Friday, August 21, 2015

August 2015 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Highly recommended this month: Destroyer
Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Torres
Well worth your while: Gypsophilia, Kalle Mattson, Lindi Ortega, Tony Wilson 6tet

Mac DeMarco – Another One (Captured Tracks)

If Tom Waits’s piano has been drinking, Mac DeMarco’s guitar is totally wasted, dude. Of course, Waits is actually a fantastic piano player, and DeMarco, behind his goofball image, is an accomplished guitar player. It takes skill to sound that bad. No, just kidding—the guy can play, it’s just that he chooses to play in a way that sounds like his guitar is being detuned on every note, and play through guitar pedals unearthed in a closet that’s been sealed shut since 1988. This eight-song album is DeMarco’s 10th release in the last six years, and as the title suggests, sounds like it was written and recorded in a week—which it was. There’s something to be said for immediacy and consistency, but one can’t help but wonder what delights DeMarco will conjure if and when he branches out and hunkers down. (Aug. 13)

Download: “The Way You’d Love Her,” “A Heart Like Hers,” “No Other Heart”

Destroyer – Poison Season (Merge)

Vancouver’s Dan Bejar has now put out 10 albums as Destroyer. The last one, Kaputt, was a commercial breakthrough of sorts, which led to bigger venues and audiences for the often-reluctant performer. But that came out four years ago—an entire “indie rock generation,” in Bejar’s words. "I assume people who listened to Kaputt have completely stopped listening to music, if I'm familiar with how things work,” he told Canadian Press. "So I've almost arranged it so I cannot bank on any previous success."

Poison Season, then, sounds like Destroyer’s Greatest Hits—though surely unconsciously for such a contrarian. Every stage of his ever-evolving sound is here: the glam rock of 2001’s classic Streethawk or his work with New Pornographers (“Midnight Meet the Rain”), the smooth, saxophone-inflected new wave of Kaputt (“Archer on the Beach”), the loose, rambling folk rock of Rubies (“Solace’s Bride,” “Times Square”). The band Bejar assembled for Kaputt and took on the road for two years is on fire here: trumpeter JP Carter (Dan Mangan), saxophonist Joseph Shabason (Diana), Black Mountain drummer Josh Wells and long-time collaborators Nick Bragg (guitar), David Carswell (guitar), Ted Bois (keys) and John Collins (bass). This band got booked into jazz festivals for a reason: each is a remarkably expressive player, and Bejar’s songs give them plenty of room to provide delicate splashes of colour—or a full-on assault, as on the three-chord stomper “Dream Lover.”

Primarily, however, Bejar revisits the lush orchestrations of 2004’s Your Blues—only that time he was utilizing only MIDI synths. Now he employs live orchestration, and it works beautifully, particularly when paired with just piano and percussion, as on “Forces From Above,” proving that Poison Season is hardly just a journey to the past: it’s about Bejar—an artist who muses openly, on and off his records, about the frivolity of the music business and insecurity about his own muse—being completely comfortable in his own skin, finessing the finest points from his discography and pushing toward the future without changing the core of what has made him so compelling for the last 15 years. (Aug. 27)

Download: “Dream Lover,” “Archer on the Beach,” “Girl in a Sling”

Gypsophilia – Night Swimming (Forward)

As the name would suggest, this Halifax seven-piece has a thing for Django Reinhardt and Roma melodies in a jazz context. But there’s a lot more than that going on here than some of the finest players on the East Coast engaging in a genre exercise: there are Latin rhythms, distorted electric guitar and violin leads, torchy blues that would impress Timber Timbre, cinematic textures and other elements that make this a thoroughly modern recording. Made at Joel Plaskett’s studio by producer Joshua Van Tassel (Great Lake Swimmers, Amelia Curran), this is their fourth and most accomplished. They have four ECMAs under their belt, but it’s time the rest of the country caught on. (Aug. 20)

Download: Boo Doo Down, Insomniac’s Dream, Night Falls and You Need Company

Hudson Mohawke – Lantern (Warp/Maple)
Ratatat – Magnifique (XL/Beggars)

Subjectivity is everything, but especially in music. We all have singers whose talent we can recognize but whose actual voice drives us crazy, whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits or Drake or anyone in between. We don’t talk as often about the timbre of instrumentation as being our breaking point—except when I run screaming from the sound of Elliott Randall’s guitar on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.”

