A Tragically Hip Primer – 10 Essential Songs

gorddowniebannerWith the terrible news about Gord Downie’s illness emerging last week, I thought the time was right to make a case for his band The Tragically Hip. The Canadian band is an institution at home but under-appreciated everywhere else. Here are ten tracks that I love, and ten tracks that every Rock fan should at least know about.


10. New Orleans Is Sinking (1989)

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The band’s first big “hit”, this track was our first taste of the off-kilter, growly and literate Rock these guys delivered. The song was curiously banned by most radio stations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as if it were somehow making light of the floods. Key Lyric: “Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire / Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire / Picking out the highlights of the scenery / Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me.”


9. In View (2006)

Plenty of old time Hip fans are critical of the band’s latter day work, but to me the albums from the 2000s reveal a more mature and versatile outfit, and maybe even stronger songwriting. “In View” shows a whimsy that Downie didn’t have when he was younger, yet the band’s signature taut energy is still there. Key Lyric: In the day eraser’s dark of night / In the excited states, gone in plain sight / Under the wave or by cavelight / I lose, things change, but never in your eyes.”


8. So Hard Done By (1994)

Even when he’s singing softly, Downie can still bring a brooding menace to the dinner table. This sultry, swampy slow-boiler is carried by a typical Downie metaphor equating dancing girls with society’s artifice. Key Lyric: “Interesting and sophisticated / Refusing to be celebrated / It’s a monumental big screen kiss / It’s so deep it’s meaningless.”


7. Wheat Kings (1992)

Despite all the power the band generates, at his core Gord Downie firmly resides within the singer-songwriter tradition, and the Hip’s catalogue is sprinkled with quiet acoustic delights. This one tenderly evokes the amber waves of grain outside a prairie town, as it tells the true tale of a man wrongly imprisoned for 20 years. Key Lyric: Sundown in the Paris of the prairies / Wheat kings have all treasures buried /And all you hear are the rusty breezes / Pushing around the weathervane Jesus.”


6. Fifty-Mission Cap (1992)

‘90s Arena Rock in all its boom-boom glory, Northern style. No real notable wordplay here, but instead, the conflated story of two Canadian legends. One, a Toronto Maple Leaf player who disappeared on a remote fishing trip days after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal, and two, the Royal Canadian Air Force. But you don’t need to buy into the iconography to dig the boom-boom.


5. Morning Moon (2009)

The newer Hip records give us many of their old familiar themes all gussied up with new sounds and textures. This one rolls a country-rock feel with richer, cleaner harmonies than ever before, plus a smartly restrained use of strings, of all things. This is a band unafraid to change and grow and take some chances along the way. Key Lyric: The sun’s a light bulb and the moon is a mirror / There are times when you can see both the bulb and the mirror / See the bulb in a mirror and that’s a morning moon, yeah / Say those little things that don’t make anyone feel better, yeah.”


4. Bobcaygeon (1998)

Downie sure has a way of capturing life’s ambivalence. This odd little song sounds at first like a lament, but the long, soulful major-chord outro makes you think twice about what you just heard. I can picture a Southern soul singer covering it, changing the title town to maybe something like “Decatur”, and deleting the bizarre section about a skinhead riot in Toronto. Key Lyric: “I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.”


3. Poets (1998)

The Stonesy opening conjures Charlie and Keef as it chugs and churns along to deliver Downie’s backhanded purpose — throwing shade on the wankers and bean-counters who would be critical of the poetic impulse. Key Lyric: Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / On the street and the epitome of vague /Don’t tell me how the universe is altered / When you find out how he gets paid.”


2. Fireworks (1998)

Throughout their early years I thought the Tragically Hip were a good band but somewhat lacking in the fun department. This track, off perhaps their best album Phantom Power, changed all that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more exultant take on young love, the kind that made you forget your sports heroes. Key Lyric: Isn’t it amazing anything’s accomplished / When the little sensation gets in your way / Not one ambition whispering over your shoulder / Isn’t it amazing you can do anything.”


1. Ahead By A Century (1996)

I think this is Downie’s masterpiece, a moving meditation on love’s redemptive power, brilliantly blurring the line between the inner world and stark reality. Featuring an uncharacteristically soaring melody and really beautiful touch playing from the band. Key Lyric: “First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk / Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts / With illusions of someday casting a golden light / No dress rehearsal, this is our life / And that’s where the hornet stung me / And I had a feverish dream / With revenge and doubt / Tonight we smoke them out.”




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