Our annual list of fifty stand-out Canadian records from the past year.
Whether you’re all in for the dystopian wonderstuff of Operators’ Radiant Dawn and the dissonant doom of Scattered Clouds’ Take Away Your Summer, or esoteric fare like CFCF’s Liquid Colours and Blue Hawaii’s Open Reduction Internal Fixation, 2019 offered up endless delights. Closing out the decade with substance and style, these fifty albums made a lasting impression on our team of writers.
Please enjoy them responsibly, and repeatedly.
50 OperatorsRadiant Dawn
In a year of disco-dystopian concept albums, Radiant Dawn was the most disco-dystopian of them all. And yet, regardless of how overwhelming Dan Boeckner’s despair with modern life feels on Operators’ sophomore outing, it’s still an album brimming over with irrepressible melody and intrepid musicality. • Jim Di Gioia
49 André EthierCroak in the Weeds
Mediative and minimal, the second album in a proposed trilogy by the former Deadly Snakes frontman strikes a perfect lyrical balance between psychedelic and profound. These songs are stickier than they appear. • Mac Cameron
48 Elisa Thorn’s HUEFlowers for Your Heart
Waves of lush harps, hushed drums, and fuzzy bass lines carry each of these seven songs through whimsical jazz progressions. A feast of technical proficiency that still feels warm and pastoral, much like the green fibers and streaks that don the cover art. Flowers For Your Heart’s dance between cozy and off-kilter remains pleasantly unpredictable, begging you to stay longer. • John Pattee
47 Bridal PartyToo Much
Too Much is the perfect album to dance around the living room to in your underwear, a la Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Funky rhythms perfectly balance with clean hooks and lyrics stretching from sexual independence to the desires of losing weight while battling the flu. The Victoria-based group’s debut LP punches all the dream-pop sweet spots: casual, direct, and still classy. • Michael Beda
46 T. ThomasonT. Thomason
T. Thomason’s latest album is a number of transformations all in one: he decided to go all-in on pop, and Thomason himself (the character?) also goes on a journey throughout the record. It’s a powerful, life-affirming series of songs to sing along to at the top of your lungs while also feeling deeply personal. • Michael Thomas
45 Dominique Fils-AiméStay Tuned!
Dominique Fils-Aimé infuses Stay Tuned! with a 21st century sensibility. It’s all there in the record’s subtleties and nuances: the way the arrangement makes room for her words and intentions to land their punches; how Fils-Aimé’s voice caresses your ear while simultaneously bending your perspective. • Jim Di Gioia
44 Common HollyWhen I say to you Black Lightning
Common Holly’s sophomore release When I say to you Black Lightning is a collection of declarative statements. Starting from its title and emphasized further by the punctuated style of Brigitte Naggar’s (Common Holly) guitar work, When I say to you Black Lightning is an unflinching account of shame and pain and how good it feels to let it all out. • Laura Stanley
43 StripmallSurrounding Area
Especially nowadays, living in the prairies raises a lot of confusing and contradictory feelings. Surrounding Areais a collection of punk music as filtered through western sensibilities; what that means depends on how Stripmall decides to assault your senses. You may get bashed across the face in the middle of a pedal steel solo or feel like you’re being followed home as you pass by a spooky, empty row of pawn shops at midnight. • Michael Thomas
42 Patient HandsStoic
As Jon Neher noted in his review of Stoic from earlier in the year, 2019’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opening Verses goes to Alex Stooshinoff for Patient Hands’ “I Shaved My Father’s Face”: “Masturbating, / In a bar bathroom, / Why did I call myself, / ‘Living Room’?”. Referring to his previous musical moniker, Stooshinoff takes his inspired ambience out of the living room, the bedroom, and the basement and allows Patient Hands room to breath and explore. From atmospheric textures to lyrical obtuseness, to plain-spoken honesty and vulnerability, Stoic is validation that the dark night of the soul that inspired Stooshinoff’s composition was not in vain. • Jim Di Gioia
41 Jon Neher and Michael Scott DawsonNothing is on Fire
With only the barest of minimalist sounds, Jon Neher and Michael Scott Dawson’s first ambient, instrumental collaboration made the boldest splash in 2019. Where much modern neoclassical music seems destined for late-night Spotify playlists, Neher and Dawson’s compositions sparkle at any time of day. The tension, fear, and emotional undercurrent of Nothing is on Fire is palpable, but the duo wraps it all in a palatable, finely crafted listening experience. • Jim Di Gioia
40 Mount Eerie with Julie DoironLost Wisdom Pt. 2
Phil Elverum has become the patron saint of sad songs in a way that threatened to make this collaboration with Julie Doiron irrelevant. Why should we care about another collection of sad songs? Because Doiron is a special talent. Their voices — criss-crossing over these sad songs — will put a hint of something warm in your body. • Jon Neher
39 Snotty Nose Rez KidsTrapline
Trapline marks an epoch in the lives of Darren “Young D” Metz and Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce. On their third full-length as Snotty Nose Rez Kids, the duo hit all their targets: music that celebrates and respects the land and its natural resources, women, and the history, tenacity, and resiliency of Indigenous peoples. Most importantly, though, Snotty Nose Rez Kids have discovered their inner truth, shaped by the family history, their experiences as Indigenous youth searching for a place in the world, and in turn, offer other Indigenous young people an example of how to channel their anger, energy, and creativity into a positive force for change. • Jim Di Gioia
