Cowtown sounds

The albums that define our city

It wouldn’t be possible to make a definitive list of the best albums ever to come out of Calgary. Even if you could somehow track down every CD, cassette, 12-inch and homemade demo, whittling them down to a list of albums that incontrovertibly make Calgary great is a fool’s errand.

Still, once we at Fast Forward Weekly got the idea to compile a list of the city’s greatest musical achievements — a Calgary canon, if you will — it just wouldn’t go away. Rather than having our music writers endlessly debate the merits of Azeda Booth’s In Flesh Tones and No Guff’s They’re Red Hot, or questioning the eligibility of experimental rockers Shecky Forme’s three-song contribution to the 11 Objects Lost and Found sampler (my personal pick for best 10 minutes of recorded Calgary music, but not technically an album), we decided to leave our critical mindset out of it and ask the people who were there, making music and building the Calgary scene over the last few decades.

The question was intentionally open-ended: What is your favourite Calgary album? What constitutes the best (or even what constitutes a “Calgary album”) was left up to the individuals. Some of the answers are well known, while others are beyond obscure. Some can be found at Calgary’s finer record shops, while others will take a miracle to unearth. One way or another, though, the following is our stab at compiling the best records in Calgary history. — Peter Hemminger

Beyond Possession: Is Beyond Possession (Metal Blade, 1986)

Well, maybe it's not my favourite Calgary album — I'm sure others will be extensively covered — but Is Beyond Possession is an often overlooked piece of Canadian hardcore. While a few moments that don't stand up — "Cinderella Syndrome" is risible and embarrassing — Is Beyond Possession is generally an amazing artifact from a band that should have ended up in the same breath as NoMeansNo, DRI, or Discharge. While bands like SNFU and The Doughboys would dumb down their music and gain success, Beyond Possession put out one blistering EP, this LP and disappeared into obscurity. 

— Ian Russell is the owner of Flemish Eye and was the drummer for the Fake Cops.

Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra: Spirit Trail: Music of Allan Gordon Bell (CBC, 1996)

My choice for album of all time in Calgary is Spirit Trail: Music of Allan Gordon Bell by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mario Bernardi and featuring soloists Tim Rawlings, percussion and Cenek Vrba, violin. Recorded at the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts, the disc features five Allan Bell works: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, “Arche III,” “Spirit Trail,” “Drawing Down the Moon,” and “Elemental Lyric.” Bell's writing is contemporary yet accessible, compositionally interesting and challenging to the listener, yet not so academic as to become strident. Great record.

— John Reid is the Prairie Regional Director of the Canadian Music Centre in Calgary and the artistic director of the Jazz Is Society of Alberta.

Wilf Carter: Calgary Horseman's Hall of Fame (RCA CAmden, 1966)

First, I thought of Wagbeard’s Ice Station Debra, because I still have the album in my van. Then, Oh Susie by Guido D'Amico, because it was the leading Alberta music in its day.

But I settled on Calgary Horseman's Hall of Fame by Wilf Carter. It came down to the cover. All other things being equal, the one feature where this album surpasses any other Calgary album I have is the cover shot of Wilf hanging around with some wax statues in the old Calgary brewery.

Classic songs about Calgary don't hurt, but really it was the cover that made the decision for me.

— Matt Masters is a Calgary-based singer-songwriter.

Caveat: Red (Cyclone Records, 2007)

Thrashing riffs and funk-infused bass grooves melded with aggresive metal death growls and three-part vocal harmonies are just a few of the guilty pleasures on Caveat's Red.

Released in 2007 through Cyclone Records, Red was the progressive metal quartet's third and final release, and features seven tracks of proggy goodness from some of Alberta's finest metal musicians.

The 53-minute musical journey leaves a crushing inferno of melodic sound in its wake through skilfully executed guitar riffs, winding passages that never talk down or leave the listener behind, and haunting balledesque moments that you wouldn't expect to find on a metal album, but feel right at home here with Caveat.

— Pamela Porosky is the editor in chief of Pitch Black Magazine.

