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Tanya Tagaq

The Best Canadian Albums of 2014

From Steph Cameron to White Lung, these 15 releases showcase the very best of Canadian music in 2014, and illustrate that the Canadian music community is definitely thriving and maturing.

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. img-853 Zachary Houle

 

Artist: White Lung

Album: Deep Fantasy

Label: Domino

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List number: 15

White Lung
Deep Fantasy

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. img-853 Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Cold Specks

Album: Neuroplasticity

Label: Mute / Arts & Crafts

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List number: 14

Cold Specks
Neuroplasticity

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. img-853 Zachary Houle

 

Artist: Dada Plan

Album: A Dada Plan Is Free

Label: Kingfisher Bluez

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List number: 13

Dada Plan
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. img-853 Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Fucked Up

Album: Glass Boys

Label: Matador

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Fucked Up
Glass Boys

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. img-853 Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: The Hidden Cameras

Album: Age

Label: Evil Evil

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List number: 11

The Hidden Cameras
Age

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. img-853 Alan Ranta

10 – 6

Artist: Owen Pallett

Album: In Conflict

Label: Domino

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List number: 10

Owen Pallett
In Conflict

Violinist/composer/frequent Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett has always hinted at greatness on his previous albums, whether as a solo artist or under the moniker Final Fantasy, but his art rock pretentions have never come closer to true greatness until In Conflict. Featuring such guests as the great Brian Eno and the renowned Prague FILMharmonic orchestra, Pallett creates art pop that, while never for a second short of ambition, is always mindful that all the experimentation is at the service of the song, which results in music whose easy accessibility will come as quite a revelation to listeners of more middle-of-the-road material. The more the album goes, the more brilliantly it shines, veering from lithe new wave (“Song for Five & Six”) to swooning balladry (“The Secret Seven”) to stunning, unadulterated progressive rock (“The Infernal Fantasy”). In turn, Pallet’s florid imaginative arrangements complement his often arch singing wonderfully, making for a wildly original, shamelessly beguiling pop experiment. img-854 Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Alvvays

Album: Alvvays

Label: Royal Mountain

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Alvvays
Alvvays

A descendent of one of the most famous families in Canadian music, Molly Rankin takes the torch once held by her late father and runs with it on the charming debut full-length by her Toronto-based band Alvvays. Cleverly produced by Chad VanGaalen, this album is steeped in nostalgia, bridging two distinct sounds from 20 to 25 years ago: the DIY indie rock sound of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and especially the twee sound from the UK, namely the influence of Scottish bands like Orange Juice and Belle and Sebastian. What separates Alvvays from the Best Coasts and Pains of Being Pure At Hearts of the indie world, however, is a surprisingly rich sound, thanks in large part to guitarist Alex O’Hanley, as well as enough dry wit from the dulcet-voiced Rankin to rival that of Camera Obscura. With such gems as “Party Police”, “Ones Who Love You”, and the knockout “Archie, Marry Me”, Rankin and Alvvays make a tremendous, confident statement on their first album. img-854 Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Lisa LeBlanc

Album: Highways, Heartaches and Time Well Wasted EP

Label: Bonsound

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Lisa LeBlanc
Highways, Heartaches and Time Well Wasted EP

Acadian Lisa LeBlanc is virtually a superstar in Quebec, where her debut 2012 French language self-titled album went platinum in sales and she picked up many an award for it. This year, she decided to tackle the English Canadian market by issuing a stellar EP of material. LeBlanc fuses the ethereal homespun nature of bluegrass with the frantic, maniac energy of punk rock. Basically, the whole disc is one big hoedown that you’ll want to yell “Yee-haw” to. (Well, maybe I should say small since it is only 18 minutes long.) With nimble banjo picking played at lightning speeds, this EP basically makes you not only want to hear a full-length statement in English but get a ticket to see her and her band live. Given the goods on this disc, the concert experience has to be one where things really cook. It says a lot when an artist, male or female, English or French, can make such a lasting impression in just a smidge more than a quarter hour to wind up on a Best Of list such as this. Put another way, that’s your summons to go out and hunt this down. LeBlanc is a rising talent, no matter what language she’s singing in, and my bet is that you’re going to be hearing an awful lot about her down the road. img-854 Zachary Houle

