Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
This article was published 29/6/2017 (1136 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"That sounds like fun," we all said, laughing naively.
Around five minutes into our first meeting, we realized this project was not going to be fun; it was going to be a flurry of meetings and emails and long-winded conversations about the relevance of the Moffatts and which Gino Vannelli song is the Gino Vannelli-est. It was a slog, but we made it.
Before you start complaining that we got it all wrong and have no idea what we’re talking about, we thought it’d be useful to explain our process for coming up with what we think is a pretty comprehensive list. (And if you still think we have no idea what we’re talking about, we welcome a discussion in the comments!)
The panel consisted of me, writer Jill Wilson, arts editor Alan Small, copy editor Rob Williams, columnist Jen Zoratti, associate editor Sarah Lilleyman, books and drinks editor Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson, managing editor for Canstar News John Kendle, and writer David Sanderson. We have all written about and/or worked in the music and entertainment industry for years, some of us for decades.
Each section below includes a Spotify playlist of the songs in it.
If you want to take the full experience with you on the road, you can listen to a playlist that includes 148 of our 150 songs (two were not available) on Spotify here.
The formal discussions began in early May; we started with a list of more than 250 songs that we cut down during two obscenely long meetings. There were arguments, there were eye rolls, there were heavy sighs of concession and, most importantly, there were snacks.
To make things a little easier, we put the following guideline on our picks: Each artist could have only one song on the list; if the artist was part of a band and then had a solo career, one song could be included for each.
We did this to prevent a list entirely made up of Neil Young, the Tragically Hip and Leonard Cohen — with only 150 spots to fill, we chose to place priority on variety.
We also made the conscious decision to not label the list "best of" or "iconic" and instead chose the word "important": the other language felt too limiting, and also exclusionary to many newer Canadian artists who are at the beginning of very promising careers and have not yet had the time for their songs to marinate the way others have.
To rank the Top 10, each person submitted a secret ballot, and, after a complicated tabulation process, Ahead by a Century by the Tragically Hip came out on top.
We’ve all spent the last month writing and interviewing — each and every song on our list of 150 is backed with a justification for its place, written by a team of just those nine panel members — and our web and print teams have put together an amazing package to visually display this massive project.
So, read through, listen to the playlists online, reacquaint yourself with some of your favourite tracks, fall in love with some new ones, and get incensed over the ones we missed.
We look forward to your comments (kind of).
— Erin Lebar
Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)
Nautical Disaster, the allegorical nightmare from the band’s Day for Night album, was one such track.
But it may surprise some Hip fans to learn that one of the Kingston, Ont., band’s best-known and most-loved tunes was also worked up during NOIS jams. In its earliest form, this bright, chiming song was a rather crude little ditty about a boy and a girl climbing a tree, playing doctor and then getting married. (Hence the line: "No dress rehearsal, this is our life.")
Don’t believe it? Check out this YouTube video of a recording of what is known as the "Cookie Factory" version of NOIS made at the PinkPop festival in Holland in June 1995.
When it was released as the first single from the Hip’s 1996 album, Trouble at the Henhouse, Ahead by a Century was greeted as a real departure. On the surface, it was a shimmering love song, featuring delicate dual vocals by Gord Downie and Paul Langlois but, as ABAC progresses, and Langlois’ slashing rhythm guitar kicks in, it’s apparent the song is also about the struggles of any long-term relationship, as in the line "And disappointing you’s getting me down."
Over the years, however, Ahead By a Century has taken on a triumphant tone — proof to fans that love can indeed conquer all.
— John Kendle
Because you can’t have a good campfire party without either.
What is one of Canada’s most famous tunes might also be its simplest. British author Sam Inglis, in his book Neil Young’s Harvest, writes: "For all its ubiquity, Heart of Gold is a slight affair: an effortless, straightforward melody set to a sparse four-chord backing, with a lyric amounting to barely 10 lines."
While Young, who spent his high school years in Winnipeg, is considered among Canada’s songwriting greats, he got some big-time help to give Heart of Gold its memorable sound back in 1972. Timing is everything: Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were rehearsing for an appearance on Johnny Cash’s television show in Nashville and Young’s manager rounded them up and brought them to the studio, creating a hall-of-fame backing vocal for a soon-to-be hall-of-fame song — Young’s only No. 1 hit.
Ben Keith plays pedal steel guitar on Heart of Gold, and it blends so nicely with Young’s harmonica. Keith at the time was a Nashville veteran; he wound up being Young’s right-hand music man for four decades, onstage and on dozens of recordings.
Twenty years later, Young brought them all back together, and with the song Harvest Moon, they almost matched Heart of Gold’s sound and mood. Looking back, you can’t talk about one song without the other.
— Alan Small
Music from Big Pink (1968)
Inspired by America and its people, the song was written in the U.S. and is for the most part sung by an American.
In the mid-1960s Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — all hailing from Toronto —partnered with drummer/singer Levon Helm, an Arkansan, and became the Band. The Weight, from the 1968 album Music from Big Pink, was primarily written by Robertson, and references many friends of the musicians — Anna Lee, Crazy Chester and others. Many find biblical subtext in the song, from the reference to Nazareth to "Miss Moses" to "old Carmen and the devil, walking side by side."
While serving as artistic director at the West End Cultural Centre, in 2008 Dominic Lloyd gathered a huge cross-section of local artists to re-enact the Band’s iconic, Martin Scorsese-directed 1978 concert film The Last Waltz as a way to send off the venue before it underwent renovations.
"I was trying to figure out a way to get as many people from as many different music communities in one show and have it make sense," Lloyd explains. "House of Doc was one of the groups that helped perform The Weight. I wanted to find a family band, and it doesn’t get more Manitoban than a Mennonite family band. We turned it into a Manitoba song."
As for the Canadian-ness of the Band and The Weight, for Lloyd it’s less obvious than some others. "It’s not that everything that has to do with Canada has to be a flag-waving song, or feature the Group of Seven or the Rocky Mountains, but there are certainly people who have made their mark in that way," says Lloyd. "The Band doesn’t have that association."
— Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
At the heart of this sweeping, orchestral indie-rock opus is Wake Up, a titan of an anthem that has secured unimpeachable places on many best-of lists — including this one.
Wake Up was actually the fifth single to be released from Funeral, which was recorded following the deaths of several people in the band members’ families, but it’s among the album’s most enduring. The song’s cinematic heft lends itself well to heart-tugging montages, which is why Wake Up has soundtracked everything from movie trailers to Super Bowl commercials to the promotional video for Los Angeles’ 2024 Olympic bid.
But this song is best heard live. Whether it’s performed in a club, concert hall, arena, stadium, or festival field, Wake Up reliably delivers the shared, singular experience music lovers live for: when everyone raises their voices up, together, for that soaring chorus, creating a tsunami of sound and emotion.
Indeed, as Toronto writer Stuart Berman at Pitchfork notes, the song’s legacy lies in that oft-imitated chorus, which served as the template for much of the whoa-oh refrains that defined indie rock in much of the latter 2000s. Writes Berman, "the wordless, heaving chorus of Wake Up remains one of the most thrilling, bracing moments in recent rock history."
Over four studio albums, this collective of Canadian art-rock weirdos led by Win Butler and Regine Chassagne became one of the world’s biggest indie rock bands. And 13 years later, Arcade Fire still closes its shows with Wake Up.
— Jen Zoratti
Sit Down Young Stranger (1970)
Dylan might not have been able to pick a favourite, but you know a song is a force to be reckoned with when you rename an album after it. Lightfoot’s sixth record, Sit Down Young Stranger, wasn’t selling particularly well, but once it was reissued as If You Could Read My Mind, it rocketed up the charts, matching the trajectory of its first single.
It became the Orillia, Ont., troubadour’s bestselling album and solidified his reputation as a folk-rock icon.
If You Could Read My Mind was his first American hit, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard charts in ‘71 and introducing U.S. audiences to the baritone bard. (It made a weird resurgence on the international charts in 1998, thanks to a disco-style cover by house-music collective Starz on 54 for the film Studio 54.) It’s been covered by everyone from Petula Clark and Liza Minnelli to Sarah McLachlan and Dwight Yoakam, who frequently plays it at live shows.
Dave Bidini of Toronto art-rock band the Rheostatics is the author of Writing Gordon Lightfoot, a quasi-autobiography of the reclusive folksinger, to whom he writes a series of letters. "When people say ‘Lightfoot,’ it’s like saying ‘Muskoka’ or ‘Gretzky’ or ‘Trudeau,’ " writes the singer-guitarist, whose band covered another Lightfoot classic, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, on its Melville album. "In the lyrics — and in your persona, really — you create a place where tough and sad meet, where the strong man is weakened by the world’s forces."
That’s certainly true here, as the deeply personal song, inspired by the singer’s divorce, finds him struggling with anger, regret and resignation in a way that feels universal — "I don’t know where we went wrong / But the feelings gone and I just can’t get it back," he sings, a tender, minor-key acoustic-guitar melody swaddled in strings that might sound its best coming out of an AM radio.
— Jill Wilson
We tried our best to make conversation, but it had been a pretty quiet ride. That is, until Bryan Adams’ Summer of ‘69 happened to come on the radio.
"Summer of ‘69!" they hollered, "Bryan Adams!"
They knew all the words, and proceeded, with gumption, to sing along to the entire song.
That is just one example of the reach this song has — from cottage country in Canada to wine country in Europe, everyone knows, and can relate to, Summer of ‘69.
"It’s the perfect pop song. It’s upbeat, nostalgic, romantic and because Bryan sings it, it has a toughness to it, too," says Max Kerman, frontman of Hamilton rock band the Arkells. "You know a song is in rarefied air when you recognize it after the first strum of the guitar."
Kerman, along with several other Canadian music celebs, had the opportunity to sing the iconic song with the Kingston, Ont.-born Adams at the 2017 Juno Awards, which Adams (who is an Officer of the Order of Canada) co-hosted.
"It was surreal," says Kerman of the experience.
"The idea came together the day before the Junos and we had one soundcheck for practice, so I didn’t have much time to think about it. I was standing with Ben from Billy Talent onstage going, ‘This is absurd! How do we get to call this our job?’ You couldn’t get the grin off our faces.
"Bryan and his band made it so easy on us. Bryan said, ‘The most important thing is that everyone has fun! Just imagine you’re singing karaoke on a Saturday night, and it’ll be perfect!’
— Erin Lebar
Permanent Waves (1980)
In 1979, when the two of us were Grade 12 students at Windsor Park Collegiate, I’d occasionally drop by his place after class. Invariably, I’d find him holed up in his rec room, pounding away at his beloved bass guitar, playing along to one 10-minute Rush opus or another that was blasting away on the Chale family stereo. Sometimes it was La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise in Self-Indulgence) from Hemispheres. Other times it was Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage from A Farewell to Kings.
"Seriously," I’d joke. "Those are song titles?"
At the time I was more drawn to the new wave sound that was coming out of England, spearheaded by acts such as Nick Lowe and XTC. At Ron’s urging, however, I picked up a copy of Rush’s Permanent Waves the week it was released in January 1980. (Truth be told, as an avid record collector, I was never too concerned with genres, which might explain why I own as many Hall and Oates records as I do the Replacements.)
The first thing that struck me about Permanent Waves’ lead track, The Spirit of Radio, was that it was — dare I say it? — catchy, in particular the reggae-fied closing section that riffs on Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence ("For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall… concert hall!")
Heck, you could almost dance to the thing.
The Spirit of Radio was a game-changer for Rush. Although the Toronto power trio will never be mistaken for a singles act à la the Beatles or ABBA, the tune, which clocked in at un-Rush-like 4:57, reached No. 13 on the U.K. Top 40 chart, and was included on a list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll," according to no less an authority than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
— David Sanderson
Reconstruction Site (2003)
The song frames itself around three words: I hate Winnipeg. And it gives us three characters to express that sentiment — a dollar-store clerk, a bus driver, and the Golden Boy atop the Legislature.
In just a few short minutes, Samson creates a whole world through the eyes of these figures, spanning the dullness of the day-to-day to the decay of the North End. It makes for a bittersweet ode to this city.
As a come-from-away who chose Winnipeg as my home two years ago, the song has its own particular meaning for me. I can honestly tell you that I have never said "I hate Winnipeg" and meant it.
Sure, I’ve been frustrated by those long winters, I’ve heard those heartbreaking clicks of a dead car battery (I always forget to plug in). But that frustration has never settled into my bones, at least not about this place.
Still, I can relate to One Great City! in almost every way. In another place, I’ve seen a darker grey break through a lighter one. I’ve felt disappointment about where I ended up. And I’ve taken some solace in blaming the town I chose to call home.
This is no effort to "claim" your song, Winnipeg. One Great City! is yours, and belongs to no other place. But its specificity is what makes it universal. And what makes it so worthy of this top 10 list.
Home can be harsh, but it is what you make of it. I, for one, have decided to love this town.
— Sarah Lilleyman
Ingénue was both a breakout and a crossover album for lang, who already had some international recognition — and a Grammy for her 1989 album, Absolute Torch and Twang — under her belt. But it was Ingénue, and specifically the runaway hit Constant Craving, that sent her into the stratosphere.
Ditching the country for a more contemporary pop feel, Constant Craving serves as a showpiece for lang’s indelible voice; a burning, yearning torch song about wanting what you can’t have. It was a huge hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart, and No. 38 on the Hot 100. The song also netted lang another Grammy in 1993, this time for Best Female Pop Performance, as well as several other nominations.
The song also had its imitators. The chorus from the Rolling Stones’ 1997 single Anybody Seen My Baby? sounds so strikingly similar to that of Constant Craving that the British rock legends gave lang and her co-writer Ben Mink a songwriting credit.
The release of lang’s landmark album dovetailed with a significant moment in her personal life: she came out to the world on the cover of The Advocate, America’s national LGBT magazine, a few months after the album’s release.
By August 1993, she was on the cover of Vanity Fair — a now-iconic image in which lang, dressed in a pinstripe suit and seated in a barber’s chair, is receiving a straight-blade shave from a lingerie-clad Cindy Crawford.
America’s new sweetheart was a "lesbian, feminist, vegetarian Canadian" as a 1993 Rolling Stone headline proclaimed, and 25 years later, k.d. lang remains an uncompromising artist.
— Jen Zoratti
Various Positions (1984)
It can be heard at weddings and funerals, during teen-soap montages and to punctuate all of life’s important moments, onscreen and off. It’s a universal signifier for every emotion, ranging from the heights of victory to the depths of despair. Its lyrical nuances are varied enough for anyone to find meaning in, whatever the situation.
