Sure, you can assess a city’s musical accomplishments in a given year by thoughtfully critiquing the work produced by its artists— we’ve done that in our annual roundup of T.O.’s top 10 albums, which you can read right here. But sometimes, to get the big picture, you also need to stand back and, y’know, crunch some numbers. Here’s our two-part take on Toronto music in 2013.
Olympia is the aural equivalent of Wednesday Addams hanging out at Art Basel. On Austra’s second album, the goth electro-pop group’s gloaming muse makes a significant shift from shuffling alone in the dark corners of the club to waving her hands in the middle of the dancefloor. We’ve heard from a lot of samey synth bands over the past few years, as ditching guitars and tooling around with keyboards has come in vogue, but there’s muscle and studious thought behind Olympia’s convivial vibes and clean lines—not to mention frontwoman Katie Stelmanis’s classical, supernatural vocals. Austra have earned the cred they need to outlast the hype machine.
TALL TALL SHADOW
Somewhere between Sam Cooke and Joni Mitchell, there’s Basia Bulat, a pixie of a singer-songwriter with a formidable yodel of a voice and a knack for coaxing heart-melting soul out of an autoharp, that folkiest of instruments. The London, Ont.–bred singer has grown more captivating and sophisticated with each successive album since her 2007 debut; here, she draws on a deep well of grief—so often a paralyzing force—to create complex, buoyant songs. Thanks to the exquisite precision of her writing, Bulat is able to deftly tap into exact emotional nuances, making Tall Tall Shadow a towering accomplishment.
NOTHING WAS THE SAME
Aubrey Drake Graham had us all immersed in our feelings on 2011’s Take Care, so we expected his third full-length album to be another excavation of existential emotions—even though the evidence (his fight-mode verses on pre-release street singles like “5 a.m. in Toronto”) suggested otherwise. But then Drake came out brawny and belligerent, tempering his boast-talk with pithy, New Agey aphorisms. While intimate, intuitive songs are part of Drake’s musical DNA, triumphalism drowns out the up-all-night angst this time around. Take Care was about being swallowed by fame; NWTS is the wide-eyed celebration of success.
A/B TIL INFINITY
On 2011’s Bible Eyes, local producer David Psutka hinted at a darker, moodier approach to club music. His second full-length album plunges right into that world, swapping dancey drum beats for aggressive snare shots, lonely synth chords, and the sound of clashing machinery. When talking about a mixtape he compiled for i-D magazine in November, Psutka cited heavy metal and drone music as influences. Those sounds are evident in the way A/B Til Infinity shifts from loud and punishing to cold and cavernous on different tracks. The result is mood-setting music that straddles the line between soundtrack and contemplative techno, and we’re eager to see where Psutka’s explorations take him.
Reel Cod Records
There’s good reason to be leery of the indie-rock cassette revival as retro fetishism for the sake of it (unless you’re especially nostalgic for an audio format that decays with each listen and risks a horrifically mangled destruction every time you press “play”). But the Maxell-bound debut album from Toronto foursome Fresh Snow is enough to inspire even the most skeptical audiophiles to pull their banana-yellow Sony Sports Walkman out of storage. True to their name, Fresh Snow manage to make a common product—instrumental post-rock psychedelia—feel new and vibrant again, welding brain-scrambling guitar noise to beaming, synth-swaddled melodies and, crucially, an invigorating sense of rhythm. If you pawned off your tape deck at your most recent garage sale, don’t fret—the album is also available digitally and on vinyl. But the latter doesn’t come with the tectonic plate–shifting, 14-minute blow-out “French Horse Hall of Fame,” and your life will be that much less complete as a result.
In a city with a metal legacy as heavy as our own (Rush, Sacrifice, Anvil), it’s a mystery that Mississauga quartet Hammerhands have gone relatively unnoticed. At the beginning of the year, the band put out a thoroughly accomplished debut, Glaciers, which packed a sludgy wallop not heard around these parts since the last time Boris came to town. Over the course of the album, Hammerhands deliver a brand of doom metal that combines huge riffs with distorted vocals (the latter a holdover from the members’ time in hardcore bands), and the results sound like a Converge record played at half-speed. But it’s the tail end of final track, “Equus,” that proves the band’s commitment to the doomy craft—they spend nearly 20 minutes wringing feedback from their amps for a haunting cacophony. It’s time to let this very loud cat out of the bag.
Arts & Crafts
“Music is still everything. / Well, almost everything.” That’s the kicker to the explicitly autobiographical “Almost Everything” off Hayden’s subtly brilliant Us Alone. The song finds the beloved indie singer-songwriter sifting through his musical past, but the final sentiment has more to do with the immediate context of the album: During the four years following his previous release, Hayden became a father, then he and his wife had to confront their daughter’s rare chromosomal deletion syndrome. It’s not surprising that the often reclusive artist dropped off the scene during that time. But for listeners, Hayden has channelled that experience into some of his most poignant and perfectly rendered songs. The devastating title track hidden at the end of the album is just one of many highlights. With the release of Us Alone, Hayden also ventured out to play more shows than perhaps his earliest days in his red Tercel. All things considered, his music still sounds like it’s everything.
Coining a new genre to describe your own record is ambitious and, in most cases, a bit pretentious. But the term Toronto producer Michael Olsen (Arcade Fire, Hidden Cameras) uses to describe his solo project—“outsider adult contemporary”—is entirely deserved. Any time you think you can peg down The Nines, Olsen’s debut as Our Founders, its key signature changes, chords clash, or an unexpected instrument chimes in. The only constants throughout the album’s seven atmospheric chamber-pop tracks are Olsen’s gentle voice, beautifully orchestrated string arrangements, and incredibly skillful songwriting. Olsen can coin as many new genres as he likes if they all sound as good as this one.
For two decades now, modern R&B has been at the bleeding edge of sonic experimentation in mainstream pop. So it’s ironic that this year’s most audible proponent of classic, ’80s-smoothed R&B should be a musician who’s toiled for years in the avant-electronic underground. After a handful of under-the-radar solo releases for niche labels, Toronto-born Michael Milosh finally slinked into the spotlight with L.A.–based Rhye, his swoon-worthy collaboration with Danish musician Robin Hannibal. Offsetting Milosh’s amorphous, androgyne croon with crisp, diamond-cut arrangements, Woman is less quiet storm than loud tranquility, an achingly intimate but hot-blooded soundtrack to escaping the club crowd and finally getting a moment alone with that person you’ve been eyeing all night from across the dancefloor.
DON’T GET TOO GRAND
Over the past year or so, singer-songwriter Donovan Woods has given Toronto a national anthem, a beautifully choreographed music video, and a brilliant album called Don’t Get Too Grand. With a subtle wit matched only by the singer-songwriter’s Twitter feed, these 11 simple, acoustic-led songs escape the predictable seriousness of the bearded-guy-with-a-guitar genre. Between a handful of irresistible hooks and the requisite Canadian province/small town namedrops, the album should add a few numbers to the Canadian campfire catalogue—a valued addition, given, as the Arkells point out, “The Hip have only wrote so many songs.”