Hermitess – Celestial

Hermitess
Celestial
Self-Released
Calgary, AB
RIYL: Weyes Blood; Wallgrin; staring at the night sky and feeling like something’s staring back

Jennifer Crighton wraps existential questions in viscous harp melodies on Celestial, her second EP as Hermitess. Like last year’s Tower, these four songs are loosely based on one of the Major Arcana, the trump cards in tarot. This time, she’s chosen the Star, a harbinger of despair and disappointment, but also inspiration, hope, and opportunity.

Celestial finds Crighton feeling small on Earth while contemplating the vastness of the universe. You can feel her anxiety rise on “Artificial Stars,” where Aria Janzen’s synthesizer effects blow like milk across the sky. Pedal steel is widely considered an earthy instrument, due to its prevalence in country music, but Wayne Garrett uses it to push the lonely, ponderous instrumental “Spacewalk I : Spooky Action At a Distance” farther up towards the infinite. “Celestial Bodies” offers tranquility, as Crighton’s harp melody pools around Melissa McWilliams’ percussive raps.

Like the Tower EP, Crighton has expanded her creative universe on Celestial – fed up with abusive treatment from male producers, she sought femme collaborators she’d never worked with before, specifically sound engineers. Although the big questions about life and existence still swirl in her head, she can find comfort among the new collaborators she’s pulled into her orbit; finding her footing in an unpredictable, mysterious world has become less lonely, more inspiring, and more opportune. This star is just beginning to shine.

– Leslie Ken Chu

Terry Uyarak
Nunarjua Isulinginniani
Aakuluk Music
Igloolik, NVT
RIYL: Death Cab For Cutie; Elisapie; sled dogs

The first sounds you hear on Igloolik singer/songwriter Terry Uyarak’s debut record Nunarjua Isulinginniani are the groans and yelps of sled dogs, followed by boots crackling on hard snow. The dogs, the snow, and the impossibly powerful voice of elder Simon Qamaniq featured in interludes recur throughout the record as leitmotifs which unite Uyarak’s tender pop and folk songs.

Nunarjua Isulinginniani means “before the world ends” in Inuktitut. In Hell World 2020 the phrase feels like a corrective to end-of-days anxiety and a nudge toward memory, joy, and connection. “Anuri” is a gorgeous ballad with Panniqtuq superstar Riit, building with dazzling strings before Uyarak’s tenor and guitar lay the track to rest. “Aniqsaatuinnarit” is backed by a marching snare and shimmering vocals from Becky Han. “Tasiunnga” brings in bedside throat singing from Celina Kalluk on the way to the stomping kitchen-party closer “Igloolik.”

Backed and empowered by his community, Uyarak has produced a serene, lovely debut. The elements present in his work—and in the recent records put forth by other Inuit artists like Riit, Silla and Rise, FxckMr, and the late, dearly loved Kelly Fraser—articulate a listening experience and pop form that reconfigure and exceed industry standards. Pay attention to the depth of artistry coming out of Nunavut and Nunavik right now.

Luke Ottenhof

Inner Touch – 100% Gone 

Inner Touch
100% Gone 
Cosmic Resonance
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Four Tet; CFCF; staring into space 

Operating under the Inner Touch moniker, Toronto-based musician Nicolas Field delivers their debut electronic album in a departure from their punk background with five contemplative dance tracks dedicated to “transformation and relinquishment.” 

Opener “Dripping” elicits the come-up of dancefloor sweat, layering notes that also offer a level of sadness and reflection. The mystery of a title like “Gone” is supported by the owl-like samples and late-night bass tones that simulate a late walk alone, imagining for a short second that you’ve disappeared forever. “Persona” presents a complexity of sounds, from metronomic to meandering, and plays with the concept of identity through the splicing of indecipherable vocal samples. 

The pulsing beauty of album standout ‘Aries’ recalls some of my greatest associations with the star sign – optimism and exploration. I have always wondered how artists choose titles for lyric-less works. Labels can often elude the listener, which is not to say that they appear arbitrary, but more like a secret held by the producer. 100% Gone hands these titles over with context and care. 

