Besides being the shittiest of years, 2020 has been one long civics lesson. This year has taught us about the resilience and fortitude of the individual, the collective might and will of the community, and the fragility of everything in life we take for granted.
2020’s lessons have had a profound impact on DOMINIONATED. Earlier this year, we renewed our mandate to amplify and celebrate music from both Canada’s mainstream and margins that may otherwise go unacknowledged, specifically music made by BIPOC and LQBTQ+ artists who have historically been marginalized by the music industry and media. We’ve doubled-down celebrating creativity and diversity, fostering communities of mutual respect, and engaging in conversations that redefine and re-contextualize the concept of “Canadian music” through our social media feeds, our new interview podcast called 20 or 20, as well as our website.
As 2020 comes to a close, it only seemed right that we apply its lessons to our annual celebration of favourite albums. Instead of ranking these fifty albums competition-style as we’ve done in the past, we present these records unranked in a collective celebration of the incredible music these artists have created. Typically, year-end lists smack of self-congratulatory smugness, more a showcase of editorial curation and “good taste” than the artists’ work. That’s not what DOMINIONATED stands for. Our focus is — and will always remain — the artists. If nothing else, we publish this list to let them know that their art has been heard and appreciated. Their music has touched us, and we encourage them to continue the fight and struggle to make art in a society that doesn’t fully value its worth.
This list of fifty is a small sample of all the records the DOMINIONATED team recognized and put forth for consideration. We hope you’ll find something here to enjoy, celebrate, and most importantly, to buy. In a year when musicians’ livelihoods were stolen by the shuttering of performance venues, it’s crucial that we show support with our wallets as well as our words.
Stay well and stay awesome, #DOMINIONation.
Alias Ensemble, A Splendour of Heart
Released back in the high heat of July, when the ability to retreat into a world in full bloom afforded essential moments of reprieve from…all of this, A Splendour of Heart was (and still is) an album to wander off and get lost to. It’s a gorgeous collection of traditional folk songs meant for solitary days amongst noisy meadows, perched atop lonely green hills, traversing the edges of streams, wandering in shaded green woods.
A deceptively simple record made up of minimal components, A Splendour of Heart is also one where Daniel Romano wanders away from the foreground. Though he arranged the instrumentals with Outfit/Ancient Shapes collaborator David Nardi and released the record as Alias Ensemble, Romano entrusted the lion’s share of lead vocal duties to singer-songwriter Kelly Sloan. The reason? “I didn’t want to sing these songs because I figured someone else would do it better.” Once again, Romano’s instincts proved correct; the warmth, power, and precision of Sloan’s delivery brings a special kind of magic to A Splendour of Heart that Romano could not have achieved on his own. That said, it’s when the trio sings in tandem that Splendour… cuts deepest and feels most connected to something older and more foundational. You can hear it on the mournful “Streets of Derry” — a reworking of an Irish folk song which is itself a reworking of a centuries-old folk song entitled “The Maid Freed From the Gallows” — but also on the achingly beautiful closer “Greenwood.” Truthfully, A Splendour of Heart’s noteworthy moments abound and each person is sure to find their own. They lie waiting for those willing to wander along its age-old pathways. • Geoff Parent
Aquakultre’s Lance Sampson can do anything. Belt out big notes? Check. Write a perfect hook? Check. Rap with the best of them? Check. Write great songs with heart, humour, and honesty? Check. On Legacy, his first of two full-lengths this year — the second being the excellent Bleeding Gums Murphy, a collaborative album with DJ Uncle Fester — Sampson and his all-star band made an album that defies genre classification. Soul, rock, pop, funk, and rap all fuse to the point that you wonder why there are different names for all these sounds and styles in the first place. Legacy is the perfect jumping-off point from an artist who has only just begun to manifest the depths of his artistry and the reach of his big, warm voice. • Mac Cameron
Backxwash, God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It
Two things were immediately clear to me the first time I heard God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It: one, Backxwash will deservedly win the Polaris Music Prize for this bat-shit scary and totally engrossing album; two, this album will inevitably be on every 2020 year-end list in Canada. But that last realization needs to come with some caution. No matter how great and relevant it is to the broader cultural conversation, no album can sustain a prolonged period of hype and popularity. And as much as I know God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It has left an indelible mark on me and many of my DOMINIONATED colleagues (more of us chose this record for our year-end list than any other album here), I worry that at some point popular culture will stop seeing the creativity and artistry in Backxwash’s masterful horrorcore rap album and only remember the speaking points of how it fits within 2020’s broader context.
Every year-end list features a record that everyone thinks they need to mention but isn’t one they go back and listen to very often. I’m the first to admit that it’s been a few months since I intentionally put on God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. It’s not the kind of record you casually play on a Saturday afternoon while vacuuming the carpets and decorating the Christmas tree. This year, though, and with this particular record, I made a point of putting myself back in the place I was the first time I heard it. I gave Backxwash the time and space she deserves once again, and I listened in full as she and Ada Rook rattled my bones to the very core with “Black Magic.” I listened closely to the howls of “Black Sheep” and the resourceful and redemptive way she recontextualized a sermon from the church in Zambia where she grew up for “Amen” and am in awe of her resiliency, tenacity, and self-awareness.
