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Grimes doesn’t like encores. Or, more specifically, as she told the sold-out crowd at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall one night last month, she doesn’t like the pause between the main set and an encore. For musicians, she said, it’s stressful; it’s awkward. And so she eliminated it. She just stood on stage, flanked by her two official dancers and a small crowd of extra recruits who’d been called up to gyrate during the set’s official closer, Phone Sex, and told us all she’d be skipping the ritual. Instead of heading offstage, she took her position behind her synthesizers and keyboard, made a series of coyote yips and launched into Kill v Maim, one of the standout tracks on her brilliant new record, Art Angels. It was an exceptional performance – thunderous, exhilarating, terrifying – and it was somehow made even more special by the very tension explored in Grimes’s encore-break theatrics: Her current live show is at once professionalized and resistant to the sheen of professionalization. It’s controlled yet unpredictable, and somehow sits within the pop paradigm while existing outside it. Like her music itself, it’s unlike anything else I can think of.
Pop music is about extremes, and our attachment to it is based on our needs for those various extremes. We like a given song because it is sadder than our sadness, or sexier than our sexiness, or happier than our happiness, because it is a more interesting and intense version of what we feel or wish to feel. As her harrowing live show made obvious, Grimes’s music – especially on Art Angels – is about violence. If we are attracted to it, we are attracted to that, to a more dangerous and volatile vision of the world. Her music becomes a dare: to like it is to admit to liking a particular darkness within ourselves. Her genius lies in making that attraction so pleasurable. - Jared Bland
Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer uses collage, sculpture, photography and other media to create complex but accessible works – often large-scale and sometimes using teeny tiny cut-outs. Farmer, 48, has been earning international attention for some time – in particular with his monumental installation Leaves of Grass at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. But 2015 has really been his year. He had a major show at the Vancouver Art Gallery – a mid-career survey, How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth. In Toronto, his Luminato installation Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also called No-More, Too-Late, Farewell drew people to Trinity Bellwoods Park. In the fall, his work Boneyard was installed at the Louvre, the first work visitors to the show A Brief History of the Future encounter. And in December, the capper: Farmer was named the artist who will represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2017. – Marsha Lederman
Apologies to the Rankin Family, but Kate Beaton has become the pride of Mabou, N.S., the small Cape Breton community where she was born and raised. Beaton, 32, is an internationally-acclaimed comic artist, with her second collection, Step Aside, Pops, debuting at No. 1 on The New York Times graphic book list its first week in stores. Her mischievous strips are steeped in history, versed in literature, and engaged with pop culture. Her work plays with the past – see “The Last Days of Georges Danton” or “Ida B. Wells,” both from her latest book – and confronts the present – witness a strip such as “Straw Feminists in the Closet.” Her work is smart, and she trusts her readers are smart, too. She’s like your favourite high school history or English teacher, or a Heritage Minute reimagined for the age of social media. I probably would have nominated her for Canadian artist of the year on the strength of Step Aside, Pops alone, but this year she also published The Princess and the Pony, one of my favourite picture books of 2015. The story of a brave princess who wants nothing but “a real warrior’s horse” for her birthday but is saddled with a flatulent cross-eyed pony leaves no doubt Beaton will soon have fans of every age. – Mark Medley
And to think that he accomplished so much, all the while suffering from a peculiar condition that causes transient facial numbness. Abel Tesfaye, the mysterious Canadian falsetto specialist who makes minimal (and occasionally misogynistic) R&B as the Weeknd, broke out his Michael Jackson-model dancing shoes for the hit single Can’t Feel My Face, a sleek and infectious ode in A minor to the shared effects of pharmaceuticals and a foxy lady. The chart-topper, off the artist’s album Beauty Behind the Madness, earned a pair of significant Grammy Award nominations, one for best record and another for best pop solo performance. On the critics’ front, Can’t Feel My Face was rightfully acknowledged as the year’s best song by Rolling Stone magazine, the music journal that put the Weeknd on its cover – an honour it granted and then pulled away from Drake in 2014. In a year of unprecedented Canadian pop music success – Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Grimes and Drake all were victorious – the Weeknd’s year of living pop-tastically included the song with the longest-lasting buzz. – Brad Wheeler
Will you share this on Facebook after you’ve read it? We may all relentlessly be documenting our lives – hold on, lemme take a selfie – but few of us transform the raw material into something profound. Enter playwright Annabel Soutar, who has spent almost two decades interviewing Canadians and then shaping those interactions (with herself as a supporting player) into thrilling, maddening theatrical works such as Seeds, the popular touring show about GMO foods, and The Watershed, this year’s epic exploration of the politics of science and industry in the Harper era. Soutar says her Montreal-based company, Projet Porte Parole, was founded “to establish theatre as a platform for interaction between citizens in a specific neighbourhood.” Her focus on non-partisan citizen engagement doesn’t just make for bracing theatre; it helps revitalize our exhausted political system. It is like oxygenating blood: exhilarating. – Simon Houpt
