#1. Belle Plaine: Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath (Roots)
In achieving the #1 position, Belle Plaine is the winner of the 2018 Saskatchewan Music Award for Album of the Year
Swaying through a series of moods, a beautifully crafted and timeless recording
“Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath is the kind of album you’d imagine playing on the jukebox in the background of a small town bar on drizzly Friday night with just the bartender and two other patrons in the joint. Her voice makes the record tender, but its content really makes you stop and think.” (Lula 1892)
Opening with the subtle and beautiful For All Those Who I Love, MMG&W sways through a series of moods with Golden Ring, a retro-flavoured duet with Megan Nash; the steel-punctuated Squared Up; old-country tribute Taxes and Death and You; the uptempo shuffle Is it Cheating with Colter Wall contributing backups; the sultry Are We Good; Laila Sady Johnson Wasn't Beaten by No Train, a quick-step tribute to Belle’s grandma; the hauntingly beautiful and sentimental Radio Dreams; and closing out with Rock Bottom, guesting Kacy Anderson (Kacy & Clayton).
Belle’s trademark vibrato vocal is placed upon thoughtful production with the talents of producer Jason Plumb at Studio One. The primary players lending their talent to the project are Steve Leidal on drums, Elizabeth Curry and Shawn Patton on bass, Ian Cameron on pedal steel, Jeremy Sauer on keyboards, and Bryce Lewis and Blake Berglund on guitar. The songwriting – Belle wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 9 tracks on the album– is remarkable, and vivid. As told to Tidal, “I didn’t set out to specifically talk about anything, but it ended up being mostly about relationships and when they are flawed, when they are celebratory and when they are neither of those things. I wanted to preserve the honesty of those relationships through the lyrics. It’s what I strive for in my writing.” While Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath contemplates the ephemeral nature of life, it also manages to address themes that are persistently unfolding in our lives: forgiveness, redemption and hope.
Released just this October, MMG&W reached the #2 spot on the Earshot Folk/Roots/Blues charts, and has spent seven weeks thus far on The National Top 50 (multi-genre) chart. Winning over hearts with every performance, Belle has performed across Canada and the U.S. with stops at Folk Alliance International, JUNOfest and many more notable events. Pouring her heart and soul into everything she does, we encourage you to check out a live performance and her previous albums as well. Wishing Belle continued success and big congratulations!
#2. Jack Semple: Can't Stop This Love! (R&B)
Semple’s 2018 release is a driving collection of powerhouse blues, funky dance grooves, and soft, soulful reflections. Jack still can’t stop this love of the music that took hold of him over two decades ago and it shows. Known as one of Canada’s premiere guitar virtuosos, Jack returns with an album that will continue his legacy as an R&B force.
Starting out playing with various Regina-based bands, Semple became well-known as a prominent member of renowned R&B band The Lincolns (Toronto), won the national Guitar Warz competition among thousands of players, and literally played the lead character in Sask-made movie Guitarman. He’s received two Western Canadian Music Awards, appeared on a JUNO-winning album, and been nominated for 2 Geminis for his soundtrack work, to highlight just a few achievements – not to mention mentoring hundreds of up-and-coming Saskatchewan guitar talents.
“Stevie Ray Vaughn meets James Brown meets Robben Ford” seems an ideal description from his own bio. Over the years, Semple has reached international audiences, winning over fans and critics alike with his songwriting, a stack of recordings, and live performances, both as a solo artist foraying into folk and instrumental sounds, and with The Jack Semple Band.
“Can’t Stop This Love!” spotlights not only Jack’s skills as a guitar great, but a masterful songwriting style. The record opens with the hot title track giving a nod to the late BB King, followed up with a selection of funky R&B tracks and smoky shuffles, and catchy refrains such as the deeply hooky “Can’t Help It.” “What if every day was a gift?” he muses, reflecting on the loss of longtime friend, musician Greg Lowe. The album concludes with two beautifully contrasting tracks: the heavy wall of groove reminiscent of SRV on “Workin’ Overtime” - a track we can all relate to about working to get ahead, and the reflective acoustic track “Walkin” that will strike a chord in your soul.
2018 has been a great year for Jack with critically acclaimed performances across North America. It’s only fitting that Saskatchewan’s bluesman rounds out the year with a career milestone record, one that will leave you with the “feel-goods.”
