After faithfully abiding by the general "Top 10" guidelines for the past decade in my year-end lists, this year I simply had to expand it to a dozen (actually, a baker's dozen). I've often found myself cutting out one or two records that, depending on my day or mood, could have been switched out for another. Not this year. More choices mean more music to listen to. Every year is a great year in music, with 2010 being no exception. As you'll see, I keep referring back to artists "pushing boundaries," as it seemed an excellent time for many to do just that. I hope you enjoy these albums as much as I have over the past twelve months.
The Roots: How I Got Over/John Legend & the Roots: Wake Up!
Well yes, these are two complete separate albums from Iladelph's finest crew. In the spirit of consolidation (and not wanting to remove one of the remaining eleven), we witness a band that over the last two decades keeps getting better. What I've always loved about the Roots is that they reach for something different on each album. This does not necessarily always prove successful, yet with How I Got Over⎯a tour de force featuring an eclectic cast of characters, such as Monsters of Folk, Phonte, Joanna Newsome, Blu, Dice Raw and John Legend⎯the band has once again proved itself impossible to define. While they have received flack for being the Jimmy Fallon house band, that gig has doubtless opened their ears to an even broader possibility of sound, exhibited in the tasteful, bluesy hooks that dominate this record. Black Thought steps back and lets each guest shine, flawless when he throws back and lets loose. Credit the emcee for completely stepping aside and letting John Legend join the band for what is perhaps the finest R&B concept album since Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, an album that itself began as a throwaway (as proceeds were to go to a divorce settlement) and turned into one of the great soul records of the '70s. Only Legend and crew are not contemplating marriage and heartbreak. Instead they tackle the toughest social issues of the day, including the two wars that America found itself in due to a trigger-happy president. The cover of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed" is one of the most beautiful accolades ever put down on tape, period.
Balkan Beat Box: Blue-Eyed Black Boy
On Blue-Eyed Black Boy, this unique Israeli/Palestinian/American configuration has gone from a band making great singles to one producing incredible albums. Using the backbeat of the Balkans, including the thorny plaints of the clarinet and stimulating drum marches, cumbia meets reggae meets electronica meets Romanian thrash parties. War is the devil and racism the thorn in human pride throughout this fine fourteen-song effort. While the dance floor sees plenty of action, it is the moving title track, with Tomer Yosef's poetic gravity weighing in on racism and intolerance, that shows just how much this band has evolved.
Vieux Farka Toure: Live
While Stevie Ray Vaughn showed how well a blues guitarist could adapt to the studio, the genre has always been about the raw, emotional catharsis of live performance. Two albums and two remix records behind him, the young Malian axeman released his finest album to date with this collection of live tracks recorded across the planet. The son of his country's finest example of bluesmanship (the late Ali), Vieux carries the torch brightly. His stunning nine-minute duet with the Australian Jeff Lang, "Walaidu," is the most ambitious and enjoyable song yet recorded in what promises to be a continually amazing career.
Bonobo: Black Sands
Since he began dropping tracks as Bonobo nearly a dozen years back, Simon Green has twisted and turned through a number of jazz-inflected, down- to mid-tempo beatscapes that maintain a warm integrity without sacrificing melody or texture. On every album he rotates in more vocalists, and while I thoroughly enjoyed Bajka's contributions on Days to Come (her recent solo record, Bajka in Wonderland, is solid), it is Andreya Triana's lush vocals that win over my heart on this exceptional album. By far Black Sands has gotten the most repeat plays on my system in 2010 out of any album, and the same seems to be the case for everyone I know turned onto Green's monkey business.
Ebo Taylor: Love and Death
That I thought the label had mistakenly dropped a Fela Kuti album on the Ebo Taylor promo was a reasonable error: the Ghanaian guitarist and singer went to music school with the Nigerian legend, maintaining a strong friendship until Kuti's death. Taylor honors his compatriot with eight Afrobeat-influenced cuts that are as fine a thing that has ever come out of his homeland. This indisputable star of the two Ghana Soundz compilations ("Heaven," "Atwer Abroba," "Mondo Soul Funky") maintains a purely vintage vibe that is brilliantly produced, deserving of as much recognition as the music of the man this project is devoted to has received.