38 WintersleepIn the Land Of
It’s hard to argue that Wintersleep is treading any new sonic territory for In the Land Of but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable experience as everyone performs their well-trod role with aplomb. The bold and thoughtful lyrics by Paul Murphy on tracks like “Beneficiary” are usually the main attraction, but the record’s instrumentation overflows with life and energy. Perhaps the most surprising thing about In the Land Of is it’s not even the best thing drummer Loel Campbell played on this year. • Jon Neher
37 TR/STThe Destroyer (1 and 2)
The first half of The Destroyer is a record of raw emotion finely channelled into vignettes while the second part of TR/ST’s ambitious opus skillfully changes the picture while maintaining the frame. The risk of dividing a single work into two halves is ending up with the whole feeling disjointed and disconnected. That’s not the case here: The Destroyer is ultimately a gamble that pays off in spades. • Jim Di Gioia
36 Nicolette & the NobodiesDevil’s Run
Over Devil’s Run’s eight tracks, Nicolette Hoang confronts her emotions — those of love and pain. Hoang is in a western showdown with her feelings. It’s a dusty outlaw country recording arriving right in the thick of yee-haw mania, But Nicolette & The Nobodies’ songs don’t feel like hollow attempts to capitalize on a trend. Devil’s Run is crafted with a deep and honest love of country music. • Laura Stanley
35 Reuben and the Darkun | love
Reuben and the Dark’s latest is as honest as it is reserved. un | love is atmospheric; layered with reflections on expectation, change, and healing. Evoking themes of enchantment and disenchantment, un | love touches on the inevitably flawed experience of love. • Tia Julien
34 Leif VollebekkNew Ways
On the song “Transatlantic Flight,” Leif Vollebekk repeatedly exclaims, “I am a prisoner.” It’s a reference to being trapped on a long haul flight but it also speaks to Vollebekk’s predicament throughout New Ways: he is a prisoner of love. New Ways is an infectious album that’s steeped in piano-driven grooves and for its duration, Vollebekk is trying to escape this prison. But by the end, on closer “Apalachee Plain,” he surrenders, “No, there ain’t nothing I can change about me now,” and the afterglow is sublime. • Laura Stanley
33 SaxsyndrumSecond Nature
Saxsyndrum has been putting out inventive, kaleidoscopic music for years, but more impressively the band has never seemed to stagnate. Their latest album saw them add vocalist AP Bergeron, and the result brings Saxsyndrum to new levels. Second Nature approaches pop sensibilities without being saccharine, and the album is, unsurprisingly, Saxsyndrum’s most inspiring offering yet. • Michael Thomas
32 CFCFLiquid Colours
A soothing, immersive, synthetic dreamspace composed by one of Canada’s most consistently inventive electronic artists. Michael Silver’s newest under his CFCF moniker is a continuous piece of music that patiently builds and breaks apart its themes over forty-one minutes. A fully-realized continuum built on the back of jungle breakbeats, vibraphones and synths, Liquid Coloursbeautifully conjures retro-futurist, new-age fantasies full of synthetic shimmer and unrealized optimism. • Geoff Parent
31 Craig AaldersOceanography
Craig Aalders’ art taps into the essence of his home, the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, Oceanographypresents walls of sound and evokes overwhelming imagery that can leave you awe-struck yet refreshed. It’s a testament to how powerful the intangible qualities of its source material can be. • John Pattee
30 Ada Leawhat we say in private
Ada Lea’s debut album what we say in private continuously zigs when you expect it to zag. Traditional song structure takes a back seat to the vivid lyrics and the emotional up downs held within the stories Alexandra Levy weaves. what we say in private is a good argument for keeping folk music weird. • Mac Cameron
There is an indomitable spirit coursing through Alexa Dirks’ first album as Begonia. Fear is the opposite of all its name implies: confident, bold, and blossoming with subtlety and intelligence. • Jim Di Gioia
28 Carly Rae JepsenDedicated
Carly Rae Jepsen’s newest synth-pop odyssey only suffers because it is exactly that — an odyssey. Dedicatedis at least twenty minutes too long, but it still works wonderfully due to the ear-wormy strengths of it’s best songs. Once you get past the shakey back half, you’re left with yet another solid album from one of Canada’s best pop artists. • Geoff Parent
27 Ian Daniel KehoeSecret Republic
The second most prolific ex-Attack in Black member ditches guitars, drums and monikers for synths, drum machines and his full-name. On Secret Republic, Kehoe croons over tender Eighties-indebted pop rock tunes while existentially exploring the ups and downs of love. • Mac Cameron
26 Haviah Mighty13th Floor
There’s no hiding or ignoring Haviah Mighty; 13th Floor forces listeners to stop, pay attention, and reconsider our preconceived notions of what hip-hop sounds like and who represents the genre. It’s an album rich with community and confidence, and a compelling argument for changing paradigms and destroying stereotypes. • Jim Di Gioia
25 Sandro PerriSoft Landing
Soft Landing is a masterpiece from Sandro Perri, coming only one year after his last release, In Another Life. Soft Landing allows you to travel down winding roads into unknown territories, with each of the six songs offering a different, yet soothing experience. Perri’s inspiring guitar licks on each track, coupled with the striking clavinet on the back half, ensure that regardless of the weather outside, the journey is calm and inviting. • Michael Beda
