Famous Canadian songs have a lot of crossover with music from the United States, as artists popular in either country are often beloved in both. However, some hits got their start in the northernmost part of North America, so let’s look at the best Canadian songs to grace the airwaves.
“One Gun” by 54-40
Song Year: 1987
54-40’s indie-rock hit is a curiously melodic tune, coming in at a little more than four minutes but not making much sense the first time you listen through. The lyrics tell the story of a boy pursuing a girl, but she keeps refusing him due to a cycle of pain.
Music isn’t always easy to understand, but something about “One Gun” touches people, which is part of why 54-40 became one of Canada’s most distinctive bands throughout the 80s and early 90s.
“Ironic” by Alanis Morissette
Song Year: 1996
An enduring favorite among listeners, “Ironic” tells of a range of unfortunate and odd situations that people might experience, from dying immediately after winning the lottery to getting in a traffic jam while you’re late for work. However, as Morissette noted afterward, none of the situations described in the song are genuinely ironic.
“Adult Diversion” by Alvvays
Song Year: 2014
This alternative hit focuses on unhealthy fixations, especially stalking. That’s a situation that many singers are all too familiar with, as it’s not hard to find fans that take it a little too far. Alvvays also put some extra creativity into this song during the bridge, when the word “moment” blends into the rest of the lines.
“Snowbird” by Anne Murray
Song Year: 1969
Anne Murray’s gentle folk-pop song didn’t just get a Grammy nomination for pure quality, it outright won a Juno Award. The lyrics focus on a breakup, wrapped in metaphors of the seasons and birds, and the confusion between caring for someone and knowing they’re going to cause more pain.
“You Could Have Been a Lady” by April Wine
Song Year: 1972
April Wine’s hard rock hit focuses on talking to a girl and discussing her situation and options. The song’s focus character is clearly in demand, with many men wanting to become her lovers. However, she doesn’t quite realize why they’re all so interested and doesn’t quite believe the attention she’s getting.
“Wake Up” by Arcade Fire
Song Year: 2004
Arcade Fire’s hit song from their album Funeral got them a Juno Award for Songwriter of the Year. It’s relatively long for the length of the lyrics, with a series of powerful instrumental sections.
The verses focus on the pain of trauma and how people are often told to hide it or shove it away, but that this can also be the wrong approach and often ends up doing more harm than good. While they acknowledge that remaining children isn’t the right way, humans can act and make changes. There’s a reason this remains one of their most popular songs.
“Complicated” by Avril Lavigne
Song Year: 2002
“Complicated” was such a smash hit that it feels much older than it is. Nominated for a Grammy and winning a Juno Award, this song’s distinctive pacing is instantly recognizable and helps reinforce the emotion and confusion of its storytelling.
Many people wish that life could be simpler, and the fact that some people make it needlessly complicated can be a source of intense frustration. Avril Lavigne has quite a few hits, but “Complicated” is easily one of her most enduring releases.
“Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
Song Year: 1973
Most people can easily recite the chorus to BTO’s song about daily life, even if they forget the rest of the lyrics. That’s the power of iconic pacing and lyric writing. Despite its popularity, though, this song was practically an accident. Randy Bachman was originally writing a different song, but overheard the title from a DJ and decided to add it in.
The audience loved it, and in the years since, it’s remained one of the group’s most beloved tunes.
“The Weight” by The Band
Song Year: 1968
Although possessing perhaps the most generic band name imaginable, The Band wrote this after inspiration from a surreal filmmaker. It mixes modern ideals with Biblical references to create an almost parable-like song.
It also discreetly references Robert Johnson, a famed Blues singer, who was widely rumored to have made a Satanic pact to acquire his incredible guitar skills before dying early. “The Weight” is a dense and complicated song, and it’s worth listening to a few times before reading up on the lyric meanings.
“One Week” by Barenaked Ladies
Song Year: 1998
The Barenaked Ladies get right to the action in one of the most iconic pop hits from an already-famous group. It starts with detailing a few days during an argument in a relationship, starting one week before and focusing on how hard it can be to open up and admit wrongdoing.
This pop tune also contains numerous references, from comic books and Canadian restaurants to other notable singers. Like “The Weight” above, this is an excellent song to listen to once or twice, then look up the lyrics to get some context and understand the full meaning of what they’re singing about.
“Turn the Lights On” by Big Sugar
Song Year: 1998
Big Sugar’s reggae-rock song earned a MuchMusic nomination for its cinematography, making this a song that’s better to watch instead of just listening to. The lyrics are relatively simple but focus on the pain of being alone and the desire for a lover to wake someone up after getting home.
Not everyone enjoys being woken up, but some will place priority on spending time with their partner before they get to sleep. It’s a heartfelt tune that speaks directly to our desire for human comfort and is an excellent song by any metric.
