There is perhaps no better way to celebrate Canada than with a tribute to our country’s great musical heritage.
For our Canada Day playlist, we asked artists to tell us about a song that defines the country. Some chose a song from their favourite Canadian artist; others picked a song that describes what Canada means to them. Others, like Calgary’s Foonyap, gave us a song that made her think about her search for identity in this country, or as she describes it, her own “tale of ‘Canadahood.’”
While there are many songs you’d expect to see on this list — from legends like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie — there are also quite a few surprises. Gems in the Canadian canon you may never have heard.
Whether you celebrate Canada Day, National Indigenous Day, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Canadian Multiculturalism Day or all — or none — of the above, below is an incredible collection of songs that shows off the depth of musical talent this country has produced.
Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’
The easy answer for me is "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell. She says, "I drew a map of Canada on the back of a cartoon coaster," and that's like ... just something about her voice and something about the way she is resigned in that song reminds me of Canada. I got like a cool sister. So she was into Joni, Blue, way before I was. I think she played it for me for the first time.
[Joni]'s the best songwriter we've ever made, without a doubt. People say it's Neil Young, it's not. It's Joni Mitchell. She's the best. She's the best we've got.
— Donovan Woods
The Arrogant Worms, ‘Canada’s Really Big’
My favourite Canadian song is called “Canada’s Really Big” by the Arrogant Worms. It kinda sums it all up. It's really big and it’s just really big. So whenever I’m talking to people from other countries about Canadian literature, I like to take a map and drop their country into it at the same scale. England fits nicely into Lake Superior. And the song says you can get 14 Frances into Canada.
— Margaret Atwood
Leonard Cohen, ‘Suzanne’
Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” really represents everything that is mysterious about great Canadian songwriting where there’s a kind of esoteric quality, where you don’t know what they’re singing about or who it’s about or where it takes place. There’s this dreamlike quality — maybe it’s from the winter, people are just crazy.
— Rufus Wainwright
Kardinal Offishall, ‘Ol' Time Killin’
It’s because it was so ahead of its time. When I first heard that song I was blown away because it was hip-hop — the nitty gritty hip-hop — but it still had this dancehall feel behind it. I remember when I heard the chorus drop — and when Kardi dropped his verse — I thought, this is crazy! That has to be one of the most impactful Canadian and Toronto songs I have heard.
— Alx Veliz
La Bolduc, ‘La Pitoune’
La Bolduc was a traditional country musician, sort of like a Carter Family voice, in Quebec in the 1920s. She came from Gaspé. I found her music on a 78, and it was such a beautiful song. Gaspé is a really special place. I think we're all familiar with the Maritimes as a hotbed for folk music, even in Tennessee we know this. But I think there is something tragic about the exclusivity of, OK let's celebrate the Scottish Highland folk music but make sure no one gets to expound upon the virtues of the French. She sold half-a-million records and died in a car wreck but she would have been a movie star if she had lived outside of the silent era.
— Kech Secor, Old Crow Medicine Show
Paul Brandt, ‘Alberta Bound’
There is a song called “Alberta Bound,” the newer version by Paul Brandt, which for me that's it, my wife and I just love that song. It's such an Alberta thing, not even just a Canadian thing. I don’t think anyone else across Canada would get it. It just talks about being connected.
— Ryan Peake, Nickelback
Buffy Sainte-Marie, ‘Universal Soldier’
My favourite Canadian song would have to be “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie. I think it’s important to honour and recognize the people who have been here for a lot longer than 150 years. Buffy is an icon, she’s an inspiration, she’s a trailblazer and I think “Universal Soldier” really sums up what we have to say. She did it in a very prolific way. She did it in a way where she was beating down doors, she was beating down festival walls and really putting herself out there. I really admire that.
