Best Music of 2019

I did it again. With about a month to go in the year, I went on a mad quest to find the best music of 2019. Here it is with January already half over and I’m only posting now. Long story short: music is still awesome. Many artists are still pushing boundaries and making fantastic sounds. I hope that I might point you in some new directions with this post.

The year wasn’t even half over when I first heard Cate Le Bon‘s Reward, but I knew it would be hard to top, and it did indeed prove impossible. The Welsh singer had been living in Los Angeles, but for this record she wrote the songs while living alone in England’s Lake District, and it shows. At times on previous records, her eccentricity seemed to overwhelm, but on Reward, it’s more, uh, rewarding. Especially great is the video for “Home to You,” which was filmed among the Roma community in Slovakia. Her angular riffs don’t seem accessible at first, and then, weeks later, they’ve become earworms. Delightfully odd earworms. There’s also a real warmth here that makes these songs comforting.

Sharon Van Etten has had a busy few years. She began acting (in the sadly-departed Brit Marling series The OA), finished a degree in psychology, got married and had a baby, and moved from New York to Los Angeles. She also completely reworked her sound for Remind Me Tomorrow, adding layers of synths in place of the acoustic guitar she’s been known for. And it totally works, bringing an eeriness to songs like “Jupiter 4” (named for the actual keyboard that appears in the song) and “Comeback Kid.” Seeing her play these songs live also really made this record a favourite of mine this year.

New Orleans duo Generationals are incredibly prolific, putting out a regular stream of singles during 2017 and 2018, but Reader as Detective came along in 2019 and lodged itself in my earbuds with a whole batch of catchy tunes. It’s not necessarily deep or original stuff, but it’s upbeat and always lifts my mood.

FKA twigs was an artist I’d mostly just heard about and never heard. Magdalene is only her second “album” (and first since 2014) but she has a fully developed and original sound that is somewhere between Kate Bush and The xx. It’s pretty raw emotionally even as the music itself is really polished and beautiful. Perfect for listening on headphones while walking in the rain.

I’d never really paid any attention to Alabama Shakes, the band Brittany Howard fronted earlier in the decade. But I began seeing her solo debut mentioned in a few year-end best-of lists and then I found some live performances online. Jaime covers a wide range of styles and moods, but is never less than compelling. And “He Loves Me” (where she sings hopefully that God loves her even “when I’m smoking blunts, when I’m drinking too much”) resonated with this lapsed/ex/quasi believer. She sings about race and sexuality from a place of honesty (she’s queer and bi-racial) and inclusion, and radiates vulnerability and power all at once.

The Murder Capital are a young Dublin post-punk band, who have emerged somewhat in the shadow of the more well-known Fontaines DC. When I Have Fears was written around the suicide of a friend, and the emotional honesty is bracing, as is the music, which has a little bit in common with English band Idles. The lyrics are literate (“Where the answer lies it emits the waves, so erupts the tide upon which you sail, oh, my dearest friend, how it came to this”) and the album artwork reminds me of the haunting work of artist George Tooker. A very promising debut.

Reignwolf is mostly Saskatoon’s singer-guitarist Jordan Cook. He relocated to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and began playing an energetic blues-rock style that reminds me very much of Jimi Hendrix. That it took him until 2019 to finally release a full-length album is inexplicable, but Hear Me Out was worth the wait. Now if I can only see him live, I’ll be a happy man. For reference, check out this rain-soaked and death-defying performance from 2013.

Zig Zags have the distinction of being the only band I’ve seen twice but never in my own town. I discovered these LA punks while living in Dublin in 2017 and got to see them again last February in Los Angeles. Weirdly, the video I took at both shows is of the same song, also the name of their new record, They’ll Never Take Us Alive. Their music is self-described “punk fucking metal” and I enjoy it quite a lot. Video from Dublin (2017) and Los Angeles (2019).

I’ve been tracking Chicago’s Immortal Bird for a few years now. Two very strong releases came out in 2013 and 2015, and this year they released their second full-length, Thrive on Neglect. Metal has an almost laughable number of “sub-genres” that don’t mean much to me, and the band describes their own music (surely, tongue firmly in cheek) as “crusty blackened proggy deathgrind,” which may not help. In any case, it’s virtuosic, punishing, and cathartic. Frontwoman Rae Amitay manages to channel rage while still showing vulnerability, and seeing them live recently was absolutely jaw-dropping. Their album artwork is always gorgeous, too.

