Throughout history, when ‘times is hard on the boulevard’ – (c) Rakim – humans have often desperately turned to the arts, not merely for the sheer entertainment, but to help us better understand the reality of our surroundings, and/or look inward to explore the depths of our thoughts and emotions. For so many of us, the drug of choice is music – you know, sounds and the cultures that surround. Music need not be written about the times, or confront issues, ideas, address conflicts, nor really anything pertaining to real life at all; but the art – and the artists – infuse us with the musical medicine that we require, to face ourselves and love one another, to survive the days and dance the nights away.
Behold Upful LIFE’s annual smattering of favorite records released this year. Once again, you will not find the words “best” or “top” attached to this 2019 list. The eclectic assortment of records are purposefully not ranked. As has become custom, I simply chose to briefly review/reflect on the 19 LPs/EPs that resonated with me most during this terrific, troubling and turbulent circle around the sun. Naturally, it was quite difficult to pare it down to such a select few entries, so I included another 19 Honorable Mentions – with clickable links – listed at the end of the exercise.
While the US (as we knew it?) digs into the political and socio-cultural trenches, the most fiercely-divided and hate-fueled times in my four decades on this earth, please accept this lovingly intentional gift, a pleasant, introspective, and much-needed diversion from the darkness.
One way or another….
Rich in exploratory psychedelia, industrious songcraft, and multi-dimensional soundscapes, Elevate is the fifth full-length studio LP from future-funk cosmonauts Lettuce. It arrived nearly four years in the making, determined to test the boundaries of the group’s own creations, and promises to probe new portals in sound. Coming in at a bulbous eleven tracks, Elevate was co-produced/mixed by Russ Elevado (D’angelo, Erykah Badu, The Roots) and features album art by Harriet Woodman; it eschews convention and instead offers a carefully curated experience that fearlessly embraces the unknown. Recorded at Colorado Sound Studios in Denver, CO and mixed/mastered in the sublime confines of Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas, the album is a bold leap of faith, one that redefines the band’s established modus operandi. Elevate discovers Lettuce paying subtle homage to fallen heroes whilst blazing yet another trail of fire in their wake; a kaleidoscopic document that soars above the clouds and dances in the tailwind of adventure.
As evidenced on this vibrant communique, the streamlined Lettuce lineup is firing on all cylinders, and Elevado is nothing short of a shaman. Their collective vision and unwavering trust in one another has liberated them to co-create these songs, the band marinating them together, onstage in the moment, for several years. They masterfully capture both their robust performances and their rawest essence onto dusty, warm, spacious, analog tape. After only a few spins, it becomes crystal clear; the fruits of this laborious-yet-enthralling process are pretty damn juicy. The critical acclaim has finally begun to rear its head, as the album saw Lettuce nominated for their first-ever Grammy Award (Best Contemporary Instrumental Album), and the band of brothers continues to defy genre and convention while boldly burrowing into brilliant new frontiers.
Jidenna 85 to Africa
Jidenna remains among the most inventive and intelligent contemporary emcees, forwarding fantastic bars that ride riddims, multi-hued expressions of hip-hop, Afrobeat, Ghanian highlife, soulful R&B and even some quasi-psychedelic rock n’roll. On his 11-track sophomore album 85 to Africa, Jidenna pays homage to his Nigerian and American roots. A thorough exploration of what he calls New Age Garveyism, 85 to Africa figuratively represents a highway to Africa, a road that has many lanes. The LP’s theme is to connect the diaspora to the continent and vice versa; Jidenna is packing lyrical heat and arrives ready for departure. The record boasts guest features from Seun Kuti, plus Mr. Eazi, GoldLink, Mereba, and his label mates, St. Beauty.
The production and creative contributions of longtime collaborator Nana Kwabena are noteworthy to the evolution of Jidenna’s sound. Between his 2017 Boomerang EP and this project, Jidenna was living in Atlanta and got evicted from the home he was renting. This resulted in his relocating to Africa, where he traveled around to several countries and embraced a Pan-Africanist, diasporic mentality and musicality, pursuant to all matters of blackness in between. Jidenna has revealed that the 85 represents I-85 highway in Georgia, a freeway that leads to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where you can board direct flights to various African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, and Senegal.
