Canada is a wide-reaching nation with a plethora of different identities and cultures all dramatically interwoven and intertwined. Because Canada is this gigantic, weirdo tapestry of identity, there are a staggering amount of places, people, and eras that have shaped this country. Naturally, because of that, there are a also an endless supply of songs that celebrate, examine, relive, and retell some little idiosyncratic piece of Canada.
This is a collection of just a few of our favourite songs that celebrate the soul and the dramatic minutiae of Canada—that have come to define Canad not an exhaustive list by any means. Our cultural identity is still being written, shaped, molded and reconstructed every day. However, these are just some of the more inspiring songs about the things that have come to define Canada.
Land of Talk – “Magnetic Hill”
Truth be told, it’s hard to say which is more spooky and mysterious, the seemingly magical pull and allure of Moncton’s Magnetic Hill – a weird, gravity-warping optical illusion – or the radio silence from Canadian alternative band Land of Talk in the last six or seven years. Much like the illusory stretch of road, Lizzie Powell’s angelic, anguished croon on this track slowly and solemnly pulls you in, as if by some form of sorcery, and you have no idea if you’re coming or going. A siren song for the Canadian landscape, it’s an examination of the tug and pull of the Maritimes, and the classic tale of fleeing west to find work, leaving a love, or an entire life, behind. Now, more than ever, the song and the sentiment feel prescient and savage.
John K Samson – “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”
Former Weakerthans frontman and Canada’s unofficial songwriter laureate John K. Samson is a storyteller, first and foremost. His anguished account of a patient at the Ninette Sanatorium in northern Manitoba is a tear-jerker, with weeping violin and some of the most heart-tugging, downright despair-filled lyrics you’ll ever hear. It’s an exercise in morose beauty, and an exploration of an infamous period of Canada’s history, and our grappling with massive outbreaks of tuberculosis that ravaged the population.
In the early 1900s, tuberculosis was the number one cause of death in Canada, affecting the First Nations population heavily. It was a time when the identity and community of areas of the country like Manitoba were still being forged, and it was a time when survival was something you had to fight for. This song reminds us that our country’s past wasn’t always pretty, and rather than gloss over our mistakes and our tragedies, we should instead explore them and learn from them.
Wolf Parade – Expo 86
OK, so, yes, this is not technically a song, it’s an album, but both the importance of the event it references, and what this album means to Canadian music, simply cannot be understated. Vancouver’s Expo 86 was an international sensation, and a cataclysm for the absolute deluge of technological innovation that was to follow. It was the only other world’s fair expo to be held in Canada, the first being the infamous Montreal Expo 67. It harkened in the wild, unpredictable and fragmented tech-centric world we live in today; it was the cusp of the infinite void of progress that we’re caught up in now.
Likewise, the final album by wiry, emotional indie quartet Wolf Parade is absolutely electric. Hinting at a vast, fractured array of things to come from all of its members, it collects quiet, fragile beauty, frenetic, howling hurt, and wide-eyed optimism all in one explosive package that happened to be the death knell for an era of Canadian music, while heralding in another.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, bands like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and the aforementioned Wolf Parade became popular international exports, and the Canadian musical landscape received a rejuvenating jolt. The result was a coast-to-coast deluge of multifaceted artists, and a renewed interest in music north of the border. Much like Vancouver’s Expo 86 flung open the floodgates for the technological revolution in Canada, Wolf Parade’s Expo 86 set the stage for thousands of bands to come. It was our little golden age.
Joel Plaskett – “Down at the Khyber”
What can you say about the Khyber Centre for the Arts that hasn’t been written into core of the Halifax arts scene and instilled in the artistic community for decades already? It’s a goddamned legend. It’s an institution, even now, without that beautiful, iconic, stately old building on Barrington.
Honestly, yes, we are crushed that we lost that old, gorgeous, historic, wonderful, life-affirming, life-altering, community strengthening building, that had been the hub of creativity and innovation in the Halifax arts scene for so long. Halifax has definitely rallied and the new space is being put to wonderful use by ushering in loads of inspirational independent music, comedy, and art, but while the spirit still rings strong in its new location, the Khyber—much like far too many treasured things in Halifax—has been criminally undervalued and overlooked by the city and the province.
So while Plaskett may keep to his side of the harbour holed up in Dartmouth these days, his honeysuckle, mid-tempo elegy is a still a striking slice of history; a nostalgic look into a warm, hazy, Haligonian summer downtown, and maybe not a better time, but a different one.
Stompin’ Tom Connors – “Bud the Spud”
Perhaps the most on-point, upbeat, and just generally loveable depiction of Prince Edward Island ever committed to song, Canadian folk legend Stompin’ Tom Connors’ most popular tune is a down home, foot-stomping (go figure) ode to that gorgeous red mud growing those heavenly potatoes.
There are fewer things more quintessentially Canadian than Stompin’ Tom Connors, but one of them would absolutely have to be Prince Edward Island. Beautiful ice cream, bewilderingly rouge sandy beaches, engaging and friendly locals, and beguiling sunsets, PEI is kind of a dream. Connors’ song, however, manages to capture the devil may care, laid-back attitude of the island in an honest and relatable way, never relying on hackney, touristy garbage.
[Ed’s Note: Yes, we know he wrote a song about Sudbury too.]
The Weakerthans – “One Great City!”
I justify two songs by John K. Samson on this list because there is no anthem more lovely, more conflicting, more caring and frantic and anxious and needy, more all-consuming or more bittersweet than this ode to Winnipeg. Not a condemnation, but not necessarily a comforting embrace either, John K. Samson explores the conflict of hometown identity in this triptych of soliloquies that explore grappling with one’s surroundings, and the difficulty of loving and coming to terms with where you were born – which is especially hard if it’s the absolute centre of nowhere.
Shotgun Jimmie – “Swamp Magic”
Oh Sackville, tiny university town filled with marshes, settled neatly and securely between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. You’ve been integral to our musical landscape, incubating, encouraging and creating some of the best and most influential independent Canadian music for the past three decades. From seminal Canadian alternative like Eric’s Trip, to modern feminist-leaning punk like Partner, Sackville has always been a wellspring of challenging, beautiful music.
No one sums up the magical, surreally creative vibe of this lazy little town that turns into an absolute creative haven in the summer better than its former crowned king of slack rock, Shotgun Jimmie. “Swamp Magic,” off of his absolutely killer Transistor Sister album, is a lavish, doomy celebration of the spooky, inspiring, electric feeling of those magical marshes in Sackville. Picturing a spooky sliver of moon hanging over Bridge St. was never so easy.
The Entirety of the National Parks Project
The National Parks Project was a multidisciplinary art initiative that examined Canada’s rich, gorgeous, and vastly changing landscape through the exploration of its many storied national parks. Pairing 13 independent filmmakers with 39 musicians in groups of four, the project was a beautiful and careful melding of two artistic mediums to showcase the fragile beauty of Canada’s wildlife, and the results were absolutely breathtaking.
From the eerie, chilling journey through Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in British Columbia with Bry Webb, Sarah Harmer, and Jim Guthrie, to the cool and peaceful gallivant around Bruce Peninsula in Ontario with Sandro Perri, Christine Fellows, and John K. Samson, the awe-inspiring geography of Canada has never sounded so damn good.
It would be impossible to pick just one song from this wonderful project, just like it would be impossible to nail down a set amount of places, events, or stories that make Canada what it is. This, plus so much more, plus what’s yet to be written, is just a little slice of what makes up this weird, wide, and still evolving nation of ours.