I labour over my annual Best Of lists like I’m trying to cure COVID or something. I stress over it so much and then usually don’t even post it anywhere because I’m still not sure and I don’t want to forget an important release.
Below are a couple of lists I’ve made for publication in a couple of places. I kind of tailor the list to the audience, so they tend to differ in different places. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the best albums of the year, but ones I want to promote in a particular place. All of this is to say… I’m still not sure. There are plenty of other great records, and I’ll get to as many as I can in my upcoming Best of 2020 Tell the Band to Go Home marathon on Sunday, but for now, here are a bunch that I really hope you’ll check out, and if you keep reading, you might just find out more about an upcoming project that I’ve been working on behind the scenes.
Please consider buying some of this amazing music, or sending it to a friend as a gift. This music has really helped me through the 2020 dumpster fire, so I want to help out these talented artists any way I can. Let me know if you do pick up something or if you have favourites that I should hear or have on my list!
Thanks for your support this year. It means a lot!
Sean Burns, It Takes Luck to Get the Best of Me (self)
Thomas Csorba, Thomas Csorba (self)
Ben de la Cour, Shadow Land (Flour Sack Cape)
Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom (Dualtone)
Kennedy Road, A Little Fight Left (self)
Joe Nolan, Drifters (Fallen Tree)
Melissa Payne, Darker than your Dark (7th Fire)
Melissa Payne website
Katie Pruitt, Expectations (Rounder)
Slow Leaves, Shelf Life (Birthday Cake Media)
Ken Yates, Quiet Talkers (self)
New Discoveries: Thomas Csorba, Kennedy Road, Katie Pruitt.
Who are you?
Jeff Robson, host of Tell the Band to Go Home, 2-4 pm central on CJUM 101.5 UMFM in Winnipeg. The show focuses on singer/songwriters, including some of the greatest of all time and some of the many exciting new talents. I specialize in great songs that don’t get heard often enough or widely enough and aim to connect eager and open-minded music fans with songs that might mean as much to them as they do to me. Check out the show at tellthebandtogohome.com or subscribe to the podcast in all of the usual places, except Spotify, which is inherently evil and should be avoided.
I’m working on a new show about the connection between music and mental illness and mental health, as well as the COVID pandemic’s effect on all of it. Watch for Fly with Your Shadow, launching in early 2021.
Coming soon: flywithyourshadow.com and @flywithyourshadow on social media
Favourite Records of the Year
Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land – (Flour Sack Cape)
This guy is based in Nashville, the centre of the roots/folk/country world, where there are highly sought-after musicians, producers, and studios just about everywhere, yet for some reason he decided to come to Winnipeg to record an album in the middle of February during a polar vortex, when it was colder than Mars and the North and South pole. That sounds insane, but such is the draw of local hero Scott Nolan’s Song Shop studio, where William Prince, Stephen Fearing, and a long list of talented artists have come to record. de la Cour has made a name for himself as one of the strongest writers around, and he gets better all the time. With a penchant for dark and disturbing tales, accessible melodies, and solid arrangements further drawn out by Nolan and a cast of stellar Winnipeg musicians and some imported special guests, including Ben’s brother Alex, normally the heaviest of heavy metal drummers.
Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom – (Dualtone)
This one’s getting rave reviews and landing on Best Of lists all over the place, and for good reason. After a long layoff, Edwards returns stronger and better than ever with a powerful, mature record that lays her life bare with her best writing yet. This one’s an instant classic.
Joe Nolan – Drifters – (Fallen Tree)
This young guy from Edmonton has toured hard and put in the work on his songs, his career, and himself, and is now reaping the rewards with some of the most powerful and interesting writing around. Most of his records are well-produced sonic wonders, but for this one he and Scott Franchuk kept things sparse, allowing the power of Nolan’s lyrics to really cut through and stand on their own. Boy, do they ever.
Melissa Payne – Darker than Your Dark (7th Fire)
This young talent from Southern Ontario is a much sought after session and touring musician, known for her strong fiddle playing and harmony vocals, but she really shines on her own. She’s grown by leaps and bounds between each of her three full-length records, and this one, produced by none other than Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo introduces a wider soundscape and brings in some stellar guest musicians to create her most interesting and impressive album yet.
Ken Yates – Quiet Talkers
Yates wisely teams back up with super producer/musician/songwriter Jim Bryson for a second time, and the results are even more impressive than their last album together in 2016. Yates has a gift for hooks & melodies that’ll grab you right away, a warm, inviting voice, and a way with lyrics. Bryson brings the sounds and stellar playing, and it all works marvelously.
