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Some of my favourite albums in 2020, with the notable exception of Bob Dylan’s formidable Rough and Rowdy Ways, were by Canadian artists. This is not to say that these recordings were necessarily the best of the year, because my ears were not attuned to as much new music as usual—so who am I to judge? In fact, much of my lockdown listening during this strangest of years tended toward old familiar standbys: aural comfort food for covid times. But these were the albums from the past year that I found most inspiring.
U.S. Girls Heavy Light
Meg Remy is an American-born artist who records under the name U.S. Girls. She moved to Toronto in 2010 after marrying the Canadian musician Maximilian Turnbull (formerly known as Slim Twig) and has since collaborated exclusively with Toronto-based musicians. Like the previous U.S. Girls album, In a Poem Unlimited, Heavy Light is life-affirming dance music for critical thinkers. You can move your body to the disco joy of “4 American Dollars,” the pulsing anthemic sweep of “The Quiver to the Bomb” and the girl-group pop pastiche of “State House (It’s a Man’s World)” without ever noticing the references to Martin Luther King Jr., environmental destruction or gender politics. But that would miss Remy’s point—that the world is a fucked-up place and only by confronting it do we have any chance of making sense and dancing our way out of it.
Daniel Romano Content to Point the Way
How have you spent your time during the pandemic? During the first lockdown alone, Daniel Romano released no fewer than eight albums. Some featured feisty punk, others more furious rock or melancholic country. And there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Content to Point the Way finds the prolific Romano returning to the country roots of his earlier albums Come Cry With Me and If I’ve Only One Time Askin’. Hurtin’ songs like “If Words Can’t Express It” and “Diamonds and Dogs,” featuring the aching pedal steel of Aaron Goldstein and the exquisite vocal harmonies of Julianna Riolino, are bound to have you crying in your beer, while the frenetic instrumental “A Pig is a Pig Jig” should get you up and stompin’ your boots on the kitchen table. Shattered dreams, lonely hearts and scorned lovers are all grist for Romano’s mill, making this a twangin’ gem that’s easy to get lost in.
Lido Pimienta Miss Colombia
Lido Pimienta’s 2016 standout recording La Papessa won the Polaris Music Prize, beating out albums by Feist, Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen. Her followup, Miss Colombia, is even better. Recorded in her Toronto home studio as well as a remote village in her native Colombia, the 11-track collection takes a freewheeling approach to mixing traditional and modern elements, from reggaeton, cumbia and porro, a folk genre found on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. “Eso Que Tu Haces” blends cumbia with synth pop, while “Quiero Que Me Salves” features call-and-response vocals between Pimienta and members of Colombian percussion troupe Sexteto Tabalá. Pimienta is at her entrancing best on the hymn to motherhood “Nada,” on which she duets with Bomba Estéreo’s Li Saumet. Busting down aural and cultural boundaries, Pimienta’s latest is thrilling experimentation.
Ron Sexsmith Hermitage
Finding peace away from Toronto, in the cultural oasis of Stratford, Ontario, Ron Sexsmith has channeled a refreshing breezy bliss. As Paul McCartney did on his early solo albums, Sexsmith recorded Hermitage in his living room and played all of the instruments except for drums, which he understandably left to producer Don Kerr, his longtime drummer. This gives the album a warm, laid-back feel that still manages to be upbeat. Over chirping birds, opener “Spring of the Following Year” signals love and optimism, while “Chateau Mermaid” tells of unhurried days and free-flowing wine. “Lo and Behold” is impossibly infectious and “Glow in the Dark Stars” positively shimmers with gratitude for romantic constancy. The album’s cover shows Sexsmith cheerfully mowing his Stratford lawn while sporting sunglasses and a pink feather boa, which perfectly suits the album’s carefree tone.
