Best Music of 2001 Lists
From the UK perspective of an aging Soul Boy, 2001 was an exceptionally good year musically. The Modern Soul scene is stronger than it has been for almost a decade, Soulful House and US Garage are gaining acceptance with the connoisseurs and even crossing over into the dance mainstream. The organic, neo-soul movement is finally having an effect on the R&B circuit and there are signs that conscious lyrics and more traditional vocal styles are both making a comeback. Techno and Tech-House showed a substantial shift towards a jazzier, more melodic vibe. The rise of the "broken beats" sound also moved club music further towards the funky end of the spectrum. Jazz itself was in solid shape, although the most interesting developments were in jazz-house and various hybrid forms.
Far too many great records to cover but here are some that should not be ignored.
1. N'Dambi, Tuning Up & Cosignin (Cherry i)
Loosely structured and at times a little ragged, this was still the best of the Organic Soul sets this year. Less twee than Arie, less preachy and self-satisfied than Jill Scott and far more consistent than Sunshine Anderson, this double CD, from Badu's backing singer and occasional songwriter, has a richness and a depth to it that will take some wearing down. As much a jazz set as a soul one, N'Dambi's Texas drawl and some thoughtful lyrics finally get the backing they deserve. A live feel and great sax, organ and percussion lend each number an emotional strength that others aspired to but never quite matched. Word of mouth made the first album a cult classic, believe me, this is even better. Strong on tradition but absolutely fresh, let's hope the lack of an obvious dancer doesn't prevent this getting the airplay it deserves.
2. Fontella Bass, Travellin (Justin Time)
Everything good about black music on one record -- gospel, jazz, soul, ballads and blues. The veteran singer and her extended family deliver both a history lesson and hope for the future. Canada's Justin Time released a batch of excellent sounds this year, but this was the pick. Bass has never sung better (even on the woefully neglected Free album and the musicians all make the most of the opportunity to revisit their heritage. Likely to fall between jazz and soul stools but don't miss out on a major artist whose 40 years experience in the business has all been poured into this labour of love.
3. Norma Jean Bell, Come Into My Room (Peacefrog)
In the absence of a full length Kerry Dixon set this year, this Moodymann produced session fills the gap nicely. Less dark and paranoid than the work that emerges under his own name, it still has that slightly disturbed, inner city decay feel that characterises all their collaborations. Norma Jean's Coltrane-influenced sax is the highlight while the sweet and soulful vocals, laced over twisted 4/4 beats, make for danceable yet provocative listening. Detroit House like no-one else does it, these two are making music that says more about the urban experience than the whole Gangsta scene put together.
4. Osunlade, Paradigm (Soul Jazz)
The sound of discerning dancefloors from New York's Giant Steps to London's Jazz Cafe, this collection of Latin rhythms, Afrobeat and back-to-basics House does for current dance music what the Fontella Bass does for earlier genres. Simply put, it takes the finest ingredients and presents them in a clear and unadorned fashion. Eclectic yet very accessible, with a warmth and a funkiness second to none, it even adds a little conscious lyric to the mix to remind us what this music's all about. Postmodern rootsiness for your body and your mind.
5. Audio Soul Project, Community (NRK)
Globe-trotting Iranian producer/DJ Mazi drops an impressive set that is mostly techy house but with a tough, tribal edge. It is done with real conviction and somehow manages to stay true to the old school while refusing to get nostalgic. Now appropriately based in Chicago, the prolific Mazi uses his Audio Soul guise to sneak in some jazzy and ambient touches alongside his minimalist and highly percussive sound. Stark and unnerving at times, this is a real grower and a sign that the new breed of House producers might have a harder sound than their predecessors but that subtlety does not need to be sacrificed in that process. Nice to see veteran Ron Carroll in on the act and look out for some surprisingly mellow sax on the correctly named "New Plateau". A real surprise and an album that bodes well for the future of digital dance.
6. Cooly's Hot Box, Take It (Dome)
Out of New York but tailor-made for the UK soul scene. After teasing us with a welter of hard-to-find singles the album finally arrived and did not disappoint. No-frills, contemporary soul music from a band who started out on the dance circuit. Real musicians, strong songs -- a rare example of a working soul band in fact. Fifteen tracks and not a filler among them. Angela Johnson takes most of the vocal honours but the whole quartet have put a lot of artists with much bigger budgets to shame. Positive feedback from live appearances suggests that stardom beckons. If so, they'll be hard pressed to match this well-crafted collection.
