Top 10 Songs of 2016

I keep trying to write my top albums of 2016 list and I’ve been failing pretty miserably. I decided to do something much easier until I can figure out how to order the albums, which was to make a top 10 songs of 2016 list. Well, it was much easier once I decided that each artist can only have one song on the list, because otherwise this list would have been impossible to make. I’ve listed some runner-ups by the same artist for a bunch of these, because some of these were still incredibly hard choices to make.

10: Strong Hearts Bleed Out First – Chatterbox and the Latter Day Satanists

Chatterbox and the Latter Day Satanists have been on my radar since their 2013 release Talk Is Cheap, Guns Are Expensive, but this was their first song that strongly resonated with me. Maybe it’s just because I’m fucking angsty and this song is the epitome of angsty punk, but with killer fiddle and banjo parts.

Get the split here.

9: TV Dreams – Katie Ellen

Chumped was one of my favorite bands that I got to see in 2015, and I was so happy when I heard that Anika, their lead vocalist, was forming a new band, Katie Ellen. Well, Katie Ellen definitely didn’t disappoint. Despite only having a 3 song EP out, it’s clear that they’re going to be one of the best bands for the next few years. I first heard TV Dreams at a show in Richmond the week after a shitty break-up, and Anika’s killer voice singing out “I hope you’re happy/I think you want the same for me/You can call me /If you can’t sleep and you feel lonely/I guess I called to say that you can call me,” was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.

Runners-up: Wild ❤, Lucy Stone

Get the EP here.

8: I Did Something Weird Last Night – Jeff Rosenstock

I couldn’t wait for Jeff Rosenstock’s third solo album, WORRY. to come out. Jeff Rosenstock is probably my favorite musician of all time, and songs like this one only reinforce that opinion. The pop punk sound, Jeff’s unique cadence on the chorus, and lyrics about falling in love with someone and having extreme anxiety wondering if they’re actually into you or not combine to make one of the best tracks of his career (which is saying a lot, like a fuckton).

Runners-up: Staring Out The Window At Your Old Apartment, Festival Song, Blast Damage Days, Wave Goodnight To Me

Get the album here.

7: Won’t Come Down – Death Has 1000 Ears

Douglas Fur is one of those artists that no one knows about and I have no idea why. The former banjo player of Ramshackle Glory, Douglas just started a new two-piece project called Death Has 1000 Ears, releasing a self-titled album at PIX Fest this summer. Backed by just a piano and a tuba, Douglas’s vocals are at the forefront of this track. While many people would argue that his voice sounds strange, I find that there’s something beautiful and truly authentic about his voice.

Runner-up: Hands of Kings

Get the album here.

6: Remember Me When You Sing – Stick and Poke

I talked a lot about this song already in my review of Stick and Poke’s newest album. Rather than repeat myself, I’m just going to link that here.

Runners-up: Every other track on Never Going Back.

Get the album here.

5: Into the Wind – Ramshackle Glory

Alright, so this album has only been out for a couple of hours now, but as soon as I heard this song I knew nothing else on the album stood a chance. Some of you might think this is a strange choice, because it doesn’t even really sound like a Ramshackle Glory song. There’s minimal vocals by Pat and it’s just got a very different style. Immediately, I’m reminded of old Nick Berger songs off of Voler, which is still one of my favorite albums ever. Their voice is completely stunning, and Alyssa’s performances on the bass clarinet really shines through as one of the best parts of this song.

Runners-up: Face the Void, Broken Heart, Homeward Bound

Get the album here.

4: Neurotic Decay – We The Heathens

When I first popped on The Blood Behind The Dam, I listened to the first track and thought to myself, “Alright, this is pretty damn good, can’t wait to hear the rest.” Then this started playing. As soon as the fiddle started playing, I was dancing. When the mandolin cut in on top of the fiddle, I knew that this album would be one of my favorites of the year. When they started singing, I knew that this album would be one of my favorites of all time. The song describes the struggles of living with mental illness and the absolute candor of lines like “The worst of thoughts are killing me/Either way I’ll say I’m fine,” is completely refreshing.

