Year-end review: Eric Volmers' favourite local albums of 2023

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Calgarians and Calgary expats released some incredible music this year, whether it be industry veterans or relative newcomers. Here are some of my favourites.

Braids
Calgary-born band, The Braids. Photo by Melissa Gamache jpg

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Braids

Euphoric Recall

Key track: Left/Right

Braids have not been a Calgary band since 2007 when most members were barely out of high school. Still, vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston, drummer Austin Tufts and multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith continue to produce ambitious, hard-to-define pop music so we might as well lay claim to them. There may not be anything here as immediately gratifying as the band’s 2020 synth-pop gem Young Buck, but Euphoric Recall is a grower that benefits from repeat spins. Evolution and Apple are both exquisitely built pop songs with chill grooves. The layered Lucky Star is a mournful, art-pop hymn. Standout track Left/Right is a fragile stream-of-conscious stunner that is somehow both heartbreaking and uplifting.

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Shane Ghostkeeper.
Shane Ghostkeeper. Photo by Heather Saitz jpg

Shane Ghostkeeper

Songs for My People

Key Track: Hunger Strike

Speaking of heartbreaking and uplifting: Shane Ghostkeeper’s tune Hunger Strike may have been inspired by his grandfather’s decision to end his life, but it’s a rollicking sing-a-long that finds the Calgary singer-songwriter celebrating his maternal grandparents’ life-long romance. Songs for My People was meant to honour the musical preference of Ghostkeeper’s family when he was growing up in northern Alberta communities such as Paddle Prairie, High Level and Rocky Lane. They were country fans and Ghostkeeper offers enough twang to qualify – check out the mournful steel-guitar backing on beautiful ballads such as Ghost and Why Do I Hide – but this is hardly straight-up country music. He may have reined in the more experimental bent he leans toward as leader of his namesake dark-folk, psychedelic act, but there are still some wonderful musical surprises. That includes his trademark off-kilter phrasing, shiny guitar-pop gems such as V Chill and even a haunting cover of the old gospel traditional Just a Closer Walk with Thee.

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Julius Sumner Miller.
Julius Sumner Miller, from left, Darren Ollinger, Rob Gruszecki, Rich MacFarlane, Sean Hamilton, Dean Rud. jpg

Julius Sumner Miller

Nobody Cares

Key Track: Speaking of Cults

On the surface, it may seem as if this decade-old band has evolved past their straight-ahead punk-rock roots on its fifth album. Yes, there is an unsettlingly cheery children’s choir at the start of the stand-out track Speaking of Cults, which is apparently an actual recording lifted from YouTube of a children’s choir from American cult leader Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. Also, while it may take a few bars to sink it, that is indeed Bryan Adams’ numbingly earnest 1983 ballad Heaven that the band turns into a lively, hard-rock anthem. But, fear not punk fans, the album is also full of endearingly fast, loud and catchy bangers such as the furious 43-second title track and irreverently confrontational Rage is a Perfectly Valid Response.

Kue Varo
Kue Varo and the Only Hopes released Cowboy Witchcraft on Oct. 13. Photo by Heather Saitz

Kue Varo and the Only Hopes

Cowboy Witchcraft

Key Track: Winter Lining

Released as an early single, Kue Varo and the Only Hopes’ breezy Yip Yip is one of those immediately memorable guitar-pop tunes that burrows into your consciousness after only one listen. While it may seem hard to top, what’s miraculous about Cowboy Witchcraft is that this is only one of 10 extraordinary and equally memorable tracks found on the album. The band may be relatively new, but they showcase a fully-formed sound and sensibility here, hitting peak after peak with moody rockers such as Furthest Place, the punchy Pretenders-like I Just Don’t Care and the soulful and melancholic Winter Lining. It’s easily one of the best albums from Calgary, or anywhere for that matter, this year.

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The Lovebullies
The Lovebullies, from left, Caroline Connolly, Paul Jahn, Chantal Vitalis, and Joni Brent. Not pictured is Andrea Revel. Courtesy, Jeremy Fokkens Photo by JEREMY FOKKENS /jpg

The Lovebullies

Somewhere

Key track: This Girl

One of the city’s premiere live acts, The Lovebullies has been unusually prolific in the studio as of late. This is the five-piece band’s second album in two years, offering another stockpile of killer tracks such as the girl-group leaning This Girl, snappy rockabilly of Force of One and sweet and wistful ballad House of Chandeliers. Recorded at the National Music Centre, Somewhere mixes pop smarts with an understated musical virtuosity, particularly in the twin-guitar showdowns between Chantal Vitalis and newest Lovebully Andrea Revel. These songs may seem custom-built for the stage, but that doesn’t take away from the songwriting craft and studio savvy that went into the 11 tracks.

