Operation Manatee Music Prize: Top 5 Albums of 2017

I’ve mentioned a few times that, especially compared to 2016, 2017 just didn’t have as much good music released. While lacking in quantity, though, the quality was there, as a handful of exceptional recordings were released.

Below, allow me to present you with the year’s top five:


Five

Shugo Tokumaru – TOSS

Fifth place is always the hardest to pick. There were around 12 albums altogether that I knew I wanted in the top five. It was more or less easy figuring out the top 3 or 4, but then I still have 8 albums to pare down to the only one left that I can include.

It has to be the new release by Japanese solo multi-instrumentalist maniac Shugo Tokumaru! He has always been one of the most creative and fun-to-listen-to artists I’ve ever heard. Even with an increasing amount of one-man-band sort of musical genius weirdos in the world, he stands as one of my favourites. While I’d like to say that made him an easy pick for spot 5, I cannot. If anything, it made me way more critical of this album, listening to all the little musical elements of the pop chamber rock orchestra whatever thing it is he does. Maybe it was the fact that I had to wait for this release (it was released exclusively in Japan, in 2016, and didn’t make it to anything in North America until 2017. Seriously, I tried. You could not get this album to save your life.). Does that make it not even eligible for this list? Well, no. Because I say so, damn it!

Hell, it probably all affected my judgement, but I can’t help it. This album is so fun! Where his previous releases have had a one-man construction, this album apparently involved him convincing other musicians to make a variety of short recordings, which he then painstakingly arranged and recorded, on top of, to make complete songs. It all results in a playful, fun, incredibly musical recording that deserves listen after listen.


Four

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – DROOL

I don’t often get as excited about a new hip hop album as I’ve been about this one (and there have been some really good hip hop albums this year). As you know, I tend toward music that sounds like it was made by insane people, and DROOL really fits that description nicely. Let me clarify: while virtually every artist out there (especially in hip hop, but certainly not exclusively) is trying so hard to pose as cool, Ogbonnaya is like that kid in the corner or the room who was too busy contently conversing with inanimate objects to notice the cool kids were making fun of him.

This album isn’t just weird though. The music/production is brilliant. The big, bassy beats of hip hop are definitely there, but mixed with Zappaesque interjections of seemingly out-of-place arpeggios, impressive as hell vocal harmonies, crazy-ass vocal rhythms (again, Zappa)… Actually, impressive vocals, altogether. Every other rapper out there seems to have just discovered the triplet, while this guy is rhythmically complicated, and more impressively, melodically all over the damned place! Not anyone can just pick those tones out of thin air, and it’s certainly not something you hear a lot in hip hop. Add to that all these ridiculous musical noises (is he just meowing in the background of that track – wtf?), and you’ve got one of the most unique things released this year!


Three

Sylvan Esso – What Now

This album has everything I’m looking for in really good pop music, in the 2010s.

The opening track pulls you in so slowly, with it’s tinny, weird, yet beautiful vocoder effect, you don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s over, and you’re listening to the next track – a fun pop thing, with simply machined drums, easy guitar, and an aptly piercing synth lead. Yeah yeah, whatever. It’s all good, but it’s not until I get to the third track, Die Young, a hopeful love song with a bit of a sweet old school feel, that I realize, ‘Oh fuck!’ I might actually love this!

I was gonna die young. Now I gotta wait for you, oh…

That was just my intro to the duo’s second album.

The album is crazy fun, the music is really really good. Where so many bands nowadays are boring me to tears, trying too hard to jump on the synth bandwagon, Sylvan Esso knows what they’re doing, weaving these great, weird, modular sounding experimental things into pop music. The singing, too, is really nice. They’re doing a slightly distorted Feist-like thing (something I actually don’t care for about Feist), but they don’t overdo it, like she does. It sounds perfect!

Then there’s the style. A track like Kick Jump Twist says it all – again, it’s pop music, there’s a lead vocal line, but then it just breaks into this amazing synthy drummy mad amazing thing!

I can’t stop listening. I won’t. You shouldn’t either. This easily deserves a spot on this list!


Two

Kid Koala feat. Emilíana Torrini – Music To Draw To: Satellite

Kid Koala never stops surprising me! When DJs first made it into what would be mainstream music (early hip hop), I was kind of impressed with what they were doing (it was new, original, kind of absurd), but as I became more trained in Western music, I came to see DJs as little more than wankers who just push play and call other people’s music their own. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when I heard Kid Koala’s Drunk Trumpet, that I gave DJing a serious second look. He was doing something musical with DJing. He wasn’t just pushing play. He was mastering his chosen instrument.

Since then, he’s released a handful of increasingly more interesting albums, collaborated on some very cool recordings, featuring pretty high-profile figures, and, most interesting to me, a variety of other musical and artistic projects such as a graphic novel (and a play based on it), secret performances and collaborations, live web-streamed concerts, and a bunch more.

And still, with all those creative outlets and collaborations, I didn’t see this recording coming. Instead of his distinct style of turntablism, on Music To Draw To: Satellite, we get quiet synths, gentle samples, different instruments, and Torrini’s unique, lovely, and very fitting voice interspersed throughout. You get lost listening to this album.

I love the title, too. Music To Draw To suggests something unobtrusive which might fuel one’s own creativity, while Satellite gives it a feeling of both looking out, to the cosmos, and looking back down at us on Earth. Or maybe you’d just draw the cosmos. Track titles like The Observable Universe, The Hubble Constant, and Transmission (in 3 parts, throughout the album), mixed with this lovely music, kind of give the feeling that you’re observing the universe in passing. Or something.

This album is lovely, and totally unexpected. In a world where bedroom DJs are a dime a dozen, and most of the people using the the same medium (sampling, synths, maybe even turntables) are just regurgitating bad copy/paste dance music, not worth a first listen, it’s comforting to know that Kid Koala is creating interesting, creative, and good music that I will be listening to forever.


One

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister – Planetarium

This recording gives me chills. Cleverly mixing pop, orchestra, and electronic soundscapes, it’s original, it’s passionate, and works as a collaboration, with everyone getting their time to shine and their time to blend. Sonically, Planetarium is interesting enough to listen to on repeat, practically forever. Typically, I get bored, and can’t really listen to the same thing over and over, so believe me when I admit that this album actually got repeat listens. The music is just so good.

The space theme gives this recording a neat edge – lends it a kind of loftiness, without going so far as to be too pretentious.

With a track like Jupiter asserting that “Jupiter is the loneliest planet”, calling on the “Father of light, father of death” to “give us your wisdom, give us your breath”, then breaking from it’s mellow first five minutes to a driving electro conclusion, early in the album, I knew I was in for something good. Then to a track like Venus – with is lush brass section, and detuned synth, where you don’t really pay attention to the lyrics. Further into the album, you get instrumental ambient tracks like Sun, or fun glitchy things you can almost (but not quite) whistle along to like Kuiper Belt. Throughout the album, in fact, bigger pieces are broken up by tiny lovely (sometimes spooky) interludes with titles like Halley’s Comet, Tides, or Black Hole.

Overall, this album is an incredible achievement of well thought-out, gorgeous, interesting music, and still something I’m listening to, regularly and enjoy. Let these creative minds take you on their journey. See where you end up.

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