The Best of M for Montreal: Artists to Watch in 2016
In its tenth year, the Canadian taste-making festival just might be at its best yet.
Moon King performs at M for Montreal. All photos by Bruno Destombes
Grimes' headlining set at this year's edition of M for Montreal heralded many things, but at this year's decennial, her return to the festival that helped launch her career also cemented M's role as a bonafide international tastemaker.
While the focus is on Montreal-based musicians, the lineup culls from artists across Canada, France, and the US, all of whom were never a friend or shared bandmate removed from each other. This year's lineup was full of more top notch rising acts than we could possibly fit in this write-up, and despite attending close to 40 sets in our time there, there were still more we wish we had seen. Montreal: You're doing it right. Check out some of our hightlights from the festival and a playlist of our favorite tracks that make us stoked about new music in 2016.
Jazz Cartier and Wasiu
On the second floor of Montreal’s storied Cafe Cleopatre strip club, the drinks were flowing, and all eyes were on the raised platform at the center of the room. Rather than buxom dancers—the ladies were downstairs for the evening—some of Canada’s finest rising hip-hop acts were the ones eliciting cheers from the crowd.
It was the kind of lineup with enough raw talent to potentially make for "I was there" fan lore in a few years' time: The night kicked off with Regina's Queen City Stoopkids, a tight-knit, rambunctious crew whose ratchet beats and precocious lyrics can't help put suck you in. Our old pals and batshit Montreal punk rap mainstays the Dead Obies headlined, and despite telling me their set was “ok” and “awkward—it was a showcase,” left their crowd looking somewhere between exhilarated and shellshocked on the way out.
MTLien and Kaytranada collaborator Wasiu held it down for his hometown with sinister production and apocalyptic bangers like "This Ain't Toronto," reminding us that Montreal's hip-hop and piu piu beat scenes don't stand in Toronto's shadow, but are forces unto themselves as they blossom amidst the city's evolving cultural landscape.
But the star of the night was Toronto’s Jazz Cartier. Judging by the size and hype of the crowd, it was probably one of the last times anyone will be lucky enough to see him in a venue that small. He showcased a mix of new material and tracks from April’s breakout mixtape Marauding in Paradise, with the crowd rhyming along to new numbers like “Stick and Move” as well as unreleased songs that had us Googling in vain for another listen when we got back to the hotel. Between his knuckle-cracking production and raw attack on the mic, Jazz's set made a strong case for him as one of the most charismatic and versatile voices in hip-hop. No fewer than three bottles of water were thrown onto the crowd as he massaged an awkward room of industry folks into his own personal mosh-pit. “When this beat drops, you guys actually have to lose your fuckin’ minds,” he instructed. By the end, he was commanding each side to throw their hands up and “Wooo!” with a swoop of his arm like some kind of hip-hop Fantasia. Drake and the Weeknd were put on notice: “In Toronto, every single day there’s a new rapper. We need a new favorite for hip-hop in general in Canada," Jazz said. Consider the gauntlet thrown.
Doldrums and co.
It’s been a minute since we’ve checked in with Noisey Meets alum and sometime-Grimes collaborator Doldrums, the solo project of Montreal producer Airick Woodhead. He headlined arguably the best showcase of the festival’s first night at the Piccolo Rialto, along with four other acts we highly recommend checking out: the lo-fi swagger of Calvin Love, the always-awesome Dilly Dally, retro deconstructionists and Majical Cloudz proteges She-Devils (EP due out January 16 via Bandcamp), and the experimental electronic-dance splendor of Fucked Up collaborators Doomsquad (LP Total Time out April 29 on Bella Union).
We're happy to report that Doldrums is still making terrific, noisy electronic music, and that he did, in fact, make us dance. So much so that when he announced he was playing his final song, the crowd reacted with such dismay that he kept playing until the venue had to start shutting down. Rumor has it that Woodhead might be taking a break from the project, but glass half full, we’re just as excited for what, and whom, he’ll be working with next.
Speaking of whom, Woodhead’s brother and former Spiral Beach bandmate Daniel Benjamin knocked us out as one half of Toronto’s Moon King. The duo, completed by singer/guitarist Maddy Wilde, deliver earnest, old-school showmanship to compound their earnest, electronic-inflected indie rock. Even the downtempo tunes from their April debut Secret Life are invigorating. They hit the drowsy 1 AM crowd at Casa Popolo with a wall of bright lights and big harmonies, and no one looked back. Keep an eye out for them on tour.
Montreal’s Milk & Bone have gone from relative unknowns playing a mid-day set at last year’s festival to one of the best attended, most anticipated nighttime shows at this year’s edition. We can only predict, and hope, the same goes for bandmember Camille Poliquin, who also performed this year under solo moniker Kroy. Helming a simple synth set, Poliquin has the kind of arresting voice that can make an afternoon performance to a stiff crowd at a small bar feel instead like you’ve been let in on her most intimate, vulnerable confessions; that, for a moment, you're acutally sharing something. She released her debut EP Birthday in 2014 and has her first first full-length in the works.
You can, and should, check out self-described “dirty pop” trio Nancy Pants’ debut LP Total Nancy Pants, because the whole delightful shebang is available for free on Bandcamp. But above all, see these guys live if you get the chance. The Montreal transplants have only been together for about a year, but their respective backgrounds in the music industry have laid the groundwork for the kind of energy and dynamism that inspire a reflexive smile, with frontwoman Ohara Hale delivering the kind of controlled ferocity that leaves you no option but to pay attention. This is a band that knows exactly what it wants to be, and that confidence shines through. Stay tuned for their announcement of spring/summer international tour dates and a new release in the months ahead.
Twenty-year-old Charlotte Cardin may have first made a name for herself as a model, but you'll come to remember this Montreal singer for her smokey jazz vocals and unblushing, provocative songwriting in both English and French. She's hasn't recorded much original material yet—she favors covers—but keep an eye out for her debut EP this fall.
In the days before Duchess Says' closing night set at Club Soda, they were described to me on multiple occasions as "the best Montreal band you've never heard of," and they are sure as heck up there. The group makes ramshackle synthpunk that sounds like a train-wreck, in the best way. Frontwoman Annie Claude falls somewhere between Poly Styrene and Eugene Hutz, but is a force all her own, walking atop the crowd and then bringing the party on stage along with her.
Earlier in the night, sleaze-wave openers Country, the project of Montreal restauranteur/painter/self-described "savant-folk bad boy" Beaver Sheppard and multi-instrumentalist David Whitten served up some A+ "sleave wave" (their words), which is 100 percent what it sounds like. On paper, their no-fucks demeanor and layer cake synths might run the risk of being gimmicky, but that's all belied by the fact that their songs are just really damn good. (We also had the good fortune to catch Sheppard's experimental electronic project Secret Secret Girl at a non-M after-hours show earlier in the week—expect more on them soon.)
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.