The Definitive Guide to the Biggest Canadian Alternative

[Barenaked Ladies voice] It’s been…

…six years since I wrote up this fairly thorough but not quite full list of Canadian alternative bands that have all but disappeared from the mainstream conversation, both domestically and internationally. I’ve returned to do a similar piece on bands that have rightfully earned their place in alternative rock history in this country.

Now, a disclaimer. I fully and entirely admit I’m not as well-versed in classic Canadian rock. You will not find Rush or Goddo or Honeymoon Suite here. Nor will you find new wavers like The Spoons or Gowan, despite them falling under the “alternative” umbrella. This post is reserved for the big names in alternative rock from the 90s, the 00s, and the 10s, though it may occasionally include a handful progenitors that originated in the 80s.

Now, a second disclaimer, I realize that I may sometimes come across as dismissive or harsh when I write. I apologize for this and assure you that I enjoy almost the entire catalogues of all these artists, and it will be very obvious when I specifically do not like one. Otherwise you can assume that I listen to them regularly, and when speaking about their popularity am doing it only from a commercial standpoint, not a personal one.

Tier 1:

The stadium dominating household names. There’s no forgetting any of these unimpeachable legends.

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The Tragically Hip

The Sound: Hard blues-rock

The Big Songs: “Ahead By a Century”, “Bobcaygeon”, “Little Bones”

The Big Years: 1989-2016

Their Legacy: They’re the king daddies of Canadian rock in the 90s, essentially becoming synonymous with Canadian music. Late frontman Gord Downie’s poetic approach to lyrics was hyper-fixated on both significant events in Canadian history or vividly described the geography of the country, and the band never really lost their momentum until Downie’s passing in 2017. I can say with confidence that no band has been played at more cottages in the Muskokas than The Hip.

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Our Lady Peace

The Sound: Emotive Alternative

The Big Songs: “Superman’s Dead”, “Clumsy”, “Innocent”

The Big Years: 1997-Present

Their Legacy: Taking cues from both Smashing Pumpkins and Live, Our Lady Peace began as the quintessential alternative act. Fuelled by angst, the band loved dealing in the dark imagery of societal issues faced by Gen-X youth. Though their breakthrough album Naveed was released in 1995, it wasn’t until the gigantic Clumsy that the band cemented their legacy as perhaps the most important and popular true alternative band in Canada. In recent years Raine Maida has become some sort of technological savant, not only updating the band’s sound to become more indie-pop but also dabbling in NFTs and other technologies – no doubt inspired by the band’s 2000 classic Spiritual Machines.

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Arcade Fire

The Sound: Communal indie

The Big Songs: “Wake Up”, “Reflektor”, “Ready to Start”

The Big Years: 2005-present

Their Legacy: Their legacy? It’s a big one. Arcade Fire singlehandedly began the “big communal chorus” trend, also known as “whoa-ohs”. They also became shorthand for “bands with a lot of members”, hipster fare, and effectively became one of the most popular Canadian alternative bands outside of the country. There’s only a handful of other artists on this list whose name is just as recognized in Sweden or Japan as it is in Canada. They’ve recently dropped new album WE, which is full of the massive widescreen anthems they built their name on.

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Billy Talent

The Sound: Knotty riffed punk

The Big Songs: “Try Honesty”, “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, “Rusted from the Rain”

The Big Years: 2003-2012

Their Legacy: Kicking around for about 10 years under the name Pezz, Billy Talent finally broke through to the mainstream with “Try Honesty” in 2003 and enjoyed nearly a full decade of being one of Canada’s biggest rock bands and are still touring and selling out arenas today.

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Metric

The Sound: Synth-pop

The Big Songs: “Gimme Sympathy”, “Breathing Underwater”, “Dead Disco”

The Big Years: 2004-Present

Their Legacy: Growing from a scrappy Toronto indie group to an arena headliner, Metric hit their stride in 2009 with Fantasies and have not looked back since, only growing bigger and bolder with each new album.

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Alexisonfire

The Sound: Post-hardcore

The Big Songs: “Boiled Frogs”, “Young Cardinals”, “Accidents”

The Big Years: 2002-2012

Their Legacy: Being Canada’s biggest “screamo” band ever. Although I’m not sure they’re fans of that label, the fact that a group so heavy managed to become so ingrained in Canada’s consciousness is a testament to their talent.

