Monday, September 30, 2013

September 2013 reviews

The following reviews ran in my weekly column for the Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in September; highlights of the month (Neko Case, Man Man, AroarA, The Julie Ruin) have already been posted as individual reviews.

Belle and Sebastian – The Third Eye Centre (Matador)

The last decade of Belle and Sebastian’s career may not seem to have been that productive—just three full-length records—but this 19-track collection of b-sides and rarities proves otherwise (and die-hard fans will point out that there are still some covers and compilation tracks missing). This was the period when the Glaswegian pop band broke out of their twee image and embraced their omnivorous tastes, resulting in a more muscular sound. Listening here, their b-sides were an excuse to indulge in genre exercises into ska, country, bossa nova, Latino rock’n’roll, surf instrumentals, or hilarious slow-jam odes to S&M. The lyrics are also more ridiculous, like the mid-2000s song about zeitgeist porn, “Suicide Girl,” or singing about “eating a falafel of peace” in a song called “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House.”

The hands-down highlight is a previously unreleased remix of “Your Cover’s Blown” (the original appeared on a 2004 EP), in which Glasgow DJ Miaoux Miaoux sounds like he invited Nile Rogers and Daft Punk to have their way with the backing tracks; the band obviously loved the reinvention; it was the surprise hit of their summer tour this year, and they made a video for the new version. It’s not a typical remix with a thumping bass thrown under it; the three-part, six-minute suite opens with a mid-tempo soul clap, segues into a pulsing disco number at twice the speed, then settles in for a gentler reprise. It’s one of the most satisfying moments of the band’s entire career; meanwhile, the rest of this naturally uneven collection proves that even their off days are solid. Long live their life pursuit. (Sept. 12)

Download: “Your Cover’s Blown (Miaoux Miaoux Remix),” “Suicide Girl,” “Heavin in the Afternoon”

Black Joe Lewis – Electric Slave (Vagrant)

It’s been 20 years now. Can we admit that grunge sucked? Nirvana still holds up, naturally, but most everything else sounds like it was merely paving the way for Nickelback. That’s why Black Joe Lewis is here to steal rock’n’roll back from the soulless and the sexless and brings some of its lineage back. Bo Diddley, the Stooges, the Cramps, the Dirtbombs: meet your latest offspring.

He’s not the only one, of course. Jack White’s done a fine job of it in the last 15 years (Lewis tapped White’s engineer, Stuart Sikes, to record this album). But Lewis is all bluster and bombast and heavy as hell, possessing the most convincing rock’n’roll scream recorded in recent memory, with the riffs to match, a thunderous rhythm section and a punchy three-piece horn section who rarely dare to solo. Lewis’s guitar playing is sloppy and raw; he’s not here to blow you away with his chops, he just wants to play like a wrecking ball.

He also wants to party, as he outlines on one of the most exciting singles of 2013 not made by Daft Punk. It’s titled, of course, “Come To My Party.” Note the emphasis on his own party—he doesn’t want to be a part of someone else’s idea of cool (“Oh, come on man / fuck that shit,” he taunts on “The Hipster”). And he’s not doing this for the little girls to understand; like Jon Spencer before him, he wants a full-grown woman: “I don’t want no young girl / I want one who’s 30 years old / knows what she wants!”

Black Joe Lewis plays rock’n’roll with his rules, on his terms, his way. It’s the right way. (Sept. 12)

Download: “Come to My Party,” “Dar Es Salaam,” “The Hipster”

Elvis Costello & the Roots – Wise Up Ghost (Universal)

These are not strange bedfellows. It makes perfect sense for the onslaught of verbosity that is Elvis Costello to team up with hip-hop’s greatest live band, the Roots. Both parties have an infinite musical curiosity outside their comfort zone. Costello has long needed a band to both kick his ass and allow his never-ending verses room to flow. “Just because you don’t speak the language, doesn’t mean you can’t understand,” he sings, and of course this is not a hip-hop album per se. And really, hasn’t he been rapping ever since “Pump It Up” and “Watching the Detectives”?