Weeping Tile, ‘In the Road’
I first met Sarah Harmer in about 1998 or 1999. It was the end of her band Weeping Tile and the beginning of her solo career. She hadn’t yet released her smash hit album You Were Here but we were on tour together, along with Sarah Slean, and I was hearing all of her songs for the first time. Before that I was listening mostly to old folk songs out in Vancouver so I hadn’t heard of Weeping Tile but listening to Sarah play her new and older songs every night really gave me a taste of a writer writing songs set in Canada. When we were on tour we stayed at her childhood home out near Burlington on a farm. Now whenever I hear this song I think of it being set there and of Sarah, in the cold morning light, taking off down the gravel road in search of something.
— Oh Susanna
Oscar Peterson, ‘You Look Good to Me’
That album, We Get Requests, is probably the base level of my bass playing, it's ground zero for me. One of the best recorded bass tones in history. Ray Brown is my favourite bass player and his solo on “You Look Good to Me” is probably the gold standard of playing lyrically on the upright bass. And it's such a beautiful, charming piece of music. He's your Duke Ellington. The Oscar Peterson trio is at the very core of what I am.
— Miles Mosley, the West Coast Get Down
Madeleine Chartrand, 'Ani Kuni’
Not because I did a remix of the song, but it’s the song that I feel that every Canadian has a connection to. From East to West, everywhere I’ve performed in Canada, people have told me different stories and memories regarding this song. If there could be a song that unites all of us Canadians, I believe this is the one.
— Pierre Kwenders
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Storm’
Oftentimes, when the Dears are faced with a music biz decision of dubious morals, we think: What Would Godspeed Do? While this group's music skirts on the outermost edges of popular song, their unfaltering dedication to noisy, experimental orchestral movement remains inspiring. We listened to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antenna to Heaven a lot, in touring vans of yesteryear. It is a fundamentally important album in the modern Canadian musical landscape. I think this band sometimes gets pinned as inaccessible or too unpredictable when actually they are the opposite. They bridge a multitude of genres and, I think, inspired many bands (like ours) to make music fearlessly: not to abide by any rules, never appease the biz, to simply make music that comes from the soul. There's a lot of that missing today. So, really, if you ever find yourself in a moment of wondering, just ask yourself: WWGD?
— Natalia Yanchak, the Dears
Gino Soccio, ‘Dancer’
Of course New York and its Studio 54 was the capital of dance/disco music at the end of the ‘70s, but Montreal was almost as important with the Lime Light club. Many great disco artists have emerged from this era and one of these was Gino Soccio and his [song] "Dancer.” A quite big hit at this time. We spin it on almost every DJ set we perform. It's a bad-ass disco song to be honest. This guitar riff! Very influential for us. “Let your body free now” — we think Canadian people have lost a bit of this by the years. Let's get back to the dance floor and lose yourself to dance!
— Le Couleur
Kathleen Edwards, ‘Change the Sheets’
Kathleen Edwards is one of my all-time favourite musicians and, bonus: Canadian! Her music has such a warmth and her songs are all about personal experiences that I think a lot of people can relate to. I've grown up and gone through a lot of my life listening to her music and would be lying if I didn’t say it had an influence on my own. She also has some of the best coffee at her place, Quitters, in Stittsville!
— Alanna Gurr
k-os, ‘The Man I Used to Be’
"The Man I Used to Be" by k-os is an amazing song. My dad and I bonded over it. Huge synth bass and amazing break. Kevin [Brereton, a.k.a. k-os] talking about his struggles resonated with me even at a young age.
Organized Rhyme, ‘Check the OR’
We love this song and its video because we feel like we've carried the torch for live show absurdity. Tom Green is also a genius, and without him, no Jackass, no Eric Andre. Thank goodness for such a trendsetter.
