I'll play the witness, every line here is baited
I won't give my typically overlong preamble to this list. 2019 was the latest chapter in my nearly 20-year struggle to balance writing about punk music on the internet and functioning as a somewhat useful human being. The fight rages on, and given that I'm now releasing thoroughly unnecessary cassette compilations, I'm not sure the practical side is winning.
Everything I said in last year's article I could reiterate here verbatim, which is either honourably consistent or the sign of a deep rut. You can be the judge. Thanks to Steve at SappyFest, to Tony at SideBySide Weekend, and to Josh and Steve at Beau's for the support this year.
As in recent years, the picks on this list draw heavily, if not exclusively from the writing I do on a weekly basis with Some Party, my Canadian music newsletter. Take that as a warning in case you really wanted to know what I thought about the latest Bad Religion record.
10 Cool EPs from 2019
Schizophrenic RecordsI apologize to every band I could have put in this slot that writes music you can actually understand. It would be an exaggeration to call Ottawa my second home, but it's undoubtedly the local music scene I have the most affection for. I relish any chance I have to get out that way, and Side By Side Weekend this year gave me the excuse. Liquid Assets feels like the consummate Ottawa punk band: messy and hyper-connected with a family tree that touches at least two dozen other groups. Given how these things work they're also likely short-lived, but that'll just result in 5 other cool bands forming from the same personnel. On the absurdly titled *SNC Lava Lamp* (that's a Canadian current affairs pun, Americans) the band unintelligibly barges through a handful of insane punk tunes. Pretty much every lyric is gargled right in your face. Perfection.
9. PRIORS: Call For You
SlovenlyThe smoke barely cleared from the cyborg terror of PRIORS' 2018 full-length and they dropped this follow-up EP. Given how unrelenting and feedback-drenched this band's output is, I almost prefer them in a succinct 3-song chunk like this. Afterwards you can go lie down and recover. PRIORS features Chance Hutchison, Drew Demers, Seb Godin, Alan Hildebrandt, and Stuart Buckley, members who've (currently or formally) played in Sonic Avenues, New Vogue, the Steve Adamyk Band, and The Famines (all bands I dearly love).
IndependentHot damn! The debut EP from Hamilton's Good Grief is just gloriously fun. The four-piece churns out rollicking '77-style punk rock with such ferocity that it never stops to reflect on ultimately how goofy it is. I mean that as the highest compliment. Good Grief's secret weapon, aside from a complete lack of self-awareness, is vocalist Dan Ashworth. He just happens to be sound very English, replete with a heavy hooligan accent that gives these four songs an extra authentic British kick (whether that's an act or not doesn't matter). I can't listen to this without smiling like an idiot.
Slovenly RecordsVancouver's Sore Points are one of those bands that so competently delivers the best iteration of a well-loved sound that they're dangerously easy to overlook. It's like how you never think about how many complicated things just worked as they were supposed on an incident-free flight. Continuing their pitch-perfect pairing with Nevada garage legends Slovenly, the trio released Not Alright this year. As with their last full-length, this EP finds them flawlessly blasting through aggressive little songs that effortlessly balance the snot of 70s UK punk and the speed of 80s Californian hardcore.
Brain Gum RecordsI've happened upon BBQT live at more than a few festivals, and each time I see them, I love them more. Their reception this year at Ottawa's Side By Side Weekend was nothing short of rapturous, which was wonderful to see and caught me pleasantly off-guard. This is a band making confections: delightfully airy, slightly twee indie-pop with some pop-punk moments tossed throughout. These aren't songs built to knock you on your ass or fire up a crowd, but they're deceptively hooky and sometimes do just that. I've had "Flinch" in my head for pretty much the entire year.
Pleasence RecordsAndrew Payne's played in some of the coolest bands around, most recently fronting the late/great Century Palm with members of Tough Age and the Ketamines. This new chapter finds Payne trading his guitar for synths and drawing on the askew pop weirdness of bands like DEVO, the Units, Gary Numan, and OMD. Payne makes no effort bring any modern revisionist cool to those influences, courageously and wholeheartedly owning up to the unshakably dorky core of new wave. Vanity Phase isn't one of these acts that toss electronic 80s flourishes onto punk songs; it is the robot.
Idée Fixe RecordsEveryone involved with Toronto synthpop trio Sauna comes from somewhere cool. Michael le Riche of the garage rock act Fake Palms fronts the band. While he's trading his guitars for electronics here, his vocals are unmistakable. He's backed in Sauna by Weaves bassist Zach Bines and Greys drummer Braeden Craig. The band leans heavily on the expertise of producer Brian Borcherdt, he of the alt-electronica stars Holy Fuck. Sauna's material is slick as hell and incredibly lush. Even if this ends up just being a footnote to everyone's main gigs, it's accomplished enough to stand on its own.
