No longer must you wait to be informed of what were the best albums released this year; the long awaited, highly revered Operation Manatee Music Prize is finally here!
Because I went a little nuts with this list last year, and because 2016 saw so damned many good albums compared to this year, I’ve dialed it back a bit. Instead of this year’s 100 best albums, this list will only grow as long as needed, and will likely be pared more liberally. Frankly, 2017 just didn’t have as many great releases as last year.
However, that’s not to say that there wasn’t still plenty of great music released.
The list below is ordered by artist last name or band/artist/act name, in the case of artists crazy enough to release more than one work this year (looking at you, Dear Criminals… and wft, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard?), they are listed first by act name, then by release order.
Good. That said, I give you the 2017 Operation Manatee Long List:
alt-J – RELAXER – alt-J is clearly made up of insane persons. I’ve always liked that about them. Their particular type of weird, yet very listenable and satisfyingly dreamy pop/rock/somethingsomething is exactly what I like to hear in new poppish music. I like the fact that it’s also kind of serious-sounding music, but there are always some elements of playfulness or ridiculousness either present or very nearby.
Arca – Self-titled – Unlike 2015’s Mutant, brash, noisy, electronic, cold, Arca’s new album has a much more personal feel. Reaching further into some dark, warm place, this song features something not really present on an Arca album: vocals! Actually, there’s a lot of singing on this album, and I like it. I wonder if he was convinced to sing more by one of his many high-profile collaborators (Björk, perhaps). Whatever it was, it works! This feels like a more exposed, more emotional Arca, but still with that unique production that we now know and love – a great exploration as an artist, and it works!
Ásgeir – Afterglow – I wonder what it is about Iceland that produces such beautiful music. This album sounds like it could as easily be a movie soundtrack as cafe music – but, you know, that really cool cafe in that city you visited one time that’s sooo much better than any of the cafes in your hometown. As your musical physician, I prescribe you one cup of loose leaf tea, a pair of good headphones, a comfy couch, and enough time to listen to this album, undistracted. Let those harmonies, those catchy mellow grooves, those ebbs, those flows… damn! Just go listen.
Bernice – Puff – Want to be a completely ungooglable artist in 2017? Give your band the name of a woman born in 1915. 😦 To be fair, though, this was actually easier just now than it was when I first attempted it in June. Personal minor rants aside, this is a really cool EP. In a musical world more and more crowded with electrical noises of the drum machine and synthesizer variety, it’s not easy to make something that’s actually good and unique that people actually want to hear more than once. These five tracks feel personable, warm and familiar, while being something cool and new. Recommended most to people who find themselves still awake at 3:00 AM.
Bibio – Phantom Brickworks – Everything I thought I knew about Bibio is reconsidered with this album. Where previously, in an excellent record like Ambivalence Avenue, or in a less-excellent-but-still-pretty-good album like A Mineral Love, there were moments to dance, moments to reflect and read the poetry in the liner notes, funky outbursts, catchy songwriting, Phantom Brickworks is much different. Moods, soundscapes, tracks that go on, in some cases, for more than 10 minutes, building, evolving, changing colour and pulling at different parts of your inner longing; these are all things that going on in this new record. If you’d never heard Bibio before, this could potentially make your top 10 ambient albums. If you already knew what Bibio is capable of, you’d be around where I am now: kind of awestruck.
Björk – Utopia – Björk is fearless. She’s also been producing music for over two decades now. These two facts get me very excited each time there is a new Björk album because it tells me that I’ll hear something that is unique (truly), but absolutely Björk. I just don’t have enough space here to tell you how much I adore and respect her art. With Utopia, it’s like she’s keeping the deeply personal feel of 2015’s Vulnicura, and still exploring how far she can take it into the void.
Jean-Michel Blais – Cascades – I love music that is simple, at its core, but has so many tiny little things going on, you hear a new song each time you hear it. Last year, about his album Il I basically wrote that pianists are loners who can’t play with others. Alright, I take some of it back, as this collaborative release with CFCF/Michael Silver is intriguing, unexpected, and just really really good.
