Best Music of 2022

UPDATE: I’ve posted THREE DJ sets where I played 102 songs from my best of 2022, some of which are not mentioned in the post below. Check them out!

Once again, 2022 was a fantastic year for new music, with the added bonus that I got out to see more live shows again. Favourite thing ever was finally seeing Pavement, and at the newly-renovated Massey Hall, no less. An evening of pure joy, and for me a celebration of a band that I’d once avoided seeing live. Their reputation for sloppy live shows has been put firmly behind them, I’m glad to report. Other live highlights were discovering smaller bands who released music this year. Halifax/Toronto’s Heaven for Real and Fredericton’s Motherhood are well worth seeing live, should you get the chance. I also enjoyed Chicago’s Stuck and hope they have new music to share in 2023. And seeing Nation of Language live, with Ducks Ltd., was a big surprise. Despite their “cool” sounding music, the band were a delight to see live, and much more lively and chatty on stage than I expected. And of course, I was able to see my favourite band of the year, No Frills, play a record release party that generated a real feeling of excitement about all the great music being created in my hometown these days. I hope 2023 has even more great live experiences in store.

The longer I try to write about music, the harder it gets. Especially this idea of a year-end list and trying to rank things. I find that I just don’t get enough time with each release to really compare it fairly to other stuff. So, in the way of a lame disclaimer, my Top Ten is here again, with a longer list of (very loosely) ranked releases and some that I haven’t had enough time to sit with to rank but which are definitely worthy.

I hope my post will point you in some new directions, and bring you some of the joy that music brings to me. Here’s a YouTube playlist with a whole bunch of songs from this year’s batch.

Here we go…

1. *No FrillsDownward Dog – I discovered No Frills through another local band connection. I saw that one of my Toronto favourites Ducks Ltd. were playing a DJ set at a release party for No Frills‘ album Downward Dog. In preparation for the show, I bought it on Bandcamp and listened a few times. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was being pranked. The production made it feel like I was listening to a wonky cassette, with the pitch shifting all over the place. It even started off with a gimmicky “Welcome” track. But the songs wormed their way into my brain and wouldn’t let go. Frontman and songwriter Daniel Busheikin wants to come across as a smartass, but his emotional honesty can’t be covered up with clever lyrics or even studio trickery. Despite what seem to be transparent efforts to muddy up the sound, Downward Dog is so clearly a pop record, and an exemplary one at that. “Save the Bees” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Your Dog Anymore” should be on any Best Songs of 2022 playlist, and the rest of the songs are equally fine. Maddy Wilde (Born Ruffians, Rapport)’s sweet backing vocals are especially worthy of note. Oh, and drums are by Jonathan Pappo, who also mans the kit for Ducks Ltd. I wish this record had gotten more attention, but I wonder if the existence of a Canadian grocery store chain with the same name has simply made the band rather invisible. Hopefully it’s not more cleverness as self-deprecation, because this music deserves the largest audience possible.

2. Self ImprovementVisible Damage – Hailing from Long Beach, California, Self Improvement‘s sound is based around the slightly deranged vocals of Jett Witchalls, a transplanted Brit. These are catchy post-punk songs that get in and then get out. The entire 10 songs fly by in 24 minutes, including a twitchy and nearly unrecognisable cover of The Prodigy‘s “Firestarter.”

3. Green/BluePaper Thin – Led by Jim Blaha, Minneapolis quartet Green/Blue have been around since 2020, and Blaha himself is a veteran of several bands (The Blind Shake, Jim and the French Vanilla, Shadow in the Cracks). In 2022, they actually released two albums, though I haven’t had the chance to listen to Offering yet. Paper Thin grabbed me right away, though, with leadoff track “In Lies” hitting my sweet spot: a little bit shoegaze, a little bit jangly. Another brisk record (10 tracks in 24 minutes), with the longest track still under 3 minutes. The vocals are buried a bit, with the excellent guitar hooks up front. It’s moody but still hooky.

4. PhoenixAlpha Zulu – I was prepared to like the new Phoenix record, because I always like the new Phoenix record. Every release since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) has been an automatic buy for me, but more than any of their other recent releases, Alpha Zulu really stuck. Thomas Mars’ vocals are always soothing and pleasing to me, no matter what he’s singing about, but this time it was some of the more melancholic songs that hit hardest. “Winter Solstice” is particularly lovely.

