Tonight we milk the stiffs
In December of 2016 I was ready to quit Punknews. I'd been volunteering for the site in one way or another for 16 years at that point, and unlike many of our early-to-mid 2000s crew, I didn't have much of an exit strategy. I wasn't destined for a career in the music industry, I didn't have the stomach to freelance, and I was too wrapped up in sunk-cost fallacy to walk away earlier. My sense of identity was far too hitched to the Punknews brand Yet the reality was that I had a full-time job, two kids, and a household that was ill-served by punching out daily news stories. Something had to give.
I, ultimately, want to be useful. I want to live in service of independent music. If I were to write my epitaph, I'd want it to say "Adam, as best he knew how, helped the DIY music more than he hurt it." My niche at Punknews has always been to highlight Canadian bands, and we were early to bring the music of groups like the Dirty Nil, Pkew Pkew Pkew, Single Mothers and PUP into the broader conversation. That's been my favourite part of this. Knowing that, and considering the reality of my available time, I started Some Party
. Some Party's a weekly newsletter that covers independent Canadian rock'n'roll, with punk and garage rock at its core. Think of it as the toque-wearing cousin to Punknews that you only see at dinner on Sunday.
Some Party's allowed me to focus and re-engage with what I love about music. It earned me a slot on a press junket to northern Quebec to cover the Festival de musique émergente
. It got me out of my rut to finally binge on garage-punk at the Ottawa Explosion Weekend
. It found me in George Stroumboulopoulos' kitchen to witness Against Me!
play a house show. It prompted me to follow around Tough Age for a few days of release shows. Hell, I'm now planning a few shows of my own for 2018.
For the first time in a long time, I'm genuinely happy with what I can contribute to the music world. I don't feel underwater, and I'm not worried about the forcing volunteer-run Punknews to complete with the big publishing fish. We can be weird in our own way and keep charting our own course. Life is good. *
* Personally. Of course, from a "state of the humanity" standpoint, 2017 can get fucked and you know why.
This year was cool, and I probably consumed more new music in a single season than I have in a while. I enjoyed records from bands like Needles//Pins, Cheap Whine, Career Suicide, Crusades, The Sadies, Alvvays, The Bronx, Casper Skulls, Craig Finn, Crusades, Fake Palms, the Flatliners, Greg Graffin, Richard Laviolette, Jon McKeil, the Menzingers, the New Pornographers, Nick Ferrio, No Warning, Petra Glynt, Priors, Plasmalab, Single Mothers, Soupcans, Spencer Burton, WHIMM, and many others.
Coolest Project of 2017
Various Artists: Pentagon Black Compilation Vol 2 & 3
Montreal garage-punk duo The Famines released two volumes of their Pentagon Black compilation series this year, one as a double-sided 20x30" newsprint poster and second as a postcard. Both "paper compilations" feature original art and a link to download new songs by some of the coolest underground bands in the country, from Hamilton's TV Freaks offshoot Sweet Dave & The Shallow Graves to Montreal pop-punk act Pale Lips to Toronto noise-punks Protruders. Why paper though? It's partly economics and it's party art. Vinyl's expensive and slow to have made, particularly for something like a multi-band comp with no real label footing the bill. Cassettes are always an option but perhaps a little hipper than they are practical. Paper is just a vehicle for the download, of course, but it also gives you something physical. It gives you something collectable, an object of interest in and of itself. I wanted to pay my respect to what the Famines are doing here, as it's one of the more aggressively creative feats of DIY problem solving I've seen in a while, and the end product is really fucking cool.
My Favourite 5 EPs of 2017
Honourable mentions go out to short form records from Corner Boys, BBQT, Bad Channels, Zen Bamboo, the New Calling, Night People, and Chastity. Some of the year's best songs show up on those sets.
