Best Music of 2015

Well, I have made it through my first semester at the University of Winnipeg. Now that I have some space in my head for things other than cultural theory, horror film, and research methods, it’s time to get back to writing about music. Here in the glow of the Christmas tree lights, with no formatting and citation guidelines to slow me down, writing once again feels like a luxury.

Once again, here is my annual list of my favourite albums of the year (view my past lists here). As always I found new albums I loved, and some that were merely decent, while others were a disappointment. 2015 was the year that the surprise release became de rigeur, which in turn fed the music blog rumour mill. Some big names, like Beck and Kanye West, have promised new albums for more than six months, but have yet to release anything more than a single.

As usual, there were many good albums that haven’t made my list, but are still solid, innovative efforts that are worth checking out. On the big pop front, Florence + the Machine found some much needed restraint, and were a touring juggernaut, headlining Coachella and Glastonbury. What’s that you say? The relaxation of the holidays has you more in the mood for folk? Then simply substitute the weaker tracks on The Decemberists’ new LP, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, with some of the stronger material on their Florasongs EP and you’ve got yourself a really rewarding folk album.

Meanwhile, The Tallest Man On Earth hired a full band and released Dark Bird is Home, which featured my favourite album cover of the year (though Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs cover was a close second). Dan Mangan + Blacksmith broke from their folk-rock leanings and wore their Radiohead influences on their sleeves, creating the dense and moody Club Meds. Bob Dylan crooned his way through some Sinatra standards, surprising everyone with delicate slide guitar arrangements and emotive vocals. Alabama Shakes returned with Sound & Color — undoubtedly one of the most anticipated releases of the year due to its predecessor’s breakout success — and did a delightful left turn that challenged their traditionalist fan base in all the right ways. Finally, Blur came roaring back unexpectedly and released The Magic Whip, which was by turns melancholy and triumphant. Its many sonic burbles made for a great headphones album.

There were also some lackluster releases. Of Monsters and Men’s sophomore record, Beneath the Skin, had a really promising lead single in “Crystals,” but the rest of the album was bland and overproduced. Death Cab for Cutie returned, unfortunately minus Chris Walla, with Kintsugi. The album was stronger than 2011’s Codes and Keys, but still demonstrated the inconsistency that has plagued their post-Plans output. Although many Can-Rock fans will disagree, I was also a bit unsatisfied with Joel Plaskett’s new album, The Park Avenue Sobriety Test, which had some great moments but was uneven. The album’s highly collaborative, big tent approach made for a record that seemed more fun for him to record than it was for audiences to listen to start to finish.

2015 was also the year that how you listen to music occupied critics more than what you listen to. There were a lot of thinkpieces on streaming, vinyl, and royalties. This year saw the rise of Apple Music and Tidal, and the continued popularity of Spotify and Google Play. For millennials at least, streaming services became the new norm. I’m not anti-streaming, but I listen via CD and LP at home, and MP3s on the go. While this limits the number of new releases I can buy, I actually don’t mind the restriction (most days). It gives meaning to the albums I do listen to, and helps me remember that there’s more to music appreciation than an endless hamster wheel of the New. Another reason I couldn’t keep up with new releases this year was that I chose to take more time to fill in the discographies of some of my favourite artists. Used CDs are an inexpensive and fun way to do this. Winnipeg has a good used CD market, and the compact disc is the least-loved format right now, making it a bargain. Mass format switch-overs are a great time for collectors.

Anyway, with all that said, the 2015 albums I didn’t get to listen to before making this list includes MUTEMATH’s Vitals; Destroyer’s Poison Season; Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs; Natalie Prass’ self-titled debut; Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier; Beach House’s two(!) LPs (Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars); and Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love. Some of these albums topped a lot of critics’ lists, and I hope to get around to some of them in the coming months.

This past spring I also was given the opportunity to contribute drums to a college friend’s debut album. Please check out Brandon Post’s Pieces and have a listen to his new album. My relatives Ariel and Jim also released a great EP  with their London-based band, House Above the Sun, and I highly recommend checking it out as well.

The year in concerts brought Matthew Good and Dan Mangan at the Burt, Steve Gunn in a London pub, and my first ever Winnipeg Folk Festival. It was four absolutely fabulous days of sunshine, music, and food. I loved it even more than I thought I would. There were blistering sets from The Sadies, Steve Gunn, and Royal Canoe. Sasha and I also enjoyed a chill main stage set from Jose Gonzalez. Kurt Vile seemed distracted and unorganized during his solo set, but he did debut some new material in advance of his new album, which was a treat. While wandering around one afternoon in search of shade, I discovered Marlon Williams, a young New Zealander channeling Townes Van Zandt whose debut is coming out in February on Dead Oceans. The only downer of the festival? A huge thunderstorm shut down Wilco’s festival-closing set after only three songs. But the band surprise released their new album Star Wars for free five days later, so that kinda made up for it.

And what new albums do we have to look forward to in 2016? Well, the aforementioned Beck album, for one. Also, new albums from The Besnard Lakes and M. Ward will be here before spring. Robin Pecknold is headed out on tour with Johanna Newsom, so there’s at least a chance of new Fleet Foxes material. Feist has been awfully quiet since winning the Polaris prize in 2012, and I wonder if 2016 will be the year she returns to the spotlight. According to Stereogum, we can also expect new music from The Shins, Explosions in the Sky, Steve Gunn, Sigur Ros, PJ Harvey, David Bowie, Grizzly Bear, and maybe, just maybe, Radiohead. But enough preamble — onto the list! Here are my top 10 albums of 2015.

