To reduce the Tragically Hip‘s body of work to a list of ten songs is an ignoble, and potentially fruitless task. There simply isn’t a way to quantify the spirit of the band into such a compact collection, because they aren’t a band that can be contained by metrics. They can’t be measured by songs, or for that matter even albums. Readers either have an inherent connection to the Hip or they don’t; a scant sample like this won’t satisfy fans nor will it convert those who just simply aren’t into them. It’s less about “liking” the band and more about understanding how integral they are to the Canadian experience. This is not to cast aspersion on non-fans; one could very well have never clicked with the music but still respect how distinctly intertwined it is with millions of people across the country. Their music transcended itself and defined an entire country– literally.
The group’s final show on August 20th, 2016 proved this. Broadcast on the CBC, it drew an astounding 11.7 million viewers/listeners – a third of the country’s population – and that didn’t even account for viewing parties with multiple people in attendance. Even ardent detractors tuned in to watch at some point specifically because of the communal experience of the event. Can you imagine a Canadian purposely skipping the last Tragically Hip show ever? Inconceivable! It would be like turning down the last Tim Horton’s donut ever produced, or not wanting a moose as a pet. Willingly cutting yourself out of a generation’s historic moment…. basically tantamount to treason. This was a bandwagon with plenty of room, not unlike hockey games at the Olympics. Those who can’t name three NHL teams will gladly paint themselves red and white every four years. (Incidentally, the only Canadian broadcast that drew more viewers was the 2010 Canada vs. USA hockey game).
The Tragically Hip were Canada: The Band. They were essentially wholly contained within the country; bands like Rush or Nickelback may have crossed over into international fame, but they just didn’t embody the country’s lifeblood like the Hip did. So please keep the aforementioned in mind when reading through this list. It’s far from comprehensive, and shouldn’t even be considered as a literal countdown. It’s merely a sample of a catalogue that has been woven into the fabric of a nation.
OK, here’s yer list:
10. Last American Exit (from The Tragically Hip EP, 1987)
- There’s something detached about “Last American Exit”. Perhaps due to its unfamiliarity, it’s the closest that the Hip ever came to being interchangeable. It can actually be mistaken for someone other than the Hip. Young Gord Downie‘s voice is not quite the singular entity it would later become, and the production is very much dictated by the EP’s producer, Red Rider‘s Ken Greer. Heavy reverb, ringing lead guitar, group harmonies, simple lyrics about driving on the open road and returning to one’s love ? This is a late 80s Canadian rock song through and through, bearing but a smudge of the Hip’s fingerprints. That said, it’s a vital piece that hints at the importance of geography in future lyrics.
9. Thompson Girl (from Phantom Power, 1998)
- A decade before even the first hints of folk revivalism sprung up on the indie scene, The Hip wrote this sparse, lilting tune anchored only by a tambourine and lead by Downie’s reedy falsetto. It’s a thematically appropriately arrangement, as Downie sings of a remote northern town nestled in a barren landscape.
8. The Lonely End of the Rink (from World Container, 2006)
- After their early days, the band didn’t capitulate much to the zeitgeist. Their sound was consistently rooted in slightly heavier alternative rock, with a few tangents here and there. Their 2006 release held a few of those tangents, exemplified by the first two singles. “In View” was punctuated by a decidedly non-Hip-like xylophone hook, though it didn’t veer too far from the Hip’s core sound. “Lonely End of the Rink” did. While the hockey-based lyrics are quintessential Downie, it’s a stylistic outlier. Echoing chords, a four-to-the-floor beat, and a flying-V lead guitar mark this firmly as a product of the mid-2000s. It’s the Hip emulating The Killers, Interpol, and other acolytes of the post-punk revival in this brief sojourn into a popular trend.
7. Fully Completely (from Fully Completely, 1992)
- Fully Completely was the Hip’s Thriller. With no less than seven hit singles, it stands as the band’s most popular album and the one that turned them into legends. Ironically, the title track is one of the less played singles, taking a backseat to “Courage”, “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, and “Looking for a Place to Happen”. A shame, because it’s one of the album’s more interesting tracks instrumentally speaking.
6. Gift Shop (from Trouble at the Henhouse, 1996)
- No one’s made Niagara Falls seem as spooky as the Hip did with this song.
5. So Hard Done By (from Day for Night, 1994)
- Gord Downie was absolutely unafraid to sing about whatever he wanted to, actively refusing to tone down his verbosity and constantly challenging rock radio listeners with increasingly mysterious tales. Here the mysterious tale is matched with a similarly shady instrumental backdrop; a grungy bassline is laid over an almost sinister bongo drum before being partnered with the band’s trademark hard rock blues guitar. Though Downie’s verses are complex as always, he stays remarkably low-key for the entire song, at no point leaping into his iconic yelp. The groove does most of the talking, with Downie opting to duck out early and letting it take over the entire last minute of the song.
3. It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken (from In Violet Light, 2002)
- The band is no stranger to “ethereal”, but they pull it off best on this latter-day hit that perfectly evokes the title of its corresponding album. Murky guitar notes swim in between each other as a lonesome organ sets a dimly lit twilight scene. Though it’s less obtuse thematically, Downie is no less eloquent as he paints a wooded landscape in which his characters fight through personal drama during a smoky Canadian night.
3. Nautical Disaster (from Day for Night, 1994)
- Hip songs mainly come in three lyrical categories: history lessons, geography lessons, and “I have no idea”. Gord Downie’s hyper-literate but opaque songwriting makes it hard to discern what exactly most songs are really about, even if they’re seemingly straightforward on the surface. On a cursory listen “Nautical Disaster” is about a wartime marine disaster; German soldiers evacuate a sinking battleship in a hellish scene of chaos. Then the last third reveals that this was all the narrator’s nightmare, being relayed over the phone to a woman named Susan. Suddenly it’s all revealed as a metaphor for a fracturing relationship, and one can only admire the lengths Downie went to just to make a simple analogy.
2. Bobcaygeon (from Phantom Power, 1998)
- It’s fun to imagine Gord Downie poring over an atlas prior to songwriting sessions, picking the most obscure towns he could find to place at the centre of his tunes. With its ethereal keyboard hook floating gently on a folksy strum, the iconic single made Bobcaygeon a Mecca for Canadian rock fans. It’s also a fan favourite in Toronto, where many have made a trip to Horseshoe Tavern‘s checkerboard floors (sometimes literally).
1. Ahead By a Century (from Trouble at the Henhouse, 1996)
- If there’s one choice on this list I can guarantee nobody will take issue with, it’s this one. There isn’t a single countdown of Hip songs that omits this classic, and its legacy was further cemented in the summer of 2016 when it became the final song ever performed by the band. Crammed with iconic lines like “no dress rehearsal/ this is our life”, it’s both cryptic and eminently singable, remaining one of the band’s most instantly recognizable hits. It’s probably also the best song ever written about being stung by a hornet.