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Arts & Crafts at ten: their ten best releases

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Ten years ago, Broken Social Scene released their second record You Forgot It In People. With some help from Paper Bag Records, it was the first album on the Arts & Crafts label, with the iconic bar of color down the side. The label started as a way to release music made by the band it’s associates, but within a few years it started releasing albums from outside talent: The Most Serene Republic, New Buffalo and American Analog Set, among others.

Soon, it’d become one of the best labels in the country. Known for it’s iconic album designs, high quality of releases and a willingness to try new things; they were doing digital downloads as far back as 2005. While they’re more or less committed to a certain style of indie rock, the label’s made interesting expansions over the years. In recent years, they’ve released the lush acoustic rock of Timber Timbre, the spooky, powerful music of Cold Specks and even managed to land Bloc Party.

As the label turns ten, I’ve offered up my ten favorite records on the label. It’s something of a fluid list: most of these spots are interchangeable, depending on my mood, and on another given day, I might swap one or two out for a few others. But don’t hold that against them: by and large, Arts & Crafts has been steady in it’s releases. There’s only been a handful of albums they’ve released I’d consider subpar and off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any total flops (although I’m probably not going to be listening to Valley of the Giants any time soon).

10 : Stars – Do You Trust Your Friends?

Coming fresh off the success of their 2004 album “Set Yourself on Fire,” Stars put together this offbeat covers album, where bands and artists they liked re-created the album one song at a time. It’s the kind of experiment that a major label wouldn’t dream of touching, especially as an album proper. Granted, it’s kind of hit and miss, but the spirit of adventure and reinvention on this album makes it a compelling listen for Stars fans. Highlights for me include Jason Collett’s bluesy cover of “Reunion” and The Dears two-part, rollicking remix of “What I’m Trying to Say.”

9 : Zeus – Busting Visions

Right now, Zeus might be the best rock band on Arts and Crafts. As the label’s expanded over the years, they’re introduced a variety of different styles to their roster; they’re not just a Broken Social Scene-affiliated label anymore. So it’s nice to see a band sounding as much like classic rock as Zeus finding a home at A&C. They’re a unpretentious sounding band, and 2012’s “Busting Visions” is their best: it’s full of riffs, backing vocals, drum rolls and splashes of piano. It’s a record everyone you know should get a kick out of.

8 : Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene

Broken Social Scene’s self-titled record, their third proper album, marked the point where the collective both hit their peak and become overstuffed. After they seemed to come out of nowhere with their second album, they attracted attention from every media outlet; small wonder so many people attached themselves to BSS for this record: k-os, Murray Lightburn and others. It’s their longest album, especially if you consider the EP some early copies contained. While it doesn’t always work (I think it loses steam near the end), it also contains some of their best performances: Ibi Dreams of Pavement, Fire Eye’d Boy and 7/4 (Shoreline), which might be the best song BSS ever recorded. It certainly has the best drumming.

7 : Cold Specks – I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Another recent release on this list, sure, but I think this record has a lot of legs. It’s somber, moody music, something miles removed from the sometimes arty releases on this label. It was one of the better releases to make the 2012 Polaris Prize shortlist and it’s only grown on me since then: Sparks sometimes fits nicely between Fiest and Timber Timbre, but more often she’s somewhere else, with music that really grabs me: the way Winter Solstace builds up from just a piano and her voice gets me every time. More than any other Canadian label, Arts and Crafts has fostered a folkish singer/songwriter scene between artists like Timber Timbre, Cold Specks and Dan Mangan. Maybe it all goes back to the roots-rock of Jason Collett. Whatever the linage, I think Specks represents the best of this sound.

6. Phoenix – It’s Never Been Like That

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Arts and Crafts isn’t just a Canadian label: they’ve also introduced some great artists to Canadian audiences. I believe the first international artist was Australia’s Sally Seitmann, but Phoenix was an early success for the label. A stomping, rocking and catchy-a-hell power pop record, It’s Never Been Like That was the sort of album that deserved to be a lot more popular than it was. Granted, Phoenix got big later on thanks to their slicker, more polished follow up Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but I’ll take the ringing guitars of Napoleon Says or the jangle of One Time Too Many any day. A welcome reminder of the talent A&C has brought to Canadian ears.