Both parties tone down their excesses to meet in the middle; even if Costello wasn’t involved, it’s also a fine Roots album—obviously with drummer ?uestlove at the forefront, with punctuation from a punchy horn section and textural keyboard flourishes colouring every groove. The band doesn’t just complement Costello: they push him to try new approaches with his vocals, and it actually works—not an easy thing to do with an old dog who’s been guilty of overextending his vocal palette in the past. “Wake me up with a slap or a kiss,” he sings; the Roots do both.

Costello has done his share of full-on collaborations throughout his career, but this is the only one that scores a direct hit: this has needed to happen for a long, long time. In fact, it’s only the second album he’s made in the past 22 years that’s worth listening to. (Sept. 19)

Download: “Walk Us Uptown,” “Sugar Won’t Work,” “Tripwire 

Peter Gabriel – And I’ll Scratch Yours (RealWorld)

In the 1980s, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and Paul Simon all brought African music to Western ears; the first two gained respect for setting up record labels to put out albums by their collaborators and inspirations, while Simon was seen as the mainstream sellout who broke the cultural boycott against South Africa.

Which is why it’s interesting that Gabriel covered Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” on his 2010 covers album, Scratch My Back, and why it’s even lovelier to hear the normally apolitical Paul Simon cover Gabriel’s “Biko,” a lament for a slain anti-apartheid activist. (Not that there’s any political risk in doing so, over 20 years after apartheid’s demise.)

Three years after this album’s promised arrival—Gabriel kept holding out for David Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead to cough up their contributions, to no avail—the companion to Gabriel’s all-covers album arrives, containing considerably more interesting arrangements of Gabriel’s back catalogue than what the man himself did with solo-piano renditions of his favourite artists on that album.

That tone is set immediately by David Byrne’s spirited version of “I Don’t Remember,” which sounds more like a ditzy old man at a disco than the paranoid narrator in the original. Bon Iver delivers a lovely “Come Talk To Me.” The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt sets “Not One of Us” in a strange synth world populated by either munchkins or the cast of Freaks. Joseph Arthur strips “Shock the Monkey” down to what could be an outtake from the Daniel Lanois and Neil Young sessions. Arcade Fire phone in “Games Without Frontiers,” and Regina Spektor does a rote version of “Blood of Eden.” Lou Reed—why does anyone invite him to open his mouth anymore?—moans through the sludgiest version of “Solisbury Hill” you’d never care to imagine (in which he changes one line to read, “My friends would think I was a slut”).

The highlight, hands-down, is Randy Newman, who has a blast recasting “Big Time” for a New Orleans jazz piano setting, bringing to life the playful absurdity of the lyric, which was somewhat lost in the original. Finally, Feist and Timber Timbre inhabit “Don’t Give Up” (and flipping the genders on the Kate Bush duet), a song that seems almost impossible to remove from its original production and vocals.

Everyone else makes you want to go back and listen to Gabriel himself; Feist, Newman and Byrne transform the material completely. (Sept. 26)

Download: “I Don’t Remember” – David Byrne, “Big Time” – Randy Newman, “Don’t Give Up” – Feist and Timber Timbre

John Legend – Love in the Future (Sony)

Frank Ocean leave you scratching your head? The Weeknd bum you out? Fear not, as not all modern R&B is abstract, bleak and twisted. John Legend returns with his first album of original material in five years, to remind us that there are still some acts for grown-ups left in R&B. Never mind Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s tuxedo shtick; Legend is the real class act.

With production by Kanye West and some assists from Q-Tip, Rick Ross—and, um, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers?—Legend puts some swagger into smoothed-out soul. Legend is a loverman without any irony or hidden malice; it’s near impossible to find someone this earnest and this squeaky clean who’s not a complete cheeseball (sorry, Usher).

If Legend’s gentlemanly manner seems retro, the music is not: he may be inspired by the likes of Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack, but Love in the Future is decidedly modern; having Kanye on board assures that outcome. “Made to Love” is a soaring, majestic track drenched in atmospherics, house music backing vocals and a raw, hand-clapping rhythm track.