5. Nilüfer TanyaPainless – Nilüfer Yanya appeared on my radar back in 2017 with her song “Baby Luv” and I have to admit that her 2019 debut album Miss Universe mostly passed me by. But on this year’s Painless, her completely unique combination of gorgeous vocals (sometimes sultry and sometimes ), innovative guitar playing, and vaguely electronic beats really hit for me. She obviously owns a few Radiohead records. The obvious hits for me are “stablise” and “the dealer,” but after watching this incredible From The Basement performance, I’m ready to listen to the whole thing front to back again and again.

6. OnyonOnyonOnyon are from the same fertile Leipzig punk scene that gave us the excellent Maraudeur, and I was glad to discover them on Bandcamp through the excellent Flennen label. Onyon play fast and catchy songs that wouldn’t appear out of place on a compilation with bands like the Au Pairs or Delta 5.

7. *MotherhoodWinded – I can’t recall how I discovered Motherhood, a veteran trio from tiny Fredericton, New Brunswick, but they put on one of the tightest live shows I saw in 2022, in front of a pitifully small crowd. I was visibly angry when I caught vocalist/guitarist Brydon Crain smoking outside after the gig. “You guys should be playing to crowds ten times bigger,” I raged. Brydon thanked me with a wistful smile that showed that perhaps he thought so, too. They’ve been releasing music since 2013, and relentlessly touring even the smallest towns in Canada and the Northeast US, and I sincerely hope that more people get to hear them. They describe themselves as an “avant-rock” band, and there’s also a bit of math rock, but with more warmth. Winded is simply a great and unique record, and I beg you to give it a listen. “Crawly I” is not a bad place to start.

8. *AlvvaysBlue Rev – I’ve been a huge fan of Alvvays since way back. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times and I’m delighted for their success. Each year since Antisocialites came out back in 2017, I’ve watched the skies for news of a new record, and so I was crazy excited to hear that they’d be releasing new music in 2022. So why isn’t this record higher in my list? I think it might be a few things. I’m not a huge fan of the production on the record, which sounds muddy to me, with Molly Rankin’s vocals buried beneath layers of sludge. I also think that their records tend to need time for me to digest them and begin to distinguish between the songs. This came out in October, which is fairly late in the year. Check with me again in May or June and I’m sure this will have climbed a few places. I’m just glad to have more music from one of Canada’s finest working bands.

9. HorsegirlVersions of Modern Performance – Definitely one of the buzziest bands on the list, Chicago’s Horsegirl drew attention as much for their youth (the members were just finishing high school while making this record) as for their music. Clearly showing their influences (one critic said, not in a negative way, that they combined the best bits of shoegaze, C86, jangle, grunge and alt-rock), the trio transcend the nostalgia with the force of their youthful enthusiasm. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

10. *TalliesPatina – Ah, the difficult tenth spot on a Top Ten list. I chose Tallies over Suede for several reasons. Suede made a fantastic late career record, but they’re seasoned professionals and their record got more than ample attention. I chose Tallies because, partially, they’re another Toronto band of whom I can be proud. Although they’re mining the same dream pop territory as many other bands, there is a real warmth to singer Sarah Cogan’s moody vocals. Yes, they’re reminiscent of bands like The Sundays and Tamaryn, but that’s a wonderful thing; at least I think so. They’re signed to Bella Union, a label run by former Cocteau Twins‘ bassist Simon Raymonde, so I’m not the only one.

No Frills - Downward Dog
Self Improvement - Visible DamageGreen/Blue - Paper Thin
Phoenix - Alpha ZuluNilüfer Yanya - PainlessOnyon - Onyon
Motherhood - WindedAlvvays - Blue RevHorsegirl - Versions of Modern PerformanceTallies - Patina

Once again, and with a tinge of regret, I really went hard trying to listen to a lot of new music in 2022, though of course nobody can listen to it all. Here are the rest of my ranked picks, although the rankings are very loose. I’ve also listed a couple of unranked releases, which I just haven’t had the time to listen to enough to form a strong opinion yet. They are ALL worthy of your attention. As in the Top Ten above, Canadian bands get an asterisk.

  1. SuedeAutofiction
  2. *Heaven for RealEnergy Bar
  3. DeliveryForever Giving Handshakes
  4. *Kiwi Jr.Chopper
  5. Ex-VöidBigger Than Before
  6. The BethsExpert in a Dying Field
  7. MetronomySmall World
  8. Beach HouseOnce Twice Melody
  9. Cate Le BonPompeii
  10. *Young GuvGUV III/GUV IV
  11. *The WeekndFM Dawn
  12. String MachineHallelujah Hell Yeah
  13. The SmileA Light for Attracting Attention
  14. Mo TroperMTV
  15. LassieBehold
  16. Just MustardHeart Under
  17. The SoundcarriersWilds
  18. Yard ActThe Overload
  19. The Reds, Pinks, and PurplesSummer at Land’s End
  20. LawnBigger Sprout
  21. LaunderHappening
  22. Vision 3DHypnose
  23. MJ LendermanBoat Songs
  24. Bartees StrangeFarm to Table
  25. BlushingPossessions
  26. SpoonLucifer on the Sofa
  27. SmirkMaterial
  28. CLASSEpoca de Los Vaqueros
  29. Mick TroubleIt’s Mick Trouble’s Second LP
  30. Johnny MarrFever Dreams, Pts. 1-4

