Published Dec 13, 2012It was a breakout year for Soul, R&B and rhythm-based world music. We were definitely spoilt for choice in 2012, and it was a tough decision to name a favourite... Wait, no it wasn't. This year's top Groove album was a bit of a shoo-in, but in any other year, the competition would have been fierce. Very fierce.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Groove:
14. Maga Bo
Quilombo do Futuro
(Post World Industries)
Tropical bass continued to thrive and mutate in 2012 and Maga Bo's Quilombo De Futuro (together with its companion remix album) was the standard in long playing efforts. It's a bit amusing to talk about the best full-length release in a field that relies almost exclusively on one-off tracks or even stems to be assembled in a live mix by DJs. But Maga Bo has delivered the whole package: a tremendous knowledge of culture, a sharp outlook on how to construct not just grooves but songs, and a record that speaks to Brazil and the world with equal fluency. To the casual fan of Brazilian music, there's a yawning disconnect between the sexy sounds of samba and bossa nova and the stiffly modern sounds of funk carioca and other Brazilian electronic music. Quilombo De Futuro explodes the very notion that there's a disconnect between the past and future. A funk track like "Piloto De Fuga" gains a great deal from sandpapery shakers, which glue the no-nonsense beats to a slinkier groove, whereas the remake of MC Zulu's "Immigrant Visa" opens the throttle full in an ecstatic samba explosion. A second reason for the album's triumph is that it successfully employs non-Brazilian vocalists like Jahdan Blakkamoore to both reflect what Brazilian producers are listening to and how they intersect with broader currents in world music 2.0.
13. Souljazz Orchestra
Ottawa's the Souljazz Orchestra celebrated ten years together with their best release yet, Solidarity. Where 2010's Rising Sun was a somewhat reserved, all-instrumental, all-acoustic affair, Solidarity is a raucous, electric, conscious party of an album, with vocal-oriented compositions showcasing a diverse selection of Canadian-based singers including Senegalese griot El Hadji "Elage" M'baye, Brazilian Rommel Teixeira Ribeiro and Slim Moore (of the Mar-Kays), pushing the sextet's trademark fusion of Afrobeat, tropical, Caribbean, Latin and Brazilian sounds with North American funk, jazz and soul to a new level. The collaborations are more inspired than predictable: while one may expect James Brown-ian funk from Moore's "Kingpin," it's a scorcher of dread, conscious reggae that admonishes gun violence while "Bibinay" is a trance-inducing Afrobeat funk meditation with M'baye's call and response vocals adding poignancy to its theme of diasporic life. The collective's concern with social injustice is brought to the fore with the furious, righteous indignation of "Serve & Protect," a frenzied marriage of Latin and Afrobeat rhythms that would have made Fela proud. All the while, they deliver the most electrifying grooves of their career thus far, capturing the vibe of their acclaimed live show thanks to a raw, monophonic mix, allowing the musicians to blossom to full-effect. Afrobeat or world fusion bands are a dime a dozen these days, and the electrifying Solidarity shows why the Souljazz Orchestra are a cut above the rest.
12. Zaki Ibrahim
A few years ago, Vancouver, BC-born Ibrahim eschewed the significant buzz and momentum surrounding her soulful EPs and visually striking live shows and settled in her father's homeland of South Africa to plot her next creative move. On the evidence of Every Opposite, it was a shrewd decision that has paid off handsomely. Inspired by the Kwaito house music scene, Ibrahim effortlessly adds Khoisan chants and fractured post-dubstep rhythms to her already sophisticated and seamless synthesis of R&B and electronica, tapping knob-tweakers from the Johannesburg, London, Nairobi and Toronto among other locales to execute her eclectic vision. Blessed with an emotive, malleable voice and a songwriting voice that incisively explores and affirms assertive self-identity, Ibrahim has impressively delivered on her early promise.