It’s true Legend’s voice is a stunning instrument—but that’s almost a given for R&B royalty. His songwriting and lean arrangements are what really sells his sizzle, especially on the solo piano ballad “All of Me,” which surely has Coldplay’s Chris Martin weeping with envy, not to mention Adele, Elton John, Phil Collins and, I don’t know, Air Supply. If this instant classic doesn’t become a wedding-dance staple in the near future, then Legend might as well give up now. (Indeed, he wrote it for his new bride, at their Italian wedding, where Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones looked on.) (Sept. 26)

Download: “Made to Love,” “All of Me,” “Save the Night”

Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (Universal)

Everyone loves Janelle Monae. What’s not to love? She has an astounding voice, great ambition, eclectic taste, she’s a snappy dresser and drop-dead gorgeous.

Except that her music sounds a step above mediocre Broadway musical territory (Rent comes to mind more than once). To be sure, there are some solid grooves here, like the one buried beneath the collaboration on the title track with Solange, but the soul of the material gets squeezed out by unnecessary layers of overproduction, and Monae’s overachieving, pitch-perfect vocals that render everything she does oddly sexless. Mind you, that worked for Whitney Houston, whose music was far less interesting, so it may well be the key to Monae’s success. Listening to her duet on “Primetime” with Miguel—an artist who manages to maintain his personality amidst big production—exemplifies the gap between them.

Thankfully, the one moment where she really lets loose is on the duet with Prince, who brings out the best in her while lighting off some guitar pyrotechnics in the background (which are more impressive than the ’80s bag of tricks attempted by her own guitarist on every other track). She also scores on the giddy “Dance Apocalyptic” (a worthy follow-up to her breakthrough single, “Tightrope”), and the ultra-cheese operatic ballad “Look Into My Eyes,” which evokes the least cool comparison possible: Barbra Streisand. 

If Monae is disappointing, it’s only because she promises so much. And so by the time The Electric Lady concludes with the limp cruise-ship reggae of “What an Experience,” your time would have been better spent listening to albums by any of her collaborators. (Sept. 19)

Download: “Dance Apocalyptic,” “Givin Em What They Love (featuring Prince),” “Look Into My Eyes”

The Sadies – Internal Sounds (Outside)

The hardest working band in Canada—and perhaps beyond—the Sadies maintain a relentless touring schedule on top of backing up numerous other artists in the studio. And in the first 10 years of their existence, they were incredibly prolific in the studio as well. Now guitarist/producer Dallas Good wants to slow down, and make every album matter. 2010’s Polaris-shortlisted Darker Circles was the first payoff, a sea change where the Sadies stepped up their game as songwriters and arrangers, not just a brilliant assembly of musicians.

Internal Sounds continues that path, brilliantly encapsulated in opening track “The First 5 Minutes.” Unfortunately, about half of Internal Sounds comprises variations on that song, to lesser effect. Only on the runaway-train groove of “Another Tomorrow Again” do they really pick up steam again; “Story 19” starts out as a psychedelic, mid-tempo country song before culminating in a “White Light/White Heat”-ish Velvet Underground climax; the acoustic “So Much Blood” is one of the most haunting songs the Sadies have ever recorded.

The real surprise is the appearance of Buffy Sainte-Marie on the closing “We Are Circling,” a three-minute drone with the refrain, “This is family … this is celebration … this is sacred.” That’s true anytime the Sadies are in a room together. (Sept. 26)

Download: “The First 5 Minutes,” “So Much Blood,” “We Are Circling”

The Julie Ruin - Run Fast

When she first stepped to a microphone in the early ’90s, Kathleen Hanna was on a mission to make feminist rock music in a culture that still literally spat on female performers. She succeeded three times over: first in Bikini Kill, which then inspiring the entire riot grrrl movement, and finally in Le Tigre, which combined feminist history and calls to arms with joyous electro beats.

And then: nothing. Le Tigre quietly went on hiatus, and Hanna only surfaced to talk about reissues or riot grrrl history projects.

Turns out she had good reason: she was grappling with the debilitation of Lyme disease, an oft-misunderstood and poorly diagnosed condition, which put her out of commission; during that time, the devotion of her husband, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, led her to write the sweetest love song in her entire catalogue, “Just My Kind.”