— Fake Shark
Leonard Cohen, ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’
This song has saved me on more than one occasion. It has gotten me through break-ups, dark times and has continued to inspire me over the 15 years I've been listening to it. I often pick up the acoustic guitar and sing it. Sometimes it makes me cry as I sing the words. It must touch the deepest corners of my soul. I consider this song a friend, since the first time I fell in love with it in high school, to when I was living in Montreal and studying at McGill, it's travelled along with me. Sometimes I indirectly relate to the lyrics, how he talks about Janis [Joplin] as a "fallen robin," but the simplicity of the arrangement, the honesty of the lyrics and the tenderness of his voice is what I take with me. This song is about two people searching for meaning and love, not with each other, but remembering each other fondly with love and respect. It's a beautiful story about longing, and I'm always longing.
— Stefanie Blondal Johnson, Mise en Scene
Tegan and Sara, ‘So Jealous’
I was really into this song in my early 20s. When my band and I started touring, in the early days when we were booking all our own shows, we would blast that song in the car. It’s such an epic anthem. It’s my favourite song of theirs of all time.
— Katie Stelmanis, Austra
“Imiqtaq” is a traditional song performed in a very modern way. Reality for us in northern Canada involves young people in our communities being required to negotiate traditional and modern ways of life. Riit's song honours the past while making a powerful statement for hope moving into the future.
— The Jerry Cans
The Tragically Hip, ‘Long Time Running’
My brother bought the CD when I was in Grade 6 and I fell in love with that song. Had my first slow dance to it in fact, after I had carefully planned and curated the Grade 6 dance playlist in my favour. It's a beautiful song in all aspects.
— Jon Middleton, Jon and Roy
Steppenwolf, ‘Born to be Wild’
It is a classic and it definitely has one of the best and most recognizable openings of all times. The guitar sound rips and the drummer is just murdering the kit. John Kay has one of the best raspy rock 'n' roll voices ever. It's the ultimate road-trip song, which should make it in the running for the greatest Canadian song ever since we are basically a country of highways. The lyrics are epic and speak to the wild creature in all of us. Plus, the song writer credit is under the name Mars Bonfire, whose real name is Dennis Edmonton. What could possibly be more awesome than that?
— Roy Vizer, Jon and Roy
Bob and Doug McKenzie, ‘Take Off’
I grew up listening to Bob and Doug McKenzie records and watching them on SCTV. This is the Canadian anthem. Bob and Doug McKenzie and Geddy Lee from Rush! What more could you ask for?
— Kid Koala
Len, ‘Steal My Sunshine’
This is the eternal summer jam. The bridge sample from "more, more, more" that makes up the drum loop for the song is amazing … just instantly get caught up in that groove and could stay in it forever. Then there's the sister/brother alternating vocals. You don't get to hear many tracks with that. This song always seems to come on in the van for us no matter where we are. It was definitely one we all loved from elementary school but we didn't know how big of a song it was. We were in Dublin the other day and someone asked if we knew it. Four otu of five members of our band are originally [from] Truro, N.S., and apparently a couple of the members of Len are as well, so it's got a hometown connection for us, too. It's gonna be big influence on our LP No. 2.
— Justin Murphy of Walrus
Leonard Cohen, ‘The Stranger Song’
I was listening to Leonard’s first album and everything on the album still touches me so deeply. I just think he’s going to live forever in the hearts of musicians and Canadians everywhere. He had that sense of humour that we all need and we really can’t lose it.
— Buffy Sainte-Marie
Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’
Joni Mitchell writes songs that strike every point of the musical trifecta. “Big Yellow Taxi” is timeless. It's poetic. And it's hooky. Joni has the gift of not having to water down the lyric; there’s a strong environmental message in the song and yet she doesn’t alienate the listener or make them feel preached to. And what other song has more words starting with a P?
— Madison Violet
Willie Dunn, ‘I Pity the Country’
He's like my native Leonard Cohen
This song is so powerful. I wanted to sing it on my album but his version is so strong I'd rather hear him.
Daniel Lanois, ‘Messenger’
That spacious, beautiful “Lanois” production-style aside, this song itself is as solid and timeless as it gets. It is elemental and indivisible — one of those songs that seems to have been around as long as humans have been feeling the sweet pain of love and all its attendant terrors.
