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The 50 best Canadian songs of the ’80s
By
Editorial Staff

Published

August 25, 2014

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It will go down in CBC Music history as the Great Gowan Debate of 2014: "Strange Animal" or "Criminal Mind"? Of course it depends on the context, which in this case was: what is the best, but also the "most '80s," Gowan song?

That question — what was the best, most '80s song? — was at the core of this list, in which we sifted through the biggest, most popular, best and even cheesiest songs in order to present to you a cohesive list that stands as a snapshot of what Canada sounded like for a decade. It was the '80s, so of course there's metal, but there are also timeless rock anthems. There are cheesy synths, sure, but there was also the daring new wave scene happening across the country. And at a time when a lot of major artists around the world were creating some pretty questionable content, Canadian superstars were shining brighter than ever.

To compile the list, we pooled our colleagues across the country and asked for top 10 lists, including our Quebec colleagues at IciMusique.ca, then debated the results, limiting it to only one song per artist, until we bled neon and agreed upon a list with which we were happy. So who won the Gowan debate? Check out the gallery below to find out.

Song: “Rise Up”
Artist: Parachute Club

This is the sound of the '80s: the keyboard blurts, that digital influence blending in with a pan-world earnestness. But you know, it's a song that fulfills its mission: a rallying cry to rise up, be better, live better, fight for better. In a soft-rock dance way, of course. — Andrea Warner

Song: "Whatcha do to my Body"
Artist: Lee Aaron

No list of '80s songs, Canadian or otherwise, would be complete without "Metal Queen" Lee Aaron and her raunchy, double-platinum ode to desire, "Whatcha do to my Body." The video also features a puppy dog and a snake, so just try to top that. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Song: “Big League”
Artist: Tom Cochrane and Red Rider

I'm a total sucker for songs about fathers and sons, so this gets me square in the feelings every time. But there's also something so quintessentially Canadian about it, with its references to a small northern town and graduating up to the U.S. college. Obviously it all takes a pretty dark turn, but the driving guitars do a great job of reinforcing the narrative that it's important to dream your own dreams and make yourself happy. — AW

Song: "Fais attention"
Artist: Les B.B.

The members of pop-rock trio Les B.B. are remembered today more for their looks than for the music they made. Long hair and the coupe Longueuil (South Shore cut/mullet) are no longer in style, and lead singer Patrick Bourgeois did try a new career as a TV show host. But no one can deny these boys had their 15 months of fame, especially with that punchy, sexy song warning to a girlfriend: “Babe, I’m gonna leave you.” Check out the backup vocals! — Ralph Boncy/iciMusique.ca

Song: “Closer Together"
Artist: The Box

Montreal new wave combo the Box had their greatest success with this song, which went to number 13 on the charts in 1987. — Judith Lynch

Song: "One More Time"
Artist: Streetheart

Streetheart’s self-titled release was their best-selling record, and one of four to go platinum. “One More Time” is a fan favourite and the kind of guitar-led live anthem for which the group became known. Two years later, the Regina rockers would pack it in citing mismanagement, debt and an unsuccessful entry into the American market. — Michael Morreale

Song: "Smothered Hope"
Artist: Skinny Puppy

An early hit from the Vancouver industrial rockers Skinny Puppy marked the birth of a remarkable new sound in music. “Smothered Hope” is a five-minute epic that ends hauntingly with repeated samples from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt. Its throaty lyrics and dark subject matter grew the band a huge underground fanbase of people looking for an alternative to the synth-pop du jour. — MM

Song: "Toujours vivant"
Artist: Gerry Boulet

Gerry Boulet is a true iconic figure. A feature film has even been made about his rock 'n' roll life and his death from cancer, simply named Gerry. At the time of Rendez-vous doux (Sweet Rendez-vous), his last recording, Boulet was no longer the roaring lion standing by his B-3 organ onstage with the Offenbach electric lineup. But the slow-paced album has sold half-a-million copies and “Toujours vivant” (Still Alive) airs on FM radio every single day to remind us that Boulet and his bluesy voice are not gone forever. — RB