Bootsy Collins – World Wide Funk – Bootsy Collins is 66 years old, has played with James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Snoop Dogg, Victor Wooten, Toots And The Maytals, ah hell, virtually everyone under the sun who can find one, and continues to be one of the world’s best funk bassists. World Wide Funk isn’t exactly exploding my mind with innovation, but it’s soooooo funking good! Damn it! I can’t help but like this album. Aside from yet another trove of prolific guests (Vic Wooten, Buckethead, Chuck D, etc.), this album is just something that feels good to put on and rock the funk out!
Body Count – Bloodlust – This is the type of album of which I was expecting a big increase after that ridiculous joke got elected in the U.S. Body Count is the hero we all need and deserve in 2017! While the entire album isn’t just a big “fuck you” to that particular joke, it covers a lot of bullshit that is the result of that country’s obsession with division, inequality, racism… you name it. Give Bloodlust a good, honest listen. Frankly, we should all be this angry about the current state of affairs in that country.
Daniel Caesar – Freudian – This album surprised the hell out of me. Perhaps because I purposely listen to a lot of new music (and find the vast majority of it to be less than thrilling), I approach new, twenty-something artists with skepticism. So, when I put this on one day, at work, at best, I was expecting pleasant background noise. What I didn’t anticipate was something so full of soul and all the best parts of great R&B music. Damn, Daniel Caesar! Well done!
Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone – Released in late January, this is one of 2017’s releases I’ve listened to the most. Hip hop is overcrowded, overdone, and getting old. It’s been done, there are so many fish in that see, and it’s less exciting than ever. Yet the Croydon London-based anothertwentysomething comes along and absolutely stuns me with Yesterday’s Gone. This is a heartfelt, gorgeous album of personal stories that just stays so good! Listen to it again, then again.
Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free – Everytime I put this album on, it takes me back. To when – I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that cool California vibe. Maybe this actually sounds like something I heard years ago. Either way, this album has a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s unique, yet simple, it’s got something of a ’60s vibe, but is too modern hip to be hippy. I hear rock and roll, back-up singers, whistle solos, psychedelia, organ, funk… This is a fucking cool album!
Benjamin Clementine – I Tell A Fly – I don’t know who the hell Benjamin Clementine is, but he is absolutely my kind of insane person! The mixture of classical piano and harpsicord, bombastic Broadway musical, rock & roll, long musical interludes, and Tom Wait-esque weirdness is so unlike anything else being produced in a somewhat pop music realm. The only other thing I can think to compare it to is Silverchair, when they were their most musical and experimental… or, by some extension, Brian Wilson. Bloody mad stuff that any music lover would enjoy.
Kweku Collins – Grey – This is one of those albums that, given only a short description, I might end up skipping over (ie, hip hop, young, uses auto-tune, occasional n-bombs). But there’s something about the style, something about the flow, the production… This album is not only better than it reads on paper – it’s got vibe. Yeah, I said it. The feel of this album is what puts it on this list. I can’t stop listening to it, and neither should you.
Dear Criminals – Nelly – I can’t pinpoint when I started listening to Dear Criminals (it was definitely during their 2015 Strip EP), but if I had to bet, my money would be on CBC’s recently retired The Signal. If you’re familiar with that show, you might have an idea of what this album is like, already: haunted vocals soaked in reverb, gentle guitar with a bit of tremolo, and all the right synthy blips and machined drums to take you into the evening. Add to that a tiny wind orchestra and you’ve got Dear Criminals loveliest release to date.
Dear Criminals – Fatale – Releasing more than one album in a year is probably not the best marketing move. In the vast oceans of new independent music, a second release in a calendar year could easily be overlooked or even mistaken for the previous release. You kind of have to rely on your fan base to keep tabs on you (among all their other favourites) and hope for the best. I seriously hope this works for Dear Criminals. Where Nelly had more electronic sounds, Fatale, though not lacking them, relies more on acoustic instruments and lots of that gorgeous vocal work that sounds just like them. This release, though, it much more dreamscapey (ed: sorry), more experimental, and spookier yet. I love it!
