Best Of Toronto – Music

Rating: NNNNN BEST HIPHOP: Kardinal Offishall When major-label kerfuffles led to Kardinal Offishall 's recordings being shelved, he didn't raise.

Rating: NNNNN

BEST HIPHOP: Kardinal Offishall

When major-label kerfuffles led to Kardinal Offishall ‘s recordings being shelved, he didn’t raise a media ruckus claiming to be the victim of a clever corporate conspiracy, and he definitely didn’t try crooning pop songs instead. He did what any resourceful rhyme ripper would do when faced with a roadblock – he simply went under it and began recording and releasing his own mixtapes and white-label singles. His off-the-chain Kill Bloodclot Bill set, backed by his hard-hitting Black Jays posse, kept parties rocking all year long and laid the groundwork for his bangin’ new Fire And Glory (Virgin/EMI) CD, scheduled for release November 15.


Local jazz scene icon Jane Bunnett is a monster on the flute and soprano saxophone, but apart from her renowned virtuosity, she also happens to be a brilliant bandleader eager to take on challenging new creative collaborations while introducing the world to promising young players. There’s good reason why Bunnett is among Toronto’s most respected and beloved jazz ambassadors.


When she’s not leading fey pop fans in choreographed dances with the Hidden Cameras , the ridiculously multi-talented rock star/artist/writer/letter-writer/former NDP candidate/playwright and all-around inspirational dynamo is making state-smashing sexy (and catchy) through the dance-punk deconstruction of Republic of Safety , or writing techno-punk fiction (her debut novel, Kill The Robot , will be released in November by McGilligan), or conceptualizing The Rat King , a comic-turned-rock-opera about the perils of environmental destruction and society’s alienation from the body. Maggie MacDonald not only puts politics into praxis and challenges conventional artistic forms, but she also motivates everyone around her to put their hearts into art with the same unselfish exuberance that characterizes each of her ambitious projects. We’d give her the key to the city if we could.


The backbone of the boogie metal outfit that is the Illuminati (not to take anything away from the backbone that is wicked drummer Jim Gering ), Nick Sewell totally rocks the bass lines with the groovy, relaxed, casual attitude that all would-be rawk gawds strive for. For some reason, he always manages to look like he’s in a cool video and keep it together while genius guitar mathematician Les Godfrey gets all in a fuckin’ amazing complicated freakout and you’re all like, “Holy crap, this rocks my pants off” and your hips are moving all by themselves and that’s because of the fuckin’ bass line. Smokin’.

BEST BLUES: Carlos del Junco

When it comes to harmonica virtuoso Carlos del Junco , Havana’s loss is definitely our gain. Wielding a 10-hole diatonic mouth harp, del Junco bends notes in remarkable ways, creating wondrous tones that often sound nothing like a harmonica. The fact that he’s a master of the technically difficult “overblow” technique may sound like gibberish to the non-aficionado, but that doesn’t mean squat when the results sound as amazing as they do. Like Bela Fleck , who might be thought of as his banjo-picking counterpart, del Junco floats seamlessly from genre to genre, and it says an awful lot that he’s doing for the mouth organ what Fleck’s done for the banjo.


David Rudder is the best calypso songwriter out there, and has been since the mid-80s, when he struck a perfect balance between pop infectiousness and political consciousness. His 1990 album, 1990, deservedly scored calypso album-of-the-year honours at the first annual Caribbean Music Awards – and the title track was just plain amazing. Though he’s a Toronto resident, Rudder’s words and sound embody the dialect and spirit of his native Trinidad, and his music has the rich, substantial quality of classic calypso with sharp modern production. It’s simple, works perfectly and always has something to say.


