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Toronto artists are putting out some of the strongest music right now, and this autumn is no exception
It’s been an uncertain couple of years for album releases, but now that live music is starting to come back so is a busy new music schedule. As always, the local scene has a big diversity of sounds to dig into, from jazz to dub to mainstream pop – and a new album from the Weeknd any day now. Dig into everything below.
Alessia Cara recently teamed up with the Warning for a cover of Metallica’s Enter Sandman for the Blacklist tribute album. There aren’t any metal tunes on this third album from the Brampton-raised pop artist, but the versatility of her soulful and vulnerable pipes are definitely on display. After making waves as a world-weary teenager, she’s now in her mid-20s and this album continues to mature in that perspective.
Experimental psych-pop band Absolutely Free have never followed the usual script. After rising out of the ashes of the more frenetic DD/MM/YYYY, the band released their debut album in 2014 and took seven years to follow it up – sort of. They did plenty of stuff in the meantime, including site-specific performances, a full-length film soundtrack and the occasional hologram concert. But with a full album canvas, they really show off their 3D musical thinking – a beautiful mix of big-picture prog and experimental pop.
Brandon Valdivia is one of the unsung heroes of Toronto’s music scene, popping up as a percussionist and producer in projects both experimental and funky. The Nicaraguan-Canadian composer packs loads of calming atmosphere into his solo work as Mas Aya, synthesizing organic and experimental sounds into something that crosses borders and genres. It’s also quietly political, embedded with Nicaraguan resistance movements. One good way in is Tiempo Ahora, which features his partner Lido Pimienta, but you’ll want to hear it as a whole.
Playing in the backing band for Orville Peck must have worn off on Bria Salmena. The FRIGS leader has put aside the tightly-wound indie-punk of her main band for this EP of country songs. Teaming up with her guitarist collaborator Duncan Hay Jennings, she’s wrapped her powerfully raspy voice around tunes by Lucinda Williams, Waylon Jennings, Karen Dalton and more – subverting them in the process. They’re classic tunes, but Bria is using them to reflect the current moment.
James Baley has a showstopping voice and presence. If you’ve seen him perform with U.S. Girls, July Talk, Zaki Ibrahim, Maylee Todd or any of the other Canadian music stalwarts he’s shared the stage with as a singer, your eye has probably drifted over to him – and this debut album displays why. It’s a mix of gospel, soul, R&B, house and ballroom, and it’s filled with raw emotional power. “A Story is a culmination of my life experiences as a queer Black man,” Baley says.
The Neon Skyline, Andy Shauf’s 2020 album set mostly at Parkdale diner the Skyline, was one of our favourites of last year. Now he’s back with Wilds, a collection of tracks that he recorded during those sessions. Not as conceptual as that album, it still shows off his gift for storytelling and that deepens album’s theme of doomed relationships. The songs are in raw, lo-fi form, every instrument recorded by Shauf in his Toronto studio.
Andy Shauf plays Danforth Music Hall on February 5, 2022. Tickets here.
Soulful pop singer/songwriter Jon Vinyl has slowly been rising through the ranks of the Canadian music industry, singing with artists like Daniel Caesar and getting co-signs from platforms like OVO Radio. His old Pickering high school buddy Shawn Mendes also gave him a ringing endorsement last year, and if that sent fans his way then they’ve likely been seduced by his sticky R&B hooks, smooth vocals and lyrics that, in grand pop tradition, find the sweet spot between the personal and universal – all here on his debut album. He could be the next breakout Toronto star any day now.
For decades, multidisciplinary British-Canadian artist John Southworth has been thrilling a cult audience of fans. This project is an album, an 8-part podcast, a novella and will eventually be a theatre show at Paradise Theatre. Even as an album, it’s theatrical to say the least – an operatic story of an insomniac cab driver named Klaus. It’s got a stacked guest list of local stalwarts including Thom Gill, Meg Remy of U.S. Girls, Tamara Lindeman of the Weather Station, Veda Hille and more.
Dark, gothy electro-pop is the land Princess Century lives in. Maya Postepski, also of Austra and formerly TR/ST, wrote this album between Estonia, Morocco and Berlin. She claims inspiration from Steve Reich (a lot of minimalist, repetitive electronic work does) along with Róisín Murphy and saxophonist Jorja Chalmers. If you like synths, drum machines and chilly vocals, this one is for you.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably think Ducks Ltd. are an English band, maybe an English band from the 80s. But they’re actually a couple of guys from Toronto: Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis. Their debut album of the band formerly known as Ducks Unlimited juxtaposes bright and shimmery guitars with depressive lyrics about society in decline and personal turmoil – like so many classic jangly post-punk pop bands before them.
Ducks Ltd. play an album release show at Royal Mountain Records backyard (3367 Dundas West) on Friday (October 1). Sold out.
Shad has been thinking big lately. With a new album named after Chinese naturalist philosophy and C.S. Lewis’s 1943 book The Abolition Of Man, he’s now writing about hustle culture, tech addiction, our relationships to our body and to our spirituality. But where his Polaris-nominated 2018 concept album A Short Story About A War was unexpectedly dark and angry, the veteran Canadian artist is back to his playful and witty rapper-next-door self.
