Best albums of 2017

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This year has been a remarkable one for new music – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the greatest in the history of Say It With Garage Flowers, which launched in the summer of 2009.

Most of my favourite contemporary singer-songwriters and bands unleashed new albums in 2017 and I was lucky enough to interview several of them to find out the stories behind the songs.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to arrange an in-depth chat with the man whose album has made the top-spot in this year’s ‘Best Of’ list, although we did come very close to doing an interview a few weeks ago, but it got postponed at the last minute. I live in hope that we can rearrange it for next year – both of us dearly want it to happen…

In the meantime, I will have to be content with listening to his latest record, A Short History of Decay, which is my favourite album of 2017.

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The second solo record by John Murry – an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, but now lives in Kilkenny, Ireland –  A Short History of Decay is the follow-up to his 2012 masterpiece, The Graceless Age – one of the greatest records of the last few years.

Back in 2012, I said of The Graceless Age: ‘It’s a deeply personal work that deals with the darker side of life, including drug addiction, loss and loneliness –  it’s one of those records that’s meant to be listened to on headphones, alone, late at night, as it draws you in with its lush orchestration, gorgeous, spiralling melodies and twisted tales. Misery seldom sounded so sublime.’

Five years later, Murry finally released its successor. It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult. Since its release, he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney, of American Music Club, who had produced his first album.

Michael Timmins from Canadian alt-country act Cowboy Junkies came to Murry’s aid. He’d seen him supporting his band in Glasgow and was captivated by his performance – I’ve seen Murry play live 13 times and he is one of my favourite artists to watch in concert. His shows are intense and extremely powerful – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always one hell of a ride. He is an extraordinary performer.

‘It was always going to be a tough act to follow such a brilliant record as The Graceless Age, but for Murry it was doubly difficult – he’d had personal problems and demons to deal with, including family issues and the death of his close friend Tim Mooney’

Timmins and Murry talked about making an album together – Timmins wanted to capture the rawness of Murry’s songs – and the result is A Short History of Decay.

It was recorded over five days in Timmins’ Toronto studio with a band comprising of his brother Peter (Cowboy Junkies) on drums and Josh Finlayson  (Skydiggers, Gord Downie, Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass. John brought along Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues, Elvis Costello), whom he’d met in Ireland – she contributed backing vocals to the album.

Talking about the sessions, Timmins said: “I felt that it was important that John got out of his own way and that we set up a situation where he would just play and sing and the rest of us would just react, no second guessing, just react and capture the moment. It was a very inspired and inspiring week of playing and recording. Very intense. And I think we captured the raw essence of John’s writing and playing”. 

They certainly did – A Short History of Decay is looser and much more raw than its predecessor. The wonderful first single, Under A Darker Moon, has fuzzy, fucked-up guitars and punk-rock sensibilities, but, at its heart, is a killer indie-pop tune.

My favourite track on the album is Wrong Man. A dark, stripped-down, Springsteen-esque ballad that deals with the breakup of Murry’s marriage – “I’m the wrong man to ride shotgun on your murder mile” – it makes for uncomfortable listening, but is such a beautiful song, with a simple, sparse keyboard and guitar arrangement. 

A Short History of Decay has its fair share of gallows humour, too. Despite its title, One Day (You’ll Die) is one of the album’s lighter moments  – a weird, mutated, but very catchy, pop-reggae (!) groove, with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s been lifted from the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental Sleepwalk by Santo & Johnny.

Similarly, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) is another song with an irresistible, sing-a-long melody, but when the dirty garage guitar comes in, it kicks ass. 

The album’s closing track is a stunning cover of What Jail Is Like by The Afghan Whigs. I will scratch my way out of your pen, just so that I can claw my way back into it again,” sings Murry, over psychedelic guitar sounds.

It’s great to have him back.

This year also saw the return of another Say It With Garage Flowers favourite. Back in 2014, miserablist duo Pete Fij (Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (The House of Love and Levitation) released their debut album, Broken Heart Surgery, which topped my end of year poll.

