This review was shockingly hard to put together, and it’s a bit hard to be comprehensive about why. Part of the reason is technology based. I lost my mp3 player (an old iphone I got for free); my laptop slowed down almost beyond functionality, being twelve years old. This eliminated the two standard ways that I’ve listened to music for the past 12 years. I had an office job, and I would listen to Spotify and Bandcamp at work, but that contract ran out in February.
The reason is also financial. At the start of the year I resolved to “go see more live music” I went to a one concert in January (Shannon and the Clams). Unemployment brought austerity to the entertainment budget so seeing Doug Hoyer, Karimah and Baby Grayden was paid for by my girlfriend, and Bardic Form’s show was free (not relevant, but there was a bird there that almost seriously derailed the performance, and frankly they should have charged tickets to watching the flute player continually laugh and have to restart the tune). I even skipped volunteering at the Folk Fest because I was working a short renovation contract and had to keep applying for jobs.
Even still, though, the reason remains only partially articulated. It was a grim year in a lot of ways. I’m not a person who can ignore music; I have no choice in whether or not I’m absorbing it. When I got work in September, it was in a warehouse and I had to listen to mainstream radio, which, after years of retail and restaurant work, made me want to give up on the concept of music. Every day I was exposed to of 100s of songs that I don’t like, but have memorized note-for-note. The Hits of the 80’s, 90’s and Beyond. Classic Rock stations that haven’t changed their playlists since 1990, but have cranked up the conservatism. Edmonton’s Best Rock, somehow not airing a single band from Edmonton*. I genuinely think that mainstream radio made me exhausted with music.
Anyways, you know how this goes by now: in no particular order, these are the top albums that I found in 2019.
- Elvis Costello and the Attractions – This Year’s Model (1978)
It’s reasonable to have a negative reaction to Elvis Costello. He has this legendary place in music discourse, but he doesn’t actually get much play because a lot of his catalogue is totally forgettable and also, like, his whole personality. I don’t exactly remember how he ended up in my rotations; possibly it was from “Watching the Detectives” coming on spotify radio, possibly it was CKUA. I tracked down the rest of the album and was immediately disappointed. However, on the advice of a friend, I checked out this album, which is far more of a piece with “Watching the Detectives”. And after I listened to this, I also cruised through a bunch more of his discography, and was also disappointed.
But this one album is good, though. Each song is basically the same four instruments, but they create a lot of different textures and structures with a fairly basic sonic palette. It’s got that late seventies self-conscious rejection of studio polish and production, which occasionally sounds a bit flat, but overall brings out immediacy in the songs. There are some clunkers in the songwriting, but mostly these are interesting topics explored in interesting ways. If you thought the Clash should’ve embraced new wave and motown, and also practiced more than once a month, this will suit you well.
The bonus tracks are hit and miss, as ever, and for every surf-tinged and anxious “Crawling to the USA”, there’s the melodramatic “Big Tears”. If it leaves you wanting more material from Costello, I recommend “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” from the Chieftains christmas album, and then, like, I dunno, maybe check out Courtney Barnett?
- Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Dirt (2018)
2019’s co-winner for Best Ethnic Fusion Prog Rock by a Band in Black and White Stage Makeup, Yamantaka/Sonic Titan, does really, really heavy, animé-inflected prog. Is that weird to say? Like, you’ve heard music described as theatrical, or cinematic, right? This is animé-etic music. Given the band’s influences, from heavy metal to j-pop to noh theatre, it might be hard to imagine how this band actually sounds.
Well, I’ve thought a lot about it, and here’s the catch. I don’t listen to much heavy metal at all (some Mastadon from ten years ago, System of a Down back in high school), I definitely do not have a comprehensive or even basic knowledge of eastern asian musical traditions, and I don’t really watch animé. My usual technique of relating the album to other music I’m familiar with is failing me (the only thing that really comes to mind with any clarity is saskatoon indie-prog band The Bloodlines, and that’s still pretty far off-base). I don’t want to undersell any particular aspect of the music, so I’ll try to relate the more experiential aspects.
Dirt is claustrophobic and bracing. Dirt is raw but clean, like biting into an onion. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan take you to the bottom of the sea where the only light comes bioluminescent algae.
- The Mariachi Ghost – The Mariachi Ghost (2013)
2019’s co-winner for Best Ethnic Fusion Prog Rock by a Band in Black and White Stage Makeup, The Mariachi Ghost does traditional mexican music by way of Pink Floyd and Opeth. Echoplex guitars, harmonies, distortion and huapangos. I dig it.