Each year I find one new artist that’s an absolute happy surprise. Enter Sturgill Simpson. This “country” veteran (he’s 41 and just released his fourth album) has always thrown curve balls, and it’s great to see what some see as the most hidebound of musical genres finally opening up to other influences (Lil Nas X and Yola are also worth your time). Simpson’s record Sound and Fury is like a country “Ziggy Stardust” or at least it has enough glam attitude and sound to draw comparisons. He also released a 41-minute anime film on Netflix that functions as a series of videos for each of the songs. I’m happy to discover a real country music outlaw, doing whatever he wants with his talent.

As always, music helped me through this year’s highs and lows. Seeing several of these bands live also rejuvenated my belief that music is as essential to my life as food, oxygen, and love.

Cate Le Bon - Reward
Sharon Van Etten - Remind Me TomorrowGenerationals - Reader as Detective
FKA twigs - MagdaleneBrittany Howard - JaimeThe Murder Capital - When I Have Fears
Reignwolf - Hear Me OutZig Zags - They'll Never Take Us AliveImmortal Bird - Thrive on NeglectSturgill Simpson - Sound and Fury

In list form, if you’re not visually inclined:

  1. Cate Le Bon – Reward
  2. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
  3. Generationals – Reader as Detective
  4. FKA twigs – Magdalene
  5. Brittany Howard – Jaime
  6. The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
  7. Reignwolf – Hear Me Out
  8. Zig Zags – They’ll Never Take Us Alive
  9. Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect
  10. Sturgill Simpson – Sound and Fury

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

  • The Highwomen – The Highwomen
  • The Black Keys – Let’s Rock
  • The Skints – Swimming Lessons
  • Pup – Morbid Stuff
  • Pernice Brothers – Spread the Feeling
  • Lower Dens – The Competition
  • Hollerado – Retaliation Vacation
  • Sleeper – The Modern Age

And some 2018 releases I was late to, discovering them in 2019:

  • Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance
  • Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army

Just for fun, here are some of my previous lists:

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

Best Music of 2018

It’s list-making time again. 2018 was a momentous year for me. I got cancer, fell in love, and won a cross-country train trip. And those are just the highlights (and one lowlight).

I can’t really explain it, but Janelle Monae‘s Dirty Computer hit hard and immediately. Her queer and sex-positive brand of “black girl magic” lodged itself in this old nerdy white guy’s heart and hasn’t let go. I still can’t listen to the whole record without tearing up multiple times. Seeing her live this summer was also a highlight of my year.

I was just lukewarm on Wild Nothing‘s last release, 2016’s Life of Pause, so I was delighted that this year’s Indigo felt like a return to form for them. Lots of hooks on the new record, for those that like a bit of nostalgic ’80s-’90s stuff with a mixture of guitars and electronics.

I was also impressed with Leon Bridges evolution. Though some were critical of his move away from the pure soul sounds of 2015’s Coming Home, I think he’s smart leaving behind the gorgeous but simple imitation of soul artists like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. His new record feels more like he’s being himself.

I’ve been a fan of Julien Baker‘s since the beginning, and after discovering Phoebe Bridgers (thanks to an opening slot on Baker’s last tour), I was immediately onboard with boygenius, their “supergroup” with Lucy Dacus. Even better was seeing them live, with individual sets from all three young songwriters, followed by an encore set as a group. I hope this project has more in store.

I can thank my friend Tom Hall for alerting me to Natalie Prass. Despite looking like the nerdiest white girl ever on the album cover, Prass creates some gorgeous R&B style music that’s worth discovering.

I’ve backed off on the metal in recent years, but 2018 still had new releases from a couple of my favourites. Tribulation put out the better of the two I’ve included, and I think it’s the more accessible for the non-metal fan as well. Despite that, I’ve included At The Gates in my Top Ten as well. It’s impressive that since their return in 2014 after a long absence, they’re continuing to make compelling music.

I think The Essex Green was a random eMusic discovery, but I enjoyed their eclectic brand of pop. This record also marks a return after a 12-year absence. I can only hope they don’t wait another dozen years to bring us more new music.

