Montreal entered the 2010s as the toast of the indie rock world and exits as a plucky hip-hop underdog. In the intervening years, the city maintained its reputation as a vibrant hub for artistic expression, even as people, venues and trends came and went.
Musical tastes in Montreal shifted much like they did elsewhere: bands pared down their setups as touring costs rose, the convenience and unlimited possibilities of computers gained prominence over pricey gear, and social media became as pivotal an artistic medium as the music itself.
But as always, it’s impossible to pin down a specific Montreal sound, and over the last decade the diversity of the scene has only grown. Just as Leonard Cohen, Céline Dion and Gino Soccio can all sound distinctly like home in their own ways, today’s acts all capture a particular slice of the city’s soul.
Another thing that binds the veterans and younger acts? Montreal artists have a tendency to move away, but the transient nature of the city ensures fresh faces and perspectives in the future.
Here’s the decade that was in Montreal from 2010 to 2019, with the six albums that defined it.
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)
If Funeral was the album that put Win, Régine et al. on the map, The Suburbs was the one that made them true rock stars. They became household names, even though many in those houses were shouting “who the f— is Arcade Fire?” — which became an unexpected rallying cry for a victorious local scene and fans of indie rock after the band was awarded the 2011 Grammy for album of the year, presented by a befuddled Barbra Streisand.
As grand and cinematic as The Suburbs remains, it’s still hard to realize that Arcade Fire, a band born from our local ecosystem, became as big as they did. Sure, the Grammys aren’t the be-all and end-all of music tastemaking, but for a solitary moment, a Montreal band was recognized for what American music bigwigs deemed to be the year’s best album. It’s the sort of title that goes to the well-groomed Célines of the world (she did win once, for 1996’s Falling Into You), not Arcade Fire, a band two degrees of separation from most McGill and Concordia students.
The Suburbs sounds as majestic as ever in 2019, rife with rousing moments that sweep you off your feet. It represents Arcade Fire at the top of their game, and since then they’ve worked to become the rare relatively new rock ‘n’ roll group with the chutzpah to claim the throne of biggest band in the world. The Suburbs also marked the beginning of the end of Arcade Fire’s Montreal — the one that allowed them to grow and prosper. The rent has only increased, royalties have only dwindled. Even Win is spending more time courtside at Pelicans games these days. Hurtling toward a city with no children in it.
Grimes: Visions (2012)
Could anyone have predicted Claire Boucher’s decade-long journey from Arbutus Records home base Lab Synthèse to riding shotgun in the Cybertruck with Elon Musk? It’s almost as unlikely as sailing a makeshift houseboat down the Mississippi — which she attempted to do in 2009. But even in the early going, there was no doubt that Boucher’s Grimes project had legs. After showing promise on the early releases Geidi Primes, Halfaxa and Darkbloom, she crystallized her craft on Visions. It won the Juno for electronic album of the year in 2013 and served as an international breakthrough.
It may seem obvious today, as streaming and self-playlisting have knocked down the walls separating commercial and supposed non-commercial music, but Grimes tapped into something unique and strange when she used her sampling and synth tools to make outré pop music — inspired by Asian K-pop and J-pop — only with the budgetary limits of a bedroom project.
“Pop music is at least part of the equation, but I want it to be more than that too. I don’t want to be confined to any ideas of what pop is,” she told the Mirror upon the release of Visions. “I wanted Visions to be sharp, but kinda fluttery and beautiful, and kinda scary. I wanted it to be a dance album and I wanted it to be experimental, but clear and filled with songwriting as a big part of it.”
The album remains a critical darling: Oblivion was recently ranked as the second-best song of the decade by Pitchfork. As the Grimes story continues to unfold in unexpected ways, the music she created in Montreal is a reminder of the city’s vibrant DIY scene at the time.
Mac DeMarco: 2 (2012)
DeMarco’s relatable slackerdom and live shock tactics belied a workmanship that took him from dingy loft venues in the then-recently christened Mile-Ex to being this era’s Jimmy Buffett, complete with loyal worldwide fanbase. The second of his two 2012 releases, 2 featured an album-cover font that gave away a strong Haruomi Hosono influence — the Japanese polymath also takes his silliness with a skilful seriousness.
The album was written and recorded quickly — in about a month — and was entirely done in DeMarco’s Mile End apartment, warts and all. “The way I saw it, I made 2 in my living room, so it may as well sound like it was made in my living room,” he told the Montreal Gazette at the time.
