Music

The 21 best Canadian albums of 2021

We make a case for why albums from Charlotte Day Wilson, DijahSB, Chiiild and more were the best of the year.

We make a case for why albums from Charlotte Day Wilson, DijahSB, Chiiild and more were the best of the year

Which Canadian albums would be on your list? (Othello Grey, Kehlani, Vonny Lorde; design by CBC Music )

While 2020 ground to a halt in every way, 2021 felt like a beacon of hope. Amid a cross-Canada vaccination rollout, live music was able to slowly come back to life, albeit with restrictions and precautions in place. So, too, did the album release cycle: this year, Canadian musicians who had pushed albums back due to the pandemic found themselves releasing projects alongside contemporaries who'd been writing and recording in isolation. It was a true gift to suddenly have so much music to listen to as we slowly unfurled and adjusted to this new light.

From Charlotte Day Wilson's highly anticipated debut album, to Julie Doiron's first album in nearly a decade, to intimately personal albums about our relationship to the environment and climate change (the Weather Station's Ignorance and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's Theory of Ice), we had an incredible selection to choose from. And as you read, you may notice a couple glaring omissions: our list of best Canadian classical albums can be found over here, and our list of best Canadian jazz albums will publish on Dec. 16.

So sit back, put your headphones on and have a look at our list of best albums of the year, as chosen by CBC Music producers. What have we missed? Let us know via Twitter @CBCMusic.


21. Choses Sauvages II, Choses Sauvages

After releasing their debut dance-punk album in 2018, Montreal band Choses Sauvages switched to nu-disco, new wave and German krautrock for a followup, modestly titled Choses Sauvages II. The quintet has meticulously tweaked a new electro sound interspersed with psychedelic funk riffs, finding a musical maturity bathed in easily identifiable influences: Kraftwerk (Homme machine, Conseil solaire), the Talking Heads (Science du bruit), Gary Newman, Daft Punk and the Italian disco of Giorgio Moroder. An hour-long album with only 12 songs is unusual these days and more akin to prog rock, a genre the band also seems to enjoy given Choses Sauvages II's experimental side — and all the instruments used to create it. the band used a dozen synthesizers to crystallize a specific era, like a mid-1980s Casio CZ-200 and a variety of KORGs and Roland analog synthesizers. The hazy vocals give most of their space to the instrumentation, a little less to the lyrics — some songs are completely instrumental, and sometimes you forget because the music is spellbinding. — Caroline Lévesque


20. Waska Matisiwin, Laura Niquay 

This is one of the best folk and rock records of the year, and Quebec-Atikamekw singer-songwriter Laura Niquay deserves all the accolades for the marvel that is her second full-length solo record, Waska Matisiwin. The album, which was on the 2021 Polaris Music Prize long list, is sung entirely in Atikamekw, and Niquay spent three years working on it, including rigorous research and consultation with elders and "techno-linguists," including three Atikamekw women specialists. Niquay's mesmerizing voice burns like the deep embers of a fire on the heart-pounding "Moteskano," rages in the album's louder, almost punk moments ("Eki Petaman"), offers a warm glow in its quieter, more introspective ones ("Aski") and dances in the sparks on the reggae-jazz-traditional Indigenous fusion of "Nicim" featuring Shauit. — Andrea Warner 


19. I Thought of You, Julie Doiron

It's a fateful day when Julie Doiron releases a new solo album, and with I Thought of You, her first release of that kind in nine years, is the rekindling of an old friendship. "It's been so long/ I haven't had a lot to say," she sings on "Thought of You," a quick rip of a quasi title track that's a little note for fans before she opens her heart further, adding, "But honestly, I felt ashamed/ and honestly I've been afraid to say that I thought of you." I Thought of You was written over the last bunch of years — some tracks for other projects ("Thought of You" is from her 2016 Greville Tapes EP with Nancy Pants), others coming from a more recent period of introspection and isolation — and it's stronger for that full picture. With an ad hoc backing band made up of Dany Placard (bass) and brothers Ian (drums) and Daniel Romano (guitar), Doiron goes back and forth with intention, leaning into loose, hopeful rockers (the handclap-ready "You Gave me the Key") before digging into that raw, exposed centre ("Well I know we used to love/ and I know we used to laugh/ and I know we used to care/ and I know we used to try," she sings on the vulnerable "How can We"). By the end of the 13-track album, it's clear that Doiron actually has a lot to say — she was just waiting for the right time to say it. — Holly Gordon


