Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 2015 reviews

Petite Noir
Highly recommended this month: Petite Noir, Pierre Kwenders

Well worth your while: Kronos Quartet featuring Tanya Tagaq, Michael Feuerstack, Will Butler, Buena Vista Social Club

Also this month: I wrote this feature on Will Butler for Maclean’s.

Bright Lights Social Hour – Space is Still the Place (Frenchkiss/Maple)

Five years is a long time wait between your first two albums, especially if you’re an active touring unit. Why it took this psychedelic Austin band so long to hustle back into the studio barely matters: these guys clearly live and die by their live show, and you can hear the years of sweat and blood in every note of this album. The rich harmonies are impeccable, the guitar solos and textures always tasteful without sacrificing any driving energy, and the synths set them apart from other jam bands.

Thankfully, this isn’t just a bar band wandering into the studio: “Space is Still the Place” (apologies to Sun Ra) is drenched in reverb and effects and carefully sequenced, with songs bleeding into each other seamlessly. Bright Lights Social Hour shares sonic space with the War on Drugs or a southern take on Broken Social Scene, but their closest comrades might be My Morning Jacket: only with more slide guitar, way more Hendrix, and a few more CDs by ’70s German bands in the tour van.

Once this album blows up after a slow-building buzz, expect them to be headlining every festival in the summer of 2016. (March 12)

The Bright Lights Social Hour play the Horseshoe in Toronto on April 15.

Download: “Infinite Cities,” “Sweet Madelene,” “Sea of the Edge”

Buena Vista Social Club – Lost and Found (World Circuit/Warner)

Along with the Pops Staples record last month, this is the least expected album of 2015. The Buena Vista Social Club sensation is now almost 20 years old, dating back to when Ry Cooder corralled many of Cuba’s top players and singers to showcase traditional “son” music, resulting in a multi-million-selling album, tour, live album and a Wim Wenders-directed documentary.

Now five of the original members are deceased—not surprising, as many were, at the very least, 70 years old when the original album was recorded. Gone are Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, percussionist Miguel Diaz (whose daughters just released their debut album as Ibeyi), and bassist Orlando Lopez. All live on in these recordings. The five remaining members (wait a minute, who’s left?!) are going on tour to mark the anniversary, and this collects various outtakes and live tracks.

On paper, Lost and Found sounds like it could be cash grab. It isn’t.

Instead, it’s a reminder of how potent and polished that original lineup was, what rich traditions from which they were drawing, how impeccably placed was every note, every rhythmic accent. Every player here is given room to showcase, without showing off; Gonzalez in particular is a quiet master of restraint.

During the first wave of Buena Vista mania, the World Circuit label was more than eager to satiate demand with plenty of spinoff recordings. At the time, it seemed too many. Now it doesn’t seem like enough. (March 26)

Download: “Brunca Manugua,” “Habanera,” “Black Chicken 37”

Will Butler – Policy (Merge)

If Reflektor and 2010’s The Suburbs were high-concept and over an hour long each, Policy—the debut release from Arcade Fire’s Will Butler (younger brother of frontman Win) is decidedly low-concept and concise: eight songs in 28 minutes. The first single, “Anna,” was written during the last two hours Butler had in the studio with Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara. Another track, “Something’s Coming,” was salvaged from the soundtrack for a TIFF-commissioned short film by New York-via-Winnipeg artist Marcel Dzama, Une danse des bouffons; it features Dzama himself on synths (as well as Gara and Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury).

Policy is light-hearted and even goofy—though these are no more novelty songs than, say, the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” or Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner,” or any other rock’n’roll classic clearly born from either improvisation or carefree creation. Lyrics include: “If you come and take my hand, I will buy you a pony / we can cook it for supper / I know a great recipe for pony macaroni.” (It’s a play on “Bony Maronie,” the ’50s R&B hit covered by Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, the Who, and referenced in songs by Wilson Pickett, Patti Smith and Echo and the Bunnymen—which sums up Butler’s pop influences almost perfectly).

