Canadian media organs (including this one) are famous for ferreting out the maple-leaf passport in any situation of note. This year in music, however, no sleuthing was needed to find the Canadians – at the top of the charts, in the winner’s circle, and on the big stages of the world. In 2011, the place to go for the new cat’s meow was our home and native land.
The year was only a few weeks old when Arcade Fire rocked the Grammy Awards by taking the biggest prize: album of the year. A few months later, Robert Lepage, another Montrealer, stood Manhattan on its ear with the second instalment of a physically vast and conceptually ambitious staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.
This year’s new albums by Feist, Drake, Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Nickelback and the Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye) either topped the charts or charmed the critics or both. Electronica star deadmau5 (a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman) became the first Canadian musician of any stripe to headline at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, the last stop in a wildly successful tour by a guy who neither sings nor plays an instrument.
This was the year that confirmed that you don’t need a conventional studio album to get a lot of ears in your corner, and maybe even some prizes on the mantelpiece. The Weeknd’s House of Balloons landed on the Polaris Prize shortlist, even though it was released online for free (his second gratis album, Thursday, was downloaded 180,000 times on its first day). Tesfaye was merely following the lead of his cohort Drake, who scored his first Grammy nominations (in 2009) on the strength of mix tapes unavailable in any store. The pair – along with Drake producer Noah (40) Shebib – were widely credited with creating a dark new nexus for soul and hip hop, though Drake’s reflective, self-doubting subject matter wasn’t so novel to anyone familiar with British rappers like the Streets and Wiley.
Sometimes a perception of newness wasn’t needed. Nickelback kept on pulling in the bucks with its formula lout-rock, so despised in some quarters that Nickelbacklash became both a noun and a social-media tag. The Sheepdogs’ simulation of deep-fried Southern rock put the Saskatoon band on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and Bublé’s staunchly MOR album Christmas continued the stellar sales record of the world’s favourite pitch-corrected crooner.
The Quebec government built a resonant new symphony hall for Montreal’s orchestras, and the city’s Museum of Fine Arts converted an august old church into a recital hall. Calgary Opera took a successful gamble on The Inventor (a new opera by Bramwell Tovey and John Murrell), while Pacific Opera Victoria came up snake eyes with Mary’s Wedding (by Andrew P. MacDonald and Stephen Massicotte).
Daniel Lanois added another stream to his career as producer and performing songwriter, becoming impresario for the terrific new Greenbelt Harvest Picnic near his hometown of Hamilton. Convicted fraudster Garth Drabinsky, launched the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival (with sports entertainment producer Kevin Albrecht) in a north Toronto tennis stadium that played to small audiences and left big bills unpaid.
Shows that stood out for me included, in Toronto, Orfeo ed Euridice at the Canadian Opera Company, Prince at the Air Canada Centre, countertenor Philippe Jaroussky at Koerner Hall and St. Vincent at the Phoenix Concert Theatre; the opening Orchestre symphonique de Montréal concert at that city’s new Maison symphonique; k.d. lang’s Luminato show at Toronto’s Pecaut Square; R. Murray Schafer’s Symphony No. 1 by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall; Ray Lamontagne at Greenbelt Harvest in Ontario’s Christie Lake; and, for sheer intense craziness, Lady Gaga at the ACC.
You had to be there, and I’m glad I was.
TUNES FROM THE PAST
In a lukewarm new trend, what was old was old again in 2011. Major recording artists redid past music and raided vaults for scraps left behind. “You ask why?” wrote the Scorpions, in the liner notes to Comeblack, a package of covers and rerecordings of past hits. “The answer is simple,” continued the band that once rocked like a hurricane. “The album is an encore for our diehard fans, saying thank-you for all the support for so many years.”
The answer for all the revisits actually isn’t simple, but neither is it too complicated. The Rolling Stones polished up some 1978 outtakes in order to sell a deluxe version of their Some Girls album from that year. Styx’s Regeneration Volume I & II, on the other hand, rewrites history by rerecording old material note-for-note but without former co-leader Dennis DeYoung.
Prince partied like it was 1981 with his “new” single Extraloveable, a fresh recording of a previously unreleased track. With The Smile Sessions, Brian Wilson reconstructed a Beach Boys’ album initially recorded in 1966 and ’67 and rerecorded in 2003. Peter Gabriel’s New Blood took a sledgehammer to the original arrangements of his classics, newly “reimagined” without drums or guitars. Counting Crows released a live version of its 1993 debut August and Everything After.
Foreigner has new product for the merchandise table with Jukebox Heroes, rerecordings of their radio staples from the 1970s and eighties, now with a new singer. Feels like second time, indeed. – Brad Wheeler