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From TikTok breakouts to club sounds IRL and in our minds, here's what we listened to in this strange year – and lots for you to listen to, too
Needless to say, 2021 wasn’t a regular year for music in Toronto.
We spent the first half of the year wondering if and when concerts would come back, then tentatively dipped our way back in when they finally did. In the meantime, artists and bands found new ways for their music to reach our ears (as with this week’s cover star Luna Li), grappled with how to distribute it and formed new relationships to their work and their communities. But they never stopped making music. This was a strong year for Toronto sounds, as you’ll see and hear below.
Click on the links in these lookbacks to listen to the music, and scroll to the bottom for a whole lot of bonus tracks. There are somewhere between 75 and 1,500 tracks to stream, depending on how you want to count.
Mustafa’s debut album When Smoke Rises (his first music since dropping “The Poet” from his name) is a mournful tribute to his fallen friends and a meditation on life in Regent Park. His grief became collective in his first headlining show last week at Massey Hall, just steps from the environment that informs all of his songs and playing for the families of the fallen friends he’s eulogizing. In three dimensions with BadBadNotGood backing him, his plaintive folk songs got even richer with Mustafa’s open-hearted storytelling and raw emotion. A year after appearing on the cover of NOW, he showed he’s one of the most exciting voices coming out of the city.
The Weather Station‘s 2021 album Ignorance brought a whole new audience to the folk singer/songwriter and earned her glowing coverage in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Her honest writing about climate anxiety seems to have struck a nerve, though she told NOW the album was more of a personal expression of the feelings of anger, helplessness and galvanization that comes with it. It’s not easy to write in a nuanced way about conflicting emotions, but she’s an expert at it. It’s that honesty that strikes such a nerve in her performances, too. Her killer band, excellent lighting and production, and mirrored jumpsuit made her virtual release show one of the best I’d seen, and she took it back to the IRL world with a show at Danforth Music Hall this past weekend.
Cadence Weapon won this year’s Polaris Prize after making his third shortlist, and it felt like the right choice at the right time. His album, Parallel World, took a critical look at the technologically mediated world that intensified during the pandemic. He spent the year finding new ways to connect with his fans, including a brutally honest Substack newsletter, and then finally got back on stage at the first pandemic-era concert at the Garrison the day after the Polaris gala. His progressive, urbanist politics hit hard in his adopted hometown, alternating a blistering performance of anti-gentrification anthem Skyline with a simple declaration the day after calling out Trudeau’s blackface on CBC Gem: “Fuck John Tory. Fuck Doug Ford. Fuck ’em.”
When we started the year, hitting a dance floor – one not in your living room – seemed like a far-off memory or utopian future dream.
Albums like Rochelle Jordan’s Play With The Changes gave us a glimpse of that sweaty, collective future on record. After a six-year absence and a move to L.A., she tweaked her dark and gloomy “Toronto Sound” R&B and played with UK club sounds – jungle, drum n’ bass, gospel house – along with cutting edge producers like KLSH, Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar.
Cadence Weapon’s Parallel World is full of hard-hitting grime beats, but the best is a stuttering sound explosion from Korea Town Acid. She released the album Metamorphosis this year, and it’s just as exciting and strange in its collection of sounds – a glitchy stew of house and jungle and dub that’s impossible to categorize – and its collaborations with singers and rappers from Toronto to Seoul.
Cadence Weapon actually has a knack for future talent that slides under the radar, as his Garrison show opener Myst Milano put out one of my favourite albums of the year in Shapeshyfter – a hard-hitting, minimalist, deadpan hip-hop album that brought in club sounds along with DIY punk spirit and ballroom sounds from the queer scene. Milano was a regular at Club Quarantine, whose co-founder Ceréna followed last year’s debut from Casey MQ with her own debut resurrection, which played off the virtual club’s feeling of acceptance and community-at-all-costs with a housey, gender-euphoric journey that includes a SOPHIE cover (RIP).
As things opened in fits and starts, there was a thriving rave scene where DJs and producers like Chippy Nonstop, Bambii and Ciel got the city back on the dancefloor (even if those dancefloors were in parks you needed last-minute directions to), and their 2021 releases all evoke that giddy feeling of dancing without abandon.
By late summer, we were able to gather IRL again without hiding, and Tush played one of the first shows at standby club CODA. Their debut album Fantast plays off the origins of club music – disco – by channelling its origins: queer, Black, Latin and working-class party music celebrating dancing, performance and sexuality. It’s a groove that lands on record, but hits even harder played out in the world.
There are certain artists that tend to get the attention in this city no matter if their album is A or B level (apologies to Certified Lover Boy), but there are some secret MVPs lurking here. They got to taste some spotlight this year.
BadBadNotGood were everywhere you looked, whether you realized it or not. They were onstage with Mustafa, playing behind Jonah Yano at the new Bar St. Lo, in writing credits for Brittany Howard and Charlotte Day Wilson, and they were even part of a TikTok meme – the Adult Swim challenge – with a remixed version of their song Time Moves Slow. Their own album, Talk Memory, didn’t try to capitalize on their high-profile contact list. They didn’t call up Kendrick or Ghostface this time, but mostly instrumental artists like Karriem Riggins, Laraaji and Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai for an instrumental album that hits their old sweet spot between psych, prog and jazz.
