Yes, I'd like to forget 2020 as much as everyone else. But in the first two months of 2021, as I pored over various lists posted by my favourite writers and outlets (shout out to Bandcamp, the venerable Said the Gramophone and the always-fascinating Aquarium Drunkard), there was a lot I'd missed. And next to nothing interesting came out in Jan/Feb this year anyway, which allowed me to spend more time with this music.
The list I made in November is here.
Here are 10 records I only recently discovered that blew me away:
Alias Ensemble – A Splendour of Heart
I’m not on the Daniel Romano bandwagon, by any means, though I should be: we have many mutual friends, people I admire in turn admire him, and in theory I should be a fan of his various projects—but I’m not, for entirely subjective reasons. Yes, it’s impressive that he released at least 10 records in 2020, and I wish I could say they struck some chord with me, but they didn’t. This is an exception, perhaps because the lead vocals are all tackled by Kelly Sloan, or perhaps because it bears no resemblance to the indie rock, retro-country, or punk rock that Romano normally pinballs between. This is British Isles folk music, which is also not normally my thing, but this record is so goddam charming it’s impossible for me not to fall in love with it. If I had to compare it to anything contemporary, it would be Dublin band Lankum, though there’s a lot more sunshine on this record than there is on that Irish band’s incredible 2019 album The Livelong Day. Kelly Sloan is a stunning singer, the harmonies are even better, the string playing (and accordion) is all very strong, and on top of all that the production is perfect, neither slick nor raw.
Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness
That title pretty much sums up how I feel about this record. A comeback record by a guy I’ve never heard before, this is laid-back, synth-y R&B with a Shuggie Otis vibe that sounds entirely out of time and place. The “Long Hot Summer”-ish synth bass on “Hurt” just kills me. Song title of the year: “My Mind is Out of Its Mind.” Great profile in the New York Times I stumbled upon after falling in love with this music.
The Garrys – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
A new soundtrack for a silent film: this has been a trend for decades, and it’s mostly been a pleasant experiment in the moment—you had to be there. This, however, by three women from Saskatoon working with a 1922 Dutch documentary about the occult, easily stands on its own. Elements of Dirty Three, spooky Sadies, and the Morricone side of Godspeed are all run through an Echoplex, with some trombone and accordion thrown in for good measure.
Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun
British hippie space jazz with harps and kalimbas and, yes, even some fucking rainsticks, with song titles like "Joyful Spirits of the Universe" and, I shit you not, "Mindfulness Meditations." Part of me should hate this with a passion, but it's really goddam gorgeous and I was listening to it constantly in December and January. Though obviously inspired by Alice Coltrane, Halsall's smooth trumpet is a much gentler instrument than Pharoah Sanders's saxophone, for better or worse. In a year like the one we just had, I'm perfectly fine with gentleness. Now excuse me while I meditate.
Nyssa – Girls Like Me
How did I miss this? Totally up my alley, quite literally (she’s in my Toronto neighbourhood). Nyssa is a modern pop singer with serious old-school vocal skills, the kind that would have once put her in Pat Benatar/Annie Lennox territory. Her songwriting is full of pop hooks, big choruses and is illustrated with home electronics (with some pedal steel on the side) that could easily be scaled up to Springsteenian stadium level in less subtle hands—but they're inherently more charming because she never succumbs to the super-obvious and corny grand gesture. It's the kind of record I'd love Lady Gaga (I'm a fan) to make. "You're not going to get what you came for," she sings. Nyssa has been in bands since she was a teen, from the community that spawned Frigs and Ice Cream, but from what I can tell this is a entirely self-produced affair. Fans of US Girls should take note; there's plenty of social critique in the lyrics here, not surprising on an album that opens with the line: "Start this story with a dead girl / that's what makes it just like the others." Would love to see Nyssa on a double bill with Winnipeg artist Boniface, whose record earlier in 2020 mined similar sonic territory of classic-rock-through-modern-pop sounds. As a guy who lived through the 80s, I'm wary of twentysomethings in period-specific clothes, but everything here is pitch perfect and rings true—clearly part of a continuum and entirely contemporary. And outside of Dominique Fils-Aimé, I feel unlikely to hear a better vocal performance among this year's potential Polaris Prize picks.
