Alberto E. Rodriguez, Getty One of rock's royal families has just gotten a…
- Posted on Dec 22nd 2011 2:00PM by Joshua Ostroff
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In the first week of December, for the first time ever, four of the Top Five albums on the Billboard pop charts were by Canadians. Crooner Michael Bublé, who has held the top spot as for well over a month with his 'Christmas' album, was joined by hip-hop's hottest talent Drake and pop's most ubiquitous superstar Justin Bieber, both of whose new albums also debuted at No. 1. Rounding out the Top Five was Nickelback, the biggest-selling (and most hated) rock band in the world. (Adele was, naturally, the non-Canadian on the list.)
A couple weeks later the year-end lists started rolling out, a critical counterpoint to commercial charts, but they, too, turned out to be dominated by Canada. A quintet of Torontonians -- post-hardcore anthemists F---ed Up, operatic synth-pop act Austra, melancholy chanteuse Feist, self-loathing avant-R&B lothario the Weeknd and emo MC Drake -- topped the best of 2011 lists by, respectively, Spin magazine, New York magazine, Washington Post and the New York Times (which had multiple critic lists).
- Arcade Fire
- F---ed Up
- The Weeknd
- Michael Buble
- Justin Bieber
- TV Stars Who Moonlight as Musicians
- Joey Lawrence
- John Barrowman
- Brent Spiner
- Paris Hilton
- Hugh Laurie
- Katey Sagal
- David Hasselhoff
- William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols
- Janet Jackson
- A Perfect Haze -- Illustrated History of Monterey Pop
- Jimi Hendrix
- Buffalo Springfield
- The Who
- The Byrds with Hugh Masekela
- The Mamas and the Papas
- Ravi Shankar
- Otis Redding
- Simon and Garfunkel
- Janis Joplin
- 2011: Music's Year of the Dog
- 11. Beirut, 'Sante Fe'
- 10. Dog Day, 'Scratches' EP
- 9. Adele Spooked by Fans Taking Pics of Her Dog Pooing
- 8. Radical Dads, 'Skateboard Bulldog'
- 7. Vondelpark, 'nyc stuff and nyc bags'
- 6. Selena Gomez Adopts a Dog
- 5. Morrissey Getting Attacked By a Dog
- 4. Coma Cinema, 'Blue Suicide'
- 3. The Sheepdogs
- 2. Real Estate, 'It's Real'
- 1. Ty Segall, 'Goodbye Bread'
The Weeknd and F---ed Up also came in second and third on Spinner's own list, while the Weeknd, Drake and Vancouver-based Destroyer cracked Pitchfork's Top 10. (Plus, number one pick Bon Iver nearly counts since Justin Vernon is dating alt-country Canadian Kathleen Edwards and plays with Montreal sax experimentalist Colin Stetson.)
Aside from Drake, these critical darlings could all fit under the "indie" umbrella, but they have as little in common with each other stylistically as their Billboard-dominating Canadian cousins.
And let us not forget Deadmau5, the biggest name (and ears) in dance music's rave-ival who recently wound up a blockbuster tour by playing a record-breaking six straight nights at NYC's Roseland Ballroom followed by throwing a hometown 20,000-person stadium rave at Toronto's Rogers Center. Or the Sheepdogs, the Saskatoon retro-rockers who became the first unsigned band (and only second Canadian one) to grace the cover of the Rolling Stone.
So it's been quite the end to a year that began with the Grammys handing its first-ever Best Album award to a Canadian band, Arcade Fire. When the now-biggest indie act ever first broke out in the early 2000s, they sparked a media frenzy in Montreal that saw the NY Times and Spin, among many other publications, declaring la belle ville the next Seattle.
Clearly, this has been years in the making. The Canadian indie scene has been in ascendance ever since Feist's old band Broken Social Scene put "sprawling collective" into the music-critic lexicon with 2002's 'You Forgot It in People' while previous albums by Bublé, Bieber, Nickelback and Drake have all been commercial colossi. But Canada's combined musical might this year is still a revelation.
The music industry has regularly heralded new "scenes" since the first Seattle launched the alt-rock revolution 20 years ago with the rise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam et. al. But there was an aesthetical cohesion in Seattle grunge, much as there had been with the British Invasion of the 1960s, which is conspicuously absent from Canadian music in 2011.
Instead of a Canadian sound, these artists have risen to the top of pretty much every genre imaginable -- in fact, if Shania Twain and Diana Krall had released records, Canucks could've claimed country and jazz and had the complete set.
Like Sweden and Jamaica, Canada's international musical presence is way out of proportion to its population, which is about 10 percent of North America. But it's even more of a jaw-dropper when you consider that aside from '90s outliers like Alanis, Celine and Shania and '60s stars like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchel, Canadian musicians rarely had a pre-millennial presence outside of Canada.
So how has this happened? Well, despite what arts-cutting conservatives would like to hear, it's Canada's "socialist" government support for music. The private non-profit FACTOR, the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records, has been administering tax dollars to Canadian musicians since the mid-'80s which has allowed indie bands to record, tour, shoot videos and build viable careers at home and abroad. The '80s was also when CanCon regulations went into effect, requiring 30 percent of Canadian airplay to be home-grown, thereby allowing domestic musicians to develop an audience outside of America's long marketing shadow.
Yes, it took a couple decades for the industry to lay its foundation, but in recent years Canada has been the world's second- or third-biggest musical moneymaker, after the U.S. and occasionally the U.K. FACTOR may give out about $14 million in annual grants, but this isn't charity -- it's an investment.
There's also a tendency towards collaboration over competition: It once seemed like every indie act in the country was either a member of Broken Social Scene or the New Pornographers; Drake is booked for Bieber's next record; Shania showed up on Bublé's current one; and earlier this week, Feist took the stage with '90s Can-Rock survivors Sloan mere minutes after they'd performed with F---ed Up's Damian Abraham.
Finally, there's Canada's inherent underdog status thanks to the cultural behemoth it sits beside, which has prompted Canadian artists to try alternate routes. Bieber was originally a YouTube phenom while Drake and the Weeknd made their names by releasing music for free online.
The Weeknd, in fact, made it onto 28 year-end lists and nabbed a Polaris Prize nomination for 'House of Balloons,' the Abel Tesfaye-led outfit's first of three free online mixtapes this year. The second, 'Thursday,' clocked 180,000 downloads in its first 24 hours while the trilogy's final chapter, 'Echoes of Silence,' was posted online late Dec. 21 and promptly blew up the Internet. Hours later, the Weeknd was Google's top trending topic in the U.S.
But what's most notable about the Drake-Weeknd alliance is that they popularized an entirely new strain of dark, hip-hop-infused R&B that owes far more to Portishead then to Prince.
The others acts don't follow trends, either. Whatever you might think about Nickelback, they're certainly not trying to keep up with the times and Bublé is so the opposite of cutting-edge that he has his field to himself. Canada's indie infantry have proven incredibly stylistically unique, hence all that acclaim.
Some may argue that none of these acts sound particularly Canadian, which is why they've snuck across the border so easily. But there is no Canadian sound, not in a country as vast and underpopulated as the Great White North. What matters is that rather than try to emulate American music, as was common in the not-so-distant past, these artists mostly sound like themselves. And apparently that's all it takes to stage a critical and commercial occupation.
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