Spring 2021 guide: 21 albums you need to hear

From Jean-Philippe Sylvestre to Cadence Weapon to Rochelle Jordan, all the Canadian releases you should keep an eye on.

From Jean-Philippe Sylvestre to Cadence Weapon to Rochelle Jordan, all the Canadian releases you should hear

The next few months will feature new releases from (left to right): Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, Cadence Weapon and Rochelle Jordan. (ATMA Classique, Cadence Weapon/Facebook, Angel Rivera; graphic by CBC)

A time of renewal and (fingers crossed) sunshine, spring normally feels like Mother Nature's restart button. This year, on the anniversary of a global pandemic and when anti-Asian hate crimes are surging, that time of hope feels both incredibly necessary and yet so far out of reach.

One thing we can count on for escape and catharsis, though, is music, and this spring is looking like a fruitful one for Canadian albums. From Junia-T's deluxe release of his Polaris Prize-nominated Studio Monk to Charlotte Cardin's long-awaited debut full-length to new music from Sook-Yin Lee and the late Adam Litovitz, there's a lot to look forward to.

With the spring equinox on our doorstep, we're digging into these 21 upcoming Canadian albums that we think you'll love, in chronological order of release. What new records are you looking forward to? Share with us @CBCMusic.   

Artists: TuneTown
Album: Entering Utopia
Release date: March 19

Jazz played without a chordal instrument such as piano or guitar can take some getting used to, its harmonies often sounding thin to the unaccustomed ear. But that's not the case with TuneTown, the trio of saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, bassist Artie Roth and drummer Ernesto Cervini, who flesh out this mix of originals and standards admirably. Highlights include "Sycamore," a Roth composition built on a hypnotic beat; Cervini's "Billyish," whose sharp melodic angles recall Thelonious Monk, and a touching ballad by Roth called "Memories Remain" that concludes with a wail of anguish from Jefferson's saxophone. Also included are some short, head-turning interludes as well as a sepia-toned take on "Blue Gardenia," for which Cervini grabs his bass clarinet and the trio affects a relaxed jazz manouche style. — Robert Rowat

Artist: Shabason, Krgovich & Harris
Album: Florence
Release date: March 26

Deep in the autumn months of 2020, Shabason, Krgovich & Harris released Philadelphia, which was described by Pitchfork as "the sound of your brain on lockdown." It served as the penultimate sum of its parts — those parts being Joseph Shabason, Nicholas Krgovich and Chris Harris, a trio of artists as beloved for their solo endeavours as for their work as companion players to acts like Destroyer and the War on Drugs. Together, the three crafted a sound that is equal parts new age, experimental and poetry. Florence is every bit the instrumental companion piece to Philadelphia, named after the latter's sister-city. In the absence of vocals, the glitz of the guitar, the soaring chimes of synths and smooth rhythms of the bass live freely in the open spaces, at play with the sounds of babbling brooks and children playing. Shabason, Krgovich & Harris have created a canvas on which to lay your emotions, giving us a chance to find the peace that far too often eludes us. — Niko Stratis

Artists: Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan
Album: Intimate Impressions
Release date: March 26

On their debut album, 2019's Focus, guitarists Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan wowed us with a program of new and recent works. This spring, they're back with Intimate Impressions, focusing on composers based in Paris during the 20th century — Ravel, Tailleferre, Debussy, Jolivet and Mompou — much of it newly arranged by Cicchillitti and Cowan themselves. The album includes such gems as Debussy's Arabesque No. 1 and Ravel's Sonatine and Pavane pour une infante défunte alongside Jolivet's spirited Sérénade and excerpts from Mompou's haunting Música Callada. The duo's precision is impressive but what stays with you are the music's bittersweet melodies and the wistful watercolour scenes that spring to mind while they perform. — RR