The album opener “Worth The Weight,” features Seun Kuti, son of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat king Fela Kuti, and samples Kool in the Gang’s “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” That colossal collab sets the table for the mammoth title track, a heavy hip-hop joint that is as aggressive as it is assertive. “Babouche” features GoldLink and is named after a Moroccan slipper, “Sou Sou” is a libidinous number that fancies innuendo out of a sou sou (a group savings arrangement common in the Caribbean). Jidenna shows admiration and adulation in acknowledging the power of Black women on the Spanish guitar-inflected “Sufi Woman,” and the catchy “Zodi” featuring Mr. Eazi.
Solange – When I get Home
Following the success of 2016’s critically-acclaimed A Seat at the Table, Solange returns with When I Get Home, a 19-track, 39-minute bubblin’ up double-cup that expounds upon her mystifying, paradoxical artistry. At once new and exhilarating territory, this LP is the definition of a hometown throwdown. She’s been quoted as saying the album takes the singer back to “a kind of Houston of the mind.” It’s a city and musical heritage that looms large in Knowles family mythology as the birthplace of Solange and her sister Beyonce; When I Get Home indicates that this is an album about return, a love letter to the southside of H-Town. And she’s is unabashedly unapologetic about it.
Solange confidently and consistently challenges herself in experimental approach and execution; in doing so, she challenges her audience to really get inside the music. The album eschews structure in the traditional sense, and presents what can be framed as one long performance, a kaleidoscope of sonic styles, vamps, half-baked songs and dusty samples. The Houston chopped-and-screwed ethos, dating back to DJ Screw tapes in the 90’s, pulsates through this woozy journey, the departed mixtape king’s voice and magic touch are poured over interludes and embedded within tangents. It’s this low-end theory and hazy malaise, the intermittent meanderings and persistent-yet-detached emotional quotient that liken the vibe and aesthetics of When I Get Home to a holy grail of sorts, D’angelo’s timeless 1999 LP Voodoo; his a mumbling self-aware spiritualized solicitation, hers a tipsy stutter-step serenade, dripping in subtle, sexy testimonials. Now greeted and seated, Bey’s little sister didn’t go on waxing philosophic, instead doing quite the opposite; on When I Get Home, Solange most often gets down-down-down, and right to the point. Hol’ up!
Whether it’s flipping a trap record into a jazz vibe alongside Atlanta’s Gucci Mane, dreaming of Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants, or ghost-riding a candy-painted Cutlass Sierra through suffocating city streets, Solange’s mystic natural prowess and fantasmic worlds meld together to come alive amid the brilliant production of Sampha and Pharrell Williams, among others. Solange sounds liberated from the trials and tribulations of yesteryear, and When I Get Home finds her elevated and having a real good time in this very moment. With a steady stream of male features including Playboi Carti, The-Dream, Devonté Hynes, Metro Boomin, Tyler, the Creator, plus spliced-in samples of Houston rap vets Scarface and Devin the Dude, homegirl definitely ain’t stressin’ the guest list. High-brow critics have asserted that the record is an art installation posing as an album, an idea given credence by the companion film Solange released shortly thereafter. But rest assured, When I Get Home stands tall on it’s own twos, shoulder to shoulder with the landmark albums of this decade, across any genre; it does so mightily, with pride, mojo, defiance, joy, and Black excellence.
Black Pumas – Black Pumas
Among the hottest artists to come out of Austin in recent times, Black Pumas have really found their way into both the cultural zeitgeist and cognoscenti with a quickness. The collaboration between Grammy-winning guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma, Brownout) and vocalist Eric Burton, the eponymous debut album is a return to a bygone era when R&B turned trippier, funkier, and grittier. Black Pumas do not retreat from a throwback aesthetic, this record is a direct, disciplined and digestible stroll through soulful grooves and sensitive sensuality, brimming with empowering messages of unity, empathy, and love. The project was initially conceived by Quesada, a longtime fixture of the city’s underground scene who- inspired by some of Ghostface Killah’s work with Adrian Young- started to put together tracks at his studio Electric Deluxe, with his antenna up for the ideal vocalist to collaborate with. Burton materialized shortly thereafter, having busked his way down the West Coast before landing in Texas and impressing a friend of Quesada’s with his intoxicating voice. This prompted Burton to sing to Adrian on the phone one day, and that was the embryonic connection of Black Pumas. In the interim, their art – and resulting ascent – has been nothing short of meteoric.