God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It is not a gimmick record or an album that simply benefited from right-place-right-timeliness. It is the work of a human being — a document of her struggles and success. It deserves every accolade and success it has received this year because it speaks the truth in a way that many of us weren’t prepared to receive. I don’t know whether Ashanti Mutinta believes in God anymore, but if there is a higher power out there somewhere, then that power has big plans for her. And this bold, brave, beautiful record is only the start. My wish for her, and all the fans and listeners moved by her album, is that history remembers God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It for what it was and not just what it represented, and that we all never forget what it was that made us sit up and take note in the first place. • Jim Di Gioia
Jennah Barry, Holiday
Considering it’s been eight years since Jennah Barry released her debut, her sophomore album, Holiday, couldn’t have come at a better time. The record’s soothing nine songs celebrate life’s small moments. On “The Real Moon” she sings about calling it in, taking a holiday, and wondering if events really happen when no one else is around to see them. Sound familiar? When life handed many of us an unexpected opportunity to unplug from the grind, Barry offered up a pristine and reflective record full of soft rock grace and folk simplicity to turn to in all those quiet and wistful moments we found ourselves in. Far from being a downer, though, Holiday offers us a set of easy-to-follow life instructions, exemplified by its closer, “Stop the Train”: “Stay down / Let the feeling do what it wants / Know that it changes over time / We are born / Then years go by”. • Jim Di Gioia
Bruce Peninsula, No Earthly Sound
Just like the creature Bruce Peninsula implores you not to wake on No Earthly Sound’s opening track, the band has been a slumbering giant for the past few years. This album sees them roaring to life and rocking out more than ever before, and it’s a multilayered cornucopia of music you’ll feel in your bones. There are undeniably catchy grooves to be had in songs like “Summertime” and “Been Busy,” but there are moments of tenderness in equal measure, like the tinkling piano to open “Born Lucky” or the gorgeous, soulful ballad of album closer “Why Can’t.” With core members Misha Bower, Matthew Cully, and Neil Haverty taking the reins on No Earthly Sound, Bruce Peninsula has distilled what makes them great into a pure, groovy essence. • Michael Thomas
Andre Colquhoun, Short Term
Though Short Term clocks in at just eleven minutes, the debut EP from Toronto-based songwriter/producer Andre Colquhoun is long on substance and style. Colquhoun has a killer falsetto as featured on “With You” and “Now” but his sweet spot is his lower registers, as heard on the beautiful “Awful Misery” and “In Stages.” He’s billed the EP as “pieces of reality expressed through song,” and though reality at the time these tracks were written and recorded may not have looked anything like what the summer of 2020 threw at us, Short Term’s cool, calm, collection of simple lyrics and beats helped make my reality mid-year a lot more chill. • Jim Di Gioia
– Play it on Your Preferred Platform –
The idea of your world changing suddenly has certainly been front of mind for many in 2020 for various reasons. Even outside of a global pandemic, my year has taught me that sudden realizations are made up of many gradual changes over time – opening your eyes to see that floating in the tide has taken you far from shore, understanding the path that led you here and the swim you have ahead of you. Caribou’s Suddenly is grounded in this spirit of reflection and acceptance through his sampling of soul music and utilization of Beatle-esque melody and chord progressions, but what really touches me are Dan Snaith’s lyrics about his gains in fatherhood and his losses as a son. Nothing is forever and nothing is instant, and Snaith is here to slowly and thoughtfully guide us through this fact. • Jon Neher
Jennifer Castle, Monarch Season
Jennifer Castle has always seemed to be an artist uniquely in tune with the universe, but it’s doubtful she could have predicted the way the stars aligned for the release of Monarch Season. After going relatively electric on Angels of Death, Castle went back to basics, recording most of Monarch Season in near solitude at her home on the shores of Lake Erie. The result is a hushed collection of songs featuring no more than Castle’s voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and the wild sounds of water and wind blowing off the lake. Monarch Season is an album that is brief and beautiful; a record of solitary songs for solitary times. As is usually the case with Castle, the results are nothing but net. • Mac Cameron
Cindy Lee, What’s Tonight to Eternity
The early 2020 release of Cindy Lee‘s What’s Tonight to Eternity arrived at the right time before the whole world went on lockdown. In our need for escapism, Patrick Fegel offers up lullabies, the kind that rock you to sleep into both dreams and nightmares alike. What’s Tonight to Eternity is stark of space and void of time. Synths swell and dial down to Fegel’s command, blithe of the prominent cracks and pops that come with recording on tape. With 50’s and 60’s girl group pop as their foundation for songwriting, Flegel frees the tension from within and at times relinquishes to the noise and roams freely into a whirlwind of atrophy. But it’s in the record’s contemplative nature that allows us to be washed over by the love and loneliness that emanate from Cindy Lee’s past and present. Surrendering to eternity can be scary, but it can also be liberating. • Anton Astudillo
Clairmont The Second, It’s Not How It Sounds
The perfect metaphor for Clairmont The Second’s It’s Not How It Sounds is his surprise performance at the 2018 Polaris Prize Long List announcement: the guest of honour invited for his skill and mastery is met with arms-crossed indifference by next-level industry, yet he continues delivering bangers and challenging his listeners to get with the program by ratcheting up his intensity. If his tweets this summer didn’t make it clear, Clairmont’s delivery throughout this record highlights his commitment and passion towards his art and his consistently immaculate production reinforces this urgency with all-manner of dissonant trap instrumentals. While the lone slow song “Dream” might seem out of left-field, it’s really just the most obvious of Clarimont’s incredible applications of jazz harmony that are nestled throughout the album and a demonstration of his range. Don’t let the 16-bit intro and interludes fool you, Clairmont The Second is not, and has never been, playing around. • Jon Neher
Jazz Codrington, K.O.
After years of playing music outside of the genre, Halifax-based producer Jazz Codrington finally found himself right where he wanted to be in 2020: creating enveloping, groove-heavy beats that rappers would kill to spit over. But the sonic landscapes that he paints don’t need rappers — they are engrossing all on their own.
Codrington is well aware of the weight of the sonic territory he explores. It’s not just building on the blocks Dilla, Madlib and Flying Lotus have laid; it’s carrying on the legacy and sounds of decades of Black music, whether it be hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz, and beyond. On K.O. he carries that weight with pride and grace. K.O. was inspired by Muhammad Ali — one of the first rappers, Codrington would argue — and this short collection of songs, like The Greatest, packs a punch when it needs to, but the parts that really resonate are gentle and thoughtful. It is also notable that this is just one of many projects Codrington has released this year: the too-sample-heavy-for-streaming Illegal Tape and the released-just-too-late-for-this-list Løst Wørldz are also essential, making a valiant run for the most consistent and prolific Canadian artist of the year. With a wave of new projects already in the works and Halifax hip-hop set to have a moment in 2021, Jazz Codrington will inevitably be hailed as one of the scene’s — and the country’s — greatest. • Mac Cameron
Crack Cloud, Pain Olympics
“Overwhelming” is the most succinct way of describing the debut full-length from the super-collective Crack Cloud. In broad strokes, Pain Olympics is a rush of numerous genres mashing together, sometimes in one song. There are screeching post-punk guitar assaults, rapidfire rap flows, Arcade Fire-esque gang vocals, and experimentations with samples, just to name a few things. Pandemic aside, Crack Cloud does not shy away from portraying the present as bleak. Zach Choy pleads for peace on “Somethings Gotta Give” and at one point says “Oh god I’m feeling sick I don’t want to go to war.” The band deplores wilful blindness on “Tunnel Vision” with lyrics like “Careless for the side you are not on this time.”
