Every year, CBC Music searches far and wide for the best in music, but especially for bright new talent. Between features like Beyond the 6, Songs You Need to Hear and our latest season of The Intro, 2021 has been filled with wonderful musical discoveries. In fact, our no. 1 album of the year is a debut release from a relatively new solo artist.
Below, we’ve highlighted 10 Canadian artists who truly broke out this year, whether it was wowing us with a debut album, taking home a prestigious prize or achieving viral success online.
Who were some of your favourite new artists of 2021? Share with us at @CBCMusic.
Mustafa’s debut, When Smoke Rises, is a singular album that explores the nuances and tragedy of life in the hood in an entirely new context, and an album that CBC Music named the best of the year. Early singles released in 2020 were signs of a promising new artist, and when Mustafa dropped the entire project in May, accolades spilled in from the likes of the New York Times, Pitchfork and the Guardian. The album was also our introduction to Mustafa the singer, as he carves out his own place in the Canadian music landscape, but beforehand we knew him as a poet. He was virtuosic and young when he was first discovered, and in recent years, has written songs for artists including the Weeknd and Selena Gomez under the tutelage of super-producer and fellow Toronto native Frank Dukes. But the pop hits he helped write are in stark contrast to the complex folk odes he would pen as he released years of pent-up rage and despair into the songs on When Smoke Rises.
Mustafa spent most of this year far from Regent Park, the Toronto neighbourhood whose stories he paints vividly on his debut. He had stints in London, Paris and Los Angeles where he performed the songs live for the first time in intimate spaces and cathedrals. The songs memorializing the lives of his friends — the ones he lost and the ones who grieve with him — reverberated off ceilings in cities far away from the violence that took them. When Mustafa finally brought the songs home again, for a performance at Massey Hall (a venue just a stone’s throw from Regent Park), the outpouring of collective mourning and love was palpable. On that stage, backed by the members of BadBadNotGood, Mustafa cemented his position as an artist without parallel. — Kelsey Adams
YouTube cover artist turned pop star Alex Porat didn’t have one standout moment this year as much as she had a steady string of undeniable hits. Having only turned to original music in the past few years, Porat has proven herself as one of the country’s best rising pop songwriters, turning everything from breakups to hook-ups into infectious earworms. Her strong portfolio is best captured on her 2021 mini album, Miss Sick World, nine tracks that span from quiet acoustic confessions to more electronic-driven bangers. It makes absolute sense that Porat opened for Ralph on tour this fall because the two are both on track to bigger and better things in the Canadian pop sphere. — Melody Lau
Savannah Ré released her debut album, Opia, at the tail end of 2020, and finally got to perform those songs live 11 months later in September 2021. She was invited to headline the All-Axis Festival, a night of live music to celebrate the reopening of the Toronto venue Axis, formerly known as the Mod Club. In the same month, she was a co-headliner at the 15th annual Manifesto Festival. But the excitement doesn’t stop there, in June she won the Juno for traditional R&B/soul recording of the year for her song “Solid.” Released in 2020, the song about a love that withstands any test really got its legs this year, racking up millions of streams. Ré was also nominated for the Juno for contemporary R&B recording of the year, for her song “Where You Are,” also off of Opia.
The artist has put in years of work to get to this moment, writing behind the scenes, working with Babyface, Normani, Daniel Caesar and WondaGurl. She’s an R&B singer in the old-school sense — with a full, rich voice and robust, soulful productions to complement it. In a right of passage for any singer worth their salt, she sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem at the 108th Grey Cup, the first Black woman to do so in the past 16 years. After all the hard work, we hope she’s basking in the fruits of her labour. — KA
Songwriters don’t always come out from behind the scenes, and Yonatan Ayal and Pierre-Luc Rioux were doing pretty well for themselves in the background after moving from Montreal to Los Angeles in 2015, writing for Katy Perry, Chloe x Halle, Céline Dion and more. But their best project was yet to come after they started making music under the moniker Chiiild in 2017. The two released their debut album, Hope for Sale, this year, following their 2020 EP, Synthetic Soul. It’s full of reflective and willfully optimistic songs that meander sonically from psych-rock to soul, R&B to jazz — and it’s another release that made it onto our best of 2021 list. Hope for Sale was the kind of reassuring album that we needed to get through 2021, and the streaming numbers seem to back that up.
