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.

 

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Bluesfest 2018 – Friday 30 March

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Citizen Cope

Day 2 starts with Citizen Cope in the Jambalaya tent. Thanks to a welcome sleep in and an invigorating swim at Wategos Beach, we arrive a little late to the show which is an enjoyable folk soul blend grounded by solid songs and engaging performances from lead man Clarence Greenwood and, especially, the keyboardist who was clearly enjoying every moment, shooting satisfied glances to the drummer. The enjoyment was contagious.

Little Georgia (part)

We wander across to the adjacent Crossroads stage (where we will end up spending the whole evening) stopping to grab a beer from the craft beer tent. A welcome addition to the Festival which has suffered in the past from Toohey’s longstanding corporate deal and a selection of mostly characterless beers (TED and Heineken). So it’s fabulous to have access to the likes of White Rabbit and Little Creatures, as well as local Byron Bay Brewing on tap.

So, armed with our craft beers (mine’s a White Rabbit Dark Ale), we head into Little Georgia, chosen from a positive quote from Bernard Zuel on the Bluesfest app. The band is comprised of Ashleigh Mannix and Justin Carter who share vocal and guitar duties. The songs are endearing country folk with a pop edge. For mine, Mannix’s voice is a bit grating, especially when she tries for the big festival moment, but Carter’s guitar, mandolin, blues harp and relaxed vocals make him the clear star of the show.

Teskey Brothers

Next up were the Teskey Brothers back at the Jambalaya tent. I’d managed to catch a small record launch gig about a year ago at Mojo Records in the city and knew what to expect. And, despite the absence of bass player Brendan Love (‘over in the sick tent’), the Teskey Brothers deliver.

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Josh Teskey’s sweet soulful voice is a wonderful instrument which immediately defines the band’s sweet southern soul blues at moments crooning, testifying and, even scatting. But the Teskey’s are far more than one one trick-pony, this is a band in the true sense comprised of way the whole band gel together is remarkable, born of 10 years of playing together (somewhat under the radar until the last year or so).

Brother Sam’s guitar work is soulfully elegant, underpinning the powerful strains which the band combines to create a slow build which consistently promises to break loose before pulling back again at just the right moment until…it doesn’t. By the time the band really go for it, in the extended outro to the final song of the set, the tension has built to a level adding a powerful sense of relief and euphoria. Not bad for an afternoon slot – and they’ll be even better on Sunday when Love rejoins them on stage.

Andy Cimone (part)

We caught the end of Andre Cimone, former school friend and band member of Prince. You can see the connection in the confident (arrogant) pimp on-stage persona complete with leather vest, pink Helton hat and sunglasses. You can also hear it in the Minneapolis pop-funk of the music. What you can’t hear is genius.

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To complete the Prince double-play, Hartz is billed as having been personally invited by Prince to come to Paisley Park where he received mentoring by the Purple One. Again it shows in the brash showmanship including a backdrop featuring ‘‘hartz’ written, like an autograph, in his signature font (all lower case). Again, while Prince’s genius (almost) made his ego forgiveable, its harder to take from this young upstart. He may be playing the Mojo tent at Bluesfest but his bravado is turned up to Glastonbury levels. That being said he is working hard to justify it and his songwriting and guitar makes it easy to see why he got that invitation. Worth checking out for a few songs but not the reincarnation.

Hurray For The Riff Raff

Hurray For The Riff Raff is the artistic vehicle for intriguing singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra. For once, the back-story is not just a matter of marketing spin. Seeing her live on stage you can immediately recognise where this singular artist is coming from. It’s there in her unforced sneer, the way she works the stage with an urgent, yet pensive, force and in the anger and defiance of the songs, mostly coming from her 2017 concept album, ‘The Navigator’.

That album represented an artistic u-turn for Segarra whose 2014 release ‘Small Town Heroes’ was a standout Appalachian folk album with enough power and attitude that it could have been subtitled ‘O Sister Where Art Thou?’. Today’s HFTRR is a new beast and one that showcases her always powerful voice with a tougher, more muscular, musical vision infused with rock & roll swagger, liberal dashes of her Puerta Rican heritage and riot grrl attitude.

