Best records of 2022

I don’t do the top ten albums anymore, much to the chagrin of Scott Sellers and Lee Hill, but I do feel an obligation to let y’all know which albums and singles are the best of 2022 – in fact, not in my opinion. In fact.

The best album belongs to Wet Leg and is their debut. I like to suggest to people that I introduced them to North America, and that sort of is almost true, because I’ve been listening to them from just about the first moment they popped up on TikTok and blew my mind.

This album – Wet Leg, fittingly – is without flaw. Every note, every chord, every lyric, is perfect. There is nothing that needs to be changed. These two women, and their back up gang of Isle of Wight guys, are going to be massive stars. Just listen to ‘Wet Dream,’ if you don’t believe me.

The contest for best song of the year is a tie – and both of them relate to current events. Drug Church, who are the logical extension of the Pixies and Fucked Up and the Stooges, are intense and angry and important. This song, ‘Million Miles of Fun,’ features a lyric in the chorus with which all of us can now identify: “Newsflash – I need news less.”

That tune is tied with this one, which pre-dated the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but it will be eternal. It’s also a loud and proud defence of abortion, and women’s rights to control their own bodies. Best part: when the Petrol Girls’ Ren Aldridge screams “AND I’M NOT SORRY!” Vital, furious, essential.

My latest: the winners in 2022

It’s that time of year!

The time, that is, when columnists haul out their naughty and nice lists, and type up political winners and losers. And who am I to buck tradition?

So, herewith and heretofore, the political winners of 2022!

(The political losers column comes next. And being on the winners list, by the way, is no guarantee that you won’t also be on the losers list.)

Justin Trudeau. Yes, yes, we know. You don’t like him. I don’t like him, either. But by any political standard, the Liberal leader had a winning year: he just did.

He didn’t just win the Mississauga-Lakeshore byelection — his candidate, who was not without blemish, absolutely clobbered his Conservative opponent. And that’s in a riding that Doug Ford’s Conservatives won handily just a few months ago.

That’s not all: Trudeau’s Big Date with Destiny was supposed to be his appearance at the inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act in Ottawa and elsewhere. And not only did he not lose his cool during many hours of cross-examination, Trudeau did exceptionally well. He kicked ass, in fact.

Finally, Justin’s a winner for the most important reason of all: he is still standing. He still has power. He still is the prime minister who defeated three Tory leaders in a row.

And don’t be surprised if he goes on to defeat a fourth.

Pierre Poilievre. The Ottawa area MP didn’t just win his party’s leadership — he absolutely crushed the competition. And that competition included an actual former Conservative leader, Jean Charest, who is a pretty accomplished and respected politician.

Since he became leader, Poilievre has pulled back from the Freedumb Convoy and Bitcoin and conspiracy theory nonsense, and he hasn’t had a single caucus bimbo eruption — and, for the Tories, that’s a pretty big achievement.

Predictions that he would be facing an election with a divided party — and I was one who made such a prediction — were completely wrong. His party looks to be quite united behind him, and getting ready for an election that could come at any time now.

Joe Biden. Full disclosure: I worked for Biden on his presidential race, so I’m a bit biased when it comes to the 46th president. But I think I’m entirely justified in admiring the guy so much: like my former boss Jean Chretien, Biden is consistently underestimated by his opponents, and then he consistently exceeds expectations.

Everyone thought that he would get clobbered in the midterms, but he didn’t. He actually increased his party’s standing in the Senate, and he kept the Republicans to a puny number of victories in the House of Representatives. He may be as old as Methuselah, but he’s as smart as Methuselah. Discount Biden at your peril.

Premiers Doug Ford, John Horgan, Francois Legault. The three men who lead, or led, our three biggest provinces were wildly successful. Ford got reelected with a bigger majority, Quebec’s Legault got reelected with a big majority, and B.C.’s Horgan left his party in better shape than he found it — and said party is still governing. While our national leadership is often uninspiring, these three men — whatever their faults — knew how to win, when they needed to win.

Incumbents. If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s that Canadian voters don’t like changing horses midstream. Incumbent leaders — particularly at the municipal level — held onto power and easily defeated any and all challengers.

Mayor John Tory in Toronto – and his counterparts, Bonnie Crombie in Mississauga, Patrick Brown in Brampton, Valerie Plante in Montreal – and so on: all of these leaders revealed themselves to be solid performers during the pandemic, and voters rewarded them accordingly.

We could go on — and that’s a good thing — but we don’t want you to think that I’m too positive. There’s lots of negative stuff to remind you about, too.

That comes in the next column!

Joe Strummer, gone so long, gone too soon

Joe’s message to me: “Well I love you baby, but I must be rhythm bound.”