18. Poupée russe, Sarahmée

Sarahmée's third album, Poupée russe, is incredibly personal, as the Quebec songwriter and rapper lets us in on what she's been facing the last couple of years. Through lucid, frank lyricism and skillful flow, on the title track Sarahmée raps about dealing with daily sexism and racism, as well as her recent sobriety: "J'ai changé de classe économique/ jeune femme et noire, j'ai peur d'la police/ pas de paix tant qu'il y aura pas de justice." Born in Senegal and adopted by parents from Quebec who lived in Tunisia, Rwanda and Senegal, her upbringing and heritage fuel her creation. Produced by Quebec beatmaker Tom Lapointe, Poupée russe is a mix of Afro-pop, hip hop, soul, R&B and even Latino rhythms that are punctuated with catchy effects, which makes for a few bangers for the dance floor ("Elle est partie," "Quand la route est longue," "Vilipendées"). Poupée russe is an album of fruitful collaborations, too, including tracks with Swiss-Malagasy rapper Chilla, Quebec-Seychelles artist Nissa Seych, and rappers Fouki and Maky Lavender. As the first hip-hop artist to be nominated for breakthrough artist of the year at the ADISQ Gala in 2019 with her previous album, Irréversible, Sarahmée stepped into the limelight brilliantly and is now an unstoppable force in Canada's French rap scene. — CL


17. One hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden, Ada Lea

On her second album as Ada Lea, Alexandra Levy shuffles through the tracklist telling you stream-of-consciousness secrets, as if she's bursting with stories, overflowing into a blank diary after years without a pen. Her unabashed honesty is both refreshing and addictive — even if it's not a completely biographical account, you can't help but hang on her every syllable, curious how it all turns out. On the standout "Violence," she embodies resilience over a whining guitar that grows into a fierce piano stomp while she proclaims, "I'm flying out of here tonight/ like a butterfly/ and I'm keeping in mind/ you'll be chasing behind." The album's first single, "damn," builds to a similarly awesome place after staying Greenwich Village folk-romantic for three-quarters of the song and, like a lot of the collection, she might seem exasperated with circumstances, but if you listen as closely as she's urging — she's actually nearing freedom. — Jess Huddleston


16. Certified Lover Boy, Drake

Certified Lover Boy from Drake, the man, the myth, the legend. And that's exactly what Aubrey Graham is, a legend — the question becomes, is CLB legendary? Enter the paradox of Drake's catalogue: current work always being compared to the previous, with no margin for error. Is CLB a certified classic like Take Care? Perhaps not, but it offers solid production, strategic collaborations, chart-topping singles and strong album cuts. Above all else, listeners get the various personas of Drake's musical arsenal: the Proud Torontonian ("7am on Bridle Path"), the Family Man ("The Remorse"), the Viral Touch ("Way 2 Sexy"), the Lyricist ("You Only Live Twice"), the Mob Ties ("Knife Talk") and the Hopeless Romantic ("Yebba's Heartbreak"). Drake has been criticized for trying to appeal to a wide fanbase by giving a little bit of everything. However, his artistry on CLB should be applauded as genre versatility and creative genius. The latest project from the Boy, ironically, has received unrequited love. CLB has replay value and should be in steady rotation on your playlist for at least nine months. Jheeez! — Travis Pereira


15. I Ain't a Saint, Brittany Kennell 

Breakup albums can sometimes feel too immersed in the immediate aftermath: the tears, the pain, the all-consuming sadness. Perhaps it worked out best that Brittany Kennell took some time after breaking off an engagement — and with that, a move back to Montreal from Nashville — before working on what would become her debut release, I Ain't a Saint. The title itself implies a certain amount of distance where Kennell can objectively see her own faults, admitting on the title track, "I ain't a saint, just a sinner who keeps on trying." That levity, including a hearty sense of humour that comes through in Kennell's sharp wordplay, is what lifts this album to new heights. Pairing classic country sounds with a catchy pop delivery, most songs off I Ain't a Saint feel like an absolute celebration — of unsuccessful romances, of the turbulent highs and lows of change, of one's own perseverance through hardships. Even though the inspiration for this album was sparked by a breakup, listening to I Ain't a Saint feels joyous, enlightened and unafraid to tackle love all over again, as Kennell blissfully sings: "Gonna eat, drink, and remarry." — Melody Lau 


