Sunday January 3, 2021

2020 Recap

Note: I'm not in the habit of writing year-end lists for Some Party. There's something about the exercise that bristles with my goals for this newsletter. That said - I have been writing them for Punknews since 2001. On the event of my 20th, and quite possibly last in that series, I've reproduced it for you here. Regular programming resumes in a week. Happy New Year.

Punknews.org's Best of 2020 - Adam's Picks

I wasn't going to write one of these, despite this being, quite possibly, the 20th subsequent year that I've done so. Nobody cares about my milestones, particularly when they celebrate nothing more than my stubborn inability to close doors. My expiry date passed long ago, and I'm making big newsletter money these days. Plus, there's something seductively nihilistic about dropping the ball right before a so-called milestone. What better way to quit? Fuck you, Punknews.

My destructive urges aside, recapping this ongoing tragedy of a year feels like a fool's errand. Our habitual list format, ranking the top LPs and EPs of the calendar year, is ill-suited to recap 2020. It erases context, and context is everything this year. A proper studio album recorded during the fall of 2019 and released in January comes from an entirely different universe than a scrappy bedroom demo tracked under lockdown in August. One's a carefully planned artistic statement. The latter was hastily assembled in the slim hope that a Bandcamp Friday release might help pay for the next round of groceries. Those are remarkably dissimilar pieces of art - with different goals, constraints, and emotional baggage. I'm not at all convinced one's even better than the other. To discuss them together, or God forbid rank them, seems intentionally reductionist. It doesn't feel fair, even in the grossly subjective realm of year-end lists.

So I'm not going to do that. I'm also going to ignore the fact that we explicitly instructed the other volunteers to do the opposite.

So rather than stick with my gut and do nothing at all - here's a bunch of audio that's helped me through the year - unranked, unsorted, and grouped into imperfect chapters. These EPs, LPs, and singles tell the loose musical narrative of my shitty little corner of 2020.

Prologue: Last Basement

Motorists: From The Wreckage

Self Released - Bandcamp

In the second week of March, I took my daughter up to Toronto for an adventure. We ditched the car got a seat by the window at Sneaky Dee's, ordering an unnecessarily large heap of the rock bar's famous nachos and what seemed like a full litre of milkshake. From there, we people watched in Kensington Market and bought a heap of comics at The Beguiling, biding our time before the tiny shop flipped from trendy book store to basement punk venue. We were there to see Motorists, a tight little power-pop group with Feel Alright's Craig Fahner singing and my pal Jesse Locke of Tough Age on the skins. These were Calgary ex-pats and veterans of a dozen musical projects playing wonderfully uncomplicated rock'n'roll. It was the cassette release show for From The Wreckage, their debut EP.

I've spoken about this show on a few occasions, but it's all I've got. This was the end, but we didn't know it. Just a month later, the thought of packing a basement for an all-ages punk gig wouldn't just be unrealistic - it would be a biohazard. The gathering would be illegal. The restaurant where we started our evening would close its doors, its future uncertain as venues and small businesses fall across the continent. My Cool Dad bonding road trip would be the last time we'd leave our hometown in nearly a year. We still haven't left.

Whatever happened earlier in 2020 - whatever cool records may have crossed my plate in the winter - I couldn't even tell you. This year starts in March.

Chapter 1: Rug Pulled Out

A sense of unreality marked the first few months of quarantine. It seems ridiculous in hindsight how long some summer festivals clung to their original schedules. Shows were cancelled, of course, but it felt temporary. Bands with records on the cusp of release found themselves stuck with their planned deadlines, only without the means of supporting the work. Great albums with strong messages often found their voice overwhelmed by the roiling crisis.

Nap Eyes: Snapshot of a Beginner

Royal Mountain Records - Bandcamp

Nap Eyes' Snapshot of a Beginner is emblematic of this time. The Halifax indie rock group released their fourth LP in early March, a record that represented an attempt to climb up a few rungs from the plateau they reached with I'm Bad Now. While Nigel Chapman's dry, hyper-literate lyricism remained true to form, there was a sense that this was the start of the next chapter. It was time for new converts. The group's tour supporting Destroyer crashed into the first lockdown, and it never felt like the album's momentum fully translated to our new, stuck-at-home reality. It's a shame, as the record's lead single, a sardonic and whimsical takedown of Facebook exec Mark Zuckerberg, has only become more relevant. The pandemic granted the tech barons an outsized influence on our political and personal lives, and Nap Eyes' sly digs should have had longer legs. Just what does Zuck do with all that sand?