7. Various Artists, Black British Swing (Topic)
Probably the most important piece of archive work this year. Topic have put together what little recorded work there is of the key black musicians working in England in the thirties and forties. Significant enough to cause a revision of popular music history if anyone took notice (which they won't). It is also pretty good and stands up to most US product of the time. Laurence Caton offers the earliest available examples of the electric guitar on these shores while Lesley "Jiver" Hutcherson and Snakehips Johnson show why their outfits were so loved by the aficianados. Incredibly evocative of a lost sub-culture and a vanished England. Worth it for the sleevenotes alone, anyone serious about the real "story of pop" should get a copy.
8. LLorca, "Newcomer" (F Comm)
LLorca's "Precious Thing" was the most charming club favourite this year. A delicate slice of jazzy house with exquisite vocals from Lady Bird, it was so good that most never got past that track on the album. Pity,because Newcomer was the best of a strong contingent of jazzhouse sets in 2001. French, of course, and as sophisticated as it was soul-drenched. Europe leads the way with this stuff and the rest of us gratefully follow. From Mingus samples to seventies style funk everything here just oozes quality and taste. Parisians have always been spoiled for high culture, now they are producing popular genres of equal impressiveness. Unfair.
9. Various Artists, Nude Dimensions 3 (Naked Music)
A quiet year from the classiest label in the world but this smooth set showed why they are still number one in the deep and dreamy department. Blue Six, Gaelle, Miguel Migs, Paolo Rocha and a host of dance musics most elegant players mixed seamlessly into the usual seductive and oh-so-cool melange. Slightly more dubby and West Londony in feel than previous comps, it still has that San Francisco (chilled, but funky) sensibility that has made Bruno and the gang so admired and envied.
10. James Carr, The Complete Goldwax Singles (Kent)
OK, so he had to die for a decent compilation to be put together but this set should finally prove to the non-believers that Carr was the equal of Otis, O.V. Wright or any Southern soulster you care to name. "Dark End of the Street" is the acknowledged classic but the rest of the album is almost as heart-stoppingly powerful. Country-blues-soul that could only be made back in the day but has lost none of its impact in the intervening years. Music so good it literally hurts.
As I review over a number of styles, I thought it might be appropriate to give top tens (barring the above) for the three main areas that move me -- jazz, soulful dance and soul.
(I have chosen these on the basis of most listened to, rather than considerations of innovation and High Artiness.)
- Blueiett/Jackson/El'Zabar, The Calling (Justin Time)
- Charlie Hunter, Music from the Analog Playground (Blue Note)
- Greg Osby, Symbols of Light (Blue Note)
- Philadelphia Experiment, The Philadelphia Experiment (Ropeadope)
- Roy Campbell Pyramid Trio, Ethnic Brew and Stew (Delmark)
- Phil Upchurch, Tell the Truth (Evidence)
- Carmen Lundy, This Is (Justin Time)
- Kofy Brown, The Real Kofy Brown (Simba Music)
- Marcos Valle, Escape (Far Out)
- D.D.Jackson, Sigame (Justin Time)
No one earth-shattering album but the overall standard was pretty high and with healthy sales for jazz just now the venerable art shows little sign of its much predicted demise. As you can see, Justin Time was label of the year.
Dance (Still a 12" form, so the best of 2001 will mostly not emerge on CD till next year but this lot should keep you going till then.)
- Viktor Duplaix, DJ KIcks (!K7)
- Various, Midnight Sessions 2 (Guidance)
- Various, Ten Years of Madhouse (Madhouse)
- Various, 430 West Presents Detroit Calling (430 West)
- Various, Faith Vol.1 (Clockwork)
- Various, Sessions (Giant Step)
- Soulstice, Illusions/Mixed Illusions (Om)
- Various, More Shades (Black Vinyl)
- Various, Chez on the Rocks (Chez)
- Various, Garage City (Defected) (for DJ Spen mix)
Just a sample of the many compilations that mapped the deeper end of the increasingly diverse dance world, but it is noteworthy that it is still the rare dance album by an individual act that can match the mix CDs for sustained excellence.
- Angie Stone, Mahogany Soul (J)
- Lafayette Reed, I'm Ready (Connoisseur)
- Delilah Harris, Bigheaded Girl (Papernotes)
- Kara, Seasons (KDS)
- Sandra St.Victor, Gemini/Both Sides (Expansion)
- Tiffany Laing, The Naked Truth (Twelve Tribes)
- Maxwell, Now (Columbia)
- Syleena Johnson, Chapter One (Jive/Zomba)
- The Transitions, Back in De Days (Universal)
- Maurice J, Devoted (Phoenix Entertainment)
Small label, "indie-soul" had more than its share of gems in 2001 -- the Tiffany Laing (R&B/Gospel), Lafayette Reed (voice of the year) and the Delilah Harris (intelligent folk-soul) really impressed. The Kara, a lovely downtempo set, actually came out in 1999 but only came my way this year. Lovers of soul music should stop yearning for the past and check these new artists out -- there is life beyond the majors and these people need your support.