5. Twist: Benefits
Toronto's Twist follows up their 2016 full length Spectral
with this confident little EP. The band's sound is a mix of jangly rock with some electronic touches and some shoegaze sensibility. Over these four songs, Laura Hermiston shows a tremendous amount of range. While Twist has always collaborated heavily with their producers, Laura's written strong songs here that could stand well enough on their own. That said, Beta Frontiers' Michael Butler gives this set a very neat urban sheen.
4. WLMRT: Plan B
I've seen WLMRT a few times this year, and each time I'm amazed at how much joy this band seems to elicit from crowds. Plan B
shows a sense of abandonment that can throw you at first. Shelby shouts over the band, throwing out stream-of-consciousness absurdities that become funnier with time. I have a hard time measuring a noisy art project like this against your run of the mill modern punk band, but that off-kilter quality makes them more dangerous and exciting to me.
3. Deathsticks: Dethstyx
So my wife arrives at the Ottawa Explosion Weekend from a relaxing day at the spa and finds me at a small bar watching Deathsticks play loud as all fuck. The duo's on stage churning through an oppressively chaotic mix of frantic drumming, over-distorted guitar, and wild shouting. The vocalist's screaming at a lightbulb. Everything's at maximum. My wife, as she regretfully hands the cover to the doorperson, shoots me a look that I can only describe as pure contempt. The Dethstyx
EP is the best representation of this moment on record, and it's even not quite loud enough.
2. PONY: Do You
Produced by Greys' Shehzaad Jiwani, PONY's debut EP is the first pop-punk record in a long while that's captured my attention at all. "Small Things" in particular is a perfect pop song, and I'd put it up against anything else in the genre. Sam Bielanski's vocals, youthful and a little bit twee, wonderfully sells these bubblegum-rock songs of love, angst, and loss. 2017's been an infuriating year, but Do You
never fails to break through it and make me happy.
Fair warning that this EP comes from a genre with which I don't have much experience. Holy Fuck may only be on my radar because they keep producing bands I love, but there are few songs I've listened to this year more than "Bird Brains." Holy Fuck's always presented an alternative, aggressive take on electronic music and here they push that to the dance floor. It almost feels a disingenuine to call Bird Brains
alternative-anything, as I could see some of these songs performing just fine in a club setting. Of course, I'm an old person and couldn't point you to the nearest club, so take that with a handful of salt. In any case, this EP quickly turned from a guilty pleasure into something I frequently and unabashedly spun throughout 2017.
My Favourite 20 LPs of 2017
20. Bonnie Doon: Dooner Nooner
Record Centre Records
Ottawa's Bonnie Doon is precisely the type of off-kilter garage rock act that I'm motivated to write about these days. While they've kicked around their hometown for a few years now, Dooner Nooner
is the band's first full length. It's an eclectic mix of druggy surf guitar, sporadic sludge rock, and moments of screaming punk. "Panty Twister" is unquestionably the best X-Ray Spex song that band never wrote. Mostly instrumental cuts like "Now Or Neverish" pay homage to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Tracks like "High Noon" harken back to 90s slacker-rock. Dooner Nooner
's not out to change anyone's life, but it feels like a fresh perspective, and we need more of these kinds of bands.
19. New Swears: And the Magic of Horses
I found New Swears in the midst of chaos, seeing them for the first time at a hometown record release show that was one of the crazier (and physically messier) shows I've witnessed. The Ottawa party-punk band glorifies a very 80s-rooted rock'n'roll dirtbag, all denim and cigarette smoke and undeserved bravado. Max's brother on Stranger Things. With that image in my mind, I was a little worried when the songs for their big label debut sounded a little calmer and less shambolic. If New Swears were all shtick, that'd be the death knell. To their credit though once you pull back the image and the stage theatrics, New Swears still manage to write some pretty kick ass songs. You'll want to learn The Magic of Horses
word-for-word so you can shout along in the crowd.