That sound in particular comes to mind on Ratatat’s fifth album, one that doesn’t stray from their modus operandi of melding ’70s classic rock guitar with modern electronics to make zippy, danceable, instrumental pop songs. But that tone, that one guitar tone, the automatically harmonized guitar lead, threatens to distract an otherwise decent collection, one almost as strong as their third and best album, LP3. They bounce from slamming electro a la early Daft Punk to dreamy Hawaiian interludes and a lot of it works. But as soon as they hit autopilot and turn on that guitar harmonizer, it’s game over.

I have a similar reaction to the frequency of the synths on this second album by Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke, which appear to be all treble, no mids, and minimal bass. (Yes, I checked my stereo and tried different headphones.) Think of the most garish sounds employed by Eurotrash EDM—and then turn up the treble some more. Surely this cannot be the future of electronic music, or of Warp Records. Which is too bad, because Mr. Mohawke (real name Ross Birchard) is full of intriguing ideas that even his terrible equipment can’t hide, which is why he’s been tapped by Kanye West, Drake, Pusha T and Azealia Banks for beats in the five years since his debut album. None of those artists return favours here, but he does land Miguel, Antony Hegarty and Jhené Aiko—even though those are among the least interesting tracks here. (Aug. 6)

Download Ratatat: “Cream on Chrome,” “Drift,” “Nightclub Amnesia”
Download Hudson Mohawke: “Lil Djembe,” “Indian Steps (feat. Antony),” “Scud Books”

Rochelle Jordan – 1021 (Protostar)

Now that even Tom Cruise is excited about the new Weekend album, here’s a Toronto R&B artist who’s been overlooked in the past year, when Drake and his crew continue to define the city to the rest of North America. Rochelle Jordan relocated to L.A. with her long-time collaborator KLSH, but she still sings about cruising down the 401, and has a faithful cadre of critics from her hometown hyping her every release. She has a stronger voice than this downtempo material would suggest; one senses that she’s dialling back her powerhouse capabilities to focus on a hushed, late-night, chilled-out vibe, even when hip-hop producer Rich Kidd enters the equation. The production owes a debt to ’90s R&B but also today’s next wave; Jordan has as much in common with FKA Twigs as she does Aaliyah (the most common comparison point). The next time someone talks up “the 6ix” without mentioning anyone outside the OVO crew—especially ladies like Jordan and the equally underrated Merna—they’re only telling half the story. (Aug. 6)

Download: “What the Fuss,” “Day Ones,” “Ease Your Mind”

Kalle Mattson – Avalanche (Home Music Co. Records)

Earlier this summer, beloved Winnipeg veterans the Weakerthans announced that they had formally split (no surprise, really—it had been eight years since the release of their last album). Soon enough, the new EP by 25-year-old Ottawa-via-Sault Ste. Marie songwriter Kalle Mattson arrived, and the vocal, lyrical and melodic resemblance between him and the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson is uncanny—so strong that the last time I reviewed a Mattson record I spent most of the review talking about it. And yet here I am again, writing a review that Mattson will most likely want to crumple up and throw across the room. But I mean it only as a compliment, especially when the arrangements surrounding his songs here occasionally aim for synth-driven, anthemic bombast and Coldplay choruses. (There’s even a song called New Romantics. It does not, thankfully, nod to Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran). When he dials it down for an acoustic ballad with harmonicas and pianos, Mattson and his backing band—which includes Drake collaborator Colin Munroe and Kathleen Edwards sideman Jim Bryson (who once made an album with, um, the Weakerthans) conjure tasteful atmospherics and percussion that pull his folk-pop into the 21st century. With only six songs on this EP, Mattson doesn’t waste any time: every one’s a winner, every one should be on the radio, and it buys him a lot of time. With an EP this good, he can take as long as he wants to put out a full-length. And I swear that next time I’ll no longer be talking about that band from Winnipeg. (Aug. 20)

Download: “Avalanche,” “Lost Love,” “Baby Blue”

Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville (Last Gang)

Lindi Ortega is all of 35 years old, And yet, in the liner notes to this, her fourth album, she admits to having a mid-life crisis and wondering whether she should soldier on.