Even the song’s composition has taken on the stuff of legend. Cohen — the Montreal-born renaissance man who was a poet, painter and performer — said the song took two years to write; he came up with as many as 80 different verses, four of which were initially recorded before the song was reworked again for a 1988 live version, which appeared on the 1994 album, Cohen Live.
"I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel (in New York), on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’" he told England’s Independent newspaper.
The original dirge-like recording is filled with biblical references, while the live version is almost soulful, featuring a completely different set of lyrics, with the exception of the final verse.
For years, Hallelujah was just another Cohen song until former Velvet Underground member John Cale came up with his own arrangement, featuring lyrics from both of Cohen’s versions, and released it on a 1991 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan, which put the song back on the public’s radar. This version was used in the 2001 film Shrek, although the soundtrack features Rufus Wainwright’s take on it.
In Canada, the song again took on a renewed interest when a barefoot k.d. lang’s powerful version sent shivers up the spines of everyone in attendance at the 2005 Junos at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre. She would famously perform the song in front of Cohen when he was inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2006, and for a reported global audience of three billion during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
The song hit charts around the world, many for the first time, following Cohen’s death in November 2016.
— Rob Williams
I’m Moving On — Hank Snow
Released as a single (1950)
Nova Scotian Hank Snow’s 12-bar, honky-tonk blues number I’m Moving On hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts in August 1950. It stayed there for the next 21 weeks — an achievement that stood for 63 years, until Cruise by Florida Georgia Line spent 22 weeks atop that same chart in 2013. I’m Moving On, the Yodeling Ranger’s signature tune, has been performed by a gazillion acts during the last seven decades, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Everly Brothers and Led Zeppelin.
Standing on the Corner — Four Lads
Released as a single (1956)
Early in their career, Canadian Music Hall of Fame members the Four Lads went by the Otnorots, Otnorot being the name of their hometown, Toronto, spelled backwards. The Lads, famous for their barbershop-quartet-style harmonies, enjoyed a number of million-selling singles in the ‘50s, chief among them the not-so-politically correct Standing on the Corner, which included the line "you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking," in regards to the women they ogled, while they parked themselves "on the corner, watching all the girls go by."
Diana — Paul Anka
Released as a single (1957)
In 1957, Paul Anka became the first Canadian to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Best Sellers chart thanks to Diana, a song the Ottawa native penned at the tender age of 15. The song’s opening couplet, "I’m so young and you’re so old, this my darling I’ve been told," led many to believe Anka had written the song about one of his former babysitters. The Canada Walk of Fame honoree dispelled that myth in 2005, when he said in an interview the Diana in question was a girl he first spotted in church, but didn’t have the guts to say hi to.
Fortune Teller — Bobby Curtola
Mr. Personality (1962)
According to the late singer’s website, Port Arthur, Ont., native Bobby Curtola became the first Canadian performer to land a long-term engagement in Las Vegas, when the former teen idol inked a multi-year, million-dollar deal in Sin City in 1972. Year in, year out, one of the highlights of Curtola’s performances was Fortune Teller, an infectious pop tune that sold more than two million copies in the days and months following its release 55 years ago.
Four Strong Winds — Ian and Sylvia
Four Strong Winds (1963)
No song stirs the souls of Albertans quite like this melancholy tune Ian Tyson wrote in a MacDougal Street coffee shop in Greenwich Village, N.Y., during the folk boom of the early 1960s. Ian and Sylvia — at the time a husband-and-wife duo — released it 1963, and it made it to the country’s Top 10. However, it was the countless cover versions of the song by various artists since — from Neil Young and Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash and the Tragically Hip — that kept Four Strong Winds as part of the country’s consciousness.
Universal Soldier — Buffy Sainte-Marie
It’s My Way! (1964)
Glasgow, Scotland, the birthplace of singer-songwriter Donovan, doesn’t have much in common with the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan’s Qu’appelle Valley, where indigenous singer Buffy Sainte-Marie was born in 1941. That made it all the more unusual when Donovan — of Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman fame — chose to cover Universal Soldier, a protest song Sainte-Marie, an Academy Award- and Governor General’s Performing Arts Award-winner, composed in 1964. While Donovan may have enjoyed more chart success with Universal Soldier — his version reached No. 5 on the U.K. pop chart — Sainte-Marie’s global message about "individual responsibility for war" continues to resonate with performers around the world; to date, the song has been recorded in numerous languages, including Dutch, Polish, German and Finnish.
Born to be Wild — Steppenwolf
Steppenwolf not only unleashed a rock staple with Born to Be Wild; the Toronto band introduced the term "heavy metal" into the lexicon while describing a motorcycle. The single was a hit, but soon became a counter-culture anthem thanks to its inclusion in the 1969 biker movie Easy Rider. The song was written by drummer Jerry Edmonton’s brother Dennis, under the pen name Mars Bonfire. The track has been used in more than 40 movies, TV shows and commercials and is a standard on classic-rock stations.
Because radio program directors at the time largely ignored black artists, opting to play saccharine versions of R&B classics such as Shake, Rattle and Roll and Sh-Boom instead, the "white" versions of those numbers tended to do better, sales-wise.
Most of the time, the cover paled when compared to the original (Exhibit A: Pat Boone’s milquetoast take on Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti). On rare occasions, however, the re-recording actually managed to outstrip its predecessor, as was arguably the case with Toronto-based band the Diamonds’ buoyant interpretation of Little Darlin’, a doo-wop ditty first performed by American group the Gladiolas.
"The Diamonds’ take remained the bigger hit and over the years the better-known-version," writes Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a critic for on-line music site Allmusic. "Normally this would have been an outrage, but there’s a reason why the Diamonds’ version has sustained its popularity over the years: it’s a better, fiercer recording."
Little Darlin’ — noteworthy for profound lyrics such as "wella-wella-wella" and "a-hoopa, a-hoopa, hoopa" — was the third-biggest-selling single in North America in 1957. In a 2008 interview with the Free Press, the Diamonds’ co-founder and original lead singer Dave Somerville discussed his group’s top-seller, which gained new life in 1973 when it was included on the gazillion-selling American Graffiti soundtrack.
"Little Darlin’ sat at No. 2 (on the Billboard charts) for an agonizing eight weeks," said Somerville, who died in 2015. "We’d wait for Billboard to come out every week to see how we were doing (but) we were kept there — languishing, suffering — by a guy named Elvis Presley."
— Dave Sanderson
Which Way You Goin’ Billy — Poppy Family
Which Way You Goin’ Billy (1969)
First off, nobody in the Poppy Family went by the surname Poppy. Rather, the Vancouver-based pop outfit was led by Terry Jacks and his wife Susan Jacks. Second, it’s difficult to believe a pair of newlyweds, which the Jacks were when Which Way You Goin’ Billy came out in 1969, could have been this maudlin. The tune, as wistful a breakup song as you’ll ever hear, hit No. 1 on Canada’s national chart — a feat it came close to duplicating south of the border, where it stalled — sniff, sniff — at No. 2.
Snowbird — Anne Murray
This Way Is My Way (1969)
Anne Murray was a trailblazer for women in Canadian country music, and Snowbird stands as her signature song, although it has been covered by numerous artists, including Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Perry Como. The yearning, soft-rock number was written by Gene MacLellan, who met Murray when the two were on the CBC TV series Singalong Jubilee. She recorded it for her 1969 sophomore album and it was released as a single the next year, hitting the top of the charts in Canada and No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart in the U.S. It was the first American gold record ever awarded to a Canadian solo female artist. You Needed Me was a bigger hit, but Snowbird will always be most associated with the Nova Scotia songbird.
Signs — Five Man Electrical Band
Goodbyes and Butterflies (1970)
Admit it: When the "long-haired, freaky" protagonist reaches for a pen and a paper during the last verse of Signs and makes up his "own little sign," you can’t help but sing the next line, "Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ‘bout me, I’m alive and doin’ fine" at the top of your lungs, now can you? Signs was originally released in 1970 as the B-side of long-forgotten Hello Melinda Goodbye. Luckily, a record-company exec convinced the band’s label to give the song another shot a few months later, this time as the feature selection.
As the Years Go By — Mashmakhan
A good 10 years before "big in Japan" became a catchphrase, Quebec-based rock fusion act Mashmakhan really, truly was. The band’s hippie-dippy debut single As the Years Go By which kicks off with the memorable, answer-a-question-with-a-question lyric, "A child asks his mother, ‘Do you love me?’ and it really means, ‘Will you protect me?’" — sold 100,000 copies in Canada, five times that in the States and a whopping one million copies in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Big Yellow Taxi — Joni Mitchell
Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
Of all the Joni Mitchell classics, this might have the strongest legacy, given the number of times it’s been covered, sampled and referenced. Mitchell, who hails from Fort Macleod, Alta., has said in interviews that she wrote the song on her first trip to Hawaii, after looking out her hotel window at a lush, green paradise juxtaposed with an endless parking lot. The "tree museum" is supposedly a reference to a museum of tropical plants in Honolulu that once cost "a dollar and a half" just to see. In a later version of the song, Mitchell upped the entry fee to "an arm and a leg," perhaps to keep the song from sounding too dated — but it hardly matters. To this day, its sentiment of, "You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone," has never resonated more.
One Fine Morning — Lighthouse
One Fine Morning (1971)
In 1969, 12 months after the Chicago Transit Authority (later simply Chicago) made "a rock and roll band with horns" plausible, Skip Prokop co-founded Lighthouse, a jazz-rock fusion outfit that, early in its career, appeared at such noteworthy get-togethers as the Monterey and Newport jazz festivals. Lighthouse, which won Juno Awards for Canadian Group of the Year in 1972, 1973 and 1974, recorded One Fine Morning in 1971. The seminal single served as the encore for their groundbreaking, 1972 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which was documented on the platinum album, Lighthouse Live!
Some Sing, Some Dance — Michel Pagliaro
Montreal native Michel Pagliaro — Pag to his legion of fans — was the first Canuck to net Top 40 hits in both official languages. His catchy, uptempo rocker J’entends Frapper quickly became the top-selling single in the history of La Belle Province when it was released in 1972. But it was Some Sing Some Dance that endeared the singer-songwriter to rock ‘n’ roll-loving anglophones from coast to coast. At the time, music critics lauded Some Sing...’s Beatles-esque sound. Coincidence? Perhaps not; portions of the album the song was taken from were recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios.
(American Woman, 1970)
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 core guitar riff and lyrics came about in a live jam after singer Burton Cummings was late returning to the stage for the second show of a gig in southern Ontario in August 1969. (Guitarist Randy Bachman remembers the gig being in Kitchener, while Cummings thinks it was at a curling club in Scarborough.)
Cummings has said he was outside the hall, chatting with a fan, when he heard Bachman’s guitar fire up and bassist Jim Kale and drummer Garry Peterson fall into a groove behind him. Bachman liked the impromptu riff he’d come up with, so he and the rhythm section kept it going as Cummings scrambled back onstage and began improvising lyrics. A kid at the show was using an early cassette recorder to record the gig, so the quartet, knowing it was onto something, sent their tour manager to retrieve the tape. They finished the song later that month, while recording the American Woman album at the RCA Mid-America Recording Center in Chicago with producer Jack Richardson.
The album version of the tune, with a bluesy acoustic guitar intro and matching, vampy Cummings vocal, clocked in at 5:15, so it was edited down to 3:51 when it was released in March 1970.
When it came out, American Woman began a climb up the U.S. singles chart that peaked on May 9, 1970, when it hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 singles chart, knocking ABC by the Jackson 5 out of top spot, while some little band called the Beatles checked in at No. 3 with Let it Be.
American Woman stayed at No. 1 for two more weeks. The Guess Who’s legacy was ensured, and it has endured for the past 47 years.
Ask just about any Winnipeg baby boomer how the song goes. They’ll tell you:
"Dum dum dadada dada dada dada dum dum dadada dada da dum."
— John Kendle
Put Your Hand in the Hand — Ocean
Put Your Hand in the Hand (1971)
How could a band called Ocean NOT score its first (and only) million-seller with a gospel ditty about "a man from-a Galilee" who calms the sea? Originally recorded by Anne Murray, Ocean’s version of Put Your Hand in the Hand turned out to be the 22nd biggest-selling single of 1971, worldwide. The song — a staple of ‘70s K-Tel compilations — was later covered by Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others.
Sweet City Woman — Stampeders
Against the Grain (1971)
Calgary’s the Stampeders weren’t kidding when they crowed, "the banjo and me we got a feel for singing" during the bridge of Sweet City Woman, the SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award-winners’ biggest hit. Sweet City Woman, which took home the Juno Award for Best Single in 1972, is the only rock song we can think of that features a banjo as its lead instrument. (That’s not all! It’s also the only song that comes to mind with a chorus built entirely around the French phrase, "bon, c’est bon, bon, bon, c’est bon, bon.")
Oh What a Feeling — Crowbar
Bad Manors (1971)
This Hamilton, Ont., band’s biggest hit came early in its career — just one year after forming — having recently been fired by Ronnie Hawkins as his backup band ("those boys could f--- up a crowbar in 15 seconds," he said of the act). The weird stop-start nature of the song — as well as the odd spoken-word bit in the middle — couldn’t stop this funky feel-good number from peaking at No. 10 on the Canadian charts. The song lives on in community centres across Manitoba as a social staple.
(Make Me Do) Anything You Want — A Foot in Coldwater
A Foot in Coldwater (1972)
"A foot in cold water" is a British expression for bad luck, which doesn’t necessarily apply to Vancouver’s A Foot in Coldwater, considering the band’s debut single was a hit not once, but twice. In 1974, two years after (Make Me Do) Anything You Want cracked the Top 30, the group’s record company included a trimmed-down version of the 5:11 opus on A Foot in Coldwater’s third album, then sat back and cheered as the shorter rendition climbed the charts all over again.
Last Song — Edward Bear
Edward Bear (1972)
Toronto band Edward Bear took its name from A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, whose actual given name is Edward (who knew?). Fronted by lead singer and chief songwriter Larry Evoy, Edward Bear enjoyed a string of modest hits in the late 1960s. Last Song, which, funnily enough, was the first song on their third album, was a runaway, No. 1 hit in Canada and peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Wildflower — Skylark
Not unlike Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or Radiohead’s Paranoid Android, Wildflower, the title of blue-eyed soul group Skylark’s undisputed greatest hit, never comes up in the lyrics of the song. Wildflower, a power ballad before such a term existed, topped Canada’s Adult Contemporary chart when it was released in 1972. That was a harbinger, perhaps, given one of the Vancouver band’s founding members was David Foster, who, thanks to his mid-’80s production work with Chicago and Kenny Rogers, was once "hailed" by Rolling Stone magazine as the "master of… bombastic pop kitsch." (This song is not available on Spotify, but you can listen to it here.)
