Got your Christmas list all drawn up for Santa? Great. Now you can add these 50 Canadian albums to it! While you were scratching away on the naughty/nice list, our editorial team fought tooth and nail over the 50 best albums of the year — and now you can see who made it out the other side.
The field is so talented this year that we had a tough time whittling it down to just 50. Some albums knocked us off our feet, others were slow burns and some simply demanded the space to be heard. From Drake to Purity Ring to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Braids to Half Moon Run to so many more, we present CBC Music’s best albums of the year, in order of release date, in the gallery below.
Cairo, A History of Reasons
An occupational hazard of writing about music is that it’s hard to spend a lot of time with any of it. To be able to marinate in a record seems like a luxury at times. Which makes the albums that break through into your regular rotation just that much more special. Cairo’s A History of Reasons is one of those albums. Released back in January, according to my iTunes not only have I listened to it more than any other record in 2015, it was gathering spins well into November.
The opening chant on the title track sets just the right tone for the debut album from the four-year-old Toronto quintet. Lead singer Nate Daniels and drummer Matt Sullivan lead the way on the propulsive, slightly '90s-esque alt-pop track. Cairo tends to lean heavily on soaring choruses, and that’s all right because this record really is all about the power and dynamics of Daniels’s voice and the emotion it’s able to convey.
A History of Reasons is a sparkling, confident debut. Now all this band needs is a break. — Judith Lynch
Viet Cong, Viet Cong
Regardless of whether you’re against or for the band’s controversial name, let’s talk about the music because there is a lot to love on this Polaris Music Prize shortlisted record.
It's all hard angles and soft feelings, weirdly playful and still vulnerable, drenched in muddy fuzz but still blisteringly, willfully and deliberately specific. There are seven distinct shifts on any given track, which should feel disjointed and yet it doesn’t. It’s jolting but not disorienting; rather our ears and our brains are forced to interact in a more meaningful and critical way, constantly being jostled, like an intellectual and creative moshpit: bruising and punishing and thrilling without the physical risks.
Fuzzy, loud, mournful and comforting is an impossible-to-imagine Venn diagram, right? Not anymore. The Calgary-based art-punk band does it brilliantly. — Andrea Warner
Tona, Carpe Diem
While his win for best rap recording at this year’s Junos was as a member of Naturally Born Strangers for their self-titled conceptual project, Carpe Diem finds Tona looking inward for his latest solo project. "Maybe I rhyme too hardcore," he muses in his booming baritone on "Show Me Some Love," the album’s closing track. While it’s probably the result of serendipity rather than intentional sequencing (after all, the album does start off with a head-scratchingly placed intro), that self-reflexive line follows verse after verse of raw, unapologetic, skillfully delivered and flaw-flecked rhymes mining Tona’s inner thoughts, frustrations and vulnerabilities. Hardcore, indeed. — Del Cowie
Drake, If You're Reading This It's Too Late
You could call Drake soft. Or you could say that he's confident enough to talk about his feelings. With If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, Drake pulled a Beyoncé (or a Radiohead, really) and dropped the album as a surprise free download. That’s confidence. "Energy," "10 Bands," "Know Yourself" — the album starts out strong and doesn’t ever lag.
The highly prolific Drake has done what, frankly, no other musician has been able to do: he’s made Toronto an internationally recognizable (and attractive) brand. Who else has been able to get an international crowd to emphatically declare they’ve been "running through the 6 with my woes" in unison (while drunk)?
The American gaze isn’t what makes Canada special. But Drake’s part of (and possibly even responsible for) a larger understanding that Toronto is quickly becoming recognized as a world-class city. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is Drake’s solid move to a wider pop culture ubiquity that is necessary in obtaining pop-star status.
And aside from all that, the album is excellent. It’s Pitchfork/ Polaris/top of the charts good: a critical/commercial success combo that's rare and well-deserved. Drake’s signature sound is present throughout and, coupled with his lyrical genius, convinces rap aficionados of his talent while converting the most reluctant rap listeners. — Nicolle Weeks
Whitehorse, Leave No Bridge Unburned
Continuing to prove that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, husband-and-wife duo Whitehorse have certainly ran their finest musical race yet with this excellent early 2015 album, Leave No Bridge Unburned. Luke Doucet is undoubtedly one of Canada's greatest guitarists, and Melissa McClelland one of our smokiest vocalists. Together they make roots-noire excellence: a sultry, sexy mash-up of classic Nashville, potential spy thriller themes and Canadian roots gold. An added bonus: "Downtown" is now a hockey arena staple. Crossover appeal! — Grant Lawrence
BadBadNotGood and Ghostface, Sour Soul
For many, the indelible image of Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah in 2015 will be of him perpetually hitching up grey sweatpants to admonish Action Bronson for doubting his relevance in a YouTube video (in smartphone portrait mode no less), sermonizing at length about the ending of "grace periods." And that would be a shame, because it would overlook his finely paced performance on this collaborative project with Toronto jazz rebels BadBadNotGood.