Eugene Chadbourne: Solo Acoustic Guitar Volume 1 (Parachute, 1975)

I met Chadbourne when I became involved with The Parachute Centre for Cultural Affairs and a burgeoning Radio CORA (now Radio Radio). Chadbourne worked at the Herald as a bitingly irreverent music reviewer.

He recorded the album in the preferred acoustics of Parachute Centre’s bathroom. This was 1975 and it blew me away that this music could come out of Calgary. Meeting Eugene and hearing this album hugely affected and expanded my then 20-year-old mind and worldview.

— Peter Moller is a Calgary-based musician and theatre artist.

The Co-Dependents: Live at the Mecca (Indelible Music, 2001)

This record has all the makings of a classic Calgary live record, from the instrumentation (guitars, bass, drums) to the location of the recording (the now defunct but once mighty Mecca Cafe on the TransCanada Highway). The songs are mostly classics (Dylan, Jagger/Richards, Hank Williams) and a few originals (Steve Pineo) performed in a way that transcend time. The album’s overall sense of true timelessness, like the Mecca Café, fades in and out of memories gone by, echoing a sense of coming home.

— Andrew Mosker is the executive director of the Cantos Music Foundation.

Color Me Psycho: Kiss Me, Then... (Old Shep Records & Filmworks, 1986)

The arteest known as Jackson Phibes (or, on the tape at hand, Tommy Esposito) has built an impeccable psychotronic music/illustration ouevre with Forbidden Dimension, but I’ll never shake hearing his nasty opening git-riff on “Mr. Invisible” (CJSW, natch). Obsession-at-first-snarl sent me scurrying to Sound Swap (RIP, Barrie) for these 10 love songs (to girls, to cars, to interwar Parisian shock theatre). Great songsmithery, tasteful horror rock flourishes, a sense of humour (“This is what I learned in Theatre Arts!”) and a muscular rhythm section cherry-picked from first-wave CalgCon punks Riot .303. And, in “Black Corvair,” a sweaty garage rock anthem to rival The Sonics’ “Boss Hoss.” No small feat, that.

— James Martin (a.k.a. Mr. Smutty) runs the Golden Rock music blog, dedicated to Calgary ’80s indie music.

Jay Crocker: Below the Ocean Over (ArtUnit, 2008)

Recorded at Wavelab Studio in Tucson, Arizona with Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Neko Case, Steve Wynn), Below the Ocean Over is a masterful production. Working with a string and a horn section could have easily gone wrong for a less talented musician, but Crocker gets the balance right. Calexico’s Joey Burns plays cello and it might just be the last recording Dan Meichel made. Clever — but not too clever — songwriting, perfect arrangements and terrific production encourage repeated listening.

— Ian Chiclo is the publisher of Fast Forward Weekly.

The Dudes: This Guy’s the Limit (Indie, 2000)

The context is paramount to this decision. The Dudes were one of the first Calgary bands I fell in love with. They felt like a band for the people and their shows were exciting. I was young, impressionable and these guys were cool and knew how to party. I could and can still relate to the style and substance of the songs. The record is passionate, youthful and raw. I fell in love with my wife at Dudes shows.

— Bil Hetherington is the singer for The Neckers and for Bil Hetherington and the Asian Tigers.

Hiatus: Between the Lines (Indie, 2002)

Before hip hop’s marriage to hard rock bit the Bizkit, it was pure potential. Hiatus represented this with substance, style and musicianship. Old-school MC Greasy B, silent and unassuming offstage, transformed into a hard-hitting frontman, mixing political philosophy with introspective hard-knock booze-fuelled party rhymes. Paired with a lineup of solid metal vets, the result was even greater than the sum of its parts, as evidenced here, in the group’s last and best album.

— Ricca Razor Sharp is a Calgary-based musician and vice president of Neferiu Records.

Hot Little Rocket: Our Work and Why We Do It (Flemish Eye/Catch and Release, 2003)

There’s something that always pulls me back to Hot Little Rocket’s second album, Our Work and Why We Do It. Released in 2003, it will always take me back to the Calgary that once lived in the Multi, Carpenters’ Union Hall and on the lawn of Bridgeland community.

