Our quarterly selection of top albums are based on GRTR! reviewer ratings.
Albums of the Month is also featured in our occasional newsletter.
Click or tap here for more information
The Best Of …
2020 Albums of the Month
(April – December)
Alligator Records [release date: 17.09.21]
Every since breaking nationally on NBC’s Comedy Showcase, San Francisco’s Tommy Castro has enjoyed a well founded reputation in the new blues vanguard for his willingness to explore new avenues in the blues genre.
Down the years he’s dipped into a melange of blues, rock, funk soul and r&b, while more recently paying closer attention to the rhythmic quality of his grooves.
And after 4 decades of profile building and deserved critical acclaim, he’s still buoyed by the same enduring mantra: “I never made the same record twice.”
And so after scooping the Male Artist of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, Band of the Year Award and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, you might ask where else is there for him to go?
He delivers the answer loud and clear on ‘Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town’, a blues concept album that finds him applying his soulful grooves and resonant playing to the story of a nascent blues man who lives the dream, but never quite turns his back on home.
He’s enlisted the talents of award winner, producer/songwriter Tom Hambridge whose imprint is to be found all over the contemporary blues scene from Buddy Guy - ‘Blues Prisoner’ which could easily have come off Guy’s last ‘The Blues Is Alive and Well’ album - to James Cotton, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Quinn Sullivan and Joe Bonamassa.
Hambridge’s undoubted talent can actually work both ways, for while he delivers the magical fairy dust as a producer, an acclaimed songwriter and as on this album an ‘in the pocket’ drummer, he is arguably the reason why much of the contemporary blues output sounds homogenous.
Happily Castro pulls off a slight of hand by making sure the songs and various musical styles amplify the coherent story line and draw the listener into a timeless blues tale with a beginning, middle and end.
The result is an accessible and satisfying album that plays to Tommy’s strengths as a fiery guitarist with soulful vocal chops, who always serves the song first and only stretches out later.
He invest his music with an emotional veracity as evidenced by the opening ‘Somewhere’, which is beautifully reprised at the end of the album on dobro and with a suitable lyrical conclusion.
On the opening version his tremulous slide guitar locks horns with Jimmy Hall’s husky harp on a choogling mid-tempo groove that nicely levers us into his musical storyboard.
The swampy title track sets out his hero’s search for a better life as a bluesman. Castro interweaves the track with mellifluous guitar lines before delivering the thematic hook: “Once he heard that guitar, man it shook him to the ground, the bluesman came to town he felt the tug, blues man came to town, he caught bug. The boy breathed in that sound when the bluesman came to town.”
The great thing about this album is the way Castro reaches deep into the fabric of the stories to ensure that each song is illuminated by both his playing and expressive singing.
His blues odyssey traces the ups and downs of a blues man who is fuelled by the optimism of the title track, but who also trawls the lows on ‘I Got Burned’ which is all stinging guitar and tinkling ivories over a whip-crack rhythm section.
His vocal phrasing really gets inside the slow blues of ‘Blues Prisoner’ as his sinewy guitar lines and Kevin McKendree’s rolling piano populate a classic slow blues which builds with unrelenting intensity
He cleverly juxtaposes the latter with an outright rocker with the uplifting title of ‘I Caught A Break’.
It’s a sister track to ‘Child Don’t Go’, an earlier train-time rocker and ‘call and response’ gospel style duet with Terrie Odabi. This song alone serves to illustrate Castro‘s ability to slip through the gears as the moment demands.
Much deeper in the album he adds the slide-led, riff driven ‘Bring It Back’ on which his hero lets his heart lead him back home.
The album cleverly illustrates every facet of a bluesman roller coaster working environment. There’s the youthful aspirations of the title track through a yearning soulful love song ‘You To Hold On To’, to the business side of the blues, as expressed by the greasy funk of the aptly titled ‘Hustle’, on which Keith Crossan’s sax work evokes early career War.
He toughens up his vocals and his guitar tone on the riff rocking ‘Women Drugs and Alcohol’ and searches for balance on the undulating funky groove of ‘Draw The Line.’, which owes much to Tommy MacDonald bass line and brings out a stellar vocal and intense guitar performance from Castro.
In contrast he draws on real feel and southern soul alongside special guest Deanna Bogart, who adds the perfect sax led resolution to the self explanatory ‘I Want To Go Back Home’.
Each song fits perfectly like a piece in a blues man’s jigsaw puzzle, as Castro achieves the difficult task of bringing fresh meaning to a genre that too often settles on good playing, but is hampered by lyrical cliché.
He tells us that the songs here are not autobiographical, but the fact that the themes are familiar, gives the material an almost universal flavour, the very thing quality songwriters always strive for.