The Julie Ruin is a brand new band (worlds away from the home recordings she once released as simply Julie Ruin), featuring Tobi Wilcox of Bikini Kill and three new brothers and sisters in arms. Hanna is no longer a revolutionary; she’s a respected elder who believes “there’s still a lot to say,” while wondering: “What happens when you’re not 20 but 41, and you have to sink into the you you’ve now become? Will the teenage sneer you so cultivated sneer back at you and make you feel so hated?”

Largely, however, she’s just ecstatic to still be alive and making music and getting back on the dance floor. Run Fast is full of party anthems for troubled times in a high-rent town, drawing from ’60s pop, ’70s new wave and ’80s hip-hop and hardcore. Hanna’s always been an explosive vocalist, but after years spent in bed, her shrieks sound even more cathartic. Alternately, she’s also now a 44-year-old woman who doesn’t need to dial the intensity up to 10 on every track.

The closing title track is a brief biography in song—one that begins, “We were called sluts from the time we were five”—that finds Hanna just as fiery as she is reflective and poignant. Few counterculture icons manage to mature artistically while retaining the roar of their youth; thankfully, Hanna is still alive to rally the rest of us to live life to the fullest. (TJR) (Sept. 19)

Download: “Oh Come On,” “Goodnight Goodbye,” “Run Fast”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Godspeed vs. Polaris: We all win

I have never understood why anyone would not want to have cake and also be able to eat it. Is that so wrong?

Godspeed You Black Emperor won the Polaris Prize on Monday night, which comes with a $30,000 cheque. They refused to perform. They refused to participate in the split 7” series featuring all the nominees. They did not attend the gala. The morning after, they issued a communiqué. Read it now. It’s become the most-discussed and inflammatory Polaris win since an album called He Poos Clouds, on a tiny worker’s co-op of a record label, nabbed the inaugural award in 2006. Godspeed is the first winner in Polaris history to openly question the entire point of the award itself.

The winning album opens with a drone and doesn’t witness a chord change until about seven minutes into the 20-minute track. It is music that is inherently outside the mainstream, mysterious and at times aurally offensive even to those who claim to champion alternative culture. It has nothing to do with eight of the other nine nominees; with label mate Colin Stetson, of course, there are more parallels to be drawn. But even Stetson is two degrees of separation from Kanye West, and has played on the previous two Polaris-winning albums (The Suburbs, Metals). Godspeed are, by nature, outsiders who don’t try to endear themselves to anyone.

So who among us was surprised by what they said?

I was. Pleasantly surprised—especially considering the vitriol they used to unleash on unlikely targets such as Exclaim! magazine (the subject of their last communiqué, which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the Internet). UPDATE: Here's the link from a time when Godspeed actually were dicks. I dare you to try to read the whole thing.

Contrary to what a lot of chatter claims, Godspeed did not refuse the award. They did not turn down the money. They did not spit on the media of this country, or the people who go out of their way to champion marginal culture in a media culture that attempts to render it invisible on a daily basis. They did send two people to represent them—if not necessarily speak for them—to the gala. They did not boycott the Polaris Prize.

In their own words, they are “grateful.” And “humbled.”

And then they have a few more things to say. With a lot of rather cutting self-deprecation acting as a tonic for their righteousness. (Contrary to popular opinion, this band is not without a sense of humour. They did invite Weird Al Yankovic to play when they curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, after all.)

They’re clearly uncomfortable with the idea of awards and competition in the arts. Surely that’s not a controversial position, is it? Even I, as someone who fully embraces the idea of arts awards as a means of generating mass interest in art that all too easily slips through the cracks—and that goes for indie films that get nominated for Oscars as well as small-press publishers who get on the Giller list—recognize that the idea of “winners” and “losers” is patently ridiculous. Polaris, like any other prize, is a parlour game where predicting the results is a silly and ultimately meaningless sub-intellectual exercise. As I’ve argued before, the winner is little more than a MacGuffin, a sideshow.

