Published Mar 05, 20071. Aloe Blacc
Shine Through (Stones Throw/Koch)
For a continent characterized by such immeasurable musical diversity and influence, to see an artist in North America bounce credibly between distinctive sonic styles continues to be a rarity. But the solo debut of Aloe Blacc, the committed mouthpiece of hip-hop duo Emanon, pays homage to the musical spectrum that defines him, from the salsa, merengue and reggae of his parents Panamanian homeland, through the 70s soul of his Stateside childhood and on to his inevitable encounter with hip-hop.
Opening in a slightly synthesised drone over a thick, digitized kick drum, hi-hat and keys combination on lead cut "Whole World, the singer quickly slides to a decided hip-hop backbeat to take on Sam Cookes timelessly urgent "A Change Is Gonna Come. The influences heat up from there with the two-cut mini-opus "Bailar and "Nascimento, on which Blacc craftily chats up a girl in both English and Spanish over Joyce-informed Brazilian guitar phrasings and keyboard melodies. That bilingual dexterity plays prominently throughout the disc.
Convincingly traversing a sonic divide from traditional Latin vibes to boundary massaging broken beat mash-ups is one thing, but Aloe Blacc can sign his name to over 80 percent of the albums instrumentation multi-part trumpet arrangements, beefy-hip hop head-nodders and technically expansive soulman vocals.
The singer reserves his one true hip-hop moment for the frustrated "Caged Birdsong, a blistering report on the cultures current circumstance. "The beat really gave me kind of the feeling of gravity, so I wanted to have lyrics that were very deep and held some weight, he explains of the songs lyrical potency. To the cuts climactic mid-verse fadeout, Blacc adds, "I kind of felt like I wanted to leave the listener wanting more but being able to have more, the same way that a caged bird feels it wants to fly, but cant.
With such grand musical aspirations on the table for all to partake, Blacc offers even more at records end, serving up a modern day "To Be Young Gifted And Black in the simple yet essential message of "Im Beautiful, a song written with his ten year-old niece in mind. "Shes a young black girl growing up in a white neighbourhood and shes a little bit overweight, and with those kinds of characteristics shes likely to be a victim of a lot of childhood discrimination and the things kids say on the school yard, or she may feel different about how she looks. So, I wanted to write a song for her that could be a personal mantra to think of whenever she felt down or different. Though clearly confident in his ability, Aloe Blacc remains respectfully humble in the praise this stellar set has received. "I think people are receiving it well, he confesses. "They like it and it makes me feel good because, even though I know shortcomings, my limits, my weaknesses, people are still considering what Im doing good music that is worthy of their applause.Kevin Jones
2. Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
Gnarls Barkleys St.Elsewhere is a blast of mutant, interplanetary funk. A twisted fusion of the minds of DJ/producer Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green, St. Elsewhere flirts with hip-hop, techno, prog, horror movie themes, Italian soundtracks and a cover of a Violent Femmes tune. At the core, this is a brilliant soul album driven by Cee-Lo's Al Green-esque stylings and Mouse's uptight, futuristic production. "Smiling Faces recalls classic Motown if Hitsville was on Saturn while "Just a Thought is an agonising suicide note. In a year of canned, stale beats and redundant lyrical content, St. Elsewhere stands tall as soulful, cutting edge music. Matt Bauer
3. Georgia Anne Muldrow
Olesi: Fragments of an Earth (Stones Throw/Koch)
While her appearance on 2005s acclaimed Platinum Pied Pipers Triple P album introduced many to Georgia Anne Muldrows voice, this year she announced that she was a true artist. Through her arresting voice, Muldrows spiritual idealism is a searing presence, simultaneously conveying a likeable naivete and an irritable world-weariness. Snapshots of her loves and life are captured in her frustratingly brief and jazzy lo-fi beats, no doubt influenced by label-mate Madlib, but her musical lineage also includes Sarah Vaughn and Sun Ra. Muldrow is clearly on a wayward yet righteous path of her own. Del F. Cowie
4. Nuru Kane
Sigil (Riverboat / World Disc)
Sigil, by Senegalese guitarist Nuru Kane stands at many crossroads. Its a confluence of current and ancient African and Western influences, electrified instruments and traditional ones, the deep spirituality of ancient practices, and the immediacy that comes with acoustic and single-take live recordings. The album is certainly a coup for the young artist, as his solo debut, and even garnered him a 2007 BBC world music nomination. Kane is on his way to joining a rich musical tradition from his country with others like Youssour NDour coming before him but forging a path that is his alone, made from his voice, his notes, and his words. Claire Marie Blaustein
5. Spanky Wilson & Quantic Soul Orchestra
Im Thankful (Tru Thoughts/Ubiquity)
Will Holland began working with Spanky Wilson two years ago on Quantics Mishaps Happening. Im Thankful is a fully realised result of their collaboration. Unlike more carefully put together releases by soul legends like Bettye Lavette and Solomon Burke, it sounds like Holland and Wilson recorded this album as a series of singles, any one of which could take over a modern dance floor. None of these cuts has the feel of an album track, theyre all about capturing the listeners hips and minds. This is stone cold modern day funk, and Wilsons personal and contemporary lyrics make it hit that much harder. David Dacks
