Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fittest of The Fittest: Ranking The Modern Classics

One of our main goals with this blog was really to publicize and attract attention towards MODERN Reggae music. The genre is one which, at least on the more ‘mainstream’ scale is largely looked at in reverse, with the majority of the eyes focused on a period which is no longer here. That is just unacceptable when, at least in my opinion, in terms of quantity we now have more talented people participating in the music than ever before and from places in the world which, historically, have not been hotbeds for our wonderful music. One of the largest ways we’ve tried to do this was through a series called “Modern Classics”. What this running feature does is to attempt to shed even more light and bring focus onto some of the greatest albums of the modern era [see note]. Some of these albums are well known and well regarded while others are not. Others still, are the work of a vast amount of personal opinion; however, what they all, at least ostensibly, share in common is that they show Reggae in the modern era in a very good way. So, having now reached a bit of a landmark, with the series having recently reached #30, I thought that it would be very interesting to try to rank some of the greatest albums that I’ve ever heard amongst themselves. Thus, I submit for your approval - Fittest of The Fittest: Ranking The Modern Classics.

{Note: The “modern era” is defined as the period beginning after the end of 2000 and extending to the beginning of the previous year (in this case, 2010). Obviously, there are two exceptions to the latter stipulation on this list}
{Note 2: 30 entries. How long did this take? Still the maddest!}
{Note 3: Links to original articles are attached to each album's titles}
{Note 4: As usual, biggup Bredz}

#30. "Join Us" by Turbulence [No Doubt Records - 2003]

Mine! The only concession that I will make in the case of this album, even all of these years later, is that it isn't as good as any other that you'll find on this list. HOWEVER, to my ears, it was a great album. Why exactly? The lasting impression that I have from Turbulence's second best album ever, "Join Us", these days is that - If he never writes an autobiography (and he won't), this album would have served that purpose. You can follow along here on tunes like the title track, 'Turbulence', 'Based on A True Story' and others (with a few turns as well) and you just get such a powerful feel of what lead Turbulence to that stage of his career and his life. Surely my own feelings have changed about his music from that time and, who knows, they may change dramatically once again, but no matter how I may feel Turbulence has taken his career in the time since, I'll likely never stop defending this wonderfully PERSONAL album.

#29. "Flame On" by Machel Montano [Ruf Rex Productions - 2008]

The Escape. To date, "Flame On" by Trinidad Soca superstar, Machel Montano, is the only Soca album that we've covered in this series and I could probably continue to write it for several more years before I'd ever find another album from the colourful genre from which I could make a case for calling a 'classic' (actually, I think the next likely candidate would be another Montano album, "Book of Angels"). What was so special here was just that the album was the musical embodiment of the GORGEOUS MADNESS, the CHAOS, the INTENSITY which, at least for me, makes this music the intoxicating mental release that it was. 'Unconditional', 'Blazin D Trail', of course 'Rollin' w/Patrice Roberts . . . I could really name you the entire album. As a whole, I don't know that I've yet to encounter a Soca album which just elevates the listener like this one. When you want to lose your mind, simply press Play.

#28. "Real Rebels Can't Die" by Nereus Joseph [Sirius Records - 2009]

The Blueprint Vol. 1. Along with one other album that you’ll find on this list (thus the "Vol. 1"), I can point to "Real Rebels Can't Die" by Lucian born/UK based singer, Nereus Joseph as a straight forward winner of a HUGE Roots Reggae album. If you want to make good Reggae music in 2011, this is the type of album that I’m going to recommend you listen to prior to preceding. And I don't want to make it seem as if the album wasn't spectacular and compelling, because it certainly was in both instances. It should also be said that with a song with a title like 'Fundamental Principles of Life', "Real Rebels Can't Die" also stands as one of the most INTELLIGENT albums I've ever heard.

#27. "The Burnin Melody" by Lion D [Bizzarri Records - 2009]

Surge. Who is Lion D??? What business had he in giving Reggae a MIGHTY boost in 2009 via delivering my choice as the year's finest album altogether, "The Burnin Melody"? While I'm almost sure that this album had no bigger cheerleader than yours truly, in retrospect, and I'm still convinced. While you won't see this one soaring high on this list, that's just a matter of time going by in my opinion because I can say that very rarely in the modern era of Reggae music have we seen anyone with the NATURAL talent for the music than the wonderfully 'rough around the edges' and almost completely unpolished Lion D.

