Musically speaking, the best first impressions ever made in Canada. We looked back on over 6 decades of music across genres to select the top 25 debut Canadian albums of all time. Hear: Leonard Cohen, Metric, Tragically Hip and more
This year marks six decades since Glenn Gould released his debut album, putting his now famous recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations into the world and effectively launching a renowned international career.
Not every debut can be a Goldberg, but Canada has a lot of notable shiny nuggets in its release history: some from musicians and bands who've gone on to name-in-lights status, ones who never quite matched that sparkle again or ones who have quietly drifted onto other projects — and many in between.
From Gould to Michie Mee to Mary Margaret O'Hara to Leonard Cohen to Eric's Trip, we spent hours compiling a list of Canadian debuts that stand up to the test of the 25 best ever. Our CBC Music team counted only full-length album releases (mixtapes included), regardless of whether they were independent or on a label. If a band released a second album that far outshone its debut, then we considered that debut with less weight.
Below, in chronological order, a list — and defence — of the 25 best Canadian debut albums ever.
Artist: Glenn Gould
Debut album: Goldberg Variations (1956)
Glenn Gould was only 22 when he arrived at Columbia Records’ studio on E. 30th St. in Manhattan to record his debut album. It was June 25, 1955, a warm day, and he was wearing winter clothes and carrying his own piano chair and some bottles of pills. Already perceived as eccentric, Gould had signed a contract with Columbia that gave him artistic freedom over his projects, which he exercised by playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations — at that time a marginal work for concert pianists — for his recording debut.
When it was released in January 1956, the album sent a shockwave through the classical music world due to Gould’s unorthodox playing: he chose impossibly fast tempos, played with robotic articulation, shunned the sustain pedal and absentmindedly hummed along with the music. It was a total reconception of the piece, at once a clinical approach to the music and an outlandish personal statement. People wondered (but not for long) if it was madness or genius.
Gould became an overnight sensation and the album topped the classical charts. Its success certainly contributed to Gould’s growing aversion to the concert stage (he would stop playing in public nine years later). He re-recorded the Goldberg Variations in 1981 with stereo sound and more expansive playing, but for its sheer audacity and mind-blowing musicianship, the 1956 version will never be surpassed.
— Robert Rowat (@rkhr)
Air and Variation 1 from Bach's Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould (1956)
Artist: Buffy Sainte-Marie
Debut album: It’s My Way! (1964)
It’s My Way! presents Buffy Sainte-Marie’s vision of music as a medium for love and protest, for addressing inequality and systemic racism. It was 1964 and she was an outspoken, public, Indigenous woman who refused to conform or be silent — whose very existence was politicized as a form of resistance. She faced far more barriers to success than many of her folk peers, yet Sainte-Marie stayed true to her guts and her grit.
Consider just Side 1 of It’s My Way!, which begins with “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” includes “Co’dine” in the middle and ends with “Universal Soldier.” Over the course of those seven songs, Sainte-Marie covers an expanse of musical terrain that few artists touch in their entire careers: folk, traditional, gospel, rock, blues and a little country. Side 2 goes deeper and darker, and ends with the titular song, which is frenzied and phenomenal, a hell of a closer. Powerful, purposeful, full of agency, her voice cracks across certain words and lifts others up under a shimmery, deep vibrato. “Put down the story of what I say/ you’re bound for glory, all on your own one day.” Such a beautiful way to take back her narrative and remind people that this is her story, not everybody else’s. Nothing to appropriate here. Move along.
— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Debut album: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Ten years after publishing his first poetry book, Leonard Cohen released his first record — and we can all be so grateful that the handsome bohemian poet decided to lay his words on melodies, so the entire world could appreciate the depth of his soul.
As soon as Songs of Leonard Cohen came out in 1967, it was praised by many, including Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The soft-folk record still remains one of his most significant. Cohen explored many sounds throughout his long and beautiful career, but Songs of Leonard Cohen contains what would remain the essence of his artistic work: melancholic and minimalist songs within a deep, spiritual quest. His songs about love and sex were almost prayers, and that low, sensual voice reached our very souls, too. We can be grateful Cohen dared to sing about existential matters, about life and death. Further in his career, he would even call out to God, asking Him some answers on serious matters.
“Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “So Long, Marianne” are on this first album. A few months ago, we were all deeply moved after reading Cohen’s letter to his Marianne (Ihlen), before she passed. He wrote he could be following her soon. And now we, too, are all grieving, and in need of his songs more than ever.
— Ariane Cipriani, ICI Musique (@ciprianiariane)
Artist: The Band
Debut album: Music from Big Pink (1968)
In some ways, playing folk and roots music is a constant search for authenticity. In particular, if you look back into the '50s and early '60s, young college students were fed up with Elvis, Pat Boone and Doris Day; they instead sought out source records from musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Dock Boggs and Doc Watson. The Band was made up of some of those (mainly) northern musicians; Canadians (with the exception of Levon Helm) obsessed with a message, an honesty, an authenticity they found in records from Gene Vincent, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, among many others.
However, what the Band really did in Woodstock, in the bandmates' studio Big Pink, was smash down the walls of folk expression. They emphasized heart over hometown. They showed that with the right musicians together, you could write the songs that didn't just signify their influences but merged them together, developing a brand new style we now know as "roots rock."
Coupled with a few Bob Dylan co-writes and a custom painted album cover, Music from Big Pink has been a major influence on any roots band worth its salt. Without it you wouldn't have Wilco, Ryan Adams, Patty Loveless or Mumford & Sons. Most importantly, however, Music from Big Pink reinforced a lesson to young musicians: "It doesn't matter where you come from, all that matters is where you're going."
— Tom Power, q (@tompowercbc)
Related: The Band's 10 best songs
Artist: Mary Margaret O'Hara
Debut album: Miss America (1988)
The glow from Mary Margaret O’Hara’s extraordinary debut, Miss America, is as blindingly bright in 2016 as it was in 1988. Tender and sharp, shimmering and gutsy, O’Hara didn’t just craft Miss America, she fought for its integrity and its existence from the time she recorded it — mostly 1983 and 1984 — to its eventual release following years of legal struggles and record company wrangling with Virgin. According to the Guardian, because the tracklist was assembled by Virgin, O’Hara “has always regarded it as a compromised piece of work.”
She’s not wrong. Miss America’s lead song, “To Cry About,” is both lush and spare. It unfolds the way a sky gets deeper and darker the farther you drive away from the city lights, the gleam of constellations intensifying as the moon retreats and the clouds evaporate and there’s just stillness, a vastness, the truest sense of infinity that you’ve ever known. “To Cry About” is the kind of song that belongs at the end of a record. Something that exquisite needs a build-up, and its current positioning is a free fall into Miss America rather than a launchpad. That said, if its sequencing is a misstep, it’s a spellbinding one. Miss America is O’Hara’s only album, and maybe she’ll never make another (I would love it, but she knows what’s best for her). It’s a stunning, singular achievement for which I am truly grateful. — AW
Artist: Maestro Fresh Wes
Debut album: Symphony in Effect (1989)
It's hard to perceive this now, with Drake dominating hip-hop on a global scale, but the idea of a successful Canadian hip-hop artist, let alone a Canadian hip-hop artist dominating the genre internationally, used to be unthinkable. Maestro Fresh Wes was the artist who changed this way of thinking, furrowing his own path with Symphony in Effect. Released in 1989, his debut was a swaggering and deft display of beats and rhymes, firmly underlining Maestro's ability to excel in delivery, cadence and vocabulary along with the American originators of the genre. Highlighted by bonafide hit singles "Drop the Needle" and "Let Your Backbone Slide," Symphony in Effect — a record that included the best-selling Canadian hip-hop single for more than 20 years — firmly ensconced Maestro as a foundation in Canada's hip-hop canon.
