David Murray, Sacred Ground, Justin Time.
Berkeley-raised saxophonist David Murray is one of the most powerful free-jazz musicians to emerge in the last fifty years, though he's just starting to get his due. His 2007 album Sacred Ground — one in a series of collaborations with Oakland writer Ishmael Reed — incorporates all the guttural skronks and freewheeling cadenzas that characterize the bulk of his career, but also shores up the saxophonist's rich inheritance from gospel and the blues. Based on an oft-overlooked history of African-American banishment from Southern and Midwestern towns during the Reconstruction era, Sacred Ground features sultry jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson singing a libretto penned by Reed, who combines Greek myth and Southern folklore to create a magical realist form. The album opens with an unconstrained flurry that evaporates into nothing, and ends with a blood bucket blues. In seven original compositions, Murray accomplishes what Terence Blanchard set out but failed to do with his recent release Requiem: create something that's soulful, topical, and freakishly beautiful at the same time.
The Clientele, God Save the Clientele, Merge.
Known both for their literary sensibility and their anachronistic form — which combines a tweedy '60s aesthetic with fuzzy string sections that could have been plucked from Rubber Soul — British four-piece the Clientele is undoubtedly one of the smartest indie groups out today. The group's lyrics have a figure-in-the-carpet quality that pervades even its love ballads, which are always more about loneliness and ennui than about falling in love and being jilted. In terms of musicianship, God Save the Clientele ranks second only to the group's 2001 album Suburban Light, which established them as one of the most promising rock outfits to emerge this side of Nick Drake. Songs like "The Queen of Seville" and "From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica" prove that singer Alasdair MacLean's musical arrangements occasionally play second fiddle to the music in his writing.
Wynton Marsalis, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Blue Note.
The social underpinnings of Wynton Marsalis' latest release might not outweigh the aesthetic dimensions, but they're not to be overlooked, the band leader argues. In fact, Marsalis is so intent on imparting his moral values — about minstrelsy and venality in hip-hop, mostly — that he made his album available for everyone on his web site. Structured as a suite and capped off by the rousing second line number "Where Y'all At?" (in which Marsalis, apparently inspired by the recent antics of Princeton professor Cornel West, makes a valiant attempt to rap), From the Plantation features talented young vocalist Jennifer Sanon, who has enough chops to rival all the great old-school balladeers. The album's fourth number, a ballad called "Love and Broken Hearts," has her crooning I ain't your bitch, I ain't your ho. Marsalis may be a stodgy traditionalist, but he doesn't mince words.
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, Universal.
Though she resembles '60s-era girl group singers from the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes, British R&B starlet Amy Winehouse would have a hard time navigating a world without accessible drugs, rampant female sexuality, or obscene lyrics. She is, in other words, a thoroughly contemporary pop star operating in a nostalgia-based medium. The singer's swaggering, intemperate personality — she opens her album with a brazen refusal to go to rehab, and later gabs openly about "being some next man's other woman soon" — forms a delicious counterpoint to her unctuous twang and catchy doo-wop arrangements. It's that constant pas de deux of modern bad-girl persona and old-school genuflection that make Back to Black a stand-alone in the pop music realm.
Percee P, Perseverance, Stones Throw.
Hard luck and an apparent paucity of resources prevented Patterson Projects-raised battle rap titan Percee P from releasing his debut album until this year, though he's been freestyling and dropping guest verses since the early '90s. Perseverance combines aggressive, up-tempo verses — the kind that would serve as ammo in a schoolyard cipher — with gritty, garage-funk beats by Stonesthrow producer Madlib. Featuring cameos from Diamond D, Chali 2Na, Prince Po, and Aesop Rock, the album successfully imports gangsta bravado into a backpacker template.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, 100 Days 100 Nights, Daptone.
Definitely the strongest effort to come out of a recent soul revivalist movement, Sharon Jones' 100 Days & 100 Nights pairs the straight-ahead grit of a garage funk band with gravelly female vocals. The tunes are infectious, fetching things with skronking horns and simple blues turnarounds, harking back to all the great standard-bearers on the Stax catalogue. And, like her predecessors, Jones has swagger. Even on the break-up tune "Something's Changed," she sings with an air of cool self-regard: You drew your lips into a smile/You know that all the while you ain't that glad I'm here. Jones may be working in a nostalgia-based medium, but she's one of the few contemporary singers who can pull it off really well.
Dayna Stephens, The Timeless Now, CTA.
Berkeley High emeritus Dayna Stephens proves his excellent songwriting ability in The Timeless Now, which features seven original tunes, the second of which spawned from Monk's "Evidence." Unassuming but carefully plotted out, the album puts fusion guitarist John Scofield in a traditional jazz context, where he matches the saxophonist's rippling tone. On the album's best song, "Teeth," Stephens opens up space for Rhodes player Taylor Eigsti and drummer Eric Harland, who start the tune off with a whispered dialogue. Stephens' solos are tactful but powerful, and he gives as much consideration to the spaces between notes as to the notes themselves.
Robert Glasper, In My Element, Blue Note.
Like many of his contemporaries, Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper took it upon himself to diversify the jazz palate, both by offering an original take on an indie rock tune — he paired the melody from Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" with a vamp from Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" — and importing hip-hop samples, including trio interpretations of a beat by late indie producer J. Dilla. Glasper's understanding of hip-hop distinguishes him other genre-straddlers and keeps his music fresh. Having collaborated with Bilal, Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, he's actually got his feet in both worlds.
Pharoahe Monch, Desire, Universal.
Easily the smartest, most complicated lyricist since Biggie Smalls, New York backpacker Pharoahe Monch returns this year with what might be his best material since The Equinox (the 1997 tour de force that he and former collaborator Prince Po will probably never top). In the hard-hitting and shrewdly-crafted Desire, Monch deals with topical themes like inner-city violence and the war in Iraq, enshrouding his thoughts in a web of elaborate metaphors. In the album's title track, he bellows, My book is the ovary, the pages I lust to turn/My pen's the penis, when I write, the ink's the sperm. His best figurative language occurs on "When the Gun Draws," on which Monch raps from the perspective of an anthropomorphized flying bullet. He even features a rousing cover of Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terror Dome" — a tall order for any contemporary emcee. Intent on stretching the limits of his medium, Monch uses live instrumentation and backup vocalists throughout most of the album; he recently recruited soul singers Showtyme and Mela Machinko to become part of his act. Monch may be operating in a medium with little room for innovation, but he's found ways to make it his own.
Keyshia Cole, Just Like You, Geffen.
Keyshia Cole gets saddled with a lot of Mary J. Blige comparisons, and while the two don't actually sound alike, it's easy to see why they'd be shoehorned in the same category. Both singers like to capitalize on their image as bad girls who came up hard and just want to be loved — their songs don't have the musical depth of, say, a Betty Carter or a Ledisi, but they've got enough grit to make up for it. With this year's Just Like You — a chillingly poignant follow-up to her smash debut, The Way It Is — Cole finally managed to out-character her forerunner. Whereas Blige, now happily married and domesticated, is dropping bouncy club singles about how great life is treating her, Cole still sings about every heartbreak as though it just happened yesterday. Her hoarse, careening vibrato shores up the pathos in songs like "Losing You" and the arresting "Shoulda Let You Go." There's a violence to Cole's persona that cuts straight through the sentimentality of her form, and you get the sense she wouldn't sing a line unless she meant it.
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