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Top Ten Albums of 2012

If anything, the conclusion of the calendar year gives everyone on the internet all kinds of opportunities to narcissistically try to prove how obscure/refined their tastes in the arts are. Well, I’m getting old and I don’t fancy myself cool or distinguished, so I don’t have anything to prove. But I do love music and I enjoy talking about it, so as I do every year, I’ll list my favourite albums of 2012 here:

PropagandhiFailed States

The top spot always goes to the album I listened to the most. These musical activists have progressed well beyond their traditional punk roots over their last few albums, and Failed States is no exception. Incorporating elements of thrash metal and melodic vocal hooks and leads, it’s a compelling listen from start to finish.

Die AntwoordTen$ion

The songs are catchy and weird, and for me that’s the basic allure of these South Africans. But the whole package goes a lot deeper artistically. As I saw Kinnie Starr aptly state on Facebook, they creatively embody tension in everything they do. They’re the white faces of rap music from an African country. He’s trashy and she’s sexy. They rap over electronic dance music. And their unique songs complement a powerful visual element.

A Tribe Called Red

This is the soundtrack to the modern urban Aboriginal experience. By successfully marrying traditional powwow music with contemporary dance music, these Ottawa-based DJs have been on a meteoric rise in 2012. Their music is exciting, innovative, comfortable, and hopeful. And most importantly, it’s bringing people together to a degree never seen before.

High on FireDe Vermis Mysteriis

You can always count on High on Fire to deliver jaw-dropping heavy metal. The ferocious brutality is here as usual, but so is a slower, epic stoner metal groove found on some of guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike’s other work. If any band proves that any tempo can be heavy, it’s these guys.

Bison b.c. – Lovelessness

This modern metal masterpiece is made up of six massively epic songs that are raw, dark, and very emotional. This Vancouver four-piece is well known for its complex riffs and sprawling songs, but this album takes on a dominantly intense grim character that was only hinted at on previous albums. It’s a harsh, complex journey, but a fulfilling one both musically and emotionally.

Death GripsThe Money Store

Unfortunately the controversy surrounding this group (largely created by the members themselves) overshadowed the great music they released this year. The Money Store is their major-label debut, and it’s one of the coolest rap albums I’ve ever heard. It’s also very punk rock, and that explains the spirit of everything that happened after it came out.

TorcheHarmonicraft

Rock fans can rejoice that there are still bands committed to putting out heavy music with great melodies and lyrics. This is my favourite rock album of 2012. It’s fun, loud, and catchy.

The Melvins (Lite)Freak Puke

The musical concept of this album was to strip everything down while maintaining the usual heavy Melvins sound. Sonically, it’s quite the departure from their last few studio albums, but it works. They gave the Big Business guys on rhythm this album off (hence “Melvins Lite”), and brought in bass legend Trevor Dunn to play an upright. The end result is a collection of really cool sounding rock tunes.

Jack WhiteBlunderbuss

It’s basically The White Stripes with more instruments and advanced percussion, and therefore better.

The SwordApocryphon

I love this band, but I wasn’t sure this album would make my list because it really pales in comparison to the last one. Still, they basically stick to the formula, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s a treat for the ears of any rock guitar player.

What were your favourite albums in 2012?

Top Ten Shows of 2012

Live music is one of the greatest experiences and I love going to shows. This was a good year for new music and I was fortunate to see and hear a lot of it live. As I do every year, I’ll list my favourite performances here. I missed out on two that I’m certain would have made the list: Radiohead in Toronto was cancelled due to tragedy, and I was in B.C. for a writers’ festival when Propagandhi came to Ottawa. Notwithstanding, I really enjoyed these sets:

Deltron 3030
Lebreton Flats
Ottawa Bluesfest
July 10

Their self-titled debut is one of my favourite rap albums of all time, so I was excited when I heard they’d be playing Bluesfest. I wasn’t sure how they’d pull it off life, so I was even more stoked to see Del, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala take the stage with a full band including a chorus and string and horn sections. They took those already monumental songs into another dimension and I was totally blown away.

