Confession: 2017 was exhausting. The news headlines alone – bewildering, outrageous, demoralizing, so many tiny papercuts to the soul. Those daily distractions, mixed with my own struggles to keep spinning all the plates of my own interests – a full-time producer job, freelance writing, independent video production, stand-up comedy, just for a start — meant less time and energy to post here or on my Facebook about the art and entertainment that moved me as it happened. Hell, making this new website took me forever.
Still, this past year, like all years, I read, I listened, I danced, I rocked out, I travelled. I absorbed. And when it all stopped spinning I forced myself to write down some things that have stayed with me, in part so I could share them with you.
Ironically perhaps, what cut through the noise most were the voices of women singers. So let’s start there:
GRACE JONES Live
I keep a bucket list of musicians I wish to see before they die. Icons I missed in their heyday, either through no fault of my own because I was too young, or because I was oblivious for too long. Who may not tour much anymore, or at least in my part of the world, and thus require some effort in the way of road trips, or perhaps luck, to catch in the flesh. In 2017, both things happened so that I could see Miss Grace Jones.
I’ve long been intrigued by her androgynous dominatrix image as well as her songs, like covers of “Love is a Drug” and “Warm Leatherette,” but had never seen her perform until this May when I went to Barcelona to attend Primavera Sound, where she was headlining alongside acts like Arcade Fire, Solange and Slayer (despite not having a new album for more than 10 years). I had no idea what to expect; at the same time, my expectations for spectacle were high.
Miss Jones emerged on a catwalk, wearing a cape, a golden mask, a thong, waist cincher and white body paint in the style I loved from her role in Vamp. That’s it. She sang Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.” Between songs she changed accessories: throughout the set she was alternately a bolero dancer, a pony and, for “My Jamaican Guy,” in male drag complete with strap-on. This is the part where I mention she is 69-years-old, and a grandmother. And righteous, obviously.
A few months later, Jones came to Toronto for the world premiere of a new documentary, Bloodlight and Bami. After that concert, I wanted to learn more about her, and of course to share with friends the inspiration that comes from being in the same physical space as such a wild woman. So we went as a gang, and sat up front. The film itself, directed by Sophie Fiennes, was unsatisfyingly light on biographical details, going instead for fly-on-the-wall scenes from visits to Jamaica mixed with stunning recent live concert footage. But to see Jones in person, all long legs and booming laughter during the Q&A, was the perfect accompaniment to that live concert experience. Here, she was the “real” Grace, which of course is also a performance. There’s a high I get from knowing humans like this exist in the world, and can thrive, and I had it both of those nights.
My takeaways: Be Bold. Don’t be afraid to get old. Wear great hats.
EMILY HAINES & THE SOFT SKELETON Choir of the Mind
It took ten years for Emily Haines to put out second solo record. That’s OK, in the meantime her band Metric made four albums including Fantasies, which is a Desert Island Disc of mine. Beauty is worth waiting for – this frail and strong and unhurried and ethereal and heavy music for voice and piano. I reviewed it for Exclaim and squeezed in a 10 minute interview. And was thus invited to an exclusive taping for CBC called First Play Live – which is usually a band in a studio running through new album. This was a theatrical one-woman show, with props and sound effects and voice-overs bringing Haines’ interior monologue out into the open. It was ambitious, and not everything worked. But the best parts made it into her current tour with the Soft Skeleton band, which I was whisked away to at Massey Hall by a chance encounter with Ben and Meg. My favourite song on the record, “The Legend of The Wild Horse,” became one of my favourite live performances of the year, reverberating through that space like a galaxy of sighs. Emily is not an artist who “plays nice,” and I’ve long felt that because of that she doesn’t get the reverence her writing, her voice, her playing, her performance deserves. But she’s one of this country’s best lyricists and rock stars. If you haven’t spent time with this album, do it.
My takeaways: Be patient. Be ambitious. Don’t be afraid to reveal your innermost thoughts. The things you own they own you.