They just split up, but Century Palm leaves us with an incredibly strong discography between a pair of quality singles and this, their only LP. This Toronto band brought together members of Zebrassieres, the Ketamines, and Tough Age to form a synth-heavy post-punk act with hints of new wave and early goth woven in. Meet You
never sounds particularly nostalgic, but you can hear the influence of Simple Minds, Wire, Joy Division and general krautrock from one track to the next. Songs like "New Creation" sound so fully formed that they feel almost effortless. I've been coming back to this one a lot in the last few months, and I'm astonished how tight it is.
Royal Mountain / Sub Pop
METZ can seem cold and mechanical at times, lost in an epic sea of distortion and perhaps a little unrelatable as a result. Strange Peace
, recorded in part by the legendary Steve Albini, is precisely the kind of record I wanted from them. Their third LP is the trio's most dynamic, balancing memorable songcraft with the buzzsaw racket for which they're known. Songs like "Cellophane," which inject a bit of sneering attitude into the band's usual attack, are just what METZ needed. Strange Peace
proves again why METZ are considered the standard bearers for Toronto's noise-punk scene.
16. Fiver: Audible Songs from Rockwood
As far as concepts go, this one's heavy. The Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane operated in Kingston, Ontario from 1856 to 1881. The individual stories of the women incarcerated there inspired each song on Fiver's Audible Songs from Rockwood
. These are lives that, without this record, would probably remain forgotten. That's the haunting background for this collection of folk and bluegrass tunes. Simone Schmidt's vocals have always carried a certain weary gravity, and I can't imagine anyone else breathing into this material the same harrowing life. While Schmidt, through Fiver or One Hundred Dollars or The Highest Order, has always been a compelling singer/songwriter, this album puts her extensive powers to their greatest good.
While I'm leaning pretty hard into Canadian music this year, I've got to confess I've pretty much avoided Godspeed up until now. I had placed them on a pedestal of "intellectual" rock music that I assumed I'd get to one day. I'm just wired 2 minutes 59. That said, there hasn't been a year in my life that's felt quite as soul-crushingly apocalyptic as 2017, and I've welcomed this as both the soundtrack and part of the cure. Here Godspeed takes you on a wordless journey through defiance, mourning, and ultimately hope. You emerge from the rubble of Luciferian Towers
with the promise that we can rebuild. It's funny how much meaning you can project onto instrumental music. Godspeed's politics off-record certainly help contextualise them, but this honestly does feel like a 10,000-foot view of all the petty regressions that have made each day since last November into such a grind.
Did anyone expect this? I liked Sam Coffey's Gates of Hell
as well as anyone, but this feels like a different (and better) band. At some point between records Coffey and the Iron Lungs decided to break from the country-flavoured punk they were writing and go all in on making the biggest, crowd-pleasing guitar rock they could. It's not a stretch to say that Thin Lizzy and Meatloaf were as influential on this record as whatever punk band you'd care to mention. It largely works, in part because Coffey in this guise is an immensely likeable vocalist, but also because the group strikes the right balance between homage, humour, and a genuine desire to celebrate rock'n'roll at its big, dumb, crowd-pleasing extreme.
Telephone Explosion / Felte
Odonis Odonis continue to shapeshift, taking a winding trail from noise-punk through shoegaze with their heavy industrial influence becoming more and more dominant. On their last record, they started to shed their traditional instruments for more synths and electronics, and that transition's largely complete on No Pop
. The internet tells me this is EBM now, but I'm not cool enough to know what that means. No Pop
packs plenty of aggression, but it's at its best when it's moody and etherial. The band's commentary paints our online life as some dehumanising cyberpunk dystopia, and perhaps that's not an overreaction.
12. The Courtneys: II
The second album from Vancouver's Courtneys has the advantage of containing one of my favourite songs, and one I've been obsessed with for a few years now. This record is the final home of "Lost Boys," which I had chased down on some limited 7" single a few years ago. It's a seven-minute song, starting with a sharp pop hook and charming (if irreverent) lyrics. Ok, so it's a love song written to the teenage vampires of the 80s film of the same name. As the song progresses the lyrics drop away and the band just... jams
. It's almost understated, it's not showy at all, but they just keep going playing this beautiful, clean guitar rock like they've got nowhere else to go. It's completely hypnotic. That sensation's found all over this record. There are versions of this list where *II* has been right at the top, and if I hit it in the right mood, it's my everything.
