Music

The most underrated Canadian songs of 2020

Looking for some gems that you maybe haven't heard yet, or forgot about during this very long year? We've got you covered.

Looking for some gems that you maybe haven't heard yet, or forgot about this year? We've got you covered

From left to right: Tona, Orville Peck and Lu Kala have released some of 2020's most underrated songs. (Courtesy of artists; design by CBC Music)

December is usually a time to reflect, to really dig into the things that buoyed us during the last 12 months. But holy, what a year it has been. 

There's no need to count the ways that 2020 has walloped the world, but it's why we think year-end lists are all the more necessary right now. They're a chance to re-listen to those albums and songs that really got us through, and hopefully discover some new music to propel us into what has to be a brighter future. 

And underrated songs are some of our favourites to dive into. Whether we're looking back at artists we thought would make it big but didn't quite get the foothold they deserved, or songs from established artists that went under the radar in favour of bigger hits, the list below is filled with songs that CBC Music producers and hosts think should get more attention before the year's out.

What's on your list of underrated Canadian songs? Let us know via @CBCMusic.


'Body Knew,' Lu Kala

Lu Kala is a pop star who is about to step into her shine. Her brilliant break-up song "Body Knew" is an anthem for the ages. Kala's voice has this wildly compelling texture, sweet but lightly abrasive like a sugar scrub. As she cries out at her cheating ex on the chorus, you can feel the frustration and the yearning, mad at him for being trash and mad at herself for still wanting him. "I wish my body knew/ a-ah been so over you/ ah-all of the work that we did/ but now it's all gone to shit." Kala has spoken at length about many aspects of her identity — she's a Black, plus-size woman who's Congo-born and Toronto-based — and the radical belief she had to have in herself because nobody else was going to do it for her. Kala's perspective is quite literally music to my ears, as is her entire 2020 release, the aptly titled Worthy. When the world opens back up, expect to see Kala commanding the brightest stages in the universe. — Andrea Warner


'Morning,' Noble Oak

With his serene dream-pop, Vancouver's Noble Oak (real name Patrick Fiore) offers an enchanting escape from the real world — and who couldn't use that right now? "Morning" is the lead single from Horizons, whose 10 songs employ wistful melodies and lush production to conjure expansive, luminous vistas. "Is it crazy to think that I'm going crazy?" Fiore asks, his falsetto burning like a sunrise through a mist of synthesizer, guitar, piano and percussion. "Is it sane to be scared?" he continues, echoing the questions we've been asking ourselves all year. — Robert Rowat


'Working,' Cartel Madras 

I got big plans, you know when a bitch workin'.

"Working" is a house anthem that stomps through with confidence. Inspired by sharp lyricists like Cakes Da Killa and Azealia Banks, Cartel Madras's Contra and Eboshi soften their delivery (which often hits more aggressively on tracks like "Goonda Gold" and "Lil Pump Type Beat") to smoothly navigate the bouncing beat by fellow ThotNation collective member Jide. The result is, as a press release described it, "a queer, party track which pulls from our experiences as bad bitches in the music scene from the LBGTQ+ community." So whether you're ready to party or ready to put in the work, this song will provide the perfect soundtrack for either occasion. — Melody Lau


'Fancy,' Orville Peck (Bobbie Gentry cover)

Country singer Orville Peck released his Show Pony EP in August, showcasing his innate sense of story as well as his desire to challenge the traditional country narrative and to push for an industry that's both inclusive and boundary-breaking. And while tracks like "Summertime" and "Kids" are excellent originals, it's his cover of Bobbie Gentry's 1969 classic, "Fancy," that really stands out. Peck first heard Reba McEntire's cover of the song in the 1990s, and he's incorporated elements of both versions to create his unique spin, altering gender pronouns for a song that's "lyrically from more of a queer perspective," as he told CBC Music in the summer. Musically sparse, "Fancy" puts Peck's gorgeous baritone front and centre for a cover that is both fresh and stunning. — Holly Gordon