Don’t mistake this for a lark, however: the simplicity is deceptive, and Butler sneaks a lot of subtle treats into these tiny, perfect pop songs. (March 5)

Download: “Anna,” “Something’s Coming,” “Son of God”

Etiquette – Reminisce (Hand Drawn Dracula)

You know this band already. At the very least, you’ve seen Julie Fader sing with Sarah Harmer, Great Lake Swimmers, Blue Rodeo or Chad Van Gaalen. And you’ve seen her main man Graham Walsh with Holy Fuck, or heard records he’s made for Metz, Hannah Georgas or Alvvays. Together, they make lazy, hazy dream pop, laden with synths, drum machines and new wave guitars; fans of Beach House, Air and Saint Etienne should get on board. Fader’s voice is perfect for this sound; she last explored these areas in the later days of her old Hamilton band, Flux A.D., circa late ’90s, early 2000s; that’s also where she first met Walsh. It’s full circle, in a way, to the sounds that united them in the first place. Walsh is no slouch as a producer, of course, but this material sounds even better live. (March 26)

Download: “Pleasantries,” “Attention Seeker,” “Twinkling Stars”

Michael Feuerstack – The Forgettable Truth (Forward)

Writing about a new Michael Feuerstack album is hard. What to say? He’s been writing music for 25 years. He keeps getting better. He’s oblivious to trends. He has lot of influential friends. He ditched the albatross of his long-running stage name, Snailhouse, and reverted to his birth name. None of it ever seems to add to an increased profile, not even last year’s Singer Songer album, in which he enlisted the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, the Constantines’ Bry Webb, Jim Bryson and others to sing songs he wrote with them in mind. Many of those people were quoted in a recent, glowing Globe and Mail profile of Feuerstack written by Giller prize-winning author Sean Michaels, the kind of tribute that usually only appears after an artist has died—not for somebody with a new record to promote.

And so here we are: another fantastic record, and some more collaborators one degree removed from Arcade Fire (Pietro Amato of Bell Orchestre and the Luyas—Feuerstack also plays in both bands—and Laurel Sprengelmeyer of Little Scream). Feuerstack’s fatal flaw is that his mannered music often seems too polite, too stuck the same mid-tempo favoured by most sensitive singer/songwriters, and there’s plenty of that again here. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But there are also tracks like “The Devil,” which features the noisiest, most raucous guitar solo heard on any recordings he’s made outside the Wooden Stars, his ’90s band.

There’s never a bad time to discover Michael Feuerstack. Might as well do it now. Apparently, some people have already: his recent Toronto show was sold out. (March 26)

Download: “Receiver,” “I Wanted More,” “The Devil”

Kronos Quartet featuring Tanya Tagaq – Tundra Songs: Music by Derek Charke (Centrediscs)

The Kronos Quaret: is there anything they can’t do? The iconic string quartet has adapted Jimi Hendrix, flamenco, African folk songs, Chinese opera, Bollywood pop, and commissions from every corner of the world, while also appearing on pop albums by everyone from Nelly Furtado to Nine Inch Nails. Here they take on yet another seemingly impossible task: adapting Inuit throat singing to stringed instruments.

This music, by Nova Scotian composer Derek Charke, has been performed for almost a decade now; why it took so long to make it into the studio is anyone’s guess—for starters, Kronos is unbelievably busy, and this probably doesn’t rank among the most commercial of projects for them to prioritize (not that that’s ever been a concern). Now that Tanya Tagaq is more of a mainstream name—following her 2014 Polaris Prize win for Animism, and profiles in Chatelaine and The New Yorker—this music has added marquee value.

To emulate the guttural vocal sounds of throat singing for a string quartet, Charke developed techniques called circle bowing and vertical bowing (the liner notes here are extensive and helpful). Kronos, of course, is up for any challenge, and they make this material more than just a curiosity; it’s entirely engrossing even when you forget what it is you’re listening to.

Charke doesn’t want you to forget, however: both the main pieces here feature audio gathered in the North, both sounds from nature and storytelling. Tagaq features on the title track, both vocalizing and reading a version of the Inuit legend of Sedna written by Laakuluk Williamson Bathory (apparently used without direct permission, for which Tagaq has apologized), a harrowing tale matched in intensity by the swirling strings around her. It’s incredibly powerful and unforgettable—not, of course, unlike anything else Tagaq is involved in. But here the renowned improviser proves she can successfully fit into someone else’s vision; together with Charke and Kronos, they all bring out the best and most challenging in each other. (March 19)

Download: “Cercle du Nord III,” “Throat Song,” “Tundra Songs”

Pierre Kwenders – Le dernier empereur bantou (Bonsound)

Montreal has Canada’s best African music scene and its best electro scene. Naturally, it’s also the city most likely to witness fusion between the two. Kwenders was born in Kinshasa and came to Canada from the Congo at 16; his fellow Montreal producers hail from Mozambique (Samito) and New Brunswick (Alexandre Bilodeau of Radio Radio, whose bizarro Acadian take on hip-hop landed them on the Polaris Prize shortlist a few years back). One track here, “Mardi Gras,” featuring a lilting, distorted violin track, is perhaps the only Cajun-Congolese electro track ever made (see below). That’s only the beginning of the successful cross-pollination happening here: dancehall, South African rhythms, cumbia, Bollywood vocals, rock guitars and hip-hop all help colour Kwenders’s tracks. If Manu Chao or Bran Van 3000 had kept pushing their sonic explorations further, they’d likely end up in a similar place to Kwenders. Whatever you do, the man who sings in four languages told the Montreal Gazette, don’t call it world music: this is polyglot pop, and it’s a matter of time before Santigold or Rihanna starts ringing him up. (March 19)

