The best CDs of the last twelve months.
Acoustic jazz undertones, languid sensual vocals, African beats, clapping hands and the Moscow Orchestra - not what you'd usually expect of a hip-hop album. But MC Solaar's latest, Mach 6, is no ordinary album.
Following in the footsteps of hip-hop greats like the poet laureate of rap, Tupac Shakur, Mach 6 is further proof of the ruler of French rap's amazing verbal dexterity and talent for storytelling, combining the influences of France and Senegal and name-checking Castro, Faust and Picasso, to name a few. Political tracks such as 'Au Pays de Gandhi' and 'Guérrilla' sit alongside the pop/rap crossover current single 'La Vie est Belle' and the infectious 'Hijo de Africa'.
It is no surprise that MC Solaar was asked to write a track for the brilliant film La Haine; his music is the soundtrack to a new generation of angry, intelligent, ignored working class fighters. Whether or not you understand French, this album is a must for any rap fan's collection and a perfect introduction to the fruits of a much maligned music form.
Eve R Light
Soulful, smooth and so simply super duper sensational - Joss Stone's Mind Body & Soul album truly is an unforgettable piece of art. This year we were blessed with her second album, although it's the first to contain her own material, and if this is what she's producing at the age of 17, I just cannot imagine what delicious treats are in store for us in years to come. Stone's simplicity and rawness leave her glistening among her musical peers and I adore her mixed style of modern/traditional soul.
Her music allows us to relive the delightful sounds of true soul music with every song telling a story in words which are so easy to relate to - perhaps it's her youthfulness that allows her to write so succinctly but so effectively. This album makes you want to explode with happiness at the sound of the funky up-tempo tracks, and then cry to the ballads.
The passion is electric and her voice is spine-tinglingly scrumptious. Lamont Dozier has co-written some of the songs also. With everything combined, Mind Body & Soul is my favourite album of the year by miles.
Coalition of the Thrilling
My favourite listening has been where various styles, cultures, influences, come together in a unified exploration of jazz, electronic beats, contemporary and traditional music. Matthew Shipp's Blue Series grew in strength with the urban High Water by El-p and the abstract Junk Music by Craig Taborn. Roots by the Gypsy Kings is just that, and much more.
I've heard many versions of 'Drum Song', Jackie Mittoo's call to arms, but Marjorie Whylie's version on A Tribute to Reggae's Keyboard King Jackie Mittoo is something else. The whole album is great. Michael Gordon, composer co-founder of Bang On A Can, had Trance by Icebreaker remixed and re-released. It sounds like breaking glass, wonderful modern music.
I've also just got English Acoustic Collective's Ghosts - traditional dance music at its best. Most played and loved is Streamer by Finnish trumpet player Nils Petter Molvar. Long live coalition music.
Past and Present
Skinnyman's Council Estate of the Mind and Franz Ferdinand's self-titled album are both stunning debuts released this year. Mos Def's The New Danger contains a superb sampled update of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Goin' On', and Kanye West's 'Through the Wire' is easily my single of the year. In the world of jazz, Keith Jarrett is always worth listening to, as is Brad Mehldau, while Gilad Atzmon is one of the most innovative performers around today.
However, rather than choosing one single album of the year, I would recommend two performers rescued from the mists of time. Earlier this year Martin Scorsese produced a series of films under the general title of The Blues. The quality of the films is uneven but the DVD is definitely worth buying and Wim Wenders' film The Soul of a Man lovingly brings to our attention two largely forgotten, unsung but brilliant artists, Skip James and J B Lenoir.
Beauty Out of Horror
University Challenge is an odd place to discover new music but that's how I was introduced to what has become without doubt my album of 2004.
Sadly, classical music is often seen as inaccessible and elitist but Jacqueline du Pré's version of Elgar's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and evocative pieces of music I have ever heard.
The cello concerto grew out of the horror of the mechanised slaughter of the First World War and reflects the feeling that civilisation itself was on the verge of collapse. It is at once melancholic and profoundly moving, yet filled with great passion and moments of musical grandeur.
It might be worth accompanying the CD by reading an excellent book written by du Pré's husband Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, Parallels and Paradoxes, about Wagner, Palestine and Israel.
Tragically du Pré's career ended with the effects of multiple sclerosis and she died in 1987. As tragic is the fact that years after the piece was written we are again witness to the horrors of war that Elgar hoped to end.
Voices of Protest
During 2004 the Honest Jons label released three classic southern soul albums, each named after the artist: Candi Staton, Bettye Swann and Willie Hightower. The songs were recorded between the late 1960s and early 1970s, and many reflect the social upheaval of the times.