Dream Wife were a blast of fun female punk energy in a year where #MeToo seemed to remind us how much crap women have to endure. I’ve always loved strong women with guitars, and this trio brought some swagger with songs like “Let’s Make Out” and “Spend the Night.”

Tracyanne and Danny marked the return of Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura. Her bandmate Carey Lander’s 2015 death brought that band to an abrupt end and it’s nice to hear Tracyanne’s lovely voice in a new collaboration.

As always, music helped me through this year’s highs and lows. Seeing several of these bands live also rejuvenated my belief that music is as essential to my life as food, oxygen, and love.

Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
Wild Nothing - IndigoLeon Bridges - Good Thing
boygenius - boygenius (EP)Natalie Prass - The Future and the PastTribulation - Down Below
The Essex Green - Hardly ElectronicDream Wife - Dream WifeTracyanne and Danny - Tracyanne and DannyAt The Gates - To Drink From The Night Itself

In list form, if you’re not visually inclined:

  1. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
  2. Wild Nothing – Indigo
  3. Leon Bridges – Good Thing
  4. boygenius – boygenius (EP)
  5. Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past
  6. Tribulation – Down Below
  7. The Essex Green – Hardly Electronic
  8. Dream Wife – Dream Wife
  9. Tracyanne and Danny – Tracyanne and Danny
  10. At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

  • Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow’s Daughter
  • Okkervil River – In The Rainbow Rain
  • Ume – Other Nature
  • Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

And some 2017 releases I discovered in 2018:

  • Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
  • Ryan Adams – Prisoner

Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in the AlpsRyan Adams - Prisoner

Just for fun, here are some of my previous lists:

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

My Daughter

It happens on the subway train again. My eyes suddenly fill with tears.

She’s sitting across from me, smiling to herself, earbuds bobbing. It’s my daughter.

This one’s about fifteen, chubby-cheeked, with short bleached hair. Denim jacket and rolled up jeans, Doc Martens. But everything is clean and untorn.

We’re at home, having a good natured argument over who had the better singles, The Shop Assistants or The Razorcuts.

Now I’m telling her it’s a cliche for her to learn the bass, that she should be playing guitar or drums instead. She’s unmoved.

We’re discussing which is the best Wes Anderson film. We don’t agree. We never agree.

I’m telling her to go easy on her mum, that she only wants the best for her. And she can always change her major later on.

Now she’s telling me about a girl she has a crush on at school. Or maybe it’s a boy. Inside I’m hugging myself that she’s telling me any of it.

It’s only been two subway stops. She gets up to leave. I send her a silent blessing. My daughter.

Between the Hammers

Hammer and Anvil

Life has been particularly unkind to me over the past five years. Grief, heartbreak, struggle have been closer than ever. And now there’s more.

I had my annual physical this past fall and mentioned an episode of abdominal pain that was particularly severe. In the past, I’d had these episodes several times a year but dismissed them as bouts of food poisoning. They always passed by the next day, and this latest was only different in its intensity. I started to think maybe I had an intolerance to something. My doctor scheduled a colonoscopy, which was going to be scheduled in any case since I’m over 50. I had this routine procedure just 9 days ago, and afterwards the doctor told me he’d found an obstruction and couldn’t complete the procedure. He took a biopsy and said that I’d need surgery. When I mentioned I’d planned ten weeks of travel beginning on January 15th, he asked if I could cancel it.

I spent the next week in an anxious state of limbo. I told some close friends about the results and figured that my chances of having cancer were about 50/50. My main concern was not having to cancel my trip. My short film series Shorts That Are Not Pants has been running for six years, and my plans in 2018 are ambitious, including monthly screenings and a festival weekend in November. I was returning to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival for the third time (I missed out last year while I was working in Dublin) and then planning a return to the biggest short film festival in the world, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. After that, I hoped to attend the Berlinale and visit that city for the first time, return to Dublin for a few weeks, attend the Glasgow Short Film Festival for the second year in a row, and then wrap up my trip by attending the Short Waves Festival in Poznan, Poland. I’d mapped out my schedule and booked about half my flights and accommodation. I’d arranged for my cats to be taken care of, and had found a lovely couple to sublet my apartment until the end of March. To be quite honest, my first reaction to the colonoscopy results was annoyance at having to change or even cancel my trip.

