The past decade saw structural upheaval in virtually every corner of music. Streaming music services shifted from a strange curiosity to the world’s most dominant form of consumption. The income gap between megastars and workhorses widened as royalty payments shifted to micropennies. Genres blended together; others faded into the background. More broadly, many digital technologies that held a unifying promise in 2010 served only to fracture society further, leaving millions with a greater sense of unease than when the decade began.
Canadian artists not only ruled the global charts through this decade’s upheaval; in many ways, they helped tell its story. Here are 10 of the best examples – a non-exhaustive series of accomplishments in foreshadowing, creativity and innovation.
ARCADE FIRE – The Suburbs (Merge, 2010)
Before turning a cynical eye to technology, Arcade Fire dropped a concept album about life in the sprawl that set Grammy viewers’ brains ablaze when it won Album of the Year. For all the frustration thrown toward the less-than-mainstream win for The Suburbs, though, it also marked indie rock’s greatest height after commanding critical sway in the 2000s. After that, hip-hop finally shifted to the culture’s centre in the 2010s, while the word “indie” gradually lost meaning as barriers across genres and labels melted away.
DESTROYER – Kaputt (Merge, 2011)
The cover says it all. As tourists gawk at Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, our protagonist sits with his back turned, unbothered and unimpressed. Kaputt marked an aesthetic turn to sonic opulence for Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, the lounging spirit of Roxy Music’s Avalon lunging into the 21st century, smooth on all edges. Beyond the slick lustre, though, Bejar’s on edge – “Winter, spring, summer and fall / animals crawl / towards death’s embrace” – foreshadowing the anxieties that gradually permeated the world this decade in spite of the shimmering innovations that now surround us.
GRIMES – Visions (4AD, 2012)
Claire Boucher recently caught stern words when she prognosticated that AI would soon herald the end of “human art,” but the artist known as Grimes has long worked at the intersection of art, imagination and technology. Transcending Montreal’s DIY scene with Visions, she blurred the intentions and aesthetics of punk, electronic and pop music. It explodes with humanity, calls out its faults and hints at frustration toward tech’s power.
DRAKE – Nothing Was the Same (OVO Sound, Republic, Young Money, 2013)
Spotify’s most-streamed artist of the decade – who also turned the world’s eyes toward long-ignored Canadian hip-hop – began the 10-year stretch with soft-hearted introspection and ended it as a paranoid pop fixture. The fulcrum upon which Drake’s decade pivoted was 2013’s Nothing Was the Same. In between well-earned flexes, he begins to question the consequences of fame. Reflecting on LeBron James’s controversial pivot from Cleveland to Miami, he told me in 2013: “Same guy, same talent, but a refreshing perspective on the win.”
TANYA TAGAQ – Animism (Six Shooter, 2014)
By the time Tanya Tagaq won the Polaris Music Prize for her third studio album, Animism, the improvisational Inuk throat singer-cum-powerhouse polymath had long been putting in work. But beginning with Animism, Tagaq re-dug the trenches of our national identity, ensuring that Inuit tradition not be ignored within Canada’s music culture.
BADBADNOTGOOD and GHOSTFACE KILLAH – Sour Soul (Lex, 2015)
The jazz heads of Toronto’s BadBadNotGood kept elbowing their way into hip-hop in a decade where genre mattered less and less. They’ve worked on music for Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown, Kaytranada and Freddie Gibbs; on Sour Soul, they spent a full record backing Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah. The glue of the record is Toronto producer-songwriter Frank Dukes – one of Canada’s most quietly influential exports and musical fixers, whose fingerprints were all over the decade’s biggest hits.
CARLY RAE JEPSEN – E•MO•TION (604, Interscope, School Boy, 2015)
E•MO•TION struck a chord not just because it’s filled with bangers, but because Carly Rae Jepsen took a road less travelled rather than try to imitate her 2011 smash, Call Me Maybe – following her own inspirations rather than the day’s defining ones. That road did not, however, translate to chart success – a traditional trajectory one would hope for after recording a prior year’s defining song. Quality instead usurped quantity, and she became Queen of Everything to a rabid fanbase, owning a pop career without adhering to traditional pop-star narratives.
THE WEEKND – Beauty Behind the Madness (Republic, XO, 2015)
The decade’s platforms du jour fuelled Abel Tesfaye’s rise: His first songs dropped anonymously on YouTube, soon finding virality on Drake’s OVO blog. When Apple announced its much-delayed entry into streaming music, the Weeknd joined executives on stage to debut I Can’t Feel My Face. It became the lead single from Beauty Behind the Madness, which in turn put the Weeknd’s hedonistic pop-R&B at the centre of the zeitgeist.
JEREMY DUTCHER – Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Self-released, 2018)
The land now called New Brunswick was one of this continent’s earliest frontiers of colonialism and narrative erasure. On Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Jeremy Dutcher, of the Tobique First Nation, uses both classical technique and contemporary technology to bring the long-gone art of his ancestors alive. Similar to how Public Enemy mastered sampling to build homages to black history and culture – and as A Tribe Called Red does for Indigenous cultures – Dutcher used his own talents to augment century-old wax-cylinder recordings to make a masterful blend of art, history and beauty. It should be in textbooks.
MARIE DAVIDSON – Working Class Woman (Ninja Tune, 2018)
Early electronic and club music emerged from interrogating music’s limits. Montreal’s Marie Davidson interrogates not just the genres she plays within but her own relationship with them, questioning club culture while making songs celebrated in clubs as vaunted as Berlin’s Berghain. Davidson’s voice runs through Working Class Woman like an internal monologue, alternatingly funny and unnerving, prompting listeners to question themselves, too.
Even more innovators
- Austra, Feel It Break (2011), classical training embracing the synth-pop that would define the decade
- Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 2 (2011), reimagining the limits of the saxophone
- Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital (2011), contemporary indie rock’s (much less tragic) re-articulation of Joy Division giving way to New Order
- Japandroids, Celebration Rock (2012), with a too-accurate name about stripping its genre to the bare bones
- Nap Eyes, Whine of the Mystic (2015), Halifax literary rock looking both forwards and backwards
- Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone? (2015), redefining atmospheric pop
- Justin Bieber, Purpose (2015), repackaging the erstwhile child star on an album of redemption
- dvsn, Sept. 5th (2016), casting a violet neon violet glow onto R&B
- Kaytranada, 99.9% (2016), a masterclass in beatmaking and genre-melding
- Loud, Une année record (2017), a Quebecois hip hop tour de force
- Daniel Caesar, Freudian (2017), finding love and stitching gospel into R&B and pop
- Jessie Reyez, Kiddo (2017), blending honesty, clarity, and genre with an unmistakable voice
- Arkells, Rally Cry (2018), radio-rock road warriors tweaking their swing to hit more homers
- Hubert Lenoir, Darlène (2018), smashing together glam-rock, yacht-rock, and a slightly altered Fleur de lys
- Fucked Up, Dose Your Dreams (2018), a concept album bending the definition of hardcore punk
- Haviah Mighty, 13th Floor (2019), a consummate collaborator flying solo with a little help from her friends
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