[Curated by B.Getz]
As the curtain comes down on another Jah-forsaken year of pandemic pandemonium, I proudly present to you Upful LIFE’s annual favorite records feature. Once again, readers will not find the words “best” or “top” attached to this scopious 2021 collection; the genre-hopping smattering is purposefully not ranked. As has become tradition (for half-a-decade now!), I chose to briefly review/reflect on 21 LPs/EPs that resonated with me and my peoples the most, during these critical, confounding, and truly turbulent times.
Because of the music industry’s epic pause, juxtaposed with a fiery, often-terrifying cultural climate, artists across the easel were inspired with righteous intention, particularly prolific in 2021. It seemed like nearly everybody was droppin’ like it’s hot! As such, it was difficult to distill the list down to such a select few efforts. Once again, I included another 21 Honorable Mentions – with clickable links – listed at the end of the exercise. Allow me to stress: any one of these releases could have made it into the first set of selections.
After the 42 albums. I curated another 21 singles/album-cuts that hit just a bit different. 2021’s expansive year-in-review also includes a handful of DJ mixes, live sets, mixtapes, and a short assortment of officially-released live albums.
We’ve included an enormous Upful LIFE 2021 Spotify Playlist of any material covered here that is available on the platform. I’ve also linked to Bandcamp whenever possible; I encourage you to please consider purchasing songs & albums that you discover strike your fancy. The DJ mixes & live sets are clickable links to Soundcloud. One album was removed from streaming services after 99 days, therefore YouTube was the only option.
This evolving annual project is a months-long effort by just one dude. From hours & hours of listening, note-taking, researching, more listening, debating, discerning, and ultimately deciding on what records to incorporate into this year’s feature article. Then I write it, and build it on the back end. Solo mission, from seed to a tree. You might notice that this article, and website, are FREE of any advertisements, pop-ups, or bullshit. This is my labor of love, but it’s also my profession. If you enjoy this content, thank you for lifting me up and inspiring this work!
Bless Up & Give Thanks-
B.Getz – Upful LIFE
21 Favorite Records of 2021
Lucky Ones Records
Gone Gone Beyond’s latest LP 2030 is absolutely stunning, among the most potent musical medicine to come my way in years. A longtime fan of prolific electronic-producer and GGB co-founder The Human Experience- David Block, I’ve been along for the entire ride since this side-project was born in 2016, created initially as a duo with Danny Musengo. Few albums have had such a profound impact on my life – seemingly out of nowhere – as the transcendental 2030.
A testimony born of “existential love,” Gone Gone Beyond’s masterful blend of future-folk with minimalist electronic flourishes is on ebullient display in all it’s emotionally-reverberant glory. Gripping throughout twelve tantalizing tracks brimming with delicate muse, personalized poetry, and simple understandings of the human condition. Paeans to one’s past, present, and leaps into our future are delivered by way of hopeful connection, remembrance, love, plus a subtle sense of loss and healing.
The addition of Santa Cruz chanteuse Kat Factor and Cuban multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Mel Seme to David and Danny’s already-intoxicating international elixir results in majestic, iridescent four-part harmonies and irresistible mystical melodies, sounds and energies that coalesce with an inherent vulnerability within the words and the vibes. I play this record to celebrate the homies that ain’t here, and to remind myself of the gift that I still am. Nearly every cut has been my favorite song at some point this year. “Canyons”, “Little Moon”, “Another Earth”, “Riptide”, “Gravity”, “Better Way to Love”, and I could go on. For this exercise, I don’t actually rank records or crown a champion per se, but frankly I cannot imagine loving nor endorsing any album more than Gone Gone Beyond’s 2030, not just this year but any other one for that matter. This joint is HIGH ART. An instant classic and an all-timer. ***deep bow***
Label With No Name
The electronic producer known to fans as CharlestheFirst tragically passed away, earlier this month at the age of 25 years young. The prodigal son of Truckee, CA, his sudden death is a devastating loss on so many levels. I remember when I first got hip to Charles, back in 2017 when he was barely out of his teens, making waves with his then-nascent, emotive brand of ethereal, psychedelic-future bass. Nearby Nevada City’s notoriously-elitist dancefloor generals were hype on the young bol, and I took notice, early and often. The first time I heard “Versicolor”, or his Through the Mist EP, I made a mental note: this kid is going places.
Over a period of a half-decade, indeed he did; from teenage NorCal obscurity to the main stages of the biggest electronic festivals in the country, co-headlining tours, and thousands of fans in cities from coast to coast. His sound was strangely accessible, even though he often traversed into some challenging, obtuse territory, it was always anchored by a foundation in intention and creativity. Sound-design ambitious, but never busy, his music communicated in interpersonal tones.
