The Top Albums of 2016 and also 2017

Ok, yeah, I’m a year behind. You know what though? Nobody sent me a single promo disc to review. No press copies, nothing. The most common way that I heard about new music was the randomizer on Youtube, and I only wish I was making that up. How embarrassing for ambitious artists looking for exposure on my extremely well-read blog. As a result, I feel like I really only have enough material to do one real good list anyway. Remember, these are in no particular order. See the Best Of 2015, if you want to know why. I’m sticking to the same premise.

1. Bo Diddley, Have Guitar, Will Travel (1960)

As a teenager, I bought into FM radio branding an embarrassing amount. I listened to 100.3 THE BEAR, because, in words I can almost quote verbatim from the dickheads I went to junior high with, 97.3 K-ROCK was for old people and power 92 was for f*****s. In a desperate effort to gain some, any, kind of perceptible masculinity, I was listening to a radio station that I am 80% sure I remember calling Freddy Mercury and David Bowie f*****s on air. There’s a peculiar, exclusionary narrative that emerges on mainstream rock radio and I was susceptible to it. Music starts in 1969, and on the straight line between Led Zeppelin and Nickelback, it’s made entirely by white dudes, with an assist by Jimi Hendrix and Heart, and nobody else. A more complete version of the story was always just out of view. Even when concessions were made to the blues, it was always to dead blues guys, legendary mentors of the Real Heroes like Clapton or Page. Now, I got older, I started listening to actual good radio mercifully soon afterwards, and I stopped engaging with that weirdo white-supremacist patriarchal history of FM rock music. However, I hadn’t really formed a more accurate picture of rock and roll history.

Enter Bo Diddley. Everyone knows Bo Diddley, even if he’s not getting much airplay. Dude invented a beat (ok maybe he didn’t invent it, not important. It’s named after him, anyway) that to this day sets a standard for bouncing party jams. Here’s an album that features incredible guitar sounds, two spoken-word bits (one of which is just a conversation loaded with insults). Mumblin’ Guitar is basically the only thing you need to know about rock n’ roll. There’s RnB, blues, gospel, country and actual, four-letter-word ROCK.

It’s useful to the FM radio narrative for the forefathers of rock to be dead, and so people who were still alive tended to get sidelined. But I’m starting to think that maybe the reason Bo Diddley didn’t get a lot of credit was that he was too far ahead of his time. Kinda like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneering guitar player who had minor success in France and nowhere else. She would have made the list this year but she doesn’t really have an album to point to, per se.

2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe- (just, like, find some stuff from her catalogue or something. jeez)

My first exposure to Sister Rosetta was in that montage in Amelie (No I will never stop talking about Amelie), but it took me years to actually figure out who she was and what was going on there. The answer is scorching guitar licks.

I can’t go to bat for most of her stuff, personally. A lot of it is kinda hokey, and the full-on gospel sound has never really been my style, and you better strap in for some religious themes. She doesn’t shred on every song, which isn’t usually a problem, but that’s a big part of what I’m here for. The thing for me, though, is that every once in a while the sheer conviction and musicianship just pulls through. Ain’t no Room in Church for Liars or There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood or, of course, Up Above my Head approach you plainly, take stock of that situation, shake off genre expectations and dateness, and then they simply pick you up and take you somewhere else. What else could you want?

4. Onda Vaga – Fuerte y Caliente (2008), Magma Elemental (2013), OV IV (2016)

Basically, every time I put on one of these albums, I end up listening to all of them, although, weirdly, Espíritu Salvaje (2010) never worked for me to the point where I didn’t even pick it up, and I could barely tell you why.

Onda Vaga is kind of a Rioplatense jug band. There’s four guys or maybe like 8 of them (it depends), they harmonize, their songs are usually upbeat, swinging 4/4 and usually the instruments are acoustic. Trumpet, trombone, cuatro (you could be forgiven for think it’s an ukulele), cajon and hand percussion. If you’re wondering how my adoration for this band squares with my distaste for, say, Of Monsters and Men, it’s the twists. Every song composed for these albums has at least one unexpected element. Sometimes more.

Each album has it’s own vibe. Fuerte y Caliente is all rough edges. Magma Elemental is the serious rock album (barely), OV IV goes pop, introducing loops and synths and effects. It’s also probably my favourite, which is not usually true of The Pop Album. Polish looks good on Onda Vaga. Production brings a bigness to Olviblater and En el Barrio, and lets Leona sound lonely even with full instrumentation and dub/middle eastern touches. Moreso than the rest, OV IV brings the left turns.

