Top 15 Tragically Hip Songs
Canada will be closed tomorrow in observance of a national treasure. That’s the fate-forced final date of the Man Machine Poem tour—a trans-Canadian series of concert dates launched by the Tragically Hip at the start of the summer. We're honoring their history by counting down their Top 15 Songs.
Fans of the revered rock band were staggered by the news back in May that the band’s 52-year-old singer-songwriter Gord Downie was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, a terminal form of brain cancer.
With that announcement, Downie and company -- guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay -- blew minds even further with the promise they would “dig deep” and do another tour. “This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us,” their message read.
The Hip, as they’re known colloquially, conclude their epic, Herculean tour in their Kingston, Ontario hometown Saturday (Aug. 20), and all signs at the moment point to it being their last. The concert (dubbed “The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration”) will broadcast across the country on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and streams region-free over the Internet for all points beyond.
With Downie serving as its lightning rod—equal parts history teacher, sherpa, sage, activist, poet laureate and ranting interpretive dancer— it is perplexing to attempt to explain how success eluded the quintet in the States. Simply put, they’re one of the best bands that most Americans, nay, the world, have never heard.
To celebrate the Hip’s 30-plus-year career, we've compiled the band's cream of their proverbial artistic crops, but it was difficult to narrow it down to just 15 songs. There were too many “honorable mentions” to name here, so we tip our feather-clad fedora to the entire catalog, especially "38 Years Old," "Emperor Penguin," "The Lookahead,” “You’re Everywhere,” and the epic, nine-minute opus “The Depression Suite.”
We begin our list of the Top 15 Tragically Hip Songs with Now for Plan A's leadoff track. It brings all of the Hip’s essential qualities squarely into focus: dark, gritty guitars and a lumbering bass riff underpinned by Downie’s especially introspective lyrics. On the heels of finding out his wife Laura Leigh Usher had breast cancer, Downie acknowledged Plan A as a “cancer album” in CBC interviews, a means for him to process all that they went through during that time. Little could he have predicted…
The Hip’s 2016 album takes on eerie connotations, despite being done and dusted before Downie’s diagnosis. The lead single begins, “Just give me the news,” setting the table for dark, ethereal and organic ruminations on mortality. Experimental flair that recalls Radiohead and production by Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) bring forth a still-vibrant band. The whole of Man Machine Poem is haunting, stark and melodic.
Probably one of the most Canadian of anthems the band ever recorded. the 100th Meridian acknowledges that separation of the east and west of the country, “where the Great Plains begin,” giving way to pristine unfettered land. And who wouldn’t want Ry Cooder to sing their eulogy in a quiet simple country town away from the bustle and big city attitude found in a smog-choked Metropolis or Gotham?
Cut from the same dramatic cloth as “Grace, Too” (see below) this song zeroes in on how small we (and our problems) are when compared to the scale of the world and universe—all with a subtext of materialism gone awry. Once we’re awakened to the world being everything we need, there’s no need for a gift shop. We’re all living in one right now. Look around.
The keystone of a record full of world-weary melancholy in a post-9/11 world, Downie takes a deep, dark dive here. “Snoring Gords and Cheryls” are shocked from “Clayoquot Sound to Cape Spear” by the silver jets roaring overhead towards a deadly destination. Life will never be the same for those who viewed the world through the lenses of terrorism that day. In Violet Light is a breathtaking album, taken in full or in parts.
It’s hard to pick just one from any album; Road Apples has so many great songs, any choice would mean a painful exclusion. This tune name-drops influential Canadian painter Tom Thomson, his death, and references the city Trois-Pistoles in Quebec. Only the Hip could take Thomson’s life and make it such a rollicking rock tune. But a digression: this is another dynamite album, from beginning to end.
Naturally, hockey is at the core of more than a few tales from the Hip (see also “Fireworks,” “700 ft. Ceiling,” “Lonely End of the Rink” and so on) but this anthem is their most revered homage to Canada's pastime. The story of Toronto Maple Leafs legend Bill Barilko’s mysterious disappearance—after helping the team win four Stanley Cups from 1947-51, and he scored the championship-clinching overtime goal in 1951—is entwined with some striking World War II allegory.
This album gets extra love over World Container, We Are the Same and Music at Work (all of which are also great) because of this brilliant single about a “wild” and “strong” love interest. It helps cut the feelings brought on by “Leave,” “Dire Wolf” and the ballad “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” Plus, the video has Gord, flamboyantly dressed hockey commentator Don Cherry and the Trailer Park Boys. It doesn’t get more Canadian than that.
This anthem kicks off Phantom Power with all manner of tweaks at the pompous nature of American popular culture—namely using the adult film industry as a parable for its garish disposability. But as with most Hip songs, the narrative pokes at government, environmental issues and possibly even poets themselves. All of it done with that “What do you think it means?” Downie flair. There's a killer groove here to boot.
A quintessential barn-burner, one born from bluesy, Rolling Stones-y licks and a love of the French Quarter, this cinematically tense tune nods to Elvis Presley and “Colonel Tom” Parker and their relationship. Yet, knowing Downie, that’s only one possible interpretation. His live, mid-song rants have long been a staple of the Hip’s shows and often give songs new meaning; live versions of this sometimes feature a “Killer Whale Tank” parable that must be heard to be believed.
The song that (should have) brought the world to the band. Dan Aykroyd lobbied Lorne Michaels hard to bring his hometown friends to Saturday Night Live, and in full-on artistic fashion, the Hip gamble with the potent film-noir stylings of this tale of (maybe?) love, murder and betrayal. But the conquering of America didn't quite work as planned. A decade later, Radiohead would play “The National Anthem” to the SNL audience and were critically hailed for it. This is proof that the Hip were always ahead of the times.
Three tunes from this album made this list of the Top 15 Tragically Hip Songs, but realistically, every song from here deserves to be. Fully Completely is a perfect album, and this single/leadoff track adapts passages of The Watch That Ends the Night, a novel that earned author Hugh MacLennan the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Literature. Years later, it was a high-point of the Hip's 1999 Woodstock performance. The accompanying album, like 1989’s Up to Here, was certified Diamond in Canada, a recording industry award that denotes, at one point, one out of every 35 Canadians owned it.
Perhaps their most beloved hard rocker, this song seems to be about Elvis, too, but perhaps more around the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" trappings of fame he might have had going behind the scenes. And it's all set in the sleepy backdrop of a Canadian town hosting a film shoot. Like all Hip songs, the layers of this onion allude to the machine behind big city power, and the impact it can have on its small townsfolk. Including the Tupelo, Miss.,-born King himself.
The band’s most arena-ready ballad features grand sweeping choruses and the melding of Canadiana. The band is in top form here, with Downie working wine and “Willie Nelson” (a pitch-perfect double-entendre) and rhyming the small Kawartha Lake town’s name and picturesque backdrop against a rural sky full of stars, a semi-fictional band and a riot at a not-so-fictional Toronto concert. It's arguably their most moving singalong.
This single from Henhouse has all the hallmarks of a Hip masterpiece (beautiful melody, time warp, quirky introspection) and certainly gives “Bobcaygeon” a run for its balladry money. In an alternate universe, this song should have been the band’s entrée to platinum status around the world. Downie's scrapped lyrics for the song are of legend, and are more Lenny Bruce-like in nature than what arrives here, and wisely so. His final line, “Disappointing you is getting’ me down” has served as punctuation of many shows on their final tour, and it heads our list of the Top 15 Tragically Hip Songs.