Miranda Lee Richards “Existential Beast” (Invisible Hands) Somewhere between Pentangle, Kate Bush and Pink Floyd sits this perfection of an album. Existential Beast rails against political hypocrisy, embraces love, wraps both messages up in a gossamer then punches through with an electric joy. Inner beauty as a shield against a harsh world.
Mark Nenadic: Amelia White “Rhythm Of The Rain” (White Wolf) Outstanding songs accompany a fantastically soulful, wearily hopeful East Nashville voice. Take for instance Sugar Baby, a modern prison ballad – it oozes Deep South temptation and wrongdoing. Intelligent rhythms and arrangements drive all the songs along – no two sound too similar or dissimilar. Title track Rhythm Of The Rain has a fantastic minor to major turnaround for the chorus. Don’t take my word for it, listen below.
Keith Hargreaves: Conor Oberst “Salutations” (Nonesuch) Everything you want from music now – great writing, playing (Felice’s and Wilson), joy and heartbreak in equal measure plus that extra thing …soul. Also rans: The Dream Syndicate, This the Kit, Mavis Staples, Neil Young and Micheal Head – a good year!
Dave Clarke: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “The Nashville Sound” (Southeastern) This is a confident, truthful album, by a special artist. All the songs are written by Jason alone, the other, Anxiety is by Jason, with his wife, Amanda Shires who is a member of the 400 Unit. On this track, one is treated to the soaring playing of another band member, Sadler Vaden. Overall, a haunting collection. Listen to the chorus of If We Were Vampires and its description of a lasting love: “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever…” Jason here has managed to add a heartfelt edginess to his songs that reflect all our lives now.
Also chosen by Mark Underwood: The success of the album resides in its ability to mix songs which are both highly personal and political, without seeming at all forced or trite. On If We Were Vampires, Isbell beautifully captures the ephemeral nature of love and life, while he’s also capable of looking into the dark heart of America on songs like A White Man in a White Man’s World. In the latter, his ability to summarise the whole history of modern America in a couple of lines makes him the outstanding songwriter against whom all others must be judged at present:
I’m a white man living on a white man’s street,
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet;
The highway runs through their burial grounds,
Past the oceans of cotton.
Maurice Hope: Jeremy Pinnell “Ties of Blood and Affection”(At The Helm) Roots Americana singer-songwriting music doesn’t come any better than that of Ohio-Kentucky act, Jeremy Pinnell. Pinnell’s album Ties Of Blood And Affection retains the essence of honky-tonk country in its purest form. His riveting stories aren’t so much held together by a thread, but a rope similar to one used to anchor an ocean liner!
Muff Fitzgerald: Heather Lynne Horton “Don’t Mess With Mrs Murphy” (At the Helm) I raise my coffee cup to Chicago’s Heather Lynne Horton: singer, multi-instrumentalist, enlightened being, pulchritudinous wife and mother, whose album shimmers with lyrical beauty, melodic magnificence and layer upon layer of sonic atmosphere. Her beautiful songs have filled my world with wonder and joy this year. Thank you for that.
Mark Whitfield: GospelbeacH “Another Summer of Love” (Alive) I can’t tell you how excited I was to find out that my favourite band from Green Man who sounded so much like Beachwood Sparks basically are Beachwood Sparks reincarnated. The capital H at the end of the name which frustratingly looks like a typo is the only bad thing you can say about GospelbeacH who make music like the heady days of 2000-era americana: Laurel Canyon vibes and bloody brilliant.
Del Day: Jeff Tweedy “Together At Last” (Anti) Tweedy strips back some of his best songs to simple voice and acoustic guitar to truly wonderful effect. Far from being a run of the mill run through some old tunes “Together At Last” acts more like a spotlight on the sheer genius that is Tweedy the songwriter. These songs, free from any cosmetic fineary or props just shine, their simplicity and integrity there for everyone to hear. just delightful from start to finish.