Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Virtute At Rest

16 of ’16: The Best Songs of the Year

LVL UP II

Following suit with the two previous examples, the best songs of 2016 list will abandon the traditional numerical format in favor of a more open approach that concentrates on the best material of the year without offering too many individual designations. The majority of the songs featured on this list were under-represented on lists by far more visible publications (and a few that were fairly represented are listed below the main list as honorable mentions) and fall under the genres normally covered by this site. Of course, this list — just like any other — can’t claim to be truly representative but it does offer a decent encapsulation of 2016 releases that deserved to be celebrated.

An additional note: most of the embeds come from bandcamp, so songs will auto-play after the initial listen. This was intentional to ease the access to the records that can claim these songs and to more directly benefit the artists that brought them into the world.

Enjoy the list.

Mo Troper – Happy Birthday

One of the strongest debut records of last year was Mo Troper‘s Beloved, an entirely unexpected but wholly welcome powerpop masterpiece. While just about every song on Beloved was considered for this list, it seemed appropriate to go with “Happy Birthday” which set the tone for a fearsome record that deserved far more recognition.

Doe – Sincere

Some Things Last Longer Than You was a blistering statement from Doe, a band that had been steadily gaining momentum for years. It was a perfectly structured record that allowed its songs an equal amount of weight but “Sincere” still managed to emerge as a standout single. Fiery and full of conviction, it was one of 2016’s best moments.


Told Slant – Low Hymnal

Low Hymnal” was a song that I was fortunate enough to hear forming in its earliest stages but the finished product still managed to wind up as a transcendental experience. There’s genuine pain at the root of Told Slant‘s “Low Hymnal” that lends to the overwhelming weight of the song’s unforgettable final stanza. A gorgeous and moving masterwork.

Parquet Courts – Human Performance

In the title track for their career best, Human Performance, Parquet Courts hit an exhilarating new high point. “Human Performance” is a tightly-coiled and deeply felt examination of the human condition that finds the band stretching in new directions with a fearlessness that makes the song as gripping as it is immediate.

Yucky Duster – Gofer

A pitch-perfect pop song, Yucky Duster‘s “Gofer” became one of 2016’s most unexpected summer anthems. It’s a pure delight at every perfectly-navigated hairpin turn, serving up some of the most meticulously constructed guitar pop in recent memory. A perfect blend of style and substance, “Gofer” is a triumph from a band worth watching.

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Philadelphia, 4th of July (SANDY)

While Pretty Years saw Cymbals Eat Guitars continue to evolve their sound, no moment of the record was more jaw-dropping than the towering “Philadelphia, 4th of July (SANDY)“. An eye-opening display of formidable strength and untapped ferocity, the song saw the band perfecting just about every facet of their already-impressive songwriting.

LVL UP – Spirit Was

Pain” and “Hidden Driver” got a fair amount of attention from year-end lists but the most representative moment of LVL UP‘s Return To Love was the bittersweet “Spirit Was“, which also ranks as one of the band’s best. Vocalist/bassist Nick Corbo provided Return To Love its beating heart and “Spirit Was” marked the moment it completely opened.

Big Thief – Real Love

It takes a certain type of boldness to title a record Masterpiece but when that record features songs like “Real Love“, that title just seems apt. In some moments “Real Love” is breezy and open, while others finds Big Thief baring their fangs. Throw in one of the most effective guitar solos of the past few years and “Real Love” quietly emerges as a new classic.

Jawbreaker Reunion – Cosmos

Before hanging up their cables, Jawbreaker Reunion were kind enough to deliver one last album in haha and then what 😉, which lived up to the bands sterling track record. The best moment of a great record came via “Cosmos“, a gorgeous ballad examining serious topics that quickly transforms into a forceful reckoning. In short: it’s perfect.

Car Seat Headrest – The Ballad of the Costa Concordia

Likely the most celebrated record appearing on this list, Car Seat Headrest‘s Teens of Denial‘s most breathtaking moment was largely ignored by other outlets. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is a sprawling meditation on hopelessness that somehow finds a way to seamlessly work in a brief, heartrending cover of Dido’s “White Flag”. A genuine achievement.

Fred Thomas – Brickwall

Fred Thomas is making and releasing music at a relatively relentless rate, which is a trait that typically produces a lot of filler material. Thomas somehow keeps getting better, something that’s clearly evident in “Brickwall“, a characteristically acerbic slice-of-life send-up that highlights Changer, which will go down as one of 2017’s finest.