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City and Colour

The Sound: Winsome folk

The Big Songs: “Coming Home”, “Sleeping Sickness”, “Thirst”

The Big Years: 2005-2016

Their Legacy: City and Colour felt like a project that was willed into both existence and popularity by the sheer force of Alexisonfire fans who wanted to show their parents this cool band they liked. Dallas Green’s wistful vocals were so clear and pleasant – what if they weren’t paired with George Pettit’s shrieking? There was of course a time and place for heavy tunes, but what about during less intense moments?

On sophomore album Watch Out! Green got more space than he did on the band’s debut, getting much larger portions of many of the songs. The burgeoning emo movement in 2005 was the ideal time for him to present to the world his acoustic side-project, and both Alexisonfire fans and those who’d been put off by the screams approved. City and Colour would morph into a much more folk-oriented act by 2008, and from there only grew more and more rustic. Perfect timing, as that’s right when Mumford & Sons brought their hoedowns stateside.

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Sloan

The Sound: Alternative rock

The Big Songs: “Underwhelmed”, “Money City Maniacs”, “The Other Man”

The Big Years: 1992-2006

Their Legacy: Where Seattle was the epicentre of grunge in America, Halifax served as the single most concentrated community of alternative rock in early 90s Canada. Sloan, Eric’s Trip, Jale, The Hardship Post, Thrush Hermit, and the Inbreds all thrived in this community. Unfortunately only one of them would go on to thrive outside of it, and that was power-poppers Sloan. And to think that they had planned to disband in 1995. Instead they continued on and delivered several more albums filled with giant radio hits.

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Three Days Grace

The Sound: Angst-metal

The Big Songs: “I Hate Everything About You”, “Animal I Have Become”, “The High Road”

The Big Years: 2003-2013

Their Legacy: This list is an interesting one to compile because while many of these artists had tremendous careers in Canada, they weren’t as successful outside of it. Three Days Grace might just have the opposite going on. Despite switching out original vocalist Adam Gontier the hard rock crew continues to be incredibly popular in the States, even as airplay in their homeland has waned in the past decade.

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Barenaked Ladies

The Sound: Goofball alt / Toronto alt

The Big Songs: “If I Had a Million Dollars”, “One Week”, “Brian Wilson” …and the Big Bang Theory theme song.

The Big Years: 1991-2001 + 2007

Their Legacy: It’s crucial to note that BNL were not a “novelty” act. Comedy is central to their ethos, but the band itself was not a crew of Weird Als. Differentiating between their style and a true musical comedy act like The Lonely Island is important because many think that the two fall under the same category, but BNL’s attitude was just a natural extension of the Gen-X slacker humour present in all 90s alternative. They were just as capable of writing more sombre tunes, as heard in “Jane” or “Call and Answer”, and it’s this balance that made them one of Canada’s biggest alternative acts both at home and abroad.

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Sum 41

The Sound: Pop punk

The Big Songs: “Fat Lip”, “Pieces”, “In Too Deep”

The Big Years: 2000-2007

Their Legacy: One of Canada’s first pop-punk superstars, Sum 41 likely benefited from having a name very similar to Blink-182. That said, they sounded entirely different from their California brethren, mashing rap verses in between the catchy choruses and the thick guitar riffs. They’d go in a much heavier direction after 2004 – weepy Coldplay knock-off “Pieces” notwithstanding – and after 2007 they really fell off the map.

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Sarah McLachlan

The Sound: Adult contemporary for ghosts

The Big Songs: “Sweet Surrender”, “Possession”, “I Will Remember You”

The Big Years: 1993-2001

Her Legacy: Before she became the face of tearjerker commercials for the SPCA, Sarah McLachlan was an easy-listening songstress with the lilting voice of a spirit trapped in a giant crystal. And before that she was an alternative radio staple.

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Arkells

The Sound: Imagine Dragons go north

The Big Songs: “Leather Jacket”, “Knockin’ at the Door”, “Come to Light”

The Big Years: 2008-Present

Their Legacy: The big, friendly, boom-clap rock of Las Vegas’ Imagine Dragons wasn’t Arkells’ original direction. When the Hamilton quintet hit the scene in 2008 they were decidedly more along the lines of bands like Gaslight Anthem. It wasn’t until 2016 that they began to morph into a slower, more percussion focused group with songs like “Knockin’ at the Door”, “Relentless”, “Years in the Making” and “People’s Champ”. As of 2022 they are the most popular contemporary alternative group in Canada.

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Alanis Morissette

The Sound: Middle finger to the haters rock

The Big Songs: “You Oughta Know”, “Ironic”, “Hand in My Pocket”

The Big Years: 1995-2002

Her Legacy: If you’ve ever wanted to hear “the 90s” in a single album, listen to 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. Every alternative rock trademark – for better and for worse – is on that record. Alanis continues to release music to this day, but nothing’s really hit as hard as the singles from that album – no less than six of them.