The Deep Dark Woods – Yarrow – I’ll never forget the first time I heard The Deep Dark Woods: Regina Folk Fest, circa 2008. I was in my element, enjoying the sun and the vibes, hanging out with pals, snapping pictures… I was on my way to one of the free daytime stages to check out something I’ll never remember because while passing one of the other daytime stages, I was overwhelmed by the sound of The DDWs. I was hooked ever since, buying up every album they released, and any other goodies that included them. I’ll admit, this new album is not really breaking new ground – either in music as a whole, or for The DDWs. They have a sound, and this is it. I’m still including Yarrow though, because it still takes me back to that moment in the park. This is really really good folk rock & roll that everyone should hear!
Deerhoof – Mountain Moves – If you’ve ever tuned into our show (Operation Manatee, Tuesday nights at 11:00 CST, Regina Community Radio), first of all, thank you. Secondly, you know that I like a good dose of insanity in my music. Deerhoof has me covered! They’ve had me covered for the last 20 years, in fact (fuck! where does the time go?)! In Deerhoof fashion, Mountain Moves gives me earworms, moments to chill, moments to rock out, moments to freak out, moments to wonder what the fuck. Ma-OOOhn-ten MOOVES!
Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog – I don’t know what it is about Mac DeMarco. It feels like listening to a guilty pleasure. Maybe it’s the down tempo. Maybe it’s the soft synths. Maybe the simple vocals. This Old Dog plays like the soundtrack to a sunburned movie about carefree kids smoking pot and skating, whose only worry is what they’ll do when their bestie moves to the east coast – you know, one of those movies that sounds lame, but becomes a cult classic because of its visionary director and cast of underpaid a-listers.
Everything Everything – A Fever Dream – I teetered on this one for a while, unsure if I should include it in this list. It’s fucking good, but it’s pretty chorus-based poppy stuff. Should I hold that against it? Decidedly not. The opening track alone puts A Fever Dream on the long list, and the album stays pretty strong from there. Catchy choruses, toe-tapping, head-bobbing goodness, packed with synth rocky fun!
Ex Eye – Self-titled – Ex Eye is exactly what I like in modern heavy music: it’s jammy, the players are highly skilled, and there’s a motherfucking lead saxophonist! Colin Stetson is one of my saxophone idols! His perfection of crazy-ass noises that they try so hard to train out of you in music lessons fits this simple, bad ass ensemble so well. There’s a little prog, a little jazz, a little noise. Though it lies farther into the rock spectrum than jazz, This is crazy good stuff that I would recommend to any prog/metal fan or jazz fan alike.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – Back with his melancholic singer/songwriter stuff he do, FJM’s new album is really fucking good. While I think his 2015 release, I Love You, Honeybear, was an overall better album, Pure Comedy is still full of that sarcastic, better-than-thou attitude that put him on the musical map a couple years ago. Few artists have FJM’s way with words, and that goes a long way for why I like his stuff (despite the fact that he’s a bit of a douchebag – f’real, ask me sometime). Couple those pretty words with a nice little orchestra and a heavy dose of piano, and you’ve really got something here.
Fever Ray – Plunge – I love artists who are fully comfortable with being weird. Fever Ray is definitely that. She’s released a couple of videos this year, accompanying this album, ranging from sick to weird, and they really give you a glimpse into what Fever Ray’s principle creative force, Karin Dreijer, was going for with this album. The music is electronic – drum machines, synths, some vocal effects (though fewer than her last solo release), and relatively simple, but while it’s not sloppy, it’s definitely the right amount of dirty. Synth leads that drift out of tune at the end of phrases, little glitchy bits that are just out of time, big, distorted basses. This is lovely grungy stuff!
The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody – Speaking of weird, these guys have been re-writing the book for the last 30-odd years. I have been a Flaming Lips fan since the first time I heard them (2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots). Since then, I’ve sought everything they’ve released. The incredible imagination continues on Oczy Mlody. The overwhelming synthy things, the spaced-out vocals, the ever-changing Beatles-esque nature, and the mildly drug-induced lyrics (ie, “There should be unicorns – ones with the purple eyes, not the green eyes.”) are all reasons why I love this band and really enjoy the latest release.
