Published Feb 01, 20001. Spearhead Stay Human (Six Degrees)
Michael Barclay: Only Michael Franti can rhyme "suicide" with "genocide" and make it sound sweet. That's because although his political vision is fiery and astute, his band is a modern-day Sly & the Family Stone, a rock-solid soul powerhouse that dips into hip-hop, reggae, acoustic R&B and go-go. The music makes you long for a sunny summer day on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, while the lyrics feed your head with everything you've always wanted to know about the death penalty and the WTO but were afraid to ask. Franti knows that if you free your ass, the mind will follow.
Fred Davies: The most uplifting and infectious release of the year (despite it being largely concerned with the injustice of capital punishment). Interspersed amongst the stellar raps, pure '70s funk and soul, is a convincing spoken word drama that takes place over the airwaves of a co-operative radio station. If you are prepared to let cynicism take a holiday there is no one better than Franti to rejuvenate your sense of social activism and get your fanny shaking at the same time.
2. Res How I Do (MCA)
Del F. Cowie: The refreshing clarity of Philadelphia vocalist Res (pronounced Reese) is only one of the reasons to check out her striking debut How I Do. Underneath her polished vocal sheen Res, with the help of songwriter Santi White, lashes out at the shallow image-making of the media and takes ironic shots at the apathy birthed by the woefully misrepresentative "bling-bling" mentality. Toronto-based producer Doc (formerly of Esthero) provides a natural and unpretentious atmospheric sound that draws on hip-hop, dub and rock giving her the musical ammunition to back up her no-nonsense stance. But Res's critiques don't insinuate everything is cut and dried; "Ice King" deals with Res in the vulnerable role of a woman dealing with her relationship with a drug dealer. Even if you ignore the lyrics, the strong, catchy melodies on a number of songs are just one more reason to listen.
3. Macy Gray The Id (Epic)
Helen Spitzer: It's a relief to find that Macy Gray's taste of commercial success hasn't tamed her wild tongue. The Id offers ample evidence of Gray staying true to her impulses, musical and otherwise. From the get-go she serves up some funky old-style loving, with a hint of delirium for good measure. The album is a fluid, polyamorous romp through some of Miss Macy's finer inclinations, which range from the hallucinatory Brechtian march of "Oblivion" to the Donna Summer-style ode to licentiousness, "Sexual Revolution." This is delicious transgression, and if the thumping tambourines on "Relating to a Psychopath" don't loosen your caboose, honey, nothing will. Loopy debauchery never tasted so good.
4. Omar Best By Far (Oyster)
Del F. Cowie: With the release of his fifth album, this UK multi-instrumentalist continued to evolve despite his acknowledged role as an unwitting mentor and influence to other musicians. Known for incorporating styles from many eras into his distinctive brew of jazz, soul and funk over the past decade, Omar added nods to the UK's latest export, two-step, the cinematic presence of Lalo Schifrin and John Barry and bossa nova grooves to his repertoire. But Omar's knack for subsuming his influences into elaborate and memorable arrangements bearing his distinctive style ensures he's not chasing any bandwagons. As a result of preserving his musical integrity he's now working with highly visible artists he's influenced. Erykah Badu appears on Best By Far's cover of "Be Thankful For What You've Got" and he's slated to contribute to Common's forthcoming Electric Circus.
5. Bilal 1st Born Second (Interscope)
Del F. Cowie: While what has been called neo-soul has crossed over to the mainstream in diluted form the past year, there are still some practitioners that can reference the past yet still follow their own artistic instincts. Bilal's debut 1st Born Second suggests he will be among those doing so; it finds him largely eschewing the established sensitive loverman ethos for a self-styled rebellious nature. As a result Bilal is pretty much open to try anything and he skips from one musical style to another from jarring hip-hop to Sly Stone-inspired trippy funk to roots reggae. This approach is extended to the unpredictable stylings of his malleable falsetto, which dances all over the tracks. Defying conventional logic, it works and based on this evidence, Bilal has only scratched the surface of what he might do.
6. Oneness of Juju African Rhythms 1970-1982 (Strut)
Terry Callier Alive (Mr. Bongo)
Breakestra Live Mix Tape Part 2 (Stones Throw)
Shuggie Otis Inspiration Information (Luaka Bop)
India Arie Acoustic Soul (Motown)
Sam Thompson: Exploring the previously unheard soulful side of the acoustic guitar, India Arie's debut album is funky enough to get you grooving on the dancefloor, yet soft enough to make you cry. Brilliant.
Mary J. Blige No More Drama (MCA)
Money Mark Change is Coming (Emperor Norton)
Spacek Curvatia (Universal)
Poets of Rhythm Discern/Define (Quannum/Ninja Tune)