You really didn’t need an official mayoral proclamation to tell you that 2016 in Calgary was the Year of Music.
All you had to do was listen.
Listen and appreciate what was yet another astounding year of output from this city’s community of ridiculously talented, creative and unique artists — and, far too often, unheralded and under-appreciated ones at that.
There was quality, there was breadth and there was certainly quantity. Notable releases came from every angle, be it in the single form (see Miesha and the Spanks) to a growing number of acts and artists embracing the EP — sample-sizers arrived by everyone from local country acts Bobby Wills and Jason Hastie to the more alt side of the spectrum including Alright Gents, Scratch Buffalo, Port Juvee, Chixdiggit and a major-label debut from Beach Season.
Please, please seek those offerings out, support the artists any way you can, but it’s the full-length undertakings that we’ll celebrate here with the Five Best Calgary Albums of 2016: The Year of Music.
Acknowledge them and appreciate them before we get too far into 2017: Another Year of Music.
1. Cowpuncher — Hustle: It’s become almost redundant to point out that this band of alt country outliers surprise every time they release something new, showing growth with each album, shifting their sound into unexpected territory and terrain. Redundant. But true. And never truer with this astoundingly heavy, catchy and clever slab of anthemic, slightly-psych rock that is almost traditional in its R&R form but odd enough to make it much more. It is a flat-out Calgary insta-classic. Produced by T.O. knob-twiddler Derek Downham in what was reportedly a fairly contentious session at this city’s OCL Studios, he pushed and pulled them towards nine tracks that never let up, never let you down and will have you awaiting whatever comes next from the Cowpuncher crew.
2. Evan Freeman — Luna: Apparently Mr. Downham likes what he hears from the locals and knows how to get the best out of them. He was also at the helm for this wonderful debut by Evan Freeman, who took his love of the shoegaze and Anglo pop to OCL for one of the dreamiest, creamiest submersions into sound and melody that one could hope to have wash over them. It’s epic in its ear for beauty and the myriad ways in which it delivers the goosebumps and feels. Freeman’s voice will remind you of every excellent artist you heard from across the pond in the ’80s and ‘90s — so warm, so welcoming, so full of a sort-of innocent blue-eyed soul and romanticism — and the sonics sculpted by the artist and his collaborator to house that vox recalls everyone from Talk Talk and Ride to Howard Jones, Coldplay and House of Love. Simply gorgeous.
3. FOONYAP — Palimpsest: The term “challenging” is often seen as a deterrent. In the case of veteran Calgary artist FOONYAP’s first foray into the solo realm — she’d previously been a member of Woodpigeon and fronted the electro-punk outfit Foonyap and the Roar — it should be an enticement. And is only one of the many, many adjectives that can be used to describe the 10 songs contained therein, but don’t come anywhere near close enough to defining it. Brave. Bold. Beautiful. Haunted. Honest. Human. Sad. Sweet. Smart. Tragic. Tortured. Tumultuous. Unrestrained. Unique. And utterly, utterly unforgettable. Again, that doesn’t even begin to do justice to an album that seamlessly combines the styles of world, classical, electro, folk and ambient for a listen that will, at times, remind of such diverse acts as Braids, Lhasa, Bjork and Kate Bush, and ultimately leave you moved on every level, seeking even more adjectives to use.
4. Preoccupations — S/T: Like Palimpsest, you should expect this to definitely be among the longlisters, hopefully the shortlisters for this year’s Polaris Music Prize. The Calgary quartet — members of which are now scattered across the country, but which we will still claim as our own — have moved even deeper into the nu cold wave, mastered its subtleties and power even greater than they did with their debut under their now-discarded, distracting original name Viet Cong. This is an aloof and distant album filled with jarring discordancy that still manages to be, if you’re in the right frame of mind and open to it, as tuneful and welcoming as anything you’d find on a modern dance floor. Cold becomes cool, distance is bridged and all distractions fall away.
5. Lucky Sonne — Be. So. Bold.: The only reason this album isn’t higher in the list — hell, yes, cemented at the top of it — is because Luke Colborne, the man and talent behind the moniker, is a slappable slacker of the highest order. The artist actually recorded this roots-rock masterpiece three years ago with his long-suffering musical partner Arran Fisher (and bassist-guitarist John Richards), half-assedly mailed it out to some radio stations in early 2015 and finally got his reluctant carcass to officially release it to the general public with a show last year. Dick. Again, I would place this shambling, irreplaceable piece of wry, rocking rurality at the top of any best-of every year since its conception. It is seriously as perfect as music-making can get. And like No. 1 placeholders Cowpuncher — and all of those in between to varying degrees — this is an album that can and should define the incredible talent making music in this city for years and years to come. But technically late to the 2016 party.
Eleven more to make it 16 for 2016, in no particular order: Michael Bernard Fitzgerald’s I Wanna Make It With You, Belvedere’s The Revenge of the Fifth, Peter and the Wolves’ Papa’s Goin’ Out of Town!, Lab Coast’s Remember the Moon, The Foul English’s self-titled debut, The Northwest Passage’s A_Wake, Kenna Burima’s Hymn, The Hi-Strung Downers’ Can’t Feel Good All the Time, Melted Mirror’s Borderzone, Bad Animal’s Tonight, and Jason Famous’s JF.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca. He likes beer. Buy him one.
Twitter/@mrbell_23 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org.