"Don’t you wanna see how it ends?"
Over 22 years of studio releases, the Tragically Hip has captured the hearts of millions of fans, both Canadian and farther afield. Last month’s announcement that frontman and poet Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer dealt a blow to those hearts, each of them wishing to share their love for Canada’s band and what the music has meant to them.
Over the band’s 12 full-length albums, the Hip has created a lyrical map of life in Canada, ranging from anthemic national anthems ("Blow at High Dough," "Courage") to intimate moments ("Scared," "Wheat Kings," "Fiddler's Green"). Inevitably, some albums connect more than others, and we at CBC Music sat down and ranked all 12 studio albums, starting with the Hip's 2012 album and culminating with their beloved breakthrough.
12. Now for Plan A (2012)
Now for Plan A is the Hip’s lowest-selling album of the band’s career, the only album not to achieve higher than a gold status (oddly enough, it also achieved their highest ranking on the Billboard 200 chart, hitting 129). While the album may have failed to sell, lyrically it’s one of their most poignant. While Gord Downie was writing, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and many of the album’s lyrics reflect that lost sense of cautious hope. It also contains a seething condemnation on the conditions in Attawapiskat (“Goodnight Attawapiskat”) at a time when the water crisis there was just coming to mainstream light. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin
11. World Container (2006)
Whether you'll latch onto World Container depends on what kind of Hip you want: the anthem-ready, Heritage Moment poets of the '90s, or the broader poets on their 10th album, trying to break the (successful) mould they've created for themselves. Downie's lyrics still tie the music together, but the album is less Hip traditional, with a poppier, angstier edge to the songs. The frontman continues to put his finger on what he finds inadequate in society (in the video for "In View," he sings "I've been meaning to call you" in a world full of other people's cell phones, but no working landlines), and while the track "Lonely End of the Rink" premiered on Hockey Night in Canada, its crashing jams and reggae-infused interstitials make it one of the Hip's least accessible songs. This album spans a lot for the Hip, and sometimes it feels like too much. — Holly Gordon
10. In Between Evolution (2004)
The Hip's ninth full-length album reintroduces fans to the band's trademark sound. Filled with Downie's lyrical wit, the 2004 album is a par-for-the course Hip release. “It Can't Be Nashville Every Night” provides a classic Hip single — an upbeat, guitar riff-laden song awash with entendres and poetry — that failed to reach the band's earlier success. Perhaps the world had moved on from the Hip's straightforward rock coupled with the thinking person's lyrics, embracing a more Nickelback-like aesthetic. This doesn't detract from the album's well-written verses and on-the-nose assessment of the human condition that we’ve come to expect from Canada's band. — Nicolle Weeks
9. Music @ Work (2000)
Released in the spring of 2000, Music @ Work was an eclectic work of musical genres, swinging from the soft folk of “The Completists” to the almost grunge-rock tracks “Tiger the Lion” and “The Bastard.” From front to back, this album is one of the Hip's heavier works, and for that reason it earned the band its 12th Juno Award, this time for best rock album. At a time when the grungy sound of bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains was falling out of style, the Tragically Hip managed to achieve great success with its chunky guitar tone and abstract lyricism, earning them platinum status, twice over, in Canada. — Kerry Martin
8. In Violet Light (2002)
In Violet Light brought a few changes to the Hip's traditional production landscape. The band recorded parts of the album in the Bahamas, and brought in British heavyweight producer Hugh Padgham (Phil Collins, Sting, Paul McCartney). Padgham's influence is evident throughout the album in the dreamy, phasing guitar riffs, but for the presence of such a powerful producer, the Tragically Hip's sound still rings true from start to finish, especially with Downie's trademark turns of phrase in lyrics for the song "It's a Good Life if you Don't Weaken." I don't know exactly what a "forget-yer-skates dream" is, but I remember grabbing on to that line right away. Another line that has stuck with me for years — and remains one of my favourite verses in music — lives in the second verse of "The Darkest One":
7. We are the Same (2008)
