We all have those songs on our playlists, the ones we think should be big hits, get more attention or should be required listening during important times in everyone's lives.
While we spend the end of the year looking at our favourite albums, best music videos, best quotes and the artists who ruled 2018, we're also looking for those hidden gems — the songs that have stuck with us, but maybe haven't been played as much as they should have.
From Shawn Mendes' high-school friend Jon Vinyl to Quebec City punk band Victime to Nova Scotia's Jennah Barry to Aakuluk Music's Aasiva, we recommend all the music you may not have heard yet — but probably want to.
‘Baby,’ Tidal Mouth
An awe-inspiring ode to loss and grief, “Baby” begins with hand-clapping rhythms, evocative of schoolyard games, while slowly building into boiling rage and sadness. Rachael Cardiello’s soaring vocals lead the charge, and she is slowly joined by a chorus of grieving and orphaned singers, all part of the “Dead Dads Club” (the title of their debut EP). For fans of Mountain Man, and anyone who has lost a loved one.
— Julia Caron
‘Call me Up,’ Chris LaRocca
Chris LaRocca has created a comfy space for himself amid the profusion of R&B artists on the Toronto scene. On “Call me Up,” he takes the serene vibe and pliable, expressive vocals we loved on 2017’s “Closer” and “Roses” and adds an even richer palette of sonorities and more concise melodic focus. This is not only refined songwriting — aspiring lyricists should study LaRocca’s deft turns of phrase — but also gorgeous, accomplished sound production on display.
— Robert Rowat
'New Survival,' Ellevator
In the Hamilton tradition of churning out excellent artists — Jessy Lanza, Neil Peart and Daniel Lanois come to mind — Ellevator is up next. The experimental pop band is a haunting force, with Nabi Sue Bersche's melodies circling around her husband Tyler Bersche’s chugging electric rhythms as charming declarations of comfort on the track "New Survival." Speaking about the song in a press release, Nabi Sue said it's “a song I can sing as a mantra to help keep those fears at bay.”
— Colton Eddy
‘Two-Mouthed Woman,’ Wallgrin
The vocal equivalent of walking on water, Wallgrin’s spacious, spacey and atmospheric songs are as thoughtful as they are compelling. The shape of them is a structural marvel, but also one of profound beauty, and this is the perfect doorway into the Vancouver vocalist’s exciting debut, Bird/Alien.
— Andrea Warner
‘Star-Crossed,’ Jon Vinyl
Fans of Shawn Mendes may recognize Jon Vinyl’s name: Vinyl is a high-school friend of Mendes’ and, while Vinyl never asked him to, the pop star has shared Vinyl's music with his millions of fans. “Star-Crossed” is just one of a handful of songs Vinyl has released over the past year, and it’s a promising look at an emerging artist who, we predict, will blow up any minute now. On “Star-Crossed,” a smooth R&B stand out, Vinyl plays a sappy lovelorn character who is trying to convince his subject that they’re just like “DiCaprio and Winslet” in Titanic. It’s a bit cheesy, but I’m definitely smitten.
— Melody Lau
‘Lesbian Break Up Song,’ Safia Nolin feat. La Force
Safia Nolin’s stunning 2018 album, Dans le noir, is not underrated in itself — with plenty of press coverage from both French and English media, plus a spot on ICI Musique’s list of best albums of the year, there’s been a lot of buzz — but the bilingual track “Lesbian Break Up Song” has been flying under the radar. “I was like, ‘I want a lesbian break-up song that is bilingual ... and I had no idea who was gonna sing with me, I just wanted to write that song,” Nolin told CBC Music in October. It ended up being a duet with Ariel L’Engle, a.k.a. La Force (also the newest addition to Broken Social Scene), and the harmony of their voices, switching between French and English, is a beautiful, heartbreaking thing.
— Holly Gordon
‘Time Traveler,’ Witch Prophet feat. Lido Pimienta
The beat is so sexy and it beckons your body before your mind even knows what’s happening — fitting, since the slightly dissonant chorus is its own trance-inducing invocation: “I put a spell on you/ you’re mine, mine, mine, mine now." Ethiopian/Eritrean singer-songwriter Ayo Leilani, who records as Witch Prophet, invites Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta to guest on the track, and their voices wrap around each other like silk scarves intertwined in a masterful illusion. — AW
‘River,’ Young Galaxy
Young Galaxy has gone through a lot of changes over its career. In recent years, though, the duo of Stephen Ramsay and Catherine McCandless has crafted an identity that relied heavily on electronic production and less so on conventional song structures. It’s a formula that distanced them from the mainstream, but that was the point — and it was a success. The seven-and-a-half-minute “River,” off of their 2018 album, Down Time, is an example of what they’ve perfected: a meditative, fluid rhythm that shifts and moves in exciting new directions.
