Best New Albums 2013 – #5: William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor?

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#5: William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop)

For my money, the year’s most surprising album was Luaka Bop’s Who Is William Onyeabor. And who indeed? He’s a mystery: filmmaker who studied in the Soviet Union; a dealer for Moog synths in Africa; a leading businessman; a born-again Christian who refuses to talk about his past. Like I noted in my review, he’s almost willing to let his music speak for itself. Except when he isn’t: it took Luaka Bop years to put this collection together. And after hearing some early buzz, I knew I had to hear this one. And, man, it was one of the best things I heard all year.

I wasn’t even remotely prepared for this one: it’s on a different plane completely than anything I’ve heard from this era. Even compared to modern electronica, it more than holds it own. Sometimes it’s vaguely discoish, at others it verges on techno. It’s relentlessly funky, with horn accents, backing vocals and twittering guitars. But it’s the keyboards that set this beast apart from nearly anything else: on Good Name they sound like a jaw harp, while on Love is Blind they chirp like the cheesiest Casio imaginable. After a bombastic horn intro, they blip with a funky abandon on Fantastic Man. His synths sound futuristic even by 2013 standards. I can’t even begin to imagine what this would’ve sounded like 30 years ago, let alone how Onyeabor got such an impressive collection.

But that’s only part of why this music blew me away. The other part was how personal it all felt. On it, Onyeabor sings about heaven and hell, about death and nuclear violence. Even at his sunniest, there’s a tinge of darkness: “Do you have your conscience?” he sings, “Nobody should buy your name.” If he refuses to talk about his past, maybe it’s because of his Christian beliefs, that when he was young he was reckless, wild and restless. I like to think it’s because he put so much of himself into his music.


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