There's a scene in The Big Bang Theory where the girls are trying to find out what's so appealing about the comics their boys obsess over, so they go to the comic book store. Amy asks Stuart, “Alright, well who's the best superhero?” Stuart panics and shushes her quiet, “You can't ask a question like that in here! Are you trying to start a rumble?” Just recently I was asked what's probably the equivalent question in music. “What's your album of the year so far?” I thought about it for a while and answered that I was having enough problems cutting down the short-list for 'Best Début Album By A Female Solo Artist'. I thought that 2016 was an incredible year for music; it may well turn out that it was only a warm up. Let's start with that very niche category.
In January I went to a local folk club to see Harp And A Monkey, probably one of the most under-rated bands in the country, but supporting them on the night was Rosie Hodgson accompanied by Rowan Pelling on fiddle. I spent quite a lot of her set trying to remember who she reminded me of and then, during the interval, discovered that Rosie is also lead singer with London based Irish band Crossharbour, so she reminded me of herself which is probably a good thing. I also bought her début album “Rise Aurora”, which is terrific, with a lot of the songs written by herself.
A few months later Rosie Hood released “The Beautiful and The Actual”, her first solo recording since her self titled EP in 2011. It's another beautiful album making the most of Rosie's voice but also building on the really quality trio she has built around her.
Yes, it's been a good year for the Rosies. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that one. You can edit it out of you want.)
In between those two, Emily Mae Winters released “Siren Serenade”, an album I haven't stopped playing since I first got my hands on a copy. Emily's voice transcends genres so easily as she both power, when it's needed, and the control to sing the gentlest of ballads. Again, for a début album a gratifyingly large number of songs are originals and that's something that links these three very different albums together. Musicians starting out are no longer satisfied with singing a few well known classics and the quality of the writing is really high.
If it wasn't hard enough already Bella Gaffney has just released her first album “Heaven Knows”, which I'm still finding my way around but sounds excellent so far and I'm greatly looking forward to Kizzy Crawford's début hopefully later this year.
The other thing that's impressed me has been the quality of EPs this year and I've changed my mind about them. I used to think that you put out an EP if you didn't have enough songs for an album but that's not the case. Musician, more and more, are using them as a way of charting their progress or trying something new.
Iona Lane is a terrific talent, and probably tired of being reminded that she's only just left school, who has got the EP down to a fine art. Each one so far has shown enormous strides in both her musical and composing skills and the full backing band on “Solace”, released in February, reflected her growing confidence. Iona has just released another EP, “Pockets”, to celebrate finishing school and available now, which was recorded live in the studio in just one day. There are only 100 physical copies being made so if any are left, get in quick. It could easily become a collector's item and I can't find enough words to describe just how good it is.
Another performer I love listening to is Gitta de Ridder. She's taken the concept of an EP to a whole new level by releasing four linked mini-EPs, one a quarter, that will eventually lead to a full album. The theme is Seasons and we've already had Spring and Summer. The Spring songs took the theme of starting out again whilst summer is about growing and developing. As a marketing device, keeping yourself in your audience's mind it's a stroke of genius and means that Gitta's fans (I'm one) get a regular opportunity to hear her beautifully constructed songs which are generally happy but with with an underlying sense of fragility and vulnerability.
I think the best way to buy an album, how ever many tracks it has on it, is from the performer's hand at a gig and with the main festivals over they're starting to pick up again. I'm looking forward to autumn as there are some terrific shows coming along. The folk clubs are opening after their summer break and my local venue in Hitching (http://www.hitchinfolkclub.idnet.net/index.html), which meets in the ballroom of a 16th century coaching inn every Sunday, has got a exceptional programme including Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Emily Mae Winters, Martin Simpson, Jim Causley, The Foxglove Trio, Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies, Megson, Hattie Briggs, Martyn Joseph –and that only takes us up to Christmas!
Without being at all biased (we're not related) an album I will certainly be buying at the launch gig, if not before, will be Minnie Birch's second album “Tethered”. I've already been fortunate enough to hear a lot of the songs on it and it's going to be an absolute cracker.
That's not until November but there's plenty of good music in October, starting on the 1st with Roxanne de Bastion (great new album “Heirlooms & Hearsay” now out), Hattie Whitehead and the aforementioned Gitta de Ridder at The Finsbury, right through to Saskia Griffiths-Moore launching her new album “Night and Day” at The Sound Lounge, Tooting on the 27th. In between will be Kadia, Ninebarrow, Ange Hardy, Sam Carter and many more; a whole world of music just waiting to be discovered and we need to get out there to discover it or it will be gone forever.
Talking of The Sound Lounge (http://www.thesoundlounge.org.uk/) this wonderful venue in South London has been open less than a year, and is already hosting some major names, and yet it's threatened by a planning application that could redevelop the site. The people running it have worked so hard to create not just a music venue, but a space for community arts projects in an area that desperately needs it, that I can only hope the campaign running to try to save it is successful.