6. Big Black Lincoln
Heavens Caught On Fire (Capitol Hill / Universal)
Long regarded as one of the foundational pillars of the Toronto hip-hop scene, Saukrates teams up with mates Ro Dolla, Agile, and T.R.A.C.K.S. to produce one of the best soul records the city has ever seen in Heavens Caught On Fire. Under the cold-as-ice moniker of Big Black Lincoln, the crew rides high over an omnipresent funk of a thick and dirty bottom end, winding their way through slinky, neck-snapping soul bangers and nostalgia inducing old school freak-outs with a level of vocal veracity thats immediately surprising, given the players combined hip-hop pedigree. Kevin Jones
New Tones (Ubiquity)
Excellent releases in the last two years from Afrodizz and Mr. Something Something broadened the scope of Afro-grooves, but none so much as NOMO. Throwing amplified kalimba (a la Konono #1), contemporary keyboard sounds, homemade instruments and multiphonic flute solos, Elliot Bergmans Detroit-based ensemble successfully crossbred Fela with Harry Partch, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Warn DeFever (His Name Is Alive) rates more than a mention for his unusual mixing and production tactics, which further distinguished this outstanding release. David Dacks
Change It All (Sony BMG)
Goapele is an intriguing new artist and her latest, Change It All, is a must-have. It's much more accessible than her 2004 Even Closer debut the productions tighter, the vocals are stronger and the sincerity is as real as it ever was. While Change It All isn't flawless, it shines nonetheless joints like "Love Me Right" and " Find A Way" are immensely enjoyable and foreshadow untapped potential. Simply put, Goapele heralds a new wave of neo-soul artists producing original music firmly distanced from the mainstream's notion of what R&B should be. Ryan B. Patrick
9. Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars
Living Like A Refugee (Anti)
The Refugee All Stars are movie stars turned musicians the documentary showing their travels through the camps of Sierra Leone came out in 2005, and Living Like a Refugee collects the music. But its not necessary to see the film to understand what these six men were going through; its all in the lyrics. They celebrate everything that we are, and are not as humans, our great wonders, and our largest flaws. The reggae-inspired sound belies the seriousness of the subject, but also makes sense, because its a celebration of what can be accomplished even under adversity. Despite everything, these men made great music. Claire Marie Blaustein
10. Easy Star All Stars
Radiodread (Easy Star)
Michael G. and Ticklah aka the Easy Star crew started out with source material that nobody thought could be reggae-ified convincingly and they did a brilliant job. By staying away from the sort of dumbed-down reggae-by-numbers cover versions Radiodread suspends normative definition of reggae in favour of soundscapes and epic lushness not unlike its parent, OK Computer. Not only does Radiodread surpass expectations, it sets the bar higher for anyone else hoping to dub up some commercial success in a similar fashion. Brent Hagerman
Latino Culture on the Rise
For years now, Latin hip-hop has been struggling to develop a strong enough identity or even enough credibility to compete within the collective North American attention span. Reggaeton was dealing with similar issues in Latin America until a group of Puerto Ricans led by Daddy Yankee took the gangster bravado of hip-hop and mixed it with the overtly sexual undertones of reggaeton and immediately solved a single problem in two hemispheres. Finally, a fresh new sound was ready to be unleashed onto a newer, younger audience; what better audience than the over 42 million Latinos in the U.S. who now make up 14 percent of the country's total population. Once record labels and media outlets realised that Latinos had shot past African-Americans to become the second largest race in the place, reggaeton and Latin hip-hop became priority number one.
In the past year, we've seen a number of companies make some big moves to catch up. Clear Channel flipped a number of radio stations within major American markets to bilingual/Spanish programming. Maxim and The Source released Latino versions of their magazines. Big name artists, backed by even bigger record labels, created Latin urban offshoots of their own labels, including Diddy's Bad Boy Latino, Jay-Z's Roc La Familia and RZA's Wu-Latino.
So far, Latin urban music has clearly exceeded the expectations of many critics, however, possible over-saturation has forced many reggaeton artists to step up their game in order to appeal to fans becoming bored with the genre. Puerto Rican artists have released three of the best Latin urban albums of the year including Voltio's self-titled album that showcased his skills over a merengue-crunk rhythm, Calle 13's debut release became an award-winning album that is both lyrically witty and superbly produced and Tego Calderon's North American debut El Subestimado/The Underdog, which has already set the bar for Latin urban artists around the world. Canadians may be far from developing our own Latin urban superstar, groundwork is being laid by the countrys online Latin urban culture mag (www.latinurban.ca). There are also plenty of artists across the country that are building an identity, including Chilean-Canadian rapper Flakko, soul singer Shantall and hip-hop reggaeton crews from Montreal (Black Caco) and Toronto (Code Blue). Sergio Elmir