Canada Day 2010 – An Appreciation of Modern Canadian Music

Happy Canada Day to the folks up north!  In honor of this holiday, let’s take a look at some of my favorite Canadian music.

Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” by Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire is simply a brilliant group, and they’ve managed to only build their great reputation in recent years.  While we all look forward to Suburbs (their upcoming album), it’s always great to take a look back at some of their past work.  While all the “Neighborhood” songs are great, #3 stands out as both lout and stark.  It has a great beat but still manages to sound foreign after all these years.  It’s a great release from our northern neighbors, a wonderful treat from their musical culture.

Shine a Light” by Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade has become a more acquired taste with each new album, leaving Apologies to the Queen Mary as both their best and most accessible work.  But here is perhaps the most melodic and enjoyable song from the band.  Yes, there are these connections to Modest Mouse, but this is a real Canadian indie classic.  A driving rhythm, catchy guitars and synth work all add up to an awesome song.

Chase Scene” by Broken Social Scene

The newest BSS album (this year’s Forgiveness Rock Record) strikes a strange balance.  It is at once a great collection of stand-alone songs and a phenomenal suite of music that works together.  Using that first characteristic, “Chase Scene” stands as one of the most epic pieces of music in the past few years.  The whole thing just grows, adding guitars, strings, drums, voices, bigger-and-deeper drums, powerful striking strings, and then those horns.  Oh man the horns.  When the whole thing reaches a simultaneous end and climax that high note of the brass is just amazing.  I hope these awesome Canadians keep making music for a long time.

Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young

And then something a bit different, for those who may have forgotten that Canada produced great music before the time of indie rock.  Neil Young has forged an epic reputation for great guitar work, ranging from blues-rock to folk.  “Cinnamon Girl” finds Young in a harder rock setting, working his vocals and guitar along the brilliant groove.  Beyond just being a fun track to hear, this song makes a regular appearance for me in various road trip playlists.

Moral of the story here?  Go listen to more Canadian music!  Well, until the 4th of July, anyway.  A USA-based post to come on Sunday.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 3-1

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Here they are, the three best albums of the past decade.  I particularly feel that numbers 1 and 2 are a cut above the rest, but everything on this list was worth hearing.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this run of posts.  Come back in the next few days for a few final clean-up things from the last year.

3. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips (2009)

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The Flaming Lips are tough to characterize.  While they’re seemingly always a rock band, that little phrase means a litany of things coming from these guys.  Here, we find them at a bold, fresh place.  Instead of continuing a commercially noteworthy run of happy dream-pop, The Flaming Lips turn in a new direction.

Embryonic is full of dread, sadness and terror.  But it’s also a crazed combination of sound.  Here we find a band acting completely unlike themselves and unlike any other group.  Insane guitars, brooding production, and deeply emotional singing are all played in a non-traditional guise.  From the first spin of the disk, Embryonic is quite clear in its individuality.  After repeated listens, the details still remain stunning and unfathomable.  The whole thing is gigantic and a bit overwhelming, but cannot be ignored.

It was tough for me to include such a recent album so high in this list.  I wondered if future reflection will find me willing to place it elsewhere.  But that this album pushes ahead into this location speaks volumes toward its worth.  Certainly this was the best album of 2009, and it is a strong candidate for representation of the whole decade in music.

2. Gimme Fiction by Spoon (2005)

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It all starts for me with Britt Daniels.  The man has a voice that cuts through me like butter.  It’s not the most technically proficient, nor is it the most emotionally charged.  Instead, he sings with a sort of blue-collared honesty, utilizing his powers and space as well as possible to sing his songs.

And then the music develops around him.  Obviously that doesn’t explain their creation process, but it’s how I rationalize these songs.  Everything is cut down to be exactly what is needed; no more, and no less.  This concept of minimal songwriting is brilliant, and doesn’t leave gaping holes, as might be imagined.  Instead, the songs are full of life, but not necessarily lots of instrumentation.

