If you read my last post, you know how I feel about the state of underground soul. Despite my feelings about the dearth of great releases, every few months an album will come along to renew my faith in the underground scene. Lately, ZO!’s new long player, Man Made, along with Omar’s The Man, have done just that. These albums are close to being on my list of my favorites of all-time. This brings me to the subject of this post. I felt it was high time I let my listeners know my choices for best underground soul albums of the new millennium. There is nothing scientific about my list. It’s based on the quality of the production, the instrumentation and those unexplainable psychographics that make you feel certain ways about music. Although great vocals are a plus, they are not an absolute necessity. The same thing applies for lyrics. Let’s face it. If the music sucks, most of us aren’t going to stick around for the lyrics anyway. So here it is, in no particular order. Of course, it is a dynamic list that could change with the next great release.
For my list, I had to have some parameters, otherwise I could have easily had about 40 albums on it. I made it a 25-album list because 10 is just too small an amount for all of the brilliant music that’s been made since the year 2000 and 40 just didn’t seem exclusive enough. The criteria for my list are as follows:
1) The album was released in year 2000 or later
2) No “major” label releases (sorry D’Angelo, Jill, Bilal and Amel)
3) No top 40 albums or albums that had top 40 singles
4) Albums must have been released and available to the general public (i.e., no shelved albums or albums sold from the back of the trunk; unfortunately this eliminates Dwele’s amazing R.I.Z.E.
5) Majority of songs must have singing (as opposed to rapping or instrumentals)
6) No EP’s
7) No compilations
Michelle Amador-Higher: Jazzy vocals over nu-jazz, hip hop, and nu-soul grooves. The bass line on In And Out is special. As are the bass, strings and horns on Eager Of The Years. Excellent production by Zed Bias.
Oezlem-*Reflections: Another Zed Bias production. I put an asterisk next to it because this album has apparently been removed from all music stores and the digital songs from all download sites, at least in the USA. And there’s hardly a mention of it on the internet which is even more unbelievable since you can find virtually anything on the internet. If you have this one, make a copy of it in case you lose the original. As for the music, it’s all good. The bass and beat mixed with the strings at the end of Lollipop make that song one of my favorites on an album full of outstanding tracks. By the way, Zed, if you’re reading this, tell me how you can produce two albums at the same time as good as Oezlem’s and Michelle’s, then never be heard from again?
Darrius-Can’t Get Enough: It’s easy to get lost in the soul scene when one is in the northwest part of the U.S. But you can’t hide good music or an artist with obvious skill. And if you don’t believe me, check out the two albums he released before this one.
Teedra Moses-Complex Simplicity: No underground album could cross back and forth between mainstream radio and the underground better than this one, if mainstream radio decided to play it, that is. She can sing Rescue Me to me all day with that voice! Over the acoustic guitar of (I Think Of You) Shirley’s Song, it could make a grown man cry. This album should have made her famous.
The Rebirth-This Journey In: Back in the days, talented musicians and singers used to team up and call the unit a band. Remember them? We don’t have too many on the R&B/soul scene these days. But these folks decided to do it and they did it remarkably well. The music and harmonies on this one make it timeless. Too bad they only released one cd.
Cecilia Stalin-Step Like A Giant: One of the most recent releases on this list. Thanks, Cecilia. My music collection needed some hot butta. Love the beat on Blue And Green. CPW is perfect. Producer Waiwan kicked some serious tail on that one.
Erik Rico-Journey Back To Me: Best electronic soul to come out of the US. Welcome To The Space Age indeed! I was playing that song for a year before I put it away.
Brotherly-One Sweet Life: Anna Stubbs on vocals and Robin Mularkey on production make one awesome duo. I didn’t hear this one until three years after it was released, so three years of my life have been deprived of this jazzy, soulful goodness. The standouts for me are Searching and True (check out the drum kit on the last two minutes). This album’s mix of programmed and live instrumentation is some of the best you’ll hear.
Jose James-Blackmagic: I can only describe Jose James as the best jazz lounge singer you will ever hear. You never hear his type of voice over soul and electronica. However, this album’s music fits his voice perfectly. The horn section of Promise In Love, the keyboards in Greater Good, the jazz guitar of Blackmagic, the minimalism of Love Conversation. It is all literally magic.
