Tracing Toronto: The Sounds of a City

toronto skyline in black and white

Cameron Reed, director of marketing and label for Arts & Crafts, on Toronto’s legendary music scene and five tracks to know it by.

Name a musical genre and chances are it has come out of Toronto. Category-bending iconoclasts and movements from reggae to punk to indie rock to dance all have well-laid roots in the city’s local scene. Our friends at Arts & Crafts — makers of independent music and publishers of certified sound gold — hand-picked a collection of vinyl for Ace Toronto that traces a homegrown sonic evolution. We caught up with A&C’s Cameron Reed to chat about what went into the record collection, the cycle of artistic influence and the city in five songs (or Arts & Crafts highly expansive playlist here, if you please).

Photo by Holly D’Cunha

What informed your approach when curating the selection of albums for Ace Toronto? 

I wanted to highlight the diverse movements of Toronto’s music history, like the ’70s reggae explosion or the influential ’00s indie rock era, while also paying respect to the many diverse individual artists from the region that went on to become globally celebrated, like Joni Mitchell, Beverly Glenn-Copeland and Oscar Peterson.

Toronto has such a rich and textured musical history stacked with various genres that may not be common knowledge — how would you describe it to someone who’s just beginning to scratch the surface?

Toronto is one of, if not the most, diverse cities in the world. If you are looking for any style of music you will find a long history of it here. And while each of those genres have been able to grow on their own, what makes Toronto incredibly exciting is that they are starting to really cross-pollinate. The new music in Toronto is wonderfully eclectic.

Photo by Holly D’Cunha

What’s one of the Toronto / Toronto adjacent rarities you’d be thrilled to see in a bin 

Neil Young’s ‘Time Fades Away’. It was his long out-of-print and widely bootlegged 1973 live album that had, until very recently, been unavailable on any format other than the original vinyl pressing. It’s a really fun album with some of my favourite Neil tunes, but also a raw document of an artist on a tumultuous tour while dealing with domestic issues, the pressures of fame and a creeping creative stagnation.

Favorite local shops for vinyl, new and vintage?

Rotate This and Sonic Boom are my favourite record shops in Toronto.

What are the defining cultural moments of Toronto’s musical history?

There’ve been way too many defining cultural moments to list here. The Yonge Street jazz scene of the ’50s, the Yorkville coffee houses of the ’60s, Ronnie Hawkins backing band joining Bob Dylan and revolutionizing rock music, the secret Rolling Stones gig all the El Mocambo, the Teenage Head punk riot at Canada Place. Heritage Toronto recently launched an excellent website that tells some of those important stories. I don’t think I could fairly pick even a few of these pivotal moments without disregarding entire genres or generations. But more importantly, I wasn’t alive for most of them, so I’ll go with what I know.

From my point of view, the most important moments of a city’s musical history have been the ones that have brought global attention to its culture and inspired the people of that city to dream bigger. The two most prominent modern cultural moments in my mind would be the indie music explosion of the early ’00s when artists like the Hidden Cameras, Peaches, Metric, Broken Social Scene and Feist gained international acclaim, and the pop/R&B dominance of the mid ’10s led by Drake and the Weeknd, and supported by artists like Partynextdoor, NAV, Jessie Reyez and Alessia Cara.

Both of these movements had a major impact on the broader music world as well as the local Toronto culture. In the decades that followed, you can hear their influence on the next generation of artists. There have been plenty of moments that’ve made Torontonians proud, but few that have drawn the world’s eyes on the city and inspired a generation of young musicians like those two.

Two recent books on Toronto (and Canada’s) music history that I really enjoyed:

Jonny Dovercourt’s Any Night Of The Week: A D.I.Y. History of Toronto Music, 1957-2001

Michael Barclay’s Hearts on Fire: Six Years that Changed Canadian Music 2000–2005

Photo by Holly D’Cunha

When we spoke previously, you mentioned Toronto’s music scene largely developed outside of what was happening downstairs (U.S.). How has the country’s music scene remained true to that independent, homegrown spirit?

