Montreal, an adult Never Never Land of reasonable rent prices, interesting culture, and ingrained countercultural disdain for the suit-and-tie lifestyle, has long been one of Canada’s hotbeds of music. The potent climate for creative expression consistently brings together a vivid collection of weirdos both foreign and domestic, forever bonded by the seemingly endless, dark winters, poutine, and good old-fashioned Eastern Canadian neuroses.
After operating more or less under the radar for generations, everything reached a boiling point in the mid-2000’s, when Montreal went from the long-kept secret gem of North American musical output and planted its feet squarely in the mainstream. Major US media voices started declaring the city the new It Town. It truly felt like a paradigm shift, as Montreal bands achieved widespread acclaim and helped bend mainstream pop music into sharper, more interesting angles. It was a magical thing to be a part of. But to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, today you can climb to the top of Mount Royal, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Eventually, the hype died down, many of the key players moved on to other things, and today the city has more or less returned to its rightful place under the radar. Which isn’t to say there’s no longer great music coming out of Montreal. There always has been and there always will be. But there was something unquantifiably special about the indie music scene in the city at that particular point in time that doesn’t come around often. And so, we think it’s time to take a look back at some of the best songs that were released during that period. This isn’t a comprehensive list or ranking, it’s not in chronological or any other kind of order—simply a little snapshot of an era in Montreal where anything seemed possible.
“Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)” by Arcade Fire (Funeral – 2004)
The song that started it all for one of the bands that helped fuel the industry buzz around Montreal (and also wound up being the only ones to truly transcend it). Since this haunting, album-opening guitar riff was recorded, the band have brought their diverse blend of cinematic, emotional rock and their chaotic, cathartic, theatrical live show on worldwide tours for millions of fans, won international acclaim and prestigious awards (and a Grammy) and can make a legitimate claim to being the biggest band in the world. But there was a time when they were a simple collection of Mile End misfits led by a nomadic mormon from Texas and his French-Haitian-Canadian wife. It was impossible to predict the impact this record would have during the months after its release, but from the opening seconds, it’s abundantly clear that it was something very special.
“Changes Are No Good” by The Stills (Logic Will Break Your Heart – 2003)
The Stills managed to achieve pretty significant success over their decade-long run, releasing multiple albums, touring the world, opening for acts like Kings of Leon and some guy named Paul McCartney, receiving two Junos in 2009 for their album Oceans Will Rise; but they never quite reached the heights that seemed possible when Logic Will Break Your Heart was released. A minor tragedy, as the album is, quite frankly, a masterpiece. “Changes Are No Good” is probably the perfect distillation of the band’s sound at that time, with its dark, postpunk groove, shoegazey guitars, chord progressions, and Tim Fletcher’s melancholic, yearning vocals.
“Summer Special” by Land of Talk (Applause Cheer Boo Hiss – 2007)
Land of Talk owed most of its personality to singer and guitarist Elizabeth Powell, who infused their fuzzy, laid-back rock with simultaneous feminine insecurity and effortless cool. The band put out a few more albums after Applause Cheer Boo Hiss and “Summer Special” put them on the map, creating some buzz in the process, but never quite seemed to build up the necessary momentum to break out of their immediate orbit and reach the next level. After a period of inactivity following Land of Talk’s disbandment, Powell has been popping up again recently and is performing sporadically with what appears to be a new group, which is great news.
“Etienne d’aout” by Malajube (Trompe l’oeil – 2006)
Although Montreal’s mainstream ascent mostly passed by the city’s diverse group of francophone bands, Malajube managed to become one of the era’s most notable acts on the strength of their incredible live performances and this album, which was one of the best to come out of the city during that time. Much of Trompe l’oeil is a delightful smorgasbord of punk-influenced, spastic weirdness, but “Etienne d’aout” is the album’s, ahem, piece de resistance; a dynamic, emotional anthem with a disarmingly simple structure that patiently builds to an epic, satisfying climax. It’s the kind of song that feels like it could and should have been huge. To put it to the test, put it on and then open up this Grey’s Anatomy montage in another tab. It kind of works, doesn’t it?
“Lost in the Plot” by The Dears (No Cities Left – 2003)
A big part of The Dears’ signature sound is singer/songwriter Murray Lightburn’s ability to create lyrics and melodies that exist in a strange limbo between earnest hope and soul-crushing malaise. As a performer, the obvious comparison was always to Lightburn’s self-admitted hero Morrissey, but though there are clearly similarities, he’s a singular talent that deserves to be judged on his own merits. Though the band first formed in the mid-90’s, the release of No Cities Left in 2003 cemented their spot as Montreal indie emissaries, and their willingness to experiment with dramatic baroque elements (along with their outstanding live performances) helped set them apart from the pack. It’s all on display in “Lost in the Plot,” which allows Lightburn to explore his full dynamic range, from soulful crooning to defiant shrieks of pent-up emotion. The Dears are still around; in fact, they’re releasing a new album next month, but it will always be difficult for them to surpass they work they did here as one of the principal architects of the city’s ascension as a musical force to be reckoned with.
“Ageless Beauty” by Stars (Set Yourself On Fire – 2004)
Although most of the principal members of Stars are from Toronto, they solidified in Montreal, recorded their breakthrough album in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and were also huge contributors to Montreal’s emergence on an international level. They translated the buzz from Set Yourself On Fire into a position as Canadian pop rock mainstays, but “Ageless Beauty” remains their signature track, effortlessly landing in the pocket between uplifting and sad that is an essential stop on the road to a perfect pop song.
“Rough Gem” by Islands (Return to the Sea – 2006)
It would have made sense to include a track on this list from Nick Diamonds’ previous band, The Unicorns, seeing as they played such an influential role in cultivating the atmosphere that led to Montreal’s incredible indie-rock boom period. But his work in Islands succeeded based on a much more severe degree of difficulty, as stylistically it was drawing on such a different array of influences compared to what was coming out of the city at that time. Sounding more like Paul Simon than Echo and the Bunnymen, Islands added more fuel to the fire as the buzz around Montreal continued to grow, and showed that there was still an audience to be found for bands that weren’t afraid to mess with the formula a little bit.
“This Heart’s On Fire” by Wolf Parade (Apologies to the Queen Mary – 2005)
When Apologies to the Queen Mary was released in 2005, most everyone paying attention to what was going on in Montreal just kind of assumed Wolf Parade was the local band next in line to follow Arcade Fire’s footsteps into the A-List. Raving reviews, the credibility that came with their Sub-Pop pedigree and close association with Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, energetic live shows, key festival invites – everything seemed to be falling into place. Unfortunately, as is true for many of the other principal players in Montreal’s mid 2000s rise, they were just never able to break through the glass ceiling into the mainstream. Which is sad, as this song, the album closer, sounds like it’s coming from a group with a clear path to superstardom.