July 30, 2010

Buraka Som Sistema – Black Diamond

Black Diamond, the debut album byBuraka Som Sistema - Black Diamond Portuguese trio Buraka Som Sistema, is a politically charged, highly addictive album of progressive-kuduro, a style which blends House and African styles of music, and is at times reminiscent of the ethnic London sound that M.I.A has almost single-handedly brought global in the last few years. As such, anyone who considers themself a fan of M.I.A is very likely to dig this, and not only because she appears as a guest vocalist on “Sound of Kuduro”. The album’s only flaw is that it’s a little slow getting out of the gate – opening track “Luanda/Lisboa” is arguably the least exciting song here, but from “Sound of Kuduro” onwards, it’s an adrenaline-pumping spectacle that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the very end. Highlight tracks include “Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)”, “New Africas”, “Beef” and especially “General”, which features a minute-long interlude that’s so charming I find myself wishing it was five times that length.



July 30, 2010

Lee Fields & The Expressions – My World
soul, funk

Lee Fields & The Expressions - My WorldLee Fields made a name for himself in the 1970s putting out a series of awesome (and now very rare) 7″ singles on his own label, and he’s spent decades honing his sound to a perfect mix of the sheer power of James Brown and Sam & Dave and the subtlety and tenderness of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. When you listen to My World, his debut album with new band The Expressions, it becomes abundantly clear that you’re hearing the sound of a man who has proven himself as a titan of soul beyond any shadow of a doubt. His voice is simply huge, commanding such a degree of attention that it’s something of a marvel that the rest of the band even manage to get noticed. Opening track “Do You Love Me (Like You Say You Do)” is pure dynamite, a killer single that would’ve rocked the charts in times gone by, while my personal favourite, his silky cover of “My World is Empty (Without You)”, is inescapably moving – one of the finest examples of straight-from-the-gut soul music I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Anyone who’s been digging the fine soul renaissance that rose up throughout the second half of the 2000s needs to hear this album.


July 27, 2010

Fashawn – Boy Meets World

What a marvelous debut coming from such a young and talented artist.Fashawn - Boy Meets World Fashawn was barely out of his teens when Boy Meets World was released, and already he was sounding like a young Common, blessed with the same skill in engaging storytelling, bolstered by a solid sense of social awareness and some truly forthright lyricism. A great deal of the album’s content is influenced by Fashawn’s difficult childhood – he grew up in a virtually parentless home – and the steps he took to push through adversity and achieve personal success. It gives the album a fascinating duality of grim realism juxtaposed against a powerful sense of optimism, with Fashawn’s lyrics repeatedly coming back to the ideals of determination and the pursuing of dreams. It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the way Fashawn tells it which makes it good-spirited and very appealing. There’s a wealth of highlights on Boy Meets World, with “Freedom”, “Life as a Shorty”, “Ecology”, “Bo Jackson” and “When She Calls” (which samples Joanna Newsom!) being some of my personal favourites. However, I’m most fond of the “traveling the open road” celebration of “Samsonite Man”, with its beautiful sample of Billy Paul’s soul cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”.


July 23, 2010

Cliff Martinez – Solaris

Solaris, the original score for Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novelCliff Martinez - Solaris (and earlier film by Andrei Tarkovsky), is a breathtaking combination of fragile electronic flickers and subtle orchestral flourishes. Cliff Martinez proves himself to be a master of texture, timing and restraint, as the pieces here are beautifully composed to present the ideal balance between light and shade, serenity and gravitas, security and eeriness. Without a single vocal track, zero percussion and generally quite little variation in instrumentation, the music of Solaris still extends itself from the gentle loneliness of “She Will Come Back” and “Is That What Everybody Wants” on through the cautious optimism of “Don’t Blow It” and finally to the emotionally gripping delivery of the album’s centrepiece, the ten-plus minute “Hi Energy Proton Accelerator.” The sparse, ethereal feel of the music allows Solaris to quite perfectly reflect the isolation, confusion and displacement felt by the film’s lead character, thus setting a mood that boasts plenty of emotional pull. Like many of the best soundtracks, it stands firmly as a great album in its own right.


