Tuesday, February 27, 2018

2017 reviews April-Dec

I largely neglected this blog in 2017 from April onwards, while I was writing The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip (out April 3 on ECW Press). I turned down all freelance work while researching and writing the book in the space of six months. When that six months was up, I was busy editing the book and catching up on the rest of my life, so this blog sat dormant.

But that entire time I did maintain my weekly column for the Waterloo Region Record, a column I’ve had since 1999; it’s where most all reviews on this site originally appeared.

Some reviews during that time got/get their own post elsewhere on this blog, particularly on my year-end picks for 2017. This month I’ve also posted some of the records I felt more strongly about. Here’s the rest—in alphabetical order, not by date. Because no one will read this whole file, here’s a list of what you’ll find below:

Afrotronix – Nomadix
Les Amazones d'Afrique – République Amazone
Benny Andersson – Piano
Arca – s/t
Barenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
Beck – Colors
Big Boi – Boomiverse
Big Walnuts Yonder – s/t
Blue Hawaii – Tenderness
Benjamin Booker – Witness
Daniel Caesar – Freudian
Castle If – Plant Material
The Clientele - Music for the Age of Miracles
Cold Specks - Fool's Paradise
Como Mamas – Move Upstairs
Del Bel – III (Missed Connection); L Con – Moon Milk (Wildlife Sanctuary Sound)
Dim=Sum – s/t
DJ Shub – PowWowStep
Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions
Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw
Ex Eye – s/t
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest
Jacques Greene - Feel Infinite
Headstones - Little Army
The Heliocentrics – A World of Masks
Iskwé – The Fight Within
Julie and the Wrong Guys - s/t
Kacy & Clayton – The Siren’s Song
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe
Pierre Kwenders – Makanda
Land of Talk – Life After Youth
Lorde – Melodrama
Mappe Of – A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone
Minotaurs – Aum 
New Fries – More EP
Robert Plant – Carry Fire
Prophets of Rage - s/t
Quantum Tangle – Shelter as we Go
Andrea Ramolo – Nuda 
David Rawlings – Poor David's Almanack
Ride - Lannoy Point
Rostam - Half-Light
Serena Ryder – Utopia
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Medicine Songs
Oumou Sangaré – Mogoya
Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines; Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star
Jon Stancer – For the Birds
Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory 
St. Vincent – Masseduction
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet
Shania Twain – Now; Margo Price - All American Made
Chad VanGaalen – Light Information
The Wooden Sky – Swimming in Strange Waters

Afrotronix – Nomadix (independent)

What would you get if you crossed the Saharan blues of Tinariwen with Kraftwerk? Not an entirely hypothetical question for Montreal musician Caleb Rimtobaye, who moved to Canada from Chad many years ago and started H’sao, one of the most thrilling African bands I’ve ever seen in this country (they played Hillside many moons ago). Rimtobaye hasn’t put down his guitar—he shreds all over this, his second album as Afrotronix. But underneath his six strings and plenty of acoustic percussion are electronic African pop grooves meant to be blasted at massive volume. Rimtobaye runs his voice through various processors—including AutoTune—yet sounds much more soulful than lesser singers who use it as a crutch. By donning gorgeous fantastically ridiculous sci-fi headgear on the album cover and in promo material, he’s all but inviting comparisons to Daft Punk. But he’s got the goods to back it up. Between him and Pierre Kwenders, Montreal’s Afrofuturist music scene is sounding great. (Jan. 12, 2018)

Stream: “Ama Boua,” “Zaala,” “Épuisé”

Les Amazones d'Afrique – République Amazone (RealWorld)

When you gather some of the most powerful female voices in West Africa for a supergroup, you can’t really go wrong, especially when two of those women are Angélique Kidjo and Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou and Mariam). Add nine more women to that mix, and you’re really stacking the deck. Then along comes producer Liam Farrell, who helmed the astounding debut album for Congo’s Mbongwana Star in 2016.

Musically, République Amazone isn’t as mind-blowing as that band’s album—a lot of it falls into the category of late ’90s trip-hop-lite, with nods to reggae, that bring back memories of Finley Quaye. (Anyone remember him? Fantastic debut and then—well, look him up, it’s sad.) No matter: we’re here for the women, and there is no shortage of fiery tracks here that will send you scurrying to find out more about the lesser-known singers here, such as Nneka and Mamani Keita.

The sound is thoroughly modern, with deep bass grooves and electronic touches; Farrell is also unafraid to distort and electronically process these already powerful voices (no AutoTune, thankfully). The debut single “I Play the Kora” was a benefit single for survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Kidjo-led “Dombolo” has a powerful accompanying video focused around the slogan, “Women are the forces who built the land of the ancestors.” And the land of the future, by the sounds of it. (Jan. 12, 2018)

Stream: “Dombolo” feat. Angelique Kidjo, “Nebao” feat. Mamani Keita, “Full Moon” feat. Rokia Koné, Mamani Keita

Benny Andersson – Piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

“I am playing my memoirs,” says the ABBA pianist, as he releases a 21-track solo piano record on a renowned German classical music label. ABBA fans may never get new music or a proper reunion tour--the band famously turned down a $1-billion offer to reform--and there is talk of some kind of “hologram” tour in 2019. This, on the other hand, is a much classier and more age-appropriate move. Andersson has much more than ABBA to draw from; only about a half-dozen tracks here are from his pop music career, and only two of them would be recognizable to casual fans. (Anyone who’s been a fan for 40 years--like this reviewer--will know them immediately.) Coming from a band not known for subtle performances, Andersson is a delicate pianist who no doubt knows his way around some Satie; the fact this is on Deutsche Grammophon is not just stunt casting. Only occasionally does the album veer into airport-lounge territory (“Thank You For the Music”). Otherwise, it’s thoroughly satisfying. Somewhere Chilly Gonzales, of Solo Piano fame, is kicking himself that he didn’t do an ABBA piano record before Benny got to it. (Oct. 6, 2017)

Stream: “I Let the Music Speak,” “Malarskolan,” “Mountain Duet”

Arca – s/t (XL)

Arca is the Venezuelan Londoner who is best known for having collaborated with Bjork on her last two albums, including last November’s Utopia. His harsh, often abrasive sound design, is, incongruously, simultaneously beautiful and ugly; his first two albums were innovative and more than merely interesting. But it’s here, on his self-titled third album, where his music boasts a new confidence and clarity. Perhaps it’s because he’s also allowing himself to be vulnerable, singing for the first time on one of his records. He does so in his native Spanish, and on a series of what he claims are first takes. For someone who’s only unveiling this particular talent now, Arca proves to be a remarkable singer, bringing an emotional depth to his music that elevates it far beyond just soundscape. No doubt Bjork brought that out of him; she’s built the entire latter half of her career on marrying spirited vocals to experimental textures. Arca, of course, is nowhere near the singer Bjork is (who is?), but while his boss’s 2017 album collapsed under its own weight, Arca’s own record revels in its agility and endless surprises. (Jan. 5, 2018)

Stream: “Piel,” “Saunter,” “Sin Rumbo”

Barenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes (Warner)

Not only is this Barenaked Ladies’ 12th album, it’s the second one they’ve released in 2017. The first was a collaboration with a cappella group the Persuasions, which worked not just because of the vocal performances but because the band seemed so relaxed and playful, not unlike their still-entertaining live shows. On Fake Nudes—surely the best album title of 2017—the band continues their “grinning streak” with producer Gavin Brown, who’s helmed the third phase of the band’s career with aplomb. Brown balances the band’s natural talents with more obvious bids at a top 40 single, which are thankfully kept to a minimum, because “Lookin’ Up” is a definite low in the Ladies’ catalogue—even lower than “One Week.” “What’s the cost in trying to figure out who we are?” asks singer Ed Robertson on one of the stronger tracks here, “Navigate.” What the Ladies do best these days are the mid-tempo pop songs that steer more toward pop-country, with Kevin Hearn’s colourful synths painting around the edges. “Canada Dry” panders slightly to the deficit left by Gord Downie’s departure from this country’s tower of song, but it’s also the one song here likely to make it into live sets for years to come. Kevin Hearn’s songs are again a highlight; he has as many songwriting credits here as Robertson. The biggest surprise is when Tanya Tagaq shows up to offer uncharacteristically subtle touches to Hearn’s “Flying Dreams.” (Nov. 23, 2017)

Stream: “Canada Dry,” “Navigate,” “Flying Dreams”

Beck – Colors (Universal)

No one knows what to expect from Beck on any given record; his last one, Morning Phase, was an unremarkable acoustic affair that somehow won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2014. This one is supposedly a return to “party Beck,” which means that a lot of people are still in a 20-year-old time warp hoping that he makes another Odelay. The man is 47 years old. He’s not going to make another record like the giddy young hipster he once was. But surely he can make a record that doesn’t sound like a pale imitation of himself: every song here is a somewhat funky groove with an overproduced rock song on top of it. It sounds like… the Happy Mondays? Is the zeitgeist so bad that we have to be nostalgic for that band now? It’s telling that the best song here is when the old man tries on a trap beat for “Wow.” “It’s like: wow. It’s like, right now.” Yep, sure is.

