The 2016 Album of the Year

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Kaytranada, 99.9% (XL)

I had a budding listener-artist relationship with Kaytranada all year long, which grew from mild curiosity to full-on obsession, as well as with a very strong connection to a couple of massive events in my life. It all started with Katy B’s track “Honey”, which came out early in the year. It was a track whose minimalist approach to electronic R&B drew me in immediately, but at that point I had no idea a) who Kaytranada is, and b) that the man is Canadian. A few months passed, the Polaris Prize short list came out, and Kaytranada’s album 99.9% was the only title I was unfamiliar with. If so many of my peers think so highly of it, I thought, I’d better give it a listen! I was very intrigued by what I heard, and its sheer breadth and eclecticism was a lot to take in, so I kept going back to it whenever I had a spare moment or two.

Then Big Event Number One happened: I was selected to be a Grand Juror at the Polaris Prize gala in Toronto. It required a lot of work – it’s a very important responsibility – so I had to know all ten short-listed albums inside-out, and of all titles, 99.9% was the one I needed to dig deeper into. So I played the heck out of it, and the more I immersed myself in in, the more I started to love its wildly creative blend of electronic, house, hip hop, R&B, tropical house, jazz, krautrock, and funk. It attracted my girlfriend Stacey and her pup Eddie too. She loved its beats and musicality, and of all ten nominees it was the one that Eddie enjoyed hearing as he napped, which is high praise!

Anyway, I went to Toronto all set to defend my own top choice, which happened to be one of the best albums of 2015 – Polaris 2016 straddles the latter half of 2015 and the first half of 2016 – and proceeded to spend 11 hours over two nights with ten other very brilliant peers debating the merits of all nominees. Two people in particular offered very, very convincing arguments for Kaytranada, explaining in great detail the groundbreaking nature of 99.9% and why it’s such an important debut album. It was so illuminating, and while I had gone to Toronto knowing it was one of the best albums of the year already, that deeper knowledge of the album I had gained sealed the deal. Of course I wanted my own choice to win the Polaris, but I was thrilled to see Kaytranada win the big award that night, and it was such a pleasure for Stacey and I to say hello to Kevin Celestin. What a gracious gentleman he is.

Celestin is a perfect reflection of Canadian culture. Contrary to America’s “melting pot” – and let’s face it, their ingredients might melt but never fully mix – Canada adopts more of a “patchwork quilt” philosophy, and as Kaytranada Celestin takes musical influences from all over the world and similarly brings a new, unique perspective to them on 99.9%. His arrangements sound so fresh, vibrant, and highly original, and while he has attracted a very impressive array of guest contributors on the album (Craig David, Anderson.Paak, Alunah George, BADBADNOTGOOD, Syd, River Tiber), they never steal the spotlight. Their contributions adhere to Celestin’s on musical vision. And what range he shows on this album! He shifts gears more times than Steve McQueen did in Bullitt. Steamy R&B ballads, wickedly swaggering hip hop, straight-up dance, funk, tropicalia…it’s so varied, but in the end his own personality dominates the album and keeps it all tied together. In the end my big takeaway from 99.9% is its focus on the song rather than the beats. He is a songwriter first and foremost, and his genius as a producer allows him to twist these compositions in a way that no one else can. Perhaps the best indication of that wildly creative side is on “Lite Spots”, in which he takes an old Brazilian track by Gal Costa called “Pontos de Luz”, pumps up the tempo, and makes it such a lively, peculiar, cheerful track. It puts a big smile on my face every time. And its video is adorable as well.

The second big event in my life eventually convinced me that 99.9% is the perfect choice for my Album of the Year. I was working as a lab assistant outside the city for two months every day, and I listened to Kaytranada every single day as I drove out to the work site, which was a perfect way to start my days. It was during this period when Stacey and I decided that this was the perfect time to move in together, so because 99.9% was soundtracking my life at that very moment meant that it would be forever linked to one of the happiest moments in my life.

2016 might have been a very sad year on a cultural level. So many famous deaths, so many crises, so many horrible tragedies around the world. At the same time, though, I hate how that in turn has made a meme out of the whole “2016 sucks” trope. What a lazy, sad-sack thing to do. Most of these people are saying this on devices or computers, living comfortable, sheltered lives, enjoying feeling depressed because this famous person died or that idiot was elected. Get over yourselves. Life is what you make of it, and although it was a tough year for me, I still found plenty to be happy about. I liked a lot of dark, sad music this year, but I had a lot of good things happen to me too, and 99.9% is a perfect reminder of how there was a lot of good in 2016. Cheer up. Life is worth living. Be good to people, be inclusive, smile. And maybe even dance a little.

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