Tuesday, August 18, 2015

billboard BREAKDOWN - a look at the canadian hot 100 (2015)

So on regular episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN, a frequent tagline is that the Canadian charts are always better than those of the United States, and that has drawn responses from curiosity to outright skepticism. I mean, this is the nation that gave the world Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, and Nickelback, surely anything that charts there must be bland, derivative junk that was clearly not good enough to make it south of the border, right?

Well, you could argue that might be the case, particularly Canadian acts are jumping on trends that American acts already started, but it tends to be more complicated than that, and the place to start would be the Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission, otherwise known as the CRTC. The idea behind it ties into the preservation of uniquely Canadian content - given our proximity to the US and the fact that sheer size means the US market is so much bigger than ours, there was a desire to give Canadian artists a boost nationally so that they wouldn't have to rely on international hits to succeed. It's a bit of a controversial system, as any sort of regulation tends to be, but when you look at the bigger picture, I tend to support the CRTC for a few key reasons. It's not like it's preventing the massive hits from the States getting huge up here with very rare exception, and in the mean time it gives a greater audience to Canadian creators who might never get it in the States, especially with increased consolidation of radio.

But here's the thing: since the Canadian Hot 100 debuted in the mid-2000s, it's increasingly departed from US trends to fall somewhere between them and international audiences. And this means that more off-beat oddities will land on our charts - a smaller population means that a song doesn't need to appeal to the increasingly massive audiences required for US hits. And since hip-hop and country radio tends to be a fair bit smaller simply thanks to demographic demand, what fills in the blanks is an odd assortment of pop rock, electronica, and indie songs that defy categorization - and the hilarious thing is that a fair chunk of them aren't even Canadian! Since our market has become more accustomed to weirder stuff, it's meant that where songs like 'Come With Me Now' by KONGOS barely had an impact in the US, it was a top ten hit up here!

And all of this got me thinking: there's a whole swathe of music that as of this date has not hit the US yet or likely ever will - to qualify for this list, it must not have charted at all on the Billboard Hot 100 in the past six months - so let's put some of it on display, shall we? Prepare to get mostly Canadian up in here, let's get this started! In no particular order...

'American You' by Yelawolf (peaked at 89 - American) - I already know what you're going to say, 'you start off a Canadian Hot 100 list like this?' Well, believe it or not, Yelawolf's charting songs did a lot better on the Canadian charts than they ever did down south - mostly because when confronted with real country rap, country and hip-hop radio programmers had no idea how to promote it. And I'll admit it's a hard sell - there's a lot of critics who would find it easy to disparage a song like 'American You' as the second coming of Everlast. But as a ruggedly blue collar track disparaging the yuppie sellout who turned his back on his roots and puts on a phony demeanor, 'American You' balances its acoustic grit with a distinctive rollicking groove and Yelawolf's admittedly weak but effective vocals. It's not the best song from Love Story by a mile - when you have 'Empty Bottles', 'Till Its Gone', and especially 'Heartbreak', you can do better - but I daresay this song is more country than anything on Luke Bryan's last record, and what does that tell you?

'Better To Be Loved' by Francesco Yates (peaked at 37 - Canadian) - so one of the biggest criticisms of the Canadian charts is that they effectively produce Canadian versions of acts that already exist and are better south of the border. And in a sense that's half-true, but as Francesco Yates proves with his breakout here, quality is a much different proposition. Taking the retro-disco trend and adding real tightness to the prominent bass and weedy guitar, Yates brings more more organic charisma than Adam Levine's yowling has provided in years, especially with the horn stings. And yeah, the lyrics don't exactly rise above a typical pop dance-hookup track, but they really don't need to, and it gives the song a rhythmic tightness that can excuse some of the shakier production and its lack of a great ending. Definitely recommended.

'Black Magic' by Little Mix (peaked at 94 - British) - yeah, I debated putting this on the list, mostly because I'm fairly certain it'll be debuting on the Hot 100 south of the border soon enough, but I've been getting request after request to talk about it, so here we go: yes, I like it. Yeah, I can't deny it's a little percussion-heavy, but the shimmering guitars and prominent groove - that reminds me way too much of 'Black & White' by Michael Jackson, on a side note - paired with all four of the girls delivering a vibrantly catchy performance makes the song pretty damn infectious. And that's before we get to the lyrics and wow, I haven't seen a song this secretly dirty in a while, read a little deeper and I'm fairly certain this song is a veiled innuendo for cunnilingus. It reminds me of songwriting from The Wanted that was pretty shameless and dirty, but hid it well enough that kids could still appreciate it without knowing the deeper meaning. So okay, I can approve of this, looking forward to that next album.

