The music of 2020 was overwhelmed by the tragedies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the loneliness felt by those who followed social-distancing rules.
While musicians and their fans faced the same challenges as everyone else, music is perfectly suited to soothe the heartache brought on by weeks upon weeks of isolation.
The main obstacle was the absence of live performances. As society learned time after time in 2020, COVID cases shot up shortly after large groups of people got together in tight spaces. In Manitoba, that meant goodbye to crowded nightclubs, festivals and arena shows and hello to listening to music on headphones during long walks.
Manitobans were fortunate the province’s musicians found all sorts of ways to overcome the COVID conundrum to get themselves heard. Some built studios in their homes to create music quickly and cheaply; others collaborated using the latest technological advances of the internet. There were long-forgotten projects dusted off and finished, complete with video narratives.
Some even released bonus albums and singles that not only caught the attention of folks in Winnipeg, but around the world.
So here are 10 songs that Manitoba artists offered in 2020 that may provide some fond memories to go along with the hard times we all faced:
● WILLIAM PRINCE Always Have What We Had — William Prince had big plans for 2020. A new album, Reliever, came out in February, and along with it came an appearance on CBS This Morning in the U.S. and tours of North America and Europe were in the works. The tours had to be scrapped, so instead, the Peguis First Nation singer-songwriter entered the studio and released a second album, Gospel First Nation, in October. With two albums, there are lots of songs featuring Prince’s deep baritone to choose from — and many excellent ones — but Always Have What We Had reveals some of his personal story as well as his hypnotic voice that has enchanted fans and critics alike.
● FAOUZIA, FEAT. JOHN LEGEND Minefields — It was a shame Faouzia’s jazz fest concert had to be called off in June. It would have been a chance to see the Carman-raised singer at the cusp of success, thanks to a new EP, Stripped, which came out in August. She also dropped several single collaborations, the most famous of which is Minefields, which features John Legend, the entertainment powerhouse. The song has earned her millions of streams on Spotify and props on YouTube reaction videos, perhaps the ultimate in praise in 2020.
● TOUCHING Oh General — Everyone had a pandemic project in 2020, and Michael Falk’s was Touching, a collaboration with Alasdair Dunlop, actress Ali Tataryn and videographer Tyler Funk. Oh General is the first song from the album Isolation Blues, a batch of alt-rock songs Falk had set aside four years ago. The song also serves as a launching point to 10 videos the Winnipeg group released over 10 weeks in the spring that transforms the album into a narrative.
● FIGURE WALKING Mr. X — Delay after delay sent Figure Walking’s latest album, Vertical/Horizontal, into the strange universe of 2020. If you’re looking to rock out, bandmates Greg MacPherson and Rob Gardiner turn up the volume and will have you looking forward to whenever they can hit the stage again. MacPherson offers some neat stories amid the blast of guitar and drums, especially in Mr. X, the tale of a volunteer with a shady past he met while working at the West Broadway Community Organization.
● MISE EN SCENE Unsolicited Advice — Stefanie Blondal Johnson and Jodi Dunlop, the duo behind the grunge-pop group Mise en Scene, put out a bunch of singles during 2020 to promote the album Winnipeg, California, but there was a problem. Dunlop lives in Winnipeg and Johnson is from Gimli and their record company is in Vancouver. The solution proved to be homegrown videos that use Gimli and Winnipeg as backdrops. Unsolicited Advice rocks out like much of the album, and the lyrics tell folks where they can stick their two cents.
● JOHN K. SAMSON Millennium For All — February seems like a century ago, and so does the debate about heightened security measures at Winnipeg’s Millennium Library. The library had installed screening devices not unlike those seen at airports, and regular visitors — especially singer-songwriter John K. Samson — were unhappy. He turned his anger into music and created this protest song demanding the security measures be removed. In an ironic twist, when the library reopened for a time in the summer, the metal detectors had been removed to prevent people from crowding at the entrance.
