7 albums from 2021 paired with 7 awesome Alberta craft beers

A year of listening, sipping and ignoring bad news

For me, beer and music are two forms of the same thing. When they’re good, both can take you away from whatever you’re thinking or doing, shake you by the collar and say, “Look! This is what’s important right now! This moment!”

It’s not distraction, or escapism. It’s an entirely different and enriching engagement.

What’s more, beer and music go together perfectly. Remember the old days, when there were these things called “concerts?” Hundreds, even thousands, of people gathered side by sweaty side to enjoy songs played by real live musicians. Didn’t a great beer make the music seem that much better? And, in retrospect, wasn’t that beer all the more tasty because of the music?

“Look! This is what’s important right now! This moment!”

Anyway, that’s my case made for another installment of my annual Alberta craft beer and music pairings – two of my absolute passions, and I love taking a moment to look back on both.

Give me your pairings on the social mediums where you found this mess. After all, sharing my thoughts with you and hearing yours are two forms of the same thing for me: a great big pile of fun. Until then, here are 7 albums and 7 beers.

Album: Ignorance, by The Weather Station
Beer: Landlock Ale, by Craft Beer Commonwealth

This Toronto “folk rock” outfit took a decidedly unfolky direction with Ignorance, its fourth record. It might also be their best. Lead singer Tamara Lindeman talked of becoming obsessed with rhythm during the writing and it shows, as Ignorance feels like a 40-minute groove. It’s catchy, inventive and elegant.

Landlock from Craft Beer Commonwealth is the same. There are some pretty complicated hop expressions and interactions going on here, with citrus fronting the band, but they’re as intriguing as the hooks on this standout track, Atlantic.

Album: This Room/This Battlefield, by Our Next Movement
Beer: Hoppy Hefe, by Fahr Brauerei

I am of an age, and perhaps of a personality, where I do not set out to discover much new music anymore. Some of the bands that defined my youth still make albums, and good ones at that. And if they’re not, I can just listen to all the good ones that they made back when I was young. They’re a comfort during unpredictable times.

But 2021, where every day seemed like a highlight reel of the worst moments of the last, demanded newness. Spotify kicked this instrumental album, by a post-rock quartet from Valencia, Spain, into my mix and I’ve welcomed the punky surprises, the layers, the quirks, the freshness of it ever since. Sharks Always Come at Five is a nice, dancey example.

Same goes for Fahr’s Hoppy Hefe, a summer beer I’m now hoarding, and which is now proving useful in breaking up a stretch of -30 C with brightness and brilliance every time I crack one.

Album: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, by The War on Drugs
Beer: Dark Mild, by Sturgeon Brewing

This was, in some circles, the most anticipated album of the year, following up the band’s previous and amazing A Deeper Understanding, from 2017. Is it amazing? Yes, but without the same pop sensibilities. It is wistful, and dense with a generic but still poignant nostalgia. Yikes – what beer wants to be paired with that, huh?

But hold on, there. I Don’t Live Here Anymore is also the kind of record that wants to sit you down for some quality thinking time. A lot of that will be about the past, but that always informs the present in a way that shapes the future, no? Yes! Sturgeon’s low ABV Dark Mild, rich and roasty, puts you in that perfect mood without clouding your thoughts. It’s a luxury.

Treat yourself to a whole howler (heck, maybe even a growler) and get down to some thinkin’ with a track like the ender, Occasional Rain.

Album: Collections from the Whiteout
Beer: Lloyd Christmas Flanders Red, by Troubled Monk

Here’s a confession: I find describing a beer quite hard. I bet there are people who have read my stuff who will not be surprised by this, and that there are others who can relate. There are two contributing factors. One, not having had any training, I often wonder what my palate is telling me. Two, good beer words are hard to come by. Drinkable and crushable are not good beer words.

But when you like a beer, you like a beer, even if you can’t quite figure it out. Maybe you don’t need to.

Same for some albums. With Collections from the Whiteout, English singer-songwriter Ben Howard’s pop-folk tendencies get much looser, dreamier, fuzzier. It’s like the coalescence of reckoning with past success, artistic exploration and pandemic existentialism. You need to find your own way in but when you do you find an expansive, inviting sonic space. Like Far Out, for example.

So let’s go with Troubled Monk‘s Lloyd Christmas Flanders Red. Foeder aged for three years, it is also a coalescence of many influences. It’s dry, tart, rich … and I’m going to leave it at that. But I do know that it’s not crushable. And that it’s good.

Album: Piecework, by Kowloon Walled City
Beer: Lone Bison, by Ribstone Creek Brewery

One of my favourite Alberta beer trends of 2021 was the return of the West Coast IPA. The haze craze did not abate, and that’s OK, but it was nice to see things a little more clearly again, as newer breweries took up a time-tested style. It was also good to see how old standards held up, like Ribstone Creek’s Lone Bison, one of my go-tos.

This is a no-nonsense IPA, heavy on the caramel and pine, only the faintest hints of the tropical stuff, and well balanced despite the 70 IBUs. Big, bold, a bit of a brute – true to its name. So it goes well with Piecework. This is a beautiful, lumbering barrage of orchestrated noise from Oakland’s Kowloon Walled City, one of the heaviest but still listenable bands I’ve encountered in years.