Honorable Mentions:

Wilco, Star Wars (dBpm)

Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There (Matador)

Jose Gonzalez, Vestiges and Claws (Mute)

My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall (Capitol)

The Staves, If I Was (Nonesuch)

Blur, The Magic Whip (Warner)

Beirut, No No No (4AD)

10. EL VY – Return to the Moon (4AD)

Return to the Moon

A side project doesn’t have to be this good. Side projects tend to be uneven albums that benefit artists more than listeners by providing a creative outlet that the artist can’t explore with their primary band. But EL VY, a duo comprised of Matt Berninger of The National and Brent Knopf of Ramona Falls, puts to rest the notion that side projects entail lowered standards. Return to the Moon is funky, playful, and lighthearted, but that makes the melancholy moments all the more powerful. “No Time to Crank the Sun” is one of the tracks of the year, in my opinion. The album’s lyrics are full of Berninger-isms that National fans will be familiar with: “I’m so excited the senator’s a fighter.” “I just need a couple minutes on the floor,” etc. But while the press has written a lot about Berninger, I think Knopf’s contributions to this album need to be acknowledged as well. There’s a great exploratory vibe to the layered instrumentation that makes for a really engaging listen.

9. Phil Cook – Southland Mission (Thirty Tigers)

Southland Mission

Pro tip: when a long-time collaborator and backup musician steps out into the spotlight and releases their first full-length solo debut, it’s a good idea to check it out. In years past Phil Cook fronted Megafaun and collaborated with Justin Vernon, but more recently he has played guitar, organ, and keyboards with Hiss Golden Messenger and the Shouting Matches. Southland Mission reminded me that sometimes a great album is simply one that makes you feel good. It’s heavily influenced by gospel and the blues, but not in an insincere or ironic way. When I listen to this album I get the sense that Cook is an individual with a genuine passion for the musical traditions he grew up with. As Cook stated in an interview, “The cells of my body vibrate to gospel music. I don’t know why. They just do. So I give that to my body.” Here’s the video for his cover of “1922,” a very old blues number which makes me want to quit my job and walk around music festivals barefoot all summer long.

8. Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves (Sony)

Strangers to Ourselves

Poor Modest Mouse. They can’t win. Their new album was heavily anticipated but ended up garnering mixed reviews. As far as I can tell, most criticisms of the album boiled down to, “It’s not their early albums.” But to me, that fails to take the album on its own merits. So I think Strangers to Ourselves deserves a critical reappraisal, because it is really good. It’s bloated and probably needs three songs cut (and I know exactly which ones), but all the other songs are pretty sweet. The production is obviously meticulous, but nevertheless preserves the band’s ramshackle, yell-from-the-swamp sound. Modest Mouse has grown to a 7-piece band, and the album’s instrumentation is dizzyingly layered, yet always appropriate (case in point: the beautiful mallet percussion on “Ansel”). When the big band dials up to a crescendo, it’s quite something to behold.

7. Matthew Good – Chaotic Neutral (Warner)

Chaotic Neutral (large)

I’ve seen Matt Good perform live 7 or 8 times, and I feel a special connection to his music that goes back more than 10 years. Arrows of Desire (2013), his last album, had some bright moments but was largely a retread of his 90s rock days. So I was really happy when I discovered that Chaotic Neutral was a return to form. The album opens with a fantastic trio of songs, which includes the strong lead single “All You Sons and Daughters,” and also features really lovely harmonies on “Moment.” The middle section of the album segues into longer songs that start out mellow and then build. Matt has always done dynamics well, and these songs showcase that. His voice is also aging well, and he (or longtime producer Warne Livesey) has managed to coax some more heartfelt performances out of his band. This is a very good thing, because a persistent woodenness characterized the drumming and rhythm guitar on Vancouver (2008) and Arrows of Desire. Not so on this new album. The lead guitar is especially good. Matt’s cover of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” is a highlight of the back half of the album. It features a duet with Manitoban Holly McNarland, with whom he sang “Flight Recorder from Viking 7” way back in 2001.

6. The Dodos – Individ (Polyvinyl)

PRC-284LP-COVERART_HIres

Every year I champion an underdog, an album I feel was unjustly overlooked, or simply not dwelled upon by the indie blogosphere for as long as it deserved. Sometimes I worry that I do this because my tasted are out of date. But anyway, this year it’s the Dodos’ new album, Individ. Released way back in January, Individ was recorded all-analog and features some really tight, muscular performances, showcasing just how well the band’s two members play together. Meric Long’s alternate tunings and lilting vocals intertwine with Logan Kroeber’s pounding, intricate tom work. There are some pretty sweet breakdowns on this album. Unique, commanding, and unrelenting.

5. Calexico – Edge of the Sun (Anti-)

Edge of the Sun

Calexico is too often damned with faint praise, with critics noting their consistency but seldom their brilliancy. But even those who are lukewarm on the band have to admit that with 2012’s Algiers and this year’s Edge of the Sun, the band has revitalized their career, which now spans nearly 20 years and 9 studio albums. Edge of the Sun features an array of guests, all deployed with characteristic restraint. Neko Case’s harmonies on “Tapping on the Line” are heavenly, and the 3/4 accordion shuffle of “Woodshed Waltz” provides some variety late in the album’s tracklisting. The band always includes an instrumental track on their albums, and “Coyoacán” sparkles with horns and brisk drums. The timbre of Joey Burns’ voice only improves with age, and the band’s melodic sense is sharp. Now, if only I could convince them to do a proper Canadian tour.

4. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down… (Matador)

KV cover

What a pleasant surprise this album turned out to be. It certainly tops his last album, Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze (2013)which was no slouch song-for-song, but grew tiresome when taken as a whole. There’s a great late-night vibe to these new tracks, with some really satisfying performances captured on tape. “Outlaw” is an early standout, featuring some unironic banjo. “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say)” may be the most affecting song Kurt’s ever written. There are plenty of other great meditative moments on the album, most notably the extended coda to “Wheelhouse.” The production is warm without sounding fussed over, and the texture of the drums and cymbals come through nicely. Overall, I think this album is a great example of how to mature and stretch yourself as a songwriter, without losing your edge. Kurt took some chances with piano and banjo, and made it work. B’lieve is an album that is simultaneously the sound of an artist pushing himself and finding his voice.

3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)

CB cover

I was late checking this album out, picking up a copy just a month ago, and I regret my tardiness. It’s a tour de force from a young artist who, remarkably, still seems to have room to grow. The suburban blues of “Depreston” will be familiar to anyone who’s driven through a new housing development. Courtney has a Dylanesque knack for creating quirky, relatable characters quickly, including the protagonist of “Elevator Operator.” The lyrics on this record are a lot of fun, but their wit demonstrates keen insight rather than substituting for it. Many have rightly noted Courtney’s ability to make the mundane interesting, right down to water stains on the ceiling. But the music is also great, with the right balance of spunky, hook-filled tracks and mellower, reflective ballads. An artist to watch in the next few years for sure.

2. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)

FJM cover

So much ink has been spilled about this record already that I feel a little self-conscious adding to the total. But it really is a great album, and not just because it is a culmination of the Misty character. The music aims for the sky and hits its mark. The arrangements here swing in a big 70s way, embellishing and keeping pace with Josh Tillman’s verbose, clever lyrics. In an interview with Pitchfork, Tillman recounts how his wife would listen to demos and tell him, “Don’t be afraid to let the songs be beautiful,” so Tillman scrapped the over-the-top “Disney-orchestra arrangements” and instead wrapped his world-weary sarcasm in music that was precise and heartfelt.

Conceptually, this record is about navigating a personal and relational quandary: the sarcastic, reflexive, wine-drunk millennial male falls in love and (shock!) gets married, and must somehow come to terms with all these genuine feelings that crop up inside of him, despite his belief that postmodern life is shallow and artificial. The album’s final three songs — among the finest 1-2-3 punches of any album I can recall — deal with this dilemma directly. “Bored in the USA” is so lyrically tricky that late last year when Tillman debuted the song on The Late Show, David Letterman’s live audience initially didn’t know quite how to react to song. Is it biting class commentary or a take-down of whining First World white male problems? In either case, the result was a truly fresh late-night TV performance.

I think the album succeeds magnificently on a conceptual level, but is also really enjoyable on a simpler level. If you listen to this album and are disgusted with the Misty character, thinking him a jerk, chances are you’re half way to appreciating the genius of the character, and this album.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

SS cover

I think 2015 was the year I was reminded, again and again, that lyrics do matter. The top three albums on this list all feature some great lyric work, and collectively they helped me rediscover the importance of lyrics.

Until Carrie & Lowell was released, I always felt that I couldn’t quite connect with Sufjan’s music. Something finally clicked when I put this record on. An undeniable virtuoso who can play just about any instrument, there’s something really respectable about Stevens reigning in his formidable compositional abilities, and that translates into a rewarding listen from start to finish. I guess it’s not so much restraint as it is distillation: a pure artistic statement, lyrically and musically.

The album has been lauded for its courageous personal themes, centering on a brief window of time during Stevens’ childhood when his mother was present. There are heartstopping questions and pleas, but the most devastating line for me concerns not Stevens’ surveying of his childhood relationship with his mother, but his self-examination that came in the wake of her premature death: “I wasted my life playing dumb” he admits in “The Only Thing.”

The instrumentation, while minimalist, is excellent too. Sufjan uses simple chord progressions with interesting sonic textures, as featured on “John My Beloved,” which is my favourite track on this album. Elsewhere, cloudy orchestral swells function as codas, stitching the album’s narrative together sonically. If any album this year had the power to stop even distracted or skeptical listeners in their tracks, it was Carrie & Lowell.

One Crate City: A Guide to Winnipeg Record Stores

Photo by Alexandra Ross

Photo by Alexandra Ross

Three years ago, I stumbled across a turntable at the local thrift store. Since then, I’ve spent many afternoons and evenings flipping through the crates at numerous Winnipeg record stores, hunting for a rare used LP, or the latest release from one of my favourite bands. I decided early on to avoid Amazon and major retailers, focusing instead on sourcing my vinyl collection from independent local record shops (or from indie labels’ web stores if something was difficult to find locally). All those trips to record stores got me thinking that it might be fun to write a little about Winnipeg record stores.

Of course, I can only write about the record stores that I’ve been to, and there are several places you can buy vinyl in Winnipeg that are not on this list. There are also collectibles and vintage stores to consider, and you can sometimes find gems there. If you’re a fan of a Winnipeg record store I omitted, or if you love crate digging in other cities, do share your stories in the comments section.

Music Trader – 97 Osborne St.