Runners-up: Fucked Drunk Life, Where No One Goes, Last One to Fall, Lung of Lies

Get the album here.

3: Call of the Void – Rail Yard Ghosts

The Rail Yard Ghosts are one of those bands that has a completely unique sound on each of their albums. Their newest release, Hiræth, slows things down a lot more and has a lot more of a traditional folk and Celtic sound to it. Call of the Void, the penultimate track on the album, is probably the best example of this. This 14 minute long song doesn’t waste a single second of that time. From the spoken word poetry at the beginning to the sound of a fire crackling at the end, every moment of this song seems necessary. Highlights include the transition to harsh vocals and a storm of energy around the seven minute mark.

Runners-up: Fear Not, Warriors of Light

Get the album here.

2: Old Glass Table – My Pizza My World

I tried writing a review of this whole album a few weeks ago, and I had to scrap it all because it ended up being three full pages about this song and how every single lyric in it hits home for me. I love how Whitney and Grayson don’t try to sing in harmony at all, but somehow manage to sound perfect together. I love how honest the song is about their personal struggles with death, depression, anxiety, and addiction. I’m gonna leave it at that before I end up pasting every lyric in the song because they’re all so good.

Runners-up: Rewind, Splits, Canarys

Get the album here.

1: Anarchy of Dirt (Kropotkin’s Grave) – Pat the Bunny

Unfortunately, the version I’ve embedded here isn’t the one I’m talking about. It’s still a great song, but the version from the vinyl only split Pat did with Ceschi adds an accordion and a banjo, and what isn’t infinitely improved with the addition of an accordion and a banjo? The lyrics, as always with Pat, are completely phenomenal. I’ve often thought about how, even if I won’t ever see a world I can stand to be in when I’m alive and even if I can’t make myself live in a way that could bring about that world, in death there is no more hierarchy, there is only a state of pure becoming. Sadly, what I think is the best song Pat the Bunny has ever written (yes, I’m including all of the Johnny Hobo/Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union/Ramshackle Glory stuff in there too) came out on his last album. I can’t help but want for more after hearing it, but I also feel happy knowing that Pat went out on top, putting out the best song of his career.

Runners-up: Teenage Anarchist, I Don’t Know

Normally, I’d link you a place to download or buy the album, but I just learned both pressings sold out and they aren’t going to repress it, so I guess you’re out of luck cause only one copy has sold on discogs (for over $100) and I doubt many people will part with their copy. I’m not going to link it here, because I respect the decision to make this vinyl only and keep it off the internet, but there is a YouTube page out there with pretty good versions of all the songs from this split.

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Ramshackle Glory’s Final Show

I remember being heartbroken when I first read that Ramshackle Glory was breaking up. After the initial shock wore off, it seemed okay. Nick was still gonna keep doing their own thing with Paper Bee, Douglas Fur still had his solo project (and now Death Has 1000 Ears), and Pat was still releasing solo stuff.

Then, a few weeks later, Pat announced he was quitting music entirely. I remember waking up one morning, and reading the goodbye letter he had posted to the music scene (which you can read here). I cried a lot. I didn’t get out of bed the rest of the day. I skipped my classes. I was devastated. I still am. It’s probably gonna get a lot worse again when the final Ramshackle Glory album comes out and I never have another Pat release to look forward to again.

Plan It X Fest started at 16:00 on Friday afternoon, so my friend and I had started our 15 hour drive very early that morning. Of course, it was one of the hottest weekends on record, with over 100 degree temperatures most of the day. I had received a severe concussion the week before after getting into a fight with a misogynistic, homophobic Trump supporter, so the heat was especially taxing on my already nauseous self. Needless to say, despite the weekend having been one of the best in my life, it had been quite a long weekend by the time Sunday night rolled around.

