Published Nov 22, 20091. Georgia Anne Muldrow
2. Nino Moschella
3. Oumou Sangare
4. Mayer Hawthorne
6. The Very Best
8. Amadou and Mariam
9. Anthony Hamilton
10. Alice Russell
1. Georgia Anne Muldrow Umsindo (Someothaship Connect/E1)
With Umsindo, producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriting maverick Georgia Anne Muldrow continued her unpredictable and fascinating prolific output. While more people may now be aware of her through collaborations like her appearance on Mos Def's The Ecstatic (the original version of "Roses" appears on Umsindo), she's definitely not pandering to gain a wider audience. "It's been a mixed reception, obviously," says Muldrow from her home in Inglewood, CA. "Some people do not understand. A lot of people weren't ready for it. A lot of people judged it like 'Oh she's not singing to the top of her ability' and things like that, when I was completely in the moment of the character and I was singing out of a lot of anger. So I wasn't aiming for a beautiful sound, it was more like a visceral kind of record."
Thematically exploring the world through Muldrow's lens, Umsindo balances urgent worldly concerns with spiritual and family values and the death of her father, jazz musician Ronald Muldrow, rarely staying in any groove for very long. Muldrow's production inimitably navigates furious astral funk and heliocentric odes to parenthood. It's an eclectic mix drawn together through the album's overall theme ― Umsindo means 'sound' in Zulu. "That's why I named it [Umsindo] because it was more about the vibration of sound and not just rhythm. [It was about] the actual sound, it being a very effective healing instrument and weapon." The prolific Muldrow is currently working on two new albums where she says she's consciously using her arresting voice in a more clinical manner ― the opposite of her approach on Umsindo. "I didn't really get into putting down the most perfect vocal," says Muldrow. "That wasn't what was important to me. What was important to me was that the feeling was honest and that carries through the sound."
Del F. Cowie
2. Nino Moschella Boomshadow (Ubiquity)
Sometimes the most interesting takes on a time tested genre come from those playing on the outskirts, and Bay Area resident Nino Moschella offers sound proof with the dazzling Boomshadow. Taking firm R&B elements as its root, the record quickly branches out into Morris Day-styled synthesized funk, twisting prog rock chaos, and even stripped down acoustic blues, with Moschella's fantastically soulful falsetto writhing and wiggling throughout. The wealth of incredibly detailed instrumentation here, where everything from rarely heard harp runs to guitar and bass-mimicking key lines find their place amongst the producer's relentless percussive interjections, ensures Moschella's fresh approach to sonic traditions he employs never tires.
3. Oumou Sangare Seya (Nonesuch)
This is one of the most ambitious production efforts of the year in any genre. Sangare's first non-compilation North American release since the '90s is well worth the wait. On Seya, her plaintive and simple Wassoulou vocals and musical accompaniment get blown up large into an incredible tapestry of rhythm, melody and pan-American musical inflections. Moreover, Sangare's vocals have gained a new warmth and sense of engagement that adds to the emotional connection you're bound to feel with this music. If Tinariwen is your sole reference to Malian sounds, this radically different album ought to be next on your shopping list.
4. Mayer Hawthorne A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)
What began as little more than downtime fun for friends and family has gone on to represent one of the most authentic examples of revivalist '60s soul songcraft in the entire movement, a feat as surprising as the man behind it all. In A Strange Arrangement, Michigan-born beatsmith-turned-crooner Mayer Hawthorne manages to recreate each of the familiar sounds that made early Motown king, from the indispensable piano touches, live-off-the-floor feel and well-timed harmonies, right down to the era's lyrical purity. Hawthorne caps all of this off with his own genuinely classic vocal delivery to produce a record that could easily be confused for a relic from that timeless age.
5. Maxwell BLACKsummer's Night (Columbia)
All praises be to that mystique of Maxwell. Despite having not released an album in over eight years, for the R&B crooner to drop a project as decent as BLACKsummer's Night is remarkable. The Brooklyn-based singer delivers a concise nine track CD that is apparently the first of a trilogy; this aural appetizer offers a soulful dynamic that leaves you wanting more. Maxwell shows that there is still a place for thoughtful, reflective and wholly commercial soul music in the new millennium.
Ryan B. Patrick
6. The Very Best Warm Heart of Africa (Green Owl)
We've heard the result of African influence on indie pop, now the Very Best's Warm Heart of Africa demonstrates the flip side. Malawi singer Esau Mwamwaya continues his partnership with British production duo Radioclit, eschewing the sample-heavy mix-tape format of their previous release in favour of original compositions. Sung in both Chichewa and English, this is a joyously groovy melting pot of cultural influences. Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig and M.I.A. lend their pipes to the blend of traditional African harmonies and percussion mixed with modern electronics and squelching synths. Irrepressibly positive, this cross-cultural amalgamation of influences is as refreshing as it is exciting.
Scott A. Gray
7. PPP Abundance (Ubiquity)
Sequenced like a breathless high-energy revue, Abundance represents a sharp, yet successful left turn for PPP (formerly Platinum Pied Pipers). Feted producer Waajeed and multi-instrumentalist Saadiq dynamically mine the rich sonic history of their hometown of Detroit with equally adept stabs at fashionable Motown revivalism and idiosyncratic futuristic techno funk. New additions Karma Stewart and Coultrain bring hair-raising vocals and malleable songwriting chops to the table, admirably rising to the formidable challenge presented by Abundance's bombastic soundscapes.
Del F. Cowie
8. Amadou and Mariam Welcome to Mali (Warner)
Guitarist Amadou Bagayoko and singer Mariam Doumbia's third album builds on their West African blues foundations with deft electronic production from Damon Albarn and fresh collaborations, including K'Naan on the rousing "Africa" and Toumani Diabaté's kora accents in "Djuru"'s looped backbeats and French chants. From the bouncing "Batoma" and "Sekebe" to the seductive tones of "Ce N'est Pas Bon," Amadou's rich guitar and Mariam's enthused vocals guide the exploration of both upbeat and relaxed African grooves along with tasteful electric innovation. Welcome to Mali is an uplifting triumph that's extended beyond Afro-pop circles and into Western consciousness.
9. Anthony Hamilton The Point of it All (La Face)
His fourth proper studio release sees Charlotte, NC's Anthony Hamilton emerging as an authentic artist in his own soulful right. He still evokes the romanticism and streetwise cool of Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, but there are subtle yet crucial twists on Point, like the cinematic blaxploitation funk of "The News," a chilling but affecting tale of street violence that captures his most energizing vocals thus far. The frolicsome bounce of "Cool" leavens a couple's financial struggle with humour and optimism. The Point Of It All heralds Anthony Hamilton as a ripening and articulate soul music storyteller.
10. Alice Russell Pot of Gold (Six Degrees)
Maybe it was all the comparisons to other female "blue-eyed soul" singers coming out of the UK in the past few years, but something motivated songstress Alice Russell to ride the soul train off the tracks and into unchartered territory on Pot of Gold. Moving away from being a "featured" vocalist, Russell took centre stage in '09 with this stunning album. Produced alongside long-time collaborator TM Juke, Pot of Gold takes Russell's enchanting gospel-inspired voice and pairs it with crisp soulful, jazzy and rock-fuelled grooves to create an original take on the UK soul revivalist movement.