Rock and Roll Song — Valdy
Country Man (1972)
Rock and Roll Song, the debut single by Paul Valdemor Horsdal, better known as Valdy, is an autobiographical account of the Ottawa folk singer’s appearance at 1968’s Aldergrove Rock Festival. As the hirsute singer strummed away on his acoustic guitar, a throng of 25,000 beer-fuelled rockers began jeering him. Clearly, the singer wrote later, they weren’t in the mood for songs about "peace and contentment" — things Valdy had "come to believe in."
(City Nights, 1978)
Nicholas (Nick) Gilder was just a toddler when his family moved from London, England, to Vancouver in the mid-1950s.
Before striking out on his own in 1977, Gilder fronted the glam-rock band Sweeney Todd, whose break-out smash Roxy Roller topped Canadian charts from coast to coast in 1976.
Hot Child in the City, the fifth track on Gilder’s second solo album, City Nights, was released as a single June 12, 1978. On Oct. 28, 1978, the song, based on Gilder’s experiences noticing teenage prostitutes on Hollywood Boulevard (cheery!), set a record for the longest amount of time it took a single to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart — 138 days.
In 2007, a few weeks before Gilder performed live at a watering hole in deep, dark Transcona, I chatted with the three-time Juno Award winner about the biggest hit of his career.
"The first place Hot Child… was really successful was in Alaska," Gilder said from his home in Vancouver. "I guess you could say it snowballed from there."
Gilder mentioned that during the course of the tune’s long run up the charts, he went from playing 350-seat clubs to performing in football stadiums in front of 30,000 people as a warm-up act for the likes of the Cars, Styx and Foreigner.
"Funny story," Gilder said when I asked him how tough a vocal workout Hot Child in the City was in the studio, given the number of people who swore up and down it was a female’s voice they were singing along with whenever it came on the radio. "After I hit the high E near the end — during the line, ‘Come on down to my place, woman, we’ll make love,’ (producer) Mike (Chapman) turned to me and said, ‘Dude… you might regret that note 20 years from now when people are still asking for this song.’"
— Dave Sanderson
Heartbeat — It’s a Lovebeat - DeFranco Family featuring Tony DeFranco
Heartbeat — It’s a Lovebeat (1973)
Port Colburne, Ont.’s DeFranco Family was the Great White North’s answer to all-sibling American acts such as the Osmonds and the Jackson Five. Fourteen-year-old lead singer Tony DeFranco became an overnight breakout star with the release of Heartbeat — It’s a Lovebeat, the title track of the bubblegum band’s first album. As the chirpy single gained more and more traction — two million copies were sold in North America alone — the youngest DeFranco’s mug was a common sight on the covers of teen-oriented fan zines such as Tiger Beat and 16.
Takin’ Care of Business — Bachman-Turner Overdrive
Bachman-Turner Overdrive (1973)
Is there a tune in this 150-song list that boogies harder than this 1973 smash written by Winnipeg’s Randy Bachman? No way, says Homer Simpson, who dances to the three-chord classic played by an animated version of the band during an episode of The Simpsons. What’s ironic is that Simpson, a symbol of America’s blue-collar society, is gyrating to a song that was originally titled White Collar Worker. Legend has it that Bachman developed the song during his days with the Guess Who, and he swapped in the catchphrase a few years later. The result was BTO’s biggest song and the eventual title of Bachman’s autobiography, co-written with Winnipeg rock historian John Einarson.
Seasons in the Sun — Terry Jacks
Released as a single (1973)
This hit has been on numerous "worst songs of all time" lists, but has sold more than 14 million copies and hit No. 1 around the world when it was released. Terry Jacks’ version is actually a cover; American poet Rod McKuen rewrote a 1961 song, Le Moribund (The Dying Man), by Belgian artist Jacques Brel. The original French-language version dealt with a dying protagonist saying goodbye to his adulterous wife, her lover, a friend and his priest. The updated version ditched the anger and adopted a more reflective tone, which looked back on some of the highlights in the singer’s life. The Winnipeg-born Jacks took the song to a Beach Boys session he was producing, and the band cut a demo, but didn’t want to release it, so he recorded it himself and released it on his own label, Goldfish Records.
The Hockey Song — Stompin’ Tom Connors
Stompin’ Tom and the Hockey Song (1973)
No timeout to check instant replays during National Hockey League games is complete without the ritual playing of all three periods of this 1973 ode to Canada’s game. Saint John, N.B.-born Stompin’ Tom (born Charles Thomas Connors) specialized in Canadiana in its purest form and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more proud of his country; he criss-crossed Canada and sang about truck drivers hauling P.E.I. potatoes, Leamington, Ont., tomato farmers making ketchup and "that wild Alberta rose" k. d. lang. But when "someone roars, Bobby scores / at the good ol’ hockey game," Stompin’ Tom had done his best to bring everyone in the country together.
Rock Me Gently — Andy Kim
Andy Kim (1974)
Montrealer Andrew Youakim first earned success as co-writer of the Archies’ No. 1 hit Sugar, Sugar and also wrote songs for the Monkees, among others. But Andy Kim wanted to step out on his own and, after several false starts, finally hit the jackpot in 1974 with Rock Me Gently, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. Though the song was essentially a Neil Diamond ripoff, its chorus — "rock me gently, rock me slowly, take it easy, don’t you know that I have never been loved like this before" — was a sentiment even a nine-year-old could understand.
Roxy Roller — Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd (1975)
It isn’t an understatement to say Sweeney Todd’s Roxy Roller is as brilliant an example of 1970s glam rock as Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain, T. Rex’s Bang a Gong (Get it On) or Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz. Sung in a towering falsetto by frontman Nick Gilder (who was replaced by a 17-year-old Bryan Adams for Sweeney Todd’s followup album, If Wishes Were Horses), Roxy Roller topped the Canadian record charts for three weeks in 1975.
Oowatanite — April Wine
Stand Back (1975)
Oowatanite starts with two notable features: that instantly recognizable guitar riff and the alarm-worthy cowbell. Myles Goodwin was the voice and main songwriter for the Montreal-based band, but Oowatanite was written and sung by bassist Jim Clench, who presumably was also responsible for its spelling. The song became an instant concert favourite and remains a staple on classic-rock radio. The track was the lead-off song on the band’s fourth album, which sold more than 200,000 copies (double platinum) and started a string of hit albums for the group, although Clench would leave April Wine following the album’s tour cycle and eventually end up in BTO in 1977, replacing Randy Bachman.
(No Stranger to Danger, 1982)
The core of the band throughout its numerous name tweaks (the Payolas, Payola$, Paul Hyde and the Payolas and Rock and Hyde) were vocalist/guitarist Paul Hyde and multi-instrumentalist/producer Bob Rock, the latter of whom would go on to record some of the world’s biggest rock bands. A revolving cast of characters came and went (and, in some cases, came back), but it was Hyde’s voice and Rock’s work in, well, most other areas that defined the band.
The slowed-down ska/reggae feel of Eyes of a Stranger and its clean, echo-ey guitars and drums give the song a British/new wave feel — almost like playing a Clash record on a turntable at a too-slow speed. The song certainly didn’t sound very "Canadian" for the time, at least as far as mainstream radio went. That’s in part due to the involvement in production (and some guitar work) of the late Mick Ronson, former guitarist for David Bowie in the Thin White Duke’s Ziggy Stardust heyday.
The song won the Juno Award for Single of the Year in 1983, and that same year Payola$ won Most Promising Group of the Year at the awards.
Payola$ never really managed to break through into the U.S. market; Eyes of a Stranger climbed to a modest No. 22 on charts south of the border (eventually bested by the 1987 Rock and Hyde synth-heavy track Dirty Water, which reached No. 6). Rock and Hyde’s signature song, however, did have a couple other modest, brief moments in the spotlight in the U.S., showing up in the 1983 Nicolas Cage film Valley Girl, as well as a 1988 episode of Miami Vice.
— Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
Stand Tall — Burton Cummings
Burton Cummings (1976)
At the 1977 Juno Awards ceremony, Burton Cummings didn’t only win Male Vocalist of the Year; the St. John’s High School alumnus also took home the award for this country’s Most Promising Male Vocalist — 11 years after he replaced Chad Allen as the lead singer of the Guess Who. Stand Tall, a sorrowful tale of love gone bad that kicked off Cummings’ solo debut, hit No. 4 in Canada and cracked the Top 10 south of the border.
Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft — Klaatu
3:47 EST (1976)
For a brief spell following the release of Klaatu’s debut album 3:47 EST, tens of thousands of music fans around the globe were convinced the Toronto-based progressive rock outfit was actually the Fab Four in disguise. The band’s record company played along with the Beatles charade for a while, at least until a radio program director in the States did some digging and figured out the members’ true identities. A year after Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft was released, brother-and-sister duo the Carpenters had a close encounter with the trippy tune; their sugar-coated cover was a universal Top 10 success.
From New York to L.A. — Patsy Gallant
Are You Ready for Love (1976)
Move over, Donna Summer: Canada finally had a disco diva to call its own in 1976 when Patsy Gallant, a former pop star hailing from New Brunswick, switched gears entirely and unleashed From New York to L.A. on dance floors across the nation. Not only was the tune a Top 10 hit in Norway, South Africa and Ireland (it hit No. 6 in Canada), it culminated with the blond chanteuse landing a weekly variety show on CTV called — quoi d’autre? — The Patsy Gallant Show.
Sometimes When We Touch — Dan Hill
Longer Fuse (1977)
Never mind that it’s ranked No. 40 on AOL’s list of "100 worst songs ever." And forget the fact another website placed it at No. 7 in a run-down of the ‘70s 10 Ickiest Love Songs, just behind Paul Anka’s shameful (You’re) Having My Baby. Toronto’s Dan Hill became a bona fide, international pop star when his syrupy ballad Sometimes When We Touch ruled the airwaves in the spring of 1978. (This song is not available on Spotify, but you can listen to it here.)
Spaceship Superstar — Prism
Good morning! On March 6, 2011, crew members aboard the space shuttle Discovery were awoken to the strains of Spaceship Superstar, Vancouver band Prism’s debut effort. Although lead singer Ron Tabak boasts in the lyrics about being "at the top of all the charts on Mars," that wasn’t exactly the truth. The track — memorable for its "solar powered laser beam guitar" solo — crash-landed at No. 83 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
It Always Happens This Way (C’est Toujours a Recommencer) — Toulouse
As unlikely a chart-topper in English Canada as there ever was, Toulouse’s It Always Happens This Way (C’est Toujours a Recommencer) was A) disco and B) French disco. Composed of three Montreal women who were previously employed as backup singers on other people’s records, Toulouse enjoyed a run of hits in the mid- to late 1970s, none bigger than It Always… which, despite the language barrier, also managed to crack the Top 40 in markets south of the border.
Raise a Little Hell — Trooper
Thick as Thieves (1978)
The rock anthem Raise a Little Hell is inescapable if you are a sports fan. The Randy Bachman-produced single was the only Trooper song to chart in the U.S. and remains a staple at sporting events across North America. The chant-along chorus — the name of the song repeated six times — is broken up by vocalist Ra McGuire employing the listener to change things they don’t like, right wrongs and fight the good fight by raising a little hell. Raise a Little Hell usually ends the Vancouver band’s main set before the encore.
(Stealing Fire, 1984)
That’s thanks in large part the Barenaked Ladies, whose bouncy, acoustic version of the song from the 1991 Cockburn tribute album Kick at the Darkness charted higher than the original in Canada (No. 16 versus the original’s No. 25).
Lovers, which originally appeared on the Ottawa-born songwriter’s 1984 album Stealing Fire, is built on a punchy bass line and driving drums, with sparse, clean guitar lines and keyboard stabs throughout. Cockburn’s later output embraced a more folk/acoustic-driven vibe, and more recent performances of the song underline how a songwriter with Cockburn’s chops can take a simple three-chord progression and turn it into something far more profound.
That depth is thanks in large part to Cockburn’s lyrics. In Lovers, he song pits innocent young love against a world seemingly heading to hell in a handbasket, with no positive future in sight. The song even managed to earn Cockburn a songwriting credit on U2’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum; in the song God Part II, Bono sings, "I heard a singer on the radio late last night / Says he’s gonna kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight," a reference one of Lovers’ more poignant lines.
While Cockburn is often thought of as a quintessentially Canadian political singer-songwriter, in Lovers in a Dangerous Time he beautifully captures the essence of budding young love set against a treacherous backdrop that could as easily be the Cold War as the Trump era.
— Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
Tired of Waking Up Tired — The Diodes
Formed at the Ontario College of Art in 1976, the Diodes started Canada’s first punk club, the Crash ‘n’ Burn, in their rehearsal space and became the first Canadian punk band to sign to a major label when they inked a deal with CBS. Record-company politics and a desire to focus on the American and U.K. markets meant the Diodes never gained the national exposure they should have, but Tired of Waking Up Tired, a three-minute power-pop guitar tune from the band’s second album, was an immediate anthem and was recognized as such by Winnipeg kids lucky enough to catch the band opening for Split Enz in 1980 at the old Native Club on Stradbrook Avenue.
Echo Beach — Martha and the Muffins
Metro Music (1979)
In 1979, Canadian new wave music was almost unheard of, and it certainly wasn’t cultivated by the Canadian music business. So it wasn’t a massive surprise to learn that the Toronto sextet behind the insistent, icily joyful Echo Beach had been signed by an English record label (DinDisc) and had travelled to the U.K. to record with producer Mike Howlett. The song hit Top 10 status all over the world, propelled by its inner tension between detached cool (Martha Johnson’s vocal, Mark Gane’s guitar line) and inner heat (Andy Haas’ sax solo, Martha Ladly’s swirling organ) and likely inspired a thousand men and women across the country to start their own bands.
The Mary Ellen Carter — Stan Rogers
Between the Breaks… Live! (1979)
This 1979 Celtic-flavoured song is a mixture of inspiration and sadness from one of the country’s most revered folksingers. Hamilton, Ont.-born Rogers specialized in blending storytelling with music: The Mary Ellen Carter is a tale of a group of fishermen who decide to raise the sunken schooner that served them so well instead of accepting an insurance settlement. The chorus of "Rise again! Rise again!" is particularly stirring in the live recording, Home in Halifax, which was released in 1992. The song also serves a sad reminder of what Canada’s music scene lost. Rogers was just 33 years old in 1983 when he died in a fire aboard an Air Canada jet in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Mary Ellen Carter was played in many folk music festivals in his memory that summer, and it remains the finale song on the closing day of the Winnipeg Folk Festival to this day.
