The top 20 Canadian albums of 2020
Including the Weeknd, Lido Pimienta, Tobi, William Prince, Grimes and more
It's no secret that this year challenged the music industry in many ways. The COVID-19 pandemic forced musicians to hit pause on world tours; ongoing discussions around racism and underrepresentation made record labels and award shows rethink their use of language and categorization (to varying levels of success); and social media apps like TikTok continued to break down and rebuild the ways in which the industry operates.
But unlike people working in the film or TV industries, which have been hit hard with production and release struggles, musicians were able to continue making and putting out albums with relative ease.
With the exception of some delays, streaming new music every week remained a stable, unchanged part of our 2020 existence. And as in previous years, there has been no shortage of great Canadian music to bring us joy, comfort and excitement in what has otherwise been an emotionally challenging time.
From chart-toppers to radical newcomers, here are CBC Music's top 20 albums of the year.
What were your favourite Canadian albums of 2020? Share with us @CBCMusic.
20. Bleached Wavves, Zoon
Like all good shoegaze, or "moccasin gaze" as Zoon mastermind Daniel Monkman calls this excellent sonic blend, Bleached Wavves transported us into a limitless, gauzy alternate state during a year when acknowledging reality often felt taxing. Taking notes from the forefathers of shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, the Jesus and Mary Chain) Monkman never sacrificed sparkle or melody in crafting these hazy rock anthems, nor did he sidestep his culture or backstory — incorporating elements of his rich Ojibway heritage and stories of past addictions. Even in their lyrically indiscernible moments, song titles like "A Perfect Sunset," "Light Prism" and "Infinite Horizon" — and their transcendent guitar licks — effectively root you in Monkman's dreamscape, building a uniquely intimate connection that was previously missing from Canadian rock. — Jess Huddleston
19. Bleeding Gums Murphy, Aquakultre, Uncle Fester
Lance Sampson, a.k.a. Aquakultre, had a standout year despite the pandemic. The Halifax-based rapper and singer finally released Legacy, his Polaris longlisted full-length debut album — recorded using his 2018 Searchlight studio session winnings — after more than a year of delay, and it's a beautiful collection of slightly uncategorizable music that stems from soul and R&B, built with a full band. But what we've been turning to lately is his second release of the year, Bleeding Gums Murphy, which sees Sampson partnering with Halifax DJ Uncle Fester for a buoyant album that leans more on Sampson's rapping than Legacy does. Bleeding Gums Murphy is, of course, a Simpsons reference to the fictional jazz saxophonist pictured on the album cover, but you don't have to be an aficionado of the TV show to dive into the album.
Single "Lemongrass" is a mid-tempo affirmation of family and community, with Sampson rapping the line, "This one goes out to my family, my rocks and my pebbles" and following it up with, "My village is a community full of Africvillians." And this record is a village: Sampson teams up with local mainstays Shevy Price, Chudi Harris and Ghettosocks on various hip-hop, jazz and soul-inflected tracks, closing out the album on a collaboration with spoken-word artist Andre Fenton, who delivers a heart-wrenching performance — "Most times I shy away from a standing ovation, while my heart is screaming crickets and my self-doubt is my best-kept open secret" — atop noodly saxophone and keys. Like a lot of Aquakultre's work, Bleeding Gums Murphy is a coming together of community, and one we've been thankful for this year. — Holly Gordon
18. Miss Anthropocene, Grimes
Where to begin. Grimes has been a steadily wild headline generator in a year of steadily wild headlines — announcing her pregnancy with a very Grimes Instagram photo the first week of January, releasing Miss Anthropocene in February, giving birth to her and Elon Musk's son (whose unusual name was a hot topic) and then reducing her own name to just c (a reference to the speed of light). Never one to shy away from self-expression or opinions about perceived moral and environmental corruption, what was new was seeing Grimes in the news for some historical pillars of domesticity. Amid big life changes, Miss Anthropocene felt like a brilliant art-pop glimpse into the complex, eternally fired-up tapestry that is Grimes' brain, but also a new level of rebellion — one in which she continues to confront emotional demons and earthly injustice, all while boldly giving way to the love growing inside of her. Unexpected moments like the banjo-backed addiction story "Delete Forever" and the ethereal album opener, "So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth," are standouts — tied together by a similarly laid-back vocal surrender that sounds so natural, and perhaps most notably, bordering on serenity. — JH
17. The Joy, Prince Josh
Expansive and experimental, The Joy is rooted in unmistakable wonder. As the debut effort by producer, DJ and songwriter Josh McIntyre, the album conjures the spirit of early Warp Records releases, while also deferring space to craft songs that service his imagination and curiosity. Structured loosely on a foundation of deep house and ambient techno, The Joy experiments with monochromatic drones and astral psychedelia, bouncing from a heavyset trap beat to a swath of spellbinding IDM. The inquisition is goal-oriented and responsive: what sounds illuminate your personal manifestation of a city?
