Preface: This year’s top ten list was difficult. So often other elements hinder how we hear music. It was hard to put this list together and not think of Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, or David Bowie’s Blackstar. Both those albums I think take on a different light, a different tone and weight given both Cohen and Bowie’s passing. To try and compare their prophetic records to others would be far too difficult and unfair, to them and other musicians. I think the same goes for Gord Downie’s Secret Path. I loved this project. To try and pull out the music when it is so intricately connected to the graphic novel and the history is difficult. And, like Bowie and Cohen, there is the emotional connection to Downie himself. As much as I have not cared about a single thing The Hip have done since about 1999, the truth is that Secret Path is more than a record, it is a piece of art that we will look back on as a document of reconciliation. And, of course, there are sentational pop albums that also showed up this year. But, as is often the case, I have made a conscious decision to focus on the music I feel is missed.
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There is definitely a confident swagger on The Head and the Heart’s Sign of Light. From the leadoff single “All we Ever Knew” through the first four tracks: “City of Angels”, “Rhythm & Blues” and “False Alarm”, there is a sense that The Head and The Heart have arrived and are eager to take their place in the modern musical landscape. The jangling guitars of Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, the crisp rhythms of Chris Zasche and Tyler Williams and the ever glorious piano of Kenny Hensley lift Signs of Light well beyond their contemporaries and take them sonically beyond their Eagles-like influences. With big money producer Jay Joyce at the helm the band's sound was certainly going to differ. The production is big, and if they weren't trying to relive the LA production of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, that would be a problem. But, it makes sense on Sign of Light. The stand out track, “Your Mother’s Eyes” show that beneath all of that lush production and incredible musicianship is a core of solid songwriting that will continue to be a formidable team for years to come.
Hannah Georgas has never been one to shy away from pure pop music. Starting off with a folky-pop sound on 2008’s The Beat Stuff, her sound became more electronic with 2012’s Hannah Georgas. Georgas’ newest record For Evelyn finds her solely in the electro-pop field. Thanks in part to producer Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck fame, Georgas has created a techno masterpiece that still employs the folky pop that has made her staple of Canadian music for the past eight years. The album is rich with 80’s and 90’s techno and a sound akin to the likes of Montreal’s Le Matos. Georgas’ embracing of her techno form has given us her most assertive album yet. For Evelyn is however more than just about the beats and rhythms. Her melancholy lyrics, inspired by her 98 year old grandmother, oddly fit perfectly with her new found techno sounds. Introspective songwriting about her mother and her grandmother and her own very existence as part of the family and individual in the world is all over the album. I don't think there's a person alive who is immune to “Waste” or “Walls”. Add to the some amazing horns from Joseph Shabason and you have an album that is both bombastic and personal.
In 2014 St. Paul and Broken Bones showed up with their debut album Half the City. It was stunning. But as good as the record was, a lot of the focus (myself included) landed on the Otis Redding-like voice of the great Paul Janeway. As it should. His voice is incredible. Let us just get that out of the way. Why get it out of the way? Because, we could talk about it all day. But, what grabbed me upon listening the the band’s sophomore record was Paul Butler’s production. It’s as if he said, “Yes, Paul Janeway is great. But, so to are The Broken Bones. So, let’s let them star on this record”. And, he did just that. From the outset Butler plays up the additional horn power of Jason Mingledorff and Chad Fisher. There is perhaps no greater an example of this than the wall of sound ending to “Burning Rome” or “Sanctify” (although the horn line does seem a little inspired by The Boo Radley’s Lazarus). Where Half the City was about the soul, Sea of Noise is as much influenced by funk and even Abbey Road-era Beatles. This allows the wizardry of Al Gamble to bubble up in the mix. Harkening sounds akin to Billy Preston and Procol Harem. Gamble’s organ acts as the comfortable bed with which the rest of the Broken Bones can call home. This is a glorious record. Oh, and did I mention, that Janeway guy can sing.
20 year old Aurora Aksnes is a pixie: Dainty, tiny and magical. Her debut album All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend is a mesmerizing feat. From the pounding introduction of “Runaway” and her hit “Conqueror” Aurora sings with a voice that is fittingly nordic. Sounding every bit like Bjork, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (Of Monsters and Men) or even Lykke Li, Aurora also has an almost squeakish fluidity to her voice. Where Bjork sounds like woman in control of the world around her, Aurora sounds at times like a child caught in a world that is out of her control. I am sure a lot of that comes from the truly whirlwind-like rise she has seen happen to her in the last few years. From recording a single for her parents (which was on Norwegian radio within a few weeks) to a meteoric rise that saw her open for the likes of Katy Perry, Aurora (at just 20 years old) can only grab on and hope for the best. The thing is that All My Demons shows a young singer who will prove to be a formidable presence in the pop world. Whether it is the opening groove of “Running with the Wolves” or the tenderness of “Through the Eyes of a Child” Aurora’s sweet pixie-like cadence makes for an album that is so much more than just a pop record. This is even more evidence if you are lucky enough to have picked up the deluxe edition, which includes the then 19 year old Aurora singing the Nat King Cole (eden ahbez written) jazz standard “Nature Boy”. There are few artists I have heard who have arrived on the world stage such vivid ferocity. I am genuinely excited to see what Aurora does with the future of music.