But that’s just the broad strokes. What makes Pain Olympics so powerful is that the members of Crack Cloud have personally dealt with and helped others overcome the struggles depicted in their music. It’s easy to forget that, among a global pandemic and the (rightful) attention on problems with policing, there also exists a very real opioid epidemic that’s destroying lives at a frightening pace. While some members of Crack Cloud have faced addiction, others have helped out as mental health workers. Consequently, their words are far more than just platitudes. Pain Olympics is a call to shake you out of complacency, but it’s not without hope. Closer “Angel Dust” knows what’s happened in the past and that the future may look bleak, but fixing our present and learning from the wrongs of the past may yet bring us a better future. • Michael Thomas
Helena Deland, Someone New
Uncompromising yet vulnerable, Someone New is the work of an artist who has taken the time to learn who she is. Montreal-based songwriter Helena Deland’s debut full-length fully displays her knack for calculated risk. The title and opening track is a microcosm of the confident rebelliousness that permeates the entire album. Someone New opens with Deland ruminating on thought itself, supported only by the low hum of a drone. However, “Someone New” (both the track and the album) defies expectations at every corner. In Deland’s universe, a stark, free-form duet between voice and drone can build into an absolute banger and somehow, it makes total sense. Someone New is a kaleidoscopic view of Deland’s artistry and personality. “Comfort, Edge” is acidic and subversive, while “Lylz” is a tender ode to sisterhood. Sophisticated arranging paired with honest and astute songwriting, Someone New was well worth the wait. • Hillary Jean Young
DijahSB, 2020 the Album
2020 the year doesn’t deserve a memento as ebullient as 2020 the Album from Toronto-based rapper DijahSB. If there’s one thing DijahSB knows, it’s how to get people up and moving, and 2020 the Album is a veritable party packed into its eight tracks. But even more impressive than their ability to activate your body is the impeccable way DijahSb stimulates your mind. Lyrically, they never shy away from the personal or the intimate, exploring the struggles of being an independent artist, living with anxiety and depression, and finding their voice as a non-binary Black artist in a genre not usually recognized for being open and inclusive. While I loved the record, I unabashedly fell in love with them as a person after hearing their interview with Mac back at the start of November on 20 or 20. Without ever losing their sense of humour and a healthy perspective on how it is and how it can be, DijahSB truly lived up to the hype of being a bright beacon of hope and happiness in an otherwise dark and dismal year. • Jim Di Gioia
Dog Day, Present
There’s a darkness just beneath the surface of the dazed pop on Dog Day‘s Present. Their fifth full length in fifteen years and first after a seven-year hiatus. Present finds founding members/husband and wife duo Seth Smith and Nancy Urich reunited with original drummer KC Spidle and keyboardist Megumi Yoshida. The result is an album of melancholy anthems that alternately gaze and jangle with the best of them. • Scott Gubb
Michael C. Duguay, The Winter of Our Discotheque
The older I get, the more I realize that Stereophonics were right: You gotta go there to come back. Michael C. Duguay went there, and he’s open and honest about that time in his life when making music and feeding his creativity took a back seat to dependency and illness, as he shared with Laura Stanley earlier this year. As a marker for where Duguay currently finds himself, you can’t ask for a better footnote than The Winter of Our Discotheque. Duguay’s whip-smart words and mellifluous arrangements are uncompromising in their honesty and articulation. Widely under-appreciated (I dare you to Google and find any Canadian coverage other than our review and Laura’s interview), Duguay’s sophomore return is a triple-threat: it’s the kind of record that makes you want to sing along with it, openly weep at its beauty, and gesticulate in wild abandon to its up-tempo highlights (“Twenty-Five to Life” gets me every time). It’s a record effusive with Duguay’s sheer love of music and the healing power of creating, one that feels centred on what this music means to Duguay personally and less about what it may bring him financially (which is sadly little without the ability to tour and perform live).
What’s even better than getting to hear The Winter of Our Discotheque this year is having a host of friends and collaborators offer up their own interpretations and re-workings of its songs on the recently released The Winter of Our Discotheque (Reprise) collection, featuring a drop-dead gorgeous reworking of opening track “One Million More” by Joyful Joyful that’s the sonic opposite of Duguay’s version yet kindred spirits in tone and tenor. It’s a testament to Duguay’s songwriting abilities that these vastly different interpretations of his work all retain a spark of his creativity and vision. As he told Laura earlier this fall, finally getting The Winter of Our Discotheque out into the world felt as if he “had purged [himself] of this stuff that [he] needed to get out in order to be back at the starting line as a working artist,” adding, that , through its creation, therapy sessions, and AA meetings, Duguay is “back and doing what I’m called to do.” You gotta give him that. • Jim Di Gioia
Even before its last song, Mémoires. is already a gorgeous folk album that demonstrates the power of restraint. Marc-André Foisy makes heartbreaking observations about life, love, and death, and the simple, sparse arrangements only illuminate his voice further. When the last song plays, however, the album becomes a celebration; suddenly people are shrieking with unbridled joy. While it’s unexpected, this abrupt rejoicing feels like the most effective way to close out this collection of songs. Through its structure, Mémoires. almost feels like it’s mirroring 2020, with its final outburst of jubilation foreshadowing happier, easier days to come. In a year where we’ve all needed to release tension and feel hopeful, Mémoires. affords us both. • Michael Thomas
The Golden Age of Wrestling, Tombstone Piledriver
The shimmering gold sheet(?) Jeff Cancade wears over his body in press photos for The Golden Age of Wrestling is more or less this bewitching album in a nutshell: mysterious, opulent, eerie. Cancade uses the term “glambient” to describe the project, and Tombstone Piledriver shows how beauty can be injected into an instrumental genre that can at times feel cold and impersonal. You’ll be transported back to childhood with the old-school video game blips of “Koopa Troopa Bleach” and feel like you’ve entered a religious ceremony with “I Know What You Did Next Summer.” Tombstone Piledriver is a soothing, warm bath for all your troubles. • Michael Thomas
Do you remember what it feels like to sing along to a song in a room full of strangers? At this point the lack of live shows is beginning to feel like hunger, but throw on Gulfer’s self-titled record and it won’t take long for those pangs to disappear, even for just a moment. Gulfer’s brand of emo has been — and often still is — explosive, but the Montreal quartet’s musical and lyrical dynamic range has grown exponentially since 2018’s Dog Bless. As melodic, catchy, and quotable as it is technical and fuzzy, Gulfer is the sound of a band growing up and into their sound and selves. It may be some time before we get to hear these songs live, but make no mistake, as soon as they are able, the kids will be singing along with Gulfer louder than they ever have before. • Mac Cameron
Thanya Iyer, KIND