Like the album’s subtitle ‘a blues odyssey’ suggests, we’re taken on a musical journey that finishes with the ambivalent contentment of having lived the kind of life that Castro himself knows so well. ****½
Review by Pete Feenstra,
Frontiers Music [release date 17.09.21]
Edge Of Paradise is a duo made up of Armenian/ Russian/ American singer, “the female Robin McAuley”, Margarita Monet, and American guitarist and songwriter, Dave Bates. The Unknown is their fourth album, and second on Frontiers.
The duo have got a lot going for them. Their first two recordings were helmed by respected producers, Michael Wagener and Chuck Johnson respectively. This latest album is produced by Howard (Halestorm/ Daughtry) Benson, and engineered by Mike (Van Halen/ Dio) Plotnikoff.
That would be room enough to celebrate. But to find that the arrangements, the music and the performances match up to the expectations is a thrill indeed.
Monet’s multi-octave voice is gloriously hypnotic and theatrical. Not in the sense that she overdramatises her vocal performance, but in the sense that she’s not just singing, she’s acting out the part she plays.
Her sensual, breathy vocals on ‘Digital Paradise’ easily switch up through several gears as her voice soars, and on the darker toned ‘My Method Your Madness’ it eventually reaches escape velocity and rockets into orbit. It’s passionate, articulate symphonic metal, occasionally conducting lightning raids onto hard rock terrain… ‘False Idols’ has more of a contemporary sound, faster paced and more simply constructed. It’s anchored by a solid percussive beat that latches on fast to a hard rock groove.
There’s always a lot going on in Benson’s imaginative arrangements. Much of it not always immediately obvious. He’ll drop a few bars of synth strings into the middle of a song, giving it a classy, elegant tone, or he’ll stretch out soaring strands of amazingly sustained melody, while upfront, Monet is delivering a blistering slice of raging symphonic metal.
The title track, ‘The Unknown’, is a bit like that. After starting life as an ebbing, flowing ballad, meandering through some sweet piano phrases, it’s caught up in the sudden storm of Benson’s symphonic orchestration, carrying all before it.
It’s a hard act to follow. But they try. Especially on ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Believe’, two songs that stake out a sizeable chunk of pop metal territory.
We’ve seen a proliferation of Symphonic Rock albums on Frontiers of late. This is unarguably one of the best. ****1/2
Review by Brian McGowan
SMITH KOTZEN (BMG)
Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden) and Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr Big, Winery Dogs) have pitted their combined guitaring and songwriting skills to fashion nine tracks of pure unadulterated hard rock heaven. ****1/2
Review by David Randall
THE DUST CODA Mojo Skyline (Earache Records)
You can hear influences of Led Zeppelin amongst others, with Drake’s vocals reminiscent of Plant in his heyday on ‘I Have Been Waiting’ (magnificent heavy bassline and thumping riffs) and ‘Rolling’ – the Dust Coda have certainly earned their place in the new wave of classic rock hall of fame – long may it continue, these are exciting times for new rock music! *****
Review by Karen Clayton
Trucker Diablo have used their lockdown time well and have produced an album that is uplifting and hard rocking in equal measure. The band’s previous albums have shown that their love of harmony and melody coupled with huge riffs is a winning formula and here they have captured the spirit that has prevailed over the past year into 13 tracks.
‘The Big Truck Keeps On Rolling’ should be a metaphor for the resilience of society in the face of the pandemic and this juggernaut shows no signs of stopping! *****
Review by Dave Wilson
THE JOHN WILLIAMS SYNDICATE Out Of The Darkness (Wulfrun Records)
‘Out Of Darkness’ counterbalances poppy familiarity with stylistic diversity. Everything is consistently shot through with glistening harmonies, poppy hooks and the primacy of the song.
It’s one of those albums that finds you muttering to yourself: I’m not really into pop-rock, but I like this very much. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
IAN McNABB Utopian (indie)
Double albums often see artists come unstuck with either a lack of decent songs to fill four sides/two discs, or indulging too much at melody’s expense. No need to worry on ‘Utopian’ as Ian McNabb shows no sign of dropping his high quality control on his songs. Fans will love this and if you have yet to enjoy the musical world of Mr McNabb here is a perfect opportunity to do so.
An album of the year with ease. ****1/2
Review by Jason Ritchie
TIMO TOLKKI’S AVALON The Enigma Birth (Frontiers)
A handful of tracks lift the album into the world of Tolkki’s grandiose, pomp peppered metal. ‘Truth’, ‘Another Day’, ‘Beauty And War’ are theatrical pieces, punctuated by rushing, thick cut riffs, speeding, dancing keyboards and a pounding percussive beat.
Tolkki once again shows his command of orchestral and chorale arrangements … rhythms sway, strings swoop, and harmonies soar. One minute, the music is delicate and restrained, the next it’s blazing with passionate vocals, most notably from Jake E and Marina LaTorraca. ****1/2
Review by Brian McGowan