I'll avoid the big biographical introduction this year, but I will share that I'm making some changes. I've been volunteering on Punknews.org in one capacity or another for 16 years now, and I'm more excited about what I can do as a supporter of independent music in 2017 than I have been in a long while. Keep an eye out.
20 LPs that Rocked The Casbah in 2016
20. The Steve Adamyk Band: Graceland
Ottawa's Steve Adamyk is so fucking consistant it's easy to overlook how perfectly he's honed his breakneck-speed power pop over five full lengths. He's helped out this time by members of Montreal's amazing Sonic Avenues and with their backing he makes a pretty compelling claim to the garage-punk crown The Marked Men once wore. Every track on Graceland is downright triumphant and I'd wager there's a stronger set of hooks packed into this half hour whatever pop punk band is getting airplay these days.
19. Culture Abuse: Peach
I can quite easily map my way to most of the bands on this list. I'm a fan of label X and they put out a record from Y, who played with Z. That sort of thing. I have no idea how Culture Abuse ended up in my playlist this year. It's the one genuine "heard a random song on the Internet" record in this set. That song, "Dream On," still floors me. Vocalist David Kelling has one of the most unique, engaging voices in punk today. It's got a hint of the Spits at times, owes a lot to the Ramones at others, and over the course of this record goes absolutely everywhere, from grunge to upbeat surf to downright pinhead dumb punk rock.
Planes Mistaken For Stars have always been a compelling enigma for me. They represented that scary unknown deep end of the catalogue when I was an EpiFat teenager digging my way through the rougher sounds of the No Idea mail order. After a 10 year absence their revival continues the threads I found so captivating back when I first encountered them: that sinister mix of thickly layered post-hardcore with growled vocals that sounds like nothing else.
17. The Tragically Hip: Man Machine Poem
My history as a youth rejecting "Canada's band" so closely mirrored that of Fucked Up's Damian Abraham that I'll defer that story to him. I'm sure it's a common experience. Like Damian I came around to the Hip as an adult and started to recognize the somewhat undefinable shared experience they were putting into song. This last record, recorded with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew and The Stills' David Hamelin, puts the band's populist rock through a bit of an indie rock filter which I can certainly appreciate. Yet would this have stuck with me without all the recent events? Can I hear this record without the prologue of Gord's terminal cancer diagnosis, without sharing in the the nationally broadcast farewell concert, without the Secret Path follow up and Gord's loud support for Canada's indigenous peoples? Perhaps it wouldn't have, but with all the horrible news that made up 2016 the positivity and sense of community the Hip forged through their own hardship is one of the few bright spots.
16. Ancient Shapes: Ancient Shapes
You've Changed Records
Attack In Black's landmark LP Marriage turned 10 this year, but ex-frontman Daniel Romano's been so prolific in his solo alt-country career that his punk years have seemed like ancient history. It was easy to assume that the career shift meant those sounds had been disowned as some youthful discretion: lessons long since learned from. What a surprise it was then to find Romano not only rediscover his amplifier on his surprise Ancient Shapes side-project, but to turn out a set of snotty Buzzcocks-inspired punk that cuts closer to the un-hyphenated core of the genre than anything Attack In Black ever attempted.
15. Twist: Spectral
Spectral is what top 40 charts would sound like if were put in charge, which is to say solid pop songwriting married at all times to a low-fi garage rock fuzz. Laura Hermiston sounds astoundingly confident on this record, and it's a big leap from her psyche-pop days with BB Guns. The production from Holy Fuck's Brian Borcherdt is perfect for the material, with big spacious reverbs abound and a completely tasteful and restrained helping of the electronic soundscape stuff he's made his name with.
14. Right Shitty: Bachelor of Arts
This is the hidden gem of 2016, a commanding punk rock record from Saint John, New Brunswick of all places. Right Shitty can do Gainesville-style melodic hardcore with the best of them, but there's a bit of grunge in the mix, a little bit of Pavement's low-fi indie rock, and countless other cool little moments I keep uncovering. "Best Buzz" is the type of song that makes you want to run around in a little circle, shrieking along with the chorus even though you're not entirely sure what's being shouted. I think I went a few months of this year with the BandCamp page for this record accidentally set as a home page in my browser, and I fully endorse you all doing that.