CharlestheFirst had numerous artistic irons in the fire, from his lo-fi alter-ego .Hawk, Lab Group with Supertask & Potions, a collab with Of the Trees, among others. But his latest work – and sadly, his swan song – was the full-length LP titled SOLUS. “Solus” is loosely defined as “alone or unaccompanied”. This thirteen-track record welcomes co-creators but is definitively one man’s mighty vision, and likely will become the document through which he is best remembered. And as it should be, for SOLUS is a magical potion. A cursory glance at the tracklist reveals his poetic storytelling hand, with wisdom and perspective far beyond his years. The music manifests a pensive-yet-patient, resolute and emotionally-rewarding journey into the subaqueous galaxies of future bass; SOLUS rich in resonant low-end theories and subtle, mesmerizing melody, a soliloquy, a seance, and meditation into the mystic.
Rest Easy, Charles Ingalls. Your memory shall be our blessing. May the four winds blow you safely home.
“This is a story of the lone journey, a pilgrimage to places previously unknown. A time of challenges that represent growth, & finally looking one’s true self in the mirror. A story of solitude. A story of sunrises seen & felt. A story of holding onto love, & letting love go.” © CharlestheFirst, March 2021.
Forever Living Originals
What we know about the intentionally-mysterious SAULT is fairly minimal. Inquiring minds eventually sussed out that producer Inflo was captaining the endeavor, while vocalists Cleo Sol and Kid Sister, plus Kadeem Clarke have had various roles in the metropolitan SAULT sound. That said, we still don’t have a whole lot solid to go on, as to what SAULT really even is. What we can confirm is that in the last three years, the idiosyncratic UK collective dropped a relentless array of incredibly consistent records that run the gamut and defy genre, yet all of them are positively stupendous.
In 2019, they magically appeared out of thin air with not one but two full-length albums, 5 and 7. From jumpstreet, SAULT made music created in the midst of the culture wars, soundtracks for the fiery streets and furious rhetoric that toxifies dialog, dividing people around the world across class and social issues. Then they pulled up and did it again in 2020 with two more home runs, the Untitled records, both seemingly-directly inspired by the racial unrest and bloody protests that usurped the United States in a tidal wave of resistance during that raging, unforgettable summer.
It’s a baffling string of unabated excellence that continues onward and upward with the concise-yet-expansive palette of NINE, an album that only existed on streaming services and Bandcamp for 99 days, before vamoosh! It was gone, only to live on in various pirated domains, and in physical form for anyone with the good sense to order the vinyl.
Still maintaining a breadth of styles that refuse to be boxed in, SAULT steps further into their retro-electric sound: rotund drums, steezy-funk bass and drunk R&B, analog synth doodles and groove vamps, plus a crate-digger’s “sampladelic aesthetic”. Tracks traffic in fat-ass Afro-funk, Afro-Caribbean riddims, opiate-jazz dreamscapes, broken-beat daydreams, 808s without the heartbreaks or the headaches. NINE separates its present focus from its predecessors’ in last year’s BLM moment by plugging in a bit more directly to SAULT’s own lived experiences of coming of age Black in England.
Regime Music Group
Spiritual finds Lettuce’s keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall tracing his roots back to the D.C. area, where he spent his youthful years immersed in the city’s sports and music culture. The fourteen-track release has Nigel hooking up with multi-instrumentalist/studio shaman DJ Harrison, who co-produced the effort with a back-to-basics ethos and subtle Soulquarian style. To achieve this quintessential RVA vibe, Hall hollered at homies from Harrison’s own burly-ass funk squad, Butcher Brown, looking to flesh out the foundation for Hall’s fresh musical ideas. Other special guests include the legendary R&B siren Patrice Rushen, who plays keys on “Baby I Do Love You”. Plus longtime Lettuce comrade Ryan Zoidis on soprano sax, famed axe-slinger Marcus King, horn specialist Jeff Coffin of Dave Matthews Band, and L.A.-based backing vocalist Raquel Rodriguez.
On a provocative, stimulating effort that is both a sign of the times and a blueprint, too, Hall blesses us with an invigorating gumbo of his own exquisite compositions and a smattering of deep cut covers and interpolations. This latest platter is a decided departure from its successful predecessor in a variety of ways, from aesthetics to attitude to song structure/selection and, most definitely, production. Yet Spiritual maintains the high level of quality and artistic integrity for which Nigel has become known across a wide swath of projects. It also symbolically represents the end of an era, and the hopeful new beginnings of another. Prime cuts: “People In Search of a Life”, “When I Die”, “Yesterday”, “Wake Me”.
