The 25 most famous Toronto bands
The most famous bands and musicians from Toronto right now come from a huge variety of genres and backgrounds. From hip hop to folk and from basement show beginnings to internet success stories, it's almost hard to believe that all of the artists on this list share Toronto in common. Most music fans will agree that taste is subjective and art is about more than money, fame or awards received. Yet the huge, churning wheels of the music industry owe a lot to Toronto artists, whether those musicians were born and raised in the GTA or moved here to tap a greater creative community and/or access larger markets and and opportunities.
We're still watching DIANA, Maylee Todd, Kevin McPhee, Tre Mission, Timbre Timbre, and Down With Webster rise to fame, while other underground bands such as Trust, Hayden, Nadja, Tre Mission, SINS, Dragonette, Babe Rainbow, Egyptrixx, and Mary Margaret O'Hara have dedicated fanbases worldwide and in many cases a lot of internet traction. There are also countless Toronto artists whose careers continue to shine bright, such as K-os, Cowboy Junkies, Sloan, Nelly Furtado, MSTRKRFT, Kardinal Offishall, Career Suicide, and Maestro Fresh Wes, to whom we pay undeniable respect.
Yet when we ventured to answer the question "who are the most famous Toronto bands right now?" these were the 25 names we amassed. Add your nominees in the comments section.
While we're not assigning anybody numbers here, it's fair to say Drizzy is Toronto's most famous musician right now. The rapper / r&b artist and holder of several Billboard records, has collaborated with Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and 2 Chainz and was more or less responsible for The Weeknd's rise to fame. Winner of three Junos, six BET awards and one (useful) Grammy, Drake is currently riding on the September release of his critically acclaimed third studio album Nothing Was the Same, which has been blasted from cars, apartments, and clubs both across Toronto and the world to the point that if you don't have a NWTS track stuck in your head right now, you might want to get your hearing checked out. He plays the ACC on his birthday later this month.
Rush might be a little outdated since their formation in 1968, but everyone listens to vinyl now anyway, right? Each member of Rush is respected as a master of their instrument. Ever watched a Neil Peart drum solo? You might want to Youtube that. Rush has been awarded twenty-four gold, fourteen platinum, and three multi-platinum albums, totaling over 40 million in sales. They've won several Juno Awards, and were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Sure, they might be your dad's favourite band, but their name keeps buzzing for good reason.
You can't deny that our homegrown girl Leslie Feist has become an international superstar. She first hit it big with "1234", the song that got permanently stuck in everyone's head for the next year. Her album The Reminder went on to sell over 2.5 million copies, and earned four Grammy nods, plus five trophies at the 2008 Juno Awards, including Songwriter of the Year, and Album of the Year. Her fourth release, Metals, won the 2012 Polaris Music Prize and received three Junos. She has too many accomplishments to even list here, and I think we can all agree that Feist is among Toronto's top indie royalty.
Another Toronto Polaris winner, Fucked Up are so famous they have their own breakfast platters at Sneaky Dee's — need I really say more. The artsy, room destroying hardcore group steadily gained traction over the years until their 2011 "rock opera" David Comes to Life, which became Spin Magazine's #1 album of the year. That a band called Fucked Up including members who nickname themselves (fucked up, seriously) things like "concentration camp" can become critically acclaimed and beloved by indie and punk fans worldwide might just be the largest testament to Fucked Up's being on to something original that works.
I heard deadmau5 is pretty sad and hangs out alone in his condo all the time, and you know when you hear a rumour like that, the subject of the rumour must be like, jealousy-inducing rich and famous. The EDM superstar always wears a huge mouse helmet, gets himself into internet beefs, and generally keeps followers entertained / enraged in between making millions of dollars, playing huge festivals such as Coachella, appearing at the MTV Video Music Awards, almost marrying Kat Von D, and putting his pants on one leg at a time. This month he's suing a dude who didn't pay him $200,000 to play a request (granted, the request was Bon Jovi).
Say what you will about Metric, Emily Haines' synth pop / alternative rock band, the foursome do not quit. The Broken Social Scene associated band have been based in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, and London, and as they started out in what they describe as "difficult" lodgings in a Brooklyn loft, still wear their indie-ness on their sleeve — perhaps with good reason since their most recent album was the self released Synthetica. The Polaris shortlisted album debuted number 12 on the Billboard 200 and number 2 on the Canadian Albums Chart, and while it sometimes seems the band have legions of haters, they clearly have a huge and devoted international fan base as well. The Juno winners have toured the world, opened for the Rolling Stones, and collaborated with Lou Reed. Jealous?
Broken Social Scene
Are Broken Social Scene on hiatus? It doesn't matter, the name is still reverberating, partly due to all of the side projects and connected bands the massive collective has accrued (Feist, Do Make Say Think, Stars, Metric, etc). BSS's love of ensemble pieces and cryptic song titles and lyrics has a huge following of indie and post rock fans world wide (check Pitchfork's huge database of their own BSS coverage), but they're most adored here at home, where it can seem like 80% (actual number must be closer to 25%) of active bands in Toronto claim some association to the band, or their label Arts & Crafts. Toronto fans got to see their beloved band reunite and perform this summer at Field Trip, a short story contest based on their songs took place here this summer, and BSS have appeared on some compilation albums so far this year. There just might be another chapter of BSS in store.