Royal Mountain Records
Pkew Pkew Pkew finally bring together a set of songs they've been working and reworking for years into a full length that's as dumb, fun, and self-destructive as any of the great party-punk acts of yore. Yet for the subject matter (pre-drinking, drinking, being obnoxious while drinking, post-drinking, pizza) there's an undercurrent of self-awareness here that keeps the record from ever presenting itself as a soundtrack for all the bros of the world. Pkew's not singing ironically, but they do seem keenly aware that they're all going to die horribly in some boneheaded blaze of glory, which is at least as good an outcome as any other.
12. NOFX: First Ditch Effort
I'm not sure when exactly I became so invested in the life of Fat Mike, but against all odds NOFX has become a band whose emotional (and chemical, and apparently sexual) well-being concerns me more than most. We had a handful of fun records from an the 90s EpiFat mainstays this year, even a rare Descendents release, and yet the non-event of a new NOFX platter is the one I'm continuously revisiting. Every NOFX record walks a fine line between irreverence and something more honest, and the balance feels pretty good here.
Outside of any context, "Rebecca" is one of the best songs Against Me! has ever written and one of the most exhilarating rock songs of 2016. Also out of context, Shape Shift with Me seems to be a lighter Against Me! record from a purely political standpoint. It's primarily about sex and relationships, which is really what most other music is about in one way or another. With context, following the groundbreaking Transgender Dysphoria Blues with such a record feels daring. It seems obvious for Laura Jane Grace to use her status as prominent trans musician to bring LGBT issues to the fore in a protest song, but to explore her identity as it applies to love and loss, on a very basic human level, may be just as important.
10. Jeff Rosenstock: WORRY.
Maybe I'm just paying more attention this year, but Jeff Rosenstock's WORRY. has my attention more than his prior two solo records, and (to my ears) is the most immediate and engaging thing he's released since the door closed on Bomb The Music Industry. Jeff's role as the punk prophet of urban millennial anxieties is well known and the first half of WORRY. articulates that mix of truth-telling and neurosis as well as he ever has. Much has been written about the b-side of WORRY., a breakneck medley tour of the various genres and sounds Rosenstock's been associated with. It's a massive amount of fun and levity to counterbalance the poignancy of the A.
9. Kaytranada: 99.9%
HW&W Recordings / XL Recordings
I had the honour of serving as a Polaris Music Prize juror this year, and the most fascinating aspect was having to own up to the bounds of my musical literacy. The eventual winner, Montreal electronic music producer Kaytranada, isn't an act I could have picked out on my own. The worlds of funk, R&B, and soul, all of which are intricately weaved and repurposed across 99.9%, reads like a list of the genres I know pretty much nothing about. This is pretty far outside of my scuzzy little punk rock sphere, but I can't deny how beautiful this album nor how much I've enjoyed the time I've spent figuring it out.
8. White Lung: Paradise
As much as I admired them, the songs of White Lung's earlier catalogue progressed with such aggression, such raw-throated rage that I actually found them difficult to listen to for any sustained amount of time. It's risky to build a band's identity around velocity and blown speakers. If you slow down you're accused of going commercial at the expense of your art, if you never change you forever narrow your audience and remake the same record. With Paradise White Lung find that elusive third path, that demonstration of real, uncompromised growth. It allows their sound more space and their sets more variety without abandoning their core sound. They're now a more intricate band, and a more interesting one for sure, but they never sound like a diminished version of what they were before.
