Top 10 Global Albums of 2009

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.

Artist: Tinariwen

Album: Imidiwan: Companions

Label: World Village

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/tinariwen3.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Tinariwen
Imidiwan: Companions

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”.

 

Artist: Fat Freddy’s Drop

Album: Dr. Boondigga & The Big BW

Label: The Drop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/f/fat-freddys-drop.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

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.

 

Artist: The Spy From Cairo

Album: Secretly Famous

Label: Wonderwheel

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/the_spy_from_cairo.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

The Spy From Cairo
Secretly Famous

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.

 

Artist: Vanessa Da Mata

Album: Sim

Label: Sony

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/v/vanessa-da-mata.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Vanessa Da Mata
Sim

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.

 

Artist: Norah Jones

Album: The Fall

Label: Blue Note

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/n/norah-jones.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Norah Jones
The Fall

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.

 

Béla Fleck and more

Artist: Béla Fleck

Album: Throw Down Your Heart: Tale From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3 – Africa Sessions

Label: Rounder

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/bla-fleck.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Béla Fleck
Throw Down Your Heart: Tale From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3 – Africa Sessions

While banjo player Béla Fleck’s most recent global journey features a long title, the actual album is more expansive and thought provoking than what those 13 words allow. The record blew out my head on first listen, when my fiancée bought it on iTunes before I had a chance to get it from the label. To claims it is an “all star” project is an understatement and undermines the integrity of this diverse roster of artists: D’Gary, Afel Bocum, Vusi Mahlasela, Oumou Sangare, Richard Bona, Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, Djelmady Tounkara — it would take the status and stature of this banjo player to even pull such a thing off, not to mention even thinking up such an ambitious undertaking. Yet pull it off Fleck does, eloquently, gracefully, beautifully. Treat it more like a compilation and you’ll understand: there is no linear voyage to be found. The distance between D’Gary and Sangare itself is a bit of a hop; the next step, to the childlike Anania Ngoglia, requires even more of a step of faith. Some tracks, Fleck is the most prominent feature; at other times, he steps back and lets his guests take center stage. There is a power to this that the entire ensemble exudes. The title track, featuring n’goni player Kouyate and the Haruna Samake Trio, is heartbreaking. Sangare sounds like the queen she is. I haven’t heard D’Gary sound this good in years, especially on the song that bears his name, “D’Gary’s Jam” (which also features another dozen artists). Fleck should be commended for these 18 efforts. While every one does not hit the mark, the mere scope of what he’s accomplished is honorable, and 80 percent of the time spot on.

 

Artist: Bebel Gilberto

Album: All in One

Label: Verve

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/bebel-gilberto.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Bebel Gilberto
All in One

Bebel Gilberto slipped into the American imagination with Tanto Tempo in 2000 and has refused to leave. The efforts that followed — Bebel Gilberto and Momento — felt like extensions of that North American debut; beautiful in their own right, and never without taste, yet safely embedded within the same paradigm. It’s not surprising, given that she is the musical and genetic progeny of two great Brazilian singers. I wouldn’t say that All In One, her Verve debut, points in a completely new direction. But it certainly surprises. Her music has always reached for the romantic in her listeners, a nuance continual in the global understanding of Brazilian sounds. This is quite a paradox considering the social and economic strife inherent in many of the country’s urban areas. From the Brazilian musicians I’ve talked to over the years, it seems that the music is not only an “escape”, which is what bossa nova has come to represent in certain circumstances; it is also a social and artistic balm that glues people together. This is a worldwide truism in music; it’s just that certain artists really grab hold of one’s creative faculties, pushing past the bounds of the everyday into a dream-like state — the visionary, the daydreamer. There is really no other way of describing Giblerto’s sound, crediting equally her producers as her voice. The expectable Bebel tracks are present: airy odes like “Far From the Sea” and “Port Antonio”. She tackles her father’s domain with cuts like “Bim Bom” and “Chica Chica Boom Chic”, songs that take you back forty years, before Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil slid electric guitars and political messages into the music. Things get more interesting when she tackles two giants and succeeds on both: Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. Flipping “Sun Is Shining” into Portuguese and back into English was a smart move, adding a layer of sensuality to the bass-heavy midtempo track. Bob is sacred territory to many; previous accolades have meant death to a singer. Bebel handles it, along with everything else here, perfectly.

