As one of the decade’s most-defining record labels celebrates a decade of existence, AUX Staffers picked and ranked the label’s 10 most defining releases. It wasn’t easy.
When discussing the last decade of Arts & Crafts, it’s difficult to pick standout moments—there are too many to list concisely. Some call Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot it in People its nucleus, cementing the label’s membership and, to certain degrees, signature sound. Others point to Feist’s “1234,” a song which brought the native Calgarian-via-Nova Scotia—and, arguably, her high-profile pals—into the international spotlight. Or, perhaps Stuart Berman’s This Book is Broken is the definitive piece, chronicling the rise of Kevin Drew and co. Or Bruce McDonald’s film, This Movie is Broken, which was equal part love letter to Broken Social Scene and their Toronto digs. Or—we could go on.
Truth is, Arts & Crafts’ far-from-complete legacy—beyond their collaborative 10-year anniversary release, X, and the bands playing this summer’s Field Trip festival—lies in their deep well of releases. Sure, there have been some derivative moments, strange diversions (like the label’s brief obsession with Mexico), and other duds along they way. But mostly, Arts & Crafts have been consistently releasing the nation’s best independent art—and the label that Broken Social Scene built now also hosts banner, and recent, releases by Timber Timbre, Cold Specks, and Young Galaxy. Here, just in time for Arts & Crafts’ Field Day extravaganza—which happens on Saturday, June 8 at Toronto’s Fort York—we’ve ranked the label’s 10 definitive releases. And, to be extra comprehensive, we’ve included Arts & Craft’s U.S. releases, too.
By: Joe Lasko (JL), Nicole Villeneuve (NV), Daniel Halyburton (DH), Chayne Japal (CJ), Mark Teo (MT)
Stars – Heart* (2003): When these Torontonian BSS affiliates landed in Montreal after a stint in NYC, they made a breakthrough. Their second album, Heart, is a twinkling set of groove-alongs that features the then-quartet sharpening their chops and successfully incorporating elements of R&B into indie pop long before it became a trend. The album’s refreshing merger of baroque and dream pop sat Stars closer to the likes of French bands Air and M83 instead of their guitar-focused Canadian peers. Its equally beautiful follow-up, Set Yourself On Fire, ended up being more successful, but Heart captures the moment in which the band finds their footing for what would prove to be a fruitful career together. (CJ)
*Released by Arts & Crafts in the U.S.
Charles Spearin—The Happiness Project (2009): “All of the melodies on this album are the melodies of everyday life,” Charles Spearin writes about The Happiness Project. More experimental-jazz art project than pop album, it presents spoken-word interviews with Spearin’s neighbours about happiness, translating their speech patterns to music. What results is an album that somehow defies pretense, and is engaging both in content and in execution. More than anything, this is a project that celebrates the mosaic of Spearin’s neighbourhood, and downtown Toronto as a whole. Though it may not be a record to throw on often, it’s a small gem in Arts & Crafts’ growing discography. (DH)
Feist—Metals (2011): With her breakthrough 2007 LP, The Reminder, Leslie Feist established her pop bona fides—before the Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs busted the Grammy-sphere, Lez earned four noms of her own. But with the Polaris-winning Metals, Feist proved that she’s just as adept, and arresting, when she’s breaking the rules: Her 2011 offering featured none of “1234”’s sunny bounce. Rather, Metals as its title suggests, was her weightiest—and arguably darkest—collection to date, with her lucid vocals floating atop gorgeously fragile arrangements (“The Circle Married the Line”), sparse, narrative-first numbers (“Anti-Pioneer”), and even pulsating, raucous stompers, like “The Bad in Each Other” and “A Commotion,” which were two of Metals’ standouts. It was maturation as it should’ve been: Metals might’ve been Feist’s least accessible album, but it dripped with visceral immediacy—and it’s an LP that improves with each successive listen. (MT)
The Constantines—Kensington Heights (2008): The Cons’ only Arts & Crafts release would prove to be their best—and sadly, last—album. Famously recorded using Garnet amplifiers, whose fuzz-tone was made famous by The Who, Kensington Heights fractured into a zillion disparate song ideas, all of them quintessentially Constantines. Sure, Stephen Lambke attempted to drop spoken-word poetry over rollicking guitar noise on “Shower of Stones.” Yes, the band attempted a classic-rock breakdown on “Hard Feelings.” The best part, though, is that they made it work, and the band truly owned their aesthetic niche on Kensington Heights: You can hear it in Bry Webb’s throat-shredding in the soaring “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song,” the magnetic post-punk rhythms of “Trans Canada,” the gritty slide guitars of “Time Can be Overcome,” and, as on “Do What You Can Do,” the lonely sound of one guitar plugged into a well-worn tube amp. (MT)