Unranked for now

  • Spread JoyII
  • *The Weather StationHow Is It That I Should Look at the Stars?
  • Sharon Van EttenWe’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
  • WilcoCruel Country
  • Papé NzienguiKadi Yombo
  • Freak GenesHologram
  • The OrchidsDreaming Kind
  • Dot DashMadman in the Rain
  • The Boys with the Perpetual NervousnessThe Third Wave Of…
  • KT TunstallNUT
  • GlaasQualm
  • MitrailleMitraille
  • *Bliss FieldsSlowly, Forever
  • Crime of PassingCrime of Passing
  • KindsightSwedish Punk
  • Syndrome 81Prisons Imaginaires
  • Kpax!Kpax!
  • Pale Blue EyesSouvenir
  • Die VerliererDie Verlierer

EEPEES

  1. Public BodyFlavour of Labour (EP)
  2. Khruangbin and Leon BridgesTexas Moon (EP)
  3. *RapportFloating Through the Wonderwave (EP)
  4. *Rare SpamEP (EP)
  5. Arny Margretintertwined (EP)
  6. FugitiveManiac (EP)
  7. Trauma RayTransmissions (EP)
  8. Mo DottiGuided Imagery (EP)
  9. Private LivesPrivate Lives (EP)
  10. LifeguardCrowd Can Talk (EP)
  11. *Coins ParallèlesDémo (EP)
  12. RougeRouge (EP)
  13. Clear CapsuleGravity Licker
  14. His LordshipHis Lordship Play Rock ‘n’ Roll Volume 1

Best 2021 Albums Discovered in 2022

  • Snapped AnklesForest of Your Problems
  • Nation of LanguageA Way Forward
  • feeble little horseHayday

As always, music helped me through this year’s highs and lows, reinforcing my belief that music is as essential to my life as food, oxygen, and love.

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

Where The Wild Things Were, Part 1

Where The Wild Things Were: My Year as an American College DJ

So, recently I discovered about 10 cassettes of my college radio show from 1992-1993, when I attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for Teachers’ College. This was a hugely tumultuous and important year in my life, and so I’ve decided to make something out of it. I’ve digitised the tapes and am going to recreate the playlists and add some biographical stuff. Maybe this will only be fun for me, but I’m hoping some of my friends and other people might want to get a peek into the early ’90s, both musically and to get a glimpse into my life as a human being.

Part 1 was finished today and uploaded to Mixcloud. I’ll embed the show here, but here’s the intro stuff from the beginning (it runs about six minutes in the audio)


__________

Where The Wild Things Were: My Year as an American College DJ

Introduction

The years 1992 and 1993 were pivotal ones in my life. In the spring of 1992, I was 27 years old and about to graduate from York University with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. I was living with my friend Brent in the apartment I had occupied since I was 6 years old, but things weren’t going so well financially. My mum had died in 1987 and since then, my Dad hadn’t really given me any financial or emotional support. After working up the courage to write and share a begging letter with him, I was disheartened when he said he couldn’t help except to offer space in his one bedroom apartment for me to move in.

So after discarding many of my childhood mementoes and saying goodbye to Brent, who’d also been forced to move back in with his parents, I took up residence in a single bed squeezed behind the sofa in my Dad’s living room. The whole apartment smelled like smoke and fried food. It was here that I finished my essays and commuted to university for those last few months.

Over the summer, I applied to both M.A. programmes in English and to Teacher’s College programmes, some as far away as the Maritimes and the U.S. I remember taking the bus to visit the campus at Brock University in St. Catherines, and even visiting Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I loved the campus at Calvin, and the school appealed to me. It was a liberal arts college run by the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination with a heavily Dutch-American (and Dutch-Canadian) population.

Since I’d been to Bible College, it had a certain comfort, althouth it seemed a lot less strict. Students there were known to smoke and drink, although the curriculum was rooted in Christian principles. The academic standards were very high, and the professors were highly qualified and yet accessible. The student population was around 4,000. I came home from my visit really hoping to be able to go.

