The American's Guide to Canadian Popular Music

Okay, so you're victims of Canadian content regulations. I'm sorry. I voted against that stuff.

For better or (more likely) worse, the regulations in Canada requiring a minimum of Canadian content to be played on radio stations has resulted in a hot-house industry over the years that has foisted on the listening public such lamentable acts as Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne, Loverboy, and Honeymoon Suite. And those are just the acts you Americans have heard of. Just imagine the crap we Canadians were forced to listen to. (I should have my own support group.)

It wouldn't be so bad if the music seemed half-ways Canadian, but usually, in order to maximize the market possibilities there was nothing Canadian about it. (An exception, not covered here, is Quebecois music).

In very partial compensation for that torture, I humbly offer this short and incomplete list of what I consider to be good Canadian popular music that you can buy on Amazon or whatever. With perhaps one exception, I eschew the pretty obvious ones that Americans know well (e.g., Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, BTO, the Guess Who). Instead, I focus on what to Americans should be relatively obscure acts.

In no particular order:


"Tom Thompson came paddling past/ I'm pretty sure it was him"

The Tragically Hip, "Three Pistols", from Road Apples, (1991).

Thompson (1877-1917) a famous Canadian landscape painter, died mysteriously on a canoeing trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario.

The Tragically Hip "Road Apples" (1991) Veteran rockers from Kingston, Ontario, are at the top of their form on this recording, full of jangly guitars, acerbic lyrics and great hooks. The anger and cynicism of youth comes through loud and clear. And who would have thought that in the midst of it all a ballad, "Fiddler's Green" would become one of the band's most requested tunes in concert. Go figure. If you aren't pumped up after listening to "Three Pistols", "Fight", and "On the Verge" in succession, you should become a jazz fan. Also check out "Up to Here" the disk that immediately precedes this one. It's excellent too.


Spirit of the West, "Faithlift" (1989) The 7th of 12 albums by a Vancouver-based folk-rock band, "Faithlift" meditates on travels and beliefs in the Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Wonderful arrangements, crystal clear vocals and just enough of the usual anti-Americanism to make it all interesting. One of the most underrated recordings in Canadian music history. Even some of the songs that should seem dated are not: "Mum's the Word" is a bitter condemnation of pedophile priests' scandal that reared its head in Canada long before it did in the U.S. (Yet another reason why Americans should pay more attention to Canada.)


Blue Rodeo "Five Days in July" (1993) There are a number of recordings by this Toronto-based band that are worth a good listen, but this is their best. This disk combines country, folk and pop in a way that seduces the listener to listen over and over again. Only one song is less than four minutes, something of a rarity these days. Notionally, Blue Rodeo is a country-rock bank which based on that description alone would normally have someone like me heading for the exits, but somehow they always transcend the genre.  Every song on this disk (except for "Cynthia" which is rubbish) is solid. I have listened to it over and over again, and I suspect I will continue to do so.


Kathleen Edwards, "Asking for Flowers" (2008) Edwards received some (much deserved) attention in some circles for her two previous disks, especially her 2002 debut "Failer" which explains my tardiness in trumpeting her praises. And yet I find that most people I know have never heard of her, so let me take the opportunity to plug her third release: it's really, really good. Country music has been sometimes been (unfairly) described as blues with the soul stripped out; that certainly isn't true here. The arrangements on this disc are straightforward and unabashedly country--upon ocassion there appears the usually lamentable--to me--steel guitar, but even that works for me this time; everything on this disk rings brilliantly true. It's the lyrics combined with Edwards' plaintive singing that works extraordinarily well on her collection of songs. You can feel the sense of rural life, forgone opportunity and loss on these tunes--and I know that sounds like a country music cliche. Buy this disk--whether you're Canadian or not.

"The money would be pretty good/ if a quart of milk were still a dollar/ or even if a quart of milk were still a quart"

Cowboy Junkies, "A Horse in the Country", from Black Eyed Man, (1992).

The lyric is a sly reference to the shift in the mid-seventies in Canada to the metric system which meant that an imperial quart shrunk by about 14 percent into a litre. Many conspiracy theories evolved from that decision. As of this writing the only countries still completely on the English system of measures are the Liberia, Burma and the United States.