While Ghostface unspools a tautly woven narrative arching from hardened criminal to enlightened griot, BadBadNotGood — under the auspices of producer Frank Dukes — shows off its rapidly improving chops, undergirding Ghostface’s yarn with appropriate cinematic heft. — DC
Purity Ring, Another Eternity
Edmonton's Purity Ring brings a welcome lightness to Canadian electronic music. The duo’s futuristic pop is easy on the ears without being simplistic, with beats that are uncomplicated without being annoyingly repetitive. Purity Ring’s ability to make its music malleable is just poppy enough to be aurally pleasing. Another Eternity is an excellent attempt at a sophomore album, retaining the band's now signature sound. With electronic, hip-hop and pop influences, the songs on this album ("Begin Again," "Push Pull" and "Heartsigh," for instance) make uplifting, refreshingly danceable pop songs. — NW
Tobias Jesso Jr., Goon
While living in L.A. and getting by as a session player, Vancouver songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. ran head-on into a series of events that would change his life forever. First was a break-up with his girlfriend, but it was followed with worse news: his mom was sick. It was cancer. Jesso hastily left L.A., putting his instruments in a storage locker. Dejected, depressed, down on his luck and, well, instrument-less, he sat down at the family piano — something he didn’t know how to play — and wrote some of the most affecting and heartbreaking songs of the year (as you’ve probably heard by now, Adele calls him her "secret weapon," and invited Jesso to write for her new album).
The collection of songs on Goon harken back to the '70s and deal with the timeless theme of love, both lost and found. They seem simple in their composition, but conjure up complex emotions. In fact, their simplicity is what makes them so strong, and they sound great whether played with a seven-piece band, as Jesso did on his recent tour, or on solo piano, just as they were written in his mom’s basement when it seemed like nothing was going his way. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin
Joel Plaskett, The Park Avenue Sobriety Test
The Park Avenue Sobriety Test, a.k.a. "The P.A.S.T.," wasn't Joel Plaskett's top-selling record, nor was it his most critically acclaimed, but if you want to hear Plaskett in a reflective comfort zone, listen to this album. The music rolls out easily, as if Plaskett has nothing left to prove, and really nothing to lose. He lets it all hang out here in a loose, fun, East Coast kitchen party of a record, surrounded by musical friends from the past 20 years. The title track is (almost) worth the price of admission alone, a classic Plaskett sing-along about a particularly treacherous corner in his adopted hometown of Dartmouth. Let us all raise a glass to "The P.A.S.T."! — GL
Milk & Bone, Little Mourning
Even before Little Mourning came out last March, many people were curious about Camille Poliquin and Laurence Lafond-Beaulne, two Montreal musicians who, despite only being in their early 20s, have been working for quite some time in the business, accompanying Ariane Moffatt, Alex Nevsky, les sœurs Boulay or David Giguère. With this first record, the two close friends give us eight absolutely delightful electro-pop songs, with an '80s touch. Their voices harmonise perfectly, as if they’re breathing from the same lungs, singing about love, solitude and sadness with vibrant bass, hauntingly beautiful strings and piano and smooth synths. It’s modern and refined, with hints of brightness between the sweet melancholy of the melodies. — Ariane Cipriani
Dear Rouge, Black to Gold
"A new day, a better time" is loosely the concept behind the title track of Dear Rouge's debut LP. It's the band’s take on C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the book references "the fields are changing from white to gold," signifying the new time for Narnia. And what a new time it is. Husband-and-wife duo Danielle and Drew McTaggart released the LP back in March, and it's an incredible listening experience. It has this wickedly good vibe front to back that makes you want to move, even on slower songs such as "Wanna Wanna." It's this kind of record that helps push boundaries in terms of what "Canadian" could be. A new day, a better time indeed. — Matt Fisher
Faith Healer, Cosmic Troubles
One of the very best debuts this year came out of Edmonton. We shouldn't be surprised, since this northern capital has recently churned out such indie rock "it" artists as Purity Ring, Mac DeMarco, the Royal Foundry and Michael Rault, to name a few. You can now add Faith Healer to that great list, a band led by the soft tones of Jessica Jalbert. The band’s debut, Cosmic Troubles, manages to capture a fuzzy, timeless feel in that it could have been released in 1965, 1995 or 2015. If you're a fan of the Velvet Underground, the Apples in Stereo, Alvvays or Sonic Youth, chances are you will love Faith Healer. — GL
Kathryn Calder, Kathryn Calder
Lean in as Kathryn Calder lays out an album of pop love songs, a fittingly and simply self-titled collection. It’s the third solo album from the New Pornographers multi-instrumentalist, and she needs no preamble before listeners dive in. It’s all there in the subtleties: the ache in the words "you can never be mine, no you’ll never be mine, love" in the first single, "Song in CM;" the slow build to the crashing chaos of "When You See My Blood;" the heartbreaker of a mantra in dance-party anthem "Take a Little Time," where Calder sings, "And when you promise all the things that never last, I’ll forgive, and I’ll forgive you."
Ultimately, it’s Calder’s classical, beautifully strong vocals that are showcased on the final songs, coupled with lush, layered synth-pop instrumentation. Where Calder’s lyrics lay her heart bare, she musically swathes each song: the complexity of tracks like "When You See My Blood" and "Take a Little Time" sit in seeming contrast to "Arm in Arm" and "Song in CM," but even the simplest-sounding tracks have layers of sound.
