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.
It’s that time of year again, for list-making and looking back. As per usual, I crammed a lot of new music into the last month of the year, and two of my top 10 releases for this list actually snuck in within the last week.
My top three records were pretty much cemented by September. Although Beach House surprised us with a second full album just months after Depression Cherry, nothing dislodged these songs from top spot for me. I’ll have to admit that it has a little bit to do with a girl. This record and Lower Dens‘ Escape from Evil were the stuff I was marinating in when I found out my heart was still working this summer. Although my romantic resurrection was quickly followed by some tiny heartbreak, these songs will always remind me of someone special and new. Also, after having waited since 2012 for new material from both bands, I was exceptionally happy with the results.
I was delighted with the new direction from Belfast’s Girls Names. While Arms Around a Vision doesn’t have the infectious groove of 2013’s The New Life, the songwriting is bolder and feels more personal. If you like jagged post-punk with echoes of Nick Cave and Ian Curtis, you owe yourself a listen.
Tribulation‘s The Children of the Night came out of nowhere very late to knock me out. Deliriously theatrical from start to finish, this will appeal to fans of early atmospheric horror films like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scary (though intelligible) vocals are a necessary counterpoint to some really melodic guitar work.
Grimes may be accused of going more commercial with her new record Art Angels, but really there is nobody else doing what she’s doing. I’m very happy to see her in full control of her considerable talents on this very versatile collection of songs.
Having discovered some of Tamaryn‘s older releases this year, I was a bit surprised by the direction Cranekiss takes. While her older material was more soulful and shoegazey (reminiscent of Mazzy Star), this new one is very upbeat and danceable in places. If you ever liked Curve, you’ll like this.
Droid are a metal band from Brampton, one of Toronto’s western exurbs. I’d seen them live a few times over the past year, and this EP, recorded almost two years ago, finally saw the light of day in 2015. The recording and mixing isn’t great, but it gives some sense of what this three-piece are capable of. Thrashy space rock, reminiscent of Voivod. They’re a tremendous band live, and I hope 2016 will see them playing more shows, and maybe putting out a full-length.
The Dears are one of my favourite Canadian bands, and they continue an amazing streak of putting out consistently great records. I describe their sound as “music for underdogs played by underdogs” since they always seem criminally underappreciated. But I can truthfully say that a new listener could dig in anywhere and get a good sense of their quality.
Immortal Bird were a pretty random discovery, but I was blown away by the power of this Chicago metal group and their fierce frontwoman Rae Amitay. Not for the metalphobe/faint of heart, but it’s catharsis at 100 decibels.
Fuzz is one of Ty Segall’s many side projects. I went to see them live on a whim and ended up really enjoying the retro fuzzed out sound. There’s a very ’60s vibe to the guitars, the drumming, and even the way the vocals are mixed.
There are a bunch more that I simply didn’t have time to really listen to enough, so a few of those are listed (unranked) as Honourable Mentions.
A theme for the year might be my rediscovery of my love for live shows. I attended lots more this year than in the recent past, and when I could ignore the pretty girls and the beardy shitbags (and the people who can’t hold their booze), often found myself with happy tears wetting my cheeks. I mentioned in last year’s post how much music has meant to me lately, through some very difficult circumstances, and in a live setting my emotions are even closer to the surface than usual. I’m reminded of a ridiculous quote from one of my favourite films. In Bruce Robinson’s 1987 classic Withnail and I, Uncle Monty (played by Richard Griffiths) speaks of “weeping in butcher shops” and now I’m the guy who weeps at metal shows. So be it. Music brings me joy like almost nothing else does, even when things are otherwise pretty bleak. I hope it does the same for you.
I’m not sure when I started it, but at some point in the last 12 months, I began an iTunes playlist called “My Comeback”. Music has always been very important to me, but I found that at my lowest points, I began to connect with music again in a powerful way. For maybe the first time since my 20s, lyrics jumped out at me again, and combined with the music, songs became comforting, nourishing, and inspiring.
This playlist will continue to evolve, but I wanted to share just a bit about how each of these songs helped me during the past year. Maybe some of them, or even my words about them, can help you, too.
