My Comeback

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.

Here’s a really great recent review of the entire Challengers album, reflecting on its theme of loss and heartbreak in the not quite immediate aftermath: “Challengers is an album about all those months later, wide awake at night, thinking about her smile.”

“Got Nuffin” – Spoon (from Transference, 2010)

“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.

James at 50 Playlist

James at 50!

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. 🙂

  1. Help! – The Beatles (1965)
  2. In My Life – The Beatles (1965)
  3. Le temps de l’amour – Françoise Hardy (1965)
  4. All Day and All of the Night – The Kinks (1965)
  5. Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones (1965)
  6. I Fought the Law – The Bobby Fuller Four (1966)
  7. Judge Dread – Prince Buster (1966)
  8. Wipeout – The Ventures (1966)
  9. Here Comes My Baby – Cat Stevens (1967)
  10. These Days – Nico (1967)
  11. The Way Young Lovers Do – Van Morrison (1968)
  12. Rain From the Skies – Delroy Wilson (1969)
  13. Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (1969)
  14. No Fun – The Stooges (1969)
  15. Wild World – Cat Stevens (1970)
  16. What is Life? – George Harrison (1970)
  17. Who Loves the Sun? – The Velvet Underground (1970)
  18. Sweet Leaf – Black Sabbath (1971)
  19. Queen Bitch – David Bowie (1971)
  20. Cross-Eyed Mary – Jethro Tull (1971)
  21. Do Ya – The Move (1971)
  22. Thirteen – Big Star (1972)
  23. Growin’ Up – Bruce Springsteen (1972)
  24. Dream On – Aerosmith (1973)
  25. Search and Destroy – Iggy and the Stooges (1973)
  26. She Cracked – The Modern Lovers (1973)
  27. Higher Ground – Stevie Wonder (1973)
  28. Magic – Pilot (1974)
  29. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (1975)
  30. More Than a Feeling – Boston (1976)
  31. Livin’ Thing – Electric Light Orchestra (1976)
  32. Carry On Wayward Son – Kansas (1976)
  33. Blinded by the Light – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (1976)
  34. Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones (1976)
  35. I Wish – Stevie Wonder (1976)
  36. Breakdown – Buzzcocks (1977)
  37. Sonic Reducer – Dead Boys (1977)
  38. Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
  39. Barracuda – Heart (1977)
  40. The Passenger – Iggy Pop (1977)
  41. Teenage Lobotomy – The Ramones (1977)
  42. God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols (1977)
  43. Hanging on the Telephone – Blondie (1978)
  44. Just What I Needed – The Cars (1978)
  45. Uncontrollable Urge – Devo (1978)
  46. Shot By Both Sides – Magazine (1978)
  47. Hot Child in the City – Nick Gilder (1978)
  48. Another Girl, Another Planet – The Only Ones (1978)
  49. So Lonely – The Police (1978)
  50. I Just Wanna Have Something to Do – The Ramones (1978)
  51. Nicotine Stain – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)
  52. Warning Sign – Talking Heads (1978)
  53. 52 Girls – The B-52s (1979)
  54. Someone’s Lookin’ at You – The Boomtown Rats (1979)
  55. I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick (1979)
  56. London Calling – The Clash (1979)
  57. New York City – The Demics (1979)
  58. Tired of Waking Up Tired – The Diodes (1979)
  59. Hey St. Peter – Flash and the Pan (1979)
  60. Damaged Goods – Gang of Four (1979)
  61. Flat Tire – The Government (1979)
  62. I’m Bored – Iggy Pop (1979)
  63. Got the Time – Joe Jackson (1979)
  64. Transmission – Joy Division (1979)
  65. Disorder – Joy Division (1979)
  66. My Sharona – The Knack (1979)
  67. Pop Muzik – M (1979)
  68. Bed and Breakfast Man – Madness (1979)
  69. Cruel to Be Kind – Nick Lowe (1979)
  70. In The Flesh? – Pink Floyd (1979)
  71. Bring on the Night – The Police (1979)
