10. Fucked Up
David Comes To Life (2011)
It's a lot of fun to imagine the members of Toronto hardcore-punk outfit Fucked Up sitting down in the food court of raggedy Dufferin Mall to pen the concept and lyrics of their most ambitious album to date, 2011's David Comes To Life. But that's what they did, and the result is a meta-heavy punk rock opera that tells the fraught love story of factory worker David and political radical Veronica through themes of self-sabotage, existential crises, unreliable narration and the late 70s/early 80s labour movement, to name a few of its elements. Who would've thought Dufferin Mall could inspire such feats of imagination?
The music, meanwhile, pushes the genre's envelope through the addition of female vocals - by Jennifer Castle and Madeline Follin - that trade off with Spin cover boy/MuchMusic host Damian Abraham's wrenching scream and thickly layered, fearlessly squalling and shimmering guitar lines. Though 2009's The Chemistry Of Common Life, which won the band a Polaris Music Prize, is also highly notable, the sheer magnitude of David's scope - 78 minutes, 18 songs, four acts, additional David-related singles and Record Store Day exclusives - and the attention it's brought the Toronto punk scene pushed it out ahead.
9. Broken Social Scene
You Forgot It In People (2002)
Love it or hate it, it's impossible to deny the impact that Broken Social Scene's 2002 opus has had in the last decade, not just on Toronto's music scene, but on the hazy concept of "indie rock" as a whole.
Their sophomore album, You Forgot It In People, saw founding members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning extend the membership of BSS to their entire circle of friends, cram what seemed like half of Toronto into Dave Newfeld's recording studio and capture a messy, overstuffed masterpiece of an album that reimagined the parameters of what a band could even be.
While publications as illustrious as Time Magazine were hyping Montreal as the "new Seattle," Broken Social Scene became ambassadors of T.O.'s music scene, preaching chaos as optimism and sprawling, participatory looseness as the ultimate independent ideal. Robert Christgau described it as "indie rock as borderless utopian collective," which could just as easily serve as a definition of "Torontopia" in the halcyon early days of Mayor Miller.
This album directly or indirectly launched Feist, Metric, Stars, the major indie label Arts & Crafts and even Pitchfork Media itself into stratosphere heights, but apart from its legacy, You Forgot It In People holds up as a sonically adventurous, somehow coherent titan of a rock record.
8. Wayne McGhie and the Sounds of Joy
This brilliant 70s soul masterpiece literally disappeared shortly after its release. Wayne McGhie moved from Jamaica to Toronto in the 70s, summoned by Skatalites co-founder Jackie Mittoo to become part of a vibrant Jamaican expat music scene. That scene was immortalized in the essential 2006 CD collection Jamaica To Toronto: Soul Funk Reggae 1967-1974, which contains two McGhie tracks.
McGhie was eventually signed to the local Birchmount Records, distributed by U.S. label Quality. He assembled a band of the best Toronto-based Island musicians, the excellent playing on this self-titled album evidence of their immense talent.
Despite McGhie's amazing voice, killer beats, smooth soul stylings and reggae-infused sound, the album didn't initially catch on. Like many Canadian releases at the time, it had little promotion. Then Birchmount's Scarborough warehouse burned down, destroying the vast majority of the copies of McGhie's disc. The label's decision not to re-press the "underperforming" album made it a rarity, the holy grail of Toronto soul and the secret weapon for savvy DJs like Q-Tip, Mr. Supreme and Public Enemy's Gary G-Wiz.
A collector's carefully preserved disc was recently used to create a new CD of McGhie's remarkable record, so now it's still difficult but not impossible to hear an album that should be a cherished Canadian treasure.
7. The Weeknd
Just as the neo-soul acts of the late 1990s reinvented R&B by returning to classic jazz, funk and soul, the Weeknd absorbed synth-pop, indie rock, electronic music and, of course, the hip-hop of that era to reinvigorate the genre. Abel Tesfaye, along with producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo, also did something considered taboo in music typically valued for its warmth: they turned down the temperature. And why not? This is Toronto, after all - 1,516 kilometres north of Atlanta.
