25 Greatest Canadian Albums of All Time
What better way to celebrate Canada Day than by listening to the best music the Great White North has to offer? Sit back, relax and see if your all-time favourite records made the cut.
25. Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (2015)
Born to Cree Indian parents and later adopted by a white family, Buffy Sainte-Marie has been making politicized music for more than 50 years. Those familiar with her ’60s folk songs will be pleasantly surprised by the experimental flourishes in Power in the Blood, one of the greatest Canadian albums ever released. For much of its runtime, the 76-year-old puts a new spin on her oldest compositions: “It’s My Way” is reimagined as a heartland rock song, the funky blues in the original “Not the Loving Kind” are amplified in the newer recording, and “Love Charms” sounds like it was remixed by Portishead. Power in the Blood is a much-needed return from Sainte-Marie, one that raises questions about the environmental and cultural future of Canada.
Essential songs: “It’s My Way,” “Power in the Blood” and “Uranium War”
24. The Weeknd – Trilogy (2012)
It’s not an overstatement to compare Abel Tesfaye—better known by his stage name The Weeknd—to Michael Jackson. The Scarborough, Ont. native and the King of Pop both have impressive vocal ranges, a knack for extremely catchy hooks and an uncanny ability to explore dark subject matter against a backdrop of forward-thinking pop and R&B. The main difference? Tesfaye’s songs are even darker, and that separation is always apparent on Trilogy. A compilation of his first three mixtapes—House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, all released within a 10-month period in 2011—Trilogy is an explicit account of sex, drugs and druggy sex. “I got a brand new girl, call her Rudolph, she’ll probably O.D. before I show her to mama,” he sings on “Thursday.” For all the fame and power on display, there’s nothing to envy here.
Essential songs: “What You Need,” “House of Balloons” and “The Birds, Pt. 1”
23. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005)
Just get past the band’s offbeat name and you’ll find a group that values entertainment and doesn’t take itself too seriously. On Twin Cinema, the band’s third album, Vancouver natives A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar and American Neko Case—all notable artists in their own right—continue to refine their own brand of power pop. The joyous interplay between jagged guitars and ramshackle drums on the title track recalls early The Who, while the improbably named “Sing Me Spanish Techno” pays tribute to the best ’80s jangle pop has to offer. Twin Cinema cemented The New Pornographers’ status as one of Canada’s greatest bands.
Essential songs: “Twin Cinema,” “The Bleeding Heart Show” and “Three or Four”
22. Celine Dion – Falling into You (1996)
When Celine Dion was 18, she saw Michael Jackson performing on TV and told her manager (and future husband, René Angélil) of her desire to be a star. Falling into You is the most complete summation of her gifts as an entertainer: stylish, catchy and unabashedly emotional. “Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach, gave me faith because you believed,” Dion sings on “Because You Loved Me,” as her voice soars to introduce a new level of melodrama to the world of pop. And just like that, the Billboard charts were never the same again.
Essential songs: “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” “Because You Loved Me” and “Falling into You”
21. Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
Sarah McLachlan’s first American single was an unusual one. On “Possession,” she takes on the role of a crazy stalker, singing menacing lines like “I would be the one to hold you down,” “I’ll take your breath away,” and “I’d wipe away the tears” against the lush production of collaborator Pierre Marchand. Before she became a presence on the charts, McLachlan’s most impressive skill was already obvious on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: her expertise at making pain and sadness sound beautiful. “This is gonna hurt like hell,” she warns on “Hold On,” and “Good Enough,” a great example of her unmistakable soprano voice, is about domestic abuse.
Essential songs: “Possession,” “Good Enough” and “Hold On”
20. Sloan – One Chord to Another (1997)
Because of its fascination with simple melodies and childlike lyrics, contemporary power pop often gets a bad rap. But if all power pop were as memorable and infectious as One Chord to Another, you’d give the genre the respect it deserves. Made for less than $10,000, the album immediately went gold in Canada, but failed to make a big impression south of the border. No matter: who needs American success when you have songs as unforgettable as “The Good in Everyone,” “Autobiography” and “Can’t Face Up?” Next time someone tells you the best music came from the ’60s and ’70s, mention One Chord to Another.