This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide — The Kings
The Kings Are Here (1980)
Oakville, Ontario’s the Kings deserve a spot on this list, if only because their double-barrelled smash This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide somehow manages to rhyme Donna and wanna with Toronto. This Beat… enjoyed a modicum of chart success when it first hit the airwaves in 1980. The songs, which like Queen’s We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions are seldom heard apart, gained new life in the late 1980s when stations in Chicago began playing them on an almost hourly basis, not realizing the album they came from had been recorded almost 10 years beforehand.
High School Confidential — Rough Trade
Avoid Freud (1980)
Toronto band Rough Trade’s pulsating new-wave pop tune is a raunchy tale of unrequited lust that scandalized broadcasters and titillated listeners with sexually ambiguous lyrics about a "cool, blond, scheming bitch" who "makes me cream my jeans when she walks my way." Some stations refused to play the song, while others insisted on an edited version, but High School Confidential nevertheless became a Top 20 hit that made stars of the band’s theatrical singer, Carole Pope, and her musical partner, Kevan Staples. Singer k.d. lang has said that Rough Trade’s performance at the 1982 Juno Awards, when Pope sang the "jeans" lyric against the wishes of the CBC, is what inspired her to come out.
Working for the Weekend — Loverboy
Get Lucky (1981)
The sophomore album from Calgary-formed, Vancouver-based fivesome Loverboy sold four million copies in the U.S. based on the strength of such hits as Turn Me Loose and this keyboard-heavy anthem with its chugging bassline and the powerhouse vocals of headbanded lead singer Mike Reno. It may have been the inspiration for a generation of rockers ill-advisedly believing red leather pants were a good look, but it also typifies the sound of the early ‘80s, when meat-and-potatoes rock was grudgingly giving way to power pop and new wave. (Fun fact: the red trousers on the album’s iconic cover were actually worn by the photographer’s daughter, as they were too small for the band members.)
Magic Power — Triumph
Allied Forces (1981)
The lyrics to Triumph’s ode to the magic of music as a mood changer and its ability to make life better seem overly simplistic, but the Toronto power trio fused those words with an irresistible melody and soaring chorus —"I’m young, I’m wild and I’m free / I got the magic power of the music in me" — and crafted a hit that hasn’t lost its, er, power. The song starts as a ballad (similar to the band’s 1979 hit Lay It On the Line) before the tempo picks up and vocalist-guitarist Rik Emmett relates the story of a girl having a bad day who finds comfort in her favourite song on the radio. The second verse is a positive re-enforcement pep talk. The track went to No. 14 on the Canadian RPM Singles chart, No. 8 on the U.S. rock charts and helped album Allied Forces sell more than one million copies.
(Walkin’ the Razor’s Edge, 1984)
The call-and-response lyrics of Rock You are implanted in the brains of a certain generation of Canadians who grew up in the 1980s and witnessed the evolution of the music video and creation of TV shows such as Video Hits.
Kitchener, Ont., hard-rock outfit Helix formed in 1974, but by the early 1980s, vocalist Brian Vollmer was the only original remaining member, and continues to lead the band to this day (yes, they are still touring, and yes they are playing Winnipeg: see them at Nashville’s July 14). The band hit the public’s radar with the single Heavy Metal Love in 1983, but the anthem Rock You, released a year later on the Walkin’ the Razor’s Edge album, soon became a staple and sing-along favourite. Everyone knew how to spell rock.
A key to the single’s success was the video, which features a variety of mid-1980s hard-rock tropes. A wall of fire behind the band? Check. Scantily clad women? Check? Footage of the band performing on a mountain and/or pile of boulders? Check. Leather? You know it. There is even some nudity, which resulted in the uncensored version being banned from MTV in the United States.
The premise is about the band and some other people working on a post-apocalyptic chain gang in some sort of quarry. They break free, dance around a fire and, you know, rock. They rock you. Rock you!
The song hit No. 32 on the charts and the album sold 100,000 copies in Canada (400,000 internationally). There is an acoustic version of it too, recorded for the 2010 album Smash Hits… Unplugged, so maybe you’ll hear it around a campfire this summer. Folk you!
— Rob Williams
My Girl (Gone, Gone Gone) — Chilliwack
Wanna Be a Star (1981)
The first song of the second side of K-Tel’s 1982 compilation Hit Express — oh, and also from Chilliwack’s 1981 album Wanna Be A Star — My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) opens with that oh-so-familiar monotone "a-gone gone gone, she been gone so long" that gets you immediately snapping along with Bill Henderson and company. The song hit No. 3 on the Canadian charts and peaked at No. 22 in the U.S., earning the Vancouver group two Juno nominations in the process.
When I’m With You — Sheriff
A cloying, treacly ballad that brings REO Speedwagon or Journey to mind, When I’m With You was originally a single from the Toronto quintet’s 1982 debut. In late 1988, DJs in Vegas and the Seattle area inexplicably began playing it again and listener response was so strong that Capitol Records re-released it — despite the fact Sheriff had broken up. Even without a band behind it, When I’m With You hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 4, 1989, making for a unique Canadian pop success story.
The Safety Dance — Men Without Hats
Rhythm of Youth (1982)
Legend has it frontman for Montreal group Men Without Hats, Ivan Doroschuk, wrote The Safety Dance after he was kicked out of a club for pogoing. While the annoyingly infectious synth-pop song inspired by that incident doesn’t sound punk, its simple lyric does espouse the ethos of living and acting however you want, wherever you want. Accompanied by a quirky video featuring Morris dancers, a dwarf, Ivan and a Punch and Judy show all dancing around a maypole, the song was a dance hit around the world in 1983, reaching the No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Romantic Traffic — The Spoons
The first thing a teenage girl in ‘83 might have noticed about the Spoons was that there was a girl in the band… and she didn’t just sing backup! But bassist Sandy Horne wasn’t the only appealing thing about the Burlington, Ont., band. The eyelinered quartet had the wildly back-combed hair to match its British new wave sound, the kind of swooningly romantic tunesmithery practised by Modern English and their ilk. The single was produced by the legendary Nile Rodgers, and "Doo, doo, doo, doo-doo-doo-doo" has rarely sounded so good.
Rise Up — The Parachute Club
The Parachute Club (1983)
In October 1983, this writer took three buses across the city to get to a show by the Parachute Club at the Norlander Motor Hotel. The Toronto band’s self-titled debut album, produced by Daniel Lanois, had come out that summer and Rise Up had taken over Canadian airwaves with its buoyant blend of surging keyboards, calypso backbeat, gang-vocal chorus and Lorraine Segato’s plaintive and joyous call for people to join together and create a world in which everyone has the "freedom to love who we please." The show that night was a sweaty groovefest and the live version of Rise Up must have lasted 20 minutes. The following spring, Rise Up won the Juno for song of the year over Bryan Adams’ Cuts Like a Knife and Straight From the Heart. It remains an oft-reprised call-to-arms for many Canadian social and political movements. — JK
Sunglasses at Night — Corey Hart
First Offense (1984)
Featuring one of the most instantly recognizable openings in Canadian rock — those stereo-shifting synths! — the first single from the pouty-lipped, Montreal-born heartthrob was not a hit here until after it went to No. 7 in the United States. There’s a lot going on here: the song’s unusual structure (it’s really three hooky sections, rather than a verse-chorus-bridge situation) allows it to contain Eurythmics-esque new wave, soaring pop, semi-aggressive rock and an extended extro with some extravagant guitar soloing à la Beat It. The sound is very ‘80s, but it’s as catchy today as it was then, and it signalled the start to Hart’s massive stadium-concert career.
Standing in the Dark — Platinum Blonde
Standing in the Dark (1984)
The title track of the Toronto new wave-pop band’s debut full-length album made them stars in North America, thanks to the emerging video format and the band’s look: the three members had teased, feathered hair; tight, ripped pants; and brightly coloured leather jackets. But for group who looked like they’d just stepped out of a salon, the lyrics to Standing in the Dark were about a potential nuclear war — perfectly suitable in the Cold War era of the 1980s — while the video is about a cabal of bald men plotting some sort of global action.
(Shakin’ Like a Human Being, 1986)
The track, which was nominated for a Juno for Single of the Year, hit at a time when kids were devouring videos on MuchMusic. The stringy-haired Mitchell sure didn’t fit the template of a pretty pop star, but something about the song’s earnest lyrics — "I’d spend half the night making lemonade / Which we drank a lot" — and happy chorus just clicked. (By 1996, the song had been played on Canadian radio more than 100,000 times.)
Drummer Tyler Stewart of the Barenaked Ladies is a fan — BNL enlisted Mitchell to play a guitar solo on their 2006 song Wind It Up, and the band went into the studio in June to record vocals on a new version of Max Webster song Diamonds, Diamonds — and fondly recalls the summer Patio Lanterns ruled the airwaves.
"I’m in Grade 13 in ‘86, finishing high school, so that was like a party summer before we all went off to university," recalls Stewart, 49, who grew up in Newmarket, Ont. "I was so into the first EP and album that he put out, and then when Shakin’ Like a Human Being came out, we played the living crap out of that record that summer.
"He seemed to be the voice of southern Ontario — there was something about going to the cottage or to Wasaga beach or Grand Bend, one of those teen party destinations; Kim Mitchell seemed to be the soundtrack to those events."
This feeling is borne out by the names of some of the compilation albums that include Patio Lanterns, such as BBQ Rock and Canada 24: Rock Your Cottage Weekend. But for Stewart, there was more to Mitchell’s appeal than his party-starting bona fides.
"I totally appreciated his guitar skills," he says. "I was one of those kids who said (puts on snooty voice): ‘Kim Mitchell’s a totally underrated guitarist.’ "
And while he’s hard-pressed to put his finger on anything specifically Canadian about the track — other than savouring the summer — he can relate to Mitchell’s entirely unhip, mulleted vibe.
"We (Barenaked Ladies) have always been quintessentially uncool ourselves and I think there’s a Canadianness to that. To be yourself at all costs, even if that’s wearing an OPP cap with a smoke hanging out of your mouth and you don’t even smoke."
— Jill Wilson
Have Not Been the Same — Slow
Against the Glass (1985)
Vancouver quartet Slow isn’t a household name, but this groundbreaking track set the stage for the indie-rock explosion of the ‘90s. Toronto music journalist Michael Barclay took the title as the name of the book he co-wrote on the CanRock renaissance of 1985-1995. He writes: "Perhaps Canada’s finest punk rock single, it actually starts out like a soul song, with a guitar riff that could be a Stevie Wonder clavinet lick. Then come the slightly disco drums and the cooing female backing vocals. Then (singer) Tom Anselmi stumbles into the party like he just woke up in an alley in Vancouver’s East Side, complaining about his hangover. As the song gains momentum and the drums struggle to keep up with the accelerating guitars, the fist-pumping chorus is an explosive release valve for the building tension of the verses. The final 60 seconds of this three-minute masterpiece finds the band tripping over themselves to get to the finish line, yet stopping on a dime like they knew what they were doing the whole time. Which they most certainly did."
(You’re a) Strange Animal — Gowan
Strange Animal (1985)
There was no such thing as a sophomore slump for Scottish-born, Scarborough, Ont.-raised Lawrence Gowan. Though his debut album was a dud, his second found him recording in Ringo Starr’s Starling Studio with a backing band that included such luminaries as drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel) and bassist Tony Levin (Gabriel, Paul Simon, Pink Floyd). That musical boost, plus the singer’s artful combination of arty, U.K-influenced prog with ‘80s pop, was a winner; the album yielded four singles, including this No. 15 hit.
Black Cars — Gino Vannelli
Black Cars (1985)
In a story that wouldn’t be out of place in a bad movie, Herb Alpert of A&M records signed Montreal crooner Gino Vannelli in 1973, after Vannelli thrust a demo tape at him in the label’s L.A. parking lot. As the ‘80s progressed, Vannelli’s soft-rock vibes morphed into synthesizer-driven pop jams like Black Cars, heavy on the processed drum machines and canned instrumentation. Gino and his brother Joe won the 1986 Juno for Recording Engineer of the Year for the song.
I’m an Adult Now — The Pursuit of Happiness
I’m an Adult Now 12-inch single (1986)
"Well, I don’t hate my parents / I don’t get drunk just to spite them / I’ve got my own reasons to drink now / I think I’ll call my dad up and invite him." So begins the scrappy rock hit about the perils of getting older that, on the strength of a cheapo homemade video, made Toronto’s TPOH, fronted by bespectacled Edmonton-born frontman Moe Berg, an indie success story. Nationwide video play on MuchMusic led to major label WEA Canada licensing band’s original 12-inch; the repressing sold 10,000 copies in Canada, thanks to its clever lyrics, catchy chorus and grand sense of irony (even listeners who were teens at the time probably recognized that Berg had a long way to go before real cynicism, not to mention arthritis, set in). It was also included on the band’s Todd Rundgren-produced debut, Love Junk.
Baby Ran — 54-40
Neil Osborne’s voice came out of the speakers of my roommate’s stereo like a bolt from the blue, intoning unintelligible lyrics in an affected, nasal drone unlike any Canadian singer I’d heard. The combination of his voice, Phil Comparelli’s cascading guitar chords (and ringing, psychedelic leads), Brad Merritt’s throbbing bass and Matt Johnson’s rock-steady drums were such that I must have played Baby Ran a dozen times before even moving on to the rest of Vancouverites 54-40’s self-titled second album. In the confusing, post-hardcore, jangle-pop days of "college rock" and "alternative music," Baby Ran was a beacon, pointing the way to power-pop clarity and kicking off an impressive musical career that is still going strong. — JK
Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone) — Glass Tiger
The Thin Red Line (1986)
With guest backup vocals from Bryan Adams, Glass Tiger’s breakout pop hit went to No. 2 on the American charts, and spent a couple of weeks at the top of the charts here in Canada. Two versions of the video were made after the original version for the Canadian market was deemed to cutesy to make waves outside the country. (Spoiler alert: both are terrible.) The single, which apparently was inspired by the shuffle beat of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World, went platinum in Canada and earned the Newmarket, Ont., band a Juno for Single of the Year.
Angel Eyes — The Jeff Healey Band
See the Light (1988)
Does a song that in all seriousness begins with, "Girl, you’re looking fine tonight" belong on this list? The answer to that question is a resounding "hell yes." We can’t speak for what that opening line may have inspired in the late ‘80s (our guess would be a lot of swooning), but its cheesiness is arguably part of this song’s unique charm. This quintessential guitar ballad, written by John Hiatt and Fred Koller, was a certified hit on the Toronto-based Jeff Healey Band’s first album. It remains the ideal opening track for the mixtape of every lovelorn nerd.