Sonically, Black Pumas harnesses the well-worn 70’s analog vibe, yet the fabric of their sound remains contemporary, relevant, even urgent. Songs like scorching opener “Black Moon Rising” and the standout “Colours” pay homage to a glorious era, but don’t sell their soul for a retro dollar. Irresistible rhythms set the pace for Black Pumas proceedings, thanks to the tight work of the Hi Records rhythm section and the sturdiest of basslines. Embedded throughout are not-so-subtle nods to particular spaces and places in time, be it symbolically evoking the Black Panthers, tunes dripping in warm Fender Rhodes voicings and bulbous Memphis-style horns, or country Gospel flavors with heaping slabs of soulful church vocals. Proudly wearing passions on their sleeve, be it for dusty boom-bap backpack rap samples, syrupy classic R&B, and even some Latin jazz-funk or bluesy rock n’roll, Black Pumas have reached into yesteryear to push the culture forward, revisiting and reimagining a blueprint that never should have gone out of style.
[editor’s note]: Shouts to John Speice (Brownout/Grupo Fantasma drummer who plays on a couple tracks on Black Pumas) and FunkitBlog’s Randy Bayers for putting me onto this gem early!
Adam Deitch Quartet – Egyptian Secrets
With one foot in jazz and the other leg waist deep in the funky stuff, drummer/producer Adam Deitch (Lettuce/Break Science) finally unveiled Egyptian Secrets (Golden Wolf Records), the long-awaited full-length debut LP from his Adam Deitch Quartet. A soul-jazz love affair swaggerin’ down the avenue, this sampladelic session explores the rare-groove DNA at the core of golden-era hip-hop beats as Deitch and company offer homage to the classic, bygone Blue Note era. Egyptian Secrets stacks slab-on-slab of cool-hand grooves, employing the celebrated drummer’s patented deep pocket, and welcomes legendary sensei and jazz guitar icon John Scofield to serenade the spaces fantastic. The lineup is rounded out by his Lettuce bredren Ryan Zoidis (saxophone), Eric Benny Bloom (trumpet) and Hammond B3 master Wil Blades.
The sheer brilliance of Egyptian Secrets places a laser focus on Deitch the composer, as he wrote each part for Bloom, Zoidis and Blades, offering an astounding array of melodic ideas that dance atop the beat-conductor’s sinister breakbeat porn. Already a decorated player and widely-acclaimed as among the greatest drummers of his generation, Egyptian Secrets reveals even more layers of Deitch’s prodigious artistry and constant creativity. This phenomenal foray into the realms of boom-bap soul jazz feels like merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Deitch was crystal clear that this album is a passion project dedicated to—and heavily influenced by—a lifelong hero of his.
“I’ve dedicated the record to one of the greatest drummers to ever live, the legend Idris Muhammad, from New Orleans. On Egyptian Secrets, that’s where I’m coming from; I want to pay homage to that place that he created and lived in” explained Adam Deitch. “
EarthGang – Mirrorland
When receiving OutKast’s Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards at Madison Square Garden, through a rousing chorus of boos Andre 3000 famously declared, “the South got somethin’ to say.” A quarter century later, “The A” has been heard the loudest for the longest. Atlanta has been the undisputed rap capital of the world, after New York City abdicated the throne shortly after the turn of the millennium. As the calendar flips to 2020, ATL’s reign on the top has once again produced a wild, untamed duo with a temerious approach to hip-hop, EarthGang. Founders of the Spillage Village collective, EarthGang has made their bones incorporating intergalactic Afrofuturism and methodical meditations in psychedelia into their addictive Bankhead bounce; heady, wayfaring safaris juxtaposed with promethazine hood-trap. Two parts Dungeon Family, one part The Burrprint, and the rest is EarthGang on some brand-new sh*t.
