I’ve been late out of the blocks than most year-end lists since I stopped blogging for many reasons, but I don’t think that the state of the world had ever changed quite so much in the interim.
In about a fortnight, we went from a kind of normal, with things like indoor dining, full-capacity concerts, movies, and sporting events no longer white-knuckle affairs, to living in the most paranoid plague state scenarios from the earliest days of the pandemic. And so I’m composing this year-in-review from a decidedly bleaker perspective than most.
Not that I needed Omicron to put me there. Despite things objectively getting better than 2020 with the vaccines that seemed a pipe dream last year giving us a reprieve from lockdown life, I’ll remember 2021 as a year of grief and loss, and ironically COVID was not to blame.
In March, my stalwart, fuzzy companion Simon passed away unexpectedly at 13 of an unknown congenital issue. I try to take solace in knowing it didn’t trouble him until the end; he had a good run but it should have been longer. And while I am looking to adopt a new cat because a house is not a home without the pitter-patter of tiny claws and I need co-workers to go with my permanent work-from-home arrangement, but there’s no replacing him.
And in June, our dear friend Gina succumbed to the cancer she’d been fighting for the past three years. It’s cliche to say, but she was too young and deserved a longer, better life than she got. I’m not a religious person by any measure, but I would like to think she and Simon are hanging out in the next life the way they did in this one.
So, yeah. That was the shadow that hung over everything, in addition to the omni-present threat of COVID. And while obviously not on the scale of life and death, a random freak flood from a cracked toilet resulted in three floors of hardwood in our house needing to be replaced. Thankfully, insurance covered everything, but it was still a massive pain in the ass and required us to relocate to an AirBnB for three weeks while the work was done, fully six months after the incident. The extra stress of it all was not something we needed.
But not all was bad. My son continues to grow into a wonderful, if very willful and opinionated, little guy. The year began with a month of parental leave to just hang out with him, which was terrific, and he has been thriving in daycare since the Fall; well worth the low-level cold he’s had since the first week of school. He makes everything better and doesn’t seem to find the pandemic world strange at all.
International travel remained a non-starter — more due the toddler than virus, though it didn’t help — but a Summer road trip to Montreal scratched itch for getting out of town. I’d been a number of times before, but never as a straight up tourist so even with limited activity options, it was a very enjoyable time.
On the music front, the inevitable happened and I started blogging again, albeit with a much more limited scope and at a much slower pace — slower, even, than I expected when I started. But it’s for me, first and foremost, so if that’s what it needs to be to keep it enjoyable, so be it. I don’t assume anyone’s actually reading any of it, anyways.
After more than two years without, there was actual concert-going this year — two, to be precise — and while it would have been a few more had it not been for Omicron, it was still good to finally get back out there. 2022 has a full slate of shows that I again have no idea if they’ll happen or not, but even after all of this, one must remain hopeful. Right?
And as far as listening went, no big pivots or rabbit holes this year; lotsa post-punk — mostly old, some new — alongside lotsa ‘gaze, dreampop. Flange it, chorus it, put it in my ears. My favourites were mainly from old favourites, though not for lack of trying newer sounds. I’m skipping the Spotify embeds this year because, well, they don’t seem to be working in Medium and anyways you can only listen to a preview, so really what’s the point. If you want to hear the records, there are a million easy ways to do so. Choose one.
My initial concern was that the novelty of the Dry Cleaning formula — Florence Shaw’s dry, spoken word observationals over her bandmates’ big riff backings — would have a limited shelf life but it’s safe to say, some 10 months later, that no — this stuff sticks.
I always knew Michelle Zauner couldn’t stay contained in Psychopomp’s dreampop niche, but to burst out of it with far and away her best record — a luminous collection in songwriting, performance, and production — on just album number three was still an impressive feat. And she also became a New York Times bestselling author while doing it. NBD.
The addition of colour to Makthaverskan’s album art might have just been a visual aesthetic choice, but it also reflects the sonic shifts contained therein. They remain a near-perfect blend of post-punk sharpness and dreampop softness, but För Allting is more willing to take its time building an atmosphere before slamming you in the face with hooks.
It would have been understandable had, given the state of the world, the Manics’ latest had leaned towards the angrier, punkier side of their catalog but instead, they’ve made one of their grandiose pop records. It may not be a career-best, but it’s solid, hooky, and the familiarity something of a balm.
The tongue-in-cheek title might have seemed ironic last Fall, as the band were actually able to tour the US behind it, but as their Toronto show in a couple weeks is all but officially postponed for the third or fourth time, maybe a little too fate-tempting. More concise but less immediate than Oncle Jazz, it’s a luscious collection of synth tones, guitar lines, and Emmanuelle Proulx’s whispery vocals that is continuously revealing and rewarding.
I’m basically at the point that anything Mogwai puts out will probably show up on this list, but even relative to that, this record is something special. Pretty much everything Mogwai does well — the beauty, the brutality, the nonsensical song titles — they’re doing as well as they’ve ever done here, and it’s majestic. How many bands are at the peak of their powers a quarter of a century into their run? One. Mogwai.
You might think Public Service Broadcasting whole identity is predicated on their modus operandi of building concept records around archival audio recordings, but ripping up that rulebook for album number four proved just as satisfying. Their salute to Berlin is far more impressionist than previous works, with the samples are dialed way back in favour of German guest vocalists and just aiming to create an atmosphere that evokes the city’s musical identity. It might give up a little bit of PSB’s distinctive personality, but extra creative headroom proves worth it.
Considering my favourite side of Saint Etienne is their perfect pop, slice-of-life stuff, I’m surprised that their latest — which sounds more like a remix of a lost album served through a sleepy haze — grabbed me as much as it did. It didn’t do it quickly, mind, but something about it kept calling me back and I answered. And here we are.
I was on the fence about Snail Mail’s 2017 debut Lush — did I like it or did I just like that it reminded me of the ’90s grunge-pop that was everywhere in my 20s? — but the follow-up raises no such questions. Though it’s barely half an hour long, it’s a superb collection of songs brimming with both emotion and hooks. Lindsey Jordan is the real deal, and yeah I’ve gone back and re-evaluated Lush — also terrific.
Wolf Alice’s trajectory has basically been a straight, vertical line and album number three declares there is no ceiling. More concise than first two, it delivers festival headliner-calibre grandiose rock that somehow retains small club intensity. Ironically, it’s when they try to go punk rock that they make missteps — sorry, but you’re just better than that now.