And then I got an acceptance letter. The only one from a teachers’ college, in fact. Calvin was super expensive (something like US$12,000), but of course the fees included on-campus housing and a meal plan. They were also offering me a significant package of student aid that covered around half of the cost. I just needed to come up with the rest.

One of the main appeals of Calvin was that I could spend a year away from Dad’s apartment, and away from a Toronto that seemed to have run out of good things for me. I didn’t really have a home anymore, and I needed to make some progress toward making a living on my own. I was also eager to get away from an unrequited crush that had been weighing me down for more than five years. I accepted the offer and prayed that somehow the money would come.

I moved into a campus apartment with four other guys, two junior and two seniors. I was 6 or 7 years older than all of them, but they welcomed me with open arms. We moved all the bunk beds into one room, and put a TV and small couch into the other room. We did lots of stuff together, and without those guys, my year would have been much harder.

During orientation week, there was a party, organized in part by Ben and Ryan, two of my housemates, who were residence advisors. They were looking for someone to DJ, so I volunteered. I figured it would be a good way to avoid having to talk to people while still participating. I loved it, and people complimented me on the music I chose. So I decided to ask about getting a weekly slot at WCAL, the campus radio station. It had been going since 1965, even though it was only closed-circuit, which meant you could only hear it on the Calvin campus.

I was a little surprised how easy it was to get on the air. I was given a two hour weekly slot and without too much in the way of orientation, I was let loose on the airwaves. The WCAL office was mostly full of CDs by this point, but there was still some vinyl and even some “cartridges,” which looked a bit like 8-track tapes and which mostly held short station ID bits. Whenever I did my show, there was no one else in the office, although I’d drop by occasionally to borrow CDs when there were people around. Despite that, I never really got to know any of the other DJs.

I started the show at the end of September, initially from 6-8 on Wednesday nights, and it took me a few weeks to come up with the idea of calling it “Where The Wild Things Are.” I’d always loved Maurice Sendak’s book, and the artwork seemed like it would look great on a poster. So I checked the book out of the library, and lo and behold, it came with a 45rpm record that had someone reading the story aloud. I decided to use the first couple of minutes as my intro, right up until the part where the reader says, “And now, cried Max, let the wild rumpus start!” Each week I’d check the book out for a day and then return it the next day. I hadn’t figured out how to record my intro onto a cartridge, which would have saved a lot of hassle.

By December, when this first tape was recorded, I was pretty comfortable on air even as school and my personal life were overwhelming me. I had just returned from a long weekend at home in Toronto, where I’d spent time with my crush. The one I was trying to get over by going away for a year. To make things worse, I’d fallen for a neighbour in my campus apartment complex with the same name. All four of my housemates had girlfriends, and were putting pressure on me to ask out this neighbour. I had passed some state competency exams required for my teaching certificate, but hadn’t yet received my placement for student teaching, so that was making me anxious. I also had no plans for Christmas, since my Dad always spent it with some friends and didn’t invite me along.

So that’s where I was at in December 1992. This first tape uncharacteristically has two shows on it, the first 45 minutes of each of December 2nd and December 9th. I hope you enjoy listening.

Best Music of 2021

UPDATE: I’ve posted TWO DJ sets where I played 81 songs from my best of 2021, some of which are not mentioned in the post below. Check them out!

2021 was quite a year for music, and in general. The sun came out a bit with COVID vaccines but here we are again on the brink of another lockdown. The conditions were perhaps perfect for an outburst of creativity and I found it very hard to rank stuff this year. So my Top Ten is here again, but with a longer list of (loosely) ranked releases and some that I haven’t had enough time to sit with to rank but which are definitely worthy.

Big love to Feel It Records, out of Richmond, Virginia, which put out last year’s top record (Sweeping PromisesHunger For A Way Out), and which did the same this year, as well as adding a bunch of new bands to my list for very reasonable prices on Bandcamp.

I hope my post will point you in some new directions, and bring you some of the joy that music brings to me. Hopefully next year we can return (again!) to seeing music in a live setting. Here’s a YouTube playlist with a whole bunch of songs from this year’s batch.

