L. Michael Gipson: An Editor Muses on the Best of 2012

Critical Matters: An Editor Muses on the Best of 2012
By L. Michael Gipson

This was the best year in independent Black music since 2009. From jazz to R&B to electrosoul to rock, music originating from the Diaspora performed by people of all races moved forward and still honored the past. My SoulTracks Editor’s Choices for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year reflect the year’s spirit and energy of progressive thinking with a hold on the traditional elements that made soul music so important to so many. Time and again we saw this trend in the independent music that avoided radio clichés for something meatier, more resonating, and potentially timeless.

Critical Matters: An Editor Muses on the Best of 2012
By L. Michael Gipson

This was the best year in independent Black music since 2009. From jazz to R&B to electrosoul to rock, music originating from the Diaspora performed by people of all races moved forward and still honored the past. My SoulTracks Editor’s Choices for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year reflect the year’s spirit and energy of progressive thinking with a hold on the traditional elements that made soul music so important to so many. Time and again we saw this trend in the independent music that avoided radio clichés for something meatier, more resonating, and potentially timeless.

My Editor’s Choice Artist of the Year, a 22 year-old Sid Sriram, is young and bold, Berklee College of Music trained and a consummate hustler whose music blends pop, hip hop, even experimental ambient sounds at times with an unapologetically classic soul approach; as a Southeast Asian American, he represents the multicultural future of soul—one that is being inherited far beyond Black churches, southern plains, or urban ghettoes. My album of the year, Cody ChesnuTT’s Landing On A Hundred, captures the times in all its struggle, loves, losses, tensions and glories. Politically-minded to a fault, ChestnuTT picks up where Marvin, Curtis, Stevie, Public Enemy, The Roots, and even more contemporary artists like Aloe Blacc left off. Sid and Cody bookend an enormous expanse of sounds that increasingly are difficult to peg as one particular genre, but one whose collage art borrows from several genres, various eras of sound, disparate production techniques, and different voices in this year’s artists’ efforts to create something new all their own. After a musically lackluster 2011 and a just barely more compelling 2010, this year’s artists broke-through with a kaleidoscope of unpeggable sounds and energizing live performances. Even unreleased YouTube talent like Kwabena “Kwabs” Adjepong and Forever Praise were turning heads in the tradition of the Craig Lewis and Allen Scott.

Artists also had to work that much harder to get their audiences to notice them. A top contender for my Editor’s Choice for the 2012 Album of the Year is Love is the Hero, created by last year’s Editor’s Choice Winner, Martin Luther (McCoy), who is reportedly rebooting his rollout and re-releasing his genius project after watching it’s deliciousness go unnoticed when it was unceremoniously released without fan preparation or sufficient media outreach. Sy Smith’s zenith, Fast and Curious, also suffered from limited exposure with a rollout happening post-release, rather than before, finally gaining some traction thanks to devoted bloggers and a buzz worthy video starring Rahsaan Patterson. Artists are learning that they can no longer just release one song with their product and have that qualify as a rollout, not in the current fast food media environment. And for those still in the dark, we’ve tried to create not one but two roadmaps to assist them in getting it done better, if not right. In our efforts, we highlighted Sid Sriram’s hustle with video director Arthur Johnson and marketing manager Sahil Mehta for maintaining Sriram’s public presence with a steady stream of videos, covers, and EP releases until such time the artist’s full length project is completed and ready for public consumption—one of the key reasons Sriram made my cut for this year’s top honors. In 2012, hustle is King, while hustle with talent is supremacy.

The timing of an artist’s hustle proved fortuitous in 2012, as more artists realized how much time was of the essence once momentum had been achieved…and lost. Much anticipated artists like Daley and Anita Baker found album releases rolled back after an avalanche of early buzz and, in Baker’s case, a bonafide chart-making hit in “Lately.” Both found their teams seemingly unprepared to take swift advantage of lightning in a bottle by dropping a formal album release when fan pandemonium was at its height. The young 23-year old Daley recalibrated by releasing a hit single, “Alone Together” (feat. Marsha Ambrosius), and an EP almost a year to the date after his initial, critically-acclaimed mixtape, Those Who Wait, had already captured the public’s attention—one which already boasted three mixtape songs that ended up re-released on the new five-song EP. Meanwhile Baker’s album has been pushed back several weeks from its initial autumn release date. With such a gap since “Lately” was in the forefront of the public’s consciousness, nothing less than another single or video to try to recapture folk’s attention will do. Such is the limited attention of today’s music buying public, particularly of the younger generation. Veterans, and even some less time-conscious newbies, need to catch up.