#3. Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains (Country)
Hearkening back to the days of ‘country and western music,’ Wall’s latest album Songs of the Plains (Young Mary’s Record Co.) presents his one-of-a-kind baritone and employs supremely minimalist production on songs about cowboys, farming, campfires, and the road. With producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings, Chris Stapleton, Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga) at the helm, authentic sounds add colour, with a bevy of A-list musicians contributing – in addition to Wall and Cobb on guitars, it’s Lloyd Green on pedal steel, Chris Powell on drums, Jason Simpson on bass, and Mickey Raphael on harmonica. Wall also invites friends and fellow artists Blake Berglund and Corb Lund onto the closing track, a cover of the classic “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail.”
A true lover of the traditional country sound, and keen to feed that love forward to new audiences, Wall’s album treads a retro line and somehow has made it cool again. The storytelling on this effort – mainly originals by Wall, with a few select covers – offer many themes of wandering, no doubt a reflection on his incredible success and substantial tour schedule in recent years, straight from the opening track where he sings “Forever I wander, forever I stray, The rustle of wheat fields starts callin' my name.”
While drawing comparisons to Americans Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, Wall here references distinctly Canadian touchstones – "Saskatchewan 1881”, “Manitoba Man,” a cover of Wilf Carter’s “Calgary Round Up”. Exclaim! writes, “On his terrific sophomore record, Wall paints a portrait of a mythic Canadiana, a western region of lonesome plains and grizzled frontiersmen, of rodeos and gunfighters, of hardscrabble existences and unlucky bounces.”
“After less than 24 years on this planet, Colter Wall and his voice carry the gravitas of an elderly Johnny Cash if he’d been buried in the soil of Wall’s Saskatchewan home” (Americana Highways).
With growing critical and fan acclaim and sold-out shows wherever he seems to pause with his guitar, it seems the new country sound of the prairie is actually a revival.
#4 (TIE) Hook & Nail: Ghosts of Taylorton (Folk)
Hook & Nail is a folk/roots trio implementing vocal harmonies with electric and acoustic instrumentation to deliver stories. Their songwriting draws inspiration from historical stories from their region, bringing the personalities and circumstances described into the present.
Although the trio itself is relatively new, the members - Jeff D. Michel on bass, percussion, mandolin and electric guitar and vocals (Shattered, Jim Galloway, Generation ‘M’), Mike Davis on guitar and vocals (Black Tooth Grin), and Lindsay Arnold on vocals - were longtime friends who are known from several other musical projects. Each member brings a unique set of strengths that combine to give their music the storytelling of folk, the twang of country and the energy of pop/rock music. Lindsay, an accomplished visual artist, served as the primary lyricist for the majority of the songs and created the cover art. The band takes its name from a century-old farmhouse east of North Portal SK, in which everywhere you looked, there was either a hook or a nail in the wall, a prime example of practicality overruling aesthetic values until it becomes a style of its own.
This authentic and eminently listenable album weaves its way through stories such as opening track Adeline, from the point of view of a soldier leaving for war (“Kiss me, Adeline, cut a lock of hair; A piece of you to hold while I’m over there”); the upbeat tempo belying a rough life in “Ride” (“father was mean with a brutal hand, behind his eye gazed a hardened man”) and country-tinged “Locomotive Johnny,” a story of Michel's grandfather who drove a coal train. There’s also the slide-led instrumental “Eight & Sand,” the atmospheric “Drinkin’ Away” and “September 29, 1931,” rowdy “Two Tons” and toe-tapping “Boomtown Blues.” Many of their songs draw connections directly to events from the local Estevan mining area.
Our province has earned something of a reputation for growing amazing singer/songwriters, and if you appreciate a well-told story lyric, you’ll want to check out Ghosts of Taylorton. This album is a wonderful example of a traditional-in-spirit folk/roots album with a contemporary feel, blending lovely voices and skillful playing into an experience you’ll want to enjoy on repeat.
#4 (TIE) Rosie & The Riveters: Ms. Behave (Folk/Jazz)
Rosie & the Riveters' gritty, sultry, vintage-inspired folk anthems paint a portrait of a woman's voice in a man's world. Although the trio never planned to get political, they found that watching the news these days made it impossible to see the status of women around the world and stay silent.
