A Completely Biased Ranking of the 60 Best Canadian Indie Rock Songs of the 00s Part I
Canadian music is probably at its best ever right now. So why not rank the golden peak of the yesteryear?
Last year I nearly killed myself trying to write about what I thought were the 60 best CanRock songs between 1993 and 1999. It was stupid of me. So stupid, in fact, that it kinda crashed the site because 60 embedded YouTube videos one page is, well, stupid. So the editors divided it up into a Part One and a Part Two, because they're obviously smarter than me (I imagine they'll do the same for this thing too). Well, I am clearly a glutton for punishment, because almost immediately afterward I pitched a similar feature that picked up right where that one left off. "What about a completely biased list of the best Canadian indie rock songs from the last decade?" I stupidly wrote to my editors.
As I wrote in that CanRock piece, Canadian music is probably at its best ever right now. I probably still think that, but I also wonder what the state of Canmusic would be if it weren't for all those great indie bands that put Canada on the map back in the early 2000s? Well, I'm sure Drake would still be objectively better than Eminem, Carly Rae Jepsen would still be inexplicably neglected by her label for making A+ pop music, and Shawn Mendes would still be every nine-year-old's idea of a talented musician. But without a band like, oh, let's say Arcade Fire, who would America have complained about in 2011? Without Death From Above 1979, who would Kelly Osbourne have taken as her date to the 2004 AMAs? And would Feist have scored that lifetime supply of iPod Nanos?
What I'm getting at is Canada ruled at producing indie rock in the 2000s. Our country became famous for it. Like, TIME magazine cover famous for it. Okay, that was actually just the Canadian edition of TIME, but it was still TIME. Here's a definitive yet biased list of what are the 60 best Canadian indie rock songs from 2000 to 2009, along with the artist's history of Polaris Music Prize nominations. Because nothing validates Canadian indie rock better than a Polaris Music Prize nomination.
60. The Salteens "Nice Day"
The Salteens are like a Vitamin C injection without the abdominal cramps or pain, chest pain, dental erosion, dizziness, diarrhea, faintness, fatigue, flushing, gut blockage, headache, heartburn, increased risk of lung cancer, increased risk of Parkinson's disease, inflamed esophagus, injection site discomfort, nausea, red blood cell complications, skin tingling or irritation, slowing of endurance training, thickening of blood vessels close to the heart, urinary complications, and vomiting. Just the good feels. In fact, the Salteens are so delightful it comes as no surprise that they were asked to contribute not one but two songs to the kids show that every adult loves, Yo Gabba Gabba!. "Nice Day" might be the chirpiest song they've recorded. It was enough for defunct department store Zellers to licence the song in a spring ad campaign a number of years back.
Polaris nomination? Nope. They've only released one album since Polaris' inauguration, 2010's Grey Eyes.
59. Les Georges Leningrad "Georges V"
Montreal's Les Georges Leningrad liked to wear masks and costumes, and performed with such looseness they didn't seem to mind if their instruments were a little (or even a lot) out of tune. The enigmatic trio once defined the music as "petrochemical rock," though to me it sounded more like no wave, post-punk and avant-pop squashed and trampled on. Despite all of the herky-jerky noise there was quite a bit of melody in their songs. Taken from their 2002 album, Deux Hot Dogs Moutarde Chou, "Georges V" might scare your pets or small children (Update: I can confirm that it did scare my dog, my kid and my wife), but look deep and there is something very endearing about Poney P's nonsensically absurd whine, as it tries to fend off the brutal Francophone squawk of Mingo L'Indien.
Polaris nomination? Nope. Also, LGL broke up in 2007, just after the first Polaris gala, so their best work never got a chance.
58. Mean Red Spiders "Secret"
Like most Canadian bands, Mean Red Spiders often get forgotten in the conversation about the best shoegazers. But this Toronto outfit, who are still together after 23 years, have definitely made a case for their inclusion. "Secret" was the centrepiece of their 2000 album, Stars and Sons (which just so happens to share a title with Broken Social Scene's 2002 track, but was likely named after the studio at which it was recorded), and one of the gentler tracks. It might not stand out as much as the rest of the songs on this list, but the cascading layers of guitar that coalesce with Lisa Nighswander's vocals are enough to take your breath away.
