I decided to start the new year by sharing my own personal top 20 list of the best Canadian albums out there. I thought this would be easy, but I had the hardest time deciding. My usual choices didn’t all make the cut this time around, and I ended up with quite a surprising list (I’m still not entirely sure of the ranks, except for the no.1 spot)!
What matters to me here is the quality of the album, not so much the record sales. However, sales aren’t insignificant, as they bear witness to a record’s appeal at a certain moment in time, in our society. Nevertheless, I prefer to take into consideration the influence the album had (on me? 😉 ) rather than its commercial success per se. I also decided to restrain myself to one album per artist.
This is not a “perfect” list, for it can only be a subjective list :
– One can only review albums that one has listened to… and I have no intention of faking my way through this. I assume the Oscar Petersons of this world should be included in a Canadian all time best list, but I’m just too much of a neophyte (as Socrates said, the only thing I know for certain is that I know nothing) ;
– I completely own the fact that my choices might be influenced by the “nostalgia” factor, or, paradoxically, the wish to discuss fresh new stuff, or other factors, whether I am aware of them or not;
– Finally, choices evolve over time. Any top 20 list is therefore a work in progress.
I look forward to your inputs! The most important thing is that we enjoy, and get inspired by each others’ brilliant ideas.
N.B. I was surprised that so many debut albums made the cut. Then again, is it possible that debut albums are made up of precious songs that were carefully crafted for years and years, instead of songs written in a few months in response to producers’ demands?…
#20. Hayden, Everything I Long For (1995)
When I was about 17, my friend, who was constantly in a meek mood from having no job, no appartment, and no lovelife worthy of that name, who felt he just wasn’t “performing” well in anything he was supposed to, came over my parents’ house one day and gave me this album. Boy, were we the target audience for this! Hayden’s debut album is intense, intimate, and extremely relatable. It efficiently conveys the simple joys of sharing a bunkbed, or of ditching work out of nowhere one day to do nothing but stay squished together with your significant other. Other songs go straight to your gut, as you share Hayden’s suffering of having the person you love tell you that someone at a party confessed to him/her, or of failing to act in a once-in-a-lifetime-moment to catch the interest of that person you’ve been noticing for a year at the neighbourhood coffee place. This CD brings back so many memories, and even if it’s a bit scruffy, it still does the trick.
#19. Pierre Lapointe, La forêt des mal-aimés (2006)
On his second album, 24 year old singer-songwriter and musician Pierre Lapointe revisits the “chanson française” style, classical piano, pop music, folk guitar, and electronic sounds, and the result is an eclectic and very interesting blend of it all. Lapointe’s beautifully well-crafted, poetic, sometimes provocative lyrics remain one of his strongest assets, as well as his musical ear, and his ability to be somewhat of a trendsetter (if you can manage to follow in this ecclectic footsteps). There was definitely, in this album, a wish for renewal, an ambition to revisit classical and pop culture and do something different. Lapointe is part of a refreshing wave of new artists who reinvented what indie pop music could be, for the better!
#18. Jeszcze Raz, Balagane (2002)
This band originated from a fortuitous meeting of Canadian musicians and a Polish pianist, singer-songwriter Paul Kunigis. The band, and album, are multilingual (with songs in French, Polish, Hebrew, and Arab). Balagane is the band’s second album : it is a festive, yet melancholic album. Difficult subjects are addressed (endless war on a cherished land, human personal and social struggles), but after listening to the record, you somehow feel joyous and hopeful. The great musical prowess of musicians, the charming personality and storytelling of hugely talented Paul Kunigis, and the quality of the product as a whole justify this album’s presence at the #18 spot.
#17. Lhasa de Sela, La Llorona (1997)
Lhasa de Sela is of Mexican and American descent. In the early 90’s, she decided to come to Canada and try to become a singer. Her debut album La Llorona is inspired from the mexican legend of a ghostly woman endlessly crying at night through the streets of the city. This record is entirely in Spanish (her subsequent albums are not) but even without understanding the words, one can easily get drawn into Lhasa’s wonderful mellow musical atmosphere. Lhasa has a distinctive low, warm, husky voice, that beautifully complements the mexican, gypsy, klezmer, and eastern europe musical ambiances of the album.
