Operation Manatee Music Prize: Top Five Albums of 2015

Coming up with this list is always hard. You’ve seen how much good music makes it under my radar in a year. Paring it down to 5 means leaving out heaps of really good music. Alas, it must be done (actually, it doesn’t – I’m clearly doing this for fun).

Keeping in the spirit of the new Operation Manatee Music Prize, I’m again doing that thing everyone on the internet hates: changing something. Instead of reading from my number 1 pick, up, I’m doing a big, old-fashioned countdown.


Five

Dan Mangan + Blacksmith - Club Meds
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith – Club Meds

This album almost didn’t make the cut – only because all I could think was, ‘Naw. Too easy. Of course it’s good. It’s Dan Mangan. It wouldn’t be fair to the other albums to include Club Meds.’ I felt like I couldn’t let Mangan into the top 5 because it would be like giving away a prize to someone who is clearly better than so many others. Slowly but surely, I realized how dumb that was. I can’t exclude an album for being too good. This album is too good to leave off of the top 5.

The first time I saw Dan Mangan perform with the band that would come to be called Blacksmith was November, 2012. I’d seen him perform solo before, and wanted to bring my girlfriend to see one of my favourite artists. Mangan was good enough before he had a great band, but this was really something else! They were on fire! The chemistry, the fun they had, the way Mangan had the entire place eating out of his hand… the entire show was mesmerizing, and I never heard the end of how cool it was from the girl who would be my future wife. They mentioned at that show that they were already looking to do more a collaborative effort and less of a solo artist plus backup band, but I assumed that just meant they’d break up and Mangan would end up hiring someone else.

Already being a fan, I was strangely apprehensive in picking up Club Meds. I always kind of fear that the artist I’d been watching grow all this time would put out something so drastically different than what I’ve heard in the past that I would just abandon them (it’s happened before). Not to mention: this isn’t just Mangan. It’s Mangan + Blacksmith, whatever the hell that means! So, it actually took me a while to get a copy of this and listen. As usual, I’d been a damned fool. This album is not only a great Mangan release, it has a very solid “band” feel to it. Everyone plays off of each other and adds something unique to each track. So many elements working together to come up with this fucking great rock album!

When I heard Mangan + Blacksmith were coming back to Regina to support this new release, naturally, we went again, and loved it!


Four

Mbongwana Star - From Kinshasa
Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa

Once in a rare while, I delightfully find myself listening to music that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. It’s hard to do something unique with music without becoming uninteresting or too weird. In From Kinshasa, Mbongwana Star creates this insane mixture of melodies, drums and percussion, sampling, singing, and a variety of other instruments that sounds, at times, frantic, laid-back, cool, disturbing, familiar, and otherworldly.

Everything about this album sounds experimental. The production is as unlikely as the music. There are levels of distortion on most of the tracks that most would consider too liberal, there are reverb and echo effects on background vocals that perforate to the fore at unexpected times, there are times when you think you’re listening to something rock-like, others when you feel like you’re in a Congo dance party. Instead of trying to find any of these elements to rely on, though, you end up just letting the insanity get to you. Don’t try and make sense. Don’t try and compare (hard, I know). Just groove and love it!

This was a totally unexpected find, and something I surprised myself in listening to over and over. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys listening outside of their comfort zone!


Three

Ibeyi
Ibeyi

It wasn’t until I’d already given this a dozen or so spins that I discovered the twin sisters behind Ibeyi are also daughters of Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz, known for his work with Buena Vista Social Club & co. It raises the bar a little. Not that they can’t clear it. Ibeyi is dark, musical, emotional, and just amazingly good! Their blend of Yoruba and English lyrics, covering some heavy topics – notably the death of their older sister in a car crash, is woven so well that it almost goes unnoticed while you enjoy the deep vibe you get from the album. Even if you don’t understand all the words (being partially in a Nigerian language spoken by their ancestors), you still get the intended feeling from listening. The style is somewhere in a dark, melancholy, personal corner of hip hop meets R&B and Afro-Cuban that I could only call Ibeyi. If deeply honest and personal music is your thing, this recording should be on your shelf.


Two

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens never ceases to amaze me. Assuming you’ve heard at least some of his previous work – nearly all of which is very strong, interesting stuff – you might have, by 2015, come to expect that he’s up to something big, overall. Instead of feeling like an arrival at some new plateau, each new album he releases make me wonder what’s coming next.

Carrie & Lowell sounds very personal. Named for his mother (who died in 2012) and his stepfather, listening to the album is like witnessing Stevens’ personal thoughts and feelings. I know that’s often what music is striving to do, but wow! Does this album ever do it! It’s so lonely, and so loving, bordering on cliché, but still making you long the way he longs. When I heard the end of Fourth Of July (he repeats, “We’re all gonna die. We’re all gonna die”, after singing about a dying loved one – presumably his mother), I felt a pit in my stomach. Had it been a metal band, I might have turned it off as cliché, but the way it’s delivered makes it somehow more credible – more meaningful.

Lending to the overall feel of the album is the bedroom-recording style in which it’s done. You often hear room noise or other noises you wouldn’t hear in a perfectly manufactured studio album. It’s like he needed to get these songs out in their rawest form, without mucking around with studio effects or processing.

This is a wonderfully enjoyable album with huge musical intention and achievement whose meaningful, personal delivery just resonate and make me want to listen again and again.


One

Buffy Sainte-Marie - Power In The Blood
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power In The Blood

I’ve always been a fan of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s fiery spirit and great intellect. Any time I’ve heard her interviewed on the radio or read a quotation in an article, I’ve always cheered her on. She’s been a champion for First Nations in Canada and indigenous people in the Americas for nearly twice as long as I’ve been alive. She’s really incredible! That said, I’ve never cared too much for her music. There may have been the odd song here or there that I’ve liked (Universal Solder comes to mind right away), but overall, she’s fallen into this area of mostly plain rock that was just never really my thing.

When I heard she was one of the headlining artists at a music festival I already planned to attend this year, I thought, ‘Oh cool! She’s a big deal. She’ll probably be good live.’ What I did not know was that she had just released a fucking powerhouse album, at age 73/74. The performance was breathtaking, prompting me to pick up Power In The Blood.

Using a magically appropriate combination of rock, electronic, and folk styles, this album has moments that are catchy and fun, moments that are moving and heartfelt, and (what Buffy does best of all) moments that make you want to shout a song of defiance! The songs are poignant, meaningful, and have a universal quality that will surely have people listening to them in relevant times, a few decades from now (again Universal Soldier comes to mind).

All the while, she weaves in her First Nations heritage, using not only thematic material, but samples of actual pow wow drumming and singing. Man, I tell you, when those drums played her out, in concert, we all felt it, and the same effect is still there, when you hear it in the recording!

Overall, this is such a big album! There isn’t a track I don’t like, and the ones I like most just soar! What a fantastic recording! This should be on the shelves of everyone in Canada – not just for being relevant and made by a legendary artist – but for just being unbelievably good!


There you have it! Another year, another top 5. Think anything is missing from this list? Let’s hear it! Drop me a line right here, or send us a shout on Twitter: @OpManatee

I’ve already got my radar on a handful of albums set for release in early 2016, and can’t wait to see what the year brings. Until then, keep tuning in, Tuesday nights, 11:00 to midnight.

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