The sticker affixed to the London Calling album shrink-wrap, so many years ago, boldly declared that the Clash were “the only band that matters.” If that is true – if it was more than record company hyperbole – then Joe Strummer’s death 20 years ago today, of a heart attack at age 50, was a very big deal indeed.

It wasn’t as big as John Lennon’s murder, of course, which came one year after London Calling was released, and shook an entire generation. Nor as newsworthy, likely, as the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994. No, the impact of the sudden death of Joe Strummer – the front man for the Clash, the spokesman for what the Voidoid’s Richard Hell called, at the time, “the blank generation” – will be seen in more subtle ways.

For starters, you weren’t going to see any maudlin Joe Strummer retrospectives on CNN, or hordes of hysterical fans wailing in a park somewhere, clutching candles whilst someone plays ‘White Riot’ on acoustic guitar. Nor would there be a rush by his estate to cash in with grubby compilation and tribute discs. Punk rock, you see, wasn’t merely apart from all that – it was against of all that.

Punk rock was a specific rejection of everything rock’n’roll had become in the 1970s – namely, a business: an arena-sized, coke-addicted, utterly-disconnected-from-reality corporate game played by millionaires at Studio 54. Punk rock, and Joe Strummer, changed all of that. They were loud, loutish, pissed off. They were of the streets, and for the streets. They wanted rock’n’roll to matter again.

I met Joe Strummer for the first time on the night of October 16, 1979, in East Vancouver. Two of my Calgary punk rock buddies, plus my girlfriend and I, were loitering on the main floor at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE). We were exhilarated and exhausted. We had pooled our meager resources to buy four train tickets to Vancouver, to see Joe Strummer and the Clash in concert. Their performance had been extraordinary (and even featured a mini-riot, midway through). But after the show, we had no money left, and nowhere to stay.

The four of us were discussing this state of affairs when a little boy appeared out of nowhere. It was near midnight, and the Clash, DOA and Ray Campi’s Rockabilly Rebels had long since finished their respective performances. Roadies were up on stage, packing up the Clash’s gear. The little boy looked to be about seven or eight. He was picking up flashcubes left behind by the departed fans.

We started talking to the boy. It turned out he was the son of Mickey Gallagher, the keyboardist the Clash had signed on for the band’s London Calling tour of North America. His father appeared, looking for him. And then, within a matter of minutes, Topper Headon appeared, looking for the Gallaghers.

Topper Headon was admittedly not much to look at: he was stooped, slight and pale, with spiky hair and a quiet manner. But he was The Drummer For The Clash, and had supplied beats for them going back almost to their raw eponymous first album, the one that had changed our lives forever. We were in awe.

Topper asked us where we were from and what we thought of the show. When he heard that we had no place to stay, he said: “Well, you’d better come backstage with me, then.”

Sprawled out in a spartan PNE locker room, Strummer was chatting with lead guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon, along with some Rastafarians and a few of the Rockabilly Rebels. They were all stoned, and grousing about an unnamed promoter of the Vancouver show, who had refused to let them play until he was paid his costs. The Clash, like us, had no money. That made us love them even more.

Joe Strummer, with his squared jaw and Elvis-style hairdo, didn’t seem to care about the band’s money woes. While Mick Jones flirted with my girlfriend, Strummer started questioning me about my Clash T-shirt. It was homemade, and Strummer was seemingly impressed by it. I could barely speak. There I was, speaking with one of the most important rock’n’rollers ever to walk the Earth – and he was acting just like a regular guy. Like he wasn’t anything special.

But he was, he was. From their first incendiary album in 1977 (wherein they raged against racism, and youth unemployment, and hippies), to their final waxing as the real Clash in 1982 (the cartoonish Combat Rock, which signaled the end was near, and appropriately so), Strummer was the actual personification of everything that was the Clash. They were avowedly political and idealistic; they were unrelentingly angry and loud; most of all, they were smarter and more hopeful than the other punk groups, the cynical, nihilistic ones like the Sex Pistols. They believed that the future was worth fighting for.

The Clash were the ones who actually read books – and encouraged their fans to read them, too. They wrote songs that emphasized that politics were important (and, in my own case, taught me that fighting intolerance, and maintaining a capacity for outrage, was always worthwhile). They were the first punk band to attempt to unify disparate cultures – for example, introducing choppy reggae and Blue Beat rhythms to their music.

They weren’t perfect, naturally. Their dalliances with rebel movements like the Sandinistas, circa 1980, smacked of showy dilettante politics. But they weren’t afraid to take risks, and make mistakes.

Born John Graham Mellor in 1952 in Turkey to the son of a diplomat, Strummer started off as a busker in London, and then formed the 101ers, a pub rock outfit, in 1974. Two years later, he saw the Pistols play one of their first gigs. Strummer, Jones and Simonon immediately formed the Clash, and set about rewriting the rules.

