Five 2020 albums you shouldn’t miss

As 2020 comes to a close, one thing I don’t want to leave behind is the art that carried me through. These are five of the new music releases I was most excited about this year. All are available on Bandcamp, and I encourage you to give them a listen and support the artists by purchasing a copy if you can!

Fine Forever – VARSITY

VARSITY is back, and they’ve stepped up their game again. The driving rock guitar of their earlier albums, synthy colour of their more recent work, and a new jazzy 60s flair are all present on this album — I mean, there’s even a saxophone. The usual character-driven stories have matured into more glamorous themes, evoking visions of the old-school ‘American dream’ of fame and fortune in tracks like “Heaven Sent” and “Shaking Hands”, while still grounding the record in heartfelt musings on the complexities of growing out of and into relationships in tracks like “Wrecking Line”, and the infinitely sweet “What’s Yours is Mine”.  “Sicko World”, an ironically prescient track for this spring release, is a sonic callback to the group’s garage-band roots, and brings the album to a dark close that leaves me haunted every time. What keeps me coming back to VARSITY is their ability to be simultaneously joyful and dark, complicated and catchy, and this album is no exception.

Neon Skyline – Andy Shauf

Building off the success of The Party, which takes place over a night at a house party, from the perspective of many characters, Neon Skyline also focuses on one evening, in this case following one narrator as he revisits a past relationship. The concept is a bit more of a stretch here — Shauf avoids getting too boxed in by dedicating about half the tracks to memories or reveries, but the connections between thought and reality can be a bit contrived. Still, this album doesn’t disappoint, with rich layers of instrumentals and stories laced with symbolism that reward repeat listens. I’d venture to say it’s Shauf’s most upbeat record — while there’s the requisite musing on mortality in “Dust Kids”, overall, it’s the twinkly yet uneasy melodies and persistently honest sense of humour that cut through. Sit back, listen in order, and reminisce on the good old days, when all life’s questions could be pondered over a drink with friends.

Printer’s Devil – Ratboys

Ratboys have a long discography, and Printer’s Devil goes above and beyond, carrying the garage-rock energy and pensive folk-country roots to a strong new record, with more confident vocals and a tight track list. Danceable singles like “Alien With a Sleep Mask On” and “I Go Out at Night” flow easily into songs that traverse the personal, the offbeat and the dreamlike.  More than anything else, the album contemplates home — both in the more literal sense of Steiner saying goodbye to her childhood home, and the more abstract sense of how you can find a home in people. Heartfelt and upbeat, new and returning listeners will be pulled in. 

If I Am Only My Thoughts – Loving

No surprises, just incredibly chill. This long-awaited sophomore album carries you down a river of hypnotic melodies and melancholy musings. If your go-to sound is the low-key psych mood of early Tame Impala, this is your indie outlet. The refrain of the title track is especially haunting, perhaps more than ever in our extra-digital year — ‘if I am only my thoughts, let them be mine, let them be mine.’ Put this album on and take a break from it all. You deserve it.

Make Yourself Hard to Kill – Numbing

Listen, Numbing is a killer live band, and the fact that their tour had to be put on hold is a crime against bar-show attendees everywhere. Don’t be fooled by the debut album status — the band members are all veterans of the local music scene, and they have a clear style in mind here that they deliver with confidence. There are strong 90s grunge influences, and if groups like Nirvana and Sonic Youth are in your top throwback jams, this is a band you don’t want to miss. For the full experience, plug into a loud stereo or set of headphones, crank up the volume, and let the cathartic wave of angst-rock wash over you.

What I’m listening to: Oncle Jazz by Men I Trust

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Ever since it was released in September, I’ve been listening to Oncle Jazz on repeat. Men I Trust has the perfect balance of relaxing and upbeat sounds to make this album great background listening for all occasions. There’s a certain level of pop brightness, simmered down to a laid-back and atmospheric Montreal sound, that makes this album appeal to all kinds of listeners while still maintaining its own dreamy D.I.Y. sensibilities.