Things are better this way.  Without this cut down, we wouldn’t have the great dry jam of “I Turn My Camera On.”  But then there are songs like “Sister Jack.”  Believe it or not, this also subscribes to the minimalist theory.  Can you imagine if this song were loud punk riffs throughout?  Here we find a loud rocker that holds back.

Spoon released album after amazing album this decade, so I forced myself to pick just one album from the Texas natives.  Why such a limit?  Because I didn’t want spots 2, 3, 4, and 5 all from one artist and I didn’t want to lump them all together at number 1.  This also hints at how strong Gimme Fiction is within the Spoon canon.  That I can justify it standing head and shoulders above the rest is stunning.  See also, exhibit 4: “My Mathematical Mind.”  I dare you to name a better Spoon song.

1. The Moon & Antarctica by Modest Mouse

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And here we stand, in the presence of the greatest album of this past decade.  At this point, the praise for The Moon & Antarctica has seemingly taken a backseat to the amazing revelations of success found by Modest Mouse.  It is completely clear that “Float On” is a bigger draw than “3rd Planet” in the popular sphere.

So what makes this release so profound and leaves it to stand as the greatest album?  A good place to look is at the ambition.  The previous Modest Mouse release (Lonesome Crowded West) was an excellent indie rock album, full of skittering guitar and Isaac Brock’s crazed lyrics.  Unfortunately, that album was rather directionless, dragging on at times and leaving the last half to carry on a bit too far.  However, Lonesome was enough to push the band off to a major label.

Oh what a major label debut.  I think the best descriptor is “fearless.”  Every song is packed with ideas and each sound is refreshing and enjoyable.  Strong textures and great musicianship create something that is a real space-rock experience.

Things are taken even further by the power of the lyrics.  While Brock has focused on strange things, religion, and life (both before and after this album), he has never been so coherent.  Reflections on life, death, hope, religion, and the very nature of the universe are all included.  While this may seem a bit over-ambitious, nothing seems dilute or unnecessary.

When I created this blog, I named it “Essential Listening,” hoping to convey what any music fan should hear.  This is the apex of that output in this past decade.  Modest Mouse fan or not, this album stands out in stunning fashion.  Every piece, every epic element of this towering accomplishment is stunning, even almost 10 years after its release.  This is truly essential.  The Moon & Antarctica is the Album of the Decade.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 10-4

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Here is the second-to-last part of my decade list.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  It’s really tough to put some of these in order.  So that pretty much means that albums 10-1 are all crazy good, and I think you should hear them at least once.

Come back tomorrow for the finale…

10. Picaresque by The Decemberists (2005)

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I am a total sucker for the theatrics of The Decemberists.  But Picaresque rises above the rest of their catalogue by offering wondrous detail, both verbal and musical.  The album never becomes unwieldy and is very charming.  Each track is full of lyrical wit and real emotion.  “Eli, The Barrow Boy” is painfully sad.  “The Engine Driver” pulls you into the loss and rejection of the titular character.  Yes, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is huge and crazy, but it’s also a powerful piece.  Nerdy?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Undeniably.

9. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New (2006)

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Having now heard their follow-up album (Daisy), it’s a bit disappointing to see Brand New stop their evolution here.  Brand New were an average snotty, crappy punk band that followed in the mold of Blink 182.  Forgettable radio fodder.  But then something magical happened: they decided to become artists.  The process was took two albums (leaving Deja Entendu as a nice straightforward punk album), but the result was fantastic.

Here there were textured sounds.  You could actually understand the band’s dynamics.  The songs had a hint of artsy production.  They even managed to pull some Modest Mouse stuff.  It was all brilliant, leaving a refreshing feeling and some faith in punk rock.  Even the simplest of songs were packed with mature themes and strong musicianship.  These guys need not be associated with that Jude Law song any longer.  This is a real statement.

8. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

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Ambitious hardly begins to describe this album.  Contained within the now-defunct 50 States project are two records.  Seemingly, it would be pretty difficult to contain the spirit of a state in one disk.  But after doing so well with Michigan, Stevens completely eclipsed his own effort in the sprawling and stunning Illinois.

22 songs, and over an hour of playtime sound pretty daunting.  But when you realize that a few of them are mini-songs designed for album flow, the remaining stuff sounds even more overwhelming.  But Stevens has an amazing gift at hook development.  It starts from the first notes: you want to hear where those pianos will go in “Concerning the UFO.”  Soon you’re left wondering where “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” will go in its two parts.  Eventually you realize that you’re halfway through and still can’t wait to see what will come next.  Insanely classy and certainly brilliant, this is a wonderful epic.

7. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes (2008)

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Okay I lied.  Back when I called this the best album of 2008, I also said something bold about this becoming the greatest album of the decade.  As you can plainly see, 7 is not the same as 1.  Why the change?  Well, I’ve had more time to consider the album and those I’ve placed ahead of it.

Fleet Foxes is a splendid album, still full of the gorgeous things that make me smile in its style of music.  Stunning singers are still the highlight, and it carries the whole album.  But has this recorded lessened in any way?  Almost.  Too much familiarity lessens some of the impact.  Thus, to keep this ageless wonder ageless, it’s best to not over-saturate.  However, when used appropriately, Fleet Foxes is still amongst the best of the decade.

6. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear (2009)

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My love for Grizzly Bear started as I listened to them before they opened a Radiohead show.  After that show, it was clear that I needed to pay attention to Grizzly Bear’s next album.  Then came the leak.  I was worried about hearing it, but was so painfully curious.  I heard, and was pleased but understood the audio quality as a barrier to excellence.

Oh boy was that quite the barrier.  Veckatimest is superb, offering gorgeous little details.  And really, this is all about the beautiful details.  It’s clear that this album was painstakingly crafted by four excellent musicians.  Every song has moments of pure brilliance and the whole album shimmers with production quality.  After such a great run in only a brief existence, I really look forward to the next release from Grizzly Bear.  It’s obvious they are great quality control experts.  But while I wait, I will have Veckatimest to keep me happy.

5. Funeral by Arcade Fire (2004)

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This was a game-changer for me.  I hadn’t quite realized the broad potential of indie rock, but I was getting there.  And then in the summer of 2007, I finally got my hands on this disk.  Late to the party, sure, but very interested.  I was blown away from the first moment.  The near-sobs of Win Butler’s vocals were stunning.  The fearless sincerity was unnerving.

People sometimes insult or marginalize Arcade Fire for being so loud.  I think that’s a mistake.  Loudness and bold statements do not necessarily lessen music.  When used as a tool for communication, loudness is a powerful resource for Arcade Fire.  They fill out the room like U2, but have the grip of Neutral Milk Hotel.  But for me, none of that matters without “Rebellion (Lies).”  That song is the keystone of Funeral.  In my mind, it all builds to resolve in “Rebellion.”  That progression and development is amazing and makes Funeral so good.

4. In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007)

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It feels strange ranking In Rainbows ahead of Kid A.  But for me, it’s so easy.  While I have to be ready to hear Kid A, this album can come on at any point and make me happy.  That’s one big difference: the joy involved.  Yes, songs like “Nude” and “All I Need” tug at the heartstrings.  But it’s the feeling of the whole album.  Freedom and warmth abound.

Forget about the pricing thing.  It was cool at first, but does not make this the best Radiohead album this decade.  Instead, the songs make this the best album of Radiohead’s decade.  Each one has personality, power.  They’re all made by a full band, offering insight into their powerful musicianship.  But really, it’s personal affection that gets me to place In Rainbows so high.  I love this album for all that it offers and it is in constant rotation in my music.  These 10 songs are phenomenal.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 20-11

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Happy New Year!  Here is the next entry in the Decade’s Best Albums series.  I hope you enjoy, and check back soon for the next installment!

20. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes by Death Cab For Cutie

So many times in the past 10 years, I’ve seen Death Cab get tossed aside, as whiny, sell-out rock that stands as trendy and pointless.  Yet in my estimation, every album is essential, full of vitality and strong personality.  Of course, I do play favorites here.  We Have the Facts is a bit more sparse than their other albums and holds an air of mysteriousness.  The music isn’t quite as muscular, but the spaces work wonders, giving a real desolation and distinction.

19. Franz Ferdinand by Franz Ferdinand

You got your disco in my rock!  No, you made my dance music have strong guitars!  No matter what the angle, Franz Ferdinand would have been labeled relatively successful if they had only released this debut.  Strong repetition and tight rhythm keep this party from falling to pieces.  Of course, it helps to have a seductive lead voice and strong lyrical catch-phrases in literally every song.

18. Apologies to the Queen Mary by Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene have all done so much to build up the reputation of indie music in Canada.  From the nation of hockey comes a very personal album, stuffed with bold noises and individuality.  There are no weak links here as each song holds memorable song ideas and commentary.  Yes, there are some hints of Modest Mouse in the production, but there are no other songs on this planet like “Shine a Light” and “I’ll Believe in Anything.”

17. Sea Change by Beck

To be perfectly honest, I don’t label myself as a Beck fan.  I appreciate his strong songwriting skills, but I can never really claim that I enjoy everything he’s done.  But then there is Sea Change.  This is powerful music, with a core that aches, demands attention and support.  Of course, I can’t help but feel that Nigel Godrich helped pull out this kind of performance.  Similar in feel to Pavement’s Terror Twilight, this whole album captures my ears.  Also, this holds a kind of personality like that of Nick Drake’s work.  It’s enchanting, sad, and fantastic.

16. No One’s First and You’re Next by Modest Mouse

This has the distinction of being the only EP in the list, but this is EP only in name.  It’s eight songs and over 33 minutes of brilliant Modest Mouse work.  After starting the decade on two high notes, the subsequent album (We Were Dead) was a bit of a letdown.  But here we find a ragtag bunch of songs that manage to shine brighter than any Mouse album since The Moon & Antarctica.  The biggest problem I have with this EP isn’t even a problem: why weren’t these songs included on a proper release?  Each one brims with more creativity than most of the songs from the past two real Mouse albums.

15. Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday may actually be a better release, but I honestly haven’t had enough time with it.  I’ve had Boys and Girls for a longer period, and it’s a kind of attachment thing.  Craig Finn’s distinctive voice and the nice crunchy guitars meld great story-songs, full of memorable moments and great riffs.  Yes, this album really works better for lyric fans, but they’ll turn you into one after the guitars get under the skin.

14. You Forgot it in People by Broken Social Scene

If you’re looking for a sort of “greatest hits” of indie, this would be the place.  Yes, it’s by one band.  No, it’s not the best album of the decade.  But You Forgot it in People manages to blend so many ideas and stereotypes of indie in one convenient disk.  Even better: the band plays it so well.  Anthems and fist pumpers have strong feeling, there are phenomenal dynamic changes, and the multiple voices are excellent.  You should really get this.

13. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix

I’ve already gushed about this album in terms of this year’s best.  But it’s worth noting that Wolfgang is really that good in a wider context.  The pop is powerful, the tunes catchy, and the whole thing just makes me smile.  And again: the first two songs are nigh-untouchable, but the rest of the album is charmingly addictive too.  Get it for “Lisztomania” and “1901,” but love it forever.

12. Kid A by Radiohead

So, I feel a bit guilty placing this album so far down.  After some big names (Rolling Stone, Pitchfork) determined this to be the best album of the decade, I was a bit depressed to leave my favorite band so low.  But, Kid A is on my list for a reason.  It’s full of innovative sounds, effortlessly brilliant construction, and some of the best intro-to-electronica most people have ever heard.  And if those aren’t reason enough, please listen to hours of “regular” music before hitting “Everything in its Right Place” again.  It can still give chills.

