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Heather’s favourite songs of 2023

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The Snake Charmer. Photo by Heather Kitching.

Some years are album years. Some years are single years. This year was more of an album year for me, so it was actually kind of hard to pick favourite songs from my favourite albums. Some, like William Prince’s, are just so strong from beginning to end. But here are a few picks and a few singles that stood out for me.

Evan Redsky – “Florabelle”

Evan Redsky’s solo debut was inspired by the classic roots music he grew up hearing on reserve, and that might explain why “Florabelle” feels just so comfortable and familiar. The song is a tribute to his late grandmother and a song about the family history she embodied, and it’s a true work of understated beauty. In fact, it might just be my favourite single of the year.

Qiyuapik – “alianairaalunga”

Before there were the Jerry Cans, Quantum Tangle or PIQSIQ – before even Tagaq or Susan Aglukark – there was Northern Haze. The band from Igloolik is widely believed to have released the first ever Indigenous language rock album in North America when they put out their self-titled debut in 1985. They never recorded another one until last decade, simply because they couldn’t afford to. But nearly 30 years later, James Ungalaq has released what he says is his first and last solo album on the record label launched by the Jerry Cans. The songs are anthemic, evocative and often driving in their intensity, and this one is but one of several stand-outs.

David Francey – “Offering”

David went from construction worker to global folk phenomenon virtually overnight in part because of his ability to capture the most intimate, emotional moments of life in pithy musical snapshots. Younger David wrote about work, childhood, relationships, family, the state of the world – but older David has added another topic to his repertoire: death. This song about saying goodbye to a dying friend captures the devastating mixture of sadness, awkwardness and helplessness one feels in such a moment. It’s not a happy song. Nobody is going to sing it in the car or get it stuck in their head while shopping. But it will be thing some of us will end up listening to when we really need it.

Sophie Lukacs – “Too Many Times”

This was actually released as a single in 2021, so I’m cheating here a bit, but the album that contains it, Bamako, was just released in 2023, so I’m claiming it. This song is the best of all the things I rave about when it comes to Sophie: a beautiful melody, moving lyrics, and, of course, that gorgeous virtuoso kora accompaniment.

The Snake Charmer – “Scotland the Brave India the Bold”

Trad music purists probably roll their eyes at Archy Jay, the Indian bagpiper, now living in Mississauga, who has build a massive YouTube following with her bagpipe covers of pop songs and her mixtures of Celtic and Bhangra music – to say nothing of her rockin’ Celtic punk fashion sense. But I love this woman because when I’m done being cerebral about music, sometimes I just want to dance, and the Snake Charmer creates explosive sounds by merging two of the most danceable genres on the planet. And her new release, a version of “Scotland the Brave” with updated lyrics and a touch of Scottish hip hop has the added bonus of being the single most familiar Scottish track out there. Archy’s not the first person to amp up “Scotland the Brave”(hello Yakoo Boyz “Pipe Dreamz” from 1995) but this is the best one yet.

Noah Zacharin – “Red Red Bird”

God, Noah Zacharin can write. The man is a true poet and a formidable composer, and his new album is but another showcase of his talent. As Corby mentioned yesterday, picking a favourite from this album requires a bit of “eeny meeny miny moe,” but I’m going to run with an obvious choice. Ironically, “Red Red Bird” was originally recorded in Spanish by Laura Fernandez. But fortunately, her rendition helped wake Noah up to the potential of his own song, and he decided to record it on this new album, Points of Light.

Rae Spoon – “Living More”

Speaking of albums that are hard to choose a favourite song from – and, for that matter, of artists who have a talent for summing up complex emotional situations – Rae Spoon’s Not Dead Yet was a revelation this year. The only explanation I can come up with for why we aren’t all talking about it much more than we have been is that, let’s face it, folks just aren’t that comfortable talking about death – not even, it seems, when it’s packaged in up-tempo pop and electronica worthy of ABBA. The message of “Living more” is probably the one we’ve heard elsewhere most often – “Since I almost died I’ve been living more” – but coupled with an anthemic melodic hook, a dance floor beat, and a singer who seriously means it, the song is gold.

Allison Russell – “Stay Right Here”

Allison Russell released one of the best albums of the decade so far when she put out Outside Child in 2021, so one wondered what she could possibly do to match or exceed that record. The Returner is just different enough to feel like an evolution without being a departure, and when your debut album is as good as Outside Child was, that’s really quite an accomplishment. “Stay Right Here” has many of the same nods to classic soul that we heard on the previous album but with a bit of, dare I say, disco?

Wyatt C. Louis – ‘Bobtail Road”

Speaking of understated beauty, as I did a minute ago when speaking of Evan Redsky, Wyatt C. Louis released a charming little song a couple of years back called “Dancing with Sue,” and he finally followed it up this year. Wyatt is clearly going for quality over quantity, and the quality so far has been very high!

 

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