Adventures in Solitude – The New Pornographers (from Challengers, 2007)
“We thought we’d lost you…welcome back”
This just popped up at random at some point in the summer of 2014 and maybe it was the title that initially grabbed me. I was having my own adventures in solitude for the first time in many years, and I identified with the lyric above. I also love that it’s written from the perspective of a friend, someone standing at a respectful distance but ready to embrace his wounded comrade back into a community of friendship.
“Got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows
Got nothing to lose but bitterness and patterns”
Spoon has been probably my favourite band since I first heard them way back in 1997. Britt Daniel just oozes cool, but even with his amazing gravelly voice and rock star swagger, it’s clear that he’s suffered his share of heartbreak. So it’s not surprising that there are two Spoon songs on this list.
“Got Nuffin” is the more upbeat of the two, a bouncy song with a propulsive Jim Eno beat about breaking free and looking forward. Daniel’s guitar work feels loose and almost improvised, adding to the sense of freedom.
“Do You” – Spoon (from They Want My Soul, 2014)
“Do you want to get understood?”
Here’s one about looking for the real thing. When you’re feeling burned after a long relationship, it’s easy to be fearful or cynical about love. But this is a lovely hopeful song about what I think is our deepest desire, to connect with another person and to feel fully known and yet still loved. I’m definitely not quite ready to open my heart this wide, but I want to get there, and this song is just a lovely hymn to not giving up.
“Shattered and Hollow” – First Aid Kit (from Stay Gold, 2014)
“I am in love and I am lost
but I’d rather be broken than empty
I’d rather be shattered than hollow”
These two sisters sing and play American country music like they were born in Nashville, but they’re actually from Sweden. Gorgeous harmonies and those first few lines just pierced my heart, but by the time the chorus kicks in with “we’re gonna get out of here, run from all our fears,” the name of the band made complete sense to me. During 2014, this song (and the entire record) was a salve for my wounds. It didn’t hurt that the album title indirectly (via S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders) references the very same Robert Frost poem that I cited when announcing the breakup of my marriage.
“Walk” – Foo Fighters (from Wasting Light, 2011)
“Learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?”
I’ve always loved Dave Grohl. One of the first stories I read about him was from a member of the riot grrrl band L7, who had enjoyed a sneaky shag with him after some concert. She just described him as an eminently decent guy, and I think as he’s aged, he’s only embellished that reputation in my eyes. He has a great sense of humour and seems to have very little rock star ego. Plus, he’s a huge music nerd, and is dedicated to telling stories about music that aren’t always about himself.
I bought Wasting Light when it came out after having pretty much ignored Foo Fighters after 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose. This song came back to me last year as I began to try to figure out what to do next. I’ve quoted the chorus above but the part that really pumps me up is when he just sings “I never wanna die, I never wanna die.” There are definitely times when I felt exactly the opposite. We’re all going to die, sure. But that feeling of embracing life, of loving it again, that’s what I want to feel, and this song connects me with that. It’s almost the soundtrack to the old cliche, “Baby steps…”
“Everlong” – Foo Fighters (from The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
“And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when”
And here’s an old one from Mr. Grohl. I think I read something recently about this song being about that feeling you get when you fall in love again after thinking it will never happen. First love is unique but second love is a gift you cherish even more because you never thought it would arrive. It also means trusting after being hurt, and so there’s more vulnerability and more at risk, which makes it even more tender. When he sings “promise not to stop when I say when,” I’m incredibly moved. It’s like he’s trying to get over the fear of losing something again before he’s even really felt it.
“I” – Kendrick Lamar (from To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
“Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart
On my sleeve, let the runway start
You know the miserable do love company
What do you want from me and my scars?
Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence
How many times my potential was anonymous?
How many times the city making me promises?
So I promise this…
I love myself…”
Using a perfect Isley Brothers sample, Kendrick Lamar drops his guard to share this anthem to loving yourself. Lamar’s from Compton, a place where there’s not a lot of hope, or opportunity, or self-esteem. Seeing him perform this live on SNL was electrifying and still brings me a huge dose of joy (despite his scary dope eyes!).
“This Ladder is Ours” – The Joy Formidable (from Wolf’s Law, 2013)
“Let’s sit and talk and slow things down
Just be our old selves again, finally
This is where everybody turns out right in the end
Can you play a part?”