Foo Fighters – Concrete & Gold – Having been around long enough and being good enough to count among rock royalty now, I expect some pretty stellar stuff from these guys in 2017. Some of my other ’90s favourites have released new material this year and not made this list simply because it was unexciting. Foo Fighters did not let me down like those other guys. Yeah, this does have a bit of “we were hip in the ’90s” going on, but it’s more. We’ve got vocal harmony, some Led Zeppelin-sounding stuff, some nearly Beatles-sounding stuff. This is a great rock album!
Alice Glass – Self-titled – Glass’ first EP since leaving Crystal Castles is really good, but fucking dark, and even disturbing knowing this. The whole EP plays like a fuck-you. Particularly, the darkest track, “Natural Selection” doesn’t sound like just some clever art. It sounds serious. “Get the fuck off of me! Scream in silence! Get off of me!” Between a track like that and the equally dark-sounding, but much dancier Blood Oath (“You say/see I can’t be used, there’s nothing to want. You take it anyway, without my consent.”), I get the feeling that she intends to fight back. Something has awoken within Glass and she’s not backing down.
Goldfrapp – Silver Eye – I’ve kind of been ignoring Goldfrapp for a while now. I loved the dark, mellow vibe of their first album (Felt Mountain, 2000), and they’ve gotten dancier and dancier ever since. I’m sure that ended up being a good move for them, commercially, but something of that mysterious, lovely sound they had is gone. That said, I do listen to their new releases; I just haven’t been as into them – until now. Silver Eye, while definitely still in the dance vein, maintains a the best parts of what they do, sounding more like their second album, (Black Cherry, 2003). Catchy, some nice synthy stuff (do I detect that signature MS-20 in there?), dreamy… Yeah. I like this!
Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear – Sharon Jones was the best thing to happen to the revival of ’50s/’60s R&B. With the loss of her in this world, thankfully we have someone like Curtis Harding doing his thing. Harding doesn’t quite go for that same analog-recorded vibe that Daptone has perfected, though. To be fair, it’s not strictly a soul-revival sound. This has its own mixture of old and new school, providing some seriously funky moments, some cool Marvin Gaye-esque grooves, a little bit of orchestra, some gospel. Harding’s got it going on here!
Hauschka – What If – Find yourself sitting at the windowsill, watching the rain, wishing you had the perfect soundtrack? This may be it. Sitting in the car, weaving through traffic, late for work, wondering what music might pair with the moment? This could be the thing. Layers and layers and layers of piano and piano and piano make this a pretty cool, intricate listen. Add to that some tasteful percussion, blips and bloops, and you’ve got yourself one of my favourite soundscape things of this year!
Ibeyi – Ash – Ibeyi’s self-titled debut in 2015 was stellar. Hard to follow-up, actually. While I’d still say I like the debut a little better (maybe just because I hadn’t heard their sound before), Ash keeps them in the vein of great music for me. The vocal harmonies, the style – I love it all!
IDLES – Brutalism – I wouldn’t expect a new punk album in 2017 to be this good. Maybe it’s the British accent. Maybe it’s the simplicity (this is more Sex Pistols than Pennywise). Maybe it’s the young rage. Whatever it is, if you like noisy rock, you’ll like this!
JFDR – Brazil – So many synthesizers these days. It’s hard to find the diamonds in the rough. They’re there, though. This Icelandic mellow, synth-infused, piano/guitar folk/indie/whatever sounds kind of like Björk’s more chilled cousin. There are some gorgeous moments on this album which requires multiple listens to catch everything you missed on the last run through.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Soul Of A Woman – Released one year after we lost her to cancer, this release was a happy surprise for me, as I’d assumed we’d never hear anything new with her voice on it again. What a powerhouse of soul! That band is stellar, but it will always be Sharon Jones who made that sound complete. I’m glad they released this.