For most of 2016 Kentucky’s Sturgill SImpson has been portrayed as the saviour of country. And this is not just because of his own brand of outlaw-country that is evident on his major label debut A Sailors Guide to Earth, but also in his online attacks on modern country. Debuting at #3 on Billboard, #1 on the country charts and reaching critical acclaim Simpson’s self-produced A Sailors Guide to Earth is an album that walks the jagged line between hipster-non-commodity and pop culture. Of course this is not coincidental. The lead off single “Brace for Impact” highlights Simpson’s Kentucky drawl and thus fits perfectly in the country camp. Whereas, the album’s second single, a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” couldn’t be any further removed (at least spiritually anyhow). From the opening chords of "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" and the second track “Breakers Roar” the album does not seem like a traditional country record. Yet, it is entirely more country than just about anything you can find on country radio. What Simpson’s production does however, is lend the album a psychedelic feel. The album is comfortably alive in the world of Waylon Jennings, but equally alive in the world of The War on Drugs or Wilco. I always love when an artist gives me something big and bold at the end of an album, and there is no bigger track in music this year than “Call to Arms”. In a year of political and geographic polarization, brutal war and equally brutal politics “Call to Arms” is a political barn raiser! An impassioned plea for us to understand the nature of war and our complacency. “Call to Arms” calls the politicians on their “games” and and a Neil Postman-like fashion calls on us to notice our “distractions” while “we eat them with fries” and “look down at our phones”. And this, political message is overlaying a track of unsurpassed energy, in which his stellar line-up crashes through to the chaotic end.
John K Samson’s Winter Wheat quietly showed up at the end of October and ever so slowly permeated my playlist. As the cold weather set in and the snow hung to branches, I found myself seeking solace in the gently words and quiet contemplations of the former lead-singer of The Weakerthans. The theme of modernization and technological dependency drives through each and every choice of the record. With lines like “before the phones told us where to go”, “A one-bar WIFI kind of town” and “select all delete” Samson can, at times, sound like a luddite troubadour. But, the beauty of the record comes in Samson and wife Christine Fellows' low key production. As Samson sings of the overbearing necessity for technology in today’s world he does so under a blanket of gently dulcet tones. Generally led by Samson’s acoustic guitar the production allows us to be taken in by his contemplative lyrics. The production and delivery of the lead off single “Post Doc Blues” is akin to a Kathleen Edwards’ record, while “Request” sounds like it should be on Ron Sexsmith’s Blue Boy. Like Sexsmith, I do like when Samson gets dismal. And, nowhere is that more evident than on the melancholic "17th Street Treatment Centre" with its Sisyphus-like “probably not getting better”. A message that in a year that has seen so many deaths from fentanyl hurts to even think about. I would be amiss if I didn’t finally reference the album’s “rocker”: “Vampire Alberta Blues”. Given the subject of the song (imagine Interview with a Vampire meets There will be Blood) and its Neil Youngish solo/coda, the songs can’t help but seem like an ode to that other famous Winnipegger.
Imagine a world. A parallel universe if you will. It looks like our world; but the laws of time and music are not followed, so joyous things happen there, that dare not happen here. I imagine in that world there is a small downtown much like that from Back to the Future. In that small town there is record store where the town’s coolest and strangest cats meet. One bright Saturday afternoon, the members of Asia (or was it Triumph? I can never remember) walk down to the local record store. They complain to the friendly record store owner (keep in mind this is another universe) that they need a singer, preferably female. Off in the distance a young Julianna Hatfield hears them and cautiously approaches.
“I can sing in your band”.
And thus, Crying is formed.
This of course, is not true. However, when you listen to the Purchase, New York band’s debut album Beyond the Fleeing Gates this is what you get. The prog mentality of Ryan Galloway (guitars, keyboards) and Nick Corbo (drums) provides the sonic backdrop for an album that is strangely addictive. Instead of the traditional prog of the 70’s Crying bring in hints of 80’s soundtracks, which allow the keyboards to live very high in the mix. But, it is the merging of Elaiza Santos’ cherub-like voice into this prog pop that truly makes Beyond the Fleeing Gales an album unrecognizable to this world.
So, on the streets of that parallel universe, young people gather on Saturday night to drive through the town in their 1981 Z-28s.
Imagine that you are there.
Open, your T-roof, slide in Crying (on Cassette of course) and blast the likes of “Patriot” or “Revive” so that all can hear the beautifully mad cacophony that is Crying.