The album compiles eight of the singles the band has released since 2017, along with sixteen new tracks for a substantial 71 minute runtime. While the original singles are still the catchiest tracks, the new music takes us deeper into the soundscape, drawing the listener into a world of synthy riffs and laid-back beats. The songs of the past two years have already secured the band a strong place as rising stars of the Canadian indie scene, with many of the music videos garnering two or three million views, but the album fills out their sound in a way we haven’t seen since 2015’s Headroom, with more consistency and confidence than in the more experimental angles of that album.

I’ve grown quite fond of the album art as well, and the cassette comes with the special treat of a lyric booklet that, while you might need a magnifying glass to actually read it, contains several bonus doodles of the charming little fellow from the cover. The cassette also emphasizes the symmetry of the album: the second side starts with “Fiero GT”, a shorter track with a spoken sample towards the end that mirrors the opening track, “Oncle Jazz”; and the penultimate track is an instrumental reprise of “Tailwhip”, which appears early in the album. The album is available on CD and vinyl as well, and whatever your medium of choice, this is a polished, feel-good album well worth diving into.

Listen or buy on Bandcamp

Stream the full album on Youtube

What I’m listening to: Parallel Person by VARSITY

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Listening to VARSITY on repeat has become a summer tradition for me. I first discovered the band in summer 2016, and spent long bus rides to work shuffling through Cult of Personality/So Sad, So Sad and the self-titled album; last summer I dug into the older, more rock-y EPs and learned all the words to Still Apart while trying to hold onto long-distance relationships and friendships. So I was eagerly awaiting Parallel Person, and it’s begun to worm its way into my seasonal consciousness just as its predecessors did.

On first listen, the album is both what you would expect from the progression of VARSITY’s previous work, and maybe also a bit lacklustre, with a mellower and cleaner sound, and a slower pace that lacks some of the earlier albums’ more punk-y edge. But after a few more listens, especially with a decent-quality stereo, the subtleties become increasingly intoxicating. And while a sunshiney sound is one thing that keeps me coming back to VARSITY each summer, the true hook is the quirky and honest portrayals of interpersonal relationships, specific in story but universal in the underlying emotions; this album takes the space to dive into this aspect, with a number of characters being introduced.

“Settle Down” didn’t excite me all that much as a single; while the video, with its ever-growing procession of kooky characters, is endearing and fun, art about making art runs the risk of being too self-reflexive, and maybe a bit lacking in emotional intensity. But “Must Be Nice” adds a more driving energy, with rock refrains more reminiscent of the band’s earlier work. This song, along with ones like “Isolation” and “Lied for You” emerge as the higher-energy and catchier pieces of the album. But what becomes increasingly intriguing in even the mellower tracks is the push and pull; there’s a delicacy to the lighter pieces, with sunny pop sounds moving in and out of minor-key dissonance and lyrics that trace the complicated territory of changing relationships.

The most new and exciting aspects of the album appear in some of the later songs, where experiments with instrumental aspects emerge; “Discipline” has a haunting quality, fading out almost completely before returning to a final refrain. The final track, “Alone in My Principles,” runs a confident eight and a half minutes, and feels like a conclusion to both the lyrical and musical themes of the album — speaking of both loneliness and growth, and building through echoey repetitions that let you really sink into the synthy sounds. This track is a personal favourite of mine — I have a predictable weakness for “songs about leaving,” and this is certainly one; what starts as driving away weaves itself into a more complex exploration of the process of trying to re-create yourself, with the hollow backdrop of loneliness and impermanence. But ultimately the refrain is “I will go on;” ultimately the track is both haunting and strangely uplifting.

Parallel Person has the finesse that comes from being a more mature album, with layers well worth digging into. As always, VARSITY captures the complicated realities that come with growing older, but always with a sense of catharsis or lightness; and as my own life gets more uncertain, the message to carry seems to be this optimism — to accept and even celebrate the complications, and keep moving forward.