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20 Criminally Underappreciated Canadian Albums from '93 to '03

By Scott Reid | 4 April 2003

It’s hard to write something like this without sounding authoritative, but this is really just meant to be twenty (of many) albums that I feel are needlessly ignored and also happen to come from my home country, Canada—twenty that I can only hope might find some new fans through my fan-boy style gushing. I tried to narrow down my options by keeping it in the last decade, and I realize that the list leans heavily toward the late ’90s and early ’00s, but I feel that there is enough range of styles (though I certainly didn’t include any albums purely for their style; I absolutely love every album listed here) and enough picks from the mid ’90s to warrant not just cutting everything before ’98 and just fleshing out the list from that point on. There was no way I could make this list without the Inbreds, Eric’s Trip, Super Friendz, Zumpano, Gandharvas and Rheostatics picks, really. There are a few more recent releases—like the self-titled Arcade Fire and Chad VanGaalen albums, for instance—that are far too recent to be considered “underappreciated” or “ignored,” that are still highly recommended, even if they wouldn’t make sense in an article like this.

I didn’t set many “rules” around writing this, but I did try to include only one album per artist, which meant trying to make sure there weren’t two albums created by the same core members; it explains why I left off the offshots of Eric’s Trip (Elevator, Elevator to Hell and Julie Doiron, for instance) or releases by Weeping Tile (Sarah Harmer’s old band with Luther Wright), Thrush Hermit (Joel Plaskett’s old band), The Flashing Lights (formed by ex-Super Friendz frontman Matt Murphy), etc. I guess all of these branches are inevitable within a country of a mere thirty million people; band cross-pollination is pretty much unavoidable. For this particular list I wanted to portray as many different scenes and minds as possible, but I’m sure I’ll include some of the albums that had to be cut because of this in the future (I doubt I’ll keep this to a one-part piece).

I also tried, to some degree, to evenly cover many of the different scenes across Canada (Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, New Brunswick, etc.), but I realize some scenes got a lot more picks than others (Halifax, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto, especially). I probably could’ve evened it out more (or even included other scenes, like Edmonton/Calgary, Saskatchewan or the other Maritime provinces), but I wanted to keep it mostly about what albums I love more and not just decide to keep or cut an album based on how many artists from its scene were already listed. I’ve also listed three recommended songs for each album in case you want to try out a few individual tracks on your file-sharing program of choice to get a taste before, if you like it, supporting some artists that could use and certainly deserve support.

One of the more confusing exclusions would probably be the Tragically Hip (though I do include their frontman Gordon Downie on the above list), who certainly fit the description of being underappreciated outside of Canada; they’ve released five albums that, by my account, are at the very least great (Day For Night, Fully Completely, Road Apples, Phantom Power and Trouble at the Henhouse; I’m also a sucker for their latter-day material, but I won’t be naive enough to think many agree with me), but I chose to keep them off this particular list (they’ll most likely be on the next I write) because I felt Downie’s album is far more ignored, even in Canada, and didn’t want to break the “one album per artist” rule I had arbitrarily set for myself. Seems petty, but that’s just the kind of person I am.

Sloan, on the other hand, probably couldn’t be considered “underappreciated;” Twice Removed is certainly up there as one of the best Canadian albums of the ’90s, but seems to be generally lauded as such, even if a surprising amount of people I’ve talked to remain in the dark about their terrific run from Smeared to One Chord to Another. So rather than taking away one of the following spots by writing a blurb on it, I’ll just say that Twice Removed is one of our classics, with Smeared not far behind (more of a shoegaze influence here) and One Chord to Another being fine in its own right. Navy Blues and Between the Bridges both have their moments, but are far too uneven to really recommend to anyone except huge fans of the first three records. Pretty Together is the only album they’ve made that boarders on terrible, but Action Pact, last year’s release, thankfully shows the band (who have alluded many times over that they’re really only together now for the money) getting back to writing catchy pop songs again.

Some albums, like Propagandhi’s How to Clean Everything, Rufus Wainwright’s eponymous debut (or Poses for that matter, though the debut kills it), Daniel Lanois’ For the Beauty of Wynona or Blue Rodeo’s Five Days In May, I feel have gotten enough attention or respect to exclude themselves from a list like this. Then there are underappreciated albums by more well known acts, like Blue Rodeo’s Nowhere To Here, Daniel Lanois’ Shine or Neil Young’s Greendale, that could certainly be added as well (and as such are listed in the honourable mentions list below). I didn’t really include them above because I wanted to keep the list full of artists that, for the most part, might be a little less known to a non-Canadian audience.

Knowing that I’ll probably do another one of these articles later in the year to cover another twenty or so albums that were bastards to cut from this list, I’ll just loosely name-drop a few more (under the terribly lame heading of “honourable mentions”) that will most certainly make it next time around with fun little blurbs attached to them, including several of the artists/albums I just mentioned: Tamara Williamson: All Those Racing Horses; Jim Bryson: The Occasionals; The Dears: End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story (not to be confused with their extremely disappointing 2003 LP, No Cities Left); Weakerthans: Left and Leaving; Julie Doiron: Loneliest in the Morning; Do Make Say Think: Goodbye Enemy Airship The Landlord is Dead; Hawksley Workman: For Him and the Girls; The Tragically Hip: Day for Night; Thrush Hermit: Clayton Park; Blue Rodeo: Nowhere To Here; Flashing Lights: Where the Change Is; Akufen: My Way; Set Fire to Flames: Sings Reign Rebuilder; The Sadies: Pure Diamond Gold; Barzin: Barzin; Deadly Snakes: Ode to Joy; Cool Blue Halo: Kangaroo; Neil Young: Greendale; Sloan: Smeared (I’d probably pick this one because it seems to be glossed over in turn for the praise Twice Removed certainly deserves).