Published Dec 16, 2019With the sheer volume of music landing on streaming services every week, it was easy for albums to get lost in the shuffle. There were plenty of amazing albums that got attention — see our best of 2019 lists for proof — but there were just as many that didn't quite get the love they deserved. Exclaim!'s 10 Most Underrated Records of 2019 come from across the genre spectrum, with many of them coming from right here in Canada.
There's only so many times you can tell people to check out a record before accepting that it's going to go largely unheard. Afriqua's Colored made more of a ripple than a splash, but frankly, it deserves a crater. It's the only record this year that was unlike and simultaneously very like everything that came before it. It's funky, off-kilter, innovative... To hell with it, I'll try one more time: you should check it out.
(Rex Baby/Sony Music Canada)
With its twin-helix bind of sharp pop and warm soul, Fear positions Winnipeg's Begonia (Alexa Dirks) as a powerhouse on the Prairies. Her voice is the anchor here: it animates "Hanging on a Line" with vibrant, pulsing hooks; it rises up to the stratospheric belt that crowns "Two Beers In"; and shifts into quieter, more thoughtful ruminations like "Dead Flowers," all with ease. Soft synths and steady beats dial in when necessary — but just as often, Fear's production reduces down to minimal elements, where Begonia's vocal range and steady songcraft prove just as commanding.
Home Made Satan
Whitby, Ontario's emo-rock heroes Chastity are the driving force behind a growing trend in indie rock: a major knack for pop sensibilities. Home Made Satan sounds reminiscent of popular rock bands from the early 2000s, and it seems that this trend has been growing to become the zeitgeist for a lot of indie rock and post-punk this year. The album's lead single "Sun Poisoning" is extremely magnetic, drawing listeners to explore the dark magic that the rest of the album casts.
Hua Li 化力
Hua Li 化力 blends hip-hop fire with wistful R&B and her own Chinese heritage into Dynasty, a stormy affair wrapped in her reflective but powerful verses. Much of the record waxes on the unjust treatment of Chinese immigrants, as opener "Paper Sons" alludes to (while working in dialogue from family members to further illustrate the message). The minimalist synth passages on "Recitation (Interlude)" and the deep self-reflection of "This Chaos" reveal an introspective and thought-provoking MC. Dynasty is an enthralling experience, empowering a new generation of Chinese-Canadians to rise above what's expected and challenge cultural and societal norms.
Cut Your Teeth
Vancouver's Necking build their rep on their live performances and it shows. Their searing take on post-punk oozes contempt for VU meters, capitalism and patriarchy. But it's their ability to turn the political personal on their debut that truly sets them apart, as they bemoan the status quo while acknowledging their own role in it. Visceral and cutting, Cut Your Teeth explodes out of headphones and speakers like few others, never shying away from hard truths.
Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars
Sarah Louise's third album is at once deeply traditional and wholly unconventional. Adopting the voice-and-guitar set-up of the stock folk troubadour, Louise takes the genre's common sounds and rearranges them into an expansive collage. Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars is both viscerally tangible (metallic scrapes sound like fiddle strings on "Ancient Intelligence") and reverently natural: "Daybreak" opens the album to the lilt of birdsong, and "Rime" hums like the sun on a hot summer day.
The best pop album of the year didn't belong to Taylor, Ariana or Carly Rae. Instead it belonged to a couple of Montreal transplants who originally had no intention of making it. Deborah stood little chance of reaching the masses, but on a shoestring budget, Dylan Konrad Obront and Heather Foster Kirkpatrick created a pristine '80s pop throwback out of soft-hued synths, blithe yet potent hooks and wistful lyrics that went far too unheard.
TOBi blend of introspection, honesty and a natural swagger easily makes STILL a standout record. Witty wordplay abounds, with "City Blues" recalling his experiences immigrating to Canada and the struggle to fit into a new culture. Mythology finds its way into "Shot Me Down" as Cupid, Icarus and Poseidon become clever metaphors for passion, determination and vulnerability. There's great potential for TOBi to excel, and STILL perfectly encapsulates an artist motivated and hungry for more.
The power in WHOOP-Szo's remarkable Warrior Down is enfolded in strange sonic textures — emotionally direct at times, murky and confusing at others. Anishinaabe musician Adam Sturgeon has to grapple with things some of us cannot relate to. He writes and sings about Canada's stained history of wilfully abusing and neglecting its Indigenous population from a personal perspective (see "Gerry," "Cut Your Hair," and "Oda Man"). He and his bandmates score such narratives with a vicious rock assault, inspired by metal, prog, post-hardcore, and grunge-y folk for a truly stirring, overwhelming and raging roar. It's scary how good this band is.
Buried Deep in a Bottomless Grave
(20 Buck Spin)
Death metal is arguably bigger than it's been in ages, bolstered by its two old-school factions — neanderthals and astronauts — but fortunately, there's also room for fun freaks like Witch Vomit, who offer a dark take on their Swede-tinged attack with their sophomore effort, Buried Deep in a Bottomless Grave. Look no further than the album's title and the roles attributed to the band's members, which include "Cranium Crushing Gore Fucker" and "Meathooks of Doom."