— Del F. Cowie (@vibesandstuff)
Artist: The Tragically Hip
Debut album: Up to Here (1989)
The Tragically Hip was fully formed, armed with hometown residencies at Barrymore’s and Queen’s University, when the Kingston band set up shop at Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer Don Smith (Tom Petty, Keith Richards). In the same space that Led Zeppelin recorded “Immigrant Song” and Steve Earle laid down the stomp of “Copperhead Road,” the Hip encapsulated the manic grit of its live show.
Frontman Gord Downie applied his emotive focus to the band’s gnarling backbeat with songs that are Cancon mainstays today: “New Orleans is Sinking,” “Blow at High Dough” and the Memphis-inspired, distorted departure of “38 Years Old,” inspired by a Kingston prison break. While the album earned the Hip a Juno Award and eventual diamond status for sales in Canada, Up to Here’s sales in America were low, foreshadowing that 49th parallel barrier. Like Uncle Neil and the Guess Who before it, the Tragically Hip’s words and tone represented Canadians, heralding its band members as the next guard of our nation’s storytellers.
— Colton Eddy, Strombo Show (@coltondaniel)
Artist: Daniel Lanois
Debut album: Acadie (1989)
By the autumn of 1989, there was no debating the fact that Hamilton's Daniel Lanois was one of the great musical minds this country had produced. He had already worked on groundbreaking ambient works with Brian Eno, and produced and performed on acclaimed albums for U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan. But as he readied his own debut solo album, his talents as a songwriter were mostly unknown. He did not disappoint.
Though Acadie was created primarily in New Orleans, here is an album that feels like it was harvested from the Canadian soil. Rich, dense, layered, Lanois steps across the two solitudes, singing in English and French, switching back and forth as naturally as a conversation with an old friend. Across these story-songs and instrumentals, Lanois guides us from Gatineau to Manitou Bay, introducing us to broken men and peering in on failed dreams and facing God. There are strange and beautiful sounds, ambient noises and odd tunings. This is not the work of a wide-eyed musician releasing a debut album; this is the effort of a devotee of the craft biding his time, ripening his vision. And it's a masterwork.
— Brad Frenette (@bradfrenette)
Artist: Dream Warriors
Debut album: And Now the Legacy Begins (1991)
Boombastic! That’s one way to describe this underrated cult classic from hip-hop duo Dream Warriors. Hailing from Toronto, and comprised of members King Lou and Capital Q, their alternative debut, And Now the Legacy Begins, is a heady concoction of funk, jazz and R&B that sounds just as good today as it did back then.
Released in 1991, slap-bang in the middle of hip-hop’s Golden Era — the same year as De La Soul is Dead and Low End Theory — Dream Warriors’ album was mysteriously slept on in the U.S. It features three hit singles — the playful “Wash Your Face in My Sink,” the ska-tinged “Ludi” and the Juno Award-winning “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” — which got mad props in Canada and Europe for its inventive sampling of Quincy Jones’s “Soul Bossa Nova,” long before Mike Myers recycled it for the Austin Powers movie.
If time is the great equalizer, then this significant debut will be recognized as such by America’s present and future generations. Now that’s what’s up!
— Alison Copeland (@alisoncopy)
Artist: Michie Mee
Debut album: Jamaican Funk–Canadian Style (1991)
Half reggae, half hip-hop, Michie Mee’s unabashedly confident debut album with producer L.A. Luv was released 25 years ago, and proved that Canadians could “mash up the dance” just as well as their American cousins. Throwing down the Maple Leaf gauntlet and battle-rapping in Jamaican patois not only earned Michie the respect of legendary heavyweights KRS-1 and Scott La Rock, but it also cemented her pioneering music stripes as one of the first Canadian hip-hop artists to be signed to a U.S. label.
