Where were you 20 years ago? Chances are, you were listening to at least one of these records on your Sony Discman, pouring over liner notes in the CD wallet and waiting for a Much Music VJ to throw to something new. Since all of these CDs turn 20 this year, and since it’s Canada Day, I thought I’d rank them based on my own personal whatever. I asked J&E contributors to weigh in, and since we’ve been conducting interviews with many of the artists about these discs, I included a few quotes from those pieces. Enjoy the Top 30 Canadian albums of 1996!
30. Bryan Adams – 18 Til I Die
“I can honestly say that I know every single word to every single song off the 18 til I Die album,” J&E contributor Jenna Khan says. “My mom is a big Bryan Adams fan and this album got constant play on every road trip – even the short ones. Full disclosure: When I was 12, I thought the song ‘The Only Thing That Looks Good on me Is You’ was the sexiest thing ever. Pretty sure we still have that cassette somewhere…”
“Confession time: I think ‘Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman’ is a darn stupid song,” notes J&E contributor Emily Baron Cadloff. “I can appreciate what Mr. Adams was doing, style-wise, with the flamenco guitar, but….man. BUT! That song soared on the charts, reaching #1 in Canada, Australia, the US, and half a dozen European countries. Though in my opinion, this album is better served by tunes like ‘I’ll Always Be Right There’ and ‘Let’s Make a Night to Remember’. They showcase his voice, they strip the songs down to the essentials, and they made a bunch of soccer moms super horny in the mid-90s. What else do you need in a hit record?”
29. Rheostatics – Blue Hysteria
An American tour with the Hip helped the Rheos spread the word about this, the band’s seventh studio album. “Bad Time To Be Poor” shoulda been a hit.
28. The Watchmen – Brand New Day
The Winnipeg band’s least commercially successful record is still one of their best – nothing popular is ever good, anyway.
27. Zumpano – Goin’ Through Changes
The second of two Zumpano records released by Sub Pop (there’s an alleged third LP, still unreleased), the band that would go on to spawn the New Pornographers and Sparrow.
26. Propaghandi – Less Talk More Rock
“I was only eight when Less Talk More Rock was released. Needless to say, I didn’t hear it when it first hit the streets,” notes J&E contributor David Knipe. “My dad gave me a mix tape he had made that featured Propagandhi’s How to Clean Everything around that time, and it wasn’t until years later that I heard the follow up. When I did finally get to experience this classic album, I was deeply inspired by its mission of progressive honesty and directness. Bad Religion’s politics were always so obscure; NOFX’s couched in so much irony; but here was a band laying it all down, writing songs about tangible issues, and delivering them in hooky, aggressive melodies. The title track is one of my all-time favorites – one that I catch myself singing under my breath at work quite often. It’s lyrical frankness struck a chord with me and proved that a punk band could be emotionally honest yet still retain the most hardened edge.”
25. Furnaceface – Unsafe @ Any Speed
The weirdest catchy band from the Canadian ’90s. “Slip and Stumble” is pure pop perfection, while “Trailer Park” is a devastating killer and an amped-up cover of The Creations’ “Bif Bang Pow” had a standout video that I watched Much Music around the clock in hopes of catching. Also, I temporarily lift my hatred of horns in rock music for album closer “Clobbering Time.”
24. Barenaked Ladies – Born on a Pirate Ship
“By the time BOAPS came out, I was already a Barenaked Ladies fan,” says J&E contributor Emily Baron Cadloff. “Their first EP, Gordon, is filled with classics that have endeared the band to me even 20 years later. But with BOAPS, the ladies grew up. The tight harmonies are still there, but the playfulness softened and matured. This album is wistful and reflective – and Shoe Box still kicks ass.”
“After Andy (Creeggan) left the band, it threw us way off, and our response to that was to make a record now as a four piece, more than anything else just to prove to ourselves we could keep going,” former co-frontman Steven Page tells us. The band’s label at the time, Sire, had just been swallowed up by Elektra, so BNL found a home for Pirate Ship at Reprise. “Everything was new. We fired our management. We did that record without management and we did it with our own money.”
23. Moist – Creature
You could not escape Moist on Much Music and Tarzan Dan’s Hit List in the mid-90s. My female classmates cried when David Usher got married. It was a weird, beautiful band, and this was a massive hit record. The video for “Resurrection” predated that “Ava Adore” concept the Pumpkins did by two years, and the song appeared on the series finale of Due South, which is cool.
22. Sook-Yin Lee – Wigs ‘n’ Guns
The only former Much VJ I know to put out any music, this one features cover art from Lee’s then BF Chester Brown and features “Knock Loud” – a song later covered by Neko Case on Canadian Amp and her live album. It’s a gorgeous and strange listen.
21. Broken Girl – Broken Girl
Julie Doiron released this one before Eric’s Trip was done and it remains a perfect lo-fi offering, ensuring lonely mornings would be wrapped in a sonic blanket.
