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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Top 10 Canadian albums (with some extras)

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…

Shakespeare my Butt cover1. 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.

Jagged Little Pill cover2. 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.

Tradarnac cover3. 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.

The Suburbs cover4. 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.

Everybody's Got a Story cover5. 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.

Cover of The Wonderful World of...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.

When I Was a Boy cover7. 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.

Gordon cover8. 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.

Fumbling toward Ecstasy cover

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.

Don't Smoke in Bed10. 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.

The extras…

Songs from the Road coverTop 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.

Highly recommended!

Gord's Gold coverTop 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”…).

From Here on Out coverTop 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.


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A Barenaked Christmas

My rather excellent run of live concerts this year was capped off with The Barenaked Ladies, performing “Hits and Holiday Songs” with the KW Symphony, at Centre in the Square last Sunday.

Barenake Ladies: Hits and Holiday Songs

Jean was a bit puzzled at my interest in this one, as I don’t exactly idolize this band. But I had been thinking for a while that I wouldn’t mind seeing them in concert. I definitely like the albums and songs of theirs that I have (which is probably only the obvious ones), and I figured their humorous approach to performance would make their live show fun. So when a local concert was announced, I didn’t wait long to get tickets.

A seating segue

As a symphony subscriber, I was able to get tickets in advance. I went with seats in row 2, which were actually cheaper than seats in rows 3 and back. They were using symphony seat pricing, you see, and generally it is less desirable to be in the first two rows, looking up at the conductor’s backside. They had not adjusted for the fact that we would, in this case, be looking at a rock band’s front side.

But ticket sales were ultimately very brisk for this one, and about a month prior, they decided to add a whole section of seats in front of us. They did call to warn us about that, but also said we had the option of exchanging our current seats (which would now be row 10) for ones more up front. Sure, I said, do that.

What they failed to mention, though, is that my switch would also involve being moved way off to the side. Maybe because the added front rows were a premium price (as would be typical for a rock concert) that I hadn’t paid? At any rate, I was not too impressed.

The first half

But then a weird thing happened. Despite the show being completely sold out, with no bad weather or anything to keep ticket holders away, huge swatches of seats in my row (and only in my row) ended up empty as the concert began, with the song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”.

Now, I love that song. So I couldn’t resist scooting over to those better, empty seats, to see that performance from a straight angle.

Then I scooted back, as they were seating latecomers after that song. (Whom the Ladies mocked. “You just missed a Canadian classic! But I’m sure you enjoyed that dessert!”) But my row remained full of empty seats. So on the opening chords of “Another Postcard”, I moved back, and stayed there the whole first half.

Jean did not follow me, so I figured I must look like the sad girl with no friends, sitting by myself. I had really was great sightlines though. And I was still close enough to Jean that we were able to look at each meaningfully after this introduction by the Ladies: “Now we’re going to a TV show theme song. I think you know the one: CSI Miami!” [The look was about that being a Who reference, for those who didn’t get it.]

But the song, of course, was the full version of the “Big Bang Theory” theme song.

As I expected, they did some songs I didn’t know, but touched on a few more favorites in this part, including “Pinch Me” and “Brian Wilson”. They joked about what a thrill it must be for the symphony players to accompany them, how they wondered if the very youthful looking conductor was standing in for his Dad, and offered to pass the mike around that each member of the orchestra could state what this night meant to them.

The symphony, who joined them on all but two songs, did add a nice depth to their sound (which all carried beautifully in that hall, of course), and I must say I was impressed with the musical skill of the band as well, as they switched instruments regularly throughout the set: guitar, banjo, accordion (“Symphony players always get particularly excited when we bring out the banjo and accordion ), double bass, electric bass, various keyboards, various percussion instruments… They have some hard-working roadies, keeping track of all that!

The second half

For the second half I discovered that others in the audience felt so bad about me sitting alone that they decided to join me. That is, people from rows further back moved down into my row, and Jean and I (and the two people who had been sitting even farther to the side) moved in to that row, so it ended up much fuller, and those great seats didn’t go to waste.

So on behalf of all us, thank you to whatever group in row CC wasn’t able to make it that night.

Not that the first half was dour, but the second half was particularly lively, with the Ladies doing some extra chatting with the audience and additional lyrical improvisation, and the crowd down front there getting increasingly screechy and excited! I may not idolize The Barenaked Ladies, but it’s clear that some people do! (Jean said he had never experienced such raucous behavior at that venue before.)

(Too bad the ushers remained a bit of a downer, with their constant reminders not to take photos. We didn’t even try.)

In the second half, the band “brought the menorrah to Christmas” with the song “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah”, which I don’t think I knew before, but was as awesome as they promised. And then a song about the “true meaning of the season”, called “Shopping”. They interrupted at one point to play a game of “Meet the orchestra”, in which a couple violin players were interviewed and lightly mocked. On her hobbies of “sewing, knitting, and yoga”, Ed Roberts exclaimed, “Oh my God! You look so young for your age! I play the violin, and I sew, and knit, and with a little side of yoga!”

“Jingle Bells” was first played as though it was a terribly serious and somber song, before seguing into its usual bouncy rendition. They performed “Light Up My Room”, which I love (such a beautiful song for such a weird subject—living too close to a hydro line), but was not expecting to hear. (I guess it was a hit?) And of course, “One Week”, one of the many times I was also impressed with their vocal skills, both tonal quality and ability to enunciate so many lyrics so quickly.

During the inevitable “If I Had a Million Dollars”, the Kraft dinner line was converted into “stuffing the Christmas turkey full of KD!” And they ended on this crazy-ass but awesome medley of a bunch of hits songs, complete with “boy band” dance steps. Most of the referenced tracks, I can’t name, but I do know they included “Call Me Maybe” and ended with “Don’t Stop Believing”. And the symphony played along with the whole thing. (“I’m sure it was Jarek’s dream, when he immigrated from Poland to Canada as a violin player, that he’d one day get to play Journey tunes with the Barenaked Ladies.”)

Encore

This lively finale gave rise to a request for more—we were already all standing, anyway! The finale was Feliz Navidad, featuring the drummer on vocals. They returned for more applause and to shake hands with those out front, but that was it for tunes. A very entertaining evening indeed. (And Jean liked it, too!)