“Drinking in L.A.” by Bran Van 3000
Song Year: 1997
Bran Van 3000’s alternative-pop release is among their only truly successful songs, but it’s been on the airwaves for a long time. The song’s basic premise is encouraging people to get up and act in their lives instead of passively sitting down and waiting for time to pass by.
It’s an interesting irony that the song focuses on taking action to achieve success, while the band itself never took off beyond this song. That doesn’t make the lyrics any less real, though, and many people can relate to the experiences it conveys.
“Almost Crimes” by Broken Social Scene
Song Year: 2002
Broken Social Scene’s alternative song is a wild mess of energy, feeling like it’s on the edge of completely falling apart at any moment. Despite that, it somehow manages to make sense as the lyrics focus on making it and reaching success.
However, it’s probably better to avoid thinking too deeply about this song. It’s better to simply listen and feel here, and if you’re a little confused at the end, that’s okay.
“Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie
Song Year: 1964
One of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s oldest hits, Universal Soldier is a relatively short song at a little over two minutes and didn’t immediately see success on release. However, a few other artists covered it, and it soon rose to prominence along with anti-war sentiments.
The lyrics come from the perspective of a student who’s focusing on writing an essay, trying to persuade their professor while discussing some of the attitudes of soldiers throughout history. It’s ultimately about individual responsibility in wartime, and how older models of thinking can hurt people.
“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
Song Year: 2012
Another song that feels older than it is, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” is a Grammy-nominated pop hit talks about how easy it can be to fall in love and how people can act on impulses to try and start a relationship. It’s a fundamentally optimistic song, though, and despite its passion, it maintains a line of invitation instead of pushing too hard.
“Willow Tree” by Chad VanGaalen
Song Year: 2008
Willow Tree is a relatively somber song behind its loud instrumental sections. In it, the singer discusses sleeping all day to avoid the burdens of the daytime, and only at night and in death do they feel like they can ever be free. VanGaalen earned nominations for a Juno Award and the Polaris Music Prize for this track.
“Young Lions” by Constantines
Song Year: 2003
“Young Lions” is a song aimed at the world’s youth, encouraging them to step up and act as they grow. They focus on the idea that few paths in life can be truly righteous, so people must choose their crime to live. However, at the same time, the youth can light up the world and will ultimately have responsibility for it.
“1234” by Feist
Song Year: 2007
Feist’s 2007 indie pop song launched her towards independent fame, earning Juno Awards for both single and songwriter of the year. Its ultimate focus is on people’s desire for love, but also how money can’t buy genuine feelings. The smooth, rolling lyrics are almost impossible to get out of your head, which might contribute to its popularity.
“Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone” by Glass Tiger
Song Year: 1986
Glass Tiger got support from Bryan Adams (one of the top-selling musicians of all time) for this song. It shows, with this song reaching #1 in Canada and #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the United States. The lyrics focus on a breakup, including lingering feelings and the desire to be remembered even after a relationship is over.
“Storm” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Song Year: 2000
That’s an interesting band name, isn’t it? “Storm” is also one of the longest songs on this list, coming in at more than 22 minutes. It’s primarily instrumental, going through several entirely different styles, and it’s fair to say this song is almost an album in its own right. The eventual lyrics go from French to English, and good luck understanding why it’s in there.
“Cotton Jenny” by Gordon Lightfoot
Song Year: 1972
Hitting the top of three charts in Canada after its release in early 1972, Lightfoot’s single is a country-pop tune focusing on the intimate relationship between two people as they navigate life’s circumstances. While they may not have a lot of money to go around, they’re largely content with each other, and that’s a lesson we should all remember.
“American Woman” by The Guess Who
Song Year: 1970
Not to be confused with the also-famous rock band The Who, The Guess Who wrote this song in 1969 after an extensive tour through the United States.
The band members have given different interpretations for the lyrics, with one mentioning that the woman in question was the American government trying to draft them into Vietnam, while another citing the forward nature of women they met on tour.
“The Time is Here” by The Grapes of Wrath
Song Year: 1989
Often considered the finest work of The Grapes of Wrath, “The Time is Here” is an alternative rock song about making decisions and moving on. It can take time for people to reach a decision, but people are often happier once they do, and there’s no sense in remaining in limbo.
“Bad As They Seem” by Hayden
Song Year: 2002
Hayden’s 2002 folk song is relatively gloomy, talking about a young man stuck in a situation where everything is as bad as it seems, but he’s still hoping for something better. With no real romance, work, or independent housing, it can be difficult to feel like you’re going anywhere. The lyrics here are poignant but honest, resonating well with their audience.
“The House That Heaven Built” by Japandroids
Song Year: 2012
Japandroids made a complicated song for the second single from their album Celebration Rock, focusing on the relationship between two people as they move towards their dreams. The lyrics touch on the idea that fans can live in the shadow of a singer’s emotions, never as important as someone closer by.
