With the Olympics about to begin, my mind has turned to international relations. More specifically, I've been thinking of countries in terms of their musical exports. Pre-internet, foreign bands were discoverable through a limited number of avenues: word of mouth, an opening act with a band on tour, magazine reviews, a dependable college radio station, or forking over thirty dollars for an import because the cover looked cool. Though peer-to-peer and file sharing have radically altered this, my ears still perk up when I crawl around my favorite blogs and see a country of origin I find pleasing. Which leads to the question: which countries have produced more bands that jump their borders and are heard abroad?
Sweden is one. Sure, the running joke about it is being the birthplace of ABBA (which isn't fair because they knew how to craft a perfect pop song) but if I read a review or heard in passing that “band x” was from Sweden, it was enough for me to check them out. And you know what? I have almost never been disappointed. Garage retro-rockers The Hives, classic pop-revivalists The Shout Out Louds, and influential hardcore band Refused all call Sweden home. Jens Lekman, though his presence and persona is as much a pastiche of Jonathan Richman and The Magnetic Fields’ songwriter Stephin Merritt. If metal is your style, Sweden has produced Meshuggah, The Haunted, and guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen.
Scotland is another dependable country for good music. Beginning with post-punkers Orange Juice, Scotland is also home to Twee-poppers Belle and Sebastian, mope rockers Arab Strap,and dance-punk heavyweights Franz Ferdinand. Right now, the hottest band in the UK (who will be taking their act to North America) is Glasvegas, a combination of the classic Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” production with heartfelt lyrics.
Put Iceland on the list too. Despite having a population of just over 300,000, it’s produced post-rock mavens Sigur Ros, Mum, Minus, as well as 80s college rock staple The Sugarcubes and their former frontwoman, Bjork.
On the other hand, a larger country that has been consistently disappointing is France. Sure, they produced Jacques Brel, Daft Punk and a couple other great disco bands but where is the great French rock band? Or metal outfit? The same applies to Italy. They have Italo-disco DJ GiGi D'agostino, and synth-prog band Goblin. That's it.
As an American ex-pat, I can testify that the words “Canadian” and “music” for many years brought more snickers then nods of approval . The big names are Leonard Cohen, Rush, and I suppose you could include Neil Young but for many years he identified himself more as an American (where's he's lived since 1966) then as a Canadian, so he almost doesn't count. Gordon Lightfoot is remembered fondly in America for his 70s hits but he is seemingly revered here as a national hero, if CBC radio is any indicator. The same for Anne Murray.
Canada was seen more for producing novelty one-hit wonders like Corey Hart, Crash Test Dummies, Len, and Ashley MacIsacc. That, and for foisting Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette on us all. But this decade has seen Canada make a serious turnaround of course with Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and countless others.
An even more recent rebound story is Australia. Australia's only true great musical acts were AC/DC, Nick Cave, and the Bee Gees. But what else has the country produced? Men At Work? Midnight Oil? Silverchair? Natalie Imbruglia? Jet? I'll pass on all counts. In the last eighteen months, Australia has bounced back with a number of great bands including Cut Copy, a Melbourne band that rose to prominence riding the French Touch wave but have already moved beyond that on their new record, In Ghost Colours, which finds them branching out into new audio palettes.
Perhaps there is a correlation between a country's musical exports and their success at the winter Olympics? But then I remember Brazil, which has produced the seminal psych-rock band OS Mutantes, tropicala star (and now political figure) Gilberto Gil, and death-metal icons Sepultura. Japan, likewise, is the home of guitar post-rockers MONO, and noise pioneers The Boredoms and Merzbow.
The closest thing to a musical Olympics is the Eurovision song contest. Restricted to the sixty countries in the European Broadcasting Union (which also include non-European countries such as Israel, Libya, and Egypt), the contest began in 1956 as a way to introduce international music to people all around the world. Each year, every country in the Union selects one song from one artist to represent them during a live simulcast performance. Previous winners include the aforementioned ABBA (for “Waterloo”), France Gall (add her to the list of great French exports) and Celine Dion (representing Switzerland for some reason). For the record, the country with the most wins—seven!—is Ireland (speaking of which, great Irish bands begin and end with U2 but there is also Van Morrison and shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, who recently reunited after a 15-year hiatus).
This is obviously a subjective list and certainly not exhaustive. One of the blessings/curses with being obsessed with music is knowing that there is more great music out there then there is time in your life. It's a never ending journey. Whenever I stand in a record store, I know there are records I have passed by consistently that will one day serve as a soundtrack for my 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.
If you are watching any of the events during the Olympics, try this for fun; whatever athlete is competing at the moment, see if you can name a great band from his or her country. If you can’t, google it. What does the Argentinian boxer Ezequiel Maderna listen to back at his hotel room? What does Natalie Du Toit—South African swimmer and the first amputee to qualify for the Olympics—have on her ipod? It's a great way to accomplish what the Olympics serve to do; expose people to other cultures. Because you'll most likely forget the name of the Serbian who won the discus throw but you’ll always remember the new wave band you discovered while investigating his country.