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Three songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Jackie Mittoo – Henry the Great (1971)

You may or may not already know that what your day requires is a reggae-organ instrumental. If you did know, I salute you. If you didn’t know, take heed. Personally I didn’t know that I required Jackie Mittoo’s Henry the Great until it filled my overheated heart, drove me from and to distraction. The song barely had to do anything. It is as easy as bad math. It is as relaxed as a fully extended poolside chaise longue. Put it on and then there it is, meandering, shimmering like the air on a hot day.

Mittoo moved to Toronto in 1969. But Henry the Great was recorded back in Jamaica, where he was born, with a suite of reggae professionals. An uncredited musician plays an affable, leisurely guitar part. An uncredited musician plays drums. Another is on hand percussion. Slowly the music gets faster. And across it all you can hear peerless Jackie Mittoo, the Keyboard King, with mellow riffs and swirls of keyboard colour. Groove music like this – you have to move to it. You have to live in it. It’s repetition, sequence, a little different every time: like waking up; like falling in love; like reading a newspaper on a lazy weekend morning.

Shirley Collins – The Cruel Mother (1967)

Shirley Collins, 81, announced a new album this week – her first in almost four decades. One of the most important musicians of the 1960s folk revival, Collins resumed live performances in 2014; it was rare then and now to hear a singer of such advanced years, and her new single (Cruel Lincoln) is aglow with Collins’ presence. Still, the album announcement prompted me to go back to 1967’s chilling, gorgeous The Cruel Mother. Blood-red and briar-green, it’s a song of (gulp) infanticide. Yet Collins and her fellow singers don’t merely sound like mourners. They are rememberers too, and lookouts, tenderly warning us that terrible things occur.

Sorry Girls – This Game (2016)

I was swept off my feet by Sorry Girls’ debut single, a song that marries Lorde-like electro-pop and the drums-heavy disillusionment that drew me (in part) to Basia Bulat’s early work. The band’s a duo – singer Heather Foster Kirkpatrick and producer Dylan Konrad Obront, who live in Montreal – and this is the first thing they’ve ever released. That’s a high bar, and maybe it explains the delay on a long-promised first EP. But I like to imagine that a song like This Game can act less like a measuring stick and more like a turbine, a little engine prodding Sorry Girls to keep hitting the practice space, to keep pressing record. Art-making mostly comes down to persistence; long live anything that eases the outpouring of blood, sweat and tears. Sorry Girls know how to write and sing a hook, they know how to make breathless what could easily be a lament. They’re as well-served by their confidence as by their vulnerability – after all, pop music’s greatest flavour is probably “bittersweet.”

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

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