The secret has long been out about Halifax’s music scene. Since the “Halifax pop explosion” of the early 1990s, industry ears and those looking to beat the crowd have turned to see what’s happening in our small Atlantic outpost. (Hell, The Coast’s first-ever issue included a profile of alt-rockers jale.) That attention has waxed and waned through the years, but what hasn’t changed is the quality of music. And in this, 2023 was no exception.
From new music by alt-pop artist Rich Aucoin to a surprising Bahamas country record to a stunning French debut from Laura Rae, there’s plenty to celebrate from Halifax’s music scene in the past 12 months.
Here, we count down the 11 best local offerings of the year, in the order they were released:
1Neon Dreams, Love Child Baby Dolphin (January 20, Dreaming Out Loud Entertainment)
Can you bottle summer in a record? Neon Dreams’ Love Child Baby Dolphin is a little like that. It also comes with a hell of a story: After the alt-pop duo saw their song “Life Without Fantasies” had become an unexpected hit in South Africa—a place they’d never visited—they decided to book a series of shows. They planned for a 16-day tour.
“We announced it and it sold out in like five minutes,” Neon Dreams’ Frank Kadillac told CTV News.
The duo’s trip to South Africa stuck with them—“I found a whole new spiritual side to myself,” Kadillac said—and inspired the nine-song Love Child Baby Dolphin. The title track sees South African singer Mthandazo Gatya lend his vocals to a relentlessly catchy chorus, while the stripped-back “Mama You’re Always Perfect” offers a sweet ode to family. Neon Dreams are masters of their craft when it comes to hooks, and there’s plenty to enjoy throughout the breezy 22 minutes of runtime.
2Villages, Dark Island (February 17, Sonic Records)
Take the Cape Breton Highlands and plunk them right at Citadel Hill. That’s the feeling you get when listening to Villages’ Dark Island, the full-length follow-up to the folk-rock band’s self-titled 2019 debut. Recorded at Joel Plaskett’s Fang Recording Studio in Dartmouth, Villages’ sophomore effort is roots rock-meets-Celtic music at its finest: Imagine, say, if the Fleet Foxes grew up in Port Hood listening to The Rankin Family. It also sees the quartet working with JUNO-winning composer Joshua Van Tassel (David Myles, Great Lake Swimmers, Fortunate Ones).
3Laura Rae, Chansons pour ma grand-mère EP (March 10, independent)
In a year of strong Halifax releases, Rae’s seven-song offering might well take the cake. Hearing the Ottawa-raised, Halifax-based singer-songwriter’s first French-language collection for the first time is like watching the year’s first snowfall from a firelit living room, or finding your favourite artist’s LP in the assorted bin. From “Danser à la radio” to “Suivre mon coeur,” the 2022 bronze winner for The Coast’s reader-selected Best Folk Artist holds her listeners’ attention with a tender hand, and begs for a rewind.
As Radio-Canada reports, Rae’s EP opener was inspired by a collection of poems and stories that her mother had published for her grandmother’s 90th birthday—and the radio that her mother would gather around with her siblings on Saturday evenings.
4Hillsburn, Stories EP (March 10, LHM Records)
Indie-pop act Hillsburn’s six-song Stories EP is grandiose in the best of ways. The four-piece group, led by vocalists (and siblings) Rosanna and Clayton Burrill, has a knack for propulsive anthems that get your fists pumping and feet stomping, from “Truths You Outrun” to “Rooms Across the Hall.” It’s been nearly a decade since the band formed in the living room of past member Paul Aarntzen’s rural house and later placed in the top 10 of CBC’s Searchlight competition. Stories marks Hillsburn’s first project without Aarntzen’s involvement—which might have proven a loss too great for another band (it was Aarntzen who wrote, engineered and mixed Hillsburn’s songs and produced its music videos). Instead, the remaining foursome is as worthy of a listen as they’ve always been.
5Quake Matthews, The Darkroom EP (April 21, Myth Music)
On his best days, there may be no sharper lyricist in Halifax than Fairview’s Quake Matthews. Case in point: The 34-year-old emcee is still the only Nova Scotian to be invited to freestyle on Sway’s Overtime—a badge of honour in hip hop’s Internet era. On his seven-track The Darkroom EP, Quake raps about the loss of his close friend Pat Stay (“Show Me The Way,” “Daddy Is A Legend”) and pens an emotional verse about numbing grief with prescription drugs (“Try”). By the EP’s closer, “Everything,” Quake is newly motivated, confident as ever, proving that he’s still “cold as the ocean caps.”
6Rich Aucoin, Synthetic: Season 2 (May 19, We Are Busy Bodies)
On alt-pop artist Rich Aucoin’s second Synthetic installation, part of a four-part electronic series that promises “more synths than any album in history,” the 39-year-old former Coast delivery carrier veers from summer road-trip euphoria (“Wav”) to Blade Runner-esque (“Tech Noir”) to Daft Punk-meets-Justice (“Prophet”).
It’s an ambitious range—evoking elements of Krautrock and ’80s-era synth-pop—for an idea that started nearly 15 years ago during a visit to Calgary’s Cantos Music Museum (now National Music Centre).
Aucoin recorded “like, the first 100 synths” in the early months of 2020, then put the project on hold.
“I didn’t want the pandemic to colour the record,” he told The Coast in August. “I knew the songs were going to change if I worked on it during the spring of 2020. So I just stopped working on it and put it on hold—literally, I didn’t do any work on it between the lockdown and when they announced the vaccines.”
