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Music industry expert David Farrell has spent years writing about the ins and outs of all things music. Now he’s sharing with us some of the most memorable and noteworthy albums that you should be listening to!
Canada may be hitting above its weight on the international stage with the Biebs, Carly Rae, Drake, deadmau5, Nelly, Alanis and the remarkable Michael Buble, but there is more to music above the 49th than these superstars let on.
With the advent of Christmas it is time to look back on whose done what , and which albums to consider giving or placing on your wish list to receive.
Call me Grinch if I am missing your favourite; the collection below is by no means definitive, nor is it meant to be. Look at it as a gentle reminder, or a starting point.
A number of the reviews first appeared first on the website NewCanadianMusic.ca where I serve as managing editor, overseeing an average of 30 reviews of singles, EPs and albums submitted by a small, knowledgeable team of writers each week. Before we launched at CMW in spring 2012 I only had an inkling of the quantity and quality music being released weekly in the territories and the provinces. It was as much an eye opener as an ear opener.
This said, let’s begin!
ADAM COHEN, Like A Man: Everybody knows that Lenny Jr. is aching to sing ‘’hallelujah! I’m the man’ but, as Julian Lennon quickly found out, being in the “family business” can be as much a mind game as a double fantasy. AC’s fourth album faces the mirror and as much as the reflection is strikingly familiar, it has the appearance of sounding unaffected, genuine and engaging.
AMELIA CURRAN, Specators: Newfoundland-born Curran’s 2009 album – Hunter, Hunter – was a tiny, perfect gem that had all the elements aligned, and the Juno Awards recognised as much. Early reviews for this tardy follow-up are singularly enthusiastic.
“What Will You Be Building” from Amelia Curran’s Juno winning Hunter, Hunter album
BARNEY BENTALL, Flesh & Bone: Bentall broke up with The Legendary Hearts in the late ‘90s after a slew of hits and a career that just never seemed to slip into top gear. In the last few years he has made occasional records under his own name that speak from the heart without much thought to delivering a hit. Flesh & Bone, his latest indulgence, is a joyous, thoughtful, engaging miniature masterpiece festooned with colourful characters, panoramic songs and topped with shimmering ensemble and solo performances.
BIG WRECK, Albatross: An overdue return from a Newfoundland band that has had an uneven career that promises to continue with this album that has earned raves and boos in equal measure. I’m staying out of the fray but including it because even on a bad night these guys still sound good together.
BURTON CUMMINGS, Massey Hall: We’ve all heard the songs a thousand times and yet, on this live album with the Carpet Frogs, BC stands tall, alternately belting and serenading hit after hit with a voice that is undiminished and unmistakable, his charm and exuberance on high beam, and when he rips into “My Own Way To Rock” it’s as if he is singing it for the first time.
Live At Massey Hall: “My Own Way To Rock”
BILLY TALENT, Dead Silence: The melodic Mississauga post-punk rockers skip the niceties about life, love and romantic notions and instead embrace a rebellious activism that never punches below the belt but doesn’t pull its punches either. Bullying rock with attitude.
COLIN JAMES, Fifteen: A sweet sounding collection of songs from the bluesman with matinee looks. Ron Sexsmith collaborates on this 15th album, along with Gordie Johnson and Tom Wilson in a mix of mostly originals laced with a couple of affectionate covers that include John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Peter Green’s “Oh Well”.
COOKIE DUSTER, When Flying Was Easy: Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning adds sunshine to the tracks with singer Jeen O’Brien to create a nostalgic sounding ‘90s album that is a crafted pop confection cannily designed to exorcise glum from the mind of anyone willing to fly with him.
Official video of “Standing Up” from Cookie Duster’s debut album, When Flying Was Easy
CORB LUND, Cabin Fever: First big-league album from the archetype Albertan songwriter who paints portraits in song and puts a high value in musicianship.
CUFF THE DUKE, Union: Various references to youthful versions of CCR, the Heartbreakers and Blue Rodeo abound in descriptions of this alt-country band that makes the difficult sound easy. The only thing wrong with Union is that too few people are aware of it. As for comparisons, they are who they are.
Cuff the Duke at SXSW perform “You Can Count On Me”
DAVE GUNNING, No More Pennies: Gunning writes like a dream, grabbing the listener with a foolscap of lines that are as tight as the planks on a fisherman`s dory and as colourful as a Newfoundland outport.