Jennifer Castle Monarch Season
With so much solitary time on our hands in these days of isolation, Jennifer Castle’s latest album is the perfect companion. Recorded alone at home on Lake Erie, it’s easily her quietest collection to date. At times you may think you’re hearing wind, waves or even crickets outside her house. Accompanying herself on guitar, piano and occasional harmonica, Castle drops into thoughtful reveries about motherhood, heartbreak and the natural world, with the moon as a recurring metaphor. On the title track, she can “see the wings in everything,” as if butterflies are symbolic of the freedom possible all around us. “When the moon is crescent, I swing,” she sings on “I’ll Never Walk Alone,” while on “Justice” she gently intones the need for peace and justice over a delicately fingerpicked guitar. No matter how quiet, gentle or delicate, Castle’s delivery is surprisingly powerful.
Rufus Wainwright Unfollow the Rules
It’s funny, but middle age suits Rufus Wainwright. Now 46, happily married and a father, Wainwright has never sounded more confident and content. But rather than settle into complacency, he has boldly returned with his first “pop” album in eight years and that, in itself, is something to celebrate. Remember, Wainwright unwisely ventured into Judy Garland, opera and Shakespearean sonnet territory. Unfollow the Rules is a welcome return to the lush pop songcraft last heard on his 2012 album Out of the Game. It’s Rufus with his rich tenor soaring on numbers like the exquisite “Only the People That Love” and the closing “Alone Time,” a song perfectly suited to covid times. It’s Rufus joyously serenading his husband, Jorn Weisbrodt, on “Peaceful Afternoon,” and paying tribute to Joni Mitchell on “Damsel in Distress.” It’s Rufus, ultimately, at the top of his game.
Orville Peck Show Pony
Full disclosure: my son Duncan Hay Jennings co-wrote several songs on Show Pony and plays guitar and keyboards throughout. Professionalism should dictate I refrain from reviewing this EP, which comes hot on the boot heels of Orville Peck’s popular debut album, Pony. But I genuinely think the masked gay singer is one of the brightest new belt buckles in country music and that cool songs like the sultry “Summertime” and “Fancy,” Peck’s inventive cover of Bobbie Gentry’s ode to a small-town sex worker, deserve attention. Skeptics will always see Peck’s image as gimmicky, but there’s something deliciously subversive about a gay man singing “Drive Me, Crazy,” a homoerotic song about two truck drivers. Equally flamboyant is Peck’s duet with Shania Twain on “Legends Never Die,” but more power to the country singer who dares to be different.
Badge Époque Ensemble Self Help
Along with the Cosmic Range, Badge Époque Ensemble is one of Toronto’s most exciting new music collectives. Both bands have connections to U.S. Girls and Maximilian Turnbull and each explores the place where adventurous prog rock meets improvisational jazz funk. While the Cosmic Range’s Gratitude Principle is an entirely instrumental recording, Badge Époque Ensemble, led by Turnbull, features guest singers on three of Self Help’s seven tracks. Meg Remy and Dorothea Paas trade jazzy vocals on the slinky opener “Sing a Silent Gospel.” James Baley delivers sensuous soul on the funk workout “Unity (It’s Up to You).” And Jennifer Castle’s mystical voice floats effortlessly through the ballad “Just Space for Light,” one of several tracks enhanced by Alia O’Brien’s flute. Turnbull provides the perfect meditative closer, with his piano-laced “Extinct Commune.”
John Finley Soul Singer
One the world’s best blue-eyed soul singers, John Finley caused a sensation in the 1960s and ’70s with Toronto’s r&b heroes Jon and Lee & the Checkmates and Los Angeles supergroup Rhinoceros. His new solo album, Soul Singer, proves the 75-year-old legend has lost none of his considerable powers. The 11-song collection features plenty of the gospel-soaked soul for which Finley is famous, opening with his signature “Let Me Serenade You,” a hit for Three Dog Night, and closing with Bobby Blue Bland’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be.” In between, Finley’s Rhinoceros bandmate Danny Weis adds dazzling guitar riffs to the Funkadelic-like “Go” and the moody, groove-laden “Money Love.” Finley even covers Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” building intensity and injecting church-like fervor into Cohen’s popular hymn. By the song’s ecstatic finish, he’s made the song entirely his own.