● SEAN BURNS Daddy Was an Auctioneer — Country singer and CKUW 95.9 DJ Sean Burns proved to be a pandemic busybody. He played a part in three albums in 2020, from an album of truckers tunes and a Times Change(d) compilation CD to a solo record, It Takes Luck to Get the Best of Me, which includes Daddy Was an Auctioneer. Every good music list needs some harmonica on it, and Burns provides some, along with some cool guitar-pickin’ and a tale of rural life.
● OLIVIA LUNNY Bedsheets — The Winnipeg songstress’s followup to her career takeoff on CTV’s The Launch was a four-song EP To the Ones I Loved, which came out in August. Prior to that though, she released Bedsheets as a single and the catchy tune shows the 20-year-old is turning her musical potential into commercial reality.
● PIP SKID We Lost Our Jobs Today — The pandemic brought Pip Skid out of retirement after Patrick Skene, the man behind the Winnipeg rapper, built a small studio in his house. The result is April’s It’s OK, which teams up Pip Skid with Rob Crooks for a batch of timely raps such as We Lost Our Jobs Today, something far too many people, including musicians, faced in 2020.
● SLOW LEAVES Sentimental Teardrops — Grant Davidson, the singer-songwriter who performs as Slow Leaves, released Shelf Life on April 3. Instead of going on tour and performing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, he spent the spring building a deck and lamenting about postponed opportunities. Few can do melancholy like Slow Leaves, and Sentimental Teardrops is an apt way to wind up the best-of-Manitoba music list for 2020.
— Alan Small
The Arts & Life section’s regular music reviewers, John Kendle, Keith Black and Holly Harris, weigh in with their top 10 albums of 2020 (No. 1 picks listed first, the rest in no particular order).
POP / ROCK
● WAXAHATCHEE Saint Cloud (Merge Records) — Katie Crutchfield’s fifth Waxahatchee album is the next musical step in a canon that has always been equal parts confessional, introspective, abstract and poetic. Over the years, the Alabama-born performer’s songs have been set to music that has veered from the sparse, bedroom folk of her debut to the alt/indie rock of 2017’s Out in the Storm. This time around, the newly sober Crutchfield assembled a band of alt-country/folk players and created a warm, gentle and jangly bed of winsomely countrified tunes (the pickup truck on the cover is there for a reason). The songs themselves examine seeing things for the first time again, the frailties of head-over-heels new love, nurturing herself and the tragedies that can befall those who stay lost in their problems. The first four songs here — Oxbow, Can’t Do Much, Fire and Lilacs — are as powerful an opening salvo as you’ll hear on any record.
● ANDY SHAUF The Neon Skyline (Arts & Crafts/Anti-) — This Regina-born singer-songwriter’s followup to 2016’s The Party is full of quietly affecting songs spliced together as scenes from an album-length film. The jazzy, roots-pop song cycle tells the tale of a lovelorn guy who meets a pal for drinks at the Neon Skyline bar, only to have Judy, his ex and the cause of all his torment, walk in...
● PORRIDGE RADIO Every Bad (Secretly Canadian) — Names such as Raincoats and Savages are often dropped in stories about this post-punk quartet from the seaside town of Brighton, U.K., but the comparisons do a disservice to Dana’s Margolin’s musical vision and the singular brilliance of her emotionally wrought songs and performances.
● FIONA APPLE Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic/Sony) — Apple’s first new record in eight years is a brilliant collection that was unleashed upon an audience held captive by the first COVID-19 shutdown. Working like a hip-hop artist — in that she started with beats first — Apple lets loose with a powerfully poetic torrent of her innermost thoughts, memories and feelings.
● JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT Reunions (Southeastern Records) — The Americana star’s latest album adds more fuel to the notion that he is the best songwriter working today. The emotional dynamics of these songs, the taut interplay of the 400 Unit and the sweetness of Isbell’s gently twanging tenor are weapons he wields with great effect.
● RUN THE JEWELS RTJ4 (BMG) — RTJ4 was made available for free digital download on June 3, two days ahead of release, as protests were held across the United States following the death of George Floyd. That gesture alone made it a political statement but the hip-hop duo of Jaime (El-P) Meline and (Killer) Mike Render take the material much further, dropping an incendiary blend of beats and ferocious social criticism at just the right moment.