Download: “Popolipo,” “Mardi Gras,” “Ani Kuni”

Madonna – Rebel Heart (Warner)

Yes: Madonna is 56. Yes: ageism is bad, and Madonna’s career still doesn’t demand the same kind of respect that Mick Jagger or David Bowie’s does, even though it should. That’s not what we should all be upset about with all the kerfuffle surrounding her 13th album. What’s really offensive here is how terrible Rebel Heart is, musically and lyrically. This would be embarrassing if 23-year-old Miley Cyrus made it; age has nothing to do with it.

Rebel Heart starts out well enough. “Living for Love,” “Devil Pray” and “Ghosttown” are decent late-period Madonna singles: the former hearkens back to the early ’90s, which puts the legend in the unusual position of chasing an imitator 30 years younger like Kiesza, who rode this sound to the top of the charts last year.

From there, however, she transforms into “Unapologetic Bitch” (followed shortly by “Bitch, I’m Madonna”) and various other braggadocio numbers that sound sad, not sassy. Then the woman who once—more than 20 years ago—published a book called Sex has a song called “S.E.X.,” which is easily one of the least sexiest songs she’s ever done. There are unintentionally hilarious, faux-provocative songs called “Messiah” and “Holy Water.” Apropos of nothing, Mike Tyson shows up on a track, alongside Chance the Rapper.

Madonna has always craved our attention, no question—but she’s always commanded it just by showing up. Here she’s all crass, no brass. Considering her current pop competitors, is that her fault? Maybe. She once changed cultural conversations and helped North America shed its prudishness; now she has to shout to be heard.

What’s worse: Rebel Heart is interminable: 19 songs in 75 minutes, featuring a faded icon grasping at straws. It’s been 10 years since her last strong single, at least 15 years since an album worth hearing all the way through, but she’s always at least been somewhat interesting. It’s hard to recall a time when Madonna has sunk lower than this. (March 19)

Download: “Living for Love,” “Rebel Heart,” “Ghosttown”

Meligrove Band – Bones of Things (We Are Busy Bodies)
Golden Dogs – (independent)
The Elwins – Play for Keeps (Hidden Pony)

“Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye,” sing Toronto’s Meligrove Band on their fifth album in 15 years. After a career of ups and downs, this band gave up on reaching the top a while ago—but that hasn’t changed their approach to power pop, which they attack with the same enthusiasm and exuberance they did when they were teenagers. Sure, there are now a few mandolins and psychedelic detours thrown in for good measure, but this is a band who sees no good reason to slow down—and offers no audible evidence why they should, either.

Likewise, the Toronto-via-Thunder Bay Golden Dogs have been silent for the past five years, but return with keyboardist Jessica Grassia moving behind the drum kit and taking more vocals from her partner, singer/guitarist Dave Azzolini. With two new bandmates on board, the Golden Dogs sound young and hungry and ready to push out in all directions, sounding louder and wilder than ever before. Opening track “Decided” begins with shades of ’70s funk and falsetto before shifting into a heavy-metal spy-movie theme. All the more impressive—it was recorded entirely live off the floor at Toronto’s Revolution Recording. Everything here sounds like a band falling in love with music all over again, jamming in the studio with no expectations, for pure pleasure.

On the heels of both these geezers are the Elwins, a young band from the shores of Lake Simcoe whose second album is full of big, bright hooks that should rule the summer of 2015—starting with soaring lead single “So Down Low.” There are times when they sound like they’re trying a bit too hard, like the cloying opener “Bubble”—much better suited to, say, Katy Perry—but this is a band who is nothing if not eager to please. Seeing how their tour schedule finds them spending most of the spring in Germany and China, catch them in a small local venue now while you can. (March 5)

Download Elwins: “So Down Low,” “You Have Me,” “Sexual Intellectual”
Download Meligrove Band: “Tortaruga,” “Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye,” “Disappointed Mothers”
Download Golden Dogs: “Decided,” “Do It For You,” “MK Ultra”

 Zeynep Ozbilen – Zee (independent)

Let me get this straight: a Turkish woman fronting a Latino band singing an American classic by a Canadian songwriter? Zeynep Ozbilen’s cover of “Spinning Wheel”—by Torontonian David Clayton-Thomas, of Blood Sweat and Tears—transcends any obvious novelty factor and comes out swinging, in more ways than one. She takes a well-worn standard and makes it entirely her own. Listening to the rest of this fantastic album, it’s indicative of only a portion of her talents.