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Tegan and Sara

The Sound: Indie pop

The Big Songs: “Closer”, “The Con”, “Hell”…and “Everything is Awesome”, from the LEGO movie.

The Big Years: Early 200s-2014

Their Legacy: It’s almost cliche how Tegan and Sara’s career panned out. Indie darlings turned into radio hitmakers turned into pop queens turned into animated movie soundtrack stars. Not that anybody’s complaining.

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Nickelback

The Sound: Nickelback

The Big Songs: “How You Remind Me”, “Photograph”, “Rock Star”

The Big Years: 1999-2008

Their Legacy: Need I say anything?

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Tier 2:

While these bands had a strong run of radio singles and mainstream popularity, they won’t quite fill an arena like the bands in the first tier.

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Big Wreck

The Sound: Soungarden but replace the metal foundation with folk

The Big Songs: “That Song”, “Ladylike”, “The Oaf (My Luck is Wasted)”

The Big Years: 1997-2015

Their Legacy: It’s not too much of a stretch to call Big Wreck the Canadian Soundgarden. Frontman Ian Thornley looks and sounds kind of like the late Chris Cornell, and both bands broke up around the same time before reuniting about a decade later after the side projects were done. Big Wreck have enjoyed success on both ends of their career, with “That Song” and “Blown Wide Open” in the first half and “Albatross” and “Ghosts in the second. And in between, Ian Thornley’s eponymous solo venture that gave him the hits “So Far So Good” and “Come Again”.

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Moist

The Sound: Dark alternative

The Big Songs: “Push”, “Breathe”, “Resurrection”

The Big Years: 1994-2001

Their Legacy: Moist were a lot like Our Lady Peace if that band had delved more into psychological issues in their lyrics. Where OLP sang about external factors, Moist tended to look internally. They also had an absolutely massive amount of radio hits, not including frontman David Usher’s own success on the charts.

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The Tea Party

The Sound: Mystic hard rock

The Big Songs: “Temptation”, “The Messenger”, “Fire in the Head”

The Big Years: 1993-2001

Their Legacy: The Tea Party can be summed up fairly easily: The Doors if they got really into esoteric theology and Eastern mysticism. With frontman Jeff Martin’s theatrical bellow they scored close to twenty major radio singles, among them covers of Daniel Lanois’ “The Messenger” and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”.

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Matthew Good Band

The Sound: Nerve-wracked political commentary

The Big Songs: “Hello Time Bomb”, “Apparitions”, “Weapon”

The Big Years: 1995-2007

His Legacy: A key player in the genre and an extremely skilled songwriter, Good dropped his “band” in 2002 but continued on making…fairly similar music up until the current day. He was also an outspoken activist on environmental matters, mental health, and politics in general.

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Sam Roberts Band

The Sound: Saturday night hockey jams

The Big Songs: “Brother Down”, “Where Have All the Good People Gone?”, “We’re All In This Together”

The Big Years: 2002-Present

Their Legacy: Sam Roberts is a good guy from Montreal, and he makes music that a good guy from Montreal would make. Another artist with an astounding amount of radio hits in his 20 years active in mainstream music.

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I Mother Earth

The Sound: Heavy funk

The Big Songs: “Rain Will Fall”, “One More Astronaut”, “Summertime in the Void”

The Big Years: 1993-2003

Their Legacy: I Mother Earth weren’t as prolific as many of their contemporaries, and ultimately they didn’t build up as large of a catalogue as most of the other 90s alternative groups. That said, they did seem to spend a lot more time constructing their tunes. The instrumentation was often complicated and featured jam sections, and the lyrics read more like stream-of-consciousness poetry rather than your standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern. Still, they scored a huge hit with their 1996 album Scenery and Fish, and managed to stay afloat even after original singer Edwin left to start his own solo project.

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USS

The Sound: Drum n’ Bass for good time parties

The Big Songs: “This is the Best”, “Laces Out”, “Damini”

The Big Years: 2008-2022

Their Legacy: Imagine LMFAO’s bravado crossed with Pendulum’s melodic sensibilities and you’ve got USS. This is a band that just wanted to write catchy songs for people to jump to, and they did so exceedingly well.

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The Glorious Sons

The Sound: Imagine Dragons go even further north

The Big Songs: “Hold Steady”, “Josie”, “Everything is Alright”

The Big Years: 2017-Present

Their Legacy: Trailer park Arkells. Music for NHL body check highlight reels.

