The Canadian Band Championship Belt: 50 Years of Rock from the Great White North
With Arcade Fire set to play on Friday at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, and with last week’s untimely death of The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, I’ve been thinking about Canada’s best and most beloved bands. I’ve also been listening lately to Steven Hyden’s Celebration Rock podcast, which led me to think of this piece he wrote in 2014, in which he retroactively awarded the championship belt to the best American band from every period of the preceding 50 years. I think you can see where this is going. First, a note about credentials. I am uniquely qualified to engage in this exercise because I once spent several days in British Columbia, and I also have a neighbor from Nova Scotia. Second, a note about criteria. This is a list of Canadian bands, which means that each entry must fulfill two basic requirements. For instance, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young are Canadian, but neither is a band. Therefore, they are not Canadian bands. Likewise, Young’s longtime collaborators in Crazy Horse comprise a band, but they are not Canadian, and are therefore not a Canadian band. In making these choices, a number of factors were considered, often inconsistently. This is a collection of the best Canadian bands, not necessarily the biggest. Still, commercial success was taken into account, except in the instances when it wasn’t. Additionally, global impact is deemed important, but no more important — and in some cases, much less important — than the band’s standing in Canada. Canadians can often be a tad provincial (a pun, I’m sorry) about their native artists, and bonus points were awarded to bands that were somehow emblematic of their home nation. Finally, my own prejudices and whims account for an unconscionable portion of the overall calculus. One last note. As in boxing, the champion retains the belt until they retire or until a challenger forcefully takes it from them. Periods of relative inactivity and/or occasionally uninspired performances are not enough, in themselves, to cause a champ to be dethroned. So here is a mostly — but not totally — arbitrary list of Canadian championship-belt-holding bands of the past 50 years.
Did you even know? Some bands are idiosyncratically and identifiably Canadian, but Steppenwolf roared to life in 1968 like pure Detroit muscle. Maybe it was because they came from Toronto, just across the Great Lakes from the hard-working, smoke-belching industrial cities that formed the beating heart of American hot-rod culture. Whatever the reason, songs like “Born to be Wild” evoke the open throttles and endless highways of the American landscape. With their debut album released in January 1968 and their second — titled “The Second” — coming that October, Steppenwolf traded the flower power of 1967 for leaded gasoline and heavy-metal thunder, and in the process became standard bearers for a new style of hard rock.
The Band, 1969-78
If Steppenwolf seemed like an American band, The Band seemed like the American ideal, having largely created — with their longtime collaborator Bob Dylan — the style that came to be known as Americana. Still, four of the five members were natives of Ontario (singer/drummer Levon Helm came from Arkansas), and they got their start in Toronto backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins before joining up with Dylan in 1965. Then, after striking out on their own, The Band proved to be one of finest groups ever assembled, with Helm, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko and keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel giving haunting voice to guitarist Robbie Robertson’s songs, while multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson anchored one of the sturdiest sounds of the age. Their first two albums — 1968’s “Music from Big Pink” and 1969’s “The Band” are towering classics that defined a new rustic approach to rock and roll, and 1970’s “Stage Fright” would be a career high for almost any other act. After that, a series of mostly-good to nearly-great albums helped maintain their status for nearly a full decade. In that time, no other band came close to wresting the belt from them, especially not before their epic swan song, the group’s farewell concert on Thanksgiving night 1976, which became the 1978 film and album “The Last Waltz.” When your goodbye includes guest performances by Dylan, Joni, Clapton, Ringo, Neil, Muddy and Van, you have the distinction of retiring undefeated.
The Band’s decade of dominance came at the expense of Randy Bachman, whose string of hits with The Guess Who in the early 1970s (“These Eyes,” “American Woman,” “No Time”) and Bachman-Turner Overdrive in the middle of the decade (“Takin’ Care of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”) nearly allowed him to appear on the list with two groups.
While The Band was finishing its championship run, Toronto’s Rush was establishing itself as the number-one contender on the strength of a prog-metal space opera, an allegory that saw a gaggle of maple trees unionizing in the face of oppressive oaks, and 10-minute instrumentals that were testaments to the limits of physical dexterity. Yeah, it’s easy to forget how relentlessly weird they were, and how their success flew in the face of all known rock and roll conventions. But as the 1970s wound down, Rush leaped into the limelight by condensing and streamlining their sound, packing all of their ambition and virtuosity into tighter, more digestible songs on a series of albums from 1980’s “Permanent Waves” through 1985’s “Power Windows” that cemented their status as one of the most durable arena rock attractions the world has ever known.