In no way am I saying the album is dated. No. Albums openers “Start Digging” and “Down With Safe” a few tracks in are, in my opinion, lyrically and musically just as relevant to everything Calgarians see and feel to this day. I love the album because of its nostalgia, its longevity and mostly just because it’s a damn good record! Music like this only comes around so often and while it’s sad to see Hot Little Rocket go, we’ll always have their records.

— Malissa Dunphy is the host of Xposure on X 92.9 FM.

Huevos Rancheros: Rocket to Nowhere (Indie, 1991/1992)

Huevos Rancheros' release Rocket to Nowhere blasted garage madness for the folks who just wanted the sound of grinding surf guitar without any vocal blah blah blah. The three amigos — Coop, Thee Evster and Itchy — kept it simple and rockin' on two, maybe four, tracks. Opening nutcracker “Endsville,” with its clever “astronauts report it feels good” sound bite, kicks the whole record off perfectly. The three B-side ditties “Please Pass the Ketchup,” the title track and the Link Wray cover “Rumble” ensured that you would flip the tape over and over and over again.

— Chad Saunders is the station manager at CJSW 90.9 FM.

maud: maud (Indie, 1995)

From the ashes of defunct, well-loved funky popsters Same Difference, maud's bassist, guitarist and drummer created a kick-ass all female power trio with a strong jazz- and funk-influenced groove. Built around the tight, intricate, nuanced interplay between the three, maud’s self-titled album was mostly instrumental with some stand out lyrics and vocals. Think The Minutemen, or math rock before that term was invented. Thankfully, bassist Diane Kooch and guitarist Chantal Vitalis are still active in the scene, including being part of Kris Demeanor’s Crack Band.

— Kerry Clarke is the artistic director of the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

The Minks: Van Gundy (Indie, 2002)

The Minks were a band of young’ns at the turn of the millennium. Their debut (and only album) Van Gundy garnered wide appeal and afforded them a remarkable popularity among Calgarians, especially the youth. For me and my friends in high school, it was something of a phenomenon. This band that we saw at the Multi had accomplished something every high school band wanted by putting out an album with catchy punk tunes sung to a generation.

The Minks disbanded not long after the album but the magic of the music never left the hearts of Calgarians who were around the scene in those early 2000s.

— Kat Cardiff is the founder of Feedback Zine and host of Turing Radio on CJSW 90.9 FM.

Pathfinder: Pathfinder (Unknown label, 1985)

Old-school metal record that I haven't seen in years. The cover was an endearing black-and-white drawing in a somewhat Tolkien-esque vein (possibly done by one of their girlfriends...). They used to run an incredible clip of these guys in full leather ’n’ studs regalia rocking out in a tiny white room to a bombastic epic called "Blade of the Axeman" on Cable 10's Metal Man video show!

— Tom Bagley is a Calgary-based illustrator (as Tomb), the frontman of Forbidden Dimension (as Jackson Phibes) and former frontman of Color Me Psycho.

The Quitters: Fuzzball EP (Indie, 1992)

I first saw the Quitters at the Westward sometime in 1991. Two guitarists flanked the stage, one with a Les Paul, the other with a Jazzmaster. A perfect marriage of Asheton-esque muscle and Verlaine finesse, and trading lead vocal duties, to boot — at turns snarling and then sweetly crooning heavenly power-pop melodies. A cute girl in a short skirt bobbed behind an old organ in the back, bangs in her eyes, channelling the ghost of ? and the Mysterians while the rhythm section looked as if they didn't give a shit but played as if they'd kill you in a heartbeat. I was completely transfixed/formed/ported. “I wanna do that!” my brain screamed at me.

A few months later, I got the Fuzzball EP and wore it out. I think the copy I have now is my fifth. After only a few listens, though, I realized I would never be able to do that. Only The Quitters did it, and no one else ever will.

— Lorrie Matheson is a Calgary-based singer-songwriter and former member of National Dust and Fire Engine Red.

