Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our favorite Canadian records of 2010

At some point in the late Aughts, I stopped buying new music.  It wasn't really by choice, and it definitely wasn't any fun.  Lately, though, I've been back in the swing of buying new records.  A few years ago, I started having an obsession with Canadian indie rock, and for the first time, I'm going to make a list of my favorite Canadian records of the year.

Not much has changed in the last 20 years.  I still prefer stuff with a female front.   This Canadian list is more folky than I've leaned in the past, but it is what it is.  

Without a whole lot of ado, I'll just get to it.

15. Broken Social Scene -- "Forgiveness Rock Record"
This was probably my most anticipated record of the year, but a bit of a disappointment. I still like it, but it didn't hit me at all like their previous records did. I was doubly disappointed when they played in Raleigh on September 10 as part of the Hopscotch Music Festival. The band looked like they didn't want to be there, and it just wasn't any fun. To be fair, I was in a terrible head space at the time, but my opinion of the show was shared by music geek Bill Purdy, who is largely responsible for getting me back into the swing of listening to and buying new music. Despite not meeting my expectations, it's still good enough to have been shortlisted for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize and good enough to make my short list, too.
This video of them performing "World Sick", which is a standout song on the album, is a good example of how much fun they're not having:

14. Woodpigeon -- "Die Stadt Muzikanten"
This Calgary band is new to me this year, and I really like what I've heard. In 2009, they were long-listed for the Polaris Prize for their "Treasury Library Canada c/w Houndstooth Europa", but that somehow escaped me. They remind me of what I used to like about Belle & Sebastian. Sometimes they remind me of what I used to like about Sufjan Stevens (There. I said it. I used to like Sufjan). In some strange way, it reminds me of what I still like about Galaxie 500. Like many of the bands on this list, they're comprised of about eight core members and a few rotating members. This is their third proper album, or to hear them tell it, it's number two-point-five. Either way, it's fun and folky and rocky and I like it.

Here's "My Denial in Argyle", from the new record:

13. Jason Collett -- Rat a Tat Tat
The Broken Social Scenester put out two full-length albums in 2010, and this is the one that people talk about. It's his sixth solo record, and I've found most of his oeuvre to be a little hit-and-miss. This one is mostly hitting, and I can keep coming back for more. Here he is, channeling T. Rex a bit with the song "Lake Superior":

12. Karkwa -- Les Chemins de Verre
This Montréal band was the winner of the 2010 Polaris Music Prize for Best Canadian full-length album. Like a few of the artists on my own list, I hadn't heard them before, but it's their fourth proper album. This was the first French-language album ever to win in the five year history of the award. I don't have the faintest idea what they're singing about, but I love the music. On some tracks, particularly "Marie, Tu Pleurs", they're so folky that it sounds just like Bon Iver. On others, particularly the title track, they're reminiscent of Broken Social Scene. On "L'Aurore", they sound like The Antlers. This is pretty good company to be in.
Here's "Marie, Tu Pleurs":

11. Hannah Georgas -- "This is Good"
It takes balls of steel to title your debut record "This is Good", but Vancouver newcomer Hannah Georgas pulls it off pretty cleanly. When you're a reasonably attractive Canadian female singer-songwriter and your record generates any momentum at all, there's going to be the inevitable comparisons to Leslie Feist. That's not a bad thing. Like Feist, Georgas' songs straddle the fence between commercial pop and indie pop, but whatever you label it, this is good. I can see almost every one of these songs ending up in an iDevice or Volkswagon commercial, prompting people to wonder "Hey, what is that pop song? I don't want to like it, but I do. A lot". On "Bang Bang You're Dead", she's dangerously close to beating Amy Millan at that Amy Millan game of indie-pop perfection. Overall, it's a bang-up effort from a rookie.
Here's an amazingly artistic and almost creepy video for "Thick Skin"

