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Arts and Culture

The Canadian Song Debate Gets Wild

Now with added bitching, moaning and eating our own. Plus Dan Hill. And BTO.

Thom Wong 9 May

Thom Wong writes regularly about music for The Tyee. He can also be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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Dan Hill, we will passionately defend you forever.

This post could probably also be titled: "Many of the artists people have said deserve to be here that were here all along but people are impatient." But first, a few observations on attempting to choose the greatest anything.

Some have said -- in that area down below the post that isn't the post but references it, ie. the comments section -- that this Great Canadian Song list I'm building is fundamentally flawed. And of course it is. How could it not be? Practically the entire internet is flawed, if by flawed you mean the work of one mind focused on a particular issue. Every year sites from the Huffington Post to Bob's Fish and Tackle pick "Best of" lists, and I've yet to see anyone claim the Pitchfork list was flawed because only the Pitchfork staff was able to choose for it.

Here's a paraphrased selection of those thoughts, and my reasoned rebuttal.

This list isn't accurate because it's missing songs/artists that are clearly superior to the songs/artists listed.


This is a bad way to choose the best song because only one person gets to decide.

I see.

Your progressive site isn't being progressive because it has published something I disagree with.


Obviously, this playful bracketology isn't meant to actually represent empirically the best Canadian song ever, because no list could ever do that -- that song doesn't exist. But, as a list, it is meant to represent a snapshot of what music looked like at a specific time and place within a specific cultural setting; that time and place being now and Canada/UK, and that cultural setting being this guy writing these words.

It's also meant to foster conversation, which it has, and that's wonderful. 

I Liked Them Before They Were Cool Region vs. Singer? Songwriter? Singwriter? Region

1. Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels) by Arcade Fire vs. Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill

No burying the lede: has there been a grander statement of purpose at the beginning of an album by any Canadian artist, ever? Having grown up in Montreal pushing giant snow balls onto the street to mess with drivers, I am immediately transported back by the opening lines of Tunnels:

And if the snow buries my,
my neighbourhood.
And if my parents are crying
then I'll dig a tunnel
from my window to yours,
yeah a tunnel from my window to yours.

How many other bands would have the chutzpah to start track one, side one with "And," as if they were already part of the conversation; as if they already had a right to be there?

Chances are if you're under 40 your first two questions on seeing Dan Hill's name were "Who's Dan Hill?" and then, "A Canadian wrote that"? Dan Hill should probably be as well-known as Lionel Ritchie, and the fact that most Canadians have no idea who he is is a testimony to how quickly we eat our own. "Sometimes When We Touch" isn't going to win style points with any musical cognoscenti. It borders so much on the maudlin that you'll probably need a bucket more than tissues.

But if you're going to express these emotions, by god this is the way to express them. Hill knows where he's trying to go from the very first flowing piano lines; by the end even the most hardened cynics will admit to getting a little misty. He became better known for I Do (Cherish You) off the Notting Hill soundtrack, voiced by the muscular tenors from 98 Degrees, and this is obviously a travesty. The producers should have used Hill's far better version. Recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, he deserves a reframing in the Canadian pop music landscape. 

But he's not beating Arcade Fire.

Winner: Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)

2. Wheat Kings/Scared by The Tragically Hip vs. Put Your Head on My Shoulder by Paul Anka

Paul Anka would be the captain of the "Wait, He's Canadian?" All Stars, if that honour wasn't already shared by Ryan Gosling, Paul Shaffer and Alex Trebek. Mr. She's a Lady wrote several pantheon-level crooners during the golden age of crooning, and Shoulder ranks as his best, gender politics notwithstanding. If there is a heaven, and if people fall in love there, they probably do so to this song.

The Tragically Hip, on the other hand, are 100% pure Grade A Canadian, the kind of band that, had they not existed, would have been invented in college dorms out of beer, bacon and small town mountain air. Managing to sound both like a coffee shop troubadour and a stadium-conquering klaxon, The Tragically Hip never really managed to resonate outside of Canada to the extent their talent might have dictated. Rolling Stone named Fully Completely the best album you hadn't heard of in 1992, and with grunge dominating radio play they may have simply been victims of bad timing. 

You might take umbrage with my choice of songs, and I've included two because I find them inseparable in tone, as neither is really representative of the Hip's trademark sound. What they do demonstrate is Downie's way around a well-turned lyric, even when it involves shoving in more words than seems reasonable or even possible. What could have been a heavy-handed political diatribe about injustice in Wheat Kings is instead a thoughtful meditation on the prairies, no less powerful a protest song for its quiet strength than Dylan's Hurricane. "Scared" is simply a beautiful song, showcasing Downie's storytelling chops at the height of his talent. 

Does a top 100 love song beat a one-two punch like that?

Winner: Wheat Kings/Scared

3. Claire by Rheostatics vs. NOTHING

I mistakenly put London-born Teddy Thompson in this competition. I guess I just wanted to adopt him into the Canadian fold, because frankly he seems Canadian. Of course, he isn't. 

Claire gets a by into the next round, which is sort of fitting because frankly almost no one knows this excellent alt-rock classic. 

