Art by: Michael Rancic

“These last two years have felt like the longest pre-drink in recent history,” writes Leslie Ken Chu in one of his contributions to the list below, and it’s difficult to disagree. As we enter another period of uncertainty with the mutating strains of a worldwide virus, prolonged by governments who refuse to put the safety of people before profit, it can feel like we’ll never escape this space of transitional purgatory before the party starts up again. Thankfully, live music returned in some capacity in 2021, as artists of all genres continued to share the fruits of their creative efforts, offering small doses of joy, catharsis, and resilience in a deeply strange time. The industry-backed artists receiving the lion’s share of mainstream music coverage in so-called “Canada” might still be hard to differentiate from the curated mediocrity of streaming service playlists, but we hope these hand-picked suggestions turn you on to a few songs that you may have never heard before. For the second year running, read on and press play through an unranked list in reverse alphabetical order followed by our personal top picks.

The Halluci Nation – “Tanokumbia” feat. El Dusty, Black Bear Singers (self-released | Ottawa, ON / Corpus Christi, Texas / Manawan, QC)

A Tribe Called Red technically released “Tanokumbia” in 2019, but its inclusion on this year’s One More Saturday Night—the group’s debut as the Halluci Nation and one necessarily concerned with generating space for rebirth—is plenty ground for consideration in a year desperately in need of a hard reset. Swirling in from a place of quiet, loss, and abyss, the carnivalesque opening notes sound subterranean before they’re fully clarified. Building from a fevered free reed melody, new elements percolate slowly, the Black Bear Singers’ powwow calls and El Dusty’s nu-cumbia dembow struts throbbing with resilience, connections in resistance recognized, reflected, reimagined. (Tom Beedham)

The Body and BIG|BRAVE – “Oh Sinner” (Thrill Jockey | Portland, OR / Montréal, QC)

“Oh Sinner” swaggers like a cowboy on horseback, with the kind of slow-rolling confidence that clears dusty main streets and casts long shadows on canyon walls. It’s not exactly a country song, but its punishing folk-rock shakes and stomps with some of the genre’s old-world grit, a legend that echoes through the hills. The highlight of the Body and BIG|BRAVE’s weighty collaborative record, Leaving None but Small Birds, “Oh Sinner” transmutes the two groups’ experimental corrosion into a lumbering piece of folklore—it’s not entirely clear where it’s headed, but you’d best get out of the way. (Kaelen Bell)

OMBIIGIZI – “Residential Military” (Arts & Crafts | London, ON / Toronto, ON)

Anishinaabe artists Adam Sturgeon (Status/Non-Status) and Daniel Monkman (Zoon) come out of the gates hot on the first single from their collaborative project OMBIIGIZI. With a classic indie-rock sound reminiscent of Pinback, Sturgeon tackles a deeply personal topic of the residential-school-to-military pipeline followed by his grandfather. Conjuring evocative imagery of a birch-bark canoe paddling down the freeway, he introduces the concept of “Indigenous Futurisms”—looking back to wisdoms of the past to imagine a brighter horizon. (Jesse Locke)

Narcy & Thanks Joey – “Jeff Bezos” (We Are the Medium | Montréal, QC / Los Angeles CA)

With (now ex-)Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in his sights, Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy punches up however he can, but resistance still feels futile, deflated. He claims to “rock the black mask like Space Ghost,” but the cartoonish atmosphere producer-collaborator Thanks Joey has spun together weighs the action down to the black-and-white class divide of hard-boiled noir—the muted, repeated sigh of a trombone embodying the anti-glamour in all its monotony. “This part of history will be cancelled,” a spoken sample declares at the track’s close. No doubt. (Tom Beedham)

Mustafa – “Stay Alive” (Regent Park Songs | Toronto, ON)

“Stay Alive,” the opening track of Mustafa’s When Smoke Rises, introduces listeners to the grief that floods the entire album. The debut record from Mustafa is delivered gently—the singer-songwriter, poet, and filmmaker describes his music as “inner city folk songs.” But When Smoke Rises is shaped by the violence in Mustafa’s home, Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood (Canada’s largest and oldest social housing development), and the deaths of his friends, and is full of thunderous emotions. On “Stay Alive,” Mustafa, over the soft tread of a running guitar melody, urges, “just stay alive, stay alive, stay alive.” It’s a simple refrain, but much like the album itself, it holds enormous weight. (Laura Stanley)

Debby Friday – “Runnin” (self-released | Vancouver, BC)

“Runnin” ramps up over 45 seconds of incantatory backmasked vocals before the beat drops like a heart monitor rhythm from Kurupt FM. As the song swells into a vaporous mass of drums, whispers, and distant squeals, it becomes what U.K. post-punk group This Heat might have described as music like escaping gas. Rather than alternating between dynamic passages, this ominous loosie released in February simply sets a pace of simmering menace and filters out until the valve is shut off. Debby Friday vocally struts over the bleeps, oozing with confidence and unafraid of whatever shadowy figures linger just outside of the frame. (Jesse Locke)

Club Sofa – “M.E.L.T.” (self-released | Vancouver, BC)

Content warning: sexual assault

The pain of deep-rooted trauma wells up on Club Sofa’s “M.E.L.T.” Though known for the catchy, swaying finesse of their self-described “emo surf,” the band of jazz students lean into the burning anger of their harder-edged influences like Bikini Kill and the Stooges.