11. Weaves: Wide Open
is a soaring, triumphant record. Jasmyn Burke's going to be a rock star, in the best sense of that term. To be honest, I had a hard time predicting a positive way forward from the Weaves' debut. For all its art-punk craziness a few enormously hooky pop songs buoyed that record. You fear that some unscrupulous producer's just waiting to slime in and strip away a band's weirdness in the name of mass appeal. Sure, Wide Open
sounds clean as hell, but it's not at all neutered. By leaning into their pop tendencies, Weaves arrive at some fascinating places. The playful "Slicked" is so glam it could be a damn T-Rex song. "Law and Panda" finds band writing their fastest, punkest tune yet. "Scream," with Tanya Tagaq as a guest star, is discordant and dangerous. The title track's just gorgeous. Everything about this album works better than I'd hoped, and the sky's the limit.
In "Adventures in Zoochosis" the speaker makes a plan to save his children, stating that when the oppressors "come to break you" he'll fight back to buy them time, urging "You grab your little brother's hand [and] run like the wind." That verse just wrecks me. It may have brought me to tears the first time I heard that. My dad-brain's manipulating me of course. My daughter has a little brother so the phrasing lines up precisely against my family. Coincidences aside, there hasn't been a Propagandhi record that's affected me this way in 15 years. I'm not going to attribute that entirely to my concerns about the States, although they certainly play a part. This version of Propagandhi, one that's perhaps a little wearier and beat up by the world, finds unexpected heart in teeth-gritting defiance and manages to explore something more profound than rage.
If you're unfamiliar, B.A. Johnston's act amplifies and glorifies the mundanities of life in the Canadian rust belt. He writes songs (acoustic, backed by a keyboard, or with a full band) about fast food frustrations, discount grocery stores, binging on cheap beer, and working low wage jobs. On the surface, it's all played for comedy, but there's honesty at its core. The songs, taken together, voice something far more human and relatable than Johnston's 80s nostalgia shtick lets on. I return to B.A.'s records, *Gremlins III* included, with a frequency that sometimes surprises me (I'm aware I've ranked this above both Godspeed and Propagandhi). Live it's even better, and Johnston's set on the roof of the Niagara Artists Centre this year was a highlight of my year.
8. The Weather Station: The Weather Station
Outside Music / Paradise of Bachelors
My favourite musicians have lauded The Weather Station, and Tamara Linderman's work in general, for years. After a listen to her new self-titled effort, it's abundantly clear why. The Weather Station
is a gorgeous album. It's confident and timeless. Linderman's vocals and lyricism are mesmerising and profoundly effect. Critics have thrown around Joni Mitchell comparisons, and while they're apt, they don't convey how contemporary this sounds. The Weather Station
is of the moment, and you'd be hard-pressed to find better songwriting anywhere this year.
Pissed Jeans may have inadvertently put out the timeliest record of the year. Sure, plenty of musicians from the independent rock realm call themselves feminists, but this is the most aggressively self-reflective takedown of toxic masculinity that you'll hear from any group of men this year. I've always loved Pissed Jeans' penchant for taking the inanities of suburban life and turning them into sardonic sludge, but that was just comedy compared to this. Why Love Now
feels important. Having a legend like Lydia Lunch at the helm doesn't hurt either.
My track record for keeping up with Chad Vangaalen's output is spotty, but I'm all in on Light Information
. Here you'll find a batch of beautifully crafted indie rock songs written about the weirdest possible shit. We're in full sci-fi body horror mode for much of this record, with Vangaalen exploring themes of alienation through speculative post-humanism and, well, literal aliens. There's a lot on here that I find disturbing, the surrender of personal agency, in particular, terrifies me, but you come out the other side of it feeling somewhat hopeful.
