To pull a phrase from Queen Elizabeth II, 2014, in many ways, was Canada’s annus horribilis.
The country made international headlines for all of the wrong reasons, whether it was through now ex-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s antics, the daily horrors of the Luka Magnotta trial (he’s the guy accused of filming the dismemberment of the body of a man and then posting it online), the actions of a lone wolf gunman who laid siege to Canada’s Parliament, or the horrific nature of physical and sexual assault accusations being levelled at now fired CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who was just starting to make inroads into the US market.
Indeed, 2014 was an acutely terrible year for Canada. However, and more happily, 2014 was also a pretty stellar year for Canadian music.
It was the year of the Canadian woman, which is reflected in the list you’re about to read: more than half of the musician or artists covered here are women or have a woman in their outfits. And, certainly, there were more strong releases from women that this Top 15 list could cram in.
Francophone artists also have a place on this list. One of the acts released a French language album, while another had released an album in French in the past. This goes to illustrate that the Quebec and French Canadian music scene is certainly fertile and is getting noticed.
There was an interesting trend that I personally saw in Canadian music this year. At least three artists that I encountered – Eamon McGrath, SoHo Ghetto and the Arkells – released music that owed a great debt to the works of Bruce Springsteen. This is not a terrible surprise – the Constantines were once dubbed “Springsteen meets Fugazi” – so this is something that feels like a continuation than anything else. Still, it was particularly noticeable this year in Canadian music. It’ll be interesting to see if Canadian sounds that owe more than a passing debt to the Boss continue.
While this list is fairly representative of music released in all corners of this great and vast country, there were few albums that could be classified as disappointments (bearing in mind that I personally haven’t heard the new Nickelback record). I was fortunate enough to get exposed to a vast amount of Canadian music this year in all genres, from blues to folk to metal to hip-hop, and a great deal of it was strong. I am hopeful that this continues, and Canadian music will maintain to make inroads into the international marketplace.
And, in case you were wondering, there were far more artists that the three PopMatters contributors that worked on this list – myself, Alan Ranta and Adrien Begrand – could have included. I capped this off at 15, as that felt like a good number: not too many, not too few). However, the runners-up included the New Pornographers, SoHo Ghetto, Comet Control, Chad VanGaalen, the Crooked Brothers, Odonis Odonis, Biblical and more. While I certainly hope that you check out the artists on this list, one can certainly go much, much deeper if you choose to.
All in all, 2014 will go down as a great year in Canadian music. Here’s hoping that 2015 offers just as strong a year end list, and that the New Year is a much better one for Canada on the world stage, if not all Canadians at large. Zachary Houle
Mish Way doesn’t pull any punches in her op-ed writing, and certainly not as the lead singer of Vancouver punk menace White Lung. Set to the thundering drums of Anne-Marie Vassiliou and frantically nuanced guitar work of Kenneth Williams, Deep Fantasy saw Way crush her way through ten high-impact tracks compressed into 22 minutes, tackling subjects like celebrity entitlement, body image and the reluctance of rape victims to come forward. Produced by Jesse Gander, who helmed the band’s 2010 debut It’s the Evil and their breakthrough 2012 album Sorry, the band’s template didn’t change much for Deep Fantasy outside of William taking over Grady Mackintosh’s bass duties, but it didn’t need to. They already had their aural onslaught locked down, and Deep Fantasy only tautened the screws. The band delivered a tighter, more dynamic and provocative version of its brand of trashy, melodic punk rock, which was perfect timing for their first album on the legendary Domino Records. Alan Ranta
Al Spx, who records as Cold Specks, has had a rather triumphant few years, due to award nominations, an invitation to play at Joni Mitchell’s 70th birthday party, and guest spots on recent albums from Moby and Swans. This year saw her capping off her success with her silky and seductive sophomore LP, Neuroplasticity. What makes the record so remarkable is that there’s always something new to hear each time you revisit it, whether it be the slide guitar on “Old Knives” or Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet work. Bendy and brilliant, Neuroplasticity is a disc that exists in its own domain. By merging indie rock sounds with R&B, Spx has crafted something meticulous here, something soulful, something immensely powerful. Clearly, this is the work of a musician with her own dramatic voice, and that makes her one of the most important Canadian artists of the year, bar none. Brainy and brawny, Neuroplasticity should go a long way towards earning Spx more award nominations and invitations to play for others. Zachary Houle
A Dada Plan Is Free
Malcolm Biddle flirted with success as a former frontman for Sun Wizard and Capitol 6 and solo as Malcolm Jack, but he outdid himself with his Dada Plan project. Working with Colin Cowan on upright bass, brother Dave Biddle on saxophone, Matt Krysko on synth, and Justin Williams on congas, while Josh Wells of Black Mountain and Lightning Dust fame recorded their efforts on analogue tape, A Dada Plan Is Free captured an important moment in Vancouver’s ever-evolving scene. The album serves a particular confluence of talent and vision essential to the city’s vibrancy that finally found its stride with this record. The music taps a vein of Roxy Music-indebted metropolitan pop, detuned melodies and jazzy embellishments with sparse retro drum machine programming chugging away to create meditative lysergic textures that swirl amidst Malcolm’s psycho-spiritual social commentary. It may sound outsider, but feels inclusive, larger than itself, its covers of White Fence and Aceyalone showing how wide its influences range. Alan Ranta
After three of the boldest and most innovative albums in punk rock history, what was left for Fucked Up to do? In the wake of so many records that embraced storytelling, the answer for snarly-voiced vocalist Damian Abraham was to cast his gaze inwards, examine his own approaching middle-age, his notoriety in not only the punk scene but the North American music scene in general. Consequently, the end result is a surprisingly introspective, meditative album for even this band, one that opts to eschew any attempts at breaking new ground, staying the course musically, which has always been rock solid, and leaving plenty of room for Abraham to muse and pontificate. But Glass Boys is a sneaky little album, in that those arrangements, which don’t exactly blow your mind upon first listen, wriggle into your head weeks and months later, guitarist Mike Haliechuk once again proving to be this band’s not-a-secret weapon, bringing great richness to tracks like “Touch Stone”, “Sun Glass”, and the shimmering title track. Adrien Begrand
The Hidden Cameras
As a vehicle for Joel Gibb’s creative expression, the Hidden Cameras made its name on a series of upbeat yet melancholic indie-pop records, each more elaborate than the last. True to form, the quality of variety squeezed into the eight tracks on Age was remarkable, dropping sweet hooks from reggae to orchestral pop, but the sixth Hidden Cameras full-length, and first since 2009, was particularly notable as the angriest record Gibb has yet made. On the surface, it’s a coming-of-age album, outlining the moments that push us from adolescence into adulthood whether we want them to or not. The Bauhaus homage on “Year of the Spawn” and the voice of Mary Margaret O’Hara on “Gay Goth Scene”, a song actually written over a decade ago that stands on equal footing with the rest of the work here, enhance the album’s semi-autobiographical depth. Yet, more complex politics of moral responsibility simmer therein, a point hammered home by the drawing of controversial hero Chelsea Manning in the liner notes. It’s very much an album about age and of the age, one that should see its appreciation grow for ages to come. Alan Ranta