EarthGang Mirrorland, their debut full-length – released on J.Cole’s Dreamville imprint, takes us from inside the frontal lobes of rappers Johnny Venus (Olu) and Doctur Dot (WowGr8), out onto “these filthy sweet Atlanta streets” and then dirty South beyond. Mirrorland is unequivocally a tour de force. The record was directly inspired by The Wiz, a 1978 Blaxploitation remake of The Wizard of Oz, featuring a prime-era Quincy Jones soundtrack. On Mirrorland, EarthGang reimagine Atlanta as a futuristic Oz, with “black people just being unafraid and unapologetically creative. Just running around being themselves.” Olu told Pitchfork earlier this year. Very well-read and articulate, their messages somewhat coded in localized vernacular, but deeply rooted in lifting one another up and taking pride in their Blackness; this is conscious music but so not on-the-nose, it takes a number attentive spins to soak it all in. Young Thug and T-Pain slide through on the mic for heroic doses of soulful trap; The duo hosts a squadron of production maestros who do their damnedest to touch on the myriad of styles and sounds that make up Atlanta’s celebrated, sizable musical thumbprint. Contributions from the likes of Elite, DJ Dahi, Bink!, Childish Major, and others pepper the EarthGang proceedings with a diverse selection of mostly-native soundscapes, augmented by Olu’s own production efforts that sew together the disparate fabrics into an afghan of Afrofunk anthems.
Rising Appalachia Leylines
Rising Appalachia, the sister duo of Leah Song and Chloe Smith, embrace the roles of incubators and translators on their reflective new album Leylines. Incorporating their Southern roots and musical traditions with elements derived from extensive worldwide adventuring and inspired activism, Rising Appalachia brings forth a collection of ornate original songs, alongside spine-tingling interpretations of traditional folk classics. Titled from the lines of spiritual energy that people believe connect landmarks and landforms around the globe, Leylines channels musical influences from Ireland, Africa, and Appalachia, the riveting siren sisters employ myriad instruments from across the world, weaving the sounds West African harp and Irish fiddle into their distinct concoctions. The women called upon producer Joe Henry, along with longtime band members David Brown (stand-up bass, baritone & acoustic guitars) and Biko Casini (world percussion, n’goni) and two new members, West African musician Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) and Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello) to embark on a new era and expansive, dynamic sound. The fruits of this collective effort come to vibrant life on the delicate, impassioned and empowering Leylines. Special guests include singer-songwriter Trevor Hall, folk icon and activist Ani DiFranco, and jazz trumpeter Maurice Turner.
Shafiq Husayn – The Loop
Shafiq Husayn—a veteran LA producer and multi-instrumentalist, is one-third of avant-garde hip-hop trio (and Okayplayer The Lesson darlings) Sa-Ra Creative Partners, and has worked with Erykah Badu and won a Grammy for his contributions to Robert Glasper’s Black Radio. Husayn is a prodigal son of the burgeoning LA jazz/soul/electronic music community. For his first solo album in a full decade, Husayn uncorked The Loop, a determined, boundless and purposeful set of Dilla-fied 70’s jazz-funk fusion, 80’s post-new wave synth-drenched R&B, vibey orchestrated soul, maniacal horn arrangements, and sensational vocals- all wrapped up in one loose, lengthy sojourn. Critics called it Flying Lotus meets Funkadelic, and they may be onto something. Think Soulquarians-on-psilocybin and just a sip of mescal, channeling Earth, Wind and Fire and John Coltrane whilst piloting a new Mothership pointed towards Conant Gardens. This is unpretentious high art both spirituous and stimulating, intuitive and adventurous, inspired and intrepid. The Loop is exactly that, a fantastic, prismatic, and at times psychedelic voyage that departs the here and now, floating and weaving in a different time space continuum, standing on the verge of the alchemical astral plane. This record too demands a patient, trusting listener, one who can forgo impact of instant gratification, this in a tacit exchange for the blissful bestowal of a serendipitous, sprawling slow burn. Special guest features dot the proceedings, an ever-eclectic roster including Jimetta Rose, Coultrain, Erykah Badu, Fatima, Anderson .Paak, Hiatus Kaiyote, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Bilal, Flying Lotus, I-Ced, among others.
Blood incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
Denver death merchants Blood Incantation are deservedly receiving a great deal of critical acclaim and attention for Hidden History of the Human Race, their debut full-length LP on the heels of 2016’s Starspawn EP. Before the album was even released, Decibel mag named it the best metal album of 2019! Somehow, they seemed to know what was clearly an inevitable truth. On this punishing, purifying offering, Blood Incantation take classic death metal tropes, load them up in a cryptic spacecraft, and rocket them into the psychedelic netherworlds of prog-math mania. These opaque, uncompromising compositions are each long strange trips, traversed with nuance and intention, yet without ever sacrificing the inherent brutality. Hidden History of the Human Race is filled with sublime moments of beauty and heavy tranquility, thrilling, gripping emotional sections, betwixt breathtaking feats of instrumentation, malevolent creations all logged to old-school analog tape. Behold this instant underground classic from Blood Incantation, carrying ancient, powerful truths with measured methodology and astonishing fury, delivered by way of art-house death metal that bucks convention in every direction.