Best local release(s)
Sean Burns & Lost Country – A Bakersfield Half-Dozen – (independent)
Sean Burns – It Takes Luck to Get the Best of Me – (independent)
Sean Burns & Lost Country – We Gotta Lotta Truckin’ to Do – (independent)
Burns is a hard-working road dog, travelling up and down the Trans-Canada highway playing honky-tonks, concert halls, and house concerts anywhere there’s an eager audience. He had been planning to spend a lot of the year on the road and on stage and had been working toward travelling to Texas to record an album with one of his honky-tonk heroes. COVID had other plans, so he shifted focus without missing a beat and made the best of the “down” time by making three stellar albums of his own, and helping to assemble an all-star tribute to our beloved Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club (see below.) As if that weren’t enough, he hosts a hell of a great radio show of his own on CKUW 95.9 FM called Boots & Saddle, the highest rated country music radio show in the world in the highly coveted Tuesday 11 am to 1 pm timeslot. He even managed to do a bunch of great live shows this year in and around Winnipeg when things were much safer. There’s no question why I named him the indisputable Entertainer of the Year for 2020.
Various Artists – We Still Gotta Lotta Livin’ To Do – (independent)
The Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club is an unassuming little honky-tonk right on Winnipeg’s Main Street. Across the street and on the other side of the tracks sits our highfalutin’ tourist area, The Forks, where the multi-million dollar Canadian Museum of Human Rights looms large. The tourists and well-to-do folks who hang out down rarely cross the street and make it into this club, and we kind of like it that way. This is the clubhouse where Winnipeg’s incredible live music scene is centred. On stage, you might find one of the best songwriters you’ve ever heard, a mutant bluegrass band, dirty rock ‘n’ roll, or authentic blues from the likes of Order of Canada member Big Dave McLean. This is the heart and soul of a scene that’s second to none in North America. It’ll probably cost you $10 to get in and hear some of the best music in the world, you almost certainly won’t find a place to sit, you’ll be bumping into smiling people all night, and you won’t mind a bit. This 2 CD, 29-track album compiles some of the many amazing talents to grace the stage. Step into a place that’s world-renowned, where we’re all good people with excellent taste in music.
Slow Leaves – Shelf Life – (independent)
Grant Davidson and co-producer Rusty Matyas (Imaginary Cities/Waking Eyes) have assembled one of the best albums of the year, and it would be a damn shame if this COVID crap stopped it from getting the attention that it deserves. Filled with instantly memorable hooks and melodies, strong and powerful lyrics, and killer performances from other local heavyweights like Rej Ricard (Windups/Telepathic Butterflies), Damon Mitchell (New Meanies/Nathan) and more.
Other great releases from Winnipeg include:
Most under-rated record of the year
All of the albums mentioned above are criminally under-rated. Consider supporting these super-talented Canadian musicians. Those famous major label artists will be just fine.
Best personal campus/community radio moment or experience of the year.
The show has had to adapt to the new reality, so we haven’t been able to have the guests and in-studio performances that I’d normally be excited about in another year, but more free time allowed me to launch a couple of new shows this year that I’m proud of. In the spring I did a near-daily live broadcast from home for a while called The Shut-In Sessions, where I checked in with a bunch of friends and guests I’d been wanting to talk to for a while. These days, I’m pretty excited about the upcoming show, Fly With Your Shadow, which has been a dream of mine for years. I’m really excited about the potential for this one and making progress on it has been a lot of fun.
How did COVID affect you, your show or your station?
Well, we haven’t been able to broadcast live at all since the middle of March, so my show has been pre-recorded from home. I wasn’t able to travel at all this year, so I haven’t aired a rerun or failed to produce an episode in any week. I miss the folks who call in and the folks I got to hang out with at the radio station, but I feel like doing the show and keeping it new and interesting is more important than ever, so I think in a way it’s made me appreciate it all a bit more.
Any other thoughts, opinions, rants,
I don’t know about you, but I’m missing live music something fierce. So much of my joy and connection to my community comes through live shows, and I can’t wait to get back into the audience with my friends. In order to do that, we’re going to have to be patient and careful for as long as it takes to kick COVID’s ass. Wear your mask, stay home as much as possible, wash your hands often, and look out for others. We also need to support musicians and music venues, so they’re still around when it’s safe for us to go back out there. Your favourite artists and venues probably have some great merchandise for you to check out, and venues probably have gift certificates or ways to help out. I hope you’ll join me in supporting as many and as much as we can.
Other great albums:
A sentimental favourite for sure! I’ve never made it onto an actual album release before. I just wish I’d been smarter and funnier, but who knew it would see the light of day and haunt me later?