Music Trader opened in 1999, and Movie Village in 1984. They used to be two separate stores, located about a block apart. But in 2012, Shoppers Drug Mart announced it was expanding, and Music Trader and Movie Village were forced to cram into the Movie Village location at 97 Osborne St. Initially I was sad to see floor space diminish, as DVD rentals, vinyl, and CDs now had to share a relatively small space. However, Music Trader/Movie Village has done a good job of making the compromise work, mostly through providing a well curated selection of new and used CDs and vinyl. The store’s circular yellow sign is a fixture in Osborne Village.

Music Trader is probably my favourite record store in Winnipeg. For starters, I really appreciate their reasonable prices on new vinyl. New LPs accounts for 90% of my vinyl purchases, and it is common to walk into other record stores and see the same new releases priced $2-$6 higher. Second, the staff is really laid back, and really good about returns, accepting defective vinyl and giving you 30 days to make it back into the store to make a return. (Pressing plant quality control issues are the dark underbelly of the vinyl revival, so you want to make sure you shop at a store that has a good returns policy.) The place doesn’t have a snobby air about it, which I really appreciate. There are lots of candid Polaroid photos covering the walls, which gives it a palpable sense of community.

Third, Music Trader is open until 10pm, 7 days a week. This is awesome, because when it’s Sunday evening and everything’s closed, and you need a date night or just want to get out of the house, you can always head down to Music Trader.

Fourth, Music Trader also makes it easy to keep up with what’s in stock. Their Facebook page contains concert ticket and new release info, while their Instagram feed highlights used stock that’s just arrived. The CDs and vinyl are always well-organized, and if they don’t have something you want in stock, they can order it and have it to you in a week’s time (or less; they get 2 vinyl shipments each week). There’s also a loyalty card that’s worth getting if you buy a lot of used CDs. Finally, just around the corner from Music Trader, at 470 River Ave., is Little Sister Coffee, and you should definitely stop in there before your record browsing begins. But don’t blame me if you accidentally spend your record money on cinnamon buns and coffee brewing paraphernalia.

Any downside? Well, the parking situation isn’t great, but it’s more important to have record stores in pedestrian friendly areas. Besides, drivers can find free street parking by driving around the block. Or you can risk being towed and park in the Safeway/Starbucks lot. The thrill of wondering whether your car is being towed just heightens the excitement of record browsing.

Into the Music – 245 McDermot Ave.

Years ago, Into the Music was situated on Corydon Ave., but it moved first to Osborne Village and then to Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, where it resides today. Some were sad about the moves, but the Exchange is plenty hip and pedestrian friendly. Besides, no need for all of the city’s record stores to be tightly clustered together. Spread the love!

Founded in July 1987, Into the Music is only 2 months older than I am. The place is considered an institution in the city, and by square footage it’s got to be the largest record store in the city. Its staff’s median age is older, so there’s wisdom there. Not all give off a vibe that says “I’m approachable,” but they’ve never been unhelpful when I’ve posed a question. The store maintains a good old fashioned website (remember those?), which they update regularly with new and used arrivals. There are listening stations for spinning that used CD or LP you just found, and they’re starting to expand their vinyl accessories and turntable sales as well. Everything is well-organized, and there are lots of little sections to explore that you may miss the first time through.

Unfortunately, the store’s vinyl prices are often disappointingly high. If a new release is priced at $21.95 at most record stores in the city, it’s almost always selling for $27.95 at Into the Music. Used vinyl prices are also high if the artist is anyone even relatively recognizable. Into the Music also stocks a lot of expensive reissues, and isn’t great at keeping up with many of the new indie releases that interest me. So while I like being in the store, I find myself browsing often but buying little beyond the occasional used CD. But the store does have a great used stock of Celtic, rap, and other genres that are under-represented at other stores. Their used books and magazines section is also pretty cool. Where else will you find a 1997 issue of Uncut, or a copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles? The coffee situation is also good. Into the Music is close to Parlour Coffee, at 468 Main St.

Folk Festival Music Store – 211 Bannatyne Ave.

The Folk Fest store is a 3 minute walk north from Into the Music, making it really handy to get to both stores in one afternoon. Their new vinyl prices are very reasonable, comparable to Music Trader’s. It’s staffed by a single person, so it’s only open 11-6, and it’s closed Sundays and Mondays. Unfortunately, the store sometimes opens up 10 minutes late, as I’ve discovered on three separate occasions when I arrived just after 11am. The staff doesn’t always check the store email address, so if you have a question, best to call.

If not for the hours drawback, Folk Fest could easily edge out Music Trader as my favourite record store. I wish I got here more often. It’s a beautiful space, located in an old red brick building with high ceilings and proper wood crates, sunlight streaming in the large front windows. No cellar vibe here. If you’re into rock, alternative, and folk (both traditional and modern), their selection is second to none in the city. Those with more diverse tastes in genres will have to supplement with other stores. This is the place to come to if you’re looking to get into an artist whose back catalog is intimidatingly large (e.g., Neil Young), as they’ll have lots different albums by an artist in stock. While their used section is small, their new selection is quite good, and includes some new LPs that are hard to find other places in the city. And of course, they stock all of the artists who have just been at, or are coming to, the venerable Winnipeg Folk Festival, which happens each and every July in Bird’s Hill Park.

McNally Robinson – 1120 Grant Ave.