It feels very old and very true — the haunting purity and simplicity of an ancient fable. “Take my heart, please don’t break it/ I will crawl to your foothill.”
— Sarah Slean
Respectful Child, 'Glitter'
My parents are immigrants so I didn't grow up with the dominant cultural signifiers of Canadian identity — hockey, beer, Gordon Lightfoot. "Canada" is a place my parents came to; as a visible minority, I'm still a visitor, frequently asked "where I come from." So with ambivalence and caution, I approach the tale of "Canadahood." Respectful Child's ambient textures remind me that "Canadahood" is a dream. But if I know I'm dreaming, I can choose to infuse my reality with wonder.
The Tragically Hip, ‘Blow at High Dough’
Every country has their own little gems, we have the Hip. That's ours and nobody else gets them and we love them to death. I just love those moments when, you know, if you were walking down the sidewalk after say, the Blue Jays won, and the streets were flooded with people and someone just yelled out, “They shot a movie once in my hometown,” you'd be surprised how many people would start singing. You could get that whole crowd singing so easily. And that's something that makes us very Canadian.
I was in the Bahamas and I've got a boat down there and I met a bunch of Canadians and invited them all back after this club in Nassau closed. We all started partying, drinking beer and I put on the Hip, and I don’t know how many people I invited back, maybe 15, and there wasn't one syllable of a lyric that was missed. I mean, it was a love fest, screaming at the top of their lungs and losing their minds. It was fantastic.
— Chad Kroeger, Nickelback
Neil Young, ‘Harvest Moon’
My parents love Neil Young and so I grew up listening to him. I used to do a cover of this song when I was in a folk band years ago — tambourine and all. We even got my friend’s dad to do the sweeping sound at the beginning.That song has left such a heartfelt impression on me.
Jean Leloup, ‘Ô Canada’
Leloup a écrit un texte fleuve, où il chante à coeur ouvert sa jeunesse passée en Afrique, des horreurs dont il a été témoin, pour mieux souligner notre chance, de ce côté du monde.
Leloup wrote this long song, where he pours his heart out about his childhood in Africa, all the horrible things he saw, in order to tell how lucky we are, on this side of the world.
"Je voudrais qu'on fasse attention, Qu'on sache qu'on a de la chance,Et qu'on ne se vautre pas dedans."
— Antoine Corriveau
Jimmy Hunt, ‘Marie-Marthe’
There’s this one song that I really, really like, that’s a French song called “Marie-Marthe” from a guy called Jimmy Hunt who released an album a couple years ago, it’s probably one of my favourite albums, French albums, to ever come out. It’s a beautiful record, a beautiful song, and it’s probably one of those songs that I would’ve liked to write because it’s very clever, it’s very simple, but it’s like, it just hits you, it’s just a great tune.
— Lisa LeBlanc
Paul Brandt, ‘Canadian Man’
"Canadian Man" by Paul Brandt for the very obvious reasons. I'm a huge Paul Brandt fan, so that's the reason I love the song, because I just love him as a person and as an artist. I think my favourite memories of that song are just listening to it live on tour a couple of years back and just really being stunned by his vocals.
— Jess Moskaluke
The Guess Who, ‘These Eyes’
Probably "These Eyes" by the Guess Who. I just remember being a kid listening to that and I ended up sampling that in the years later and making a song called "Stick to Your Vision," which is one of my biggest songs.
— Maestro Fresh Wes
Parachute Club, ‘Rise Up’
"Rise Up" by Parachute Club. I love the video, cause everybody was dancing throughout Toronto, having a great time. I loved the idea, when I was a kid, of "Rise Up" — all the colours. I was a cartoon child. But also the song itself, was such wild production. It was so exciting. And I think the message still to this day, is so important.
