Fela Ransome-Kuti & His Koola Lobitos
Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul

Along with photographer Femi Bankole Osunla's lavish book My Black President, this three-CD collection from Japanese label P-Vine represents the absolute motherlode of crucial early Fela material. (All but six tracks here have been heretofore unavailable.) Prior to his radicalizing visits with the Black Panthers during a Los Angeles sojourn, Fela was back in Nigeria with his Koola Lobitos (the Cool Cats) serenading nightclubbers with jaunty highlife jazz. Then, after hearing Geraldo Pino (see below) in 1966, he scrapped his whole sound and began making monumentally deep funk that proved to be the first shots fired in the afro-beat revolution.
Listen to: Mi O Mo
Karl Blau
Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society

There's a new music scene taking shape, but it's not in the town 80 miles outside of Seattle where the sounds are coming from. No, the new happening is located inside the head of Anacortes, Washington, local Karl Blau. In addition to being one of Laura Veirs's excellent Tortured Souls bandmates, he happens to be a prolific maker of quirky and captivating music all his own. Armed with a four-track recorder and a post-office box, Karl's created an audio magazine, Kelp! Monthly, to get it from his frontal lobe to your front door. Each month's offering—the music of Karl and his friends, along with spoken word, sound collage and found audio—comes packaged in a lovingly crafted folk-art concoction as odd and endearing as the music itself.
Listen to: Inseparationally Yours from Kelp #17
Arsenio Rodríguez
Quindembo / Afro Magic
(Epic Japan)

The reissue of this stunning, innovative and long out-of-print release from 1963 is a cause for una celebracíon gigante among Cuban music lovers. Widely acknowledged as the "father of the mambo," Rodríguez invented the conjunto lineup, updating the standard combo by adding piano, trumpets and congas. "Quindembo" was an ultra-modern statement, mixing jazz colorings—he replaced the trumpets with saxes—into a outfit delivering rootsy, folklyric material of a more overtly African derivation. Rodríguez's virtuoso playing (on the tres, a Cuban guitar with two sets of three strings) and growling vocals are worth the price of admission.
Listen to: Compay Cimarrón
Eddie Hinton
Beautiful Dream

Eddie Hinton's compelling, emotional voice harkens to Otis Redding, but with a rougher, more desperate edge. Give him five minutes to sing his guts out for you and you'll be hooked. Duane Allman was, in 1967, when he asked Eddie to sing lead in the band he was forming. But Eddie turned him down, beginning a string of poor choices and bad luck that would relegate his career to sickening obscurity. A gifted guitarist and songwriter—penning tunes for stars like Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield—Eddie toiled for years as a session player, first at the legendary Fame Studios and then at Muscle Shoals. He recorded his own material whenever he could, but precious little of it got released before he died at 51. Comprising 16 unreleased tracks, "Beautiful Dream" represents the culmination of Zane Records chief Peter Thompson's heroic 15-year project to release all of Eddie's archive recordings.
Listen to: Lay It On Me
Black Merda
The Folks From Mother's Mixer
(Funky Delicacies)

Originally a backing band for soul heavyweights Edwin Starr and Gene Chandler, all these Detroiters really wanted to do was rock. As the Soul Agents, the band was essentially a standard-issue R&B outfit; when they hooked up with Californian Ellington "Fugi" Jordan (who wrote "I'd Rather Go Blind" for Etta James in '67) they dropped the horns in favor of trippy guitar-driven sound that combines the funky precision of the Meters, some Jimi-steeped string bending and the collective spirit of bands like Mandrill and Cymande. While contemporary scenesters Funkadelic were busy exploring the acid freak-out territory of black psychedelia, Black Merda (pronounced "murder") were content to tokey-toke their way to two sweet and deeply satisfying albums, both reissued here for the first time.
Listen to: Good Luck
Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads

In 1965, folklorist and photographer John Cohen (also a member of the New Lost City Ramblers) headed into the hills of Madison County, North Carolina, while researching various tunings of the five-string banjo. What he encountered in those tiny Appalachian hamlets, though, were the dying embers of an ancient tradition of old-time balladry. The astonishing recordings Cohen made on that trip provide a last glance at an acapella style that was all but swept into history's dust bin. Of the voices preserved on this vital document, Dillard Chandler's is the one you'll never forget. Check out the way he up-turns the ends of each phrase he sings. It will haunt you long after you shut off the stereo. A huge bonus: Included with this release is a DVD of a rarely seen documentary film Cohen made of Chandler called "The End of an Old Song."
Listen to: Carolina Lady
Grachan Moncur III
Mosaic Select