7Good Dear Good, Arrival EP (June 16, Lulo Music Group)
Music Nova Scotia’s winner for Pop Recording of the Year, Good Dear Good’s Arrival is exactly what its name infers: The four-piece indie-pop band is ready for its introduction. A creative partnership between Tim Hatcher, partner Brandon MacDonald and bandmates Izra Fitch and Connor Booth, Good Dear Good is positive pop-rock manifested. The seven-song EP drips with pitch-perfect harmonies and uptempo rhythms, from the guitar-driven “The Storm” to the snare-steady “Guess Again.”
8Jenn Grant, Champagne Problems (June 21, Jenn Grant Music)
How do you summarize an album that vociferously refuses to be put into a box? Halifax singer-songwriter Jenn Grant’s latest offering, Champagne Problems, presents just such a challenge. Imaginative and sonically rich, it ventures from country pop (“Judy”) to dance/funk (“Nobody’s Fool”) to dreamy acoustic ballad (“All of This Time”) within the first four songs alone. It’s not afraid, in other words, to try on different hats. The album is also, unlike much of Grant’s prior catalogue, very much a collaborative effort: Nearly all the songs on Champagne Problems, recorded and produced at the 43-year-old’s home studio in Lake Echo, are co-written—a welcome change for Grant.
“I think at one point, I really shied away from co-writing. I thought it was just like this kind of embarrassing thing, where you had to reveal yourself and sit in a room with your guitar and come up with something,” she told The Coast in May. “But then I started dabbling in it, and then this project is all about that. And I found that the revealing and the embarrassing moments are what really gets right where the creative juices are.”
9Kayo, Trip (June 23, independent)
It’s been quite a year for Kayo. Chosen as the African Nova Scotian Music Association Awards’ 2023 Artist of the Year, the St. Lucian-turned-Haligonian shared his latest full-length project in June. Recorded in bits and pieces over the past half-decade, the seven-song Trip still feels very much meant for the moment. A blend of hazy, Post Malone-esque R&B (“Purgatory”); uptempo Afro-rhythms reminiscent of Wizkid (“Get Away”) and guitar-infused calypso-meets-rap (“Pigeon Point”), it’s perhaps his most cohesive work to date.
That’s no accident, Kayo says—but rather a matter of divine timing in a career that saw the now 35-year-old sign his first record deal in 2011, only to fall out when he joined a major Canadian label.
“It took some time for me for my art to align with who I am in real life,” he told The Coast in October. “And I think the closer that I got to that, the clearer that message and that vision became—because I wasn’t fighting myself as much anymore. That clarity allowed me to just put my best foot forward as often as possible, as effortlessly as possible, because I’m not forcing anything.”
10Bahamas, Bootcut (September 15, Brushfire Records)
Afie Juvarnen (otherwise known as Bahamas) is better known for softly-sung indie-pop than country crooners, which makes his latest album, Bootcut, a pleasant surprise. Bahamas’ second full-length project since relocating from Toronto to Halifax, the 11-song effort sees the Barrie-raised singer craft a buttery-smooth soundscape with a little extra twang—whether singing about fooling around on his six-string (“Working On My Guitar”) or reflecting on his upbringing (“Sports Car”). It was an indirect beneficiary of Juvarnen’s time spent off the road during the locked-down months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was able to sleep in my own bed for almost two years, every night,” he told the Toronto Star. “I haven’t done that in my whole adult life. I didn’t have any Aeroplan app telling me I had a flight the next day or whatever. It was just about relearning certain skills about how to relate to my wife or my work, or just the day. ‘Okay, what time should I get up? How should I structure my day? What makes sense for the family? What makes sense for me?’”
That routine reset gave birth to new ideas—including what it might be like to record a country album. Behold, Bootcut. It might not be the Bahamas you thought you wanted, but it’s the Bahamas you need to hear.
11POSTDATA, Run Wild (September 22, Paper Bag Records)
Two years removed from Wintersleep frontman Paul Murphy’s last solo album, Twin Flames, the Yarmouth-raised, Halifax-based singer-songwriter’s 10-song Run Wild is warm, bright and expansive; it sees the 42-year-old indie rocker sprinkle in pop influences (“Mine The Sea,” “Run Wild”), guitar riffs (“Moons”) and stripped-back productions that sound as if Blonde-era Frank Ocean picked up a six-string (“Twigs Underfoot”). That’s a byproduct of how it came together, Murphy says.
“From the start of COVID, I had a lot of time working on my own,” he told The Coast in November. “It was eye-opening—just having the ability to work on more songs at my own pace, and having time—whether it was forced by COVID or not—to really decide what kind of record I wanted to make.”
Murphy can spin a story in a song with the best of them—Wintersleep’s “Weighty Ghost” took the Nova Scotia band around the world—but on Run Wild, some of his best lines come from the fewest words. The album’s third song, “Look to the Stars,” begins as a lullaby to Murphy’s son, but deepens when he reflects on those stars’ fleeting nature: “They all burned out so many years ago,” he writes, “we only dance in the afterglow.”
Honourable mentions: General Khan (On God EP), Alex “Cunny” Ross (Forever Isn’t Forever EP), Leanne Hoffman (The Text Collector), DK (Atlantic Rap Vol. 1), Ally Fiola & The Next Quest (Interblaze), JupiterReign (Intergalactic EP), Kilmore (From the Inside EP)
—With files from Morgan Mullin