Willie Hightower had taken part in the civil rights demonstrations in his home town of Alabama, and he wrote 'Time has Brought About a Change' as his follow up to Sam Cooke's classic 'A Change is Gonna Come'. His recording of 'If I Had a Hammer' is also on the album; you realise it was written as a protest song when he sings it. Candi Staton's album also includes a powerful recording of 'In the Ghetto', the refrain of which also runs through Hightower's 'Poor Man'.
The majority of the songs on these albums, though, are not political, but they are classic soul. A mixture of ballads and funkier songs, they all feature fantastic singers and musicians. Any one of these albums would be a great way to round off the year but, if you can, treat yourself - or someone else - to all three.
It's a Definition
Every so often a jazz record label defines the music of its era. Blue Note, Impulse, ESP, Prestige spring to mind. Thirsty Ear Recordings is carrying that flag today. This is a record label that is prepared to take risks - a rare thing these days.
The label's Blue Series brings together some of the most exciting modern jazz musicians - William Parker, Mathew Shipp and David S Ware - to work alongside the most adventurous hip-hop DJs, Anti Pop Consortium, Mad Professor, DJ Wally and DJ Spooky. The music that they produce is fresh, dynamic, and opens up a whole new musical universe.
Of the 30-plus albums the label has released, my favourite is DJ Spooky's Celestial Mechanix. DJ Spooky has revisited the other albums released on the label - grabbed bits of each of them, remixed them and created a collage of sound.
One track in particular stands out - 'Not in our Name'. It fuses a haunting violin riff with a James Brown funky style drum pattern. Throw in a Dr Who sample or two, an absurd speech from Bush and place over the top a powerful anti-war poem from Saul Williams, and the result is quite simply the perfect mix of politics and music.
My Favourite Things
CD of the year? It's a toss-up between two works from the US that have made a huge amount of money, including the biggest-selling mobile ringtone.
Both represent the amazing truth that pop music can be avant-garde, experimental, confrontational, ground breaking, hilarious, sexy, journalistic, angry, very catchy, plain funky, narratively dense, genre defying, jaw-droppingly daring, everlastingly listenable and immaculately presented.
One is really two separate projects by each of the headline duo. One partner played one of the live gigs of the year in Camden last summer. The other has a guest contribution from the ubiquitous Norah Jones, and speeds up John Coltrane's take on 'My Favourite Things'.
The other is the culmination of prolific background work as a very talented young writer and producer. He samples Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross (speeded up as if taking helium), and boasts vocal guest spots by just about every top peer plus the wonderful Syleena Johnson, daughter of Syl 'Is it because My Skin is Black'? Johnson.
Some pretty petty factors swing the balance. Because he includes a contribution from piano-playing movie actor of 2004 Jamie Foxx and because it's a debut, Kanye West's College Dropout gets the nod over Outkast's Love Below/Speakerbox. Just.
The Libertines' eponymous second album, while not quite matching the exhilarating rush of their debut, was still head and shoulders above most of the indie-rock crowd for sass, irreverence and sheer great tunes.
Estranged Libertines guitarist Pete Doherty's Babyshambles could yet deliver an even better record judging by their startling live shows and killer single 'Killamangiro'.
Estelle's '1980' was a great pop song - an evocative celebration of life and struggle.
Sunderland's Futureheads' excellent debut album was full of great skewed pop about everyday life, reminiscent of the angular post-punk of XTC and Gang of Four.
D Double E, the East London grime MC, provided a similar indictment of Britain under Blair with the poetic melancholy of 'Birds in the Sky', a good example of the depth to be found in a music often lazily labelled as simple violent and misogynist.
Another World Music
My real favourite was Rachid Taha's Tékitoi, the most energetic and political album from France/North Africa for years. And then there was Tinariwen's Amassakoul, Saharan blues at its best.
But my recommendation goes to Youssou N'Dour's Egypt. Four months ago the tape player in my car broke and would play only two recordings - Egypt and N'Dour's earlier album Nothing's In Vain. A stern test indeed. I now have an encyclopaedic knowledge of these two albums. That and a four year old who can sing along in Wolof, the language of Senegal, to a number of tracks.
N'Dour became a global megastar after working with Peter Gabriel - but don't hold that against him. His music brings together the traditions of West Africa with sounds from all over the world. He is the opposite of bland 'world music'.
Egypt was a surprise to his normal fans. It is a collection of music devoted to Sufi Islam. It took him years to make, and was held back after 9/11.
For some reason record company executives were not super keen about an album which 'praises the tolerance of my religion' as N'Dour puts it. Even when it was released, the title was changed from Sant Allah (Thanks Allah), its Senegal release name, to something more neutral.
Youssou N'Dour worked with Fathy Salama, who arranged and conducted his orchestral group of violins, reeds, flutes, and percussion.
It's a different sound to Nothing's In Vain (my favourite N'Dour album) but still brilliant. It is no hyperbole for me to say that it has 'repaid repeated listening'. Or that a new tape player will be on my New Year's list.