11. Neon Bible by Arcade Fire

The epic follow-up to an epic debut is bound to leave some fans disappointed.  But after going through the two albums, I find Neon Bible to be on similar footing to Funeral.  The sounds are a bit darker and seem to tend toward Bruce Springsteen, yet people are quick to dismiss this sequel as rubbish.  But guess what: the sounds are still brilliant, and I still want to see them in concert.  Taken as a pair, the two Arcade Fire albums are probably the best combo of the decade.

Housekeeping: 2009 and Decade Pages

Hey everyone! Thanks again for reading my blog. The next update for the Decade Albums list is upcoming, but I have some housekeeping to attend to:

Check out the new link up top on the blog, labeled “The Best of 2009.” This is a quick link to my lists for the year.  You can then find links to the original articles in that page.  Just like last year’s stuff (The Best of 2008), check it out for an overview of my opinions.

Coming soon will be a link for the Decade Lists. I haven’t had time to put that one together yet, but it will be up top as well, so keep your eyes open for that link and another housekeeping post.

Thanks again for reading, and feel free to comment over all my posts.  It’s exciting to see such traffic lately, and I hope you’re enjoying this blog.  It’s fun to write about music, and I hope you find my reading somewhat interesting.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 30-21

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Welcome to Part 2 of the Decade’s Best Albums list.  Check back tomorrow for more of this list!  Thanks again for reading!

30. Microcastle by Deerhunter

It’s always nice to see a blend of noise rock and catchiness.  Here, we get all the squawking feedback and loud thrashing, but it all makes sense.  While especially true in Super Song “Nothing Ever Happened,” most of the songs reach this lovely status.

29. It’s Blitz by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

This can be best described as Karen O’s dance diva album.  Equal parts disco and pure energy, It’s Blitz is a very polished disk, featuring great songs and strong emotion.  While those in “the scene” may argue in favor of their first album, I think this release finds the Yeahs at their highest point.

28. Twin Cinema by The New Pornographers

Bonus points all over the place for being so infectious.  Clean guitars, clear vocals (even if you don’t know what they mean), and brilliant harmonizing make Twin Cinema a fantastic road record.  Turn it up, sing along at the top of your voice, and you’re forced to smile.

27. Everything All the Time by Band of Horses

On paper, this sounds like a generic indie album.  Ringing guitars, emotive lyrics, stuff like that.  But Band of Horses do everything so well.  It’s like a primer for anyone new to the land of indie music.  Of course, having instantly memorable guitar lines (see: “Wicked Gil” and “The Funeral”) helps, too.

26. Chutes Too Narrow by The Shins

Even better than the album that many claimed would “change your life” (Oh Inverted World).  Here, the production values are cranked up, the songwriting varied, and the singing bold and loud.  This is a phenomenal effort across the board, offering personal insight blended with great guitars.

25. Third by Portishead

It’s unfortunate that Portishead waited so long to release their third proper album.  But, the wait revealed something amazing: a band at the same powers (or greater) than when it went on hiatus.  Offering a different direction from their trip-hop 90s albums, Third is an atmospheric masterpiece of minimal electronica.  You will be left haunted and amazed, from start to finish.

24. Hearts of Oak by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

This is a relatively late addition to this list.  Only this month have I had the chance to listen to Ted Leo.  But from first note on, I knew I was in for something special.  Like a more punk-rock REM, or a free-flowing Weezer, Hearts of Oak is charming and powerful.  Tight melodies and pinpoint lyrics make this a rising star in my music collection.

23. Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens

Folk generally leaves me with a bad taste or just generally bored.  But here is an album from a Sufjan Stevens stripped to just his guitar and banjo.  Lightly plucked, Seven Swans is a powerful album, full of personal religious reflections.  It’s rare to see an album this concerned with Biblical ideals outside of ironic or Christian Rock releases.  Stevens weaves powerful songs, unapologetic, even if he can reach a wide audience.

22. Rather Ripped by Sonic Youth

Here lies the best Sonic Youth album this side of Daydream Nation.  It’s a bold statement, but I just love the tunes on Rather Ripped.  They’re faster to get at you than any other Youth release (especially the bright “Reena” and the strong “Incinerate”), but manage to stay with you just like their whole catalogue.  Hear this once for the great highlights.  Hear it over and over for all the details.

21. Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem

It starts off just like “Losing My Edge,” but instantly veers off, creating a new blend of dance and rock, all while considering what it is to become older.  This is the home to the decade’s best song (“All My Friends”), and more memorable moments.  This album is so interesting because of its dual power: all the songs are fantastic, but they work even better together.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 40-31

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Here starts my rundown of the best albums of this decade.  I hope you enjoy, and check back tomorrow for more of this list!

40. Ageatis Byrjun by Sigur Ros

It is simple to fall into this music.  You need only turn it on and let the multitude of sounds envelop you.  Oh yeah – that voice is also important.  It’s hard to overstate how original this album is.

39. Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio

There are many ideas and instruments here, but I always come back to those production values.  Each song sounds disturbed and claustrophobic, creating a great atmosphere.  Of course, having individually brilliant songs helps out, too.

38. White Blood Cells by The White Stripes

Wouldn’t it be great if all garage rock sounded like this?  You know, with the brilliant guitar playing, and the real personality and the insane hooks?  But I guess these traits are what keep us coming back to Jack and Meg White.  The first four songs are more than enough for any guitar fan to own this album.

37. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco

I personally find Summerteeth to be a better product, but it’s hard to deny the fearless-experimenting-traditionalism of this album.  Everything seems like classic rock, but it’s tough to keep playing.  Sharp lyrics, some well-placed strings, and at least two super songs make this a great.

36. Farm by Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr. seem straightforward, but they never sound predictable.  Scorching guitar lines and a strong sense of melody help their cause.  Perhaps being a middle-age white guy can’t stop innate talent from coming out.

35. Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend

So they’re kind of prissy and elitist or something.  Who cares?  Their music is pop gold, offering more charming moments than most people have throughout their whole high school life.  And guess what: they also manage to do so in the realm of minimalist construction.  Universally aimed (catchy pop), yet able to be digested through music criticism.  Nice combo.

34. Mr. Beast by Mogwai

I am not always quick to accept mostly non-singing (not including jazz) music in my life.  But here are this Scottish guys exploding with instrumental emotion, leaving me to pump my fist in support.  Dynamics are king here, as the band works with a wide range of sonic power.

33. Discovery by Daft Punk

The essential techno album of ever.  For those who find it difficult to latch onto cold electronics, please see “Digital Love.”  For those who like to dance, see “One More Time.”  For the rest of us, just break out “Harder Better Faster Stronger.”  And now you have the remainder of the album of beat-heavy, danceable music to go.  You’re welcome, and now addicted.

32. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? by Of Montreal

At heart a disco album.  However, Hissing Fauna moves through that label and onto this list because of the psychotic examination/breakdown that flows through the album.  The centerpiece, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” is an unexpected game-changer that radically alters all future plays of the entire album.

31. Maladroit by Weezer

Current-Weezer is just terrible.  We are talking about the makers of the three worst albums of this decade.  The “artists” who have spewed such junk as “Beverly Hills,” “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived,” and “Can’t Stop Partying.”

But here lies Maladroit, a rightful heir to the legacy of 1990s Weezer.  Nerdy lyrics, big guitars, and catchy songs all fit the original Weezer mold.  But this album manages self-identity through a grungy style and a harder edge.  It’s too bad they never came back toward this…