(Save This House, 1990)
But the track that lives on at wedding socials and parties, the one that never fails to fill the dance floor with flailing limbs and terrible fake jigging is Home for a Rest, an ode to a boozy British holiday with the singalong chorus, "You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best / I’ve been gone for a week, I’ve been drunk since I left."
The rollicking track, which was never released as a single, is from the band’s fifth album (its first for a major label), when the group — led by John Mann (vocals, guitar) and Geoff Kelly (guitar, flute, bodhran and vocals) — really began to solidify the pop-meets-Celtic style that would make them mainstays on the folk fest circuit and college radio faves for years. Mann’s voice, one of the most striking in Canadian rock, has a frayed intensity as he shrieks "Take me home!" that has inspired countless university freshman to scream themselves hoarse along with him.
Winnipeg Folk Festival executive director Lynne Skromeda has a special attachment to the band; she saw SOTW for the first time at Birds Hill Park in 1991, long before she ever dreamed she’d be at the helm of the folk fest.
"I saw them up on mainstage and that’s when I really fell in love," she recalls. "I was always a fan of Celtic music, but it was the energy, the Canadianness of it all, the beautiful harmonies, the quality of the music. It’s all of those things wrapped up in one."
Skromeda recently attended the wedding of two Canucks in California; the couple made certain to add Home for a Rest to their music library so it could be played at the party.
"They tell stories about Canada to Canadians," she says of SOTW’s patriotic pull, "and they have that way of tugging at the heartstrings to make you feel ultra-Canadian."
— Jill Wilson
Working Man — Rita MacNeil
Reason to Believe (1988)
The pride of Big Pond, N.S., Rita MacNeil created a string of sentimental country hits throughout her lifetime — Flying on Your Own, in particular, charted in the Top 40 and was later covered by Anne Murray. But it was Working Man that struck a chord around the world — MacNeil wrote it after a visit to Sydney Mines as a tribute to the workers there, and a record of their daily struggles underground "where the coal dust lies heavy on your lungs." Her later performances of the song with the Men of the Deeps, a choir of Cape Breton coal miners, were incredibly moving, further establishing the song as a stirring anthem for coal miners everywhere.
Misguided Angel — The Cowboy Junkies
The Trinity Session (1988)
The sexy, whispery voice of Margo Timmins and the moody guitar of her brother Michael are standouts in this 1988 track from the smash album The Trinity Session. The album’s low-key and austere sound, which was recorded in Holy Trinity Church in the band’s hometown of Toronto, proved to be a big hit, thanks to the group’s cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane. Misguided Angel proved, however, the Cowboy Junkies could reproduce the intimate sound — and even improve on it — with a song of their own, written by the Timminses.
Let Your Backbone Slide — Maestro Fresh Wes
Symphony in Effect (1989)
This tongue-twisting track from the Toronto rapper born Wesley Williams was the first Canadian hip-hop single to go gold; Wes was the first rapper to land a song in the Top 40, kickstarting hip hop’s path to legitimacy in Canada. Containing samples from Public Enemy’s Rebel Without a Pause and Funky Drummer by James Brown, the song fills dance floors to this day. The audacity of rhyming "So many suckers on my sacroiliac" with "cut me some slack, Jack"? Never gets old.
Black Velvet — Alannah Myles
Alannah Myles (1989)
The sultry blues-based Black Velvet was co-written by MuchMusic DJ Christopher Ward and David Tyson as an homage to Elvis Presley, and became a smash hit around the world, hitting No. 1 in the U.S., Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. The single earned the Toronto musician the 1990 Juno for Single of the Year, despite only reaching No. 10 in Canada, and 1991 Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. The song was also recorded by American country artist Robin Lee, who shared the same look as Myles and released a remarkably similar video.
She Ain’t Pretty — Northern Pikes
Snow in June (1990)
While there’s an argument to be made that earlier singles Teenland or Things I Do For Money were more innovative/compelling tracks from Saskatoon’s Northern Pikes, the band’s 1990 hit She Ain’t Pretty became the song for which they’re most widely known. The lead single from Snow in June is still a Can-rock staple, a bit of goofy bar-band rock that was complemented by a chuckle-worthy music video.
1990 — Jean Leloup
L’amour est sans pitié (1991 reissue)
Quebeçois iconoclast Jean Leloup, born Jean Leclerc, spent much of his childhood in Togo and Algeria; that musical influence can be heard in 1990, with its disco beat and irresistible Afropop vibe. The Iraq War is an odd topic for a dance-floor smash, but Leloup’s single included on the reissue of L’amour est sans pitié/Love Is Without Mercy — incorporated sex into a protest against technology-driven warfare, and made the songwriter a star at home and abroad (his brooding good looks probably didn’t hurt). The album, at first a Quebec-only affair, was released in the rest of Canada, as well as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan. (Leloup is still going strong; he won a Juno in 2016.)
If I Had a Million Dollars — Barenaked Ladies
Yellow Tape (1991)
At a time when radio and charts were largely dominated by music from major labels, five young men from Scarborough, Ont., broke out big-time, selling more than 100,000 copies of their independent five-song cassette tape. This track (which would also be included on their Warner Bros. debut, Gordon) typified the band’s harmony-laden sound — goofy but smart, a folky bent with a pop sensibility. The lyrics — "If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a K-car" — typified a modest, Canadian attitude; we want the finer things, sure, but we don’t want to get too big for our britches. It’s also the song that introduced Kraft Dinner to the rest of the world; at one point, the band was being pelted with so many boxes onstage, they had to implore audiences to donate to food banks instead.
(Mad Mad World, 1991)
Cochrane established his music credentials with the Toronto-based band Red Rider throughout the 1980s with hits such as White Hot, Boy Inside the Man and Big League before striking out on his own with his solo debut Mad Mad World in 1991. Life Is a Highway was the first single and went to No. 1 in Canada and No. 6 in the U.S.
"It’s an anthem. It’s his bid for rock ‘n’ roll immortality in this country, and it sealed the deal," says veteran Winnipeg radio DJ and musicologist Howard Mandshein.
"The great songs, we can relate to. The great songs, they tell a story. The great songs, they have a mystery. With this one, he delivered an iconic performance and a great hook."
The song’s theme was inspired by a trip to Africa, where Cochrane travelled as an ambassador for the World Vision famine relief organization. He reworked an old demo — Love is a Highway — with new lyrics focused on staying positive and riding out the hard times.
"It became a pep talk to myself… saying you can’t really control all of this stuff, you just do the best you can," he told The Toronto Star earlier this year.
"All the details of going into a country like Mozambique, which was in a protracted civil war at the time, you can’t be distracted with all of that."
Even if people are unaware of the song’s origins, Mandshein believes it touches on people’s deepest emotions.
"It’s in our souls. Something about that song touched a nerve in this country… It’s up there with one of the great Canadian music moments of all time — it might be a bias of mine, though," Mandshein says with a laugh.
"And he enjoys it, too: he still has a smile on his face when he sings that song."
— Rob Williams
Rheostatics’ fans could probably argue forever about what song best represents the idiosyncratic Etobicoke, Ont., quartet’s oeuvre, but this track, a winning combination of folk, pop and prog, won out. Partly that’s because of its identifiably Canadian title, but it’s also because of the track’s understated grandeur and the wild, beautiful vocals of Martin Tielli, which give palpable longing to the narrator’s wish to be home "in a church, in Saskatchewan." The song is set at sea, but the shimmery guitars and hushed backing vocals call to mind fields of swaying grain and the "clean light" of the Prairies.
My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style — Dream Warriors
And Now the Legacy Begins (1991)
King Lou and Capital Q were Dream Warriors, a rap duo schooled in the Caribbean-influenced Toronto rap scene led by the likes of Michie Mee and LA Luv, and their first album was a fabulous expression of time and place — exquisitely capturing the multicultural sound of late-‘80s Toronto. Based on a sample from Quincy Jones’ Soul Bossa Nova (known to Canadians as the theme song to Definition, a CTV game show hosted by Jim Perry), My Definition… was the pair’s biggest hit, a jazz-inflected combination of horns, drum breaks and rhymes that espoused the idea of creating and defining one’s own identity.
Fare Thee Well Love — The Rankin Family
Fare Thee Well Love (re-released 1992)
Written by Jimmy Rankin — one of 12 siblings, many of whom came and went from the Celtic-influenced, vocal-driven folk group over the years — this plaintive, sparse tearjerker has the family’s vocal harmonies front and centre. It nabbed the 1994 Juno for Single of the Year, and more recently was sung by the Mabou, N.S., group at the 2015 funeral of Const. David Wynn, the Alberta RCMP officer shot and killed at a casino after confronting a man about a suspicious vehicle.
Lost Together — Blue Rodeo
Lost Together (1992)
At the risk of sounding trite, hearing a crowd sing along to the refrain of this song by Toronto’s Blue Rodeo — "And if we’re lost, then we are lost together…" — is somehow quintessentially… Canadian. Doubts about our identity have been the foundation of this country’s political and social discussions since Confederation, but Greg Keelor’s epic, 5 1/2-minute title song for Blue Rodeo’s fourth album wasn’t meant to define the nation. If anything, it’s a roots-rock paean to the intimacy that comes with loving and being loved in a world that’s all too confusing — replete with strings, pedal steel, one of Bobby Wiseman’s sharpest organ solos and a rollicking feel that only confirms Blue Rodeo’s status as the Band’s musical inheritors.
Informer — Snow
12 Inches of Snow (1993)
That the biggest reggae single in U.S. history was performed by a white guy from Toronto named Darrin O’Brien remains a major point of contention among the genre’s purists. Still, with seven consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1993 — and eight million copies of 12 Inches of Snow sold — Snow’s catchy (and completely culturally appropriative) Informer is indeed a Guinness world record-setter. The song was famously parodied on the sketch show In Living Color by comedian (and fellow Canadian) Jim Carrey, whose Imposter sent up Snow’s put-on Jamaican patois.
Insensitive — Jann Arden
Living Under June (1994)
Though Calgary chanteuse Jann Arden didn’t write Insensitive — fellow Cowtown singer-songwriter Anne Loree did — it became one of her signature songs. Arden’s "he’s just not that into you" anthem hit No. 1 in Canada and Australia and was featured in the 1996 romantic drama Bed of Roses, starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Christian Slater. While Insensitive is her biggest hit, Arden is no one-hit wonder. She’s had a steady career spanning 10 studio albums and 40 singles — though if music didn’t work out, Arden would have made a great standup comedian.
All Uncovered — The Watchmen
In the Trees (1994)
It’s a full 45 seconds before vocalist Danny Greaves starts singing over the elastic bass line, filigreed guitar and brushed snares that open this moody, powerful song from Winnipeg’s the Watchman. That’s an unusual start to a single, but the slow-burning, cello-laden track clearly resonated with listeners — though most people probably associate the quartet with a harder-rocking sound, this was their highest charting song. The platinum-selling album saw the band nominated for Group of the Year at the 1995 Junos (they would lose to the Tragically Hip).
(God Shuffled His Feet, 1993)
His band’s second album, God Shuffled His Feet, was about to be released and I was kidding him about the revolutionary "no-chorus chorus" of the album’s first single, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.
Roberts explained how he’d written the song, which strings together four vignettes about kids facing shame and embarrassment for things that were none of their doing. When putting the verses together, he said, he’d always just hummed along. When he tried various refrains, he didn’t like the results, nor how the lines scanned. So, when it came time to record the song with producer Jerry Harrison in Wisconsin, he left the song as it was, feeling that its striking images would make it an interesting listen.
It certainly did. Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm was a left-field hit for baritone-voiced Roberts and the Dummies — multi-instrumentalist Ben Darvill, drummer Mitch Dorge, keyboardist/singer Ellen Reid and bassist Dan Roberts, Brad’s younger brother. Taking advantage of the fact that mainstream rock radio was being torn apart by the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the Dummies’ American record company, RCA, focused its promotional efforts on a modern rock format called "adult album alternative," which reached listeners who might have grown up listening to early R.E.M. and U.S. college radio in the ‘80s.
The strategy worked. The quirky "otherness" of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm caught attention almost right out the gate and the song soon hit No. 1 on the modern rock chart, then worked its way up the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 4. It also hit No. 2 on the U.K. charts and reached No. 1 in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden.
The song’s success sent the Dummies on a touring and album-sales trajectory that no Winnipeg group had reached since the Guess Who in 1970 (and which none has reached since). The band played Saturday Night Live in February 1994, and went on to tour the world. God Shuffled His Feet eventually sold more than eight million copies and the group was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1995: Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group for Mmm Mmm….; Best Alternative Music Performance for God…; and Best New Artist.
All because Brad Roberts couldn’t come up with a chorus.
— John Kendle
Starseed — Our Lady Peace
Inspired by new age author Ken Carey’s book The Starseed Transmissions, in Starseed Our Lady Peace singer and primary songwriter Raine Maida’s plaintive voice and the driving guitars set the tone for much of the Toronto band’s future output. The song also had some moderate success in the U.S. a few years later, thanks in large part to its inclusion on the soundtrack to the 1998 film Armageddon (although Maida’s partner, Winnipeg-born singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, scored a bigger hit from the album with her version of John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane).
Push — Moist
As a former record-shop guy when Moist’s 1994 album Silver was released, this writer can attest to the ultra-heavy rotation the lead single from the Vancouver band’s major-label debut received. They may not have been quite as noisy as many of their American counterparts of the grunge era, but the band’s biggest single, driven by singer David Usher’s unique (and somewhat nasal) vocals, got big support from MuchMusic for the video. (It probably didn’t hurt that many thought Usher was pretty easy on the eyes as well.)
Man! I Feel Like a Woman! — Shania Twain
Come On Over (1997)
This song title has two exclamation points!! It’s an undeniable, infectious smash!! And that music video? It took Robert Palmer’s iconic conceit from the ‘80s and turned it on its head for the benefit of the modern ‘90s woman. The sensation from Timmins, Ont., first made waves on the charts with unapologetically twangy country jams such as Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? and (If You’re Not in it for Love) I’m Outta Here!, before finding true crossover success with her blockbuster album Come on Over. Not that Man! I Feel Like a Woman! isn’t country — it has TWO exclamation points!! — but it also has one thigh-high boot planted firmly on the pop side, bolstered by its message of female empowerment (or at least the late-‘90s version… you know, men’s shirts, short skirts). In other words, Man! It’s signature Shania!
