10 Canadian songs that shaped the 2010s
We count down the decade through its most influential songs
Ten years doesn't seem like much, but a decade ago, names like Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen were just blips in the Canadian music discussion. Drake's version of the Toronto sound wasn't fully formed (and neither did "the 6ix"), and powwow step wasn't yet a genre. Streaming services were just launching, and YouTube wasn't yet the juggernaut it is today.
When you dig deep, 10 years actually seems like a lifetime ago.
To grapple with the decade that was, CBC Music's editorial team sat down to pick the most influential Canadian songs of the 2010s. It seemed an impossible task; 10 songs can never feel fully conclusive. But while these songs have since been solidified as anthems for protest, archetypes for future global pop hits and springboards for the new wave of R&B, choosing was never about favourites. The list came down to songs that represented something more — changing the game for artists, and songs, to come.
Below, 10 Canadian songs that have shaped the 2010s.
'Baby,' Justin Bieber feat. Ludacris (January 2010)
The '10s began, literally, with a song that would disrupt the music industry's established channels for discovering and marketing new talent. Forget entering TV contests or sending your demo to a record label. "Baby," the lead single from Justin Bieber's debut studio album, My World 2.0, proved that the era of the YouTube star had arrived, and broke the trail for Shawn Mendes, Troye Sivan and Johnny Orlando, to name a few.
An uptempo mix of R&B, pop and vintage doo-wop, "Baby" was a vehicle for the then 15-year-old's flutey, treble voice — he would have to transpose it down when his voice broke just months later — and innate pop phrasing. The fact that a prepubescent boy with a mop of brushed-forward hair could get a rap verse from Ludacris, then one of hip hop's biggest names, underlines the juggernaut of Bieber's ascent.
Sing along to the infuriatingly simple, yet undeniably catchy chorus, below, and contribute to the record-breaking views on the song's famous video — which now number more than 2.1 billion.
— Robert Rowat
'High For This,' the Weeknd (March 2011)
When Abel Tesfaye self-released his debut mixtape House of Balloons in 2011, he was a high-school dropout from Scarborough who had moved down to the hungry, neon-lit streets of Toronto's Queen West — a burgeoning party hub that would birth his moody internet R&B and grab the attention of fellow rising Torontonian Drake. Draped in mystery and known only as the Weeknd, Tesfaye would quickly go on to cameo heavily on Drake's Take Care and make his first big-stage appearance at OVO Fest, but those following closely could already tell the backlit singer was on his own relentless path.
For a relatively unknown voice, the Weeknd's bare, shaky falsetto sang of sex and drugs with unbelievable confidence on "High For This," House of Balloons' eerie opening track, laying the groundwork for his signature, boundary-pushing R&B that would remain both brilliant and jolting, even when painted with brighter pop colours in the years to follow.
The Weeknd's debut depiction of intimacy, nightlife, vices and excess felt immediately unparalleled in its hazy but daring delivery — a bold announcement of his arrival, from Toronto's outskirts to the frontline of conversations about Canadian music, and as R&B's most exhilarating new rock star.
— Jess Huddleston
'Marvins Room,' Drake (June 2011)
With the U.S. as the epicentre of hip hop, Canada struggled to come up with a cohesive, regional sound of its own for years until Drake came along. An ardent champion of his hometown of Toronto, Drake strived to make his city a hip-hop hotspot and by 2011, a trademark sound finally started to crystallize.
"Marvins Room," off Drake's sophomore release, Take Care, was a nexus point for what people now refer to as the Toronto sound. ("It's a moment," producer Noah "40" Shebib told Vibe about the track.) In a broad sense, the city's sound is a reflection of the environment its artists live in: frigid winters that force a slowed-down pace, but still burn with emotions. Most importantly, the sound lives at night and oftentimes inside pensive car rides as Drake once told CBC: "I make music strictly for the purpose of driving at night time." It's even typified in the opening shot of the "Marvins Room" music video, a bleary shot from inside a moving vehicle of Toronto's streets lit only by cars cruising past and street lights fired up like midnight suns.
While Drake is the face of the Toronto sound, much of the credit also goes to his longtime producer Shebib, who had been crafting this signature sound since the rapper's mixtape days. On "Marvins Room," Drake croons (and other times raps; another one of his emblematic moves) to an ex on the phone over a molasses-like beat that melts into its production: "F--k that n--ga that you loved so bad/ I know you still think about the times we had."
It's a level of confession that became memed in its aftermath, but it's no joke — the Drake effect has now led Toronto to become a destination for hip hop, and the city's sound is now reverberating around the world.
— Melody Lau
'Call Me Maybe,' Carly Rae Jepsen (September 2011)
It's impossible to believe that at the start of this strange decade, "Call Me Maybe" did not exist. Or, if it did, it was a folk song, not the pop juggernaut that elevated a nice, normal woman from Maple Ridge into a global teen sensation — never mind that she was definitely not a teen. Carly Rae Jepsen was plucked from relative anonymity after a fellow Canadian heard her song, "Call Me Maybe," on the radio. Pop icon Justin Bieber — a legit teen at the time — urged his manager, Scooter Braun, to sign Jepsen and suddenly "Call Me Maybe" was memed, charted, and amplified into becoming the biggest and best song of 2012, even though it launched in Canada in 2011.