July 21, 2010

Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf – Big Shots

This is one of those releases where the story behind it often ends up overshadowing the music itself. For those who don’t know, though, Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf were an emcee and producer duo who worked together between 1991 and 1993, recording more than enough material to put together an album. Unfortunately, their work was never released at the time, and Charizma was tragically killed as a bystander during an armed robbery not long after. A few snippets were released in the interim, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Peanut Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf - Big ShotsButter Wolf, now the founder and owner of Stones Throw Records (who released underground classics by artists like Madvillain and J Dilla), finally decided to put the finishing touches on their material and release the album proper. There’s a real old-school vibe to the album, which is full of good-spirited hip-hop party jams that all sound very “of the time”, yet the material never sounds dated (in the pejorative sense of the word). Charizma was a very appropriately named emcee, with his capable flow, youthful sound and fun, feel-good lyricism making him instantly likeable. It’s incredibly sad that he wasn’t able to explore his talent further, but Big Shots makes for an exceptional epitaph.


July 19, 2010

Neko Case – Blacklisted
alt-country, singer/songwriter

All the gusto, confidence and vocal prowess that made 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby such an immense delight were delivered two-fold on its followup, the exceptional Blacklisted. On her earlier works, it would’ve been a ridiculous understatement to claim that Case’s voice “showed promise”, yet Blacklisted saw her surge upward to an unexpected echelon that fewNeko Case - Blacklisted vocalists ever reach. With Case’s voice demanding such attention, however, it’s important not to overlook the instrumentation and song structures upon which it’s anchored, with lonely slide guitar, banjo, acoustic strums and ghostly percussion providing a lush, Southern twang that’s filled with nostalgia and warmth, yet also a hint of noir. Case’s songwriting has definitely taken a step upward as well, with songs like “Deep Red Bells”, “Lady Pilot”, “Stinging Velvet” and her lovely covers of “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and “Running Out of Fools” displaying an impressive grasp on the craft, often trading in twisty melodies and multi-part complexity, while still retaining their accessibility and a full emotional charge. “Deep Red Bells” deserves special mention for being possibly a career-best performance.


July 17, 2010

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings – 100 Days, 100 Nights
soul, funk

Sharon Jones might well be the coolest vocalist on the planet right now. Totally self-assured, with wicked attitude, stunning range, depth, maturity and a fantastic sense of humour, she’s a complete package of a singer who’s virtually without peer. When you back her up with the Dap-Kings, one of the tightest groups currently making funk and soul music, the results are pretty much unbeatable. My introduction to them was with 2005’s slow ‘n’ smooth Naturally, an album I loved, but thought was lacking a little too much in upbeat floor-shakers, an area where Jones really comes into her own. Where that album narrowly missed the mark, 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights succeeded spectacularly, and at least half the tracks grind awaySharon Jones and The Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights with an irresistibly funky abandon. The slower numbers are still there too, including a couple of beautiful gospel turns, and they’re better than ever before. This is deep-down, authentic soul music that could easily convince a casual listener that they’re hearing to something from the late-60s, yet it never drops into being an outright retread. Sharon Jones and her fabulous Dap-Kings leave their mark on every track, making for an album full of lively spirit and soulful personality.


July 16, 2010

Autechre – Confield
electronic, IDM

Autechre - ConfieldFor a long time I felt that Autechre were my least favourite of the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) crowd, with their well regarded 90s output (including the highly lauded Amber and Tri Repeatae) never really grabbing my interest. It was only recently that I bothered to check out their work from the following decade, and it left me asking “why the hell didn’t anyone tell me they got so much better?” Confield is everything I wished those earlier albums were – an electronic album that perfectly harnesses the balance between the mechanical and the organic, leading to the application of descriptors which seem contradictory yet all equally apply. Throughout its nine tracks, Confield somehow finds common ground between the meticulous and the chaotic, the melodic and the avant-garde, the distant and the emotive, the precise and the unpredictable, the discomforting and the inviting, all-together making it an record of very impressive breadth and depth. I regard it as their career highpoint.