After over three years in the lab, Ultimate Fantastic blazed back into focus with a sizzling sophomore release, Gadzooks. The unicorn squad boasts a colossal brand of electro bass-infused rap tunes, the chromatic NorCal hip-hop collective defies genre, sets fire to preconceived notions, breaks rules, and blends soundscapes with an intoxicating spirit—a mojo that sets them light years apart from many contemporaries.
The walloping impact begins with in-house producer extraordinaire, Dropical. This unheralded production wiz is nothing short of a genius, consistently crafting bombastic beats tailor-made for his mates, nuanced bursts of pure ear candy delivered via dynamic and demonstrative sound design. Elements of crunk bass, jazzy-house bump, stutter-step drum programming deep in the pocket, lyrical percussion mixed into irresistible melodies. The elixir makes for a sensational foundation beneath the vibrational stylings of Deja Solis, W!nk, and Pharroh.
Each vocalist totes a colorful personality and ten tons of unabashed swagger to the Gadzooks party, dipping in and out of rapidfire/half-time flows (“Keep Moving”), modulation (“Gritty”), R&B smooth, a Spanish verse (“Freaky Zone”), and beyond. Want a Timberlake-tinged housequake? Check out “Down With You”. A little dancehall thump? How about “The Weekend”? Delectable dance jams with all the funky feels? Album closer “Family Affair” delivers that precise order.
Regime Music Group
On latest LP Baby, I’m Hollywood, Judith Hill unveils an ambitious, colorful diary detailing her journey of self-discovery. The 13-track record released way back in January; it’s a vibrant, defiant personal statement, a thorough excursion into the annals of Black music: past, present and future. Rich in throwback soul, stunning piano balladry, and swaggering psychedelic-funk, the self-produced Baby, I’m Hollywood finds Hill liberated, focused and reborn. People may recall her work with Prince towards the end of his life, but Judith’s out here on her own twos, and doin’ thangs! Bolstered by a spirited live band and her new attitude, she ruminates on pleasure, pain, celebration, and consequences, all of which inform this collection of finely-crafted stories-in-song.
Judith Hill’s fantastic voyage springs to life on the title track’s freewheeling 60’s soul revue. “Americana” is a syncopated stomp that boasts 808 high-hats and a lustrous soundscape. “You Got the Right Thang” and “Step Out” channel psychedelic 70’s funk, with subtle nods towards Minneapolis. Plus potent blends of smokey soulful blues, sizzlin’ R&B slow jams, stirring Gospel-swells and crunchy guitar grooves, all masterfully sewn together by Hill’s scintillating vocals and enigmatic personality. On Baby, I’m Hollywood, the singer arrives right on time, proudly cut from her own cloth, and firmly entrenched in her funkadelic universe.
Chicago-based keyboardist/vocalist and buzz-bin artist du-jour Neal Francis blasts back with his sophomore album, In Plain Sight, a sack of songs brimming with analog sounds, big, fuzzy hooks, and his trademark laconic mojo. In addition to living and recording in the basement of the Chicago-area church as the latest opus came together, Francis collab’d with David Shaw (The Revivalists) and Chris Gelbuda, recruiting Derek Trucks, once again working with producer Sergio Rios (Orgone) on another fantastic record.
Neal Francis nails the delicate balancing act of blending a retro ethos and sonic DNA, with a current–day quirkiness, sensibility and accessibility. His recipe works wonders, the music lands authentic, genuine, and compelling. Atop an assortment of soul-fueled rhythm and blues and piano boogie, Francis wields a self-awareness in his delivery, at times revealing somewhat of a haunting voice, other times sardonic, yet occasionally assertive and hopeful. Throughout In Plain Sight, Francis establishes another personal connection between he and the listener, because his songs and stories are uber-relatable across various spectrums and lived experiences. Another moral and personal inventory set to music, not unlike his magnificent solo debut, 2019’s Changes; on In Plain Sight, the erstwhile troubadour continues to navigate love, change, hope and loss. Prime Cuts: “Problems”, “Asleep” “BNYLV”, “Can’t Stop the Rain”
London has been at the core of dance music’s cutting edge, off and on for decades. Though consistently a vibrant scene, Jazz has been more touch and go, and traditionally somewhat behind the times in the UK. That is until recently. And at the definitive juxtaposition of these two generationally-disparate worlds is the prismatic sound of virtuoso saxophonist Nubya Garcia. Last year, her transcendent debut LP Source found it’s way to this list, and she returns once again with Source ⧺ We Move, a remix/reimagination album no less potent than its predecessor. In fact, it feels like an organic evolution in sound and intention, on the heels of her wildly-successful 2020 debut; at once a modern classic of nu-jazz ambition while simultaneously hot in the streets.
