Written by Jean-Étienne Sheehy
2018 will be remembered as a year that debut francophone albums sent a shockwave through the country's pop music. We were, after all, treated to the emergence of our own glam-rock enfant terrible Hubert Lenoir, plus the consolidation of Lydia Képinski’s place as one of the strongest songwriters of her generation. Both artists, each in their early 20s, are just getting started.
2018 was not, however, the year that French-language artists broke through to English markets overall. With audiences in both French and English Canada taking notice of those new leaders of la chanson francophone, veteran francophone artists also released strong albums with little to no echo outside of Quebec. But one thing did shine through: Quebec City is (finally) getting its due as a musical hotbed.
Here is a ranked list of the best francophone albums of 2018. All albums were chosen from Canadian releases between Jan. 1 and Nov. 13, 2018.
10. Les matricides, Fuudge
Montreal’s Fuudge released EPs in 2014 and 2016, which offered us a rare opportunity to headbang en français. As the most recently released album on this list, the followup full-length Les matricides needed to have an immediate impact while simultaneously being a fun piece of music — and this collection of prog-grunge bangers hits all the right spots with songs like “Capricorne,” and the title track. Once the band turns on its Big Muff pedals, Fuudge lowers us into a deep, heavy swamp. The album pushes the boundaries of francophone rock without ever resorting to clichés. Les matricides sets a standard for heavier rock, as we’re happily stuck moshing in the mud.
9. La femme taupe, Victime
Victime’s debut album is as weird as it is addictive. On La femme taupe, the Quebec City three-piece picks up where its previous EP, Mon VR de rêve, left off last year. The band stands tall at the crossroads of math-rock quirkiness and pure psychedelic rock delight through its musical acrobatics. La femme taupe unveils its full creative force once Laurence Gauthier-Brown and co. lock us in sync with them. The band doesn’t have to rely exclusively on noise, fuzz or urgency to communicate its creativity, as it finds uninterrupted chaos throughout this half-hour well spent.
8. Nos idéaux, Dumas
This year marked the 15th anniversary of Dumas’ career-defining album Le cours des jours. The hits from that release — “J’erre,” “Vénus,” “Linoléum,” “Je ne sais pas” — remain fan favourites, but the Victoriaville, Que., songwriter has since stepped outside of pop's boundaries.
Nos idéaux closes that 15-year cycle, as if the question from the first line of its opening track, “À l’est d’Éden,” could be answered: "Comment suis-je arrivé ici?" (How did I get here?) This does not mean that Nos idéaux is overly nostalgic, though: with the help of American producers Chris Soper and Jesse Singer (Likeminds), Dumas’ pop skills are as polished as ever. The crux of the album lays in its introspection, where Dumas looks at how he felt about his past through the lens of hindsight. Dumas takes a rare break from electronics with album closer “1995” to deliver an unexpected acoustic song, before addressing a letter to his dad on “Le déserteur du Fort Adamo.” Working with writer Jonathan Harnois helps Dumas deliver Nos idéaux with a new and mature clarity throughout these intimate reflections, giving them a cinematic quality. Time has been a muse throughout his career, but this collaboration brings out Dumas’ most personal material to date.
7. Le sens des paroles, Alaclair Ensemble
An essential set of voices at the centre of the rap queb movement, Alaclair Ensemble has remained top of mind despite its members being active in different aliases and projects (like the absurdity of Rednext Level or the personal introspections of Eman x Vlooper). Le sens des paroles doesn’t have the immediate accessibility of Alaclair Ensemble's previous album, 2016’s Les frères cueilleurs, but that’s OK. The band launched the album with its own brand of maple syrup, and the metaphor is à propos: the album deserves a patient process of consideration. And the group delivers: Alaclair Ensemble rewards our patience with bangers like “FLX,” a look into the members' lives after winning a Félix Award during the televised gala last year, and “La famille,” a tribute to everything the band has accomplished.
6. ZAY, Fouki
An album that details a young adult’s daily life in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood may seem too specific to be worthy of attention, but as an MC, Fouki might actually be the most relatable character in rap queb. That's because Fouki isn't rapping about the limited-access after-party; instead, he’s the guy you’ll smoke a joint with outside, without needing to get an invite to any exclusive club. And Fouki’s been receiving a lot of attention throughout the year: "Makeup," a single from ZAY, has more than one million streams on Spotify. ZAY breathes happiness with each song, while offering a refreshing dose of down-to-earth fun. Fouki's sidekick, QuietMike, introduces himself as one of the most interesting beatmakers of the region, giving Fouki enough hooks to be memorable, yet enough influences to remain original.
