“Big Shiny Tunes left a massive cultural imprint on Canada,” claims Mark Teo in his new book, SHINE: How a MuchMusic Compilation Came to Define Canadian Alternative Music and Sell a Zillion Copies. While Teo provides extensive interviews, examples and criticism to prove this point, all any Canadian of a certain age needs do to confirm his assertion is reflect back on the period of time when the ’90s were “the ’90s,” and the 2000s were, too.
In this excerpt from the book, Teo writes about the alternative music compilation’s success, not just in terms of sales, but in the strange sentimentality Canadians feel for the first record in the series, today. He suggests that the album’s centrality to a very specific audience has helped make it an unlikely Canadian cultural cornerstone.
— Dustin Parkes, arts editor
When most of us think about Big Shiny Tunes — if we do at all — it’s through the dual lens of sepia-toned nostalgia and bashful Canadiana. Like Modrobes flood pants, Prözzak, or Rick the Temp, the series belongs to the post-grunge ’90s (never mind the fact that the 14th, and final, iteration of Big Shiny Tunes landed in 2009). Like Due South-era Paul Gross, the bits of Kids in the Hall that hold up terribly and pre-scandal Jian Ghomeshi, it’s a cultural cornerstone countless Canadians have partaken in, if somewhat sheepishly. And the combination of these factors has led to a cheese-curd-and-gravy-slathered nostalgia bomb.
Buzzfeed Canada, the de-facto hawkers of misty-eyed, maple-scented viralism, have written two pieces about the compilation, both released in 2015 (“How Well Do You Remember Big Shiny Tunes 2?” and the aforementioned “It’s Time to Decide Which Big Shiny Tunes Album is Best”). Prior to that, Vice released a track-by-track review called “Does Big Shiny Tunes 2 Hold Up in 2013?” CBC Canada also wrote a so-called definitive ranking of the entire series in 2014.
And that’s only the media. Musicians, too, have gotten in on the act. In Ontario, the Big Shiny Tunes Squad is a cover band whose mandate, according to their Facebook page, is to play “your favourite hits from the golden years, 1995-2005.” And in Calgary, the Sled Island Music Festival teamed up with CJSW-FM to create the aforementioned Big Shiny Tunes-themed Halloween event featuring, among others, Pakistani R&B duo Shaani Cage covering Matchbox 20 and Kris Ellestad taking on “Paranoid Android.” Everyone, of course, knew the words.
So, why has Big Shiny Tunes captured our collective imaginations in a way that, say, its rug-cutting predecessor — MuchMusic’s Dance series, duh — hasn’t? Why, exactly, does a part-Canadian, mostly American series feel uniquely suited for the post-ironic 2010s? Do we even earnestly like the damn series?
Well, yes and no. The longevity of the Big Shiny Tunes series can easily be explained by its staggering, Adele-esque sales numbers. Without getting into questionably sexy sales terms like “market penetration” — wasn’t that a Moist song? — it was a cultural phenomenon not unlike Gord Downie funnelling a Parmalat milk bag: Canadians bought into the frenzy, but Americans knew nothing about it.
Speaking of Downie, the impact of Big Shiny Tunes outside of Canada may be analogous to that of his band, the Tragically Hip: a uniquely Canadian oddity and cult success that the rest of the world doesn’t really comprehend. When Downie died — and rest in peace, Gord — the outpouring was seemingly unanimous, sincere and only Canadian. Global media didn’t even make an attempt to understand. And while Big Shiny Tunes is not the Tragically Hip — it’s not an artist, much less one that’s been hailed as the voice of a nation — it’s a phenomenon no less confusing. Let me explain.
The original Big Shiny Tunes went triple platinum north of the 49th, moving 300,000 units in Canada. Nine editions went platinum, even moving units during the CD’s death knell; two were platinum-certified eight times over. In total, the series moved 5 million copies, with a single edition, 1997’s Big Shiny Tunes 2, selling 1.2 million in Canada. Adele’s still-best-selling album, 21, in contrast, sold 1.4 million, albeit in a different era, but the point still stands.
That’s a lot of albums. And that means that 5 million copies of Big Shiny Tunes were in the hands of the Canadian record-buying public, many of whom came of age with the compilation (its target demographic, said its founders, was late high school and early college-aged kids; anecdotally, though, its influence spread to age groups much younger and older).
By the late 2000s copies were clogging up used-CD bins, doomed for an eternity in a Windsor, Ontario landfill but in 1996, Big Shiny Tunes, as evidenced by its gaudy sales numbers, was a consensus Canadian album. And like Purpose, 24 or More Life, it turned 20 in an era when we, as listeners, are ready to re-embrace consensus. We love Big Shiny Tunes like mood rings, slap bracelets, and Candies shoes. We hate it like JNCOs. But like Aqua’s “Dr. Jones,” Big Shiny Tunes is embedded in a generation’s cultural memory.
That’s what happens when you sell colossal amounts of records. But for its ubiquity, finding a physical copy of the record isn’t as easy as you would expect. When I began writing this book, I didn’t have a copy — like so many others, my once-mighty CD collection moved from a stuffed bookshelf, to a dusty pleather booklet, to a bin in my parent’s basement, to the side of the road and, well, probably to the depths of that Windsor landfill. (For someone writing a book about an album from a past era, I’m remarkably unsentimental.) So I headed out to find one.