'Differences,' Tona

While so many of us went into a mental shutdown this year, Scarborough rapper Tona has been nothing but prolific. He released his latest album, the excellent July 26, this summer, and has followed that up with a number of stand-alone singles and collaborations that showcase his everlasting consistency. Tona is a rapper's rapper, twisting words and melting metaphors with poetic grace, all in his striking baritone. I've returned to "Differences" more than any other song of his this year, in which the Juno Award winner addresses his place in the rap game over a plunky, minor key piano loop and heavy drums. "If I wasn't so unconventional I'd probably make something lighter for radio," he raps, full of confidence in his chosen path. As he raps on the chorus, "I do it 'til they understand the difference." — Jesse Kinos-Goodin


'Indecision,' Moneyphone

2020 has been stripped of many superficial distractions, leaving a lot of bored adults to try to recapture what they liked as kids, when a day spent looking at bugs in the grass was considered a success. Kids generally don't have a lot of autonomy, yet they have all the freedom in the world. Blending pop and hip hop brilliantly, Moneyphone captures that nostalgia on "Indecision" — reminding us for a sweet second what it feels like to practise total youthful abandon, even knowing the gravity of life is waiting just around the corner. — Jess Huddleston


'Brokenhead,' Zoon

This song might be underrated, but I'd wager that Daniel Monkman, a.k.a. Zoon, won't be an underrated artist for long. His debut album, Bleached Waves, dropped just as the pandemic took hold of 2020 and in many ways his music, what he calls moccasin-gaze, has served as a balm for those needing some light this year. In "Brokenhead" he writes about leaving home and everything he knew to make a new life. But in a year like this, it's a two-minute-and-52-second release from everything that's been weighing us down — as well as a path forward. — Mitch Pollock


'Closed Chapter,' Gianna Lauren

If I could've put Gianna Lauren's entire five-song EP, Vanity Metrics, on this list, I would've. The Halifax-based singer-songwriter released her first new music in three years this past November and it's been on repeat — a beautiful, idiosyncratic mix of longing and agency. But it's the cheeky guitar pluck of "Closed Chapter" that pulls me in first each time, giving way to a crash of sound to reveal a full electric band accompanied by a bloom of horns. As Lauren sings "It's the same old story/ that I can't tell," there's a tension that builds and partially releases but never feels fully resolved, just pushed to the side for another day. It feels a little too apt, to be honest. — HG  


'Yellow Fever,' Cutsleeve

Cutsleeve's music combines '90s alt-rock with a distinctly queer and Asian perspective, a rare pairing in a field that has historically, and continues to be, dominated by straight white men. Fusing the guitar work of Sleater-Kinney with the humour of a band like Partner, "Yellow Fever" is a standout on the Toronto band's debut EP, The Parts we Could not Abandon. "Don't say 'ni hao' when you see my last name/ just because I'm Asian doesn't mean we're all the same," singer Hannah Winters warns the song's subject, calling out Asian fetishization. 2020 was a strong start for Cutsleeve, and I can't wait to see how they continue to grow and get better in the coming years. — ML


'Just for Loving you I pay the Price,' Cindy Lee

I barely recall the early months of 2020, but I wish I'd spent them listening to the ominous What's Tonight to Eternity, Patrick Flegel's February release as Cindy Lee. Slow-dancing the line between nostalgic comfort and the echoey backdrop of something more unsettling, you can slip between the layers of "Just for Loving you I pay the Price" the way you might slip into your own head. "When I close my eyes/ when I think of you/ I lose my mind" is one of those lines that punches harder with each month spent in pandemic isolation. While Flegel dubs their sound as "confrontation pop" — perhaps referring to the way sounds and ideas come together on this project — there's a sense of confrontation that bubbles up in the listener, too, as the music leaves you grasping at something you're not quite sure you want to face. — Nairi Apkarian