Don’t like the winner? There sure were some great records on that shortlist you can propose as an alternative. Don’t like the shortlist? There sure were some even better records on the long list you can continue to champion. Don’t like the long list? There’s still plenty to talk about. Let’s all keep talking. Because if we shut up about the music we love, there’s a good chance it will no longer exist.

Rather than shutting up and smiling and shaking hands, Godspeed chose to stay in the game and speak up. In their own way, without a giant novelty cheque.

Are there contradictions between their statement and their behaviour? Of course. Complaining about a glitzy venue is a bit rich, when one member of the band owns two of Montreal’s best venues for smaller acts: does he forgo repairs in order to retain their cruddiness? And as juror Carla Gillis pointed out on Twitter, “Holding the gala in an elegant, great-sounding venue shows respect for Canadian musicians, who play cruddy halls nightly.”

Speaking of cruddy halls, yes, Godspeed are opening stadium shows for Nine Inch Nails this year, playing venues named after banks and telecom companies, so their distaste for Polaris’s car company sponsorship is a bit rich. And arguably, they could have protested earlier and dropped out; no less than Alice Munro has removed herself from the Giller process in the past. But they didn’t: they were smart enough to know that if even one Tegan and Sara fan was curious enough to check them out and discover new worlds, then the engagement—minimal though it was, on their part—was worth it.

But cries of “hypocrisy” are cheap and self-serving—not to mention belittling to anyone who dares to ask questions. As my friend Geoff Berner put it today, “It seems like any time any lefty makes any statement in the public square, it's always accused of ‘hypocrisy.’ Environmentalists who ride cars to demos are hypocrites. Musicians who participate in a flawed music biz are hypocrites when they point out flaws. Basically, it seems, the choice is, either go along with everything, or stay out of the public square completely. Otherwise, you're a hypocrite. Either be a cheerleader, or be silent. Great.” You know who else is hypocritical? Rich Christians. And music critics who get all their music for free and then complain about not getting on guest lists.

The essential website Weird Canada tweeted on Monday night: "It takes a lot of conviction to do the things that Godspeed does. It's easy to write it off or trivialize what they do. [So] don't." 

Even the naysayers cannot deny the power of Godspeed’s intention to donate the prize money to a program providing instruments for prisoners. A charity like MusicCounts, which does the same for schoolchildren, is an easy sell. I’m not going to knock it. But no one wants to think about the many ways in which we fail to rehabilitate the lowest of the low in our society, the ways in which we continue to make a bad problem worse, the ways in which the current Canadian government is adopting the knee-jerk ideology of the prison-industrial complex that even the U.S. admits no longer works—and that’s an issue that gets far less play in the media than, say, reforming marijuana laws.

Now, I wished I liked Godspeed’s record more than I do. I wished it sounded like 2013 rather than 1999. I wished Zaki Ibrahim or A Tribe Called Red or Colin Stetson could have ignited entirely different conversations than the one we’re having right now, one in which a bewildered music industry succeeds only in proving Godspeed’s points by overreacting with crybaby complaints of our own. We protest too much about the pickle we’ve stuffed up our own butt. In feeling somehow threatened, we expose our weaknesses.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Mile End, Godspeed is going to continue doing what they’ve always done, on their own terms, and giving back to the local community to which they first pledged allegiance. And I’m sure their cake tastes very, very good.

Also: Former Polaris Prize staffer Liisa Ladouceur beat me to making many of these same points today, and perhaps did it better. Please read her piece here.

And fellow juror Dave Morris, a friend with whom I frequently disagree on almost everything musical, makes more excellent points here

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pre-Polaris Prize, day five: Whitehorse, Young Galaxy

My final charge to the grand jurors choosing the winner of the Polaris Music Prize on Monday, Sept. 23.  Two shortlisted albums and (today only!) three could’ve/should’ve beens from the Polaris fiscal year, June 1, 2012, to May 31, 2013. Days one, two, three and four ran earlier this week.

