15 Most Important Canadian Rock Artists

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rushThe difference between Canadians and Americans is like the difference between Canadian and American football. Take a quick glance and they look identical, with so many basic things exactly the same. But look a little more closely and there all these little differences that add up to something not insignificant.

It’s a little harder to find distinctive characteristics of Canadian Rock, especially if you subscribe to the “big tent” definition of Rock as I do. But we can say that Canadian rockers in general are self-effacing, earnest, preoccupied with nature and the environment, and especially prone to “keeping it real”.

Here is a completely subjective list of the most important Canadian Rock artists today, based on their influence on the Canadian music scene and their impact on the big picture of Rock.

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15. Fucked Up

Leave it to a Canadian band to come up with a name that makes it extremely difficult to market or promote themselves effectively. But in some circles these guys are the Beatles of hardcore punk, powerful yet progressive and melodic.

14. k-os

Rap is a very different animal in Canada, very little “ho’s and bling” and lots of suburban perspective. K-os has led the way in bridging the gap between Rap and Rock, a suitable pursuit coming from a country of conciliators.

13. New Pornographers

The musical collective, where members come and go to pursue individual projects, is a very popular band structure in Canada. The New Pornos include the great Neko Case, Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and are led by A.C. Newman, one of the most creative voices in Rock today.

12. The Guess Who

These guys carried the ball for Canadian pop/rock for at least 10 years in the 60s and 70s before other artists were good enough to take it from there. Burton Cummings was one of the great Rock vocalists ever. Not so much of an influence any more, though.

11. Bruce Cockburn

First important thing to know: the “ck” in his name is silent. He’s been the conscience of Canadian Rock for over 40 years. Started off as a folkie, and for the rest of his career fearlessly explored other musical styles and lyrical mysticisms.

10. Arcade Fire

Another collective-type outfit, they are a little too earnest, and a little too humorless (or humourless), but their Talking Heads-meets-Bruce Springsteen sound was original and magic and it set the world on fire.

9. Rush

Well their lyrics sometimes read like a college freshman creative writing assignment, and the lead singer sounds like a feral cat in heat, but these are three of the best and most accomplished Rock musicians Canada has ever produced.

8. Sloan

From pure harmonic sweetness to pounding power, these guys can do it all. Three lead singers, great songwriting, unpretentiously churning out great Rock for 25 years, the model Canadian Rock band.

7. Gordon Lightfoot

The godfather of contemporary Canadian music. Basically a folk artist, but he set the template for Canadian lyrical themes, and he taught Canadian musicians that you didn’t have to leave the country physically or mentally to have a successful career in music.

6. The Band

Four Canadians and one Arkansan brought not just the sounds but also the mythologies of rural Americana to the Rock table, and although they haven’t recorded in over 40 years, their influence endures to this day.

5. Joni Mitchell

Joni opened the door for women as Rock artists. She invented tunings and arrangements and song stylings that have been often imitated but never duplicated. Everyone please say a prayer of some kind as she recovers from a recent brain aneurysm.

4. Feist

Feist has picked up where Joni left off. She has developed her own distinct style and sound, full of original textures and ideas, redefining Rock for women artists, and becoming a global star in the process.

3. Leonard Cohen

Canada’s Dylan, revered by fans the world over, and still vitally relevant today, as evidenced by this opening theme to the hit TV show True Detective. He said at an award show that Canada’s the only country that would award a voice like his as male vocalist of the year, and he was right.

2. The Tragically Hip

The quintessentially Canadian rock band. Lead singer Gord Downie is Canada’s de facto poet laureate, writing songs about the Canadian landscape, Canadian mythologies, and hockey. That plus their name has probably worked against greater inroads into the U.S. market.

1. Neil Young

He’s lived in the U.S. for almost 50 years, yet still proudly maintains his Canadian citizenship. He is as uncompromising and as authentic as Rock can get.

Honourable Mentions:

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Ron Sexsmith, Metric, Barenaked Ladies, and if I must, Bryan Adams and Nickelback.

Photo: Rush in 2004 (credit: By Enrico Frangi (Uploaded by User:Jonasz) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

9 comments on “15 Most Important Canadian Rock Artists
  1. Believe it or not if you haven’t checked out and artist by the name of Big Dick-yeah i know, it’s not what you think-you’re doing yourself a disservice. Also check out Cold Warps and Death From Above, 1979.

  2. This is a great list. The whole time I was getting ready for a Leonard Cohen omission. I was even thinking of new swear words. But then you came through! I suppose that’s the kind of quality we foster here at Rocknuts. Well done.

    I love Fucked Up, but I hate telling people that I like them. Their name sucks. It’s really limiting their audience. But they probably don’t care about that.

    • Yes, due to an editing error, Death From Above 1979 was omitted from my honorable mentions list. Good call, guys.

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