Song: “Your Daddy Don't Know”
Artist: Toronto

The Juno-nominated single hit number five in Canada and even cracked the Billboard Hot 100. Front and centre is Holly Woods’s concentrated vocals. We also love the early cover by the New Pornographers. — MM

Song: “Teenland”
Artist: The Northern Pikes

The '80s musical scene in Canada seemed to open something up all across the country, with bands coming out of the woodwork and being formed everywhere, not just the major centres. The Northern Pikes came out of Saskatoon, gaining national traction on the newly launched MuchMusic video channel, thanks in large part to frontman Merl Bryck's unforgettable, frantic dancing in the video for their first single, "Teenland." — Julian Tuck

Song: “Lunatic Fringe”
Artist: Red Rider

What's not to love about Red Rider's biggest hit? It's a rock song with a strong groove, an overdriven steel guitar solo, a siren sound effect and Tom Cochrane's voice imploring you to "feel the thunder." — Dave Shumka

Song: "Just Between You and Me"
Artist: April Wine

On the first day MTV went to air, “Just Between You and Me” was the first Canadian video on the broadcast. It’s so Canadian that it even includes a French lesson: “Seulement entre toi et moi/ Means that our love will always be.” Which is close enough to being correct. — MM

Song: "Je voudrais voir la mer"
Artist: Michel Rivard

A great fan of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, guitar player Rivard has been an extremely successful singer-songwriter all over Québec. Long after making his fame with the band Beau Dommage in the mid-’70s, his solo career reached a new high 10 years later with “Un trou dans les nuages.” The album takes a new curve in terms of sound and writing themes, like the title song about a close encounter of the third kind. The classic “Je voudrais voir la mer” (I wanna see the sea) is a timeless anthem to the majesty of nature and its exploration by simple, tiny humans. — RB

Song: "We Run"
Artist: Strange Advance

With its Bowie-esque vocals (the group had just opened for Bowie on his Canadian tour) and huge cast of guest musicians, Strange Advance had a major hit on their hands with “We Run.” The band had just relocated from Vancouver to Toronto and new wave synth-pop was all the rage. “We Run” is an artful anthem, with layered synths and an undeniable prog influence. — MM

Song: "Don't It Make You Feel"
Artist: Headpins

That voice. What started as a Chilliwack side project turned into a double-platinum debut record, with Darby Mills’s heady vocals stealing the show. “Don’t It Make You Feel” lit up radios across the country with its steady backbeat and hair-raising lead vocals. The West Coasters were never able to match the success of their debut, but have survived tragedy and personnel changes and continue to rock stages today. — MM

Song: "Go for a Soda"
Artist: Kim Mitchell

You get the feeling "Might as well go for a soda" started off as placeholder lyrics, but stuck around because they're so simple and catchy. The song is a showcase of Kim Mitchell's guitar playing, and while he totally shreds, it's the understated intro that is truly impressive. — DS

Song: "Amère América"
Artist: Luc de Larochellière

Popping out of nowhere with clever songwriting and top-notched production, Luc de Larochellière was the new kid in town. With a little help from his friends the Perusse brothers (Marc and François), he sang about a twisted democratic system filled with lies and injustice and the bitter taste of that white sugar coming from the exploitation of third world countries. First song, first hit, no miss. Almost 30 years later, de Larochellière is still around and relevant. — RB

Song: “Vox”
Artist: Sarah McLachlan

We got our first taste of Sarah McLachlan in the late '80s, her sound straddling two decades as she went on to define Canadian music in the '90s. Delicate and haunting, McLachlan introduced her folksy, melodic, East Coast roots to the production-heavy style of the West Coast,which went on to become her home. The result was this pop gem that resonated among teenage girls all across the country. — JL

Song: “Lust for Love"
Artist: Images in Vogue

This was the first and only Canadian top 40 hit for the synth-led Vancouver new wave band. It even earned them a slot on tour with Duran Duran. The video — produced by Doug Bennett of Doug & the Slugs — was in steady rotation on MuchMusic and stars a Vancouver morgue and a furry tarantula. — MM