Whether you hate Dan Burke or simply can’t stand him, you have to admit no other promoter in town would be willing to risk as much as he does to put on an exciting rock ‘n’ roll show by some little-known artist who might never otherwise play Toronto. Whatever he’s in it for, it’s not to get rich quick. Anyone concerned about breaking even wouldn’t pay to fly the Zoobombs in from Tokyo to play a weekend gig at the Silver Dollar. Yes, when ticket sales bomb, he’s been known to pay some unfortunate dudes with women’s designer jeans, and others in dead-stock shoes, but at least he tries to make good when his ambitious schemes don’t pan out. Burke’s badly battered heart is in the right place.

BEST CLUB TO SEE A ROCK SHOW: The Phoenix 410 Sherbourne, 416-323-1251

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern may have the pedigree (it’s Legendary!), the teeny Rivoli probably has the best sound, the Boat has amazing decor, and the recent renovations at Lee’s Palace have made seeing shows there way more enjoyable, but if you’re looking for a great overall concert-going experience, our vote is for the Phoenix . With three different levels and a stage set at the perfect height, the sightlines are awesome no matter where in the club you’re standing there’s a convenient (and sometimes heated) outdoor smoking area the Phoenix can actually accommodate all-ages events and the acoustics are great. We could do without the aggressive bouncers and the trebly vocals that sometimes get lost if the sound guy isn’t paying attention, but those are minor quibbles.

BEST DRUMMER: Glenn Milchem

Glenn Milchem may be best known as part of Blue Rodeo ‘s straightforward rhythm section, but the multi-talented multi-tasker’s been behind the kit for more great Toronto bands than we have room to list here. Seriously, he was literally the force driving half the Queen West scene by the 90s. Hardcore progheads still carry a torch for Neil Peart ‘s legendary pounding, but when was the last time you saw Rush in concert? And while rising stars like Rob Gordon — whose virtuosic percussion gave Les Mouches (RIP) shape and makes From Fiction kill live — and No Dynamics ‘ sweaty pounder Jeremy Finkelstein ensure Milchem should keep watching his back, the guy more than proves his mettle with the mind-warping improvisational insanity of Holy Fuck . A long-time talent who keeps getting better and more surprising.


With the continued success of Eric Warner ‘s rad Over The Top fest — now entering its fourth year — NXNE and CMW should be rethinking their game plans. With nowhere near the same resources, the enterprising Thornhill expat consistently plans, books, organizes and promotes what’s quickly become one of Toronto’s best and most relevant pop extravaganzas. Guess what? You can find actual music fans — not just industry dudes and journos — at Over The Top shows! At 22, Warner’s already an old hand at show-throwing — he was organizing hardcore gigs in his teens — and more than holds his own against way bigger and more established promotional monsters like House of Blues. With a great ear for indie and underground talent, insane ambition and a connectedness to his roots that means his shows are all-ages whenever possible, Warner’s one of the Toronto music scene’s greatest assets.


In the Broken Social Scene ladies club, she’s the rock-star-next-door crush to Feist’s aloof Euro fashion plate and Emily Haines’s angular ice queen. In Stars , she’s a powerhouse co-leader who can achieve more intensity with a soft purr and a stone-cold stare than most do with high-decibel howling and scissor kicks. If we were voting for Toronto’s best female fronter of a rock band, Republic of Safety’s Maggie MacDonald would win hands down, but in terms of sheer vocal ability, Amy Millan‘s remarkable voice steals the award – a note-perfect mezzo-soprano that flutters between girlishly flirtatious and huskily lonesome melancholy. She’s very versatile, adapting her tone and phrasing to everything from ethereal dreamy pop to full-on rock ‘n’ roll and smooth jazz, but her true talent is as a country crooner. Millan pulls off drunken twangy heartbreak as only a close pal of the Whiteley clan can. Now, release yer damn solo album already!


Photo: Steve Payne

No one wants to duel this man’s banjo. Check Ian Blurton ‘s track record. Dude spends the last 20 years or so handling axes in a bunch of nationally loved bands, each different – Change of Heart , Blurtonia , Bionic and now the city’s best rock band, C’mon . Then he one-ups even himself, establishing his signature in the city as a producer who just understands what guitars should sound like. Of course, none of that matters when you catch him live, strumming some psychotropic electric rock ‘n’ roll in your face at 60,000 decibels.