Drinking in L.A. — Bran Van 3000
The 1997 single from Montreal electronica collective Bran Van 3000 is the sonic equivalent of a hangover on a blindingly sunny day — fitting, since the song itself is a fuzzy ode to champagne dreams and disillusionment ("What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. at 26?") and the band took its name from a crappy Swedish vodka. With a monster hook sung by ringer Stephane Moraille, the song charted in 10 countries and became one of the decade’s most defining tracks.
Sweet Surrender — Sarah McLachlan
If Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was the album on which Vancouver songstress Sarah McLachlan found her sweet pop/rock sound, Surfacing was the one that brought her to the masses. Released in July 1997, just as McLachlan launched the first Lilith Fair, Surfacing quickly hit No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and Sweet Surrender, a joyous, mid-tempo song about faith both lost and found, has become a showstopper in the 20 years since, largely due to Sarah’s sweetly aching vocal performance.
Surrounded — Chantal Kreviazuk
Under These Rocks and Stones (1997)
Twenty years ago, a young singer-songwriter from Winnipeg with a voice as big as the Prairie sky broke out with the soaring piano ballad Surrounded. The fourth single from Kreviazuk’s 1997 debut album, Surrounded is about a friend who died by suicide, and Kreviazuk has said in interviews she still struggles to perform it live. Over the past two decades she’s lent her songwriting prowess to other artists, collaborating with everyone from Avril Lavigne and Josh Groban to Drake.
Ordinary Day — Great Big Sea
There’s nothing quite like the unbridled optimism of Ordinary Day by Newfoundland’s finest, Great Big Sea, to get you feeling good about life. Fun fact: part of the song was actually inspired by fellow Canadian musician Jann Arden — the Celtic pop band’s frontman, Alan Doyle, had seen a news story on TV about a busker in Vancouver who was mugged and instead of quitting, she went right back out to the same spot and continued to play. "I was a little nervous to call her by her actual name in the song — her name is Janie in the song — but her name is Jann Arden," Doyle explained at the 2016 Juno Songwriters’ Circle event in Calgary.
(Jagged Little Pill, 1995)
It was the first CD I ever bought for myself, my first concert, my first real understanding of the power of music. And You Oughta Know was my first, and forever, angst anthem.
I was too young to really appreciate what its lyrics meant. I hadn’t lived enough. No man had broken my heart. No man existed in my life at all, except for the ones I was related to. I used to outright giggle when she gets to the swear.
But that voice, the sheer anguish that felt like it was channelled from the depths of a wounded soul (sing it out loud to yourself, in full throat, please — youuu-uh, youuu-uh, youuu-uh OUGHTA KNOWWW) — it was cathartic, even for a young dolt without a clue.
Alanis spoke to me, and I got the message, even if the experience wasn’t mine to have yet. And it stayed with me, when I did eventually have my heart broken. I can only imagine what this badass track meant to people who had gone through some real suffering when it first landed.
The rest of Jagged Little Pill still holds up (except maybe Ironic, but let’s give Al a pass on that one. We all loved it once), but no song from that album beats You Oughta Know. JLP is in the headlines again with the announcement that they’re making it into a musical (!) and I cannot wait to see what they do with its most epic number.
Does it matter if it’s about Joey from Full House? Whoever it was that wronged Alanis — or you — well, I hope they feel it.
— Sarah Lilleyman
Sucks to be You — Prozzak
Hot Show (1998)
Animated band Prozzak (made up of two members of pop group the Philosopher Kings, who, unfortunately, didn’t make it on this list) out of Toronto had a massive hit on their hands with Sucks to be You in 1998. Actually, they somehow scored many hits, but Sucks to be You was the party-starter at every preteen dance the country over. Other than the catchy electro melody driven, oddly, by an intricate Spanish-influenced guitar line, there’s not much else to it, but there’s something that will always be fun about the kind of self-deprecation singer Simon doles out. It clearly does suck to be him, and now we all know it.
Money City Maniacs — Sloan
Navy Blues (1998)
There is something instantly exciting about the unmistakable scream of sirens that opens Sloan’s Money City Maniacs, the lead single off their fourth album. The track by the Halifax quartet is Can-rock perfection – the thumping bass line provided by Chris Murphy, the rough, but simple, guitar lick and the nonsensical lyrics of the chorus ("And the joke is / When he awoke his / Body was covered in coke fizz") made the track a radio-friendly hit. Money City Maniacs was later licensed by Labatt Blue for an ad campaign, but despite the commercialization of the song, it remains a fan favourite to this day.
She’s So High – Tal Bachman
Tal Bachman (1999)
Tal Bachman parlayed his musical pedigree into one of the biggest, shiniest tunes of the late ‘90s. The Winnipeg-born, Victoria-based son of Randy Bachman had what should have been a career-making hit in She’s So High, which was a chart-topping hit in both Canada and the U.S. It’s a rather literal song about a girl on a pedestal, but it’s that soaring, blue-sky chorus that earned the tune places on best-of-the-’90s lists. While Bachman was never able to replicate that early success, his hit song is still finding new fans: She’s So High was recently featured in an episode of Girls, and Taylor Swift has been known to cover it.
Steal My Sunshine — Len
You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush (1999)
Toronto band Len struck gold with this sun-kissed rap-pop hybrid featuring a sample from an instrumental portion of the 1976 disco staple More, More, More by the Andrea True Connection. Len was fronted by the raspy-voice Marc Costanzo and his sister, Sharon Costanzo, who alternated vocals on Steal My Sunshine, à la the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. The track was about a rave Marc had attended, although Sharon’s lead verse is about her playing with straws from a Slurpee. Len frequently makes lists of one-hit wonders.
Hello Time Bomb — Matthew Good Band
Beautiful Midnight (1999)
According to British Columbia songwriter Good, this straight-ahead rocker — which went on to become one of the Matthew Good Band’s biggest songs — was for the most part written in about 45 minutes on an old classical guitar. No matter where or how it was written, the big chunky guitar riffs and driving beat on Hello Time Bomb make it nothing if not an anthemic CanCon banger.
Letter From an Occupant — New Pornographers
Mass Romantic (2000)The "supergroup" tag used to refer to Vancouver’s New Pornographers really only meant something to those well-versed in Canada’s indie-rock scene. However, there’s no denying the musical alchemy that resulted when the razor-sharp pop instincts of singer-songwriter Carl Newman met the voice of alt-country belter Neko Case on this power-pop juggernaut, the album’s only single. With its densely layered sound, persistent beat and soaring melody, Letter demands to be played loud, if only to drown out the sound of doomed-to-fail attempts to mimic Case’s glass-shattering pipes on the chorus.
I’m Like a Bird — Nelly Furtado
Whoa, Nelly! (2000)
Nelly Furtado, who hails from Victoria, B.C., burst onto the scene with this debut single, which snagged the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal, was nominated for song of the year, and hit the Top 10 in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. "I’m like a bird/ I’ll only fly away/ I don’t know where my soul is/ I don’t know where my home is" — well, this is a song that hasn’t been over-thought. But somehow it works, even still. Those sweet strings, those jazzy, nasally vocals and those innocent early days of the millennium came together to spawn an infectious hit that was, and remains, unique.
(Let’s Talk About Love and Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture, 1997)
The Québécois singer emotionally belts her way through an intense four minutes and 40 seconds, painting a picture of Jack and Rose’s forbidden love on the ship that, in real life, claimed more than 1,500 lives when it sank in 1912.
My Heart Will Go On was not Dion’s first foray into soundtrack work — Because You Loved Me was the theme for the movie Up Close & Personal starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer; the song won a Grammy Award and was nominated for two Oscars.
Dion also recorded Tale as Old as Time for Disney’s 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast as a pop duet with Peabo Bryson that ran over the closing credits (it also took home a handful of awards, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe).
But, when the chance to tackle My Heart Will Go On rolled around, Dion initially hated the James Horner-composed song. Both the singer and the film’s director, James Cameron, weren’t sure it should even be included on the soundtrack at all, but after some coaxing from Dion’s husband and manager — the late René Angélil — and influential record exec Tommy Mottola, she recorded a demo.
Recalls Dion in a wonderful oral history of the song posted by Billboard.com in May: "They’re all crying. And they said, ‘We’re done.’ I said, ‘OK, well, I’m glad that you liked the demo.’
"Horner said, ‘We might not have to do it again.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’"
The rest, as they say, is history – My Heart Will Go On went to No. 1 all over the world, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1997. It won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as the Grammy for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television and the a Golden Globe for Best Original Song — Motion Picture.
— Erin Lebar
F--- the Pain Away — Peaches
The Teaches of Peaches (2000)
In 2000, very few acts were doing what Toronto electroclash artist Peaches (a.k.a. Merrill Beth Nisker) was doing — namely, making funny, sexy, catchy tunes that subverted norms in both gender and genre. Never formally recorded in a studio, this lo-fi single was Peaches’ breakout track and has enjoyed a certain level of ubiquity over the intervening 17 years, popping up in film soundtracks, in other artists’ setlists, and, hilariously, as Liz Lemon’s ringtone on an episode of 30 Rock.
Basement Apt. — Sarah Harmer
You Were Here (2000)
Oh, wow. Just one listen to this loping, bouncy description of a Toronto flat and the relationship contained within it brings me right back to the fall of 2000, when Kingston, Ont., native Sarah Harmer’s You Were Here album was the soundtrack to many long days and evenings spent tending to three-month-old twins. The memory is as specific as the sharply observed details of song, the jaunty, clarinet-enhanced melody of which belies its narrative arc of wide-eyed hope, silent discord and, ultimately, resigned despair. — JK
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk — Rufus Wainwright
Written when the opera-loving Wainwright (who has dual Canadian/U.S. citizenship) was living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, the opening track from the son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright’s second album is a woozy piano-based ode to addiction and decadence. "Everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger / A little bit thicker / A little bit harmful for me…" the singer moans over baroque strings and cascading keys that call to mind Brian Wilson and cabaret tunes. It’s a lush, minor-key beauty that makes you feel good about overindulgence.
American Psycho — Treble Charger
Wide Awake Bored (2001)
In the late ‘90s/early 2000s, two reigning California pop-punk bands — the Offspring and Green Day — released albums that were concerned with the American condition, 1998’s Americana and 2004’s American Idiot, respectively. Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is a long way away from the Golden State but, in terms of sound and subject matter, Treble Charger’s hit single American Psycho wasn’t too far off. Its relentlessly hummable melody made the song a staple of rock radio, and its parent record went platinum. Although Treble Charger never quite blew up like fellow pop-punk act Sum 41, the bands are closely linked: Treble Charger co-frontman Greig Nori co-wrote much of Sum 41’s debut, All Killer No Filler.
Fat Lip — Sum 41
All Killer, No Filler (2001)
Fat Lip was the song of the summer of 2001 for many Canadian teenagers. In less than three minutes, Ajax, Ont., quartet Sum 41 introduced themselves to the world with this genre hybrid of hip-hop and punk, with spoken/rapped verses leading to a full-throttled pop-punk chorus about non-conformity.
How You Remind Me — Nickelback
Silver Side Up (2001)
He never made it as a wise man, and couldn’t cut it as a poor man stealing, and yet, Chad Kroeger and his band of buds from Hanna, Alta., managed to become one of the most successful rock bands Canada has ever produced. Love Nickelback or hate ‘em, this track’s catchiness cannot be denied; the classic four-chord power chorus leading into low-key verses struck something within a lot of people. It was No. 1 in both Canada and the U.S., and was named the most-played song on U.S. radio of the ‘00s by Nielsen SoundScan, having been spun more 1.2 million times between its release in 2001 and the end of 2009. How You Remind Me was a moment in music history, whether we like it or not.
Dynamite Walls — Hayden
Skyscraper National Park (2001)
With an initial pressing of only 100 hand-assembled copies of 2001’s Skyscraper National Park — distributed mainly to independent record shops, family and friends — Hayden Desser’s Dynamite Walls was the third track on an album that saw the Toronto singer-songwriter back in the spotlight after a three-year absence. A second run of 1,500 copies of Skyscraper was sold on a modest tour before it was picked up by Universal. Dynamite Walls is classic Hayden: introspective, melancholy, acoustic-driven indie folk that oozes charm.
Long before Drake dominated the charts, pioneering Vancouver hip hop trio Rascalz — and a few of their pals — had to blaze a trail.
In 1998, Rascalz released a one-off single called Northern Touch, featuring fellow Vancouver rapper Checkmate, as well as Toronto rappers Kardinall Offishall, Thrust and Choclair. Northern Touch became one of the most successful Canadian hip hop singles ever recorded, and set forth a seismic shift in the country’ hip hop scene.
Until that point, hip hop was underground, ignored and unsupported, for the most part, by the Canadian music industry. That reality was underscored when Rascalz’ 1997 album Cash Crop won for best rap recording at the 1998 Juno Awards. The rap category was excluded from the main televised gala, a move Rascalz felt was both disrespectful to their genre and racist. So, they took a stand and refused to accept the award.
That same year, Northern Touch became the first Canadian hip hop single to crack the Billboard Top 100, and was one of two singles featuring a sample of B.T. Express’s Everything Good to You (Ain’t Always Good for You) on the charts, Get At Me Dog by American rapper DMX being the other. Still, Northern Touch held its own; Choclair told The Canadian Press in 2013 that seeing their single compete directly with DMX — a rapper from a more commercially established scene — was his "Wow, OK, this could be something!" moment.
And when Northern Touch won a Juno for Best Rap Recording in 1999, you better believe it was televised.
— Jen Zoratti
Almost Crimes — Broken Social Scene
You Forgot it in People (2002)
Broken Social Scene went from ambient horns and strings to full-blown rock with their second album. Almost Crimes is a direct reflection of that sonic evolution, and it gave us our first taste of the soaring crescendo that is now BSS’s signature. With evolution came explosion, in both popularity and literal size (it features something like a dozen musicians), and the Toronto-based collective’s indie influence still looms large in Canada and beyond.
Gold in Them Hills — Ron Sexsmith
Cobblestone Runway (2002)
Ron Sexsmith is the great Canadian songwriter who has never really had a hit. But man, has he ever tried. However, there’s no question the man’s catalogue is impeccable — just ask Feist, Michael Buble, k.d. lang, Rod Stewart, Emmylou Harris or any number of artists who have covered and recorded his songs. So out of all his gems, why Gold in Them Hills? It’s Sexsmith’s specialty: a quiet, romantic, melancholy ballad. It features a lovely and elevating guest vocal from Coldplay’s Chris Martin. And it’s about looking on the bright side. No hits? No problem. He’s still got the goods.