2017 saw them follow it up with the brilliant We Are Millionaires – an album that I played to death this year. 

As I wrote back in the summer, ‘like its predecessor, it’s full of deadpan humour and dry wit. With influences including John Barry, The Velvet Underground and Lee Hazlewood, and lyrical nods to movies The Third Man and The Birds, it’s like a soundtrack to an imaginary, downbeat, British, black and white kitchen sink-drama-meets spy-film – part Hancock, part Hitchcock – but this time around, there’s even some optimism.’

And while we’re on the subject of Lee Hazlewood, the legendary moustachioed maverick is a huge influence on Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee, whose third album, Broken Flowers, was another highlight of this year. 

His darkest record to date, it was written in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Nev’s rich, baritone voice is backed by lush, cinematic strings and the album moves from twilight country music to bluesy psych-rock and spacey, hypnotic grooves. First single, Open Eyes, sounded like Lee Hazlewood hanging out in Cafè del Mar.

Staying with Manchester melancholy, Morrissey came back in 2017 with Low In High School – his strongest album in years – but, sadly, the record was overshadowed by controversial comments he made in the press. Songs like the brassy, glam rock swagger of My Love, I’d Do Anything For You, the electro-tinged I Wish You Lonely and the epic Home Is A Question Mark would easily find their place in a list of his greatest tracks. 

Ex-Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett surprised everyone by releasing a superb solo album, How The West Was Won, which was loaded with wry songs in the vein of Dylan and Lou Reed.

Husband and wife country duo – and Say It With Garage Flowers regulars – My Darling Clementine – returned with the excellent Still Testifying. Their third album saw them building on the Southern soul sound that they explored on their 2013 record, The Reconciliation? More Delaney & Bonnie than George & Tammy, and with gospel leanings and luscious horn arrangements, it could’ve emerged from Memphis, Alabama or New Orleans, but it was actually made in Tooting, South London.

Another husband and wife duo who are no strangers to country music – The Rails – impressed me with their second album, Other People.

Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ray Kennedy [Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams], it was a darker, heavier and more electric record than their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Fair Warning

Moving away from the band’s traditional folk roots – it had ‘psychedelic’ tinges and  ’60s organ –  it wasn’t afraid to speak its mind and deal with modern social issues.

Gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan’s Gargoyle was also high up on my list of 2017 albums of the year. The latest in a long line of great releases by him, it continued to mine the seam of dark, brooding electronic rock he’s explored over his last few records. 

Singer-songwriter Richard Warren – who’s played guitar for Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers – returned with his latest album, Distentangled. It was less dark than some of his previous releases – more soulful and stripped-down – but still with a nod to the ’50s sounds of Sun Records, melancholy, late-night ballads in the vein of Nick Lowe, Roy Orbison and Richard Hawley, and twangy guitar instrumentals that could be soundtracks to arthouse films that don’t exist yet. 

A debut album that I fell in love with this year was This Short Sweet Life by Nottingham’s Torn Sail – coincidentally an act linked to Richard Warren, who played with them in a previous incarnation.

Written and produced by singer-songwriter Huw Costin, it was a haunting and gorgeous record –  sad, but also uplifting and spiritual – an intimate, late-night soundtrack for the lost and the lonely that reminded me of Jeff Buckley at times.

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Two of my favourite albums of 2017 weren’t actually from this year! Soul legend P.P. Arnold and Neil Young both released ‘lost’ long-players.

Arnold’s album The Turning Tide was a collection of songs from ’69 and ’70. Produced by Barry Gibb and Eric Clapton, the album was aborted and remained unfinished. Thankfully the master tapes were finally located, the tracks were completed and the album was issued 47 years later. It’s a great collection of groovy soul-shakers – her blistering versions of Traffic’s Medicated Goo and The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want are guaranteed floor-fillers – and tender ballads, like the lushly-orchestrated gospel song Bury Me Down By The River. 