The regard for self-care has been my generation’s commandment for living a stable and fulfilled life. Isolating ourselves amidst this pandemic has put a toll on our collective mental health, and sometimes we just need to be reminded to drink water, to get some sleep, to slow down. On KIND, Thanya Iyer imparts a gentle pat on the shoulder, nudging us in the right direction to take care of ourselves so that we may take care of each other. Iyer and her brilliantly polished backing band guide us into a state of clarity, with a potion of experimental folk, jazz, soul, and improvisation through the fantastical. With an accompanying visual album, KIND reveals the formlessness of its music. The same songs are played in improvisational movements flowing into one another and capturing the same majesty of its groundwork. As visually lucid as it is aurally ethereal, KIND transports you into this world of never-ending pastures, nestled on the soft grass in the company of your loved ones. As 2020 comes to a close, may we all heed Iyer’s advice and remember to bring back that which is kind; for the love we give ourselves will translate to how we give love to others. • Anton Astudillo
Yves Jarvis, Sundry Rock Song Stock
It’s not easy being green, but Yves Jarvis makes it look and feel remarkably uncomplicated on Sundry Rock Song Stock. Jarvis distills his now trademark stream-of-consciousness psychedelic musings into a tight (for him) ten-song, thirty-four-minute song cycle that nevers circles back or repeats itself. You can’t frame the album as linear, though. Largely recorded outdoors, Sundry Rock Song Stock wanders in and out of Jarvis’s ideas and inspirations, chasing his muse as it darts around and hides amongst the flora like a wood nymph. Never settling into traditional song compositions for long, Jarvis nevertheless has a keen ear for melody; “For Props” and “Victim” are deeply musical even while eschewing compositional norms.
Don’t let the title fool you: Sundry Rock Song Stock is anything but a motley mixed bag of popular musical standards. Instead, it and Jarvis set a new benchmark for exploration and creativity that’s wildly inventive, endlessly intriguing, and without classification. As far as music goes, Yves Jarvis is in a kingdom all his own. • Jim Di Gioia
Junia-T, Studio Monk
Though he’s the first to admit that Studio Monk is a group effort, Junia-T deserves all the credit for being the conductor at the helm of this style-defying, Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted album. Studio Monk delivers nuance and texture with an eye on the finer details of production. Things are so subtle that you can’t even single anything out as being a particular element that influences the mix, but that’s the genius of Junia-T’s production style: he seamlessly and invisibly makes the music pop. At first, I thought it was all down to the way his rhythms bounce in and out of genres like a super ball in an empty swimming pool; then I thought it has to be the incredible pool of collaborators he’s brought to the table (Jessie Reyez, Faiza, River Tiber, and STORRY). And while all of that adds to the album’s magic, it would be all for naught if not for Junia-T’s vision and creativity. • Jim Di Gioia
– Play it on Your Preferred Platform –
Kicksie, All My Friends
It was a rough year to turn thirty. Even though I was lucky enough to celebrate with someone I love very much, hitting thirty in 2020 was tinged with a sadness that anyone who respected social distancing this year understands: I miss my goddamn friends and wish they could have been there. After all, our oldest and closest friendships are a silver lining that comes with getting older: these relationships have stood the test of time; they have matured, settled, grown stronger over the years and rest on a solid foundation of memory, nostalgia, and shared experience even as life’s obligations grow more cumbersome.
As new limits were imposed on these relationships over the course of this year, I am grateful for a record like All My Friends. I stumbled across this latest release from Kicksie on Bandcamp and songs like “Left Lane,” “BANANA POP!,” and “Ouroboros” made an immediate and powerful impact for a few reasons. There’s the fact that she wrote, produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered this collection of impeccable songs on her own, while also playing nearly every instrument (with exception of bass and piano). There’s the profound feeling of nostalgia I get for the music, experiences, and emotions that shaped me as a teenager. And finally, as I take stock of my life in my thirtieth year, there’s the record’s beautifully earnest celebration of the friendships we carry with us through good times and bad. As this year was most easily defined by the word “bad,” All My Friends served as a visceral reminder to never take these relationships for granted. • Geoff Parent
Luka Kuplowsky, Stardust
It might be more accurate to call any Luka Kuplowsky album the best of its year and the year after, because his albums are so dense with beautiful lyrics and thoughtful observations that months, even years into the future, you’ll revisit a song and make new connections in your mind. Stardust may be Kuplowsky’s grandest work to date, assembling a frankly unfair amount of talented people like Thom Gill, Robin Dann, Evan Cartwright, Felicity Williams, and Ian Kehoe. The arrangements are gentle but pleasingly unpredictable, like the swell of sax in “Never Get Tired (of Loving You)” or the stop-and-start groove of “Positive Push.” Kuplowsky is the kind of guy who can rhyme “Perfection is a noose” with “perfection is a moose” and not only have it sound genuine, but make sense on a cosmic level. Kuplowsky shoots for the moon, lands on it, but finds much more interesting material in the stars. • Michael Thomas
Land of Talk, Indistinct Conversations
Land of Talk don’t intend Indistinct Conversations to be deciphered solely through the ears, but also with the heart. The Montreal-based group’s fourth album (their second since ending an extended hiatus) is more subdued in sound compared to their 2017’s Life After Youth. Elizabeth Powell brings visceral emotion much closer to the surface, rather than submerged in the depths of previous releases. “Weight of That Weekend” paints a personal, highly relatable portrait of the anguish sexual assault causes. Musically, it’s one of the album’s most pleasing tracks, featuring a stunning French horn arrangement alongside Chris McCarron and Bucky Wheaton’s driving rhythms. “Love in 2 Stages” finds Powell embracing their vulnerability as they sing “I dig deep, why don’t you?” So long as you find relief and self-acceptance, these so-called ‘indistinct’ conversations might be easier to distinguish than you originally thought. • Michael Beda
Idris Lawal, Young, Black & Blue
Idris Lawal is young, Black and blue and he wants the world to know that this is a source of power. Born in Nigeria, Lawal spent time living in South Africa and Qatar before arriving in Canada, and he brings the sound and emotion of all of those experiences to his debut collection of songs. Buoyed by an eclectic cast of musicians from Toronto’s West End, including the record’s secret weapon Jelani Watson on saxophone, and anchored by Lawal’s rich, emotional voice, the songs on Young Black and Blue are a brilliant blend of hip-hop and highlife, afrobeat and pop; mellow bangers that are as sad as they are hopeful and as simple as they are thoughtful. Lawal created the perfect record to capture the mood of 2020; fed up, beaten down, painfully aware of the injustice this world contains, and yet despite it all ready to heal and work for a future worth fighting for. • Mac Cameron
Le Ren, Morning & Melancholia
For a good, long while, I felt pretty confident that “Hello in There” by the late, great John Prine was the saddest song I had ever heard. It’s a song that never fails to stop me dead, choke me up, and break my heart. And while the ability to engender this kind of reaction is certainly not grounds for competition, “How to Begin to Say Goodbye” off of Morning & Melancholia gives “Hello in There” one hell of a run for its money. After I learned that Lauren Spears’s latest effort as Le Ren concerned the tragic death of her ex-boyfriend in a car accident two years ago, I can barely make it past the line “Where are you when she calls for you and your voice is stuck in time on old machines?” before I, you know, need a moment. Spears’s gift for evoking such intense pathos and humanity in her wonderfully simple songs is a testament to Prine’s legacy and the artistic similarities between the two.