Kaytranada – BUBBA
Releasing the stunning, swaggering BUBBA midway through December, Kaytranada delivered such a strong slab of desirous art that it was just impossible for him not to find his way onto this list at the final bell. Then again, it’s almost as if Kaytranada is not from this earth, and we should never put anything past him, nor expect anything less than the creme-de-la-creme. Over the last half-decade, the dude has managed to create a genre named entirely after himself – “the Kaytra-vibe”. In this neon-hued universe, r&b, soul, future-bass, hip-hop and house music don’t just naturally co-exist, they freaking thrive. Like its predecessor 99%, BUBBA unveils a pace that stutter-steps amorphously, reminiscent of a long-form mixtape. The record is masterfully sequenced, with nary a gap between any of the seventeen tracks. Long on subtly-sensual grooves, BUBBA is a dancefloor burner from front-to-back, always propelling you in perpetual motion, no matter what may be happening in your immediate environment. There permeates a beautifully confident queer undercurrent to this musical joyride. It’s crystal clear throughout the album that Kaytranada feels perfectly in tune with his collaborators, which once again are an impressive screed; this time including the likes of GoldLink, Pharrell Williams, Masego, SiR, Iman Omari, VanJess, Estelle, and more. Kaytranada is in full control of the whip, and there’s few cats drivin’ around these days who decidedly create and maintain their own lane, with nobody even close in the rearview mirrors.
Khris Royal & Dark Matter – Dark Matter II
Khris Royal is a prolifically-talented and politically-active multi-instrumentalist based in New Orleans. The erstwhile saxophonist/EWI/keyboardist/bassist/Ableton producer holds a resume both extensive and impressive, having worked with George Porter Jr, Rebelution, Dr. John, Solange, and a plethora of other heavy hitters. Khris Royal & Dark Matter is primarily a solo outlet for Royal, his first DM record dropped in 2009, and it would be a full decade until he released the sequel. Dark Matter II was mostly recorded back in 2012-2013, with a few newer joints and overdubs in the interim years; he got sidetracked – first with Porter and then later touring the world with Rebelution. The album – as a sound – doesn’t scream NOLA, in fact, DM2 hardly even mentions it. Instead, Khris rolls out a funky bunch of tracks that clearly employ elements from Prince’s Revolution and New Power Generation heyday. Royal reveals a respectful homage but doesn’t try to emulate, though Prince certainly looms large throughout; less overt but still present are early 00’s EDM synths, colors and textures, contemporary trap-style 808s, and other eclectic electronic ideas from around the way. One can pick up on modern-day influences like D’angelo and Soulive woven within the compositions and the performances that make up DM2. The personnel on the record includes NOLA mainstays like Danny Abel (guitar), Terrence Houston (drums), longtime friend and collaborator Trombone Shorty, and features local Lettuce cats Eric Benny Bloom (trumpet) and Nigel Hall (keyboards). One can only hope that Royal has the opportunity to take this material out in the clubs, and way beyond the comfy confines of the Crescent City, because the world will respond to his brand of purple-hued love songs, and Dark Matter II will make you dance.
Melas Leukos – Fable EP
A poet and storyteller emerging from humble beginnings of the Kansas City, MO underground, Melas Leukos is a scintillating voice, delicately revealing oceanic depth on debut EP Fable. Nomadic and adventurous, Melas Leukos has most recently settled in the mystical confines of Santa Fe, NM; she howls a different blues, already a troubadour of many moons. Therein lies a tangible wisdom embedded within Fable that certainly belies her youth. This ebullient six-song set finds a weathered-yet-hopeful woman seeking deeper understandings of her mesmeric surroundings. She is a songstress weaving stories that enrapture, each track trying to make some sense of a world that places priority on the material and meaningless. This album finds Melas Leukos strikingly comfortable examining her own mortality, fleshing out intensely personal themes of love, awakening, and self-awareness, juxtaposed with notions of separation, fear, isolation, and death. Fable is brimming with sparse, spacious ruminations on the natural wonders of Northern California landscapes, and instilled with a triumphant knowledge of self, often cloaked in resonant poetry. The entirety of Fable is dripping in warm, rich instrumentation, and bathes in her haunting harmonies.
