United Kingdom Lovers Rock made a push during 2009. The best albums were either UK artists, or Jamaican singers who released material on UK recording labels. But still, the Jamaican scene produced some outstanding indigenous material, too. In accordance with industry projections, Lovers Rock did dominate the industry in 2009 -- a wide denominator of New York and South Florida radio chart toppers were Lovers Rock songs, and many press organizations rated Lovers Rock albums higher than their culture and SoCal counterparts. Therefore, I have compiled this list to reflect LoversRockJamaica.net's suggestions for the most worthwhile purchases of albums released during 2009.
#10 Various Artists - Songs For Reggae Lovers
Since its 2008 merger with VP Records, UK-based Greensleeves Records has mastered the art of the "event" album. That is, reggae compilations packed with so many hits, classics, disco versions and collaborations, that every release date feels like a "grand opening." Greensleeves Records' latest effort, "Songs For Reggae Lovers 2," succeeds at upholding the company's musical reputation. Lovers-rock newcomer Althea Hewitt opens with a fierce cover of Beyonce's 2008 hit, "If I Were A Boy," setting the stage for a varied mix of romantic-reggae classics, contemporary lovers rock, and a small taste of UK swingbeat reggae. Marcia Aitken's "I'm Still In Love" and Frankie Paul's "I Know The Score" establish a familiar, classic-reggae foundation. The album later showcases modern-reggae anthems, such as Etana's silky-smooth "Closer," and Terry Linen's energetic "Your Love Is My Love." Freddie McGregor's "Stop Loving You," and Dean Fraser's "Girlfriend," both well-known mixtape hits, add danceable decoration to a well-rounded succession of mellow roots rhythms. Also noteworthy is Greensleeves re-mastering technique, which gives the album a seamless, optimistic feeling from beginning to end. Overall, "Songs For Reggae Lovers 2" is solid and authentic, and it completes the difficult task of outdoing the first volume.
#9 Kemar 'Flava' McGregor - Sweet Riddim
“Sweet” Riddim provides the best of both worlds. It's simple enough to soothe a listener's emotions, but it has just enough personality to carry a worthwhile compilation album – and it actually sounds as "sweet" as the name implies. The riddim employs a relaxed, strolling tempo, with a cool, summer-afternoon, guitar decoration, which conjures thoughts of red roses in a country garden. The singers succeed at supporting this vibe, but it’s mostly the spiritual quality of the groove that drives the album. Beres Hammond’s “See You Again,” and Freddie McGregor’s “Keeps On Coming Back,” are airy and settling. Marcia Griffiths’ “WhenYou Giving Your Heart” emerges as the sole, “hit-single” candidate -- using a calm, catchy melody and heartfelt, radio-friendly lyrics in Griffiths’ typical style. The spiritual tandem of Ginjah’s “Prayer,” Stevie Face’s “Proverbs 6,” exposes the riddim’s versatility, allowing the listener to feel atmospheric peace, in contrast to the love energy felt throughout the rest of the album. Bridgez’s “Coming Home” is a fitting closer, a good, solid, R&B flavored Lovers Rock joint that finishes the album with a soulful exclamation point. Overall, the “Sweet” Riddim album is very relaxing and consistent, with selfless and tasteful vocal performances.
#8 Sandra Cross - Sandra Cross Now
Lloyd Campbell’s easy, Jet Star-esque sound hugs Sandra Cross' vocal energy with a comfortable slumber-party blanket of roots-reggae flavor. Cross' crystal-clear vocal timbre remains astonishingly intact throughout the album (despite a nine-year hiatus from the music business). "What About Me" and "How Did You Do That" achieve the innocent "Ariwa Sounds" vibe for which Cross is best known, but later in the album, "Love & Protection," and "Had It All" reveal Cross' heartier side, using thick roots grooves as a place-setting for a more rhythm-heavy, Caribbean vocal feast. Equally amazing are Cross' cover songs, which include covers of her own classics from the 1980s and 90s. "Country Living" works surprisingly well as a slow groove, presented over Campbell's "Thank You Lord" rhythm, and her earlier hit "I Adore You" sounds more mature with deep, quick, bass-guitar decorations. She even attempts a Bob Marley cover -- "Soul Shakedown Party" -- which eerily conjures the spirit of the original. Cross convincingly sings Marley's leads with a steady, strong timbre, and then sweetly harmonizes the backgrounds of Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths -- all three harmonies -- authentically within the same recording. British and American buyers should be aware that this album was distributed by VP Records under the name "Sandra Cross…Now." The album covers are different, but the songlists are mostly identical. If you’re a UK Lovers Rock fan, awaiting the style’s return to international fame, you’ll definitely consider “My Lovers Rock” a formidable comeback album.
