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o The Gramophone Allstars Big Band - Jazzmaica
Covering other artists' songs in ska and reggae style is a longstanding thing, while big band ska and reggae is considerably newer. And the focus of the Jamaican-flavored big bands varies, from the Skatalites-specific repertoire of the U.S.'s Western Standard Time to the covers-and-originals strategy of Australia's Melbourne Ska Orchestra. Catalonian Spain's take on the scene resulted in the formation of the Gramophone Allstars Big Band, a 15-piece ensemble that on their fourth release, Jazzmaica, hones in mainly on versions of American and Jamaican soul-stirrers from the 1960s and 70s, with a couple of smoking originals for good measure. The horn-heavy results are superb, kicking off with a fevered rendering of the Roland Alphonso composition "Scambalena," ending with an all-stops-out "Funky Kingston" and packing lots of goods in between. Ska, reggae, jazz, Latin, soul and funk components are all evident in the band's versatile instrumental chops ("Sophisticated Babylon" epitomizes badass), and when the lead vocals of Judit Nedderman are part of the picture, the covered tunes become all the more the band's own. So Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe" makes a smooth move from the heavy-breathing original to a more subtle sensuousness capped by a Herbie Mann-ish flute solo, the nostalgic cheek of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" is rendered both wistful and punchy, and "(When) Twistin' I Love Him So" joins Sam Cooke with Ray Charles in a swinging mashup that I defy you to resist. If you happen to be fond of dancing yourself into pure ecstasy while grinning from ear to ear, this marvelously infectious music is just the ticket. -Tom Orr
Bankrobber buy
o The Movement - Golden
The geographical and demographic aspects of where reggae music has caught on are fascinating to me, so I like that The Movement is the first reggae band I can think of that calls the state capital of Columbia, South Carolina their home. Musically, they mix roots, dancehall, rock, techno, acoustic textures and hip hop in ways that seem geared toward non-purists. At its best, Golden successfully taps into the "future roots" approach of John Brown's Body, minus the live horns (John Brown frontman Elliot Martin is in fact a guest vocalist on the title track). There's no questioning the sincerity of songs like "Rescue" and "Through the Heart" or the lovers rock and pro-ganja sentiments expressed. But in my humble opinion (no, I don't abbreviate) there's filler in with the killer. Much of the album feels over-produced and heavy on electronic effects, leaving the listener to wonder what this crew would sound like if they took an earthier approach. I'd guess better. And forgive me, but the track that's pure rap ("Retriever") comes across as petulant and unnecessary. I wouldn't call this entire disc golden, but the band sure does shine when reggae is their focus. Recommended if you're looking for a mixed bag and don't consider it a buzz kill if the reggae vibe is sometimes rudely interrupted. -Tom Orr
Rootfire Cooperative buy
o Mighty Mystic - The Art of Balance
Born in Jamaica as Kevin Mark Holness (it's about time someone apart from Niney the Observer became musically noteworthy under such a dandy homonym of a surname), Mighty Mystic has a sturdy, satisfying reggae sound on his third release The Art of Balance. The balance the title bespeaks is evident in the music, which succeeds on equal measures of fun and seriousness, of swagger and humility, of roots and rock. Mystic's vocals hover and strike in the mid-to-lower register with a few upward jumps for variety's sake, and while his authoritative tones aren't exactly pretty, he makes every word and phrase count in a way that recalls understated greats like Willi Williams. Plus, he's got a knack for nailing a key lyric or line so that the words bolster the music to just the right degree and vice versa. The backing tracks are thankfully rendered on real instruments wielded by adept players, and the production (much of it split between Mystic and his brother Stephen) avoids falling into any traps of unnecessary artificiality or tweaking. Check, for example, how effectively "Solid as a Rock" gets by with little more accompaniment than an acoustic guitar and a steady percussion thump, thanks to Mystic's clear and concise imparting. And even in those moments when a discernible reggae beat moves to the back burner, the groove still sways in dance-friendly style. Every one of the album's 72 minutes worth of originals is a good listen, but I particularly like the rumble and bubble of "Fast Car" (not the Tracey Chapman song), cautionary lament "Red Light Girl" and materialism-basher "Is Not Gold." -Tom Orr
Roots Musician Records buy
o Natty Nation - Divine Spark
Don't dare get me started on the myriad of ills that plague the country in which I live. Obviously there are many. As to what I'd do about them, well, my ideas for cures are not as numerous as the ills themselves. With everything positive that such a name implies, what a joy it would be to live in a Natty Nation. While that kind of a Utopia-on-Earth place might be impossible for humankind to achieve, we at least have a reggae band of the same name with a new album, Divine Spark, to provide comforting music instead. Natty Nation the band started in their home base of Madison, Wisconsin more than 20 years ago and have been one of the leading torchbearers of American reggae ever since. Not that I was fully aware of it the whole time; I readily admit that my tuning into their music happened far more recently. Lest you be the same sort of slow learner as me, let me tell you a few things I've come to love about Natty Nation. First, the flag they fly is one of positivity, evident in the uplifting lyrical flow on such songs as "Purpose," "I'm Willing" and the title track. Second, they keep their riddims rooted, even when they prick up your ears with attention-grabbers like the rock guitar that surfaces throughout "Suffice." Third, their use of classic reggae touches clearly shows where their loyalty lies. The melodica that sweetens "Meditation" is one example, the frequent use of organ and clavinet is another, and some of those percussion sounds will have you believing that Sticky Thompson came back from Zion long enough to do a few sessions with these guys. There are plenty more divine sparks to this flame, including unflinchingly solid drums and bass, the eloquent urgency of JAH Boogie's lead vocals and the concluding dubs, but don't be content to let me be the national spokesman for Natty Nation. Get the album and let the great music do the necessary talking. -Tom Orr
iNatty Records buy
o Ever-G (Son of the Most High)- Unleashed!!!