Stream Beck: “Colors,” “Dreams,” “Wow”

Big Boi – Boomiverse (Sony)

Remember when Outkast were the biggest name in hip-hop, and all the white critics thought Andre 3000 was the genius because he wrote a guitar-based pop song that sounded like the Pixies? Hoo boi. Andre’s Outkast partner Big Boi isn’t the most prolific producer in the world—this is only his third solo album since Outkast went on hiatus in 2007—but that’s three more records than Andre 3000 has put out, i.e. none.

Big Boi’s low profile between releases is no mystery when you hear what he comes up with after a long absence: Boomiverse is all killer, no filler (with some Killer Mike, to boot). George Clinton grooves are set to a modern context, with EDM touches and some old-school R&B flourishes, while always rooted in the Southern hip-hop that Big Boi played a large part in defining. The Boomiverse is always expanding, it seems. (June 29, 2017)

Stream: “Chocolate,” “Freakanomics,” “Order of Operations”

Big Walnuts Yonder – s/t (Sargent House)

I realize I’m one of the few who think that the relatively obscure California band Deerhoof were the greatest rock band of the 2000s: for their originality, inventiveness, prolific nature, the fact they didn’t sound like they belonged in any earlier decade, and the presence of drummer Greg Saunier. They’re still going, of course: they headlined the Camp Wavelength and Arboretum Festivals this past August in Toronto and Ottawa, respectively.

If the name Deerhoof doesn’t mean anything to you, maybe the name Mike Watt does—the monster bass player behind the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and, in the last decade, Iggy Pop and the Stooges. No? How about Nels Cline, guitarist in Wilco and avant-garde shredder extraordinaire in his own right (check out 2016’s gorgeous and subdued album Lovers)?

Those three powerhouses have joined with someone new to my ears, guitarist/vocalist Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos, to spontaneously combust as Big Walnuts Yonder. Watt sent everyone in the band some bass lines, and everything was written and recorded during three days in a Brooklyn studio, except vocals, which were an afterthought months later.

The result is: insane, in the best possible way. None of these players hold back; the creative synergy and resultant fireworks are clearly evident. And yet all that musical fury is consistently harnessed in the same direction; these are actual songs, not showcases for showboaters. The end result will lay waste to all other guitar-based music you’re likely to hear this year. (May 18, 2017)

Stream: “All Against All,” “Raise the Drawbridges?” “Forgot to Brush”

Blue Hawaii – Tenderness (Arbutus)

Raphaelle Standell-Preston plays in one of the most creative bands in Canada, Braids, but has now released her second electro album with Alex Cowan as Blue Hawaii. The tension heard on their debut, 2013’s Untogether, in which the former couple were getting their feet wet with electronic dance music influenced by Cowan’s stay in Berlin, is no longer evident. Tenderness is a sunnier affair, musically, even if the lyrics are about the perils of living a life online and long-distance relationships. The paradox here is that though Tenderness is more musically accomplished and less introverted, it’s not as interesting or enticing as the debut—to these ears, anyway. But the deeper bass tones, string embellishments and crisper beats provide a softer cushion for Standell-Preston’s ever-improving vocals. (Nov. 16, 2017)

Stream: “Free at Last,” “Do You Need Me,” “Tenderness”

Benjamin Booker – Witness (ATO)

Three years ago, when we first heard this New Orleans-based performer, Benjamin Booker said he wanted to sound like Otis Redding playing guitar in a punk band. Gimmicky, sure, but it worked. He still tries that out on tracks here, like “Off the Ground,” and it still sounds great. But now he’s older, wise and in the midst of volatile times in his native country, and so this album aspires to be, according to Booker himself, a James Baldwin-like reaction to reawakened racial strife. (One title: “Truth is Heavy.”) That’s most obvious on the title track, which enlists Mavis Staples—a voice that is a direct connection, both aesthetically and historically, to civil rights struggles of the past. Not all of Booker’s lyrics hit direct targets: an actually astute political protest album would surely not contain a lyric like, “I just want to believe in something / I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.” Because just about any Donald Trump voter could have been heard saying the same thing last summer.

Musically speaking, the concept here means less rock’n’roll, more R&B—some of which would fit in with retro throwback acts like Leon Bridges, but with the assistance of Danger Mouse associate Sam Cohen and Alabama Shakes engineer Shawn Everett, Witness is content to reference the past without emulating it. (June 1, 2017)

Stream: “Witness,” “The Slow Drag Under,” “Believe”

Daniel Caesar – Freudian (Golden Child)

For the last couple of years, Daniel Caesar has been the one to watch in Toronto’s R&B scene. His moment has finally arrived. This, his first proper full-length album, came out in August and has gone gangbusters ever since: he’s headlining five, count ’em, five sold-out shows at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto this December. The reason why is obvious: he has a chilling, smooth-as-velvet voice with deep roots in gospel music and R&B crooners, which leaps out at you right from the opening track, “Get You.” John Legend should be watching his back.

Though rooted in tradition, Caesar’s sound is very modern—the British Mercury Prize-winner Sampha is an analogous comparison—but has nothing to do with the cold nihilism of the so-called “Toronto sound” of Drake, The Weeknd, Majid Jordan, etc. One would have to go back to Glenn Lewis to find a male soul singer of this strength on the Canadian scene, and so far Caesar’s already managed to leapfrog over the traditional barriers to success in this genre that plagued Canadian artists of earlier generations. Between Caesar and Jessie Reyez, the next year promises to have a whole new wave break out of Toronto. (Nov. 16, 2017)

Stream: “Get You” feat. Kali Uchis, “Blessed,” “Take Me Away” feat. Syd

Castle If – Plant Material (independent)

Synth pioneer Stevie Wonder once released an album called The Secret Life of Plants, which was a bit of a baffler and effectively stalled a flawless run of albums in the 1970s. That won’t happen to Toronto analog synth enthusiast Jess Forrest, a.k.a. Castle If, because a) she’s completely unknown and has no genius reputation to sully and b) her album is brilliant. Plant Material is playful, rich and full of great melodies for the more demonstrably sentient listener. Yes, she owes debts to Tangerine Dream and other Germans, but “Guzmania Lingulata” struts through a bossy bossa nova beat, and “Comin Up Next” rides a slinky funk groove à la Money Mark. She claims that music has been proven to facilitate plant growth, and that one track here is meant to be a “therapeutic drone” for just that purpose, she told Now Magazine. No matter, the plants in Ms. Forrest’s house aren’t the only ones who will enjoy this record. (May 11, 2017)

Stream: “The Grass is Greener,” “Monstera Deliciosa,” “Sansevieria Trifasciata”

The Clientele – Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge)

As much as there is to recommend about this recently resurrected British band, all their records sound exactly the same: wispy, mid-tempo music that sounds like it was made by Belle & Sebastian’s sadder and somewhat aloof cousins. Singer/songwriter Alasdair MacLean weaves beautiful, folk-influenced guitar lines over supple bass lines from James Hornsey and a delicate touch from drummer Mark Keen. The arrangements are designed for daydreaming, cloud-watching--but not heavy lifting (one song is actually called “Falling Asleep”). One can’t fault a band with chemistry like this for being very good at one thing and running with it, and this is as good or better than anything else they’ve done, perhaps because a seven-year hiatus has them bringing their best game. (Sept. 21, 2017)

Stream: “The Neighbour,” “Falling Asleep,” “Everyone You Meet”

Cold Specks – Fool's Paradise (Arts and Crafts)

A few years ago, I was working at a magazine that ran very little music coverage. A freelancer had successfully pitched a story about struggles facing a new wave of female R&B voices out of Canada: Divine Brown, Melanie Fiona and Jully Black among them. The story started out by talking about Cold Specks, the musical project for a young woman who then called herself Al Spx, who possessed a powerful voice and played stark, haunting music she termed “doom soul.” Wait a minute, I asked the editor: why is Cold Specks in this article? Spx played slow, guitar-based music that has more in common with Nick Cave than Nicki Minaj. Is it because she’s black, one of the few African-Canadian women to have any kind of profile in this country’s music scene? Because otherwise, we’re talking about apples and oranges here.