Del F. Cowie
11. Bobby Womack
The Bravest Man in the Universe
Making a comeback at the age of 68 is no small feat for Bobby Womack. Take into account his past, riddled with romantic controversy, drug addiction and serious health problems, and the fact that The Bravest Man in the Universe even got made is kind of a miracle. Teaming up with Damon Albarn — with whom Womack collaborated on Gorillaz' Plastic Beach — and XL label head Richard Russell, the album turned out surprisingly well as a contrary mix of modern sounds and Womack's undeniably old-school soul vocals. "Dayglo Reflection" encompasses this juxtaposition best, combining a Sam Cooke sample with featured vocals from 2012 It Girl Lana Del Rey. A nod to the past is also present on "Stupid," which features the late Gil Scott-Heron, though Albarn and Russell's knack for manipulating forward-thinking music is never lost throughout the record. Standouts include the title track and the simultaneously upbeat and heartbreaking "Please Forgive My Heart." Womack's career has seen the soul man collaborate with countless other artists, but The Bravest Man in the Universe proves that his voice deserves to be back at the forefront.
10. The Slakadeliqs
The Other Side of Tomorrow
Toronto's the Slakadeliqs would no doubt have placed higher on this and many other year-end lists if there was a consensus of what genre box the band fit in. Equal parts folk, psychedelic guitar rock and hip-hop soul, The Other Side of Tomorrow delivers a "deeper than first listen" sound that rebels against "'90s Lenny Kravitz-lite" dismissals to perhaps represent the quintessential Canadian album. As seen through the eyes of a second generation Canadian, Sarnia-raised and Toronto-based producer-musician Slakah the Beatchild pushes his diverse musical influences through his funky filter — think the Beatles, Earth Wind And Fire, Bob Marley and the aforementioned Lenny — and thus creates one of the more unobserved albums of the year. More importantly, it stealthily sets the stage for more genre-bending projects to come.
Ryan B. Patrick
9. Dr. John
Where many of Dr. John's contemporaries are still cruising on autopilot — or no longer cruising at all — the 71-year-old night tripper proves with Locked Down that age, ego, fame and Baron Samedi did not do him in. His most recent opus on Nonesuch confirmed that the spirits who channelled the aural delights and heavy shakers he signed during the late '60s are still as manic as they were 40 years ago. Production-wise, Locked Down is the work of avid music fans first and foremost. Similar to what the folks at Daptone have accomplished for the likes of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Dan Auerbach has applied his flair for soulful musicians (Max Weissenfeldt, Leon Michels, Nick Movshon, Brian Olive and the McCrary Sisters) and his love of juke joint boogie to these ten timeless songs by the voodoo priest of hoodoo blues. But how much of Dan Auerbach is on that record? How much of Dr. John is in Dan Auerbach? How much of Professor Longhair is in Dr. John and how much of New Orleans, Nigeria, and the entire history of the shamanic use of music is there on the album? Not finding a definitive answer is perhaps central to appreciating this exercise in cross-pollination that is sure to tickle pink even the most aching purists of the genre.
8. A Tribe Called Red
A Tribe Called Red had a phenomenal year. Having released one single prior to this year, albeit with an authoritative and frequently refreshed Soundcloud library of further tracks and remixes, 2012 saw them achieve a status unique in Canadian music and also in the world at large. "Popular" doesn't even begin to describe their global significance; they are connecting with a potentially gigantic audience who appreciate the international aboriginal perspective the group upholds. They are an audio-visual, cultural phenomenon. In releasing a conventional full-length album, minus the visuals and their Red Bull-approved mixing wizardry, they invited people to judge them solely on their intense pow wow step and moombahton constructions. (That's right, moombahton — remember six months ago? Good times.) The fleeting nature of cool might have sunk an album of mashups and flavour-of-the-moment rhythms. But there's so much more to their method, their meaning and the global implications of their musical philosophy, which keeps revealing the substance behind their constructions even months after release. These aren't just disembodied samples over hype beats. ATCR's album is an expertly paced one that starts strong and builds to a barely controlled frenzy before dialling back ever so slightly. This is world music from a Canadian Aboriginal perspective, where familiar sounding pieces are put together in a way that makes them sound less, not more, homogenous. The sky's the limit for these guys.