Ariel Sharratt & Mathias Kom: Never Work

BB*Island - Bandcamp

While not billed as a proper release from The Burning Hell, Never Work features that band's familiar core of Ariel Sharratt and Mathias Kom delivering precisely what's made their main gig so beloved. As a concept, the record sought to re-cast a time-honoured tradition in leftist protest music for the information age. With the biting humour and motormouth narratives the band's known for, they repurposed familiar folk structures to tackle modern labour struggles. There are songs here grappling with the gig economy, human-replacing self-service robots, voyeuristic digital assistants, and the other high-tech hits of late-stage capitalism.

These songs feel downright prescient against the backdrop of the pandemic. We saw tech billionaires hollowly boast that they'd pivot to build ventilators. Workers in Amazon warehouses struck over the company's lack of COVID protections. We, en mass, surrendered our privacy for the connectivity of Zoom and the distraction of TikTok. Never Work has all the right messaging but landed too close to the start of all this. It wasn't time to reflect on the changing struggles of labour; it was time to panic-buy toilet paper. The perceived life or death uncertainty of the pandemic seemed to force all nuance to the backburner. It's a shame because this remains one of the few records to directly confront any of these issues.

Dave Schoonderbeek with/avec By Divine Right: Let It Beek

Self Released - Bandcamp

The release show for this record's still on my calendar. March 21 at the Monarch Tavern! The drummer's flying back into town just for the gig! Of course, it never happened, but this album feels emblematic of those that fell into the early chasm of uncertainty. Dave Schoonderbeek fronted the early-2000s indie rock group Another Blue Door. This solo effort finds him backed by the entirety of Toronto's long-running By Divine Right. Cheekily titled Let It Beek, the set features ten stylistically varied rock songs, world-weary yet somehow compellingly playful. There's a line "Don't Go Out" that often comes to mind: "I still believe in rock'n'roll / I just don't enjoy it anymore." The balance in these tracks between sombre and celebratory is unusual, but it resonates in this forcefully truncated year.

Jade Hairpins: Harmony Avenue

Merge - Bandcamp

Fucked Up's nerdy wordbuilding is hardly necessary for their sound, but the obscure references peppering their lyrics and liner notes make them one of the few modern artists to trade in whimsy. Jade Hairpins first emerged as a David's Town-styled reference in the singles leading to Dose Your Dreams. They were one of the mysterious, possibly fictional bands that surfaced in that concept record's narrative addendum (see: "Jellicoe & Woodbury"). That the project crossed over into the real world was a rare delight. Jade Hairpins plays exuberant synthpop, an outlet for Jonah Falco and Mike Haliechuk to scratch a few songwriting itches that even Fucked Up's ever-expanding sound couldn't tolerate. The group's live incarnation, primarily based in the UK, never took flight for obvious reasons, but the album's singles provide an uncomplicated, body-moving joy whenever they shuffle on.

Bruce Peninsula: No Earthly Sound

Self Released

This one hurts. It's been a lifetime since 2011's Open Flames, and Toronto's Bruce Peninsula had the unlucky task of hyping their long-awaited return to action just as the world stopped. The oft-haunting folk-gospel collective released No Earthly Sound in April, robbed of their powerful live presence (one which often finds the band's principal songwriters playing with an entire choir of backing vocalists). The group's sound is as warm and engrossing as always, with a bit of funk surprisingly woven into their post-punk roots this time out. This is very much a band that, without a live presence, feels like it's missing a limb. Here's hoping they can pull the ensemble back together when we're on the other side of this, as the album demands it.

Wares: Survival

Mint Records - Bandcamp

For all the justified anger and post-traumatic frustration woven through it, Survival's an astonishingly beautiful record. Cassia Hardy's songwriting is breathtakingly dynamic, launching from impassioned punk anger into lush shoegaze soundscapes at the drop of a dime. Songs like "Living Proof" drift through delicate, vulnerable passages into noisy seas of distortion. This record somehow nestles real moments of personal healing and profound peace alongside anti-capitalist, decolonial critiques without ever sounding disjointed. Survival makes a strong case that there's still new territory to explore in guitar-forward rock music. The live delivery of this material, one day, could seriously change lives.