24 The Cosmic RangeThe Gratitude Principle
Toronto’s favourite backing band shows once again that they are masters of mood and groove. The Gratitude Principle was recorded directly on the heels of the Range’s first record New Latitudes and it finds them exploring trippier and mellower waves, best exemplified on the standout, made-for-toking “Breathing Water”. • Mac Cameron
23 Blue HawaiiOpen Reduction Internal Fixation
Inspired by (and named after) a foot procedure that puts pieces of a broken bone into place using surgery, Blue Hawaii’s third full-length is all about how listening, dancing and composing music we love is an exercise in recovery and catharsis. Whether the wounds are physical or emotional, the effect is powerful. Chock-full of Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s gorgeous vocals and a mix of house, UK garage, and pop, Open Reduction Internal Fixation is one of the year’s most efficient and consistently satisfying EDM records. • Geoff Parent
22 Lightning DustSpectre
Spectre’s instrumental palette can be room-filling, and as former members of psych-rock group Black Mountain, Amber Webber and Joshua Wells are no strangers to that approach. However, Lightning Dust takes those ideas and delivers them in a more intimate setting, one with poignant, comforting commentary on our collective well-being. It’s a wonderful marriage between grand presentation and vulnerable, personal messaging. • John Pattee
21 kai bravewoodpink glow
There aren’t enough things to say about how refreshing, urgent and complex this electrifying four-song EP is. pink glowfeels like an emo band, a math-rock band and a jazz trio combined into one beautiful entity bursting with ideas. Pop-punk vocals meet angular rhythms meet washes of synth meet inscrutable complexity greater than the sum of its parts. • Michael Thomas
The first great record of 2019 still sounds as vibrant and endearing as it did when it was released. Tallies’ self-titled album also stands out as the best debut of the year from any Canadian band. Talliesis chalk full of caffeinated dream pop songs that build on the under-mined legacy left by bands like The Sundays and Cocteau Twins but with their own angsty twist. Dylan Frankland and Sarah Cogan’s guitars chime and jangle, the rock solid rhythm section of Cian O’Neill and Stephen Pitman keeps these heavenly songs grounded and moving, all of it serving as the perfect bed to showcase Cogan’s gorgeous melodies. She is about as close as you will get to hearing Liz Fraser sing on a record this year, except with Cogan, you can understand all the lyrics. This is a coming-of-age record that leaves you feeling like our protagonists actually achieve their full potential, even though Tallies story has just begun. • Mac Cameron
19 BartToday, Tomorrow, & the Next Day
From the very outset of Today, Tomorrow, & The Next Day, Bart presents a suite of stellar musicianship. Odd time signatures and intricate arrangements abound, yet what seems to be this album’s greatest achievement is how those flashy components never overstay their welcome. Many of the songs manage to revolve around the warm vocal harmonies of Chris Shannon and Nathan Vanderwielen, which often present ambiguous lyrics. To paraphrase the opening line from “Today,” Today, Tomorrow, & The Next Day makes you feel as if you’ve been “born into a fantasy,” one that requires immense restraint from immediately re-entering once it’s over. • John Pattee
18 Scattered CloudsTake Away Your Summer
There’s doom, there’s gloom, and then there’s Scattered Clouds. As the years go by and the world keepa going more and more to shit, there’s a sense of urgency and, dare I say, nihilism to some records of the era. It’s easy to imagine Take Away Your Summer as a soundtrack to everything going to hell but enjoying yourself while it happens. Scattered Clouds go from tired and tender to furiously intense seemingly without warning, from the bewilderingly aggressive “Danger!” to the breathy, twinkling “Broken Spirit.” As with some other records on this list, one antidote to our destruction is to groove, and there’s boatloads of groove to be found throughout this doomsday bunker. If the world were to start ending now, this would be a prime album to go down listening to. • Michael Thomas
17 Teen DazeBioluminescence
Much has rightly been written about Jamison Isaak’s use of field recordings on Bioluminescence, whether providing soft ambience or colourful percussion. To me what’s most impressive with these Teen Daze compositions is how Isaak manipulates digital and synthesized sounds to represent what are seemingly their opposites. The warmth and warble of the synths, the micro grooves in the top-line percussion, and the slowly modulating filters all speak to the elegant and seemingly imperfect yet balanced ecosystem around us in a way that traditional instruments rarely do. In fact, when I hear the guitars and pianos (is that a felt piano I’m listening to?) I can see human figures start to form through the mists. Really, listening to Bioluminescence is like walking through a national park in the morning’s first light — the complexity and beauty in the tiny details compound upon each other until you brain melts everything into one euphoric experience. Hiking in the early morning isn’t for everyone, but you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. • Jon Neher
16 Charlotte CornfieldThe Shape of Your Name
