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).
THE REST OF THE BEST
• 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)