Zoon: Bleached Wavves

Paper Bag Records - Bandcamp

Bleached Wavves is one hell of a debut album, delivering symphonic shoegaze with an Ojibwe perspective. Daniel Glen Monkman participates in some unabashed My Bloody Valentine worship, but his personal history, through family traumas and his Indigenous identity, gives the work a colour and vibe all of its own. This is an album to get lost in, so engrossing and ethereal that it demands to be taken as a whole. While I'm fascinated to see how the project grows from here, Zoon feels fully-formed right out the gate. Bleached Wavves is a masterful expression of the style, and it brought us a heady, turn-off-the-world experience in a year that absolutely needed them.

NOBRO: Sick Hustle

Dine Alone Records - Bandcamp

NOBRO's Sick Hustle is such an unequivocal bullseye of a debut that it feels too good to be true. The Montreal quartet delivers gleefully fun rock music - two perfect bursts of stadium-ready power-pop sandwiching a pair of METZ-styled buzz-rockers. That these songs won't be played to a packed room anytime soon is a goddamn crime. If not for COVID, it's not hard to imagine Dine Alone slotting NOBRO in as the opener on every significant show they could - and with this much bombastic potential right from the start, I'd not fault them for it at all.

Chapter 2: Idle Hands

As the weeks turned into months, the realities of the pandemic began to settle. The notion that artists should flourish with their newfound free time was always nonsense. Isolation sucks - for everyone - and no one would fault a musician for using this period to binge Netflix, drink, and doomscroll with the rest of us.

For some, though, there was a spark. Often these efforts felt cathartic - an exercise to keep the darkness at bay. Sometimes they felt (justifiably) opportunistic, an effort to get something out in time for Bandcamp's monthly support day. Artists dug deep into their vaults, unearthing all manner of b-sides, outtakes, and live recordings from better times. Much of this material (by necessity) took on the quality of rough demos, an unexpected bonus that fit my garage scuzz tastes just fine. It turns out I can listen to restless weirdos lovingly rip off the Ramones all day long.

Midway through the summer, though, something changed. Street protests demanding racial justice broke out in the States, spurning conversations on Black representation in all cultural spheres, ours included. On Canada's west coast, Indigenous land defenders came into conflict with the oil interests seeking to build pipelines to the Pacific. Both flashpoints fueled the movement to defund the police. From lockdown, artists began repurposing their isolation output as fundraisers and awareness campaigns. The boredom of solitude somehow morphed into a collective effort to confront and tear down our toxic assumptions, en masse. At least we kept busy.

These are the unexpected sounds from the summer that fun forgot.

Chance & Jackie: Isolation Songs

Self Released - Bandcamp

Some lockdowns were bound to be more musically fruitful than others, just by nature of who's stuck in the house together. Luckily for us, Chance Hutchison of the garage-punks PRIORS and Jackie Blenkarn of the feel-good rock'n'roll quartet Pale Lips just happen to be husband and wife. The couple's Isolation Songs struck a neat balance between PRIORS' buzzing DEVO-core tendencies and the Lips' throwback boogie. Videos showcasing several of the tracks made ample use of the couple's Montreal home. While the recurring setting is, of course, practical, it underscored how active a character our dwellings become when they're inescapable.

The PRIORS family (or the Sonic Avenues family, if you will) have been a great companion throughout the year. Guitarist Maxime Desharnais recently issued a self-titled cassette from his sinister New Vogue project. Drummer Drew Demers has kept busy as one of the principles behind the Pentagon Black art-label (they issued, among other cool print projects, a perfectly timed Afropunk primer pamphlet from Halifax writer/musician Chris Murdoch). Finally, PRIORS themselves, just weeks ago, unveiled My Punishment On Earth, their third LP (itself shelved since this mess started).

Matt Ellis: Halfway to Insanity

Self Released - Bandcamp

When Matt Ellis went into isolation, he did the only reasonable thing and jury-rigged an impromptu recording studio in the bathroom of his family home. This questionably hygienic studio churned out four EPs of snotty, low-fi Ramones worship. The series began in April with High Risk Assurance, followed in May by Stays Home, Halfway to Insanity in June, then wrapping in July with Never Was, Is And Never Shall Be. These EPs arrived on top of a series of fascinating archival releases from Matt's Loose Lops Records, most of which raised money for local charities and struggling punk hubs like Hammer City Records. In the before-times, Ellis fronted Hamilton's proto-punk revivalists Flesh Rag and the Toronto punk outfit PlasticHeads. Perhaps he will again if we survive, but this year made the strong case that his solo career is just beginning.