What we witness on stage is the performance of a singular artist with an unrelenting vision which is heartfelt, passionate and not afraid to be somewhat prickly. The music seems to be oozing from her core rather than merely being ‘performed’.

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When she launches a bitter attack on Trump’s USA, this is not on-trend value signalling, its a visceral and urgent call to arms aimed at an apathetic public (and music business):

‘Now all the politicians/ They just squawk their mouths/ They say ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out/ And all the poets were dying of a silent disease/ So it happened quickly and with much ease.’

Her unreleased ‘Kid’s Are Dying’ which she introduces with a tribute to a small artistic community which is speaking out (and which is based on a poem by poet Langston Hughes), is a brutal assault on both US racial culture and apathy in the face of repeated deaths of young children of racial minorities.

The set is brought to a crescendo with that track and her breakout track ‘Living in the City’ an uncompromising violent tale of a young female immigrant in New York (“Oh, I’ll take you to the stairwell/ And give you something I can offer/ You know the heart is not the hopeless/The heart is a lonely hunter’) and the positivity of her uplifting, anthemic, ‘Pa’lante’ (which means moving forward).

Then, as if in recognition of the intensity of the the set, she sends us away with a tension relieving re-casting of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’. Even then, Segarra can’t help adding one last barb noting that Springteen’s ‘The only Boss I answer to.’

Juanes (part)

We head over to the Crossroads tent, grabbing a reinvigorating double macchiato from the Bun Byron Bay coffee tent, before moving down towards the front. Juanes is captivating with his up-tempo Latin soul, poster boy good looks and a rare on-stage charisma. We can see why he’s such a big star and would have liked to have enjoyed more but such is the nature of Bluesfest – even with multiple slots for most artists, there are some which will run into conflicts.

As the crowd begins to exit, we move forward to grab a front row position which will see us through for the remainder of the night (excepting the $300 per night interlopers who reflect a flagrant money grab at odds with the festival spirit – a fairly rare misstep by Noble). Still, the philosophical will reason that the view is still uninterrupted (most of the front rows are seated and with a gap from the rest of the audience) and the sound is actually better a little further back from those front speakers.

Youssou N’dour

Youssou N’dour will start our evening triple-bill off in high style at 6.30pm. He’s billed on the Festival app as ‘the most famous singer alive’ and for his collaborations with Paul Simon and Nenah Cherry. I remember being captivated by his voice on those ‘cross-over’ recordings but, to my detriment, never followed up to discover more. Still festivals are a great time to make up for those omissions and to discover music and genres which you might not have taken the time to explore at home in the comfort of your own home and album collection.

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From the outset, Ndour and his band are spellbinding, his tenor voice a nimble instrument of beauty, warmth and dexterity. The songs are mostly mostly written in the Serer language native to Senegal where Ndour is credited as establishing the modern form of the traditional Senegalese musical style known as mbalax. That he currently serves as the Minister of Culture is reflective of the importance of art and culture to the Senegalese nation (compare Mitch Fifield, Australia’s Minister for Arts a career politician and son of two bankers).

275B8C57-AC1F-4F40-8B1C-64D71CDB657AN’Dour’s talented 12 piece band (Le Super Etoile de Dakar) comprises three percussionists (including Assange Thiam’s expressive tama) which are, perhaps the most prominent musical element, as well as strong backing vocals and guitarist Jimi Mbaye whose intuitive guitar lines weaves through the music subtly providing a melodic backbone which was never showy or obtrusive (even as Mbaye’s physical presence dominated the stage).

Also taking turns at dominating the stage at regular intervals was acrobat Moussa Sonko whose wild leaping and somersaulting dances in bright loose costumes add a comedic festival vibe to fill the tent. Though, whether they add to the fun or distracted from the beauty of the band and N’Dour’s musical performance is a matter of personal preference.

While it was the big collaborations ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and ‘7 Seconds’ which really got the crowd going, the spirit of the music and N’Dour’s sweet vocal dexterity had the crowd mesmerised for the entire 90 minute set, earning the respect and admiration of all those around me.

Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff is another staple on the festival circuit having appeared at least a couple of time previously. Despite that I’ve never caught more than a few passing strains taking a short between set coffee break behind the Crossroads tent. Tonight I see his set up front and centre. It’s fun, upbeat and engages the crowd with well known originals ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, ‘Vietnam’ and, especially, covers like Johnny Nash’s ‘I can See Clearly Now’ and Cat Steven’s ‘Wild World’.

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Enjoyable though it is, Cliff’s voice is not that great, the band solid but not in the class of some others on the programme and the rocksteady reggae lite arrangements were always a pale shadow of the likes of Marley. Ultimately, the set remains for me just a brief interlude between two other great festival sets.

Robert Plant & the Sensational Spaceshifters

There’s not much movement in the front ten or so rows between sets as, positions established, we sat, backs to the barricade, and waited for Plant’s arrival as the sound check took place behind us. When he arrived, Plant did not disappoint. He remains the consummate rock icon, commanding the stage, and steering his multi-faceted band, with the demeanour of a spiritual Svengali – which is to say relaxed but with a quietly intense focus.

For those looking for a pumped up run-through of Zeppelin’s greatest hits, sorry, but that was never on the agenda. But for those tuned into Plant’s recent work with The Sensational Spaceshifters the rewards are plentiful, if a little more mysterious.

They’re delivered in a perfectly judged mix of Plant’s recent solo material (The New World’s slow burn intensity, The May Queen’s brilliant interplay between guitar and Seth Lakeman’s violin and the percussion heavy Rainbow), traditional roots music (Leadbelly’s ‘The Gallows Pole’, Little Maggie), well chosen covers (Please Read the Letter from Plant’s collaboration with Alison Kraus, Bukka White’s ‘Fixing to Die’) and a smattering of, relatively lesser known, Zeppelin tracks (The Lemon Song and That’s The Way).

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The highlight though was an extended version Zeppelin’s Joan Baez cover ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ with guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson exchanging lead solos and, particularly, the latter’s spotlit acoustic solo.

The performance’s major rewards came from the band’s rhythmic force and snaking instrumental interplay through which Plant’s still incendiary vocals ebbed and flowed, emerging like a ship from the fog only to be enveloped again by the music. It was a masterful performance from Plant and a band which, earning its name, was certainly sensational and constantly shifting both shape and space. Violinist Seth Lakeman fitted right in with the band so seamlessly, further broadening the textures, that it is hard to believe that he is not a fully fledged Spaceshifter.

By the time the set reached its end with a crowd-pleasing workout of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, those gathered had ceased expecting, or even craving, the big Zeppelin hits. Even then, as Plant unleashed their biggest anthem, he couldn’t resist weaving it through both ‘Bring It On Home’ and the traditional ‘Santiana’. He’s earned that right.

Prisoner – Ryan Adams

ryan-adams-prisoner-cover-crop-1480x832The word Prisoner is capable of evoking two potential emotional responses. To some, it may connote a wild dangerous criminal, barely contained, capable of escaping at any moment and seething with murderous intent. To others, the piteous figure of a man, spirit broken, securely confined to a small, well defined, box. On listening to Ryan Adams’ new album it is instantly apparent that he meant its title in the second sense. Post release interviews given by Ryan confirm that:

“What’s more heartbreaking than any single event in life is the realization that every human being is trapped in a quest for love, trying to navigate a maze of desire. That’s what this record is about. Nobody falls in love to fail.”

To an extent that is a positive thing. This is a collection of painful piteous songs delving deep into the desperate self-assessment that comes with the end of a relationship. A marriage even.

And make no mistake, Adams is often at his best in this territory. ‘Amy’ from his solo debut remains a difficult but wonderfully rewarding listen (and a song that Adams himself refuses to play live such are the emotions attached). And his subsequent albums have equally been scattered with gems of this ilk from the desolate ’Sylvia Plath’ and ‘Afraid Not Scared’ to the exquisite ‘Burning Photographs’ and the tender ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say’. Indeed Adams wrote, what is perhaps one of the most devastating ‘break-up’ song ever – ‘This One’s Gonna Bruise’ which was released by Beth Orton on her 2002 Daybreaker album.