Polaris nomination? Nope. They aren't exactly prolific, and have only released one LP since Polaris was founded.
57. The Meligrove Band "Our Love Will Make The World Go Round"
Toronto-via-Mississauga's the Meligrove Band formed in high school back in 1997, which is probably why they seem permanently young, but there's a youthful glow that still runs through their feisty power pop. The band scored an international deal with V2 for their third and likely best album, 2006's Planets Conspire. "Our Love Will Make The World Go Round" smacks of that mid-'00s, Canadian indie rock sound: heavy melody, screeching vocals and one massive, noisy climax.
Polaris nomination? Shockingly nope. I had to double check it too.
56. Magneta Lane "The Constant Lover"
There was a time, 2004 to be exact, when the buzz around Toronto's Magneta Lane was that they were the female answer to the Strokes. Not only was that claim sexist, it was also greatly exaggerated. They never seemed to rise above their first single, "The Constant Lover," which gave a name to their debut EP and then appeared again on their debut album, Dancing With Daggers. But even 13 years later, it's still a fun rocker that will forever remind me of this song.
Polaris nomination? Nada.
55. Wintersleep "Weighty Ghost"
Wintersleep were one of the most steadfast Canadian indie bands of the decade (they still are, too). Their third album, Welcome to the Night Sky, for me was the good stuff, thanks largely to the production work of Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub) and the single "Weighty Ghost." It's a bit of a softy that pulls at the heartstrings, and I think part of why I like it is because of its use in the Canadian film One Week, starring Pacey from Dawson's Creek. This song helped them win a Juno, which in true Juno fashion was for New Group of the Year, despite it coming after releasing their third album.
Polaris nomination? Yup. Welcome to the Night Sky made the long list in 2008.
54. Attack In Black "Hunger of the Young"
Welland, Ontario rockers Attack In Black were an interesting band because just as they began to find an audience with their debut album, Marriage, they followed it up a few months later with another one called The Curve of the Earth that was mostly acoustic and country-influenced. Of course, singer/guitarist Daniel Romano would go on to become everything from a Canadian Gram Parsons to a prolific psych-rock/honky tonk weirdo, so AIB were obviously never gonna survive their own lofty ambitions (they broke up in 2010). Even though I prefer the direction of the later albums, it's Marriage's feverish and muscular rocker "Hunger of the Young" that stood out as their best song. Note the awesome Thrush Hermit homage at the end, which has a lot to do with it being my fav.
Polaris nomination? Marriage made the long list in 2008.
53. The Besnard Lakes "Devastation"
Montreal's Besnard Lakes almost feel like they were made in a laboratory or at least a computer the nerds in Weird Science owned. Like, co-founders Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas gave some nerds a compilation by Constellation Records, a copy of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, some out-of-print, obscure psych-rock records, and a few different Morricone scores, and instead of Kelly LeBrock they just became Besnard Lakes. Taken from 2007's The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, "Devastation" feels like a 50-foot wave washing over you with those massive, cascading guitars and group vocal chant of the title.
Polaris nomination? Yep, three times. Shortlisted for The Dark Horse, and for 2010's The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Light, and also longlisted for 2013's Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO.
52. controller.controller "History"
If there was any band on this list that was the right one in the right place that would have to be Toronto's controller.controller. Just as the whole post-punk revival was taking off, they signed to the shit-hot Paper Bag Records and arrived as the city's ambassadors for the scene. Like any of the good dance-punk acts at the time (LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture), the impetus was building a rhythm, and the title track to their 2004 EP is a throbbing floor-filler, lit afire by Nirmala Basnayake evoking the spirit of Debbie Harry and those bleeding guitar sounds.
Polaris nomination? Nope, they broke up before Polaris got started.
51. You Say Party "Laura Palmer's Prom"
Much like controller.controller, You Say Party (formerly You Say Party! We Say Die!) were post-punkers. Their debut, 2005's Hit The Floor!, was rooted more in urgent, spiky, and icy new wave than dance-punk. Over time they got less shouty and more poppy, finding their stride on 2009's XXXX. With Twin Peaks returning to television, now is the perfect time to revisit "Laura Palmer's Prom," a slow-burning, frosty-synthed creeper. It's hard not to get sucked in by the music video, which is a campy homage to David Lynch's cult classic series, but really, if ever a song was elevated by a video this is it.