Ortega has faced tough times before: she struggled for 10 years on the Toronto scene, playing traditional country music and singing her guts out—Ortega possesses one of the most remarkable voices, in country music or otherwise, to come out of this country in a long time. She started getting some lucky breaks about five years ago, is now living in Nashville, and Faded Gloryville was recorded with some of the finest producers that friendships can buy: fellow Torontonian Colin Linden (Bruce Cockburn, the TV show Nashville), the Alabama duo of Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and John Paul White (the Civil Wars), and Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, the upcoming Corb Lund record).

For a woman who burst on the scene with rockabilly drive and a helluva holler, Faded Gloryville is unusually subdued and downtempo. “I will not forget the good old days when I was driven by my will / and I won’t get back all the dues I paid here in Faded Gloryville,” she sings on the title track, the sound of an older, wiser woman taking stock. She still has swagger, of course, and the last third of the album, the songs recorded with Cobb, revisits the hard-living, bad-ass characters in which Ortega specializes. A cover of the oft-covered Bee Gees song “To Love Somebody,” recorded in Muscle Shoals with Tanner and White, brings some R&B to the table, but hardly seems necessary when the rest of the record enhances everything Ortega already does so well. (Aug. 27)

Download: “I Ain’t the Girl,” “Faded Gloryville,” “Run-Down Neighbourhood”

Slime – Company (Weird World/Domino)

Will Archer started playing music as a teenager as a drummer in a Rage Against the Machine cover band; he thought all electronic music was bogus and fake. He’s obviously come around; his work as Slime fits easily alongside the likes of Jaime XX or Caribou or James Blake or FourTet, with whom he shares a love of live instrumentation and found-sound samples. The word “organic” is one of the most overused terms of the last 10 years, rendering it virtually meaningless, and yet Slime’s intersection of traditional instrumentation and electronic manipulation, though hardly novel—Nicolas Jaar’s 2013 album as Darkside is another kindred spirit—still sounds fresh in Archer’s hands. (Aug. 13)

Download: “Striding Edge,” “My Company,” “Liquorish”

Tony Wilson 6tet – A Day’s Life (Drip Audio)

It seems odd that Vancouver, the most expensive city in Canada, one which most aspiring rock musicians have fled, boasts such an impressive jazz and improv scene—and most of the key players can be found in this band. Guitarist Tony Wilson has been a bandleader for more than 25 years, and here he rounds up trumpeter JP Carter (Fond of Tigers), violinist Jesse Zubot (Tanya Tagaq), jazz superstar cellist Peggy Lee, Russell Sholberg on bass and drummer Skye Brooks for a walk through the wild side—or more specifically, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a troubled neighbourhood of beauty and despair and lost dreams, where Wilson once lived; the (non-autobiograhpical) album is meant to be the tale of a crack-addicted musician busking on East Hastings, based on a 2012 Wilson novella. Not that you’d infer that by just listening, necessarily, but no matter. The songs here boast strong melodic leads, delicate textures, occasional bursts of noise and strong composition to which these sensitive players bring their top game. Zubot and Lee in particular shine, partly because it’s unusual to hear both violin and cello together in a jazz band where they’re lead players, not texture, but also partly because those two are capable of anything. Carter, too, stands out by not only being the sole wind player, but by running his trumpet through distortion and effects, as he does with Destroyer and Dan Mangan and myriad other projects. Wilson himself is the consummate bandleader, setting the stage and letting everyone shine equally. The guitarist is incredibly prolific, and this humble reviewer can’t lay claim to knowing even a fraction of his oeuvre. But it’s hard to imagine a better introduction than this. (Aug. 6)

Download: “A Day’s Life,” “The Morn’ in Blues,” “The Long Walk”

Titus Andronicus and Torres

 Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge)

Meet Titus Andronicus: a band from Bruce Springsteen’s state, named after a bloody Shakespeare play, who has toured with the Pogues and F--ked Up, whose new album, 10 years into their existence, is a 93-minute “rock opera in five acts” (double CD, triple vinyl) about manic depression. (Not surprisingly, considering that cumulative context, that Owen Pallett shows up as one of many guests.)