There will always be strong local communities informed by their own cultural inputs. An artist will break out and become a regional success story that’ll leave a wake of copycat artists who will update their sound with new styles, creating a novel iteration of their hometown hero. Forever morphing until the next artist catches a break and the cycle returns anew. Standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were. These scenes are the lifeblood of creative expression and experimentation, where young artists find their voice and hone their craft.

After Toronto had its big indie rock moment in the early ’00s, Montreal became recognized as the next Canadian music hub in the early ’10s with artists like Grimes, Purity Ring and CFCF gaining international acclaim. Shortly after that, Vancouver started earning global recognition for producing exciting and original dance music. Regional music scenes have continued to innovate and make their mark on global culture, however, the internet has made it harder for those local communities to develop in the same way.

Before the internet, these scenes could flourish in a bubble, unencumbered by outside influences, because music discovery was much much more localized: college radio, alt-weeklies, venues and record shops. For better or worse, most music discovery today happens online where young artists are competing for attention on digital platforms alongside global hitmakers. It’s a challenge for young artists, but great music will always transcend borders and the majority of it was first nurtured in a strong local community.

Big question! How does the story told through Toronto’s musical eras also reflect, or link to, the evolution of the city itself? Where do you see the city’s music scene headed?

I feel like I’m already hearing the evolution of Toronto’s musical history in today’s young artists. Artists like MorMor, Saya Gray and Mustafa feel like an extension of those two aforementioned musical movements. You hear the soulful R&B influence and a penchant for pop songwriting with a refusal to abide by rigid genre structures and arrangements. And like those previous movements, where their strength was borne in community, we’ve seen new ones emerge in the last half a decade that seem to share those sensibilities. Artists like Daniel Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson and BADBADNOTGOOD have all come from the same community, lifting each other up as they each gain in popularity.

5 TRACKS TO KNOW

Jackie Shane “Any Other Way”

Soul singer and transgender music pioneer Jackie Shane made Toronto her adopted home and developed a massive following in the late ’60s before basically disappearing from the industry entirely. Her journey, which involves studying under Little Richard and turning down record deals with Motown, is one of the most fascinating in Canadian music history. Numero Group recently collected her 45s into this brilliant collection.

Main Source “Looking At The Front Door”

‘Breaking Atoms’ was the influential debut album by Main Source, a Toronto- and New York-based hip-hop crew. The collective’s love for laidback soul and jazz samples and socio-political lyrical themes paved the way for artists like Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. “Looking At The Front Door” was their biggest commercial single hitting number one on the Billboard Rap Charts.

Martha and the Muffins “Echo Beach”

Formed in the late ’70s by students of the Ontario College of Art & Design University, Martha and the Muffins were one of the first in a stream of new wave bands — that also includes Rough Trade and Men Without Hats — to break out of Canada in the ’80s. Their biggest hit, “Echo Beach,” is as great as anything put by their American and British counterparts. Great hook, excellent saxophone solo.

Sando Perri “Wolfman”

One of my all-time favorite artists. Sandro Perri makes hypnotic folk-pop and the 10-minute long track “Wolfman” is a perfect distillation of what he does best: catchy melodies, adventurous song structures, ever-evolving arrangements, subtle use of electronics, while seamlessly employing multiple genres to great effect.

Mustafa “Stay Alive”

Losing friends to gang violence, Mustafa the Poet makes an emotional plea to Toronto youth in this soulful folk song. Beautiful and heartbreaking, one of the most gorgeous performances in recent memory. His love and empathy can be heard in every syllable. The song was produced by hitmaker Frank Dukes and global superstar James Blake.

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Tracing Toronto: The Sounds of a City

Cameron Reed, director of marketing and label for Arts & Crafts, on Toronto’s legendary music scene and selecting our in room vinyl.