Back in 2017, a crew of musically inclined Free Press staffers and freelancers was asked to create a list of Canada's 150 most important songs, in honour of our fair country's sesquicentennial anniversary.
The process was long and arduous, and though we were all ultimately incredibly proud of the outcome, we had little desire to take on a project of that magnitude again.
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Many (though not all) of the songs on this list are available on the Spotify streaming service. We collected them in a playlist in alphabetical order by artist name — so it's easy to find any specific track you want to hear — or follow our playlist and shuffle all the selections for a heaping helping of Manitoba music.
Flash-forward to early in 2020, pre-pandemic, when enterprise editor Scott Gibbons did a brisk walk by my desk to suggest we get the team back together and create a similar list for Manitoba's 150. He knew it was a big ask, hence the pace of his stride, but the desire to highlight (and find a practical use for our knowledge about) 150 Manitoba-made songs outweighed any hesitation we previously had.
So, get the gang back together we did. This time, our expert panel consisted of me, writer Jill Wilson, arts reporter Alan Small, copy editor Rob Williams, columnist Jen Zoratti, arts reporter Eva Wasney, books and drinks editor Ben Sigurdson, managing editor for Canstar News John Kendle and writer David Sanderson.
In early May, we gathered together, this time on a Zoom call in order to adhere to social-distancing directives, and got to work narrowing down more than 250 potential songs to our final list of 150. Two hour-long video meetings, countless emails, a handful of vocal disagreements and a few last-minute changes later, we have the finished product.
For this list, we decided each artist could have up to three songs, but as it turned out, only the Guess Who ended up with a trio of tracks.
We also decided not to include Neil Young. We know, we know — it's a controversial decision, but we're letting you know now so you don't incredulously scroll through looking for Heart of Gold or Harvest Moon. The Squires are there, though. And there's a sidebar about Young. We are not so cruel as to cut him out completely.
Like last time, the Top 10 was compiled using a super-secret email ballot system; American Woman by the Guess Who and One Great City! by the Weakerthans tied for first place.
We've all spent the last few weeks writing away, providing context for each of our 150 song selections, so we hope you'll keep an open mind as you read through our picks for Manitoba's most important 150 songs and listen to the playlists. We encourage you all to air your grievances and/or support our choices in the comments below.
— Erin Lebar
THE TOP 10
American Woman— The Guess Who
American Woman (1970)
It’s hard to imagine now — as Winnipeg’s most famous rock musicians seem to have been grizzled veterans forever — but Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Jim Kale and Garry Peterson were in their early 20s when they hit upon the riff that became Manitoba’s most memorable rock song.
The precise details of the origins of American Woman have been lost in time but the gist of the story remains the same — the song’s familiar riff and many of the lyrics came about in a live jam after singer Burton Cummings was late returning to the stage for the second show of a gig at a curling club in southern Ontario in 1968.
At the time, Bachman would have been 24, Cummings just 20, Kale was also 24 and Peterson was 23. They were a tight-knit musical unit but only just coming into their own as songwriters and recording artists.
Cummings has said he was outside the hall, chatting with a fan, when he heard Randy Bachman’s guitar fire up, with bassist Kale and drummer Peterson quickly falling into a groove behind him. Bachman told biographer John Einarson in Randy Bachman: Takin’ Care of Business that he liked the impromptu chord sequence he came up with while testing a changed string, so the trio kept the jam going as the singer scrambled onstage and began improvising lyrics.
A kid in the hall had fortuitously recorded the set on an early-model cassette recorder so, after the show, when they realized they might be on to something, the quartet sent a roadie to retrieve the tape. Cummings said most of the key lines were all there — "all that stuff about war machines and ghetto scenes, coloured lights that hypnotize..."
The band recorded American Woman on Aug. 13, 1969, at the RCA Mid-America Recording Center in Chicago, with Jack Richardson producing, as part of the sessions for the American Woman album, which was released in January 1970. With its bluesy acoustic guitar intro and vampy Cummings vocal, the full-length version of the tune clocked in at 5:15, while the edited version that was released as a single was just 3:51.
No Time was actually the first single from the American Woman album, and it did well, hitting No. 1 in Canada and No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, but when the album’s title song was released in March 1970, it began a climb up the U.S. singles chart that peaked on May 9, 1970.
At No. 3 on the singles chart that week was the Beatles’ Let it Be. The No. 2 song, which had held top spot the previous week, was ABC by the Jackson 5. No. 1 was American Woman, a song by four kids from Winnipeg who cut their teeth playing community club dances in the mid-1960s. When they heard the news, they celebrated by jumping up and down on the bed in a Chicago hotel room.
— John Kendle
One Great City!— The Weakerthans
Reconstruction Site (2003)
How perfect is it that the song that shares top spot on this list with the Guess Who name-checks them — and decrees that they suck?
The Weakerthans’ most sung-along and requested song, One Great City!, which appeared on the band’s third record, 2003’s Reconstruction Site, started as a writing exercise by singer/songwriter John K. Samson. "Christine (Fellows, Samson’s partner) and I would each write a song every day for five days. At the end of the day we’d record them, share them with each other and critique them," Samson explains. "I was coming up with nothing that day; it was nearing the end of the day, so I had to come up with something. I wrote a verse-chorus-verse-chorus of this song and recorded it, and sort of thought of it as a little jokey song."
A friend who heard the recording convinced Samson to finish the tune over the next couple of weeks. After Reconstruction Site was released, One Great City! quickly became the Weakerthans’ signature song. Samson’s lyrics chronicle a laundry list of common gripes, stereotypes and (sometimes) misnomers about our city, sung over a simple finger-picked acoustic guitar riff. The singalong part drops during the chorus when he sings "I hate Winnipeg."
The song has led to many misconceptions about Samson’s feelings about the city.
"The song is about the pitfalls of boosterism, and trying to be honest with who we are, where we’re from, and also the kind of right and duty to critique the place you’re from," he says. "Also I think of it as a song about cherishing the things that are good about the place and not knocking them down.
"When I sing ‘The Guess Who suck, the Jets were lousy anyway,’ what I’m trying to say is that the Guess Who are kind of amazing, and uniquely Winnipeg, and something we should actually cherish. And that the Jets, the original Jets, being lousy was actually kind of beautiful."
No matter where the Weakerthans would play, it was a sure thing fans would heartily belt out the chorus, whether they’d ever been to Winnipeg or not.
"I guess what they relate to, I think, is their own homes, the kind of uniqueness of the place they’re from — I feel like that’s perhaps what they’re thinking when they sing ‘I Hate Winnipeg’ is ‘I Hate (place name here),’" Samson muses. "And there’s something kind of liberating about that, in a way."
One Great City! is still a staple in Samson’s set list whenever he plays — and he doesn’t mind a bit. "I think a lot of songwriters have a song they have to play every night. I’m grateful," he says, adding with a laugh, "It’s not like it’s American Pie — it’s not 12 minutes long."
— Ben Sigurdson
Takin' Care of Business— Bachman-Turner Overdrive
Bachman-Turner Overdrive II (1973)
What separates Randy Bachman from most other rock stars of the 1960s and '70s are his recollections of those crazy days. He says he hasn't had a drink since he was 21 and never took any drugs, so there's no haze of substance abuse impairing his memory like many of his contemporaries.
When it comes to Takin' Care of Business, which spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has been used in countless movies and television shows, there's the legendary song and then there is the song's urban legend. The way Bachman tells it — he's a great storyteller at his concerts and on his CBC radio show Vinyl Tap — you got to believe him, right?
Takin' Care of Business originally began during Bachman's days with the Guess Who, the story goes, and he originally titled the song White Collar Worker. No one else in the band went for it, and eventually, he left the group. A few years later, he formed Bachman-Turner Overdrive with Fred Turner, and that tune returned — with a new catchy title — when Turner, BTO's lead vocalist, lost his voice late in a show, according to liner notes written by Winnipeg historian John Einarson for the band's 40th anniversary CD.
The crowd loved it, so off to the studio they went. Bachman says in a video for Toronto radio station Boom 97.3 that a pizza delivery guy entered their Seattle studio and heard them recording the song and said it needed a piano.
The pizza guy played the piano on one take — the one BTO's manager loved — and the song became a hit. The pianist/pizza guy turned out to be Norman Durkee, who went on to perform with Bette Midler, and a host of musicals on the West Coast and was a longtime fixture on the Seattle music scene.
A 2014 obit for Durkee in the Seattle Times says the pizza story is an urban legend, instead saying the pianist and was spontaneously recruited by Bachman-Turner Overdrive for the track.
The urban legend is a great tale though, and it keeps Takin' Care of Business to this day.
— Alan Small
Life Is a Highway — Tom Cochrane
Mad, Mad World (1991)
There’s a recurring joke on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother that revolves around a cassette of the Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith album that is stuck in the tape deck of a character’s car. On road trips, passengers cycle through rage and delight when the familiar single I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) inevitably makes its appearance, alternating between stony-faced disgust or head-bopping happiness.
Tom Cochrane’s massive 1991 single — inspired by a famine-relief trip with World Vision to East Africa — strikes a similar nerve. Its sheer ubiquity in the years since its chart-topping release means that sometimes, merely hearing the first (instantly recognizable) bars can have you lunging for the radio off switch.
Other times — not coincidentally, often when you’re driving down a highway on a sunny day, wind in your hair — it just hits that pop-rock sweet spot and you’re belting out the chorus at the top of your lungs.
The track, from his diamond-selling Mad Mad World album, was the biggest international hit the pride of Lynn Lake would ever have; it hit No. 6 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and was covered by Rascal Flatts for the Cars soundtrack. It won Cochrane the Juno for Single of the Year in 1992; he was nominated for a Grammy for Male Rock Vocal Performance in ‘93.
It’s easy to be disdainful of the trite metaphor of the title and the platitudinous lyrics, which Cochrane said were his attempt to find some kind of hope amid the poverty he witnessed in Africa. But more often, the chugging harmonica, the propulsive guitar, gang vocals and skilfully crafted singalong chorus take over, and you’re like, "Tom, my man, you’re so right. Life IS a highway. And I AM going to ride it all night long."
— Jill Wilson
A Plea from a Cat Named Virtute— The Weakerthans
Reconstruction Site (2003)
Standing out among John K. Samson’s many lyrical achievements is this: a song from the point of view of a cat who is frustrated with the self-sabotage and unhealthy coping mechanisms of her depressed owner.
A centrepiece of the Weakerthans’ landmark 2003 album Reconstruction Site, A Plea from a Cat Named Virtute is a study in juxtapositions. It’s a driving, propulsive rocker with all the emotional heft of a ballad. It’s literally from the perspective of a cat — "Why don’t you ever want to play? I’m tired of this piece of string" — but it’s not cutesy.
Living with depression is horrible; living next to it is horrible, too. Virtute embodies that helplessness and powerlessness to help. She’s desperate for her owner to see themselves as she sees them, but she’s limited in how she can express herself.
I swear I'm going to bite you hard/And taste your tinny blood
If you don't stop the self-defeating lies/You’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home
I know you're strong
Strength is a through-line in the song. Virtute, which was sometimes wrongly transposed as "Virtue" in early reviews, is Latin for "strength." Look closely at the City of Winnipeg’s coat of arms and you’ll see that word in the motto: "unum cum virtute multorum," or "one with the strength of many." Here, though, Virtute’s name is less of a Winnipeg reference and more about how someone (a person, a cat) can be strong for someone else.
Virtute the cat would go on to make two more appearances in the Weakerthans catalogue: the devastating Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure, from 2007’s Reunion Tour, and — steel yourself — Virtute at Rest, from Samson’s 2016 solo album, Winter Wheat. (Another song from that album, 17th Street Treatment Centre, is thought to be something of a compendium from the owner’s point of view; "sang the one about the spring the cat ran away/on the 21st day of my court-ordered stay, here.")
She may be a cat, but Virtute’s plea will be heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who has ever loved someone who can’t quite find their way out of the darkness.
— Jen Zoratti
Back to the Motor League— Propagandhi
Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes (2001)
A savage attack on the music scene, this track has Portage la Prairie-born vocalist-guitarist Chris Hannah fantasizing about going back to his former job at CAA instead of dealing with people who are just out to party mindlessly with no thought given to the deeper messages in the band’s music.
"Once thought I drew a lucky hand/ Turned out to be a live grenade of play-acting anarchists and Mommy’s-little-skinheads/ Death-threats and sycophants and wieners drunk on straight-edge," Hannah sings while later taking shots at nu-metal, Christian hardcore, college rock and "floor-punching macho pabulum" among other targets, while throwing in a couple of Dead Kennedys references for good measure.
The thrash-punk track is off the band’s 2001 release Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes, which saw Hannah and drummer Jord Samolesky joined by new bassist Todd Kowalski (ex I-Spy).
The song showcases the band’s propensity to forgo a regular verse/chorus/verse structure, instead piling on different musical sections and ideas that build towards a frenzied guitar-solo climax/rant, ending with a quote from Sioux leader Crazy Horse.
Whereas the band’s first two releases were steeped in the punk-pop genre, Today’s Empires… adds more of the band members’ metal influences into the mix while still keeping things melodic and political, touching on topics such as feminism, veganism, immigration, war, murders of political activists and the story of East Timor’s Bella Gahlos, who was forced to undergo forced sterilization when the country was invaded by Indonesia in 1975.
It’s not easy listening; more like essential listening.
— Rob Williams
Superman’s Song— Crash Test Dummies
The Ghosts That Haunt Me (1991)
Brad Roberts was moved to write Superman’s Song after he saw Lyle Lovett perform at a workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1988.
At the time, Lovett, a high-haired singer-songwriter from Texas, was just breaking onto the national and international scene with Pontiac, his debut album for MCA Records, and Roberts was a bright, well-read, 24-year-old University of Winnipeg grad who was getting serious about Crash Test Dummies, the band he’d formed with friends at the legendary Blue Note Café on Main Street.
Brad had been trying to write his own songs for a while but hadn’t come up with anything he really liked or felt confident about.
That Sunday morning, though, as Roberts watched Lovett perform accompanied only by cellist John Hagen, he was struck by the simplicity of Lovett’s musical delivery and the wry wit of the carefully parsed lyrics in songs such as If I Had a Boat, She’s No Lady and Give Back My Heart.
Inspired, Roberts spent the next week crafting his wistful tale of Superman, the DC Comics superhero who, in Brad’s vision, lived the quiet life of a real gent when he wasn’t saving the world from Solomon Grundy. Compared to Tarzan, the song surmised, Superman never really got to enjoy the spoils of his exploits.
Written for just Brad’s guitar, Ellen Reid’s piano and cello, Superman’s Song was an immediate showstopper in the Dummies’ live sets and Roberts soon followed it up with several other tunes that formed the basis of a five-song demo tape that prompted a Canadian music industry feeding frenzy in early 1989.