July 13, 2010

Georgia Anne Muldrow – Umsindo
soul, funk, hip-hop

To me, this album feels a lot like a spiritual companion to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part 1 (4th World War), so it’s hardly surprising Georgia Anne Muldrow - Umsindothat I adore it, given that Badu’s release is a major favourite (one you can expect to see higher up the list). Georgia Anne Muldrow’s biggest drawcard here might be the unpredictability of her songwriting, as her half-soul-half-hip-hop vocal leads each of these twenty-four (!) tracks along various unforseen pathways and surprising, meandering detours. The music, which consists of a dense melange of bubbling basslines, neo-soul vocal harmonies, strutting percussion and a host of influences derived from funk, hip-hop, electronic and world music, ebbs and flows in her wake, popping through unexpected stylistic shifts which never conform to your expectations yet always reach infinitely satisfying outcomes. Plus, there’s a handful of instantly graspable cuts, like the super-groovy “Daisies”, to keep the listener from losing themselves in the depths completely. Umsindo is complex, but it’s a truly rewarding album – an immense, sprawling work of bold creativity that rewards repeat listens with rich detail and masterful musicianship.


July 9, 2010

Belong – October Language
ambient, drone, noise

Too minimal and unstructured to be shoegazer. Too fuzzy to be ambient. October Language is virtually impossible to classify, and it’s challenging, enthralling listening from start toBelong - October Language finish. Occasionally bearing a slight resemblance to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works: Vol 2, Belong’s debut release consists entirely of guitar drone, distortion and glitch, which combine to create an overall soundscape that will absolutely immerse you. While Aphex Twin’s masterpiece had repeating motifs for you to cling to, Belong offers no such luxury – the tracks drift and flow in a seemingly random manner, with elements of the instrumentation withering away without warning, only to reemerge (with just as little warning) at a later point. All this makes the album sound organic and totally directionless. This is unique, unpredictable and haunting music, and it’s quite unlike anything else you’ve heard before.


July 8, 2010

of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
indie-pop, psych-pop

At the time of its release, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? really surprised the hell out of me. of Montreal were a band I’d come to consider reliable for releasing solid, “B+” albums year after year, so for them to drop such an awesome album this far into their career was something I would never have expected. Kevin Barnes has earned a place amongst this decade’s best songwriters, with a conceptual magnum opus of depression, fear, confusion, anxiety and post-relationship meltdown, expressed through witty, striking lyricism and of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?bouncing-off-the-walls vocal delivery. The switch to a jittery electro-pop aesthetic was another surprise, and the group deserve kudos for creating their best work under the risk of a major stylistic shift. Sprawling centrepiece “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” is deserving of special mention – the 11 minute cathartic outpouring is easily the most ambitious song the group have ever recorded, and it’s arguably their best.


July 8, 2010

High on Fire – Blessed Black Wings

After I finished listening to this album for the first time, I immediately awarded it a high rating and put it on my “best of the decade” shortlist. Every subsequent listen, I’ve started outHigh on Fire - Blessed Black Wings by second-guessing that initial judgement. I think to myself, “Why did I rate this so highly? I don’t really dig this kind of metal.” Then I get a few tracks further in, and it all becomes clear again – High on Fire deliver a gutsy, technically brilliant, adrenaline pumping rockfest that does so many things exactly right, that any silly, negative genre preconceptions just fade into insignificance. The vocals are arguably the lone chink in the trio’s armour, as Matt Pike’s constant monotone growl sounds consistently ridiculous while never really displaying anything close to what you’d call “range”. It suffices, but never really shines. The sheer, fiery assault delivered by the instruments, though, is another matter entirely. The band display epic power coupled with impressive versatility, alternating between short, sharp bursts of chugga-chugga-chugga riffage that are immediately reminiscent of classic Motohead, and long, bluesy passages in which they allow the guitars to breath for a more spacious sound. Deep down, albums like this one are really all about fun and excess – I can assure you that Blessed Black Wings delivers both in spades.


July 7, 2010

Sonic Youth – Murray Street
indie-rock, noise-rock

With Murray Street, Sonic Youth released one of the most restrained, low-key and blatantly non-experimental albums of their career, one that’s accessible in a way that seems almost Sonic Youth - Murray Streetout of character for the band. Sure, there’s a handful of experimental bits and pieces – the most obvious being the lengthy squall of guitar noise tacked onto the end of “Karen Revisited” – but for the most part the album is driven by highly melodic guitar lines and consistent percussion that allows pretty much every song to settle into a nice groove that’s catchy and effortlessly listenable. It’s particularly apparent on the opening trifecta of “Disconnection Notice”, “The Empty Page” and “Rain on Tin”, as Thurston Moore’s vocal stays constantly in second-gear, and the guitar melodies are foot-tappy and mellow in a way that signifies an unmistakable maturity that really suits the group. Thankfully, none of this makes Murray Street any less engaging than Sonic Youth’s other albums, as the combination of intensity, tight playing and fine songwriting that has always been their trademark remains well-and-truly intact. There’s no denying, though, that Sonic Youth sound comfortable and confident here in a way that’s not quite like anything they’ve done before, and the result is one of their best releases in over a decade.