Song: "Hard Sun"
Artist: Indio

The only hit from Indio, a.k.a. Gordon Peterson, came at the tail end of the decade, but has a timeless quality. In a time when singer-songwriters were swimming in synths, Indio created roots music with real roots. — DS

Song: "Repartir à zéro"
Artist: Joe Bocan

Curly-blonde chanteuse and comedian Joe Bocan's flashy rock show is amazing but this song remains, without a doubt, the biggest hit of her short career span. “Repartir à zero” translates to “starting over,” but the purpose of the video is a global warning that whispers, “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” From the '90s on, Bocan would concentrate on raising her kids and recording children’s music and theatre. — RB

Song: “Nova Heart”
Artist: Spoons

Every Canadian synth-pop band today owes a little bit of debt to Spoons, whose 1981 album, Stick Figure Neighbourhood, was, fun fact, one of the first new wave albums engineered by Daniel Lanois. "Nova Heart" captured the dark side of the '80s perfectly, with its atmospheric synths and melancholy lyrics, but it could easily be released tomorrow and sound just as relevant. — JKG

Song: "Pied de poule"
Artist: Dolbie Stéréo

Satirical, absurd and sardonic, the sentational musical created by Robert Leger (better known through the folk-pop band Beau Dommage) and lyricist Marc Drouin began in 1982 at a Montreal mid-sized cabaret. It soon took over the bigger venues and the whole town by storm, revealing great comic talents like Normand Brathwaite, Marc Labreche and Genevieve Lapointe, a groupie named Dolbie Stereo who sings about the daily news misery and miscellaneous city upsets over a mechanical beat pattern. — RB

Song: “Crying Over You”
Artist: Platinum Blonde

In their early days, Platinum Blonde toured campuses as a Police tribute band. But their big, bleached hair and shoulder pads were soon at the centre of Canada's new wave scene. Bonus points for the guitar solo from Rush's Alex Lifeson. — Mike Miner

Song: "Somewhere Down the Crazy River"
Artist: Robbie Robertson

This could be said about a lot of the songs on this list but it really doesn't get any more '80s than this. And not just the moodiness of the track or the sing-speak with the fully sung chorus, but from the opening notes where the '80s drums underpin the '80s bassline and the oh-so-'80s synths. — JL

Song: “First We Take Manhattan”
Artist: Leonard Cohen

"They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within." Is there a better opening line than that? And then there's the chorus: "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." What does that even mean? Is Cohen speaking of terrorism, the process of trying to breakthough as an artist, both? The more you try to get to the essence of what he was trying to say with this song, the more you appreciate what the man could do with some poetry and a cheesy Casio beat (although we still prefer the funkier live version created in 1988). — JKG

Song: "Black Cars"
Artist: Gino Vannelli

"Black cars look better in the shade" follows the same logic as Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night": taking something dark and obscuring it further. It must have been an '80s thing. "Black Cars" was Vannelli's highest-charting song of the decade, thanks to the catchy chorus and that cool organ riff. — DS

Song: “New Girl Now”
Artist: Honeymoon Suite

"New Girl Now"" was the song that put Niagara Falls rockers Honeymoon Suite on the map by winning them radio station Q107's "Homegrown Contest" in 1983. The band would have more hits with songs such as "Feel it Again," "Bad Attitude" and "What Does it Take," but it's "New Girl Now," a nasty break-up song with a pounding rhythm section, that stands out above them all. — JKG

Song: “Makin' it Work”
Artist: Doug & the Slugs

This Vancouver DIY party band started throwing their own parties because nobody wanted to book a band with such a weird name. They made it work, and turned out a series of hit albums and singles. Goofy, witty and fun, they are as Canadian as toques and maple syrup. — Mike Miner

Song: “I'm an Adult Now”
Artist: Pursuit of Happiness

This pop-punk song, alternately spoken and sung by Moe Berg, was the sound of teenage rebellion in the '80s. Fuelled by a low-budget video, the song became an indie smash hit and proved that you didn't need a major label to make it big. — JL