Celebrated for the breakout hit single — which also shares the same name as the Juno-nominated album and cleverly samples Stephen Bishop’s “On and On” — Jamaican Funk–Canadian Style will leave you breathless trying to perfect the cabbage patch, running man or wine. Standout tracks include “Kotch,” featuring dancehall artist Pinchers, and “All Night Stand” with Shabba Ranks. If you listen closely enough, you’ll even hear Lady Patra’s dulcet tones on “All Night Stand.” What’s not to love? — AC
Artist: Barenaked Ladies
Debut album: Gordon (1992)
Barenaked Ladies was my first favourite band. And Gordon was my first favourite album. My mom had it in her car, and I stole it (as much as a kid can steal her own mom’s tape and bring it to her room). Sure, you could argue the fact that their lyrics appealed to a seven-year-old means they’re not “sophisticated” — but that was never the point of Barenaked Ladies. They were an introduction to the world of nerd rock; of honest, straightforward and sometimes goofy lyrics, the same world that gave us Ben Folds Five and Weezer. That's not to say Barenaked Ladies have no emotional depth, though — just listen to them take on traditional gender roles in “What a Good Boy,” or domestic abuse in “The Flag.”
Beyond the music itself — and Steven Page’s iconic voice, hello! — it could be argued that Gordon was the first album ever to be released by a band that went viral on its own first: Barenaked Ladies broke out through their appearances on the Toronto public access show Speaker’s Corner. Their third self-recorded cassette, known as the Yellow Tape, was the first ever indie tape to hit platinum status in Canada. On top of being full of catchy, jazzy songs that I will never stop trying to put on at parties, Gordon is the album that showed Canadian indie-rock kids that maybe some day you really could have $1,000,000.
— Raina Douris, Radio 2 Morning (@RahRahRaina)
Artist: Eric’s Trip
Debut album: Love Tara (1993)
Named after a Sonic Youth song and breaking at the height of ’90s grunge, Eric’s Trip was the little band that put Sackville, N.B. on the map. Often lumped with Halifax pop explosion bands like Sloan and Jale — when the Nova Scotia capital was called the “new Seattle” for a hot minute while its musical output rivalled that of the city that birthed Nirvana — the regionally removed Eric’s Trip, comprised of Rick White, Julie Doiron, Chris Thompson and Mark Gaudet, released a slew of cassettes and EPs before benefitting from the Sloan wave and becoming the first Canadian band to sign with Seattle label Sub Pop for the band’s full-length debut, Love Tara.
A hungry offering of lo-fi, fuzzy pop, the album is a young, pulsing broken heart of 15 love songs written between people who were falling in and out of love (White and Doiron’s young romantic relationship would end for the second time during this recording). Even though Eric’s Trip would disband three years later after two more releases on Sub Pop, its members would go on to form solo projects and reunite sporadically, garnering name-drops in other bands’ projects, like the Eric’s Trip line in “Put it Off,” from the Tragically Hip’s 1996 album Trouble at the Henhouse.
Built on swirling emotions and stayed in indie grunge memory, Love Tara was the 1993 album that could.
— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)
Artist: Lhasa de Sela
Debut album: La Llorona (1997)
What would Lhasa be singing now if she was still with us? The talented singer's debut album, La Llorona, revealed her talent to the world when she released it in 1997. Singing in Spanish and recording in Montreal with Yves Desrosiers, Lhasa emerged with a sound that felt familiar, but was entirely her own.
For this recording, Lhasa mined the rich depths of her pan-American roots and nomadic, multi-lingual childhood. She harnessed her emotive, husky voice as an instrument that can both whisper and growl, envelop and stab, caress and plead. Her singing unearths ragged, uncut emotion, polishes it and reflects it back to the listener, previously unaware of the profundity she's chosen to explore.
The album is uniquely Canadian, specifically Montréalais. Mexican/Spanish-influenced songs are sung through a kaleidoscope of Latin, klezmer, jazz, and French chanson genres. At the same time, the album doesn't belong to any place, as its influences are global. It sold more than 700,000 copies around the world — an amazing feat for a Spanish-language recording that isn't pop, and defies genre classification. Lhasa released two more stunning albums after this debut, then sadly died in 2010 at just 37 years old.
— Reuben Maan (@rjmaan)
Artist: Rufus Wainwright
Debut album: Rufus Wainwright (1998)
In 1998, pop had a particularly strong showing, with massive hits from Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Cher and the Spice Girls dominating airwaves. Angst-ridden '90s alt-rock bands Semisonic, Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox Twenty were all the rage. During that time of glossy, super-produced hits, a singular voice could be heard crooning over a piano emoting the lines "I don't want to hold you and feel so helpless/ I don't want to smell you and lose my senses."