There had been great bands playing all weekend, but I’m pretty sure everyone there was anxious for Sunday night. Aside from Ramshackle Glory, the Sunday night lineup included Tobey Foster, Paper Bee, Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass, Nana Grizol, Loone, Backbiter, Jeff Rosenstock, and The Wild. It was a pretty stacked show from 19:30 to the end. Still, even when I was watching some of my favorite artists, the anxiety was creeping in: in only an hour or two I’d be seeing Pat take the stage for the final time.

One in the morning finally rolled around. Ramshackle set up their instruments. Luke came up and told everyone that they’re a queer, anarchist band and that the set was dedicated to the late Erik Petersen. Then they flew right into We Are All Compost in Training. Of course the first song had to be one of the sad ones; I started crying immediately. Following the track order from Live the Dream, they launched right into From Here ‘Till Utopia (Song for the Desperate).

I had seen Ramshackle live a lot of times before (probably around five or six times), and they had always played this song. It’s definitely one of my top three songs by them, but every other time I had seen them Douglas wasn’t there, so it was missing the banjo part that really makes the song what it is. Seeing this song live with Douglas shredding out on the banjo is something I’ll never be able to forget. I was screaming my lungs out, just like everyone else there, to one of the songs that has made me into the kind of person I am today.

After that, they played something new, Broken Heart. It’s gonna be on their new album later this month. It’s a sad, yet beautiful song. That sadness was supplemented by a kind of eerie feeling when they played it live. Earlier in the month, they had released a demo version of the track as part of a comp to support the victims and families of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, so I had heard the song before, but like everyone else there, didn’t know all the lyrics to shout along.

The next song switched up the mood a lot. No Shelter, from their split 12” with Ghost Mice, is an upbeat song with a every member of the band singing, or, more accurately, screaming, a couple lines. It’s a fast, frenetic song and everyone in the crowd was going nuts again. After that track, there was sort of a break. The band had a couple come up on stage, and there was a marriage proposal. I don’t remember it that well, but I do remember Alyssa saying that they don’t necessarily endorse marriage right after but they wish them the best anyways.

Then the pattern of a slow/fast/slow/fast continued with Ramshackle playing Never Coming Home. One of the best parts about Ramshackle playing this song live is that they give lead vocals over to Nick, and their voice is absolutely amazing. I’m pretty sure I started crying again when I heard this one start playing, partially because it’s just a sad song in general and partially because it is (maybe was at this point, I don’t know) my friend Sam’s favorite Ramshackle Glory song and the entire weekend I kept wishing he could be here, sharing this experience with me.

Next up was the song that got me into Ramshackle Glory: Your Heart Is a Muscle. At this point, I wasn’t merely crying, I was in some kind of hysterical state, screaming whenever I could catch my breath between sobs, jumping up and down down, tears making the stage just an abstract blur. I don’t think any song has ever affected me so much as this one, specifically this one at this show. This is one of those songs where, if you get it, it changes your life. This is one of those songs where I listen to it whenever I’m ready to give up on life, because I know it can help pull me back. And hearing this song for the last time made me realize that someday soon (they had already announced a final album coming out), I wouldn’t have new songs to look forward to that can capture my emotions in the brilliant way that only Pat can. It also made me realize that everything will going be okay; I just need to keep fighting and hold on.

Then they played something I don’t think anyone was expecting. It was one of Pat’s solo songs off of his lathe-cut vinyl release Cocoon Music called Time to Wake Up. It’s a slow rolling sing-along begging you to wake up, do what you need to, and make the world a better place. The mood in the room got kind of strange. Everyone seemed mellowed out, like a wave of depression just went out over the crowd and they were all realizing this was it, Ramshackle Glory was no more. Probably because the song, both in style and lyrics, would be very fitting as the final song this band would ever play. They finished, started packing up, and went back stage.

