Monday, October 27, 2008

Hottest Canadian Bands (just below the radar), 2008

Matthew from i (heart) music asked me to put together a list of the 10 hottest Canadian bands of 2008. My thoughts, along with those of other Canadian music bloggers, journalists, and promoters, will enable him to compile some kind of definitive list. After a year of going out to a lot of indie shows in Toronto, keeping track of all the lesser known (and sometimes known) bands based in, around, or passing through Canada's largest city, and bringing you some of their music through my podcast---over 80 bands or solo artists featured in the past 5 months---I'm ready to have a say. So, yes, just call me one of those people.

The following bands have all had really good years. While their members may not be able to call music a full-time career, they've all carved out a spot for themselves in the crowded (indie) music scene in this country. Festival spots, sold-out shows, critically acclaimed and/or chart-topping albums, (campus/CBC3) radio play, and general visibility in the music press and Toronto's bursting-at-the-seams music community are all part of the the hotness equation. Not yet "big time" musical acts, they are on their way to getting there. Some have made forays into the US and elsewhere, while others haven't. A few are signed; the others await. But all these bands were just below the mainstream in 2008, and are now poised to become well known. (Oh, and yeah, this is a pretty Toronto-centric list. Well, what can I say? I'm a pretty Toronto-centric woman.) If you haven't heard these bands, take note and have a listen. Go see a show if you're able. Chances are you'll enjoy yourself.

Ok, here we go. This will be fun.

1. Woodhands.

When I'm in the mood for a crazy, sweat-soaked, jam-packed dance party, there's no better group to turn to than the now half Toronto-, half Vancouver-based Woodhands. Well known in Toronto even before the release of their full-length album (and 12" vinyl), "Heart Attack" (Paper Bag) in April, the band's hit up some major US markets and a whole lot of Canadian ones since then. And they even played a few shows in Beijing after being flown out there as part of a Canadian cultural trade mission thing. Nerdy by day, Paul Banwatt and Dan Werb bring out the crazy in young women and men only minutes into any nighttime set I've seen them play here in Canada. The band has opened for Crystal Castles and just finished off a Canada-wide tour opening for Cadence Weapon. Dan and Paul are off to Tokyo in November as part of another musical trade mission. Europe shouldn't have to wait too much longer.

2. Laura Barrett.

The first time I saw Laura Barrett play a proper set was New Year's Eve 2007 at Tranzac. The at-capacity small front room was very nearly completely silent, totally enthralled by Barrett and her various kalimbas and bass pedals. Space and place is important for Barrett---see her perform at a busy bar or club, and make sure to keep to the front if you want to hear---but in the right setting she really is a star. Her new album, "Victory Garden," shows off a quirky songwriting talent that we already knew existed, but this time all the extra musicians and orchestrations make for a much fuller, satisfying listening experience. Sci fi-loving Laura's still present, but confident, mature songwriter and lyricist Barrett shines through. After 2008 shows at important music festivals in North America, European exposure, and now vying for the role of queen of the adult indie darling set, Barrett should continue to win accolades from an ever-growing group of fans the world over. Listen to the CD release show over at CBC Radio 2. And check out Barrett's marvelous sometime show-mates Ghost Bees too.

3. The D'Urbervilles.

Playing with Woodhands for a few shows in November is the Guelph-formed band, the D'Urbervilles. This hardworking group of youngsters (compared to me) played shows across the country this past year and garnered attention for themselves with their album, "We Are the Hunters," released in 2008 at a sold-out show at Toronto's Tranzac in March. A special session on CBC's Radio 3 and a prime spot on the CBC's Saturday night showcase at the Horseshoe during NxNE gave the four-some more country-wide exposure. Their sound is manly indie rock, in the vein of a younger Constantines. Illness forced some show cancellations in the summer, but at Pop Montreal the band proved they are back on track and ready to keep getting bigger and bigger. Listen to the D'Urbs Radio 3 Session here. Other bands to pay attention to include bassist Kyle Donnelly's other project, Forest City Lovers, and The Magic, in which guitarist Tim Bruton also plays. Now, that's a whole lot of musical excellence.

4. Bruce Peninsula.

This indie gospel choir / psych folk rock band from Toronto is a kind of super group with a roving band of members in their live shows including stellar permanents Misha Bower, Matt Cully (who co-DJs the popular dance party, Goin' Steady), Neil Haverty, and occasionals Katie Stelmanis, Casey Mecija (Ohbijou), master percussionist Maya Postepski, Taylor Kirk (Timber Timbre) and the now-departed (from the band) Isla Craig. They sing traditional songs (read: Negro spirituals) and their own ethereal, haunting originals, which work as well---if differently---in places like the Horseshoe Tavern as they do at St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church on Toronto Island, where the band celebrated the release of their 7" several months back. That show, which quickly sold out to friends, fellow musicians, and local scenesters in the know, was something else. The band toured out to the East Coast in the late summer of 2008, no doubt impressing wherever they went. Watch for the band's full-length to drop soon. It's called "A Mountain Is A Mouth."

5. Ruby Coast.

Unless you're paying close attention to the indie blogs in Canada or have found yourself in the middle of a teenage mosh-pit at a Ruby Coast show in or around Toronto, you probably haven't heard of this young band. But if hotness is defined as having had a great year---ending it far from where you started it---then Ruby Coast clearly belongs in this list. With a style close to that of their busy, popular friends Born Ruffians and Tokyo Police Club, these guys are the latest Toronto pop export to get the kids bouncing. Most of the members hail from Aurora, ON, a community north of the big smoke, and the oldest members are just barely out of their teens. But their youth---and the drummer's high school schedule until he finished his June exams---hasn't kept the band from playing bigger and better shows all year, including opening for Tokyo Police Club on a few occasions. The guys have been doing a bit of touring lately in support of their recently-released EP, "Projectable Collections," mostly a rerecording of their excellent "Ruby Coast" EP handed out at shows earlier this year. Get yourself to one of their wild, high-energy shows if you can, but maybe avoid the very front unless you can handle the inevitable moshing. Watch for the word to spread and maybe a label will finally land these guys.