A coworker recently asked me why so many reggae artists are, in his words, "so hung up on that peace and love (stuff)." The fact that such, uh, stuff, has never been needed more than now seemed lost on him. Luckily it's not lost on Virginia-based Ever-G, whose new album Unleased!!! is loaded with the kind of take-heed music that speaks to the very essence of how human beings should be behaving (and it's not how I'd guess the disposition of the irate-looking leopard on the album front cover to be). One look at the song titles- "World Peace," "Let's Unite," "Role Model," etc., will tell you where Ever-G's head is at, and he sings it like he feels it. His vocals have hints of Leroy Sibbles, Dennis Brown and John Holt, and when he's joined by the harmonies of Cheryl Sule, the blend is unbeatable. Familiar riddims abound, forming a sturdy framework that allows Ever to open up his heart and our minds to messages that a jaded few might dismiss as tiresome but will eternally resonate with those who care where the human race is headed and how music can heal us before we're too far beyond the pale. Chris "Peanut" Whitley is the keyboardist and co-producer here, and while it's hard to tell how much of the instrumentation is live and direct, the sound is crisply contemporary and leaves the right measure of space for Ever's vocals to take center stage, be it on serious material or a relative breather like the love ballad "Keeping it Real" (which is something this release does consistently). - Tom Orr
Independent Release buy
o Keith Poppin- Vintage Keith Poppin: The Good Old Days
Even an alleged reggae addict like me can initially miss out on an artist here and there. So it's good there are anthologies that offer a chance for some much-needed catching up. Keith Poppin is one reggae singer to whom I came late; I now see and hear why he's worked with so many notable producers, musicians and studios. The 24 tracks on The Good Old Days are an abundant feast of reggae goodness, from spiritual offerings ("Prophecy Revealing," "Behold Them") to love declarations ("Find Her," "What Have I Done") to patois-laden viewpoints of a strictly Jamaican variety ("Labrish"). Poppin's got a bit of a theatrical flair in his singing- he knows when to add a whimsical air or a serious edge, so he distinguishes each song with its own subtlety as the disc tracks his progression from young up-and-comer to wizened veteran. Despite the title, some of the songs are more contemporary in tone, and Poppin warms even the most modern of the lot with pure soul. I don't now count myself versed in all things Keith Poppin, but this rich, hit-laden collection served as my formal introduction to a reggae voice of the highest order. At the same time The Good Old Days arrived on my doorstep, it was in the company of Speak Out, a recent Keith Poppin album recorded with a musical crew that includes such players as Dwight Pinkney, Ansel Collins and Rad Bryan and the Itals' Ronnie Davis on backing vocals. It's a gem of modern roots with solid, hard-hitting riddims and Poppin assuming equal roles of crooner and chanter. The title song is aimed squarely at Africans whose voices need to be heard, setting the tone for a disc of uplifting reggae by a singer still in the game and as good as ever at it. - Tom Orr Tom Orr
KP Productions buy
o Stick Figure - Set In Stone
California's Stick Figure is both one guy and a group, and before anyone gets hung up on dichotomies, let's clarify: as with previous Stick Figure albums, Scott Woodruff is credited as the one who all the music on Set In Stone was written, recorded, produced and performed by. When it comes to live shows, he has a band to re-create on stage what he largely does on his own in the studio. Either way, Stick Figure specializes in reggae that's relaxed and intense, rootsy and modern, electronic and organic. Okay, now it's me getting hung up on dichotomies. But if you've heard Stick Figure, you know what I mean. Woodruff's downtempo reggae grooves are stacked with layers of sonic seasoning that beautify the simplicity of the riddims, give the vocals and instruments a celestial feel and make reviewers feel not at all guilty about using such words as "trippy" to describe the music. Yet that music doesn't feel cold or contrived. Vocally, Woodruff comes across straightforward and sincere on laid back songs of love, life, herb, inspiration and struggle. And no matter how thick the contemporary coat, the songs always seem driven by the beat. The entirety of Set In Stone comes across as one continuous shimmer of blissfully entrancing reggae, with suitably restrained guest vocals by the likes of Collie Buddz and Rebelution's Eric Rachmany keeping things cool and easy. -Tom Orr
Ruffwood Records/Rootfire buy
o Fred Locks Meets David O - Time to Shine
Veteran reggae vocalist Fred Locks will be forever associated with "Black Star Liners" in much the same way Kiddus I will be forever associated with "Graduation in Zion," but of course there's considerably more to the man than any signature song. A recent resurgence in his popularity has led to him being deemed The Oldest New Artist in Reggae. Assisting him in earning that title is David Ondrick, a Brooklyn-based musician, producer, composer and promoter who's been a devotee of reggae music for many years. He and Fred prove to be a crucial team and Time to Shine illuminates them both: Fred as a still-supple-voiced singer and lyricist; David O as one key reason the album sports a classic reggae sound in both its vocal tracks and the instrumental/dub versions that follow each. The title song rolls forth easily yet mightily, a testament to the indomitable spirit Fred shares with many a reggae artist and here makes his own. "Live to Love," "Reggae Addict," "Love Don't Take No Holiday," "Spiritual Revolution" and "No Bad Feelings" brim with the positive ethos that make reggae great, and the instrumental takes prominently feature Ondricks's saxophone (his main instrument) reiterating the melodies and giving the riddims added sweetness. There are plenty of other reasons to love this dandy of a disc, including the fact that such players as trumpeter Kevin Batchelor and guitarist Andy Bassford are in on the all-real instrumentation and Fabian Cooke's input as one of the mixing engineers. It all results in terrific, no nonsense reggae that will (and should) nice up anyone's collection. And make note of the "Vol. 1" addendum that shows up in a few places on the sleeve. If more of this is to come, bring it. -Tom Orr
