1. India.Arie - Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics
India.Arie is definitely one of the most controversial artists in neo-soul. Fans either love her or hate her; there is very little middle ground. But then, this is the risk run by artists who don't compromise. Arie's latest effort has her bolder than ever. Whether she is coyly treating us to an insider's view of sexual desire on "Chocolate High" or railing against money spent on wars while New Orleans crumbles on "There's Got To Be a Better Way," one never doubts that they are listening to the exact album Arie wanted to make. That in itself is a rare treat.
2. The Redskins - Neither Washington Nor Moscow
I've been listening to the Redskins all week--not the football team, but the revolutionary socialist soul band from Britain. Readers would do well to look this group up. They were all socialist skinheads (hence the name) in who played blistering agit-soul in the early '80s. They were incredibly active in anti-Nazi activities and solidarity with the miners' strike against the Thatcher government. Their lyrics were agitational to the point of being almost didactic at times, but their music could get you moving! Just a glimpse of the heights that great radical music can climb to in our times.
3. Mr. Scruff - Keep It Unreal
Sometimes the best way you can pay tribute to your favorite artists is by completely reinventing them. Make no mistake: Mr. Scruff is deliberately quirky and iconoclastic, but he manages to maintain an artistic center. His deconstruction of jazz classics don't represent a lampooning so much as a deep reverence for the greats that came before him. At the same time, he gives himself permission to experiment the way that few would allow themselves when regarding another artists' material. Certainly gives you a different take on "originality," doesn't it?
4. Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line
Six months after I saw this group one of their first gigs at a small house party in Syracuse, they were playing at CMJ. Not long after they had a record deal and being dubbed a "band to look out for" by several outlets. The Rhumb Line showed up on several "best of '08" lists. There is a muscly sensitivity here--a description that might seem paradoxical until you hear their jangling guitars mixed with the swirl of violin and cello. Fans of music that wears its heart on its sleeve without getting calloused will definitely like this album.
5. Roots Manuva - Slime & Reason
Manuva's ability to reinvent himself and his sound several times over has definitely put him on the map as one of the best MCs to come out of England--and is living proof that despite the endless elitism over Hip-Hop's direction, the UK may indeed be showing a way forward. His stripped-down rhymes, his willingness to mash-up funk, dub, reggae and electroclash into his beats, and above all his sense of playfulness make Slime & Reason a strong effort. Not as strong as 2005's Awfully Deep, but strong enough to be classic Manuva, and that's more than sufficient.