On Kathryn Calder, the singer-songwriter doesn’t tiptoe around something we often ignore: life is short. And holy, is it heartbreaking. — Holly Gordon
Spek Won, Sofa King Amazing
After honing his craft as part of notable artistic collective 88 Days of Fortune, this Toronto MC delivered a strong debut effort imbued with refreshing honesty. While the album starts with Spek Won tapping into his socially conscious and ardently righteous nature on tracks like the searingly relevant "Black Body," an addictively head-nodding "E(art)h," the second half’s spacey ambience is lyrically guided by the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of the id, ensuring Sofa King Amazing fully embraces its dichotomous nature. — DC
Shawn Mendes, Handwritten
I still remember when I first heard the arresting opening verses of Shawn Mendes's debut single, "Life of the Party": "Who is behind that fragile voice, that seemingly improvised delivery, that innate ability to connect?"
What a surprise to discover Mendes was 15 years old, and the youngest musician ever to debut a song in the top 25 on Billboard's Hot 100. He's 17 now, and Handwritten has delivered two more international hits: "Something Big" and "Stitches," the latter cracking the top 10. Not bad for a boy who, only three years ago, joined his school's glee club and uploaded his first YouTube video (a cover of Bruno Mars's "Grenade").
Handwritten convincingly covers a wide stylistic range, from acoustic soul ("I Don't Even Know Your Name") to coming-of-age guitar anthem ("A Little Too Much"); from tear-jerking folk-rock ("This is What it Takes") to pop ("Stitches").
More than a wannabe Ed Sheeran — with whom he's often compared — Mendes has quickly established his own voice and devoted following. Something big is definitely happening. — Robert Rowat
Terra Lightfoot, Every Time My Mind Runs Wild
There's a strong argument to be made that Terra Lightfoot is one of the most dynamic Canadian rockers in the game today. Her holy trinity of voice/guitar/soul forms the bedrock of her 2015 record, Every Time My Mind Runs Wild, a vital album and a spiritual cousin to the best of the Black Crowes or Alannah Myles. The first half of the record is best heard in a sweaty back room of a beer-drenched bar, while the second half is deserving of the impeccable acoustics of our nation's finest theatres. Filled with power, emotion and sensitivity, Every Time My Mind Runs Wild is one of the very best of 2015. — Mitch Pollock
Jazz Cartier, Marauding in Paradise
If you want an idea of what the next generation of Canadian rappers is going to sound like, Jazz Cartier is it. The 21-year-old is far enough removed from the boom-bap sound of '90s hip-hop — a style that continues to influence most Canadian rappers over 30 — to instead grow up on a steady consumption of Southern rap and, closer to home, Drake and producer Noah "40" Shebib. He’s also made one of the best, most energetic and satisfying Canadian rap albums of the year. It's a dark, complex, cinematic and genre-spanning exploration of what it's like to live downtown, complete with moody synths and trap beats straight from the South. The producer, Lantz, has described it as "cinematic trap" music, which is a good blanket phrase to describe the overall feel to Marauding, even if it fails to encompass the complex and diverse range of songs on it, from heart-on-sleeve ballads ("Too Good to Be True," "Feel Something") to uptempo bangers ("Dead or Alive," "The Downtown Cliche") to radio-ready singles ("New Religion," the Toro Y Moi-sampling "Rose Quartz/Like Crazy"). It’s a good look for a young rapper not only heavily influenced by Drake, but also looking to supplant him. — JKG
Braids, Deep in the Iris
The first track off Braids' Deep in the Iris begins with a sigh. It may be the shift of an instrument before the first piano note, or a warmer, human sound. Either way, it’s a steeling of sorts: take that breath, and proceed to the heavy. On this, the Calgary dream-pop trio’s third full-length, we find vocalist Raphaelle Standell both perfectly restrained and heavily raging. Each track begins with her clear, powerful vocals, often ending in a carnal outpouring of sound. There is grief in these words; in these notes.
In the album’s first single, "Miniskirt," Standell is pointed ("Liberated is what you wanna call it, how about unfairly choked?"), detailing abuse, time spent in a women’s shelter and a second chance. The instrumentation starts off simply, as single piano notes, and builds to a tense rage. In the last 30 seconds, Standell repeats, "It's my little miniskirt, think you can have it./ My little miniskirt, it's mine all mine," until, by song’s end, all the sound grinds to a halt, the technology glitching its way to a slow conclusion.
The album is layered, but never instrumentally heavy — that space is left for Standell’s vocal delivery. On "Taste," she sings, "'Cause we experience the love that we think we deserve,/ and I guess I thought I didn’t need much from this world." On "Happy When," though, Standell hints at finding a place to rest: "Sit down with emotion, take the time to feel it./ Like a cloud across the mind, never holding onto, / let it all just billow by."
Deep in the Iris is a punch to the gut, wrapped in rhythmic, electronic warmth. Don't let 2015 close without listening at least once. — HG
Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Never Were the Way She Was
Music can do so many things. It can pick you up or bring you back down. It can make you think or allow you not to for a little while. It can raise your spirits and sometimes it can just completely do your head in. Never Were the Way She Was did all of those things in 2015.