● HAIM Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia/Sony) — On which the SoCalif pop-rock sisters bring all their musical and vocal gifts to bear on an assured outing that blends their breezy, pop-rock harmonies with lilting reggae and soca rhythms, gutsy indie confessionals, skronking saxes and electronic textures and beats.
● PHOEBE BRIDGERS Punisher (Dead Oceans) — Punisher’s cool, mostly gentle vibe called for many listens. Many of the songs are downtempo ruminations — all multi-layered acoustic guitars, hushed vocals, ethereal strings and haunting keyboards. Behind them is a singer-songwriter who has lived enough to be sentimental about the passing of youth but is also strong enough to take whatever may come next.
● LYDIA LOVELESS Daughter (Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late Records) — In the four years since this wayward, twangy singer/guitarist released Real, she got divorced from her bass player and became confident enough to co-produce and self-release this project while bravely staring (and singing) down her demons.
● GORD DOWNIE Away Is Mine (Arts & Crafts) — Once fans get over its finality, they will find plenty to ponder, appreciate and love in the last solo album from the late Tragically Hip frontman. Away Is Mine was released in two versions — 10 fully produced, electric tracks, followed by 10 acoustic mixes that feature just Downie’s voice and Josh Finlayson’s guitar. The juxtaposition is a masterstroke; almost two albums in one.
— John Kendle
● MARIA SCHNEIDER JAZZ ORCHESTRA Data Lords (ArtistShare) My No. 1 pick of 2020 is a two-CD release that is incredibly complex and thematically descriptive of the impact of our technical development on the natural environment. The writing is wonderful and the solos and musical skills of the band members are absolutely excellent. Minnesota-born composer and bandleader Schneider is at the very top of the list of current large ensemble leaders.
● CHRIS GESTRIN Crossing Time: Music From Inside Passage. (Phonometrograph) — Vancouver pianist Chris Gestrin composed music for a documentary on the history of travel from Vancouver to the Island. This album shares that music in a gentle, beautiful range of moods.
● CHARLES LLOYD 8: Kindred Spirits (Live at Lobero) 2020. Iconic saxophonist Lloyd celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert in his hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. With longtime colleagues and an adoring audience, he proved he still has his chops.
● ARTEMIS Artemis (Blue Note) — The debut self-titled album by an international septet of truly gifted jazz artists under the nominal leadership of Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes and featuring clarinetist Anat Cohen, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and featured vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. I hope there’s a second album in the works.
● MULTIQUARIUM BIG BAND Remembering Jaco (Naive Records) — A French band playing the music of iconic electric bass player Jaco Pastorius. The Pastorius tunes — from both his Weather Report years and solo career — are great and guitarist Biréli Lagrène, who played with Jaco, totally nails the bass foundation of the music.
● INGRID LAUBROCK Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt (Intakt Records) — A two-disc session with jazz ensemble plus chamber orchestra on one CD and just the jazz group on the other; both discs feature the same playlist, interpreted differently on each. Powerful avant-garde jazz from this German saxophonist.
● FRANÇOIS HOULE Recorder (Songlines Records) — Vancouver clarinetist Houle has a simply incredible sound. The album features another Vancouverite on guitar and two New Yorkers rounding out the quartet. Stellar.
● PERIPHERAL VISION Irrational Revelation, Mutual Humiliation (Self-Released) — One of Canada’s finest jazz quartets with a two-CD release, each one relating to one part of the wonderfully cheeky title. Adventurous, complex, as good as any new jazz anywhere in the world.
● PAT METHENY From This Place (Nonesuch) — A wide sound panorama with orchestral overtones and sly inclusion of vocals and harmonica adding to Metheny’s wonderful guitar.
● RAPHAEL PANNIER Faune (French Paradox) — A beautiful, genre-bending mix of classical and jazz influences in this debut release. Saxophonist Miguel Zenón mentored this album and it is a delight.