I found my top three picks switching places a lot, and as usual, some late entries tried (and in some cases, succeeded) to crash the top ten. Here we go…

SmirkLP & EPSmirk is the project of Nick Vicario, who has been in a million punk bands, including The Diskords, Autistic Youth and Public Eye. Smirk released an LP (called LP) and an EP (called EP) in 2021 totalling 19 songs and 45 minutes of music. I’m giving them top spot based on both records, in which every single song does something amazing. It’s post-punk and not completely original, but there is definitely something hooky and quirky and fun about this music. The sense of humour is what sets it apart from a lot of retro-sounding bands these days. Perhaps it’s not “serious” enough for some, but this year, I found myself returning to songs like “Staring at Screens” and “So Original” again and again. Devo is definitely an influence. Check out this live performance video:

PigeonDeny All Knowledge of ComplicityPigeon is a band from Berlin that shares some members with Liiek, another recent favourite. This is definitely a bit more serious than Smirk, with righteous anger to spare. Great riffs anchor songs like “Bad Visions” and the vocals are suitably intense. With song titles like “Relentless,” “Narrow-Mindedness,” and “Refuse to Obey,” it’s clear how the members of Pigeon are feeling these days. I should mention that Liiek also put out a new record in December, and first listens are promising, but it’s just too soon to know if it will surpass the gut punch of Pigeon. (Vocalist Denes Bieberich is particularly prolific, also releasing music in 2021 under the names Dee Bee Rich and Bredouille).

DummyMandatory Enjoyment – For some reason I thought Dummy was a straight up punk band, so I guess I’m the dummy here. When I found out they were more like the children of Broadcast, I became a lot more excited. It’s also clear that Dummy have spent a lot of time with 70s Krautrock, an emerging trend among modern bands that pleases me. This is spacey, timeless music with lots of layers, but it also bounces along like good pop music. I’m pretty surprised this is a debut album, to be honest.

QuiversGolden Doubt – A pretty late entry, since I only discovered this band and record in December, but from the first notes, I found this settling nicely into my favourites. Quivers were formed in Hobart, Tasmania, and are now based in Melbourne. Last year, they released a full album cover of R.E.M.‘s Out of Time, and their jangly influences also include bands like The Go-Betweens. It’s a rare album that I can put on and not be tempted to skip any tracks. Clever lyrics and sing-a-long choruses add to its charm.

*The Weather StationIgnorance – I bought this in November, listened to it once, and then on a whim, bought tickets to see this hometown (Toronto) band, led by Tamara Lindeman, at the Danforth Music Hall near where I live. Seeing the songs performed live really blew this open for me. Lindeman’s voice is pure but not always warm or sweet. She reminds me of Laurie Anderson crossed with Joni Mitchell. In any case, it was a fantastic show, the first I’d been to in nearly two years, and it really made this album special for me.

Leon BridgesGold-Diggers Sound – I’ve enjoyed following Leon Bridges‘ career path, from a very convincing retro-R&B singer to something more original. In particular, the song “Why Don’t You Touch Me?” reduces me to tears nearly every time I hear it. There’s something so vulnerable about a man singing about his partner’s loss of desire for him. Bridges has a honey-soaked voice, but he’s also exploring interesting lyrical territory. His songs are about seduction and falling in love, but also about the aftermath. I’ve also always enjoyed the videos he’s created for his songs. Check out the two(!) videos for “Why Don’t You Touch Me?” as well as the one for “Motorbike.” They’re excellent.

*MustafaWhen Smoke Rises – Born and raised in Toronto, Mustafa Ahmed began his performing career as a poet, and even went by the name “Mustafa the Poet” for a while. He was affiliated with the hiphop collective Halal Gang, and wrote a song for The Weeknd, too. But his debut recording as himself is a grief soaked lament for lost friends, including his childhood friend Smoke Dawg, who was shot and killed in 2018. Unlike his friends in Halal Gang, Mustafa’s influences are more folky, and his voice is unique and hushed. The whole record is filled with love songs for his friends, which is an unusual and beautiful thing.

Beige BanquetBeta & S/T – Another LP/EP combo entry. Beige Banquet is the brainchild of London guitarist/vocalist Tom Brierley, and it shares the quirky humour of Smirk and a few other bands I enjoyed this year. It can be a bit samey after a while, but I do like the robotic percussion a lot.

The Reds, Pinks, and PurplesUncommon Weather – San Francisco’s Glenn Donaldson is a veteran of many bands, but beginning with 2019’s release Anxiety Art, his latest project as The Reds, Pinks and Purples has struck gold with its vaguely Anglophilic songs filled with jangly guitars. He’s seemingly hit a rich vein, too, with numerous single releases in 2020 and 2021, and another album on the way early in 2022.

*Ducks Ltd.Modern Fiction – Another band that’s mining the jangle sound is Toronto’s own Ducks Ltd., a duo made up of Tom McGreevy and Australian ex-pat Evan Lewis. This is unfussy guitar-based music that sounds effortless, but which has lots of small touches that make the songs so memorable. These guys have me excited that I’ll (hopefully very soon!) have another local favourite that I can see live more than once every few years.