And yet, McIntyre's devotion to coherence is the mark of a meticulous producer and an astute editor. The album's collection of features and samples — of meandering reflections or conflict in motion — feel like a deification of the mundane. In its quiet intimacy, The Joy is grand and communal, a reminder of the sprawling capacity of the dance floor to support and sustain self-inquiry. — Melissa Vincent
16. Tous les Jours Printemps, Original Gros Bonnet
Montreal hip-hop septet Original Gros Bonnet was relatively unknown until it won the 2019 edition of Les Francouvertes, an annual emerging music contest in the group's hometown. That win helped propel the group, formerly called O.G.B., to its second album, this year's impressive Tous les jours printemps, fusing hip-hop with jazz and neoclassical harmonies. Few groups can boast doing all of that successfully, but that's just what the orchestral-sounding Original Gros Bonnet does, composing songs with saxophone, clarinet, flute, guitar, synthesizers, double bass and piano — and on this newest album, adding strings, brass and woodwind for a slightly less poppy sound than its 2018 debut, Volume un. Rapper and pianist Franky Fade delivers the lyrics in a slow flow that blends well with the jazzy atmosphere. Tous les jours printemps is a mature album that plunges the listener into "rap keb" (rap québécois) — with a different jazzy twist. — Caroline Levesque
15. Cape God, Allie X
Ever since Allie X relocated from Toronto to Los Angeles in 2013, her career has been split between launching a new solo career — those who followed her in Toronto have likely witnessed a few different phases of Allie Hughes' musical journey — and songwriting for other artists. In that time, she has penned songs for Troye Sivan, Lea Michele and BTS, and her own music has cultivated quite a cult following. But Cape God, the followup to her CollXtion series, feels like the most cohesive statement she's made yet.
Not one to just churn out glossy, cheerful pop anthems, Hughes often wraps weighty narratives in maximalist production. "Devil I Know" kicks off with a sinister guitar line and the immediate admission of "I think I made a big mistake." "Love me Wrong" is a sombre duet with Sivan about the disconnect of familial love. And highlight "Susie Save Your Love" pairs Hughes up with indie rocker Mitski to tell a story of a complicated love triangle. Even the title of the album is a reference to an HBO documentary about the opioid crisis.
With the rise of sad bangers this year, Cape God feels perfectly aligned with our global mood. We craved comfort in the form of an undeniable melody, while also wanting to commiserate and sit in feelings of sadness and discomfort. Cape God was just the medicine we needed. — Melody Lau
14. Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, Klô Pelgag
Singer-songwriter/composer Chloé Pelletier-Gagnon, a.k.a. Klô Pelgag, gifted us with her third album, which she wrote while experiencing depression after years of overwork following her critically acclaimed debut, 2013's L'Alchimie des monstres. In her new collection, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, the Montreal-based singer translates the darkness of her feelings into poetry and the elaborate musical arrangements of her orchestral pop. It's a 12-song journey that is as emotional as it is geographical: Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs is the unusual name of a town in Quebec (in English: Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows), a small island paradise where the artist took refuge in order to face her own fears. In this album, Pelletier-Gagnon continues not to be constrained by genre, with unexpected twists and turns along the way. Take time to indulge in repeat listening to reveal the magnificent complexity of Pelletier-Gagnon's songs. — CL
13. Reliever, William Prince
Doesn't matter who you love, son
If you don't love yourself some.
