For Canada 150 today, I am going to depart from the film theme of this blog and turn to my first passion in life, music. We in Canada have much to be proud of on the music scene. Even today, the charts world wide are topped by Canadians (Beiber, Drake, Th Weekend). There was a time in 1995 when three Canadian women (Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Celine Dion) ruled the charts across the globe.
For this entry, I will name my favourite 15 Canadian recording artists, pretty much in order, with my favourite song from each of those bands. Its not an attempt to compile a “Best of” list. The Hip, for example are not on my list but if I were to just do a list of great Canadian songs, they would be there.
Who are yours? Your fave Canadians and their single best song for you? What memory does it bring up, why does it resonate with you. I would love your comments.
Before I start, honourable mention to five acts that did not quite make the list for me: Arcade Fire, The Hip, Blue Rodeo, Jane Siberry and BTO. Please do yourself a favour and give a listen to Jane Siberry’s “Dancing Class” from No Borders Here. Again, on list of songs, its way up there. But this list is about artists and a single song.
15. Parachute Club – Rise Up
Parachute Club exploded onto the mid 80s Canadian Music scene, when Much Music was actually a station that played videos. Their fusion of pop, soca and World Music was unique. Led by the sultry-voiced Lorraine Segato, it was an early anthem for gay rights and equality in general, with lyrics like “we want freedom, to love who we please”. Its a song about empowerment with a truly universal theme.
Admittedly, a lot of that passed me by in 1983. Back then I was mesmerized by the songs percussion and Latin influence and it general upbeat message and tone. Aside from its sad, sad use in a frozen pizza commercial, it has become timeless. I played the grooves off this album.
14. Gowan – Guerilla Soldier
Born in Scotland and raised in Scarborough, Larry Gowan combined his ARCT classical piano traninig and love of theatrics into a truly unique and Canadian version of Prog-Rock. His album Strange Animal from 1985 was a huge success in Canada, producing the FM radio staples A Criminal Mind and the title track.
Guerrilla Soldier is his most powerful work and ranks as one of the single best songs I have ever seen performed live. And for those music aficionados, that’s Tony Levin on bass.
13. Stompin Tom Connors – Sudbury Saturday Night
To not include Stompin’ Tom would be tantamount to treason. The proudest of all Canadian artists, the original country rapper, the man who said “we should all join Quebec and separate together”.
One of my prize possessions is my father’s original vinyl pressing of Northland Zone, an album with Connors, a guitar and slab of wood on the floor. Its featured track is “Sudbury Saturday Night” and is an undeniable piece of Canadian Culture. A song about hard working miners in the oft-forgotten Nickel Belt.
We’ll drink the loot we borrowed and recuperate tomorrow
‘Cause everything is wonderful tonite-we had a good fight
We ate the deli pickle and we forgot about the nickel
And everybody’s tickled for it’s Saturday tonight
If those aren’t truly Canadian lyrics….
12. April Wine – Bad Side of the Moon
As Canadian as they get, April Wine was a hit machine in the 70s. Although they have so many great originals, their cover of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Bad Side of the Moon remains my favourite. I believe it is an improvement on the original. It brings back memories of listening to CFTR in the 70s.
11. Rough Trade – High School Confidential
Carol Pope: what can you say about her? She challenged every convention she could, personally and musically and with this song, summed up her band and her music. There weren’t a lot of openly lesbian pop music fantasies in the 1980s and at age 15 when it was released, I am not sure that I was 100% sure that
I knew what I was listening to. But to this day, I know every word and wonderful double entendre.
Pope wrote this song intentionally to confuse the audience. Was she singing of her own fantasies of the “cool blonde scheming bitch” or was she singing from the point of view of a lusting boy. This is a great song.
10. Rush – Tom Sawyer
Rush is a band I respect and admire more than I like. For their fearsome chops, mastery of time signatures, insanely devoted fans and longevity especially on the road. As a drummer, I have to pay homage to Neil Peart, one of the most gifted men to ever pick up sticks. Tom Sawyer fuses Rush’s Prog Rock/Metal style with pop and Top 40 hooks perfectly. But any drummer will tell you, its Peart’s imagination and chops that make this the song it is.
Its really is the ultimate air-guitar or air-drum song.
9. Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind
Inspired by his divorce, Four Chord Gord penned his first US #1 A/C hit while sitting in an empty house in Toronto. It’s not so much (for me) a song of anger and resentment, but more of one working out his emotions, “the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back”.
This song has a brilliant arrangement of acoustic guitar, keys and strings, no notable drums or percussion.
It’s a sad song to be sure but one that closes a door on one part of his life and looks ahead to the next. “I will never be set free as long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see”.
8. Alanis Morissette – You Oughta Know
Ok, look past how horribly over played this song was and maybe still is. Jagged Little Pill ruled the charts, powered by one of rock and roll’s greatest poison pen letters. The album is the second best seller all-time by a female artist, behind only Shania Twain’s Come on Over.
The ubiquitousness of this song has never dulled its edge. Its shocking lyrics, slicing vocals and almost creepy, angry production values launch it beyond simple catharsis to one of modern music’s greatest “Fuck You” moments.
