Best Music of 2014

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.

Alvvays - Alvvays
First Aid Kit - Stay GoldSpoon - They Want My Soul
The Bilinda Butchers - HEAVENPallbearer - Foundation of BurdenWhite Lung - Deep Fantasy
Parquet Courts - Sunbathing AnimalAt The Gates - At War With RealityAgainst Me! - Transgender Dysphoria BluesLiterature - Chorus

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

  1. Alvvays – Alvvays
  2. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
  3. Spoon – They Want My Soul
  4. The Bilinda Butchers – HEAVEN
  5. Pallbearer – Foundation of Burden
  6. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
  7. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
  8. At The Gates – At War With Reality
  9. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
  10. Literature – Chorus

Honourable Mentions:

  • The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
  • Nothing – Guilty of Everything
  • Army Navy – The Wilderness Inside
  • The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi
  • Exodus – Blood In Blood Out

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

P.S. If you still haven’t caught up on all of 2014’s music (and there’s no way to actually do that), I’d recommend downloading this massive 10-disc annual collection from Fluxblog.

Best Music of 2013

So here again is my totally haphazard selection of the best music released in 2013. As always, I find just as much joy in discovering old music that’s new to me as I do in keeping up with actually new music, so I listened to a shockingly small number of new releases this year. It’s interesting that my method of discovery has evolved over the years. I’ve long since stopped listening to radio, so my musical discoveries now usually come from friends or even just random Internet excursions.

One of the most interesting things that happened to me this year was being invited to a metal show by my friend Tom Hall while on a trip to New York this summer. An old high school friend of his from Michigan manages an up-and-coming band called Battlecross. I can’t remember having such a great time at a live show. The band played with such an amazing sense of joy, even if the music might seem aggressive. And I found the sincerity and work ethic of the band inspiring, too. It’s since led to a new appreciation of the metal music I had pretty much dismissed since I discovered punk in the late 1970s, and it’s been a lot of fun to “find my place” among all of metal’s subgenres.

But I haven’t abandoned my love of shoegaze and post-punk and it’s great to find more bands mining that territory, even if some of it sounds just a bit too familiar. I can’t be too critical, though. 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.

Beach Fossils - Clash The Truth
Girls Names - The New LifeHolograms - Forever
Carcass - Surgical SteelSuede - BloodsportsSmith Westerns - Soft Will
Battlecross - War of WillOkkervil River - The Silver GymnasiumSin Fang - FlowersArctic Monkeys - AM

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

  1. Beach Fossils – Clash the Truth
  2. Girls Names – The New Life
  3. Holograms – Forever
  4. Carcass – Surgical Steel
  5. Suede – Bloodsports
  6. Smith Westerns – Soft Will
  7. Battlecross – War of Will
  8. Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium
  9. Sin Fang – Flowers
  10. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Honourable Mentions:

  • Wax Idols – Discipline & Desire
  • Sebadoh – Defend Yourself
  • Jim Guthrie – Takes Time
  • The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
  • Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood
  • Local Natives – Hummingbird

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

P.S. If you still haven’t caught up on all of 2013’s music (and I definitely haven’t), I’d recommend downloading this massive 184-song annual collection from Fluxblog.

Best Music of 2012

I’m realizing that I haven’t done this for a few years now. Although I love music, I find that it takes longer to absorb a new “release” than my perma-shuffling iPod habits can provide, and so I always find myself scrambling during the month of December to attempt some kind of catching up. Ludicrous, of course, when there are thousands of new bands releasing music each year. So the usual disclaimer applies: this is stuff I just happened to buy/download/hear and is in no way meant to be comprehensive.

Beach House - Bloom
DIIV - OshinWild Nothing - Nocturne
Jim Guthrie - Indie Game: The Movie (Soundtrack)Grimes - VisionsDivine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits
Now, Now - ThreadsEternal Summers - Correct BehaviorLower Dens - NootropicsJapandroids - Celebration Rock

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

  1. Beach House – Bloom
  2. DIIV – Oshin
  3. Wild Nothing – Nocturne
  4. Jim Guthrie – Indie Game: The Movie (Soundtrack)
  5. Grimes – Visions
  6. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
  7. Now, Now – Threads
  8. Eternal Summers – Correct Behavior
  9. Lower Dens – Nootropics
  10. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Honourable Mentions:

  • Bill Fay – Life is People
  • Borko – Born to Be Free
  • Bloc Party – Four
  • Four Tet – Pink

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

SXSW 2011: Compilation Champs

Last year, I finally figured out how to use Garage Band to put together a sort of digital mix and I think it worked out pretty well. I think my CD-burning days are behind me, but I’m still excited to be revealing my 11th annual South by Southwest mix. You don’t need to be attending SXSW to download and enjoy this edition of Compilation Champs. But if you are, make sure you say hello if you see me. In any case, please let me know what you think about the songs. I love putting this together each year and writing a little bit about music, which I don’t do often enough.

You can stream the whole thing by hitting the play button, but it works best as a download, so go ahead and click that link (or the image). By the way, the lovely image is of my dear late friend Brad Graham, whom I met at my very first SXSW in 2001. That’s him trying on a jacket at Austin secondhand shop Uncommon Objects that very year. The amused-looking Dinah Sanders is in the background. We lost Brad in January of 2010 but it just wouldn’t be SXSW without him.