Aquanote-The Pearl: If this doesn’t put you in a “Friday night at the lounge” state of mind, nothing will. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to this one. I would put this album in my top five for sure.
N’Dambi-Tunin Up And Cosignin: A double-album of new studio cuts and live versions of songs from her first album, Little Lost Girl Blues. This one runs the gamut from old school jazz (Bitter Bitter Blue) to house (Call Me). As time goes on, the brilliance of this album becomes more apparent.
Carmen Rodgers-Free: Producer Geno Young must’ve known how much I love the Rhodes piano. This album puts me in a really good mood. You could call this an underrated underground album, if there is such a thing.
J*Davey-The Beauty In Distortion/The Land Of The Lost: A double-album this eclectic? I have to steal the tag line of fast food chain Zaxby’s – indescribably good!
Adriana Evans-El Camino: This album reminded long-time fans that she still had that magic. Ideal summer afternoon music.
2000 Black-A Next Set A Rockers: Super UK producers Dego and Kaidi Tatham blessed us with more of their surreal sounds. I think So Right is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and my music collection goes back to the 1960’s.
Wayna-Moments Of Clarity, Book 1: This is what a classic nu-soul album should sound like, in my opinion. There are no duds on this one. Put on Straight Up at a party and watch the necks start snapping.
Soul:ID-Sex, Lies & Philosophy: People of African descent making soul. Makes sense, doesn’t it? This is just straight pure neo-soul. And it sounds good when the speakers are turned up, especially the beat of Beauty & Sin. I don’t have a decent enough adjective for Tender. It just sounds better every time I hear it.
Fertile Ground-Seasons Change: I was actually considering their Black Is cd for this list as well, but felt I should keep it to one album per artist since there is so much good music out there. I chose Seasons Change because it had more songs that I liked on it and it’s the one that really gave them their identity, but you can’t go wrong with either one. Love me some Navasha Daya!
Van Hunt-Van Hunt: If you like your soul mixed with early 70’s funk & rock, then you need to have this. Other than Prince, this is the closest-sounding thing to Sly & The Family Stone. There was no band like them, but Sly would have been proud to make an album like this. On Anything, Van doesn’t say “anything”, he says “anyTHANG”. Now that’s funk!
Lanu-This Is My Home: It should be called This Is My Jam because I say that about nearly every song on this one. This is some of the finest broken beat, soul and samba you’ll find on one album. Get this if you don’t have it. The song Let You Glow is worth the price alone.
Reel People-Second Guess: I knew I would have Reel People on this list. I just didn’t know which one of their three brilliant albums it would be. And choosing was extremely difficult. I chose this one since it was their first. However, you should have all three. Second Guess and The Light are my favorites. If you want to hear one of their best songs, check out It Will Be on their Seven Ways To Wonder album.
Sy Smith-Psykosoul: This album was so good, it was released twice. In actuality, it was shelved shortly after its release on Hollywood Records. Due to popular demand from the underground, Sy re-released it on her own label in 2005. The second version contained some good bonus tracks so, technically, it is better. Don’t sleep on the song Don’t Sleep.
Fly-Fly: You may have never heard of them. They released their one and only cd in 2004. The musicianship is on par with any of the best nu-jazz you’ve heard. Of all the tremendously good tracks on here, Satellite is the one you definitely need to hear. They are from Finland, so some of the lyrics may not be grammatically correct. But it doesn’t matter because the music is on point.
Stateless-Art Of No State: Despite the title, this one puts me in a peaceful state of mind. This is my answer to one of those “if you were trapped on an island, which albums would you want with you” questions. Each song has just the right amount of both vocal moments (to appreciate the singing) and instrumental moments (to appreciate the musicianship).
Myron-Free: Island Records tried to turn the talented Myron into a R&B crooner in 1998 with his album Destiny. You could hear the underpinnings of nu-soul in that release. After that release, Myron left the label, went into his underground lab and put together this group of songs which became an instant classic in my book. Shows you what can be done when a record company is removed from the creative process.
Like I mentioned above, there were many deserving albums I could have put on this list. There was about ten more about which I debated in my head. If I wrote this blog on a different day, some of the titles listed above may not have been on it. Nevertheless, if you’re new to the underground soul scene, picking up the albums listed here will get you off to a great start.