20. Destroyer – We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge
This one isn’t for everyone, but it’s for me. More than Kaputt. I didn’t like Kaputt.
19. Doughboys – Turn Me On
“Up until making Crush, we never thought about making records,” John Kastler tells us about the final Doughboys disc. “Turn Me On was the first record where we had a lot of pressure. We were actually over thinking what we were doing because we had 29 people in every country telling us what a ‘hit’ should be. It’s a fucking stressful time. Funnily enough, that record came out and, in Canada, I think it sold a little over 25,000 records in the first two months — and that was considered a flop. By month three, when they had expected it to have gone gold by then, they told us to just cut the tour and start working on the next record and we said forget that. We were pissed. The band just ended right there.”
18. I Mother Earth – Scenery & Fish
I was obsessed with this record’s third single, “Used To Be Alright”. I actually didn’t buy the record until it was released. Those other two videos with that Edwin-clone looking bewildered were pretty good but not good enough to warrant buying the record. Then Edwin went solo and everything changed.
17. The Super Friendz – Slide Show
This album would have been huge if it were released today. I listen to Super Friendz these days and just wonder why the fuck this band wasn’t massive.
16. Bif Naked – Bif Naked
Bif’s solo debut LP is playful, spiteful, ambitious, accessible and has a bonafide hit in “Daddy’s Getting Married” (the best ever song about insecure daughter syndrome) and a shoulda been hit in “Everything” (the best ever song about getting a girl to swing your way).
15. The Pursuit of Happiness – The Wonderful World of the Pursuit of Happiness
“We were experimenting with this idea of learning the songs in the studio,” Moe Berg tells us of his band’s final release. “I’d written everything with this idea that it would just be one long piece with all the songs that kind of go together, like side two of Abbey Road. In a way, I was writing song fragments almost more than I was writing a song. I just kind of made demos of all the songs and gave them to the band and said ‘here’s the demos, I’ll see you in the studio.’ It’s funny how we ended our career on this sort of pop moment. A lot of the songs, like ‘I Like You’ and ‘What You Did To My Girl’ had this very kind of syrupy pop feel to them. (Single) ‘She’s the Devil’ had a more of a hard edge, a lot more rock.”
14. Jale – So Wound
“Is this Jale? ‘Not Happy’ is my jam,” said singer Gareth Williams the first time he got into my car to go for drinks. Seems about right.
13. Big Sugar – Hemivision
“In that time there was a lot of pressure on us to conform to – believe it or not – grunge,” Gordie Johnson tells us of his band’s breakout disc. “Even down to the hair and the clothes, we were wearing crisp Hugo Boss suits and jackets. I’m really glad I didn’t listen to any of that fuckery. Because grunge bands didn’t have black guys in their bands, that was holding us back, we were told. If that’s holding us back, I’m gonna stay back.”
12. Eric’s Trip – Purple Blue
The final studio LP from the band is seen as a controversial one in that it was engineered by Bob Weston (Nirvana), abandoning the lo-fi hum for a near slickness. Though it’s not what anyone would refer to as a “polished” record, it is considered a minor misstep in a beloved recording career by many fans, despite being home to Julie Doiron standouts “Eyes Shut” and “Soon, Coming Closer.” “It was pretty different than the first stuff, but that’s where we had gotten to live. We were doing that kind of sound more at that point,” Doiron told Nicholas Friesen for a piece from The Uniter in 2012.
11. Duotang – Smash the Ships and Raise the Beams
“We were still writing on the way (to Vancouver), that’s how quickly it happened,” drummer Sean Allum tells us of how quickly his Winnipeg duo’s record deal with Mint came together. “(Producer) Darryl Neudorf wanted to capture us live, warts and all, which is the one thing I’m not crazy about when I listen back,” bassist/singer Rod Slaughter adds. “We were a new band, we were still trying to figure out everything in our sound. It was a pretty fast process.”
10. 54-40 – Trusted by Millions
“With Trusted by Millions we wanted to explore some sort of middle ground where there’s still kind of that intensity and an eclectic approach, but there’s still an attention to detail like with Dear Dear,” bassist Brad Merritt tells us. “Also, our manager Allen Moy would say ‘Why don’t you make this concept 10 Pop Hits?’ To craft a pop song is a difficult thing.”
9. Sloan – One Chord to Another
“‘The Good in Everyone’ is a quintessential Sloan song – in fact, I’d bet it’s the song most often recognized as Sloan,” notes J&E contributor Emily Baron Cadloff. “It’s got that steady bass line, and the soaring chorus. It’s a throwback to the ‘70s, but with a bit of ‘90s grunge. While for me, ‘The Good in Everyone’ anchors this record, it doesn’t overpower it. ‘Everything You’ve Done Wrong’ has those peppy trumpets, and ‘The Lines You Amend’ starts with that bluesy drum riff, before transitioning into a clap-along chorus. This record has something for everyone on it, and it’s what made Sloan Canadian legends.”