'Happy for You,' Alex Porat

Breaking up sucks. Breaking up hurts. Breaking up feels. Capturing that raw melancholy is the compelling magic of music, and Alex Porat's "Happy for You" is a clinic on exactly that. It's not so much the lyrics, which centre on faking being happy publicly while internally drowning (who can't relate?), but rather the tonal conveyance. Real or imagined, you can hear the emotion in her breathy, almost painful delivery of the chorus: "Faking a smile, falling apart/ you're breaking my heart./ It's hitting me harder than I thought/ I say, I'm happy for you/ I'm not that happy for you." It's a stunning piece of pop perfection, and it's why we turn to music when we're hurting. Ben Aylsworth


'On a Weekend,' Haley Blais

When Haley Blais wrote "On a Weekend," she had no idea just how much it would resonate with listeners this year. "It's always funny how my plans fall through on a weekend/ holding my own hand on a weekend," she sings over a shimmering guitar riff. Of course, everyone's plans fell through in 2020 and with a global pandemic forcing many to physically distance, that fear of missing out slowly dissipated, just like Blais' feelings of FOMO on this track. "Do what you wanna do/ without me there with you," she encouraged her subject later on the track. Indeed we all did what we wanted to do, on a weekend and pretty much every other day of this cursed calendar year — but thankfully to wistful, beautiful tunes like this. — ML


'Treat,' 11:11

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" wrote William Shakespeare in his best-known sonnet, and poets have been metaphorically obsessing over the objects of their desire ever since. In this delightful slow jam, 11:11 turns to the produce aisle for inspiration. "I don't mind a little fuzz on your peach," he begins over finger snaps and guitar, making it clear that subtlety is not his point. "I can taste your mangoes through your ankles/ you know all the angles I like/ you're gonna be my dessert tonight." In the three rising notes of the chorus he indulges in this "sweet, organic treat," his gustatory pleasure evident in his warm falsetto and the addition of percussion and layered vocals. — RR


'Bomb,' Meg Warren

Meg Warren, formerly of St. John's synth-pop group Repartee, released her debut solo EP, A Thousand Ways, on Nov. 27, and honestly all five songs are a recommended dive over the holidays. But "Bomb," with its matching moody guitars and piano riff, is the track that most deserves revisiting. "I bet you're doing all right/ moving on with your best life/ while I'm dreaming about you every damn night/ it's like you're hiding out in my mind," Warren sings, detailing a headspace we've all rented against our will. The song pushes and pulls in cathartic waves, crashing with each chorus as Warren yells "You're like a bomb!" Whether that "you" is an ex or, honestly, the pandemic, "Bomb" is the perfect yell-along single. — HG


'Good Enough,' July Talk

What do you get when you take the Cure's "Close to Me" kick drum, a hint of Beenie Man's "Rum and Red Bull" melody and some feather-light new production from one of Canada's hardest rocking bands? July Talk's "Good Enough," that's what. On one of the sweetest and snappiest songs of the summer, singer Leah Fay takes the vocal reins, cooing ethereally throughout what can only be described as pure sunshine in a song. It's almost tough to listen to it now, as the snow blows fiercely outside, remembering what it felt like to have this in your headphones while the sun beat down on the pavement ahead. — JH


'Slurpee,' Zach Zoya 

Finally, Slurpee slurpers have an anthem! No surprise that it comes from Canada, the global leader in Slurpee consumption. Hailing from Rouyn-Noranda, Que., Zach Zoya delivers a brain freeze with "Slurpee." Centred on a high-fructose, synth-horn bass line, the song gives you a taste old-school gangster rap. Zoya's simple but modern flow blends it all perfectly to give the listener a tasty, layered sugar rush — just like the magical machine that delivers the drink itself. — BA


