Jimmy Cliff: Anthology

Matt Cibula

Jimmy Cliff


Label: Hip-O
US Release Date: 2003-07-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

The general perception of Jimmy Cliff is that he is one of the great also-rans in reggae history; that even though he was one of the stars of the greatest reggae movie of all time, The Harder They Come, and his songs dominate the classic soundtrack to that movie, he never really fulfilled the promise he showed in the first part of his career. Anthology, the two-disc greatest hits set I'm listening to right now, shows this perception to be faulty. Jimmy Cliff has been actually just as vital and interesting and conservatively radical after his biggest fame as he was before it. But it also shows that reggae's self-perception and record-company marketing needs just didn't square up with Cliff's wider vision of what he wanted his music -- and his life -- to be.

Hip-O starts Anthology with the most fun song you will ever hear: Cliff's second real single, "Miss Jamaica". This laid-back ska ode to his island's beautiful women pulses with fun and life; Cliff, who was just 14 when he recorded it, sounds nasal, cute, and innocent as he croons out the deathless lines, "Roses are red / Violets are blue / Believe me, I love you!" But the undercurrent of national pride, and black pride, that bubbles underneath it all ("I'm crowning you myself") helps move it all along. The other juvenilia here, like the New Orleans groove of "Hurricane Hattie" and the rasta fable of "King of Kings", are charming and minimal, thanks to the classic Leslie Kong production, and would seem to point to Cliff's future as a straight-up reggae singer in the mold of all other straight-up reggae singers.

But that's when things get interesting. 1968's "Waterfall" is complicated rock-ish world-pop, and was a huge hit in Brazil, where it won a huge music prize. (It's one of the few songs that Cliff didn't write on the whole anthology, and it sounds it.) Cliff's -- and Kong's -- experience in Brazil is clear in the song's followup, "Wonderful World, Beautiful People", which was written about the people he met there and bubbles with tropicalian cellos right alongside its basic beat. This wonderful tune got to #25 on the pop charts here in the U.S., and up to #6 in the U.K., and suddenly Jimmy Cliff was reggae's first international superstar.

The album named for the latter song is where the casual fan begins -- seven of its songs are included in Anthology. These are wonderful beautiful things, and need to be savored: the gospel intro to "Come into My Life" out-wails the Wailers, and the hardcore but low-key "Viet Nam" (which Bob Dylan once said was his favorite protest song ever) (that's right, I said Bob Dylan's favorite protest song) is more Peter Tosh than even Peter Tosh dared to be back then. This song ambles along sweetly, with one of Cliff's most beguiling vocals, only to reveal the steel beneath the frosting on the second or third listening: "Yesterday I got a letter from a friend / Fighting in Vietnam / And this is what he had to say / Tell all my friends / That I'll be coming home soon / My time'll be up some time in June" is pretty up-with-people stuff, and as he describes his Mary's lips we are all happy … until the second verse, when his mother gets a telegram. At this point, when we know what's coming, the music amps up, becomes a bit rowdier and mockingly carefree, and the formerly "fun" backing vocals have now become more mournful as his mother gets the news. It's a great great great great song, and Bob Dylan may well have been correct; but without Leslie Kong's subtlety and touch, it would have been just a great great great great song. With Kong, "Viet Nam" is one of the damnedest things ever. With Kong, Cliff was unbeatable.

Dave Thompson's liner notes are really quite perfect, describing how Cliff was the it kid of hipster music -- Paul Simon flying down to Kong's studio to record "Mother and Child Reunion" with Cliff's band, Cat Stevens writing and producing "Wild World" for Cliff, only to see his own version pushed on the US charts instead of Cliff's -- but the liner notes must always take a backseat to the music. It's easy to see why this is the Jimmy Cliff everyone always wants to remember, because this shit is sublime. "Suffering in the Land", "Many Rivers to Cross", "Let Your Yeah Be Yeah" -- these were all just about as good as reggae music could ever get.

Which is why it hit Jimmy Cliff so hard in 1971 when Leslie Kong died of a heart attack. Some of the songs that ended up on The Harder They Come soundtrack were recorded before this tragedy, but some others were Cliff's gift to the memory of his producer and friend; everyone knows that title track, with its "Small Axe" mentality, and "Sitting in Limbo" still hits like a penny dropped off the Empire State Building: "Tried my hand at love and friendship / But all that is past and gone / This little boy is moving on". It's a blues song, it's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" gone south, it's sadness personified, it's atypical reggae, it's folk music, it's perfect.

So that's where most of it ends for most fans -- he was in the movie, the soundtrack sold loads, and he was never as popular again, which means his songs must have been weaker and his attack must have been softer and he got what he deserved. If you are content with easy judgment, you should find another greatest hits disc for Jimmy Cliff. Because Anthology keeps going after The Harder They Come, and proves that all wrong. "Trapped" is here, in all its glory, along with great pieces like "Fundamental Reggay" and "Better Days Are Coming". I'm sure that it would be much easier for everyone to just take the title of "Struggling Man" and run with it to describe this period of Cliff's career -- but that would be both too easy and untrue.

Because these are wonderful songs. The country-ish horn riff and the gospel-ish organ lines on 1974's "House of Exile" come together to sound like Dylan's rock-period work, which is perfectly matched to its theme: "So your day arrived when you least expected / 'Cause you always thought you were well-protected / And now you feel like a fish out of water / So now you're wondering what's the matter". Clever quotes from funk ("If I Follow My Mind" steals an opening riff from a Billy Preston song) and African music ("I Am the Living" gets a little high-life South African groove going, kinda cool for 1980) started to shake up some of his songs, which revealed fewer of the clichéd smiling-through-my-tears martyr ballads that started to be SOP in reggae music. It turned out that he was a folk musician all along.

But the songs were still very Jamaican in form and in intent. It's not like Jimmy Cliff was abandoning reggae for other forms of music, but more like he refused to fit into the whole rasta/rebel continuum. For one thing, he had become a Muslim, so he wasn't calling for Jah every other song. For another, Cliff is just conditionally opposed to making blanket statements. His sad stuff is personal, his political stuff is general and can be adapted to everybody everywhere. Which is not to say that he completely avoids cliché, because he doesn't, and which is not to say that his later stuff is stronger than his earlier work, because it isn't, not ultimately. But "Shelter of Your Love" is some pretty reggae folk music by any standard, simple and straightforward with Cliff's amazing tenor soaring over it all. And there's nothing wrong with Cliff or his band, Oneness, when they are tearing the hell out of "Give the People What They Want" -- and what do the people want? They want "reggae music", of course; but maybe all they know was the kind of reggae music that was sold to them, music that could be called "rebel music" and therefore highly marketable. Simple music with a lot of depth . . . well, that's the kiss of death, innit?

Okay, so "Club Paradise" could be a little tougher, maybe; okay, so his top 20 version of "I Can See Clearly Now" wasn't as strong as Johnny Nash's version; fine, maybe he had more of an edge when he was young. But the reason he didn't sell more records might not have had anything to do with that. He has never posed, he has never felt the need to try to impress the rude boys in the dancehall, and (besides taking the name "Jimmy Cliff" forty years ago) he has never lied about who he was or what he wanted to do. What Jimmy Cliff has done has been to pursue his inclusive musical vision, one that uses reggae as the major influence but also includes all the wonderful world and all its beautiful people. And Anthology is quite brave to show us all those sides. We should be kind of thankful for it.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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