Canada 150: 15 Canadian tunesters

There is so much more to Canadian music than J***t*n B**b**, D***e, and C***ne D**n, but still, this is not a definitive list (unless you’re using it to define a 1960s-born west coast Canadian who has lived about half her life outside Canada). I hope it’s a reflective list though, showing off the range of talent and that otherness which does somehow in a weird sort of way, define us.

1. Leonard Cohen

A poet and a singer, this guy brought controversy with him on tour, at least into our home, with some unnamed folks claiming “he doesn’t even really sing”. For my birthday one year I received his greatest hits album, with a stanley knife (because, obviously, his music makes you want to slit your wrists, duh). But thought-provoking and danceable (not necessarily in that order) make Leonard’s music some of my best.

Poetry and music.

2. Kate and Anna McGarrigle 

I have a friend who is convinced that all Canadian musicians must have a mournful sound to succeed. The McGarrigles are high on his list, but their lovely harmonies still amaze. You just can’t beat siblings singing together, especially when you add that northern melancholy into the mix.

So many recordings to choose from.

3. Adam Dobres

Western Canadian Music Award nominee in 2017, guitarist Adam Dobres from Sooke, BC, has played with Wailin’ Jennys’ Ruth Moody and Emmy-award winning Toni Childs and opened for Jackson Browne and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, amongst many others. Adam’s gorgeous melodies and sensitive playing make his debut album one to listen to over and over.

Album: Adam Dobres

4. The Bills

A western Canadian band celebrating 20 years together, the Bills have that particular Canadian sound of acoustic folk and fun, with strings and wonderful lyrics, creating some of our favourite driving tunes.

Albums: I am still pretty partial to Let ’em Run, but the more recent albums Trail of Tales and Yes Please will grab you just as much.

5. Spirit of the West

These Canadian icons have been pumping out their catchy blend of folk, Celtic, rock, pop and punk for nearly 35 years but sadly stopped touring in the spring of 2016 because of the progression of lead singer John Mann’s young onset Alzheimer’s, making their signature tune, Home for a Rest, very poignant indeed.

Their website is here.

6. Sharon, Lois and Bram

So many catchy songs, excellent productions, fine musicians and great Canadiana made their children’s recordings wonderful for adults too.

The party starts here.

7. Daniel Lanois

More haunting, languid sounds from another Canadian, who forever influenced the sounds of a Forbes-like list of musicians: Dylan, Gabriel, Eno, Young, we know the rest.

One of my favourites: The Maker

8. Doug and the Slugs

A legendary Vancouver band, capturing pop on the edge of the punk era in a city always on the edge of everything, Doug and the Slugs capture that season of my life like no one else: my part time job in Smart Set; weekend trips to Vancouver with dinners in Chinatown where my friends knew the best back alley places to eat; my skinny painter pants from a trip to Montreal when I was 17 and the thin black tie of my Dad’s. Style, humour, danceable tunes – they’ve had it all. Sadly, main man Doug Bennett died in 2004, but the band continues to play, with Ted Okos now fronting.

Albums: Well, Cognac and Bologna had the hits “Too Bad” and “Chinatown Calculation” on it, but any of theirs will make you get up and dance – and I’m loving the retro music videos.

9. Barenaked Ladies

While in a gift store in Tofino in June, I heard If I Had a Million Dollars playing. “Barenaked Ladies!” I exclaimed to the sales assistant, “I haven’t heard them in years!” “That’s Radio Tofino,” she sighed.

All the same, the Ladies have an ageless sound. And they’re currently touring western Canada.

10. Joni Mitchell

The Margaret Atwood of Canadian music, Joni’s tunes span more than 50 years, and all spectrum of experience and emotion. Solid and strong, her voice is both past and present for the Canadian scene.

Albums: Where do I start? Take your pick from Song to a Seagull (1968) to Shine (2007), although 1971’s Blue would be a stand-out for me.

11. The Tragically Hip

Having sung the soundtrack to a generation of Canadians’ lives, The Tragically Hip sang their last together in a concert from Kingston, Ontario, where they began as high school friends, that was broadcast live across the nation — to 11.7 million people — in August 2016. In October 2017, iconic frontman and songwriter, Gord Downie, died almost two years after his brain cancer diagnosis. There was a collective, Canadian outpouring of grief.

Documentary: Long Time Running, chronicling their Man Machine Poem Tour premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and airs on CTV November 12 and will also be on Netflix worldwide.

12. Twin Bandit

The newest on this list, Twin Bandit is Vancouver duo Hannah Walker and Jamie Elliott, singer songwriters with a lovely blend of folk, alternative, country and elegance.

Discover them!

13. Gordon Lightfoot

The strong Canadian tradition of singing-songwriting may have started here, with Lightfoot and the Toronto folk music scene of the 1960s. And you can’t say “Canada’s folk tradition” without adding 14. Stan Rogers to the sentence.

Songs: so many, but Barrett’s Privateers for Stan and Early Morning Rain for Gordon.

15. Crash Test Dummies

Taking all those Canadianisms: a bit of melancholy, a dash of humour, some canny observations on life as the Great White North knows it, plus the odd choice of band name, Crash Test Dummies are now part of our psyche. Plus, Brad Roberts’ deep baritone voice is fairly mesmerizing.

Song: Superman’s Song, from their debut album The Ghosts that Haunt Me.

And finally, I am struck by the poignancy of this: so much serious illness and tragedy marking these artists. Just like the rest of life: so much to mourn, so very much to celebrate.

If this was a more than a 15 list: Bryan Adams is legendary; Diana Krall is not only a jazz wonder but also from my hometown; Downchild Blues Band I adore: fiddle player Pierre Schryer’s recordings brighten my home. And there are so many more.

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I am nearing the end of my Canada 150 series! Check the link on the left side of the home page for all the other posts.

Photos by Caoimhe Nolan.




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