That refrain from "The Gun" is just one instance of the understated wisdom that permeates all 11 songs of Reliever, William Prince's followup to his Juno Award-winning debut album. Intended as an "exploration of what, who and how peace is found," the album finds Prince probing issues of the heart, often uncovering meaning in the mundane. "I drive too close to the outside lane/ I drive you crazy when I breathe," he sings on "Wasted," concluding, "I think I'm ready for a new life/ I think I'm ready for a beautiful wife."
Sonically, the album is the equivalent of putting on your softest T-shirt: there's no pretense or artifice, only unfettered, honest expression. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Prince has such a deeply resonant voice — folk music fans will hear echoes of Stan Rogers in his rich baritone — and he never pushes it to the limit of his range for expressive purposes.
A spiritual element flows just beneath the surface of Reliever, and in fact Prince has recently released a sacred album called Gospel First Nation, so it's not surprising to find a song titled "Old Souls," in which he ponders atonement and the quest for life's purpose while the accompaniment builds. Less lofty, but equally poignant is the gently waltzing "Lighthouse," an ode to the redemptive power of love. — Robert Rowat
12. It's Not How It Sounds, Clairmont the Second
Clairmont the Second started young. Really young. At four, he learned the drums; when he was 15, the Toronto rapper released his debut mixtape; by 19 he had a Juno nomination for his 2017 album, Lil Mont from the Ave. Now in his 20s, Clairmont is a seasoned vet, sure in his sound and confident in his approach — a strength that shows on his album It's Not How It Sounds. Clairmont is fiercely independent, and as such, produced, mixed and played every instrument on it, save for one track, "Clockout," which was produced by his brother, Cola.
The result is a collection of songs that show Clairmont's firm grasp on blending and crossing genres, from trap to gospel, incorporating everything from homemade retro video game sounds ("Power/Theme") to screeching West Coast synths ("Bent") and sumptuous jazz chords ("Dream"), all while creating a sound all his own. Recorded in 2019, the music is also eerily prescient, reflecting on, among other things, avoiding the outside world. "Done being outside," he raps on "Dun," while on "Gun Finger," he raps about only going outside for necessities. "I never hang on the strip, get what I need then I dip." It all fits with Clairmont's embrace of being the outsider, carving out his own lane in the Canadian music scene. Equally experimental as it is accessible, It's Not How It Sounds is definitely something you haven't heard before. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin
11. Heavy Light, U.S. Girls
For as much as U.S. Girls acts as the solo project of Meg Remy, each album of hers grows more and more into a collective effort. Heavy Light may be hyper-personal at times — diving into childhood traumas and tracking how it manifests itself in something bigger and more destructive over time — but Remy's vision is often carried out through a choir of voices, immaculately arranged by her vocal coach, Kritty Uranowski. The album also contains interludes — sound collages — during which Remy's collaborators reveal the most hurtful thing they've ever been told, the colour of their childhood bedrooms and what advice they'd give to their teenage selves. These build on the idea of collective trauma, too.