Essential songs: “Nothing Left to Make Me Want to Stay,” “Autobiography” and “Can’t Face Up”
19. Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)
Led by co-frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, Apologies to the Queen Mary wears its heart on its sleeve. The Montreal quartet’s debut album may have been released in 2005, but it references at least four decades’ worth of rock, punk and new wave. The angular guitars and driving keyboards of “Grounds for Divorce” sound like a marriage between Modest Mouse and Roxy Music, while the “us against the world” vibe of the hopelessly romantic “I’ll Believe in Anything” recalls the doomed lovers in David Bowie‘s “Heroes.” The desperate, now-or-nothing “This Heart’s On Fire,” too, wouldn’t feel out of place on a Bruce Springsteen record.
Essential songs: “Grounds for Divorce,” “Shine a Light” and “I’ll Believe in Anything”
18. Gordon Lightfoot – Summertime Dream (1976)
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee.’” And so begins “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an epic composition that also helped bring widespread attention to the tragic events. Recorded in Toronto with a talented cast of session musicians, every song displays Gordon Lightfoot’s talent of articulating poetic ideas in accessible ways. His superstar status faded away after this record, but that’s fine—Summertime Dream is the crowning achievement in a legendary career, and one of the greatest Canadian albums ever.
Essential songs: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “The House You Live In” and “Summertime Dream”
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17. Shania Twain – Come On Over (1997)
Shania Twain wasn’t the first artist to fuse country and pop, but she certainly was the first to do so on this level—Come On Over has sold 40 million copies to date. It was impossible to turn on the radio in the late ’90s without hearing one of the album’s 12 singles; suddenly people were rocking cowboy hats. “From This Moment On” and “You’re Still the One” remain crossover staples, but Come On Over also cemented Twain’s status as a feminist icon: “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” challenges gender roles, “If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!” is a damning indictment of ignorant men, and “You Don’t Impress Me Much” teaches women everywhere about the right to say “no.”
Essential songs: “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” “You’re Still the One” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much”
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16. Blue Rodeo – Five Days in July (1993)
“They met in a hurricane, standing in the shelter and out of the rain, she tucked a note into his hand,” sings vocalist Jim Cuddy. And so begins Five Days in July, an unpredictable album that conjures a great late-night and early morning atmosphere—it was recorded in a farm, after all—and solidified Blue Rodeo’s status as Canada’s preeminent alt-country band. Five Days in July is the sound of being stuck in the same place and not knowing where to go next. Because of that, it makes for endless listening.
Essential songs: “5 Days in May,” “Bad Timing” and “Dark Angel”
15. The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (1992)
On Aug. 20, 2016, the Tragically Hip played the final concert of their Man Machine Poem tour in their hometown of Kingston, Ont. The CBC streamed the show on all of its platforms, and about 12 million people tuned in. The Hip’s legendary status in the Great White North began, in earnest, with Fully Completely, their third album. All of the Hip’s hallmarks are on display: abstract imagery (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”), ringing guitars (the title track) and Gord Downie and company’s focus on all things Canadian (“Courage” and “At the Hundredth Meridian.”) If the Hip had stopped making music after releasing Fully Completely, they’d still be Canada’s band.
Essential songs: “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan),” “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” and “Wheat Kings”
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14. Drake – Take Care (2011)
The most amazing thing about Drake’s sophomore album is how complete it sounds. On Take Care, the king of Toronto and his talented collaborators merge contemporary house (the title track), chaotic R&B (“Crew Love”), exuberant gospel (“Lord Knows”) and Top 40-ready braggadocio numbers (“Headlines”) into a cohesive whole. In fact, the record’s nocturnal atmosphere is still being replicated by rappers and singers to this day. None of that would matter, however, if the album didn’t also give listeners a better view of the artist. The persona he presents on Take Care is more confident, more flawed and more relatable. “I’m just saying you could do better,” he sings to a former lover on the record’s emotional centrepiece, “Marvins Room.” He couldn’t possibly be talking to himself: Take Care is as good as Drake will ever get.
Essential songs: “Take Care,” “Marvins Room” and “Make Me Proud”
13. Bryan Adams – Reckless (1984)
“In ’84, ’85, things were pretty much dominated by Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and Prince,” Bryan Adams told Rolling Stone in 2015. “For a little Canadian band to get a week or two at Number One, and do what we did? That was pretty great.” The success of Reckless—six hit singles and five million copies sold—is enough to make casual fans forget that few musicians in the 1980s were making hard rock as melodic as Bryan Adams. Virtually every track is an anthem, and the hits have aged wonderfully. “It’s Only Love” is a stylish duet with Tina Turner; “Heaven” is still the standard for ballads; and “Summer of ’69” is as sexy and nostalgic as ever. Reckless remains one of the quintessential ‘80s albums.