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is likely to be the most ambitious rock album you’ll hear this year, and not just because of its epic length: unlike, say, F—ked Up’ David Comes to Life, there is a real range of mood, melody and dynamics. There are Celtic interludes, there are shades of Black Sabbath and Black Flag and boogie rock and ballads and lo-fi Daniel Johnson weirdness (as well as a Johnson cover)—hell, there’s even a choral rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” “Let me show you my fatal flaw,” a lyric that could easily be set to a crybaby emo anthem, is instead a rollicking chorus with crowd sing-alongs in mind—group therapy, if you will. It’s recorded raw and, based entirely on the evidence presented here, Titus Andronicus are no doubt one of the greatest live rock’n’roll bands on the circuit today.

And yet: why do I feel pandered to? Perhaps it’s because I grew up on second-hand classic rock records and I once saw Joe Strummer front the Pogues and I saw early Constantines shows where they channelled their love of Springsteen with their hardcore punk background. Perhaps I feel like Titus Andronicus is for 23-year-olds who’ve never known what a smart, soul-stirring, sweaty rock’n’roll band actually looks and sounds like—or, alternately, for 43-year-olds who’ve worn out their Hold Steady and Weakerthans records.

As the relentless name-dropping in this review might indicate, Titus Andronicus check off a lot of boxes for people who once read Rolling Stone or Trouser Press record guides. Meanwhile, the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett have also made incredible records in 2015 that draw extensively from the past yet don’t feel stuck in it—that might be because all three write from long-marginalized positions, it might just be a crazy coincidence, or it might just be my own subjective taste. Objectively speaking however, there’s nothing lamentable or tragic about Titus Andronicus: this is a fantastic record (or three). (Aug. 13)

Titus Andronicus play Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on Oct. 13.

Download: “Fatal Flaw,” “Dimed Out,” “Lonely Boy”

Torres – Sprinter (Arts and Crafts)

For years, the fallout of ’90s grunge manifested itself in the likes of muscular macho dudes in Nickelback or Audioslave, or, on the flipside, musicians who mistake a distortion pedal and sloppiness for soul. Who was going to redeem the real legacy of Nirvana, of the Breeders, of PJ Harvey, of the weirdoes who whispered and howled and had eerie pop melodies under crushing electric guitars?

This year we found the answer. “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll,” Kurt Cobain once said, and in 2015 we’ve seen incredible, inspiring rock records by 26-year-old Courtney Barnett, 25-year-old Alicia Bognanno of Nashville band Bully, and now 24-year-old Mackenzie Scott, who performs and records as Torres.

Torres’s second album has a direct lineage to the time period with which her music is closely aligned: Sprinter is produced by PJ Harvey drummer Rob Ellis, and there are more than a few resemblances to Harvey’s 1992 debut Dry—which Scott had never heard before she shipped over to Britain to record with Ellis and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley.

But enough about everyone else: let’s talk about Torres (whose stage name always reminds me of Bring It On; think about it). Scott was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, escaped to Nashville to start her music career, and now resides in Brooklyn. Her Baptist upbringing looms large over her lyrics—and her vocal delivery; this young woman sings with weary wisdom well beyond her years. “There’s freedom to and freedom from,” she sings, “freedom to run from everyone,” and much of Sprinter is about running away from sour situations and grappling with unresolved emotional baggage.

Sprinter is very much about one woman’s journey, but there’s nothing here that reeks of the confessional or extremely personal; Scott is a mature writer who leaves us layers to peel back that lead to our own interpretations. Her music, too, ranges from the hammering and visceral to delicate and deliberate dramatics—the sparse, haunting and harrowing closer “The Exchange,” recorded solo on a Zoom recorder, is devastating. If she hadn’t made an impression already, that seals the deal. (Aug. 20)

Download: “Sprinter,” “New Skin,” “Strange Hellos”

Monday, August 17, 2015

July '15 reviews

The following reviews ran in the Waterloo Record in July.

Highly recommended this month: Mbongwana Star, Vince Staples, Miguel

Recommended: Bully, Nick Craine, Joyfultalk, The Straggler, The Weather Station

Braids – Deep in the Iris (Arbutus)

Get out of town. That’s what Montreal trio Braids did for this, their third album, which was written and recorded after road trips to retreats in Arizona, Vermont and upstate New York. They’ve never sounded more confident, more bold—or more poppy, with the vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston placed high in the mix, and melodies that at times lean toward stadium pop. It’s a far cry from the esoteric abstractions that defined their first two records, though jazz-trained drummer Austin Tufts—the real star here—and his two bandmates on synths still like to throw textural and rhythmic curveballs. Sometimes their new-found directness falls flat, like on the focus track “Miniskirt”—a song about sexual harassment and an abusive family—where a powerful message and narrative comes out clumsy and awkward. Standell-Preston’s role in this closely knit trio is peculiar: her vocals sometimes seem shoehorned into the inventive arrangements, especially compared to her gorgeous side project, Blue Hawaii. (July 23)

Deep in the Iris is shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and they play Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Sept. 22.