#16. Jean Leloup, La vallée des réputations (2002)
Throughout his career, Jean Leloup and his unique songwriting brought us along on a crazy journey, starting with the album Menteur (“Liar”), a nice debut by a promising wild youngster. Then, he teamed up with La sale affaire to make his second album L’amour est sans pitié (“Love is merciless”), a fast-paced provocative album about the ups and downs of urban nightlife – sex, drugs, and rock and roll!. After being silent for a while, Leloup seems to have drawn inspiration from his personal struggles to make the wonderful intimate album Le dôme (“The dome”), which could have easily been referenced here instead of La vallée des réputations (“The valley of reputations”). However, I chose the latter because it represents the culmination of his work. Critics would often say “it’s Jean Leloup in his forties”, wacky and excentric Leloup who gained new perspective on things while keeping true to his distinctive musical/lyrical universe. Quoting the brilliant prose at the beginning of La ballade à Toronto : “Time goes by, one day you are old and alone, and nothing remains but the pride of having loved properly, or the torments and shame of having failed to understand”.
#15. Godspeed you! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (2013)
A band that is as far as commercial as you can get, that gets rave reviews from all over the world, and has a cult following? Could this influential experimental music collective be, in their own way obviously, the Canadian version of Velvet underground? Godspeed you is an intriguing band. Critics often break the record into songs, but I really don’t see the need, and prefer to consider the album as a whole. You absolutely need to sit through the entire 50-minute musical experience to appreciate the genius of this music, the progression of the rythm, the variations, the crescendos, … The end result is more than the sum of its parts! As some people are now going against the tide and finding new appreciation for their old LPs, there might be a renewed infatuation with Godspeed’s music, music that needs to be savoured slowly, until, after 40 minutes, you find the musical climax so magnificient and intense that “you just can’t take it anymore”, to quote a Pitfork critic. I could have chosen several of their albums here, but Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is a good example of Godspeed’s monumental and unique work.
#14. Timber Timbre, Creep on Creeping on (2011)
What a nice (and creepy) find! I heard a critic say once that Timber timbre sounds like a young Leonard Cohen dropped in a David Lynch flick. Now this is something right up my alley, I thought. Personally, I’m hearing Lou Reed in there too. This folk-rock band’s music is meticulous, melodic, trippy, strange… and oh so very good. Creep on Creeping on is the fourth album of this prolific band that was formed in 2005. At least one member of the band studied in cinema, and you can definitely feel a sort of eerie cinematic atmosphere throughout this album. As Timber Timbre gets more and more attention, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them on additional TV and movie soundtracks.
#13. Daniel Bélanger, Les insomniaques s’amusent (1992)
Here’s one debut album that took everyone by surprise in Québec in 1992. Multi-talented Daniel Bélanger plays a variety of instruments, and over time, he became known for his stunning live performances and we discovered that his music is quite ecclectic. But this first album is close to the roots : misty, wistful, and clever lyrics, and beautiful guitar and piano melodies. He writes about human relationships, personal struggles, dependency, joy, and pain. Bélanger’s lyrics seem to go from dream to reality (the title litteraly means “The insomniacs are having fun”). When listening to this album, we follow Bélanger into his intoxicating celestial musical universe, and it’s a great journey. It’s intelligent pop music at its best, and it remains just as good, or even better, 25 years later.
#12. The Tragically Hip, Fully Completely (1992)
I have to admit that I didn’t listen to “The Hip” that much in the 90’s… don’t throw anything at me! I always recognized the quality of the overall product and the band’s honesty and professionalism, but I didn’t particularly like the sometimes very intense tremolo in Downie’s voice… yet I didn’t completely hate it either… it’s just… well, there were so many good bands around at that time! But a friend of mine, who eventually became my roommate, was a huge fan, so Fully Completely would often be playing in the background of the get-togethers we held. Days for Night was a regular as well. As I listen to Fully Completely today, I agree that this is a great Canadian classic, and that The Tragically Hip lives up to its reputation. I hope to find the time to discover their other albums in the near future.
#11. Malajube, Trompe-L’Oeil (2006)
Malajube is an energetic indie rock band. Trompe-L’Oeil (“Sham”) is their second album and the one that got them out of the shadows, as it received rave reviews left and right in Canada, in the US, and in Europe. Although, one could argue that this band thrives in the shadows as well, as these charismatic guys seem very comfortable in undergroud music scenes. Trompe-L’Oeil is a great atmospheric album, with truly inventive arrangments. There’s a nice and creative flow of various rythms in each song. Their subsequent album La caverne (“The cavern”) appears to be just as good as this one, but I haven’t listened to it more than once, so I’m sticking with Trompe-L’Oeil for now!
