Groove: Year in Review 2007

Groove: Year in Review 2007
1. Amy Winehouse Back To Black (Island)
If there was ever an album bold enough to stand up to Amy Winehouse’s shock’n’awe persona, it’s certainly Back To Black. Getting squeezed into a December 2006 release, the album found quick momentum and to date still hasn’t lost it. From the instant rush of "Rehab” and its unforgettable "fuck you” sing-along verse, slick backbeat and sultry horns, Winehouse made it known that she was now in charge of things. As she says, "I’m a musician, I’m not some girl with teeth and tits that’s trying to be someone. I had a clear idea of what I wanted.”

Four years ago a healthy 20-year-old Amy stepped onto the scene as a fresh-faced soul singer with her debut Frank, an amiable collection of beat-heavy jazz pop. However, Winehouse’s tastes changed, which in how she views it, shaped Back to Black. "The biggest difference [between the two albums] is when I made my first album I was only listening to jazz and hip-hop, and when I made this record I was listening to ’60s music,” she says. "What I was listening to changed, so I’m influenced by what I’m listening to.”

Winehouse’s love for ’60s staples like Phil Spector’s "wall of sound” methods and the girl group phenomena connected with producers Mark Ronson (Lily Allen, Robbie Williams) and Salaam Remi (Fugees, Nas), who helped the singer realise her newfound obsession. Though there was a three-year gap between albums, Winehouse wrote Back to Black over a six-month tear after 18 months of inactive writer’s block. "I was trying to get my record done quick; I had written the songs and I was really proud of it,” she explains.

Confronting personal issues that were made public, like her well-known drinking problem and broken relationships, gave life to Back to Black. "Songs I’ve written on my album are things that have happened to me where I’ve had to sort trouble out for myself,” she admits. "So it’s all in the album, there’s not much more to ask me about that stuff.” Whether it’s a self-assuring break-up number like "Tears Dry On Their Own,” "Me & Mr Jones,” a reported kiss-off to Nas, or the devilishly grinning "You Know I’m No Good,” Winehouse’s powerful pipes — which switch from sultry to smarmy in the blink of those extra long lashes —paint pictures that feel almost clairvoyant for the year that defined her as a troubled but talented artist.

With Ronson, Winehouse found herself in the company of R&B vets the Dap-Kings, the flawlessly tight backing band that supply a fiery funk and soul backdrop for Sharon Jones. With the band’s immaculate sessions and Ronson’s adept studio hand, the album transformed Winehouse’s throwback dream into a sparkling reality. "I trusted Mark to do stuff with the band that he knew I’d like,” Winehouse says with admiration. "[The Dap-Kings are] good boys and I’m glad I’ve really got them on board.”

Beyond all of her mischief and blown opportunities, 2007 will go down as the year that Amy Winehouse seduced the world with that voice and, okay, that amazing beehive ’do too. But even more so, it was the year that virtually every taste in music found an album worth agreeing on. Cam Lindsay

2. M.I.A. Kala (XL)
After finding a somewhat shocking level of success with a left-field-stretching debut set that brazenly tested the accepted limits of underground electronic songcraft, M.I.A. shows a more conventional approach that proved no less blistering with her meaty sophomore set Kala. The producer/MC’s typically globetrotting rhythms carry a near-permanent sardonic scowl this time out, as menacing Rio-funk beats, stoic South Asian live percussion and pounding techno pulses mesh with Bollywood-styled vocal edits, Australian didgeridoo vibrations and fresh Motherland raps on this truly international club-wrecking assault. The key, though, is that through all her intense experimentation, M.I.A. manages enough familiarity to get her evolutionary sonic messages across with even greater effect. Kevin Jones

3. Kobo Town Independence (Independent)
Lyrically and musically Kobo Town is a trans-national triangle that connects Toronto, Jamaica and Port-of-Spain, the sort of thing that could only happen now, here. Reaching back past soca’s hollow mainstream din, Kobo Town resurrects, reinvigorates and redefines calypso for the new millennium. Independence is an important album not only because of the editorial observations on post-colonial life and trans-border cultural connections but because it offers an almost forgotten music new life by coyly injecting it with a therapeutic blend of reggae, dancehall and dub. As such Independence comes with a promise: it’s well on its way to facilitating a belated introduction between Canada and the art of the calypsonian. Brent Hagerman