Duplex Music buy
o Alaine - Ten of Hearts
Not an artist with whom I was previously familiar, Alaine Laughton, who was born in New Jersey and has lived in Jamaica since the age of three, possesses a silky voice that's perfectly suited to the love songs that dominate Ten of Hearts. She even brings new life to "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," a song I thought I was permanently sick of. But I'll tell you- this album nearly lost me at the start. After a brief spoken intro, opener "Like a Drum" comes on overproduced to the point where poor Alaine and guest Dre Island sound so sickeningly robotic that I wanted to pull the disc from the CD player and fling it out the nearest window. Thankfully, the rest is far better, even when the reggae is downplayed with R&B or hip hop overtones. Alaine scores a second time in the cover department with "Ain't No Sunshine," brings in guests Tarrus Riley and J-Boog to corroborate her romantic sentiments and addresses a social issue or two, as on "Sidewalk Hotel." I'm guessing the technology that makes singers sound like androids (and it does creep in, albeit less so, a couple more times on this release) isn't going away any time soon, but whatever rationale there might be for it is totally lost on me. Don't blame Alaine, though. She shows a lot of integrity and talent on Ten of Hearts, and it's well worth checking out. -Tom Orr
Zojak World Wide buy
o Frank Weeks - H.I.M. Dub EP A.K.A. Searching for the Riddim
I marvel at the number of releases that seem to reach me out of nowhere, or at least from places I'd consider unlikely. This one came my way from Henderson, NV, with well-rendered cover illustrations of Haile Selassie and dubby proclamations concerning his divinity. It's more meditation than music: there are minimal computerized riddims with a lot of spoken words courtesy of Selassie himself (including the "War" speech) and others espousing Rastafari. Reasoning is the focus of the disc's 23 minutes, be it uttered, chanted, whispered or grafted from existing recordings. It's obviously a labor of divine love for the mysterious Frank Weeks, about whom there's little information to be found. As such, it's fairly intriguing, but not much more than a curio. -Tom Orr
No Label buy
o Gentlemen's Dub Club - The Big Smoke
One needs not to have smoked anything big or small in order to enjoy these London-based gents, so go your way on that. What's certain is their staked claim as a major force on the British reggae scene, bolstered by fan base-building performances at festivals in Europe and beyond. Gentlemen's Dub Club is nine pieces strong including horns, and their sound is based on both classic Jamaican roots and the U.K. reggae that came later. They come across like a bunch of mates you'd like to knock a few back with in between sets at the local pub, which is not to say they sound the least bit amateurish. Their riddims, arrangements (horns in particular), understated vocals and dubby production touches are first rate, from the cheeky "Music is the Girl I Love" and fragile "Afraid of the Dark" to the atmospheric "Enter the Chamber" and cautious optimism of "See Them." The Big Smoke is a well-rounded, impressive listen with much to offer the mind, the heart and the dancing feet that follow them. Carry on, gentlemen. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Tarrus Riley - Love Situation
Tarrus Riley, the son of longtime reggae singer Jimmy Riley, has got his own good thing going on. Love Situation is his take on Jamaican rocksteady and the way it put singers, especially singers of love songs, front and center. Even so, the production, mainly by sax master Dean Fraser, doesn't try to cop the rocksteady era's rawness. The feel is modern, though the tempos and riddims recall an earlier time. Riley's vocals are those of a rootsman and dapper soul singer melded into one; his authoritative croon can be playful ("1 2 3 I Love You"), pleading ("Cry No More") and party-starting ("One Drop") as needed, and he's supported by a roster that includes foundational chatters Big Youth and U-Roy, drummer Sly Dunbar and of course Fraser sweetening the pot on saxophone. It's a tricky mix of ageless sentiments and contemporary sounds at times, but it all works quite nicely. -Tom Orr
Zojak World Wide buy
o Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra - Big Band Tribute to the Skatalites Volume II
I don't know if ska orchestras are a trend just yet, but they're an idea I'm most certainly in favor of. The southern left coast of the U.S. has Western Standard Time contributing to the cause of giving ska as large a wall of sound as possible, and on the followup to the first installment of their Skatalites tribute, they're succeeding similarly large. Comprised of more than two dozen renowned veteran players (plus guests who contribute mainly in the vocal department) and looking to tackle some of the more unsung tunes in the Skatalites' body of work, WST consistently finds the sweet spot between jumping Jamaican rhythm and big band sophistication. True to ska's original penchant for melodic name dropping, the sinister tones of "Lon Chaney," siren wail of "Dick Tracy" and suave swagger of "James Bond" are rendered razor sharp, as are the venerable "Peanut Vendor," the foundational "Jamaica Ska" (rousingly voiced by Angelo Moore and the Expanders), a badass cool Don Drummond medley and a closing burru-fed frenzy appropriately titled "Smiling." The multiple horns are enough to stretch your speakers almost to the breaking point, but do keep one ear on that unstoppable rhythm section as you're working your waistline, singing along with dudes you'll recognize from Hepcat and the Slackers and basking in the classy fever of a grand ska ball to which all are invited. If anyone's need for celebratory music of the highest order is currently unfulfilled, WST's joyous second go-around will close that gap. -Tom Orr
Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra buy
o Dubbest - Light Flashes