“Like the topics on Ms. Behave, Rosie & the Riveters' latest collection of songs are just as multifarious in their sound as they are poignant. Elements of old-school rhythm and blues pervade the album which, paired with spotless folk harmonies and a real rock 'n' roll attitude, help Ms. Behave elevate itself.” (Pop Matters)
Preparing for this release, the Saskatoon trio Allyson Reigh, Alexis Normand and Farideh Olsen) took to a cabin in the woods in the dead of winter to work on songs, before traveling to Toronto to collaborate with heavy-hitting Canadian songwriters including Royal Wood and Matthew Barber. The twelve tracks that made the final cut are a collection of powerful and daring songs, reflected in song titles like “Gotta Get Paid,” “Let ‘em Talk” and “I Wanna be King.” While title single “Ms. Behave” lays down a Bill Withers-inspired groove and rejects the policing of women’s behavior, “I Believe You” sprung from the outrage and sorrow they felt after hearing the recent avalanche of stories of sexual assault. Produced by Joshua Van Tassel (Sarah Slean, Rose Cousins, Great Lake Swimmers), their sophomore album echoes Aretha Franklin’s demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
No Depression praised, “(Rosie & the Riveters) look sweet as pie, gosh golly. It’s an intentional visual choice: They paint their faces with bold red lipstick. They tease their hair with big plastic curlers to build unflappable retro 'dos that complement their post-flapper vintage dresses. They rely on these post-war aesthetics to present as passive, conformist women of the Silent Generation. But sweetness and pie be damned. Rosie & the Riveters’ sophomore album Ms. Behave is a punk record masked with girl group harmonies, walking bass lines, and slinky snare brush percussion.”
Not only does the trio more than capably bring it on the album, they have earned faithful fans far and wide for their on-spot harmonies and engaging live performances at major events including AmericanaFest, Folk Alliance International, Reeperbahn, MerleFest, Folk on the Rocks, Winnipeg Folk Festival and many others, plus have garnered significant airplay on college charts and CBC Radio. If you have a chance to see them live, jump at it.
“Their purposeful lyrics and poised harmonies are meant to confront and inspire every woman” (Billboard Music)
#5. Marie-Véronique Bourque: Une porte s’ouvre (Jazz)
Bourque is a flutist who has been active on the music scene for more than 25 years. Boasting an impressive array of accolades including awards, educational achievements and symphony gigs, Une porte s’ouvre (‘A door opens’) is her debut album, produced by Tyler Hornby at OCL Studios, Calgary. Dedicated to French jazz, the album is composed of nine tracks - three original pieces mixed with an assortment of covers from artists such as Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg, Michel Legrand and Moe Koffman. The track “Excusez-Moi” (featuring Marie-Noëlle Claveau on vocals), was written in collaboration with Michelle Gregoire, and was a Semi-Finalist in the 2018 Canadian Songwriting Competition.
Marie-Véronique calls on some heavy hitters to accompany her flawless flute playing on the album, incredible musicians from Calgary, Regina and Quebec: Michelle Grégoire (piano), Jeremy Coates (double bass), Tyler Hornby (drums), Jack Semple (electric guitar), Mark DeJong (tenor sax), Marie-Noëlle Claveau (voice). This instrumental album is a treat to listen to from beginning to end, and is a welcome addition to the versatile musician’s experiences with classical, Baroque, folk, world, traditional French, cabaret and blues stylings. With such a wide array of instrumental capabilities and stylistic elements, we can’t wait to see what she does next.
#6 (TIE.) Alex Bent + the Emptiness: Vanilla Blue (Pop)
With a solid, versatile voice and style that melds introspective pop with alternative hip-hop, Bent’s Vanilla Blue is likely to catch the ears of fans of both genres. The production is ethereal at times, and vocals haunting, somehow conjuring the freshest sounds and vintage pop at the same time, boasting a darker post-modern edge that contrasts with memorable lyrics and hooks. “Inspired directly from Frank Ocean's Blonde, this EP will give you similar feelings,” states ELEVEN03, while his new label Trifecta aptly describes the artist as a “prairie Post Malone.”
Contagion Media raves, “(Bent) is the type of artist whose work of self-expression is set to inspire the best out of any listener. Hearing the passion lacing his voice throughout any track, it is evident that creating is akin to breathing for this star in the making. Growing into himself musically across his latest release, Vanilla Blue, Alex Bent dove into the emptiness stretching before him in the hopes of grasping the abyss… and he may very well do it.”
The Emptiness is Bent’s pseudonym, standing for his musical expression, stating. “Far from being a blank void, the Emptiness is vast, expansive, textured and nuanced. Intoxicated on emotion, earnestness, longing and poignancy, Alex Bent + the Emptiness are distinctive yet inseparable parts of a whole.” With pristine production and emotional performances, this is an album you’ll want to put on and get lost in, dealing with themes of love/relationships, time passing and vulnerability. This young multi-talent (vocals, drums, songwriter and more) recently worked up a killer new live show, so be sure to take any opportunity to hear him in person.