Clinton St. John: Black Forest Levitation (Indie, 2008)

Listening to Black Forest Levitation feels like looking into a diorama the size of a city block. It gives the impression of being really simple on the surface, accessible and lovely, but it’s actually comprised of layers and piles of careful, imaginative attention. No matter what angle I take looking at it, I am always struck by its depth and the simple, honest way it all somehow sits together.

— Laura Leif is a current member of Secret Brothers and Extra Happy Ghost, among other projects, and a former member of The Consonant C.

Straight: Palm Springs (Hermit Records, 2001)

I don't think I can objectively pick my favourite Calgary release. My appreciation of local music is inextricably tied to experiences I have had recording hundreds of local releases. My respect for many bands doesn't necessarily come from their finished album but their devotion in its pursuit. Since I can't really pick one, I put a bunch of records on the floor and tossed a coin to see where it landed. The coin picked Straight's Palm Springs (2001). I am happy with the coin's choice.

— David Alcock is the owner of Sundae Sound and the drummer for Chixdiggit.

Ian Tyson: Cowboyography (Vanguard, 1987)

In 1986, the legendary Ian Tyson made his way to Calgary from his Longview ranch southwest of the city to lay down the landmark recording, Cowboyography. Recorded at Sundae Sound here in town, Tyson sets one of several high-water marks in a heralded and influential career. Tyson’s masterful songwriting and artistic brilliance glisten from the vinyl-era grooves of Cowboyography, a landmark session in Tyson’s career and in Calgary recording history.

— John Rutherford is a Calgary-based musician and producer, and a member of the Highwater Jug Band and No Guff.

Vailhalen: Becs D’Oiseaux (Saved by Radio, 2004)

It’s insane, this guy’s replay value. Becs D’oiseaux manages to slap my ears in the face at least once a month since forever. It is the perfect length. The guitar tones make me want to give up, the chord changes are “horrifyingly fresh” and one time when I was on a boat I listened to the track “Moodkiller” 35 times. The arrangements on this record are to ears what magnetic fields are to the universe.

— Morgan Greenwood is a Calgary-based musician and a member of Azeda Booth.

Various artists: Bloodbath at the Chinese Disco (Sloth/Pornstar, 1994)

It eventually turned into a make-out session on the kitchen floor with the lights out and Wagbeard, the El Caminos and Chixdiggit providing the soundtrack. Oh shit!! Her older brothers came home and she was like “You gotta get out of here.” I made a break for it out the back. They chased me, yelling “You’re fuckin’ dead. We’re gonna fucking kill you!” I think I hid under a car or something....

Bloodbath was definitely the first indie Calgary thing I had ever owned; it was amazing.

— Jay Crocker is a Calgary-based musician currently performing as a solo artist and in other projects, including No More Shapes and Ghostkeeper.

Chad VanGaalen: Infiniheart (Flemish Eye, 2005)

Chad VanGaalen's Infiniheart is beautiful. It embodied its moment: As the music industry was crumbling, Chad was recording this album in a home studio with handmade instruments. It is about events in our city, parties with friends, death, love, Nintendo. The song style is creatively overflowing, disparately influenced and as such very hard to describe.

— Zak Pashak is the owner of Broken City and the festival director of Sled Island.

Wagbeard: Ice Station Debra (Indie, 1996)

(The story behind the artwork for this record, though not a suitable excuse for such an optical abomination, is that the band wanted imagery that was as unique as their songs. Rightfully so. )

This mid-’90s post-punk oeuvre, though touched by the 1994 Californian punk rock explosion, is distinctly Calgarian. You can hear the big room at the old Airwaves Studio in the drum overheads, feel the frenetic all-ages vigor in the thrashy guitar riffage and relive the smoky young-adulthood of the Black Lounge in its playful bass lines. The record subtly embodies Calgary's adolescence while still being melodically and lyrically insightful.

— Dean Rudd is the owner of Meter Records.

