Canada is a land of many things: it’s rich in natural resources, it possesses the longest continued shoreline in the world, and it’s on the cusp of celebrating its 150th birthday.
An element that’s often overlooked is our country’s immense talent, especially our musicians, who we poke fun at for leaving Canada in search of greener pastures and greater fame.
It was an arduous task to whittle down the number of amazing Canadian songs to a mere list of 50. And even when you hone in on some of Canada’s “biggest” artists, you then have to consider each individual song, another nearly impossible feat. From coast to coast our talent is immeasurable, and as such, amassing our “best” is as subjective as choosing a favourite colour.
To celebrate some of our best musicians, here are — in no particular order — 50 amazing Canadian songs in honour of this great country’s 150th birthday. (For some of the songs, Corus radio folks chimed in with their thoughts.)
1. Spirit of the West – Home for a Rest
This song was a guaranteed “play” at your local bar or club in the ’90s — and may still be, depending on where you frequent — but there’s no denying the BC band’s pep and energy. At every Spirit of the West concert, Home for a Rest was always the final song to be played (save for encores).
“One of (if not) the most popular singalongs in pubs along the east coast. Definitely a great song to hear when you’re three sheets to the wind” — Stephen Keppler, 92.5 Fresh Radio
2. The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon
Arguably one of the most Canadian songs out there, Bobcaygeon is filled with references to Canuck locales. The Tragically Hip have long been considered the quintessential “Canadian” band, and it’s hard to deny it. Every song has an echo of Canadiana deep in its notes.
“While it’s become a Canadian summer anthem, it listens even better on a cold winter day. One of the greatest examples of The Hip’s ability to poetically tackle social issues” — Scott Hackman, CISN Country 103.9
3. Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi
Both a political and personal song, Big Yellow Taxi is Mitchell’s biggest hit. Its poignancy is so strong, even still, that numerous artists have performed their own version, including Bob Dylan and the Counting Crows. Janet Jackson famously sampled the tune in her 1997 song Got ‘Til It’s Gone.
“I love the giggle at the end. Canadians care about making a stand, but we’ll also have fun while doing so!” — Elle Dee, 91.5 The Beat
4. Anne Murray – Snowbird
This mellow, carefree tune by Anne Murray is the first-ever gold record awarded to a Canadian solo female artist. Ever. Aside from that historical achievement, Snowbird is a Canadian classic, and like Mitchell’s song, has been covered by other artists like Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby.
“What can you say about the Canadian songbird and this song? Anne Murray is a true treasure, and has influenced so many other Canadian stars like Shania and Celine” — Chris Scheetz, CISN Country 103.9
5. k.d. lang – Constant Craving
k.d. lang has always been ahead of the curve, and this song was an instant hit, dominating the radio in 1992. It won her the best female pop vocal performance Grammy in 1993 and the MTV Video Award for best female video.
“She put Consort, Alta. on the map, and quickly got the attention of both the Canadian Beef industry and international big music stars (Roy Orbison)! Constant Craving is struggle between good and bad cravings in life” — Paul O’Neil, 92.5 Fresh Radio
6. Shania Twain – Man! I Feel Like a Woman
This fun song came at the height of “new” country, and Shania Twain was the undisputed queen of the movement. The Timmins, Ont. native, with her easy good looks and brassy attitude, brought a new flavour to a genre in danger of growing stale.
“Started her working life with a chainsaw in Northern Ontario, and I think this song shows that side in a strange way” — Chris Scheetz, CISN Country 103.9
7. Kim Mitchell – Patio Lanterns
Alternatively called a “timeless summer rock anthem” and “a lighthearted joke of a song,” your perception of Patio Lanterns is totally subjective. Despite some loathing of this tune, by 1996, the song had been played on Canadian radio stations more than 100,000 times (for perspective, it was released midway through 1986).
“This song makes me excited for summer. You’re instantly at the same little party as Kim Mitchell, wondering who would be the first to kiss” — Jacqueline Sweeney, CISN Country 103.9
8. Bachman-Turner Overdrive – Takin’ Care of Business
Try to get this one out of your head! Playfully dubbed “the provincial rock anthem of Manitoba,” TCB (as it’s affectionately known) is a timeless classic, perfect for that long road trip or commute to work. The origin story goes that Randy Bachman was driving to a gig in Vancouver when he heard a radio DJ say “We’re takin’ care of business!” … and the rest is history.