Artist: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou

Album: Volume Two: Echos Hypnotiques

Label: Analog Africa

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/v/volume-two-echos-hypnotique.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou
Volume Two: Echos Hypnotiques

Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou: Vol. 2 comes from Analog Africa, a label running side-by-side with Soundway at unearthing a wealth of amazing material from decades ago. Five years back, the label received a track from this Benin-based band, and fell in love. Volume One compiled more obscure tracks in Benin; this one focuses on their time in a bigger studio in Lagos (the sound quality shows). Volume Two focused on the decade from 1969-79, a fertile time on African soil, where jazz was influencing and being influenced by the motherland, the heyday of Bronx Salsa brought awareness of Puerto Rico and Colombia to the larger world, and James Brown was being cued by Fela Kuti and broadcast to the world. Rooted in Vodoun ceremonial music and heavy on percussion and guitars, with thick, luscious bass lines and melodies as trance inducing as the rhythms, this is an irresistible find. A fine collection through and through, the call-response “Noude Ma Gnin Tche de Me” hooked and sunk me deeply into this African groove. You won’t be disappointed doing the same.

 

Artist: Various Artists

Album: Tumbélé! Biguine, Afro & Latin Sounds From The French Caribbean, 1963-74

Label: Soundways

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/tumbele.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Various Artists
Tumbélé! Biguine, Afro & Latin Sounds From The French Caribbean, 1963-74

One of my favorite labels to emerge over the past years is certainly Soundway Records; the UK-based operation has unearthed a rich library of Caribbean, Afro-Latin, and Tropical music from three or four decades back. Their website, soundwayrecords.com, features an excellent selection of DJ mixes, great companions to their exceptional compilations. This latest look at the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique slides right into action. Like their larger counterparts overseas, the music being made on these islands was heavily influenced by jazz, Afro-Latin rhythms, calypso, and most likely, James Brown. The drumming prowess of bands like Le Ry-co Jazz, along with the heavy guitar- and brass-fueled groove that Ensemble La Perfecta finds, leave the listener craving a dance floor. “Ti Fi La Ou Té Madam’” is a soulful stomper. Finding twenty tracks of this stature without a disappointment in the bunch is a rare find indeed.

 

Artist: Vieux Farka Touré

Album: Fondo

Label: Six Degrees

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/f/fondo.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200

Vieux Farka Touré
Fondo

If his self-titled debut announced to the world that Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré had a son, and that that son could play the hell out of the guitar and sing like it was nobody’s business, Vieux’s follow-up certifiably makes him his own man. His father’s traces were all over the last record, including his appearance on two songs (the last recordings he did before passing away), and two from close family friend and mentor Toumani Diabate. He returns with producer Yossi Fine (Ex-Centric Sound System) to a much more sparse, intricate, and delicate album — the last adjective working only in certain circumstances, because the boy can shred through some chords at any time. Credit Fine for allowing the man’s voice and guitar playing, already more than able, to shine. Fine keeps the bass, his instrument of choice, tasteful yet in the background, pulling the occasional reggae trick from his deep bag, helping Touré capture the integrity and depth of African blues. While upbeat songs like “Sarama” and “Chérie Lé” chug along, the real winners occur when he steps up solo: the exquisite, lonesome strains of “Souba Souba”, as well as “Slow Jam” and “Paradise”. Those are the ones that stop you in your tracks and listen, possibly inquire about the name of this artist you might not have heard of. If you have, I’m preaching to the choir: you are already aware of Touré’s magic, and this review is only verification of what you hear on your stereo every time you put it on.

 
PopMatters