Raphael Saadiq (United States) – Jimmy Lee
If anyone releases a better album this year than Raphael Saadiq’s fifth solo album, Jimmy Lee, it will be an unbelievable feat. Named after his brother, Jimmy Lee Baker, who overdosed on heroin in the 1990s, the album explores Saadiq’s struggles with personal pain and loss.
But it does more than just that. It also explores the broader narrative of people living their lives under immense strain, in much the same way Marvin Gaye turned the personal into a larger political narrative with his 1971 album What’s Going On.
My Walk is a funk gospel-infused groove, which addresses Jimmy Lee’s heroin habit and its impact on the family, and more generally the struggle to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep your head above water. Rikers Island, the album’s standout track, is an urgent plea for resistance to and liberation from the white supremacy embedded in America’s police stations and courts.
“It’s probably the most honest record I’ve ever made,” Saadiq told The New York Times newspaper in August, just before his new album dropped. “A lot of it relates to me, it was like a mirror.”
It’s been eight years since Sadiq released his last solo album, Stone Rollin’, so a new album is a welcome event. But nobody could have honestly expected an album this good. Instant. Classic.
Prettiest Eyes (United States) – Volume 3
The third album from Los Angeles-based post-industrial trio Prettiest Eyes, appropriately titled Volume 3, wears its Suicide band badges proudly on its sleeve.
In much the same way the band Suicide terrorised New York in the late 1970s with their representations of the horrors of the world around them, Prettiest Eyes confront you with the horrifying realities of the world in 2019. This is perfectly captured on the song Another Earth, with its menacing repeating lyric: “This life doesn’t feel right now.”
Volume 3 is an album dripping with tension and terror, smothered in panic and paranoia. It is also littered with punk songs, like Marihuana, with its pummelling drums and keys that sound like an army of warning sirens invading your mind. No More Summer is another highlight, a distortion-laden synth jam that sounds like the band The Jesus and Mary Chain if they had aimed at the dance floor.
However, the finest punk song offered up on Volume 3 is Prettiest Eyes’ cover of Crash Course in Science’s song It Cost’s to be Austere. The United States post-punk band recorded the song in the early 1980s, but it would only see release for the first time in 2011 in the wake of the 2008 global economic meltdown.
Now Prettiest Eyes have covered the protest song on their new album, a version that sounds like the B-52’s on a bad acid trip, produced by musical group Cabaret Voltaire. The anxiety of the present is morphed into art. However, a word of warning: Volume 3 is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Kokoko (France/DRC) – Fongola
Translated as “the key”, Fongola is the debut album from Kokoko, a musical group based in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a sonic experience unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Recorded in makeshift studios built out of “ping-pong tables and mattresses” in Kinshasa and Brussels, Belgium, the album was released on independent label Transgressive.
The collective of French and Congolese musicians that make up Kokoko met in Kinshasa’s Lingwala neighbourhood at a performance by Makara Bianko, now the band’s lead vocalist. Debruit, the London-based French producer who is a member of the collective, says the Ngwaka neighbourhood, “where DIY experimental musical instruments are made” also played an important role in the band’s history. This is evident across the 44 minutes and 11 tracks of the collective’s album as it will repeatedly have you puzzling, “How did they make that sound?” Album highlight L.O.V.E. is one such example.
Debruit, who mixed Fongola, describes the album as a “giant electronic puzzle with pieces that don’t fit, and no blueprint”. It is a psychedelic, lo-fi avant-garde, percussion-driven soundtrack to life in Kinshasa that feels truly anarchic in its approach.
It is one of those albums that is both thrilling and confusing. True to its name, it needs to be unlocked by the listener to be truly appreciated.
Tinariwen (Mali) – Amadjar
Amadjar is the ninth album from the kings of the Tuareg desert blues, Tinariwen. The album was rehearsed as the band travelled from the Moroccan Sahara to Nouakchott in Mauritania, crossing Southern Morocco and the Western Sahara. The journey lasted 12 days. Its final stop was the desert outside Nouakchott, where the band recorded Amadjar over 15 days, apparently to an audience of scorpions.
Back story aside, Amadjar is an incredibly contemplative existential album, appearing to be drowning in sadness amid recent turmoil in the region. On Taqkal Tarha, the band sing:
Nothing has any meaning
Days follow each other and look the same
Relationships between men are being turned upside down
And everyone is becoming their own opposite
The lyrics throughout Amadjar reinforce this image of the band adrift in the desert feeling empty, lost and disillusioned.
Musically, the album is one of Tinariwen’s most stripped back and it feels extremely intimate, as if you are sitting in the desert around the campfire taking it all in. However, a couple of high-profile guests do make an appearance on the album, most notably Dirty Three and Bad Seeds violinist Warren Ellis, who cuts loose on a number of the album’s songs.
Marcus Wyatt & The ZAR Jazz Orchestra (South Africa) – Into Dust / Waltz for Jozi
Released at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda in July, Into Dust / Waltz for Jozi is the second release from Marcus Wyatt & The ZAR Jazz Orchestra, recorded live last year at the now defunct Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Into Dust takes its title from one half of a nine-minute medley on Wyatt’s 2013 album, One Life in the Sun. The other half of the medley, The Race for Timbuktu, also appears on Into Dust alongside a new Wyatt composition called Mali.
Across the 20-plus minutes of these three compositions, Wyatt really shows what he has to offer as a big band arranger. And the results are spectacular, with Bokani Dyer on piano, Marlon Witbooi on drums and Wyatt on trumpet. Another highlight from Into Dust is the beautifully arranged opener Connected, which features guest vocalist Zoe Modiga. The composition has a magic about it that is just transcendent, wrapping the listener up in its big band sway.
On the second of the new albums, Waltz for Jozi, Wyatt again digs into his back catalogue to give some older compositions a fresh voice.
All This Time from Wyatt’s 2007 album, Language 12, is brought back to life in a wonderful 13-plus minute arrangement that sees Modiga and saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane delivering memorable performances. South African trumpet legend Feya Faku pops up as a guest on the band’s performance of his own composition, Peddie’s Place, another of Waltz for Jozi’s magical moments.