9. Terry Bush – Maybe Tomorrow (The Littlest Hobo theme)
If you grew up in the ’80s and the early ’90s, you could catch episodes of dog TV show The Littlest Hobo in syndication (and if you’re lucky, even today you can catch it on Sunday mornings). Hokey and heartwarming, the song is a perfect partner for the show. Try not to sing along.
“Growing up in small town Saskatchewan in the ’90s, we only had two TV stations and this show was a family fave! This song brings me back to my childhood. While all the other kids had MTV, we had The Littlest Hobo!” — Dani Rohs, 92.5 Fresh Radio
10. The Guess Who – Running Back to Saskatoon
Sure, The Guess Who has many outstanding classics (including American Woman, unfortunately not included in this list), but Running Back to Saskatoon has a distinctly Canadian feel. A combination of blues, rock and country, the song is a dedication to Canadian locales, and they’re mentioned in the lyrics; Moose Jaw, Moosomin, Red Deer, Medicine Hat are among them.
“As a kid growing up in Winnipeg, I remember Guess Who pride being very, very strong. But when Running came out, it was the first time many of us heard a big-time rock band name-check a Canadian city in a song. And it was a hit! Suddenly it was cool for rock bands (not just folkies) to sing about our country” — Alan Cross, 102.1 The Edge
11. Rush – Tom Sawyer
Talk about a stadium anthem! Tom Sawyer is one of Rush’s biggest tunes, and is widely considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Recorded in 1981, the synthesizer is a big player in Tom Sawyer, and heralded the beginning of the ’80s rush (pun intended) to synthesized music.
“These guys are incredible. I saw them live a few years back, and holy cow, can they shred. And as soon as this song came on, the place went NUTS. I don’t think it’s possible NOT to air drum to this tune. Slap that bass, Getty!” — Matt DeBeurs, CISN Country 103.9
12. Great Big Sea – When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down)
Jovial and fun, this song was originally written by British folk group Oysterband. When Newfoundlanders Great Big Sea adopted it and made it their own, it somehow inherited a Canadianness that can never be taken away.
“If you had just met someone who wasn’t Canadian and they asked you what the east coast is like, you’d probably just play them some Great Big Sea. Nothing better than going to a party with a little G.B.S playing and a bottle of Screech in your hand. Also, lead singer Alan Doyle has some sick flow these days” — Matt DeBeurs, CISN Country 103.9
13. Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah
RIP, Leonard. As of late, this song has been enjoying a revival (almost to overkill) ever since fellow Canuck k.d. lang performed it at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (and to a lesser extent, its inclusion in the 2001 movie Shrek). Currently, there are more than 300 different versions of the song, and it has been featured in numerous soundtracks and TV episodes since its original release in 1984.
“Leonard’s voice is just enchanting on this. You get swept up into this song and never want to leave” — Jacqueline Sweeney, CISN Country 103.9
14. Neil Young – Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Picking the most notable Neil Young song borders on the impossible, but in terms of lyrics, Hey Hey, My My is transcendent. Including “rock n’ roll can never die” and “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” — both quoted widely and used by many other musicians, including Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in his suicide note — the song is very powerful and one for the ages.
“One of the heaviest in Neil’s catalogue, the tone is set from the first strike of Young’s distorted guitar. While rock n’ roll can never die, Young’s been close to many in it who have… and you can hear his pain as he sings” — Scott Hackman, CISN Country 103.9
15. Barenaked Ladies – If I Had $1,000,000
A playful, wistful song, If I Had $1,000,000 was one of the Ladies’ biggest hits. While it was never an official single, it still remains a definitive song for the band, and is nearly always played at their live shows. It’s also one of the band’s earliest-composed tunes, written while Steven Page and Ed Robertson were counsellors at a music summer camp.