Gang Starr – One of the Best Yet
One of the Best Yet is DJ Premier’s revitalization of the Gang Starr trademark, 16 years after their last album The Ownerz, and nine after emcee GURU passed away from cancer. The situation called for nothing short of a sure-shot, and given the circumstances, this is a genuinely strong final album, produced proudly with the brand name on it. A lovingly and painstakingly stitched-together piece of art, it feels like a proper bookend to their bar-setting, gold-standard career. One of the Best Yet provides the closure that long-term fans might require from a Gang Starr album in 2019. In the pantheon of posthumous records, it comes in a cut above.
Premier’s production style remains king – commercial but raw, huge on grimy boom-bap drums, filtered bass lines, samples cracklin’ of old vinyl, and classic lyrics from the artist’s back catalogue scratched into the mix. After a decade of drama, lawsuits, internet trolling, and a somewhat soiling of the GURU legacy, Preemo had to basically pay a ransom to a fledgling producer/villain (whose name we won’t mention) just to get the vocal tracks back in his possession, to merely even dream up this righteous, emotional endeavor. Once he retained the rights and the tapes, Premier set about creating this homage to his fallen partner by placing an urn of his ashes on the studio mixing console, and then he proceeded to give us what we needed, like only Preemo can. When the time was right, he called in the Foundation, including longtime cohorts like Rasta mic-mutilator Jeru tha Damaja, bullies M.O.P., Big Shug, Freddie Foxxx, and the long-lost Brooklyn duo Group Home. A-listers like Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), Royce da 5’9, Talib Kweli, and J.Cole had to get in on Premier’s long-awaited love letter to the Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal too. What’s Real? The proof is in the pudding, Gang Starr is – always and forever – One of the Best Yet.
Tool – Fear Inoculum
Tool have said that Fear Inoculum is about ageing, and pondering relevancy. What that says is, among myriad other ideas, something about their undeniable staying power. At the start of August, the phantasmagorical prog-metallers finally made their entire back catalog available on streaming services for the first time: every one of their albums went Top 10 on iTunes. Their latest effort, the compulsive, galvanized Fear Inoculum is nothing if not a legacy album, a document that exemplifies the band as not a rock dinosaur, but unquestionable shamans of metallic psychedelia. Framed merely as a service to diehard Tool fanatics, Fear Inoculum is a tremendous and emphatic exclamation point to their nearly three-decade journey. Part of what validates this assertion is the assorted musical allusions and a smattering of elements that recall various eras of Tool’s iconic career.
The quartet – made up of vocalist Maynard James Keenan, drummer (MVP?) Danny Carey, guitarist Adam Jones, and bassist Justin Chancellor – do not craft songs with any sort of structural convention you’d come to expect, but they do not attempt to conquer new territories, either. It’s a unique paradox, classic style but brand new content, at once challenging and incrementally rewarding. Given its context and 90-minute length, Fear Inoculum requires a number of observant listens and profound patience to even begin to truly soak in the otherworldly offering. Tool continues to arduously challenge the listener’s attention span and dedication, and richly reward those who buckle up, settle in, and trust their anomalous process.
[Editor’s note]: We were lucky to take in the album for the very first time on release day, August 30th, in positively epic environs on the Abraxas Dragon art car, deep playa in Black Rock City, through a Funktion1 rig. Alex Grey, who created the album art and is close to the band, was our host for the festivities. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, only at Burning Man, and fitting for the first Tool LP in a cryptically long time. I include this anecdote if only to explain that I’ll always hear the album in that context, because that’s how I received the transmission first. Not exactly the type of thing one easily forgets.)
