This year's Giller Prize winner was an O.G. music blogger. If that's not enough of an argument for the inseparability of music writing and literature in Canada (a nation that idolizes Leonard Cohen as a rock star) maybe this list will.
We spent the year with headphones perpetually over our ears and our noses in books, and what we lost in spatial awareness we gained in a killer reading list. These are our five favourite Canadian music books of the year.
The 33 1/3 series lets writers write (mini) book length tomes based on or inspired by an individual album. It's produced some intriguing experiments, like John Darnielle's novella inspired by Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality (a precursor to this year's debut novel, Wolf In White Van), but in 2007 Carl Wilson exploded the entire premise. He picked an album he hated - Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love - and used it to enter a discourse on what determines good and bad taste. Seven years later, "poptimism" is practically standard practice, and Wilson's tome is a massively influential text in pop criticism.
This year, Bloomsbury separated it from 33 1/3 and let it stand on its own in an expanded editions with a whackload of new material. Wilson's original work seemed like it examined Celine from every possible angle, but the 13 new essays, from writers like Nick Hornby, Owen Pallett and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, show that he may have left a few stones unturned. Most fascinating is a piece by James Franco (whose red carpet shoutout of the book initially spread the word far and wide), which explains how Wilson's book inspired him to bring his performance art streak out of the gallery and onto the set of General Hospital and into his role co-hosting The Oscars. - Richard Trapunski
Sarah Liss, Army Of Lovers
In his short life, Will Munro had a huge impact on Toronto’s complimentary but often conflicting queer and punk scenes. In Army Of Lovers, author Sarah Liss tells Munro’s story through the lens of the community he built using countless interviews, tracing his life from a young suburban punk, to a bold visual artist, to manager of The Hidden Cameras, to booker of the infamous Vazaleen parties at the then-divey El Mocambo.
Munro’s friends, family, lovers and peers all speak about him with a kind of reverence usually reserved for royalty, but you don’t need to have known Will, or lived in Toronto in the early 2000s to appreciate how losing him in 2010 to brain cancer could affect so many. His absence is now marked by various kinds of tributes, including this one, which are all glowing reminders of how this one man’s life could inspire a city of dreamers. - Michael Rancic
Sean Michaels, Us Conductors
When first time novelist Sean Michaels, the man behind one of the first music blogs Said The Gramophone (whose year-end best songs list is consistently one of the best on the internet, by the way) won this year's Giller Prize for best Canadian novel of the year, and a tidy $100,000 to go with it, it was hard not to feel some pride. Usually the only gala any of us bespectacled music writer types get invited to is the Polaris Prize, and here was one of us winning a prize belonging previously to Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.
But Us Conductors is about much more than music: it's the embellished real-life story of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, inventor of the theremin, his years living large in prohibition America brutally contrasted with his years spent as a convicted traitor in a Russian gulag. It's about the limits of patriotism, the thrill and pride of creation, the forces we conduct and the forces that conduct us.
And in some ways it is music - Michaels' nimble, evocative language is the embodiment of otherworldly tone and rhythm, whether it's describing basic scientific principles, the strange yelping of a theremin, unrequited love or the tiny glimpses of humanity found in the bleakest circumstances. - Richard Trapunski
Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote, Gender Failure
"What would it mean not to be a man or a woman?"
That’s the central question of Gender Failure, a text archive of Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote's storytelling and musical performance of the same name. Spoon, Canada’s critical darling of indie-folk-to-electronic and Coyote, author of eight books, take turns telling stories about their experiences trying— and failing—to navigate the gender binary, that social construct that demands everyone must be either a “boy” or a “girl” in the way they dress and behave.
Though quick to emphasize that the gender binary, i.e. identifying yourself as a man or a woman, works for many cisgender and transgender people, the book reveals the invisible scaffolding, created by society, propping up these roles, and that many people don’t go in whole hog. - Kasia Mychajlowycz, from Rae Spoon & Ivan E. Coyote’s Gender Failure and the danger of “he” and “she”
Geoff Pevere, Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story
Beginning with Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt and Sam Sutherland’s Perfect Youth, there’s been a growing interest in unseating the idea that punk rock was a phenomenon special to New York and London. There’s a rich history to celebrate north of the border — from Pointed Sticks in Vancouver to the The Robins in Moncton. Geoff Pevere’s Gods of the Hammer fits into that revision, following one of Canada’s brightest first-wave acts, Teenage Head, from a garage on Hillview Street in Hamilton to the Ontario Place riot that put them into the headlines to the untimely death of frontman Frankie Venom.
His on-the-ground account treats The Head with the love of a lifelong fan and the attention of a historian: they were much more than the Canadian Ramones, he argues, digging deeper than the oft-repeated almost famous story. The biggest revelation here comes when Pevere suggests that because of their relentless touring, they helped establish a network of bars and concerts halls from coast-to-coast where young bands could play original music, opening the path for basically every independent act that followed. - Chris Hampton