In a year that has seen a spotlight shine on aboriginal issues and culture in Canada, there have been many great records that are relevant to Canadian music listeners. But, A Tribe Called Red’s We Are the Halluci Nation is something very special. The Ottawa-based purveyors of “Powwow Step” kick off Halluci Nation with the guiding philosophy of the record. ATCR use the words of the late Santee Dakota poet John Trudell to instill a post-colonial ideology that will guide the entire record. They lay down the EDM, moombahton beats, and then lay on the first-nation rhythms and samples. Then they bring in a collection of musical/political heavyweights that empower their anti-colonial message. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Iraqi-Canadian rapper Yassin “Narcy” Alsalman lead off the guests with the standout punch “R.E.D.” where Narcy slams out “Coca-Cola soul controller holy waters” in reaction to the colonialization for natural resources for profit. The theme is further exemplified when Toronto performance artist and poet Saul Williams steps up to the mic declaring “The germ traveled faster than the bullet”, before declaring “we are not a conquered people”. The guests continue: Tanya Tagaq (“Silas”), Lido Pimienta (“The Light” & “For You”), OKA (“Maima Koopia”), and many more. But, two tracks stand out at the end of the album that push Halluci Nation to a whole new level of dance, folk and hip hop. Shad joins Leonard Sumner and Northern Voice on the ear worm “How I Feel” and the amazing Black Bear singers are left to steal the show on the kinetic “Indian City”.
There is a passion in Thao Nguyen that is undeniable. She sings with a ferocious intensity that is rare in today’s auto-tuned world. And, of course, the subject of her music: marginalization, women’s rights and the power structures that work within relationships, force the listener to think as they listen. This has always been the key dynamic of the Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. However, something different came to the surface on this year’s A Man Alive. As much as Thao is still the heart of the Get Down Stay Downs, A Man Alive sounds more like the band’s record. The additional of Johanna Kunin on keys has elevated the band from their pigeonholed “folk rock” to a sound all their own. On “Guts” Kunin’s lonely Organ and Adam Thompson’s smooth bass lays down motown-esque groove that acts as a perfect foundation for Thao’s “I got the guts; I don’t need your love”. But the real joy of this record is in the band’s embracing of modern sounds and melodies. In doing so, A Man Alive sounds more akin to the the sonic adventures of Beck than it does to the folky west coast sound with which they have often been associated. From lead off track “Astonished Man” to the laid back, “Hand of God” the GDSD seem to be at one with the groovy side of Beck. Yet, on tracks like the deeply powerful “Millionaire” the GDSD seem to thrive in a world of Radiohead minimalism. But, make no mistake there is one standout track that rises far higher than the rest of this solid record. The Thompson-Slota rhythm section is the back bone of this record and nowhere is this more evident than on “Meticulous Bird”. This is also where Thao’s angry feminist (no negative connotation here; only positive) emerges from the shadows. With psychedelic imagery like “I grow my hair so long to wrap around you” to the vengeful decree “I’m at the scene of the crime. I take my body back”, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down hit their stride. And, there is no place where the power of the band and Thao come together better than when Thao belts out the signature line of the record: “Oh my, oh my God, you didn’t know I’d get ferocious”. And, this is the point of the whole record. As much as I have always liked Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, I didn't know that they could get ferocious. But, I like it. A lot.
Iceland’s Junius Meyvant is an amalgamation of everything that is cool. From the start of Floating Harmonies you get a sensation that you're listening to an early seventies soul record, a la Bill Withers. Lots of powerful strings and infectious horn melodies add a rich tapestry across this expensive album. No where is this more obvious than on “Hailslide” and “A Neon Experience”. That seventies neo-soul even comes out in the Issac Hayes-inspired “Beat SIlent Need”. However, the rich diversity of Meyvant, is further evident in his Cohen-esque introspection on tracks like “Domestic Grace Man” and “Signals”. The standout track for me lies in “Manos”; a 7 minute long gentle minimalistic epic in which Meyvant’s acoustic guitar provides an almost trance-like rhythm, that is furthered by soaring strings and gentle piano. Oh, and that lonely trumpet. Beautiful. However there are just as many other sounds that slowly emerge through the mix. Whether, tapping into other singers like The Tallest Man on the Earth or even, on “Pearl in the Sandbox” Canadian country crooner Andy Maize of The Skydiggers. The album is so beautifully digestible. Whether you're driving somewhere, going for a nice walk or just chilling with a pair of headphones, Floating Hrmonies is a perfect companion. The truth is that Soul, Neo-Soul and Blue-Eyed Soul seem to be experiencing a re-emergence, and boy does it sound good. If you are a seventies’ soul fan, or a fan of introspective singer-songwriter, the truth is that Floating Harmonies is nothing short a masterpiece.