Two albums and a couple of Polaris nods later, Cold Specks—who dropped the Al Spx pseudonym, and now goes by her birth name, Ladan Hussein—has indeed drawn closer to R&B, although Fool’s Paradise is more Massive Attack than Mary J. Blige. There are barely any guitars: synths and drum programming dominate. The background isn’t necessarily important: as always, it’s Hussein’s voice that draws you in first and foremost, but it does sound even better with some deep bass and beats behind it, situating her somewhere between Sade and Bjork (“Ancient Habits” borrows a bit from Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”), if either artist wrote almost exclusively in minor keys. Hussein also slips into Somali on the title track, acknowledging a family history she once felt she had to mask to make it in the Canadian music industry.

If third albums are where an artist really proves themselves--after the potential fluke of a debut, and the transition of a second album--then Cold Specks has most definitely stepped up. The songs are strong, the setting is right, and she’s evolving easily. There’s nothing remotely foolish about Fool’s Paradise. (Sept. 21, 2017)

Stream: “Fool’s Paradise,” “Wild Card,” “Rupture”

Como Mamas – Move Upstairs (Daptone)

Three senior sisters from Como, Mississippi, population 1,000, had never been to New York City before the folks at Daptone Records (Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley) invited them up for a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 2015. The gospel singers brought the house down. Days later, they shacked up in Daptone’s tiny studio to cut their first album with a full band behind them, Daptone players who know how to hang back and let the soulful grooves speak for themselves, and step aside for the singers.

There’s nothing about Move Upstairs that sounds like it was recorded in 2017: but that’s the point. If old-timey African-American gospel music is remotely interesting to you, you could buy an old reissue or you could hear living proof that the tradition is still alive and well.

Interestingly, the Como Mamas have been supported by a non-profit called the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which “was founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time.” His Word is alive. So are these fine ladies. Lend them your ear. (May 18, 2017)

Stream: “Out of the Wilderness,” “I Can’t Thank Him Enough,” “Glory Glory Hallelujah”

Del Bel – III (Missed Connection)
L Con – Moon Milk (Wildlife Sanctuary Sound)

“You write the same song mostly every day,” sings Lisa Conway on Del Bel’s “Maybe There’ll Be a Lightness,” the closing track on the band’s third album. This Guelph-based ensemble was once in danger of being a one-trick pony. Not any more.

They burst out of nowhere in 2011 with a debut album that excelled in noir-ish atmosphere and ominous overtones that put them in the same company as Timber Timbre. Singer Lisa Conway’s voice was—is—equally spooky and sultry, bringing life to instrumentals originally intended for a film soundtrack.

Here Del Bel expands their palette and dynamic range considerably, drawing from dub reggae, trip-hop, Spanish balladry, and a dash of hip-hop, as evidenced by the cameo from Toronto MC Clairmont the Second. The spaghetti Western guitars are still there, but it’s the presence of a full horn section throughout that adds welcome colour; songwriter and bassist Tyler Belluz spent part of 2016 touring with Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia, so he may have gained an increased appreciation for horn arrangements—which were present on the band’s last album, but are used much more effectively here. Drummer Adam Hindle is also a key asset here; with Belluz as the principal songwriter, most Del Bel songs are structured around the groove, no matter the tempo. “Only Breathing” rides a slinky groove and descending bass line akin to Portishead’s “Glory Box” (or, for that matter, Alessia Cara’s “Here,” which uses the same Isaac Hayes sample).

Conway released her second solo record last fall, Moon Milk, which she wrote and recorded while a songwriter-in-residence in Sackville, N.B., and inspired by the Italo Calvino story collection Cosmicomics. Most of the tracks here feature a few synths, a drum machine and her guitar, from all of which she conjures interstellar sounds for planetarium pop music that sounds haunting even at its most uptempo, like the techno track “Form of Space.” But Moon Milk is much more diverse than it first appears, thanks to guest appearances from some of her Del Bel bandmates and others: “All at One Point” set to just acoustic bass and a few horns; “Without Colours” is similarly sparse; several tracks feature gorgeous string arrangements, including “Games Without End,” featuring just the strings and Conway’s wordless harmonies. Conway may be the voice of Del Bel, but it’s her songwriting and arrangements in her solo work that shows her true talent. (April 20, 2017)

Stream Del Bel: “Katie,” “If I Was a Fool,” “Put Me to Bed With a Shovel”
Stream L Con: “The Distance of the Moon,” “A Sign in Space,” “Form of Space”

Dim=Sum – s/t (Big White Cloud)

In the Neil Young biography Shakey, cantankerous producer David Briggs is contemptuous of any Young recordings that “don’t have the spook.” He would dismiss later takes in favour of the first run-through, because that one “had the spook.”

Dim=Sum has “the spook.” This is a West Coast group featuring guitarist Shuyler Jansen and drummer Mike Silverman (both of the late, great Edmonton band Old Reliable), bassist Chris Mason (of Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods), and synth player Dave Carswell (Smugglers, Destroyer)—old men with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, so they might as well jam out for 15 minutes at a time on songs that fall somewhere between Neil Young, Black Sabbath and German art rock.

Songs lurch and plod in the best possible ways, sometimes coming to a complete stop for whale sounds from an electric guitar, sprinklings of synth and jazzy drums. Miraculously, there is always a concrete song at the core; this is not entirely a free-for all, and it’s surprisingly well-orchestrated for something that sounds so loose. It’s music for late-night driving through Western Canada in a heightened state, where strange visions appear on the periphery of the highway, where the limits of your imagination are as vast as the land stretched out before you.

Carswell is one-half of the JC/DC production team, along with the New Pornographers’ John Collins. But while that band appears to be playing it somewhat safe, Carswell has dove off the deep end here. More power to him and his colleagues. (April 13, 2017)

Stream: “Fisherman’s Daughter,” “Blue Rolls the River,” “Things Just Don’t Add Up”

DJ Shub – PowWowStep (independent)

The waves of acclaim for A Tribe Called Red’s Halluci Nation album keep pouring in: they took home some Junos last month, including one for producer of the year, and they’re more than likely to be shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize this summer (many are betting they’ll win in September). It’s an important album for many reasons; it’s also, arguably, the best by a band that keeps getting better.

And yet: it was made after the departure of DJ Shub, who reappears here with his own album. It’s more than obvious, listening to Halluci Nation and PowWowStep one after the other, what exactly it was that Shub brought to Tribe: the funk. PowWowStep, a term Tribe adopted to describe their sound when they first emerged more than five years ago, owes more debts to the warm vibes of classic house music than the more abrasive EDM that pops up on much of Halluci Nation. Both acts, of course, employ powwow singing—the Saskatchewan group Northern Cree appears on both recordings.

Shub left ATCR for family reasons, as that group’s tour schedule kept him away from his young kids. The musical differences appear to be minimal. But as ATCR get more heady and expansive, it’s Shub’s music that works better on a dance floor. (June 1, 2017)

Stream: “Big Crow” (feat. Black Lodge Singers), “Come On Over” (feat. Northern Cree), “Smoke Dance One” (feat. Frazer Sundown)

Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions

A perfect title for any band celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album—and doing so with perhaps their best record yet, one capable of convincing the curious and/or sceptical. Maybe that’s in part because, like their label mates Godspeed You Black Emperor, they’ve suddenly found themselves writing in major keys—and maybe that’s because, as the Belgian cartoonist Jean-Claude Servais once said, “The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.” Either way, this is a band whose collective experience (Broken Social Scene, Feist, Andy Kim, R&B/metal band Lullabye Arkestra, and more) and chemistry together result in interlocking melodies and gorgeous textures over the alternately jazzy and hardcore punk of dual drummers. Every song here is a miniature film in itself—not just the soundtrack to a hypothetical film, but with enough sonic and harmonic detail to imagine characters and dialogue—not an easy feat for an instrumental band. But not that difficult for a band like Do Make Say Think. (June 22, 2017)

Stream: “A Murder of Thoughts,” “And Boundless,” “As Far As the Eye Can See”

Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw (Warner)

“If my mama coulda seen me in these chains, she’d be fit to be tied / she was spared that pain because I was barely 13 when she died.”

Who else can write a couplet like that? Steve Earle, of course, has served time in jail, has hit rock bottom more than once, been divorced seven times, and has more than earned the right to write 19 albums worth of country songs about it all.

There have been times, of course, where the prolific artist has seemed to be either spinning wheels or trying on different sets of sonic clothing to varying effect. Here, however, Earle stays close to his country roots, to great effect, full of fiddles and pedal steel and a Willie Nelson cameo. Of course, there are also excursions into more hard rock territory, including the Zeppelinesque “Fixin to Die.” Continuing his great tradition of writing male-female duets, he teams up with Miranda Lambert for “This is How It Ends”—which, unexpectedly bears an uncanny musical resemblance to “Islands in the Stream,” only sung by artists who recently went through very public separations with fellow songwriters.