PONY: "WebMD"

Self Released - Bandcamp

COVID's made hypochondriacs of us all, and there's no better anthem for that than PONY's "WedMD," dedicated to "anyone who spends their Friday night googling symptoms." It's been a few years since Sam Bielanski's delightful bubblegum-punk group's had much of a presence, but 2020 seemed to kick off their revival. While "WedMD" served as the project's most prominent original single of the year, Bielanski captured the mood early with an immaculate cover of "Somebody Kill Me Please," the song Adam Sandler sung during his complete meltdown in The Wedding Singer. Bielanski's spent much of her isolation with fellow Toronto musician Matty Morand (!ATTENTION!, Pretty Matty), a pairing that's given each individual a valuable studio collaborator.

Pretty Matty: "Why Not Be Something That You Are?"

Head 2 Wall Records - Bandcamp

On his end, Matty Morand's issued a handful of tracks this year as the power-pop act Pretty Matty. These came alongside a playful EP of hardcore demos and frequent collaborations with Bielanski on their 2 Much TV podcast. While Morand recorded it before this mess, one of my favourite tracks of the year was "Why Not Be Something That You Are?" from Pretty Matty's March split with the Nashville duo Sad Baxter. It's a pitch perfect throwback to the early Lookout Records style, just too good a tune to be lost on some pandemic-swallowed 7".

Modern Cynics: Volume 2

Self Released - Bandcamp

Matty Grace is a veteran of several Halifax-based punk and hardcore groups, a long list that includes the Fat Stupids, Weekend Dads, Outtacontroller, Cutie, and Future Girls. Grace kicked off the year issuing Rumination Year, a six-song folk-punk set that's long been in the works. Of course, it arrived right as the lockdowns started, throwing the artists' best laid promotional plans out the window. In the months since, Grace's became rather prolific, alternating between solo recordings and new collaborative projects, with at least two new bands launching from the mess. Cluttered is the latest, but I want to focus on Modern Cynics because the concept fits this stir-crazy summer so perfectly. Over two EPs, Modern Cynics churned out nearly a dozen Ramonescore tunes, each with the conceit that there could be no more than 12 unique words per track. Is that a bafflingly unnecessary constraint? Undoubtedly - but that's just the kind of nonsense we needed to get us through to the other side.

No Idea Head: EP 2

Self Released - Bandcamp

We've seen a wealth of pandemic material flow from Drew Thomson's home-studio, both the acerbic Single Mothers and the pop-rock Drew Thomson Foundation. Back in the first wave, Thomson unveiled an EP as No Idea Head, a spoken-word solo project featuring stream-of-consciousness diatribes with instrumental backing. Given Thomson's longstanding penchant for biting satire and off-kilter, observational wordplay, the format fit like a glove. No Idea Head's rather compelling second EP arrived just recently, making a strong case that Drew should come out of this year juggling not two ongoing bands, but three. Give "TJ & Tequila" a spin and try not to smile. The line about the unrealized YouTube channel just kills me.

TJ Cabot & Thee Artificial Rejects

Alien Snatch - Bandcamp

In regular times Tyler Boutilier plays in several Moncton punk groups like Phone Jerks, The Beaten Hearts, and Nerve Button. This summer, confined to his basement with a laptop, guitar, and not much else, he became TJ Cabot: freedom fighter and the face of Boularderie Island independence. If you don't recognize that particular landmass, well, that's the joke. Over the pandemic, TJ released a string of Ramones-worshipping home-recorded punk EPs, the most recent being October's Get Ready, Get Set!, although August's Dick Charles is your best primer for the revolution. Enough of this low-fi material amassed that Boutilier was able to assemble an LP for Berlin's Alien Snatch, credited to TJ Cabot & Thee Artificial Rejects. Depending on which Cabot track you pick up, you may be hearing vibes of The Spits, The Spaceshits, Real Kids, or even the MC5. Cool stuff from weird times, and hopefully something that continues when we're out of this.

