CBC recently put out a list of the 100 greatest Canadian albums, which was then discussed on CBC Radio Kitchener. “I don’t anyone can argue with Neil Young’s Harvest being number 1”, said the host. Well…
Look, I own Harvest, I like Harvest. I’m not going to deny that it’s a great collection of songs. It’s certainly your go-to for great Canadian albums, as befitting its also being number 1 in the 2007 book The Top 100 Canadian Albums.
It’s just that I can think of a number of other Canadian albums I enjoy listening to more than Harvest. Such as…
1. Lowest of the Low – Shakespeare My Butt (1993)
(CBC unranked; book #84)
I’ve expounded on my love of this band and album before, but… I can’t see anyone not loving this album, unless they don’t like the genre of rock music itself. The songs are catchy and instantly likeable. On repeated listening, you realize they’re smart, too. And warm. And funny. The album is 20 years old, and the music doesn’t seem dated at all. It contains a hefty 17 songs—and there isn’t a single stinker among them.
2. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995)
(CBC #12, book #6)
This was something at the time, wasn’t it? So much fun to play loud and sing along to. Angrily. To me it still holds up, even if she didn’t know what “ironic” meant. It’s melodic grunge. It’s more than just angry—you also have forgiveness, and learning, and being head over feet in love. I’ve enjoyed Alanis’ subsequent albums, mostly (not so much the India one, and haven’t bothered with the motherhood one), but this one still seems her best.
3. Swing – Tradarnac (2008)
(CBC unranked, book n/a)
I discovered these guys on Canada Day at an electrifying performance in Gatineau, and I continue to love this album. They sing in very rapid franglais (French with a healthy dose of English: “Allo, CB buddy! J’tired de m’voir promener sur le highway” and such) over a mix of French folk, rap, and pop that results in music so lively you can’t help but dance to it. Even while sitting or driving. It sounds happy, but has a dark undercurrent in the lyrics, if you can understand them. To me, that just makes it better.
4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
(CBC #22; book n/a)
I am going to complain the CBC list now: No way that their Funeral album is better than this one. No way. Funeral is fine, but it is right that The Suburbs is the one that earned them the Juno, the Grammy, and the Polaris prize. It’s sort of great that someone made a deep, thematic, almost classical-sounding album—about the suburbs. I took to it really quickly and continue to peel away its layers, this album.
5. Amanda Marshall – Everybody’s Got a Story (2001)
(CBC unranked, book unranked)
I felt this album was unjustly overlooked when it came out, then nearly forgot to list it here myself… But it wouldn’t be denied, in the end. I just love listening to this. As befitting the title, most of the songs tell a story—of waking up with a stranger and a snake tatoo; of life as a blond mixed-race person (“a double-agent on my mama’s side”); of being a taxi driver with a PhD; and so on. The music is fun—more dancey, less bluesy than earlier album, but still showcasing her fantastic and powerful voice. I don’t know why it hasn’t’ gotten more love.
6. Pursuit of Happiness – The Wonderful World of… (1997)
(CBC unranked ; book unranked (but Love Junk is at #84))
I believe I own every album this band has released, and I pretty much like them all. This one is far from their best known; I don’t think it contains any hit songs. But I list this one because it’s the most album-y of them all: its 15 songs all lead one into the other as though the whole thing were one big rock opera, or something. (Note the little Tommy homage between tracks 4 and 5.)
Now, it doesn’t actually have a continuing storyline, but more of a continuing theme (which is really the theme of every Pursuit of Happiness album) of the joy, frustration, and sheer messiness of love, sex, and relationships. Yet for all that, the songs also stand alone quite nicely. No mean feat. This is a small piece of pop art.
7. Jane Siberry – When I Was a Boy (1993)
(CBC unranked, book unranked)
I had to list Jane, but it was really a toss-up between this and her first, No Borders Here. I finally went with this more mature work. The opening track “Temple” sets the different tone: “You call that hard? You call that rough? Well, it’s not, rough enough.” Who would have expected that from the quirky singer of “Mimi on the Beach” (although the part of the song where she encourages Mimi to stand up on her surfboard, causing her to drown… Was maybe a clue.) Jane is a bit of an odd duck, but she can certainly put a tune together, and in this album she really seems to be more deeply expressing her soul.
8. Barenaked Ladies – Gordon (1992)
(CBC #25, book #27)
Yeah, they’re funny, but they’re also insanely talented, seemingly effortlessly putting together incredibly catchy pop. And the serious (and still tuneful) ballads like “Wrapped your arms around me” (“I put my hands around your neck)”, “The Flag”, and “Blame it on me” show that it’s not all fun and games, all the time, with this band.
9. Sarah McLaclachlan – Fumbling Toward Ecstasy (2003)
(CBC #20, book #25)
Sarah’s music sneaks up on me, randomly selected by my iPod, making me suddenly realize that I like it better than anything that was played before it. They’re mostly ballads; strong emotions expressed in a more subtle way—no screaming guitars, or any screaming, period. I guess it’s that haunting voice, or… I don’t know what. It’s not what I usually go for, but this is album is beautiful.
10. Holly Cole Trio – Don’t Smoke in Bed (1993)
(CBC unranked, book unranked)
And, I’m not the big jazz girl, usually, but man, I’ve played this album a lot. Holly takes these lovely standards and performs in this slightly twisted, dark way that makes them way more interesting.
Top Live: Leonard Cohen – Songs from the Road (2010)
For a very long time I considered Leonard Cohen someone whose songs I loved—as long as someone else was singing them: Jennifer Warnes, KD Lang, Jeff Buckley… Then he started touring with this amazing band. And I began to love his own take on his great songs. This particular collection is his own selection of the best version of each song he did on this tour.
Top Compilation: Gordon Lightfoot – Gord’s Gold (1987)
My Dad is a big fan, so I grew up with these songs. As a teenager, of course, I wasn’t going to admit to liking them, but now I can! While I can’t really see buying his individual albums, this “greatest hits” collection is fantastic: “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Sundown”, “Early Morning Rain”, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”…
The only other thing you might want is Gord’s Gold 2 (for “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, “Alberta Bound”, “Ghosts of Cape Horn”…).
Top Classical: KW Symphony – From Here Out (2011)
No dead composers here: This CD features classical compositions by Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Perry (of Arcade Fire), and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead). It’s not always comfortable listening, but it’s never boring, either.