By far the standout track, however, is Earle’s ode to his late mentor Guy Clark, “Goodbye Michaelangelo”—which speaks volumes about Clark’s influence. (June 29, 2017)

Stream: “Goodbye Michaelangelo,” “If Mama Coulda Seen Me,” “News from Colorado”

Ex Eye – s/t (Relapse)

The intense music of saxophonist Colin Stetson has always been compared to the punishing extremes of metal. It’s not remotely a surprise, then, that here he is fronting an instrumental metal band, with drummer Greg Fox of Liturgy (who also played on Stetson’s recording of Gorecki’s 3rdsymphony), a synth player and a drummer. It suits him to a T. He’s not imitating vocalists or flashy guitarists, although his penchant for arpeggiation serves him well here. Ex Eye don’t have a single focus to their sound: they play as a unit, as one rhythmic force, as one expressive texture. There are clear parallels to the more punishing parts of Stetson’s former Montreal neighbours Godspeed You Black Emperor, though with more release and less build-up—but always walking a tightrope of tension. 

This also comes right in time: Stetson’s solo records, while all excellent, were beginning to blur. It was time for new challenges. Between the Gorecki album and this, he’s obviously game. (July 27, 2017)

Stream: “Xenolith; the Anvil,” “Anaitis Hymnal; the Arkrose Disc,” “Form Constant; the Grid”

Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest (Warner)

Charlotte Gainsbourg is an award-winning actor; she has been since she was a teenager. In North America, she’s best known for her uncomfortable roles in Lars Von Trier films. In France, despite her length career, she’s still best known for being the daughter of a towering figure in French music, Serge Gainsbourg. On each of her three previous albums, Gainsbourg has always performed the work of men: her father, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, and Beck. This time out, she’s written lyrics for the first time, partly as a way to process grief after the death of her half-sister, Kate Barry, in 2013. She’s also writing largely in French—a language the London-raised singer has largely avoided in her music until now.

Gainsbourg’s musical collaborator this time out is SebastiAn [sic], a French producer with credits on Frank Ocean and Fallout Boy albums. He’s no match for Cocker and Beck, even if he follows their same formula: synth- and string-drenched moody electro-pop that sounds like ABBA on downers, allowing Gainsbourg’s breathy vocals to maximize their melancholy. SebastiAn’s formula gets tired quickly, but thankfully Daft Punk’s title track and Paul McCartney’s “Songbird in a Cage” have a magic and mystery that much of Rest lacks.

Rest is getting rave reviews all around—have these people heard her other records? Maybe not: the last one came out seven years ago, a.k.a. a lifetime for modern attention spans. (Nov. 30, 2017)

Stream: “Rest,” “Sylvia Says,” “Songbird in a Cage”

Jacques Greene – Feel Infinite (Lucky Me/Arts & Crafts)

You can be a world-renowned touring DJ, a Soundcloud sensation and remixer to the superstars, but until you put out a full-length album, there’s a significant part of the music industry (say, columnists at small-city newspapers) that will not take you seriously until you put out a full-length album. Enter Jacques Greene, a 27-year-old Montreal DJ (recently relocated to Toronto after a short stint in NYC), who—taking a queue from his friend Kaytranada—has just put out his debut album after seven EPs in seven years.

On it, Greene moves through a series of moods, rather than deliver one thumper after another; to be sure, there are more than a few tracks here designed for the clubs, but overall it’s much better appreciated in its entirety. His signature sound is what’s known as the “R&B chop,” slicing and dicing a sampled vocal. It’s been around since at least Kanye West’s early work—or, closer to Greene’s aesthetic, his Montreal compatriot Akufen—and it’s certainly nothing new, though Greene consistently uses it to great effect. It’s telling that when real-life R&B singer How to Dress Well shows up on the album’s only cameo, his performance is less emotionally affecting than the majority of the tracks here in which Greene chops up a sampled vocal into breaths and stutters.

Listening to Le Couleur and Jacques Greene makes one wonder why Arcade Fire went to work with Daft Punk on their new record, when talent like this was literally around the corner. (June 15, 2017)

Stream: “To Say,” “I Won’t Judge,” “Real Time”

Headstones – Little Army (Cadence)

Old punks are boring. Pining for youth. Replicating a rage that surely must have dissipated years ago. Playing music best left to 18-year-olds. Give it up, old guys.

Unless you’re in the Headstones. Then you’re just fine.

This is the second record of their comeback. There’s plenty of life in that graveyard.

Singer Hugh Dillon has always been a riveting frontman, to say the least, and he later bottled that energy into a successful acting career (seen most recently in the Twin Peaks reboot) while he dealt with addiction and put the band on an 11-year hiatus. When the Headstones returned in 2013 with Love + Fury, they achieved the impossible: a punk reunion that proved to be not a sad attempt at a victory lap, but a renaissance even better than the first time around. The songwriting was sharp, the bass line of Tim White were the driving force, and Trent Carr’s guitar playing combined visceral energy with the veteran skill of an old country music picker. On top of it all, Dillon’s snarl was more effective than ever: the lived experience behind the voice shone through loud and clear: “Red meat eater / liar and a cheater / always hit the ground running, taking what I need.”

The Headstones stick to their formula, a whip-tight take on vintage punk the vein of the Sex Pistols and Teenage Head, with no regard to any trends of the last 30 years—which is why it works. They do act their age, occasionally, to great effect; the somewhat softer songs like “Sunlight Kills the Stars” or “The View Here” are the types of Tom Petty song his fans have been hoping the legend would still be writing.

Most affecting is the hometown ode “Kingston,” which finds Dillon reminiscing about coming “straight outta KCVI,” about seeing blues bands at the Prince George Hotel, and how he “found a postcard in the basement / from 1989 / Gord Downie’s validation / man, I needed every line.” The lyrics work much better than the music, which mark perhaps the only time the Headstones have ever channelled their one-time contemporaries Spin Doctors.

These old dogs don’t need new tricks. Those old clothes still fit and look totally bad-ass. (Aug. 17, 2017)

Stream: "Devil's on Fire," "Broken," "Sunlight Kills the Stars"

The Heliocentrics – A World of Masks (Soundway)

This psychedelic jazz combo from London have spent most of their discography backing up others: Ethiopian sax great Mulatu Astatke, Persian music scholar Lloyd Miller, African-American filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles and Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius. Here, they also employ a key guest: Slovakian singer Barbora Patkova, who bring them even closer to the work of their hero, Sun Ra, and his work with singer June Tyson in the ’70s. A World of Masks is rich with trippier grooves than you are likely to hear anywhere else in 2017; while bands like Sweden’s Goat draw from similar wells but always err on the side of rock guitars, the Heliocentrics are happy to let the textures do the talking. (May 25, 2017)

Stream: “Made of the Sun,” “A World of Masks,” “The Silverback”

Iskwé – The Fight Within (independent)

Much has been made about a surge of interest in Indigenous performers in this country, with two names coming up over and over: A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq, both of whom take traditional music and turn it on its head. As is always the case, there are more—much more—who deserve mainstream attention. Iskwé, a Cree-Dene-Irish woman from Hamilton via Winnipeg, is at the top of that list, for a multitude of reasons. For starters: her voice, which is a commanding instrument that demands your attention from the outset, capable of communicating in any genre she chooses. (There’s an incredible YouTube clip of her covering the Tragically Hip’s “38 Years Old” for The Strombo Show—seek it out.) Her music is steeped in modern R&B and synth textures, somewhere between Rihanna and St. Vincent. There are no musical nods to traditional music anywhere here, and nor, of course, should we expect there to be; just because A Tribe Called Red and Tagaq tap into that, however subversively, doesn’t mean that will be an inherent aspect of other modern Indigenous artists. Iskwé released a single a few years back, “Nobody Knows,” to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, which is included here. The key lyric: “Nobody knows where we’ve been or where we go.” In the case of Iskwé, everybody will know soon enough what talents she possesses. (Nov. 16, 2017)

Stream: “Soldier,” “Disturbed,” “Healers”

Julie and the Wrong Guys – s/t (Dine Alone)

In her 25-year-career, Julie Doiron has made a lot of pretty music. Many of her solo records are unadorned, quiet meditations. Her 1999 collaboration with the Wooden Stars set her songs to intricate arrangements and beautiful harmonies. She played guitar and bass in Gord Downie’s Country of Miracles for much of the 2000s, her voice an integral part of songs like “Trick Rider.”

In 2017, however, Doiron is hanging out with the rhythm section of one of Canada’s best heavy metal bands, the Cancer Bats, and making her loudest album since her very first band, Eric’s Trip. (Eamon McGrath joins them on guitar.) No doubt some observers will be surprised to hear such a left turn from the 45-year-old mother of four who now lives back in her native New Brunswick. But this is exactly the kind of cathartic release one might seek at this point in life: Don’t do anything half-assed. Go big or go home. Bring the best songs you’ve written over the five years since your last record. Block out the other noise in your life and turn this up.

