Patient Hands
There Are No Graves Here
Self-Released
Saskatoon, SK
RIYL: Ernest Hood; Adrianne Lenker’s instrumentals; borscht

There Are No Graves Here maps the sounds of grief and familial bonds. Patient Hands’  Alexander Stooshinoff was in “a wretched juxtaposition” while composing the album’s hushed, field recording-punctuated, ambient pieces, grieving the end of a long term romantic relationship and caring for his ill mother. 

You can feel the emotional intensity immediately, on “Opening,” when Stooshinoff unleashes a flood of coarse synth sounds which, a few pieces later, on the brief “On Hiatus,” gets rougher and sinister sounding. Overtop the misty drone-scape of the goosebump-inducing “No Graves,” Stooshinoff speaks to us, reflecting on the day’s events and accompanying emotions. He breathes deeply and is lost in these reflections and the uncertainty of everything.

But in spite of all of this, there’s an unexpected warmth to There Are No Graves Here. Stooshinoff’s improvised acoustic guitar melodies are often coupled with the affable sounds of a family gathering: they assemble for dinner to eat borscht and talk about their day. They toast “to health!” A quiet knock on the door is heard and another family member enters the scene like a character does in a family sitcom. While the heaviness of uncertainty is always present, Stooshinoff makes clear that family – however you define it – is a constant. 

Laura Stanley

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

Population II
À la Ô Terre
Castle Face Records
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Amon Düül II; Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; the feeling of staring at an album cover while you’re baked out of your skull at age 17

Population II left a heavy impression on me with their performance at this year’s Taverne Tour, the accidentally pre-pandemic timed music festival spread across various Montréal venues in the last weekend of January. The young trio’s timeless approach to psychedelia was also impressive enough to land them a coveted spot on John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees’ Castle Face Records. Their full-length debut is a seamlessly orchestrated rock ‘n’ roll timewarp, not resembling anything remotely linked to the year 2020. 

Showcasing their instrumental agility, Population II flow from one section to the next with passages of dreamy ambience turning on a dime into tumbling drum fills and earth scorching riffs. An eerie wash of organs floats underneath the slow drip of songs like “Ce n’est rêve” and “Attraction” as the band mesmerizes with snaking repetition. Singing drummer Pierre-Luc Gratton pulls off an impressive trick with agonized moans produced like “I Am The Walrus” delivered at the same time as his relentless motorik, letting loose in moments like the delirious conclusion of “À la porte de demain.” 

Until the days when the words ‘psych festival’ no longer sound like a distant memory, spark one up to À la Ô Terre and relive the hazy memories.

Jesse Locke 

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

Robin Hatch
Noise
Self-Released
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Kate Bush; Austra; Kelly Moran

Robin Hatch is perched atop a silver Ford Focus in a black vinyl jumpsuit and high heeled boots. It’s a commanding image, recalling a sword-wielding Neko Case from her 2009 album, Middle Cyclone. Just like the album art, Noise marks a significant departure for the multitalented Hatch, who’s known primarily as a classical pianist, frequent podcast guest, as well as her work playing in Sheezer, Dwayne Gretzky, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and Our Lady Peace. 

Hatch has experimented with synths previously on 2019’s Hatch, which featured the artist’s improvised explorations on a Jupiter-8 that sounded chilly and Cronenbergian. That album was a marked left turn from her first solo album released earlier that year, Works for Solo Piano, and now Noise is another such unexpected leap in both form and style. Here, Hatch’s talents are applied to a more overtly pop context, even taking on vocal duties. 

Across its eight tracks, Noise sounds like a revelation. Album highlights like the wandering odyssey “Hivemind” (featuring Blood Ceremony/Badge Epoque Ensemble’s Alia O’Brien), the shimmering assuredness of “Heatstroke” and the eerily desolate “The Mirror” all represent a culmination of everything Hatch has  done up until this point. Her classical background emboldens this synth pop with a sense of fearless experimentation.

Michael Rancic

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 

Sadé Awele
Time Love Journey
Self-Released
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: Jamila Woods; Aquakultre; Natalie Slade

Self-care takes time and love. For some people, it’s a journey. Nigerian-born singer Sadé Awele maps her path to self-preservation on her groovy, nocturnal EP, Time Love Journey. “You have to walk that road on your own / … / Are you even willing to try?” she asks on “Care.” Along with committing your own emotional labour, you have to be open to critical reflection: “How can you be so guarded? / I don’t understand it,” her interrogation continues.

Awele commands a breathless cool on the self-assured “No Love Lost.” Faint background horns mingle with pattering percussive brushes, creating a restrained energy on “Peak.” “These are my emotions,” she sings on this humid song, baring her vulnerability as she tries to conquer her anxiety and stay on top of her game.

“Take it easy, take it slow / We’ve got so far to go,” she repeats as thick bass, overhanging brass, and warm, smooth keys propel “Take It Easy” towards a crescendo. Sadé Awele proves self-care is worth the labour. She’s playing the long game, and I have a feeling she’s going to stick it out.

Leslie Ken Chu

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  

SBDC
The Feeling of Winning
Kingfisher Bluez
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: Best Coast; WUT; pre-Warning Green Day

Booze and regrets flow on SBDC’s rollicking new album, The Feeling of Winning. Multi-voice choruses slam you like waves, knocking you under surfing riffs and rolling rhythms, before bungee basslines pull you back up. Getting back on your feet is what The Feeling of Winning is all about. 

“How did I make it through the night?” they ask on “Acid Brains,” after declaring “I don’t want to live this life anymore” on “Every Drunk in the World.” Small victories like shedding your vices and dropping the dead weight of underachievers and directionless, troublemaking boyfriends from your life fill the album’s 21-and-a-half minutes. But doing so comes with mixed emotions: SBDC want zero commitment on “Casual Friends,” yet they seek validation on “Date Me.” 

Such conflicts make for a crashing emotional mess, but they also make The Feeling of Winning one of the year’s best garage pop gems, and that’s no small victory.

– Leslie Ken Chu