Review: The Top 100 Canadian Albums
January, 2009 In October 2008, a paperback edition of this book was released, in both the US and Canada (see Amazon links under photo). This new paperback edition has some additional interviews, including one with Daniel Lanois.
December, 2007 At long last, Bob Mersereau's new book on Canadian music arrived here in cold, snowy Colorado. Called The Top 100 Canadian Albums, it comes complete with color photos, cover art for all the albums, and interviews with many people in the music business.
The "top 100" list is based on responses from almost 600 industry people, and, like any list of "bests", it will start more arguments than it will finish. But it makes a delightful coffee table book, and it is an interesting peek at the albums that come to mind when Canadian music professionals are asked for their top 10.
Needless-to-say, Gordon Lightfoot figures heavily on this list; he placed 5 albums in the top 100, a number exceeeded only by Neil Young (who also had the #1 and #3 albums). However, Lightfoot's highest placing was at 23, for Gord's Gold; a great "best of" album, but like another reviewer I would have preferred it if such greatest hits compilations were excluded. And his other four albums range from 69, for Sit Down Young Stranger/If You Could Read My Mind to 98, for The Way I Feel. Sundown came in at 74, and Lightfoot! at 91.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether the poll was flawed; this would not necessarily be an indictment, but it could explain some of the surprising results. Even if flawed, it would only mean that the "top 100" are perhaps the top under special circumstances, leaving that elusive authoritative ranking for another time.
The first surprise was that Neil Young captured #1 and #3. I mean, Neil is great, but is he that great? Two of the top 3 Canadian albums of all time?
The next surprise was that Lightfoot's top album was only #23, and it was the "Greatest Hits" album, Gord's Gold. Sure, it has sold more than any of his other albums, but that's the name of the game with "Greatest Hits": they are the first album that people buy for an artist they don't know well but feel they should have. And, by definition, it is not an "album" at all, but the artist's best songs; even with nice artwork and liner notes, the result is hardly an "album" by most standards.
And Sundown - the only Lightfoot album to reach #1 in the US (perhaps not applicable at all here?), and the first to top the album charts in the US and Canada at the same time (as did the single) - how could it be at #74? A chart topping album in 1974 in two countries, but not in the top 10, or top 25, barely in the top 75 of all time in Canada?
What are the possible polling factors that lead to this, or do we accept this list as a truly valid measure of the top 100?
One possibility I considered was an age bias; perhaps too many of the jurors are too young to have heard some of the artists from the past? But that is not the case as the number of albums per decade breaks down like this: Since 2000: 12, 1990-1999: 26, 1980-1989: 15, 1970-1979: 36, and 1963-1969: 11.
Another possibility is the "greatest hits" effect. Since Gord's Gold has the two hit songs from that album (Sundown and Carefree Highway), people might have listed Gord's Gold for the hit songs, and dismissed the "duplicate" original album. This is another drawback of allowing Greatest Hits albums in such a poll.
Mercereau discloses that a number of the jurors were musicians themselves, several of whom placed albums in the top 100. Could this have introduced a bias? Mercereau does not say that they were not permitted to vote for their own albums, so I assume that they did. Could that be why Barenaked Ladies' album Gordon is at #27? Three members of the band were jurors. Did their votes propel their album up to that level? Other musician-jurors with albums in the top 100 were: Rush, with three albums (at 9, 17 and 99) and one juror; Rheostatics with two albums and two jurors; and Ron Sexsmith with one and one.
These votes may not have had an undue influence on the final rankings, but we can't know that without knowing how the points were distributed. Mercereau used a popular ranking system that assigned 10 points to the top album on each juror's list, down to one point for the tenth. What I would like to know is how many points did #100 get? And how many did #1 and maybe #50 get? Could one person's vote for an album as their top pick be enough to reach the top 100 if even a handful of others listed that album at all? If so, then the list is not really valid for top 100; perhaps only for top 10, or top 25, top 50?
Even if so, the list of albums is a fine sampling of the best of Canadian music, possibly leaning a bit toward rock music, but still a nice list. Accompanied by interesting articles as well as new interviews with most of the artists, the book is fascinating reading for any popular music fan, even if he is firmly rooted below the U.S./Canadian border. And, after you finish the book, you'll probably have a list of albums that you just have to buy!
For the record, here are the top 10:
Neil Young, Harvest
Disclaimer: The fact that I majored in math might have caused my somewhat peculiar fascination with the numbers.
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