As a bookstore that has slowed added a music section, McNally Robinson is the outlier on this list. Some may dismiss it because it’s a bookstore first and foremost, but to do so ignores what has become a unique vinyl collection in the city. Andy, a Winnipeg music store veteran, recently moved from the Folk Fest Store to McNally, and under his careful tutelage the music section has grown. A little heavy on expensive reissues and box sets, the selection is nevertheless pretty well-rounded, and demonstrates a good knowledge of music past and present. Canadian artists are foregrounded here, which is nice. McNally’s music section also features a fantastic shelf of concert DVDs, and they’re one of the few places in town that sells Blu-Ray audio, 5.1 mixes, and SACDs, so audiophiles should definitely check this place out. Of course, McNally is known first and foremost for its books, which extends to a great music books section. (May I recommend David Byrne’s How Music Works)

While I’m not normally one to endorse loyalty cards, you may want to consider McNally Reader Reward card, which entitles you to 10% off your purchases, and can save you a significant amount over a year’s worth of vinyl purchases. I think its annual renewal fee is $20, but considering you can save $2.50 on each record you purchase, it doesn’t take many purchases to earn back your money. The card is even good at McNally’s restaurant and to-go counter, where you can get a good cup of coffee and a delicious slice of key lime pie.

A perk of shopping at McNally is that they sometimes put new releases on shelves early. I’ve never seen this anywhere else. One Sunday afternoon browse scored me Bob Dylan’s most recent Bootleg Series release a full 2 days before its street date. So if, like me, you like to get new releases as soon as possible, it’s worth stopping by McNally on the off chance that one of the staff has put it out early.

In sum, there’s lots of fun to be had record shopping in Winnipeg. While each store has its pros and cons, none of them are worth skipping. While I have my favourites, I still like to shop around and get to know the logic behind what each store stocks. I should note that all of the above record shops do participate in Record Store Day, to varying degrees, including live in-store performances. With the possible exception of McNally Robinson, all are also great places to get tickets to gigs big and small, thereby diverting service fee profits from the evil corporate behemoth, Ticketmaster.

I hope you enjoy your time flipping through the bins. It’s freezing 8 months of the year here, so it’s good to find an indoor hobby. Now, I’m off to go pack for Folk Fest!

Everything Happens So Much

Last summer over at Pitchfork, music critic Lindsay Zoladz has brought her “Ordinary Machines” column to a close with a piece entitled “Everything Happens So Much.” In it, she recounts her recent trip to Germany, and reflects on “the strange fatigue of digital life.” For many, these words of Zoladz’s will likely sound familiar:

These days, my daily internet behavior is depressingly predictable: Every morning I’ll click on more articles than I’d ever have time to read, clutter my browser with tab after tab after tab, and then at some moment every afternoon I’ll finally admit my own mortality and close all the things I didn’t get to.

Many of us make “the rounds” online every morning. Coffee in hand, clad in pyjama pants and a t-shirt, I browse various news and music websites, scrolling through feeds and opening up each interesting article in a new tab. Whatever articles I can’t get to before it’s time to get ready for work simply await me after work, only to be (a) bookmarked but never read; (b) quickly skim read; or (c) closed out in a small gesture of digital defeat. (In a cruel twist of irony, “Being A Better Online Reader” appears to have suffered fate [a].)

I’m slowly learning to give myself permission to miss out, but it takes time, especially since I’m the kind of person who’s naturally interested in cultural goings-on. Reading these websites isn’t a chore. But the act of spending so much time flitting between webpages online can, nevertheless, have negative effects and undermine one’s stated priorities.

While there is a certain amount of individual responsibility at play here, the Internet pushes us along as well. When every webpage seems designed to get you to open up as many tabs as possible, it begins to feel a bit sinister. Am I just a ping-pong ball bobbing down the stream, contributing to “traffic” counts on a website? Websites are driven by analytics. The old model of thinking about media content held that you and I being delivered a product via a news medium — a news medium that includes some advertising so it can stay afloat. The new model, however, acknowledges that, in fact, that advertisers are being delivered attentive eyeballs via a news medium — a news medium that includes just enough original content so it can continue bringing in attentive eyeballs.

As Zoladz notes in her column, vacations help: who cares about what the latest viral news item is when you’re in freaking Berlin! Though even here, social media encourage us to obsessively chronicle our vacations, both pictorially and in writing. Doing so takes us out of the moment and places us back inside the Internet’s push/pull, again making us realize, when the din dies down at the end of the day, that everything happens so much.

Being a music journalist, Zoladz writes about how the Internet gradually changes our engagement with music over time. Significantly, she notes that her early interactions with pop music were characterized by scarcity and limitations, but that her relationship with music, and her online life in general, have now been transformed by the endless streams of information that comprise the Internet 2.0. Think of social media feeds and the changes made to Google Images, or websites with recommended links at the bottom: all expand as you scroll, sometimes endlessly. The content has no edges, and so we keep wandering around in it. Zoladz notes that this feature of the Internet appeared in 2009, and it is a big reason why I quit using Twitter: things become too time-consuming when an online website or platform eliminates the sides and bottom, making all termination points arbitrary.

Of course, the endless stream is still tempting sometimes, and Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drives us, even when we know there are healthier motivating factors. Zoladz continues,

Shouldn’t unfettered access to music mean we all have impeccable taste and an intimate familiarity with all records previously deemed Classic and/or Important? Maybe, but I have to admit that in the past few years I’ve noticed that the stream has had a counterintuitive effect on my listening habits. For some reason, it’s made me jaded about greatness and even a little less likely to seek out Important Records—having all of them splayed out before me has reduced them to inherited experiences, foregone conclusions, boxes to tick off on a checklist. Too often I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by history, by all that I don’t know. Everything happened so much.

