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
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
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
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
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
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.
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