Winner: Claire (by default of the author being a little thick)

4. Almost Crimes by Broken Social Scene vs. Let It Ride by Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO)

Two great drive really fast out of town songs. BBS and The New Pornographers came along at a time when ensemble bands were generally of the marching kind, and gave a new generation of guitar fiddlers something they could aspire to. The album version of Almost Crimes is cheekily called the Radio Kills Remix, a clever nod to the blippy production and layered noise that pervades the album. Even live the band sounds cut up and reworked. Has a saxophone solo ever sounded so cool in a rock song? And then laser gun blasts make an appearance for good measure. Why not?

A few generations earlier BTO were filling that role, exciting stadiums with some of the smoothest rock this side of Kenny Loggins. Let It Ride is a fitting anthem to a time when motor vehicles meant freedom and opportunity, instead of species-ending world killers. Delicious harmonies, jangly acoustic guitar, and a nicely thumping low end give Randy Bachman's manly growl the perfect setting to invoke a tale of... love? Adventure? Betrayal? Not that the lyrics are front and centre here. This song is about doing three things and doing them really well. A nicely restrained guitar solo is the cherry on this easy rider sundae.

BBS has all but disappeared from music, its individual members, most notably Leslie Feist and Emily Haines, making bigger names for themselves outside of the band. As a creative entity, it was never really meant to last. BTO lives on in movies and commercials, and while its music can't help but seem dated next to the dubstep hegemony under which we all suffer, it's hard to overstate the band's importance, and that of its individual members, to Canadian music.

Winner: Let It Ride

5. Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers vs. Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf

With its odd name and creative collective overtones, The New Pornographers (TNP) will forever be associated with the hipsterism that gave Vancouver better coffee and worse facial hair. The literal answer to the question, "What would happen if you combined AC Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case into one, choir-like whole?" TNP write the kind of songs musicians like; multi-part, multi-instrumental experiments more than songs, with all the time changes and and-clapping you could ever shake a stick at. They always managed to seem slightly bigger, and better well known, than they were.

Mass Romantic, the title song off their debut album, throws all of these elements at you in what should be a colossal mess, but instead sounds like the new direction for Canadian bands that it was. Before BBS and TNP, nothing really sounded like them, and afterwards almost everything did. CBC Radio 3 basically owes its existence to them, along with Dan Mangan, Joel Plaskett and every other "indie" rocker currently recording their undiscovered four-tracks in a parent's basement. 

If you somehow don't know Born to be Wild, then nothing I say will matter, and, if you do, chances are your mind has been made up about it. Seminal doesn't even get into it. This song basically is the late '60s. 

That universality heavily plays against it though when considering its place in The Great Canadian Songbook. Apart from most people not even recognising it was written by a Canadian, it's been used so often and in so many different contexts that it seems more like aural wallpaper now than an epic rock classic. While that's hardly fair in assessing the song, it's hard to distance it from the car ad fodder it's become.

Winner: Mass Romantic

6. Romantic Rights by Death from Above 1979 vs. These Eyes by The Guess Who

A number of people put forth The Guess Who's American Woman for consideration in this contest. Understandable, in that it's easily their best known song and an indictment of the U.S., and we all know Canadians hate the U.S. But American Women doesn't hit anywhere near the heights of These Eyes. These Eyes is the Donald Sutherland of love songs, overachieving in its small task to elevate the whole to an entirely different level. The chorus alone is worthy of a gold medal in songmanship:

These eyes are cryin'
These eyes have seen a lot of loves
But they're never gonna see another one like I had with you

Romantic Rights is a song that rips off your head and yells down your throat, and so few Canadian songs do that and manage to remain melodically consistent (i.e. don't sound like metal objects being thrown down flights of stairs).

These Eyes takes this, but Death From Above 1979, who have reunited and will be at Wakestock in August, are essential listening. They beat all the other drum kit + some other instrument bands into the ground. 

Winner: These Eyes

7. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire vs. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk by Rufus Wainwright

"The Suburbs" is a tale of two songs. The first is a barroom sing-a-long where the piano player has an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth the entire time, and the drummer keeps time on an overturned bucket. The second is a bizarre story of warring suburbs, growing up in a time of uncertainty and identity crisis. That they work together so well is a testament to where Arcade Fire is as a band -- a completely identifiable sound that still seems fresh when applied to each new song.

The Suburbs" is so good that Mr. Little Jeans can remix it completely and it somehow still sounds like the original while being distinct in its own right. 

Rufus Wainwright is the lost son of Canada, never called upon like kd lang when grand occasions require; never mentioned alongside Gordon or Neil; barely registering in the consciousness of your average Canadian. Perhaps his famous family has overshadowed him, or maybe his music stands too far outside of popular music to really capture the imagination. The cabaret styling can seem overly affected, but for a first track of a debut album he comes out swinging. I'm sure Mr. Wainwright is lovely in person, but on record he's brash and unapologetic -- refreshingly un-Canadian, in other words (and all the more Canadian for it).

Desert island situation, I'd want Arcade Fire. But if I could have No Cars Go from the previous round, I'd want at least one Rufus Wainwright.

Winner: The Suburbs  [Tyee]

Read more: Music

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