If you take a casual look at music from Canada over the last few decades, you might conclude that it falls into two easy-to-remember categories. The stuff beamed relentlessly through the radio waves during the ‘70s and ‘80s was mostly bombastic power trio stuff like Triumph and Rush, which combined the worst qualities of prog rock and heavy metal. On the other side, there was the singer-songwriter and roots stuff – Leonard Cohen, the Band, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. Now, that quartet right there is awfully formidable, so we’re gonna think about our favorite songs by each of them for a minute.
But there’s a rich tradition of Canadian bands who’ve come after these guys. There’s lots more from Canada -- from Drake to the Sadies, of course, to the genius of the '50s and '60s, Glenn Gould -- but here are a few highlights for Canada Day.
1. Cowboy Junkies
This Toronto group became famous with its “Trinity Session” album recorded in an eerie bare-bones style in the city’s Church of the Holy Trinity in 1987. (Fun fact: I recently caught a powerful solo concert there by Canadian-born, California-dwelling cellist Zoe Keating.) That album, with its spooky covers of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and the Velvet Underground, stands up beautifully. (They have also played the music of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine with a great deal of sensitivity.)
But here is a more recent cover of “Powderfinger,” one of the best songs by their fellow Canadian Neil Young.
2. Broken Social Scene
Does this shape-shifting group have any typical sound? (Their live show may be similarly unstable. I was told by one musical journalist I trust that these guy put on one of the worst live shows he’s ever seen; another told me they're one of the best.)
This song, “Almost Crimes,” is full of overtones and feedback and overlapping voices almost in harmony, but doesn’t sound like a ripoff of Sonic Youth of the British shoegazer bands. The singer Feist was part of this version of the band.
3. Ron Sexsmith
The tradition of the Canadian singer-songwriter – the literate lyrics, roots in folk music, the tendency toward dark love songs – lives on in Rox Sexsmith.
There are some old songs by Sexsmith that are about as bittersweet and deeply felt as anything by the post-Dylan generation: “Strawberry Blonde,” “Nothing Good,” “Just My Heart Talkin’.”
But he’s continued to make smart, well-crafted music since his breakthrough in the ‘90s. Here’s a song from his relatively sunny new LP, “Carousel One,” called “Can’t Get My Act Together,” and filmed at a show at City Winery in New York.
These guys are not quite as shape-shifting as Broken Social Scene, but most of their stuff is melodically inspired and rooted in the Beatles. (Some of it is rooted in ‘70s power pop.) Originally a product of the Nova Scotia scene, they are inconsistent, but when they hit, they make some of the most tuneful music around. This song, which could come from "Rubber Soul," is just about perfect.
5. The New Pornographers
Not nearly as racy as their name implies, the New Pornographers are one of the catchiest bands on either side of the 49th parallel: Some of their songs just unfold with hooks. Led, sort of, by singer Carl Newman, this Vancouver group also includes the country-inflected Neko Case and eclectic evil genius Dan Bejar, who leads Destroyer.
Here is a song, “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” from a 2010 David Letterman appearance.
6. "The Quintet"
This is going way back, but it would be unfair to talk about music from Canada without mentioning one of the greatest albums recorded there, Jazz at Massey Hall. It’s the only encounter of “The Quintet” – alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach and shows especially strong work from Gillespie.
Overlook the rough sound and listen to a meeting of giants.