That's from "Foolish Love," the five-and-a-half-minute opening track to the self-titled debut from Rufus Wainwright. Hearing this at the time was a breath of fresh air, a CD I could listen to on my Discman while wandering through parks and side streets to get away from the noise and clutter. Here's a record that channels cabaret, opera and musical theatre, and that features romantic, sweeping strings and delicate touches of everything from marimbas, horns, castanets and mandolins. Song narratives ranged from a sweet tribute to his mother Kate McGarrigle's mole ("Beauty Mark") to doomed women in opera ("Damned Ladies") and, of course, to love and heartbreak ("Foolish Love," "Danny Boy"). There were also references to Wainwright's homosexuality, a taboo subject in that decade, and significant at the time. A beautiful and personal debut that is still held in high critical regard today, and which launched a successful career for Wainwright.
— Jeanette Cabral (@JeanetteCabral)
Artist: The New Pornographers
Debut album: Mass Romantic (2000)
Just shy of its 16th birthday, it’s interesting to come back to this album and hear how well it fulfilled the promise of a debut. Mass Romantic was the first taste the rest of North America would get of Vancouver’s cheekily self-described "super group" — and it must have gone down well.
Critics and fans alike loved it. On the back of Mass Romantic, New Pornographers —made up of Carl Newman, John Collins (the Evaporators), Neko Case, Dan Bejar (Destroyer), Kurt Dahle (Limblifter), filmmaker Blaine Thurier — launched a sold-out tour of North America, won the Juno Award for alternative album of the year and firmly established themselves at the front of Canada’s emerging status on the world’s stage as an indie music hotbed. This wasn’t a super group that came together to make an album; this was an album that came together to make a super group.
It is unapologetic pop, overflowing with hooks and playful arrangements. It is joyous, adventurous and, despite the lyrics remaining (to me) as mysteriously puzzling as ever, still impossible to listen to without singing along at full volume.
— Mark Macarthur (@macarthm)
Artist: Avril Lavigne
Debut album: Let Go (2002)
The '90s gave us Alanis, Sarah, Céline, and Shania, all trailblazers who proved that Canadian women could make some of the bestselling albums in mainstream pop music. Who would be the flagbearer of the next generation? A 17-year-old girl from small-town Ontario, clad in baggy skater clothes.
After Avril Lavigne caught the attention of major industry execs in 2000, she left school, moved to New York and worked with top songwriters to make the biggest pop debut, the top-selling record by a woman and overall the third-bestselling album of 2002. Let Go shot to No. 1 on the charts at home, in Australia and the U.K., where Lavigne was the youngest female solo artist to ever have a No. 1 album. It was certified diamond in Canada and went six-times platinum in the States. Let Go was a big statement from a young Canadian artist who bucked the trend that singers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera had established at the time — Rolling Stone called her a “teen-pop singer who is anything but ‘teen pop.’”
Look past mega-singles like “Sk8er Boi” and “Complicated,” and you’ll hear the kind of honest musings you might remember from your middle-school diary: “Things I’ll Never Say” boasts the same hopeless romanticism you felt about your crush; “Losing Grip,” the song Lavigne wished the whole album sounded like, is about refusing to be an accessory to some disinterested guy. These songs spoke to that first millennial wave of teen and preteen girls who were also finding their footing in the world, spilling their feelings onto the internet for the first time, unsure anyone was actually listening. Turns out Lavigne was — 'cause she was one of us.
— Emma Godmere (@godmere)
Artist: Kathleen Edwards
Debut album: Failer (2003)
There’s something very real about Failer, the 2002 debut album from Ottawa singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. The songs range from moody to humorous to subversive without making the album sound at all uneven or unbalanced. Instead, it sounds human: forward-thinking, frail and, at times, a bit messed up. "Six O’Clock News" is the tragic tale of the protagonist, Peter, for whom things don’t end on a good a note, as the twang of the song might imply. "Westby" has another protagonist sleeping with a married man, and "One More Song the Radio Won’t Like" skewers the music industry while daring it to play the most radio-ready song on the album. With very few actual lyrics, "Mercury" might be the strongest song on the whole record as Edwards invokes the frailty of addiction.