It’s been five years since IV, BadBadNotGood’s last full-length album, which took them into a more pop direction with collaborations with Charlotte Day Wilson, Kaytranada and Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands (whose collab recently had a viral remix on TikTok). Now, the former Humber jazz dropouts are back in their instrumental zone, combining adventurous psych, hip-hop and prog with all sorts of other gumboed sounds – a lot of it improvised in studio.
BadBadNotGood play History on December 22. Tickets here.
Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen spent his quarantine jamming with a variety of musicians remotely between his studios and theirs (oh, to have that luxury). Now he’ll be releasing them as a series of EPs starting with this one with Nashville songwriter Jason Isbell’s band the 400 Unit. Together, they play a handful of Bahamas originals. Future collaborations will include members of Dawes, Teskey Brothers, Madison Cunningham and more.
Bahamas plays Meridian Hall on December 1. Tickets here.
The two main figures behind Tokyo Police Club both have new solo albums, both branching off the indie rock tree of their main project. Graham Wright has a knack for 90s teen-movie soundtrack power pop, while Dave Monks takes a bit more of an earnest, soul-bearing route – with room for autotune and Shad features.
Somali-Canadian R&B/soul singer/songwriter Amaal firmly established herself as one to watch with her 2019 EP Black Dove. Now, she has another one on the way that follows her unabashed honesty, feelings on female autonomy and flirtations with Afrofuturism.
Nearly every one of singer/songwriter Charlotte Cornfield’s songs contains at least one richly observed little phrase or detail that invites obsessive relistening. She writes mini-memoirs enriched with specificity from her own life, but that still feel like widely applied comments on the human condition. This album is full of them. If the music thing doesn’t work out, she’d probably be a good short story writer.
Prolific composer and keyboardist/singer in a ton of local bands (she’s currently out on tour with former Hollerado leader Menno Versteeg) Robin Hatch stretches out her creative chops when she records solo. After a handful of solo piano albums and a pop album, T.O.N.T.O. is an album named after the instrument she recorded it on – the famous T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer (one of the world’s largest and the star of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition) at the National Music Centre in Calgary. The album centres that vintage synth with retro-futurist instrumental soundscapes.
Toronto has had a quietly prolific psych scene bubbling for the past few years. The trippy jams might have been stalled a bit by the pandemic, but one of the breakout bands, Hot Garbage, now have a debut full-length coming out. With crisp production from Holy Fuck’s Graham Walsh, it’s fuzzy and groovy in all the right ways, the kind of thing you can put on and then zone out to for hours.
Hot Garbage plays November 6 at the Garrison. Tickets here.
New Chance’s Real Time is already a 2021 hidden gem, and now Victoria Cheong’s experimental electronic project gets a remixed companion. All nine songs get new versions from Bile Sister, Prince Nifty, Pelada, LAL, Lee Paradise and more. “Most of us come from the world of DIY shows as well as that of performing DJ sets in nightclubs,” Cheong says. “Everyone is a multi-genre multi-instrumentalist, and that’s an interesting reflection of the community where I’m coming from. None of us really fit in one place, but that’s what brings us all together.”
Dub pioneer and record producer legend Lee “Scratch” Perry died in August, but he has a posthumous release with heavy Vancouver/Toronto droners New Age Doom (which features Sloan’s fifth Beatle Gregory Macdonald). It’s an unclassifiable mix of jazz, noise, dub and metal, and it’s for the real heads.
Toronto rapper Haviah Mighty is back with her first full-length project since her Polaris Prize-winning 13th Floor. Stock Exchange is billed as a mixtape, so it’s a bit more casual than that grand statement, but it’s still very impressive. It shows off her range, moving between hard-edged bars, melodic hook-singing and sounds that easily flit between British grime and Spanish flamenco. She’s already a star, now you just have to pay attention.
Haviah Mighty plays November 12 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Tickets here.
Casper Skulls have been around for a few years, but they’re travelling in a new direction on Knows No Kindness. Guitarist Melanie St-Pierre, who would occasionally pop up on vocals before, is now the primary singer and frontperson. And the band’s wordy Parquet Courts-esque indie rock has given way to something more dreamy and introspective, exploring St-Pierre’s life in small-town Northern Ontario.
Toronto electronic/hip-hop production trio Keys N Krates make great party records, and they’ve started to attract some big-name collaborators. This album features guests like singer Bibi Bourelly and veteran rapper Juicy J, and they’re all full of bouncy, bassy rhythms you can’t help but move to.
Keys N Krates play November 27 at Velvet Underground. Tickets here.
Jamaican-born, Toronto-based artist Lexxicon has a catalogue full of bangers that blend dancehall, Afrobeats, pop and hip-hop – and they’re waiting to be discovered. But he thinks more holistically than each song. This album comes alongside a novel of the same name about a fictional island where personal data is extracted like oil.