The 20 best Toronto albums of the 2010s decade

In the years that brought our artists to a world stage, gave our city a nickname and had some wondering if we were having our "Seattle moment," these albums defined the decade

1. The Weeknd: House Of Balloons (independent, 2011)

Considering the international pop star heights Abel Tesfaye has reached over the past decade, it’s almost hard to put yourself back to 2011 when this album dropped online, for free, by an anonymous act called the Weeknd. And it’s hard to remember how fresh it felt: a dark and menacing new R&B that sampled Aaliyah, but also the Cocteau Twins, Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

It brought to life a specific party vibe filling Toronto lofts and self-awarely captured the alienation at the heart of it. For all the numbness he sings about, there is real heart and vulnerability emanating from the aching, gorgeous voice of Tesfaye. Those highs and lows are what was missing from all the shadowy R&B that followed HOB and turned the genre into a “PBR&B” cliché. The Weeknd is a bona fide celebrity and hitmaker now, but neither he nor his imitators have ever been able to recapture this feeling.  Richard Trapunski

2. Tanya Tagaq: Animism (Six Shooter, 2014)

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s breakthrough third album Animism was a revelation. Over screeching violins, industrial beats and field recordings, Tagaq growls, grunts and heaves, her voice stretching in so many different directions it’s hard to believe it’s coming from just one body. The album won the Polaris Prize, making her the first Indigenous artist to win the award – but not the last. There’s a long and rich history of Indigenous music in this country, but the success of Animism helped launch a brilliant new waveSamantha Edwards

3. Drake: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (OVO Sound/Cash Money, 2015)

Drake’s introspective, anxiety-laden sound at the decade’s midpoint feels as prescient now as it was resonant at the time. Featuring production from 416/905 producers including Boi-1da, WondaGurl, PartyNextDoor and Frank Dukes, this mixtape acknowledged that growth and success require stress and struggle. Was it all worth it? The Toronto rapper’s lyrical style had started to harden, and it’s hard to argue that the world around Drake wasn’t growing more ruthless. An anti-pop diversion palate cleanser that preceded his effusive Views album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late amalgamated myriad styles and samples into a melancholy moodiness that defined the Toronto sound. It also took the city and its nickname “the 6” to anthemic heights on the chorus to Know Yourself: “Running through the 6 with my woes.”  Kevin Ritchie

4. U.S. Girls: In A Poem Unlimited (4AD/Royal Mountain, 2018)

American transplant Meg Remy’s sixth album convened a host of Toronto indie scene players to take her lo-fi sound into big, lush and accessible pop territory. It’s a late-capitalism protest album that deepened the DIY musician’s long-time themes – violence, gender, labour, power and colonization – at a moment when those issues were penetrating mainstream conversations like never before. Evoking both classic disco and noise-pop, it’s an album full of overlapping textures, contrasting emotions and drama that arrived when we needed it most. KR

5. Daniel Caesar: Freudian (Golden Child, 2017)

The R&B troubadour was one the city’s biggest breakouts this decade, reinvigorating a post-Weeknd genre that had veered into icy misanthropy and minimal sub-bass with some analog warmth and classic romanticism. Full of gospel influences and woozy guitar riffs, Freudian gave us the anthems We Find Love, Get You and Best Part (featuring H.E.R.). It arrived at a time when vulnerability was just becoming a bona fide buzzword. Many listeners wanted more from their male pop stars, and Freudian had the right mixture of self-reflection, self-confidence and sex appeal. Off-stage, Caesar hasn’t always lived up to the sensitive soul image, but Freudian is wall-to-wall solid slow jams.  KR

6. Lido Pimienta: La Papessa (independent, 2016)

The Colombian-born, Toronto-based electronic singer/songwriter’s sophomore album was the first self-released record to win the Polaris Prize – and she’s used her platform well. On La Papessa, which is Spanish for “high priestess,” Pimienta deploys synth-pop and her bright, arresting voice to examine the global water crisis, love within patriarchal society and other heavy issues. She also uses that voice to call out racism in Toronto’s music scene and has worked tirelessly to carve out space for immigrant women and racialized musicians.  SE

