Pictured above: TOBi
1. Julian Taylor – “Wide Awake”
The melody of “Wide Awake” is sunny; the instrumentation, charming Americana/roots; the singing, unaffected. But it’s the lyrics, bittersweet and heartfelt, layered with multiple meanings, that captivate me most. The verses of “Wide Awake” offer loving remembrances of family scenes from Taylor’s early and teenage years: drinking sorrel and ginger beer at Christmas with his folks; sharing meals out with his mom; racing around his granny’s house with his cousins as a lad. It gently, warmly honours his parents’ struggles for the betterment of his life. The chorus, taken literally, describes a sleepless night, triggered by “chasing shadows of my past,” as he considers old mistakes, choices, and heartaches. On another level, the song is also about becoming “woke,” not only in the current sense, but also to the array of possibilities open to us as we live our lives. It was created by Taylor’s growing awareness of his place in the world, and by example, it gently invites us to do the same. The content reaches its broadest, deepest truth in the pre-chorus, when Taylor sings,
There is an abundance of hope
That lies between the oceans of time
There’s nothing singular about it
Yet it can clearly be defined
I’ve come to believe that abundance of hope is his (and our) lifetime(s); the oceans of time exist before our births and after our deaths; and while no life is singular—we exist in the world with each other, not alone—they can be defined by what we do. Life is fleeting, but Taylor celebrates the gift of it with his mother’s words, “aren’t we lucky,” that resound with gratitude just for being here. As someone closer to the end of my life than the beginning, “Wide Awake” resonated the strongest for me in 2022.
2. Jessie Reyez – “Only One”
In which the Godmother of the New Vulnerability™ further extends both her lust for life and her openness. Reyez knows that pursuing true love (over and above the already-satisfying sex) is a high-risk/high-reward proposition. She’s always made music about being vulnerable, but being willing to take the risk for a permanent love—that might not work out—makes it more so. Which leads to the eternal, all-or-nothing question, as Reyez expresses it: “So do you wanna do this, love?/If not, what are we doin’, love?” The mellow disco shuffle perfectly complements the sentiment. It’s a feeling that’s as vital a fuel for great songs now as it was in the era of Motown (see Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion”) and the ‘60s girl groups (see The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”). It’s even better to hear the idea as it’s stated here, a sweet but firm demand for respect, coming from a place of self-care.
3. TOBi – “Flowers”
On “Flowers,” TOBi is on point as usual with his beats, rhymes, flow, rapping, and singing. More crucially, the second verse of this soulful song – which he’s been tipping for most of the year on social media, and in live performances—might be the most cogent musical statement of a man supporting women since Fugazi’s “Suggestion.” It speaks for itself:
This second verse is for the women I cherish and love
Take my time ‘cuz you inherit distrust
First date I remember I picked you up in my car
Gave you a hug, I could tell you were nervous as fuck
So was I but I held it and stuck to it because
That’s how a young boy learned to get thru the mud
We hopped out of my whip, a knife fell out your purse
You said “ain’t too many places a girl is safe on this earth”
I said I understood, but I didn’t
Goddamn the privilege of the skin that I live in
Goddamn, I walk at night don’t think twice ‘bout the feeling at all
Think we could make this world a better place for all of our children?
4. Fortunate Ones – “Day to Day”
I like many different kinds of songs, for many different qualities. Among my favourites are conciseness in the lyric, and minimalism in the recording and production. (Rihanna’s “Stay” is a perfect example. So is Donovan Woods’ “Empty Rooms.”) But it’s especially rare to find a song so concise, and so minimal, that also manages (without sounding contrived) to touch so deeply on our human condition—articulating the question of what our all-too-short lives on the planet might be about. The beautiful “Day to Day,” written and performed by Newfoundland folk duo Fortunate Ones, captures the eternal, universal search for our purpose, in the everyday struggles of their lives as a couple. As one partner grinds in the verses through the invisible weight of his lack of inspiration, understanding, smarts, and softness, he returns time and again to a cautiously optimistic chorus:
I’m learning to find my way
Own the mistakes I’ve made
Hoping to finally say
I’ve found some meaning in the day to day
In the final chorus, that “I” becomes a “we,” which extends the generous possibility of redemption, not only to his partner, but also to all of us.
5. Beaches – “I’ll Grow Up Tomorrow”
Rarely has the state of arrested adolescence, that can follow you into your late 20s, or even early 30s, been nailed so precisely in a song. The phenomenon, a kind of extension of the quarter-life crisis, is especially acute for those who’ve committed their lives to artistic pursuits—in The Beaches’ case, rock ‘n’ roll. (Which they’re so fuckin’ good at.) As a freelance music journalist during my 20s and 30s, I can recall that extended-adolescent feeling, and still relate to that time in my life. In this catchy-as-hell treat, that coincidentally surfs the recurrent wave of pop-punk that’s finally caught up to them, the Toronto band sings,
All of my friends
Are finding success
And buying a house
And buying a couch
And I’m just sleepin’ in till I go out
Bonus points for the (ironic? hilarious? effective? spot-on?) use of the millennial whistle in the chorus.
6. Lisa LeBlanc – “Gossip”
With her aptly-titled album Chiac Disco, ace singer-songwriter Lisa LeBlanc took a pandemic-inspired left turn, combining her Acadian New Brunswick cultural roots (including the Francophone Chiac dialect) with funky disco beats (as played by her rootsy band). “Gossip” rides a dancing bassline, tasty guitar licks, and brisk horn punches, to catch the locals making their daily trip to Tim Hortons to catch up on who’s doing what with whom—“did you see this, did you know that?” The song, like the album, is a welcome dose of good fun. As someone who grew up absorbing the Joual dialect of French (along with assorted English words) in Montréal, it tickles me to hear the similar Chiac vocals here. And you can’t beat the titular one-word hook (“Gossip!”) repeated 26 times—just as wonderfully, hypnotically repetitive as much of disco was back in its ‘70s heyday.
