Sharpie’s Favourite Albums 2018

2018 has just come to a close, so it’s time to reflect on the year that’s been. Here’s my rundown of MY ten favourite albums of 2018.

2018 was the year where I got back into vinyl (thanks Taine for the hardware). In many of these albums, the vinyl has helped bring out feel and layers of the music which was missing from my early listens on Spotify and even from the CD versions. It’s also disciplined my listening, urging me to stop other things and just listen to the music – devoting my full attention.

2018 was a brilliant year stacked full of great albums from old favourites and a few new discoveries.

This list is not a list of ‘best’ albums just those that rang my bell. There are a number which just missed out which sat up there all year. Some of those that just missed the cut  may be ‘better’ as in more original, newer or more inventive but these are the albums that I just wanted to listen to over and over.

1. Vanished Gardens – Charles Lloyd & the Marvels with Lucinda Williams

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Charles Lloyd and the Marvels’ Vanished Gardens intersperses jazzy country flavoured instrumentals with four Lucinda Williams vocals. The version of Ventura in particular surpasses the (very fine) original thanks to Lloyd’s saxophone lines which weave around Williams’ typically languid vocals. The production and the fine playing by all involved – including the dream combination of Bill Frisell on guitar and Greg Leisz on pedal steel and dobro – is utterly entrancing throughout the many fine compositions. My most played album of 2018. It sounds amazing on vinyl.

2. Heaven & Earth – Kamasi Washington

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Kamasi Washington’s beguiling ‘Epic’ topped my list on release in 2016. Heaven & Earth is his second Masterpiece. The 2 CD/4LP work is arranged into two halves, the first “Earth’ traces the protagonist’s journey on earth from young firebrand (‘Fists of Fury’ – a version of the title track from the Bruce Lee film) through realisation and ultimately a form of wisdom and acceptance. ‘One on One’, the final track of the Earth half features a thematic ascension rendered by increasingly exuberant playing matched by swirling, uplifting choral voices. The second half ‘Heaven’ continues that journey with the music increasingly moving into the celestial realm culminating in the joyous ‘Will You Sing’. Concept albums can be vexed but not this one, Washington’s great accomplishment is to present this explorative journey in a manner which seems natural and unforced subtly integrating the individual tracks into a thematic whole not unlike an opera or symphony. Masterful.

3. Woman Gotta Cry – Yolanda Ingley II

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In what has been an excellent year for local ‘Americana’ music Yolanda Ingley II’s ‘Woman Got To Cry’ stood out from the pack coming on like a lost 60’s folk/soul classic. The production by Sam Teskey and the crack band they’ve assembled at his Half Mile Harvest studio in Melbourne – including Teskey’s own intuitive guitar work – make the most of Ingley’s immense songwriting talents and engaging vocals. If you told me each of these wonderful songs were lost classics taken from the Great American Songbook I would have believed you.

4. The Crossing – Alejandro Escovedo

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Escovedo has been making great records, largely under the radar of commercial success for many years. He rarely disappoints. The Crossing is a new highlight (and possibly benchmark) of that illustrious recording career. It captures Escovedo’s chosen oeuvre – down at heel explorations of dusty towns, moral foibles and seductive women – in the vivid, cinematic monochrome of a concept album in which two immigrants meet in Galveston, Texas and begin their journey of discovery finding ‘an America that no longer existed’.

5. True Meanings – Paul Weller

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True Meaning is yet another highlight of Paul Weller’s already illustrious solo career. The uniform quality of the songs and gentle dynamic interplay between voice, guitar, keyboards and lush (but not overplayed) intertwined strings adds up to one of my favourites of the year. The album renders 14 pieces of stunning consistency into a compelling collection which grabs attention from the opening side and never flags or repeats itself overs its course. The cover art work features Weller’s black clad image holding a cigarette and staring in contemplation and reflection while seated on a lush vintage teal velvet chair. It’s a shot which conveys a mix of age, style, poise and control which sums up the album perfectly.

6. No Mercy In This Land – Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

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This second collaboration between Harper and renowned harpist and blues legend Charlie Musselwhite is a resounding success. The two seem immediately more familiar than the first time around working with a nuanced understanding of each other’s musicianship. Meanwhile Harper brings to the table some of his finest writing dropping at frequent intervals a beguiling turn of phrase – try these: ‘I found hay in a stack of needles’ (from ‘Found The One’); or ‘Come close you’ll see the red/ Of a well bitten tongue’ (form ‘No Mercy In This Land’) or ‘You practice law without a license/ Psychology too/ But your PHD is in giving me the blues’ and ‘ You get away with murder/ You got a way with words’ (both from ‘Movin’ On’). Great writing and great performances all around. Same goes for their excellent show at the Sydney Opera House.

