Thursday, January 1, 2015

the songs that formed 2014: a deeply personal list

Happy New Year!

Someone once asked me to list my top fourteen albums and top five songs of the year, but I’ll be honest. I live in a faraway land where there are no record shops or concert halls or really even a group of peers that listen to music that is not on the one radio station that we get here. My internet bandwidth is capped at 20 gigabytes and for that I have to pay $130 a month, so I’m not eager to go over that limit. I couldn’t list fourteen albums that were released this year, because I’m still catching up on what came out last year.

What I can give you though, are my top five songs that I discovered this year. How about two sets? The top five songs that saved my life, and the top five songs that devastated me, in the sense that they created something that is so raw and powerful that it shook me to the core.

The top five songs that shook me to the core this year

Erieau – Knot of Snakes (hibernaculum remix)



Shit, where did this song come from? I mean, I know where it literally came from – it’s a remix of the original Predator/Prey tune, which is already bizarre and fantastic on its own. You should check out the Predator/Prey double album that was release last year, by the way. Part of the band is from a land (Inuvik) that is just as faraway and surreal as where I am, and the guys are scientists that write concept albums about animals.  That in itself is pretty neat.

But then Predator/Prey’s Adam (who I guess goes by Erieau) went and remixed the song and produced this masterpiece that actually gave me the chills – and this was not because there was an Arctic blizzard raging outside. Adam has more or less skinned the song of every element that might have kept it familiar and comforting and what is left is this – this eerie, slow, electrified piece of ominous swells and echoes that takes patience to listen to. The Youtube-surfing short attention spans might skip this song after ten seconds, but it is worth it to sit still and listen to it the whole way through. I just wish I could write songs like this. Just don’t listen to it while falling asleep, because I kind of feel like it might give you a few nightmares?

S – Brunch



I’m happily married, so I have no idea why this broken-hearted song resonates with me so strongly. It probably has something to do with the unsettling jarring guitar riffs hovering mostly in minor chords, dueling guitar parts which more or less seem designed to induce panic and anxiety. The song is like the musical form of a late night phone drunk message left on an answering machine to an ex-boyfriend after you’ve been awake for hours with insomnia, and all of these thoughts that you know you should not think just keep crashing around inside your head and piling up until you feel like you are drowning. Okay, maybe that’s why this song destroys me so quickly.  I may not spend time any more hosting imaginary arguments with ex-lovers in my head, but I am an occasional insomniac, and that’s what this song feels like: insomnia-induced panic.

And then it just ends. Not on the tonic chord. The notes just fade out, feeling unfinished. Why would you do that to me?

Haley Bonar – Last War



 Maybe it has something to do with the opening bass line, so subtle and minimalist and yet hinting of something dangerous, followed the entrance of Bonar’s soft soprano vocals, sounding wistful but growing more and more intense as the song progresses. This track is a beautiful example of how to build up a song until it hits a terrifying climax.  There are ambient guitar noises blaring in the background that you don’t notice until the second or third time listen to the song, but it gets buried in your subconscious right away.  There is so much going on in this song, like an overwhelming panic attack, and this song does it so well. This song destroyed me, and yet I listened to it over and over and over again.

Ejecta – Afraid of the Dark





I really am a sucker for songs that gradually build up. This song has a misleading “introduction” that lasts for almost half the song – the true character of the song doesn’t really reveal itself until the tempo picks up around the two minute mark. But it works, because it keeps you waiting, holding your breath until you think you’re going to pass out. The melody is repetitive but haunting. The vocals are somehow both sad yet hopeful – despite the imagery of the lyrics about one’s heart being afraid of the dark, and about one’s fears, the supporting synth-dominant music has a certain driving sense of resolve, of somehow surviving despite the tragedies, which I feel like really captures the simultaneous senses of feminine sadness and feminine strength.  And maybe that’s why I really love listening to this song.

Tanya Tagaq - Fracking

Listen to the song here

I was so, so, so shocked when Animism won the Polaris Prize this year.  Happy, of course, but surprised, because I had no idea that other people would appreciate this song as much as I did.