The group signed with BMG Music Canada that fall and, after recording and mixing its debut album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, with producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) at Winnipeg’s Wayne Finucan Studios in May 1990, the Dummies were signed to Clive Davis’ prestigious Arista label in the U.S.
The Ghosts That Haunt Me was released on March 25, 1991, with Superman’s Song as its first single. While Canadian radio was extremely kind to the Dummies, it was the video for Superman’s Song, based on Reid’s concept of aging, downtrodden superheroes attending Superman’s funeral, that really propelled the success of the tune. The clip, directed by Dale Heslip, won the MuchMusic Video Music Award for best video of 1991.
Interestingly, Superman’s Song only reached No. 4 on the Canadian singles chart in 1991 (that was the year of Tom Cochrane’s Life Is a Highway and Bryan Adams’ Waking Up the Neighbours), but The Ghosts That Haunt Me went on to sell 400,000 copies in Canada alone (that’s four times platinum) and the Dummies won the Juno Award for group of the year in March 1992.
They were on their way to even bigger things...
— John Kendle
Lady in Mind (2017)
When singer-songwriter Alexa Dirks emerged as a solo artist under the name Begonia, longtime fans weren’t sure what to expect from the woman who had spent the majority of her career as part of a various groups, most recently the Juno Award-winning roots/pop band Chic Gamine.
Then she released her first single, Juniper, and it was clear she was onto something good.
And it wasn’t just local fans who took notice of Dirks and her unmistakable set of pipes; after its release, Juniper ended up topping the CBC Radio 2 national chart, allowing ears all over the country to jump on the Begonia bandwagon.
"To be honest, I never anticipated this song being embraced by people in the way that it has been," Dirks wrote in an email to the Free Press.
"Once CBC picked it up and added it to the national charts, the streaming numbers started going up and I noticed people really attaching themselves to it, the song took on a whole new meaning for me. I started hearing it differently than when I first wrote it."
Despite its boppy melodies and anthemic, fun qualities, Juniper discusses some pretty deep themes of insecurity and "imposter syndrome," Dirks explains. The chorus, which sparks singalongs wherever it is played, was built to serve that exact function; to offer a moment of joy even while singing lyrics that are covering some hard emotional ground.
"I remember the first time I played it at a local festival, I was walking back to my campsite the day after my set and heard a group of people yell-singing the chorus from across the campground and I was stopped in my tracks. It totally freaked me out in the best way possible," Dirks says.
"It felt like we had achieved exactly what we wanted to achieve and it was so magical and special. That's what's so beautiful about music: you can write something with one intention and then once it's out in the world, people get to interpret it however is most meaningful for them.
Hearing people sing along to my songs, especially Juniper as it was the first one I ever released as Begonia... it's so humbling and sweet. It never gets old for me!"
Begonia recently claimed a spot on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize long list with her debut full-length album, Fear.
— Erin Lebar
Smokes ‘N Chicken — The Perpetrators
Stick 'Em Up (2013)
The veteran blues-rock trio, fronted by guitar wizard Jason Nowicki, delivers an autobiographical tale about two different times Nowicki had a gun pulled on him in Winnipeg.
Nowicki describes the incidents in reverse, first going into the details about an attempted mugging outside of a 7-Eleven on Day Street and Regent Avenue when a male who'd just robbed the store came up behind him in the parking lot, stuck a gun in his back and asked for the $20 he had just seen Nowicki put in his pants after buying cigarettes and chicken.
"I decided not to go along with the plan. I’m going to play crazy," Nowicki said in a recent interview. "I raised up my Benson and Hedges and was shifting them from side to side, looking him dead in the eye, and I said, ‘I spent all my money on smokes and chicken.’ He knew I was lying but he wasn’t going to shoot me for 20 bucks."
The line turned into the chorus, while the verses of the song are more of a spoken-word rap.
The second incident documented in the tune happened when Nowicki and a friend were accosted on Portage Avenue across from the University of Winnipeg by two men who had just robbed the video store around the corner. The men stole the car keys from Nowicki’s friend, but couldn’t drive standard, so fled on foot and continued their crime spree.
While many Perpetrators songs lean toward the electric Chicago blues tradition, Smokes ‘N Chicken is written in a Mississippi country-blues style with a one-chord motif and slide riff by Nowicki, while bassist Ryan Menard and drummer Ken McMahon keep things together.
On 2013’s Stick ‘Em Up album, Nowicki is banging on a single piano key while producer Len Milne is deadening the string inside the piano for some extra thump.
The crowd favourite remains a staple of the band’s live show.
— Rob Williams
The Cat Came Back – Fred Penner
The Cat Came Back (1979)
The cat kept coming back to Fred Penner. Some might say the song just couldn’t stay away.
While the Winnipeg-born children’s entertainer didn’t write the tune that launched his career, he has certainly made it his own over the last four decades.
Penner was a pre-teen when he first heard The Cat Came Back sung by American country musician Sonny James — a major chord, bluegrass-y version of the original song written in 1893 by Harry S. Miller.
The song, which Penner takes as a metaphor for overcoming adversity, resurfaced when he was flipping through a folksong book during a jam session in the 1970s.
"I turned the page and there was The Cat Came Back," says Penner from his home in Vancouver Island. "It had a really lovely storytelling quality to it and that’s the thing that really drew me to the song."
When he got the opportunity to record his first full-length album, it was obvious which song would be the title track.
The Cat Came Back was released in 1979; Penner was in the midst of a cross-country 40th anniversary tour when the coronavirus pandemic cut the program short in March. The multi-generational "Fred Heads" who were present at the first few shows are indicative of the tune’s longevity.
"It started off with the baby boomers back in the '80s and then it blossomed into those children growing into adulthood and having their own children," he says. "That circle has been completed many times over."
Penner closes most concerts with The Cat Came Back and has never tired of playing it — likely because he keeps inventing new verses about topics like Christmas and outer space.
"Whenever I write, I try to do it in a way that is exciting to me," he says. "Then it inspires me to bring it to the audience with that same kind of energy."
— Eva Wasney
Red River Jig — Andy De Jarlis
Andy De Jarlis and his Early Settlers (1964)
Winnipeg music teacher and three-time Canadian grand master fiddle champion Patti Kusturok once posted a series of videos on YouTube entitled 365 Days of Fiddle Tunes, a year-long tribute to her instrument.
On Day 19 of her odyssey, Kusturok tore through Red River Jig, a traditional tune once recorded by Andy De Jarlis, one of Manitoba’s most renowned fiddle players.
De Jarlis, born Joseph Desjarlais in 1914, grew up in the southeast part of the province, near Woodridge. A major influence on Métis fiddlers, De Jarlis had already won 20 Canadian fiddling titles when he embarked on a successful recording career in the mid-50s.
He released 37 albums under his own name before his death in 1975; he was awarded the Manitoba Centennial Medal in 1970.
Hard to Get — Gisele MacKenzie
Released as a single (1955)
Gisele MacKenzie, born in Winnipeg in 1927, was often called Canada’s first lady of song. MacKenzie, also an actor who went on to guest-star in episodes of Murder She Wrote and MacGyver, began her career as a concert violinist. After moving to the United States in 1950, she traded in her bow for a microphone, singing first with the Percy Faith Orchestra and later the Bob-Cats, a swing outfit led by Bob Crosby, the younger brother of Bing.
In 1954 MacKenzie headed into the studio to record her debut album. Hard to Get, a track written by American composer Jack Segal, climbed all the way to No. 5 on the American Billboard chart, thanks in large part to her performance of the song on Your Hit Parade, a popular variety show that aired on NBC-TV from 1950 to 1958.
Yesterdays Today — The Fifth
Released as a single (1967)
During the mid- to late 1960s, Winnipeg was categorized as Liverpool West owing to a plethora of British-influenced acts, most of which recorded for Franklin Records, a local label founded by entertainment booking agent Frank Wiener. The Fifth, one of Franklin's most popular artists, may well have been the only rock and roll outfit to chart internationally that called Winnipeg Beach home.
The group’s breakout single, Yesterdays Today, was recorded in Toronto in 1967 for the London label, which counted the Rolling Stones among its clients.
The Byrds-like song created enough buzz that the Fifth was subsequently booked to open for, among others, Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Roger McGuinn-led Byrds themselves.
These Eyes — The Guess Who
Wheatfield Soul (1968)
Before American Woman, there was These Eyes, the Guess Who’s first single with Burton Cummings as singer, taken from the Wheatfield Soul album.
The ballad was originally conceived by guitarist Randy Bachman around its basic chord structure and the phrase "these arms," which Cummings took and modified into the now-familiar lyrics.
Recorded with producer Jack Richardson, the tune features a strings-and-horns arrangement by Ben McPeek and was the band’s first big American success, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to sell more than a million copies
Until It’s Time for You to Go — Juliette
Before there was Madonna, Beyoncé and Prince, artists famous enough to go by one name, there was Juliette, born Juliette Augustina Sysak in St. Vital in 1926. Juliette, nicknamed "our pet," was a double threat: the host of her own TV shows (Juliette and Juliette and Friends) and a recording star to boot.
Her 1968 debut album contains her best-known song, a wistful cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Until It’s Time for You to Go. Juliette, a member of both the Order of Canada and Canada’s Walk of Fame, died in Vancouver, her longtime home, in 2017 at the age of 91.
Love Is a Beautiful Thing — Gettysbyrg Address
Released as a single (1967)
The lead track on the 2008 double CD The Best of Franklin Records, an exhaustive collection chronicling Winnipeg’s 1960s and early '70s rock 'n' roll heyday, is the Gettysbyrg Address's debut single, Love is a Beautiful Thing.
A cover of a Young Rascals tune written by Felix Cavaliere, it's one of those rare interpretations that almost causes you to forget the original. Purposely misspelled, Gettysbyrg Address included future Guess Who members Kurt Winter and Bill Wallace.
Furthermore, Love Is a Beautiful Thing was produced by a then-24-year-old Randy Bachman. The tune climbed all the way to No. 3 on the Canadian charts.
Funny Day — Mongrels
Released as a single (1968)
In 1968, Dick Clark, host of the ultra-popular TV series American Bandstand, played Winnipeg band the Mongrels’ latest single, Funny Day, penned by Randy Bachman, during the rate-a-record portion of his show, a segment when Clark would poll the studio audience, asking if they felt this song or that was going to ascend the charts.
Unfortunately, Funny Day got a thumbs-down, recalls Winnipeg media personality and ex-Mongrels drummer Joey Gregorash.
Here’s the amusing part of the story: when the Mongrels broke into Funny Day during a show at the River Heights Community Centre the same night that particular Bandstand episode aired, all the teenagers on the dance floor kiddingly mimicked the sound of a buzzer, the sound effect used on Bandstand when a song didn’t receive a passing grade.
The Cruel War — Sugar & Spice
Released as a single (1969)
At the height of the Vietnam War, Sugar & Spice, an eight-member ensemble, headed into the studio to record The Cruel War, an antiwar anthem written by Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow.
Given radio listeners’ immediate reaction to their rendition of the song, Sugar & Spice seemed on the verge of worldwide success… until Yarrow, whose name was inexplicably left off the Sugar & Spice release, threatened to sue the band and its label.
Not wanting a fuss, the band pulled all copies of the single from record stores. Michael Gillespie, Sugar & Spice’s manager at the time, says he could "write a book" about The Cruel War. He may get his chance; 50 years after the legal dispute, Gillespie is preparing to re-release the tune, along with a host of other Sugar & Spice tracks recorded during the same turbulent era.
Moody Manitoba Morning — Rick Neufeld
Hiway Child (1970)
A bit like the way grade schoolers from coast to coast had to learn Bobby Gimby’s Ca-na-da in 1967 in celebration of Canada’s centennial, students attending class in Manitoba in 1970 were taught Rick Neufeld’s Moody Manitoba Morning — all about grass a-growin’ and sun’s a-glowin’— to mark the province’s 100th birthday.
Neufeld, a folksinger who grew up near Boissevain, wrote Moody Manitoba Morning in the late ‘60s. A Top 10 hit for Montreal-based the Five Bells in 1969, Neufeld recorded it for his debut album Hiway Child.
Moody Manitoba Morning surfaced again on the his 1978 release, Manitobasongs, alongside other provincially inspired ditties such as Flin Flon Gone, Souris Valley River and The People in the Pas.
Jodie — Joey Gregorash
North Country Funk (1971)
Fun fact: Joey Gregorash has a son named Jody, born nearly a decade after his first big hit made him a Canadian household name in the early 1970s.
First appearing on Gregorash’s 1971 album North Country Funk, Jodie has a decidedly CCR-ish feel to it, with lyrics that were very much of the time: "Jodie is a good name/For people who are free/'Cause Jodie stands for freedom/Whatever Jodie be," Gregorash sings over the mid-tempo country-tinged rocker.
Gregorash scored another big hit with Together(The New Wedding Song), but Jodie was the song that nearly took his music career to the next level. He eventually dropped off the music scene to pursue a career in local radio and TV (most notably S’Kiddle Bits on CKY in the mid-'80s).
Undun — The Guess Who
Canned Wheat (1969)
Undun was a Randy Bachman composition based on jazz chords he learned from the Mickey Baker Jazz Guitar book, recommended by friend and fellow guitar fiend Lenny Breau.
Inspired by the phrase "she came undone" from Bob Dylan’s Ballad in Plain D, Bachman wrote a doleful lyric about a young woman’s fatal acid trip, which Cummings gave just the right plaintive vocal reading, replete with a little scatting.
Originally released as the B-side of Laughing, Undun eventually climbed on its own to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and enjoyed something of a renaissance when Quentin Tarantino used it in his 1997 movie, Jackie Brown.
Dunrobin’s Gone — Brave Belt
Brave Belt II (1972)
If you’re wondering what the missing link is between the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the answer is Brave Belt, an early '70s group composed of Chad Allan, the Guess Who’s original lead singer, and Randy Bachman and Fred Turner, the B and T in BTO.
Dunrobin’s Gone, the lead single from the album Brave Belt II, is instantly recognizable to anybody who ever tuned into an AM radio station in 1972.
One problem: because the title — an obscure reference to a street in East Kildonan — never surfaces in the lyrics, fans who phoned a DJ, imploring them to play "She’s gone and she won’t be back" were stymied, as there was no such song.
Allan, who co-wrote it, later admitted the song’s curious tag was probably a contributing factor to its lacklustre sales (in Canada, it only reached No. 62 on the charts) though it got a second life in 1974, when Brave Belt II was re-released.
Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet — Bachman-Turner Overdrive
Not Fragile (1974)
The story goes that Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet almost didn’t make it on BTO’s 1974 album.
Frontman Randy Bachman has said in interviews the track was recorded as a joke for his brother who had a stutter, but when the band was wrapping up production, Not Fragile was missing that magic hit single, which they believed was Ain't Seen Nothing Yet.
After pressure from label execs and bandmates, Bachman relented and rearranged the album to make room for the song; he even tried re-recording it without the stammering chorus, but it just didn’t sound as good.
Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, adding another massive hit to BTO’s collection.
Silver River — Shingoose
Native Country (1975)
Curtis Jonnie, born in Winnipeg in 1946, was a member of the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation. Jonnie started his music career in the late 1960s, after moving to Washington, D.C., where he played with various R&B groups.
He returned to Manitoba in 1973, changing his stage name to Shingoose, his great-grandfather’s name. Soon after he began exploring the world of folk music, particularly how it related to the American Indian Movement, an American Indian civil rights organization founded in Minneapolis in the late 1960s.
Shingoose, a seven-time performer at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, released his debut album Native Country in 1975. Silver River, a standout track from that recording, was re-issued 29 years later as part of the Grammy Award-nominated package Native North America, Vol. 1.
Red River Waltz — Reg Bouvette and the Road House Gentlemen
Red River Jig (1976)
Four years ago we interviewed Tim Frisk, a Winnipegger whose mother was married to Reg Bouvette, a legendary Winnipeg-born fiddler, from 1982 to 1992. At the time Frisk, 60, was on the hunt for anything and everything related to Bouvette: albums, posters, even bows the Métis musician, labelled a "superstar" by his record label, Sunshine Records, may have used at one time or another.
"If you’ve never listened to this stuff, you’re missing out," Frisk told us, holding up Red River Waltz, which includes Bouvette's version of Red River Jig, a traditional number known as the unofficial anthem of the Métis Nation.
In 2013, Bouvette was properly feted at an event dubbed Reg Fest, held at Indian and Metis Friendship Centre. Guest artists included Sierra Noble, Gary Lepine and Métis square-dance troupe the Asham Stompers.
Seasons in the Sun — Terry Jacks
Seasons in the Sun (1974)
Terry Jacks, a founding member of Canadian psychedelic rock group the Poppy Family, was born and raised in Winnipeg.
The Poppy Family split up in 1972, at which time Jacks was hired to produce an album for the Beach Boys. After that group rejected their label's request to record Seasons in the Sun, Jacks included the tune — an English-language rewrite of Jacques Brel’s Le Moribond (1961) — on his debut album for Bell Records.
Good move: not only did Seasons in the Sun, about a dying man’s final words to his loved ones, top the charts all over the world, it earned Jacks a much-coveted spot next to Norman Greenbaum (Spirit in the Sky) and Wild Cherry (Play That Funky Music) in The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders.
Stand Tall — Burton Cummings
Burton Cummings (1976)
Burton Cummings, born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End, spent 10 years as the frontman of the Guess Who. Deciding he had his own way to rock, the St. John’s High School alumnus left the band in 1976 to pursue a solo career.
Cummings enjoyed a run of hits in the ensuing years — Break It to Them Gently and I Will Play a Rhapsody, to name two — none bigger, however, than his debut single Stand Tall.
In addition to topping Canadian charts, Stand Tall, a mournful ballad spawned by a recent breakup, went all the way to No. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It was denied the top spot by — how could this be true? — Captain & Tenille’s (woeful) Muskrat Love.
Action — Streetheart
Meanwhile… Back in Paris (1978)
Who says Manitoba and Saskatchewan can’t get along? Streetheart, formed in Regina in 1977 and based out of Winnipeg for the bulk of its recording career, took home the Juno Award for Most Promising Group of the Year in 1980 — a full two years after Meanwhile…, considered by many to be the best debut album in Canadian rock history, hit stores.
Action is a 4:48 tour de force that builds slowly with a driving bass line performed by Ken (Spider) Sinnaeve, before lead vocalist Kenny Shields kicks in, singing/rasping "Meanwhile, back in Paris, I was embarrassed...babe."
You know how people misconstrue song lyrics? Same thing in my case: until a member of Streetheart informed me the line immediately following, "Action, action…" is "read all about it," I screamed "we got a party," at the top of my lungs every time I gave the song a spin.
Ice Box City — Popular Mechanix
Popular Mechanix (1979)
We’ll see your Weakerthans’ One Great City! and raise you Popular Mechanix’ Ice Box City, a 2:19 new wave burst of energy that sarcastically denounced Manitoba’s capital long before the Weakerthans declared the Guess Who sucked and the Jets were lousy.
For three years in the late '70s and early '80s, Popular Mechanix, which consisted of Stu Nichols on guitar and vocals, Boris Hoagy on bass and piano and Greg Gardner on "hits anything in sight," were this city’s answer to beautifully quirky outfits such as XTC and Devo.
Ice Box City, the lead track on the band’s debut album, pokes fun at the trio’s hometown, à la "ice box city...it don’t look pretty...it’s the middle of May...there is snow on the ground to make you pay."
Leaders — Lowlife
The nascent proto-punk and early punk scenes of Detroit, New York and London took a while to reach the Canadian Prairies but once they did, teenagers learning instruments, disaffected by the state of FM radio, took to the raw sounds like ducks to water, inspired by punk’s DIY ethos.
Lowlife was a quartet from St. Boniface and St. Vital that featured Richard Duguay (later of Personality Crisis) on bass, Brad Hrushka (Monuments Galore) on guitar, Mark Halldorson (Le Kille, PC) on drums, as well as singer Rick Sprung, and Leaders, a three-song 45, was Winnipeg’s first punk release, financed with a couple hundred dollars borrowed from pal Mitch Funk.
The song itself is a burst of breakneck early punk energy, marked by Halldorson’s effervescent drumming and a lyric about self-involved, uncaring politicians and scenesters. What it spawned is now the stuff of legend.
Crossing Selkirk Avenue — Finjan
Crossing Selkirk Avenue (1993)
The title track to Finjan’s 1993 album is credited to Myron Schultz but it’s really a group effort from the band’s six players — Schultz, his brother Victor, Shayla Fink, Eli Herscovitch, Daniel Koulack and Kinzey Posen — and a brilliant distillation of the klezmer music that Finjan popularized in Western Canada in the '80s and '90s.
The tune opens with a wailing clarinet and slowly loping bass and gently gains momentum, piece by piece. As percussion, mandolin, guitar, saxophone, accordion and violin join in, the tempo shifts and heels begin to pick up in an imaginary Selkirk Avenue dance hall until you can almost see the steam accumulating on the window panes as a storm rages outside on a cold winter’s night.
Success — The Pumps
Gotta Move (1980)
Don’t be fooled into thinking Success, a single from Winnipeg new wave act the Pumps’ debut album, was lead singer Chris Burke-Gaffney’s desperate plea for recognition.
Instead, Burke-Gaffney, who hails from Lynn Lake, says the song’s lyrics are a "non-specific, throw-it-all-at-the-wall-whatever-sticks-kinda thought... hit song success, relationship success...any success."
eached at home, Burke-Gaffney weighs in on a reporter’s assertion Success ranks right up there with My Generation and (ba-ba-ba) Bennie and the Jets as one of rock’s greatest stuttering songs.
"It was supposed to be word play, as in ‘sex-cess,’" he says in reference to how he stammered su-su-su-success throughout the chorus. "I was hoping my peeps got the ‘sex-sex-sex-success’ reference."
Rock & Roll Gypsies — Dianne Heatherington
Heatherington Rocks (1980)
Dianne Heatherington would have deserved a spot on this heady list even if she hadn’t been known as "the First Lady of Winnipeg rock and roll," and Rock & Roll Gypsies, a track from Heatherington’s 1980 effort, Heatherington Rocks, sums up her career in a nutshell.
After more than a decade performing in one Winnipeg watering hole or another, she left the city for Toronto and later New York. She also tried her hand at acting — she had a bit part in Cocktail — before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1993.
Heatherington, a runner-up in the Juno Awards Most Promising Female Vocalist category in 1982 — died in Toronto in 1996.
Can I Come Near — Graham Shaw & the Sincere Sernaders
Graham Shaw & the Sincere Sernaders (1980)
Graham Shaw, whose family moved to Winnipeg from Calgary in the early 1960s, created a bit of stir among curious audiophiles in 1980. Those of us who picked up a copy of Shaw's debut wondered who exactly he was hoping to cosy up to in the lyrics of Can I Come Near.
Four minutes of Beatles-esque pop perfection, the tune begins by asking the menacing question, "Did you know I’ve been watching you for weeks on end? Probably not."
Reached at home in Ontario, Shaw says sorry, he’s still not naming names. "I’ve got nothing except I wrote it about every archetypically beautiful girl or woman ever who scared the (crap) outta me, so any approach I mustered was with extreme caution and trepidation," reports the 1980 Juno Award winner for Most Promising Male Vocalist.
Little Star — iskwē
Little Star is a gut-wrenching, hauntingly beautiful song inspired by Cree astronomy that condemns the media’s portrayal of Indigenous victims of violence, such as Tina Fontaine and Colten Bushie. Winnipeg-born alt-pop artist Iskwē (born Megan Meisters) uses her platform and powerful voice to shine a spotlight on the systemic abuses of Indigenous communities in Canada throughout her third album, acākosīk.
The work received two 2020 Juno Award nominations: acākosīk is being considered for adult alternative album of the year and collaborator Sarah Legault is up for music video of the year for the stop-motion animated video for Little Star. (The award ceremony was indefinitely postponed in March owing to the coronavirus and the winners have yet to be announced.)
Innocence — Harlequin
Love Crimes (1980)
Harlequin was a hard-working five-piece Winnipeg rock outfit founded by bassist Ralph James that cut its teeth on the Prairie circuit, then elbowed its way onto the national scene by catching the attention of famed record producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, John Lennon, Patti Smith), who helped the group land a deal with Epic/CBS.
Douglas was executive producer of the band’s first album, 1979’s Victim of a Song, then took the reins himself for Love Crimes in 1980, which yielded an immediate hit in Innocence, a song about betrayal which rode an insistent synth riff from Gary Golden and an expressive George Belanger vocal into the Canadian Top 30.
Queen Jealousy — Mood Jga Jga
Mood Jga Jga (1974)
The cover of Mood Jga Jga’s self-titled debut album is peak Winnipeg, as it boasts a shot of the four members, Greg Leskiw, Gord Osland, Bill Merritt and Hermann Frühm, perched on a bridge, we’re guessing it's the Slaw Rebchuk, with the sprawling Canadian Pacific railyards clearly visible in the background.
Mood Jga Jga, a moniker reportedly "suggested" by drummer Osland’s infant son when he was trying to tell his dad what he wanted for supper, travelled to New York in 1973 to record with famed producer Phil Ramone (Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel).
The end result, including the lead single Queen Jealousy, drew favourable comparisons to American hit-makers Steely Dan thanks to its mix of — as one reviewer put it — "funky jazz country blues rock."
Sandwiches — Fred Penner
The Cat Came Back (1980)
Written by Winnipeg songwriter Bob King — who just happens to be the brother of Free Press film and theatre critic Randall King — this sprightly ode to a brown-bagged staple became synonymous with Fred Penner.
Included on Penner’s 1980 debut album The Cat Came Back, Sandwiches is still imprinted on the brains of kids who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s — and therefore with his CBC show, Fred Penner’s Place, which aired from 1985 to 1997 — who are now singing it to their own kids.
Along with the album’s titular song, Sandwiches remains one of the most-requested songs by Fred Heads young and old.
New and notable
In creating this list, we unfortunately had to cut out a lot of talent that has more recently found feet in the Winnipeg scene. Here are a few newer Manitoban acts that were on our initial list that are worth checking out.
In creating this list, we unfortunately had to cut out a lot of talent that has more recently found feet in the Winnipeg scene. Here are a few newer Manitoban acts that were on our initial list that are worth checking out:
3Peat — Hip-hop trio featuring Steve, E.GG and Dill the Giant; released its most recent EP in 2019, 3peat 2.
Ariel Posen — Known for his guitar chops and songwriting; released his solo debut, How Long, in 2019; formerly a member of the Bros. Landreth.
Kelly Bado — Bilingual soul/pop artist originally from Côte d’Ivoire but now based in Winnipeg; released a brand-new single, Ahora, earlier this month.
Madeleine Roger — Folk artist who was previously part of duo Roger Roger with her twin brother, Lucas, but is now a solo artist; released her debut full-length, Cottonwood, in 2018.
Micah Erenberg — Indie-folk-pop musician whose music is built on a foundation of nostalgic sounds and quirky lyrics; released his sophomore full-length album, Love is Going to Find You, in 2019.
Mulligrub — Pop-punk trio that came out of the gate strong with its excellent debut full-length, 2016’s Soft Grudge.
Sebastian Gaskin — An R&B singer-songwriter and guitarist; opened for legendary hip-hop artist Common at the 2019 Winnipeg International Jazz Festival; released his debut EP, Contradictions, in 2019.
Silence Kit — Rock group that floats along the musical spectrum from alt-rock to grunge to punk; most recent release is the band’s 2018 EP, Silence Kit Presents Kitty Kitty.
Super Duty Tough Work — Supergroup that meshes elements of jazz, hip-hop and soul; 2019 debut EP, Studies in Grey, recently landed on the Polaris Music Prize long list.
Veneer — Alt-pop trio made up of members from Living Hour, Basic Nature and Animal Teeth; recently named one of Paste Magazine’s “30 Canadian Artists You Need to Know in 2020”; released debut, self-titled EP in 2019.
No Sad Refrain — Dash and the Dots
Winnipeg Homegrown Vol. 1 (1981)
Anyone who haunted downtown record stores in the late '70s and '80s will attest to the fact Winnipeg Homegrown Vol. 1, a 92 CITI-FM sponsored project, was a must-have.
In addition to tracks by popular draws such as the Freeze, Exit and Woodwork, it also contained Dash and the Dots’ No Sad Refrain, a radio-friendly song that sounded a bit like the Police, a bit like the Jam, but mostly like nobody else, Unfortunate souls who didn’t possess a copy of Homegrown Vol. 1 had a long wait on their hands if they wanted to hear No Sad Refrainn in the comfort of their own home.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the reunited Dots put out Morse Code, a CD that contained an updated version of the group’s greatest "hit."
What Kind of Love is This — Streetheart
After disappointing album sales, Streetheart went back to basics in 1982 with the release of an eponymously titled, largely self-produced record.
Streetheart contained a number of uptempo rockers that quickly became staples of the band’s live shows; the song that gained the most attention chart-wise, however, was a power ballad, What Kind of Love is This.
Described by one rock critic as a song "that is a case study in hoping against hope" what with the chorus asking, "What kind of love is this? The kind that keeps me standing in line," the song became Streetheart’s biggest self-written hit, reaching No. 13 in Vancouver, No. 9 in Ottawa and No. 4 in Winnipeg.
Awakening — Elias, Schritt & Bell
Close your eyes and listen to Awakening, the title track of Elias, Schritt & Bell’s debut album. Then try to convince us the song, featuring pitch-perfect harmonies by the band’s three members, Tim Elias, John Schritt and Steve Bell, doesn't sound like an outtake from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 1970 smash Deja Vu.