Of course, that was all planned. I’m sure the chants of one more song had no bearing on everyone coming back out to play a few more. The first song they played after coming back was a Mischief Brew cover, Departure Arrival. Looking back at it, I wonder how almost every single band there played a different Mischief Brew cover. Did they all organize who was gonna play what? Or do they all just know them all? Regardless of that, it was a very fitting tribute to one of the most influential DIY punks over the past 20 years, may he rest in peace.

Just like any Ramshackle show, they had to play The Club Hits of Today Will Be the Showtunes of Tomorrow. I think this may be one of Pat’s favorite songs he’s ever written, considering it’s been on at least three different albums I can think of. The song started fading out as it ended, and I remember thinking, “This is it; it’s all over now for real.”

Right as the last note of the accordion faded away, Pat grabs the mic and says, “It’s been a long hard day.” I got ready to start singing along to First Song, but then Pat screamed “woowoo” trying to imitate the train whistle from the beginning of First Song, Part 2. I don’t think there is any more appropriate song to send off this band. This song really sums up what Ramshackle is all about, and what Pat’s life is still gonna be about going into the future. It’s about recovery, and how the struggle to stay sober will stay with him forever. It’s about the tyranny of the State, and how the struggle to resist will stay with him forever. It’s a song about no longer looking back and instead focusing on the future, no matter how hard it will be.

And that’s what everyone there needed to hear in that moment. Life is going to be hard. It’s going to be way harder without someone like Pat to create the music that helps us get through the day. But instead of lamenting that, we need to make plans for the future we want to create. We need to take action now. As always, Pat already said it best in Song for Next May Day:

We can’t wait for someone else to write the songs that we’ll sing on the barricades,
Or until the last police is gone to keep each other safe.
We can’t wait until we know we aren’t wrong to raise the stakes,
We can’t wait for someone else to write the songs that we’ll sing on the barricades.

Pat “The Bunny” And Freedom: A Genealogy

Pat “The Bunny” is one of the most interesting artists in the folk punk scene, if not in the entirety of modern music. He’s an enormously intelligent individual that has had a very unique trajectory through life. He started off in Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains as a teenager addicted to heroin, writing nihilistic songs about the hopelessness and futility of life. Eventually, he moved on to a new project in Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union, which had a much more political voice. In 2011, he went to rehab, got clean from heroin, and started Ramshackle Glory, offering a new perspective on many of the things he sung about in Johnny Hobo and Wingnut. During his time with Ramshackle, he also released a lot of solo material dealing with the same subject matter in unique ways.

One of the recurring themes throughout all of his projects has been what is freedom: what does freedom mean, what does it mean to be free, how do you live a free life? I’ve always found it incredibly fascinating how his conception of freedom has changed over time as he’s grown as a person, so I’ve decided to write something tracing the evolution of freedom in Pat’s works.

My survey begins with the song Harmony Parking Lot Song by Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains. The earliest version of this song I can find is from 2005’s Caught In the Act of Not Being Awesome. The chorus to this song goes:

Here’s to the rubble:
A brick through every window,
A casket buried six feet deep for everybody’s hero.
Here’s to our lives being meaningless.
And how beautiful it is because freedom doesn’t have a purpose.

This chorus alone provides a deep insight into how Pat felt about freedom at the time. Freedom is completely meaningless: it’s only an illusion that we whisper to ourselves to make us feel as if our life has meaning, as if our choices make any difference on the outcome of what happens. However, to truly understand this song, we have to look at the context in which the chorus is placed. The song is a lament for all the friends who are no longer part of Pat’s life. His friends have either been cleaned up by going to rehab or been put into jail for their lifestyle choices. This is where the nature of freedom comes into play: his friends thought they were free by choosing to live a life without rules, abusing drugs, slashing tires, spraypainting graffiti on walls, and so on. Yet, all of that rebellion is meaningless in the face of a hegemonic State which absorbs all rebellion against it and either reforms the rebels into productive members of society or places them into institutions where they can do no more harm against the State. In this way, freedom is truly meaningless, as the only true act of freedom is rebellion, but that rebellion will always be destroyed by the State.