Population II – A La O Terre
Psychedelia from franco Quebec par excellence, somewhere between Kikagayu Moyo and Dungen, if that means anything to you. Yes, the guitarists are both excellent, as they’d have to be to pull this off, but it’s the rhythm section here that really makes this work. I’m also wondering if I prefer non-anglophone psych because then I can ignore the lyrics, which are usually downright embarrassing in English.
Shopping – All or Nothing
Is it time for yet another revival of early ’80s post-punk pop? The genre got mighty tainted in the last 20 years, with too many watered-down replicas of the Slits, ESG and Gang of Four paying more attention to fashion than tunes. This band has a monstrous bass player and British-accented women singing like the second coming of Delta 5. But also: great songs. I’m prone to liking bands like this on aesthetics alone (see: Bodega), but I do believe this is a step above.
Teenanger – Good Time
This Toronto pop band sounds like a 21st-century version of Queen Street West in 1984—Pukka Orchestra, Martha and the Muffins, et al—and that’s fine with me. Even better: the mixing and mastering job on this record sounds like a million bucks—which nothing in Canada ever did in the ’80s.
Widowspeak – Plum
Enchanting, dreamy pop with an anchor of a rhythm section that ensures the songs don’t drift away, like a more muscular Mazzy Starr. “The Good Ones” is positively sublime.
Sven Wunder – Eastern Flowers
To satiate my recent hunger for Turkish psych music, I spent 2021 waiting for new albums by Altin Gun (Dutch-Turkish) and Gaye Su Akyol (actually Turkish) and then found this record by a Swedish guy (not remotely Turkish) whose other 2020 record was comprised of Japanese music. Make of that what you will, this is a great record.
And 10 more that really stuck out:
Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela – Rejoice!
What, did we have to wait until both giants were dead before this album saw the light of day? Anyway, regardless of timing, this is utterly—and entirely predictably—awesome.
Analog Players Society – Tilted
With Donny McCaslin (Bowie’s Blackstar) on sax, the Bad Plus’s Orrin Evans on piano, bassist Devron Douglas (Ravi Coltrane) and drummer Eric McPherson, this is an inspired one-off where they tackle three songs: one by Monk, one by Joao Gilberto, and one original. I’m a bit confused as to the nature of this project, which usually revolves around a different duo entirely, but this is certainly an inspired collection of gentlemen.
The Chicks – Gaslighter
I’ve never listened to a full Chicks record before now, for whatever reason, though I’ve obviously admired them for various reasons from afar. This, however, hooked me right away; sonically, it sounds much less like mainstream country than I expected, and it’s also not a super-glossy pop record. I’m totally projecting here, but it sounds like three women who don’t give a shit what anyone expects them to do anymore. “Julianna Calm Down” and “March March” are the tracks that did it for me.
Chouk Bwa & the Angstromers – Vodou Ale
A few years ago, I loved the debut by Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band working with Belgian producers. Last year I loved the Ugandan band Nihiloxica's record, which was recorded by U.K. producers and came out on a Belgian label. Now there’s this Haitian band also working with Belgian producers. Do I need Belgian producers to make this music accessible to these North American ears? Not sure, but I do like this record quite a bit.
Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes – Heritage of the Invisible II
This Panamanian-Canadian trumpeter and NYC percussionist use samples, field recordings and electronics to take a little trippy trip as a duo away from their regular gig in Irreversible Entanglements.
North Americans – Roped In
Meditation music from acoustic guitarist Patrick McDermott and pedal steel player Barry Walker, with contributions from like-minded peers Mary Lattimore on harp and guitarist William Tyler. It’s music for dreaming of the continent’s open roads that we’re advised not to travel right now.
Eric Revis – Slipknots Through a Looking Glass
Sparse and funky jazz on acoustic bass with plenty of tickles and tinkles.
Roots Magic – Take Root Among the Stars
Italian jazz band, who sound Mingus-y to me, tackle songs by Skip James, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and others.
Skinny Dyck – Get to Know Lonesome
Homespun Albertan country music recorded to ¼” tape in a Lethbridge living room. The name is gimmicky, but the music most definitely is not.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
I’ve been lukewarm on this critical favourite until now. This is a very strong record, though I think it sounds a lot better if you’re listening to it in the American South; it sounds like the soundtrack to a North Carolina road trip I haven’t taken in a few years now. See also: H.C. McEntire’s Eno Axis.