Download: “Letting Go,” “Taste Revised,” “Getting Tired”

Bully – Feels Like (Sony)

Alicia Bognanno is 25 years old—and so is the debut record by her Nashville band, Bully. That is, Feels Like feels like it could easily have come out in 1990, somewhere between the Pixies and Nirvana, maybe around the same time Courtney Love’s Hole or Bettie Serveert were first forming. Most new bands revisiting ’90s indie rock and/or grunge only take on the worst parts: amateurism, lugheadedness and punishing volume. Bully, on the other hand, bring great melodies, strong lead guitar parts, dynamics and a joie de vivre overriding their early 20s angst—and of course feminine energy, which is what made the ’90s different from other rock eras in the first place. Part of the reason it all sounds so effective is that Bognanno is a recording engineer who interned with Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana)—and obviously used her time wisely. Though her lyrics are a big part of the appeal here, Bully is not a one-woman show: it’s a solid band, with a drummer whose name is actually Stewart Copeland (talk about a birthright). Much like their contemporary Courtney Barnett, of whom they’re big fans, Bully manage to revivify a genre long—and often justifiably—left for dead. (July 30)

Bully play The Garrison in Toronto on Sept. 21.

Download: “I Remember,” “Trying,” “Six”

Nick Craine – Songs Like Tattoos (independent)

Nick Craine is 43 years old—the definition of middle age. The acclaimed illustrator and 25-year veteran of Guelph’s music scene (full disclosure: I played with him in Black Cabbage, 1993-99, and he remains a good friend) has not released an album since his 2001 solo debut, November Moon. Time passes. His son is almost a teenager. Friends have died. Carpe diem. Time for a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man.

Songs Like Tattoos, a collection of covers, is drawn from deep personal memories and associations—from his mother’s favourite album to songs he sang at open stages for years to lullabies he sang to his son. Many of the musicians employed here are personal heroes of Craine’s, which speaks to both his belief in his local community and the fact that in a town like Guelph there’s often only one degree of separation between those people and the likes of Bob Dylan.

With producer Scott Merritt, Craine pulled in Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), guitarist Kevin Breit (Norah Jones), guitarist Colin Linden (Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), Hawksley Workman, Jim Guthrie, Jenny Omnichord, Rebecca Jenkins, Carlos del Junco, and many more to cover the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton.

Craine and Merritt know what each of these musicians is capable of, the colours of their palettes, and what nuances lie deep within these songs that Craine’s vocals can bring to the surface. There are no drums here, leaving all the more space for Craine’s croon to inhabit the sonic atmosphere.

Many people cover Joni Mitchell songs—usually badly. Craine finds something new in the title track of Mitchell’s most beloved album, Blue, rather than just aping the original arrangement. And it takes serious cojones to cover a k.d. ballad (“Save Me”), but Craine pulls it off with apparent ease, giving lang herself a run for her money—and that’s not a compliment I’ll dish out casually. Anyone who’s ever seen him play a solo set has heard his take on the 1987 Oscar nominee “Calling You” (from Baghdad Café)—a song once covered by, yes, k.d. lang. He loves every lilt in this melody, and honours it here with the vocal performance of a lifetime.  

Craine is not some, ahem, ingénue with some serious connections; he’s the equal of everyone he corralled into this project. In a move that will speak to the hearts of geeks for whom music has always meant (almost) everything, Craine closes the album with Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe”—the same song heard over the closing credits of the 2000 film High Fidelity. A classy move from a classy man.

Desaparecidos – Payola (Epitaph)
Neil Young – The Monsanto Years (Warner)

How do you maintain a career as a hyper-political artist, bottling the fury and righteousness of your youth well into your 30s and beyond? One of these artists has the answer. And it’s not Neil Young.

