It has become tradition for all music blogs to present their year end lists in December, showing you what they think are some of the best albums released in the respective year. Some lists are compiled with great care by music insiders while others favour the public opinion to convey their year end list. Even though I always like to browse through some of these lists to spot if I really missed something, I stay away from creating such a list myself. The reason is very simple. As I’m not at all focussed on music that is released in a certain year, it doesn’t provide me with enough input to constructively come up with a solid year end list. I’m running a one man show, so for me to really review a significant amount of albums covering multiple genres would mean I have to resign my day job.
Still, the idea of presenting some sort of year end list I just couldn’t shake off. So, I started pondering on how I could still share something that comes close to a year end list. For me, creating a definite list of 10 or even 50 albums based on their musical merits and the stories they hold for me would be like mission impossible as my preference is in a constant state of flux affected heavily also by the mood that I’m in. Even if I push myself to create a best album list, it would be really hard to put one album over another as it all comes down to personal taste and not everyone is able to grasp that concept. Than it hit me. What if – no reason specified – I needed to get rid or sell all my records and were only allowed to keep 10 of them.
“Which 10 records from my collection would I hold on to and why?”
The rules were simple. I allowed myself 5 seconds per record, flipping through all of my records and make the decision to keep or not based on the first emotions that came to mind. This resulted in a list of almost 50 records. Quite okay if you consider I absolutely don’t want to get rid of any of my records. The tough job began from there, considering I can only keep about 20 percent of those initial 50 records. If you ask me again next week, chances are the list would look very different. Below you can find the final list in no specific order.
1. I Kong – The Way It Is
I have a deep love and appreciation for this record, probably the deepest when I think of all of the records I own. I Kong entered the record industry somewhere in the early sixties when vocal groups where the name of the game before going solo in the early seventies. When he finally got the chance of recording a full-length album, he took it upon himself to take his idea in a different direction than what most where doing at the time. Before in the Jamaican record industry, an album was nothing more than a compilation of hit singles and far from what you would call a concept album. I Kong was one of the artists to help push the barrier and create something that stand on it’s own as a full concept from ideation to the actual recording. The choice to bring in the big guns, namely a full assembly of horns, was previously unheard of in Reggae. A wonderful album that has as much Soul as it has Reggae.
Read more about I Kong here.
I have to follow this up with what many would consider the holy grail of Roots Reggae. You can count me as one of them. I’m the proud owner of the first and second mix based on the original master tapes which back in seventies were already in a rough state. To me, that only adds to the mystery of this amazing record. The basic equipment that Lee “Scratch” Perry worked with at the time consists out of a 4 track TEAC reel to reel recorder, Songcraft Mixing board, Roland Space Echo, Mu-Tron Bi-Phase and some basic spring reverbs. The sound he managed to record with this modest setup still baffles people today as many of his contemporaries on the Island of Jamaica where already recording in a 8 track studio with newer equipment imported from the U.S. Perry suggested to add the baritone voice of Watty Burnett to the harmonies of the two original members Cedric Myton and Roy Johnson and employed his usual crew of talented musicians. The rest is Reggae history. Just listen to the deep muddy undercurrent on each song and how Perry managed to place everything in the mix slowly taking you towards the heart of The Congos until there is no way of returning. Blood and Fire remastered the album from the master tapes back in 1996 almost 20 years after the initial release, but for me there’s only one release that really does justice to this masterpiece.
Every song on Strength Of My Life is an outright number one hit record. From the release of their first record till their most recent releases, unfortunately without all three members of the group involved or among us, they have remained one of the top draws throughout the years. Strength Of My Life however, knows no equal among their work but also in the wider field of Reggae music stands proud as one of the most accomplished works capturing what Reggae is all about. Backed by session band extraordinaire the Roots Radics and with Dr. Dread as the glue bringing back the trinity which was broken by ambition resulting in a stunning piece of Roots Reggae music.
Read more about Israel Vibration here.
4. Seke Molenga & Kalo Kawongolo – Seke Molenga & Kalo Kawongolo
The urban legend of the two singers coming from central Africa and appearing out of thin air at the Black Ark is as crazy as it is amazing. The actual story is far more believable, but still beats the odds. Seke and Kalo were brought to Jamaica by an executive from CBS to record some of their music at one of the many studio’s on the Island. As soon as they arrived they were left to their own devices at the mercy of any goodwilling locals. In some unidentified way, the recording ended up taking place at the Black Ark studio. Lee “Scratch” Perry had just finished his masterpiece, Heart Of The Congos. It must have been a strange experience for Seke and Kalo to witness Lee Perry at the top of his creative powers blowing ganja at the tape recorder like a madman. Neither of them spoke any English, so to see that the recording even took place is quite amazing. If you than have a listen to the outcome, it will blow your mind. Since the album was denied by Island and released in small quantities on the French label Sonafric, it quickly became rare and obscure only adding to the mystery of how these two men from the Democratic Republic of the Congo ended up at the Black Ark. Mixing the Low-fi Dub approach of most of Lee Perry’s work at the time with African music results in a jagged and raw Black Ark sound like you have never heard before. Highly unique even amongst Lee Perry’s work.
