There’s no doubt about it–this has been the year of Sizzla–the man is on fire! He has always been prolific, recording as many as twenty tracks at a time, but his sound has matured in a major way. Whereas he was lumped together with other artistes in the past under an umbrella sound, he is pulling ahead with his innovative work and clever lyrics. He’s the only one on this list that you’ll see twice.

My picks span a wide varity of reggae, from dancehall to roots, from old to new artistes. The common thread is that all of these CDs depict new, innovative ways of relaying the message or new and creative sounds that haven’t been heard before.

Da Real Thing1. Sizzla, “Da Real Thing” [VP Records]

This album is brilliant from beginning to end. “Thank U Mama,” “Woman I Need You,” and “Got It Right Here” highlight Sizzla’s ability to use his lyrics and sound in a variety of ways. “Solid As A Rock” has carried me through many a difficult situation as I chant along in the car, “I’m so solid as a rock they just can’t stop me now. Even when they set their traps, they just can’t stop me now. People will say this and that, they just can’t stop me now. Even when they set road blocks, they just can’t stop me now.” I believe it’s the best empowerment song since Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

Ghetto Life2. Jah Cure, “Ghetto Life” [VP Records]

Some might question Jah Cure’s credibility as a conscious lyricist as he is serving a 15-year sentence since 1999 for rape and gun charges at St. Catherine District Prison in Jamaica. However, “Ghetto Life” is by far one of the most genuine and authentic releases of 2003. Producer Beres Hammond saw talent and light in this young artiste’s eyes, and leave it to Beres to identify brilliance. With collaborations with Jah Mason and Sizzla, this album seethes with anecdotal images of daily struggle. From the title track to “Western Region” and “Every Song I Sing,” Jah Cure’s subtle and powerful lyrics create a distinct and moving sound.

He Is Jah3. Midnite Branch I, “He Is Jah” [Rastafaria]

Midnite Branch I is an offshoot of the St. Croix-based band Midnite formed by lead singer Vaughn Benjamin and fellow musicians Phillip Merchant and Dion Hopkins. I promise you, you have never heard anything like this! The sound is experimental, yet melodic, edgy, and deep. The layers are complex yet everything comes together seamlessly as if the music was excavated from a sacred vault thousands of years ago. This is revolutionary music, both in its sound and content. Benjamin rails against western society with an ease that is both learned and sincere. This album is the purest example out there of message being conveyed in an entirely new way. A must have for any lover of music. Period.

Up 2 Di Time4. Vybz Kartel, “Up To Di Time” [Greensleeves]

Yes, indeed, Vybz Kartel is a guilty pleasure. His charisma and magnetism ooze through the recordings as if he stops traffic wherever he lands. His lyrics are in heavy patois and only at second listen make me blush–he has a disproportionate fondness for cats (wink), partying, and name brands. However, with that said, he has one of the most amazing lyrical flows out there. He is quick, sharp, and on point when he delivers his masterful lyrical slams. An overall excellent dancehall album if you remember to check your conscience at the door!

Live at Montreaux 20015. Burning Spear, “Live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival” [Burning Music]

Burning Spear is in a class of his own. Always has been. Always will be. He is the foundation and inspiration to so much that has followed and he is truly in his element in a live setting. He’s put out a number of live albums, my favorite being a “Live in Paris 1988” one, but this is stellar because of the recording quality as well as the Burning Band he uses, which is frequently changing by a member or two. The selection of songs he performs spans his 40+ year career in the music industry with such anthems as “Slavery Days,” “Jah Nuh Dead,” “Man in the Hills” and “Postman.” Spear’s album “Freeman” is his latest studio recording and is nominated for a Grammy Award. There’s no doubt Winston Rodney is a living legacy and calling him a serious musical innovator does not even come close to doing him justice!

Good 2 Go6. Elephant Man, “Good 2 Go” [VP Records]

We have to acknowledge that this has been one amazing year for the former Scare Dem Crew member. Elephant Man has brought back the dances in the dancehalls, and has infiltrated Jamaican popular culture having all the Jamaican youths proclaiming they are “good to go!” In all honesty, I am still waiting for VP to send this release, but I had to put Elephant Man on the Top 10 for his sheer influence. From “Signal the Plane,” “Blase,” “Row the Boat,” “Pon the River, Pon the Bank,” to “Log On,” it’s been hit after hit for this charismatic rudebwoy. Also, if you ever get to see him live, it is an experience you will never forget!

Visions7. Luciano, “Visions” [Jetstar]

Luciano is one of those people who was born to sing. He needs no lessons–the talent just emanates from his body. His voice is smooth, full of emotion, natural. I am a huge fan of his 1990s Fatis Burrell-produced work, and since then, I’ve found some of his songs over-produced and even lyrically tame. This release, however, is a real gem from Jetstar. I think the label has been getting the best work of the artistes– Turbulence’s “The Future” is a good example of that. Exceptional tracks on “Visions” is the “Divide and Rule,” the title track, and “Worthy To Be Praised.” If you’ve been a Luci fan all along, this is a nice addition to your collection. If you don’t own any Luciano material, start with “Messenger,” “Where There is Life,” and many of the Xterminator label compilations.

Rise to the Occasion8. Sizzla, “Rise to the Occasion” [Greensleeves]

Sizzla is finally an adult on this one. This is the most impressive and surprising release I’ve heard all year. The songs have jazzy infusions, syncopated rhythms, and a lyrical maturity that I haven’t heard from him as yet. Maybe he’s just in love, and has mellowed out at bit! “Nice and Lovely,” “Give Praises,” “In the Mood,” and the title track all display Sizzla’s complexity. I would even recommend this one to dancehall naysayers who might tumble over backwards when they hear it.

straight from da root9. LMS, “Straight from Da Root” [VP Records]

The younger Morgan clan has a fresh approach to the music. I appreciate their energy and innocence–they definitely remind me of Morgan Heritage when they first started. Fattis Burrell produced this album and the sounds combine dancehall, reggae, R&B and hip-hop. “Straight From Da Root”, “Blessed Joy” and “Can’t Go To Zion” are the terrific reggae mainstays. Some of the other tracks dabble in more–gasp–mainstream sounds.

Can't Stop A Man10. Beres Hammond, “Can’t Stop A Man” [VP Records]

Need I say more? The man’s music makes me scream. I think he was formerly a woman in a past life, because he understands them so well. This 2 CD set is truly the ultimate Beres collection. It’s got collaborations with Buju Banton and U-Roy. Then you get hit after hit, “Rockaway,” “They Gonna Talk,” “Queen and Lady,” “Love From A Distance,” “Sweet Lies,” and on and on and on… you get the point. Beres is a god. There’s nothing more to it.

Special Mention:

Various Artists, “Strictly Vocals” [Reggae Vibes]

Various Artists, “Jamdown Records’ 5th Anniversary Collection” [Jamdown]

Various Artists, “Def Jamaica” [Def Jam]

If you’re interested in submitting music for review, please send 2 copies to: Laura Gardner,, PO Box 9207, Berkeley, CA 94709, USA.