Desaparecidos is the Nebraska punk band fronted by one Conor Oberst, the prolific songwriter best known for his Bright Eyes project (1995-2011), who now performs under his own name. This band was, until now, just a footnote in Oberst’s discography, 10 times louder and more raucous than anything else he’s ever done. Here, however, they show that they bring out the best in him.

Oberst’s pained yelp can be hard to take in quieter scenarios, but it’s perfectly suited to outrage and the impassioned sloganeering heard in Desaparecidos. Oberst, 35, is not a subtle guy, and a line like, “If one must die to save the 99, maybe it’s justified” sounds a lot better at full volume than it does over an acoustic guitar.

There are, of course, even more hardcore lefty political punk bands out there—let’s start with Winnipeg’s Propagandhi, for one—but few as melodic and indicative of a direct lineage from The Clash as this one. Not surprisingly, the singer of the most high-profile such band, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, guests here. Now that pop-punk is used to soundtrack children’s cartoons, it’s rare to hear it roar with cries of social justice.

It’s not at all rare to hear Neil Young sing—or rant—about social justice. He’s become more and more preachy as he gets older. On The Monsanto Years, however, he’s downright insufferable—even if you happen to agree with every political sentiment contained within. He’s angry about the corporate takeover of democracy in America, about GMOs taking over the food supply, about short-term interests trumping long-term sustainability. Sure, who isn’t? No argument here. But he does so with the subtlety of a ninth-grader who’s just discovered that the forces of good don’t triumph in our modern world. He’s more interested in naming names—Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto, over and over again—than even bothering to write a chorus with a slogan worth remembering.

The only good news here is that his new backing band, Promise of the Real, featuring two of Willie Nelson’s sons, prove themselves worthy of the Crazy Horse legacy, with rich backing vocals and some of the better guitar solos heard in Young’s recent discography. Not that they can save this material, but they certainly get points for trying.

To be fair, Young puts out at least one album a year. Payola, on the other hand, is only the second Desaparecidos release in 13 years. But they still made the better record in 2015. (July 2) 

Desaparecidos play TURF in Toronto at Fort York on Sept. 18 and 19.

Download Desaparecidos: “The Left is Right,” “Radicalized,” “Anonymous”
Download Neil Young: “People Want to Hear About Love,” “Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” “New Day for Love”

The Henrys – Quiet Industry (independent)

The Henrys are cursed with one of the most forgettable names in the history of music (although, hey, that did work for the Smiths). It doesn’t help that they only put out an album every six years or so. But when they do, Canadian musicians of a certain vintage perk up right away, because the Henrys is led by guitarist Don Rooke, best known for his work with Mary Margaret O’Hara and his Hawaiian kora guitar, and each time Rooke pulls in other ace collaborators from Toronto jazz circles (and Bruce Cockburn sidemen) like Hugh Marsh, John Sheard, Jon Goldsmith, Andrew Downing, and Guelph’s Davide DiRenzo.

Until now, if you’d heard one Henrys album you’d pretty much heard them all. This one, however, features Gregory Hoskins on plenty of lead vocals, and the arrangements are no longer focused just on Rooke’s kora. There’s still the delicate, dreamy, rainy-day vibe that is the mainstay of everything the Henrys do—and do so exceptionally well. (July 23)

Download: “Was Is,” “I Kneed You,” “When That Far Shore Disappears”

Joyfultalk – Muuixx (Drip Audio)

Calgary is a lot weirder than you think. It’s home to Chad Van Gaalen, the man who writes grungy electronic folk songs in ways we all wish Neil Young did, and does so in his home studio of modified instruments and damaged drum machines. But Calgary was also, until recently, the home of Jay Crocker, a man whose experiments with folk music and noise and jazz and just about everything else left behind an eclectic discography.