Jack White
L’Olympia
Montreal
October 2

Although I dig his new solo album, in all honesty I went to this show because I wanted to hear his old songs from other bands. He ended up devoting about half of the set to White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather material, much to my delight. The White Stripes tunes were especially phenomenal, thanks to the full electric band. They were way better than the original versions. I still get shivers when I recall the mighty opening version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”.

Die Antwoord
Metropolis
Montreal
November 3

This South African rap/electronic outfit is one of the most interesting acts out there. They bring the weird on their albums and videos, and their live show was no exception. This was a loud and powerful one-hour set in my current favourite venue. They had the sold-out crowd moving from start to finish, and I can’t wait to see them live again. I haven’t had that much fun at a show in a long time.

KEN mode, Biipiigwan, Vilipend, Kloven Hoofs
Daily Grind
Ottawa
November 15

Metal bills are often jammed with lots of bands with varying degrees of talent. Most of the time I can’t get into all of them, and find myself using one band’s set to socialize/use the washroom/check Twitter. But at this show I can honestly say I genuinely enjoyed all four acts from start to finish. It was in a fun, intimate venue with a great turnout from Ottawa’s vibrant metal community. Also, it doesn’t get much more intense than seeing KEN mode live.

The Melvins
Lebreton Flats
Ottawa Bluesfest
July 4

They’re one of my favourite bands of all time and seeing them live is always a spectacle. This touring incarnation was called “Melvins Lite”, promoting their recent Freak Puke album with a much more stripped-down sound than usual. Down to one drummer and an unplugged bass, it was still louder and more robust than almost everything else at Bluesfest this year. Plus, Trevor Dunn is a bass legend, so any fan of the instrument could appreciate his expertise here.

Digging Roots, A Tribe Called Red, Daybi, Flying Down Thunder and Rise Ashen
National Arts Centre
Ottawa
March 21

CBC Ottawa hosted these four extremely talented acts in a special showcase at the National Arts Centre called Beat Tradition. The purpose was to feature some of the eclectic brilliance from the Aboriginal music community. The crowd here got a great taste of it all – from electronic dance music to hip hop to blues – for free. It was an honour to be involved, especially to be able to introduce my friends Digging Roots and A Tribe Called Red.

Mastodon
Lebreton Flats
Ottawa Bluesfest
July 14

From an aural standpoint, this set actually started out pretty poorly. There were a lot of issues with the sound mix for the first few songs that eventually got ironed out. Despite that, the band was in fine form and conveyed truly great spirits. It wasn’t my favourite set of theirs – focussing heavily on material from their fan-polarizing-but-still-great recent album The Hunter – but they seemed genuinely into it and showed the Ottawa crowd a lot of love. Good effort and attitude go a long way in a live performance.

Barn Burner
Maverick’s
Ottawa
February 18

Somehow I’ve always just missed seeing these massive Montreal metal monsters live. I finally got a chance to catch them for the first time this year. Any guitar player can appreciate what they do live. Epic riffs, leads, and solos that harness the true spirit of metal are the centrepiece of their stunning live shows. They’re one of the best metal bands Canada has to offer and everyone should check ’em out in concert.

Anvil
Great Canadian Cabin
Ottawa
March 30

A buddy and I stumbled across this show as part of the JUNO festivities in Ottawa this spring. I haven’t seen the renowned documentary about these guys (I know, I know) so I didn’t have much of a frame of reference, but I had a blast. It was loud and their rowdy, dedicated fans around us made it a lot of fun.

Whitehorse
Hog’s Back Park
Ottawa Folk Festival
September 9

They play catchy, sweet folk music, and a big part of their allure is that the passion the married duo of Melissa McLelland and Luke Doucet share for each other carries over onto the stage. Whitehorse had hundreds in the crowd in the palms of their hands. The musical and emotional harmony they portray is really endearing.

What were some of your favourites? Stay tuned for the Top Ten Albums of 2012 coming in a couple weeks!