Jessica McMann
Jessica McMann. Photo by Candace Ward jpg

Jessica McMann

Prairie Dusk

Key Track: Lament for Small Souls

On Prairie Dusk, classical flautist and composer Jessica McMann offers soundscapes that are both haunting and beautiful. Mesmerizing instrumental flourishes come courtesy of McMann’s delicate playing and the backing of first-rate musicians, including American Navajo pianist Connor Chee and violist Holly Bhattacharya. Meanwhile, Mountain Prairie features a stunning vocal performance by Metis baritone Jonathon Adams. The compositions were informed by McMann’s Cree culture, which is particularly evident on Lament for Small Souls. The stunning composition was inspired by the discovery of unmarked graves of residential schoolchildren and mixes traditional Cree vocals with stirring and ghostly flute lines.

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Miesha and the Spanks
Sean Hamilton and Miesha Louie of Miesha and the Spanks. Photo by Sebastian Buzzalino, Unfolding Creative jpg

Miesha and the Spanks

Unconditional Love in Hi-Fi

Key Track: GRLSROK

Miesha Louie has been fronting various incarnations of this duo for more than a decade but may have hit a peak with this multi-layered rock album that showcases both a deepening song craft and some of the best live-wire guitar riffs you will hear this year. Her debut for iconic Vancouver indie label Mint Records, Unconditional Love in Hi Fi doesn’t turn down the volume– the thundering GRLSROCK is one of the year’s best rock anthems – but Louie tackles some dark, personal terrain with impressive maturity, whether it’s exploring her Indigenous heritage with the furious and metallic Dig Me Out, her father’s death with the largely spoken-word Bear Kids, or motherhood and body-image with Mom Jeans/Mom Genes.

Sargeant X Comrade
Sargeant X Comrade, featuring Evgeniy Bykovets and Yolanda Sargeant, released their third album on Aug. 4. Photo by Unfolding Creative Photography jpg

Sargeant X Comrade

Lo Fi Future

Key Track: Travelin’ In Space

On 2020’s Magic Radio and 2021’s The Elephant in the Room, vocalist Yolanda Sargeant and producer Evgeniy Bykovets showcased both studio wizardry and glistening soul with inventive mashups and chill grooves. On their third album, Lo Fi Future, the duo float to new heights with a looser vibe – apparently much of the album was improvised at the National Music Centre during collaborations with keyboardist Ravi Poliah, percussionist Luis Tovar, vocalists The Torchettes and the late Marvin Kee on guitar and bass – that nevertheless still sound meticulously crafted. The grooves are often mellow, but that doesn’t dampen the playfulness of the trippy sci-fi leaning Escape the Matrix or the shape-shifting When the Stars Align, which races from jazz-piano virtuosity, to torch-song croon, to rhythmic hip-hop all within a dazzling four-minute stretch.

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Rae Spoon
Canadian musician and writer Rae Spoon was photographed with the backdrop of murals at containR Park in Calgary. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

Rae Spoon

Not Dead Yet

Key Track: Shake Shake Shake

Calgary expat Rae Spoon’s brave, unwavering activism after being diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2020 could very well have eclipsed their music. But you don’t have to be aware of their admirable efforts to encourage the health-care system to be more sensitive to non-binary and gender-variant patients to be struck by the power of their recent album. Not Dead Yet chronicles some decidedly dark moments in the non-binary singer-songwriter’s recent past, offering some occasionally unsettling truths about mortality and prejudice. But it’s also wrapped in Spoon’s canny pop smarts, making it both sobering and celebratory at the same time. ICU, Shake Shake Shake and WTFIT is exhilarating pop music at its best from one of Canada’s finest songwriters.

Bella White
Bella White has released her second album. Photo by Bree Fish jpg

Bella White

Among Other Things

Key Track: The Way I Outta Go

At only 22 years old, Calgary expat Bella White has had a few whirlwind years that have seen her become one of country’s most talked-about up-and-comers. Her recent appearance on the Hunger Games soundtrack should only accelerate her upward climb, but it only takes a few bars of The Way I Outta Go – the opening track on her sophomore album – to hear an authentic hurt in her voice that sounds far beyond her years. The mid-tempo country rockers  Break My Heart and Numbers sound instantly timeless and White showcases a talent for beautifully aching ballads on Worth My While and the title track.

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Albums to get excited about in 2024

Erin Ross

The Wind Will Lead Me Home

Release date: February 2024

Erin Ross has been a mainstay on Calgary stages for more than a decade, showcasing a knack for adding a personal touch to the blues-roots genre. For her debut album, she went to Nashville to record with Canadian expat producer Steve Dawson and some of Music City’s finest session players. Given her assured command of roots music, combined with Dawson’s studio wizardry, her debut album promises to be worth the wait

Sunglaciers

Regular Nature

Release date: March 2024

This Calgary four-piece has spent a good deal of time on the road post-COVID, which likely only sharpened their impressive skills as purveyors of post-punk and unhinged synth-pop. The band’s sophomore record, 2022’s Subterranea, found them tightening their songs without losing their sense of sonic adventure with impressive results.

Emily Triggs

TBA

Release date: March 2024

Anyone who has heard Trigg’s remarkable solo albums – 2019’s Middletown and 2014’s When Guinevere Went Under – knows the Calgary performer is one of the best songsmiths in the city. So news that she has been busy recording with Calgary expat and Neko Case guitarist Paul Rigby is definite cause for celebration, particularly for those who have gotten sneak peeks of some new material at her live shows.

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