“Despite being of the most quotable songs of all time, it feels almost as if you’re improvising each time you sing it! The simple tongue-in-cheek tune makes the Ladies sound like the best friends you wish you had” — Scott Hackman, CISN Country 103.9
16. Buffy Sainte-Marie – Universal Soldier
Written by Buffy Sainte-Marie in the basement of The Purple Onion coffeehouse in Toronto in the ’60s, Universal Soldier didn’t garner any critical acclaim until Donovan covered it. As a Native Canadian in a volatile era, Sainte-Marie broke many barriers by achieving fame, becoming one of the first Indigenous people to find a career in mainstream music.
17. Trooper – Raise a Little Hell
If you’ve ever been to a sporting event or a tailgating party, chances are you’ve heard Trooper’s Raise a Little Hell. The song falls in the vein of “rebellious” ’70s and ’80s songs, like Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, except, of course, this is Canadian. We’d imagine, at the time, that using the word “hell” in the name of your song was interpreted as anti-censorship, so way to go, Trooper!
“It isn’t the Grey Cup unless this song is heard at least twice. Trooper has performed during several Grey Cup celebrations and this song is a staple during any and all Junior B hockey games throughout Canada (preferably during a power play for the home team in the third period when down 3-2)” — Stephen Keppler, 92.5 Fresh Radio
18. Drake – Started From the Bottom
To think that Aubrey Graham (a.k.a. Drake) used to work at Shopper’s Drug Mart and star on teen drama Degrassi… and now he’s commanding millions for shows, it’s hard to knock him. He’s also done a lot for the city of Toronto’s image on the world stage, bringing it front and centre. That’s probably why Mayor John Tory gave him the key to the city last year.
“This song would be true if starting on the bottom meant being on Degrassi: The Next Generation” — Stephen Keppler, 92.5 Fresh Radio
19. Kardinal Offishall – BaKardi Slang
If anyone can possibly document the slang of Toronto, it’s Kardinal Offishall. This song serves as an almost-dictionary to urban slang, and it popularized “T-Dot,” the now-ubiquitous term for the city. A ton of fun, if you want the room to start bumping, just put this song on.
“Representing the T-Dot… this is definitely one of the first times the world found out that GOOD hip-hop talent CAN be found in Toronto (and Canada!)” — Elle Dee, 91.5 The Beat
20. Bruce Cockburn – Lovers in a Dangerous Time
A beautiful song, Cockburn has said that he was inspired to write it when he saw two teens “in love” on a school playground. It was covered by the Barenaked Ladies in the band’s 1991 Cockburn tribute album, and the song became a Top 40 hit in Canada.
21. Glass Tiger – Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)
Featuring backup vocals by none other than Bryan Adams, Glass Tiger’s biggest hit reached No. 1 in Canada and No. 2 in the U.S. Don’t worry, Glass Tiger — we won’t ever forget you.
22. The Zit Remedy – Everybody Wants Something
This song may have never made the charts, nationally or otherwise, but it certainly made the charts in our hearts. Featured on Degrassi High, The Zit Remedy (originally The Zits, a band comprised of characters Joey Jeremiah, Snake and Wheels), hit their peak with this “single.” It’s essentially a Canadian rite of passage to learn the lyrics to this song.
“Thank you for making me laugh out loud and feel old. I totally crushed on Joey Jeremiah. I mean, who didn’t!? True story, my big brother looked like Wheels back in the day” — Monica Lapajne, 104.3 Fresh Radio
23. Ashley MacIsaac – Sleepy Maggie
Who would’ve thought a song featuring a fiddle and vocals in Scottish Gaelic (sung by Mary Jane Lamond) could hit the top of the charts? Nova Scotian Ashley MacIsaac found great success with this flowing, rhythmic tune, and it simultaneously fit into the mainstream while exploring the Scottish roots of our country.
“It doesn’t start like the smooth fiddle pop tune it becomes, but the mixture of MacIsaac’s string work with, Canadian Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond’s vocals, is perfectly haunting” — Scott Hackman, CISN Country 103.9
24. A Tribe Called Red – Electric Pow Wow Drum
Truly groundbreaking in its format, Electric Pow Wow Drum features rawhide drumbeats and true Native singing, meshed with electronic beats and modern technology. Innovative and hopelessly catchy, A Tribe Called Red’s music is a breathtaking example of what Canadians can produce.