Katerina Stamadianos

Vagina Witchcraft
Vagina Witchcraft
Self-Released
Winnipeg, MB
RIYL: Vile Creature; WAKE; Fuck The Facts

I challenge anyone to find a more impassioned four minutes and twenty three seconds to be put to record this year than the introduction to Vagina Witchcraft’s debut— and that happens before even a note of music is played. Taken from vocalist Kayla Fernandes’ speech at a Winnipeg Black Lives Matter rally in June, which was in response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Winnipeg’s own Machuar Madut, the intro unequivocally positions the band and their music as anti-racist and anti-oppressive. It’s a bold but important distinction in the realm of metal where many fans and musicians alike either strive for an “apolitical” stance of ignorance and cowardice or are outright white supremacist scum. 

This context helps set the stage for when Fernandes sings the words “fear me, I am the fucking devil” on the album’s first musical track, “Mercury.” Its anguished bass, drums, and guitar punctuate Fernandes’ bellows and emphasize their fury before the group locks into a double speed doomy torrent that sends the song into a groovy spiral. With each subsequent song Vagina Witchcraft deftly deploy some trademark occult themes and depressive soundscapes of true doom aficionados, that alongside their strong political sensibilities make their music a truly vital expression. 

Michael Rancic

Jazz Codrington – K.O.

Jazz Codrington
K.O.
Self-Released
Halifax, NS
RIYL: the lo-fi hip-hop radio stream on YouTube; Street Fighter II for Game Boy

I guess it’s too easy to say that Jazz Codrington’s K.O. is a knock-out EP but there, I’ve said it anyway. Made on a PO-33 Knockout – a vocal synthesizer and sequencer – K.O. is six compact trip-hop tracks that hypnotically bob and weave from your ears into your chest. In under 12 minutes, Codrington pays tribute to Muhammad Ali and creates glitchy sound worlds that can act as either background music or places to get lost. If you choose the latter, you will find delight in small details like the ringside bell on “Heavy Weight Champion” and the slinky guitar riff on “Soul of a Butterfly.”

If you can’t get enough of K.O., the five other releases by Codrington from this year are also dazzling treats.

Laura Stanley 

Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season

Jennifer Castle
Monarch Season
Toronto, ON
Idée Fixe/Paradise of Bachelors
RIYL: Linda Perhacs; Kath Bloom; dad-mode Bill Callahan

Over the past 15 years, Jennifer Castle has quietly built up a devoted following with her beautiful, humane folk music. From her early days at intimate Toronto venues like the Tranzac Club and Double Double Land to her jam-packed winter solstice concerts each December, she has spent the past decade recording and performing with a large band, adding pieces to her caravan until it became a choogling country-rock chuckwagon. That changed in 2019 when Castle’s solo tour dates opening for Neko Case inspired her to make her sixth LP completely on her lonesome, returning to the spare sound of her origins as Castlemusic

Finding time away from work as a doula, Castle was joined by producer Jeff McMurrich in her rural home by Lake Erie. Recording with the light of the moon and the sound of the water lapping through her windows, she wove together the understated sonic tapestry of Monarch Season with only her voice, acoustic guitar, piano, and a healthy dose of harmonica. On these nine songs, Castle’s quivering voice and unhurried melodic approach meditates on big ideas including justice, the environment, and how cities aren’t changing fast enough to keep up with their problems. 

In a sly nod to soul singer Jimmy Ruffin, Monarch Season closes with Castle posing the question “what becomes of the broken hearted?” She might not have an immediate answer, but does believe in bringing troubled people together, packing sheet music inside copies of the album so anyone can sing and play along. 

Jesse Locke  

Kass Richards
The Language Shadow
Good Cry Records
Toronto, ON / Boston, MA
RIYL: Julia Holter; Palace Brothers; the lost cities of your imagination

In 2017, Kass Richards was welcomed into the ever-swelling ranks of the U.S. Girls live band, becoming one of 20 collaborators surrounding Meg Remy for the recording of her latest album, Heavy Light. That collective experience at Montreal’s storied Hotel2Tango studio proved to be so creatively fruitful that Richards decided to continue the experience in the same location with a smaller version of its congregation. Her debut full-length features co-production and keys by Basia Bulat, the Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury on guitar, and U.S. Girls’ Geordie Gordon adding to the atmospheric instrumentation.