Notable young band out of Boston here, with a genuine feel for roots, lover's rock and other colors in the reggae spectrum. They've got the basics: drums, bass, couple of guitars, keys and a singer (Ryan Thaxter) who can carry a tune through the serpentine riddims and makes the words count without getting the least bit indulgent. I'd put Dubbest in the same category as northeastern U.S. greats such as 10 Ft. Ganja Plant (with more vocals) or John Brown's Body. In fact, JBB's Elliot Martin sings harmonies throughout Light Flashes, and Dubbest has that band's same knack for poetic lyricism on songs like "Leaving" and "By Design." They also include a couple of taut (though too short) instrumentals, a concluding dub track that affirms the appropriateness of their name and the flavoring of a horn section here and there. The venerable Dubfader provides a nice clean mix that brings out subtleties like the little keyboard zaps on "Shower You" while balancing the inner core with the outer nuances. In terms of American reggae, I wouldn't call Dubbest the best, but they're darn good and they've created a definite keeper of a CD. -Tom Orr
Dubbest buy
o Kimie Miner - Kimie Miner
For the record, her first name is pronounced "Kimi-ay." And while she's not specifically a reggae artist, Kimie Miner's music has a strong enough component of Jamaican riddim to please the skanking crowd. R&B, soul and pop are some of the other means to her end, and she's got a vocal style that combines the tropical warmth of her Hawaiian roots with an assured singer/songwriter conviction. This eponymous disc isn't her debut but rather a musical connecting of the dots that add up to a picture of an artist drawing fresh inspiration from both her island origins and the experiences she's had beyond them. Rich with clear-eyed imagery and heartfelt sincerity, the tunes are a fairly even mix of acoustic and electric that range from the addiction recovery tale "New Day" to the sunny reggae of "Bottom of a Rainbow" (recorded with L.A. notables Detour Posse) and the quite lovely "Lullabies," a song Kimie composed when she was 14. Refreshingly unpretentious and sporting good vibes from start to finish, there's nothing but pure enjoyment here. -Tom Orr
Independent Release buy
o Mike Love - Love Will Find a Way
Lest there be any question regarding it, no, we're not talking about Mike Love of the Beach Boys. True, the same-named, dreadlocked Mike Love behind Love Will Find a Way does hail from a place where surfing is a popular pastime (Oahu), but that's where the similarities end. And don't assume the title to be any sort of self-referential flippancy. Mike Love is the real deal, and the fact that he kicks off the album with an eight-minute warning about the dangers of Babylon brainwashing ("Time to Wake Up") proves it as much as his ability to crank out finely honed roots reggae, pop reggae, soul-tinged reggae and reggae balladry. Also resoundingly in his favor are his vocals, which combine scatty deftness with catchy tonal jumps, and the fact that his backing musicians (a mostly Hawaiian crew, I'm guessing) are as tight as can be. Balancing conscious concerns with good time brightness- check the use of steel pan on a couple of the tracks -Love brings the disc's themes of unity, spirituality, respect and compassion home with a bang. Superb stuff, easily one of the best reggae releases currently out there. -Tom Orr
Love Not War Records buy
o Yabby You - Dread Prophecy
My first encounter with the music of Yabby You was back in the vinyl days of the mid-80s when I spotted his compilation One Love, One Heart at a small record store in Albany, NY. I'd never heard of him, but I chalked that up to having been only recently bitten by the reggae bug. Besides, no release on Shanachie Records (which this was) had yet steered me wrong. I bought the album, took it home to my basement apartment and had a listen. I was spellbound. The chant-like vocals, ominously biblical lyrics and unadorned pure roots reggae production values made me feel like I was hearing a prophet of old who'd somehow been transported into the modern world. In those pre-internet times, it was hard to find further information on the man who was born Vivian Jackson in Jamaica in 1946 and took his stage name from what he heard as thunder and the voices of angels calling down from on high. But I looked where I could and pieced together some facts about him. He didn't exactly have the happiest of beginnings: Yabby You's younger days were marked by poverty and malnutrition that resulted in a lifetime of crippled legs and fragile health. Notwithstanding, he developed an unyielding spirituality and faith in Jesus Christ. His perspective alienated many of his Rastafarian acquaintances, who mockingly called him "Jesus Dread," a nickname he chose to embrace. As to the rest of his tale- his life as singer, songwriter, producer and figure of absolute uniqueness in reggae music -read all about it in the richly detailed booklet included with Shanachie's excellent new triple CD set Dread Prophecy, subtitled The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You. Indeed, there's equal measure of strangeness and wonder in the way he was able to overcome obstacle after obstacle to create a body of work that never brought him massive fame or fortune but endures to testify to the power of reggae built from ingredients of heart, soul, spirit and commitment. Yabby wasn't a man of great vocal range, but his grainy, take-heed style and inflection gave his songs an authority all their own. Particularly when singing lead over the harmonies of Alrick Forbes and Dada Smith (the other two-thirds of a vocal trio known as The Prophets), Yabby's voice dug deep and bore spiritual fruit in '70s roots gems like "Conquering Lion," "Anti-Christ," "Run Come Rally" and "Chant Down Babylon" all of which are included in this collection. The riches don't stop there, though. Yabby served as producer for a good many artists, putting his foundational stamp on reggae/jazz instrumentals by Skatalites saxophonist Tommy McCook ("Death Trap"), the chatting of deejay Jah Stitch ("Rock Man Soul"), suave crooner Pat Kelly ("How Long"), roots man Michael Prophet ("Love and Unity") and others, and those featured tracks go a long way toward showing just how far the Yabby You vibe extended in reggae circles. Plus, the three songs from Yabby's 1985 comeback album Fleeing From the City demonstrate that he wasn't opposed to modernizing his sound just a bit while sacrificing his integrity not one iota. And of course, no compilation like this would be complete without rarities. Disc 3 is jam-packed with them, including dub plates, previously unreleased new/old discoveries by U Brown, Half Pint and Patrick Andy and similar stuff that will delight hardcore collectors and ordinary fans alike. I lack the journalistic gumption to go into any further details, so just believe me when I say that Dread Prophecy is an absolute treasure chest for the reggae-minded. Yabby You passed away in 2010, but this assembly of his works will forever stand as a sonic testament to his greatness. -Tom Orr