It would be a stretch to suggest that Doiron’s voice suits the material, but that’s exactly what makes it so compelling and unique, especially when she layers harmonies on a track like “Heartbeats.” She’s not a metal screecher; she’s not even a punk rocker (anymore). But she never sounds lost; she confidently stakes her place in the heaviosity like she has every right to be there, which of course she does. The meek shall inherit this earth.

In case you prefer the more demure Doiron, she also has a new EP of older songs in new Spanish translations. It’s totally lovely. (Sept. 29, 2017)

Stream: “You Wanted What I Wanted,” “Love and Leaving,” “Calm Before the Storm”

Kacy & Clayton – The Siren’s Song (New West)

Hyped young artists are often said to have come “out of nowhere.” In the case of Kacy Anderson & Clayton Linthicum, that’s literally true: the cousins grew up in Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan. It’s about a two-hour drive from Swift Current to the northwest and Moose Jaw to the northeast. It’s not on most maps.

But for their third album, they found themselves in the heart of Chicago at the studio of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who spotted them at a festival and offered his skills as a producer (Mavis Staples, Low). There, their shared love of ’70s folk and country records enabled them to make a record with deep grooves and plenty of space in which Anderson’s languorous vocals can luxuriate. There’s some fine pickin’ throughout, and dreamy pedal steel for texture. With harmonies like these and strong songwriting, Kacy & Clayton probably didn’t need Tweedy’s help at all. But he’s delivered a record that should make them the talk of Americana circles for the rest of 2017. They’re going to be on everyone’s map soon enough.

Stream: “The Siren’s Song,” “The Light of Day,” “A Certain Kind of Memory”

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe (ATO)

This powerful and potent political statement is exactly what the world—oh, wait, no, this is a completely ridiculous record. And, breaking the pattern for this band, not in the best possible way.

It’s the third album in less than a year released by these Aussie weirdoes, who excel at incredibly heavy psychedelic freak-outs played at hyperkinetic speeds. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for a bumpy, breakneck ride.

Normally that’s enough, but this time they fall short. Murder of the Universe consists of three different suites, we’re told, although a female narrator is interspersed throughout the first two-thirds album going on about—well, one can’t be sure, really. The last third is narrated by a cyborg who talks about his imminent nausea. The song titles are entertaining enough on their own (“Vomit Coffin,” “Soy-Protein Munt Machine”)—surely we’re not expected to make sense of this? Musical ideas are recycled endlessly, and not effectively.

What was amazing about this band’s earlier records was that they were not the joke that the name would suggest. This time out, they’ve come up with exactly the kind of hogwash you’d expect from a bunch of stoners called King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. (June 29, 2017)

Stream: “The Lord of Lightning,” “The Floating Fire,” “Han-Tyumi, The Confused Cyborg”

Pierre Kwenders – Makanda (Bonsound)

This Montreal artist burst onto the scene with 2014’s Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, a multi-lingual, genre-hopping record rooted in Congolese rumba that landed him nominations for the Junos, the Polaris Music Prize, and Quebec’s ADISQs. Born in Kinshasa, Kwenders wanted to dive deeper into his Congolese roots on his second album. To do so, he travelled to Seattle to work with Tendai Baba Maraire, the Zimbabwean-American half of psychedelic hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces. Makanda moves Kwenders away from modern dance trends and further into mid-tempo polyrhythms. Kwenders is a natural star, but some of the best tracks here are where he cedes the spotlight, sharing it with Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler on the title track, and duetting with Tanyaradzwa on the lush, string-drenched ballad “Zonga.” (Sept. 14, 2017)

Stream: “Makanda,” “Welele,” “Zonga” feat. Tanyaradzwa

Land of Talk – Life After Youth (Dine Alone)

Liz Powell is back. She’s sounded older and wiser ever since she was a 16-year-old Guelph student wowing local audiences with her maturity and depth of songwriting; no one was the least bit surprised as she started wowing audiences across the continent when she formed Land of Talk in Montreal 10 years later. Much acclaim followed, as well as a brief stint in Broken Social Scene in 2009 before she shredded her vocal cords later that year. One more Land of Talk album followed, and then Liz Powell disappeared from the public eye.

The decision to return could not have been made lightly. Land of Talk was surely never lucrative enough to suggest that a return was inevitable. Yet someone with Powell’s voice and talents was not going to stay silent for long. “I don’t want to waste it this time,” she sings. “I don’t want to waste my life.”

Life After Youth lives up to its title: Powell’s vocals have a reserve and a measured calm about them, while her guitars swell with quiet storms underneath. She’s always been a sonic child of the ’90s, and here the steady pulse of her rhythm section (featuring, at times, members of Sonic Youth, Roxy Music and Besnard Lakes) and swirling keyboards owe more to hypnotic dreampop à la Yo La Tengo’s swoonier side than the scrappy guitar rock of previous Land of Talk records. Between this new approach and the fact the songs no doubt had plenty of time to simmer, the end result is a record is in every way a new lease for Liz Powell’s musical life. It sounds like the album she’s been trying to make since day one, the one we all knew back then she eventually would. (May 18, 2017)

Stream: "This Time," “Heartcore,” “World Made”

Lorde – Melodrama (Republic/Universal)

This ties Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness for apt album title of the year. Lorde, of course, is 20 years old; her breakthrough singles came out when she was 16. If anyone entitled to be the voice of melodramatic youth, it would be her. If she sounded wiser than her years on her debut, here, on her second album, Lorde acts her age—and in doing so perfectly captures all the awkwardness and emotional whirlwinds that define that period in everyone’s life. First single “Green Light” suggests a more musically upbeat turn, but for much of Melodrama Lorde rides the mid-tempo, slinky groove she built her career on, and explores the lower end of her vocal register. She’s at her most emotionally naked on “Liability,” an anthem for anyone who’s ever been dumped for feeling all the big feelings. As always, Lorde’s primary strength is spinning personal stories into universal narratives: no matter how old you are, it’s not that hard to access that formative time in your life when a Lorde song was your reality. (June 22, 2017)

Stream: “Green Light,” “Liability,” “Supercut”

Mappe Of – A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone (Paper Bag)

This one literally came out of nowhere. The solo artist from suburban Oshawa who now calls himself Mappe Of had posted some tracks online, and a powerful Toronto indie label stumbled across it and wanted to put it out immediately. Mappe Of has still yet to play a live show. (That changes on August 2, with his Toronto debut at the Drake.)

Unless, that is, you count the time Tom Meikle spent as a busker in Australia, which is where he honed his acoustic guitar skills after teenage years spent playing metal. When he returned home to Ontario, he started writing and working on these demos, which were recorded in a student basement apartment and polished somewhat surreptitiously, after-hours, in a recording studio at a post-secondary institution.

Meikle is a monstrous guitarist—but he doesn’t really let it show. You can hear it in his classical fingerpicking, but it never distracts from the song, the vocal, or the overall sonic aesthetic. Wise is the man who can shred, but chooses not to. Meikle’s voice—and the style of music—will draw obvious comparisons to Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver or even Patrick Watson, but his playing and the songs don’t sound particularly like anything in those artists’ repertoire. And what on the surface sounds like a folkie record contains plenty of electronic effects, particularly on the vocals, and other studio trickery that means Mappe Of’s sound is by no means set in stone.

This is the rare debut album that works entirely on its own, but points in enough directions that where Meikle goes next is anyone’s guess. Even if chooses to repeat himself, Mappe Of would still have plenty to explore. (July 27, 2017)

Stream: “Cavern’s Dark,” “Nimbin,” “Ruin”

Minotaurs – Aum (Independent)

Nathan Lawr’s Minotaurs certainly chose a fine month to release their fourth album of “apocalyptic, psychedelic Afro-folk” at a time when Canadian media is ablaze with talk of cultural appropriation, of whether it’s ever okay for creators from a dominant culture to borrow from the historically oppressed. Here we have a group of liberal-minded white Canadians playing music more than heavily influenced by Afrobeat both new and old; much of the (albeit limited) media exposure they have and the (few) gigs they get are a result of their experience in the trenches of so-called indie rock and folk music. Make of all that what you will.

Afrobeat in the ’70s was, of course, a cultural exchange in itself, as was rock’n’roll itself, for that matter. And there are points on Aum that bear as much resemblance to the funkier side of TV on the Radio’s catalogue as it does to the flood of ’70s African reissues that hit the market in the last 10 years. Most important: Lawr puts his own stamp on all of this, with synths and distorted keyboards underpinning the interlocking guitars, and a dystopian unease that clashes with the joyous grooves. A full horn section and rich percussion are employed effectively throughout; the production is gloriously dense and layered.

