2005 was a year of exploration and expansion in urban music. Against a Matrix-like background of corporate-controlled radio and TV, iPod-enabled consumers demanded more musical choices, and were rewarded by indie labels that stepped in to provide an alternative to mainstream mediocrity once again. For every lackluster commercial effort (like 50 Cent's The Massacre), 50 superior underground albums stepped up; meanwhile, the global fusion trend developing over the past decade reaped a bountiful harvest of outernational sounds that threatened to overshadow domestic releases in terms of musical innovation, if not pop-cultural magnitude.
1. Colossus, West Oaktown (Om): Acid jazz made an official comeback in 2005, perhaps best symbolized by this double CD that stacked up a mountain of press clippings faster than you can say, "Bring it, mate!" The result of importing an English jazz-funkhead like Charlie Tate to urban Oakland and letting him marinate, West Oaktown's combination of complex time signatures, soulful mood swings, chilled beats, and scientific raps from Capitol A, Roots Manuva, and Azeem made it hip to be Cool like dat all over again.
2. Emmanuel Jal & Abdel Gadir Salim, Ceasefire (Riverboat/World Music Network): Perhaps the only things more fascinating than this groundbreaking fusion of traditional East African rhythms with up-to-the-minute electronics and stirring raps were the artists' own backstories. MC Emmanuel Jal hails from southern Sudan, while Abdel Gadir Salim is from the north. Their historic collaboration constitutes a strong cry for unity -- healing the civil-war-ravaged nation with insistent messages of peace as well as captivating melodic textures.
3. Seu Jorge, Cru (Wrasse): This South American singer and actor (City of God, the Bowie guy in The Life Aquatic) has the versatility to pull off Elvis Presley and Serge Gainsbourg covers, Brasilelectro remixes ("Tive Razão"), and acoustic ballads ("Fiore de la Città") on Cru, which lives up to its title (it means "raw" in Portuguese). Jorge globalized and energized the singer-songwriter shtick with percussive rhythms, soothing guitars, and a dash of electronic treatments, all held together by his intense vocal delivery.
4. M.I.A. , Arular (XL/Beggars US): A tricky blend of jump-up, garage, and drum 'n' bass that flaunted simplistic yet ultra-infectious MC styles, Arular is 2005's most impressive debut, an instant classic whose cutting-edge hotness registered at radioactive levels. M.I.A.'s singsongy vocals proved a clever front for her subversive, revolutionary sentiments -- her personal history as a Tamil Tiger baby turned sound-system siren lent double meanings to rabble-rousing dance tunes like "Bucky Done Gun" and "Fire Fire," and you couldn't help but love the cute but strident way she insisted that the major cities of the world each "Quieten down, I need to make a sound!"
5. Orishas, El Kilo (Universal Latin): On their third album, the Latin Grammy-winning Cuban trio Orishas -- who broke new ground for international hip-hop on their previous two releases -- continue to make amazing musical leaps and bounds beyond any artistic statement even attempted by their American rap counterparts in 2005. Fully infused with Afro-Cuban musical sensibilities, El Kilo is a spirited, rhythmic triumph from start to finish, a confidently executed effort assuring us that the Orishas' juju is only getting stronger.
6. Roots Manuva, Awfully Deep (Big Dada): All the buzz from trendy ol' England was on grime MCs like Lady Sovereign, but Mr. Manuva kept it real with lines like "I don't give a damn about U.K. rap/I'm a U.K. black, making U.K. tracks," and his third album confirmed he's the only chap who can hold his lyrical weight against America's elite MCs. The Rootsman stretches himself artistically on Awfully Deep, departing from the familiar bashment boogie of previous efforts to make more personal ("Colossal Insight"), ironic ("Too Cold") and serious ("The Falling") statements -- while still delivering the hotness ("Move Ya Loin") as necessary.
7. Platinum Pied Pipers, Triple P (Ubiquity): This talented duo from Detroit has wrapped its hands around a gritty, urban, soulful style all its own, revving up the Motor City's engine once again. Breaking away from the overly smoothed-out approach of neo-soul, the Pipers leave the edges sharp and rough on their debut album, favoring raw grooves that perfectly capture the atmosphere of an underground club at 2 a.m. Whether you call it garage soul or warehouse funk, songs like "I Got You" present a welcome alternative to tired club music, brainless rap, and "safe" R&B.
8. Prefuse 73, Surrounded by Silence (Warp): A sublimely eclectic sensibility runs through Surrounded by Silence, which boasts some of the illest beats of the year, hands down. Prefuse 73 (a.k.a. Scott Herren) is no ordinary producer. Like Amon Tobin and DJ Shadow, he's a composer who happens to work with samplers, analog synths, and other electric instruments, eschewing the obvious in favor of uncharted rhythmic territory. Prefuse makes the most of cameos by Ghostface and El-P (the verbally lacerating "Hideyaface"), shows his soul chops (the beautifully fractured "We Go Our Own Way"), and crams more interesting musical ideas into short interludes than most folks manage on entire albums.
9. Warrior King, Hold the Faith (VP): I-Wayne and Junior Gong got all the hype, but Warrior King delivered the most consistent roots/dancehall album of the year. Hold the Faith could've used an over-the-top crossover single, but what it lacks in flashiness, it makes up for in steadiness; songs like "Can't Get Me Down," "They Don't Know," and "Education" reiterated the Rasta creed in fine style. No gimmicks or celebrity collaborations to speak of -- just an upful yout' holding firm over updated versions of classic reggae riddims.
10. DJ Cheb i Sabbah, La Kahena (Six Degrees): Break out the baba ghanouj, falafel, and pointy slippers. After thoroughly exploring the trancelike qualities of Hindustani music, original world beatnik DJ Cheb i Sabbah turns to the trancelike qualities of the Arabian diaspora, bringing "les voix du Maghreb" to the forefront with an intoxicating excursion into Moroccan gnaoua styles. Gently stitching electro-dub layers onto traditional rhythmic garb, La Kahena fits like a disco-ready djellaba -- its flavorful beats and beautifully melodic vocals make it the musical equivalent of chicken tagine.
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