5. The Rastafarians – Orthodox
It took my a while before coming across Orthodox as it is not hailed by many as one of the most amazing Reggae albums they have listened to. Not sure were I got the information from, but I added it to my playlist like I do all the time. I remember not thinking too much of it. So, I was taken by surprise and remember the first time I played the album very well. I was getting some Suriname sandwiches at a local shop while tuning in for the first time and immediately was taken by the Nyabinghi approach reminding me of Ras Michael and The Sons Of Negus, only more commanding. The connection to Ras Michael is not so strange because some of the members of the group have worked with them prior to joining The Rastafarians. I had a listen while writing this article and it sounds as good or maybe even better than I can remember.
6. Sly and Robbie – Nordub
Rhythm twins Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have been one of my favorite production duo’s for a long time. They play on so many Reggae albums that I consider bonafide classics. Before forming Sly and Robbie they played for different session bands. Sly in Skin, Flesh and Bones also acting as the support band for Peter Tosh on tour and Robbie in the Aggrovators employed by Bunny Lee. They also played the club circuit offering live music and met in the early seventies. They quickly discovered that they had a lot in common when looking at musical inspiration. But it took some time before they actually started recording together. This happened when they formed the Revolutionaries which was employed as the session band for the Channel One recording studio. After recording the seminal Right Time for the Mighty Diamonds a bond was formed which holds up to this day.
I consider myself lucky that I have seen them playing live three times now and that I was able to go backstage on one of the shows to meet both of them in person. I’ve managed to get two LP’s autographed that I hold in high regard. The first one is Dub Rising on which they rekindle with Paul “Groucho” Smykle who also mixed the Dub masterpiece Raiders Of The Lost Dub back in 1981. The second one fuses the rock solid riddims of Sly and Robbie with experimental Jazz and electronic wizardry provided by Peter Nils Molvaer, Eivind Aarset and Vladislav Delay.
7. Bim Sherman – Miracle
Throughout his career Bim Sherman remained fairly unknown, overshadowed by other artists in the fierce Jamaican record industry. Maybe Bim’s firm belief in his own creative process and coming up with original compositions by himself made him somewhat numb for local trends. Even though the reward was thin in terms of recognition from a broad audience, it was paid in full with adoration from a small dedicated following. His thin voice, unique approach in his lyrics and the composition of most of his work contribute to an overall ethereal atmosphere. This can definitely be said when you pair it with the meditative arrangements found on Miracle. An unique project for which they took a totally different approach never been done before. This included employing the Beat Orchestra Bombay for the string arrangements, Talvin Singh for his innovative fusion of Indian percussion and Adrian Sherwood as producer. The album has such a soothing power that whenever I need some peace of mind it is my go-to album. Your problems wilt melt like snow against the sun and before you know it you are travelling through space and time with the guidance of Bim Sherman’s soft voice.
8. Freddie McGregor – Bobby Bobylon
Freddie McGregor may not be held in such high regard as his contemporaries Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown, but neither of them produced such a flawless full length album as Freddie did. This is coming from a huge Gregory Isaacs and even more so Dennis Brown fan. Bobby Bobylon listens to as a showcase of the most infectious rhythms coming from the vaults of Studio One. The album was released in 1979, a time when Studio One shortly reclaimed the throne as the premiere studio on the island. The years before proved to be a difficult time for the studio since copyright laws in Jamaica where never established. Every producer seemed out there to pirate the rhythms that made Studio One the premiere studio on the island in the first place. After some time Clement “Coxsone” Dodd decided to retaliate, updated his own rhythms tracks and found other artists to voice new lyrics. Bobby Bobylon was an instant hit and remains a true classic with Freddie’s honey sweet voice, sense of melody and heartfelt performance. The updated rhythms tracks do not compromise in terms of losing that charm and warmth that characterizes the time they were originally recorded in. Studio One vinyl has a bad reputation among collectors and for good reason, but the updated rhythm tracks come to life on the original release and is as good as anything I ever heard from the label.
Read more about Studio One here.
Branches and Leaves is the youngest contender on this list and that on itself is impressive. I do feel albums age better over time so this must be a very good album to make the list. Being a showcase album, it gives the listener the ability to bathe in the dub interpretation right after the vocal piece. When the rhythms are so ridiculously good, it feels like a dream you don’t want to wake up from. The rhythm tracks are recorded at the Lone Ark Studio in Santander Spain by multi instrumentalist and magician behind the mixing board Roberto Sanchez. These were than sent over to the legendary Wackies Studio to let Milton Henry voice his lyrics on top. You can hear Milton was in his element hearing these deep pulsating rhythms through his headphones in the voicing booth as he rides them with such ease. An exquisite piece of modern Roots Reggae that for me still holds the throne.
The only Soul album on this list must make it also one of my favourites overall. I can confirm that this is indeed the case. The voice of Ann Peebles is amazing and could even lift a weak composition to great heights. That being said, the compositions on Straight From The Heart are all top notch. Ann can really fly without anything holding her back, giving their rival Memphis label Stax a run for their money. Having written most of the material herself with her husband Don Bryant, it is also a triumph for her as an songwriter. Ann sounds convincing, snapping at the right moments but never lays it on too thick to lose any of her credibility. The UK release on London Records offers two more tracks that are missing from the U.S. version which makes up for the album’s total running time.
11. Dandy Livingstone – The South African Experience
Okay I cheated, sue me. Whoever knows Dandy Livingstone from “Suzy Beware Of The Devil” or “Rudy, A Message For You” will be surprised hearing this left field album. Psychedelic, politically charged and overlooked by many. The cover is a piece of art on itself, worthy of being displayed at a museum or in this case my home.
I want to thank all my readers for another year of support and hopefully this year end list will help to close your year in style!