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wheeler’s eight tracks

That January is the time for new beginnings is mostly an arbitrary notion. But don’t tell that to Jully Black, who this month put out a song from a Toronto staging of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, Or Change that will mark the Canadian R&B artist’s musical-theatre debut. Also starting fresh in 2020 is Gordon Lightfoot, who just put out the lead single from his first album of new material since 2004.

I Got Four Kids, by Jully Black

With slow-simmering, bluesy drama, singer-actor Jully Black offers a steely show tune from Caroline, Or Change, a Louisiana-set musical she’ll soon star in at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre. Black plays a fed-up washer woman at the height of the civil-rights movement. (Listen on YouTube.)

Oh So Sweet, by Gordon Lightfoot

“A-one, two, three, four.” The troubadour Gordon Lightfoot counts in his first new song in years, setting the rhythm for himself while working a hypnotist’s trick on the rest of us. He casts a solo-acoustic spell, cutting through the second-hand smoke of Steele’s Tavern and other old haunts. The 81-year-old icon is candidly reflective as he considers his past, ponders his lack of regret and wonders – “The road I chose was not all it should be” – what might have been. (Listen on YouTube.)

Neon Skyline, by Andy Shauf

I love the way the bass line slides into this tune, as smoothly as the Saskatoon songster Andy Shauf might slide into the vinyl booths of the boozy diner he sings about. Shauf’s relaxed strum is easy on the ears, as are conversational lyrics about clearing one’s mind, wasting time and ordering merlot by the glass. (Listen on YouTube.)

Closer, by Haviah Mighty

In 2012, the twin-sister duo Tegan and Sara began the video for their surprise pop hit Closer with a cheeky introduction, “Closer, performed in the style of Tegan & Sara.” The joke was that the song was all glitter, beats and synths – a catchy homage to Olivia Newton-John’s leotards and eighties pop hooks, not then the T&S brand at all. Now, we have Polaris Prize-winning rapper Haviah Mighty giving the tune a trippy hip-hop treatment in the style of, yes, Haviah Mighty. (Listen on CBC.)

You Don’t Wanna Hear It, by Ron Sexsmith

“It’s a song about someone who has their nose all out of joint about something and are not in the mood to hear the truth.” That’s how the gentle melodist Ron Sexsmith explains the lead single to his forthcoming all-caps album HERMITAGE. Sexsmith’s truth, as I hear it, involves closed minds, music’s healing properties and the harmonic notions of mustache-era McCartney. (Listen on YouTube.)

Grand Hotel Cosmopolis, Geoff Berner

“This little old man has taken the stage/ And he’s yelling his inexpressible rage.” A high-spirited romp about a German hostel isn’t necessarily autobiographical. For one thing, Geoff Berner’s rage is the opposite of inexpressible. Good times are signalled by a Vancouver punk-klezmer enthusiast who thinks nothing of taking an accordion to a Clash party. (Listen on YouTube.)

Reckless Paradise, by Billy Talent

Billy Talent’s pop-punk fury is so tightly muscled one wonders if the band recorded this new single at a GoodLife Fitness gym. Reckless Paradise is vocalist Benjamin Kowalewicz’s three-chord call for rebellion, but its politics are nothing new; Green Day’s American Idiot echoes in the distance. (Listen on YouTube.)

St. Peter’s Bay, by Sarah Harmer

January is the perfect time for a moody, metaphor-rich folk tune about seasonal shifts and ice skating, with a tension-releasing chorus that soothes winter blues better than the Vitamin D makers would have you believe. (Listen on YouTube.)