On Source ⧺ We Move, Garcia’s polychromatic creations are reinvented by a smattering of sparkly collaborators, from broken beat (Kaidi Tatham), to house (Suricata), experimental R&B (KeiyaA, Georgia Anne Muldrow), funk-hop (DJ Harrison of Butcher Brown), and fusion all the way from South America (Dengue Dengue Dengue). Each of these carefully-curated co-conspirators were offered the opportunity to remix tracks from her debut, joining contemporary jazz luminaries Nala Sinephro and Moses Boyd. Naturally, the “We Move” suffix represents the efforts to embrace electronic music inspiration and influence, and to water and embolden its long-seeded presence within Garcia’s sonorous sound art.
Fangtooth is the latest release from Venice Beach, CA-based duo Movie Club, a unicorn act that was new to me in 2021. Technically an EP, this arrives on the heels of last year’s equally-stunning full-length Black Flamingo. Fangtooth captures Jessamyn Violet (drums) and Vince Cuneo (guitar) channeling the energy and emotions from the confounding pandemic pause into their mysterious concoction. A gumbo-like stew of doom, goth, boom-bap, emo-sludge, surf rock, noir and niche psychedelia, Movie Club is some of the most exciting and exhilarating music to float my direction this calendar year. The pair have worked with Jesus Coomes (Lettuce) in the past, and on Fangtooth they incorporate all-world bassist Tim Lefebrve (Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wayne Krantz, David Bowie) and David Ralicke (Ozomatli) on flute and saxophones. Prime Cuts: “Trap Door”, “Ghost in the Machine”.
Though Madlib is more or less a hip-hop cat and Four Tet makes what can be described as intelligent indie-dance music, the two artists are both dedicated crate-diggers, sonic archeologists who independently mine the same hidden corners of the land and leagues beneath the sea. Both producers profess a deep appreciation for kaleidoscopic free jazz, British psychedelic rock deep cuts, the glorious J Dilla (with whom they both collaborated), and indigenous micro-genres bearing a wealth of inspiration.
Obscure field recordings, ethereal sonic landscapes, tribal riddims, and esoteric chants populate a luscious, primordial beat-tape in the true essence of the template on Madlib’s sparse, psychedelic Sound Ancestors. Invasion-era Brit Terry Britten’s atypical rock vocal is worked into a frenzied, familiar refrain at the top of “The Call”, the sample chopped into a RZA-meets-Lennon elixir that astounds right out of the gate. “Theme De Crabtree” is blunted boom-bap pedigree, cypher sounds drenched in the dubbed-out vibrations of a yardie soundsystem.
The high-water mark of a record brimming with rising tides, “Road of the Lonely Ones” is damn near perfection. Madlib flips two lost classics courtesy of Philly soul OGs The Ethics; a smooth operation set atop funky-ass drums from the reborn J-Zone and deftly inserted into an orgasmic instrumental hip-hop number that brings the feels in abundance.
As the pandemic pandemonium forced musicians into what I’ll always recall as the “Epic Pause of 2020”, Rising Appalachia members spilled out into myriad directions. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist and co-founder Leah Song spent last year living in rural Costa Rica, spending her days along a riverbank. It began as a personal wellness excursion to disconnect from the chaos and reconnect with her sense of self, and stretched into something much longer and far deeper.
Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist, co-founder and blood sister Chloe Smith loaded up the van and hit the open road, a Stateside journey in the poetic American tradition of Whitman and Kerouac. Longtime RA foil David Brown (stand-up bass, baritone guitar) sunk into side project Castanea in Colorado, resident riddim guru Biko Casini (various percussion, n’goni) spent his “vacation” time in Nashville, TN. Latest additions to the Rising App crew, Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) retreated to Arizona, while Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello) was stationed in Brooklyn. All this to say that the Rising Appalachia band members were about as far apart from another – and for as long – as they’d ever been.
The band regrouped for a one-off livestream in December 2020. Reunited as a living, breathing organism, and making art together again in the safety of their sacred creative haven, Rising Appalachia realized just how desperately they sought to respond in song. They were overflowing with inspiration, moving brightly and with resolute purpose, it felt almost effortless again. Buoyed by the vibes, they booked one day of studio time to try and capture whatever it was they’d plugged into that afternoon.