Artist: Junia-T
Album: Studio Monk (Deluxe Edition)
Release date: March 19

Junia-T's Polaris Prize shortlisted album Studio Monk gets the deluxe edition treatment today, re-releasing with four brand new tracks that will top off the already superbly soulful collection. Studio Monk saw Junia-T, easily one of Canadian hip hop's most respected yet underrated players, take the backseat as MC, making room for collaborators like Jessie Reyez and Nate Husser to rhyme off while he expertly worked multiple instruments and the boards. On "4am in Toronto," one of the deluxe edition's new offerings, it appears as if Junia-T has saved the best for last. The song, which recruited Atlanta R&B singer Miloh Smith on vocals, is a slinky, gospel-laced instant classic that perfectly achieves the feeling of sinister promise only understood by anyone who's been awake to experience that cold hour in the city. — Jess Huddleston

Artist: Jean-Philippe Sylvestre
Album: Ravel
Release date: March 26

In the early 1900s, when Maurice Ravel composed most of his solo piano music, the concert grand piano was not that different from the instrument we know today. But because some of that music was written in a neo-Baroque style, pianist (and 2021 Juno nominee) Jean-Philippe Sylvestre has opted to record it on an Érard piano from 1854 on his next ATMA Classique release. "To bring out the Baroque character of two pieces, Le Tombeau de Couperin and Menuet sur le nom de Haydn, I wanted a piano with harpsichord-like articulation and sonority," he explained via press release. Sylvestre plays those two works as well as Miroirs, À la manière de Borodin and the famous Pavane and it will be interesting to hear him scale his formidable Rachmaninoff tone down to Érard dimensions on this new project. — RR

Jean-Philippe Sylvestre plays piano music by Ravel on his latest album. (ATMA Classique)

Artist: Charles Richard-Hamelin
Album: Chopin: 24 Preludes
Release date: April 9

Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin had been scheduled to perform Chopin's 24 Preludes on tour before recording them for Analekta Records, but COVID-19 changed all that. "The experience and confidence that would have been gained by performing the cycle all around the world had now been replaced by countless days and weeks at home, carefully studying the work," he told CBC Music. "For music so intricate, multi-faceted and technically demanding, this new approach was actually really good for me and I learned a lot not only about Chopin but also about myself as a musician and pianist." He describes this set of pieces as a microcosm of Chopin's piano music as a whole, adding, "it is Chopin at his most beautiful, heart-wrenching, experimental, dissonant, sometimes even violent. It is a fascinating journey through the human psyche and my interpretation aims to show precisely that." — RR

Artist: Sook-Yin Lee and Adam Litovitz
Album: jooj two 
Release date: April 9

In 2015, Jooj — a collaborative project by Canadian media figure Sook-Yin Lee and multi-instrumentalist Adam Litovitz — released its debut album. The music was sparse and eerie, experimental but intentional; Lee and Litovitz were operating on their own wavelength, together. While the pair, who were dating in real life, broke up after their first release, their musical relationship continued until Litovitz's tragic death in 2019. (Litovitz struggled with anxiety and depression, which was compounded by a prescription drug dependency. He died by suicide.) jooj two finds Lee completing the project she and Litovitz started, but never finished. "It was important to finish because we loved the music we were making during a time of uncanny creative coalescence," Lee said in a press release. "I'm excited for you to hear them and his great work." Lead single, "Run Away with Her" is out now, a big, echoing electronic track that also finds a way to sound warm and intimate. — Melody Lau 

Artist: Keeper E
Album: The Sparrows all Find Food
Release date: April 23

Keeper E, given name Adelle Elwood, is a classically trained pianist who turned to confessional bedroom pop during her bachelor's degree, building worlds out of synths and vocals that are just as connected to nature as they are to modern technology. The Sparrows all Find Food, the Halifax musician's first album, is rife with natural imagery tied to human nature ("I'm not a leaf in a river/ I know what I'm here for," she sings on "Leaf in a River"), with catchy lyrics and loops that quickly question motives or intent. "I've got a friend who says telling the truth makes it easier," she sings on "Telling the Truth." Then she counters: "Was it easier for you?" Keeper E's closely recorded, intimate vocals turn phrases from melodic to nearly damning in seconds, and on the back half of "Telling the Truth" her counter turns to almost frantic energy, repeating, "This is an emergency/ I think we're maybe drowning/ but I'm afraid to tell you/ because I don't want things changing." Keeper E's songs are beautifully and meticulously crafted, with crisp production that makes The Sparrows all Find Food feel both immediate and pressing. It's an eye-opening debut from an artist who only released her first single last fall.  — Holly Gordon