Complicated — Avril Lavigne
Let Go (2002)
Complicated introduced the world to Avril Lavigne, a 17 year old from Belleville, Ont., who offered catchy, hook-filled, pop rock with a bratty punk image (she was dubbed the "anti-Britney"). The song was written by production crew the Matrix, with some contribution from Lavigne. The infectious single topped charts around the world and earned the newcomer the Single of the Year Award at the 2003 Junos, and was nominated for two Grammys, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. In 2011, a blog post proposed the theory that Lavigne actually died in 2003 and was replaced by a look-alike who continued to record under her name — and presumably married Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback. Some people really believe this.
Don’t Walk Away Eileen — Sam Roberts Band
The Inhuman Condition (2002)
A summery blast of straight up three-chord pop-rock with an infectious chorus — "Hey you come around and I / Hey you come around and I / Hey you come around and I can’t keep time" — Don’t Walk Away Eileen became an instant sing-along earworm. This single and Brother Down made the Montreal band’s six-song EP The Inhuman Condition a hit and introduced Canada to one of the country’s best new songwriters.
Try Honesty — Billy Talent
Billy Talent (2003)
Riding the second wave of pop-punk popularity, Toronto quartet Billy Talent — named after the guitarist in the Bruce McDonald movie Hard Core Logo — released its self-titled debut in 2003, a decade after forming as the band Pezz. Try Honesty’s meaning wasn’t immediately obvious, but it managed the feat of being both intelligent, catchy and slightly snotty, and introduced the band’s formula: a cryptic story told in the verses by razor-voiced frontman Ben Kowalewicz, followed by a sing-along gang-vocal chorus.
Not Ready To Go — The Trews
House of Ill Fame (2003)
One of the more recent additions to the list of Can-rock guitar anthems, the Trews’ Not Ready to Go is a driving, fairly repetitive but ultimately catchy track with big buzzing guitars. Lyrically, the song’s pretty much spelled out in the title — as we hear numerous times, the band is just not ready to go. In 2004, Not Ready to Go was the most played song on Canadian rock radio, ensuring the band’s place in the CanCon rotation for years to come.
Walking With a Ghost — Tegan and Sara
So Jealous (2004)
Built on a simple, insistent riff, Walking With a Ghost is an uptempo guitar-pop tune that recalls the Undertones in both its brevity (just 2:30) and its simplicity (even if Weezer’s Matt Sharp does bolster the back half with an atmospheric Moog synth wash). Written and sung by Sara Quin, Walking With a Ghost reads and feels like the infectious (manic, perhaps) mantra of someone attempting to banish thoughts of a former lover. The song, and the twin sisters from Calgary, was later given a boost when the White Stripes covered it and released as the title track of an EP in December 2005.
Chapter I: A New Beginning (1998)
Including the Moffatts on this list was one of the more contentious decisions of the entire process, but how can you nix the band that was affectionately, and accurately, dubbed the Hanson of Canada?
And if the Moffatts are, indeed, the Canadian Hanson, then I’ll Be There For You is their MMMBop.
The quartet of teenage brothers from British Columbia released the track as the lead single from their album, Chapter I: A New Beginning, which was actually their fourth record, but the first with a more pop-focused sound. Instantly, that opening hook full of "na na na"s wormed its way into the brains of girls the world over and helped push that record — which yielded numerous other memorable singles, including Misery, Miss You Like Crazy and Girl of My Dreams — to sell more than six million copies worldwide, almost reaching double-platinum status in Canada.
The Moffatts didn’t really hit their peak of commercial success until their next record, Submodalities, when they dropped their highest-charting song, Bang Bang Boom, which, at the time, was the fastest charting single in Canadian music history, but I’ll Be There For You was the perfect launching board for Scott, Clint, Bob and Dave. Its innocence and sanitized romanticism is pure ‘90s pre-teen pop perfection.
— Erin Lebar
Alberta Bound — Paul Brandt
This Time Around (2004)
Radio jocks the world over owe a debt of gratitude to the Country Music Association’s 2005 Global Artist of the Year for changing his moniker from Paul Renee Belobersycky to Paul Brandt early in his career. Born in Calgary, Brandt became the first male Canadian performer in 22 years to crack the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, when his debut single, My Heart Has a History, reached No. 5 in 1996. Alberta Bound, from This Time Around, could only have been written by a person from Wild Rose Country. The song’s lyrics read like a travelogue, extolling the province’s mountainous terrain, chinooks and "black, fertile ground." Our only beef (Alberta Grade A, of course): the song’s opening line mentions how many miles it is to the Canadian border — 40 — leaving Brandt’s Canuck fans to figure out what that is in kilometres.
Crabbuckit — k-os
Joyful Rebellion (2004)
The bouncy beat, tambourine, hand claps and walking bass line of k-os’s Crabbuckit are instantly catchy; the listener can’t help but head-bob along to Torontonian Kevin Brereton’s leadoff single from the album Joyful Rebellion. On CBC Radio’s 2005 program 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version, Crabbuckit placed No. 37; it was also the first hip-hop song to win the Juno for Single of the Year in 2005.
Girls Lie Too — Terri Clark
Greatest Hits (2004)
One of Canada’s finest female country singers, Medicine Hat, Alta.’s Terri Clark, found success on both sides of the border right from the start of her career — her first three albums were certified Platinum in Canada and the U.S. — but, Girls Lie Too, the lone single off her 2004 Greatest Hits album, was only the second No. 1 single for Clark stateside. The lyrics are cheeky and funny, as Clark goes through a list of things women have likely lied about to their partner — "We can’t wait to hear about your round of golf, love to see deer heads hangin’ on the wall, and we like Hooters for their hot wings, too" — and acted as a summer anthem for country-lovin’ ladies everywhere.
Shine a Light — Wolf Parade
Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)
During the great Canadian indie-rock boom of the mid-2000s, when music critics were talking about Montreal with the same breathlessness once reserved for Seattle, Wolf Parade emerged from the pack as one of the scene’s most influential bands, thanks in large part to its now-classic full-length debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary. Shine a Light is a song about the difference between living and merely being alive, an anthem for our modern times. The anxiety that hums through the lyrics is only heightened by the jittery, hiccuppy vocal interplay between co-frontmen Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, on which Wolf Parade’s inimitable sound is built.
Save Your Scissors — City and Colour
It was hard to believe the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar would be the sound of former Alexisonfire guitarist Dallas Green’s solo project City and Colour, but, as the first single Save Your Scissors indicated, folk music turned out to be Green’s most successful venture. The song — featuring the breathy, emotional vocals he’s now famous for — instantly went into heavy rotation on radio across the country, and the album, Sometimes, went on to receive Platinum certification in Canada. The St. Catharines, Ont., native has since released four more studio records, scooped up three Juno Awards and will act as one of the headliners of this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival.
This Could Be Anywhere in the World — Alexisonfire
By the time This Could Be Anywhere in the World came out, Alexisonfire was already riding high on critical and commercial success, but the track, which featured more heavily the melodic singing of Dallas Green (who had already released a solo album as City and Colour), was something special in their already strong catalogue. For some fans, it marked the turning point when the St. Catharines, Ont,. band went "too commercial," but for others, the single was just the next step forward for the groundbreaking screamo/post-hardcore band.
1234 — Feist
The Reminder (2007)
Apple’s rainbow of iPod Nanos — remember the iPod?! — forever implanted this earworm thanks to its bright, shiny commercial that rocketed Saskatchewan-raised indie darling Leslie Feist to stardom. As is so often the case with a catchy hit, many got tired of this little ditty real fast (if you’ve seen Feist play live in the past several years, you might have the impression that she’s tired of it, too). But at its heart, it’s a lovely and exuberant track, perfectly constructed with a great choral segment and a horn-heavy payoff at the end. Sorry, Leslie: 1234 was built to last.
(Make a Little Noise, 2006)
By the time 2006 rolled around, Plaskett had dabbled a lot of sounds — punk rock, alt-rock, classic rock and blues rock — but when Nowhere With You landed, it was a pop-rock anthem that, despite Nova Scotia-specific references, resonated with fans from coast to coast to coast.
"He takes local references like the Dartmouth ferry and creates this universally interesting song and it’s like, ‘Why go anywhere else when you can go nowhere with him?’ And in terms of songwriting I just find it interesting that even though it is a song about a place, it’s got such amazing universal themes to it about coming along to the ride," says Globe and Mail reporter Josh O’Kane, who wrote the book Nowhere With You: The East Coast Anthems of Joel Plaskett, the Emergency and Thrush Hermit.
Nowhere With You was one of three tracks on the Make a Little Noise EP, a CD that accompanied a DVD of live songs performed in Halifax by Plaskett as a solo artist as well as with the Emergency. The track went on to be his most commercially successful to date, earning him East Coast Music Awards for Single of the Year and Songwriter of the Year.
"I find his music is a really interesting document of, or representing a place in Canada you don’t necessarily always see in pop culture," says O’Kane. "And it also happens to be really good music at the same time, and that’s a wonderful thing."
— Erin Lebar
Weighty Ghost — Wintersleep
Welcome to the Night Sky (2007)
This track was Wintersleep’s first hit, and its success helped propel the band to win New Group of the Year at the Junos in 2008 (which is always nice to see for a band’s third album). These Halifax-born, Montreal-based musicians have had a huge influence on the indie rock scene — the band’s members have contributed to around a dozen other projects. But when they come together, their sound is powerful, and undeniable. Weighty Ghost is probably their catchiest song, thanks to its playful blend of drums, slightly disjointed acoustics and irresistible na-na-nas. Subsequent albums after Night Sky had a more intimate sound, but last year’s The Great Detachment features a number of great songs that bring that delightful Weighty Ghost vibe. It certainly works for them.
Dangerous — Kardinal Offishall
Not 4 Sale (2008)
Drake may be known worldwide as Toronto’s rap superstar, but it’s easy to argue there’d be no Drizzy without Kardi. Born in Toronto as Jason D. Harrow in 1976, Kardinal Offishall paved the way with his dancehall-influenced hip hop. Long revered in the industry, Kardinal didn’t become a household name outside of Canada until this collaboration with R&B hit factory Akon, which went triple-platinum with the help of that catchy-as-hell hook. He later told Rolling Stone the song came together in "less than an hour" — turning KO into an overnight sensation, a couple decades in the making.
Gimme Sympathy — Metric
Although Toronto’s pre-eminent synth-pop outfit wouldn’t headline arenas until 2012, it was the 2009 album Fantasies that proved Metric was ready for some stadium love. Gimme Sympathy is the acclaimed album’s centrepiece — a propulsive, fists-in-the-air glitter-bomb of an anthem with a shout-along chorus: "Who’d you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?" Fantasies was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and picked up a Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year, propelling Metric — and its iconic frontwoman, Emily Haines —toward mainstream success.
Wavin’ Flag — K’naan
Toronto rapper/singer K’naan’s Troubadour album was a tour de force, the story of a Somali refugee’s struggle to get to Canada that mirrored the life of its maker. Its high point was Wavin’ Flag, which, in its unadulterated form, was a heartfelt message that love and hope can become strength and freedom. Its irresistible chorus — "When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag," — became a rallying cry across Canada and then around the world when Coke commissioned a revised version of the song as its World Cup anthem ahead of the 2010 soccer tournament in South Africa.
Heart of My Own — Basia Bulat
Heart of My Own (2010)
Montreal-based singer-songwriter Basia Bulat has an unmistakable quiver in her voice that flutters gently, but passionately, over a stomping beat in Heart of My Own, the title track from her sophomore record. Heart of My Own feels like a poem in motion; short verses dotted with two repeated refrains, each dense with imagery of love lost, a popular theme in Bulat’s four-album catalogue, all of which have either been longlisted or shortlisted for the coveted Polaris Music Prize.
Baby — Justin Bieber
My World 2.0 (2010)
Arguably, there have been bigger songs in Justin Bieber’s career since the release of Baby in 2010, but it was this repetitive earworm of a single that was his first true smash hit. It cracked the Top 10 in more than 10 countries, reaching No. 1 in France, helping make Bieber — a Stratford, Ont., native — a worldwide household name. Baby also has another, less favourable, feather in its cap: it’s by far the most hated music video on the Internet, with nearly 7.8 million people giving it a thumbs-down rating on YouTube (the next highest number of dislikes goes to a Call of Duty game trailer, with 3.4 million dislikes as of January this year.)
Oblivion — Grimes
Vancouver-born Grimes, a.k.a. Claire Boucher, is a multi-hyphenate artist whose work isn’t easy to distil in a couple of sentences, which is perhaps why it has such an impact. You might hum along to Oblivion for weeks before really hearing the lyrics and understanding what they mean: they’re Boucher’s reflection on a devastating sexual assault, incongruously sung to a bouncy synth-pop tune. It remains at once an assertion of power and a hand extended to any woman who walks with fear.
You couldn’t get through the summer of 2012 without hearing "Hey, I just met you / And this is crazy / But here’s my number / So call me maybe" blaring from an open car window. Nor could you scroll through social media without encountering one of the many lip-dub videos that had proliferated on YouTube, with regular folks wanting to hitch a ride on a viral star.
Call Me Maybe wasn’t just an inescapable hit song. It was a career-catapulting pop juggernaut.
Co-written by Jepsen and Tavish Crowe, the single was initially conceived as folk song before Josh Ramsay of Marianas Trench transformed it into a radio-ready hit. Call Me Maybe was released as a single in Canada in 2011, but it was a tweet from Justin Bieber that elevated the Mission, B.C.-born singer from third-place finisher on Canadian Idol to international pop superstar.
Call Me Maybe went No. 1 in 18 countries, including the U.S., and netted Jepsen two Grammy Award nominations, as well as a fistful of other top music prizes. And critics loved it, too. Despite being a textbook pop song, Call Me Maybe was a daisy-fresh arrival in a hyper-sexualized genre. Consider the small but critical difference between "Call me, maybe" and what might have been the more obvious rhyme, "Call me, baby." "Call me, baby" is confident, a command. "Call me, maybe" is unsure, a little self-deprecating — and wholly relatable.
Call Me Maybe isn’t about hooking up. It’s about cheek-flushing crushes, and the anticipatory snap-crackle electricity of meeting someone new.