I couldn’t make up this woman’s bio if I tried. Born and raised in Istanbul, for 10 years this classically trained singer led what was apparently Turkey’s pre-eminent Latin band. She now lives in Toronto, where she puts her M.B.A. to work in a corporate career while also owning a gallery and creating sculpture when she’s not busy singing jazz or melding Arabic and Latin influences into her own songs, all expertly arranged by pianist and producer Roberto Linares Brown.

How good is this album? She turns the soggy chestnut that is Phantom of the Opera’s signature song, “Memory,” into a salsa barnburner—and it works. That takes serious chutzpah—and talent. (March 26)

Download: “Spinning Wheel,” “Alufte,” “Icin Icin Yaniyor”

Petite Noir – The King of Anxiety EP (Domino)
Lapsley – Understudy EP (XL)

New wave? Nope—“noir wave,” according to 24-year-old Yannick Ilunga of Cape Town, South Africa, a.k.a. Petite Noir. It’s like Daniel Lanois producing Joy Division with Fela Kuti’s Tony Allen on drums, and it’s pure magic. Much like another Cape Town resident, Canadian expat Zaki Ibrahim, Illunga combines great melodies with forward-thinking production that embraces electronics with elements of traditional rhythms. Opener “Come Inside” has a loping drone not unlike Malian desert blues; “Chess” is the kind of subtle, pulsing pop song that U2 gave up trying to write after Zooropa; “Shadows” would sound right at home delivered by Santigold or TV on the Radio. All this from a guy who spent his teen years playing in metal bands and claims to have had a life-changing experience after Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak came out. Production and songwriting aside, it’s Illunga’s multi-octave range that’s the real star here, and what is most likely to push him ahead of the pack. Expect even bigger things when his full-length drops later this year.

On a similar wavelength is 18-year-old Liverpool singer/producer Lapsley, who draws more from torch-song balladry and sets her songs to late-night, downtempo electronics. She’s young enough to be heavily influenced by James Blake and Drake, but as with Petite Noir, it’s her soulful voice that sets her apart from every other bedroom shut-in thinking they can be a pop star. She’s signed to the same label as The XX; don’t be surprised if she becomes just as big. Lapsley plays the Drake Hotel in Toronto on May 5. (March 5)

Download Petite Noir: “Come Inside,” “Shadows,” “Chess”
Download Lapsley: “Falling Short,” “Brownlow,” “8896”

Joel Plaskett – The Park Avenue Sobriety Test (Pheromone)

What’s the definition of “dad rock,” exactly? Never mind Wilco, I’d offer this eighth album by Joel Plaskett as Exhibit A. Plaskett’s always been a bit of a freestyling cornball, but here he can be heard singing: “I’ve got a little boy and all my songs are silly / if I have another son, I might name him Philly.” So-called “mom music” is often mocked—largely for entirely sexist reasons—but surely even the worst mom music doesn’t sink this low, does it?

There are plenty of references to whisky, and in more than one song, we’re privy to Plaskett asking a mysterious man named Thomas if, in fact, the tape is rolling (it is). I don’t know exactly what a Park Avenue sobriety test is, but this album sounds like it was made during a bender of a weekend with a bunch of fellow dad dudes in the basement. “Dear Lord, I’m meandering I don’t how to stop it,” Plaskett sings. “If you buy my compact disc, this song might be on it.” Yeesh.

If this were almost anyone else, we’d have little reason to care. But this is one of the finest Canadian songwriters of his generation, something he proves yet again on about half the songs here—particularly three ballads in the middle of the record. One of which is the head-scratcher “Captains of Industry,” a country ballad set to a drum machine and lyrics that appear to be written by Naomi Klein. (“The captains of industry are driving us home / selling us lies and tapping our phones / shaking us down and we don’t even know it / if you want real love, show it.”) No matter, it works—and also features one of the finest guitar solos ever heard on a Plaskett record.

Largely, however, Park Avenue Sobriety Test sounds like Plaskett letting all guards down and jamming with his extended musical community. His role as East Coast musical ambassador is cemented in the album’s first full-band song, “On a Dime,” a fiddle-driven road song. “Alright/OK” is tailor-made for the live show, a chance to show off his band and engage in some rap swagger, complete with a shout-out to Nova Scotian pride. I’d love to hear it live; I never want to hear the recorded version again.