4. Bonde Do Role With Lasers (Domino)
Brazil’s Bonde do Role may be white, middle-class hipsters rather than poverty-stricken favala folks, but the baile funk Beastie Boys (discovered by Diplo via MySpace) slip past the appropriation tag by delivering a foul-mouthed full-length that’s skilled, enthusiastic and unabashedly silly (listen for the kazoo solo). The trio also mash up their samba and Miami Bass-indebted electro beats and Portuguese-language sex raps with rock riffs bootlegged from AC/DC, Alice in Chains and Europe’s "The Final Countdown” With Lasers might lack the pent-up violence underlying much real-deal funk carioca, but Bonde don’t want to start a fight — they wanna start the party. Oh, and get real laid. Joshua Ostroff

5. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone)
Arguably the world’s most mind-blowing live ensemble, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings honed their songwriting chops for this brilliant collection of old-school soul and funk. With hipsters like Mark Ronson and Kanye West capitalising on the rich sounds generated in Brooklyn’s Daptone Studios, as well as the Dap Kings’ high-profile dalliances with Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones could’ve been lost in the hubbub. Instead, Jones and the band returned with a graceful, mature record, measuring their frenetic energy with sophisticated, collaborative arrangements and heartfelt lyrics. The vibe is still timeless but there’s contemporary grit within 100 Days, 100 Nights. Vish Khanna

6. Jimi Tenor & Kabu Kabu Joystone (Ubiquity)
Over his 20-year career, Tenor has shown again and again that he’s his own man. Despite his many jazz recordings, there would be nothing on his resume to suggest that he should make the most interesting Afrobeat-oriented record of 2007. Taking a cue from Tony Allen’s spacier brand of post-Fela sounds, Joystone combines ex-Fela sidemen with the cream of Finnish jazz players to produce a disc that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Strata East in the early ’70s. Sun Ra, Serge Gainsbourg, Henry Mancini and Alice Cotrane all figure into Joystone’s sound, a hilarious and funky listening experience. David Dacks

7. Ojos de Brujo Techari (Six Degrees)
Ojos de Brujo has taken the natural pulse of flamenco to the next plane with Techari, adding rhythmic traditions of India and a modern hip-hop sensibility that makes for movement at its most exhilarating — vocal contortionism done at blinding speeds, flamenco guitars that sound like they're about to catch fire, and percussion of all shapes and sizes. Through it all is a feeling of power — words and sounds thrown forward with the intention of reaching, of connecting, of affecting. This is not a passive listening experience, but one that will grab you, spin you about, and leave you wanting more. Claire Marie Blaustein

8. Robert Strauss Mr. Feelings (BBE)
Feel like getting down? Toronto producer, engineer and DJ Strauss has the remedy. Drawing on disco, deep house, soul and a quirky sense of humour, Strauss fashions a liberating and hypnotic boogie wonderland that is proudly nostalgic without a trace of irony. As well as connecting with talented Toronto musicians such as Saidah Baba Talibah on the dance floor stomper "Open Your Eyes,” recent London, UK transplant Strauss connects with boogie legend Leroy Burgess on the infectious "Hot Like An Oven.” Something is amiss if this record does not start a party in your body. Del F. Cowie

9. Antibalas Security (Anti-)
Security is Antibalas’s most invigorating and challenging album to date. All of the hallmarks of the collective’s Fela-inspired Afrobeat are present: the fist-pumping polyrhythms, stinging horn charts and politically aware lyrics on tracks like "Sanctuary” and "War Hero” are classic Antibalas. Where Security breaks new ground is with the production work of Tortoise’s John McEntire that introduces new textures and stylistic experimentation. The moody and atmospheric "Hilo” is perhaps their most sumptuous offering to date, while the unbelievably funky "Beaten Metal” introduces electronics and pieces of broken metal to Antibalas’s distinctive sound. Security is progressive Afrobeat at its most daring. Matt Bauer

10. Ticklah Ticklah vs. Axelrod (Easy Star)
Victor "Ticklah” Axelrod has been a stalwart contributor to all things funky and dubby in NYC for more than a decade, and was a prime mover of the Dub Side Of The Moon and Radiodread projects. With he has delivered his best disc to date. This was a good year for this record’s early ’80s dancehall sound. The stark, hip-hop-esque rhythms of this period generated many reissues in ’07, and Ticklah’s music sounded all the more impressive by comparison. The vocals and heavy Nuevo Yorkino trombone arrangements sound stunning in the dubwise renderings of a true master. David Dacks