Song: “Rockin’ in the Free World”
Artist: Neil Young

This isn't the most '80s song on this list, but it is the one that best encapsulates the idea of being both timeless and of a certain time. Young's incendiary lyrics still hold up today, and yet they're firmly rooted in '80s politics. Whether the song is being used as a critique of bad government, a pro-environment anthem, a rallying cry for the fall of communism or just as one of the greatest closing songs in the history of live rock music, the rush it gives you is always the same. Keep on rockin' in the free world. — JKG

Song: “Let Your Backbone Slide”
Artist: Maestro Fresh Wes

Canadian rap is measured in two phases: Before Maestro (BM) and After Maestro (AM). And for good reason! Released in 1989, "Backbone" not only put Maestro on the map, it put Canadian hip-hop on the map by becoming the very first Canadian rap song to hit the top 40. Giving credit where it's due, Michie Mee was the first MC to get her foot in the door of the coveted American market, but Maestro was quicker to bust through it with what was, up until 2012's "Inner Ninja," the best-selling Canadian hip-hop single of all time. — JKG

Song: "Ils s’aiment"
Artist: Daniel Lavoie

A shy and talented singer-songwriter and pianist from Manitoba, Daniel Lavoie switched from English to French in the mid-'70s and landed a few local hits. But his album Tension Attention eventually topped Quebec charts, scored big in France and the single "Ils s’aiment" sold nearly three million copies. Quite amazing for such a sad and beautiful song about lovers in a dangerous time, as Bruce Cockburn would put it, that was inspired by TV news footage of a couple walking through the crumbles of a bombarded Beruit. The original English version has never been released. — RB

Song: “Black Velvet”
Artist: Alannah Myles

“Black Velvet” just qualifies as a song from the '80s (it was released in December 1989), but when those blues notes open the track and Myles starts singing about Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell, it’s undeniable that the song was meant for the decade. Don’t pretend you didn’t stand by your bedroom window, belting out the words “black velvet” right along with Myles while pining for that certain someone. You maybe even bought the leather chaps. — Holly Gordon

Song: "Eyes of a Stranger"
Artist: Payolas

Payolas hit number four in Canada and won a Juno for this reggae-influenced new wave song. You turn it up in the car and make your passenger quiet down so you can hear Paul Hyde hang onto the note on "eyyyyyyyes" until it's almost unbearable. — DS

Song: “Let it Go”
Artist: Luba

What would it sound like if Daniel Lanois produced a calypso dance song for a Ukrainian–Canadian singer from Montreal in 1984? It's a question we've all asked ourselves. The answer is this song, which helped Luba win two Juno Awards. And honestly, it's the song that comes to mind whenever people talk about that other "Let It Go" from Frozen. — DS

Song: "Chats sauvages"
Artist: Marjo

Roaring and passionate, Marjolaine Morin (a.k.a. Marjo) is Quebec’s pride and premiere female rock singer. A Former lead singer for rock quartet Corbeau (translation: the Crow), she launched a successful and enduring solo career with this kind of “Me and Bobby McGee” type of song that starts with the evocative sentence, “You can never tame wild cats,” and won the song of the year award at L’ADISQ (the equivalent to the Junos in Québec). — RB

Song: “Working for the Weekend”
Artist: Loverboy

This song starts with a cowbell and leads into one of the most universal and enduring classic rock choruses of all time: "Everybody's working for the weekend." At the time, Loverboy were surrounded by bigger, cheesier glam metal bands, but they stuck to their working-class hero rock roots (no bangs were feathered, ever) and absolutely owned the first half of the decade. "Working for the Weekend" certainly isn't their only hit, but it's such a dominant, ever-present song in pop culture (remember the SNL Chippendales skit?) that it deserves its place on this list. — JKG

Song: “Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone”
Artist: Glass Tiger

Horns! The horns make this song. That and the fact that it can be taught to just about any high school band in six weeks. Simple in structure and melody but infinitely singable. One of the gems of the decade. — JL

Song: “Tears are not Enough”
Artist: Northern Lights

Following in the footsteps of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World," a Canadian effort led by David Foster came up with this benefit song for Ethiopian famine relief. The lineup was stacked with Corey Hart, Anne Murray, Bryan Adams and heck, even John Candy and Eugene Levy. — DS