When Capri Records released Grachan Moncur's "Explorations" in 2004, it marked the first new recording from the visionary trombonist in nearly 30 years. While the joy of this development hardly dulled the sting of his near-criminal absence from the scene, the bitterness has been further diminished by the appearance, in 2005, of this limited-edition box from Mosaic's "Select" series. Onto three CDs the set crams more than six albums' worth of Moncur's performances originally released on the Blue Note label. And what thrilling performances they are, taken from the early '60s when his innovative compositions were pushing the mainstream to a freer, unshackled clarity, and his bright, direct blowing was among the most regal sounds in jazz. (Listen up record companies: It still is!)
Listen to: Air Raid
Lavender Diamond
The Cavalry of Light
(Lavender Diamond)

Let the clarion sweetness of Becky Stark's singing wash over you, and it can make things better. It will enter you simultaneously at the ears and chest, inducing a heady rapture and wobbly knees. Lavender Diamond is a quartet, but Stark's pure, unadorned instrument is the singular sound that matters. The only problem is that this remarkable four-song EP will leaving you heartsick for more. What to do? Get yourself online and start hunting for a copy of Stark's ravishing full-length solo album "Artifacts of the Winged."
Listen to: Rise in the Springtime
Quantic Soul Orchestra
Pushin' On

All hail Mr. Holland's opus, the latest collection of incendiary dance-floor fillers from Will "Quantic" Holland's band of real live musicians. Best known as a monster in the studio, this mad breakbeat scientist felt compelled, a few years back, to break out of the laboratory and onto the stage with a posse of whipcrack funkateers playing actual instruments. As with the Whitefield Brothers and the rest of the stallions in the Desco/Soul Fire stable, QSO has perfected the art of reanimating the ghosts of JBs-era superfunk. But "Pushin On' is no Frankenstein experiment. It's alive, doctor, it's alive.
Listen to: Pushin' On
Fanfare Savale
Speed Brass of the Gypsies
(Sub Rosa)

The emergence of New York's gypsy punk movement was one of the tastier musical developments of 2005. Groups like Slavic Soul Party!, Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello (which got the raucous ball rolling back in '98), seemed to be everywhere, from the mini-stages of the newly chic outer-boroughs to the venues of Manhattan's hipster establishment (including the WFMU Record Fair). But while this home-grown hybrid may be having its cultural moment, the sound of riotous Eastern European party music is nothing new. In fact it's as old as the hills, particularly the hills around Romanian villages like Zece Prãjini, where boisterous brass bands such as Fanfare Savale have been blurting out up-tempo tunes for generations. It's only a matter of time before hotshot club DJs back in the big city discover the delirious effect of thumping out Fanfare Savale's rave-worthy tracks, some of which clock in at nearly 200 beats per minute.
Listen to: Cioc& acirc;rlia
Geraldo Pino
Heavy Heavy Heavy

Fela Kuti was still playing highlife for palm-wine sippers when James-Brown-wannabe Geraldo Pino hit town from Sierra Leone. "After that motherfucking Pino tore up the scene, there wasn't shit I could do," recalled Fela in his autobiography. "This man was tearing Lagos to pieces." Humiliated, Fela shuffled off to woodshed in Ghana, while Pino and his combo, the Heartbeats, were speaking truth to soul power. Though his abundant but limited talents ultimately couldn't hold a candle to Fela's incandescent afro-beat, Pino's historic role as the Godfather of Afro Soul is undisputed. This sizzling compilation is long overdue.
Listen to: Born to Be Free / Shake Hands
William Parker Quartet
Sound Unity
(Aum Fidelity)

When will the world realize that William Parker is a genius? Will it happen this year? This decade? During his lifetime? How can an artist with as prolific and diverse a body of work as his still remain a relative anonymity? No composer in jazz gets closer to the pumping heart of the music's lifeblood. No bandleader and organizer is more selfless in the service of collective self-expression. Few instrumentalists are as versatile, or improvisers as generous. Parker has performed on more than two hundred records, and this latest, with his outrageously tight working quartet, is simply one of the best.
Listen to: Sound Unity
Mary Gauthier
Mercy Now
(Lost Highway)

Mary Gauthier had strung 35 years of rough patches together before she ever put down the bottle and picked up a pen, a move that probably saved her life. But she's not looking to just tune up a guitar and tune out the demons that trailed her into so many dark corners. She treats those demons with tenderness by telling the truth. Her truth. Often grim but always gripping, her songs are unrelenting tales of loves lost and troubles found. In their telling, Gauthier (say it "go-Shay") has found a new path and her travels are worthy of all our rapt attentions.
Listen to: Falling Out of Love
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