Cloud Nothings – Modern Act

Rarely does a band come across as progressive while revisiting their earlier sounds, yet “Modern Act” finds a way to fuse progression with refinement in its revisitations. A brilliant hybrid of virtually every stage of the band’s career “Modern Act” is both a victory lap and an engrossing look at Cloud Nothings‘ increasingly promising future.

Slothrust – Horseshoe Crab

Crockpot” was the kind of unforgettable song that could make a band’s career, that Slothrust has surpassed those dazzling heights so quickly is a staggering accomplishment. “Horseshoe Crab” is the kind of track that can stop people in their tracks. It’s a spellbinding song from a band unafraid to rip the bleeding heart out of their own chest.

Catbus – Fracas

A standalone release — and lone track — from a band that features Phyllis Ophelia and members of Patio, Catbus‘ “Fracas” is a riveting hybrid of post-punk and basement pop. The verses ensnare the listeners attention before the chorus blooms and casts an unbreakable spell. Exceedingly lovely and perfectly crafted, “Fracas” is an absolute gem.

John K. Samson – Virtute At Rest

No song in 2016 carried more emotional resonance than John K. Samson‘s devastating final chapter to the Virtute trilogy. Plaintive, painfully intimate, and tinged with a deeply damaged sense of hope, the song finds Virtute’s owner resurrecting the neglected cat to beg for forgiveness. Harrowing and unforgettable, “Virtute At Rest” was a knockout blow.

SONG OF THE YEAR

Jay Som – I Think You’re Alright

There’s a grace and elegance that’s identifiable even through the light damage that Jay Som applies to “I Think You’re Alright” that brings Sparklehorse to mind. Now, direct comparisons on this site are few and far between — especially in the case of such notable luminaries — but it’s next to impossible not to hear the ghost of Mark Linkous lovingly haunting every last second of “I Think You’re Alright”.

Melina Duterte, the mastermind behind the Jay Som project, has listed Sparklehorse as a major influence and the two share a kindred, empathetic spirit- something that shows in the delicate tenderness of “I Think You’re Alright” and maintains its convictions throughout the rest of Jay Som’s discography. While that discography is an enviable one, “I Think You’re Alright” remains its crown jewel, thanks to not only the song’s sublime instrumentation but a narrative that plays perfectly into the song’s soft lyricism.

All at once, uplifting and resigned, “I Think  You’re Alright” occupies a fascinating space. There’s a lot going on in “I Think You’re Alright”, from the subdued atmosphere to the way that instrumentation interacts in its final quarter. When it’s playing, though, none of that’s taken into account as “I Think You’re Alright” has the ability to envelop the listener in a very specific feeling, rendering it a unique (and uniquely moving) listen. Not just one of the finest of this year but of the past decade.

Nine more worth hearing:

PWR BTTM – Projection
Mitski – Your Best American Girl
Weaves – Coo Coo
Margaret Glaspy – You and I
Forth Wanderers – Slop
Bent Shapes – New Starts In Old Dominion
Eskimeaux – WTF
Tancred – Sell My Head
Young Jesus – Baked Goods

Pleas, Departures, and Reconciliations: The Virtute Trilogy

john-k-samson

Not many things can interrupt this site’s regular coverage or alter its standard presentations but an unexpected resolution to one of the most affecting trilogies since the turn of the century isn’t an everyday occurrence. Reflecting on the importance of this feat doesn’t just feel right, it feels necessary. For all that this music meant to scores of people, for how many people it helped through difficult situations, and for how important this story became, it’s time to take an extended look at the narrative centered around one of modern music’s most tragic relationships: the one between a pet owner in the throes of depression and Virtute the Cat.

In 2003, John K. Samson had left his duties behind the kit in Propaghandi in an earnest effort to pursue the music he’d been writing on his own. His band, The Weakerthans, had been steadily building momentum behind their first two records, 1997’s Fallow and 2000’s Left & Leaving. The release of Reconstruction Site in August 2003 changed the course of Samson’s career.

Capitalizing on the acclaim that had accumulated behind the band’s first two records and a bold signing move from Epitaph Records, Reconstruction Site quickly became The Weakerthans most commercially and critically successful work. One of the standouts: “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute”, a song told from the perspective of a cat struggling to understand the depressive slump of its owner.




More than just a lyrically impressive feat (unsurprising, considering Samson’s position as an adjunct professor for the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program), “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” landed with crushing emotive weight. It’s unlikely that anyone knew this at the time of Reconstruction Site‘s release but it would go on to serve as the foundation for a trilogy of songs to be released over the course of 13 years.