There’s a lot of hack indie and ska in the makeup of this act, and a teensy bit of that shows through sometimes, but honestly it’s so well executed I don’t care.

5. Shannon and the Clams – Dreams in the Rat House (2013)

You might have picked up that I got really into some retro-rock this year. This particular entry doesn’t need a whole lot of breaking down, just put it on and rock out. It’s a broad survey of retro sounds that wails through the ballads, stomps through the breakdowns and bounces through the dance tunes. If I heard this playing at a house party I wasn’t invited to, I’d think about crashing it. I probably wouldn’t, though. Pretty presumptuous move, really.

6. Natalia Lafourcade – Musas (2017)

This is basically cheating. Natalia Lafourcade, who was never any slouch on her own, recruits Chavela Vargas’ band and puts out an album with songs by Augustín Lara and Violeta Parra. It would take some serious work to make this into a mediocre album, let alone a bad one. Lafourcade has been to this well before with her album of Lara covers, which is also great, but where that album put a millennial pop sheen on some classics, this album has deeper roots altogether. These tunes were picked out for emotional connection. Look at the swirling frustration and resentment under the swinging Te vi pasar or the poise and passion in Tonada de Luna Llena. Don’t think of it as an education in Latin American music, that sounds boring. Even the album’s subtitle, “an homage to Latin American folklore”, undersells how personal, and therefore original, the actual album is.

7. Los Zafiros – Bossa Cubana (released 1999)

Bossa Cubana is a collection of recordings from the early 60’s heyday of Los Zafiros, a group from Cuba by way of Los Angeles who incorporated African American doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll with Cuban rhythms and scales. Manuel Galbán, who you might recognize from much later works with the Buena Vista Social Club and Ry Cooder, was part of a very avante-garde musical movement, and his choice of notes, voicing and tone recalls everything from jazz to country to 1980s new- wave guitar playing on an archtop hollowbody. The harmonies shimmer and shine over appropriately minimal arrangements.

Beyond the complexity and polish of these tunes, though, there’s the obvious energy with which they’re delivered. This is lightweight pop in the best possible sense. It sounds like a busy pedestrian street on a hot summer day. If you rock out to the Drifters or the Coasters, this should fit comfortably into your collection.

8. The Shins- Wincing the Night Away (2007)

This doesn’t technically belong on this list, because I didn’t discover it in 2016 or 2017. Instead, this was an album my older sister listened to a lot when it came out. I was skeptical of it. Even now, there’s a lot of similar-sounding warbled mediocre retro-indie, and, yes, the association of the Shins with the movie Garden State didn’t help either, although, as a proper pretentious teenager, I of course never actually saw the movie.

I got to thinking about it because of a bassline. There’s a very standard bassline (this is the boogie woogie version of it, but with a heavier downbeat it’s the backbone of blues, honky-tonk, rockabilly, etc). anyway, this album’s first two songs play around with the standard arpeggio in beautiful ways. Sleeping Lessons softens it into a major 7 chord, Australia starts the arpeggio but then drifts off, making the listener wonder if it’s going to come back down or not. It doesn’t, but instead it becomes part of a call-and-response to a vocal part.

Basically, once I got back into the album, I didn’t want to leave. This is an album full of great textures and arrangements. Every guitar solo, by the way, is perfect for the song that it’s in. None of them are feats of finger-blurring wizardry, but all of them sound appropriate to the mood. That’s harder than it sounds. I mean, it must be, or it would happen more often, right?

9. Case/Lang/Viers-Case/Lang/Viers (2016)

This album actually pairs very well with the Shins album, in that they both realize shimmering, textured evocations of several decades’ worth of pop music. Pop might be the wrong word, but then, I couldn’t really say what the actual genre of the piece is. It doesn’t matter.

This album is sort of cheating the way that the Natalia Lafourcade one is. Even if it was just strictly the sum of it’s parts, who would care?

This album is absolutely my top choice for 2016. It’s atmospheric and gorgeous and practically demands to be heard in headphones or hi-fi. It’s forlorn and sinuous and angry and achingly sexy. You don’t really need to read more about it, just go have a listen.