Charlotte Cornfield has a gift for summarizing a panoply of emotions in a single, perfectly delivered lyric. On The Shape of Your Name, the Toronto singer-songwriter’s third full-length album, Cornfield is at her sharpest. Mostly with an instrumental backdrop of softly played piano — although the occasional outburst from a toothed guitar never sounds out of place — Cornfield pinpoints feelings that you thought were indescribable. • Laura Stanley
15 Royal CanoeWaver
The album art that adorns Waver does a fantastic job of setting expectations for long-time Royal Canoe listeners; the kaleidoscopic covers the band used on past releases are replaced by a mass of not-quite-gold humans who appear tired, not quite rested: Royal Canoe’s playful exuberance has been weighed down by the absurdity of life. While this heaviness is clearly heard in the sluggy hip-hop rhythms and one-note melodies throughout the album there is still joy to be found in the polyrhythmic textures poking out of the background like distant streetlights. The blessing and curse of Waver is that it shares so many touchstones with music of the era that it can fade into background beats to relax/study to, even when there is so much rhythmic and textural complexity to lap up. While reveling in the obscure and complex, Royal Canoe manage to embrace their pop possibilities, toeing the line between many kinds of music in a way that continues to be rare. • Jon Neher
14 Tim BakerForever Overhead
Tim Baker’s debut solo album, Forever Overheadis a collection of reflections on life’s changing seasons. Rooted in a deep connection with nature and environment, Forever Overhead emerges out of Tim Baker’s transition from living in rural Newfoundland to Toronto. It’s this theme of transition that most resonated with me as I listened during my own move from Ontario to Newfoundland. Tracks like “Dance” and “The Eighteenth Hole” reflect on old friendships while exploring new perspectives on the meaning of home. It’s not surprising that the album is produced by Marcus Paquin, producer of Arcade Fire and The National. Its mix of raw vocals and blaring horns evoke both grief and celebration; resulting in an utterly human navigation through life’s changing phases. • Tia Julien
13 Owen DaviesLollipop Pumpkinhead
Like a fever dream,Lollipop Pumpkinhead flashes through a series of seemingly disjointed images and scenarios that culminate in a surprisingly cohesive — if not always scrutable — whole. I blame it on the cartoonish nightmare on its cover, but the stomach-butterflies that image stirs up is but one of Owen Davies’ tricks; the real treat is on the music itself. Like eating a handful of your Halloween candy all at the same time, the songs of Lollipop Pumpkinhead are a head-rush of flavours, styles, and textures. From sublime acoustics to surreal synths and orchestral swells, Davies crafts the year’s most convoluted and compulsively addictive record. • Jim Di Gioia
12 BIG|BRAVEA Gaze Among Them
In Canada, there has been a concerted effort over the past decade to raise up outsider music and champion the underrepresented. Those efforts have paid off in many ways, across many genres and communities. However, there is one genre that remains overlooked despite our country being home to some of the best in the world — I speak of course, of metal. Montreal’s Big|Brave didn’t release the most brutal or critically acclaimed Canadian metal album of the year (that would be Toronto’s Tomb Mold), but they did release an album that could serve as a jumping off point for many into the world of heavy music in Canada. A Gaze Among Them is nearly forty minutes of hypnotizing, droning, post-rock riffs, each of which serve to drag you deeper into yourself. Anchored by Wintersleep’s Loel Campbell on drums (one of Canada’s finest rock drummers) and buoyed by the chanting, nearly new age melodies of Robin Wattie, Big|Brave made an album that is as easy to headbang (very slowly) to as it is to meditate to. Wattie and Mathieu Ball indeed create walls of feedback that erase time, but for an album that maintains a slow tempo, it flies by in an instant. For me, the best metal music is transportive and world-building and that is exactly the feeling I get listen to A Gaze Among Them. So skip your yoga class, put on this record, and float away. • Mac Cameron
11 Justin WrightMusic for Staying Warm
Experimental composer and cellist Justin Wright’s Music for Staying Warm is one of 2019’s most honest albums in its willingness to explore the uncomfortable layers of isolation. Wright’s thoroughly crafted string arrangements are realized with patience, giving the listener a chance to pause and take a breath. Instrumental lines linger with conviction, while the drones (and attached sentiments) demand to be heard and felt at the same time. It first appears as an entirely introverted album, until the music swells with each development, as though the sound moves from the head to the heart before piercing outwards into our external reality. Wright paints the existential dread and bleakness of a Canadian winter, and then uses it to humble us as proof that we have never, and will never be alone. • Maureen Chow
10 Men I TrustOncle Jazz
At first blush, Men I Trust’s Oncle Jazz is a behemoth. Its twenty-four track running time, assembled from a handful of previously released singles and a bevy of new songs, is usually the stuff of greatest hits and alternative-version bonus discs. Once you dive in, though, it’s immediately obvious Oncle Jazz is an album of quality in spite of quantity. Their style is the epitome of easy listening, as it’s impossible not to find yourself settling in and cozying up to these soft-focus dreamy songs, rocking in your seat to their mellow grooves, and blissfully drifting away on their ambient vibes.