BEST JAZZ ARTIST: Nick “Brownman” Ali

Nick “Brownman” Ali is a renegade, a tireless trumpeter whose outspokenness on his genre’s scene – to the dismay of those he’s pissed off – has only increased his profile as one of the city’s most intrepid jazz figures. Of course, the Toronto-based Trinidadian would be nowhere without his tireless, multi-faceted approach (Ali leads four bands), broad cultural span and innovative sensibility. While snobby jazz purists may turn up their noses, Ali continues to embody the music’s true spirit.

BEST LATIN: Hilario Duran

Hilario Duran first came to the attention of many Torontonians as a key contributor to both Jane Bunnett ‘s Juno-winning Spirits Of Havana disc and her Afro-Cuban jazz group of the same name, but the Cuban-born pianist has since cemented his connection to this city. He moved his family to Toronto in 98 and soon began rocking local venues when not teaching piano at Humber College. However, it all came together this year for Duran when his stellar trio – with Roberto Occhipinti and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez – walked away with the best contemporary jazz album Juno for their New Danzon (Alma/Universal) disc. This rare combination of skill, creativity and soulful swing cant be stopped.achievement worth celebrating.

BEST LOCAL LABEL: Blocks recording club

Forget the word “label.” As Steve Kado (who co-founded the collective with Mark McLean two years back) repeatedly insists, labels are for jars clubs are for friends. Nevertheless, Blocks , whose hard-working members recently took steps to legally incorporate the organization as a full-on workers’ co-op, has managed to accomplish all the positive things indie labels do without resorting to the corporate piggybacking used by more and more “independents.” In the grand tradition of DIY idealists like K Records and Dischord, their focus is on community, not profit. More imporantly, they’re ensuring that some downright killer music — Final Fantasy , Creeping Nobodies , Barcelona Pavilion — makes it out from under most Torontonians’ radar and onto international stages. They’re one reason that, as the title of last year’s Blocks-and-beyond comp proclaimed, Toronto Is Great!!!


With so many talented singers working in a wide variety of musical contexts in Toronto, each with his or her own personal style, any attempt at a comparative evaluation seems like a waste of time. However, for pure goosebump-raising ability, the Foggy Hogtown Boys ‘ bass-thumping lead vocalist, John McNaughton , is hard to top. The effortless way he conjures the haunting sound of traditional bluegrass – at once eerily ancient yet still soulfully contemporary – makes it seem like he was born to sing that music, but he’s clearly got the chops to work in any field he wants. A rare talent, deserving much wider recognition.


Yeah, we know you’re sick of hearing about every time a member of Broken Social Scene takes a dump or gets arrested, but the reason people can’t stop paying attention to Toronto’s premier dysfunctional family of a band is simply cuz even when they’re purportedly on the verge of collapse (which is often), BSS is a beautiful study in barely organized musical chaos. Teetering somewhere between druggy post-rock instrumentals, shimmering dream pop and accidentally hooky slacker rock, their songs threaten to self-destruct live before catapulting to stratospheric heights. They’re fucked up, they’re drama queens, they’re the band most likely to incur the wrath of irritated wait staff if they enter a restaurant, and they might even be our generation’s Grateful Dead — and we still love listening to them.

BEST PIANIST: Oscar Peterson

Toronto is bursting with top-notch ivory tinklers, but none could say they’re as ingrained in the country’s music history as Oscar Peterson . A jealous virtuoso might remind us that the Montreal-born legend’s had time to hone his skills. At it since 1940, he’s been a natural since those early days, boasting appearances on over 30 Victor recordings by 1950. Since then, he’s pretty much played every style, with everyone, everywhere, on every label. He developed his own distinct sound (brilliant compositions with a jillion notes fitting like puzzle pieces), and despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 93, on last year’s stunning A Night In Vienna concert DVD, Peterson still sounded at the top of his game.