Robin Hatch is often found with bands like Our Lady Peace, Menno of Hollerado and Rural Alberta Advantage, but she stretches out in experimental directions with her own compositions. For T.O.N.T.O., she got to hole up at the National Music Centre in Calgary with its famous namesake analog synth (star of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition) and create a retro-futurist masterwork. Saxophonist Joseph Shabason is on that album, and he was everywhere with collabs this year too. But you’ll want to hear his album The Fellowship, a fascinating and meditative instrumental work that is also deeply autobiographical, tracking his Islamic/Jewish upbringing in North York and his own spiritual explorations.
James Baley is a charismatic performer and showstopping singer, and he demands your attention when he’s playing with U.S. Girls, Badge Époque Ensemble, July Talk, Zaki Ibrahim and others. His debut album A Story put him in the spotlight, imbuing his gospel, ballroom, soul and R&B belt-outs with the raw emotional power of his experiences as a queer Black man in Toronto. Dorothea Paas has popped up in some similar places (including this year, with Jane Inc.), but her solo folk album Anything Can’t Happen showed off the true power of her voice: searching, soulful and spiritual, warm and inviting and questioning.
And speaking of Drake, some of his OVO Factory compadres got their moments in the sun: producer Frank Dukes with his beat tape project The Way Of Ging and Majid Jordan, whose smooth R&B pop on Wildest Dreams shows how they crafted one of Aubrey Graham’s best ever songs (Hold On, We’re Going Home).
Like it or not, TikTok is one of the major ways musicians are breaking out in 2021 – and the platform just grew in influence this year.
Lex Leosis’s hard-spitting rhymes tend to attract old heads, even if her new EP Terracotta plays with contemporary production, but she broke out on Gen Z’s favourite platform this year. Seemingly every day, she was finding duetting over other producers’ TikTok beats with chameleonic freestyles that showed off her versatility as an MC.
I didn’t know much about rapper Akintoye (aka @yeahitsak) until he won best music TikTok in our Readers’ Choice, but now I’m fully on board. His mile-a-minute flow broke through my feed in all different directions, rapping over the Squid Game theme or breaking in during a rant about people on airplanes. Now I’m on watch for the next record drop.
Exmiranda blessed the algorithm with a 5-second funk break for whoever found her on their For You page, then turned that into a whole album called – yes – Funk Break. And Lu Kala’s vulnerable self-love anthem Love Shit went viral on the platform, getting notice from artists like SZA – priming the pump for what looks like a 2021 breakout.
Meanwhile, some of the best music in the city was created on podcasts. Sam Sutherland and Josiah Hughes’s 155 examines a punk song a week, and for nearly a year accompanied it with a full compilation of covers of each song every single week. Now there are over 1,000 songs, including covers of Green Day, Gob, Against Me! and Avril Lavigne in every genre you can imagine. 2 Much TV, meanwhile, brings together local artists PONY’s Sam Bielanski and Pretty Matty (a couple in real life) to talk about a different TV episode each week, then record a song inspired by it. There’s lots of gems, but it also got me excited for PONY’s TV Baby album, which delivers with emotional power-pop/pop-punk earworms galore.
Psych rock tends to play best when you can get a bunch of people in one room to jam. That only happened for part of the year, but it was still a great one for local releases.
From similar circles came Hot Garbage’s debut Ride and Wine Lips’ Mushroom Death Sex Bummer Party, both of which trade in fuzzy, blissed-out guitar in gloriously endless grooves. Long-running multidisciplinary host/artist Sook-Yin Lee has found herself in a similar circle, though her album with her late partner Adam Litovitz, jooj two, blended in very personal art-pop deconstructions. Absolutely Free are like veterans of that scene, and their long-awaited album Aftertouch mixed synthy texture into careful compositions that reflect seismic shifts in contemporary culture.
It was a good year for jangly post-punk too. Ducks Ltd.’s Modern Fiction has shimmery guitars and lyrics about society in decline that could easily have come from England in the 80s, while post-punk rockers Casper Skulls went in a dreamy new direction on Knows No Kindness by refocusing around Melanie St-Pierre and her more personal shoegazey, dream-pop soundscapes. And on Cooler Returns, Kiwi Jr. channeled slacker rock shrug, casual satire and guitars that jangle just right.
When it comes to Fiver, the attention is usually on the words. That’s only natural when Simone Schmidt is one of the best lyricists in the city. But with their new band the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition (Jeremy Costello, Nick Dourado and Bianca Palmer), their semi-improvised jazz-country grooves sent the songs into a whole new dimension.
If there’s one thing social media can do, it’s break down the mysticism between an artist and their fans.
That’s a great thing for a rapper like DijahSB, who might have one of Toronto’s funniest Twitter accounts. Their album Head Above The Waters would have hit just as hard if you weren’t familiar with their voice online, but the relatable rhymes about staying grounded in a period of instability benefit from their familiarity. Their groovy in-the-pocket flow fits the infectious Kaytranada-esque beats too.
After a high-minded concept album, A Short Story About A War, Shad returned this year to his roots as Canada’s charismatic everyman rapper-next-door on TAO. Black Averageness is an undeniable highlight, a musical antidote to the concept of Black Excellence in which he fights for the right to be “very medium,” laments his inability to get jazz (too many notes) and namedrops NBA player Jared Dudley.
Listen to Richard Trapunski and fellow Toronto music writer Melissa Vincent discuss the year in music in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.