"Call Me Maybe" is a specific kind of genius, and there has been plenty written in its favour since its debut. The song doesn't just stick inside your brain; its buoyant orchestral synth punctuations graft to your soul as Jepsen's cake-pop vocals dance you through the sing-along chorus: "Hey! I just met you! This is crazy! Here's my number! Call me maybe." It's sweet and awkward, like a prom-posal in song form. (In all honesty, the "call me" part is the only aspect of this song that will ever make it feel dated, because who doesn't start every unexpected phone call now with, "Don't worry, nobody's dead, everyone is fine.")
There's something wonderfully evocative about the feeling of constant motion and trajectory in "Call Me Maybe." Jepsen's vocals ascending in perfect step with the synths, the staccato bounce back down like a kid gleefully rolling to the bottom of a hill; this ceaseless movement perfectly captures the jubilant, impulsive, all-consuming nature of crush-lust. "Call Me Maybe" is fun and freeing and not trying to be cooler than it is, nor has it ever heard the word "dignified." It is the opposite of ironic and it plays no games. It is vulnerable and glorious and unabashedly here for a good time. It is the wild hope that someone sees us like we see them, and it lingers, suspended in mid-air and perpetual adolescence, waiting for that phone to ring.
— Andrea Warner
'Oblivion,' Grimes (October 2011)
"See you on a dark night," Montreal's Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, repeats ethereally on "Oblivion," the pulsing electro-pop anthem off her acclaimed third album and 4AD debut, Visions. Recorded entirely on GarageBand software in her apartment, "Oblivion" is about re-adjusting to public life after surviving a sexual assault at age 18. While based on a "shattering" experience, "Oblivion" signals a defiant type of metamorphosis — reclaiming the space where she could be looking over her shoulder, but instead will keep her eyes fixed straight ahead.
With its infectious, metronomic cadence, "Oblivion" set the stage for an artist who now looks forward more than most — questioning, suggesting and trying to prepare for what's to come via futuristic theories and art-pop exploration. Borrowing from powerful female archetypes throughout her visual career — Japanese protagonists, Marie Antoinette, interstellar warriors, "the goddess of climate change" (who we'll meet on her forthcoming album) — Grimes is a fearless chameleon herself: a fairy-like, mystic, otherworldly hybrid who's become one of music's fiercest voices and most complex creative minds.
A master producer and lyricist, Grimes has trailblazed a lane that didn't otherwise exist within pop's predictable confines — challenging conformity and complacency with each artful experiment, looking for humanity and understanding when the rest of us are too tired to ask questions. — JH
'Closer,' Tegan and Sara (September 2012)
In a 2016 interview with Stereogum, Tegan Quin, one-half of Tegan and Sara, reflected on their band's pop breakthrough, Heartthrob: "We've crossed over into a territory.... Not where we're pop stars, not where we're 'superstars,' not where everything is easy…. But we've crossed over into a new territory where it's exciting to continue to find out what we'll write for Tegan and Sara."
2013's Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara's seventh album, marked a seismic shift for the twin sister act. Sonically, they traded in guitars for synths, and learned to restructure their songs for maximum pop impact. The result, as Tegan noted, didn't make them into superstars, but their influence did trickle up the pop hierarchy.
Lead single, "Closer," was unabashedly big: synths rung out with immediacy and a chorus bursting with unfiltered desire. It wasn't a brand new sound by any means, but few mainstream (and mainstream-adjacent) artists were professing their love for '80s pop music quite like Tegan and Sara were. And in the months and years that followed, others would adopt that same neon-lit verve.
Taylor Swift, who invited Tegan and Sara onstage at her Red tour to perform "Closer" with her, told her fans, "I think that [Heartthrob] is one of my favourites of all time. If you've ever had your heart broken, you need to have their album." A year later, she released her own ode to heartbreak, 1989, which was filtered through an '80s pop lens. Similarly, Carly Rae Jepsen released her fantastically synth-pop masterpiece, Emotion, two years after revealing her aspirations of working with Tegan and Sara. "I've been a fan since day one," she noted.
Upon closer inspection, "Closer" and Heartthrob's influence run deeper than you think, and it sparked an era of pop that was not only exciting for Tegan and Sara but also for many other artists. — ML
'Electric Pow Wow Drum,' A Tribe Called Red (March 2012)
When A Tribe Called Red released its self-titled debut album, the DJ collective had been hosting its monthly Electric Pow Wow parties in Ottawa's Babylon nightclub since 2008. But A Tribe Called Red was the first time the urgent, communal sound that DJs NDN, 2oolman and Bear Witness had been creating live for years was officially on record: a mix of traditional powwow songs and electronic music, addictively danceable while ultimately political. In other words: powwow-step.
"I was raised in a hardcore activist environment," Bear Witness told Now Magazine in 2013. He added that his mother is "seriously political," but he got burnt out on activism in his teens and turned to full-on raving as an escape. "Somewhere along the way, though, I started to realize that you could do both. You can get people when their backs are down. You get people when they're not looking for or expecting a fight. You get them when they're having a good time."
