If you were young and Canadian in the mid to late 90s, Big Shiny Tunes wasn’t just the best compilation on the market, it was the only compilation on the market. I am not exaggerating when I describe the series as a phenomenon; it permeated through Canadian youth culture and provided a year’s best tape decades before playlists disrupted the need for even the greatest “Greatest Hits.”
Unlike other genre compilations, BST showed cultural staying power dropping every year between 1996 and 2009. The CDs collected the best alternative rock in the year of their release primarily from Canada, America, and the UK. Running through a solid selection of FM radio rock, metal, big beat, and goofy one hit wonders, BST did an incredible job of making it easy to find the best new bangers on one disc. In other words, it made sense to buy BST if you liked “The Dope Show,” but couldn’t stomach a whole Marilyn Manson album and thus would never spend your entire $24.00 on Mechanical Animals. Its inclusion of Canadian bands along with the big American acts helped CanRock artists achieve exposure. Meanwhile, it was actually kind of fun to hear Barenaked Ladies alongside Rob Zombie, giving BST a range of sound that was key to its popularity and impact. If you were a fan of both of these artists, these CDs were goldmines.
Through contemporary ears, it’s a snap shot of a bygone era not limited to the Canadian. A pop music landscape where the guitar was still at the sonic forefront and commercially viable rock was a serious force on the industry. It was a time of opportunity, post-Nirvana but pre-MySpace; BST chronicles it faithfully, coinciding with Y2K, the internet, Fight Club, Columbine, and The Matrix. A time when MTV would air Marilyn Manson and Floria Sigismondi’s provocative videos on consistent rotation. When the Chili Peppers reformed with John Frusciante with their most focused material in years. When nu metal was a staple genre combining rap over guitars and heavy drums. When the electronic music scene became a fresh iteration of the arena sound and Moby, Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, and Fatboy Slim took over listeners, MTV, and the festival circuit.
It’s 1993. Chris Harrs, general council at UMG Canada spends most of his day licensing the label’s gargantuan song catalogue to companies like K-Tel, who in turn uses the music for compilations sold on infomercials that air on late night television. Bent on boosting domestic sales, he decides to do the obvious thing: release the compilations through UMG utilizing the label’s strong country catalogue to move units and cut the middle men out. His plan pays off and the compilation goes platinum in Canada, netting UMG Canada increased revenue share. Though his superiors are satisfied, this was not Harrs' full intentions. He knew that UMG wasn’t reaching their full potential with modern country since Canadian presence was more or less limited to Shania Twain. With support from the CRTC and the Canadian media, it was simply easier to move CDs that included Canadian artists.
Meanwhile in the thick of the GenX alternative rock boom, Canada was churning out alt rock bands like Dairyland butter. So him and Universal put out something called Absolute 90s featuring popular bands like Weezer and less popular bands like Filter. Though modesty successful, it contained only artists signed to Universal, giving it a range of sound that was narrower than he had envisioned. Harrs miraculously fosters a partnership between the three majors with the strongest rosters of alt bands: UMG (Foo Fighters—then brand new, Matthew Good Band, Bran Van 3000), EMI (The Brits; Blur, Radiohead, Fatboy Slim), and Warner Bros who then housed powerhouse Interscope (Marilyn Manson, Bush, No Doubt). But it’s still not enough.
Harrs brings in a fourth partner he knows that will add credibility to the project among Canadian artists: MuchMusic.
MuchMusic was a major way Canadians consumed music in the 90’s. Way before youtube disrupted the music video market, people would watch Rap City or Much Live for video and interview content. Many of the artists Harrs was looking to commission were featured prominently on Much’s popular indie and alternative program The Wedge, something of a Canadian counterpart to MTV’s 120 Minutes. Much was behind nearly every band with a legit presence in Canada and every band outside of Canada that wanted their video played there. Simply put, if you wanted your video seen in Canada you had to go through Much.
With Much on board consulting on selection and allowing their name to be used as the presenter, loyal bands like Sloan were quick to allow inclusion of their music. If you had a great video you were likely to be added to their rotation and if you were a band that meant you made it onto this compilation.
Released on December 3, 1996, BST was a smash, eventually going triple platinum. The series would go on to be a success debuting at #1 every year from 1997-2001. Big Shiny Tunes 2 would exceed expectations most of all, going diamond and becoming the third best selling album in Canadian history. It’s easy to see why; with its immaculate mix of genre, this is the BST everyone remembers: “Breathe," “Push,” “Block Rockin’ Beats,” “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Fly,” “Walkin’ On the Sun," “Paranoid Android,” “The Beautiful People,” “Drinkin in LA."
Call these songs nostalgic or novel or make the argument for their legitimate quality, these mixtapes are a whale of a good time.
What the hell is a Big Shiny Tune?
I guess if you you had to pin down a meaning, a Big Shiny Tune is loud and powerful. Kids today would probably call it a banger. It’s Canadian as hell in its slang.
It’s definitely rock music. The type that one might describe as intended for the weird kids, but good enough to be accessible to a wider audience. If it’s a ballad, it better be an anthem you can sing at the top of your lungs.
The songs are presented here in their unaltered state and sequence: Big Shiny Tunes 1-6. BST6 was the first in the series to feature swearing. For our sakes, all songs here are in their uncensored form.
Big Shiny Tunes released 14 compilations plus three bonus editions, but I’m not including anything past BST6 for the following reasons:
a.) BST6 was the last one you could get on both CD and cassette.
b.) BST7 features a noticeable dip in quality. It’s waaay more commercial - Bands like P.O.D. and Theory of a Deadman were taking over as well as Nickelback who I do believe there is a time and place for…just not here. Nickelback would later become the most frequented band in the series with 7 releases, most of which was after BST6.
c.) The direction alternative rock was going in 2002 did not line up with the BST mission statement which was to collect the best heavy rock and power pop to satisfy the full spectrum. Around the time of BST7, rock music was cooling out of the garage rock revival and stuff like …A Rush of Blood to the Head was redefining stadiums. Ultimately, it doesn’t fit.
I get it, some of this is going to be dated for the so-called sophisticated mind (I’m looking at you Steve from Smash Mouth), but neatly packed in this thing is great songwriting (Dave Grohl, Chris Murphy, Sam Roberts, and yes..Rob Thomas), sincere ballads (“Drive,” “Closing Time,” ), and a tonne of magnificently produced head bangers (“The Beautiful People,” “Hash Pipe”).
This is very shuffle-able, but I suggest you listen in order, to hear in sequence the advent of digital recording for instance or what was happening in music while Damon Alburn adjusted from Blur to Gorillaz.
The playlist opens with “One More Astronaut,” the signature song by Toronto post-grunge group, I, Mother Earth, which hit #1 on the Canadian Alternative Charts that year. Enjoy.
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