Wednesday, November 07, 2007

List and Shout

Everyone loves a list—even if just to argue about.

And there has been plenty of argument following the release of Bob Mersereau’s Top 100 Canadian Albums book, released in October. In case you haven’t heard—and there’s been no shortage of media attention, from all corners—Neil Young’s Harvest and Joni Mitchell’s Blue occupy the top two spots. Another seven Young albums make the list. Four of Mitchell’s also show up. Much of the list is predictable: The Band, Leonard Cohen, The Tragically Hip, The Guess Who. All are Canadian giants; all deserve to be there.

This canonization follows the handwringing of Jean Ghomeshi’s “50 Tracks” exercise a few years back. I took part in an 80s episode of the Canadian segment, championing Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (“Having an Average Weekend,” which was attacked for its apparent obscurity despite being the Kids in the Hall theme) and Leonard Cohen (“Tower of Song,” which made the final list).

I got the email regarding Mersereau’s project, but declined to participate. Frankly, I didn’t know who he was and whether this was going to be much more than a random blog post somewhere; I also remember being too busy at the time to give it serious thought. And though 580 people were asked to be on the jury, I can see from the list that many prominent thinkers opted out. Not surprisingly, many of those are the book’s greatest critics.

Although I don’t like elements of it, I have no major problem with the list—though the decision to include greatest hits albums is so obviously cheating. (A collection of non-album singles, like The Nils’ Green Fields of Daylight or Shadowy Men’s Savvy Show Stoppers, would be different--though as Mersereau argues below, that's what Young's Decade is.)

Brian Joseph Davis sums it up as a "boomer-fart" Q107 playlist with some minor interference from Brave New Waves—which, by the way, was exactly what I listened to in high school, as incongruous as it seems. But I took the time to break down the results by era, and this is what we have:

Before 1974: 32%
1975-1984: 20%
1985-1995: 30%
1996-present: 18%

There are more albums from 1985-1995 in the Top 40 than there are from any other era, including all those essential boomer albums made before 1975.

There are many great artists who are not on the list—and I would say that in most cases (Martha and the Muffins, for example) it’s because they made great singles, not great albums. Sadly, that also means a near-shutout for singles genres like hip-hop; Joyful Rebellion is here, as it deserves to be, but not the equally strong Black Tie Affair by Maestro Fresh Wes (possibly the most underrated Canadian album of the 90s—seriously, go listen again, and ask yourself why you can only find this album in bargain bins these days).

No, my problem is with the book itself, as I outline in this piece in this month’s Exclaim!. Despite the fact that he has good chats with Leonard Cohen and Garth Hudson, most of the interviews are downright boring. Ideally, these blurbs would read like liner notes for a reissue, yet rarely does he really delve into the creative process into the making of an album. What on earth do Tyler Stewart’s views on downloading in 2007 have to do with the 1992 Barenaked Ladies’ album Gordon???!!! And I know Bry Webb is a modest guy, but couldn’t he or Mersereau find anything exciting to say about the Constantines’ Shine a Light other than that they found a new keyboardist at the time?

Some factual errors rub the wrong way, too. The Rheostatics’ “Saskatchewan,” for example, is not sung in French, as Mersereau claims it is. (The French song on Melville is ridiculously easy to find: it’s titled “Chanson Les Ruelles.”)

And while it’s good that sidebars are devoted to certain people in order to highlight albums overlooked for being too regional or niched (Prairie albums, Newfoundland albums, blues), sometimes the results are laughable. Doesn’t Frankie Venom of Teenage Head know a single thing about Vancouver punk—which in the grand scheme of things, is way more important than Hamilton? And why not a list of jazz, classical, hip-hop, electronic or avant-garde—wouldn’t that give the classic rock readers a window into the other worlds that exist in this country? People like Mark Miller, Nardwuar, Ron Nelson, Billy Bryans, Patti Schmidt, Otis Richmond, Carl Wilson--all of them would make invaluable contributions that fall outside the purview of the book as it stands now.

My email exchange with Mersereau for the Exclaim! piece runs in full below.

And a quick note: my piece on the Weakerthans’ reluctant relationship to Canadiana runs today on AOL; they play the Phoenix in Toronto tonight and tomorrow, and have just released their best album in seven years.

