Highlife List Vol. One 2009

Here are our favourites of the year so far. 

Occasionally an artist seems to emerge out of nowhere (you may remember when Tracy Chapman first appeared with her amazing first album), though they have most likely been performing for years.  Much like the afore-mentioned Ms. Chapman, Asa offers a unique approach to her folk ‘n ‘soul music, at times echoing Bob Marley as she strums her tuneful odes to freedom.


EASY STAR ALL-STARS   Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band   USA

These brave dudes, having tackled ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and ‘OK Computer’ in their reggae-dub style, venture to re-interpret another of rock’s absolute classics, The Beatles’ magnum opus.  The effervescent horns and line-up of renowned reggae vocalists will put a smile on your face as they bounce their way through ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Lovely Rita’ and all the other classic songs.


OUMOU SANGARE        Seya                                                                  Mali

The long-time queen of Wassoulou music releases her fifth, and arguably best, album.  While ‘BenogoBrehima Diakite’s ngoni underpins the music, co-producer Cheick Tidiane Seck’s Hammond organ spices up a few tracks, and guests from drummer Tony Allen to James Brown alumni Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley add their unique touches.  In the end, it’s Oumou Sangare’s sublime vocals which make the music so essential and unforgettable.


LEONARD COHEN         Live In London                                            Canada

Canada’s poet/performer’s return to the concert stage at 73 was both unexpected and uplifting.  This 2008 London concert, now available as a double CD and DVD, captures the magic of his return, his charm and warmth, the excellent band and backing vocalists, and 25 of his best loved songs.  A great document of a thoroughly fitting victory lap.


ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS        The Crying Light                     UK

The unique and evocative vocalist Antony Hegarty, backed by the lovely sounds of his chamber ensemble, including woodwinds and harpsichord, delivers this stunning follow-up to his acclaimed ‘I Am A Bird Now’ recording.  The rich instrumentation and his Nina Simone-tinged vocals elevate these aching ballads on one of the year’s most original albums.


ARRIBA LA CUMBIA                                                                             Various

One of the world’s great dance musics, Cumbia seems to get re-discovered every few years.  This great collection compiles some of the best Cumbia fusions coming out of Argentina, Mexico, Europe and Puerto Rico, as well as old-school Colombian dance floor fillers.  For the perfect Latin party album, look no further.



Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, whose 60’s recordings opened a new genre (and were popularized by the ‘Broken Flowers’ film), teams up with the British jazz explorers The Heliocentrics on this remarkable new recording.  Mixing traditional Ethiopian and western instruments, including Astatke on vibes, this music is pure ‘uplifting Ethio-jazz magic’.


BEIRUT         March Of The Zapotec                                                              USA

Zach Condon (AKA Beirut), who has previously delved into the world of Gypsy and 1920’s Parisian music, now ventures south to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he teams up with the 19 piece Jimenez Band.  Adding his trumpet, ukulele and vocals to the old-style brass band, Condon once again finds musical magic in another land.


BOOZOO BAJOU           Grains                                                           Germany

The down-tempo dynamos of Deutschland lead us on a mellow ride through their soul-drenched, dubby musical landscapes, occasionally landing in the outer regions of Sade-land.  Altogether, a worthwhile journey and destination.


NEKO CASE            Middle Cyclone                                                            USA

Another big winner by the fiercely independent alt-country roots-rocking powerhouse.  Bringing aboard the likes of Calexico’s Joey Burns (on cello), Garth Hudson (on organ), M. Ward and Carolyn Mark, among others, these 15 mini-dramas work as great showcases for Case’s richly evocative vocals and song writing abilities.


DARK WAS THE NIGHT                                                Various

This fabulous double CD collection in the Red Hot series of Aids benefit recordings brings together new tracks by an impressive line-up of artists, including Beirut, Jose Gonzalez, Iron & Wine, Feist, Cat Power and many others.  Inspired by Depression era Americana, this selection highlights the wealth of roots and singer-songwriter talent, many of whom are Highlife favourites. 


