15. Son Little – Aloha [Anti-]
Son Little (real name: Aaron Earl Livingston), one of many current artists remaking soul music in their distinctive way, gets right to work on his new album Aloha, hitting listeners with the super catchy and decidedly sexy “Hey Rose”. “Hey Rose / Your soul is the picture,” Little sings, “But your body is the frame / But the frame is exquisite / And you taste just like your name.” While those lyrics could be the most disastrous romantic lines ever, Little conveys them perfectly, his raspy but likable voice accompanied by minimal guitar chords and handclaps. Even within the seduction, there is a sense of foreboding: as the song ends, the couple are “engaged in lovers games”, but the singer then pleads, “can I hold you till these dark dreams fade?”
“Hey Rose” is one of those album-opening songs that is so engaging that it might take listeners a while to get beyond it and settle into the rest of Aloha. But as the album unfolds, it becomes clear that Son Little is doing his best to balance feelings of ecstasy and despair.
14. Jarrod Dickenson – Ready the Horses [Independent]
Jarrod Dickenson isn’t from Memphis, but you wouldn’t know it from Ready the Horses. Several of the songs on the Nashville via Brooklyn via Texas singer-songwriter’s country-soul album wouldn’t sound out of place on a Stax release from 1968. These tracks feature lively horn blowing, gospel organ grooves, and R&B riffs filtered through a rural sensibility reminiscent of that soulful stew from the Grind City in the past. The more acoustic songs serve as just the other side of the coin in the way those old Stax singles used B-sides to promote the softer sides of their artists.
Be that as it may, there’s also something timeless about Dickenson’s music. He’s not retrofitting old styles for today. It’s just that his newfangled compositions have deep roots in traditions. That’s why it’s surprising that Ready the Horses was recorded live in a studio on the southeast coast of England about three years ago. The album sounds new, even though it was initially released in the United Kingdom on a major label (Decca) back in 2017. Since then, he’s put out more recent recordings in the US.
13. The Ruthie Foster Big Band – Live at the Paramount [Blue Corn Music]
On 26 January 2019, the Ruthie Foster Big Band took the stage at the historic Paramount Theater in Austin. Foster’s most recent release centralizes the big band era as the artist moving away from her renowned blues persona. Backed by a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, drummer, ten horn players, vocalists, and conductor, Foster was not to be outdone: her power is unmistakable throughout. Featuring several originals paired with timeless covers, Live at the Paramount finds the Ruthie Foster Big Band bringing the house down.
Foster sets the album’s tone by opening with her own “Brand New Day” and “Might Not Be Right”. With the hushed background vocals and limited percussion, she delivers her vocal magnitude. “Brand New Day” regenerates a positive energy much as it did when it was first released in 2014. “Might Not Be Right” expresses her support of gay marriage despite homophobia’s ubiquity. Perhaps not an entirely radical sentiment, her standpoint is subversive for the blues genre. More so, her message, “they speculate and hate / negative thoughts don’t control my fate”, is an enduring axiom. Foster’s approach to blues was never to wallow in pessimism. She often illustrates, and do so readily on this release, how times of defeat make way for light. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
12. Gregory Porter – All Rise [Blue Note]
All Rise represents the forefront of the evolution of contemporary jazz. Clocking in at just over 73 minutes (61 on the standard version), Gregory Porter makes apt use of “his longtime loyal bandmates, a handpicked horn section, a 10-member choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra Strings“. While the sounds vary throughout the album, the songs share a lush, soothing, self-assured energy, whether Porter is singing about flying with “wings like an eagle” from God’s grace on the high-energy gospel anthem “Revival”, or potentially becoming a foolish martyr to an illusory love on “If Love is Overrated”.
The album has a sort of ingrained humility that matches Porter’s lyrical persona. It does not feel as if Porter is hiding any of his talents from the audience, but at the same time, he never seems to be self-indulgent. “Everything You Touch Is Gold” is quite the clever ode to a loved one that puts a subtle spin on the adage from King Midas who turned everything that he touched into gold. Porter’s diction creates a more open-ended phrase than the traditional “everything you touch turns to gold”. Did his lover turn his soul into gold, or was it already so, just waiting for her graceful presence to complement it? –Semassa Boko
11. Cassowary – Cassowary [Fat Possum]
With the release of his self-titled debut album, it is time to add Cassowary to the list of young artists who are moving 21st-century soul music in all kinds of intriguing directions. Cassowary is a thoroughly modern album that happens to be filled with music that might intrigue old school fans, especially those who are looking for new music that takes off in adventurous directions from musical touchstones of the past.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the 25-year-old artist who calls himself Cassowary is a multi-instrumentalist with musical roots that dig deep in jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop. Cassowary arrives at a satisfying conclusion with the final part of “114˚”, reminding listeners of the jazz-based roots of both the album and artist, as well as demonstrating how vital the intersection of jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop continues to be. — Rich Wilhelm