Cowboy Junkies, "Black Eyed Man" (1992) Most Americans have at least heard of the Junkies, although they might not have a clear recollection of from where. That's because the Toronto-based band has been putting out quality music for more than a decade. I rate  "Black Eyed Man" as their best, but others might argue for "The Trinity Sessions" (1988), or "The Caution Horses" (1990) or even "Pale Sun, Crescent Moon" (1993). These are close calls for some mostly because the Junkies are something of a "mood band", meaning they produce terrific songs that are difficult to pin down. Kinda like Dire Straits was but with country-folk elements replacing the blues guitar. A risk-averse newbie might want to consider one of their collection disks.

Gordon Lightfoot, "Sundown" (1987) Sometimes called Canada's troubadour, Gordon Lightfoot epitomized Canadian folk music for twenty years and remains a sentimental favorite to all Canadians who get the chance to hear his music. This is particularly so of Ontarians since Lightfoot wrote and sang about them and their history. Simple arrangements featuring Lightfoot's delicate guitar work make the music accessible to anyone. Also consider "Gord's Gold" his best-of album.

 Bruce Cockburn, "Anything, Anytime, Anywhere: Singles 1979-1992" (1992) If Leonard Cohen is a poet of romance and loss, Bruce Cockburn is a poet of anger and frustration. Americans will either love or hate his in your face assessments of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s ("If I Had a Rocket Launcher", "Call it Democracy").  You cannot be bored.  Besides the powerful lyrics, Cockburn's arrangements are the big draw here and on all his recordings. First-class recordings for those who like to think while they listen.

The New Pornographers, "Twin Cinemas" (2005) If you ask an A&R man, he'll tell you bands are not supposed to do what The New Pornographers do--not if they want to succeed. For one, you're supposed to have one, distinct front man, not one guy, A.C. Newman, and another woman, Neko Case, swapping off on lead vocals. You're also supposed to pick a style, driving rythmns maybe, or lilting melodies, but not both, as this shifting collection of collaborators do. The A&R man for the Vancouver-based Pornographers must have been asleep at the wheel, but we're all better off for it. "Twin Cinemas," the Pornographers third disk is hook laden power pop with intriguing lyrics. The band was originally formed for a once-off disk, but it took off; it will be interesting to see if they can keep it up. Highly recommended.

The Stills , "Logic Will Break Your Heart " (2003) Montreal-based The Stills play slightly dark, edgy, synthesizer supported indie rock music suited for your rec room or a dance bar. (Think New Order, Radiohead and 1980s U2.) Unusual, particularly for a Canadian band, is the 9/11 theme that pops up from time to time in the lyrics; it works out well on "Lola Stars and Stripes" an unforgettably catchy tune and less well on "Let's Roll". Mostly though the lyrics run toward the ironic, as in favorites of mine like "Gender Bombs" and "Animals + Insects". Good stuff.

Great Big Sea, "Up" (1996) A blend of Celtic and Newfie (Newfoundland) musical influences, Great Big Sea sounds like a joyous barn dance. They add rock muscle to fiddles and accordions with the result being a whole lot of fun, especially when accompanied by beer. All songs but one are originals and it is worth the price of the disk just to hear "Mari Mac", a song the vocals of which speed up to a frightening velocity. The recording has a live-off-the-floor feel to it, as music of this type should.

k.d. lang , "Hymns of the 49th Parallel " (2004) I've always been simultaneously hot and cold about lang, and only partly because of the pretentious refusal to use capital letters in her name. Generally, I do not favour singers who do not write their own songs (although to be fair, she does co-write one song on this disk). So maybe it is just because it's been so many years that I've lived south of the 49th parallel that this collection speaks to me as it does. Here in the U.S., lang did not sell her disk as "Canadian songs" but they certainly are, and she chose them well. What she chose was mostly classic Canadian pop songs that she more than ably reinterprets. And in picking two Neil Young and two Leonard Cohen songs she chose two of Canada's best song writers--who cannot sing worth a damn. (Now, don't send me nasty e-mails; I'm entitled to my opinion.) As a result, her extremely clear, clean voice adds an entirely different dimension to "After the Gold Rush", "Helpless" and "Hallelujah." My favorite, however, is the Joni Mitchell composition "A Case of You"; I can listen to this one over and over. Somewhat less successful are lang's renditions of two Jane Siberry tunes, mostly, I think, because the songs are a thin gruel to begin with. Still, whether you're a Canadian or just someone trying to understand Canada or Canadians, you could do a whole lot worse than Hymns.

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