Folk-pop trio Elias, Schritt & Bell played together for four years. The group, long billed as Winnipeg’s Next Big Thing, recorded its one and only album in January 1982 at CBC Winnipeg’s Studio 11. Although the record topped local charts, the band wasn’t able to expand its base outside Manitoba.
Fifteen years after the group’s breakup in 1983, guitarist Bell became the first ever winner in the Juno Awards’ Best Gospel Album category.
Blues for 'Ol Ed — Ron Paley
As local musical resumés go, few compare to Ronald Frank Paley’s. Paley, born in Winnipeg and a graduate of both the University of Manitoba and Boston’s Berklee College of Music, toured in the early 1970s with the Buddy Rich and Woody Herman big bands. He also played bass on a concert recording by Frank Sinatra, 1974's The Main Event Live.
Paley returned to his hometown in 1976 forming the Ron Paley Big Band. That same year he wrote and recorded his debut album, Boxton.
Blues for ‘Ol Ed, the track that closes out Side 1, is a 7:14 slice of cool jazz, augmented by Julie Opocensky's (later of the Parachute Club) scat vocals, Paley's nimble work on piano and Ed Philp's, for whom the tune is named, virtuoso performance on tenor sax.
I Did It for Love — Harlequin
One False Move (1982)
The opening track of Harlequin’s third album, One False Move, again produced by Jack Douglas, was an uptempo rocker that featured just a hint of the Cars in Gary Golden’s keys, Glen Willows’ rhythm guitar parts and the relentless beat of Ralph James and David Budzak.
George Belanger’s earnest vocals and clever lyrics, in which a spurned young lover tries to plead his case, drive the tune forward but the shining moments in this song come courtesy of Willows’ three solos, which could be case studies in how to turn lead breaks into restrained, tasteful bursts of excitement.
Canadian listeners agreed, propelling I Did it for Love to No. 19 on the national charts.
Stand — Dub Rifles
In 1983, influential American alternative rock magazine Trouser Press released a 20-track compilation tape called Trouser Press Presents: The Best of America Underground, which featured the song Stand, by a brassy little post-punk quintet from Winnipeg called Dub Rifles, the only Canadian group in the collection.
With a breezy, twin-saxophone-fuelled melody and a crunching guitar line that built to an anthemic chorus of "Stand! Rock steady and ready, are you ready?" the song was a beacon for young, arty Winnipeg music fans, proof that we could make our new sounds right here at home.
Miracle — Orphan
Lonely at Night (1983)
Chris Burke-Gaffney is a rock 'n’ roll lifer. He signed three different record deals with three different acts, helped steer Chantal Kreviazuk into her career and is active as a producer, manager and songwriter with numerous artists.
Orphan, the new name for a reconstituted version of the Pumps, was the second go-round for Burke-Gaffney and keyboardist Brent Diamond, and Miracle, a power-ballad that CBG says was written in four minutes after the birth of his son, Nick, was the big hit from the quartet’s debut 1983 album, Lonely at Night, for Portrait/CBS Records, produced by Tony Bongiovi.
All together now, Winnipeggers of a certain age: "Whoa-oh… it’s a miracle…"
Twilight’s Last Gleaming — Personality Crisis
Creatures for Awhile (1983)
Even though it’s just two minutes and nine seconds long, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a full-on sonic assault that captures the essence of Personality Crisis, a proto-punk, pre-hardcore outfit whose 1983 album, Creatures for Awhile, is a Canadian punk classic.
Everything’s here — molten guitar riffs propelled by double-time drums, a pummelling, sinuous bassline, Mitch Funk’s creepily cryptic baritone vocals, a shouted call-and-response chorus and a breakdown bridge that becomes a virtuosic lead guitar break. TLG will leave you breathless… and wanting more.
Ils s’aiment — Daniel Lavoie
Tension Attention (1984)
One of the world's most prominent francophone singers was born and grew up in Dunrea, a small community about 220 kilometres west of Winnipeg. That singer is Daniel Lavoie, and the 1984 song Ils S'aiment, which he co-wrote with Daniel DeShaime.
The song, Lavoie has said, was initially written in English as They Love Each Other and was influenced by TV reports showing teens walking amid the rubble in Beirut.
Once he translated it into French — Lavoie attended what is now Université de Saint-Boniface — it became a hit in Quebec and France. It has sold more than two million copies and has become a standard; francophone superstars such as Céline Dion perform the song in concert.
Lonely at Night — Orphan
Lonely at Night (1983)
A churning, muscular riff, swirling and chiming '80s synths and a sweet but rather abbreviated lead guitar break from guitarist Steve McGovern were the signatures of the title track from Orphan’s 1983 album for Portrait/CBS, a tune that picked right where the Pumps left off and breathed new life into the quartet, which also featured singer/bassist Chris Burke-Gaffney, keyboardist Brent Diamond and drummer Ron Boisvenue.
Who’s in Charge — Stretch Marks
Who's in Charge (1983)
Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Moammar Gadhafi, Yuri Andropov, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini… The faces of the world leaders depicted on Glen Dunits’ illustrated cover for Stretch Marks' six-song, seven-inch, 33 rpm Who’s in Charge EP say it all.
Life on the world’s geopolitical stage was rather bleak 37 years ago, too. At the time, North American punk had evolved into a harder, faster form of guitar music that riled up roiling mosh pits.
Singer Dave McCombe, bassist Mark Langtry and the Jackson brothers, guitarist Bill and drummer Kelly, captured the spirit of the age perfectly in the EP’s title track, a 1:46 burst of frustration and anger that features a wonderfully distorted psycho-guitar solo and closes with a profane statement of disgust at the state of affairs.
Tanks Keep Rolling — Unwanted
Shattered Silence (1984)
One of the first generation of Winnipeg punk bands, the Unwanted also spread the word far and wide, getting out of the city on tour and attracting the attention of California label Better Youth Organization, which released the band’s 1984 album Shattered Silence and included Tanks Keep Rolling on the influential compilation Something to Believe In (along with tracks from Winnipeg’s Personality Crisis and the Stretch Marks).
Tanks Keep Rolling is a political antiwar salvo with a fist-in-the-air chorus. An important early strike in the city’s punk-rock history.
Shot With Our Own Guns — The Cheer
Released as a single (1986)
The first time this writer saw the Cheer was at Corner Boys, a basement bar located near the corner of Osborne and Morley. The power pop group, led by lead singer and guitarist Lloyd Peterson, hadn’t recorded a note to that point but word of their live shows was spreading fast.
In addition to originals such as Don’t Even Know What I Want and Just Another Crisis, both of which turned up on the band’s 1985 debut, Swimming to Work, the Cheer also performed a crowd-pleasing, 100 mph cover version of the Carpenters’ Top of the World to end its first set. Let’s just say we were sold.
The Cheer released a new single in 1986, Shot With Our Own Guns, which was similar in style to British bands Simple Minds and the Alarm. Produced by Bob Rock (Metallica, Bryan Adams, Aerosmith), the hard-driving tune was received favourably at college stations from coast to coast.
Casual Design — Ruggedy Annes
Jagged Thoughts (1985)
Few women were seen onstage in the Winnipeg punk/alternative scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, but Ruggedy Annes — a quartet of singer Jake Moore, guitarist Margaret Fonseca, bassist Ruth Monk and drummer Debbie Wall — more than held their own as musicians and performers.
Taken from their 1985 Jagged Thoughts EP, which was produced by Jimmy Green of Personality Crisis, Casual Design was a short (just 2:21), sharp slice of smart post-punk songcraft, featuring buzzing guitars and throbbing bass, a churning middle-eight and a dramatic performance from Moore, including a spoken-word outro, delivered in a delightfully blasé tone, that concludes with "The bored look is in…"
Peace and Harmony — Monuments Galore
Released as a single (1987)
Monuments Galore was a two-guitar rock band fronted by the effervescent Kevin Mears that emerged from Winnipeg’s punk/alt/indie underground of the early 1980s.
The quintet released a couple of EPs and won a CASBY (Canadian Artists Selected By You) Award in 1986 before issuing Peace and Harmony as an independent single in 1987.
The group signed with Eureka Records in 1988 and re-recorded the tune with Mitch Easter for its debut full-length but, strangely, the song was left off the album and didn’t resurface until 2016, when the band released it again on its version of the '89 record, which was this time titled Colour Depth & Field.
Come for the guitar riff, stay for the gang vocals and singalong chorus.
Together (The New Wedding Song) — Joey Gregorash
Canadian Gold (1987)
While the commercial single for Joey Gregorash’s ballad Together (The New Wedding Song) wasn’t released until 1987 on Attic Records, the origins of this popular nuptial earworm go back over a decade.
In 1975, Gregorash tweaked one of the first songs he had ever written, called Tomorrow, Tomorrow, for a friend’s wedding and, along with the groom-to-be, rewrote the lyrics a few nights before the big day.
In the mid-1980s, Gregorash recorded the song as part of a fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, garnering it some local airplay, before landing a one-single deal with Attic in 1987 — and the rest, as they say, is history.
To this day Together is still widely used by those tying the knot across Canada.
Man Who Would Be King — Jeffrey Hatcher and the Big Beat
Cross Our Hearts (1987)
There are some who will argue the list you’re perusing could have been largely composed of songs by Jeffrey Hatcher and David Briggs. Since the mid-1970s, the pair, who met in River Heights as teenagers, have played together in roots-rock projects including the Fuse, the Six, the Big Beat, the Blue Shadows and the Hatcher-Briggs Band, most of which also featured Hatcher’s brothers Don and Paul.
Briggs says he and Hatcher wrote this song after watching the movie The Man Who Would be King, starring Sean Connery. "We skipped the accents and the narrative line that chronicled a megalomaniac’s rise and fall, and cut straight to all of the Mr. Big Stuffs in our lives," Briggs says.
"I guess that leaves us as the kids dancing around," he adds, referring to the part of the jingle-jangle, jaunty number that goes, "round and round and round we go, all the children sing, everybody gather round the man who would be king."
Big League — Tom Cochrane & Red Rider
Victory Day (1988)
The first cut from Cochrane’s Victory Day album, Big League is an epic, huge-sounding rock tune (produced by Don Gehman) written from the point of a view of the father of a promising hockey player whose skill was his way out of a life in the mill.
At 18, just as the boy has landed a scholarship with a big U.S. team, he and his girlfriend were killed "by a truck doing 70 in the wrong lane."
Naturally, Big League was huge in Canada but it was also a hit in the U.S. (where it was misunderstood as being about baseball), reaching No. 9 on Billboard’s rock chart.
In 2018, after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, Cochrane reworked the song to honour the team and released an acoustic version with all proceeds donated to a fund for the victims’ families.
I Collect Rocks — Al Simmons
Something's Fishy at Camp Wiganishie (1992)
Al Simmons’ Juno nominated debut album, Something's Fishy at Camp Wiganishie, features more than one song about quirky collectibles. I Collect Rocks is the naturally rockin’ response to Counting Feathers, a ditty about the highs and lows of amassing plumage.
The theatrical children’s entertainer wrote the song with Canadian roots musician Ken Whiteley.
It’s wonderfully simple and is at least partially inspired by Simmons’ son Bradley, who at the age of four had a passion for rock collecting and would fill his pockets with stones and pant legs with gravel, according to an anecdote shared on the artists’ website.
She’s a Square — Ray St. Germain
Released as a single (1959)
Ray St. Germain, born and raised in St. Vital, vividly recalls where he was when Elvis Presley made his debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956.
"My grandparents lived right across the street from our place and since they already owned a TV, my parents didn’t see the need in buying one themselves," St. Germain says. "So we gathered over there — I would have been 16 at the time — to see what all the fuss was about."
In 1959, by which time he had switched from accordion to guitar, St. Germain, nicknamed "the Saint," wrote She’s a Square while on tour with the Hal Lone Pine Band. The resulting single, attributed to Ray St. Germain and the Five Satins, was the first Winnipeg-produced rock and roll 45 to chart nationally.
Though it never appeared on one of the Métis performer's own albums, the track was included on a 2009 double-CD entitled Buried Treasures (Winnipeg Rock Gems 1958-1974).
This Could Very Well Be True — Zen Bungalow
This tune from the quartet of Greg Lev, Rod Slaughter, Al Wolanin and Grant Page was a Canadian college radio hit in the era when "indie rock" — a weirdly nebulous genre — was making waves (the track was often played on Toronto’s CFNY, known for championing alternative music).
From the title on down, the song oozes Britpop, specifically the Smiths, with a jangly acoustic guitar and very Morrissey-esque lyrics ("Fatalist, chauvinist, egotistical bastard / it doesn’t matter what you think anymore"), with an elastic bass and a slightly grungy electric guitar that sets it firmly in the early '90s.
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm — Crash Test Dummies
God Shuffled His Feet (1993)
The revolutionary "no-chorus chorus" of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, from Crash Test Dummies’ 1993 second album, God Shuffled His Feet, was its secret weapon. The song strings together four vignettes about kids facing shame and embarrassment but songwriter Brad Roberts couldn’t come up with a refrain he liked.
So he didn’t — and it worked. Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm was a left-field hit for the Dummies, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S., No. 2 in the U.K. and reaching No. 1 in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden.
The band played the song on Saturday Night Live in February 1994, God Shuffled His Feet eventually sold more than eight million copies and the group was nominated for three Grammys in 1995: best pop performance by a duo or group for Mmm Mmm….; best alternative music performance for God…; and best new artist.
Phob, Monarch — Grand Theft Canoe
Bolivia + Argentina = Paraguay (1993)
In the mid-’90s, Winnipeg had a bit of a moment. After the discovery of regional indie-rock hotbeds such as Seattle and Halifax, A&R folks were in search of the next big scene.
Grand Theft Canoe was, quite rightly, touted as one of the acts that would put us on the map, although its delicate melodies and '60s sensibility had little in common with the grungier rock of those other cities. (Why didn't GTC make it big? A story for another day.)
The quartet came by its Anglophile cred honestly: brothers Alex (drums) and Angus (bass) Kirkpatrick are English expats, and the beautiful, slightly psychedelic Phob, Monarch contains echoes of the Kinks and XTC/Dukes of Stratosphear.
All Uncovered — The Watchmen
In the Trees (1994)
A hypnotic bass line by Ken Tizzard, deft brushes from Sammy Kohn, and Joey Serlin’s chiming little guitar turnaround set the scene for All Uncovered, from the Watchmen’s second, platinum-selling album, In the Trees.
As the tune builds with cello and harmonica, Danny Greaves sings a lyric that hints at life’s excesses, offset by Serlin’s regretful refrain: "Oh can’t you see it’s a life I don’t need / please don’t make this thing happen to me."
Body of Light — Acoustically Inclined
A Short Subliminal Message (1992)
The first track on the second side of this cassette-only release, Body of Light was written by Andrew Ross, but given life by the motley crew of this folky jam band, which was wildly popular in the early '90s. (It’s no surprise the band was chosen by the West End Cultural Centre for a Throwback Thursday reunion concert.)