Down Time unfortunately ended up being Young Galaxy’s last full-length, as Ramsay and McCandless announced their hiatus soon after, but the group’s decade-plus legacy will live on — for their incredible work but also for their fierce motivation to grow, to shapeshift and to fight for the music that they believed in. — ML
In some ways, Chastity’s 2018 album, Death Lust, could be bandleader Brandon Williams' version of Arcade Fire's The Suburbs — with Deftones, Fiona Apple and Smashing Pumpkins playing as inspiration in Williams' headphones, instead of Win Butler's influences of Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. In the video for single "Children," the Whitby, Ont., singer addresses his hometown's systemic racism through the story of Dafonte Miller: "This is a close-up on the practice of institutional racism that's revealed itself in my hometown by members of the police," Williams told NPR earlier this year. "John, Christian and Michael Theriault, Toronto and Durham police are a threat to public safety. Black Lives Matter. How much do Black lives matter to police?" Williams not only writes about these issues in his hometown throughout Death Lust, but also organizes local barn burners to raise funds for mental health initiatives. — CE
‘Boys and Girls,’ Zen Bamboo
This four-piece rock band from St. Lambert, just outside of Montreal, really stood out of the pack last year with "Si c'est correct," a powerful rock song about consent (oui, ça se peut). Zen Bamboo has gone for gold with this poppy, Strokes-inspired criticism of gender normativity and toxic masculinity. Pay close attention to the little "doo-doo" back-up vocals and tinkling glockenspiel, showcasing the band's incisive humour. These vulnerable, horny teenaged rockers give me hope for the future. — JC
‘Qalunaat Nunanganit,’ Aasiva
Aasiva’s debut single is utterly charming, and though I do not know what she’s saying — Colleen Nakashuk, who performs as Aasiva, is singing in Inuktitut — I want this song underscoring the meet-cute in every movie for the next five years. The ukulele is whimsical but the song is the Goldilocks of twee. It’s never too slight nor does it pack too much schtick. It’s perfect. — AW
‘Roller Disco,’ Jennah Barry
New music from Jennah Barry is a thing to covet, and it had been six years since we’d heard anything from the Nova Scotia songwriter. “Roller Disco” is the gift that keeps on giving, with Barry’s voice spinning you “‘round and around to the sound of the radio” while trying to say goodbye to a lost love. There’s a welcome hush when the strings and flute make way for Barry’s voice to tell you her story — as we lean in closely — and a whole other kind of soul-crushing quiet when the song closes out, and Barry is left alone with a gentle guitar strum to sing her last lines: “There was a line drawn through our love/ without any space between/ but the circle is my own/ your line doesn’t end with me.” — HG
‘Herbes et curiosités,’ Victime
When's the last time you heard an experimental saxophone solo in a punk song? Victime caught my attention after they pulled a bold stunt while onstage at one of Quebec's biggest punk festivals, decrying gender disparity on the lineup. When I looked them up, I was angry no one had told me about this amazing local band! The second coming of early aughts bands like the Sick Lipstick and Erase Errata, Victime is fearless and young and creative, and this song showcases it all. Punk audiences across the country need to hear this band, and book it at their festivals and venues. — JC
APB's track "Rome," released in April and featuring the haunting voice of Jessie Reyez, was hailed as the Scarborough hip-hop duo's hard-hitting comeback after four years on hiatus. Amidst all that excitement, Mannie Serranilla and Jason Drakes' feel-good tune "Paprika," released around the same time, didn't get nearly as much love as it deserved. The melodic track is a meditation on being present and, mirroring the thoughtfulness of their lyrics, Serranilla and Drakes' music video features an abundance of lush greens and earthy browns to keep you grounded. APB brings good vibes only to this bouncy track. Do yourself a favour and "sprinkle sprinkle that" positivity into your playlist this week.
— Natasha Ramoutar
‘Out of the Sky,’ Random Recipe
On top of being incredibly talented, this Montreal-based trio drops phenomenal queer and feminist anthems with basslines for days. I'm still flabbergasted their 2018 album, Distractions, hasn't been getting more love or radioplay outside of Quebec, in large part because their mostly English-language songs are universally bomb. The album closer "Out of the Sky" is my go-to 2018 jam for when I'm feeling sad and cynical. "I gag and gag at your closed minds/ I burn the baggies of your blurred lines." Forget their hate, forget their drugs, and strut the pain away. I dare you not to dance when you listen to this. — JC
I came across Sydanie's record through Anupa Mistry's Burn Out podcast, and since then "333" has taken the crown on any party playlist for me — though Sydanie transcends any party with lyrics that challenge the colonial systems. The self-described supernatural rapper mom doesn't limit this energy to her music: she also founded the MOCHA (Mothers Organized in Community Healing Arts) project to host creative spaces for racialized, queer and economically challenged mothers and families in her community. Sydanie is one of the best artists around right now, and definitely a reminder to revisit the 88 Days Of Fortune movement, which is well-documented in this CBC Arts piece by Amanda Parris. — CE