Essential songs: “Run to You,” “Heaven” and “Summer of ‘69”
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12. k.d. lang – Ingénue (1991)
There are few singers in the world with a voice as smooth and full-blooded as k.d. lang’s. In Ingénue, her biggest hit to date, the pop and country star reinvents herself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of adult contemporary. Lang ditches the acoustic and steel guitars that once dominated her music and introduces more worldly influences: album highlight “Miss Chatelaine” sounds like a Roy Orbison tune with a samba backing band, while “Season of Hollow Soul” sees Lang trying her hand at cabaret, complete with a theatrical Broadway-like chorus.
Essential songs: “Save Me,” “Miss Chatelaine” and “Constant Craving”
11. Rush – 2112 (1976)
One listen to 2112 is enough to convince you that the trio of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart are some of the most accomplished and imaginative artists making music. The seven-part title track, with its fusion of heavy metal and prog-rock, has dated incredibly well, but it’s the second half of the album where things really get fun. “Something for Nothing” shows off Peart’s razor-sharp drumming and recalls ’60s acid rock. “A Passage to Bangkok,” meanwhile, is a sly ode to drug use masquerading as a travelogue: “Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams, Golden Acapulco nights.” If you’re looking to get into prog-rock, do yourself a favour and start with 2112.
Essential songs: “2112,” “Something for Nothing” and “A Passage to Bangkok”
10. Cowboy Junkies – The Trinity Session (1988)
Recorded in a single night with a single microphone at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto (a building widely known for its amazing acoustics), The Trinity Session is one of the most unique-sounding albums ever committed to tape. Oh, and the songs are great too! Cowboy Junkies—made up of siblings Margo Timmins, Michael Timmins and Peter Timmins, as well as Alan Anton—show off their singular brand of country, folk and blues (“I Don’t Get It”), while breathing life into classic compositions (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Sweet Jane”). Perfect for long, mellow nights, The Trinity Session is a sexy, atmospheric masterpiece.
Essential songs: “Misguided Angel,” “Blue Moon Revisited” and “Sweet Jane”
9. Feist – The Reminder (2007)
If the upbeat sounds of “1234” in those old iPod Nano commercials convinced you to buy one, you have Leslie Feist to thank. The Reminder, however, is more than a hit single and a bunch of filler. Feist jumps from indie pop (“I Feel It All”) to piano balladry (“The Limit to Your Love”) to folk (“How My Heart Behaves”) with reckless abandon, and even reimagines an old American children’s playground song as a rock n’ roll number (“Sealion”). “I know more than I knew before,” sings the Calgary native in “I Feel It All.” The Reminder is the sound of a woman paying tribute to all of the people, places and experiences that formed her. Thankfully for us, she’s all the wiser for them.
Essential songs: “I Feel It All,” “Past in Present” and “1234”
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8. Glenn Gould – Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1955)
Stories of Glenn Gould’s erratic behaviour—his disdain for audiences, incessant humming during performances or extreme sensitivity to physical touch—can easily overshadow his music. If you want to understand his immense talent, start with this album. Recorded over a four-day period in New York, Bach: The Goldberg Variations sees the then-22-year-old singlehandedly bringing Johann Sebastian Bach and Baroque music to the attention of casual listeners; the album sold 40,000 copies in five years. Decades later, Gould renounced his 1955 interpretation and recorded a slower version shortly before his death. Whichever recording you prefer, the original Bach: The Goldberg Variations is the perfect introduction to classical music.
Essential songs: “Aria” and “Variation 4”
7. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It in People (2001)
It’s unfair to link Broken Social Scene’s sophomore effort to a specific time and place: in this case, the year indie rock made its first major appearance on Canada’s musical radar. The fact of the matter is, You Forgot It in People’s sweeping evocations of love and growing up are as timeless as they come. “All of the time you wait, there’s something out there,” singer Brendan Canning whispers on “Stars and Sons,” hinting at the intense energy and musical creativity to follow. On You Forgot It in People, catharsis comes in the form of a raging saxophone in “Almost Crimes” and indecipherable voices in “Shampoo Suicide.” Broken Social Scene may not be Canada’s band, but at 20 members-strong, they’re undoubtedly Canada’s collective.
