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.

Internet Poetry Round-Up #4

I never get tired of poetry that perfects that trick of finding images that are unexpected, yet crisp with just the right feeling. In this week’s poems, the ordinary is made strange, with imagery of the natural world turning our ways of relating to each other into something both expansive and profoundly living.

love poem with aphids” by Ash Davida Jane

from Peach Mag

“every morning I am thankful that you are not

                                                 hundreds of bees swarming

            in the form of a person”

Quoted are the opening lines of this poem, and they set off an extended metaphor full of vivid sensory imagery and, despite the fear a swarm of bees might strike in some readers, nothing but tenderness. This piece feels like summer and longing, a never-close-enough feeling perfectly expressed by the truth that not even atoms can ever fully touch.


Radio Dress” by Jessica MacEachern

from Canthius

“In the jarring feedback there is an uncanny home”

The use of space in this poem reinforces its thoughts on the distortion of information. It’s short and simple, but suggests a task of poetry itself, especially pertinent in our time — that from the “technological chaos”, the poet can translate something living and primal: a heartbeat, animal footsteps. It’s this turn in the final lines, this crisp sonic image, that keeps me coming back to this piece.


Hotel” by Gabriella R. Tallmadge

from The Boiler 

“Each night I drowned under the drumming

of the ocean’s great retelling”

This poem has the rhythm and grand imagery of a wintry myth. It feels like something read aloud, to recite in circles, over and over again. The images are cryptic, yet precise, icons of a moment, and through them the small space of a hotel room becomes expansive, filled with an impossible wilderness.


I had a hard time choosing just one poem from The Boiler Magazine once I started reading, and I would strongly recommend perusing more of Issue 31 — other favourite pieces of mine from the issue are “Hidden Valley” by Alli Cruz, and “Town Under Lake” by Alicia Wright.

Internet Poetry Round-Up #3

Internet Poetry Round-Up is back for the new year, and there are more great poems on my mind than I know what to do with. This batch of poems are ones I haven’t been able to close the tab on, full of strange imagery that pulls me back in to keep searching for meaning, again and again.

Elegy for My Sadness” by Chen Chen

from Breakwater Review

“I wish it could / unbelong itself from me, unstick / from my face.”

This poem is a necklace of utterly unexpected words and phrases, linked seamlessly with repetitions. It’s a fresh, honest and strange perspective on depression and the frustration of having sadness always present, “unsweet, uncharming, completely uninteresting”. It’s colloquial and grounded, full of sharp-edged truth, with an ending that sits heavy in your chest long after you’ve read it.

“Poem Where The Poet Lies Through Her Teeth” by Gabrielle Hogan

from Ghost City Press

“my / dream girl is a sheet of paper folded in / on itself, & then again, & then again”

This poem pulls the reader in effortlessly through the free-flowing anaphora on “my dream girl”, then sticks in your head with its series of omen-dark images. There is an incredible sense of heartache in the pull between the statements being the opposite of what you expect, and the fact that the same rule of opposition suggests some truth behind the imagery, despite the title; the truth, perhaps, that dreams are never what you want them to be. It’s a tightly written piece, fitted together like a precise and unsettling puzzle, a rubik’s cube of haunting.

They were forced to imagine it through a prism” by Katelyn Oppegard

from Snail Trail Press

“yet every time it snows the air smells the                                                               same”

This poem is a prismatic landscape of fragments, expansive and spread across the page in a way that makes you feel surrounded by it, as if by spreading out the text a real space is carved out to let the moments breathe and mingle. It feels like a celebration of all the small details of nature, all the tiny miracles that can so easily appear and disappear. It’s a long piece, and only loosely held together, but well worth lingering in to savour the playful and delicate moments of life and language it carries.

And from this piece, one more phrase you’ve never seen before:

“a parakeet eats a pickle and is dilled on the spot”

Happy new year, and happy poetry!

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Internet Poetry Round-Up #2

Most of this week’s poems experiment with form, and play with language and repetition; all four convey an intense immersion in an experience, some aspect of the everyday becoming symbolic or even prophetic.