IndependentThis might be a cheat, as it's just a demo, but I've unabashedly loved every Barnacle song I've heard. This is a fuzzy Montreal punk band committed to a seemingly random aquatic theme (seriously: every reverb-drenched song's about going to the beach or life under the sea). I've had these songs in near-constant rotation since I stumbled across them in this year's SappyFest lineup. The band last released a 6-song live set in April (not to mention a super-limited Sappy-exclusive cassette that, no, I won't sell you). With sea levels rising and us, as a species, pretty much incapable of unmaking our mess, I'm pretty sure Barnacle is the future. The smart money's in snorkels.
Telephone ExplosionDeliluh released two very competent records this year, Oath of Intent and the later Beneath The Floors. The band built each around Kyle Knapp's deadpan, half-spoken vocals, with eerie synths and a pervasive Slint influence apparent throughout. Deliluh's perhaps too content meandering in gloomy noise-scapes, but I'd contend that the time spent in the fog only makes their conventional hooks more satisfying. The anxious "Freeloader Feast," in particular, could fit right in on the latest Uranium Club record. In 2019 the band, by circumstance or design, found themselves held up as the standard-bearers for a different mode of operating in Toronto. The group's notable for their use of unconventional venues in the face of increasing gentrification, championing veterans' halls like the Owls Club as both performance spaces and impromptu studios.
IndependentThis is one wild ride. Bedwetters Anonymous crash through 12 frantic tracks on this, their debut. Vocalist Trevor McEachran flings himself from one strange affectation to another, his yelping and warbly delivery, giving this record this unglued sense of danger that most punk bands never come close to reaching. You can hear the Weirdos and Urinals in this, but it's far too twitchy and impatient for a nostalgia trip. This set came out as a tape in February, but it's got a new life this winter as a remastered, abridged 7" EP on Neon Waste. Get either. Get both. Get two. Songs like "Absolute Panic" and "Psychedelic Landlord" could be classics of the genre.
20 Cool LPs from 2019
Triple-B RecordsAside from a few years of school, I've lived in Niagara Falls my entire life. Despite that, I struggle to find reasons to mention my hometown here. We're a bit of an arts desert. Our downtown evaporated in the 70s. The city's money, unsurprisingly, tends to flow to where the tourist strip. I rarely see a band cross my plate with "Niagara Falls" in their bio, much less so a glorious anachronism of youth crew hardcore like Wild Side. A few years out from their attention-grabbing demos, the group came roaring to prominence this year with Who The Hell Is Wild Side. I'm hardly a hardcore devotee, so for all I know Wild Side may be just one of a hundred modern bands competently channelling Warzone and Murphy's Law, but I don't care, because they're mine. This may be damning an entire subgenre with mild disinterest, but Wild Side's giving me pretty much all I need from this end of the punk spectrum. I'm playing the hometown card here, without apology, and I'm relishing that I get to do so. NFHC, baby! Why not?
19. Necking: Cut Your Teeth
Mint RecordsNecking rode into 2019 with a ton of goodwill from Meditation Tape, their well-regarded 2017 debut. I was familiar with it, but even then, the amount of pure snarl delivered on Cut Your Teeth took me by surprise. Vocalist Hannah Kay, bassist Sonya Rez, guitarist Nada Hayek, and drummer/lyricist Melissa Kuipers sound positively furious on their first LP, thundering in on the attitude-driven single "Big Mouth" and hardly relenting over nine tracks. Cut Your Teeth is a strong, concise punk debut, albeit one that feels overlooked. I can only imagine that if Necking emerged in, say, Philadelphia rather than Vancouver, that their 2019 trajectory would have been quite different.
IndependentI once nurtured a mild obsession with Toronto's rootsy and raucous Bruce Peninsula, but they've been off-grid for a few years. While as a whole the group's still lost in the (perhaps literal) woods, co-founder Misha Bower surfaced this year with a beautiful debut solo effort that's flown under just about everyone's radar. Trying To Have It All pairs the accomplished vocalist and songwriter with Will Kidman of the Constantines co-producing. The studio band they've created includes a few big names in my canon, with Kidman, Cons bassist Dallas Wehrle, and Royal City drummer Nathan Lawr among the group. Bower's vocals remain haunting and lush, and I expect the slow-burning Trying to Have It All to have a long rotation here.