Also, Honey and Smoke has a great joke that explains how honey goes in your ear but ellides where smoke goes. More “serious” songwriting like that, please.

10. Charanjit Singh-Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982) / Konono No. 1 – Congotronics (2004)

These albums are sharing a spot because that seemed fair to me. Not because they’re not both great independently, but because I don’t know how much I have to say about them in the capacity of reviewer. There’s a seminal French Film Studies paper about how critics should only critique things they like, which I’m down with, but I also think that critics would do well to stick with what they know, providing they are constantly expanding what they know. But I don’t know much about Indian music or Congolese music. I don’t know how these albums stand in their genres or the careers of the artists.

Charanjit Singh made a pioneering electronica record in 1982 that was way ahead of it’s time. Konono No. 1 made a huge sounding electric mbira album that I really hope is ahead of it’s time so we get more stuff like it. I don’t know where they fit in the worlds that they came from, but I do know that they really, really, really groove.

11. La Yegros – Viene de Mi (2013)

This will perhaps be a harder swallow for folks who don’t listen to much cumbia, and an even harder swallow if you’re a cumbia traditionalist. It’s dance music, but there’s not much pop about it. It’s got grungy dance production and folkloric instruments and a grinding, sweaty accordion. It’s got anthemic choruses and verses that are more rapped than sung. La Yegros’ distinctive voice might be a bit of an acquired taste. It’s folk music from the post-apocalypse. Don’t sweat it. It might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

12. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat (2016)

Speaking of distinctive voices, prairie poet John K. Samson probably couldn’t be confused for anyone else. His delivery, even over slow, folky jams, is never exactly mellow, never really aggresive. Plantive, in a way that recalls his punk rock days. That’s no mean feat for an an album full of swooning acoustic instruments.

Indeed, this is post-punk, but in the sense of someone who’s been out in the wilderness of Manitoba they’ve almost forgotten the anger of young city dwellers. Everything has an sense of overexposure and wear to it. Too tired to be sad, too sad to be angry.

Regardless, the album strides along with the energy of an assiduous activist who know there’s more to do after the protests are over. The distortion still runs deep, the snare hits are still hard, if and when they show up. Chugging acoustic guitars still push along, and John’s wavering voice reveals its depth.

13. Calexico – Edge of the Sun (2015)

Here’s a gooder. This album sounds like a road trip. This album sounds like rust and small towns. Like desert and forest and gas stations. Like the cosmopolitan mix that only emerges when people from numerous different backgrounds are in rural isolation. Like trading in your novel at the only laundromat for miles.

Calexico is electric and acoustic, folk and pop, Spanish and English. If you like mariachi and funk and Willie Nelson, they won’t steer you wrong. Get the extended version of the album, if you can. It’s worth it.

14. k-os – Atlantis: Hymns for Disco (2006)

Years ago, back in high school, I still didn’t listen to any hip-hop. k-os’ first album, Joyful Rebellion, broke that barrier for me. I adored it. I learned to play a bunch of the songs and I carried it around in my CD wallet, listening on my discman on the bus on the way to school. A few short years later, Atlantis came out, and I completely ignored it. OK, that’s not quite true. The problem was Flypaper. Flypaper is a good song on it’s own, but it suffers in comparison to Crabbuckit. I assumed the whole album was a rehash (Sam Roberts as the guest-star rock musician AGAIN? c’mon), and I never really worried about k-os until last year, when I realized that I wanted to listen to the other two singles from that album, Sunday Morning and Born to Run. And I was greatly rewarded.

k-os draws from a ton of sources, as ever, but his eclecticism never undoes the spirit of the project. Marching bands, disco, reggae and dub, Bloc Party’s first album, Prince and more are all at play here. There’s not one but two rockabilly rap tunes (Valhalla, the second one, features Sam Roberts as the guest-star rock musician. How cool is that?). It’s great. I mean, Highway 7 doesn’t work for me at all, but everything else is just grand.

And Flypaper is actually a different song than Crabbuckit. It’s been worth it just to learn that for sure.

15. Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra – Revuelta Danza Party (2015)

Want to dance? put this on.



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Visit Scenic Tofield

Maybe the most legendary prank in Alberta history.

