With a population of 37.6m, spread across a land mass almost as large as the whole of Europe, Canada has long been considered the forgotten country of North America. Bilingual, multicultural, and proud to be different from their neighbouring USA, Canada has also had a long history of successful musicians and bands.
In recent weeks, I have been noticing more and more Canadian artists monopolising my social media. At some point in the past couple of weeks the Top 3 Spotify Artists in the World were The Weeknd, Drake, and Justin Bieber. All Canadian. Shawn Mendes isn’t far behind.
In the 90s Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morrisette were 4 of the best selling artists of the decade; again, all Canadian.
Canada gave birth to numerous indie/alternative bands in the 2000s (with a good measure of Nickelback and Avril Lavigne mixed in). The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire etc.
So… whilst wearing my NBA 2019 Champions Toronto Raptors jersey, watching Steve Nash YouTube highlights and getting my wife Heather to make me some maple syrup pancakes, I thought it fun to list out my (highly) subjective list of top Canadian musicians. Oh…. and although I always think of and make up Top 5 or Top 10 lists (à la High Fidelity), there is no way I could leave out the great Bryan Adams from this list, so in this case I’ve had to go with a Top 13 list (I love a prime number) instead.
Honourable mention goes to:
Oscar Peterson, Glen Gould, Buck 65, Frog Eyes, The Band, Destroyer, Neil Peart of Rush
And all the indie/alternative bands from the early 00s that dominated my iPod playlists for years.
- Bryan Adams
I was 9 years old when Waking up the Neighbours came out. I bought it immediately. ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ was everywhere. MTV wouldn’t stop playing it. The song would be on the radio every 30 minutes (in Greece of all places!!). So Far So Good that followed included ‘Please Forgive Me’. He then released ‘Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?’. I played it at home recently and realised that I still remember every single lyric. Guilty pleasure? For sure…
Let it Die and The Reminder are lovely albums. I frequently listen to The Reminder if I am so inclined. ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ was a big hit. Feist’s cover of ‘Inside and Out’ is IMHO better that the Bee Gees version. She wrote ‘The Limit to Your Love’ for crying out loud. Feist had a good run in the mid-2000s. It was fun while it lasted.
No one did horny, kinky, and filthy like Peaches did. The whole electroclash movement of the early 2000s was captured perfectly in The Teaches of Peaches. And I was in the minority that thought that Fatherfucker was disgustingly great! I saw Peaches live during Lovebox in 2010. She had a foot injury so she was carried onstage by a naked man. She climbed on the crowd’s shoulders and stage dived, with a fucked up leg, flashing her tits and talking dirty to everyone. Peaches was dirty. Cool dirty.
I know, I know… To be honest, I still don’t understand how Drake has become a mogul. Most of his songs sound the same, his nasal voice is really annoying and his style has not changed since Thank Me Later. Yet everything he touches turns to gold. He recently overtook Madonna’s US Billboard chart record for the most Top 10 singles. So for all the bloated fillers of his discography, I have to admit that singles like ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, ‘Over’, ‘Big Rings’, ‘Too Good’ and ‘Toosie Slide’ are very good. But this is all about ‘One Dance’. In 2016, all clubs and DJs would play ‘One Dance’ three times in a row and people would go crazy every time. I’ve not experienced anything like it before or since.
- Death from Above 1979
2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine is the only reason DFA made the list. Bass, drums, vocals and a whole lot of noise. Every song is a punch in the gut. Every song is catchy as hell. How did we not include them in the Best Debut Tournament???
- Rufus Wainwright
I have yet to hear his latest album, but to be honest I haven’t enjoyed Wainwright’s recent material. Rufus is an interesting case of an artist whose musicianship and talents seem to overwhelm his output. Undoubtedly very talented and excellently trained, I find his writing sometimes bloated, a bit repetitive and monotonous. This wasn’t the case in his early years though. Poses, Want One and Want Two are truly exceptional, self-reflective albums. Track by track, his songs typically openly address his relationships, his family (his parents are Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle) and his sexuality. I should listen to his latest album. Maybe that’s what’s missing from 2020. A good Rufus Wainwright album.
- Arcade Fire
Indie/alternative music’s flag bearers, Arcade Fire’s musical output up until (and excluding) Everything Now was up there with any of the major rock bands of the past 50 years. Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs, and Reflektor are superb albums. I know fellow Picky Bs may have different views, but this is my party so I’ll cry if I want to.
- Wolf Parade
Now we enter the heavy hitters. This is where it gets tough. But this is all about Apologies to the Queen Mary, At Mount Zoomer, and Expo 86. I really liked Dan Boeckner and his staccato guitars but I honestly think that Spencer Krug is a walking, talking genius whose many talents may only be realised posthumously.
- The Weeknd
When mixtape House of Balloons came out in 2011 (and followed up by mixtapes Thursday and Echoes), no one knew who The Weeknd was. Yet if Abel Tesfaye’s initial aim was to take over the world, then his The Weeknd moniker, his RnB take on sex, drugs and rock & roll and all the hype that followed, paved the way to making him one of the biggest stars in music today (his cameo in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems perfectly captures his rise to fame). By 2020, he’s got Max Martin writing top selling pop gems for him. He is a motherf*ckin’ Starboy.
- Joni Mitchell
Very few people are as closely associated with Canada as Joni Mitchell is. No list of greatest Canadians would ever be complete without her. She’s the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian music. I was recently listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Broken Record and what impressed me was the sheer number of artists who recognised Joni Mitchell’s contributions to folk/country music and her influence to their own music.
One of the true greats, her consecutive run of albums from Clouds to Court and Spark is one of the best 4 album runs ever.
- Sunset Rubdown
Spencer Krug’s “other” band, remains one of my favourite bands ever. I simply adore all 3 of their albums and ‘The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life’ was my most-played song in my old iPod (remember iPods used to have a play count?). I think I went through months on end listening to nothing else except from Random Spirit Lover. Seeing them live in London during their Dragonslayer tour was such a treat. Krug, sat in front of his keyboard was drenched in sweat while screaming at the top of his lungs ‘Say goodbye to your feral days’.
- Neil Young
Gosh… this is an upset of gigantic proportions, similar to Portishead losing out in our Best Mercury Prize Award winner. Still, Neil Young is my 2nd favourite Canadian artist. ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ is easily one of my favourite songs ever. ‘On The Beach’ makes me pause in contemplation every time. Few have captured the melancholy of superstardom as well as Young. ‘Southern Man’ addresses racism in the American South with such sarcasm and hope. Few musicians in popular culture have left the imprint that Neil Young has.
- Leonard Cohen
To many, this is not really a surprise. More of an acknowledgement. Cohen cut no corners. His poems unhealed wounds that were long mended. His world was one of bleak truths and hopelessness, but truths nevertheless. I’m Your Man, his most acclaimed album, came out in 1988. A good 21 years after his first album. There are no weak Cohen albums. His least consistent effort is probably 1984’s Various Positions. Yet it includes ‘Hallelujah’; later recognised as his most commercial song (if you haven’t, you must listen to Revisionist History’s podcast on ‘Hallelujah’).
Cohen bought a little house in the island of Hydra in Greece. He lived there for years, under the beautiful Mediterranean sun, writing books, poems and songs, far far away from his birthplace of Quebec. A Jew, with Lithuanian and Polish lineage, living in the USA and Greece. A true multicultural blend. A perfect representation of so many things Canadian.
Note by author: this article has purposely omitted the inclusion of Michael Bublé anywhere and in any shape of form.
Words by Constantine Courtis