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Star power: ranking the 15 best Stars songs

Emma Godmere

What is the expected lifespan of a Canadian indie act? Not everyone makes it to a whopping 14 albums, like Ron Sexsmith, or a consistent 11 records, like Sloan. But Montreal stalwarts Stars could very well be the next to hit that kind of impressive milestone. They have seven full-length albums to their name, each of which have their own hordes of passionate fans: some most fondly remember the early Nightsongs days; others stick to the seminal Set Yourself on Fire as a favourite. Others feel The Five Ghosts never got the fanfare it deserved, while some have only heard the band for the very first time via their latest release, No One is Lost.

Unlike bands who have big hits and bigger misses, with long dry spells and short, buzzy highs, Stars have delivered albums (and EPs, and demo recordings) that are each timeless, respected works, deeply adored by their fans from that unforgettable moment of first listen. When we sat down to distill their discography into 15 top tracks, we knew we were going to get ourselves into some trouble: there is no way you can properly recognize all of the beauty and heartbreak this band has produced, in such a limited manner. We did our best to curate a collection of memorable tracks that represent the spectrum of their work and highlight the ones we all hold dear.

Behold, the 15 best songs by Stars, as carefully selected by staff at CBC Radio 3.

15. 'Barricade' (from 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War)

For co-lead singer Torquil Campbell, this song was actually kind of a joke. He was inspired by a book about British soccer fans, and imagined what it would be like to detail a romance between a couple of footy hooligans. The result is a powerful, solo piano song, that isn't quite as political as you may have once interpreted.

14. 'Changes' (from 2010's The Five Ghosts)

On their 2010 record, the band made the decision to include more Amy Millan-fronted songs than ever. In Campbell's words: "She has such a beautiful voice and it would be foolish of us not to make at least one record where we really let that voice come out." "Changes" is arguably the most gorgeous example of this on the album.

13. 'A Thread Cut With a Carving Knife' (from 2008's Sad Robots EP)

The band went back to basics on the mini release that followed 2007's monumental In Our Bedroom After the WarAccording to drummer Pat McGee: "It was about, 'Let's not over-think this or complicate it. Let's just write some songs, record them over a couple days instead of a year and just see if we can make a good little record.'"

And they did. The lush instrumental cacophony that arrives near the end of this track is a standout moment on this good little record.

12. One More Night (from 2004's Set Yourself on Fire)

One of the sexiest, deadliest tracks from a band that sings a lot about sex and death. That sizzling bass line alone is enough to get any fan worked up. Co-lead singer Amy Millan captured some of that essence in a 2013 interview: "[It] is such an interesting song to play live because so many of the teenage girls lose their minds to that song, because their repressed sexuality gets to be released when we play it. There’s something about those songs that just lives on in the truths of what they are, they don’t have to change."

Worth noting: when he was writing the song, Campbell was partly inspired by Phil Collins (and plenty of alcohol).

11. Look Up (from 2003's Heart)

"[Multi-instrumentalist] Chris Seligman and [bassist] Evan Cranley write all the music for Stars and I just basically lay the vocal melody and the words," Millan told MuchMusic back in 2006. One of the earliest examples of this was Heart's most hopeful tune, "Look Up," which Millan said had "this crazy offbeat thing that I didn’t even realize until I had to play it on the guitar live." Watch her perform the tune solo below.

10. Trap Door (from 2014's No One is Lost)

Campbell returns with another searing solo track, this time looking at club culture (a running theme through No One is Lost): "You walk by these places and they look very glamorous and inside there's no one in there," he told ET Canada. "They don't let people in there. It's sort of a metaphor for the music industry and for the entire capitalist system if you want to go even further." 

9. Undertow (from 2008's Sad Robots EP)

Those synthetic beats you hear in Sad Robots' standout track? Directly tied to the EP's title, according to Campbell. “Pat [McGee], our drummer, had been walking around saying that he wanted to play drums like a sad robot. We found that a very inspiring and provocative phrase." He continued: "We had bought an electronic drum kit and wanted to start making music that sounded slightly more synthetic. In order to test this idea out we went in and wrote these songs very quickly and recorded them. It wasn’t difficult, which was nice for us."

8. Midnight Coward (from 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War)

On a record that featured plenty of Amy/Torq duets, this was among the most playful — though not actually written by the two lead singers together. Millan took the reins on this early-days snapshot of a modern romance, while Campbell handled the album's softer, sadder "Personal."