7. Alvvays: Alvvays (Royal Mountain, 2014)

Around the time when the city’s music scene was stumbling over itself to recreate the despondent hip-hop and R&B of the “Toronto sound,” the dream-pop of Alvvays was like an antidote. Produced by Chad VanGaalen, their debut album was filled with catchy, post-C86 melodies paired with lead singer and guitarist Molly Rankin’s lovelorn lyrics. Like all the best indie-pop songs, the saccharine jangle belies darker themes. And standout single Archie, Marry Me would soon get the official indie-pop stamp of approval: a cover by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.  SE

8. METZ: METZ (Sub Pop, 2012)

METZ had already held the title of “loudest band in Toronto” for a few years before they released their debut album. Then the trio of Alex Edkins, Chris Slorach and Hayden Menzies proved they could capture the same intense feel-it-in-your-gut force of their live show on record. It’s a gripping, anxious half hour full of pounding drums, scraping guitars and vocals that sound like they’re emanating from somewhere deep in your skull. Like the noisier side of Nirvana (Negative Creep comes to mind), they always still find a way to bury some melody in there.  RT

9. Austra: Feel It Break (Paper Bag / Domino, 2011) 

When Katie Stelmanis was getting her feet wet playing piano-pop around local scenes, there was always good reason to pay attention – her massive, opera-trained voice. She’d been slowly finding her sound and collaborators when suddenly everything gelled. She joined up with Maya Postepski and Dorian Wolf, bleached her hair and adopted a new band name: Austra. With dark, throbbing industrial beats and icy, precise synths, her songs finally soared as high as her vocals. The band’s debut connected them to both a bigger goth revival trend and a time when Toronto was shedding its warm and fuzzy indie rock tendencies to embrace darker sounds. It’s no longer at the top of the zeitgeist, but the album holds up in a big way.  RT

10. Jeremy Dutcher: Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (independent, 2018)

This Polaris Prize-winning album is unlike anything else that’s come out this decade: part ethnomusicology research project, part classical pop album, part living archive of an endangered culture. Toronto-based songwriter Dutcher sought out wax cylinders of traditional songs from the Tobique First Nation where he grew up, and dueted with them in his soaring, operatic voice. The music is sung entirely in Wolastoqey, a language spoken by fewer than 100 people. It’s not just a beautiful album – it’s music as a means of survivalRT

11. Fucked Up: David Comes To Life (Matador, 2011)

This was it – the moment Fucked Up’s over-the-top ambition, hardcore chaos, shimmering melodicism, studio perfectionism and regular guy approachability all coalesced into one massive punk rock opera. An 18-track, 80-minute opus with a convoluted storyline running through it and beyond it, it’s also where some of their biggest hooks come from – underneath Damian Abraham’s earth-shattering growl. And this is the moment the band reached the status of scene heroes, Abraham’s sweaty hug a badge of honour for Toronto showgoers, whether they were punks or not.  RT

12. Owen Pallett: In Conflict (Domino/Secret City, 2014)

“You stand in a city that you don’t know anymore,” the Toronto violinist and composer sang on his fourth solo album. The estrangement is felt inside and out on In Conflict, a gorgeous record full of dissonance, duality and displacement that comes together in ethereal, complex arrangements blending synths and strings with soaring vocals. With lyrics emphasizing mundane experiences, the album grappled with identity long before discussions of privilege and masculinity found their way into TV shows and Hollywood movies.  KR

13. Jennifer Castle: Castlemusic (Flemish Eye, 2011)

On Remembering, singer/songwriter Jennifer Castle breezily sings over languid piano, “the only thing I have to do today is to get to the garden to pick some sage… all I have to do today is get past remembering.” The song encapsulates the essence of Castle’s magical third album (and first under her own name): intimate lyrics that are equal parts mundane and profoundly melancholic, and lingering psychedelic reverb that evokes warm nights at the Tranzac, where Castle was a regular. Her subsequent album, 2014’s Pink City, expanded that vision instrumentally but with Castlemusic she affirms her place in Toronto’s folk canon.  SE