Prisoner contains a number of sharply observed and quietly desperate tracks which, in a songwriting sense, sit right up there with some of those tracks – ‘To Be Without You’, ’Tightrope’ and the album’s central highlight ‘Shiver And Shake’’ featuring the lines:

‘My chest is all tight, my heart still aches/ These are the days you need double what it takes/ I miss you so much I shiver and I shake’.

The rest of the tracks too are uniformly strong (with the exception of Haunted House which comes off as a lesser Ryan-Adams by-numbers track). But somehow these tracks – as solid as they are – suffer by comparison. They largely cover the same emotional territory but to lesser effect. Not quite as sharply written. Not quite as evocative or visceral. Not quite managing the light touch of the above tracks.

These songs tend to feature bigger production as if trying to provide a counterpoint but somehow they don’t take sufficient flight and end up weighing the album down rather than providing the variety and lift needed to balance the album.  Only the Springsteen-esque ramble of ‘Outbound Train’ comes close to adding the required respite.

It’s as if Adams knew he had a great batch of songs and was determined to craft them into a perfect, cohesive album. It’s artfully constructed – a tasteful guitar solo here, a harmonica part there – all played by Ryan himself and precise drumming throughout by Johnny T Yerington.

It’s here that the album comes to resemble the titular prisoner as a ‘man in a box’ in a less positive sense. What the album needs is a bit more of that other prisoner, the dangerous one. The one tugging on his shackles. The album needs a bit of the tension created by the thought that Adams might break-out at any moment and burn the whole thing down.

This might all sound churlish coming from someone who once accused Adams of needing an editor – someone to give him more focus. With recent albums Adams has delivered the focus but here seems to have lost something in the process. I’d love to see how Prisoner might have turned out like with a producer like Ethan Johns (who produced 2005’s under-rated ’29’) or John Porter (who co-produced, with Adams, what to these ears was his masterpiece 2004’s ‘Love is Hell’). Or perhaps even a producer like Jack White who might have brought a little of that danger to proceedings.

On the whole, this is a fine album. Adams is too good a songwriter and player to produce anything less. But with the quality of the songs it could have been more. It could have been more than another very good addition to his discography. It could have been his second masterpiece.

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.

Great music leaves scars

What defines a great artist?

Is it synchronicity – being in the right place at the right time, being in and of the moment, seizing the zeitgeist? Or is that altogether too fleeting to define greatness? Does greatness require longevity? Perhaps a great artist must build a great body of work – one which surpasses fashion or trend. Is consistency a necessary – or even desirable – ingredient?

Popularity is probably not a good measure. Many far from great artists have attained popularity, while many great artists never rise above cloistered critical respect among devotees.

Innovation is surely a factor – the ability to bring something new and fresh to the table and to influence others in a way which contributes  to the continued evolution of the popular music form.

There is no accounting for taste. Music is inherently subjective. The definition of greatness  is intrinsically ephemeral. All my favourite artists have a combination of some or all of the above attributes.

Ultimately, for me (and, from my observation, others who are as passionate about their music as I am) the only compelling ‘must have’ is soul. The ability to not just move the body but to emotionally connect with the listener at a deeper level. It is that soul – or truth – that anchors all great music,  surpassing fancy or whim and hitting you where it hurts.

Music that connects with you on that level leaves a scar. It becomes part of your reality – your being, your future and your past. It inspires you to dream, to reach higher. It helps you deal with sadness or loss. It elevates you, plugs you into something vibrant, beyond the paint by number dreams of everyday life. Listening to such a song years after you first heard it can provide a bridge to your past, associations of where you were, who you were with and what you were feeling when it first made that connection with you. The ability to create music which affects others on that level is great artistry. That, is soul.

This blog is dedicated to great music, the artists who make it and the enthusiasts who, like me, have been scarred by it.