  72. Rock Billy Boogie – Robert Gordon (1979)
  73. I Got You – Split Enz (1979)
  74. Cool for Cats – Squeeze (1979)
  75. The Logical Song – Supertramp (1979)
  76. Heaven – Talking Heads (1979)
  77. Picture My Face – Teenage Head (1979)
  78. Down in the Park – Tubeway Army (1979)
  79. Teenage Kicks – The Undertones (1979)
  80. Making Plans for Nigel – XTC (1979)
  81. Ant Music – Adam and the Ants (1980)
  82. A Forest – The Cure (1980)
  83. Twist and Crawl – The English Beat (1980)
  84. Raised Eyebrows – The Feelies (1980)
  85. My Mistake – The Kingbees (1980)
  86. This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide – The Kings (1980)
  87. A Song from Under the Floorboards – Magazine (1980)
  88. Paint by Number Heart – Martha and the Muffins (1980)
  89. Ace of Spades РM̦torhead (1980)
  90. Blue Boy – Orange Juice (1980)
  91. The Wait – Pretenders (1980)
  92. High School Confidential – Rough Trade (1980)
  93. Happy House – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1980)
  94. Do Nothing – The Specials (1980)
  95. Pulling Mussels – Squeeze (1980)
  96. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) – Talking Heads (1980)
  97. Disgusteen – Teenage Head (1980)
  98. Los Angeles – X (1980)
  99. Brand New Life – Young Marble Giants (1980)
  100. Black and White – The dB’s (1981)
  101. Watch Your Step – Elvis Costello and The Attractions (1981)
  102. Sex Beat – Gun Club (1981)
  103. Sorry for Laughing – Josef K (1981)
  104. Academy Fight Song – Mission of Burma (1981)
  105. Ceremony – New Order (1981)
  106. Super Freak – Rick James (1981)
  107. Tainted Love – Soft Cell (1981)
  108. Ghost Town – The Specials (1981)
  109. Throwing My Baby Out with the Bathwater – Tenpole Tudor (1981)
  110. Song Without an Ending – The The (1981)
  111. It’s Going to Happen! – The Undertones (1981)
  112. The Look of Love (Part One) – ABC (1982)
  113. I Could Be Happy – Altered Images (1982)
  114. I Love a Man in a Uniform – Gang of Four (1982)
  115. Love Plus One – Haircut 100 (1982)
  116. Compulsion – Joe Crow (1982)
  117. The Safety Dance – Men Without Hats (1982)
  118. Falling and Laughing – Orange Juice (1982)
  119. Love My Way – The Psychedelic Furs (1982)
  120. Someone Somewhere in Summertime – Simple Minds (1982)
  121. Nova Heart – The Spoons (1982)
  122. A New England – Billy Bragg (1983)
  123. Don’t Walk Past – Blue Peter (1983)
  124. The Walls Came Down – The Call (1983)
  125. Saved By Zero – The Fixx (1983)
  126. Laughing – R.E.M. (1983)
  127. This Is The Day – The The (1983)
  128. Europa and the Pirate Twins – Thomas Dolby (1983)
  129. Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes (1983)
  130. Sixty Eight Guns – The Alarm (1984)
  131. The Saturday Boy – Billy Bragg (1984)
  132. Cath – The Bluebells (1984)
  133. Gonna Get Close to You – Dalbello (1984)
  134. Tenderness – General Public (1984)
  135. Are You Ready to be Heartbroken? – Lloyd Cole and The Commotions (1984)
  136. Doesn’t Really Matter – Platinum Blonde (1984)
  137. Waxie’s Dargle – The Pogues (1984)
  138. Listen to the Radio – Pukka Orchestra (1984)
  139. Harborcoat – R.E.M. (1984)
  140. How Soon is Now? – The Smiths (1984)
  141. This Charming Man – The Smiths (1984)
  142. My Ever Changing Moods – The Style Council (1984)
  143. Take On Me – a-ha (1985)
  144. She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult (1985)
  145. Like to Get to Know You Well – Howard Jones (1985)
  146. Call It Love – Images in Vogue (1985)
  147. Hounds of Love – Kate Bush (1985)
  148. Dirty Old Town – The Pogues (1985)
  149. FFF – Public Image Ltd. (1985)
  150. The Whole of the Moon – The Waterboys (1985)

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?