My relationship with the Internet might be described as limited gratitude mixed with frequent bouts of disapointment. For me, the Internet is a life line to the outside world. I live in an insular, quiet Mennonite town in southeastern Manitoba, and it’s culturally stifling. The Internet allows me to feel like a global citizen, and to access niches of culture that don’t find expression in my immediate geographical surroundings. But the Internet but is also a curse, sucking time away from friendships, writing, exercise, and other worthwhile pursuits. It fractures my attention and creates new neural pathways in my brain. I don’t even have to contend with social media, and yet I still fret about how much of my free time is spent online. Some of it is worthwhile, but sometimes it feels like I’m skiing 10 feet in front of a thundering avalanche, and the only way to stay ahead is to read all of the fifteen articles the New Yorker puts online every day. Everything does indeed happen so much, and there’s nothing wrong with making a sharp left turn, heading back to the chalet, and hanging up your skis for a few days.

Amen

There aren’t many statements that make me say “Amen” anymore. But hearing Cornel West talk does just that. Ever since I first studied his thought in a sociological theory course back in 2010, his words have resonated with me. This recent interview he gave — on Letterman, of all places — is reason enough to rouse my blog from slumber. “Let the phones be smart; let us try to be wise, compassionate, and courageous.”

Cornel West will give a lecture at the University of Winnipeg on May 8th.

Best Music of 2014

Music is a funny thing. It’s often said that recorded music is static, while live music shifts and changes, allowing for improvisation and variation. In a strict sense that’s true. But listeners are always changing, and so, in a more subjective sense, so are albums. Recorded music weaves through our lives; a recording can resonate more or less with someone at different times. The old saying is true: you can never step into the same river twice.

That’s why, in some ways, whatever album from this list I’m currently playing is the best album of 2014. Good art takes in listeners and renders the arms-length critic’s posture difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Of course, one can listen to the same album both as a fan and as a critic, but perhaps not at the same time, or at least not without some compromise. I think it’s fun to switch hats as I listen. I hope you do too!

As always, there is lots of good music that isn’t on this list. Scrolling alphabetically through my iTunes, I’d say that The Antlers, Beck, Conor Oberst, Cold Specks, Hiss Golden Messenger, Marissa Nadler, Peter Matthew Bauer, Real Estate, Sam Roberts Band, Tune-Yards, and TV On the Radio have all turned in very strong albums that deserve attention. Other acts, like Broken Bells, released solid, though not fantastic, albums. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is at or near the top of many year-end lists, and while it is an emotionally devastating album, it’s not something I would call a favourite. And while I certainly won’t complain about getting U2’s Songs of Innocence automatically and for free (c’mon people), it is another mediocre U2 album with 3 or 4 good songs.

There was also a lot of music that I couldn’t keep up with. I have not heard Jack White’s Lazaretto, The Black Keys’ Turn Blue, The Gaslight Anthem’s Get Hurt, nor Coldplay’s Ghost Stories. These are all big releases from acts that I used to like a lot more than I do now, and I simply decided not to spend money on them in favour of checking out more interesting releases from less familiar artists. The recent Stars album also didn’t catch my attention, possibly because it’s just too disco for me (although being “too disco” seems like its point). I’ve also not heard either of Neil Young’s releases this year — the bare-bones A Letter Home and the orchestral Storytone. Same goes for Tom Petty’s Hypnotic Eye (though it’s interesting to note that Petty’s highway-rock sound is behind at least two of my top-10 picks).

And on and on the haven’t-heard list goes: Mac DeMarco, Jenny Lewis, Thom Yorke, Interpol, The New Pornographers, Damon Albarn…there’s just too much to keep up with. I have to limit myself not only because I’m a music lover on a budget, but also because there’s no sense in fracturing my attention into a million directions when I could give fewer releases more careful attention (or give quieter voices a chance). There are a couple 2014 releases that I still do intend to get around to checking out, including Hundred Waters’ The Moon Rang Like A Bell.

Looking ahead to 2015, I’m eagerly anticipating Club Meds (Jan. 13), the new release from Dan Mangan + Blacksmith. Mangan made a huge leap forward in between his last two albums, and I can’t wait to see what he and the band have been cooking up over the past 3 years. The Decemberists (Jan. 20) and The Dodos (Jan. 27) are also releasing new albums soon, and the lead singles from both bands sound promising. A beloved early-2000 rock act, Sleater-Kinney, return with No Cities to Love on Jan. 20. Bob Dylan’s album of Frank Sinatra covers drops Feb. 3, and I’m not sure how I feel about my beloved Bob releasing a standards album. Isn’t that territory tread by has-beens? Anyway, a week later we’ll see a new album from Father John Misty (Feb. 10). Jose Gonzalez of Junip, fresh off his work soundtrack work for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is back with a new album on Feb. 17. Laura Marling will be releasing a new album on Mar. 24. As-yet-undated upcoming releases include Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth LP — their last featuring founding guitarist Chris Walla — and the highly anticipated new album from Modest Mouse (Mar. 3). Later in 2015 there is a chance of new music from Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, and Radiohead, but no firm plans have yet been announced. Personally, I’d love to hear some new music from Explosions in the Sky, Mutemath, and Feist, but at this point that’s just wishful thinking.

My year in live live music features concerts by Arcade Fire, Cold Specks, Neko Case, St. Vincent, and local favourites The Wailin’ Jennys. Interestingly, Pitchfork readers voted St. Vincent and Arcade Fire as the top two live acts of the year. I’m glad they swung through humble ol’ Winnipeg! But anyway, that’s enough preamble. On to the list!