Young’s intimate Hitchhiker – it’s just vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica – was recorded in a single night, in Malibu, California in 1976, but didn’t see the light of day until September this year. I’m so glad it did – it’s up there with his best work.

The dark and menacing title track is jaw-dropping – a staggeringly honest autobiographical tale, which sees Neil on a road trip with just his drug stash for company, before things take a turn for the worse and he ends up a paranoid wreck who has to escape from the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene and hole up in the countryside…

L.A. is the home of singer-songwriter Marlon Rabenreither, who, under the name Gold Star, released his excellent second album, Big Blue, this year, and, funnily enough, it often sounds like ’70s Neil Young, as well as early Ryan Adams. 

I’d like to say thanks to Alex Lipinski who invited me to his album launch at Pretty Green in London’s Carnaby Street in November this year – I loved his latest record, the raw and bluesy Alex, with its mix of Dylan and the La’s.

And finally, I must mention the UK label Sugarbush, which continues to put out great jangle-pop, power-pop and psych albums on vinyl – both new releases and re-issues. This year saw Scottish guitar band The Carousels, who are on Sugarbush, release their gorgeous second album, Sail Me Home, St.Clair, which was heavily indebted to the sound of the Byrds’ 1968 country-rock cult classic, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

I’m listening to it now, as I write this article and sail off into 2018… 

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2017 and a Spotify playlist to go with it:

1) John Murry – A Short History of Decay

2) Pete Fij & Terry Bickers We Are Millionaires

3) Morrissey – Low In High School

4) Mark Lanegan – Gargoyle

5) Nev CotteeBroken Flowers

6) My Darling Clementine Still Testifying

7) Torn Sail This Short Sweet Life

8) The Rails Other People

9) Peter Perrett – How The West Was Won

10) Neil Young – Hitchhiker 

11) PP Arnold The Turning Tide

12) Gold Star – Big Blue

13) Richard Warren Disentangled

14) The Carousels Sail Home, St. Clair

15) Jeff Tweedy – Together At Last

16) The Clientele – Music For The Age of Miracles

17) Ralegh Long – Upwards of Summer

18) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

19) Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

20) Alex Lipinksi Alex

21) Little Barrie – Death Express

22) The National – Sleep Well Beast

23) Juanita Stein – America

24) Martin CarrNew Shapes of Life

25) The Dials – That Was The Future

26) Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Senor Pussycat

27) Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time

28) Liam Gallagher – As You Were

29) William Matheny – Strange Constellations

30) Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

31) Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow Forever

32) Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders Scenery For Dreamers

33) The Jesus & Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

34) Duke Garwood – Garden of Ashes

35) Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution

36) Luke Tuchscherer Always Be True

37) Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

38) Sophia Marshall – Bye Bye

39) Co-Pilgrim – Moon Lagoon

40) GospelBeacH Another Summer of Love

41) Bob Dylan – Triplicate

42) Papernut Cambridge – Cambridge Circus

43) Luna – A Sentimental Education

44) Steelism – Ism

45) The Len Price 3 – Kentish Longtails

46) Wesley Fuller – Inner City Dream

47) Hurricane #1 – Melodic Rainbows [UK version]

48) Alex Lowe – Rancho Diablo

49) The Blow Monkeys – The Wild River

50) Colman GotaFear The Summer

 

 

 

‘Any singer-songwriter who says they’re not influenced by Bob Dylan is lying through their teeth’

Alex Lipinski

I first heard West Country singer-songwriter Alex Lipinski in November this year – he kindly invited me to the launch of his new album, Alex, at the Pretty Green clothes store in London’s Carnaby Street.

With his brother Adam on guitar, he played acoustic versions of several tracks from the record and I was really impressed – so much so that I bought a copy of the album on vinyl. Since then, it’s been on heavy rotation on my turntable and is one of my favourite albums of 2017.

Recorded and produced by Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre at his studio in Berlin, it’s a raw and bluesy album and it sounds like Bob Dylan meets The La’s.