25. Loverboy – Working for the Weekend
This catchy pop tune couldn’t be more ’80s if it tried. A strange blend of anthem rock and radio pop, Working for the Weekend is currently ranked as No. 100 on VH1’s greatest songs of the ’80s.
“The perfect anthem to get you through the homestretch of the work week” — Monica Lapajne, 104.3 Fresh Radio
26. Tegan and Sara – Back in Your Head
Indie-pop twin duo Tegan and Sara have come a long way in the past decade, emerging from the void with several powerful albums. Back in Your Head, written during a tumultuous time for the duo, is both lyrically dark and musically upbeat, a noted trademark of the pair’s musicality.
27. Alanis Morissette – You Oughta Know
In the ’90s, Alanis Morissette led the charge of female pop-rock. You Oughta Know is widely considered the trademark Alanis song, and at the time of its release, the “scandal” of her lyrics (and the fact that they referred to ex-Full House star Dave Coulier) helped elevate the song into the stratosphere.
“As soon as you heard this song, you knew Alanis had been scorned! And I LOVED her for having the ability to take her heartbreak and put it into such powerful song that we all would sing if we could! She was not afraid to press boundaries” — Jacqueline Sweeney, CISN Country 103.9 FM
28. Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane
A cover of the Velvet Underground original, the Cowboy Junkies’ version is like a bolt of electricity to the heart. Simplistic in its production, there is something visceral about the performance. Even Lou Reed himself has said he prefers this Canadian version.
29. Bran Van 3000 – Drinking in L.A.
Kinda-sorta a one-hit wonder (they did have a few other songs hit the charts), electronic outfit Bran Van 3000 skyrocketed to the top of the charts in Canada with this tune. It may not have made it in the U.S., but it was wonderful to see Canadians producing catchy, innovative electronic songs at the time.
“Is there anything more Canadian than the Big Shiny Tunes series? The answer is no. And the best of all of them, Shiny Tunes 2, which featured this song. Sure, I haven’t heard anything else of Bran Van’s, but I do know all the words to this one, and it rocks” — Matt DeBeurs, CISN Country 103.9
30. Jann Arden – Good Mother
A warning: this song has the power to make you cry. Arden’s distinctive voice lends itself to her collection of powerful ballads of the ’90s, including other hits Insensitive, I Would Die for You and Could I Be Your Girl. (An aside: presently, Arden is quite the comedian on Twitter. Follow her for a few laughs.)
31. Sarah McLachlan – I Will Remember You
Sarah McLachlan was the undisputed queen of the piano power ballad in the ’90s, and her songs were featured in hit shows of the period, including Dawson’s Creek and other teen dramas. McLachlan’s resonant music even made it big south of the border, and her yearly Lilith Fair (1997 – 1999, 2010) drew crowds from around the world and was the first festival to only feature female solo artists and bands led by women.
32. Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
Loved and hated, Call Me Maybe is divisive. But there’s no denying that this was the song of the summer in 2012. You couldn’t possibly escape it, and it easily hit No. 1 in numerous countries, including Jepsen’s home country of Canada. (Interestingly, then-couple Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were directly responsible for this song’s launch into the mainstream — both of them tweeted about it from their personal Twitter accounts after they heard it on the radio.)
33. The Weakerthans – One Great City!
Indie rock band The Weakerthans manages to capture the very essence of Winnipeg, Man. in One Great City! The refrain of the song, “I hate Winnipeg,” indicates a dislike for the city, but underneath the lyrics is an affection and connection with the oft-frigid locale. The sentimentality of the acoustic guitar belies the lyrics as well, giving the song a folky, “around the campfire” feel.
34. Corey Hart – Sunglasses at Night
Don’t even try to hate this song. You can’t. The music video (above) is shot at the Don Jail in Toronto, and is presumably the only one in music history that features someone being imprisoned for not wearing sunglasses. (At least, we think that’s what it’s about.) This ’80s hit was popular on both sides of the border, and was Hart’s first charted song — and his first single from his debut album.
