We're almost there, but #20 through #11 first....
Raphael Saddiq - Stone Rollin'
There was a time where I begrudged the whole "Motown Revival" thing that seized the latter part of the 2000's. To me, it sort of made artists lazy as there was a sort of 'no assembly required' aesthetic about it. All you had to do was add in a doo-wop here, a finger snap there, your own Marvin cry there, add water, stir it up and repeat for the next twelve songs. Boring. So why is Stone Rollin' rated so high when it's basically Saddiq having yet another Motown love fest this side of his 2008 album, The Way I See It? Because Saddiq knows how to make Soul music the fine wine that it is and doesn't let his love affair with certain legendary artists get in the way of his own creative drive. First single, "Radio", didn't do anything for me, but toss that dud out and the album is loads of fun and nostalgia when "Heart Attack" and "Go To Hell" swivel on in. "Movin' Down The Line" keeps Stevie Wonder in mind, while Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano adds a current modern edge to the lovely, "Just Don't". Much more brooding and variant than it's predecessor, Stone Rollin' touches all the cornerstones of Soul music history, but forms it's own opinions. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Go To Hell, Movin' Down The Line, Just Don't, The Answer, The Perfect Storm, Daydreams, Heart Attack
With each passing year, I wonder when more people will know about Miss Muldrow. Then again I sort of like it that she's not known among wider circles. It's a selfish act, but so few can appreciate what she does. She's a diligent worker of sound, as she releases an album (sometimes two) every year, and she never sounds stale or at a lost for ideas. While she follows in her contemporaries like alt-Soul favorites like Eryakh Badu and N'Dambi, she's got her own tricks up her sleeve and is all the better for it. This time she's paying tribute to her mother, and with squishy 70's inspired jaunts like "Dr. Feelgood" and "All In All", she's reaching back into the past, honoring it, and intertwining them with her future, making for yet another full circle album to add to her cannon.
Notable Tracks: Dr. Feelgood, More & More, Ez Duz It, Mother Father God, All In All, Moonsong Lullabye
Little Dragon - Ritual Union
Something about Little Dragon---they just get it. Every single time. Ritual Union is a continuation of the Swedish quartet's brand of sterile Soul, building from where they gloriously left off on Machine Dreams, just with a frostier blanket over it and a tunnel focus on lead singer, Yukimi's supple vocals. Futuristic funk exercises of "Nightlight" and "Shuffle A Dream" stand-out and warm up the lighter fare like the quiet brilliance of the title track and the sparse and slightly dubby "Brush The Heat". Still in all of it's minimalism, Little Dragon still reigns at being an act that can straddle being complete detached, but oddly welcoming.
Notable Tracks: Nightlight, Shuffle A Dream, Brush The Heat, Little Man, Ritual Union, Crystalflim, Summertearz
Oh Land - Oh Land
Like Florrie, Oh Land is another blondie model who has a lot more going for her than suspect. Oh Land makes herself a delicious candidate in the Danish music scene, as her debut album turns a keen ear to the blueprint Sia has mapped as it blends in such whimsy and theatrical vocals this side of Paloma Faith's Do You Want The Truth.... from 2009. "Sun Of A Gun" and "Wolf & I" were out of the bag last year and added to the froth of praise, while "White Nights" has been heard in many a commercial with it's cute "ooh-oohs". Usually with hype like that, the full album 8 times out of 10 fails to deliver, but on the contrary as Oh Land is chock-filled with even more sound adventures (hear "Helicopter", "Rainbow", and the trip-hop-ish "Break The Chain") that have you taking a second glance.
Notable Tracks: White Nights, Helicopter, Sun Of A Gun, Break The Chain, Perfection, Rainbow,We Turn It Up, Wolf & I, Voodoo
16. Idle Warship - Habits Of The Heart
This year has been one for the duos---were two makes everything really out of sight. If there is one album that plays up it's eclecticism like Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid from last year it's Habits (just not as cultivated). Talib Kweil and Res moonlight as Idle Warship, and they combine their universal styles and influences to created a collective so rambunctiously fun and absorbing. It's not everyone's cup of green tea as hopes were dashed when folks realized that this wasn't a Hip-Hop record thanks to Kweil's presence fooling them. Frankly, you don't want this to be a Hip-Hop record---at all. With guest spots from Jean Grae, Chester French and Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams, this is a real multifarious fireball of a set that has lots of nooks-and-crannies and if you're into that kind of jumbled together pinball wizard of sound, then this album will make you proud of your open mind and pickle and peanut butter taste. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Covered In Fantasy, Burning Desire, The Floor, Enemy, Kayta, Laser Beams, Rat Race
DJ Jazzy Jeff & Ayah - Back For More
Another perfect combination....Somehow Back For More has been classified one of two ways. Some see is as a mixtape while others (like myself) see this as an album. However you want to slice and dice it, any listener of this will know that Jeff and Ayah were meant to be be together to merge their talents and refine the ideal that Hip-Hop and Soul can be harmonious---not the train wreck it's usually made out as. Ayah had already won me over when she dropped 4:15 and her Trouble Woman mixtape while Jazzy Jeff has been a presence that I grew up on (okay, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air anyone?). Yet, this set reminds me of why Jeff was the force behind Will Smith's rhymes way back then. Tight grooves, samples that don't distract from the original ideas at play, and Ayah's butter rich voice have this be quite the sound high.