Winnipeg – Geographic Centre of North America! – is big enough that its cultural scene isn’t entirely shut off from the so-called outside world. But it’s also small enough, isolated enough, cold enough, old enough, ethnic enough that its residents have grown proficient at making their own fun, starting and supporting their own institutions, cultivating their own wacky gardens. Perhaps the purest product of Winnipeg’s peculiar DIY craziness is Guy Maddin. This year the 59-year-old auteur released what is certainly his most ambitious film ever, a 120-minute sprawler called The Forbidden Room. It’s also likely his most over-the-top – a superlative of considerable chutzpah since we’re talking about the creator of The Saddest Music in the World, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and other weird cinematic seances. Critics here and everywhere waxed enthusiastic over The Forbidden Room – its huge cast alone (Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Dupuis, Udo Kier, Darcy Fehr) deserves some sort of special Oscar – but as ever were reduced to piling on the descriptors in the vain attempt to match Maddin’s filmic frenzy. Co-directed by Evan Johnson with superb production design by his brother Galen, The Forbidden Room was shot mostly in Paris and Montreal yet it feels like it was made in Winnipeg. Or, more precisely, the Winnipeg of Maddin’s mind. And that’s a good thing. – James Adams
The head of the National Arts Centre English Theatre had an impressive year as a director – her fresh take on The Diary of Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival reframed the play for a new generation, while her popular production of Alice Through the Looking Glass hit mainstages in Charlottetown and Winnipeg. But aside from the Newfoundlander’s obvious successes as an ambitious, yet accessible theatre artist, Jillian Keiley has also quietly solved the long-standing conundrum that is her day job – how to run a national company that performs to a local audience. She’s kept predecessor Peter Hinton’s idea of an Ottawa-based ensemble drawn from performers across the country intact – those actors tackled such works as David Hare’s Iraq War play Stuff Happens, timely again, and a much-needed revival of The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God in 2015. But, in addition, she’s decentralized the English Theatre through The Collaborations – a program (curated by Sarah Garton Stanley) that shares the capital-based company’s resources with exciting companies working in their own communities from Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton to Zuppa Theatre in Halifax. The NAC played the role of silent partner in work such as Annabel Soutar’s documentary show The Watershed, the most talked-about play at Panamania this summer in Toronto. Under her direction, the English Theatre is no longer an institution that’s largely symbolic – but one that works. – J. Kelly Nestruck
The ever-charismatic Paul Gross gave his most surprising performance of 2015 in the Deepa Mehta film Beeba Boys, where he played the vicious lieutenant of a Vancouver crime boss, with a gleeful twinkle in his eye and his long grey hair swept up into an unattractive little man bun. Here’s a mature artist ready to shrug off memories of the upright Benton Fraser for once and for all, and play a very different kind of soldier. For a nation convinced that it was forged in battle from Vimy Ridge to Afghanistan yet wary of chest-thumping patriotism, Gross finally found the right approach to a Canadian war movie this year with Hyena Road, the drama he wrote, directed and starred in. There, he takes the familiar premise that war is bad but soldiers are good and updates it with quiet authenticity and ironic humour to portray kind, competent Canadians trying to do what is right in Afghanistan – and failing. Relishing the jokes he himself has written, he plays Pete Mitchell, a tough-minded, wise-cracking intelligence officer who knows it’s about time we all grew up. – Kate Taylor
Architecture is an old person’s game. And yet the architects that make up the Winnipeg firm, after just eight years in business, have transformed the architectural culture of their city and they’re working on the rest of Canada. Despite a collective approach and the firm’s generic name – friends call it “the numbered company” – it consists of strong personalities who create strong forms. And through some salesmanship and business savvy, the firm is, amazingly, getting them built: a residential condo building that resembles a UFO on stilts is actually under construction, while the firm designs a major mixed-use development in Winnipeg, truly innovative housing in Toronto and more. It’s hard to overstate how unlikely the group’s rise is, or how important. Canada’s cities need thoughtful, sober design – and they also need some visual and architectural spice. 5468796 provides that crucial ingredient. – Alex Bozikovic
Carly Rae Jepsen
Toss out the one-hit wonder label. Trash your hot take about her living in the shadow of Justin Bieber. And don’t even start dismissing her just because she took four years between albums. Carly Rae Jepsen is the pop star the world (not just Canada) deserves: bright, bubbly, sharp and equipped with a wealth of killer hooks. Her new album, Emotion, is a perfect work of pop, with nearly every track an addictive, fizzy hit of sonic bliss. The fact that she’s been overshadowed by fellow Cancon colleagues such as Drake (with his slut-shaming Hotline Bling) and the Weeknd (whose Beauty Behind the Madness is more creepy than anything else) is just further evidence that the cultural world is biased against fierce, smart, hard-working women. Dismiss Jepsen at your own peril – she is the star we should be celebrating this year. – Barry Hertz
Some artists show you a world. David Altmejd shows you how a world you never dreamed of can be made and dismantled and rejoined in a different way. This Montreal-born artist’s gigantic sculptural vitrines, seen in a commanding retrospective last summer at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, are like the drafts of a new universe. In his dynamic yet frozen fables of creation, every object is either in motion or in metamorphosis. There’s no division between animate and other; flesh and mineral often look like different states of the same body. Flux, as the show was called, was a summation of 14 years of work, gathered most impressively in the last large mirrored installation that filled an entire room and was at once transparent and unencompassable. The piece seemed to perform the impossible trick of containing infinity. Fantastical as they are, Altmejd’s unforgettable constructions feel deeply connected to our current life-or-death obsession with ecology of all kinds. For that reason, I think he’s the most vital and pertinent artist of 2015. – Robert Everett-Green