Dealing with the darker side of life, the songs are stripped-down and lived-in – the moody Dandylion Blues has a cool organ and electric guitar groove over which Alex warns of ‘dark skies on the rise’ and tells us that he’s ‘got to keep on keeping on’.

The folky strumming of Carolyn lightens the mood, but those dark skies soon return with Hurricane – one of my favourite songs on the album. Recalling Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams and Dylan circa Blood On The Tracks, it’s a stunning country ballad (acoustic guitar and harmonica) that’s a vicious put-down of an ex-lover: “You had it all worked out. All you do now is scream and shout, spilling worthless words from your mouth.”

I spoke to Alex to find out how the album came together, what it was like working with Anton Newcombe, and to see what his plans are for 2018…

Q & A

Hi Alex. It was great to meet you a few weeks ago, when I saw you play at Pretty Green, in Carnaby Street. Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed the gig.

Alex Lipinski: It was good to meet you, Sean – we had a really cool night at Pretty Green. It was a nice, intimate space to showcase the new songs and the guys there looked after us.

How does it feel to have the new album out there? It’s your second album – your debut, Lonesome Train, came out seven years ago. Why the big gap between albums?

AL: It’s a good feeling to finally have this album out. After Lonesome Train was released, I was working on the follow-up album, then I started a project with Bonehead [Oasis] called Phoneys & The Freaks, so that kind of took over for a year or so, then by the time I was ready to start the second album, I was working on a new bunch of songs that I felt were stronger. That was when Anton Newcombe contacted me…

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How did you come to work with Anton?

AL: He saw a live video of one of my songs and contacted me saying he wanted to produce me and put my next record out.

We met a couple of times after Brian Jonestown Massacre gigs and discussed the direction. He had in mind these old ‘60s folk recordings, in essence, capturing the songs as stripped-back as possible – the bare bones – letting the voice, the songs and the performance come through.

We recorded the album in about eight hours in Anton’s studio in Berlin. My brother Adam [guitarist] joined me in Berlin and we set-up in Anton’s studio one night, sitting facing each other, with a giant RCA mic in the middle – the same one they used on the old Frank Sinatra recordings.

“We set-up in Anton Newcombe’s studio in Berlin one night, sitting facing each other, with a giant RCA mic in the middle – the same one they used on the old Frank Sinatra recordings”

We bought some beers from the local shop, went back to the studio and recorded a couple of takes of each song, all live with no click track. We added some minimal overdubs later, but the nucleus of the record stemmed from that one night in Berlin.

Anton’s a pleasure to work with. He would give us enough space to let us do our thing, but he’d also suggest things that I would never have thought of, and taught me how to accept perfect mistakes. He’s also arguably the funniest person I’ve ever met.

Are you pleased with the new record?

AL: Yeah – I’m really pleased with it. Going into the recordings, this was the kind of album we wanted to make – the collection of songs work well together.

Some of the songs had been hanging around for a while, whereas a few others were a lot more recent. I think Carolyn may be the oldest song on the album. The lyrics on some of the older songs evolved over time to the point when we recorded them.

When I first heard the album, I described it as ‘Bob Dylan meets The La’s’. How do you feel about that description?

AL: It’s funny you say that because quite a lot of people have come up to me and said a similar thing. I guess it’s the kind of juxtaposition of both British and American influences you can hear in the songs.

Let’s talk about some of the songs on your album. Hurricane is a highlight and it’s one of the darker songs on the record. What can you tell me about it? It’s a heartbreaker and it doesn’t pull any punches… 

AL: From what I remember, Hurricane was written very quickly. It’s one of those songs where you pick up a guitar and everything – the lyrics, melody and chords – all seamlessly fall together in about 30 minutes. It is really lucky when that happens. I guess you can say it’s pretty autobiographical. Everything I felt I needed to say about that particular situation is in the song.