The Park Avenue Sobriety Test is Plaskett on autopilot, tailor-made for CBC Radio 2, rowdy folk festivals and Canada Day concerts. He’s (east) coasting, but he’s entitled. (March 12)

Download: “Alright/OK,” “When I Close My Eyes,” “Captains of Industry”

Alana Yorke – Dream Magic (independent)

Who is Alana Yorke, and why are she and musical partner Ian Bent dressed in black posing with falcons on the back of this Halifax artist’s debut album? The mystery only deepens when one hears the majestic, cinematic art-pop that results from a magical connection between Yorke and Bent—friends, apparently, since they were five years old. Much like Toronto’s Lydia Ainsworth, Yorke is a disciple of Kate Bush, but doesn’t let that influence overshadow her many strengths. Recorded by Charles Austin (Super Friendz) and mixed by Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire), Yorke’s debut is not likely to remain an East Coast secret. (March 12)

Download: “The Wichita Years,” “Time Revisited,” “Anthem”

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Shad on Q

Shadrach Kabango, a.k.a. Shad, is the new host of CBC Radio’s Q, it was announced last night. He starts in mid-April—a few weeks after headlining Massey Hall for the first time.

It couldn’t go to a nicer guy. Shad is a real mensch, a positive force, an artist with insatiable curiosity, and an incredibly talented wordsmith who has made some of the finest hip-hop in Canadian history.

So there’s that.

But is he the right host for Q?

The CBC is no doubt basking in the great press that Shad’s appointment will get. That’s because a lot of people know and love Shad – and deservedly so. There is no way that any kind of splash would be made if someone inside the CBC, or even merely anyone with journalism or radio experience, was named the new host of Q.

This is a job only for artists, apparently. Cindy Witten, head of CBC Radio Talk, said in the press release announcing the hire: "We found there were different points of connection with the guests when the host was a creator or an artist themselves."

This has been evident ever since the early 2000s, the era that ushered in Jian Ghomeshi as a CBC personality. Ghomeshi was a musician of some renown before he moved into broadcasting (although, as it has been often pointed out, only the CBC would consider Moxy Fruvous hip and edgy). So was Sook-Yin Lee, the host of Definitely Not the Opera. Later on, so was Buck 65 (host of CBC Radio 2 Drive) and Molly Johnson (host of CBC Radio 2 Weekend Morning) and Julie Nesrallah (host of CBC Radio 2 Tempo). At least Sook-Yin Lee had hosted television and Buck 65 had done campus radio—most celebrities the CBC hires are green in a radio studio. Randy Bachman—don’t get me started (apparently Wikipedia passes for research and script-writing). The assumption is that anyone can be moulded into a CBC personality.

True, it did work for Ghomeshi. But it sure took time. He was on TV first. Then he guest hosted Sounds Like Canada and did limited-run series like 50 Tracks and Canada Reads. By the time he started at Q, he had plenty of broadcasting experience. And, as we now all know, he had an incredibly strong (and suffering) support team at Q propping him up. I found Q unlistenable for its first few years, before Ghomeshi started hitting his stride. Admittedly, as someone with plenty of interviewing and broadcast experience, I also tasted sour grapes: Come on, I thought, I know 20 people who could do a better job. But then Ghomeshi got better—much better. It’s why his fall from grace had such an impact. He was no longer a joke.

Shad does not have the experience Ghomeshi had at Q’s start. Shad’s week-long guest run as Q host was no better or worse than anyone else being tried on-air. His beginnings are going to be bumpy. The CBC hopes they can just announce his name and snap their fingers and everything is going to be hunky-dory. It will not. Goodwill is going to have to carry him a long way—and, again, to be clear, Shad has enough of it to make it possible.

But amidst the excitement and optimism, it has to be said: journalists need not apply for these kinds of positions. It’s the same reason ex-athletes are hired to be sportscasters. Anyone can do it, right? Don’t even bother going to school for training. Get famous—or even semi-famous—first.

Let’s hope we don’t lose Shad the artist. Go see him at Massey Hall on March 27 and celebrate.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

February 2015 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Whitehorse, Keita Juma, Pops Staples

More than worth your while: Asaf Avidan, Belle and Sebastian, Mavericks

Also: The new Del Bel record.

But mostly I spent February still listening to the new Sleater-Kinney record. The Toronto show on Monday, March 2, is still not sold out! What’s wrong with you people?! Check this if you need convincing.

Asaf Avidan – Gold Shadow (Sony)

Last year the music world lost Jimmy Scott, a diminutive, androgynous singer who started his career in the jazz age and enjoyed a renaissance late in life thanks to David Lynch movies. Scott was unique; the only singer who remotely resembled him was Nina Simone, who of course was one of a kind herself. Asaf Avidan is a young, male, heterosexual Israeli singer in the same vein: between gender, steeped in torch songs and melancholy, a singer not of this time or any other.