Shanachie Entertainment buy
o Willi Williams - Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby's
Another recent Shanachie release with a Yabby You connection is a disc's worth of long-lost-but-now-found songs by Willi Williams, the vocalist best known for the classic "Armagideon Time." Recorded in the turbulent political days of 1979 Jamaica, Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby's has a dozen tracks laid down at the legendary studios name-checked in the title, with Willi Williams and Yabby You sharing production duties. I recognized many of the riddims (like the arrangement of "Take Five" on the title tune) from corresponding dub and alternate vocal versions that have emerged over the years, but the vocals here give them the blaze of a newly stoked fire. Williams' semi-spoken way of singing brings clarity to the lyrics, never burying the messages in patois or pedantic posturing. These are songs of spiritual awareness, political and religious trickery, African repatriation and hope for a better tomorrow, and it's no accident that the themes ring as true now as they did 36 years ago. Among the musicians involved are The Revolutionaries (under the guidance of Sly and Robbie), The Gladiators and Soul Syndicate, so the backing has just the right sort of roots sharpness. By the time Willi sings "I'm gonna need everyone to rock with me" during the opening "Rock On," you'll already be aboard for this invigorating reggae ride. -Tom Orr
Shanachie Entertainment buy
o Chuck Foster - Easy Street
Noted Southern California reggae DJ and author Chuck Foster has lately been making an additional mark as a singer, songwriter, producer and player of reggae music. His latest album may not put him on Easy Street from a financial standpoint, but he's got a good feel for what makes genuine reggae tick and an equally attuned knack for singing it. Songs like "Working People," "Freedom Calls" and "What Are We Fighting For" show just how much consciousness he's absorbed from decades of spinning reggae on the air, interviewing reggae artists and writing about the music in various magazines and books. Bask in these 15 selections of unpretentious, head-bobbing reggae, and be sure to check a couple of other noteworthy works on the Foster front. First up is Righteous Dub, the dub version of Easy Street mixed in classic style by Foster and bassist Mike Irwin and played by a sharp crew of L.A.-area musicians who call themselves Rough Sounds. Then there's Jamaican Journey, a disc credited to the Rough Sounds band with the Irwin/Foster team once again twisting the knobs. It's a superb selection of dub-and-jazz-laced instrumental reggae. -Tom Orr
Catch Me Time Records buy
o John Brown's Body - Kings and Queens in Dub
Been a long time coming, but one of America's premier reggae bands has finally put out their first full length dub album. It's their return-to-form release Kings and Queens that's dubbed here, and JBB do it in their trademark "future roots" style, accentuating real instruments with echoey, cutting edge production that brings equal measures of techniques gleaned from Jamaican studio greats and sounds made possible by modern technology. The mix masters here include 10 Ft. Ganja Plant's Dubfader, Easy Star All-Stars Michael G, UK legend Dennis Bovell, Yesking, Lord Echo of the Black Seeds, Ticklah, Dubmatix, Jay "Double Tiger" Spaker and former JBB guitarist Nate Silas Richardson. Each brings their own touch and contributes to elevating this CD to the level of a modern dub classic. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Stevie Face - My Time
Stevie Face has got a smiling face on the front of this album and a more pensive look on the back. And so it goes with the music: it's reggae that'll make you feel lighthearted most of the way but still give you some things to think about. Possessor of a soul-drenched voice that rings out strong on love songs and engages the mind in praise of Jah or criticism of gun violence, Face leans a little too heavily on cover versions (there are five of them on the disc), but his originals make it worthwhile. Among the latter, particularly good are "Paper Soldier" (featuring Jack Radics), the unity-promoting "I Dream of the Day" and "Da Lovin' Yah Nice," which combines modern and classic sounds to good effect. Much of the instrumentation and production is by Computer Paul, with notable players like venerable sax man Dean Fraser providing some organic seasoning. Despite the album's title, I sense that it isn't quite Stevie Face's time yet. Yes, the disc is enjoyable and well worth obtaining, but Face has got the vocal chops and songwriting skills to create works that could be truly outstanding. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Joe Ferry - Big Dub
Having done bass and production work with a vast number of musicians including some in the realms of ska and reggae, Joe Ferry now brings to the table Big Dub, a little five-track slice of jazzy, trippy, dubby reggae with superior horns, tasty keyboards, solid drums and bass and just enough vocals to make you feel like you've got company on this wicked space journey. Impressive. -Tom Orr
Joe Ferry Music buy
o Rocky Dawuni - Branches of the Same Tree
Born in Ghana and presently a denizen of Los Angeles, Rocky Dawuni's status as a musician and activist has been solidified through his support of many a worthy global cause and collaborations with like-minded mainstream pop stars. Though he's essentially a reggae artist, his music often reaches well beyond Jamaica and Africa for inspiration and is stronger for it. Branches of the Same Tree catches your ear instantly with "Shine a Light," a New Orleans-style shuffler that sets things in motion for the variations-on-a-positive-theme that follow. "Black Star" and "African Thriller" make it clear that Dawuni's connections to the Motherland are both conscious and celebratory, while "Children of Abraham" pleads for an end to the sort of religious violence that sadly only begets more of the same. A pair of Bob Marley tunes are covered, one of which- "Get Up, Stand Up" -is known worldwide, and the other- "Butterfly" -decidedly more obscure. Dawuni does justice to each, but the real stars of the album are such originals as the Afro-funky "The Sign" and "Nairobi," a hearty yet serious tribute to Kenya's capital. Sounding like a youthful rebel one moment and a wise village elder the next, Dawuni sings atop a mixture of reggae, African and global-infused grooves that give the words and music the necessary weight. Even so, it's both a nod to the man's versatility and a sweet final touch that he ends with "Island Girl" a love song accompanied by ukulele and melancholy keyboard sounds. A fitting conclusion to an album that's surprising, accessible and all-around good. -Tom Orr