Polaris nomination? Yep, XXXX made the 2010 longlist.
50. The Heavy Blinkers "You Can Heal"
The Heavy Blinkers are easily the East Coast's best kept secret, even in their 20th year. Their music is this wonderfully ornate and symphonic indie pop, expertly arranged by lead Blinker Jason MacIsaac, that's equal parts Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Ennio Morricone and Carl Newman. Fifty years ago they'd have been up there with the Association and the Zombies - though I'd say they most resemble the Free Design. You can't go wrong with any of their five LPs, but I'm partial to their second album, 2000's self-titled effort, which features "You Can Heal," a jangly yet bittersweet bit of orch-pop carried by the boy-girl vocals and what sounds like a fuckin' Theremin!
Polaris nomination? Like I said, they're wrongfully neglected, so nope, no nod yet. But occasional member Jenn Grant was on the 2011 long list.
49. Metric "Stadium Love"
Basically every Metric song becomes a hit of some kind, which isn't common for Canadian indie bands, especially doing it over and over in the last decade and a half. There seems to be a recipe for them too, doesn't there? Big, slow-building, dramatic opening, a disco beat, a hooky guitar riff, and then Emily Haines yelling a chorus over and over. They've never really been my thing, but when "Stadium Love" became the theme song of the Toronto Blue Jays' 2013 season, well, I started associating Metric with my beloved baseball team, who I do love very much.
Polaris nomination? Umm, yeah. Every album of theirs since Polaris began. Canadian music writers love Metric. They have been on the short list three times, including the inaugural short list.
48. Shotgun & Jaybird "Pidgeon"
In hindsight, Sackville-via-Dawson City's Shotgun & Jaybird should be considered a supergroup. Let's see, there was the the killer songwriting duo of Shotgun Jimmie Kilpatrick and Fred Squire, and then the band later added the legendary Julie Doiron (Eric's Trip, Broken Girl) on bass. They only lasted four years before everyone went their separate ways, but I dug their self-conscious, lackadaisical indie rock and how it reminded me of Pavement, Calvin Johnson and Neil Young all at once. "Pidgeon," the sluggish, chugging paean to everyone's least favourite winged vermin, is a fine example of that.
Polaris nomination? Nope, not the band, but there have been individual noms. Shotgun Jimmie and Fred Squire were both on the 2011 longlist. Julie Doiron's Woke Myself Up made the shortlist in 2007.
47. Land of Talk "Some Are Lakes"
Though Montreal native Liz Powell operates Land of Talk like a band, she does it with a revolving door type policy to her lineup (not quite as frequently as say Mark E. Smith does it with the Fall). Signed to Bright Eyes' Saddle Creek label, she hired a pre-celebrity Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to produce her debut album, Some Are Lakes. Not bad. (On an unrelated note, the following year she joined Broken Social Scene for a period of time.) It's the title track that I love. Powell structures it like your common '90s indie rock song - scratchy, loud guitars, playful drums - but her voice just absolutely melts you, blurting out the killer line, "And I'll love you like I love you / Then I'll die."
Polaris nomination? Yep. Some Are Lakes and Cloak and Cipher made the longlist in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
46. Chad VanGaalen "Flower Gardens"
Calgary's Chad VanGaalen was and still is the King Weirdo of Canadian indie rock. The guy could probably write an entire album of straight gorgeous ballads or a collection of full-on raging rock music, but he's just too kooky to conform. With Chad, it's also as much about his mind-expanding illustrations (album covers, music videos), which became as intrinsic to his work as the music itself. Taken from 2007's Skelliconnection, "Flower Gardens" is loopy, stoner jam that sounds like Queens Of The Stone Age, if they were dope-smoking skateboarding hermits instead of dope-smoking muscleheads.
Polaris nomination? Too right! Chad is a critic's fav, and has been shortlisted twice - in 2007 and 2009. He also made the longlist in 2014.