7. Between Two Shores – Glen Hansard

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Glen Hansard’s solo material continues to go from strength to strength with Between Two Shores, his follow up to 2016’s Doesn’t He Ramble. From the slow burn opener Roll on Slow to the straight ahead rock out of Wheel’s On Fire, the pensive Setting Out right through to the final denouement of the final two tracks of resignation and renewal – You’re Heart’s Not In It’ and ‘Time Will Be The Healer’ – each of which is as good as anything Hansard has previously done in any guise.

8. Hope Downs – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

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Expectations on Rolling Blackouts CF were high following two excellent EPs. Their first long player does not disappoint. It continues, and develops, the strengths shown on those EPs – the urgency, the chiming guitars, the impressionistic half-spoken vocals. Sure, it’s been done before (by the likes of the R.E.M., the Db’s and particularly the Go-Betweens) but when it’s done this well I’m not about to complain.

9. Running – Ryan Downey

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Downey is a Melbourne based singer songwriter who burst onto the scene (for me at least) with this solo debut. From the opening cohenesque title track (I dare you to find a sexier slinkier song this side of Hotel Chelsea No.2) to ‘Those Eyes That Answer’, ‘The Weather Song’ and final track ‘The End’. Just consistently great.

10. The War & Treaty

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A glorious fusion of gospel, funk, soul and rock featuring husband and wife team Michael and Tanya Trotter trading vocal lines over a bed of acoustic guitar, lap steel and driving bass. All of which acts in the service of Michael’s consistently excellent compositions. It’s joyous, groovy and fun. Brilliantly produced by Buddy Miller and featuring a guest appearance by Emmylou Harris. I can’t wait to catch these guys at Bluesfest next year.

 

Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star

Third/Sister Lovers is a dissolute masterpiece which seemingly documents the fragile psychological state into which Alex Chilton descended in the wake of Chris Bell’s departure and the commercial failure of Big Star’s magnificent first two albums. It’s a wild cocktail of drugs, drink, love, indulgence, despair, madness, spontaneity, introspection and cathartic release all orchestrated by producer Jim Dickinson who had the vision and foresight to indulge Chilton and embrace that gamut of emotions rather than rein it in.

Together, Chilton, original drummer Jody Stephens, Chilton’s then lover/muse/drug buddy Lesa Aldridge, Dickinson, a clutch of top session musicians (including Steve Cropper on one track) and a string orchestra led by violinist Noel Gilbert make a glorious, impertinent sound – with engineer John Fry seemingly trying (in vain?) to prevent it all falling apart. For that is the genius of this album – it goes exhilaratingly close to the edge, constantly threatening to collapse into an over-indulgent mess but somehow manages to stay true. What stops it from teetering over that precipice is the strength of the songs; Chilton’s glorious melodies which form the soft heart of the album; the playing of all involved and Dickinson’s unerring production.

The sheer range and consistency of the brilliance at play is breathtaking: the (im)perfect pop of ‘Kizza Me’, ‘Thank You Friends’ and ‘You Can’t Have Me’ (centred by Stephen’s brilliant drumming); the desperation of ‘Big Black Car’; the woozy romance of ‘Stroke It Noel’, ‘For You’ (with it’s rousing, but still slightly skewed, string embellishments), ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Dream Lover’; the waltz ‘Take Care’ and the positively jaunty ‘O’Dana’.

Even the covers are inspired: Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ (the only track to retain Aldridge’s backing vocals); The Kinks’ ’Til the End of the Day’ and the standard ‘Nature Boy’. Only the Jerry Lee-Lewis cover ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ feels like a mis-step – though that track did not appear on the first three versions of the album.

Then there’s the twin peaks (or should that be valleys?) of the morbid ‘Holocaust’ and the audacious ‘Kanga Roo’ featuring Dickinson’s inspiredly deranged drumming, Mellotron and guitar feedback squalls. The power of those two songs is enhanced by their placement together on both the original PVC release (tracks 12 and 13) and my 1992 Rykodisk version (tracks 7 and 8).

Much has been written about this album but its allure is perhaps best summed up by musician Chris Stamey (dBs):

“Art holds up a mirror in which we see ourselves. Sometimes the more wrinkled the surface, the more interesting the angles: you can see around the corners, find aspects of your soul that would otherwise remain hidden.”

