Well, you’ve either been waiting on tenterhooks or perhaps completely forgotten about it… but here is the Canadian Edition of Dilovely’s 90s Coming-of-Age Playlist(s)! My top thirty. The kind of blog post that seems manageable-ish even at the end of a whirlwind summer where the news cycle was devastating every single effing day.
SONGS, people. Put your faith in music and poetry. From the 90s or whenever. I’m pretty sure art is our best chance at staying sane.
Here we go!
1) Home for a Rest (1990) – Spirit of the West. Here is a Canadian classic that I think might just live forever. There’s no other song quite like it for getting folks – even full-grown men – high-kicking and singing along. Ridiculously fun and of course, very musically accomplished. The instrumental break in the middle is one of the funnest moments ever in a song.
2) Downtown (1990) – Holly Cole Trio. Not technically 90s, since this song is a 1964 classic, but Holly Cole and her tiny band excel at giving old songs extra life with gorgeous instrumentation and her inimitable voice. (Cruisin’, also from the album Girl Talk, is likewise fantastic.) Thanks to my sister Emi for making me a curated cassette of her favourite HCT songs back in the day!
3) Gillis Mountain (1990) – The Rankin Family. Our whole family listened to the Rankins’ Fare Thee Well Love and North Country albums. To be honest, the gals’ voices aren’t my favourite, but their harmonies were always great. I liked this song especially for its simple, evocative lyrics.
4) Subversives (1991) – Lowest of the Low. Oh, this song. The poetry and heartfelt vocalizations of Ron Hawkins. They’re pretty sublime. Got this one from Emi too, and eventually bought the album (an actual CD!), and ended up loving basically every song.
5) Long Time Running (1991) – The Tragically Hip. Man, it’s hard to pick a favourite Hip song. For some reason, this band never really permeated the US, but they are (and were; RIP, beloved Gord) Canadian musical heroes. I love the way this song is laid-back, almost lazy, the entire time until the very end when you really feel how long a time runnin’ it has truly been. It’s indeed well worth the wait.
6) Miracle (1991) – Grapes of Wrath. My first concert ever, with my best friend N, was Grapes of Wrath (with Lava Hay opening) at the Tivoli in Hamilton. She had all their CDs (and I of course had tapes of them) and was in love with Kevin Kane and his beautiful hair. When I listen to them now, they actually hold up well. Cool, smart, and very listenable. This particular song is suffused with memories of bonding moments between the Intermediate girls of Welcome cabin in 1992.
7) Life is a Highway (1991) – Tom Cochrane. Need I say anything? Pure singalong rock brilliance. Don’t gimme no Rascal Flatts – Tom is the true master of the Highway.
8) What a Good Boy (1992) – Barenaked Ladies. I don’t know about you, 90s Canuck kids, but I feel territorial about this band’s first three albums – the ones before Stunt and their breakthrough into the US. Especially Gordon, their first studio album – their most acoustic and harmonious and… homegrown. I know If I Had A Million Dollars is a fan favourite, but this song is a heckuva gorgeous pearl. Deceptively simple and still true. The vulnerability, the dual interpretations of “bear with me”, the way the intensity rises as the chords fall… so great.
9) Ice Cream (1993) – Sarah McLachlan. This song was my introduction to Sarah McLachlan (so weird to think of a time before Sarah!) and I almost couldn’t believe a song could be this pretty. The delicious piano, the way her voice leaps up a staircase of perfect pitches, the serene happiness. Even though she’s had a jillion hits since then, this one might still be my favourite.
10) Fell in Love (1993) – Moxy Früvous. Here’s a song that swept me off my feet completely. The band that had written King of Spain and other such irreverent, fun, quirky (and often a cappella) tunes had come up with the most lavish, so-gorgeous-it-hurts love song I had ever heard. The lyrics, not surprisingly, are weird and kinda cryptic, but the melodic lines and harmonies just bowled over my teenage self. It’s the kind of song I could not talk through – sacred silence only for the listening. (And the fact that he who shall not be named helped make it means nothing. Forget him.)