“M.E.L.T.” cycles through the shame, self-blame, and self-pity that are the lingering vestiges of sexual assault. The narrator feels sullied, like they’re a burden to others. “I’ve been so unclean / I dirty up your sheets,” singer/rhythm guitarist Payton Hansen sings before worrying, “If I never get better / Will you still stay forever?” She also laments, “I never win / But who’s really keeping score?” When the damage is immeasurable and ever-changing, though, it’s hard to define personal victories. But by confronting her past, Hansen can chalk one up for herself. (Leslie Ken Chu)

Cartel Madras – “WORKING” (Royal Mountain/Sub Pop | Calgary, AB)

Sister rap duo Cartel Madras dropped their intoxicating hip house track “WORKING” at precisely the right time—these last two years have felt like the longest pre-drink in recent history. Returning collaborator Jide curates hypnotic late-night vibes as the song runs the lifespan of a party, from an uncoordinated rendezvous (“Hey, I’ve been here for like 20 minutes. Where are you?”) to messy quarrels (“Yeah, she was just talking shit about me, in front of him. Yeah, no, she’s a huge bitch.”) “WORKING” perfectly captures that feeling of reveling in the heat of the night that’s so sorely missed. (Leslie Ken Chu)

Brittany Kennell – “Clean Break” (Agence Ranch | Montréal, QC)

Brittany Kennell’s debut LP I Ain’t A Saint was a spark of joy in an otherwise wretched year. The Montréal-based country artist (and The Voice alumna) writes catchy and clever songs that often soundtrack situations so distinct that you didn’t even realize that a song about them was missing. Do you distract yourself from the present by grabbing a sponge and scrubbing every surface of your home? Cue “Clean Break,” a lemon-scented break-up tune about doing chores so you don’t think about an ex. Even though sadness lingers in the corners of “Clean Break,” Kennell makes this song shine. (Laura Stanley)

Amos the Kid – “Island of Troubles” (House of Wonders | Winnipeg, MB)

If Dolly and Kenny’s “Islands in the Stream” is love at its softest and most saccharine—chiffon-draped and bathed in sunlight, a breezy walk on some dream-world beach—then Amos the Kid’s “Island of Troubles” marks the moment when the wind picks up and waves start crashing faster than your flip-flops can carry you to safety. A frayed, sand-kicking duet with Yes We Mystic‘s Jensen Fridfinnson, “Island of Troubles” is all push-and-pull, an acid-tongued barn-burner that finds catharsis in the hurt. “You destroy my house,” Amos Nadlersmith deadpans before the song cuts out—play it loudly enough and you might destroy your own. (Kaelen Bell)

Laura Stanley
Ada Lea – “Damn”
Charlotte Cornfield – “Headlines”
The Weather Station – “Parking Lot”
Brittany Kennell – “Clean Break”
Mustafa – “Stay Alive”

Leslie Ken Chu
BIG|BRAVE – “Of the Ilk”
Cartel Madras – “WORKING”
Club Sofa – “M.E.L.T.”
Divorcer – “Bug”
Ducks Ltd. – “Old Times”
Kylie V – “On My Mind”
Le Ren – “I Already Love You”
Soul Boner – “SUMMER SONG”
Visibly Choked – “Mother Tongue”
Yu Su – “Xiu”

Tom Beedham
Cadence Weapon – “Play No Games”
Narcy & Thanks Joey – “Jeff Bezos”
Fucked Up – “Year of the Horse”
Breeze – “Come Around”
Kae Sun – “404 Eros”
Dorothea Paas – “Anything Can’t Happen”
The Halluci Nation – “Tanokumbia”
Fiver feat. The Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition – “Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision)”
YlangYlang – “Penumbra”
Vallens – “If I Don’t”

Jesse Locke
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – “I Pity the Country”
Myriam Gendron – “Go Away From My Window”
Ducks Ltd. – “Under the Rolling Moon”
OMBIIGIZI – “Residential Military”
Dorothea Paas – “Anything Can’t Happen”
Cedric Noel – “Allies”
Debby Friday – “Runnin”
Mas Aya – “18 de Abril”
Fiver feat. The Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition – “Death Is Only a Dream”
CFCF – “Punksong”

Kaelen Bell
Cedric Noel – “Comuu”
Tired Cossack – “Machina”
Dorothea Paas – “Waves Rising”
Ada Lea – “Damn”
Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu – “Persona”
The Body and BIG|BRAVE – “Oh Sinner”
Julien’s Daughter – “The Dealer’s Hand”
The Weather Station – “Loss”
Amos the Kid – “Island of Troubles”
Virgo Rising – “Sleep in Yr Jeans”

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