Way Out Weather

10. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather – Philadelphia has a ridiculously strong music scene right now. Stepping out from behind the shadow of Kurt Vile and the War On Drugs is Steve Gunn, a talented guitarist growing into his songwriting and singing skills as he begins a solo career. There’s a wonderful meditative quality to Gunn’s songs. The jammy, meandering guitars swirl around each other, anchored by bluesy song structures and impressionistic lyrics. And a bonus: your dad will love this album as much as you do. Gunn also put out what is probably my favourite music video of 2014, which you can see below. The video, like the album as a whole, is a welcome antidote to the frantic pace of late modern culture.

Free Will

9. Bry Webb – Free Will – This is the most underrated Canadian album of 2014. It served as my introduction to Bry Webb, who some of you may know as the frontman of Constantines. Not well promoted by its small Canadian label, it nevertheless contains some lovely instrumentation, including delicate interplay between pedal steel, lap steel, Hammond organ, and mellotron. The close-mic’d vocals lend it an intimate quality even when the lyrics are hard to decipher. Taken as a whole, Free Will reminds me of sunlight filtering through a sunny, cedar-paneled room. Oddly, advance singles “AM Blues” and “Receive Me” proved to be the only upbeat songs on the album, but this doesn’t end up being a problem. “Let’s Just Get Through Today” is a touching ode to new fatherhood, and even the occasional misstep (the clunking melody of “Policy”) retains a contemplative quality. Webb ends the album with a rather calming poetic epitaph: “We’ll dress only in linens / And make peace at our beginnings / And never damn a single thing.”

St. Vincent

8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent – Taking in St. Vincent at the Burt this past June was an experience that resorted my faith in live music. When I think back to that show, I recall Annie Clark’s ability to completely command the attention of everyone in attendance. It was hard to take my eyes off the stage, such was her presence on it that evening. Given that high praise, some may wonder why I have placed this album so far down the list. I think it’s because I still find St. Vincent’s music to be a bit hard to bond with on anything other than an intellectual level. It’s so cerebral and other-worldly that some listeners may find it hard to move past cool-headed aesthetic appreciation. Still, her sound has fully matured and the album is a fantastic collection of high-energy songs partnered with surprisingly insightful lyrics for those of us who spend too much time in front of screens, sharing digital facsimiles of ourselves. “What’s the point of even sleeping / If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me?” Reductio ad absurdum at its most pithy.

Sukierae

7. Tweedy – Sukierae – Many were hoping for a new Wilco album late this year, but instead Jeff Tweedy teamed up with his son, Spencer, and recorded a double LP filled with some surprisingly good tunes. Tweedy reportedly has a large and expensive guitar collection, and it shows. The electric guitars on this album sound unrelentingly gorgeous, snaking around the songs’ arrangements and defining their edges. Tweedy’s songwriting sounds both effortless and bold, as he pares down some of his songs to their most basic arrangements. The lovely simplicity of “Fake Fur Coat” and the dusty shuffle of “Desert Bell” are a case in point. I could listen to songs like this all day long. Of course, the full-band tunes are also great, in a relaxed kind of way. The groove of “Low Key” is especially infectious. Enjoy the Nick Offerman-directed video below.

Are We There

6. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There – If I was ranking these albums by total number of plays, this might be number one. Van Etten’s Tramp was one of my favourite albums of the past several years, so I was really looking forward to her follow-up. While it wasn’t what I expected, it’s nevertheless a great album that showcases her formidable songwriting and lyrical vulnerability. Adding percussion loops and allowing some R&B influences to run a little closer to the surface likely helped Van Etten to garner a larger fanbase, and this she undoubtedly deserves. The album’s centerpiece, both emotionally and musically, is the ambitious, 6-minute “Your Love is Killing Me,” complete with visceral lyrics and pounding snare. Its vocal showcases Van Etten’s singular voice, which sent chills down my spine the first time I heard it.

They Want My Soul

5. Spoon – They Want My Soul – As a more introverted soul, it takes a lot for an album to make me want to buy a convertible and turn the volume all the way up. I’m given more to living room listening. But They Want My Soul is a summer crank-up record if there ever was one. Spoon injected some much-needed adrenaline and cool into the often introspective indie rock world this past August. Although They Want My Soul arrived four and a half years after their last album, don’t call it a comeback: this band is one of the most consistent around, and only side projects (namely, Divine Fits) delayed the release. There’s something so great about the way Britt Daniel always sings at the edge of the limits of his voice. Jim Eno’s hard-hitting drums are consistently awesome, from “Rainy Taxi” to “New York Kiss,” and prove that you don’t have to play fills to be a great drummer. I even learned that I can love a track with no guitars and three keyboards.

Black Hours

4. Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours – Many would say this is a wild card choice, but I think this album was really overlooked this year. Besides, there’s too much conformity among music critics these days. Considering the fact that the Walkmen announced an indefinite hiatus, it wasn’t a bad year for the band’s members: three released solo albums, all within 6 weeks of one another. Leithauser’s is the best of the bunch. His vocals are placed front and center in the mix, and it sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of golden oldies, especially Frank Sinatra. He continues to have a great ear for vocal melodies, and the tension in his voice communciates so much. Bold instrumentation and fearless singing characterize this album. He also manages to do something really evocative with chord changes and builds, though I don’t know enough about music theory to say exactly what it is. After spinning this record, I’m always left humming its melodies for hours afterwards. Case in point: album closer “The Smallest Splinter.”

