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Best of 2018

Here we are again, renewing the franchise...

2018 was shaping up along similar lines to 2017 for me musically until we decided late in the day to sod the expense and catch Springsteen on Broadway in New York in December, just a few days before it closed.

Astonishing and worth every ludicrous penny. Much more than a one-man concert, it was a fascinating and moving disquisition on how the "Bruce Springsteen" persona was constructed and how it works. A glimpse behind the Springsteen mask, delivered by the man wearing the Springsteen mask. If that sounds weird and off-puttingly postmodern, it wasn't - just very effectively multidimensional. Then, of course, there were a shedload of timeless songs too, performed timelessly. Do catch it on Netflix if you can.

It was a year in which some glorious archive releases have taken up a fair amount of listening time: the long-awaited More Blood, More Tracks Bootleg Series release from Bob Dylan; the Grateful Dead's gloriously sprawling Pacific Northwest 73-74; and, most recently, Neil Young's Songs For Judy, live and acoustic in 1976.

Fewer concerts than in recent years, with a lot of other things going on in life, but non-Bruce highlights included Patti Smith, back at the Dome and inimitable, as always; Harry Manx, out in Sidney, British Columbia; the Decemberists in Dublin; and Kronos Quartet at the Brighton Festival.

On to the top ten new records.

10. Stick In The Wheel - Follow Them True 

Muscular folk, delivered with verve and a real swagger. Fearless and forthright singing and playing. Thoroughly English - in a good way.

An object lesson in working within a tradition without being unduly constrained by that tradition.

Try this for size.

9. Gwenifer Raymond - You Never Were Much Of A Dancer

The debut album from this fine Brighton-based guitar and banjo player. I saw her supporting Charlie Parr at the Prince Albert in March and then very much enjoyed this collection of dextrous instrumentals.

Here's an example.

8. The Decemberists - I'll Be Your Girl 

Not my favourite of their albums overall, but the best tracks are memorable. Sung and played with the assurance of an established band, but still pushing the boundaries musically. The show in Dublin confirmed the fun they still have playing together and the confidence with which they do it.


7. Braden Gates - Pictures Of Us

Another excellent collection from Braden, with a varied palette of supporting musical contributions alongside his own assured fiddle and guitar. Very nice to see the great Jaron Freeman-Fox making a guest appearance.

Here's the title track, with "a smile as wide as Saskatchewan".


6. Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet - Landfall

A song-cycle starting with Hurricane Sandy and ranging widely. It's angular, clever, moving - and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

"I was in a Dutch karaoke bar, trying to sing a song in Korean..."

Give it a go here.

5. Tunng - Songs You Make At Night

One of my favourite bands of this century and great to have them all back in action this year.

As well as releasing this earworm-laden collection, they played a memorable gig at Brighton's Komedia in October.

4. Nathan Salsburg - Third

Another album of guitar instrumentals making the top ten this year.

Beautiful and precise, without ever becoming twee.

Here's one of my favourites, 'Timoney's'.

3. Lori Watson - Yarrow Acoustic Sessions

A new voice to me this year - clear, pure and distinctively Scottish. She tells her stories almost conversationally, without affectation.

I was immediately won over by her compelling version of 'Flooers O The Forest' and this immaculate cover of the Incredible String Band's 'October Song".

2. Trembling Bells - Dungeness

Not an easy listening set, with the band's proggier instincts fully indulged. But bursting with energy and invention and entirely distinctive.

Also featuring one of my two very favourite new songs of 2018 in the shape of 'Christ's Entry Into Govan' - which is available here. A good example of their ability to throw in some bizarre but effective lyrics that can stop you in your tracks.

1. Ryley Walker - The Lillywhite Sessions

An unexpected delight. Ryley took it upon himself to cover in its entirety an unreleased, but bootlegged, set by the Dave Matthews Band. I knew nothing previously of the DMB, and other reviewers seem to rate the Ryley version as an interesting but inessential curio. For me, though, it's fascinating - and a more engaging listen than Ryley's mainstream 2018 release, Deafman Glance. And it includes the second of my two favourite new songs of the year, the ravishing 'Grace Is Gone'. Immerse yourself here.


Best of 2017

Another year full of fine music, but once again mostly supplied by familiar and dependable names. There are few new discoveries to report in what follows.

It may be that my aging ears are less inclined to novelty, or perhaps it's that the young pretenders can't quite match their predecessors. I suspect it may be a bit of both - answers on a postcard, please.

