Operation Manatee Music Prize: Top Five Albums of 2016

A little late, but here are the top five albums of 2016:


Five

Andy Shauf – The Party

During the winter of 2010/2011, I went to a sold-out Royal Wood concert at a former small church turned 250-seat performance venue. I was super excited, met up with some friends and prepared for a good time. What I didn’t anticipate (nor, I suspect, did the majority of the rest of the crowd) was that the very young-looking, small local kid in a trucker cap, opening with solo voice and guitar to have that sold out crowd utterly silent. We all clapped in between songs, but no one dared make a sound while he performed. We didn’t want to miss a single note. Royal Wood was enjoyable, but I’ll never forget the crowd the first time I saw Andy Shauf.

A few years, a couple albums, and two or three more concert attendences later, Shauf has released his best work yet. The Party encapsulates that incredible, lonely singer/songwriter feel, but the songs have more depth, musically and lyrically. The whole album paints a picture of a bunch of rather awkward, but relatively normal people at a house party, in his particular brand of folk/pop stuff. If you heard this album come on in a diner or some public space where you couldn’t listen intently, you might hear a well-produced collection of pretty good-sounding songs. It wouldn’t be until you took a copy home and really listened that you would hear just how good The Party really is. The story is believable, the lyrics have Shauf’s signature style written all over them, and the music all make this one of the best albums in my collection, and easily one of the best albums released this year.


Four

The Cat Empire – Rising With The Sun

Being very into music, over the years, I’ve been presented with many opportunities to declare what my favourite band is. I’ve definitely had favourites over the years, but I’ve never been able to pick out just one above all others. It wasn’t until the third time I’d seen them (at Regina Folk Fest 2016) that it occurred to me The Cat Empire is that band! I never miss an opportunity to see them, I eagerly await each new album, I follow them on all the social media… yep. I’m a fan.

While each new album of theirs has been enjoyable, I’ve always compared them to the insanely good 2005 release, Two Shoes, and found that while I love the music, the newer stuff just wasn’t measuring up. Let me be clear: each new album has been crazy good. I just wasn’t getting the same feel. Maybe because they weren’t totally new to me anymore and I knew what they could do.

One way or another, Rising With The Sun brought that feeling back. This is such an exciting band, and the music has gotten so good over the years! They’ve found the perfect mixture of Latin, ska, folk, and dance, given it incredible arrangements, good lyrics, two powerhouse vocalists… yep. I’m a fan.

They don’t just stop at party tunes though (although I don’t know of a band that makes a party more than they), a song like Bataclan, based on the horrendous attack in 2014, or a song like Eagle, which provides some introspect into Harry, keep this band fresh, meaningful, personal, and all the better.

What a killer album!


Three

Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust

Kishi Bashi is the type of artist that tends to get my attention: he’s original, creative, always exploring new ground.

Since spotting this video, in a youtube clicking frenzy (it showed a cartoon bunny and said, “I Am The Antichrist…”), how could I not click on it?), I’ve been hooked, buying up albums, live recordings, and weird one-off things from his distributing label (flexi discs, coloured vinyl). I’ve loved it all, in different ways.

On Sonderlust, Kishi Bashi heads further into a band sound and further away from a solo loop-pedler. Pros and cons to that, but ultimately, the result is a far more intricate, more interesting, more refined, more meaningful listen. While the album sounds like Kishi Bashi is getting deeper, he’s no less fun. There are so many great musical ideas going on. I hear modern pop, I hear ’70s/’80s pop, I hear classical (he’s Berklee trained, y’all), I hear imagination going wild, then being put to specific use. He has changed from a super-fun solo looper to a one-man superhuman strings-and-synth symphony with solo voice.

The songwriting and arrangements on Sonderlust are incredible! The feel of the album is next-level. I actually can’t stop listening. I won’t.