Lawr has moved well beyond imitation and gets weirder with age, with each record better than the last. It still sounds better live, though: go see them whenever you can this summer. (May 25, 2017)

Stream: “Black Maria,” “Hipswinger,” “All Hail”

New Fries – More EP (Telephone Explosion)

The two women who formed Toronto band New Fries, guitarist Annie Spadafora and drummer Jenny Gitman, claim to not have been musicians before starting the band. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but they have a fire within and an incredibly intuitive sense of rhythm and, in the case of Spadafora, a phenomenally expressive voice, making her the kind of punk rock singer who—like Kathleen Hanna or Karen O—has unusually strong pitch while dancing around the notes. Backing them up are two veterans with Guelph roots: keyboardist Ryan Carley (Ohbijou) and bassist Tim Fagan, who were part of another explosive band more than a decade ago, called We’re Marching On. That combustible combination of innocence and experience makes their More EP, produced by Holy F--k’s Graham Walsh (Operators, Sam Roberts), easily one of the most refreshing records to come out of Ontario in the past 12 months. (May 4, 2017) 

Stream: “Jz III,” “Gertrude Stein Greeting Card from Pape/Danforth,” “Mary Poppins Pockets”

Robert Plant – Carry Fire (Nonesuch/Warner)

The Led Zeppelin frontman has been on a roll for at least the last 10 years, churning out some of the best music of his career—including, of course, his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss. With his latest backing band, the International Shape Shifters, he’s been mixing North and West African influences with beautifully textured modern folk music not unlike Daniel Lanois. Plant has always required a guitar ace at his side, and these days it’s Justin Adams, who has also produced albums for Mali’s Tinariwen. Plant’s voice seems to, miraculously, be getting better with age; his last album, 2014’s Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, boasted some of the most nuanced and graceful vocal performances of his career. The band behind him is top notch, and successfully explore the worlds between cultures. This time out, it’s the songs that let Plant down; if Carry Fire is successful at all, it’s based entirely on mood and performances. It’s not essential listening like his recent work, but it’s a good reason to get this band back on the road. (Nov. 16, 2017) 

Stream: “Carving Up the World,” “A Way With Words,” “Carry Fire”

Prophets of Rage - s/t (Universal)

Guitarist Tom Morello wears a knockoff ball cap with the slogan “Make America rage again.” It’s a dig at his current commander-in-chief and a nod to his old band, Rage Against the Machine, who have reunited without singer Zach de la Rocha, with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real in his place. When they arrived last summer with a limp EP of reworked past glories, it just seemed like an excuse for them to crash the Republican National Convention.

A year later, America acts like it’s ready for a civil war and totally unready for another war that might be forced on them. America doesn’t need any help raging. But having a soundtrack of fury and righteousness in the name of justice can’t hurt, can it?

Expectations were rock-bottom after the EP that introduced this band. Thankfully, Chuck D has bounced back sounding better than he has on a nine forgettable Public Enemy records in the last 25 years. Which is good, because B-Real isn’t much help--though, to be fair, neither was Flavor Flav. Though at least Flav was amusing. Likewise, the band behind Chuck manages to erase the memory of Audioslave by returning to what Rage Against the Machine did best.

It’s unfortunate, then, that for every peak performance here that seems utterly essential in 2017, there’s a track that’s downright clunky, like “Legalize Me,” “Hands Up” or the unfunky “Take Me Higher,” with the chorus, “Drones gonna take you out!”

Rap and rock are always uncomfortable dance partners. But if anyone was going to make it work, it would be this crew—even they are musically stuck in the late ’90s. When they do manage to click, all other rap and rock sounds downright impotent considering the current climate. Rage on. (Sept. 29, 2017)

Stream: “Radical Eyes,” “Unf--k the World,” “Who Owns Who”

Quantum Tangle – Shelter as we Go (Coax)

A preceding EP with some of these tracks won the Juno this spring for Indigenous Album of the Year. No wonder. The duo of Greyson Gritt and Tiffany Ayalik combine bluesy folk, Inuit throat singing and some modern electronics for a unique blend that immediately sets them apart from everyone else in the current Indigenous music renaissance. Their harmonies are impeccable; the throat singing never once seems grafted onto conventions of settler music. “What have you seen in your short long life?” they ask. A lot, it turns out. But this album isn’t long enough: eight songs, two of which are alternate versions of other tracks here. More Quantum Tangle, please. Especially now. (July 20, 2017)

Stream: “Tiny Hands,” “Love is Love Pt. 1,” “Freeze Melt Boil”

Andrea Ramolo – Nuda (Fontana North)

This thirtysomething Toronto songwriter hangs out with (apologies to Mott the Hoople) all the old dudes, CanRock veterans from the Cowboy Junkies, Junkhouse, Skydiggers, Blue Peter and others. It’s incredibly easy to see why they all bring their top game to her third solo album (not counting two she made as one half of the folk duo Scarlett Jane): she’s got “the spook,” that late-night, blues-tinged, atmospheric torch song that seems right at home anywhere in southwestern Ontario, a lineage that runs from Daniel Lanois to Mary Margaret O’Hara to Crash Vegas to Royal City to Fiver.

Her vibe and her songwriting is one thing: Ramolo’s stunning voice is a whole other affair. Just in case the guest list on the album threatens to distract from the main event—many of those guests regularly convene as members of Lee Harvey Osmond, and in many ways Nuda sounds like that same band with a female singer—Ramolo includes a bonus disc of solo demos, Da Sola, that is every bit as stunning. Producers Michael Timmins (Nuda) and Faye Blais (Da Sola) deserve equal credit for providing a warm sonic cushion for all of Ramolo’s strengths to be on full display.

Throw it on late at night, turn it up loud, and chase it with a glass of your finest red. (May 4, 2017) 

Stream: “You’re Everywhere,” “Hey Hey Hey,” “Edge of Love”

David Rawlings – Poor David's Almanack (Acony)

Gillian Welch doesn’t make many records. Perhaps the single most acclaimed singer-songwriter to emerge from the folk boom after 2000’s O Brother Where Art Thou phenomenon, Welch has only put out three records since then, the last one being six years ago.

But by her side that whole time has been her partner, David Rawlings, whose harmonies and guitar playing complement Welch perfectly. She returns the favour on his solo records—this is his third, and the one that most deserves to stand beside anything in her songbook. Whereas Welch rarely employs a backing band, Rawlings alternates between sparse duo tracks and full-band arrangements. In either mode, economy reigns supreme: every note sounds heavier than an anvil. Meanwhile, it’s interesting to hear their vocal roles reversed. Welch likes to sneak up and around her notes while Rawlings plays it straight; on her work he’s an anchor, whereas here she colours his lead in enigmatic ways without ever being a distraction.

It’s hard to imagine these two making music apart. Let’s hope they never do. (Aug. 10, 2017)

Stream: “Midnight Train,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Good God a Woman”

Ride – Lannoy Point (Wichita)

“Their first new album in more than 20 years!” Nine words that should strike fear in the heart of every music fan. Precious few are the bands who reunite decades later and record an album that even the most forgiving fan might consider an essential part of the discography. But it’s not impossible. Ride prove that here.

Ride were a beloved British band of the early 90s, considered more psychedelic than their peers in the so-called “shoegaze” scene. When they split over an internal debate about whether or not to become more of a dance band, guitarist Andy Bell joined Oasis as the bass player, a move that led many fans to decry the squandering of a major talent. As the original shoegaze scene splintered, the sound remained influential and the legend of Ride persisted. A reunion tour a couple of years ago led to this new material, mixed by the sonic architect of their earliest work, Alan Moulder.

It works. Normally it’s all but impossible to restore the magic and mystery one stumbles upon in youth, but Ride have returned in full form: any edges that have been sanded off are best left to the 90s anyway. Bell and Mark Gardener’s guitars still shimmer and swirl, while the rhythm section surf the sonic waves to full effect. And years of experience have made them even better songwriters.