Although popularity doesn’t define the value of an artist, 2021 was a big year for this genre-blending duo: Chiiild’s Spotify streams shot up from 1.6 million in 2019 to 32 million in 2021, and it expanded its fanbase from 542,000 listeners to 6.2 million in 177 countries. Not too shabby. 2021 was also the year we tentatively returned to live music, and Chiiild was a regular on the festival circuit, playing Lollapalooza in Chicago, Life is Beautiful in Las Vegas and the Governor’s Ball in New York. Ayal and Rioux’s penchant for nostalgic sounds seems to be resonating far beyond the reaches of their Montreal hometown, or their new L.A. base. We’re anticipating an even bigger 2022 for them as they embark on a mini European tour and support soul singer Leon Bridges in the spring. — KA
At the tail end of 2020, Canada crowned its first drag superstar. Toronto’s Priyanka, the winner of the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race (an expansion of the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise), is now nearing the end of her reign as the second season of the hit Crave series returns, but her year in the spotlight hasn’t been wasted. Not only has she scored big ad deals with BMO, Quo Beauty and Vizzy, and graced the cover of Elle Canada, but she has also launched one of the more successful musical careers in Drag Race‘s 12-year herstory. In July, Priyanka dropped Taste Test, a five-song EP filled with club-inspired pop songs that showed she can craft an anthem just as well as she can lip-sync to the hits. But one track in particular, the fiery revenge fantasy “Come Through,” became a viral hit through TikTok thanks to fellow Canada’s Drag Race contestant Lemon, who provides a guest verse so good that it has likely erased any sting of coming in fifth on the show. “Yeah, LemYanka own 2020,” Lemon raps. It’s a prophecy so strong that their domination has spilled over to 2021, and perhaps beyond. — ML
In 2019, Jessia hit rock bottom. Fresh out of university, the pop artist who grew up in Vancouver says she lost her creative direction and was second-guessing a career in music. Thankfully she didn’t quit, though. At the beginning of 2021, Jessia took to TikTok with an unfinished snippet of a song she was working on. “I don’t know if this is total trash, or if it’s actually a bop,” she told her followers. That track, “I’m Not Pretty,” which was later completed in 48 hours with the help of Elijah Woods (of Elijah Woods x Jamie Fine fame) turned out to be a smash. With more than 80 million streams on Spotify alone, the self-love anthem took off, earning a Bebe Rexha remix and the attention of producer extraordinaire Ryan Tedder, who signed Jessia to his label, Artist Driven Records, in partnership with Republic Records. In just two years, Jessia went from rock bottom to sky-high viral success — we can’t wait to see her star continue to rise in the years to come. — ML
Boyfrn moved to downtown Toronto 10 years ago with a penchant for writing poems that soon turned into an interest in writing rap lyrics. He caught the music bug and spent the next decade experimenting and flexing his musical skills, and what he landed on is a genre-melding mix between hip hop, pop, R&B, lo-fi and a little calypso groove from his Caribbean roots. He’s an artist who likes to keep listeners on their toes. He broke out this year after he released a string of undeniable singles and music videos that showed just how flexible he can be as an artist. Boyfrn got radio play on The Block, got a song added to the taste-making Northern Bars playlist on Spotify and performed at local music festivals, all on the strength of a handful of singles. From grungy hip hop on “Way I Flow” to bass-heavy, distorted pop on “Last Night,” we were so into it, we asked Boyfrn to be a guest on the second season of our music discovery show, The Intro. His first EP, Kissing Mirrors, is dropping next year and we can’t wait to hear what new directions he takes us in. — KA
When Brittany Kennell moved back to Montreal three years ago from her long stint in Nashville, she almost gave up on music. She started a job outside of the industry and was picking up the pieces of a failed engagement. But as she began to discover Montreal’s burgeoning country music scene, she was inspired to start writing again. The result was I Ain’t a Saint, the country artist’s long-awaited debut album. Distilling heartbreak into buoyant melodies, Kennell’s keen sense of humour and wisdom come together to form songs that are heartfelt, empowered and above all, fun. Breakups are awful, but Kennell’s songs are threaded with silver linings. With a clear pop sensibility, Kennell is perhaps the closest Canada’s gotten to a country-pop star since the woman who originated the crossover act: Shania Twain. — ML
Bruce Xiaoyu Liu
On Oct. 20, Montreal’s Bruce Liu, 24, went from being a locally admired classical pianist to the next big thing on the international scene when the 18th Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition announced him as its first-prize laureate. A dark horse, Liu advanced through the competition’s four solo stages to reach the final, along with 11 others, in which he played Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor with the Warsaw Philharmonic and wowed the jury with his heartfelt interpretation, a performance that has already been viewed 1.3 million times. The day following Liu’s win, Deutsche Grammophon, the world’s most prestigious classical label, announced that it would release his competition highlights, an album that arrived on Nov. 19. Liu’s calendar is now booked solid with concert engagements the world over for the foreseeable future. — Robert Rowat
While Yu Su may have been a staple within the Vancouver underground scene, 2021 was likely when most of us were first properly introduced to the Chinese-Canadian artist. Yellow River Blue, her debut album, is a perfect marriage of ambient dub, house and pop with traditional Chinese elements and instrumentation. Critically, it earned praise from Pitchfork, Bandcamp and PopMatters, the last one of which proclaimed the album as “Yu Su’s boldest, most eclectic statement.” “A long-term hope [of mine] would be to start building this connection between music made in China [and] the Western audience,” Yu Su told CBC Music back in February. It might feel like a trivial goal to some, but given the rise in anti-Asian hate as a result of the pandemic, people like Yu Su are doing the important work of helping break down barriers and welcoming music fans into the amazing world of electronic music in China. — ML