45. Ohbijou "Eloise and the Bones"
It's hard to think of the Toronto music community in the 2000s without thinking about just how important Ohbijou were. Formed by the Mecija sisters, Casey and Jennifer, the band were very active in making the city a more welcome and harmonious place, be it through art, activism or fundraising for important causes. Their important contributions to the city's arts almost overshadowed their own music, but in their decade together they left behind three exquisite albums. Ohbijou were always misunderstood when it came to the type of music they made, but to my ear it was sublime, intricate and fearless indie pop that was just as comfortable featuring a glockenspiel or ukelele as it was an electric guitar. It was no surprise when Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins) signed them to his Bella Union label for Europe. "Eloise and the Bones" is taken from their second album, Beacons, and although I wouldn't say it's the best example of Ohbijou's sound, I can't help but love that distorted Farfisa steering it along.
Polaris nomination? Nope. I had to quadruple check, and shockingly they were overlooked. WTF.
44. Black Mountain "Druganaut"
Choosing between Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops has always been one of the greatest struggles I've faced regarding Canadian indie rock in the 2000s, but I'm siding with Stephen McBean's band over the man himself. McBean, who admittedly comes from a clan that originated in Loch Ness and apparently dabbled in cannibalism, is a fucking legend in British Columbia, as you'd guess from his ancestry. His other bands include: Jerk Ward, Gus, Ex Dead Teenager and Jerk With A Bomb, who ruled. Simultaneously, McBean had both Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops, which was a full-on solo project, on the go. It was Black Mountain, however, that catapulted him into uncharted waters. Their self-titled debut album became a global indie hit that bizarrely earned them a support gig with fucking Coldplay. But that first Black Mountain album, man, it was a beast that sounded like Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, Hawkwind and Sleep sharing a spliff. "No Satisfaction" was a jam, but it's "Druganaut" that best shows off their stuff, with its restless groove, and dual leads by a shimmying Amber Webber and McBean's wiggling howl. I can just imagine Chris Martin shaking his ass to this, which is possibly why I only put it at #44.
Polaris nomination? Hells yeah. Both 2008's In the Future and 2016's IV were shortlisted, while 2010's Wilderness Heart made the 2011 longlist.
43. Despistado "A Stirstick's Prediction"
Despistado were cool for at least three reasons: they were from Regina, Saskatchewan, they were signed to Jade Tree, and they broke up in between releasing their debut EP, The Emergency Response, and debut album, The People of and Their Verses. It all happened so fast too. As good as the album was, it couldn't quite live up to the EP's awesome blast of urgent, spazzy punk. It was basically a lightning in a bottle situation, and the album arriving after their break-up felt anticlimactic. (They've actually since reunited.) "A Stirstick's Prediction" falls somewhere in between At The Drive-In's crucial anthemic flashes and the Dismemberment Plan's playful, punchy rhythms.
Polaris nomination? Nopers.
42. Handsome Furs "I'm Confused"
Before Wolf Parade, Dan Boeckner had a band called Atlas Strategic that could have easily become the band that signed to Sub Pop. They toured with Modest Mouse at one point, and I think the story goes that Isaac Brock was pushing to get them signed. Instead, Wolf Parade two years later got the deal, thanks to Brock. I'm not sure where I was going with this, but yeah, Boeckner wasn't just some guy from Wolf Parade. So when he and his partner Alexei Perry formed Handsome Furs it made sense that he would want to become the main songwriter for another project. This band, unlike his other two, shoved the synthesizer to the forefront and turned these warm, new wave tones into this strapping rock music. Taken from their second album that had the scary Doberman on it, "I'm Confused" is just the sort of pulsating anthem Boeckner brought to Wolf Parade, just with a minimal touch that gave the band their purpose.
Polaris nomination? Yup. The Doberman album made the longlist in 2009, and their swan song, Sound Kapital made the shortlist in 2012.