In the meantime, here’s a list I would have submitted to Mersereau if he asked me today. This is just off the top of my head this morning, no strategic voting, representing nothing more than ten albums that affected me deeply when they came out and continue to do so, ten albums I never tire of hearing, ten albums where the lyrics are just as affecting as the music. I’d be happy to debate my conservative viewpoints over a pint in the near future with anyone who cares. Only three of these didn’t make Mersereau’s top 100.

1. Joni Mitchell – Blue (Reprise, 1970)
2, Rheostatics – Whale Music (Intrepid, 1992)
3. Mary Margaret O’Hara – Miss America (Virgin, 1988)
4. Arcade Fire – Funeral (Merge, 2004)
5. Destroyer – Streethawk: A Seduction (Misra, 2001)
6. Bruce Cockburn – Stealing Fire (True North, 1984)
7. Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (Columbia, 1988)
8. Weakerthans – Left and Leaving (G7 Welcoming Committee, 2000)
9. Daniel Lanois – Acadie (Opal, 1989)
10. Crash Vegas – Red Earth (Risque Disque, 1989)

Bob Mersereau
Email interview
October 23, 2007

Why do you think this had not been attempted before? Is it because it's taken this long to have a large enough CanCon canon to be considered worthy? After all, most classic Canadian artists are better known for their singles than their albums. Arguably, if this was done 15 or 20 years ago, you'd have more average albums by great artists than actual all-killer-no-filler works of art.

I don't really know why no one attempted this before. It surprised me that I kept going into book stores over the years, and couldn't find a list book of Canadian albums. I buy most of these types of books, and it bothered me to read lists that included only the usual suspects (Neil, Joni, Leonard, Alanis maybe). Also, magazines are constantly running such lists, and often Canadians would show up very high. I thought it was high time somebody did this, and when the offer came from the publisher to do a music book, I offered this.

What entry surprised you the most?

The most surprising was, by far, Simply Saucer. Like most people I've asked, I had never heard of them. When I found out the story, it was easily the most amazing music tale I'd ever heard, from Canada or anywhere else. It intrigued me that a group that died with no success could be resurrected by popular demand, and now, 30 years later, be on such an incredible roll. If you don't know, the band just played a successful gig in Brooklyn, has played several highly-praised dates of late, and has a new album coming out in January. Plus, there's a documentary film being made about them, and to my delight the co-producer came to one of the interviews I was giving to a radio station in Toronto last week, and interviewed me for the film.

What omission surprised you the most?

There are several omissions that surprised me, from old favourites (The Stampeders, Lighthouse) to modern acts (Nickelback, Avril, even Celine). My biggest disappointment is that one of my personal favourites, The Odds, didn't make the list. I voted for them, what's the matter with the rest of the jury?

Do you see this book being updated in years to come? What do you think will fall off the list? What recent records do you think will grow in estimation?

Yes, I can see the need for an updated edition. First, of course, publishers love to do paperback editions, and if that comes soon, I wouldn't do a new survey, I'd instead concentrate on interviews with some of the artists who I was not able to talk to given the time pressures. For instance, Joni Mitchell was in the studio making her Shine album when I was doing interviews. Her management thought there might be a window of time this past July, but unfortunately the copy had to be ready in June. There was one artist who was pregnant, others that requests went to that were ignored by reps. Hopefully when they see the high quality of the book, they'll be available.

As for a new survey, yes, I'd be willing to update the book in a few years. I think it's hard to say what would fall off although I'm sure many would. Times and tastes change, new and better albums come out. I think the most obvious choice of discs to debut since the survey would be Feist's The Reminder, both excellent and acclaimed. Personally, I love the new Arcade Fire, even more than Funeral.

Did you expect that most people's first reactions would be to see what didn't make the list, rather than what did? Is it a classic Canadian conundrum to immediately bring up regional biases and discuss diversity issues?

Yes, I think it's the first thing people look for. They want to see if their region or tastes are covered. Of course, there will be albums left off. My own list included only five albums in the Top 100 of the ten I chose. I think we are all conscience [sic] of regional and diversity choices, and I think it's very healthy that we're looking out for it. These historical surveys however will always include more older albums, and our multi-cultural society is really only beginning to blossom. Obviously, more albums will make the list from diverse cultures as time passes.