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Tokyo Police Club

The Sound: Jangly indie pop

The Big Songs: “Wait Up (Boots of Danger)”, “Tessellate”, “Nature of the Experiment”

The Big Years: 2007-2014

Their Legacy: They started it. They are the origin of the whimsical jangly indie pop sound that was the bane of my existence. Hollerado, Still Life Still, Plants & Animals, Said the Whale, Dinosaur Bones, Born Ruffians, The Elwins and so many more all owe their success to Tokyo Police Club.

Honestly they did have some good songs. “Wait Up” is fun and catchy. “Bambi” is quirky in a good way. “Sixties Remake” and “Beaches” are both genuinely fantastic tunes that I enjoy. But then there’s also songs like “Hercules”, which is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the sound.

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Death From Above 1979

The Sound: Loud bass riffs

The Big Songs: “Romantic Rights”, “Trainwreck 1979”, “Black History Month”

The Big Years: 2004-2017

Their Legacy: The elephant-faced duo has had one of the weirdest career trajectories I have ever seen. Lasting for only a few years and one album in their initial run, the two managed to build up a gargantuan fanbase before disbanding and starting their own side projects. Their reputation was stellar, with both punks and hipsters agreeing on their credibility long after they were gone.

Then one day in 2014 they came back and dropped “Trainwreck 1979”, their most biggest and most popular hit to date. They went back to going by their original name Death From Above, then reverted to Death From Above 1979 yet again. And then they were just a regular band, releasing albums and touring and all that.

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Broken Social Scene

The Sound: Shambolic art-rock

The Big Songs: “7/4 Shoreline”, “Cause = Time”, “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”

The Big Years: 2002-2010

Their Legacy: The famed collective is best known for being a large and random assortment of people with a revolving door of guests, including Feist and Emily Haines of Metric. They also released the seminal indie rock favourite You Forgot it in People, an early 2000s college hipster must-have.

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Big Sugar

The Sound: Alternative rock for the laid back biker

The Big Songs: “Turn the Lights On”, “If I Had My Way”, “Better Get Used To It”

The Big Years: 1996-2001

Their Legacy: I didn’t think it at the time, but looking back Big Sugar had a pretty unique sound. It was bold and riff-heavy, but laid back and mellow. It was simultaneously blues rock and reggae, and almost entirely upbeat and positive without the heavy emotional baggage of their peers.

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54-40

The Sound: A more straightforward R.E.M

The Big Songs: “I Go Blind”, “Nice to Luv You”, “Ocean Pearl”

The Big Years: Early 90s-Early 00s

Their Legacy: 54-40 always felt out of place in the 90s. They weren’t really alternative rock, and didn’t fit in alongside the angsty, cynical, and/or disturbed groups of the day. Even R.E.M, their closest analogues in the States, had a dark side to them. 54-40 were just regular rock guys without traumatic messages behind every lyric. And they still racked up the radio hits, though their biggest song  “I Go Blind” was overshadowed by Hootie and the Blowfish’s version stateside.

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Tier 3:

These bands are either still in the process of solidifying their legacy, or, despite their hefty catalogue, relegated to headlining midsize venues at the moment.

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Matt Mays

The Sound: Surging heartland rock from the East Coast

The Big Songs: “Cocaine Cowgirl”, “When the Angels Make Contact”, “Take it on Faith”

The Big Years: 2005-2019

His Legacy: Touring relentlessly.

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Finger Eleven

The Sound: Nu-metal, then soft alternative, then nu-metal again

The Big Songs: “Paralyzer”, “First Time”, “One Thing”

The Big Years: 1998-2010

Their Legacy: Starting their career under the name “Rainbow Butt Monkeys” before switching to their current name, Finger Eleven ended up becoming somewhat of a chameleon band. Once nu-metal had been dead and buried the group abruptly switched it up and in 2007 released what sounded like a hard rock version of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”. The gambit paid off and “Paralyzer” ended up being their most popular tune around the world, so they promptly made an identical song three years later. “Living in a Dream” was not quite as successful, so Finger Eleven laid low for a little while after before returning to their roots in 2016.

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The Strumbellas

The Sound: Big singalong time

The Big Songs: “Spirits”, “Salvation”

The Big Years: 2015-Present

Their Legacy: The “Spirits” TikTok meme.

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Yukon Blonde

The Sound: Spindly indie pop

The Big Songs: “Saturday Night”, “Stairway”, “I Wanna Be Your Man”

The Big Years: 2012-2019

Their Legacy: There’s a very important distinction between “jangly” and “spindly”. Yukon Blonde might sound vaguely similar to some of their peers, but overall they have their own unique vibe.