Artists: Joyce DiDonato, Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Album: Winterreise
Release date: April 23

It was Yannick Nézet-Séguin who suggested Schubert's Die Winterreise as the repertoire for his recital tour with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, which included a December 2019 stop at Carnegie Hall where this album was recorded. "For me, that belonged to other people," said DiDonato via press release of the song cycle about heartbreak seen through the eyes of a young man. The cycle is normally sung by basses and tenors, but DiDonato focuses on the woman in the story — "What about her? The woman he loved and who, for whatever reason, disappointed him," she asks. "When great artists undertake Winterreise it is a transporting experience," wrote the New York Classical Review following Nézet-Séguin and DiDonato's recital. "We're lucky that DiDonato has added her interpretation to the performance tradition."  — RR

Artist: Charlotte Cardin
Album: Phoenix
Release date: April 23

Astoundingly, Charlotte Cardin has yet to release a debut full-length album. The Montreal singer, and former contestant on La Voix, has built a life of touring on her two beloved EPs, 2016's Big Boy and 2017's Main Girl (as well as notable collabs, including one with rapper Loud for his Juno-nominated album, Tout ça pour ça). In 2019, Cardin went into self-imposed isolation, locking herself away in a Cult Nation studio with producer Jason Brando to make new music. Their work would extend to two years (hello, pandemic), and what Cardin has eked out in singles has been an awakening: the slinky, synthy "Passive Aggressive," the guitar-driven earworm "Daddy" and the cathartic, almost gospel-like "Meaningless." "I'm listening to my inner voice, tuning out the external noise, and sharing music that's authentically me…. I'm just a 25-year-old woman who's obsessed with feelings and wants to share them as authentically as I can. Phoenix symbolizes my growth," Cardin explained via press release. The singer sounds comfortable pushing her limits on Phoenix, dipping her toe in a few different genres along the way. Some experiments work better than others, but overall the sound and sentiment are clear: Cardin is genuinely discovering who she is, and the results are explosive. — HG

Artist: Rochelle Jordan
Album: Play With the Changes
Release date: April 30 

It's been about seven years since Toronto-raised, L.A.-based R&B singer Rochelle Jordan released her last album 1021, but now she's back with what she proclaims is her "proudest and loudest body of work to date." As an album title, Play With the Changes seems a propos, as Jordan's feathery, layered vocals have always thrived on navigating a kinetic soundscape with nimble assurance. With influences steeped in '90s R&B and house, as well as U.K. 2-step and garage, Jordan's sound has always been nostalgic yet futuristic. Forged in conjunction with longtime collaborator and producer KLSH, Jordan's sonic and vocally inquisitive fusion is inimitably and unavoidably associated with her, despite the extended absence. Now connected with electronic music producer TOKiMONSTA's Young Art Records, Jordan's ridiculously addictive recent singles, including the affirming "Got 'Em" and friend-zone busting "All Along," signal a triumphant re-emergence. Del Cowie