‘Go-to’ Albums – Part One

Over recent days, I’ve been suckered into one of those Facebook ‘tag a friend’ chains which I usually avoid like the plague. This time I enjoyed reading about my Facebook friends’ ‘go to’ albums. These didn’t necessarily have to be the albums that you regarded, in a cerebral way, just those you found yourself wanting to put on the stereo.

So I thought, as I hit Day 3 of this Facebook scam, that I’d share my first few entries on my blog.

DAY ONE:

Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night

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The musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, a booze soaked, down at heel, jazz bar singer’s take on the underside of urban American (night) life presented by Waits with a ‘melancholy tear’ in his eye, packed with sharp observations and rapid-fire witticisms.

All of this is adorned by a band of crack jazz musicians backing Waits’ piano and vocals which veer from swoon to growl and even scatting. The quality of the songs remains consistent across a broad stylistic range which adds up to a near perfect album.

Amongst the many gems ‘San Diego Serenade’ stands out as perhaps the most bittersweet break up song in rock history. This is my late night ‘go to’ album (though I’d happily put on any other time too).

DAY TWO:

Teatro – Willie Nelson

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When I think about my favourite albums, one name keeps re-occurring. Not an artist, but a producer – Daniel Lanois. Of course, it’s not strictly right to draw a distinction between producer and artist because what albums like these show is that the right producer is very much an artist integral to the process of making truly great albums in collaboration with the names which adorn the cover. In addition, Lanois is a fine artist and musician in his own right. If you doubt the proposition, that a producer can contribute ‘as much as any musician’, read Chapter 4 of Bob Dylan’s memoir ‘Chronicles – Volume 1’ in which Dylan said of the recording of his ‘Oh Mercy’ album with Lanois:

‘He slept music. He ate it. He lived it. A lot of what he did was pure genius. He steered this record with deft turns and jerks, but he did it.He stood in the bell tower, scanning the alleys and rooftops. My limited vision didn’t permit me to see all around the thing’.

Teatro is my favourite Lanois produced album and one of the greatest country albums ever – though to even label it a country album does it a disservice. Puts it in a box too constricting for the beauty within it. Inside the Teatro studio, built by Lanois in an old cinema in Oxnard, California, Lanois assembled a band of master musicians to create a dancehall feel inspired by Nelson’s earliest days playing in dance bands in Texas: Nelson’s lead vocals and spare acoustic guitar, Emmylou Harris’ backing vocals, Robbie Nelson’s keys and Steinway piano, the dual percussion of drummers of Tony Mangurian and Victor Indrizzo (a left and right handed combination playing a single extended kit in perfect combination) and Daniel Lanois’ guitar, mandolin and (overdubbed) bass.

Together they produced an alchemical rendering of a string of wonderful songs including Nelson’s ‘I Never Cared for You’, ‘Everywhere I Go’, My Own Peculiar Way’ and ‘Home Motel’ and Lanois’ ‘The Maker’. To my mind these are the definitive forms of these songs. This album is important to me because it completely exploded the last vestiges of my preconceptions of country music which, up until that time – despite my love of country rock – still remained somewhat constricted by a misplaced and prejudiced belief that ’straight country’ was a bridge too far. It was life-changing for me and continues to be one of my go-to albums.

If you get a copy of the album, make sure its the recent 2017 ‘The Complete Sessions’ re-issue with bonus tracks and DVD film of the band live in the studio shot by Wim Wenders.

DAY THREE:

L.A. Getaway

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For a period from the mid-60’s and into the 70’s the L.A. music scene became one of the greatest scenes in the history of rock music, particularly if – like me – you love the country rock sound which lay at its core. The mythology of that scene and its central players is well documented in Barney Hoskins ‘Hotel California’. That scene gave us artists such as Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Gram Parsons, Delaney & Bonnie, Ry Cooder and John Fahey (to mention but a few). Albums by those artists provide one of the backbones of my music collection (not to mention the roots of today’s ‘Americana’ sound).