The stories on Failer could be from real life, and each one is perfectly captured by Edwards’s strong songwriting and seemingly casual but deliberate vocal delivery. Her place on “one to watch for” lists from publications like Rolling Stone and Paste Magazine was well deserved and, over a decade later, we’re still keeping an eye and ear out for what else Edwards has to offer.
— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)
Debut album: Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003)
The Toronto indie music scene in the early 2000s could’ve easily become a homogenous web of overlapping band members who all contributed to one cohesive sound. But instead, it bred a diverse assortment of bands all specializing in their own sound. Metric, for example, came out with Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? in 2003, an album that fused new-wave synths with an indie-rock backbone in a time when Metric's contemporaries were more preoccupied dipping their toes in ambient, jam-rock, pop or punk elements. Laying the foundation for the band's future — and more refined — synth-pop releases, Old World’s most memorable melodies (“Combat Baby,” “Dead Disco,” “Wet Blanket”) sound like they were haphazardly thrown together on a dance floor and the risks paid off.
— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)
Related: Metric in the House of Strombo
Artist: Arcade Fire
Debut album: Funeral (2004)
Crafted during a period of deep grief, Arcade Fire’s debut miraculously overflows with guileless wonderment. Not without moments of introspective sadness ("I like the peace in the backseat"), Funeral’s lasting message is one of carpe diem; of “waking up...before they turn the summer into dust.” With wanton disregard for “cool” and “hip” -- hello band kids! -- the group’s baroque yet imminently grande and danceable musical sensibility and obtuse lyricism led to a paradigm shift in indie-rock, bringing an unlikely spotlight to its adoptive hometown of Montreal and a deluge of famous fans (Bono! Bowie! Coldplay!). But perhaps Funeral’s most abiding trait is its singularity -- it sounds like nothing before it, nor anything since.
— Jonathan Dekel (@jondekel)
Artist: Death From Above 1979
Debut album: You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)
You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine was lightning in a bottle. For a decade, this raucous, electric album was our only full-length remnant of Death From Above 1979’s time in the Canadian music scene. The Toronto duo’s intense partnership boiled over two years after the release of its debut album and while Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger surprised fans with a reunion and a sophomore album in 2014, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine still stands up as the definitive DFA 1979 album. An 11-track headrush of ear-pounding drums and shredding bass lines, Keeler and Grainger left a crater-sized mark on the indie-rock scene and that primal energy still surges through our headphones every time we revisit it. — ML
Artist: Wolf Parade
Debut album: Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)
As the saying goes, if you’re in your first fight, hit first and hit hard. With that in mind, in 2005, Wolf Parade made a fist and came out swinging. This album has grit, noise and emotional urgency. Ghosts. A theremin. A howling freak monster named Spencer Krug. Lyrics for introverts. Isaac Brock’s rough charm. Whispering whale references. Spastic irrationality. And one of the best rock songs of the decade.
Wolf Parade has made a lot of interesting music in its day but Apologies was the band’s basecamp, and its summit. It’s a rare beast that can make you dance, think and cry. Eleven years later, it’s every bit as good as that first, hard hit.
— Graeme Steel, Day 6 producer (@Graeme_TO)
Artist: Coeur de pirate
Debut album: Coeur de pirate (2008)
In 2008, Béatrice Martin was just a teenager, fresh off stints in a post-hardcore band and an indie-pop group, now rekindling her relationship with the piano after dropping out of the conservatory years earlier. The Montreal native was eager to write songs on her own — but, if you’ll believe it, she didn’t want anyone to hear them. That didn’t last long: a record label head who remembered her from her indie-pop days soon came knocking.
Martin packaged her personal, piano-driven songs into a debut solo album under her new Coeur de pirate moniker, and released it to great acclaim in her home province of Quebec, where she was dubbed a new-generation torchbearer for francophone music. That success was amplified in France, where her record sold some 400,000 copies as she watched her hit single “Comme des Enfants” climb up the charts, into the top five.
