Operation Manatee Music Prize: Top 5 Albums of 2021

A little later than I was planning, but please allow me to present to you: the Operation Manatee Music Prize: Top 5 Albums of 2021!

Not unlike 2020, this year had so much great new music, it was mindblowing! I have never listened to more new music in my life than during this damned pandemic! Thanks to all the artists who turned it up while the world tried to figure out wtf to do with life. You have made this shitstorm slightly more bearable.

As always, with so much great music being released, there were at least 10 other albums that could have just as easily made it to this list, with another 20 not far behind, but a line must be drawn and so here are 5 exceptional albums that, despite always listening to something new, I found myself going back to for repeat listens. I highly recommend purchasing a copy of each of these albums for yourself. Support artists and get something cool!

Here we go…

Five

SAULT – NINE

Back with more music for you to get funky and think to, SAULT seems like an unstoppable force now. Last year, they released the incredible, experimental and timely SAULT – UNTITLED (Black Is), and the nearly equally excellent SAULT – UNTITLED (Rise), so I feel like they had to fill their own big shoes to even be on anyone’s radar with so much other great music that came out in 2021.

But here they are – still creating incredible stuff! On NINE, they focus on neighbourhoods and London gang culture. Some tracks are just true stories in spoken word (Mike’s Story), some just jam on a theme, like Fear, where the prominent lyrics are just “The pain is real,” repeated over and over. Others examine stereotypes, like You From London, which features the incredible Little Simz, while others reflect on the rise out of gang life and/or its traumatic aftermath. Musically, NINE continues SAULT’s signature jammy, gritty style, but the tracks have simple, repetitive lyrics, lending to a feeling of a child’s perspective. It all gives the content a real raw, authentic feel, which just makes the whole thing such an excellent listen!

Bonus points for making this a limited release, available online for only 90 days. The mystery continues…

Overall, I found myself listening to this album obsessively. It’s like a tiny, funky window into this world and era.

Favourite track: Alcohol


Four

Sheep, Dog & Wolf – Two-Minds

One of the earliest purchases I made on Bandcamp was New Zealand artist Daniel McBride’s (known as Sheep, Dog & Wolf)’s 2011 debut EP, Ablutophobia EP. It was highly intriguing to me, as I’d read he learned to play all the instruments himself, without traditional training, and here I was, listening to a highly unique, creative and interesting artwork!

When I heard this new album had been released, I bought it, sound unheard, knowing I’d be getting something interesting and – wow! Two-Minds continues his DIY style. He composed, produced and performed all of the music, from guitar and drums to wind instruments and vocal harmonies. That I know he is talented made me consider him for this list. That this album is a beautiful, creative, unique collection of music in his own distinct style is what makes it one of the best albums of the year for me.

The album prominently features piano and other traditional pop instruments like guitar, trumpet and saxophone. It’s the way he weaves things together with often intricate harmonies and occasionally intricate time signatures and rhythms, but very singable melodies. Coupled with some seemingly serious lyrical content, Two-Minds is just so interesting and intriguing! Every track sounds like Sheep, Dog & Wolf and that same spirit I heard back in 2011, but with a much deeper understanding of his musical abilities.

Favourite track: Two-Minds


Three

Andrew Judah – dry kiss

dry kiss is a great, moody listen, full of what feels like personal moments and dark secrets.

With each new release, Andrew Judah is solidifying himself as one of Canada’s best songwriters!

Can I take a second to complain? Of course I can – who’ll stop me? Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places, but in the incredible amount of music I’ve listened to in 2021, most of the Canadian content I’ve heard has been pretty lackluster. Very same-y. Very early 2000s.

I’m so glad Andrew Judah is not falling down that easy, boring path a lot of other artists seem to be right now. I suppose that’s what he’s going for on dry kiss, though, right (Don’t Repeat Yourself; Keep It Simple, Stupid)? I love Judah’s way of making a pop song. On a song like No Body Knows, for example, there’s a story, interesting rhythms (it’s in 3/4, but features a prominent 4 rhythm throughout) and his signature vocal harmonies – which feature some additional work by vocalist Sarah Clark. The album also prominently features acoustic piano – which, while always present in his earlier work, was not necessarily the most striking sound in the mix. His 2016 Metanoia project (also incredible work that you should definitely check out), for example, had more synthesizer and guitar work.

Overall, this is a great listen, warranting multiple listens – especially throughout these ever strange and dark days.

Favourite track: No Body Knows


Two

Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant

Mood Valiant is the definition of cool in 2021!

This album is wild, crazy, gorgeous, funky, psychedelic, beautiful, original… It’s so good! Hiatus Kaiyote has been on my radar since their first release, Tawk Tomahawk, back in 2013, but it wasn’t until Mood Valiant that I really got pulled in. The whole thing has this sort of cool older cousin who lives in the big city-feel. I mean, while we country folk have been listening to some stuff we thought was pretty cool, there was this borderline insane entity out there who was making the coolest stuff we’d never heard yet. Weird analogy. Whatever. I’ll own that. The point is: listen to the vocal harmonies, listen to that funky bass, listen to the gorgeous string arrangements by Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai, listen to those tight horn licks, listen to all the hints of weirdness throughout the album. Of course we’ve heard these elements before, but I’ve never heard them combined into something this cool before! This is the new bar in amazingly creative funky music.

Favourite track: Sparkle Tape Break Up


One

平沢進 / Susumu Hirasawa – BEACON

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this album is officially one of the most awesome (in the literal sense) popular music recordings I’ve ever heard!

On BEACON, Hirasawa’s arrangements of common elements like synthesizer, guitar and voice bring a sense of excitement, adventure and wonder! Each song feels like part of an incredible journey through some futuristic dystopia through which we are being expertly guided by a semi-benevolent lunatic! The music is so lyrical; even though I can only understand the odd word or phrase (I’m a beginner-intermediate student of Japanese), I’ve frequently found myself singing along or having a song stuck in my head hours later. For a common pop song, this is easy: make one good hook, repeat, done. For Hirasawa, the formula is more like: use dark magic to make a bizarre and unlikely melodic phrase or chorus, possibly in a weird meter, with a seemingly randomly inserted single bar of a capella in four-part harmony catchy and fun! I think what gets me more than anything, though, is the complexity of the music. Where a lesser artist might use the same ingredients to make a muddied wall of sound, Hirasawa has come up with super intricate, unpredictable, but highly listenable music that has me hearing new things on each new listen. This is mad genius stuff! I’ve listened to BEACON more than any other album this year, by far, and I still can’t stop! Absolutely amazing stuff!

Favourite Track: 転倒する男 / The Man Who Falls Down

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