#10. Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)
Let’s meditate for a second on whether or not all indie bands were initially inspired by Bowie and the Pixies… Wolf Parade’s debut album Apologies to the Queen Mary was acclaimed as one of the most influential indie rock albums of the decade. Something clearly happened at the beginning of the 21st century : many people were fed up from being flooded with millionaire gangsta rappers, artificial boy/girl bands backed by an ogre of a music industry, and incessant club music… Several interesting Canadian indie bands emerged from their secret meeting places (were had they been all this time??) in the early 2000s and I, for one, was as happy camper. Apologies to the Queen Mary sounds really great. Wolf Parade manages to successfully blend things that don’t seem compatible at first, and the result feels completely balanced. The vocal harmonies and arrangements are creative, and there’s an energy deriving from those songs that’s intoxicating.
#9. The Band, Music From the Big Pink (1968)
This debut album was a follow-up to The Band appearing as a first act in a Bob Dylan tour (under a different name) in 65 and 66, and time spent afterwards together jamming and chilling in a basement in 67, as shown in Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. Incidentally, the album cover is a painting by Dylan. Music From the Big Pink by country-rock group The Band does seem to have been greatly influenced by friendly group jamming sessions, in basements or elsewhere (there’s a real 60’s feel to it)! The classic country-folk vibe is complemented by a nice bluesy vibe on this album. The sound here is smoother than the sound on their famous brown album, which moves towards a “rock-ier” sound. I like the fact that this group seems like a collective : The Band – what a concept for a name! Musically, they do feel like a band rather than a one man show supported by musicians, which works really well. Rock on, The Band!
#8. Richard Desjardins, Tu m’aimes-tu (1990)
Singer-songwriter and musican Richard Desjardins was in his forties when this masterpiece was released and obtained critical success. He once told a story of playing live in a summer festival around 1989, then going backstage barely able to crawl up to the sofa thinking “I’m way too old for this”, only to have a crew member running inside to get him because thousands of people were screaming for an encore from him. This album is very personal, the lyrics are poetic, open-hearted, intimate. The songs are hilarious at times (like the clever Le bon gars – “The Good Guy”), and other are highly emotional. The song J’ai couché dans mon char (“I slept in my car”) details in a very genuine manner the story of a tough and proud man (himself?) who goes on a journey after a painful breakup, then comes back after (metaphorically) going through hell, to find that the woman he still loves despite his best efforts is now with his best friend. There’s a brilliant one-second pause in the song, which feels like forever and makes us feel the pain from this blow, while we wait for him to respond. And his response is suave, yet heartbreaking (“It went in like a nail, right in the gut. But, the fabric held up. Well, let’s drink to that.”) There is genius in these little things that convey what needs to be conveyed through a song.
#7. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot it in People (2002)
To continue on the subject of awesome musical collectives, Broken Social Scene gets the no.7 spot thanks to their second album You Forgot it in People. The impressive number of musicians that compose this collective and the diversity of musical intruments they bring to the table surely imply strong potential, musically speaking. However, making an album could be quite the chaotic task, with everyone trying to highlight the benefits of their specific sound or project. So Broken Social Scene must be quite the disciplined bunch : this album is ambitious, and eclectic, sometimes furiously energetic, sometimes mellow, but it stays focused and never loses sight of where it’s going (and how to bring people along). The first half of this album is especially strong, but I wonder if I won’t find new appreciation for the ending as well over time. All in all, this album is another prime example of the immense contribution Canadian bands have made to the indie scene!
#6. Sloan, Twice Removed (1994)
That one brings back memories! Twice Removed is Sloan’s second album. Musically, it’s a very solid album, which distinguishes itself from many grunge albums that were popular at the time. Sloan’s lyrics have dark undertones, but they’re cleverly satirical, and the melodies are undeniably catchy (how catchy is Coax me?!!) As I mentioned in a previous post, these Canadian Beatles of the 90’s have evolved nicely throughout each album (they have a cool Pixies/Sonic Youth touch in their early works, that are not as well known). But Twice Removed is the classic among them with great songs like I Hate my Generation, Bells on, People of the Sky, Penpals, and Coax me. Again, unlike several albums from 90’s alternative bands, this album has aged very well.
#5. Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)
I kept seeing that album on top Canadian albums lists, but I only heard it myself recently. It is indeed a great folk album by singer-songwriter and musician Joni Mitchell. The way Mitchell’s wide-ranging voice and personal lyrics flow over the piano and guitar melodies (and the appalachian dulcimer) is pleasant to the ear. The 70’s never cease to amaze me. I assume that this artist was also very influential, as there weren’t many female singer-songwriters receiving that much critical and commercial acclaim. She is mostly praised for her sonwriting, but some, like Chrissie Hyde, praise her in a different manner (“she’s a f*cking great guitar player”). Thanks for underlining that, Crissie, it needed to be said! I was pondering which spot this album should be given – this record might, after all, belong to a certain era, while others on this list seem timeless, but I decided to wait a little longer, to see if newer albums withstand the test of time, since Joni Mitchell’s remains a masterpiece 40 years later.