Combining delicate folk and haunting country ballads, Morning & Melancholia is a stunningly intimate exploration of loss, grief, remembrance, memory. As raw and palpable as the emotions are, however, it’s never a chore to digest. This is due in part to its brevity, but also its ability to stand as a compelling study of genre. Spears’s voice is a mighty instrument full of subtlety, history, dramatic weight, and the serene weatheredness of an old soul. Despite its short run time, Morning & Melancholia leaves an indelible mark on the listener that persists long after the background hiss recedes into quiet. • Geoff Parent
Little Kid, Transfiguration Highway
When I read that Little Kid’s Kenny Boothby was born and raised in Petrolia, I nearly fell off my chair. I had neglected to pay enough attention to this folk/rock/country quartet — which has been crafting intimate songs for over a decade — until this past summer. As soon as I put my ears to Transfiguration Highway, I was in rapture. Boothby’s sincere whispers, the warmth of a thumping piano, and the sheer precision of a group of hive-minded friends was enough to make this record notable, but my attachment felt deeper. I also have family roots near Petrolia (Population: 5742) in that belt of distinctively religious small towns scattered near the Michigan border, and as soon as I read that Boothby conceived Transfiguration Highway during a hometown pilgrimage, my attachment became clear. This record sounds like the post-apocalyptic flatness and emptiness of the landscape haunting Ontario Highway 402 between these small Sarnia-adjacent communities and the GTA; it feels like that liminal space between God-fearing rural community and Godless urban sprawl.
Little Kid’s joy resides in these contradictions. Transfiguration Highway goes back and forth between personal intimations and tongue-in-cheek narratives (someone’s trashed and stoned at a dog-racing track, someone else is selling tickets to the transfiguration at a gas station). Using Christian themes and iconography as a palette rather than a guiding light, Transfiguration Highway mixes sacred and profane together freely and thoughtfully. It finally makes manifest that highway 402 feeling, where past and present mix, small town and big city collide, and new feelings creep in. • Sam Boer
Lyrique, P.I.M.P. (Poetry is My Pleasure)
I don’t remember the actual day that I realized, “Oh shit, this is real and it’s not going to go away anytime soon,” but I do know that the realization of COVID-19’s seriousness was quickly followed by another thought: “There’s going to be a shitload of great music and art coming our way in the next few months.” Calgary-based rapper/producer Lyrique made the most out of quarantine earlier this year, hunkering down and putting together his debut full-length, P.I.M.P. (Poetry is My Pleasure). The album is vulnerable and honest lyrically, wild and adventurous musically. In his own unique way, Lyrique captures that vortex many of us found ourselves floating in earlier this year: a little scared, a lot introspective, yet bursting with energy and potential at how to make the most out of our unexpected reality. • Jim Di Gioia
Markus Floats, Third Album
The abstract painting that is the cover art for the unassumingly named Third Album is as emblematic of Markus Floats’ interests and his music. Third Album is not so much full of melodies as it is full of moods: each track paints a few sections of the canvas with different shapes and forms. At times the music brings a creeping sense of dread, like the percussive click that punctuates “Forward” or the sound (whether it’s a field recording or synth, it’s hard to tell) that resembles growling on “Forward Again.” Still other times synth sounds call to mind a church organ in the middle of a sermon, as in “Moving”. Though the album is only six songs long, it’s easily ten or more worth of ideas. “Unfailing progression” is the best way to describe the passage of time on this album; after all, the six track names in sequence are a wonderful sentiment: “Forward / And / Forward Again / Always / Moving / Forward.” • Michael Thomas
Jon Mckiel, Bobby Joe Hope
Back in April, I likened Bobby Joe Hope to MGM’s 1939 cinematic marvel, The Wizard of Oz, calling it a “wonderland that seamlessly transitions back and forth between monochromatic moodiness and full-on technicolour psychedelia.” The comparison felt more appropriate than defaulting to standard-rock-review verbiage like “rollercoaster” and “collage”, because, while those two terms come close, they fail to hit the bulls-eye on what makes Jon Mckiel’s album so special.
For one thing, Bobby Joe Hope is more linear than likening it to a cyclical carnival ride would imply. And while the music is a collage of sounds and samples Mckiel found on old reel-to-reel tapes and his own compositions, his artistry weaves these elements together in such a way that they can no longer exist on their own. It’s also hard not to imagine that Mckiel — like those who listen to Bobby Joe Hope from start to finish — finds himself changed, transformed by the time the last few notes of closing song “Secret of Mana” fade out.