I stood in the crowd on November 8th, waiting for John K. Samson to take the stage in Toronto, desperately trying to not look at my phone. The rest of the audience couldn't resist, and nervously shuffling around while gazing at the red / blue FiveThirtyEight scoreboards with a sense of dread. John didn't acknowledge the history unfolding a couple hours to the south, but at one point between a mix of Weakerthans classics and strong numbers from Winter Wheat someone in the audience shouted "John, DO SOMETHING" in desperation. Samson chuckled with a sense of defeat, and then did all he could. What he could do was articulate some kinder, smarter, more delicate version of the world in song, even as those traits felt increasingly drained from the world beyond the walls of the Mod Club. I can't quite untie Winter Wheat from that evening.
6. Odonis Odonis: Post Plague
Their last record was a 50/50 split between dreamy shoegaze and abrasive industrial punk, and prior to that they had a garage surf-noise mix, so of course the new outing from Odonis Odonis is a moody new wave record. It would have been entirely out of character for this band to repeat themselves. There is a massive, obvious, and fully embraced 80s sci-fi theme on this record. In a year when the throwback TV show Stranger Things had the wider culture embracing weird VHS-era nostalgia, this Toronto three-piece unwittingly tapped the exact same vein. Hell, you could drop in the spooky synths of "Needs" or "Nervous" for the theme music of that show and nobody would notice anything out of place.
5. A Tribe Called Red: We Are the Halluci Nation
The Canadian music scene's buzzed about the First Nations DJ collective A Tribe Called Red for years now and the group's had a number of propulsive, striking compositions break through to non-Native audiences. This, their third full length, is so bold in its political aims yet infectious and danceable that it's bound to build the most bridges. The band's mix of traditional powwow with modern dancehall, dubstep, and hip hop sounds fully cohesive here. A range of guest vocalists and activist musicians are well integrated, from Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, to Iraqi MC Yassin Alsalman, to Saul Williams, and Yasiin Bey. The history of cultural genocide in Canada has become mainstream in the past few years and A Tribe Called Red are well timed to be among the artistic standard bearers in this winder conversation.
4. Daniel Romano: Mosey
New West Records
While his punky Ancient Shapes project was a light and pleasant distraction, the Daniel Romano's proper 2016 full length Mosey was breathtaking in scope. Romano's country persona has for years been purposely and stubbornly rooted in the earliest flag bearers of the genre, at times bordering on reenactment. One typically doesn't progress boldly out of nostalgia, but somehow this record does it, moving from the dusty 50s vibe of his past records into some alt-universe 70s, awash in psychedelia, lush instrumentation, and unchecked ambition.
3. Greys: Outer Heaven
Buzz Records / Carpark Records
Greys are in that rare class of bands that's willing to make a significant shift in sound between records, and their transition from a loud, mathy Toronto noise-punk act this more sonically dynamic form has been their most dramatic. Outer Heaven (and for that matter Warm Shadow, an engaging companion of b-sides and tape drones) bring the band's politics and anxieties into stark relief, better articulating some of the sharp racial and social commentary that was perhaps lost among the speed and distortion of prior outings.
2. PUP: The Dream Is Over
Royal Mountain Records / Side One Dummy Records
The breakneck segue from the album opening "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" to lead single "DVP" is perhaps my favourite single moment of any album this year. It tops a list of seemingly endless small charms that PUP heaps onto their second full length, which singlehandedly makes the case that modern punk rock can retain its youth and vitality without falling in line with the trends du jour. With huge shout-along choruses and WOAH's abound, PUP's repurposing the hooks and flourishes of the mid-90s pop-punk. Those are the bands of my youth but they're sounds I'd long tired of. PUP somehow plays those familiar cards without sounding stale.
There are academically better records than this, so I'm told, but there's none I've had so much emotionally invested in. Through geographic happenstance I've had the pleasure of seeing this three-piece slowly build a catalogue of excellent singles, supported by blisteringly energetic local bar shows. A band in love with vinyl singles and limited releases, it took the Dirty Nil longer than most to take the leap from EPs to this, their first proper album. It's strange for me to even call it their debut, as I've had a few summers driving through the Niagara wine country with these songs blaring from my car window. Familiarity may be clouding my critical objectivity here, but I'm not a very good critic anyways. Nothing makes me happier than listening to these songs with the volume up.