Contrasting these intimate moments are brighter soundscapes that borrow from throwback disco, pop and soul, creating a time capsule that feels at once nostalgic and an extension into the future of U.S. Girls' ever-evolving sound. "We're all dragging our childhoods around with us every day," Remy told the New York Times in March. "The more you acknowledge your younger self within you, the better it behaves. When you don't acknowledge it, it acts out like a child does." Heavy Light is Remy's full acknowledgement of her younger self, and with it, she finally gets to enjoy the freedom to march forward into the light ahead. — ML
10. Changes, Justin Bieber
Over the years, Justin Bieber's fans have learned to tune out the critics (who almost unanimously — and erroneously — viewed Changes as a subdued, one-note slog) and instead just tune in to the vocal stylings of one of today's elite pop/R&B singers. Nominated for three Grammys, Changes puts that voice on display across 17 varied tracks, from Top 40 bops ("Yummy," "Intentions") to mid-tempo R&B-inflected jams ("Available," "Come Around Me"), to cozy guitar songs ("Changes," "That's What Love Is"). Uniting them is the theme of marriage, a preoccupation for Bieber, who credits his union with Hailey Baldwin in 2018 with helping him cope with much-discussed anxiety and addiction issues.
"Room for you in my coupe, let me open up the door/ open up my eyes to a feeling I can't ignore," he sings with an arresting melodic contour in the album's introductory song — a sentiment that resonates with all who've hesitated before letting love into their lives. Lead single "Yummy" is decidedly less introspective/more carnal, its puerile lingo underscored by an endlessly bewitching beat. Of Bieber's collaborators on Changes, Quavo and Post Malone attracted the strongest streaming numbers, but Lil Dicky's turn on "Running Over" is the most convincing, his dorky delivery somehow at one with the song's spiky syncopation. Best of all are the album's less conspicuous songs ("Confirmation," "At Least for Now") that strip away distractions and leave you suspended with only that beautiful, sustaining voice holding you up. — RR
9. Espiral, Okan
One of my favourite things about great jazz is how you can hear the players in conversation with each other, solos that sparkle and flirt and enrich and empower, but always building to a stronger whole. On Okan's expansive and evocative Espiral, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne aren't just in conversation with each other in the present, but they're calling back to their ancestors, their cultures, and the rich musical traditions of their Afro-Cuban roots. (The band's name, Okan, actually comes from the word for heart or soul in Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion.) For the listener, eavesdropping becomes witnessing as Espiral's Afro-Cuban jazz conjures heartbeats and harmonies across time.
The instrumentation is flawless throughout, but it's particularly notable on the album-opening title track and the dizzying flurry of "Trocado." The brilliant brass-flourished collab with Cuban rapper and spoken-word artist Telmary ("Mercedes") uses elements of an almost extinct Cuban music rhythm called Pilón. Hearing Rodriguez, Savigne and Telmary's voices blend together and push each other to new heights is a welcome jolt to the soul. But the truest joy of every Okan record is the partnership between Rodriguez and Savigne and the songs (originals "Aguila" and "Baila Canada," and covers "Pie de Foto" and "Besame Mucho") that centre them directly in conversation with each other. Espiral is lush, vibrant and powerful, and a testament to the power of Okan. — Andrea Warner
8. The Lemonade Stand, Tenille Townes
Tenille Townes' long-awaited major-label debut dropped in June, and it's a joyous introduction to a singer-songwriter whose empathetic storytelling and Stevie Nicks-like range make her an unstoppable force. You'll recognize many songs on The Lemonade Stand, as previously released (heartbreaking) singles "Somebody's Daughter" and "Jersey on the Wall (I'm Just Asking)" are now sing-alongs at her shows. But new songs like the duet "The Way You Look Tonight," with Keelan Donovan, and the jaunty, welcoming "Come As You Are" keep the release feeling fresh.
