Ah, thank goodness for Time Life. In addition to book and video series which offer encyclopedic knowledge on subjects ranging from home improvement to the “mysteries of the unknown” to military history, the company has saved CD libraries across the globe from overpopulation, keeping consumers from having to buy far too many discs in search of the songs they could find for one low price on a themed collection. The savvy compilers have struck yet again with Northern Stars: A Canadian Singers & Songwriters Collection which features 18 tracks by artists who have contributed to the canon of their country’s popular music over the last 40 years.
From artists with longevity (Sarah McLachlan) to one-hit wonders (Tal Bachman), the iconic (Leonard Cohen) to the underrated (Bruce Cockburn), indie darlings (Tegan & Sara) and working-class populists (Bryan Adams), Northern Stars certainly succeeds in embracing a cross-section of Canadian artists, even spanning six decades of music. While the lineup is diverse, such diversity causes one to wonder how much forethought and methodology was put into the choice of artists. Is Northern Stars supposed to be representative of the best of Canadian singer/songwriters? If so, where are Neil Young and Joni Mitchell (or for that matter David Wilcox or Sarah Harmer)? Is the collection designed to showcase Canadian artists who have scored commercial successes? Explain then the absence of Shania Twain. Or, to go back a bit further, Gordon Lightfoot? Even Corey Hart could argue he should get a little space and some love for “Sunglasses at Night”.
Also difficult to answer is the question of what specific audience the disc’s producers is aiming for. Are there record buyers in Halifax or Calgary just waiting around for this album to justify their tastes or to have something that will stick it to those U.S. music journalists who just love to give Canada grief for what they perceive as the lightweight nature of the country’s pop imports? Is there someone out there thinking, “If only I could find a CD that features both ‘Complicated’ by Avril Lavigne and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, my world would be complete”? While there can be a strong case made for including all the cuts that are present, there is little if any direction or focus to dictate a clear response to the “why” questions. Perhaps licensing issues or outside factors are at play or perhaps the album is simply meant to be enjoyed for the undemanding collection of tuneful tracks that it is.
To be certain, there are some great songs here, tracks like McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery” and k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving”, that when held up to time and scrutiny come out unscathed as shining examples of what beauty can lie in a four minute pop song. The album is front loaded with more recent (mostly ‘90s and beyond) radio hits, featuring McLachlan, Adams, and Lavigne as well as offerings from Nelly Furtado, Alanis Morrisette, and Barenaked Ladies. This section of the album results in a quick excursion through some of the catchier songs (“I’m Like a Bird”, “Ironic”, “Pinch Me”, etc.) to grace multi-format radio in the past couple of decades, proving suitable for sing-alongs and nostalgic feelings, the hallmarks of Time Life compilations (or at least what seem to be the hallmarks, based on the accounts of all those satisfied customers in their infomercials).
Northern Stars’ second half also contains songs whose popularity and history precede them, though a few will prove more obscure to certain audiences. The two oldest tracks on the record are here (Cohen’s aforementioned “Suzanne”, as well as Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s 1975 duet, “Kiss and Say Goodbye”), as are contributions by lesser known artists Jim Cuddy, Chantal Kreviazuk, and Sarah Slean. Though these names may not be spoken in as many households as Adams or Lavigne, the tracks are equally as worthy of inclusion and the Kreviazuk and Slean offerings add to the healthy dose of quality female artists who make their appearance on the album, eleven in all.
While the particular grouping of artists and songs on Northern Stars may not have made anyone’s short list of projects long overdue for completion, there is little filler here, very few weak links, a quality on which most compilations cannot stake a claim. As any kind of cultural or artistic statement, the album falls flat; as a look at some genuinely pleasing tracks by artists who enjoyed at least one moment in the sunlight of popular attention, this is certainly a respectable effort.