Cumbancha buy
o Bobby Hustle - It's the Hustle
This Seattle-based artist clearly loves his herb; it's a recurring theme throughout the 11 tracks on his debut CD. He's no slacker, though. Active in reggae music since 2007, he's performed in places as far-flung as Russia and Japan and, as songs like "Life is What You Make it" and "Defend Them" show, he's got other concerns in mind. Straddling roots, dancehall and pop reggae, It's the Hustle is no milestone but has a lot of satisfaction to offer. Hustle's well-developed singjay style is a cut above many who harness the same method, never coming across as forced or trying to squeeze in more words than necessary. His lover's rock tunes sound sincere, as does his musical mission in general. While I'm not sure what the overall reggae scene in Seattle is like, Bobby Hustle seems to be a capable and committed ambassador of it. -Tom Orr Dynasty Records/ Tom Orr
Bobby Hustle Music buy
o Nico Marks - The California - Jamaica Sessions
I had to educate myself as to Nico Marks' musical background. Turns out he's a Californian who got pretty far on "American Idol" and has an interest in combining reggae with pop rock. The California-Jamaica Sessions was recorded in part at Tuff Gong Studios, no less, and even though it's only sampler length, good vibes are evident throughout its 6 tunes (8 if you count the brief intro and outro). Mixing acoustic with electric, rock with riddim, balladry with bass and California with Caribbean, Marks scores on an unassuming batch of songs that won't burn down Babylon but will put a smile on your face and a swivel in your hips. He's got a sweetly sturdy voice that he puts to good use and his musical aims come to fruition, though I do wish the album had something more in the way of liner notes or other information chronicling the specifics of his Jamaican odyssey. -Tom Orr
Santa Juanita Records buy
o Spred the Dub - Coming Home Drunk
This band from Florida specializes in what they call "Good Time Reggae," and despite the goofiness implied by the way they spell their name, the title of this CD and its none-too-serious cover art, they're, well, pretty good. Mixing reggae, ska, dub, rock(steady) and a party attitude, they're the kind of band that can get away with a rhyme like "let's make a record/like Desmond Dekker" and not sound pretentious. Don't bother with these guys if it's strictly roots you're after: they're more along the lines of third wave ska or reggae rock with frequent emphasis on the latter. But if your lifestyle and musical tastes aren't so ital that you don't enjoy some booze with your ganja, go ahead and check 'em out. -Tom Orr Tom Orr
Spred the Dub buy
o Rusty Zinn - The Reggae Soul of Rusty Zinn
After establishing himself as a blues artist, Californian Rusty Zinn made a very impressive turn to roots reggae with his album Manifestation, recorded largely down inna yard with some of Jamaica's finest players. That one was a tough act to follow, but he's done so with style and spirit on his latest, which is aptly proclaimed "A journey to the soul of Lovers' Rock Steady." So are we talking about love of the romantic sort, or the love of early reggae music? How about both? The positivity of the opening "Rise Up" gives it an anthemic quality that makes for a best possible start, and matters of heart and spirit prevailing from there hold to the standard. Zinn's high-reaching, ringing voice permeates and inspires on ska and rocksteady-grounded tunes that encourage perseverance, make gentlemanly overtures to the fairer sex and do more than ample justice to backing tracks provided in part by such players as drummer Sly Dunbar, keyboardist Robbie Lyn, bassist Boris Gardiner, guitarists Hux Brown and Mikey Chung and Stepper on sax. Some of the riddims echo classic ones, as on the Jimmy Holiday/Slim Smith oldie "Turning Point," but apart from that and respectable covers of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "Is There a Place," Zinn keeps it original. And his originality rings true, even though the '50s style of "Do I Stand a Chance With You" sounds like it belongs on a different album. Great to see and hear that Zinn isn't going to restrict himself to one style of reggae. It's the soulful side he's bringing forth here, and it's a thing of great beauty. -Tom Orr
Rock Beat buy
o Candela Roots - Hungry
Good, solid roots reggae on this 5-song EP by a female-fronted band from (near as I can tell) Valencia, Spain. The lyrics are all in Spanish apart from some deejay breaks on one song, but the riddims need no translation. All real instruments (drums, bass, guitar, keys, percussion) are given their rightful piece of the action in a clean, forward-moving mix that will please the reggae massive anywhere on planet Earth. Lead singer Estel Navarro's vocals wail and pierce convincingly, and the players have obviously done the homework needed to play reggae right. Well done. Can't wait to hear the full-length album that I hope is in store. -Tom Orr
Mesdemil buy
o The Expanders - Hustling Culture
You'd have to set the bar very high to determine which is the finest reggae band to come from Los Angeles, let alone California or the whole of the United States. But make no mistake- the Expanders are contenders on all three counts. I've never been able to go very long without revisiting their eponymous debut CD from a few years ago, and the follow-up Old Time Something Come Back Again, on which they covered some of the classic reggae tunes that inspired them, is as good as that sort of thing gets. Now the Expanders return with Hustling Culture, their third full length release and second comprised of original material. And from the moment the groove of the opening title track kicks in, you'll be feeling that hell-yeah vibe of genuine reggae music. Supremely skilled players and singers, the Expanders level many a conscious angle, including concerns like maintaining such consciousness in reggae ("Hustling Culture"), not judging others unfairly ("People Business"), changing attitudes toward ganja ("Top Shelf") and giving women their due respect ("Thanks for Life"). Unlike a lot of American reggae outfits, this band's chops are focused solely on keeping the roots alive. Front man/rhythm guitarist Devin Morrison makes every lyric count and his mates (including new keyboardist Roy Fishell) unfailingly nail the mix of classic Jamaican finesse and understated edge that the music demands and the handy production values deliver. Plus, now that the Expanders are under the guidance of the renowned Easy Star Records label, their profile is bound to increase. That fact and the very high quality of this album (which you need to obtain as soon as possible, in case I haven't made that clear) are reasons to rejoice. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Akatz - Vuelta Y Vuelta