IndependentFET.NAT's rise to prominence in 2019 was delightfully unexpected. The experimental four-piece may have been infamous in the capital-area underground, but their cacophonous brand of punk-jazz was hardly a sound you'd expect to reach outside that narrow group of enthusiasts. Yet that's pretty much what happened. Le Mal, the Hull, Quebec band's seventh overall release, caught the ear of enough critics that it saw the record shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. I listened in morbid delight during the Short List announcement as the CBC's commentators struggled to describe these songs for a wider audience, and relished at the thought unsuspecting listeners having to contend with such overt weirdness. Le Mal's high concept is baked right in, with the B-side of the record featuring MIDI reinterpretations of the songs from the A. The entire production keeps a lid of the band's aggressive live tendencies in favour of a swirling sea of electronics. FET.NAT was never going to win the Polaris, and this may most certainly be their ceiling, but the world's better, and just a little weirder, for all their trashing in the margins.
16. PUP: Morbid Stuff
Little DipperIt's easy to overlook PUP at this point, as their continued good fortune can look a little effortless from afar. Morbid Stuff's greatest sin is that it's a further refinement of a formula the band had so successfully mined in their earlier LPs, but that's hardly a knock. The Toronto quartet continues to hit the vein of millennial anxiety better than most. Vocalist Stefan Babcock can paradoxically carry a theme of self-loathing while never seeming loathsome himself. The band's touring schedule is relentless. Their track record for high-concept, must-see music videos is pretty much untouchable. As far as the punk mainstream goes, the band has as good a claim to the crown as any at this point (and certainly more than the now-tired 90s acts that inspired them). Things seem pretty damn good for PUP these days, and I can't argue that it's undeserved.
15. Nüshu: Sexe Étranger
IndependentThis has been a killer year for French-language punk and post-punk, with the big Sub Pop debut from Corridor arriving alongside accomplished new LPs from bands like Bleu Nuit. I speak but a few poorly pronounced words, and I understand even less, but it's been somewhat of a personal mission to expose myself to Quebec's contributions to the genre, with Nüshu being my favourite of the batch. Language aside, this is a thrilling, dynamic addition to Canada's noise-punk world, slotting in perfectly alongside Toronto groups like WLMRT and Quebecois art-punk acts like VICTIME and Crabe. Nüshu features vocals and bass from Jessica Pion, percussion from Lydia Champagne, guitars from Jerry Lee Boucher, and prolific Montreal indie weirdo Navet Confit on guitar, keyboard, and synths. Sexe étranger is a vital and vibrant take on modern-day punk music, a perfect argument that there's some life left in the genre.
JAZ RecordsThis year, after a half-decade of accomplished short-form material, Patrick Geraghty's Vancouver-based bedroom pop act Gal Gracen finally resurfaced with a proper full-length. The Fantasy Gardens LP is a collection of atmospheric tunes that effortlessly float from krautrock to meditative surf vibes to shimmering AM radio pop across ten tracks. This isn't a sound I often seek out, let alone one I can deftly describe without stumbling over genres, but it's a gorgeous record that I keep returning to.
You've Changed RecordsOf the former members of Welland's Attack In Black, you could argue that Ian Daniel Kehoe is the most perplexing. After a handful of AM radio-styled guitar-pop records (as Marine Dreams), Kehoe's solo efforts took a backseat to his role as the stoic sideman for The Weather Station and Andy Shauf. His live appearances in the interim had featured a smattering of poetry readings and electronic experiments. Secret Republic finds Kehoe pairing that love of verse with bright synthpop, all wrapped in a curious sense of visual style. Kehoe's persona remains an enigma, and he never breaks character if any of his quirks are part of the act. That sincerity's rather interesting, as Secret Republic steers clear of both irony and the winking nostalgia that permeates many of these 80s-influenced synthwave subgenres. It says something that Kehoe's crafted a more impenetrable personality puzzle than Daniel Romano, the master that craft, but that's where we are.
12. Protruders: Poison Future
Feel It RecordsOntario produced several quality records this year in the neo-protopunk vein, with contemporary acts reinterpreting a pre-77 rustbelt rock in a modern context. From Windsor, we heard this from Psychic Void, and from the primordial soup of Simply Saucer's Hamilton, we have Flesh Rag. After a string of self-released cassettes over the past few years, Toronto's Protruders put their first effort to wax, and it was well worth the wait. There's an unhinged sax in the mix, adding a layer of disjoined skronk that elevates these caustic little tunes. Protruders' earlier recordings were often punishing low-fidelity, the chaos being part of the charm, but they don't let the (relative) uptick in production values here dull their distortion-drenched attack.