Kid Koala feat. Emilíana Torrini – Music To Draw To: Satellite – Kid Koala has being doing some incredibly impressive work in the last few years (aside from being a genius DJ for decades). This new album is nothing short of breathtaking at times, and nothing more than nice at others. The combination of Kid Koala’s musical sense and Emilíana Torrini’s lovely voice are so nicely infused here. I’ll be listening to this for years!
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana – Who the hell releases four psych-rock albums in a single year (there is supposed to be one more, yet)?
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – Murder Of The Universe – Seriously, where do you find the time to write, rehearse, record?
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard with Mild High Club – Sketches Of Brunswick East – Not to mention the whole microtone thing.
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland – This band is clearly not sane, but do what they do really freaking well. These albums are all super fun! They do kind of blend together a bit (again, who does this?), but as long as you don’t listen to them consecutively, your brain should remain intact.
Natalia Lafourcade – Musas – I stumbled across this video, in a self-imposed, late-night Tiny Desk marathon, and am so glad I did. Her style of Mexican folky poppy stuff has me hypnotized. The music is gorgeous and her voice just floats on a warm breeze above it all!
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. – I caught some flack in 2015 for not including Lamar’s largely successful To Pimp A Butterfly on that year’s long list. Honestly, that was a cool album, but when it came time to cut, that one just sounded too immature to me or something. I’m sure I’ll just be in more trouble now for including DAMN.. Honestly, I think it’s a better album for my tastes. Maybe it’s the simpler production, maybe it’s the more complex rapping (sometimes). Whatever it is, I listened to this album a lot more than the butterfly thing. Fuck you, it’s good.
Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra – Techstar – Shawn Lee is fun! I know that when I put on something featuring him, I’ll end up in a really good mood. Since purchasing the 2005 release, Moods And Grooves, and following along since, I’ve also come to expect a certain style: something loungey, instrumental, multi-instrumental, and largely acoustic. Techstar is decidedly a lot more electro (the name should have given it away). While part of me thinks… you know… bandwagon. Most of me is okay with it. In the right hands of Shawn Lee, these instruments can only do good. This is a really fun listen with lots of complex, neat little sounds woven throughout.
Liima – 1982 – Last year, I wrote that Liima ‘makes me want to dance like it’s 1980’. Little did I know what they had in store. This new release, though, sounds less like an ’80s pop soundtrack, and more like itself. Better put: this is a unique sound that I wouldn’t be able to liken to anything other than Efterklang (which is virtually the same band). This album is one of those great listens that require headphones and time to enjoy all the little synthy, acoustic, percussive things going on.
Imelda May – Life Love Flesh Blood – When I heard Imelda May had a new album out, I was excited for another raucous rockabilly romper. I had no idea she had released a collection of far mellower, soulful rock ballads and still some cooler up-beat rockers. Honestly, I didn’t know she had it in her. This album isn’t just good though, it may be the best, and certainly most diverse thing I’ve heard her release. Wow!
Brad Mehldau & Mark Giuliana – Mehliana: Taming The Dragon – Anything with Brad Mehldau on it is worth listening to. I would have put this on if it didn’t have the guy who drummed on David Bowie’s last album. Even though I’m more familiar with Mehldau, I’m no less impressed by Giuliana. This is a fun, somewhat self-indulgent dive into some crazy jazz rock fusion stuff by two badasses! Probably not for everyone, but this should be heard by virtually any jazz or rock fan who likes something that doesn’t bore one to tears with familiarity.
Nick Mulvey – Wake Up Now – I’m guilty of overlooking Mulvey’s first album (2015’s First Mind. I remember seeing it come up a bunch of times, but didn’t listen to it until long after the fanfare was over. Didn’t make the same mistake with this new release. In Wake Up Now, I hear those rhythms and lovely melodies showing off his love for Cuban music mixed with his particular brand of folk pop goodness. At times, I feel transported to Central/South America, at times, I feel like I’m in a club in California. Nice stuff!
