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 political 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. For much of its runtime, the 79-year-old puts a new spin on her oldest compositions: “It’s My Way,” for instance, is reimagined as a heartland rock song. Heralded as a return to form for Sainte-Marie, Power in the Blood‘s true strength is the direct way it raises questions about the environmental and cultural future of Canada.
Essential songs: “It’s My Way,” “Power in the Blood” and “Uranium War”
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24. The Weeknd – Trilogy (2012)
The Weeknd has long been compared to Michael Jackson: both have impressive vocal ranges, a knack for catchy hooks and a love for dark stories. The difference? The Weeknd’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 and seductive account of sex, drugs and druggy sex.
Essential songs: “What You Need,” “House of Balloons” and “The Birds, Pt. 1”
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23. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005)
Get past the band’s 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 and Dan Bejar—and American Neko Case—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.
Essential songs: “Twin Cinema,” “The Bleeding Heart Show” and “Three or Four”
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22. Celine Dion – Falling into You (1996)
When Celine Dion was 18, she saw Michael Jackson 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.” 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”
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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 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 lush production. Before she became a presence on the charts, McLachlan’s best skill was already obvious on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: her expertise at making pain and sadness sound beautiful.
Essential songs: “Possession,” “Good Enough” and “Hold On”
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20. Sloan – One Chord to Another (1997)
If all power pop were as 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 an 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 frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, Apologies to the Queen Mary wears its heart(s) on its sleeve. The Montreal quartet’s debut full-length may have been released in 2005, but it references decades’ worth of rock, punk and New Wave. The angular guitars and driving keyboards of “Grounds for Divorce” sound like Roxy Music-meets-Springsteen, while the romantic “I’ll Believe in Anything” recalls the doomed lovers in David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
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,” Gordon Lightfoot’s epic masterpiece. Recorded in Toronto with a talented cast of session musicians, every song displays Lightfoot’s lyrical genius. His superstar status faded away after this record, but that’s fine—Summertime Dream is the crowning achievement in a legendary career.
Essential songs: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “The House You Live In” and “Summertime Dream”
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. “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”
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.
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, however, with Fully Completely. All of the Hip’s hallmarks are on display: abstract imagery (“Locked in the Trunk of a Car”), ringing guitars (the title track) and a 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)
On Take Care, the king of Toronto merges house (the title track), R&B (“Crew Love”), 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 artists—and Drake himself—to this day. “I’m just saying you could do better,” he sings to a former lover on album highlight “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”
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13. The Guess Who – American Woman (1970)
In just nine tracks and a lean 40 minutes, the legendary Winnipeg natives make their most concise musical statement. The title track is justifiably iconic, but there are more than a few surprises to be found here: the sweet psychedelia of “No Time,” the satisfying groove of “Proper Stranger,” and the haunting acoustic tune “Talisman.” Listeners dug American Woman, too: the album peaked at no. 9 and spent more than a year on the Billboard charts.
Essential songs: “American Woman,” “No Time” and “Talisman”
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, 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 Broadway 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 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 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 one night with a single microphone at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, The Trinity Session is one of the most unique-sounding albums ever committed to tape. 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 surrounded by 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.
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 and incessant humming, for starters—can easily overshadow his music. If you want to experience 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 bring J.S. Bach and Baroque music to the attention of casual listeners; the album sold 40,000 copies in five years. 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)
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 star is one of Canada’s greatest success stories—looking back at her meteoric rise from the vantage point of 2020, it’s surprising it even happened at all. On Jagged Little Pill, the Ottawa native is feeling vengeful, disgusted and bitter. Her lyrics are vicious: “All I Really Want” feels less like music and more like an exorcism. And while Morissette certainly has the vocal chops to deliver her lines, she elongates, twists and exaggerates words as she pleases. So how did Jagged Little Pill manage to sell over 30 million copies, then? Millions of angst-ridden listeners wanted an album to articulate their rawest feelings—Morissette was 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 one 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 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.
Essential songs: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Look Out Cleveland”
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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 stripped-down folk? 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 ripping these songs off since at least 1971. 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 a record that swings 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 in five minutes. Sincerely, L. Cohen, indeed.
Essential songs: “Last Year’s Man,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc”
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2. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
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 a 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 alarming casualness. And the classic “A Case of You” may still be the greatest break-up song ever recorded.
Essential songs: “California,” “River” and “A Case of You”
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1. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
Funeral begins with one of the most Canadian lyrics ever: “And if the snow buries my, my neighbourhood” on “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 swelling guitars, violins, organs and horns. A “love conquers all” feeling dominates the album: “Wake Up” stresses the importance of confronting past traumas, while “Power Out” is a rally-cry for compassion. Funeral doesn’t just face personal tragedy: it stands up to it and screams. Most artists would be lucky to capture its magic once in their entire careers. Arcade Fire did it on the first try.
Essential songs: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)”
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