Music’s 2021 got off to a halting, fractious beginning when Canadian superstar the Weeknd announced his future boycott of the industry’s flagship annual event. “I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys,” the Blinding Lights singer proclaimed days before the awards show. It was a scathing reaction to an inexplicable snub – he failed to pick up a single Grammy nomination for his critically acclaimed After Hours album.
Things improved as the weather turned warmer, with the return to in-person concerts after 2020′s lockdowns. Tragedy struck, however, when 10 people died and hundreds more were injured as a result of overcrowded conditions at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival in Houston on Nov. 5.
Music consumption was rampant. A major milestone was hit later in November, with more than 2 billion audio streams listened to in a single week in Canada. By the end of the year, blockbuster album releases by Adele (30) and Taylor Swift (Red [Taylor’s Version]) were being blamed for a worldwide vinyl shortage. Fans literally couldn’t get enough music.
From Canadian artists making their mark at home and beyond, to the superstars still demanding our attention, here are some of my favourite sounds, stories and musical moments of the year.
Whether they deal with romantic loss or the perils of climate change, the songs on The Weather Station’s Ignorance are concerned with grief and carried by a calm, penetrative air of desperation. Ignorance is the fifth album from The Weather Station, the name under which Toronto singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman makes music. Alternating easily between a breathy high register and a duskier alto, Lindeman sings about untruths and lost trust. The Robber is aimed at the oil industry, while Separated, Loss, and Heart are less cryptic. The piano-based rock is soft, but intense and strikingly assured, with sophisticated arrangements, compelling tension and occasional woodwind moments. Lindeman’s ache is exquisite.
The Competition Winner
Going into 2021, few people were familiar with the young, Montreal-based concert pianist Bruce Liu. After winning the prestigious International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in October, fans took to calling the 24-year-old virtuoso “Bruce Almighty” for his dynamic rendition of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor, Opus 11. An international career begins.
“It’s so hard to trust again, when you don’t even trust yourself.” From her debut album of the same name, Dorothea Paas’s Anything Can’t Happen is a slow-building folk-rock ballad that eventually soars into a blissful harmonic drone. A devotee of Fairport Convention and Joni Mitchell, the Canadian singer-songwriter looks to build on her 2021 momentum as a compelling solo artist to watch, after years of lending her talents as a guitarist and backing vocalist to many other like-minded acts (including U.S. Girls and Jennifer Castle).
The first song on Mustafa’s debut album When Smoke Rises is Stay Alive, which could be a plea for a friend, a reaction to gun violence or an ode to a gentrifying neighbourhood. “All of these traps, and all of these street signs,” sings the Toronto artist formerly known as Mustafa the Poet. “None of them will be yours or mine.” Strumming a nylon-stringed guitar and deeply grieving on his debut album, Mustafa is at once both fragile and strong as he sings about a hearse and wonders about heaven. He ended the year with a hometown concert at Massey Hall, wearing a bulletproof vest backwards. Mustafa is still a poet – as much as in action as in words.
Six years after her last album, Adele returned with 30, an immaculate break-up record that produced the biggest opening-week numbers of any album in 2021. According to Billboard magazine, the 839,000 album-equivalent units bested the premieres of both Drake’s Certified Lover Boy and Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) by some 30 per cent. The superstar balladeer scored a primetime television special and was credited with persuading Spotify to change its dashboard defaults. Starting in January, 2022, she will take on that modern-day signifier of musical success: a weekend residency at Las Vegas’s Caesars Palace Hotel. The year 2021 was the year of Adele – and that’s unlikely to change when the calendar flips over.
The Concert (indoors)
When the live-music lockdown lifted, not everyone wished to return to the way things were before. Canadian singer-songwriter Feist collaborated with Emmy Award-winning lighting designer Rob Sinclair to create Multitudes, an informal in-the-round staging presented during multiple-night residencies in Hamburg, Germany; Ottawa and Toronto. The latter engagement took place at Meridian Hall, where both the performer and the audience sat on stage. The songs were all new and barriers were broken down during a gentle reintroduction to live music and melodic community.
The Concert (outdoors)
On a sun-splashed October day in a brewery parking lot, a benefit show in Toronto for the monthly West End Phoenix community newspaper was inspired by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid event of 1985. While the stakes for News Aid, organized by author, musician and WEP publisher Dave Bidini, weren’t as high as they were for the international charity concerts nearly 30 years ago, the crowd and performers were in a mood to rally. Rising singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield handled the Who’s My Generation; actress-singer Nicky Lawrence led Queen’s We Will Rock You. And when consummate showman Hawksley Workman sang “I’m wide awake” from the U2 anthem Bad, he was broadcasting the vibe of the day.
“For some unknown reason, I craved and I ate Taco Bell after all three abortions,” Meg Remy writes on page 73 of Begin By Telling. “I regret only the Taco Bell.” Remy is the singer-musician behind the acclaimed indie-pop collective U.S. Girls. Her slim, untraditional book is a candid memoir and potent work of social commentary that connects dots between international events, family systems and her own personal traumas.
The Ethiopian-Canadian singer born Abel Tesfaye, who calls himself The Weeknd, started the year on one of the world’s most significant stages as the headliner for the Super Bowl LV halftime show. He ended 2021 by having his Blinding Lights single (from his fourth album, After Hours) become the top Billboard Hot 100 song of all time.
Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour Disney+ documentary The Beatles: Get Back is a landmark achievement in editing, enhancing and presenting archived film. (All the fly-on-the-wall footage was originally collected by Michael Lindsay Hogg in 1969 for his film Let It Be.) The greatest pop band to ever “yeah, yeah, yeah” is intimately observed as they struggle to write, rehearse and record the album that would become 1970′s Let It Be. It’s a long process, beset by personality conflicts and creative differences, but the tedium is brilliantly framed. Moreover, Get Back was a rare unifying pop-culture moment, spawning widespread water-cooler discussion – taking in the myriad reactions was a great intellectual exercise, not to mention plain fun.