We're going to preface this, though, with a pile of caveats. For us, any list is doomed to imperfection. What we tried to do with this list is put together something that we thing reflects the best of Calgary, as well as the traditions of One Yellow Rabbit and the High Performance Rodeo. Trying to boil that down to 30 songs was nearly impossible - there's a lot of stuff that we couldn't fit in (we could have done 30 songs from just the 90's indie rock scene!) and we wanted to preserve some sense of diversity. Still, we're proud of this list, and think it reflects the city's musical history well. Or at least part of it. We think. Sigh.
Anyways, you can hear Kenna Burima's arrangement these songs on the bells of the Calgary Tower carillon starting this evening, as well as the actual recordings by the original artists on the Galleria Trees on Stephen Avenue. And, on Friday January 15th, you can catch a one-time concert with the Forbidden Dimensions, Von Zippers, Tom Phillips, the Shiverettes and Napalmpom - along with other guests - performing the songs at the #1 Legion. If you're so interested, you can enjoy a playlist of all 30 songs over on youtube.
But... on to the list!
Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir - “Oh Sorrow” (Fighting and Onions, 2005): The Agnostics’ blend of folk, bluegrass, blues, punk and the kitchen sink (we think that’s part of the percussion they used) drew the quartet international acclaim - and rightly so. Formed in 2001, the quartet put out three CDs before going on hiatus in 2010. This song is the perfect drunken singalong for a regretful cart ride down into the coalmines.
Beyond Possession - “Skater's Life” (Tell Tale Heart, 1985): We broke one of the rules of the Calgary Songs Project, and included a song that’s pre-1986. But we don’t care - BP were innovators that helped usher in the blend of punk and metal that came to be known as skate rock. Frontman Ron Hadley was in legendary punk band Riot .303, and Beyond Possession put out a 7” single and LP that helped to define a new genre that was the soundtrack to Calgary’s skate parks - this track especially so.
Chixdiggit - “Chupacabras” (Born on the First of July, 1998): Chixdiggit started as a joke in a Calgary high school in 1990, making t-shirts before they were a real band, but went on to put out five albums and tour through Europe. We struggled to decide which Chixdiggit track to include in this list - but we’re pretty happy with this peppy little number which combines all of the elements that make the band so loveable: fast guitars, a catchy melody and a healthy heaping of fun. The nod to the Alan Parsons Project is just icing on the cake.
Color Me Psycho - “Black Corvair” (Kiss Me Then…, 1986): Colour Me Psycho was the other band that sprang out of Riot .303, putting out one 7” single and LP before frontman Tom Bagley formed Forbidden Dimension (which is still active to this day). Bagley’s extensive catalog of songs with both bands gave us a challenge for deciding what to include on this list, but this track is a golden piece of garage rock which draws less on his usual themes of horror and monsters, and goes for the classic stuff: cars, hot dogs and beer.
Kris Demeanor - “I Have Seen the Future” (The Guilt and the Shame, 2007): Before he was named Calgary’s first Poet Laureate in 2012, Kris Demeanor put out six CDs that blend indie pop and spoken word. Poets are supposed to be like a mirror (or something… it’s been a while since we studied this in high school), and Demeanor’s mirror isn’t afraid of reflecting the ugly things in our city. This song reminds us that even on the most beautiful day, that ugliness is lurking just around the corner.
Dragon Fli Empire - “Mount Pleasant” (Conquest, 2003): DFE have been active since 2002, playing hip hop which is rooted in the more classic artists of genre. This track is likely one of the most recognizable hip hop songs to come out of the city, with DFE turning an everyday ride on Calgary Transit into a bouncing, joyous bit of reflection and encouragement.
The Dudes - “Dropkick Queen of the Weekend” (Brain Heart Guitar, 2006): The Dudes have been partying strong since 1996, and were stalwarts of the legendary Stampede parties at Rock Central. Despite their commitment to fun and shotgunning beers, the band has put out three albums and built a dedicated following in Calgary and throughout western Canada. This song is a hooky ode to those who slog through the week for the prize of the weekend party.
Fire Engine Red - “Shank Pony” (1530, 1995): In the midst of Calgary’s indie rock scene in the mid-90’s, Fire Engine Red was an anomaly, with its three members focusing on songwriting and playing straightforward albeit ragged power pop. All three members - James Hayden, Lorrie Matheson, and Lee Shedden - have gone on to songwriting-focused endeavours, and this track is one of their most recognizable and enduring with its tribute to that most dependable form of transportation: one’s own shoes.