The result of this power move was a surprise album: The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know; a record born of the powerful alchemetric transposition at the livestream, and the ensuing jam sessions that following day at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville. They just set up their gear, some mics, and pressed record, before unspooling what Song called “a dreamscape”. Several ethereal embarkations that stretched as long as 45 minutes of improvisational, stream of conscious-bliss. After listening back to the breadth of this mystical sesh, the band distilled and extracted the diamonds in the rough to comprise the nine album tracks. This is the sound of a band back together and decidedly in the know. A viscerally-emotional, honest transmission of feels.
The Nth Power first coalesced late night at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans, nearly a decade ago. Over the years, with keyboardists in and out, auxiliary players often joining onstage, The Nth Power has taken many shapes and iterations. Lately, the group has distilled into a power-soul trio, drummer Nikki Glaspie, Nick Cassarino slaying guitars and singing like a m*therf*cker, and the rock-solid Nate Edgar holding down the bass, same as it ever was… yet just a bit different, too. Let’s call it an evolution. Latest release Reverence is a dynamite documentation of the primordial potency of The Nth Power’s current creations, whether as a trio, or elementally-enhanced by their assembled co-creators.
As is the norm for this krewe, uplifting messages and hopeful songs of love and devotion are at the core of this record. Songs like opener “Reach Out”, “Tribe”, and “Joy” are cut from that familiar, filial cloth. Nth has always had several toes in Gospel tones, and in that realm they enlist longtime friend & collaborator Cheryl “Pepsi” Riley, who also assists on a reworked version of their beloved chestnut, “Holy Rain”. Speaking of reimagined classics, hard to put words on the otherworldly “Spirits” redux, which welcomes Dumpsta-pham Ivan Neville and Nick Daniels on vocals, as well as the inimitable Maceo Parker on sax, the latter who employs Nikki Glaspie on his own band’s drum throne regularly.
Maybe most special about Reverence are the contributions from the late, great Kofi Burbridge, another longtime friend and collaborator who lends his myriad talents on keys and flute to eleven of the dozen cuts. Kofi passed in February 2019, he was like family to this band, and his efforts on this emotionally-therapeutic record are likely among the last sessions he tracked whilst still with us. Reverence is The Nth Power’s first album in a half-dozen years, and safe to say, it’s aptly-titled and well worth the wait.
Sounds of Crenshaw
LA based all-world musician/producer Terrace Martin has been neck-deep in the game for over fifteen years, across a vast array of musical geography. Martin once again blessed us up with even more new music this year, as prolific is the norm for this jazz-hop wunderkind. Something of a time machine to back inna day, and a low-rider into the future, Martin’s latest album DRONES is among the strongest and most salient releases of 2021, and maybe his finest solo work to date.
Terrace Martin knows a thing or two about jazz, as he’s worked with a who’s who of the genre, including a vaulted spot in the great Herbie Hancock’s band. He’s collab’d with everyone from Stevie Wonder to DJ Quik. He’s an integral member of supergroup R+R=Now. Let it be known that Martin is a LA hip-hop kid, first and foremost; his work with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar tell you exactly how valued his talents are in the streets, from Long Beach to TDE. Both of those West Coast rap stalwarts appear on DRONES, but rest assured that’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to this phenomenal record.
The list of DRONES guest appearances also include R&B crooner Leon Bridges, LA’s prodigal son Ty Dolla Sign, plus YG, James Fauntleroy, Arin Ray, Cordae, Smino, and many more slide through to deliver the goods. DRONES is rich in styles and steez; spacey instrumentals and psychedelic funk sit alongside rugged hip-hop joints, amid lush R&B and jazzy soundscapes. All of these elements provide color and culture, as Martin & his cadre of co-conspirators coalesce to create a commanding sound document.
The virtuosic djembefola known to us mere mortals as Weedie Braimah channels life force energy from within – and beyond – his drums. Continuing the filial traditions of hundreds of ancestral drummers – including great-uncle Idris Muhammed – the sound of Weedie’s djembe rings out as a beacon of hope for the future of all humankind. On The Hands of Time – his debut album as a bandleader – Braimah sets about connecting his past to our shared present.