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Said the Whale

The Sound: West coast jangle pop

The Big Songs: “I Love You”, “Camilo (The Magician)”

The Big Years: 2009-Present

Their Legacy: This is what Tokyo Police Club begat. Jangle-pop from one coast to another. Although to be fair, Said the Whale have branched out into different directions since their start. Like blatantly ripping off David Bowie with “UnAmerican”. That’s a different direction.

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k-os

The Sound: Hip-hop/indie

The Big Songs: “Sunday Morning”, “Crabbuckit”, “Man I Used to Be”

The Big Years: 2004-2015

His Legacy: Rap-rock is an often derided genre, and it’s tough to walk that line and remain genuine to both halves of it. k-os is one of those rare artists who shines on both sides, being both an accomplished rapper and an excellent songwriter. “Man I Used to Be” is k-os in top hip-hop form, while “Sunday Morning” is a staple of 2000s indie rock in Canada.

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Theory of a Deadman

The Sound: Nickelback approved

The Big Songs: “Santa Monica”, “Make Up Your Mind”, “Nothing Can Come Between Us”

The Big Years: 2002-2017

Their Legacy: Lasting as long as their parent company inspiration Nickelback. They are still going strong, and my unnecessary jabs don’t detract from the fact that they will likely be able to coast on their post-grunge sound for years to come. They’ve got a very loyal fanbase.

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Dear Rouge

The Sound: Synth pop

The Big Songs: “Black to Gold”, “Boys and Blondes”, “I Heard I Had”

The Big Years: 2013-Present

Their Legacy: Dear Rouge are essentially a “what if” scenario come to life, the scenario being “what if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had continued down the road they started on with their 2009 album It’s Blitz?” They’ve got the same feisty attitude, the electronic textures, but have ventured deeper into the synth-pop game than the YYYs ever did.

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Hot Hot Heat

The Sound: (Good) jangle-pop

The Big Songs: “Bandages”, “No Not Now”, “Goodnight, Goodnight”

The Big Years: 2002-2010

Their Legacy: Maybe it’s just frontman Steve Bays’ unique voice, but even though Hot Hot Heat could theoretically be slotted in the “jangly indie rock” category, they’ve got a totally different vibe from the other janglers that emerged later in the 2000s. They had a frenetic nature about them that gave them an urgency not seen in the soundalike bands that followed in their footsteps. Also nobody knew they were saying “Bandages”.

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The Sheepdogs

The Sound: 70s throwback

The Big Songs: “I Don’t Know”, “Feeling Good”, “The Way it Is”

The Big Years: 2011-Present

Their Legacy: In 2011 they won a contest to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and then got their next album produced by the drummer of the Black Keys and then the first single “Feeling Good” had the exact same drums as the Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” AND “Gold on the Ceiling”.

And then they proceeded to make blues rock that a lot of people like for the next 10 years.

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Mother Mother

The Sound: Twisted hard pop

The Big Songs: “Hayloft”, “Let’s Fall in Love”, “Monkey Tree”

The Big Years: 2008-Present

Their Legacy: They might jump around between different styles, but you always know when it’s a Mother Mother song. There’s a distinct connection between the vocals of frontman Ryan Guldemond and his two bandmates that immediately signify it’s their track. His tangy yelp and their otherworldly helium-adjacent chatter complement each other very well. They’re like a darker, more neurotic version of the B-52s.

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The Beaches

The Sound: Sarcastic Toronto rock

The Big Songs: “Money”, “T-Shirt”, “Blow Up”

The Big Years: 2017-Present

Their Legacy: The Beaches seem like they’ve been around forever despite only emerging into the mainstream spotlight in the tail end of 2017. Less than 5 years later – 2 of those during a pandemic – and they’ve already been nominated for Junos, opened for the Rolling Stones, and are up to 8 major radio hits. Regardless of their future plans, they’ve already cemented their place in Canadian alternative history.

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July Talk

The Sound: Tom Waits but catchy

The Big Songs: “Push + Pull”, “Guns + Ammunition”, “Picturing Love”

The Big Years: 2013-Present

Their Legacy: The girl sings and then the guy goes RARRR RARRR in his growly voice.


The New Pornographers

The Sound: Ultra-melodic indie pop

The Big Songs: “Mass Romantic”, “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, “Brill Bruisers”

The Big Years: 2000-2014

Their Legacy: Some of the best songwriting ever heard in this country.

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Author: D-Man

Hey, I don't know what to say. Ok, bye.

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