Like the best R&B, it's hazy, spacious and seductive music that drifts and curls in the air like smoke clouds, but there's a cold, steely resolve in Tesfaye's epic narrative of endless after-hours misadventure. Along with Drake's Take Care, the Weeknd's House Of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence mixtapes (remastered and re-released as Trilogy) helped popularize a sombre R&B sound.
It's not all chilly, however. Tesfaye's falsetto is full of youthful exuberance, expressing both empathy and ambivalence. He has no qualms, though, about portraying himself as both the best friend and worst enemy of his object of desire, and his embrace of that contrast gives the music an undeniable magnetism.
Rush's fourth album, 2112, is the story of a band sticking to its guns and winning. The prog rock trio's then-label, Mercury, hoping for a commercial breakthrough, had asked them please not to make another concept album like the one that had come before it, Caress Of Steel, one of the few Rush albums that failed to go platinum in the States.
But drummer/lyricist Neil Peart conceived of a story set in 2112 about a man who discovers an ancient guitar and is punished by his leaders for his perceived frivolity. A galaxy-wide war ensues, bringing the sonically astonishing, inventively textured, 20-minute title track to a terrifically goofy close. (Side two's tracks, which have nothing to do with the narrative, don't stand up nearly so well.)
Recorded at Toronto Sound Studios, 2112 turned into the band's signature album while also landing them on Billboard's Top 100 for the first time. Nowadays you can even play the fan-favourite seven-part title track on Guitar Hero. And in a cool nod to their hometown, the Toronto dates of the 2112 tour were released as All The World's A Stage in September 1976.
5. Gordon Lightfoot
The pinnacle of Gordon Lightfoot's commercial success came with the release of 1974's Sundown. It also secured his status as a folk music icon, thanks to singles Sundown and Carefree Highway, which went to number one and number 10 respectively on the U.S. pop charts and topped Canada's RPM 100 for five weeks.
The Orillia-born, Toronto-based folksinger was 10 albums in by then, and 38 years later his reflective, often topical lyrics, familiar, mild-mannered croon and melodic acoustic guitar lines - all darkened by an undercurrent of insecurity and despair - still resonate and have no trouble getting on AM radio.
A fixture in the 60s Yorkville folk scene that also included Joni Mitchell, Ian & Sylvia and Neil Young, Lightfoot broke the mould by finding success without moving to the States (with the exception of a short stint in California early on).
He's also played Massey Hall more than any other musician, the first time as 12-year-old.
Let It Die (2004)
On her breakthrough second album, Let It Die, everything came together for Leslie Feist. The 11-song collection appeared a full five years after her first stab at a solo career - 1999's Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down) - and after style-shaping stints as a guitarist in By Divine Right, backup singer and sock-puppet performer for then-Torontoroommate Peaches and singer/guitarist in Broken Social Scene.
Feist's distinctive vocals - a breathy, playful style that a large portion of the female pop-folk singer/songwriter set continues to mimic - sparse guitar-piano-horn arrangements and sophisticated, gently swinging art pop songcraft earned her two Junos and paved the way for the Grammy noms, Muppets cameos and ad placements that would come with follow-up The Reminder.
While it's true that the singer/guitarist was born in Nova Scotia (hit single Mushaboom nods to this), grew up in Calgary and spent two years in Paris making Let It Die with Chilly Gonzales and Renaud Letang, it was during her half-dozen years playing in bands and throwing shows in Toronto that she came into her own as a musician. She even covers Ron Sexsmith's Secret Heart on the album. And she still lives nearby.
3. Mary Margaret O'Hara
Miss America (1988)
NOW's Michael Hollett was already restless when he interviewed Mary-Margaret O'Hara for a 1983 cover story, prodding the singer about the decade-long slow burn of her band, Go Deo Chorus. "We just haven't worried very much about the timing of it all. I don't know if that's fear of failure or fear of success."
Celebrity sibling Catherine O'Hara helped connect her younger sister with her bandmates when she saw them play around the corner from Second City, where Catherine was a rising star.
