Top Five at the Half

Charlie Ricci, whose Milennium Music Magazine has morphed into Bloggerhythms, suggested this mid-year reality check some years ago, and in keeping with that tradition, I offer my top five albums of the year so far.

  1. Swing Out Sister – Where Our Love Grows (Shanachie) I've enjoyed this band's work for the past eighteen years, however the opportunity to finally see them live this year has given this, their latest release, a lock on my number one spot. Corinne Drewery has got the same sort of vocal gift that Karen Carpenter did, however Swing Out Sister does much better music; no knock on the Carpenters, but this is the real deal.

  2. Tanita Tikaram – Sentimental (Naive) After a seven year absence I had almost given up on Tanita and the release of this album in the U.K. caught me by happy surprise just a few weeks ago. I've only had the chance to hear it through a few times, but it is a fine piece of work with an uncluttered, and intitmate production style that suits her voice perfectly. The songwriting is consistent with the quality that we've come to expect based on her previous six albums. This is a highly welcome return.

  3. Ivy – In the Clear (Nettwerk) This dropped into my consciousness out of left field primarily due to seeing them at WXPN's Free at Noon Concert earlier this year. The live performance left me lukewarm, but their new album which I picked up at the show is so appealing that it keeps resurfacing in my player. The music comes from a rather unique location where Swing Out Sister, Air, and Abba meet. You'd never connect this band with Fountains of Wayne by either the sound or the songs, so Adam Schlessinger's membership in Ivy makes it all the more enigmatic.......................................
  4. Marc Broussard – Carencro (Island) This album is way better than the one song that WXPN played would suggest (he also performed "Home" on all the late night talk shows) . This album was a pleasant surprise from beginning to end with blues based rock and soul, great songwriting, performance and production. This guy's a talent.
  5. Jane Monheit – Taking a Chance on Love (Sony Classical) Sometimes I think I'm not old enough to listen to music like this, it seems so, well, adult. But I keep coming back to this excellent album, her fourth and her major label debut. Pop singers doing standards are a dime a dozen but rarely do you find work of this quality. Monheit's command of the material allows her to freely draw from a deep well of both jazz and pop sensibilities which truly makes this record something special.

I'm only listing five now so as to leave room for ten at year's end. As a rule I never consider live albums or greatest hits collections for the top ten (where do these rules come from anyway), but if I did, the following would have knocked numbers 3, 4, and 5 off the list above.

  • Swing Out Sister - Live in Tokyo (Self-released) Recently recorded, this excellent live set is a close approximation to the show I just saw when they came through Philadelphia for the first time ever. You can only order this directly from the band via their website, and I'm given to understand that co-leader Andy Connell will personally pack and post the cd to you when you order it. This gets my highest recommendation.
  • Dido Live (BMG) Expect a review of this fine dvd/cd package here soon. The dvd perfectly captures Dido's complete 2004 live concert set from Brixton Academy in London, pretty much exactly as I remember it from last year's show at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. Superb production and sound, great band, intense performance, great lighting, basically everything you could want in a live concert from this great British singer songwriter.
  • Average White Band - Greatest & Latest (Liquid 8) Updating the similar best of album they self-released last year for sale during the Rock & Soul Revue tour, this official release adds two new tracks including the “Nu Jazz Mix” of “Work To Do,” which was inspired by the jazz guitar noodlings of newest member Klyde Jones amusing himself on the tour bus and inspiring the rest of the band in the process. This collection spans the last sixteen years representing the current incarnation of AWB, covers their last four albums and is loaded with rare and live tracks, and guest appearances by Chaka Khan, Daryl Hall, Alex Ligertwood and Ronnie Laws. For the official release, Liquid 8 added a bonus dvd with a nice documentary. Essential.

And, while we're on the subject, here are just a few more releases from 2005 that seem worthy of mention in this context.

  • Al Green - Everything's OK (Blue Note) The Rev. Al Green is such a talent that I doubt he could ever make a bad record, and new Al Green albums are always cause for celebration. This is his second Blue Note release, following 2003's I Can't Stop with basically the same players and producer. That these two records are widely considered to represent Green's "secular comeback" ignores 1995's excellent Your Heart's In Good Hands which may be the best of the three...................
  • Van Morrison - Magic Time (Geffen) Switching from Blue Note to Geffen for this latest release, Morrison continues to do what he does so well, writing and singing in a style that has evolved over the last thirty years or so that freely incorporates jazz, blues, and the occasional standard into a mix that is decidedly his own. The title here is apt.
  • Joss Stone - Mind Body & Soul (S-Curve) Yes, I know this came out in 2004, but it was released in the latter part of the year and it didn't really grab me until 2005. I so didn't like her debut cd that I sold it on eBay not long after acquiring it, but this one is vastly improved with great songwriting, and impeccable performance and production. It's hard to believe that such a soulful voice could be posessed by a teenager........................
  • Tegan & Sara - So Jealous (Vapor) This rocks with a bouncy and appealing charm that makes the record hard to resist. This Canadian duo has seemingly left folk-rock behind on this, their third album. A fun listen.


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