These are an album and beer with an assertive brand of presence, but they’re thoughtfully nuanced. Give Oxygen Tent a shot. Share it with a bison.

Album: Hushed and Grim, by Mastodon
Beer: Barrel-aged Brett 24-2 Stock Ale, by Blindman Brewing

I’ve been reserving the use of the word complex until now. I’m afraid I do have to use it. Let’s apply it to the music first.

For the unfamiliar, Mastodon is a heavy metal act from Atlanta that treats every song as if it’s an album unto itself, packing them with parts, ideas, sonic twists and turns, layers of vocals, and riff upon riff. In the hands of a lesser band, the complexity of Hushed and Grim would verge on chaos. Instead, it’s the work of a band that always shocks you by getting better.

Blindman‘s 24-2 Stock Ale is the work of a brewery that does the same. It’s a pleasantly busy beer, with the richness of the dark malts overlaid with some brett funkiness, offering much to hold your attention. It’s one of my favourites of 2021, just like Hushed and Grim. Speaking of funkiness, have a listen to Sickle and Peace.

Album: As the Love Continues, by Mogwai
Beer: Anything by The Establishment, but Tangerine Trees in particular

2021 was a big year for some. Glasgow, Scotland’s Mogwai landed its first number 1 album in the U.K. with its 10th and mostly instrumental As the Love Continues. I’ve loved this band for the sophistication of its slow builds and trance-dance toe-tappers from the start, which was 25 years ago. What a treat to see them get well-deserved recognition in such a terrible year.

It took The Establishment far less than a quarter-century to get the recognition it also deserved. In 2021, less than three years after pouring its first pint, the brewery was named the best in Canada and the province at the Canadian Brewing Awards and the Alberta Beer Awards.

Compare the sophistication of brewery and band by matching the unforgettable imperial sour Tangerine Trees with Ritchie Sacramento, one of Mogwai’s best songs to date.

But you could just as easily raise a glass of anything by the Establishment to the fact that, as difficult a year as 2021, it did little to curb creativity.

7 beers for 7 albums: My favourite music of 2020 paired with Alberta craft beers

High points in a pretty bad year

In addition to my family, and friends who were willing to tolerate glitchy video calls, three things got me sanely through 2020: running, music and beer. 

The running I can manage on my own. As for music and beer – despite my acoustic guitar and homebrewing equipment – well, to say they’re just not the same is to be kind to myself. I need a better, more reliable supply of both.

Happily, that remained available throughout this heartbreaking holding-pattern of a year, though not without sacrifices. Musicians delivered, despite having to virtually give it away thanks to cancelled tours. For brewers, just breaking even likely proved a luxury for many. But in both cases, creativity was clearly not curtailed.

To close out the year, I’m pairing my favourite albums of 2020 with Alberta craft beers that were experiences in their own right. These were bright lights illuminating anything that stayed good during dark times. Let it never be said that funding for the arts is misspent, or that government grants to help build a nascent industry were misguided.

After all, it’s sobering to think of the world without amazing music or excellent Alberta craft beer, even in a year without a plague.

Matthew Good, Moving Walls | Dark Mild, Sturgeon Brewing

dark mild beer, sturgeon brewing co.

I don’t think everything is automatic for Matt Good anymore. Over the years, his music has evolved from the catchy Can-rock mould buster that was Underdogs to much more introspective, more carefully crafted stuff. It’s a searching of the soul as though Good lost the key to his own heart somewhere there in the darkest recesses.

Moody and wistful, Moving Walls grabs on and gets you thinking about things you probably don’t think about too often. That tends to take a while. A couple of savoury Sturgeon Brewing dark milds will do the job, and without making the next day feel like work you can’t handle.

Standout track: Parts

Sophie Hutchings, Scattered on the Wind | Separated to a Degree, Trial and Ale Brewing

trial and ale, separated to a degree, beer

Australian composer Sophie Hutchings produced much of my go-to writing music for Tapping the West, my book about Alberta craft beer (also a pandemic release). Pianos do that, though, don’t they?

When played in a certain way, as Hutchings does on Scattered on the Wind (at once atmospheric and focused, uplifting and ominous), they can awaken sleepy parts of the brain that actually have things to say, if they just get poked once in a while.

Separated to a Degree, Trial and Ale’s first barrel-aged offering, was a beer that, for me, encouraged more thoughtful tasting. What is a beer, really? it seemed to ask as the cork popped. It was a question that inspired deep consideration, a more vigorous exercising of the senses, and I was pleased to oblige.

Standout track: Two Flames

Dogleg, Melee | Ring Pop Kveik Double IPA, Eighty-eight Brewing

ring pop kveik double ipa, eighty-eight brewing co

Oh, what a joyful noise! Listening to this Detroit punk-pop quartet is like riding a crazy carpet down the stairs, and Melee is Dogleg’s most bombastic outing yet.