It’s pretty heady, and all these months later I still find myself wishing to return to it repeatedly. Bobby Joe Hope is not so much a journey but a summation of the whole creative process from conception to realization; consciousness to dream, to a new reality and then back to dream again only to wake a different person than you were when it all began. • Jim Di Gioia
METZ, Atlas Vending
The oasis that is live music has been cruelly cordoned off from us all for the time being. From sweaty local shows with sticky floors and shitty sound to globetrotting, stadium-housed spectaculars, the cathartic and communal energy of a live show has been an exceedingly difficult thing to go without, especially in light of 2020’s never-ending cavalcade of shit. Thankfully, the sheer cacophony of an album like Atlas Vending soothes some of this year’s sting. Though it still pales in comparison to the true thing, METZ’s latest is a visceral reminder of how live music feels: unpredictable, unrehearsed, and free of studio trappings.
It’s a testament to their skill set that METZ continues to churn out excellent records without ever straying too far from their formative sound. That said, the trio’s willingness to stick to what works doesn’t mean they don’t find ways to push their songwriting with each release. From the precision and steadiness of its eight-minute closing track to its stirring experimentations with atonality, melody, and arrangement, Atlas Vending is yet another example of METZ’s ambitious nosedive into the idiosyncrasies and subtleties of their genre. They also manage to sound their most ambitious on a record that’s entirely unpolished — we’re talking absolutely zero frills here; nothing distills, softens, or refines the sonic barrage. And in a year without live shows, that kind of disarming intimacy is exactly what’s needed. • Geoff Parent
Casey MQ, babycasey
Casey MQ’s engrossing and cinematic debut, babycasey, is the rare record that manages to evoke extreme nostalgia while still sounding firmly planted in the present, and more often than not, pushing towards the future of what pop music can be. With the help of old audio from family videos and personal recordings, Casey MQ delivers an open-hearted and empathetic sonic hug to his younger self and anyone else who struggled with who they were as a young person. On songs like “What About Us” and “Candyboy” Casey delivers stadium-ready singalongs filtered through a haze of ambience, pitch-shifted vocals, and liquid drum sounds. Drawing from a wide range of influences — from classical to 90’s pop to mid 00s emo and hyperpop — Casey MQ manages to make the songs on babycasey sound like fond memories that in turn makes the album unforgettable. • Mac Cameron
Nap Eyes, Snapshot of a Beginner
Snapshot of A Beginner is a masterstroke of minimalism. A blissful meditation that finds Nap Eyes in peak form, delivering a career-defining album. One that feels like a conversation with an old friend you haven’t spoken to in years. Nigel Chapman’s nostalgia-inducing folk songs are furthered by the band’s ability to synthesize elements of pop, college rock and proto-punk. Even more so, Snapshot of A Beginner is a timely reminder to stop and smell the roses. • Scott Gubb
No Joy, Motherhood
2020 has seen incredible genre-mashing and reinvention, with many artists seeking greener pastures outside chosen genres that felt static. Earlier in the 2010s, No Joy claimed shoegaze and mastered the guitar manipulation necessary to create the genre’s expansiveness. On Motherhood, No Joy seeks to violate conventions by disregarding both the limits of genre as well as society’s prescribed patriarchal way of living. Now a solo project headed by Jasamine White-Gluz, half of the band’s former incarnation, No Joy seems to have cracked a code to infusing shoegaze with more peculiar genres: trip-hop, R&B, and even nu-metal. White-Gluz’s experimentation with sampling electronic music with her guitar-playing for the past few years has allowed her to explore unclaimed territory and create a new sound for herself. With time passing by quicker than she’s realized, White-Gluz reflects on the pressures of starting a family as a woman in her 30’s, ageing as a woman in the music industry, and her relationship with her mother. No Joy’s defiance of tradition on Motherhood clears a path for other artists in the hope of recreating something novel for themselves. • Anton Astudillo
Cedric Noel, nothing forever, everything
Some of our deepest thoughts may come from our simplest words, and this dichotomy is fully explored by Cedric Noel on his sublime record, nothing forever, everything. Through the mantra-like lyrics and sparse instrumentals, there is a clear reverence for our humanity and all the complexities that lie within. Still, there is space for questioning and feeling out some of the great mysteries around life and love; the overall philosophy is more Walt Whitman than it is John Calvin. For me, this record’s closest analogue experience is Bruce Cockburn’s early records and his introspective folk-inspired songwriting, but Cedric’s careful approach to using synthesizers (and forty years of music history) really puts this record in a different place. Listening to these songs, I’m filled with a sense of holiness that far surpasses any feelings I get from most albums — even the explicitly religious ones! — and that has been a true gift for me this year. • Jon Neher
Owen Pallett, Island
Owen Pallett’s last few albums have built up a mighty crescendo as his songs got more complex and added even more instruments, so the surprise drop of Island in May must have been doubly surprising when the album turned out to be a largely quiet, sometimes sparse work. Pallett wrote several songs for acoustic guitar rather than his trademark violin, and the electronic flourishes of In Conflict are gone. Pallett makes judicious use of the London Contemporary Orchestra to punctuate the swelling of emotion as we revisit Lewis, the ultra-violent farmer of Heartland. Where that album was a full-fledged journey, Island is all contemplation. This isn’t to say that the album is all quiet moments;: “A Bloody Morning” is a majestic, pulse-pounding epic, and “Fire-Mare” is full to the brim with unbridled emotion. I can’t think of this album without thinking about a line from “The Sound of the Engines”: “I am a wound unhealing.” Pallett describes us all to a degree, and his music is a soothing balm. • Michael Thomas
As 2020 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the number of albums — like Pantayo’s self-titled, Polaris Music Prize-nominated debut — that started their journey to life long before anyone could have anticipated what the last twelve months would bring. In Pantayo’s case, that start was 2012. Over the ensuing years, the quintet explored how to make new meaning out of sounds and traditions familiar to them and other members of the Phillipinx diaspora before landing on their fully-formed and realized style. Folding contemporary pop, R&B, punk, and electronica in with kulintang gong music, Pantayo the album feels like a perfectly timed antidote to so much of what made us sick and tired in 2020.
