Monday, February 20, 2012

Albums of 2011 … Afterthoughts …

Since I finished compiling a list of what basically amounts to my “most listened to” albums of 2011 (see the ten most recent posts to this blog), I’ve had some thoughts on a few more 2011 releases that for one reason or another didn’t quite make the cut.

A couple of really strong hip hop albums I got into near the end of the year would probably have made my list had I taken the time to absorb them earlier – The Roots album Undun really is a masterclass in story-telling, and although it doesn’t grab me in quite the same way as How I Got Over did in 2010, it confirms my long held belief that when it comes to intelligent state-of-the-art hip hop, The Roots lead the way by some distance. These guys play live funk/hip hop crossover and do so better than any other act with claims on hip hop’s mythical throne. Make sure you check out Undun if you get the chance.

The second thoroughly enjoyable hip hop release from earlier in 2011 – and I’m no huge fan of the genre – was Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows which continues a run of solid releases from a guy I know very little about. Talib Kweli’s strengths are found in timing and flow, and on Gutter Rainbows he delivers a superb set, with some powerful semi-political lyrics underpinned by a variety of beats and samples. This is another album worth checking out if – like me – you view hip hop with a smattering of cynicism but nonetheless keep willing yourself to remain open-minded about it.

Beyond that, Jamie Woon’s Mirrorwriting came extremely close to making the final selection – tracks like ‘Night Air’, ‘Lady Luck’, ‘Shoulda’, and ‘Spirits’ are all fine examples of Woon’s longer term potential as an artist/producer. The main reason Mirrorwriting didn’t quite get there for me was the realisation that I actually preferred remixed versions of many of Woon’s tracks – as opposed to the originals as found on the album itself. Woon seemed to be everywhere in 2011 – his own remix of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ rates as one of the definitive versions of what became one of 2011’s most talked about songs, while a moody yet brilliant remix of Woon’s ‘Spirits’ by a producer called sy.ic was easily one of my electronic tracks of the year (see video link below).

I really wanted to include the Easy Star All-Stars album First Light on my list but over time I came to realise that for all that it was nice to see this collective finally release an album of original material – after successfully covering Pink Floyd and Radiohead on previous efforts (a version of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper – um, not so much) – it was ultimately a fairly bland piece of work. First Light was just too generic and “safe” for my taste; despite making a good impression initially, it failed to move me much beyond the first few listens. I had expected more from this group. The Dubmatix remix of the title track is still well worth checking out however.

 New Zealand album of the year – Vorn’s Down For It, without a shadow of a doubt. I picked up this quirky pop album in exchange for a crisp $20 note from a close friend of Vorn Colgan, and I foolishly thought it would remain something akin to an intimate little secret but boy was I wrong. It turns out every critic and his dog was raving about this humourous and talented Wellingtonian come year-end. Down For It is strongly recommended.

Reissue(s) of the year – Paul McCartney (1970) and Paul McCartney II (1980). I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of the updated deluxe versions of each of these albums (on CD) by the prolific Graham Reid of Elsewhere

Thanks Graham, your efforts and random weekly giveaways are much appreciated! A superb package, and it surprised me how listenable these albums were, even after all these years. The bonus discs (one for each) contained the genuine highlights however and they offer yet another reminder of what a talent Paul McCartney was. If you’re looking for an insight into the real Paul McCartney – outside of his life with The Beatles or as Wings’ leading man – then you could do a lot worse than to start right here. This is Paul McCartney solo, naked, raw, and not really conforming to anyone else’s expectations. There is some weird and wonderful stuff here, with bonus points given for historical significance.

Here's a sy.ic remix of Jamie Woon's 'Spirits' ...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 1: Radikal Guru - The Rootstepa

Now here’s a crazy thing – a relatively unknown white DJ from Poland (!) produces what I consider to be not only the best dub album of the year, but my favourite any-genre album of 2011.

Okay, perhaps I should qualify that – the best or favourite album of the year as heard *in my house* ...  the only prerequisite for inclusion on my list of 2011’s ten best albums being that I had to have purchased or acquired a copy – in any format – during the year. Oh, and preferably the albums included all had a 2011 release date (all but one on the list did).

And it should be pointed out that I may regard The Rootstepa in a different light in six months time – right now it is the hottest ticket on my pod, a late arrival in 2011, so naturally I’m smitten with it presently.

I didn’t discover too much in the way of exciting new dub or roots reggae beyond this release in 2011. I could have compiled a massive playlist exclusively made up of single tracks of that nature but so far as a full album by a single artist? ... well, I can’t think of any other dub album – outside of compilation albums or retrospectives – that came close to Radikal Guru’s The Rootstepa in terms of quality and consistency in 2011.

When The Rootstepa arrived in my Downloads folder it was like someone had switched on a bright light. It was new, exciting, fresh ... a genuine discovery. I’d only heard a couple of Radikal Guru tracks prior, and I downloaded the album on the strength of those. It’s fair to say I wasn’t disappointed upon first listen, and although it has been on regular repeat ever since, it continues to grow with each and every listen; I find something new and interesting in its rich tapestry of sound every time. And seldom can an album title have so accurately portrayed the actual content. This is roots, with morsels of heavy dubstep thrown in. Not that mindfck wobbly/womp womp dubstep you’ll hear in clubs, but pure skanky spaced out floaty shit.

Radikal Guru (aka Mateusz Miller) is an exceptional talent, and on The Rootstepa he takes us on a spiritually uplifting journey to somewhere approximating deepest darkest Jamaica with the help of vocalists Brother Culture, Cian Finn, and someone called Monkey Jhayam. But mostly the album consists of instrumental tracks and samples, sub-rattling bass, all manner of percussion, and a wide range of production FX. There’s more melodica than you can shake a funny cigarette at, and while Miller draws mainly from old school roots reggae to place his stake firmly in the ground, he clearly isn’t averse to using state-of-the-art production techniques to ensure he gets the best from those riddims.

Tracks such as ‘King Kong’, ‘Kali’, and the title track itself contain enough top notch dubstep – of the subtle and more mellow variety – to suggest that this is a path Miller may ultimately end up exploring more, but for now, on The Rootstepa at least, he gets the blend of heavy bass and spiritual roots just right. Something close to perfect, in fact ... praise the almighty! ... or as Mateusz Miller himself might put it:

chwalić wszechmocny Jah!

Download: ‘Dread Commandments’, ‘King Kong’, ‘Wisdom Dub’, ‘Babylon Sky’, and the closer, ‘Conquering Dub’.