8. Limblifter – Limblifter
“I was writing songs for Age of Electric because that’s what I was told to do,” Ryan Dahle tells us of the headspace he was in during the writing of Limblifter’s (then an AOE side project) first album. “We all kinda play to our strengths and I never really thought of myself as the greatest guitar player, so I was always looking for other things to do. As I kept growing as a songwriter, I realized that I kind of changed what I was doing so I was no longer writing songs for Todd Kerns’ voice. Going from Todd to another lead singer wasn’t really an option for me because you don’t find a better singer than that.”
7. Odds – Nest
“When we did Nest, there was a concerted effort, maybe even a statement, that we just relax and make music that makes people happy and that we want to listen to,” Craig Northey tells us of his band’s final disc before its extended hiatus. “I don’t think (former co-frontman) Steven (Drake) was as prepared to make it as we wanted him to be. He didn’t have any lyrics or any songs ready for the time we wanted to start. I am a traditional homework guy, I’m on it all the time, in terms of Type A, so I had a bunch of material. When we went in, he had all kinds of cool things that were important but weren’t formed as whole songs, so we went in that way with a bunch of things that were formed and not formed. It was difficult but fun, because there were those open perimeters. By the time it was done, we were exhausted.”
6. Various – A Tribute to Hard Core Logo
I bought this because I loved all the bands on it – Headstones, Odds, Doughboys, Cub, Super Friendz, rusty, 54-40, etc. Did I know they were covering fictional songs (poems, really) by a fictional band from a movie I’d never seen? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that its purchase annoyed my mom, which seemed pretty punk rock.
5. Pluto – Pluto
The pop perfection of Pluto’s major label debut is encapsulated in its singles (“When She Was Happy”, “Paste”, “Black Lipstick”) and its album tracks (“Details”, “Failure” and “Uncola” made it onto many a mix in the summer of ’97) but if it had been just a little more popular maybe the band would’ve stuck around for more than one more album.
4. The Killjoys – Gimme Five
“Gimme Five was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, which was huge for us,” frontman Mike Trebilcock tells J&E of the band’s sophomore album. “It’s where Big Star began, and where The Replacements recorded Pleased To Meet Me. While we were there, the Gin Blossoms were mixing, and The Afghan Whigs were finishing up a record. It really is a power-pop Mecca and we felt lucky to be there. Not to mention Beale Street, Sun Records, Stax and Graceland! We also shot some memorable videos for that record. “Rave + Drool,” which brought us to the Mojave Desert to race around in borrowed cars. “Soaked,” where we pretended to be vermin, and “Look Like Me,” which was a great but little-seen claymation video where our heads were put onto various bodies by a mad-scientist.”
3. The Inbreds – It’s Sydney or the Bush
“It was just us trying to make the biggest, most exciting record we could,” bassist/singer Mike O’Neill tells us about his former band’s third LP. “I was trying to finish songs on the road and I didn’t find that very easy, because you’re waiting around to play a show, you’re sitting in a hotel room and you’re not really experiencing anything.” “It was in a proper studio with all the stuff, but what I remember was that weird pressure from the label, and a general pressure from Mike on the songwriting side to be successful,” drummer Dave Ulrich mentions. “One of the ways that Mike manifested it was getting into more overdubbing, a more poppier sound. Beach Boys harmonies, trumpets, strings.”
2. Tragically Hip – Trouble at the Henhouse
At age 13, I didn’t know the difference between the bald guy in the Hip, the bald guy in REM and the bald guy in Live. All of them danced around manically and warbled in their vocal delivery. In 1996, each of these bands had hits on radio and Much Music, and I started paying more attention. “Ahead by a Century” and “Gift Shop” didn’t seem like anything else out there. The video for the former had a kid in an Ozzy Osborne shirt running from … something. Responsibility? His dad? The future? The video for the latter was a gorgeous black and white clip with moments of Canadiana that I didn’t appreciate at the time, but I enjoyed, even though I didn’t know why.
1. Salmonblaster – Salmonblaster
Those that don’t know are scratching their heads at this one. Those that do … you are my people. It’s sloppy, poppy, charismatic and the only album from London, Ontario trio Salmonblaster. The videos for “Freeway” and “Sugar Rush” were fixtures on Much Music’s Daily RSVP, recordings of which I still have on worn-out VHS somewhere. There are also some great illegal movie samples in there – when I finally saw Wild at Heart years later, I let out a big “ooooohhhhh” at a sample I could never place. Seek out a copy of this, or download it, or something. The follow up was teased during the band’s appearance on The Tom Green Show with “Secret Agent” – a still unreleased tune. I discovered only a few years ago that frontman Matt Werm kept active, releasing music with Tournament! and Panic Coast, while other members were part of Raised by Swans. If you like Sonic Youth covering AC/DC through blown out speakers with a smile, this is your new favourite band.