Top five tunes: The Tragically Hip

Who? The Tragically Hip

Years active: 1983 – present

Band members:
Gordon Downie (lead vocals) 1983 – present
Paul Langlois (guitars) 1983 – present
Rob Baker (guitars) 1983 – present
Gord Sinclair (bass) 1983 – present
Johnny Fay (drums) 1983 – present
Davis Manning (saxophone) 1983 – 1986

Up to Here (1989)
Road Apples (1991)
Fully Completely (1992)
Day for Night (1994)
Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)
Phantom Power (1998)
Music @ Work (2000)
In Violet Light (2002)
In Between Evolution (2004)
World Container (2006)
We Are the Same (2009)
Now for Plan A (2012)
Man machine poem (2016)

It’s Canada’s 150th birthday today and I can’t think of another homegrown band that is as well-known and is as loved across this large country of ours as The Tragically Hip.

For a good stretch from the 1990s to the early 2000s, they were definitely the undisputed heavyweight champions of Canadian rock. Their blues-infused rock with folk storytelling style leant itself well to sit beside pretty much every genre of music so they were played on all radio formats, from rock to pop to alternative to top 40. In those days, everyone in Canada knew who they were and you were a either a diehard fan of the band or you were just a casual fan. But nobody really hated them. Unfortunately, this phenomenon never translated to international success. Besides a bit of love from Australia, New Zealand, and patches of Europe, The Tragically Hip never really gained traction outside of Canada.

Right up to last year, they played to massive arenas and stadiums and headlined festivals here in Canada but if you crossed the border into the states, you could catch them playing tiny club shows. However, last May, frontman, Gord Downie, announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The Hip embarked upon what many called their final Canadian tour that summer, culminating in a concert in their hometown of Kingston that was attended by the Prime Minister and televised across the country.

Personally, I never actually owned a Tragically Hip album until my wife’s CD collection merged with my own when we began cohabiting and her copy of “Trouble at the hen house” was filed beside my copy of Travis’s “The man who”. I think it was four years later that they released their first ever “best of” compilation. I went out and procured a copy of the two disc version of “Yer favourites” (it was also released as a deluxe edition including DVDs called “Hipeponymous”) because although I couldn’t ever see myself listening to their albums, they had a few singles that I really loved.

I finally saw The Tragically Hip live for the first time with my wife at the Ottawa Bluesfest a few years ago. We both considered it almost like a rite of passage as Canadians and though neither of us have ever been the biggest of fans, both of us knew every single song that they performed. It was almost as if the band’s music was in our bones and in our blood, and it all felt as natural as knowing the words to “O Canada”.

If you’re not Canadian and have never heard them before, these five songs can serve as a great introduction. But if you are Canadian, well… you know all these songs. You might as well sing along. It is Canada day, after all…

The top five:

#5: Bobcaygeon (from “Phantom power”, 1999)

This song and its mellow acoustic groove makes the list mostly because it’s named after a tiny town in central Ontario that I’ve driven through a million times but have never stopped in. But it also reminds me of my first real job after university working in a tool rental shop. “Bobcaygeon” received so much radio play that it drove my boss, Cam, nuts. It wasn’t long before I began randomly mimicking Gord Downie’s whine of the chorus to drive him even more nuts, and strangely, a fondness for the song grew. I still love it today.

Favourite lyric: “Could have been the Willie Nelson, could have been the wine.”

#4: New Orleans Is Sinking (from “Up to here”, 1989)

For a while in 2005, certain radio stations took this song out of their rotations out of sensitivity for the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It’s The Hip’s second ever single and perhaps best representation of their blues rock influences with its killer guitar zingers. Despite being released twenty-five years ago, it is considered one of the band’s best-known tracks and a fan favourite at their live shows. Speaking of which, if you’ve ever seen them perform “New Orleans is Sinking”, you might have also inadvertently caught a glimpse of a future song in development. The Hip often use the middle of this song to test out new songs. “Nautical disaster” and “Ahead by a century” both started out as bridges to this track live.

Favourite lyric: “My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in? New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim.”

#3: Scared (from “Day for night”, 1995)

Don’t ask me why but this song evokes images of late-night chill sessions for me, candles lit and incense burning, people passed out on the floor, and empty red wine bottles everywhere. It’s not as if I lived that sort of lifestyle (he says smiling facetiously) but if I had, this might be just the sort of song that would have been on my stereo on nights like that. It’s quiet and riveting and emotionally charged. Like tears welling in your eyes for no reason at all but that are wiped away before anyone notices.

Favourite lyric: “Now there’s a focus group that can prove this is all nothing but cold calculation.”

#2: Ahead by a century (from “Trouble at the henhouse”, 1996)

This song was released during what was perhaps the peak period of The Hip’s career trajectory and is likely one of their biggest songs. I was entering the late stages of my university career. It was there, living in residence, that I discovered the ferociousness of their fans. Up to that point, I had only paid them minimal attention but on many occasions in 1995 and 1996, I was subject to polemics from multiple sources on the intricacies of their guitar work and the beauty of Gord Downie’s poetry. He “spoke” to their fans. So when he said in this particular track that life is “no dress rehearsal”, a whole generation of young Canadians swooned.

Favourite lyric: “And disappointing you is getting me down.”