Whitehorse – The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss (Six Shooter)

The album:
When married couple Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland—who’d often collaborated on each other’s albums and live show—announced they were jettisoning their solo careers and forming Whitehorse, I thought: so what? Their debut EP didn’t sound drastically different than anything else they’d done, and though I respected them both (Doucet’s Blood’s Too Rich album, mostly), it was never really my bag.

Then this album came along.

What I didn’t realize until I saw them live is that this isn’t just the two of them with a new band; this is the two of them almost entirely reinventing their approach to music. Taking cues from Owen Pallett and TuneYards, they construct every element of their on-stage song piece by piece, instrument by instrument. It leads to lots of entertaining juggling on stage, but it also informed the arrangement process: there is absolutely nothing extraneous here, and every instrumental line is melodic enough to stand on its own.

By stripping everything to its essence, every verse is just as catchy as the chorus, every bass line as memorable as the lead guitar. Both performers are stunning lead and harmony singers, and hearing their vocals bounce off each other on these dozen songs is magical. It also suggests that they successfully surrendered individual ego to craft something greater than both of them.

But even before I saw them live, the album grew on considerably over time; I liked it at first, I loved it later. “Devil’s Got a Gun” was perhaps my biggest earworm in the last 12 months. “Achilles’ Desire” is a tense blues. “Out Like a Lion” has Pixies-esque elements. “Jane” dips into unexpected disco. “Cold July” is a gorgeous, longing ballad that Kathleen Edwards would be proud to write. “No Glamour in the Hammer” is a poppy stomp Jack White would be proud to write. “Wisconsin” is the kind of modern protest song that, even though it’s little more than a litany of modern ills and a rally against the distraction industrial complex, is razor-sharp and, sadly, rare at a time when people should be writing songs like this by the dozen.

Changing the name of their collective project was the best thing Doucet and McClelland could have done, because this is definitely a fresh start. And it’s worked: who knew they could fill Massey Hall?

And look! You can see me squinting on the sunniest day of the year to rave about it in this Aux video:

The chances:
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say strong. This contest is between this, Zaki Ibrahim and A Tribe Called Red. Of course, I’ve only called two winners in the entire history of Polaris (I even guessed wrong the year I was on the grand jury), so what do I know?

Young Galaxy – Ultramarine (Paper Bag)

The album:
I’d be happy to continue ignoring this icy Montreal duo, had they not popped up on this list. A poor man’s Austra, Young Galaxy could theoretically have contributed a deep cut to a John Hughes soundtrack 25 years ago, but there’s no reason for them to stand out in 2013, never mind be in contention for album of the year.

Maybe Swedish producer Dan Lissvik deserves credit, but I did succumb to Stockholm syndrome ever since the shortlist was announced. I no longer actively dislike this band; I now simply refuse to find their blandness offensive. “Sleepwalk With Me” is not only the most appropriate title on the album, it’s also the sweetest song—too bad it’s the closing track.

In the Gothenburg studio where this was recorded, they assembled some lovely synths in their arsenal, and singer Catherine McCandless has a pleasant enough voice that recalls Anna Domino (if, in fact, anyone recalls Anna Domino at all anymore—but they should). Obvious touchstones at work here are New Order, Depeche Mode, Saint Etienne, Everything But the Girl—even Like A Prayer-era Madonna, or maybe one of those lame Sarah McLachlan remixes. My favourite WTF moment here is “Fall for You,” which sounds like Kraftwerk trying to play Bo Diddley, before it becomes a Club Med anthem on the chorus.

It’s nice enough, and if I was the kind of guy who wore tightly pressed shirts and liked to talk about my hi-fi system and Ikea shelves while sipping an artisanal cocktail, (that was cheap and pointlessly personal, sorry, folks) I might even like this album. They'd benefit greatly from getting their hands dirty, though; this sounds soaked in hand sanitizer.

The chances:
Moderate to good. Boring records make nice consensus picks.

The could’ve/should’ve beens:

If there were very few undeniably great albums this year, there was no shortage of very, very good ones. So I’m going to turn up the could’ve/should’ve list up to 11 and leave you with three, rather than two final favourites.

