Published Nov 23, 20081. Erykah Badu New Amerykah Pt. 1: 4th World War (Motown)
When one-time neo-soul torchbearer Erykah Badu dropped the particularly directionless Worldwide Underground experiment back in 2003, many wondered if the world would ever again relive the euphoria surrounding her richly creative early releases. To some it seemed that a few years of misguided tour match-ups with powerhouse performer Jill Scott had stripped her of a bit of confidence, or that a life of motherhood had removed some of her musical drive. To say that there was great surprise that Badu could come back with such a strong and progressive record in this year's New Amerykah after such a prolonged absence would be an understatement.
Erykah owes much of her return to the front of the pack to the hired hands who help craft the record's sound - a tight-knit dream collective of producers and musicians led by Sa-Ra and Madlib, with the help of old hands ?uestlove and James Poyser, along with some guest orchestration by the legendary Roy Ayers. The stately soul-jazz figure christens the party with a funky nod to Blaxploitaion-era soundtrack soul in "Amerykahn Promise," before Madlib reigns things in and delivers the off-kilter goods for artsy hip-hop tribute "The Healer." The quirky lyrics and halted, half spoken vocals offer a glimpse at a revitalized Badu, one who better understands her vocal gifts and boundaries, and makes far more efficient use of her skills. It's the same sense you get from the varied voice attacks and hustling groove of "The Cell," and the head-nodding struggler's anthem "Soldier."
In terms of relatable themes, the expressive singer has always had a knack for writing emotive tunes you could carry around in your breast pocket, and that honour is reserved this time for the warm and revealing "Me," one of the disc's most memorable cuts. Through its self-effacing and inspirational lyrics, Erykah really brings herself down to the personal level of slightly older, wiser cousin, and exposes a woman who's no longer trying to live up to the Baduizm image, but is simply trying to have fun. Couple this new freedom with a crew of like-minded cohorts in Georgia Anne Muldrow, Bilal Oliver, and Sa-Ra, and you end up with the unrestrained creativity found in the scorching centerpiece "Master Teacher." From freestyled social observations and unexpected vocal turns, right down to the cut's slinky, bass heavy rhythmic thump, the tune is a triumphant confirmation that, more than making a mere return to form, Erykah Badu remains as relevant as ever.
2. Al Green Lay It Down (Blue Note)
After two uneven attempts at recapturing his '70s heyday, Al Green returns to glorious form with Lay It Down, which marries the cadence of his Hi classics to the contemporary production of ?uestlove and James Poyser. There are some fine collaborations with John Legend and Anthony Hamilton, but on "No One Like You" and "Standing in the Rain," Green alone sounds perhaps more soulful than ever. In an era of promise and uncertainty, Al Green has never been more comforting.
3. Dubmatix Renegade Rockers (7 Arts)
Decadent roots production only begins to describe Dubmatix's third album, Renegade Rocker, and with a star studded guest list including vocalists I Wayne, Pinchers and the late Alton Ellis it is solid proof that Toronto's dub king is a heavy contender on the world stage. Dubmatix's modus operandi is to keep the proceedings interesting at all times: tracks chock full of delectable sounds, spiralling echoes, multiple counter melodies and background effects make good old fashioned hypnotic repetition dub seem bland by comparison.
4. Solange Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (Geffen)
Just when you thought the retro-soul music craze was getting tired, out of left field comes Beyonce's little sister with Hadley St. Dreams. Mark Ronson and the Neptunes are at the boards but what makes Dreams such a stunner is Solange. Whether ruminating on a one-night stand on "T.O.N.Y" or waxing poetic on "Ode To Marvin," there's a marked maturity that makes each song a rough gem. Being that she's only 22 makes one itchy with anticipation.
5. Raphael Saadiq The Way I See It (Columbia)
Perennially underrated songwriter and musician Saadiq has been reverentially genuflecting before the altar of classic soul at least back to his Tony!Toni!Tone! days in the '90s, way before the recent retro-soul revival - one of his past albums is entitled Instant Vintage after all. On The Way I See It, Saadiq wholly immerses himself in throwback lovestruck idealism, while keeping a keenly stern eye on the present, reaching an unsettling, yet truly engaging apex on the Hurricane Katrina-themed "The Big Easy."
Del F. Cowie
6. Kasai All-Stars In the 7th Moon The Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy By Magic (Crammed)
The hype surrounding Crammed Discs' Congotronics series seemed to peak and fade proportionately to the international visibility of Konono No. 1. That's a shame because the Kasai Allstars disc is undoubtedly the strongest of the series' three discs. Being an all star crew of different tribal origins, this musical hybrid features an almost Fourth World production style that whips up dual Congolese pop guitars, buzzing percussion and vocal polyrhythms into a muted, meandering journey into spellbinding "tradi-moderne" rhythms.
7. La India Canela Merengue Tipico From the Dominican Republic (Smithsonian Folkways)
This Dominican woman plays a fast and furious accordion at neck-jerking tempos, matched note-for-note by her bassist and saxophonist, who are just as melodic and nimble, especially when tumbling triplets interrupt the relentless two-step rhythms. Together, they shred their way through originals and merengue classics with endless adrenaline. No wonder this music is traditionally the soundtrack for cockfighting.
8. Ocote Soul Sounds feat Adrian Quesada The Alchemist Manifesto (Eighteenth Street)
Ocote Soul Sounds (Martin Perna) and Adrian Quesada ushered in a new era of forward-thinking Latin music with the release of The Alchemist Manifesto. A spacey, dub meets Latin album that meshes traditional instrumentation with modern technology to create a haunting grove that echoes across generations. Inspired as much by the past as it is set in the future The Alchemist Manifesto is an important step in the ongoing evolution of funky Latin music.
9. Estelle Shine (Homeschool)
Though she slammed all those white British girls appropriating soul music, Estelle blithely signed with John Legend and boarded the American R&B bandwagon for her sophomore album. But this West Londoner's take on the genre improves the formula, adding Caribbean spice, classic soul depth and an assist from Kanye West on crossover single "American Boy" (not to mention fiery guest spots from Kardinal and Cee-Lo). However, it's Estelle's own husky-sweet vocals, fleet-footed rapping and no-pushover lyricism - all reminiscent of a pre-crazy Lauryn Hill - that make Shine live up to its title.
10. LAL Deportation (Public Transit)
Is this the new face of the much vaunted Canadian singer-songwriter tradition? Deportation's subject matter is difficult and unique; dealing with social and environmental justice, ethnicity and class. Nic Murray's beats continue to go down a fascinating rabbit hole of downtempo abstraction, which furthers the intimate sound of the disc. Vocalist Rose Kazi's delivery owes ever more to Billie Holliday, but in this context there's no question of imitation. These songs exemplify the notion of the personal as political.