#1: Courage (for Hugh Maclennan) (from “Fully completely”, 1993)

“Courage” has always been my favourite Tragically Hip, even before I learned of the dedication to Canadian author Hugh Maclennan in the parentheses to the title. It’s never even been a close race with number two but that attribution of this loftiest of personality traits to a fellow wordsmith only improved it for me. Never mind that the synergy of the driving drum track with the guitar hook wizardry makes the song arena encore ready, complete with devils horns salutes and white male air guitar dancing. And even as I am writing this down, I can’t believe I am writing it. Without the song to back them up, my words don’t aptly describe something I would normally listen to and enjoy. Yet I do love this track. Perhaps that’s the magic of The Hip and their ability to transcend genre and appeal to Canadians from across the country.

Turn it up! You know you want to.

Favourite lyric: “Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.”

For other top five lists in this series, click here.


Best tunes of 2010: #24 OK Go “This too shall pass”

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When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I didn’t have a lot of money to go see shows so I made them count and nothing but death could keep me from them. Things have changed a bit as I’ve aged. Maybe I’m not as hardcore as I was or maybe I’m turning into a bit of a suck but I’ve missed a number shows over the last ten years for which I’ve had tickets because of the weather or because I’ve felt under the weather. I’m thinking that the first of these shows was when OK Go played the Capital Music Hall here in Ottawa back in 2010. My wife and I were supposed to go with my friend Ian and his wife Diana but a few days beforehand, I caught the death of a man cold and really didn’t feel up to it.

Ian later recounted some of the details of the show for me. Of course, they were great live and had a hell of a lot of energy but he was also quite enthusiastic about their use of multimedia and how they often projected parts of their music videos on the screen behind them for the songs that they were performing. This only poured salt in the raw wound (which I’m sure wasn’t Ian’s intent) but it also made a lot of sense in retrospect since the band’s use of the music video is really what made them a household name.

Not since the golden age of MTV and Muchmusic has a group profited more from the creative use of videos for their songs. These guys became YouTube stars: first, with their highly choreographed backyard dance video for “A million ways” and then, to an even greater audience, with their treadmill routine video for “Here it goes again“. With each successive video, OK Go, who had formed in 1998 and whose 2002 debut self-titled debut album only saw modest success, upped the creative and intricate ante. In fact, “This too shall pass”, the second single off their third LP, “Of the blue colour of the sky”, and track number twenty four on my best of 2010 list, received two different music videos. The first is a crazy marching band performance of the song, the second features a Rube Goldberg machine, and you can watch both below.

But this LA-based quartet is not all style and no substance. They seem to have gone to the Weezer school of geek rock and added a touch of glam for an A plus average. “This too shall pass” is knee trembling bass, bombastic drums, and a shitload of swagger, giving the impression that OK Go are the coolest kids in the class even though they know they’re not. It is a big song, almost to the point of parody. With no build at all, it is a whole song in climax, even at the piano plinking bridge where the chorus joins in, you get the feeling that everyone and anyone is invited.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2000: #10 Doves “Catch the sun”

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This fine Tuesday morning we take a tentative step into the top ten of my Best of 2000 list with “Catch the sun”, the second single off Doves’ debut album, “Lost souls”.

Doves were a Cheshire-based trio, made up of vocalist/bassist Jimi Goodwin and twin brothers Andy and Jez Williams (drums and guitars, respectively). They were high school friends but didn’t actually form as a band until they ran into each other at the famed Haçienda during the heights of the Madchester scene. They originally operated under the name, Sub Sub and released a handful of dance-infused singles throughout the 90s on Rob Gretton’s record label, Robs Records. After their studio containing all their equipment burnt down in 1996, they decided to regroup with a new sound and a new name. “Lost souls” was released to critical acclaim, only losing out on winning the Mercury Prize to another album on which the members performed: Badly Drawn Boy’s “The hour of the bewilderbeast” (“Once around the block” appeared at #15 on this list). Doves would go on to release three more just as incredible albums before going on indefinite hiatus in 2010. Goodwin released a solo record, “Odludek”, in 2014 and the Williams twins formed Black Rivers, releasing a self-titled long player in the very same year.

I fell in love with Doves’ sophomore album, “The last broadcast”, in 2002, a story which I’m sure will come out in a future post, and I immediately went on the research offensive, gobbling up “Lost souls” in short order and picking up each successive album when they were released. As I mentioned in the intro to this list, I had a hard time finding new music that I liked in 2000 and 2001 was only marginally better. I was beginning to worry that “alternative rock” music had died off with BritPop in the late 90s but Doves were one of a handful of the bands that gave me hope. Their deeply-textured and epic brand of atmospheric rock was just the thing that I was searching for and I didn’t even know it.

“Catch the sun” is probably one of the more straightforward songs on “Lost souls”, except perhaps for the fact that there’s no intro. But who needs those? No timidity, no testing of the waters, just jump right in with two feet stomping.

“Every day it comes to this, catch the things you might have missed. You say, get back to yesterday. I ain’t ever going back.”

Jimi Goodwin just lays it all out there with his matter-of-fact and assured delivery, sounding very much like he comes from a long line of Madchester vocalists, like a meeting over pints with Ian Brown and Tim Burgess but with some bourbon thrown in for depth. And he’s got the guitar and drum muscle to back him up on this song, all driving and gut-wrenching, creating an envelope of sound that you wish you could seal yourself up in for the afternoon. However, it’s not to be as Goodwin and the brothers Williams are urging you forward, to get you out there into the world and experience everything under the sun.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.