While her status as the Next Big Thing was quickly cemented among French audiences, English listeners in Canada and the U.S. tuned in to Coeur de pirate a little later, after an unexpectedly viral video (check it out below) used her song “Ensemble” and got picked up by television shows and blogs across the continent. Sure, being a sudden internet sensation can help any artist — but only one with standout talent on a standout debut album could stake a claim in such a distinct music scene, and amass scores of fans both within and beyond, in a matter of months. — EG
Related: The Strombo Show: Coeur de pirate
Artist: The Weeknd
Debut album: House of Balloons (2011)
When the Weeknd debuted in 2011, he was met with universal intrigue and acclaim. House of Balloons was so strong, so unique, that critics immediately assumed it was a secret side project of some super producer, but, as it turns out, it was the beginning of Abel Tesfaye’s ascendancy to becoming one of the biggest artists on the planet.
With Toronto producers Jeremy Rose, Doc McKinney and Illangelo, the Weeknd created a sound that was maximalism defined; a rich, cinematic, seemingly impenetrable tapestry that perfectly suited the hours when the nightclub closed and you were still awake, dreading the morning while watching the sun come up. Sinister, minor-key synths filled the low end, sounds floated between your ears in dizzying combinations, samples piled on top of samples, mixing artists such as Aaliyah with Pitchfork fodder like Cocteau Twins and Beach House. With that dense, meticulously engineered haze, it needed a voice able to cut through it. Tesfaye was it, with his devastating, piercing falsetto and a natural, uncanny skill at melisma that made it seem like his voice must have been heavily processed by a computer. Later we learned that he was simply drawing inspiration from the music his Ethiopian parents played him from that country, such as Aster Aweke. All this combined to make HoB one of the most fascinating, original debut albums of the year, and proof that there was a richness of untapped talent in a post-Drake Toronto.
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)
Editor’s note: strong language warning
Artist: A Tribe Called Red
Debut album: A Tribe Called Red (2012)
Nothing else sounded like A Tribe Called Red when the group's self-titled debut was released in 2012. By combining traditional powwow drum music and electronic music, the album ushered in a new genre called “powwow-step.” A Tribe Called Red's first album loudly celebrates First Nation music, making it accessible to an audience who otherwise might not have been exposed to it.
The strength of ATCR’s music lies in the powerful message the group packs in its songs. In addition to creating music that could even propel the shyest person to bust a move, the group’s music empowers First Nation youth to be proud of their culture. Over the years, the group's members have been very vocal about their politics: their voices were prominent in the Idle No More movement, and they have spoken out against issues of discrimination and cultural appropriation.
While their later albums are more political, audiences got a glimpse of their politics on this first album. The track "Woodcarver" tells the story of Indigenous Seattle artist John T. Williams, who was shot down by police. Using samples from news reports, the song is a chilling reminder of how police brutality disproportionately impacts Indigenous men. Every Canadian should listen to ATCR: it’s music that teaches, challenges stereotypes, and, maybe most importantly, gets people on the dance floor.
— Stephanie Cram (@StephanieCram), CBC Indigenous
Debut album: 99.9% (2016)
As the winner of the 2016 Polaris Music Prize, Kaytranada's 99.9% is easily the newest record on this list. Any attempt to question its presence, however, should strongly consider the record's trailblazing sonic achievement and future-oriented bent. Kaytranada, a.k.a. 24-year-old Haitian-Canadian Montreal producer Kevin Celestin, has subsumed his dizzying encyclopedic knowledge of black music spanning house, R&B, funk, soul and jazz — among other music forms — to authoritatively mould his own distinctively rich and layered style. By curating, coralling and crafting the contributions of an enviable list of numerous fellow leftfield groove merchants to serve — rather than augment — his own autobiographical sonic narrative, 99.9% is not only a remarkable achievement for now, but one that is likely to heavily influence the direction of beat-oriented music to come. Thank him later. — DC
Related: Beyond 99.9%: Kaytranada essentials