— Kevin Drew, Broken Social Scene
Bryan Adams, ‘Heaven’
I immediately thought of "Heaven" by Bryan Adams. I don't know why. It's weird. 'Cause first I thought Bryan Adams and that's like my favourite song by him. So I'm going to go with that. And it's pretty heavenly up here. I think it's a song that reminds me of growing up listening to the radio in Canada. And I always heard that song. I used to drive with my parents from Vancouver to Whistler to ski every weekend and "Heaven" by Bryan Adams was on the radio like five times every time, on the way up, on the way down, every week.
— Shaun Frank
Platinum Blonde, ‘Crying Over You’
That's a tough question. It might have to be Platinum Blond, 'cause I loved new-wave music and they kind of brought that English new-wave sound. And when I was a kid, I just listened to nothing but Canadian music and that really inspired me. And his English accent, I loved it. And I think it was "Crying Over You" by Platinum Blonde — my favourite Canadian song."
— Brian Howes
Stompin' Tom Connors, 'Good Old Hockey Game'
"'Good Old Hockey Game" — I think that song there is going to do it for me because hockey, to me, is it. Especially now, this last year. Oh my God! We got the best team in the world. So I think that song will do it for me. That reminds me of being in Canada because I'm from here."
Gilles Vigneault, "J'ai Pour Toi un Lac"
There is a really, really beautiful French Gilles Vigneault song called "J'ai Pour Toi un La." The way he describes the lake in this song; it's a lake that he's offering to the woman he loves. And the way he describes the lake is what Canada is, just what Canada is to me. The beauty of it. The image is so strong and at the same time it's a love song. That's my favourite. That's the song that reminds me of Canada."
— Florence K
Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
I think the best Canadian song ever written is probably "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. I feel like that's one of the best songs ever in any part of the world, ever. The fact that it's from Canada is incredible. I think that the best type of songs, the best Canadian song, would transcend referencing the country itself or the experience. Leonard Cohen is someone who was born and raised in Canada and he was only the songwriter he was because of his upbringing, his experiences, which were here, which led him to that song."
— Coleman Hell
Drake, ‘Hold on, We’re Going Home'
"Hold on, We’re Going Home" by Drake because it's a Canadian song and every time I get on a plane and come back to Canada, I'm listening to that song."
— Ruth B
The Tragically Hip, ‘New Orleans is Sinking’
I’d go with "New Orleans is Sinking." It’s funny, I do have a bit of a Hip medley when I play certain shows, it kind of scares people. I just love the fact, where the Hip came from, how they built their career, the many, many fans they have all over the world. It’s somebody you can look up to and try to follow.”
— Gord Bamford
Joni Mitchell, ‘Piece of You’
My favourite Canadian song is “Piece of You” by Joni Mitchell. I think it’s perfect, I think it’s my favourite song of all time. I think as a kid maybe, I always played a lot of Joni Mitchell, and that song always just stuck out as something that didn’t seem to have chords or lyrics or anything, it just exists completely outside of it, as an institution of a story of love and lost love and I think Joni is an absolute treasure, and I can’t believe she’s from Canada.
— Peter Dreimanis, July Talk
Gord Downie, ‘Secret Path’
I think my favourite Canadian song right now is “Secret Path” off of The Secret Path by Gord Downie. That whole album is something you kind of need to sit down and listen to and go over the album artwork and everything, but obviously the story of Chanie Wenjack is one that our entire nation needs to hear at every level. It’s something we didn’t learn about in schools as children, and so I think it needs to be infiltrated into the curriculum but as much as that is important, it’s for all ages. I think everyone in Canada — it’s a story that’s been suppressed. It needs to have a light shone on it.
— Leah Fay, July Talk
Andy Shauf, ‘Jenny Come Home’
It’s always changing, so this is just today, just now, it’s for the last year, and still, “Jenny Come Home,” Andy Shauf. I discovered Andy Shauf a year ago and I’m really blown away by him. There’s a song called “The Magician” off The Party, which I also love a lot. I’m just really into him right now. He’s such a quirky, weird little genius and I’m so happy, the more of those the better. He raises the bar for everybody, which is kind of hard to deal with sometimes. I remember the first time I heard Elliott Smith, I don’t think I wrote a song for six months because I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t respond. I know that Elliott Smith comparison has been made quite a bit with Andy Shauf … but I think his impact, we’re going to feel it for a long time.