If 2020 was determined to bring you down, this record’s screamy but melodic vocals and blistering guitars promised to pick you up by the collar, give you a good shake and tell you that you’re alive and well and you damn well better remember that. Ring Pop, bright and boisterously hoppy, had pretty much the same effect, demanding attention and gratitude in equal measure.

Standout track: Wartortle

Hum, Inlet | The Wolf, Sea Change Brewing

the wolf, hazy pale ale, sea change

After 22 long years, one of my favourite bands from youth, Hum, returned with an album so good it does indeed seem as if it has been slaved over for decades. I feel like the Wolf, Sea Change’s multi-award-winning hazy pale ale, is also a thing that was worked on until it was just so (whether that was the case or not).

Inlet is classic Hum drone rock: dense, layered and mysterious. Again, same for the Wolf, I’d say. I go back to both again and again, and always find something unexpected to enjoy, some new way into both.

Standout track: Step into You

Sarah Harmer, Are You Gone | Front Lawn Saison, Bent Stick Brewing

front lawn saison, bent stick brewing
Dear Bent Stick, sorry this photo is so bad.

Throughout her career, Ontario singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer has used nostalgia as a bridge between herself and listeners. Whatever past she conjures up she is able to transform into a past we all share. Those are worth revisiting, especially when they sound like Are you Gone, which is beautiful and grounding.

It’s a fine match for Front Lawn Saison, a down-to-earth, dandelion-infused 2020 favourite for me. After all, what’s a more nostalgic image than that of plucking that yellow flower gone to seed, and watching it disappear on the fleeting breath of childhood?

Standout track: Wildlife

Travis, 10 Songs | 1929, The Growlery Beer Co.

This is proof that you should take a photo of every beer you drink. You never know when you’ll need it.

Nearly 20 years after the tear-jerker hit “Flowers in the Window,” Scottish pop-rockers Travis are still sowing the seeds of chart-topping hits, even if the charts don’t care like they used to.

Six albums later, the band sounds more grown up, less saccharine (though not a lot), but as accessible as ever. 10 songs is undemanding yet unrelentingly clever and poignant. To me, that sounds like a kolsch, a deceptively simple beer. The Growlery’s crystal-clear and delightfully crispy 1929 is one of my favourites among Alberta offerings.

Standout track: A ghost

Elder, Omens | Oh My Quad, Brewsters Brewing Co.

Since 2005, Boston’s Elder has grown into a much more progressive band than its gnarled roots as a sludgy, stoner metal band might have been expected to produce. Yet much of the old black magic of early records remains. It just shimmers and shines more than it used to.

Make no mistake, Omens is heavy, sonically viscous stuff. The shortest of the album’s five songs clocks in at more than nine minutes (it’s 55, all told). Oh My Quad, Brewsters’ big, rich Belgian ale, was the perfect slow-sipper for this musical journey, which takes the scenic route through uncharted territories of the imagination – just like a great record, and a great beer, should.

Standout track: Embers

Give verse a chance

Ryan Merkley [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

After Gord Downie, is there hope for lyrics in mainstream Canadian music?

This article originally appeared in Eighteen Bridges, a Canadian magazine of narrative journalism.

A LOT OF WHAT I SAW ON MUCHMUSIC in the 1990s has stayed with me. Perhaps it’s because I entered the formative years of my adolescence during the channel’s heyday that so much of my memory bank has been signed over to VJ Erica Ehm, Big Shiny Tunes playlists and Dan Gallagher handing out two-slice toasters on his gameshow, Test Pattern.

But some useful things stuck, too, like a report from the network that aired on September 24, 1994. That day marked the release of Day for Night, an album that galvanized (in platinum, six times) the Tragically Hip’s reputation as atypical but accessible CanCon.

Toronto record stores stayed open until midnight to move copies, and MuchMusic cameras captured an scene that still strikes me as anomalous. A frenzied teenage boy tears plastic from the CD to free the liner notes. “There’s lyrics!” he shouts. Weirdly, he’s not alone. His frenzied friends join the chorus, high-fiving as if Bill Barilko or Paul Henderson or whichever hockey hero that Downie deified in verse had just pocketed a winner. I’d never seen anyone lose their mind over the words a modern, popular Canadian singer set to music. But MuchMusic took note, so I did too. Frenzied Teenage Boy and I became kindred spirits, acolytes of the people’s poetry of Gord Downie.

Continue reading Give verse a chance

Why I returned to heavy metal in middle age

An unexpected reaction to Heavy Metal Parking Lot, 30 years later

heavy metal parking lot documentary
I hope filmmakers John Heyn and Jeffrey Krulik don’t mind me using this still from Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Revisiting Heavy Metal Parking Lot when it turned 30 in 2016 was a shock.

At first, watching the cult classic documentary – which explored the inebriated human condition outside a Judas Priest concert in Maryland – was fun. It was a window onto the cringeworthy awkwardness of youth.

Or, was it a window onto myself?

And not my young self. Maybe my middle-aged self of the here and now. I wondered: Should I be worried? In an effort to figure that out, I wrote a short essay.

I hope you’ll enjoy it at eighteenbridges.ca. Rock on.