14. Theory of Ice, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

When Andrea Warner interviewed Leanne Betasamosake Simpson for the artist's 2021 album, Theory of Ice, wild fires were raging across the country. Four months later, flooding is the threat, undoubtedly connected to what the scorched earth has lived. It all makes the Polaris-shortlisted Theory of Ice an increasingly crucial album, one about our connection to, and relationship with, water. Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, scholar, activist and musician, began each of the eight songs as poetry, and transformed them into an intimate, full-length collaboration with bandmates Ansley Simpson (her sister) and Nick Ferrio, and producers Jonas Bonetta (Evening Hymns) and Jim Bryson, plus a duet with John K. Samson, and a powerful cover of Willie Dunn's "I Pity the Country." "They gather at the edge thinking/ they gather in the sky rethinking/ they swim towards light thinking otherwise," Simpson sings on "Break Up," at first meaning a raft of ducks but expanding her lens wider at the song's closing peak. Theory of Ice is a specially singular album built on community, giving us a blueprint for an alternate future. — HG


13. Tao, Shad

Shad opens his sixth album, Tao, with "Out of Touch," his incisive rapping standing on a loose, playful beat, in stark juxtaposition to what he's listing: all the ways that we're out of touch, both with ourselves and the world. Zeroing in on what's important alongside fun, can't-shake-them beats is what Shad does best, and on Tao he's at his most free and current, not questioning his place in the world so much as questioning why we haven't changed it yet. And he has fun doing it, too: on "Black Averageness," Shad's tongue-in-cheek riff on the expectation of Black excellence, he raps, "I just wanna see us cope/ we either stars or we broke … I have every right to be like a B or a C/ with a durag on while I ski." It's joyful, it's funny — and it's asking the hard questions. Tao is a deep dive into what it means to be human today, and while it feels timely for the pandemic era, it was mostly crafted pre-March 2020. All these challenges Shad's asking us to face — they've been here a long time. — HG


12. Play With the Changes, Rochelle Jordan  

After a six-year hiatus and a move to Los Angeles, Rochelle Jordan is back with a purpose. Her last project, 2014's 1021, cemented her status as a force, ushering in the new wave of sparse and gloomy R&B that hit Toronto in the mid-2010s. The new album maintains that atmospheric alt-R&B spirit but, as the title suggests, Jordan is playing with the changes that life has presented her to create a fresh sound. Hitting play on "Got Em" is like walking into a club during the heyday of London's '90s rave scene. This is a dance album, but an unassuming one — rife with tracks meant to be played in that liminal space where night and morning converge. With production assists from KLSH, Machinedrum, Jimmy Edgar and more, Jordan has woven a narrative propelled by house, grime, drum and bass, new jack swing and U.K. garage beats. And she's tackling some heavy subjects, from the fear she experiences whenever the Black men in her life walk out their front doors on "Lay," to the burden of expectations imposed on her as a Black woman on "Broken Steel." — Kelsey Adams


11. Dangerous Levels of Introspection, JP Saxe

"This is my whole heart in 13 songs," JP Saxe told CBC Music upon releasing his debut album last June. It's the sort of claim musicians make to underline the sincerity of their music-making, but in his case it's absolutely true. Saxe's heart is a complicated organ, one whose every palpitation feeds his insatiable appetite for self-scrutiny: "When somebody asks you, 'Do you think it's really over,'/ Do you say it is?" he ponders in the slowly swaying "Here's Hopin';" in the piano ballad "What Keeps me From It," he muses, "Maybe you're not love anymore/ maybe you remind me of it." Saxe's compulsive introspection does approach dangerous levels but, as those who've had their hearts broken know, it's like a drug. "All I do is get over you," he sings in breakup song "A Little bit Yours," low in his register. It's a powerful, seven-word fix for the lovelorn before the chorus swells, which is your cue to cry-sing in solidarity. — Robert Rowat


10. Ignorance, the Weather Station

Tamara Lindeman has been releasing music as the Weather Station for more than a decade, but her 2021 album felt like an arrival. Ignorance, her fifth full-length, is a lush folk-pop recording with nods to new wave that quietly, and devastatingly, explores the grief we carry from climate change. The album's sound marks a change from the band's previously guitar-based folk, with Lindeman writing on keyboard and building arrangements for the first time before filling everything out with the band. Ignorance has garnered Lindeman plenty of attention, with profiles in the New York Times and Pitchfork, and it landed her on the Polaris Prize short list for the first time. The album effortlessly connects our relationship with the planet to our relationships with each other — poetic breakup songs that pull double duty. "In my stupid desire to heal/ every rift, every cut I feel/ as though I wield some power here/ I lay my hands over all your fear," Lindeman sings sharply but invitingly on "Separated," a knife edge that she is deft at balancing. It's the intimacy of small moments that Lindeman is best at detailing, and it's why Ignorance resonates so personally: she takes the emotional side of climate change and places it in the palm of your hand. — HG