The uptempo, uplifting tune is a great showcase for Mira Sahay’s smoky vocals (and harmonies from classically trained viola player Richard Moody), and gives guitarist Luke Doucet (who went on to play with Sarah McLachlan and form Whitehorse) ample room to shine.
Jack Knife — Kittens
Kittens were one of the best-known bands on the local noise-rock scene of the '90s. Influenced by groups from Chicago’s Touch & Go label, the Winnipeg trio was neither quite metal nor hardcore, but as heavy as either, with an abiding sense of menace and obliquely unsettling lyrics.
Jack Knife doesn’t have the distorted country influence of later Kittens, but its quiet-loud-quiet-terrifying formula is a great showcase for vocalist Shawdasn Fedorchuk’s buzzsaw guitar and frayed scream, which makes "Got a mouth like a mailbox" sound like a threat.
Fun fact: Fedorchuk has been nominated for three Emmys, including one for his work on the opening credits for HBO’s True Blood.
7620 36th Ave. — The New Meanies
The Blue Meanies (1995)
It starts with a simple bass riff from Sky Onosson, drummer Jason Kane’s snare and high-hat gradually fade in, and then... BOOM... guitarists Damon Mitchell and Jason Hondubura kick into gear, with Mitchell wailing on a wah pedal for added psychedelic inflection.
When Mitchell starts singing, his bluesy tenor wail spitting lyrics in what feels like double-time, 7620 36th Ave. is driven up yet another notch.
Sure, a young band sounding like a hyper-caffeinated Jimi Hendrix Experience at the height of the grunge era was an anomaly, but there was no doubting the virtuosity and ability behind the Meanies’ take on soulful blues rock — which still sounds fresh today.
Rusty Nail — Red Fisher
War Wagon (1995)
Red Fisher emerged in the late 1980s on the front edge of the rise of Winnipeg’s skate-punk music scene, layering its up-tempo, technically dialed-in songs with a slightly metallic edge.
The constants throughout most of the band’s chronology were drummer Jason Tait (the Weakerthans, Bahamas) and John Stewart, who sang and played guitar in Red Fisher for most of the band’s later duration.
They attracted (but rejected) interest from major labels, and their full-length War Wagon was released on local label G7 Welcoming Committee records. Rusty Nail was first recorded with former singer Jay Smith on lead vocals; on the War Wagon version, Stewart’s singing and riffs are big and brash.
The song sounds like it could have been ripped from a skateboarding video, with big, chunky guitar lines and a singalong chorus.
Wayne – Chantal Kreviazuk
Under These Rocks and Stones (1996)
Then 22, Chantal Kreviazuk released the kind of career-catapulting debut album most singer-songwriters dream of. Under These Rocks and Stones spawned five era-defining singles – including God Made Me, Believer, Hands, Surrounded and, of course, Wayne.
Surrounded may have been the song to net her major radio play, but it’s Wayne that grabs you. Chock full of raw emotion, Wayne boasts one of those great big Kreviazuk choruses — the kind that tear out of her throat and soar like a hot air balloon — that would come to define her sound.
Betamax — Farm Fresh
Longtime Brandon pals Rod Bailey, Pat Skene and Tyler Sneesby — otherwise known as, respectively, Mcenroe, Pip Skid and DJ Hunnicutt — started writing rhymes, composing songs and playing shows in the Wheat City in the early 1990s before relocating to Winnipeg and releasing EPs and full-length albums as well as starting their own record label, Peanuts & Corn Records.
But it wasn’t until long after they had disbanded — in February 2020 — that the trio released a 7" record featuring Betamax, one of their most popular tracks. The song sees Sneesby take centre stage for the longtime live staple, waxing poetic about the home-video device and girls.
Farm Fresh had plenty of popular, catchy jams in their arsenal; this fan fave finally got its just desserts decades later.
Leave a Little Light — the Wyrd Sisters
Leave a Little Light (1992)
The Wyrd Sisters are a folk-pop trio founded in 1990 by Winnipeg vocalists Kim Baryluk, Nancy Reinhold and Kim Segal. Leave a Little Light appears on two of the Wyrd Sisters' six albums — it was the title track of the trio's debut in 1992 — and also appeared on 2002's Sin & Other Salvations, one of three Sisters' records to earn Juno nominations.
The band gained notoriety in the pop-culture world when Baryluk launched a $40-million lawsuit against Warner Bros., the studio behind the Harry Potter film franchise. Baryluk tried to halt the release of 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because the film, just like the J.K. Rowling novel, included a rock band called the Wyrd Sisters.
The case dragged on for five years, included an Ontario Superior Court justice who ruled in Warner Bros.' favour, several appeals, and eventually ended with an undisclosed settlement.
Shake it — Stagmummer
The Stagmummer live experience was a confrontational circus sideshow.
Vocalist Jack Balles (Zack Walsh) was an in-your-face frontman with a quick wit whose lyrics about the human condition, surgeries and other abstract subjects rode above the throbbing rhythm section of drummer Chris (Mama) Bauer and bassist Rob Barteaux, while guitarists Scott (C.J. Bhutte) Cook and Mike McIssac set down a cavalcade of riffs that drew on everything from the Jesus Lizard to King Crimson.
The verses of Shake It — produced by the legendary Steve Albini — are akin to a noise-rock boogie that shows off the band’s warped humour with lines such as "I’d like to kiss my dad because he is a man/A real man!" before exploding into an almost threatening chorus.
Beauty Love Chant — Vav Jungle
This song from Vav Jungle’s debut is Winnipeg’s nod to the mid-’90s cocktail-kitsch craze, which included such acts such as Pizzicato Five; this groovy, half-crooned, half-spoken ode to beauty standards was also the first video released by the eclectic electro-lounge act led by Eve Rice (formerly of Just Ducky).
Rice was a favourite of CBC’s David Wisdom, who championed her music on his late-night radio show, Night Lines. Onstage, her quirky dance sensibility — backed with drum machines and rinky-dink keyboards — was fleshed out with appearances by go-go dancer Grace Martini.
Beauty Love Chant is quintessential Vav Jungle: insidiously catchy and weirdly sexy with a swinging bouffant ‘60s vibe.
Stereo — The Watchmen
Silent Radar (1998)
After hitting platinum with In the Trees, The Watchmen made a rather more introspective album in the underrated Brand New Day.
On their next album, Silent Radar, the band hit the reset button and leadoff track Stereo was its statement of intent, a straightforward, guitar-driven rock track with a simple hook, a driving beat and a phasing effect from producer Adam Kasper that plays on the stereophonic metaphor of the lyric.
The Mayor of Ganja City — JFK and the Conspirators
The Mayor of Ganja City (1998)
Every city seems to have its ska scene, and Winnipeg is no exception; the seven-piece JFK and the Conspirators seemed like the kingpins of the two-tone crowd.
Released on Stomp Records, a Montreal label devoted to third-wave ska, this largely instrumental track kicked off JFK’s debut album of the same name.
It’s a fine example of the band’s traditional rocksteady style, a mellow, grooving tune, almost spaghetti western-ish in spots, with crisp but warm horns that dip into mariachi territory.
The Mummers’ Dance — Loreena McKennit
The Book of Secrets (1997)
It’s tough to imagine the musical environment that allowed a moody medieval ballad prominently featuring a hurdy-gurdy by a harpist from Morden about a troupe of masked pantomime actors to become a global hit.
Well, if Enya could do it, why not our own Celtic-influenced, history-loving soprano songwriter? The Mummers’ Dance rose to No. 1 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary charts, and to No. 18 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 (higher than Enya’s Orinco Flow, for what it’s worth, and a notable feat for a song containing the lyrics: "A garland gay we bring you here / And at your door we stand / It is a sprout well budded out / The work of our Lord's hand").
Spaceman — Bif Naked
I Bificus (1998)
This song, the first single from I Bificus, was the song that launched a Winnipegger who was born in New Delhi into Canadian music stardom and into the global punk lexicon.
Spaceman was such a big hit that it sparked two different versions that reached the charts. The original already had a danceable beat and a memorable chorus — "Spaceman, oh Spaceman, come rescue me!"
The dance version — remember the 1990s, when dance remixes were required? — created by the Boomtang Boys soared to No. 2 on the Canadian Hot 100 chart. Songs from I Bificus ended up on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, linking the two feminist touchstones in perpetuity.
She's So High — Tal Bachman
Tal Bachman (1998)
Not content to let Jakob Dylan have all the fun attempting to outshine his more famous father, Tal Bachman — son of Randy Bachman — put up a valiant fight when he released She’s So High in April 1999, a single from his 1998 self-titled album.
The summer bop about being in awe of a woman Bachman was trying to bribe to date his stepbrother reached No. 3 on the Canadian charts at its peak and even hit the No. 1 spot in the United States on Billboard's Adult Top 40 chart.
The music video features Bachman on a fire escape looking down on the woman who is supposedly high above. I think it’s a metaphor.
Sara’s Black Pyjamas — The Bonaduces
The Democracy of Sleep (1998)
The Bonaduces’ last proper full-length showed singer-songwriter Doug McLean had moved beyond crafting deceptively simple but catchy upbeat pop-punk songs with his trademark thoughtful lyrics.
While there are still pop rockers peppered throughout the record, the mid-tempo Sara’s Black Pyjamas delivers catchy and sadly sweet melodies to accompany McLean’s heartfelt lyrics about the pitfalls of mental health.
"Suicide can be this subtle thing that keeps burrowing through your routine, until you’re not eating and phones just ring themselves to sleep," McLean sings in one verse.
The band resurfaced in 2013 and still plays the occasional show — and Sara’s Black Pyjamas is still a fan favourite.
"I thought that rock guitar could save my generation," sings Jason Churko in Transistor Sound & Lighting Co.’s Jaded and Elated — and with the band’s catchy indie-rock single Anyways/Mayonnaise, they very nearly did.
The band’s brief half-decade tenure in the late 1990s saw them sign to ViK. Recordings (like many Canadian up-and-comers at the time) and tour with a number of fellow alt-rockers before they disbanded.
For a time, the bowling-alley video for Anyways/Mayonnaise was in heavy rotation on MuchMusic, and it’s easy to see why — Churko’s plaintive verses and jangly guitar lead into a massive chorus built on a simple but fuzzy, overdriven riff and fist-raising shout-alongs.
The song’s far catchier than most output from similarly scruffy Can-rockers of the day, and still sounds fresh 20-plus years later.
Love Wins Everytime — McMaster & James
McMaster & James (2000)
Put aside the grammatically incorrect title and capital-B basicness of the sentiment, and what you have here is Y2K pop perfection created by Winnipeg duo McMaster & James.
Love Wins Everytime has it all — a catchy-as-hell chorus, a brass section and lyrics that could not be more radio friendly (and boy, was it on the radio).
No to mention it was the first in a string of singles that did very well, including the objectively better I Understand and everyone’s grad song in the year 2000, Thank You.
Feels Like Home — Chantal Kreviazuk
Released as a single (1999)
At the end of the millennium, Chantal Kreviazuk struck chart gold with a pair of covers. But while her version of John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane — recorded for the 1998 Armageddon soundtrack — might be among her most recognizable songs, it’s her cover of Randy Newman’s Feels Like Home, which was featured on both teen drama Dawson’s Creek and rom-com How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days andlater landed on her 2002 album, What If It All Means Something, that really sparkles.
Kreviazuk is in an impressive constellation of stars who have covered this one — Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt (that one featured Emmylou and Dolly, too), Neil Diamond, Josh Groban — but it was Kreviazuk’s that became a hit in Canada and Ireland.
It’s also a hint at a road not taken; she would have made a decent country singer.
The Canadian Way — Guy Smiley
Punk rock act Guy Smiley offers its take on the loss of the Winnipeg Jets and how money is destroying the sport in this rousing anthem from 1999’s Alkaline.
"You took our game/now you give it back before you throw it away," sings frontman Derek Kun on the track from the band’s third and final album, released by local imprint Smallman Records.
The band — Kun, guitarist Paul Stewart, bassist Jamie Fyles and drummer Ryan Francis — was a touring machine throughout the 1990s and travelled coast-to-coast across Canada at least 30 times, along with sojourns into the U.S. and Europe, where even if audiences didn’t know anything about hockey, they got to hear, "Go, Jets, go!" whenever Guy Smiley came to town.
West St. James — Greg MacPherson
Balanced on a Pin (1999)
Anyone who grew up west of Polo Park will recall the "explosion at Orest’s Barber Shop" and be familiar with St. James High School (technically St. James Collegiate, but let’s not split hairs).
And while singer-songwriter Greg MacPherson’s melancholy West St. James, from his breakout album Balanced on a Pin, name-checks neighbourhood institutions, the lyrics are framed in the context of a dialogue had between travellers headed to the West Coast by plane.
Like the Weakerthans’ One Great City!, there’s a universal quality to MacPherson’s reflections — after all, as he sings, we’re the "same collection of faults and accidents no matter where we are."
Baby, Cool Your Jets — Jet Set Satellite
In the year 2000, Jet Set Satellite — Jet Set if you were trying to sound cool — dominated both MuchMusic and Power 97.
Of the pair of singles from the band’s major-label debut to land heavy rotation status — the other being Best Way To Die — Baby, Cool Your Jets, with that instantly recognizable, rollicking guitar riff, has proven to be the one with the most staying power 20 years later, even if frontman Trevor Tuminski’s of-the-time growl places it firmly in the early aughts.
In 2013, Jet Set Satellite released a rewrite celebrating the return of the Winnipeg Jets called Baby, Fuel Your Jets.
I Love Myself Today — Bif Naked
It's loud, it's brash and an attitude of "This is how it's gonna be," is how most punk rock sounds. That was certainly the case in 2001 when Bif Naked released I Love Myself Today, the first single from her album, Purge.
Beyond the heavy beat and loud guitars emerges a classic breakup song, where Bif shouts on the rebound after being "left free-falling like space junk." The song's video is pure chaos, and almost personifies the line "proud and loud and outta control."
It's not hard to imagine Bif, born Beth Torbert, performing to such a raucous beat during her formative musical years in Winnipeg at venues such as the Royal Albert and Wellington's.
Am I Drunk Because I’m Stupid? — Ditchpig
The punk band went through a few personnel changes over the years, but the classic lineup of vocalist/guitarist Doug Bell, vocalist/guitarist Ted Simm, vocalist/bassist Scott Hopper and drummer Dave (Egghead) Reynolds recorded the veteran outfit’s one and only album.
The band featured three distinct songwriters, each with his own style, but many of the group’s short-to-the-point, not-so-serious songs featured a strong melodic bent, including this anthemic ripper that asked the chicken-or-the-egg question: "Am I drunk because I’m stupid, or am I stupid ‘cause I’m drunk?"
