As we approach the final week of 2021, my mind has a flashback to March 2020, when our lives were turned upside down. Daily life activities were forced into holding patterns, and for us music junkies, the enjoyment of road trips and live concerts were quashed. I can’t say that I found much at all to enjoy about the first season of “COVID-19: The New Normal.” The show was terrible and should have been cancelled long before the season finale, never to be repeated.
But alas, counting down these last few days of December, we did indeed have another year of this show; another year of the same-old, same-old. Not only was a second season commissioned, it was almost as bad as the first. Simple plot, bad scripts – a complete rotten apple that continues to drag on. If there was one redeeming feature, however, it is that Canadian artists once again remained creative, writing, recording, and releasing some truly outstanding albums – even when faced with the challenges of social distancing, lockdowns, and limited interaction. Music once again stepped up to the plate, and took many a swing at this pesky pandemic.
As I state every year when compiling my year-end list of top twenty Canadian album releases, it never gets any easier to whittle those choices down this desired number. And that is just for those I’ve had the chance to hear – there are, of course, many more than never even made it onto my turntable, into my CD player, or dropped into my streaming platform – meaning several obvious contenders may have been easily overlooked. This list represents twenty of my personal favorite Canadian album releases from 2021, and as always, EPs were ineligible for consideration. Don’t ask me to rank these albums in any order (although I will share my final Top Four choices in our final 2021 posting) – I am sticking to the same approach as previous years, and listing alphabetically by first/band name.
Ada Lea: “One Hand On The Steering Wheel The Other Sewing A Garden”
Montreal indie songstress Ada Lea (Alexandra Levy) earned my curiosity with “Hurt,” the first single from her sophomore album, and had me hooked with the subsequent tracks that followed. Good indie-pop can often be hard to find, so when you find one, play the heck out of it. Excellent stuff.
Allison Russell: “Outside Child”
After her collaborative albums with ‘Birds of Chicago’ and ‘Our Native Daughters,’ Allison Russell shared her debut solo album with us, baring her soul in the process. Recalling many traumatic moments from her past, she channels her painful memories through song. GRAMMY & JUNO bettors, take note.
Beams: “Ego Death”
This latest release from Toronto psychedelic folk-rockers Beams caught me by surprise when first sampled, with a seismic shift from their banjo and vibraphone past to a new era of guitar riffs. “Ego Death” hits hard, then mellows sonically track-by-track. Spend some time with this one, trust me.
Blue Rodeo: “Many A Mile “
This studio album not only brought one of Canada’s most revered bands back from the brink of pandemic-despair, it also saw a return to their musical roots. Recorded primarily whilst in isolation, you’d never for a moment believe that to be true upon hearing the amazing production and sound here.
Bobby Dove: “Hopeless Romantic”
I will always devote time to the next generation of country artists who seek to keep the traditional sounds of the genre alive. Co-produced with Bazil Donovan (Blue Rodeo) and Tim Vesely (Rheostatics) at The Woodshed, there’s more than enough fire power here to support the inclusion of this album.
Caroline Marie Brooks: “Everything At The Same Time”
This deeply personal and reflective debut offering from Caroline proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises from 2021. Presenting a completely different side of an artist we know and love from Canadian pop-folk trio, Good Lovelies, this work of art is best enjoyed in the company of loved ones.
Colin Linden: “bLOW”
It’s hard to believe that this Toronto-raised, Nashville-based veteran musician has contributed his skills to more than 500 albums over his career, and produced 140 others, yet still flies below the radar. With this release, Colin trades swampy Americana for his own brand of blues, and it truly, truly shines.
Colter Wall & The Scary Prairie Boys: “LIVE In Front Of Nobody”
Recorded live at Nashville’s historic Sound Emporium last March, this Saskatchewan cowboy and his band performed many favorites, along with popular covers and some surprises too. Only offered on vinyl via indie-record stores, this unique and desirable album makes a fine addition to any collection.
Dizzy & Fay: “Songbook”
Inspired by the great American songbook, magic happens when you cast the jazzy piano keys of Dizzy (Mark Lalama) with the smooth, romantic vocals of Fay (Amanda Walther), who combine beautifully to deliver an album that is akin to a fine wine – it keeps getting better with the passage of time.
E.P. Lepp: “Bats In The Boathouse”
For me, discovering this album was pure luck, just being in the right place at the right time (clicking on an interesting looking email, on this occasion). Lepp is no stranger to the Ontario music circuit, but this debut solo offering provides a mix of laid-back indie-Americana jams that continues to impress.
Greg Keelor: “Share The Love”
Talk about a busy year – along with his new Blue Rodeo album, Keelor released this solo project too – an album he actually recorded twice. The original version (recorded 2020) is slow and somber, while the second (RSD Special) was re-captured live-off-the-floor for a completely unique take. Excellent x 2.
Joe Nolan: “Scrapper”
An artist that always flies close to my music radar, yet seldom lands. But once I snagged the moment to give this one some attention, I knew immediately I’d found something special. Instant gratification is not the key with Nolan’s music – let it sit, absorb it, soak it in, and marvel at its magnificence.
Matt Mays: “From Burnside With Love”
Let me toss a live album into the list and I’m happy to play ball. Although this fabulous semi-acoustic concert was recorded back in 2018, it made perfect sense for Mays to release this during a time when life in on pause. As for the limited and very collectible triple-gatefold vinyl package – wowzer!
Megan Nash: “Soft Focus Futures”
Having teased us with a stream of singles over the last year, there was never any doubt that Megan’s highly-anticipated album would see its fair share of year-end lists and honors, and rightfully so. Right here, you are witnessing one of the finest songwriters that Canada has to offer – and it shows.
Over The Moon: “Chinook Waltz”
Amazing, stunning, outstanding – but enough about Craig Bignell and Suzanne Levesque, how does this sophomore album shape up? Amazing, stunning outstanding – with their mix of folk and western swing offering a sentimental journey to a place where the Albertan mountains and prairies intersect.
Simon Leoza: “Albatross”
Like the path of the seabird that travels great distances, this stunning debut full-length instrumental album spanned years of musical exploration and overseas journeys. Stunning piano that harmonizes with strings, the ten tracks go from the grandiose to the intimate. A neo-classical gem.
Suzie Ungerleider: “My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider”
For many, the pandemic forced us to hide, to retreat, and to abandon. For Suzie Ungerleider, it brought courage – to leave Toronto and return to her Vancouver home, and most significantly, to step away from her Oh Susanna moniker with renewed confidence to reinvent and reinvigorate her music.
The Hello Darlins: “Go By Feel”
If there was an emerging band that took the Americana music scene by storm, I’m going all in and putting my money on Calgary, AB supergroup The Hello Darlins. This much-anticipated debut does not disappoint, and sets an almost impossible new benchmark for aspiring folk-roots acts to follow.
The Weather Station: “Ignorance”
Tamara Lindeman’s latest project was touted for year-end lists long before its early 2021 release, and it’s impossible to disagree. This album is a delightful sonic adventure from start to finish. I implore you to go spin the opening minute of “Robber” right now and become as hooked as the rest of us.
Released back in May, this album was a lock for my year-end honors just thirty seconds in to my first listen. I cannot help but throw out words such as epic, thumping, unadulterated and energetic to describe this modern-throwback to Zep, the Allman’s, and other blues-rock-funk masters.