7. The Night Starts Here (from 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War)

Their most bass-heavy jam (prior to their most recent album, at least), "The Night Starts Here" was the second strong single off the opulent In Our Bedroom and heralded a more poppy, dance-centric direction for the band (which certainly became the centre of 2014's No One is Lost). A crowd favourite, the song was allegedly left off of many a live-show setlist over the last few years — though Campbell recently reassured fans the song was back in play.

6. No One is Lost (from 2014's No One is Lost)

The title track of their latest record, "No One is Lost" is the pinnacle of the dance floor sound the band has flirted with over their last several releases. Both the song and the album have a deeper meaning, however: “We are all lost, we are all going to lose this game and, as you get older, you lose people more and more. I just wanted to close my eyes and jump and hope that was true," read an album press statement from Campbell. "Life is loss, love is loss. And loving people is about accepting that you’re going to have to say goodbye to them."

On a related note: through the making of this album, the band was inspired and affected by their longtime manager's battle with cancer, which he later won. “With that news weighing on us, we decided to make the record in a spirit of hope. There was no other way of moving forward. We reached that conclusion together," Campbell told the Irish Examiner. "In the moment, we were terrified. No One Is Lost — to me, that is a lie. But we live in blind hope."

5. Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It (from 2012's The North)

Featuring Campbell's favourite lyric he's ever written, the standout single from Stars' 2012 album is wrapped up in some of the most optimistic material the band has ever thrown behind a song. "There’s a lot of problems and a lot of complications in this life of ours, and when you get something simple and true, hang on for dear life. And when you have something to give, give it away without guile, give it away without precaution," he detailed to a music blog in 2012. "And don’t expect to win because you’re not going to win. We all lose, so accept that you’re going to lose and give it." (Hello, foreshadowing for their 2014 album!)

Check out their spectacular, feel-good music video for the track below (which Campbell said celebrates: "1. being yourself 2. being someone else 3. being f--king fabulous 4. showing up, putting on your heels and staying alive.")

4. Take Me to the Riot (from 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War)

The cathartic lead single off In Our Bedroom After the War, "Take Me to the Riot" remains one of the band's most-loved live jams. Millan categorizes it among the "songs that are massive parts of our show and that are huge hits in the lives of our audience." It's a classic Stars setup, with Amy/Torq harmonies that build into a shout-along chorus and a dramatic conclusion ("and-let-me-staaaaay!"), to make for an anthem that every die-hard fan knows the words to.

3. Ageless Beauty (from 2004's Set Yourself on Fire)

It might be Stars' most quintessential indie-rock song, and a feel-good one at that: "Ageless Beauty" is one of their few top favourites to stray from dark heartbreak and instead offer a chin-up, soaring theme song for the masses, which helped propel their 2004 breakthrough album to charm listeners far beyond Canada's borders. (The Guardian lauded the work: "Most of these powerful pop songs bloom to match the intensity of the feelings they lament.") The critical hit turned heads at home, too, as the record also snagged a 2005 Juno nomination for alternative album of the year.

2. Elevator Love Letter (from 2003's Heart) 

One the most listened-to songs ever on CBC Radio 3 (it was the number-one most streamed song on the old website), this early Stars classic is also one of the band's favourites. "It's the first time I believed that the band might actually get successful," Campbell told fans on Reddit last fall. "It's so authoritative. And it sounds like uniquely us." Amen.

1. Your Ex-Lover is Dead (from 2004's Set Yourself on Fire)

The story behind one of Stars' most beloved songs of all time — perhaps even one of the greatest modern love songs of our time — is simple. "It's just imagining what it would be like to run into someone who you had had an affair with, and felt that you didn't get to say what you wanted to say to them," Campbell relayed recently on Q. "It really seems like it hits people hard, this tune. When we sing it now, I almost feel like we're doing a cover, because it's so much other people's song at this point. It's much more their song than it is ours... I've never gotten tired of this song, because it works, you know. It works on people. It feels like it's worth doing." That says it all.

Honourable mentions we couldn't fit into the list: Theory of Relativity, We Don't Want Your Body, From the Night, 14 Forever, Heart, My Favourite Book, Personal, Death to Death (and so many more).