It had completely escaped my notice until just a few weeks ago — when the deluge of lists and retrospectives that filled my news and social media feeds became inescapable — that this year was the end of the decade. Maybe one of the reasons it didn’t register was that the oughts were, for me, such a period of change that encapsulating it in a tidy ten-year package is nigh impossible. Tried to recover from losing my dad (still am), became an uncle (twice), met a girl, shut down my blog, moved house, got married, changed jobs… what kind of adjective sums that up? At least I know what word will cover the ’20s — “parenthood”. Yeah, that’s not just stock photography up there. So for one last time, let’s pretend that where I went, what I saw, and what I listened to were the most noteworthy aspects of my year.
2019’s big trip was to Morocco, mainly in Marrakech but with a couple stops in Casablanca and Essaouira. Beautiful and unique to my experiences and forever memorable, but if I never have to haggle for a taxi or eat a tagine again it’ll be too soon. Around that were a short trip to NYC in the Spring to visit friends and to the Bay Area in the Fall to visit family. We don’t plan to curtail the travel when we’re a party of three, but it will be different, certainly.
Concert-going took an uptick this year, mainly because it’s going to have to bottom out for a good while. Bucket-list events would certainly include Chromatics, since I figured there’d need to be an album to promote but Chromatics are gonna do what they’re gonna do. Bryan Ferry was as close as I was going to ever get to seeing Roxy Music and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine XXI was pretty special even if it meant missing seeing Ride again. I was also able to make up for skipping ChameleonsVox’s last visit a couple years ago because I was snobby about it not being the proper Chameleons lineup (which I made sure to tell everyone who’d listen I’d seen back in 2001). But yeah, 26 shows in total including ten in 25 days (Rocktober!) was my most in a half-decade and was a nice reminder of how I used to live and affirmation that while I still enjoy live music, I don’t miss that pace.
And not musical but definitely for the ages was the Raptors’ playoff run, which was amazing to experience. Being smack downtown the night they clinched it made up for being stuck in Oakville for those World Series championships back in ’92 and ’93.
If we’re talking about what I listened to the most this year, I refer you to my Spotify Wrapped which is pretty firmly rooted in 1985, even if every one of my top tracks were by a 23-year old in 2019. Indeed, this was the year my listening transitioned from shoegaze through dreampop into post-punk; I think Howard Devoto was able to buy a large coffee from the streaming royalties I generated. And despite still never having seen them in person, learned I can listen to live Cure albums ad nauseam.
If you graphed the number of albums from this year I listened to more than, say, five times, you’d probably basically have my list below. And just like last year, right up until late Summer, my whole list was all female and female-fronted acts; only a few veteran Y-chromosomes were able to get in there. Anywhere, here we are. Enjoy, because next year’s list might just be “Baby Shark”.
The emotional weight of 2016’s Skeleton Tree felt like it was the artistic vessel for Cave’s dealing with the death of his son Arthur but in fact it was mostly written before that tragedy. Instead, Ghosteen channels his grief into a monumental masterpiece that’s as raw as it is lush, not shying away from the darkest corners but ultimately transcendent.
I’ve been holding a spot in my year-end list for Chromatics’ long-promised Dear Tommy for five years now and while I’m technically still waiting, it’s nice to finally be able to put A Chromatics record in the list. Never one to do what’s expected, amidst labouring over the re-recording of that record Johnny Jewel found the time to write, record, and release a completely new record. It’s not as richly crafted a document as what we’ve heard from its predecessor? Successor? would imply, but considering that no one else sounds like Chromatics, getting any new material is a gift and worthy of celebrating. Now if they could only get those records pressed.
Posthumous releases are dicey affairs — even the best-intentioned will eternally have a question mark hovering over every creative decision contained therein. And while Cohen’s final release doesn’t get a complete pass, the fact that he recorded these songs with the intent that they be released as they have been — the production choices by son Adam are fitting and respectful — allows them to be properly appreciated as the final parting words of a master. It had been expected that 2016’s You Want It Darker would be his final words, so that Thanks exists and is as exquisite as it is is a true gift from beyond.
I saw some people being disappointed in Harriette Pilbeam’s full-length debut because it checked some of the super-pop tendencies that made last year’s EP such a delight, but I think it was a canny move. That she was able to compile ten tracks that are simultaneously fresh and throwback without being straight-up bangers, as the kids say (I hope they still say) — okay “Obsessed” bangs because it unashamedly cops New Order’s “Regret” — is no mean feat.
I didn’t expect to love The Japanese House as much as I have come to, figuring Amber Bain’s autotuned sad girl pop was for a different demographic, but as it turns out shimmering synthy dreampop is for everyone. Or at least for me. And under the layers of production — which I approve of, don’t get me wrong — her cracked, plaintive vocals still go straight for the heart.
No one properly appreciates Ladytron, and even though I anxiously awaited their self-titled, self-released effort — their first album in eight years — I didn’t fully give it its due until they toured it through town this Fall. It’s not something you usually say about a synth-first band but hearing the new material live, powered by a monster drummer, really made me go revisit the record and fully appreciate how good it is, top to bottom. Yeah, Ladytron will always sound like Ladytron but that is A GOOD THING.
Less immediate and more oblique than their debut Heba, the sophomore effort from the Danish dreampop outfit still beguiles thanks largely to Nanna Schannong’s emotive, elastic vocals and Steffen Lundtoft’s nimble, complex rhythms. An immersive, enveloping record that repays the listener’s investment many times over.
I feel like the second reunion album is actually harder than the first, since the strange combination of goodwill and low expectations sets a low bar for the first one. Happily, 2017’s Weather Diaries was more than good enough to erase the memories of Tarantula and affirm there was still plenty of creative chemistry between the four. Safe Place delivers more of the same, mindful of their legacy as genre forbears but refusing to be stylistically pigeonholed.
Despite how it might seem, I do like pop without the ‘dream-’ adjective attached. And while it took me a little bit to get on board — just long enough to miss her local club show debut last April, of course — I’ve had Sigrid’s debut on heavy, heavy rotation all year, sometimes only stopping because I feel like I should listen to something else for a change. I dunno, it’s just so damn catchy. No apologies.
I’m sure some of Sharon Van Etten’s fanbase were dismayed that her return to action after five years was accompanied by synths and electric guitars but me — who has been on board since her earliest days and whose SVE bonafides are intact — absolutely loved it. But to lean into production without giving up a bit of lyrical edge or vocal emotiveness. It was one of the first major albums released this year but over twelve months has remained one of the very best. Welcome back, Sharon.