DANNY MARKS, A Friend In the Blues: An authentic, affectionate and unhurried sounding Canadian blues album featuring an all-star cast. The 12 tracks take the listener on a journey down Highway 61, picking up tombstone legends in Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Listen closely and you can hear spirituals, jazz, rhythm and blues, electric blues, rock and roll-and Danny Marks’ winsome vocals.
DANNY MICHEL & THE BENQUE PLAYERS, Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me: Tenth album, following an eight-year hiatus, from this one-time Juno nominee, recorded in Belize, offers a feast of alt-blues infused with the elegance of Paul Simon’s Graceland, the fortified funk of Taj Mahal’s island-beat Music Fuh Ya and Dr. John’s bewitching Gris Gri. Need more be said?
DEAN BRODY, Dirt: Third album from the celebrated western Canada country singer with a knack for writing imaginative songs that more often than not have a hooks big enough to hang a parlour room of Stetsons from .
Below, Brody performing “Canadian Girls” from his Dirt album.
DIAMOND RINGS, Free Dimensional: Upbeat, joyful gender-bender electro-pop dance bliss from the multi-dimensional John O’Regan who puts Joy Division back on the dance floor.
Diamond Rings official video for “I’m Just Me”
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD, Rewind: The buzz on Elizabeth Shepherd’s follow-up to 2010’s Heavy Falls the Night is well deserved. What she does so well is brush a songbook of standards with translucent vocals and a patina of samba, soul and Parissean pop. A late night antidote to a work week in need of putting out of mind.
FEIST, Metals: An acclaimed album that has earned rave reviews, described variously as “sublime”, “sophisticated”, “impressionistic”, “slinky”, “smooth”, “superb”, even “the cat’s pajamas”. I just haven’t heard anyone quite say they love it. This said, Feist is a class act who, like Joni Mitchell, walks to the beat of her own guitar.
GORDON LIGHTFOOT, All Live: A compilation of concert bits recorded from 1998 to 2001 at Massey Hall and said to be as performed without remixes or dubbed interventions. A strong record spanning a long career and a catalogue of songs that remain as vital today as when first written.
GRAPES OF WRATH, The Singles: It has been 21 years since then upstart Nettwerk Records signed the Vancouver folk-rock trio named after the John Steinbeck novel. Since then the Grapes have created a catalogue of classic retro-pop but never had the good fortune to experience planetary alignment. This collection captures 15 almost-made-it singles that sound as fresh today as they did back when.
HOLLY COLE, Night: The queen of ‘cool’ jazz sounds positively warmhearted on this crossover album that includes a knockout collection of songs, delivered with grace and affection. If this was intended to bust her from the highbrow concert halls to reach a more youthful audience, it’s right on the money.
JASON COLLETT, Reckon/Essential Cuts: JC had been a key figure on the Toronto scene as a solo artist before joining the Broken Social Scene collective. This double-CD revisits highlights of his earlier work on the bonus album Essential Cuts while Reckon affirms his status as an assertive, elegant and eloquent singer/songwriter. There is almost palpable anger evident on his overtly political songs that tackle everything from corporate greed (“I Wanna Rob A Bank”), the downtrodden (“Miss Canada”) to tar sands, the diamond trade, and the Omar Khadr case.
Official video for “I Wanna Rob A Bank” by Jason Collett
JESSIE COOK, The Blue Guitar Sessions: The Kenny G of flamenco guitar with the dashing good looks offers a subtle variation to his successful template by switching to a lighter shade of bossa nova on this, his eighth album. The world is his oyster and he travels far and wide to appreciative audiences.
JIM BYRNES, I Hear the Wind In the Wires: The follow up to Byrnes’ Juno winning blues album Everywhere West is inspired and inspired by classic country, including songs by Buck, Hank, Dolly, Lightfoot, plus a couple wrtten by Tom Waits and Nick Lowe.
JOHNNY REID, Fire It Up: Reid rides side-saddle between Country and Pop and never more so on this certified platinum-selling seventh album that contains duets with Serena Ryder and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. His brogue and looks make him a lady-killer, but he also writes songs straight from the heart and in concert he’s a passionate showman.