'Criminal' by Ash Koley (peaked at 85 - Canadian) - so while some of you might know I currently live in Toronto, I grew up in the midwest in the city of Winnipeg, the city behind this pop group that I guarantee the majority of you have never heard of. The duo originally dropped a debut back in 2010 that made no impact on the charts, but they made a comeback last year with 'Criminal', which landed on the charts in 2015 and made this list, mostly because it's a pretty damn kickass pop song. Most of this is courtesy of Ashley Koley herself, who brings a ton of potent charisma and stage presence to the underlying dark piano line, stuttering hi-hat groove, and march-beat that reminds me in a great way of Icon For Hire. And while you could argue the lyrics do step into melodrama in the disastrous relationship on display, they work in the same way that 'Can't Remember To Forget You' by Shakira and Rihanna did - over the top and clearly aware of it and taking the listener on the insane ride. This song deserved to do a whole lot better, definitely approving of it.

'Crystals' by Of Monsters & Men (peaked at 86 - Icelandic) - yeah, they actually charted a single from their newest album Beneath The Skin up here. And if you saw my review of that album, you'll probably know this isn't one of my favourite songs from that album - a little desaturated, a little lacking in the same propulsive momentum, a little too reliant on the percussion. But let's be honest: a song with lyrics this poetic untangling a relationship's problems to find clarity and production with this sort of organic swell and a hook this good is going to make this list regardless. Solid as hell song.

'Guilty As Sin' by Dan Talevski (peaked at 64 - Canadian) - and now we have our second example of songs that could be argued imitate US or UK trends, in this case everyone's desperate search to find a new Justin Timberlake. And while I do think vocally Dan Talevski isn't quite there - although on the prechorus he gets pretty damn close - the blend of acoustic guitar with horn stings with the crisp tight beat combined with the explicit lyrics about reliving an old hookup. I do have questions about 'taking innocence', mostly because the implication is that they did do things before and thus she wouldn't have the same innocence, but really, when the groove and vibe is this slick and tight, I have a hard time complaining.

'Hold Back The River' by James Bay (peaked at 56 - British) - I'm amazed this hasn't crossed over into the States yet, because I thought I was given after the success of George Ezra. Yet for some bizarre reason, James Bay remains an act who can't quite break into the US market even despite tremendous success in the UK and charting here. Also because he's excellent - 'Hold Back The River' focuses on pushing back against the inevitable river of time to reconnect with an old lover, and that crescendo anchored on the distant guitars before Bay switches into his willowy falsetto and multi-tracked vocals that still manage to capture the desperation in his voice is fantastic. It's an incredibly propulsive folk rock sound and proves that for as much as Ed Sheeran cranks out sleepy ballads through this year, there's still some acts who can bring real energy to the table.

'I'm An Albatraoz' by AronChupa (peaked at 8 - Swedish) - this made the top 10 in Canada - no, I'm not kidding. And I was pretty much obliged to include it if only to explain why this got so huge. See, you know how Vine has been polluting hip-hop in the States for the past two years? In Canada it has crept into mainstream pop as well, which is why we have acts like Shawn Mendes with hits. And since EDM never really went away up here, we got the off-kilter and mostly insane 'I'm An Albatraoz' - and no, as much as it would have made more sense if it was 'albatross' which is a symbol of coming doom, it's 'albatraoz' and it's not supposed to make sense beyond just an assertion of dominance. And let's make this clear: this song shouldn't work: the fake French opening, lo-fi pianos, warped synth production and that goddamn melody that shouldn't blend across both forms of production as well as it does... and a dozen listens later, I can't deny that it works, a swirling bit of vaudeville-esque madness that has a certain theatricality blending past and present to something distinctly unique, something not a lot of EDM-inspired music can say. I don't think I can explain this, but I think I will endorse it. 

'Jackpot' by Jocelyn Alice (peaked at 47 - Canadian) - so as I've mentioned, indie music has a pretty recognizable presence up here, but even I am a little surprised to see this here. Jocelyn Alice is one half of the indie soul duo Jocelyn and Lisa, and this song she wrote solo ended up being a bigger hit than anything they've ever released. The low buzzing synth against Alice's willowy voice with the soulful backing vocals with the sparse guitar and the beat to build off of the minimalist foundation, it's the sort of stripped back indie pop song that focuses on taking the next step in a relationship to secure something real. And what I admire about the track is its restraint - it's perfect for setting up that feeling of anticipation, on the precipice of really exploding but never quite there, which really does match the lyrics surprisingly well. Bit of a dark horse entry here, but definitely recommended.