— Jen Zoratti
Change the Sheets — Kathleen Edwards
There are few albums that compare with the dreamy, delicious magic of Voyageur, Kathleen Edwards’ fourth (and final?) record. It was her biggest success, peaking at No. 2 on the charts in Canada and making the short list for the Polaris Prize in 2012. Change the Sheets, the album’s standout first single, is a lament for a broken relationship, and the impatience that sinks in as you wait for the pain to pass. But it’s hopeful too, thanks to the upbeat arrangement produced by Edwards’ then-partner, Justin Vernon (also known as Bon Iver). Edwards took an extended break from making music after Voyageur, opening a coffee shop outside her hometown of Ottawa, cheekily called Quitters. But she’s starting to play live again these days, so it appears she hasn’t quit us yet. Thank goodness for that.
Stompa — Serena Ryder
Toronto singer-songwriter Serena Ryder had long been a critical darling before the release of her sixth studio album, Harmony, in 2012, but it was lead single Stompa that put her on everyone’s radar. The hand-clapping, foot-stomping, drop-what-you’re-doing-and-dance single could have been a fluffy, feel-good Top 40 pop hit in someone else’s hands, but Ryder’s deep, smoky, Melissa Etheridge-indebted voice gives it some bluesy grit and heft. The song proved something of a crossover hit for the formerly folky Ryder; as the Toronto Star pointed out upon its release, it had found a home in every Canadian radio market but country.
You’re Out Wasting — Andy Shauf
Bearer of Bad News (2012)
Andy Shauf may be a new name to many readers, but the young Saskatchewan singer-songwriter has already been lauded for his incredible songwriting skills, often compared to those of Neil Young. You’re Out Wasting was standout track on his sophomore release; lyrically, it’s a dense exploration of decisions, love and lust, but the heaviness of the ideas is balanced by a minimalist melody, featuring just a cymbal and kick drum, with the occasional clarinet riff and ragtime piano line thrown in for good measure.
Leather Jacket — Arkells
High Noon (2014)
It’s exciting to see Hamiltonians the Arkells continue to cement their place amongst the top bands this country has to offer. Although their sound continues to evolve with each record, Leather Jacket remains one of the best examples of what they’re capable of. On top of being their most popular and most played song (more than four million streams on Spotify alone), it’s a track that adopted "classic" status the moment it came out; the sparkling guitar intro undercut with pulsating drums and bass make for the perfect summer bop, and the lyrics of the endlessly catchy chorus are impossible not to sing along to.
Rude — Magic!
Don’t Kill the Magic (2014)
While this writer doesn’t care much for the lyrical content of Rude — the ridiculous pop tune by Toronto-based reggae-fusion band Magic! — it’s tough to deny its appeal as a catchy summer jam. The premise is a proposal being denied by a woman’s father, and the protagonist ignoring his wishes and marrying her anyway; it’s an old-school approach to romance over a new-school combination of genres that resulted in a No. 1 song in the U.S. and U.K. (in Canada, Rude peaked at No. 6, but cracked the Top 10 in many other countries.)
Here — Alessia Cara
Four Pink Walls EP (2015)
It might seem strange for a song about a party-hating introvert to turn a teenage R&B singer into a superstar, but that’s exactly what Here did for Brampton, Ont.’s Cara (born Alessia Caracciolo), who was 18 when the track was released. It was her first Billboard Top 10 hit, featuring confessional lyrics about feeling miserable while people pretend to have fun all around you, delivered in with a vocal style resembling slam poetry. She performed the soulful single on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon before her album had even been released; it was named among the best songs of the year by everyone from Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly to Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound.
Spirits — The Strumbellas
The Strumbellas could be described as one part Mumford & Sons, with a side of Lumineers and perhaps a pinch of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. In other words, you’ve heard that indie folk sound before, but it takes on new life with Spirits, a summer hit in 2015 that has yet to escape the radio. It’s certainly an unlikely one, an upbeat track that lead singer Simon Ward says came from a place of darkness. There’s catharsis in that: when the Strumbellas took to the IGF stage at the Heritage Classic in October, thousands of beer-chugging hockey fans waved their hands in the air, singing at the top of their lungs, "I got guns in my head and they won’t go / Spirits in my head and they won’t go." A downer of a chorus, maybe, but it lit up the stadium.
(Views , 2016)
It makes the thumb and pinkie finger on one hand, without warning, form a shape meant to replicate a phone from ages past and it makes the other hand sway back and forth with no co-ordination with what the rest of the body is doing. It’s the line that makes the eyes pinch closed, the mouth open wide, the head nod up and down.
Most of all, it’s the line that launched a thousand memes: You used to call me on my cellphone.
As you’re awkwardly shimmying around your living room, it’s easy to gloss over the lyrics and forget what Hotline Bling is really about — a sad and jealous ex, watching his former girlfriend move on. It’s Drake at his Drakiest — that emo guy who just needs more of that girl in his life. And this silliness somehow became one of the most bangin’ dance tracks of the mid-2010s.
Hotline Bling was released as a single in 2015 and ended up on the Toronto rapper’s monster 2016 album Views. It went viral thanks to its music video and it’s now impossible to imagine one without the other. That smooth cha-cha beat paired perfectly with Drake’s utter lack of inhibition — his body contorted and his hands made indiscernible shadow puppets as he swivelled and swayed with abandon.
The GIF-makers went nuts. Drake’s deeply uncool display was freeing. It inspired millions of awkward wallflowers to get up and move.
What the Hotline Bling phenomenon, which continues on wedding dance floors to this day, taught us is that it doesn’t matter how silly you look. Drake is dancing like no one’s watching. Why shouldn’t you?
— Sarah Lilleyman
Canadian punk and metal bands usually fly under the radar of many music fans, since they don’t get the broad exposure of other genres, but the country has produced countless influential acts over the years that have made an impact in underground music scenes, both at home and around the world.
Here are 10 songs worthy of raising the devils horns to.
Nomeansno — The Day Everything Became Nothing/Dead Souls
DOA — The Prisoner
Dayglo Abortions — Proud to Be a Canadian
SNFU — She’s Not on the Menu
Propagandhi — Back to the Motor League
Guilt Parade — World Gone Mad
Teenage Head — Top Down
Sacrifice — Re-Animation
Razor — Evil Invaders
Voivod — Tribal Convictions
— Rob Williams
Can’t Feel My Face — The Weeknd
Beauty Behind the Madness (2015)
The Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, is Toronto’s other music superstar, who took off after getting a boost from early collaborator Drake. It’s hard to believe now that the Weeknd was once an intentional man of mystery, a clever tactic that brought huge buzz to his early mixtapes. Those first releases from obscurity were critically acclaimed, but gritty and raw. They certainly didn’t prepare anyone for the breakout success of Can’t Feel My Face, a monster summer jam that declared to the world that Michael Jackson was back. One could describe Tesfaye’s current sound, politely, as an homage to the King of Pop. One could also call it a straight-up ripoff. But one should also remember that Can’t Feel My Face is a really good song, and its subject matter (like most of the Weeknd’s songs, it’s, uh, explicitly about drugs) wouldn’t exactly fly back in the day.
Stitches — Shawn Mendes
Pickering, Ont., native Shawn Mendes may be the youngest person on this list, but at just 18 years old, has already cemented his place in pop music history. Stitches, from his debut record, was his first Top 10 single in the U.S., making it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song — which is equal parts Nick Jonas, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran — catapulted him into the limelight. Mendes opened for Taylor Swift on a few of her 1989 tour dates that year and was included in Forbes’ annual "30 under 30" list in 2016. His most recent single, Treat You Better, has more than a billion (that’s right, BILLION) views on YouTube — and all of this momentum is thanks, in large part, to Stitches — a simple track about a breakup with a girl who has a "bitter heart."
R.E.D. — A Tribe Called Red
We Are the Halluci Nation (2016)
Ottawa’s groundbreaking indigenous DJ trio A Tribe Called Red had a banner year in 2016 with the release of We Are the Halluci Nation, the crew’s most vital, political album yet. The hook-heavy R.E.D. is one of the record’s biggest bangers, featuring a guest turns from Yasiin Bey (the rapper formerly known as Mos Def), Canadian-Iraqi MC Narcy and First Nations drum group Black Bear. CBC Music named it the No. 1 song of 2016, and We Are the Halluci Nation was longlisted for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize.
Retribution — Tanya Tagaq
"Our mother grows angry / retribution will be swift," warns critically acclaimed Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq at the outset of the title track from her fourth album. The beat of the song, driven by the rhythm of Tagaq’s traditional Inuit throat singing, brings a feeling of urgency to the song which, like most of her work, tackles immensely important social and political issues. Seeing Tagaq perform is a truly perception-altering experience — the sounds and movements she makes onstage confirm she is a force of nature unlike any other making music today. The album recently made the Polaris Prize long list.
When compiling our initial list of Canadian songs, we often found ourselves humming ditties that didn’t really fit into the framework of the exercise.
They were tunes that inspired nostalgia, tunes that only someone who grew up in Canada would have any connection to, but most had neither hit the charts nor scored radio play.
In several cases, we couldn’t name the artist without resorting to Google, but it seemed an oversight not to weigh in on these Canuck-centric gems:
Television has provided a wealth of jingles, theme songs and intros with only-in-Canada appeal. For instance, in 1977, as part of a project on national unity, the National Film Board received $2 million to make several short films, called Canada Vignettes, to air between programming on CBC. The most famous of these — and one of the most requested clips in the NFB library — is The Log Driver’s Waltz.
The vignette by John Weldon features black-and-white footage that gives way to charming animation of the light-footed log driver, whose goofy grace entices a local girl to chose him over the doctors and merchants and lawyers her parents would prefer. The inimitable flutey voices of Montreal folksingers Kate and Anna McGarrigle lend perfect harmonies to the tune by Wade Hemsworth. The Waltz taught a generation of Canadians the word "birling" — "to rotate a log rapidly by treading upon it" — as the chorus goes: "For he goes birling down and down white water / That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly."
Don Messer’s Jubilee was the second-most popular TV show in the country in the mid-’60s. The CBC variety show starring the New Brunswick fiddler closed every broadcast with a rendition of the 1918 American song Till We Meet Again; parting was not so wistful in 1969 when the show was cancelled, sparking a national protest.
In 1963, Hinterland Who’s Who, a series of vignettes about northern wildlife, was launched. The intro — a simple, haunting tune that emulates the call of a loon — is called Flute Poem. Despite the fact that it was composed by an American — South Dakota-born John Cacavas also penned the theme to Kojak — it might just be the most Canadian song of all time.
The strains of old English folk song Early One Morning can only mean one thing to Canadians of a certain vintage: It’s time to look up, waaaaay up as the Friendly Giant welcomes you into his castle, where Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster are waiting, along with "One little chair for one of you, and a bigger chair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle." The CBC children’s show, which aired from 1958 to 1985, featured the tune played on harp and recorder.
In the same vein, the spritely piano theme to long-running CBC kids show Mr. Dressup — penned and performed by Donald Himes of Galt, Ont. — is guaranteed to raise a smile among those who grew up with Casey, Finnegan and the Tickle Trunk.
Juno-winning instrumental trio Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet has a boatload of songs, but the Toronto-by-way-of-Calgary band is best known for Having an Average Weekend, the twangy theme to TV sketch show The Kids in the Hall. The group — Don Pyle, Reid Diamond and Brian Connelly — is featured briefly in the credits to the show, which aired on CBC from 1989 to 1995.
Even public service announcements have made their mark. Luba had lots of legitimate hits under her belt in 1987, but the Montreal singer will always be remembered by teen hoodlums for Break Free, a 30-second PSA encouraging kids to quit smoking. It’s not clear who penned the catchy little number, but the woman born Lubomyra Kowalchyk made it her own, even if the ridiculous clip — a clueless attempt by advertising suits to portray cool kids — was unlikely to make anyone butt out.
Film has also made its contribution to Canadian consciousness. In 1964, the National Film Board commissioned Gilles Vigneault to write a theme for the movie La Neige a fondu sur la Manicouagan. The result, Mon Pays, became a Québécois anthem, taking on a political significance the songwriter had not intended. In 1976, the chanson was transformed into a disco track with completely different English lyrics: From New York to L.A. was an international hit for Patsy Gallant and appears on our main list of 150 (likely much to Vigneault’s chagrin).
In the old days, kids, there weren’t a whole lot of channels to choose from. Which probably explains why the words "When he walks down the street…" will invariably lead a generation of Canadian TV viewers to continue with "He smiles at everyone," as they launch into the theme from The King of Kensington, the 1975-80 sitcom starring Al Waxman as the titular Toronto titan.
Nobody seems to know who wrote this jaunty little number, with its Yiddish inflections, but we can give Terry Bush (music) and John Crossley (lyrics) credit for the countrified ode to the canine rambler that introduces The Littlest Hobo. The Greek-tinged instrumental intro to long-running CBC show The Beachcombers, composed by Robert Hales, also rings a nostalgic bell for those who fondly recall Molly’s Reach.
TV sports have made their mark in the public consciousness, of course. Look no further than The Hockey Theme, considered by some Canadians to be the second national anthem. The surging, triumphant tune was written by Juilliard-trained, B.C.-based composer Dolores Claman in 1968. It was associated with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts until 2008, when rights to the orchestral theme were purchased by CTV.
And then there are the children’s songs — the tunes we hear as youngsters that become an indelible part of our musical memories. For Canadian kids, those include: The Cat Came Back, Winnipeg performer Fred Penner’s ode to a peripatetic pet; Baby Beluga, inspired by a whale Raffi saw at the Vancouver Aquarium; Skinnamarink, an update of a 1910 Broadway tune that became the signature song for Toronto’s Sharon, Lois and Bram; and Sandwiches Are Beautiful, local songwriter Bob King’s oft-covered homage to the finest of foods.
And let’s not forget the oddities and one-offs. Under the former category we find the novelty track Take Off, from the Grammy-nominated Great White North comedy album starring Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug (Dave Thomas) McKenzie.
The song, featuring vocals from Rush’s Geddy Lee, reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 (and actually ranks as the highest-charting song Lee would ever appear on). The stereotypical antics of everyone’s favourite beer-swilling SCTV hosers arguably influences the way Canadians are perceived in the U.S. to this day, eh? (The duo’s "coo-loo-coo-coo coo-coo-coo-coo" call is a spoof of the aforementioned Hinterland Who’s Who theme.)
In the latter category, we have Tears Are Not Enough, Canada’s 1985 contribution to the supergroup charity-single craze to combat famine in Ethiopia. The group Northern Lights, intended to emulate the U.K.’s Band-Aid and the States’ USA for Africa, was made up of Canadian stars such as Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Bruce Cockburn, Paul Shaffer, Carole Pope, Burton Cummings, Dan Hill and many more. By 1990, the shmaltzy song had raised $3.2 million for famine relief.
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