Maybe it’s due to the extended gap between full-lengths and the fact that it features previously released material, but Oncle Jazz immediately feels lived in, like these songs have been part of Men I Trust’s repertoire for some time. Any sense of tentativeness has been long replaced with muscle memory; instrumental pieces seamlessly blend into pop songs fronted by vocalist Emma Proulx as if Oncle Jazz was caught live off the floor in one long jam session. Except, there’s nothing about these songs that feels like a dress-rehearsal. Songs like “Slap Pie” and “Fiero GT” don’t just happen by accident. Smacking of eighties musical tropes (the former likely taking its name from the style of bass playing it features while the latter could have soundtracked a commercial for its popular Pontiac sports car model namesake) they’re but two examples of Men I Trust’s aesthetic. For all the hybrid descriptors you can throw at them — soft pop, yacht rock, dream pop, slow funk — none fully embrace the original collision of style and substance the trio effortlessly exudes.
Mac Cameron recently pointed out that Oncle Jazz is the all-time best selling item under Bandcamp’s “Canada” tag and yet, as other astute outlets have pointed out, it’s been criminally overlooked by media at home and abroad since dropping earlier this fall. That’s sad, but not surprising, given our current atmosphere of instant gratification and the tireless pursuit of the next big meme. Oncle Jazz isn’t made for on-the-go consumption; it’s a measured, thoroughly engaging, and immaculately assembled invitation to slow-the-hell-down and chill-the-fuck-out. • Jim Di Gioia
The sticker that adorns physical versions of Awe, the third album by Vancouver’s Woolworm, simply says “Blanket Rock”. This pops two things in my mind each time I see it. First, I think there is no better description than “blanket rock” for Woolworm’s music. You like bands exclusively from Manchester? Woolworm sort of sound like they could be from Manchester. It rains about as much there as it does in Vancouver, so you do the math. You like pop punk, with intelligent lyrics to match those perfect hooks? Woolworm is for you. You like your rock peppered with the chunkiness of hardcore while maintaining reasonable tempos? Woolworm will provide that for you. Woolworm, I have found (as, I assume, has anyone who’s given Awe the time of day it deserves) has it all.
My second thought when I see the “Blanket Rock” sticker is that it describes just how comforting it feels to blast Awe into your skull. Which is weird for an album that occasionally reflects the bleakness of modern-day capitalism right back at you, daring you give up all hope. I think it’s because Giles Roy, frontman and lyricist for Woolworm, is just like you. He sees what you see and he feels what you feel and is gifted at expressing those hard-to-explain feelings. On “Finally”, when Roy observes “I suffer I thrive they feel the same”, I am always struck by both the simplicity and the cogency of the sentiment. It’s an idea that permeates throughout the album. The songs on Awe sound like the band actively running from the numb, hopelessness of the times, fighting it with everything they’ve got. Sometimes they trip, sometimes they catches up, but it’s that push and pull between optimism and self-doubt, bewilderment and terror, that makes this record so compelling and resonant.
Awe is obviously the best blanket rock album of the year, but it’s also the best Canadian punk rock album of the year, one we will cling to long after the dream is over and hopelessness finally catches up. My fingers are crossed that Woolworm doesn’t run out of gas anytime soon. • Mac Cameron
08 Ancient ShapesA Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom
If I were to put every single post about Canadian music I’ve written between May 6, 2010, and now into one of those word cloud generators, the biggest, boldest words in that cloud would be a name: Daniel Romano. That seemingly random date from a decade ago was the first time I publicly wrote about Romano. If I could link to the URL — it has since *ahem* melted — you’d read that I called him “the music man to watch in 2010”, perhaps the biggest understatement I’ve ever committed to the printed word. He was (and still is until December 31 rolls around) the most prolific and creative Canadian artist of the last decade, and I will fight anyone who wants to suggest otherwise.