JONCRO: The Joncro Mountains

Self Released - Bandcamp

Mississauga's multifaceted JONCRO's carved a fascinating path through the pandemic. Singer/guitarist Daniel G. Wilson must have genres on a wheel, as every other week during the summer he took a fearless swing at a different style. Working solo, Wilson put their spin on ska-punk, spoken word, hardcore, and even their father's field recordings from Jamaica. While JONCRO recently solidified these demos as The Joncro Mountains, it was the band's recent live stream that truly floored me. That set, captured as The Lions Den Session, saw the JONCRO performing as a socially distanced drum-and-guitar duo, mostly instrumental, but with a squelching intensity that's made me miss live music like nothing else. This is a young band, and their best work lies ahead of them, but groundwork laid in isolation will make a huge difference.

Only God Forgives: Power and Prowess

Self Released - Bandcamp

I remain disappointed that the brilliant, if lawsuit-courting, Toronto art-punks WLMRT opted for an early grave last winter, but thankfully the band's distinctive vocalist is back with a new project. Only God Forgives pairs the dry wit of Shelby Wilson with Tallies instrumentalist Stephen Pitman as a twitchy electronic duo. Wilson tries on a few different vocal modes over their debut full-length, with the quirky pop backing giving her ample more space to play. The band sarcastically described the 12-song Power and Prowess as a rip-off of Beat Happening ("but [with] some punky songs, because punk is the best"), but that's hardly a fault. Few artists express pent up boredom with quite the same maniac energy as Shelby Wilson, so this has been a welcome presence a year that demanded it.

Tommy Tone: Finally Punk

Self Released - Bandcamp

If I have a purpose on this earth, it's to use whatever online platform I have to amplify weird nonsense like Tommy Tone. Tone's one of several stage names used by Vancouver artist and musician Tom Whalen. Here Whalen plays an intentionally unlikable, self-absorbed braggart, a send-up of male entitlement set to shmaltzy synthpop. This is an artist who boastfully titled their March full-length How To Make Music. This September, Tone released Finally Punk, with his character finally bowing to the immense public pressure to go punk (I guess). The shtick is all well and good, but Whalen knows how to write a great pop song in or out of character, and that's abundantly evident on Finally Punk. Tunes like the album-opening "Goin' Ape" and "They Tried To Make Me A Punk" are absolute earworms. Finally Punk is such a riot at times that I couldn't give a damn about sincerity.

Antibodies: "Petrostate"

Self Released - Bandcamp

To coincide with (or more accurately "in defiance of") Canada Day, Charlottetown punk outfit Antibodies released the vicious "Petrostate" as a fundraiser benefitting the Unist'ot'en Camp. It followed an EP in May that similarly raised funds for the migrant farmworkers ignored by this country's COVID benefits. Those socially conscious efforts just helped cement 2020 as the year that raw, fucked up Maritime punk unexpectedly assert itself as the most vital and relevant in the country. This band's forthcoming EP is perhaps the single record I'm most looking forward to in 2021.

Warsh: E.P. II

Self Released - Bandcamp

Warsh hails from that same tightly woven Charlottetown scene, and like Antibodies were recently showcased on the landmark (if I'm allowed to declare such things) Seaside Sickness compilation from Sewercide Records. The band's new EP is barely two weeks old, but its low-fi hardcore feels absolutely vital. I think I've finally burnt out my pandemic playlist of feel-good nostalgia tunes - I'm ready to get angry again, and PEI's Warsh fucking nails it.

Misanthropic Minds: Welcome To The Homeland, Greetings From The Wasteland

Sewercide Records - Bandcamp

Welcome To The Homeland, Greetings From The Wasteland is peak everything. Cody Googoo of the Booji Boys reunites with his Alienation bandmate Dave Brown to crash through five songs in around seven minutes. This 7" feels like a fitting sequel to Alienation's unrelenting Bitter Reality EP, bringing a similarly blown-out wall of buzzsaw guitars and frenzied vocals to the party. As with Warsh and Antibodies above, this is a Seaside Sickness band - and mark my words, that record will be a Rosetta Stone one day for whoever documents this period in Canadian punk history.