Natacha Atlas: Mounqaliba
I've always looked forward to the fact that I never know what I'm getting into when I put on a Natacha Atlas record. I'll take an artist who constantly strives for new ideals rather than mindless repetition any day. The trade-off is that all projects do not necessarily hit the mark, something Atlas has previously experienced. Not so with Mounqaliba, or "In a State of Reversal." A heavy, heady philosophical tract deconstructing Chicago economics-style governance with soundbytes from the online cult hit movie Zeitgeist and Barack Obama, the music, rooted and suffused in jazz with classical flourishes, is soft, pliable and exquisite. Atlas has never sounded so good, and while she does play with her prior electronic-focused self on "Batkallim," her cover of Nick Drake's "River Man" may be her finest homage paid to date.
You either haven't heard of José González, or you are obsessed with his music⎯there is no middle ground. While the Swedish/Argentine singer's first two solo albums (Veneer and In Our Nature) put him on the map, he was part of Junip before any of that even began. Joined by Elias Araya and Tobias Winterkorn on the band's long-awaited debut, he loses nothing of the Cat Stevens '70s era production while gaining an entire new rhythmic counterpoint. Fields is melancholy and hope at its highest.
Nagore Sessions: Nagore Sessions
Culled from the ambitious Laya Project⎯a documentary focused on the music of the regions affected by the Asian tsunami in 2004: India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Maldives and Myanmar⎯Nagore Sessions is comprised of Sufi vocalists Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen and Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer backed up by Earthsync producers. On one level this is a rare glimpse into Sufi devotional music based in the southern Indian region of Tamil Nadu. One another level, this is a completely new realm for Sufi music, perhaps rivaled only by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remixes, which have never touched the depth or beauty of such a complete partnership as this. On every level, this is an absolutely essential and addicting record.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula
A lot of people are compared to Jimi Hendrix; it's an easy out when contemplating a shredding guitarist. Only Mali's Bassekou Kouyate plays the n'goni, as far as I'm aware not with his teeth or by setting it on fire. However, when he rips into a solo near the end of "Jamana be diya," with his wife Ami Sacko holding down sweet vocals, African music is lifted. Both of his records are top notch, and in the past year, with this release on independent rock label par excellence Sub Pop, Kouyate has broken through to major international audiences. This is not surprising at all, for no one is ripping through notes like this man.
Seu Jorge & Almaz: Seu Jorge & Almaz
Brazilian singer Seu Jorge recorded the most inventive cover song of 2010 when he created a loungey, quirky take on Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine." More remarkable is that on the same album he also claimed the number two spot, with his completely original take on Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." Teaming up with members of North Brazilian's finest rock-electronica band, Nação Zumbi, all dozen tracks here are covers, mostly native tracks. It's an instant ear-raiser, familiar due to previous Jorge hits, and yet so far out there you have to chase after it. Good luck on your journeys.
Nas & Damian Marley: Distant Relatives
While always wary of "superstar" albums, this one seemed honest from the outset. Nas dropped a stellar guest rap on Welcome to Jamrock, and the two share an essential quality: neither falls back onto former styles. Damian has proven himself a constant seeker, always seeing where he can interject a new flavor into the mix. While Nas brings it hard, Marley simply dominates this record, whether in his newfound soul singing or his patented stutter-step patois. Brother Stephen, friend K'Naan, Lil Wayne and Joss Stone, as well as great samples from Dennis Brown and Mulatu Astatqé make this tribute to Africa in all its shades a brilliant group effort.
José James & Jef Neve: For All We Know
Always a fan of pushing boundaries, as I've shown over the course of this entire list, there's simply something heartfelt and warm about finding a record where two men at the top of their game sit back and reflect. This type of record isn't made often anymore, at least not well: a piano/vocal duet contemplating New York autumns, sadness and heartbreak and the hope of good music setting you free. Considering Minneapolis-born vocalist James is currently working on an album of Coltrane tributes, it's not surprising that with his street-smart hip-hop swagger he recalls the great songwriter era of the '60s. The Belgium twinkler plays equally brilliantly on this exceptional throwback.