It's quite marvelous; the way Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae have caught on worldwide. The Basque region of Spain might not be the absolute last place you'd expect to find a band that exemplifies such a thing, but it's certainly not very close to the top of the list either. The band I'm referring to is called Akatz, and despite being together for nearly a quarter century, they haven't released many recordings. They're known more for live performances, and the energy and good cheer of this rare long player from them indicates that those shows are likely quite good. The lyrics on Vuelta Y Vuelta are all in Spanish and Basque, and the liner notes are likewise not translated into my tongue of choice. No matter. Authentic, Iberian-spiced ska and early reggae rhythms jump and dance the way they ought to, and though the subject matter of the songs is a mystery to those who don't speak the lingo, the disc gets the job done. One might take issue with the rather frothy production (the bass could certainly be harder), but the picked guitar in particular has a nice crinkle to it, the all-important horns blaze and purr and the vocals are obviously from the heart. Yup, the Jamaican sound is alive and well in Basque Country, and Akatz connects it sturdily to its point of origin, particularly on the nyabinghi-powered closing track "Vacio De Ti." -Tom Orr
Liquidator Music buy
o Next Level Sound Station - Sunken City Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
I haven't seen the movie, which reportedly has elements of stoner comedy, crime thriller and noir spoof in its Southern California-set plotline. But the soundtrack is excellent, a 70-minute odyssey of roots, dub, instrumental and vocal reggae selections. The opening melodica instrumental "Chilatron" hints at the many riches within, including lively singjay stylings from plentifully represented Nuby Dan, serious reasoning by Black Shakespeare, hauntingly funky arrangements and playing courtesy of trumpeter/musical mastermind Todd Simon (who, along with Shakespeare, has helped make L.A. reggae band The Lions one very fine outfit) and the deft guitar chops of Jared Meeker. There are no concessions to the demons of dancehall, and the music certainly doesn't suffer from the lacking-without-visuals syndrome of many soundtracks. I may get around to seeing the movie at some point in my fleeting life, but in the interim this very fine cycle of authentic reggae sounds is providing pure listening satisfaction. -Tom Orr
Sunken City LLC buy
o Arise Roots - Love and War
No second time slump here. Los Angeles' Arise Roots follow up their debut CD Moving Forward with another solid outing of simmering reggae that's got both roots and lover's rock covered. And even when things are mellow lyrically (as with "Cool Me Down," featuring sensual chime-ins by Hawaiian reggae artist Hirie), the playing, singing and overall feel are sharp and authoritative. Credit due to Karim Israel's wary vocals, under which the drums and bass team of Ron Montoya and Rodolfo Covarrubias lays a concrete foundation while the guitar jabs of Robert Sotelo Jr. and Todd Johnson's keyboards see to it that the fire stays hot. There's a higher quotient of guest artists this time (including Rootz Underground, E.N. Young, Matthew Liufau of Seedless and Fortunate Youth's Dan Kelly) plus more horn section sweetening and an increased dub sensibility. Intact from the first album are the band's penchant for timely messages ("What a Shame," "Fear Factory") and knowing when to lighten the mood with more popish fare. These gents are still on the rise and sounding great on this independent release. -Tom Orr
Arise Roots buy
o Various Artists - Monterey Or Bust
Pretty good selection of primarily American reggae here, though New Zealand's always-worthwhile Katchafire is also in the lineup. What they all have in common is having played at Monterey's California Roots Music and Arts Festival that takes place every Memorial Day weekend. Most of the artists I was already familiar with, and among those with whom I wasn't, Marko's "Principles" and the loopy "Chicks Can Dub" by Papafish are particularly ear-opening. Not really any bum tracks, though some may lean a little too poppy for roots enthusiasts. Still a solid collection you can enjoy from start to finish, with ample standouts including The Simpkin Project's anthemic "If You Really Want It," Maoli's "Get Right," Stick Figure's opener "Vibes Alive" and the well-chosen closing track "Vibes Love & Revolution," a nyabinghi-enriched parting blessing by Fear Nuttin Band and Sara Lugo. If the title of this disc is some kind of multiple choice, choose Monterey, 'cause this ain't no bust. -Tom Orr
Rebel Sound Records buy
o Marty Dread - Upcountry Boy
I'm no great fan of reggae cover versions and this album didn't make a convert of me even though it has some good moments. Okay, A lot of good moments. Hawaii's Marty Dread has long been interested in the connections between country music and reggae music, so much of what he re-does inna reggae style are songs originally by country artists. But not all. Some that were pop tunes from my younger days, including "Still the One," "Love the One You're With" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" all work just fine in the reggae context, though "Cats in the Cradle" (the disc's only true dud) sounds perfunctory and falls flat. As for the ones that were first recorded by country stars like Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill and Eddie Rabbit, well, it's probably best that I'm not familiar with the originals and thus have no existing notions of how they should be Jamaican-ized. Marty's got a warm, friendly voice that enables him to put just enough twang into the country remakes and emphasize the pop hooks of the others. Also to his advantage is a first rate crew of musicians, including bassist Fully Fullwood and guitarist Tony Chin from the legendary Soul Syndicate, plus pedal steel wizard Marty Rifkin, who injects the proper down home vibe and splits the difference between Kingston and Nashville. Upcountry Boy grabbed me from the start with its particularly strong take on "Walking in Memphis" and grew on me as it went along. Even if you're a longtime reggae fan with doubts about projects of this sort, give this one a go. There's a good chance you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. -Tom Orr
