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?

Best Music of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

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

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

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

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

Best Music of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

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

And some 2017 releases I discovered in 2018:

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

Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in the AlpsRyan Adams - Prisoner

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

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

Best Music of 2015

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 DensEscape 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.

Beach House - Depression Cherry
Girls Names - Arms Around a VisionLower Dens - Escape from Evil
Tribulation - The Children of the NightGrimes - Art AngelsTamaryn - Cranekiss
Droid - Disconnected (EP)The Dears - Times Infinity Volume OneImmortal Bird - Empress/AbscessFuzz - II

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

  1. Beach House – Depression Cherry
  2. Girls Names – Arms Around a Vision
  3. Lower Dens – Escape from Evil
  4. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
  5. Grimes – Art Angels
  6. Tamaryn – Crane Kiss
  7. Droid – Disconnected (EP)
  8. The Dears – Times Infinity Volume One
  9. Immortal Bird – Empress/Abscess
  10. Fuzz – II

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

  • Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
  • High On Fire – Luminiferous
  • Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
  • Black Fast – Terms of Surrender
  • Battlecross – Rise to Power
  • Destroyer – Poison Season
  • Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
  • Max Richter – from Sleep
  • La Luz – Weirdo Shrine
  • Life in Film – Here It Comes

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 2015’s music (and there’s no way to actually do that), I’d recommend downloading this massive 183-song annual collection from Fluxblog.

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.