The next song that directly addresses the idea of freedom is 2007’s Sellout Song from Johnny Hobo is Dead. Here, Pat deals with a kind of crisis: there is a conflict in his mind about what he believes he knows and whether or not it’s true. The final lyrics of the song are:

Well, when its gets had to breathe
sometimes I slip to apathy,
but I don’t got any excuses not to learn
what words like home and freedom mean.

This is an interesting divergence from the ideas in Harmony Parking Lot Song. It’s an admission that Pat doesn’t quite know what freedom means, and he’s not actively seeking out a meaning for freedom. The rest of the song mocks the upper-middle class lifestyle, where freedom means choosing what kind of sports car to buy, or which expensive condo you should move into. The self-loathing that is characteristic of Pat’s music throughout his career rears its head here; Pat acknowledges that the freedom of the yuppies is all an illusion, but that he has no better conception of what freedom means and is just as lost as them. Though he may not delude himself with the notions of false choice providing freedom, Pat knows that he has no better framework in which to situate the idea of freedom.

After leaving Johnny Hobo behind, Pat still engages with the notion of freedom. In Fuck Shit Up on Wingnut Dishwashers Union’s 2009 release Burn the Earth, Leave it Behind, Pat seems to have found a notion of what freedom means to him. The song begins with:

I don’t believe in cops, bosses, or politicians.
Some call that anarchism.
I call it having a fucking heart that beats!
I do believe in freedom and never giving up.
Call my methods madness or call them luck.
I do what I got to to be able to breathe!

Here Pat has abandoned the notion expressed in Sellout Song that freedom is something he can’t understand. Though he may not be able to express what freedom means in any exact terms, he believes that freedom is the ability to do whatever is necessary to keep living in a world that alienates you and marginalizes your political views. Freedom is the ultimate ability to survive in this world without compromising your ethics and becoming complicit with the systems you struggle against. It’s the constant struggle to live a life without becoming that which you hate.

In the same album, Pat expresses a more pessimistic view of freedom in My Idea of Fun:

Like if you don’t want to work, then that becomes your job.
There’s a lot of overtime, there’s not many days off.
I hope you know that I’m not trying to complain.
It just gets hard to explain to people that I know, or kids who come to shows
that I just don’t want to talk about the office today.

While he may not directly talk about freedom, the idea that making choices to live life the way you want to still traps you in the same cage that you’re trying to escape. While Pat may be able to escape the clutches of working a wage-slave job, he is still haunted by exhaustion and an inability to truly do what he desires. In the end, he reflects a view of freedom that is highly reminiscent of that expressed in Harmony Parking Lot Song.

The next song in which Pat directly references freedom comes from We Are All Compost in Training from Ramshackle Glory’s first album, Live the Dream, released in 2011. This song is incredibly interesting, as it was the last song Pat wrote before getting sober, and, thus, it provides a look into his mind at the time when he realized that he was no longer able to live life the way he currently did:

I want freedom, not a boss
That comes in a forty ounce bottle of anything,
Or taped scotch paper.

Here, Pat realizes that what he has until now mistaken for freedom is just another form of enslavement, just to a different god than that of the employer. This ties in to the partial realization in My Idea of Fun that his current avenues of escape from that which he abhors are inadequate; he is still trapped in a cage, just one of his own design.

Live the Dream has another important song dealing with freedom, From Here ‘Till Utopia (Song for the Desperate). The relevant part of this song was written while Pat was still playing as Wingnut Dishwashers Union. Once again, he is questioning everything he believe to be an expression of freedom:

When I was young, I drank too much, and I’d be lying if I said
I didn’t feel so goddamn young tonight.
Maybe too young to ask what’s on my mind.
Like if freedom means doing what I want,
Well, don’t I gotta want something?
And won’t you tell me that we want something more than just more beer?
And my friends, if that ain’t true, won’t you lie to me tonight?