Media: Permanent Marker on T-shirt. You’re welcome for the free advertising, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

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Know Your Bike!

img_20161115_151925555IMG_20161115_151935385.jpgYears ago I designed this poster. Slightly less years ago fantastic human Kirk Mitchell turned it into, like a real-looking poster. Now they are for sale through the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters. 100% factual labels for bike parts. Very useful.

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Remembrance Day

(a slightly different version of this post appeared on my facebook page last year.)

The neighbourhood where I grew up has been a community of German immigrants since the before it was even part of Edmonton, back when the cycling path in Mill Creek Ravine was an active railway, and a local community-minded German would go meet new immigrants at the station to welcome them and show them around. Even during and after the wars, Germans would come, and the Lutheran church still offers German services.

The Canadian veterans in my life, mostly old relatives, carefully avoided talking about war. For me, the most visceral stories came from my neighbours. This should not be taken as entirely accurate, because it’s my own memory of someone else’s memory.

In about 2007 Dad and I were renovating our house, building a concrete foundation for an extension to go on top. Our house was originally built in the late forties by our neighbour Paul, who himself was a boy in Germany during the war, and the grandfather of one of my childhood friends. One day Paul came to inspect our work, as he often did, and say that he wasn’t sure it was going to work out, as he often did (when the extension was completed, he told us it looked beautiful), and he brought with him two other elderly German men. After my Dad and I introduced ourselves and described what we were doing, one of the old fellows spoke up, and he began, without any prompting at all, “people ask us why we let it happen.”

He told us the story of the day that the Nazis marched into his town, and his whole town marched out to meet them. Lines were drawn in the town square and the villagers defiantly jeered and chanted. The SS officer walked out in front of the assembled troops, staring unflinchingly at the crowd and said “Fuck Off.”

The crowd roared.

The S.S. officer turned and signaled to his men, who uncovered machine guns mounted to the backs of trucks. He stared out into the crowd again and said “Fuck Off.”

The crowd roared, but not as confidently. Small children were sent or carried home, but the villagers held the line and responded in contempt.

The S.S. officer signaled again and the machine guns boomed across the square, over the heads of the villagers.

“what would YOU do? We fucked off.”

This 70-odd year old man, probably no more than a teenager during the war, carried that story around with him every day. At no provocation, he brought himself to tears in front of strangers, for the shameful crime of being afraid of machine guns and not wanting to get shot. What would you have done? I would have fucked off.

When I think about war, I think about my neighbour, in a country that invaded his own, surrounded by immigrants from a country that his country invaded (My neighbourhood is also a historic French community, many of whom came as refugees during or after the war) and the necessity and impossibility of letting go. I think about how few people can be considered winners in a war, and how there are victims and heroes on each side. how the circumstances that lead to tragedy always seem to be intractable. I think about how you can’t blame a person for wanting to forget about war. We remember because it’s our responsibility to the many who will never have the option of forgetting.

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The Top 10 Albums of 2015

There’s this weird thing about music appreciation, where, in our cultural reaction to emotional and subjective pieces of art, we sort music into lists. The 100 best guitar players of all time, best albums of 1975,  top 5 track 1 side ones, greatest accordion album of the century, that sort of thing. Here’s an activity for you: think of a situation, any situation. Break-up, quitting your job, graduation, shopping, sports victory, whatever. Now type “best (situation x) songs” into Google and see what it spits out.

The best thing about these lists is that, by design, every single person who reads one will disagree with it. Obviously, individual writers have stupid opinions unique perspectives, but more importantly, the list is inherently a critically vacuous tool that attempts to describe value not through actual merits but placement relative to other music.

Year-end lists are probably my favourite in this regard. At every step, the list-maker undermines the very premise. The list claims to consider all the music released in a year, but is published in early December, so as to get more hits from Christmas shoppers. Oops, you’re a human experiencing time linearly, you’re not physically capable of listening to all the music produced in a year. Stick to major label releases and other albums that hit a moderate level of success, because a personal connection to music isn’t important unless other people share it. Under no circumstances should the list include an a bestselling album, though. Anyone who listens to more than a few albums will be comparing apples to steak anyway, so the numbering comes out arbitrary.

Anyways, here’s my top 10 albums of 2015: Continue reading

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It’s Not Too Early To Call The Greatest Accordion Album of the Century

Quick, what music do you remember from 2001?

