The Unicorns will never die

The Montreal cult band continues to fascinate us nearly 15 years after their one and only album

Once upon a time, during the magical early to mid 2000s, Montreal experienced its very own musical renaissance. To many fans and critics, it was reminiscent of the surge in Seattle grunge music, which ruled the airwaves during the early to mid 1990s. The hometown of Leonard Cohen had become the new mecca of cool, especially among indie rock enthusiasts.

By 2005, Spin Magazine dubbed Montreal “the next big thing” and The New York Times fawned over the city’s “explosive music scene.” Among the most notable bands were The Dears, The Stills, Sam Roberts Band, Stars and, of course, Arcade Fire—the band that would come to rule the indie rock music world and win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011.

However, one Montreal-based band may seem like a mere footnote of this wondrous musical awakening, having left the party as quickly as they came. They released their one and only LP in October 2003 and, by December 2004, were no more. They were The Unicorns.

Formed in 2000, the band consisted of Nick “Neil Diamonds” Thorburn (lead vocals, guitar),  Alden “Ginger” Penner (vocals, bass, keys) and Jamie “J’aime Tambeur” Thompson (drums). When describing their debut album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, music critics often referred to them as “goofy,” “messy” and “whimsical.” While valid, these descriptions downplayed the band’s remarkable ability to write insanely catchy hooks and melodies that resist the standard verse/chorus/verse structure. The jangly indie-pop trio had an experimental streak, but they still evoked a familiar feeling. Above all, their tracks were truly an extension of their unique, hilarious personalities.

Few songs about dying and the fear of it are as fun as the LP’s opening track, “I Don’t Wanna Die.” The album also includes a few eerily beautiful, synth-heavy 80s songs that would fit seamlessly into a Stranger Things episode, notably “Tuff Ghost” and “Inoculate the Innocuous.”

“Sea Ghost” kicks off with perhaps the greatest recorder solo ever—it’s a standout track that encapsulates the chemistry between Thorburn and Penner. “Jellybones” is an example of the band’s ability to mix and mash different tempos and genres on a single track. “The Clap” stands out as the heaviest song on the album, illustrating how The Unicorns were willing—and able—to be much darker stylistically. “Child Star” is the most melancholy track on the album, a reminder that, despite their cartoonish antics and lyrics, this was a band capable of creating beautifully layered tracks.

“I Was Born (A Unicorn)” begins with a charming guitar riff accompanied by the simple, steady and heavy beating of a snare drum. This leads to a chaotic chorus of instruments and an amusing exchange between Thorburn and Penner, singing “we’re The Unicorns / we’re more than horses.” They literally whine their way to the end of the song.

The album closes out with the anthemic “Ready To Die,” which foreshadowed the band’s eventual breakup a year later, announced by a simple message on their website: “THE UNICORNS ARE DEAD, (R.I.P.).”

With lyrics that hover between morbidly curious and fantastically silly, this group’s manic energy and the sheer undeniable catchiness of their tunes have made The Unicorns a cult band. While many of their indie rock contemporaries have reached dizzying heights or terrifying lows, The Unicorns came and went like a shooting star, without ever disappointing us. Now that’s a unicorn indeed.

The Unicorns Who Will Cut

Our Hair When We’re Gone?

(Alien8 Recordings, 2003)

“I Don’t Wanna Die”

“Tuff Ghost”

“Ghost Mountain”

“Sea Ghost”


“The Clap”

“Child Star”

“Let’s Get Known”

“I Was Born (A Unicorn)”

“Tuff Luff”

“Inoculate the Innocuous”

“Les Os”

“Ready to Die”


The best Canadian albums of the millennium

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20. Single Mothers – Negative Qualities (2014)

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19. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life (2011)

The concept of the rock opera has become something of a lost art. The always prolific Fucked Up went out large and loud on their artistic statement, David Comes to Life. The album’s themes of love and self-discovery relate on a universal scale as well as in the context of a structured narrative. And up against these brick-house guitar arrangements, the script serves as just an added level of emotional investment.

18. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)

Emotion presents a more unified front than Carly Rae Jepsen’s lone hit “Call Me Maybe.” A-list songwriters and producers such as Sia, Devonté Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid, Shellback and Greg Kurstin help Jepsen focus her bubbly pop effervescence into a cohesive sound that hits an irresistible sweet spot.

17. Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

Kaputt utilizes 80s sophisti-pop, new romanticism and FM adult contemporary to deliver a wonderfully messy dive into maximalism. Atop that, it’s filled to the brim with twinkling synths and wailing trumpets and saxophones.

16. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator (2014)

The opening titular track is about as complex as Impersonator gets, with skeletal, off-kilter strings and vocal loops intersecting each other before Devon Welsh’s bulletproof baritone charges in with contemplative lyrics about insecurity and isolation. The rest is a chilling hatch patch of minimalistic electronic as desolate as Montreal winters that can fill a room with its ambition.

