It seemed like the albums never stopped coming in 2009. Quality albums, life affirming albums—albums that reminded me why I decided to make music my life all those years ago, because music makes me. There is rarely a moment when music is not somewhere playing in my life, whether in the yoga studio teaching, on my numerous daily subway rides, or here, at my home office, typing the day away. And for those brief hours of silence each night, sleep offers a soundtrack all its own.
Records came from all corners of the planet in 2009. Africa was the big winner, with Tinariwen’s fourth and finest outing to date, fellow Malian Vieux Farka Touré’s beautifully produced sophomore effort, as well as three interesting African connections: banjo player Béla Fleck’s Acoustic Africa, as well as two vintage compilations that, even though there were not recorded in 2009, this was the year the broader world found out about them. Benin’s Orchestra Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou’s second collected edition featured an amazing array of ‘70s groove and soul music, while Soundway Records put forth their finest collection to date, Tumbélé. The album is comprised of music from the French Caribbean, though as the subtitle implies, heavily indebted to Africa.
The other half of this list arrives from Brazil (2), Brooklyn (2), and New Zealand. Bebel Gilberto came strong with a personal evolution in sound, while country mate Vanessa da Mata created the one of the finest Brazilian albums of the decade, supported by her super hit with Ben Harper. Like Gilberto, Norah Jones released her best since her juggernaut debut. On the flipside to Madison Square Garden headliners, Zeb (aka The Spy From Cairo) redefined Arabic electronica with his latest. And finally, the unstoppable collective that is Fat Freddy’s Drop followed up their uber-selling debut with an even more heartfelt and diverse collection, centered on the soulful vocals of Joe Dukie. Dive in, enjoy.
Since their 2002 debut, Saharan Tuaregs Tinariwen has become one of the most acclaimed African bands to emerge over the past decade. Their trance-based music, relying heavily on repetitive rhythms, call-and-response chanting, and a heavy dose of Hendrix-era electric guitar, makes for a unique cultural entry point for understanding this revolving cast of nomadic musicians. While the member’s lifestyles may seem remote, the music is not: their fourth album is their most comprehensive and well produced. Very few bands can reproduce on album what they offer live, and while Tinariwen offers talented and ambitious performances, its albums match up brilliantly. While the more upbeat anthems like “Lulla” go over well, what sets this band apart is the slow blues of “Enseqi Ehad Didagh” and “Tenalle Chegret”.
Fat Freddy’s Drop
Dr. Boondigga & The Big BW
Returning from Australia in 2001, some friends of mine passed me Live at the Matterhorn by New Zealand reggae-ish collective Fat Freddy’s Drop. Four songs totaled over an hour; time did not defeat them. Years later I was hipped to Based on a True Story, their debut studio recording, and one that broke all of New Zealand’s sales charts. Their songs are six- to eight-minute journeys, absent of any the restrictive formatting so much popular music adheres to. For example, the nearly 11-minute “Shiverman”, on their latest, takes time to build; they’re in no rush. “The Raft”, a seven-minute lover’s rock groove, is an exceptional extension of previous work. Not restricted to reggae—backstage in Bourges, France, they told me while laughing that their new album was going to be “country techno”—the soulful lead-off, “Big BW”, flexes Joe Dukie’s smooth crooning; ditto “Boondigga” and “Breakthrough”, bookending this phenomenal new release by one of the world’s most creative bands.
The Spy From Cairo
The oud is what sets Zeb’s globetronica apart from all others in the Arabic realm. No musician has so perfectly woven traditional oud playing into a digital template. His love of both the folk sound of the Middle East and the folklore of Jamaica, reggae, share such complementary aesthetics that their marriage is a faithful bondage. Returning for his latest under one of his many monikers, The Spy From Cairo, Brooklynite Zeb has concocted his heaviest hitter yet. “Kurdish Delight” is a bass line boasting monster that pays credit to Kingston soundsystems. The opening “Nayphony”, a Jajouka style banger, rolls over wooden floors with thunder. “Kembe” is one of the most uplifting club tracks I’ve heard. And the simple titles of many—“Oud Funk”, “Sufi Disco”—clues you in that heavy rides are ahead. The heaviest: “Blood and Honey”. This song is the soundtrack of war elephants stampeding prison gates. The bottom edge of the beat sounds like a reprisal of “Cleopatra in NY”, but then in trounces forward. It is one of three featuring Tunisian born vocalist Ghalia Bhenali, the album’s most surprising and inviting characteristic. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote under many names to accommodate the many people inside of his head. He used words as his medium for explanation, and grew tortured for the attempt. Greatness is always in the possibility, for it manifests in creative wedges. Secretly Famous is perfectly titled. It’s already all there; you just need to open your ears and listen.
Vanessa Da Mata
It’s taken a while for Brazilian singer Vanessa Da Mata’s uber-hit, “Boa Sorte”—a duet with Ben Harper—to reach American audiences. The song has dominated Europe for months, not to mention South America; finally we’re it’s being played on our radio stations. In tow comes the gorgeous album it was released on. A very Jamaican sounding influence spreads itself thickly through the majority. The opening “Vermelho” is rich with bass and keys, never losing the effervescent guitars reminiscent of the psychedelic samba that is her birthright. “Pirraça” hits a deep groove all its own. On the flip, her bossa is strong: “Fugiu Com A Novela” is stunning, delivered with the raspy perfection by this former basketball player and model. With Sim, the appropriately titled “Yes”, Da Mata joins fellow Brazilian singers Ceu and Cibelle evolving her national folk song into new and refreshing directions.
In 2001 at New York’s Mercury Lounge, I watched Norah shyly but quite sweetly play an hour-long set along with roughly 15 other people. Her publicist hipped me to the fact that “she’s about to explode” when Blue Note dropped her record in early 2002—a hearty claim for a singer pulling in under 20 people. Her prophecy fulfilled itself, and most probably financially saved a record label in the process. What I enjoyed about Jones then remains what I enjoy today: her honesty. She has whole-heartedly attempted to defy any pigeonhole, most notoriously jazz, along with the occasional “country/folk/etc” bins. She’s a solid songwriter, or at least works with solid songwriters, and performs from her heart. So it didn’t surprise me that her latest, The Fall (Blue Note), diverged from her previous material. She’s parted ways a little after every album. Not a lot, mind you, which is how she is able to write and perform music that shifts with her emotional and mental tides, yet remain rooted in a fundamental singer-songwriter base that never alienates her audience. She doesn’t take herself too seriously (“It’s him or me/That’s what he said/But I can’t choose between a vegan and a pothead/So I chose you,” she sings on “Man of the Hour”), yet she takes music seriously. It’s a winning combination, being innocuous and pleasant without being trite or cliché. There’s a lot more guitar, and more electric guitar, with less piano, at least early on. Her voice fits into the landscape more than usual; she doesn’t dominate an acoustic track, but instead forms into the mold of songs with more heft than before. While I wouldn’t call it rock, songs like “Light as a Feather” and “Waiting” create thick layers that lead the listener on a journey, building and building upon one another. The album’s second half mellows, much more in the vein of Not Too Late and Feels Like Home. Again: nothing unfamiliar, nothing groundbreaking. Simply a fine album by an artist we feel comfortable depending on because she lives up to that responsibility.