Aside from being a clear favourite personality in the music scene and on Twitter, Toronto's Owen Pallett has made a huge name for himself and continues to be a Toronto citizen of note: truly amazing for a guy who called an album He Poos Clouds (this album won the Polaris Prize in 2006). No longer working as Final Fantasy, Pallett has been focusing on contributions to, remixes for, and collabs with what adds up to be a huge list of names, including R.E.M., Duran Duran, Jim Guthrie, The Hidden Cameras, The Mountain Goast, Arcade Fire, Dntel, The National, Grizzly Bear, The Pet Shop Boys, Diamond Rings, Fucked Up, Taylor Swift (!!!), Linkin Park (???), and Beirut. His next project will be scoring a ballet for the The National Ballet of Canada in November. Swoon.
Experimental and controversial electronic duo Crystal Castles have gone a long, long way from being a noisy underground Toronto project named after a line from a cartoon. Their debut album made NME's Top 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, and they've since charted on the Billboard Hot 100, collabed with Robert Smith of The Cure, headlined worldwide, and toured with Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. Their punky, futuristic aesthetics have captured the hearts of dreamers, glitch lovers, and fashion students world wide — one question, though: whatever happened to that petition for Tumblr to change its name to aliceglasspix.com? Still into that.
Abel Tesfaye emerged anonymously via Youtube in 2010, posting tracks from his House of Balloons mixtape over black and white images of decadent urban grit. His break out song "Loft Music" suggested the bleak claustrophobia of cosmopolitan condo living and drug-fueled hook ups. Drake got behind him, and Tesfaye's talent, anxious falsetto and feel for urban ennui combined with Zodiac's unique production made The Weeknd something of an overnight success. While Toronto's seedy 4am condo high life needed (and still needs) more representation in art, some media backpedaling about Tesfaye's genius has been stirring, partly because his misogyny and apparent theft from artists like Portishead seem more than a little uncool. Still The Weeknd is only rising higher, and has three upcoming dates at Massey Hall this month.
The Birthday Massacre
"Who?" says everyone who isn't goth. Synthpop / industrial / new wave group The Birthday Massacre are one of Toronto's secret breakout talents, likely because of their Halloween-y aesthetics; Toronto is such an image town. They've charted on Billboard, toured the world as headliners and with the likes of Black Veil Brides, have been remixed by Combichrist, amassed a legion of online followers, and are about to embark on a November tour with theatrical songstress Emilie Autumn. This spooky band might never be as big as Drake, but they're famous in circles where black lace is a lifestyle and each boot should take a minimum of 66 seconds to get on.
Can you believe it's been 20 years since this group formed as Pezz? With their uniquely coiffed hair dos, alternative rawkers Billy Talent look like a band doomed to play punk music forever to the mall crowd — yet a lot of people go to malls, and a lot of people go to Warped Tour, a lot of people listen to bands signed to Warner, and a lot of people worldwide will fill clubs and stadiums for Billy Talent. They've gripped MuchMusic Awards, JUNO Awards, and MTV Awards, and shared stages with the Buzzcocks, Weezer, Blink 182, Guns N' Roses, and Arcade Fire. Here at home, they're the most nominated band in the history of the Much Music Video Awards. Good on them.
Signed to Mad Decent, Zed's Dead is a dubstep/EDM duo who have toured the world and claim a huge worldwide following, partly due to their habit of giving tracks away for free online. After forming Zed's Dead in 2009, DC and Hooks soon after started weekly party Bassmentality, which gave them a chance to play and curate music they liked, their way. Now they've produced remixes for The Rolling Stones, Massive Attack, Radiohead and Bon Iver, and made it to #11 on the US dance chart and #4 on the Heatseekers chart. They are currently headlining a massive North American tour called Altered States.
Flamboyant electroclash artist Peaches may live in Berlin, but she's still got a weird Toronto heart. While her most famous moment will always be that video with all the pubic hair ("Set it Off"), you can find her on countless film soundtracks (including Mean Girls), she's collaborated with mainstream pop artists Pink, Christina Aguilera, and Major Lazer, as well as Le Tigre and John Malkovich, and has toured with Marilyn Manson and Queens of the Stone Age. Her work with performance art, gender identity, sexual politics, and just plain sexiness make her one of Toronto's most interesting cultural exports.
K'naan broke out when single "Wavin' Flag" became Coca-Cola's anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. So you might be surprised to learn the Juno winner has also spoken before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He's been at various times associated with Mos Def, The Roots, Nelly Furtado, Adam Levine, and will.i.am, yet K'naan stands out for doing his own thing and following his own heart, claiming he hopes to make "urgent music with a message." He's published a children's book, released six studio albums, and played the Hollywood Bowl and, more importantly, appeared on Ellen Degeneres. He hasn't been up to much lately, but fans are eagerly awaiting his next move.
