From the Malian countryside to Brooklyn, Amsterdam to Tokyo to Toronto and back, here are seven of the releases that stuck in my head this year – in chronological order.
Tokyo Ska Paradise – Ska Me Forever (Nacional Records – February 10, 2015)
2015 marked the 25th anniversary of Tokyo Ska Paradise and they celebrated with a new album and a North American release on vinyl and digital download. It’s their 19th release and continues the trademark hyper-kinetic rock/ska/punk/jazz tradition that has made them a live favourite all over the world. Tokyo Ska Paradise began in the late 1980’s as a ska revival group and with their notorious sartorial flair quickly became stars of the Japanese ska scene. Their music is largely instrumental and made for partying on the dance floor – and at their live gigs.
The True Groove All-Stars – Fully Re-Covered (March 31, 2015 – True Groove Records)
Veteran bluesman Tomás Doncker is also head honcho of True Groove Records, where last year’s cover album was a surprise hit. In 2015, the Brooklyn-based guitarist gathered together his favourite vocalists and top notch house band and released a follow-up – Fully Re-Covered, riffing off classic tracks from the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. It’s not just a CD of great covers, they actually manage to mine new territory from familiar hits like a swingy version of Norman Greenbaum’s seminal hit, Spirit in the Sky with Kevin Jenkins on vocals and a Motown version of Tom Jones’ huge it, It’s Not Unusual complete with a horn section and funky guitar line.
I Don’t Want Nobody Ft. James Chance (originally performed by James Brown).
Rocky Dawuni – Branches of the Same Tree (Cumbancha – March 31, 2015)
Ghana’s Rocky Dawuni became the first Ghanaian artist to be nominated for a GRAMMY in the reggae category and the only non-Jamaican up for the honour this year. It’s no surprise that he got the nod, however, with a great album full of infectiously danceable tracks. Like other West African reggae artists, the music combines the familiar Jamaican rhythms with elements of West African music for a unique take and upbeat vibe.
Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon Records – April 14, 2015)
It’s been a great year for Hamilton, Ontario’s own Terra Lightfoot. Her new release – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild – has been garnering rave reviews and she’ll be joining alt-country-rock icons Blue Rodeo on tour in 2016. Terra has had some high profile press and she lit up the city’s PanAm Games finale celebrations – complete with orchestra and fireworks. With a big voice, nimble fingers on the frets and a unique take on the well-worn singer-songwriter territory that makes it her own, the media buzz comes as no surprise. Bluesy-folky-alt-country-rock – her sound is a fusion of styles and influences that has been winning over audiences as well as the media.
Jungle by Night – El Miraglo (Jungle by Night, June 16, 2015)
Jungle by Night is a 9-piece band complete with a horn section from Amsterdam that you’d likely find in the “world music” bin. Truth be told, churns out an energetic music that fuses influences from all over the globe with a techno flair and superb musicianship to back it up all the way to the dance floor. This year, they’ve released just a two-sided limited edition vinyl to whet their fans’ musical taste buds in preparation for a full-length release next year. The A-side, El Miraglo, is a cumbia inspired mash up (and was the theme song for a Dutch TV series this past summer,) while Pangea, the B-side, features heavy Ethio-style grooves; (the two songs are also available by digital download). No shade to EDM… but this is how you fill the dance floor with musicians and not just technology – and you won’t miss the vocals.
Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal –Musique de Nuit (Six Degrees Records – September 4, 2015)
French cellist Vincent Segal and Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko make such beautiful, intuitive music together that a follow up to their first recording – 2011’s Chamber Music – was inevitable and highly anticipated by their fans. Typically, crossover or fusion music is party music – West African rhythms and western guitars. Here, it’s a quieter, meditative groove. The album was recorded outside in Bamako, Mali, and includes ambient noises like birds and trees rustling – with no overdubs or production magic. What you hear is what they played.
Simone Denny – The Stereo Dynamite Sessions, Vol. 1 (Stereo Dynamite, Inc., October 6, 2015)
Stereo Dynamite Sessions, Vol. 1 is the debut solo album from Simone Denny, five-time Juno Award winner and former lead singer of Love, Inc. She’s left her dance and EDM roots behind (for the moment) for this stylish album that focuses on her big, beautiful voice and groovy retro music. She’s backed by a superb band that covers the range of pop to RnB, rock and classic Sixties-style soul with aplomb. She’s got a voice that can both broadcast and whisper, be strident or sweet and it’s used to great advantage on this set of catchy originals.