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Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels is photographed in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, November 11, 2014.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Joni Mitchell – Both Sides, Now (1969)

As I write these words, Joni Mitchell is lying ill in a California hospital. It's important not to pre-emptively eulogize; this is a wish for Mitchell's future, not a tribute to her past. What I have always admired most about this artist is the way she vaults from the humdrum to the sublime, a singer keeping pace with her heart's ambitions. Sometimes it is in the words. Sometimes it is just in Mitchell's peaking voice, a silver-tipped arrow. Her tone is conversational, one half of a correspondence, and then suddenly it is something else: searching through skies, aspiring. Even in Mitchell's most melancholy or experimental music, she sounds so brave, so free. Joni Mitchell's Brave Liberty: Name a street for it, right down the middle of her Alberta hometown.

Daniel Isaiah – Sail (2015)

Montreal's Isaiah sings this story like it's an exciting secret. This takes some nerve: Sail's not about young love, swooning; it's about dying, or at least the end of something beloved. There aren't very many upbeat songs about death. Nor about love's dissolution – unless the singer's telling their ex to screw off. But Sail is much more So Long, Marianne than I Will Survive. Over a dazzle of acoustic and electric guitars, ticking drums, cooing backup voices, Isaiah pauses to examine this moment that's ending. He's a youngish man with an older man's rasp, weary fantasies, dreams of shore and desert, a train coming in. "Hey, it's not ready," he sings. "Put it down a while."

Hamza El Din – The Water Wheel (1971)

Whenever it's this time of year, with eggs and chocolate and saltwater and those gorgeous/dreadful jelly fruit slices, I feel a need to listen to Hamza El Din's The Water Wheel. It's a song of Egypt without any of the postcolonial costumery, 10,000 sandy miles from the Hollywood Bible stories. El Din played two kinds of North African lute, the oud and the tar. He sings, sometimes, in a voice like a shepherd's shout. But mostly this is strum and resound, fingers beating against strings. El Din was trained as an electrical engineer as well as in Sufi mysticism. His music sounds of both these things, the labour of an engineer and mystic. He uses every piece of the song. He uses its bones, hair and organs. When it is done, there are no parts left. In a juster world, there would be no songs like this, or else maybe solely songs like this. No sadness, no slavery, no need for miracles, dayeynu; just life; just water, turning a wheel.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.