The act of doing both is at the heart of every song the DJs release, and "Electric Pow Wow Drum" first set that tone as the opening track on their debut album. It lays a grass dance song on top of a dubstep sample (an instrumental of Jahdan Blakkamoore's "The General"), and the powerful mix of traditional and new is immediate, as the big drum sound and powwow chants open up the 140 BPM track. But in true Electric Pow Wow style, where groups of young Indigenous people came together to party on a monthly basis, the song wasn't finished without a communal touch: DJ Shub, who heard the original grass dance song/dubstep mash-up at one of these parties, added his own production to "Electric Pow Wow Drum" and sent it back to the group.
The result: the final version of "Electric Pow Wow Drum," and the solidification of powwow-step as a powerful, growing and necessary genre of music.
— Holly Gordon
'Power in the Blood,' Buffy Sainte-Marie (May 2015)
"Aboriginal music has been good for a very long time, but nobody has been listening to it," Buffy Sainte-Marie said when she won the 2015 Polaris Music Prize for her 15th studio album, Power in the Blood.
The then 74-year-old had been releasing music for more than 50 years, starting with her stunning debut, 1964's It's My Way (our introduction to her anti-war hit "Universal Soldier") and including 1969's Illuminations, the first-ever totally electronic, quadraphonic vocal album "in history." But years of being blacklisted by U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson pushed Sainte-Marie even further into the margins of an industry that already marginalizes people of colour — and an industry that would not recognize the name Buffy Sainte-Marie alongside contemporaries like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
Power in the Blood finally put Buffy Sainte-Maire front and centre in the 2010s to announce what should have been common knowledge for the last five decades: the Saskatchewan-born Cree songwriter has been speaking truth to power her entire career, pairing her deftly crafted anti-war anthems and love songs alike with musically groundbreaking work. And few songs embody that more than the 2015 album's title track.
Rewritten from the 2002 Alabama 3 classic of the same name, Sainte-Marie samples the EDM original and combines elements of powwow, rock, industrial and spoken word for a balance that calls on Sainte-Marie's experimental side while continuing the conversation of decolonization and environmental protection. Sainte-Marie transforms the song into an anti-war banger, changing the original lyrics from "I don't mind dying/ when that call it comes/ I will be ready for war/ there is power in the blood, justice in the sword" to "I don't mind dying/ when that call it comes, I will say no no no to war/ there is power in the blood, justice in the soul."
It's a classic Sainte-Marie twist, a call for peace instead of war, effectively playing on what she called the double entendre of "power in the blood": "It's the power of the feudal system to hurt and exploit us. The other power is the power in our brains to survive and evolve beyond this. To balance that with what we need — common sense and respect for nature and each other." — HG
'Lite Spots,' Kaytranada (May 2016)
For his impeccable debut full-length, 99.9%, Montreal producer Kaytranada enlisted an impressive roster of collaborators — Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, Shay Lia, River Tiber, Karreim Riggins, BadBadNotGood — and the 2017 Polaris Music Prize was his reward. While the results of all that teamwork were definitely inspired, it was actually the solo cut "Lite Spots" that resonated most, setting a new standard for what Kaytranada labels black tropical house music.
The song bears witness to Kaytranada's penchant for rooting out vintage treasures and assembling them into something timeless. (Vogue observed that he approaches his personal fashion the same way.) Using Gal Costa's 1973 hit "Pontos De Luz" as his point of departure, Kaytranada begins "Lite Spots" with minuscule shreds of Costa's vocals, giving the impression of swarming insects, before exploiting all the funk and feverish excitement of the full song sample.
Equally influential as the song itself, the music video for "Lite Spots" is almost impossibly charming, starring Kaytranada as he builds a robot and teaches it to dance — a glimpse into a not-too-distant, AI-enhanced future that we'd actually like to inhabit. — RR
'Best Part,' Daniel Caesar and H.E.R. (August 2017)
R&B can take inspiration from a number of other genres, from blues and soul to pop and hip hop. For much of this decade, R&B appeared to lean heavier on the brash production of hip hop, with artists like the Weeknd, 6lack and Tinashe slipping their smooth vocals underneath bombastic beats. But then around 2018, as Vulture noted, the genre's softer side started experiencing a "quiet resurgence."
One of the leaders of that wave was Toronto artist Daniel Caesar, whose songs like "Get You" and "Best Part" started racking up millions of streams. (Caesar got a notable bump from hosts and execs at Apple Music, who championed his music.) Unlike many of his contemporaries, Caesar's music is open, spacious and often features minimal, acoustic instruments. In addition to that, he also wove in gospel elements to round out his quiet but confident sonic identity on his breakout album, Freudian. With Toronto drawing more attention this decade because of Drake's increasingly powerful presence on the world stage, Caesar was able to divert from the signature sound the city was cultivating.
"Best Part" went on to win the 2019 Grammy Award for best R&B performance and even landed on Barack Obama's summer playlist, two monumental signifiers that prove Caesar's style of music can thrive in a post 808s & Heartbreaks, post-Weeknd landscape. — ML