Song: “High School Confidential”
Artist: Carole Pope and Rough Trade

So risqué, sexy and cool. It sounded like something that belonged to the soundtrack of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it really kicked off that sense of gender-blurring that gave the '80s their daring vibe (at least in the early years). — AW

Song: “(You're A) Strange Animal”
Artist: Gowan

I don't throw around the phrase "prog-pop troubadour" very often, but then again, it's hard to explain Gowan to someone who's never heard him. This song is maybe the most '80s song ever produced. Somehow these five minutes of music contain a decade of questionable haircuts and weird boots, as well as one of the greatest sing-along choruses of its time. — DS

Song: "Hélène"
Artist: Roch Voisine

“Alone on the sand, staring at the water.” This melancholic ballad about a brief summer love affair became an instant and huge hit in both Quebec and France in 1989. Roch Voisine, 26 and from Edmunston, N.B., quit hockey following an injury and had just landed a supporting role in the TV series Lance et conte, centred on the NHL business. A rare case: the chorus in English flows without a flaw for a French name such as Hélène: “Helen, the things you do make me crazy about you.” — RB

Song: "Bye Bye Mon Cowboy"
Artist: Mitsou

How many French songs can you name that became hits in English Canada? The list is pretty short, but it has to contain this one. Mitsou's debut was a late '80s disco hit and probably the most fun of any song on this list. — DS

Song: “Safety Dance”
Artist: Men Without Hats

If you attended high school in Canada any time since 1982, there are three things you know for sure: 1. The video for this song is truly whackadoo; 2. The steps to some version of the actual dance performed in the video; 3. If your friends don't dance then they're no friends of mine. — JL

Song: "Incognito"
Artist: Céline

Céline Dion was only 19, but the little girl from small-town Charlemagne was on a mission, newly signed on CBS and wearing sunglasses at night. This soul-inflected hit song may sound a bit dated today, but it announces the crossover breakthrough of Unison (1990), leading the way to the upstaging crowning of the world’s new pop diva. Ironically, from that day on, Dion was never again incognito! — RB

Song: “Summer of '69”
Artist: Bryan Adams

Don't underestimate the power of this song. It's about nostalgia for 1969, but it can still make you feel nostalgic for 1984, even if you haven't gone a week without hearing it since it came out. Yes, Adams claims it's about a certain romantic maneuver, but every lyric suggests otherwise, and frankly, I don't want to think of this song as anything but innocent. — DS

Song: “Tom Sawyer”
Artist: Rush

The 1980s saw Rush continually push their prog rock into a more sci-fi, techy direction, with a heavy reliance on synths and sequencers. While that exploration would reach its apex with 1987's Hold Your Fire, with some critics arguing the band was straying too far from its roots, 1981's Moving Pictures and its centrepiece "Tom Sawyer" stand as a perfect balance between those two sides of the spectrum. Still one of the greatest rock songs of all time, even if it didn't have Neil Peart's mesmerizing drum fill at 2:35. — JKG

Song: “Echo Beach”
Artist: Martha & the Muffins

The shoulder-shimmying. The keyboard. The tambourine. The blunt bob and perm. While watching the video for “Echo Beach,” you are the ’80s. Or maybe it’s simply because Johnson talks about being bored at work and longs for somewhere “far away in time.” Oh wait, that applies to all the decades. Either way, there’s no way your toes aren’t tapping to this new wave gem. Just try to get “Echo Beach” out of your head. — HG

Song: “Sunglasses at Night”
Artist: Corey Hart

"Sunglasses at Night" was the coolest song ever in 1984. It was the first record I owned and my mom loved it as much as I did (she was in her early 20s) and we did everything to this song: dance moves, aerobics, you name it, this was the soundtrack. That's precisely why it's still so amazing: the beat is awesome, the guitars are so buzzy and electric and the keys just create this sense of chic, grimy, after-hours danger, albeit under a polished veneer of safe accessibility. So basically the '80s in a nutshell. — AW