Top Ten Albums of 2010

As I do every year, I’m gonna list some albums here that kept my ears occupied more than others in 2010. It was a little harder this year coming up with ten, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad year for music. As always, I’m looking for more great stuff to listen to, so please feel free to leave your own picks!

In high rotation on my iPod this year were:

The MelvinsThe Bride Screamed Murder

It seems a little weird putting one of the most peculiar yet uniquely charming metal bands of the past three decades in the top spot, but there’s no album I listened to more this year, and that’s always my primary criterion. This is their most accessible and best album in years, thanks again to the contribution of the Big Business dudes on rhythm and in harmony. Epic riffs, beautiful and haunting vocal melodies, and a sick dual drum assault.

The SwordWarp Riders

Every year there’s a “guitar album” I make sure to include, and this is it. The Sword have followed through again with another showcase of towering and intricate riff-rock. The smokin’ chops and blazing solos of Warp Riders are a delight for any guitar player. It makes me want to plug in and make myself even deafer.

Damian Marley & NasDistant Relatives

Anyone familiar with both of these artists should know what to expect from a collaboration. But this album is so much more than just fusion of rap and reggae. Each allows the other to flourish in the right spots on the right tracks, and when they come together it’s nothing short of stunning. Both are legends in their respective genres and they marry their talents beautifully on this album.

Blitzen TrapperDestroyer of the Void

On first listen this sounds like ’60s Dylan, ’70s Bowie, the Band and the Grateful Dead all crammed together. I wasn’t a fan of catchall classic rock homage bands before, but there’s a lot to be said for paying tribute to the legends all at once through your own original music. Many of their songs tell epic stories both lyrically and musically. Whenever I put this album on, I almost always find myself listening to it the whole way through.

BaronessThe Blue Record

This is probably “guitar album #2” on my list, but with a little more sauce. Baroness is the most under-appreciated band in modern metal, and it’s really a shame. Building off their last Red Album, this one carves out a deeper sound with more complicated guitar melodies and vocal ranges. Their songs are both sweet and brutal, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a band nowadays that can pull that off effectively.

The Dead WeatherSea of Cowards

Usually I’m all for anything Jack White puts his name on, but I was pretty disappointed with this band’s first album. But when he’s just the drummer in what sounds like a standard bar band, I guess expectations should be lowered slightly. On this one, he steps up a bit more with his voice and his guitar and it adds more value to the rock on this record. Not to take away at all from Alison Mosshart – she’s an amazing singer with a huge live presence. She saved my life at Bonnaroo.

High on FireSnakes for the Divine

Matt Pike. That’s all you need to know.

Blakroc

Everyone and their grandma loved the Black KeysBrothers album this year. It was pretty alright, but I thought this was their better recent effort. They basically made a hip hop album with the RZA and a whole bunch of other dudes (including a resurrected Ol’ Dirty Bastard) and it kicks ass. It’s only natural that a stripped-down band that specializes in rhythm and blues makes a foundation for some pretty enjoyable rap music.

Wab KinewMide Sun Music

While not his official follow-up to Live by the Drum, it’s a stellar mixtape featuring some of his greatest musician friends from Winnipeg and beyond. Wab embodies what it is to be a young, educated, and dedicated Anishinaabe in today’s Canada. The tracks on this collection are honest, heartfelt, powerful, and funny. I’m stoked for Die by the Drum in 2011.

Joanna NewsomHave One on Me

When I first heard she was putting out a triple album as a follow-up to the impeccable Ys, it made me a little uneasy. Her music is a little hard to digest at first, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure enough, I could only listen to one song at a time initially, but once I got through them all I remembered why she is a musical genius with the ability to shake you to the core.

Honorable Mentions:

Chic GamineCity City

Some of the most unique music I’ve ever heard in my live. Check it out for yourself.

BiipiigwanGod’s Hooks

They get to open up for big names in metal whenever they’re in town. They must be doing something right.

Rock on in 2011!

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