BEST PUNK BAND: Brutal Knights

So you’ve been baffled by Nick Flanagan ‘s uncomfortably entertaining stand-up routine and befuddled by his comically bent ponderings on contemporary music? Well, don’t expect his onstage antics screaming goofy punk rock songs with a sweat-soaked T-shirt wrapped around his head turban-style to be any less confounding. But it seems Flanagan has finally found his true microphone metier fronting the Brutal Knights , whose aggressive thrash attack is perfectly suited to the rapid-fire delivery of his ignoroid rants. Together they hit with a mighty wallop that’s often just as hilarious as it is heavy.


You can’t beat these three battle-scarred rock purists ( Ian Blurton , Katie Lynn Campbell and Randy Curnew ) who just wanna make noise, spilling a sloppy, explosive goulash of AC/DC, the Damned, Alice Cooper and MC5 all over the freakin’ place like a blender missing its lid. C’mon sound like Blurton has tapped into some dark, evil place below the subway lines. Their albums – Midnight Is The Answer, and their latest, In The Heat Of The Moment are slabs of pure heat. But be careful when you see them live: the first five rows run the risk of getting hit by hair.

BEST ROOTS/COUNTRY: Foggy Hogtown Boys

What began as an excuse to play some classic Bill Monroe tunes with friends on the weekend has evolved into one of this country’s finest traditional bluegrass bands. The Foggy Hogtown Boys ‘ just-released Northern White Clouds disc demonstrates that Chris Quinn , John McNaughton , Andrew Collins , Chris Coole and John Showman have matured from a gathering of exceptionally skilled pickers into a unique bluegrass group who used their Canuck folk inspiration to build on what they’ve gleaned from old-school Southern bluegrass. They’ve developed a high lonesome sound all their own, grounded in the past but looking forward – and that’s an achievement worth celebrating.


Along with his customary melancholic affect and the “perennial underdog” tag that follows his name like a sock with a nasty case of static cling, our old Juno-winning pal Ron Sexsmith has been a constant shoo-in for best singer/songwriter honours since before the dinosaurs walked the earth. Why? He consistently pens songs that deeply resonate on both an intellectual and emotional level, tunes that deserve to be added to the pop canon. Though we’re keeping an eye on real unsung songwriting heroes like Alex Lukashevsky and Owen Pallett , Sexsmith’s ability to write unassuming ballads that connect with such a wide cross-section of listeners still earns the top prize.


Whenever you hear a tight, delicate string arrangement improving songs by one of the country’s best indie pop groups, chances are it’s been composed and performed by Owen Pallett . Until recently, he was just that dashing fellow fiddling alongside the Hidden Cameras , the Arcade Fire , Jim Guthrie and Gentleman Reg (to name a few), but with his Final Fantasy project, Pallett’s transformed his violin virtuosity into one of T.O.’s most exciting musical acts. With just a handful of looping pedals and his own sweet voice as accompaniment, Pallett makes Final Fantasy into hypnotic mini-symphonies of urgent, exquisite violin melodies that never veer into excessive schmaltz.


Forming a long-term artistic relationship with k-os after the success of their Superstar Pt. 0 video to direct four videos ( Crabbuckit , Man I Used To Be , B-Boy Stance and Love Song ) was the best decision Micah Meisner , one of Revolver Films’ star directors, could have made. Working in conjunction with k-os under the mysterious moniker The Love Movement , Meisner and co. represented proudly, flooding k-os’s videos with parts of the city (Trinity Bellwoods Park, Revival, the Waverley Hotel, Spadina, Yonge Street), star cameos ( Nelly Furtado , Emily Haines ) and surreal concepts (crab people, spaceships, glowing boxes, street b-boy battles). Somehow he still had time this year to film a K’naan video in Somalia and a Metric video in a house of bloody zombies.


