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Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

The Adam Brown - Can't Sleep (2015)

Years in the making, the Adam Brown’s album Sometimes I Try follows a full cycle of alternative rock trends. Back when the band got started, the kids were thronging to exultant, catchy guitar hooks – from Nada Surf, Sloan and Fountains of Wayne CDs to commercial classics by Weezer and Foo Fighters. Yet electric guitars lost ground in the late 2000s: Chugging power pop gave way to digital drum machines and acoustic ho hey. Happily for this song, everything is nineties again in 2015: Plaid’s back, and The X-Files, and the Adam Brown’s glorious, cascading guitars.

Can’t Sleep was recorded in Montreal. Brown and his cohort spent a decade recording and re-recording these songs at studios around the city. The result has none of the shaggy hallmarks of such an extended effort – it simply feels polished, its 1,000 hooks knitted together. It’s ready for arenas, bedrooms, road trips and getting stuck at the light. The bandleader’s a notorious sweetie: Here Brown’s also a cooing charmer, an imperious rock god. He’s an insomniac king of melody, “wrestling with a restless heart.”

Erykah Badu – On & On (1997)

We often talk of poise like it’s something high up, aloof, power cordoned off from the fray. Watching Erykah Badu perform this week at the Montreal Jazz Festival, one of the best concerts I’ve seen in my life, I was taught all about another kind of poise: the poise of smoke touching down, embers on your clothes, a prowling panther. We’re all fresh game for the full-grown Badu.

When she appears on stage it is in a patterned cape and slouching cap. She is a fashion icon, formidable. When she leaves she’s wearing a red T-shirt, black pants; the theatre’s filled with a loose joy. At 44, Badu knows the strength of a silhouette, a shadow rimmed in light. She knows where power rests: in stillness, in surprise, in a tight band, in her straight gaze and that gaze withheld. Badu intercepts and interrupts our pleasure, leads her mighty musicians like the true inheritor of Prince and Nina Simone.

The music’s a tease of groove, all sway and flow, and Badu’s at the centre, summoning and silencing the sound, sipping from a white ceramic mug, firing gunshot effects from a bare, pointed finger. Throughout, On & On is a kind of motif. It rises up, it disappears. The singer doesn’t need to pander to us – neither with skimpy clothes nor sneering status. She seems kind, generous. A song of self-love doesn’t need to be a song of ego: True positivity isn’t about the dream of wealth.

Even when a goofy festival founder scampers on stage, presenting the Ella Fitzgerald Award, Badu’s poise doesn’t waver. She is guest and host at the same time, regal and spidery, hilarious and clever. Oh what a day, what a day, what a day, she reminds us, yessiree.

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