For each of the eight tracks on the album, Stetson and Neufeld wrap their instruments (saxophone and violin, respectively) around a singular beat and then around each other. Each piece has its own rhythm but overall the results are frenetic, hypnotic, meditative, anxious and incredibly compelling. There are moments of baleful beauty ("And Still They Move") and ones that are absolutely menacing ("With the Dark Hug of Time") and wickedly polyrhythmic, tripped-out moments reminiscent of early 2000s Radiohead but with more bite and energy ("The Rest of Us"). — JL
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Power in the Blood
With the title of her new release, Power in the Blood, 74-year-old Buffy Sainte-Marie reasserts herself as the vital and thrilling musician she is, a Canadian icon we can believe in and a powerhouse provocateur. She’s a voice of reason, as ready with the rallying cries as she is with the pointed indictments of social injustice, racism and corporate greed.
From the opening track, in which she revisits and reimagines her 50-year-old classic, "It’s My Way," it's clear that Sainte-Marie has spent a lifetime contemplating and re-evaluating what constitutes power, who is powerful and how we empower. She’s all too familiar with the universal and historical consequences of power as the infrastructure of privilege.
Power in the Blood is full of beats and rhythms, evocative chanting and powwow, and spine-tingling, DNA-shaking moments. There are references to Idle No More and greedy Wall Street fat cats, the destruction of war and its endless cycle of violence, GMOs and commodification, decolonization and legacy, but the Polaris Music Prize-winning record is never weighed down by its politics. If anything, Sainte-Marie and her co-producers have crafted something propulsive and profound, urgent and exhilarating, a collection of timeless anthems of resistance, protest, peace and love. — AW
Patrick Watson, Love Songs for Robots
Patrick Watson is a magician, one who brings you through a musical fairytale, where you forget you’re grounded. With this fifth album, Watson and his longtime pals — bassist Mishka Stein and drummer Robbie Kuster — give us 10 marvelous new songs, creations that don’t give up all their secrets after one listen. Love Songs For Robots reveals a surprisingly dark and warm sensuality, using Vangelis-like keyboard pads, assumed by François Lafontaine, while guitarist Joe Grass adds folky and bluesy colours. Watson remains a master of measurements, creating tantric music: he takes his time and builds fluid, ornamented crescendos that never evolve too quickly, yet hold promise of a soft landing. — AC
If you're never heard of the Montreal-based artist Boogat, now is the time to dig in. His 2015 album, Neo-Reconquista, is an infectious blend of Latin genres and styles. Boogat, a.k.a. Daniel Russo Garrido, raps and sings over reggae, cumbia, funk and other Latin rhythms. The native of Mexico is firmly entrenched in Montreal, and captures the joy of Sunday afternoon on the mountain in the song "En La Montana": "getting together, having some beers and a barbecue." The poetry of his Mexican slang must be heard to be appreciated.
Boogat's collaboration with Montreal collective Heavy Soundz on the song "Los Presidentes" is a Latin dance floor banger, complete with politicized lyrics about injustice and exploitation that would make Manu Chao proud. Other standout tracks include "Londres," a collaboration with Pierre Kwenders, and "Me Muero Por Ti."
Boogat sums up his feeling about this disc best with a statement on his website: "I believed that the only meaning of this new album was to regain the dignity and pride of the vanquished." — Reuben Maan
The Weather Station, Loyalty
Loyalty is a character-driven collection of stories that's best served when you have the time to really listen. The third full-length for Toronto singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman, a.k.a. the Weather Station, this album carries with it tracks like "Way It Is, Way It Could Be," a slightly weary but upbeat road-trip tale encased in a light, warm melody, providing a fitting soundtrack for driving across vast Canadian landscapes. With a beautiful voice often compared to Joni Mitchell's, Lindeman isn't solely interested in the visual terrain, but also the land that lies within relationships. Regardless of what you're looking for, you can turn Loyalty up and drive away. — HG
Yukon Blonde, On Blonde
I imagine the process for selecting a single from Yukon Blonde’s On Blonde was akin to drawing random names from a hat. That’s because every song on the Vancouver rockers' second album is an utter and complete summer jam: 10 euphoric exercises on saccharine, psychedelic pop fit for the cottage, the patio or for turning up so loud in your car that people on the sidewalk start to walk in sync with the uplifting synth notes and frantic high hats. Yukon Blonde reminds me a lot of Tame Impala, only they’re happy.
It’s an industry secret that if you want a song that will do well on the radio, play it for a toddler. If they dance, it’s a hit; if they don’t, pick another single. I spent a week at a cottage full of toddlers this summer, back when On Blonde was released. My first experience with the album was watching my two-year-old daughter yell out "daance!" within the first few seconds of hearing track one, "Confused," while two other toddlers just as quickly joined in. For that reason, I’ve listened to On Blonde more than any other album this year, and every time — without fail — it gets the same response: unfettered jubilation and spontaneous dancing. My daughter’s still really into it as well. — JKG
Calvin Love, Super Future
Calvin Love’s Super Future is as strange as it is compelling, an album full of lonely, heartfelt cries that are both solitary and seductive. "I wish you were my robot so I wouldn’t feel left out," he sings on "Automaton," a conflicted, unnerving sentiment accentuated with a propulsive bassline and sporadic howls doused in reverb, as if they’re being transmitted to us from space.