41. Hot Hot Heat "Bandages"
When it comes to pinpointing exactly when Canada became hot indie rock shit, the conversation generally starts with Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People scoring a 9.2 on Pitchfork in 2003. That seemed to blow the doors wide open and place a big spotlight on the country. But whenever I hear that argument I often think of how Victoria's Hot Hot Heat actually, became an international sensation first. Let's not forget how Triple-H (as I like to call them) signed to Sub Pop the year before, and not only released an awesome EP, Knock Knock Knock, but then followed it up a couple of months later with their debut album, Make Up The Breakdown. That album was fucking huge! In fact, I saw Triple-H play both the Leeds Festival and the London Astoria (with Franz Ferdinand as their openers!) in 2003, where they were applauded like they were tween idols. Anyway, the ever controversial "Bandages" was the shit.
Polaris nomination? Nope, but if it had been around in 2003, you'd better believe Make Up The Breakdown would've been a shortlister.
40. Death From Above 1979 "Romantic Rights"
There was a good year or so in 2003/2004 where I thought Death From Above were the greatest thing on Earth. They played Southern Ontario quite regularly before they released You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, and their gigs were a lot of sweaty fun. But I can't really say the music has held up for me. Maybe it was all of those bad remixes that later appeared on the companion comp, Romance Bloody Romance, that sullied it for me. Word of advice to all of the rock bands out there: Just say no to remixes. Either way, "Romantic Rights" is still a banger.
Polaris nomination? Not for You're a Woman, but its long-awaited follow-up, The Physical World, got longlisted in 2015.
39. Sinclaire "The Secret Weapon"
Canada was pretty awesome at producing emo bands in the 1990s and 2000s. I didn't listen to any of them, but I did fucking LOVE Sinclaire. Originally from London, Ontario, they were based out of Toronto when Sonic Unyon released their debut album, 2000's Attention Teenage Girls. There was a lot of buzz around them and in 2000 they were invited to play on the Warped Tour, which as we know, was every emo band's dream. Sadly, they didn't even last a year after the album dropped, supposedly because they had irreconcilable differences (read: the singer was reportedly acting like a "dad"). Single "The Secret Weapon" is an emo delicacy, but, man that cutesy video where their kidnapped asses are saved by some "teenage girls" just in time to play a gig is just all so perfectly emo.
Polaris nomination? Nope, the came and left too early.
38. SS Cardiacs "Noo Noo (In A Foreign Dialect)"
Before she moved to Montreal, joined Miracle Fortress and formed the Luyas, Jessie Stein was fronting a little known Toronto band called SS Cardiacs. They didn't last very long, but in their short existence - which at one point featured Owen Pallett in the line-up - they dropped an album called Fear the Love for Steve Kado's Blocks Recording Club (Final Fantasy, Katie Stelmanis, Kids On TV). Stein received production help from By Divine Right's José Contreras, better known as Stein's big bro. "Noo Noo (In A Foreign Dialect)" is but a sampling of the fuzzy, slacker pop the album has to offer, but more than any song, Stein's sugary vocals hit like one of those Lotsa Fizz candies.
Polaris nomination? Nope. The band didn't even make it to the inaugural year.
37. Joel Plaskett "Nowhere With You"
As a teenager, Thrush Hermit were likely my favourite Canadian band. Early on it was because they made fuzzy noise pop, but they evolved with each record, ending up as one of the country's most thrilling rock and roll bands (they even had the neon sign to prove it). When they broke up in 1999, Joel Plaskett was the member that best carried on the band's spirit, continuing to change and improve as a songwriter. Truth be told, Plaskett has simply written too many good songs over the years, be it in Thrush Hermit or on his own. Trying to narrow one down is hard, so why not go with what is arguably his most popular song? Funnily enough, "Nowhere With You" didn't appear on an album but a DVD/EP of all things. But thanks to a Zellers ad that featured it, the song became the most recognizable song of his storied career.
Polaris nomination? Of course! He was on the 2007 and 2009 shortlist, and on the 2012 and 2015 longlist.
36. Dog Day "Oh Dead Life"
True story: The first few times I listened to Dog Day's 2007 debut, Night Group, I thought they were American. They sounded like a perfect encapsulation of everything I loved about '90s US alt-rock. Turned out they were from Halifax and upon learning that I realized, they actually sounded like a perfect encapsulation of everything I loved about '90s East Coast Canadian indie rock. Since then they've only become weirder and more wonderful, but Night Group's "Oh Dead Life" is still tops, with its jangle and its urgency and Seth Smith singing "I'm in no rush" when it sounds like he really is.