The world may have needed a crystal ball in order to predict a global pandemic in the year their record came out, but Pantayo knew all along the cultural and industrial barriers a band of five queer Phillipinx women would face getting their music heard. The starry-eyed optimist in me wants to frame it as cosmic fate, but that’s just my blatant male white privilege showing. I am humbled and in awe of the tenacity and fortitude of artists like Pantayo. The white music industry has never made space at the front of the record racks for artists who look and sound like them, and yet they persist. They forge ahead through uncharted fields and carved a path for themselves. They are spurred on by their creativity and art as much as their activism. Their journey may have started in 2012, but it doesn’t — it can’t — end in 2020. • Jim Di Gioia
Orville Peck, Show Pony
Country music has always had an obsession with tradition. Littered through the genre’s history are tributes, homages, and moments of reverence to icons from the past; it’s a sign of respect each generation pays to the previous one. Orville Peck is the next (and possibly best) country musician to emerge following in that tradition. Show Pony EP is a project in love with what country music represents. Country music can be used to give voice to the voiceless, marginalized, as well as as a vehicle for some of the most goddamn heartbreaking lyrics ever to be put to tape. Peck draws on these motifs to pay tribute to some of the greatest songwriters ever to emerge from country music. Through his sultry baritone vocals, Peck channels the spirit of Dolly, Merle, Johnny, and of course, Shania to create an album of effortless beauty and emotional fortitude. With songs about lost innocence, self-actualization, and truck-driving lovers Peck has created an EP that, within modern country music, has an unrivalled depth of character. It will continue to stand as one of the shining jewels in his (hopefully) long and industrious career as the masked cowboy crooner. • Myles Tiessen
– Play it on Your Preferred Platform –
Daniel Romano, “Visions of the Higher Dream”
Released in early March, “Visions of the Higher Dream” was the first installment of arguably the most prolific and impressive run of music releases in recent memory. After he and his bandmates had to pull the plug on touring (aka their vocation and their livelihoods) and go into quarantine, Daniel Romano decided to double down on the mixes for this project — one he otherwise may have scrapped entirely in light of his plan to to spend the year on the road.
To say the least, I’m thankful he didn’t. Considering we were all scared, struck dumb, and wandering blindly in those horrible early days, “Visions of the Higher Dream” was a tremendous source of comfort and serenity; it was something to lean on, something to get excited about, something else to discuss before inevitably falling into frantic questions about what the fuck was going to happen next. It was a pleasant surprise at a time when one was so very much needed.
Listening back, “Visions…” sounds wonderfully free: many of the arrangements resemble and recall one another, but the songs aren’t rigid or confined to a formula. Instead, Romano feels comfortable here, his songwriting running effortlessly of its own accord along well-worn grooves. Consequently, the guitar lines, the drum patterns, and his poetics seem to pour out and flow freely like liquid. At a time when the world was sputtering to a halt, “Visions of a Higher Dream” felt like retreating briefly into some place alive and unbound. • Geoff Parent
Daniel Romano’s Outfit, How Ill Thy World Is Ordered
Daniel Romano’s plan for 2020 was solid: release a career-spanning live record with the most consistent live band he’d been a part of in a decade, tour the world, spread the gospel, and then, with the Earth tenderized, the Outfit would be properly debuted on the first studio album in a decade that Romano didn’t play a majority of the music on. It would have worked, too, if it weren’t for this meddling pandemic. Instead, How Ill Thy World Is Ordered emerged as the crown jewel, (seemingly) capping off a dizzying and legendary year of eleven releases in total, proving to the world something we already knew: Romano is one of the most prolific and — more importantly — consistent songwriters of our generation. Maybe ever.
How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is electric; it sounds alive because it is. The result of a whirlwind, three-day studio session, it captures one of the world’s best live bands with pristine clarity. The outcome is a collection of songs that rival the best Romano has ever put to tape. What strikes me about this record, more than any other of Romano’s releases this year, is how comfortable he sounds with the Outfit and the rest of the supporting cast. It has a very different energy than Romano’s last (non-quarantine) studio record, Finally Free and I think it’s because Romano feels inspired by the band he has assembled. The passion the Outfit has for the music and for each other jumps out of the speakers with every harmony, horn blast, drum fill, and guitar solo. Romano never stops working, and probably never will, but the promise of more records by the Outfit — and some goddamn live shows! Fuck! — is something that makes the future, however ill it may be, seem a little bit brighter. • Mac Cameron
Shabason, Krgovich & Harris, Philadelphia
By now it’s a tiresome cliche to say how awful 2020 was but it doesn’t make it any less true (actually, here’s a perfect tweet calling out this entire write-up). As we crawl over the finish line, we are raw, achey, tired, and looking for a soft place to land. Joseph Shabason, Nicholas Krgovich, and Chris Harris‘ Philadelphia is that place. The melange of soft-pop and New Age music is a consistently warm breeze and turns the ordinary, like Friday and Tuesday afternoons, into magic. On the eight-and-a-half-minute long “I Don’t See The Moon,” you will astral project to the stars. I’ll see you there. • Laura Stanley
Andy Shauf, The Neon Skyline
Andy Shauf has once again proven to be the master of coupling his rich flavour of woodwind-folk/baroque pop with lyrics that can be both self-deprecating and extremely relatable. The Neon Skyline features Shauf’s incredible ability to tell one hell of a story by using off-kilter dialogue amongst his rounded characters while searching for a grander revelation. What would you do if you discovered your ex-lover was back in your small town? Shauf once again plays every instrument including the soothing clarinet as he lets listeners investigate the depths of his applicable dilemmas. In the end, nothing monumental is resolved; that’s what makes it so relatable. Shauf’s concept album assures that numerous like-minded folks feel the everyday troubles keeping you up at night; you just never thought it could be articulated in such a beautiful, romantically detached way. • Michael Beda
Tamir, Don’t Let Your Fear Kill You
Don’t Let Your Fear Kill You exists because Tamir did not want to waste the time COVID-19 lockdowns gifted him in early spring. It comes as no surprise then that the Scarborough-based rapper’s debut EP is a swift and electrifying brandishing of his talent as rapper, writer and singer. Across five hook-filled, richly produced tracks, Tamir not only showcases his artistic range, but his emotional range as well. He raps about overcoming suicidal ideation and thriving in its wake on “The Rapture”; he gives a mesmerizing lay of the land of Toronto’s rap scene on “From Dust to Don”; and through laugh-out-loud lines on “Sugar and Carlos,” he advocates for peace in the Toronto rap world, still haunted by the recent murders of Smoke Dawg and Houdini. Who knows if he will have the time to make another collection of songs again, but Don’t Let Your Fear Kill You is an argument for Tamir being one of Canada’s most exciting, promising, and positive forces in hip-hop and it is proof of a moment expertly seized. • Mac Cameron
Hiroki Tanaka, Kaigo Kioku Kyoku
Hiroki Tanaka’s Kaigo Kioku Kyoku is an album that stayed with me for weeks after I first heard it. It is unsurprising that Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s guitarist should write an impeccably arranged, artfully sewn together collage of hymns, conversations, tunes, guitar riffs, and everything in between, but dwelling on that alone would be to ignore the elements of this album that make it truly exceptional. Kaigo Kioku Kyoku is Tanaka’s meditation on what it means to be a caregiver to someone at the end of their life. Tanaka doesn’t shy away from the weight and complexity of this experience, but also illustrates that sometimes the smallest, most mundane moments of joy are the proof of a life well-lived. Furthermore, Tanaka explores this in a highly multi-dimensional way; a recording of his grandmother describing the snowdrops in her garden is situated next to Tanaka reciting “I Have Good News” by American poet Tony Hoagland, as the past and the present, the living and the dead, meet.