Artist: Cadence Weapon
Album: Parallel World
Release date: April 30

"I don't follow anybody else, I never did," Rollie Pemberton says on his latest track as Cadence Weapon, "Senna." Judging by his 15-year career, he's right. From his years as Edmonton's poet laureate to his 2018 self-titled release which found him opening up his collaborative circle more, Pemberton's career is pretty singular. It's what makes following the Toronto-based rapper such a thrilling ride. His next Cadence Weapon album, Parallel World, promises to be his "most politically charged album to date," according to a press release, touching on themes of "systemic racism, structural inequality, police profiling, gentrification, the internet's pervasive effects on our lives and the surveillance state that disproportionately punishes Black people." It's a weighty list, but Pemberton will surely tackle it with a verve and energy that has powered his previous releases. Much like his last album, Parallel World boasts an impressive list of guests including Casey MQ, Korea Town Acid and Backxwash.  — ML

Artist: Sluice
Album: Le succès par le travail
Release date: April 30

"I used to be afraid to speak French, even ashamed sometimes," admits Trevor Murphy, whose new francophone project, Sluice, is gaining momentum with two recent singles and a debut album on its way. "Even though I spoke the language every day, we grew up with an understanding that the Acadian dialect just wasn't 'good enough' or 'proper French.'" Now, Murphy's not only embracing his linguistic heritage but celebrating it with his guitar-driven, energetic punk pop. "Et le ruisseau a seché c't'année," he sings in the chorus of "Le ruisseau," staying true to his dialect, "le ruisseau coule plus astheure." Drawing on the local lore of Murphy's Par-en-Bas region of Nova Scotia for thematic material, this is music as microhistory — and we're eager to learn more. — RR

Artist: Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition
Album: Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition
Release date: May 7

Simone Schmidt has worn many hats over the years: songwriter, producer, researcher, vocal powerhouse. On Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition, these hats coalesce to shine a light on Schmidt's incomparable ability to sidestep expectations. This journey began with their 2020 EP, You Wanted Country, Vol.1, a collection of country classics and original compositions that eschewed presumptions of a direct followup to 2017's folk-tinged Audible Songs From Rockwood. Expertly backed by Bianca Palmer, Nick Dourado, and Jeremy Costello, artists steeped in their ability to find structure in the spirit of improvisation, we heard a style recreated, both of the moment and timeless. Schmidt is back with the same musicians (the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition) for their self-titled album, where phasers, pianos, synths and saxophones work in concert to take us through a world on a precipice, as portrayed by the characters that inhabit its streets. Delivered in a style and tenor born of Schmdit's wholly unique delivery — strong and boastful at times, smooth and hopeful in others, feeling right at home in the grooves laid before them — these eight songs take us on a journey through cycles of love, life and death, labour struggle and class solidarity. — NS

Artist: Szaio
Album: Obraz EP 
Release date: May 15

Diamond Rings may no longer exist, but John O'Regan is still making music — sort of. Szaio is a new project spearheaded by Zosia Mackenzie, O'Regan's partner and a fellow film art director. The songs off her upcoming EP, Obraz, started as solo GarageBand sketches, but were later expanded upon with the help of O'Regan and dub techno duo Mark and Matt Thibideau. The result is nothing like O'Regan's previous work. Szaio is a full-blown electronic project, with Mackenzie on vocals (often singing in Polish), built for neon-lit dance floors. Obraz embraces experimentation, but ultimately coalesces into irresistible dance anthems. Here's hoping we can find time this year to enjoy the sounds of Szaio in its intended environment.  — ML

Szaio is a new project by Toronto-based musician Zosia Mackenzie. (Bordello A Parigi)

Artist: John Orpheus 
Album: Saga Boy
Release date: May 21

Riding the momentum and critical acclaim of his recently published memoir Saga Boy, Antonio Michael Downing — or John Orpheus, his music project alter ego — is set to release an album with the same name as his literary foray. Saga Boy looks to continue exploring the Black diasporic musical traditions that John Orpheus previously touched on in his mixtape projects and 2019 album, Wey ya Call Dat Ting, with melodically insistent tracks like the besotted-themed "Electric" and "Fela Awoke (I Will Miss You)." The latter track is a touching celebration of Orpheus's personal heroes, dedicated to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti's mother, Bob Marley and Orpheus's own grandmother. With it, he taps into his West African Yoruba heritage and Trinidadian upbringing, encapsulating the John Orpheus raison d'etre in many ways — priming Saga Boy to deliver nomadic grooves rooted in the heart. — DC