Burn Your Fire For No Witness

3. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness – Released way back in January, Angel Olsen’s singular voice and reverberating guitar nevertheless blazed a path through the entire year, seldom leaving regular rotation on my turntable. It’s interesting to listen to this album alongside St. Vincent’s, as both were produced by John Congleton. While he conjures a very harsh, buzzing landscape for St. Vincent, he captures lots of warm dynamics for Olsen. Congleton is certainly a versatile producer. Lyrically, the album is filled with bold proclamations and sage advice. “Sometimes all you need / Is one good thought strong in your mind,” she intones on “Lights Out.” Taking a bird’s eye view of the album, it comes on strong and doesn’t quit. There are no tracks that are less than stellar. Her ballads are devastating, especially “White Fire.” But her rockers are cathartic and clear-eyed, and that may be why so many were spellbound by Olsen this year. Her next release will be one to watch.

Ryan Adams

2. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams – I’m as surprised as you are. I went in to this release quite unfamiliar with Ryan Adams. Ryan Adams’ self-titled album has been on the stereo a lot, second only to Sharon Van Etten. From an audiophile perspective, it’s one of the most well-recorded albums I’ve heard, right down to the drums. The album has lots of dynamic range, which is a rarity these days. It’s probably the best sounding vinyl I purchased this year. The way the drums build “Shadows” is brilliant, and the charge of “Feels Like Fire” and “Trouble” showcases some great band performances. Adams reportedly went with the demos on this album, and if that’s so, he was wise to do so, as something is captured that could have been lost in more takes and more layers. His voice remains a formidable instrument, though the excellence of this album really can’t be boiled down to one factor alone. I’m even willing to overlook that terrible cover and the ripped jean jacket.

Lost in the Dream

1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream – And here I thought 2011’s Slave Ambient was Adam Granduciel’s breakout album. (He thought so too.) Scratch that — 2014 was the year for this band. How could one feel anything other than pride for the band’s banner year? Granduciel is one of those guys who deserves the attention his band is getting. Lost in the Dream has appeared near the top of every best-of list I’ve read recently, and for good reason. The album manages to walk that fine line between wearing one’s influences on one’s sleeves, and doing something truly original at the same time. But for all the talk of its swirling, meticulous production, I also think Granduciel’s songwriting is deserves to be lauded. Just listen to this solo acoustic version of album closer “In Reverse” if you don’t believe me. Lost in the Dream‘s closing line — “In reverse, I’m moving” — sums up the band’s sound, and their path to success. The album is all highlights, though my favourite may be “Eyes to the Wind.” “Red Eyes” rivals Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting On You)” as the single of the year, and this performance of “Burning” at Primavera gets me amped every time.

Songs of the Summer

As the Labour Day weekend passes us by, many may find their thoughts turn to autumn, but I find myself reflecting on summer. 2014 has been a good year for music, and at least within the genres I inhabit, there has been quite a few great summer tunes released. I’m always surprised by how my listening preferences change when summer comes around: normally I listen to a lot of “sad music,” but I just can’t help dusting off or picking up more energetic albums during the summer months. What’s your song of the summer? Here are some of my candidates.

Spoon – “Rent I Pay”

Music journalists can’t review a Spoon album without using the word “swagger.” They Want My Soul, the band’s eighth studio album released August 5th, is no exception. It’s not so much arrogance as an unwavering artistic confidence, and it’s part of what makes Spoon great summer music. Album opener “Rent I Pay” is one of those tracks that makes me fall in love with rock n’ roll all over again. From Jim Eno’s hard-hitting drums to the dual guitar attack, this song is meant to be cranked.

tUnE-yArDs – “Water Fountain”

Hard to type (and to describe!) but fun to listen to, we enjoyed watching tUnE-yArDs open for Arcade Fire a couple of weeks ago. Merrill Garbus’s energy is infectious and seemingly inexhaustible (though that doesn’t mean her lyrics aren’t thoughtful). This music captures a childlike wonder I have not heard expressed in music before. If I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, I’d want Merrill to be my coworker, because the time would fly by. Bursting with colour and originality, this song is perfect for summer.

Sam Roberts Band – “We’re All In This Together”

Why was this album released in February? It made no sense until the sun came out. Lo-Fantasy found the band experimenting with more a beat-driven sound and poppier production, and I think it works in the right context (namely, June through August). Really, any of the first 3 songs from this album work well as Song of the Summer. But only “We’re All In This Together” gets me singing along and tapping my feet at any time of the day. This song finds Sam Roberts doing what he does best: making effortlessly catchy music that appeals to the masses, yet that also rewards repeat listens. He manages to subvert the instant appeal vs. longevity problem. In addition, the band as a performing entity is tighter than ever, and they really needed to swing by Winnipeg for an outdoor show this summer. Here’s hoping that happens next year.

The War On Drugs – “Red Eyes”

What would summer be without a road trip or two? Aside from being critically adored, the War On Drugs also makes the best driving music since Tom Petty’s early albums. “Red Eyes” is no exception, with its propulsive beat and that simple, hummable melody bounced between guitar and synth. And who doesn’t love a good “whoo!”

Real Estate – “Crime”

The barbecue is over, empties are strewn about, patio lights hang forlornly from the hedges. This is part of summer too, and you’ll need something to soundtrack it. May I suggest a laid-back gem from Real Estate? The intertwined guitars, the tasteful delay effects, the gentle production, the light tapping of the ride cymbal — it all comes together to make a song that’s perfect for the last two hours of the day, or the first two. Beer on the deck, anyone?