Blue Rodeo, 1987-90
Rush ushered in an era in which things got heavy in Canada. Bands from Triumph to April Wine to Honeymoon Suite had their roots in 1970s hard rock, while Loverboy, The Kings and Saga each added a new-wave twist to the sound. By the mid-1980s, though, that scene was over, replaced by . . . country rock? At the forefront of this new throwback sound was Blue Rodeo, a band formed in Toronto in 1984 around the songwriting partnership of Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. All but unknown elsewhere, Blue Rodeo became superstars in Canada, beginning with their 1987 debut “Outskirts,” the first of six consecutive albums to reach multi-platinum status at home. In 1989 they earned the first of their five Juno Awards (the Grammys of Canada, more or less) as Group of the Year, a total which remains a record.
The Tragically Hip, 1991-2004
If Blue Rodeo was uniquely Canadian, Kingston, Ontario’s The Tragically Hip was profoundly Canadian, a band more central to the nation’s identity than any group before or since. Though they tried to position themselves for mainstream American success in the mid-’90s, there was never really a chance that was going to happen, not for a band that drew on subject matter (hockey players, wheat fields, the concerns of Canada’s indigenous people, local environmentalism) that marked them more as aliens than neighbors. Musically, the band sat in the space between R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, and frontman Gord Downie likewise occupied a position between Michael Stipe and Eddie Vedder, simultaneously theatrical and deeply earnest. In some ways, The Hip were to Canada what Midnight Oil was to Australia, a band in touch with the soil and the people, one that moved to its nation’s peculiar rhythms and that understood its internal politics. The band’s first full-length album, 1989’s “Up to Here,” was a moderate success upon release, but has gone on to be diamond-certified (10+ times platinum) in Canada. Eleven of the band’s subsequent 14 albums hit No. 1 on the Canadian chart, and all reached at least the top three, with more platinum certifications and Juno Awards than you can count. In May 2016, the band announced that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A month later, The Hip released a new album and embarked on a farewell tour. Their last show, in their native Kingston, was attended by the Prime Minister and broadcast live on national television, where it was viewed by nearly one-third of all Canadians. Downie died on Oct. 17, 2017 at age 53, ending an era in Canadian music and sparking an outpouring of national grief.
There were other prominent Canadian bands during The Hip’s long run. Barenaked Ladies turned affable Canadian goofiness into a musical aesthetic and reached large audiences in America. And it hurts me not to give the belt even for a year to Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Sloan, whose razor-wire power pop made them famous at home while remaining all but anonymous in the rest of the world. But it would take something truly earth-shaking to knock The Hip off of their perch.
Arcade Fire, 2005-17
Arcade Fire’s debut album “Funeral,” released on Sept. 14, 2004, is a paradigm-shifting recording, one that traded the coolly diffident ethic of indie rock for something wildly ambitious and deeply emotional. Simultaneously grand and intimate, the songs on “Funeral” announced the arrival of a band unafraid to reach for the back row of a big arena, and more than capable of touching it. Though brothers Win and Will Butler grew up in Houston, they relocated to Quebec, where they formed Arcade Fire with several Canadian musicians, including Win’s wife Règine Chassagne. Blending unconventional sounds with traditional rock instruments, the songs on “Funeral” had a massive quality, the kind of thing that U2 might have attempted at its peak. The album immediately established Arcade Fire as one of the world’s great bands, a status reinforced by subsequent work, including “The Suburbs,” which took the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year, topping fellow nominees Lady Gaga, Eminem and Katy Perry. Since then, the band has remained restless, ambitious and unwilling to repeat itself. “Everything Now,” released earlier this year, finds them employing danceable grooves and lush, Abba-style pop, all in an effort to remain one of the most interesting and accomplished bands in popular music.
During the past decade-plus, many of Arcade Fire’s top challengers have come from a crop of exceptional Canadian independent-rock bands, including New Pornographers, Metric, Tegan and Sara, and Broken Social Scene. But we must address the elephant in the room: Nickelback. You’ve heard the jokes, and maybe made them, about how the grunge/pop/metal band from Alberta is somehow symbolic of bad taste. But here’s the thing: You know someone who owns Nickelback albums. You know lots of people who own Nickelback albums. You know more people who own Nickelback albums than who own albums by anyone else on this list, with the possible exception of Rush. The band’s 2005 release “All the Right Reasons” has sold nearly eight million copies in the United States alone, and that’s just one of several multi-platinum albums in their catalog. They are, undoubtedly, the most popular Canadian band of the past 15 years. They can’t hear anyone’s derision because of all the money coming out of their ears. —Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He's on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.