Diamond Joe White: Too Many Changes (Casino Records, 1978)

Seeing Diamond Joe White and his barnstorming band perform back in the late ’70s led directly to my love of classic country music. This album contains his hair-raising take on the traditional “Buffalo Skinners” that was the highlight of his live shows.

— Allen Baekeland is a member of The Rembetika Hipsters and Tom Phillips and the Men of Constant Sorrow, and a former station manager at CJSW 90.9 FM.

The Will: Causa Sui, (Indie, 1983)

I think I can make the case for inclusion based on the following features:

• Band members leaning against brick walls on cover.

• First presentation of the idea that Calgary is a “Funky Babylon,” which is a well-used metaphor nowadays, but it's interesting to remember that there was a time before we thought that.

• No. 1 single on CJSW for the entire year of 1983.

• I was 11, personally. Which means I actually have no idea what I'm talking about.

— Judd Palmer is a member of Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir and co-founder of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop.

XL Birdsuit: In Minotaur City (Flood Records, 2002)

A list of bands the members of XL Birdsuit played with before and after their stint in the band reads like a laundry list of some of the greats of Calgary rock ’n’ roll: Shecky Forme, The Primrods, The New 1-2, Vailhalen, The Summerlad, Key to the City. And while all these bands have released great records, there is something about In Minotaur City that stands apart from the rest. Maybe it's the sense of urgency with which the album rips through its 10 tracks, or the way the performances seem to rip out of the stereo, or the seemingly nonsensical lyrics based on our fair city. Whatever the case, In Minotaur City is a triumph of a record that captures a moment in Calgary's musical history that will always stand as one of the best.

— Myke Atkinson is the music director at CJSW 90.9 FM, as well as a musician (Beneath These Idle Tides).


• Mike Bell (Fast Forward’s first music editor, currently at the Calgary Herald): Wagbeard: Ice Station Debra (Indie, 1996)

• Rodney Brent (Calgary-based musician as Guitarsplat): Golden Calgarians: Savage Love (Rubber Records, 1984)

• Brent Cooper (guitarist for Huevos Rancheros and Ramblin’ Ambassadors): Golden Calgarians: It’s Fun to be Alive (Golden Rock Records, 1982)

• Chris Dadge (Calgary-based drummer and founder of Bug Incision): Women: Women (Flemish Eye, 2008)

• Dean Martin (drummer for The Summerlad and The Ex-Boyfriends): Fake Cops: Absolutely Your Credit is Excellent but in a Certain Way We Also Need Cash (Mockingbird Records, 2004)

• Aubrey McInnis (host of Aubrey’s Shindig on CJSW 90.9 FM, former editor at Beat Route): The Primrods: Kneecappin’ (Melodiya, 1995)

• Teekay (member of Dragon Fli Empire): Lynn Olagundoye: Africa Violet (Absurd Machine, 2006)

Comments: 18

Non-member wrote:

One more entry that accidentally got left out (from Garrett McClure, frontman for The Summerlad):

"My choice for Calgary’s best album would have to be the Bloodbath At The Chinese Disco compilation.
Why? Because that's where I first heard Chixdiggit, Pussy Monster, Field Day and Kentucky Fried Children.
I thought they were all great, but the bands on the comp that really smacked my face were The Primrods because I couldn’t figure them out for, like, forever. [ed. note: He did figure them out eventually, and replaced the band's singer in time for Kneecappin']
Wagbeard were fast and tight and the drumming was awesome. Huevos was like Jimmy Page fronting the Shadows. The El Caminos were scary brats with their songs about dildos enveloping the heavens.
But I fell in love with the music of Squat because it was so badass in a way I’d never heard four ladies rock before.

Don’t forget I was, like, 20 years old..."

Thanks again to everyone who took part in this -- you made a far more comprehensive list than I ever could've managed.

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 1:02am Report Abuse

manaboutcowtown wrote:

No Stampeders? Surely Sweet City Woman has swung back into ironic territory by now.

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 1:19pm Report Abuse

billnobody wrote:

What no Inquisition?!?!