Loved it then, still love it now.
Just for clarity, Alanis has never said whom this song is about.
7. The Band – Up on Cripple Creek
If you don’t know the history of The Band, four boys from Ontario and one from Arkansas, I would encourage you to read everything you can. They have a fascinating history from back up for Ronnie Hawkins to one of the most influential recording acts of their time.
“The Weight” is largely considered their signature song, but “Up on Cripple Creek” is just pure fun, a simple song about a trucker in the south who stops in to see “Little Bessie” for some time at the track, drinking and music. Levon Helm sang lead on this song written by Canadian Robbie Robertson: Its southern rock at its best.
That really cool riff at the end of each chorus (“A trucker’s dream if I ever did see one”) is Windsor Ontario’s Garth Hudson, playing a Hohner Clavinet keyboard with a wah-wah pedal. It’s one of the first instances of a sound that would grow to be a staple of 70s rock and prog-rock. Think of the intro of Stevie Wonder’s Superstitious a few years later…
6. 54 40 – I Go Blind
Naming their band after a latitudinal line that separates Alaska and British Columbia and the Oregon Last Dispute, 54 40 is one of the most influential and enduring bands from the Western Alternative Rock/Punk scenes.
I Go Blind, a song about turning your back on the obvious plight of those in third world countries, was a minor hit for them in 1986 then was covered by Hootie and the Blowfish and became a Top 10 Hit in US and Canada. I saw them in a private show in Calgary a couple of year back. Still sounded great.
The original video is on YouTube. Give it a watch, its very simple and very impactful.
5. Barenaked Ladies – Brian Wilson
Around 1992, my partner in the DJ business Shawn McEwen handed me a 5 song demo tape from this band he heard at the College Student’s Council conference in Halifax. He said “You will probably like this in a year or two”. Shawn knew I was late to the game most of the time. If I had a Million Dollars became a staple of our DJ rotation and shortly after they released Gordon which remains one of my favourite albums. The famed “Yellow Tape” sold over 100,000 copies in Canada.
One of their first songs, Brian Wilson is still their best. A concert staple and fan favourite, it chronicles the parallels of the lives of Brach Boy Brian Wilson and Steven Page and contains a nod to the famed Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street.
4. Joni Mitchell – Carey
Joni Mitchell’s Blue is rightly considered of the greatest albums of all time and Court and Spark is not far behind. I did not fully appreciate Joni Mitchell until my early 20s when my friend and band mate Paul Martin had me listen in earnest.
For Joni, I have a virtual tie between this song and “Raised on Robbery”, her tale of a Toronto hooker splitting a bottle of gin with man in bar while a Leafs game on in the background.
“Carey”, though showcases her two greatest gifts, her poetry and her unmatched vocal talent. The subtle note bending, the two-octave jumps, all done with skill and ease. This song about a love affair she had while on vacation in Greece, is deeply personal and so spot on perfect that his transports you to the Mermaid Café with every listen.
“Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam
Or maybe I’ll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano and put some flowers ’round my room
But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now
The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matalla Moon”
3. Max Webster – Oh War!
I love Max Webster. I don’t feel they every get the love they deserve or their place amongst Canada’s great bands. Kim Mitchell saw much more success as a solo artist. High Class in Borrowed Shoes was the first album I ever purchased for myself. Oh War! With it’s raunchy blues, killer guitar and f-bomb woke something up inside me musically. In the 1970s, Max played rock and roll outside the box and that worked for me.
This entire album influenced me as a young drummer as much as anything I ever listened to.
2. The Guess Who – No Time
Not their biggest hit, but released in the peak of their early 70’s fame, “No Time” is a great, biting Dear John letter that for its time was leading edge hard rock. Known both for Burton Cummings unique belting vocals and the memorable Randy Bachmann guitar riff, this song closed a lot of concerts over the years and was recognizable from its first note.
Picking my favourite Guess Who song was a chore, but for me, this is their timeless classic. American Woman has a hallowed place in rock history but No Time defines the band.
1. Bruce Cockburn – Coldest Night of the Year
In the 1980s when I truly discovered Bruce Cockburn, the world was living a life of excess. More was not enough and too much was barely a start. The plight of the rest of the world was relatively unknown to most North Americans. Bruce Cockburn at this time sang about injustice, war, the environment and fairness for Indigenous Peoples. He was and still is a songwriter, poet and activist. On top of that and maybe even moreover, he is a monster guitar player, one of the most gifted in history.
His songs “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, “Call It Democracy”, “Stolen Land”, “Waiting for a Miracle”, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and many others spin tales of parts of the world a society that few songwriters of his time cared to acknowledge.
But it’s this breezy, bluesy valentine to Downtown Toronto, the tale of a lonely and heartbroken man on a cold night in Canada that remains my single all-time favourite song.
Cockburn could weave enormous complexity into his music, but this song, brilliant in its simplicity and equal parts whimsical and melancholy, stands apart for me. I have seen him in concert 7 times (8th coming this fall). He is a great Canadian and a musical hero.