Now Crocker has left the oil capital and moved to rural Nova Scotia to live, in his words, a more sustainable lifestyle. He’s built a studio in a barn and packed it with all kinds of synths and homemade drum machines and other toys, and has reinvented himself as Joyfultalk, an instrumental electronic project that draws from early 2000s Berlin and the history of Krautrock in general, but also found-sound collage artists like the Books. Many of Crocker’s sounds appear to be acoustic instruments digitally manipulated into otherworldly sounds. Is that a gamelan? A cello? A hammered dulcimer? Don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

This is fantastic sci-fi soundtrack music from a man who fled Canada’s economic engine and its most sprawling city to pursue a more meditative existence in the middle of nowhere, released on a record label run by the violinist in Tanya Tagaq’s band. There’s a track here called “Possible Futures.” Jay Crocker has many. (July 30)

Download: “Buschbabies,” “Possible Futures,” “Pommel Horse”

Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (World Circuit)

Two musicians from this new Congolese band started out in one of the strangest musical stories of the last 10 years: Staff Binda Bilili, a group of homeless, polio-afflicted musicians in wheelchairs playing homemade instruments assembled from garbage who made two records, toured the world and were the subject of an acclaimed documentary. Like any band, that unexpected spotlight strained internal relations and Staff Binda Bilili split up.

Now two of its elder members are back with younger musicians, including a psychedelic guitar wizard, and an Irish producer. Together, they recorded in a backyard in Kinshasa with a power generator, invited some friends over—including the electronic kalimba group Konono No. 1—and then the tracks were remixed and reassembled in Paris. The result is astounding blend of propulsive Congolese rumba beats, heavily distorted sounds, spirited vocals, Western funk and dub, blues—and more than a few shades of Toronto’s circuit-bending rock band Holy F--k. It’s joyful, it’s heavy, it’s haunting, it’s fascinating, it’s diverse—and it’s always infinitely danceable.

If there’s one record I want to hear on repeat at full volume for the rest of the summer—nay, the rest of the year—it’s this one. Saying merely that it’s the best African record you’ll hear this year is selling it short. (July 30)

Download: Nganshé, Malukayi (feat. Konono No. 1), Kimpala

Miguel – Wildheart (Sony)

Of all the genres that comprise pop music, it’s R&B and hip hop where the weirdoes have been winning lately. Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and D’Angelo have all mined the drugged-out, psychedelic and sometimes even goth underbelly of soul music. And then there’s Miguel, who betters them all by combining the above with pop hooks and rock guitars, making him the sort of fascinating amalgam that hasn’t existed since Prince.

Miguel is not a Prince pastiche, or any kind of pastiche: He’s his own man. But, like Prince, his ability to pull from every remote corner of the pop spectrum into a seductive stew is remarkable. Opening track “A Beautiful Exit” sounds like Beach House backing John Legend; “Leaves” rides a guitar riff that could be from an early R.E.M. album, while “Face the Sun” starts out like Billy Bragg before turning into a U2-size ballad with a guitar solo by Lenny Kravitz—and it’s a lot better than that combo might suggest. The song “NWA,” featuring the MC Kurupt, could be Outkast trying on a one-chord blues. (It’s also guaranteed to be the only R&B song in 2015 to make a Lee Iacocca reference.) Most of all, of course, Miguel in 2015 sounds a lot like the Miguel whose 2012 breakout Kaleidoscope Dream was the rare record that was as weird as it was wildly commercially successful.

“I’m in a crowd and I feel alone / I look around and I feel alone / I never feel like I belong,” sings the half-black, half-Mexican crooner on “What’s Normal Anyway.” The native of L.A. knows what it’s like to live in a libidinous culture of hopes and “lost Hollywood dreams,” and he’s crafted an ode to his hometown and all its futuristic, hypersexualized, sunbaked and emotionally needy characters. As he told VH1, “This album is Los Angeles, its attitude, its aggression, its sex, its psychedelia, its lust, its loneliness.”

The one misstep is “The Valley,” featuring a pulsing electronic drone that sounds like it’s manually being bent out of tune—it’s appropriately discombobulating for a pseudo-erotic escapade with the chorus, “I want to f--k like we’re filming in the Valley” (the San Fernando Valley, home to America’s porn industry). It’s one of the rare times here where Miguel tries to come on hard, and ends up sounding icky and gross—not just lyrically, but musically as well. Back to Prince: “The Valley” here stands out in the same way “Darling Nikki” did on Purple Rain—except that equally cartoonish song managed to convey pent-up sexual frustration in ways rarely ever expressed before. “The Valley,” on the other hand, sounds like a parody of The Weeknd (who is pretty good as self-parody himself).