Over the last decade, Romano has made a career out of defying every possible expectation his fans and the music industry could possibly impose on him. Think about it: from Attack In Black’s hardcore punk early days to Romano’s country-folk solo debut Workin’ For The Music Man to the Nudie suits of Come Cry With Me to Mosey’s monochromatic psychedelia to Finally Free’s dense pastoral and spiritual hymns, to the dizzying whimsy of A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom, the man has never been predictable.
The line between Daniel Romano, solo artist and Ancient Shapes (which has also been Daniel Romano, solo artist) has always been blurry, but never messy. Culled from two recording sessions laid down almost a year apart, A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom is remarkably succinct and defined. Until now, Ancient Shapes has existed as an alter ego, a Bizarro-Daniel Romano from an alternate universe. With A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom, Ancient Shapes becomes its own entity. It’s a movement, a state of mind. Ancient Shapes is love songs and protest music, punk and popsicles; it’s about reckoning with the past and fucking with the future. It’s loving where you live and living where you love. It caps a remarkably prolific decade while simultaneously kicking down the doors to the next.
A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom is everything you never knew you wanted it to be. • Jim Di Gioia
In a year when many of the country’s heavy-hitting indie singer-songwriters did not release an album, Toronto’s Mervial quietly snuck up her own lane and proved she belongs in the same class. Lessonis short in length, a mere 23 minutes, but it is deep in its searching and is immaculately arranged. For the most part, the songs on Lesson sound close and intimate. Every guitar move is documented and preserved as it was recorded. Anna Horvath’s voice, crisp and clear, holds a perfect balance between wisdom and melodrama, like Conor Oberst on peak Bright Eyes albums or Andy Hull on early Manchester Orchestra songs.
From my point of view, Lesson is as indebted to emo as is it to folk. These songs burrow deep into the pit of your stomach thanks to Horvath’s vivid, relatable, and personal lyrics. Take the stunning self-evisceration that is “Sinner”. As Horvath delivers lines like “he knows I have problems and I can’t sit still without crashing and burning and crying and turning our world upside down cause I’m scared, I’m so scared” strings and drums build around her voice and guitar, but you barely notice it as you cling to her every word. It feels like a privilege to be able to live in these songs — self reflections that most would keep hidden, or at most share with only a best friend.
While most of the album is just Horvath and her guitar, occasionally these songs morph, suddenly yet inevitably, into an enhanced experience. One moment it’s just you and Horvath in an average room and then boom, you’re surrounded by technicolour flora, floating down a river under marmalade skies. It’s not psychedelic exactly, but it’s more indebted to the production of Sufjan Stevens albums than Bob Dylan albums: subtle choices, like the sub-bass on “Novel” and the crashing percussion that accents the waltzing “No Brakes”, brings Lesson to life.
Lesson punches way above its weight and encourages the kind of empathy and honesty that the world so badly needs right now. Horvath is forging her own path into the Canadian folk canon and we will all be (comfortably) sadder for it, but more open and ready to face both ourselves and those we interact with. Lesson is brave and because of that, so is anyone else that listens. • Mac Cameron
06 Orville PeckPony
2019 will be looked back upon as the year that country regained some of its cool cache in urban and counter-culture spaces because of the massive success of “Old Town Road”, but there have certainly been other players in this yee-haw revolution. Hell, I know my hometown of Regina might not exactly be the big city, but the fact that a group of local indie music stalwarts have been playing country music every Tuesday since 2015(!) in a bar that would otherwise never be called a honky-tonk is a sign that there’s a particular appetite for something that only country music can satisfy. I tend to think that something isn’t twang, horses, and steel guitars.
Perhaps through the clever work of a marketing team or his sheer force of will, Orville Peck’s Pony was released at an impossibly perfect time: just before peak country fervor set in. Who is this mysterious person with a cowboy hat, tattoos, and a seemingly BDSM mask? Is this queer outsider for real or just a schtick? While the answer to Peck’s identity is available with some minor internet sleuthing, one of the keys to understanding Pony as a country album is just accepting — and perhaps revelling — in the mysterious mythos of Peck as a modern cowboy, a nomadic entertainer, and heartbroken lover. Really, save for “Kansas (Remembers Me Now)” the songs seem to owe more sonically to Ian Curtis than Ian Tyson and could conceivably exist just fine without the boots and fringed mask. However, Peck taking a pseudonym is based upon the legends he saw built around the country musicians he listened to growing up, and this anonymity grants him the luxury of being at his most honest and tender. He says as much in his recent Exclaim interview with DOMINIONATED contributor Laura Stanley! While honesty does not belong wholesale to country and western music, there has always been something special about the desperados and simple workin’ folk pouring out all manner of sincere feelings into the microphone. It’s a tradition Peck heavily invokes.
