Martin’s Top Four Canadian Albums Of 2021

Martin's Top Four 2021

Following my list last week that chronicled what I consider to be my twenty favorite albums from Canada through 2021, this year proved difficult once again to scratch sixteen of them in favor of four.  After revisiting the twenty candidates, each album continues to shine – although unlike previous years, my top two for this year have been in the running for several months now.  The hardest decision was deciding which one has to yield the top spot.  So here they are, my Top Four Canadian Albums of the year, and one final, hard fought, incredibly worthy victor.

Runner Up: Ada Lea, “One Hand On The Steering Wheel The Other Sewing A Garden“

Of the twenty albums shortlisted for my year-end honors, this stunning sophomore release from Montreal’s Ada Lea (moniker of Alexandra Levy) proved to be both the most surprising and most intriguing.  Released back on September 24th, on the one hand, we discover “a collection of walking-paced, cathartic pop-folk songs,” while on the other, “a book of heart-twisting, rear-view-mirror stories of city life.”  Not only are these eleven original tracks a personal homage to living through all four seasons in her Montreal home, they are also an indie-pop lover’s delight.  Mixing lo-fi and hi-fi sounds (such a trend these days), tracks such as “Damn” and “Oranges” provoke fond memories of music once spun on the AM dial, while “Saltspring” and “Partner” whisk you back to the present-day with their use of electronica and sonic effects.  The alt-pop landscape is vast, but if the quirkiness of Bjork was found on one side, and the popularity of Fiona Apple on another, Ada Lea would be right where those lines intersect (expect those lines to be a little blurry – and spend a lot of time with the closing track, “Hurt,” I beg you). For such a complex album, it is so simple in its construction and approach, yet so alluring and beautiful in its execution.  Check out: “Writer In NY.”

Runner Up: Blue Rodeo, “Many A Mile “

Who says that one of my top four picks has to have earned its stripes over several months?  Yes, I know that “Many A Mile” is barely approaching its first month of officialdom (released December 3rd), but I can also state proudly that I consider this an instant classic from one of Canada’s most prolific and endearing alt-country bands.  Their first release in five years, it is nigh impossible to believe that this was recorded under strict Ontario COVID-19 protocols – the seven band-members forced into separate bubbles, and their musical contributions pieced together like a patchwork quilt.  Equally hard to digest is knowing that if not for the pandemic, the offering of another Blue Rodeo album may not have seen the light of day.  Instead, Jim Cuddy paused working on a solo album to craft some stunners, notably “Never Like This Before” and “I Think About You,” while Greg Keelor used the touring hiatus to his advantage and brought the likes of “Julie Is Painting” and “The Opening Act” to life.  These seven artists combine excellent songwriting with stellar musicianship; the final mastering providing the highly sought after ‘timeless’ Blue Rodeo experience that always whisks me away to my happy place.  Check out: “Symmetry Of Starlight.”  

Runner Up: The Hello Darlins, “Go By Feel“

Tagged as my personal ‘emerging group of the year’ just 12 months ago – based on the strength of their early singles (“Still Waters” / “Aberdeen”) alone – in all honesty, this debut album was already in contention for my top pick even before it was released back on June 11th.  Formed around the Calgary-based duo of Mike Little and Candace Lacina (both highly sought sessions players), The Hello Darlins are usually a five or six-piece band, but have been known to perform sometimes just as a duo, and other times as a nine-piece collective.  Audiences never always know who to expect alongside the duo, but always know what to expect – an evening of outstanding roots-Americana music.  When I reviewed this album last summer, I proudly stated that this was as close to perfection that a debut album can aspire to be, and finding delight among the previously unheard tracks (“Mountain Time” / “Smokin’ Gun”), added that mere words alone could not do this album justice.  But while this debut should have been a lock for the prize, because it absolutely deserves such honors, it would be another strong contender narrowly beating The Hello Darlins to the finish line in an incredibly tight race. Galloping hard down the stretch, it is the sheer power of the competitor that ultimately takes the crown and full honors for 2021.  Check out: “Lonely In Las Vegas.”

2021 Winner: Allison Russell, “Outside Child”

I’ve been pretty consistent in pulling a few surprises out of the bag over previous years with my top album picks, but not this year.  If there was ever ANY doubt that an album of this magnitude – one so deeply personal, so painfully self-reflective, and at times uncomfortable – deserved anything less than the prize.  It is hard to defy convention and bet against “Outside Child,” but having already earned 3 GRAMMY nominations, long-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, and who knows how many potential JUNO considerations shall follow, this debut solo project from the co-founder of Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, offers an autobiographical (added emphasis on graphic) portrayal of a child growing up in Montreal, and the trauma and abuse suffered during such times.  Never have album liner notes ever left such a lump in one’s throat, as you read Allison’s accounts behind tracks such as “Montreal,” “The Hunters,” and “Persephone.”  In the end, “Outside Child” is “not only a radical reclamation of a traumatic childhood and lost home, it is a lantern light for survivors of all stripes – a fervent reminder of the eleventh hour, resuscitative power of art.”  Thank you, Allison Russell, for not only exorcising your demons, but for giving GDW our 2021 Album of the Year. Merci Beaucoup.  Check out: “Hy-Brasil.”

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.