— Keith Black
● JAMES EHNES & ANDREW ARMSTRONG Beethoven Violin Sonatas No. 7 & 10 (Onyx) — Ehnes, Grammy winning superstar violinist and Brandon’s pride, and his longtime collaborative pianist deliver the final instalment in their series of complete Beethoven violin sonatas, part of the yearlong celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.The internationally renowned artist has always possessed a Midas touch, with his sublime artistry showcased during both Sonata No. 7 in C minor, the second of the German composer’s Op. 30 set, and Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 96, hailed for its "calm, ethereal beauty." Ehnes’s latest album is a welcome addition to his growing legacy of recordings, performed as though a close, simpatico conversation among friends.
● ARC ENSEMBLE Chamber Works by Walter Kaufmann (Chandos) — A lifetime in the making, this release features the première recording devoted to chamber works by Walter Kaufmann, the inaugural conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and friend of Alfred Einstein, performed by the thrice-Grammy-nominated ARC (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) Ensemble as part of its ongoing "Music in Exile" series, highlighting music either lost or marginalized in the wake of anti-Semitism and political suppression.
● SILKROAD ENSEMBLE Falling Out of Time (In a Circle Records) — This Grammy-winning ensemble performs the first large-scale work in more than 10 years by Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov; a "tone poem in voices" chronicling the pain of parental grief of losing a child. The 13-piece international ensemble including both ancient and traditional instruments offers many powerhouse highlights, including Step, a wailing keen for the dead felt all around the world.
● ANGELA HEWITT Beethoven: Variations (Hyperion) — Canada’s first lady of the piano, British-based Angela Hewitt performs seven solo keyboard works by Beethoven including his Eroica variations, and 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor, Wo080. It’s especially poignant hearing Hewitt perform a final time on her beloved Fazioli piano, which was dropped and destroyed immediately following this January 2020 album recorded in Berlin.
● STEVEN HOUGH / FINNISH RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos.1-5 (Hyperion) — British-born pianist Hough scales a musical Mount Everest when he tackles all five Beethoven concerti in this three-disc release. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Hannu Lintu, proves an ideal partner for the ambitious recording that allows listeners to hear the keyboard musician’s dynamic artistry.
● THOMAS BOWES Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas For Solo Violin, Op. 27 (Navona Records) — English violinist Bowes brings passion and precision to this new recording featuring the Eugène Ysaÿe sonatas that famously tests the mettle of all those who dare tackle their virtuosic demands. The soloist displays his formidable fiddle chops throughout.
● CAI THOMAS AND JULIEN BROCAL Arvo Pärt’s Vater Unser (Rubicon) — This unusual release speaks to our current COVID-19 era, featuring the ethereal treble voice of Cai Thomas with collaborative pianist Julien Brocal. The two artists recorded the short single while physically distanced nearly 500 kilometres apart in Brussels and the U.K., respectively, proving the resilience and resourcefulness of artists around the globe as they continue to adapt, grapple and, ultimately, rise above the challenges of these historic times.
● THE NASH ENSEMBLE Celebrate Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn (Hyperion) — This London chamber ensemble pays homage to Clara Schuman, wife of famous composer Robert, and Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the well-known Felix, with this intriguing release, which shows these lesser-known composers were highly gifted artists in their own right, despite living in the shadow of their more prominent family members.
● MAHAN ESFAHANI Musique? (Hyperion) — Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani turns traditional baroque harpsichord firmly on its head with six contemporary works dating from the 20th and 21st centuries by composers including Toru Takemitsu, Henry Cowell, Kaija Saariaho and Gavin Bryars. The liner notes even come with their own disclaimer — "no harpsichords were harmed in the making of the album" — as further evidence listeners should buckle up for a wild ride.
● PARKER RAMSAY, HARP Bach Goldberg Variations (King’s College Recordings) — In the "sleeper hit" category comes this album by the New York City-based harpist who is the first American to hold the post of Organ Scholar at Britain’s King’s College. He performs his own transcription of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, (BWV 988) while showing listeners new colours, textures and nuances in the complex polyphonic work.