Turns out this Ride is going to last a lot longer than anyone expected. (June 15, 2017)

Stream: “Lannoy Point,” “Rocket Silver Symphony,” “Impermanence”

Rostam – Half-Light (Nonesuch)

The sonic architect of Vampire Weekend was the former guitarist, keyboardist, string arranger and producer, Rostam Batmanglij. He split early last year, although he’s said he may still work on future records. In the meantime, he’s unleashed his wildest ideas on his debut solo record—which basically sounds like all the weird parts of Vampire Weekend records strung together. Processed vocals, heavily treated guitars, choirs, string quartets, tabla, harpsichords, talking drums, backward tape: they’re all here, as any fan of his former band’s last record might expect, as Batmanglij is one of the most interesting producers to come out of a rock band this side of Tame Impala. His own lead vocals are endearing; he’s more than just a classically trained knob-twiddler. That said, while Half-Light is certainly pleasant and interesting, it very much sounds like an artist finding their own feet as a solo performer. It’s more than obvious what exactly it was he brought to Vampire Weekend, but Half-Light’s best moments, like “Wood,” are those that stray the most from his past. (Sept. 29, 2017)

Stream: “Gwan,” “Bike Dream,” “Wood”

Serena Ryder – Utopia (Atlantic)

Serena Ryder’s unadorned voice can and will stop you cold if you ever have the good fortune to hear it—which you won’t on one of her records. She may well be the greatest female voice in pop music since k.d. lang. She knows, however, that in the age of AutoTune, that matters not a whit, which is probably why Utopia arrives a year after her last single, “Got Your Number” (included here), and five years after her breakthrough album Harmony, which featured the hits “Stompa” and “What I Wouldn’t Do.” Ryder makes sure she throws all her cards on the table: every track here is aimed at the top of the pops, jammed with hooks and production that sounds like a million bucks. Serena Ryder is capable of many subtle charms, but there’s no time for that here.

It works. Ryder is far better as a pop artist than a rock artist, which she realized on Harmony; when her voice has to compete with loud guitars, nobody wins. Here, everything is centred around her vocal, and the songwriting gives her plenty of expansive melodies to work with. “Got Your Number” is almost formulaic in its approach to hitmaking, throwing every numeric cliché in existence (and shamelessly riding the coattails of Elle King’s “Exes and Ohs”). Much better is the title track, a disco stomper that demands to be remixed in time for Pride weekends across the country this summer. And the ballad “Rollercoaster” is sure to be a show-stopper in her live set. (June 1, 2017)

Stream: “Wild and Free,” “Utopia,” “Rollercoaster”

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Medicine Songs (True North)

Though many music fans know Buffy Sainte-Marie’s name, few actually know her music. Her 2015 album Power in the Blood, winner of that year’s Polaris Music Prize, thrust her back on the radar 50 years after her debut. In between, of course, is a rich discography waiting to be rediscovered. Sainte-Marie has the usual greatest hits packages out there, as well as an excellent compilation of her out-of-print late ’70s albums (The Pathfinder), and a thematic collection compiling her songs directly addressing Indigenous issues (Native North American Child).

Medicine Songs is a round-up of her most political songs, of which the rousing rabble-rouser has more than a few, starting with her oft-covered classic “Universal Soldier,” and including two new songs. “You Got to Run,” a collaboration with Tanya Tagaq, and “The War Racket,” which is more of a spoken-word piece over an electronic groove. Two songs from Power in the Blood are included, the title track and the inspiring “Carry It On.” Seeing how she re-recorded and recontextualized some older material on that album—and album that rescued her from poor production choices in recent decades—she could easily have done the same here: her devastating classic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” released in 1992, is screaming out for a new recording that captures the song’s visceral energy—and the same could be said of “No No Keshagesh” or other songs from the last 20 years.

Those are minor quibbles from a major fan. If you’re new to this living legend, this is a welcome introduction to several stages of her career, thematically linked only through the lyrics. There are many sides of Buffy Sainte-Marie, however, and you should get to know all of them before a new biography by Andrea Warner appears on shelves next year. (Nov. 9, 2017)

Stream: “You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind)” feat. Tanya Tagaq, “Starwalker,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”

Oumou Sangaré – Mogoya (No Format)

Les Amazones d’Afrique is missing some of the biggest names in West African music, like Rokia Traoré and Oumou Sangaré. Like Les Amazones, Sangaré too has always prioritized politics in her music; unless you speak Wassoulou, however, this will be lost on Western ears. Sangaré, though one of Mali’s biggest stars, is not terribly prolific: this is only her fifth album in almost 30 years of recording. She’s an entrepreneur and hotelier most of the time, so when she graces us with her presence it’s worth paying attention. This time out, seeking a modern sound, she worked with sympathetic French producers and musicians associated with her new record label; it’s a refreshing new sound for her, even though there are plenty of groundbreaking new musicians at home who are pushing Western pop music in new directions and could have challenged her to even braver territory. She also enlists Fela Kuti’s drummer and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen on drums for one track, and closing track “Mogoya” is haunting, featuring just Sangaré’s voice over an upright bass and a very sparse string arrangement. (Jan. 12, 2018)

Stream: “Yere Faga” feat. Tony Allen, “Djoukourou,” “Mogoya”

Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines (Sub Pop)
Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop)

When Ishmael Butler was known as Butterfly and fronted the mid-90s hip-hop group Digable Planets, he was one of the first to explicitly reference the genre’s lineage back to jazz. Gang Starr and Tribe Called Quest got there first, but Digable Planets pushed it further into the abstract, not just sonic signifiers and samples. Twenty years later, Butler is doing the same with his new project, Shabazz Palaces, who released two new albums simultaneously in the middle of a sweltering summer.

Perfect timing: Butler and his creative partner Tendai Maraire eschew trap and boom-bap and anything else you might expect in summer hip-hop jams, in favour of a truly potent brew of psychedelia, dub reggae, spiritual jazz, science fiction, Parliament/Funkadelic and futurist Detroit techno. Hip-hop barely registers, other than the fact that there’s an MC up front. Shabazz Palaces is “a glitch in the matrix,” they boast. Repetition? Choruses? That’s for suckers. For earthlings—because this music is clearly from another galaxy.

Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines is the proper album, the one rich with lyrical detail and sonic intent. Apparently it’s about aliens—who knows? Butler is engaging enough with wordplay and imagery that it doesn’t matter is his overarching narrative is impenetrable. Plus, he easily wins Best Song Title of the Year: “Love in the Time of Kanye.” Most important, the music is consistently inventive and frequently surreal.

Born on a Gangster Star was created quickly from an inspired session meant to produce some B-sides. Drunk on a creative bender, Shabazz Palaces kept going and ended up with a companion album that’s just as worthy, albeit one that’s considerably looser and even more abstract than the main attraction. “Moon Whip Quäz” borrows a bit too heavily from Kraftwerk’s “The Model”—not a terrible source, by any means, but it’s the longest track on Gangster Star, for no discernible reason. But when a group like this hits a stride, it’s all good. (July 27, 2017)

Stream Jealous Machines: “Welcome to Quazarz,” “30 Clip Extension,” “Love in the time of Kanye”        

Stream Gangster Star: “Shine a Light,” “The Neurochem Mixalogue,” “That’s How City Life Goes”

Jon Stancer – For the Birds (independent)

Here’s a tiny little record that sounds like a million bucks. Bedroom demos by a dormant sideman reworked at a Toronto studio by a film composer come out sounding like a new Belle and Sebastian album, or a lush solo record by Sloan’s Jay Ferguson. Jon Stancer was a sideman for various Toronto acts in the late ’90s and early 2000s, including for songwriter John Southworth on 1997’s underrated classic Mars Pennsylvania, a project where Stancer met producer Jono Grant. With the exception of a horn section and female backing vocals—and one track with upright bass—everything here is played by Stancer and Grant, who creates a massive sound worthy of L.A.’s legendary Wrecking Crew in the ’60s. Lush (faux) strings, hints of bossa nova, honkytonk piano, ’70s NYC sax solos, and plenty of Beach Boys harmonies combine to decorate Stancer’s more-than-pleasant pop songs. (Aug. 17, 2017)

Stream: “Dance in the Sun,” “Now That Summer is Gone,” “Perfect Place to Hide”

Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black (Anti)

Mavis Staples has every right to be pissed.

As a member of family band the Staple Singers in the ’50s and ’60s, she performed at Martin Luther King rallies and provided a soundtrack of uplift to the civil rights movement. Sixty years later, the political climate looks even worse than it did back then. And yet here she is: 78 years old and addressing the divisions in her country by talking about love and empathy and echoing the words of Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” At a time of a serious empathy deficit, Staples wants to love her enemies, to admit to evil thoughts in herself, to bring people together.

This new album was written by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has worked extensively with Staples in the last seven years, and who says he didn’t write a single lyric for the record that he didn’t feel Staples would write herself. On her last record, Staples had songs commissioned from a dozen different songwriters; none of them understood her the way Tweedy does. Their relationship continues to pay musical dividends: Staples sounds relaxed and in full control, as she did on the high-water mark One True Vine, even if some of the electric guitar solos underneath her here veer toward Wilco’s Velvet Underground side.

If All I Was Was Black is a decidedly political record, it’s also a reconciliatory one—which seems almost quaint amidst the daily outrage cycle. But this is exactly a time when we need elders like Staples to see us through the depths, to see the long game. “No time for tears,” she sings. “We’ve got work to do.”