My favourite song of 2017. If I was 14, I would be obsessed with Lorde. She is the only cool pop star of this age. I love her like I love Kate Bush. And when I first heard this song, from her second album Melodrama, on Saturday Night Live, I cried the whole way through. It captures everything I feel when I’m lonely, my fears of being unlovable because I’m too weird. If you’re a forest fire of an “intimidating” woman who’s been repeatedly told, “you’re a little much for me” ….you might need this one too. (The whole album is also pretty great.)
My takeaways: I understand. She understands.
THE XX “I Dare You”
On the opposite hand, this song by The XX captures everything I feel when I’m not lonely. The band’s second album is a bit sunnier overall than I would like, but this one has the perfect balance of joy and romanticism and melancholia. And you can dance to it. I caught The XX live twice this year - Primavera Fest in Spain and Echo Beach here in Toronto, and even though I find their show pretty boring, I’m a sucker for lasers and melodies that make your heart burst so go ahead and take my money.
My takeaways: A rush of blood, is not enough. I need my feelings set on fire.
LYDIA AINSWORTH Darling of the Afterglow
Still smarting this didn’t make the 2017 Polaris Music Prize shortlist, as it was the top choice on my ballot for Canadian Album of the Year. It’s precisely the kind of warm down-tempo electronic pop I love, with memorable melodies and seductive feminine vocals. Soaring, soulful melodies, minimal rhythms, all so pretty and just slightly witchy. That this Toronto singer and composer got signed to Bella Union – label founded by two of the Cocteau Twins - makes perfect sense to me.
My takeaways: More please. Before you move to the UK
CHELSEA WOLFE Hiss Spun
I picked this album as my Best Metal Album of 2017 for BangerTV, even though we weren’t able to cover it there when it came out, and even though some may argue whether it’s a metal album at all. It’s certainly heavy, and more importantly a goth album as good as anything released in that realm this decade — although not as perfect as Wolfe’s Abyss — and I consider her a very important conjurer of the dark arts. Which is why I broke my “no email interviews” rule to ask her some questions for Exclaim! (Which you can read here and here.) I do wish I was moved by the live show as much as the record – saw her for the third time and again her icy performance style left me wanting, despite a crack band givin’ er. But if you want masterfully crafted whispers and howls and noise to rock to you sleep this winter, Hiss Spun is your record.
My takeaways: Don’t do email interviews. Heavy is as heavy does.
So, a bunch of years back, I was assigned by Rue Morgue to write a feature on black metal. I had recently discovered it, and dug it a lot – but it was very late in the game and I knew very little about its complicated history and important facts like, oh, that none of those bands would do an interview. The resulting article was, shall we say, not my best work. All this to explain I am not an expert in black metal and don’t care if this is a good black metal record or not. What I can tell you is that if you’ve ever loved Dead Can Dance, and also like extreme metal at all, you need to hear this, the second album from Denmark’s Amalie Bruun, recording as Myrkur. She’s the closest I’ve heard come not just to the transcendental vocals of DCD but also the sheer intensity. The title translates to “Nightmare” and it’s definitely a soundtrack to dark dreams. As a vocalist, Bruun is both beauty and beast and, I suspect, also part succubus.
My takeaways: When it comes right down to it, I like my music to sound like it’s coming from a cave that’s also a portal to Hell.
DIAMANDA GALÁS Live
This was the year I got to talk on the phone with Diamanda Galas about vampire movies in an article for NOW. I also got to hear her set the Danforth Music Hall on fire. And listen to her talk about art and life and death at the AGO.
My takeaways: I made this list of poem/book title ideas from the things that she said.....
Honorable musical mentions:
John Fucking Carpenter Live (Seriously, a 69-year-old playing 30-year-old film scores was the rock show of the year.)
Nine Inch Nails “The Background World” (I didn’t know I wanted a new NIN EP to close with a claustrophobic 11-minute pure industrial noise track but apparently I did.)