5. Les choses extérieures, Salomé Leclerc
Salomé Leclerc’s followup to the saturated 27 fois l’aurore (2014) takes a step away from those previous cold spaces furnished by electronic instruments to explore a series of heartfelt letters to an unnamed recipient. Leclerc’s moody folk-rock reaches new heights throughout Les choses extérieures, an album that’s personal both lyrically and musically, as Leclerc played most of the instruments herself. On the chorus of “Ton équilibre” (Your balance), she embraces her fragility through verses that are laid down over lush textures. These are the masterful moments: when Leclerc's songwriting rises above the beauty of the musical spaces she explores. This isn’t only her best work; Les choses extérieures is a masterclass in songwriting, beauty and restraint.
4. La nuit est une panthère, Les Louanges
If nighttime is a panther — as Les Louanges, a.k.a. Vincent Roberge, wants us to believe with his album title — then we might as well let it roam free. This album is as sexy as it is smart, as Roberge takes R&B cues to cruise the streets of Quebec City in a “Tercel 1996” after the bars close on Grande-Allée. Musically, this is a creative exercise in accessible fun, with Roberge embracing funky bass lines and languid rhythms. Wherever this album takes us, Roberge remains the coolest guy in the room. Each of these songs is memorable, but the real accomplishment of La nuit est une panthère is to keep his lounge-y music consistent and compelling throughout an entire album. Roberge more than succeeds.
3. Samedi soir de semaine, Simon Laganière
On Samedi soir de semaine, Simon Laganière’s first solo album, the singer lays himself bare, setting aside his alter-ego (Mario Goyette) and removing the fake moustache he wore for 20 years as half of the comedic Terroir country duo Les Frères Goyette. This album really lets us get to know Laganière on a first-name basis, revealing that, in non-persona form, he is the year’s best-keep secret. Under the shadow of 2018’s over-the-top, self-referential francophone rock stars, Laganière finds the right words and tone to bring his characters to life with the humour and authenticity of folk art. Each of the nine songs takes us somewhere, as we waltz into Laganière’s universe. As a songwriter’s songwriter, Simon Laganière wins big, holding true to the album title and transforming any weeknight into a Saturday night.
2. Premier juin, Lydia Képinski
Lydia Képinski is the real deal. Her dark humour hides instances of beauty, genius and vulnerability: Montreal's now defunct amusement park, Parc Belmont, becomes an infinite loop in "Belmont," whereas the back-and-forth between Maïa and the fishing of the mahi-mahi eventually becomes a literal fishing line launched to a friend in "Maïa." The depth and originality of her music and arrangements unveil a brilliant songwriter who stands alone with freedom and ease. On the title track, Képinski says that on her birthday she’s giving herself permission to do everything she hasn’t yet done, and one can imagine this means the entirety of Premier juin. Her rock-leaning approach to this album enables Képinski to deliver with an impressive debut, and on her own terms.
1. Darlène, Hubert Lenoir
On the night of the 2018 Polaris Prize, a portion of the Canadian music industry discovered Hubert Lenoir and his Fille de personne trilogy — which, to be bold, succeeds where Metallica’s The Unforgiven I - III failed. Dressed in anarcho-goth-punk fashion, Lenoir’s appearance didn't only celebrate the first time a francophone record found itself on the Polaris short list in eight years, but it also allowed the artist to become a larger-than-life, self-described French–Canadian nightmare.
There are as many reasons to celebrate the arrival of Lenoir’s debut as there are hooks on Darlène. Lenoir came out of nowhere in February 2018 with “Fille de personne II,” arguably the most irresistible and triumphant pop song of the year — regardless of language. Darlène as a whole not only transcends language, but genres, gender and any other divisions, sustaining every risk with each of those pop hooks. The result is an album as bold as it is unifying. In the shadow of the biggest hit on the album ("Fille de personne II"), Lenoir scores big wins with big riffs ("Fille de personne III"), walks on the wild side ("J.-C.") and becomes a larger-than-life rock star ("Si on s’y mettait").