Dandylion Blues is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? It’s another dark song, isn’t it? I like all the depressing songs on the album. I’m not sure what that says about me…

AL: Dandylion Blues stemmed from the groove and the lyrics followed to suit the moodiness of the track. Again it deals with the darker side of things. The lyrics in the verse especially are quite seductive and almost manipulative. It could be interpreted as two people having a conversation, or it could be seen as the voices within someone’s head.

The album is quite a dark record and it’s raw and bluesy – a lot of the songs deal with the darker side of relationships and life, don’t they?

AL: Throughout the album, I think there’s an underlying theme of exploring the darker side of relationships and life in general, which completely works with the nature of these recordings. Capturing these songs in their rawest form gives them a greater power because the song and the performance are laid bare.

Like me, you’re a huge Dylan fan, aren’t you? He’s a huge influence on you, isn’t he? What do you like about him? Do you have a favourite Dylan album – and why?

AL: I think any singer-songwriter out there who says they’re not influenced by Bob Dylan in some way is lying through their teeth. His work is embedded in popular music in so many ways it’s difficult not to be influenced by him in some shape or form.

My brother gave me copies of Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks when I was 14 and it sparked a fuse and changed the way I listened to music – it opened my mind to a mystical world. I couldn’t pick a favourite record; it changes on a daily basis. The trio of Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde are pretty hard to beat. The lyrical content on Freewheelin’Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ is untouchable.

“Throughout the album, I think there’s an underlying theme of exploring the darker side of relationships and life in general”

Can you tell me some of your other musical influences?

AL: I’m the youngest of four and I grew up in a house where music always seemed to be playing. My parents grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so it was generally always rock ‘n’ roll – mainly The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Those early rock ‘n’ and roll records and ‘60s British bands had a huge influence on me from the start.

This developed into singer-songwriters, as I grew up and started taking songwriting and lyrics more seriously – specifically people such as Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan and Ryan Adams. Wilco are one of my favourite bands over recent times. The musicianship in that band is incredible. Richard Hawley is another of my favourites.

You grew up in Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset. How was that? You then moved to London… That must’ve been a big change for you – all that musical heritage to explore…

AL: I had a great time growing up in Weston. It’s a small seaside town and as a kid I enjoyed living by the sea. I was a bit of a daydreamer – I had these great visions and big ideas of getting out and making a footprint in the world.

Growing up, my life was completely absorbed by music, and the music I listened to would take me to a different world and spark my imagination. I think growing up in a small town can give you that hunger and desire for something greater, which is a good thing.

I lived in London for five years, which was great. I knew had to get out and start playing. The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street was my first point of call and I used to regularly play there. It’s a tragedy that venue no longer exists. And, of course, all the rich history that London had was amazing to an impressionable 19-year-old.

Where are you based now?

AL: I turned 30 last month and I’m currently living back in the West Country. The last year I lived in London I was pretty much out all the time, having too much fun, and I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be. I moved back to Weston, where there’s not a great deal happening, and I’ve been far more productive. It’s a strange mind-set but it works creatively.

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Alex Lipinksi and his brother, Adam, at Pretty Green in London

It’s almost the end of 2017. How’s the year been for you? What are your plans for 2018? Can we expect another album and, if so, what’s it going to sound like?

AL: 2017 has been a productive year and I’m glad this album has seen the light of day. We’re in the process of booking dates for next year and the plan is to be on the road for most of it. I’m currently working on demos for the next record, which I’ll be recording with my full band.

Finally, what music – new and old – have you enjoyed this year?

AL: I tend to go back when searching for new music – there’s so much to discover. There’s a great Dion album produced by Phil Spector – Born To Be With You – that I heard recently and it’s amazing. Scott Walker’s Scott 3 and Scott 4 are both late discoveriesI was also late to the Big Star party, but what a band.

To be honest there hasn’t been a great deal this year that’s really excited me. I thought The Shins album was really good and the new War On Drugs record is phenomenal.

Alex by Alex Lipinski is out now on A Recordings.

http://alexlipinski.co.uk/