Hailing from Edmonton — on course to become Canada’s leading producer of some of our favourite eccentric artists (Mac DeMarco, Sean Nicholas Savage, Cadence Weapon), Love comes off as an otherworldly crooner with a deep nostalgia for David Bowie and the Nuggets' psych-rock compilations. It’s an album obsessed with the longing to connect, yet it was recorded solely by Love at his own Cool Creep studio. Ultimately, it’s that contrast that makes Super Future such a compelling listen. — JKG
Mocky, Key Change
Mocky’s latest creative full-length finds the Lumsden, Sask., native, a.k.a. Dominic Salole, in Los Angeles after transplanting himself from his former Berlin base. And while he corrals the talents of frequent Canadian collaborators like Feist and Chilly Gonzales, most of Key Change plays like Mocky happened to fall in with a group of ridiculously talented L.A.-based musicians for a loose yet deceptively intricate jazz-tinged jam session, casually pressing record. When those collaborators include orchestral composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, future soul songstress Kelela and Mike Milosh of delicately melodic duo Rhye — giving Key Change a relentlessly heliocentric glow — it’s definitely not a bad thing. — DC
Mas Ysa, Seraph
Thomas Arsenault throws a lot into his full-length debut, Seraph — throttling beats, fogs of synths, acoustic guitars, flutes, possibly a kitchen sink — but it’s all masterfully reined in by Aresenault’s best instrument: his voice. Whether he’s quietly cooing over a minimal foundation of blips on "Garden" or howling above the cacophony of "Suffer," Aresenault is a commanding presence selling every word he spouts with a captivating empathy that grabs hold from the throbbing opening notes of "Seraph" and doesn’t let go 'til the very last strums of closer "Don’t Make." Seraph is a sonic playground filled with layers just waiting to get peeled back with each listen. — Melody Lau
Lindi Ortega, Faded Gloryville
Lindi Ortega created the idea of Faded Gloryville as both a fictional place and state of mind, one where you "let those feelings of disenchantment and jadedness or what have you, get the better of you." With Faded Gloryville, Ortega’s fourth full-length, one thing’s for certain: she is nowhere near that jaded, fictional place. Working with four producers — Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), Colin Linden and Muscle Shoals duo John Paul White (the Civil Wars) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) — this album is both heart and soul; country, blues, rock and everything in between.
Faded Gloryville is nearly divvied up neatly in threes: the first trio of tracks Ortega did with Linden ("Ashes," "Faded Gloryville," "Tell it Like it Is"), with layers of guitar-playing and a hint of country twang. The three she did with White and Tanner ("Someday Soon," "When You Ain’t Home" and a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody") turn more soulful, more southern. The soul of Muscle Shoals creeps in, and White lends his vocals to "Someday Soon" and "To Love Somebody." The following three tracks, Ortega did with Cobb: "he really captures sort of [what] I like to call the barn-burners of the record," she says. The final and 10th track, "Half Moon," is a little love song to the sky, which Linden produced.
From beginning to end of Faded Gloryville, Ortega sings of picking up, moving on and telling it like it is. It’s best to listen up. — HG
Teen Daze, Morning World
Morning World is a beautiful bird’s nest of a record. The flawless production provides a lush, layered foundation to the 11 near-perfect tracks, some of which are fragile in their delicate beauty (the remarkable opener, "Valley of the Gardens," and the subtle heartbeat of "It Starts in the Water," a gentle tangle of longing and nostalgia that climbs desperately with every repeated refrain), while others stretch and soar from first flight ("Pink" and its '70s vibes sends us running over landscapes of our youth, chasing our childhood over the lilting refrain: "It was love, it was love").
Teen Daze knows grief, but perhaps even more importantly, he is moving through grief and generously sharing his journey. Morning World’s lyrics are just a small part of the healing. Here, the music is everything, so deliberate and evocative that it can crack you in half with a perfectly placed acoustic guitar interlude then sweep you into a blissed-out zone, conjuring happy memories that maybe once were too painful to recall. Listening to a new record, feeling like it was pulled from your bones, knowing for sure you're not alone. This is the sound of catharsis. There really is magic in music. Morning World is proof. — AW
Carly Rae Jepsen, E·MO·TION
There is a rabbit hole of theories and reasons that may be able to explain why Carly Rae Jepsen is not the biggest pop star in the world yet, but it’s clear on her new album, Emotion, that she deserves to be up there with the Taylor Swifts and Demi Lovatos of the world. Drawing from the same sense of '80s synth-pop as Swift’s 1989, Jepsen parses the complexi
ties of love, lust and desire and infuses them into endless, rich hooks that are guaranteed to bury themselves deep inside your head for days.
The soaring sax solo on "Run Away With Me" will sweep you off your feet, the smooth sensuality of "All That" is intoxicating and "Boy Problems" is a upbeat bubblegum number that just demands to be released as a future single. Every track is crafted to perfection thanks to Jepsen’s keen ear for melodies paired with key collaborations with pop heavyweights Rostam Batmanglij, Devonte Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid and Sia. For those searching for Jepsen’s next "Call Me Maybe" hit, there are 12 new gems right here (15 if you count bonus tracks). — ML
Destroyer, Poison Season
A music-box twinkle opens the first track of Destroyer’s new album, the strings fill in around the piano, an atmosphere of elegant rumination as singer-songwriter Dan Bejar stretches his trademark (early) Dylan-esque nasal drawl over every word. It’s beautiful but disquieting, the lyrics arch yet vulnerable — "The writing on the wall wasn’t writing at all/ just forces of nature in love with our weather station" — and then suddenly it’s over. The next track, "Dream Lover," Poison Season’s lead single, is a jolt of blasted horns and wild, exuberant instrumentation, tender and witty lines like "Haunted starlight gets in your eyes/ grabs hold of us and turns us around" followed shortly by "Oh shit, here comes that sun/ and love is on the run."