Sonnet for speech too soft & you who’ve yet to choose a name” by Sam Rush

from Glass: A Journal of Poetry

“Today I keep / the speaker out of me for long enough / to watch a swallow swoon the ghost of song.”

The musicality in this piece is incredible. It reads as easily as free verse but maintains the sonnet form in its constraint to 14 lines and (mostly?) iambic pentameter. Far from these limitations stiffening the piece, they increase the already powerful emotional urgency: repetitions and striking images create a vision both mythic and grounded, comprised of delicate and vivid moments of listening.


harvest” by Erin Emily Ann Vance

from Train: a poetry journal

“I wondered / how much of us had become honey and wine”

A sweet poem in more way than one; the love the speaker has for the “you” flows through run-on imagery of honey and bees and gentleness and getting by. The imagery early in the poem of the affectionate handling of the bees draws a character I can’t help but fall for too.


who gets anything for keeps?” by Patrycja Humienik

from Dream Pop Press

“somebody with a word that could fill an entire mouth”

The scattered form of this poem suggests the same sense of a busy city street and disjointedness that the imagery conveys. The piece muses on language that surrounds but is disconnected, uncommunicative. What’s left is minutia: crosswalk symbols, flowers and mouths reduced to component parts, coming together in a piece both thoughtful and atmospheric.


Stock Footage (kick and spin)” by Lydia Unsworth

from talking about strawberries all of the time

“and we are so warm without even a fireplace or a mantra”

This piece reads like a sexy montage film of everyday life, a delightfully specific stream-of-consciousness. A certain lust for life persists through the scenes, the body retaining an immediacy and magic among mundane daily tasks. The length and unpunctuated prose form can make the poem a bit daunting to read through, but this also creates a fast immediacy and immersiveness. I keep finding myself going back to re-read the poem, but in bits and pieces, cutting it together in new ways like the “stock footage” title suggests.


What I’m reading: Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond is one of those books I read 20 pages of and then had to stop myself from immediately trying to write something just like it. The voice, circuitous and vivid, sticks in your head.

The book is Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut, and while it seems to be categorized as a short story collection, it also reminds me of some poetic novels; there’s one narrator and one central place, anchoring several stories or chapters comprised mostly of stream-of-consciousness observations, often with some inciting event but rarely with any strong external drama or tension. Bennett doesn’t follow any rules of storytelling: there isn’t an overarching plot, nor a real plot to any of the stories, nor any major shift except digging deeper, perhaps, into the narrator’s psychology, and a small sense that change will happen, inevitably and with little agency, towards the end of the book. Stories centre around things as minute as trying to replace oven knobs, or the colour of ink in a fountain pen. Characters are rarely named and there are no consistent or particularly significant character relationships, nor much direct dialogue; the broadest sense of the narrator’s life comes from a phone conversation with her father in one of the last stories, “Over and Done With,” and the suggestion of history and something ongoing is almost jarring in a book so firmly rooted in present thought & sensation.

I’m a sucker for stories without much story, mostly because it justifies me writing things that are about image and language and states of being but not plot. After all, life rarely has much of a plot anyway, and these minutia of everyday life carry a real honest weight if we let them.

The early part of the book alternates between longer stories and short vignettes (including a two-paragraph ode to tomato puree), but in the later third of the book there are more and more long stories and the weight of it all shifts in proportion. What begins as reasonably light-hearted eccentricity takes on a slightly more melancholy cast; the balance of the narration shifts from outward descriptions to a closer sense of the narrator herself, her psyche and the drifting patterns she’s caught up in, the tenuous ways she forms identity. This tension between internal and external reality seems central to the book, and as it goes on you get a sense of the person emerging from the voice; you move from a sense of timeless oddity to a clearer picture of a life.

It’s a book about food & love & dirt; about solitude and anxiety, but in no clichéd or all-consuming sense. With a narrator indifferent to anyone else’s rules, Bennett moves between every kind of odd and uncomfortable and irreverent truth about day-to-day life. It’s a book I’d like to read at least three more times — each story is full of turns of phrase  worth chewing on, flavours and textures worth examining from every angle, and observations that haunt you until you can tease them apart.

What I’m listening to: Parallel Person by VARSITY

listen here:

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.