#26. "Back To Africa" by Harry Mo [Yellow Hill Music - 2008]

The Blueprint Vol. 2. Just as is the case with #28 on this list, "Back To Africa" by BIG Dominican born singer, Harry Mo, is another sterling example of just how powerful straight forward Modern Roots Reggae music can be when done at its highest level. Along with Lion D and one other name no this list, Harry Mo's is probably the most surprising entrant; however, you definitely shouldn't let his lack of star power keep you from checking out this master class of an album. The remaining sentiment here, at least for me, is just a mental KICK of sorts. If you need a very quick and strong mental upliftment - Travel "Back To Africa" courtesy of the magnificent Harry Mo.

#25. "Jah Guidance" by Batch [Carrion Brookes Production - 2005]

Rising. Having just dealt with this one a few days back - I won't get into it too much (again), but what I will say is that if it isn't obvious just how much my taste for "Jah Guidance" (literally and figuratively) from Ras Batch is growing, you can notice just how many fine projects I placed it ahead of and around. 2009's Album of The Year, two of the most SOLID entries that you’ll find on this list, one of my personal favourites and arguably the best Soca album I've ever heard. Yeah - It's that good.

#24. "Never Give Up" by Jah Mason [On The Corner - 2003]

Gideon start. Here was another album which I became one of the biggest supporters of in the face of, ostensibly, much more powerful material. To this day, I can look at higher regarded albums by the masses from Jah Mason such as "Most Royal", "Wheat & Tears" and others and to me, while those were clearly big projects, they just didn't have that kind of DOMINANT scope which was to be found on this MASSIVE album, "Never Give Up". This release featured a wide range of emotions of sentiments and messages, but what really set it apart for me was this ever present commitment to the moment. What I mean is that - I'm WELL under the impression that Mason fully realized that he had something special on this one, himself, and when he finished it must’ve been clear to everyone involved. Of course, that’s just my opinion though . . .

#23. "Long Journey" by Naptali [Oneness Records - 2010]

Dazzle me. Once again I'll find myself making, perhaps, the largest case to be made for a particular album in this case. I heard simply no more complete and well done album all of last year than the debut album from Naptali The Great - "Long Journey". Much like the first entry on this list, I now look at this piece as being very personal and autobiographical, but for me its reach extends well beyond being a comprehensive introduction to Naptali (and Sara Lugo). What it proves to be, while not being as 'sure' as some of the other titles here, is such a fulfilling and PLEASING set and Naptali shows the confidence and conviction of an artist well beyond his years.

#22. "Coming Home" by Ras Shiloh [VP Records - 2007]

The volume. I've yet to finish with Ras Shiloh - He still has two amazing albums which should be added to this series at some point, but I chose to begin with what is probably my favourite of the trio, "Coming Home" because . . . Well like I just said, it's my favourite of them all. This album is just musical NOURISHMENT! The greatest highlight of the Bobby Digital produced piece comes in the form of one of the single best tunes Shiloh has done in his most underrated career, the MAMMOTH 'Volume of The Book' ("under a cool meditation while the whole Earth shook"), but the album’s sing a mighty 'backup' on one of the finest albums from the turn of the century.

#21. "Rising" by Turbulence [VP Records - 2001]

Remember. It's pretty damn depressing with an artist who is as CLEARLY talented as Turbulence (and is still active and only thirty-one years old) to say that there is no way he will EVER equal the work done on an album which is only a few weeks away from being a decade old, but that is just as clearly the case. The Xterminator helmed "Rising" is an album which gets better and better on every listen these days and it almost seems, even, like a 'greatest hits' piece from the talented vocalist. 'Give Her Weh She Want', 'Make Sure She Clean', 'Friends Like These', 'Mamma Is Here', 'Facts of Life', 'Love Can Make A Difference' and a whole heap of others are STILL some of the very best work on singles that he's ever done and things figure to remain that way for a very long time (EVER).

#20. "My Hope" by Anthony B [Minor 5, Flat 7 - 2005]

My delight. The greatest thing Minor 5, Flat 7 ever did for the world (and the label did a lot in its prime - giving credit where its due) also happens to be my choice as Anthony B's best album in . . . a REALLY REALLY long time (when did "Universal Struggle" come out?), "My Hope". I go up and down in my appreciation for this one, but the last time I picked it up, I had absolutely no complaints at all. The album wasn’t necessarily a 'feel good' experience, but it kind of was because somewhere in the middle of it you literally reach a point where Anthony B can do no wrong and it all flows together completely SEAMLESSLY.