The Hands of Time opens up piping-hot new pathways of understanding the Pan-African experience, by sewing an afhgan of traditional rhythms, songs, chants, and prayers to the more mainstream musical movements that define people of color today: R&B, soul, blues, funk, and beyond. The sum of these parts is an artisanal amalgam of all of those elements and something even more profound, albeit intangible. A record, a sound, a mission that dutifully defies genre; The Hands of Time are indeed a band beyond even description. This is – simply and unconditionally – astonishing, brilliant music; a jubilant invocation to love, dance, to weep, and wonder.
Braimah’s beloved home-away-from-home in NOLA is well represented, both with The Hands of Time band members: Luke Quaranta, Sam Dickey, Raja Kassis, as well as among the features- Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball and Pedrito Martinez, plus Trombone Shorty all bring a bit of Crescent City panache to the polyrhythmic African elixirs. Jazz royalty like Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Terrace Martin also connect with Weedie and Co. in exuberant fashion. But don’t get it twisted, baby – this is Weedie Braimah’s show, and across a dozen searing, scintillating, educational, inspirational compositions, we find out just how and why this awe-inspiring human is ‘sworn to the drum’.
Mello Music Group
With the lo-fi hip-hop revolution still in full swing, there’s an abundance of warm nostalgia towards classic 90’s NYC-style emcees, yet a lot of them “ain’t sayin’ nothin’ new”. On his 10th album All the Brilliant Things, 38-year old Skyzoo is a rapper who is able to harness and embody that boom-bap/backpack familiarity of the famed golden era in a fashion that feels decidedly his own, and yet exists in a space firmly of the now. Skyzoo wields a comfortable conversational delivery that effortlessly walks over filtered basslines and knockin’ beats, be they classic or current soundscapes. Dude does not traffic in rap beefs or petty drama, but still finds a way to weave lessons and knowledge into his accessible brand of straightforward hip-hop. With co-signs from heavyweights like Pete Rock already in his jacket, Skyzoo has very little left to prove to hip-hop purists, yet he still managed to release what’s quite possibly the rap album of the year
There’s undeniably a traditional feel to Skyzoo records, and while numerous rappers chase trends and bastardize styles in order to deviate towards fads or what’s hot in the club, Skyzoo stays ’bout his biz with nary a f*ck given, still storytellin’ and steady spittin’ hot sh*t over hard drums and sick samples. He carries the lion’s share of the mic duties for dolo; this go-round, production is handled by an assortment of underground beatsmiths du jour. The sequencing, continuity and flow are quite cohesive, especially for so many cooks whippin’ up over the stove. All the Brilliant Things may not reinvent the wheel, but what it does do is deal in reality rap, a record dialed into a familiar, smoked-out Big Apple vibe that so many of us can bob our head to, and easily overstand. Prime Cuts: “Bodega Flowers”, “I Was Supposed to Be A Trap Rapper”, “St. James Liquors”.
Ever since their thunderclap debut single “Leave The Door Open” topped the charts in March 2021, setting expectations sky high, Silk Sonic fever went off like an atomic bomb. The entire world has been waiting with baited breath for the much-ballyhooed, crazy-hyped colossal collaboration album between Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak – a duo now known as Silk Sonic. Finally, after what felt like the longest album roll out of all time, in November the full-length LP arrived in all it’s funkfied flavor. A fantastic voyage courtesy of a leisure suit and Cadillac wayback machine, An Evening with Silk Sonic is all killer, no filler, and hella worth the wait in gold, velour, polyester and platforms.
An Evening With Silk Sonic sweeps us off of our feet with the decadent and decalescent styles of the Soul Train 70’s. Their irresistible brand of throwback syrupy R&B feels of a different time, and their bombastic funk packs a robust and riotous punch. Mars and .Paak’s aptly-named project and album evokes the sights and scents of swag: wide-lapels, velvet suits, big-ass bell-bottoms, people dancing in roller skates, and more images and energy of a long-gone but never forgotten era. Prime Cuts: “Fly As Me.”, “777”, “Skate”.
Private Space reveals Durand Jones & The Indications’ adroit combination of contemporary aesthetics with a revival sound, confidently commingling to fantastic results. With a foundation of retro-funk grooves, sensual soul, stirring string arrangements, a crate-digging cache in search of lusty disco nights, all of it supporting the complimentary vocal harmonies of Durand Jones and Aaron Fraser. From the humble beginnings of an Indiana college basement band, The Indications have evolved spectacularly, garnering much mainstream attention with their third album. Fans of Stevie Wonder, Jamiroquai, and Marvin Gaye gather round, there’s a new gang in town, and by all indications, they’re looking to hang out for a while.