14. Caribou: Swim (Merge, 2010)

By the time Swim came out at the start of the decade, former mathematician Dan Snaith had already made a name for himself crafting genre-blurring electronic music. But on Swim, in which he tapped Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, he delved deeper into house and techno, intricately layering idiosyncratic textures and adding just the right amount of vocal flourishes to provide a human element. Apparently Snaith made some 700 tracks for the album. If only we could see what was left on the cutting room floor.  SE

15. PUP: The Dream Is Over (Royal Mountain, 2016)

During the same decade music journalists proclaimed guitar music dead, scrappy pop-punk band PUP emerged to show there was life left in the genre. Their sophomore album is chock-full of searing guitar riffs, pounding drums, gang vocals and lead singer Stefan Babcock’s characteristic yell-yelp, evoking the frenzied frustration of too many long days spent in the van with three other dudes. The foursome ride out the decade with a trio of ridiculously catchy albums and a well-earned reputation for ensuring their shows are safe, inclusive spaces for young fans.  SE

16. Haviah Mighty: 13th Floor (independent, 2019)

If you’ve seen Brampton rapper Haviah Mighty’s ferocious stage shows – solo and with the now-defunct group The Sorority – you know she’s all about bars. But her Polaris Prize-winning debut album channelled that laser-focused intensity into songs that sharply deconstructed political and social ills while expanding her sound. 13th Floor is a testament to a perseverance that goes deeper than hip-hop, framing Mighty’s impeccably delivered personal storytelling in the collective and historic struggles and triumphs of Black women, and filling those narratives with a palpable urgency.  KR

17. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan: UZU (Paper Bag, 2013)

By the time this collective put out UZU – their sophomore album and their first after half the band moved from Montreal to Toronto – their ambition was a bit out of control. But it made for a thrilling suite of makeup metal, Noh opera, noise, pop, psych, prog, Iroquois songs and just about everything else they could cram in. All the sonic and cultural influences fit snugly under their adventurous art-punk umbrella, mixing distorted heaviness and aching beauty in a way that only YT//ST could.  RT

18. Art Department: The Drawing Board (Crosstown Rebels, 2011)

Remember EDM? It was big in Toronto – and everywhere – thanks to a certain homegrown act named Deadmau5. But house music has been a constant, particularly in the early part of the decade when local dance music groups Azari & III and Art Department blew up internationally. The latter, then-comprised of T.O. warehouse party scene stalwart Kenny Glasgow and Jonny White, released a debut LP that was more about a mood and melancholy than bangers. Glasgow’s breathy vocals evoked the seedy, forlorn side of late-night life while beautiful, slow-burning productions that put a contemporary twist on classic Chicago house.  KR

19. Fiver: Audible Songs From Rockwood (Idée Fixe, 2017)

Local hero Simone Schmidt has delivered some of the city’s best country and roots-rock this decade with the bands One Hundred Dollars, the Highest Order and solo project Fiver, but this was the only one that had the conceptual thrust to become a theatrical piece at the SummerWorks Performance Festival. A Smithsonian Folkways-style collection of folk tunes written from the perspective of women imprisoned in Kingston’s Rockwood Asylum around the time of Confederation, Audible Songs is also a totally contemporary critique of colonial carceral systems and the stigmas that create them. Schmidt has a knack for infusing old music styles with new life, and this is the perfect example.  RT

20. BadBadNotGood: BBNG2 (independent, 2012)

“No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album,” reads the disclaimer on the Bandcamp page for Alex Sowinski, Matt Tavares and Chester Hansen’s 2012 album. This group of Humber College jazz students would become go-to session players for hip-hop and soul heavyweights over the course of the decade, but it was BBNG2 that helped energize a new wave of jazz-infused rap and electronic music by fusing technical prowess with contemporary pop sensibility. Mixing instrumental covers of Feist, My Bloody Valentine, Gucci Mane and Kanye West with originals, the record’s moshing-conducive rhythms are still irresistible. They had local kids in bucket hats moshing to instrumental jazz jams. How many groups can say that?  KR

Honourable mentions: 

Cold Specks: I Predict A Graceful Expulsion (2012)

Gord Downie: Secret Path (2016)

Dilly Dally: Sore (2015)

Timber Timbre: Creep On Creepin’ On (2011)

Feist: Metals (2011)

@trapunski | @SamEdwardsTO | @kevinritchie

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