Gold Shadow, his third solo album and first North American release, is the rare record that sounds like it could have been recorded any time in the last 40 years, with production touches that range from Van Morrison to Sam Smith, with stops on Broadway and German cabarets along the way. With a voice like his, Avidan could easily phone it in and astound us with his vocal versatility alone. But he’s also got solid songs, biting his teeth into a lyric like “I will be the jail that sets you free,” or, “I love you like God loves his son” (how’d that turn out, by the way?) and refusing to deliver 11 songs that easily fit into the same mould.

By the time Gold Shadow closes with two songs that could have been heard on Leonard Cohen’s first album, you’ve forgotten about the swaggering R&B that opened this show, or the barking blues of “Bang Bang” or the tracks could have come from the pen of either Jack White or Amy Winehouse. I can’t same a single Israeli artist whose ever broken through in North America, but if anybody should, it’s this guy. (Feb. 5)

Download: “The Jail That Sets You Free,” “The Tunnels Are Long and Dark Are These Days,” “These Words You Want to Hear”

Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)

On their 2013 tour, the highlight of Belle and Sebastian’s set was a full-on disco number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Daft Punk album. The band had long shook its reputation as fey shut-ins with whispered vocals and flute solos; they had slowly evolved into a rock band over the course of their first decade. But this song—their live take of a DJ’s remix of a B-side, “Your Cover’s Blown”—was a whole other direction. It later surfaced on that year’s odds-and-sods collection, The Third Eye Centre.

That track now informs one-quarter of this album, which finds Belle and Sebastian embracing Euro-disco while sacrificing none of what has always made the band unique: their love of British pop music history—from ’60s folk (Nick Drake) to ’70s glam (T. Rex) to ’80s new wave (the Smiths) to ’90s Britpop (Pulp)—and American R&B and the gentle voice of leading man Stuart Murdoch, with time in the spotlight for violinist Sarah Martin and guitarist Stevie Jackson. (And, on “Play for Today,” a stunning guest spot by Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls.) The three disco songs are centerpieces, but they’re balanced by songs that wouldn’t be out of place on any Belle and Sebastian record of the last 20 (!) years, as well as a strange but seamless klezmer detour on “The Everlasting Muse.” Don’t be surprised to see an extra percussionist on stage with them this year: congas and bongos abound. (Feb. 5)

Download: “Play for Today,” “The Cat With the Cream,” “Enter Sylvia Plath”

John Carpenter – Lost Themes (Sacred Bones)

John Carpenter wrote and directed some of the greatest horror and suspense films of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China among them. He also wrote all the music, including the incredibly creepy piano theme from Halloween, which has become just as much of a musical cliché as Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme. The only one of his films he didn’t write the soundtrack for? In 1982, he decided to trust some guy named Ennio Morricone to score The Thing.

Carpenter has been fairly quiet lately: he’s only made two films in the last 15 years. This, however, is an album of instrumental music not connected to any of his films—even though it would suit any one of them. Carpenter doesn’t write orchestration; his music is easily performed by a rock band with several keyboardists and two guitarists playing harmonized leads. It sounds like he’s still using the same keyboards he would have used 35 years ago, Moogs and other analog synths, the kind that mostly only French acts Daft Punk and Air still employ.

If you’re of a certain age, old enough to have had his films leave a mark on your adolescence, Carpenter’s music is evocative, creepy and beautiful. Even if you’re not, however, Carpenter’s Lost Themes displays a depth and invention that the next generation of soundtrack composers would do well to study. (Feb. 5)

Download: “Vortex,” “Fallen,” “Wraith”

Ron Hawkins and the Do-Good Assassins – Garden Songs (Pheromone)

Now that we’ve been told all the Lowest of the Low reunions are finally no more—but never say never!!—it’s time to be reminded that Hawkins does just fine on his own, thank you very much. As proof, here he is with his ace band, offering a live-off-the-floor collection of ballads and mid-tempo material (apparently an album of rockers is due shortly). It’s what Hawkins does best, where his lyrics are given space to sink in, where the richness of his voice really shines, where cellos and accordions bring out more in his material than loud electric guitars do. He’s recycled a couple of songs from earlier (not widely heard) releases, like the should-be-a-classic “Small Victories,” but that doesn’t matter even if you have heard them before. The new material, including a tribute to the late David Foster Wallace (“D.F.W.”), shows that he’s certainly not in a slump. On the contrary: he tells us that two more albums are imminent. (Feb. 5)

Download: “D.F.W.,” “South Ontario,” “Saskia Begins”

Ibeyi — s/t (XL/Beggars)

Ibeyi sound great on paper; their debut album sounds almost as good. These two sisters are Venezuelan-Cuban twins who live in Paris and sing in English and Yoruba (a Nigerian language spoken by slaves sent to Cuba 300 years ago; it’s now spoken there only in religious services). Their father was a percussionist in Buena Vista Social Club; he died when they were 11, before they embarked on their musical path. This album arrives on the boutique XL label, home to Adele, Radiohead, The XX and Vampire Weekend. The single-shot video for the first single, “River,” is haunting and beautiful.

