Last year, my first candidate for album of the year held that spot to the end — David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” my feelings about it established even before he died just days after its release. This year, again, the first to impress me retained its power through the year, but this is from a young artist just starting to make his mark, Los Angeles’ powerhouse Miles Mosley. His bracing mix of soul, funk, jazz and rock, carrying confident messages of social justice and personal power to affect change, is a fitting topper for a list of releases as forceful, eclectic and singular in their creative expression as this is, from an African women’s collective to an album inspired by African-American slave diaries, from an Anglo-American folk-rock collaboration to a group from embattled Venezuela which until recently had never performed outside of its small village, from a young Puerto Rican-American connecting with her cultural and personal identity to a 79-year-old avant-garde jazz pioneer at once recapping his remarkable career and showing himself still hungry for new challenges. Music reflecting our times? You bet. Music full of fight, not despair. The words printed here about each release come from the most part from reviews I did on KPCC’s Take Two program, though two are from concert reviews — all linked for your full enjoyment. Check out the list, and more importantly, check out the music. (And scroll down to the bottom for the list of impressive near-misses, all very worthy.)
Miles Mosley “Uprising” World Galaxy/Alpha
Miles Mosley’s “Uprising” is only 44 minutes long, but in many ways every bit as epic as Kamasi Washington’s sprawling three-hour jazz excursion, which was of course titled “Epic.” It’s a pertinent comparison since upright bassist and singer Mosley was a key figure on “Epic,” and this new album features much the same ensemble, including Washington himself on tenor sax. For that matter, Mosley’s band, the West Coast Get Down, is the core of the “Epic” outfit, and this album is at the very least a companion work.
This is aspirational, inspirational soul-jazz harking back to some of the great anthems of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the full jazz colorations of the charts giving a signature to these songs, many shaped by a fiery fight for social justice. Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers, the Staples Singers, Bill Withers among others come to mind. Maybe Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, too, in some ways. But also Charles Mingus and Archie Schepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Max Roach, for a start. And while there’s nothing reggae about this, it’s probably no coincidence that the album’s title was also used by Bob Marley for one of his forceful sets.
Rhiannon Giddens “Freedom Highway” Nonesuch
For her second solo album, Rhiannon Giddens takes the title from, and closes the set with, Pops Staples’ classic gospel anthem of the civil rights movement, a perfect epilogue for the songs that come before it. “Freedom Highway” is an album of vivid tales of people and signposts from that often rough road, a journey from the darkest days of slavery, starting with chilling opening song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” to the tensions and divisions that persist today.
Now, if that sounds pedantic, the songs are anything but. This is not a literal history lesson, but a literary one. And it’s told on such a poetically personal level that, though Giddens wrote or co-wrote all but the Staples’ song and “The Angels Laid Him Away” (by Mississippi John Hurt), you might swear that they were adaptations of songs written in the moment and on-site by people who lived inside the struggles.
Juana Molina “Halo” Crammed Discs
As with much great music, much great art, there is something disorienting about the music of Argentina’s electro-pop shapeshifter Juana Molina.
It’s very thoughtful of her, in the English translations of the Spanish lyrics accompanying the album, to provide a compass reference for something that is literally disorienting to some of us, particularly those of us who speak a different language, come from a different culture and, to the point, a different half of the globe. With the translation of the lyrics to the song “Al Oueste (In the West)” she includes a footnote to a line referencing an expectation of sunshine through a north-facing window: “*in the southern hemisphere, the sun peaks out in the north.”
Of course, for those of us not proficient in Spanish, it might be a moot point as we wouldn’t have caught the reference in the first place. But it underscores the point that there’s plenty else to keep one off balance in this album. And as with the misplaced sun, it’s often things you might not realize are unsettling until you are in the middle of them.
Les Amazones d’Afrique “Republique Amazone” Real World
Long before women put on pink knit hats and marched through our cities, a group of strong-voiced women came together to present a forceful message:
Men, listen to us,
This song we’ll sing goes to you
Our troubles and sorrows are our weapons
And we women want to share them with you.
The women who wrote and sang that song, “I Play the Kora,” are a multi-generational, multi-cultural West African supergroup fully deserving of the name they’ve chosen, Les Amazones d’Afrique, honoring the women warriors who protected cultures in that region for hundreds of years.
The words quoted above were sung, in the Banbara language, by Malian artist Rokia Koné, followed in subsequent verses with equally pointed, pain-into-action lines from young Nigerian rebel-rapper Nneka, Mouneissa Tandina, Kandia Kouyate, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia and Mariam Koné (all from Mali) and Pamela Badjogo (of Gabon).
Co-produced by the women with Irish musician Liam Farrell (a.k.a. Doctor L, who previously produced the sparkling Kinshasa outfit Mbogwana Star), the album is dense with intertwined traditional and modern sounds, the serious topics always propelled by spirited music. It’s not looking for pity, but always pushing for progress. So strong is it that the presence of Benin-born global star Angelique Kidjo in the lead singer and lyricist role on rousing opening song “Dombolo” is just a nice bonus, a way to bring a bit more attention.
Offa Rex “Queen of Hearts” Nonesuch
A couple of years ago, singer songwriter Colin Meloy – best known for his band the Decemberists, sent a fan tweet to the young English folk artist Olivia Chaney, saying he’d love to hear her sing the old, doleful Scottish ballad “Willie O’Winsbury.”
That tweet was the start of a relationship that ultimately culminated in our first selection – the album, “Queen of Hearts” by the band Offa Rex. Here’s a track of the same name.