John K. Samson: "Fantasy Baseball At The End Of The World"

Self Released - Bandcamp

I was in the crowd of a John K. Samson show the night of Trump's election. We stood in the (now COVID-shuttered) MOD Club, phones barely concealed at hip-level, shifting our glances from the band to the red/blue creep of result maps. As the dire projections came into focus, someone yelled, "John! Do something!" to which the Weakerthans frontman could only respond with a nervous smile and a downward glance. Since leaving Propagandhi, John's concerned himself with the personal and the hyper-local, mostly leaving coarse political commentary for the punks still wearing their spikes. So it's a surprise to hear Samson set poetic delicacy aside and address the U.S. president with an unvarnished level of candour: "I'd trade my best pitcher / For a draft-pick and a picture / Of the president writhing in pain." Holy shit, John.

Constantines: "Call Me Out"

Self Released - Bandcamp

Amidst the summer's cultural reckonings, my favourite band inexplicably returned. Constantines didn't write their first published song since 2008 with this year in mind, but its message was all too perfect. "Call me out if I'm not working / Call me out if I'm in the way," the track paints its speaker as a well-intentioned ally, although one now aware that overconfidence in their own virtues is precisely part of the problem. It's a paean to listening, to recognizing privilege, and to keeping your big mouth shut every once in a while. The band stove to make the release fit that spirit, fundraising for the Unist'ot'en Camp and Black Lives Matter. The group also had to carefully thread the needle of letting people know the track existed while not falling into that very conversation-dominating trap themselves. It was a dignified return and a lesson in restraint. I'd expect nothing less from the Cons.

Daniel Romano: "Okay Wow" + 10

You've Changed Records - Bandcamp

No artist took to isolation like Daniel Romano. There's simply no parallel. The Welland singer/songwriter, he of Attack In Black roots, released no less than 11 albums this year.

That's not 11 albums of demos pulled from the archive. That's not 11 albums of easily obtained soundboard recordings. These are 11 fully realized, stand-on-their-own records, any of which a conventional artist would have been happy to have spent a year touring behind.

Between September's vinyl release How Ill Thy World Is Ordered and the (slightly) pre-COVID live LP "Okay Wow", Romano's digital output's been nothing short of astonishing. The run included the original full-lengths Dandelion, Content To Point The Way, "Visions Of The Higher Dream", and White Flag, plus a high-concept front-to-back cover of Bob Dylan's Infidels. These range in style from lush psych-pop to alt-country and straight-up garage rockers. A Splendour Of Heart found the artist backing Ottawa vocalist Kelly Sloan. The punk scorcher Spider Bite had Constantine Steven Lambke spitting fire on vocals. The Super Pollen EP brought in Fucked Up's Jonah Falco and Mike Haliechuk. Meanwhile, the extended prog single "Forever Love's Fool" reached well outside Danny's You've Changed social circle to loop in Tool drummer Daniel Carey.

There are artists for which music writing is a slow and torturous process, but for Danny, it's something else - something I can only barely wrap my head around as a fan. A few years back, I had the privilege of watching Romano record a killer, studio-quality song, playing every instrument, multitracking vocals, everything - over an hour on a rooftop. I have to imagine that's how it is every day - that he's out there right now, assembling new songs daily like he's working the line in some factory. It's unprecedented.

Chapter 3: Freezer Burn

As the early lockdown's unreal novelty started to fade, artists still sitting on finished records finally resigned to fate. The reality was evident and unavoidable: there'd be no supporting tour, no merch table, no release shows, and no festivals. To continue holding onto these albums until, at best, the fall of 2021 wasn't an option - financially or creatively. Given the public's attention span, you'd risk losing any and all momentum. Below are the records cast like dice in a timeless online void, a reality that must be terrifying for a touring artist.

Nyssa: Girls Like Me

Self Released - Bandcamp

Toronto glam-pop institution Nyssa's been sitting on a batch of astonishingly strong singles for a few years now, trickling out accomplished earworms like "Bye Bye Jubilee" and "Hey Jackie" every few months, with no LP in sight. Nyssa's ability to cross genres (she opened the Dose Your Dreams release show) would be impressive on its own, but I've seen audiences of all stripes set their cool detachment aide and start cheering on her incredible vocal gymnastics like they're watching a pro athlete. Girls Like Me finally collects these songs, and while they're well known at this point, they're still worth celebrating.