Majical Cloudz – Impersonator (Arbutus)

The album:
From my May 2013 review:
If singer Devon Welsh sounds dramatic, he comes across it honestly: his father is the acclaimed Canadian stage actor Kenneth Welsh. Among his many other gifts, Welsh the younger has great diction and a commanding presence.

“I don’t think about dying alone,” he sings—but not convincingly. Welsh croons with a sombre seriousness that makes you think he’s contemplating mortal matters every minute of every day. His music is based on lilting synth loops and little else—no beats, minimal chord movement. Welch makes the most out of next to nothing, and the result is meditative, hymnal and often sounds suspended in time.

Majical Cloudz, which Welsh formed with Matthew Otto, was formed in Montreal and sprung from the same Arbutus Records scene that spawned Grimes, Blue Hawaii, Sean Michael Savage and Doldrums: all fascinating acts, but hardly known for their emotional directness. Welsh, in contrast, sounds like he’s standing on Mont Royal facing Mile End, arms outstretched, eyes closed, calling to his peers to drop their facades and search for spiritual truths. “If this song is the last thing I do, I feel so good,” he sings.

His legacy begins.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:
The name Majical Cloudz doesn’t do Welsh any favours; I was highly skeptical before I actually listened to Impersonator. Welsh’s seriousness can come off as cartoonish—I’m reminded somewhat of Children of Paradise, from Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill—when in fact, of course, he’s frightfully earnest, scared of the monsters above his crib, wowed by the magic of everyday life, singing in the voice of a liturgical cantor.

Sometimes, it’s been said, the honesty’s too much. But sometimes it hits you in the gut and demands you stare it in the face and prepare for some actual emotional engagement. The minimalist arrangements, which the Toronto Star’s Ben Rayner calls “zero BPM,” complement Welsh’s M.O. perfectly, but if you’re not predisposed to an emo twentysomething version of Scott Walker fronting Suicide, then yes, Majical Cloudz is a hard sell.

AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets (Last Gang)

The album:
“You could get lost out here,” sings the New Pornographers’ bandleader, who now resides near Woodstock, N.Y. Who knows what lurks in those woods Newman wanders with his acoustic guitar? From the sounds of it, lots of hammered dulcimers, bubbling Moog synths, banjos and a choir of angels who sound suspiciously like Neko Case.

For a guy who’s always revelled in overkill—So many singers! So many hooks! So many instruments!—Shut Down the Streets is the first time he’s sounded genuinely relaxed. It suits him. He’s known for being a melodic master, but stepping away from the grand gestures of the New Pornographers (and even earlier solo albums) illuminates his skills even more. I can’t rave enough (or, um, effectively) about the arrangements here, which feel like a warm summer breeze no matter where I am.

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:
Newman is of the age (44) where we’re in danger of taking him for granted, when in fact he’s doing his best work; the last New Pornographers album was also a step up in using every one of that band’s strengths.

But more than that, I’d be surprised if a solo record from a well-known act would ever wind up on the shortlist; I think most critics treat them as a distraction from the main project.

Snowblink – Inner Classics (Arts and Crafts)

The album:
From my October 2012 review:
Snowblink is beautiful—that much is obvious upon first listen. Daniela Gesundheit’s weightless voice and the meticulous, sparse arrangements are immediately gripping. Inner Classics is much more than just beauty, brilliant production (courtesy of Chris Stringer) and a great voice (two, actually: co-conspirator Dan Goldman contributes a soothing baritone whisper underneath Gesundheit’s dulcet tones). Though she may be working in a North American alt-folk idiom, Gesundheit easily draws from Indian, African and East Asian scales in her melodies—“Safety Stories” sounds like it could be from a Chinese opera—while always rooted in hazy, California-sun-tinted folk music, with a few faint traces of country and surf music just for kicks. 

Last year, Snowblink performed as part of Feist’s band at the Polaris gala (as well as AroarA), and it’s easy to see why they appeal to her: there is a similar desire to marry the delicate and pretty to the unexpected and daring. Snowblink creates a glorious opiate of a sound, one that defies any easy description. Feist knows that; so should you. (Oct. 11)

Why it didn’t make the shortlist:
Because Feist won last year.