Smirk - LP & EP
Pigeon - Deny All Knowledge of ComplicityDummy - Mandatory Enjoyment
Quivers - Golden DoubtThe Weather Station - IgnoranceLeon Bridges - Gold-Diggers Sound
Mustafa - When Smoke RisesBeige Banquet - Beta & S/TThe Reds, Pinks & Purples - Uncommon WeatherDucks Ltd. - Modern Fiction

I really went hard trying to listen to a lot of new music in 2021, though of course nobody can listen to it all. Here are the rest of my ranked picks, although the rankings are very loose. I’ve also listed a couple of unranked releases, which I just haven’t had the time to listen to enough to form a strong opinion yet. They are ALL worthy of your attention. As in the Top Ten above, Canadian bands get an asterisk.

  1. Spread JoySpread Joy
  2. TurnstileGlow On
  3. MassageStill Life
  4. Kevin NicholsDisappointer
  5. TelethonSwim Out Past The Breakers
  6. MaraudeurPuissance 4
  7. DesacatylLicense to Dive
  8. SpllitSides
  9. Remember SportsLike A Stone
  10. Mo TroperDilettante
  11. The Boys With The Perpetual NervousnessSongs from Another Life
  12. Adult BooksGrecian Urn
  13. Teenage FanclubEndless Arcade
  14. *Daniel RomanoKissing The Foe
  15. Julien BakerLittle Oblivions
  16. Kaidi TathamAn Insight To All Minds
  17. RikiGold
  18. Chime SchoolChime School
  19. The Altered HoursConvertible
  20. The Telephone NumbersThe Ballad of Doug
  21. TribulationWhere the Gloom Becomes Sound
  22. SaultNINE
  23. Mdou MoctarAfrique Victime
  24. Black MarbleFast Idol
  25. LiiekDeep Pore
  26. NannyCan’t Remember, Can’t Forget
  27. LAPÊCHEBlood in the Water
  28. Weakened FriendsQuitter
  29. ComfyVolume For
  30. The UmbrellasThe Umbrellas
  31. International Badboys Inc.enjoy your stay,
  32. The Goon SaxMirror II
  33. Waste ManOne Day It’ll All Be You
  34. Silicone PrairieMy Life on the Silicone Prairie
  35. KlapperKlapper
  36. Home Is Wherei became birds
  37. KrausView No Country
  38. Why Bother?A Year of Mutations
  39. Songs for SnakesForced Pleasantries
  40. Flyying ColoursFantasy Country
  41. At the GatesThe Nightmare of Being

Unranked for now

  • ElbowFlying Dream 1
  • Pickled DarlingCosmonaut

EEPEES

  1. Unschooling – Random Acts of Total Control (EP)
  2. SmirkEP (EP)
  3. Beige BanquetBeige Banquet (EP)
  4. Yard ActDark Days (EP)
  5. SHYNESSInitial Ideas (EP)
  6. Camp TrashDowntiming (EP)
  7. MassageLane Lines (EP)
  8. *The Great OctopusDeadly Eyes (EP)
  9. *GemstonesNevermind (EP)
  10. *GemstonesParanoid Amp (EP)
  11. Real NumbersBrighter Then (EP)
  12. Dee Bee Rich4 (EP)

Best 2020 Albums Discovered in 2021

  • Deep Sea DiverImpossible Weight
  • bdrmmBedroom
  • *Sarah HarmerAre You Gone

Even more than usual, music helped me through this year’s highs and lows, reinforcing my belief that music is as essential to my life as food, oxygen, and love.

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

My 2021 Project: Making My Music Sound Better

It actually didn’t start out as a project at all. It started with some new Apple products. In 2021, I replaced my iPhone (iPhone SE for old iPhone 6), MacBook Air, and iMac. It was a big hit, but all of them had lasted me 6-7 years. I was mostly very happy with the upgrades except for one thing: iTunes. Now renamed rather uselessly as Music, the software continued to annoy with its bloat, and its blatant efforts to force me to subscribe to the confusingly named Apple Music service. I have always preferred to own rather than rent my music, but Apple is making it increasingly difficult. The final straw came when, in its zeal to “organise” my music folder, it simply deleted hundreds of files. I had been looking for a new way to organise and play my music for years, but this made it urgent.

Roon Interface

Roon

Luckily, it didn’t take me very long to find Roon. It’s a subscription based piece of software but it doesn’t mess with my files. It also has a very nice interface, plays high-quality formats like FLAC, and does some other under-the-hood things to make my music sound better. Now I simply point Roon at an external SSD drive (or drives, since I am adding more music all the time), and it finds it, displays the artwork and other information (using Allmusic.com, I think), and I’m good to go. Roon is currently US$13/month or US$10/month if billed annually. Use my referral link and get 30 days free!

