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?

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?

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?