Westelaken: The Golden Days are Hard

Self Released - Bandcamp

The Golden Days are Hard is gleefully weird. This aggressively dynamic alt-country effort feels cut from the same cloth as some of my favourite artists from college - when I was just branching away from my teenage standards and realizing how wild the genreless end of the independent pool could be. Toronto's Westelaken truly feels like heirs to the spirit of bands like Royal City, Jon-Rae and the River, and even The Deadly Snakes. Golden Days certainly wouldn't play to the masses, but I dearly hope to be in the room when its community finally reassembles to celebrate it.

Nutrition: NO E.P.

Neon Taste Records - Bandcamp

Out on the west coast Neon Taste Records is killing it, pandemic or otherwise. Among this year's releases were a pair of EPs from interlinked Kamloops bands - the UK82-styled Bootlicker and their Dead Milkmen influenced cousins Nutrition. Both releases are strong as can be, with Bootlicker's How to Love Life perhaps the more conventional of the pair (at least from a genre standpoint). Nutrition's No EP has that rare quality of being both tough but silly, giving it an off-kilter zeal that's usually the exclusive playground of snotty pop-punkers.

Itchy Self: Here's The Rub

Celluloid Lunch - Bandcamp

One of the issues faced by these latter-year releases is the strictly online environment is so saturated that it's tough to hold anyone's attention for longer than an hour. The fledgling catalogue of Montreal's Celluloid Lunch deserves a second look in that respect. The label launched with two projects, an LP from the cinematic synthpop group Night Lunch, and the first 12" EP from the garage rockers Itchy Self. Lead by label-head Joe Chamandy, Itchy Self's the next attitude-dripping evolution of a proto-punk journey that earlier grew from Sackville's Kappa Chow into Toronto's Protruders. This incarnation backs off on the tempo but fills that void with bombastic swagger. Here's The Rub is deeply schooled in rust belt proto-punk, with the show-stopping b-side ("Playin MTV") completely owning a Velvets shuffle. This is the very definition of a cool record.

Teenanger: Good Time

Telephone Explosion

Good Time is curiously playful, wrapping even its most biting commentary in an upbeat new wave bounce. That it's the latest effort from Teenanger - a habitually wry and disaffected garage punk group - makes that feel all the more nuanced. Good Time isn't entirely cynical; it's just not afraid to smile while calling our bullshit. Ontario's Conservative government takes the album's most overt blast, with our big-tech-enabled, phone-dependent lifestyle not far behind. Those targets, while certainly worthy of scorn, seem to resonate differently in COVID's wake. We've got more dirt now. Worse dirt. In that sense, it feels like Teenanger wrote Good Time for a different 2020 than the one we ended up with. While that's not a fair fault to find in this lovely little record, it certainly demands a follow-up.

Dog Day: Present

Fundog - Bandcamp

The Halifax gloom-pop institution Dog Day returned this year with Present, the first record from the cult favourites in nearly seven years. The album reunites the husband and wife core of guitarist Seth Smith and bassist Nancy Urich with their original drummer, Diamondtown's KC Spidle, and brings keyboardist Megumi Yoshida on board. The new combo's tight and well served by the time Smith and Ulrich have spent filmmaking in the years since Fade Out. There's a cinematic quality to Present, something nostalgic and a little sinister on the periphery. There's been an awful lot of 90s alt-rock in my diet this year, and the throwback sounds of Dog Day's new one is pure comfort food in that regard.

TV Freaks: People

Schizophrenic Records - Bandcamp

Hamilton's garage-punk mainstays have had this record in the works for a while, with instrumentals tracked way back in the spring of 2018. It's a damn shame it had to arrive now, as this is by miles the best TV Freaks have ever been - a top-to-bottom, fully ambitious reimaging of the group. The lead single "Heart of Gold" foreshadowed something special - an extended space-rock jam that claimed new territory for a band so often characterized by whip-fast bursts of sneering hardcore. People dials back the tempo, and in doing so, positions TV Freaks somewhere adjacent to Fucked Up - still indebted to their classic punk forebearers, but with enough confidence to warp and twist those foundations into something new and unpredictable.