Anderson .Paak – Ventura
Six months after he released Oxnard, singer/rapper/drummer Anderson .Paak was riding about as high as humanly possible; not one to rest on his newfound laurels, he returned with another Dr. Dre-produced record, the superior and altogether more enjoyable Ventura. Where the former was a wide-ranging, ambitious, frenetic attempt, a wild collection of experimental ideas, disparate guest appearances and quasi-revolutionary lyrical diatribes, the latter – which was written and recorded around the same time – redirects .Paak’s sound toward the majestic Malibu (2016), resulting in a fun, funky, soul-filled joyride., Heaping slabs of musicality and mojo inform the performances on Ventura, which finds a confident .Paak crooning and playing drums over R&B, jazz-funk, soul, and pop; he is not rapping nearly as often but he sounds entirely comfortable and carefree. Collabs include the ultra-rare Andre 3000 verse (“Come Home”) and Smokey Robinson (“Make it Better”), as well as fantastic female foils Brandy, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, and Sonyae. On album closer “What Can We Do?”, the good Dr. hooks .Paak up with an all-timer, Dre digging into the vaults for an extremely sought-after feature, in the form of a hook from the late, great G-funk vocalist Nate Dogg. On Ventura, .Paak is self-evidently the truth, and truth – that’s the only thing we can hold onto.
Detox Unit – Deviate EP / Recent Works Vol.4 (mini-mix)
Detox Unit is nothing if not an enigma, a humble, focused technician who creates scintillating soundscapes that defy both genre and gravity. The Austin, Texas-based low-end scientist born Joe Roberts has released sporadically over the past few years, a mix here and there, the occasional live set, and his Recent Works series. 2019’s Deviate EP was received like manna from heaven by his dedicated, thirsty fanbase, and with good reason. The six selections unveil a limitless command of composition, the disciplined dynamics, sonorous sound design, and natural minimalism of a twenty-year veteran. Roberts wields an innate musicality that doesn’t come around all that often, especially in this particular world of sound art. The grooves are undeniably funky, yet dripping in post-dubstep bass throb; glitchy-elements add an angular force to the festivities, but sacrificing absolutely no vibe. Detox Unit concocts an amoebic sound; terrific textures derived from sparse percussion and snare drums, and a propensity for expertly blending organic instrumentation amid the spacey synth patches and bombastic bass tones.
Deviate would be even more impressive if Detox Unit hadn’t f’d around and dropped the 13-minute masterclass Recent Works Vol. 4 (editor’s note: Soundcloud only!), delivered just twenty or so days before this went to press. Dude went ahead and upped the ante, considerably. Vol. 4 is, without question, his finest work – recent or otherwise. Do yourself a favor and cue up the Deviate EP, then immediately chase that with Recent Works Vol. 4; the entire exercise will come in at around 45 minutes and you’ll assuredly be pickin’ up what Detox Unit is puttin’ down when you come out the tail end of those back-to-back bangers. You may even start bobbin’ & weavin’ round the kitchen, playin’ Capoeira in the backyard, or throwin’ headfakes at your desk at work. It’s in my head though… Peep game & get familiar!
[editor’s note] – shoutout to Mike Gano (of Cosmic Synergy) for putting me on game, hipping me to Detox Unit on a gloriously dusty Abraxas sunrise)
Handmade Moments – Number Ones
Handmade Moments is the dazzling duo of multi-instrumentalists Anna Moss and Joel Ludford, an Arkansas-bred, California-flowered, NOLA based partnership that has exploded on the scene over the past couple of years. A true-life tragedy-to-triumph narrative, Moss and Ludford have ridden a wave of dynamite creativity, old-school musicianship and a busker’s determination to unbridled success. Last year’s Paw Paw Tree, their third full length LP, made this very same list. Number Ones is a collection of covers reimagined in their Southern-soaked, old-timey jazz/organic porch-hop steez. Brimming with stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, bass clarinet, saxophone, beat-boxing, and utterly luscious vocals from Moss, the record is a joyous guilty pleasure, chock-full of the quirky charisma and intoxicating chemistry that defines Handmade Moments. Joel is the quintessential utility player, he can do, play, rap and sing anything, his instrumental prowess and steady hand anchors their exquisite equation. Anna is quite simply a revelation, a veritable chanteuse that can hold you in the palm of her hand and bath you in her whiskey-soaked vocals, hers swimming in warm tones that subtly ooze with understated, natural sensuality. The lone guest on the album is Cyrille Aimee (“The Tide is High”), and the recordings took place over the summer at Music Shed Studios in New Orleans. The dynamic duets on Number Ones include tracks from disparate influences and generational icons like Bill Withers, the late Aaliyah, Chaka Khan, Grateful Dead, Erykah Badu, her pal DRAM, and a Second-Line styled rendition of a classic from Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.