Pat expresses his dissatisfaction with the idea that freedom is a negation of the system. Freedom can’t just be a means of escaping the system: it must be something productive and affirmative. Freedom must be something that creates new possibilities rather than just negating the possibilities that exist. In his life when he wrote this song, freedom just meant getting drunk and high to temporarily escape the shackles of the capitalist machine. This feels unfulfilling to Pat; he feels that an integral component to freedom must be using your actions and your choices to create an alternative system.

The most interesting engagement with freedom comes from The Mark Inside, Pat’s first solo release after getting clean. Song For a Stray Cat on the Fence is the first time that Pat truly asserts that freedom involves a responsibility; it’s not a utopian ideal that is completely pleasant, but involves truly confronting who you are and your place in the world:

Freedom is nothing soft and sweet,
It’s beautiful and terrible.
It’s admitting everything that I don’t want anyone to know.
It’s telling people that I love I stole from them when they weren’t looking.
It’s fucking up so many times that they won’t pick up when I call them.
It’s watching people die because they got back in it,
And knowing that I don’t have any say in it.
It’s watching people die,
And knowing I don’t get any say.

In this track, Pat faces the reality that if he is to truly be free, he must acknowledge all of the horrible things he has done to other people. He must take responsibility for everything he feels guilty for and he must continue to bear that responsibility, regardless of whether he is ever forgiven for those actions. At the same time, freedom means bearing witness to the horrors of life and accepting that you can’t change certain things. It’s the acceptance of powerlessness in many aspects of life.

Throughout his music, Pat has invoked many different ideas of freedom, each reflecting his station in life at the time. Through moving from a nihilistic notion of freedom as a meaningless notion to a conception of freedom as a liberatory responsibility, Pat is able to build up freedom from nothing; he is able to create meaning where there was none before.

If you liked any of this stuff, make sure to check out the new (and final) Ramshackle Glory album coming out on December 30th. Preorder it here.

“Never Going Back” by Stick and Poke

The latest release from the Vancouver-based folk punk duo Stick and Poke, Never Going Back, is one of the most heartfelt albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Much like their 2014 release Lost Kids, the tracks on Never Going Back seem to center around the themes of alienation, abuse, anxiety, and the people who make life worth living in spite of those things.

Like most folk releases, Never Going Back doesn’t rely much on musical complexity. Instead, the simplicity of the instrumentation allows the vocal harmonies and phenomenal lyrics to shine through, creating a feeling of authenticity throughout the entire album. Who needs complex time signatures and chord progressions when you’ve got lyrics perfectly describing the anxiety triggered by running into an ex at a show, like those in I Don’t Even Smoke, sung in perfect harmony by Al and Lauren?

A lot of songs seem like they’re coping mechanisms for dealing with less than wholesome relationships. Giving Up On You is an anthem celebrating the independence found when you’re able to think, “screw you, I don’t need your bullshit anymore,” about an ex that didn’t treat you right. Remember Me When You Sing, possibly a follow-up to the tracks Poison and Teeth on a String from Lost Kids, details the struggle of healing after an abusive relationship and finding the power in yourself to live a fulfilling life, burning those memories to the ground.

Yet, there’s more to this album than reflections on past relationships. Weary Traveller is a celebration of modern nomadism, the freedom of movement, and the notion that you’ll always meet up with those you love later on down the road. Community isn’t so much a lament on the state of alienation in society, but a call to create new spaces where that alienation no longer has to exist. Counting is described on their bandcamp as “A Big Gay Love Song.” There’s a lot of hope here, no matter how tough the struggle is.

Never Going Back is one of those extremely rare albums where I’m not able to pick out a favorite song, or even a handful of favorites: every track is a thing of beauty. When I first heard Lost Kids, I never thought that Stick and Poke would be able to surpass that release. I’m so glad that they proved me wrong.

Go support the artist by getting the album here. While you’re there, make sure to check out their previous releases.