Thinking about a year that has been globally marked by loss, perhaps Tanaka’s description of bearing witness to death so intimately and specifically is what made it resonate with me so deeply. When the numbers of lives lost feel unfathomable, Kaigo Kioku Kyoku feels like confirmation of the value of our collective humanity, that while we can not possibly know every life lost, we can still mourn them. • Hillary Jean Young
Teenanger, Good Time
With Good Time, Teenanger crafted one of the year’s most instantly appealing mélanges of pop and punk. Its subtle social commentary dipped in the familiar flavours of New Wave and Funk and wrapped in the shiny cellophane of pristine production. They’ve consequently created the perfect distraction for 2020 in the form of jittery, jubilant vibes, undercut with a slice of sarcasm. Never before has satire sounded so charming. • Scott Gubb
TV Freaks, People
People is the sound of TV Freaks completely and utterly swinging for the fences. From the first track “Destined for Stardom,”, the band explodes into an irony-filled tirade about the desired fame and fortune from a long and stable career as a musician. As the album progresses, the band absolutely decimates all preconceived notions of what one should expect from a garage-rock album. The artistry brakes through hazy guitar riffs and playful melodies, demonstrating the raw talent TV Freaks have developed over all these years. Accessibility has been the key to People’s critical success. The band incorporates dance-rock choruses and relatively easy-listening song-structures, but that isn’t to say TV Freaks have gone soft. The grunge is most definitely still there, and psychedelia plays a considerable role in the album’s undercurrent. People is not only a home run for TV Freaks; it’s a fucking grand slam. • Myles Tiessen
Cassia Hardy’s personal reflections on past traumas and how to counter them steer Survival through one of the most exhilarating rides amid 2020’s gloominess. The ability to assert oneself with such intimacy and determination makes Wares’ second LP one of the year’s most profound releases. The nucleus of several songs stem from Hardy’s gender transition and her efforts to remain in control of her own volition while obstacles arise depriving her of her own command. Be it the scorn of doctors (“Living Proof”), the stereotypical notions that go with schoolboy athletics (“Violence”), or just the capitalist system in general (“Jenny Says”), the will to overcome and survive rings through each song. Did I mention the incredible turns from ambient shoegaze to aggressive punk rock to acoustic balladry along the way? Survival’s will to persevere continues resonating even once the ride ends. • Michael Beda
We Are The City, RIP
RIP, the fifth and supposedly final LP by British Columbia prog-pop trio, We Are The City pulverizes you with so much sound that you might suffocate, but in the most pleasurable way. The group never shied away from experimentation between albums, and here we have what could very well be their magnum opus as fans continue to process the announcement of their demise due to “natural causes.” Vocalist Cayne McKenzie sheds blinding insight on our inevitable mortality as well as the changes we experience throughout our time on Earth. As dismal as that may sound, the musical arrangements behind songs like “You’re So Clean,” “Killer B-Side Music,” and “You Can’t Blame Me, But You Can Blame Yourself” are triumphant and hypnotically empowering. Then there’s the album’s closing title track: a lump-in-throat-inducing, synth-sweeping tribute to a deceased friend that has McKenzie struggling to keep his voice from breaking with despair. What else can be said that hasn’t already been wonderfully articulated by my fellow esteemed contributors? Then again, death and mortality isn’t merely the end, but only a transition. Maybe one day, We Are the City will return and bless us with another treasure. • Michael Beda
– Buy it –
Zoongide’ewin, Bleached Wavves
Out of a clouded formation comes a storm. The first track on Bleached Wavves is all anticipation — something that starts off shapeless and begins to acquire form, agency, and power before revealing itself in shifting rhythms and flows.
The first such shift comes in the form of “Vibrant Colours,” Daniel Glen Monkman’s masterwork on an album of masterworks crafted under the name Zoongide’ewin (Zoon for short). A towering, amorphous wall of reverb, warble, driving rhythm, and Monkman’s vocals, “Vibrant Colours” succeeds in sweeping the listener up into Bleached Wavves’ heady atmosphere. Similar to the best work of bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, and the Cocteau Twins, songs like the title track, “Brokenhead,” “Light Prism”, and “Landscapes” compel you turn up your speakers or your headphones past the point of endurance; you want to immerse yourself in Bleached Wavves, dive in, be enveloped. And while the favourable comparisons to shoegaze legacy acts are appropriate, it’s essential to understand that Monkman has created an album unique to his genius; his experiences; his trauma; his truth.
Zoongide’ewin means bravery, courage, and the Bear Spirit in Ojibwe, and the music that Monkman has created under that name is a testament to his own courage and force of will. This music was his way of coming to terms with his mental health, a childhood fraught with family illness, his battle with drugs and alcohol, poverty and racism. In this way, Bleached Wavves is an intensely personal record filled with beautiful sounds of healing and reckoning. A storm, yes, but a cathartic one that ultimately leads to renewal. • Geoff Parent