Bitterman — Duotang
The Bright Side (2001)
Opening with the evocative sound of a stylus being placed on a record, this track from the bass-and-drums duo of Rod Slaughter and Sean Allum manages to pack a lot into its four-minute running time — or should we say manages to Jam a lot, as the band wears its debt to Paul Weller et al. on its well-tailored sleeve.
The track, from the twosome’s third album, starts out dreamy with an almost psychedelic flair, before switching tempos dramatically and launching energetically into a tale of disillusionment and aging. Sounds like a downer, but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
The Pukatawagan Song — Sidney Castel
Released as a single (2001)
Sidney Castel was a latecomer to country music stardom, but when he arrived on the scene with a quirky homage to his home community (most) Canadians couldn’t get enough.
The Pukatawagan Song — an ambling, off-key country ballad about the northern Manitoba reserve — was Castel’s entry for a talent search hosted by the local radio station. The song became an unexpected hit and was picked up by CBC Radio.
At 68 years old, the former hospital orderly was signing autographs, booking shows across the country and recording a full-length album of original tunes, according to an article published in the Globe and Mail.
The Cree singer died in 2003, one year after releasing Live at the Beaver Lodge, but was brought into the spotlight again in 2017 when Jimmy Fallon featured the album on The Tonight Show.
Party — Hot Live Guys
No recorded material could ever truly capture the magic of seeing this band perform, but Party — a fuzzbomb of turbo-charged rawk ‘n’ roll with an infectious ferocity, especially in a live setting — could have come close.
Guitarist Joe Warkentin was a madman of a showman who roamed venues with the longest guitar cable he could find and sacrificed his body by jumping on (and falling off) tables, chairs and bars, while vocalist-guitarist Julian Bargen, bassist Kurt Wittneir and drummer Mike (White Dog) Johnson were a powerful, intense unit on stage and kept things from falling off the rails.
The quartet also had the songwriting chops to match their live show. For a time, one of the best bands in the city.
Rocketship — Mood Ruff
I Do My Own Stunts (2005)
An impossibly upbeat song about love for "girls" and "beats," Rocketship was the first commercial hit for Winnipeg hip-hop outfit Mood Ruff. The group’s founding members Odario Williams and Eli Epp (a.k.a Spitz, a.k.a DJ Dow Jones) met at Kelvin High School and started performing live in the mid-'90s.
Rocketship appears on their fourth and final album, I Do My Own Stunts, which won a Western Canadian Music Award for best rap recording. New members ICQRI and Breakz joined the group before it disbanded in 2005.
Williams went on to front local hip-hop collective Grand Analog and is now the host of CBC Radio 2’s After Dark program. Epp is the official tour DJ for Canadian rapper Madchild, formerly of Swollen Members.
Take a Message — Remy Shand
The Way I Feel (2002)
What ever happened to Remy Shand? The Winnipeg soul singer released his debut album in 2002 to widespread acclaim, earning a Juno for R&B/soul recording of the year and no fewer than four Grammy nominations. Then he vanished from the spotlight.
Almost 20 years later, the mysterious phenom from West Kildonan still has a following, as evidenced by an active Facebook group with more than 1,000 members from around the world dedicated to celebrating Shand’s music and figuring out his whereabouts.
Spoiler alert: he appears to be living in Toronto and running his own label called Remy Records. Close your eyes and let Shand’s signature falsetto and knitted-cap confidence wash over you with Take a Message.
Yakomon — VaGiants
Short and Hard (2002)
A rallying red-hot rawk ‘n’ roll battle cry from the explosive quartet of fiery vocalist Joanne (J-Rod) Rodriguez, guitarist Craig Bjerring, bassist Brendon Ehinger and drummer Chris (Mama) Bauer.
The VaGiants never phoned it in live or in the studio, and several songs could have made this list. Yakomon is a perfect example of everything that made this band a can’t-miss act: a rousing fist-in-the air chorus, J-Rod’s distinctive soulful vocal styling that goes from smooth to raspy to a howl, a Stooges-esque riff from Bjerring and a pulsating bottom end that shakes and grooves. Yakomon, indeed.
Company Store — Greg MacPherson
Cape Breton-born singer-songwriter Greg MacPherson has lived all over Canada, but his musical output often reflects the Prairie sensibility of his adopted hometown. This incendiary track, however — a passionate throwback to rousing union anthems of yore — is set in Sydney, the Nova Scotia coal-mining town.
Written from the point of view of a miner who hasn't worked in 40 days, the track has echoes of a Celtic folksong, but with lyrics that tell a story of corporate greed and a sense of rage fuelled by MacPherson's insistent electric guitar and urgent vocals.
The song, from the Maintenance EP, wasn't a single, but it's a fan favourite at live shows; MacPherson performed it on the mainstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Kinship of the Down and Out — John Smith
Pinky's Laundromat (2004)
"The North End, it’s all bridges and train yards," raps John Smith in the flagship song from his 2004 album, Pinky’s Laundromat (yes, it’s named for the now-closed washeteria at Pritchard Avenue and Arlington Street), but the Peanuts & Corn MC knows Winnipeg’s toughest neighbourhood is also all about people and pride of place.
Yeah, life can be hard and grimy here, he acknowledges, but it can be warm and fun, too — and most folks have each other’s backs.
Producer Mcenroe takes a less-is-more approach to this track, laying hypnotic string loops and piano chords over a basic hip-hop backbeat that lets Smith paint intimately detailed scenes with his rhymes.
Possibility — Sierra Noble
A young fiddle prodigy, Sierra Noble had long been a household name around town before the release of her 2008 album, Possibilities, her first vocal album, at the age of 18.
Possibility was the first single released from that album; the sweet, acoustic-lead track saw heavy rotation on both pop and country radio in Canada, topping the MuchMoreMusic countdown.
Not to mention the album itself was chosen as one of 20 to be brought aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in July 2009 by then-astronaut, now-Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.
One Voice — The Wailin’ Jennys
40 Days (2004)
The Wailin’ Jennys first came together for a one-off show in 2002 at Sled Dog Music, a Wolseley guitar shop.
Taken with the reception, and each other, folk singer-songwriters Cara Luft, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody decided to forge ahead as a trio and quickly recorded an EP, followed by a full-length album, called 40 Days, that showcased their songwriting abilities, interpretive capabilities and, most effectively, their beautiful vocal harmonizing.
One Voice is a Moody composition from that album which invites her singing companions into the tune on successive verses and it’s both a wonderful exposition of the threesome’s talents and a sweetly powerful metaphor for what can be achieved when people work together.
We Stay High and Lonesome — D. Rangers
We Stay High and Lonesome (2004)
Dubbed mutant bluegrass for its anything-goes approach to the genre, the quintet of Jaxon Haldane (vocals, banjo, saw), Aaron Goss (mandolin), Chris Saywell (guitar), Tom (Twisty) Fodey (muckbucket) and Don Zueff (fiddle) describe the life of a Winnipegger who ends up hanging out downtown at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club on this track.
Haldane is a skilled lyricist who can even make lines about eating breakfast compelling. The mid-tempo, swinging country stomper allows each member of the band to have his turn in the spotlight and is filled with some keen observations about the city and its citizens, while the anthemic chorus remains a sing-along for fans when the band gets together at the Times to get wild ‘n’ rowdy.
Watch Your Money — The Waking Eyes
Video Sound (2004)
The gritty opening chords of Watch Your Money are instantly familiar to many mid-'00s Winnipeg music fans and represented the kind of frenetic rock energy the Waking Eyes harnessed in much of their catalogue.
The track opens the band’s sophomore release, 2004’s Video Sound, which led to a Juno Award nomination for Group of the Year, as well as a Western Canadian Music Award win.
The Waking Eyes went on to release one more record, 2008's Holding On To Whatever It Is, before going on a hiatus that allowed members to go on to form acts such as Royal Canoe and Imaginary Cities.
Winnipeg Is a Frozen S---hole — Venetian Snares
Winnipeg Is a Frozen S---hole (2005)
Real aficionados of the work of breakcore artist Venetian Snares, a.k.a. Winnipegger Aaron Funk, likely wouldn’t choose this track as the best or even the most representative of his prolific career, during which he has released a slew of critically acclaimed, wildly experimental albums of crazy-making controlled chaos.
However, its title ensures it’s one of his best known locally outside the not-very-mainstream breakcore community, and there’s a cheeky charm amid the chopped-up drums, jarring, arrhythmic beats and siren-like effects, including samples of Isabella Rossellini’s lines from Guy Maddin’s film The Saddest Music in the World.
Wake the Dead — Comeback Kid
Wake the Dead (2005)
Hard-touring band Comeback Kid — which started as an offshoot of another local favourite, Figure Four — offers up a blast of take-no-prisoners hardcore with melodic dual guitar riffs courtesy of Jeremy Hiebert and Andrew Neufeld, and anthemic gang-chorus vocals about getting over past regrets and making positive changes in your life.
Recorded at the famed Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colo., with Bill Stevenson (Descendents) and Jason Livermore, the title track to the band’s 2005 sophomore album, which sold more than 100,000 copies after getting an international release by Victory Records, is a wake-up call that proved this quintet was no mere side project.
Sundancer — Eagle & Hawk
Mother Earth (2004)
What started as a collaboration between Vince Fontaine, the Winnipeg guitarist who is one of Canada's most prominent Indigenous composers, and Troy Westwood, the former kicker for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, has become a Juno Award-winning group that has lasted 25 years and counting.
More than a dozen Manitoba musicians from various musical genres have performed or recorded with Eagle & Hawk over the years, including vocalist Jay Bodner, keyboardists Gerry Atwell and Will Bonness, and drummer Brent Fitz.
Sundancer, which comes from the 2004 album Mother Earth, was named song of the year at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards that year, one of three trophies the group would take home from the ceremony. The album also received a Juno nomination.
F--- Knob — The Quiffs
The Quiffs (2005)
Picture it: it’s 2005, and the roof of the Royal Albert Arms is being torn off by a scrappy punk band called the Quiffs. Like the riot grrrls screaming from Olympia, Wash., before them, the Quiffs — Erica Jacobson, Gillian Oswald, Meghan Flett and Alana Mercer — wrote take-no-prisoners feminist anthems with largely unprintable song titles. Like this one.
F--- Knob, with its bratty, blistering "I don’t like boys, they think they've got me figured out" refrain, sounds like a sister song to the Bikini Kill classic White Boy.
It’s one minute and 32 seconds of ovaries-to-the-wall punk rock.
Mike! Your House is on Fire! — Quinzy
Quinzy will long be remembered for their incredibly fun annual holiday show, Quinzmas — which wrapped up its nine-year run in 2012 — and the semi-festive Mike! Your House if on Fire! encapsulates all the best parts of Quinzy’s legacy.
The indie-rock gem highlights the band’s quirky songwriting skills, its uncanny ability to craft a guitar line or hook so catchy it’ll stay with you for years (it's impossible not to dance to that instrumental breakdown near the end!), and, of course, includes a hint of holiday magic. In short, it’s a bop-and-a-half.
Hypothesist — Novillero
Aim Right for the Holes in Their Lives (2005)
Horns, hand-claps, hooks for days — this tune, from mod-pop outfit Novillero’s 2005 sophomore album, is a tight three minutes and 26 seconds of pure pop perfection.
Novillero was never really referred to as a supergroup, though it certainly could have been; the band, which put out three records in the 2000s, featured, at various times, members from Transonic, Duotang, Bulletproof Nothing, the Paperbacks and the Waking Eyes.
The accompanying music video is also a stroke of genius; set at a ’60s-era junior high science fair, Novillero appears in miniature diorama form for a project entitled "Rock Band."
No Bourbon and Bad Radio — Scott Nolan
No Bourbon and Bad Radio (2006)
Scott Nolan is one of those preternaturally gifted songwriters who finds poetry everywhere — and, as a musician, he also has incredible range, as deft with high-lonesome Americana ballads as he is with bluesy boot-scooters.
This little honky-tonk shuffle from his second album is build for dancin’ — at the Times Change(d), perhaps? — and serves as a reminder that not only does Scott Nolan know his way around a guitar, he also absolutely wails on the harmonica.
Heaven’s My Home — The Duhks
This soulful, gospel-tinged song from the Duhks’ third album was nominated for a Grammy (songwriter Katie Herzig co-wrote it with Ruby Amanfu, who would go on to record it with her duo Sam & Ruby in 2008).
The slow, simmering track, buoyed by Tania Elizabeth’s fiery fiddle, lacks the plucky energy of some of the livelier bluegrass or Celtic-influenced tracks from the folk fusion band led by banjo player Leonard Podolak, but Jessee Havey’s husky, powerful vocals are enough to make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Always, Always, Always, Never — The Details
Draw a Distance. Draw a Border. (2007)
In 2007, indie rock band the Details released a shimmering debut of cinematic songs that, no surprise here, found their way to television and film.
In particular, Always, Always, Always, Never, with its slow-build that gives way to a galloping rhythm section, has soundtracked many a coming-of-age story; the YouTube comment section is filled with nostalgic "Degrassi: The Next Generation brought me here" posts.
The song was also featured in Sean Garrity’s 2012 sex comedy My Awkward Sexual Adventure.
Shakin’ All Over — Chad Allan & the Expressions
Released as a single (1965)
In January 1965, Chad Allan & the Expressions, an East Kildonan-based band, was in a bit of a funk sales-wise. In an effort to spark interest in the community club stalwarts — plus to cash in on the British Invasion — Quality Records credited the group’s new release to "Guess Who?".
Practically overnight, DJs from coast to coast seized on the mysteriously branded group’s new single, a rollicking cover of a ditty originally recorded by little-known American outfit Johnny Kidd & the Pirates.
Shakin’ All Over dented the charts across Canada and reached No. 22 on Billboard’s Top 40 in June 1965. In a twist of fate, that success spelled the end of Chad Allan & the Expressions.
Moving forward the group was known as the Guess Who, minus the question mark.
Shame — Inward Eye
Throwing Bricks Instead of Kisses (2007)
Inward Eye was a local phenomenon that gained buzz in the 2000s after signing with J Records, a Sony Music subsidiary run by Clive Davis, and being invited to tour with the Who and Flogging Molly. But the honeymoon didn’t last for the punk rock trio made up of brothers Dave, Kyle and Anders Erickson.
By the end of the decade and the release of Inward Eye’s debut album, the band’s relationship with its label had soured. Shame, a call out of those in power, was released as a single and appeared as the first track on Throwing Bricks Instead of Kisses.
Trans Am — Nathan
Key Principles (2007)
During mid-oughts, the Juno-winning alt-country/roots quartet Nathan — Keri Latimer, Devin Latimer, Shelley Marshall, Damon Mitchell — was among Winnipeg’s biggest musical exports, and its third (and final) full-length album as a band, 2007’s Key Principles, was a high note to go out on.
Trans Am is a quintessential Nathan song; the haunting interplay between Keri and Shelley’s crystalline voices on the quietly devastating lyric "square one welcomes me back" feels like pressing on a bruise: painful but good.