The Indications (Durand Jones – vocals, Aaron Frazer – drums/vocals, Steve Okonski – keys, Mike Montgomery – bass, Blake Rhein – guitar) have earned a solid reputation for their tremendous live shows, soulful R&B/chill-funk throwdowns brimming with electricity, and a professionalism beyond their years. They delivered a fantastic hour this year at Suwannee Hulaween, showcasing a number of songs from Private Space; the elegant empress Mayteana Morales augmenting the live band with percussion and vocals. Akin to many on this list, during the pandemic pause The Indications were able to really sink into their creative juices, and mine some introspective themes during the writing and recording process. From their own very Private Space to ours, the album maintains a healthy balance between exploring modern styles while sticking to the core of the band’s strengths; phenomenal vocal stylings over soulful funky disco-fied grooves.
The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band reminds one of a soundtrack to a foreign film. Laid down pre-pandemic at the group’s Diamond Mine Studios in Long Island City, NY, The Exciting Sounds struts around minimalist funk, avant-soul, steezy vamps, throwback rhythms and shoulder-brushin’ grooves. The album is chock full of short, focused, feverish nuggets that unite funk, rock, and hip hop with Menahan Street Band‘s trademark mellifluous swag. Though I first caught wind of them when Jay-Z sampled their “Make the Road by Walking” for 2007’s triumphant American Gangster anthem “Roc Boys”, this is only the group’s third LP, and first release in nearly a decade.
The dearth of material is also their strength, because they have no weak joints, like whatsoever. Likely due to the fact that Menahan Street Band is an all-star ensemble. This is a veritable murderer’s row for a certain brand of vibe and ethos, welcoming members of Budos Band, Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, and Lee Fields and the Expressions, among others in the revival scene. Even during a near decade-long “hiatus” from Menahan Street Band, all members have continuously worked together on Daptone endeavors, and individual projects.
The Exciting Sounds… is a return to the essence, a homecoming for the band to the city that birthed them. It serves as a memorial in tribute to the late, great Charles Bradley, the band’s longtime spiritual guide, musical foil and crucial collaborator since the dawn days of Daptone Records. A snippet of his voice, a scream from a dusty demo tape, finds its way into the ether as the album comes to a close. Prime Cuts: “Midnight Morning”, “The Starchaser”, “Cabin Fever” & “Silkworm” (last 2 drawn from a project with The Roots’ Black Thought).
Sneaking into the mix the final month of the year, Tales from the Old Dominion is the sophomore record from DJ Harrison, a Richmond VA-based producer extraordinaire, and multi-instrumentalist of the highest order. A member of the virtuosic Virginia funk squad Butcher Brown, Harrison is a jedi of myriad talents, and totes ten-tons of steez, to boot. One thousand days in the making, the latest album serves as a comprehensive scopic reflection of how Harrison moves through life, and the prism through which hears the music of his youth and the South.
On Tales, Harrison reimagines the annals of the Black musical experience, from R&B, hip-hop, soul, funk and other genres that inspired him, particularly efforts focused on “personal peace despite centuries of racial injustice.” Not unlike last year’s phenomenal collab album Sons of the James, Tales finds Harrison mining the warm, wondrous waters of RVA, dialing up thermogenic funk and syrupy post-neo-soul straight out of the D’Angelo playbook. Yet the producer also makes space for gothic folk, a concoction of breakbeats, psychedelic funk workouts, futuristic disco, and blunted hip-hop soundscapes. A few guests slide through the festivities, including Stimulator Jones, Pink Siifu, and the enigmatic Nigel Hall. The sum of these parts is the diary of a bad-mon, his mind and it’s multi-hued imagination. Stones Throw ain’t neva lied, neither. Word to Peanut Butter Wolf. Prime Cuts: “Be Better”, “City Lights”, “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)”, “Coffy”, “Kawai Voyage”.
On his latest full-length LP Daymaker, Brooklyn-based producer Flamingosis leveled up the game in more ways than one. Conceiving the most vibrant material of his nearly decade-long ascent, the white-hot wunderkind drafted some of the more accomplished and eclectic players in the livetronic scene to help bring his innovative visions to kaleidoscopic fruition. The new material marries Flamingosis’s inventive, sample-based production, innate funk and groove tendencies, and robust work ethic with the irreplicable feel and vitality of live instrumentation in the studio.
Sampling remains integral to Flamingosis’ process and productions; passages and snippets of Graham Central Station, The Voices of East Harlem, Niteflyte, and a smattering of others pepper the tracks throughout Daymaker. Flamingosis displays a humble reverence for the songs of yesterday, their genius deftly reimagined and repurposed for tomorrow. The album’s title and sequencing are intended to imply a crystallized space and time: the completed daily cycle from morning to afternoon to night.