The album art on this, the Hip's 11th studio release, shows the band in the dark, gathered around an open fire. And that's what they deliver within: a fine campfire record. This is one not for the arenas; this is for the close quarters, the intimate spaces. Those moments, those necessary times between people who look out for each other, when glances are recognized, when words can be safely spoken as they pass with the smoke into the night skies. Songs like "Morning Moon" and "Queen of the Furrows" stand out here and belong with the best of the band's work. And when Downie sings lines like "Are you going through something/ 'cause I am too," and "Don't you wanna see how it ends?" on "The Depression Suite," the words hit harder than ever. Pull up your Muskoka chair, lean forward and watch the flames dance against the dark. — Brad Frenette
6. Phantom Power (1998)
It must be daunting to follow up such a critically successful record as Trouble at the Henhouse, but 1998's Phantom Power continued to deliver some of the Hip's most-loved songs: "Poets," "Bobcaygeon" and "Thompson Girl." With this sixth album, Downie built on his title as lyrical heavyweight, name-dropping a small Ontario town in the same song that references the 1933 Christie Pits riots while poetically wrapping each verse so that it could be sung enthusiastically by every fan, regardless of their ties to the band's home province. Phantom Power was a perfect first decade wrap-up for the Hip. — HG
5. Road Apples (1991)
Road Apples, the Hip's second record, sealed the band's Canrock sound and set the stage for bands like Our Lady Peace to rule the ’90s. Following the success of Up to Here, Road Apples solidified the band’s trademark sound and sailed past the sophomore slump. Songs like “Little Bones,” “Twist my Arm” and “Cordelia” give us some classic Hip sounds while slower tracks like “Long Time Running” and “Fiddler's Green” establish the band as a more complex entity, capable of delivering beautifully written ballads that sound as fresh and relevant today as they did when they were released in 1991. — NW
4. Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)
Trouble at the Henhouse was an important album for the Tragically Hip, for a few reasons. For the first of what would prove to be many times, the band decided to record in a house in the township of Bath, Ont. This house would go on to be known as the Bathouse Recording Studio, and it has since been used by some of Canada's best musical talent (Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo, Hayden, Bruce Cockburn). Aside from earning critical success by snagging the 1997 Juno Award for album of the year, Trouble at the Henhouse also houses one of the Hip's most commercially successful songs, “Ahead by a Century.” — Kerry Martin
3. Up to Here (1989)
The Tragically Hip's debut album is kind of a wonderful thing to revisit. The band hits the ground running, a rush of mostly unwavering confidence and unfathomable greatness from the first track, "Blow at High Dough," through the fourth, "38 Years Old." But keep listening and hear the future unfold in the record's final seven tracks. The Hip was laying out a map, hinting at what was to come, even if the band didn't know it. The expanse of its ambition can be heard when the Hip deviates from its default blues-rock safe space: the slight countrified amp of "She Didn't Know," the twangy sass of "Boots and Hearts" and the chords on "Trickle Down," which will be heard again on Fully Completely, the band's 1992 breakthrough album. — AW
2. Day for Night (1994)
Day for Night was the first album that saw the Hip move fully and completely away from its blues-rock origins to adopt a sound that really became its own: the music was both foreboding and anthemic, and Downie's lyrics reached a new level of richness and poignancy bordering on mysticism. Artistically speaking, I think it’s the Hip's finest album. — JKG
1. Fully Completely (1992)
It's not just that almost every song on this album still holds up (they do) or that it's considered the Hip's breakthrough record (beyond platinum, it was certified diamond in 2007). More than that, this is the quintessential Tragically Hip record: the excitingly jagged jolts in the band’s arrangements and melodies, plus Downie's distinctive voice — both physical and lyrical — creating an endlessly weird and wonderful whiplash of the emotional and performative.
A wise — if occasionally baffling — poet in a hockey jersey, Downie's thoughtfulness has resulted in hundreds of songs with keenly observed moments of grace, intimacy and art, seeing stories where no one else bothered to look (like the trunk of a car or a prison break or Bill Barilko), and his vision for what could be a "Hip" song is never more staggering than this record. It was also a visceral thrill to hear a record that referenced Canadian identity so clearly and plainly, without pretense, and at a time when plenty of other bands had done their damndest to sound as nationless (or American) as possible. — AW