 

Artist: Mac DeMarco

Album: Salad Days

Label: Captured Tracks

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List number: 7

Mac DeMarco
Salad Days

Mac DeMarco is often painted as being the clown prince of indie rock, his bizarre antics fuelled by unbridled compulsions. Even his mom has said on record that he’s always been a kook. Granted, he may look like the kid in the classroom who always has a runny nose and eats the paste, but DeMarco has done his homework. His second studio full-length sees the Canadian provocateur as being more like the musical lovechild of Andy Kaufman and David Byrne, drawing on serious aspects of his personal life to create deceptively thoughtful musical happenings while leaving those only vaguely familiar with his work discombobulated. Salad Days bottled the sound of summer, a record full of dilapidated ’70s radio pop-rock delivered in hazy dissonance that wraps listeners in a warm blanket of analog nostalgia. Yet, its lyrics and lilting tones hint at deep pools of introspection below the surface, ruminating on fizzling relationships and the expectations of aging. The heartfelt thanks in the outro of “Jonny’s Odyssey” hammers home the personal nature of this record, not to mention the fact it was written and recorded in his Brooklyn apartment by himself. It’s like you’re right there in the room, hanging out with him. img-854 Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Julien Sagot

Album: Valse 333

Label: Simone

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List number: 6

Julien Sagot
Valse 333

Julien Sagot is better known as the percussionist in the French-language band Karkwa, which seemingly came out of nowhere to win the 2010 Polaris Music Prize. However, he has concurrently had a solo career, and Valse 333, which is so named because most of the songs are waltzes, certainly shows that the Karkwa magic extends to its individual members. This album has all of the artistic flourish and richness of something Parisian, and Sagot mines a muse that transcends language barriers. Using drum machines along with standard skin pounding, Sagot purrs over these 12 tracks with a richly baritone voice. The amount of variety on the record is staggering, whether it’s the piano-pounded “Ficelle” or the folksy music box strum of “Katheline”. And yet it holds together, each piece being part of a larger tapestry. Basically, Julien Sagot is an Artist, using sounds in a way that recalls fine sculptures and paintings. If you live in an area where art museums are inaccessible to you, you could do no wrong in picking up Valse 333. It is, quite simply, world class and shows that vital, rewarding and important music is being made in Canada’s French language music scene. img-854 Zachary Houle

5 – 1

Artist: Jennifer Castle

Album: Pink City

Label: Idée Fixe / No Quarter

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Jennifer Castle
Pink City

Owen Pallett has already made an appearance on this list, and here he makes another entrance, as his string arrangements adorn Jennifer Castle’s latest release. Pink City is probably the most gorgeous Canadian album released this year, as Pallett’s strings swoop down and over the material on this woman from Toronto’s album. If anything, Pink City shows that there is an heir to the throne of Joni Mitchell and her name is Jennifer. Castle has a very similar to Mitchell’s and yet distinct vocal style that is soft and fragile, and the music contained within is verdant and pleasing. This is the type of disc that should be played in coffee shops everywhere, as it has that nice and relaxed feel good vibe coursing throughout it. But saying that might also write Jennifer Castle’s serious and staggering music off, which should be hardly the case. Pink City is an album that is constructed as a seamless entity, hopping from song to song with grace and vulnerability. Pink City shows that truly heartfelt music pours out of Canada like water over a waterfall, and that’s what makes it so crucial. img-855 Zachary Houle

 