'Living my Life Over,' Cecile Believe 

Caila Thompson-Hannant was a staple in the Montreal music scene in the early 2010s, but in recent years she has expanded her musical circle, both by moving to Los Angeles and teaming up with artists like PC Music associate Sophie. As a result of personal and professional changes — Thompson-Hannant also became sober while writing new music — her latest alter ego, Cecile Believe, was born. Her debut album, Made in Heaven, is a blender full of sounds and influences coming together, guided by Thompson-Hannant's saccharine but soulful voice as she works through transitions in her music and in her life. Standout track "Living my Life Over" finds Thompson-Hannant shuffling forward and clearing the slate as she lays down a new path. "Ooh, living my life over again/ it's like I'm never getting older, yeah," she coos, disregarding the concept of time but instead trying to just live in the moment. — ML


'Homies,' Savannah Ré

In a relationship? Friends with benefits? Just homies? On the lead single from her debut EP, Opia, Savannah Ré tries to cut through the drama and questions what's really going on in her relationship. "I'd be lyin' if I said I had it all figured out/ Lyin' if I told you I can't live without more of you, more of us," she sings in the chorus, emotion showing through the break in her voice. Ré commands your attention with just solo guitar accompaniment through the first verse and chorus, at which point the production expands, but never enough to shake this song from your sexy slow jams playlist, where it definitely belongs. — RR


'Les bateaux dans la baie,' P'tit Belliveau

P'tit Belliveau is Jonah Guimond, a singer-songwriter originally from Baie Sainte-Marie, N.S. (and now living in Moncton) whose debut album, the cheekily titled Greatest Hits Vol. 1, was longlisted for the 2020 Polaris Prize. "Les bateaux dans la baie" is a perfect example of his atypical electro-folk sound laced with wry humour, fusing banjo, drum machines and synths with his seamless transitions from French to English lyrics. The track is an upbeat delight, and has really wormed its way into a few favourite playlists this year. Guimond's deadpan delivery on what the song is about adds to the charm: "Je suis Jonah, de la Baie. Qu'est-ce que je peux faire? Je vais juste regarder les bateaux dans la baie. C'est pas une chanson inspirante. C'est juste pour se sentir bien avec notre impuissance," he told Voir in 2019. ("I'm Jonah, from the bay. What can I do? I just look at the boats in the bay. It's not an inspiring song. It's just to make us feel good about our powerlessness.") As he sings on the track: "C'est OK." — HG 


'Miss Summer,' Odie

I like to think of Odie as the phantom of cool Canadian music — dipping in and out of reach with dreamy alt-R&B, remaining under the mainstream radar but deservedly buzzy in his slow-burn approach to, well, everything. "Miss Summer" is a beautifully hazy standout from his limited discography so far — arriving two months after summer ended, but still managing to slip you into the kind of welcome daze that only hours in the hot sun can do. Between the psychedelic guitar and his echoey falsetto, songs like this make it clear that Odie has what it takes to bat alongside the likes of Moses Sumney or Frank Ocean, so hopefully it's just a matter of time before he really gets off the bench. — JH


'I Miss You,' Marlaena Moore 

The feeling of longing for someone is overwhelming: time is stretched like molasses, your mind and body can turn against you and your decisions grow more and more impulsive. That is all encapsulated perfectly on Edmonton songwriter Marlaena Moore's track "I Miss You." Over a chugging guitar riff, which melts into the steady drum beat behind it, Moore describes in details both big and small just how much she misses someone until she's just repeating the song's title like she's spiralling out of control. "I Miss You" is a simple, but raucously beautiful illustration of just how maddening and intoxicating love can be sometimes. — ML


'Road Warrior,' Allan Rayman

Allan Rayman has a history of role-playing and mystique, mastering a kind of circusy pop-rock that has felt both sinister and whimsical at the same time. Rayman called 2020's Christian an "Allan album," where the singer stepped into the foreground with honest, straightforward love songs like "Road Warrior." Listening to this grungy ballad, you either want to be in Rayman's shoes, or the person he's in love with. It paints a picture of one of those open road, reckless kinds of romances that Springsteen and Mellencamp have been boasting about for years, and despite it being new territory, Rayman does the feeling good, good justice. — JH

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