The Language Shadow has the bones of a rustic singer-songwriter project, with Richards initially recording her vocals and nylon string guitar live, yet by improvising its accompanying arrangements the album is imbued with a mystical quality. This is reinforced by the sacred source texts she chooses to adapt, including passages from Shakespeare’s The Tempest on opener “Full Fathom Five,” which sets a gorgeous tone for the album with its shimmering Appalachian dulcimer. She continues to pay tribute with a wonderfully sparse cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers,” but it is Jennifer Castle’s immortal “Nature” that receives the most reverent treatment thanks to the sweeping cellos of Zou Zou Robidoux.

Sara Ludy’s surreal 3D animated video for “Atlantis” provides a fitting visual to the song’s weightless, meditative sound with a shadowy figure levitating into an otherworldly aurora borealis. Rather than searching for a literal lost city, Richards seeks an experience of forging connection between open hearts through the timeless power of creative expression. As the song swells towards its mournful conclusion, she intones a universal plea: “I don’t wanna die alone with my own thoughts.”            

Jesse Locke

La Fièvre – La Fièvre

La Fièvre
La Fièvre
Self-Released
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Noise Unit; Peaches; the ending of The VVitch

“Empowering” is a word that shows up a lot when talking about music with a feminist fire at its centre and its over usage can suggest “empowering” music grants something within the listener that wasn’t there before. In the case of Montréal’s La Fièvre, this electronic duo are neither giving nor asking for authority, simply locating it in the ways it already manifests within themselves and those in the margins. 

Ominous electronics introduce the album before Zéa and Ma-Au (Joséane Beaulieu-April and Marie-Audrey Leclerc) declare that their music is broadly for people in the peripheries of society, a fiery commitment that engulfs the record’s entire 32 minutes: “Faudra faire mieux” is a demand for change and repudiation of being silenced that invokes the natural world; “La Marge” pairs their anti-athoritarian intensity with sirens and buzzing synths to call out the violence against marginalized people, and finds hope in resistance; “Écofeminites” links cultivation and working with the land with further resistance, and its slinking, danceable beat hints at the growing sexual innuendo that also pervades the song. 

The music of La Fièvre’s self-titled debut album unapologetically reveres the power of femininity, and does so by rooting that power in another constant and enduring force: nature. They approach this work enthusiastically, artfully, and resist falling into the trappings of any gender essentialism in the process by situating these themes within a deeper set of radical politics. 

Michael Rancic

LAL – Meteors Could Come Down

LAL
Meteors Could Come Down
Coax Records
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Erykah Badu; Warp Records; the synth from “Welcome to the Machine”

On their seventh album two decades into the game, Toronto electronic searchers LAL’s pandemic record looks inward to radiate Do-It-Together utopianism. Starting at “The Bitter End” and working their way out, it also feels radically grounded in its articulations of time and humanity. 

While the hypnotic minimalism of “Still Movements” has sound designer Nicholas Murray set the steady tick of a clock against sparse piano notes and bowed strings to give the track a haunted sense of urgency, as singer/producer Rosina Kazi repeats the title phrase, it also feels like a comforting reminder of the dependability of change.

Like the album title suggests, catastrophe looms, but disruption often brings fantastic scenes: “Meteors could come down / Stardust all around.”

It’s an album about resilience, and LAL finds that in the collective with Kazi’s lyrics often situated in the first-person, then expanding to include universal “you”s and “we”s. Even after “Who You Are” and its alien synthesizer reach their peak, Kazi strips the chorus sentiment down to its essence and the track fades into the ambient hum of the listener’s immediate surroundings: “We can be / We can be.”

With its downtempo cinematic sweep and cosmic fatalism, Meteors Could Come Down finds hope in a moment stripped of capitalism’s routine, extending an open hand to show new searchers the way. 

Tom Beedham