For a variety of practical reasons I’ve been posting my year-end lists after the year in question actually ends, but this time it’s just to make sure that the world didn’t actually end before the clock ran out on 2020. But if you’re reading this, then we “made it”. So to speak. Hooray.
Unlike past years, there’s not a whole lot of personal stuff to recap. Obviously, there were no shows — I was set to go to my first of the year in mid-March, but the world shut down a few days prior so instead, I am in my longest live music-less drought since before I started going to see bands well over a quarter-century ago. That’s weird. Similarly, there’s been no travel to speak of. A long weekend cottage in exotic Thorold, Ontario on the Niagara Peninsula was as far afield as we got, and even so it still felt like an adventure. Like everyone, it’s been a year of staying home and keeping one’s head down.
But I guess the one big thing is the little fellow pictured boogieing away in my turntable dust cover at barely a couple weeks old. My son Elliott arrived at the start of February and I can say that if there’s one thing that makes a pandemic bearable, it’s a lovely little baby. Working from home since he was barely a month old, I’ve hardly missed a day of him growing into a wonderful almost-toddler with a big personality. So thank you, COVID, for that. Nothing else, though.
And speaking of COVID — because we can’t not, I suppose — I’ve been fortunate to not have been directly affected (or more accurately, infected) or know anyone firsthand who has. But I did lose an aunt and my brother’s mother-in-law last year to cancer and COVID restrictions made their passings far sadder and lonelier than anyone’s should have to be.
Musically, my immersion into all the nooks and crannies of post-punk I missed heretofore continued. The catalogues of artists I had only a casual acquaintance with before — Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Bauhaus, The Sound, Sad Lovers & Giants — became university-depth courses in flanged guitar and snarled vocals. And oh yeah, I listened to a shit-ton of Rush because the tragic passing Neil Peart reminded me you can take the boy out of Scarborough but you can’t take Scarborough out of the boy.
But point being, I spent a lot of time in the past — those good old days when you could go to record stores and concerts — and my intake of new new music hasn’t been what it was. Case in point, by the time it came to compile this list, I had a grand total of two locked in albums. That is not a lot. There was a lot of stuff I listened to and liked, but usually those making the cut declare themselves a little louder. I dunno. Got there in the end, and this is they.
I may have planted my musical tastes flag firmly in the ’80s, but I also came of age in the ’90s so grunge is as much in my blood as anything, like it or not. And whether it’s because of the haze of memory or the fact that Beatrice Laus does a great job of distilling the sounds and styles of that era into super-catchy, sugary nuggets, I kind of like her take on it better than a lot of the originators.
These Kiwi power-poppers who may be one of the few artists this year who actually got to play their new album live. Their second record slows down a bit from their frenetic debut but they find more space in the slower tempos to craft gorgeous melodies and emotional sentiment. And don’t worry, they still rock a-plenty.
That their second album is heralded as a big step forward from their debut makes me feel better about sleeping on this band. I think I did listen to “Love In The 4th Dimension” a couple times but it didn’t make that big an impression, whereas “Walking” is a top-notch balance of lyrics, melodies, and guitarwork. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does roll really well.
I can’t explain why I didn’t fall immediately in love with her debut “Stranger In The Alps”, but her follow-up beguiled me from the first notes of lead single “Kyoto” and it has remained my hands-down favourite record of the year. For someone who generally has little patience for folky or singer-songwriter-y stuff these days, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.
I’m a guitar nut, yes, but have never really been a technique nut (ask anyone who’s heard me play), but hearing Covet’s Yvette Young shred makes me think maybe I should have practiced a little more in the last, oh, 25 years. She can play like a mofo, sure, but “Technicolor” — and the preceding EP “effloresce”, which was my introduction to the band — wrap blinding technique in cool tones and (almost) pop arrangements. Maybe cliche to say, but Asians are good at math (rock).
Had Doves released their fifth album at a normal sort of interval after 2009’s “Kingdom Of Rust”, I probably would have just shrugged at ‘another Doves record’. But coming over a decade later and but not straying far from the emotive, grandiose Brit-rock of their earlier efforts, it was a very welcome and comforting bit of familiarity in a strange and disorienting new world.
Greg Dulli is a man who likes being in bands, or at least having band names, so that he opted to release this record under his own name is notable. And while Dulli’s voice and pen, steeped in grit and grime, are unmistakable no matter how it’s branded, his solo debut paints with a different enough palette to stand apart from the Whigs, Singers, or Twins.
A covers record that wouldn’t have existed if not for the pandemic making the cut? Why not? Hackman’s “Any Human Friend” barely missed making my list last year, and this collection might have been recorded entirely by her at home, but it sounds fully and properly produced and boasts a track listing that could have come from hitting ‘shuffle’ on my record collection. If that were a thing that were possible.
Part of my aforementioned post-punk education was really getting into the back catalog of Richard Butler and company, but it’s still their first effort in some 30 years that has really wowed me. People talk about how young artists have all the energy and venom to make really immediate and powerful work, but there’s a lot to be said for veterans who are able to take the weight and weariness of a life lived and make that rock. I kick myself for all the times the Furs have come through town since their reunion and I’ve not bothered because I didn’t want to be the guy there who only knows the hits. Next time, for sure.
Another beneficiary of my post-punk renaissance. I had the first couple Wire records for years because, well, I was supposed to but I only really got into appreciating them in the last little while. And while “Mind Hive” isn’t a canonical classic like those early records, it’s still a solid record from a band that refuses to stand still, and when you add in the follow-up companion “10:20” compilation, the fact that I picked up a LOT of their back catalog over the last 12 months, and re-discovered how much I liked guitarist Matthew Simms’ It Hugs Back project, they have to be on this list just for volume. And they were the band I was supposed to see days after the pandemic swept through Toronto. Alas.