The talk of what constitutes “authentic country” has long been in contention in country music circles and it reached a boiling point this year with the release of Pony and “Old Town Road”. If you’re looking for the sonic markers of country you have every right to be disappointed with Orville Peck and if you are tired of cowboy imagery assaulting your senses you have every right to try to ignore his massive marketing success – for everyone else Pony is an exciting and moving album with a down-home sincerity that will touch your achy-breaky heart. • Jon Neher
The newest from Blessed, like much of their work thus far, requires an active ear. Song structures and styles shift and bleed into one another in a way that feels almost reckless at first. But as you delve deeper, its gifts reveal themselves incrementally and you begin to realize how calculated, efficient and well-considered the entire experience actually is.
For a band that’s only ever released singles and two (albeit lengthy) EPs, creating an album’s worth of engaging, cohesive material is an entirely different challenge. In this way, Salt is not so much a reinvention as it is a recalibration. Blessed still showcase undeniable technical skills, but there is a far greater focus on atmosphere, arrangement, emotion, and pacing from start to finish. The energy and emotion often shifts on a dime from song to song and — in the case of album high points “Zealot”, “Purpose and Conviction”, and the stunning polyrhythmic closer “Caribou” — mid-song, but nothing is done on a whim; every single note is placed and performed with the utmost care to serve the arrangement.
Sonically, Salt is the most dynamic and methodical the band has ever sounded. After the refined studio polish of their previous EPs, the recordings sound refreshingly organic this time around. The use of synths, textures, and atmospherics also adds a completely new dimension to Blessed’s sound that’s best demonstrated on “Anchor” and “Disease”. Whereas the former is an unsettling industrial-tinged deep-cut that’s a significant left turn from anything the band has done in the past, the latter is a pulverizing new-wavey dirge that features a gorgeous interplay of synths and guitars.
All told, Salt is a document of growth. This growth doesn’t pertain to the development of musical chops or band cohesion, as both have defined Blessed’s past releases. Instead, this growth has to do with songwriting. After all, technical proficiency and good songwriting are mutually exclusive talents, and “making it look easy” can often result in the most boring music imaginable. It takes true effort to utilize that talent in the right context in order to make something that’s more than just a display of chops. Salt is Blessed’s best work because you can clearly hear how hard they worked to make something genuine and affecting. It’s a reminder that artists are often at their best only after they’ve been humbled by their chosen medium. Even for a band with a bottomless bag of technical tricks, songwriting is still a vocation that’s continuously pursued yet never perfected. • Geoff Parent
04 DOOMSQUADLet Yourself Be Seen
One of my improv teachers has one word of advice to an improviser who feels stuck in their own head or unable to figure out what to do next in a scene: breathe. Take a breath, remember you’re okay, remember you are you. The third full-length from the incomparable DOOMSQUAD could be distilled down to that single word: breathe. Indeed, in two songs, you actually hear the singers taking breaths. Of course, an album that is just about breathing would be indistinguishable from a yoga tape, and there’s multiple layers of depth to Let Yourself Be Seen.
The album is about getting back in touch with your own body and accepting yourself. The most radical aspect of this seemingly simple idea is that it’s also a counter to the ennui and, let’s face it, despair of modern-day living. On “General Hum,” Trevor Blumas speaks of catastrophe and boredom almost in the same breath; but as he’s saying these things, there’s those grooves. This is a relentless dance album that refuses to give up on you, so you had damn well not give up on it, either. The backing beat of “Let It Go” never slows down even for a millisecond as we hear about moving past bad things and knowing that it’s okay to do so. “Aimless” raises a middle finger to the rules that are thrust upon us, and “The Last Two Palm Trees in LA” ponders a grim future while also coming to terms with one’s identity. Occasionally our heads will bob above the electronic waters to take in a fiery guitar solo or the trill of the flute.
Even back in their Kalaboogie days, DOOMSQUAD’s penchant for dance music was starting to rear its head, and Let Yourself Be Seen may be the band in its purest form yet. It’s a holistic tonic for all your ills. • Michael Thomas
03 Yves JarvisThe Same But By Different Means
Despite the fact that I’ve listened to this album more than any other this year, delving into seemingly every nook of its strange and beautiful landscape, no record feels as wondrously unknowable as The Same But By Different Means. The latest from Montreal-based artist Jean-Sebastien Audet defies both classification and common sense: it’s expansive and intimate; seamless and sporadic; serene and chaotic; grandiose and understated.
