In 2011, music distribution platforms and growing independent labels continued their industry domination. What’s most incredible is that bands such as the Alabama Shakes can explode out of nowhere (Athens, AL to be exact), rack up Bandcamp hits, and sign a record deal with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records within the course of months. As Soul Train continues its look at the best music of 2011, this list highlights the year’s underrated gems.
Fela Soul by Amerigo Gazaway (Gummy Soul)
With a surfeit of mash-up concept albums clogging the Internet, Gregg Gillis success stories are sometimes hard to come by. However, Gummy Soul producer Amerigo Gazaway is not a turntablist bounded by mere convention. Originally released for free download on Bandcamp, Gazaway’s Fela Soul is a boisterous production retrofitted with samples from cult hip-hop favorites De La Soul and Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti. But what’s most remarkable is that the wide-ranging stylistic format never feels overcooked. Fittingly enough, the 9-track album opens with De La Soul’s “Stakes is High”, a 1996 kiss-off to hip-hop commercialism. Fela Soul starts a good track record for Nashville’s independent Gummy Soul label, an idea that began on Vanderbilt University’s bygone terrestrial radio station WRVU.
No Time for Dreaming by Charles Bradley (Daptone/Dunham)
As a 63 year-old world-weary traveler, Charles Bradley boasts a compelling backstory comparable to Sharon Jones. Meanwhile, his haggard baritone harkens back to the socially conscious R&B of Marvin Gaye. On his Daptone debut, the assembled musicians outdo themselves with quavering horns and infectious Stax-era swagger. When Bradley lets out a raw wail on “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)”, you can feel a lifetime of anguished pain seeping through the stereo speakers.
Alabama Shakes EP by Alabama Shakes (Self-released)
“Bless my heart, bless my soul, I didn’t think I’d make it to 22-years-old”, Brittany Howard sings on the opening track from this debut Bandcamp EP. And with that, a star is born. Throughout the 4-song cycle, the band transitions from chicken joint blues-rock to tear-stained balladry with stunning ease. The shimmering guitars come out in full force with “On Your Way”, a perfect balance to Howard’s full-throated fervor.
Got to Get Back by The Bo-Keys (Electraphonic)
Guitar funk sound architect Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts added a slew of tasty instrumental touches to the latest Bo-Keys recording, Got to Get Back. The album works as the crown jewel to Memphis Soul history. It’s great to hear so many scene legends from trumpeter Ben Cauley to Hi Rhythm drummer Howard Grimes so clearly in their element. The tight, assertive Memphis-style horn section unfurls with a fierce buildup on “Work that Sucker”, while young gun and Electraphonic producer Scott Bomar looks toward the city’s future.
Love Has No Recession by Kindred The Family Soul (Purpose Music Group/Shanachie Entertainment)
After amicably parting ways with urban adult contemporary label Hidden Beach Recordings, Kindred the Family Soul released some of their strongest work with Love Has No Recession. The soaring Philly sound is apparent on the first cut proper “We All Will Know”, which incorporates richly layered textures and cool lounge grooves. At times, Recession seeks to update Kindred’s aesthetic with a misplaced Snoop Dogg remix. Of course, the album works best when the duo feeds off of each other’s inexhaustible harmonic talents.
Joey Hood has been writing about musicians since 2003. His byline has appeared in “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene,” Nerve.com, NPR and “Ya’ll.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State University with a focus in the recording industry. Read more: Joey Hood | eHow.com.