#6 (TIE). Bears in Hazenmore: Atlas (Rock/Pop)
Atlas is the third album from Regina’s ambient alternative rock band, Bears in Hazenmore. Since that time they’ve been perfecting their thoughtful songwriting as well as a knack for shimmering, eclectic pop sounds. “We like to use a lot reverb guitars, dynamic percussion, and ethereal brass and woodwind textures. We draw strong influences from and comparisons to groups such as City and Colour, Aidan Knight, and Bon Iver.” The group consists of Brady Frank (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, trombone, French horn), Dana Rempel (bass, sax, clarinet), Darnell Stewart (guitar), Tanner Wilhelm Hale (drums, vocals), and Dalton Lam (trumpet, flugelhorn). As a point of interest, Bears also performs in a collaboration with singer-songwriter Megan Nash, and appeared in 2017’s BSA Top Ten for their work on Nash’s Seeker.
Atlas thematically features stories of people in transit: whether it be the process of accepting mental illness, moving homes, or accepting lost love, the only real constant throughout the record, as well as life, is change. The accompanying booklet contains maps drawn by artist Kelsey Chabot that depict locations significant to each song, and the idea of place and memories.
Atlas begins with “Beneath the Ice,” a swirling atmospheric opener that sets the tone for the rest of the record. The tracks continue with the dreamy “Skyline Road,” followed up with the critically-acclaimed trance-rock single “In Your Head.” The band brings thunderous percussion, airy horns, and radio-friendly hooks into a perfect package of mood and melody that lets you close your eyes and take a deep musical breath. Recorded in Regina with Justin Bender at Blue Door Recording, the album reflects the maturity of the band through the change and growth portrayed in each song. Be sure to catch the group live to fully appreciate their lovely sonic textures.
#6 (TIE). LOA: Tide (Electronic Pop)
A new wave R&B artist from the Queen City, aka Jessica Burnett, her enchanting debut EP (on Trifecta) was produced by Walt Jeworski from world-renowned, NYC-based MSR studios. The dark R&B set boasts the handiwork of industry heavyweights such as Heights Beats (producer on Shad’s JUNO Award-winning album TSOL) and Colin Leonard, who mastered Bryson Tiller’s album True to Self (which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200), and Migos’ US Billboard Hot 100 #1 single, Bad and Boujee.
Exclaim! describes, “Carving out a niche for herself in a city primarily known for folksier fare, LOA’s latest tracks mix mysticism with moody electronic sounds and dark R&B vibes to cast an intoxicating spell over listeners.” Likened to that of other dark, electronic R&B artists such as Banks, Grimes, and Purity Ring, LOA brings her own sound to the genre, citing as influences artists such as SZA, Halsey, Sabrina Claudio, Milk & Bone, Syd, The Weeknd, 6lack, A. CHAL, and Bryson Tiller. Part of the Trifecta Collective, LOA has had an impressive year with showcases at New Skool Rules and CMW, collaborations with Crvde and HAVS and the release of a music video to accompany her track, Funeral.
With an all-too-short five tracks on Tide, we get a taste of LOA’s satiny vocals, by turns contemplative (intimately intoning “I need some space to move my heartline”) and sultry, as on the album’s noted single, Funeral. We look forward to hearing more from this rising young artist as she continues to prove she’s a force to be reckoned with..
#7. Untimely Demise: No Promise of Tomorrow (Metal)
A bludgeoning 11 track release containing elements of thrash, speed, death, progressive and black metal, No Promise of Tomorrow delivers on the band’s reputation for ballistic speed and furiously tight riffage rippling with energy. This ambitious and adventurous album was produced by Justin Bender/Untimely Demise and includes guest solos by Bobby Koelble (Death) and Tim Roth (Into Eternity), while the band’s core is vocalist/lead guitarist Matt Cuthbertson, songwriter/bassist Murray Cuthbertson, James Burton on drums, and Adam Sweeney on guitar.
“Words can only go so far in describing a band like Untimely Demise. This is truly a group one must hear to understand their sound, as they combined unique extreme metal influences with a thrashy approach” (Skull Fracturing Metal).
More than a decade in, Untimely Demise has proven themselves to be a consistent and hard-working band, with each album building in strength. Metal Rules writes, “The album is heavy as hell, although there is a bit of a respite on the cut, ‘Live It And Breath It’, with a slower, more melodic introduction segment and a nice acoustic guitar flavoured exit piece. ‘Far From Grace’ has an acoustic intro as well, but by and large the album is full-on, heads down thrash. The guitar lines in some places are very melodic and tasteful, giving some songs a bit of breathing space, before diving back into the pit.”
