2019 was immeasurably tough for me, and one of the consequences of that was I fell off of discovering music. It’s funny how the things in your life that you’ve always used as anchors are the first things you let go of in stormy weather, right? It’s like our brains are trying to fuck things up for us.
I found my anchor again by the end of 2019, with a lot of help from the only vinyl purchase I made all year – an A-F Records Club subscription. You’ll notice this list is pretty A-F heavy, but having that subscription forced music at me grounded me in a way I could have never predicted.
Here’s my playlist for the year, and the last bit I’m writing about how sad 2019 made me. Give me my damn serotonin, 2020!
Reconciler – “Honest Words” from Set Us Free (A-F Records)
“But if I could trade this awful pain for audible sounds / I’d say you tear my heart little by little / Oh, you lay me into the ground”
Reconciler is one of the few bands on this list that I actually discovered in 2019, thanks to that A-F Records Club subscription. The Atlanta-based threesome delivers driving melody and painfully smart lyrics. Picking a favorite track from the band’s debut full-length Set Us Free felt a little like picking favorite child. “January,” “Damn The Weather,” and “Not What I Used To Be” were easy contenders, and if I absolutely had to pick a favorite full length this probably would have been it. Their poignant lyrics are more like tender American folk songs than the riotous punk they are sung over. Considering Set Us Free is a debut I can’t wait to see where this band goes.
Pkew Pkew Pkew – “Adult Party” from Optimal Lifestyles (Dine Alone Records)
“Don’t thank me for those twelves beers / ’cause they’re mine”
I absolutely adore the entire Pkew Pkew Pkew aesthetic, and I’m pretty sure I’ve burnt all of my friends out on it. There’s something wonderfully petulant about their hook-heavy music. The Toronto-based foursome has a knack for storytelling around being a grown up riding the line between growing up and staying a just a little too childish. “Adult Party” is my favorite track from Optimal Lifestyles because of that storytelling – going to a party you didn’t really want to be at, with people you don’t connect with. Between the recurring bit about the coat pile and the “rich kids, go fuck yourselves” chant I’m buying in to that thirsty, humble life.
PUP – “Closure” from “Morbid Stuff” (Rise Records)
“I don’t need you to feel fine / I don’t need you to come back / But I don’t think I’ll ever feel right”
My terrible year was really fueled by trying to come to terms with the suicide of a friend, and “Closure” was the angry-sad actually reflected how I felt. Lonely, furious and unable to come to terms with what had happened, “Closure” felt especially poignant to me. While lots of reflections on grief focus on sadness, this song rips through it with sardonic bitterness.
Nightmarathons – “Waiting Room” from Missing Parts (A-F Records)
“Take me first / Take me first / Could it ever get much worse?”
That keenly familiar feeling of not wanting to be left behind by the people we love expressed as a waiting room actually put me on my heels, for probably obvious reasons at this point.
Missing Parts also has (what my non-sound engineer ears feels like) is the cleanest production of the records I mention here. My favorite part of “Waiting Room” is actually the jaunty little bass line climbing the scales. The upbeat nature of that line juxtaposed with morbidly romantic lyrics is wild. It’s a space where the bass line could have been buried or blended in, but it fills up the song leaving it seamless. The whole record is full of little spaces filled up, which is perfect because this record filled me up.
Dead Bars – “I’m A Regular” from Regulars (A-F Records)
“I’m a regular / But no one says here he comes / Walk by and nobody looks up / I guess I’m not special enough”
Nothing resonates with my general malaise like “Regulars.” The almost lazy drive of the feedback-filled song gives this great air of slogging depression. Even the solo feels a little like they’re too drained to play it.
Russian Girlfriends – “Antidote” from In The Parlance of Our Time (A-F Records)
“Call me a loser, slam the door / I’m so fucking used to being lost”
This New Mexico-based band’s grasp of rhythm and melody is on display throughout In The Parlance of Our Time: part melodic hardcore, part thrashy skate punk, with almost contemptuously spit lyrics. “Antidote” has been firmly lodged on my brain, on repeat since I first heard it. I’m pretty sure that at any given time this year, if you were able to crack my head open those “whoa-ohs” would come pouring out.
Also seeing Russian Girlfriends live at FEST alongside my best friends was an easy-to-name highlight of my year. Hopefully 2020 will see some more significant touring, and we can see them here in the Midwest sooner rather than later.
Dave Hause – “Civil Lies” from Kick (Rise Records)
“How could there be this war in me? / How could there be this warfare in my mind? / Bloodthirsty and kind at the same time”
I can’t think of a more prolific songwriter than Dave Hause. Dave and his brother, Tim, who’s credited with much of Kick’s co-songwriting, knocked this release out of the park. The entire full length pours empathy, but I particularly love “Civil Lies” because of how it deals with juggling between being empathetic and angry about how the world is turning. We can be both, and we should be both. Our anger doesn’t get to overshadow our empathy, and being empathetic doesn’t mean we can’t be furious.
Signals Midwest (ft. Sincere Engineer) – “Your New Old Apartment” from Pin (Lauren Records)
“I wondered ‘oh my god, did I get lost?’ / Am I young enough to just move on?”
Signals Midwest has this amazing sense of urgency and ability to turn a song into a really vibrant piece of storytelling. You can feel yourself second guessing wearing that outfit twice when vocalist Max Stern sings “I wore the same clothes to both and I was worried you would notice ’cause yours were impeccable.” Crashy full drums, winding guitar lines, everything you want in deeply moving music.
Anti-Flag – “Hate Conquers All” single from upcoming 20/20 VISION (releases Jan. 27 on Spinefarm Records)
“The same masters who made us their fucking slaves / Are now our saviors, I’m so sick of needing to be saved”
This is a bit of a cheater, but new Anti-Flag is wildly fortifying in a year full of completely off the rails politics. “Hate Conquers All” is a frenetic release of anger and apathy. Featuring sound clips of Donald Trump, it is positively spitting with fury a la The Terror State (2003). If this is a taste of what to expect from their next full-length release, 20/20 VISION, then I’m already set on music for the new decade.
The Dirty Nil – “So Busted” from You’re Welcome I (Dine Alone Records)
“I just wanted to be loved by you”
Until I started writing this piece, I legitimately had no clue this was a Culture Abuse cover – some high-level music journalism over here. Apparently I’d skipped over the fact that all of the You’re Welcome series from the Dirty Nil are comprised of cover songs. The Nil’s (for lack of a better word) dirty, big guitars approach is a refreshing bit of Rock and Roll. “So Busted” is an absolute banger that I recommend playing as loud as your car stereo allows while driving around your sleepy Midwestern town.
MakeWar – “Oh, Brother” from Get It Together (Fat Wreck Chords)
“I was lost and found / The sound that made me feel alive”
I actually added this song to my EOTY after I’d starting writing this piece. MakeWar’s Get It Together came out in November, which is on the later side of my attention span. By mid-November I’ve pretty well decided what my favorites of the year are, so it easy for me to skip over November and December releases.
I actually feel a proper fool for sleeping on this band for years. It took this song, “Oh, Brother,” to stop me in my tracks and pay attention. The call and response melody between the lead guitar and vocals is infectious, and I’m a full-on sucker for songs about how important of a role music can play in our lives. In a year that was defined by my absence in the things that fulfill me, this is exactly the song I need to help pull me back in.
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