As 2020 comes to a close we reflect on who we are as a community through the lens of what we know best: music. Rather than our favorite new releases of the year, we’re sharing the music we’ve actually been listening to, regardless of when it was released. These are the songs that have gotten us through. We’ll share new updates here for the rest of the year. This has been the Soundtrack of 2020…
JAMES SEARL of GIANT PANDA GUERILLA DUB SQUAD
“I listen to this every morning with Isaac. These are the first 5 plays, however up until a few days ago it began with an amazing song from a Puerto Rican artist whose name I don’t know and has since been removed from YouTube. It’s an artist who became a big pop star and this song was done by him before his big fame and is more of a folk tune. Chris O’Brian sent it to me a few years ago and it was given to him by a friend DJ Muerto Motora. It’s removal is my first real loss of something I had access to digitally that became a part of my life and is now lost in the ether! I will be searching…”
1. 12” Don Carlos – Mr Sun
2. chin’s calypso sextet-depression
3. The Jolly Boys – Mother & Wife
4. Linstead Market [10 inch] – Louise Bennett acc. by the Caribbean Serenaders
5. Bingy Bunny and Morwells -full album Rare
CARTER VAN PELT of VP RECORDS
I prepared the following list of what I thought I listened to most in 2020, anticipating that Spotify’s year-end summary would give me cause for reconsideration. The Spotify summary is an interesting exercise, but it didn’t cause me to change what I wrote below. Learning that Jah9 was my number one artist of the year made me think I should have written about her excellent album Note To Self, but I will just give it a passing shout-out as one of the best top-to-bottom releases of the year.
Below are the individuals songs that resonated strongly. Two of these are vintage 7-inch singles, just to make a point that I’m not done with vinyl and still see the format as relevant in the streaming age.
1. KABAKA PYRAMID – “Nice Up The Dance”
This cover of Michigan and Smiley’s 1979 hit didn’t catch me the first time I heard it on a VP Records private SoundCloud account nearly two years ago, maybe feeling the world didn’t need another version of “Real Rock.” The song grew on me this summer for the simple and enduring joy in the picture it paints, a dance in Jamaica and all the peripheral activities that define it: “I need a food before the food it sell off / The cane man and his idren have to laugh / How them laugh? / Tra la la la la la la la la.” It’s the essence of reggae’s home-grown goodness, and Kabaka Pyramid delivers his interpretation with new verses, flipping and shifting lyrical hieroglyphics like only he can do.
2. PETER TOSH – “Oppressor Man” 7-inch single
Several years ago, my friend Ruddy Virgo played at Reggae On The Boardwalk and floored me with yet another Peter Tosh variation on “Sinner Man,” a Nina Simone original first covered by The Wailers, then by Peter Tosh for Lee Perry and later for Tosh’s self-produced LP Equal Rights as “Down Pressor Man.” This incendiary version (third in the chronology) is called, simply, “Oppressor Man,” released on the nebulous Trans-AM label in Jamaica and produced by Tosh. It was an instant ‘want-list’ record for me, and I finally got a copy in 2020. According a Bunny Wailer interview with Roger Steffens, it may have been from a 1970 recording session. To my ear, this sounds like an outtake from the 1972 Wailers Catch A Fire period, something that would seem to fit in the fiery zeitgeist of “Slave Driver” or “Midnight Ravers,” not to mention the drummer is unquestionably Carlton Barrett. If I could only ask Peter Tosh about his love affair with this song!
3. BOB ANDY – “Sun Shines For Me”
Keith Anderson, better known as Bob Andy, passed away from cancer during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. His catalog is timeless, but among the records I go back to time and again is “Sun Shines For Me,” a circa 1969 Federal Records outing that encompasses all the optimism, humility and positive spirit that I will always associate with this gifted son of Jamaica. The lyrics resonate over the ages, “I’m not rich but the sun shines for me,” which stands in stark contrast to the 21st century dancehall mantras of material excess. For record collectors, the good news is this doubled-sided gem was a big hit at the time of release for the flipside, “Games People Play.” Big hit records mean many were pressed, and many are still around today for a reasonable price.
4. AGENT SASCO – “Loco – Remix”
One of the most important things a dancehall track can do is to keep the energy moving. Agent Sasco’s “Loco – Remix” brings in Bounty Killer and Kabaka Pyramid for one of the most concise and perfect two-minute recordings I’ve heard in ages, and definitely my favorite new dancehall track of 2020. Sasco’s straight cut of “Loco” appeared on his Sasco vs. Assassin EP, but this remix showcases next level lyrical flow by all three emcees. After about 55 seconds of his signature rhyme style, Sasco asks the producer, “Hey Teflon, wha we do fi di promo? Drop a killa remix right about now …” and boom, here comes Bounty Killer in and out in 30 fierce seconds and then, as if things weren’t burning hot enough, Kabaka Pyramid seals it with lyrics like: “loco with whole flow inna choke hold / this old soul is so cold, snow cone / higher than the ozone when chalice smoke blow through mi nose hole / pack it up like the Rose Bowl.” When has the Rose Bowl ever been likened to a ganja chalice?
5. CLIVE HUNT – “Ivan The Terrible” (from Blue Lizzard)
I won’t look back on 2020 without thinking of the Clive Hunt instrumental album Blue Lizzard. In the interest of full disclosure, I pushed to get this album pressed on vinyl, feeling it was unusual and important enough to merit that kind of permanence. Instrumental albums were once central to Jamaican music, because of the importance of horns in ska, which lasted through the rocksteady and reggae eras all the way to the end of the 1970s, when Joe Gibbs and Channel One would release full horns driven instrumentals. This release hearkens to that era. The standout track for me is “Ivan The Terrible,” an arrangement of Dennis Brown’s “Don’t Want To Be No General.” While the horns are prominent here, the lead guitar of Lamont “Monty” Savory takes center stage for much of the song’s drawn out and dubbed out six minutes. Guitar on a reggae track can be overbearing, but Savory gives the music space to breathe, mindful of the traditions of Lynn Taitt and Chinna Smith.
Three of the tracks above and all my honorable mentions can be found here.
Carter Van Pelt is Director of Catalog Development for VP Records and founder of Coney Island Reggae On The Boardwalk. He has been a radio DJ since 1991.
RYAN THAXTER of DUBBEST
1. “Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville
2. “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun” by Arthur Russell
3. “Black Gold” by Esperanza Spaulding
4. “COOL WATER” by Conor James
5. “Shake It Down – Instrumental” by J DIlla
GREG NECTOW of THE ELOVATERS
NATHAN FEINSTEIN of IYA TERRA
DJ KAYLA KUSH
2. Mungo’s Hi Fi
3. Michael Nau
4. Fat Freddy’s Drop
5. Collie Buddz