7. Neneh Cherry & The Thing
The Cherry Thing
Haste makes waste, goes the old axiom. Yet, in an age where some of the most buzzed about artists put out multiple releases a month, considering the spore-like proliferation of cloud rap and vaporwave in the past couple years, Neneh Cherry has bided her time. The Cherry Thing was only the fourth full-length released under her name since her 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi, and her first album since 1996's Man, overlooking her work with the trip-hop band cirKus. Even with that gap, The Cherry Thing only contains one original track, the rap-like tale of love gone wrong meets swanky gypsy party vibe of "Cashback." Instead, the source material for this was scoured from across time and genre, from recent greats by trip-hop muse Martina Topley-Bird and hip-hop super-duo Madvillain to classics from the Stooges, Suicide, and Ornette Coleman. These disparate inspirations were then absorbed and re-channelled by Cherry, with her adaptably strong and sensual voice, and the help of a Scandinavian avant-garde jazz trio that was named the Thing after a song by legendary cornetist and Cherry's stepfather Don (whom they also cover on the album). Recording each track in a single take, the form of the covers helping to shape their improvisations, the synergy between Cherry and the Thing is palpable. Cherry could have spent her career trying to frantically follow her career-making late '80s hit "Buffalo Stance" up the charts, but instead she showed a maturity, a willingness to take chances and experiment on her own terms.
6. Georgia Anne Muldrow
R&B renaissance woman Georgia Anne Muldrow has been lurking on the periphery since 2006. Her undeniable quirk and prodigious talent as a composer, vocalist, keyboardist and producer has led to collaborations with higher profile peers such as Erykah Badu and Mos Def. And on Seeds, she enlisted Madlib as producer, which has afforded her the space to produce what is arguably her most cohesive and accessible disc to date. While Seeds lacks the eccentricity of her own productions, she's made up for it by injecting all of that personality into her voice, which is now more soulful and extroverted than ever. Weighing in at just shy of 35 minutes, the disc feels very concentrated and focused; the songs still maintain her curious meandering charm, yet are all imbued with an urgency and spirituality heard in much smaller doses on previous albums. Not only has she harnessed the raw power of her voice, but the songwriting has also settled into something tighter and funkier, but still just as singular. Of course, Madlib's strong sense of groove is an ideal counterpart to this development, giving her further incentive to let loose. Definitely of one of this year's highlights, and for those still unfamiliar with this bold and unique artist, this may be your best place to start.
Master of My Make-Believe
Plenty of artists claim to draw influence from all genres and all corners of the world, but few, if any, manage to transform it into pop songs the way Santigold does. Reggae, dancehall, West African grooves, '80s prog pop a la Peter Gabriel, British electronics, American hip-hop, Bollywood melodies, even the dreaded dubstep of the post-Skrillex era: Santigold pens powerful pop songs to make sense of it all. And there's no half-stepping here, no lame genre tourism, no overshadowing collaborators: she owns this record. It's the sound of an assured artist with an elastic voice, an insatiable artistic appetite and — rarer still — a sense of dynamics that allows for poignant ballads, rock anthems, mid-tempo marimba pop and strobe-light techno tracks. Chameleons ranging from David Bowie to Lady Gaga are surely green with envy. And if Santigold is as smart as she sounds here, she won't return Madonna's calls.
If anything, BADBADNOTGOOD bring to light one simple fact: it's not that today's youth aren't interested in jazz, but jazz was never interested in today's youth. When the genre-traversing Toronto trio included in the liner notes to BBNG2, "No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album," a line was drawn in the sand: this is music made by and for a new generation of listeners. Jazz snobs need not apply. BBNG2 may in fact, be an electric jazz album, but don't call it fusion, as tracks like the aerosol-piano sound-off "Rotten Decay" and the staccato waltz vs. 4/4 mashup "CMYK" have more in common with the spirit of Kind of Blue than Bitches Brew. While most jazz students are busy trying to nail that seventh chord, BADBADNOTGOOD were holed-up in their Humber College dorm rooms, studying J Dilla's minimal drum patterns, checking the hits on their YouTube page and returning Tyler, the Creator's emails. But no matter how interesting BBNG's story is on paper, it's infinitely more fascinating on wax. Yes, six of BBNG2's tracks are covers, as the trio put their spin on songs by James Blake, Gucci Mane, Kanye West, Odd Future and My Bloody Valentine, but those wary of calling BBNG2 a proper album are simply ignorant to the fact that reinterpretations have always been a part of most jazz musicians' repertoire, from Louis to Wynton. On BBNG2, BADBADNOTGOOD aren't making some grand statement, they aren't the great saviours of jazz; they're just three kids interested in and interpreting what their musical peers are really saying.