The rest of the debut doesn’t quite live up to that hype, though the sound of these two sisters’ voices is undeniably gorgeous, a fierceness shining through despite the muted nature of the electronics and arrangements surrounding them. They could either head in a jazzier direction or one with harder-hitting beats; right now they seem caught in between. A few more steps in either direction would do wonders. In the meantime, they’ve got a “River,” and they’ll skate away with one of the strongest debut records of 2015. (Feb. 26)

Download: “River,” “Ghosts,” “Stranger Lover”

Keita Juma – Chaos Theory (independent)

Toronto hip-hop is often presented as disciples of either Drake or elders like Kardinal Offishall or Saukrates, but Mississauga’s Keita Juma is on a whole other trip. Minimalist, futuristic, oblique, he’s not an easy guy to figure out. But maybe that’s only because these days we expect hip-hop to be one-dimensional, to spell everything out for us. Chaos Theory, on the other hand, is a hip-hop haunted house, Timbaland on acid, the MC spitting verse in a fun-house mirror. Only one track here veers remotely closer to the conventional, “Come Over,” a four-on-the-floor booty-call set to an early Chicago house beat. Keita Juma’s beats generally bounce all over the place; he’s a wildly inventive producer who often changes direction entirely in the middle of a track—check the avant-garde “YReWeOnThisBeach,” where the relaxed, charismatic MC finds himself adrift in the Canadian wilderness, searching for inspiration. Wherever he finds it, Keita Juma manages to create truly haunting, hallucinogenic hip-hop, the likes of which is all too rare in this country or anywhere else. (Feb. 5)

Download: “Chaos Theory,” “Peace In/Peace Out,” “Come Over (feat. Brendan Philip)”

Andy Kim – It’s Decided (Arts and Crafts)

Yes, it’s that Andy Kim, of “Sugar Sugar” and “Rock Me Gently” fame, the Montreal native who has likely made millions in royalties over the last 45 years and yet has little to no name recognition today among anyone under 50. Enter Kevin Drew, ringleader of Broken Social Scene and co-founder of the Arts and Crafts label, who was among the dozens of CanRock icons from all generations who would wind up playing one of Kim’s annual Christmas shows for charity in Toronto. In Kim, Drew saw an equally earnest, emotionally vulnerable man, the kind of guy who stares you in the eyes and tells you he believes in the power of love. No winking, no irony—the real thing.

Kim’s last attempt at a comeback produced a great record, 2011’s Happen Again, the kind of record befitting a pop music elder making music for his peers. No one heard it. Drew wanted Kim to be heard by a whole new generation, and so offered to produce and release a new album. Kim had nothing to lose.

He surrendered to Drew’s instincts, for better and worse: It’s Decided sounds remarkably similar to Drew’s 2014 solo album, Darlings—not just sonically or in the arrangements, but even in Kim’s vocal phrasing; one could easily hear Drew’s voice on this record instead (even though Kim is obviously, from a lifetime’s worth of experience, a much more polished singer). The good news is that Darlings is one of Drew’s better records, and this is a worthy companion. The bad news—if you can call it that—is that one doesn’t get a sense of Kim’s own musical personality here, other than the fact that the man still knows how to write a strong melody and deliver it with conviction. Anyone who wants to hear something like “Sugar Sugar” is better off sticking to oldies radio; there is zero attempt here to recreate any of Kim’s earlier glories. This is a man looking forward.

Lyrically, It’s Decided carries a lot of weight: songs like “Why Can’t I (Ever Find My Way),” “(Been Away For the) Longest Time” and “Forest Green” are rich with regret, reckoning and melancholy; these are not songs for a young man to sing. Are they songs for a younger man to produce? Absolutely—especially with the respect Drew delivers to this project. (Feb. 26)

Download: “Why Can’t I,” “Sail On,” “Forest Green”

Mavericks - Mono (Big Machine)