SXSW 2011 Compilation Champs

Duration: 55:11
Download .m4a file (81.4 MB)

  1. Lisztomania – Phoenix (2009, from the album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix): How 2009, the hipsters are sneering. But who am I kidding, the hipsters don’t come here. Sure, I may be late to the party with French veterans Phoenix, but how much more I’m enjoying them after waiting out the hype. This whole album just feels like a refreshing breeze and a taste of summer. Sort of like Austin in March, non?
  2. Pure – Lightning Seeds (1989, from the album Cloud Cuckoo Land): Believe it or not, I rediscovered this song in Carlos Assayas’ masterful 5.5 hour film Carlos (review). I really loved the way he used music, from the jagged postpunk of Wire and Another Sunny Day to the, well, pure pop of this song. “Just lying smiling in the dark” – ah yes, I remember.
  3. The Last Time – Gnarls Barkley (2006, from the album St. Elsewhere): Here’s a great overlooked track sung by the great Cee-Lo Green from his collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse. I really like the combination of his silky voice and the jittery keyboard riff.
  4. Pages – Starlight Mints (2003, from the album Built on Squares): I think Starlight Mints should be more well-known. They have a really unique sound and some lyrical tricks, like on this off-kilter love song.
  5. I Want the World to Stop – Belle and Sebastian (2010, from the album Write About Love): From perhaps the finest pop songwriters of the past 15 years. I saw the band this year and was knocked out by their showmanship and musicianship, but most of all by the sheer number of incredible songs they’ve written. Plus, Stuart Murdoch is one of the coolest gents ever.
  6. Love Without Lies – Comet Gain (2008, from the album Broken Record Prayers): I discovered this band literally the day before putting this compilation together. I was watching a UK indie film called 1234 (review) about, yes, being in an indie band, and found veterans Comet Gain, together since 1993, for the first time.
  7. Whirring – The Joy Formidable (2010, from the EP A Balloon Called Moaning): Welsh three-piece fronted by a kick-ass blonde guitarist named Ritzi. What is not to love? Plus, they are playing SXSW, although I won’t be around for music this year. Make sure to catch them live.
  8. Off Your Face – My Bloody Valentine (1989, from the EP Glider): Upside Down is a documentary about Creation Records that is playing SXSW this year. My Bloody Valentine are one of my favourite bands from that label and era. I used to think that Bilinda Butcher was singing “James” in this song, and since my crush on her remains undimmed for the past twenty plus years, I refuse to change my opinion.
  9. Hummer – Foals (2008, from the album Antidotes): Late to the party with these guys, too, but really love the dancefloor-friendly precision of the guitars. I found out about them through my support on IndieGogo for Anyone Can Play Guitar, a documentary about bands from Oxford. Go and help Jon finish his film!
  10. Royal Gregory – Holy Fuck (2007, from the album LP): I saw this Toronto band at SXSW in 2010 and loved their live knob-twiddling performance. Catch them live this year if you can.
  11. Steady Shock – Girl Talk (2010, from the album All Day): I’m not a huge Girl Talk fan but some of the samples in this particular track were inspired. Not a day goes by recently when the line “all the girls standing in a line for the bathroom” doesn’t run through my head about a hundred times.
  12. Zebra – Beach House (2010, from the album Teen Dream): Beach House really don’t sound like any other band I’ve ever heard and I’ve enjoyed listening to their moody music this year.
  13. Down in the Park – Gary Numan and Tubeway Army (1979, from the album Replicas): When I was 14, I wore out the grooves on this record. This predates Blade Runner but shares the same vision of a grimy and slightly seedy future.
  14. Dream Job – The Dears (2008, from the album Missiles): Montreal natives The Dears just released a new album that was critically savaged by hipster favourite Pitchfork. This is from their previous record, which wasn’t reviewed all that strongly either. It just goes to show you that some bands march to their own, er, drummer. I’m glad to say that The Dears’ music is the sort that grows on you, and I hope you’ll come to love this underappreciated band as much as I do. Also, I have a Dears story.

I have no way of determining how many people download the compilation this year, so if you’ve read this far, would you mind just dropping a comment to say Hi after clicking the download link? Of course, it would be great if you came back to tell me what you thought of the music, too.

A Prayer for the G20 Summit

Unprecedented disruption to our city, and more than a billion dollars spent on security. A billion that is sorely needed elsewhere. Tension and exasperation in equal measure. This weekend’s G20 and G8 Summit meetings here in Toronto (and Huntsville) have been hogging the headlines for weeks. As “Fortress Toronto” gets set to “welcome” both world leaders and protestors this weekend, I offer the following to everyone as a sort of prayer and plea:


Here we are in a special place
what are you gonna do here?
now we stand in a special place
what will you do here?
What show of soul
are we gonna get from you?
It could be Deliverance
or History
under these skies so blue,
but if I know you, you’ll
bang the drum
like monkeys do.

Here we are in a fabulous place
what are you gonna dream here?
We are standin’ in this fabulous place
what are you gonna play here?
I know you love the high life,
you love to leap around,
you love to beat your chest
and make your sound,
but not here man!
– this is sacred ground
with a power flowing through,
and if I know you, you’ll
bang the drum like monkeys do.

Now we stand on a rocky shore
your father stood here before you.
I can see his ghost explore you.
I can feel the sea implore you
not to pass on by,
not to walk on by and not to try
– just to let it come
don’t bang the drum
just let it come
don’t bang the drum
do you know how to let it come now?
don’t bang the drum now
just let it come now
don’t bang the drum now
don’t bang the drum

“Don’t Bang the Drum” by The Waterboys. Words and lyrics by Mike Scott and Karl Wallinger, 1985