That The Lemonade Stand begins with "Holding Out for the One," though, feels almost too apt: Townes, a singer since her pre-teens, moved from her Grande Prairie, Alta., hometown to Nashville after high school to pursue music full-time, working on her craft for years before finding the right home for her work (Sony and Columbia Nashville). With a voice that cuts right through a full band or simmers gently atop an acoustic guitar, Townes is in the power seat now — and as she boldly sings on the opening track, "Maybe I'm a little bit different I guess/ but I ain't giving my heart to just anyone/ I'm holding out for the one." — HG
7. Studio Monk, Junia-T
The title of Junia-T's Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted album, Studio Monk, couldn't be more fitting. Simultaneously, it alludes not only to the technical fastidiousness of the Mississauga, Ont., producer and engineer, but also the free-form creativity and ethereal ambience that evidently infused the recording sessions. Manifesting an environment where both well-known and emerging creatives came together and felt completely comfortable, as peers, to genuinely tap into their psyches was clearly a priority for Junia-T — and the results are untouched emotional snapshots. Junia-T captures Jessie Reyez's pained rejection on "Sad Face Emojis," Nate Husser's latent social alienation and anger on "Try Me," and Faiza's starkly unapologetic intersectional indictment of racism and sexism on the reggae-fuelled standout "Puzzles." Even Junia-T himself revisits his long-established MCing skills on "Complicated," revealing his own honest reflections on fatherhood. Steeped in warm and layered soundscapes, Studio Monk invites listeners into its cavernous sonic space. — Del Cowie
6. Suddenly, Caribou
Musicians who have been releasing albums for 20 years are subject to high, possibly unfair, expectations; they can be damned if they do and damned if they don't, depending on whether they stray too far from their mould or fail to reinvent. Caribou's Dan Snaith, back with his album Suddenly after six years, might be exempt from this judgment — his masterful brand of melodic electronica somehow remaining both universally cool and welcome in its unpredictability. With this Polaris-shortlisted album, Snaith takes centre stage not only as the predominant vocalist but also an intimate storyteller, dispensing fragments from his years as a family man and someone who has really loved and lost. A lifelong student of sounds (and someone with a PhD in mathematics, for what that's worth), Snaith blends reggae, soul, disco, house, shoegaze and so much more to paint his most accessible visual yet. From the introspective, Brian Reitzell-sounding "You and I" to "Ravi," a sparkling house anthem straight out of early-aughts New York City, Snaith leaves very few layers unturned, yet somehow, he leaves us hungry for so much more. — JH
5. Dedicated Side B, Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen belongs in a rare group of artists whose B-sides are just as revered and anticipated as her proper releases. Following up on her 2019 release, Dedicated, Jepsen surprised fans this year with the 12-track Dedicated Side B. (Jepsen is quite a prolific writer, having penned more than 200 songs for both Dedicated and 2015's Emotion, so the B-sides are plentiful.) The results further illustrate the difficult process Jepsen must go through every time she puts together an album, showing an immense overflow of ace singles, from the Bleachers collaboration "Comeback" to the two different takes on the same set of lyrics (the one-two punch of "Felt This Way" and "Stay Away"). Jepsen's keen observations of love, lust and heartbreak are as sharp as ever, encased in foolproof hooks and melodies. With such a creative drive — she has already admitted to writing an entire album in quarantine — Jepsen continues to prove that she is one of pop's great songwriters. But by indulging fans' demands for B-sides, our hunger for more Jepsen tunes only grows stronger. Here's hoping she has another treat in store for us in 2021. — ML
4. God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It, Backxwash
In the first 10 seconds of God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It, a sample of Ozzy Osbourne's iconic, disconsolate wail functions as a promise and incantation. The Polaris Prize-winning release by Montreal-based rapper and producer Ashanti Mutina, who performs as Backxwash, is an inquisition into genre-amorphous world-building, designed to recreate the aggregate environments that resulted in her hard-earned salvation.