#7 Bitty McLean - Movin' On
McLean wisely explores the modern UK Lovers Rock sound, replacing the unbridled soul of “On Bond Street” with casual, midnight reggae vibes. Needless to say, McLean’s vocals are in top form. The opening half of the album is easy and smooth, with Robbie Shakespeare’s heavy bass supplying much of the musical mood, especially on “So In Love” and “Jahovia.” Eventually, you’ll reach McLean’s 2007 mixtape hit, “The Real Thing,” and you’ll realize who he is, and why you’ve heard his name. His other mixtape hit, “Let Them Talk,” occurs toward the album’s end, complete with an eternally-deep bass groove, peppered with spicy, upper-register sax decorations. For the most part, everything here represents a tasteful and authentic Lovers Rock sound. Aside from McLean’s top-shelf singing, it’s refreshing to hear Sly and Robbie’s electronically-textured, 1980s roots sound adapted to the spirit of modern UK reggae.
#6 Glen Washington - Destiny
Glen Washington's "Destiny" is a blueprint for successful Lovers Rock songwriting. It's stacked to the ceiling with clear, propulsive bass grooves, danceable rhythms, and serene, melodic vocals. Although "Destiny" has an authentic roots reggae sound, its catchy melodies are so strong, that the album is likely to attract a significant number of reggae outsiders as well as insiders. Washington opens the album with "My Destiny," -- a startling, energetic song containing a brisk drum and bass groove and short, sweet saxophone riffs. What follows is a mix of smooth-groove and classic-roots reggae, which stays true to Washington's core musical values. Like fellow lovers-rock singer Mikey Spice, Washington's deep, soulful riddims give his albums a stand-out quality. This is especially evident on Washington's reading of the Temptations classic, "Aint Too Proud To Beg," which sports a Donville Davis-ish bass and drum groove so deep, that you'll develop an instant desire for jerk-chicken and callaloo. Washington also resurrects some modern, hit-song riddims -- using the "Breaking-Up-Is-Hard-To-Do" riddim (best known as the groove to Sizzla's "Good Ways") on "Where Will I Go," and Tarrus Riley's "Parables" riddim on "Pour Your Sugar." Elsewhere, the album is highly consistent, romantic and satisfying. Hopefully, "Destiny" will represent an optimistic prelude to the much-anticipated 2009 vocal-reggae market.
#5 Mafia And Fluxy - Strictly Vocals 3
Serene rhythms and relaxed vocals are the main attraction of this most recent volume of Mafia and Fluxy’s “Strictly Vocals” series. And although Mafia and Fluxy’s signature production sound is featured prominently, Volume 3 also employs the rough-n’-rootsy “Cousins Records” sound, which provides a flavorful contrast to the smooth, “Jet Star” vibe heard on the first two volumes. The album opens with a series of clean, mellow vocal specials, initiated by Mikey Spice’s thoughtful serenade, “Remix the Love.” Adele Harley’s “One More Time” increases the energy level – both musically and sensually, and True Essence’s “Love Like Yours” delivers a romantic, “Hollywood-duet” feeling, as if James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt were singing over a starry-eyed, reggae beat. Slick lovers-rock songs from Sylvia Tella and Kofi inspire warm feelings, and Leroy Mafia’s “Jealous Fool” offers much-needed romance lessons for the male gender. Overall, the female vocalists steal the show – most notably Harley and Tella, who stock 20 percent of the album with delightful melodies and bright vocal delivery. Elsewhere, reggae celebs like Luciano and Sugar Minott provide relaxing culture songs that soothe and medicate listeners’ spirits. In short, "Strictly Vocals 3" is a must-have for all Mafia and Fluxy fans, and will probably become one of the best lovers-rock albums of 2009.
#4 Mad Professor - Sweet And Mellow Lovers Rock
Essentially, this is a melodic Lovers Rock mix that showcases Neil “Mad Professor” Fraser’s romantic-reggae and instrumental-dub personalities. The vocal tracks are jazzy and soft, and the dubs are highly effective as lovers’ mood music. Sandra Cross supplies the perfect beginning, with her a capella masterpiece “I Want You So Badly.” What follows is a sensual magic-carpet ride to Lovers Rock heaven. Fraser’s dubs, especially “Dub Ballad” and “Sunshine Dub” supply the perfect background for anniversaries, and his vocal hits, including Cross’ I Adore You, Paulette Tajah’s “Baby Come Back” and Kofi’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” give the album an energetic “mixtape” feel. The inclusion of Just Dale’s cover version of “Until You Come Back To Me” makes the mix complete – creating the perfect dynamic balance between soft ballads and strong soulful R&B adapted Lovers Rock. Personally, I think Victor Entertainment has tapped into a rewarding resource – creating a mixtape franchise from Ariwa Sounds timeless musical legacy. Also, a collector who doesn’t know dub music would consider this album a good introduction.