Artist: Backxwash
Album: I Lie Here Buried with my Rings and my Dresses
Release date: May 28

Montreal rapper Backxwash had a breakout 2020, but that momentum is only going to continue picking up more steam in 2021. Fresh off her Polaris Music Prize win for God Has Nothing to do With This Leave Him out of It, the metal/hip-hop hybrid artist/producer wasn't even done processing her monumental achievement before announcing that more music was on the way. Her follow-up, titled I Lie Here Buried With my Rings and my Dresses, will feature guest appearances by Sad13, clipping., Ada Rock and more, and Backxwash herself has described the release as "my Yeezus just in terms of sound." — ML

Artist: Hillsburn
Album: Slipping Away
Release date: May 28

It's been five years and two full-length albums since Hillsburn's "Farther in the Fire" Searchlight days, and last summer the band went through a major change: founding member Paul Aarntzen left the quintet, leaving siblings Rosanna and Clayton Burrill, Clare Macdonald and Jackson Fairfax-Perry with the decision of whether to continue. Sitting on a fully recorded album — worked on for nearly a full year leading up to the pandemic and made in Vancouver with Grammy-nominated producer Howard Redekopp (who worked on Tegan and Sara's So Jealous and Sainthood albums) they decided to readjust and move forward, stretching to fill unfamiliar roles. Slipping Away sees the band using more synths alongside a healthy dose of gang vocals, and the Hillsburn hooks are just as sharp as ever — and the band's heart is just as big. It sounds like they're right where they're meant to be. — HG

Artist: Naya Ali
Album: Godspeed
Release date: spring 2021

Last year, Montreal-based Ethiopian rapper Naya Ali released her debut album, Godspeed: Baptism (prelude). But just as the title suggests, that was only part of the story. Godspeed: Baptism (prelude) is one-half of a two-part release, while the second half is expected to drop this spring. From what we gathered in the first half though, Ali is brimming with musical ideas: cut-throat rapping that seamlessly transitions into more melodic hooks, beats that feel tough yet soulful, and even glimmers of more pop-oriented dance moments. Godspeed: Baptism (prelude) had us hooked, and we can't wait to see where it goes next. — ML

Artist: Drake
Album: Certified Lover Boy
Release date: TBA

Drake's sixth album was originally supposed to come out in January, but postponed it to focus on recovering from a surgery. "I'm looking forward to sharing it with you all in 2021," he ended his announcement with, promising an eventual release later this year. Not much is known about Certified Lover Boy, other than that it's going to be considerably more concise than the 25-track Scorpion, and it will feature a lot of different styles. The trailer that he released at the end of 2020 also recreated some of Drake's past album covers, which could be a hint that we're in for a look-back album of sorts, much like how lead single "Laugh Now Cry Later" sounded reminiscent of his 2010 output. Rumoured collaborations at this point include rapper Roddy Rich and Brampton's very own Jessie Reyez. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Artist: Mustafa
Album: When Smoke Rises
Release date: TBA

Mustafa has long been considered one of Toronto's best-kept secrets. As a poet and songwriter, Mustafa has earned a reputation for being an expert wordsmith, having penned songs for Camila Cabello, the Weeknd and most recently, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber for their mega-collab "Monster." But soon, all eyes will be on Mustafa with the release of his debut album, When Smoke Rises. (It was originally slated for a January release but an updated release date has not been announced yet.) The singles he's released so far are stunning, even landing on our top 100 songs of 2020 list. Tracks like "Stay Alive" and "Air Forces" are powerful portraits of empathy, pleading to younger generations to avoid gang violence. Mustafa's music doesn't shy away from the darkness of grief and anger, but love is always at the centre of it all, acting as the beating heart, a sliver of hope that keeps everything afloat. — ML


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