Official video for “Baby I Know It” ft. Carolyn Dawn Johnson
KATHLEEN EDWARDS, Voyageur: Fourth studio album co-produced with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and features Norah Jones as a guest vocalist. The NY Times described it as “drowsily beautiful”, the Beeb “spotted with beautiful details” and the National Post advises the songs share the wounds and mourning of a failed relationship. Stream selected tracks via CBC Music.
“Change The Sheets” from the new Kathleen Edwards album Voyageur.
K’NAAN, Country, God or The Girl: If there was a question of whether K’Naan could step outside the shadow of “Wavin’ Flag” the answer is easily found in this sumptuous and irresistible unification of sub-Saharan beats, soca, calypso, zouk, hip-hop and American rhythm and blues. The deluxe edition adds five tracks, including a duet with will.i.am and “Sleep When We Die” featuring Keith Richards.
K’Naan on Letterman with Nelly Furtado performing “Is There Anybody Out There”
LEONARD COHEN, Old Ideas: An album that finds the much loved poet coming to grips with mortality. His 12th studio album has won universal praise and coincidentally became his highest charting over a 45 year recording career that was launched in 1967 with Songs of… , containing “Suzanne” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”.
MARTHA WAINWRIGHT, Come Home To Mama: There is a lot of history behind the making of this album that deals with loss, rebirth, love, dependency, addiction and jubilation. She’s a complex artist who writes compelling songs and comes across very much as an original. With her complex roots, that’s saying a whole lot. As one wag summarized her review of the album, the world could use more pretty voices with smart ideas.
MATT HERSKOWITZ, Upstairs: American-born Montreal resident Herskowitz has won wide acclaim as a composer and principally as an imaginative improv piano soloist (virtuosa, so called by the NY Times no less). On this live-off-the-floor recording at Montreal hot spot Upstairs Bar & Grill, the Julliard grad jazzes up Bach, gives his own Keith Jarrett spin to a pair of Gershwins, rags Petrucciani, breaths life back into Brubeck and slips in a couple of his own panoramic pavanes to complete this almost 70-minute reverie in black and white
METRIC, Synthetica: A breakthrough album of polished electro-rock fronted by talented glam girl Emily Haines.
NEIL YOUNG, Americana/Psychedelic Pill: The first is an album one either loves or hates and no in-between about it. America is an unpolished, raw sounding collection of classic folk songs strung together like a gaggle of ugly ducklings. This said, NY has his fans. My vote would be for the more visceral Psychedelic Pill that rips like a bandage from an open wound, and like much of his work is desperately in need of an edit . With Crazy Horse, the team spits, snarls and rocks like this was their last waltz.
OUR LADY PEACE, Curve: A boundary pusher for Raine Maida’s band took several years to complete and misfires in delivering firepower or the grunge grit of earlier works that were foundational in OLP’s success.
Below, OLP in Studio Q renders an acoustic performance of “Allowance” from Curve.
PAUL REDDICK, Wishbone: Toronto’s Pork-pie hatted poetic bluesman Paul Reddick shakes ‘n’ stirs an intoxicating cocktail of Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues turned to gold by the Stones and John Mayall, on Decca, and boogie-rocked into a commercial soundtrack by Canned Heat.
RUSH, Clockwork Angels: Gentlemanly rock by Canada’s longstanding prog-rock trio pulls together a dazzling collage of orchestral cinemascapes with age sweetly blunting singer Geddy Lee’s shrill voice.
SERENA RYDER, Harmony: A big budget, polished sounding kickstand that triumphs with her sometimes clumsy (clunky?) homespun tapestries given the boot in favour of an uptown sound and a collection of songs that replace the hick with the hip. “Stompa”, the first single, earned mixed notices, but I love it; its follow-up, “What I Wouldn’t Do” wins equal approval, and “For You”, which samples Nina Simone’s version of “I Put A Spell On You” is pure harmony. Everyone wants to see this gal succeed and with a bit of luck this is the album to do it.
Serena Ryder on stage at the Mod Club late performing “Baby Come Back”
SKYDIGGERS, Northern Shore: Eighth studio album by this veteran band bridges a genre that has Blue Rodeo to the right and the Cowboy Junkies to the left with a dollop of bluegrass in between. Sturdy idealism and faultless picking seem to keep them firmly on the fringe of the pop mainstream, but with close to a dozen albums in the catalogue it’s fair to say this is a band that has something to say and an audience that wants to listen.