Essential songs: “Stars and Sons,” “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” and “Lover’s Spit”
6. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995)
Alanis Morissette‘s evolution from local pop darling to international rock phenomenon is one of Canada’s greatest success stories—and looking back at her meteoric rise from the vantage point of 2017, it’s surprising it even happened at all. On Jagged Little Pill, the Ottawa native is feeling vengeful, disgusted, bitter or a mixture of all three—not exactly the kind of emotions you’d seek out on the radio. Her lyrics are just as vicious: “All I Really Want” feels less like music and more like an exorcism. And while Morissette certainly has enough vocal chops to deliver her uncompromising lyrics, she often elongates, twists and exaggerates words to her liking. So how did Jagged Little Pill manage to sell over 30 million copies, then? Well, because of those same reasons. Millions of angst-ridden listeners wanted an album to articular their deepest feelings. Morissette and Jagged Little Pill were happy to oblige.
Essential songs: “All I Really Want,” “Head Over Feet” and “Ironic”
5. The Band – The Band (1969)
In the year that brought us rock operas (The Who’s Tommy), politically-charged funk (Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand!) and the best that art rock had to offer (The Beatles’ Abbey Road), four Canadians and an American holed up in West Hollywood to get back to the basics. The result was the ramshackle, roots rock-pioneering The Band. Through characters like the defeated Confederate soldier in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and the union labourer in “King Harvest,” lyricist Robbie Robertson and vocalists Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko shine a light on the losers of North American history. The Band is a wondrous paean to more primitive times, and a great album to crank up on the open road.
Essential songs: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Look Out Cleveland”
4. Neil Young – After the Gold Rush (1970)
Is it odd that the Godfather of Grunge’s best album is an 11-song collection of simple folk songs centered on love? When dealing with someone as experimental as Neil Young, not at all. After the Gold Rush finds the Canadian rock icon at the peak of his lyrical and musical powers, able to churn out grand visions like the title track, instant classics like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and droll sing-alongs like “Til the Morning Comes” with ease. If a feeling of familiarity pervades the album, it’s probably because bands have been mercilessly ripping these songs off since at least 1971. The mythic, dreamlike quality of After of the Gold Rush is often imitated, but never replicated.
Essential songs: “After the Gold Rush,” “Southern Man” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
3. Leonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Songs of Love and Hate is a suitable title, but don’t let Canada’s bard fool you: the late Leonard Cohen expresses every emotion imaginable in just eight songs. It’s an album that goes from contempt (“Dress Rehearsal Rag”) to tenderness (“Love Calls You by Your Name”) to somewhere in between (“Avalanche”) without the slightest warning. Accompanied by Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements and the gentle strum of his guitar, Cohen’s distinctive voice is at its strongest here. “Famous Blue Raincoat” may be his finest moment as a songwriter: a novel’s worth of story in five minutes. He may have released more mainstream albums, and definitely less claustrophobic ones, but none are as emotional as Songs of Love and Hate. Sincerely, L. Cohen, indeed.
Essential songs: “Last Year’s Man,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc”
2. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
What can be said about Joni Mitchell’s Blue that hasn’t already been said? A landmark of the folk genre, Blue‘s collection of elegant and poetic songs has influenced a long line of artists, from Prince to Björk to Taylor Swift. “There’s hardly dishonest note in the vocals,” she told Rolling Stone in 1979. “I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong, or to be happy.” Truer words have rarely been said: Mitchell’s lyrics on Blue are often so candid, you’d think you were listening in on a private conversation. On “All I Want,” she sings heartrending lines like “When I think of your kisses, my mind see-saws, do you see how you hurt me, baby” with terrifying casualness. And the classic “A Case of You” may still be the greatest break-up song ever recorded. Blue is as perfect as an album can be.
Essential songs: “California,” “River” and “A Case of You”
1. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
Funeral begins with one of the most Canadian lyrics ever: “And if the snow buries my, my neighbourhood” on opening track “Tunnels.” The song follows a pair of young lovers who meet in their town square and imagine their shared future together as adults. The only comforts they can envision from growing old, however, are the memories of their parents, friends and bedrooms. For an album named after something so traditionally sad, Funeral is bright, loud and empowering, with its wall of sound of swelling guitars, violins, organs, horns and synthesizers. A “love conquers all” feeling dominates the album: “Wake Up” stresses the importance of confronting past traumas and innocence lost, while “Power Out” is a rally-cry that urges people to open their hearts to the world. Funeral doesn’t just face personal tragedy: it stands up to it and screams. Most artists would be lucky to capture Funeral’s magic once in their entire careers. Arcade Fire did it on the first try.
Essential songs: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)”