On “No Wrong,” a few songs into Earthtones (Brushfire), Bahamas frontman Afie Jurvanen sings, “I’m just repeating myself since I wrote ‘Southern Drawl’”—a reference to a twangy alt-country tune he released nearly a decade ago. It’s a curious callback, given Earthtones is a radical reinvention of Bahamas’s breezy sound. The folksy sensibilities and tenderly plucked acoustic guitars of previous records are gone, swapped out for jazzy licks, funk bass grooves and skittish hi-hats, recorded with members of D’Angelo’s backing band. “Opening Act” is an infectiously playful doo-wop number about the troubles of a touring musician; “No Expectations” takes jazzy cues from Herbie Hancock; and “Bad Boys Need Love Too” is Jurvanen’s amusingly jarring attempt at rapping. It might all fall apart if not for Jurvanen’s consistently catchy songwriting and disarming sense of humour. Crack open Earthtones’s vinyl jacket and you’ll see him sporting a beige Adidas tracksuit and a goofy grin, like a kid who can’t believe his crazy idea actually worked.
Zaki Ibrahim’s second full-length album, The Secret Life of Planets (independent), begins with two minutes of undulating celestial soundscapes, overlaid with spoken snippets about energies, stars and molecules, as if to warn listeners that things are about to get weird. Analogue synths and atmospheric textures dominate the eleven sci-fi soul tracks that follow, but the otherworldly elements are grounded by the album’s intimate, concrete subject matter—Ibrahim’s father’s death and her son’s birth—and oodles of memorable hooks. Cue up “Love Made Naked” for a perfect Ibrahim primer, filled with sounds that feel both nostalgically retro and boldly futuristic.
The cover of Rhye’s Blood (Loma Vista), LA-via-Toronto musician Mike Milosh’s second album, depicts a woman’s bare back, cloaked in shadow and surrounded by clouds. It’s about as good an advertisement as you’ll get for the music within: seductive, dreamy R&B about love and, more often, lust. The nonchalant bass lines, delicate strings and barely-there synth layers all contribute to the mood, but it’s Milosh’s vocals that truly set the tone. He utters almost-comical double entendres (“I really want you to come… with me”) in a falsetto that’s as fragile as vapour, threatening to disappear at any moment. It’s quiet and intimate, as if it had been sung—and meant to be listened to—in a dark bedroom after midnight.
Charlotte Day Wilson’s 2016 EP, CDW, was a cruelly brief introduction to the Toronto soul singer. As soon as you settled into the alluringly lethargic groove of its six tracks, the album was over. Day Wilson’s follow-up, Stone Woman (independent), is like the second side CDW never had, featuring six equally dazzling slow jams. The title-track opener is a sparse, fractured collage of tinkling chimes; “Let You Down” pairs lo-fi hip-hop beats with orchestral flair; and “Doubt” is the smooth, crescendoing standout, with an unforgettable, harmony-filled chorus. Stone Woman’s strength is Wilson’s maturity: she no doubt has the diva-like chops to belt Mariah-high power ballads, but she prefers to tease her listeners with lower-register melodies that make the peaks, when they finally arrive, soar so much higher.
Rich Aucoin throws Canada’s best concerts. At every gig, Halifax’s happy-go-lucky party-pop king blasts confetti, leads mass sing-alongs and dances with crowds under his signature giant parachute. Trouble is, without the bells and whistles, his studio albums have always felt like an unsatisfactory facsimile of his transcendent live shows. Hold (independent), his jubilant new EP, finally captures that onstage energy. It’s twenty-one unrelenting minutes of indie-electro glory, filled with all the snowballing build-ups and explosive drops of an EDM banger. It doesn’t hurt that Aucoin released the album to sixteen thousand fans via text message, as if personally inviting them all to some sort of top-secret celebration—no parachute required.
Since the early aughts, the shapeshifting Toronto collective Grand Analog has pumped out enticing blends of rap, rock, reggae and R&B. Though their latest effort, Survival (independent), is a clear homage to old-school hip-hop, it’s as eclectic as ever. The hypnotic instrumentals “Survival Mode” and “Stardust” are the stuff of electro exam-prep playlists, while Shad and De La Soul’s Posdnuos lend delightfully dense verses to the old-school beats of “Ballad of the Beast” and “Mutations.” With umpteen outside contributors (every song title is followed by a laughably extensive list of featured artists in parentheses), the project could feel disjointed, but Grand Analog instead finds a way to make it fresh and adventurous.