I love powerful women with guitars, and Ritzi Bryan from Welsh trio The Joy Formidable is a tiny powerhouse. But here in this song, she also reveals her tender side. Written to a friend who was going through a rough time, it’s a great ode to friendship and having someone there to help you persevere. It’s also got this band’s trademark mixture of epic riffs and Ritzi’s undoubtedly feminine appeal. The video is also a pretty good representation of what it felt like to be me last year, sandblasted by tragedy but still standing.
“Struck Dumb” – The Futureheads (from The Chaos, 2010)
“Misery is a little line of a little dash
It’s a subtraction sign
Happiness is a little cross so if you’re feeling lost
Use it to add it up
All of us are genius
There’s more than enough to go between us
Every day you create everything in every way
Laziness can go and play with ignorance on the motorway
All of us are genius
There’s more than enough to go between us
For crying out loud
Stop furrowing your brow
Stop living in the clouds
Go and make your mother proud”
The Futureheads hit it big back in 2004 with their angular postpunk and chiming harmonies, most notably on a cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.” Then people kind of forgot about them, which is a huge shame, because 2010’s The Chaos is ripe for rediscovery. It’s full of great hooks and upbeat themes, and for me, it’s played a big role in keeping me hopeful during a dark time.
“Struck Dumb” is like a 3 minute pep talk wrapped in an incredibly danceable pop song. It’s hard not to quote all of the lyrics because they’re all things you want to hear when you’re down. Though this isn’t really a love song, it moved me more as a creative rallying cry, like a way to smash writer’s block. And of course, I always want to make my mother proud.
“I Can Do That” – The Futureheads (from The Chaos, 2010)
“I’ve been waiting six months for a sign that this is not a farce
I’m sick of having to read between the lines
I wrote a hundred letters without expecting a reply
I’ve made more phone calls than a wealthy guy”
And this one really helped me as I struggled (and continue to struggle) with chronic under-employment and lack of career direction. The band is from Sunderland, in the north of England, where the economy is generally bad and jobs are scarce. Many people listening to this song would be familiar with the dark cloud that forms over you when you’ve been fruitlessly looking for work for a long time. The very title of this song is something that would pop into my head often when I looked at a job ad (or even when hearing about someone else’s job) and I like to use it as a motivational tool rather than an expression of envy or bitterness.
“1,000 Pounds” – Superchunk (from Come Pick Me Up, 1999)
“You finally pulled back when the world pulled your hair
At your age, life moves so fast
Twelve years old, skinny legs built to come in last
But you came through, you came through
When nobody expected you to
You came through, you came through
With all those narrowed eyes upon you
You came through, you came through”
This took me back to my early adolescence. I wasn’t really bullied much, but I was a nerdy, skinny little kid who wasn’t the most popular guy in his class. But I did have a toughness, a resilience that people respected. Lately, I’ve had to get back in touch with that core of strength that has helped me get through lots of bad times. I’ve faced lots of tragedies, lots of lean periods, and I can get through this. I love that there might be someone looking on and cheering for me the way Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan is rooting for the skinny-legged kid he’s singing to here. Maybe it’s himself. So yeah, maybe it’s a weird image, but somehow I’m cheering myself on.
So, last weekend, I turned 50 years old! It’s hard for me to believe, but it really happened. And despite it being the coldest night of the winter so far, at least 25 of my friends made the journey (some from as far away as Waterloo!) down to Kensington Market to celebrate with me. I’ve been a recent regular at a cozy little bar called the Kensington Lodge, and they were nice enough to let me curate my very own playlist of favourites. I’d been planning to include music spanning my entire lifetime, but I found that by the time I got to 1985, the playlist was 150 songs and more than 9 hours long. That’s the reason that I started my party at 5:00pm! Even so, we only got up to about 125 songs played before we all headed home. Here for posterity is my epic playlist. And I’d be happy to organize another 9-hour party somewhere just so I could play this again!