But when I arrived at Sonic Boom, a sprawling, two-floor emporium in Toronto’s Chinatown ’hood, I couldn’t find a single copy. And it’s not that they don’t carry CDs anymore. In fact, a large portion of the store is still dedicated to selling discs at prices that would’ve made 13-year-old me drool — nothing seems to cost more than ten dollars and its rock and hip-hop sections are brimming with classics, both old and new.
But in the compilation section, amid editions of Now! and various label retrospectives, there was no Big Shiny Tunes. So I asked a wandering clerk for it.
“It’s worthwhile flipping through the entire compilation section,” he told me, while flipping through the entire compilation section. “It should be…well, it’s not here. But check back soon. It’s usually in stock.”
So what gives? I decided to dig a little deeper and email Sonic Boom’s long-time head buyer — and member of Toronto kraut-rock outfit Fresh Snow — Jon Maki. Before vinyl re-established itself as a record-store seller, Sonic Boom would buy nearly any CD that was brought onto the premises. I figured if anyone could tell me about what was happening to used copies of Big Shiny Tunes, it would be him. “We wouldn’t have the exact amount (of Big Shiny Tunes we’ve sold over the years), unfortunately,” Maki told me. “We didn’t keep track of used sales for several years, and that would’ve been around the time we would’ve had most of our Big Shiny Tunes in stock.”
That was certainly a bust, but still, I couldn’t contain my surprise. I expected the store to be filled with copies of Big Shiny Tunes at discount prices. Let’s not kid around: sales figures notwithstanding, a compilation like Big Shiny Tunes will never have the long-tail cultural value of something like Nirvana’s CD-era classic Nevermind, which led me to assume that people would be liquidating their Yellow Album discs en masse while keeping their dusty copies of Nevermind around for sentimental reasons, or simply because it was a better cultural contributor than, y’know, a greatest hits album from 1996.
But there I was, staring at a $6.99 copy of Nevermind while hunting down a copy of Big Shiny Tunes. Could it be that people actually held on to their copies of the compilation? Could it be that they have sentimental attachments to the comp in the same way they are attached to conventional LPs? Could it be that—gasp!—people are still buying used copies of Big Shiny Tunes whenever it resurfaces? Could it be that the sentimentality we feel for the record, and its centrality to a very specific audience, has made the album a key, however unlikely, cultural cornerstone?
The answer to all of these questions is yes. And that’s because while Nevermind was a foundational record for a global audience, Big Shiny Tunes was a foundational record for Canadian pop music. No one would argue that the album is better than Nevermind, but for the land mass northeast of the grunge trio’s hometown, Big Shiny Tunes may have actually been more important.
Let’s get one thing straight, though. The importance we assign to Big Shiny Tunes is almost exclusively retrospective. Or it is, at least, to listeners and, by and large, music critics. In 1996, however, the album wasn’t exactly considered much at all. Sure, MuchMusic was launching a new franchise, but for those paying attention, it felt like a garden-variety compilation. It wasn’t really a revelation for listeners until we realized just how many copies it had sold.
At first glance, Aaron Brophy, the long-time editor of Chart magazine and current content dude for the Polaris Music Prize, instinctively suggests that this was because the album received no media coverage. People would have listened to it — and crucially, opened up their wallets for it — but it wasn’t exactly an album to be discussed.
“I don’t remember its impact as a single entity because it was essentially just a Christmas release that was designed to max out, to be a well-placed commercial thing,” says Brophy. “But I remember all of those bands, and they were, in fact, all the biggest bands of a certain kind at the time. It was a huge, huge scene and a huge collection of bands. It was [a moment] where alternative music became popular music, and these were a lot of the figureheads for that.”
Brophy would know: He began his tenure as the editor of Chart, the nation’s only glossy national music magazine, in 1996. And in the late ’90s, he oversaw the magazine’s transformation from its campus-radio roots into a national force. “That was right at the time when Chart was switching from becoming this indie campus radio oriented, true alternative magazine to something that was alternative the brand.”
In other words, this particular era of CanRock was Brophy’s beat. He put Pluto, the Killjoys, Sloan and most of the American bands on the compilation on the cover of his magazine. So why wasn’t Big Shiny Tunes discussed, even if only as a commercial phenomenon, at the time of its release? Quite simply, it’s because it wasn’t remarkable.
“I found the January issue of Chart (from 1997, the first month after the comp was released),” Brophy recalls, while digging around his Toronto apartment. “And there was no mention of the compilation at all. Which is funny, because we were wildly for or against all the bands on it.
“And I don’t even remember any of my peer group, people I’d consider emerging writers, considering it critically. People at say, (Toronto alt-weeklies) Now or Eye Weekly or Exclaim! I’m sure wouldn’t have covered it. A lot of those publications were defiant of the mainstream. They wouldn’t have gone near it.”
Which is why, to Brophy, it’s strange that this book exists in the first place. But he recognizes how, with its staggering sales, the compilation had a striking impact — one that he couldn’t have dreamt of in 1996. And he has one word to describe it: “effective.”
Excerpted from SHINE: How a MuchMusic Compilation Came to Define Canadian Alternative Music and Sell a Zillion Copies. Copyright © 2018 by Mark Teo. Published by Eternal Cavalier Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.