The vocals cover a range of styles, predominantly black/thrash but with clean elements well-utilized, with Matt Cuthbertson doing double duty on blistering, precise guitar work. Part of the album’s magic comes from its rollercoaster song layout. Track by track, it takes you through heart attack highs and deep growl, soft lows beginning with the frantic quad attack of the opening cuts “Lethal Enforcers” and “Keep On Running”. The tracks continue to take the listener through lyrical dips and audible twists with “Sea of Disease” and “Live It And Breathe It“. Finally the closing number “Under The Gun” leaves your right cortex fired up and wanting another album run-through. If you’re a metal fan, one to add to your collection!
#8. Into Eternity: The Sirens (Metal)
Returning with their greatly anticipated new album “The Sirens” (M-Theory Audio), Into Eternity lives up to their iconic status in Canadian metal, with neoclassical guitar riffs and soaring melodies contrasting with solid drumwork, dual power guitars, and death vocals. The refreshed lineup includes founding member Tim Roth on guitar, bassist Troy Bleich, drummer Bryan Newbury, lead vocalist Amanda Kiernan and guitarist Matt Cuthbertson, with guest performances on the album by former vocalist Stu Block (Iced Earth), Glen Drover (ex-Megadeth), and Cam Dixon (ex-Annihilator).
The band borrows from many subgenres of heavy music to form the perfect blend of technicality, memorable songwriting, traditional heavy metal and the sheer savagery of metal's extreme genres. “The Sirens is an absolute whirlwind of guitar shredding and musicianship that fans of Dream Theater and Arch Enemy should already be listening to” (Exclaim). There is great diversity from song to song here – and within the songs themselves - with generous tracks lengths allowing room for arrangements to stretch out, evolve from start to end, and dynamically transition between segments. Two of the tracks included (Sandstorm and Fukushima) were previously released as singles.
Rekt Chords praises, “Into Eternity utilize a vast of number of different genres to immerse the listener in a trance-like experience. There is a little bit of something for every metal fan in this album. Whether you’re a fan of classic, thrash, power, death, black, or melodic, Into Eternity manages to capture those distinctive qualities from each genre and compose something that no other band has done.”
#9. Dayda Banks & Filth the Enabler: Emulator (Hip Hop)
“Emulator” is the seven-song collaboration EP made this past summer by fellow Saskatoon hip-hop artists Dayda Banks & Filth the Enabler. Multiple producers were involved, providing beats for the MCs, with the final mix & mastering done by Saskatoon audio/video production studio DillyBat Productions. Dayda Banks began his dive into the hip-hop world back in high school, writing lyrics and messing around in a friend’s basement studio for fun. But, it was after a personal struggle and a trying experience that Dayda Banks focused in on his development as an artist/MC, channelling his hardships and experiences into lyrics. His first release in 2012, “The John Doe Sessions,” saw him teaming up with DillyBat for the first time and plugging into the growing Saskatoon hip-hop scene.
Fellow Saskatoon MC Filth the Enabler got his start with 2013 EP, “Rhymes Are Filthy, Beats Are Tantu,” which highlights his raw and grimy vocal style. Filth took a break from the hip-hop scene for a few years but has returned in this collaboration, new features, as well as hitting the stage again.
“Emulator” features a cool combination of throwback introspective lyrics along with nostalgic pop culture references,mixed with ‘90s classic hip-hop beats and more modern trap-style production. Dayda’s rapid-fire flow and deeper lyrical writing style blends well with Filth’s more laidback and grimy style delivery. Emulator is a great example of some of the killer hip-hop coming out of Saskatchewan.
#10. Altars of Grief - Iris (Metal)
Released early this year to widespread critical acclaim, Iris (Hypnotic Dirge Records) carries us through a dark and epic storyline, laying intense and moving lyrics over intriguing textural layers, and dynamic, soaring, symphonic-like arrangements contrasting with and complementing driving metal riffs.
The Regina-based blackened doom metal group have crafted a record “stuffed to the gills with riffs that range from quiet and contemplative to vicious and raw; vocals that shift from crooning and melodic to gut-wrenchingly violent and engrossing” (Metal Injection).
Singer Damian Smith explained, “The story of Iris is very much rooted in our prairie surroundings and deals with the struggles of addiction, sickness and religion. A father finds himself unable to connect with and care for his young daughter, Iris, who has fallen seriously ill. Spiralling deeper and deeper into his vices, and feeling rejected by Iris’ new found and unwavering faith, he gets into his car and decides to leave her behind. Somewhere along the icy road, he loses control of his vehicle and perishes. His purgatory is to watch helplessly as Iris slowly succumbs to her illness without him.’
Iris is sure to be a contender for many ‘best of’ lists this year, with Noisey praising, "Over eight tracks, the quartet melds the finer points of black and doom into a truly stirring composition."