Favourites from the first half of 2022
If calling the last batch of albums “electronic” felt a bit arbitrary, tagging these as “pop” is even more reductive. The artists below are pulling from a wide range of influences, some accessible, others obscure, and the collection of futuristic soul, nostalgia-minded exotica, orchestral folk and other indescribable sounds don’t comfortably fit under a single banner. The label is just there for convenience sake, so take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy these albums on their own plentiful merits.
Cate le Bon – Pompeii
A half-dozen albums into her 13 year career, Cate Le Bon still sounds as distinctive as ever. There’s a clear throughline from her 2009 debut to Pompeii’s otherworldly pop, but her sound has gotten more oblique even as it’s become more familiar. Pompeii’s songs are crystaline: polished and multifaceted, composed of hard angles and reflective surfaces, and the inescapable feeling that if you look deeply enough, you just might discover a truth about the universe.
Dana Gavanski – When It Comes
The upbeat “Indigo Highway” is the most immediately appealing track on Gavanski’s sophomore album, but if the remainder of the album takes a little more effort, it’s all the richer for its subtlety. Sharply written and impeccably produced, it’s an album of intricate details, soft flourishes, and warm countermelodies, ornate but never overblown. Add Gavanski’s detatched but affecting vocals, and you have an album perfectly crafted for inward-focused escapism.
Daniel Ögren – Laponia III
Pop probably isn’t the right classifier for this one, but then, it’s hard to say what is. Ögren has explored jazz, funk, library music, and easy listening in projects like Sven Wunder and Dina Ögon, and while Laponia III has elements of all those genres, it’s both more hushed and more expansive (with a few exceptions, like the bouncy “Midnattsol”). This seems like music inspired by mountaintop views and sun-dappled vistas, where the air is thin and magic lurks under each stone.
Fresh Pepper – Fresh Pepper
Building on the gentle brilliance of last year’s Further Up Island, songwriter Andre Ethier has recruited a veritable supergroup of Toronto avant-pop artists for his latest project, with members of Bernice, Beverly Glenn Copeland, and more contributing to an album that’s equal parts smooth jazz, indie rock and the Food Network. The arrangements are uniformly sophisticated, threading a needle between avant-garde and easy listening, but Ethier’s plainspoken confidence is the real standout here. World-weary, wistful, and brimming with humour, it’s a fantastic next step for a songwriter who never ceases to surprise.
Jenny Hval – Classic Objects
Is there a better lyricist out there right now than Jenny Hval? Setting aside the music itself, rich and multidimensional as it is, I don’t think there’s anyone else who channels the full spectrum of modern anxiety quite like Hval does. Classic Objects opens with the Norwegian singer trying to make sense of her new marriage in light of her anti-institutional feelings, and it closes with her questioning the relationship between art and copyright. In between she wonders about identity and control, quotes Gilles Deleuze while making fun of “irrelevant quotes from French philosophers,” and blurs the line between diary, confessional, and pop song.
Maylee Todd – Maloo
Maylee Todd’s hushed future r&b is a long ways removed from the indie pop she first cut her teeth on in groups like Henri Faberge and the Adorables, or the hearty disco-funk of her last solo album nearly a decade ago. That album proved that Todd can belt ’em out with the best of them, but on Maloo she keeps her performance to a breathy croon, letting the drama come from the jazzy chords and unpredictable melodies. The album is named for her digital avatar, an oddly proportioned, slightly unsettling CG creation that appears in videos for Maloo. That persona keeps the album at a conceptual remove, but restraint suits Todd well, lending a mysterious edge to her already polished songwriting.
Medusa Phase – Negative Space
Synth-led Tallahassee trio Medusa Phase provide a mostly summery complement to the vintage dream pop sounds of Young Marble Giants and the Cocteau Twins. Not the smoke-choked heatwave of the last few summers, mind you—Negative Space channels dew-dampened fields and early morning mist, refreshing and full of promise. The album’s wonky keyboards and chintzy drums give the whole affair a surreal quality, like you’re hearing the jukebox at a half-remembered, half-daydreamed lounge on a forgotten Florida highway.
L.T. Leif and APB – Newfangled Objects of Our Desires
I should declare my bias here—I worked for several years with L.T. Leif and have a hard time staying objective about their work. But even with that qualifier, I’m sure I would have fallen for the charming concept and offbeat folk-pop of Newfangled Objects of Our Desires (NOOODS) no matter who made it. A follow-up to a 2010 cassette collaboration, NOOODS once again finds the duo of Laura Leif and Amber Phelps Bondaroff paying tribute to inanimate objects and the people who own them in a collection of lo-fi pop tunes. The doo-wop refrain of “Hewmidoo” is the EP at its most charming, but every song is brimming with the tender joy of creativity and collaboration.
Sessa – Estrela Acesa
Lovely, mellow Brazillian pop, recalling the glory days of tropicalia in its subtly psychedelic production and orchestral flourishes. Nylon-stringed and gently swaying rhythms evoke beachside hammocks and languid days, and while the lyrics delve into angstier territory, you wouldn’t know it from Sessa’s laid-back delivery—at least, not without a solid working knowledge of Portuguese. For the rest of us, those darker themes are a subtle undercurrent, adding shade to an otherwise breezy and balmy day.
Shintaro Sakamoto – Like a Fable
Shintaro Sakamoto’s lounge and surf-influenced sound doesn’t shy away from kitsch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a joke. The grimly funny cover of 2014’s Let’s Dance Raw is still maybe the best distillation of his approach — self-described “post-apocalyptic exotica” that’s at once nostalgic and entirely unexpected. Like a Fable expands the sonic palette of Sakamoto’s first few solo releases, and wisely downplays the vocal effects that made 2017’s Love If Possible a little harder to fall for. Trombone solos, surf guitar, disco beats and tropical grooves all find a natural home on the album, but behind it all there’s still an underlying dissonance, a subtle feeling that as bright as things may be, we might just be dancing to the end of the world.
Steven Lambke – Volcano, Volcano
Lambke doesn’t have what you’d call a conventionally polished voice, but the former member of the Constantines and Baby Eagle has always found a way to make it work. OnVolcano, Volcano, he uses confident arrangements to give a solid foundation, then lets his vocals sketch in the rest, more implying the melodies than fully singing them. Lead single “Every Lover Knows” epitomizes this approach, setting up a Neil Young-ish folk stomper with choral backing, then letting Lambke run ripshod through the arrangement, off-key and ebullient. It’s an approach rooted in well-deserved confidence, and one that lends unpredictabilty to an album anchored in rock-solid roots songwriting.
Yves Jarvis – The Zug
In his albums as Un Blonde and his first release as Yves Jarvis, Jean-Sebastien Audet seemed almost allergic to fleshing out ideas, preferring fragmentary melodies and momentary moods to conventional songs. The approach worked because of his seemingly endless stream of creative impulses and his obvious virtuosity, but it’s still been a pleasant surprise to see him shake a bit of that restlessness, first with 2020’s Sundry Rock Song Stock and now again with The Zug. His lyrics are still as inquisitive as ever, punctuated with Zen-like musings and personal/politicla reflection, and the extra space in his songwriting has only made room for more influences, adding Krautrock explorations and ’60s psych-folk hooks to the micro-gospel and acoustic soul of his early solo releases. If those earlier albums flowed on a river of creativity, the newer ones are drawing from a deep well of it—both are refreshing, but the sensation is different.