Fist City - “Hey Little Sister” (Everything’s a Mess, 2015): We kind of skirted around another Calgary Songs Project rule with this one, with members of this band living in both Calgary and Lethbridge. The band has drawn accolades from luminaries of the Canadian indie rock scene, put out two albums on a UK-based label and toured through North America and Europe. Their uncompromising, relentless punk rock is spot on, and this track from their newest album is a great showcase of a band that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Ghostkeeper - “By Morning” (Ghostkeeper, 2010): Shane Ghostkeeper and Sarah Houle - the core of the band Ghostkeeper - aren’t afraid to push boundaries and reinvent themselves. Their music combines folk, blues, rock, psychedelia and noise influences, cemented by their experiences growing up in northern Alberta. This track, from their second LP, shows that truly unique and singular voice.
Hot Little Rocket - “Down With Safe” (Our Work and Why We Do It, 2004): Hot Little Rocket were fixtures of the Calgary indie rock scene from their formation in 1998 to their final show ten years later, in 2009. They were proof that something is broken with the music industry - despite countless days of touring across Canada and four CDs, they never quite made it as big as they should have. This rallying cry for lost causes highlights some of that frustration in a way we can all relate to.
Huevos Rancheros - “Crowchild Trail” (Endsville, 1993): Coming together in 1990 with the aim of playing shows for free beer, Huevos Rancheros’ instrumental blend of all your favourite types of rock (garage, punk, surf, etc...) led to tours through Europe, four albums, a slew of 7” singles and even a Juno Award nomination before their split in 2000. Trying to pick just one song was tricky, so we defaulted to this ditty named for a Calgary commuter corridor.
James Keelaghan - “Hillcrest Mine” (Small Rebellions, 1989): James Keelaghan’s firm rooting in the folk tradition is one which has served him well, through a dozen albums (two with Oscar Lopez), international acclaim and a Juno Award. His songs tend to document the history and hardships of Canada’s peoples, lifted by his clear, soaring voice. This song - one of his most memorable - tells the story of the 1914 mining disaster in the Crowsnest Pass.
Kara Keith - “Kick This City” (Kara Keith, 2008): Doing time with local indie rock bands the Betrayers, the Earthquake Pills and Falconhawk before recording under her own name, Kara Keith’s keyboard-driven rock made for some catchy tunes. This is an ode to the city that you love to hate, and hate to love.
Kobra and the Lotus - “Nayana” (Kobra and the Lotus, 2012): Calgary has a long tradition of excellent metal bands, and KATL have hit a lot of highs since forming in 2009, including touring with icons KISS and Def Leppard, as well as putting out an album on Gene Simmons' record label. This track is a testament to their musicianship as well as the distinctive vocals of classically-trained Brittany Paige (aka Kobra).
Anne Loree/Jann Arden - “Insensitive” (Beyond Cinderella, 1998/Living Under June, 1994): Jann Arden is one the most visible national celebrities from our city, and her career has included best-selling records, Juno awards, and television appearances. But it's this song, penned by Anne Loree that helped pushed her onto the international stage - and no wonder. This is a beautiful song, with biting lyrics and an enduring melody.
Tom Phillips - “Ribbons and Bows” (Tom Phillips and the Men of Constant Sorrow, 1999): For over 30 years Tom Phillips has been mining nuggets out of the honky tonk tradition, and has been a fixture of the roots music scene and venues like the Ironwood Stage and Grill, backed up by his Men of Constant Sorrow. His songs show a craftsman-like approach, a love for literature, and an ear for melody – “Ribbons and Bows” is just that, with its bittersweet tale of love gone wrong.
The Primrods - “Santa Lucia” (Encourage Citizen Advocacy, 1994): The Primrods formed in 1992 and were immediately divisive, with many Calgarians not understanding their angular punk sound or mysterious public image. After a string of independent releases, the band was signed to Geffen Records in 1997… and recorded one never-to-be-released album before being dropped (and subsequently breaking up) in the wake of the label’s merger. This song’s opening squeal of guitar feedback is just a hint of the tsunami of guitars that wash over this tale of swimming pools and locker rooms.
The Quitters - “Levitation” (Fuzzball, 1992): The Quitters’ songwriters Joe McCaffery and Christopher Truch were both part of the 80's underground scene in Calgary, and used the band to step out on their own, looking back to classic British Invasion sounds that were out of step with their contemporaries. Alternating between adrenaline melodies and ragged guitar workouts, fuzz organ and freakbeat rhythms, the band had only a brief run from 1990 to 1992 but left a big impression on those who saw them. “Levitation” (written by Truch and bassist Pete Charuk) is a classic, Children of Nuggets-type moment.
Reverie Sound Revue - “Walking Around Waiting Downtown” (Reverie Sound Revue, 2003): Reverie Sound Revue was founded in 2002, released a couple EPs and toured Canada twice but then disbanded in 2004. The distinctive coo of vocalist Lisa Lobsinger (who went on to be part of Toronto band Broken Social Scene) matched with the pulsing rhythm section of John Marcel de Waal and Bryce Gracey, and the catchy guitar interplay of Marc De Pape and Patrick Walls made for an immediately recognizable sound that turned heads across Canada. This song is an evening stroll down Stephen Avenue, accompanied by equal parts summer breeze and Chinook wind.