Multiple Juno winner and EMI recording artist Serena Ryder takes folk, country, and indie to places which we'll describe as nice places, and has toured and performed with the likes of Melissa Etheridge. She's peaked at number 29 on the US Adult Top 40 with her single "All for Love," to which one can easily say, "nice." Ryder played both Luminato and the 2013 Walk of Fame fest this summer — fame is right in the name of the latter fest. Case closed.
Azari & III
If you're not fan of electronic you might be scratching your chin about Azari & III — otherwise, you'll be nodding. The band combines a range of styles such as house, disco, and garage, and catchy singles "Hungry For The Power" and "Reckless (With Your Love)" have been their tickets to clubs and festivals across Europe and the world, making them a huge name in electronic circles both in Canada and overseas. They've remixed Robyn, Cut Copy, and Health, while Grizzly Bear and members of Broken Social Scene are both reported to be fans.
In their 25 year career, Blue Rodeo has sold over four million records, won five Juno awards for Group of the Year, been handed keys to the city of Toronto, and been inducted onto Canada's Walk of Fame. Not bad. Blue Rodeo songs are familiar to pretty much every Canadian, we've heard them played at every open mic and campfire jam in existence. Though they are on and off touring now, their music is still alive and well, keeping them recognizable as an iconic Canadian band.
Death from Above 1979
Well, it seems odd to put a band whose most famous work was released in 2004 (gold album You're a Woman, I'm a Machine) on this list, but Death from Above 1979 are still playing live, and are still one of Canada's most talked about groups. Nobody can give up this duo's relentless noise rock sound, which honestly sounds as fresh now as ever. Those elephant trunk / penis noses are a part of Canadian history forever, and we stand proud and tall with that knowledge. The duo reunited in 2011, because they knew their raw power was too much to contain.
John O'Regan was first known as the quirky frontman in the post-punk quartet The D'Urbervilles. To everyone's surprise, he then made the leap to electro synth-pop under the moniker Diamond Rings. He's loud, he's out there, and he's pretty hard to ignore. His music been given the stamp of approval from critics at Pitchfork and Exclaim!, plus he's performed on Letterman and Leno's late night shows. Not only that, but he's collected an impressive roster of touring experience too. He's hit the road with Robyn, PS I Love You, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Austra, named after the Latvian goddess of light, is an electronic band comprised of a mish-mash of talented Toronto musicians. Their debut album Feel It Break made waves in the Canadian music scene; not only was it named best album of the year by Toronto Star and New York Magazine, but it was short listed for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize. They've just released their second full length album "Olympia" and have toured it through the U.S. with DIANA, and through Canada with Moon King. Having formed in 2009, they're still early into their career, and they've set some solid groundwork that will keep us paying close attention.
Cancer Bats are more buzzy than batty, especially for a hardcore group. Though they've been Juno and Polaris nominated, the band have mainly found their fan base slightly outside of the mainstream, touring constantly and supporting bands like Alexisonfire, Billy Talent, Against Me!, and dropping 4 studio albums which have found the most love from punk, hardcore, metal and indie audiences. The band are currently touring Canada with, appropriately, Black Sabbath tribute band Bat Sabbath, who (don't get confused here) are also the Cancer Bats. Awesome.
Tokyo Police Club
Tokyo Police Club got their pop-rock foursome started in 2005. They didn't waste any time, and recorded a couple EPs in their first year. Then off they went on their first international tour. Their debut LP Elephant Shell was a massive success, and helped them to sell out shows in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. They've appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and maybe most impressive of all... Desperate Housewives. In 2010 they dropped their most recent release, "Champ", and toured it alongside Passion Pit. Sure, they haven't been as busy in the last year or so, but they've certainly put in the hard work to make their band pretty damn famous.
METZ! After a steady rise to fame in the Canadian punk scene, METZ are now signed to Sub Pop!, have worked with Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck, made the 2013 Polaris shortlist, and show no sign of slowing this very, very loud and special thing they have going down. If they can keep the momentum going, their Wikipedia entry won't be a stub for much longer.
Last but not least, what would this least by without this bunch of jokers. With hits like "The Old Apartment", "If I Had $1000000", and (the wonderful) "Brian Wilson", the Barenaked Ladies have spoken, or joked rather, for a generation (or two). They are staying relevant today, with their 12th album debuting at number 10 on the Billboard200, and their theme song kicking off every episode of the hit show The Big Bang Theory. They've won multiple Juno Awards, been nominated for Grammys, and have sold over 15 million records worldwide. With yet another international tour underway, they're keeping the good times coming and repping Toronto worldwide, even after some serious line up changes.
A note about our selection criteria
When trying to determine our hypest musical exports circa 2013, we included some Toronto bands based in multiple cities such as New York or LA, and a few, like Peaches and Crystal Castles, who spend much of their time in Europe and the UK yet still register as TO talent. We also thought that it made sense to include bands like Broken Social Scene who, while on hiatus, continue to garner significant attention even as they play rarely.
List compiled by the blogTO music team. Writing by Aubrey Jax and Julia Stead.
Photo of Drake by Karla Moy