Offa Rex — the name comes from an 8th century English King — teams Chaney with Meloy and members of the Decemberists. Now, the Decemberists may be from Portland, but they have always seemed to be an English folk-rock group, what with the lilting melodies, mournful fiddles and tales of seafaring adventure and treacherous romance that dotted its early albums in particular. So it’s only natural that Meloy and crew would eventually work with a real English folk singer, and in Chaney they have one of the brightest lights of the revived, resurgent British folk wave.
It’s a great listen of powerful songs and hypnotic performances. Well, anything sung by Chaney is a great listen. Meloy and crew, though, give her settings that take her into new territories as a singer, expand her range, even within a repertoire with which she was already familiar.
Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.” Top Dawg Entertainmet
The one album in my Top 10 that I didn’t write about. But so much has been said about this, what more is there for me to say? Lamar may well be pop music’s MVP of this era.
Roscoe Mitchell “Bells For the South Side” ECM
(FROM NOTES FOR REVIEW THAT DIDN’T RUN) The big news about reeds player Roscoe Mitchell should have been the release of this monumental album, a career-capping set from one of the giants of so-called free jazz, an ode to and renewal of the pioneering music he was at the core of with the still-singular Art Ensemble of Chicago going back half a century. Unfortunately the recent news about him has been the apparent elimination of his long-held, highly valued professorship at Oakland’s financially beleaguered Mills College.
But that latter cannot overshadow the vibrant artistry of “Bells,” recorded in concert a couple of years ago with a vast assortment of colleagues and acolytes in various combinations, spurred by the vision and vitality of the leader, who remains remarkably active and productive at 76.
Meklit “When the People Move, the Music Moves Too” Six Degrees
The album title seems almost backwards. Isn’t music supposed to make people move, not the other way around? But the movement referenced by Meklit Hadero, who goes by just her first name, is that of migration — both individuals and groups of people — bringing music with them. It’s both a way that the heart of cultures, the essence of home, come with them. But also the music is a spark for new sounds, new cultures, as people build new homes.
A lot of moving happened with the people and music on this album. Some recording was done in Meklit’s birthplace of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as well as her long-time and current home of San Francisco, but also New Orleans (the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Horns play on four songs) and, primarily, here in Los Angeles, home base for album producer Dan Wilson.
The joyous “You Are My Luck” is buoyant Ethiopianized soul, featuring Los Angeles-based, Ethiopian-born pianist Kibrom Birhame and the Preservation Hall Horns, East African groove goosed with New Orleans street funk. And winding through are some lines of the traditional Ethiopian harp known as a krar played by Messele Asmamaw, one of the three musicians recorded in Addis.
Betsayda Machado “Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree” Odelia
“Debería ser ron.”
That was one of the percussionist-vocalists of Venezuela’s Parranda El Clavo, on stage with remarkably accomplished, expressive singer Betsayda Machado in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Magnin Auditorium Thursday night. He winked impishly to the audience as his words were translated — “It should be rum” — by the group’s manager, Juan Souki. It would have been rum, had the show not been moved to this indoor room (no alcohol allowed) from the outside courtyard due to the monsoon that had swept through unexpectedly earlier in the evening, altering plans for the closing night of the Skirball’s 2017 Sunset Concerts series. Water would have to do for this occasion, that occasion being a little ceremony to bless a CD, that CD being the debut recording of Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo, that debut coming a full 30 years since the ensemble started performing at celebrations and ceremonies in its small, rural village of El Clavo.
It was big moment, a little solemnity following what had been an boisterous, exhilarating, audience-shaking performance of traditional songs going back generations. The first run of CDs had only arrived earlier in the day. The musicians were clearly moved and a little overwhelmed— not a shock, given that until last year, the ensemble had never performed outside of El Clavo. That’s right, 30 years in the village, and now on a North American tour of more than 30 cities, and a CD in hand, titled “Loé Loá – Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree.”
Hurray for the Riff Raff “The Navigator” ATO
“Do your best, but fuck the rest. Be something.”
Alynda Segarra delivered many core, poignant lines fronting her band Hurray For the Riff Raffat the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge, but that may have been the core-est. It came in the song “Pa’lante,” the show’s epic closer and emotional climax — the same position it holds on the new album, “The Navigator.” And it pretty much sums up the essence of the album: a concept set tracing her journey as a 17-year-old leaving her Bronx home, train-hopping around the country before landing in New Orleans, and now at 30 retracing it in a prodigal journey to tie who she is now to where she came from.
The song’s title, she explained by way of introduction this night, is a colloquial exhortation to “move forward,” associated with the Young Lords, a Spanish Harlem-originated Puerto Rican gang-turned-quasi-militant cultural action group of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. And in the course of the song, dramatically quoting from Nuyorican poet/activist Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” she calls out “Pa’lante!” to a vast cast: “To Juan, Miguel, Milagro, Manuel… To all who came before… To my mother and my father… To all who had to hide… To all who lost their pride… To all who have had to survive…” To all who have struggled to find their place in the world, who are struggling now. To all fighting to know and hold identity, whatever that means, whatever shape it takes. The riff raff. Hurray. “Be something.”
NEAR-MISSES (in no particular order)
Jay Som, “Everybody Works”
Chicano Batman, “Freedom is Free”
Joe Henry, “Thrum”
Aurora Nealand, “Monocle”
Lila Downs, “Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo”
Chuck Berry, “Chuck”
Aldous Harding, “Party”
Terrace Martin presents the Pollyseeds, “Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1”
Randy Newman, “Dark Matter”
Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Dreams and Daggers”
Bianca Rossini, “Vento do Norte”
Benjamin Clementine, “I Tell a Fly”
Sam Amidon, “The Following Mountain”
Tyshawn Sorey, “Verisimilitude”
Robert Plant, “Carry Fire”