The rise of the indie dance party has once again made it acceptable for DJs to simply play a song without paying much attention to mixing, scratching or DJ technique in general. Of all the selectors in the city, Will Munro stands out as the only one who consistently rocks dance floors, both large and small. Best known for the queer-rock-themed Vazaleen , his other nights include the electro-oriented Peroxide , the no-wave-influenced No TO , and Moustache , his sleazy amateur stripper party.

BEST LOUNGE: Andy Poolhall 489 College, 416-504-3199

Andy Poolhall has established itself on the College strip as one of the most consistent places in town for a night of decent tunes, room to dance, plenty of comfy seating, warm ambience and, of course, pool. Where most lounges have gone the upscale bottle service route, Andy Poolhall has struck a balance between down-to-earth and hip, catering to queers along with college kids, downtown hipsters and visiting 905ers. The music ranges from hiphop (it’s the current home of Footwork, DJ Fase ‘s long-running Tuesday-night party) to electro, rock, house and Britpop.

BEST BIG CLUB: The Guvernment 132 Queens Quay East, 416-869-0045

Although there’ve been several challengers in the mega-club market, the Guvernment still has what it takes to stay on top of the heap. The sound is great, the light show crazy, the crowds huge, the guest DJs superstars and the overall production values are just higher than everywhere else. Granted, being the biggest means you’ll never be the coolest. You don’t go to the Guvernment looking for the underground but to get lost among thousands of people and for the complete sensory overload.

BEST BOUTIQUE CLUB: Footwork 425 Adelaide West

Out of the ashes of the now infamous warehouse parties at 99 Sudbury came Footwork , in a location where two clubs had already failed. Many wondered if it could translate its after-hours experience into a traditional club, but it’s gained momentum over the past few months. Early kinks have been ironed out, and the sound system keeps improving. With our serious shortage of good small clubs, Footwork has filled an important hole in the local scene.

BEST HIPHOP DJ: Starting from Scratch

If this category were just about scratching and juggling technique, several turntablists — like DJ Dopey , for example — would have been in the running, but you rarely see those guys rock a party all night. If it were about crate-digging, lots of underground heads could qualify — DJ Fase , for one — but hiphop is bigger than that these days. When it comes down to who’s the biggest hiphop DJ in Toronto, the title clearly goes to Starting from Scratch . He’s got the skills and the knowledge, and he also has the flexibility to make it on a mainstream level, returning the craft of the DJ to commercial radio at Flow 93.5.

BEST R&B ARTIST: Jully Black

Think youre better than Jully Black? Well, have you recorded songs with Nas? Were you everywhere in 2005? How about releasing the most anticipated R&B album in the country this year did you do that? Oh. Okay, because thats what Jane and Finchs Black did, but only after spending years rising with the generous assistance of her vital, powerful voice, her cant-stop-wont-stop work ethic and a dedication to her fans as apparent live as it is in her posts at


It couldn’t have been easy for Deko-ze to rebuild his reputation and career after moving from Saskatoon to Toronto in 1997, but he’s emerged in recent years as one of our most popular mixers of hard tribal beats. He’s huge in the gay scene, adored by the straight late-night club crowd, and he’s even earned the begrudging respect of the DJ nerds. He’s as charismatic and energetic in a little bar as in front of thousands, treating every gig as if it’s important. It may not be the smartest or deepest sound in town, but when you want the big thumping beats, he’s the one to go to.


When Mario J (former resident DJ and partner in legendary club Industry) and his main squeeze Eva returned from living in Europe, they wasted little time before jumping back into the middle of the party scene. Their focus is bringing the house and the indie scenes closer together, and they’ve brought in a huge list of hot bands and DJs in the past year. Good thing they did, since most of the promoters who used to keep things interesting have retired or otherwise moved on, leaving a significant hole in the underground dance music scene.

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