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – DROOL – Another insane person on this list? Who would have seen that coming? I’ll be keeping a keen eye on Ogbonnaya, as long as he keeps releasing music to which I can listen. The bizarre production, the unique, complex rapping, curious melodies, vocal harmonies… this album has so many elements that the majority of other hip hop albums do not, and they are all done so well!
Perfume Genius – No Shape – This album has some really interesting influences. I’m hearing some Sufjan Stevens, I’m hearing Sigur Rós… but I’m also hearing – I don’t know… Dan Deacon as a lounge singer. Yeah, that. This is delightfully creative, wonderfully musical, and always interesting. Given that this is my introductory listen to him, as well, I’d urge others to do what I did: if you hear the name “Perfume Genius” for the first time and only think “Ugh. Who cares?”, listen anyway. So glad I did.
Sampha – Process – I don’t know what it is with really good new music in the UK these days, but the recent Mercury Prize-winning Process doesn’t just come from some up-and-coming nobody. If you’re unfamiliar (as I was, when I first heard him, early this year), Sampha has been featured on Kanye West’s recordings (and co-written a West track and a Sampha track), has produced for the likes of Solange, FKA twigs, and Drake, and on Process, has co-produced with Rodaidh McDonald (who has produced for Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack, Adele, etc.)… Frankly, it’s about time he exploded into popularity! This album is a great listen. The production is obviously top-notch, but the lyrics, the musical sense, his voice – this is all so good!
Sarah Slean – Metaphysics – Sarah Slean is just a great songwriter! I’ve been following her since the early aughts, and while I do have my favourites of her releases, listening to Metaphysics kinda reminds me of why I fell in love with her stuff in the first place. This album has some personal moments, some storytelling, excellent songwriting, her own lovely string arrangements and production by a handful of Canadian pros. All of it comes together to something I want to hear again and again.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid – Not many people can call this thing their main instrument. That gives Smith a distinctive sound. Her mastery of this uncommon thing, along with her particular style of processed vocals sounds immediately like her. The Kid doesn’t sound like last year’s, Ears, though. This sounds more electronic, a little more “experimental”, although possibly more “accessible” (sorry for all the “”””). There are so many spots to get lost in, on this album.
The Souljazz Orchestra – Under Burning Skies – I tend to favour things that are little further out in the experimental side of still somewhat familiar music. That said, there’s nothing wrong with just putting on something that’s fun as hell. This album is by no means breaking new ground in music – it’s just a really good time. You’ve got some R&B influence with horn section, you’ve got some synthy things, you’ve got catchy hooks, decent solo sections. Overall, this is a good listen to get shit done and feel good about it.
Spellling – Pantheon Of Me – I can’t remember how I stumbled across Spellling, but I’m glad I did. This album is weird. Some things are infuriatingly repetitious, some are floaty and improvised, some are spooky, I can seldom make out the lyrics, sometimes the instruments are left purposely out of tune… yet I can’t stop listening. I feel like seeing Spellling perform live would be like an out-of-body experience. This is crazy neat, creative stuff.
Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister – Planetarium – This album is beautiful! The mixture of piano pop ballad, synthy soundscape stuff, orchestra, thundering percussion… just wow! My first listen was a little difficult, as I’m vehemently not a fan of vocal autotune, and was initially baffled by its use on Stevens – someone with a good voice, but it’s not ever-present, and it does actually suit the feel of this brilliant recording. This album is a journey. It deserves more than a passing listen. If you have time, put it on just to listen. It’s absolutely rewarding!
St. Vincent – Masseduction – This is such a fun album! I was already a fan (face it, who wasn’t?), but this release has pushed her past great, to holy shit status! It’s playful, it’s sexy, the music is so good! The album cover hardly says it all, but gives a bit of a glimpse of what you’re getting into: cheeky. I will listen to this again and again.
Sudan Archives – Self-titled – There is very little recorded content on this EP, clocking in around 16 minutes, but it’s more than enough to make this list. It’s impulsive, jammy, unique, there’s some R&B going on, there’s some playful percussion, there are unexpected melodies. I don’t know much about Sudan Archives, but I anticipate many more good things.