STARS, The North: Cascading synths, pizzicato strings, a taste of distortion and sonic playfulness pleasingly collide to create a pop novella as pleasing to the ear as the sound of spirited children engaging in a pre-school schoolyard. Condo cool at its best.
SULTANS OF STRING, Move: Third album by the string quartet that plucks familiar pop songs and dresses them up with flamenco, Arabic, Cuban, Gypsy and Brazilian rhythms.
THE TEA PARTY, Live From Australia: Seminal Canadian prog-rock trio The Tea Party has reportedly sold in the region of 2 million records over a 15-year, eight album career. This generous live best-of, 16-track 2CD reunion set, recorded during an Australian tour this summer, soars, crackles and rocks as the trio punches high with some of the best guitar-driven rock you will hear anywhere.
THE WEEKND, Trilogy: Why download it for free when you can buy it? The first official album from Abel Tesfaye includes 3 new tracks packaged with remastered versions of three extended mixtapes – House of Balloons,Thursday, and Echoes of Silence – that run almost 160 minutes over 27 songs.
“Wicked Games” from House of Balloons by The Weeknd
THREE DAYS GRACE, Transit of Venus: The album continues platinum-plus TDG’s alt prog-rock explorations that mix arena rock with soaring ballads. The album has won kudos from the fans and at the end of the day they are the ones that count.
TRAGICALLY HIP, Now For Plan A: Thirteenth album by Kingston’s favourite band is produced by Gavin Brown (Metric, Boys Like Girls, Three Days Grace) and features guest vocals by Sarah Harmer. Rave reviews from the band’s legion of fans, and still unwanted and largely unknown in America.
WHITEHORSE, The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss: Think of Bogey and Becall, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Brangelina, Bruce and Patti, and here in Canada Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet. This sophomore album is a romance on record that works on all levels and if I had to pick one album from this year’s list I would be hard pressed not to pick this.
From The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss: “Achilles’ Desire”
ANTHOLOGIES, COLLECTIONS, BOX SETS
BLUE RODEO, 1987-1993: Greg Keelor remasters the first five albums and takes a panoramic view of the catalogue, adding remixes, demos and outtakes that adds up to more than seven hours of music over eight discs. Outskirts through Five Days in July trace the emergence of a stylish alt-country rock band synthesizing its Gram Parsons, Neil Young, John Lennon roots to create a sound that was to become as fresh and unique sounding as The Band, whom they obviously modelled themselves after. Countless hits and a catalogue of essential Canadian albums later, these proponents of the Canadiana ‘sound’ in a way became as distinctive and influential as those who first influenced them.
COWBOY JUNKIES, Nomad Series: Five CD set includes 53 tracks that bundle Renmin Park, Demons, Sing in My Meadow, The Wilderness and a bonus disc containing 10 songs. The collection includes live, new and cover tracks.
DICK DAMRON, Lost In the Music: An annotated three-CD retrospective of Damron’s RCA-era recordings, released between 1978 and 1989 on the Bear Family Records label, is the 2nd and final installment celebrating the pioneering Alberta country artist who continues to play occasional shows and spend the better part of the year now in Mexico. The earlier collection, More Than Countryfied – The Early Recordings Of Dick Damron 1959-1976, includes 85 songs spanning his early years as a rockabilly artist and later as a renegade ‘outlaw’ country maverick, recorded for a Rolodex of labels long gone.
GREAT BIG SEA, XX: The Newfoundland Celtic rockers will celebrate a 20th anniversary next year with a coast-to-coast tour; meantime, there is a 40-song, 2CD collection and a 5CD boxed-set that includes the hits, lesser known songs and a reel of real and imagined.
JONI MITCHELL, The Studio Albums: 1968-1979: This box set contains the first 10 Mitchell studio albums recorded between 1968 to 1979, including Blue and Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Mingus and hits such as “Both Sides”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, “California” and”’Free Man in Paris”.
RICHARD SEGUIN, Ma DeMeure: The 3CD/single DVD box-set includes a 60 page booklet, 49 remastered songs spanning Séguin’s 40 year career and footage from his 2012 Francofolies de Montréal concert . The iconic and respected Québécois author, composer and singer began his career in the ’70s with twin sister Marie-Claire, in the duo Les Séguin, and has gone on to record 17 albums, many of which have achieved gold and platinum sales success in his home province.