Some great live sessions, topped by Jaron Freeman-Fox and The Opposite Of Everything playing at my daughter's wedding in Canada, with some gorgeous instrumentals followed by a stomping barndance set. On the same trip we also caught fiddle maestro Richard Wood in a PEI pub. UK gigs included the astonishing Eivor at Secret Sessions Live, a resurgent Shirley Collins and the ageless Jackson Browne.

A special mention for Hamilton. We were lucky enough to see a preview last weekend and, yes, it is extraordinary. Much hyped, of course, but deservedly so: I'm no fan of musicals generally, but I was hooked by the pace, wit and energy with which it tells a fascinating and resonant story.

On to the records. Looking at the list, I guess folk music and/or female voices are the dominant strands. I've listened to a fair amount of both, but hardly exclusively: jazz and improv from Avishai Cohen and The Necks come just outside the top ten, and well played archive releases this year have included Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bob Dylan (his Gospel years). Anyway, (drum roll please...)

10. Shirley Collins - Lodestar

A remarkable story of how she was persuaded back into performing, more than thirty years after her last album. Her older voice might not have the full range and power that it used to, but she remains a captivating storyteller.

The musical settings are spot on - sympathetic and unshowy.

9. Braden Gates -
Much Rather Be Sleeping

The latest from the Bard of Whyte Avenue and well worth a listen, particularly for the fiddle-n-foot-stomping title track. Probably stillnot as consistently strong a set of songs as his first album, but he's ahead of the competition. I'm particularly fond of 'My Sister Fell In Love" - here's a live version.

8. David Rawlings - Poor David's Almanack

The latest from the ever-dependable David & Gillian. No surprises, but consummate playing and singing from a duo who fit each other's contours like a hand in a glove.

It could have been recorded yeaterday or a hundred years ago.

7. The Weather Station - The Weather Station

Tamara Lindeman in excellent voice, with a rockier backing than hitherto. 'Thirty' is a tremendous song, leaving the rest of the set slightly in its shadow, but I can't hold that against her. She plays in Brighton on 1 February...

6. Laura Marling - Semper Femina 

...and with a pleasing symmetry Laura played a fine show at the Dome this year. Strong and confident writing and performing.

5. Kronos Quartet - Folk Songs

Now, this could have been embarrassing, classically trained players trying their hand at folk. In fact, it's a triumph. Kronos are consummate genre-hoppers and have chosen their vocal collaborators very well - Rhiannon Giddens, Natalie Merchant, Olivia Chaney & Sam Amidon.

4. Lisa Knapp - Till April Is Dead

New to me this year - I was intrigued by a review in the Guardian, and here we are. A wonderful blend of straight folk, taped spoken word and electronica in celebration of May. Here's a taste.

3. Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow

Another year, another album... once more, no real surprises here but entirely dependable writing and playing from MC Taylor and his collaborators. Allusive and poetic southern rock proved to be no contradiction in terms.

2. Offa Rex - The Queen of Hearts

An unequivocal delight. The Decemberists decide to make a seventies-style folk rock record, and sign up the wonderful Olivia Chaney (yes, her again) to sing along.

1. Bill McKay & Ryley Walker - SpiderBeetleBee

Ryley Walker has yet to associate himself with a duff record and this second album of instrumental duets with Bill McKay is a beaut. Here's a taste.


Happy Christmas and all the best for 2018.


The best of 2016

Well, where did that year go?

I'm still not convinced that any dearth of opinionated amateur music critics on the internet requires Eden On The Line to return to more active service, but it still seems right to set down a pick of 2016.

Some amazing concerts - Bruce Springsteen at Wembley, from close enough not to need the video screens, for once; Wussy, touring in full-band mode, upstairs at the Hope and Ruin; Paul Simon (who I'd not seen before) on cracking form, aged 75; a reformed Long Ryders ditto and ditto, though slightly younger...

On record, not many entirely new discoveries, but folk I like made some good ones. The usual crop of wonderful reissues, headed by the expanded It's Too Late To Stop Now by Van Morrison, which includes a DVD of the long-lost video from the Rainbow, originally broadcast as an Old Grey Whistle Test special. Van at his very finest in 1973: essential stuff. Check out also Gillian Welch's set of out-takes from Revival, which is well worth the price of admission.