Artist: BADBADNOTGOOD

Album: III

Label: Innovative Leisure

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BADBADNOTGOOD
III

Too jazzy for hip-hop, too hip-hop for jazz … . Whatever it is that you want to call the musical output of bassist Chester Hansen, keyboardist Matthew Tavares and drummer Alex Sowinski under the name BADBADNOTGOOD, it reached a new zenith with their logically titled third album. III had a fresh sound that matched the Toronto trio’s virtuosic live skill, showcasing their compositional chops by being their first record to exclusively feature original compositions. Their fluid combination of bone crushing breaks, rib-tickling bass, and seductive Rhodes piano transported listeners away to a dingy, smoke-filled club basement full of poets and dreamers at some ungodly hour, expanding to new dimensions with the post-rock guitar on “Eyes Closed,” falling synth progression on “Since You Asked Kindly,” and Leland Whitty’s saxophone on “Confessions”. The record may not have fit the expectations of purists, but those willing to accept the record on its own merits were taken on an unforgettable journey. img-855 Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Tanya Tagaq

Album: Animism

Label: Six Shooter

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Tanya Tagaq
Animism

When Tanya Tagaq won the 2014 Polaris Prize this past September, the vast majority of onlookers from outside the Canadian music scene wondered, “Who?!” Many observers of the Canadian music scene, however, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only was Animism, the Inuk singer’s fourth album, a fully deserving winner of the illustrious prize, but no Canadian album released in 2014 evoked Canada – in its awe-inspiring breadth, its idiosyncrasy, its crucial Aboriginal roots – than this record. Ranging from rhythmic, otherworldly throat singing, to mournful, harrowing groans (the unforgettable “Fracking”) to some rather sweet-voiced singing – “Caribou” is arguably the best Pixies cover ever recorded – producer Jesse Zubot adds subtle modern touches, from electronic enhancements and beats, to striking, sparse percussion and screeching violin, resulting in an album that feels terrifying, mesmerizing, and oddly liberating all at once. img-855 Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Timber Timbre

Album: Hot Dreams

Label: Arts & Crafts / Full Time Hobby

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Timber Timbre
Hot Dreams

If there ever was a soundtrack to Halloween as scored by a Canadian band, Timber Timbre’s glorious Hot Dreams would be it. It’s actually a bit ironic: the album was born out of the failure of having a score rejected for the horror film The Last Exorcism Part II. Still, what you get here is like a mutant cross between the weirdness of David Lynchian cabaret music and Spaghetti Westerns. It’s dark, it’s haunting, and may make you lock your doors at night. Staggeringly cohesive, Hot Dreams never runs cold, and there’s an amazing amount of warped musicality on display like a melting wax figure at Madame Tussauds. Wall to wall, this LP is full of songs that practically scream “boo!”. If you want to break out in goose bumps when hearing a record, Hot Dreams should be your go-to ticket. There wasn’t a disc quite like Hot Dreams released in Canada this year, in terms of sheer eerie and ghostly sounds. Bridging the gap between country music (“Grand Canyon”) and the alarming psychedelia of the Flaming Lips (“Beat the Drum Slowly”), everything about this release is incredible. Listen to this if you want to get a good scare, but, more importantly, listen to it if you love great music. img-855 Zachary Houle

 

Artist: Steph Cameron

Album: Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady

Label: Pheromone

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Steph Cameron
Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady

Steph Cameron’s influences couldn’t be more obvious: the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene – including Dylan – as well as a little Gordon Lightfoot and Lucinda Williams. However, her delivery on the 13 songs on her striking debut album leaves an immediate, lasting impression. With just her guitar and harmonica for accompaniment, Cameron’s timbre immediately hints at sweetness, but the more it goes on, the more a gritty sadness creeps into her singing, as she reels off tales of life on the road and darker songs that dig way back to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as an influence. Most crucially, though, Cameron’s Canadian-ness is just as vital, her imagery conjuring images of the vastness of this massive, humbling country with beauty, poetry and soul. Stylistically, it might not be the most original album, but it’s an incredibly vibrant folk album, so good that you can’t help but think that mainstream success is only a matter of time. img-855 Adrien Begrand

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