Following up from my list earlier this week of my favorite 20 album releases in 2018, with so many fantastic albums to choose from, it was almost impossible to pick a final four that really stood out for me above all others. After revisiting each one, and whittling down the numbers, here are the four albums that I consider to be the best Canadian releases over the last twelve months.
Runner Up: The Sheepdogs, “Changing Colours”
This is a band that continues to go from strength to strength. I really felt that they had hit their stride with their 2015 “Future Nostalgia” release, and did not think that any follow up could possibly repeat that. How wrong I was to doubt this SK based retro-rock band! “Changing Colours” proves to be the perfect continuation of their previous release, with a handful of instant classics here that offer pure nostalgic enjoyment (“Nobody,” “Let It Roll,” and “I’ve Got a Hole Where My Heart Should Be”). And where the 2015 album had a wonderful medley to close it out, The Sheepdogs go a step further this time around, adding two medleys towards the end, carefully placed as cushions around their anthem-like “Up In Canada.” Of course, a full appreciation of their music is achieved when seeing them perform live, which we had the good fortune of doing this past summer, and once again left the venue craving so much more. A date with this band is high on the bucket list again for 2019.
Runner Up: Melanie Brulée, “Fires, Floods & Things We Leave Behind”
Regular readers have seen plenty of coverage for Melanie Brulée on this blog over the last twelve months, and will hopefully not think that I have included here due to my own personal bias. With a significant amount of new alt-country releases this year, the latest offerings from both Colter Wall and Belle Plaine provided stiff competition for this final four spot too. With “Fires, Floods & Things We Leave Behind,” however, comes an outstanding album from an artist willing to openly tackle issues of grief, addiction, sobriety and loss through the power of song. Inspired by a road-trip through the badlands on Route 66, Melanie created an album more akin to being like a soundtrack, tied up in a western-noir theme synonymous with both Quentin Tarantino and Ennio Morricone. With some top-notch musicianship, impeccable song-writing, and superb production, it is very easy to lose yourself within the overarching theme from start to finish here. (You can read our interview with Melanie about this album here.)
Runner Up: Jeremy Dutcher, “Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa”
There is clearly a reason why Jeremy Dutcher was the proud recipient of the 2018 Polaris Music Prize for best Canadian album. And all it takes is one listen to this debut album to understand why. Blessed with not only an outstanding vocal range, due in part to his musical training as an operatic tenor, and musical skills, it is Jeremy’s vision to combine his musical heritage with his ancestral ties that has resulted in this masterpiece. Where else can you hear indigenous archival recordings of his Negotkuk First Nation ancestors alongside the modern day music created by Dutcher? Nowhere, right? We had the good fortune to hear Jeremy Dutcher perform in 2017, long before the album was finished, and knew back then that he had tapped into something very special with his creativity. And for those of you that are resilient to listen when seeing words such as ‘opera’ or ‘classical’ – please do not be discouraged, and risk missing out on a very well-deserved Polaris winner. Skip this one at your own peril.
Winner: Kaia Kater, “Grenades”
No matter how much I contemplated narrowing my choices for album of the year over the last few weeks, this very recent release from Kaia Kater was forever a part of the conversation. Firmly rooted in her traditional Grenadian-Canadian heritage, this album is just as much a reflection on her own family history as it is a unique and thought-provoking collection of heartfelt songs. With an emphasis on her paternal bloodlines, “Grenades” is largely influenced by the historic socialist revolution in Grenada, and eventual US invasion, which ultimately led to the displacement of her father to Canada as a teenager. And while Kaia’s own Appalachian-bluegrass sound remains at the core, the senses are delighted by the inclusion of folk-country, soul-jazz, and even a traditional Grenadian chant too. Produced by Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Erin Costelo, “Grenades” sees Kaia Kater raising her musical game to an unprecedented level, and absolutely deserves to be in everybody’s album collection right now.
I struggle even more than Martin with choosing favorite albums, I think… in each of the years we’ve done these year-end roundups, the slate of candidates has been so strong and deep that choosing has been terrifically difficult. As I also have a healthy disregard for hierarchical structures, I’ll forego ranking my final four, and stick with an alphabetical listing. (I should also add that I loved each of Martin’s choices and could have just as easily chosen any of them.)
Belle Plaine, “Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath”
This project has justifiably received significant acclaim since its release, including its recent selection as album of the year as voted by Sask Music members and fans. Belle Plaine possesses a particular gift for telling stories that are by turn heart-wrenching, laugh-inducing, and thoroughly relatable, and casting them within catchy tunes that stick in your head for days, and this album includes numerous examples of that gift on display. (You can listen to our podcast with Belle Plaine about the album here.)
John Wort Hannam, “Acres of Elbow Room”
I seem to have been seeking out songs with insight and emotion this year; for that reason, John Wort Hannam’s project makes my list. He possesses a voice and a songwriting style that can capture multiple moods in an instant, and make the listener feel all of them in the course of a four-minute song. (Read our complete review of the album here.)
David Myles, “Le grand départ”
David Myles is a true chameleon of an artist – every single project he’s released in his career has been a musical paradigm shift, and thankfully his fans have taken the ride along with him. “Le grand départ,” his first French-language project, feels like a continuation of some of the musical themes and stylings of his previous release, “Real Love,” but is moodier and somewhat more subdued than its older cousin. Over the years we’ve often encouraged English-speaking Canadian music fans to stretch themselves and explore their country’s Francophone music – if you still haven’t yet done so, this album is a terrific place to start.
The Olympic Symphonium, “Beauty in the Tension”
When this album came out in early 2018, I said at the time that it would make my year-end lists – and it has held its position all year. A gorgeous, deeply thoughtful project that explores exactly what its title promises (where one can find something beautiful amidst something not so lovely), “Beauty in the Tension” has remained in my playlist since its release, and I feel confident it will stay there for many months to come. (Read our interview with the band here.)