5. Broken Social Scene Presents Brendan Canning – Something For All Of Us…

For a little while, A&C was pretty much the Broken Social Scene label. They’ve branched out, but their core will probably always have something to do with Canada’s Favourite Collective Band. So a few years ago, with it looked like BSS might’ve broken up, two records from the founding duo of the band came out. And each sounded like one half of the band: Kevin Drew’s was more introspective-sounding, with subdued guitars and moody sounds of BSS tracks like Stars and Sons (really: you can go from Drew’s Fucked Up Kids to Stars without batting an eye). And Canning’s solo effort was the other side, the harder, spikier side.

I thought it was the more interesting record, too: the crunchy 90s rock of Hit the Wall was a lot more active than Drew’s record. And Churches Under The Stairs has some of my favourite guitar playing of any BSS project. It’s the more accessible side of BSS, the side that brought you Cause = Time. Between these two records, though, we get a nice look at the inner workings of BSS and what each brings to the table. They can add as many people as they want, and lord knows they have, but without these two, BSS wouldn’t work.

4. Los Campesinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster…

Maybe the most successful international act on the Arts and Crafts roster, Los Campesinos! have released four albums on the label. In fact, where A&C is sometimes just the Canadian wing for a release – like with Phoenix – here, they’re their sole North American release. So when this band has started to crack the mainstream (and they have, with a song in a prominent beer ad), it’s a good thing for the label. But okay, why Hold On Now? It’s a personal favorite of mine: loud, driving and frantic, all of it sprinkled with keyboards, strings and glockenspiel. It’s a little twee at times, but never overwhelmingly so.

3. Stars – Set Yourself on Fire

An easy choice and one of my favorite records. I remember hearing Your Ex-Lover is Dead on the radio years and years ago, before the record was out yet, and knowing this was one I had to get. It’s a pretty great song. But the record still packs a few unexpected blows: Reunion, a song about running into an old classmate and wanting “one more chance to show you were right for me” (with a tasty guitar lick, too) or the driving What I’m Trying to Say, as great a song about not knowing the right words as any I’ve heard. Stars released a few other albums on A&C, including the good In Our Bedroom After the War, but this remains a personal favourite.

2. Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It In People

Everyone’s heard volumes about how great this record is supposed to be, how good it is. I’ll spare you on that front. What makes this record important is everything that came next: the label Arts and Crafts, which has developed into one of the most consistently good in the country. It’s about the indie rock scene in Toronto that fostered bands like Tokyo Police Club, Apostle of Hustle or The Most Serene Republic that came in their wake. It’s about the impact on alternative rock: this album shows up so often as an influence and on best-of lists it’s freaky. It’s about how it all started here.

1. Feist – The Reminder

So, then, why is this is the best? It’s not because it’s one of my favorite albums on any label, although that helps. Not because it’s the most successful album on the label, with three different releases, not to mention singles and EPs spawned from it. And not because of 1 2 3 4, which was wildly popular a few years back and likely most people’s introduction to one of Canada’s best musicians.

It’s because it’s the best album A&C has released. This album is Fiest as the peak of her powers, showing the full range of her talents: torch song balladry on So Sorry, to country-fried rock on I Feel It All, splashes of World music influence on Sea Lion Woman (with great guitar playing to boot!) to soft, catchy pop on Brandy Alexander. It’s such an ambitious album, trying a little of everything and it pulls it all off. My personal favorite is My Moon, My Man, which goes from Fiest, a piano and a pounding drummer to explosions of twangy guitar, swirling strings and crashing symbols, then back like it never happened. But really, I don’t think there’s a misstep on this album. It’s one that no matter how many times I listen to it, it always feels fresh and exciting. Ten years on, it’s the best thing on A&C.

Originally published in a different form at, January 2013 

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