So, while we’re here, let’s talk about the role of theatricality in music. There’s a view that theatrics are cheap substitutes for the mythical “real music”. I don’t think I’ve consciously held that view, it’s one of those pervasive things in the social filters between the art and the audience. You’ve heard it before, though. You know, “The Who can’t play their instruments so they just thrash around and break things”, “Marilyn Manson doesn’t have any musical ideas, so he just dresses outrageously to get attention”, that sort of thing. And, you know what? that idea is not without merit. Certainly it explains Kiss.
That’s only about ⅓ of the story, though. First off, there’s the problem of standing out in a crowded field. There’re tons of talented musicians out there, and having a gimmick works as a mnemonic device. Which one is MF Doom? Right, the guy with the mask. Who’s that woman with the meat dress? What was that band that dressed up as superheroes? That sort of thing is almost universally common, to some degree or another, because it works. Once you’ve seen GWAR, you don’t forget who they are.
The last ⅓, though, is that sometimes a theatrical gimmick indicates musicians so confident in what they’re doing, so assured in their songcraft, and so certain that their gimmick is relevant to their artistic intent, that they add a layer of alienating weirdness between themselves and the audience. In the best case scenario, this functions as a type of quality filter, where a band must metaphorically play louder than their costumes if they want recognition. I call this the David Bowie principle.
The Mariachi Ghost does a great job of this. I enjoy the embroidered tuxedos and facepaint, and they are part of the aesthetic experience that the band creates, but I’m not thinking about them when I put this album on. These are great tunes on their own merits, but pushed even further by dint of being performed by skeleton mariachis.
- The Aquabats – Vs the Floating Eye of Death (1999)
While we’re on the subject, here’s that superhero band I mentioned earlier. Now, I’ve owned this album since about 2002, and I’ve never denounced the Aquabats or even so-cal ska, so it’s not like this is a bold re-evaluation to me. I just sort of re-discovered this album this year, and I get to write about it because it’s my website and I make the rules.
The Aquabats were never a very good ska band. I mean, I liked Return of the Aquabats just fine, but the weakest material on there is the most conventional 90’s ska-punk. Luckily, they’re gunning for something completely different here. It’s like 13 theme songs for long lost high-energy saturday morning cartoons (plus “Hello, Goodnight”, which has end credits written all over it. It’s even the album closer). Like, I could cite actual songs by actual bands but this is more in line with music from Johnny Quest, X-men, Venture Bros. This material is so steeped in genre that it becomes oversaturated, hits critical mass, and is spit out the other side, mutants wandering a genreless wasteland. It’s surf rock and new wave and punk and prog and and and who cares?
The Aquabats are so unselfconsciously goofy that it makes it easy to miss the incredibly creative arrangements and tight musicianship. The whole band is exceptional, but the interlocking work of the Mysterious Kyu and Chainsaw, Prince of Karate made this is genuinely a formative guitar album for me.
For some of you, the material might be an understandable stumbling block. Sure, yes, there’s a rock opera about a scorpion and a fake-western tale about tiny humans that sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks. All I can say is that these are all the best possible versions of themselves. Plus, don’t sleep on Chemical Bomb, a breezy supermarket bossa nova that’s also the darkest song on the album. Floating Eye is an album with no easy parallels, a pop-culture experiment that documents musical mad science at a very high ebb.
- The Beat – I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)
The Beat are an anomaly in ska music. Lots of bands claim them as an influence, but basically nobody sounds anything like them.
I Just Can’t Stop It is a dance record. It’s propulsive and infectious, and stimulates that sort of immediate body response that makes it hard to sit still when you hear it. And despite being a non-stop mover, it’s also adventurous and varied. Beats and basslines from this album make valuable remix additions because they just pump everything up (proof: Diplo’s Beck’s Wish Coin).
Fusing musical genres is hard, and there’s something that comes off almost innately corny about it. Think, like, Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran, which is an inoffensive mix of top 40 pop and Irish trad that’s musically stable but so contrived it just barely holds together. There’s often some awkwardness where cultures (and subcultures) collide, and that tends to out in the music. The Beat don’t fumble with any of that. This record is fully formed, and the deep Jamaican grooves, punk beats and futuristic new wave ripples are not discrete. It’s such a complete sound. The more rooted stuff, like the Prince Buster covers, is still far enough out there that they don’t sound out of place next to a churning acoustic guitar under a sax solo, or a Byrds-esque twelve string riff.