Bandcamp Interface

Bandcamp

I’ve been a fan of Bandcamp for a while now, but it’s worth pointing out that it lets you download your purchases in a huge number of formats, including lossless ones like FLAC, WAV, and AIFF). Not to mention that Bandcamp also pays artists a much larger portion of the purchase price than the iTunes Store does. Don’t even get me started on what the streaming services pay artists. It’s like, nothing. If you have the storage space, I recommend downloading one of the lossless file formats, which will definitely sound better with the right equipment.

Zen DAC

ifi Zen DAC

I’ve owned a pair of Grado SR60 headphones for about 10 years, and while they’re great, I began reading more and watching some YouTube channels (Darko Audio and Cheap Audio Man are great, for starters) that made me think I should invest in a headphone amp/DAC (digital analog converter) to give things more oomph. I read some reviews and decided on the ifi Zen DAC. This stylish little unit sits on my desk and adds a lot of depth as well as more power. It’s a very well-reviewed product and it’s built like a tank. I paid around $200 for mine.

Hidizs S9 Pro DAC/Amp

Hidizs S9 Pro Balanced DAC and Amp

For music on the go, which in my case means either my iPhone SE or the Fiio M7 portable music player (which accepts Micro SD cards, so I can store ridiculous amounts of music on it, including lossless FLAC files), it also helps to have a headphone amp/DAC. There are a variety of “dongle DACs” that are available and some can be quite expensive. I did some research and decided on the Hidizs S9 Pro, which I picked up for US$125. It just arrived today, but so far is sounding great!

Moondrop Aria IEM

Moondrop Aria IEMs

IEMs (in-ear monitors) seem to be a fancier version of wired earbuds, and I’ve been blown away by the sound from these Moondrop Arias, which are available for around US$80. Wired headphones and earbuds are almost always going to sound better than Bluetooth ones, at least for now, and these have been getting rave reviews. For the price, they are really outstanding.

Flacbox Interface

Flacbox

Since I’m trying to eliminate Apple’s music playing/syncing software from my life, I am so happy to have found Flacbox, an incredible iOS app that allows me to copy FLAC files (via wifi) to my phone and play them. It’s really well-designed and has a free ad-supported edition as well as a paid edition that’s around $10-15.

As you can see, I play all my music through headphones/earbuds for now. Next year, I’m hoping to find a suitable room in the house for music and will look into buying some decent speakers and maybe an amplifier. For now, though, these simple upgrades have made me so much happier with the music I’m listening to. The only other thing I can recommend for now is buying one or more external SSD drives (I like the Samsung T7) to store your music on. They can be moved around from laptop to desktop with ease and the data transfer speeds are impressive.

Best Music of 2020

UPDATE: I’ve posted a DJ set where I played 39 songs from my best of 2020, some of which are not mentioned in the post below. Check it out!

Well, what a year. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad to see the back of 2020. During the long months of the pandemic, feeling isolated both physically and socially from friends and family, I turned to music even more than usual. Strangely, there were long periods when I didn’t (couldn’t?) listen to music, maybe because I missed hearing and seeing it live so much, but sure enough, as December came around, I found myself seeking out more stuff that was released this year and, perhaps surprisingly, there was a lot! Although I’m sure some musicians found themselves drained of inspiration, others took up the mantle and worked prodigiously. Welland, Ontario’s own Daniel Romano, with whom I’d been unfamiliar until this year, released TEN things this year, from a cover album of Bob Dylan’s Infidels to a live album to several new albums of material with his usual band, to collaborations with others. I’ve only listened to about half of this material, and so far it’s all excellent. Despite that, he doesn’t even make an appearance on my Top Ten. What can I say? It was a very strong year. (But you should immediately go and buy “Visions of the Higher Dream”, for a start.)

I hope my post will point you in some new directions, and bring you some of the joy that music brings to me. Hopefully next year we can return to seeing music in a live setting.

I was surprised that my top pick pushed its way to the top so late in the year. I only discovered Boston duo Sweeping Promises in December, and yet their debut record played on repeat in my earbuds from the first time I listened to it. 10 songs in just 28 minutes tells you that these are punchy postpunk earworms, with catchy riffs that remind me of everyone from Devo to UK singles bands like The Flatmates and The Shop Assistants.

