Following up from my list last week that chronicled what I consider to be twenty of the best album releases from Canada through 2020, this year proved to be one of the hardest yet in selecting four that stood out above all others. After revisiting the twenty candidates, each album continues to shine, and whittling down the numbers was no easy feat. Selecting a final four list last year seemed to fall into place much easier, with the top spot duked out between two of those four finalists. As for this year, just a few days ago, I still had a list of seven contenders. More tough choices were made to eliminate three of them, and any one of these final four had equal claim to the top spot. So here they are, my Top Four Canadian Albums of the year, and one final, hard earned, hard fought, incredibly worthy victor.
Runner Up: Julian Taylor, “The Ridge”
As if there was ever any doubt that this stunning album from Toronto, ON singer-songwriter Julian Taylor would fail to make my final four! Whether cranking out sweet soul music, funk, reggae, or rock & roll, Taylor never disappoints. And while his “Avalanche” album from last year (also a GDW Top 20 pick) teased with snippets of Americana, never once did I consider that this would be the next direction this artist would take. When I first heard the title track (single release), I struggled to believe that this was Julian Taylor. Not in the sense of ‘where was the funk,’ or ‘where were the killer riffs?’ No, more along the lines of ‘where had this folk-roots troubadour been hiding all this time?’ This is a modern-day masterpiece that continues to sound farm-fresh six months after its release. Amazing songwriting. Outstanding instrumentation from a strong supporting cast. A complete gem that elevates this talented and versatile artist into a whole new spectrum.
Runner Up: Elliott BROOD, “Keeper”
I will not lie to you – this album was a lock for my final four after hearing the advance copy from the band back in the late summer. Long time readers already know how fond I am of this Hamilton, ON based alt-country trio, and upon learning that the guys were working on a new album back in early 2020, this release was permanently etched on my listening radar. Putting my own preferences aside, this seventh studio album from Elliott BROOD is an incredible accomplishment, boasting possibly their most personal and most heartfelt collection of tracks to date. When reviewing the album back in September, I dared to imply that “Keeper” was on par with their highly acclaimed 2012 “Days Into Years” album, itself one of the finest Canadian albums of the modern era, and I stand by such a statement. With Aaron Goldstein adding some truly haunting pedal steel, and revered engineers Sylvia Massy and Daryl Neudorf adding their magical touches in the studio, Elliott BROOD unleashed a much-needed fix for many of us, raising their game to another level in the process. A must have!
Runner Up: Jess Knights, “Best Kind Of Light”
Many were surprised about my choice of top album last year, with Leanne Hoffman taking the honors – an artist unknown to me until early 2019, but one whose stunning debut left me speechless. History almost repeated itself this year – almost – given that I had no familiarity with the music of Calgary, AB rising artist Jess Knights until heading into the summer months – but after some strong airplay across SXM, I was intrigued. Good luck trying to force this album (square peg) into a black and white music stereotype (round hole), as Jess laughs heartily at your rulebook before tossing it out of the window for good measure. Straddling the renegade worlds of alt-country, blues and soul, [her] style is reflective of her own unassuming past. A classically-trained opera singer who cut her teeth in the boozy, rough-hewn dives of her native Calgary, she’s not one to follow convention. (Official Bio). Jess Knights almost took our year end honors – and leaves me incredibly curious as to what shall follow in 2021.
2020 Winner: Jill Barber, “Entre nous”
Lest I repeat myself (one last time), there have been some outstanding album releases this year, but we arrive now at my top pick for 2020. Released back in June, when the harsh reality of this pandemic was in full swing, we all sought a little escapism, something to divert our attention from the negativity and whisk us away to a happier, sonically joyful place. And for myself, to paraphrase from my album review, Jill’s stunning French language album sent me on a time-travel adventure “to a 60s era Quebec City café-bar, or summer’s eve stroll along a Parisienne cobbled street.” Inspired by French pop music of the 1960s, Barber mixes champagne-soaked sounds with traditional Gallic flair, adding accordion and a triple vintage organ assault courtesy of her friends Wurlitzer, Farfisa and Hammond. “Entre nous” is quite simply a stunning collection of original music from Jill and Francophone co-writer Maia Davies (complete with a popular Leonard Cohen cover), earning many spins here since the release. A true ray of sunshine. A beacon of hope. An album that conquers the lingering fears of doubt, trepidation, and uncertainty of what awaits us in 2021. Thank you, Jill Barber, for sharing your passion for vintage French music with us all, and for giving GDW our 2020 Album of the Year. Salut.