Amongst that scene were three outstanding musicians – each merely footnotes to Hoskyns’ book:

  • Joel Scott Hill a guitarist and vocalist in Joel Scott Hill & the Invaders (whose greatest claim to fame was opening for The Rolling Stones in 1964 ina fairly obscure, and reportedly poorly attended, club gig), who later replaced Al Wilson as lead singer of Canned Heat;
  • Bass player Chris Etheridge, a founding member, with Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, of The Flying Burrito Brothers (and co-writer of Parson’s classic ’She’). Etheridge also had a stellar career as a studio musician and had played on albums by the likes of Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie and Ry Cooder (subsequently also featuring on classic albums such as Graham Bash’s ’Songs for Beginners’, Gene Clarke’s ‘White Light’, Gram Parson’s ‘GP’, Ry Cooder’s ‘ Chicken Skin Music’ and Willie Nelson’s ’ Stardust’); and
  • Drummer Johnny Barbata who had been a member of The Turtles, played sessions for Lina Ronstadt and was a touring-band member of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young at the time. Like Etheridge, he would go on to have a long and illustrious career as a session player including on classic albums by Judee Sills, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Neil Young and J.D. Souther and become a member Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship.

In 1970, these three musicians got together in the studio over a series of sessions as ‘L.A. Getaway’, a supergroup (of sorts). The sessions also featured a raft of stellar guest musicians including Booker T Jones, Spooner Oldham, Mac (Dr John) Rebennack, Leon Russell and John Sebastian. Backing vocals were provided by Clydie King (Little Richard, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Rolling Stones and Neil Diamond).

The result was this self-titled L.A. Getaway album which, with a running time of only 40:17 and just 9 tracks, is an absolute gem, featuring a mix of outstanding songs from the likes of Mac Rebennack, Dan Penn, Allen Toussaint, Jerome Green, Booker T Jones and Chuck Berry together with original contributions by Etheridge and Hill (the majority of which were written specifically for the project). The album’s strength is the integrated sound created by the band and their (better known) guests, which manages to be both laid back and gently propulsive, through which the pristine guitar and fulsome piano/organ parts weave mercurially, providing the perfect bedrock for Hill’s dextrous, yet invitingly relaxed, vocals.

Several of the tracks here coulda been, shoulda been, classics – the rollicking blues workout of ‘Bring It To Jerome’; the blue-eyed soul of ‘Long Ago’ on which Hill & Etheridge share vocal duties, and the plaintive gospel/blues of Booker T Jones’ ‘Ole Man Trouble’ featuring Clydie King’s gorgeous backing vocals; foremost among them.

The original liner notes from the album, released in 1971, suggested that the band would soon re-convene for a second album. Alas, that never came to pass. So we’re left with just this single testament to what may have been the best undiscovered band of the 70’s. It ranks up there with some of the best work to come out of that L.A. scene. So far as my ‘go-to’ albums it is on my stereo as often, or more, than (most of) the others.

Willow Springs – Michael McDermott

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Willow Springs kicks off with the title track, a dense, ambitious and poetic composition featuring some 25 verses which cut to the quick. It’s a stunning attention-grabber with the decidedly Dylanesque structure and quick fire array of imagery: “Pimps and pushers, presidents/The paupers preach the tenements/ The cowboy’s code, the whore laments/The coming judgment day”.

It introduces perfectly each of the themes which remain at the heart of the album over its whole course: ‘dreams undone’, days spent wandering ‘through the wasteland’, ‘squandered salvation‘ and, ultimately, the redemptive power of love.

If nothing else on the album quite matches it for sheer audacity, that’s a relief. The album is stronger for its diversity which allows the full range of McDermott’s songwriting talent to shine through in songs about cars, war and love in its various guises.

The marvel of this release lies in the the depth and authenticity of the songwriting which, while not strictly autobiographical, reflects McDermott’s own backstory. Bursting on to the US music scene in 1991 with his debut album, McDermott was quickly compared to Springsteen and Dylan by a fawning music press and celebrity fans. He subsequently hit harder times – believing the hype, living the rock ‘n’ roll life, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, losing his record contract and even spending a stint in jail. Slowly but surely he ground his way back through a series of increasingly accomplished self-released albums, the support of his wife and bandmate Heather Horton and the birth of his baby daughter (to whom the track ‘Willie Rain’ is dedicated – and whose ‘I love you Daddy’ features in it). Willow Springs completes that journey and stands as his defining statement.

Despite the evident quality of the songwriting and the lyrical themes, dwelling on the aforementioned Dylan and Springsteen comparisons would do McDermott a disservice. He has a commanding voice of his own. Perhaps other contemporary artists such as Jason Isbell, John Murry, Simone Felice or Matthew Ryan provide a fairer and more relevant touchstone. Willow Springs cements McDermott’s place in that company.