11. WHOOP-Szo: Warrior Down
You've ChangedGrunge/sludge/folk collective WHOOP-Szo blew me away this year at SappyFest, standing out among even that diverse lineup as perhaps the heaviest act to grace the main stage. There's something urgent, harrowing, and worldly about the band, a constant sense of metamorphosis that makes them both difficult to peg but impossible to ignore. Seeing them paired with You've Changed, a label I've followed religiously for years, was a dream. The album leans starkly on guitarist/vocalist Adam Sturgeon's identity and experience as an Anishinaabe-Canadian, setting the record among a lauded list of contemporary Indigenous protest music that's broken through Canada's indie rock hegemony in recent years. While "Amaruq" proves the band can write a soaring rock hook, those transcendent highs are countered with sober gut-punches like "Gerry," which forgo poetic trappings to paint an injustice in the starkest of terms.
Mint RecordsVancouver indie-rock act Woolworm returned this year with Awe, a 12-song full-length that strikes a decidedly different tone than their past work. Unlike 2017's hardcore-influenced Deserve to Die, Awe finds the band in a moody place, awash in gothy vibes and some dark college rock influences. Yet through all the murk Woolworm never feels bleak, with hooks on tracks like "Hold The Bow" sounding downright triumphant. While touring in support of this record, Woolworm played a basement show in the stockroom of Toronto comic store The Beguiling, a gig on which I rolled the dice and brought my 6-year-old daughter. That they successfully pulled off my kid's first punk show goes a long way here.
IndependentFed Up finds the Toronto synthpop duo of Amanda Crist and Carlyn Bezic crafting a series of anthems that feel both arena-ready and deeply personal. Ice Cream's sophomore effort may trade a few of their debut's low-fi electronics for squelching guitars, but the duo's duelling vocals remain utterly transcendent, demanding attention regardless of how they're deployed (and Fed Up gives them any number of avenues to explore, the seven-minute title track alone has more mood-shifts than I could keep track of). Politically, this record's simply brimming with late-capitalist malaise, a discontent that's turned on its head, spun around and dragged onto the dance floor.
Telephone ExplosionAndré Ethier, former frontman of the beloved Toronto garage rock act The Deadly Snakes, returned this fall with a meditative new solo album. The nine-track Croak in the Weeds is the second in a planned trilogy that started with 2017's Under Grape Leaves. Like that record, the new material presents a relaxed, minimalist counterpoint to the raucous noise of the Snakes' era. Ethier's sly sense of humour still seems to hover on the periphery, but it's a slight wink - never falling into the acerbic sass of his former band. Ethier once again recorded with the celebrated ambient/post-rock producer Sandro Perri, their combined efforts creating a distinct, unified sound that sets this era apart from Ethier's earlier solo work.
ConcordI'm entirely guilty of rejecting and ignoring indie-rock bands once they become too established. It's not an active bias, more of a drift. I couldn't tell you what I thought of the last Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene records, as I have no memory of them. That never happened with Vancouver indie-pop supergroup The New Pornographers. My affection's partly baked-in from my musical awakening (*Mass Romantic* singlehandedly expanded my horizons from teenage punk), but it has a heck of a lot to do with Carl Newman's skill as a songwriter. In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights is the veteran band's eighth LP, and no amount of wordplay from the often obtuse band is able to hide their contempt for the Trump era. This is anxiety-pop, love songs about waiting for the other shoe to drop. The New Pornographers capture the unease of the times better than most.
6. Young Guv: GUV I & II
Run for CoverWhile Ben Cook makes more immediate noise as leader of the aggressive hardcore unit No Warning (and as a player in the roiling cauldron of maximalism that is Fucked Up), his lower-key indie-pop persona's persisted as an intriguing point of contrast. While I was fully on-board with the culture jamming weirdness of 2018's 2 Sad 2 Funk, I won't lie that this year's GUV LPs arrived like a breath of fresh air. Cook's quietly worked as a songwriter for some of the bigger names in the pop world, and there are numerous selections from each GUV record that spell out just why he's trusted in that role. This is British-influenced guitar rock at its purest distillation, hooky and satisfying both in its bright, melodic delivery but also in how damn solidly it was written.
You've Changed RecordsI've got a bad habit of taking song titles and lyrical excerpts, most likely out of context, and using them to buttress whatever half-baked life philosophy I've internalized. Shotgun Jimmie's "The New Sincerity" feels like one of those songs. I'm not entirely sure what it means, but I am absolutely on board. I am ready for the new sincerity. Sign me up. Nothing else makes much sense. That's the power Shotgun Jimmie wields these days. To the uninitiated, this may be yet another quirky singer/songwriter making unassuming indie rock, but Jimmie somehow transcended that to become a generational voice for a narrow slice of the Canadian music scene. While Jimmie's regularly released music since his fan-favourite 2011 Transistor Sister, this new full length serves as a direct sequel to that the original, recorded with a full band that features some of my favourites. This record finds Jim Kilpatrick backed by Ryan Peters of my beloved Ladyhawk, Jay Baird of Do Make Say Think, and José Miguel Contreras of By Divine Right (and who's own 2019 solo record was among the year's best).