Trans Am is a love letter for anyone who has ever felt like they can’t get ahead no matter how hard they try.
Atlanta Moan — Big Dave McLean
Acoustic Blues – Got 'Em From the Bottom (2008)
Named a member of the Order of Canada in 2019, Big Dave McLean has dedicated his life to playing raunchy, gutbucket blues and he’s been a mentor to many of the country’s finest roots and blues musicians, including Colin James and most of the players who have emerged from Winnipeg’s legendary Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club.
Atlanta Moan is a Barbecue Bob tune that dates back nearly a century, but McLean’s version is the master at his best, as he wrenches musical tears from his National steel guitar and pours his heart, soul and gravelly voice into the vocal.
Bad Liver/Broken Heart — Scott Nolan
Bad Liver/Broken Heart — not to be confused with the similarly titled Tom Waits tune — was an instant classic upon its release 12 years ago, and a stunning reminder that Nolan is among the best songwriters this province has ever produced.
It’s one of those comforting, threadbare-sweater songs that sounds much older that it is, and one can easily imagine it being played around campfires and recorded by country singers for decades to come.
In fact, Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll included a version of it on his own 2008 album, Trouble in Mind.
Beautiful Life — Doc Walker
Beautiful Life (2008)
Beautiful Life, the title track from the 2008 album, was named the song of the year and video of the year by the Canadian Country Music Association in 2008, two of five awards the Portage la Prairie country group would win that year.
The album also won a Juno Award for Country Recording of the Year in 2009. The song is a mix of rock melody and country lyrics, which singer Chris Thorsteinson waxes nostalgic about the old house, the old car that "has turned from red into rust," and the old town "that still runs through my veins."
The song was written by Thorsteinson, Dave Wasyliw and Murray Pulver. Pulver left the band in 2012, and Thorsteinson and Wasyliw continue to front Doc Walker on tour and on record.
I Wanna Fly — C-Weed Band
Magic in the Music (2010)
Errol Ranville formed C-Weed & the Weeds, a country band, with his brothers Don and Wally in 1965 in Eddystone, and they became pioneers of the Canadian Aboriginal music scene. By 1975, they were touring the nation and were nominated for Junos in 1985 and 1986.
I Wanna Fly isn’t a typical country tune, propelled more by electric piano and saxophone than by twanging guitars, but it’s a moving, soulful ballad of spiritual redemption, which Ranville says was "a gift from God" that came to him in his house on Burrows Avenue as he was kicking cocaine.
To this day, it’s still played as the closing song at many AA birthday celebrations.
Achin in Yer Bones — Romi Mayes
Achin in Yer Bones (2009)
Winnipeg singer-songwriter and guitarist Romi Mayes found critical acclaim in 2009 with the album Achin in Yer Bones and its title track. She won Roots Recording of the Year and Songwriter of the Year from the Western Canadian Music Awards in 2009 and earned a Juno nomination in 2010 for the record.
The song is a shadowy-sounding blues number that offers a dilemma between living the high life on the West Coast and a one back on the Prairies.
"And I spent 40 hours comin' down that Greyhound bus alone / 40 hours ain't too long when you don't have a home / 40 hours longing for a place to call your own / it's 40 hours achin in yer bones," Mayes sings in the chorus.
All That I Know — Winnipeg’s Most
Winnipeg’s Most (2010)
They were only active for two years, but hip hop outfit Winnipeg’s Most — composed of MCs Jon-C (Billy Pierson), Charlie Fettah (Tyler Rogers) and the late Brooklyn (Jamie Prefontaine) — left an indelible mark on the Indigenous rap scene.
Their 2010 self-titled debut netted them a fistful of Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards and heavy rotation on the now-defunct hip-hop station Streetz FM. (Winnipeg’s Most was also featured in a 2010 Maclean’s article about Indigenous rap with a very Maclean’s headline: Straight Outta Winnipeg.)
All That I Know wryly uses gangster rap to comment on the push-pull of gang life for young Indigenous men, and how one is lured back in by the acceptance, belonging and money.
At the time, Winnipeg’s Most caught some criticism for glorifying a certain lifestyle. Clearly, the people volleying those complaints weren’t really listening.
Dedication Blues — Brent Parkin
Vintage Rhythm (2010)
Brent Parkin is a Prairie gem who has been playing his sweet, jazz-inflected blend of B.B. King-style blues guitar for more than 40 years — on his own, with the legendary Houndog in the late '70s and as leader of an outfit dubbed Guitar Parkin & the Stingers in the '80s.
Dedication Blues is a heartfelt paean to friends, family and the angels who had his back when he suffered cardiac arrest in 2007.
It opens with a lead break over a standard blues shuffle and Parkin’s voice eventually leans in with "Well, the Grim Reaper called…" Call it an instant classic.
Tens of Dollars — Pip Skid
Skid Row (2010)
Originally one-third of Brandon’s Farm Fresh with Mcenroe and DJ Hunnicutt, Pip Skid (a.k.a. Patrick Skene) was one of the go-to MCs of the Peanuts & Corn/Break Bread crew in the '90s and early 2000s.
Tens of Dollars, from Pip’s solo Skid Row album, is a lovable, gruff-voiced ode to living close to the poverty line, set to producer Kutdown’s sparse, bass-and drum beat augmented by squealing synths and funky scratches.
The song itself describes life as a small-time hustler for whom making rent is a monthly struggle, while its accompanying black-and-white video clip is worth a look, portraying Pip as a bank employee who pulls off an inside-job heist.
Somethin' Goin' On — Romi Mayes
Achin in Yer Bones (2009)
This sultry tune is another classic from Mayes' award-winning album Achin in Yer Bones, which was produced by Gurf Morlix of Austin, Texas, also known for working with country artists such as Lucinda Williams and Blaze Foley.
But country wasn't the final result on Achin in Yer Bones nor Somethin' Going On, says Mayes, who got her start at 15 years old, performing on the stage of the Blue Note Café (the Portage Avenue iteration).
"I had no idea what kind of album I was making," she told the Winnipeg Free Press on the eve of releasing the album in May 2009. "It wasn't until the end when we listened to the album in its entirety. And I went, 'Oh, I made a mellow, edgy, dark, electric blues album.' I thought I would be making a rock 'n' roll album."
Dragonfly — Christine Fellows
Femmes de chez nous (2011)
From the first haunting piano notes of this absolute masterclass of a song, Christine Fellows’ sweet voice introduces us to a young woman on the run with a garbage bag of dirty clothes, "left for dead by a man who’d said ‘I’ll take good care of you.’"
But it’s the chorus, with its subtle change from minor to major, that’s really heart-wrenching; our girl finds a moment, however fleeting, of comfort and pleasure: "Now I’m swimming in a pool/now I’m swimming in a pool/now I’m swimming in a pool at a nice hotel."
Fellows’ true gift as a songwriter is her ability to harness the power of plain language; she hits you in the solar plexus every time without being overwrought.
Closer — Chic Gamine
City City (2010)
The unmistakable bellow of Alexa Dirks opens Closer, the first track on Juno Award-winning pop-soul act Chic Gamine’s sophomore release.
Dirks, who now performs under the moniker Begonia, takes lead vocals on this track, but it’s the signature Chic Gamine harmonies (which includes the talents of bandmates Andrina Turenne, Annick Bremault and Ariane Jean) over a simple, soul-inspired drum beat that make Closer a true gem.
The song was also the title and opening track of the band’s compilation album, which combined songs from their first two albums and was released as an introduction to the U.S. music market.
Out of Here — Cannon Bros.
Alannah Walker and Cole Woods, the bespectacled duo known Cannon Bros., were barely in their 20s when they released their snap-crackle-pop debut, Firecracker/Cloudglow, which was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize in 2012.
Out of Here is a breathless, driving indie rocker that recalls The Con-era Tegan and Sara, and perfectly captures that early-20s push- pull of wanting to leave — "hey, let’s get out of here, I hate it here, I hate here" — and wanting to stay: in a city, in a relationship, in your youth.
It’s nostalgic without being twee, and one can’t help but sing along.
Breathless — William Prince
Earthly Days (2015)
William Prince is quickly becoming a national treasure, and much of that success started with the standout track Breathless, from his debut full-length record, Earthly Days.
For many, Breathless was the introduction to the brilliant baritone voice Prince brings to the table, but it’s his skill for storytelling, for creating something so personal and warm and thoughtful, that was the even bigger revelation.
Breathless has gone on to collect more than 1.4 million streams on Spotify (the acoustic version adds another million) and made it to No. 22 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Charts in 2018, the year Earthly Days was re-released.
Hummingbird — Imaginary Cities
Temporary Resident (2011)
Imaginary Cities was truly great while it lasted. The project between Brandon-born singer Marti Sarbit and Winnipeg multi-instrumentalist Rusty Matyas began at the Cavern — the former basement-dwelling music venue in Osborne Village.
Matyas, the venue’s sound engineer, overheard Sarbit singing and asked her to collaborate without hesitation, according to a 2013 interview with the Free Press.
Audiences were equally drawn to her distinctive voice, and Imaginary Cities’ debut album, Temporary Resident, gave the band Winnipeg darling status and a Polaris Music Prize nomination.
Hummingbird is a sweet pop tune that grapples with the big bad world outside. The band recorded one more album before splitting in 2016.
Lions and Tigers — JP Hoe
When considering the vast catalogue of JP Hoe's musical work, the song that came to mind most often, though not one of his more publicized tracks, is Lions and Tigers.
It so nicely encapsulates who Hoe is as an artist; it uses dense instrumentation, including stunning strings, vivid lyrics combine several ideas into a thinker of a story, and it has the beat and head-bob-ability of a true folk-pop bop, driven by an acoustic guitar line that is instantly recognizable.
Lions and Tigers often lands in Hoe’s live set list for these reasons; it's an unexpected party-starter in the best way.
Quand Le Soleil Dit Bonjour Aux Montagnes (The French Song) — Lucille Starr
Released as a single (1964)
In 1964, the year the Beatles watched 19 of their songs crack the Top 40, Lucille Starr, born Lucille Savoie in St. Boniface in 1938, recorded the bilingual single Quand Le Soleil Dit Bonjour Aux Montagnes (later changed simply to The French Song) in Los Angeles with producer Herb Alpert.
It was the first song by a Canadian artist to sell a million copies worldwide, and was the inspiration for the jukebox musical Back to You: the Life and Music of Lucille Starr, staged at Prairie Theatre Exchange in November 2010.
The Free Press granted the production 2½ stars, noting, "though it's packed with first-class hurtin' songs and toe-tappers, in theatrical terms it's as riveting as a three-chord ditty scrawled on a cocktail napkin." Ouch.
Endless Summer — Mise en Scene
Desire's Despair (2012)
You know those songs that instantly transport you to a time and place? This perfect, sun-bleached Polaroid of a tune instantly recalls hazy, humid, lilac-scented Manitoba summers of your youth — no matter what era you grew up in — when unfilled days seemed to stretch on forever.
It’s a shimmering, sun-dappled garage rock showpiece for vocalist/guitarist Stefanie Blondal Johnson’s husky voice, with a solid backbone provided by drummer Jodi Dunlop.
"Who knew there was no such thing as an endless summer?" Johnson wistfully asks; leave it to a band from Gimli to bottle that summertime sadness.
Greenhouse — The Bros. Landreth
Let it Lie (2013)
There are few songs that have the power to instantly bring a person to tears, and Greenhouse by the Bros. Landreth is one of them. The track falls at the halfway point on the Juno Award-winning Let It Lie and offers a bit of a dark tonal shift, vividly portraying a literal death of love.
The album version is a bit peppier than the tone of the lyrics suggests it should be, but take the time to seek out an acoustic live version for maximum emotional impact; the first line of the pre-chorus — "I’m sorry that I left so soon, I left you standing at the gallows" — hits extra hard with less instrumentation and more of the Bros.' signature harmonies.
Counter Culture Complex — KEN Mode
Juno-winning noise/metal trio KEN Mode doesn't make singles per se, but records albums best experienced in their entirety.
Brothers Jesse (vocals/guitar) and Shane (drummer) Matthewson and a rotating cast of bassists have made several videos in their 20-plus year existence, including Counter Culture Complex, the opening track to 2013’s Juno-nominated Entrench, which features the band — named after Henry Rollins’ Kill Everyone Now modus operandi — playing in a frozen field while three female warriors participate in an ungodly ritual.
Matthewson is never at a shortage for maniacal riffs and shows off the band’s talent of combing pure speed and intensity with a sludgy chorus that amps up the tension, while his vocals might have you researching Maslowian portfolio theory.
Bathtubs — Royal Canoe
Today We're Believers (2013)
The song features all the hallmarks of Royal Canoe's best work — a bouncing bass-and-drum foundation under a lilting, tough-to-pin-down time signature, all somehow musically complex yet ridiculously catchy thanks in part to singer Matt Peters’ infectious, slyly soulful delivery.
The titular bathtubs lined the hallways at the band’s practice space, serving as a metaphor for the obstacles living in a place like Winnipeg can serve up at the best of times.
Overcoming the obstacles and adversity this city throws at you is a theme that permeates some of the most thoughtful art created in this city, and one that persists through Royal Canoe’s music today.
Best of Me — Leonard Sumner
Rez Poetry (2013)
Sumner, an Anishinaabe singer-songwriter from Little Saskatchewan First Nation, tells a deeply personal tale on this track from his debut album, but gives it universal appeal with a sunny chorus and a look-on-the-bright-side chorus anyone who’s been down on their luck can get behind.
The stripped-down track, mostly just acoustic guitar, gives centre stage to the lyrics, delivered in Sumner’s pleasantly raspy voice.
Though the song falls squarely into the folk/roots genre, with its breezy melody and sweet fiddle backing, Sumner shows off his MC side in his delivery, giving the lines a bit of a hip-hop rhythm.
Bad Love Song — Mobina Galore
Cities Away (2014)
Guitarist Jenna Priestner and drummer Marcia Hanson are Mobina Galore, a powerful punk/pop/rock duo that often expands its stripped-down live sound when in the studio.
Bad Love Song is just such a tune, a pummelling track that blends Priestner’s substantial guitar chops and raw-throated lead vocal with a beat that won’t quit and oh-so-sweet "woo-oohs" from Hanson.
The accompanying video, directed by Mike Latschislaw, captures the pair on what could be imagined as a typical morning — a breakfast scene that seems fraught with tension, followed by an energetic jam in their garage.
Beauty in These Broken Bones — Red Moon Road
Sorrows and Glories (2015)
Sheena Rattai’s voice is something to behold — and it's given the appropriate reverence in Beauty in these Broken Bones. Rattai is centre stage in the sparse recording that sets the tone for Red Moon Road’s sophomore album, which made the Polaris Music Prize long list in 2015.
The folk trio, which also includes Daniel Jordan and Daniel Péloquin-Hopfner, has been a staple on folk festival stages and intimate venues across Winnipeg.