This song broke records that year, and until I started doing research for this article, I had forgotten about it. I find music is harder to forget than it is to remember, but honestly I  Janet’s uncanny smile from the video stuck in my mind more than the song. It’s not a bad song, outside my genre alignment, sure, but a passable pop single that totally ruled 2001. At least, according to its wikipedia page. I would never have guessed. Continue reading

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Flying Canoe Part 2: Aftermath

The worst thing about the Flying Canoe is that I’ve basically never been there. Every year I get there before it starts, play for four hours, finish breaking down long after it’s finished, and then I do the same thing the next day. As a consequence, I’ve enlisted twitter to help me out with the visuals on this post.

The last three or four years, the first weekend in February has been colder than -20°. There are many brave souls that venture out, but the ravine tour goes pretty quickly so as to keep circulation up and also to return to La Cité Francophone a little bit faster. This year, temperatures ranged between 0 and -5°, and all of the sudden there were a kabillion people.

Continue reading

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Cold Weather, Métis Dancing and Problem Solving

For the past couple years in February my family and I have had the pleasure of providing music and dance instruction for the Flying Canoe / Canoë Volant Festival. You can see us briefly in this video at the 50 second mark.

That’s my dad Dave on mandolin, my sister Tahnis on violin, and myself on the guitar.You may notice that we’re playing in a tent, and you might guess from all the visible breath that it’s pretty darn cold out. If you look really close, you’ll see that I’m actually wearing a pair of those fingerless glove/mitten convertible dealies. Continue reading

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Activity: Fake Christmas Songs

I’ve been working retail during the most christmassy time of the christmas. Constant Christmas music has rotted my brain. Without using google, guess which of these songs are real and which ones are fake.

  • Takin’ Care of Christmas – Bachman Turner Overdrive
  • Everybody Wants a Little Piece of my Christmas – David Wilcox
  • Gifts are for Giving but Family is for Keeps (the Christmas Cookies Song) – Ludracris feat. Dr. Dre and Ludacris’ mom
  • Honky Tonk Christmas – Alan Jackson
  • Reggae Christmas – Bryan Adams
  • Salsa Christmas –  Tito Puente and his Orchestra
  • Heavy Metal Christmas – Twisted Sister
  • It’s a Polka Christmas – Frankie Yankovic
  • Funky Funky Xmas – The New Kids on the Block
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll Santa – Little Joey Farr
  • Punk Rock Santa – NOFX
  • Dubstep Santa – Katy B
  • The Be-Bop Santa – Babs Gonzales
  • Soul Santa – Brook Benton
  • Trap Santa – Fetty Wap
  • Funky Santa (is Comin’ to Town) – Jean Knight
  • Back Door Santa – Bon Jovi
  • Jingle Hell – Christopher Lee
  • Mrs. Claus Ain’t Alone Tonight – Mötley Cruë
  • Christmas in Hollis – Run DMC
  • Christmas in Prison – John Prine
  • Christmas in the Swamp – Clifton Chenier
  • Christmas in Connecticut – Barry Manilow
  • California Christmas – the Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Christmas All Over the World – Walk Off The Earth
  • Jing-a-Jing-Jingle, Jing-ga-lee Jingle – Nat King Cole
  • Santa Won’t Bring Me A Girlfriend – Simple Plan
  • Santa Dabo Dabo Bah! – the Minons feat. Gru.

Special thanks to Snoozy P for helping me out with these.

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This is also a music blog now, I guess

Let’s talk about a funny thing that I hate.

That video by the Axis of Awesome is legitimately hilarious deconstruction of I-V-vi-IV, probably the most common chord change in popular music. It’s well done, and I really like the goofy tangent on Five for Fighting’s Superman. My problem with it is just that it approaches the music from the wrong angle. Axis of Awesome looked at I-V-vi-IV and concluded that everyone was just being lazy and derivative. Granted, I-V-vi-IV is just a safer version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D with simpler chords and a more regular resolve, but that’s still not the point. How amazing is it that millions of songs from hundreds of countries from thousands of bands and hundreds of years share identical or nearly identical structures while remaining distinctive? How did that happen? I-V-vi-IV shows up in every genre, but even if it originated in classical music, pop-punk has held indisputable squatter’s rights for years. Why is that, and how come the change still regularly escapes into new genres? And how does it work semiotically to use the same form for so many different meanings? How can a chord progression be considered “reliable”? what could that possibly mean?

Continue reading

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