July 7, 2010

Frog Eyes – The Golden River
indie-rock, experimental-rock, psych-rock

One of the more overtly unusual albums to fall under the very expansive umbrella known as “indie-rock”, The Golden River is a trip quite unlike any other. Frog Eyes’ lead singer andFrog Eyes - The Golden River principal songwriter, Carey Mercer, carries the image of something of an indie elder statesman or mentor, notable for having taken critical-favourite Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) under his wing, and his passionate, deformed-Bowie delivery is going to be the first hurdle most listeners encounter. If his all-over-the-shop whimper-hollering and bizarre lyrical imagery aren’t enough to scare you away, then all that’s left is to get a feel for the haunted fun house on acid instrumentation and totally unpredictable song structures that blur and creep and wind through the album like hallucinations. If you manage all this, then you’re all set to experience and enjoy one of the genre’s most truly unique groups. This isn’t quite their creative peak – that came with the 2007 song “Bushels”, which is just devastatingly good, although this album’s “One in Six Children Will Flee in Boats” comes close – but as far as I’m concerned it’s their finest album overall.


July 6, 2010

Racoo-oo-oon – Behold Secret Kingdom
experimental-rock, free-folk

There’s an almost shamanistic quality to Behold Secret Kingdom, the 2007 release by psychedelic freak-rockers Racoo-oo-oon. Blending together a combination of druggy basslines, guitars that bounce from melodic lines to seeming random clashes (there’sRaccoo-oo-oon - Behold Secret Kingdom definitely some early Sonic Youth influences in there), nonsensically chanted vocals, krautrock rhythms and hazy, primitive production, and then channeling it all through a lost-in-the-woods-at-night-but-quite-happy-to-be-there kind of vibe, the group manage to achieve a sound that feels ritualistic and quite Earthy. It’s the type of sound that free-folk and New Weird America groups like Sunburned Hand of the Man and Jackie-O Motherfucker would produce if you were to push their free-flowing musical aesthetics to their logical extremes. While the album sports a bit of a crazy, untamed sound, to the listener’s benefit it all falls on the accessible side of sheer madness, and there’s even some nice segments like the crescendo at the end of “Visage of the Fox” which feel like clever twists on the familiar post-rock playbook. It’s a must-hear for any fans of instrumental, guitar-based music who’d like to try something a little stranger than the norm. Face paint, bonfires and howling at the moon are optional, but recommended.


July 5, 2010

Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much to Love
singer/songwriter, folk, country

After carving out a prolific niche as a subdued, lo-fi, singer-songwriter type, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was enough to make you think that Bill Callahan had been a lonesome cowboy his entire life. The folksy, country boy schtick fits him perfectly, with Bill’s ultra-deep, charismatic vocal being surprisingly reminiscent of Johnny Cash, even if he does stick mostly to spoken-word delivery, letting his guitar do all the melodic heavy-lifting. It’s really refreshing to hear Callahan sounding mellowed-out and content – even happy at times – as Smog - A River Ain't Too Much to Loveit makes for an interesting contrast against the often dark themes and stark production of his previous works. A River Ain’t Too Much to Love feels like a comfortable album, arguably the most natural fit of Callahan’s career, but I also consider it his most accomplished. The production is sublime, retaining Smog’s usual minimalist style but making it sound dense and layered, which allows for those distant, wistful touches that can be a lot harder to nail when everything sounds equally “up-front”. If you combine that with the best songwriting of his career – “Palimpsest”, “The Well”, “Rock Bottom Riser”, “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” and “Let Me See the Colts” are some of the best things he’s ever written – you get Callahan’s true masterpiece, and it’s an under-acknowledged one at that.