“Drunk Teenagers” by Joel Plaskett Emergency
Song Year: 2007
Teenagers can do stupid things, and that’s on full display here as the lyrics talk about some of the antics and behaviors that can happen when kids get drunk. The focus is more on getting drunk and doing whatever they feel like, and while it may not seem to go anywhere, neither do kids who are so plastered.
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen
Song Year: 1967
The first track from Cohen’s debut album, “Suzanne” was originally a poem before Cohen decided to put a melody to it. The song is about the wife of a famed artist from Quebec and Cohen’s relationship with her. Since its release, it’s appeared in multiple film soundtracks, making it one of Cohen’s most enduring melodies.
“Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy
Song Year: 1981
Loverboy’s rock hit managed to reach up to #2 on the mainstream rock chart despite its release late in 1981. Mainly written by Paul Dean, the song tells of an experience of his where he was strolling along a popular beach, but it was almost empty because everyone was working. His conclusion, then, was that people were waiting (and working) for time to be themselves.
“Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats
Song Year: 1982
Recognizable in its first few notes, “Safety Dance” was something of a flop, but got remixed into a far more popular dance hit. It’s ultimately about nonconformity and how some places would discourage dancing, which the Men Without Hats wanted to encourage. The music video is practically a fever dream and worth watching.
“Heart of Gold” by Neil Young
Song Year: 1972
Neil Young has released many popular tracks in Canada, but “Heart of Gold” is easily one of his top songs. This mix of country, folk, and rock isn’t entirely clear whether he’s singing about looking for love or finding the optimism and goodness inside of himself, but it’s heartfelt and honest throughout.
“My Way” by Paul Anka
Song Year: 1968
Famously brought to popularity by Frank Sinatra’s cover of it (and later by many other artists, including Sid Vicious and Elvis Presley), “My Way” is a legendary pop anthem that represents the “me” generation and the focus on individualism. The song’s reach to legendary heights also shows Anka’s skill at lyric writing, even if his original isn’t as popular as Sinatra’s take.
For a better experience, listen to Anka’s version first, then Sinatra’s immediately after. Pay attention to the different things artists can do when singing the same song, and that will show some of the talent and complexity involved with producing enduring hits.
“2112” by Rush
Song Year: 1976
At more than 20 minutes, 2112 is easily one of the longest songs on this list. It features long instrumental sections, broken into several distinct sections. The lyrics tell the story of priests who have taken over people’s lives, and who reject the protagonist’s attempt to bring music. The ending suggests the arrival of an outside force, though, turning the world for the better.
“Brother Down” by Sam Roberts
Song Year: 2000
Brother Down is the primary track from Sam Roberts’ first album, which was eventually re-recorded to improve it a little. This is a bold and aggressive song, directly attacking some of the promises made by economic systems while providing a deep and introspective look at various situations.
“Sweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan
Song Year: 1997
“Sweet Surrender” is a very personal song, touching on the experience of giving all that you can and that still not being enough for a situation. In that context, sometimes surrender is the only option no matter how much you want to keep fighting.
“That Don’t Impress Me Much” by Shania Twain
Song Year: 1997
One of Shania Twain’s all-time top hits, this tune focuses on a series of encounters with men and Twain’s feelings about them. Her primary emphasis is that she’s looking for a real connection with someone, not a shallow or superficial relationship.
Throughout the song, Twain focuses on multiple characteristics in people, from intelligence to appearance, and cutting all of them down. Her blunt view cuts down the idea that there’s a single trait or attribute that makes someone inherently desirable if there isn’t a genuine connection to go with it.
“Life is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane
Song Year: 1991
Hitting #1 in Canada in the year of its release and trailing not far behind in the US, Cochrane originally wrote this as a song about love. However, he felt it was unusable, and eventually edited it to focus on life instead. While most people will recognize the chorus quickly, the lyrics mainly focus on some of Cochrane’s experiences with poverty out on tour.
“Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd
Song Year: 2015
A rarer R&B hit from Canada, “Can’t Feel My Face” transforms addictive drugs (suspected to be a reference to cocaine) into the idea of a woman, and especially all the negative influences it can have. It’s easily one of the most famous Canadian songs of all time, too, and certified The Weeknd as an artist worth paying attention to.
Interestingly, this song also works in additional storytelling as a way to explain what drugs and addiction can be like. Many singers struggle with drugs, especially between the highs of major performances, so it’s no surprise that this song resonates so well.
Famous Canadian Songs, Final Thoughts
Canada may not be the first place that comes to mind for music, but famous Canadian songs are often among the most-recognized tunes in the world. Crossing all genres and subject matter, all of these songs are worth listening to if you’re a fan of music at all.