Being based out of Winnipeg was always a source of both pride and frustration for Samson (a trait tenderly documented in the extraordinary “One Great City!“), who would frequently reference the city’s influence and history. Winnipeg’s motto, UNUM CUM VIRTUTE MULTORUM, when translated from Latin becomes “One with the strength of many” and provides the trilogy’s titular feline with not only an elevated sense of character and purpose but a clear connection to Samson’s home, making the extended narrative uncomfortably realistic, even with Virtute acting as an agent of both hope and belief.

The response to “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” was overwhelming from the outset but continues to pale in comparison to the reaction of the story’s next chapter. 2007’s Reunion Tour, the band’s last studio album before going on an extended hiatus and eventually calling it quits on 2015, boasted what many still consider to be one of the most devastating songs ever recorded. “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” finds the owner fully lost to a depressive malaise, neglecting Virtute at every step, causing a discord among the two; as one becomes hopeless, the other grows lost.




There’s an exhaustively-realized and lived-in world that Samson creates around these characters, drawing from “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” to strengthen the heartrending nature of its direct sequel. As Virtute attempts to navigate life on her own after enduring a long stretch of silence and inaction, there’s a sense of hope to be found in a heartbreaking defeat. It’s unimaginably painful to watch someone you love give up and, over nearly eight minutes, Samson presents one of the most acute descriptions of that singular agony.

There’s a legitimate pain to the renewed emphasis on Virtute’s perspective in “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure”, which meticulously chronicles the life the cat leads after departing from its owner. Memory recedes — the song’s shattering final line, “I can’t remember the sound that you made for me”, remains one of the most heartrending moments I’ve ever experienced in music — frostbite takes hold, and Virtute ultimately resigns to a familiar pattern as an emotionally abandoned stray. It’s a brutally sad passage that’s deeply upsetting to anyone that’s grown frustrated at similar causal relationship dynamics.

In playing to empathetic impulse and human (and inhuman) nature, The Weakerthans crafted a legitimately unforgettable sequence. For nearly a decade, it seemed as if the final word on the cat that once responded to the name Virtute had been issued- until Samson revealed the tracklist for his just-released solo album, Winter Wheat. There was a pause that took hold after a collective realization that Winter Wheat was slated to end with a track called “Virtute at Rest”.

It’s a testament to the overwhelming strength of its predecessors that some people have pledged outright to not listen to the song out of fear their mental wherewithal wouldn’t be up to the task of another chapter. That wariness is fully warranted as Samson finds yet another angle to elevate the tragic nature of the story, this time framing the narrative as Virtute resurrected in the mind of her recovering owner, who’s now coming to grips with past events and desperately seeking the reassurance that was offered years ago.




As the owner starts to understand the full extent of Virtute’s importance, the weight of the moment is felt in full, even as the music recedes to one of the sparsest arrangements of Samson’s storied musical career. Never has the relationship between the two principle characters been addressed more directly than it is in the song’s mid-section:

You should know I am with you
Know I forgive you
Know I am proud of the steps that you’ve made
Know it will never be easy or simple
Know I will dig in my claws when you stray

Those lyrics rest at the heart of a song that runs under 100 seconds yet still has the power to reduce anyone with even a passing familiarity to the story to tears. Invoking nostalgia, trauma, and understanding, there’s a finality present in “Virtute at Rest” that winds up lending an elevated impact to each carefully-chosen word. Samson sounds simultaneously distraught and assured, his voice lightly trembling, threatening to buckle under the considerable weight of what he’s constructed while guiding it to a gentle close.

The Weakerthans meant a lot to a lot of people, myself included, but it’s hard to imagine anything being more representative of the legacy they left behind than the story of Virtute. Those who had cats saw Virtute as a stand-in, those who didn’t gained a fictional adoptee. Everyone that connected to the plight of the characters wound up being moved immeasurably by their fractured relationship, which Samson suffused with an inexplicable amount of grace and compassionate warmth. All told, The Virtute Trilogy deserves to be remembered as a staggering masterpiece. Very few people have accomplished similar feats with the poise and poignancy that came to define each of the three installments.

In a way, it’s appropriate that Samson ends this divorced from The Weakerthans project where it started (while still incorporating various members of the band for his solo work) as it serves as a nice reflection of the dynamics at play in “Virtute at Rest”. Separated in full but always partially together, there’s an unbreakable bond that’s subtly emphasized through the most minute details. It’s a perfect resolution and it’s easy to tell Samson’s fully invested in the final words of the story as a meaningful future lingers on Virtute’s one-time owner’s horizon, taking stock of the rear view one last time: let it rest and be done.