“The greatest synthesizer hook ever? This song sounds like an ’80s Tom Cruise movie looks, and I love it” — Scott Hackman, CISN Country 103.9
35. Blue Rodeo – Lost Together
One of the ultimate high-school dance and wedding songs, Lost Together is an emotional ballad about being lost in love. Try not to feel the feels at the crooning sentimentality of Blue Rodeo. We challenge you.
36. Sloan – Money City Maniacs
This gritty rock tune by Toronto band Sloan (originally from Halifax, N.S.) may have nonsensical lyrics, but before you know it, you’ll be tapping your foot along with the beat. Hopelessly catchy, Money City Maniacs hearkens back to sweaty hot days in the Toronto summer.
“Good music CAN be found in the east coast! Sloan is a GREAT example of how GREAT Canadian music can be” — Elle Dee, 91.5 The Beat
37. Broken Social Scene – It’s All Gonna Break
Toronto ensemble band Broken Social Scene is special. With this many musicians taking part, it’s a wonder the band’s music doesn’t sound like a cacophonous mess. It’s a testament to their talent that every song they produce is like a symphony, almost as if they’ve tamed the music to their will. It’s All Gonna Break (clocking in at 9:55) descends into a sort-of madness in its closing bars, like a choral ecstasy.
38. Stompin’ Tom Connors – The Hockey Song
There’s no need to describe this song to Canadians. You know what it is.
“No song ever got a better response than this one played at Oilers games. RIP Stompin’ Tom” — Chris Scheetz, CISN Country 103.9
39. Bryan Adams – Summer of ’69
OK, so Bryan Adams would only be 10 years old in 1969, but we can’t begrudge the sentiment behind the song. It’s feel-good, fun and fast, the perfect tune for that Canadian road trip. This is one of those songs you don’t recall learning the lyrics to — you just know them.
“A Canadian gem, this song captured the hearts of millions of Canadians. (This song is best sung drunk in a bar in Dublin at 2 a.m. with Fresh Radio’s Stephen Keppler & Adam Ricard from the Edge in Toronto… true story!)” — Stephen Keppler, 92.5 Fresh Radio
40. Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind
Truly one of the Canadian greats, Lightfoot’s 1971 classic has been reused by numerous artists, including Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan, among many others. Lightfoot has said in interviews the song came to him as he sat in a vacant Toronto house, as he was going through a divorce.
41. The Band – The Weight
The Band isn’t 100 per cent Canadian, but we’re willing to bend for this song. A beautiful tune, the song is inspired by the American south, and the lyrics refer to people the band members actually knew. Not a huge hit in the U.S., it fared far better north of the border, where it was a Top 40 hit. (There’s no accounting for taste!)
“Every time I hear this song, it just makes we want to go on a road trip through the Prairies. Seriously, go for a drive and throw this song on. You won’t be disappointed. Also, drummers who sing like Levon Helm are the best” — Matt DeBeurs, CISN Country 103.9
42. Maestro Fresh-Wes – Let Your Backbone Slide
Considering this is a debut single, Maestro (Fresh-Wes, at the time) struck gold right at the outset. He was the first Canadian rapper to perform a gold-record single, paving the way for our contemporary artists. Fun fact: CBC journalist Dwight Drummond appears in the video as a cameraman.
“Who knew Canadians could be rap pioneers? If you were growing up in Ontario around 1989 you can probably still rhyme all the words to this turbo-jam” — Brian Bailey, 96.3 BIG FM
43. Arcade Fire – Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)
Neighbourhood #1 is the first song and single from Montreal rock band Arcade Fire’s debut album, so it’s literally the first thing we heard from them. One of four parts (there are three other Neighbourhood songs on ensuing albums), this song encapsulates the band: an engaging rhythm, pleading vocals, lyrics about the past and that symphonic quality.
“There were a lot of great bands coming out of Montreal around 2004 but Arcade Fire didn’t sound like anything else we’d heard. They went on to win the Album of the Year Grammy for The Suburbs in 2011 and inspire countless musicians in the process” — Brian Bailey, 96.3 BIG FM
44. Avril Lavigne – Sk8er Boi
Not the most cerebral song, it’s tough to deny that this poppy punk tune was a major hit at its time of release. It also brought Avril Lavigne into our lives; her second single from her debut album (following other hit Complicated), she showed us that yes, girls can perform harder music. Considering she was only 18 when this was released, you have to give her some props.
