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25 best Canadian songwriters ever

Editorial Staff

We’ve said it so many times that it’s become cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true: the greatest songwriters in the world are Canadian. Maybe it’s in the water, the long winters, the all-too-short but no-less-spectacular summers, the vast expanse of geography between coasts, our perfectly pastoral ruralness or our diverse and dynamic urbanness. Or maybe it’s a bit of everything.

Whatever it is, it’s working, and to celebrate that wealth of talent, we’re presenting who we think are the 25 best Canadian songwriters. To compile this list, we looked at things like lyrical strength, longevity, timelessness, relevance and the ability to tell the Canadian story. Check it out below, and if you disagree with our choices — it wouldn’t be a list without disagreement — let us know on Twitter: @CBCMusic.

25. Tegan and Sara

I have been listening to Tegan and Sara for many years and it's been really amazing to watch their trajectory and see how prolific they are. So Jealous and The Con are two of my favourite albums and bring me back to a very specific time in my life. I would get a lift from my friend to class and we would blast their albums and sing along. They are two of my favourite songwriters, their lyrics are so great and I love the tone of their voices. My new jam is "Dying to Know": "Is the one you ended up with everything you wanted?" Love! – Hannah Georgas

24. Joel Plaskett

I’ve always loved his music, even back when I was a kid and seeing Thrush Hermit play when I was in St. Catharines. Growing up and wanting to be in a band, especially when I was growing up, I had no idea how to do it. Now you can kind of Google the rules and go, OK, I’m going to make a cover and put it on YouTube and that’s great, but for me, I was 13 or 15 years old and seeing Thrush Hermit play and I just loved the band. I loved a lot of Canadian bands back then, but just watching Joel progress from a kid in a punk band to this beautiful, unbelievable, undeniable songwriter — and he’s still doing it, still making great records, making records that mean something, making them himself. He’s not that much older than me, but I look up to him. He’s the kind of guy that I hope to be like. — Dallas Green

23. Susan Aglukark

Susan Aglukark is a legend, she is a pioneer, and she is a woman that I definitely look up to. Her Music has brought together not only indigenous people from across Canada , but reaches beyond the indigenous community into peoples homes and hearts across the nation, unifying an often touchy relationship. With her messages of friendship and compassion, love and openness, I think we could all stand to learn from someone as awesome as she. – Iskwe

22. Patrick Watson

One of the first in this Montreal sound to have this image, this personality, this way of saying things and telling stories. We weren’t used to having that voice as well, it’s not your typical voice, and a lot of people try to mimic that. I do it sometimes myself. It’s very impressive and I wish he would have more recognition in the rest of the world. He’s very huge in France and in Canada and the States, but I wish everyone could know how great Patrick Watson is. — Coeur de pirate

21. John K. Samson

I have extremely strong feelings about this genius. John's timeless, often melancholy lyrics are utterly lovely. I have always been a big fan and feel that his intellect leans toward unparalleled. I drown in his lyrics and fantasized that the person singing was not exactly John but rather, my Grade 5 boyfriend from Jesus-Kentucky-Church-camp, and could lie on the grass watching the clouds go by, and hearing only the sparkles dusting my heart, which are the words and lilt of voice, offered by John K. Samson. Le sigh. Such a huge talent. — Bif Naked

20. Shad

I think for me what I like about Shad is that he is saying things that are really important. Sometimes there's this pressure to make music that makes it accessible for people that sort of waters down the idea and hides what you're really trying to say, which is the world is really a troubling place. I think Shad doesn't dance around that. He goes right at it and his music is saying something that is really important to Canadians and to people outside of Canada as well. One of the first songs on his first album included poetry from his mother ["I'll Never Understand" from When This is Over] about Rwanda, and I think that's music that every kid should listen to. "Song" seems too light of a word. Songs like that help us remember how personal that event was, that it affected people and individuals and not just as genocide, a word that we just sort of throw out there. — Jael Richardson, author of The Stone Thrower

19. Sarah McLachlan

The first time I heard "The Path of Thorns" by Sarah Mclachlan, it floored me: "Who in the name of God is that?" I had recently started singing in St. John's and fell in love with the song. There was something so otherworldly about it, yet so of this Earth, all at the same time: smart, melodic and simply beautiful. As a young songwriter it was very inspiring. Sarah's songs were like little movies to me. They took you on a journey that somehow made you feel better. She is blessed with the rare talent of being able to write a sad song that makes you feel good. They say we don’t remember days, but moments. I will always remember the moment I first heard Sarah sing. — Kim Stockwood