Heading to Florida soon? This will get you in the mood. The best country band to ever come out of Miami (okay, that’s probably a short list), the Mavericks mined that city’s Latin sounds and mixed it with classic Americana—particularly Roy Orbison, to whom singer Raul Malo shares a remarkable vocal resemblance—and scored more than a dozen hit singles and plenty of awards. After an acrimonious split in 2004, they reunited in 2013; this is the second record of their comeback, and they now share a label with Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mavericks sound better now than they ever did; their style of music never goes out of fashion. The only real test is whether Malo can hit all those high notes: yes, yes he can. And the songs are all knockouts: new classics by a classy band, through and through. (Feb. 19)

Download: “What You Do To Me,” “All Night Long,” “Summertime (When I’m With You)”

Purity Ring – Another Eternity (Last Gang)

It is, of course, possible in these days of miracle and wonder to make music with someone living in another city. That doesn’t mean you should. Purity Ring recorded their acclaimed 2012 debut, Shrines, while the duo was split between Montreal and Halifax, and it mysteriously struck a chord that landed them an international deal, rave reviews, and a spot on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. How that happened for such a cloying, claustrophobic yet cutesy electro-pop record is hard to imagine. But it did.

Now they’ve recorded the follow-up while living in the same city—their hometown of Edmonton—and the difference is remarkable. Granted, Megan James’s vocals are still too precious by half, but the songwriting has evolved considerably, and the melodies and electronics are actually working together rather than at odds. If the debut managed to pole-vault them into a real career, this album—with massive synth sounds designed for stadiums in Europe—will seal the deal.

Me, I’ll wait for the next record—and be listening to the remarkably similar but far superior Sylvan Esso album of 2014. (Feb. 26)

Download: “Bodyache,” “Stranger Than Earth,” “Begin Again”

Pops Staples - Don't Lose This (Anti)

This could have gone very wrong. A dying legend’s last recordings, resuscitated 15 years later, with musicians who never met him providing the rhythm section and arrangements? That doesn’t usually work out so well.

In this case, however, Mavis Staples trusted her father’s recordings with her producer of late, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Why not? Tweedy’s approach with Mavis’s albums was bare bones, bringing out the full strength of her voice and character. Both Mavis’s albums and Pops’s feature Tweedy’s son Spencer on drums, proving the progeny to be a master of economy: simple, soulful beats providing needed backbone but largely staying out of the way. Other than the sweet honey of Pops’s voice, the real treat here is hearing his unique guitar style: often imitated, there’s nothing like the real thing. Don’t Lose This is also remarkable for one last chance to hear three Staples sisters; Cleotha died in 2013 (Yvonne still sings backup with Mavis). In fact, this was supposed to be a Staples Singers record, but the daughters wanted their father to be the focus.

After two incredibly productive decades in the ’60s and ’70s, the Staples Singers didn’t wear the ’80s very well; their final album in 1984 was a largely misguided attempt to chase contemporary sounds. This, on the other hand, is the way we should remember Pops Staples, a throwback to the gospel records that started his career. Though largely populated by new material, there are also songs here he’s played all his life: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the latter given a syncopated, funky makeover. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” closes things out

“Don’t lose this,” Pops told Mavis, handing her the tapes just before he died. Thank God she didn’t.

Postscript: Any fan of the Staple Singers will want to read Greg Kot’s excellent 2014 book I’ll Take You There, which is ostensibly a book about Mavis, although Pops is the real star. (Feb. 19)

Download: “Somebody Was Watching,” “No News is Good News,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”

Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter)

Who’s burning bridges here? Not Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, whose second full-length as Whitehorse is as welcoming and accessible and brilliant a mainstream rock record could imaginably be in 2015.

Start with the obvious: both are undeniably gifted musicians, handling all guitars, keyboards and percussion, as well as impeccable harmonies. On top of that, Doucet also holds a trump card: he is one of the best guitarists working anywhere in the world today. Anyone who’s seen their stripped-down live show, utilizing live looping and layers, knows all this.

On top of that, since ditching their solo careers and rebranding themselves they’ve also stepped up their songwriting game. This time out, producer Gus Van Go reportedly rejected their demos and told them to “go home and write ‘real’ songs,” Doucet told Exclaim!. Weird: this record is no better or worse than their near-flawless 2012 debut, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. If it’s to Van Go’s credit that he made them live up to their own standards, so be it.

Whitehorse already had a perfect package, so there are no complaints if they returned with more of the same: McCartneyesque melodies, Duane Eddy guitars, Emmylou-and-Gram harmonies, rockabilly shuffles, Blue Rodeo rockers, Pixie-ish oddball twists (the track “Evangelina” owes a debt to “Where Is My Mind”) and—well, you know, lessons learned from the last 50 years of classic rock albums. Expect Whitehorse’s discography to join that legacy sooner than later. (Feb. 19)

Download: “Baby What’s Wrong,” “Downtown,” “Evangelina”