Veterans were surprising this year, at least in making the old feel new again, a hallmark of my Album of the Year, Cody ChestnuTT’s Landing on a Hundred, and recent releases by climbers like Mayer Hawthorne’s recent KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic, The Revelations feat. Tre Williams’ Concrete Blues, andDivaGeek’s He Said, She Said, tackling the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, respectively, for the new millenials. SoulTracks’ Male Artist of the Year award winner, Eric Benet, in The One, pulled off an amazing feat by making a wholly original album that is arguably a personal best by revisiting the horn charts of Earth Wind & Fire and marrying them with the sky-scraping vocals of Enchantment and the doo wop harmonies of The Whispers. Not to be outdone, with Write Me Back, R. Kelly demonstrated that he also didn’t need covers to recreate the sounds of the greats. From Barry White and Smokey Robinson to Michael Jackson and Ray Charles, Kelly played vocal doppelganger for each and reproduced the best of the past with fresh lyrics and production era mining from the last sixty years of soul, R&B and disco. From the underground set, Cody ChestnuTT exemplifies the best of this mainstream trend, with timely lyrics, old school harmonies, and occasionally free-flowing modernist arrangements that welcome a cross-generation of fans to come and play. Collectively, these artist delivered products that revealed effective strategies for bringing the mature listener into this new decade without sacrificing new audiences.  

Some recreated the old and made it new in a more direct way via the much maligned covers album. However, three ladies demonstrate that all cover projects are not created equal. While the covers album game has become large enough to be a genre in and of itself, three stood out in 2012 as unique and worthy of your attention:  Leela James with a creative best in Loving You More…In The Spirit of Etta James, Bettye LaVette’s Thankful N’Thoughtful and Meshell Ndegeocello’s collaborative Pour une ame souveraine (For A Sovereign Soul)- A Dedication To Nina Simone. In Bettye and Leela, you have two female artists with generations separating their artistry but with a raw emotionalism and interpretive spirit joining these two powerhouse belters at the hip of a gut-bucket soul tradition. Both James and Ndegeocello (the latter with the help of dependable vocalists like Toshi Reagon and Lizz Wright) did the impossible by making Etta James and Nina Simone, respectively, fresh and contemporary without ever losing the essence of what made these two ladies tribute-worthy. Whereas LaVette again, this time with über-producer Craig Street, presented a love letter to some of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, the fifth in a series of wholesale reinterpretations of folk, rock, country and R&B from a decidedly female, sage and soulful point of view. These women re-infused the once thoughtful and necessary rendition with a much-needed new lease on life, potentially keeping the covers genre alive.


Reinvigorating a genre seemed to be on the minds of several jazz musicians who refused to watch the fossilization and exporting of jazz standing quietly on the sidelines. ERIMAJ, Diggs Duke, José James, Avishai Cohen, Khari Cabral, Gregory Porter, Saunders Sermons, Esperanza Spaulding and the Robert Glasper Experiment, each took chances, merging genres and reinvigorating jazz and fusion with something far beyond the smooth jazz mendacity and purist bebop and hard bop niches that had come to dominate the public’s consciousness on what qualifies as jazz. Largely releasing EPs and reclaiming the hip visual iconography of the classic Blue Note and Verve album covers of yesteryear, albeit with a contemporary lens and videos to boot, these artists have been steadily making a noise with electric live performances and—in the instances of the Grammy nominated Esperanza Spaulding, Robert Glasper, and Gregory Porter—respectable sales. With a fresh album expected from José James at the top of the year, this trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, thankfully keeping jazz alive one mo’ ‘gin.

Finally, 2012 illustrated that despite their much rumored demise, soul and acid jazz bands are still alive and well, with relative newcomers like The Endangered, Mamas Gun, Alabama Shakes and Electric Empire dropping new product for an awakening public and elder statesmen like Incognito, Jazzanova, Lake Street Dive, and Mint Condition proving that it ain’t nothing but a chicken wing to deliver more of that great live band sound that so many claim to be missing (and is notably absent from Urban and Urban AC radio)—they just need audiences to better step up and show-up when their products hit the scene. Like so many other underground trends that emerged for those paying attention, this was one that we hope has legs and finds more people willing to step out of the limited radio box to embrace all that is fueling soul, R&B, and jazz NOW.  Without each group and artist’s bumping rhythm sections, compelling choruses, intricate arrangements and dynamic vocals, 2012 certainly could not have arguably been called one of the best years in this new century of urban music.

By L. Michael Gipson 

 

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 *for a free copy of Sid Siriram's A Conscious Mind: A Live Session click here

 
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"
Song of the Month - Stokley - "Level"
CD of the Month - Phil Perry - Breathless
Sneak Peek - Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind

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