I live in the same town that Tanya Tagaq grew up in, a tiny remote isolated community deep within the Arctic circle. It is a beautiful place full of majestic things but also incredible pain and tragedy.  In the sky above we have northern lights that dance all night, and at the same time children go hungry because their families have nothing to eat.  The Inuit have survived harsh environments, colonialism, and even now pervasive social issues of poverty, mental health problems, and addiction that threaten to cripple their society. But do you even know about that? Can you hear this suffering of a whole people in this song Fracking, where Tanya Tagaq sounds like she is gasping with sobs, and then choking for air, and then crying out like a woman being attacked, and then snarling defensively? Because that is what I hear in her music and fills me with despair – I hear the realities of that we encounter every day and the sense of hopelessness that sometimes fills the air around here when we hear that yet another young person has died by suicide. When you listen to this song, can you also picture the beautiful land and water that is threatened by the carelessness of human progress? That’s why this album is so brilliant. Do you appreciate this too, even without this context?

The songs that saved my life this year

Fitness Club Fiasco – Goldmine



Do you worry that you’ve become too cynical and bitter lately? Are you afraid your pessimism has grown so strong that nothing will make you smile in a sincere not-sarcastic manner? Not even a bunny rabbit. Give this song a listen.  This song is so sweet. It’s so damn cute.  You’re going to sing along, even though you never let anyone hear you sing.  You’re going to dance, even though you know you look ridiculous.

Bowjia – Hold me close



The problem with winters here where the sun actually does not rise, ever, is that the perpetual darkness makes you tired, all the time. And kind of glum.  I was at our local gym, trying to coax my spirits up with some healthy exercise, and then this song came on my iPod.  All of a sudden, the weight room became a night club, my elliptical became a dance floor, and even though I was alone, I had a burst of energy and enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in a while.  I swore to myself, “This is awesome! I’m going to run ten kilometres every day!”  I didn’t, by the way, but still this song pumped me up and made me feel great.

Alvvays – Adult Diversion


I know it’s not just people in the Arctic that get this feeling. I know you feel it too sometimes. Your alarm clock goes off and your bed feels like a womb that you are being forced out of, and you involuntarily think the thought I hate everything because you do not want to get out of bed. But you tell yourself sternly that you can’t think thoughts like this first thing in the morning, because otherwise how are you going to get through the rest of your day? But how do you motivate yourself to get going? Play this song while you brush your teeth and pack your lunch. It’ll do the trick.

WHOOP-szo – Has It Been So Long?



Unlike my other songs on this list, this song is not fast-paced, designed to pump you up. Instead, its relaxed rhythm has a comforting effect, like a friendly pat on the back or a warm hug. It really stands out against the rest of the experimental art album, written and recorded in Nunavik. Overall the album is quite good, but this song is the sweetest.  Maybe it’s coloured by the wonderful conversation I had with Adam when I interviewed him. He just really comes across as a thoughtful man full of insights.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Until The Sun Explodes




This song, with its catchy synth-guitar riffs and boy-girl harmonies that are so typical of the band, is a ridiculously awesome cheerful picker-upper. Also, the music video is great for those who like nostalgia.

I have also been giving to my friends mix CDs of my favourite songs that I discovered in 2014. Here's the track listing:

Fitness Club Fiasco Goldmine
Diamond Bones - Something Like Summer
Alvvays - Adult Diversion
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Until The Sun Explodes
Le Blonde - Let it Burn
WHOOP-Szo - Has it Been So Long
The Hours - Steady Glazed Eyes
Mathematique - Summer, but i don't know
Vogue Dots - Turns and Turns
Haley Bonar - Last War
Para Palabras - Bodies
Police Des Moeurs - Dernière Chance
Ejecta - Afraid of the Dark
Bleu - Tidal Wave
Bowjia - Hold Me Close feat. Mallory
S - Brunch
Emmy The Great - Swimming Pool
Alma Elste - Heart Melter
Erieau - Knot of Snakes - hibernaculum remix

I discovered a lot of these songs through the fantastic CHUO FM radio show Ladies First, which you should all listen to. Lina has great musical tastes that seem to be very closely aligned to mine.