Sacred Heart of Elvis - “Wheezing Dog on a Leash” (Sacred Heart of Elvis, 1986): Sacred Heart of Elvis was, at its core, Ali Riley, Rodney Brent and Tim Campbell, a band whose sound was described as “urban folk.” Their sound was unlike anything else at the time – both guitarists Campbell and Brent were among the most inventive and non-traditional in the scene. Plus, Riley’s lyrics and vocal help weave a story of… we’re not sure, actually. It’s a good one, though!
Same Difference - “Kiss of Ice” (Same Difference, 1989): In Calgary's male- and rock-dominated underground scene of the 80's, Same Difference were a breath of fresh air for many, with members
Janine Bracewell, Dave Follett, Lori Kennedy, Diane Kooch and Chantal Vitalis bringing not just a female presence to the stage, but also a tremendous sense of musicianship and songwriting that won them fans across the country. "Kiss of Ice" was featured both on the 1998 Tones compilation LP as well as their self-titled cassette, and manages to be both breezy and driving - the perfect soundtrack for a hell-raising ride in a convertible.
Samantha Savage Smith - “The Score” (Samantha Savage Smith, 2011): Singer, songwriter and guitarist Samantha Savage’s songs are a timeless indie pop that drawn on rock, jazz and blues. She released her debut album in 2011, receiving acclaim for her unique voice and soaring melodies, as well as being ranked in the year’s best by the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, and the Vancouver Sun. Her follow-up was released in 2014 by Winnipeg label Pipe & Hat Records. “The Score” was the second single from her debut.
Rae Spoon - "My Heart Is A Piece Of Garbage. Fight Seagulls! Fight!" (Superioryouareinferior, 2008): Rae Spoon's songwriting started in the country tradition with their first album in 2001, but has evolved to include elements of electronica and dance music, garnering two long list nominations for the Polaris Music Prize. How could we resist including a song that invokes the image of the Calgary Tower as the mast of a ghost ship?
Chad Vangaalen - “Clinically Dead” (Infiniheart, 2005): Since unleashing his first full-length LP in 2004, musician and artist Chad VanGaalen’s weird blend of folk, pop, psychedelia and experimental music has put him on US-based Sub Pop records, garnered nominations for Juno and Polaris music awards, and given him a reputation as an imaginative, singular songwriter. His songs are as romantic as they are fantastic – and "Clinically Dead" is as catchy as it is playfully arranged.
Von Zippers - “Bad Generation” (Bad Generation, 2001): Here’s our third Riot .303-related band in this list: the Von Zippers were formed 1995, and have put out a slew of 7” singles on record labels from around the world (which they have then turned into LPs) of raw, blistering garage rock. They’ve long since ditched the German helmet shtick from their early days, but deliver the goods – proof that you don’t have to turn it down as you get older. “Bad Generation” is vitriolic, unapologetic and garage punk at its best.
Wagbeard - “Too Easy” (Ice Station Debra, 1995): Wagbeard are another band who had a relatively short run, from 1993 to 1997, but had a large local following (who turned out in droves for their 2010 reunion show). Featuring the distinctive vocals of Chris Temple, their anthemic, energetic guitar rock was almost effortlessly catchy - which, legend has it, is why "Too Easy" was so titled.
Tim Williams - “It's Enough to Be Remembered” (Songster, Musicianer, Music Physicianer, 2008): Calgary's blues tradition runs deep, and Tim Williams is one of the most in-demand players in the city. He has played folk, blues and jazz festivals and concert halls and clubs around the world, was named Guitarist Of The Year for 2012 by the Calgary Blues Music Association, and in 2014 won awards for Best Solo or Duo, and Best Guitarist (solo or duo) at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. This track highlights his songwriting abilities, along with his dexterous guitar abilities.
Women - "Black Rice" (Women, 2008): Art-rockers Women formed in 1997, and put out two highly-praised LPs and toured North America, Europe and the UK before breaking up in 2010. Their sound was a wash of reverb, discordant guitars and hidden melodies that captivated listeners. Pitchfork Media named "Black Rice" as the 18th best track of 2008 as well among the 500 best songs of the 2000s.
Zuckerbaby - "Andromeda" (Zuckerbaby, 1998): Zuckerbaby were probably Calgary's biggest alt rock export from the late 90's, fusing Andy Eichhorn's melodies with Reed Shimozawa's guitar work. They had a series of radio-friendly singles across two major-label CDs and have snuck in reunion shows over the past ten years that prove they still have something to give. "Andromeda" was their first hit single - backed up by a quintessentially 90's video.
So, there you go. 30 songs to celebrate 30 years of the High Performance Rodeo, an arts festival which has helped to make our city the great place it is. And thanks again to everyone who helped to shape this list - and especially the bands and musicians who gave us these great pieces of music.