18. k.d. lang

“She has been a big influence for a long time and I followed her career forever, and everything from her amazing music to who she worked with to her awesome TV and acting stuff and I just thought she was an amazing, powerful person…. Watching her work is, you know, she’s a master. She has perfect pitch. She’s a really great band leader, she knows exactly what she wants and she knows how to communicate it really directly and really kindly and watching her ask the band to do certain things or what she wants in the studio, it’s really beautiful to see in action." — Neko Case

17. Bryan Adams

From one raspy-singing Canadian to the next, I appreciate his vocal tonality and obviously he’s an incredible songwriter and a Canadian icon. His style of voice is so unique and awesome; you couldn’t mistake it with anyone else. I remember hearing him on classic rock radio, which is a huge influence on my latest music, stuff like “2 Heads” and “Fireproof” are me directly pulling from the music I heard growing up, driving around a hockey town where everyone drives trucks and stuff. That’s kind of what I associate his music with, is that type of radio station that I listened to growing up. It’s just honest and unpretentious. — Coleman Hell

16. Shania Twain

I tell everyone this all the time, but Shania Twain’s album Up!, the one that had the country side and the pop side, is what truly made me fall in love with country music. I’d already been singing a lot and taking lessons since I was six years old, and I had started falling in love with the women of country music — Martina McBride, Faith Hill — and then this Shania Twain album came out. The pop side bridged such a gap between genres for some people and she was the first one to do that in country music, which is so interesting because that’s what’s happening in country music now…. Shania was always so descriptive with her songwriting. There’s a song on that album, "It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing," and I just remember being so young but understanding it on such a level because her lyrics were so simplistic but had so much depth. I was so young, but so touched by it, and I just remember thinking, "Oh my God, I wanna do that, too." The descriptiveness, her storytelling, it just made me wanna be a country writer really bad. And singer. — Kira Isabella

15. Tom Connors

Tom's writing always felt to me like hearing a great story from a close friend at the supper table. If you had experienced what he sang about, it would bring back vivid memories. If you hadn't been there yet, he made you want to go. — Matt Andersen

14. Alanis Morissette

I think she had some sort of wonderful wisdom at such a young age ... she'd been successful then kind of got spit out by [show business].… I mean it was the trial by fire, and she just became steel on some level. Steel in the sense that her intention was honed to a hard and true place, which is, "I'm not gonna make music for the wrong reasons anymore." And I think that had everything to do with why she was able to write [Jagged Little Pill] the way she did. I mean I've since heard the records that she did before, and she was a really good lyricist then but she just ... didn't have enough depth and freedom allowed really in the form to be able to say what she was saying. But boy she knew how to write songs. So she wasn't learning how to write songs, she was basically learning how to say what she really wanted to say. — Glen Ballard

13. Stan Rogers

Totally Canadian. A full bore Maritimer, a hell of a voice … a complicated person I gather. He wrote songs about real-life characters and sang them with such sincerity and honesty. On a tour in the early '90s, we were going to end in the Maritimes and I asked the Legendary Hearts to learn “Barrett's Privateers” and each take a verse. They thought I was f--king nuts. But my enthusiasm prevailed and they sure as hell saw the light when we kicked into it at the Misty Moon in Halifax at about 2 in the morning. We were in like a dirty shirt out East from that day forward. That, my friend, is the power of Stan and music in the Maritimes. Wish we had a bit more of that out West. — Barney Bentall

12. Robbie Robertson and the Band

Songwriting to me and the importance of songwriting is the timelessness involved with the songs. There is a lot of songwriting that is specific for the time and the era that the song is written, and there are songs that surpass all of that limitation. And the Band has a ton of songs that have lived on, that have managed to find their way into culture and young adults from all generations. To me, that’s very important when it comes to songwriting. It’s kind of like an X factor really. Songwriting is like fishing. You go out and if you spend enough time at it, you catch bigger fish. But every once in a while you catch that big sucker that you’re never going to catch again and I think that, as a songwriter, it’s usually luck, but you have to be in the right place at the right time. But to say they got lucky, that feels like it’s diminishing their talent and their ability, but they had some big fish man. — Allen Stone

11. Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith is dope. He’s powerful. There’s one album I bought from him the other day and I was like, I can’t listen to this again. It depressed me. He was so good at pulling out emotions, it was literally an album I didn’t want to listen to again. Not because it wasn’t phenomenal, but because it was so great. I watched a special on him on TV once and that’s what drew me in to to go back and do the research and listen to his past works. He’s really awesome. People would obviously expect the rapper to say Maestro, and I do love Maestro and I love other rap things, but what I like about other genres of music is that they appeal to me in a different way. There’s different things I go to folk music for, there’s different things I go to hip-hop for, and I think Sexsmith is someone who is incredible. Watching him live you can see how the lyrics can change the mood of the room instantly, as soon as he starts singing. — Kardinal Offishall