Two

ANOHNI – Hopelessness

Sometime in mid 2015, when I’d heard that Antony Hegarty was going to start going by “ANOHNI” and identify as trans female, I figured… yeah. Okay. That makes sense. Not a lot of surprise there. When I heard that she would be releasing a new album under her new identity, I kind of made a mental note. I’ve loved her voice ever since I first heard her on Björk’s 2007 release, Volta (causing me to dig and find Antony And The Johnsons, etc.). It wasn’t until I learned that her upcoming release was co-produced by Oneohtrix Point Never (whose 2015 release, Garden Of Delete was featured on last year’s Long List) and Hudson Mohawke that I really started paying attention.

The lead single off of HOPELESSNESS was 4 Degrees. When I heard the words,

I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil
I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil
It’s only 4 degrees
It’s only 4 degrees
I wanna hear the dogs crying for water
I wanna see the fish go belly-up in the sea
And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures
I wanna see them burn, it’s only 4 degrees

Holy shit! When the album was released, the theme continued. I thought, ‘She’s given up!’ There’s so much despair throughout this album (“Drone bomb me, explode my crystal guts”, “Execution, it’s an American dream, have no mercy on me”, Crisis, Hopelessness, etc.). Then it occurred to me: she hasn’t given up at all. She’s fighting! The name and orientation change, the relentless lyrics and energy on this album, the constant social media posts to have mercy on Chelsea Manning, to have accountability from the U.S. for their constant horrors, and on and on.

The content is 90% of what makes this album one of the best released in 2016. The other 10% is the massive combination of sounds from Oneohtrix Point Never, Hudson Mohawke, and ANOHNI’s style and delivery. The sounds on this album are just as unique as ANONHI’s voice, swirling, pounding, sometimes dirty, but always gorgeous.

Only a handful of true artists have had the gumption to create something this passionate. I’ll be listening to this album decades from now, remembering the times. I can only hope that art like this will have created a slightly better world in which to listen.


One

Saul Williams – Martyr Loser King

Saul Williams’ career and life have led him down some interesting paths: he’s been a slam poet, an actor, a playwright, a rapper, an artist, a public speaker… he’s been produced by Rick Rubin, Trent Reznor, Serj Tankian, Renaud Létang… he’s worked with The Fugees, Zack De La Rocha, De La Soul, KRS-One, Nine Inch Nails, A Tribe Called Red… he’s lived in Brazil, France, the U.S… Points for experience, man.

In his new album, Williams builds an alternate world based mostly around a hacker in Burundi who is part of a social and mental revolution. The story is obviously a thinly-veiled look at the current world. It’s messy and thick, we’re all being watched, the wrong move will get you drone bombed or imprisoned, but there are people fighting against the injustices and calling out the bullshit.

Show my papes at Heaven’s gates, they ask me for my visa
Lived a life without no hate so tell me what you need to
Question your authority, genocide and poverty
Treaties don’t negate the fact you’re dealing stolen property

Hacker, I’m a hacker, I’m a hacker in your hard drive

Oh, Jesus, pull the cord, seat belt, what you standing for
Buckle up, let’s knuckle up and tell Mohammed bring his sword
I’m a candle, I’m a candle
Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo

The album plays out less like a straightforward protest, though, and more like this “other” world. MartyrLoserKing deals with the part that we don’t like to look at, getting us to hack into tradition, comfort, doctrine, capitalism, slavery, community, ownership, government, revolution, faith, morality, god, politics, subconscious… Ultimately, call into question what you’ve been told. If it’s bullshit, call it – or hack into it – change it!

This is more or less how Williams has chosen to respond to a world where people who do call out government or society’s bullshit (Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden come to mind) are severely sanctioned, threatened, and/or killed (think of the title of this album). Each listen to this album conjures more parallels between the world Williams has created and the world in which we currently live.

To knock it way out of the park though, Williams has also released a related book of poetry, a remix album, and has mentioned work on a related play. This project is enormous, and hits way too close to home to ignore.

Top all that off with hard-hitting production, not entirely unlike his Reznor-produced 2007 release, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, by the way, and you have a monstrous album with huge potential by one of today’s most diverse artists.

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