#19. "King of Kings" by Elijah Prophet [Pow Pow Productions - 2006]

Royally speaking. There were other albums on this list which I liken to "King of Kings" which, so unfortunately, remains the only studio album from Elijah Prophet because, like it, they're very straight forward and heavy Roots Reggae music. What places this album so highly, however, is that it was so coyly COMPLEX. Elijah Prophet's style is a very natural one. It doesn’t seem like he plans out a great deal. Within that organic approach, however, is a just as natural ability to add SUBSTANCE to his music which is absolute FOOD for the keenest of listeners and that was evident throughout this album.

#18. "Love So Nice" by Junior Kelly [VP Records - 2011]

So nice indeed. "Love So Nice" was a pretty important album in the career of someone who has become a staple on the scene of modern Roots Reggae, Junior Kelly, and it did not disappoint. Being named after and featuring what remains the largest hit of his very impressive career, the album was THE project which helped to bring him to an even higher echelon in the music, which was saying a lot. It was LOADED! Besides the title track there was 'Clean Heart', 'Boom Draw', 'Juvenile', 'Hungry Days', 'Jah Nuh Dead', 'Jewel of The Night' and 'Go Down Satan'. Kelly has had nothing but winners since, but to my opinion, this remains his 'nicest' album to date.

#17. "Time & Place" by Lutan Fyah [Lustre Kings Productions - 2005]

For everything. "Time & Place" has been a favourite of mine from ever since it released and it was actually lined up so perfectly that Lutan Fyah would eventually grow to become a favourite of mine and I, originally, began to pay a serious amount of attention to him on Lustre Kings Productions sets - So I was well looking forward to writing up this album. This was foundation level Lutan Fyah! He, like always, was lyrically just AMAZING, but he didn't have very much command of melody, so what we got was a straight forward dissertation on topic after topic. The album is a classic and it’s also full of personally classic tunes for me. So while it isn't the juggernaut of an album which you’ll find from him near the head of this list (or at the head, I haven’t figure it out yet), "Time & Place" was huge.

#16. "Serious Times" by Luciano [VP Records - 2004]

Seriously. Of course there’s always room for The Messenjah. Luciano's work is interesting because he never seems to be too far away, but when he does arrive with something, there is this actual focus to make a room for him which may not have been there previously. Such was the case on this very rugged release from 2004, "Serious Times". You won’t get thirty seconds into any track without seeing exactly why. This was nearly MEASURABLE spiritual food. Flat! It wasn't a great deviation from the majority of his other work in terms of subjectry, but here he sang with just an ease about him, while still trying to convey the urgency the title would indicate, and he sang him way straight to (yet another) masterpiece.

#15. "Ten Strings" by Tuff Lion [I Grade Records - 2008]

Ten thousand strings. If the key component for a place on this list (or any other, for that matter) were just how much thought a particular album provoked then the first title on the top half of this list would likely be in the top half of the top half! "Ten Strings" from master Virgin Islands musician/producer/arranger/everythingelseyoumightneedmusicallyspeaking, Tuff Lion, was SPECTACULAR! It's probably the greatest instrumental album I've EVER heard (not that I'm an expert on the subject, but it is still the best that I've come across) and it surely didn't hurt that it featured the wizard guitarist 'singing' with his guitar on a set of STERLING riddims from I Grade Records. The results were timeless and get better with each and every spin.

#14. "Journey To Jah" by Gentleman [Four Music Productions - 2002]

Not gone. As one of only two names who you'll find with two albums on the top half of this list (guess who the other one is - go ahead - Guess!), Gentleman's arrival in Reggae music definitely shook things up and, all these years later, his is likely still the most familiar face on the European scene. But, just as diligent and successful as Gentleman and his management have been in getting his name out there, he's also been careful to not let his abilities slack. Exhibit A was the nearly unnecessarily GOOD "Journey To Jah". For some odd (and dumb) reason, I always find myself coming back to this album and surprised at what I hear. It's always just SO good and it seems to be better than the last time I left it. The only negative here was the ridiculous fact that he managed to outdo it - How dare he!

#13. "Rebelution" by Tanya Stephens [VP Records - 2006]

Was televised. To the extent that I could call Tanya Stephens music 'Dancehall', I suppose I can say that her "Rebelution" is one of the greatest albums that the genre has ever produced. The thing here was/is that you really get to a point where someone reaches a level of lyrical PERFECTION - there's literally nothing they could do to make themselves more efficient and Stephens was there before this album. By the time she got here, it was only a matter of time to make certain things work and what they did behind this one was to, essentially, turn it into a movie on a CD - A soundtrack to perfection.