10. Rae Spoon -- "Love is a Hunter"

This trans-gender singer-songwriter from Calgary was long-listed for the 2009 Polaris Prize with "superioryouareinferior", and will most likely be listed for the 2011 prize with this album, which was released in August of 2010. This is his fifth solo record, and maybe the most beautiful. The songs are all about love, and come from different angles and different styles. There's country-western, there's indie-rock, there's eighties-style dance music, there's a lot of good. I'm particularly drawn to the song "Lighthouse", and the changing chorus "Do me a favour and take all day to build a lighthouse so I can stay out of your way/know where to stay/find you again"

Here he is with a live performance of the title track:

9. You Say Party! We Say Die! -- "XXXX"
This Abbottsford BC quintet dropped the "We Say Die" part of their name after their drummer dropped dead during a show in promotion of this album. After a few months off, they got right back to it. The album was originally released in Canada in late 2009, but the rest of the world didn't get it until early 2010, so it's eligible for this list. It's not exactly my type of music. It's too dancy, too upbeat,and "too" lots of other things. But holy shit, is this a fun record to listen to! Right out of the gates, I was smacked by the lead track "There is XXXX Within My Heart", and I was completely sold. It could easily be on the mind-numbingly good record by Warpaint (I'll get to that in a few days), and it's hard to even let track #2 play since I wear out the "replay" button. Happily, the second track "Glory" keeps me interested with its spot on send-up of Blondie. Overall, it's just too damn fun. Here's a video of "Dark Days":

8. Land of Talk -- Cloak and Cipher"
This is the second full-length record from the Montréal trio after their self-titled debut was long-listed for the 2009 Polaris. It was produced by Besnard Lakes mastermind Jace Lasek, who forced frontwoman Lizzie Powell to take a different approach. She had a bit of a scare a couple of years ago when, due to overexertion and stress, she developed polyps on her vocal chords. She didn't have surgery, but she did reevaluate the way she exerts herself. The result is that she's found herself and her role as the frontwoman of the band. Nothing seems forced. I was a big fan of the last album, and I like this one almost as much. Here's the standout track "Swift Coin":

7. Kathryn Calder -- "Are You My Mother?"
The first solo record from New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine collaborator Calder is a pretty good debut and was met with warm reception across the board. Incidentally, both this record and the New Pornographers' "Together" were dedicated to Calder's mother, who died from ALS while Calder was recording this album.
On the lead track, "Slip Away", it starts off with very simple single piano notes and an egg shaker. Slowly, it builds until it reaches a full-band crescendo and a stunning chorus of non-vocal singing. It took a little while, honestly, for this record to take hold with me, but once it did, it was a big hit. It's mostly low-tempo with sparse instrumentation to accentuate her wonderful singing voice, and in a weird way, this makes me think fondly of Ida. I think the bigger songs are a bit forced, but I can't find a song on the album that I don't like.
One of the standout tracks is "Arrow", and I'll highly, highly recommend that you view this live acoustic performance of it here as well as the official video below:

6. Forest City Lovers -- "Carriage"
This is another one that I didn't find until very, very late in the game, but it skyrocketed up the charts in my house and nestled into the #6 spot. It's the third release from this Toronto band, but it's all new to me. The pop goodness oozing from this record is sort of like if Club 8 and Camera Obscura were having a party on the front lawn. And then Leslie Feist showed up unexpectedly. You know... To make it Canadian. I'm a grouchy old curmudgeon, but this record makes me really happy.
Here's a video for the standout song "Tell Me, Cancer". It looks like they had a total blast making this video. Stick with it to the end because the last 1:15 of the song (and video) is the fun part.

5. Dan Mangan -- "Nice, Nice, Very Nice"
There's not much male representation on this list, but here's a dude from Vancouver. Like a lot of the stuff on this list, he's pretty folky. And sad. I think I might be cheating a bit here, because this record came out in 2009, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't available in the US until sometime in 2010. Either way, it was shortlisted for the 2010 Polaris. This (specifically the song "You Silly Git") should find a place in the catalog of Andrew Bird fans. A lot of the stuff on the record is themed around leaving home and dealing with that trauma.
The video for "Road Regrets" is directed by the same dude who did that Kathryn Calder video, and it won the 2010 Leo Award for best Canadian music video.