I have to be honest. For much of the year, New Zealand’s delightful The Beths were occupying top spot. Their second album, Jump Rope Gazers, came out in July, and I discovered it and them at the same time, also getting to enjoy 2018’s Future Me Hates Me at the same time. In a year where Toronto’s Alvvays didn’t put out a record, The Beths filled that place easily. (P.S. I hope I’ve got something from Alvvays to talk about in 2021!).

I was surprised to see a new record from The Strokes and even more surprised how much I loved it. It came out way back in April and its title The New Abnormal seemed eerily prescient. It’s perfect for these strange times, and the record was very strong, considering it’s the first new material from the band in seven years.

I’d been hearing about Jason Isbell for a few years, and I knew that he played on the excellent record by The Highwomen last year; no surprise, since he’s married to Amanda Shires, one of the group’s members. Reunions is his fourth record with his band the 400 Unit. Prior to that he was a member of Drive-By Truckers. Isbell is an excellent songwriter who also possesses a really pleasant voice. I don’t mean that in a “faint praise” way. He really is lovely to listen to, and this record has some very strong and memorable songs, which touch on issues of political and personal responsibility. The video for his song “Only Children” is quite beautiful, too.

Liiek are a postpunk band from Berlin whom I first stumbled across on a free Bandcamp sampler. I’m glad I tracked them down, because every song on their self-titled debut release is great. So is their 7″ single. I believe they’re available for whatever you want to pay. I look forward to hearing more from them.

I had anticipated a new record from Phoebe Bridgers for quite a while, and Punisher did not disappoint. When I first saw her live, opening for Julien Baker in 2017, I knew that she was bound to break out sooner or later, and this year, she’s been everywhere, even as we’ve all been mostly at home. She claims to be an introvert, and this year, introverts have maybe been able to cope better than most. Bridgers’ music has certainly helped.

I’m not sure how I found Crack Cloud, but I’m sure glad I did. A Vancouver-based collective that apparently formed to help its members maintain their sobriety, the project has an infectious energy that reminds me of large-band version of Talking Heads. I’m looking forward to digging into their earlier material.

Back in late 2016, I was living in Dublin for a film festival contract job, and one of my first outings was to see one of my favourite bands, Teenage Fanclub. Opening the show was a singer-songwriter from Belfast called Malojian (real name Stevie Scullion). Fast forward a few years and he’s put out an amazing record called HUMM, collaborating closely (over the Internet, of course) with Jason Lytle (formerly of Grandaddy). The result is a perfect tonic for this miserable year, including the stunning album closer “The Singularity” which asks the listener “Is there anyone here who can heal the trembling of my heart?”

Sault came out of nowhere this year (well, okay, they came out of the UK) with not one but two strong albums of empowering r&b/hiphop/funk promoting black pride. They’re a semi-anonymous outfit who first emerged in 2019 with two albums entitled 5 and 7. This year’s are Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is). Both are worthwhile, though I’ve spent more time with Black Is. Music this timely is refreshing, especially when it spans so many styles so effortlessly. Despite heavy themes, it will lift you up.

Close Lobsters last released a record in 1988, so it was a complete surprise for me to encounter new material from them in 2020. Released at the end of February, the horribly-titled Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera In the Forest Of Symbols actually picks up right where the band left off, making intelligent and hook-filled music (start with “All Compasses Go Wild”) that should by all rights gain them some new fans. But that title. And don’t even get me started on the terrible album artwork.

I have to end this post by telling you how much I’ve grown to love Bandcamp. Not only do they give more back to the artist than nearly any other platform, I also love the simplicity of the design, and the fact that artists have control over pricing, as well as what songs are available to preview. I’ve found many of my favourites just from bouncing around on Bandcamp. They also have been doing monthly Bandcamp Fridays where they give up their own cut of the fees and the artists are free to keep that portion themselves or to donate to worthy causes. It’s an excellent initiative, and I feel good spending my money there.

Even more than usual, music helped me through this year’s highs and lows, reinforcing my belief that music is as essential to my life as food, oxygen, and love.

Sweeping Promises - Hunger for a Way OutThe Beths - Jump Rope GazersThe Strokes - The New AbnormalJason Isbell and the 400 Unit - ReunionsLiiek - LiiekPhoebe Bridgers - PunisherCrack Cloud - Pain OlympicsMalojian - HUMMSault - Untitled (Black Is)Close Lobsters - Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols

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

  1. Sweeping Promises – Hunger for a Way Out
  2. The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
  3. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
  4. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
  5. Liiek – Liiek
  6. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
  7. Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics
  8. Malojian – HUMM
  9. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
  10. Close Lobsters – Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

Some great EPs:

And a fantastic “re-issue” in that the music was made before 2020, although this compilation is brand new:

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?