“I think this is a song we could all kind of relate to — whether you were the girl that ditched the boy or the boy who liked the girl. I heard a rumour this song inspired a movie — I’m still waiting for it” — Jacqueline Sweeney, CISN Country 103.9
45. Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On
If you don’t know this song, then we’re not sure what to tell you. The main theme song to 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic, it is Celine Dion’s biggest international hit (though it should be noted she has several) and one of the best-selling singles of all time. It was also the best-selling single in the world in 1998, and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Despite the number of times you hear it, somehow it never gets old.
“Celine did NOT want to record this song. She thought it was overwrought and schmaltzy. James Cameron did NOT want this song as part of the soundtrack of Titanic. But after much, much arm twisting, Celine relented and recorded a demo of composer James Horner’s song. James Cameron reluctantly agreed to include it over the closing credits of the movie. The rest is history” — Alan Cross, 102.1 The Edge
46. Justin Bieber – Sorry
We’d be remiss to not include Justin Bieber on a list of Canadian music, simply because the Stratford, Ont. artist is one of the hottest musicians on the planet at the moment. We can’t chronicle the number of records the 23-year-old has broken, but Sorry was No. 1 in 13 different countries and spent multiple weeks on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 and the Canadian Hot 100. In the song, an apologetic Bieber pleads for forgiveness, and many people point to his “unsavoury” teen behaviour as the impetus.
47. Tom Cochrane – Life Is a Highway
(Full disclosure: Tom Cochrane went to this reporter’s high school — Martingrove Collegiate — so there may be some bias here.) The ultimate road-trip song, Life Is a Highway is a feel-good tune, and you can practically see the environs of Canada whizzing by as you listen. It’s Cochrane’s highest-performing single and it hit No. 1 in Canada.
“Tom has probably made more money with the Rascal Flatts version of this song from the Cars soundtrack than he has on the original. Tom once came in the CISN Country studio and played the harmonica to the Flatts version. So cool” — Chris Scheetz, CISN Country 103.9
48. The Weeknd – Starboy
Scarborough, Ont. native The Weeknd has had an amazing few years, shooting to the top of the charts around the world. (It’s even more impressive when you learn that he worked at an American Apparel outlet on Toronto’s Queen St. less than 10 years ago.) His latest album, Starboy, and the same-name title track were immediate hits in countries around the world. Critics speculate that the song is about The Weeknd’s destruction of his former self; indeed, he did cut off his trademark locks just prior to release, so it’s possible.
49. The Tea Party – Fire in the Head
The Tea Party (loved or loathed by Canadians) were part of the mid-late ’90s grunge explosion in Canada, and they’re still going strong, arguably even more popular in Australia than their home country. Fire in the Head is one of the band’s biggest hits, a guitar-strong rock anthem with psychedelic undertones. Some folks knock the band for their obvious Led Zeppelin and The Doors influence, but there’s something distinctly theirs in their sound.
“I’ve always thought this song sounds like a Led Zeppelin track. Close your eyes and listen… does it not feel like you’re on the run from someone?! Fire in the Head slides your butt to the edge of your seat” — Scott Hackman, CISN Country 103.9
50. I Mother Earth – One More Astronaut
Another member of the strong Canadian ’90s grunge contingent, I Mother Earth’s popularity was mostly confined to Ontario. Lead singer Edwin, easy on the eyes and with tree-trunk arms, was the centrepiece. The band produced an original sound (think grand rock styling coupled with hand drums) and quirky lyrics, often singing about outer space and aliens. One More Astronaut is one such example, and it wasn’t unusual for Edwin to pull out the djembe for a little hand-drum solo in the middle of the tune.
“One of the few songs that has lived on every single iPod and iPhone I’ve ever owned” — Alan Cross, 102.1 The Edge
HONOURABLE MENTION: Wade Hemsworth – The Log Driver’s Waltz
Plain and simple, you’re just not Canadian if you don’t know this classic little ditty.
Happy Canada Day, everybody! Here’s a Spotify playlist of the above songs for you to enjoy: