Not long ago, visitors to Canada would have been surprised by the music on the radio and in public spaces: it was nearly all-American. Despite being the second largest country in the world by area, Canada had long suffered from an identity crisis due to its proximity to an outspoken, powerful neighbor. Many of the musicians Canadians listen to are American, while many good Canadian artists migrate down to the US in search of fame. Over the past decade or two, however, Canada has successfully built a unique global image by actively promoting its artists and arts industry (and saying “sorry” a lot). Thanks to these efforts, listeners can now enjoy fine music from the land of beavers and maple syrup, starting with this list of the top 10 best Canadian songs of all time.
List of Top 10 Best Canadian Songs of All Time until in 2017
10. Life is a Highway (Tom Cochrane)
Despite the vaguely obscene lyrics — “Life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long” — Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” (1991) has succeeded not only as a hit song, but gotten him an actual stretch of highway named after him in Manitoba, according to CBC. According to Cochrane, he was inspired to write the piece after visiting Africa, which he found “mind bending and soul sapping.” “Life is a Highway” was a respectable Top 40 hit in the US, but netted Cochrane many more honors and awards in Canada. “They take their rock stars seriously in Canada,” writes Songfacts.
9. Working for the Weekend (Loverboy)
How bad could it have been to be working in Canada in the eighties? At least everyone receives free healthcare at the end of the day. All the same, rock band Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” can’t fail to rile you up for the weekend — according to the guitarist, the band had seen little success until this award-winning piece literally brought their listeners onto the dance floor: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” This song has been featured in various films and shows and is still working for the 21st century.
8. Steal My Sunshine (Len)
It was a tossup between Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” and Tal Bachman’s “She’s So High,” both of which were released and well received in 1999, but the former is notable as hip-hop in an industry full of indie rock, alt rock, pop rock, and folk rock — to be fair, Len is billed as an alternative rock band. “Steal My Sunshine” is a sunny earworm that Marc Constanzo, lead singer and guitarist, says is inspired by rave and disco music: “I know it’s up for me if you steal my sunshine, making sure I’m not in too deep if you steal my sunshine.” The light, catchy beat and cheery vocals bring to mind dappled sunlight on a convertible, parked by a beach full of volleyball players. “Steal My Sunshine” is clean, sandy beaches and polite, happy teenagers, and Canada definitely has plenty of those.
7. Born to be Wild (Steppenwolf)
“Born to be Wild” (1968) is Toronto band Steppenwolf’s third single, but their first to top the charts. Since Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the song has been used in a number of movie and TV soundtracks, sometimes with the chorus — “born to be wi-i-ild” — being effective enough on its own. “Every generation thinks they’re born to be wild,” says John Kay, lead singer of Steppenwolf. Rolling Stone and other sources suggest that, whether or not “Born to be Wild” can be considered the first heavy metal rock song ever, the heavy metal genre certainly took its name from the phrase “heavy-metal thunder” in this hard rock piece.
6. Angel (Sarah McLachlan)
Since its release in 1998, Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” has been a staple for sad TV show episodes, animal shelter and charity organization commercials, and sappy holiday programs. It also appeared in the depressing (albeit fluffy) movie City of Angels, starring a glum Nicolas Cage and his mostly unrequited lover Meg Ryan. Written by McLachlan for Smashing Pumpkins band member Jonathan Melvoin, who died of an overdose, this poignant, weepy pop ballad makes you want to give up all your cash and possessions for a good cause: “In the arms of the angel, fly away from here.”
5. Old Man (Neil Young)
“Heart of Gold” is perhaps Canadian icon Neil Young’s biggest hit, but there is undeniable appeal in the youthfully world-weary music and words of “Old Man”: “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.” Young first played both songs live for the BBC in 1972. Today, he is an “old man” himself, and “Old Man” — the “countrified confessional” Young wrote for an elderly caretaker, according to Laughing Squid — sounds as timeless as ever. This melancholic hit was given an angst-y, rap-infused update by Canadian alternative rocker Redlight King in 2011, with permission from Young himself, to make another generation all teary about their fathers, father figures, and future children. This is one amongst the Top 10 Best Canadian Songs of All Time until 2017.