Poison Season is confounding, exhilarating and wildly experimental. This is the enviable brilliance of Bejar’s work as Destroyer: every song is dense and rich, a full and complete work of art that bears little resemblance to what has come before or what comes next, and yet the connective tissue is evident. These songs belong together. — AW
Coeur de pirate, Roses
Béatrice Martin amplifies her music to new heights on Roses. The Quebec songstress takes some lofty risks here, exploring a more ambitious grandiosity in her pop-driven sounds while dividing her songwriting between two languages (her native tongue of French and English), but it ultimately paid off. It didn’t matter what language in which Martin performed, the sentiments on Roses are expressed loudly, clearly and triumphantly.
Songs swell with heartbreak and discovery as she traverses the transformations of love and motherhood through an introspective lens. They are also given a swift polish thanks to a new set of collaborations with some of pop’s finest producers, Bjorn Yttling (Camera Obscura, Lykke Li), Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Cold Specks) and Ash Workman (Metronomy, Christine and the Queens). The results are an important benchmark in Martin’s flourishing career. — ML
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
Beauty Behind the Madness is a fitting title for the Weeknd’s second studio album. There’s no shortage of madness in Abel Tesfaye’s songwriting — that’s been apparent as he's moved up musical ranks over the past five years. On his debut single, "Wicked Games," he crooned, "Bring your love baby, I can bring my shame," and that’s been his trajectory ever since.
The Weeknd’s second album comes at a different time. No longer a niche act leading a splinter genre like PBR&B, the Weeknd is a certified chart-topper — in America, no less. With the help of superstar Swedish songwriter/producer Max Martin (Taylor Swift, Celine Dion), "Can’t Feel My Face" quickly became one of 2015’s biggest hits and propelled Tesfaye to a new level of success, and accessibility. But the Weeknd hasn’t hidden his love for drugs and (somewhat questionable ways of getting) sex in this album. There’s evidence of some soul searching about his lifestyle, but it’s minimal.
The sound, even if it’s a bit lightened up for a mass audience, is still Tesfaye’s brand of darkness packaged as something irresistible. It’s kind of what being 25 (Tesfaye’s age) is like. And that’s what makes it special — and one of the best albums of the year. — NW
Tami Neilson, Dynamite!
"My heart is beat-beat-beating inside my chest."
Tami Neilson’s voice is magic. Pure and full, it rings out unadorned in the opening moments of Dynamite! before the band fills in and we’re off. A slap of Aretha-esque soul, a twist of Patsy’s country and Wanda’s rockabilly. Then the flashes of Gillian Welch's Americana and modern retro, à la Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse. But rather than a messy mixtape of influences and disparate touchstones, Neilson’s Dynamite! is a rich sampling of music that always coloured outside the lines. Genres that refused to be boxed in, bleeding into each other, borrowing and building on notes, styles and staples.
This isn’t a retro novelty: Dynamite! is bold, fun, heartbreaking and full of whip-smart lyrics and attitude. The energy bursts from every note, and the instrumentation is fantastic. Neilson’s voice is the major star, of course, and it morphs seamlessly from vintage siren soul "Walk (Back to Your Arms)" to the jangly, twangy "Texas," to the tortured torch number "Cry Over You" or the heartbreaking "You Lie." Dynamite! more than earns its exclamation point. In fact, it’s one of the best Canadian albums this year, and establishes Neilson as a major "new" talent. — AW
Souljazz Orchestra, Resistance
"Souljazz is more than just a band for us, it's a way of life," says saxophonist Ray Murray. The Ottawa-based band's latest album, Resistance, is another bold statement as to what that way of life is. The disc is full of epic grooves steeped in Afro, Latin, funk and jazz. Lyrically and spiritually, their vibe is heavily influenced by Afrobeat, with political lyrics delivered directly in a call-and-response style. After playing together for 13 years, the group is obviously supertight. The guys are workhorses, Souljazz prophets, spreading the gospel of "social justice and positive political change" with their feverish and furious horn-heavy dance parties. Pick up this album for your next tropical dance party. Or better yet, see the Souljazz Orchestra play live. — RM
Brett Kissel, Pick Me Up
The pride of Flat Lake, Alta., crafted the perfect, paint-by-numbers pop country album in 2015. And that’s no slur. There’s a familiar arc to the current new country sound but that doesn’t mean that everyone can do it.
On Pick Me Up, Kissel and his crack band absolutely nailed it. Every song is instantly singable with big, sweeping hooks and highly polished production. One listen to the radio-ready "Airwaves" and it will instantly overwrite whatever song was previously in your head and camp out there — for days.