Stream: “No Time For Crying,” “Little Bit,” “Who Told You That?”

Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory (Kartel)

Colin Stetson does one thing and he does it very, very well. He makes solo saxophone records, recorded live, with no overdubs, using a variety of microphone techniques that amplify the sound of his fingers hitting the keys; he also manages to somehow intone independent melodies while playing arpeggiated melodies. In short, Stetson takes a nose-to-tail approach to his instrument.

It’s incredibly impressive—once. Stetson runs the serious risk of being a one-trick pony, of being known for just that one thing—like, say “continuous music” pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, or Philip Glass. Or, for that matter, the Ramones. 

But here’s the thing—he keeps getting better. Not in his technique, necessarily, which was astounding to begin with, but in the role of dynamics in his composition, and his melodies. Part of that might be a result of his album-length collaboration with his partner, Sarah Neufeld, or Sorrow, his 2016 interpretation of Gorecki’s Third Symphony, where his role was of arranger rather than featured instrumentalist. Whatever the reason, All This I Do For Glory is easily the most accessible, if not necessarily the best, album of Stetson’s career of bringing avant-garde music to a larger audience. (April 27, 2017)

Stream: “All This I Do For Glory,” “Like Wolves on the Fold,” “The Lure of the Mine”

St. Vincent – Masseduction (Universal)

Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is a fascinating thinker, an interesting lyricist and a forward-thinking musician who, among other things, is out to redefine the guitar in pop music in ways not heard since Adrian Belew. All that said, Masseduction is far more interesting to read about than to listen to. Everything about Clark sounds tightly controlled and perfectionist, in ways that don’t necessarily serve her music. Yes, she gets lots of comparisons to David Bowie or Bjork—but both those artists used their vocals in ways that humanized their sometimes arch musical vision. Here, Clark sounds like she bleeds the humanity out of her music. Knowing her, that’s probably on purpose. But it’s also alienating. She sure makes for a great New Yorker profile, though. (Oct. 19, 2017)

Stream St. Vincent: “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” “Los Ageless,” “Sugarboy”

Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)

This has to be the most astounding debut album of 2017, surpassing even the likes of Sampha or Daniel Caesar—two men who had a banner year with novel approaches to gospel-tinged R&B. Like them, Moses Sumney has a wonderfully elastic voice that lends itself well to R&B seduction, but this 26-year-old L.A. singer is not bound to genre or expectations of any kind: he owes far more to Joni Mitchell, Radiohead or Jeff Buckley than he does Frank Ocean or Solange (he sings on Solange’s album A Seat at the Table). His voice is drop-dead gorgeous and downright hypnotizing, enticing the listener to follow him just about anywhere, and he employs it with the skill of a veteran jazz stylist. His instrumental arrangements steer away from conventional structure or harmonies. His layered backing vocals are swirling and complex, creating one of the most important textures of his music—in the case of “Self-Help Tape,” that’s all there is to the entire song, other than a delicate electric guitar accompaniment.

For all the seductive powers of Sumney’s music, he claims Aromanticism is a concept album decrying coupledom, about the societal scorn heaped on those who choose to remain single. (“If lovelessness is godlessness, will you cast me to the wayside?”) If true, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on for those who fall hard and fast for this man’s music, with which you want to cozy up beside and spend the rest of the long winter in bed. (Jan. 5, 2018)

Stream: “Lonely World,” “Quarrel,” “Doomed”

Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet - Ladilikan (World Circuit)

No one can be expected to keep up with everything the Kronos Quartet does, but every so often one of their cross-cultural collaborations simply can’t be ignored, like their 2000 album Caravan, or their 2005 collaboration with Bollywood star Asha Bhosle. This is one of them. Trio Da Kali are a Malian trio comprised of just a female vocalist, a guy who plays the bass ngoni (a string instrument), and a guy who plays the marimba-like balafon. The two instruments provide both harmony and bottom end underneath singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabate, creating a full and rich sound even before the strings come in. Diabate is a strong, calm voice whose melodies stay steady while the balafon dances and skitters underneath. In everything they do, Kronos are extremely sympathetic players: they’re not there to hog any kind of spotlight, or to impose Western musical traditions to wherever they’re visiting. They’re there to embellish and illuminate but generally stay out of the way whenever possible--which is exactly the case here. (Sept. 21, 2017)

Stream: “Kanimba,” “Lila Bambo,” “Ladilikan”

Shania Twain – Now (Universal)
Margo Price – All American Made (Third Man)

Why yes, the new Shania Twain album does open with a reggae song. Why wouldn’t it? She single-handedly rewrote the rules about what modern country pop is supposed to sound like. She can mess with it all she wants. And it works: “Swinging With My Eyes Closed” is the kind of big-chorus, radio anthem we’d expect her to return with.

It’s her first in 15 years. It’s also her first without ex-husband Robert “Mutt” Lange, who got a lot of credit for co-writing and producing her blockbuster records. Twain writes all the material here herself, and enlists four different hitmakers in the producer’s chair. She’s taken full control, and it’s paid off. Now is everything that Twain does best: affirmational anthems with catch-phrase lyrics. The only knock here is the corniness of some of the cliches: “You can’t buy love / but you can make it.” Or, “Because of you, I’m me.”

The only major disappointment here is that after all this time, it would’ve been nice to hear her sing--naturally. Instead, even acoustic ballads here have the stench of AutoTune, which Twain neither needs nor, now that she’s no longer working with Def Leppard’s producer, does she deserve.

The flip side of Shania Twain is Margo Price, a young Nashville singer-songwriter whose sound skews toward the traditional: live instruments, no AutoTune, no eye on the pop charts. No surprise, then, that she records for Third Man Records--owned by Jack White, the man who resurrected Loretta Lynn’s career. This is Price’s second album, and it’s a star-is-born moment with fiery performances, an absolutely ace studio band, and some piercing lyrics that don’t shy away from politics. If feminism is a big F-word in Nashville, Price bites back with “Pay Gap”: “Pay gap / why don’t you do the math / pay gap / ripping my dollars in half.” That might set her apart from other current country artists, with the obvious exception of Jason Isbell, but she’s mostly just a plain-spoken country writer par excellence, with an eye for all kinds of social detail. “Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf / sometimes I’m James Dean,” she sings.

All American Made is not just a star turn for Price as a vocalist and songwriter. The musical touches throughout elevate everything on this album, recorded at Sam Phillips’s Memphis studio: the Tex-Mex accordion on “Pay Gap,” R&B organ flourishes on “A Little Pain,” the gospel quartet on “Do Right By Me.”

Shania who? (Oct. 19, 2017)

Stream Shania Twain: “Swinging With My Eyes Closed,” “Poor Me,” “We Got Something They Don't”
Stream Margo Price: “Don’t Say It,” “A Little Pain,” “Pay Gap”

Chad VanGaalen – Light Information (Sub Pop)

A mad scientist at work in his Calgary garage, Chad Van Gaalen is a psychedelic animator (Shabazz Palaces, Timber Timbre, Tagaq), a scrappy record producer (Alvvays, Women), an avant-garde electronic soundscaper, and an ace songwriter who combines all his interests—and contributions from his two young children—into a shocking cohesive new album of songs that suggest where Neil Young might have ended up had he continued turning left after 1982’s Trans. Over the course of six albums and side projects, the scattershot VanGaalen isn’t always as focused as he is here, on an album that easily stands beside his classic debut, 2005’s recently re-released Infiniheart, and 2008’s Soft Airplane. (Sept. 14, 2017)

Stream: “Mind Hijacker’s Curse,” “Mystery Elementals,” “Old Heads”

The Wooden Sky – Swimming in Strange Waters (Nevado)

This Toronto mainstay has always been a solid contribution to the city’s roots-rock scene, for lack of a better word. A rock-solid live show, a serious songwriting force in frontman Gavin Gardiner and a talented band—multi-instrumentalists Simon Walker and Andrew Wyatt, drummer Andrew Kekewich and Puslinch violinist Edwin Huizinga—have made them dependable, if not remarkable. Until now.

Swimming in Strange Waters, their fifth album, finds them stepping up their game all around, recording the raw tracks largely at home before handing them off to John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.) to mix in New Jersey. Agnello’s touch certainly makes this best-sounding Wooden Sky record to date, but that has just as much to do with the performances and instrumental choices and the songs themselves. Gardiner has always carried the weight of the world, but here he writing about pipelines, refugees, singing a beautiful song about how “we’re born to die” and quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune. Yet he’s never preachy; the messages and intent is there if you’re listening closely, but the melodies come first. (April 13, 2017)

Stream: “Swimming in Strange Waters,” “Life is Pain, Pain is Beauty,” “Born to Die”