Upon reflection, I would say that it was around the early part of summer 2020 when the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home for me, as we dealt with cancelled (or postponed) concerts that we had planned to attend, and killing our annual travel plans to frequently visit our northern neighbor. And I know that I was not alone, with artist-friends expressing similar doubts about touring and releasing new music.
With the subsequent slowing down of new releases around that same time, I began to wonder if I’d even have enough material to compile a list of my top 20 albums for this review. At this time the prior year, I already had at least twice the required amount as contenders, with several more months of fresh releases remaining to add to that list. Whittling down the choices last year proved very arduous, with so many great choices, but only 20 spots to fill. Fast forward back to summer 2020, and I did not have anywhere close to 20 albums written on my blotter – would this be the year to settle for a Top Ten Album List?
But as cancelled tours and social distancing became the new norm, many artists were very quick to adapt to this new reality. For many, self-isolation further fostered their creativity, rather than hindered, and the resurgence of new releases promptly followed. So much for an easy second half – the albums came thick and fast, and many were some of the finest to date from these artists. My list surpassed 20 choices pretty quickly heading into the fall, with no sign of slowing down soon, and with it, any possibility of an easy year end recap.
So, after plenty of hard choices, head scratching, caffeine consumption, and well-earned glasses of 90 proof (in moderation, of course), here are my top 20 Canadian albums of 2020. I’m sure that I have forgotten some that really should be here, but I’m a mere mortal after all, and prone to mistakes, errors and omissions – intentional or not (I will also add that this list was compiled in late November, so any December releases are unfortunately too late for consideration). And with this last disclaimer, I have once again focused solely on full-length albums here – EP’s were not eligible for the list. Don’t ask me to rank these albums in any order (although, as always, I will share my final Top Four in our final 2020 posting) – I am sticking to the same approach as last year, and simply listing alphabetically by first/band name.
Andy Shauf: “The Neon Skyline”
The much-awaited successor to Shauf’s stunning 2016 album, “The Party,” this 2020 release shares many of the same retro-filled vibes and sounds. Great stories, descriptive lyrics, good-time tunes.
With each and every single release across 2020, this album was destined for my collection. Once I heard “Mountain Woman,” the album deserved a place on this list – not penciled in, but with a bold Sharpie!
Daniel Belanger: “Travelling”
This flew under the radar, as we had no clue about the album until just before the release date. His first album since “Paloma,” this is a unique, stunning collection of theater-worthy instrumental pieces.
Elliott BROOD: “Keeper”
I’m not going to lie to you – an Elliott BROOD album cannot fail to make my list. But “Keeper” saw the alt-country trio return to their “Days Into Years” form, creating this amazing collection in the process.
Emm Gryner: “Just for You”
No stranger to pop, rock, and folk, Emm Gryner took a huge leap of faith, creating her first jazz album as a gift to her father. Mixing standards with a pair of original pieces, this is a must for any collection.
Jess Knights: “Best Kind Of Light”
I had no familiarity with Jess Knights until late Spring, but once I heard her stunning voice and wide range of sounds, moods, and genres, this one became a ‘no-brainer’ addition to the year-end list.
Jill Barber: “Entre nous”
Her second French language album, following “Chansons” in 2013, sees Jill co-writing original material, rather than cover French classics. It’s incredibly retro, vibrant, charming. Most of all, it’s FUN!
JJ Wilde: “Ruthless”
This was a banner year for Wilde, with the record-setting success of “The Rush” across Canada’s three largest alt-rock stations. Her debut album is equally impressive – have you given it a spin yet?
Joel Plaskett: “44”
If you are going to go big, then go REALLY big! For Joel Plaskett, a 4-album boxset boasting 44 new tunes, plus a bonus 7” Single to celebrate his 45th birthday – should we expect anything less???
Julian Taylor: “The Ridge”
Who could have imagined that this soul-funk-rock artist would not only dabble with folk-roots-Americana in 2020, but would raise the bar to unprecedented levels? Taylor excels…and then some!
Ken Yates: “Quiet Talkers”
Ken Yates is possibly one of the finest songwriters on the circuit today, and with this, his third release, he demonstrates his uncanny ability to turn everyday tales into beautifully crafted masterpieces.
Kennedy Road: “A Little Fight Left Yet”
A folk singer teaming up with a rock guitarist may not grab the headlines, but give this one a spin and marvel at some amazing songwriting, stunning sounds, and harmonies that will knock your socks off.
Rose Cousins: “Bravado”
IMO, if this album is missing from your year-end list of Canadian music, you need to do some soul searching. Making her self-production debut, Cousins once again excels in pushing boundaries.
Sameer Cash: “This City”
2020 saw this Toronto folk-rocker ditch his amped up guitars, reinventing himself as a musical troubadour sharing heartfelt balladry through soft piano tones and deeply personal writing. Beautiful.
Sarah Harmer: “Are You Gone”
A welcome return to the music scene for the Kingston, ON native – give this one a spin and you’ll quickly forget that Harmer ever left us for a while. This is a close to perfect as a ‘return’ album truly gets.
Tami Neilson: “CHICKABOOM”
One of the earliest contenders for my album of the year, this corker mixes country with soul, rockabilly with blues, all delivered in Tami’s (and brother Jay’s) good vibes and trademark vintage twang.
The Blaze Velluto Collection: “We Are Sunshine”
My favorite new discovery from 2020, this Quebec outfit not only boast a terrific retro throwback sound, but add enough flair and quirkiness to stand out from the crowd. “Fish Mountain Pt. 2” absolutely rocks!
Terra Lightfoot: “Consider The Speed”
It has been wonderful witnessing the progression of this Hamilton, ON blues-rocker over the years, and with this latest release, Terra pushed herself into headlining-act territory once and for all. Outstanding.
Terra Spencer: “Chasing Rabbits”
Terra’s 2019 debut album was a stunner, and made my final four year-end honors. This recent follow up is equally amazing, albeit with a slightly different direction and sound. One to watch in 2021.
William Prince: “Reliever”
The first of two releases from William this year, “Reliever” firmly cements the artist as one of Canada’s elite. With his poignant and poetic lyrics, this album will earn repeat plays for many years to come.