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Independent music that ruled 2013

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Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare (Bella Union)

Melding some diverse influences such as Pink Floyd and Laurel Canyon-inspired rock, Wilson has produced an album that sounds as if it would be equally at home in the ‘70s as it is here and now. It is replete with great songs and some memorable guitar solos and guest spots from Crosby & Nash. Wilson has also co-written with Roy Harper on his superb comeback album.

Richard Thompson – Electric (New West)

Perhaps it is Buddy Miller’s production that has gained this album much more attention than many of Thompson’s equally good albums of the past. The UK folk roots are still there in abundance but the voice is now as important as the guitar. No longer rock’s greatest unknown guitarist.

Son Volt – Honky Tonk (Rounder)

If you loved the early Wilco albums then this will have immense appeal – and that is not damning with faint praise. Jay Farrar’s plaintive voice stands out on a batch of old-school country drenched songs, some of which sound like instant classics. Getting back to his country roots, Farrar has fashioned an album that should appeal to even hardcore country fans.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Surprisingly, this is the first album these two country veterans have made together. It is such a great idea that you would think it has to happen again. Harris has no peer as a singer and Crowell is a marvelous. Reunited with producer Brian Ahern and with Hot Band members such as James Burton, Harris sounds fabulous on this great duets album.

Mavis Staples – One True Vine (ANTI-)

This is not only produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who helped Staples win a Grammy for You Are Not Alone, but he also contributes four excellent songs, plays on the album and even enlists his son to help. This is another fine collaboration with one of gospel’s greatest singers who is reaching a whole new audience (witness her version of Low’s ‘Holy Ghost’).

Don Walker  – Hully Gully (MGM)

Walker is not just the songwriter for Cold Chisel, he is a master lyricist and this is most evident in his solo work. Every song is a vignette about Australian life that is worth the re-hearing. Walker’s voice might be an acquired taste for some but it is perfect for these wonderfully evocative songs.

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle (Ribbon Music)

Working with sympathetic producer Ethan Johns, the fourth album for Marling provides a seven-song suite that moves between folk and rock in an intriguing and adventurous mix. At times there are echoes of Joni Mitchell – and nothing wrong with that!

Patty Griffin – American Kid (New West)

This is Griffin’s seventh album but her first of new material since 2007 and since she teamed up with Robert Plant and his Band of Joy. With a voice as appealing and as distinctive as that of Emmylou Harris, many of the songs here tell a personal story (especially of her late father). Plant is there on backing vocals while other helpers include North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther and Cody Dickinson.

John Murry – The Graceless Age (Spunk)

Born and raised in Elvis Presley’s hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, Murry is the second cousin of William Faulkner and it shows in this debut. The tales here are harrowing and he has had his share of ‘persona; problems’ but ultimately triumphant – and often stunning. Murry is touring here in January.

Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone (Concord)

In just five years this Tennessee singer songwriter with a compelling voice has gone from playing her brand of country blues on the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, during the Juke Joint Festival to supporting the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park. Not a bad career arc. She has also gone from independently releasing her own albums to this impressive major label debut, co-produced by the Black Key’s Dan Auerbach. Here in April for Bluesfest in Byron Bay.

Trixie Whitley performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee in June.
Trixie Whitley performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee in June.

Three debut albums worth hearing

Trixie Whitley – Fourth Corner (Strong Blood)

Daughter of the late Chris Whitley has worked, as her father did, with Daniel Lanois but is now on her own. As you would expect, her voice is stunning on this collection of powerful original songs. Touring in April.

Sweet Jean – Dear Departure (Sweet Jean Music)

This low-key Melbourne duo of Sime Nugent and Alice Keath have released a work of delicate beauty. Drawing from the same well as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings they have managed, unlike many of their peers, not to imitate but to create their own sound. Several songs such as ‘Shiver and Shake’ and ‘Rise and Fall’ are infectious and would be hits in any other era.

Raised By Eagles – Raised By Eagles (Vitamin)

Another local act who have taken influences and melded into something of their own style. Like Sweet Jean’s music, you could call it Americana or ‘alt.country’, but regardless of labels the eight original songs by Luke Sinclair are impressive. Singer songwriter Van Walker says that they have “everything that’s good about Ryan Adams, and none of what’s rubbish.”

Archie Roach fans will love his box set, released this year.
Archie Roach fans will love his box set, Creation, released earlier this year.