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 2:43pm Report Abuse

fang wrote:

manaboutcowtown, billnobody,

Why not write a similar piece for the music that you felt should have been on this list, but isn't?

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 4:08pm Report Abuse

billnobody wrote:

isn't that what the forum is about? Discussing the article's merits, what we felt was lacking/missing and/or adding our own spin on things?
I have a lot of fond memories of being a part of the all-ages scene growing up but I don't think it warrants me writing an article about it.

With regards to Inquisition, I was just being cheeky... or is being silly not welcome in your forum-world?

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 4:22pm Report Abuse

fang wrote:

Sorry if the tone came across incorrectly. Your comments were entirely appropriate, although who really cares whether I think they are appropriate or not?

I'm not very familiar with the Calgary music scene, so I was just hoping you might write up something about your suggestion and maybe I'd learn something new. Apparently you were being cheeky and I didn't pick up on that, oops.

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 4:49pm Report Abuse

Peter Hemminger wrote:

For the record, I unironically think "Sweet City Woman" is an awesome song. But I've never listened to an entire album by the Stampeders.

on Oct 22nd, 2009 at 7:23pm Report Abuse

stevie_e wrote:

"(The story behind the artwork for this record, though not a suitable excuse for such an optical abomination, is that the band wanted imagery that was as unique as their songs. Rightfully so. )"

Actually, the story behind the artwork is that we ripped off an old Ike and Tina Turner gig poster and we did it all on a computer in the days when you had to be able to fit all the print files onto a single 14mb floppy disc.

on Oct 24th, 2009 at 11:29am Report Abuse

bryguy76 wrote:

What? No Red Autumn Fall? Hrmm... this list isn't anywhere near complete without them...

"ooooooh i'm so pretty" was also a defining Calgary compilation.

on Oct 24th, 2009 at 4:48pm Report Abuse

philcimolai wrote:

Buzzing Bees please! (You'll Wish You Were Deaf, or Beep Beep I'm a Jeep!)

on Oct 28th, 2009 at 8:46pm Report Abuse

quemortal79 wrote:

No Chixdiggit or Lorrie Matheson? Ridiculous!

on Oct 28th, 2009 at 10:16pm Report Abuse

laricasurf wrote:

Did SNFU gain success? I was a kid when they were in their hayday but listened to them, it didn't seem like they ever made it. They should have. Talked to Chi this summer and he seems like a sad case.

on Oct 28th, 2009 at 10:54pm Report Abuse

Peter Hemminger wrote:

quemortal79: Technically Chixdiggit is on the Bloodbath comp, but I was definitely a bit surprised by that myself. Which Lorrie Matheson album would you pick? I'd lean towards National Dust - Welcome to Utopia or In Vein...

laricasurf: I guess it depends what you mean by success. They were on Epitaph, which meant I thought they were pretty successful, but I was barely in junior high at the time.

on Oct 28th, 2009 at 11:25pm Report Abuse

chiclo wrote:

SNFU were from Edmonton.

on Oct 29th, 2009 at 8:05am Report Abuse

laricasurf wrote:

Ya I know they are from Edmonton. I wasn't saying they should be on the list, just asking about the author's comment on their success. Not arguing it as I was too young to have a sense of their success other than my friends and I liked as kids in Edmonton.

on Oct 29th, 2009 at 10:01am Report Abuse

quemortal79 wrote:

"Welcome To Utopia" would probably be my National Dust/Lorrie Matheson pick as well, although "You Should Know By Now" is also right up there for me.

As for Chixdiggit, their self-titled debut is where it's at. One day, sadly probably when they're long gone, people will realize just how awesome they were. Let's rock!

on Nov 1st, 2009 at 10:16pm Report Abuse

Hnatiuk wrote:

I think the facts need to be faced, Calgary simply hosts too many, too talented artists. This being said, Knots as well as Kris Ellestad, certainly deserve their places on this list!

on Nov 7th, 2009 at 11:24pm Report Abuse

Leah* wrote:

Thanks for mentioning Squat, Garrett. We love you too! xo

on Jan 21st, 2010 at 12:36pm Report Abuse

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