9. Soft thing, Loony

There's a quote by American artist Jenny Holzer that goes, "It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender." It's something I've thought of often throughout the pandemic. During the writing process for this EP, Loony found herself leaning into her own softness, telling Atwood Magazine, "All of a sudden, I couldn't help myself, I just started writing all this soft stuff. I don't know if it's because I was often isolated from the people I love over the last year, or if everything just felt so heavy all around me that I had to lean into the lighter stuff." Soft thing is a meditative neo-soul and R&B album from one of the most promising new voices in the genre, with collabs from U.S. rappers Mick Jenkins and Pell. The opener, "Beg," is a delicate journey into Loony's hangups, her vocals wandering: "And I, won't beg/ this pride right here just set up a little bit different." On "Raw," she sings of wanting a love where nothing is hidden, all the flaws laid bare. Throughout soft thing's eight tracks, Loony demonstrates that tenderness is never a sign of weakness; sometimes, it's the bravest act in the face of uncertainty. — KA


8. Parallel World, Cadence Weapon

"We've been failed by representatives," Rollie Pemberton raps on "Africville's Revenge," the opening number of this year's Polaris Music Prize winner, Parallel World. But a few beats later, he asserts his mission statement: "No more living with the reticence/ Say what I feel without regretting it." What follows is an album that splinters into its own universe, where Pemberton is given space to experiment with his sound (inviting collaborators like Jacques Greene, Casey MQ and Backxwash) while sharpening his lyrics to not only deliver incisive commentary on today's racial and political landscape, but to help listeners gain a deeper understanding beyond his words — "audio essays," as he explained to CBC Music. But in Pemberton's capable hands, Parallel World never feels didactic; it's a musical experience that holds up on its own, from the squelching beats on "On Me" to the late night glow of "Senna." Steeped in a past and present that feels ever slow in its progress, Pemberton's decision to place himself squarely in an electro-futurist soundscape is perhaps his boldest act of resilience here. "I want a better future/ I want a better solution," he summarizes on the closing track, "Connect." Parallel World offers a glimpse of how that can be achieved. — ML


7. Wildest Dreams, Majid Jordan 

Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman are living a life beyond the wildest dreams of their 18-year-old selves. A chance encounter as students at the University of Toronto in 2014 has led to a well of noteworthy R&B under the moniker Majid Jordan, and the duo is as slick as ever on its new album while wading into the waters of sonic experimentation. From the '80s synthwave groove on "Waves of Blue" to the introspective guitar-forward musings on "Forget About the Party," Wildest Dreams is Al Maskati and Ullman's most varied and pop-leaning effort. There are features from big names like Drake (they're signed to his OVO Sound label), Diddy and Swae Lee, but Al Maskati is a force all on his own: his falsetto on "Wildest Dreams" is a prime example of just how flexible, sexy and dynamic his voice can be. The chorus of sleeper hit "Life Worth Living" contains the album's thesis: "Hard times/ after everything I've given/ I only want a life worth living." After nearly a decade of working together, Majid Jordan is ready to bask in it all. — KA


6. Justice, Justin Bieber

With eight Grammy nominations and the widest popular appeal of all 21 albums on this list, Justice gathers a dizzying array of musical styles into an absorbing, coherent whole. It's a feat made possible by the common thread of Justin Bieber's exemplary singing and songwriting — skills he has cultivated on his record-breaking eight No. 1 albums. With cozy cameos by Daniel Caesar and Giveon, cheerful, R&B-leaning "Peaches" was the undisputed song of the summer; on gospel-tinged "Holy," Bieber and Chance the Rapper share a spiritual moment; "Lonely," an arresting ballad co-written by Finneas, finds Bieber calling out the music industry for ignoring mental health crises: "Everybody saw me sick/ and it felt like no one gave a shit." The album's deeper cuts prove equally satisfying and eclectic, from the surprising '80s pop-rock of "Die for You" (featuring Dominic Fike), to the danceable Afrobeat of "Loved by You" (featuring Burna Boy), to "Off my Face," the gentle song that fans of acoustic Bieber were waiting for. — RR