11) The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead (1995) – Crash Test Dummies. Actually, I can’t decide between this and Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm from 1993. The latter is so strange and beautiful, and also an original by singer Brad Roberts. Pumpkinhead is a cover (of XTC) but incredibly singable. It grabs you from the first moment with the punchy guitars and harmonica, and Brad’s deep but lively “Let’s begin!”
12) O Siem (1995) – Susan Aglukark. When you listen, you can hear why this song was popular (in fact, the first top-10 hit in Canada for an Inuk performer). Susan’s beautiful voice, the tight harmonies, and a blend of traditional instrumentation with the electronic production of the time – it was something unique. I remember her being the first artist I’d heard on the radio that I was aware was Indigenous – mostly because she brought it so proudly to her music.
13) Dark Horse (1995) – Amanda Marshall. She’s one of the first I think of when it comes to 90s rock star women – she dominated the radio waves in these parts back then. Her voice is incredibly powerful and versatile, as you can hear in this song. I savour this song’s calm hopefulness, its mellow rhythm, and the piano intro that sounds timeless – almost like a hymn.
14) Truth Untold (1995) – Odds. The first three syllables will for sure awaken you from your slumber, ha. This was on my summer mix tape from 1996, just for being a solid rock song – guitars kinda grungy but also perky and fun. Some angst and jadedness, but also lyrics that sound expectant, like someone about to jump into a relationship, determined to make the best of it.
15) Everything You’ve Done Wrong (1996) – Sloan. Seriously, is there anything better than this brass riff?? That alone puts it on the playlist, but then there’s also some heartwarming lyrics (whether they actually involve someone going to jail or not). Loyalty, encouragement, and second chances are pretty cool.
16) Good Mother (1996) – Jann Arden. I haven’t seen Jann in concert to hear how funny she is for her audiences, but I did read Falling Backwards, and her sense of humour shines on every page. It makes her serious, poetic, heart-squeezing songs all the more poignant – none more than Good Mother. Full of heart and gratitude.
17) 4 am (1997) – Our Lady Peace. My all-time fave OLP song is actually Life (written after the turn of the century) but this one moves me too. Yes, we should make it known when we love someone. We should be careful not to waste years with them. And I can’t help feeling like the lines “Like sunny days that we ignore because/we’re all dumb and jaded” is a lil poke at grunge themes. Like, just enjoy the pretty sunshine.
18) Don’t Be Stupid (1997) – Shania Twain. There are many Shania songs that I can sing along to verbatim when I hear them, but this one makes the list for its sheer joyful danceability. And this video is so fun with all those kids in it (though I’m sure I’m not the only one worried about those violins getting wet).
19) Falling Down Blue (1997) – Blue Rodeo. I can remember listening to this song with my housemate L in university. We found it best to listen with the lights off (with the possible exception of Christmas lights) – you should try it. Every sound in it seems carefully chosen to be as simple and perfect as possible, and to blend seamlessly with each other sound. The words are the same: plain but poignant, delivered with just-right sincerity. After all, we can all relate to the blues of missing someone we love.
20) When I’m Up (1997) – Great Big Sea. What to say about the band that brought Newfoundland kitchen party music to the whole country and made it cool? There are SO many songs I could have chosen, but this one is especially irresistible. When Alan declares, “I am the fountain of affection/I’m the instrument of joy,” you basically HAVE to join in singing. And then boogie when the beat drops.
21) Hurts to Love You (1997) – Philosopher Kings. This group performed at a frosh week concert in my first year at WLU, and although they had a pretty solid beginner following at the time, they would gather a lot more fans in the subsequent years. This song is a perfect example of the way they wrote songs – with the confidence and delivery of a world-famous band. And though they’re not world-famous, Canadians get how good they are.
22) The Mummers’ Dance (1997) – Loreena McKennitt. This song was a big success in Canada and the States, even as a folk-Celtic song on the pop charts. (Not that surprising, I guess, given the 90s Celtic wave that saw Sleepy Maggie get a ton of airplay with lyrics only in Scottish Gaelic.) It has that air of mists and mystery that so many of us are drawn to, thanks in large part to Loreena’s gorgeous, otherworldly voice and harmonies.