#12. "The Strong One" by Etana [VP Records - 2008]

Mighty. The single best album of 2008, "The Strong One" was the introduction of the world to an artist who we're now likely to have the fortune of listening to for the better part of the next half century or so. It was fresh Roots in a very modern presentation (look at that album cover!) and really just a level that we should expect to see for quite some time to come. Musically speaking - It was inspirational, it was uplifting, it was powerful and definitely everything befitting the future Queen of Roots Reggae music, Etana.

#11. "Lava Ground" by I Wayne [VP Records - 2005]

Fire walker. Unfortunately, like Turbulence, it may be the case that I Wayne is never able to match the levels he reached on his early album, but in we’ll always have the very strange, but LOVELY display he gave us on "Lava Ground". The title track headed a set which also included 'Nah Draw Nil', 'Bleacher', 'Rastafari Liveth', 'Living In Love', 'More Life' . . . and, of course, his mountainous first big hit, 'Can’t Satisfy Her'. That’s just too much right there and there was more to be found on the album which was EASILY one of the finest debut albums in all of Reggae history.
#10. "Joyful Noise" [I Grade Records - 2010]

Unto HIM. Earlier, with albums such as "Real Rebels Can’t Die" and "Back To Africa", I lifted those up as examples of albums you should listen to if you wanted to make a good/GREAT modern Roots Reggae music album. Now! Let’s say you wanted to make a compilation instead. In that case, I'd suggest you pick up a copy of "Joyful Noise" as an instructional manual.

Get a very good mixed group of some of the most talented artists you can find. Place them on riddims constructed by some of the genre's most talented maestros. Get everyone to do their absolute bests or near it and that’s it! It'll probably cost more money than you have, but thankfully I Grade Records did it for you just last year on one of the best compilations Reggae has seen in a very loooooooooong time.

#9. "Higher Ground" by Bushman [Greensleeves Records - 2001]

100% What a wonderfully appropriate for this album. "Higher Ground" was 'simply' everything you saw when you glanced at the album's cover and title: An album low on flare, but incredibly high on substance and one with a genuine approach. Every song here had a powerful purpose which it achieved in its own, respective, way and when you tied it all together you not only had the very best album Bushman ever gave us, but one of the best that ANYONE has. Also it should be said that between tunes like 'Yaad Away Home', 'Nah Go Far' and 'Make A Change', this album also featured one of the finest vocal performances we’ve ever heard.

#8. "Confidence" by Gentleman [Sony Music - 2004]

Intoxication. "Confidence" is another perfect title for an album which should have instilled a great deal of confidence in both the artist, Gentleman, and his massive group of fans (yours truly included). This album was consistently SPECTACULAR! It came equipped with big tunes at every turn and that's extremely rare to find on an album with any amount of tracks, much less TWENTY! Through different styles and moods and subjects, the German Reggae star managed to keep things not only interesting, but STRONG throughout one of the best damn albums I've ever heard. Also, unless I’m REALLY forgetting someone, it's probably my choice as THE best modern Reggae album to come out of Europe.

#7. "Ghetto Life" by Jah Cure [VP Records - 2003]

The satellite. The official second album from Jah Cure, "Ghetto Life" has served a very important musical 'function' for me over the years. It literally hovers around everything else on my players. It kind of has a constant place and for very good reason. I find it so remarkable that someone four years into an ultimately eight year long prison sentence can just . . . Kind of have thrown together for him an album which can reach this high on a list and that’s exactly what happened for the Cure here, courtesy of the incomparable Beres Hammond. That album is just one of the most PURE that you'll ever hear and I know that sounds absolutely awful, but what I mean is that you can shuffle this one, you can drop down anywhere you like at any moment on any song and hear BEAUTY! It purifies the senses, takes care of the nerves and just really puts its listener at ease, while still making a very powerful message.

#6. "I-Space" by Sizzla Kalonji [Greensleeves Records - 2007]

Remember me? Reggae’s best album of 2007, "I-Space", was 'merely' a reminder that he who was the best at this whole 'Reggae thing' was still the best. It wasn't his best album (it's not even his best on this list) and it probably could have been even better than it was. BUT it was still SO MUCH better than just about anything anyone else was up to and for everyone calling him 'passed his prime' at the moment - It showed that not only was that not true, but that Sizzla had become someone who was able to do great things without 'warning'. The album came from In The Streetz and featured, basically, the same bag of riddims also given to very talented artists such as Lutan Fyah, Natural Black, Norris Man and others and while they (or most of them) did very well. I don't think it takes someone too educated on the subject to see just how much stronger "I-Space" was at the time. Also, the album has 'aged' quite well and is still as frankly brilliant today as it was four years ago.