#4. Eric’s trip, Love Tara (1993)
Love Tara is indie band Eric’s trip’s official debut. Eric’s Trip can be as loud, with energetic drums and guitar riffs played with intensity and lots of distortion, as it can be soft, with open-hearted and sensitive lyrics whispered by Rick White and Julie Doiron in gentle harmonies. This album was recorded in White’s parents’ basement, which would normally lower sound quality, but in this case, it accentuates the intimacy and atmosphere surrounding the album’s very personal storytelling, and brings additional credibility. Members of the band were just teenagers and/or very young adults at the time, and they wrote an entire album about the pains of love and heartbreak. White and Doiron’s relationship was getting rocky around that time. They sing about what tears lovers apart (thoughts of infidelity, drug use, resentment and anger), but they also sing about wanting to hold on to something good that’s slipping away. This is immortalized on the beautiful album cover, which shows what appears to be White and Doiron in a heartfelt hug, with the title Love Tara (their mutual friend whom White had started seeing…). How painful were your first heartbreaks? You felt that people were so egocentric and cruel and that your heart would explode? This album is a masterpiece, because it feels so real. The songs have those melancholic and catchy guitar and vocal melodies that tug at the heart strings. Eric’s Trip recorded a genuine, magical moment in that basement, with the uncompromising energy and feelings of youth, which really hit home for many.
#3. The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)
When this album won best album at the 2011 Grammys (against Eminem among others), many thought they’d heard wrong. I was hoping that this Montréal based band would win best alternative album, but I never dreamed that they’d win the biggest prize, because I thought the band wasn’t all that famous in America. And it wasn’t. However, the album had already made its way to several american critics’ 2010 top ten list. The Suburbs is The Arcade Fire’s third album and their most accomplished work (note: I have not heard their latest record The Reflector). Mind you, I always loved their debut album Funeral with its catchy and haunting melodies, which is totally like a drug, but it feels somewhat experimental – an insanely successful experiment, praised notably by David Bowie. In comparison, The Suburbs feels like a more mature and complete work. There is a story being told, beginning with friends being torn apart by “suburban life and wars”, to them all wondering if they can ever get away from the sprawl. Family, friend and neighbourhood dynamics are recurring themes for this atypical bunch of talented musicians, who made an enchanting series of songs, and an album that grows on you with time.
#2. Neil Young, Harvest (1972)
This is the first Neil Young album to be released after Crosby, Still, Nash and Young decided to call it quits. This wonderful country folk album flows smoothly, from one great song to the other. It starts up with the melancholic harmonica melody of Out on the Weekend. Somewhere in the middle of the album, we follow a man’s through his endless search for a Heart of Gold. Then, there are also the wonderful songs Old Man, Alabama, The Needle and The Damage Done, and Words (Between the Lines of Age)… Neil Young’s at the top of his game here, both in terms of melodies and lyrics. I find the songs to be very touching, and they stir up emotions for me. Conveying emotions through a record (in comparison to a live performance) is hard to achieve for a recording artist, so kudos Neil. This is a great timless classic that I enjoy listening to over and over again, especially on soft automn days.
#1. Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
This is the debut album of all debut albums (and other albums as well, obviously). It comprises an incredible series of songs, written by musician/poet/folk singer-songwriter extraordinaire Leonard Cohen, with his distinctive warm and deep tone (although his voice got much much deeper with time). The haunting vocals and melodies are upfront and center, and you will find on this album many amazing classics, such as Suzanne, Master and Slave, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Sisters of Mercy, and So Long Marianne. You will also find on there my two personal favorites of his : Teachers (soooo underestimated), and The Stranger Song. Leonard Cohen’s music accompanies you throughout your whole life, and his words can be interpreted differently, as one grows older and gains experience. I remember feeling lost when I listened to it the first time around. So much symbolism (a unique mix of sacred and profane), so much cynism and disenchantement about life, love and our cruel human struggles… I thought, this is too good for ordinary me, I’ll never be able to connect with these songs. It turns out that I was just too much in a hurry. When you’re young, you’re always in a hurry. This is the kind of timeless album that has to be appreciated slowly, and on a whole different level than other albums. Just like one cannot hope to understand the meaning of life at 15 ; perhaps, if not a white head, it takes a gray-ish head, at least.