Notable Tracks: Notorious, Be Alright, Forgive Me Love, Tables Turn, Back For More, Make It Last, Baby, The Game (Somebodies)
Joy Denalane - Maureen
There's this cheesy-eye-rolling idea that you can feel the emotion of a song simply through the melody, no lyrics required, and well, that cheesy-eye-rolling idea works. Especially when it comes to music that is not in your native tongue. No need for a translator as far as Maureen, Joy Denalane's third outing, is concerned. Hitting close to the heart, and touching every corner of the soul, Denalane performs the album strictly in German (with the exception of the inviting cover of Heatwave's "Happiness Togetherness"), but don't let that stop you from enjoying it, as Joy makes her homeland proud with this gorgeous reflective that further displays what a talent she is.
Notable Tracks: Siehst Du Mich, Frei, Rosen, Happiness, Nie Wieder Nie Mehr, Lass Es Libe Sein
The Roots - undun
'Beautiful' is not a term synonymous with Hip-Hop/Rap music in the general sense nor is it the opportune word to describe an album built around a character's tragic un-doing. Yet, The Roots have managed to bring the beauty into the beast with their socially poignant album, undun, which follows the downfall of one who fell through the cracks of society, and goes by the fictitious name of Redford Stephens. undun doesn't march on in like other Roots' albums in the past, it's whisper quiet, quick on it's feet, and at times it competes at being a clone towards last year's excellent, How I Got Over, as the little sibling that is trying to break out of big sibling's shadow---but doesn't want anyone to catch on to that vibe. Inspired by indie artist Sufjan Stevens' unique ways of deriving concept records (he's also a featured guest on the album), The Roots have made a real musical gift here, with an album that provokes you think. No fast food here. You really have to marvel at the final four tracks are strictly classical minded suites, all less than two minutes, but adds a real dimension to the project. It's official, The Roots make me enjoy Hip-Hop and are my favorite Hip-Hop act ever this side of the Tribe and OutKast.
Notable Tracks: Make My, Kool On, Sleep, Lighthouse, I Remember, One Time, Tip The Scale
Meshell Ndegeocello - Weather
Once again Meshell carves out another niche for herself, making it the ultimate task for critics to peg her down. Goody for her, because who wants to be huddled into the same category as every Jack and Jill who cradled a guitar or bass? She's probably made her own genre by now because of her ability to stray away from mainstream influence (Meshellism, I'll call it. Catchy, no?).Yet, even when she's at her most serene (like she is on here) she forms a captive audience, and nary a bored yawn is to be emitted. The position and praise I give to Weather is probably bias, as Meshell never has out-right disappointed me to where I was completely thrown for a loop. It has a a craftiness that makes for beautiful listening especially when you hear beachy tracks like "Oysters", edgy crawls like "Dirty World" or waltzes like "Feeling For The Wall" or her affection towards Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel". Introverted she may be, and not the "glamorous" recording artist that seems to sell by the pound these days, every now and then we need someone who is a deep thinker---and thank goodness for Meshell. [Review]
Notable Tracks: Oysters, Dirty World, Crazy and Wild, Feeling For The Wall, Chance, Chelsea Hotel
Kimbra - Vows
Quite the 'artful dodger' Vows is as it genre hops like no other---and you know that's right up my alley. At times Kimbra sounds quite Bjork-y ("Two Way Street", "Old Flame") other times she wedges into some sort of 'bleached' Nina Simone thing ("Plain Gold Ring", "Withdraw") or was inspired by a blend of Teena Marie and 90's girl groups ("Call Me"). Miraculously, it's all in fashion and doesn't make Kimbra come off as someone who is biting off more than she can chew.You also can't say that Vows is blasé, as you're entertained throughout with all the hodge-podge of ideas and the acrobatics and personalities that Kimbra's voice takes, but tracks like hype singles "Settle Down" and "Cameo Lover" will let you in on that immediately. While it may be a tad unfocused (most debut albums are), it's a first outing that introduces the possibility of this New Zelander to begin hanging with the bigger boys and girls whenever people finally catch on to what a unique character she is.
Notable Tracks: Cameo Lover, Settle Down, Plain Gold Ring, Call Me, Good Intent, Two Way Street, Old Flame, Withdraw