July 4, 2010

Nobunny – Nobunny Loves You
garage-rock, garage-punk, retro pop

If you decide to check this album out, you’re probably going to notice the grainy recording, the kind-of-half-finished songs, the occasionally terrible mini guitar solos, the blatant use of drum machines, the super-short runtime and the general DIYness of it all – it basically sounds like it was written and recorded in the time between knocking off work and hitting the pub – and you’re going to say “What the hell? No way is this a ‘Top 100 of the Decade’ kind of album!” Then you’ll listen to it again, because you remember smiling at the crash-landing singalong of “Nobunny Loves You”. Then you’ll notice that “Boneyard” is wicked catchy and full of fun attitude and addictive vocals. Then you’ll be listening to it the third or fourth timeNobunny - Love Visions and realise that “I Am a Girlfriend” has inexplicably become your favourite song in the whole world. It’s not that inexplicable – it’s just a really f*cking great song. Then you’ll start grooving to “Tina Goes to Work” and “Chuck Berry Holiday” and singing along to their choruses. You’ll start noticing the incredibly naive sweetness of it all. Finally, you’ll realise that this album has wormed its way under your skin and you simply can’t get rid of it. Then you’ll understand why it’s a ‘Top 100 of the Decade’ kind of an album.


July 3, 2010

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Funeral For a Friend
New Orleans R&B, Dixieland

My knowledge of classic New Orleans R&B (like most people’s, I’d wager) tends to be limited to what I hear in the odd Louisiana-set film. Despite this, I feel so strongly about the quality of the music contained on Funeral for a Friend that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if some authority informed me that it was a leading light in the genre. The old-timey warmth in these songs sounds so authentic, and is so completely free of pretense, that it makes you want to say “they just don’t make them like this anymore” – right up until the point where you’re The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Funeral For a Friendreminded that you’re listening to something that was released in 2004. This is exciting, jubilant music, the soundtrack to a Dixieland street-parade full of vibrant colour and infused with a sense of life-affirming human spirit – and it begs you to dance and celebrate with every note. The gospel vocals found on a handful of the tracks are an added delight, lifting the songs to truly dizzying heights. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band have been doing their thing for over 30 years now, so it’s hardly surprising that they pull of something so wonderful with seemingly so little effort.


July 3, 2010

Ulrich Schnauss – A Strangely Isolated Place
ambient, electronic

A Strangely Isolated Place isn’t a groundbreaking album in the field of electronic music, nor is it especially creative, experimental or challenging. The synths are your basic layered variety and the beats sound like something that any reasonably talented bedroom-producer could make on their laptop. It’s the sort of album that flies way under your radar, never Ulrich Schnauss - A Strangely Isolted Placereally putting itself out there as an important work, content in its aim to merely leave the listener feeling good. In this goal, it passes with flying colours. This is the kind of simplistic, by-the-numbers work that reminds you that, in the hands of the right person, sometimes less is more, as Ulrich Schnauss’ musical creations put up no barriers to enjoyment whatsoever, enveloping the listener in buoyant washes of sublime ambiance one track after another. It’s absolutely wonderful stuff, seemingly underwhelming for the first minute or two (so make sure you wait those two minutes out), it just gets under your skin and leaves you surprised at just how much you want to listen to it over and over again.


July 2, 2010

The Roots – Game Theory

Game Theory might be the most finely produced hip-hop album of the decade. The Roots play live musical instruments to back their emcees, rather than relying solely on sampling, giving each track an organic backdrop that shows variation and spontenaety beyond what many other hip-hop groups can ever manage. Combine this with the dense, claustrophobicThe Roots - Game Theory production and fine instrumental layering that’s present on each and every track, along with some logical sequencing and a crucial sense of brevity, and you get something truly special. The whole band have a really solid cohesion to their sound, with guitars, keys and turntables being firmly anchored around ?uestlove’s rock-solid percussion and Black Thought’s top-shelf delivery, with a generous helping of top-notch guest vocalists rounding out the package. Highlight tracks include opening salvo “False Media”, the Eastern-tinged “Take it There”, the soulful “Baby” and the exquisite centrepiece “Long Time”, which cements its place as the album’s highpoint with some sleekly dynamic basslines and some of the smoothest vocal-work on the album.