Both historian and vanguard, Mutina calls upon the multiple traditions of heavy music — deploying the horsepower of '70s doom metal and horrorcore rap with the dizzying stamina of industrial electronics — to blast misshapen institutional doctrine, probe the limits of familial relationships, and grapple with the ecosystem of the carnal and metaphysical self. In the process, she transforms a 1,000-pound melody into an accelerant, flamed by piercing rhymes, spitting observations that operate as mediations, and shrieking her rage into an unyielding affirmation. — MV
3. Elements Vol. 1, Tobi
Released mere months after the deluxe version of his debut album, Still, Elements Vol.1 is an impressive stopgap ahead of the 27-year-old Nigerian–Canadian's official sophomore project. On "Made Me Everything," the Brampton, Ontario-based artist juxtaposes the joy-inducing, soul-drenched arrangement with lyrics deconstructing the ineffability of everyday microaggressions, and trauma with wide-eyed clarity. It's this self-proclaimed theme of Black joy in the face of resistance that fuels Elements Vol. 1. Effortlessly weaving through hip-hop, R&B, jazz, Afrobeat and grime, sometimes seemingly all at once ("Dollas and Cents"), Tobi's melodic rhymes and plaintive vocals connect diasporic dots and eschew convention with intuitive ease. Bridging gaps is an essential activity to the Lagos-born Tobi, whether he's tentatively flirting with romantic possibilities ("Silhouette"), or profoundly reconnecting with a long-lost friend on the beatific, string-drenched "Shine," which, like this entire project, hits differently in these times as a welcome pandemic balm. — DC
2. Miss Colombia, Lido Pimienta
It's fitting that the opening track to Miss Colombia includes the parenthetical "sol," or sun in English. Lido Pimienta's voice radiates warmth and light and colour, a cappella at first with a slight echo effect, before a small burst of brass instruments fan out underneath her. The playful way the two tones chase each other up and down the musical scale evokes a kind of one-sided call-and-response, Pimienta exorcising a ghost by flooding the sky with sunlight as the song reaches its mesmerizing ascent.
This sets an incredible stage for an album that exists at the myriad convergence points of Pimienta's lived experiences: Colombian-born, Canadian-based, queer, feminist woman of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous descent. Miss Colombia is Pimienta's return to her homeland, and was recorded with celebrated Afro-Colombian band Sexteto Tabalá live in San Basilio de Palenque, a town founded in the 17th century by escaped slaves. The live recordings retain their shape even as Pimienta and her team build up electronic soundscapes around each song, careful to never overwhelm but rather amplify what already exists — seamless innovations across time into a futuristic cumbia that pulses with emotion and life.
Pimienta has called the album a kind of "cynical love letter to Colombia," and it's also a tribute to Afro-Colombian and Indigenous resistance and existence. It presents a snapshot of Afro-Colombian music that feels both culturally representative and unique to Pimienta. The album closes as wondrously as it opens with a reprise of the opening track, but this time with the parenthetical "luna," stripped-down and hypnotic, crafted with multiple layered tracks of Pimienta's luminous vocals cascading upwards and fading into darkness. From the incredible array of percussionists to the rich, tangy brass and sonorous woodwinds; from the guest vocalists to the lush electronic beds throughout, Miss Colombia is a vibrant homecoming and joyful reclamation, with moments of hauntingly beautiful reckoning throughout. — AW
1. After Hours, the Weeknd
Right from the opening note, the Weeknd's fourth album, After Hours, hits you like a cold front, a cinematic shroud of gritty synths bringing on the chill for the next hour. Released on March 20, it was the first major album to come out during this COVID era, and as such, it's impossible not to apply the lyrics around isolation and loneliness to our everyday situation. It's also fitting, considering the Weeknd was making quarantine R&B before it was a thing. Sure, Abel Tesfaye is pining for a lost love here, but he could just as easily be any one of us bracing for the long months ahead. "I don't know if I can be alone again," he sings on the opening track, "Alone Again," the first step on a long dark path of self-loathing, grief, nostalgia and, ultimately, faith.
It's undoubtedly the Weeknd's best album since his 2010 debut, House of Balloons, and there are many nods back to that time, both sonically and lyrically. The title track sounds like it could have been recorded during those mixtape days, helped along by the presence of Illangelo, a mainstay producer behind many of the Weeknd's early hits, as well as seven of the 10 tracks on After Hours. Hitmaker Max Martin also returns on five tracks, including the '80s-influenced "Blinding Lights," the monster single that became the most-streamed song of 2020. From R&B and gospel to drum and bass and pop, After Hours is the sound of a musician confident in his craft and at the top of his game. — JKG
Listen to highlights from all 20 albums in this Spotify playlist.