What’s weird about that song is that Miguel usually has no trouble whatsoever making anything sexy. Sweet Jesus, just look at him—but then listen closely, because it’s hard to imagine a better male singer working in pop music today, from both a technical standpoint and for pure style. And this guy has style for miles. (July 9)

Download: “Coffee,” “What’s Normal Anyway,” “Leaves”

Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (Def Jam/Universal)

This is the year when all rappers live in the shadow of Kendrick Lamar, mostly because his 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most artistically audacious albums of recent times to also be wildly commercially successful, not just in hip-hop but any genre.

Now here comes Vince Staples, whose debut album—like Lamar’s 2012 major-label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City—is a look back at the misadventures of his youth (hence the title). Lamar wrote about the L.A. neighbourhood of Compton, while Staples is from adjacent Long Beach. Lamar’s lyrical goals are James Baldwin-level loftier; his music draws from deep traditions of jazz and funk and hip-hop. Staples, on the other hand, sticks here to cautionary tales of gangs and gunplay, but his music is decidedly forward-looking and puts him in on a whole other level.

Staples has a captivating flow that elevates even his more pedestrian rhymes—for all his talk in interviews about not glamourizing the poor decisions and circumstance of his youth, he offers little here beyond straight-up narrative. It’s the music, largely overseen by Kanye West protégé No ID, that’s truly exceptional. The Latino influence is subtle but profound, which is why the electro downtempo descarga behind “3230” is so striking. “Loca” sounds like Drake lounging in Havana. The acoustic New Orleans percussion behind “Jump Off the Roof”—with a choir sampled from a Polish jazz musician on top—sounds like nothing else you’ll hear this year. Several tracks appear to be inspired by John Carpenter’s horror movie soundtracks set to dub reggae rhythms with Trent Reznor at the controls.

None of this sounds out of place. It all fits perfectly into Staples’s vision. And if it didn’t come out on the heels of To Pimp a Butterfly, there’s no doubt this would be the hip-hop record of the year. (July 16)

Download: “Norf Norf,” “Get Paid,” “Jump off the Roof”

The Straggler – Residual (Static Clang)

A straggler: someone who takes his time or lingers behind while the world moves on. On the surface, it might be an apt term for King Cobb Steelie bassist Kevin Lynn: one of the best bassists I’ve ever heard in my life, we don’t hear much from him ever since his main band slowly receded from view over the course of more than 20 years (they announced their definitive end last year). This is only the second release by his solo project, and it’s the first one in 11 years. By his own admission—and as you can infer from the title—these are tracks he had lying around his computer for years and decided to finally release (albeit quietly, on Bandcamp).

So yes: the man straggles. And yet, even Lynn’s decade-old dabbling sounds up-to-the-minute modern, in both its sonic approach and exploratory spirit, his tools and his methods completely au courant and sympatico with next-level producers like Haxan Cloak. Fans of King Cobb Steelie’s underrated, (largely) instrumental 2004 album Destroy All Codes can see how much of that was likely Lynn’s doing.

Lynn’s long-time love of dub reggae, post-punk and experimental music resonate through this material; the sound is monstrous—in particular the rhythm section, whether it’s Lynn on electric bass with a real drummer, or synths and drum machines. There are riffs and snippets of melody here, but rhythm rules supreme. As it should. (July 9)

Download: “Gourock,” “The Creep,” “Make Your Own Microbe”

The Weather Station – Loyalty (Outside)

In the broken social scene of Toronto music, Tamara Lindeman is one of the central threads. She performs with Bruce Peninsula, she’s co-written songs with the Constantines’ Steve Lambke (who put out her earlier albums on his You’ve Changed label), has worked with Daniel Romano and now here, on her third and finest album—long-listed for the Polaris Prize—she collaborates with Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen, who produces and plays on this album recorded in a mansion in France. (Which, for the record, neither one of them owns—yet.)

Lindeman rarely sings above a whisper, yet consistently conveys a quiet strength. It’s a joy to hear her and Jurvanen play guitar together, and he employs only the most judicious of extra instrumentation, allowing her songs to speak for themselves. It’s a lovely, intimate record, though perhaps better suited to late-night campfires than rowdy tents at festivals. (July 16)

The Weather Station plays the Arboretum Festival in Ottawa on Aug. 22, Camp Wavelength in Toronto on Aug. 29, and opens for Bahamas at Massey Hall on Nov. 27.

Download: “Way It Is Way It Could Be,” “Loyalty,” “I Mined”