In 2011, Toronto artists ruled year-end best-of lists around the world again. Find out why the local music bubble just won’t burst.
Towards the end of last year, a buoyant theme emerged in the American media. I’m not talking about the modest drop in U.S. unemployment or the smirking coverage of the Republican leadership race. I’m talking about the consensus that we had just witnessed a banner year for Toronto music.
Year-end lists were loaded with Toronto acts. Jon Pareles, chief pop critic for The New York Times, named Feist’s Metals as his favourite album of 2011; his colleague Jon Caramanica chose Drake’s Take Care. Nitsuh Abebe, music critic for New York magazine, picked Feel It Break, the debut by Toronto synth-pop group Austra. Meanwhile, the editors of Spin went with David Comes to Life, the electrifying concept album by local punks Fucked Up, and marked the occasion by tarting up Damian Abraham, the band’s formidable frontman, for its cover.
A blog post by urban theorist (and adopted Torontonian) Richard Florida on The Atlantic website on Dec. 26 provided a more mathematical representation of our supposed greatness. In it, Florida cited a geographical study—done by an urban-planning student at UCLA—of the artists on Pitchfork’s top 100 songs of 2011 list. Not surprisingly, New York came out on top, followed by London. But in fourth place, just behind Los Angeles, was our city, which had seven songs on the list. The highest-ranking Toronto tune was “The Morning” by elusive R&B act The Weeknd, at number 15, followed by the Drake songs “Marvin’s Room” (No. 21) and “Headlines” (No. 45), The Weeknd again for “House of Balloons” (No. 57), “Changes” by experimental artist Sandro Perri (No. 78), Fucked Up’s “Queen of Hearts” (No. 80) and “Banana Ripple” (No. 85) by the electronic duo Junior Boys—who, yes, are technically from Hamilton. (Let’s face it, we spurn and embrace the Hammer as it suits us.)
We all know that best-of lists are mildly ridiculous, based as they are on the whims of full-time music snobs. But it’s hard to ignore these results. The recognition of Toronto’s impressive output in 2011 seems to suggest we’re experiencing a moment—akin to Liverpool in the mid-’60s, Manchester in the late ’80s or Seattle in the early ’90s.
But hold on: Didn’t Toronto already have its moment back in the early aughts? Zeroing in on acts like Broken Social Scene, Feist and Hidden Cameras, journalists far and wide heralded our euphoric indie scene, portraying it as one big (shaggy) family. While the coverage seemed a little cutesy, it was deeply satisfying to our civic ego.
But if critics are still so taken with our bands, perhaps there’s something more profound and permanent at play here. Maybe it’s time to cast aside our damnable modesty and ask: Is Toronto the greatest music city in the world?
It’s flattering when international media take notice of your scene and dedicate time and resources to lavish profiles. But there’s an inherent hazard in having a distinct “sound”: you risk losing the attention once tastes change. Just look at Manchester (trippy dance-rock) or Seattle (grunge).
Rather than touting a single, defining sound, Toronto’s music scene has become a riot of styles. This city has not only produced one of the hottest rappers on the planet, it has given rise to disparate talents like violin virtuoso Owen Pallett (formerly known as Final Fantasy), electropunks Crystal Castles and techno maestro Deadmau5.
Our artists might be world-class, but are Torontonians actually buying the albums they put out? From Drake’s Take Care to Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life, The Grid found out how many Toronto records Toronto’s paying for.
Many see Toronto’s musical diversity as a hedge against future irrelevance.
“With speciﬁc genre explosions, they were just moments in time,” says local concert promoter Mark Pesci, who witnessed the ﬁrst wave of interest in Toronto bands, and recently launched the listings site Justshows.com. “Whereas what we’re seeing in Toronto [now] is the development of a strong music culture that is going to have a more lasting effect.”
Toronto’s current scene can’t help but be influenced by scenes past. Despite its relative youth, Toronto has a venerable music history—from the folkies that clustered in Yorkville in the mid-’60s to the punks (like the Diodes and the Viletones) who haunted Queen Street in the late ’70s to the synth-heavy pop acts (Martha and the Muffins, Parachute Club) who thrived at the dawn of the MuchMusic age.
As the city’s musical rep grew, so did the infrastructure to support it. Independent record labels like Arts & Crafts and Teenage U.S.A. have been integral to fostering a larger community. And we’ve seen the influence of Wavelength, a weekly showcase that not only helped launch bands like Holy Fuck, The Constantines and Hidden Cameras, but demonstrated that there was so much more to indie than rock.
Of course, Toronto’s polyphonic racket also owes a debt to the larger social achievements of multiculturalism. According to the last census, 46.9 per cent of citizens are visible minorities, and nearly half the population is foreign-born.
“What Toronto does not have that both New York and London do have is scale. But Toronto has a strong overall diversity of people, because of all the immigrants that are here, which creates tremendous opportunities that pretty much no other city on the planet has,” says Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, which is part of the Rotman School of Management at U of T and studies how creativity and innovation shape economic regions.
By welcoming people from all imaginable cultures, Toronto has fostered an environment where ethnicities mingle, which can create some stimulating noise. That’s how you get bands like Autorickshaw, which plays a sort of Indo-jazz, and Maza Mezé, which interlaces traditional Greek and Arab melodies. Although more subtle, a strain of exoticism also runs through the dusky R&B of Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, whose family hails from the Horn of Africa.
“You look at someone like The Weeknd, and people are like, ‘Oh, he’s got such an original sound.’ When you listen to it, you can hear Ethiopia all over it, all over his vocalizations,” says Garvia Bailey, host of the weekly CBC Radio show Big City, Small World.
One of the great virtues of Toronto musicians, says Bailey, is their humility. She’s not talking about shyness or self-deprecation, but rather an acceptance that no musical form is superior to others and a realization that creativity thrives when you remain open to different sounds.
This philosophy is ultimately what led to the massive success of K’naan Warsame, that wiry kid from Rexdale who took his Somali heritage and abiding love of Eric B. and Rakim to create hip-hop that the whole world could—and did—embrace. While “Wavin’ Flag” may have overstayed its welcome on top-40 radio, K’naan is the embodiment of the Toronto spirit.
In the past decade, a growing confidence in the quality of homegrown hip-hop has led to an overwhelming pride. Even more than other music forms, rap places a great emphasis on personal geography, which is why it was so thrilling in the early 2000s to hear MCs like Kardinal Ofﬁshall and Choclair name-dropping “the T-dot” in song. “Kardi was like, ‘I’m from Toronto, I’m going to big-up Rexdale’ and all the myriad places that have created him, and at the same time he pulled in his Jamaican influences,” says Bailey. “He really created that pride and that swagger.”
Right now, arguably our biggest champion is Drake, who talks up his hometown at every turn; with generous shots of the Rogers Centre and the CN Tower, the video for “Headlines” is essentially a mash note to Toronto. But Drizzy pays an even higher compliment to the T-dot by continually leaning on its creative talent, whether it’s production partner Noah “40” Shebib or video-directing team Lamar Taylor and Hyghly Alleyne.
Next page: Why artists gravitate to Toronto—and how the scene has become more competitive