These were my favourite newbies:

10. Various Artists: Blonde On Blonde Revisited. Mojo magazine came up with this double vinyl collection of cover versions for the original's 50th anniversary. In the general way of these ventures, the contributions are mixed. But it's a lovely package and the better tracks are splendid: Jim O'Rourke makes 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' more interesting than anyone could reasonably expect; the almost inevitable Ryley Walker and Michael Chapman are ace on 'Fourth Time Around' and 'Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat' respectively. The whole thing makes you think about the originals and sends you back to them - which is exactly what you want.

9. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker. In the year that he checked out for good (taking up permanent residence in the Tower of Song), the great man left us with an apt memento, by turns dark, tender and witty. It probably won't be the first of Len's albums we turn to in five years' time. But in 2016 - as usual with his albums - it put most of the competition to shame. (Memo to the - thoroughly deserved - Nobel laureate: there are still opportunities to revisit the writing motherlode...)

8. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. You may have spotted that I'm not generally a huge hip-hop fan. But I like to kid myself that with any genre I can get the really good stuff. I've always had a soft spot for the Tribe since I heard the wonderful 'I Left My Wallet In El Segundo' on a compilation I'd bought way back for one of my daughters. So, yet more of 2016's bitter-sweetness: Phife Dawg dies, at a horribly young 45, but a reformed band turn in an impressive and engaging release, featuring his final contributions.

7. Alejandro Escovedo: Burn Something Beautiful. One old faithful teaming up with another: Peter Buck produces and plays guitar here. They're well matched. No great surprises, but a strong set of songs, crisp playing and admirable energy. What's not to like?

6. Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker: Cannots. Why can't I shut up about Ryley? Because he's so prolific and so damn good. He's already featured in this list on the Dylan covers compilation. His own album this year (Golden Songs That Have Been Sung) could well have featured here - though it was edged out for relative inconsistency and an unacceptably noodling live version of 'Sullen Mind'. This one is a live-in-the-studio duo recording with a jazz drummer, released in a limited edition for Record Store Day. Seek it out, if you're not allergic to jazz. Probing, intelligent, light-on-its-feet and generally wonderful.

5. Steve Gunn: Eyes On The Lines. I could have mentioned Steve already - his 'Visions Of Johanna' on the number ten pick is worth the entrance fee there. He also played a splendid gig in Brighton this year and has produced a Michael Chapman release that's due in January. One of those people who have hit a purple patch in which it is difficult to do any wrong. And there is certainly nothing wrong with this collection of strong songs and lovely guitar.

4. Avishai Cohen: Into The Silence. And finally, a genuinely new discovery in 2016 - courtesy of a review in The Guardian. If the letters ECM bring you out in a rash, stop here. But I find this gorgeous, reflective and intelligent stuff from the Israeli trumpeter and band leader. Inspired by loss, but finding beauty rather than gloom. And I suspect that is a facility we're going to continue to need in 2017.

3. David Bowie: Blackstar. Like Leonard, Bowie went out on a high. A surprise release at the start of the year. It is inevitable, after his death, to find intimations - and explorations - of mortality in the lyrics. But the music is yet another questing, and challenging, shift in a legendarily chameleon career. It's genuinely inspiring to hear the squally jazz skronk underpinning his final dispatches. No compromise and no surrender. I'll have have what he had, please.

2. Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like A Levee. Another known quantity who has played an excellent gig in Brighton this year. This may be MC Taylor & co's best effort yet. And it is not just the main man: lovely grooves to match confident singing. It feels like a band on record - and that is certainly the impression they give in concert.

1. Wussy: Future Sounds. A band here too. And what a pleasure to see the whole team touring the UK in May. (Thanks for the blog, Mark.) I'm not sure that individually the songs here are as strong as the previous release Attica!, but the textures and cohesion make up for that. Chuck and Lisa in fine voice - and they have added a pedal steel! The bizz. If there was any logic in the world Wussy would be playing to audiences of thousands, but it's such a selfish joy to catch them in small rooms: don't miss the opportunity while it's there.

Those of you who know may tastes may feel that this post has been a case of "round up the usual suspects" - and I guess that's one of the reasons why I'm not blogging more regularly now. Other fingers are rather closer to the contemporary pulse...

The close runners-up this year included Paul SimonOliver Swain, Lisa Hannigan, Chris Forsyth, Nathan Bowles and the Trembling Bells. Special mention for the Prettiots: their NYC-sass-plus-ukulele combo didn't really sustain itself over a whole album, but "Boys (That I Dated In High School)" was a killer track. If you missed it, try here.