It took O'Hara another five years after the cover story before she was ready to release her stunning - and only - disc, the magnificent Miss America. A five-N NOW review at the time noted, "Her voice flies up and down the scales, sometimes slipping and sliding from one range to another like a gear that won't quite catch." Her manic onstage moves were equally chaotic and compelling.
O'Hara remains completely uninterested in stardom, defying record companies and fans who hunger for more output. Still living in Toronto, O'Hara occasionally graces local stages, but our appetite for more recorded work from this amazing talent remains sadly unsated.
2. Blue Rodeo
When Toronto singer/songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor came home in the mid-80s after a New York City musical adventure, they ran a fateful classified ad in NOW Magazine's "musicians wanted" section and found the final pieces that would help them forge one of this country's best bands ever.
Blue Rodeo sharpened their skills and songs through non-stop gigging on Toronto's still undiscovered Queen West. Canadian labels were signing mostly sound-alike acts that resembled successful hit-makers, and Blue Rodeo's original sound, mixing what would be called alt-country with an Elvis Costello-esque rock edginess and jazzy jaunts, seemed destined to stay off the radar. But Queen West peaked just as the band did, and Blue Rodeo became that scene's first and the most successful signing.
Five Days In July could also be on this list, but Outskirts opened doors, and our eyes and ears, to an iconic sound that would become the soundtrack of a country, with Try serving as our introduction to Cuddy's trademark ballads. There's enough soaring rock here, too, to serve notice that BR weren't "just a country band." The album remains a stunning debut and the launch pad for an unprecedented Canadian career that's still vibrant and vital.
1. Neil Young
Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)
Neil Young posed a unique challenge for us in making this list. Born in Toronto, he's spent the vast majority of his life elsewhere, and didn't record much here either. On the other hand, his years in Toronto moulded his identity, not to mention the identity of our musical scene.
Fortunately, Live At Massey Hall 1971 was not only recorded here, but that choice was deliberate and meaningful. It captured Young in a moment of reflection on everything this city meant to him. He wasn't hugely successful when he lived here, but he was coming back to play two sold-out shows at the best venue in town. They were also the biggest gigs of that tour.
He talked about the concert in his 2012 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace.
"It was a homecoming. When I walked out onstage, the place got really loud. It was a feeling like no other. It was where I'd worked at Coles Bookstore, played at the Riverboat Hootenannies, lived on Isabella Street in my little flat writing songs, gone to school, experienced my mom and dad's breakup, bought records by Roy Orbison, delivered newspapers. It was a big moment in my life, to be sure."
The concert was a major milestone in Young's life, and the record itself was magical. Most of the songs he performed had never been heard before by the audience, but the recording captures the amazing reception they got from the room. If he'd had any doubts about the songs that would end up on Harvest, they were banished by the adoring applause of his hometown crowd.
While the concert disc didn't come out until 2007, it was almost released in 1971 in the gap between After The Gold Rush and Harvest. At the time, Young was too focused on finishing Harvest, so Atlantic put out the CSNY live album 4 Way Street instead. In later years, though, he came to believe that was an error in judgment.
"This was better than Harvest. It meant more," he wrote in Waging Heavy Peace.
This live album has none of the gloriously grungy distortion of his work with Crazy Horse, nor any of the subtle production genius of his solo studio albums. But hearing his songs, his voice and his playing completely unadorned, you appreciate Young's raw talent. Here's just one man on a great stage with an acoustic guitar, a piano and a set list full of some of the best songs ever written.
When you look at Young's career, you recognize Toronto's musical character in his personal journey. His particular brand of city-boy roots music is still more popular here than almost anywhere else in the world, and that was as true in the era when Blue Rodeo were finding their groove in the early Queen West scene as it is now at venues like the Dakota. His proto-grunge feedback explorations are still reflected in our punk and indie scenes. And even his less universally appreciated experimental moments loom in the background of our long history with weirdo art pop.
Good thing Young decided to release Live At Massey Hall, because our list wouldn't feel right if his name weren't on it.