Doing these year-end wrap ups (or new year retrospectives, given the timing) is becoming as much of a chore as it is a comfort, partly because life has hit a point where there’s too much going on to sum up, but also because I don’t think it’s that interesting to anyone who’s not me. But I am a creature of habit so I’ll persist with it at least once more. But those of you who are just posting Notepad screen shots on their Instagram with their top albums… I see you. I get it.
The year began under the weight of another COVID shutdown, and while my son was thankfully still able to attend daycare, everything else was basically shelter-in-place for a few months. When things again began reopening around March, I had trouble understanding that it was again possible to do things — should was left to individual discretion — and it took some time to get through that anxiety. Having a number of shows I had tickets for actually take place, rather than be postponed again as I expected, was basically jumping back into things feet-first. Three shows in five days after two in 27 months? Yeah, that was something else. The year ended with 21 gigs and one international festival, so clearly I got over it, but man, it was a journey.
That international fest — Tomavistas in Madrid in May — necessitated the first flights I took in over two and a half years, and like the gigs, they went just fine (Suede! Slowdive! Jarvis!), illness being less of a thing than the bureaucracy around travel at the time. We returned to Europe in December for a week-long jaunt to Paris in order to take my two-year old to the Louvre — that’s him with a huge smile on his face when he first saw the I.M. Pei Pyramid — and if that sounds boujee as hell, it is what it is. He’s into ancient antiquities as much as Thomas the Tank Engine and I am here for it.
On the darker side of things, another unexpected passing — a former colleague whom I’d worked with for over a decade suddenly dying of an undetected heart condition— hit me pretty hard not just because he was a great guy but because he was a few months younger than me and leaves behind a young family. I didn’t necessarily need a reminder that life is fragile and to take nothing for granted, but I got it anyways.
The return to blogging found a pretty comfortable rhythm and while I’m not able to do as much as I’d like, it remains a nice outlet for writing and scratching the “share” itch. I’ll probably stick with it as long as I have the mental bandwidth to do so, and people keep ripping and posting great old clips to YouTube.
Which, I guess, brings us to the music part of the wrap up — I didn’t feel quite as out of touch from what’s new and buzzy as I have the last few years, but there’s still plenty of legacy in my listening. And I ditched the Spotify embeds last year (and ditched Spotify entirely this year, to which I’ll just say that every streaming service sucks in its own unique way) and will do so with the video embeds this year because, well, you can all type and I’m lazy.
The long-awaited third album from local heroes Alvvays proudly waved the flag for shoegaze, dreampop, and Toronto to critical and international acclaim. It’s a formula that’s simple to distill — noise + melody = love — but hard to execute and Alvvays are masters at it.
It’s probably odd that I’m an avowed Crooked Fingers and Eric Bachmann fan, but haven’t given Archers Of Loaf that much attention — I mean I have a few of the albums, but they don’t get a lot of air time. But their first album in 20+ years split the difference between Archers raucousness and solo Bachmann songcraft pretty much perfectly.
When Beach House began rolling out their new double album Once Twice Melody one side at a time, at the end of last year, I was certain that it would be my album of the year. The complete product didn’t quite carry it across that line — maybe it was a little long in its final form, maybe it just fell off in the last quarter — but it’s still a sumptuous record that expands what it is to be Beach House without ever not being Beach House.
Any doubt that The Beths are the best power pop act out there right now should be firmly put to rest by album number three, which somehow takes everything that made their first two records so good — the melodies, instrumentation, brilliant without winking lyrical wordplay — and improves on it all.
It’s a good thing Matador signed Chicago’s Horsegirl because if their debut had come out on any other label, the paradox surely would have created a cosmic anomaly that would have swallowed the whole universe. The trio, barely out of high school, have found their own space-time wormhole that lets them channel the spirit and sound of ’90s college rock in a way that’s entirely familiar (to those of a certain age) but still totally fresh.
While the circumstances around 2018’s Bon Voyage made it feel like that might be the last we heard from Melody Prochet, she returned last year with not one but two gifts — a new album in Emotional Eternal that found the sweet spot between the concise dreampop of her debut and the super-trippy psych of the follow up. And as an unexpected bonus, the unfinished demos of her second album with Kevin Parker were collected, polished and released as Unfold. It’s too-brief and no doubt if they’d continued on it’d have been a great record, but it also affirms that Prochet was always the real talent in the project; Parker just had some great fuzz pedals and keyboards.
Despite seeing Soccer Mommy live before her first album even came out (November 2017, supporting Luna) it took until album three before I gave her a proper listen and fell in love with Sophie Allison’s songs. It could be that the sad girl with guitar crown always went elsewhere in past years, but this year — on the back of such utter bangers as “Shotgun” — it’s all hers.
An act entirely new to me this year, the kitchen sink pop of London’s Sorry scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. There’s nothing else as irresistible as the clanging pop of opener “Let The Lights On”, but the darker, more emotionally naked corners explored elsewhere on the record give it more depth and reward repeated listens. And they’re a blast live.
I know a lot of fans are not on board with Jason Pierce’s late-era Spiritualized tribute act of the last couple records, but I love it. His second Vonnegut salute reproduces everything that makes Spiritualized wonderful, and his cribs are conscious so that makes it okay with me. Pierce has broken so much new ground, he’s allowed to go back and survey what he has made.
Suede’s latest make the list not so much because of the quality of the record itself — I mean it’s perfectly fine, their streak of solid reunion records is unbroken — but because its existence meant that the band was playing live shows this year, and I was finally able to cross them off my bucket list not once but twice, with two amazing shows. Of course, if this record didn’t exist that would have theoretically meant more classic material in the set list, but the new stuff held up well enough — no mean feat.