#5. "Away From Babylon" by Queen Omega [JetStar Records - 2004]

Queen. We'll look far closer at the Etanas and Queen Ifricas of the world and that's what it is. Those two (and potentially others coming) have done certain things in the way of marketing themselves to the world and - Oh yeah, they do make amazing music (as a matter of fact, if 2011 ended today, young Etana would have scored the best album in two different years in my opinion) also and what I'm going to say is certainly nothing to disparage them in any way.

Roots Reggae music, at no time in no era, has seen a more vocally and artistically talented Woman than Queen Omega. Trinidad Reggae has never given the world a greater gift and the GREATEST gift that she has given us was definitely "Away From Babylon". This album was so complete and yet so EXCITING (it took 'risks') and struck me on such a personal level, in retrospect, that I've kept it near my players virtually from ever since I got it and there it shall remain. Omega likely won't ever reach the higher levels of some of her more well known peers in terms of popularity, but with material like this, it's probably IMPOSSIBLE for her to get her just due. One of the greatest albums of all time.

Zion is home! By the time Pressure had arrived, the world had been well primed for a more 'traditional' Virgin Islands Reggae sound. It was the very old school Reggae vibe with chanting about as pure as you'd find anywhere in the world outside of a temple somehwere in southern Asia. "The Pressure Is On" was nothing like that. No - You'd been "primed" for this one by listening to years and years of people like Sizzla, the next entry on this list, Jah Mason, Natural Black and others. Pressure took a predominately Jamaican style and the St. Thomas born chanter added a PERFECT blend of VI vibes (courtesy of Dean Pond) and the result was likely the greatest debut album of the modern era.

#3. "Still Blazin" by Capleton [VP Records - 2002]

Fire breather. Capleton's first album following what was EASILY one of the greatest albums of all time, "More Fire" definitely had lofty standards to live up to, to say the least and as we look back at things, the fact that he turned out two CONSECUTIVE all time great albums, a couple of years apart (so it wasn't as if he was just riding a great wave of success at the moment) is all the more remarkable. "Still Blazin" was exactly what the title indicated and it was exactly what we'd come to expect from one of the most talented stars the genre has ever seen. To my opinion, what remains the glaring strength here was just how lyrically AMAZING this album was an, in that respect, it rivaled its predecessor. However you place them and in whichever order you hold them, this album was CLOSE to that perfection and it is one of the greatest albums ever - From anyone.

#2. "Phantom War" by Lutan Fyah [Greensleeves Records - 2006]

Bits & pieces. Intelligence goes a long way in . . . Well, in just about everything in life. Lutan Fyah's genius comes through in his words and speaking of words (don't we always, technically, speak of words???), "Phantom War" is no lower than the fourth best album, lyrically, that I've EVER heard. It doesn't have the ostensible attraction as several (most) of the album on this list and certainly not many at the top, but when you make an album which can FEED my incredibly overactive brain with new material for half a decade, EACH AND EVERY TIME I LISTEN TO IT (if body needs were not an issue, I could probably write about this album for a few days non-stop without repeating an idea and it was the album which launched the entire series) - You've convinced me. The album, musically, had an incredible vibe as well, which is very underrated (perhaps even by me), but the main attraction here was that it came STUFFED with nineteen tracks (and a video) of superior relevant social and cultural KNOWLEDGE.

#1. "Da Real Thing" by Sizzla [VP Records - 2002]

Thank U. Surely this will be to the surprise of no one that I'm calling "Da Real Thing" by Sizzla Kalonji THE Modern Classic and I'm doing it for more than just a musical reason. It has come to be THE album which largely defined a generation of Reggae music and, really, I can't think of any other which has been released which has gathered together such a LARGE amount of hardcore fans and new fans as well than it did. It was really a project which was ODD, retrospectively, in the successes that it had because what you had were fans who were Reggae heads - Who would be 'there' anyway listening. You also had new fans to the genre who, essentially, came to see what the fuss was about. And then you had new fans who weren't going to stay around, but were Hip-Hop heads and deep followers of other genres. ALL of them came for "Da Real Thing" and what they got weren't just theatrics. It was a largely MOTIVATED version of the most GIFTED artist of all time, in my opinion. A BONAFIDE MODERN REGGAE CLASSIC!


ALL great Reggae music did not die in May 1981.

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