6. $100.

Folk rock at its best, $100 features a killer pedal steel guitar and surprisingly weathered vocals from a surprisingly young woman, Simone Schmidt. Their summer release, "Forest of Tears" (Blue Fog, 2008), was recorded in just 13 hours, and is just lovely. Serious lyrics and memorable music are hallmarks of the band's sound. Kept from extensive touring by illness, $100 packs smaller venues in Toronto, appealing to a diverse crowd of music lovers with discerning taste for songs about pain and the hard life, from alt-country enthusiasts to the coolest indie kids. The band features members of Jon-Rae & the River and other well-respected bands. In the coming weeks look for a 7" release and a smattering of shows to celebrate.

7. The Rural Alberta Advantage.

The RAA have been among Toronto's indie favourites for some time, and with the release of their first full length, "Hometowns," back in February their star only grew. Playing sporadically to enthusiastic, loyal fans in Toronto over the course of the year, including a capacity crowd for their NxNE show, this year also saw the band play successful shows in various centres through eastern Canada. The self-released album's been getting rave reviews from critics and regular folk across the continent. Comparisons to indie essentials Neutral Milk Hotel and Wilco are not unfounded. Hampered in part by the success of Woodhands---drummer Paul Banwatt plays in both---the band has had to turn down show offers (to open for The Dodos, for one) and hasn't been able to tour as extensively as it otherwise might have. And yet. All this underground pressure must lead somewhere, and heck it has to be soon. I predict some lucky label will snatch up the RAA in late 2008 or early 2009, rerelease "Hometowns," and we'll see the band take itself out west and beyond. Catch the band opening for The Acorn and Ohbijou (!!) at Lee's Palace on 27 November. Oh, and one thing, Nils & co.: use that Facebook page to tell your fans about shows, ok?

8. The Pack A.D.

Wow, talk about relentless touring. This Mint Records duo (Becky Black and Maya Miller) have been on the road, it seems, nonstop for the past several months. 2008's new release, "Funeral Mixtape," and Mint's rerelease of their first effort, "Tintype," back in January, earned the band spots on campus radio charts and picked up solid reviews from music writers and fans alike. The couple of times I've seen them play the Horseshoe, they've put the place on fire. And, the first time, around, it was 2:30am. Raw, powerful vocals, hard-hitting blues guitar, and ferocious drumming are what make the Pack A.D. such crowd-pleasers. Their sound is a bit of a throwback to years past, but the sheer emotionalism and energy apparent in the recordings and especially their live shows make them one of the few standouts in the crowded blues-rock genre.

9. The Golden Hands before God . . . .

Windsor-born, now Montreal-based, this garagy-rock (rawk) shoe-gazy six-piece features an extremely memorable ushanka-clad tambourine man (Jamie Greer) and has made a name for itself through raucous live shows and a great 2008 debut album, "Here" (Pop Echo). I saw them open for a couple local acts way back in January, and was impressed, but most of the small group of people there didn't seem to care much. By the time NxNE hit town a few months later, these guys were being paid attention to, and as well they should be: these veteran rockers have a diverse, interesting sound. (The record doesn't bore you with repetition.) Here in Toronto they've got themselves onto excellent bills in recent months, and after their move to Montreal, they should be ready to rock out and melt more faces all over Canada and the US.

10. Slim Twig (band and man).

Ah, Slim Twig. Now signed to Paper Bag, Slim Twig, the band and the man, have had a good year. The band released the EPs "Derelict Dialect" and "Vernacular Violence" in 2008, and have recently come back from a Canadian tour. Slim's other project, Tropics, a duo with drummer Simone, had a busy year too, and in late November will open for the Constantines for a few Ontario shows. Although I suspect both bands are a bit too weird for the mainstream---despite my first encounter with Slim Twig being as an opener for Born Ruffians---they are perfect indie fare. Tropics is perhaps the more accessible of the two, though Slim Twig (the band) had a lot of buzz about it during NxNE, and didn't disappoint come show time. This here's a young man with a whole lot of talent who will no doubt dabble in a whole lot of genres for the next several decades. See him in the 2007 Canadian film The Tracey Fragments, too.


nowhere said...

That is most certainly a good list.

Bobby B said...

Nicely played Jen. This is a very well thought out and highly accurate list of the best under the radar bands that the city of Toronto has to offer. (I actually placed one of these bands in my personal list of hottest Canadian bands overall. It'll be interesting to see if they make the final cut.)

The R.O.B. said...


Bruce Peninsula I've been meaning to check out, but just haven't yet - that was a nice reminder. And, yes, I hope you will see me at a show at some point... I'm all about seeing smaller (and by extension cheaper) shows - so if you see anything on the weekends PLEASE do shoot me a message...

Anonymous said...

tough thing to do - a short list of 10. Did any of these make your 'almost made it' list: Justin Rutledge, Dearly Beloved, The Populars, The Dunes, Public?

Question # 2 are the Golden Hands Before God from T.Dot? I thought they were from Windsor.

Anyway, provocative list, nice work, let's keep in touch.

Joe C
IndieCan Radio

historyjen said...

Joe! I don't know any of those bands. Eek. (So many bands, just one me...)
As for Golden Hands etc..., yeah they formed in Windsor but I believe are now out of Montreal.

Ming Wu Photography said...

First time for me picking my 10 favorite acts.

The list this year is very good.
Surprised that I didn't pick Chad :P if you want to read my top 10 picks

Unknown said...

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