10. Drake

Drake has very literal lyrics, which is interesting. He isn’t a very metaphorical writer. He basically writes dialogue, but he can make extremely literal writing so interesting. Like, "Hotline Bling" is, "You used to call me on my cell phone," but the way he does it ... captures people’s attention. That’s a smart thing to be able to do. His lines last forever, they become iconic. — Alessia Cara

9. Feist

Feist’s songs are beautiful without being pretty. They have the counterintuitive and never-formulaic structure of folk songs — so my brain often races to analyze a dropped bar, an extended bridge, a missing chorus (pop sacrilege!) — but I am best served by letting the music wash over me. Doing it differently without making a point of just how differently. This might be my definition of a great singer-songwriter. — Chilly Gonzales

8. Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings

Masters of the spoonful-of-sugar approach to songwriting: win them over with memorable pop hooks, but also sneak in a little something extra. They'd sing a simple song, but deepen the flavour with the richness of a jazzy chord sequence ("Undun") or unexpected feel change ("No Sugar Tonight") to make things a little more interesting. On the other hand, "American Woman" is among the simplest songs ever written — just a caveman-level dumb riff that goes on and on — and it works brilliantly. — Ewan Currie, the Sheepdogs

7. Bruce Cockburn

I love his writing so much and I admire his political stance and travelling to Africa. His social service, making social action, and the way how he lives his life. He's such a great guitar player and such an amazing inspiration. His body of work stands up there with the greatest. I think he's fantastic. — Bonnie Raitt

6. Gord Downie

Gord Downie is a guy who writes poetry, and he makes everybody sing along to his poetry, that's what he does. There is so much value in that, and there is something uniquely Canadian about Gord's lyrics. They would be a great addition to any Canadian curriculum. — Donovan Woods

5. Gordon Lightfoot

I've been a fan of Gordon's since forever. Since I can remember. He was the first cat I thought was the greatest songwriter in the world.... For me, he's written the best.... A lot of people think that Gordon Lightfoot is just a superstar in Canada. He's a superstar all over the world.... If you listen very carefully to the words he puts in his songs they're unbelievable. Unbelievable how he puts them together.... Have you listened a lot to Gordon Lightfoot? Well I tell you what? You hear those stories, you can relate to them! Do you understand all of Bob Dylan's songs? Nobody does! — Ronnie Hawkins

4. Buffy Sainte-Marie

It’s stunning to hear just how artistically and politically relevant the songs Buffy wrote 50 years ago are today. The world has changed but we’re still catching up to her. Even now she still leads us, her work is a beacon in today's landscape of apolitical comfort music. Her songs reject the idea of revolution, or any other destructive or false solutions. Her music is angry, and its love is fierce, but it is music of reconciliation, of resolution. — Owen Pallett

3. Neil Young

Canadians have this idea about themselves, at least it's been my experience, that we're sweet and we're nice, but that is not entirely true. We're polite, and I think that's very different, but deep at our core, there's an edge to us. And the reason why Neil Young is really where it's at is because he always played nice with mother nature, but he didn't play nice with anybody else. Neil walked away from this place and kept that rusty blade that was his mind, and over the course of decades, it never got dull. In fact, it got sharper and he started throwing it at different people. Neil never stayed nice. He's the greatest. — George Stroumboulopoulos

2. Leonard Cohen

When I was 15 years old my cousin gave me the greatest hits of Leonard Cohen, the one with the yellow cover where he’s looking into a mirror, and I absorbed that record. I breathed it in, I drank it, I fell utterly in love with “Famous Blue Raincoat” and the atmosphere and the energy and the particular oddness of it. It's more than the recording, it's more than the lyrics, it's more than the melody. There's something about it that creates a space, and it's the one thing you hope to do as a songwriter is to create that space, in a song, to create that space where I want to be. — Glen Hansard

1. Joni Mitchell

There are some books that you read and music that you listen to, where the voice of the author just kind of, it touches you, it gets into you like poetry. I feel the same way about Joni Mitchell as I do about some of the greatest books I've ever read. Just little tidbits of lyrics that stick with me and haven't gone away. "Case of You" is probably one of my favourite songs of all time and every time I'm on the plane for too long and I feel the right kind of moody sadness, I put it on and it still affects me. — Carly Rae Jepsen

More to explore:
That’s so Canadian: 16 songs that always make us think of Canada
CBC Music's 25 best albums of 2016 so far
The Band's 10 best songs