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism – I don’t even know where to begin, with this album. This is one of the most musically exciting releases I’ve heard in the last 5 years! The vocal work on this is spectacular, while the music is mesmerizing. This combo of R&B, strings, harmonies… all these little surprises… Hell! I can’t even type. Just listen. If you listen to no other recording released this year, strongly consider this! You’ll get lost in that voice, and you won’t want to come back.
Sylvan Esso – What Now – This is everything I want in a pop album, in 2017. There are dancey bits, tender bits, all the right ebbs and flows. The machined drums are downplayed, while the synths take all the main solos, and the vocals just flow over it all. I mean, those are the parts, but the way this duo tie everything together can bring you chills!
Shugo Tokumaru – TOSS – So… トクマルさんは人気がない。At least, he’s not popular here, in North America. Or, not until recently, it would seem. I’ve bought every one of Tokumaru’s albums, sometimes going to length just to figure out how to get them shipped to Canada. It’s been hard, and it hasn’t been cheap. This album was technically released in Japan in October of 2016, but I couldn’t figure out how to purchase a damned copy of it (wouldn’t ship outside of Japan), and it sure as hell wasn’t on any streaming services… until now, as a 2017 release, in Canada. Whatever. Tokumaru is one of the most musical individuals I’ve ever heard of. Unlike his previous albums, where all aspects were recorded and arranged by him, alone, for this album he got other talented folks to record bits and pieces of ideas, then arranged them all himself, recording vocals and other things overtop. The result is a crazy, amazing mixture of playful folk, pop, whatever it is he does.
Colter Wall – Self-titled – Living in Saskatchewan, I sometimes forget that while there isn’t a vast ocean of talent here, the small pond is filled with resilient wild fishes. I don’t know why I went for the fish analogy there. This artist is just an early twentysomething kid from Speedy Creek. How he has this much talent and soul for lonely cowboy country folk music is mind boggling to me, but I’m so glad he does. This is one of the most exciting new artists in Canada!
Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference – Kamasi Washington is one of very few people these days making jazz music to which I actually want to listen. This EP is cool, exciting, interesting, and yeah, it’s still jazz, but it’s not just running up-and-down the scales, as so many mediocre saxophonists are wont to do, these days. And he isn’t just regurgitating licks from 1955; he’s creating good jazz, and mixing a little something new into it – which is kind of what jazz was supposed to be, wasn’t it?
Whitehorse – Panther In The Dollhouse – Every time I wanted to take this album off this list for being too mainstream, I just couldn’t do it. It’s too good to toss away like that. I don’t know what it is these two have together that makes them so good (better, I dare say, than they are, separately). It’s just pop rock, but there’s so much to like: they have fun, play off of each other, poke a little fun at each other, make up stories, harmonize so nicely… What the hell is not to like? Damn it! I can’t help it.
Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun – Turn off the lights, draw the blinds, light the candles; it’s going to be a long night. Chelsea Wolfe sounds like she hasn’t seen the sun since the last time we checked in on her (2015’s Abyss). His Spun is darker, denser, grittier. I still can’t understand a word she says, under all the distortion and reverb, but whatever’s going on here, it’s not pleasant. Recommended pairing: blood and disdain.
Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wall – Blade Runner 2049 – I don’t usually include original movie soundtracks on this list, but I don’t consciously exclude them either, so this one is making the cut. I know everyone goes gaga for Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ synth stuff in movies these days, but honestly, it’s been done. And really, it’s probably already been done by Zimmer. Now, his collaboration with Wall on this soundtrack fills the listener with chills. Not just in that typical, multi-million dollar, I-have-an-orchestra-at-my-disposal sort of way; but using only a handful of synth swells, creeps, and shimmers. This soundtrack not only compliments the film for which it was composed, but also compliments the Vangelis score to the original Blade Runner, as well as stands on its own as something sonically interesting. Great original stuff!
And that’s that, for 2017. If it’s not here, it was likely just not good enough – or, though far less likely, I missed it, somehow.
Stay tuned for the top 5 albums of 2017 to see finally see who will win the prestigious 2017 Operation Manatee Music Prize!