Polaris nomination? Nope.
35. Gentleman Reg "Give Me The Chance To Fall"
Oh, this is the prettiest song on the list. And because of that, I cringe at the idea of using a video posted by someone named "SaltyChocolateBallz." But that's what I have to work with. Gentleman Reg was probably the most underrated act on Three Gut's stacked roster in the early to mid-'00s, and his three LPs for that label were all so beautifully arranged and delicately sung. I'd say it's close between Make Me Pretty's "Give Me The Chance To Fall" and Darby & Joan's "The Boyfriend Song," but the former wins because that falsetto he hits makes me melt.
Polaris nomination? Surprisingly, nope.
34. The Organ "Sinking Hearts"
There was a moment there in 2004 where I thought Vancouver's the Organ were gonna become the biggest Canadian indie band, both inside and outside of the country. The buzz was just so strong, because their album, Grab That Gun, had the new wavy sound at a time when that was all fire emoji. They were signed to Chad Kroeger's label, 604, through a partnership with Mint, and then Too Pure in the UK scooped them up. But the Organ weren't built to last. They broke up before making a second album. Though "Sinking Hearts" isn't their Smithsiest song (see "Steven Smith"), it's still so deliciously Smithsy. Man this album would have been huge in 1984.
Polaris nomination? Nope.
33. The Stills "Lola Stars and Stripes"
Canada's Interpol? That was kind of how the Stills were introduced to the world. Though they didn't feel the need to exclusively wear expensive suits, the Montreal band shared plenty in common with the dour NYC band. But that would only really last for one album, their 2003 debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart. Later on they became a beer band after scoring a pretty prominent spot in an Alexander Keith's commercial for their song "I'm With You." It worked. I wanted to drink beer whenever I saw it or even heard that song. But even with that mind control over me, I can't deny that "Lola Stars and Stripes" with its Interpol-ish guitar attack and starry-eyed chorus is the better track.
Polaris nomination? They made the longlist for their 2008 swan song, Oceans Will Rise.
32. Hayden "Dynamite Walls"
Hayden Desser was a Canadian indie rock pinup god in the 1990s, but his career took a strange turn once the millennium hit. You can read all about it here, actually. By the time he released his third album, Skyscraper National Park, he hadn't become the singer-songwriter superstar many expected him to be. Instead, he retreated from the limelight and made what many feel is his best album. "Dynamite Walls" is one of those unassuming songs that creeps up on you then into your ear through to your brain. It also utilized the quiet-to-loud dynamic in a nice way just before every nu-post-rock band was about to exploit the shit out of that sound.
Polaris nomination? Yup. He made the longlist in 2008 and 2013.
31. Jim Guthrie "All Gone"
Remember that Capital One ad with the catchy jingle called "Hands In My Pockets"? Well, that was just one of a zillion songs prolific singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie from Guelph has written over the last 20-plus years. And that was just on his own - he also played in Royal City, Human Highway, and briefly, Islands. He named his debut album, A Thousand Songs, because the guy likely had that many to choose from. It was his 2003, the Juno-nominated Now, More Than Ever, that was his best, however. "All Gone" is the standout, with Owen Pallett's swelling strings and Guthrie's meek vocals guiding the way. It's the song's gently driving rhythm though that always keeps me mesmerized.
Polaris nomination? Yep, in 2013 for his album, Takes Time.
Read on in Part Two here.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto where he wrote this list surprisingly without being harmed. Follow him on Twitter.
- Black Mountain
- the stills
- Death From Above 1979
- Chad VanGaalen
- hot hot heat
- The besnard lakes
- You Say Party
- Attack In Black
- Joel Plaskett
- The Organ
- Handsome Furs
- jim guthrie
- The Salteens
- Les Georges Leningrad
- Mean Red Spiders
- The Meligrove Band
- The Heavy Blinkers
- Shotgun & Jaybird
- Land of Talk
- SS Cardiacs
- Dog Day
- Gentleman Reg