Saturday, 12 May 2018

Ten Canadian albums that most people under 50 do not know and should

#1 - Hope by Klaatu

Klaatu was a big deal when they came out in 1976. In a time (keep in mind it's barely post-Vietnam) when nearly everyone thought the world would be a better place if The Beatles reunited, along came Klaatu with a couple tracks on their debut album that sounded so close to The Beatles that people thought it was the fab four in disguise. It was actually a Canadian band who'd just dropped onto the map. But for me it's their sophomore effort that best defines them. 1977's "Hope" is a concept album, beautifully crafted with an uplifting conclusion. Essential listening.

#2 - The Langley Schools Music Project

This is a piece of art unlike any other. Recorded in 1976-77 but unreleased until 2001, this is an hour of music sung and performed by several groups of school children in British Columbia, although with a twist - it is not traditional children's music. The children and their teacher (who started the project) rejected the idea that kids' music should be perpetually happy and upbeat, as it didn't accurately reflect the range of emotion children feel. While there are some peppier numbers like Good Vibrations and Sweet Caroline, they balanced the scale by expressing equally genuine and universal feelings like loneliness and sadness. Pieces like God Only Knows, Space Oddity, The Long and Winding Road (sung solo by a 10 year old), and Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (see: Klaatu above) are beautiful and sometimes challenging listens.

The kids play all the instruments too, and the songs carry vibes that range from Philip Glass to Phil Spektor to Gregorian Chant. I'm Into Something Good sounds more like gospel than a silly pop song.

Even in 2001, it took ten record labels for one to finally say yes to releasing this. That in itself is proof that we have such a long way to go in undercutting stigmas in our understanding of children (and ourselves). This music serves as a reminder that it is okay to express any feeling or idea, not just the ones that society or Facebook say are more worthy of air time than others.

Even if the technical execution isn't always perfect, this is one of the most genuine expressions of feelings through music you will ever experience.

#3 - Jaune by Jean-Pierre Ferland

While plenty of Canadians may not be in touch with their musical heritage, this cannot be said for Quebec and Newfoundland, who tend to wear their culture on their sleeve. While the rest of Canada is used to looking at magazine racks with mostly American content, in Quebec they have their movie stars and their music. And they have classic albums that they cherish like this one from 1970.

It is easily as good as anything the British or west coast folk movements came up with in the period. The sound is warm, the arrangements are beautifully crafted, and the influences and colours are many. It somehow manages to sound both of its time and like it was recorded yesterday.

"God Is An American" is satire at its finest (and decades before Bowie's "I'm Afraid Of Americans").  It's almost like it's Quebec's answer to Glenn Gould's "So You Want To Write A Fugue" - absolutely brilliant.

And if you're not sold yet - in 1971, John Lennon said this was North America's best album of the year.

And for all you prog heads - a young Tony Levin is on bass.

If Lake Louise and the Bay Of Fundy are what Canada looks like, then albums like this are what Canada sounds like.

#4 - The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould

Undoubtedly one of the most visionary and influential musicians ever to play an instrument, this is his definitive work. His original 1955 interpretation of these piano works by Bach are what put him on the map, but the 1981 version has a certain maturity and wisdom to it. His playful approach towards this musical scripture set him apart from his peers, and his iconic and subtle humming along (which no recording engineer could ever manage to remove) is not a detraction - it is all part of the charm. He was seen by many as an eccentric mad man, and I'm sure he wouldn't have resented that label. It takes a mad man to make 200 year old music completely new again.

This is one of the most important recordings of the last hundred years. And it is Canadian.

#5 - High Class In Borrowed Shoes by Max Webster

While virtually unknown outside of Canada, Max Webster were a massive force in their day. Led by Kim Mitchell, they were a sort of Canadian Frank Zappa, but more accessible. All their records went at least gold here, and at their peak they were regularly cited as being amongst the top few acts in the country.

Their 1977 sophomore effort is likely their finest. Their left of centre quirkiness (both musical and lyrical) defined them, and they created a sound entirely of their own with slick musicianship and hooks all over. No two consecutive tracks have the same vibe, yet it is a cohesive piece. Many of them remain radio classics, like the title track, Gravity, and Diamonds Diamonds. On The Road is perhaps the finest travelling musician song ever written, and In Context Of The Moon says more in 5 minutes than most prog bands could say in 20.

They are often seen as Rush's little brother, but anyone who was around then will tell you that they more than held their own, and how criminal it is that they did not get their due. Max Webster may well be Canada's best kept secret, and High Class In Borrowed Shoes is probably the best explanation why.