p.s. The above photo was actually taken at Kensington Lodge the night of my party. I don’t know whether that sign was there just for me, but it felt appropriate. 🙂
Help! – The Beatles (1965)
In My Life – The Beatles (1965)
Le temps de l’amour – Françoise Hardy (1965)
All Day and All of the Night – The Kinks (1965)
Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones (1965)
I Fought the Law – The Bobby Fuller Four (1966)
Judge Dread – Prince Buster (1966)
Wipeout – The Ventures (1966)
Here Comes My Baby – Cat Stevens (1967)
These Days – Nico (1967)
The Way Young Lovers Do – Van Morrison (1968)
Rain From the Skies – Delroy Wilson (1969)
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (1969)
No Fun – The Stooges (1969)
Wild World – Cat Stevens (1970)
What is Life? – George Harrison (1970)
Who Loves the Sun? – The Velvet Underground (1970)
Sweet Leaf – Black Sabbath (1971)
Queen Bitch – David Bowie (1971)
Cross-Eyed Mary – Jethro Tull (1971)
Do Ya – The Move (1971)
Thirteen – Big Star (1972)
Growin’ Up – Bruce Springsteen (1972)
Dream On – Aerosmith (1973)
Search and Destroy – Iggy and the Stooges (1973)
She Cracked – The Modern Lovers (1973)
Higher Ground – Stevie Wonder (1973)
Magic – Pilot (1974)
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (1975)
More Than a Feeling – Boston (1976)
Livin’ Thing – Electric Light Orchestra (1976)
Carry On Wayward Son – Kansas (1976)
Blinded by the Light – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (1976)
Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones (1976)
I Wish – Stevie Wonder (1976)
Breakdown – Buzzcocks (1977)
Sonic Reducer – Dead Boys (1977)
Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Barracuda – Heart (1977)
The Passenger – Iggy Pop (1977)
Teenage Lobotomy – The Ramones (1977)
God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols (1977)
Hanging on the Telephone – Blondie (1978)
Just What I Needed – The Cars (1978)
Uncontrollable Urge – Devo (1978)
Shot By Both Sides – Magazine (1978)
Hot Child in the City – Nick Gilder (1978)
Another Girl, Another Planet – The Only Ones (1978)
So Lonely – The Police (1978)
I Just Wanna Have Something to Do – The Ramones (1978)
Nicotine Stain – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)
Warning Sign – Talking Heads (1978)
52 Girls – The B-52s (1979)
Someone’s Lookin’ at You – The Boomtown Rats (1979)
I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick (1979)
London Calling – The Clash (1979)
New York City – The Demics (1979)
Tired of Waking Up Tired – The Diodes (1979)
Hey St. Peter – Flash and the Pan (1979)
Damaged Goods – Gang of Four (1979)
Flat Tire – The Government (1979)
I’m Bored – Iggy Pop (1979)
Got the Time – Joe Jackson (1979)
Transmission – Joy Division (1979)
Disorder – Joy Division (1979)
My Sharona – The Knack (1979)
Pop Muzik – M (1979)
Bed and Breakfast Man – Madness (1979)
Cruel to Be Kind – Nick Lowe (1979)
In The Flesh? – Pink Floyd (1979)
Bring on the Night – The Police (1979)
Rock Billy Boogie – Robert Gordon (1979)
I Got You – Split Enz (1979)
Cool for Cats – Squeeze (1979)
The Logical Song – Supertramp (1979)
Heaven – Talking Heads (1979)
Picture My Face – Teenage Head (1979)
Down in the Park – Tubeway Army (1979)
Teenage Kicks – The Undertones (1979)
Making Plans for Nigel – XTC (1979)
Ant Music – Adam and the Ants (1980)
A Forest – The Cure (1980)
Twist and Crawl – The English Beat (1980)
Raised Eyebrows – The Feelies (1980)
My Mistake – The Kingbees (1980)
This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide – The Kings (1980)
A Song from Under the Floorboards – Magazine (1980)
Paint by Number Heart – Martha and the Muffins (1980)
Ace of Spades – Mötorhead (1980)
Blue Boy – Orange Juice (1980)
The Wait – Pretenders (1980)
High School Confidential – Rough Trade (1980)
Happy House – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1980)
Do Nothing – The Specials (1980)
Pulling Mussels – Squeeze (1980)
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) – Talking Heads (1980)
Disgusteen – Teenage Head (1980)
Los Angeles – X (1980)
Brand New Life – Young Marble Giants (1980)
Black and White – The dB’s (1981)
Watch Your Step – Elvis Costello and The Attractions (1981)
