January 1, 2018

Some favourite songs of 2017

The year started like this: cold and foreboding, with many of us incredulous about the results of American election and somehow naive about its implications. But in the darkness of January, there was also Julie Byrne.

Julie Byrne's “Natural Blue” rehearses a memory as warm as the sun. “Back on tour / driving through southwestern towns / that I had been in before.” But this time, something different happens: there is a first encounter. In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes quotes John Ruysbroeck, a 14th century Flemish mystic: “Now, take all the delights of the earth, melt them into one single delight, and cast it entire into a single man — all of this will be as nothing to the delight of which I speak.” If this song is romantic, it is also about being locked into a posture of retrospection, where a remembered detail might gain a new kind of significance by its association with the beloved, might become a symbol of love’s excess. To quote Barthes again: “Excess has led me to proportion; I adhere to the Image, our proportions are the same: exactitude, accuracy, music: I am through with not enough. Henceforth I live in the definitive assumption of the Image-repertoire, its triumph” (55).

Kendrick Lamar completed another victory lap with DAMN. and, true to form, he brought a lot of other artists along for the ride. XXX is miraculous for a number or reasons. Lamar delivers a blistering performance, meditating on gun violence in America and again demonstrating how the personal is political; in addition, he also achieves something few artists could pull off: seamlessly incorporating U2 in a way that doesn’t detract from XXX.’s style, deaden its impact or cheapen its spectacle.

With Mythological Beauty Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenke unravels her own story of family trauma, a second person account of her mother, who gave up a son for adoption, with the eyes of an unknowing child, alert to her surroundings, who now sees the actions of mother with empathy. On her second album with Big Thief, Lenke demonstrates that she’s already a master songwriter, and with Mythological Beauty she strikes that rare balance between rhythm and wordplay, observation and introspection.

The joy of Dum Surfer lies in its power of estrangement. Since its release, I’ve returned to this song again and again, as addicted to its dizzy blend of genres (post-punk, house, reggae, etc.) as I am to its dystopian vision. You feel as though you’ve stepped into a scene from a crass film noir, where the familiar referents of urban life appear distorted, charged with meanings that you haven’t before encountered. Here is the world sparkling under a ghoulish tint. Here is the seedy underbelly you’ve heard about, lurking beneath the surface of everything.

This is a song for unbelievers of all kinds, but it’s especially for those of among us who aren’t able to believe that the God they worship has enough grace for LGBTQ* folks, or that such lives and experiences are in any way secondary to those of heterosexual, cisgender folks. If you’re still living in doubt, or if you prefer abstractions to people, then accept this song as a grace: another chance to consider which god you serve.

Like all of SZA’s songs from Ctrl, “Prom” highlights her vocal agility, navigating the uncertainties of interpersonal relationships while exploring just how spacious they can be. The “Prom” of the title is both promise and prominade: love’s performance, where emotions crash against expectations, where the couple form takes hold and we learn how to maneuver around/within it.

In this hypnotic but understated track, Andrea Balency’s voice glides over a steady beat. In one moment she sounds detached; in another she sounds fully present. With its backing music, Mount Kimbie echoes the shape of a party approaching its climax. There is chaos, confusion, cacophony but the song’s momentum doesn’t slow. Whether or not you’re having a good time, the world will look different tomorrow.

On every outing, Mike Hadreas writes an anthem that seems to steal the light from everything around it. “Slip Away” quite literally silences the haters and detractors who bully us into thinking ourselves unworthy, our desires invalid. A celebration of consensual love in all its forms, at once embodied and ennobled.

All day, every day individuals are collected into a metal box entrusted to someone who knows how close he can get to a curb or a car. Together, they lurch forward as their driver makes a sudden stop. For some of us, the bus is a space where we can steal some time to think, huddle over a phone, turn the page of a textbook, ask for directions. Jay Som’s Melina Duterte also sees the bus as a space of possibility. With The Bus Song, she turns a few contemplative moments in transit into one of the angstiest and uplifting songs of the year.

Despite it’s upbeat tempo and chorus, “Blood on Me” is as vulnerable as anything else on Sampha’s debut. It’s a song less about fear than about how one navigates one’s emotional terrain in the midst of crisis. How much fear belongs to us and what makes it counts as legitimate? “Blood on Me” is the sound of adrenaline facing off with existential ambiguity.

And, finally, here's a playlist that goes far beyond what's been annotated above.




They released albums this year but we paid them little notice. They defined the sound of indie rock in the first decade or so of the 2000s and now appear as the tired establishment: Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, Wolf Parade, Grizzly Bear, Feist, The National, LCD Soundsystem, Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes.

On a personal note: I enjoyed songs from around half of the artists mentioned (I even witnessed Broken Social Scene perform a nostalgia-infused set at a summer festival), but I’ve grown bored of bands like the National, Fleet Foxes and Wolf Parade, and by now I’m mostly annoyed by the Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors. This year Grizzly Bear released what might be the most inaccessible album of their career and, generally, I liked it, mostly because it sounded like Grizzly Bear. (“Four Cypresses,” in particular, is the sort beautiful, dense song that only a band like Grizzly Bear could pull off.) Feist channeled PJ Harvey and delivered a spare, guitar-driven album with songs (“Pleasure,” “Century,” “Any Party”) that resonated with me almost immediately. I’m fairly certain I will always like Feist.