5. Teenanger: Teenager
Teenanger's confusingly named Teenager
is confidently weird. This Toronto group's shape-shifted between various subgenres of punk and garage rock over the years. They've been consistently entertaining but never quite attained the recognition they deserve from outside the region. This record, awash in weary urban sentiment and buoyed by some tight instrumentation, is among their best. This is a wry, low-fi rock record that's hiding more than few strange little left turns, and you really get the sense that it doesn't fucking care if you like it or not. I appreciate that, and I've listened to this a lot. It's been my go-to record in 2017 when I'm not sure what else to put on.
More than any band in 2017 I became the most emotionally invested in Tough Age. This is a different band than the one we knew, with guitarist Jarrett Samson and bassist Penny Clark having both left Vancouver and the rest of their bandmates behind. Relocating to Toronto, and joining up with drummer Jesse Locke, Tough Age transitioned from a warm, garage-pop-punk act to an extremely tight three-piece with a driven indie-pop vibe. Like the Courtneys earlier in this list, they're one of a handful of bands revisiting the vibe of New Zealand's Flying Nun label and The Clean. Shame
's an economic record, but it's one I regularly revisit and play on repeat. Songs like "Everyday Life" and "Me in Glue" are punchy and energetic while showpieces like "Unclean" and the title track have extended, hypnotic instrumental sections you just want to get lost in. I saw Tough Age launch this sound (and their first EP with this line up) at the Ottawa Explosion Weekend without knowing the change was coming. I was so hooked that I arranged a whole family vacation around a pair of Shame
release shows. The emergence of today's Tough Age has dovetailed perfectly with everything I've tried to accomplish in 2017.
You've Changed Records
In a more just universe Partner would be massive. Were you to take this record and plunk it down in 1995 they'd be as big as Weezer and twice as beloved. These are the best pop songs of the year. In Search of Lost Time
is a huge, hooky, love letter to goofy rock'n'roll from AC/DC to the Blue Album
, filtered through a queer slacker lens. In many ways, Partner's made a 90s record. It's more comfortable being funny than you usually hear. Silly little skits and voicemail recordings pop up between songs. There's a lot here that would be, in the hands of some dumb pop-punk band, utterly obnoxious. Here though, it's joyous. Perhaps it works because Josée Caron and Lucy Niles are so damn charismatic, but I'd wager their sincerity is what really makes it work. This isn't silly slacker rock as a tongue-in-cheek theme, it's silly slacker rock as a proud lifestyle.
2017 was the ten year anniversary of Attack In Black's debut LP Marriage
. Daniel Romano's been so prolific since that time, it feels more like the 30th. I can't think of another artist from the 2000s that's come so far so quickly and with so little regard for revisiting their past. The bright psychedelic pop of Modern Pressure
makes even the country songs that launched Dan's solo career feel a lifetime away. Despite the 70s vibe, this isn't some period piece. There's no romanticisation of the past here. Romano's very consciously chosen to operate on a different rail than everyone else, moving forward still but not beholden to whatever else is happening in the culture. Daniel Romano's done a rare thing in modern music in that he's created an actual sense of mystique in the age of oversharing. There's genuine unpredictability to his output, and he's mostly letting that work speak for itself.
Booji Boys are the best punk band in Canada, and quite possibly elsewhere. The project finds veterans from the Halifax hardcore scene taking a crooked shot at writing pop-punk, delivered with an overarching weirdness cribbed from their Devo namesake. Every song's played at the fastest possible speed. Alex Mitchell's vocals are nigh-unintelligible most of the time, but uncanny in a way that you seldom hear these days. The entire record feels like it's on fast forward, and yet it's hooky as hell and invites repeat listens. Booji Boys project chaos, but nothing ever falls apart. The secret here is that they're good enough that they can careen through 12 songs in 20 minutes without losing the plot. This self-titled record came out in February. The band's second full length is coming out on Christmas Day. From a business standpoint that's a pretty poor time to release anything, but it fits this band's MO. Booji Boys never feels like it operates, on any level, like a typical band.