Operation Manatee Music Prize: Top 5 Albums of 2020

I won’t go on about what we already know about this year. I’m just grateful for the absolutely mindblowing amount of incredible music that was released. For this year’s long list, I just put an arbitrary cap of 50 on it, because I just couldn’t dedicate the time necessary to include every great recording I’ve heard this year.

Which leads me to the top 5 – those revered few that stood way out and were on heavy rotation, despite my ever-evolving mix of new tunes.

Ladies and gentlemen, without more needless rambling, please allow me to present: The Top 5 Albums of 2020!

Bonus points: click the album artwork to listen to / purchase a copy of each album. Support artists. They need need it! 🙂

Five

Kassa Overall – I THINK I’M GOOD (Feb 28)

Released in the non-year that was Jan-most-of-March, this album is tons of fun! There’s so much to like in Kassa Overall’s second album: there’s jazz, there’s hip hop, breakbeat, experimental stuff, heavy use of piano and synthesizer… and this playfulness that that makes the delivery of lyrics like,

please don’t kill me in your sleep
i can’t breathe when i get down
i could drown in your weep
dry your eyes
i’ll dry mine
we’ll be fine
please don’t mind
those chalk lines
they don’t know what’s inside
of you and i

somewhere between more potent and more palatable. There’s a lot that makes this a great listen: the content is very serious, the production is so good (listen to the sound of chains in Show Me A Prison), but it’s really the jazz that makes it stand out for me. It calls to mind Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and others of the new school. Despite calling to mind other artists (everything does), I love how unique this release is. Every time I listen, I hear something new. I’ve been listening since February and each time I return, it feels like a I’m listening to something brand new.

Favourite track: Show Me A Prison


Four

Caribou – Suddenly (Feb 28)

Caribou’s Dan Snaith is one of my all-time favourite artists. I feel like it gives him an unfair advantage in my top album process, so I tried really hard to convince myself that I couldn’t include another Caribou album in the top five (his last release, Our Love [2014] was also awesome). It was a frivolous exercise. This may be the release that got stuck in my head the most this year. Released before the whole world went on lockdown, it kind of feels like it was released – not last year – not this year – but in this other, non-year that only lasted a couple months. I distinctly remember being excited about the new release that I’d been looking forward to (I pre-purchased months in advance). ‘New Caribou, it’s only February; 2020 is going to be awesome!’ Well, you know. Instead of being my spring and summer jam, this album was one of so many that I gravitated toward when I just needed to feel better. Tracks like “You and I” absolutely got cranked to the limit of my home stereo, “Home” had me singing along, while the absolutely infections “Never Come Back” had me dancing through some of the hardest days of this year (anyone play some air-cowbell to this one?). Snaith’s signature is all over this release. No one else quite sounds like this: the mixture of beats, funk, hip hop, simplicity, danceability, swelling synthesizers, experimentation, quiet interludes, and his unique voice all come together for an album that basically helped me exist in 2020.

Favourite track: Never Come Back


Three

Lex Amor – Goverment Tropicana (Sep 18)

Here’s an album that demands your undivided attention. Seriously. Relistening now, I had to stop several times and just close my eyes and listen. The groove in the first track fades in like it’s coming to you from another plane, then you hear her voice – is it R&B? Yes. Then you hear her rap – it’s like she’s speaking directly to you. Is it hip hop? Yes. This album has such an incredible, intimate feel. She raps in this gorgeous, unusual subvocal style that’s so quiet, if her voice weren’t mixed perfectly into the track, you wouldn’t hear it. I talk about an album’s “vibe” a lot. It’s important to me that an album have a feel to it. In this case, the entire album sounds like it belongs perfectly together. Once you start, you can’t stop. It feels like this musical journey has to been seen through to the end. The album has a sort of personal melancholy loneliness to it, as Lex shares pieces of her soul in these lines, laid down on dark, minor keys. But there’s a hint of playfulness too, as bits of her talking and laughing come through throughout. Overall, this album is an easy favourite this year, and will most likely be a favourite for years to come

Favourite track: Mazza


Two

Sen Morimoto – B-Sides & Rarities (Mar 20)

Released at the start of lockdown for many of us, Sen Morimoto’s “COVID release” drew me in at first listen. One of many less-polished releases in 2020, this was likely released out of a drive to just get something out there as everyone’s livelyhood came to an abrupt halt. Morimoto’s less-polished work is incredible! The first track has synth and electronic elements, mixed with his soft-spoken lead vocals and harmonies; I was already intrigued when there’s suddenly drums, bass, guitar, and saxophone; all “written, arranged, performed, recorded, fed by Sen Morimoto,” so says the album’s bandcamp page. As tracks progress, you get elements of jazz, hip hop, R&B in this very unique bedroom-producer sort of style. The same track can go from good and funky to lo-fi ballad, only to be followed by a quiet DJ/beatmaker/sampler stuff in the next, then funky bass-heavy Thundercat-sounding stuff in the next. Crazy original mixture of sounds. And done in this intimate, not-overly produced style… I absolutely love it!

Favourite track: My First Ghost


One

SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is) (Jun 19)

Of the two awesome albums released by SAULT this year, this one is my favourite. Released less than a month after the awful killing of George Floyd, this album is a protest; a cry for justice. It’s strong, it’s truthful, it’s heartbreaking, it’s empowering. Sadly, this album would feel relevant any time, but it’s so poignant for 2020. Not only does the content absolutely make your heart hurt, like many albums released this year, UNTITLED (Black Is) has a sort of raw/live feel to it that only added to its vibe. Speaking of vibe, I don’t know if any group but SAULT could make an album in 2020, with this much social relevance, that’s this good! Funky tracks, jammy grooves, improvised and constructed parts all over, vocal harmonies, a badass rhythm section, intense percussion, Afrobeat parts, hip hop, experimental stuff, spoken word over ambient music, r&b, synthpop, occasional distorted vocal wails and shouts… This album hits so many must-listen points for me. What an incredible album!

Favourite track: Stop Dem

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