Beyond the boom-bap drums and the smoked-out sampling, Daymaker is projection-mapped with the color of vibrant live instrumentation. Colorado contributors read like a murderer’s row—keyboardist Borahm Lee (Pretty Lights Live), percussionist Jeff Franca (Thievery Corporation), bassist Hunter Roberts, guitarist Mike Tallman (Euforquestra), and hip-hop funk duo Recess, plus studio engineers Tallman, Eddie Roberts (The New Mastersounds), and Loren Dorland. For this magnum opus Flamingosis dialed up an all-star assembly of talent to better facilitate the soundscapes percolating in his spirited imagination.
I first caught Greyboy Allstars, with venerable keyboardist Robert Walter, at Club Toast in Burlington Vermont in April of 1997, and at 19 years young, it was an experience that forever changed me and the way I hear improvisational music. Those early GBA (and soon thereafter KDTU) shows lit an inferno beneath me to plunge into the annals of late 60’s/early 70’s rare groove and soul jazz, discovering – and then reveling – in the embryonic cells of hip-hop.
Years later, I’d stumble upon guitarist Eddie Roberts (New Mastersounds) piloting a dope Grant Green tribute, taking the stage back to the ultimate source for this particular steez. Green was probably my favorite giant who stepped from jazz into the funky-groove genre; rest assured Eddie did him proper and proud, again and again. Meanwhile, the universal drum prowess of one Adam Deitch (Lettuce, Break Science) is far from a secret, and his seemingly-effortless grooves have long echoed the energy and ethos of the late, great Idris Muhammed (aka Leo Morris).
WRD’s blistering full-length LP The Hit is the sum of these tremendous parts, the product of modern-day masters at work. Though these cats had certainly performed together a handful of times already, this was pretty much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants situation. Tracking straight to tape in two pre-pandemic sessions in Colorado. Word is, they wore no headphones, and no overdubs; just three dudes cold lampin’ at Color Red Studios, live and direct, deep in the pocket and way-back in the cut. Walter handled the bass parts, as well as run wild in the streets on the Hammond B3. The impeccable Eddie Roberts swag-surfed his ever-effervescent hollowbody guitar; and Adam Deitch did Adam Deitch things across eleven thorough workouts, each searing with the live energy & perpetual rage that these players customarily take to the stage. Saxophonist Nick Gerlach appears on a few songs, bassist Josh Fairman (Sunsquabi, Analog Son) on another, otherwise, this is a jazz-funk trio torn from a page out of 1970, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, with the great Rudy Van Gelder at the helm. Prime Cuts: “Judy”, “Chum City”, “Red Sunset”
Shout Out! To Freedom reveals a decidedly different version of what we’ve come to know and love as Nightmares on Wax, the long-running musical nom de plume for George Evelyn. NoW adventures into mature, grown n’ sexy topography on this thrilling, sophisticated new LP. As was the norm for many releases this year, the omnipresent pandemic pause sent an inspired Evelyn back to the easel, before he eventually hit the lab with his co-conspirators, to cook up his latest fat-sack of heat rocks. What we hear on this effort is an evolution and reinvention; a recalibration of the Nightmares on Wax sound and project-at-large.
Moving away from the frenzied nature of the dancefloor, and into spiritualized-jazz soundscapes, interpretations of world rhythms, lover’s rock, and soundsystem soul, deftly-woven together with the familiar funk of blunted beats and dreamy downtempo. Personally, Evelyn was dealing with a cancer scare at the same time, and you may feel a sort of subtle introspection within his newest creations. The songs are spiced with sparse political salvos, righteous lyrical themes and messages, yet a laid-back ethos permeates the festivities. This music is also reflection of his life nowadays, the environs in the uber-sexy island of Ibiza, where the Leeds-born Evelyn has spent his waking days and disco nights now for many moons. Shout Out! To Freedom features collaborations with Sabrina Mahfouz & Pip Millett, Greentea Peng, Haile Supreme, Mara TK, Shabaka Hutchings, and more. It’s an new dawn and new day in beautiful, sunny Las Dalias.
Honorable Mentions – 21 More Favorite Albums
21 Favorite Singles & Album Cuts
Officially-released Live Albums
- Lettuce – Live in Amsterdam (vinyl only)
DJ mixes/ live-sets / mixtapes
B.Getz ~ Upful LIFE