Not a note is wasted, but the album still sounds loose and inviting. Pick Me Up is efficient, effective, infectious and manages to be the perfect album for the diehard and non-country music fan alike. That’s range. — JL
Ben Caplan, Birds With Broken Wings
For his second record, Halifax musician Ben Caplan recruited the brilliant musical mind of Montreal producer Socalled. The pair, along with 30-plus other musicians, created an album full of rousing choruses, eclectic instrumentation, dramatic and spooky lyricism and songs that are distant cousins to both Tom Waits and Gogol Bordello. Caplan’s distinctively deep voice is complimented by female singers, as demonstrated perfectly on one of the album’s standout tracks, the captivatingly soulful "40 Days and 40 Nights," where the main character expresses anguish over being away from a woman for the titular time period. There’s plenty of call and response throughout the record to keep you singing along, and waltz-like rhythms that will make you dance in your kitchen. — Jeanette Cabral
Fierce, phenomenal, filthy and full of middle fingers to conventional thinking, stereotypes of femininity and gendered expectations, Rub is an electrifying and powerful new record from Peaches, a.k.a. Merrill Nisker, the woman who just might save us all.
Rub’s backdrop is relentless beats, the thumping and pumping of a million hearts racing and pounding together. It feels deeply human, raw and primal. Now, let’s talk about sex. Rub utilizes, praises, satirizes and simulates sex in ways that are genuinely inspired and thrilling, both lyrically and sonically. When moralists utilize "perverse" and "shocking" and "pornographic" as tools of shame, Peaches shows up with 15 years' worth of fans who have found inspiration and empowerment in her songs and stamina.
Rub is also, at least in parts, a break-up record. The quiet rage in "Free Drink Ticket" isn’t just in Nisker’s dark, deadened, spoken-word delivery, but also the deep growl of the double bass. It’s a devastating track, but it’s also deeply cathartic and candid. The final track, "I Mean Something," is Nisker’s phoenix rising, reborn, solid again after being temporarily uprooted. Her declaration throughout, repeated on the first and third verse, is Rub’s most vital and provocative assertion: "I mean something, I mean something." — AW
The Dears, Times Infinity, Volume One
Years may pass and music trends might come and go, but if there’s one thing you can count it’s that the Dears will stay true. Their first album in four years, Times Infinity Volume One, has everything we’ve come to expect from them: tragic romance, dark comedy, an overwhelming sense of doom, all set to a backdrop of epic orchestral rock. This album does stick out as a bit of an anomaly on our year-end list: it’s not music that’s made to be danced to or contain lyrics that are meant to be sung out loud. But, let’s face it, in a world intent on formulating the perfect pop song, sometimes an album you need to listen to closely on headphones in a dark room while contemplating your mortality is exactly what you need. Hats off to this band for never changing in a world that’s always changing. Here’s to the death of all the romance, indeed. — Andrea Gin
Born Ruffians, Ruff
Perpetually underrated, Born Ruffians serve up some of their most radio-friendly songs to date here, but it comes with a catch: underlying the undeniably fun dance-rock beats are some seriously malcontent lyrics. The resulting album is curious and a bit uneven, but on balance it’s a fascinating listen. Songs like "F--k Feelings" and "Stupid Dream" point to some kind of overarching lyrical theme of anger, or apathy, or both, I can’t quite tell. The feeling is probably captured best in the video for the addictive song "(Eat Shit) We Did It," which opens with a scene featuring the band sitting half asleep on a couch while lead singer Luke Lalonde is holding up his middle finger and repeating the lyric "thank you very much." There is a manic power in these optimistically sung songs about disillusionment, and it’s kind of grand. At the very least, Ruff deserves a spot on this list because it is probably the most pleasantly confounding thing you’ll hear this year. — AG
Fans of Vancouver singer-songwriter Christopher Smith will instantly recognize Dralms. Not only is it the name of Smith’s new band, also consisting of members from Siskiyou and Failing, but on their full-length debut, they reinterpret Smith’s previously released "Pillars & Pyre" and somehow manage to make it sound even more devastating than the original. Critics have compared Dralms to Radiohead, especially for their lush, evocative synths and the way in which they breathe so much life into electronic textures. I can’t help but be reminded of Sade or, more recently, Canadian/American R&B duo Rhye for their ability to create a soundscape that’s smooth, sensual and completely engulfing. Add to all that Smith’s cooing falsetto and you easily have one of the most atmospheric albums of the year. — JKG
City and Colour, If I Should Go Before You
Dallas Green is still exploring the darkest corners, letting in little bits of light with every lyric and poetic fragment, but this is a much more robust City and Colour than we've ever heard before thanks to the inclusion of Green’s touring band in studio. Think a flock flying in full formation, rather than the solitary figure of bird versus sky. Even in the record’s saddest moments, there’s a propulsive dynamic that’s incredibly refreshing. This is almost the sound of Green having fun, and at least half of the songs are among City and Colour’s best. — AW
Corb Lund, Things That Can't Be Undone
If only you could take Corb Lund to the bank to guarantee your mortgage. For more than a decade he's been releasing rock-solid “alternative” country albums, and if Lund was in the Farmers Bank business, we might not be listening to matter-of-fact ballad "S Lazy H." In it, Lund captures the conflict between modernization and traditional life on the ranch — a story of struggle between family members, one who would sell the family ranch, the other who is trying to carry on for another generation. No one wins but the bankers and lawyers.