4. Stars -- "The Five Ghosts"
This is another record that I anticipated for a long time. Unlike the new one from BSS, this didn't disappoint at all. It wasn't met with warm reception by the press, but I'm a big fan of the dark dark theme and the tidier production. There's no doubt that Torquil Campbell has the charisma, and if you've seen them live, you know that he relishes the spotlight and knows how to put on a show. However, while he's the brawn, Amy Millan is the beauty and the brains of the outfit. With this album, they seemed to get that. When they toured with it, they missed it a little bit, though. The show was really big and extraordinarily well-lit, and as full of feathers and bubbles and flower petals as a Flaming Lips show. This sort of contrasts the death theme running through the new album. I Think "Fixed" falls short as a smash single and doesn't sit on level footing with songs like "Elevator Love Letter" or "The Night Starts Here" or "Ageless Beauty", and that's because this record is probably designed to be listened to in one big chunk rather than dissected. While those big, anthemic songs are great, I've always appreciated full albums more than individual songs.
All that said, here's the big single "Fixed":

3. The New Pornographers -- "Together"
Again, a highly anticipated record. I stubbornly refused to listen to leaked versions and early sneak previews, waiting for the release date. I was, without hesitation, impressed. I can't say that it's my favorite album by the Vancouver supergroup, but it's still dang good. Kathryn Calder joined this band a few years back as a touring member, and her role is pretty significant on this record. I can dig that. Neko Case's role has been diminished slightly, and it's getting harder to identify which songs are hers. The first half of this album is all stand-out tracks, and it loses a bit of steam somewhere in the second act, but it builds back up to a nice album closer in "We End Up Together". I got to see them in the summer and I enjoyed the show very much.
Here's my favorite song from the album, with a Busby Berkely-themed video. "Crash Years"

2. The Arcade Fire -- "The Suburbs"
The Montréal band blew everybody away with "Funeral" in 2004, then took a big dump on us in 2007 with the disappointing "Neon Bible" (which amazingly was shortlisted for the 2007 Polaris). I, like thousands of other people, had written them off. It was a very pleasant surprise when "The Suburbs" was an incredible record. I was a little worried that they were going to head down a dirty path that Bono has been on for the last 17 years -- one of self-aggrandizement and off-putting ego. Instead, they bounced back with an earnest, breathtaking album. Like "Funeral", it's much better when listened to as a whole, and I don't like separating songs from the whole work, but "Half Light II (No Celebration)" is probably my most favorite of many favorites on the record.
I think it's safe to say that this is already a prohibitive favorite to win the 2011 Polaris, even with five more months for new releases to qualify.
Here's the amazing video for the title track, directed by Spike Jonze:

1. The Besnard Lakes -- "The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night"
This record socked me in the jaw and knocked me down. The Besnard Lakes are a band I'd heard about, and maybe hundreds of times they'd been suggested to me by real people and by electronic "you might like this" means. But since their critically acclaimed "...Are the Dark Horse" came out during that period of time when I wasn't buying new music or taking on new bands, I never got it. It took me a few months to finally come around after "...Are the Roaring Night" was released, but when I finally got around to it, I was amazed. I like everything about this record. I like its crunchiness. I like its chewiness. I like the tartness and the sweetness. And, yes, the sexiness. Make no mistake. These are not sexy people, but their music is sexy as all get out.
Like "...Are the Dark Horse" in 2007, "...Are the Roaring Night" was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize this year. It was a tough decision to put this one in the #1 spot, but at the end of the day, it got the upper hand. Remember... This isn't science. This is just one man's opinion.
Here's the fantastic video for "Albatross"

So that's it. Those are my favorite 15 Canadian records from 2010.

At some point in the not too distant future, I'll do a similar write-up for the "non-Canadian" albums, and then a composite list. With any luck, by the middle of January.