Flying Lotus – Flamagra
Flamagra is LA producer/multi-instrumentalist/sound-scientist Flying Lotus sixth album and first in five years, a 27-song magnum opus that boasts bold-font features like Solange, Toro y Moi and Anderson .Paak. Steve Ellison, or FlyLo as his fans have affectionately dubbed him, has been the Brainfeeder label’s visionary chieftain and breadwinner for about a decade. Flamagra is an indulgent, wonderous and idiosyncratic odyssey that FlyLo initially envisioned as a veritable beat tape of sorts, but soon metastasized into something both more impassioned and aspirant. Longtime jazz cohorts like keyboardists Dennis Hamme, Brandon Coleman, and Taylor Graves, multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson; and bassist Thundercat, the latter an essential facet of the Brainfeeder squadron and co-writer of the lion’s share of these songs, ably assisted FlyLo in manifesting his dithyrambic ideas, disparate themes and polyamorous premonitions into full realizations.
Flying Lotus is among the more accomplished artists who’ve succeeded in bringing unabashed weirdness to the masses. In the aftermath of 2014’s You’re Dead, which grappled with heavier matters such as mortality, for this project FlyLo chose to place the thematic focus on what we as humans experience (and fear) in the present moment. Call it Brainfeeder’s Be Here Now. Ellison did however offer a tribute to his dearly departed friend and collaborator Mac Miller, who passed away towards the end of the recording of this release. FlyLo put together one helluva squad for Flamagra: Anderson .Paak, George Clinton, Little Dragon, Tierra Whack, Shabazz Palaces, Toro y Moi, and Solance all slide through the proceedings with their prodigious talents in tow. Within the music itself, polychromatic jazz-funk is omnipresent, as is Arkestral psychedelia, spliced with various vignettes, broken-beat sketches, and curious nu-jazz mini-environments that serve to stitch the whole thing together in a cinematic fashion that never allows the listener to get fatigued or bored. Hushed, resplendent moments of near-serenity are chased by mind-scrambling fits of spasmodic programming ingenuity, leveled out by Sun Ra-esque tangents of fusion future-funk from long, long ago. Flamagra’s guiding metaphor is a flame on a hill, and the fire burns brightly for the forthcoming chapters of Afrofuturist sound art.
KRAZ – Telescope
Eric Krasno, the two-time Grammy-winning songwriter/producer and virtuoso guitarist, has steadily collaborated with a who’s who of jazz, jam, hip-hop and beyond for over twenty years. Co-founder of Soulive and formerly of Lettuce, in 2019 he, unveiled a concept album Telescope, released under the rebranded moniker KRAZ, and it was a decided departure from what fans have come to expect from even the always-eclectic Krasno. Telescope is a collaboration with producer Jeremy Most (Emily King), a heavily produced, pop-leaning record that incorporates the textures of hip-hop and R&B into an amalgam of innovative technology and time-honored songwriting traditions, resulting in a sound and ethos that is not exactly guitar driven.
Telescope is a concept album chronicling the lives of four characters in a Brooklyn brownstone- living, loving, winning, losing, and letting go. The LP is accompanied by animation shorts that depict the narrative, and there’s a website with textual explanations of songs to flesh out the story arc. The illustrations were created by Josh Clark, best known as the guitarist/vocalist of nascent mid 00’s NorCal jamband Tea Leaf Green; Clark offered further extensions of the KRAZ vision for Telescope. The digital animation accompaniment is not necessarily essential to the Telescope experience, but does enhance it extensively; likewise one need not listen to the LP in order or all at once to properly enjoy the offering, but after many listens, the tangible storyline reveals itself rather clearly. The album boasts some strong vocal stylings from KRAZ, as well as a current-day aesthetic that doesn’t recall an era so much as pursue a different direction, and create a new vibe. The plethora of influences that inform KRAZ reveal themselves in nods toward Prince, Lenny Kravitz, D’angelo, and his friend (and sometimes collaborator) John Mayer. As a concept album, Telescope goes somewhat against the industry grain, and it is a hard, sharp turn away from his established work (hence the KRAZ rebrand), but in spite of all that, this art project is a successful mission, and one worth bringing to fruition.
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST OF ALL 19 RECORDS
19 more Honorable Mentions
Any of these additional nineteen releases could have easily made the main list; each and every one of the records are deserving of their propers.
words: B.Getz 12/19/19