DUBMATIX         Renegade Rocker                                                          Canada

The last year has brought us great reggae/dub albums from France (The Dynamics), the UK (Prince Fatty) and the U.S. (The Lions, Easy Star All-Stars), so now it’s Canada’s turn.  Toronto’s Dubmatix delivers this high octane dose of dubbed up reggae, complete with pumping bass, live horns and a posse of Jamaica’s finest vocalists.  Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott, Michael Rose and many others are on board for this potent brew of roots dancehall bliss. 


BOB DYLAN          Together Through Life                                                  USA

The amazingly prolific musical legend continues to surprise.  Here, on his 33rd album (not counting the many collections) he teams up with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and brings in Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion to join his touring band.  These blues and Tex-Mex flavoured tunes will have you tapping your toes and humming along.


STEVE EARLE         Townes                                                                       USA

Steve Earle’s tribute to his old buddy and mentor Townes Van Zandt is a winning collection of wonderful songs.  The folk and bluegrass backing make great settings for classics like ‘Poncho & Lefty’ and ‘Delta Momma Blues’, while his wife (Allison Moorer) and son (Justin Townes Earle) add great harmonies.  Recommended!


MARIANNE FAITHFUL        Easy Come, Easy Go                              UK

Twenty two years after collaborating on the wonderful ‘Strange Weather’ album, Marianne Faithful once again teams up with producer Hal Willner.  Joined by everyone from Keith Richards to Nick Cave, Cat Power, Marc Ribot and Antony Hegarty, she finds the beauty in heartache, much as Billie Holiday did so many moons ago.


KHALED            Liberte                                                                                 Algeria

The Arab world’s greatest and most renowned voice is back!  Algeria’s Khaled teams up with gifted producer Martin Meissonnier, incorporating traditional acoustic instruments and soaring Egyptian strings to create wonderful complements to his extraordinary voice.  A triumphant return.


LHASA                                                                                                             Canada

Long-time Highlife favourite, who takes 6 or 7 years between albums, offers her third beguiling recording.  Lhasa this time sings in her first language, English, and adds harp, pedal steel and resonator guitars to her timeless, soulful music.  A quietly understated gem. 


MARIZA           Terra                                                                                      Portugal

Portugal’s leading vocalist ventures beyond her Fado roots on her latest recording.  Bringing in Spanish producer Javier Limon (who has worked wonders with Bebo & Cigala and Buika, who appears here), Mariza’s remarkable voice shines on Portuguese classics, a Cape Verdean morna and Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’.


NOVALIMA               Coba Coba                                                                    Peru

This big leap forward by the ground-breaking Peruvian group brings together Lima’s urban beats and the coast’s Afro-Peruvian traditions.  Led by percussion and vocals, the roots rhythms are complemented by the deft programming and ‘mash up’ production, bringing together cultures as they rock the house.


THE ROUGH GUIDE TO GYPSY MUSIC                           Various

The venerable Rough Guide series of superbly compiled music collections keeps getting better.  Case in point is this new selection of primarily Balkan Gypsy music from some of the leading Romanian and Bosnian brass bands.  Included is a bonus CD of the wonderful Hungarian group Bela Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project.


STAFF BENDA BILILI              Tres Tres Fort                                    Congo

Africa’s hottest new group hails from the streets of Kinshasa, Congo, where they live in their home-made moped wheelchairs.  These disabled street musicians present a thoroughly original take on classic Congolese music, with echoes of vintage Franco and Cuban music, elevated by their wonderful harmonies, lilting guitars and blistering one-string lute solos.


ROKIA TRAORE               Tchamantche                                                    Mali

Mali is an extraordinarily fertile musical land with scores of brilliant artists, but few are as innovative as Rokia Traore.  On her latest album she continues to refine her sound, with the ngoni and her Gretsch guitar augmented by classical harp, among other instruments.  Tchamantche’ is a subtle masterpiece.


M. WARD           Hold Time                                                                             USA

We’ve grown fond of this Portland-based singer-songwriter’s trademark Americana sound, and his latest offers a particularly strong set of tunes.  Lucinda Williams and Zooey Deschanel (She & Him) drop in to add their vocal talents to this satisfying recording. 






By |2009-06-11T16:22:35-07:00June 11th, 2009|Best of Lists, CDs, Records|0 Comments

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