Jason Collett—Idols of Exile (2005): While the “singer-songwriter” label can be thrown around like a dirty word, to call Jason Collett anything but that would be an insult. Collett is a storyteller at heart, using traditional song structures as a framework to keep his words front and centre. The confidence in his lyrics shines through constantly, with lines often delivered in a Dylanesque cadence and with a hint of red-wine swagger. Idols of Exile may be Collett’s most consistent offering, continuing the tradition of rustic feeling roots-rock (acoustic guitars, harmonicas), while still putting his own Arts & Crafts spin on it (guest appearances from Broken Social Scene peers, horn parts on everything). Throw this on to soundtrack summer days, brazenly drinking cheap wine in the park. (DH)
Broken Social Scene—Broken Social Scene (2005): Released in the heart of Arts and Crafts’ golden era, Broken Social Scene’s self-titled follow up to You Forgot It In People set out to expand the band’s sound, and it delivered a record that was distinctively bigger than anything they had done before. Sonically, Broken Social Scene is massive, with tracks upon tracks upon tracks blending together—sometimes battling—to deliver an album that punches you in the face then makes love to you while you’re on the ground. Perhaps these layers of sound are responsible for the album’s longevity, with subtle melodies emerging just when you think you’ve heard all it has to offer. Or perhaps it’s because it’s jam-packed with well-written, artfully crafted pop hits—ones that are likely ingrained in your memory as the soundtrack to the best times of your life. Because, honestly, is there a song out there that’s more fun to air drum to than “It’s All Gonna Break”? Try it; you won’t be disappointed. (JL)
The Dears – Gang of Losers* (2006): While the triumph that was No Cities Left sent The Dears around the world, its follow-up, Gang of Losers, told the story of what they learned. A strong following and cascades of positive reviews didn’t stop Murray Lightburn from feeling like an outsider, as he had his whole life. He used this album to comment on the desires and motives of humanity, from the delight of procreation to the ugliness of racism. Lightburn’s burning anthems are properly embellished by dense instrumentation from a prime incarnation of the band’s ever-changing line-up, which unfortunately had already begun to dissolve before the album hit its first anniversary. Luckily, they were together long enough to pen this magnificent record which, in itself, stands as a symbol for The Dears and their music: tragically underrated and widely misunderstood. (CJ)
*Released by Arts & Crafts in the U.S.
Timber Timbre—Creep On Creepin’ On’ (2011): Somehow blending backwoods folk with Suicide’s vocal delivery, Taylor Kirk showed some major-league potential on Timber Timbre, his 2009 Out of This Spark release. It was realized—and then some—on Creep On Creepin’ On, his Arts & Crafts debut, a truly unsettling (and unforgettable) release. Filling in his trademark skeletal songwriting with rickety-floorboard pianos, horror-film violins, and Colin Steston’s ghastly sax squeals, the LP balanced its cold-to-the-bones aesthetic with Kirk’s elegant narration, giving Creep On Creepin’ On a distinctly suave element. It proved to be one of Arts and Crafts’ biggest growers and showers, and Kirk’s Ontario gothic remains one of the label’s most singular, and downright distinctive, contributions. (MT)
Feist—Let It Die (2004): The Reminder was the album that forced us to share Feist with the rest of the world. Released in 2007 and marked by Grammy nods, Sesame Street cameos, and, of course, that iPod commercial, it was huge, and undoubtedly a watershed album in Feist’s still-short career. But Let It Die, the sophomore that came three years before (and five whole years after her solo debut, the lesser-known Monarch…), set her up perfectly for it, establishing Feist as one of Canada’s best, and, shortly, most influential, artists. From the crushing, quiet title track (“the saddest part of a broken heart/isn’t the ending so much as the start”) to the sultry, soulful “One Evening,” this outcome of her artful Paris recording sessions with close collaborator Gonzales laid a sturdy foundation for a revered career that continues to surprise (see: Metals). (NV)
Broken Social Scene—You Forgot It In People (2002): Perhaps the most important album to be released in Canadian indie rock history (sorry, Funeral), You Forgot It In People could be considered the genre’s Bible. YFIIP launched a band, a label, a music scene, and countless careers at a time when Canadian music was mostly known for Jason Priestley-endorsed bands and chest-thumping ballads about hearts going on. With YFIIP, Broken Social Scene took their art-house sensibilities to a wider audience in the most welcoming, and accessible, of ways. Poised with subtle pop hooks and hypnotic melodies, the album is delicate at times and highly explosive at others, sometimes both at once. It consistently crosses boundaries that aren’t technically supposed to be crossed and, in doing so, invites us to follow. With songs for everyone from missionaries to 17-year old girls, who are you to not love this record? 10 years later, I’m still finding new favorite songs. (JL)
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe for free in the App Store.