You've Changed RecordsAfter putting a decade of road between Attack In Black and his present as a wildly inventive psych-country solo artist, Daniel Romano started writing punk music again. The first two Ancient Shapes records set the rules: Romano wasn't, in fact, interested in revisiting the post-Weakerthans pop of his early career, but instead sought to plumb the freewheeling roots of the genre and its garage antecedents. It's pretty telling that one of the few studio covers from the group was of a Fred Cole songs. A Flower That Wouldn't Bloom feels more substantive than the previous Shapes platters, giving space for Danny's well-honed pop where earlier efforts defaulted to speed. Romano tracks these records entirely by himself, so it's a bit of a cheat for me to discuss their live lineup here, but that group has such a killer lineage in southern Ontario punk that it's hard for me to ignore it. The current Shapes lineup features Danny with his brother Ian Romano along with David Nardi, Vee Bell, and Roddy Rosetti. You can make single-hops from that group to Career Suicide, The Dirty Nil, and TV Freaks (to keep it short). That's a laundry list of my favourite bands and some of my favourite performers to watch, so every time I can see them, I'll jump at the opportunity.
3. WLMRT: WLMRT Forever
IndependentAfter a series of killer short-form releases, Toronto art-punks WLMRT finally took the plunge and committed to their first full-length project, a curiously purple 10-song cassette titled WLMRT Forever. This is, without doubt, the best the band's ever sounded, and they've achieved that without losing the wild spontaneity that got our attention in the first place. The group's dry, sardonic lyrics spill out in a frenzied stream of consciousness from vocalist Shelby Wilson as the band roils along in a sea of hardcore guitar noise and squelching synths. For a band that so consistently projects chaos, the instrumentals from bassist Kat Mcgouran, guitarist Adam Bernhardt, drummer Alex Wood, and keyboardist Ryan Hage has become thrillingly tight. The biting "Jam Band" is a triumph, a modern-day "You're So Vain" subtweeting no one explicitly, but by omission the entire Toronto underground. Hell, I'm not in a band at all, but having met this group a few times, I even can't help but listen to that track and worry.
Drunken SailorBooji Boys seem to operate outside the usual release cycle, and while we knew that Tube Reducer, their third full-length, was coming this summer, it's arrival still felt like a surprise. They even stubbornly ran ahead of their own vinyl pre-sale by throwing up the digital album several months early. Booji Boys' bullheaded sense of strategically oblivious DIY is part of their charm, though. They choose to exist hyper-locally and righteously unengaged, even if it's to their detriment. One senses a whiff of nostalgia for the punk mailorder days of yore, not that the band's said anything one way or the other. Sonically, Tube Reducer finds Booji Boys playing true to form. They once again couple thrillingly blown-out recordings and barely intelligible vocals with subversively hooky songwriting that somehow ties the chaos together. This remains my favourite sounding punk act of the past decade. Booji Boys once again features vocalist Alex Mitchell with guitarists Cody Googoo and Steve Earle, bassist Adam LeDrew, and drummer Justin Crowe.
Transistor 66Johnston is infamous in the Canadian indie world for both his raucous one-man shows and his hilarious, self-demeaning lyrics. His shtick's informed equally by the nerdy dregs of 80s pop-culture and the economic struggles of working-class life in the rust belt. Yet for all the laughs, Johnston has this knack for disarmingly touching love songs. Every dozen songs or so he'll lay off the Casio keyboards and Gremlins references to nail an emotional beat that I'm just not hearing anywhere else. I'm too old and settled to relate to some teen firebrand's angsty dating life, but a seemingly lightweight tune about adult exhaustion like "Tired Love" cuts deep. On average, I experience most music privately. I listen at work with my headphones on. I go to most shows alone. My turntable's hidden away in a basement corner out of my family's way. I'm increasingly drawn to challenging regional artists that I wouldn't inflict on anyone else. In contrast to all of that, B.A. Johnston may have become one of the last social/musical intersections in my life. My wife loves him (even after he's dumped beer on her on more than one occasion). The friends I've made at annual festivals like Sappy are all B.A. die-hards. I've come to realize that some of my other favourite artists are producing his records and putting on his shows. B.A. Johnston may be ridiculous, most of the time, but in my life, in 2019, he's created more tangible emotional resonance than just about anyone else.