Throughout the past week, I've been trying to assemble a list of ten songs that collectively epitomize the spirit of Canadian music. Pruning this list to ten hasn't been easy but I was up to the challenge.
Here are ten Canadian tracks that, to me, represent all that is right with Canadian music.
I'm An Adult Now - The Pursuit of Happiness
I don't think there's a more Toronto song than this one. This independent single was spun all the time on CFNY in the late 80s and I thought it was the coolest. Great lyrics, great raw sound and a great story. TPOH got a record deal and put out the awesome Love Junk, a cassette I played over and over again. In addition to a more polished version of "I'm An Adult Now", this album had stellar tracks like "She's So Young" and "Hard to Laugh". Why does this song more than any other remind me of my city? For a couple of years in my early 20s I worked at Dufferin and Dupont and lived near Yonge and Bloor. My route to work was a bike ride along Davenport to Dupont, and more often than not I'd see Moe Berg walking that street. There he was, taking a stroll in his city, and every time I saw him I heard "I'm An Adult Now" in my head.
The Weight - The Band
When Bob Dylan went electric, he called on The Band. I once heard a great quote attributed to Robbie Robertson when Dylan said he was going electric. Robertson wondered if there was any other way to go. "The Weight" is a fantastic single, practically perfect. This single is proof that Canadian artists are second to none.
Cinnamon Girl - Neil Young
Neil Young is the quintessential Canadian artist. He's a master of multiple genres, chock full of integrity, and both a critical and commercial success. "Cinnamon Girl" could be "Heart of Gold", "Down By The River" or "Helpless", but I'm going with "Cinnamon Girl" because it's just grungy enough to earn him the moniker "Godfather of Grunge". It's the impossible blend of raw elegance and it makes Neil Young not only an essential Canadian artist, but essential, period.
Underwhelmed - Sloan
Following the Seattle explosion in the early 90s, partly inspired by Neil Young's rockers, there was the Halifax explosion led by Sloan. These four became instant Cancon favourites with "Underwhelmed", another CFNY staple and a song that perfectly captures the slacker mentality of the early 90s.
Try - Blue Rodeo
"Try" might be the polar opposite of "I'm An Adult Now". They came out at roughly the same time in the late 80s and one was as pretty as the other is raw. I first heard "Try" during a grade school dance when the DJ played it for a slow number. It's a stunning composition that sounds as sharp today as it did then. It was sort of country, but not nearly country enough to repel. It was just a beautiful song about love from a Toronto band with heart. It was the epitome of Canada.
Tom Sawyer - Rush
I'm convinced you either love Rush or you hate Rush. There is no middle ground. My brothers and wife unanimously despise this band while my heart speeds up and I get goosebumps listening to Alex, Neil and Geddy. Like Young's "Cinnamon Girl", this could have been "Closer to the Heart", "Spirit of Radio" or "Fly By Night", but "Tom Sawyer" has those keyboards! Love them or hate them, Rush is the Canadian band that unites us. I once heard a girl on CBC say Rush was equally loved by all essential elements of Canadian living: hockey fans, farmers and computer geeks. 'Nuff said.
New Orleans is Sinking - The Tragically Hip
This song has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, but conduct a poll and you'll learn it's the most popular song from the most Canadian of bands. The Hip sing about Bill Barilko, Bobby Orr, Bobcaygeon and Toronto. They're unabashedly Canadian and "New Orleans is Sinking" is their anthem.
Rockin' in the Free World - Neil Young
The Soviet Union was breaking up and the Berlin Wall was coming down. Meanwhile, Neil Young, a Canadian legend who hadn't made much of a splash since the late 70s, released "Rocking in the Free World". It became an instant radio hit, a sing-along for 16 year old kids like me and gave Neil back his street cred. Best Canadian song of the 80s.
American Woman - The Guess Who
Without The Guess Who, would there be The Tragically Hip? Without The Guess Who, would there be a Rush, a Barenaked Ladies or an Our Lady Peace? These were the groundbreakers, the frontiersmen. When "American Woman" shot to the top of the charts, it represented a whole bunch of firsts. A Canadian band had released a bonafide smash hit that wasn't just awesome because they were from the Prairies but because it rocked. The Guess Who, with this success, paved the way for the success of Canadian bands to come and got many a youngun to pick up a guitar and jam in the garage on cold winter nights.
Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell
This song is not only infectious with it's catchy melody but it has a social conscious. When I think about Canadian music, I think about this combination. It's appealing to the masses while saying something significant. Another artist who got her start in Toronto, Mitchell took folk to a whole new level and helped the woman voice in rock get heard. If you don't like Joni Mitchell, there truly is something wrong.
The last time I shared a list of this nature, I got hit with a bunch of "what about x" and "how could you put y on there" emails. It's a very subjective list and this is my best crack at it. If you're up for the challenge, Share your ten with me and I'll post them.