#3 Fiona - More Than Words
Marvelous, affectionate harmonies are the main attraction of this R&B flavored, roots-reggae gem, stocked with a succession of streamlined rhythms and warm lyrics. There's something for every kind of reggae fan here -- from lovers-rock buffs to modern mixtape fans. Lovers rock fans will definitely dig Fiona's covers of "Good Thing Going," and "Break Up To Make Up," which feature her velvety, summer-night voice among crisp, generous roots rhythms. "Overcome What May" offers a strong combination -- the droning bassline and light drumbeat leave ample space for Fiona's flowery vocals to grow and blossom. About halfway through the album you'll notice that every song is lathered in a moist bubble-bath of soothing vocal harmony. This is most evident on "No Competition" and "In Your Arms," where the harmonies are presented in the form of unexpected flurries and lovetaps that add a unique, "motherly" feeling to the album. You'll also notice that the songs are layered cleverly. Musical "hooks" are subtlely arranged and combined to produce an overwhelming, sensual statement in every song. This is made obvious not only by the harmonies, but also by a handful of cool, idiosyncratic production gags, such as the "water drop" sound effect in "Foolish Heart," and the "accordion" keyboard sound in "Change Me." Overall, Fiona's comeback album is certain to add to her strong legacy of emotional, vocal prowess. The title, "More Than Words" couldn't be more accurate -- this album is a clinic on the non-verbal abilities of the language of reggae music.
#2 Glen Washington - Vibes
Kemar “Flava” McGregor’s serene rhythms exude a therapeutic ambience that enables Glen Washington's vocals to relieve stress and inspire romance. The hit single, “Vibes,” starts the album with a gentle sea-breeze of female vocal harmony and majestic, well-timed keyboard sounds. Lovers Rock gems “Baby” and “Little Girl” achieve an equally appeasing feel, employing episodic cadences that shift between innocence and quiet passion. New-age praise songs, such as “Jah Jah We Call On You” and “Good Old Days,” represent passive, soothing movements within the overall one-drop symphony, but the tonic-key of the album eventually returns to romance. Roots ballad, "Your Love" is emblematic of Washington's Lovers Rock abilities -- it's so affectionate and pure that you'll see roses, and you might feel the beginnings of tears. The love song before the closer, “No One Else But You,” also is quite inspiring, complete with a happy texture, hip keyboard sounds and a swingbeat rhythm that elicits smiles. The overall atmosphere of this album is like a quiet sunset – you don’t want to talk or act too quickly, because it might harm the mood. So instead, it’s wiser to simply resign and enjoy the whispering stream of positive energy.
#1 Peter Hunnigale - Reggae Ville
Peter Hunnigale's songwriting has always been slick, but on "Reggae Ville," his artistry has evolved into a charming state of spirituality. And the funny part is, the slickness has evolved, too. Groove-wise, "Reggae Ville" is bankhead-bounce city -- replete with dancefloor-friendly swingbeat rhythms and thumping, roots bass lines. His reading of Billy Stewart's "Sitting In The Park" feels like a reggae version of something GQ might have sung -- the background harmonies have an easy, church feeling that is unique to 1970s soul, and the lead vocals are calming and sweet, like those of a "quiet storm" request-line favorite. The elegant soul of "2 A.M." creeps up on you -- before you realize it, you're grooving along with Hunnigale's end-of-the-world melodic strength. During the chorus, he sensually procrastinates against the rhythm, similar to a muted Miles Davis trumpet solo, creating a ballroom-dance feel that few singers could deliver more authentically. The rest of the album is steady, spiritual and consistent, in which Hunnigale's interwoven instrumental riffs and subtle vocal harmonies combine to create a feng-shui-design of comfortable energy. Lovers dance "Special Kind of Way," and spiritual melody "Put Love 1st" achieve a clean, atmospheric feeling of well-being, similar to a live Burning Spear recording. And then there's the closer, "Almighty Bless," which provides a bouncy emotional lift -- leaving the listener with a tapestry of compelling background vocals and heavenly lyrics (and the bass line is pretty crunching, too). In total, this is a near-perfect UK reggae album, and the only reason I wrote "near-perfect" is because the album doesn't provide a dancing partner.