15. Women – Public Strain (2010)

While clinging to the lo-fi grit that made them such a varied but equally compelling group, Women broadened their horizons for this sophomore album. Two years in the making, Public Strain is more urgent than the debut in that the melodic parts are more corrosive, the tension is more palpable, and the shimmering, razor-sharp sonics are more evocative.

14. Ought – More Than Any Other Day (2014)

More Than Any Other Day snapshots the same kind of primal energy in all of Ought’s influences and filters them into a collection of songs that seamlessly volley between biting political punk and jittery post-punk finesse.

13. Japandroids – Post-Nothing (2009)

For their debut, Japandroids hit the ground running on Post-Nothing, a warm, endearingly jumbled disorder of fuzzy guitar, ecstatic drums and overly-optimism lyrics yelled in unison by guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse. The album’s childlike presentation is at times juvenile, but it captures a brand of buoyancy and nostalgic reminiscence for societal defiance that’s impossible not to bash along to.

12. Women – Women (2008)

At its most melodic, Women’s debut is a blend of noise and songcraft that adheres best when the band taps into its pop side. Underneath these nuggets of nervy, cavernous cacophony are some of the best distillations of high-octane pop of the millennium.

11. Grimes – Visions (2012)

On Visions, Claire Boucher further expands the esoteric sound she fostered on her past efforts, where her songs hovered in an infinite space loop one moment and hit the dancefloor in the next. Boucher’s baby-voiced vocals are so divisive yet intoxicating that you can’t help but envelop yourself in her otherworldly soundscapes.

10. White Lung – Deep Fantasy (2014)

Vancouver B.C.-based punks White Lung reached a blistering peak on their 2014 album, Deep Fantasy. The record is an unrelenting assault of thrash-crossover mastery. The intricate guitar leads and arresting vocal performances from singer Mish Way contribute to a rewarding set of songs that swirl by in less than 20 minutes.

9. Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)

Wolf Parade enlists producer Isaac Brock on its debut, Apologized to the Queen Mary, using his attuned ear as a source to tinge their chrisp indie pop tunes into something larger than life, producing cinematic grace while acknowledging their debt to post-punk bands of yesteryear.

8. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (2008)

On their self-titled debut, Crystal Castles churn out eight-bit noise as auditorily challenging as an Atari game’s soundtrack. These sounds churn into something chaotic, and oftentimes moody pop with a warped exterior. It was an especially revelatory sound in an age defined by technological paranoia and uncertainty.

7. Crystal Castles – (II) (2010)

Crystal Castles are, at their core, an electropop band. But on the follow-up to their instant classic debut, the band takes the disjointed sonic trickery it specializes in and pushes its stylistically singular sound to new heights. (II) has a much darker, melodic edge and punchier sonics than its predecessor, while elaborating on the more ethereal components the band ventured into on its debut.

6. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (2012)

With an abundance of jumpy, anthemic chants as hooks, sung from the perspective of a naive young-adult on the verge of adulthood, Celebration Rock delivers on the earth-shattering ruckus, youthful gusto and fiery fervor Japandroids delivered with their debut, Post-Nothing.

5. New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005)

Twin Cinema is a sharp and abundantly enjoyable indie record which never lacks in its references to pop music. This is thanks to the zestful performances, contagious hooks, simplistic production approach and quick-wit writing, usually from the articulate vocabulary tongue of its members.

4. Preoccupations (FKA Viet Cong) – Viet Cong (2015)

Despite the eclectic range of industrial and post-punk viewpoints, Viet Cong manages to contain it all in a finely tuned, bone-chilling experience. The warped sounds permeating this record are unified by a strong stylistic line and unmatched energy.

3. The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? (2004)

Like their fantastical moniker implies, the Unicorns are playful, seemingly functioning in a mythical world of their own. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? ambitiously balances the band’s lo-fi leanings with acute experimental flourishes and a mastery for pop. This is held in tandem by an instrumental palette of synths, recorder and clarinet.

2. Death From Above 1979 – Heads Up (2002)

Taking notes from fellow two-piece acts such as Lightning Bolt and Liars, Death From Above 1979’s recipe for destruction is a pummeling, danceable fit of clamor with enough punk sensibilities for the indie kids and enough distortion for the noise addicts.

1. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

Arcade Fire’s gorgeous debut is both poignant and empowering, and injected with a spirit that many indie-rock acts desperately lack. The band’s members operate in perfect synergy, pushing the album’s dense instrumental catalog to breathtaking musical vistas about childhood and the psychological trappings of adulthood.

Honourable mentions:

Drake – Nothing Was The Same (2013)

Mac DeMarco – 2 (2012)

Purity Ring – Shrines (2012)

METZ – METZ (2012)

Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies (2006)

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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