While political, they also knew how to put together good old rock’n’roll. Strummer and Jones effectively became the punk world’s Lennon and McCartney, churning out big hits in Britain, and attracting a lot of favourable critical acclaim in North America. Some of their singles, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘Complete Control,’ are among the best rock’n’roll 45s – ever. Their double London Calling LP is regularly cited as one of history’s best rock albums.

After the Clash broke up, Strummer played with the Pogues, wrote soundtrack music and formed a new group, the world beat-sounding Mescaleros. He married, and became a father. But he never again achieved the adulation that greeted the Clash wherever they went.

Strummer didn’t seem to care. When I saw him for the last time – at a show in one of HMV’s stores on Yonge Street in July 2001, which (typically) he agreed to give at no cost – Strummer and his Mescaleros stomped around on the tiny stage, having the time of their lives. They didn’t play any Clash songs, but that was okay by us. Joe Strummer’s joy was infectious, that night.

As the gig ended, Strummer squatted at the edge of the stage – sweaty, resplendent, grinning – to speak with the fans gathered there. They looked about as old as I was, when I first met him back in October 1979. As corny as it sounds, it was a magical moment, for me: I just watched him for a while, the voice of my generation, speaking to the next one.

I hope they heard what he had to say.

My latest: the leader of the free world

Volodomyr Zelenskyy paid a surprise visit to Joe Biden this week. It was really, really important.

For starters, it was the Ukrainian president’s first trip outside his country since Vladimir Putin’s war began in February. And, as 2022 grinds to a close — but as the war grinds on, Zelenskyy, and his Washington trip, reminds us of two important things.

One is about him. By any reasonable standard, Zelenskyy is simply an extraordinary human being and leader. A Russian “special military operation” that everyone expected to take a weekend collided with a wall of Ukrainian might — and Zelenskyy’s firm leadership.

For Russia, and for Putin, the war has been a catastrophe. As the New York Times reported in a special section on Sunday, “This isn’t war. It’s the destruction of the Russian people by their own commanders.”

More than 100,000 Russian troops killed. More than 300,000 wounded. More than 3,000 Russian tanks destroyed or captured. More than 6,000 armoured combat vehicles destroyed or captured. More than 300 Russian aircraft shot down.

The Russian military failure has been astonishing. As the Times reported: “(Russian troops go into battle) with instructions grabbed off the Internet for weapons they barely know how to use. They plod through Ukraine with decade-old maps, or no maps at all. They speak on open cellphone lines, revealing their positions and exposing the incompetence and disarray in their ranks.”

Zelenskyy, meanwhile, may not have won the war yet, but he certainly is not losing it. Strategically, tactically, he has defeated Putin’s three main objectives: One, he has unified and strengthened NATO. Two, he has crushed the physical expansion of the Russian empire. Three, he has foiled Putin’s ambitions to render himself a superpower on the world stage.

And, with his visit to Washington — mainly, as he candidly admits, to obtain more weapons — Zelenskyy reminds us of Winston Churchill’s trip to Washington after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, more than 80 years ago. Like Churchill then, Zelenskyy has now become the leader of the free world.

That is what the Washington trip tells us about him. But what does it say about us, in North America?

Joe Biden ends the year in a strengthened position. In November’s midterm elections, Biden kept the Senate, and he kept his opponents to minor gains in the House of Representatives. But all of that had more to do with the missteps of the Republicans — Trump, abortion, January 6, election denial, etc. — than it did with the Democratic president.

In Canada, meanwhile, Zelenskyy reminds us that our own leadership is sorely lacking.

Justin Trudeau may be ending 2022 in a better mood — thanks to a convincing win in a Mississauga byelection, thanks to his performance at the inquiry into the application of the Emergencies Act — but his main problems remain. He leads a scandal-prone government, one that is out of ideas and out of energy.

And, as much as he lusts after a Parliamentary majority, he is still far from realizing that goal. If an election were held today, he would get reelected, but he would not improve his position.

His main opponent, Conservative Pierre Poilievre, fares no better. His chosen candidate in the aforementioned byelection was crushed by the Liberals — and Poilievre bizarrely did not even bother to campaign there.

Meanwhile, an Angus Reid Institute poll released this week suggests that the new Conservative leader is much more unpopular than any of the three previous Conservative leaders. All of whom, we note, were defeated by Trudeau.

The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh? He barely rates a mention. He has permitted his party to be effectively taken over by Trudeau. He has become irrelevant.

All that, as Zelenskyy alights in Washington this week, reminds us about two important things. One good, one bad.

The good: The world has a leader like Vladimir Zelenskyy.

The bad: None of us here in North America have a leader like him.