While the concert scene is locked down tighter than Charlie Watts’s snare drum, the music industry is still in business, its album-release schedule relatively unscathed. Five months into 2020, we give you an opinionated consideration of the year’s top homegrown albums as well as the most anticipated to come (including a Holy Grail one called Homegrown).
Best of 2020: U.S. Girls’ Heavy Light
Superior pop albums often present themselves as stage musicals for the mind. Imagine Smokey Robinson or Phil Spector on Broadway. Heavy Light, the latest from pop-experimentalist Meg Remy and friends, has the requisite pizzazz, tuneful drama and conceptual thread. The politicized music is revitalized disco and hallucinatory girl-group. Songs are character studies, with flashback-scene potential. This is the album Donna Summer would have died for. Maybe she did.
Suggested further listening: Basia Bulat’s Are You in Love?, Jon McKiel’s Bobby Joe Hope
Coming: Drake’s Untitled
Despite all his success, has Drake yet produced a masterpiece album? Has he made his Illmatic? His All Eyez On Me? His bed? (Mansion maids and butlers being self-isolated these days). The rap-croon king has announced his sixth studio album is set for this summer. All eyez are on him; nothing less than Straight Outta Forest Hill will do.
Best of 2020: Jessie Reyez’s Before Love Came to Kill Us
“Kiss me,” Jessie Reyez demands on her darkly audacious debut album. “I’m the monster that you made.” Some invitation. The intense Colombian-Canadian is Missy-Elliott-wicked at hip hop and smooth as you please with the R&B; sometimes sweet, otherwise gangster. “I ain’t a killa," she declares. "I’ll let you breathe.” Yeah, but just barely.
Suggested further listening: Grimes’s Miss Anthropocene; the Weeknd’s After Hours
Coming: Kathleen Edwards’s Total Freedom
What singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards calls a six-year “working sabbatical” involved her opening a coffee shop cheekily named Quitters. She’s back in the game now, and, judging by her latest two singles – It’s Christmastime (Let’s Just Survive) and Options Open – Edwards’s wry, candid lyricism and thoughtful expressions of vulnerability have survived the extended coffee break intact. Her new album, on Nashville-based Dualtone Records, drops Aug. 14.
Best of 2020: Sarah Harmer’s Are You Gone
If Sarah Harmer’s new album is her first in first in a decade, it reveals no erosion in the beloved singer-songwriter’s skills. The lyricism is poetically contemplative; the melodies, eloquent. She even rocks convincingly when the mood strikes her. Are You Gone is the best album of Harmer’s career – no question.
Suggested further listening: Rose Cousins’s Bravado; William Prince’s Reliever
Coming: Rufus Wainwright’s Unfollow the Rules
The elegant balladeer Rufus Wainwright explained to his Instagram followers last month that he had pushed back the spring release of his new album Unfollow the Rules to July because the CD and vinyl versions were “stuck in the warehouse" due to the COVID-19 lockdown. The melodious former Montrealer went on the proclaim the album “one of my finest.” I’ve heard it; he’s not wrong.
Best of 2020: Pantayo
Though Marc Bolan and T. Rex suggested we should “bang a gong,” rarely did anyone actually take them up on the suggestion. Which is why the groove-heavy contemporary adventures in Kulintang gong music by the Toronto ensemble Pantayo are so welcome. The quintet, whose members identify as queer diasporic Filipinas, rings its bells stylishly, not gratuitously. With a debut self-titled disc that is at turns meditative and danceable, Pantayo, in the parlance of T. Rex, gets it on.
Suggested further listening: Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia; Frazey Ford’s U kin B the Sun
Coming: Tenille Townes’s The Lemonade Stand
Earlier this year, the twang-music teenager from Grande Prairie, Alta., released the EP Road to the Lemonade Stand. Her forthcoming debut full-length album (out June 26 on Columbia Nashville) is called The Lemonade Stand. So, pretty straightforward, as is her pop-leaning music. I’m not sure Townes would know Loretta Lynn if the coal miner’s daughter herself gave the young singer a pony and directions to the Ryman Auditorium, but if you’re looking at Townes, you’re more or less looking at what passes for country these days.
Best of 2020: Jimmy Hunt’s Le silence
Re-listenable and softly euphoric, Le silence from Montreal’s Jimmy Hunt moves along breezily in the spirit of Patrick Watson or Animals-era Pink Floyd. Those with comprehension of French will hear Hunt’s reflections on the death of his father. Those exclusively anglophone will make do with clavier moments, minimalist folk-psychedelia and the best 23 minutes and 15 seconds Serge Gainsbourg never had.
Suggested further listening: Owen Pallett’s Island; Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline
Coming: Neil Young’s Homegrown
Recorded in 1974 in Nashville with the help of Levon Helm and others, Neil Young’s long-buried Harvest-era ode to weed and lost love finally pokes its head through the dirt on June 19. Some of the acoustic ditties, gritty blues and chicken-fried rockers have been released over the years, while others (including the spoken-word Florida and the lead single Try) have not.
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