23) Thank U (1998) – Alanis Morissette. Again, so hard to pick a favourite when it comes to Alanis, but this one stands out for me, and not because of the naked video. (Having just watched it again, it is more interesting and lovely than I remembered.) I like the ethereal chords of the intro, I like the message of self-compassion, and as a Quaker I especially like a song that fervently thanks Silence.
24) Tassez-vous de d’là (1998) – Les colocs. I was introduced to this band at a concert during a 5-week immersion bursary in Jonquière, Québec. They had phenomenal success in Québec, so everyone was singing and dancing along like crazy. We visitors had never heard anything like this unique international fusion. (The chorus is in Wolof, if you’re wondering.) This song belongs on my list of Sad Songs That Sound Happy – the groove may be infectious, but the song is about the singer’s guilt over his friend who died of an overdose. Even more sadly, frontman Dédé Fortin died by suicide only a few years after that concert.
25) Cry Ophelia (1998) – Adam Cohen. This song became a radio staple after it was on Dawson’s Creek, but I like to think it would have been anyway. And not just because Adam is the son of Leonard (though that doesn’t hurt). I love his message – the explicit encouragement of vulnerability as a way to bond and heal. His voice is unabashedly tender and emotional in this song – and gosh, so very lovely.
26) C’mon with the C’mon (1998) – Colin James and the Little Big Band. I learned to swing dance in university, which is not as weird as it sounds if you witnessed the renaissance of swing in the 90s. Did it start with that Gap commercial? Maybe – it’s definitely why Brian Setzer became so popular. But I prefer Colin. His voice is just sexier, and as a blues-rock fusion musician, he can tread genre lines so gracefully that you don’t even notice. And this song’s energy is almost tangible.
27) Heaven Coming Down (1999) – The Tea Party. There is something about The Tea Party that makes them immediately distinguishable – not just the tone of the guitars or Jeff Martin’s dramatic vocals, but the epic hooks that make a song sound like it came from an ancient leather-bound gilt embossed tome. (I also fondly remember a fantastic mashup of this song with U2’s With Or Without You, performed by my then-boyfriend’s med school band at their variety show. It was pretty great.)
28) Before You (1999) – Chantal Kreviazuk. Chantal’s personal joy and certainty in love come through from the first moments of this happy groove. Although I’m not a full-on fan of hers, I could listen to this sweet song all day. (And fun fact you may already know: her husband is Raine Maida of the above-mentioned Our Lady Peace, so you get the double meaning behind “Ever since I met you on a cloudy Monday/I can’t believe how much I love the rain.”)
29) Steal My Sunshine (1999) – Len. This was THE summer song the year it came out – did you know it made the Top 40 in eight different countries? (And did you further know that the sample used comes from More, More, More (1976)? Check it out yourself at the 2:18 mark!) Mostly impenetrable lyrics (apparently about a rave, so there you go), but insanely catchy and singable. I also love how the voices of this brother and sister are such a fun contrast.
30) Companion (Lay Me Down) (1999) – Wide Mouth Mason. That same boyfriend from #27 turned me on to this band with their first album (which I still have on cassette even though I can’t play it). I saw them perform twice – once on my university campus when we were only a small crowd, and several years later in Toronto with probably ten times the audience. That first album will always be my favourite, but this song is so beautifully crafted right from the first notes, with that masterpiece quality to it. Give it a listen.
There you have it! Thirty Canadian songs that rocked the 90s.
You may have noticed I did not include what are arguably the two most famous Canadian collaborations of the 90s, both movie themes… You guessed it: Everything I Do (1991) by Bryan Adams, and My Heart Will Go On (1997) by Céline Dion. This is because 1) I’m afraid Everything I Do, pretty though it is, was too high on the cheesemeter for me, and 2) although I loved the song from Titanic, I much preferred the instrumental version, which, being by James Horner, loses its Canadian element. (I know, most people felt the opposite about that. I was a nerdy lil child symphony-goer, so.)
I hope this has been a fun trip, Canadian lovelies. Please feel free to comment your faves that I didn’t have room to include!