The subject matter recalled a lazy, hazy day in his neighbourhood, where walking to the dep to pick up smokes (on Ode to Viceroy) constituted excitement. He also looked back on his childhood with a wink (Cooking Up Something Good) and showed his romantic side (Still Together). The deceptive simplicity and directness of his songwriting found a wide audience, and his minimal setup captured the city’s bootstrap spirit.
Kaytranada: 99.9% (2016)
Montreal is a natural hub for beatmakers and producers. And it’s probably not just the plethora of nightlife options: a beat works in any language, eliminating potential barriers between anglophones and francophones.
Born in Haiti and raised in St-Hubert, dance music producer Louis Kevin Celestin found inspiration not only in the Montreal clubs where he plied his trade, but also on the quiet commute between his home and the city. Complaining about traffic is the prevailing Montreal mood, but Kaytranada used the downtime to hone his craft.
“I used to listen to my music on the bus,” he told the Montreal Gazette backstage at his sold-out 2016 album launch at Metropolis. “It was one of my favourite things, to look out the window and over at the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and Parc Jean-Drapeau.”
You can feel the wheels turning on the meditative instrumental track Bus Ride, featuring percussion from Karriem Riggins, known for his work with Diana Krall. Made in Kaytranada’s home studio with analog and digital equipment, 99.9% was a perfectionist album destined for the masses, despite ignoring dance-floor trends for an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, soul and R&B influences. It even turned an old sample of Brazilian star Gal Costa into an undeniable modern hit.
Kaytranada’s humble beats sent him around the world multiple times, into Pharrell Williams’s orbit and eventually to RCA Records. His music will continue to take him to far-off places, but the timeless ease of 99.9% suggests there’s no place like home.
While the decade is winding down for most, Kaytranada had one more surprise up his sleeve: Bubba, his long-awaited followup to 99.9% and debut long-player for RCA, is available Friday, Dec. 13.
Loud: Une année record (2017)
It was simply a matter of time: after francophone rappers had been knocking at the gate as far back as Dubmatique in the ’90s, one was bound to finally break through and become the biggest star in Quebec.
Loud was one of many candidates from the province’s many collectives — Dead Obies, Alaclair Ensemble, his own Loud Lary Ajust — poised to attain arena-headlining status, and his pure laine leading-man looks, clean delivery, pop inclinations and lyrical cleverness gave him the inside track. While he accomplished the feat in support of 2019’s Tout ça pour ça, Une année record was his only solo album in stores when tickets for his May 31, 2019 Bell Centre concert went on sale. For the first time, a Montreal rapper filled his home arena.
Une année record was a slow-burning success. The turning point was the radio hit Toutes les femmes savent danser, which only hit airwaves about six months after the album’s release. Like everything Loud does, the single was deliberate in its intentions and delivered with laser precision.
“I felt like I wasn’t compromising either, because it’s still a rap song with a lot of bars and wordplay,” Loud told the Montreal Gazette this year. “It’s rap, but it’s an obvious crossover pop song too — I won’t deny it.”
Elsewhere on Une année record, Loud ripostes the scene that made him with a charming and forgiving wit. If Montreal rap has a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality, this album forgoes the painful claw in favour of a private jet. Rap is sometimes about faking it till you make it, and on the darker cuts TTTTT and Devenir immortel, Loud confidently raps over sparse beats like someone willing the province on his shoulders long before making it a reality.
Marie Davidson: Working Class Woman (2018)
As an elegy to sleepless nights in dimly lit clubs, electronic music producer and Montreal nightlife mainstay Davidson went the route of Bob Seger by chronicling the plight of the working stiff, albeit with a 2010s twist.
When Davidson tells you to “work it” on the fitness-friendly track of the same name, it’s less a recommendation and more of a threat. In her trademark English-with-a-French-accent sprechgesang, she tackles different forms of authority and barriers head-on — both internal and external — like on the probing The Psychologist and the claustrophobic The Tunnel.
Davidson describes Working Class Woman as “egotistical,” but it’s as much about our current culture as it is about her reality. Set to minimal, propulsive dance beats, it’s an album for the overworked and underpaid. It’s also about mental suffering — often the consequence of our workaholic climate — and the tools we use to cope, like humour and losing oneself in a rhythm.
It was no surprise that in September Davidson held a show billed as her final club performance, at the SAT. Working Class Woman was the result of Davidson having put in her proverbial 10,000 hours mastering the nightlife circuit. Like so many great Montreal albums, it’s a postcard from a very specific time in the artist’s life — one that listeners may relate to, but it’s a moment that comes once and never again.