So on Tuesday this week, I went in prepared to bargain. Surely the surgery could wait a few weeks or even months. I had made commitments and plans and didn’t want to change them. I wasn’t that surprised when the word “carcinoma” was mentioned. My surgeon calmly explained that the protocols of cancer care in our province required him to operate within a month of diagnosis. He agreed that I didn’t seem symptomatic and that I could travel but that my surgery was going to be scheduled for Tuesday February 13. This allows me to attend Sundance and Clermont-Ferrand, the first two legs of my trip, and the ones for which I’d already arranged flights and accommodations. I’ll return to Canada on February 9th, and have the weekend to prepare for my surgery.

Knowing I’m scheduled to leave on Monday, the good people at St. Joseph’s Health Centre quickly scheduled blood work, my pre-admission appointment, and a CT scan all for this week. I came home Tuesday, a bit numb, and started letting some people know the news. I’ve stuck to just telling people the facts, and the practical arrangements for the surgery. I don’t know how to feel about having cancer yet. The surgeon said they won’t know what stage it’s at or my prognosis until they’ve removed it from my body. So for the next month, I’ll be in a busy fog, which is maybe the best kind of space to be in.

In 1986, my mother told me she had lung cancer, and I remember holding onto that news for weeks, not wanting to tell any of my friends. I was afraid of two things. One, that it would make the whole thing real and give it power. And two, that everyone around me would start treating me differently, with pity or with awkwardness. I knew that what I needed was connection, and that our fear of disease and death would create distance. Of course, that feeling came flooding back this week. And I’m still afraid of being seen as “sick” and pushed away with well-meaning platitudes. But holding stuff in and keeping secrets is its own kind of cancer, so I won’t do that.

I’ve felt a lot of shame over the past few years, for how my life didn’t turn out the way I’d expected, or wanted. This latest bout of bad news seems weirdly unsurprising to me. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. It’s just that I’ve been dealing with a lot and this just joins the rest of that junk. In 1997, I created my very first home page and gave it the title “Between the Hammers.” It was a reference to a line from The Ninth Duino Elegy from Rainer Maria Rilke:

Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.

Even back then, I saw my life as one filled with struggles, and my aspiration was to have a heart that endured and kept praising. I may not leave much of a legacy when I leave this world, but if people talk about me as someone with a big and tender heart, then I’ll be okay with that.

Re-reading the entire poem now is quite powerful. Here’s something from the beginning:

…everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And the last section:

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller… Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.

Class Struggle

From the Depths (1905, William Balfour Ker)
From the Depths (1905, William Balfour Ker)

The class system in Canada likes to think it’s invisible. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not invisible; it’s insidious. I have realized that I will always be the child of immigrants* who never climbed out of the (lower?) middle class. My parents never bought a house. Part of that was my mother’s decision not to work outside the home. My father had a respectable white-collar job, but we rented among many two-income blue-collar households and those are the people who still understand and accept me. Those are my people.

Even people I’ve met as I’ve flirted with upper-middle class “respectability” somehow have never stuck. It’s like I have a certain smell clinging to me. I’ve never owned a house or a car. My family never had a cottage. It’s hard to be around people for whom life has always been pretty easy.

I’ve been reading old journals and realized that I’ve always worried about money, even when I seemed to have it. Nothing ever felt secure financially, and so I didn’t take unnecessary risks. I’m not that materialistic, and I’ve not really missed a lot of “things,” but it certainly makes conversation awkward or at least uninteresting with a lot of people.

It seems that classes act a bit like our immune system. They tend to try to fight off intruders. Every time I’ve bumped up against the ceiling of my “rightful place,” I’ve felt rebuffed. Sometimes actively, like when new friends just don’t call you to hang out. Or passively, when you just can’t afford another unpaid gig so you can break into your chosen profession.

We don’t talk about this very much. Among wealthy white liberals, there’s lots of guilt about race and about gender inequality. About LGBT rights. Even about refugees and other faraway injustice. But nobody talks about class. Even when it’s right under our noses.

* The irony is that if we’d stayed in Ireland we’d have been better off financially. My father’s family were and are solidly upper-middle class. I suspect this is true for quite a few immigrant families, who give up status at home for a chance at something “better” in Canada. When I worked as a welfare caseworker in the 1990s, I met a lot of new immigrant professionals (dentists, doctors, engineers) who were unemployed or working menial jobs while trying to have their qualifications evaluated. Many felt they’d been misled about opportunities here.