Five Corners Music buy
o New Kingston - Kingston City
Interesting dynamic here: a reggae band comprised of a father and his three sons, with the dad playing bass and the progeny singing and playing guitar, drums and keyboards. New Kingston is based in New York City, which may not be a center of reggae on the same level as the original Kingston, but it's still a hotbed. The moderately funky contemporary roots sound on this, their third album, reminds me of San Diego's Devastators, and that's good thing. The riddims are primarily solid reggae, while the soul and spirit (including vocals that are rapid-fire as often as meditative) are progressive and forward-thinking. New Kingston has many of the right bases covered, including a pro-herb tune ("Who Tell Them"), great guest artists (Sister Carol, the Wailing Souls, the late Sugar Minott) and feel for the conscious ("Mystery Babylon," "Conquer Dem"). They go a bit awry when they get too hip-hoppy, as on "Can't Stop a Man," and the canned voice that murmurs the band's name during the intros to about half the tracks is annoying. But for the most part New Kingston does an impressive job of helping to carry the torch for modern reggae. Enjoy, and expect this band to have many good works yet to come -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad - Steady
They've weathered personnel changes, taken a risky sideline into a different genre (on 2012's Americana-style Country) and hail from Rochester, N.Y., hardly the first place you'd affiliate with reggae music. Regardless, Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad remains a very popular outfit that melds roots reggae with the sort of jam band aesthetics that can greatly expand a band's fan base. I've liked these gents since their 2001 debut for numerous reasons: they're top notch musicians, their vocal skills match their instrumental ones (including great harmonies), they know how to make catchy songs, they understand that substance doesn't have to be sacrificed in order to make the songs catchy and they have a knack for crisp production values. That last point ensures that there's an equitable spark to each and every one of the guitar riffs, clavinet jabs, dubby echoes, quirky percussion accents and ganja-mellowed verses that make this album another gem in GPGDS's body of work. Steady is a handy balance of seriousness and whimsy, putting forth the mindful messages of tracks like "Solution" and "Whatever Cost" while also taking on such subjects as marijuana and gun control with disarming humor. The presence of Ranking Joe is a bonus on "Take Your Place," where he inserts one of his most tongue-tripping toasts ever, and the combination of a rocksteady beat and banjo riffs makes "Home" flat-out wicked. The band reportedly has another Americana album standing by for release, but for now enjoy them in reggae mode on this, quite possibly their best to date. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Backbeat Soundsystem - Together Not Apart
Cornwall-based Backbeat Soundsystem has a hard-hitting modern roots sound laced with horns, synths and cutting edge production that puts them across as the British equivalent of John Brown's Body and makes them attention-grabbing contenders on the international reggae scene. The title Together Not Apart couldn't be more timely, and this is indeed reggae for our times. There are roots at the core, but these guys don't hold back when it comes to funk, dancehall breaks, electronic ambiance or goosed tempos. Vocalist/synth player Dean Forrest is the producer and main composer of the band and he keeps things varied, from the concerned stances of "Against it All" and "Words are the Weapon" (the latter coming across more than a little UB40-ish) to more introspective fare like "Losing Faith" and the lovers tune "Share With You." A trifle strident at times (particularly in the vocals) but infused with ample soul and goodness that more than offsets a few harsher moments, what we have is a strong showing from a group that reggae fans all over the world should keep their eyes and ears on. Seems like it's been a while since a good reggae band emerged from the U.K., so cheers to this lot. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Lek Sen - Jaam Dong (Only Peace)
Coming at me out of the clear blue with accompanying promotional information that was only in French, I needed some additional online research to set me straight on both Senegal's Lek Sen and his latest album. While hailed as an upcoming force in reggae, probably because of his Capleton-like vocal style and the fact that he has been endorsed by Clinton Fearon and Harrison Stafford of Groundation, Lek Sen also works in elements of Afro-pop, hip hop and griot tradition for a sound that reaches far and wide but likely won't be entirely satisfying for fans of undiluted reggae. He nonetheless certainly has good intentions backed up by some strong statements he offers on Jaam Dong, including the nyabinghi "Brave Man," "Don't Give Up" (on which he tonally resembles Joseph Hill), a combination of fire and somberness on the title track and the assertive swagger of "No Man Can Stop Us." Not a bad album by any means, but a little too much of a mixed bag for my taste. -Tom Orr
Jahsen Creation buy

Born in upstate New York and a present denizen of Southern California, Tom Orr has been (and still is) a contributor to such print and online publications as The Beat, Global Rhythm, World Music Central, Roots World and several sites devoted to reggae music. He's a fan of many sounds from the world over but reggae is the primary rhythm of his life, which includes work as a voiceover actor, percussionist, husband of one, father of three and state employee with a shrinking salary.
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