You can find the best-of year-end lists in most music publications. Rather than rehashing what was already reviewed and discussed this year, Music Spectrum is going deep into the stacks of CDs received this year to take a look at some of the ones that got missed.
Long before Paul Simon arrived in South Africa to discover their sound and use it for his 1986 album, Graceland, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was using the traditional music of the South African mine workers along with Gospel to create some of the most heartening songs of praise. With the 2004 Heads Up release, Raise Your Spirit Higher [Weenyukela], the group continues to weave together these musical traditions. Songs like the title track use such beautiful, tender harmonies that it indeed lifts your soul higher, thinking of the peace that comes through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Due to the clicking in the Zulu language, and other whistles, howls, trills, etc., it is often hard to remember that the choir sings acappela. They are their own percussion. “Music Knows No Boundaries” reminds us how music transcends nationalities—a wonderful international statement. Unfortunately, because most of the songs are not sung in English, many American listeners would have to accept the sentiment in this song before ever listening to this CD beyond being soundtrack to a movie needing an “African” feel. Am I being harsh? Perhaps, but I’m making a hypothesis based on all of the people who tell me they don’t like foreign films because they get tired of reading subtitles. To that attitude, Ladysmith Black Mambazo comes singing the Gospel in something besides English which may help us remember that Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and His message is written in Greek.
Men Without Hats was greatly misunderstood in many circles when they made the charts with “The Safety Dance” in the 80’s—a song with a catchy melody but only some of the quirky keyboard tricks of the rest of their music. Now, Skep features some of that same keyboard sound on their album, Ctrl-S. Many other artists may try to use the keyboardy-keyboard sound without any irony, sense of art, or sense of fun. Men Without Hats didn’t take themselves too seriously when they created their Casio keyboard sounds, but on the other hand, they did take themselves seriously. They were serious about creating art, making a statement. I hear this same balance in Skep’s eclectic collection of keyboard pop, electronica dance tracks, and Hip Hop rap—all in Welsh, of course. Skep will challenge you to go beyond “The Safety Dance” and go deeper into the cuts from Men Without Hats. Landing in the Spectrum near the outstanding Dim Apathi/No Apathy Welsh music collection, Ctrl-S will be easily misunderstood—especially if you don’t know Welsh—but don’t let that stop you from discovering this Eurobeat dance/art music. Ctrl-S is released by Recordiau Dockrad Records.
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When I lived outside of San Francisco/Oakland for a year, I quickly felt amiss that I had never really known about Tower of Power. The quintessential Funk Rock group, combining rock, soul, and jazz, with that big, old horn section, Tower of Power has been around for over 30 years. The Oakland Zone, their 2003 release, isn’t the pinnacle or standard-setting album of their career, but it certainly finds the group in fine form. Knowing that Tower of Power has been creating these rhythms all of these years, I can now look back and see how much influence they’ve wielded. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so quick to get rid of Was (Not Was)’s What Up, Dog? back in the day if I had understood that they were expanding the Funk Rock horizons established by Tower of Power, the Oakland funk power group. The Oakland Zone is released by Or Music.
Less horns, more electronics greet you on Particle’s Launchpad. Purported to be “the pioneers of funktronic rock” (an ambitious claim considering that Launchpad is their debut release from a band begun in 2000), Particle swirls the funk with the electronics, rocks up what you might hear from Herbie Hancock, and vamps like an electronic Jam Band. Darren Pujalet’s drum breaks and fills keep this electronic swirl from getting trapped in monotony. Laser light show and Imax movies about flying through the galaxy come to mind, but I think that kind of trippy reaction to this music would overlook the very artistic musicianship. Think Rush without Geddy Lee—a preoccupation with space that acts like NASA for your music world. Even if you don’t believe in spending money on space travel, NASA’s explorations have yielded so many inventions for our daily lives. Even if you don’t get into space travel themes, Particle’s exploration yield a tremendous amount of Funk Rock for your daily life. Having been winning fans among the Jam Band circles, Particle again brings to the fore the question: Can you jam to a Jam Band without using pot or psychedelic drugs? My inquiring-conservative-Christian-youth-pastor-concerned-for-his-youth mind wants to know. Launchpad is released by Or Music.
Thanks to all of the labels for the review copies.