5. Hope For Sale, Chiiild

Hope is comfort. Comfort that the world won't come crashing down, that everything will always be alright even if it doesn't feel like it sometimes. On Montreal act Chiiild's debut album, hope is a warm embrace that you almost don't want to ever let go of. The followup to Yonatan Ayal and Pierre-Luc Rioux's 2020 EP, Synthetic Soul, Hope For Sale uses the foundation they've laid out on previous releases and presents a fully-formed sound and vision. It's hard to pin down the sound — an amorphous offering of R&B, soul and psychedelic rock finely blended together —  but it's Ayal's sunny optimism that lights it up from beginning to end. "Sometimes I feel like a mess/ But I'm a work in progress," he admits on "Hold on Till we get There." But he's encouraging both himself and his listeners when he follows that up with the advice to "Keep dreaming/ keep breathing." Even though we could all use a heavy dose of hope right now, we will surely continue to buy whatever Chiiild sells us in the years to come. — ML


4. Head Above the Waters, DijahSB

"I had a whole different schedule," DijahSB told CBC Music earlier this year. The Toronto rapper, who had made a strong impression with 2020 the Album, their debut album last year, hadn't planned on putting out a sophomore release so soon. But like many other musicians who were impacted by the pandemic, DijahSB had to change their plans and adapt. Luckily, the result was Head Above the Waters, their Polaris Music Prize shortlisted album that found the silver lining to our collective crisis and turned it into a bright beacon. DijahSB doesn't shy away from hardships, often utilizing a water motif to illustrate their struggles staying afloat in these difficult times, but there are always glimmers of hope powered by a palpable sense of drive and motivation, and an infectious beat to boot. "Homie I'm a hustler, anything I stock they be buying," they boast on "By Myself." If you haven't yet, now is the time to invest in DijahSB because their star status is only going to continue skyrocketing from here. — ML 


3. Alt Therapy, Emanuel

The long-awaited punctuation of Emanuel's nearly two-year album rollout culminated in this official debut — a luscious, 12-song reflection on sex, sorrow, love, regret and the power of Blackness. Similarly to the commercial debut of an obvious American comparison, Frank Ocean, Emanuel threads his tender revelations through limber vocal runs, thick beats and guitars so distant, it's as if they're echoing off lonely city skyscrapers at sundown. As with any lovestruck human experience, Alt Therapy is a mixed bag of feelings, but not one without consistency; the saccharine proclamation of "Pillows" is just as beautiful as the celebration within "Black Woman," while the triumphant (and absurdly sexy) "Worldwide" is just as likely as the chaos of "I Thought It'd be Easy." Since the very first iteration of Alt Therapy dropped in 2020, it was immediately clear that Emanuel was on another plane, and like the Canadian R&B greats before him, calculating his quiet uprising expertly. — JH


2. Alpha, Charlotte Day Wilson

Like many albums, Alpha is a journey into the self — and Wilson parses over and contemplates her past and present to heartrending effect. On "If I Could," she speaks to a younger version of herself, wishing she could have protected her at the beginning of her journey as a young queer woman. Wilson has always had an uncannily evocative voice, the kind that leaves listeners spellbound, and an ability to write gut-wrenching songs, but this debut album feels like a homecoming. She sings of love lost and found again, of perseverance, of the kind of vulnerability that only comes from delving into the most frightening parts of your own psyche: "You hear me calling/ Won't you come find me?/ Please don't forsake me," she sings on "Mountains." Wilson has always stressed how important it is to her that she be credited as a vocalist and a producer and the sonic realms that she takes us to on Alpha are a testament to her growth in both regards. Gospel, folk, alt-R&B and neo-soul influences abound as she stretches the limits of her alto and quickly proves there are none. There's an innate melancholic tone to her voice but on songs like "Keep Moving" and "I can Only Whisper" it feels lighter, like she's soaring into a new era. — KA


1. When Smoke Rises, Mustafa 

There's never been an album quite like When Smoke Rises. Mustafa has taken a distinctly Canadian tradition — he lists Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen as major influences — and created a folk album about the kinds of people who are usually rendered invisible by the Canadian cultural imaginary. The album cover is an image of Mustafa with his close friend Smoke Dawg (Jahvante Smart), a rising rapper in Toronto who was killed in 2018. The pair grew up in Regent Park, among other friends who all experienced first-hand the hardships of growing up in Canada's oldest housing project. Violence and death permeated their childhoods. "It's so important that people understand that we are living in a state of emergency when we're in the hood... living in a state of war," he told Genius, explaining the lyrics of "The Hearse," a song inspired by a memory of preparing a friend for burial. With production credits and features from Frank Dukes, James Blake, Jamie xx and Sampha, When Smoke Rises is an emphatic ode to his fallen brothers, grieving that's been hard work for Mustafa. On "Stay Alive," he pleads to keep his friends and neighbours safe; "Ali" is a song about another friend gone too soon. Loss is a central theme of the music, but so is unwavering love. — KA 

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