#6 - Cyborgs Revisited by Simply Saucer

Simply Saucer are best described as a proto-punk band. They recorded just one album in 1974, although it wasn't released until 1989 (only a 7" single was released while they were around). Their sound was kind of a cross between the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, and Television - and that third one is what makes them most interesting, as they came up with this punky sound several years before punk even happened, which is nothing short of revolutionary.

Compiled by engineer/producer/savant Bob Lanois, side A of the album is the aforementioned studio material and side B is a live recording from 1975. Although this Hamilton, Ontario band remains pretty obscure, the album was reviewed by two publications as, I quote, "the best Canadian album ever recorded." It garnered favourable reviews from bigger magazines like Spin and New Musical Express as well.

The music is simultaneously visionary and kind to its predecessors. Well worth a listen.

I'm also happy to report that after several decades of absence, they have reunited and play pretty regularly.

#7 - Acadie by Daniel Lanois

Not only is this musically one of the greatest records ever made (not just in Canada), but sonically it is beautiful.  Released in 1989, when technology had gone amok and most records had snare drum triggers and dated synthesizer sounds, this still sounds like it was recorded yesterday.

Lanois had come off the success of producing two massive albums for U2, and had nothing to prove.  He had time and space (and he had Brian Eno, which also didn't hurt), and that's exactly what this album sounds like - it breathes freely.  The songs are marvellous and soulful.  "The Maker" is one of the finest tracks ever written, easily as good as any of U2's best songs from the period.

This record is one of the most genuine pieces of art to emerge from the 1980s.  There is nothing quite like it.

#8 - Discovery by Ron Hynes

Ron Hynes was Newfoundland's Gordon Lightfoot, only he wasn't nearly as prolific. This 1972 album is his only released pre-1990s work, and it's easily as good as anything released by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen in the period. It has everything you'd expect from a quality folk album - introspection, longing, and wisdom far beyond the years of a man at 22.

Albums like this reach into the psyche of a person better than any therapist or bottle of booze could. It's as real as it gets.

#9 - Somewhere Outside by The Ugly Ducklings

The Ugly Ducklings only put out one album in their heyday, but they made their mark.  This 1966 long player was psychedelic garage rock mostly influenced by the British invasion (particularly The Kinks and The Who), but a bit more rough around the edges - and I mean that in the most flattering of ways.  There is attitude, musicality, and songwriting as good as anything happening at the time.  Their most commercially successful song was Gaslight a year later, but it is this album that remains their most important work.

The last song, the bluesy instrumental Windy City, is way ahead of its time.  Its loose guitar and harmonica is early Led Zeppelin before early Led Zeppelin.

The Ugly Ducklings opened for The Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1966.  Mick Jagger called them his favourite Canadian band.

#10 - Canadiana Suite by Oscar Peterson

Oscar's trio is at the peak of their powers in a 1964 to create one of the most beautiful jazz albums ever recorded.  The eight tracks are named after different places in the country, and they are eight distinctly different musical landscapes, with influences ranging from ragtime to blues.

While Oscar's chops are out of this world, he plays with a sensitivity that creates a musical expression of the vast space this great country has.  It leaves the listener with the feeling that no matter where you are, there is empty space for peace and solace not far from you - a takeaway that is probably more relevant today than ever.

Sonically it is also a marvel.  It's almost impossible to believe that technology over 50 years old could create an album that sounds this magnificent.

#11 - Les Cinq Saisons by Harmonium

Narrowing it down to ten albums was impossible.  And this last one is more than an honourable mention.

Harmonium was once referred to as the "most important Canadian band ever" by the Toronto Sun.  1975's "Les Cinq Saisons" (or "Si On Avait Besoin d'Une Cinquième Saison," roughly translated as "If We Needed a Fifth Season") merited a mention in Rolling Stone magazine's long overdue list of their top 50 progressive rock albums of all time in 2015 (and they also declared it the best progressive folk album).

The traditional rock band instrumentation notably isn't employed here, as there are plenty of woodwinds and no drums.  The music is often playful and whimsical, executed without the slightest sense of inhibition.  The album begins with four shorter tracks, one for each season of the year.  The summer track "Dixie" has a jazzy ragtime feel to it, and the autumn track "Depuis l'automne" is haunting and pastoral.

But it is the longer fifth track (representing a mythical fifth season) that takes up most of side two and elevates the album from excellent to otherworldly.  This track, the mostly instrumental Histoires Sans Paroles (Song Without Words), is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever committed to tape.

And to much of Quebec, this is their folk music.  There are numerous videos of bands covering this piece.  Here's a group of high school kids performing it note perfect:

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