Saturday, December 19, 2015

Best Of 15: Reggae

Roots & Branches

Often my coverage of reggae is limited to reissues. This year, there were also several new releases that were in heavy rotation.

Guyana-born singer Jahdan Blakkamoore came to my attention via DJ Rupture's Dutty Artz label several years ago, his smooth attack an immediate attraction on mixtapes, Major Lazer songs, and his own album, the excellent Buzzrock Warrior. Now, five years later, he's back with Order Of Distinction, a lushly produced and varied collection. From the dancehall fun of Ting Tun Up to the romance of Sweetest Thing or the mournful strength of Faith, Blakkamoore covers a lot of bases with command, confidence, and a warmth that more than makes up for the sometimes simplistic lyrics.

The Expanders have been working on their strictly roots sounds on the west coast for most of the decade. It all pays off on Hustling Culture, which finds their three-part harmonies polished, their rhythms relaxed and flexible, and their songwriting honed to a fine point. They've come a long way and this delightful album, which feels both familiar and fresh, goes down easy.

London's Prince Fatty is another roots specialist, especially on the dub side, and has been the perfect production foil for the brilliant Hollie Cook in the last few years. The Clone Theory finds him teaming up with Mad Professor for an in-depth exploration of analogue dub techniques. While there's nothing that will make Lee Perry quake in his shoes, the Prince and the Professor have a few tricks up their sleeves. Good fun.

Reggae Angels, from the west coast like The Expanders, have an extremely smooth take on classic reggae. Although they've been at it for over 20 years,  The Way is my first encounter with them. There's an optimism and positivity to the lyrics that is almost over the top, like listening to a self-help book ("If you work as a janitor, do it in an excellent way..."), but when you have bass, drums, etc. provided by Sly & Robbie & The Taxi Gang it almost doesn't matter what you're singing about.

Lovers Rock, Reality, Reissues

My favorite single-artist reggae reissue this year was Linval Thompson's Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks from 1976. His sweet voice can deliver both lovers rock and message songs and with Bunny Lee producing and King Tubby mixing there's no way he could lose - and he doesn't. 

Speaking of Bunny Lee, Pressure Sounds has created a superb collection called Next Cut! with the subtitle Dub Plates, Rare Sides and Unreleased Cuts - and that's exactly what you get. Everything sounds fantastic and there's even some studio chatter to remind you that there were living human beings behind these monolithic cuts. 

Adrian Sherwood also knows how to carve a sound out of stone. Singers & Players was one project among many but probably cooked up the most satisfying reggae to come out of Sherwood's London-based On U Sound studios. Their 1981 debut, War Of Words, showcased Jamaican transplants like Bim Sherman and Prince Far-I on vocals over avant grooves provided by British post-punk luminaries. It was a mighty tasty recipe indeed and sounds especially great on this year's vinyl reissue. If you're looking for another slab from these guys, check out the War Of Version EP, part of a series of 10" Disco Plates from On U Sound.

King Jammy's Roots, Reality And Sleng Teng is a nice window into the transition from roots reggae to dancehall. At two discs it's a little padded out but still great. And while you're trying to get Under Mi Sleng Teng out of your head again, read this awesome article about how its riddim came to be.

Speaking of riddims, honorable mention goes to Original Stalag 17-18 and 19 (pictured above), which I scooped up at the Brooklyn Flea Record Fair earlier this year. It features 10 takes on Winston Riley's mighty Stalag riddim, including Tenor Saw's classic Ring The Alarm, and is thus one of the all-time great party records. The cover is, unfortunately, uncredited.

Here's a playlist to get you started:

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past

Coming soon, Hip Hop, Classical & Composed, Singles & EP's, and Best Of The Rest.

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