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Arts and Culture

Will Bryan Adams Cut Neil Young Like a Knife?

See what we did there? Canada's song search goes on.

By Thom Wong 8 Aug 2013 | TheTyee.ca

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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Are you ready to make peace with Bryan Adams? Photo: Viennareport.

[Editor's note: Using the dirty science of bracketology, Thom Wong has taken on the job of determining, in a head-spinning 64 title battle, the greatest Canadian song of all time. His long strange contest starts here. If you're new to the debate -- which is mostly occurring inside Wong's head (or possibly his iPod) -- prepare to be inflamed. But patriotically.]

I started writing for The Tyee in November of 2005. If you'd asked me back then to name the greatest Canadian song of all time, I'd have said, without hesitating, "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen. Fast-forward eight years, a law degree, and spatial shift to London, and I'll have forgotten all about that, thus dooming myself to over five months – starting here -- of trying to figure out the answer to that question. Sisyphus ain't got nothin' on me. 

I Liked Them Before They Were Cool and Singer? Songwriter? Singwriter? 

Quite a few from the Cool bracket fell by the wayside in the last few months of this contest, opening up the door for a round of 32 heavily weighted towards the "Singwriters." If that makes no sense to you... don't worry. Just don't worry.

1. "Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)" by Arcade Fire vs. 13. "Let it Ride" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

I've argued previously that "Tunnels" is the best side-one, track-one in Canadian history. That doesn't necessarily mean I think it's the best song, just that "Let it Ride" has a tall hill to climb if it's going to beat it.

"Let It Ride", or as it's more popularly known, the song from That '70s Show, hasn't aged very gracefully. You can hear every ounce of its lineage, from the slightly guttural vocals, to the motor-vehicles-are-cool vibe it throws everywhere, even though the song isn't, amazingly, about driving down a highway. (It was actually inspired by a traffic jam.) What it does have is smooth, smooth harmonies, searing guitar licks, and the beat sent from God's own drums, as channelled through the almighty hands of Robbie Bachman. 

It's a better song than "Tunnels" in several key ways that mostly have to do with social gatherings. It's better to sing along to, better to drink to, and, as a result, just generally more fun. But it doesn't sound like the sea change that "Tunnels" was and continues to be; the opening salvo by a band only getting started, and who would change the direction of popular music both here and abroad for the next decade. 

Winner: "Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)"

1. "Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young vs. 11. "These Eyes" by The Guess Who

Anything "Needle" encounters between now and maybe the final will be a mismatch, so in honour of this power ballad getting even this far, I present this live video.

Winner: "Needle and the Damage Done"

2. "Wheat Kings/Scared" by The Tragically Hip vs. 9. "Words We Never Use" by Ron Sexsmith

With all due respect to Mr. Gord Downey, how is it that he's a better known songwriter than Ron Sexsmith? 

With all due respect to Mr. Sexsmith, how does he hold the overlooked crown more than the incredibly overlooked The Tragically Hip (at least outside of Canada)?

With all due respect to either of them, is this really going to end without a Cohen, Lightfoot, Young, or Mitchell in the final?

But this is about now. In general I'd give the edge to the Hip in the music department, whereas Sexsmith gets the nod for lyrics... leaving us with a dead tie. As is the time-honoured tradition in all matters of sport, the decision tree for the tie-break will involve some abstract and convoluted criterion: Which would be a better soundtrack to a highlight reel for a fallen hockey player during the Stanley Cup finals?

Sorry Ron.

Winner: "Wheat Kings/Scared" 

2. "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen vs. 9. "Safe and Sound" by Hawksley Workman

A short, decisive battle. "Safe and Sound" is to Workman what "More than Words" was to Extreme; completely different from, yet also completely overshadowing everything else they have ever done. I know people who can sing most of "Safe and Sound" who don't even know who it's by, and have never felt compelled to find out. Workman hasn't done himself any favours, careening wildly from interesting music hall-style performer to weird U2 knockoff to folk singer. It will probably go down as the best song he's ever written, and THE perfect song for a lazy Sunday drive in the country, and no one will know who he is.

Winner: "Suzanne"

3. "Claire" by The Rheostatics vs. 7. "Early Mornin' Rain" by Gordon Lightfoot

If aliens came to earth and said that unless we produced the perfect encapsulation of mid-'90s music in one song they'd blow up the earth, we'd give them "Claire" and then everyone would dance and hug each other. Unfortunately for the woefully forgotten Rheostatics, Gordon Lightfoot could fight them off with just the twang when he sings "raaaaaaain."

Winner: "Early Mornin' Rain"

3. "The Future" by Leonard Cohen vs. 7. "The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire

If this was an actual battle, the fallout from their clashing fists and fire-breathing mouths would destroy Tokyo (I may have just watched Pacific Rim); one artist at the height of his powers, the other a band just rounding into form. 

An even match if it occurred in a vacuum, but it's hard to discount both Cohen's longevity as a performer and place in the pantheon not just of Canadian performers, but artists the world over. Much like Young, he's just in a different class. That said, if I could choose between only one of these two songs, I'd still pick "The Future", and that's with "The Suburbs" topping my list for best songs of the last decade. It's a song that's incredibly timely, but not yet timeless. Not yet.

Winner: "The Future"

4. "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young vs. 6. "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams

A classic by a man who made a song about pieces of crap classic, versus the one Canadian song everyone outside of Canada seems to know. (Depressingly, everyone also seems to know a Nickelback song, BUT additionally thinks they're American. Lose/Win.)  "Heart of Gold" is, in my opinion, Young's second best song, a campfire brought to life. It's a song I can listen to on repeat for hours and never, ever get tired of hearing. It has at its heart a ridiculous, ham-fisted metaphor that only someone as skilled as Young can make work. Let's put it this way: if "Heart of Gold" were a Nickelback song, people would pull of the road and throw themselves off cliffs just to make it go away.

But then that opening chord from "Summer" drops in and just washes away any other song. 

On the one hand, you have the song most folk artists would sell their acoustic souls to write, and on the other you have your first real six-string, momma's porch, and needing to unwind. "Heart of Gold" comes out ahead in every category of songwriting that matters, but it's "Summer" that has me leaning into the speaker, fists ready to pump the air. 

This is heart winning over head.

Winner: "Summer of '69"

5. "The Weight" by The Band vs. 5. "Mass Romantic" by The New Pornographers

The New Pornographers is a really good band name.

Winner: "The Weight"  [Tyee]

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