Also, always good to be reminded of second wave ska’s deliberately anti-facist, anti-racist streak.
- Mo Kenney – The Details (2017)
First thing’s first: Mo Kenney is out here taking chances in the guitar solos. I know it’s 2020 now and nobody cares about guitar solos, but they’re integral to this album. The Details is a high-tension experience, so it’s good to blow the doors off at regular intervals with a blazing solo.
A concept album about relationships and mental health, The Details is thematically heavy, and appropriately, it crunches along through 90’s alternative, 60’s psychedelia and 00’s indie. I do not care how you choose to pronounce 00’s. Unique in the world of concept albums, Mo Kenney understands the value of short songs. There are no full-side epics and suites, just snapshots of different moments. No songs are longer than 3:40, three songs are less than a minute. Shifting gears between tunes is deliberately disorienting; despite being anchored in a commercialist radio-pop convention, it turns the effect inside out in the context of an album.
It’s hard to explain, but this is also a very funny album. Not that it makes me laugh, but there’s some real dark irony here, and the framing is often a little bit arch. Sort of like a less campy Shannon and the Clams, or the subtle residue left behind if you extracted the corniness from Joel Plaskett.
- Los Belkings – Lo mejor de los belkings (1968)
I don’t like including best-ofs, because I think there’s value in the cohesion of an album, but sometimes you gotta take what you can find.
So, ok, background. I’ve been really into this genre called chicha for a while now. It’s South American (peruvian, specifically) in origin, and is a psychedelic mix of 60s fuzz guitars, kit drums and farfisa organs with traditional forms and dances like cumbias and huaynos. It’s loads of fun, the musicianship is stellar and the delivery is just wild with effects and guitar runs, rhythm changes and earth-shaking bass. Here, check out The Roots of Chicha for an overview.
Before that, though, there was the Belkings, who were working very much from the Ventures‘ playbook. Despite the ambition of the arrangements and playing, these tunes are pretty square, and in comparison to chicha they’re outright tame. Regardless, there are some strong surf-rock fundamentals here, and I believe it’s more than an archaeological fascination that keeps me coming back.
- Loreena McKennitt – The Visit (1991)
The 90’s were a weird time. For example, there was a hot week there when everyone had Cat-in-the-Hat hats and jester caps and then we never spoke of it again. Hip-hop was making inroads to the mainstream, grunge made flannel and not showering cool again, Jam bands, ska and swing music all made comebacks, techno went big and then went home. Basically, the hair metal and monoculture pop of the 80s music was so big, was such a production, that the second that cracks in the foundation appeared, all sorts of weirdness leaked out at high pressure. Among them, a small but comparatively long-lived revival of celtic music.
This is a thing and we don’t talk about it. There was a wave that lasted slightly longer than the decade itself, and the tide lifted the boats of everyone from Great Big Sea to Enya to Michael Flattley.
McKennitt was one of the first, and up to this very year was successfully touring and releasing albums. I think that’s in large part due to her open approach to traditionalism, which is to say she’s not out to recreate anything in particular. The Visit is a wide-ranging folk album, with all kinds of worldbeat influences, but it doesn’t sound contrived. Jesus, I have to steer myself out of talking about Galway Girl again.
Anyway, this is a good album and I was reminded of it by this video by Todd in the Shadows, who points out that the 90s celtic wave gave McKennitt a #1 hit, which I honestly did not know.
- St. Vincent and David Byrne – some live concert footage (2012)
St. Vincent and David Byrne did an album together called Loving this Giant, and it’s just okay. I would describe it as bold and propulsive, but tight and overproduced.
However, I’ve listened to this NPR live show, plus a handful of other artifacts from that album’s tour, several times. I’m not generally a live-recordings kind of guy. This music you love? How about if you had it in a tinny, low-quality recording full of crowd noise?
This, on the other hand, plays to Byrne’s strengths in delivering something tightly controlled, while still allowing Annie Clark to step out a bit and loosen up the songs. The instrumentation is two vocalists with guitars, drums, and an absolutely disproportionate horn section. It’s terrific. It’s full of wonderful little touches, subtle orchestration, and a genuinely collaborative feel, which is tricky with the sheer amount of people on stage. Annie Clark understands the electric guitar as a synthesizer better than anyone, and uses the vibrating strings as a waveform generator that must be modified to fit any individual song.
Best part? Ending “Road to Nowhere” with a New Orleans funeral march.
*I also have not included any local music, so who knows what I’m trying to prove with this line.