In recent years, Red Moon Road has started bringing synthy pop influences into its acoustic sound.
Everything Will Change — Les Jupes
Some Kind of Family (2015)
One of the saddest tales in the chronology of a rock band is when it gets good — like, really good — and then implodes, ending its musical career at a place where it seemed it had nowhere to go but up.
That’s what happened with Michael Falk’s Les Jupes, which simultaneously released the album Some Kind of Family and split up. A letter detailing what seemed to be a not-entirely-pleasant split accompanied the release of the album, as did the video for Everything Will Change, a driving, anthemic and sometimes-frantic rocker featuring Falk’s inimitable baritone front and centre.
Thankfully, he’s again actively making music, this time under the moniker Touching, which has been rolling out new music and videos over the last couple of months.
Wondrous Traveler — The Small Glories
Wondrous Traveler (2016)
Wondrous Traveler is a bluegrass masterclass. The title track for the Small Glories’ debut album is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping thing to behold, featuring Cara Luft’s expert banjo picking and JD Edward’s perfectly twangy vocals.
The band came together serendipitously after Luft, a founding member of the Wailin’ Jennys, and Edwards, of the JD Edwards Band, played an anniversary show at the West End Cultural Centre. The two-piece seems to gain critical acclaim wherever they go since the release of their first album, including winning three Canadian Folk Music Awards and garnering a Juno Award nomination in 2020.
Between their dynamic stage presence or seamless harmonies, Luft and Edwards are a match made in folk-roots heaven.
Working for the Future in the Interlake — Yes We Mystic
Since the release of its first EP in 2013, Yes We Mystic has morphed from an indie-folk band into a true art-pop innovator, a gap bridged expertly by the group’s debut full-length, Forgiver.
One of the softer moments on that record, Working for the Future in the Interlake, falls exactly midway through the album and combines localized (and politicized) lyrics sung in the beautifully rich voice of frontman Adam Fuhr, with a haunting haze of instrumentation and delicate arrangement that comes in strong at the end, just when that extra push is needed.
I Will Not Return as a Tourist — Boniface
Released as a single (2017)
Everyone loves a good story. And Micah Visser has a knack for narratives and drawing listeners in with deeply personal, relatable lyrics.
Performing as Boniface — named for Winnipeg’s francophone neighbourhood, where Visser and his brother/bandmate Joey grew up — the indie-pop artist has gained international attention with London label Transgressive Records.
That said, home still factors prominently in Visser’s detailed songs about growing up and all the angst and ennui that comes with it. I Will Not Return as a Tourist was the first single Visser released as Boniface. It starts out melancholy and builds and builds to a determined, catchy crescendo.
Hot Dog Stand — Begonia
Lady in Mind (2017)
Winnipeg’s Begonia is known for her truly powerhouse vocals, but it’s one of her softer moments, Hot Dog Stand, that has become one of her most impactful and enduring fan favourites.
Released as part of her debut 2017 EP, Lady in Mind, the track is universal in its themes of loneliness and love but has some Winnipeg-specific references that make Hot Dog Stand feel like an inside moment between the singer and her local fans.
Cascabel — The Mariachi Ghost
The Mariachi Ghost (2013)
When the Mariachi Ghost first appeared on the Winnipeg scene, it occupied a totally unique sonic and performative space.
Combining musical and theatrical elements of traditional mariachi music with a more modern indie-rock sensibility, as well as an artfully crafted stage show, the Mariachi Ghost quickly made a name for itself.
Cascabel, the opening song of the band's self-titled debut, welcomes listeners into this world fully, making use of traditional guitar elements, an almost call-and-response composition in the verses and closes out with a very prog-rock-inspired instrumental moment.
Enough About Me — Slow Leaves
Enough About Me (2017)
Swaying like a tree in the wind is the appropriate reaction to most of Grant Davidson’s music. Performing as Slow Leaves, the Winnipeg singer-songwriter has released a romantic collection of gentle, pondering tunes over three albums.
Enough About Me, the title track from his 2017 record, is a poetic song about confrontation and compromise, featuring Davidson’s skilled strumming. He was nominated for roots solo artist of the year at the Western Canadian Music Awards following the release of Enough About Me.
Davidson has three other albums in his catalogue, recorded while performing under his own name and trying to find his sound. In 2015 he was one of the inaugural winners of the Allan Slaight Juno Master Class.
Victory Lap — Propagandhi
Victory Lap (2017)
Winnipeg's Propagandhi have been preaching the anarchist and vegan gospel and denouncing human rights violations, sexism, racism and capitalism since Chris Hannah and Jord Samolesky formed the group in 1986. Thirty-one years of cult status in the punk and metal communities hasn't dimmed Propagandhi's activism, though.
By 2017, Todd Kowalski and Sulynn Hago, Propagandhi's first female member, rounded out the lineup and led to Victory Lap, a new album and an aggressive thrash-metal title track that kicks off the record.
The title track sounds almost prophetic when seen through a prism of the spring of 2020: "You say not all cops / You say not all men / Yeah, you insist it's only 99 per cent / There's nothing new for you to learn / OK, sit back, relax, and watch it all burn!"
She’s in the Gang — The Sorels
Released as a single (2017)
The Sorels is a swaggering supergroup of sorts, featuring Winnipeg rockers Joanne Rodriguez (a.k.a. J-Rod) on bass and vocals, guitarist Jen Alexander and drummer Jill Lynott, who together have harnessed a raucous energy in their songs and a devoted following for their shows.
Originally released digitally in 2017 and then pressed to vinyl as one side of a seven-inch single, She’s in the Gang is a quick garage-rock ditty featuring killer harmonies, backup shouts and plenty of attitude.
The ridiculously fun video features live footage of the band, a visit to the witches’ hut in Kildonan Park, a trek through a Value Village and more.
This Mountain — Faouzia
Released as a single (2018)
There is something so magical about the voice of Moroccan-born, Carman-bred pop singer-songwriter Faouzia; the 19-year-old’s lower register is the vocal equivalent of molasses — sweet, deep and smooth — while her powerful upper register soars with an incalculable ease.
Both of these skills are showcased especially well on This Mountain, an anthemic, empowering track that also features expertly executed vocal flutters and runs. This Mountain has racked up more than 13 million streams on Spotify alone, surpassed only by the singer's 2019 single, Born Without a Heart.
Give it To Me — Attica Riots
Love Sunshine & Hysteria (2018)
Winnipeg music-goers were dancing along to Attica Riots’ brand of frenetic alt-rock long before the band released its first full-length album. Love Sunshine & Hysteria was a sort of national coming out for the band known locally for playing high-energy live shows at venues across the city.
The three-piece — made up of brothers Kyle and Anders Erickson, formerly of Inward Eye, and lead singer Bobby Desjarlais — won the BreakOut West recording of the year in 2018 for the album.
Give It To Me was released as a single and appears on the record as an energetic, confrontational ballad about a toxic relationship.
Two Shots — Goody Grace
The name Goody Grace might not be as recognizable as some on this list, but that’s because 22-year-old Selkirk-bred hip hop and pop artist honed his chops in L.A. rather than Winnipeg after getting signed to an American label at the ripe old age of 16.
Grace (whose given name is Branson Gudmundson) began releasing singles right away, but it was the 2018 track Two Shots that sparked a chain reaction of career success.
The indie pop/hip-hop track has accumulated more than 55 million streams on Spotify and helped paved the way for future big-name collabs with bands such as Good Charlotte and Blink-182.
Waiting Room — Taylor Janzen
In her short career, 21-year-old Taylor Janzen has been able to make an indelible impression on whatever audience she meets; whether that’s at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, South by Southwest, Shaky Knees in Atlanta, or in the earbuds of taste-makers at the New York Times or even here at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Waiting Room is a prime example of why people are so drawn to Janzen; she has the ability to be both relatable and incredible in her lyricism and musical composition, and while her more current releases reap the benefits of being backed by a label (more production, fuller band), Waiting Room hits all the right notes.
I Sink I Sink — Living Hour
Softer Faces (2019)
The shoegaze genre has made a bit of a local comeback in recent years, and one of the groups leading the charge is Living Hour. The band’s 2019 sophomore release is a dream from start to finish, but one song, I Sink I Sink, has garnered a bit more attention than the rest after being featured in the second episode of the new Netflix series, Never Have I Ever, created by Mindy Kaling.
The stunning track is used to soundtrack an important and emotional flashback scene and is able to capture its complicated emotions perfectly.
Dancing in the Living Room — Del Barber
Easy Keeper (2019)
Del Barber is a plain-spoken roots/folk singer-songwriter and real-life farmer who hit his sweet spot on his fifth record, last year’s Easy Keeper.
Of that album’s 11 songs, Dancing in the Living Room is a standout, a warm and beautifully breezy tune, an easily loping reminder that, even when times are hard, solace can be found in the arms of a loved one as you lose yourselves in a moment of sweet embrace.
Millennium for All — John K. Samson
Released as a single (2020)
When the Millennium Library decided to install heightened security measures, a group of regulars and concerned Winnipeggers banded together to raise their voices in opposition to the move, which they felt (and still feel) disproportionately targets the city’s most vulnerable. One of those in the group called Millennium for All was former Weakerthans singer-songwriter John K. Samson.
"We’d been working together on getting the security taken down at the Millennium Library for several months," says Samson, a library regular and a former writer-in-residence there. "We’d all been thinking about what we had lost, and what we had lost was a gathering place. The real intersection of Winnipeg is, in my mind, the Millennium Library."
The song, released as a single by Epitaph Records, features Samson and his partner Christine Fellows, as well as Jason Tait, Ashley Au, Scott Nolan and more, and captures the cross-section of visitors who convene among the books.
The Spark — William Prince
One of only two entries from 2020 on this list, The Spark is a choice based on what we feel is an inevitability, which is that William Prince is destined to become a permanent and increasingly important fixture in our Manitoba music scene.
The Spark is the perfect introduction to this current moment in Prince's career — it has a Breathless vibe in its tone and content, but it’s more mature, it’s cleaner and sharper.
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It’s also the perfect introduction to an album full of similarly well-developed and expertly executed songs; Reliever, Prince’s sophomore release, has already added more fans to his growing group and, more recently, landed on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize long list.
The Sultan — The Squires
Released as a single (1963)
In 1963, Winnipeg-based label V Records released a 45 rpm record called The Sultan, attributed to an up-and-coming band dubbed the Squires. Little did the folks behind V Records know The Sultan, the first-known recording by Neil Young, would become one of the most sought after pieces of vinyl on Earth, with mint-condition copies commanding as much as $20,000 when they come up for auction.
"It was my first recording session and I was just glad to be there for the experience, but I was still searching for the right sound," Young said years later, when asked about The Sultan, a single so rare — only 300 were printed— he reportedly doesn’t have his own copy.
A guitar-driven instrumental, The Sultan mimicked popular acts of the day, namely the Ventures and the Shadows. The Sultan was released on CD for the first time as part of the Neil Young box set The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972.
Neil or no Neil? That was the question.
When the nine writers responsible for this project convened in April via Zoom to set a few ground rules, one of the first things we asked ourselves was where Neil Young would fit into the mix.
Sure, the two-time Grammy Award winner has long been a Winnipeg booster, often citing the city as Canada's undisputed home of rock and roll. And yes, the River Heights house he lived in with his mother while attending Kelvin High School is a highlight of rock historian John Einarson’s Magical Mystery History Tour Bus Ride. (Heck, even Bob Dylan took time out of his busy schedule a few years ago to cab over from his hotel to have a look around, hours before his own show at Bell MTS Place.)
In the end we decided to exclude Young from the Top 150 except for one song, The Sultan, which he recorded in 1963 with Winnipeg-based the Squires. The reasoning was two-fold.
First of all, unlike the majority of the artists on the list, Young wasn't born in Manitoba. He moved to Winnipeg in 1960 at the age of 15 from his hometown of Toronto.
Second, it's correct to say his music career didn't take off in earnest until he famously left the city in 1965 at the wheel of his beloved hearse, bound for Ontario. A year later he hooked up with Steven Stills to form Buffalo Springfield and the rest, as they say, is history.
Funny thing, though: While you can take the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer out of Winnipeg, seems you can’t take Winnipeg out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Proving that fact, here is a short list of songs from Young's vast canon that give a shout-out to Winnipeg in one form or another.
Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing
The first single from Buffalo Springfield's self-titled debut album was the Young composition Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing. A hit in Los Angeles, where the band was based, it didn’t achieve the chart success the group was hoping for, however, failing to crack Billboard’s Top 40.
In John Einarson’s book For What It's Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, Young told the author the person he refers to was from Kelvin’s Class of ’63, a “strange cat” named Ross (Clancy) Smith.
Another nod to the Peg: on the back cover of the album, where group members included a few personal tidbits — astrological sign, favourite colour, that sort of thing — Young listed Winnipeg as his hometown.
Don’t Be Denied
It doesn’t take a rock 'n' roll savant to figure out what Young is singing about in Don’t Be Denied, a track from his 1973 live album, Time Fades Away.
“When I was a young boy my mama said to me / your daddy’s leaving home today, I think he’s gone to stay / We packed up all our bags and drove out to Winnipeg.” (Wait, that doesn’t rhyme.)
The autobiographical tune, all about Young’s parents’ divorce, was covered years later, strangely enough, by Norah Jones. As far as we can tell, Jones has no affiliation with our fair burg whatsoever, which was probably the reason she sang Don't Be Denied in the third person instead.
This Note’s for You
This Note’s for You, Neil Young’s 16th studio album, is credited to Neil Young and the Blue Notes, the band name a not so subtle nod to the Blue Note Café. The “Note,” as it was known to its nocturnal devotees, was a late-night Winnipeg coffee house and popular hangout for local musicians.
Though a bit hard to discern, the cover of the album, which Young’s label complained wasn’t commercial enough, is a shot of the back lane behind the café, which stood at 224 Main St. (The building was demolished in 2011.)
In 2015, 27 years after This Note’s For You’s original release, Young issued Bluenote Café, a live album recorded in 1988 with the Blue Notes.
Prairie Town, an autobiographical tune that appears on Randy Bachman’s 1993 release Any Road, features Young on guitar.
Young is also the subject of a verse that goes, “On the other side of Winnipeg, Neil and the Squires played the Zone / But then he went to play for a while in Thunder Bay, he never looked back and he's never coming home.”
OK, that last part’s not true. Young has played Winnipeg numerous times through the years, including February 2019 when he and his longtime back-up band Crazy Horse performed one show at the Burton Cummings Theatre, and another the following night at the Centennial Concert Hall.
— David Sanderson
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Updated on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at 9:08 AM CDT: Correction: The Neil Young sidebar has been corrected to remove reference to Neil Young playing at the Blue Note Cafe in the 1960s.
11:27 AM: Correction: The spelling of Ed Philp's name has been corrected.