I do find it funny to hear people say there are too many East Coast albums when there are just six, compared to, say, 29 from the West, or that Ontario is overrepresented, when in fact, when you break down the population percentages, it's underrepresented. The idea is to celebrate Canadian music, no matter where it's from or what it is, the list is just the headline and attention-grabber.

Why open the field to non-pop genres if the one or two examples from those genres (specifically jazz and classical) end up looking like tokens?

I guess I'd reverse that and say, why not? So many people when first contacted wanted to include their favourite albums from any genre. When you have fan that want to put Glenn Gould or Oscar Petersen or Diana Krall or the Montreal Jubilation Choir on their lists alongside Rush and Trooper, why would I refuse? It speaks to the open ears of Canadians, who don't think in genres, but simply what they love. My own collection includes so many genres, yet I don't take out the jazz and put it in another room.

Also, there were plenty of jazz, a couple of classical, lots of hip-hop, some electronica and some very hardcore punk discs that finished from 100 - 150, so if I had made it the Top 150 Canadian Albums, a lot of these suggestions of tokenism would have been rendered moot. But 150 isn't a round number, and having 200 albums would have made the book too big and expensive for most music fans to consider owning.

Why do you express surprise in the introduction that Western Canadians might vote for Joel Plaskett? Why wouldn't they? On a related note, how many Anglos voted for Harmonium?

I found it surprising that so many people in different regions were familiar with each other's music, to the point that they would place it in their top ten. I thought there would be much more regional bias in the voting, but was pleasantly surprised jurors rarely played hometown favourites. I really can't tell you or remember accurately how many Anglos voted for Harmonium, and I don't have the individual lists with me, I'm in Vancouver now on the "book tour", the lists are at home. I do know it's several, which helped promote that band to its three positions. Also, it's a little risky calling people Anglos or Francophones just by their name and location. For instance, I have a french name, I live in Canada's only bilingual province, which is one-third Acadian, but I am a unilingual Anglo. And I loved Harmonium as a kid. Didn't vote for them though.

Why are greatest hits albums eligible? Isn't that cheating?

The goal was inclusion rather than exclusion. I felt as many albums as possible should be considered, as long as they were majority Canadian. If greatest hits or compilations were excluded, there could be no Decade from Neil Young, roughly one-third of which is songs not available on any other album. Gord's Gold has its entire first disc as new recordings of old hits. Leonard Cohen's Best of (which didn't make the 100) was easily his best-selling early album, the one that introduced him to so many people. The Guess Who's best was in so many homes growing up. And Trooper, well the only Trooper album to own is Hot Shots. They are major records in so many Canadians lives, the ones that prompt great memories and have reached iconic status in some cases. It seemed to be more important to allow voters to choose if they wanted them, rather than set up a rule that would just be in the way. There are certainly two schools of thought, and it is one of the few instances in the book that I went with my feelings, as the writer and jury co-ordinator.

Were you worried there would be certain generational biases, i.e. a dominance of baby boomer albums, or an over-glorification of recent success stories?

Yes, that was definitely taken into account. I tried for a mix, and included people from their early 20's to their 70's. I hope I got a broad range. That's why I went to a lot of college stations or alternative stores, that sort of thing.

Were all interviews conducted specifically for this project?

Yes, these are all new interviews, which I conducted myself. I thought it was very important to go to the source, to not recycle quotes, or use website information. I hate picking up a reference-type book, and finding glaring errors, and music books are notorious for this. These errors or rumours get repeated until we all take them as true. For instance, Mama Cass did NOT die choking on a sandwich. The musicians understand this, and were more than happy to answer even the most basic questions (where were you born, etc.), much of which was used simply for background. Also, I felt that in many cases they would like a chance to comment now that the passage of time allows them to reflect.

Do you honestly love all of these albums? If not, did that make it difficult to write each entry?

[no response]

Bonus question, purely for my own grammatical interest: Why do you spell Grunge with a capital G, while no other genre is capitalized?

[no response]


1 comment:

cleverlazy said...

Ah - was that the reason for the Bruce Cockburn retrospective the other morning? I'd happily listen to "Tokyo" about seven more times.

And thanks for the lyrical clarification on "me and all these other dice". Sure beats the revelation about "say say say" that I had in Shoppers' this morning.