And so, 2017 - what ya got?


Another guest review

Rob Zanders is back in action, with some recommended reading here.


2015: the year's best music

Even though Eden On The Line is still hibernating it would seem odd to end the year without saying something about its musical high points.

I only got to eleven gigs in 2015, but there were some good ones in there. The stand-out was Patti Smith on scorching form in Glasgow, playing Horses in its entirety, forty years on. And honorable mentions for The Decemberists, Hiss Golden Messenger, Laura Marling and Ryley Walker - excellent shows by all.

It has been another killer year for reissues. Alongside the wonderful Bob Dylan Cutting Edge release, there was a fine Neil Young box of live shows from the late eighties with Bluenote Cafe. Mentions here too for the Velvet Underground's Complete Matrix Tapes; Four Tet's Pink, gathering an archive of 12" releases; expanded remasters of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and His Band And The Street Choir; and the Grateful Dead's San Francisco 1976.

On to new releases and the traditional countdown.

10. Billy McKay & Ryley Walker: Land Of Plenty

Ryley is rapidly turning into one of those guarantees of good quality, turning up in a range of different styles and settings (Steve Gunn is another): you can buy with confidence.

This set is a beautifully varied and intricate set of duets with another guitarist from Chicago, Billy McKay

9. Nadia Reid: Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs

A recent find for me. Nadia is a singer/songwriter from New Zealand and this seems to be her first full album release.

A strong and confident voice and a distinctive stylist. Try this for size.

8. Four Tet: Morning / Evening

Two side-long tracks of Keiran Hebden's trademark electronica, the first featuring lovely vocal samples from Lata Mangeshkar, the great Indian playback singer (whom I first encountered via Cornershop's name-check in 'Brimful Of Asha'). Excellent commuting music, I find.

 7. Michael Chapman: Fish

I do realise that if Michael Chapman has released an album in a given year, then it is very likely to be in my top ten. This is not me being boring, but him being consistent...

After a number of improvised and experimental instrumental albums, Fish is a more generally accessible collection of ten guitar tunes.

6. Laura Marling: Short Movie

Another regular on these lists. To my ears she gets better and more assured with each album. She got some flack for having acquired a bit of an American accent, but I can live with that. Well arranged and varied: great stuff.

 5. The Weather Station: Loyalty

And here's another very impressive female singer-songwriter... Ontario's Tamara Lindeman, trading as The Weather Station. Inevitable echoes of Joni, but certainly not an imitator - or someone who need be daunted by the comparison. 'Way It Is, Way It Could Be' was one of my favourite songs of the year. It's here. See if it makes you hit repeat too...

4. Ryley Walker: Primrose Green

Back to the man of the moment, taking a beautiful step forward from his folky debut, moving with a jazz band into full-on John Martyn and Tim Buckley territory.


3. Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete

I guess the joke in the title is that, while the music has a traditional country feel (to match its Civil War team-shot cover), Dave and Gillian's latest couldn't be further from obsolete...

It's not a perfect record - 'Candy' is too annoyingly repetitive to sustain frequent listens - but the stronger songs are in a class of their own, with the pair's singing and playing together just getting better. Here's proof.


2. Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There

I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I do. It's a mix of cover versions and reworked originals that I thought might just be self-indulgent. In fact it's a gem: beautifully recorded and performed with a gentle intensity and dedication.

It ranges from Hank Williams to Sun Ra via The Cure, but they manage to make it a satisfying and cohesive whole.

1. The Decemberists: What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

The long-awaited follow-up to The King Is Dead, the album which belatedly sold the band to me. This has a more varied sonic palette, with nods to their proggy and folky sides alongside the predecessor's Americana. There's a sense of making up for lost time, after keyboard player Jenny Conlee's return from sick leave. There are no fewer than fourteen tracks on the main album and a further five out-takes on a later EP, Florasongs. My FB take on stand-out number 'A Beginning Song' when it was released was

A grown-up take on the pain and joy of living that has me punching the air every time I hear it.

I'll stand by that, and the rest of the record is pretty good too.

I'll leave you with mentions for the runners-up bubbling just under the top ten: step forward Peter Case, Steve Gunn & Black Twig Pickers, Lynched and Trembling Bells.

See you in 2016.