'Leather Jacket' by Arkells (peaked at 88 - Canadian) - again, I already covered this guys when I reviewed their less-than-great third album High Moon last year, and no, this is not better than the insanely good 'Crawling Through Your Window', but it is a close second. The bright guitar riff against the underlying piano and tight bass riff, and lyrics that focus on the complicated situation when an old trainwreck friend re-enters your life, whether you want them them to or not. And then comes the awkward questions of whether you even try to help, especially when it's clear they might want that help or support but will never ask for it. Either way, it's the sort of complicated rock music you'll never see in the States anymore, but will definitely chart up here - and we're better for it.

'Make You Mine' by High Valley (peaked at 48 - Canadian) - for all of you who thought that Mumford & Sons made a terrible decision to go electric, or that you wished the lyrics were a little less exasperatingly dickish or maybe had a bit more of a country flavour, we've got High Valley. And the funny thing is that it's nothing all that special lyrically - a pretty straightforward love song with a great lyrical flow with fast-picked banjo, stomping groove, bells accenting the waves of guitars, and the wall of vocals. And really, it's the hook of this song that wins you over - propulsive, earnest as hell, and sure, a bit corny, but when it's this infectious, it's hard to care. Highly recommended.

'Pop 101' by Marianas Trench ft. Anami Vice (peaked at 27 - Canadian) - I already did a full Special Comment discussing Marianas Trench and this song in particular as a brilliant piece of pop rock writing and composition, viciously satirizing the modern pop formula while still utilizing its best elements to deliver an intensely listenable song beyond the many, many jokes and references hidden between the lines. It's really quite impressive how dense this song is when you dig into the production and lyrics, and with the release of their upcoming album Astoria, hopefully this year, the rest of the world will be let in on one of Canada's best groups right now. Looking forward to it.

'Rule The World' by Walk Off The Earth (peaked at 22 - Canadian) - it's always nice to include fellow YouTubers on this list, and in this case we've got a group that if you were on the internet in 2012, you'll recognize. Walk Off The Earth broke into the spotlight for their cover of 'Somebody That I Used to Know' all played on one guitar, but they've actually been an indie act in Canada for the past decade drawing on ska, reggae and folk to impressive affect. And nowhere is that more apparent than on 'Rule The World', anchored in that killer horn line to back up the rough-edged vocals and explosive as hell chorus. And sure, lyrically it's nothing all that special - basically playing in much of the same vein as most uplifting folk rock about conquering your dreams, although I definitely appreciate that Walk Off The Earth admit they might have chased fruitless illusions before. But again, when you have such a great hook and the fantastic raw vocal delivery of Sarah Blackwood, I find it hard to care. Killer song, highly recommended.

'She Keeps Me Up' by Nickelback (peaked at 78 - Canadian) - oh, don't look at me like that! Yes, I know it's borderline heresy to include a Nickelback song on this list, but there's a lot to like about this - the tightness of that bassline, the snarled sleaze of the guitar line, the oily grind of the production that fits Chad Kroeger's voice disturbingly well, and those lyrics that frankly are way too clever to have been written by Nickelback - mostly because they were cowritten by Marianas Trench frontman Josh Ramsay. And they're also about cocaine addiction and have that manic sleaze that comes with it. It's a nasty, nasty track that revels in its own filth - in other words, the only time when Nickelback becomes remotely likeable for me. In other words... yeah, I'm going to recommend this, deal with it.

'Someone New' by Hozier (peaked at 90 - Irish) - you know, I get the feeling in the US the only thing Hozier's going to be known for is 'Take Me To Church' - which yes, is a great song but is nowhere near his best. And to be fair, neither is this - it's not 'Angel Of Small Death & The Codeine Scene' or 'From Eden' or 'To Be Alone' or especially 'Jackie & Wilson' my favourite song of last year - period - but there's a lot to like about it regardless. I liked the elegant soul with the snarl still lurking the guitars, Hozier's delivery that walks the line between smug self-effacement and underlying melancholy, and the way the song plays with a faded grandeur that really only highlights how much of an asshole Hozier is being in this song by jumping to relationship to relationship no matter how he excuses it. And to be fair, he completely knows it, and would freely admit it if he would get called out - the honesty of the track redeems it, and the nihilism played against the old school glamour - ah, such a great juxtaposition. In short, Hozier's self-titled album was easily one of the best of 2014 and if this is all we're going to get from it... hell, I'll take it any day.

So that was fifteen Canadian songs that you might not have had the chance to experience before, and definitely deserve your attention. And I'm not going to give out a best/worst of the week - these are all solid as hell and have my recommendation, and provide all the more proof, once again. say it with me, the Canadian Charts are always better.


  1. Kind of weird that two days ago I remembered you saying that you were coming with something special and I was actually expecting it this week or next week.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. so will you be looking at the new songs on the hot 100 this week?