— Luke Doucet, Whitehorse
Charlotte Day Wilson, ‘Work’
The latest one that I’ve been obsessed with is Charlotte Day Wilson’s song “Work.” I just heard it one day and it’s so rare these days that a song immediately grabs me and it’s like what is that song, who is that, and it turns out she’s a Toronto girl and she’s doing amazing things. So I was excited to discover her. I think I’m late to the party [laughs], but she’s awesome.
— Melissa McClelland, Whitehorse
Justin Bieber, ‘Sorry’
I would say "Sorry" by Justin Bieber. The rhythm and everything — it's so cool. I like the fact that it came with that reggae stuff and that new music. I love this song.
Barenaked Ladies, ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’
I'm going to go with "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" by Barenaked Ladies. That video they had when they were just in the back of that pick-up truck, when they were just starting out. You know I grew up in North York, just outside of Toronto. That video to me and that cold wintry ... they were in the back and it was all cold — that always captured the real Canadiana vibe for me."
— Jarvis Church
Rush, ‘Spirit of the Radio’
"Spirit of the Radio" by Rush. It's one of the first licks that I learned. And it was the first band I ever saw live. So it inspired me to do this whole thing.
— James Bryan, the Philosopher Kings
Sloan, 'Coax Me'
A song that reminds me of Canada is "Coax Me" by Sloan. Sloan was my favourite Canadian band growing up. That's my favourite Sloan song. I was in a Sloan cover band when I was in high school called the Money City Maniacs. And so that reminds me of being a kid and home and Canada. They are still a great band.
— David Ritter, The Strumbellas
The Tragically Hip, 'Bobcaygeon'
"Bobcaygeon" by the Tragically Hip. There's just something about it that when I'm overseas or somewhere sitting, it just reminds me of sitting by a campfire with my friends, smoking joints and drinking beer.
— Benjamin Kowalewicz, Billy Talent
Anne Murray, 'Can I Have This Dance'
Anne Murray, "Can I Have This Dance" is a pretty huge song for country that started back in the beginning of my country phase. Which I'm a country writer now, so... My dad owned a country bar in Vancouver when I was young. And that's a song he would play all the time. So it sort of all connected for country music for me. She was the first one in Canada that connected me to country music, which is what I do now.
— Kelly Archer
Chief Dan George, 'A Lament for Confederation'
50 years has passed, and it seems the same thoughts and issues still resonate today. We hope that everyone takes the time to think about our history, and to sit with the uncomfortable truths that come with celebrating Canada's 150th anniversary.
— Quantum Tangle
Ian and Sylvia, 'Four Strong Winds'
"Four Strong Winds." It's so Canadian. It's just a unique Canadian sound and Ian and Sylvia are so Canadian. It kind of makes me cry. It's an iconic Canadian song. I just like the way it makes me feel. Makes me feel kind of Canadian.
— Carole Pope, Rough Trade
I go back to when Ian and Sylvia were performing. It's kind of when Carole and I first started to work together as young writers. And they were already performing at that time. So it is kind of like that beginning of that period of time for us. I guess that would be the reason.
— Kevan Staples, Rough Trade
Bryan Adams, ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’
"(Everything I Do) I Do It For You," which is a solid composition. I was like, "Yo! That's a good song guys." I mean like, I know it's a classic but that's an amazing record. I feel like it affected me emotionally at a period of time that I was still sort of vulnerable enough to interpret even a pop message of that sort quin a meaningful kind of way. I think I have a nostalgic response to that song. I just love it. I really like how it builds. I love the guitar solo in that record, cause I'm a guitar player. So I always listen to that type of thing. It's a very strong song. I thought he really meant it when he sang it."
— Mark Pellizzer, Magic!
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