When I look at my favourite songs from 2017, I observe what’s become a commonplace mixture of rap, r&b, indie rock/folk, and electronic music, but I also see a lot more diversity in the artists making it. To say my demographic (white, male, cisgender) is typically overrepresented at shows is an understatement. It’s one thing to observe new trends in the music scene, but it’s another thing to understand why they occur. And while it might look like the dominance of one is slowly receding with age, it should be noted that there has also been a lot of work done, most of it unrecognized, to claim space in the music scene for those it has traditionally excluded; there have been efforts to make concerts safer for people of colour, for women, queer and non-binary folks; there has been work done to create platforms for emerging artists who don’t experience the forms of privilege that indie rock has fostered over the years. And this is vital work that needs broader support in the new year and beyond.

December 30, 2016

When it sounded like 2016

In a year punctuated by celebrity deaths and ongoing geopolitical disasters, there was no shortage of music to challenge and inspire those of us who want the world to be better and still believe that it can be. The artists I listened to throughout this much maligned year brought into focus the gravity of our collective situation: the urgent concerns of race and gender equality, environmental degradation, and a need for intimacy that we just can't seem to shake. 

(See below for winning categories and spotty annotations)




SOMETIMES IT'S BEST TO JUST SHUT UP AND LISTEN
Solange – A Seat at the Table
Song: "Don't Wish Me Well"

INITIATED / PERPETUATED A YEAR OF MOURNING
Song: "Lazarus"
Song: "Lost Somebody"
Song: "You Want it Darker"
Along with lots of Prince and Sharon Jones, and even a little bit of George Michael.

A LOGICAL OUTCOME, GIVEN THE SITUATION
Angel Olsen – My Woman
Song: "Shut Up Kiss Me"
Beyonce – Lemonade
Song(s): "Sorry," "Formation"

WHEN I NEEDED IT TO SOUND LIKE 1995, WHICH WAS OFTEN
Animal Teeth – Happy to See You
Song: "Chair"
Mitski – Puberty 2
Song: "Your Best American Girl"
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Song: "1937 State Park"

WHEN ENOUGH SHOULD BE ENOUGH
Anohni – Hopelessness
Song: "Drone Bomb Me"

HOW TO FEEL OLD (AND SAD) AGAIN
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Song: "True Love Waits" 
Making Radiohead fans feel sad is too easy. We've been groomed for it; chances are it's what led us to Radiohead in the first place. A chicken/egg situation. But what would it be like to discover Radiohead in this day and age, without all that prehistory? What if A Moon Shaped Pool was your introduction? What would you do with a song like "True Love Waits"? Would you sense the weight of the years it carries, the way it's continued to evolve as time demands? Would you recognize that, in recording and releasing it as the closing track on their tenth album, it was Radiohead's way of saying goodbye? 

YOU STOLE MY HEART AND TUMBLR IS HELPING ME COPE
Song: "Best To You"
Song: "Nights"
Song: "Hallucinations"

QUESTION THE BASIS OF DESIRE AND HOW IT'S SUSTAINED BY ECONOMIES OF CARE
Song: "Conceptual Romance"

GIVE KANYE ANOTHER CHANCE
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Song: "Same Drugs"
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Song: "Ultralight Beam" (feat. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin)
Chance the Rapper was one of 2016's beacons, and he helped redeem The Life of Pablo. Before he cancelled his Saint Pablo tour Kanye visited Winnipeg and did his floating stage thing for several hours at the MTS Centre. And although his banter was at times certifiably horrible, I left feeling that I'd again somehow been converted. Revisiting the latter half of the album weeks after the concert, beginning with the Chance-endorsed "Waves," somehow made me care about Kanye (and maybe even his family?) again. Empathy, maybe? Seeing Kanye isolated on that stage gave me a new appreciation for the audacious commitment he brings to his work. That concert captured the weird, self-conscious spirit that flows through TLOP. Here, I thought, was Kanye’s ego laid bare. Here was the artist, alone, with all his flaws. The truth of it, however, is that TLOP is crammed full of guests. Genius is one of our favourite myths and Kanye knows how to use it.

A REMINDER THAT I HAVE SOME VERY TALENTED FRIENDS
Royal Canoe – Something Got Lost Between Here and the Orbit
Song: "How Long is Your Life"

AMONG THE BEST SERMONS I HEARD
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style (this came out in 2015, whoops!)
Song: "Times to Die"

BURN IT TO THE GROUND
Mitski – Puberty 2
Song: "Your Best American Girl"
Dreams are still only dreams unless something changes. You can't, in fact, have it all, at least not if you're going to play by the rules. You live in a world that privileges certain kinds of people, lifestyles and ideas. This world tries to convince you that the only space you can rightfully occupy is one of competition. So burn it down, and also, fuck Weezer.

HOW DOES HE DO IT?
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Song: "untitled 05 | 09.21.2014"

LET'S JUST TRY TO BE SOCIAL
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Song: "Real Friends"
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Song: "Summer Friends"
Pinegrove – Cardinal
Song(s): "Old Friends" / "New Friends"

MOST LIKE A SEDATIVE
Diiv – Is the Is Are?
Song: "Healthy Moon"

YOUR PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Andy Shauf – The Party
Song: "To You"


December 28, 2016

Well, so that is that

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

from W. H. Auden's For the Time Being (1942, pub. 1944)

December 26, 2016

Videos of 2016

Cass McCombs – "Opposite House"



Anonhi – "Drone Bomb Me"



Solange – "Don't Touch My Hair"



Andy Shauf – "Quite Like You"



Radiohead – "Sleepwalking"



A Tribe Called Quest – "We the People"



Mitski – "Your Best American Girl"



David Bowie – "Lazarus"



Angel Olsen – "Shut Up Kiss Me"



Kaytranada – "Lite Spots"