Sex Beat – Gun Club (1981)
Sorry for Laughing – Josef K (1981)
Academy Fight Song – Mission of Burma (1981)
Ceremony – New Order (1981)
Super Freak – Rick James (1981)
Tainted Love – Soft Cell (1981)
Ghost Town – The Specials (1981)
Throwing My Baby Out with the Bathwater – Tenpole Tudor (1981)
Song Without an Ending – The The (1981)
It’s Going to Happen! – The Undertones (1981)
The Look of Love (Part One) – ABC (1982)
I Could Be Happy – Altered Images (1982)
I Love a Man in a Uniform – Gang of Four (1982)
Love Plus One – Haircut 100 (1982)
Compulsion – Joe Crow (1982)
The Safety Dance – Men Without Hats (1982)
Falling and Laughing – Orange Juice (1982)
Love My Way – The Psychedelic Furs (1982)
Someone Somewhere in Summertime – Simple Minds (1982)
Nova Heart – The Spoons (1982)
A New England – Billy Bragg (1983)
Don’t Walk Past – Blue Peter (1983)
The Walls Came Down – The Call (1983)
Saved By Zero – The Fixx (1983)
Laughing – R.E.M. (1983)
This Is The Day – The The (1983)
Europa and the Pirate Twins – Thomas Dolby (1983)
Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes (1983)
Sixty Eight Guns – The Alarm (1984)
The Saturday Boy – Billy Bragg (1984)
Cath – The Bluebells (1984)
Gonna Get Close to You – Dalbello (1984)
Tenderness – General Public (1984)
Are You Ready to be Heartbroken? – Lloyd Cole and The Commotions (1984)
Doesn’t Really Matter – Platinum Blonde (1984)
Waxie’s Dargle – The Pogues (1984)
Listen to the Radio – Pukka Orchestra (1984)
Harborcoat – R.E.M. (1984)
How Soon is Now? – The Smiths (1984)
This Charming Man – The Smiths (1984)
My Ever Changing Moods – The Style Council (1984)
Take On Me – a-ha (1985)
She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult (1985)
Like to Get to Know You Well – Howard Jones (1985)
These days, when December arrives, I begin scrambling to listen to as much music from the current year as I can. Although I hear a few things throughout the year, I’m always scrambling to make my Top Ten a fair list and not just the only ten new records I heard that year. I think I did a good job this year, although five of my top ten are year-end discoveries.
As soon as I heard the first notes of Alvvays’ “Adult Diversion,” I knew I was onto a good thing. Their first album is filler-free, nine perfectly-polished pop gems that will stick in your head immediately. I was also privileged to see them live twice this year (once opening for hardcore act Fucked Up, which was adorable). I’m also immensely proud to be putting a Toronto band top of my list for maybe the first time ever. And I’m excited that there are a few other local bands tilling the same dreampop ground that may make it onto my list next year (WISH, Moon King, The Lonely Parade, Iris).
And I have to mention being knocked out by First Aid Kit’s record Stay Gold quite late in the year. If you’ve read this blog this year, you’ll know that I’d be all over a record with that title, and lyrically and musically, it’s been a balm (yes, maybe a literal first aid kit) for my battered heart even as I find myself crying while listening to it.
Spoon made another solid record this year, but as with all of their more recent stuff, it’s taken me a while to let it settle in. Amazing that I’ve been listening to them for more than 15 years now.
My love affair with metal continues unabated, although I find a bit too many “doom” bands are stretching the songs to absurd lengths. That being said, Pallbearer’s excellent record cannot be denied its rightful place in my list. And nice to see another comeback record (At The Gates) to rival last year’s Carcass release.
The biggest surprise on the list is a band called The Bilinda Butchers, who have made a wildly ambitious concept album based on a 19th-century Japanese love story. With a band name that references one of my all-time ladyrock crushes, I was bound to give them a chance, but the record (which you can actually download and name your own price) is musically eclectic but always compelling. Check it out.
So another year of semi-random music listening, but that’s the way I like it. If I find myself listening to something a lot, it’s going to make my year-end list, and so without further ado, here are my favourite releases of the past year.