7. Daniel Caesar featuring BADBADNOTGOOD – “Please Do Not Lean”
While the constant tradition of popular music through the ages is to express heartfelt, lifelong devotion to the one you love, there’s always been a small minority of counterpoint opinion—Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love,” Gang of Four’s “Damaged Goods,” even Mac Davis’s “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me.” (LOL) Soulful Toronto R&B crooner Daniel Caesar, who broke out worldwide a few years ago, adds to the counterpoint canon with “Please Do Not Lean.” It’s a kind of personal answer record, in both form and content, to Bill Withers’ overplayed but evergreen “Lean on Me.” The key difference here is, Caesar takes full responsibility for the situation because of his inability to love fully. The choir of voices in the chorus, which parallel the choir vocals so often deployed for covers of Withers’ song, say, “Please do not lean on me, I’m unstable / You’re all you need, I’ve seen it, you’re able.” At the exact half-way mark, the song moves from a gorgeous, Stevie Wonder-ish chromatic melody and lead voice, into a long, dreamy, Beatlesque coda propelled by a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, which is awesome and unexpected.
8. Bros. Landreth – “Shame”
In the lengthy, enforced seclusion of lockdown, Winnipeg roots-rock band Bros. Landreth recorded their Come Morning album slowly and intentionally. Sonically, their new songs were about texture over flash, while the content was largely about dealing with unconfronted past demons, and moving forward from that trauma. To that end, “Shame” was initially written and performed by David Landreth as a song about the end of a difficult relationship; he later realized it was about his own battle with addiction. Fundamentally, both situations are about struggling to be a better person, and to escape the shame of an initial failure to do so. It’s also about how the only way to move forward from shame is to first acknowledge and accept it. The song is a tender-hearted, timeless country weeper, that sounds as natural and unhurried as water flowing, with production, playing, and vocals that are as quietly, subtly engaging as the lyric deserves. It’s as compelling as any of the best ballads that Steve Earle, John Hiatt, or Bonnie Raitt has ever recorded.
9. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – “I’m Good”
For the newbies: To understand Snotty Nose Rez Kids, imagine The Beastie Boys’ voices, spitting Public Enemy knowledge, from an Indigenous perspective. Even including a three-year pandemic, the Haisla Nation, BC, rap duo have knocked out five consistently great albums and an EP in five years—including two stone-cold classic LPs, from cover to cover: Trapline and Life After. It’s no wonder that after all that hard work and well-aimed thought missiles, their brand-new album I’m Good, HBU? is something of a well-deserved victory lap—more fun and braggadocio than tough rants and de-colonization instructions, but their inspired wordplay and wicked beats continue unabated. The best example is “I’m Good,” the first single, celebrating their hard-won status as the hottest young rap act in the country, right on the cusp of blowing up to mass popularity in Canada—and then the world.
10. Moonfruits – “Brittle Earth”
The Ottawa-based, bilingual, art-folk duo of Kaitlin Milroy and Alex Millaire have crafted a song for the ages. “Brittle Earth” is haunting, mesmerizing, concise, and powerful. Gloriously droning verses and compelling layered harmonies make it sound elemental, as befits the lyrics, which convey Moonfruits’ awe and appreciation of the eternal forests. The song is actually sung from the perspective of the forest itself, addressing those who build a hard, inflexible life outside its canopy, who choose head over heart, lack empathy, go nowhere fast, and pass on praying to dead gods. Moonfruits sing, “There is an answer / Somewhere down in the brittle earth.” Damn right; and we urgently need to pay heed, or human life on the planet is over.
11. Nonso Amadi – “Foreigner”
“Foreigner” is a supremely catchy, spaciously arranged and produced R&B smoocher of a slow jam, rooted in the Afrobeats of Toronto crooner Nonso Amadi’s birthplace, Nigeria. The repeated, rhythmic “oh, no, no, no” hook in the chorus is an irresistible singalong; the recurrent sax line is seductive as lingerie; the acoustic guitar is delicately lilting; and the whole groove is sensuous and mellow as can be. If you liked Drake’s “One Dance” or “Passionfruit” (I loved ‘em), you’ll dig this similar vibe, which feels a little more authentic, a little less forced. Interestingly, although Amadi came to Canada as a foreigner himself, the song isn’t about him, but his object of desire; as he sings, “I’m in love with a foreigner.” Me, I love this song. It’s already over a million YouTube views in nine months, and I predict he’s going to break out huge in 2023.
12. ZADA – “Nomad”
In about two minutes, Vancouver-based Ethiopian princess (in the best sense of the term) ZADA’s “Nomad” concisely documents the immigrant experience in the diaspora: TSA checks, acclimatizing to new cultures, and travelling. To a sparse, instantly alluring groove, the production references mesmerizing Afrobeats; deploys the African (then adapted to Gospel) tradition of call-and-response; and even includes a brief breakdown featuring the sounds of Ethiopian markets and airports. When she sings, “I’ve been a nomad from back in the day,” she’s honouring the historical roots of her people, ones that stretch back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. When she follows up with the line, “I’ll be the stranger with something to say,” she stakes a claim to her place as a representative in the future of that culture—as evidenced by this very song itself.
Howard Druckman is Editor in Chief at SOCAN Words & Music (SOCAN is a music rights organization based in Canada). See his 2021 list and his recent full-length appreciation of Julian Taylor’s Beyond The Reservoir.