4. The Log Driver’s Waltz (Wade Hemsworth)
Folk musician Wade Hemsworth had written fewer than two dozen songs in his lifetime, yet at least three are known across Canada, with “The Log Driver’s Waltz” (1979) being surely the most memorable. Anyone who has watched Canadian TV within the past three decades would recognize Hemsworth’s “The Black Fly Song” and “The Log Driver’s Waltz” from the animations of the same names, produced by the National Film Board of Canada and aired between programs, sometimes even between commercials. The NFB reports that the waltz, an ode to the Canadian log industry and log workers — “For he goes birling down a-down the white water” — during their glory days is the most popular and requested of the animation series. The sweet refrain calls to mind the toil and joy of working Canada’s resource-rich land and waters, back when it was still a very young country.
3. Complicated (Avril Lavigne)
Say what you want about pop music, skater punk Avril Lavigne changed something about the status quo with her thick, black eyeliner, single arm warmer, and oh so relatable lyrics in 2002 with “Complicated,” her debut pop rock single. In her lyrics, French-Canadian Lavigne calls out an unnamed person — and the public in general — who is “tryin’ to be cool” by acting like a prep instead of who he or she truly is. This is a an anthem about being true to yourself for tough girls and women out there, without the artificial sweetness, insecurity, or need for male attention that characterizes pop music for young women. Fellow Canadian musician/comedian Jon LaJoie name-dropped Lavigne — his alter ego MC Canadian Stereotype listens to Lavigne’s music — in the popular WTF Collective series. “Complicated” and its unapologetic, unsmiling Pop Punk Princess Lavigne paved the way for the musician’s career and genuine girl power (not that Spice Girls imitation) music for years to come.
2. American Woman (The Guess Who)
While The Guess Who insists “American Woman” is not “anti-anything” and merely expresses their delight with Canadian women, this iconic piece of classic rock has become the symbol of anti-Vietnam War, Anti-American influence Canada of 1970. Because Canada does not have a draft and is historically less warlike than its southern cousin (or uncle, as some prefer), it becomes a haven for conscientious objectors and draft dodgers of all types whenever the US marches its people to the battlefield. The main line of “American woman, stay away from me” has also been taken to mean a rejection of American values, media, or culture in general at a time when Canada was dominated by too much of everything coming across the border. As a bonus, the lead singer came up with the song at a curling rink — one of the most Canadian sports in existence, alongside hockey and lacrosse.
1. O Canada
The national anthem of bilingual Canada aptly has the same title in both English and French. In fact, Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, the songwriter, wrote the original version in French in 1880 for an originally French-dominated country. The music, steady and mellow, was composed by Calixa Lavallee. Robert Stanley Weir wrote the English lyrics, though these have been changed several times over history, with references to Christianity added and now under dispute over removal. Regardless of these minor issues, “O Canada” is beautiful and constant, yet “strong and free,” like the people Canadians strive to be. As Homer Simpson says, in a time when we are celebrating peace and togetherness, the appropriate song is “not a hymn to war, like our [the United States] national anthem, but a sweet, soothing hymn, like the national anthem of Canada.” Here’s to being “glorious and free.”
These above are the Top 10 Best Canadian Songs of All Time until 2017. Unfortunately, it goes against the law of physics to attempt to condense over one century of good music into a 10-song list. Not presented here are Canadian musicians who are no less famous or talented, including Leonard Cohen — many critics argue that Cohen, who passed away in November 2016, was more deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature than Bob Dylan — Michael Buble, Barenaked Ladies, Shania Twain, and many others. There are also the musicians who Canadians prefer not to think about, for whatever reason: Celion Dion, Alanis Morissette, Nickelback, or Justin Bieber. No matter what your taste in music is like, Canada has a vastly varied offering for your palette. Once you start to keep an eye out for them, you may even discover that some of your favorite musicians are actually Canadian.