Box sets that make a great gift

Archie Roach – Creation (Liberation)

Collecting his first four albums plus bonus tracks this collection celebrates one of Australia’s finest songwriters. The classic songs such as ‘Took The Children Away’ and ‘Charcoal Lane’ are here but there is a lot more to discover.

Donny HathawayNever My Love: The Anthology (Rhino)

Best known for his duets with Roberta Flack, Hathaway was a major influence on Stevie Wonder and also released one of the greatest live albums of all time (outtakes of which appear here).

Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective (Rounder)

Obviously his work with his brother Gregg (touring Australia next April) in the Allmans is legend but Duane played on an amazing and diverse array of sessions chronicled here (apart from the bands he was in with brother Gregg). Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Derek & The Dominos, Boz Scaggs, Delaney & Bonnie, Herbie Mann and Lulu (!) are just some of the names with whom he appeared.

The Allman Brothers Band – Brothers & Sisters (Universal)

The classic Allmans album recorded after the death of Duane and with Dickey Betts assuming guitar duties. The album provided the hits ‘Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘Jessica’ (which went on to become the Top Gear theme). The deluxe version comes with two bonus live sets. Amazingly the band is still going but Gregg Allman will be here with his own band next year.

Sly & The Family Stone  – Higher  (Epic/Legacy)

This four-disc set chronicles the career of the amazing mixed-race, mixed-gender R&B band put together by Sylvester Stewart. They created a sensation at Woodstock and this collection shows why. This will hardly get the publicity of other collections by higher profile artists but it is more brilliant than most. The band’s great bassist Larry Graham will be in Australia for Bluesfest 2014.

Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol.10 (Columbia)

Upon the original release of Self Portrait in 1970 Greil Marcus asked, ‘What is this shit?’. The double album contained mainly cover versions and it confounded critics and fans alike. This box set comes from the sessions that produced that album and New Morning – which doesn’t make them necessarily better but a whole lot more interesting. The deluxe set is somewhat of a collector’s item.

Van Morrison – Moondance (Warner/RHINO)

Like Dylan, Van is learning the value of repackaging. If you need multiple versions of the songs from this classic 1970 album then you can buy the deluxe version. If you are not so obsessive then the double disc set will do. And for all of that there is still only one previously unreleased song!

Elvis Presley – Elvis At Stax (RCA)

Elvis was a lot more musically complicated than most people think. These sessions he recorded for Stax – the label associated with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Booker T & The MGs – lend another dimension to his work.

Ben Harper (right) and Charlie Musselwhite team up for a blues beauty.
Ben Harper (right) and Charlie Musselwhite team up for a blues beauty.

Eight of the best blues albums from 2013

Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up! (Stax)

Ben Harper teams with harmonica master and veteran Charlie Musselwhite for a really strong album for the rejuvenated Stax Records label. A great blend of blues, gospel, roots and R&B, this is one collaboration that actually works.

Buddy Guy – Rhythm & Blues (RCA)

While he is one of the last remaining blues legends from the old days, Guy seems to feel that he needs to enlist lesser guests to affirm his status. Whenever you see the name Kid Rock on an album beware! And what the hell is Keith Urban doing here? Gary Clark Jr is a better choice. Guy outshines them all!

James Cotton – Cotton Mouth Man

Using the same producer as Buddy Guy, this other living blues legend has been teamed with some guests but this time they are a little more simpatico: Joe Bonamassa, Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell and Keb Mo’. Cotton and his harmonica remain the stars of the show.

North Mississippi Allstars – World Boogie Is Coming (Songs Of The South)

Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of the late great Jim Dickinson (he played on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’) are helping to shape the future of the blues. Some of this is rough and ready but it never less than exciting.

Three Kings – Three Kings (Three Kings)

A trio of great local blues players – harmonica ace Ian Collard, guitarist Benny Peters and drummer Jason Liusoon – team up for a rollicking set that is as raucous, authentic and exciting.

Chris Russell’s Chickenwalk – Shakedown (Love & Theft)

First impressions will have you believe that this blues duo have just left Clarksdale, Mississippi. The influences are definitely undeniable but they are via Melbourne (Australia, not Florida). Unrefined blues for the adventurous.

Kerri Simpson – 4AM (Origin)

Simpson is one of Melbourne’s finest singers and she turns her attention once more to the blues with great results. The original compositions are complimented by great playing from a crack studio band.

Chris Wilson – Live At Cherry (Independent)

This might be hard to find but the search is worth it because Wilson is one of Australia’s foremost exponents of blues harmonica and he has an amazingly powerful voice. Here he is in his element – the live performance.

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