Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Great Canadian Music

We have been a little slow in checking out the full scope of Canadian music -- many unplayed episodes of the CBC3 podcast await more leisure time -- but in the course of compiling my annual Top 10 for 2008 over on my music blog, I decided I would research what I could and find what I thought were the top five Canadian albums of the year as well.

As you might expect, this turned out to be a massive task. It frankly would have been impossible without huge helpings of Wikipedia, iTunes, local record stores and many fellow Canadian music bloggers who were always helpful in pointing me to particular bands or artists.

You can read the final results in this post, but I thought I’d mention the Canadian “winners” over here too, because most readers probably equate Canadian music with Bryan Adams, Feist or Rush (if we’re lucky) or Celine Dion (if we aren’t). There’s a lot more going on just that, thankfully, and I surprised myself by discovering that the best Canadian bands aren’t just good on the relative scale of being Canadian, but in my view hold up extremely well to bands from any country, even our sacred base of England.

I ranked the Canadian Bands this way:
05. The Stills - Oceans Will Rise
04. The Dears - Missiles
03. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
02. Stars - Sad Robot EP
01. Islands - Arm’s Way

Honestly I would have given the top honours to Stars if they had put out a full album in 2008, and not mentioned in this particular list is Tokyo Police Club who won a different honour but just happen to be Canadian.

The Stills, from Montreal, are a six-man band who walk that U2-James-Simple Minds kind of line, though I must be frank and say they’re not up to that level. Oceans Will Rise is their third release.

Montreal is also home to The Dears, which (as a band) are a vehicle for the leader, Murray Lightburn (along with Natalia Yanchak). They go for a dark, full-production, orchestral kind of sound, which tends to the gloomy wall-of-sound style you might hear from Ride or Joy Division. Though I don’t think they would take it as a compliment, in some ways they remind me of prog-rock acts like (Peter Gabriel-version) Genesis. Their 2006 album Gang of Losers was nominated for the 2007 Polaris Music Prize, which is sort of like a “Best Album” Grammy but includes a cash prize and is not limited to any genre of music; the only requirement is that the candidate be Canadian.

Crystal Castles perform in a genre I call “8-bit electronica,” music designed to sound as much as possible as though it was composed and performed on old videogame console like the Super Nintendo. This can be awful, or awesome -- and they are much more the latter, despite having been discovered on MySpace (accidentally, no less!). They are a two-person band from Toronto and were nominees to the 2008 Polaris Music Prize (they did not win). Their self-titled debut already has a rep for wild live shows and erratic behaviour by the band.

Stars have been very popular almost since their inception. In a rather unusual arrangement, the main three members (who all sing) are also members of another hot Canadian band, Broken Social Scene (though that’s a part-time gig, as BSS is kind of a music collective rather than a proper band), meaning they are from Toronto and Montreal (and New York part of the time). The male lead singer Torquil Cambell, is also an actor who has been on a number of US TV shows. Coincidentally, they are label mates with The Stills (Arts & Crafts Records).

In my original blog post about them I invoked the Trash Can Sinatras, the Beautiful South and Morrissey, but “beautiful, soft-spoken, narrative indie-pop” covers it fairly well. They are perennially nominated for Juno and Polaris Prizes, but never seem to win them ... yet. I think they’re great.

Islands may very well represent the future for Canadian rock bands, with their latest album Arm’s Way representing a whole new genre -- “indie-prog.” Somehow, they’ve managed to invoke the spirits of King Crimson and Jethro Tull, but without any of the excess. It’s a fascinating record from a band that has apparently evolved a lot since their debut in 2005.

Finally, if Islands don’t redefine Canadian rock, Tokyo Police Club (who have no Japanese members and hail from Newmarket, Ontario) will. They are very different from Islands, drawing more from art-punk schools of thought such as Gang of Four or Wire. In the words of Deiter, they are “beautiful and angular.” They are playing Orlando on March 7th at The Social, so we encourage our Orlando friends to go check ’em out!

Here’s a video of Stars that I’ve never used before, so enjoy “Elevator Love Letter” and check out all these great bands via iTunes or your local indie record store. I have a feeling we moved up here at a good time for Canada, musically speaking ...