3. Robert Glasper Experiment
The title of pianist/keyboardist Robert Glasper's fifth album and first proper release with his Experiment (saxophonist/flautist Casey Benjamin, bassist Derek Hodge and drummer Chris Dave) alludes to both the indestructible "black box" recording devices that are recovered from downed aircraft and "the music from the souls of black people….Emulated, envied and countlessly re-imagined by the rest of the world," as journalist Angelika Beener writes in the notes. It's a most appropriate tribute to the resiliency of the African-American musical tradition and Black Radio sees Glasper and company erasing boundaries and forging a future from black music's glorious past. Not that this is a strident-sounding rejection of mainstream sounds and despite the perceived snobbery attributed to the oft-lazy categorization of Glasper as a "jazz" musician, Radio is an accessible and flawless fusion of hip-hop, R&B and rock with jazz at its base, thanks to the quartet's smooth interplay and an array of guest vocalists. Erykah Badu shines on the Cuban jazz classic "Afro-Blue," which has an infectious bump thanks to Dave's percussion and delectable flute courtesy of Benjamin while a lovely take on Sade's "Cherish The Day" (featuring Lalah Hathaway) and "Ah Yeah" (featuring Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michelle) are sparkling, modern-day soul gems. An effects-laden and vocoder-ized take on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that's initially bathed with an eerie dissonance closes with an airy denouement that perfectly encapsulates the album's expansive vibe. Whatever station you want to assign its airplay to, Black Radio is one of the most bravely assured albums of the year.
In a year where progressive ideology and slouching beats, heavily informed by chillwave and dubstep, seemed to dominate the R&B conversation, it was nice that an artist like Miguel could command attention. Kaleidoscope Dream is Miguel's second studio record, released last month on the promotional back of the free, three-EP Art Dealer Chic series. The album retains much of the general jubilance and contemporary R&B trappings of 2010's All I Want Is You, but has enough sonic sleekness to appeal to those who relate more to the Weeknd or Frank Ocean than Trey Songz or The-Dream (who, to his credit, is the real forerunner of the current "alt-R&B" movement). Really, Kaleidoscope Dream is special because it shifts the dynamic, the expression and the conversation surrounding contemporary R&B, while remaining in debt to the genre's past. Miguel is working within a long line of "unconventional" black pop auteurs: Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Kelis or Bilal. But there's a sense of historicity in Miguel's embrace of the past, from title track's borrowed Labbi Siffre bass line to a woozy interpolation of the Zombie's psych-rock classic, "Time Of The Season" as an outro, to the dusty bump of "Where's The Fun In Forever." And, unlike the critically-crowned princes of "alt-R&B," Miguel still dances.
1. Frank Ocean
As I reflected back on the year in music, I thought I was sick of Channel Orange. I stopped putting it on because I'd had enough of Frank Ocean: his coming out was, of course, courageous and admirable, but I'd read so many think pieces about what it meant, so many fawning profiles, so many raving reviews that it began to feel stale and overrated. The story of Ocean, his context, and the way people discussed him overshadowed his album, and I mistakenly thought that, in the months since playing it on repeat all summer, I had grown apart from Channel Orange. I was wrong. When I put it on again, I remembered why I fell in love with it: not because of who Frank Ocean is, or why he's important to music (because he is), but because of the songs. The minimalist, echoing boom-bap and yearning falsetto of "Thinkin' Bout You"; the reversed synth blips of "Pilot Jones"; the warning-call breakdown of the impossibly epic "Pyramids"; all of these moments diligently written, sung, and recorded by Ocean and company to his lofty standards. As with all great albums, I found parts I hadn't heard the first hundred times: the violin flourish in "Sierra Leone"; Ocean's poignant counter-melodies contained within "Pilot Jones; the fact that Andre 3000, one of rap's most revered living rappers, calls him "so muthafuckin' good" in "Pink Matter," though Ocean has made no reference to him at all. Channel Orange is more than a great story, it's a classic album. You might be sick of hearing about Frank Ocean for now, but in five, ten years or more, when you're still listening to Channel Orange, all that will matter is the music.