Another standout track is "Sadr City." In the live version, a guitar carves through the song like an RPG howling toward its target, Lund's lyrics balancing on a tightrope — being simultaneously anti-war, yet fully supportive of the troops in Iraq. And the story is true, told to Lund by a group of soldiers.
The album is filled with metaphor and humour. "Weight of the Gun" digs into guilt and responsibility, "Alt Berliner Blues" raises a stein in a German beer hall, "Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues" is exactly that. And "Sunbeam," a tender, heart-ripping lament about the loss of Lund's niece, closes the album poignantly and authentically. — RM
Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone?
Last fall, when Majical Cloudz dropped by CBC Music’s Studio 211 in Toronto to debut songs from Are You Alone?, our producer Reuben Maan wrote about the powerful connection that singer Devon Welsh had with the audience, making intense eye contact with almost everyone in attendance, and receiving some pretty raw emotional feedback: "fans could be seen laughing, crying, dancing and returning Welsh’s gaze," Maan noted. This level of intimacy with the audience is unusual yet unsurprising if you’ve listened to the album; the songs have such emotive power that even listening to the recorded versions is enough put you in a contemplative trance. Are You Alone? is much more than a melancholy album, though. It’s an uplifting manifesto on the state of loneliness, a 12-song reassurance that being alone is something that’s awkward and heavy, but nothing you need to avoid. — AG
Half Moon Run, Sun Leads Me On
The Montreal quartet opens its sophomore album with a slow piper and Beatles-esque vocals, as singer Devon Portielje admits, "I’m really not sure if I could put things back together like before." It’s a track that seems more fitting to the end of an album, but Half Moon Run is saying a different kind of goodbye: the band is leaving behind its 2012 debut, and forging ahead. Called "Warmest Regards," with this track the band wants you to know it’s moving on, no hard feelings. And it worked. Sun Leads Me On is a slow burn of an album, growing on you until it’s the only thing you play for weeks. There are harmonies, hooks and dance numbers, as well as slow drifters. Half Moon Run’s experimenting but, at its core, the band is still working with the lush layers on which it made a name. — HG
Kardinal, Kardi Gras Vol. 1
From the beginning of Hope, the first track featuring the insistent vocals of Merna, it’s evident that Kardinal is intent on delivering music with a message. While tracks like infectious single Baby It’s U! ensure Kardinal is not one to shun fun, much of the first half of the album concentrates on delivering thought-provoking home truths on tracks like "Insert Here" over speaker-rattling beats. Kardinal’s diasporic roots soon come to the fore, and the album branches out to incorporate a diverse sonic palette traversing dancehall reggae, R&B and hip-hop. — DC\
Grimes, Art Angels
Pop music is a vague, borderless genre that often absorbs elements from many places, from whatever is deemed popular to the masses. Artist Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, understands this better than anyone and has used this vast field as her playground for experimentation over the span of four albums. Her latest release, Art Angels, is her most successful yet, merging a melting pot of influences into a brand that is distinctly her own. This is a collection of dark, twisted pop songs with an attitude that cheers ("Kill V. Maim"), shrieks ("Scream") and coos ("Easily") with utter confidence. — ML
Alessia Cara, Know-It-All
Poised, polished, confident and fully self-aware, Alessia Cara's full-length debut was an eagerly anticipated one. And it didn't disappoint. The best part of this record is what Cara herself brings to the table: thoughtful, vulnerable lyrics and fantastic vocals. Her voice carries the same arresting quality that Amy Winehouse's did when the world first woke up to her. Not overpowering, but you kind of want it to be. The production on the album is similar to what we heard on "Here" — at once modern and timeless. We should have all had our lives together like this when we were her age. — JL
Justin Bieber, Purpose
It's a tight race for the title of Canada's Most Triumphant Justin in 2015, but we're going to give the edge to Justin Bieber, not only for his remarkable image reboot but also for Purpose, his fourth studio album that has converted even the most stalwart disbeliebers.
Part of the credit goes to the producers, with Skrillex and Diplo giving the world its first taste of Purpose on their single "Where Are Ü Now." Some rolled their eyes at the New York Times' making-of video, but the song's "expensive-sounding sounds" were everywhere within hours of its release.
Produced by MdL and Bieber himself, the album's lead single, "What Do You Mean," instantly parked itself at the top of the pop charts with a tropical-house vibe and synthesized flute, joined shortly by "Sorry," a Skrillex/Blood collaboration.
If highly produced pop is not your thing, seek out the album's quieter tracks: "Love Yourself," "Company" and "Trust." This young man can sing.
For the best distillation of the album's, um, purpose, look at the opening stanza of "I'll Show You":
My life is a movie, And everyone's watchin'. So let's get to the good part, And past all the nonsense
Bieber, who bared more than his soul in 2015, may still have some nonsense in store — he's a 21-year-old pop star, after all. But with Purpose, he turns a page and the good part awaits. — RR
We Are the City, Above Club
Glitchy beats, heavy drums, angular synths. At turns bombastic and hushed. We Are the City's third album delivers nine songs that question and confront both big questions and small situations. Sometimes it feels like a pop record, albeit one your philosophy professor would actually admit listening to. — Brad Frenette