For a young artist enjoying critical praise under the name Un Blonde, and a new record deal with an American label chock-full of heavy hitters, The Same But By Different Means arrived early this year somewhat strangely. Despite gaining momentum under Un Blonde, Audet changed his moniker to Yves Jarvis and used his bigger platform not to explore a more refined, breakthrough-ready sound, but to reinforce his DIY approach to experimental composing and recording practices. And reinforce it he did. Over the course of TSBBDM’s fifty minutes, Audet displays an unwavering commitment to his idiosyncratic aesthetic. Yes, this makes the album a grower, and the first few listens feel akin to fumbling around in the dark for reference points, but all of this makes the gradual adjustment all the more beautiful. Like eyes growing more accustomed to the world as it exists in darkness.
Continuing on that theme, the prominent role that nighttime plays on The Same But By Different Means has already been discussed here. Shifting from the serene yellow of his last album cover — indicative of daylight — a dark, inky blue graces the cover of his newest. This blue reminds Audet of a nighttime world imposed on us against our will. A world that’s “a much more difficult realm to walk around in, texturally.” It’s a fitting inspirational starting point for an album where the listener often feels a strange sense of removal and unfamiliarity. It’s an album with no fixed edges, no breaks. What would traditionally be defined as songs instead feel like phenomena that spontaneously appear and form randomly out of raw materials. In this way, Audet has created an unstructured space that feels self-generating and alive. As you settle in, it overtakes the senses and captivates with the sheer amount of raw possibility.
On an album that grew out of the suffocating nature of darkness and the “pain of night before sleep”, Audet has, whether he wished to or not, created a piece of art that doesn’t impose itself at all. Instead, it gently invites the listener into a dreamspace full of wonder and free of boundaries. • Geoff Parent
I don’t know French well (despite years of trying) and I generally favour quiet, folky music so I am not the type of listener that is easily intrigued by a Francophone band who label their music on Bandcamp as “post-punk” and “art rock.” And yet, Junior by Montreal quartet Corridor, has undeniable appeal.
Corridor pack each track with fiery guitar rhythms, spacey synth melodies, crisp drumming, and driving bass lines. Although it’s a very familiar instrumental combination, Corridor sound so fresh on Junior that my friend and I both feel inspired to learn to play bass and drums, respectively, like Corridor’s Dominic Berthiaume and Julien Bakvis. Berthiaume’s bass work on “Domino” — an infectiously energetic track that you never want to end — elicits heart eyes.
The expansive psych-rock that Corridor make on Junior is not new. They have been churning out hypnotizing tunes since their 2013 debut EP and two subsequent LPs: 2015’s LE VOYAGE ÉTERNEL and 2017’s SUPERMERCADO. But on Junior, released through venerable labels Bonsound and Sub Pop, Corridor’s songs are at their most urgent and magnetizable: their instrumental whorls envelop you and don’t release you until Junior’s ten tracks are done, throwing you back into a decidedly less interesting reality. Altogether, Junior will continue to be celebrated for years to come. • Laura Stanley
01 WHOOP-SzoWarrior Down
As a settler — born on this land but not fundamentally of it — I feel ill-equipped to comment on Warrior Down. I can reflect on the music as art, noting how WHOOP-Szo masterfully uses sound to tell this story. I’ve read Warrior Down described as “the unfolding of a cultural big bang, in which eruptions of truth activate a succession of healthy confrontations.” That’s evident in the way that Adam Sturgeon and bandmates Kirsten Kurvink Palm, Joe Thorner, Eric Lourenco, and Andrew Lennox play with dissonance, melody, dynamics, and structure. Theirs is a tapestry of sensations: from the lumbering thunder of “Gerry” to the stumbling piano of “6.1-6.2”, every musical element is chosen for the emotional response it invokes. It has everything to do with the record’s sequencing. It’s subtle, but Warrior Down is a perfectly paced and arranged set of songs and instrumental interludes, each a movement in its own right but ultimately in service to the record’s overarching theme.
That’s where my commentary needs to end. I don’t have the words to describe the intergenerational trauma wrought by colonialism on songwriter Sturgeon’s family, let alone try to put it into context for non-Indigenous listeners. It is not my story to tell. Though I don’t personally know each of you reading this, I’m reasonably confident that nine out of ten of you have no right to this story either.
We have a role to play, though, you and I. It starts with listening. And I don’t mean putting the record on in the car or at home, or even supporting the band by going out to a WHOOP-Szo show, although they’d surely appreciate all that. What I mean is that we need to shut our mouths, check our privilege, and LISTEN: with open minds, hearts, and souls. Because stories like the ones WHOOP-Szo share with us on Warrior Down are never entirely told until they are fully heard and understood.
So for the love all that you hold dear and sacred, stop tweeting, stop trolling, stop taking piss-poor pictures of yourselves and your dogs and cats, and just fucking listen. • Jim Di Gioia