The OBGMs: The Ends

Black Box

What a fascinating year this has been for The OBGMs. The trio knew they were onto something with The Ends, their fierce and distinctive new LP. Guitarist/vocalist Densil McFarlane has a natural penchant for bluster and came prepared to sell this record hard, particularly to a scene that's fallen head over heels for other Ontario punk groups like PUP and The Dirty Nil. This summer, however, amplified everything. The Black Lives Matter protests lead to many smaller cultural reckonings, with McFarlane, a Black man, seizing the moment in the Cancon sphere. He publicly named and shamed establishment publications from Canada's small pond music press, demanding better representation for BIPOC rock artists. That'd be a noble hill to die on even if The Ends were a dud, but The Ends kicks ass. There's garage muscle, to be sure, and a gritty swagger that would suit Poison Idea, FEAR, or even the Dead Boys, but the OBGMs sound little like those bands. This swings more. The record's packed with cool percussive flourishes and slick vocal takes that set it apart. The Ends stands confidently on its own sonic merits, regardless of the cultural context or how much promotional fire's spit on its behalf. The long wait for the day when the OBGMs can safely put this material back in front of a crowd is going to feel like an eternity.

Partner: Never Give Up

You've Changed Records - Bandcamp

There was some question as to what our slack-rock heroes Partner would deliver on their second full length. While In Search of Lost Time was rightfully lauded, the follow-up EP seemed to juggle too many oddball ideas to make much of an impact. Never Give Up, thankfully, isn't just a return to form; it's an ambitious reaffirmation of the band's mission. Josée Caron and Lucy Niles set out here to tale everything awesome from classic rock - guitar heroism, the grand sense of scale, the sugar-rush riffing - and reclaim it for the queer youth of today. This isn't a parody, though - Partner's deeply in love with rock in this abstract, spiritual sense. They want that toolkit freed from the old farts entrenched on your Hits station, open to all. On "Big Gay Hands," they lift the lascivious vibe of AC/DC's hits and, rather than reject it, take it for their own. "Good Place To Hide (At The Time)" masquerades so deftly as an unearthed Rush classic that it questions the need for the real thing. Never Give Up is a commanding follow-up to one of the best debuts of the decade, still funny at times and often charming, but never a joke. Stadiums await, one day.

Tough Age: Which Way Am I?

Mint Records - Bandcamp

2017's Shame may have changed my life, in that Tough Age shifted in my perception from a band I was merely fond of to one for which I felt a deep, protective kinship. That record came about right when I started Some Party, with the band unveiling the first singles from that record when I was just a few weeks in. At that waypoint, Tough Age found themselves grappling with their identity, shifting in genre from the pop-punk-adjacent garage rock of their Vancouver years to one that allowed guitarist/vocalist Jarrett Evan Samson to plum his obsession with The Clean and Flying Nun Records.

Which Way Am I?, the band's fourth full-length and their second with their Toronto line-up, arrived in August. It balanced the New Zealand influence with New York post-punk, tying in Television and notably The Feelies. That mix leads to more than a few extended jams, particularly in the record's second half. Meanwhile, bassist Penny Clark shows newfound confidence in her scrappy vocals - no doubt helped by her stint fronting the group's unrefined alter-ego Rotten Column. The pair, backed by Jesse Locke's tight and disciplined percussion, once again produce a sound I want to get lost in. I've long championed succinct, economic punk music - yet I'd be content to listen to Tough Age jam for as long as they'd care to keep playing. This is a band I always feel ill-equipped for - like I'm never familiar enough with their influences to truly appreciate where they're coming from - but that notion never feels offputting. It's exciting. Tough Age is a continuous route to new things - they make me want to be better (I only just internalized Crazy Rhythms, but I think I'm supposed to figure out Tarkus now).

So we've come full circle. How did Jesse's side-band Motorists end up playing the basement of that comic store? Jarrett and Penny worked there. The last three years of my little music hobby (I don't dare call myself a writer) seems to have been bookended by two Tough Age records. So what now? Jarrett and Penny have since pulled up stakes to move back to BC. Sneaky Dee's may not survive the pandemic to stuff my kids with nachos ever again. 2020 was the final year of This Ain't Hollywood, Call The Office, Thunder & Lightning, and so many others. Just about every artist mentioned above will continue to suffer economically, creatively, and socially before we're all adequately vaccinated.

I don't know quite where we go from here. It's going to be tough, but the future's unwritten.

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Under The Circumstances

Some Party's new Under The Circumstances compilation features new and rare songs from Tough Age, Partner, Wares, Psychic Void, and New Vogue!